From the May-June 2019 issue of News & Letters
Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2019-2020
Humanity’s choice: Freedom and revolution or fascism, war and genocide
I. Two opposite directions: Climate strike and genocide
II. Remaking the world order in the image of the far right
III. World crises in economy, politics, ideology—and the missing link of philosophy
IV. Humanity’s never-ending quest for liberation
V. What to do in a world in upheaval
IV. Humanity’s never-ending quest for liberation
The past four and a half decades have been shaped not only by the capitalist onslaught but by a series of struggles, of revolt, revolution, and counter-revolution. Since the 2008 crash, a new revolutionary wave arose with the Arab Spring at its center. Counter-revolution’s victory, above all the Syrian genocide with support from wide swaths of the Left as well as the Right, threw the doors wide open for the current march of fascism.
Yet revolt keeps springing up across the world, most dramatically in Sudan and Algeria, continuing even after they toppled those countries’ long-time rulers. (See “Algerian women at forefront,” p. 2, and “The genius of the Sudanese revolution,” p. 12.) It shows that the human quest for liberation cannot be killed, and it shows why ruling classes are willing to tolerate economic disruption caused by the counter-revolutionary mob as long as it attacks the revolt. This year has seen new uprisings as well in Serbia, Montenegro and Haiti. Labor strikes keep erupting from Iran to Bangladesh, from China to Zimbabwe.
A. Youth revolt vs. climate chaos
The global climate strikes of March 15 must be seen in this context of a period of revolt, revolution and counter-revolution. Those strikes were the most massive and challenging event of something that has been building for years: a many-faceted surge of opposition to climate inaction and continuing intensification of fossil fuel extraction and use.
A host of local, national and international organizations have formed to take up this battle, with youth key to their founding and leadership. The movement at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by Native Americans, energized Indigenous opposition to colonialism worldwide and opposition to pipelines in the U.S. and Canada, and inspired many of the youth now expressing the urgency of fighting looming climate chaos.
Standing Rock also sparked a clampdown by the state and corporate security, including surveillance, infiltration and a wave of draconian state and federal bills to make even indirect involvement with pipeline and other climate justice protests into felonies. These bills are being pushed by oil companies with the aid of the reactionary corporate lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council. Another side of this repression is a wave of laws and regulations to muzzle government employees, including scientists, and public school teachers who would dare to speak the truth about climate change.
The rulers recognize that the movement is about minimizing climate change and about how society will adapt to already built-in warming. Mitigating and adapting to climate change entails massive disruptions to the existing economy. That is why the movement calls for a “just transition”—one of the green new deal’s main goals. Despite the limitations of the latter, this concern sends the movement toward “system change not climate change.”
Inaction on climate change is already causing massive disruption, which promises to mushroom. Every year brings new disasters. Striking five African countries, Cyclone Idai—like Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas—slowed down over land and caused massive flooding. The city of Beira, Mozambique, was 90% destroyed, over 1,000 people were killed, thousands more were missing, and three million were affected. The devastation in Africa together with massive flooding in Iran and the Midwestern U.S. show that, while the poor and oppressed of the world will suffer most and earliest from climate chaos, it is a delusion for anyone to believe they are beyond its reach.
The world will adapt to global warming one way or another, either in a militaristic, police-state, authoritarian, gated-community, wall-building way under the control of a small elite, or in a human way under the control of the masses. That spells revolution in permanence, although the word “revolution” is only rhetorical in most corners of the movement and theoretical debates. It is incumbent on us to project from within the movement that this is what the movement is reaching for and to battle ideas that would divert it in another direction. And therefore a philosophy of revolution is crucial to avert the diversions and advance toward the goal.
B. Labor confronting capitalism’s destructiveness
The capitalist economy is always engaging in what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” and today’s tech moguls boastfully call “disruption.” Jobs, towns, industries, regions, countries are decimated in the name of progress in the normal workings of capitalism. This has been happening for decades with coal mining, for example. The number of U.S. coal miners fell from almost 900,000 in 1923 to just over 500,000 on the eve of automation in the mines to under 150,000 by 1969.
The founders of Uber raked in their fabulous wealth through just such disruption, decimating the livelihoods of taxi drivers, undermining public mass transit systems in city after city, and shamelessly exploiting the drivers they employ. (See “Uber andLyft drivers strike against pay cuts,” p. 3.)
