We’ve begun a journey on the largest rail circuit in Australia and will disappear for a couple of weeks from any regular internet or telephone networks – still possible in the vastness of Australia. This entails The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin, driving from Darwin to Mt Isa (no rail for this part), The Innlander from Mt Isa to Townsville, the Spirit of Queensland from Cairns to Brisbane, and then the XPT back to Newcastle.
another world is possible
20 September, 2015
22 August, 2015
Against the standard position that Stalin saw enemies all around him and was seeking world conquest, it is worth recalling comments like these. This is from 1947, in response to an interview question:
Let us not mutually criticize our systems. Everyone has the right to follow the system he wants to maintain. Which one is better will be said by history. We should respect the systems chosen by the people, and whether the system is good or bad is the business of the American people. To co-operate, one does not need the same systems. One should respect the other system when approved by the people. Only on this basis can we secure co-operation. Only, if we criticize, it will lead us too far.
As for Marx and Engels, they were unable to foresee what would happen forty years after their death. But we should adhere to mutual respect of people. Some people call the Soviet system totalitarian. Our people call the American system monopoly capitalism. If we start calling each other names with the words monopolist and totalitarian, it will lead to no co-operation.
We must start from the historical fact that there are two systems approved by the people. Only on that basis is co-operation possible. If we distract each other with criticism, that is propaganda.
As to propaganda, I am not a propagandist but a business-like man. We should not be sectarian. When the people wish to change the systems they will do so. When we met with Roosevelt to discuss the questions of war, we did not call each other names. We established co-operation and succeeded in defeating the enemy. (Works, vol. 16, p. 111)
16 August, 2015
Yesterday, the first of my articles was published in the People’s Daily, the CPC’s main newspaper in China. It is called ‘The Fundamental Limitations of US Democracy’, and may be found here and here (among a number of sites). However, since the article is in Chinese, below is the original text before it was translated.
The Fundamental Limitations of US Democracy
Always be suspicious of anyone who claims to embody “democracy” without any qualifiers. Why? If they do make such a claim, they are trying to universalise their own particular form of democracy. The United States has been especially guilty of this claim, as we will see. But before I deal with the United States, let me analyse the types of democracy that are possible.
Types of Democracy
It has become clear that “democracy” does not exist as an absolute and universal term. Instead, we have particular types of democracy.
The ancient Greeks, especially in Athens, practised what may be called “Greek democracy.” It was exercised by the adult males in the small population of the polis. The term polis should not be translated as city, for it was really a town surrounded by fields used for agriculture. The populations of even the largest towns were no more than 30,000.
Another type of democracy is liberal or bourgeois democracy, which spread from Europe to some other parts of the world after the French Revolution of 1789. This form of democracy is restricted to adults over the age of 18 and follows a pattern of representation to a parliament, which does the real work. Notably, bourgeois democracy is, as the name suggests, the form preferred by the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie or middle class. It is also a mechanism developed to prevent the inroads of socialism.
A third form of democracy has arisen more recently in Eastern Europe and may be called “illiberal democracy.” We find it in Russia and Hungary today, where the ruling party in the parliament ensures its continued rule by hindering any serious opposition party.
The final type of democracy is socialist democracy, which is very different from the preceding types. Socialist democracy is found in varying shapes in socialist states where the communist party also forms the government.
Limits of Liberal Democracy
Much more may be said concerning the way these forms of democracy function. But in this article I focus on liberal (also called parliamentary or bourgeois) democracy, with the Unites States specifically in mind. The central point is that liberal democracy is not merely limited in extent (which would then simply entail an extension of that democracy) but that it is structurally geared to exclude significant groups from that liberal “democracy.” In fact, it requires such exclusions in order to constitute itself as “democracy.”
This pattern of exclusion already appears in the earliest theorists of liberalism. For example, John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” for liberty is only for “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 224). As for the rest of the world, they are little superior to the animals. Similar sentiments are found in the work of John Locke, who observed that slavery in the colonies was self-evident and indisputable (Political Essays, p. 180). In other words, liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin.
