Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama – No real change

From the January 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Judging by the ubiquitous media-generated euphoria that greeted the Barak Obama victory in the US presidential election, you could be forgiven for thinking that the class struggle had ended in the USA. Across the globe, the world’s media intimated that this was the dawn of a new age and hundreds of millions of workers breathed a sigh of relief, convinced President Obama will now undo all the wrongdoing carried out by President Bush and generally improve the quality of their lives and the safety of the planet.

The first thing to note, however, is that this had been the most expensive American election so far. The pooled cost of the Republican and Democratic campaigns was a cool $1 billion. The McCain camp raised $340 million whereas the Obama team secured $640 million.While Obama’s team boasted that most of their money came from small $100 and $200 donors, in truth the great bulk of his financial support came from Wall Street and the US corporate elite and was way in advance of that given to John McCain, suggesting the US capitalism plc feels its profits are best protected via Obama. The US power elite bankrolled the Obama campaign and for no other reason than that they know he will have to repay their loyalty.

An estimated 64 percent of the US electorate turned out to vote – a record by all accounts - 62.3 million votes. The majority of the extra voters were Blacks and Latino, not only drawn to the ballot box by the longing to oust a reactionary Republican regime, or by Obama’s promise of ‘change’ but, moreover, because Obama was non–white. Socialists could only watch on and comment that this election was not a race issue, but a class issue and lament their selective amnesia. One time Secretary of State Collin Powell rose through the ranks covering up the My Lai massacre and famously presented false evidence to the UN in furtherance of the US justification for the invasion of Iraq. Consider too his successor Condoleezza Rice, the zealous maid-servant to Bush’s imperialist strategy.

To be sure, Obama was not breaking any mould, despite his hope-fused rhetoric. The vast majority of voters, indeed workers the world over, were heartily fed up with Bush’s wars, his imperialist conquests, the US disregard for international law and the increasing pariah status this had earned America and sincerely wanted to see the back of it. The signs, however, that Obama was more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing were already there, not least in the Senate where he sanctioned every increase in funding for the Iraq war that George Bush requested.

Furthermore, like Bush, Obama is a supporter of the death penalty. He is pro-pollutant nuclear and coal industries and, whilst the Guardian could optimistically run a headline “Obama will move to veto Bush laws” (10 November), has not mentioned eradicating repressive legislation such as the Patriot Act, homeland security, the Military Commissions Act, internet control, and wiretapping and spying on the US populace.

It certainly looks like the Bush administration’s imperial ambitions will continue under Obama. He has already spoken about building up US military power by 20,000 troops and has declared his intention to cut troop numbers in Iraq and transfer them to a surge in Afghanistan and indeed spread war to nuclear armed Pakistan. All of this will be, as under Bush, carried out to further the interests of a profit-hungry corporate elite and veiled in pompous patriotic oratory about spreading democracy and American values and fighting the “war on terror.” Undoubtedly, Obama will soon be using the hackneyed theme of social unity to wage the class war internally and abroad on behalf of a small power elite.

He also undertaken, to “isolate Hamas”, elected in democratic elections that were verified by an international team of observers and, picking up the baton from Bush, used his first press conference as president-elect to likewise cock a snook at the US National Intelligence Estimate and evidence presented by the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear intentions, and accused Iran of the "development of a nuclear weapon" and vowed "to prevent that from happening."

If Obama apologists think President Obama will put a halt to the blood letting they are going to be sorely disappointed. Make no mistake; whilst the left are fond of castigating Republicans as the masters of war, the truth is that historically the Democrats have started far more wars than the GOP. More recently, under the last Democrat to hold office, President Clinton, one million Iraqis are said to have died under US enforced sanctions, 500, 000 of them children. Sorties over Iraq were flown every single day Clinton was in power. Yugoslavia was mercilessly bombed and a much needed pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was bombed on the pretext that it was manufacturing Chemical weapons, and villages in Afghanistan were flattened because Bin-Laden was presumed to be living there. And who could forget the US invasion of Somalia, with troops storming the beaches live on prime time TV!

Who will make up the Obama administration is at the time of writing speculation, though we do know his Chief of Staff is Israeli army veteran Rahm Emanuel, popularly viewed as Likudist hawk and that his National Securtiy Adviser will be architect of the Mujahedeen Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Not only is Obama incapable of ushering in significant change, bar a few miserly reforms, but neither is there anyone he can bring to his administration capable of bringing the change that was so promised in his election campaign for no other reason that changers do not get confirmed by the Senate. There exist quite influential interest groups – the AIPAC, the military security complex, Wall Street etc to hinder the advancement of such undesirables.

The hope many have in Obama to implement policies that will benefit the class that matters is misplaced. His political rawness means he will be manipulated by more experienced advisers, little different from the neo-cons, maybe even key figures from the Bush administration, and pressured by a corporate elite who funded his victory to execute policies that fit in with their own agenda.

The outcome of US elections carries one truth: namely that whichever candidate becomes president, he has but one remit once in office – to further the interests of the US corporate elite. It’s just not a feasible option for any newly elected president to entertain any idea other than guaranteeing a safe playing field for the domestic profit machine and doing what’s needed to try to ensure the US maintains its global hegemonic status.

John Bissett

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Congo – The mobile phone war

Although the peace accord of 2003 ended five years of war in other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fighting has continued intermittently in the eastern Kivu region. The latest bout began on October 25, when the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda resumed their offensive, accompanied by the usual atrocities against civilians, burning villages, and floods of starving refugees.

What is this war about?

Spillover from Rwanda?

At first sight, it looks like spillover from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. General Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and Christian fundamentalist, says he is protecting his people from the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and later fled over the border. He is backed by troops of the current Tutsi government of Rwanda, which the Interahamwe seeks to overthrow.

This version is a smokescreen. Nkunda has shown much less interest in pursuing the Interahamwe than in seizing control of Kivu’s rich mineral resources – partly on behalf of Rwandan business interests, partly perhaps for his own enrichment. He exploits the memory of genocide to mobilize the Tutsis in his support and win foreign sympathy, much as Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust for its purposes. Control over resources is also the main concern of the Congo government in Kinshasa and its armed forces.

The most valuable minerals in the Kivu region are two metallic ores called cassiterite and coltan. These contain substances whose special properties are ideally suited to various high-tech applications. Niobium alloys are used in jet and rocket engines because they remain stable at very high temperatures, while tantalum and tin oxide are used in making electronic circuitry for devices ranging from computers to DVD players and MRI scanners. In particular, the rapidly rising demand for mobile phones has pushed up the price of coltan, fuelling the fight to control and mine its deposits. So we could call the war in eastern Congo “the mobile phone war.”

On both sides, part of the proceeds from selling resources (through chains of middlemen) on the world market goes to finance military operations, which in turn secure access to the resources. This is an example of the “war as business” model (Material World, November 2008), which arises in this case from the weakness of state institutions in Central Africa.

A helpless giant

In the Congo it is especially difficult for the government to exercise sovereignty over “its” territory, which is roughly the area of Western Europe (2.34 million km2). The transportation and communications infrastructure is extremely underdeveloped; no road or rail link traverses the whole country from east to west. Under these conditions, it is quite impossible to defend borders with nine neighbours that stretch over 10,744 km.

Neighbouring states can therefore invade Congo territory whenever they like. No fewer than seven foreign armies fought in the “civil” war that began in 1998. In the background, the old colonial powers – France, Belgium and Britain – and two players newer to the region, the United States and China, jockey for position, assiduously promoting the interests of their corporations while carefully concealing how these corporations hire private armies and fuel the conflict. All these governments, armies and corporations are after the same things, the vast resources that lie on – and especially under – Congolese soil: various metals, diamonds, uranium, potash, timber, wildlife, oil and gas, etc.

Then there are the “peacekeeping” forces of the United Nations, even though there is no peace to keep. The real reason for their deployment is, in fact, to protect the interests of French and other foreign capital. It is this that explains the apparently odd fact that most of the “peacekeepers” are kept well away from the areas affected by the current fighting. Those who do enter the combat zone make no effort to assist relief work or protect civilians, who vent their anger by yelling and throwing stones at the UN vehicles.

Torn apart by rival predators, there is a striking parallel between today’s Congo and another “helpless giant” – China in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.

A curse not a blessing

In a different system of society, many resources in central Africa could be utilized for the purpose of ecologically sustainable development for the benefit of local communities. The natural products of the rainforest could be preserved and harvested for dietary and medicinal use. There is a vast potential for hydroelectricity and, of course, solar power.

But in a capitalist world Congo’s resources have been a curse not a blessing for the overwhelming majority of its people, bringing them invasion, enslavement, starvation, war and upheaval. European capital first descended on the country in 1885 in the horrific form of the Congo Free State, a corporate state controlled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium, who made money from it by exporting rubber collected under compulsion by the indigenous people. Those who failed to meet their quotas were mutilated; those who refused to work for the conquerors were killed.

This reign of terror, which would have done the Nazis proud, led to a population loss of some ten million (see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost). How many people must have wished that their country had no rubber!

In 1908 the Congo Free State gave way to the Belgian Congo, which gained formal independence in 1960. Mobutu’s kleptocracy followed in 1971 and lasted until 1997, when the recent period of upheaval began. Regimes come and go, but the ravenous extraction of resources by foreign corporations never stops.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Post-modern guru

Goodbye Mr Socialism. Radical Politics in the 21st Century. Antonio Negri with Raf Scelsi. Serpents Tail Press, London, 2008

The Italian intellectual, Toni Negri, who was once sentenced to jail in Italy for giving a theoretical defense of urban terrorism, is highly regarded in some circles. The blurb on the back of this book describes him as "one of the world's leading experts on Marxism" and as "a guru of the post-modern Left". He may well be the latter but is certainly not the former.

The opening chapter is a surprisingly indulgent justification of some of the things that happened in Stalin's Russia, even if this is part of the "Mr Socialism" to which he is saying good bye in this transcript of a question and answer session with another Italian intellectual. The other part is the whole idea of the factory proletariat, organised in trade unions and left wing political parties, as the agent of social change:

"the epoch of wages is finished and that the struggle has moved from the level of a fight between capital and labour regarding the wage, to a fight between the multitude and the State around the income of citizenship."

The "income of citizenship" is a clumsy translation of what is more usually called a "Basic Income" or, by the Green Party, a "Citizen's Income", defined in a lexicon at the end of the book as:

"a monetary payment distributed at regular intervals to all those who enjoy citizenship and residency for a certain period of time, which allows a minumum dignity of life . . . It is paid to those of working age, for the period that goes from the end of obligatory schooling to pension age or death."

Negri supports this as he sees the demand for it as "a refusal of work and of the wage relationship". If introduced other than as some tinkering with the tax and benefits system it would indeed undermine the economic compulsion to go out and work for an employer; which of course (apart from its cost) is why it is never going to happen under capitalism. In any event, as a goal, it is a poor substitute for "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs".

Negri does, however, have a point when he criticises those who look only to the factory proletariat as the agent of social change. This is only a section of the working class properly so-called and, in the developed capitalist parts of the world, is now less than 50 percent of the workforce. But, in placing his hopes in those with knowledge skills involved in non-material work (the "cognitariat" as he calls them) he would seem to be making the same mistake of wanting to rely on a section only of the working class.

Surely the point is that social change has to be up to the class of wage and salary workers as a whole, not just one section. Or perhaps this is what Negri means by the "multitude", which, if it is, comes across in English as a rather derogatory term to describe all those forced by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary.