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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

America’s New Normal Challenges the Pareto Principle

America’s New Normal Challenges the Pareto Principle

“Looks like the Pareto Principle has been proven to be correct once again…. Don't mean to sound cynical but whether people are becoming poorer and desperate or expressing deep discontent, nothing is going to change. The [top] 20 percent are still going to dictate terms with their immense control over media and money.”

The quote above is one thoughtful reader’s response to the US presidential election campaign as Donald Trump appears to be losing ground, largely through his own off-the-cuff bigotry and xenophobia, and the leftist challenge of Bernie Sanders seems to have fizzled out as the Democratic party unifies behind Hillary Clinton to defeat their common enemy: Donald Trump.

The Pareto Principle – named after the work of Italian political sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), is part of a larger theory that may be summed up as the inevitability and “naturalness” of elite power. The history of power in all societies everywhere is one of elites – some fox-like and cunning (elite democracy?), others leonine and masculine (rule by force) – circulating in an endless series of births, deaths and re-births. And quite right too, ‘elitists’ assert.

So whatever the political label or rhetoric, elites always rule. The Pareto Principle contends that about 20% of any population basically produces 80% of the desired results – whether we refer to police officers fighting crime or teachers educating students, or ownership of wealth and the earning of income. Adding to this tradition, other major elite theorists, such as Robert Michels, argued for an iron law of oligarchy: whichever political party – revolutionary or reactionary, fascist, communist or democratic, conservative or liberal – gains power, it is bound to be ruled by an elite minority that is better organised, more gifted, and effective, justly easing out the masses from real power.

Elitism certainly has a ring of truth about it, and confirms the cynic in their cynicism – that nothing ever truly can or ever will change. But its take on reality suggests that the future looks just like the past, defying radical historical shifts in power – between classes or races or nations, for example.

Elitists like Pareto seemed to revere hereditary aristocracies where the ‘talents’ reigned supreme and democracy posed a threat, and Marxism threatened complete annihilation. Pareto’s birth in 1848 – a year of democratic revolutions in Europe as well as the publication of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and his death in 1923 in an era of rising fascism, tells its own story of fear of change and a desire to return Italy to the past glories of the Roman empire.

The end point of Pareto’s predictions is also open to question and worth exploring in the US context. The change that Sanders and Trump represent is explicable only in the context of recent political history – increasing dissatisfaction with elites on Right and Left exemplified by insurgencies from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall St, respectively. The Occupy movement became nationwide, involved millions of people and expressed deep discontent and anger, much of it shared among tea partiers on the right, especially in the areas of military spending, corporate welfare, and opposition to special interests, especially the big banks that were bailed out by taxpayers after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Those movements were the tinder-wood for the Trump and Sanders insurgencies against their respective party elites in the 2016 primaries. That, according to American sociologist Alvin Gouldner, means where there is an iron law of oligarchy, there is an equal and opposite law of struggle for democracy, an axiom especially true in the modern era. It is just a matter of time before the democratic eruption comes.

It might be worth considering another Italian thinker – Antonio Gramsci – who wrote about intellectual hegemony, political power, and political transformation: hegemony is almost always contested more or less openly and maintaining hegemony is no easy process. Gramsci offers hope through struggle and exposes the superficiality and inherent instability of elite domination, its openness to challenges from below. Gramsci died in one of Benito Mussolini’s prisons but practised what he preached – “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” – and his work inspired millions to keep pushing for change, because change itself is inevitable, given time and the balance of power between the status quo and change makers, those who make real history.

Apply that principle to history and we see that things do change even if the change is partial, incomplete and unsatisfactory to many – the end of apartheid in South Africa, political independence for the colonial world, relative peace in Northern Ireland, major advances in racialized power in the United States, the transformation in women’s rights across (most of) the world.

And if we apply Gramsci to American politics today, perhaps we might see a more complex picture – movements for change albeit tempered by a reassertion by status quo forces, the tentative, uncertain steps towards domestication of a radical agenda with the original impulse hardly extinguished.

Hence, we see that Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine have been forced to reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement by the power of the Sanders movement, and because of its appeal to rust-belt white workers, a portion of which are die-hard Trump supporters.

Clinton may not be a fully convinced opponent of Wall St and big money politics – after all, she and Bill make millions annually in speaking fees from the likes of UBS and Goldman Sachs – but she does feel the changing direction of the political wind. We may see some movement on a financial transactions tax on speculative behaviour, strengthening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Senator Elizabeth Warren fought to establish, and action against corporate concentration.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reputation has been enhanced by her stream of effective attacks on Donald Trump, and her campaign to rein in the power of the big banks seems to have been renewed by the Sanders movement. Sanders is acting as a major sponsor of the Warren-John McCain bill to restore key provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act – passed in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929 but repealed 70 years later by President Bill Clinton. The Act had prevented banks from speculating with ordinary peoples’ hard-earned savings. Hillary Clinton is committed to pushing a modernised version of Glass-Steagall.

The necessity of higher wages – backed by a new federal minimum wage of $15 per hour – was forced on Clinton by Bernie Sanders’s representatives on the Democratic platform committee at the national convention.

Hillary Clinton was also forced to flip-flop on the abolition of college tuition fees – she is now committed to making state universities and colleges free for students from families earning less than $125K annually – over 80% of all students.

From significant plans for an infrastructure bank to lead the renewal of America’s roads, railways, ports and bridges, to higher taxes on the 0.1% of top income earners, to a public option for healthcare cost reduction, to greater intra-party democracy, including reforming the super-delegates system, Bernie Sanders’s legacy may yet live on should Clinton win the White House.

As Professor Bastiaan van Apeldoorn of the Free University of Amsterdam argues, “The old order may no longer be sustainable; but we may be witnessing an interregnum, with the old order dying and a new one struggling to be born. The choice may increasingly [have to] be one between a real radical (left) reformism or fascism or Trumpism” or whatever form white ethno-nationalist bigotry may take.

“These are critical, transformative, times,” Apeldoorn comments. “With the (still likely) election of Clinton the neoliberal, Open Door, elite will get another lease of life but I cannot imagine it will be a sustained return to normalcy. Both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have made that clear.”

It may not be quite the political revolution Sanders demanded, but it is a major step away from the Trump counter-revolution, and an important nod towards the demands of the Sanders movement, and parts of Trump’s working class political base, and possibly a slightly fairer society. Things could be a lot worse.

But the cost to the American people will have to be paid in energetic vigilance – to ensure a level of democratic political mobilisation to guard against a smooth return to ‘normalcy’ and the Pareto Principle. The new normal needs protection.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Trump’s McCarthy Moment of Political Theatre Signals the Establishment’s Fight-Back

Red lines had been crossed, insults against numerous groups hurled, anti-elite charges of being out of touch advanced, accusations of treachery and selling the country out to subversives and foreigners made, repeatedly and with seemingly little political consequence, but the end came when there was a concerted attack on one of America’s most revered institutions – the US Army. This was part of the downfall of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953-4; he had gone too far, was out of control, and bringing elite anti-communism, a mainstay of cold war America’s justification for global expansion, into disrepute. Could it also be the beginning of the end of Republican contender, Donald Trump’s, presidential campaign? Has he gone too far even for hard-core right-wing Republicans who have fostered the very political culture from which Trumpism sprang? And, with the turning and defanging of Bernie Sanders’s leftist assault on Wall St, has American politics returned to normalcy, with the establishment firmly back in the cockpit?

