Monday, February 20, 2017

Lynn Henderson on Donald Trump

My former comrade, Lynn Henderson, posts a long article at Socialist Action entitled A watershed election for U.S. imperialism. Despite being a well-written, worthwhile read, the piece is a mess.

He posits at least two conspiracy theories. First, he assumes that U.S. Imperialism is actually a thing. It literally sits around and makes conscious decisions about how best to screw the working class. While Mr. Henderson doesn't identify "imperialism" with Jews, it's precisely the same sort of conspiracy supposedly documented in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Perhaps the "imperialists" meet in secret organizations such as the Trilateral Commission? Or is it the Bilderberg Group? Or maybe they cavort around naked in the woods at Bohemian Grove in Northern California while plotting their nefarious schemes?

Mr. Henderson never tells us how this conspiracy supposedly transpires, but apparently everybody from George Soros to the Koch brothers to Larry Page to Charlie Hamm are all on the same page about what to do next. Note to Mr. Henderson: these people don't even talk to each other much less agree on how the world should run.

The second conspiracy theory concerns Obama's strategy in Syria. Here Mr. Henderson must have access to information that nobody else possesses. Was he a fly on the wall in the White House situation room? He claims to have the chronology of events in Syria absolutely down flat, without the shadow of any doubt. Here's how it supposedly all transpired:
  • Obama really wanted to go to war in Syria.
  • He used chemical weapons as an excuse, making his infamous "red line" remark.
  • But the British--unreliable bastards that they are--refused to go along with Obama's war. (Apparently British imperialism is not on the same wavelength as US imperialism. Mr. Henderson doesn't explain why.)
  • Because the Brits didn't like it, Congress might not have approved war authorization.
  • Therefore John Kerry made an agreement with the Russians.
I find this incredible. Unsurprisingly Mr. Henderson offers no evidence for his theory at all. A much simpler (and widely accepted) explanation is that Mr. Obama (who never had any intention of getting involved in Syria) was trying to push Assad into making a settlement and the latter called his bluff. The result was another couple hundred thousand dead people.

Mr. Henderson relates a very strange story about the growth of the American middle class. In his telling it's all because of World War II. Apparently the massive destruction of Europe and East Asia enabled US imperialism to conquer the world (at least temporarily) and extract enough wealth to enrich US workers as well.

People earn money by trading goods and services with each other, and capitalism maximizes those trading opportunities. It's really hard to trade with people whose houses and factories have all been destroyed. The US lent Europe money to rebuild it's infrastructure, which fortunately happened successfully. For otherwise American taxpayers would have been on the hook and lost their investment. We'd all have been much poorer.

The real reasons for the development of the American middle class (along with similar populations in Europe, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere) is because of new technology. It's described in great detail in Robert Gordon's book The Rise & Fall of American Growth (which I reviewed here). Here's the list: the electric light bulb, the internal combustion engine, antiseptics, canned food, indoor plumbing, clean running water, air conditioning, airplanes, the department store, interstate highways, modern finance, and more. Mr. Henderson mentions none of this--he nonsensically attributes our modern living standard to WWII.

Finally we get to Mr. Trump, who presumably is the topic of the article. At least Mr. Henderson is smart enough not to call Mr. Trump a fascist, which he manifestly is not. But otherwise he throws the book at him:
... the Republican Party is captured by an extreme right wing, rogue billionaire, an open racist, who brags about his successful sexual assaults on women, banning individuals from entering the country on the basis of their religious affiliation, and among other things, promises to launch a global-wide trade war. The ruling class itself sees Trump as a loose cannon, dangerous and unstable—the kind of president that in this threatening new era for U.S. capitalism, demonstrates every potential for making things dramatically worse.
Much on this list is either false or a gross exaggeration. Trump is definitely not "extreme right wing." Most of the Republican establishment (which includes a significant Libertarian constituency) disowned him. They're in favor of free trade and (relatively) open borders--see Marco Rubio as a clear example. Also Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jeb Bush, etc. Trump's positions on trade, industrial policy, and even unions, are much closer to the Democrats, which is why he won over blue-collar voters who voted for Obama in 2012. Even on health care he's a Democrat--whatever else Trump-care does, it's not gonna water down Obamacare. Trump agrees with Bernie Sanders on foreign policy, condemning our recent wars with almost as much vitriol as Socialist Action.

Second, he certainly isn't an "open racist." He's been actively courting the Black community since before the election, including most recently touting historically Black colleges. Scott Alexander (a superb post!) describes Trump as not being any more racist than the average 70-year-old white guy. Two acts of "racism" are held against him: his birther campaign against Obama, and that he proclaimed "I love Latinos" while eating a taco bowl in Trump Tower. The former was stupid, not racist. And the latter may not have been politically correct, but hardly qualifies him as a racist. An "open racist" would have said "I hate Latinos." Trump has never said that nor anything remotely similar.

Trump undoubtedly acknowledges the continued existence of racism. But he also maintains (correctly in my view) is that racism is not the central problem in our society. The problem with the police is not that they're racist (though some are), but mostly that they're not preventing crime in Black communities. Thus his promise to crack down on crime is as much a bid for African-American support as it is anything else. Likewise with his championing of school choice.

Trump got more Black votes than either McCain or Romney. And his vote among Hispanics equaled that which Republicans typically get. There is no evidence that he is viewed in those communities as unusually, or "openly" racist.

Third, Trump bragged about assaulting women in a media clip from a decade ago. Mr. Henderson should use the past tense--"bragged." Trump is certainly not bragging about sexual assault today. This sloppy use of language discredits Mr. Henderson's argument.

Trump does not threaten a global-wide trade war. And the US, like any other country, has a right to control who crosses our borders. Mr. Trump has long since backed off barring all Muslims, but he is certainly right that terrorism tends to come from Muslim countries. Again, exaggeration is not Mr. Henderson's friend.

