Monday, August 21, 2017

2691. Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History

By Eric Foner, The New York Times, August 20, 2017
Statue of Rober E. Lee brought down in New Orleans
President Trump’s Thursday morning tweet lamenting that the removal of Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great country” raises numerous questions, among them: Who is encompassed in that “our”?

Mr. Trump may not know it, but he has entered a debate that goes back to the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based on shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or should it rest on “blood and soil,” to quote the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., whom Trump has at least partly embraced?

Neither Mr. Trump nor the Charlottesville marchers invented the idea that the United States is essentially a country for white persons. The very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790 to establish guidelines for how immigrants could become American citizens, limited the process to “white” persons.

What about nonwhites born in this country? Before the Civil War, citizenship was largely defined by individual states. Some recognized blacks born within their boundaries as citizens, but many did not. As far as national law was concerned, the question was resolved by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Blacks, wrote Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a statue of whom was removed from public display in Baltimore this week), were and would always be aliens in America.

This was the law of the land when the Civil War broke out in 1861. This is the tradition that the Southern Confederacy embodied and sought to preserve and that Mr. Trump, inadvertently or not, identifies with by equating the Confederacy with “our history and culture.”

Many Americans, of course, rejected this racial definition of American nationality. Foremost among them were abolitionists, male and female, black and white, who put forward an alternative definition, known today as birthright citizenship. Anybody born in the United States, they insisted, was a citizen, and all citizens should enjoy equality before the law. Abolitionists advocated not only the end of slavery, but also the incorporation of the freed people as equal members of American society.

In the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, this egalitarian vision was, for the first time, written into our laws and Constitution. But the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold in the South.

When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as essential parts of “our” history and culture, he is honoring that dark period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America.

The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

We have come a long way from the days of the Dred Scott decision. But our public monuments have not kept up. The debate unleashed by Charlottesville is a healthy re-examination of the question “Who is an American?” And “our” history and culture is far more complex, diverse and inclusive than the president appears to realize.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

2690. Film Review: Les Saisons (Seasons)

By Kamran Nayeri, August 20, 2017

Les Saisons (Seasons) is a 2015 French-German nature documentary film directed, produced, co-written, and narrated by Jacques Perrin, with Jacques Cluzaud as co-director.  The documentary is centered on the natural history of Europe beginning with the Ice Age c. 110,000 – c. 11,700 years ago. The film depicts this period focusing on animals who survived in Europe at the time, it opens with a herd of bisons that look like frozen statues.  As the climate warmed, the ice retreated, and the geological epoch Holocene began, a forest covered Europe and new and more varied life thrived there. This part is rich wildlife cinematography. The film succeeds so well in drawing the audience into viewing the forest from the perspective of it animal inhabitant, that when the camera rolls onto a scene of hunter-gatherers we see them from the eyes of onlooking animals, with curiosity. This part constitutes the majority of the film coverage and is most beautiful of all. 

Then the next episode in the film is the rise of first farmers, with hints at domestication of animals and plants.  Gradually, the audience views with alarm the expansion of the realm of farmers and their ever more learning of the forest and domestication of wildlife as the forest retreats to ever smaller parts of the continent.  The wildlife that survives is forced up the mountainous regions. 

In the last part of the film, we see the arrival of industrialization with the devastation of forests and wildlife that had survived, increasingly being forced to live in the ever-expanding human settlements.  Finally, we see the European wars that destroyed not just millions of humans but also an untold number of non-human fauna and flora. 

The director and co-director are well-known for their earlier nature documentaries: Winged Migration (2001) and Oceans (2009).  Seasons is definitely as beautifully produced as their earlier films. Where it is lacking is in its final message, which blames humans for the ecological crisis since the Agricultural Revolution, especially for the current Sixth Extinction, and in it naively expressed hope that somehow we will change our ways, to bring peace in human relations with nature.  

Of course, we humans are part of the animal kingdom, hence of nature itself. What the film depicts as the rise of early farmers, required a world-historic break with the long history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who did not differentiate themselves from the rest of nature in their ecocentric worldview.  The first farmers were pioneers of the anthropocentric worldview as their mode of production required domestication of plants and animals. In effect, they adopted an alienated view of nature in their new mode of life with their presumption that humans are separate and morally superior to other species. This drive for increasing domination and control of nature eventually produced an economic surplus through the exploitation of domesticated species which formed the material basis for that the early class-based civilizations that were formed through subordination, oppression, and exploitation of humans.  

Taking notice of the world ecological movement that has been actively searching for ways to stop and reverse the planetary crisis would have been a fitting ending to the film.  Yes, there is hope, but only if billions of us realize what five millennia of class societies, especially the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization of the last 250 years, has done to the life-support systems of the planet, and organize and mobilize to transcend it in the direction of an ecocentric ecological socialist world.  

Still, Les Saisons is a treat to your senses and will open your heart to the love for Mother Nature, an absolutely necessary ingredient for saving the world.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

2689. Book Review: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

By Heather Boushey, The New York Times, August 15, 2017
Earlier this year, when the Republican pollster Glen Bolger sat down with Donald Trump voters who had previously voted for Barack Obama, one Wisconsinite summed up his reason for favoring Trump this time around: “I think they all lie, but Trump was more — is more obvious.” This statement presents quite a puzzle. Why would any voter think that being a known liar is an asset?

