Category Archives: US domestic politics

Is Britain really a democracy?

Is Britain Really A Democracy?
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 July 2022

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze in January, Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at Exeter University, strongly opposed the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020. “Since 1928 we have had a full, equal parliamentary democracy… we do have democratic processes in Britain, both in local government and in national government, to change the law or to give effect to the law,” he argued. “I’m not happy with the way of using force and violence in order to affect change when there are democratic processes there.”

Professor Black’s belief in the efficacy of British democracy echoes repeated statements made by the British elite. “I am fortunate to live in a democracy, I am fortunate to be the Prime Minister of a free, independent, democratic country,” Boris Johnson told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth in February. Indeed, these kinds of self-serving platitudes tend to be popular when discussing international affairs, with Tory MP Andrew Percy responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by announcing“We are lucky to live under the best form of government ever known in human history”.

As the quote from Johnson makes clear, one function of public pronouncements about “British democracy” is to confer legitimacy on the status quo, and our rulers.

But what is the reality?

There has been some important research done on this question in the US, with a 2014 BBC report on an academic study into American political system titled “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.” The authors of the research – Professor Martin Gilens from Princeton University and Professor Benjamin Page from Northwestern University –noted their “analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Writing in his 2012 book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens explains his research shows “that when preferences between the well off and the poor diverge, government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor.”

Back in the UK, there is considerable evidence all is not well with our own much heralded democracy. Note, for example, the following polling results.

A May YouGov survey found 60 per cent of respondents backed the public ownership of the railways, which echoes a survey done by the polling company in 2017 which found a majority of people in favour of nationalising Royal Mail, water companies, energy companies and railway companies.

Another YouGov poll in January found 67 per cent of respondents (including 65 per cent of Tory voters) supported capping private housing rental rates, with 69 per cent supporting “Increasing the percentage of new builds required to be set aside for affordable housing.”

In October 2021 the thinktank Demos and WWF surveyed 22,000 British people – the “biggest analysis of [climate] policy preferences ever published,” according to the Guardian. They found overwhelming support for a number of policies, including a carbon tax (94 per cent), food campaigns that promote plant-based diets and reduced meat and dairy consumption (93 per cent) and raising flying costs, especially for frequent fliers (89 per cent).

And in 2020 YouGov also found 61 per cent of the public supports a wealth tax for people with assets over £750,000.

Morning Star readers will know that despite public backing, these policies are not supported by either the Conservative government or Labour opposition, and garner little support amongst the wider political class.

To (mis)paraphrase The Jam’s Going Underground, on key issues the public often doesn’t get what the public wants.

This is because there are more powerful forces bearing down on the political system that are actively working in opposition to public opinion – corporate interests, being a key influence.

The Democratic Audit research unit at the London School of Economics came to a similar conclusion in 2012. “There are very firm grounds to suggest that the power which large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented,” their report noted about the “long-term, terminal decline” of representative democracy in the UK. “Evidence is presented throughout our Audit of ways in which policymaking appears to have shifted from the democratic arena to a far less transparent set of arrangements in which politics and business interests have become increasingly interwoven.”

This influence occurs in a number of ways, many of which, as the Audit suggests, are hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.

For example, in 2011 it was revealed by the Guardian that financiers in the City of London provided over 50 per cent of the funding for the Conservative Party. More recently the Guardian reported “private firms including healthcare bodies, arms companies and tech giants” had provided £13m for All-Party Parliamentary Groups, informal groups in parliament made up of MPs focussing on a variety of topics.

In addition to directly funding of political parties, corporations undertake extensive lobbying of politicians. In 2012 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the City spent £92.8 million (with 800 staff working full time) on lobbying government in 2011. Unsurprising this work creates access to the highest level of government. For example, in 2015 the Guardian reported “fossil fuel companies enjoy far greater access to UK government ministers than renewable energy companies or climate campaigns,” with just Shell and BP having double the number of ministerial meetings as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Incredibly, 2012 Freedom of Information requests uncovered employees of oil companies Shell and ConocoPhillips working at the Department of Energy and Climate Change – in most cases paid by the government to do so.

Corporations also exert influence through well-funded thinktanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute. All are very close to the current Tory government, helping to shape the political debate in the media and Westminster.

And of course big business and wealthy individuals own significant sections of the media, the primary source of news for the population. With three companies controlling 83 per cent of the national newspaper readership in 2018, in their 2020 book The Media Manifesto, four academics note “levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing” in the UK.

What all of this shows is we have a corporate-dominated democracy – a managed democracy in which we have formal elections but governments that are often unresponsive to voters on many of the key issues but usually happy to implement corporate-friendly policies. Which of course means we don’t really live in a democracy at all. As comedian and writer Robert Newman argued in his 2003 novel The Fountain at the Centre of the World “Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both.”

A word of warning: don’t expect unwavering support from liberals in this fight.

“That nobody could possibly do a better job than… professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” journalist Abi Wilkinson argued in Jacobin magazine in 2017. Elite liberals are “suspicious of mass democracy,” she notes, because they believe “that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”

Wilkinson’s analysis is echoed by a study published in the New York Times in 2018. Using data from the World Values Survey, David Adler found that across Europe and North America “centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and [other than the far right] the most supportive of authoritarianism.” Again, this won’t be a surprise to anyone who remembers the support and/or supportive silence Labour centrists gave when the Labour Party barred thousands of people from joining to vote in the 2016 leadership election, or their attempts to overturn the Brexit vote.

All is not lost. Another world is possible. The answer is simple: more democracy. How we get there is the hard part. What we do know is that grassroots, popular movements applying decisive pressure on the elite is a tried and tested method for winning political change. There is no way round it: successfully addressing the big problems – poverty, inequality, covid and, most importantly, the climate and ecological emergency – will require an epic confrontation with, and significant weakening of, corporate power.

Time to get busy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”: Peter Kalmus interview

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”: Peter Kalmus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 June 2022

In April Dr Peter Kalmus, an American climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was arrested after he chained himself to the door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles in protest at the bank’s investments in new fossil fuel projects.

Speaking in a personal capacity to Ian Sinclair, Kalmus, who is currently the most followed climate scientist on Twitter, discussed his arrest, barriers to scientists speaking out and the importance of mass civil disobedience in the climate crisis.

Morning Star: Can you explain what led you to chaining yourself to the front door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles?

Peter Kalmus: I’m feeling desperate, because the climate emergency is intensifying each year and yet government leaders aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, they’re doing the opposite of what needs to be done: they’re still expanding the fossil fuel industry. They should be leading an emergency-scale transformation away from fossil fuels instead. Everyone needs to know that the damage fossil fuels are doing to Earth’s life support systems are effectively irreversible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change WG3 report was released just two days before our action at JP Morgan Chase. The report made it very clear that there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure built from this point, and that human emissions globally need to peak now – not five years from now – in order to still have a 50/50 chance of staying under 1.5°C of mean global heating, a level that I think will be far more catastrophic than almost anyone realizes. Scientist Rebellion called for civil disobedience on April 6 to protest inaction in the context of this report, and I thought “it’s definitely time,” so I joined hundreds of other scientists around the world, risking our careers and our freedom, for the sake of the planet, our kids, and everyone. I chose the JP Morgan Chase as the location because they do more to fund fossil fuel infrastructure than any other institution on the planet. JP Morgan Chase is unabashedly funding the irreversible destruction of life on Earth. It’s crazy to have to say that – it’s a crazy time we live in – but it’s absolutely true.

MS: While 1,200 scientists in 26 countries were reported to have taken part in the Scientist Rebellion that your direct action was part of, you will know most scientists, indeed most climate scientists, don’t speak out publicly, or participate in activism. What are some of the barriers that stop scientists becoming publicly active? 

PK: It takes courage to break social norms, and it takes courage to risk your career. I think it’s worth it. Life on Earth is at stake. Our kids’ lives are at stake. That’s worth infinitely more than my career. It’s even worth risking my freedom for. At this point, we need to start thinking in terms of “deep time.” The action we take today, or the inaction, will reverberate for thousands of generations.

MS: UK climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson stopped flying in around 2005, and has criticised other scientists who continue to use air travel. In his 2021 book The New Climate War Professor Michael Mann describes Anderson’s position as “buy[ing] heavily into the ‘personal action’ framing of climate solutions”, which deflects from the necessary systematic action needed. What’s your view on climate scientists making a public stand on flying?

PK: I don’t want to pick on any one person, and there are still a lot of climate advocates who are frequent flyers, but personally I do think it’s irresponsible to continue flying frequently when you know that this behaviour is irreversibly heating up the planet. Much of the CO2 we emit, whether from flying or any other activity, will stay in the atmosphere contributing to global heating for thousands of years. I haven’t flown since 2012 because I can’t handle the intense feeling of benefitting personally from flying at dire cost to my own kids, young people everywhere, future generations, and nonhuman life such as forests and coral reefs. It felt simultaneously horrific and selfish – horrifically selfish.

But the damage goes far beyond the CO2 emissions, precisely because frequent flying climate influencers are correct: it’s not about their “individual action.” The main problem with their flying isn’t the CO2 they’re emitting, it’s the message they’re communicating, and how this message delays systems change. We live in a political system whose decision makers have been financially captured by the fossil fuel industry. In order to get change in this captured system, we need grassroots pressure that’s stronger than the fossil fuel industry. To get this grassroots power, the public needs to understand that we’re genuinely in an emergency. But when our most influential climate messengers act like there’s no emergency, by engaging in status quo fossil fuel behaviour of the privileged global rich, and then vocally defending that behaviour in order to justify it, the public takes the top-line message that there’s no emergency. The sooner the public understands we’re in an emergency, the sooner humanity will start responding like we’re in an emergency, and the more we’ll save. We’ve already lost so much. Ecosystems are dying. People are dying. Losses are guaranteed to intensify from here, and to continue intensifying, until we end the fossil fuel industry. Frequent flying from top climate advocates is a significant block to systemic action. If they were to say, instead, “this is such a huge emergency that I can no longer fly, I know my decision to stop flying is not a solution, but, knowing what I know, it just feels too horrific and disgusting to keep doing it,” the public would get a very different message.

These are tough conversations to have. Obviously, we all live in a fossil-fuelled system of systems, and it’s impossible to fully reduce our fossil fuel use until those systems change. And of course we do need systems change; we won’t stop Earth breakdown through “individual action.” But we can at least avoid excessively using fossil-fuelled systems for perceived personal gain, or worse, defending them. In other words, fly if you still feel that you “need” to, but don’t fly frequently; and instead of defending the commercial aviation system, call for its end. Eventually, most people will recognize that the climate emergency is simply too deadly and irreversible to justify flying on fossil fuels.

MS: US President joe Biden has been in office for just over a year. What do you think about the Biden Administration’s record so far on the climate crisis?

PK: It has been terrible. With all the new drilling and calls for fossil fuel expansion, stopping climate breakdown is clearly not a priority for this administration. It would be great if this changes over the next few years – the first president who makes climate their top priority will go down in history as one of the best presidents of all time – but evidence so far indicates that it will not.

MS: You recently tweeted that “climate petitions, letters, and even marches are a waste of time”. In terms of strategy and tactics, where do you think the climate movement should put its energy in the next few years? 

PK: Civil disobedience. It’s time for the climate movement to shift into mass civil disobedience. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in terms of Earth breakdown we’re now in desperate times. It’s not too late to act, because it will never be too late to act, but the sooner we really start to fight the more we’ll save. At this point, everyone should fight as hard as they can.

Peter Kalmus is the author of the 2017 book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, published by New Society Publishers. Follow Peter on Twitter @ClimateHuman.

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13-14 November 2021

Having released a joint podcast earlier this year, US music superstar Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have just published those conversations as a book – Renegades: Born In The USA.

The podcast was hugely popular, and no doubt the book will be a bestseller this Christmas and beyond.

As a Springsteen fan, I’m very uneasy about this partnership.

First, I was surprised Springsteen decided to do it. Since President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to appropriate his epic Born In The USA song in 1984, The Boss has been wary of intervening in party politics. As he explained in 2012, “I don’t write for one side of the street … normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines.”  This general stance shifted in 2004, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and then Obama in 2008. However, it’s worth noting he told Channel 4 News he didn’t “have any plans” to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, just three weeks before he did exactly that. Beyond these endorsements, there is a sense Springsteen thinks very carefully before acting in the political arena, aware the more he campaigns the less power each intervention has.

Second, though both men are Democrats, arguably Springsteen is further to the left than Obama, and certainly the 2008-2016 Obama Administration.

Springsteen’s concern about the lives of Americans stretches back decades. In October 2016 he told Channel 4 News “The past 40 years, as the deindustrialisation and globalization has affected a lot of work lives, the issues that matter to a lot of hardworking folks haven’t been addressed… neither party has really addressed their concerns.” Note the timing of his criticism of all US political leaders – the tailend of Obama’s supposedly paradigm-shifting presidency.

Speaking about his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, his angry response to the financial crisis and its effects on Mainstreet USA, Springsteen told the Guardian “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” Of course that’s because Obama didn’t take any significant action to punish or reign in Wall Street. Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, according to Politico Obama told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” He continued: “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

During a 2012 press conference in Paris Springsteen praised Obama for keeping General Motors alive and killing Osama Bin Laden. However, though he noted Obama “got through healthcare” he said it was “not the public system I would have wanted… big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected.”  

This is an accurate analysis. Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor, Timothy Geithner, a protégé Summers, was made Treasury Secretary, and Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs investment bank, Geithner’s Chief of Staff.  

On healthcare, Springsteen is in agreement with Obama circa 2003, when as a state senator he supported “single payer” (universal public healthcare), though explained its introduction would require Democrats to take back the White House and Congress. By 2009 Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress. However, the Obama Administration “worked to deliberately marginalize the idea” of single payer, according to Tim Higginbotham, writing for Jacobin in 2018. For example the White House held a summit on healthcare reform in March 2009 where “every voice has to be heard” and “every idea must be considered”, according to the president. But as always with Obama, it is best to attend to his deeds, not words. The idea of creating a single-payer programme had already been rejected, it seems. Asked at the start of the summit why Obama was against single payer, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs answered “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”

The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was eventually passed in 2010, expanding health insurance coverage to around 20 million people but it wasn’t the public option Springsteen favours. As Matt Taibbi explained in Rolling Stone in 2009: “Even though [Obama] and the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.”

While it is important not to exaggerate the differences but Springsteen and Obama, the former is probably best described as a New Deal Democrat, giving a voice to politically and economically dispossessed Americans on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. In contrast, in 2008 US writer Paul Street described the first African American president as a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”. As US journalist John R. MacArthur said in 2013: “He never stops serving the ruling class.”

Listening to the eight-episode podcast series the lack of time given to hard politics is noticeable, with no serious discussion about Obama’s actual record in office.

Turning to US foreign policy, a survey of Springsteen’s albums suggests it’s a secondary concern for the New Jersey native. And largely only of interest when it negatively impacts Americans. His epic Born In The USA song, for example, refers to “Viet Cong” and the “yellow man” but is far more interested in the dark days facing the returning Vietnam veteran. During his recent Broadway show, he introduced the song as a “G.I. blues.” Ditto Youngstown from 1995, which mentions wars in Korea and Vietnam, and alludes to the forces of globalisation (“now sir you tell me the world’s changed”) but is primarily concerned with how industrial decline impacted the American worker. And I think his 2002 album The Rising – made in the wake of 9/11 – is a great record, but its lack of interest in what the US had been doing around the world – when the national political debate cried out for exactly that – was telling.

This disinterest (or should I say ignorance?) likely suits their friendship: Obama’s murderous foreign policy record wouldn’t be the best fit with the relaxed atmosphere of the podcast.

As Peter Bergen, then CNN’s national security analyst, wrote in 2014: Obama is “one of the most militarily aggressive American presidents in decades”, bombing seven Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Obama embraced drone warfare, conducting ten times more air strikes in the so-called war on terror than President Bush, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson note the Obama Administration dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Infamously, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” for air strikes, the New York Times explained in 2012. Citing several Obama Administration officials, the report noted this approach “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Tellingly, Springsteen recently told US talk show host Stephen Colbert that it was Obama who approached him about doing a podcast. It seems Obama, a master of dazzling, criticism-muzzling presentation and PR, still has an expert eye for engagements that will burnish and improve his image.

But what does Springsteen get out of it? Over his more than 50-year music career he has built up a perhaps unprecedented level of respect and trust with his audience. Why risk endangering this?

Personally, I’m all for more political interventions from artists – just not a close collaboration with a former Imperial Administrator who is up to his neck in the blood of thousands of men, women, children and babies from the Global South.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 March 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the 2003 film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential critique of the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has now published a sequel – The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy. And, true to form, he has also co-directed a documentary based on his new book. Ian Sinclair asked Bakan about his book, whether corporations have really changed and what concerned citizens can do about corporate power.

Ian Sinclair: In your 2004 book and 2003 documentary you argued corporations, as institutions, are imbued with the character traits of a human psychopath. What is the central argument of your new book? 

Joel Bakan: Shortly after that book and film were released, companies began making sweeping commitments to social and environmental good. One hundred percent carbon neutrality, zero waste to landfills, 100% recycling, moves to renewables, proclamations about inequality and climate change, cascades of corporate programmes designed to help people in need and promote sustainability – all promises signaling that companies were now part of the solution, no longer the problem. It was as though they were saying, “we’re not psychopaths anymore; we’re good actors now, caring and conscientious,” a clear rebuttal to my earlier charge. I felt I needed to answer that – not least because these ideas would soon define big business’ overarching ethos, and also bring everyone else, including many progressive people, under their spell. This project is my answer.

I argue that the apparent turn to good – the ‘new corporation movement’, as I describe it – is animated by corporations’ discovery of something human psychopaths have known all along: a sheen of charm works better than overt skulduggery. Commitments by companies to social responsibility and sustainability, along with pious claims to be conscientious and caring, create a sheen that, in turn, hides their legally-imbued self-interested character. It’s not that that character necessarily bars companies from doing good. But it does limit the kinds of good they can do to what will help them do well – a profound limit – while also requiring they do bad when that, rather than doing good, is the best way to do well. No one in business denies any of this. None say social and environmental values should trump financial ones. Rather, what they say is that companies should, when possible, leverage the former to serve the latter. Hardly a road to the New Jerusalem.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples of how these “new” corporations act in contradiction to their socially conscious public rhetoric? 

JB: Here are some examples from the book. British Petroleum’s criminal negligence leading to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is juxtaposed to the company’s green branding. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal is compared to its reputation as an environmental leader while the scandal was unfolding but hidden. Honeywell’s boast that its manufacturing plants are super-sustainable is set against the company’s weapon-making, including nuclear weapons, inside those sustainable plants. British American Tobacco’s claim its tobacco fields are biodiverse is set against its use of those fields to make a product that kills people and makes them ill. Google’s vaunted use of renewable energy is compared to the fact it helps fossil fuel companies boost production with its Artificial Intelligence. And fossil fuel companies’ commitments to the Paris climate accord are contrasted to their intensive lobbying to ensure it imposed few real constraints on them, and contained no mandatory enforcement mechanisms. 

What these and other stories show is that while it is true corporations pursue social and environmental goals, and sometimes do some good, they necessarily pursue those goals within limits created by the legal imperative to serve self-interest. And those limits – in marked contrast to the limitless possibilities for goodness conjured by corporate marketing and public relations campaigns – are, as noted, profound.

IS: What do you mean by the book’s subtitle “How ‘good’ corporations are bad for democracy”? 

JB: Many, including some on the left, acknowledge the kinds of corporate deceptions and limits I talk about. But they say in response: “Isn’t it at least better than nothing that corporations try to do some good, and sometimes succeed?” My answer is “no”. It’s worse than nothing. And that’s because the notion that corporations can be good actors, along with the entire new corporation movement it animates, is part of a worrying ideological trope. It suggests that, because corporations are good now, we should welcome, not resist, their increasing power, impunity, and control over society; we should trust them to regulate themselves, to run our schools and water systems, to partner with democratic governments, rather than be subject to their sovereignty. That is why the new corporation’s charm offensive is not just deceptive, but dangerous. It puts a smiling face on all of neoliberalism, not only on the corporations operating within it.

This all became clear to me during a visit to the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos (which plays a central role in the book and film). There I spoke with many new corporation leaders, none more candid than Richard Edelman, one of the world’s top business gurus. Corporations have become “good actors,” he told me, “agents of change” ready to “fill a void” left by retreating governments. “I’m not much of a believer in political citizenship,” he continued. “I actually believe much more in the power of the marketplace.” I found chilling this casual dismissal of “political citizenship” (in other words, democracy) in favour of markets – and all the more so for reflecting (as was confirmed during my further wanderings around Davos) a core belief among new corporation advocates, the supposed ‘good guys’ of capitalism, that because corporations are now publicly-minded, ready to take the lead on social and environmental issues, governments can, and should, retreat from doing the same. Which helps explain how new corporations can both celebrate social and environmental values while, at the same time, lobbying vociferously against governments’ efforts to protect those very values through regulation and programmes designed to foster equality, justice and the public good. 

IS: In terms of how concerned citizens should respond to corporate power, you argue “protest is not enough”. What do you propose? 

JB: My book and film end on a note of hope, showing how people around the world are working and fighting for deeper ideals of democracy, of justice, of planetary survival – sometimes with and through governments, other times against and outside of them. The Black Lives Matter protests, uprisings against autocratic rule in eastern Europe, climate protests by school children, indigenous struggles against colonialism, experiments in participatory democracy – these are some of the stories I feature, and that give me hope. I also argue that though the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices (a dynamic I explore throughout the book), there are some signs of hope in how, at least to some extent, people’s responses to it exhibit counter-neoliberal sensibilities of humanism and the importance of collective endeavor.

But you’re quite right, I also argue protest is not enough, while insisting it is often necessary. Because corporations are created and enabled by government and the state, as are the market systems they plie for profit, I argue, challenging their power and impunity must happen from within state institutions as well as from outside. I feature in the book and film progressive movements that have sought this kind of political presence within the state, and show how their work is aimed not only at getting a place within existing democratic institutions, but also, once there, deepening the democratic character of those institutions. The latter aim, I argue, requires at a minimum bringing the social into democracy. Political democracy cannot exist in any real way without a foundation of social equality and justice. It’s the growing separation between these two realms, the social and political, that now threatens democracy so profoundly. That (along with many other things) needs to change, and there are signs – which I point to in my book and film – that it just might.

The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy is published by Vintage.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel documentary is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from 18-26 March on Barbican Cinema On Demand. Joel Bakan and co-director Jennifer Abbott will take part in a Live Zoom ScreenTalk about their film on Sunday 21 March at 5pm. Buy tickets here: https://ff.hrw.org/london

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential assault on the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan has now written a sequel, a response to the ‘trend of corporations claiming to be different, to have changed into caring and conscientious actors – ready to lead the way in solving society’s problems.’ This shift is, it seems, a reaction to public concern, with Larry Fink from investment management firm BlackRock writing to business leaders in 2018 to tell them ‘Society is demanding that companies serve a social purpose.’

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, is having none of it. ‘Making money for themselves and their shareholders remains their top priority’, he notes about these ‘new’ corporations. ‘So while they might care about social and environmental values, they care only to the point such caring might cut into profits.’

Despite their progressive-sounding public rhetoric these profit-seeking entities fight against ‘policies aimed to promote social welfare’ including workers’ rights and unions, taxes on wealth and regulations that restrict the power of big business to rule the world.

Bakan weaves numerous shocking examples of corporate malfeasance into the book, including Volkswagen fitting a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engine cars sold in the US that detected when they were being tested and changed the environmental performance to improve results. Elsewhere he highlights how Johnson & Johnson were caught hiding from consumers and regulators the fact some of its products used by children included harmful materials.

With corporate influence weakening democratic institutions, Bakan’s solution is more and deeper democracy – to ‘expand the floor of the cage’, as Noam Chomsky says. ‘Protest is not enough’, Baken argues. ‘Electoral movements are needed to put sovereign power behind the values and energy people express in the streets’. He highlights the successes two municipal politicians have had in taming corporate power – activist turned Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, and Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, who was re-elected in 2019 despite a multimillion dollar lobbying effort from Amazon.

Though perhaps not as hard-hitting or revelatory as his 2004 book, The New Corporation is nevertheless a hugely important polemic. Written in an accessible journalistic style, with plenty of footnotes for those wishing to investigate further, it could be a valuable and inspiring campaigning tool for both experienced anti-corporation activists and those new to the topic.

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

How They Made Us Doubt Everything

How They Made Us Doubt Everything
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2021

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance”, Alex Carey noted in his seminal 1995 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Australian writer’s analysis is well illustrated by the engrossing ten-part BBC Radio 4 series How They Made Us Doubt Everything.

Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, the series looks at how corporate public relations firms engineered doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer in the 1960s, and then used similar tactics to manufacture doubt about climate change.

The story begins in December 1953 soon after the publication of an article titled “Cancer by the carton” in the popular US magazine Reader’s Digest. The heads of the major tobacco industry companies hold a secret crisis meeting in New York, having hired John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world’s first international PR firm, to assist them.

“Because of the grave nature of a number of recently highly publicised research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking widespread public interest had developed causing great concern within and without the industry”, noted a Hill & Knowlton memo written a few days later, titled ‘Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers’. “These developments have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”.

Hill had made his name helping steel companies undermine trade unions and protecting big business. And, true to form, Hill & Knowlton put together the PR playbook the tobacco industry used to protect their profits – most infamously the 1954 A Frank Statement advertisement.

Appearing in nearly 450 newspapers and reaching an estimated 43 million Americans, according to a 2002 article in Tobacco Control journal, the advert emphasised there was no agreement amongst scientists on what caused lung cancer, and pledged tobacco industry “aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”

Ingeniously, Hill didn’t reject the science, but selectively used it to confuse the public. “It is important that the public recognise the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer”, he argued. Pomerantsev calls this the “White coats” strategy, with the tobacco industry using scientists often funded by the industry to call into question the work of independent scientists. “You undermine science with more science”, he notes.

A 1969 secret tobacco industry memo perfectly distilled Hill’s approach: “Doubt is our product. Since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.”

It is now well understood the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the public delayed regulation and behaviour change, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable early deaths. However, years later the playbook was dusted down and put it into action again – this time by an oil industry whose profits were under threat from the public’s increasing concern about global warming. And the stakes were even higher than with tobacco, both in the scale of the threat to humanity and for the companies involved: in 2000 the oil company Exxon Mobil logged $17.7 billion in income, giving it the most profitable year of any corporation in history, according to CNN.

Shockingly, How They Made Us Doubt Everything highlights how Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and their role in it, by the early 1980s. Speaking to Pomerantsev, Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert explains he successfully modelled the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in 1981, passing the results onto management. However, ignoring their own research, in 1996 Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”

This was likely part of Exxon’s broader strategy to confuse and manipulate the public about the reality of climate change. A 1989 presentation by Exxon’s Manager of Science and Strategy to the company’s Board of Directors noted the data pointed to “significant climate change, and sea level use with generally negative consequences”. Furthermore, the long hot summer of 1988 “has drawn much attention to the potential problems and we are starting to hear the inevitable call for action”, with the media “likely to increase public awareness and concern”. His recommendation? “More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.” Discussing the presentation with Pomerantsev, Kert Davies from the Climate Investigations Center says it shows “they are worried that the public will take this on and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business.”

Indeed, by 1988 Exxon’s position was clear, according to a memo written by their Public Affairs Manager, Joseph M. Carlson: “emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”

Similarly, in 1991 the green-sounding Information Council on the Environment (ICE) – which in fact represented electrical companies in the US – set out their strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Surveys commissioned by ICE recommended targeting specific segments of the population, including “older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers” and “younger, low income women”, who they believed were more easily influenced by new information. Thankfully, following an embarrassing leak to the New York Times, the organisation quickly folded.

Just as the public’s concern about smoking and health led to industry competitors working together to save their businesses, following the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing states to reduce the carbon emissions, Exxon joined forces with Southern Company and Chevron to design a “multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to fund denial and install uncertainty.” This Global Climate Science Communications Plan noted: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in the climate science”.

In many ways this corporate-funded climate denial propaganda campaign was hugely successful in its aims. Pomerantsev quotes the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll of Americans, which found just 48 per cent of respondents understood that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, with just 15 per cent of conservative Republicans agreeing.

And like the tobacco industry strategy of doubt, the fossil-fuelled PR campaign has undoubtedly confused the public in the US and beyond and delayed action on the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning perhaps millions of unnecessary deaths. However, there are reasons to believe the fossil fuel corporations are now losing the war.

Speaking to the Morning Star in March 2019, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explained there have been significant shifts in US public opinion over recent years. For example, a 2019 Yale University/George Mason University survey found six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

A January 2021 poll by the United Nations Development Programme – the largest poll ever conducted on climate change, with 1.2 million people questioned in 50 countries – confirms these hopeful results: two-thirds of respondents said climate change is a “global emergency”, including 65 per cent of respondents in the US.

Indeed, it is important to remember Democrat Joe Biden was elected to the White House after campaigning on what Nature journal called “the most ambitious climate platform ever put forth by a leading candidate for US president.”

Two important conclusions can be made from listening to How They Made Us Doubt Everything. First, while Pomerantsev himself has written extensively about Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts directed at the West, his BBC Radio 4 series suggests the main threat to the wellbeing of Western publics actually comes from Western corporate propaganda rather than Russian troll farms and cyberwarfare groups like Fancy Bear. And second, there is an ongoing struggle between corporate power and democratic forces across the globe – what former US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards called an “epic fight”. The outcome could not be more serious: future generations will only inherit a liveable planet if we are able to successfully confront corporate propaganda and tame corporate power.

How The Made Us Doubt Everything is available to stream or download from BBC Sounds.

Is the most popular form of feminism today Imperial Feminism?

Is the most popular form of feminism today Imperial Feminism? 
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 February 2021

In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of feminist writing and activism in the UK and beyond, which has raised consciousness in both women and men. Best-selling British Young Adult fiction author Holly Bourne, Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates have been three key figures in this important and necessary upsurge. I think they have all done, and continue to do, brilliant work popularizing feminism and feminist arguments for young people, and those who don’t identify as feminists, which has helped to improve the lives of women across the world. Indeed, I have given books written by all of them to family members in recent years. 

However, while I am an admirer of their work, I also think it is important to understand the dangerous limitations of the brand of feminism they propagate. 

Asked in a 2016 online Q&A “If you were going to create an all-girl group of superheroes who’d you choose (real people and/or cartoon characters)?”, Bourne replied “Hillary Clinton.” She continued: “There’s so many awesome people in the world”, before also choosing “Malala” – that is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani female education activist who was shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012. 

Adichie is also a big fan of the former US Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate. Sitting down for an obsequious Q&A with Clinton at a 2018 Pen America event, Adichie opened by noting “When I said hello to Mrs Clinton backstage, I had to try very hard not to get emotional.” She also explained she had recently written an article titled “Why is Hillary Clinton so Widely Loved?” The event ended with the two women embracing for a long time on stage.  

And writing in her inspiring 2016 book Girl Up about women and leadership, Bates highlights how Condoleezza Rice became US Secretary of State and “pioneered the policy of Transformational Diplomacy to increase the number of responsible democratic governments internationally”. 

Undoubtedly Clinton – and to a lesser extent, Rice – are role models for many women, and have been public advocates for women’s rights and other causes that impact women around the globe, such as female education. 

However, the inescapable fact is Clinton has been a senior member of the US government and wider US political establishment since the early 1990s, and therefore her crimes have been extensive and hugely destructive.  

As Secretary of State Clinton played a leading role in NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011. With the mission quickly morphing into regime change, in September 2016 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded the intervention resulted in “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” In November 2014 the Guardian reported on research conducted by Dignity, the Danish Institute against Torture, in Libya after the US-led intervention. “Our data supports the allegations that widespread… and gross human rights violations have taken place in Libya”, the report noted after conducting a household survey. 20 per cent of households had a family member who had disappeared, and 11 per cent had had a family member arrested. Of those arrested 46 per cent reported beatings, 20 per cent positional torture or suspensions and 16 per cent suffocation. 

Clinton also backed Obama’s surge of US forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and the covert US intervention against the Assad government which played a role in escalating the conflict in Syria. While she was Secretary of State, the US support for women’s rights champion Saudi Arabia continued, and the US conducted hundreds of drone strikes across the world. Indeed, when Malala Yousafzai met Obama in 2013 she expressed concern that US drone strikes were “fuelling terrorism”, according to CNN. 

As a US Senator Clinton voted for the illegal 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study estimates led to 500,000 Iraqi deaths. According to the 2004 Lancet study “most individuals reportedly killed by [US-led] coalition forces were women and children”. More broadly, Brown University’s Cost of War research project estimates, as of 2020, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad due to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. A 2008 Brookings Institution think-tank policy paper noted “some 80 percent” of Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq “are women and children”.  

Back in the United States, it is worth mentioning Clinton’s role, as first lady, in President Bill Clinton’s move in 1996 to “end welfare as we know it” by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. “It would be hard to imagine a bigger blow to the material well-being of poor women in America”, Liza Featherstone noted in The Nation in 2016. “As first lady, Hillary wasn’t a mere spectator to this; within the White House, she advocated harsher policies like ending traditional welfare, even as others in the administration, like Labor Secretary Robert Reich, proposed alternatives.” 

In summary, as Dr Patrick Barrett Professor Deepa Kumar noted in Jacobin magazine in 2016, Clinton’s record is “one which has been devastating for millions of vulnerable people (especially women and children) both at home and abroad”. 

Feminist scholar bell hooks concurs, explaining in 2016 she couldn’t support Clinton because there are “certain things that I don’t want to co-sign in the name of feminism that I think are militarist, imperialist, white supremacist.”  

Indeed, a Clinton-supporting feminism is, by definition, Imperial Feminism – what Zillah Eisenstein, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, defines as “feminism that operates on behalf of American empire building.”  

Clinton, then, can only be a feminist icon if you ignore, or are ignorant of, her deadly impact on non-white women and their families in nations like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The young people who engage with – and look up to – Bourne and Adichie deserve to be exposed to more humane, non-racist versions of feminism than this. 

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. 

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

March 2021

Written in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Vicky Osterweil’s central argument is that looting and rioting are positive actions, which ‘in most instances… transform and build a nascent moment into a movement’. She maintains looting makes ‘day-to-day life easier by changing the price of goods to zero’, redistributes wealth and ‘reinforces bonds of solidarity’, concluding ‘we need to argue for and defend every tactic that might overturn white supremacy, capitalism, empire and property. [my emphasis added]

A significant part of the book is devoted to criticising nonviolent struggle which, at one point, she claims ‘is structured around victim blaming and anti-Blackness.’

Centred on the US, there are, to be sure, interesting sections – on the racial roots of property, the slavery origins of the police, and the Black-led resistance to these oppressive historical forces. There is a reliance on secondary sources, which wouldn’t be a problem if all the provocative arguments were referenced adequately. Instead, one can go pages without any citations, rendering assertions like Black riots formed ‘a central part of the [1960s civil rights] movement’s power and effectiveness’ largely meaningless.

I’m often attracted to polemical writing, but Osterweil is maddingly simplistic. One chapter is titled ‘All cops are bastards’. Elsewhere, she claims FDR’s New Deal ‘did nothing more than strangle a revolutionary movement in its cradle’ [my emphasis added], and seems to think pointing out Martin Luther King travelled with an armed entourage fatally undermines the case for nonviolence (there is no reference for this, of course, though a 2016 Associated Press report I found suggests this only applies to King’s early activism in the mid-50s).

Tellingly, Osterweil fails to engage with any of the academic or historical literature highlighting the efficacy of nonviolence, with no mention of the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, researchers in the orbit of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gene Sharp or George Lakey.

She is also blasé about the fact looting and rioting often leads to people being injured, and sometimes killed – either by state repression or the rioters and looters themselves – and shows little interest in evidence confirming nonviolence engenders more support from the public and media. For example, a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll of Americans about the Black Lives Matter protests found 73% of respondents supported ‘peaceful protest and demonstrations’, but only 22% backed violent protests. A recent peer-reviewed article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow came to similar conclusions, as well as finding violent protest caused a rightward shift amongst voters.

Unserious and incurious, this book won’t change the minds of seasoned peace activists though, worryingly, it might influence those who are in the process of forming their views on protest and political change.

In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action is published by Bold Type Books, priced £16.99.

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 November 2020

“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”, sings Roger Daltrey at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, one of The Who’s greatest songs. In fact it’s one of the greatest anthems in the rock canon full stop, reaching the top ten in 1971. However, reading the Guardian’s coverage of Joe Biden you would think most of the staff at the liberal-left newspaper have never heard of the track, nor are familiar with the sceptical sentiment which courses through it.

In Guardianland the President-elect of the United States is “a decent, empathetic man”, as senior columnist Jonathan Freedland explained.

“Joe Biden has won… renewing hope for the US and the world”, the paper confirmed. “After four years of turmoil, misinformation, manipulation and division, the result of this historic presidential election offers fresh promise for democracy and progress.” To celebrate his victory the Guardian produced a “Free 16-page Joe Biden souvenir supplement” for readers, filled with propaganda photographs of the 78-year old looking popular and presidential.

“He will have to reassert America’s role as the global problem-solver”, a Guardian editorial asserted. “Under Mr Trump the ‘indispensable nation’ disappeared when it was needed the most.”

If all this bowing of the knee to authority sounds familiar that’s because it is.

“They did it. They really did it”, the Guardian’s leader column swooned when Barack Obama was elected to the White House in November 2008. “So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world… Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.” Freedland himself breathlessly recorded Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”.

Of course, the problem is much wider than the Guardian.

“Congratulations @KamalaHarris and @JoeBiden we are all rooting for you in your new jobs!”, tweeted self-proclaimed “actual socialist” Stella Creasy MP. “He ran a campaign on the values that we in the United Kingdom share – decency, integrity, compassion and strength”, commented Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer. “In a dark year, this is a good day. It’s time for a return to decency, unity and humanity in our politics”, tweeted Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

There is no excuse for this kind of vacuous power-friendly bullshit. Unlike Obama in 2008, Biden has a very long political record so there is no reason to get fooled again.

As American political analyst Thomas Frank noted in the Guardian itself – sometimes useful things do appear in the paper – “Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus.”

“His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the ‘third way’ right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.”

And, Frank notes, “It was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s” and the abandonment of the working class “that set the stage for Trumpism.”

As Vice-President in the Obama Administration from 2009-17, Biden oversaw the bombing of seven Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen). According to a Council on Foreign Relations blog written by Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson, the US dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Going further back, in his new book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Branko Marcetic says Biden “arguably more than any Democrat had created the crisis in Iraq.” In the run up to the aggressive and illegal invasion in 2003 he supported the Bush Administration’s push for war in the media and as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and travelled to Europe and the Middle East to make the case to other leaders.

Writer Louis Allday recently provided some clear-sighted analysis in Ebb magazine: Biden “has caused an incalculable amount of suffering over his many decades as a senior official of the US empire.” This is supported by a September 2020 Brown University study, which “using the best available international data… conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the US military has launched or participated in since 2001.”

On the environment, the (recently departed) Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore argues Biden “has room for manoeuvre… he can, in short, act as if the climate emergency is real.”

Indeed, Biden has pledged to immediately sign up to the Paris Agreement, This is good news, though it needs to be tempered with a pinch of reality. As the leading climate scientist James Hansen remarked about the agreement: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

And while you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of it in the fawning media coverage of Biden and the climate crisis, it’s worth noting the US’s piss-poor pledge at Paris, when Biden was Vice-President: the US promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level by 2025. Friends of the Earth described these goals as “weak” and not “commensurate with the demands of climate science and justice” as “it moves us closer to the brink of global catastrophe”.

To be sure Biden presidency will usher in many positive changes. The US will almost certainly re-join the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reverse Trump’s move to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Biden is also expected to rescind Trump’s rule on US foreign aid, “which rights campaigners say has prevented millions of women across the globe from getting access to proper reproductive and sexual healthcare over the past four years”, the Guardian reports.

But Biden himself confirmed “nothing would fundamentally change” when he met with wealthy donors in New York in 2019. According to Salon, the President-elect went on to say that the rich should not be blamed for income inequality, telling the donors, “I need you very badly.”

“I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you,” he added.

Biden is, in the words of US muckraker Matt Taibbi, the latest “imperial administrator”. Yes, he might be a highly experienced politician, more prone to multilateralism and someone who will oversee a more predictable US foreign policy, but he is still the head of the reigning imperial power in the world today.

And this is the key issue: Biden’s presidency will give US imperialism a more likeable face that will likely reduce opposition to its often deadly policies and actions, both at home and abroad. It is, in short, another opportunity for An Instant Overhaul For Tainted Brand America, as Advertising Age hailed the last incoming Democratic president in 2008.

Interestingly, it seems many people were able to see through the political marketing surrounding Obama, with a 2013 WIN/Gallup International poll of over 60,000 people across 65 nations finding 24 percent (the most popular answer) believed the United States was “the greatest threat to peace in the world”.

Not so the Guardian. Instead, its servile coverage of the election of Biden and Obama makes a mockery of editor Katharine Viner’s claim the paper is committed to “holding the powerful to account.”

As Tony Benn memorably wrote in his diaries: “The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO.”

“They are just the Establishment”, he added. “It is a society that suits them well.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.