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Sunday, August 5, 2018

BACK FROM THE BRINK


Well, one day under the weather is a reasonable price to pay for 97% protection against shingles.  Now, as to that clip from Noam Chomsky, which you can view here.  Noam starts by pooh-poohing the foofaraw about Russian interference in the 2016 election, indicating by his tone of voice as much as by what he says that he considers it pretty small beer.  [How’s that for two old fashioned slang expressions and one cliché in a single sentence?]  Then he moves on to a recent scholarly study that shows in granular detail the influence of money in American politics, which he suggests is much greater than any effect Russian efforts at interference might have had.  The second part of the short interview concerns the shape of post-war European power politics.  Let me say something about the first two points.

Were it not disrespectful to someone whom I like personally and for whom I have the very greatest esteem, I would be tempted to respond, “Duh!”  Big money plays a big role in American politics!  Who knew?  The ability of big money to shape politics is a fundamental structural fact not only about American politics but about the politics of all capitalist states.  The state exists in a capitalist economy for the purpose of facilitating the smooth and unchallenged exploitation of the working class, and one of the principal ways in which Capital accomplishes this in capitalist democracies is by shaping electoral outcomes.  Big money in American politics, to use again a catchphrase I have invoked before, is a feature, not a bug.

Does it therefore make no difference how that money is allowed legally to influence elections?  That depends on whether you think there is any point in trying to make American capitalism less harsh, less exploitative, less inhumane, even though those ameliorations are only at the margin.  I do think so.  Hence, for example, I decry the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court decision.  Did corporate and private wealth play a major role in American politics before that decision?  A silly question.  Would it continue to do so if the decision were reversed?  Equally silly.  Does the decision therefore matter?  That is a question worth debating.  My answer is yes.  Hence, I think it matters who sits on the Supreme Court.  Now, it goes without saying that every member of the Supreme Court now and for as long as matters has been nominated by a President, Democrat or Republican, who was committed to the capitalist exploitation of labor [though not of course under that description.]  I think we can also agree that all of the ice at the North and South Poles will have melted [and hell, correspondingly will have frozen over] before there is a workable majority on the Supreme Court ready to rule that capitalism is unconstitutional.

So I quite agree that the effect of the Russians on the 2016 election, whatever it may have been, pales into insignificance [another cliché] next to the influence of money.  Why, therefore, do I care about it?

The answer is simple.  I think Trump is a more serious threat to everything I care about than Clinton would have been, bad as she is and was, and I think his manifest conspiring with the Russians, which has taken place in plain view, may yet bring him down.  That’s it.  That is why I care.  Not because I believe it is besmirching the purity of the American political system, envy of the world; not because I think once he is gone America’s role as The Leader of the Free World, A City Upon a Hill, The Last Best Hope of Humanity, will be restored.  Just because I think the Russia thing may bring him down.

But if that is why I care about collusion, why don’t I care about Stormy Daniels and hush money?  Why don’t I care about the use of New York apartments to launder the dirty money of Russian oligarchs?  I do care!  And for exactly the same reason.  As the talking heads have now become fond of observing, it was tax evasion that sent Al Capone to jail.

I have had my say on the last part of Noam’s comments, concerning post-war Euro-American power politics, so I will pass on that.



24 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

I believe that Chomsky is concerned about building long-term political consciousness and that involves understanding that the interference of big money in U.S. elections is much more decisive than that of the evil Mr. Putin.

Chomsky is playing a different game than you are. You are concerned with the damage that Trump can do in the here and now. That seems fine. However, I recall an interview with Chomsky, maybe during the 2008 election, where he is asked whether he understands that Obama is "better" than McCain. Sure, Chomsky answers, I understand that Obama is "better" than McCain, but endorsing the lesser evil (not his exact words) is not my mission. That is, Chomsky is concerned with building a movement for radical social change and he dedicates himself to that, even though he is aware that Trump is worse than Hillary or Obama.

I suppose that consequentialists could debate the merits of your position and that of Chomsky, but in any case, you two are not playing the same game.

s. wallerstein said...
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s. wallerstein said...
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Jerry Fresia said...


Here are the risks:

Russiagate leads to a blue wave, endless hearings, and Trump's impeachment (with Trump identified as an unindicted co-conspirator). It is likely that the Senate will fail to convict.

The establishment Dems along with the CIA, NSA, FBI are strengthened. The left is further marginalized. Establishment Dems, in ascendency nominate a Cory Booker/Kamala Harris inauthentic-type centrist who fails, in the manner of HRC, to address the issue of "good" jobs and healthcare in any convincing manner, as a recession takes hold. The Trump base is energized, rallies behind a fully unhinged Trump, and expands its hold on the precariat. Interstate Cross Check moves into high gear in Republican controlled swing states. Trump wins in 2016.

If the left isn't strengthened and if the groundswell support for medicare for all and a massive public jobs program isn't harnessed by the Democrats, we could be in deeper trouble than we are now.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, I agree that that scenario is entirely possible. It is one reason why I favor a crippled rather than impeached but not removed Trump. A series of House hearings coupled with the passage of a series of progressive bills in the House that do not pass the Senate or get signed into law could lead to a powerful progressive win in 2020 [assuming I live that long:) ]

Ed Barreras said...


Chomsky: It’s well established by very solid empirical work [...] that American elections are [...] bought in the sense that you can predict the outcome of an election with extreme precision simply by looking at the single variable of campaign funding... [Ferguson discovered that] in the last stages of the campaign, when the big investors and capitalist interests were beginning to be afraid [... ] that there might be a moderately liberal Democrat, they poured money in a very targeted way not just to the president but to the Senate and House elections, and that led to a change which is reflected in the vote.

Does this strike anyone else as unreasonable? Clinton’s defeat was extremely narrow, but Chomsky seems to insist that it was a forgone conclusion which could have been predicted with “extreme precision.” And if corporate interests really do have the power to vanquish any moderate Democrats simply by tossing around huge sums of money, then what accounts for the successes of Bill Clinton and Obama (and Gore, for that matter)? I can’t help but think Chomsky is hugely oversimplifying something here.

Chomsky: Democrats are seeking an excuse for why they lost an election that should have been an open and shut affair if they’d ran a decent campaign and had decent programs.

But wait! Didn’t he just say that the outcome of the election was determined by our corporate overlords? And if that’s the case, then why would it matter how well the Clinton campaign was run or how good her programs were?

Chomsky: It turns out there was a campaign organized by a texas media company that works for Trump, LaPenn, Netanyahu and others. They collaborated with the Berlin Facebook office, which provided them with a very detailed demographic analysis of voters in Germany, and they were able to micro-target election based ads to these individuals which seems to have had a very signification influence not he rise of the neo-fascist party in Germany.

Here Chomsky is making the point that an American company intervened in Germany’s election using facebook to launch a targeted psy-ops operation. He acknowledges that this was extremely effective. But what Chomsky may not realize is that Mueller is currently investigating whether Cambridge Analytica may have collaborated with Russians in their similar operation here in the U.S. If it turns out they did, then Chomsky will presumably have to alter his assessment of the extent of Russian interference in the election.

Finally, Glenn Greenwald asks rhetorically whether Chomsky should be considered an admirer of Putin or a Kremlin agent.

Well, no. But I do wonder why Chomsky has chosen to promote denialism about Assad’s responsibility for the gas attacks on his own people, in direct contradiction to the OPCW, the WHO, the UN, and others.

As much as I admire Chomsky, his skepticism about American imperialism has unfortunately sometimes caused him to develop a blindspot for the evils of other actors. In the 70s it was Pol Pot, now evidently it’s Putin and Assad.

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2017/5/5/chomsky-and-the-syria-revisionists-the-lefts-moral-cul-de-sac

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/15/lesson-from-syria-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-theories-alt-right

Ed Barreras said...

Jerry, FWIW Kamala Harris has endorsed Medicare for all.

Heraclitus said...

Okay, fair enough - this is a completely understandable reason (although I agree with S. Wallerstein and Jerry that removing Trump at all costs by any means may not be the best long-sighted strategy, we can put that aside, especially since Prof. Wolff himself seems to agree in this last comment here).

But I do think this way of putting the point is quite different in tone and content than what you've said previously, Prof. Wolff, in response to "the left" pointing out the hysteria of exaggeration and hypocrisy attending the mainstream views on Russiagate. There you framed your concerns as entirely being about the integrity of the American electoral process. And I really believe there is a significant difference between these ways of seeing and putting the point. One can be made by a clear-eyed leftist without giving comfort to the illusion of pearl-clutching centrists; the other, I fear, not so much.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Apparently a lifetime of activism and publication counts for nothing on the web. Should I conclude that Noam has no concerns about the structural features of capitalism simply because he did not mention them?

Jerry Fresia said...

Ed,

Yes you are right. But my understanding is that while Sander's has picked up about a dozen or two more signatories, the signees are being cynical. That is, they believe that there is no chance of its passage but their support looks good to their respective bases. Time will tell but she has a record of playing both sides of the street.

Professor: I like your strategy of crippling Trump, but I also fear an unstable Commander-in-Chief.

My worst fear is that the truth somehow comes out: it wasn't a hack but a leak. Then the basket of deplorables and their mad
leader will be on fire.

s. wallerstein said...

Professor Wolff,

You might put a short summary of past political activism at the head of your website. Those of us who have followed your blog for a long time are more or less aware of your history of activism, but those who tune in for the first time might not know about that.

In the case of Noam Chomsky, he, justly or not, is famous for his activism, so "everybody" is aware of that. You are not so famous.

RoninMcDugald said...

"Sigh. Apparently a lifetime of activism and publication counts for nothing on the web."

I'd say that's right. Ditto for credentials. But what, I wonder, was the mode of argumentation which became outmoded with the advent of the printed and widely distributed word and of modern systems of education (and elite creation)?

Vince said...

One of the standard criticisms I see of Chomsky (not that you've made it yourself, Professor) is that he regularly repeats himself on issues that are known not only to academics quite well, but to a sizable portion of the public as well (even if they can't articulate it). However, in repeating the well-established fact that the "donor class" has far more influence over American politicians than the Russians he is trying to put things in perspective - often more difficult to do than one would think.

The perspective I believe Chomsky was trying to convey is that, with no guarantee of Trump's illegal behavior in terms of 'collusion' (I don't know the correct legal term), and no guarantee that, if evidence of this was uncovered, that Trump would be impeached, it is not worth even paying even remotely substantial attention to the Russian interference. It IS worth paying attention, instead, to issues that are publicly verifiable, directly influential over the lives of ordinary voting-age Americans, and plausibly reduced through actions we can take as relatively free Americans.

But this is only one side of the coin. You write,

"The answer is simple. I think Trump is a more serious threat to everything I care about than Clinton would have been, bad as she is and was, and I think his manifest conspiring with the Russians, which has taken place in plain view, may yet bring him down. That’s it. That is why I care. Not because I believe it is besmirching the purity of the American political system, envy of the world; not because I think once he is gone America’s role as The Leader of the Free World, A City Upon a Hill, The Last Best Hope of Humanity, will be restored. Just because I think the Russia thing may bring him down."

With respect, I think there is more to reasonably dispute here than you may believe, Professor Wolff. You say that "Trump is a more serious threat to everything I care about than Clinton...." However, it is not at all clear to me that Trump himself is anything but a useful distraction. Indeed, it's not clear to me at all that ANY of us can know for sure if Trump is merely a narcissist who has a keen political ability in the current state of the country, a typical American President in that he merely does what it takes to get re-elected but in a much uglier fashion, or some other combination of the usual political tactics/antics.

Furthermore, Trump himself is powerless without his dedicated base. Imagine, though, if your dream came true and Trump was removed from office for the Russian thing. What would become of the sizable portion of Americans who essentially worship the man? Among other things, we would see enormous anger, riots, feelings of powerlessness, and so on. In other words, removing Trump from office for the Russian thing IS, ironically, a guarantee that the left/liberals would succeed in further disenfranchising and isolating a large number of people.

The solution to me, then, seems fairly straightforward: forget about making Russian interference a political issue (unless publicly verifiable evidence came out regarding truly "treasonous" behavior) and adopt the traditional methods of the left in working to address the issues that undeniably, and are known as such, negatively affect the lives of ordinary Americans.

You often post about engaging in this kind of grassroots work, so that is commendable, and I take no issue with it. Your short-term goal for Trump though does not, I believe, hold up under scrutiny.

Heraclitus said...

I don't know if Prof. Wolff's "sigh" comment is directed at me or not but in case it is I'm not quite sure why: my whole point here is precisely premised on Prof. Wolff's extremely admirable and praiseworthy lifetime record of impressive critical theory and left activism. It is precisely because of that record that it is surprising to hear him chide leftists for critiquing mainstream Democrat pearl-clutching re Russiagate on grounds of protecting the integrity of the American electoral system, *as opposed to* on grounds of just wanting to weaken/get rid of Trump. The latter is totally fair enough. It is the former that is troubling.

Why this is hard to convey is puzzling. I mean a closely parallel point has been made by Prof. Wolff himself when he has admitted to not being able to voice criticisms of Trump in the mainstream's chosen idiom of Trump being a departure from "American norms, traditions" etc. Just like he - rightfully - cannot bring himself now, after a lifetime of principled opposition to business as usual in America, so many of us find it difficult to swallow the "shocked, shocked" response of mainstream Democrats (which response is, of course, part and parcel of an ongoing evasion of serious discussion and action on the real structural impediments to a functioning democracy in the US).

David Palmeter said...

Vince, you say, "However, it is not at all clear to me that Trump himself is anything but a useful distraction. Indeed, it's not clear to me at all that ANY of us can know for sure if Trump is merely a narcissist who has a keen political ability in the current state of the country, a typical American President in that he merely does what it takes to get re-elected but in a much uglier fashion, or some other combination of the usual political tactics/antics."

Whether Trump is or is not a narcissist is not as important as the fact that he named Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and has nominated Kavanaugh. Clinton never would have done that. The consequences of these two will be felt by the country long after I'm gone, and I'm confident that those consequences won't be pleasant.

Vince said...

David, I think the point is precisely that it's not Trump who nominates Supreme Court justices. It's "Trump" who does that, the politician who, knowing apparently very little about some of his own decisions, effectively is the officiator of others who are presumably making the decisions for him. If Pence was in office, the situation likely wouldn't be much different.

I agree that Clinton would not have done these things. But this does not, in regard to Professor Wolff's post, indicate that we should be concerned with Russian interference as a political issue.

David Palmeter said...

Vince,

We should be concerned about the Russian interference (1) because, as a general matter, we don't want anyone to interfere with out elections; yes, corporate money is corrupt and disgusting and no doubt had a larger impact, but the point about outside interference stands; (2) more important, it provides an avenue for discrediting Trump. I suspect it is very unlikely, even if the Democrats control the House next year and vote to impeach, that 67 senators will vote to convict. But Democratic exploitation of Russian interference provides an issue against Trump that can contribute to his being a one-term president. A lot of people--actual and potential voters--care greatly about Russian interfernce, whether we on this blog do or do not.

As to Pence, he's deplorable, but not as deplorable as Trump. He would concentrate on domestic issues, very negatively from my perspective, from abortion to taxes. But he would not explode and blow up the world. I worry very much about the nut we have in the White House now doing just that.

As to Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, you'r right about Pence. That's why the country would be better off today if Clinton had won.

RobinMcDugald said...

To repeat something I said 4 days ago, since it still (at least to me) seems relevant:

What we should, perhaps, really be anxious about is that a significant part of the American response to the Putin/Russian self-defensive assault has moved in the direction of a rather mindless, or at least highly emotional hostility towards Russia/Putin. Why be anxious? Because, or so it seems to me, there is now some possibility that the approaching Presidential primary contest will be fought, among Democrats, either explicitly or implicitly in terms of who will be tougher on Russia. [That is something I think the discussion on this blog would seem to preview.] Worse, should a Democrat succeed in becoming President in 2020, a large part of his/her base support will be looking for an aggressive set of policies directed at Russia. Hillary Clinton on steroids, one might suggest.

In other words, in response to David Palmeter’s urging that a focus on Russian interference “more important[ly] provides an avenue for discrediting Trump,” BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.

David Palmeter said...

What would be wrong about being "tougher on Russia"? I would not advocate anything in he way of military confrontation, but Putin is an autocrat presiding over a kleptocracy. There's certainly nothing about him or his government that the left could admire.

Beyond that, if it is accepted (as I think it should be) that the risk of Trump leading us into war, particularly nuclear war,is greater than is the risk of Pence doing so, then it seems to me to be a no-brainer to try to defeat Trump.

RobinMcDugald said...

We are, it seems to me, in danger of wandering from one line of argument to another. The original contention, as I understood what was being said, was that if playing the Russia card got rid of Trump, then that was fine. And my response was intended to press the point that playing the Russia card ran the risk—a risk I said I thought I saw already in some of the discussion on this blog—of exciting passions that would be difficult to control.

Now, it seems, the issue is whether a more general “tougher on Russia” approach is appropriate for reasons other than possible electoral interference. Isn’t this just a return to a sort of Cold-War liberalism? I am not arguing that it is impermissible to argue how national security might best be secured. I would, however, argue that it is also debatable what actually constitutes national security. And I would further argue that the approach the USA has almost invariably adopted towards post-Soviet Russia, an approach which might well be described as rather tough, has diminished rather than enhanced the security of the USA.

I’m actually quite glad you responded as you did, David, because I, for one, do not want to see it all caught up in narrow and concealing ‘electionism,’ that an important part of the Russian interference emphasis is precisely about international politics, and that some of those pressing that emphasis have an agenda that anti-war activists should oppose and which others of those pressing that emphasis would do well to recognize.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

If you're concerned about human rights abuses in Russia, why not join Amnesty International or support grassroot groups inside Russia like Pussy Riot?

The U.S. has a long history of cynically using human rights abuses in other countries to further its imperialistic geopolitical goals and in short, it is no longer credible. The boy has cried "wolf" too often.

As for Russia being a kleptocracy, as you claim, yes, but no worse than the "good guys" in the Ukraine and a lot worse than Iraq, which "we" supposedly liberated from autocracy and kleptocracy. Here is the Transparency International Corruption Perception
Index. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_Perceptions_Index

By the way, the U.S. is not doing so well on the corruption perceptions index (in the same league as Chile for example) and maybe they had better concentrate their energy on cleaning up their act at home rather than on "liberating" the rest of humanity.

s. wallerstein said...

Sorry, my error:

I wrote that Russia is "a lot worse than Iraq" regarding corruption when I meant to write
"a lot better"...according to Transparency International

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

You apparently assume, in correctly, that I don’t support Amnesty International.

The US would have no human rights abuses in other countries to exploit if the abuses didn’t exist. Put differently: the fact that the US will exploit human rights abuses is no excuse for the abuses.

What does the fact that Ukraine and Iraq are greater kleptocracies than Russia have to do with Russia’s being a kleptocracy? I don’t believe we should be supporting either Ukraine or Iraq (unless there is some valid US interest at stake) and that we should object to their interfering in our election too if there is evidence they did so.

The fact that we have corruption at home (we rank #18 according to the link you provided) doesn’t mean corruption in Russia (#131) shouldn’t be a factor in our policy toward Russia. (We may rank a little better once Trump is gone; he’s taken it to an all new level.)

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

My reference to Amnesty International was rhetorical. I have no doubt that you support it as do I.

However, we differ radically as to what the role of the U.S. as a government should be in the world. Unless there is wide international support (that means the UN, for all its defects, not NATO, for human rights campaigns against nations which abuse human rights), I believe that the U.S. has no role in promoting human rights abroad. The U.S. of course can and should join campaigns which have wide international support.

Otherwise, as I stated above, the U.S. has absolutely no credibility regarding their claims to the international paladin of human rights and democracy. I pay close attention to Chilean media, and no one who comments on international affairs here, either on the left or on the right, swallows the U.S.'s claims to promote human rights abroad: all of them see them as always motivated by geopolitical strategic interests. Especially post Iraq, almost no one outside of the U.S. believes them anymore.