Category Archives: US domestic politics

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.

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 July 2020

Like many people I’ve followed and been inspired by the extensive news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. But I really didn’t understand their extraordinary size until I read a recent New York Times analysis.

For the uninitiated the women-founded movement began in 2013 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted after he shot and killed 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since them BLM has highlighted and opposed the brutality, injustice and unaccountability that black people experience in America, especially from the police and legal system.

BLM activists played a leading role in the demonstrations sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and have led the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on 25 May.

According to the 3 July New York Times analysis the recent demonstrations peaked on 6 June, with half a million people on the streets in nearly 550 locations across the US. Overall, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on 26 May.

“Four recent polls… suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks”, the report notes.

After interviewing academics and crowd-counting experts the New York Times states “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history” – bigger than the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the Women’s March of 2017.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement”, Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, comments.

Once one comprehends the immense size of the protests, their wide-ranging and deep impacts are less surprising.

Across the US cities and police forces have responded by instituting a series of reforms – highlighting how BLM has mainstreamed the concept of ‘defund the police’. In New York City Mayor Bill de Blaiso has pledged to reallocate police funding. “We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Times. Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be redirecting $250 million from the police budget into health care, jobs and “healing” programmes for the city’s communities of colour, the Los Angeles Times reported in June.

The state of Iowa, Dallas and Denver have banned the use of chokeholds, with the Mile-High City introducing a new policy meaning police officers will have “to alert supervisors any time they point a gun at someone”, according to the Denver Post.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 29 June, Melina Abdullah, Professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and BLM activist, noted “The number of killings at the hands of police has remained relatively stable” in the US. “However… in cities with strong Black Lives Matter chapters the numbers have dropped dramatically”.

On the national political stage, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and address institutional racism. And globally, BLM in the US has inspired protests in many countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.

Crucial though these changes are, perhaps the most exciting and important influence of BLM is the impact it has had on American public opinion.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago”, Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on 8 June.

He was referring to a 2 June Monmouth poll that showed 57 percent of Americans agreed that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared to 33 percent when asked the same question after the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014. In the same survey 76 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of white people, said racism and discrimination was “a big problem” in the United States – a 26 percentage-point increase since 2015.

The New York Times notes “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first [BLM-led] protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” However, according to the New York Times data from online survey firm Civiqs shows that since the death of Floyd support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years: a majority of Americans support the movement by a 25-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

As the Monmouth poll above highlights, there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst white Americans. This includes views of the police, with the percentage of white Americans who have a very favourable or somewhat favourable impression of police officers dropping from 72% to 61% within a week, according to a survey in early June organised by the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today newspaper. White people have been a significant part of the recent BLM protests. Explaining that a recent BLM protest in her predominantly black Brooklyn neighbourhood was attended by mostly white people, African-American novelist Brit Bennett told BBC’s Start The Week programme last month that this “mainstream white support” gives her hope for the future of the movement.

The protests are continuing, though with much less media attention. And while they remain popular, the New York Times notes “events could move public opinion the other way”, suggesting “a sense that protests were getting out of control, with looting and violence, could… harm the public image of the movement.”

Polling suggests this is a danger, with a 2 June Reuters/Ipsos poll finding 73 per cent of respondents support “peaceful protest and demonstrations,” but only 22% back violent protests, with 79% believing looting and vandalism “undermine the original protest’s case for justice.”

Let’s hope BLM continues to thrive and force the change that is so desperately needed in the US and beyond.

As Professor Douglas McAdam, an Emeritus Professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, commented in the New York Times: “It looks… like these protests are achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change. We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point — that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 March 2020

If you have followed the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States you’ll have heard the argument a lot: Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont, would never beat sitting US President Donald Trump.

Indeed since Super Tuesday, when Democratic supporters in a slew of states voted on who should face Trump in November 2020, this assertion has become more prevalent – with an additional clause: it is former vice-president Joe Biden, not Sanders, who is best positioned to defeat Trump.

Even commentators who profess to support Sanders’ policies make this argument. After telling Channel 4 News he agrees with Sanders on “an awful lot of political issues”, Eric Alterman, a columnist at the left-leaning Nation magazine, said he fears the example of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If Sanders ran against Trump “it would be the end of the American republic”, he said.

Addressing the popular argument that Sanders is “sure to be an electoral disaster” a couple of days later, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was unequivocal: “I am just here to tell you that the evidence we have, to the extent we have evidence about an unknowable future, just doesn’t support that at all.”

Summarising the Real Clear Politics polling averages from February on head to head match ups between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, Hayes noted Sanders “is consistently, in poll after poll after poll, at or near the top in all of them” – in beating Trump.

Author Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, concurs. Writing in the New York Times on 28 February, he explained “most of the available empirical evidence shows Mr. Sanders defeating President Trump in the national popular vote and in the critical Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College in 2016”.

He continues: “This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March [2019].”

Furthermore, Phillips argues Sanders’ “specific electoral strengths align with changes in the composition of the country’s population in ways that could actually make him a formidable foe for the president.”

In a February Reuters/Ipsos poll Sanders led Trump by 18 percentage points among independent voters in a hypothetical general election match-up – the highest score among all the Democratic candidates.

Famously, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed “nobody likes” Sanders. In contrast, Peter Beinart, Professor of journalism at the City University of New York notes “polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort”. While the Democratic Party elite are deeply sceptical of Sanders, “among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals… on paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination”, Beinart explains in The Atlantic magazine.

Sanders’ popularity seems to stretch to being relatively personally popular too. Asked for their thoughts on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of Trump, in a February USA Today/Ipsos poll Americans consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy. 40 percent of respondents said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 31 percent for Biden and the 26 percent for Trump, while 39 percent of respondents said Sanders “shares my values” compared to 30 percent saying Biden and 31 percent for Trump.

And Alterman’s comparison to Corbyn is a red herring, of course. First, because in 2017 Corbyn led the Labour Party to its best electoral performance since 2001 – before the Brexit issue polarised the party and electorate. And second, because Sanders is a much better political communicator than the often reticent Corbyn. In debate performances the 78-year old Brooklynite is laser-focussed, impressively able to summarise his policies in everyday language and soundbites, and is unafraid to attack his rivals.

Johnny Burtka, executive director for The American Conservative magazine, agrees. “Bernie clearly has the pugnacity”, he told The Hill website in December. “He’s the only one that I think could ultimately take on Donald Trump on the debate stage.”

And it is Sanders, not Biden, who has a young, energetic mass movement backing him – an army of small donations giving Sanders a clear lead in campaign funding over Biden, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics until January.

Frustratingly though, politics, and political change, is never this simple and straightforward – since Biden’s strong performance on Super Tuesday the polling results have shifted. Biden is now favoured as the Democratic nominee by 54 percent of Democratic primary voters, compared to 38 percent supporting Sanders, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

However, the polling data is just one reason Biden would be a disastrous candidate.

Many are concerned about Biden’s long record of being on the wrong side of many political issues – from his 2003 vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq, to his support for the Wall Street bailout, the Rust Belt-decimating NAFTA trade agreement, mass incarceration and cutting social security.

“The Trump people are going to fillet Joe Biden, they are going to fillet him in their ads, and Trump is going to mercilessly fillet him in the debate,” journalist Jeremy Scahill recently argued on Democracy Now! Why? “Because a lot of stuff they will say about him will be true! And Biden is lying, or he doesn’t know what room he is in.”

That last bit is a reference to what journalist Glenn Greenwald called Biden’s “serious issues with his cognitive abilities”. Or, as Scahill puts it: “Joe Biden is not a well man… he can barely complete a sentence.” Recent well-publicised examples include Biden forgetting the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence, telling an audience he was running for the US Senate and his statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”.

So why is Biden, and not Sanders, being presented as the safe pair of hands in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate?

Beyond the party elite and corporate media falling in line behind the very establishment Biden, arguably a simplistic understanding of politics underpins the belief Sanders is an electoral liability.

This view sees a linear left-right political spectrum, with Sanders on the far left and Biden in the centre. Therefore, it seems obvious the so-called centrist Biden who would be able to appeal to a larger section of the American voting public, rather than the ‘extreme’ Sanders, who would likely alienate much of the political spectrum.

However, what this type of analysis misses is the fact around 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 backed Obama in 2012, according to the American National Election Study. Interviewing more than a dozen Obama supporters who were planning to vote Trump in 2016, the New York Times reported “a common theme: The message of change that inspired them to vote for Mr. Obama is now embodied by Mr. Trump”.

Adam Ramsay, an Editor at Open Democracy, provides some insight into this seemingly contradictory voting behaviour. “While journalists and pundits and academics tend to see politics as a question of policy and ideology” for the broader public “the first thing they go to is the question of trust”, he noted in a video recently. Turning to the Democratic primaries he argues “the question isn’t really whether voters are looking at these candidates on a left-right spectrum… because most voters right across the Western world don’t really see politics like that. What they look at is whether they think they can trust each of these people to stand up for them or whether they think these people are going to be co-opted by the interests of the rich and powerful.”

Of course, Sanders might end up being a terrible presidential candidate, and Biden may defeat Trump. Nothing is certain. But the majority of evidence we have right now doesn’t support the argument Biden is more electable than Sanders. As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan recently explained on MSNBC about the Democratic Party elite: “They tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims, and dodgy dealings, and dodge comments about incarceration and super predators” in 2016. “Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rosa Parks: The Real Story

Rosa Parks: The Real Story
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2020

In December an exhibition about the life of Rosa Parks opened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The same month a new statue honouring the civil rights icon was unveiled in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.

Taught in schools in the US and UK, mythologised on the left and celebrated across popular culture, from Outkast’s 1998 hip hop single Rosa Parks to the 2018 Doctor Who episode titled Rosa, her story will be very familiar to Morning Star readers.

But do we really know Parks’s story?

Here is US news organisation CNN’s crude take on 1 December 2018: “It was on this day in 1955 when a simple act of defiance elevated a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, into a pivotal symbol in America’s civil rights movement. Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Little did the 42-year old know that her act would help end segregation laws in the South.”

This popular understanding of Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott she triggered is only “half true”, Noam Chomsky argues in the 2002 book Understanding Power. “What’s in history is one person had the courage to do something – which she did”. But, the US dissident notes, “nobody does anything on their own. Rosa Parks came out of an organised community of committed people.”

Indeed, if you read up on the boycott you find “a network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions” in early 50s Montgomery, as Stewart Burns explains in his 1997 book Daybreak Of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.

These included the Women’s Political Council (led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson), the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A key figure was E. D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama region of the African American labour organisation the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had also been the president of Montgomery’s NAACP branch from 1946-50.

Parks herself was not just a seamstress, but “a civil rights activist of long standing”, according to Burns. She was the secretary of the Montgomery and Alabama chapter of the NAACP. In 1944 the NAACP had sent Parks to Abbeville, Alabama to investigate the gang rape of 24-year-old African American woman Recy Taylor. And a few months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, Parks had attended a school desegregation workshop at the influential Highlander folk school in Tennessee.

Though Parks had not planned her famous act of resistance on 1 December, some of the local black leaders were primed for action. “We had planned the boycott long before Mrs. Parks was arrested”, Robinson admitted later, according to David Garrow’s 1986 Bearing The Cross, his majestic history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Garrow notes Robinson had written to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, explaining that three quarters of the riders on the city buses were black and threatening a boycott.

Like many of the leaders and organisers in the wider civil rights movement that transformed the American South over the next decade, the activists in Montgomery were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians. This is well highlighted by the fact another member of the black community had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks – 15-year old Claudette Colvin.

This arrest “galvanised Montgomery’s African American community”, Burns notes. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal test case to challenge segregation. However, problems soon developed. First, Colvin’s had resisted arrest, resulting in her being charged with assault and battery. Second, and likely more important, Robinson and Nixon learned that the young, unmarried Colvin was several months pregnant.

“Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity”, Garrow explains. “The black leadership chose not to pursue the case.”

In contrast, Robinson noted “Mrs Parks had the calibre of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us.”

And rally they did. With Parks arrested on a Thursday, Robinson organised the printing of a reported 40,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott on the following Monday. Aware they needed the help of the black church leaders, Nixon called a 26-year old minister who had arrived in the city just over a year before – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hesitating at first, King offered his support”, Burns notes. At a mass meeting that evening it was agreed to continue the boycott, with King heading the coordinating organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It seems King was chosen, in part, because he was new to Montgomery. “He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him”, Dixon relates in the 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes On The Prize.

The boycott “mobilised the entire black population” of Montgomery, Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 history Better Day Coming: Black and Equality, 1890-2000. “50,000 men, women and children walked to work, gave each other lifts, and even on the coldest, wettest days refused to ride the buses.”

A complex car pool system was put in place by the MIA, with hundreds of volunteers driving private cars to move people around the city, complete with ad hoc pick-up stations and taxi-style dispatchers coordinating the operation.

In parallel with the street mobilisation a legal challenge was also mounted, with local black attorney Fred Gray – representing the MIA and supported by the NAACP – filing a federal lawsuit in February 1956 against segregation on Montgomery’s buses.

Despite strong opposition from city officials the boycott continued, with participants and the movement leadership enduring intimidation, threats, police harassment, legal challenges, trials, prison time and even the bombing of King’s and Nixon’s homes.

Finally, after a series of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court affirmed its support of integration on Montgomery buses in November 1956. The boycott came to end on 20 December 1956 – an incredible 381 days after it started. Keen to make the transformation as trouble-free as possible the MIA provided advice to black people riding on the newly integrated buses: “be quiet and friendly, proud but not arrogant” and “do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.”

Placing the boycott in historical context, Burns argues it was “a formative turning point of the twentieth century”.

“Harbinger of the African American freedom movement… springboard for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr” and the “launching pad for the worldwide era of upheaval known as ‘the sixties’”.

The boycott also provides a number of valuable lessons for those working for progressive change today. First, it shows mass nonviolent direct action – combined with a successful legal challenge, in this instance – can be very effective against established power.

Second, it illuminates the nature of the relationship between leaders and the wider movement. “Martin Luther King was an important person, but I do not think that he was a big agent of change”, Chomsky argues. “In fact, I think Martin Luther King was able to play a role in bringing about change only because the real agents of change were doing a lot of the work.”

Robinson concurs, telling a reporter at the time: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preacher’s show… the leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”

So, yes, we should celebrate Parks. And the role played by King. But we shouldn’t settle for this simple story. We also need to remember the deep organisational roots of the movement and the crucial role played by what Burns calls “ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways” – people like Robinson, Nixon, Colvin, Gray, and, most importantly, the 50,000 strong black community of Montgomery.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.