Showing posts with label political action. Show all posts
Showing posts with label political action. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is power a function of speech? That, in essence, was the core of the Supreme Court decision we know under the deeply cynical – but curiously not inaccurate – name of Citizens United. Limiting the right of the wealthy to spend limitless sums of capital on political campaigns was curtailing their right to speak about issues that matter both to them and the polis.

But capital is not speech – it’s power. Consider the example of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.  The company employs 613,300 people, roughly twice the number who worked at IBM when I was employed there in the late 1990s. Amazon actually earned $171 billion in revenue in 2017, with an overall net income of $3 billion, assets worth $131 billion and a stock valuation of just under $28 billion. Thus the equity per employee of Amazon was a smidgen over $45,000. One could argue that the company was and is a good buy at its current price of around $1500 per share. There is a lot of value in its activity that is not captured in a stock price that low.

That value is divided, of course, not among its employees, but rather its shareholders, the largest being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Not that Bezos depends entirely upon undervalued Amazon stock for his wealth. His early investment in Google (a mere $250,000) for example, is now worth more than $3 billion and Bezos owns a lot of other stuff, including a space exploration company and, through a limited liability corporation called Nash Holdings, The Washington Post, an asset that makes him a target of angry tweets by President Trump. Overall, Bezos is said to be worth over $150 billion, slightly ahead of Bill Gates, but considerably ahead of you and me.

Whether Bezos is the richest man in the world, as Wikipedia and Forbes, assert, or not depends on part on how one values the wealth of some off-the-books types, such as Vladimir Putin ($200B, give or take[i]) or the 2,000-members of the Saud family said to be worth a total of roughly $1.4 trillion, a significant amount of which is controlled by a handful of elders. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the one country named for its ruling family.

A few years ago, when Bill Gates first became the “richest man in the world,” it was a title that  could be had for $30 billion. The subsequent growth in these numbers reflects a fundamental tendency of capitalism to accumulate and concentrate. If all the money in the world (currently somewhere around 255 trillion US$) were divided equally among the eight billion people on this planet, everyone would have a net worth a little under $32,000, which is about one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school. So the likes of Bezos, Gates, Putin and Mohammad bin Salman represents quite a bit more than their “share” of the world’s wealth if we look at the planet as something akin to an asset that belongs to us all.

Which means that these disproportionate concentrations of wealth represent serious distortions of power, including the power to concentrate food, shelter and physical wellbeing. That is what politics is all about. In terms of wealth, Jeff Bezos has 4 million seven hundred thousand times that of the average human being. Dividing Amazon’s HQ2 50,000 future employees among the residents of northern Virginia and the Bronx is just one way to ensure that Bezos’ absolute economic influence in the metro DC and New York City regions will be magnified by significant voting blocs of people for whom what is in Amazon’s interest translates into their own welfare. It’s the old “What’s good for General Motors” formula updated for the internet age.

So the protection of wealth as speech – again, the essence of Citizens United – is intended to ensure that the concentration of capital will be protected by the US Constitution. It’s a neat trick that Lewis Powell first foresaw when he suggested the weaponization of the US legal system in his memo to the US Chamber of Congress in August of 1971. Since then, the US right has organized systematically to take over the courts, a process that has required diligence, organization and a reasonably singled-minded focus for 48 effing years to accomplish its goal with beer-boy Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s wave of confirmations of Kavanaugh knock-offs to fill a wide range of lower court vacancies that built up during the Obama years, complements of Mitch McConnell.

By way of contrast, future Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was so appalled at the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972 that he founded the Democrat Leadership Conference to ensure that Democratic politics in the next generation would not be weighed down by any socialist-leaning ideas from the American Left. Clinton’s vision of a Democratic Party working in unison with liberal aspects of corporate America has governed the party pretty much until this last election. Even now, the Democrats find themselves with Chuck Schumer, a US Senator who represents exactly one city block of lower Manhattan, and Nancy Pelosi, a committed centrist, running the party in Congress, plus a passel of disparate candidates hoping to run for the presidency in 2020, exactly two of whom (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) might be characterized as “on the left.” Most, although not all, of the rest seems to be following the Obama formula of looking progressive while operating as centrists – no “out” centrist has won the Electoral College since 1996. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman who often voted with the GOP and who can be characterized as a progressive only when contrasted with the likes of Ted Cruz, is more typical of the field.

In short, we have a relatively organized American right, currently being held captive by a politician who demonstrates that party’s contempt for professionalism in politics, against a  broad array of candidates most of whom actively do not want to challenge the Democratic party’s symbiotic relationship with Wall Street, Hollywood and tech billionaires. What an appealing choice! Further, the longer the Republicans can control the Senate and the executive branch, the more damage they can do and the longer it will take any bottom-up mass movement of Americans to overturn the right’s stranglehold on at least the judiciary.

And did I mention that climate change makes the problem more urgent every day?

It’s enough to make a Chomskyian out of a sane person, if only because Chomsky’s complaints about the rapacious nature of capitalism tend to be reasonable. The real problem is how to undo what has been done and overturn capital’s stranglehold on the polis. If you don’t break that stranglehold, any short-term fixes will prove as fragile as Barack Obama’s progressive heritage.

I think that the answer to the first question has to lie in a series of Constitutional Amendments, the first of which declares that money is not speech. But I wouldn’t want to call a Constitutional Convention in the present political climate, would you? Handmaid’s Tale, here we come.

Long term, it will take at least the single-minded focus that the GOP has demonstrated since 1971 and a degree of organization that is the equal of the Republican right. One aspect of that organization has to be a consistent never-ending critique of capital’s role in society, precisely its capacity to concentrate power.

It is that disequalibration that underpins all the ways that capital empowers every form of privilege that exists: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, age privilege, you name it.

If I look at how Jeff Bezos employs his wealth, he seems innocuous enough. Amazon’s corporate contributions have skewed slightly Republican, but not significantly so, and Bezos himself has mostly supported establishment Democrats. His ownership of the Post has been hands-off  in pointed contrast with the Murdoch clan, allowing professional journalists to do their jobs, even if a lot of Post contributors clearly suffer from inside-the-Beltway conventional thinking. Bezos’ more important political contribution has been a $10 million gift to With Honor, a non-profit cofounded by GOP strategist (and never-Trumper) David Gergen to elect more veterans to Congress. Not all veterans are conservatives – Ron Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as a former Marine. But the overall impact of such giving, like hiring some 50,000 employees in two key districts on the East Coast, seems poised to ensure the well-being of Amazon itself as it remakes the commercial sale and distribution of products in a web-driven world.

And progressive-sounding politicians who do nothing to ensure the election of progressives at the state and local level, as was the case with Obama, or who do nothing to disengage US foreign policy from the interests of international corporations – as was also the case with #44 – do little more than ensure that the worst immediate consequences of capital may be inhibited while the deeper stranglehold of wealth on history and privilege continue unabated. I think it’s arguable whether or not Obama made the ascendancy of a racist and fascist to the presidency inevitable, but he certainly helped to magnify the damage that man can do while in office. Voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere, are a direct result of Obama’s abandonment of state and local politics while in office. The disarray of US foreign policy reflects the reality that Obama’s international vision amounted to little more than continuing the use of US military might (this time with drones!) to bolster a global order tailor-made by and for US corporations[ii]. When Trump came to pull that house down, it was already in considerable shambles.

The same year that Lewis Powell penned his infamous memo to the Chamber of Commerce, he was nominated by Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court where he would serve for 16 years. He died finally in 1998, some twenty years before the Kavanagh nomination ensured that a nation that leans to the left will have its laws interpreted for a generation by a court that leans markedly to the right. That’s a vision of a long arc, a vision the left has lacked for a generation. With the growing threat of global warming sure to push ever larger numbers of people to increasingly desperate acts, it’s really now or never.

[i] A problematic figure suggested first by Bill Browder, the Russian investment oligarch son of former US Communist Earl Browder, and man most likely to grip a poisoned doorknob for his opposition to Putin.

[ii] Henry Kissinger’s corporate sponsor throughout his career was Nelson Rockefeller. His Democratic counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was in turn sponsored by David Rockefeller. The company the Rockefellers inherited was Standard Oil, the global predecessor to Exxon. Kissinger and Brzezinski ran foreign policy during the Nixon and Carter years, and were replaced  during the Reagan era by Casper Weinberger and George Schultz, both of whom ran divisions at Bechtel. Reagan’s vice-president was the only CIA official to ever own his own oil firm, George  HW Bush. Oil’s tight control of foreign policy fit right into the rise of the automobile in post-WW2 America, as well as the automobile’s greatest achievement, the American suburb and the physical remaking of every metropolitan region in the nation. Why are the Saudis our friends? What’s good for General Motors?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thursday, December 20, 2012

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Qatari poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s crime consisted of reciting a poem extolling the courage and values of the popular uprisings in Tunisia. For that he's been sentenced to life in prison.

We have the opportunity to join with a remarkable list of prominent poets from around the world in urging the court in Qatar to reconsider.

Rather than making itself an instrument for cracking down on dissent, we believe that the Court should uphold Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s right to free speech. The poem he recited called for an end to intolerable conditions, a demand that for the past two years has been aired by millions throughout North Africa and the Arab world.

In this spirit, we poets and non-poets who perceive the need for worldwide change at the social, political and ecological level, call on the Court to review the appeal, stop siding with repression and lend its ear to the movements that have sprung up all over the world for dignity, social justice and freedom, virtues that poets all over the world are endeavoring to voice and deliver using the beauty and power of poetry.

Please sign the petition and forward this email widely to like-minded friends.

-- The team

First signatories:

Michael Rothenberg, Terri Carrion cofounders 100 Thousand Poets for Change
Michael McClure, Poet/ Playwright, USA
Sam Hamill, Poets Against War, USA
Sarah Browning, Split This Rock, USA
PEN American Center
Code Pink
Abraham Entin-Move To Amend Sonoma County, founder
Susan Lamont-Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County, coordinator
Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate (2011-2012)
Ron Silliman, Poet/Silliman's Blog
Alice Walker, USA
Pina Piccolo, 100 Thousand Poets for Change-Bologna
Roberto Malini, Genoa, Italy
Naomi Shihab Nye, USA
Sergio Rotino, Italy
Adam Vaccaro, Milanocosa, Italy
Steed Gamero, Peru/Italy
Rebeca Covaciu, Italy
Alessandro Brusa, Italy
Shailja Patel, USA/Kenya
El Habib Louai, Morocco
Natalia Molebatsi, Azania
raphael d’abdon, Azania/Italy
Jack Hirschman, San Francisco, USA
Agneta Falk-Hirschman, San Francisco, USA
Gabor Gyukics, Budapest, Hungary
Karam Youssef, Cairo, Egypt
Kristaq Shabani, President of the I.A.P.W.A "Pegasi" Albania
Robert Priest, Toronto, Canada
Eliot Katz, Hoboken, New York, USA
Lance Henson, Cheyenne/USA
Ipat Ciuraro, Italy
Fabio Petronelli, Italy
Alexéi Tellerías Díaz, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Betty Esperanza, Montreal, Canada
Alfredo Gonzalez-Baranquilla, Colombia
Nana Nestoros,Volos, Greece
Mariposa de la Rocio, Montevideo, Uruguay
Chapal Saha-Bogra, Bangladesh
Bart Plantenga, The Netherlands
Elliis Ebakor, Nigeria
Pilar Rodríguez Aranda, Mexico City, Mexico
Dean Johnson, Birkenhead, United Kingdom Songwriter/Playwright
Karim Metref, Italy
Antar Mohamed Marincola, 100 Thousand Poets for Change-Bologna, Italy
Mohamed Malih, Italy
Gassid Babilonia, 100 Thousand Poets for Change-Bologna, Italy
Paul Polansky, Serbia
Ed Warner-Poesia, Italy
Marina Mazzolani, 100 Thousand Poets for Change-Bologna, Italy
Patricia Quezada, 100 Thousand Poets for Change- Bologna, Italy
Andrea Garbin, poesiadalsottosuolo, Italy
Chris Abani, USA
Martín Espada, USA
Teresa Mei Chuc, USA
Marcia Lynx Qualey, Cairo, Egypt
Khaled Mattawa, poet USA/Libya
Fady Joudah, USA
Glenys Robinson, UK/Italy
Mitko Gogov, Strumica, Macedonia
Dennis Formento, New Orleans, LA, USA
Carolyn Forché, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., USA
Patricia Smith, USA
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Saturday, February 15, 2003

What does Peter Coyote have in common with Marvin Bell? The same thing that Clayton Eshleman has in common with Anselm Berrigan, Bill Berkson with Maxine Kumin, Ursala LeGuin with Julia Vinograd, and Stanley Kunitz with August Highland. All have participated in Sam Hamill’s still-growing poets protest against the war.

As hokey as the official chapbook of Poets Against the War might be, the website’s database of more than 5,000 poets is a remarkable collection of the diversity of American writing, an amazing statement in opposition to a war in which the shooting has not yet begun. While The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball might not recognize these names, here (based on the most perfunctory scroll through the website’s index) are a few that might be familiar to you:

Not all of these links lead to poems – several are statements of conscience. And I’m sure that as my eyes literally glazed over the table of contents, I missed a lot of other obvious “name brand” poets. The list above represents less than four percent of what can be found at the website and I heartily recommend scrolling through & reading widely. One way to start is to read everything from your neck of the woods. Collectively, it has that mind-numbing, awe-inspiring overwhelming quality I will always associate with the AIDS Quilt.

Given the balkanization of American letters & Sam Hamill’s own less-than-innocent role in same – the site’s chapbook itself underscores the problem perfectly – I think it takes an enormous amount of goodwill & sense of urgency to send a poem or statement to this project. That so many American (& a few Canadian) poets have done so is a testament to the lateness of the hour & the importance of the idea. If/when this war begins, these writers are on record that George W’s assault on the people of Iraq is not being conducted in our name.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

One of the great lessons of the Vietnam War is that a nation of people opposed to a foreign war can actually constrain & eventually halt that conflict. Unfortunately, one of the other lessons of that war is that this process takes time. Between the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident on 4 August 1964 and the day when the last Huey pulled the final refugees off of the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in April, 1975, eleven years, over 50,000 American & millions of Vietnamese lives were wasted. The current regime in Washington doesn’t know much about history books, but it does know that a “surgical strike” campaign, a war that can be measured in months or even weeks, is politically feasible.

Today was the day that Laura Bush originally set aside to invite a few poets to the White House to discuss Whitman, Hughes & Dickinson under the banner of ”Poetry and The American Voice.” This event won’t happen because one of the invited poets, Sam Hamill, turned out to be a conservative only in his aesthetics. Hamill, as concerned as any American about the impending disaster, sent out an email to some friends:

I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon.

That email spread like a computer virus, replicating over & over again until virtually every poet in the country must have received it at least once. I know that I stopped counting the copies I received when it got into double digits.

Somewhere along the way, somebody – it would interesting to know just who – thought to let Ms. Bush know of this impending anthology & the event was cancelled, generating several articles in the media. As it turned out, the poet laureates of both Canada and the United States weighed in against the war. Todd Swift’s ad-hoc antiwar anthologies got some media attention that they almost certainly would not otherwise have received. Editorial writers generally took the line that “poets will be poets,” which, condescending as it certainly is, at least acknowledges the historic opposition to war & brutality that many – but by no means all – poets have shown over the years. Even less surprisingly, writers who function professionally as right wing commentators, such as Roger Kimball & J. Bottum, both invited to the cancelled soiree, weighed in to scold their peers for a lack of manners, a curious way to balance the impolite bombing of the citizens of Iraq whose only crime is to have failed to oust a brutal & murderous dictator.

Since then, there have been plenty of opportunities for second-guessing. Hamill’s website has reminded everyone of what they knew all along – he’s really a conservative as a poet, even if he does oppose the war. His “chapbook” in fact reflects an establishmentarian poetics that wants more than anything to retain its role as just that. Others have suggested that attending the event & making a scene there might have generated even more media attention to the rapid arrival of a wide-spread & popular opposition to Bush’s war. I’m a skeptic on that one myself. I think that Hamill’s email took on a life of its own precisely because there is such widespread opposition.

But what concerns me is not the usual – & ultimately petty – divisions between traditions of poetry. I am experiencing emotions that I suspect many Germans must have felt in the late 1930s: my government is about to rain death onto the world in great quantity. The legitimate safety of the nation in which I live, one ostensible reason for this, can only be damaged by any invasion of Iraq. The other reasons for an invasion – ranging from the importance of upholding UN resolutions to Iraqi connections to al Qaeda – all fall into the categories of dubious to laughable. The history of the Soviet Union has demonstrated that containment works against far stronger foes than Saddam Hussein.

Which leaves only one plausible rationale for sending troops into Iraq: the liberation of the Iraqi people. I’m certainly sympathetic to that argument & can understand why left intellectuals from Ellen Willis to Salman Rushdie could be persuaded of the need for force to oust a genuinely barbaric dictator. But I have two problems with this argument itself – first is a rather long list of other nations that would, by logic, then force us to engage. Hussein may be the worst of a bad lot, but he is hardly alone. The second is that, from an Iraqi perspective, the last nation on earth I would to become an involuntary protectorate of would be the United States.

Far from “helping to spread democracy” to other Middle-Eastern states, the Bush strategy is a recipe for long-term destabilization of an entire region, stretching from sub-Saharan Africa and extending to the western provinces of China & the Philippine  archipelago. And, as should be apparent to anyone in the post-September 11th world, destabilization abroad can have profound consequences at home as well. Any attempt to stretch our military dominance over such a vast terrain – one that includes or touches at least four nuclear states – would require a transformation of the American economy toward a fortress America prepared for permanent conflict. It is no accident that no nation in history has been able to sustain an empire – the costs far outweigh any riches reaped.

What can be done to halt this disaster before it occurs? Short of a massive general strike in the United States, virtually nothing. The present regime has already demonstrated that it will not listen to the majority – that isn’t how it got into office, nor an impulse it has had even for one day since taking power. Further, it has subsequently consolidated power in all three branches of federal government.

Poets need to continue to speak out, to demonstrate to the world the absolute lack of consensus the actions of this regime have, to point to the hypocrisies & to call attention to all of the various new threats on democracy and justice that emanate from the axis of evil situated between Crawford, Texas, and the White House. But nobody, poets most of all, should be deluded into thinking that this by itself constitutes effective action.

The problem that poets have is one that we share with all progressives – the forces who promote this conflict have dramatically reorganized & transformed themselves since the 1960s. Progressives continue to use the same tools that took so very long to work four decades ago that millions died needlessly. Unless & until we can transform that imbalance, more to the American Voice than just poetry will continue to go unheard.