Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Michael Roberts: Rethinking Rethinking economics

Available here
by Michael Roberts

Can economics ever become ‘pluralist’?  Namely, will the universities and research institutes in the major capitalist economies expand their teaching and ideas to cover not just mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian theories but also more radical heterodox themes (post-Keynesian, Austrian and Marxian)?  If you look at the list of study courses that are considered heterodox by Heterodox News, there are not many in the UK and the US and are concentrated in a just few colleges – with the big names having no such courses at all.

Rethinking Economics
, a pressure group of academics and students was launched over four years ago to turn this round. Now in July, Rethinking Economics said Britain’s universities were failing to equip economics students with the skills that businesses and the government say they need. Following extensive interviews with employers, including organisations such as the Bank of England, it found that universities were producing “a cohort of economic practitioners who struggle to provide innovative ideas to overcome economic challenges or use economic tools on real-world problems”.  Moreover, the group said, “when political decisions are backed by economics reasoning, as they so often are, economists are unable to communicate ideas to the public, resulting in a large democratic deficit.” 

There are efforts among some academics to broaden the outlook of economics graduates. The Core project was adopted by 13 UK universities last September and has won £3.7m from the Economic and Social Research Council.  As the Guardian put it: “the developers of the programme also claim it has freed itself from neoliberal thinking, which judges markets to be self-adjusting and consumers and businesses to be operating with the same information. The world is full of asymmetric power and information relationships, and Core reflects this.

The Core project has produced an antagonistic reaction from right-wing commentators.  The prolific right-wing British political blogger, “Guido Fawkes”, tweeted: “The left in the universities are trying to rehabilitate Marxist economics to poison the future. Very concerning that they got £3.7 million of taxpayers’ money to do it”.  One strong promoter of Core and Rethinking Economics, the leftist economist, Jonathan Portes, responded to Fawkes that he was sure that none of the contributors to the Core programme were Marxist and “I’m obviously not a “Marxist”.  And that is true.  

The reality is that Rethinking Economics and Core is dominated by Keynesian ideas with hardly any look-in for Marxist ones.  It’s true that Sam Bowles is one of the main coordinators of the Core textbook project and he considered himself a (neo?) Marxist in the past – but his recent comments on Marx’s theories at the 200th anniversary suggest otherwise now (see here).

I am reminded of that first London conference of Rethinking Economics.  At that meeting, leading radical economists Victoria Chick and Sheila Dow told us that reform of society would be impossible until we can change the ‘closed mind-set’ of mainstream economics. As if the issue was a psychological one. Mainstream economics is closed to alternatives because there a material interest involved. But Chick and Dow seemed to think that it’s just a question changing the mind-set of other economists that support the market – for their own good because austerity and neoliberal policies are actually bad for capitalism itself.

More recently, leading leftist economists in the UK held a seminar on the state of mainstream economics, as taught in the universities.  They kicked this off by nailing a poster with 33 theses critiquing mainstream economics to the door of the London School of Economics.  This publicity gesture attempted to remind us that it was the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his  95 theses to the Castle Church, Wittenberg and provoked the beginning of the Protestant reformation against the ‘one true religion’ of Catholicism.

The economists were purporting to tell us that mainstream economics was like Catholicism and must be protested against, just as Luther did back in 1517.  But as I commented then, is a revolution against the mainstream really to be painted as similar to Luther’s protestant revolt?  The history of the reformation tells us the protestant version of Christianity did not lead to a new pluralistic order and freedom to worship.  On the contrary, Luther was a bigot who worked with the authorities to crush more radical movements based on the peasants, led by Thomas Munzer.

Don’t get me wrong: attempts to expand economic ideas beyond the mainstream can only be good news and the content of the Core project is really stimulating and educational.  But it seems that, for Rethinking Economics and Core, the mainstream economic ‘religion’ is just neoclassical theory and that it is neoliberal economics that must be overthrown. They have nothing to say against Keynesian economics – indeed variants of Keynes are actually the way forward for them.

Take the new course at University College London for undergraduates. It’s called Rethinking Capitalism – a new elective module for UCL undergraduates.  Run by Mariana Mazzucato, the director of the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) and author of The value of everything, it’s a great initiative, with guest lecturers including Branco Milanovic. . The module aims to “help students develop their critical thinking and make the connections between economic theory and real world policy issues. It will provide an introduction to a range of different economics perspectives, including Neoclassical, post-Keynesian, ecological, evolutionary, Marxist and institutional economics theories and how their different assumptions link to different public policies.”  But looking at the BASC0037 Rethinking Capitalism. I am sceptical that students will hear much about Marxist economic theory within its ‘heterodox’ approach.

Keynesian theory dominates in Rethinking Economics and so do the policy conclusions arising from Keynesian ideas in wider left circles.  Take the recent seminar organised by the IIPP in the UK’s House of Lords to discuss the financing of innovation (badly needed given the poor performance of the British capitalist sector in productivity growth).  But who did the IIPP line up to discuss with Mazzacuto the very limited proposal for a UK national investment bank to replace the European Investment Bank when the UK leaves the EU next year?  It was Tory Lord David Willetts, and as keynote speaker, Liberal leader Sir Vince Cable!  Cable was quoted approvingly to say that “The current enthusiasm for ‘selling the family silver’ (ie privatisation)) has its roots in bizarre Treasury accounting conventions.”  This was very rich hypocrisy coming from Cable, who when in coalition with the Conservatives, presided over the privatisation of Royal Mail, Britain’s state-owned postal service, selling it off for a price at least £1bn below market value – yes, selling the ‘family silver’.  I’m not sure that the IIPP will get far with its laudable aim of increasing the state role in innovation and investment by relying on these people for support.

