Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Iranian Politics as Group Therapy

It's a very strange article.

Steve Clark pens a piece supposedly about Iran, though I doubt any Iranian will recognize his country by reading it. I tried to make head or tail of it, and all I can muster is that it's not really about Iran at all. Instead it's about the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)--an exercise in group psychotherapy.

The article isn't worth reading unless you're an obsessed Party-phile like me. You'll learn nothing about Iran, and discovering anything about the SWP requires more work than it's probably worth. But here goes.

It begins auspiciously enough with a preface by the editor, including this paragraph [links added by me].
The Militant, echoing bourgeois media coverage, inaccurately presented those actions [unrest in December & January--ed] as largely a response to economic grievances and Tehran’s cutbacks of subsidies and social expenditures. This was captured by headlines in the Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 issues: “Economic Crisis Behind Protests in Iran Cities” and “Working-Class Discontent Continues to Spread in Iran.” While improved coverage appeared in subsequent articles, the failure to publish an explicit correction denies readers the facts and analysis they need to understand the political roots of these events and their significance in the ongoing class struggle and wars in the Middle East and today’s world.
I've read those pieces (both by Terry Evans) and see nothing that needs to be retracted. Mr. Clark is not at all explicit about what in Mr. Evans' articles requires correction, perhaps apart from the headlines.

This paragraph is as explicit as Mr. Clark ever gets.
Two centuries of experience have taught politically conscious workers that neither popular revolutions, nor resistance by working people to the consequences of defeated revolutions, are fueled primarily by “economic discontent.” Much deeper social and political questions of class, sex, sect and race push working people into action in our tens and hundreds of thousands (and, at decisive points, in our millions). Above all, it is the class and social inequities and indignities of capitalist exploitation and oppression that erode the moral legitimacy of the rulers and their state. And nothing propels mounting resistance more than the privileged classes’ military adventures and wars, as the rulers’ nationalist and religious rationalizations (Persian and Shiite, in the case of Iran) begin dissolving in blood.
For the life of me, I read nothing in Mr. Evans' articles that contradicts this at all. Only the word "economics" in the headline slightly diminishes the effects of "class, sex, sect and race." Though forgive me for not having noticed such a glaring error to begin with.

A "Kremlinological" analysis suggests that Comrade Evans is about to become a non-person, whose serious ideological errors make him unfit to be a worker-Bolshevik. I think this is the wrong conclusion--the prefatory remarks explicitly blame "The Militant," not the individual reporter. Nobody is likely to be liquidated.

A second interpretation is that the Party is losing its working class outlook and becoming boringly mainstream. Nobody interested in Iranian politics (or any politics, for that matter) will find the list of "social and political questions" objectionable. To the contrary, they're obvious and uncontroversial. This is Marxist dialectics turned into bland truisms.

But I don't think this is the correct interpretation, either. However banal Mr. Clark's piece might be, the Party is not arguing for banality. Theirs is another agenda.

So that leaves a third interpretation, namely that the Party wants to rewrite history. To wit: it needs to justify its support for the 1979 Iranian Revolution, while at the same time opposing the current Iranian government. This is harder than it sounds: the Party supported the Soviet Union to the very end, yet strongly criticized its Stalinist government as betrayers of the Revolution. The term used to describe this "dialectical" relationship was critical support. That is, within Russian politics the Stalinists had to be opposed at every turn, but vis a vis the United States the Soviet Union had to be defended. The Party upholds that same principle for North Korea (less support and more criticism) and Cuba (more support with less criticism).

But the SWP now wants to withdraw critical support from the Iranian government, and oppose them outright. This is surely the morally correct position: it will allow them to oppose Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza--murderers all. But it leads to great theological difficulties--somehow revolutionaries in 1979 have to be transformed into counter-revolutionaries who have to be categorically defeated.

