Thursday, January 23, 2020

Louis Proyect and the More-Poverty Solution

Louis Proyect worries a lot.

There is climate change--a boogeyman that's supposed to destroy civilization within the next 12 years (I guess since the New Year it's now only 11 years). All this because of modest increases in CO2, which despite being only 0.04% of the atmosphere is nevertheless supposed to heat up the world's oceans lickety-split. Recall that the oceans represent 99.9% of global heat capacity--many orders of magnitude more than atmospheric CO2.

Rumors of our imminent demise from climate change are exaggerated way beyond any credible belief.

Then he frets over GMOs, or genetically modified plants that manufacture their own insecticide and thus don't need to be sprayed. While in principle just an improved method for breeding agricultural plants as has been done for millennia, the specific technique has been used since 1983. It saves farmers huge amounts of money in pesticides, along with greatly reducing the quantity of pesticide in the environment from any source. Despite trillions of GMO meals having been served, there is absolutely no evidence of any threat to human or ecological health as a result.

Mr. Proyect's aversion to GMOs is less rational than the fear some people have of measles vaccines. That is, completely irrational.

He worries about fracking. Here he is on more solid ground since the industry clearly has some environmental costs, though they are increasingly under control. But the benefits of fracking are huge, reducing fuel expenses across the entire society. Natural gas just fell below $2/Mbtu. The cost of gas to heat my 1800 sqft house was only $88 this past December, a nearly trivial expense. If you're against poverty and want poor people to be able to heat their homes, then this is really a good thing.

But Mr. Proyect probably agrees with President Obama: that we'd all be better off if all fuels cost three or four times more in the future. What a guy!

Mr. Proyect doesn't like nuclear power, either. He writes 
In his letter urging Bernie Sanders to embrace nuclear power, Phillips assured him that the human costs of Chernobyl were exaggerated. Even though there were likely 4,000 people who would die eventually because of exposure, it was a lot less than Greenpeace and other groups alleged.
The implication is that today's small, completely redesigned, Generation IV, nuclear power plants are just like Chernobyl. Which is like saying a modern Prius is the same as a Model T. With Gen IV, the residual radioactive waste decays in a few hundred years rather than a few billion. Unlike, say, coal ash waste, the volume of generated nuclear waste is very much smaller. It could all be stored in Yucca Mountain with plenty of room to spare. And it emits no CO2 (if that's important to you) or other atmospheric pollutants.

He worries about tourism--especially "mass tourism." He approvingly quotes Richard Smith
Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.
This, presumably, is in addition to AOC's effort to ban airplanes--in Mr. Proyect's perfect world nobody will be allowed to travel at all. At least not unless you're exceptionally Woke. Only really Woke, pre-approved, certified people could get a passport. The rest of us will have to make do with three hots and a cot (aka free food and housing).

All for the sake of saving the planet.

Tens of millions (perhaps even hundreds of millions) of people depend on tourism, directly or indirectly, for their livelihood. Of those, some millions earn a living specifically from cruise ships. Mr. Proyect will throw all of these people into abject poverty.

Tourism is one of the most efficient ways of transferring money directly from rich people to poor people. And Mr. Proyect has, as a first order of business, a desire to stop it. What a guy!

Then, of course, he and Mr. Smith have their facts all wrong. Modern cruise ships don't run on oil at all, but instead on liquefied natural gas (cheaper, cleaner, and doesn't spill into the ocean). More, eco-cruises are growing faster than the industry as a whole--e.g., to the Galapagos and Antarctica. These ships, along with their customers, have a strong self-interest in protecting the resource they want tourists to see. If there was ever a lobby to protect the environment, the cruise industry is it.

Finally, Mr. Proyect writes off the people who live along Bangladesh's coast.
Huber certainly feels sorry for some Bangladeshi farmer or fisherman whose life will be destroyed by rising ocean levels but has to question how such struggles could ever have the social power capable of taking on a capitalist class that is responsible for the dispossession and pollution in the first place.  ... For a Yanomami or a Bangladesh farmer or fisherman, the stakes are very high. For a machinist working at Boeing or a Verizon lineman in suburban New Jersey, there are worries about climate change but it doesn’t have the same immediacy as living in a village near the Indian Ocean.
Rich people are able to take care of their environment--that's why America is much cleaner today than it was 50 or 100 years ago--and why the average New Jerseyan doesn't care. Poor people don't have that luxury. Mr. Proyect's solution is to make the rich people poor, which is truly perverse. The best solution is to make the poor people rich.

Perhaps Mr. Proyect has never heard of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove swamp in the world, located in Bangladesh. Wouldn't part of a realistic solution be to attract more tourists to visit it? People who would buy fish from local fishermen, tours from local guides, handicrafts from local women, and food from local farmers. Plus they'd leave tips. Plus the travel company will have a strong vested interest in preserving the ecosystem.

Nah! That's much too practical. Mr. Proyect is against that. He thinks Bangladeshis should just remain poor forever so that some kooky folks on the Upper East Side can power-trip by banning air travel and cruise ships. What a guy!

I agree with Mr. Proyect that human civilization will come to an end some day--nothing lasts forever. We've been around (as a civilized species) for some 7000 years now, and perhaps we've got a few thousand more to go. I don't know how it ends, but I do know that we're not gonna run out of environment in the next eleven years. Not even in the next millennium. Mr. Proyect needs to get more sleep at night, and stop worrying about silly things.

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading:


Note: Due to health issues, blogging may be light for the next few months.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Socialist Resurgence Demands Steep Wage Cuts for Healthcare Workers

The ridiculously named grouplet Socialist Resurgence (SR) is publishing its founding documents, among which is a political report entitled U.S. faces political, social, and economic crisis (pdf). Numbering at most 50 members, the new organization is compelled to issue mighty proclamations on the state of modern politics. The resulting document is incoherent.

