Koch Brothers Take Aim at Republican ‘Moderation’ and the Constitution

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

The Republican Party isn’t extreme enough. So say the Koch brothers, who are threatening to withhold the $400 million they have promised to inject into the 2018 electoral cycle.

Members of the U.S. Congress have received their marching orders: Repeal the Affordable Care Act (in other words, replace “Obamacare” with “Trumpcare”) and lavish billionaires with massive tax cuts. A June “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network,”  The Guardian reported.

The Koch brothers are on record as committing up to $400 million on the next midterm elections, but such largesse is not without strings. The Guardian quoted the head of the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, as frustrated at the delays in extremist legislation getting through Congress. “There is urgency,” Phillips said. “We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt.”

As an example of what is expected to be done, one wealthy donor told the gathering that his “Dallas piggy bank” is closed for now. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed. Get it done and we’ll open it back up,” he told The Guardian, adding that he has encouraged other wealthy donors to similarly withhold money until they get what they expect.

There really isn’t anything new here, other than it is unusual for any window to be opened into the secretive workings of Charles and David Koch’s networks. Their massive spending to buy Congress and state legislatures (they budgeted $900 million for the 2016 elections), their widespread funding of global-warming denialism, their willingness to destroy the environment in pursuit of endless profits, and their relentless focus on privatizing public assets are well known. Their Americans for Prosperity outfit was also a crucial funder for the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement. Perhaps less known is that they are bankrolling an attempt to re-write the U.S. Constitution.

Amending the Constitution to suit themselves

There are two separate pushes for a constitutional convention. In a Truthout report, Alex Kotch writes:

“One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or ‘runaway’ convention that can make major changes to the constitution and, some argue, even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.”

Under U.S. law, if the legislatures of 34 states (two-thirds of the states) call for a constitutional convention, Congress is required to convene one. The balanced-budget resolution has been passed by 29 states, Truthout reports. Once a convention is convened, it can write its own proposals, including changing the number of states required to pass a constitutional amendment to make it easier for extreme corporate wish lists to be converted into permanent law. But even if only a balanced-budget amendment were to become part of the U.S. Constitution, such an amendment would enshrine harsher austerity with little or no recourse.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts this plain:

“By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would raise serious risks of tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses. That’s because the amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both just when the economy is weak or already in recession. … [T]he amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both. That would launch a vicious spiral of bad economic and fiscal policy: a weaker economy would lead to higher deficits, which would force policymakers to cut spending or raise taxes more, which would weaken the economy further.”

A detailed analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that, had a balanced-budget amendment been in place at the time of the 2008 economic crash, there would have been an additional 11 million people unemployed in 2012 and gross domestic product would have declined 12 percent that year. Because of the decline in tax revenue this would cause, an additional $500 billion would have been added to that year’s deficit, and coupled with the cuts in spending that would have mandated by such an amendment, U.S. government discretionary spending would have been reduced to zero. As in literally nothing.

The Koch brothers and their billionaire confederates would be doing just fine, however, and that’s all that matters. A web of Koch-funded organizations are funding and promoting these pushes for a constitutional convention.

Clean air and water? Who needs them?

Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. Thus it comes as no surprise that Charles and David Koch, who operate the company, are also active funders of global-warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. They own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Koch brothers stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

The Koch brothers are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes legislation to benefit its corporate membership that is frequently passed by state legislators verbatim; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

Not content with control of Congress and state legislatures, David Koch donated $300,000 to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and Pence has dutifully denied global warming. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

As I have noted before, this is a lament that the Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal!

National parks in the cross hairs

The Koch brothers’ extreme hostility to anything public — that is, anything that is not being exploited for corporate plunder — has gone so far as to oppose national parks. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. A Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for selling off other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. Oil rigs and fracking operations instead of natural scenery for all to enjoy because it would be more profitable in the short term. This mindset has reached the highest level of government as exemplified by the Trump administration’s intentions to open federal lands to mining and oil extraction at fire-sale prices without oversight, or to sell them.

It’s not as if the Koch brothers don’t know where their next billion is coming from. Combined, the two are worth about $97 billion. Each is one of the nine richest people on Earth, and together the two possess more wealth than the world’s richest person, Bill Gates. They were worth $32 billion in 2009 — nearly tripling their fortune since the first year of the Obama administration.

This is all the product of libertarianism, a a philosophy of might makes right. A belief in complete freedom of commerce, of minimal government involvement in the economy or social affairs, is nothing less than allowing the “market” to determine economic and social outcomes. The logical outcome of this is no more minimum wage, no more Social Security, no more laws against discrimination in the workplace, no more safety rules, no more consumer-protection laws, no more environmental protection. This indeed is what libertarians preach, including the Koch brothers and Ron Paul.

Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit others. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

On an even playing field, the brutality of the programs put forth by the Koch brothers and their fellow libertarian billionaires wouldn’t pass the laugh test. But when you have hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around every two years, and an interlocking maze of organizations and “think tanks” to promote your self-serving agenda, you have the ability to make the most obscene ideas “mainstream.” On what basis should such one-sided power relations be considered democratic?

Rockets’ Red Glare and Bombs Bursting in Air

A June 27 Pew Research Center poll says world opinion of the United States has plummeted since Donald Trump took office. Surveying people in 37 countries, 49 percent held a positive view of the United States, down from 65 percent at the end of 2016. Maybe we could cancel the fireworks this 4th of July considering the insensitive symbolism of vicariously enjoying war.

With the Pentagon’s rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air smashing seven majority Muslim countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — negativity toward the United States is easy to understand. US drone attacks originating in Nevada, 7,200 miles from Iraq, and jet fighter-bomber strikes launched from supercarriers in the Persian Gulf are killing hundreds of frightened bystanders month after month. At least 25 civilians were killed in Mosul, Iraq on Sat., June 24 when US bombs destroyed four houses.

Every child killed or maimed by US-made weapons inevitably creates enemies among survivors. President Obama (pronounced “Oh-Bomb-Ah”) made the point himself May 23, 2013 in a speech to National Defense University. He said drone attacks “raise profound questions: about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies…” And Obama warned that, “US military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies.”

Whether bombing civilians only “risks” creating enemies or can be positively guaranteed always to do so, is a matter of opinion. But one need only consider the globalized, mechanized, mass US military reaction to 9/11 — and the country’s demonization of whole groups and religions — to know that demands for revenge, retribution, and retaliation always follow the deaths of innocents.

If your business is peddling weapons, you could be smugly satisfied about every civilian wedding party, funeral procession, hospital, or Sunday market hit by US drones, gunships or F-18s. One StarTribune headline on April 2, 2017 directed attention away from our arms dealers. It read, “Civilian deaths a windfall for militants’ propaganda.” Never mind the windfall for war profiteers.

US offers $6,000 for each dead civilian [sarcasm alert]

In the world of weapons sales, nothing is better for business than TV footage of the anguished and grief-stricken after civilians are indiscriminately attacked by “foreigners.” In the countries being bombed, we are those foreigners, occupiers, and militarists accused of cheapening human lives. You decide: when a US gunship obliterated the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan Oct. 3, 2016 killing 42, the Pentagon offered $6,000 for each person killed, and $3,000 for each one injured.

The government and munitions makers say our bombs are saving people by killing terrorists, and — being a world away from the torn limbs, the burning wounds, the screaming parents — Americans want to believe it. The US dropped 26,171 bombs across the seven states during 2016, according to Jennifer Wilson and Micah Zenko writing in Foreign Policy. Each explosion is guaranteed to produce enough newly minted militants to insure steady orders for more jets, bombs and missiles.

Even with a stockpile of 4,000 Tomahawk Cruise missiles, some in the military say the store could be run low by the bombing of Syria, Iraq and the others. “We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told USA Today in December 2015. “Since then, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 smart bombs in the [Pentagon’s] 2017 budget,” Public Radio International reported in April 2016. And now Trump’s SecDef, Gen. James Mattis has asked for far more in the 2018 budget for what he calls an “annihilation campaign.”

Lockheed Martin Corp. was paid $36.44 billion for weapons in 2015, and $47.2 billion in 2016, according to the Stockholm Int’l Peace Research Institute’s February 2017 report. SIPRI says that half of all US weapons exports in 2015 went to the Middle East. Last May’s $110 billion US sale to Saudi Arabia alone is bound to bring peace and stability to the region. Obama’s $112 billion in arms to the Saudis over eight years certainly did. The Kingdom’s fireworks in Yemen will cause “oooohs” and “ahhhs” of a different sort than our holiday firecracker fakery.

This cheering of faux bombs on the 4th while denying that our real ones produce enemies and prolong the war is why terrified villagers, refugees and the internally displaced of seven targeted countries will go on cringing and crouching over their children as US drones and jets howl overhead. But “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto — ‘In God is our trust’ — And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

NATO’s Expanding Military Frontier

Photo by Antti T. Nissinen | CC BY 2.0

In an examination in the New Yorker of the career and prospects of the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, Dexter Filkins, a highly respected Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, noted President Trump’s attitude to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and its military posture, and wrote that “along NATO’s eastern frontier the Russian military maintain[s] tens of thousands of troops, many of them on high alert.”

Merriam-Webster defines “frontier” as “a border between two countries” and it is therefore difficult to understand how 29 countries (as of June 5, when Montenegro formally joined) of the US-NATO military alliance can have a frontier with one country.  There are only five NATO nations adjoining Russia:  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Poland — and three of them share but a few kilometres of border with the small Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic, and not with Russia proper.

Mr Filkins does not explain what “high alert” means or what it entails for Russian troops that are “maintained” within their own country in their own military barracks from which they regularly deploy to exercise their capabilities in local training areas.  No reason or proof are given for their supposed status of “high alert”, nor is there an indication of how many “tens of thousands of troops” in Russia are menacing NATO’s hypothetical frontier.  Two tens?  Five tens?  Nine tens?  A few tens of thousands here and there do make a considerable difference to all sorts of things, not least the scale and redeployment of air support, which is an essential element of attack planning.  But has there been any such activity?

Mr Filkins’ information about the purported Russian threat appears to have been supplied by the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who told him “We are nervous. The Baltics are terrified.”

Mr Filkins recorded the belief of “German officials” that in early 2017 “Russia had begun to flood NATO countries with propaganda and with funding for extremist political groups.”  There is no evidence given for the allegation that any political groups are being financed by Moscow, but the propaganda flood is exemplified by the illustration that “In Germany, a news story about an Afghan refugee who had attempted to rape a fifteen-year-old girl appeared on Web sites across the country, then turned out to be fabricated. A similar case had arisen in Lithuania. All indications, von der Leyen told me, pointed to Russian intelligence as the source of the fake stories, which were intended to undermine Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East.”

It is not clear why a fake (or even real) news story about rape in Lithuania might help Russia’s supposed campaign to undermine Chancellor Merkel (the most competent national leader in Europe) but there was a recent high-profile alleged rape case in Germany which was not a fake story and revealed much about the way some news is presented in the western media in bias against the admirable Ms Merkel. It is obvious that there is no need whatever for Russia to engage in covert Website antics to undermine Chancellor Merkel, even if this were desired, because she was challenged most energetically by the ultra Right Wing in Germany and by Britain’s largely xenophobic press.

In October 2016 a 19 year-old German girl was raped and murdered.  After investigation a criminal charge was laid in December against an Afghan asylum-seeker who was detained in custody where he remains, pending trial. The case was given much publicity in Germany and by sections of the British press which seek to highlight what they consider to be the dangers to national security of a compassionate refugee policy.  Trash (but popular) UK newspapers had headlines such as “leaders are still in denial over migrant crisis.”  Germany’s right wingers and British media didn’t need Russian or any other nation’s intelligence operatives to steer them in the direction of ultra-nationalist anti-foreigner propaganda.  They are quite capable of preaching their bigoted malevolence without outside help.

The fake story about “an Afghan refugee who had attempted to rape a fifteen-year-old girl” that was reported by Mr Filkins could not be traced, but much publicity had been given to a similar tale eighteen months ago when a “Russian-German” girl aged 13 told German police she had been abducted and raped by three men ‘from southern countries.’  Her story of January 2016 was a lie she made up because she had run away from home. European and Russian papers and television reported the so-called ‘Lisa case’ before the truth was established, and of course the story went bouncing round the social media.

There was much over-reaction, including in Russia where one news outlet went so far in fantasy as to allege that “in Germany and in Sweden, residents are regularly raped by refugees . . . but the local authorities and police hide these facts and do not open criminal investigations.”   This sort of nonsense does nobody any good, and gave an opportunity for Frank Henkel, the Senator of the Interior and Sports of the German state of Berlin, and member of the German delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, to declare that there was “political pressure from abroad” which served to “clearly expose the propaganda that was linked to this case in the past few days.”

It is painfully obvious that social media goes wild when there are incidents — or non-incidents — like these, and public channels provide semi-literate and sometimes, quite clearly, seriously disturbed people with an opening to vent their emotions (one example being this series of tweets after the London Bridge terrorist attacks).  But the notion that Twitter networking and Facebook, for example, could be manipulated in order to sway entire populations in the direction of supporting pro-Russian policies is bizarre.

The report on the ‘Lisa case’ in NATO’s Review Magazine was illuminating, even if it raises the question as to why on earth a domestic news item should necessitate an official NATO commentary.

It was stated by NATO that  “In the ‘Lisa case’ we see evidence, for the first time, of several of the different Russian elements of influence that are described in this article working in a coordinated way: A journalist from the First Russian TV channel picked up the case of the Russian-German girl and brought it to the main news in Russia;  Russian foreign media like RT, Sputnik and RT Deutsch reported on the case; Social media as well as right-wing groups distributed the information on the internet.”  Then, making a fascinating if perhaps fragile connection between reportage of a case of a girl telling a lie about being raped and the situation in Ukraine, the NATO Review pronounced that “As a result of the ‘Lisa case’ and the different Russian activities in the context of the Ukraine conflict, we are seeing a shift in Germany from the dominance of the economy over politics to a dominance of politics over the economy.  Russia has become a security risk, the relations are increasingly politicised and securitised.”

It is regrettable that from allegations of a Russian “high alert” along “NATO’s eastern frontier” to NATO assertions of sinister Russian machinations to employ “digital communication to influence public opinion” in Germany, the flood of anti-Russian propaganda continues to rise, as do numbers of US-NATO troops, combat and electronic warfare aircraft, and warships deploying as close as possible to Russia. The Washington Post reported that in May “General Mattis visited U.S. troops massing near the border with Russia and declared that ‘We will deploy whatever capability is necessary here’,” which was yet another ratcheting up of confrontation, and it seems unlikely that there will be any relaxation of pressure, especially as anti-Russia hysteria grows in Washington.

Of one thing we can be certain :  the military frontier of NATO will continue to expand.

How Brexit, Immigration and Housing Became Political Flashpoints

Britain is experiencing profound political changes, going by the outcome of the general election, but new trends are shadowy, developing below the surface. It may be that Labour’s relative success – achieved amid confident predictions by pundits of annihilating defeat – stemmed from a last-minute change of direction by voters, or simply because pollsters vastly underestimated the turnout of pro-Labour younger voters.

The importance of the result is not in doubt: an election called to empower the Government at the start of the Brexit negotiations produced one weakened, divided and facing a rejuvenated opposition. But tempting though it is to jeer at discomfited political commentators eating humble pie with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it is more useful and interesting to ask what has changed so radically in Britain that so many intelligent and well-informed people were wrong-footed.

The shortlist of possible factors involved must include the Brexit vote, social media, Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, terrorist attacks, immigration, tactical voting, house prices, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats. Each one of these – and many others not mentioned – may have been involved, but, like the suspected passengers in Murder on the Orient Express, it is difficult to establish to what extent any of them has participated in one of the great election upsets in British history. The answer, as in the Agatha Christie murder mystery, is that they all played a role, and the election surprise was in fact a series of surprises coming together on election day to confound the prophets and deliver a powerful shock to the status quo.

To get a firmer fix on how these surprises were generated in the country as a whole, The Independent has been looking at constituencies which dramatically changed allegiance on polling day. The most glaring example of this is Canterbury, which lost its record for returning MPs from the same party (in this case, the Conservative Party) for 176 years or longer than any other constituency in the country.