And therein lies the rub. Mr. Clark is very clear that the Party supported the 1979 revolution. But sometime and somehow between 1979 and 1982 a counter-revolution occurred. He's not at all forthcoming about what or how this decisive event happened--that's what makes the article so frustrating to read. But mysteriously it has something to do with Farrell Dobbs' book Teamster Bureaucracy (!?), the fight of women to wear the hijab (before 1979), and then not wear the hijab (after 1982). There was no cataclysmic event, no paroxysm of violence, nor any other single marker to signal this fundamental shift in the class line.

Weird. Long time followers of The Militant will recall that the Party viewed the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as workers' states, even into the late 1990s. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the East Germans had still fundamentally changed the ownership of the means of production and the relationship of class forces. Despite the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, no counter-revolution had taken place, and therefore social conditions had not fundamentally changed.

It's all described in Jack Barnes' rather silly book entitled US Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War, published in 1998. It's a view they periodically reassert, though I think they've long since given up on calling Eastern Germany a "workers' state."

Yet in Iran, for no discernible reason, a revolutionary government has quietly morphed into a bourgeois, counter-revolutionary government without anybody noticing--at least not until Steve Clark let us in on the secret last week.

Inconsistency aside, I actually applaud the Party for their newfound theory. It does put them on the side of angels, sharing a position not only with me, but also Louis Proyect. The opposite opinion is held by much of the Left, including the execrable Socialist Action, which shills for Bashar al-Assad even to this day. Sort of like supporting Pol Pot.

Further Reading:

Monday, March 19, 2018

Summary Statement of US Strategic Goals for the Coming Period

I've been doing some reading and thinking about geopolitics,* and I think I can express America's foreign policy goals succinctly and clearly:
  • The Eurasian continent consists of four "empires" and several smaller "kingdoms". The empires are China, Russia, South Asia, and Europe. The kingdoms include Japan, Indonesia, Persia, and Turkey. I don't mean these countries within their current political boundaries, but rather their cultural/strategic spheres. For example, for Russia that means the former Soviet Union. Turkey is the old Ottoman Empire, plus much of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Persia includes parts of Central Asia, Kurdistan, and half of Afghanistan. South Asia is the whole subcontinent, from Kabul to Dhaka to Columbo, and maybe also Tibet. Only for China do current borders roughly correspond to empire.
  • None of these empires constitutes an essential threat to the United States in their current form. We can defend against any of them individually.
  • The danger comes if one of these empires makes an alliance with the others (or conquers them). Our vital strategic interest is to prevent that from happening. Therefore, for example, we defended Stalin against Hitler, certainly not for moral reasons, but the combination of Europe and Russia potentially augured an entity that would be a vital threat to the United States. So we helped preserve the Soviet Union.
  • The situation is more complicated because Russia is in terminal demographic decline and will cease to be an empire within a generation or two. Its geographic space will be fought over by Europe, Turkey, China, Japan, and Persia. The US vital interest is that none of these kingdoms should win too big a slice.
So this makes US foreign policy spectacularly clear. In the immediate term it has four major goals:
  1. Retain naval hegemony over the South China Sea. This prevents Chinese aggression/alliance with India, and vice versa. Plus it allows us to trade with SE Asia.
  2. Retain control over Afghanistan, which borders several of the above empires and kingdoms: Persia, South Asia, China, Turkey. Indeed, Afghanistan is probably the most strategic piece of ground on the planet. We don't really care what their internal government is, but we insist that none of its neighbors win control over the place. We're gonna have troops in Afghanistan for decades to come.
  3. Harass terrorist groups sufficiently to deny them control over any territory, and so they never acquire any substantial military capability.
  4. Prevent further nuclear proliferation, most immediately in North Korea.
This has some interesting implications for current conflict zones. Consider Syria.
  • One goal in Syria and Iraq is to deny Iran control over the Fertile Crescent and the Levant. Toward this end Turkey, the Syrian/Sunni rebels, and Israel are our allies.
  • Another goal is to prevent the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization that potentially threatens the US. Our allies here are the Kurds and the Assad regime.
  • A third goal is to prevent Turkey and Sunni rebels from destroying Kurdish and Alawite populations. Our allies here are Assad and Iran.
  • A fourth goal is to prevent the mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing of Syria's Sunni population, many of whom have become refugees in Europe. Our enemies here are Assad and Russia. The latter is using this as a lever to destabilize NATO and the EU.
  • The Kurds are a people with divided loyalties. On the one hand they speak a Persian language, unrelated to either Arabic or Turkish (apart from some loan words). On the other hand, they are Sunni and at odds with the Shi'a theocracy in Tehran. Should Iran ever have a secular government then likely the Kurds would become Iranian allies. This is why the Turks are so terribly afraid of them and try very hard to suppress their language.
So it's a very complex battlefield, contrary to what Jeff Mackler, writing in Socialist Action maintains. He posits a mythical creature called "American Imperialism" which for some bizarre and unexplained reason wants to occupy Syria. Thus Mr. Mackler supports the Assad regime, who supposedly represent the progressive future of the human race. For him it's a case of white hats vs. black hats, with Americans wearing black. 