Let us focus on today’s beacon of “democracy” and “liberty”: liberal democracy developed in the white community of the United States in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples (see Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History). When Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he did so as a slave owner. So also was George Washington, as were the other members of the team given responsibility for the declaration, as was John Madison who wrote the constitution, as were the presidents of the United States for 32 of its first 36 years. Indeed, for them a liberal and tolerant society was one that excluded the fanaticism of the slavery abolitionists.
How could these founders of the United States make such bold claims while being apparent hypocrites? “All men are created equal” relied on a crucial restriction to the sense of “all,” which certainly did not include slaves, women and “inferior” folk. One cannot understand “American liberty” without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other.
However, the way they understood of liberal democracy over time was subtle. The line between who should be included and who excluded always shifts; as some groups are included (slaves, workers, women), others are excluded. For instance, during the so-called Progressive Era, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous “democratic” reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret ballot, primaries, referenda, and so on. Yet they all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to assimilate Indigenous people and deprive them of their residual lands.
So also with the treatment of “rogue” or “pariah” states outside the United States. “Rogue” was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an “R” to signify their status. Now the term is used for states: once declared a “rogue” or “pariah” state, the “world’s oldest democracy” (Clinton) and “model for the world” (Bush) tries to crush these “barbarians” (Mill) in the name of the war cry, “freedom and democracy.”
As a further example from our own time: the continued construction of a prohibitively expensive wall between the United States and Mexico serves as a physical reminder of the built-in limits of liberal democracy in the United States. Those who still manage to enter the southern United States are denied basic rights, with one exception: they may join the armed forces. Indeed, recruitment targets non-citizens, offering them the hope of fast track to citizenship. Indeed, if a non-citizen is killed in combat, he or she will be granted citizenship posthumously.
Outside the United States, the examples multiply. We may include the necessary role of beggars, vagrants, workhouses, white servants, kidnapping of poor children for the army and for colonial labour, and even the tendency towards eugenics in the development of liberalism and liberal democracy in England. Oppression is inherent in liberalism’s focus on the individual and the growth of master-race democracy in Europe as it engaged in colonial expansion. Further, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for “human rights,” “liberty,” and “freedom” amount? We may deploy Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: “philanthropy + 5 per cent,” where “philanthropy” is synonymous with “human rights” and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of “human rights.”
Many of these details are reasonably well known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they do not live up to their ideals. Instead, I suggest that the very possibility of bourgeois “democracy” and “freedom” is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority.
The United States Today
What about the situation in the United States today? A few facts will enable us to make a conclusion. To begin with, liberal or parliamentary democracy fosters systemic corruption. For example, a common practice in the American houses of parliament is “tagging” or “Christmas-treeing” a bill. The term designates a whole series of amendments that have little if any relation to the original bill – so that it looks like a Christmas tree covered in decorations. The purpose is to buy votes for the bill by including special requests from individual members of parliament. They are in fact legalised bribes in order to win enough votes for the legislation to pass. It may be a bill concerning the defence budget, but one person demands a special “tag” for his friends on Wall Street, another for sugar farmers, or another for a new freeway in his electorate. Such “tags” may run into the thousands, blowing out the budget for the initial bill out of all proportion.
The examples could go on, such as the legalisation of unlimited bribery – “secret money” – from the rich for political campaigns through the Political Actions Committees (PACs), the constant flow of undeclared money to influence political decisions by special interest groups such as the National Rifle Federation, and the fact that only the very rich can launch election campaigns. The most recent example is the campaign by Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. This outspoken racist now leads the Republican nomination list.
Second, voter participation appears to be at historic lows. By the 2014 mid-term elections, more than 60 percent of people did not bother to vote. When we consider low income earners and the young, the figure jumps to 80 percent. Many people cannot name the political parties and they do not know the name of their local member. When asked, people simply say that voting makes no difference. The extremely wealthy always get their way and it is in the interest of the ruling parties not to have a high turnout. Why? There is no political party in the United States that represents workers, so the Republican and Democratic parties have little interest in encouraging them to vote.
Some would regard this as evidence of a decline in interest in liberal democracy. If we take this view, then we could argue that the people of the United States have begun to realise that the system does not work. However, figures show that most presidential elections since 1920 have hovered around 50 percent of voter turnout. We may interpret this fact in two ways. First, for almost a century, the common people in the United States have largely been uninterested in its liberal democracy. Second, and picking up my earlier point, liberal democracy functions to exclude real participation by those who wish to change the system. Both points are true.
13 July, 2015
This one is cross-posted from the Prole Center, which cross-posted it from Liberation News:
By Marcel Cartier.
I had the unique opportunity to spend several days in three different parts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly just referred to as “North” Korea. This was an exceptionally life-changing experience that challenged many of the pre-conceptions that myself and fellow western visitors who accompanied me from Beijing had going in. Here are some things about North Korea that may surprise you, as many of them surprised me, as well.
1. Americans Are Not Hated, But Welcomed
The Koreans have a very high level of class consciousness, and do not equate the American people with our government. They make no secret of their contempt for U.S. imperialism, but if you say you’re an American, the conversation will usually revolve around culture or sports more than politics. At the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (think your local library on steorids, with over 30 million books), the most popular CD is The Beatles’ “Greatest Hits”, although Linkin Park is also requested a lot among local youth. The young men seem fascinated with the NBA, and know a lot more about the league than just Dennis Rodman.
2. Customs and Border Patrol Were A Smooth, Easy Experience
Many of the westerners who traveled to Pyongyang from Beijing with me were concerned that the immigration procedure would be a long and intense one. Everyone seemed quite surprised that passports were stamped with no questions asked, and that only a handful of passengers had a few items in their bags looked at. Prior to traveling, it is strongly advised by tour companies that people not bring any kind of books on the Korean War or items that have American flags on them. This may be solid advice, but immigration didn’t really seem too concerned about what was brought into the country.
3. Pyongyang Is Beautiful, Clean and Colourful
Probably the most gorgeous city in the world, Pyongyang is incredibly well kept. Considering that the entire city was carpet bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War (what they call the Fatherland Liberation War) and that only two buildings remained in 1953, it is an impressive accomplishment. The statues and grand buildings are awe-inspiring, as are the large green spaces where you can see people relaxing. There are many new apartment buildings sprouting up across the city, but even the ones that are evidently older are maintained well. It is often said that Pyongyang at night is dark, and although it may be compared to a western city, it does have beautiful lights that illuminate much of the downtown area.
4. Kim Jong Un Haircuts Are Practically Non-Existent
There was one man who sported the Kim cut who I saw while en route from the airport to the city center, and it wasn’t a good look on him at all! The haircut was rumoured by BBC and TIME who picked up on a South Korean tabloid story to now be mandatory for all North Korean men of university age. Not only is this story not true, so is the allegation that the men in the DPRK only have a select few styles to choose from at the barber shop that are “state sanctioned.” It really works just as it would in the west – there are flyers at barbershops where styles are pictured, making it easier for customers to say, “I want a number seven cut.” But, just as in a New York barber shop, that doesn’t mean that you are restricted to that particular look.
5. North Koreans Laugh, Smile and Joke – A Lot
The question you’re asking is probably, “but isn’t that for show?” It would be a mighty accomplishment indeed if with all of the genuine laughs I shared with Koreans, they were putting on an act. Not only that, but for vehicles speeding by on the streets, those Koreans do an impressive job of making sure they’re aware when there are foreigners passing so they can pretend to laugh! Koreans have jokes for just about everything, from Canadians and ice hockey (“why did the Canadians have sex from the back? So they can watch the hockey game”) to Americans at the DMZ (“an American passes a DPRK soldier a cigarette across the demarcation line. The solider smokes it, but the American asks why if he hates Americans he is smoking something from the U.S. The solider replies, I am not smoking it but rather burning it.”)
6. Monolithic Ideology Does Not Mean Monolithic Personality
This is a good reminder that individualism and individuality are not one in the same. In fact, observing people interact with one another in North Korea provided the impression that a diversity of personality types was just as strong there as it is in the “open” west. People have a divergence of interests, from sports to culture, and are free to pick what they enjoy and dislike.
7. People are incredibly well dressed across the country
Even in the countryside, Koreans dress in a very dignified manner. There was not one place I traveled to where people appeared in the least bit sloppy, or wearing clothes that appeared to be old. Men and women also don’t all wear the same style of clothing, as we are often conditioned to think. It is common to see women wearing very bright clothes, including pink business suits as well as more traditional Korean dresses. Men may often wear ties, collared shirts and suit coats, but it is also not uncommon to see them in more casual wear such as tracksuits depending on the occasion.
8. Children Begin To Learn English At the Age of 7
The people’s command of English, particularly among the younger generation, is very impressive. While in previous decades, high school was the time when English began to be learnt, this has been changed to the third grade. Although many children are shy (they don’t see that many foreigners, after all), I was able to get many of them to shake my hand and even exchange a few words in English. Popular languages that are studied in high school include Chinese and German.
9. Tourism Will Be Boosted In The Near Future
One of the aspects of the economy that will be prioritized in the future appears to be tourism. The entire Pyongyang Airport is under construction at the moment and in the midst of major expansion. The Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they are also certain to do it in a very different way than the Chinese (after being in Beijing, the omnipotence of some of the worst aspects of western culture their gives them every reason to be cautious in this regard). Air Koryo, which was given the only 1-star rating by the company SkyTrax, was in reality much better in terms of service and comfort than at least a dozen other airlines I had previously flown on. They have a new fleet of Russian planes that fly between Pyongyang and Beijing, provide in flight entertainment throughout the journey (the children’s cartoon Clever Raccoon Dog is hilarious), and serve a “hamburger” (not so good, but edible) and an assortment of drinks (coffee, tea, beer, juice). The whole experience was at least worthly of three-stars if we had to go the rating route!
10. Koreans Are Keen To Talk About The Country Candidly
People are very open about the problems facing the country, and don’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult aspects of life. For instance, they would speak about the “Arduous March” (think the “Special Period” in Cuba) where drought, famine and floods coupled with the loss of the majority of the country’s trading partners brought big setbacks to a country that until the 1980s had a higher standard of living than the South. They will also discuss the narratives regarding the Korean War and are keen for a betterment of relations with South Korea in the eventual hope of reunification. However, they are also very firm on the fact that they will never renounce their socialist principles in order to facilitate this reunification.
11. Beer Is Considered A Soft Drink, Micro Breweries Are Popular
Almost every district in the country now has a local brewery that provides beer to the local area. There are a variety of different kinds that are enjoyed around the country, and most meals are served with a small quantity of beer. At Kim Il Sung Stadium where the Pyongyang Marathon started and ended, it was not uncommon to see locals having a drink as they watched the exhibition matches between DPRK football teams. Think Yankee Stadium, just without the aggressiveness of the crowd.
12. Most of the Tabloid Stories About the DPRK Are Utterly False
There were probably at least one hundred Americans in Pyongyang at the same time as me, due in large part to foreign amateur runners being allowed to compete for the first time in the marathon. One couple testified how this was their second visit after having traveled to DPRK the year before. They mentioned how they were a bit scared to come the previous time, because it was right after a story had hit the news about Kim Jong Un having had his ex-girlfriend and others killed for making a porn tape. The couple talked about how they walked into an Opera in Pyongyang, and as they sat down noticed that the very women who were supposed to be dead were sitting directly across from them. Walking dead, indeed! Other recent stories to hit the western press via South Korean tabloids regarding mass executions in stadiums or Kim Jong Un’s uncle being fed to a pack of hungry dogs are also said to be non-sense by westerners who travel there frequently and know the country’s situation well. This isn’t to say anything about the existence of political re-education camps or prisons, but an all-out demonization campaign against the country that completely distorts it is of no service to the Korean people.
13. Koreans Will Not Hesitate To Make You Join In Their Fun
There were a number of events organized in Pyongyang on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which is a national holiday where people have two days off of work. Some of these were publically organized, like the “mass dances” where hundreds of people dance in large squares to popular Korean songs. Others involved people in the park having family lunches while the kids bought ice cream from vendors and drunk grannies danced hilariously because they had far too much home-made soju. But, just like in any authoritarian state, you must participate! Being shy is not an option, as they will pull you by the arm and teach you every dance move even if they themselves are not quite doing it correctly.
In short, I found the Korean people in the north to be some of the warmest, most authentic human beings I’ve ever had the chance to interact with. It would be silly to refer to the country as a “workers’ paradise” due to the depth of problems it faces. As in all societies, there are positive aspects and negative ones. However, considering that they have overcome centuries of imperial domination, the loss of about a quarter of their population in the Korean War, and continue to maintain their social system in the face of a continued state of war, they have done tremendously well. The accomplishments in free education through university, the non-existence of homelessness, and a proud and dignified people should be presented in order to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of the country.
I must say that the way that the DPRK is portrayed in the western bourgeois media actually says a great deal more about the effectiveness of our propaganda apparatuses and brainwashing techniques than it does about theirs. The fact that I even have to write about the surprising things I witnessed in DPRK is evidence of the serious lack of understanding we have about the country. The problems facing Korea are never contexualized as they should be – as an oppressed nation aiming to free itself from servitude to big powers intent on gobbling up every remaining state free from a dying unipolarity.
Oh, and I almost forgot about nuclear weapons! Well, let’s consider if the North Korean military was holding military drills annually off the coast of New York that simulated the carpet bombing of Manhattan and the occupation of the entirety of the country, of which they already controlled the western half. Would it not be sensible given that context for Americans to develop a nuclear deterrent? The Koreans are not war hungry or even “obsessed” with the army or military. However, given the way that the situation in Libya played out, they are all the more convinced – rightfully so – that the only reason their independent state continues to stand is due to the Songun (“military first” policy) and the existence of nuclear capabilities. To be sure, they have no intention of using it unless put in that position to have to do so.
It is my sincere desire that there will be continued cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the near future between people from the DPRK and the western countries. Pretty much all of the people who traveled with me back to Beijing were in awe of just how different their experience was compared to what they had expected. They – like myself – gained a great deal from the humanizing experience of interacting with Koreans. Although westerners are relatively free to travel much more so than DPRK citizens, it’s ironic how the Koreans seemingly know a great deal more about us than we know about them. That will need to change in the years to come.
10 July, 2015
My great weakness is collecting t-shirts with socialist themes. So I could not help myself on my first trip to the DPRK (North Korea). The first is innocent enough:
See you in Pyongyang – as one does. Innocent enough. Yet I did find that in my accommodation building in Beijing there were a good number of South Koreans. From time to time they gave me puzzled looks, since of course they knew what the flag meant, if not the welcome.
This one has a bit more bite, since Panmunjom is the village at the border of the demilitarised zone where armistices were signed, security is high and northern Korean and American soldiers face off against one another.
The message is clear enough: I have seen the story from the northern perspective, down to the deep desire for reunification:
However, this is my favourite:
Take me to paradise – Rakwon being the last station on the east-west route of the Pyongyang metro.
The shirt comes with a helpful map on the back and list of stations – should anyone require that information.
The people in the DPRK liked this shirt best as well, stopping to look, ask questions, study the map and discuss the shirt intensely.
I also have quite a collection of books. At the moment I am reading Anecdotes of Kim Il-Sung – great bedtime reading. Some of them may appear here soon.
26 June, 2015
I was reminded of this great little story by an email request, since I mention it in an article in Philosophers for Change. Engels used it in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist system is:
Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?
MECW 4: 246-47.