Why do Social Democrats do what they do?

October 12, 2017

It was the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump, Naomi Klein

It was the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump

People have lost their sense of security, status and even identity. This result is the scream of an America desperate for radical change

‘Elite neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.’ 

They will blame James Comey and the FBI. They will blame voter suppression and racism. They will blame Bernie or bust and misogyny. They will blame third parties and independent candidates. They will blame the corporate media for giving him the platform, social media for being a bullhorn, and WikiLeaks for airing the laundry.

But this leaves out the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves wide awake: neoliberalism. That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism. The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?
Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.
At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.
For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.

Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain. So do all of the rising far-right parties in Europe. They answer it with nostalgic nationalism and anger at remote economic bureaucracies – whether Washington, the North American free trade agreement the World Trade Organisation or the EU. And of course, they answer it by bashing immigrants and people of colour, vilifying Muslims, and degrading women. Elite neoliberalism has nothing to offer that pain, because neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.
Trump’s message was: “All is hell.” Clinton answered: “All is well.” But it’s not well – far from it.
Neo-fascist responses to rampant insecurity and inequality are not going to go away. But what we know from the 1930s is that what it takes to do battle with fascism is a real left. A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table. An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionised jobs, bring badly needed resources and opportunities to communities of colour, and insist that polluters should pay for workers to be retrained and fully included in this future.
It could fashion policies that fight institutionalised racism, economic inequality and climate change at the same time. It could take on bad trade deals and police violence, and honour indigenous people as the original protectors of the land, water and air.

People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.
Such a coalition is possible. In Canada, we have begun to cobble it together under the banner of a people’s agenda called The Leap Manifesto, endorsed by more than 220 organisations from Greenpeace Canada to Black Lives Matter Toronto, and some of our largest trade unions.

Bernie Sanders’ amazing campaign went a long way towards building this sort of coalition, and demonstrated that the appetite for democratic socialism is out there. But early on, there was a failure in the campaign to connect with older black and Latino voters who are the demographic most abused by our current economic model. That failure prevented the campaign from reaching its full potential. Those mistakes can be corrected and a bold, transformative coalition is there to be built on.

That is the task ahead. The Democratic party needs to be either decisively wrested from pro-corporate neoliberals, or it needs to be abandoned. From Elizabeth Warren to Nina Turner, to the Occupy alumni who took the Bernie campaign supernova, there is a stronger field of coalition-inspiring progressive leaders out there than at any point in my lifetime. We are “leaderful”, as many in the Movement for Black Lives say.

So let’s get out of shock as fast as we can and build the kind of radical movement that has a genuine answer to the hate and fear represented by the Trumps of this world. Let’s set aside whatever is keeping us apart and start right now.



A lot of nonsense has been written about the role of Putin’s Russia in subverting “our democracy.” As though our democracy had been functioning perfectly (even reasonably) well, until these shadowy Russian forces purchased a few Facebook ads that sent us all into the streets. It’s a laughable concept. I’m sorry, did Putin acquit George Zimmerman or Jason Stockley? Did Putin shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice? Russia did not carry out the drug war against African Americans or implement policies of mass incarceration, or pass voter ID laws in the U.S. – all of which have contributed to disenfranchising millions of African Americans over the years. The U.S. has a lot to answer for with regard to systematically denying the democratic rights of African Americans and this is not the first time they’ve tried to deflect criticism for that by blaming Russia. As a student of history I’ve mostly just rolled my eyes this time around while the Democrats attempt to make red-scare tactics that are very old, new again. But a recent entry in this canon of “Black activists are pawns of Moscow” writing is so insulting and patently false, that, as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it seems very important to reply.
Last week an author named Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote a piece for The Root entitled, “Russia’s Recent Facebook Ads Prove the Kremlin Never Loved Black People.”
I’ve enjoyed entries from The Root before, particularly in chronicling racist attacks against African Americans that are underreported in the mainstream media. But their willingness to toe the Democratic Party line, uncritically in most circumstances, has been noted.
Starr’s piece is supposedly historical in scope but is premised upon a huge, glaring, historical fallacy: that of conflating the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union. In one sentence, Starr describes the two as essentially the same (showing you the level of material historical analysis he’s interested in engaging in) and then for the rest of the article proceeds to whitewash the history of Black communism, using the favorite arguments deployed by racists – that Blacks who supported socialism did so because they were duped, and that the Soviet Union was only interested in Black liberation insofar as it meant spiting their enemies in the White House.
These assertions deny the agency of African Americans, many of whom were amongst the most prominent Black intellectuals of their time, who looked to the Soviet system as an alternative to American racism and exploitation. This interpretation also denies the real solidarity and support that the Soviet Union expressed in their assistance to liberation movements of many Black, brown and oppressed people all over the world. Since anti-communist propaganda is easily promulgated without evidence in this country, allow me to present some of the evidence that exposes these racist lies for what they are.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was birthed via a revolution in 1917 and overthrown via counter-revolution in 1991. While Russians were in the majority of the population, the USSR itself was actually an extremely diverse and vibrant society for all of its existence. The Soviet Union spanned 14 time zones and comprised many independent nationalities and ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Kazakhs, Lithuanians, Tartars – all of whom spoke different languages, practiced different religions – and suffered terrible racist oppression under the Tsar. The triumph of the socialist revolution and the very existence of this unique political formation was the result of a revolution carried out by united oppressed peoples, who rose up as one and took control of society away from their Tsarist and capitalist exploiters. The Bolsheviks always took the task of uniting oppressed people and elevating their struggle very seriously. This was a key to their success and a guiding principle in their work. It was Lenin who pioneered communist opposition to imperialism and he who changed the Marxist formulation, “Workers of the World Unite” to “Workers and oppressed people of the world unite” as an expression of the priority they placed on the struggle of colonized people against imperialism.
"People of Africa will overpower the colonizers!" - 1960 propaganda poster by Kukryniksy
“People of Africa will overpower the colonizers!” – 1960 propaganda poster by Kukryniksy
Around the world, the 1919 triumph of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was greeted by the imperialists with great dismay and by oppressed/colonized peoples with great enthusiasm, inspiration and hope. In America, 1919 was an infamous year, known for its “Red Summer” of intense lynchings, race riots and gruesome violence against African Americans at the hands of white mobs. The Black American political movement had entered a new era of militancy, as veterans returning from WWI were less inclined to submit to Jim Crow and more inclined to fight for their dignity, wages and rights. A new wave of radical Black intellectuals all but took over the Black political scene, many from the Caribbean and mostly based in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. These men and women were considered some of the premier thinkers and writers of their time and of the majority of these radical African American leaders–regardless of political orientation– held the Russian Revolution in very high esteem.
According to historian Winston James, in his work Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, the appeal of the Russian Revolution to Black people in America at the time lay not in their having been “recruited” by Russia as the Root article asserts, but in their own independent evaluation of the Bolshevik government and where it stood with regard to equality for oppressed and colonized people.
James wrote about three major factors that attracted Black people to Bolshevism in the 1920s and 1930s. The first was the domestic policies promoting national minorities and oppressed groups that were put in place almost immediately after the triumph of the revolution. After the revolution the Bolshevik government undertook what can be described as the most far reaching and thorough affirmative action plan that any government has ever attempted, dedicating much in the way of their limited resources towards raising the standard of living for groups who had been historically oppressed and creating conditions that could facilitate greater equality for those groups.
To Black Americans, the most convincing example was the swiftness and seriousness with which the Soviets began redressing historical inequality suffered by the Jews, including immediately outlawing discrimination against them and putting an end to the violent pogroms that had plagued them under the Tsar. In 1923 Claude McKay, the young Black intellectual, writer and poet wrote: “For American Negroes the indisputable and outstanding fact of the Russian Revolution is that a mere handful of Jews, much less in ratio to the number of Negroes in the American population, have attained, through the Revolution, all the political and social rights that were denied to them under the regime of the Czar (166).”
The other two factors explored by James were the “uncompromising rhetoric of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and the right of self-determination for oppressed nations (165)” espoused by the Bolshevik government and the creation of the Third Communist International, an international body that openly encouraged colonized (often Black or Brown) people to rise up against their (mostly European) exploiters all over the world.
At a point when the U.S. government had systematically ignored the pleas of Black people to pass even one federal law against lynching, when city and state governments all over the country were colluding in lynchings, race riots and allowing whites who attacked Blacks to go free, or even reap rewards – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why many Black thinkers were genuinely excited that such a different kind of government, one that spoke to them and had taken action to support and defend its own national minorities, had come into the world.

