Paramilitary groups and economic blockades in Ukraine

There was a very interesting article published recently in War on the Rocks about right-wing paramilitary groups in Ukraine, and their destabilizing effects on governance.  Of note is the series of tit-for-tat seizures and blockades of various supply lines that occurred in the first few months of 2017.

In late January, militia members engaged in a very well-coordinated blockade of coal shipments from eastern separatist regions, which soon sparked an energy crisis.  In response, separatist militias began seizing control of factories in the east that were owned by pro-Kiev oligarchs.  In mid-March the fed-up authorities cracked down on the blockades and arrested the unruly nationalist militants — only to provoke mass protests, occupations of government buildings in four different regions, and a new blockade against the president’s candy factories.

Two days after the protests and occupations began, the Kiev government abruptly reversed its position and declared an official ban on all goods from separatist regions until the separatists handed back control of the pro-Kiev oligarch’s factories.  That didn’t happen, and now it seems that Ukraine is making up its coal import deficit with supply from Pennsylvania, with additional talk about cutting down imports from Russia.

What’s interesting in all this is the intersection of militant protest tactics (albeit by armed right-wing nationalist groups), a strategy built around disrupting very specific parts of the economy, and fossil-fuel supply chains.  Perhaps environmentalists can take a cue out of this book for the battle against carbon oligarchs and climate change.  For example, there has been an ongoing fight in the San Francisco Bay Area over a potential coal export terminal at the Port of Oakland.  If the terminal does end up getting built, how feasible might it be for people to blockade the coal shipments coming in from Utah?

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Communist strategy, international coordination, and the pillar of the Gulf monarchies

Around a year ago Angry Workers of the World published an excellent document around the question of a workers’ insurrection, that looks at the matter in a very concrete and material way.

There is a huge amount in the document that can be discussed, but one thing in particular that stood out was this comment about how to tackle questions of international integration (emphasis added):

Maybe because of the generalisation of the ‘proletarian condition’ of being wage dependent and of the generalisation of ‘parliamentary democracy’ across the globe it now seems obsolete to talk about the impact of uneven development. Everything appears at the same time so similar (global village) and so different, once we look into details. The problem is that we clearly see the effect of regional differences on global class struggle, but:

a) we tend to explain these differences geopolitically or out of ‘national economies’ or even ethnically (oil producing nations, BRIC states, Arab Spring);
b) we celebrate a crude pluralism (‘patchwork of free and unfree labour; all sorts of proletarian income etc.);
c) we don’t develop revolutionary strategies of how regional struggles or struggles within certain stages of development relate to others.

That last bit is key.  This question of how struggles in one part of the world affect other parts of the world is a fascinating and important area of study, and something that I personally started thinking about an awful lot during and after writing an analysis of Saudi Arabia and its historical roots in imperialism.  It turned out that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petro-monarchies have played a major and pivotal role in the functioning of global capitalism, particularly in the restructuring toward neoliberalism after the 1970s, as described in detail in Adam Hanieh’s Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (2011).  If the left-wing movements in the area had been successful in the ’50s and ’60s, it would have changed the course of world history.

Today the Gulf states’ massive oil resources are tightly integrated with global finance capital, as well as with a regional market of precarious migrant labor.  A resurgence in communist struggle in this area would almost certainly destabilize global markets, and such a resurgence would almost certainly be embedded in either struggles by migrant workers from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Philippines, or in the struggles of the marginalized Shia populations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (who have historically been the backbone of leftist movements in the area).

In the case of migrant worker organizing, this would mean that radicals in South Asia and the Philippines have a critical role to play.  Revolutionary organizing among the migrant workers of the Gulf will require deep connections with the homelands, and the establishment of some kind of “home bases” away from the ruthless police states of the Gulf.

The supply lines of the Gulf’s repressive apparatus are also a key target for disruption, and arguably a necessary condition for successful communist resurgence.  Much of this apparatus is underwritten by the Western military-industrial complex and related surveillance and security organizations and companies.  In the modern era, many of these surveillance/security companies are integrated with the tech industry.  This gives another front on which radical tech workers can fight on.

And speaking of the tech industry, we can “close the loop” on the above analysis by looking at how many Indians migrate to the US to work in the tech industry (especially its core nexus in the San Francisco Bay Area), including in and around security firms.  Perhaps a connection can be made between these migrants, and the lower-skilled migrants in the Gulf; after all both categories tend to hail from the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.  The material and social terrain exists here for a triangle of revolutionary class struggle to be developed between south India, the SF Bay Area, and the Persian Gulf.

This is all of course just one thread in the kind of analysis and strategizing needed to develop an international vision for class struggle.

Institutional murders at Uber and University of Hyderabad

In August 2017, a senior engineer at Uber — a 34-year old black man — committed suicide, after months of working under extreme stress.  According to his wife, he was working long hours, had uneasy relations with his boss, was fearful of losing his new job, and was generally suffering extreme stress and anxiety.  The question of racism in the workplace was also raised, given Uber’s repeated controversies around diversity, discrimination, and workplace culture.

In January 2017, a PhD student at University of Hyderabad — a 26-year old Dalit man — committed suicide, shortly after the administration suspended him and several other Dalit students in the aftermath of a lengthy period of controversy and unrest between a Dalit students’ organization and a rival Hindu nationalist students’ organization.  His suicide note sparked a new surge in protests against the caste system and against discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes at the university.

During the protests in Hyderabad, the idea of “institutional murder” was raised — the argument that these kinds of suicides cannot be looked at as merely individuals “lapsing” into suicide, but as the consequence of oppressive and alienating systems that deteriorate the mental health of individuals of marginalized backgrounds at a disproportionate rate.

This framework of institutional murder could be brought back to understand the case of the suicide of the Uber engineer.  As a comrade put it recently, it is striking that this man felt like there was no escaping his situation other than to kill himself, despite seemingly being extremely intelligent and hard-working, with access to many alternative jobs and career prospects.  The combination of alienation, racism, over-work, and a culture saturated with yuppie ambition, makes for a hell of a prison, where death slowly becomes preferably to failure.

Mobilizing vs. organizing around health care

Jacobin Magazine recently published a series of essays, written by members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), about whether or not socialists should plan a national march for “Medicare For All”.  First, Dustin Guastella wrote an essay calling for socialists to lead this national march in Washington D.C.; then Michael Kinnucan responded, arguing that socialists need to do more organizing and less mobilizing, and that a march would not be a good use of time/energy; then Guastella wrote back, affirming and clarifying the usefulness of planning a big march, and was joined by Ethan Young who also wrote an essay arguing the potential benefits of a Medicare for All rally.

Guastella’s first essay argues that socialists (particularly the DSA) need to recognize the widespread popularity of the idea of “Medicare For All”, and use it to not only shore up their brand, but to connect with health care workers, who are currently among the most radical of American organized labor.  It acknowledges that oftentimes marches and rallies and protests tend to be rather boring and useless, but argue that if done correctly, a “Medicare For All” march organizing effort can lead to concrete connections being made between dispersed constituencies and segments of the working class, and socialists in general.  It also pre-empts the argument that socialists should do more local organizing around health-care, pointing out that health care is something extremely difficult to do on a local or state level, and a national “Medicare For All” platform has the least contradictions and obstacles.  Its nice that this article acknowledges the routine pitfalls and habits that affect marches and rallies today; even as somebody who tends to stay away from demonstrations, I’m willing to buy the idea of using a march as a way to build and plan and network between the DSA and health care workers.

Michael Kinnucan’s response is pessimistic on the usefulness of a nationally coordinated health care protest.  It argues that the DSA is not in much position to influence Washington or organize a large rally, especially compared with those that have already been organized this year by other organizations and networks, and that organizing a march without organizing locally first is putting the cart before the horse.  It also points out that the nurses union, which Guastella wants to organize a march with, has shied away from these kinds of actions, and has done much more locally, especially electorally.  Which is related to another problem, that organizing a “Medicare For All” march risks rolling up the DSA into the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and doesn’t allow for the development of an actual anti-capitalist socialist alternative to the Democrats’ welfare capitalism.  Citing Jane McAlevey’s arguments about organizing vs. mobilizing, Kinnucan argues for locally-rooted struggle around not just health care, but also housing, so that the DSA can reach out to new constituencies, rather than simply mobilizing their existing and relatively small base to travel across the country for a protest.  I think a lot of this makes sense, particularly the point about whether the nurses’ union would even be down for organizing a big rally in the capital.

Guastella’s defense of a “Medicare for All” mobilization against Kinnucan’s critiques goes into more detail about the underlying logic, but oddly enough it seems to move away from what I thought were the more persuasive points, in favor of a somewhat vague and undeveloped argument about the importance of national demands and national coordination.  A crux of this second essay is that the socialists absolutely need some kind of national campaign, otherwise they’ll remain fragmented and localized.  Buts its never made clear why a campaign focusing on a march in D.C. will help build a base in the localities where most DSA chapters will be doing day-to-day work.  There is also an argument made about how large organizations like the AFL-CIO can ignore small, local actions, but can’t afford to ignore big nationally-coordinated actions, but its not clear why the DSA needs to care about whether these big establishment organizations are participating.

The clarification on the most persuasive points in the original essay, around using a big rally as a means to an end of building connections and networks, should probably have been focused on more.  This clarification revolves around acknowledging how most big demonstrations do, in fact, lead to nothing (i.e. the Womens’ March and the March for Science), but if the DSA takes these lessons in stride, a “Medicare For All” march can be different, and focus more on networking for the longer-term political campaign over the march itself.  But this raises an important concern: what if there is something inherent to organizing marches and rallies and other symbolic demonstrations that stifles the ability for longer-term campaigns and coalitions to emerge?  Its easy to say that liberals will of course hold useless demonstrations, but without a deeper dive into the actual mechanics of why these demonstrations fail to build longer-term campaigns, its not clear why a socialist-organized mass demonstration will be able to avoid the same outcome.

Ethan Young’s essay was particularly unpersuasive.  It argues that a “Medicare For All” march could launch a protracted, national movement around health-care in the same way that the 1965 anti-war march organized by the SDS allegedly pushed the radical left into the forefront of US politics and launched a militant anti-war movement.  But this narrative ignores the fact that day-to-day, local organizing had been going on for many years prior, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it was out of this infrastructure that the SDS and other leftist groups grew.  The 1965 march emerged out of a long period of quieter, local organizing, which formed the basis for the highly publicized demonstrations lead by MLK and others, and subsequent movements relied on this localized network as well.  The real question should be, do socialist groups like the DSA have the pre-existing infrastructure and connections that the SDS had in ’65?  I’m not convinced that’s the case.

If you ask me, I’d say that organizing for big demonstrations should take a secondary position to consolidating local projects that bring immediate, concrete benefits.  R.L. Stephens made a very similar point in a recent essay in Jacobin.  Socialists can’t just bear witness to the horrors of capitalism and shout about the benefits of socialism and related programs — they have to actually act, in the here and now.  Organizing around immediate problems — wages, rent, police violence, food access, etc. — can connect with a much larger base than can organizing around showing up for a rally that may or may not get the attention of politicians (let alone actual societal or political reforms).

And in the context of health care, why not actually strategize around actually bringing class struggle into the mix?  The nurses are already among the most militant segments of the modern US working class.  If there is a capitalist industry that is ripe for collectivization, its health care.  Instead of planning for a rally in D.C. to beg scraps from politicians who have no interest in listening, why not connect with local health care workers and plan out how to get to a point where workers are occupying the hospitals and drug factories, and are destroying the functionality of the health insurance companies?

Analysis of class composition, high-tech workers, and education by US student leftists in the 1960s

In 1967, a group of militants within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wrote an essay called Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority’ Statement, which put forward a Marxist analysis of classes in the US, and what radical left strategy ought to look like in light of ongoing changes.  Its method of class analysis was very similar to the framework of class composition that was developed by Marxists in Italy in the same time period, which analyzed the way the restructuring of capitalism (typically driven by technological change) also restructures the nature of the working class.

Like some of the more innovative class analysis happening in Western countries at the time, the Port Authority statement hypothesized about the potential radicalism of a “new working class” being created from technological advancements.  This new sub-class was divided into three more categories: technicians & engineers, skilled industrial workers, and social service workers.  What united these categories was the fact that they were at the heart of contemporary capitalism: technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers were at the center of production, the economic core of capitalist society, while social service workers were at the center of a growing welfare state that was necessary for capital as a stabilizing force against militant dissent.  An important unifying trend was that these workers in these categories typically passed through college campuses, where they could potentially undergo a process of radicalization.

The essay also made comments about the relationship between technology and class consciousness.  It was thought that since the “new working class” was relatively educated and skilled and at the center of production, but also lacked any real control over the overall system, they would be more prone to radicalization than other segments of the working class.  This idea was supported by the fact that at the same time, the SDS was observing such radical currents emerging among technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers in the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany (the fact that such radical currents weren’t observed in the US were attributed to the weakness of local student leftists).  Indeed, the subsequent decade saw vigorous debates among French Marxists about the class position of engineers, which echoed the SDS faction’s ideas, albeit in a much more developed and contested way.

The observed connection between universities and the “new working class” was also taken up in another essay written shortly after, called The Multiversity: Crucible of the New Working Class.  The essay focused on the alienation felt by students in American universities and how this alienation was linked with how capitalism turned universities into “knowledge factories”, which produced workers with the necessary education and skill to labor in an increasingly technological economy.  More interestingly, the essay put forward the idea that the optimal strategy for student leftists was to reach out to people studying science, engineering, and education (instead of, say, art), and to organize on community college and technical college campuses instead of the elite Ivies.

One proposed tactic to reach these students was to connect the criminal actions of certain corporations, like Dow Chemical’s production of napalm for use in South-East Asia, with the fact that engineers and scientists who work for such companies have no power over choosing the direction and content of their work.  This, of course, tied back to the arguments in Toward a Theory of Social Change, about how the “new working class” was prone to radicalization because of the contradiction between their high level of education and skill, and their lack of real control in their positions as workers subordinated to the hierarchies of state and capital.

And today, it may be time to recover these lines of analysis and figure out how to update and apply them to today.  Software is at the center of contemporary capitalism.  Those segments of the working class who are required to run the sprawling infrastructure of information technologies, data analytics, and artificial intelligence, are not only becoming increasingly politicized, but are becoming outright radical and asserting their class position as workers.  The old observation from the ’60s on the role of universities as “factories” for skilled workers echoes what we are arguably seeing today, where education at all levels has been undergoing a steady and seemingly inexorable recomposition in order to produce workers who are more in-tune with the software-heavy modern economy.  Radical leftists, particularly those of us who ourselves work as programmers and engineers, could have a big impact if we can recover and build off previous efforts to analyze high-tech industries and organize techno-scientific workers.

Chavismo’s oily roots

In a recent essay in London Review of Books, Greg Grandin analyzes the ideological roots of Hugo Chavez and “chavismo”, and how important oil has always been for Venezeulan political economy.  The most interesting plank of his analysis is the way chavismo’s material dependence on oil, and its ideology, is traced back to efforts by Third World nationalists in the ’60s and ’70s to create the conditions for state-lead socio-economic development.  Chavez came of age in this era, when in Venezuela, profits from the oil industry were used to both consolidate a rigid two-party political system, a social-democratic system of welfare and patronage, and an unexpected commitment to anti-imperialist politics.

In 1974, the Venezuelan Congress extended ‘special powers’ to President Pérez, giving him complete discretion to legislate and spend. He nationalised industries, limited foreign influence in banking and commerce, and launched a massive programme of state-controlled industrialisation. Money flowed lavishly and unaccountably to projects that were often wishful, wasteful and venal. ‘Anyone who had the tiniest bit of power began stealing shamelessly,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. Pérez, he says, ‘presided over the greatest wave of corruption in living memory… The rich got even richer and amassed colossal fortunes, while the poor received mere crumbs from the oil money table.’ At the same time, however, Pérez was pledging to put Venezuela’s oil at the ‘service of Latin America, at the service of humanity’, in order to wipe out the ‘last traces of colonialism’ and turn socialism into a ‘planetary reality’. Venezuela’s foreign policy during these boom years called for debt relief, nuclear disarmament, an end to the arms race, access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia, lifting the US embargo on Cuba, and the creation of a Latin American Economic System that would function free of Washington’s interference. Pérez proposed using Opec as an ‘instrument of negotiation for the construction of the New International Economic Order’.

These political efforts were made by possible by the high oil prices of the ’70s and early ’80s.  But the subsequent crash unraveled Perez’s project, leading to intense social unrest and destabilizing events like the Caracazo and Chavez’s coup attempts.  After Chavez was brought into power, the major thrust of his program was apparently to reinvigorate OPEC, get oil prices back up, and fuel the Bolivarian Revolution.

Chávez knew that the best way to gain control over oil revenue was to restore the effectiveness of Opec. In early 2001, his first oil minister, Alí Rodríguez Araque, became Opec’s general secretary, and he managed to achieve a level of unity among oil-exporting nations not seen since the early 1970s. Opec nations not only agreed to a production cut, but agreed to give Rodríguez unprecedented authority to decide targets for future output as he deemed necessary, without having to consult the organisation as a whole. Mexico, not a member of Opec, committed to adhering to Opec quotas too. Oil prices began to rise, helping Chávez take control of PDVSA and beat back efforts to oust him.

Prices rose over the next decade and a half, as did the various social and economic indicators in Venezuela that the chavistas were pouring oil profits into.  And the various international projects that Chavez developed looked quite like those advocated by Perez, even beyond the central role of OPEC: a regional economic bloc autonomous from the US, oil subsidies for poorer nations, etc.  But like the Perez era, the vast wealth of oil also created and consolidated mechanisms for corruption.  It also allowed for the chavista state to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of class conflict: as Grandin notes, the accumulation of wealth by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continued relatively unhindered throughout the Chavez years, despite the simultaneous explosion in grassroots organizing by the masses.

Now, several years into a new era of low oil prices, the Bolivarian Revolution is falling apart — again, not unlike what happened in the final years of the Perez era.  The rollback of the victories of chavismo, by the inexorable logic of basic material constraints, is apparently the price paid for not freeing the Bolivarian Revolution from its material dependence on oil.

Supply-lines for Salafi-jihadist rebel groups in Syria

In a recent episode of Radio War Nerd, the interviewee Elijah Magnier pointed out that there is a massive and ongoing logistical operation to supply Syrian rebels (most of whom are ultra-conservative sectarian Salafi militias).  In order to emphasize the scale of the operation, he pointed out that during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the US had to carry out an emergency re-supply to Israeli military forces after less than two weeks; compare that to the fact that Syria has seen what is more or less a full-blown conventional war effort between standing armies for the last 6 years, with seemingly no limitations on weapons or ammo.  It is relatively clear that Iran and Russia are supplying massive and consistent arms shipments to the Assad regime’s coalition, but what must be an equally massive and consistent military logistics operation on the rebel side is barely discussed at all in the mainstream Western media.

This article published recently in The American Conservative (which, despite its name and supposed political leaning, regularly publishes fantastic critical analysis of US foreign policy) somewhat fills the void, by digging into the details of arms supply operations by the US and its regional allies in the early years of the war, and how these operations were obviously and blatantly boosting up the power of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.

The level of detail drawn from what appears to be public record is quite striking.  Here is an excerpt on weapons shipments in the summer of 2012, that involved the CIA trafficking weapons from Libyan arms caches:

A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment.

And here is an excerpt detailing part of the massive arms corridor between the Balkans and Syria that was established in early 2013, financed by Saudi Arabia and coordinated by the CIA:

One U.S. official called the new level of arms deliveries to Syrian rebels a “cataract of weaponry.” And a year-long investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that the Saudis were intent on building up a powerful conventional army in Syria. The “end-use certificate” for weapons purchased from an arms company in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 2013 includes 500 Soviet-designed PG-7VR rocket launchers that can penetrate even heavily-armored tanks, along with two million rounds; 50 Konkurs anti-tank missile launchers and 500 missiles, 50 anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, 10,000 fragmentation rounds for OG-7 rocket launchers capable of piercing heavy body armor; four truck-mounted BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launchers, each of which fires 40 rockets at a time with a range of 12 to 19 miles, along with 20,000 GRAD rockets.

And here is an excerpt on the connect between the war in Syria and US-Saudi arms deals:

By far the most consequential single Saudi arms purchase was not from the Balkans, however, but from the United States. It was the December 2013 U.S. sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis at a cost of about $1 billion—the result of Obama’s decision earlier that year to reverse his ban on lethal assistance to anti-Assad armed groups. The Saudis had agreed, moreover, that those anti-tank missiles would be doled out to Syrian groups only at U.S. discretion. The TOW missiles began to arrive in Syria in 2014 and soon had a major impact on the military balance.

The entire article is excellent and worth spending time on.  Its perhaps the clearest and most well-sourced article I’ve seen on the exact nature of NATO-GCC supply lines to their local proxies.