Of course our comrades are not explicitly demanding steep wage cuts for healthcare workers. They'd definitely deny it if you asked them. Indeed, they write
Healthcare workers are under siege by employers. Hospitals and clinics are cutting wages and benefits while nurses and doctors are forced to see more patients, despite evidence that doing so increases errors with disastrous effects. Experienced nurses and doctors are being fired and replaced by fresh out of school nurses and doctors-they're paid less. Experienced staff not fired are leaving the profession due to ever increasing on the job stress. Suicide rates of nurses and doctors are on the rise.
The solution to this sorry state of affairs is this (emphasis mine).
Health care is a human right. This must include dental, vision care, and humane, non-punitive, and non-stigmatizing approaches to mental health care. No one should have to go bankrupt because of medical costs or decide whether one eats or gets medicine. Get the insurance companies out of the equation. Free quality universal public health care now!
Even our Trotskyist friends are smart enough to know that nothing is "free"--everything has to be paid for somehow. Their conceit is that the disempowered bourgeoisie will foot the bill from all the huge profits they've stashed in some vault somewhere, accumulated over decades from the ruthless exploitation of the working class.

And that will work for a year, or maybe two, or at most ten. But eventually the 1% will be entirely dispossessed and no longer able to pay up. Then the cash has to come from someplace else. "Free" healthcare means that patients can't be charged, so the only other possible sources of money are either taxpayers or employees.

So it is instructive that the political report cites Cuba as a positive example for how healthcare should be funded. The bourgeoisie were eliminated 60 years ago, and any residual wealth they left behind has long since been squandered. So Cuba illustrates what happens when the piggy bank runs dry.

They write:
In Cuba, the healthcare system is publicly owned with several layers. There are community clinics, with doctor-nurse teams who live in the neighborhoods that they serve, local hospitals, and larger medical institutes. All healthcare is free, with some exceptions for some medicines and procedures for higher income people, and quality of life indices are impressive. Cuba enjoys one of the highest life expectancy rates in the hemisphere, with the average life expectancy at 78.05 years old, compared to the U.S. at 78.62 years. In 2005, Cuba had 627 doctors and 94 dentists per 100,000 population. That same year, there were 225 physicians and 54 dentists per 100,000 population in the U.S. All medical and nursing education in Cuba is free. Cuba has innovated in the realm of vaccines and cancer treatment. Unlike the U.S., which sends weapons around the world, Cuba sends doctors and nurses to disaster areas and semi-colonial countries.
One can certainly dispute the virtues of Cuban healthcare. Cubans have always had a long life expectancy since way back when--a trait that's likely more genetic than the result of good healthcare. Regards vaccines, all they've done (to their credit) is manufacture them--unhindered as they are by the liability faced by American firms. I'm unaware of any pathbreaking cancer research coming from Cuba. Medical research today is overwhelmingly done in the United States (which is one reason why drugs are more expensive here).

Those issues aside--the question is Who pays for healthcare for Cubans? The answer is obvious: the employees. According to Fox News, in 2014 Cuban doctors got a 150% pay raise--all the way to $67/month! Nurses also made out like bandits, with their monthly paycheck going from $13 to $25.

A homeless woman in any civilized country earns more than that just by panhandling. Our comrades will argue that Cubans are often compensated in kind rather than in cash, e.g., with "free" housing and a food ration card. Which is just like in the US: the bag lady gets to sleep for free in a shelter and is given a free meal (along with food stamps).

Life is much harder for US doctors, who have to pay their own rent and buy their own food. But they earn on average about $17,000/month, or a bit over 250 times what the Cuban medic makes. The median US salary for registered nurses in the US is about $6,000/month.

Healthcare is a labor-intensive business. While I have not been able to find a precise statistic, if it mirrors the economy as a whole 70% of costs are paid to labor. So obviously, if you want to reduce the cost of healthcare in America to be something close to "free", you will have to dramatically lower the wages of healthcare workers. The comrades never say that, but of course that's exactly what they mean. They think doctors and nurses, and phlebotomists and radiation technicians, and orderlies and laundry workers, should all take a whopping big pay cut--just so we can believe the fiction that healthcare is "free."

So I'll stand by my headline: a 100% accurate summary of Socialist Resurgence's true position. Socialist Resurgence demands steep wage cuts for healthcare workers.

The rest of the political report is not full of facts as much as factoids. The difference is context, and in every case our comrades leave that out. A few examples:
  • They mention that despite low unemployment, labor participation has not budged. True, but it's due mostly to the on-going retirement of baby boomers, who are withdrawing from the labor force.
  • They predict a new recession is looming. Of course they're right--eventually there will be a recession. The business cycle has not been repealed (except in places like Cuba which are in permanent recession). But it looks increasingly unlikely to happen in 2020.
  • They write "the free speech rights of students and professors has come under attack. Critics of Israeli apartheid and advocates for BDS have been attacked as anti-Semitic by pro-Israel politicians and lobbying groups." Accusing somebody of antisemitism is not the same as denying their free speech rights. The campus Left's insistence on shouting down pro-Israel speakers is a much better example.
  • "Living standards for U.S. workers are falling." This is manifestly not true.
But here is the biggest howler: 
The wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation's wealth while the bottom 80% own 7%. Eight people, six from the U.S., own as much wealth as half of humanity. Only the top 20% fully recovered from the Great Recession.
Do eight people buy half the cars in the world? Do eight people eat half of the world's food? Do eight people own half of the world's houses? Do six Americans receive half of all social security payments? Of course not! It is only by the narrowest, cherry-picked definition of "wealth" that our comrades can make such ludicrous claims.
This is one of those documents I've read so that you don't have to. Not recommended.

Further Reading:

Friday, December 27, 2019

Book Review: Capitalism Alone

Late Capitalism Sucks!

That's a not very accurate summary of Branko Milanovic's short, dense book Capitalism Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World.

To begin, Mr. Milanovic will disagree with the adjective. There's nothing "late" about capitalism, for it is nowhere near extinction. Indeed, arguably it is just coming into its own. All its competitors have been vanquished. Socialism--whatever its theoretical and occasional popular appeal--simply cannot provide a quality standard of living for most people. The end of capitalism, should it ever come about, will not auger a brighter future, but instead the end of civilization. Think Venezuela.

Mr. Milanovic puts great stock on Gini coefficients--numbers that measure the degree of inequality in a society--with zero representing perfect equality of income and/or wealth, and one hundred (perfect inequality) implying that a single person has all the income/wealth, while everybody else has nothing. South Africa has the world's highest Gini value (63.0). The USA comes in at 41.5. The Nordic countries are at the low end, ranging from 26 to 29 (data from Wikipedia).

Mr. Milanovic includes a chart of global Gini coefficients from 1820 to the present. With slight fluctuations inequality has increased from 55 in 1820 to about 75 just after World War II. Mr. Milanovic attributes this to rapid industrialization in the West, coupled with stagnation in the East. Since the war, however, the global Gini has declined, and quite significantly since 2000, mostly because of dramatically higher incomes in China. As of 2018 it stands at about 65.

The first half of the book fairly bristles with Gini coefficients. I never thought them very important--to me the value of capitalism is rising absolute incomes, and not significantly diminished by income inequality. There is no doubt that absolute incomes for most of the world's people have increased dramatically over the past few decades, so enough said. Who cares if Warren Buffett is rich.

But Mr. Milanovic partially changes my mind. No doubt it is true that absolute incomes go up--and that's the true value of capitalism--that's why we want to keep it. But the risk to capitalism stems from a lingering sense of unfairness. The suckiness derives not from the wealth that it obviously generates, but instead from its unequal distribution.

So the question then becomes how to lower Gini coefficients. The book offers no good suggestions, and puts paid to commonly proposed solutions. For example, social democracy only works when there is sufficient solidarity such that all members of society are willing to contribute to a common pool. That breaks down if the rich, young, or healthy refuse to pay for public insurance, or if one ethnic group resents payments to another. Globalization weakens social democracy because labor and capital are separated--capital comes from country A, labor is performed in country B, while the consumer lives in country C.

Mr. Milanovic cites the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev who distinguished two models for history: Athens vs. Jerusalem. In the Athenian model, history is just repeated variations, or perhaps only random chance. There is no larger progression. The Jerusalem model, on the other hand, sees progress in history--perhaps even a teleological purpose.

Within the Jerusalem framework, Mr. Milanovic describes two possible models of progress. One is the Whiggish view that capitalism will simply get better and better, and we'll all get richer and richer. Francis Fukuyama's excellent little book, The End of History and the Last Man, is among the best examples of this genre. Modern journalists often reflect the view with statements like "no two countries which both have a McDonald's franchise will ever go to war," or, perhaps, the ubiquitous, pre-Trump assumption that China would eventually take its place in the law-abiding, international community.

The Trump phenomenon puts paid to any simplistic Whig view. More importantly, Whiggery was ruined by 1914. That cataclysmic collapse of the capitalist world order should never have happened.

Opposing the Whigs are the Marxists, for whom capitalism is merely a steppingstone on the way to socialism or communism. For them, capitalism is beset with irresolvable crises and contradictions that will eventually lead to its downfall. Marxists have no difficulty explaining 1914.

The problem for them, however, comes in 1989, when the workers' states in Russia and Eastern Europe moved backwards--from some form of socialism to capitalism. The transition was most dramatic in China where Deng Xiao Ping led a dramatic counter-revolution. Marxism can't explain that, and it is a problem that my Trotskyist friends struggle with to this very day.

I'm not sure if Mr. Milanovic gives a satisfying account for 1914, but he's got 1989 down pat. He agrees that various communist parties led successful revolutions in Russia, China, Vietnam, etc. These accomplished two important things: they abolished feudalism, and they threw out the colonial powers. But after that the Communists were like the dog that caught the car: they had no idea what to do with their success. But they'd cleared the way for the development of true capitalism in their countries--and that is what happened in every case.

So Mr. Milanovic puts the Bolshevik revolutions not as a step toward a post-capitalist world, but rather as laying the groundwork for a thriving, capitalist economy. The most successful revolution--which tore up feudalism root and branch--was in China, and is today the most successful capitalist country in the developing world. Compare, e.g., to India, where feudalism was only partially removed, and where capitalism remains stunted.

Mr. Milanovic offers another dichotomy--that between liberal, democratic capitalism and political capitalism. In the former, while the state remains a servant of the bourgeoisie, it retains an independent existence. The state serves as the guarantor of fairness, and hence ensures the survival of the capitalism itself. Liberal democratic societies have a rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary, and democratic institutions--along with a fixation on Gini coefficients. Governance is messy, inefficient, and occasionally completely dysfunctional, but the theory goes that long-term, liberal democratic capitalism is the best possible outcome.

In political capitalism, on the other hand, capitalism survives only at the sufferance of the state or the Party. The social contract is that the Party will ensure an ever improving standard of living as long as all political power remains with the Party. China is the archetype for this system, but other examples are Russia, Vietnam, and Singapore. Political capitalism sounds to me a whole lot like fascism.

Political capitalism is vastly more efficient than its liberal neighbors, but it is much more brittle. It's not clear if China can survive a serious recession. Because the very goal is to serve the Party, there is no rule of law, corruption is endemic, and human rights are honored only in the breach. (Singapore looks to be an exception.)

Indeed, corruption is feature rather than a bug--it's how the Party bureaucrats cash in on the wealth created by the bourgeoisie. But they can't engage in too much conspicuous consumption at home--that's why much of their wealth has to be stashed abroad. Hence the houses in Vancouver and New York, the yachts in Miami and Brisbane, and the children attending Harvard and Stanford. Seen in this light, Hong Kong is more important to the Chinese Communist Party than they let on--it is the window by which they can launder their money and get it out of the country. The US threat to withdraw Hong Kong's special financial status is a direct threat to the Party.

There are a lot of ideas in this book--I've barely scratched the surface. I've read parts of it twice and yet am still missing bits. I need to read the whole thing again. As said, it's a very dense book, but it definitely rewards the effort.

Further Reading:




NOTE: Because of some health issues, blogging is likely going to be on the light side for the next few months.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Returning to Industry?

The Militant (published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) is launching a drive to sell a "new" book entitled Turn to Industry: Forging a Proletarian Party. It's mostly reprint of an older book first published in 1981 under the title The Changing Face of US Politics, which I reviewed here.

Along with three older pieces from The Militant, the only new content is an introduction by Jack Barnes, which you can read in The Militant here. Since I've read and reviewed the original book (albeit six years ago), this post is only about the new introduction.

The opening paragraphs include this:
The Turn to Industry: Forging a Proletarian Party is about the working-class program, composition, and course of conduct of the only kind of party worthy of the name “revolutionary” in the imperialist epoch.  ...

This book is about building such a party in the United States and in other capitalist countries around the world. It is about the course the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors have followed for one hundred years and counting.
The comrades have set a goal to sell over 1000 copies of this book, mostly by going door to door in working class neighborhoods. This seems truly bizarre to me. Perhaps the book is a useful read for comrades and ex-comrades, but it is certainly not a worthy propaganda tool. (Propaganda is the Trotskyist term of art for advertising.) A person loosely attracted to socialism is not even going to find the book readable, much less enlightening. It's all about an esoteric, internal squabble within the Party.

It looks like they are not trying to recruit the masses. They want to find those few individuals who actually read the book and are moved by it. There won't be many (likely none), but those people will join the SWP.

The book is horribly out of date. To begin, the proletariat doesn't even exist anymore--certainly not as Marx and Lenin imagined it. For them, "workers" were an amorphous blob of unskilled labor who had nothing to sell besides their time and muscle power. Today that hardly applies: muscle power is nearly irrelevant, and unskilled labor has a small and ever-shrinking purchase in the market place. Today's employees have skills, which means they have invested in human capital, and accordingly they have something big to lose in a revolution.

The proletariat doesn't even look the same as it did in 1981, as the pictures accompanying Mr. Barnes' introduction reveal. An example is this:
Top, miners block rails, Harlan County, Kentucky, July 2019, to stop Blackjewel bosses from hauling coal until wages owed them were paid. The nonunion miners won broad support and, in October, their back pay. Above, miners hold national protest in Washington, D.C., March 1981, a few weeks before 160,000 began 10-week strike, turning back concession contract demanded by mine bosses.
Above, miners hold national protest in Washington, D.C., March 1981, a few weeks before 160,000 began 10-week strike, turning back concession contract demanded by mine bosses.
(Picture & Caption credit: The Militant)
As of 2016 coal mining only employed 50,000 people, and with the advent of fracking that number is surely substantially smaller today. A national strike of coal miners is inconceivable today--much of the industry would just shut down for good.

It's the same story for other industrial unions: UAW, USWA, Teamsters, etc. Manufacturing only accounts for about 12% of US employment. That share is shrinking rapidly because of automation. Because of globalization, supply chains extend around the world. The ability of any American union to shut down production is negligible.

The recent GM strike is an example. The UAW was out for four weeks, and eventually settled for a very mediocre contract. Supposedly it hurt GM, but there was never any shortage of cars in American showrooms. Consumers didn't feel the strike at all. The only thing that might have happened is GM, along with its employees, lost market share to their competitors.

Unlike the days of Marx & Lenin, or even the 1980s, the industrial unions are a shadow of their former selves. The SWP acknowledges that: today they work at Walmart and for Uber (insofar as they're not retired).

Mr. Barnes will accuse me of denying the importance of the class struggle.
Denial of the class struggle is nothing new. There are more than enough grandparents to current “theories” about “identity politics,” “intersectionality,” and so on noisily propagated by young professionals and other upper middle class layers today. In 1940 James P. Cannon polemicized against petty bourgeois currents on the eve of World War II who “rail at our stick-in-the-mud attitude toward the fundamental concepts of Marxism — the class theory of the state, the class criterion in the appraisal of all political questions, the conception of politics, including war, as the expression of class interests, and so forth and so on.
There is much to credit in this paragraph. The Party has firmly rejected "petty bourgeois" campus movements. They truly defend the "deplorables," and as much as they disagree with Trump, they argue rightly that the people who voted for him deserve to have their choice respected. They see impeachment for the sham that it is (only a slight exaggeration to call it a CIA plot). They've sided with Gibson's Bakery against the spoiled brats who attend Oberlin College, along with the kooky faculty who really should know better.

As important, they are sane on the issue of climate change. The rest of the "petty bourgeois" left has gone all in on catastrophism. The Militant, while acknowledging there might be a problem (which even I acknowledge), nevertheless rejects the total and immediate destruction of all civilization as a cure. A ludicrously extreme version of this can be found on the new Socialist Resurgence website. When so-called Marxists argue seriously for a return to subsistence farming and mass poverty, then you know something has gone horribly wrong. The Militant has not fallen into this trap.