Black and white (film)

Langston Hughes was a Black intellectual of this generation, this being the same generation that we associate with the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro. Of all the insults buried in that heinous Root article, the disrespect to Langston Hughes, inarguably one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, is one of the most difficult to endure. Starr paints Hughes as a dupe, someone “recruited” to champion the Soviet Union, as if the man had not traveled all over the world, studied and written extensively and was not capable of genuinely supporting a government that he believed to be on the right track. We revere Hughes’ poetry that celebrates Black beauty, he is the jazz poet laureate of Black America and we love to recite his words that affirm our deep history and continued struggle in the face of white American racism. But what about his poetry celebrating the Soviet Union? Here’s a link to a poem that he wrote praising Lenin. Did they break that one out at your school’s Black history month event? Probably not. But that doesn’t change the fact that Langston Hughes was extremely sympathetic to the Soviet Union, as is abundantly evident in his autobiographical writing, including in the chapter of I Wonder As I Wander, “Moscow Movie.”
Langston Hughes in Turkmenistan
Langston Hughes in Turkmenistan
The Root provides perhaps the most cynical and shallow reading of this chapter possible, though I hesitate to affirm that that author of that piece has even actually read it. “Moscow Movie” tells an important story about a time in 1932 when Langston Hughes was invited to the Soviet Union by the government, to work on a major film production. This film was called “Black and White” and it was supposed to highlight the struggle of Black workers in the South and give an international showcase to the racism and oppression experienced by Black people in America. According to Langston Hughes, it was “intended to be the first great Negro-white film ever made in the world (80),” though unfortunately it did not come to fruition.
Hughes accompanied a delegation of 22 young African Americans who were supposed to star in the film, though it was odd that most in that group were not actors or performers by trade. Starr erroneously attributes this casting to racism, saying that Hughes determined that the Soviets were so racist that they assumed that all Black people could sing and dance (and play sports?) and so didn’t bother to check the backgrounds of the people they hired for the film.
In fact, Hughes said nothing of the sort. He addressed the peculiar composition of the delegation early in the chapter, stating, “That most of our group were not actors seems to have been due to the fact that very few professional theater people were willing to pay their own fares to travel all the way to Russia to sign contracts they had never seen. Only a band of eager, adventurous young students, teachers, writers and would-be-actors were willing to do that, looking forward to the fun and wonder of a foreign land as much as to film-making. There were a few among them who wanted to get away from American race prejudice forever, being filled up with Jim Crow (70).”
It’s important that Hughes highlighted their motives as traveling to seek a reprieve from American racism. So high was the esteem for the Soviet Union in the group, that “When the train stopped beneath this banner for passports to be checked, a few of the young black men and women left the train to touch their hands to Soviet soil, lift the new earth in their palms, and kiss it (73),” according to Hughes.
In his accusations of racism what Starr may be referring to is where Hughes says at one point, “Europeans as well as Americans, seem to be victims of that old cliche that Negroes just naturally sing (80).” That is hardly an indictment of any particularly Russian racism and more of a complaint on how African Americans are represented on the world stage.
Lack of specific cultural knowledge about African Americans was a problem throughout the film’s production and that is what Hughes believes ultimately damned the film. Hughes was given an early copy of the script and let them know that he did not think it was usable because there were so many errors with regard to what racism and working class struggle actually looked like in the American South. Hughes said that the author of the script was well intentioned but had never been to America. He also said that information from or by Black Americans was rarely translated into Russian in those days. Even with these critiques, it’s nearly impossible to interpret Hughes as being at all bitter or resentful at the Soviets for their attempt at making this film. On the contrary, Hughes wrote with unmistakable good humour throughout the chapter and also repeatedly mentioned that they were all paid in full and well taken care of, even when it became clear the film wouldn’t be made.
The reception that the students received in Moscow is really remarkable, especially considering the historical context – none of which The Root brings up, of course. The students were “wined and dined” in Hughes’ own words, they were put up in the most lavish hotels and treated to free tickets to the theater, the opera, the ballet and dinners and parties with dignitaries and important people, almost every night. They were official guests of the state and treated with the highest honors. No Black delegation has ever been received in America with such grace. Hughes says that they were always introduced as “representatives of the great Negro people (82)” and after describing the incredible amenities at one of the elaborate resorts they were housed in, he adds “I had never stayed in such a hotel in my own country, since, as a rule, Negroes were not then permitted to do so (93).”
On their reception by ordinary Soviet citizens, Hughes writes:
“Of all the big cities in the world where I’ve been, the Muscovites seemed to me to be the politest of peoples to strangers. But perhaps that was because we were Negroes and, at that time, with the Scottsboro Case on world-wide trial in the papers everywhere, and especially in Russia, folks went out of their way there to show us courtesy. On a crowded bus, nine times out of ten, some Russian would say, “Negrochanski tovarish – Negro comrade – take my seat!’ On the streets queueing up for newspapers or cigarettes, or soft drinks, often folks in line would say, “Let the Negro comrade go forward.” (74)
This is in 1932! Nowhere in America were Black people treated like this in 1932. Hell, many of us could not get that treatment today, if our lives depended on it (and they sometimes do). This account echoes many others by African Americans who visited or moved to the Soviet Union. In William Mandel’s Soviet but Not Russian, Muhammad Ali is quoted as saying of his 1978 visit to the Soviet Union:
“I saw a hundred nationalities. No such thing as a Black man, or a white man, or ‘you nigger,’ or get back. People say, ‘Oh well, they just showed you the best.’ You mean all of those white folks rehearsed, said: ‘Muhammad Ali’s coming!’ .. ‘All hundred nationalities, pretend you get along. Muhammad Ali’s coming!’…’The just took you where they wanted to go.’ I know that’s a lie. I got in my car and told my driver where to go. Lying about the Russians.. I jogged in the mornings in strange places where they hardly ever saw a Black man. I ran past two little white Russian ladies who were walking to work. They didn’t look around and ask what I was doing. I can’t go jogging in some streets in America in the morning in a white neighborhood.” (85)
The Root tries to paint a picture of a USSR where the same racism that existed in Jim Crow America infected everyone there, but there simply is not enough evidence to say that was the case. They cite the experiences of one Black American man (Robert Robinson), thoroughly. But what about the experiences of the estimated 400,000 African students who were educated for free in the Soviet Union between 1950-1990? These Black youth attended technical schools, Lumumba University and the special Lenin school for leadership, they lived and traveled all over the Soviet Union and upon graduation, they would return to their homelands with skills necessary to aid in the new independence governments. Mandel interviewed quite a few Black Soviets for his book, including other African Americans who moved to the Soviet Union- and the picture they paint is very different from the one in Robinson’s account. Providing no evidence, Starr also asserts that interracial relationships would naturally be a problem in the Soviet Union, saying “both Russian and white American men weren’t cool with their women messing with black men.” Since he introduced the term “bullshit” just before that line, I’m going to call bullshit on that.
Langston Hughes’ account features many stories of the men in his group dating Soviet women and not a word about anyone batting an eye at such pairings – which in 1932, would have gotten someone lynched in the United States. Please stop projecting American racism onto the Soviet Union, when you just don’t have the evidence to back that up. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote on his third visit to the USSR in 1949, “of all countries, Russia alone has made race prejudice a crime; of all great imperialisms, Russia alone owns no colonies of dark serfs or white and what is more important has no investments in colonies and is lifting no blood-soaked profits from cheap labor in Asia and Africa.” The material basis for widespread Jim Crow style racism just wasn’t there.
Hughes was aware that the western press celebrated the failure of the movie and spread many rumours that they knew to be false concerning the Soviet government maneuvering against the Black students. He writes that Western journalists, who saw them spending money and carousing in Moscow nightclubs, filed stories in the U.S. about how they were going unpaid and neglected.
Hughes wrote that some in his group suspected that the movie was scrapped because the Soviets were sacrificing the Black struggle to appease the American government – but Hughes himself did not believe that. He was one of the only members of the group who saw the script and he was unequivocal in stating that more than anything else, it was the script that caused the project’s failure. Hughes also repeatedly mentioned the context of the international campaign in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a Black struggle that was most certainly not being dropped by the Soviets, as all this was going on.
The Root miscasts this excerpt from the life of Langston Hughes to support their conclusion that “the Soviets’ attempts to curry favor with the black struggle” was “insincere and downright fraudulent.” I would counter that this anti-communist propaganda is actually “insincere and downright fraudulent” but allow me to present further evidence on the genuine solidarity expressed by the Soviet Union. Sticking with the theme, let’s keep talking about film.