Anti-communist US Senator Joseph McCarthy had decided, in discussions with that other Machiavellian Richard M. Nixon, that his road to fame and possibly the White House lay in exposing the communist takeover of America. From the boy scouts and girl guides, to the Protestant church to the White House, America was riddled with corruption and weakened by communist fifth-columns, and he was going to “take our country back”, as it were. Adding to a broad anti-communist and anti-liberal movement, which included the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), McCarthy went after practically every organisation in America, except the KKK, FBI and the GOP, and wreaked havoc among federal employees, thousands of whom lost their jobs, were blacklisted, or worse. He spoke, the media amplified his message by largely uncritical reporting, and heads rolled. He seemed invincible, his witch-finder-general role popular, and road to the White House assured. President Eisenhower frowned upon but refused to condemn or repudiate McCarthy; he happily tolerated, and supported, the construction of an existential Soviet threat as the basis of a foreign policy of anti-communist containment.

Yet, the Wisconsin senator’s aura of Teflon-like invincibility was finally torpedoed when he went so far as to attack America’s cherished military, the near-universal support for its warriors especially those who had fought the “good war” a mere decade earlier. During the US Army hearings of 1953, McCarthy called General Ralph Zwicker, a much decorated soldier, as having the intelligence of a five year old child and declared him “not fit” to wear an Army uniform. He later tried to destroy the career of a young US army lawyer, Fred Fisher, denouncing him as a fellow traveller of communism and membership of the bastion of communism in the USA, the National Lawyers’ Guild. This attack led the US army’s lead counsel, Joseph Welch, a Boston blue-blood Republican, to declare: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” From that point, the American public turned away from McCarthy and viewed him as cruel, manipulative, and dangerous, as did the US ‘moderate’ right-wing political elite. His fall from grace was rapid thereafter – he was censured by the Senate and he faded away, dying of alcohol poisoning in 1956.

Yet, McCarthy’s censure was on the grounds of conduct unbecoming a US senator – ungentlemanly behaviour, not on the pain and suffering he caused untold numbers of people. The GOP had had enough of McCarthy once his fiery anti-communism, once a powerful tool against the Democrats, had brought anti-communism itself into disrepute. He was out of control and took the rap. The man was disowned, but the anti-Red campaign continued. McCarthyism without McCarthy.
Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan in response the DNC speech of the father of a soldier son killed in action in Iraq, and subsequently on the son’s mother as silenced by the father’s Islamic beliefs, has led to outrage in general and among some Republicans as well. But although many Republican leaders have criticised Trump they have largely refused to repudiate him as their party’s candidate.

Trump’s defence against Khan’s accusation that he the GOP’s nominee had sacrificed nothing for his country – he’s created thousands of jobs – rang hollow. Khan called for him to step down from the election race, as unfit to lead America, followed by President Obama’s own invitation to the GOP to jettison Trump as their candidate.

Trump’s retaliatory attack on the Khans follows disrespect for the Vietnam war record of Senator John McCain, who’d spent several years as a prisoner of war. And his subsequent trivialisation of a purple heart from an admiring veteran of the Iraq war. But, McCain has yet to reject Trump in an election year and a tight race to retain his own Arizona senate seat.

As polls show Trump’s slump behind a 10-11% lead for Hillary Clinton, and a concerted attack from the Right from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, anti-Trump forces are renewed; Clinton and Republican senators and representatives are now more openly challenging Trump’s stance on Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine, assertiveness in Syria; there are murmurs about the GOP’s rules on replacing their duly elected nominee. Adding fuel to fire, Trump alienated even more Republicans by initially failing to endorse the candidacies of Republican senators and GOP leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell although his VP running mate, Mike Pence, publicly voiced his support for the leaders. It’s all looking like a shambles of their own making.