But--even if you don't like the word intersectionality--the world really has gotten a lot more complicated. If nothing else, the global working class is much richer than they were 40 or 200 years ago. Rich people are not inclined to throw it all away on the unlikely chance Mr. Barnes is right about world history. Rich people can invest themselves in other ways besides their jobs: family, hobbies, church, sports, etc. They don't define themselves primarily as workers. As Paul Le Blanc puts it, organizing the working class today is very much like herding cats. Most workers just won't be interested in a class-conscious message.

Which brings us back to the propaganda campaign. Mr. Barnes writes (emphasis mine):
SWP members, supporters, and young socialists support picket lines, knock on doors, and stand on porches to talk with working people in cities, towns, and farm country, as we carry out such activity on the job and in the unions.
Standing on porches works for bourgeois politicians. All they want from you is that you go vote in November. It's an easy ask that can convincingly be made from the front porch.

But that's not what the SWP wants. They want to change your life. They ask that you stop whatever you're doing and become a revolutionary socialist worker-Bolshevik. Ain't gonna happen just by standing on somebody's porch. For that kind of ask you need to really get to know somebody: babysit their kids, marry their daughter, root for the same football team, etc.

And this is where the Party made a huge mistake. By forcing comrades to move around every couple of years, they actively prevented them from making those strong connections. And this is why the original Turn to Industry never worked, and why selling a few books that nobody is gonna read won't work either.

Further Reading:

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Comrade Keith L. Writes About China

Comrade Keith L., then part of Socialist Action (SA), contributed a monograph entitled China: A New Imperial Power (pdf) to the 2016 pre-convention discussion bulletin. It is now among the founding documents of the new Socialist Resurgence group.

It's 83 pages long! And I read all of it, not because I had to, but because it really is fascinating. It is chock full of facts and statistics about the Chinese economy, along with interesting figures and maps. Comrade Keith is a good writer, and--at least if you like statistics--it's an enjoyable read. It is exhaustively researched, and while I can't vouch for total accuracy, what data I did double-check survived the experience. Comrade Keith definitely knows his China!

Were he an academic, this is a monograph that could earn him tenure. It's a pity that he writes for such a small, insignificant audience. (Like I should talk--what with my obsession over small, Trotskyist grouplets!)

While the piece can and should be profitably read just to learn about China, Comrade Keith has a larger agenda. He wants to demonstrate to his comrades that China is an "imperialist" power. For me this raises two problems. First, I don't think the word "imperialism" actually means anything. And second, if it does mean what you might think it means, then it's obvious that China is "imperialist," and no 83 page argument is necessary.

To define imperialism, Keith goes back to the original source, namely Lenin's 1916 work, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. It's a five-point test: 1) monopolies play a decisive role in economic life; 2) the creation of "finance capital" and a financial oligarchy; 3) the export of of capital, in addition to the export of commodities; 4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations; and 5) the territorial division of the world into capitalist spheres of influence.

By this definition not even the United States is imperialist, failing to one degree or another on all five counts, most notably on the formation of monopolies. There is no major industry in the US that is dominated by a monopolist.

Consider, for example, Amazon, which is certainly a big company (on some days the world's biggest company by market cap). But it isn't a monopoly in any of its businesses. The retail trade is so competitive that Amazon can barely break even--basically no profit at all. Its cloud computing service, AWS, is profitable, but has to compete aggressively against Microsoft, IBM, Google, and recently, Apple. Amazon Prime is in entertainment, competing against Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Disney, and now Apple wants to enter that market, too. Whatever else Amazon is, it's not a monopoly.

Comrade Keith conflates "monopoly" with "big." He writes,
One useful measurement for determining the presence of monopoly companies is the Fortune 500 Global list, which lists the 500 largest companies in the world by revenue. How then, do China and other leading imperial powers compare on this metric?
After which he presents data in Figure 3 (p. 19) showing that China had 109 companies in the global Fortune 500 in 2017. Which only proves that China has big companies (like Amazon), not that they're monopolies. "Big" and "monopoly" are not the same thing. (China may have monopolies. I don't know, and Keith never makes the case.)

Similarly, the US has no "financial oligarchy." I assume that means a group of people who could, for example, set interest rates above the market rate. But it's obvious that no US financial institution can set interest rates--probably not even the Federal Reserve. The fluidity of the system is surely one reason why interest rates remain near all time lows (much to the chagrin of any incipient "oligarchy").

If not even the US is "imperialist," then why does Comrade Keith spend 83 pages trying to convince us that "imperialist" is something more than an epithet? The reason lies deep in the DNA of Marxism--Trotskyists need to explain why successful revolutions in the USSR, China, and elsewhere backslid to restore capitalist social relations. And further, this happened gradually without any violent counter-revolution. Now--only 28 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union--Socialist Action and Socialist Resurgence have finally come to terms with this course of events that wasn't supposed to happen.

Per Lenin, an "imperialist" country has to export capital, and China has been doing that at scale. China has accumulated, as of 2016, nearly $1.4 trillion in foreign direct investment, i.e., direct investment by China into businesses in other countries, ranking the country fifth in the world. (See Figure 8 on p. 25.)

China has been investing heavily in African ports, railroads and mining ventures, which makes sense since China is a natural-resource-poor country. In return for importing raw materials, China exported high-end manufactured products. Accordingly, China had a $38 billion trade surplus with Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 (Figure 12 on p. 38).

They don't treat their African workers well. Comrade Keith quotes one of his sources (p. 32) at length, including this excerpt.
Chinese employers tend to be amongst the lowest paying in Africa when compared with other companies in the same sector. In Zambia, for example, the Chinese copper mine paid its workers 30% less than other copper mines in the country. In general, Chinese companies do not grant African workers any meaningful benefits and in some instances ignore even those that are prescribed by law. Wages above the national average were only found at those Chinese companies with a strong trade union presence. Chinese staff members enjoy significantly higher wages and more benefits than their African counterparts.
So here is my question--and I don't know the answer. What fraction of Chinese loans to a country like Zambia are denominated in RMB (the Chinese currency)? Obviously a lot of it is: Chinese employees on African work sites are likely paid in RMB, as are the costs of materials imported from China. The cost of consumer products sent to Africa are also probably denominated in RMB. On the other hand, salaries, rents and bribes paid to African employees, landlords and politicians must be paid in a hard currency. Which is surely one reason why China is so chintzy on the wages and working conditions.

The point is that RMB debt is funny-money. There is no transparency: China can simply write off RMB debts, or print money to pay for them, or just shoot people who complain about not getting paid back. As a mercantilist economy they don't care about making a profit. They only care about earning hard currency (USD) from the export of manufactured products, net of hard currency expenses spent in Africa acquiring the raw materials. Spending funny-money for those resources is not a problem (though there is a cost in Chinese living standards).

So Tanzania and Zambia, etc., may not be getting such a raw deal. Their actual dollar debt is probably much smaller than what the headline number suggests. The funny-money default will only count against them with respect to China--the rest of the world will ignore it and their credit rating will be unaffected.

Comrade Keith devotes considerable attention to the size and state of the Chinese military, detailing technical advances in the land, air and sea forces. China's annual defense spending is approximately one fourth that of the US--still a hefty sum. The country built its first foreign military base in Djibouti, along with a chain of ports (in Burma, Pakistan and Tanzania, among others) that could easily become military bases. Collectively these are part of the One Belt, One Road system.

Keith suggests that military force could be used to enforce debt repayment from countries like Zambia. This is not likely--not even the US would try to use military force just to enforce debts. The problem with roads, power plants, and mining infrastructure is they can't be repossessed. If Zambia can't repay, then China is plum out of luck. Unlike the US, they have no control over the international banking system.

I think Keith exaggerates China's current military strength. Yes--they are a force to be reckoned with in the South China Sea. But they do not have a blue water navy, and are nowhere close to acquiring one. Their geography--a continental country separated from the larger ocean by island archipelagos, mitigates against it. In the Indian Ocean they are no match for the Indian navy, and they have no power necessary to keep the Straits of Hormuz open should the US decide not to do that for them. I base my opinion on Peter Zeihan's books.

As mentioned, Comrade Keith describes at great length the miserable way that Chinese companies treat their African workforce. I have no cause to disbelieve him--and this alone is reason to read his article. China's foul behavior is attributed to "imperialism" (my emphasis).
The analysis of Tanzania, Namibia, and Ethiopia, as well as several integrated pieces of broader, continental-level analysis, attempt to show the broad trends, categories of interest, and serve as representative examples of Chinese imperialism in Africa. Broadly, it might be said that these primary interests fall into natural resource extraction, exporting of manufactured goods, capital export through infrastructure construction, offshoring of labor-intensive manufacturing, and utilizing Africa’s strategic position both in facilitating trade to and from Europe and in controlling the Indian Ocean. (p. 43)
I think the word "imperialism" adds nothing to this paragraph. The problem isn't "Chinese imperialism," but instead it's just China. China is a big country, humiliated in the 19th Century, that views itself as the Middle Kingdom, and as the world's leading and most important society. It's a very inward-looking, xenophobic culture, and no wonder they treat Africans with complete disrespect, if not contempt.

So the first couple of pages of Comrade Keith's opus are all about "imperialism." But after that you can just ignore the word. Then it's a rollicking good read, You will learn a whole lot about China. Highly recommended!

Further Reading:

Monday, November 4, 2019

The New "Socialist Resurgence" Grouplet

Last week I discussed the split in Socialist Action (SA) from the point of view of the Majority Faction (MF). This week I'll consider the corresponding documents from the minority Permanent Revolution Faction, now reconstituted as an independent group named Socialist Resurgence (SR).

I promise to read these documents so that you don't have to. But in this case I failed. SR's Founding Document (pdf) is so dense that I couldn't get through all of it. Not that it's poorly written--I see Michael Schreiber's fingerprints all over it, and he is a good writer. It's just that you had to have been there--if you weren't privy to all the preceding arguments then it makes no sense. It's like reading through transcripts of a marriage counseling session for a couple about to get divorced.

It's really boring! Though I've read enough to have some things to say.

The name of the new grouplet, Socialist Resurgence, is a bit of a misnomer. Socialist Recrudescence would be more apt. If Socialist Action, a grouplet of about 100 worker-Bolsheviks, has failed to lead us to the post-revolutionary promised land, then it's hard to be optimistic about SR, which numbers about 40 comrades (if commenter John B is to be believed).

The split is about US military engagements abroad, notably in Syria.

Both SA and SR believe that the essential problem in Syria is something called "US Imperialism," though neither knows with any precision what that is. Where they disagree is with the characterization of Bashar al-Assad.

  • SA thinks he is an agent of resistance--a third world leader heroically defending his country from "US Imperialism." As such, he deserves to be defended and supported.
  • SR thinks he is a cat's paw for "US Imperialism." That is, instead of being part of the solution, he is part of the problem. Al-Assad should be opposed by all good revolutionaries.
This is how SR describes SA's position:
The world is polarized between two great forces or camps. One is U.S. imperialism, which is trying to actively foment regime change almost everywhere in the world. The other great force is an “Axis of Resistance,” anchored by Russia, and maybe China, and this alliance includes the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, and Syria, as well as organizations like ALBA. They implicitly and explicitly give political support to capitalist regimes.
They refer to this as campism.

I've addressed the issue myself, albeit in different terms, accusing SA of supporting any dictator--Putin, Assad, Maduro, Kim Jong Un--who for any reason opposes the United States. This puts them in bed with some really bad hombres, and renders them very unpopular among much of the American Left. For example, SA apparently believes that chemical weapons attacks blamed on al-Assad were really false flags. I'm not an expert on Syria, but I find false flag scenarios to be completely unconvincing. Too many people would have to be in on the conspiracy.