Short and long-term influences were at play, some nationwide and others specific to Canterbury. “There was a perfect storm of events that favoured Labour in the run up to the election,” says Jack Brooks, 23, a recent graduate of Christ Church, one of the two big universities in Canterbury, who is now working at its Centre for European Studies. A former Liberal Democrat voter in the 2015 general election, he campaigned for Labour in the election just fought and was struck by the overall growth in the level of political engagement among students. “You’d find interest in the election even among members of in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society,” he says, adding that it was only people fixated on sports who stayed stubbornly disinterested in politics.

The Brexit referendum a year ago helped to break up the old political status quo. The parliamentary constituency of Canterbury narrowly voted to remain the EU, but not, rather confusingly, the Canterbury county council district which was the electoral unit for the referendum and includes the run-down seaside town of Herne Bay where Ukip was very strong. Canterbury and Whitstable are wealthier, have a cosmopolitan tradition and inhabitants used to seeing a multitude of foreign students and tourists in the streets. The high-speed train link to London, a spur of the Eurostar, means that Canterbury West station is only 55 minutes from King’s Cross St Pancras. The politics of this part of east Kent has more of a London flavour, as many local residents commute to the capital for work and Londoners move out of the capital to take advantage of Canterbury’s lower house prices, exorbitant though these remain.

Rita O’Brien, the Labour party chair in Whitstable, stresses that self-employed, well-educated, well-off people living in Whitstable had been particularly devastated by the Brexit vote: “Since then [the referendum] they have recognised that their futures have become precarious.” This pushes them towards Labour, despite the fact that it is committed to leaving the EU, because those most appalled by Brexit blame the Conservatives as the decisive force behind the project.

Attitudes to Brexit probably helped decide the outcome of the election to a greater extent in Canterbury than in most constituencies. Sir Julian Brazier, who had always been on the right wing of the Conservative party during his 30 years as MP for the constituency, strongly backed Leave. His stance was always going to lose him some Remain votes, but his supporters hoped this would be counterbalanced by an inflow of some of the 7,300 people who voted for Ukip in 2015. The party decided not to put an MP forward this time round in order not to split the pro-Brexit vote and many local observers were convinced that this would mean Brazier’s return as MP, since the so-called progressive vote – Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – in the constituency only just exceeded the Conservative total in the last election.

This turned out to be a gross miscalculation: Ukip voters plumped for both Brazier and Rosie Duffield, the Labour candidate. The failure of the four million who voted Ukip in 2015 to abandon their party and vote en masse for the Conservatives was one of the biggest stories of the general election results, but Canterbury’s result was particularly damaging for Brazier. His own explanation for what happened is that middle class Ukip voters in genteel places like Whitstable went back to the Conservatives, but those in the housing estates in Canterbury returned to Labour.

This does not mean that Brexit ceased to be an issue, or that the fear of immigration that so largely fuelled it has gone away. Christian Turner, the Christ Church student, says that, though his student friends in Canterbury voted Labour, other less well-educated friends in Dartford voted Conservative. His explanation is that “they are very worried about immigration, because they don’t have the qualifications or the necessary skills to compete successfully with immigrants”. His views are in keeping with the YouGov national survey of 50,000 adults voting in the general election, showing that among the less well-educated (GCSE or below), Conservatives got 55 per cent and Labour 33 per cent of the vote.

One controversial type of immigration is prevalent around Canterbury, which is surrounded by orchards full of apple, pear and cherry trees and by fields growing soft fruit and vegetables. Down narrow tracks and in the corner of fields are half-hidden clusters of white caravans, housing seasonal migrant workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Peter Forrest, a carpenter organising the Labour vote in the villages, says that a there is a widespread local sense of grievance over “large farms not advertising jobs picking fruit and vegetables and instead bringing in East European workers at low wages”. Farm managers strenuously deny they discriminate against native-born seasonal pickers – though the work is often non-seasonal in the packing plants – claiming that British workers never in practise want to do the hard and relentless work of picking in the fields and orchards. Whatever the truth, Forrest says that Labour won votes in the villages because it was committed to immigration control post-Brexit. He adds that Conservative ambivalence on the issue was damaging to them.

Brexit and immigration remain important issues, but it is housing, ownership and non-ownership of a place to live, which is the obsessive topic of conversation in Canterbury. Possession of a property, after the children have left home, visibly guarantees a comfortable standard of living: in the last 20 years a number of excellent restaurants have opened in east Kent, but a noticeably high proportion of their customers are grey-haired. Estate agencies have mushroomed: a visitor walking the short distance in Canterbury from the half-ruined Norman castle to the Cathedral precincts will pass at least eight en route. Houses with two or three bedrooms coming on the market are immediately snapped up by landlords looking to rent out rooms. According to students it is high rents – £450 a month for a single room is quoted as average – and not tuition fees which are their biggest worry. Everybody who does not already own house or a flat faces a similar problem. Jack Brooks, who has just graduated, says he will soon move with his partner to Berlin where rents are lower, job opportunities better and “we will have a better standard of living than here.” He compares his prospects with those of his brother in London who teaches chemistry in a school and was “spending 60 per cent of his income to rent a place to live in, but has just got kicked out by his landlord”.

Long-time householders, who may not like students, still resent the ever-growing number of landlords letting out houses for multiple occupation. Winston Feather, 68, a former first mate in the Merchant Navy, has run a shop selling prints and framing pictures for 30 years which is situated 100 yards from the great medieval double towers of Westgate, built as a defence against the French at the height of the Hundred Years War. He has just sold his shop to a prospering Turkish restaurant next door and was returning to his home county of Yorkshire in the week after the election.

He feels that “the city has lost the sense of community it had in the past because such a large part of the population is now transitory”. He once had a sideline selling furniture, but today there is no demand for it from people renting accommodation. He says some of his neighbours have been able to buy a second homes through profitably renting out rooms in their houses. He rented out a flat at the top of his house to a Brazilian anthropologist and his family for less than half the £1,600 a month they had been paying for a house nearby. Feather did not say how he had voted, but expressed suspicion over Corbyn’s opposition to Trident. He had written a letter to Brazier about his concerns over defence and had received a sympathetic reply.

As an MP, Brazier had long focused on defence issues, but few people in Canterbury paid much attention to them. His critics said he was out of touch with the mood of his constituency.

Has “Working Class” Lost Its Meaning?

Late on the evening of November 8, 2016, Donald Trump made a last-minute campaign stop at the Grand Rapids, MI, convention center to a cheering crowd of over 4,000 supporters.  “The corrupt politicians and their special interests have ruled over this country for a very long time,” he shouted to his enthusiastic supporters.  “Today is our Independence Day.  Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally.”

In the wake of Trump’s November 9th electoral victory, Bernie Sanders noted that the insurgent Republican had “very effectively” tapped into “the anger and angst and pain that many working-class people are feeling.”  Pointing an accusing finger of Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal Democratic Party, he lamented, “I think that there needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business.”  He insisted, “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”

The working-class has become a galvanizing issue for both Republicans and Democrats.  Since the end of WW-II, the notion of class has been transformed; the working-class superseded by the middle-class.  Today, the working class is back, at least rhetorically.

But what does working class mean in an era of deepening inequality, when the American dream can no longer be made great again?  Has class been exposed as a social fiction?  Perhaps it’s time to reinvent the proletariat.

Everybody knows their class identity, their relative socio-economic position within the vast American social order.  It determines everything from where one lives to one’s likely life expectancy, from the food one eats to the sex one engages in – and one’s beliefs and the politicians one will likely vote for.  Yet, this is America and — with the exceptions of the very top and bottom of the social order — class doesn’t exist.

In the U.S., unless with a close friend, family member or accountant (the 21st century’s secular confessor), people rarely discuss income or personal-financial issues, let alone as a social reality, a political issue like race, gender or disability.  Under the ethos of the consumer revolution, everyone became part of the great American middle-class – and class as a social force disappeared.  Or did so until, over the last decade, the nation’s hierarchal income structure got more exaggerated and a new proletariat was fashioned.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, VP Joe Biden prodded the Department of Commerce to establish in 2010 the Middle-Class Task Force to assess middle-class life.  It reported, “Income levels alone do not define the middle class. … Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income.  We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.”

