‘!Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!’

On a hot evening in July 2011, myself and a few other visitors from Canada, found ourselves in a cavernous meeting room in a hotel near a Chicago airport. A panel discussion in that room was set to begin at 7:30pm, and after a long day we wanted to arrive early and make sure we got good seats. What followed was unexpected, and extraordinary. A group of young people gathered in the centre of the room, stood on chairs, and in chorus began a chant. “!Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” This great slogan – “Listen up Obama! We are in struggle” – from the 2010 march for immigration reform in the United States,[1] was soon being joined by the voices of the 1,000 people packed into the hall. Young, old, Hispanic, African-American, white, male, female, straight, lesbian, gay, trans – the hall rocked to this and other chants – for abortion rights, against the death penalty, and for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid in the state of Israel. These were the voices of activists from many struggles. The enthusiastic chanting delayed the meeting by almost half an hour, but no one cared. You had a sense that here, in the belly of the beast, there were movements of the left, willing to challenge capitalism and imperialism, whether fronted by George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

The occasion for this enthusiastic display of movement politics was the Saturday plenary of the annual “Socialism” conference, running form July 1 to July 4, organized by the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The Saturday plenary when it happened – “Revolution and imperialism in the Middle East” featuring Ali Abunimah, Egyptian activist Mostafa Omar and Ahmed Shawki (editor of International Socialist Review) among others – was informative and inspiring. But it was already clear before Saturday evening, that the conference as a whole would be a special event.

Friday evening – up against five other meetings – 130 people attended David Whitehouse’s talk, “Will China rule the world?” There are two traps in any discussion of China. First – assuming that it is or was a socialist state. Second – dismissing its current rise in the global economy as being completely derivative of its relationship to the United States. Whitehouse’s presentation avoided both traps, and prompted an intense and interesting discussion.

Saturday morning – up against nine other sessions – Michael Fiorentino and Abbie Bakan spoke to 60 people on the topic of “Israel: Watchdog of imperialism.” As well as two informative and politically incisive presentations, the session was marked by the prominence of the call to build a movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid in the state of Israel. The discussion carefully worked through the use of the label apartheid, a term that originated in the context of racial segregation in South Africa, and which has now been extended to help analyze the Jim Crow era segregation in the U.S. south, and the ghettoization of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. Bakan argued that what is emerging is a rich new field of scholarly and activist research – comparative apartheid studies.

Again on Saturday morning – up against 10 other sessions – a panel of activists spoke to 140 people on the topic “Wisconsin: The end of the one-sided class war.” At least 70 people who had been active in the great eruption of struggle against austerity in that state, had made their way to the Socialism conference.

The profound interest among attendees in the issue of Palestine was made clear again in the first session Saturday afternoon. With nine other sessions happening simultaneously, 170 folks came to hear Ali Abunimah – editor of the invaluable web site “The Electronic Intifada” – speak on “Palestine and the Arab Spring.” It is now a recurring theme on the left to argue that with the emergence of mass struggle in Egypt, the Middle East’s biggest economy, there is new hope for the besieged people of Palestine. But Abunimah made the point that this is a two way street – the long, bitter resistance of the Palestinian people was a key spark for what we now call the “Arab Spring.”

And in the last session of the afternoon, 140 people came out to hear a panel on “Lessons of February 1917: Spontaneity and organization” with nine other sessions happening concurrently. The panel featured an interesting discussion between Jason Yanowitz and Paul D’Amato on the relative weight of spontaneity and organization in the February revolution in Russia in 1917. This author was the third person on the panel, presenting research on a forgotten wing of the socialist movement of that era – the “Mezhrayonka” or “Inter-District Committee” – rank and file trade unionists and socialists who resisted sectarian advice from the Bolshevik leadership in exile, and insisted on finding methods of work which would unite and not divide activists in the movement.

One of the highlights of the event was the extraordinary book room, with hundreds and hundreds of titles available at very reasonable cost. You might have missed the conference, but you can still get the books through the Haymarket books web site. In particular, make sure to order Omar Barghouti’s new book, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Barghouti was one of the featured guest speakers at the conference, part of a three country speaking tour beginning in Britain and ending in Canada. Also keep your eye on the conference web site. Many of the talks were videoed, and they will gradually be made available as time permits.

And remember – this is an annual event. Details won’t be out for a while for the 2012 conference, but it’s likely to be in July, and it definitely is worth the trip to Chicago.

Part of a series of articles based on a recent trip to the United States

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Debt crisis in the U.S. – the issue is warfare, not welfare

© 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Miguel E. Andrade, “”Obama Escucha!, Estamos en la Lucha: March for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Media Mobilizing Project. March 23, 2010.

Debt crisis in the U.S. – the issue is warfare, not welfare

JULY 26, 2011 – As July came to an end, the United States central government had come up against its congressionally mandated debt ceiling. Without an agreement to raise that debt ceiling – last set at $14.3-trillion – the U.S. central government will be unable to borrow money to pay its bills. The consequences could be extremely serious – soaring interest rates, a collapse of the U.S. dollar, not to speak of social security stipends, pensions and salaries going unpaid.

The barrier to raising the debt ceiling comes from the sudden rise of a new right-wing in the Republican Party. The 2008-2009 Great Recession has not yet, unfortunately, led to the creation of a mass new left in the United States. Instead, anger against capitalism has been politically captured by the far right in the so-called “Tea Party” movement. Deeply reactionary and with barely disguised racist undertones, the Tea Party conservatives have a simple answer to the ills facing the U.S. – too much government, too many taxes.

This simplistic message captured first the Republican Party, and then the House of Representatives, last year’s congressional elections seeing the House fall under the control of a Tea Party dominated Republican Party.

These Tea Party Republicans will not countenance raising the debt ceiling unless big steps are taken to deal with the U.S. deficit. And they are insisting that this happen without any increase in taxes.

There is an enormous deficit problem in the U.S. central government. The $14.3 trillion debt figure, so much in the news, is the result of a decades-long practice of spending, every month, far more than comes in from revenues. The chart at the end of this article documents this clearly.[1] Through all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s, deficits as a percent of receipts became quite high, twice reaching annual rates of 30 percent. For comparison’s sake, that would be like an individual making $3,000 a month, and every month supplementing that with about $1,000 on a credit card.

In the context of the economic boom of the 1990s, there was a brief reversal of this trend, the last four years of the Bill Clinton presidency and the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush actually seeing revenues exceed expenditures. But from 2002 to the present, there has been a return to deficit spending, peaking first during the height of the Iraq war, and then soaring in the context of the 2008-2009 recession. At its peak in 2009, deficits soared to 70% of revenues. Remember that person bringing in $3,000 a month? Now s/he would be taking out cash advances of $2100.

But is it really credible to try and fix this problem without tax increases? The key taxes that need to be addressed are not those paid by individual, but rather those paid by corporations.

In the 1950s, corporations paid 39% of all income taxes. By the 1970s this had fallen to 25%. In the first nine years of the 21st century, the figure was 19%.[2] Making corporations simply pay the share of income tax they did in the 1950s, or even the 1970s, would make a huge dent in the deficit. And in 2011, corporations have the money to pay new taxes. Story after story in the press documents that Corporate America is sitting on record piles of cash.[3]

The Tea Party Republicans will not look at these facts. Instead they are insisting on reducing the deficit strictly through cuts in expenditures. After President Obama’s dramatic speech to the U.S. July 25, CNN commentators summarized what that means – cuts to “the Big Three: medicare, medicaid and social security.”

But what about the “Big One” – warfare? In Canada, about eight per cent of central government expenditures goes towards warfare. That is enough to rank Canada quite high on the list of arms spenders in the world, 13th in the world, according to arms spending experts in Sweden.

But the United States is in a whole other league. Fully 43% of all money spent on arms in the world is spent by the United States government.[4] It means that instead of 8%, a shocking 20% of its budget goes towards the military.[5] But the military establishment is barely part of the discussion for the Tea Party right wing.

Here’s the big problem. If the Tea Party right wing won’t talk about raising corporate taxes and cutting the bloated military budget, neither will President Obama.

In his speech July 25 he talked about “the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform.” By entitlement, he means exactly what the CNN commentators headlined – medicare, medicaid and social security. The “Grand Bargain” that Obama tried to win this month involved billions of dollars in cuts to these vital social services.[6] He, like the Tea Party Republicans, will not raise the issue of the biggest driver of expenses in the United States – the war machine.

Unlike the Republicans, he does talk about tax increases. But listen closely. He quite rightly wants to roll back the wildly generous tax breaks given, by George W. Bush, to the richest citizens of the United States. But he is not putting on the table the really big item – the need to seriously tax the corporations.

The bitter truth is that both Democrats and Republicans – for all their differences – share two fundamental viewpoints. Both agree that corporate power needs to be nurtured as the only way to drive the economy. And both agree that the U.S. needs to maintain its imperial interests abroad, an empire which will come unstuck without a truly massive arms budget.

Instead, both are insisting that ordinary citizens pay for the deficit and debt – even though these twin problems were created by handouts to corporations, and trillions wasted on sending young men and women to die for corporate profits abroad.

The deficit/debt problem can be dealt with – by taxing the corporations and by attacking the warfare state.

But those demands will have to come from new social movements, independent of Obama and the Democrats.

Part of a series of articles based on a recent trip to the United States

Read next …
‘!Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!’

© 2011 Paul Kellogg

Chart referenced in article

Publishing History

This article has been published as United States: Debt crisis – the issue is the war machine, not welfare,” Links, 27 July.


[1] Compiled from Financial Management Service, A Bureau of the United States Department of the Treasury. “MTS: Monthly Treasury Statement: Quick Links – Monthly Receipts, Outlays, and Deficit or Surplus, Fiscal Years 1981-2010.” June 2011.
[2] According to Julie Snider, Investigative Reporting Workshop. “Graphic: Who pays the taxes?” What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream. February 7, 2011
[3] For a recent news story covering this phenomenon, see John Melloy. “Firms Have Record $800 Billion of Cash But Won’t Hire.” CNBC. June 22, 2011.
[4] Compiled from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “SIPRI Military Expenditures Database.” 2011.
[5] Based on calculations in Paul Kellogg, “From the Avro Arrow to Afghanistan: The political economy of Canadian militarism.” In Greg Albo and Jerome Klassen, eds. Empire’s Ally: Canadian Foreign Policy and the War in Afghanistan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).
[6] Lori Montgomery. “In debt talks, Obama offers Social Security cuts.” The Washington Post. July 6, 2011.