Focus on Africa in film

In the book Focus on African Film, noted film scholar Josephine Woll describes “The Russian Connection” between the Soviet Union and African film, an invaluable alliance in making postcolonial African cinema a reality. As alluded to in the previous section, the Soviet Union expended a lot of resources on aid and development for African nations, who were in the process of throwing off their own colonial oppressors and beginning their independence after World War II. These countries were severely underdeveloped, as chronicled by Walter Rodney and the Soviet Union was a key ally in providing material support, education and technology to allow these countries to thrive without being beholden to their former colonial masters. It’s worth noting that the greatest victory for Black liberation to occur in my lifetime, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, involved a great deal of material and political support from the Soviet Union, which was integral to the success of that movement.
Film was another area in which the Soviet Union provided Africans with crucial foundational support. Ousmane Sembene of Senegal, widely considered the “father of African film” was educated in the Soviet Union. This was also the case for other pioneering African filmmakers, like Souleymane Cissé of Mali and Abderrahmne Sissako of Mauritania/Mali and Sarah Maldoror, the French daughter of immigrants from Guadeloupe who made many films about African liberation. In addition to technical know-how, the Soviet Union also provided the essential film and production equipment, distribution and promotion, to bring African cinema onto the world stage.
Dr. Woll seems to believe that the motives of the Soviets were clearly political, but also genuine. Woll wrote: “The Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, radically altered how, why, and for whom films were made. Financial profit still mattered but it competed with other goals: educational, political, promotional. The new regime in post-tsarist Russia, like the new leaders of post-colonial African nations, willingly allocated part of its budget to subsidizing cinema because it recognized how effective the medium could be as an instrument of propaganda; and most Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s, though they had individual and often compelling aesthetic agendas, readily supported the politics of revolution (225).” In the U.S. we tend to be very cynical of the word “propaganda” but in revolutionary times, propaganda is necessary and the Africans needed aid in producing theirs. Ousmane Sembene clearly agreed; he was adamant about telling compelling political stories through his films and he fully recognized the potential for his films to “help decolonize Africa (225).”
The Soviet Union trained and equipped these African directors, so that they could bring the beauty and the struggle of their people to the world stage. The work of these revolutionary African filmmakers can be seen as a happy ending to the saga that was begun with “Black and White.” While we never got the Soviet sponsored film about Black struggle in the U.S. that they wanted to produce, we have since seen a variety of films out of different African countries that highlight their struggle in similar, but undoubtedly much more accurate, ways.


I realize that this was a lot to write in response to a small article that was probably not even this carefully considered by the author himself. But the legacy of the Soviet Union with regard to Black struggle is unique and inspiring and should be celebrated, not horrifically distorted and denied. In Paul Robeson Speaks, the great Black American actor says:
“Mankind has never witnessed the equal of the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. . . . Firstly, because of the significance it has for my people generally. Everywhere else, outside of the Soviet world, black men are an oppressed and inhumanely exploited people. Here, they come within the provisions of Article 123 of Chapter X of the Constitution, which reads: “The equality of the right of the citizens of the U.S.S.R. irrespective of their nationality or race, in all fields of economic, state, cultural, social, and political life, is an irrevocable law. Any direct or indirect restriction of these rights, or conversely the establishment of direct or indirect privileges for citizens on account of the race or nationality to which they belong, as well as the propagation of racial or national exceptionalism, or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” (1978, 116)
Paul Robeson in the USSR
Paul Robeson in the USSR
While our current President appoints KKK members to the Department of Justice and calls Nazi murderers “very fine people,” while his opponent Hillary Clinton called our children “super predators” and campaigned for them to be locked up en masse- we have to appreciate how significant it is that a national government – in 1919 – put laws on the books like ones described above. They outlawed racism. They invested heavily in Black education and Black artistic expression. They gave guns to those fighting imperialists and fascists all over the world. What more could you want? Terrell Jermaine Starr and The Root may be confused about which government cares about Black people, but I can’t say that I am. I’m proud to be a socialist and I’m proud of the legacy of friendship between my people and the USSR.
As I mentioned in the start of this article, calling Africans who fight for their liberation “Commies” or “dupes” is nothing new. John Hope Franklin referred to this in From Slavery to Freedom, saying that the response to Black self-defense against race riots in 1919 caused such speculation: “Many American whites freely suggested that foreign influences – especially … Bolshevik propaganda after the 1917 Russian Revolution — had caused blacks to fight back. Perhaps there is some truth to that… However, black Americans all along the political spectrum (from conservative, to moderate, to radical left) ridiculed the claim that their new assertiveness was the result of ‘outside agitation.’ American blacks needed no outsiders to awaken their sense of the tremendous contradiction between America’s professed beliefs and its actual practices (362)”.
That remains as true today as it was when written. Additionally, I’ll close with one more statement from that time, which also remains true, for myself at least. The militant Black Harlem publication The Crusader, under the leadership of fiery Black Communist Cyril Briggs declared in 1919: “If to fight for one’s rights is to be Bolshevists, then we are Bolshevists and let them make the most of it!”