Class was understood as an income as well as an aspirational issue.  The study’s authors, likely well-meaning academic bureaucrats, failed to ask the most important question: What happens when the economy doesn’t produce a robust recovery and social relations are shaped by income stagnation and aspiration failure?

In 2016, Pew Research calculated that about half (51%) of adult Americans lived in middle-income households, less than a third (29%) in lower-income households and two-fifths (20%) in upper-income households.  This is a nice, easily-understood income-distribution map of the U.S.; it paints a familiar, conventional portrait of social relations.

However, Pew added a revealing wrinkly to the portrait: “the American middle class lost ground in the vast majority of metropolitan areas from 2000 to 2014.”  It goes further, offering a cautionary note: “the shares of adults in the lower- and upper-income ranks rose in most areas.  There was more movement into the upper-income tier in about half the areas, while in the other half there was more movement downward.”

A deepening socio-economic polarization seems underway and the notion of class seems to be reconfiguring, both as a social category and personal experience.  As a social category, unemployment has slowly declined since the 2007-2009 crisis, but income for the average American has stagnated for decades and personal debt has mounted (especially college debt burdening young white-collar workers).  As a personal experience, income is mediated by a host of critical factors, including race, gender, nationality, religion, regionalism and sexual orientation.  More so, class-configured personal identity (e.g., ambition, self-representation), along with one’s values and beliefs (i.e., how one feels about their life) shape a person’s self-understanding of class.

What happens when both income stagnation and aspiration failure come to define social relations during a profound period of geo-political restructuring?  In the wake of Trump’s first six months in office, there seems to be a growing perception that something is fundamentally wrong with the ship of state.  Many still believe, and pundits never stop repeating, the once great social fiction that anyone could become the next billionaire, whether Warren Buffet, Bill Gates or Donald Trump.  But this social con seems less persuasive as the Republicans implement a reverse Robin Hood campaign – take from the poor and give to the rich.  Their revised health-care proposal seems to confirm a worst-case scenario – less benefits, more expenses and the rich get richer.  Their likely budget will only further polarize social relations.

***

For much of the 19th and early-20th centuries, the slowly-modernizing industrial world of Europe and the U.S. was divided between the bourgeois and the proletariat; between those who owned the means of production and those who created surplus value, profit.  Class signified the war between the rulers and a revolutionary social force, the proletariat, empowered to remake the social order.

A century ago, the U.S. was ruled by the Robber Barons, the grand industrialists and financiers — like Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie – who became icons of the all-American acquisitiveness.  Class was then a social condition of survival, the sufferings endured – whether at coal mines, rural farms or urban sweatshops – under insufferable conditions.  Private corporations ruled; the state served as a social lubricant facilitating class tyranny.  Over the following century, the corporate barons were shorn of the shame associated with how they garnered their wealth as libraries, universities and grand performance space were named after them.

In the decade-and-a-half between late-1920s to mid-40s, the U.S. was wracked by the Great Depression and WW-II.  During this era, class was a social condition, a lived experience; everyone knew what it meant — and their relative position in society.  Whether of the elite, academia, the media or an ordinary working person, Americans knew what class meant.  It defined society and people knew their place in the social order.  Amidst the social crises that defined the era, the working class was considered a progressive force, fostering the union movement, vast war product and the civil-rights campaign.

The enormous expansion of the federal state during the era of social crisis underwrote the transformation of class in America.  It size, scope and influence expanded, first, in response to the gravest crisis of capitalism then-to-date and, second, to militarily reorganize the geo-political world order through global wars that cost the lives of millions of ordinary people.

In the postwar era of the great recovery, the working-class became the middle-class and lost its progressive meaning.  Three factors shaped this development.  First, the consumer revolution and suburbia fostered the celebrated middle-class prosperity.  Second the new social sciences turned social relations into hollow income categories and consumer hucksters promoted aspiration rooted in accumulation and conformity.  And, third, the Cold War at home, signified by Sen. Joe McCarthy, HUCA and the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, imposed social order.

This transitional period was marked by unprecedented economic expansion.  The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950.  In September 1958, Bank of America tested its first 60,000 credit cards (later named Visa) in Fresno, CA. Within a decade, Americans had signed up for more than 100 million credit cards.  By 2014, more than 1 billion credit cards were in use; credit card debt was at $881.6 billion.  Those who resisted the new socio-cultural order of conformity were marginalized as beatniks or criminalized as homosexuals or communists.

In the early-21st century, capitalism is being transformed into part of a globalized, financialized market and so too the old notion the working class. This transformation is reflected, embodied, in the deepening social crisis gripping the nation.  In this process, a new notion of class seems to be cohering, becoming a social force.

“Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average nearly nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent,” notes the group Inequality.org.  In a stunning chart, “U.S Average Income, 2014,” it details the gap between the nation’s top earners and the other 90 percent: (i) bottom 90% = $33,068; (ii) top 10% = $295,845; (iii) top 5% = $448,489; (iv) top 1% = $1,260,508; and (v) top 0.1% = $6,087,113.

Inequality.org also identifies an intensifying “Household Wealth” gap.  Looking at the quarter-century between 1989 and 2013, it reveals that the relative share controlled by the richest 10 percent jumped from 20 percent to 51 percent; the “middle” 40 percent grew slightly from 9 percent to 15 percent; and the nation’s poorest 50 percent remained poor, with their wealth remaining flat at 1 percent.

 

Deepening inequality compounds growing poverty.  In 2015, Census Bureau estimated the official poverty rate at 13.5 percent — 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty.  It must be remembered that when the postwar recovery peaked in the early-1970s, the poverty rate was estimated at 11.1 percent (1973)

Social, political and interpersonal life in the U.S. is defined by a handful of key concepts around which social relations are shaped and self-hood defined.  Among them: class (e.g., income, job), race, gender, nationality, religion, regionalism, age, health status and sexual orientation.  They can be clustered into two broad spheres of life — economic factors and identity issues.

Trump, his Cabinet/administration and the Republican Congress have successfully convinced the conservative electorate that economic factors and identity issues are not related, separate and distinct dimensions of life.  As a private individual, one either sinks-or-swims, succeeds-or-fails based on one’s personal gumption.  It’s a social fiction that no one believes, but the great capitalist crap-shoot can make one a winner.

How these dimensions of experience — economic factors and identity issues — are effectively reconciled will determine how “progressive” forces, inside and outside the Democratic Party, contest political power.  They will face not only Republicans, but the religious right, really-hardcore white nationalists and other reactionary forces.  A social force is mounting as reflected in the innumerable demonstrations, marches, labor, community and other grass-roots campaigns that not only win, but lead to political and legislative change.

The U.S. faces a period of deepening social crisis, one that signifies a fundamental change in the nation’s social character, of what’s possible and for whom.  Trump’s presidency is an old-fashion vaudeville show, with the ring-master serving as the class con-artist, the slight-of-hand distraction.  The big game is being played behind the public curtain where the socio-economic transformation of America is underway.  What social force can contest this power structure, one backed by a vast police-military security state?

The only social force that goes beyond the singe-issue politics of class, race, gender and other social divisions is a re-envisioned proletariat.  Dusted off from the cobwebs of mid-19th century political theory and practice, a model proletariat needs to be reconceived from a pre-modern social force with post-modern movement.  In the early-industrial era of capitalism, Karl Marx and Pierre Proudhon (France’s leading anarchist) identified the twin-tyrannies of capitalism as class and hierarchy.

Where Marx called for the end of exploitation, Proudhon called for an end to domination.  Both saw the proletariat as the revolutionary force that could overthrow the dual structures of tyranny that define the capitalist system, freeing people from both exploitation and domination.  The proletariat was – and remains — a revolutionary force, at once the most exploited sector of capitalist society and able to break its chains, thus ushers in a utopian, “communist,” society.

The America working class is, today, in shambles.  Organized labor is at its lowest level since the Great Depression; the unemployed – and the underemployed – are desperate. The “gig economy” is pauperizing a growing segment of the wage-labor force.  Millions of working Americans voted for Trump.  A new American proletariat seems to be in formation as globalization restructures capitalism and Trump ferments economic crisis.

The Pursuit of Happiness

There are no peasants in America: thousands and then millions arrived from Europe and Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the pursuit of happiness, but they were quickly consumed within the maw of industrial capitalism.

They no longer toiled for their own subsistence while transferring their agricultural surplus to their landlord as they had in their homelands but became, instead, cogs in the industrial production of food, dry goods and furniture, hardware and machinery. In short, their economic purpose was as foot soldiers in the making of stuff and in their off-work consumption of it. Their lives were bifurcated: soul-destroying wage-work and meretricious consumption. It was in the consuming that they measured their lives, in the working, not so much.

As peasants, the producing and consuming had been joyfully, tragically, and sometimes comedically entwined and always subject to back-breaking toil, the complexities of the natural world, the messybiology of domesticated animals and the vagaries of the weather. Life in America beckoned as the future: as the living incarnation of modernity. They exchanged membership in societies that existed as mechanisms to aggregate wealth in the hands of hereditary land owners, to a society where, by the mid 1800’s, the sinews of a global kleptocracy were being built, where wealth was legally stolen by thepowerful through the new industries of railroads, industrial scale farming, chemicals, armaments and manufacturing. Others fled to the United States as victims of the British Empire (notably the Irish) which already existed as the most wide reaching system of global subjugation and
wealth harvesting the world had ever known.

Before Columbus, Native Americans existed in a world where the pursuit of happiness had no meaning: space and time were enfolded in a profound circularity, and within the slow eddying of this bottomless pool, futurizing was impossible. The medieval peasant, the world over, remained in the shallows of this spatio-temporal conception, but the creeping impact of technological innovation and the emergence of a market system began to disrupt the still center of their universe. The market monetized time and space.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, American Indians existed almost exclusively in contested space. They had never recognized the concept of land ownership and in many cases their societal structure existed as not much more than that of extended families or bands. Many tribes maintained elaborate rituals of feasting and gift-giving, which were devices for wealth sharing and inter-tribaldiplomacy rather than markers of indebtedness, territorial or otherwise. But by the end of the century, having been essentially made dependent on the government for food and shelter in duplicitous dealsfor their land, the few natives that remained also reached for a version of modernity: although sequestered in Reservations, they too wished to bathe in the river of money that the white man had created. Much, much later, they would be granted casino licenses on Reservation lands – viewed by all as a financial gusher – in a gift surely as tainted as the diseased blankets they had received in an earlier age.

The Great Father (the synecdoche by which nineteenth century Indians referred to the President and his authority) had previously practiced similar acts of self-serving paternalism when, in embryonic form as the Founding Fathers (a phrase coined by Warren G. Harding in 1916) “they created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1980).

The Declaration of Independence was the foundational document in the attenuated process by which this country wrested national control from Britain whose figure-head, Farmer George (George III), was the proximate cause of the colonists’ discomfiture. In the year 1776, under cover of Thomas Paine’s populist rhetoric, Jefferson word-smithed a document that effectively proposed the transfer of tithing rights from England’s aristocracy and its rising population of industrialists to the rich and powerful colonists in what would shortly become the United States.

Thus was born an Atlantic rivalry between the British Empire and America in the business of global kleptocracy that was finally decided in this country’ favor at the end of WWII when the United States insisted on the repayment of its British ally’s wartime loans and materiel transfers while simultaneously rebuilding the economies of its defeated enemies, Germany and Japan. Russia, the real victor in WWII, threatened an alternative system of government that would demand a reinvention of the revenue streams so carefully tended over more than a century and a half to transfer wealth upstream from the poor and middle class to the rich. In the event, this threat (characterized as the Cold War) was transformed into a tidal wave of wealth funneled to the one percent as armament manufacturers ramped up production to equip our boys deployed around the world in defense of freedom – freedom of the few to steal from the many.

The elaborate shell-games of the Great Father’s representatives used in the defrauding of Indian tribes of their well-watered hunting and gathering lands in exchange for denuded Reservations and sparse rations of meat, beans and flour – regularly manipulated by the Indian Agent (a regional representative of the Great Father’s authority) – pale against the vast machinations by which the military industrial complex, the ethical drug business, banking, real estate, media, and agri-business (amongst virtually all industry groups) maximize their profits via tax relief, uncontrolled price gouging, contracting boondoggles and undisguised hand-outs; these considerations conferred on them by their bought and paid for politicians in Washington and State Houses across the country. Dollar rations reluctantly doled out to their lower echelon employees are maintained at levels that ensure that many of them have to maintain multiple jobs to maintain their true patriotic duty of consuming – coded as ‘supporting a family’ by the nation’s politicians.

Few of us now get to escape the Reservation, where we are dependents of Federal and State governments whose legislation is of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy. We remain pathetic supplicants to our Government’s niggardly parsimony while it practices activist interventions for the rich. Much of this was foreshadowed in 1776. The wealthy Founding Fathers never intended for equality to be established between slave and master or, indeed, between the rich and the poor (Zinn).  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson cribbed the line “Life, Liberty and Property”, from the English philosopher John Locke and then changed the last noun to the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”… an Orwellian prescription if ever there was one, worthy indeed, of the most oleaginous of Madison Avenue’s scribes.

And yet we, whose forebears were peasants, refugees from the British Empire, African Americans whose ancestors were shipped here as slaves, Native Americans and the myriad others who count themselves lucky to be Americans, will gather on July 4th and celebrate the mythography of the nation. Or not. We live in a modern and thoroughly malignant construction of reality where many remain in the frantic pursuit of the sugar rush of happiness. Can we instead take this holiday as a slightly belated Summer Solstice Festival, barbecue the same food and drink the same (craft) beer and begin to fully understand that property is indeed theft and the notion of linear time is the means to larceny; a festival where the erstwhile holism of the nation’s immigrant peasants and of its native peoples is celebrated as a possible gateway to our living in the universe as fully sentient beings?

In the sun-bleached foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains in southern California the turn of the sun northwards is marked by a fading of the spring flowers, the slithering of snakes and, yesterday, the emergence of a rare black-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus californicus) onto the trail. The natural world demands our engagement – not as citizens and consumers in the pursuit of happiness but as participants in the quiet glow of its embrace.

A Fourth of July Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

This year, sit back with your favorite beverage or herb, prop up your feet and open your head to consider Independence Day in a whole new way.

A historically critical article about the American Revolution would typically discuss how the democratic promises of the Declaration were left hanging at war’s end, followed by a decidedly undemocratic constitution six years later.

Examples of that would include abandoning ideals stated in the Declaration like: “all men (sic) are created equal” and have unassailable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It could cite that:

* Slaves weren’t included in “We the People,” they were only the property of their owners. Because this human property, unlike a bale of cotton, could plan to run away, particular attention was paid to securing it.  “A person (the indelicate word “slave” never appeared) held to service or labor in one state…escaping to another…shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” ( IV, sec. 2)

* To appease Southerners interested in gaining the maximum number of seats in the new House of Representatives, the Fathers of Our Country declared, in writing, that these “other persons” would each count as three-fifths of a human. ( I, sec. 2)

* Women did not have the right to vote, nor did Catholics and Jews in some states. White, Protestant, men had to own qualifying amounts of property.  Thus, only about 6% of the new nation’s population was eligible to vote in the first presidential election and only 3%, or 38,818 people actually did.

* Even those so privileged didn’t actually vote for a presidential candidate. They voted for “electors” pledged to vote for certain candidates and even then, four of the state legislatures picked those electors, not voting citizens.

* State legislatures, not citizens, chose U.S. Senators until the Constitution was amended in 1913.

Clearly, there are reasons to ask what the Founders of Our Country were up to and what our fireworks every Fourth of July about.

***

But this year, let’s investigate further: was war the only or even the best way to achieve what we now see was more limited than what we were taught?

Who better to proffer that question than the people’s historian, Howard Zinn?

In articles and speeches, including this one in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in September, 2009, Zinn provided his final, giant contribution just four months before he died, by examining what he called America’s “Three Holy Wars,” specifically the Revolution, the Civil War and World War Two, “Three wars in American history that are untouchable, uncriticizable…” as he characterized them.

If something’s unquestioned, it means we’re not thinking about it, Zinn said.  But the historian was quick to add that his reason for doing so is not to learn what ‘really happened’ in the past.  “The past is past,” he exclaimed.  “The important thing is what does it tell us about today…and about what we might do in the world?  There’s a present and a future reason for going into the past.”

He advised doing something never done in history textbooks: put each of these wars on its own balance sheet – costs on one side, benefits on the other – and then make a judgment.

Without that examination, he said, we and our grandchildren will be prone to accept wars as possibly good.  “Because once you have a history of ‘good wars’ fought for good causes to point to, you have a model…it’s possible to have good wars.  And maybe this is one of them”

Questioning the good wars undermines the possibility of having a good war.

The acknowledged “bad wars” like Vietnam and Iraq are justified by pointing to the “good war.”  Words like “We mustn’t appease Saddam Hussein.  Munich.  Chamberlain.  Ho Chi Minh is another Hitler,” are repeated each new generation, suggesting maybe we need another “good war.”

Typically we only look at one side of the balance sheet: what was gained – in this case independence from Britain – and ignore the cost.  Rarely do we hear how many people were killed in the Revolution.  “We won independence.  It’s insignificant.”

So how many were killed?  Perhaps 25,000 or even 50,000 according to Zinn.  “You probably know by now that casualty figures in war are very crude. There’ll be disagreements up to a million.  How many people died in Vietnam? I think two million.  Or maybe three million.  We’re not sure.”

25,000 is not many soldiers killed, he added.  It’s less than half the number of U.S. troops killed in Viet Nam.  But what would 25,000 mean relative to today’s population?  “2,500,000 dead.”  Today, would we think it’s worth sacrificing two and a half million people?  “Might you not say, ‘Well, we want independence, but is there another way?’”

If we do that for each of these “good wars” at least then you have an honest balance sheet and you can make a decision.  “Especially if none of those 2.5 million people are related to you,” Zinn said.

***

Beyond casualties, are there other factors that should go on the balance sheet?  Like who gains from victory in war?

With a smile the historian said, “Governments would like us to believe we all gain from a war.  That’s not necessarily true.  Did black slaves gain from the Revolutionary War?  Slavery before the war.  Slavery after the war.  You would think blacks would rush to the colors if they were fighting for their freedom, but Washington didn’t want blacks in the army.  Washington, Madison, Jefferson, all slave owners, aren’t going to promise freedom.  The British did.  Only after the British began to enlist blacks did the Continental Army slowly enlist blacks.”

Indeed, some historians argue that slave-owning colonial leaders might well have seen the first spark of revolution in 1772 in England, when Lord Mansfield ruled in Somerset v Stewart that a slave, James Somerset, who had escaped after being taken to England by his master, could not be forced back into slavery.

And then Zinn asked, “What about the people already here, the Indians?”  With independence, the colonists won the ability to go westward, beyond the Appalachian line set by the British in the Proclamation of 1763.  “Not because they were being nice, because they didn’t want trouble.”

So what do the Indians gain?  “It’s worse than nothing.”  After the Revolution that line was wiped out and we spent the next century taking over the rest of the continent, Zinn reminded his listeners.

Did working people and poor people benefited from the Revolution?  Did they rush to Washington’s army?  “No.  Poor people had to be conscripted.  They could avoid conscription by paying a fee, a practice begun with the Revolution that was carried over to the Civil War.  Poor white people weren’t eager to join the army, but they were promised land if they won.  And much like today, a young man from a tough background, not knowing what the future will bring, might join the army.  You get a uniform, a gun, some status, maybe some medals, a little land.”

After they joined, many found they weren’t treated well.  They found the officers got good clothes and shoes and food and paid a salary.  Consequently, troops mutinied.  “How many of you learned that in school?” Zinn asked, adding that all the way to a Ph.D., he didn’t.

“Thousands mutinied.  Washington had to deal with it.  He made concessions.  But when smaller mutinies happened, he rounded up the leaders and had them shot by their fellow mutineers.”

All this is to say that the Revolutionary War, like all wars, was a class war.  But we’re not supposed to bring that up.  “We’re all one class, all one patriotic body.  No.  Wars affect us all differently,” Zinn observed.

***

After the Revolution, the Western Massachusetts land given to former soldiers was taxed beyond their ability to pay.  Land confiscations were followed by Shays Rebellion in 1786.  Thousands rebelled and an army raised by the rich merchants of Boston put it down, Zinn revealed.  “But it raised the question for whom was the war fought?  Who was betrayed by it?”

The founding fathers were worried about Shay’s Rebellion and Massachusetts wasn’t the only place in revolt.  Gen. Henry Knox wrote to warn Washington that thousands were beginning to demand an equal share of the wealth gained by the Revolution.

In the shadow of Shay’s and in fear of future rebellions, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787.  A strong central government was set up “not just because it’s nice to have a strong central government,” Zinn said, alluding to history text explanations, “but to be able to suppress rebellions” by workers and slaves, and to protect settlers moving into Indian territory.  It should be noted that conventioneers met originally to amend our original constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Once together, however, they ditched the Articles with the more top-down, property-friendly constitution we know today.

***

Then Zinn asked a key question about our first “Holy War.” Could we have put something good on the positive side of the balance sheet without that human cost?  Could we have won independence without a war?

“If something has happened a certain way in history, we assume that’s the only way it could have unfolded,” he said.  But unless we use our imagination, “we’re going to be stuck doing the same thing over and over.”

In this particular case, we have more than just imagination to guide us.

The year before Lexington and Concord, farmers in 90% of Massachusetts, everywhere except Boston, had nonviolently driven out British officials.  Zinn cites the work of historian Ray Raphael, author of “The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord,” describing how nonviolent action made that state ungovernable.  “When a place becomes impossible to govern even imperial powers withdraw because they can’t control the situation,” Zinn explained.

To close this examination of Independence Day, it’s worth quoting Raphael at length, from the Journal of the American Revolution.

On September 6, 1774, at dawn and through the morning, militia companies from 37 rural townships across Worcester County marched into the shiretown (county seat) of Worcester. By an actual headcount taken by Breck Parkman, one of the participants, there were 4,622 militiamen, about half the adult male population of the sprawling rural county. This was not some ill-defined mob but the military embodiment of the people, and they had a purpose: to close the courts, the outposts of British authority in this far reach of the Empire.

Lining both sides of Main Street for a quarter mile, the insurgents forced two dozen court officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations more than thirty times each so everyone could hear. The wording was strong: the officials would cede to the will of the people and promise never to execute “the unconstitutional act of the British parliament” (the Massachusetts Government Act) that would “reduce the inhabitants … to mere arbitrary power.” With this humiliating submission, all British authority vanished from Worcester County, never to return.

So too in every shiretown save Boston: some 1,500 patriots in Great Barrington, 3,000 in Springfield, and so on. In Plymouth, 4,000 militiamen were so pumped up after unseating British rule that they gathered around Plymouth Rock and tried to move it to the courthouse to display their power. The rock stood where it was, but British authority was gone from Plymouth and every other town. The disgruntled Southampton Tory Jonathan Judd, Jr., summed it all up: “Government has now devolved upon the people, and they seem to be for using it.”

Raphael’s comment following the letter from Knox describes in one sentence what groups like the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy and Move to Amend have said for many years: it’s not enough to just react to one corporate harm after another; it’s not enough to singularly protest inadequate health care, education, jobs, weapons systems, invasions.  We have to become self-governing.  As Raphael put it: “They rose up as a body, not just to protest Crown and Parliament, but to displace their authority.”

Now cue the fireworks!

Mike Ferner was formerly a member of Toledo City Council and the national president of Veterans For Peace.  He belongs to Move to Amend and the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy.

Culturecide in Mosul: the Destruction of the al-Nuri mosque

Over the years, I’ve almost lost count of the priceless treasures of art and antiquity which I’ve seen with my own eyes – and which now lie in pieces.

Fourteen years ago, racing across Mosul to see the building where US forces had just shot dead the sons of Saddam Hussein, I glimpsed the “hunchback” minaret of the 12th century al-Nuri mosque looming over the old city, built by Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, an Arab hero who united the Arabs against the Crusaders. Gone, my lords and ladies, in just a few seconds, scarcely a week ago. We blamed Isis. Isis blamed a US air strike.

Back in 2012, I ran past the 12th century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, pounding down the road towards the ancient Citadel as bullets buzzed up the streets. Within a year, the minaret was dust. We blamed the Syrian government for shelling it. The Syrians blamed al-Nusrah/al-Qaeda “terrorists”. All over Aleppo, they felt the ground tremble as the minaret fell.

Many times in the 1980s I walked through the Roman ruins of Palmyra, visited the Temple of Bel, gazed at the triumphal arch and walked on the theatre stage. When I returned in 2016 after the Syrian army had driven Isis from the ancient city, the arch had been destroyed with explosives and the temple was reduced to shards of stone, most of them only two or three inches in length. The theatre was undamaged though I noticed the end of a noose looped around a Roman column. This was Isis’s place of execution. Then Isis returned and recaptured Palmyra and this time they blew up the very centre of the theatre.

After the war broke out in Bosnia, I walked across the shining stones of Sinan’s 16th Ottoman bridge at Mostar. Within months, that which had stood for 427 years collapsed into the Neretva river under a salvo of Croatian artillery shells. It was exactly 3:27pm on November 9, 1993. I know the time because I still have the videotape of the destruction. I used to freeze-frame the tape and press the rewind button and rebuild the bridge, the spray falling back into the river, the old Turkish stones rising mystically upwards to recompose themselves in their magical span above the river. Its loss was mourned by the Bosnian Muslims – whose ancient mosques were crumbling under Serb gunfire – as the absence of the Mosul minaret is mourned by Iraqis.

The Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric, in The Bridge on the Drina – surely one of the greatest European novels ever written – describes how “men learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with it…” But we are used to “the greatest sin”.  “Culturecide” – the destruction of libraries, graveyards, cathedrals, mosques – became a feature of the Bosnian war. In Kosovo in 1999, the Christian Serbs destroyed ancient mosques. Then the Kosovar Muslims destroyed most of the Serb churches in the province. I saw many of them, before and after their immolation.

And “the greatest sin” has, of course, a hundred thousand precedents. Who now remembers the 5th century Buddhas of Bamiyan, blasted with explosives for 25 days by the Taliban in 2001 until they were rubble. Who even cares that the Saudis – whose Wahhabi iconoclasm did so much to inspire the Taliban and Isis – have destroyed many of the ancient sites associated with the Prophet and his family?

And then what of the Second World War, the destruction of the ancient centre of Rotterdam, Coventry Cathedral, the Wren churches of the City of London, the wrecking of renaissance Italy, the levelling of Warsaw, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, the Wehrmacht and the SS. And the RAF’s 1945 destruction of Dresden and the bombing of the Middle Ages basilicas of Germany’s cities. And the mass theft of renaissance art and the sacking of museums across Europe, courtesy of the Nazi party’s “cultural” elite. And then we have the Germans of the First World War to thank for the burning of the 15th century university and library of Louvain and the total demolition of the medieval Cloth Hall at Ypres.

And – yes, this can go on and on – we can still see the ruins of the churches and abbeys which incurred the incendiary fury of Henry VIII and then digress still further and ask why the Romans of the Middle Ages used the Coliseum as a quarry – just as the Ottoman authorities used the Crusader castle of Beirut as a quarry for their port extensions in the early 20th century. And then come the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, not to mention the early Muslim invaders who themselves even tried to destroy a stone Buddha; I’ve seen its reassembled body in a Dushanbe museum. And when I think of pre-history and Sumeria, I can only remember walking through the ancient cities of southern Iraq, dug up and pulverised by tomb robbers after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, and the statues whose broken limbs I crunched over in the darkness of the looted Baghdad Museum.

We can sometimes reconstruct. The Ypres Cloth Hall was reconstituted exactly as it was. The Old City of Warsaw was rebuilt from old maps and photographs. The UN organised the rebuilding of the bridge at Mostar. The Saudis have paid for the reconstruction of Bosnia’s mosques. Basil Spence designed the new Coventry Cathedral. Warsaw is almost picture-perfect but the new Mostar bridge will take years to look like the weathered old masonry which a 16th century visitor described as “like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies”. The Cloth Hall at Ypres looks magnificent. So is the post-war “medieval” city in Warsaw. The ghastly, concretised new mosques of Bosnia are a disgrace. And I’m not sure if Basil Spence’s new Coventry cathedral works today, either in faith or in art.

But now the problem. If a single human life is more precious than all the planets, why do we weep for the wreckage of Buddhas and Roman cities and churches and mosques and libraries? Of all the “-cides”, surely “culturecide” should be way down our list of priorities. Yet it’s clearly near the top – the UN waffles on about our children’s heritage. But I’ve never heard it better explained than in the words of a Croat woman, Slavenka Drakulic who wrote about this very question only a month after the destruction of the Stari Most bridge by her own Croat army. She recalled seeing a photograph of a middle-aged Bosnian woman “with a long, dark knife cut along her throat” and she asked herself why she felt more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than that of the woman.

And this is what she concluded: “We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilisation is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny… You would think that nothing new could happen, that, after the concentration camps and the mass rapes, the ethnic cleansing… there would be no room left for imagination…”

And for Muslims, destiny and eternity are subjects of the Koran, which was first revealed to the Prophet on the 27th day of Ramadan, the “Laylat al-Qadr”, the Night of Power. It is the holiest night in the Muslim calendar. And it was on this night – this year – that the 12th century leaning minaret of Mosul was blasted to the ground.

The Bizarre Case of Bashar

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the legendary Sherlock Holmes, would have titled his story about this incident “The Bizarre Case of Bashar al-Assad”.

And bizarre it is.

It concerns the evil deeds of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, who bombed his own people with Sarin, a nerve gas, causing gruesome deaths of the victims.

Like everybody else around the world, I heard about the foul deed a few hours after it happened. Like everybody else, I was shocked. And yet…

And yet, I am a professional investigative journalist. For 40 years of my life I was the editor-in-chief of an investigative weekly magazine, which exposed nearly all of Israel’s major scandals during those years. I have never lost a major libel suit, indeed I have rarely been sued at all. I am mentioning this not to boast, but to lend some authority to what I am going to say.

In my time I have decided to publish thousands of investigative articles, including some which concerned the most important people in Israel. Less well known is that I have also decided not to publish many hundreds of others, which I found lacked the necessary credibility.

How did I decide? Well, first of all I asked for proof. Where is the evidence? Who are the witnesses? Is there written documentation?

But there was always something which cannot be defined. Beyond witnesses and documents there is something inside the mind of an editor which tells him or her: wait, something wrong here. Something missing. Something that doesn’t rhyme.

It is a feeling. Call it an inner voice. A kind of intuition. A warning that tells you, the minute you hear about the case for the first time: Beware. Check it again and again.

This is what happened to me when I first heard that, on April 4, Bashar al-Assad had bombed Khan Sheikhoun with nerve gas.

My inner voice whispered: wait. Something wrong. Something smells fishy.

First of all, it was too quick. Just a few hours after the event, everybody knew it was Bashar who did it.

Of course, it was Bashar! No need for proof. No need to waste time checking. Who else but Bashar?

Well, there are plenty of other candidates. The war in Syria is not two-sided. Not even three- or four-sided. It is almost impossible to count the sides.

There is Bashar, the dictator, and his close allies: the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Party of God (Hizb-Allah) in Lebanon, both Shiite. There is Russia, closely supporting. There is the US, the far-away enemy, which supports half a dozen (who is counting?) local militias. There are the Kurdish militias, And there is, of course, Daesh (or ISIS, or ISIL or IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Al-Sham is the Arabic name for Greater Syria.)

This is not a neat war of one coalition against another. Everybody is fighting with everybody else against everybody else. Americans and Russians with Bashar against Daesh. Americans and Kurds against Bashar and the Russians. The “rebel” militias against each other and against Bashar and Iran. And so on. (Somewhere there is Israel, too, but hush.)

So in this bizarre battlefield, how could anyone tell within minutes of the gas attack that it was Bashar who did it?

Political logic did not point that way. Lately, Bashar has been winning. He had no reason at all to do something that would embarrass his allies, especially the Russians.

The first question Sherlock Holmes would ask is: What is the motive? Who has something to gain?

Bashar had no motive at all. He could only lose by gas-bombing his citizens.

Unless, of course, he is crazy. And nothing indicates that he is. On the contrary, he seems to be in full control of his senses. Even more normal than Donald Trump.

I don’t like dictators. I don’t like Bashar al-Assad, a dictator and the son of a dictator. (Assad, by the way, means lion.) But I understand why he is there.

Until long after World War I, Lebanon was a part of the Syrian state. Both countries are a hotchpotch of sects and peoples. In Lebanon there are Christian Maronites, Melkite Greeks, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Druze, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and diverse others. The Jews have mostly left.

All these exist in Syria, too, with the addition of the Kurds and the  Alawites, the followers of Ali, who may be Muslims or not (depends who is talking). Syria is also divided by the towns which hate each other: Damascus, the political and religious capital and Aleppo, the economic capital, with several cities – Homs, Hama, Latakia – in between. Most of the country is desert.

After many civil wars, the two countries found two different solutions. In Lebanon, they agreed a national covenant, according to which the president is always a Maronite, the prime minister always a Sunni Muslim, the commander of the army always a Druze and the speaker of the Parliament, a powerless job, always a Shiite. (Until Hizballah, the Shiites were on the lowest rung of the ladder.)

In Syria, a much more violent place, they found a different solution: a kind of agreed-on dictatorship. The dictator was chosen from among one of the least powerful sects: the Alawis. (Bible-lovers will be reminded that when the Israelites chose their first King, they took Saul, a member of the smallest tribe.)

That’s why Bashar continues to rule. The different sects and localities are afraid of each other. They need the dictator.

What does Donald Trump know about these intricacies? Well, nothing.

He was deeply shocked by the pictures of the victims of the gas attack. Women! Children! Beautiful Babies! So he decided on the spot to punish Bashar by bombing one of his airfields.

After making the decision, he called in his generals. They feebly objected. They knew that Bashar was not involved. In spite of being enemies, the American and Russian air forces work in Syria in close cooperation (another bizarre detail) in order to avoid incidents and start World War III. So they know about every mission.The Syrian air-force is part of this arrangement.

The generals seem to be the only half-way normal people around Trump, but Trump refused to listen. So they launched their missiles to destroy a Syrian airfield.

America was enthusiastic. All the important anti-Trump newspapers, led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, hastened to express their admiration for his genius.

In comes Seymour Hersh, a world-renowned investigative reporter, the man who exposed the American massacres in Vietnam and the American torture chambers in Iraq. He investigated the incident in depth and found that there is absolutely no evidence and almost no possibility that Bashar used nerve gas in Khan Sheikhoun.

What happened next? Something incredible: all the renowned US newspapers, including the New York Times and The New Yorker, refused to publish. So did the prestigious London Review of Books. In the end, he found a refuge in the German Welt am Sonntag.

For me, that is the real story. One would like to believe that the world – and especially the “Western World” – is full of honest newspapers, which investigate thoroughly and publish the truth. That is not so. Sure, they probably do not consciously lie. But they are unconscious prisoners of lies.

Some weeks after the incident an Israeli radio station interviewed me on the phone. The interviewer, a right-wing journalist, asked me about Bashar’s dastardly use of gas against his own citizens. I answered that I had seen no evidence of his responsibility.

The interviewer was audibly shocked. He speedily changed the subject. But his tone of voice betrayed his thoughts: “I always knew that Avnery was a bit crazy, but now he is completely off his rocker.”

Unlike the good old Sherlock, I don’t know who did it. Perhaps Bashar, after all. I only know that there is absolutely no evidence for that.

Washington Has Been At War For 16 Years: Why?

For sixteen years the US has been at war in the Middle East and North Africa, running up trillions of dollars in expenses, committing untold war crimes, and sending millions of war refugees to burden Europe, while simultaneously claiming that Washington cannot afford its Social Security and Medicare obligations or to fund a national health service like every civilized country has.

Considering the enormous social needs that cannot be met because of the massive cost of these orchestrated wars, one would think that the American people would be asking questions about the purpose of these wars. What is being achieved at such enormous costs? Domestic needs are neglected so that the military/security complex can grow fat on war profits.

The lack of curiousity on the part of the American people, the media, and Congress about the purpose of these wars, which have been proven to be based entirely on lies, is extraordinary.  What explains this conspiracy of silence, this amazing disinterest in the squandering of money and lives?

Most Americans seem to vaguely accept these orchestrated wars as the government’s response to 9/11.  This adds to the mystery as it is a fact that Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran (Iran not yet attacked except with threats and sanctions) had nothing to do with 9/11.  But these countries have Muslim populations, and the Bush regime and presstitute media succeeded in associating 9/11 with Muslims in general.

Perhaps if Americans and their “representatives” in Congress understood what the wars are about, they would rouse themselves to make objections. So, I will tell you what Washington’s war on Syria and Washington’s intended war on Iran are about.  Ready?

There are three reasons for Washington’s war, not America’s war as Washington is not America, on Syria.  The first reason has to do with the profits of the military/security complex.

The military/security complex is a combination of powerful private and governmental interests that need a threat to justify an annual budget that exceeds the GDP of many countries. War gives this combination of private and governmental interests a justification for its massive budget, a budget whose burden falls on American taxpayers whose real median family income has not risen for a couple of decades while their debt burden to support their living standard has risen.

The second reason has to do with the Neoconservative ideology of American world hegemony. According to the Neoconservatives, who most certainly are not conservative of any description, the collapse of communism and socialism means that History has chosen “Democratic Capitalism,” which is neither democratic nor capitalist, as the World’s Socio-Economic-Political system and it is Washington’s responsibility to impose Americanism on the entire world.  Countries such as Russia, China, Syria, and Iran, who reject American hegemony must be destabilized and destroyed as they stand in the way of American unilateralism.

The Third reason has to do with Israel’s need for the water resources of Southern Lebanon. Twice Israel has sent the vaunted Israeli Army to occupy Southern Lebanon, and twice the vaunted Israeli Army was driven out by Hezbollah, a militia supported by Syria and Iran.

To be frank, Israel is using America to eliminate the Syrian and Iranian governments that provide military and economic support to Hezbollah. If Hezbollah’s suppliers can be eliminated by the Americans, Israel’s army can steal Southern Lebanon, just as it has stolen Palestine and parts of Syria.

Here are the facts: For 16 years the insouciant American population has permitted a corrupt government in Washington to squander trillions of dollars needed domestically but instead allocated to the profits of the military/security complex, to the service of the Neoconservative ideology of US world hegemony, and to the service of Israel.

Clearly, American democracy is a fraud.  It serves everyone but Americans.

What is the likely consequence of the US government serving non-American interests?

The best positive outcome is poverty for the 99 percent. The worst outcome is nuclear Armageddon.

Washington’s service to the military/security complex, to the Neoconservative ideology, and to Israel completely neglects over-powering facts.

Israel’s interest to overthrow Syria and Iran is totally inconsistent with Russia’s interest to prevent the import of jihadism into the Russian Federation and Central Asia. Therefore, Israel has put the US into direct military conflict with Russia.

The US military/security complex’s financial interests to surround Russia with missile sites is inconsistent with Russian sovereignty as is the Neoconservatives’ emphasis on US world hegemony.

President Trump does not control Washington. Washington is controlled by the military/security complex (watch on youtube President Eisenhower’s description of the military/security complex as a threat to American democracy), by the Israel Lobby, and by the Neoconservatives. These three organized interest groups have pre-empted the American people, who are powerless and are uninvolved in the decisions about their future.

Every US Representative and US Senator who stood up to Israel was defeated by Israel in their re-election campaign.  This is the reason that when Israel wants something it passes both houses of Congress unanimously.  As Admiral Tom Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said publicly, “No American President can stand up to Israel.” Israel gets what it wants no matter what the consequences are for America.

Adm. Moorer was right. The US gives Israel every year enough money to purchase our government.  And Israel does purchase our government. The US government is far more accountable to Israel than to the American people. The votes of the House and Senate prove this.

Unable to stand up to tiny Israel, Washington thinks it can buffalo Russia and China. For Washington to continue to provoke Russia and China is a sign of insanity.  In the place of intelligence we see hubris and arrogance, the hallmarks of fools.

What Planet Earth, and the creatures thereon, need more than anything is leaders in the West who are intelligent, who have a moral conscience, who respect truth, and who are capable of understanding the limits to their power.

But the Western World has no such people.