Reinforcing their usual political allies, Republican donors from corporate America are pulling the plug on the Trump campaign – the billionaire Koch brothers remain unconvinced that Trump can be tamed by the GOP or Pence, and are refusing to donate their fortunes to Trump’s faltering bid for the presidency. Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and many others have been recruited by the Clinton campaign to both denounce Trump and back Hillary, adding another GOP donor’s scalp to their tally, having already reeled in Michael Bloomberg. Republicans like former Reagan-Bush appointee, Frank Lavin, are reassured by the conservatism of the Democratic National Convention and Clinton’s selection of Senator Tim Kaine as running mate. Commented Lavin: “I have an increasing comfort level with Hillary Clinton…. She’s not going to be bossed around by the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.” A Republicans for Hillary Group appears imminent, pulling together existing smaller initiatives.

Yet, figures for June and July indicate a major surge in small donations to Trump’s campaign. His grass-roots’ support among America’s economically-disenfranchised, looked-down-upon  nationalist and ethno-centric element of the white working class seems to be holding; but even they might not like Trump’s disrespect for military service. Rural southern whites join the US military in droves. But, as so powerfully explained in J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Trump is the only candidate to speak their language and of their desperate plight.
The GOP donors’ and Democrats’ pincer movement appears to be gaining momentum with dire implications for the Trump campaign but also for the proclaimed radicalism of the Democrats (“the most radical platform in the history of the party”), trying to hold on to millions of Bernie Sanders’s voters. Trump’s anti-establishment credentials remain intact, while his political credibility is increasingly tattered among sceptical Republicans. Clinton’s base in the establishment, despite numerous anti-corporate passages in the party’s manifesto – now more apparently a sop to the powerful but defanged Sanders movement – seems stronger than ever.

The centre-ground, ever the preserve of the self-declared ‘moderate’ establishment, appears to be holding, but skewed heavily to the Right, defying both the Sanders revolution and Trump’s attack on elite power and its global over-reach. 

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London

He tweets from @USEmpire

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Democrats’ Leaked Emails Pseudo-drama: elite hollowness and return to politics as usual

The Democratic National Committee’s leaked emails preudo-drama reveals far more than the real story at the heart of the matter – that apparently neutral DNC discussed means to sabotage the Bernie Sanders primary election campaign. It thereby violated its claims to political neutrality between rival candidates and favoured Hillary Clinton, a party establishment darling. Diverting attention from the substance of the charge of political bias, the DNC first gently and politely nudged out its chair, Debbie Wasserman Shultz  (to a very comfortable honorary position), and then blamed the Russians for hacking party email servers in a bid to benefit Putin’s (apparently) preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Trump, rising to the elite politics game, added his own flavours to the mix and attributed a racial slur to Putin against President Obama, and egged the Russians to continue leaking more emails. In the age of post-truth politics, no evidence was required for these claims but their job was done – eyes were on Russia, Trump, etc and not on the DNC’s wrong-doing. 

While deflecting attention from the original issue, the episode also demonstrates why the United States is in political crisis today and will remain so for some time to come. While large swathes of the electorate scream from the pain of trying to make ends meet as real incomes fall and inequality rises, health care costs increase, police violence against black men reaches epidemic proportions, America’s infrastructure crumbles, and people look to leaders who apparently offer ways out of the crisis, the American political class has gone back to business as usual. They take or admit no responsibility for the Iraq War or the financial meltdown of 2008, fail to mention the debacle in Afghanistan, the massive increase of the power of Wall St corporations in economic and political life. America’s problems today, it appears, have nothing to do with the Republicans or Democrats.

This political amnesia is far more likely to damage the Democrats than the GOP’s Donald Trump – the only candidate reflecting popular anger against elite power; indeed it plays into his hands and boosts his chances of winning the White House – unless, of course, he self-ignites following one of his red-line crossing gaffes. This election was billed as Hillary Clinton’s to lose – and she and her celebratory coterie, backed by big money, appear to be heading into a very rough election season up to November. It may be that Trump fails to win rather than Hillary defeats a candidate President Obama has declared unfit for office.

