Friday, February 27, 2009

Regression Is Not Progress

Further problems are being created by the proposed solutions to an economic crisis more serious than the Great Depression. As in the 1930s , government employees of great wealth are attempting to bail out the failing system at public expense, thereby making things worse and avoiding what is for the good of humanity. Capitalism has achieved massive private profits for a minority only by generating staggering loss for a majority burdened with unpayable debt. Perpetuation of this system could lead to total disaster. But its failure presents an opportunity to bring on an age of equality and social justice such as the world has never known. The question is whether this collapsing economy will take us down with it, or whether we will transform it into a life enhancing system to advance all humanity, before it destroys everything .

A ruling power so obsessively blinded by wealth , greed and violence that it can see neither the forest nor the trees, is in process of tearing down the natural and human made structure of the world. If the majority does not act to acknowledge what the earth and political economics have been telling us for a long time now, civil society may pay the ultimate price for this barbarically uncivil and perversely anti social system.

As Bernard Madoff explained to an intently listening congregation of believers in his Ponzi scheme , a profit on one side of the ledger means a loss on the other. This is a hard and fast rule of the collapsing economy , which may yet fall on our heads unless we see that he and his ilk profit because we are all absorbing the loss . And we may pay the ultimate price unless we change the system that brings us to this critical juncture.

The indecisive billion dollar steps being taken taken on the multi trillion dollar path to a bail out of capital amount to applying a gigantic wad of bubble gum to patch the gaping hole in the Titanic. It will work for a while, but eventually water will come rushing in and the photogenic new captain and his family will go down along with the crew and passengers who have been made to pay for a colossal shipwreck. Whether the call is to abandon ship , mutiny or create social revolution, it should be obvious that radical change, not minor reform is necessary .

This is not simply a crisis of finance capitalism: Capitalism itself is the crisis. The sooner we realize that , the sooner we can help transform global society into one that assures liberty and justice for all, and is in environmental balance with nature . Another world is not only possible, but absolutely necessary. And it must be one in which the human development of the whole community is far more important than the creation of private profits for a few. The acquisition of capital for some can no longer be allowed to threaten the dissipation of society for all.

Repeating past attempts at reform of a crippled system, even if applying new names or labels, will only bring short term progress. Whether the economic product is called a new deal, a great society or a free market , like all drugs it will only provide temporary relief . Each reform pleases a part of society by creating gains for them, but always at the expense of the rest who eventually respond to calls for more reform to benefit another group , which continues the cycle. But this divide and conquer game has now run its course, and we need to understand that to succeed only by guaranteeing another’s failure is what’s leading us to political, economic and moral ruin.

And anti or pro government passion isn’t the answer if it doesn’t identify a state controlled by minority wealth as the real problem. It needs to become passion that sees the only real solution through recreating government to become a democratic expression of the majority.

Massive consumer debt incurred while earnings declined has enriched a minority with imaginary money, but that is presently vanishing from an electronic fairyland. While working people became a middle class only by absorbing hundreds of billions in private debt, capital’s governing class has been borrowing tens of billions of dollars every week for years now, creating a public debt so large it has more zeros than normal calculators can record.

We have depended on foreigners buying our public debt in order to finance a murderous foreign policy, while denying housing, health care and education to millions of our people. Meanwhile, workers with falling wages have been consuming things they often don't need and can’t afford except by going into deeper private debt. None of this can continue , and if we don't radically change our social behavior , material reality will deal with us the same way the ocean dealt with the Titanic.

Instead of private non-profit organizations attempting to provide service for people victimized by the system, we need a public non-profit organization, truly democratic government, to see to those services. This would allow private for-profit organizations to perform in a market not dependent on them for survival, but only for the things that make life more pleasant once survival has been assured. But none of that can happen if we continue increasing our burdens, and that of the earth itself, in order to go on destroying other societies in the name of a degenerate definition of freedom, while we destroy our own in the process .

All we’re being offered now is a great regression that will do nothing but make this great depression worse. In the words of a famous philosopher “ the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Progress demands we save ourselves by creating a cooperative, democratic, and socially responsible world. That’s the only real way out of this mess.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Frank Scott. All rights reserved.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Countries

by Michael K. Smith

If happiness were measured by material consumption, people in the U.S. would be far more content than people in Guatemala, where the daily struggle to survive ranges from difficult to grim. But enjoyment is notoriously elusive and there is no evidence that higher superfluous consumption yields greater satisfaction, quite the contrary. The hectic pace consumerism requires makes the pursuit of happiness look like a dog chasing its own tail. As a Guatemalan weaver in Todos Santos Cuchumatan told the late author Victor Perera a generation ago:

"Here we have the violence, but most of the time we are tranquilo. Santa (the weaver's sister, then living in the U.S.) writes that she is surrounded by commotion all the time, and time slips through her fingers. There are dollars there, and many conveniences, but everything is expensive, and the people are not calm; they are running all the time, and never have time to sit and watch the sun set behind the mountains." (Perera, p. 142) Touche.

And then there is the perverse cruelty of the maldistribution of wealth in the U.S.. A different Mayan immigrant told Mr. Perera that for this reason the U.S. was far from realizing a superior way of life: "After visiting New York, I realize our Mayan communities have more culture than I thought. In spite of the city's great wealth and high technology, I found poor and broken people everywhere, most of whom did not appear to have a home. North American evangelicals come to tell us what to believe in, but their own people do not know what to believe in. Their anthropologists come to study our customs, but don't seem to pay any attention to the homeless people in their own cities. North Americans should work to save their own culture before they come down to Guatemala to save ours." (Perera, pp. 150-1)

Good advice. But evangelizers are notoriously deaf to good advice. And if the truth be known the Church of Consumerism is just as impervious to reason as any form of Protestant faith, with cars and consumer electronics having long since run off with the popular imagination. Indeed, if you really want to know how powerful a force American consumerism is, consider the comments of a young Tz'utujil guerrilla during Guatemala's war years. While U.S.-trained death squads were wiping out entire villages, Mayan recruits watched Rambo, the helicopter serial "Air Wolf," and other high-tech Hollywood war films. "We know they are counterrevolutionary propaganda," the man said, "but they're exciting." (Perera, p. 192)

Fortunately, some aspects of consumer culture - like disposable relationships - have not caught on in Guatemala. Institutional care for the elderly, for example, is very rare, and grandparents remain treasured family members as long as they live. Old age is not treated as a disease, nor regarded as something to be dreaded. It is a time, like all other times, to enjoy being surrounded by loved ones, caring and being cared for in return. The inescapable realities of illness, aging, and death do not become the morbid preoccupation of solitary individuals, but are confronted by the family as a whole. No one faces crisis alone.

The Guatemalan family, in fact, remains stubbornly resistant to the kind of division and break-down increasingly evident under rampant consumerism in the U.S. The goal of life is not to become "independent" of one's parents as soon as possible, but to mature properly under their loving guidance - and not only theirs. An army of aunts, uncles, and grandparents are far more than just a photograph in a dusty album; they are full participants in family life, actively loving, cherishing, and counseling the children at all stages of development. Whereas American teenagers are typically ashamed to be seen in public with their parents, Guatemalan young people regularly go off to parties with them. When they begin to have children themselves, this is not so much starting "their own" family as it is continuing the family from which they come and to which they always return.

This is not to say that Guatemalan family life is ideal. There's no utopia, and one can find any number of instances where parents mistreat their children and vice versa. Poverty takes a horrendous toll, and it would be naive to expect that love alone could overcome its relentless cruelty. Many children are put out to work before they have had any chance to acquire an education, and the country is plagued by young delinquents who fill the emotional void they experience at home by joining gangs. However, in many cases this is due to the fact that parents have had to abandon their children to go work and send back money from the United States.

This transmigration of workers is born of profound economic need. Poverty is endemic in Guatemala, where almost half the babies suffer from malnutrition, illiteracy is over thirty percent, and 40% live in extreme poverty. Only a tiny minority of Guatemalans make it to high school, while the percentage of college graduates is microscopic. Gang related violence is pervasive, unemployment is high and rising, and indigenous peoples - about sixty percent of the population - continue to be marginalized. Appalling levels of violent crime are fuelled by poverty, easy access to weapons, the legacy of colonial and imperial violence, and the absence of law enforcement and judicial integrity.

Nevertheless, economic need, no matter how dire, has not displaced central elements of indigenous Guatemalan culture. Even in spaces expressly reserved for economic exchange, for example, consumerism has nowhere near the hold it has on the U.S. It is true that supermarkets are increasingly popular, but Guatemalans still travel long distances to attend open-air marketplaces, where socializing is as much a part of the scene as buying and selling. In fact, for the many who still make the trip on foot, haggling over prices and selling handcrafts or crops are merely happy excuses for the social exchanges that lie at the heart of a communal way of life. Gossip is traded as readily as money, and typically with great theatricality and accompanied by regular outbursts of laughter.

This readiness to incorporate enjoyment into the productive day, as well as to dance and celebrate whenever an occasion to do so presents itself, is characteristic of Guatemalans. No doubt the roots of this predisposition go deep, but one can't help wondering if the terrible social violence that has long plagued the country, and plagues it still, doesn't instill in everyone a desire to express the joy of being alive whenever there is a chance to. For every Guatemalan knows, without having to say so, that life is tragically ephemeral and the next disaster is right around the corner. The unspoken logic seems to be that, since none of us can count on being here tomorrow, let the good times roll tonight!

It would be difficult to find a country of more stark contrasts than Guatemala. The abundance of love, affection, and tenderness expressed around hearth and home clash sharply with the savage violence in the world outside. While Guatemalans are sweet, modest, and kind, Guatemala is one of the most violent places in the world, with approximately 500 murders a month in a country the size of Ohio. Perhaps nowhere is there more emotional security and less physical security than in Guatemala.

According to human rights attorney Sergio Morales, 2008 was the most violent year in Guatemalan history, quite a claim in a country where 36-years of state terror killed 120,000 people (mostly civilians) between the early 1960s and the declaration of official peace in 1996, with another 46,000 disappeared and unaccounted for. The transitive verb, "to disappear," was born of this holocaust.

The war being officially over, the current level of lethal violence is now called "crime." The national newspaper "Prensa Libre" reported soberly at year's end that there were 5,834 murders between January 1 and the first days of December. Roberto Canton of the Chamber of Commerce declared that 20% of stores are assaulted daily. But nobody really knows how many robberies there are because victims often don't bother reporting them. The same goes for kidnappings. Many families prefer to pay ransom rather than risk the lives of the rest of the family by involving the police.

Clearly, the vast underlying conflicts of the war years remain unresolved, and often cannot even be faced. The killers have never been put on trial and the country's current democratic facade is rooted in a compulsory national amnesia about the perpetrators of a mass murder the Catholic Church called "genocide" in 1982. The past is "history," and history is by definition what no longer matters. As a young man in Santa Cruz de Quiche commented to Canadian author W. George Lovell some years ago: "It's strange. We know who killed my father. They are our neighbors. One lives right over there and two others just up here. When we meet them out walking, we still say hello. We talk with them, but not about my father. He's never mentioned. We talk about other things: animals, the price of food, how the corn is doing. They know we know. But we don't do anything. I don't know why." (Lovell, p. 42)

On the other hand, if the current world-wide economic crisis produces a 1929-style collapse, Guatemalans may prove themselves better able to ride out the disaster than middle class (North) Americans. Whereas most Americans have long forgotten self-reliance, Guatemalans retain important practical skills indispensable to survival: sewing, carpentry, working the land, cooking from scratch. For those with a practiced eye the vulnerability of the de-skilled American people to destruction at the hands of increasingly irrational leaders was apparent quite some time ago. At a seminar in Oregon in the 1980s, Mayan immigrant Calixta Canek warned former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Frederick Chapin that the U.S. was not immune to the catastrophe it was sowing in her native land: "I see the same forces building here that are destroying my country. Your great wealth and your culture will not protect you from the disintegration of this society, which is hastened by the greed and blindness of the people who lead you. The harm your State Department and your Pentagon and your presidents have done to our small, unprotected communities will also be done to you." (Perera, p. 322)

This is difficult to dismiss now that U.S. leaders have bankrupted the country, trashed major portions of the Constitution, and signed on to make permanent war against Israel's endless enemies.


Victor Perera, Unfinished Conquest - The Guatemalan Tragedy, (University of California, 1993) (This book is available online)

Trish O'Kane, Guatemala - A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture, (Interlink Books, 1999)

W. George Lovell, A Beauty That Hurts, (Between the Lines, 1995)

Lisa Vaughn, Guatemala, (Kuperard, 2007)

Leonardo Cereser, "Sin estrategia contra inseguridad," Prensa Libre, 27 de diciembre de 2008

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), "Portraits of Empire," and "Rise to Empire" (forthcoming) from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted at

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Democratic State: In Palestine, and the U.S.A.

The Jewish state of Israel was anti-democratic from its inception , though the lie calling it the only democracy in the region has become truth for the criminal, the ignorant and the insane. Unfortunately, that unholy trio still wields power, but it represents minority control of a failing system which is bringing the world closer to major loss of social and environmental life. The democratic majority must take control from these seriously disturbed forces, and not just in Israel, before they bring further destruction not only to one state , but to civilization .

Textbook behavior that is called insanity when practiced by individuals is more deadly when practiced by states. America’s policy towards Israel has been endless repetition of failed practice for more than sixty years and it approaches homicidal madness . More than the middle east is threatened if America keeps repeating uncritical and costly support for the jewish state

Israel is armed with nuclear weapons and is founded on a cultural narrative of doom that sees all others as potential mass murderers of what is believed to be, in contradiction of science and logic, a jewish race. Hopefully they can be disarmed by democratic power , but their continued denial of democracy unless it means perpetuation of their rule can only force more deadly measures. The Jewish colonial state that was once Palestine must eventually become a democratic state of all its people, so it may again be the place where Christians, Jews and Muslims used to live in peace , before a European master race ideology brutalized a nation. That ideology threatens to destroy much more in order to maintain a state and a system which will bring global disaster if we allow it to continue. But without democracy in the USA, chances of achieving it in Palestine may be impossible.

Expressions of sadness by a minority of american jews who profess disillusion with Israel, but still use a collective “we” when speaking of that foreign nation , must be replaced with political action by a majority of all americans. They need to deal with supposed political representatives of the American people who use that same collective “we” when speaking of the jewish state, answering its needs at the cost of American dollars and safety.

It is the American government and American tax dollars that finance that racially pure state, that arm its military and support every murderous action it undertakes against a colonized people. And it must be understood that the overwhelming majority of Americans and their supposed representatives are not jewish. It is the responsibility of all, not simply jewish Americans, to put a stop to the immorality. The havoc we wreak is heavily influenced by jewish political and financial power, but it is craven cowardice and greed on the part of our politicians , more than 90% of whom are not Jewish , and pathetic weakness on the part of american citizens, more than 90% of whom are not jewish - that allows it to continue.

More important than any of the dozens of minorities that claim membership in a separate race , tribe or ethnicity - an idea strengthened by identity group culture and the divide and rule politics of affirmative hyphenation - is the collective majority of American money and military power which perpetuates the apartheid state, destroys nations and regimes for its benefit, and creates the weapons with which Palestinians and others in the area are murdered. The hatred which this inspires is not subject to identity group hyphenation; it simply amounts to hatred for America and Americans. And it is the un-hyphenated American people, not one identity group, who must take responsibility to create substantial change before it is too late.

The move to Boycott, Divest and Sanction has been invigorated by nations that not only criticized the slaughter in Gaza, but recalled ambassadors and threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Israel. Now, American labor unions, municipalities and other institutions must be pressured to stop investing in Israel , purchasing its stocks and bonds to finance its racial supremacy. They should follow the lead of the Congress of South African Trade Unions . When COSATU calls the situation in Palestine worse than what they experienced under apartheid, it is long past time for tolerance or excuses from any who consider themselves humanitarian supporters of social justice for all, and not just some.

And that policy should be carried out against politicians who represent Israeli interests before those of the USA. They must be publicly identified and sanctioned , with no fear of the retaliatory name calling , political and financial pressure which will result. Whatever identity group may be claimed by some politicians, too often they perform for Israel with little regard even for their alleged group. When the governor of New York and the Mayor of Los Angeles shamefully parade in public as supporters of the slaughter in Gaza, they should not be regarded as friends of any Americans, no matter the ethnic or racial hyphenation they hide behind. It is their performance as Americans that is disgraceful, if not traitorous, when they do harm to this country in order to serve the interest of another. Our cultural diversity is a unique american strength , but when it is used as a weapon to advance immoral policy at the expense of the majority, it becomes a deadly weakness.

All politicians must be identified as working for israel when that is what they are doing, and pressured to begin representing American interests , or be boycotted, divested and sanctioned out of office. This must be done now, with purpose and conviction and without fear. Anything less will not only mean continued bloodshed and misery in the middle east, but the strong possibility that it will come home to all Americans, and without any safety or concern for those of us who try to hide behind our hyphenated Americanism .