And Keynesian ideas are central to the opinions of key advisers for the leftist Labour leaders in Britain.  In a recent article, Ann Pettifor, director of Prime Economics, blamed the economic crisis in Turkey and other ‘emerging economies’ on ‘orthodox economics’, in particular the move by central banks to hike interest rates and ‘normalise’ monetary policy. I’ll be debating with Ann Pettifor on what to do about finance at this year’s Momentum conference taking place during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool in late September.  I too have pointed out the risk that this policy entails for the world economy when profitability is still low and debt is high.

Pettifor’s conclusion was that “it was time to ditch economic orthodoxy” and….”revive the radical and revolutionary monetary theory and policies of John Maynard Keynes” as the way to avoid another global crisis.  But regular readers of this blog will know that I have shown Keynes’s ideas were far from radical, let alone revolutionary.  And they certainly would not avoid another global crisis.  And thinking they would do so would be a step back for the labour movement and its leaders.
One key points is that capitalism is not just a monetary economy as Keynesians think; it is a money-making economy.  You can print money indefinitely, but you cannot turn it into value under capitalism without the exploitation of human labour.  When you sift through the body of ideas in Core, one thing stands out: the failure to analyse modern economies with a law of value and a theory of exploitation for profit.  Profit and exploitation do not appear in the body of Core work (except for fleeting references to Marx).  And yet this is at the heart of capitalism and is the soul of Marxist theory.

Are there textbooks that do offer a Marxist alternative to neoclassical and Keynesian schools?  My favourite is Competing Schools of Economic Thought by Lefteris Tsoulfidis.  Then there is Contending Economic Theories by Richard Wolff And Stephen Resnick.  There is the new two-book textbook on Microeconomics and Macroeconomics by Ben Fine and Ourania Dimakou.  And of course, there is Anwar Shaikh’s monumental Capitalism (which the dedicated can dip into if they have their brains working!).  These should be on the curriculum of Core and Rethinking Economics courses. Maybe they will be.  But it may require a rethink.

Monday, August 13, 2018

We are all Animals. All Life is Connected.

I am almost at a loss for words as the video is so powerful it speaks for itself.  I could not stop crying for a minute or two, not just sadness at the death of a fellow primate but the obvious relationship we have with them. They are our cousins.

As I watch it and it sinks in, it is not just the understanding that animals have emotions like these, that they are intelligent, but that if we do not transform society and by that I mean eliminate the horrific and inhumane form of social organization we know as capitalism and replace it with a rational, collective democratic socialist system of production and the social structure that facilitates it, such beauty will be gone forever.  And not just relations like these, but all life as we know it will eventually be destroyed if the present system and its apologists are not sent in to the history books.

What joy is on this chimps face. What love it must have in its heart for this human being. This is what life can be like and it is just the tip of the iceberg, understanding these relations. Imagine the massive amount of time, capital, resources spent in destroying life and nature all in the rapacious quest for profits and what humanity could do with it.

We can change course. But we cannot travel down this road to freedom if we do not recognize the system of production that dominates the planet is the cause of our demise and that we do have an alternative but we have to fight for it. One thing is certain; we cannot make this system of social organization nice, or fair, or human friendly and respectful of the natural world in which we live.
It has to go.

A lot of people have viewed this and I only just saw it today and thanks to Patricia for sharing it on FB.   Most of us will love this because we are human and to be human is to be collective and social. It's is the system in which we live that is rotten.  We are like fish in polluted waters or plants in barren soil. Chane the water, change the soil and life flourishes.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Turkey: total meltdown

by Michael Roberts

The Turkish lira is in total meltdown.  It has lost 40% of its value against the dollar in the last six months and fell nearly 20% in the last week.  The turkeys have come home to roost on the country’s economy and the erratic economic policy of its autocratic (recently re-elected) leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What triggered the crisis was when the US imposed asset freezes on Abdulhamit Gul, Turkey’s justice minister, and Suleyman Soylu, interior minister, for their alleged roles in the detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor. Mr Brunson, who ran a small church in Turkey for two decades before he was arrested in October 2016, is accused of participating in a conspiracy to topple Mr Erdogan. The pastor has described the charges as “slander”. His detention is just one of a number of disagreements between Turkey and the US that range over divergent stances on Syria to the delivery of US arms.

Then on Friday, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said the US would double the tariff on imports of Turkish steel to 50 per cent, because the previous level of 25 per cent had not been enough to sufficiently reduce Turkish exports to the US. “Doubling the tariff on imports of steel from Turkey will further reduce these imports that the [commerce] department found threaten to impair national security,” said Ross.

That was the trigger but it was not the revolver that now is pointed at the head of Turkey’s economy.  That was the fast deteriorating economic situation.  After the botched attempted military coup against him in 2016, Erdogan launched a credit boom to boost the economy while locking up thousands and sacking even more from their jobs in academic and government positions.  He insisted on keeping interest rates low and blocked any action to curb fast-rising inflation by Turkey’s central bank, describing interest rates as “the mother and father of all evil”.

Turkey’s capitalist economy could not handle this, just at a time that the US dollar strengthened after the US Federal Reserve began to raise US interest rates.  The problem for Turkey, a country without energy resources and only its human expertise and cheap labour to sell is that the vast majority of the funding for industrial development, construction and real estate comes from abroad:  American and European investors.  Turkey’s citizens and companies borrow significantly in dollars and euros.

The apparently fast economic growth of the last two years was built on turkey legs (credit and foreign borrowing)
while imports flooded into the economy not matched by exports and the profitability of Turkish capital fell sharply.  The rise of the dollar and interest rates globally brought an end to the party and has exposed Erdogan to the realities of global capitalism.

Turkey banks and corporations are now in dire trouble. Turkey’s non-financial companies’ foreign currency liabilities now outstrip their foreign exchange assets by more than $200bn.

The country’s banks and corporations have billions of dollars of hard-currency debt coming due.  Turkey’s banks are scheduled to repay $51bn over the next year, while the remaining $18.5bn sits on non-financial corporate balance sheets. These bills are coming due at a time when corporate indebtedness sits at 62 per cent of GDP, half of which is denominated in foreign currencies (dollars and euros, mostly).

Foreign investors are now worried that Turkey will not be able to finance this.  Relative to its short-term external debt, Turkey’s FX reserves have declined to new lows.

So capital has fled the country and the lira has tumbled.
Now the extra worry for global capital is that if Turkey’s banks and corporations start defaulting on their debt servicing, then European banks could suffer significant losses on their own balance sheets – what markets call ‘contagion’, the spreading of losses and default internationally.  Some of Turkey’s banks are foreign-owned and the biggest lenders to Turkey are Spain’s BBVA, Italy’s UniCredit and France’s BNP Paribas.

Turkey’s banks appear to have plenty of reserves and loans to Turkey are just a small part of total loans made by these foreign banks.  But even ‘marginal’ losses can sometimes be a tipping point when profits are tight.  And bad debts in the banks have already been rising (% of debt that is ‘bad’ graph below)

How can Erdogan get out of this currency crash?  The capitalist solution is to hike interest rates to an astronomical height so that further borrowing is stopped.  Then the government should dramatically cut government spending and raise taxes (ie fiscal austerity) and use the ‘savings’ to bolster the banks and meet foreign debt repayments.  Turkey should also turn to the IMF for a loan – Greek style. 

Under IMF rules, it could borrow up to $28bn to fund future debt repayments but then be subject to the dictats of IMF austerity measures.  This capitalist solution means an outright slump in the Turkish economy, hitting its citizens hard and seriously damaging Erdogan’s support in the country.

The government could introduce capital controls and block any money leaving the country.  But this would mean that foreign lenders would just stop lending, driving the economy into a slump anyway.  Or Erdogan could try to get funding from Russia, China or Saudi Arabia (as Pakistan has just done).  Unfortunately, he is on bad terms with all these countries.  Erdogan is resisting all these options so far, telling his supporters to ‘trust in God’ and him.

The bigger issue is the growing emerging market debt crisis. This is what I said in May after Turkey’s general election. “Rising global interest rates and the growing trade war initiated by US President Trump are going to hit the so-called emerging capitalist economies like Turkey.  The cost of borrowing in foreign currency will rise sharply and foreign investment is likely to reverse…..Turkey is now near the top of the pile for a debt crisis, along with Argentina (already there), Ukraine and South Africa.”

So there’s more to come.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Russian Capitalism/Imperialism, Putin And The Russian Working class.

Russian Workers On March against Raising of Pension Age. 
Sean O'Torain.

There are whole volumes to be written about the rise of Russian capitalism/imperialism out of the collapse of the Stalinist regime in the past decades. This Blog has continually pointed out the problems that face US capitalism/imperialism in dealing with Russian capitalism/imperialism. And these problems are not only because of the personal/financial problems of the Trump regime and Trump's fear of what Russian capitalism/imperialism in the form of the Putin regime can reveal about him. It is a much more serious problem.

US imperialism very actively intervened to bring down Stalinism and very actively intervened to make sure that it was replaced with Russian capitalism, that there was no move to replace it with democratic socialism. US imperialism intervened to make sure that the previously nationalized dominant sectors of the Russian economy rather than being taken into collective ownership and being collectively owned and managed and run by the Russian working class, were taken into ownership by the new Russian capitalist class. So US capitalism/imperialism played a major part in bringing about the new Russian capitalist class and putting it in power and this is whom Putin represents - the new Russian capitalist/imperialist class. This should not be forgotten when we read of US imperialism whining about Putin.

This Blog has pointed to the contortions US capitalism/imperialism and all wings of its mass media go to to try and hide this fact. One example is how they insist on calling the Russian capitalists - oligarchs. They are determined not to call them capitalists which is what they are. But if the US capitalist media called them capitalists then they would be seen to be similar to the crowd of capitalist  gangsters that run the US economy, That is, in the great class conflict of the world, they would be seen to be brother and sister capitalists.

But to move on to the main point of this article.

This Blog has continually said that the Russian working class would soon make its presence felt. That after the shock of the collapse of Stalinism it would recover and begin to act as a class. This and the rise of the Chinese working class and the rise of the US working class will be major factors on the world situation in the years ahead. But back to Russia. This Blog has recently had an article on a demonstration in Moscow for better housing. This was led mainly by women workers. This demonstration is not to be confused with the demonstrations that are regularly held by other wings of the Russian capitalist class who wish to have a greater share of the loot than the Putin wing. Now we have had a more important movement of a section of the Russian working class.

The Putin regime is moving to pass a law to raise the retirement age. At the moment men can retire and qualify for pensions at 60 years and women at 55 and in some industries women can retire and qualify for pensions at 50. Compare that to the USA!  This proposed new law would raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 63 for women. This is a major attack on the Russian working class. This at a time when the Russian capitalist class are living in the most extreme and crude luxury from the property they seized from the state when Stalinism collapsed. But this attack is not going unopposed.

89% of Russians in polls oppose the increase in retirement age. Naturally enough this opposition is greatest amongst older Russians which to now have been Putin's main base. The demonstrations have taken place in 150 cities throughout Russia. They have have not yet been enormous in size. But they have been angry. One woman demonstrator in the city of Tver, a city north of Moscow, referred to the Chinese example in dealing with corrupt bureaucrats. She stated: "In China, thieving officials are taken into the street and shot, and their property confiscated. We want that too". No holding back from this lady. She sees clearly what she wants done. No wonder Putin is trying to suggest that he has doubts about the new law. Some others in the demonstration in Tver were heard to shout: "Let Putin live on a pension". These demonstrations and this opposition has led to some splits in Putin's so-called United Russia Party. One newspaper in Russia has described Putin's party as the "praetorian guard of Stability". That is, of Russian capitalist/imperialist stability. Well it is showing the odd crack.

The Russian capitalist class which is represented by Putin and his Party is unique in history. It came to power and seized the economy as Stalinism collapsed. It took capitalism centuries to come to power and establish itself worldwide. In Russia it has been a different story. The new Russian capitalist/imperialist class, made up of KGB and former Stalinist state officials,  came to power in a matter of years. This is unique in history.

This new class is also different in other ways. It brings with it the repressive traditions of Stalinism. The crushing of the opposition in the 1920's and 1930's. It  brings with it the experience of the second world war when the Russian masses bore the brunt of the the war against and the defeat of Fascism. It brings with it the experience of the decades of the cold war.  US capitalism/imperialism helped to put the Russian capitalist class in power and now it is faced with this new class as a major rival. Be careful what you want, you might get it, is the saying that comes to mind. US capitalism/imperialism is whining about how Russian capitalism/imperialism intervenes in US elections, this from the class that spent the last century trying to bring down Stalinism and to intervene in every election on the planet and organize military intervention and assassination on a mass scale to get the governments it wanted in country after country. The problem that US capitalism/imperialism has is that it has been outdone by the Russian capitalist/imperialism  at its own game.

This Blog will seek to follow and publicize the struggles of the Russian working class that are just beginning. And to follow and publicize the struggles of the Chinese working class that are showing signs of emerging. And of the US working class that is beginning to stir. Human society is faced with a race against time. Unless capitalism is overthrown and replaced with a democratic socialist world where the international working class come to power and democratically run things, then life on earth as we know it will be destroyed. It will be destroyed either by climate change, nuclear war, pollution, or a combination of these.

It is heartening to see the first stirrings of the Russian working class. This Blog has been covering the new movements of the US working class in the teachers and educators movements in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Puerto Rico, and other states and the recent movement of the transit workers union in Washington DC where these workers refused to transport the Nazis and fascists to a demonstration. These are the first beginnings of the coming movement of the US working class. These movements are being led by new leaders from the rank and file of the US unions and workers and in some cases by leaders of some of the union locals, And they are overwhelmingly being led by women activists. Things are looking up.

This is no time to be pessimistic. Great struggles lie ahead. The international working class will seek to put its imprint on the developments in the world. The Russian working class will play its role in this. The Russian capitalists, what the US capitalist class call the Russian oligarchs, they call them this so as to try and make out they are not the same type of bunch of crooks and exploiters as the US capitalist class, will also be challenged.

As these struggles develop here in the US the trade union leadership which are wedded to US capitalism/imperialism will be challenged. Already signs of a new leadership is emerging. All those who are opposed to US capitalism/imperialism have to orient to these new movements and have to examine their ways of working and assist these new movements and assist a new fighting anti capitalist/imperialist leadership to emerge.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut

The Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut
by Andy Piascik
This past weekend saw rallies of white supremacist and alt-right groups in Berkeley and Oregon, both of which were met by large numbers of counter-demonstrators. This coming weekend, what is likely to be a larger number of white supremacists and fascists intend to rally in Washington, DC. Groups of counter-demonstrators plan to protest this gathering as well. The rise of far right groups grows more ominous especially as they include in their numbers many heavily armed individuals who openly declare their commitment to terrorism. Here is a brief history of one such terrorist group in my home state of Connecticut, and the counter protests that met them at every turn.

The Formation of the Ku Klux Klan
Within months of the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865, a small band of soldiers from the defeated Confederate army gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee, and formed an organization they dubbed the Ku Klux Klan. Very quickly, like-minded individuals—mostly professionals and former plantation owners—joined what was initially a loose network of chapters throughout much of the South. Their primary focus was to oppose Reconstruction, and to that end the KKK launched a campaign of terror in which its members killed thousands of blacks who worked with poor whites to build a new South. That campaign culminated in the complete defeat of Reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise in 1877.  See below.

In the 150 years following the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, additional organizations using some variation of that name sprang up. The former Confederacy was always the base of the various Klans, but when the KKK experienced a dramatic revival in 1920, chapters emerged in northern and western parts of the United States as well, including in Connecticut. The remarkable increase in Klan popularity—its membership reached five million during the 1920s—came largely from its branding itself as nativists defending an embattled pure American white race against blacks, Jews, Catholics, communists, socialists, anarchists and immigrants who came to US shores in large numbers in the preceding two decades. Always, though, the Klan’s primary animus was toward blacks.

The KKK Arrives in Connecticut
The first reports of individuals in the ubiquitous white robes gathering in Connecticut, as well as of cross burnings (a telltale sign of an organized Klan presence) in the state, date to as early as 1924. The Klan regularly organized field days, and one held in Greenwich in 1928 attracted 200 people. One estimate placed the Klan’s peak membership in Connecticut in the 1920s at 18,000. The KKK declined in Connecticut as dramatically as it rose, however, and its membership by the 1930s was a fraction of its peak. 

Klan activity in Connecticut was virtually nonexistent for five decades until 1980 when the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of a myriad of splinter groups, formed. The Invisible Empire established a chapter in and around Meriden and held a series of actions in that part of the state over the next three years. The most dramatic of these actions was on March 21, 1981, when several dozen robed Klan members and supporters rallied at Meriden’s city hall in support of a Meriden police officer who shot and killed a black man suspected of shoplifting at a nearby mall. A far larger number of anti-Klan demonstrators confronted the Klan members, resulting in injuries to 20 people and the arrests of two counterdemonstrators.

The KKK held rallies in Meriden on July 4, 1981, on March 20, 1982, and on April 30, 1983, and also in Windham on October 10, 1981, that attracted as many as 30 members and supporters. On each occasion, however, crowds 10 to 20 times larger gathered to protest their presence. The Invisible Empire also set up the Klan Youth Corps, a group for young supporters, and leaflets published by the Corps began appearing in high schools in the Meriden area around this time. Questions from students prompted the union representing many of the state’s teachers, the Connecticut Education Association, to publish a curriculum guide about the KKK. The same article estimated that the Invisible Empire had 200 members in Connecticut in 1982.

Though the Klan’s public presence in Connecticut soon waned, it resurfaced at various times over the next three decades, mostly in the form of flyers attributed to one faction or another. Such flyers appeared in Orange in 2012 and Milford in 2013. According to a report issued in 2014 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there remains one Klan faction in Connecticut: the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. According to its website, the Loyal White Knights are based in North Carolina and are “the largest Klan in America.” Neither the Loyal White Knights nor the SPLC provide estimates on how many members or chapters the Knights have in Connecticut, where members and chapters reside, or provide any insight into member activity.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik’s most recent book is the novel In Motion. He can be reached atandypiascik@yahoo.com.
Here is a short interesting explanation of the Hayes Rutherford compromise, a great betrayal of the black population of the South by the two major parties. Freed slaves that had been so crucial in the North's victory were, with the removal of the Northern troops left to the mercy  of the white racist power structure that had technically lost the war. FFWP Admin

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

UK Labor and Anti-Semitism. Interview With Norman Finkelstein

We are sharing this interesting interview with Norman Finkelstein on the Anti-Semitism debate in Britain and the right wing campaign against Corbyn and the Labor Party. It was originally published in May 2016 at OpenDemocracyUK

The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence

Norman G. Finkelstein talks Naz Shah MP, Ken Livingstone, and the Labour ‘antisemitism’ controversy.
Norman Finkelstein, (image: Youtube)

Norman Finkelstein is no stranger to controversy. The American Jewish scholar is one of the world’s leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the political legacy of the Nazi holocaust. Apart from his parents, every member of Finkelstein’s family, on both sides, was exterminated in the Nazi holocaust. His 2000 book The Holocaust Industry, which was serialised in the Guardian, became an international best-seller and touched off a firestorm of debate. But Finkelstein’s most recent political intervention came about by accident.

What are your thoughts on the Labour 'antisemitism' scandal? Tell us in the comments below.

Last month, Naz Shah MP became one of the most high-profile cases to date in the ‘antisemitism’ scandal still shaking the Labour leadership. Shah was suspended from the Labour party for, among other things, reposting an image on Facebook that was alleged to be antisemitic. The image depicted a map of the United States with Israel superimposed, and suggested resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict by relocating Israel into the United States. It has been reported that Shah got the image from Finkelstein’s website. I spoke with Finkelstein about why he posted the image, and what he thinks of allegations that the Labour party has a ‘Jewish problem’.

Did you create the controversial image that Naz Shah reposted?

I’m not adept enough with computers to compose any image. But I did post the map on my website in 2014. An email correspondent must have sent it. It was, and still is, funny. Were it not for the current political context, nobody would have noticed Shah’s reposting of it either. Otherwise, you’d have to be humourless. These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour. It’s inconceivable that any politician in the U.S. would be crucified for posting such a map. 

Shah’s posting of that image has been presented as an endorsement by her of a ‘
chilling “transportation” policy’, while John Mann MP has compared her to Eichmann.

Frankly, I find that obscene. It’s doubtful these Holocaust-mongers have a clue what the deportations were, or of the horrors that attended them. I remember my late mother describing her deportation. She was in the Warsaw Ghetto. The survivors of the Ghetto Uprising, about 30,000 Jews, were deported to Maijdanek concentration camp. They were herded into railroad cars. My mother was sitting in the railroad car next to a woman who had her child. And the woman – I know it will shock you – the woman suffocated her infant child to death in front of my mother. She suffocated her child, rather than take her to where they were going. That’s what it meant to be deported. To compare that to someone posting a light-hearted, innocuous cartoon making a little joke about how Israel is in thrall to the U.S., or vice versa…it’s sick. What are they doing? Don’t they have any respect for the dead? All these desiccated Labour apparatchiks, dragging the Nazi holocaust through the mud for the sake of their petty jostling for power and position. Have they no shame?

What about when people use Nazi analogies to criticise the policies of the State of Israel? Isn’t that also a political abuse of the Nazi holocaust?

It’s not a simple question. First, if you’re Jewish, the instinctive analogy to reach for, when it comes to hate or hunger, war or genocide, is the Nazi holocaust, because we see it as the ultimate horror. In my home growing up, whenever an incident involving racial discrimination or bigotry was in the news, my mother would compare it to her experience before or during the Nazi holocaust.

My mother had been enrolled in the Mathematics faculty of Warsaw University, I guess in 1937-38. Jews were forced to stand in a segregated section of the lecture hall, and the antisemites would physically attack them. (You might recall the scene in Julia, when Vanessa Redgrave loses her leg trying to defend Jews under assault in the university.) I remember once asking my mother, ‘How did you do in your studies?’ She replied, ‘What are you talking about? How could you study under those conditions?’. 

When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust. Whereas many Jews now say, Never compare (Elie Wiesel’s refrain, ‘It’s bad, but it’s not The Holocaust’), my mother’s credo was, Always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering.

For my mother, the Nazi holocaust was a chapter in the long history of the horror of war. It was not itself a war – she was emphatic that it was an extermination, not a war – but it was a unique chapter within the war. So for her, war was the ultimate horror. When she saw Vietnamese being bombed during the Vietnam War, it was the Nazi holocaust. It was the bombing, the death, the horror, the terror, that she herself had passed through. When she saw the distended bellies of starving children in Biafra, it was also the Nazi holocaust, because she remembered her own pangs of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto.

If you’re Jewish, it’s just normal that the Nazi holocaust is a ubiquitous, instinctual touchstone. Some Jews say this or that horror is not the Nazi holocaust, others say it is. But the reference point of the Nazi holocaust is a constant.

What about when people who aren’t Jewish invoke the analogy?

Once the Nazi holocaust became the cultural referent, then, if you wanted to touch a nerve regarding Palestinian suffering, you had to make the analogy with the Nazis, because that was the only thing that resonated for Jews. If you compared the Palestinians to Native Americans, nobody would give a darn. In 1982, when I and a handful of other Jews took to the streets of New York to protest Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (up to 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed, overwhelmingly civilians), I held a sign saying, ‘This son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Auschwitz, Maijdenek will not be silent: Israeli Nazis – Stop the Holocaust in Lebanon!’. (After my mother died, I found a picture of me holding that sign in a drawer among her keepsakes). I remember, as the cars drove past, one of the guys protesting with me kept saying, ‘hold the sign higher!’ (And I kept replying, ‘easy for you to say!’).

If you invoked that analogy, it shook Jews, it jolted them enough, that at least you got their attention. I don’t think it’s necessary anymore, because Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians now have an integrity of their own. They no longer have to be juxtaposed to, or against, the Nazi holocaust. Today, the Nazi analogy is gratuitous and a distraction.

Is it antisemitic?

No, it’s just a weak historical analogy – but, if coming from a Jew, a generous moral one.
Last week, Ken Livingstone took to the airwaves to defend Naz Shah, but what he said wound up getting him suspended from the Labour party. His most incendiary remark contended that Hitler at one point supported Zionism. This was condemned as antisemitic, and Labour MP John Mann accused Livingstone of being a ‘Nazi apologist’. What do you make of these accusations?

Livingstone maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance. But he does know something about that dark chapter in history. It has been speculated that Hitler’s thinking on how to solve the ‘Jewish Question’ (as it was called back then) evolved, as circumstances changed and new possibilities opened up. Hitler wasn’t wholly hostile to the Zionist project at the outset. That’s why so many German Jews managed to survive after Hitler came to power by emigrating to Palestine. But, then, Hitler came to fear that a Jewish state might strengthen the hand of ‘international Jewry’, so he suspended contact with the Zionists. Later, Hitler perhaps contemplated a ‘territorial solution’ for the Jews. The Nazis considered many ‘resettlement’ schemes – the Jews wouldn’t have physically survived most of them in the long run – before they embarked on an outright exterminatory process. Livingstone is more or less accurate about this – or, as accurate as might be expected from a politician speaking off the cuff.

He’s also accurate that a degree of ideological affinity existed between the Nazis and Zionists. On one critical question, which raged in the U.K. during the period when the Balfour Declaration (1917) was being cobbled together, antisemites and Zionists agreed: could a Jew be an Englishman? Ironically, in light of the current hysteria in the UK, the most vociferous and vehement opponents of the Balfour Declaration were not the Arabs, about whom almost nobody gave a darn, but the upper reaches of British Jewry.

Eminent British Jews published open letters to newspapers like the Times opposing British backing for a Jewish home in Palestine. They understood such a declaration – and Zionism – as implying that a Jew belonged to a distinct nation, and that the Jewish nation should have its own separate state, which they feared would effectively disqualify Jews from bona fide membership in the British nation. What distinguished the Zionists from the liberal Jewish aristocracy was their point of departure: as Theodor Herzl put it at the beginning of The Jewish State, ‘the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one . . . It is a national question’. Whereas the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy insisted Judaism was merely a religion, the Zionists were emphatic that the Jews constituted a nation. And on this – back then, salient – point, the Zionists and Nazis agreed.

John Mann, when he accosted Livingstone in front of the cameras, asked rhetorically whether Livingstone had read Mein Kampf. If you do read Mein Kampf, which I suspect none of the interlocutors in this debate has done (I used to teach it, before the ‘Zionists’ drove me out of academia – joke!), you see that Hitler is emphatic that Jews are not a religion, but a nation. He says that the big Jewish lie is that they claim to be a religion; whereas in fact, he says, they’re a race (at that time, ‘race’ was used interchangeably with ‘nation’). And on page 56 of the standard English edition of Mein Kampf, he says that the only Jews honest enough to acknowledge this reality are the Zionists. Now, to be clear, Hitler didn’t just think that Jews were a distinct race. He also thought that they were a Satanic race, and ultimately, that they were a Satanic race that had to be exterminated.

Still, on the first, not trivial, premise, he and the Zionists were in agreement.
As a practical matter, the Zionists and Nazis could therefore find a degree of common ground around the emigration/expulsion of Jews to Palestine. It was a paradox that, against the emphatic protestations of liberal Jews, including sections of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, antisemites and Zionists back then effectively shared the same slogan: Jews to Palestine. It was why, for example, the Nazis forbade German Jews to raise the swastika flag, but expressly permitted them to hoist the Zionist flag. It was as if to say, the Zionists are right: Jews can’t be Germans, they belong in Palestine. Hannah Arendt wrote scathingly about this in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is one of the reasons she caught hell from the Jewish/Zionist establishment.

Even if there was a factual basis for Livingstone’s remarks, to bring the issue up at that moment – wasn’t he just baiting Jews?

I can understand his motivation, because I’m of roughly his generation. If he was ‘baiting’, it was a reflexive throwback to the factional polemics in the 1970s-80s. Israel marketed Zionists as the only Jews who had resisted the Nazis. The propaganda image projected back then was, the only resistance to the Nazis came from the Zionists, and the natural corollary was, the only force protecting Jews now is Israel. Every other Jew was either a coward, ‘going like sheep to slaughter’, or a collaborator. Those who dissented from Israeli policy back then, in order to undercut this Zionist propaganda, and to strike a nerve with them, would recall this unsavoury chapter in Zionism’s history. Some pamphlets and books appeared – such as Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983) – to document this ‘perfidious Zionist-Nazi collaboration’. Livingstone’s recent comments were born of the same reflex that motivated us back then. These certifiable creeps who went after Naz Shah got under his skin, and so he wanted to get under their skin. That’s how we used to fight this political battle: by dredging up those sordid chapters in Zionist history.

Livingstone based himself on Brenner’s book. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that perhaps Brenner’s book contains factual errors, it’s more of a party pamphlet than a scholarly tome, and it’s not exactly weighed down with copious documentation. Still, the fact of the matter is, when Brenner’s book was published, it garnered positive reviews in the respectable British press. The Times, which is today leading the charge against Livingstone and the elected Labour leadership, back then published a review praising Brenner’s book as ‘crisp and carefully documented’. The reviewer, the eminent editorialist Edward Mortimer, observed that ‘Brenner is able to cite numerous cases where Zionists collaborated with anti-Semitic regimes, including Hitler’s’. So, it’s a tribute to Ken Livingstone that at age 70 he remembered a book he read more than 30 years ago, that got a good review in the Times when it first appeared. If the Times is upset at Livingstone’s remarks, it has only itself to blame. I myself only read Brenner’s book after the Times review. 

Let’s zoom out a bit. You’ve
written a great deal about how antisemitism accusations have been used to discredit and distract from criticism of Israel. Should we see the current campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Left more generally as the latest episode in that history? 

These campaigns occur at regular intervals, correlating with Israel’s periodic massacres and consequent political isolation. If you search your nearest library catalogue for ‘new antisemitism’, you’ll come up with titles from the 1970s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1980s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1990s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, and then a huge uptick, including from British writers, during the so-called Second Intifada from 2001. Let’s not forget, just last year there was a hysteria in the UK over antisemitism. A couple of ridiculous polls purported to find that nearly half of Britons held an antisemitic belief and that most British Jews feared for their future in the UK. Although these polls were dismissed by specialists, they triggered the usual media feeding frenzy, as the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent hyperventilated about this ‘rampant’ ‘new antisemitism’. It was exposed as complete nonsense when, in April 2015, a reputable poll by Pew found that the level of antisemitism in the UK had remained stable, at an underwhelming seven percent.

This farce happened only last year. One would have imagined that its mongers would be hiding in shame, and that we would enjoy at least a brief respite from the theatrics. But lo and behold, in the blink of an eye, right in the wake of the Pew poll showing that antisemitism in the UK is marginal, the hysteria has started up all over again. The reality is, there is probably more prejudice in the UK against fat people than there is prejudice against Jews.

Ask yourself a simple, but serious, question. You go for a job interview. Which trait is most likely to work against you: if you’re ugly, if you’re fat, if you’re short, or if you’re Jewish? It’s perhaps a sad commentary on our society’s values, but the trait most likely to elicit a rejection letter is if you’re ugly. Then fat; then short. The factor least likely to work against you is, if you’re Jewish. On the contrary, aren’t Jews smart and ambitious? Pew found antisemitism levels at seven percent. Is that grounds for a national hysteria? A May 2015 YouGov poll found that 40 percent of UK adults don’t like Muslims and nearly 60 percent don’t like Roma. Imagine what it’s like to apply for a job if you’re a Roma! So where is your order of moral priorities?

Many of those involved in last year’s ‘antisemitism’ hysterics are also participants in the current campaign against Corbyn. 

The question you have to ask yourself is, why? Why has this issue been resurrected with a vengeance, so soon after its previous outing was disposed of as a farce? Is it because of a handful of allegedly antisemitic social media postings from Labour members? Is it because of the tongue-in-cheek map posted by Naz Shah? That’s not believable. The only plausible answer is, it’s political. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the factual situation; instead, a few suspect cases of antisemitism – some real, some contrived – are being exploited for an ulterior political motive. As one senior Labour MP said the other day, it’s transparently a smear campaign.

The ‘antisemitism’ accusations are being driven by the Conservatives ahead of the local and Mayoral elections. But they’re also being exploited by the Labour Right to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, and by pro-Israel groups to discredit the Palestine solidarity movement.

You can see this overlap between the Labour Right and pro-Israel groups personified in individuals like Jonathan Freedland, a Blairite hack who also regularly plays the antisemitism card. He’s combined these two hobbies to attack Corbyn. Incidentally, when my book, The Holocaust Industry, came out in 2000, Freedland wrote that I was 'closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it'. Although he appears to be, oh, so politically correct now, he didn’t find it inappropriate to suggest that I resembled the Nazis who gassed my family.

We appeared on a television program together. Before the program, he approached me to shake my hand. When I refused, he reacted in stunned silence. Why wouldn’t I shake his hand? He couldn’t comprehend it. It tells you something about these dull-witted creeps. The smears, the slanders – for them, it’s all in a day’s work. Why should anyone get agitated? Later, on the program, it was pointed out that the Guardian, where he worked, had serialised The Holocaust Industry across two issues. He was asked by the presenter, if my book was the equivalent of Mein Kampf, would he resign from the paper? Of course not. Didn’t the presenter get that it’s all a game?

Compare the American scene. Our Corbyn is Bernie Sanders. In all the primaries in the US, Bernie has been sweeping the Arab and Muslim vote. It’s been a wondrous moment: the first Jewish presidential candidate in American history has forged a principled alliance with Arabs and Muslims. Meanwhile, what are the Blairite-Israel lobby creeps up to in the UK? They’re fanning the embers of hate and creating new discord between Jews and Muslims by going after Naz Shah, a Muslim woman who has attained public office. They’re making her pass through these rituals of public self-degradation, as she is forced to apologise once, twice, three times over for a tongue-in-cheek cartoon reposted from my website. And it’s not yet over! Because now they say she’s on a ‘journey’. Of course, what they mean is, ‘she’s on a journey of self-revelation, and epiphany, to understanding the inner antisemite at the core of her being’. But do you know on what journey she’s really on? She’s on a journey to becoming an antisemite. Because of these people; because they fill any sane, normal person with revulsion.