Both parties’ conventions provide an insight into the crisis of elite party politics today and the more significant conclusion that neither party offers very much to their target voters. The GOP spent their convention papering over the cracks in their party’s fabric and raison d’etre, attacking the record of the Obama administration, and promising to make America great again and give it back to its own people, code for the anti-minorities xenophobia that galvanises an alliance between loyal Republicans and Trump’s white working class core support. The latter have been regaled with tales of jobs for all by abolishing free trade, and bashing the Chinese. But no support for increasing the federal minimum wage or investment in crumbling roads and bridges or schools has been offered. All the while, Trump built bridges to party elites with his selection of Governor Mike Pence as vice presidential running mate – a dyed-in-the-wool tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-corporations-conservative from the tea party wing of the GOP. Trump’s mission to restore America has no place for any redistribution of income and wealth which is what a majority of Americans and large proportions of Republican voters actually want. The only threat to GOP elites backing Trump is from the billionaire candidates own penchant for outrageous bigotry.    

And the Democrats, convened in Philadelphia, and let off the hook by Bernie Sanders’s full throated backing of Hillary Clinton, and pretended the Sanders insurgency never happened even as Michelle Obama, President Obama and nominee Clinton praised Bernie and started a major celebration of America’s continuing greatness and of its status quo. This left them with one place to go in focusing attention: Donald Trump. 

Trump is not only at the centre of his own campaign, he is also the Democrats’ sole target. No vision backed by specific policies and programmes to curb the power of Wall St and big money in politics, no job creation or infrastructure-building. To be sure, the Democratic platform bears witness to the compromise with Sanders – on college tuition fees, health care, federal minimum wage. But on the major question of the neoliberal order’s attachment to globalisation and outsourcing of factory jobs, and the power of big money in economy and politics, including bankrolling Hillary Clinton for decades, and the gross levels of inequality that process has generated, there is silence. Just more talk about how bad Trump is. Meanwhile Blackwater, one of the world’s largest private equity funds, whose CEO sits on the board of the Clinton-Obama think tank, the Center for American Progress, has held fundraisers for Obama and Clinton, and who some tip as a future treasury secretary, held a major reception in Philadelphia. And Hillary has received up to $123 million from such Wall St denizens in contrast to a paltry $19000 (yes, that’s $19K) donated to the Trump campaign. (Sanders received $0 from corporations). Hillary has personally earned over $20 million from closed-door speeches at Wall St firms. That’s why Clinton cannot even understand where critics of corporate-cash-dominated politics are coming from – to her, this is how normal politics works. Any plank of the Democrats’ platform needs to be read in this context.

It is unsurprising that last week’s great celebration of the glorious Obama years – also funded by major Wall St donors - failed to address any deep-seated problems of American society; yet it plays directly into Trump’s hands and threatens a smooth transfer of power from Obama to Clinton. It permits two things: Trump appears as the change candidate, and he can turn his guns onto Hillary Clinton in a race to the bottom on who’s part of the establishment, closer to the people or Wall St, the more dishonest and corrupt. And Trump is a lot better at playing that game than Clinton.
To Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, what’s most disturbing about the Brexit and Trump debates “is that there is zero elite reckoning with their own responsibility in creating the situation that led to both Brexit and Trump and then the broader collapse of elite authority.” Trump resonates, Greenwald commented, not due to popular stupidity but because people feel cheated and let down by “the prevailing order…. that they can’t imagine that anything is worse than preservation of the status quo.” People are so angry with the way things are that they simply want out of the current position, to throw out the existing elite, regardless of the consequences. This anti-politics is precisely the core appeal of Trumpism, a phenomenon set to outlive its eponymous hero.

The Trump and Sanders campaigns rode the deep discontents of a nation all the way to Cleveland and Philadelphia, despite sabotage attempts from party elites. The Sanders campaign has thrown in the towel and focuses on Clinton versus Trump, forgetting the structural inequality that propelled voters into its camp. Trump is in the process of betraying his core constituency, enjoying the fun and games of elite party politics.

Business as usual, normalcy, has been restored – or, has it merely been stored up for a future explosion?