I think accusations that Trump is an unstable, undisciplined loose cannon, while perhaps arguable, are mostly incorrect. His campaign turns out to have been spectacularly well organized. Which is fairly obvious since he won the election while spending only a fraction of the money Hillary wasted. While he certainly has made mistakes, accusing him of stupidity, mental illness, or lack of self-discipline I think are charges very far of the mark.

Further Reading:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Faction Fight!

Socialist Action (SA) has published a very long document entitled Opposition Formed in the Fourth International. At about 6700 words, it's one of those things I've read so that you don't have to. Authored by a committee, it reads like something out of a Dilbert cartoon. Though much less sensible.

The script is familiar:
  • The leadership of the International is diluting the principles of Trotskyism by crossing the class line.
  • This is a betrayal of the working class.
  • A Left Opposition within the International recognizes the danger and calls it to attention.
  • They attempt to rescue the International. "[W]e will initiate a debate with every FI [Fourth International - ed] comrade and section willing to communicate with us. We intend that this debate be respectful of differences, and for the unfolding process to help reinforce our international in a context of global capitalist crisis."
  • Eventually this will lead to a split, resulting in the creation of yet another iteration of the "Fourth" International. Perhaps this will be variant 4.7.21a.
The primary issue is also a reprise from the past. The lede paragraph:
The FI leadership replaced the strategic goal of building revolutionary parties with the building of “broad parties.” A century after the Russian Revolution, some ask: Is the principle “no revolution without a revolutionary party” outdated? We do not believe it is. Over the last few congresses, the FI leadership has been explicitly aiming at building “broad” parties, without clear programmatic and strategic boundaries. What are the results of this policy?
Broad parties sounds to me like a rough synonym for popular front. In the latter, so-called revolutionaries make temporary alliances with capitalist parties to achieve common goals. This has long been a tactic of the "Stalinist" parties. For example, the CPUSA has supported Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the most recent election. Trotskyism was founded in part on opposition to popular fronts, preferring instead united fronts which restrict participation only to working class groups.

So the FI leadership is accused of watering down Trotskyism for the cause of expanding the movement beyond a narrow group of sectarians. As a result they supported SYRIZA in Greece, and opposed the nominal Greek section of the FI. I assume that was OKDE-Spartacos, which SA previously highlighted here (and which I lampooned here).

The document claims that the FI strategy was a failure.
In recent times, we’ve seen major failures. In the Spanish state, Anticapitalistas is preparing to form a joint majority with Pablo Iglesias, thus adapting to a bureaucratic leadership that explicitly seeks to govern in the framework of capitalist institutions. By trying to gain electoral or mainstream media influence, we are led to sacrifice our goal — the overthrow of the capitalist system. 
The Syriza experiment was embraced to such an extent that the Greek FI section, which refused to support it, was even accused in the IC of being counterrevolutionary.
SYRIZA is still the governing party in Greece. Antarsya, the united front of which OKDE is a member, got 0.85% of the vote in the 2015 election. Please let me know which strategy was a failure.

Of course accusing the FI leadership of failure is a little rich coming from the likes of Jeff Mackler. Here's a guy--the very personification of pathetic--whose major accomplishment in 2016 was a 5-day campaign swing through southern New England. Clearly SA sets the bar for success very low.

The document attempts a theoretical justification for the strategy of ever more sectarianism. There are two major crises that supposedly confront the capitalist class.

1) "The fundamental problem for capitalists still is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall."

This is a completely meaningless sentence. Does rate mean as a fraction of capital invested? This can't fall almost by definition, since the value of capital fluctuates with return. By this measure the real rate of profit remains nearly constant over centuries (see, e.g., Piketty).

Or does rate mean as a fraction of operating costs? If there's a long term trend here nobody outside of SA is aware of it. They need to produce some data to back up their case.

This "crisis" is just nonsense on stilts.

2) "Fossil and mineral resources are not infinite. The maximum peak of extraction will soon be reached. Capitalism with its structural logic aims always to increase consumption — to utilize more raw materials and energy."

Of course they're right that the world is not infinite. But natural resources will outlast human civilization--we are in no danger of running out for many centuries. No crisis here.

More importantly SA reveals its true colors: they are both Luddite and pro-poverty. Yes, capitalism wants to increase consumption. Indeed, capitalism has successfully pulled two billion people out of poverty--several hundred million in China just within the last 40 years. Yet SA is against that. They valorize living standards in places like Cuba and North Korea. Or Greece if it had followed OKDE's advice and left the Eurozone.

How can you eliminate poverty if you're against consumption?

It's when it proposes alternatives to the FI strategy that the document dissolves into complete incoherence. They revert to the principle: "no revolution without a revolutionary party." Of course the only revolution led by even a semblance of a Bolshevik party was the Bolshevik revolution itself. Nothing since then has duplicated that model: not China, not Cuba, not even North Korea. So on a single data point they generalize for all time by willfully ignoring any counter-examples.

They quote from Lenin's 'Left-Wing' Communism, An Infantile Disorder. This book was written in 1920, after the 1917 revolution, and it was intended as a political polemic rather than an accurate history. Indeed, it significantly exaggerates the role of the "revolutionary party" in the actual revolution. Its appeal for party discipline lays the groundwork for Stalin's later purges (whether Lenin actually intended that or not).

There's much more in this document I could make fun of. For example, they claim to support the Kurds, but are against them receiving any weapons from any "imperialist" country, i.e., anybody except Cuba or North Korea. So how's that supposed to work? Kurdish resistance to reactionary groups like ISIS is to be maintained solely on the strength of solidarity from Jeff Mackler and his gang of kooky clowns?

I'll leave it at that.

Further Reading: