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Spain: 'Popular Unity' ‬Councils Sworn In Amid Huge Enthusiasm‭

Dick Nichols

Dick Nichols. This article was first published on Socialist Project.

The squares in front of scores of town halls across the Spanish state were jam-packed with enthusiastic crowds on June 13. Tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the inauguration of progressive administrations elected in a leftward swing in the May 24 local government elections for Spain's 8144 councils. The joy was greatest in the capitals where “popular unity” tickets threw out conservative administrations. These tickets were citizen election platforms supported by the majority of the radical left, which defeated right-wing incumbents from the People's Party in Madrid, A Coruna in Galicia and Cadiz in Andalusia.

Pablo Iglesias and Ada Colau. [Photo: Luis Valiño/Flickr]

The Catalan right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) was also defeated by a popular unity ticket in Barcelona. In Barcelona, central St. James Square was packed tight with chanting and confetti-throwing supporters of the victorious Barcelona Together ticket and its leader, former housing-rights activist Ada Colau. When the city's newly elected councillors left the town hall to make the traditional visit to the premier of Catalonia (CiU's Artur Mas), they found it almost impossible to push through a crowd set on greeting Colau and the rest of the Barcelona Together team.

In the Andalusian provincial capital of Cadiz, a wildly enthusiastic crowd of thousands greeted Jose Maria Gonzalez, the victorious mayoral candidate for the For Cadiz Yes We Can ticket. Gonzalez later said: “What we lived through in the city on June 13 was something historic. I saw people moved, people full of hope, people who were again believing – or believing for the first time – in a political project, a political project of change. People don't believe in the political class, and it's up to us, the new political people, to revive their trust and restore prestige to a task that must be voluntary and for a limited period.”

“Ordinary People”

In A Coruna, Xulio Ferreiro, the successful mayoral candidate for the citizen platform Atlantic Tide, handed the mayoral baton to people in the crowd outside the town hall, commenting: “We have come into office as ordinary people and we'll leave as ordinary people.” The municipal police looked on with concern as the precious piece of council property passed through the hands of pensioners, unemployed workers, students, housewives and other ‘untrustworthy’ elements.

In Aragon's capital, Zaragoza, Pedro Santisteve, human rights advocate and incoming mayor from Zaragoza Together, issued an “apology” for the “naturalness and spontaneousness” of his team of young councillors. Some citizens had interpreted their jumping for joy after inauguration as an offence against the solemnity of council protocol.

The gale of fresh air represented by these citizen platform wins blew through other provincial capitals where such tickets did not win a relative majority, but supported other left forces, usually nationalist and regionalist that did.

In Irunea, capital of Navarra (known as Pamplona in Spanish), the Basque left nationalist coalition EH Bildu was supported by the Navarra regionalist force GeroaBai, the citizens’ platform Aranzadi and the Navarra affiliate organization of the all-Spanish United Left. This alliance was enough to win the mayoralty for EH Bildu's Joseba Asiron. In his inaugural speech, delivered in Basque and Castilian (Spanish), Asiron committed to working for peace and “achieving a space for coexistence based on respect for all persons, their ideas and projects.”

This was a reference to the divisions in Navarra between its Basque-speaking and Basque Country-oriented community and its Spanish-speaking community. The Spanish speakers mainly vote for the right-regionalist Union of the People of Navarra and the Socialist Party of Navarra, the Navarra affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

PP Apoplexy

The result in Navarra, which the Spanish-centralist world view conceives as a front line in the ongoing war against Basque nationalism, was paralleled by the result in Valencia, capital of the Valencian Community. In Valencia, the People's Party (PP) lost to the Valencian regionalist Commitment Coalition, in PP eyes a dreadful win for “pan-Catalanism.”

Outgoing mayor Rita Barbera was so outraged by the decision of the PSOE's Valencian affiliate to join with the citizen platform Valencia Together to support the Commitment Coalition's Joan Ribo for mayor, that she resigned from the council. On June 13, Ribo stated he would be locking the baton away because, while respectful of traditions, “I want to work through participation, through dialogue with people, and the baton really isn't the best symbol of that.” The contrast between Ribo arriving at Valencia town hall on his pushbike and Barbera driving up in her Ferrari dramatized how much had changed in this former PP stronghold.

In Madrid, a 3000-strong demonstration supported the successful Madrid Now! ticket and its mayoral candidate, former labour rights activist and judge Manuela Carmena. It overwhelmed a 30-strong counter-demonstration in support of outgoing PP mayor Esperanza Aguirre. “We don't want communism in Madrid, we don't want communism in Spain,” yelled the right-wingers, parroting Aguirre's claims that a Madrid Now! win would mean soviets in the Spanish capitol's suburbs.

PP outrage was directed most of all at the PSOE. Along with the PP, it is one of the two main parties that have alternated in power since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.

In order to overcome PP relative majorities, in nearly all cases the PSOE gave support to, and received support from, citizen platforms, United Left and left-regionalist forces. The PSOE had no choice but to build alliances to its left. With mass political sentiment moving leftward, the PSOE has already been abandoned by millions of working people and viewed as suspect by millions more. It is in no position to give free kicks to the new anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can) or other progressive forces.

The PP now controls only 19 of the Spanish state's 50 provincial capitals (down from 36), the PSOE has 17 (up from nine), the new citizen platforms five, the Basque Nationalist Party three (up from one), and CiU, United Left, the Galician Nationalist Bloc, Commitment Coalition and EH Bildu one each.

After the 2011 council elections, 36 councils on the Spanish mainland were run by absolute majorities. Today, four years after the indignado movement occupied 80 city squares and began the popular fight back against austerity, Spain's two party system has almost entirely collapsed. Only one provincial capital is run by an absolute majority.

Citizens and Podemos

The PP's disaster would have been greater if the national leader of the new-look centre-right “anti-Podemos” force Citizens had not hauled local leaders into line when they were tempted to support the PSOE. Citizens’ tactic was to support the party winning the highest vote, provided it supported Citizens’ anti-corruption charter. With this approach, Citizens managed to save the PP in five provincial capitals.