Insight into this conundrum comes from an unlikely source, the life’s work of the economist James McGill Buchanan — who happens to be the subject of a new book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by the historian Nancy MacLean. Buchanan, who was born in 1919 and died in 2013, advanced the field of public choice economics into politics, arguing that all interest groups push for their own agenda rather than the public good. According to this view, governing institutions cannot be trusted, which is why governing should be left to the market.

In the United States, promising and then delivering services and protections for the majority of voters provides a path for politicians to be popularly elected. Buchanan was concerned that this would lead to overinvestment in public services, as the majority would be all too willing to tax the wealthy minority to support these programs. So Buchanan came to a radical conclusion: Majority rule was an economic problem. “Despotism,” he declared in his 1975 book “The Limits of Liberty,” “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

Buchanan, therefore, argued for “curbing the appetites of majority coalitions” by establishing ironclad rules that would curb their power. As he was known for saying, “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers.” In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision making.

Buchanan, however, also had what MacLean calls a “stealth” agenda. He knew that the majority would never agree to being constrained. He, therefore, helped lead a push to undermine their trust in public institutions. The idea was to get voters to direct their ire at these institutions and divert their attention away from increasing income and wealth inequality.

This is the sordid tale that MacLean lays out in “Democracy in Chains.” She starts with Buchanan’s early engagement in policy work in the late 1950s, when he offered to help the state of Virginia respond to the federal mandate to desegregate public schools. After the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public school segregation was unconstitutional, Buchanan and a fellow economist called for the state to issue tax-subsidized vouchers to any parents who wanted to send their children to private schools. What these economists were calling for was essentially the privatization of public education.
But even in 1950s Virginia, public schools were popular with many white parents, and “a fire sale of tax-funded public schools to private school operators would be political suicide,” MacLean writes. Buchanan’s plan failed, and he learned a tough lesson from this foray into policy making: If the majority demands services such as free public schools, politicians will acquiesce.

Buchanan decided he needed to influence policy at a deeper level. In the ensuing years, he sought to lead an economic and political movement in which he stressed that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential” to mask efforts to protect the wealthy elite from the will of the majority. In September 1973, Buchanan held the inaugural meeting of the International Atlantic Economic Society, arguing for the need to “create, support and activate an effective counterintelligentsia” to reshape the way people thought about government. He believed the center-left controlled academia and “effectively indoctrinated political actors in both parties,” MacLean writes. To fight back, conservatives needed to develop new surrogates who could be “indoctrinated” in turn with right-wing ideas, and then “mobilized, organized and directed” to disseminate them.

We know all of this because MacLean found documentation of Buchanan’s plans — including correspondence, meeting minutes and personal papers — in his previously unexplored archives. She came upon her biographical subject “by sheer serendipity,” she writes, while researching how the state of Virginia responded to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Seeing the name of an unfamiliar economist eventually led her to rooms full of documents that made clear how “operatives” had been trained “to staff the far-flung and purportedly separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors.” Buchanan’s papers revealed how, from a series of faculty perches at several universities, he spent his life laying out a game plan for a right-wing social movement.

Election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a watershed for conservatives, yet it quickly became clear that he, too, would succumb to political pressure. By 1982, Reagan’s fight to end Social Security — long a bugbear of Buchanan’s — was faltering. Amid that debate, the libertarian Cato Institute, funded by the brothers Charles and David Koch, made privatization of Social Security its top priority and turned to Buchanan for a master plan. Buchanan told them that “those who seek to undermine the existing structure” must do two things: Make people doubt the viability of Social Security, and divide the public by suggesting high earners be taxed at higher rates — which might sound progressive but would ultimately undo the universal foundation of the program itself.

MacLean doesn’t hide her antipathy to Buchanan’s goals. As a historian of American social movements, she brings this expertise to her study of Buchanan, showing how his work helped to sow doubt that anyone — whether individuals, groups or institutions — can act in the public good. Nevertheless, her overt moral revulsion at her subject can sometimes make it seem as if we’re getting only part of the picture.

American democracy was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda of Buchanan and conservative benefactors. Buchanan may not have been the only actor in this movement, and the role of conservative donors and economists has been documented elsewhere, but we are now living in a world he helped shepherd into reality. Public choice economists argue that those with the most to lose from change will pay the most attention, which has certainly been the case with Charles and David Koch. They and their friends have invested enormous sums in organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper role of government in the economy. Our politically polarized and increasingly paralyzed government institutions are the result.

With this book MacLean joins a growing chorus of scholars and journalists documenting the systematic, organized effort to undermine democracy and change the rules. In “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer tells the tale of the Koch brothers. In “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal,” the historian Kim Phillips-Fein shows how a small group of businessmen initiated a decades-long effort to build popular support for free market economics. The political scientist Steven M. Teles writes about the chemicals magnate John M. Olin in “The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.”

Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine, continually widening the gap between those who have power and money and those who don’t. Still, “Democracy in Chains” leaves me with hope: Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.

2688. Video: Charlottesville Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists Attack and People's Resistance

Sunday, August 13, 2017

2687. Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism

By Kristen R. Ghodsee, The New York Times, August 12, 2017
A woman working at a collective farm near Moscow in 1955. CreditMark Redkin/FotoSoyuz, via Getty Images
When Americans think of Communism in Eastern Europe, they imagine travel restrictions, bleak landscapes of gray concrete, miserable men and women languishing in long lines to shop in empty markets and security services snooping on the private lives of citizens. While much of this was true, our collective stereotype of Communist life does not tell the whole story.

Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. 

Researchers marveled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction, especially since East German women suffered from the notorious double burden of formal employment and housework. In contrast, postwar West German women had stayed home and enjoyed all the labor-saving devices produced by the roaring capitalist economy. But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women who had to line up for toilet paper.

How to account for this facet of life behind the Iron Curtain?

Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria, who was 65 when I first met her in 2011. Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships.

“Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,” she said. “After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased.”

Ms. Durcheva was a single mother for many years, but she insisted that her life before 1989 was more gratifying than the stressful existence of her daughter, who was born in the late 1970s.

“All she does is work and work,” Ms. Durcheva told me in 2013, “and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t matter, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.”

Last year in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, I spoke with a recently married 30-something named Daniela Gruber. Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Ms. Gruber to have a baby.

“She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell,” she told me, referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”

This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these regimes saw women’s emancipation as central to advanced “scientific socialist” societies, as they saw themselves.

Although East European Communist states needed women’s labor to realize their programs for rapid industrialization after World War II, the ideological foundation for women’s equality with men was laid by August Bebel and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. After the Bolshevik takeover, Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandra Kollontai enabled a sexual revolution in the early years of the Soviet Union, with Kollontai arguing that love should be freed from economic considerations.

The Soviets extended full suffrage to women in 1917, three years before the United States did. The Bolsheviks also liberalized divorce laws, guaranteed reproductive rights and attempted to socialize domestic labor by investing in public laundries and people’s canteens. Women were mobilized into the labor force and became financially untethered from men.

In Central Asia in the 1920s, Russian women crusaded for the liberation of Muslim women. This top-down campaign met a violent backlash from local patriarchs not keen to see their sisters, wives and daughters freed from the shackles of tradition.

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin reversed much of the Soviet Union’s early progress in women’s rights — outlawing abortion and promoting the nuclear family. However, the acute male labor shortages that followed World War II spurred other Communist governments to push forward with various programs for women’s emancipation, including state-sponsored research on the mysteries of female sexuality. Most Eastern European women could not travel to the West or read a free press, but scientific socialism did come with some benefits.

“As early as 1952, Czechoslovak sexologists started doing research on the female orgasm, and in 1961 they held a conference solely devoted to the topic,” Katerina Liskova, a professor at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, told me. “They focused on the importance of the equality between men and women as a core component of female pleasure. Some even argued that men need to share housework and child rearing, otherwise there would be no good sex.”

Agnieszka Koscianska, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Warsaw, told me that pre-1989 Polish sexologists “didn’t limit sex to bodily experiences and stressed the importance of social and cultural contexts for sexual pleasure.” It was state socialism’s answer to work-life balance: “Even the best stimulation, they argued, will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.”

In all the Warsaw Pact countries, the imposition of one-party rule precipitated a sweeping overhaul of laws regarding the family. Communists invested major resources in the education and training of women and in guaranteeing their employment. State-run women’s committees sought to re-educate boys to accept girls as full comrades, and they attempted to convince their compatriots that male chauvinism was a remnant of the pre-socialist past.

Although gender wage disparities and labor segregation persisted, and although the Communists never fully reformed domestic patriarchy, Communist women enjoyed a degree of self-sufficiency that few Western women could have imagined. Eastern bloc women did not need to marry, or have sex, for money. The socialist state met their basic needs and countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany committed extra resources to support single mothers, divorcées and widows. With the noted exceptions of Romania, Albania and Stalin’s Soviet Union, most Eastern European countries guaranteed access to sex education and abortion. This reduced the social costs of accidental pregnancy and lowered the opportunity costs of becoming a mother.

Some liberal feminists in the West grudgingly acknowledged those accomplishments but were critical of the achievements of state socialism because they did not emerge from independent women’s movements, but represented a type of emancipation from above. 

Many academic feminists today celebrate choice but also embrace a cultural relativism dictated by the imperatives of intersectionality. Any top-down political program that seeks to impose a universalist set of values like equal rights for women is seriously out of fashion.

The result, unfortunately, has been that many of the advances of women’s liberation in the former Warsaw Pact countries have been lost or reversed. Ms. Durcheva’s adult daughter and the younger Ms. Gruber now struggle to resolve the work-life problems that Communist governments had once solved for their mothers.

“The Republic gave me my freedom,” Ms. Durcheva once told me, referring to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. “Democracy took some of that freedom away.”

As for Ms. Gruber, she has no illusions about the brutalities of East German Communism; she just wishes “things weren’t so much harder now.”

Because they championed sexual equality — at work, at home and in the bedroom — and were willing to enforce it, Communist women who occupied positions in the state apparatus could be called cultural imperialists. But the liberation they imposed radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union. Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change — which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things — needs an emancipation proclamation from above.

Kristen R. Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of numerous books on European Communism and its aftermath, including, most recently, “Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th-Century Communism.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2686. Cuba: The ’68 Revolutionary Offensive Reedited

By Pedro Campos, Havana Times, August 12, 2017
A private shop in Havana
The 1968 “Revolutionary Offensive” nationalized all the small businesses that remained after the Revolution triumphed in 1959. According to figures from Granma newspaper itself, 55,636 small businesses were seized back then:11,878 grocery stores, 3130 butchers, 3198 bars, 8101 food selling establishments, 6653 launderettes, 3643 barber shops, 1188 shoe repairmen, 4544 car repair workshops, 1598 craft businesses and 3345 carpentry workshops.
Fidel Castro allowed an opening in the economy to free, private and associated modes of labor in the 1990s, with ups and downs, for the failures of the socialist system since Stalin and the collapse of the USSR. The policy was extended a little with the arrival of his brother as president. In spite of high taxes, multiple obstacles, regulations, fines and the absence of a wholesale market, free labor has grown and created thousands of paid jobs in small capitalist businesses. According to different calculations, which are always questionable here in Cuba because there isn’t any transparency, this sector employs about 10% of the country’s total workforce.
However, the most important point is: these businesses are now strong competition for state-run companies in two aspects: quality of their services and the wages they offer. That’s why many customers prefer these services and thousands of qualified workers have left the State to work in these small businesses, some of which have become famous, which have created a prosperous business sector and have improved the standard of living within these groups which stings bureaucrats.
For government extremists, this opening up of the economy means the appearance of a well-to-do class which is independent to the bureaucracy and could take on its own political interests. They claim that this is what Obama was after with empowering entrepreneurs, which Trump also seems to have understood. Enough to consider them “strategic monsters”, “Trojan horses” of imperialism against socialism.
The new phase of the “(counter) revolutionary offensive” announced in Granma recently with the definitive and indefinite suspension of different kinds of licenses, comes after “softening” the terraign which began with Fidel’s famous “welcome” to former US President “Brother Obama” comments. It’s modelled on fear for some and other associate it with Trump’s last measures against the Cuban Army’s economic apparatus to monopolize business, GAESA, as if entrepreneurs made up part of the “imperialist enemy”.
These opinions have logic; but both “offensives” lie in the fact that the State’s Monopoly Capitalism which is hidden behind state-socialism, is hesitant for there to exist free, private or associated forms of labor to develop and independent capitalism too, out of principle, because it is incapable of withstanding economic competition outside of its monopoly. Its inevitable self-destruction is sped up by these “external agents”, insofar as they eat away at the system’s economic base: salaried state workers.
This is why private labor has never been allowed to expand, why cooperatives have been very limited by quasi-public companies and why foreign capital is tied down by a never-ending list of laws and regulations and is only allowed within the framework of the State’s “business portfolio” and is banned from entering into free deals.
Nobody is batting an eyelid after this “indefinite” suspension of new licenses or that open and covert movements by “inspections” will come, where other seizure options will be applied, in a new cycle of economic violence.
“Economists” who favor state socialism will never understand that salaried work for the State is innately inefficient. Then, in the face of systemic crisis, they thought they could allow self-employed laborers, cooperative members and small capitalists to work freely, under State control, tied down by regulations and caught in the web of the State’s monopoly market.
They never knew that free, private or associated labor and private capital not only needs a free market, but that they create it so they can survive, because it’s their modus vivendi and that’s why they have moved away from all of these frameworks and have searched for and found alternative supply channels and even a market within and outside the country, with stable supply and exchange channels which the State was never able to set up by itself.
This new cycle of the Revolutionary Offensive is another display of Stalinist socialism and its failed system based on salaried workers working for the government. And just like the government does in politics, repressing the opposition and socialist dissidence, they are only capable of surviving by attacking and oppressing non-governmental modes of production.
It is no coincidence that political and economic repression is being openly seen today. It’s a sign of the system’s terminal crisis. Those in the government who are more convinced about the need for change could find a space for dialogue and a search for a negotiated solution, both political and democratic, in this situation, where we all have a place, so as to avoid greater evils that are currently wreaking havoc in Venezuela. But, this demands the old government and party guards to step down.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

2685. Lenin’s Eco-Warriors

By Fred Strebeigh, The New York Times, August 7, 2017
South Ural nature reserve
NEW HAVEN — Atop a granite cliff in Siberia this past winter, I stood gazing at what became, 100 years ago, the first in the world’s largest system of most protected nature reserves. To my west glistened mile-deep Lake Baikal. To the east rose snowy mountains, including one that reminded me of sharp-cut Half Dome, an icon of America’s Yosemite National Park. I was looking across Barguzinsky Zapovednik, a conservation area protecting more than 600,000 acres so free from human impact that visitors may not enter.

Barguzinsky began a chain of 103 zapovedniks, or nature reserves, that protect 68 million acres of Russia. Most zapovedniks date from the Soviet era and provide the world’s highest level of protection to the most land within any nation, under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s designation of “strict nature reserves.”

How did Russia — hardly considered a cradle of environmentalism, given Joseph Stalin’s crash program of industrialization — become a global pioneer in conservation?

Much of the answer begins with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In 1919, a young agronomist named Nikolai Podyapolski traveled north from the Volga River delta, where hunting had almost eliminated many species, to Moscow, where he met Lenin. Arriving at the Bolshevik leader’s office to seek approval for a new zapovednik, Podyapolski felt “worried,” he said, “as before an exam in high school.” But Lenin, a longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping, agreed that protecting nature had “urgent value.”

Two years later, Lenin signed legislation ordering that “significant areas of nature” across the continent be protected. Within three decades, some 30 million acres (equal in area to about 40 states of Rhode Island) from the European peaks of the Caucasus to the Pacific volcanoes of Kamchatka were set aside in a system of 128 reserves.

The roots of the zapovedniks were holy. Priests for years had sanctified forests by proclaiming a zapoved, or commandment: Thou shalt not cut. By the early 20th century, the sacred was resonating with the scientific: Mankind was exterminating “primordial nature,” a Moscow biology professor, Grigorii Kozhevnikov, told a conference in 1908. He argued that anthropogenic dominance would soon leave humanity unable to see nature except through man-made imitation, “obscuring the image of the vanished past.”

He proposed that Russia preserve vast lands where “nature must be left alone.” Each would serve not as a “pleasuring-ground” for people (the words of the law that created the first of America’s national parks, about which Russians were aware) but as a baseline established by observation of natural systems untrampled by people.

In the early 1920s, the Moscow Zoo began training a “circle of young biologists,” many of whom became leaders in the Communist conservation movement, establishing zapovedniks as far-flung as the Pacific coastal reserve created in 1935 to save the Siberian tiger.

Joseph Stalin, however, was not one for obeying anyone else’s commandment. In the 1940s, he initiated a “great transformation of nature” in the U.S.S.R. To open the country for a huge expansion of farming, logging, mining and hunting, he slashed the zapovednik system by 89 percent in 1951, leaving just 40 reserves comprising about 3.5 million acres.

After Stalin died in 1953, brave scientists fought back in defense of the reserves. By 1961, the system had rebounded to 93 zapovedniks on 15.7 million acres, with some additions and many restorations.

Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was no friend of conservation, but the defenders were organizing. The reserves owe their survival, in part, to a 1960 law inviting the “participation of non-governmental organizations in the protection of nature.” Within days, a group of biology students at Moscow State University took up the challenge. They called their movement Druzhina, after the medieval warriors who defended their homeland against invaders seeking to destroy Russia’s Christian faith, and began to fight poachers and create nature reserves.

The students’ motto resounded with ironic romanticism: “For the success of a hopeless cause!” By the 1980s, about 140 brigades of Druzhina had sprung up across the country. As the years passed, Druzhina activists became leaders on university faculties, and in environmental organizations and Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

On my hike up the bluff that lies just outside the protected vastness of Barguzinsky Zapovednik, the researcher leading me was a Druzhina named Irina Kurkina. This reserve was Russia’s first, created in January 1917, before the Bolsheviks seized power (the Volga delta zapovednik proposed to Lenin by the young agronomist was the second to begin). Ms. Kurkina came here in 1986, fleeing a poultry farm to which the Soviet system had sent her to work, straight from college. She lives in this remote part of southern Russia far beyond the reach of any road.

“I would not do this job, be this kind of person,” she told me, if not for the inspiration of fellow students in the Moscow Druzhina, whose names she recited as we climbed.
Their activism carried risks. To combat poaching, Druzhina teams gained legal authority to make citizens’ arrests. At least three Druzhina were shot dead by poachers in different regions — near the Black Sea, the Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal — between the early 1970s and mid-1980s.

When the threat wasn’t physical, it could be political. One leader of the anti-poaching teams, Vsevolod Stepanitskiy, told me some years ago about a time when he and his university colleagues, on patrol near Moscow, caught some illegal duck hunters. One, they learned, was a “deputy minister of finance.” Worried at how their report would be received, the students presented their evidence to the Communist Party.

The minister got away with a reprimand, Mr. Stepanitskiy recalled. But the students went unpunished, and felt victorious. Druzhina became, in the words of another warrior who later joined the biology faculty at Moscow State, “a prototype of civil initiatives” and, as she put it, “a sign of democratization in conditions of totalitarianism.”

Like many Druzhina, after graduating Mr. Stepanitskiy became a zapovednik researcher, starting in 1982 on Russia’s Pacific coast. In late 1991, when the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Mr. Stepanitskiy found himself heading the Zapovedniks Administration for the new Russian Federation. Despite economic hard times, he and his colleagues seized the initiative and created 18 new reserves in four years, including the spectacular Commander Islands, Russia’s Aleutians in the Pacific.

Nature conservation in Russia remains challenging. Three times in the first two decades of his post-Soviet leadership, Mr. Stepanitskiy resigned to express his opposition to management problems, including efforts to turn protected resources into financial resources. His second resignation came in 2002, when an official in the Ministry of Natural Resources ordered zapovednik directors to start making money by cutting down forests in their reserves. “Going to work,” Mr. Stepanitskiy announced, had become “like going behind enemy lines.”

Each time, Mr. Stepanitskiy went to work outside the government, helping environmental organizations and providing support to conservationists. But each time, apparently in tacit acknowledgment of Mr. Stepanitskiy’s judgment and leadership, the Russian government invited him to return to directing the zapovednik system.

In 2015, President Vladimir Putin, who famously enjoys photo opportunities in nature with tigers, bears and whales, announced that the centennial year for Russia’s zapodneviks, 2017, would be the “Year of Protected Areas.” His government pledged to increase Russia’s protected acreage by 18 percent over the next eight years.

But storm clouds have gathered. Ranger salaries, which Mr. Stepanitskiy has fought to raise, are only about $4,300 a year. New ski resorts, supported by wealthy corporations that Russian conservation groups believe have lobbied the government, seem likely to threaten Caucasus Zapovednik. While Mr. Stepanitskiy has encouraged educational tourism in small sections of the nature reserves, he has criticized ski construction as “not eco-tourism” and as likely to jeopardize a leopard reintroduction project that has had Mr. Putin’s backing.

Russia’s first zapovednik in the Arctic, Wrangell Island, is threatened by a new military base. After polar bears had been fed illegally, a construction worker tossed toward a bear an explosive device that detonated in its mouth, a horror shown by Russian TV. Proposed legislation would authorize Russia’s president to strip protection from zapovedniks for any reason, including “to ensure the security of the state.”

In April, Mr. Stepanitskiy resigned for a fourth time. Conservationists across Russia are following his now unbridled commentaries, including that the ministry views Russia’s nature reserves as “a resource that can be used for personal recreation and entertainment.” He has attacked the government for failing to uphold the system’s century-long “sacred idea.”

For now, at least, Lenin’s legacy is preserved and Russia remains the world leader, ahead of Brazil and Australia, in protecting the most land at the highest level. Russian naturalists continue to advance their not-yet-hopeless cause of keeping free a few vast landscapes on this planet where humans do not tread.

Fred Strebeigh is a senior lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the department of English.

2684. Worldwide Fossil Fuel Subsidies are $5 Trillion a Year

By John Abrahams, The Guardian, August 7, 2017

Fossil fuels have two major problems that paint a dim picture for their future energy dominance. These problems are inter-related but still should be discussed separately. First, they cause climate change. We know that we’ve known it for decades, and we know that continued use of fossil fuels will cause enormous worldwide economic and social consequences. 
Second, fossil fuels are expensive. Much of their costs are hidden, however, as subsidies. If people knew how large their subsidies were, there would be a backlash against them from so-called financial conservatives.
A study was just published in the journal World Development that quantifies the amount of subsidies directed toward fossil fuels globally, and the results are shocking. The authors work at the IMF and are well-skilled to quantify the subsidies discussed in the paper.
Let’s give the final numbers and then back up to dig into the details. The subsidies were $4.9 tn in 2013 and they rose to $5.3 tn just two years later. According to the authors, these subsidies are important because first, they promote fossil fuel use which damages the environment. Second, these are fiscally costly. Third, the subsidies discourage investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy that compete with the subsidized fossil fuels. Finally, subsidies are very inefficient means to support low-income households.
With these truths made plain, why haven’t subsidies been eliminated? The answer to that is a bit complicated. Part of the answer to this question is that people do not fully appreciate the costs of fossil fuels to the rest of us. Often we think of them as all gain with no pain.
So what is a subsidy anyway? Well, that too isn’t black and white. Typically, people on the street think of a subsidy as a direct financial cost that result in consumers paying a price that is below the opportunity cost of the product (fossil fuel in this case). However, as pointed out by the authors, a more correct view of the costs would encompass:

not only supply costs but also (most importantly) environmental costs like global warming and deaths from air pollution and taxes applied to consumer goods in general. 
The authors argue, persuasively, that this broader view of subsidies is the correct view because they “reflect the gap between consumer prices and economically efficient prices.”
Without getting too deep into the weeds, the authors discuss both consumer subsidies (when the price paid by a consumer is below a benchmark price) and producer subsidies (when producers receive direct or indirect support which increases their profitability). The authors then quantify what benefits would be achieved if the fossil fuel subsidies were reformed.
Interested readers are directed to the paper for further details, but the results are what surprised me. Pre-tax (the narrow view of subsidies) subsidies amount to 0.7% of global GDP in 2011 and 2013. But the more appropriate definition of subsidies is much larger (8 times larger than the pre-tax subsidies). We are talking enormous values of 5.8% of global GDP in 2011, rising to 6.5% in 2013. 
The authors also broke the results down by fossil fuel type and usage (coal, petroleum, natural gas, electricity). It is not clear to me how the authors separated the various fuel sources out of electrical generation; however, the results show that petroleum and coal receive much larger subsidies compared to their counterpart fuels. The authors organized results by geographical region and found that the top three subsidizers of fossil fuels are China, USA, and Russia, respectively. The European Union is a bit less than half of the entire US subsidy. Other notable countries and regions are discussed.
There are two key takeaway messages. First, fossil fuel subsidies are enormous and they are costs that we all pay, in one form or another. Second, the subsidies persist in part because we don’t fully appreciate their size. These two facts, taken together, further strengthen the case to be made for clean and renewable energy. Clean energy sources do not suffer from the environmental costs that plague fossil fuels.
I asked one of the authors, Dr. Coady, why their work is important. He told me: 

A key motivation for the paper was to increase awareness among policy makers and the public of the large subsidies that arise from pricing fossil fuels below their true social costs—this broader definition of subsidies accounts for the many negative side effects associated with the consumption of these fuels. By estimating these costs on a global scale, we hope to stimulate an informed policy debate and provide renewed impetus for policy reforms to reap the large potential benefits from more efficient pricing of fossil fuels in terms of improved public finances, improved population health and lower carbon emissions.
As a climate scientist, I focus almost exclusively on the scientific questions related to climate change. But equally important are the economic issues that, when dealt with, will usher in a new era of energy.

Monday, August 7, 2017

2683. Cuba and the Future

By Nelson Valdez, Counterpunch, April 25, 2016
Nelson Valdez
Cubans as well as progressive people around the world continue to discuss the kind of society that will be produced by the reforms now taking place in Cuba. The question, of course, can be debated based on what ought to be rather than what the present circumstances dictate. Typically, Cuban revolutionaries had the tendency to be idealist on economic matters and realist on political issues.

It was once reported that Fidel Castro said, in a not-for-publication setting, “Hemos hecho la revolución que pudimos hacer y no la que quísimos hacer.” [We have made the revolution that we could make and not the one that we wished to make.] Human agency, he recognized, was insufficient to overcome structural conditions of underdevelopment.

Progressives, as a rule, tend to think that the sky is the limit and what a society can attain is merely a matter of wanting it. Marxists know better. In The German Ideology, Marx reminds us that “with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.” It is clear that United States’ Cuba policy has been applied to block any possible improvements of the Cuban economy, particularly the state controlled sectors.

The question, then, is not whether the Cuban regime ought to choose between the side of the progressive angels or the capitalist devils. The question is what the prospects are for the best possible socioeconomic system and the greatest number of people while the US economic “embargo” continues. The issue is not ideological but empirical as well as political.
What do the Cubans have on their side? What do they have against it? What should and should not be reformed?

There are many Cubans who have no knowledge whatsoever of the most elemental aspects of economics despite the large number of economists the revolutionary regime has produced – over 40,000. Indeed, the early distribution policies of the revolution created a society of consumer-oriented Cubans rather than a society of producers actively involved in shaping the process of production, the administration of the workplace and determining what was to be consumed and how much was to be re-invested. There were numerous distribution policies (agrarian reform redistributed land ownership, rent reform reduced the price of rental housing, free education and health, and many other plans and programs). The consumerist ethic imposed by American influence did not end, but rather acquired a revolutionary character. The mentality of “me toca” (What is owed me) had no connection to the mentality of “cuánto nos cuesta”? (How much does it cost us?)

Now, the easy road seems to be to assume that somehow the logic and constraints of “the market” will fix everything and impose labor discipline on the non-working as well as working Cubans. This vision and premise seems to prevail within Cuba as well as outside, but for profoundly different reasons and expecting totally different outcomes. This, of course, is a road that has been travelled many times before. This naïve logic takes us back to Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1705) where personal selfishness benefits the whole of society.

As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players,
Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers,
And all those, that, in Enmity
With down-right Working, cunningly
Convert to their own Use the Labour
Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbour:
These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name,
The grave Industrious were the Same.
All Trades and Places knew some Cheat,
No Calling was without Deceit.

Karl Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Program said that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” In other words, if Cuba is to move into the logic that capacity to purchase should be a significant mechanism to obtain things, how “fair” is that when some people have a head start because they have foreign exchange from abroad in their pockets while others do not? Is it that efficiency is to be measured by profitability, cost of production or something else? Is it that the social wage [services provided without citizens direct payment] will be reduced and the stress will be on personal income? Is the piece rate how work and income will be established? These are some of the questions concerning Cubans today. The newer policies and the expected outcomes could very well demolish the highly integratedand unique nation state that was created after 1959. It is this particular feature that separates Cuba from any society be it industrially developed or under-developed.

And then, of course, there is the new generalized theft taken from the state enterprises in order to supply the emerging “private sector.” The laborer as well as the administrator shows the income that the state enterprise was expected to earn by supplying the general population, but – in fact – the items are sold to the emerging private sector while the population receives much less. The state ends up with the proper income, but the consumer who depends on the state supply cannot compete with the price the “cuentapropista” can pay. The poorest consumers end up with less consumption and higher prices. [1] And, yet, the state earns what was planned. The majority gets less, the minority gets more and pays higher prices, and the state receives as payment what was planned as if the majority of the people had done the purchasing.

Abroad, many commentators (journalists, editorial writers, academics and politicians) assume that the supposed panacea of capitalism “could solve” Cuba’s problems today [although capitalism did not solve Cuba’s social problems pre-1959]. It is also presumed that none of the revolutionaries, starting with Fidel Castro, could conceive of making an opening to capitalist enterprise. Yet, there are over 600 state-owned “empresas” [mercantile societies] in Cuba that operate with stock [“acciones nominativas” – nominative shares] and follow the logic of capitalist cost accounting, profits, et al. Indeed, Cuban socio-economic reality is more complicated than recognized or imagined.[2]

Fidel Castro himself alluded to this matter at a major conference on the campus of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on August 24, 1998:

“I remember that once I read how at a given moment Lenin imagined the construction of capitalism under the direction of workers, through a workers’ government. He said: Capitalism needs to be built; the productive forces need to be developed. But there was so much harassment and siege, so much aggression, and isolation and the situation turned so critical that he had no choice but to accept the challenge. Marx would have been very upset and would have raised his arms to the heavens, really.
“And I don’t blame them. I sincerely will say that if I had found myself in a similar situation, I would have done the same thing. I tell you, truly, if I had found myself in a situation such as that, I would have done so; because in the final analysis it would have been even more irrational to expect that our Revolution would have survived after the collapse of the socialist camp. Then the unipolar system surfaced and the enemy became ever more relentless, more powerful and strong than ever and we could not count on any foreign support… Presently we are not building socialism, fundamentally, at this time we are defending our sovereignty, the independence of the country and the achievements we had attained. If we can further socialism a bit, we will; but, the main thing that we want to improve is to enhance the quality of what we have done. [3]
Three years earlier, on August 6, 1995 Fidel Castro at stated,
The key to everything, comrades and friends is: the matter of power. Who has [political] power? …. We don’t have landlords but had them in the past… but we have thousands of independent farmers. Who has political power? Is it the bourgeoisie? Is power in the hands of the capitalists, for the capitalists and in their behalf? No. The key issue is who has power.
I have to say that some of the things we are doing is because we are seeking economic efficiency, we are doing many things to improve our socialism. But it is clear, ladies and gentlemen, that it is very difficult to socialize and collectivize the fixing of shoes – for example.
There was a time that we had such struggle and conflict inside the country that everything was nationalized. But there is in society and there will be many tasks that are appropriate for individuals to perform, which should be done by private persons, and the state should not attempt to do them. We reached that conclusion.” [4]
The Cuban political system is beginning to go through its most significant transition as the seasoned old revolutionaries step aside in what Havana is calling a “generational change,” while the United States government is attempting to foster as much growth in the Cuban private sectors of the island. In Washington, DC it is hoped that those Cubans born after 1980 will identify the revolution with all the shortages and difficulties that ensued after the demise of the Soviet bloc (post 1991), without acknowledging the national, social and cultural achievements.

Between 2014 and 2015 the money remittances from the US to Cuba drastically increased in amount and frequency. In the past the remittances had the main objective of providing financial resources to the relatives who stayed in Cuba and had to buy food and other commodities in a dollar based market. But, as state employment declined, those receiving remittances began to invest their foreign currency in other areas, not just consumption. The “cuenta propia” sector [small private enterprise appeared and grew in size and sectors]. As state employment declined the government allowed newer areas of private enterprise. 

Relatives from abroad sent dollars to help out. It was reported that new areas opened: investments in small businesses, loans to private entrepreneurs, rudimentary commercial transactions, “mules” bringing assets to private bed&breakfast and financially fronting “family” owned restaurants. The magazine TEMAS (Havana) noted that in an 18 month period, over 390 restaurants were opened in the city of Havana alone and it was estimated that 65% of the original investments originated from relatives and friends from abroad. And such was the case before the Obama administration announced its change of policy. Presently, Cubans living in the US can send up to $6000 per year to relatives and friends.” [5]

In fact, the emerging cuentapropistas [self-employed] in Cuba take for granted a number of items that are not that secure in the United States: free education from child care to university, free health care as well as numerous subsidies(food, medical prescriptions, retirement payments, transportation, and unemployment benefits) not found in most of Latin America. The recent re-gentrification of Cuba is another serious change. From one day to the next, housing which had been a use-value was transformed into an exchange value. That is, owners of homes that have been given by the state to most dwellers since the 1960s, for the first time were allowed to sell their homes. [6] Such a policy change, effective since January 2015, allowed the transformation of an asset into real capital. As a result, a large number of Cuban emigres began the process of buying real estate in Cuba. More remarkable still, the marketization of housing was done without much state mediation, except the change of legal titles. There was no establishment of a state controlled market that might generate state income from the transactions between the private seller and buyer. Physical money exchanged hands, or transactions with third parties abroad produced the transaction. Laissez faire was triumphant, in this case.

The re-stratification of Cuban society had begun. One should note that the size of the work force involved in state employment has declined while the private sector continues to grow.
Recent changes in US policy toward the island reveal the Obama administration objective: riding such major shifts in Cuban employment and property patterns in order to foment a Thermidorean Reaction that would bring to an end the Cuban revolutionary regime.*
In his recent public speech, Fidel Castro said, “To our brothers and sisters of the world we have to say, the Cuban people shall overcome.” [7] Fidel Castro has considered the possibility of two alternative Cuban revolutionary regimes: one without capitalism, the other with it but under the leadership of the Communist Party. In either case the issue, as in 1959, is sovereignty.

* Thermidorean Reaction refers to the overthrow of the French Revolutionary Regime of 1789 and the establishment of a more moderate and conservative/traditional set of institutions and practices; and the restoration of the old social order. Crane Brinton was the main exponent of the classic interpretation claiming that revolutions go through a natural cycle going from the rule of moderates to radicalization to a conservative [Thermidorean] reaction that restores many of the old practices and institutions. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, NY: Vintage, 1938 [republished in 1965].
[3] Conferencia Magistral del Presidente de la República de Cuba, Fidel Castro Ruz, en el acto convocado por la Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, Primada de América, efectuado en el Centro de Eventos y Convenciones, República Dominicana, el día 24 de agosto de 1998.
[4] Discurso pronunciado por el Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, Primer Secretario del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba y Presidente de los Consejos de Estado y de Ministros, en la clausura del festival Juvenil Internacional Cuba Vive, efectuada en el Teatro “CARLOS MARX”, el 6 de Agosto de 1995.
[5] and assets
[7] It is informative to read Fidel’s article responding to President Obama’s visit to Cuba.

** I would like to acknowledge the very useful comments by Helen Jaffe, Arturo López Levy and Robert Sandels.