Here is this Muslim woman MP who is trying to integrate Muslims into British political life, and to set by her own person an example both to British society at large and to the Muslim community writ small. She is, by all accounts from her constituents, a respected and honourable person. You can only imagine how proud her parents, her siblings, must be. How proud the Muslim community must be. We’re always told how Muslim women are oppressed, repressed and depressed, and now you have this Muslim woman who has attained office. But now she’s being crucified, her career wrecked, her life ruined, her future in tatters, branded an ‘antisemite’ and a closet Nazi, and inflicted with these rituals of self-abasement. It’s not hard to imagine what her Muslim constituents must think now about Jews. These power hungry creeps are creating new hate by their petty machinations. As Donald Trump likes to say – it’s disgusting.

Labour has now set up an inquiry that is supposed to produce a workable definition of ‘antisemitism’ – which is to say, to achieve the impossible. It’s been tried countless times before, and it’s always proven futile. The only beneficiaries of such a mandate will be academic ‘specialists’ on antisemitism, who will receive hefty consultancy fees (I can already see Richard Evans at the head of the queue), and Israel, which will no longer be in the spotlight. I understand the short-term political rationale. But at some point, you have to say, ‘enough already’. Jews are prospering as never before in the UK. The polls show that the number of, so to speak, hard-core antisemites is miniscule. It’s time to put a stop to this periodic charade, because it ends up besmirching the victims of the Nazi holocaust, diverting from the real suffering of the Palestinian people, and poisoning relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities. You just had an antisemitism hysteria last year, and it was a farce. And now again? Another inquiry? Another investigation? No.

In order to put an end to this, there has to be a decisive repudiation of this political blackmail. Bernie Sanders was brutally pressured to back down on his claim that Israel had used disproportionate force during its 2014 assault on Gaza. He wouldn’t budge, he wouldn’t retreat. He showed real backbone. Corbyn should take heart and inspiration from Bernie’s example. He has to say: no more reports, no more investigations, we’re not going there any more. The game is up. It’s long past time that these antisemitism-mongers crawled back into their sewer – but not before humbly apologising to Naz Shah, and begging her forgiveness.

CLARIFICATION: Readers have expressed shock at the scandalous remarks attributed to Jonathan Freedland. Finkelstein decided to amend the paragraph so as to quote Freedland word-for-word. Readers will now perhaps be even more shocked.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Capitalism is Theft

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Yes capitalism, the vibrant so-called free market. We know it was bailed out through taxpayer money in 2008, dragged from the edge of the abyss by socialist measures. We saw the nationalization of major private concerns by the state, although the capitalist mass media refers to it as "Conservatorship".

The predator in Chief’s trade policies are interesting in that the taxpayer comes to the rescue again forking over $12 billion (we don't get to vote on it) to agribusiness that will be hurt by the tariff wars Trump has started. It could have come from the war budget but that’s sacrilege, it would create unnecessary tension between competing sections of the US ruling class; best use public funds.

Here’s a list of subsidies the oil industry received in 2011 compiled by  Taxpayers For Common Sense.

  • Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit - $31 billion.
  • Intangible Drilling Costs - $8.9 billion.
  • Oil and Gas Royalty Relief - $6.9 billion.
  • Percentage Depletion Allowance - $4.327 billion.
  • Refinery Equipment Deductions - $2.3 billion.
  • Geological and Geophysical Costs Tax Credit - $698 million.
  • Natural Gas Distribution Lines - $500 million.
  • Ultradeepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and other Petroleum Resources R&D - $230 million.
  • Passive Loss Exemption - $105 million.
  • Unconventional Fossil Technology Program - $100 million.
  • Other subsidies - $161 million.

Now Business week reports in its latest issue that the US treasury aims to increase borrowing in the “second half of the year” to “compensate for tax cuts and spending hikes”.  The interest on this new borrowing will be borne by the taxpayer of course and add to the already outrageous $21 trillion national debt the US owes.  As most analysts project, the tax breaks (as always) will benefit the rich as opposed to working people.

As for spending, Congress increased the FY 2018 defense budget to $700 billion—an increase of $108 billion. And since Trump took office, the defense budget will have grown by $133 billion, or 23 percent. Lockheed Martin is doing very well.

As economist Michael Roberts pointed out in his latest commentary,  “According to the IIF, the international research body of major multi-national banks, global debt (including financial sector debt) has reached $247trn, nearly 250% of world GDP”

What a screwed up system we live in. Workers are paid less value in the form of wages (price of labor power) than the value the use of our labor power by the capitalists creates in the form of commodities, which makes it impossible for workers as consumers to buy the commodities our labor power produces. So the capitalists, have an end product that contains labor power they’ve paid for (wages) and labor power they got for free by keeping workers over the time it took to produce those wages in value. But that “surplus value” cannot be realized or released from the commodity and in to the capitalist’s pocket until the commodity is sold.

So the owners of capital and the labor process and its finished product, provide us with capital, wealth they have stolen from workers through this unequal exchange (labor power for wages) so that we can buy from them what we make and they can realize the surplus value that is the source of their wealth.  Not only that, they charge us interest, rather exorbitantly I might add, for the use of this capital we create,----“our” collective wealth.

This debt, and the global debt crisis that Roberts points out above, is placed at the feet of the working class in form of declining living standards and public services. At some point, the debt becomes unsustainable and the whole system crashes. We are moving closer to that global scenario daily. The whole system is very inefficient and wasteful apart from being violent and exploitative.

This can’t be the end of civilization as Fukuyama claimed.