But Citizens also supported a PSOE government in Andalusia, which had been blocked since the March 22 Andalusian elections, thus giving the appearance of even-handedness.

Citizens has not decided to take part in any administrations as junior partner, preferring to “keep itself clean” until it can win in its own right.

Podemos's tactics were roughly parallel from the other side. The radical party led by Pablo Iglesias, which formed last year, did not stand in its own name in the municipal poll, although it did in the 13 regional elections held at the same time.

In general, its approach urged the citizen platforms it was part of to give unconditional support to the PSOE or any progressive coalitions that could form a majority against the PP, but to decline taking part in the resulting administrations.

As the price of its support for the PSOE in Seville, Podemos managed to get it to agree to stop evictions and keep schools open for meals during the coming summer holidays.

In the four autonomous communities (states) where Podemos's vote will be critical in deciding whether the PSOE will replace the PP in government – Extremadura, Baleares, Asturias and Castilla-La Mancha – the draft agreements negotiated with the PSOE will be submitted to members to vote on.

All possible options, from rejection through to full participation in what would be a PSOE-Podemos joint administration, will be put forward.

Intensifying Battles

What can we expect to see from the “popular unity” councils?

Their most urgent commitments are already being tackled. These include cuts in councillors' and mayors’ wages to the level of skilled workers; emergency social support plans – including a ban on evictions and guarantees that power and water will not be cut off; halting or cutting pointlessly expensive mega-projects; steps to guarantee a minimum income; and a citizens’ audit of council debt and a reworking of municipal tax scales to provide relief to the poorest while extracting more from the richest.

In Cadiz, the council will investigate converting the city to renewable energy, a potential source of badly needed job creation in the city with Spain's highest unemployment – more than 70 per cent for under 25-year-olds.

None of these councils – all of which govern in minority – will have it easy. The PP wants them to be disasters, while the PSOE wants them to be seen as well-intentioned but without the know-how, experience and wisdom that comes from being the oldest political force in the Spanish state.

On the other hand, the new citizens’ platforms, built through mass participation, enjoy huge popular support. Too crude and brutal an attack on them, as seems likely from the PP, could explode in the face of the aggressors. It could help the struggle for popular unity and resistance to rise to a higher level. •

Dick Nichols is based in Barcelona and the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, where this article first appeared.

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The BBC’s Inept but Revealing Attempt at a Game Theoretic View of Greek Crisis

William Black

By William K. Black, Quito: June 25, 2015

The BBC came up with a good “hook” for a story on the troika’s assault on the Greek economy and people.  “Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, spent his academic career … studying game theory.”  Professor Marcus Miller, a UK economist (U. Warwick) wrote an article for the BBC premised on how Varoufakis would apply game theory to Greece’s negotiations with the troika (the IMF, ECB, and the European Commission).  Miller is a colleague of the great Robert Skidelsky and has co-authored with him an article explaining the economic illiteracy and self-destructive nature of the troika’s (and UK’s) infliction of austerity in response to the Great Recession.

The BBC, however, is such a great fan of austerity that one rarely reads why the vast majority of economists think that using austerity to respond to a Great Recession is akin to the quackery of bleeding a patient to make him healthier.  Miller’s article in the BBC about game theory has the wrong title (recall that the author often does not get to choose the title), the wrong game, the wrong concept, and the wrong payoffs.  The title of the article is: “Can game theory explain the Greek debt crisis?”  The article does address that issue.  It is limited to the issue of the new Greek government’s negotiations with the troika concerning a crisis that they inherited.

The game that Miller uses is the “prisoner’s dilemma.”  That is the wrong concept and the wrong game and should actually be called the “prisoners’ dilemma” because it requires at least two prisoners.  The “prisoners’ dilemma” game is used to explain (1) why cooperative behavior – by criminals – would be their optimal strategy, (2) why prosecutors and the police should prevent that cooperation, and (3) how prosecutors and the police can shape the prisoners’ incentives to encourage them to confess.  As conventionally pictured, and Miller falls into this trap, the game does a poor job of explaining the third point.  Real life prosecutors, police, and criminologists in the U.S. do a far better job of optimizing the incentives than do economists – and did so long before game theory was developed.

Here is Miller’s explanation.

The most famous game of all is the Prisoner's Dilemma. Imagine two prisoners have to choose between confessing and staying silent. If they both stay silent, they both go to jail for one year. If one confesses and the other stays silent, the first goes free and the second gets 20 years. If both confess, they both get five years.

As anyone with even the faintest understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system knows, which includes anyone who has watched a U.S. police drama on television, Miller’s description is deeply suboptimal.  It misses the key element of timing.  The actual dynamic, which optimize the incentive to confess, is whoever rats out his confederate first gets a far better deal.  It would be nuts to give both the same sentence (“five years”) if they “both confess.”  It is common for both defendants to confess.

But the deeper problem is that this is not the proper game for analysis of either the Greek crisis or Varoufakis’ negotiations with the troika.  Greece, and the Greek people, are not criminals, no one is trying to get a confession, and the “game” everyone should be using is a “cooperative” game rather than prisoners’ dilemma – which is premised on preventing cooperation.

If anyone is using prisoners’ dilemma as its game theory in the Greek context it would have to be the troika.  The logic would go like this.  Greece’s position in favor of a “troubled debt restructuring” (TDR) and an end to austerity is in the interests of the peoples of Europe (and the world).  The appropriate cooperative “game” would be to (a) strike a deal to end austerity in response to recessions throughout the EU and (b) to negotiate TDRs in Spain, Italy, and Greece.  That cooperative “game,” however, is being blocked by the troika and is bitterly opposed by conservative leaders in Spain, Italy, the Baltic States, and Ireland.  Part of this refusal to enter into a win-win cooperative game on the part of the troika is ideological.  Part of the troika’s refusal is reputational.  If the leaders of the troika were to end austerity and the EU’s economy were to improve more rapidly it would be undeniable that their economically illiterate infliction of austerity had caused massive, gratuitous suffering.

Similarly, the opposition of conservative political leaders in various EU states to employing a cooperative “game” in Greece is that it would threaten their power and reputation.  Spain’s conservative party would fall from power in 24 hours if its leaders ever admitted that austerity forced Spain into Great Depression levels of unemployment and that austerity was the problem rather than the solution.  The Prime Minister of Spain is eager to have Greece fail to convince the troika to adopt a cooperative “game.”  He would love to see the troika force the Greek government to inflict even greater austerity on the Greek people in order to discredit the Greek government and his Spanish anti-austerity opponents, the surging Podemos party.

Miller and Skidelsky know these facts and have put them in writing.  If Greece were a corporate debtor, its creditors would have routinely negotiated a TDR with it seven years ago – precisely because normal creditors understand that their interaction with a debtor who cannot repay the full debt on its original terms should take the form of a cooperative “game.”  Normal creditors, if the troika is not involved and thinking in extortionate terms, realize that they should cut their losses through a deal that reduces and stretches out the payments and lowers the interest rate on the debt.

This is why a firm like Elliot Management, Paul Singer’s vulture hedge fund, which tries to profit from, and therefore discourage, TDRs – see its attempt to extort Argentina – is so odious and bad for the world.  Richard Zabel, the number two (non) prosecutor of the elite banksters that led the three great epidemics of accounting control fraud that drove the crisis in the U.S. Attorney’s office for Manhattan, just announced that he will soon take a job with Singer.  In a grotesque act, while still a purported prosecutor, he issued an ode to Singer’s vulture ethics that was quoted by the New York Times. Zabel’s ode is a further proof of our family rule that it is impossible to compete with unintentional self-parody.

“Elliott has a long record of success and relies on the rule of law as a pillar of its investment philosophy,” Mr. Zabel, who will leave his prosecutorial job at the end of June, said in an interview.

 

Hedge fund owners are the wealthiest people on Wall Street, so this is the new nature of the revolving door that helps produce immunity for elite banksters and the ethics-free world of the hedge funds.  The NYT article explained the (non) prosecutors’ quest for “Wall Street riches.”

[Zabel’s] move also reflects a broader shift on Wall Street, where hedge funds and private equity firms, rather than law firms, are increasingly recruiting federal prosecutors, enticing them with the promise of Wall Street riches. Steven A. Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management — the successor to his SAC Capital Advisors, which pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in an investigation overseen by Mr. Zabel — recently hired a former United States attorney for Connecticut.

Zabel was an important contributor to eliminating the “rule of law” for elite banksters and will enjoy “Wall Street riches” precisely because Singer views him as helping to fend off any (unlikely) effort by the government to rein his depredations.  In game theoretic terms, Singer’s strategy is designed in a manner that discourages cooperative “games” that make the world better off.

The oddest aspect of Miller’s description of his hypothetical application of what he terms the “prisoner’s dilemma” to Greece’s negotiations with the troika are the “payoffs” he assumes to the different decisions.  His description makes no sense given his article with Skidelsky.

Imagine Greece moves first to avoid default by putting a plan on the table. This plan involves new taxes on the wealthy and changes to pensions - avoiding spending cuts and and having some of its debts written off in exchange. If this plan is accepted by the rest of the eurozone, then Greece is content. Let's give its payoff a score of 1.

To work out how the rest of the eurozone will respond, one has to see what they stand to gain by accepting Greece's plan, or by rejecting it.

If the eurozone accepted this deal, the monetary union would remain intact, but it would have to ease its strict rules on fiscal policy and take a loss on holdings of Greek debt. Let's give the eurozone payoff a score of ¾. So the overall payoff is (1, ¾ ).

 

But Miller and Skidelsky have explained why these payoffs are incorrect.  They have explained that if the EU were to end austerity as a response to a Great Recession the results for the EU would be enormously positive.  So, the payoff from a cooperative “game” with Greece that would end self-destructive austerity would be exceptionally positive for the EU and positive for Greece.  The EU is much larger than Greece, so its payoff from cooperating with Greece would be far larger than Greece’s payoff.  Miller also knows that it is wrong to think that the EU would lose due to “having some of its debt written off in exchange.”  Like other creditors, the EU would get more from cooperating with Greece and negotiating a TDR than forcing Greece into a default on its debts.  TDRs are negotiated routinely in the private sector because cooperative “games” benefit both parties.  So, “the overall payoff” of a cooperative “game” with Greece would be something on the order of (1, 5).  Both Greece and the EU would gain, but the EU’s gain would be much larger.  The EU’s gain would be greater still if it were to enter into similar cooperative “games” with Spain, Italy, Portugal, and the Baltic states.

Conclusion

Austerity is a coercive, non-cooperative “game” that makes both parties worse off (but aids the EU’s worst politicians).  It is terrible economics, and represents a “dismal [non] science.”  Game theory is largely devoted to demonstrating the benefits of cooperation.  Precisely because Varoufakis is an expert in game theory, and as we can see throughout the new Greek government’s negotiations with the troika, the effort has been to try to get the troika to escape from its self-destructive dogmas and debilitating political urge to punish the Greek people, and see that it is in the interests of the Greek people and the peoples of the EU to cooperate by ending austerity and negotiating a TDR.

The troika’s game theoretic strategy in dealing with the 100 million people of Spain, Italy, and Greece that it has gratuitously forced into Great Depression levels of unemployment is a nasty variant of the “Dictator” game.  The conventional dictator game works like this.  The dictator makes an offer to divide up $1. Economists define his “rational” offer as 99 cents for him, and one penny to the other player.  The other player gets only one choice – he can refuse or accept the dictator’s offer.  If he rejects the offer he gets nothing.  Economists define the recipient’s rational response as accepting the penny.  But there are three striking results of studies of people’s response to the dictator game.  First, when the dictator offers a penny, or any very unfair division, people overwhelmingly reject the offer even though they know that this will mean they get nothing.  Second, people playing the role of the dictator typically offer to split the $1 evenly, which leads to routine acceptance.  Third, the exception to this result is economists and economics majors.  They are much more likely than human beings to respond by being nasty little dictators and passively accepting drones who agree to take a penny.  Normal human beings care a great deal about fairness and are willing to suffer personal losses rather than give in to dictators like the troika.

The language of the troika and of German politicians about the troika’s mode of dealing with the Greek government is strikingly similar to the dictator game.  But there is a vital way in which the troika’s game theoretic approach is far worse than the dictator’s game.  In the conventional dictator’s game the other party is made better off, albeit by only a penny.  The troika insists on making Greece worse off by insisting on austerity and trying to block a cooperative TDR that would benefit the creditors and the debtors.  The game that the troika is playing against the people of Grace and the EU embraces all the imperialism inherent in the dictator’s game – but it is a “negative sum” game that makes the peoples of Greece and the EU worse off.  Cooperative games typically are “positive sum” games that make both parties better off.    

 

 

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IMF Report

Nick Fillmore

By Nick Fillmore.

In what could hopefully lead to a significant change in the nature of Third World development financing, a new research paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) admits that the strong pro-capitalist policies at the centre of its development support activities do not work.

Since the 1980s, the IMF has bailed out countries during financial crises. In return, poor countries receiving loans have had to follow strict rules, such as privatizing government resources, deregulating controls to open markets to foreign investment, and restricting what they can spend in areas such as education and health care.

Now the paper, Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective, says there needs to be a shift and that greater income equality should become a priority.

“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth – that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down,” says the report.

“To tackle inequality, financial inclusion is imperative in emerging and developing countries, while in advanced economies, policies should focus on raising human capital and skills and making tax systems more progressive,” concludes the report. Wages and living standards for the bottom 20 per cent should be raised, worker protections improved, and environmental standards implemented.

Critics welcome new report

The document was enthusiastically received by critics of the IMF, who have accused the world body of hindering – not helping – development in several poor countries over the years.

The report’s critical analysis also applies to neo-liberal economic policies practiced by most Western governments, including the United States, Canada and several European countries.

"Fighting inequality is not just an issue of fairness but an economic necessity," said Nicholas Mombrial of Oxfam International in response to the report. "And that’s not Oxfam speaking, but the International Monetary Fund."

“By releasing this report, the IMF has shown that 'trickle-down' economics is dead; you cannot rely on the spoils of the extremely wealthy to benefit the rest of us. Governments must urgently refocus their policies to close the gap between the richest and the rest if economies and societies are to grow," said Mombrial.

The practices and policies of the IMF have been controversial for many years.

First of all, critics point to what they consider the undemocratic nature of the IMF. With the United States controlling 16.7 per cent of the votes and Europe and Japan another 25 per cent , developed countries control the body with about 42 per cent of the voting shares.

The rich and powerful countries have used the IMF to force their preferred economic policies on poor countries, even though rich countries themselves did not employ the same strict measures on themselves when they were developing.

Critics strongly object to austerity measures that have been forced upon most of the 60 countries where the IMF has been providing loans.

“Such belt-tightening measures increase poverty, reduce countries' ability to develop strong domestic economies and allow multinational corporations to exploit workers and the environment,” argues Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.

Global Exchange charges that the IMF contributes to poverty instead of alleviating it: “Nearly 80 percent of all malnourished children in the developing world live in countries where farmers have been forced to shift from food production for local consumption to the production of export crops destined for wealthy countries.”

The IMF report bolsters the spectacular research carried out by Thomas Piketty who, in his book Capital in the 21st Century, conducted an analysis of capital going back to the start of the Industrial Revolution.  Piketty's key point is that, in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth.

This means that the much-discussed rise of the wealth of the one per cent is not a blip and not an accident.

Change can take a long time

Together, the IMF and Piketty research should influence governments to begin closing the inequality gap between the rich and the rest of society, but policy changes are likely to take some time.

Traditional economists and journalists either picked fights with Piketty over minor points in his best-selling book or ignored him entirely.

While his research didn’t result in any immediate change in economic policies, the findings will likely, in the long term, be a key resource demanding change.

This is not the first time research of this nature has been produced at the IMF. According to the International Business Times the new analysis on inequality "echoes previous IMF research that show that redistributive policies have a positive effect on countries’ economic output."

It’s very likely that the IMF will eventually change some of its policies concerning developing countries. However, change may be slow. The IMF is a huge and complex organization where the wheels grind slowly. Secondly, the Western countries that control the organization tend to be strongly influenced by powerful and wealthy people who benefit from “trickle down” economics. The one per cent will no doubt oppose most changes.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who specializes in both developing country and environmental issues. He is a founding member of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

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The Greek Burden: Confronting Neoliberal Authoritarianism on 5 July

John Weeks

By John Weeks

Council of Europe takes a (anti-democratic) Stand

In Greek mythology Atlas is a titan condemned to the task of supporting the world on his shoulders.  We could not find a better metaphor for the task before the Greek electorate on Sunday 5 July.

To understand why the outcome of the referendum vote affects people far beyond Greece, even beyond Europe, I must dispel the many misrepresentations and mendacities that the mainstream media and most politicians use to distort and discredit this exercise in democratic decision making.

The forces of neoliberal reaction have challenged the referendum on procedural and administrative grounds in the Greek high court (challenge was rejected).  More surprising and quite disappointing is the statement by the Council of Europe that "the vote falls short of international standards, because the poll was called at short notice and the questions asked are not clear".

Both arguments, that the referendum comes too quickly and that the question is not clear, are nonsense.  Council of Europe's non-binding guidelines call for two weeks notice, and the Hellenic Parliament approved the referendum to be held in eight days.  The allegation that six days constitutes a violation of democracy would seem rather bureaucratic in the most favourable interpretation.

I find it difficult not to characterise as duplicitous the "short notice" argument.  At the end of June the "institutions" (aka Troika, IMF, European Central Bank and euro group of finance ministers) presented the Greek government with a proposal that it had to accept or reject by midnight 30 June when the existing funding programme would expire.

By accepting the Troika proposal the Greek government would violate its campaign pledge to end austerity.  By rejecting the proposal the government might have set in motion a process leading to an exit of the euro zone, which it had also promised not to do.

A critic of the Syriza government could charge that it should have not promised an end to austerity and to stay in the euro zone.  Be that as it may, the Syriza government had made that combined promise.  Therefore, the Syriza government faced a dilemma;  either choice resulted in doing what it promised never to do.

The referendum represented the only democratic way to escape this dilemma, and the ultimatum laid down by the Troika required that the date for it be extremely soon.  Thus, if the Council of Europe finds fault in the timing of the referendum, it should take its compliant to Washington, Brussels and Berlin, not Athens.

The second objection, that the text for the referendum is to vague, unclear and/or complex for an informed vote, is so absurd as to be laughable.  The two documents that the electorate is asked to accept or reject have been publicly debated in Greece for at least six months.  The documents state the well-known austerity conditions demanded by the Troika.

These are essentially unchanged from what the Samaras government accepted in December 2014, and that confronted finance minister Yanis Varoufakis when he attended his first euro group meeting in February of this year.  Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, has repeatedly stressed the unchanging character of the "bailout conditions", that "Greece will receive no special treatment" (see my Open Democracy article).

 

Neo-colonialism in Southeast Europe

There is a strong scent of neo-colonial condescension in the "unclear" and "complex" criticisms of the referendum text.  They suggest a simplicity and innocence among the Greek electorate that makes the Troika the better judge of its interests.  This is exactly the argument used by a member of the euro group to disparage the referendum (and the Greek people), which was compounded by the paternalistic assurance from the president of the euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, that he was motivated in his support of austerity by the "best interests" of Greek people.

Though the outcome is very uncertain, Greeks are only too aware of what they will vote for or against.  That is what causes the anxiety in Brussels, Berlin and Washington.  Several media outlets have criticized, even ridiculed, the text of the Greek referendum, asking the apparently killer question, "could you understand this text?"  The fact that "it is all Greek" (apologies requested) to the BBC and The Telegraph is hardly surprising -- the documents in question are unknown in the UK but common knowledge in Greece.

Another Council of Europe objection is that because of the short notice it (the Council) could not send observers.  This represents nonsense squared.  If the Council cannot bring together a few observers with a week's notice to observe a major event in modern European history, it is in serious need of reform.

To my knowledge the Council of Europe will not be monitoring the UK referendum on membership in the European Union to be held next year (and I doubt that it will send observers to the next German election).  Why does it consider Greece a suitable case for democratic monitoring?  Again, the scent of neo-colonialism is strong.

 

What the Referendum is not

The near hysteria of the EU leaders in anticipation of the democratic vote in Greece on 5 July manifests itself in quite clumsy and extraordinary attempts to influence the outcome.  The attempts are not without their comic aspects, such as the offer by the German president of the EU parliament to go to Greece and campaign for a yes vote -- yes a German politician proposing to campaign in Greece!  I suspect that Alexis Tsipras would gladly pay his airfare.

Not in the least humorous is the misrepresentation of the vote as in/out of the euro zone.  The referendum wording is absolutely clear to Greeks (who will do the voting, not the BBC, The Telegraph or Forbes), reject or accept the continuation of the austerity measures that have destroyed the economy and generated social conflict for four years.

In a ludicrous attempt to make the austerity vote appear a euro vote -- and simultaneously discredit the referendum -- the euro group (read "Wolfgang Schäuble") and the head of the IMF has announced that the "offer" that Greeks will vote on is "no longer on the table", rending the vote pointless.  In the league of simplistic idiocies this takes first place.

Every Greek, whether a "yes" or a "no" voter, knows what will happen if a new Troika programme begins.  It will be close to what Samaras accepted last December, and likely to be much more draconic as punishment for Syriza's challenge to the EU neoliberal order.

 

What the Referendum is

The referendum is the only substantial challenge in Europe to austerity orthodoxy.  It is only a slight stretch to write that it is the only substantial challenge in much of the world to this right wing ideology.  The leadership of the Scottish National Party pledges to oppose austerity.  But the party currently lacks the power to change UK policy, though a Scottish independence referendum could give it that power in Scotland.

The Greek referendum may unambiguously commit the country's government to end the austerity policies coming from Berlin, Brussels and Washington, and thus to launch an alternative fraught with uncertainty but creating the possibility of economic recovery.

Atlas carries the world on his shoulders as punishment for siding with the titans in the war against the Olympians.  The Greek electorate carries the Europe-wide struggle against austerity on its shoulders as punishment for its government asserting the country's policy independence.  It is a heavy burden for the people of a small country to bear, and through no fault of its own.

--

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Dumping on Dixie Again

Andrew Levine

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

For the second time this year, Americans rallied as one on the side of the angels. Both times we felt good about ourselves afterwards. Why wouldn’t we? We got to be virtuous on the cheep.

The instigating cause the first time was the murderous assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The cause this time was the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

In France, the perpetrators were radical Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda. In South Carolina, the gunman was a twenty-one year old white supremacist named Dylann Roof.

The worthy cause that brought people together the first time was support for free speech and freedom of expression.

This included a right to blaspheme, as indeed it should. It is unlikely, though, that everyone declaring “Je suis Charlie” realized this or that, if they did, they agreed.

In any case, it was plain almost from the beginning that hypocrisy was rife and that free speech wasn’t really everybody’s main concern.

The events in Paris provided an opportunity for self-righteous liberals to voice Islamophobic sentiments without incurring social disapproval; more than a few of them jumped at the chance.

After the furor subsided, nothing changed. That nothing would change had been obvious from Day One. Nothing demanded; nothing gained.

The Charleston church bombing brought people together around a hodgepodge of issues. There was a dominant motif, however: opposition to white supremacist ideology and politics. Hypocrisy is a factor this time too.

This time, though, a change for the better is underway. In a remarkable about turn, Southern politicians are leading an effort to get Confederate flags and symbols out of public spaces.

This is a commendable turn of events, though not nearly to the extent that is widely believed. Also, the thinking around the issue is muddled, and some of it is plain wrong-headed.

It has been suggested that the murders in Charleston are relevantly similar to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The Ku Klux Klan was behind that atrocity.

Because it was a church that was attacked and because four little girls perished, the Birmingham bombing struck a nerve. The Charleston atrocity also struck a nerve – in part because that happened in a church as well, and because, in Charleston too, even the most mean-spirited rightwing pundits could hardly villainize the victims.

Neither could they villainize their families or friends – especially when, as was widely reported, some of them publically forgave Dylann Roof. And, for keeping peoples’ minds focused on the atrocity that had gone down, it helped too that Charleston remained calm.

Historians agree that what the Klan did in Birmingham in 1963 changed public opinion around the country, making it easier for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass. Roof’s gun rampage seems to have affected public opinion too. This time, some flags are coming down.

The disparity is indicative of the fact that the differences between Birmingham and Charleston far outweigh the similarities.

For one thing, Dylann Roof is a marginal and pathetic figure, a troubled post-adolescent. He is also a mass murderer and a terrorist, but, as such, he only represents people as marginal and pathetic as he. In the 1960s, the Klan was the face of the Jim Crow South.

And, while militants in 1964 criticized the Civil Rights Act for being too little too late, it did realize objectives that people had struggled for intensely since the end of the Reconstruction era.

Keeping state and local governments from putting Confederate symbols on display has been a civil rights issue for a long time too, but it has never been a major concern, much less a cause for struggle.

The day before Roof’s rampage, removing Confederate flags from public spaces would hardly have made anybody’s top twenty to-do list. It hardly compares, for example, to restoring jobs lost to “free trade,” or stopping police from shooting unarmed black and Hispanic men, or beating up teenage African American girls.

Only a few years ago, when the threat of a tourist and business boycott forced the South Carolina government to negotiate with the NAACP over the placement of Confederate symbols on public buildings, the NAACP actually agreed to the placement of a Confederate flag on the State House lawn. This was the flag that the state decided to remove several days after the shootings.

If Confederate flags were the big deal that they are now being made out to be, agreeing, as the NAACP did, that one could be placed in front of the State House, but not on top of the building itself, would have been like agreeing, in 1963, that toilets and swimming pools could stay segregated if lunch counters and hotels were opened to all.

Now the flag on the State House lawn is on its way to some other location. Bravo! Even small victories count.

But the real story is the one that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley inadvertently revealed, the day before she flip flopped, when she insisted that the Flag Question is “complicated.”

What she said, in so many words, is that, African Americans’ sensitivities notwithstanding, there was no reason to remove this or any other Confederate symbols, because the CEOs she has on speed dial didn’t care; indeed, not one had ever raised the issue. Therefore, for tradition’s sake, those white folks who do care about Confederate flags and the like should continue to get their way.

There it is: accommodating retrograde attitudes is the default position, but the important thing is what CEOs want. They pay the piper; they call the tune.

Haley is a piece of work, but at least she doesn’t prevaricate the way that liberals do.

Her CEOs, seeing which way the wind was blowing, must finally have ordered her to stand down. She then flip-flopped faster than a speeding terrorist bullet.

Ironically, she was right the first time – the issue is complicated.   It is complicated because symbols mean different things to different people in different contexts.

What this particular one meant seven score and a dozen years ago is not what it has meant since 1948, when South Carolina’s very own Senator Strom Thurmond made it the symbol of his short-lived segregationist Dixiecrat Party.

What it has meant since then is only tenuously connected to memories of the Confederacy. The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, Thurmond’s Confederate flag of choice, became a symbol of white supremacist ideology. This is why it has no business flying on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.

But, again, it is only a symbol.  Its removal will change nothing fundamental; it will barely even change anything symbolic. There are no breakthroughs here.

However, the fact that so many think there are is symptomatic of an increasingly debilitating turn in America’s political culture.

The old platitude, that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is being turned on its head.

This is the political expression of post-modern gobbledygook, of the idea that politics is a struggle over “discourses,” symbolic representations – not, as people used to assume, over political economic realities.

For example, in today’s America, it is more or less acceptable for police to beat up on African Americans or even kill them when they don’t show proper respect, but even cops are strictly forbidden ever to use a derogatory racial epithet that even here I dare not spell out – the fearsome and forbidden n-word.

Or when the Obama administration engineers trade pacts for its corporate paymasters that take away good jobs from African American communities and from workers generally, liberals express mild disapproval and move on, reserving their outrage for Dylann Roof’s flags.

Still, even in a political universe that attaches more importance to words and symbols than to harms more grievous than can be inflicted by sticks and stones, flags occupy a special place. How did it come to that?

* * *

It is a bizarre case of American exceptionalism. Flags make Americans, white Americans especially, loco en el coco.

Is it because generations of American school children started their day by pledging allegiance to one?

No doubt, this played a role, but the lunacy must have started long before the Pledge of Allegiance became part of young Americans’ mornings. If we were not already predisposed, who would have thought of anything so nonsensical?

The man who did think of it, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist – and a cousin of the socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy – had lofty intentions.

For one thing, he wanted to remind Americans that theirs is “one nation…indivisible.” Apparently, a quarter century after the Civil War ended, there was still enough pro-Confederate sentiment around to cause Bellamy to think that Americans needed reminding.

But his main goal was to join the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” then streaming to America’s shores from all over Europe, to the descendants of the English, Scottish and Scotch-Irish settlers of earlier generations.

The Pledge celebrates “liberty and justice for all,” but not equality. Bellamy wrote that he would have included “equality” too – he was a socialist, after all – but didn’t because, he feared that school boards, in the South especially, would object. No doubt, he was right.

He wrote the Pledge for school children to recite at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition, called to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World – and, not incidentally, the beginning of a protracted and continuing physical and cultural genocide of the indigenous peoples of two continents.

Journalists and politicians were eager to take up the cause; before long, factories were turning out American flags by the carload, and healthy, non-truant children across the land were pledging allegiance to pieces of cloth five days a week (with time off for summer).

Of course, they also pledged allegiance “to the republic for which it stands.” That, at least, makes sense. Pledging allegiance to a flag makes no sense at all.

Six decades later, in a fit of Cold War piety and in order to draw “a line of demarcation,” as Lenin might have said, between American principles and “Godless atheistic Communism,” President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

He didn’t think this up all by himself; the idea had been proposed and championed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Knights of Columbus, and others of their ilk. Ike therefore had no trouble gaining “bipartisan” support for the idea; it fit the mood of the time.

But long before Eisenhower’s contribution, the American flag had become an object of veneration. To Americans steeped in their country’s civil religion, it was sacred.

Perhaps this is why Dylann Roof put a picture of himself burning an American flag on line. He wanted the world to know that he had contempt for a faith from which he, and other white supremacists, felt alienated.

This too is probably why white supremacists are keen on swastikas and, like Roof, on the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes: the Rhodesian flag, for example, and the flag of Apartheid South Africa. Understandably, Confederate flags get added to the mix – especially in parts of the country where people still have strong positive feelings about the ante-bellum South.

In light of all this American exceptionalism, it doesn’t seem so odd, after all, that a Confederate battle flag would become the focus of attention after the Charleston atrocity.

In a saner political climate, we would now be talking about gun control instead. The issue always comes up, briefly, whenever a major tragedy involving guns occurs. This time was no exception.

Nothing ever comes of it, however; and nothing will come of it this time either. Flags are where all the action is.

Therefore, when the furor and grief over Charleston subside, we Americans will be no safer than we were before. But if, as is likely, the inevitable backlash is contained, a few flags will have been moved to less conspicuous places.

* * *

In 1977, the United States Supreme Court ordered the Illinois Supreme Court to consider the First Amendment implications of a ban on a march planned by neo-Nazis in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago, where, at the time, approximately one out of six residents was a Holocaust survivor.

The authorities wanted to ban the march on the grounds that, for many of the citizens of Skokie, the sight of Nazi uniforms and swastikas was tantamount to a physical assault. District and appellate courts in Illinois, all the way up to the state Supreme Court, agreed.

But, upon review and under pressure from the Supreme Court in Washington, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the swastika and other Nazi symbols are entitled to First Amendment protections; that, although the Nazis’ intent was plainly provocative, their proposed use of Nazi symbols did not constitute “fighting words” and therefore did not compromise their right to express their views.

This was a landmark ruling in American jurisprudence; to this day, it remains the law of the land.

No doubt, there are white supremacists who, like neo-Nazis with swastikas, flaunt Confederate flags for hateful and provocative purposes. And just as people find swastikas disturbing, there are people who find Confederate flags disturbing too.

From a legal point of view, what holds for the one holds for the other; displaying these symbols is a protected form of expression that cannot be proscribed.

But displaying flags and other symbols, provocative or not, in tax supported public spaces is a matter for politically accountable officials, not judges, to decide. Those officials will normally be guided by the attitudes and sensibilities of the people they represent.

In general, since acts of commission are more salient than acts of omission, this would entail keeping symbols that significant constituencies find offensive out of government buildings. This would be the default position.

But in race conscious societies like ours, where inequalities of power and privilege are legion, not all constituencies are created equal. The default position would therefore tend to reflect the views of the dominant group.

In South Carolina, there are probably many more blacks who find Confederate flags offensive than there are whites who, for whatever reason, positively value their presence.   But the whites have more influence – electorally (especially now thanks to Republican voter suppression efforts) and culturally. Therefore, when the issue arises, striking a balance can be “complicated.”

This, presumably, was what the good Governor had in mind when she discussed the Flag Question immediately after the Charleston killings; before her CEOs focused their minds on the impact on their bottom lines of Confederate flags in public places. Once they did, Haley discovered that she favored moving that damned flag after all.

Complication gone? Not exactly. What is gone, for the time being, is a political problem that was complicating her life and the lives of other Southern politicians.

But Haley’s way of uncomplicating her life has almost nothing to do with a host of genuinely complicated issues that rise to the surface every now and then because, more than a century and a half after it ended, the Civil War is still very much on the minds of many Americans.

In this respect, it is like the Second World War. World War II ended seven decades ago, but, even as the World War II generation is passing away, the war — and the events surrounding it, especially the Nazi Judeocide — remains in peoples’ minds. The swastika therefore remains a potent symbol.

In that case, the war is indeed the important thing. Because Nazi ideology is essentially defunct, what miniscule neo-Nazi groups around the world do with swastikas hardly matters.

It is different with Confederate flags. In the United States today, outright white supremacist groups are also marginal. But soft versions of white supremacist theory and practice are pervasive. This is what makes institutional racism possible, and it is why racist attitudes persist.

And it is why the struggle against symbols that homegrown racists have made their own is not about what those symbols meant a century and a half ago. It is about present realities. African Americans bear the brunt of those realities, but, in one way or another, they affect us all.

When those symbols feel like “fighting words,” in the way that swastikas do, it is because of what they signify now. What they meant during the Civil War, and what they imply about that war and about the Confederacy – or about the descendants of Confederate soldiers and other Southerners today — is another matter altogether.

White supremacists don’t grasp the distinction. How could they? They are morons.

It is understandable that, in the heat of battle, others sometimes go along with their confusion. In struggles for justice, drawing distinctions can seem like splitting hairs. But it is important – conceptually and politically – not to fall into their muddle. Distinctions must be made.

What makes Confederate symbols offensive – here and now — is their role in post-World War II rearguard struggles against desegregation, and in continuing efforts to buttress remaining bastions of white supremacy.

All the rest is for historians and other “disinterested” investigators to sort out.

The Civil War and Reconstruction have been contested topics from Day One. Everything, it sometimes seems, is debatable. However, there are a few obvious points that are hardly controversial and that evidently still need to be made.

One is that although slavery was a very great evil indeed, likening the Confederacy, which defended slavery, to, say, the Third Reich – in other words, to a regime that represents the very embodiment of Evil in the minds of most people nowadays — is profoundly wrong-headed.

Another is that well-meaning liberals and others who effectively draw the comparison are guilty of inconsistency, if not outright hypocrisy.

Except for a few “conservative” historians and pundits, and Southerners who think that they are only defending their “heritage,” the orthodox view these days is that the Civil War was fought over slavery, not sovereignty.

The facts are not in dispute, except in marginal ways. The debate is about what to make of them. As happens often in such discussions, people typically talk past one another.

Obviously, the war was about slavery. Were it not for slavery, the states that formed the Confederacy would not have seceded, and there would have been no war.

But were most of the soldiers in the Confederate army fighting for slavery? The evidence is overwhelming: this is not how it seemed to them.

Southern planters were fighting for their slave-based way of life, and, to a degree that is uncommon for economic elites, they did send their sons off to war. They comprised the backbone of the Confederate army’s officer class.

But what the vast majority of Southerners were fighting for, insofar as they were fighting for any ideal at all, was the “homeland” with which they most identified.

In the South in the middle of the nineteenth century, that was more likely to be their home state than any federation, or confederation, of states. In this sense, the war, as they understood it, was indeed about sovereignty.

Nowadays, this attitude seems improbably parochial. Remember, though, that in the same period, in those parts of Europe where paradigm cases of “nation states” were being formed – in France, for example and in Germany and Italy – most peoples’ loyalties were more parochial still. Nation building is a long and arduous process, and loyalty to nations is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Most Confederate soldiers, like most soldiers everywhere and always, were drawn from the ranks of the desperately poor. Many, probably most of them, never owned slaves. This would not have changed had the Confederacy survived.

Those that lived, as most of them did, in hilly and mountainous regions unsuited for plantation labor, had no use for slaves in any case; and no use for slave-dependent plantation elites either.

For most Union soldiers too, the war had more to do with sovereignty than slavery. It was about maintaining the union of sovereign states formed at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Because northern soldiers were fighting states that had seceded in order to keep the slave economies of the planter elites secure, they were, in effect, fighting against the South’s system of slave labor. But few northerners went to war for this purpose; few saw themselves embarked on a moral crusade.

Northern schoolchildren have been taught otherwise for generations, but all the evidence suggests that the idea seldom, if ever, crossed the minds of the vast majority of Union soldiers.

Indeed, northern soldiers were fighting to maintain a Union that included five states where slavery was legal throughout the Civil War: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and, after it broke away from secessionist Virginia, the newly minted state of West Virginia.

If the North had been deeply committed to the anti-slavery cause, it would certainly have ended slavery within its own borders — even if doing so would have made prosecuting the war against the Confederacy more difficult.

But slavery was not ended in the non-Confederate slave states until after the Confederacy’s slaves were formally “emancipated” and the last Civil War battles were concluded.

It is also worth noting that leading figures in the North’s political class – including Abraham Lincoln, for most of his tenure in office — were inclined to support efforts to send liberated slaves back to Africa.

They did not actively promote the kinds of white supremacist policies that would afflict American society from the end of Reconstruction on — but, for white supremacist reasons, they were hardly intent on integrating former slaves into (white) American society.

So, yes, debates about rights and wrongs in the Civil War and its aftermath are complicated, unlike debates about Civil War flags. Debates about flags are complicated only to the extent that muddled minds get distinct issues entangled.

It wasn’t always this way. At a time when politics, especially left politics, was on a more robust track, there were people actively involved in anti-racist struggles who made common cause with white southerners who displayed Confederate flags.

The Young Patriots Organization of the late sixties and early seventies is an example. Growing out of an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organizing project called JOIN (Jobs or Income Now), it took root mainly in Chicago neighborhoods where white migrants from Appalachia had settled.

The Young Patriots were allied with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, a like-minded Puerto Rican revolutionary group.

Along with the berets that members of all three organizations wore, the Young Patriots sported jackets with Confederate flag insignias on the back, even as they fought against police brutality and housing discrimination alongside their black and brown comrades.

The Panthers and the Young Lords welcomed them – flags and all.   It was a matter of proletarian solidarity.

This would be unthinkable on today’s liberal left. But even liberals should be able to appreciate the glaring inconsistency, bordering on outright hypocrisy, inherent in recent debates about Confederate flags.

The Confederacy lasted only a few years. And even if, contrary to fact, its sole aim had been to keep human beings in bondage, the harm it did, as distinct from the harm that the institution of slavery did, was trivial in comparison with the harms done by the United States.

It was under the American flag, the flag to which Americans pledge allegiance, that the North American side of the Atlantic slave trade took place. Many prominent New England and mid-Atlantic merchant families enriched themselves egregiously by buying and selling slaves.

This was how more than a few of our great “philanthropists” acquired the fortunes with which they established and supported many of America’s most esteemed cultural and educational institutions.

It was not the Confederacy but the United States that organized genocidal campaigns against the indigenous peoples of North America.

And the Confederacy had no empire; it never spread murder and mayhem around the world.

Moreover, with no working class to speak of and hardly any financial sector, the Confederacy was comparatively blameless in sustaining and spreading the evils of capitalism itself.

Arguably, it was for the sake of the emerging industrial and financial institutions of capitalist America, and in order to facilitate capitalism’s westward expansion, that northern politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, made preserving the Union their highest priority.

In the final reckoning, the stars and bars are almost blameless in comparison with the stars and stripes.

So come off it, prissy liberals with “beautiful souls” and refined sensitivities.

Stop getting so worked up over pieces of cloth – especially when the one to which you don’t mind pledging allegiance is associated with much worse than the one you would excoriate.

By all means, get that infernal Confederate battle flag off the South Carolina State House lawn, and, wherever possible, do the same with other symbols that white supremacists have made their own. But then stop deluding yourselves over the importance of literally symbolic victories. Get real!

The time to get on with what politics is ultimately about was long before anyone outside his immediate circle had ever heard of Dylann Roof or cared about the flags he waved.   Black lives matter.   Flags only matter to the muddled minds of pathetic people, and to the good people who mindlessly follow their lead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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