Hughes, Langston. (1984). I wonder as I wander: An autobiographical journey. New York: Hill and Wang.
Robeson, Paul. (1978). Paul Robeson speaks: Writings, speeches, interviews 1918-1974, ed. by P.S. Foner. New York: Citadel.

October 11, 2017

Andrew Bacevich, How We Learned Not To Care About America's Wars by Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich, How We Learned Not To Care About America's Wars
by Andrew Bacevich at 4:42pm, October 5, 2017 in Tomgram

Even though the article was buried at the bottom of page eight of the September 28th New York Times, it caught my attention.  Its headline: “Russia Destroys Chemical Weapons and Faults U.S. for Not Doing So.” In a televised ceremony, wrote reporter Andrew Higgins, Russian President Vladimir Putin “presided over the destruction of his country’s last declared chemical weapons on Wednesday.”  The U.S. and Russia had, it seems, long ago agreed to do so by 2007, before pushing the date back to 2012, and then 2020.  The Russians have now beaten that deadline by three years while, according to an unnamed State Department official quoted by Higgins, the U.S. “remains committed” to doing the same by... “the end of 2023.” 

But I digress. One line -- actually one word -- in his story struck me oddly.  The “carefully choreographed” Russian event, Higgins commented, “seemed designed to offset the reputation [Putin] has acquired for belligerence and the flouting of international norms amid Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria.”  Yes, it was the most tepid word in that passage which caught my eye: interventions.  Such a mild way to describe what the Russians did in Ukraine, but when it came to Syria, something else entirely occurred to me: like Russia, the U.S. is deeply involved in Syria; like Russia, it has troops in rising numbers there; like Russia, it has loosed its air force on that country, dropping staggering numbers of bombs regularly.

In any normal week of news, however, you can generally search in vain for a discussion here of Washington’s “intervention” in Syria.  Officially, the U.S. military is conducting “overseas contingency operations” there and they are meant (unlike Russian efforts, of course) to stabilize that country.  But in these years you could search, largely without success, for any labels, however tepid, being applied to what the U.S. is actually doing across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Take the recent decision to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  Is that part of America’s “Afghan intervention”?  Evidently not.  Yes, we “invaded” in 2001, but what exactly are we doing now?  The upping of the ante in Somalia in the Trump era -- does that qualify as part of an ongoing “Somali intervention”?  If so, you won’t find out about it from your local news reports.  The recent bombing of an ISIS training camp in Libya, not even officially considered “an area of active hostilities,” was the first such attack of the Trump era (but hardly the first of recent years).  Is that part of Washington’s ongoing “Libyan intervention”?  I doubt it.  The nine-month air campaign against Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, that left much of that historic area a pile of rubble -- is that part of our “Iraqi intervention” 14 years after the invasion of that country?  Not as far as I can tell.  Were the increasing numbers of bombs dropped on Yemen and the heightened special operations raids there in the early months of the Trump administration part of our ongoing “Yemeni intervention”?  It's not a description I've seen anywhere.
Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, our never-ending wars and conflicts continue under the rubric of “the war on terror” (no caps), as terror groups spread and destabilization creeps from one of our war zones to the next.  But have you noticed just how nameless, how without descriptors of any sort, such ongoing events are? TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, certainly has and today he explores why those never-ending whatevers have had so little impact in this country. After all, if anyone were paying much attention, how could the generals of our losing overseas contingency operations have gained such power and prestige in Donald Trump’s Washington? Tom
Autopilot Wars 
Sixteen Years, But Who’s Counting? 
Consider, if you will, these two indisputable facts.  First, the United States is today more or less permanently engaged in hostilities in not one faraway place, but at least seven.  Second, the vast majority of the American people could not care less. 
Nor can it be said that we don’t care because we don’t know.  True, government authorities withhold certain aspects of ongoing military operations or release only details that they find convenient.  Yet information describing what U.S. forces are doing (and where) is readily available, even if buried in recent months by barrages of presidential tweets.  Here, for anyone interested, are press releases issued by United States Central Command for just one recent week:

September 19: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
September 20: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
Iraqi Security Forces begin Hawijah offensive
September 21: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
September 22: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
September 23: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
September 25: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq
September 26: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

Ever since the United States launched its war on terror, oceans of military press releases have poured forth.  And those are just for starters.  To provide updates on the U.S. military’s various ongoing campaigns, generals, admirals, and high-ranking defense officials regularly testify before congressional committees or brief members of the press.  From the field, journalists offer updates that fill in at least some of the details -- on civilian casualties, for example -- that government authorities prefer not to disclose.  Contributors to newspaper op-ed pages and “experts” booked by network and cable TV news shows, including passels of retired military officers, provide analysis.  Trailing behind come books and documentaries that put things in a broader perspective.
But here’s the truth of it.  None of it matters.

Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with.  In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal. 
While serving as defense secretary in the 1960s, Robert McNamara once mused that the “greatest contribution” of the Vietnam War might have been to make it possible for the United States “to go to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire.” With regard to the conflict once widely referred to as McNamara’s War, his claim proved grotesquely premature.  Yet a half-century later, his wish has become reality.
Why do Americans today show so little interest in the wars waged in their name and at least nominally on their behalf?  Why, as our wars drag on and on, doesn’t the disparity between effort expended and benefits accrued arouse more than passing curiosity or mild expressions of dismay? Why, in short, don’t we give a [expletive deleted]? 
Perhaps just posing such a question propels us instantly into the realm of the unanswerable, like trying to figure out why people idolize Justin Bieber, shoot birds, or watch golf on television. 
Without any expectation of actually piercing our collective ennui, let me take a stab at explaining why we don’t give a @#$%&!  Here are eight distinctive but mutually reinforcing explanations, offered in a sequence that begins with the blindingly obvious and ends with the more speculative.  
Americans don’t attend all that much to ongoing American wars because: 
1. U.S. casualty rates are low. By using proxies and contractors, and relying heavily on airpower, America’s war managers have been able to keep a tight lid on the number of U.S. troops being killed and wounded.  In all of 2017, for example, a grand total of 11 American soldiers have been lost in Afghanistan -- about equal to the number of shooting deaths in Chicago over the course of a typical week. True, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the U.S. is engaged in hostilities, whether directly or indirectly, plenty of people who are not Americans are being killed and maimed.  (The estimated number of Iraqi civilians killed this year alone exceeds 12,000.) But those casualties have next to no political salience as far as the United States is concerned.  As long as they don’t impede U.S. military operations, they literally don’t count (and generally aren’t counted).
2. The true costs of Washington’s wars go untabulated.  In a famous speech, dating from early in his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”  Dollars spent on weaponry, Ike insisted, translated directly into schools, hospitals, homes, highways, and power plants that would go unbuilt.  “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” he continued.  “[I]t is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” More than six decades later, Americans have long since accommodated themselves to that cross of iron.  Many actually see it as a boon, a source of corporate profits, jobs, and, of course, campaign contributions.  As such, they avert their eyes from the opportunity costs of our never-ending wars.  The dollars expended pursuant to our post-9/11 conflicts will ultimately number in the multi-trillions.  Imagine the benefits of investing such sums in upgrading the nation’s aging infrastructure.  Yet don’t count on Congressional leaders, other politicians, or just about anyone else to pursue that connection. 