His support for Assad is shameful--sort of like supporting Pol Pot (which my Trotskyist friends also did). But no matter--it's just pseudo-revolutionary grandstanding. By taking a fake radical position, no matter how stupid and inconsequential, Socialist Action burnishes its credential on the American Left.

Nobody should take them seriously.


Peter Zeihan, The Accidental Superpower (reviewed here)
Peter Zeihan, The Absent Superpower (reviewed here)

Monday, March 5, 2018

Strikes, Janus, & Amazon

The West Virginia teachers' strike headlines the news at both The Militant and Socialist Action. The latter's star reporter, Bill Onasch, probably gives the best overview of the situation. The lede paragraph:
West Virginia “Wildcats”—Technically, public sector collective bargaining is illegal in West Virginia. But practically, governors have negotiated in the past with teachers—and school service employees including bus drivers, cafeteria, clerical, and maintenance workers—for salary and benefit packages passed by the legislature. While perhaps better than nothing, the teachers have been falling behind.
He tells us that 20,000 teachers and 15,000 support personnel are off the job, that they haven't gotten a raise in four years, and that West Virginia teachers' salaries rank 48th in the nation. Further, rising health care premiums are a big issue, and that initially caused the rank & file to turn down a 5% raise from the state.

The Militant's Mary Imo-Stike (never heard of her before--may be a pseudonym) reports from Charleston, interviewing actual teachers. She captures the anger and frustration that many of them feel--medical premiums have been rising faster than wages.

As of yesterday afternoon there has been no settlement--the strike now enters its second week. The governor has conceded on the 5% raise but Republicans in the legislature balk, offering only 4%. I have no recent information on the medical issue.

A few thoughts:

  • The union's lack of legal status is important. It can't enforce a closed shop, nor can it negotiate a real contract. All it can do is get a widely publicized agreement from the state. That is actually an appropriate role for a union. I support this kind of "union" activity.
  • Labor militancy goes up as the economy gets better. With today's low unemployment the teachers are in a very strong position to ask for a raise. Looks like they're gonna get it, too. Bully for them.
  • West Virginia seems to be unusual in that teachers' salaries are negotiated state-wide, and not district by district. That gives the union more power.
  • Pensions are apparently not on the table. That undoubtedly stems from this being a "voluntary" union. "Real" unions have been lying to their members for decades, promising pensions that can never be delivered. That's been especially true with the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, as discussed here previously. Once burned--twice learned. The teachers are not negotiating for pie in the sky.
So if the only difference between the state's offer and the union demand is 4% vs. 5%, then this really should be pretty easy to settle. (Again, I don't know what's happened to the medical issue.) The governor is asking the state senate to do just that.

I don't think the roadblock is money. Instead, I'll suggest that there's a large constituency that wants the strike to last for a long time. I'm thinking of people like me--retired and no longer having kids in the school system--who resent paying taxes for "overpaid" school teachers. I think that sentiment must be strong in West Virginia, which is among the oldest states in the union, and where private-sector salaries are lower than what teachers already get. Beyond which, education is historically a low priority for the Scots-Irish who live in Appalachia. If the teachers want to go on a two-month, unpaid holiday, it's fine by them. The longer the better.

The other big labor news is the case now before the Supreme Court: Janus vs AFSCME. An Illinois public employee, Mark Janus, sued AFSCME for using his agency fees for political purposes, expounding positions with which Mr. Janus disagreed. A similar case reached the high court previously, but shortly after Justice Scalia's death the court couldn't produce a decisive majority. So they're revisiting the issue.

Oddly, neither The Militant nor Socialist Action has covered this issue at all. But Louis Proyect has.

In as post entitled Mark Janus vs. AFSCME and the need for a real trade union movement, Mr. Proyect suggests that unions that don't have a guaranteed income source are more likely to be radical. Guaranteed incomes make for complacency, and why upset the apple cart with a strike or something? Mr. Proyect quotes Illinois' solicitor general, who argues for the maintenance of agency fees.
“When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational. They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”
 An interesting idea--not sure if it's true. On the one hand, the West Virginia strike lends credence--the "non-union" has no guaranteed income whatsoever and they're perfectly happy to lead a strike. On the other hand, the Wisconsin Education Association Council--once flush with cash--has, thanks to Scott Walker, been cut off. They're a mere shadow of their former selves--hardly in a position to be more radical.

Those are two anecdotes--the truth of Mr. Proyect's suggestion is an empirical question. I think the jury is out.

For what it's worth, highly regarded, conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh has filed a friend of the court brief siding with AFSCME. The money quote:
I don't think there's any First Amendment problem with compelled payments of union agency fees at all. The government can constitutionally require people to pay money to the government (in taxes), money that the government can then use for ideological purposes (e.g., supporting a war, opposing racism, promoting environmentalism, and so on). Likewise, the government can constitutionally require people to pay money to unions, money that the unions can then use for ideological purposes.
 We'll see what the Supreme Court decides; I have no clue.

Finally, let me take issue with an article by The Militant's Brian Williams, Trotskyism's only competent economics reporter. But he falls down on the job in this piece about Walmart and Amazon. The lede paragraph:
Walmart and Amazon bosses have been battling for domination in market share and profits. The Walton family owners of Walmart have been winning, as Amazon has proven unable to launch any serious challenge to their utter domination of the brick-and-mortar store market.
But I think he's too much in love with his thesis and fails to report some significant facts. First, Amazon is not really in direct competition with Walmart. Walmart's customer is in the bottom 50% of the income demographic, while Amazon's customer is in the top 50%. Yeah, there's more overlap than that suggests, but there is definitely room in the market for both companies. Neither is going out of business anytime soon.

Second, he fails to note that Walmart has been trying to step up its on-line game, having purchased Jet.com. However in the recent quarter it has performed well below expectations, and the stock dropped substantially.

Third, it's a stretch to say that Amazon failed in launching brick-and-mortar stores. They only recently bought Whole Foods (which, by the way, doesn't compete against Walmart at all), and have not yet had time to assimilate the experience. They haven't failed--they're still experimenting.

The Amazon Go store--one without cashiers which is in beta-testing in Seattle--is a big experiment, as Mr. Williams notes. It potentially puts millions of cashiers out of a job. That's bad, but it's good for consumers who will save both time and money. Trotskyists, including Mr. Williams, are Luddites. Does Mr. Williams think we should ban cars so that unemployed blacksmiths can be put back to work?

So it is not clear that there is a battle royale to the death between these two companies, nor is it true that Walmart is winning.

Further Reading: