Oil companies should be denied a bailout

Oil corporations have been environmentally destructive for decades. They have funded a tsunami of misinformation about climate change, actively undermining the public’s trust of science and state institutions. Their product is now technically worthless. So why should public money be used to rescue a harmful industry?

Let’s examine all of this. Before we do, let us put aside the objection that workers employed by the oil corporations will lose their jobs. The executives who own and manage these companies have never been concerned with the welfare of their workers. Please stop cynically exploiting the ostensible ‘we are worried about our employees’ to demand yet another multi billion dollar government handout.

There has been an avalanche of commentary regarding the speed and seriousness of the global oil industry’s collapse. Much of the discussion has focused on the unprecedented scale of the decline, and the remarkable speed with which this has happened. The current pandemic compelled the economy – at least what we used to define as constituting the economy – to grind to a halt. This has severely reduced the demand for oil consumption.

Billions of dollars was wiped off from the balance sheets of major oil companies, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to historic lows, and hundreds of smaller oil producers declined into bankruptcy. This was just in the month of April 2020. The price of oil dropped to negative 37 dollars – oil suppliers were paying others to take oil out of their hands.

The glut of oil on the market meant that oil producers had to pay to store all that excess oil – usually in supertankers dotting the oceans. Each supertanker, capable of storing millions of barrels of oil, and costing oil suppliers 200 000 dollars a day, were left idling on the world’s oceans. This is the latest emblem of the wild irrationality of the capitalist economic model.

The fragility and irrationality of the global oil industry has been exposed and magnified by the Covid-19 crisis – the oil companies were already in trouble prior to the pandemic, but the speedy collapse of the entire industry only illustrated its structural weaknesses. Throughout the 20th century, the oil energy industry was marked by volatility, experiencing periodic boom-bust cycles.

This particular collapse is unique in its suddenness, but is only a concentrated expression of the ongoing and recurrent instability that has characterised the global oil industry. While the oil price has never before declined into negative territory, oil price fluctuations have been numerous and have contributed to geopolitical tensions.

The acquisition of oil resources by the imperialist powers has erupted into warfare throughout the course of the 20th century. However, resource wars are not just a matter of historical interest. The oil-rich nation of Libya, for example, is still undergoing chaotic and internecine fighting as a result of the imperialist-driven intervention into that nation in 2011. The oil factor, while not the only reason, constituted an important motivation for the European states, backed by the US, to intervene.

The consequences of the oil industry decline have been amply documented in the corporate media. Rather than elaborate on that subject, let us look at another major reason why the oil corporations should be denied a bailout. They have been lying to the public – about the causes and impact of industrial-induced climate change. The oil companies, through various subsidiaries, have funded a network of fake climate groups, AstroTurf (fake grassroots) citizens groups and industry-friendly scientists to attack and undermine the scientific evidence for climate change.

Fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, have been promoting a false ‘equivalence’ debate on the issue of climate change, perversely exploiting the laudable notion of free and open debate to promote deliberate misinformation. Spending millions on propping up fake climate groups, the big oil corporations have spread distrust of scientific institutions among the public, and have funnelled support to climate change-denying politicians to influence the policy making process.

This network of dark money, funding climate change denial, is not just a side issue in matters of economic and political decision making. The denial of climate change by this billionaire-driven counter movement has sabotaged action on climate change, promoted the growth of ultra conservative and science-denying political parties, and contributed to policies favouring the oil sector.

The US government has enthusiastically turned on the spirit of money to fund bailouts of declining and crisis-ridden industries. With the use of government money to rescue failing industries, there has been a revival of an old idea – nationalising the fossil fuel companies. Stigmatised as a ‘socialistic’ measure, the nationalisation of faltering companies has long been a measure adopted by American and right wing governments.

In fact, it is precisely at times of economic crisis that governments have implemented nationalisation to stave off complete financial collapse, thus rescuing the private sector. Rather than bailing out the corporate polluters, government funds can be used to rescue the workers, who have been bearing the brunt of the oil industry’s collapse. Providing yet more bailouts to the oil conglomerates would only serve to prop up a failed business model.

A Green New Deal, as suggested by numerous climate activist groups, would move away from fossil fuels, boost renewable energy technologies, and transition to new jobs and industries. With the oil industry increasingly becoming an unreliable source of employment, as well as promoting a polluting product, it is time to rebuild the economy, not for the profits of shareholders, but to prioritise people’s needs and address the climate emergency.

While the pandemic has exacerbated economic problems, the economic order prior to the pandemic was already broken. The global oil industry was part of creating the capitalist crisis. We cannot afford to return to what was ‘normal’.

Shakespeare in quarantine, the Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism

Shakespeare spent a good portion of his life in quarantine. England was being ravaged by the plague – Shakespeare lost older siblings to the disease, though he himself remained healthy. The theatres of London were ordered closed by the authorities, along with other businesses, to contain the spread of the plague. Did Shakespeare write King Lear while in quarantine, with the pestilence and death afflicting his nation? Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he did.

That is an interesting question, but there is one question regarding the Bard’s work that has had Shakespeare scholars, academics and playwrights debating for at least 400 years – is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? The plague was not the only contagion afflicting Elizabethan England – anti-Semitism had been rife among English society, and throughout Christian Europe, for centuries.

Let’s unpack this subject.

The England in which Shakespeare was born and raised was an anti-Semitic place. Jews were certainly not welcome in that country. King Edward I had expelled the Jewish population from the nation in 1290 – after centuries of anti-Semitic persecution. Jews who remained in England either converted to Christianity, or practiced their faith in secret. Jews who had endured life in Christian European countries, were often confined to small, cramped ghettos. The city-state of Venice, where the action of The Merchant of Venice is set, followed this practice.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, England witnessed the Lopez affair. Dr Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jewish convert to Christianity and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, was arrested on a charge of attempting to poison the Queen. Charged and convicted as a traitor in 1594, this trial contributed to an ongoing climate of anti-Semitism. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe, wrote a play called The Jew of Malta. The main villain, Barabas, is a scheming, deceitful, money-lending Jew. This play undoubtedly influenced the literary community, including Shakespeare.

Jews formed a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills. They were blamed for spreading the Black Death, practicing the sin of usury, and consuming the blood of Christian children, among other things. However, it is the subject of money-lending, and its inclusion as the main feature of Shylock, that has formed one of the most enduring and culturally significant stereotypes down the ages.

As with all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the characterisation of Jews and their role as financiers. Excluded from all professions, corralled into ghettos and subjected to periodic pogroms and violence, Jews resorted to the one occupation that could sustain them – money-lending. Lost in the diaspora, Jewish communities kept a cohesive identity by emphasising religious literacy and education. With compulsory education in Hebrew texts, promoting internal cohesiveness and literacy, the Jews became well represented in business and finance. Shylock is a somewhat sinister caricature of the Jewish money-lender stereotype.

Without summarising the entire play, we can understand the character of Shylock as the principal antagonist of the drama. Antonio, the merchant to whom the title of the play refers, requires a loan. He and his good friend, Bassanio, have made clear their contempt of Shylock because the latter is Jewish. Shakespeare’s genius is demonstrated by his ability to humanise an otherwise contemptible, malevolent villain. Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, should the latter default on his loan.

This demand for a pound of flesh makes Shylock a uniquely vindictive character – among a cast of Christian characters all of whom behave disgracefully. Shylock is not only a victimiser, but also a victim. Shakespeare has Shylock express human emotions of outrage and anger at his mistreatment by the Christian protagonists. Not only does Shakespeare insert the now-famous monologue by Shylock – “I am a Jew” to humanise the character. He also has Shylock expressing caustic sarcasm, denouncing Antonio for his hypocrisy is having mocked him for his Jewishness, yet now asking for his financial help.

By humanising Shylock, Shakespeare is rebalancing the moral calculus of the play. Shylock may be a selfish, malevolent Jew, but he is behaving badly among a cast of reprehensible characters. Shakespeare left open the possibility of playing Shylock as a sympathetic, almost pitiable, character. In the end however, it is Shylock who loses everything – his own daughter turns against him, his wealth is confiscated, and there is only one way in which Shylock can escape with his life – conversion to Christianity. The villainous Jew is isolated and condemned. He can survive, but only by abandoning his Jewish identity.

There is a definite undercurrent of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. Portraying the Jew as villain, Shakespeare bequeathed to the world a cultural icon that has been cited by anti-Semites and white supremacists the world over to retroactively rationalise their own prejudices. It is no secret that the play was produced numerous times in Nazi Germany. However, we should also stop looking at Shakespeare exclusively through our post-Holocaust, post-20th century, lens.

The push to absolve the Bard of anti-Semitism derives from a desire to dissociate Shakespeare’s reputation from anything as repugnant as an ancient prejudice. Works of art and literature are inevitably products of their time, and will contain unsavoury and objectionable elements. Rather than banning the play, we must approach it as adults and be ready to confront its prejudicial stereotypes.

Let’s be mindful of the political and cultural circumstances in which we operate. The resurgence of ultranationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe and the United States has been conducive to a rise in anti-Semitism. The stereotype of the shifty, greedy manipulative Jew, has made a comeback. The last thing we need now is a recycling of an old, outdated caricature.

With regards to The Merchant of Venice – don’t censor it, but let’s put it back in the archives.

Anti-quarantine protesters – a toxic brew of racists and free-market-fundamentalists

Earlier this month, in Michigan, Minnesota, Texas and other states in the US, anti-social distancing protests occurred, demanding an end to the compulsory quarantine and lockdown measures implemented in the face of the pandemic. It is worth examining the character of these protests – staffed by neoconservative and ultranationalist Tea Party people.

These ultra-rightist protesters are actively encouraging those most exploited by the ruling class to adopt the outlook of their exploiters. Let’s unpack this brief observation.

The far right protests were small; some were armed with semiautomatic weapons – were characterised by participants occupying the lower ends of the intelligence spectrum. There is no shortage of idiots in the United States. But to dismiss the political significance of these anti-quarantine protests would be a serious mistake. They represent not just a ragtag coalition of white supremacists, right wing militias and science denialist anti-vaccination zealots. They are billionaire-funded astroturf (fake grassroots) neoconservative formations, designed to turn workers’ anger at existing inequalities into neo-fascistic channels.

Professor Joel Wendland-Liu, writing in Common Dreams magazine, captures the main reasons why the anti-quarantine protesters are doing the bidding of the capitalist class:

The energized campaign to force people back to work and back into the public puts the lives of workers and their families at risk of infection, illness, and death. It dovetails with right-wing callousness and resistance to public interventions during times of social crisis. It highlights the worst characteristics of neoliberal political strategies that aim to privatize public entities and energize the predatory nature of the corporate sector to profit from disaster.

The political composition of the anti-social distancing protests is neither new nor original, but sheds light on the white supremacist – and religious fundamentalist – underbelly of American society. Not only did US President Donald Trump tweet his support for the ultrarightist protests, major conservative news outlets, such as Fox News, actively promoted the neo-Confederate and conspiracy-theory ideology motivating the protest organisers.

Earlier I used the phrase billionaire-funded to describe the recent anti-quarantine protests. This is neither an exaggeration nor hyperbole. It is well-known that billionaires have financed the campaigns of presidential candidates – and a billionaire made it into the White House. What is not-so well known, is that billionaires, through varied front companies and dummy corporations, have funded these far right ostensibly ‘grassroots’ organisations which purportedly speak for the ‘ordinary American.’

T J Coles, writing in Counterpunch magazine, elaborates how various multi billionaire figures have financed, and actively promoted, ultrarightist groups to pursue an ‘antigovernment’ agenda. The reasons that the billionaire class is ‘antigovernment’ are entirely different from the reasons why working class people protest. Pursuing an anti-immigration, neoliberal agenda, the billionaires want to achieve liberty – for big business. The rhetoric of liberty and freedom is deployed precisely against those government agencies that deploy measures in defence of public health and safety.

Occupational health and safety measures, environmental protections, restrictions on private corporate acquiring state assets, are all produced as evidence of government intrusion’ into liberty. Billionaires have long funded fake ‘citizen climate groups‘, all of which are – funnily enough – involved in promoting the denial of human-induced global warming, and advocate opening up ever-larger areas of the environment to the requirements of transnational corporations.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, one of the groups behind the anti-quarantine protests, is financed by various billionaire donors, including the Trump administration’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. Allegedly speaking for ordinary citizens, the Michigan group advocates the age-old right wing populist slogans of limited government, free enterprise, the rolling back of state laws restricting business – but asking for government bailouts when big business fails.

One of the motivating factors in these protests, encouraged by the Trump administration, is white supremacy. It is no accident that Confederate flags, along with the old conservative Gadsden logo, were on display in the anti-quarantine actions. White racism has long been a feature of ultranationalist antigovernment agitation. White supremacist groups have long utilised arms – and the threat to use them – to undermine even moderate attempts by US legislators to implement anti-racist measures.

The anti-lockdown protesters trace their political lineage to those whites who resisted racial integration and desegregation efforts in the 1950s and 60s. Trump himself embodies the decades of white racist backlash against moves by federal and state authorities to racially desegregate the nation. In 1866, armed white supremacists – including Confederate veterans, stormed the state legislature to stop that body from passing voting rights for newly emancipated black Americans. Scores were killed.

Trump and his ultrarightist supporters seek to preserve the racial hierarchy of capitalist America. Mississippi governor, Republican Tate Reeves, declared April to be Confederate Heritage month. This decision is not merely an exercise in preserving historical memory. It is a deliberate falsification of the causes of the US Civil War, and a repudiation that racism is a major divide in American society. It is no coincidence that Trump and his supporters have ramped up anti-Asian racism, thus empowering the ultranationalist base of the Republican Party – a subject requiring an examination in another article.

When an intricate and clandestine network of billionaires is financing right wing militias and ultranationalist groups, it is time to call out the ideology of corporate neoliberal fundamentalism that underpins them. Let’s listen to the demands of workers, such as at Amazon, or the health care workers and those employed in essential services, for better conditions and a more equitable society.

Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire in Yemen, Opec oil and Covid-19

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire in their war on Yemen in early April. While this is a welcome development providing a measure of relief for Yemen’s people, it comes as the Saudi offensive in that nation teeters on the brink of military defeat after five years.

Sadly, the entire Middle East nations, including Yemen, have recorded outbreaks of Covid-19. The Saudi royal clan has witnessed at least 150 of its members infected with the Covid-19 virus. While the pandemic is serious, it is only one of a number of reasons why Riyadh decided to change its long-held course in Yemen. The latest unilateral ceasefire is not only a major climb down from the stated goal of outright military victory in Yemen. It also represents the declining ability of the Saudi regime to influence political events in the region.

The Daily Beast’s world news editor wrote about the ongoing war on Yemen, and how Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) gamble in that nation has spectacularly backfired:

When MBS entered that conflict in 2015 he thought he could win in a matter of weeks with his vast arsenal of American weaponry, but the war has since become a suppurating wound on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. His Houthi adversaries there have taken to launching Iranian-built missiles at targets as far away as Riyadh, and hit the enormous Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq last September with devastating effect. 

There is no mistaking the enormous calamity that this US and British supported Saudi war has inflicted on the Yemeni population. From the same Daily Beast article:

Since 2018 the United Nations has identified Yemen as the scene of Earth’s greatest humanitarian crisis, with some 80 percent of the population in need of assistance, hundreds of thousands of malnourished children, and a rampant cholera epidemic that has infected more than 1 million people. Such conditions make effective monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic extremely difficult or impossible.

Opec, Russia and Saudi Arabia

It is impossible to discuss Saudi Arabia, and its war on Yemen, without discussing the crucial role of the oil industry and Opec. Saudi Arabia has seen its oil revenues tumble dramatically in the first quarter of 2020. The drop in demand for oil, the huge reductions in airline flights, cargo shipping and individual car commuting, have left a gaping hole in the petroleum industry.

Opec, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was formed in Baghdad in 1960. Headquartered in Vienna since 1965, Opec has expanded from its original five member-states (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Venezuela) to incorporating numerous oil-exporting nations. Its role is to coordinate the petroleum prices and policies of the member states. Prior to its formation, each oil-exporting nation would compete against the others, bidding in an oil competition for the best price on the open market.

Operating as a cartel, the Opec nations have bargained collectively, rather than individually, with the major Anglo-American multinational oil corporations. This collective approach has provided Opec member-states with a degree of bargaining power, something they lacked previously. Setting the world price of oil per barrel, the role of Opec is, in many ways, to even-up the otherwise lopsided playing-field. The oil and energy giants have long exploited oil-rich nations, to maximise their profits.

Opec has had negative press in the Anglo-American sphere of the world. Opec cartel represents an expression of resource nationalism – the exertion of national sovereignty over natural resources. Iran’s oil resources belong to the people of that nation. The wealth generated by that income should go towards improving the lives of the Iranian people. Anglo-American imperialism has intervened in Iran to monopolise its oil resources for the enrichment of their own multinational corporations.

While not anti-capitalist, asserting resource nationalism is strongly opposed by the major imperialist powers. Saudi Arabia acts as a stalking horse for the United States inside Opec – a Wahhabist theocracy sustaining its alliance with a theoretically-secular capitalist power.

The second-largest exporter of oil in the world, a nation with enough economic weight to exert pressure on the global economy is a non-Opec nation: Russia. While Russia has been invited to join Opec, the Kremlin has consistently refused.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have had a mini-Cold War, dueling with competing oil prices, for decades. Occasionally, that rivalry has erupted into an openly ‘hot’ war, such as earlier this year. While both sides were cooperating under a new charter of cooperation since 2016-17, relations fractured in March this year when Riyadh decided to cut oil production in response to slowing demand for oil. Moscow disagreed with this move, and Riyadh responded with an oil price war.

Moscow was in a stronger position to weather the oil price rivalry – its economy was stronger, and the Kremlin had larger foreign currency reserves. However, Moscow was also hurting, as oil prices declined and the revenue stream slowed down. The recent decision, arrived at by Russia and Saudi Arabia, to agree on a 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) reduction in oil output temporarily halted the oil industry’s slide into total collapse. However, the humanitarian and societal collapse in Yemen is ongoing, albeit partially relieved by the ceasefire.

The dramatic reduction in oil revenues, its deepening military defeat in Yemen, and the added problem of the Covid-19 pandemic have all placed Riyadh on the backfoot. As Imad Harb explains on the Al Jazeera channel, the coronavirus outbreak is the ostensible reason why Saudi Arabia is seeking an exit from the Yemen quagmire. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, has all but disintegrated. The Emiratis withdrew their troops in July last year.

The humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Yemen today would not have been possible if it were not the unwavering support provided to the Saudi offensive by the United States and Britain (and also Australia). Intelligence sharing, refuelling of Saudi warplanes, military coordination of drone strikes – all these features implicate the deep complicity of the Anglo-American alliance in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.

It is time to hold to account those politicians whose decisions have resulted in disastrous and criminal consequences.

The current pandemic shows us we ignore science at our own peril

The news cycle over the recent months has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the health and wellbeing of the wider society. One important lesson that gets lost in the mass coverage is the importance of the public understanding of, and engagement with, science. With that in mind, let us highlight one long-standing obstacle in the public’s awareness and understanding of science – the religious Right’s ongoing and persistent science denialism.

Let’s unpack these issues. Science, and the promotional of science journalism, has been relegated to secondary status, not only by politicians who zealously advocated free-market supremacy as the ultimate arbiter of a society’s general health. Public engagement with science has also been sidelined by the sustained campaign of political ignorance by the evangelical Christian Right, particularly in the United States.

Over at the New York Times, Katherine Stewart has written an op-ed piece stating that the religious right’s decades-long science denialism has contributed to the current failure of the US authorities to adequately tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The ulttaconservative evangelical religious base of Trump supporters did not arise out of nowhere.

They have nurtured and promoted an evangelical Christian nationalism that has resulted in, among other things, a dogmatic refusal to critically engage with the important science issues of our times – whether it be evolutionary biology, human-induced climate change, or ecological sustainability.

Rather than promoting an understanding of, and education in, these scientific issues that impact our communities, the evangelical Christian Right has attacked these subjects, and science in general, as ‘doctrines of unbelief’. Trump and his ultraconservative supporters are located firmly in the tradition of 19th century proslavery theologians who campaigned against the abolition of slavery as a Satanic-inspired measure contrary to God’s teachings.

The evangelical Christian nationalist preachers are not denying that Covid-19 is a problem – at least, not anymore now that the pandemic has spread its lethality to the United States and Europe. They have a long track record of opposing any branch of science, or scientific understanding, that conflicts with their political and theology underpinnings and goals. Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon magazine, states that:

The Christian right has always been a threat to public health. They were a threat during the AIDS crisis, when they successfully exerted pressure on Republican leaders to minimize the disease, which conservative Christians saw as a punishment for sinful behavior. They have contributed to the spread of all manner of STIs, in fact, by convincing schools to replace sex education with programs meant to discourage the use of condoms.

It is not only in the area of public health in which the conservative evangelical Right has been waging a politico-cultural war. The belief in supernatural capacities to overcome, or indeed provide a cause, for natural and/or material realities has provided a traditional blockage to scientific inquiry. The denial of evolutionary biology by theologians and faith-based groups is a huge subject to cover, however, we can observe the underlying trend of science denial running through to today’s evangelical Christian nationalist advocates.

Since at least the 1980s, the evangelical Christian Right has campaigned against the teaching of evolution in schools. Adopting a cynical tactic, they have promoted the pseudoscience of ‘intelligent design‘, portraying their efforts to marginalise evolution as simply advocacy of ‘teaching both sides’. The latter is a wonderful principle; teaching both sides of a controversy is great. But it is not a cover for surreptitiously introducing supernatural concepts into a science course. Intelligent design is properly understood as a religiously-based alternative, and belongs in religion class.

A number of Christian denominations have declared a truce, or a kind of peaceful accommodation, with evolutionary biology. The Anglican Church has taken a hands-off approach when confronting scientific subjects, and indeed Pope Francis has advised his Catholic followers to accept evolution, stating that is the monotheistic god is not a magician with a magic wand. However, the American Christian nationalist Right is not interested in scientific debate, but the reshaping of US society along theocratic lines.

It is no secret that the evangelical Christian Right has been a staunch reservoir of climate change denialism, viewing environmental concerns and green issues as the thin edge of the dark Satanic wedge. Deriving from the conservative Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, these ultrarightist disciples of Reagan reject ecological issues as an ostensible ‘leftist-Communist’ plot to destabilise the current system. Denying the evidence for human-induced climate change, nevertheless accept ecological breakdown as part of the fulfilment of apocalyptic Biblical prophesies.

In the current pandemonium about the Covid-19 pandemic, my fellow Australians have largely forgotten that we have only just emerged from the most catastrophic bushfire season the Australian continent has ever experienced. Longer, hotter summers along with more sustained and widespread bushfires are the result of human-induced climate change. Rejecting the evidence for global warming has lethal and economically devastating consequences. The scope and intensity of the fires were unprecedented, and it will take decades for the local ecosystems to recover.

When rejecting the cumulative scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming, the evangelical Christian Right provides a buttress of support for continuing current neoliberal economic practices – the very economic model responsible for inducing the current climate emergency. The road to hell was not caused by the Christian nationalist Right – but they are doing their utmost to ensure that we get there as quickly as possible.

The current pandemic demolishes the myth that the private sector equals the economy

There has been a steady stream of commentary, and reams of critical analysis written, about the current Covid-19 pandemic and how it has adversely impacted the economy. The pandemic we are now witnessing exposes the inability of the capitalist economy – as it is currently structured – to respond decisively to this burgeoning health and social crisis. The economic breakdown we are experiencing at the moment was certainly precipitated by the pandemic – but not caused by it.

The capitalist economy was already in crisis before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic crisis has certainly metastasised into an all-out health and safety issue, affecting every aspect of society. It is not only viruses that mutate. The ongoing crisis reveals that we have been slaves to an enduring myth – that the unhindered operation of the ‘free market’ leads to the best possible outcomes.

Indeed, if this pandemic is to teach us anything – and every crisis is an opportunity to learn – we must readjust our economic and social priorities, because it is those priorities that have led us into our current predicament. If our existing political and economic structures cannot respond adequately in a time of serious crisis, then why continue working with them?

As Abi Wilkinson asks in Jacobin magazine:

If foundational economic principles must be abandoned when things get tough, does capitalism really serve our needs? If rapid, radical change is possible when circumstances demand it, what excuse is there for failing to act with similar urgency to prevent cataclysmic climate change?

Let us tackle one main myth that has sustained free-market fundamentalism since the early 1990s. This is the false claim that the private sector is dynamic, innovative, and quick to adjust to new realities, as opposed to a sclerotic, inert, and unimaginative state sector. If only ‘red tape’ were to be abolished, and government bodies stepped out of the way, the private enterprise sector would rapidly implement decisive innovations and deliver optimal outcomes for the public – so we were told.

The Atlantic consensus – shaped by the Thatcher-Reagan years – was implemented by the former Eastern bloc countries from the early 1990s. The economy – and by that term was meant private enterprise – became the supreme value against which everything else was measured. Why consider the environment, koalas, trees, fresh air – part of the economy?

In Australia, we have a deeply ingrained suspicion of advice from ‘foreigners’, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). Australians are fiercely independent, so we are led to believe, and never allow ‘foreigners’ to tell us what to do. The one ‘foreign’ import that we have implemented unhesitatingly is the doctrine of neoliberalism – the free market will deliver the best outcomes.

Silicon Valley, the ultimate paragon of private enterprise ingenuity and dynamism seeded by venture capital, built itself up with IT technologies developed by government institutions. The US Department of Defence, the National Institute of Health, sectors in the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation – began the research, development and innovation that produced the core technologies of the IT industry. The state sector provided the funding, experts and innovation that characterised the burgeoning tech giants.

The ground-breaking medical innovations that have revolutionised modern medicine were funded by the public sector. The algorithms that make the iPhone and smartphone possible today were researched and developed by state-funded institutions. The state has created and managed markets for the end-products of their research and development. Amazon, Google, Apple – today’s IT behemoths would not be in existence were it not for massive state subsidies, tax breaks and government-implemented labour laws that provide a flexible workforce.

Adam Tooze, writing in the Guardian newspaper, states that the free-market orthodoxy that has prevailed in economic circles needs to be questioned while restructuring our society after the pandemic. The 2008-09 financial breakdown is still fresh in our minds – at least it should be, when examining the way out of the current crisis. Neal Lawson elaborates that the practice of stripping away state structures, and associated legislation, has contributed to our current predicament:

The first priority of the crisis is of course public safety, especially for the groups most at risk from catching the virus. But there are public policy issues, and different futures that might arise as the crisis unfolds. Covid-19 doesn’t exist in a political vacuum.

Removing government legislation and oversight, ostensibly to allow the private sector free rein to innovate, has been the mantra of the free-market ideologues. But does that actually work? In Australia, we have just emerged from a catastrophic 2019-20 bushfire crisis. While that may seem like a purely environmental issue, there were definitive economic and political decisions that contributed to the scale and severity of the bushfire emergency – scaling back environmental protection laws.

Nick Kilvert, a fauna ecologist, wrote that throughout the 2000s, removing environmental protection legislation and enabling developers to override ecological concerns left the ecosystem vulnerable and exposed to serious impacts.

Serious losses of wildlife were occurring well before the 2019-20 bushfire season. Increased land clearing, weaker environmental safeguards, and regarding the economy as distinct from the environment, laid the necessary groundwork for the unusually severe and widespread bushfires in Australia.

It is interesting to note that for all their talk of ‘hating red tape‘, the partisans of free-market fundamentalism have been passing reams of government legislation – whether it be restricting trade unions, anti-terrorism measures, increased powers of surveillance, increased police powers, restrictions on the ability of indigenous groups to sue the government. While ‘red tape’ is presented as a powerful obstacle, it is only so when impeding the operation of big business.

Earlier, we mentioned Unesco. Why is that? The Great Barrier Reef, which falls within the protections offered by Unesco, is dying. Coral bleaching of the reef has been proceeding for many years.

Are we going to wait for the private sector to solve this problem? Should we ignore the recommendations of Unesco, because it is a ‘foreign organisation’? Or should we, as a community, recognise that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked, and refocus our priorities on putting people and community lives before corporate profits?

Racism and class inequalities are closely intertwined – Part Two

Is racism an unfortunate, incidental feature of American capitalism? Or is the class structure of American society racialised and discriminatory to its very core? This question goes to the heart of understanding the relationship between race and class. In the previous article, we examined the beginnings of the new American republic, and the dispute surrounding Project 1619.

The pushback against the Project 1619 takes many forms, but one line of criticism has importance over others. The charge levelled at the authors of Project 1619 that they are ignoring class disparities, and that class not race is the main division in American society, is simplistic and misguided. The detractors of Project 1619 may be questioning this or that historical conclusion – that is all well and good. However, accusing the Project 1619 of dismissing class differences – “it’s class not race” – detracts from the undeniable inclusion of white nationalism in the founding of American capitalism.

At the opposite end of this debate is the charge ‘class reductionist‘. This is another scare term which is meant to convey the impression that by emphasising class distinctions necessarily ignores non-class forms of oppression, such as race and gender. Centrist liberals have long accused socialism of dismissing racial divisions and reducing society to class divisions. The debate then becomes a vituperative ping-pong match of accusations and snarling insults. Accepting the racial disparities of American society does not blind us to the fundamental underlying class divisions that characterise the capitalist system.

Fighting class oppression, and challenging the power of the ultrawealthy billionaire elite, goes hand-in-hand with the struggle to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. Counterposing demands for economic justice to those of antiracist struggle indicates either a wilful misdirection or ignorance of the way the capitalist system operates. As the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King argued, the struggle for racial justice is inseparable from the fight for economic equality. He realised that he was fight a racialised capitalism that put people of colour at the bottom economic rung of the ladder.

Marx, and socialists after him, have been routinely accused of ignoring racial disparities and overemphasising class differentiation. But even a cursory glance of Marx’s writings on the subject exposes the falsity of that accusation. Has not racism always existed, since the dawn of human civilisation? No. The ancient empires of Greece and Rome had slaves, and a slave-owning economy. They regarded outside of their original states as ‘barbarians’. What they did not have was any concept of race, or racial classifications.

Indeed, contact between the Mediterranean empires and the black African civilisations also involved cultural and informational exchanges. There was no upsurge of African slave-trading when Greeks and Romans conquered territories in Africa. As time went on, black Africans began to be assimilated into the hierarchical structures of the Mediterranean empires.

To be sure, there were proto-racial ideas in precapitalist societies. Religious institutions and associated scholars preached the ‘curse of Ham‘ upon the darker-skinned peoples. Muslims who converted to Christianity – particularly the Moors in Spain – were regarded as possible ‘carriers’ of non-Christian doctrines in the blood. But while the Catholic church held primary sway over Europe, that is as far as those ideas got.

With the advent of capitalist relations of production, there arose a new political formation – the nation-state. That required doctrines to unite formerly feudal principalities into united entities. Here is where racial ideas began to crystallise – the transatlantic African slave trade brought anti-black racism to the forefront. A new division of labour began to emerge – racial divisions based on perceived skin colour.

The North American road to white supremacy was paved by Europeans, but took on a distinct character. While the first slave labourers in Europe were Eastern European – hence the name ‘Slavs’ – they were white. In North America, the African slaves – and after Emancipation, the black proletariat – formed a distinct racial category which occupied the lowest rung of society, even below that of the white European worker.

Slaves were, and nonwhite minorities today are, the internal enemy from the point of view of the white American ruling class. The new American republic did provide freedom and security – declaring a kind of ceasefire between white Europeans. The religious wars of Christian-dominated Europe had witnessed barbaric results. The American patriots provided sanctuary for Germans, Dutch, French – Protestant or Catholic.

The emergent American capitalist state opened up a new battlefront – that of race. The nonwhite populations were deliberately excluded from the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness guaranteed by the founding fathers. Black oppression – coupled with the exploitation of other nonwhite races – was and is an inbuilt characteristic of American capitalism. Coupled with the rise of pseudoscientific ideas about ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ racial stocks, and the United States became the nation that implemented white nationalism in its very foundations.

The United States was founded, and continues to be, a social experiment in racial capitalism. We have witnessed extreme examples of this in apartheid South Africa, and formerly white Rhodesia. The US, much like Australia, is founded on a transplanted capitalism which built into itself a racialised hierarchy – a white ethnocracy, if you will.

Imperialist powers, such as Britain and the United States, have issued declarations respecting the equality of nations and support for human rights. When these are issued, the nonwhite peoples of the world are left wondering if these declarations apply equally to them. When Dr Martin Luther King denounced racial and economic inequalities, and called for a multiethnic struggle against injustice, he was striking at the very heart of American racial capitalism.

Racism and class inequalities are closely intertwined – Part One

In the previous article, we examined how the FBI director does not understand the close interlinkage between class disparities and racism. There was an American leader who understood perfectly how class and racism work together to immiserate the working class – the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King. We will get back to Dr King later on. For now, we have an opportunity to examine the relationship between racial discrimination and class-based inequalities.

Racial discrimination and racism, on the one hand, and economic inequities on the other, are usually discussed separately. That is all well and good – however, we must never forget that racial disparities and economic inequalities are inextricably interlinked. In other words, race and class are best understood not by counterposing them, but by understanding how they are reinforce and symbiotically support each other.

I am not raising this subject out of thin air.

The election of Trump in 2016, and his current reelection campaign, have prompted discussions about the role of race and class in his electoral triumph. While examine Trump’s platforming of white nationalism is interesting and relevant, we need to dig deeper. To fully appreciate the interaction of race and capitalism, we need to have a historical perspective. The New York Times began just such an exploration. In what way?

Project 1619

1619 was the year that slaves were first brought to the British colony of Virginia – what if that year, rather than 1776, marked the true beginning of the nascent American republic? Hence, the New York Times magazine collaborative Project 1619, dedicated to examining the impact of racism on American society. Racialised slavery, rather than being a peripheral occurrence, was fundamental in creating the financial wealth and political character of the new republic.

The American Revolution of 1776, presented to the world as the epitome of democratic liberty, did not result in equality for all people. While the American colonists and patriots were united in their opposition to the British monarchy, they were also motivated, at least in part, to preserve the operation of slavery. While the so-called founding fathers of the American constitutional republic privately opposed slavery, they did not publicly oppose it.

The American colonists fought for revolutionary reasons, uniting against the feudal British monarchy. They created, if not a slavocracy, then a mercantile racial capitalism, where everyone could pursue their individual liberty and happiness – as long as they were white. General George Washington, in 1775, officially decreed that black persons would not be permitted to join the Continental Army.

The British authorities cynically exploited the prospect of freeing and arming the slaves as a tactical manoeuvre against the rebellious patriots. While promising to free the slaves, Britain benefited from the Atlantic slave traffic. There had been numerous slave uprisings in the Caribbean colonies throughout the 1700s, and the spectre of organised slave revolt terrified the insurgent colonists in mainland America.

The contention that some of the American patriots were motivated in part to preserve slavery has provoked a firestorm of debate among various academics and historians. The claim that the preservation of slavery was a main motivation for the American revolutionary patriots is controversial, but nothing new, nor confined to the political Left. Adam Serwer, examining the dispute between Project 1619 and historians critical of the project, explains that this is not merely a disagreement about historical accuracy:

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?

After the British forces were defeated, the American republic continued to allow slavery to operate as normal. In fact, American capitalism became wealthy and powerful because they tapped into slavery and slave-produced products, not in spite of it.

Slavery has been portrayed as a uniquely Southern institution, separate and distinct from the industrial North. However, the mercantile and industrial North profited handsomely from the slave-owning industries, and were linked with the transatlantic slave trade in myriad financial ways.

It may be comforting to us to think of American capitalism as unblemished by the stain of racialised slavery – but the mercantile North was just as culpable as the South in profiting from the proceeds of slaves. Though the African slave trade was officially outlawed in 1807, Northern capitalists continued to invest heavily in the Southern slavocracy, and Northern wealth was directly tied to products originating in the materials provided by the South.

Slavery was not only an economically dynamic core of the US economy for the first half of the 1800s, the slaveowners and their bankers received significant federal government subsidies and loans in support of their business. Through various financial instruments and derivatives, using slaves as collateral, the wealth of the North became inextricably linked with the sugar, cotton, tobacco and textiles of the South. Federal government intervention, rather than being a hindrance, was actually a crucial supporting factor in the operation of this private enterprise.

Project 1619 compels us to reexamine the consensus view that the United States is a beacon of freedom and equal opportunity for all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. The founding fathers certainly fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as long as the people rallying under that banner were white Europeans. Slavery was left unchallenged by the American revolution; that barbaric heart of American capitalism was only shattered decades later by the civil war.

Martin Luther King, among other black American scholars and activists, understood the connection between economic power and racial disparities. We will elaborate on this subject in the next article. Stay tuned.

The FBI director does not understand the interlinking of white supremacy and American capitalism

Early last month – February 2020 – the FBI director, Christopher Wray, elevated the threat of white nationalist right wing terrorism to the same national priority allocated to Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS. Explaining the reasons for making this decision, Wray stated that the threat from neo-nazi terrorism was unrelenting and formidable.

Wray elaborated the measures the FBI is taking to combat white supremacist terrorism, and detailed the arrests that his organisation made in clamping down on organised white racist groups. Later in February, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, also elevated the threat of racially-motivated terrorism to a national priority.

While right wing terrorism has a long and persistent history in Australia – like most resilient pests – this is the first time that a senior Australian official has highlighted right wing extremism as a threat requiring an increased national focus alongside foreign extremism. Burgess went on to say that:

Intolerance based on race, gender and identity, and the extreme political views that intolerance inspires, is on the rise across the Western world in particular. Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time, but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand.

It is interesting that Burgess, and his counterpart in the United States, focused on the increase in ultrarightist terrorism across the Western nations. Let’s remember that point, because we will return to it later. In response to the Asio chief’s assessment, the current Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, demonstrated his appalling ignorance by mixing up Islamist terrorism with left wing extremism.

Others have responded to Dutton’s woeful comments – for instance, Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful post here. Islamist extremism has ideological correspondence with ultrarightist groups, thus falling into the purview of right wing extremism. Other commentators have the patience and inclination to explain Introduction to Sociology 101 to the Antipodean Himmler-minister – let us move on to more important things.

White nationalism is transnational violence writ large

In approaching the question of white nationalist terrorism, perhaps the FBI director should examine the ideology that fuels such violence on a national and transnational scale. It is no secret that the US President – the FBI director’s ultimate boss – has provided a platform to propagate white nationalist talking points. Trump has consistently embraced and promoted ideas of white victimhood, portrayed immigration as a ‘national security’ threat, and encourages vigilante violence against his political opponents.

White nationalist doctrines, while not confined to the United States, have reached their ultimate development and application in that nation. Steve Bannon, former advisor to the Trump campaign, may have left US politics, but he has not ceased being a political operator. A US citizen who despises immigrants, he has been enthusiastically embracing and promoting anti-immigrant and racist parties in Europe. White nationalism has a transnational appeal.

Perhaps the FBI director should consider what actions he will take to stop American white supremacists, such as Bannon, from building an international coalition of the xenophobic. Wherever white nationalist views gain a foothold, there is a causative and corresponding increase in hate crimes and racist attacks. The FBI’s own experts have documented a dramatic increase in hate crimes in 2019, continuing an upward trend in racist attacks over the previous four years.

W E B Du Bois understood how capitalism and racism are interlinked

Perhaps the FBI director should consult the writings of African American sociologist, and the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard University, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963). An activist and scholar, William E B Du Bois was one of the earliest sociologists to discuss the interlinking of white supremacy with the development of American capitalism. He wrote about the intertwining of race and class in the United States.

Race and class can and should be discussed separately. It is easy and proper to focus on issues of racism. However, we also need to highlight how class and racism interact to perpetuate a system of socioeconomic and racial oppression. Du Bois noted that the problem of the colour line – the racial divisions of the US – was the main axis of contention throughout the 20th century.

Du Bois located the racial divide in the country within its economic system of capitalism. Mutually reinforcing, white nationalism and capitalism have coexisted and undergirded each other for the entire duration of the United States. Speaking out against racial segregation and discrimination was always the main priority for Du Bois. His famous remark that the black person has a ‘second sight’ captured the experience of racism in the US.

Second sight for Du Bois meant the ability of black Americans to see themselves in the way that white America regarded them. The African American is not blinded by the privilege and relative wealth of ‘whiteness’. The outcast within the racial-capitalist system is compelled to perceive themselves as they are seen by white nationalism. A racially-exclusive capitalist structure operates to immiserate the African American not only as a labourer, but also as an African American.

The 2017 white nationalist rally at Charlottesville – more accurately described as a race riot – was but a symptom of a nation founded as a project in white-minority rule. There have always been ethnic minorities in the United States, notwithstanding the specific foundational ethnic and cultural genocide of the indigenous nations. The organising principle of the newly emergent United States was white supremacy, built up on a capitalistic structure. Du Bois articulated the capitalist and colonialist underpinnings of white nationalism.

The working class has always been multiracial. Ethnic minorities are not recent additions to the ranks of workers, but have been working away in the industries and factories of American capitalism for decades. Of course there are white working class people – that is not in dispute.

The ultrarightist parties – taking their cue from the mainstream conservatives – deploy the concept ‘white working class‘ as an exclusionary political weapon, to exclude racial minorities and pivot white workers towards a collective notion of white racial resentment. Trump and his American co-thinkers encourage the same resentments in the US.

When the late Enoch Powell, and his current Tory counterparts such as Boris Johnson, use the term ‘white working class’, they are setting up an anti-immigrant platform with which the working class can be divided. White nationalism thrives in a climate of attacks on the poor, the deindustrialisation and immiseration of communities, and the promotion of xenophobia by mainstream politicians.

When we downplay the crimes of Nazi-era collaborators, we help to revive the doctrines of the far right

World War 2-era Eastern European Nazi-aligned collaborators are being hailed as heroes in Europe today. By rewriting their criminal histories, we are assisting in the rehabilitation of their white supremacist and fascistic doctrines. This is a goal of today’s ultrarightist political parties.

Let’s examine this subject more thoroughly. This is not just an exercise in refuting historical falsification – important as that is. It is also an examination of how the Eastern European far right, and their ideological brethren in the West, are gaining ground at the expense of those who gave their lives fighting fascism.

Chetniks march on Anzac Day

Australian readers will appreciate the following observation, because of its connection to Anzac Day. During the march on the said Anzac Day, a Serbian paramilitary formation, the Chetniks, are allowed to participate. The Chetniks are a Serbian ultrarightist group who collaborated with the invading Nazi forces in World War 2.

The Chetniks, responsible for numerous atrocities against Jews, Croats, Roma and antifascist Serbs, have been getting a makeover of sorts since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Chetnik military and political commanders, once condemned as mass murderers and war criminals, are currently being exonerated by an ultranationalist rewriting of World War 2 history.

Serbian diaspora communities, which are solidly ultranationalist, are contributing to this whitewashing of Nazi-era crimes. The supporters of today’s Chetniks are being welcomed in, among other places, the Anzac Day march in Australia. This action, endorsed by the Australian Returned Services League (RSL), is a disrespectful slap in the face to all the Anzacs who fought against fascism in World War 2.

The Chetniks found a working alliance with Hitler’s Germany to be a logical consequence of their racist, ultranationalist ideology. They were already loyal participants in an anti-Communist military formation, fighting under the command of Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Cooperating with Nazi Germany was neither opportunistic nor involuntary; their crimes of ethnic cleansing were carried out in accordance with Nazi-aligned political objectives.

The rewriting of history throughout Eastern Europe

It is not only in the former Yugoslavia where there is a concerted, sustained campaign to rewrite WW2 history along ultranationalist lines, and thus forgive the horrendous crimes of Nazi-collaborationist groups. With the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, the former Communist nations began to explore the deepest corners of the Soviet experience – that is to be welcomed. But what has happened is not a mere academic exercise in historical rectification.

From the Baltic states to the Balkans, there has been a systematic campaign to deny or exonerate the crimes of Eastern European ultranationalism, rehabilitating those who cooperated with the Axis powers. This historical revisionism is a cynical and perverse exercise in restoring the reputation of convicted Nazi collaborators, and thus absolve East European nationalism of its complicity in the Holocaust and associated ethnic cleansing.

This ultranationalist rewriting of history has contemporary ramifications – feeding the nationalist resentment that underpins today’s European far right political parties. The goal of Eastern European ultranationalist parties is not only to remove their own culpability for war crimes, but also to reinforce current geopolitical motives that sees the West – mainly the United States – build up an anti-Russian, militarised coalition in the former Eastern bloc.

The Baltic states have led the charge, so to speak, in pursuing a path of obfuscating their own role in the killing of Jews, and contributing to the perverse historical fiction of ‘red equals brown’. After all, if the Soviets can be portrayed as being ‘just as bad, even worse’ than the Nazis, then Eastern European nationalism can occupy the ground of a perpetual victim. Its active participation in the anti-Semitic killings can be washed away amidst this tide of pseudo-historical revisionism.

Horseshoe theory is horse manure

The ‘red-brown symmetry’ – the claim that the Nazis and Soviets were just as bad, indeed the same, as each other – has a certain appeal in the West because of the pseudo-clever ‘horseshoe theory‘. This academic thesis contends that the far left and far right do not occupy opposite ends of a political spectrum, but are actually more alike – hence the metaphor of the horseshoe.

This ridiculous fiction has a superficial appeal – the capitalist system and its supporters like to smear any deviation from the ‘sensible centre’ as extreme. This shallow and anaemic claim overlooks the many and varied links between the capitalist ‘centre’ and its bastard progeny – the ultraright. Capitalist powers routinely encourage and nurture a fascistic presence in order to confront an organised working class.

Nazi Germany, in the process of smashing trade unions and the organised Left, looked for inspiration in passing its laws of racial segregation, to the United States. While the two nations had significant differences, it is crucially important to remember that the racial project of Nazism was inspired by the ‘successful’ example of American racial legislation. The far right commonly employs a leftist mask, employing the rhetoric of the Left while targeting the most vulnerable sectors of the community.

It is one thing to denounce the crimes and distortions of the Soviet system, as the current Russian government has done. It is quite another to draw an equals sign between the system that produced Auschwitz and those that demolished it. The falsity of the ‘red-brown’ equivalence is tuned for political expediency. As David Broder has written in Jacobin magazine, this perverse distortion of WW2 history relativises the crimes of fascist ideology and its doctrine of race war and conquest.

While the Soviets did sign the often-condemned Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, singling out this event as a unique occurrence and evidence of conjoint Nazi-Soviet responsibility is hypocritical in the extreme. The Eastern European nationalist regimes had a long history of pacts and alliances with Nazi Germany, beginning back in the 1920s. The Soviet foreign ministry’s repeated attempts to formalise an anti-fascist alliance with Britain and other Western European nations were routinely rebuffed.

Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and writer, stated that while the gulag was appalling, the Soviets never produced an Auschwitz. Last month, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army, we must remember that while the Nazis were the main architects of industrialised racial mass murder, they had willing accomplices in Eastern Europe.