3. On matters related to war, American citizens have opted out.  Others have made the point so frequently that it’s the equivalent of hearing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at Christmastime.  Even so, it bears repeating: the American people have defined their obligation to “support the troops” in the narrowest imaginable terms, ensuring above all that such support requires absolutely no sacrifice on their part.  Members of Congress abet this civic apathy, while also taking steps to insulate themselves from responsibility.  In effect, citizens and their elected representatives in Washington agree: supporting the troops means deferring to the commander in chief, without inquiring about whether what he has the troops doing makes the slightest sense.  Yes, we set down our beers long enough to applaud those in uniform and boo those who decline to participate in mandatory rituals of patriotism.  What we don’t do is demand anything remotely approximating actual accountability.
4. Terrorism gets hyped and hyped and hyped some more. While international terrorism isn’t a trivial problem (and wasn’t for decades before 9/11), it comes nowhere close to posing an existential threat to the United States.  Indeed, other threats, notably the impact of climate change, constitute a far greater danger to the wellbeing of Americans.  Worried about the safety of your children or grandchildren?  The opioid epidemic constitutes an infinitely greater danger than “Islamic radicalism.”  Yet having been sold a bill of goods about a “war on terror” that is essential for “keeping America safe,” mere citizens are easily persuaded that scattering U.S. troops throughout the Islamic world while dropping bombs on designated evildoers is helping win the former while guaranteeing the latter.  To question that proposition becomes tantamount to suggesting that God might not have given Moses two stone tablets after all.
5. Blather crowds out substance. When it comes to foreign policy, American public discourse is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- vacuous, insipid, and mindlessly repetitive.  William Safire of the New York Times once characterized American political rhetoric as BOMFOG, with those running for high office relentlessly touting the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God.  Ask a politician, Republican or Democrat, to expound on this country’s role in the world, and then brace yourself for some variant of WOSFAD, as the speaker insists that it is incumbent upon the World’s Only Superpower to spread Freedom and Democracy.  Terms like leadership and indispensable are introduced, along with warnings about the dangers of isolationism and appeasement, embellished with ominous references to Munich.  Such grandiose posturing makes it unnecessary to probe too deeply into the actual origins and purposes of American wars, past or present, or assess the likelihood of ongoing wars ending in some approximation of actual success. Cheerleading displaces serious thought.
6. Besides, we’re too busy.  Think of this as a corollary to point five.  Even if the present-day American political scene included figures like Senators Robert La Follette or J. William Fulbright, who long ago warned against the dangers of militarizing U.S. policy, Americans may not retain a capacity to attend to such critiques.  Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection.  We live in an era (so we are told) when frantic multitasking has become a sort of duty and when being overscheduled is almost obligatory.  Our attention span shrinks and with it our time horizon.  The matters we attend to are those that happened just hours or minutes ago.  Yet like the great solar eclipse of 2017 -- hugely significant and instantly forgotten -- those matters will, within another few minutes or hours, be superseded by some other development that briefly captures our attention.  As a result, a dwindling number of Americans -- those not compulsively checking Facebook pages and Twitter accounts -- have the time or inclination to ponder questions like: When will the Afghanistan War end?  Why has it lasted almost 16 years?  Why doesn’t the finest fighting force in history actually win?  Can’t package an answer in 140 characters or a 30-second made-for-TV sound bite?  Well, then, slowpoke, don’t expect anyone to attend to what you have to say.
7. Anyway, the next president will save us.  At regular intervals, Americans indulge in the fantasy that, if we just install the right person in the White House, all will be well.  Ambitious politicians are quick to exploit this expectation.  Presidential candidates struggle to differentiate themselves from their competitors, but all of them promise in one way or another to wipe the slate clean and Make America Great Again.  Ignoring the historical record of promises broken or unfulfilled, and presidents who turn out not to be deities but flawed human beings, Americans -- members of the media above all -- pretend to take all this seriously.  Campaigns become longer, more expensive, more circus-like, and ever less substantial.  One might think that the election of Donald Trump would prompt a downward revision in the exalted expectations of presidents putting things right.  Instead, especially in the anti-Trump camp, getting rid of Trump himself (Collusion!  Corruption!  Obstruction!  Impeachment!) has become the overriding imperative, with little attention given to restoring the balance intended by the framers of the Constitution.  The irony of Trump perpetuating wars that he once roundly criticized and then handing the conduct of those wars to generals devoid of ideas for ending them almost entirely escapes notice.
8. Our culturally progressive military has largely immunized itself from criticism.  As recently as the 1990s, the U.S. military establishment aligned itself with the retrograde side of the culture wars.  Who can forget the gays-in-the-military controversy that rocked Bill Clinton’s administration during his first weeks in office, as senior military leaders publicly denounced their commander-in-chief?  Those days are long gone.  Culturally, the armed forces have moved left.  Today, the services go out of their way to project an image of tolerance and a commitment to equality on all matters related to race, gender, and sexuality.  So when President Trump announced his opposition to transgendered persons serving in the armed forces, tweeting that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” senior officers politely but firmly disagreed and pushed back.  Given the ascendency of cultural issues near the top of the U.S. political agenda, the military’s embrace of diversity helps to insulate it from criticism and from being called to account for a less than sterling performance in waging wars.  Put simply, critics who in an earlier day might have blasted military leaders for their inability to bring wars to a successful conclusion hold their fire.  Having women graduate from Ranger School or command Marines in combat more than compensates for not winning.
A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.  But don't expect your neighbors down the street or the editors of the New York Times to lose any sleep over that fact.  Even to notice it would require them -- and us -- to care.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

October 10, 2017

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: The missing stories, Monia Mazigh, October 10, 2017

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: The missing stories, Monia Mazigh, Alternet, October 10, 2017

Many stories involving the West — including Guantanamo, the Nakba and the Algerian war — should be represented at CMHR

Last week I was in Winnipeg, invited by the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Thin Air) to speak about my latest novel: Hope Has Two Daughters.
As part of my others activities for the same festival, I was asked to speak at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Last time I was in the city, the museum wasn’t open for the public yet, though I heard back then that some private tours were being scheduled for special guests. Obviously, I was not special enough to be one of them, so I decided that next time I would visit the museum and get to know more about its exhibitions and galleries.
In my talk, I spoke about the link between my work as a writer and as a human rights advocate. I spoke about what happened to my husband Maher Arar; the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program that he was victim of; the physical and psychological torture he endured while detained in the Palestinian Branch in Syria, his country of birth; the dangers of information sharing between intelligence agencies in a post 9/11 world where torture has became banal (or, to say the least, “justified”); and, of course, the role of Canadian institutions in this terrible ordeal.
As someone who trained to become a financial economics professor, I spoke about how writing came to me as a tool of activism, of justice-seeking, but (most of all) of understanding and analyzing the new global order we are living in, particularly the national security agenda pushed by the U.S. and many other countries.
I also insisted on the importance of storytelling as a powerful medium for many oppressed communities to share their struggles with other privileged groups.
In this context, as a Muslim woman who has to daily fight Islamophobia and is constantly confronted by national security policies, writing remains for me the best and only means to oppose stereotypes and these policies without necessarily victimizing myself, but rather, resisting them and liberating myself from cowardice and a sense of helplessness.
Following my talk, I tried to take a quick tour of the museum. I have to say that the great architecture of the place — shaped creatively like the wings of a dove — gives it a majestic feel that can counterbalance some of the heavy stories I was going to see exhibited.
In a short period, I couldn’t render justice to the entire seven floors of exhibits, artefacts, and interactive multi-media videos, thousands of documents, pictures and poignant and beautiful stories told through pictures and of pieces of arts. In my rush, I might have missed important things. Nevertheless, one of the most important issues I was eager to read about in this museum was the “war on terror.” I wanted to see how this ongoing war was handled and told. I consider my husband and my whole family as survivors of this war, that former American President Georges W. Bush qualified as “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” 
I really wanted to know more about the “ghost planes” documented by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book with the same title. Exactly like my husband was transported from New Jersey to Amman, Jordan. Perhaps even thinking of seeing a picture of these planes. I wanted to see the name of some of the American private companies who operated them, such as Aero Contractors based in New Jersey, as well. I was also expecting to see images of the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan where my husband was kept there and many others prisoners of the war on terror.  A place that the political writer Arun Kundani described as “the Guantanamo in New York you’re not allowed to know about.”
This is a place where Human Rights Watch described the treatment of the Muslim suspects detained there in the following words: “subjected to punitive conditions, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to security measures typically reserved for dangerous persons. Most were let out of their cells only one hour per day. Although material witnesses have a right to counsel, including court-appointed counsel if necessary, some in fact did not have access to counsel.” 
I was hoping to see pictures of Guantanamo inmates in orange jumpsuits surrounded by the barbed wires, not because they were a powerful reminder of the fragility of our human rights and that despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by several countries after the atrocities of the Second World War, more abuses are being conducted today on other groups of people without any possibility of accountability or due process.
While I was circulated on the astonishing ramps made of alabaster and feeling being literally transported in the air from one floor to another and from one struggle to another, I thought of my own struggle, knocking on politicians doors, speaking to journalists, organizing vigils in the bitter Canadian cold with other human rights activists, and speaking to media to push Canadian politicians to bring my husband home. I thought of these longs hours I spent in front of the computer, after my young children went to bed, desperately trying to surf the Internet for names of journalists or human rights organizations to cover the story of my husband. I remembered those years between 2004 and 2006 when the public inquiry was taking place and the national and international media attention that followed us all the way to our doors. I thought of the thousands of pages written by Justice O’Connor and his legal counsel Paul Cavaluzzo to understand what really happened to Maher Arar, what led to his arrest by the U.S. and his subsequent torture in the Syrian dungeon.
Seeing some these documents exposed in one of the galleries of the museum or the remarkable recommendations by Justice O’Connor being showcased would have made my trip there a personal proud moment that to share with my family and friend, but also a terrific Canadian victory of justice over arbitrariness and discrimination.
But I was clearly dreaming. Nothing of the sort was exhibited or even mentioned. No images, no press clips, no information about the black hole prisons network that swallowed the victims of renditions keeping them hidden underneath and tortured, not a single mention about the horrific treatment of Guantanamo prisoners like the waterboarding. Nothing.
Among this shameful desert of lack of information, I finally saw a newspaper picture. One that I have never seen before, showing people holding signs “Justice to Maher Arar” with the following interesting description “Maher Arar supporters, around 2008. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar, a Canadian citizen, for not protecting him from torture in Syria”. Not a single word about Canada’s role or any other similar Canadian cases of Al Maati, Al Malki and Nurredin. The picture probably taken from an American paper, threw the responsibility ball to U.S. and Syrian camps.
No picture of Guantanamo, not a word about Omar Khadr, another victim of the war on terror, and the incredible work his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney has been doing and all the work of Canadians activists, filmmakers and human rights groups who supported the cause until the end.
I simply can’t understand these missing stories. Is it a deliberate act of self-amnesia? Is it politically motivated? I don’t know.
But certainly, Canadians have all the right to know and understand these missing stories. Human rights are not only stories that we can choose depending on our likes or political affiliations or religious affinities. For example, today, it is politically safe to criticize and hit upon countries like Iran, or Russia and North Korea. They came to represent the “evil”, the “other”, that is the total opposite of what our liberal values incarnate like democracy, and freedom of association and of religion…
But how about some of our friend or allies countries, for instance the U.S. or Israel or France. Don’t they have big skeletons in their closets? Guantanamo, the Nakba, the Algerian war? Aren’t these shameful historic moments that our children and grandchildren should learn about in an honest and transparent way?
So far the Canadian Museum of Human Rights has missed some of these stories.

October 04, 2017

Automation and Basic Income: beyond the hype by David Bush

September 29, 2017 Written by David Bush Published in Analysis

Basic Income is not a beyond left and right answer to automation, argues David Bush

Those that advocate for Basic Income (BI) often point to the impending automated future as a reason that BI is necessary. Capitalists, they argue, will be replacing jobs with machines at such a high rate that BI will be the only method to ensure the vast amounts of displaced workers can earn an income.

There is a grain of truth to this argument, as Harry Braverman notes in his classic study of the labour process, “Marx points out that generals win their wars by recruiting armies, captains of industry win theirs by discharging armies.” But the technological determinism of those arguing that automation leads to mass unemployment, rests upon an inaccurate reading of how capitalism operates.

The labour theory of value

To make any judgement about the plausibility of full automation it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the basic inner workings of capitalism. Essentially one has to have a theory that can answer at least these two basic questions: Where do profits come from and why do capitalists utilize labour saving devices? Looking at the labour process itself helps to answer these questions.
Workers enter the labour market because they need food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. They do not have the ability to attain these things by any method other than selling their ability to work.
Employers hire workers for their ability to work for a given wage in a given period of time. The value of what workers produce at work is more than the value they are paid by employers. This surplus value produced by workers is the ultimate source of profits.
The competitive nature of capitalism requires businesses to vie for market share to survive. Capitalists aim to increase their market share by cutting costs and maximizing their return on investment. Inside the workplace this means capitalists will try to squeeze more productive work from workers for less.

Technology as discipline

Capitalists organize the workplace to convert workers’ time into productive energy. This is done by controlling the knowledge of work skills, organizing the flow and pace of work, and increasing oversight. The continual introduction of technology into the workplace is one of the best methods to achieve these aims.
Machines and tools enable workers to increase their output by making certain job tasks easier. It also allows management a greater ability to ratchet up the pace and oversight of work. As Braverman notes, “machinery offers management the opportunity to do by wholly mechanical means that which it had previously attempted to do by organizational and disciplinary means.”
It is important that we conceptually understand technology and labour saving devices as a form of labour discipline. Technology under capitalism is not merely just a bunch of cool stuff, like robots or computers. Technologies are things with a purpose in relation to labour. Management uses machines to dictate the pace of work and to deskill labour, separating the conception and execution of job tasks. The increased use of effective technology leads to increased output and a lowering of unit prices.

Automation and the logic of capitalism

The mechanization in a given industry means the replacement of human labour. This has a number of different consequences within capitalism. Individual businesses will employ fewer workers, have higher outputs and lower unit costs. So long as they have a technological edge, companies can increase their rate of profit even as they increase the amount of fixed capital costs relative to workers.
This technology allows them to squeeze out more value from each worker in a given period of time. But when a labour saving technology becomes generalized in a sector, and prices fall, the firm’s profit rate will depreciate. The company will be saddled with more fixed costs relative to labour, with the capacity to have higher output levels.
The reason for this is that all machines are fixed capital, the machine’s potential value to the firm is paid in advance. Highly capitalized firms are able to compete on a bigger level, but run the risk of having their capital investment superseded by competitors using a superior technology (imagine investing in a series of highly efficient pneumatic tubes just before the internet). There is also a risk that the market may experience an excess of a given product and the business owner will be faced with idle machinery that it cannot get rid off.
There are countervailing tendencies to all of this. As firms deskill labour and replace workers with machines this can create larger and larger pools of workers who are looking for work (in the context of globalized production chains, the vast pool of labour can extend beyond national borders). This puts downward pressure on the price of labour and encourages firms to hire cheap labour, and put off costly and risky investments in machines.
There is of course another added dimension to mechanization, it is not simply that workers are thrown out of work, but the automation of work creates new avenues of employment (often highly skilled work). Workers are needed to build, design, program, transport, tend to and service machines. Automation itself births a new industry that requires workers. Human labour remains at the centre of mechanization, a point many frequently forget.
Machines are the product of human labour and intelligence. When machines are introduced into a workplace, it is more accurate to conceptualize this as an outsourcing of labour than it is to see it only as a worker being replaced by a machine. Behind the vast layers of robots, machines, tools and code lies the human labour that created all of it.

Artificial Intelligence

Automation, even at its most advanced level, has not altered the basic premise of capitalist social relations. Humans are still the only input able to create new value. Humans have a unique and unrivalled set of physical and mental skills that are not simply better than any automated system has produced, but are of a different order.
Efforts to create Artificial Intelligence (AI) have come nowhere close to producing the complexities, nuances and imagination of the human mind. Even the most advanced machines on the planet are conceptually no different than the original Turing Machine, only able to complete a set of pre-programmed tasks (even learning machines are limited in what and how they can write new code).
Within the tech industry there are two broad categories of AI, weak and strong. Weak AI refers to computing systems, which can make decisions within a narrow pre-programmed framework. Machine learning, where computers can learn and write new code would be an example of this, but so would basic computational programs in cars, planes and cellphones. There have been notable advances in this field in recent years, but they have had surprisingly narrow application in the economy.
Strong AI, which could be something either like human intelligence or a machine that is capable of learning beyond pre-programmed limitations, remains theoretical. Computers have essential become faster at taking in and processing data (although the rate at which processing speeds are advancing is slowing significantly).
In the field of robotics, building models to do physical human tasks like walking into a room and making a bed are still along way off. But minus a breakthrough in Strong AI, robots, no matter how advanced, remain simply machines. Marx’s basic description of a machine in relation to human labour remains as relevant for a steam engine as it does for the most advanced computer:
“The machine proper is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or from some other machine, makes no difference in this respect. From the moment that the tool proper is taken from man, and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement. The difference strikes one at once, even in those cases where man himself continues to be the prime mover.”

The problem with the full automation thesis

As I noted earlier machines are, simply put, human labour crystallized as a fixed cost. They can help speed-up production, make workers work more efficiently and increase output by doing pre-programed job tasks, but they cannot create new value.
On the firm level, once technology advances are generalized in an industry, the competitive advantage a firm has disappears. The firm is left with less human labour and more fixed costs, this tends to lower the rate of profit. As Michael Roberts explains:
“Over time, a capital-bias or labour shedding means less new value is created (as labour is the only form of value) relative to the cost of invested capital. There is a tendency for profitability to fall as productivity rises.  In turn, that leads eventually to a crisis in production that halts or even reverses the gain in production from the new technology. This is solely because investment and production depend on the profitability of capital in our modern mode of production.”
The flow of capital will shift from low to high areas of return on investment. Major investments will be pursed in newly developing industries and areas that often employ many workers. Just look at the phenomenal growth happening in the healthcare sector of the economy. As in all industries in capitalism, newly created ones will be pushed down the path of uneven mechanization. The capital necessary for the investments in this mechanization is ultimately derived from exploitation of workers.

The productivity problem

The narrative that we need BI because of impending mass automation and mass unemployment, while overblown does touch on two important issues. Will the rate of new employment being created in newly developing sectors of the economy be roughly equal to the rate at which people are losing their jobs due to automation?
And is the dearth of productive investment a passing phase of global capitalism or does it point to something more structural? Will the sustained low profit rates that have lead many capitalists to simply sit on large swaths of cash or drive it into financial speculation continue, and if so for how long?
Currently, North America is experiencing record low rates of productivity growth. The period from 2005 – 2016 is by far and away the lowest it has been in the United States since 1947 (the first year of comparable data). In the manufacturing sector, which utilizes more advanced technology, the numbers are even lower.
Robert Gordon notes that the productivity bump precipitated by the Internet revolution was mostly confined to the period of 1996 to 2004. Businesses restructured their organizations and business patterns to take advantage of these newly formed web technologies (the reduced prices in semi-conductors also helped). But once businesses reorganized to adopt the new technological breakthroughs, further gains in productivity became marginal. As a 2014 study in the American Economic Review noted:
“there is also little evidence of faster productivity growth in IT-intensive industries after the late 1990s. Second and more importantly, to the extent that there is more rapid growth of labor productivity [referring to the 2008 -2010 period] this is associated with declining output and even more rapidly declining employment.”
Some like Ryan Avent, an editor at the Economist, argue that low productivity and high levels of employment does not mean we aren’t in a period of rapid technological progress. He argues that low economic growth discourages investments in labour saving technology, as labour costs are relatively low. Avent fails to see that this is precisely the point. The relationship between technology and its application is determined by the needs of capital.

The relationship between automation and profits

New technology is being generated and utilized in all businesses. But the marginal return on investment is painfully slow, which helps explain the relatively low levels of business investment. This in part reflects the excess of productive capacity that all ready exists in many sectors. Why invest in efficiencies in steel, mining or chemical sectors if you already have unused productive capacity?
recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shows industrial robots have depressed wages and replaced workers is cited by many to argue that automation will result in mass unemployment. It concludes that every new robot added in manufacturing to a given commuting zone reduces employment by 5.6 workers. This study is treated as game changer in the debate over automation and its impact on work. However, its results essentially confirm what one would expect. That in a period of high productivity growth, the study takes place between 1990 – 2007, workers would be displaced in given geographic areas as companies reorganized and ramped up their use of labour saving devices. Productivity increases and the adoption of labour saving technology after 2007 drop off a cliff, because over-capacity in the manufacturing sector along with sluggish economic growth discouraged new investments. The authors mistakenly predict future rates of job losses and the rate of the implementation of robots using a period of high productivity growth as the baseline.
The technology that is cutting edge, such as advances in computational intelligence and robotics for the most part remain highly niche. Of course advances in areas such as driverless cars will in all likelihood shake up the transportation sector, but it is impossible to know exactly when and how that will play out. Will job loss be sudden and sweeping in the sector or will that technology be slowly integrated, like navigational systems on planes? What if any applicability does driverless technology have for other sectors of the economy? What new jobs will this technological advance create?
There has been a tendency to treat speculation about the introduction of labour saving technology into every facet of the labour market as a given. Employers, right-wing commentators, and those in the tech sector having been beating the drum about how automation will sweep through all industries, especially the service sector.

Automation in the service sector

Automation in the service sector is more complicated than most commentators are making it out to be. The narrative is that increasing wages in the sector will precipitate the rise of automation, which will displace large swaths of workers in the industry. This narrative is used by the right-wing to argue against wage increases. Parts of the Left have latched onto this as well, saying it is the reason BI is needed.
Nowhere is this argument more present than in the fast-food industry. Its highly taylorized job tasks and deskilled workforce make it the prime candidate for full automation with self-serve kiosks displacing thousands of workers. The reality of this prediction is somewhat different.
Automated kiosks in the industry remain quite expensive ($120,000 to $160,000 per McDonald’s franchise). Even if labour costs rise and the cost of the technology falls there is little evidence that kiosks will reduce total working hours. For many large fast-food chains a huge source of their business comes from drive-thru (McDonalds gets 70 percent of its business via drive-thru). The installation of expensive kiosks will not apply to the vast majority of patrons.
Where kiosks have been implemented it simply shifts labour to the back end of the restaurant. Kiosks take orders faster (people also tend to order more food via the machine), but that just puts more strain on the kitchen staff, and in the end necessitates shifting labour around to accommodate the new workload in the kitchen. Some restaurants that are using kiosks are shifting labour from front-end order takers to implementing table service. Kiosks are susceptible to vandalism and misuse and this still require workers to assist customers.
Self-checkout machines in grocery stores, which have existed for well over 15 years have not seen wide-scale implementation. The machines remain relatively costly in relation to their performance. They still require human minders to assist people. They also create the need for more oversight to discourage shoplifting. In the vast majority of stores where they exist they are part of a mixed check-out system.
Studies have shown in more complicated self-checkout processes (grocery stores as opposed to banks or buying movie tickets) that automation is not reducing wait times nor proving faster than regular checkouts. This is because complex automated self-checkout systems aren’t reducing the labour required in the process, they are simply shifting it to the customer.
Self-service machines for simple functions will see wider adoption, but where they have been implemented in fast-food and other parts of the service sector there is little evidence to suggest kiosks are leading to the doom and gloom scenario of mass unemployment. Many jobs in the service sector involve the performance of emotional labour (by making customers feeling happy, listened to, and valued) or intricate physical tasks. For these jobs, the risk of automation replacing human labour is extremely low.
There is of course the prospect that grocery and retail stores could be totally reorganized. Amazon is looking brick and mortar retail where you take items and remove them and then are automatically billed via your phone. But this requires a level of customer integration into the system that would, for now, only cater to very niche upscale markets.

The hype machine

What we can say is that current narrative around automation and the jobless economy is driven by a lot of hype. This hype is not neutral, it is the structural product of how the tech industry operates. Start-ups and mid-sized companies overinflate their technological promises and innovations in order to attract large chunks investment capital (capital which is struggling to find suitable returns on investment).
Take Uber, for example. They are seen as a cutting-edge tech company that has revolutionized the taxi industry. The reality of their business model is more crude and straightforward. They leverage billions of dollars in venture capital to run an international taxi company using sub-contracted precarious workers. They use their vast capital resources to systematically violate local taxi regulations and force their repeal through political lobbying. By ignoring regulation, downloading risk onto their employees and using low-wage subcontracted labour they effectively undermine their competitors by offering lower rates.
Some studies examining Uber’s business model suggest that fares are only covering 40 percent of Uber’s trip costs, meaning they are operating at a loss. Once the competition and regulations have been defeated they raise their rates from the position of a monopoly. They spend huge sums of money to market themselves as an innovative and revolutionary tech company in order to sustain and attract new investment. But in truth their business model barely differs from other large predatory multinationals who smash into markets by selling products and services at a loss to drive out competitors and force politicians to change regulations to sanction the new economic reality the multinational has imposed.

Automation and capitalism

The debates about automation, job loss and how best to combat them are not new. Marx observed that capitalism, “never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative.”
The competitive dynamism of capitalism has pushed firms to innovate to increase output. The introduction of the power loom, steam engine, the blast furnace, electrical power are in essence no different than firms employing driverless cars, machine learning, or high-end robotics. If anything the former set of technological breakthroughs increased productivity at much higher rates.
Automation in the workplace will continue to increase. What is important to understand is that the pace, extent and impact of their adoption will be shaped by the inherent contradictions within capitalism.
Automation will displace jobs and it will also create jobs. It is quite possible the rate of displacement could exceed the rate of job creation. However, if this does happen it will not only produce higher levels of unemployment (driving down labour costs), but it would also mean lower profits and growth, leading to economic turmoil. This in turn will slow the rate of investment, stall innovation, and the adoption of new technologies. As Michael Roberts explains:
“If the whole world of technology, consumer products and services could reproduce itself without living labour going to work and could do so through robots, then things and services would be produced, but the creation of value (in particular, profit or surplus value) would not. As Martin Ford puts it: the more machines begin to run themselves, the value that the average worker adds begins to decline.” So accumulation under capitalism would cease well before robots took over fully, because profitability would disappear under the weight of ‘capital-bias’.”
Capitalism will not produce a fully automated society. Instead workplaces will be automated when it is profitable to do so, not when it is socially useful or even possible. Marx noted long ago that there was a vast gulf between the potential and reality of machines under capitalism:
“The economic paradox that the most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectal inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization.”

Whose automation?

Instead of producing a jobless economy automation will produce more crises, more inequality, without actually reducing total work time in society. Automation under capitalism has always been a cudgel used to threaten and exploit workers. The idea that we are headed towards a fully automated future under capitalism rests on a profound misreading about how capitalism operates. It can’t happen and it won’t happen.
This is not to say that automation will not cause problems for workers, that innovation and technological breakthroughs will cease. In fact, quite the opposite, capitalism is if anything dynamic and innovative. Workers in certain industries may indeed face serious challenges of deskilling and job loss, as has always happened under capitalism. To combat this, workers will need strategies that aim to direct the fruits of technological innovation towards the working class, not simply to accommodate themselves to the will of employers.

Those that push for BI as a solution to automation aim to unite employers and workers and move beyond Left and Right to find a policy that can fit comfortably within the existing power relations of our society. Their deterministic view of technological development leads them to see BI as the only solution to the inevitability of full automation. The fact that this viewpoint gets a wide hearing on the Left ,and even in labour, is the result of a generation of defeats and the lack of confidence that workers can organize and win a better world. The Left must break with this millenarian like thinking and begin to situate the discussion over automation within a concrete analysis of capitalism which looks to class struggle for effective alternatives.

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