Posts Tagged ‘civil liberties’

In The Myths of Capitalism, Michael Parenti explodes the most prevalent myths the ruling elite perpetuates regarding capitalism. Examples include

  • Capitalism produces prosperity – in truth capitalism produces prosperity for a handful of people and poverty for nearly everyone else. Parenti gives numerous examples of this.
  • The poor are responsible for their own poverty and are always looking for handouts – in reality, poverty occurs when the ruling elite privatize resources and public services to increase profits. Wherever capitalism is introduced, poverty follows.
  • Privately run businesses are always more efficient than those that are publicly run – Parenti gives number examples (including the post office, Medicare and Social Security) of government-run operations that have far less bureaucracy and far lower administrative costs than their private counterparts.
  • Capitalism fosters democracy – Parenti demonstrates quite ably how the exact opposite is true. A well educated working class that resists exploitation by exercising their democratic rights is an enormous threat to private profit. The US ruling elite fully supported the Bush/Obama suspension of basic civil liberties, the routine surveillance of the citizenry and the introduction of torture.

Most of the presentation focuses on the corporate crime and corruption and routine economic instability inherent in a capitalist economic system. Under modern industrial capitalism the only way to keep the economy from collapsing is to undertake a permanent state of perpetual war.

Reflections on the Overthrow of Communism

Michael Parenti (2009)

Michael Parenti maintains that the Soviet Union didn’t collapse of its own accord in 1991 – that it was overthrown by the US and their allies.  He details the US-backed coup undertaken by Boris Yeltsin’s in 1993 when the Russian parliament refused to approve his extreme market-based reforms. Parenti also discusses the extreme misery Wall Street elites and the State Department inflicted on the Russian people in the effort (prior to Putin’s rise to power) to transform their country into a third world sweatshop. He highlights the massive increase in gang inequality and crime, and the increase in gender inequality (as the right to maternity leave, day care, divorce and abortion were stripped from the Russian constitution), sexual harassment, domestic violence and murder of women by their husbands.

The US Left’s Virulent Anticommunism

Parenti freely acknowledges that Soviet citizens sacrificed civil liberties for economic democracy, ie a society in which all citizens are  lifted out of poverty and enjoy free health care and education, subsidized housing and public transport and an absolute guarantee against brutal exploitation. He contrasts this with life in the US, where working people enjoy neither economic democracy nor civil liberties. He’s also scathingly critical of the American left (he mentions Noam Chomsky by name), which is much more virulently anti-communist than their right wing counterparts.

He goes on to detail serious weaknesses of the Soviet system, which he believes contributed to its demise. Overall he feels the Soviet economic system suffered from an absence of independent analysis. While Karl Marx offers a thorough critique of capitalism, he has no counterpart to critique the socialist/communist model.

The Human Nature Debate

Where Parenti and I part company is is contention that “pure socialism” (ie total abolition of the state) is impossible. He makes the argument that if workers run everything, it’s impossible to accumulate enough surplus value to finance an army to 1) to break the stranglehold of the capitalist class and 2) to defend against counter-revolution. He also maintains a state is necessary to protect against the greedy, acquisitive nature of human beings.

These views are also contradicted by decades of sociological research that human beings (like all primates) are hard wired to be social animals and naturally inclined towards cooperation and interdependence (see Human Nature: Cultural or Genetic. There is also strong evidence that much of the greed and antisocial behavior that characterizes the capitalist system stems from traumatic child rearing styles.

Owned and Operated

Relic (2012)

Film Review

Owned and Operated is a documentary about dismantling corporate rule. This non-ideological film features dissidents across the political spectrum, among them John Oliver, George Carlin, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Rifkin, Rob Hopkins, Ron Paul, Ray McGovern, James Corbett, Alex Jones and Brian Wilson. In addition to the film’s touchy-feely ending, I was also disappointed in the filmmakers heavy promotion of technology as the solution to the world’s urgent political and ecological crises.

In my view, the best part of the film is Part 1, The Freak Show. This is a humorous but surprisingly accurate depiction of modern corporate culture and the dangerous and bizarre effect of systematic corporate indoctrination on human behavior.

Part 2, Class War and Organized Greed, concerns the obscene greed of the 1% and their systematic takeover of our supposedly democratic political systems.

Part 3, Freedom vs Security concerns the systematic loss of civil liberties that has accompanied the War on Terror.

Part 4, The Awakening, concerns recent mass movements triggered by the 2008 global economic meltdown, including Occupy, the Arab Spring, Anonymous and the Zeitgeist, Transition and Open Source Ecology movements.

Part 5, the Future, heavily promotes Jeremy Rifkin’s views on the role of the Internet and mass connectivity in solving mankind’s most pressing problems. I tend to agree with Ronald Wright’s analysis (in A Short History of Progress) that humanity’s eagerness to rush into new technologies has tended to create more problems than it solves.

That being said the film ends on an extremely positive note by scrolling the web addresses of scores of social change movements for viewers to explore.

(The 4th of 8 posts regarding my 2002 decision to emigrate from the US to New Zealand)

It only became clear once I left the US the immense sacrifices Americans make for their cheap gasoline and consumer goods (see previous post). The most obvious is a range of domestic programs that other developed countries take for granted. These include publicly financed universal health care (in all industrialized countries except the US) and a range of education, jobs and social programs enacted under Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, which Reagan, Bush and Clinton repealed.

With a so-called war on terror on multiple fronts (I can count at least ten countries the US is at war with), federal block grants to states and cities have all been diverted to Pentagon spending. In city after city, there is no money to repair badly decrepit roads and bridges or provide adequate street lighting and policing. While dozens of clinics, libraries and homeless shelters shut their doors and teachers, cops and other state and local employees get laid off.

Sacrificing Democratic Rights and Civil Liberties

As citizens of the world’s greatest military power, Americans also make major sacrifices in terms of democratic governance and civil liberties. This, too, only became clear once I became an expatriate.

Genuine democracy is totally incompatible with military empire. If allowed some say whether to spend most of their tax dollars on weapons and war, the vast majority of Americans would respond with a resounding “no.” Civilian populations are universally repelled by the carnage of war. Women, who comprise more than fifty percent of the population, consistently oppose any military tactics that kill large numbers of civilians. Likewise taxpayers of both sexes expect to see their hard earned tax dollars spent on public programs that benefit them. Not to enrich Wall Street banksters and corporate war profiteers.

Ordinary Romans felt the same way. Which was the main reason their leaders abandoned democracy when they undertook to expand the Roman republic into an empire.

Creating a Constitution Conducive to Empire

There’s also a clear link between the growing wealth an power of banks and multinational corporations and the recent attack on democratic rights and civil liberties (the repeal of habeas corpus and legalized government spying authorized under the Patriot Act and NDAA).

This relates, in my view, to structural flaws in the US system of government that make it less democratic than other industrialized countries. These mostly relate to what the Constitutional framers referred to as “separation of powers.”

In social studies we were taught these “checks and balances” were intended to make the US government more democratic. However it’s clear from the writings of Hamilton, Madison and other constitutional framers that their real intent was to minimize the risk of a direct popular vote harming the interests of wealthy landowners and merchants.

In their writings, the founding fathers make no secret of their imperialistic ambitions (their plans to declare war on the Native Americans and Mexicans who possessed the lands west of the 13 original colonies). This military expansionsim was extremely unpopular with a mainly rural, farming population that experienced immense personal and economic hardship during the Revolutionary War.

And military expansion didn’t end when the US seized the Southwest and California from Mexico. In 1895, the US declared war on Spain to expand the empire to include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines and other Pacific islands.

Parliamentary Democracy=One Man One Vote

Unlike the majority of industrialized countries, the US doesn’t employ a “one-man-one-vote” system of representational democracy. The only hope our Constitutional framers had of enacting their pro-business, pro-military agenda was to establish two branches of government (the Senate and Presidency) that wouldn’t be determined by direct popular vote. The idea was to block populist legislation enacted by the democratically elected House of Representatives

After 11 1/2 years experience with New Zealand’s, parliamentary democracy, I have absolutely no doubt that it’s more democratic than the US system. Under a parliamentary system, the head of the party controlling the majority of legislative seats automatically becomes chief of state. The moment the prime minister loses the majority he/she needs to pass legislation, the government collapses and a new election is called. This is in marked contrast to the US Congress. The latter has been virtually paralyzed for 30 years – while American schools and the US health care system continue to disintegrate in front of our eyes.

Another important advantage of a parliamentary democracy is the establishment of an official opposition party, which is expected to attack and embarrass the party in power. The result is vigorous and often raucous parliamentary debate, characterized by booing, cheering and outright heckling by members of the opposition parties.

Open “bipartisan consensus,” which is so heavily promoted by the US mainstream media, would be extremely unpopular in New Zealand. The majority of Kiwi voters retain a strong working class consciousness and are extremely dismissive of politicians with open ties to the corporate and business lobby.

Video of Question Time in NZ Parliament:

2nd amendment

I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the anti-civil liberties side of gun control. It strikes me as a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegeterianism, etc.), owing to the strong class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters.

Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – are alive and well in the US. From the perspective of a blue collar worker, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who make the rules for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.

Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in rural provincial areas.

The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control

For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place. However I’m not utterly alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club, whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”

Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Preogressive Review: “Why Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be intersect with a drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to share my view that progressives lose elections as much because of their condescending attitudes as their issues.

In January  2011 (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He likens gun control as to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.

How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment

None of this explains how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to civil liberties implications, the bill encountered stiff Congressional opposition. Finally in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the inner city riots to pass a watered down version of the industry’s original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.

Progressive research into gun control generally makes two equally salient points: 1) the aim of gun control legislation is to control people (mainly disenfranchised minorities and the poor), not guns and 2) in countries with strict gun control laws, the use of deadly force is restricted to the police and army, as ordinary citizens aren’t trusted to play any role (including self-defense) in maintaining law and order.

Using Gun Control to Control African Americans

America’s extreme preoccupation with gun control appears directly related to their 200 year history of slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation. As Steve Ekwall writes in the Racist Origins of US Gun Control,and Clayton Cramer in Racist Roots of Gun Control, the targeting of blacks with early gun control laws is extremely blatant.

In the south, pre-civil war “Slave Codes” prohibited slaves from owing guns. Following emancipation, many southern states still prohibited blacks from owning guns under “Black Codes.” This was on the basis that they weren’t citizens and not entitled to Second Amendment rights. After the 1878 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formally acknowledged blacks as citizens, southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns, so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the market.

Ekwall also quotes gun control advocate Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns (1972). Sherill states unequivocally that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, not to control guns, but to control blacks.”

Ekwall goes on to describe the unprecedented 1965-68 race riots in 125 American cities, in which the violence was graphically magnified by extensive TV coverage. The paranoia this engendered in the corporate and political elite was greatly heightened by Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panthers openly advocating violent revolution and the well-publicized protests (and police riot) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The Last Pro-Gun Democrat

As Joe Bageant writes in Deer Hunting with Jesus, the 1968 pro-war Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey uttered the last breath of Democratic sanity over the gun control issue. It’s really sad how radical he sounds in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

photo credit: Whiskeygonebad via photopin cc

smoking

As a doctor, I’m well aware of the negative health effects of smoking. Studies show a life time of smoking subtracts an average of ten years from your life expectancy. I’m also aware of the considerable health costs of treating smoking-related illnesses, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. Other studies suggest that non-smokers actually generate higher health care costs because they live ten years longer. This research receives limited publicity. The Center for Disease Control prudently chooses not to promote the cost savings associated with premature death.

Owing to a chronic sinus condition, I’m also painfully aware of the effects of second hand smoke. Prior to the public ban on smoking, I had no choice but to avoid public areas (restaurants, bars, theaters and even airplanes) where smoking was likely to occur.

The Stigmatization of Smokers

However, as an organizer and civil libertarian, I’m also extremely wary the increasing stigmatization of smokers – especially when I read that employers are using “smoker status” as a justification for not hiring people. In this regard, I think the right wing may be justified in labeling liberals who lobby for smoking bans as “green fascists.” In an era were corporate and government interests are looking for every possible opportunity to pit working Americans against one another, it’s counterproductive to be hypercritical of lifestyle choices.

Most progressives know better than to stigmatize the unemployed and homeless. Yet many of us don’t give a second thought about villainizing smokers, alcoholics, fat people – and, might I add, gun owners. All four are popular targets right now. I blame this on liberals’ willingness to embrace what is essentially conservative ideology – the need to take “personal responsibility” for our lives.

The Cult of Personal Responsibility

Taking “personal responsibility” simply ain’t going to cut it right now. Not for millions of unemployed Americans, nor the million plus homeless, nor for thousands of families facing imminent foreclosure and/or eviction. And singling out designated groups for bad lifestyle choices distracts us from the real problem in the US – a concerted attack by Wall Street and our corporate-controlled President and Congress on working people.

Decades of epidemiological research (see prior blog on Dr Stephen Bezruchka) show that lifestyle choices account for only 10% of the causation of illness. If we’re really serious about improving Americans’ abysmal health status (near the bottom for industrial countries), it’s time to address the real cause of poor health. Study after study shows a direct link between their extreme income disparity and Americans’ high rate of both acute and chronic illness.

It’s time to focus on the real problem – the corporate deregulation and tax cuts responsible for extreme income equality in the US. Instead of scapegoating smokers and fat people.

photo credit: cszar via photopin cc