A vast transformation has been hollowing out the rural U.S. since the 1980s farm crisis. Agribusiness corporate monopolies aided by state-capitalist intervention in the agricultural economy have driven thousands of small to mid-sized farmers out of business, a process greatly accelerated by climate change. Small farmers are more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather, aiding the consolidation of agribusiness.
The centralization of agriculture has contributed to environmental destruction, which in turn contributes to climate change. For example, huge factory farms of chickens and hogs yield massive amounts of waste contaminated by drugs and heavy metals. Instead of uncontaminated waste being applied to the soil in reasonable amounts to rejuvenate fertility, it becomes concentrated in waste lagoons that end up polluting rivers and lakes and breeding antibiotic-resistant disease-causing organisms.
While productivity growth has stalled, a new wave of destruction is building under the impact of technologies like Artificial Intelligence. When implemented, jobs from retail stores and warehouses to truck driving could be decimated. Capitalist ideologues foresee this coming as if it is an unstoppable force of nature, and argue only about whether we should worry or not, whether a code of ethics should be suggested to soulless corporations, and whether to adopt some welfare measures.
Previously, the loss of 800,000 coal mining jobs merely represented progress to the ideologues. But when the last 50,000 jobs are threatened mainly by the cheapening of fracked natural gas, technological change, and the switch to mountaintop removal mining, the ideologues raise the alarm as long as they can blame it on environmental regulation. They are silent about the gutting of benefits for retired and disabled miners, who outnumber working miners. They are silent about the gutting of health and safety protections, and the boom of black lung cases. This reveals that the destruction’s roots lie in the capitalist system itself, and hence the need for revolution in permanence.
It also points to the importance of labor’s revolt. A period of militancy has been signaled by the massive, well-supported teachers’ strikes all over the country, most recently in Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, West Virginia (the second year in a row) and another set of Chicago charter schools, and on March 19 graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike.
Striking teachers give the lie to claims that the working class put Trump in power. Instead, they are clear that Trump, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is on the side of the wealthy who are pushing a racist, class-divided educational system and starving out education for the masses. The teachers, school staff, parents and students pushed back hard.
Teachers have articulated a vision of themselves as workers in a different relationship to their work than workers in commodity production, while making sure to build class solidarity. For years sectors of service workers have been expressing this, like the California nurses who insisted that their speedup and bad working conditions negatively affected the quality of patient care. They resist capitalism’s alienation of their labor by affirming that their patients are human beings and must be treated as such. N&L “Workshop Talks” columnist Htun Lin has consistently contrasted this humanistic vision of direct healthcare workers with the healthcare corporations’ relentless march to quantify and commodify patients as objects of the services they provide.
Parents understand that teachers are fighting for the quality of their children’s education. In contrast, a “Today Show” host recently interviewing striking teachers suddenly looked puzzled and asked, “So…your strike is not just about pay?”
Prior to the historic 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, the radical new Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership spent two years to revitalize and organize the entire staff at every school. It also formed genuine alliances with the school community, to win most of their demands and work together towards “the schools our students deserve.” We see this vision now in the statewide strikes.
The 2012 Chicago strike represented a mass assertion by unionized teachers that they can create “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” the title of a document that called the present Chicago system “educational apartheid.” In contrast, the so-called “reform agenda” led by Education Secretary DeVos is the agenda of 21st-century capitalism, in which students, schools and teachers are all commodities in an ever more alienated system.
Yet we cannot forget that in 2013, Chicago’s mayor-appointed school board closed 49 schools despite thousands of teachers, parents and students in the streets. New “per-pupil” funding led to massive budget cuts and class size exceeding contractual limits. Budget constraints forced principals to lay off veteran teachers to hire cheaper inexperienced teachers. And custodians’ jobs represented by SEIU (which did not support the CTU strike) are now outsourced to mega-corporation Aramark.
Striking teachers and their communities will need to realize the ramifications of their own narrative as a radical philosophical articulation essential for grounding effective strategies to combat the nationwide push toward private, commodified, class-biased education.
Strikes have broken out in other sectors as well, such as the strikes that hit 240 Stop & Shop stores in New England, Uber and Lyft in Los Angeles, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, GE Transportation in Erie, Pa., and Marriott hotels in several cities. Not only nurses but lower-paid healthcare workers, including those who provide home care, are organizing, and so are domestic workers, who have traditionally been left out of minimum wages and everything else. They come from all over the world and speak all different languages.
C. Women’s liberation, the Black dimension, and prisoners
In teachers’ strikes, healthcare and domestic worker organizing, climate movements, struggles for a living wage, the fight against toxic water in Flint, Mich., and beyond, women are active and in many cases women of color are leaders.
Women are one of the prime targets of the reactionary movements. That is seen in the vicious worldwide attack on women’s reproductive rights, although Ireland’s legalization of abortion via a landslide referendum shows how movements for women’s liberation can make stunning progress. Still, anti-feminism is one of the primary means of recruiting men to fascist groups. International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019 reveals that the world is becoming more dangerous for women.
Women demonstrated for an end to violence on every continent and every nation—from Nairobi, Kenya, where women protested femicide; to Rome, Italy, where women from the feminist movement “Non Una Meno” (Not One Less) staged a gathering in front of the Labor Ministry protesting violence, gender discrimination, and harassment in the workplace; to a massive demonstration in San Salvador, El Salvador, where women demanded decriminalization of abortion, an end to violence and respect for women’s rights. Women in Sudan made themselves part of the revolt against Omar al-Bashir and went on a hunger strike. They were teargassed, arrested, beaten and denied healthcare. In defiance of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, over 4,000 marched in Manila shouting slogans against him.
Taking a closer look at three countries shows the world is becoming more dangerous for women.
In Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to sabotage IWD, but this year the stench of the police state Turkey has become permeated the air. The demonstrations were banned on the day of the March, and police in riot gear jammed the site. Thousands were funneled into a small side street with buildings on both sides. Then the police attacked with “tear gas, plastic bullets, batons and police dogs.” So thick was the tear gas that a demonstrator said, “The police tried to beat us after the gas attack. They were directing the dogs to attack us as well, but the dogs had a hard time breathing and seeing.”
Vilification was clearly planned ahead of time. A Muslim call to prayer—called “azan”—was broadcast at the same time as the march and not heard by the demonstrators who were blowing whistles, banging drums, chanting and singing.
Erdoğan and his minions spread the lie that the demonstrators, “under the guise of women’s day…whistled at our azan….They chanted slogans.” Erdoğan continued, “Their only alliance is the enmity towards azan and the flag.” This ignores the hundreds of scarfed Muslim women at the demonstration who were gassed by the cops. The Diyanet-Sen (the syndicate for employees of the Religious Affairs Directorate) demanded that the government investigate and that the marchers apologize to the Turkish population, even though the marchers represent the Turkish people—especially Turkish women.
Turkish women were not alone in facing orchestrated attacks using fundamentalist religion and “our culture” to demonize them.
In Spain, tens of thousands marched. Feminism is so popular in Spain that the Right is determined to co-opt it in order to destroy it. The far-Right party Vox claims that proposed legislation to fight violence against women, for equality, and for LGBTQ rights discriminates against men. A Catholic organization, HazteOir (Make yourself heard) drove a bus around the country painted with the slogan #StopFeminazis and a picture of Hitler with pink lipstick.
A group started by Spanish right-wingers, “Women of the World Global Platform,” aims to bring conservative groups from around the world together. They called for a counterdemonstration in Madrid on March 10. They claim that IWD is “a day for those who reject femininity as well as masculinity, complementarity, maternity and dedication to the family,” while they embrace it.
They pulled off a demonstration of about 200 where every sign was preprinted with slogans like, “I am a woman and men are our allies” and, “I don’t want a confrontational feminism.”
The Right is attempting to create a “good feminism” that wants to embed the status quo and a bad feminism that wants women’s liberation. It is an attempt to destroy a freedom movement while pretending to support it.
In Pakistan the demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were described by a participant as “groundbreaking celebration[s] of women in a massive march comprised of women from all backgrounds, ages and ethnicity, coming together to raise the banner of women empowerment and making the world feel their presence on a colossal level.” The range of issues was evidenced by the signs: “My Mind, My Body, My Power,” “Women have heads too!,” “#IPledgeToStopAcidAttacks,” “#IPledgeToStopHonorKillings,” “Arrange marches, not marriages,” “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen Resistance,” “Towards Social Services for Women,” “It’s Time to Organize,” “A Free Media is a Feminist Media,” “Keep your dick to yourself,” “We are not punching bags.”
In a country where honor killings are rife, the Aurat (Woman) March issued a manifesto that “demand[ed] the right to autonomy and decision-making over our bodies; …equal access to quality reproductive and sexual health services for women, all genders and sexual minorities.” Women want “economic justice, implementation of labor rights,” an end to sexual harassment in the workplace, “recognition of women’s unpaid labor, and the provision of maternity leave and day-care centers….[It] also focused on climate change…clean drinking water and air, protection of animals and wildlife…Other demands covered nearly every aspect of social justice.”
The backlash was brutal. A well-known Islamic cleric’s video said that if women claim the right to their bodies, men can also claim the right to rape them. Planners received rape and death threats and there were calls to the government to investigate them; pictures on social media were altered to make marchers look bad; complaints were made to police.
None of this has stopped the forward move of Pakistani women for a different, freer reality. One of the Aurat March planners, Shumaila Hussain Shahani, said, “I do not think such petty right-wing tactics will deter the marchers. Marches will continue, our struggle for a gender-just world will continue.”
These attacks against IWD are new in intensity and size. They signal a recognition by the Right of the power of women’s thought, actions and determination to crush women’s drive for liberation. But the objective truth is that women’s struggle for freedom continues to grow globally both in size, in militancy, and in ideas.
Black women have been in the forefront of much Black Lives Matter organizing, and striving to make police violence against Black women and children visible as well as that against Black men, which itself in the age of Trump gets less media attention than his mindless tweets. Some of the latest protests have brought out the impunity of killer cops:
In Sacramento, Stephon Clark’s shooters were given a paid vacation and not charged.
- In East Pittsburgh, 17-year-old Antwon Rose’s killer was acquitted despite the cop’s inconsistent statements (his lies had cost him a previous police job) claiming that the unarmed teenager was a threat, and the mountain of evidence that included three bullet holes in Rose’s back and a video showing him being shot as he ran away.
- Six cops in Vallejo, Calif., got a paid vacation and are back on duty after executing 21-year-old Willie McCoy as he slept in his car—including the cop who had previously shot and killed another Black man from behind.
- Protests met the light sentence a judge gave the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald in Chicago and the total impunity of his cover-up co-conspirators.
It is not only white but also many Black cops who have absorbed the racist system’s dehumanized attitude toward Black youth, as seen by the brutal beating and tasering of 16-year-old student Dnigma Howard at Chicago’s Marshall High School, which was caught on video, beginning with an unprovoked attack by two cops as Howard started walking away from them after hugging a friend.
During this period, news came out revealing ties to white supremacist organizations by police in Virginia; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento; Oakland; and the FBI.
What the best of the growing number of prisoner strikes and actions have shown is a deep consciousness of how the prison industrial system uses racism to divide and oppress them. In response, they have most often crossed ethnic lines. That was in one prisoner’s words a leap in consciousness to acting consciously as a class—thus showing how the slave’s consciousness can become truer and deeper than that of the master. Where the system “validated” the prisoners as gang members, they demanded explicitly to be validated as human.
Continued in V. What to do in a world in upheaval…
. See “The Green Not-so-great New Deal,” Jan.-Feb. 2019 N&L.
. See Emily Atkin, “Climate Change and the Death of the Small Farm,” The New Republic, March 27, 2019, and Chris McGreal, “How America’s Food Giants Swallowed the Family Farms,” The Guardian, March 9, 2019.
. See Carrie Hribar, “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities,” National Association of Local Boards of Health, 2010.
. “Istanbul police fire tear gas at banned women’s day rally,” by AFP, March 8, 2019.
. “Has misogyny become the official state policy in Turkey?” by Pinar Tremblay, al-monitor.com, March 20, 2019.
. “Feminism is the word in Spain’s electoral campaign,” by AFT, Arab News, March 6, 2019.
. “In Pakistan: Breaking the shackles of patriarchy at Aurat March 2019: In pictures,” by Bismah Mughal, The News.
. “Pakistan’s Women Marched for Their Rights. Then the Backlash Came,” by Tehreem Azeem, The Diplomat, March 20, 2019.
. Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: ‘We want to be validated as human’ (News and Letters, 2013).