SR, by rejecting campism, gets away from the conspiracy theories, and is now able to pick and choose which dictators they want to support. That should make them more palatable to people they want to win over.

Of course they're both wrong. The Syrian conflict is only tangentially about "US Imperialism" (however poorly defined), as the US has no important strategic interest in the country. Obama's reluctance to enforce his humanitarian "red line" is proof enough, as is Trump's precipitous withdrawal of support for the Kurds.

The real problem in Syria is not "US Imperialism," but rather a sectarian/ethnic/religious conflict. The word "Alawite" is not mentioned in either SA's account of the split (discussed last week), nor in SR's Founding Document. This is truly bizarre. The Assad family are Alawites, a (heretical) Shi'ite sect comprising about 10% of the population, but which holds all important government and military posts.

Similar words--Christian, Druze, Kurd, and even Sunni--are not mentioned at all in SA's document. SR deigns to note the Syrian Sunni population only once.

And yet it is these ethnic distinctions that drive the whole conflict!

The reason SR gives for the massive destruction is ludicrous:
Following the Russian bombing of neighborhoods and hospitals in support of the murderous Assad regime, Russian companies were granted billions of dollars in contracts to rebuild Damascus, Aleppo, and other devastated cities. The reconstruction efforts were part of Assad’s larger gentrification plan to clear the cities of the working poor and open up areas to international financial institutions.
Ah yes! Russian bombing as an effort in urban renewal, as if Wall Street were eager to invest in Aleppo. Why not call it for what it is: ethnic cleansing. Neither of my Trotskyist friends have stumbled upon that term.

Recriminations within splitting groups are obviously personal and vicious (see aside below). This is no exception--they accuse each other of lying, acting in bad faith, being undemocratic, and not following the rules. In what might be called an Organizational Report (pdf), SR details their complaints against Comrade "Jeff M." (Jeff Mackler). I have no idea if what they say is true, but I will argue that it could be true, and for reasons that go beyond Mr. Mackler's turpitude.

Consider anti-Zionism. Narrowly interpreted this is a political opinion that can be held by honest people, e.g., the Szatmari Jews in Brooklyn. As I've said before, the Socialist Workers Party of my day was anti-Zionist is this sense.

But anti-Semites will also be anti-Zionist, albeit for disreputable reasons. So an anti-Zionist organization will attract not just honest, political anti-Zionists, but also true anti-Semites. Accordingly, SR accuses Mr. Mackler of collaborating with actual anti-Semites--which could be true. My opinion is, that by supporting Hamas, SA and SR have both crossed the Rubicon into true antisemitism. Mr. Mackler is just putting the icing on the cake.

The same problem holds for antiwar coalitions. The Trotskyist movement has long championed the united front, i.e, people who come together in support of a common cause, without necessarily agreeing on anything else. The classic, Trotskyist united front was the anti-Vietnam movement in the early 1970s, based on the simple slogan US Troops Out Now.

Similarly, the principal demand for today's United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) is Opposition to All US Wars and Interventions.

The problem with united fronts is they attract people with very different goals. Trotskyists, for example, opposed the US in Vietnam because we wanted the other side to win. Other people within the coalition were committed pacifists: they opposed any war and didn't want anybody to win. And yet others were classic liberals--the kind of folks who voted for Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern. They just opposed the war in Indochina. Yet the united front demonstrations brought all of them together into one big march.

The problem with today's UNAC is that the tent has gotten too big. SA still wants al-Assad to win, and the pacifists are still pacific. But also, there is now a crew dedicated isolationists--people like Alex Jones of  InfoWars, or even pundits like Pat Buchanan, who have opposed US involvement in every war since Korea. Then there are people who don't care about al-Assad, but really want Putin to win! SR, like Trump, just wants the US to withdraw--they don't seem to know who they want to actually win.

The dispute between SA and SR is about just how big the united front tent should be. SR accuses SA (and Jeff Mackler in particular) of collaborating with some truly unsavory people. Mr. Mackler's defense is that his people weren't initially aware of the unsavory types at the conference (in Russia), and never had anything to do with them.

A united front isn't stable. And Trotskyist organizations aren't stable, either. They tend to split apart.

An aside about splits:

The Dunbar Number is the maximum size of a human group based only on shared kinship or friendship--e.g., a group of hunter gatherers. Any group larger than that requires some institutional structure and bureaucracy in order to function. The size of the Dunbar number varies from 50 to 150, with the higher numbers only possible when there is an external threat--e.g., war with a neighboring group--that makes the big group advantageous. But the bigger the group, the more time they have to spend on "social grooming" in order to stay together.

It appears that Trotskyist grouplets rarely exceed the Dunbar number. Which means that, despite their elaborate constitutions and procedures, they only cohere because of personal friendships and reciprocity agreements. Once the group gets too big, or personal relations are in any way strained, the group splits into competing bands.

Dunbar groups are usually led by a chief who holds office by lifetime appointment, or until a younger man (they are always men) takes his place. Jack Barnes is boss of the Socialist Workers Party since 1972, while Jeff Mackler rules Socialist Action since 1983. This month we inaugurate the new leader of Socialist Resurgence, Michael Schreiber, who I predict will lead them for decades to come.

Anthropologists take note: Trotskyist grouplets are a good proxy for hunter-gather tribes, and probably a lot cheaper to study.

Further Reading:



Thursday, October 24, 2019

Socialist Action Splits!

A couple of days ago Socialist Action published a long post entitled Anatomy of the Recent Split in Socialist Action. It contains a short introduction by Jeff Mackler, followed by the Political Resolution Adopted by the Socialist Action National Committee Plenum, October 6, 2019, detailing the political differences that resulted in divorce. It comes to nearly 11,000 words.

The bottom line is that 29 comrades have left the organization, including the former editor of their newspaper (whom I believe is Michael Schreiber). It's a bit under a third of the total membership. They are referred to in the Resolution as the Permanent Revolution Faction (PRF), and I will use that terminology. I will call those remaining in Socialist Action, specifically the authors of the resolution, the Majority. The PRF has since gone on to found a new organization called Socialist Resurgence. I have not yet had time to study their webpage and so do not know their response to the Majority's resolution. I'll get to that in a later post.

The first topic of disagreement is trans liberation. Here is what the Majority claim:
We begin with our stance of full support to and respect for transgender people’s fundamental right to self-identify and for the full, unequivocal inclusion of trans people in every aspect of society. Gender is a social construct, which is formed by economic, cultural, historical, biological, and class factors. In matters of gender identity, as with sexual orientation, an individual knows best what is right for them. We reject any assertion that their identity is in any way inauthentic or invalid. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. 
That trans people should be assured the civil and human rights is incontrovertible--even I support that! But then they go off the rails. The "social construct" theory is just factually wrong, touted only by ideologues in academic women's studies departments. Nobody who has ever raised children can take it seriously. The final claims--e.g., "trans women are women,"--are also false. If they said trans women are women with an asterisk, where the size and content of that asterisk varies considerably by individual, they'd be a whole lot closer to the truth.

An effort toward radical clarity leads them to oversimplify the whole issue--the trans phenomenon is not so easily dealt with. People with an interest in truth as opposed to mere revolutionary chic will not be able to take the Majority's position seriously. Beyond which, one wonders why the trans issue is so important, concerning, as it does, less than 1% of the population.

The Majority's position on Syria is similarly simplistic and counterfactual. The essential problem supposedly is "U.S. imperialism."
With few, if any exceptions these “rebels” have almost from the beginning been armed, trained, promoted and supported by U.S. imperialism and its NATO and Gulf State monarchy “coalition” as well as the Turkish government.
It's a real stretch to claim that the rebels have been significantly financed by the US, and certainly not since Trump took office. Further,
In Idlib today, the remaining “rebels,” who regularly launch missiles into Syria’s cities, exist only because of the support of the U.S., its NATO imperialist allies, and Turkey. These “rebels,” significantly, but decreasingly, control and dominate, via terror, the population of Idlib.
There are 3 million people in Idlib, including 1.1 million displaced from elsewhere in Syria. They are all Sunnis who potentially face slaughter at the hands of Assad's army. Beyond which, Assad, with Russian assistance, is barrel-bombing Idlib hospitals in the hope of driving the population out of the country. The Majority doesn't tell that side of the story, and the side it does tell isn't accurate.

The Majority presents a hypothetical:
In the course of this monstrous U.S. imperialist war, SA tragically finds itself divided. In Syria, we have explained, we would be on the side of the Syrian government. In Syria, the minority explains, they would be on the side of the nondescript “Syrian masses.”
This is very funny. If the Majority and PRF were both Sunni, then they'd all be refugees somewhere. If they were both Alawite then they'd all support the Syrian government. The notion that some theoretical distinction about "U.S. imperialism" might make any difference is absurd.

Apparently the PRF aren't the only people who speak for the masses. The Majority claims
The only way for serious revolutionaries to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian masses is to be in the front lines of the battle against imperialist intervention and invasion. [emphasis mine]  
In Syria there are no "masses." There are Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Palestinians, Druze, Assyrians, Kurds, and others--all fighting just for survival. The country--always artificial--hangs together now only by force of arms.

The Majority's error is again to oversimplify things to the point of complete falsehood. Surely Syria is more complicated than some kooky story about "U.S. imperialism." Whatever the PRF's opinions, there is at least some recognition of reality.

As a final example, the Majority's position on Venezuela is similarly reality-deprived. They write
The U.S. imperialist beast has sanctioned and embargoed Venezuela, the nation with the largest oil reserves in the world, since the Obama administration and before. These sanctions have led to mass starvation and the death of some 50,000 Venezuelans.
This is simply not true. It is correct that some US sanctions have been in place since 2008 (pdf).
In 2008, the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on two individuals and two travel agencies in Venezuela for providing financial support to the radical Lebanon-based Islamic Shiite group Hezbollah.
Two individuals do not an economy destroy. Subsequent sanctions were similarly narrow, in 2014 levying penalties on 89 people. It was only under Trump beginning in 2018 that economy-wide sanctions were imposed. By that time the Venezuelan economy had already imploded.

It's really easy to break stuff. The de-civilization of Venezuela began in 2006 when Hugo Chavez took money from the PDVSA (the state-owned oil company) and used it to buy services for the poor. The NY Times wrote
Critics see the spending as a reckless exercise in populist decadence intended to burnish Chávez's image while embarrassing the Bush administration, his principal obsession since American officials gave tacit support to a failed coup against him in 2002.
It was worse than "populist decadence." Essential maintenance on the oil infrastructure was not performed, and today it will require billions in new capital to repair the damage. In a word, Chavez killed the golden-egg-laying goose. It will be generations (if ever) before Venezuela recovers its previous living standard.

The PRF's sin apparently is pointing out the obvious fact that Maduro is substantially responsible for the disaster. The reward for truth-telling is expulsion.

Socialist Action had about one hundred comrades--now they're down to seventy. This because the so-called Vanguard Party, the sole inheritors of Revolutionary Truth, are unable to say anything truthful or coherent about the major issues of the day. It's not clear to me why I should continue writing about them--it could be they fall off the radar screen in a few months.

It seems they've fallen off their own radar screen. The supposedly important Jeff Mackler for President campaign hosted ZERO events in October, and has absolutely nothing scheduled for November. The idiots can't even ride down an escalator.

Further Reading: