Change Is in the Air

n Moscow, tens of thousands protest election fraud.
By Nathan Paulsen
December, 2011
Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #80 
It's traditional on New Year's Eve to talk about sweeping away the old and ringing in the new. But this year the call for casting off old habits and trying new paths is more relevant than ever.
From Tahrir Square to Liberty Park, from villages in China to the Eurozone, change is in the air. But which way will the scales tip in 2012?
Will state violence and elite-imposed social austerity prevail and trap even more of the global 99% in poverty and despair? Or will the grassroots uprisings that shook everything up in 2011 gain further momentum and score victories against inequality and repressive regimes? Nothing will come easy. The Great Recession still grips the U.S. and Europe and the squeeze on poor and working people has not let up. Carbon emissions went up in 2011 and the climate crisis has deepened. Washington is recalibrating – not ending - its military deployments, now targeting the Asia-Pacific region as the new spot for escalation.
This month alone we witnessed Washington ramp up its threats to Iran even while pivoting toward an aggressive "contain China" stance with military posturing and signs of an incipient trade war. In Europe the so-called “debt crisis” continued after yet another gathering of politicians and technocrats ended with symbolic gestures that did little to resolve underlying structural problems and the Eurozone's growing social inequality. And four years into this country's Great Recession millions have lost jobs and homes or are about to, with precious little indication a recovery is on the horizon.
The dysfunction of the economic landscape was mirrored in the international effort to curtail carbon emissions. With scientists sounding increasingly ominous alarms regarding our future on a warming planet, the Durban conference produced an agreement only to talk about more agreements somewhere down the road. And the Kyoto protocol - woefully inadequate but the only binding international climate pact there is – has taken big hits: the Canadian government announced it was withdrawing, Russia and Japan are expected soon to follow.
These developments take place in a context of waning U.S. power to control events abroad. Days after Obama proudly announced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic Iraq,” Maliki threatened to plunge the nation into prolonged sectarian conflict with the indictment of the Vice President - a top Sunni politician - on terrorism charges. With all U.S. combat soldiers now forced out of Iraq and Baghdad's government more influenced by Iran than the U.S., the utter futility of the nearly decade long project to turn the country into a secure client state could scarcely have been made more visible. Meanwhile, the Obama administration finished its long promised 10,000 soldier retreat from Afghanistan this month with the Taliban as entrenched as ever in the Afghan countryside and powerful sections of the Pakistani state moving sharply away from anything that could be regarded as an alliance with Washington.
The Empire, for all its military hardware, is less and less able to hold together its unraveling social order. One thread after another keeps being pulled loose from its worn tapestry. This in turn exacerbates the divisions among the imperial strategists, with the arch hawks leading a new crusade against "appeasement" with the argument that if only Washington launched more wars and committed to endless occupations, all those uppity "others" in the world would be beaten into submission.
But there is far more to this New Year's landscape than the anguishes we endure.
In 2011 we saw the Arab Spring cast Hosni Mubarak out of his dictatorial throne. In Africa and the Middle East some of the most autocratic governments on earth have been challenged by mass movements of newly empowered citizens. The growth of non-violent direct action and boycotts against Israeli occupation and brutality has moved the description "Israeli apartheid" from the margins to the global mainstream, even increasingly in the U.S. Skirmishes pitting villagers against local officials have unfolded throughout China as working people resist getting crushed under unevenly distributed economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of Indignados gathered and marched in Spain to voice the pain of a generation lost to unemployment and austerity. And landless workers continued their long struggle against absentee owners to reclaim the Brazilian soil that feeds families and nourishes malnourished bodies.

And all signs point to these mass mobilizations continuing – even spreading – in 2012. On December 24 in Russia tens of thousands responded to allegations of election fraud with the largest public demonstrations since the fall of the USSR. Despite months of repressive violence, hundreds of thousands also poured onto the streets of Syria late this month in opposition to the ruling regime of Bashiral-Assad.

Here in the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement has galvanized previously unpoliticized people, re-energized longtime activists, captured wide public sympathy and sparked a level of political creativity not seen in decades. And for every feat of public defiance, thousands of additional everyday protests – worker’s slowing down the line, housewives refusing to do the dishes, white people housing undocumented workers – added weight to the centrifugal forces tugging at the empire.
Underlying these democratic currents is growing awareness we live in an era of plenty that is being stolen to appease the interests of a few. With equitable and fair distribution of the riches of our planet, there is more than enough to go around. There is food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, idle factories and offices for the unemployed to work, passionate teachers to educate our youth, untapped renewable energy sources to power our infrastructures, buildings to shelter the homeless, technologies to clean the air and water of the pollutants that sicken our bodies.
This growing awareness is translating into a level of public discussion of "the system," what's wrong with it, and what social arrangements other than capitalism might be better that hasn't existing in the U.S. in decades. What an exciting thing to see and take part in! All this ferment means that 2012 is not simply a year holding many dangers, but one of tremendous possibility. Translating possibility into reality will require moving from discussion and dramatic actions that mainly capture public attention to systematic campaigns that mobilize large numbers from the heart of the 99% and target the system at some of its most vulnerable spots. I think some of those weak links lie on the interstices between militarism and economic disrepair; and that conflict focused on those intersections will be among the main things that shape the year ahead.
Public opinion has already turned against the kind of wars Washington waged in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Majorities no longer think these adventures were "worth it." The reasons are mixed. Only a minority believes these wars were morally wrong and/or imperialist adventures. But millions do not think the "blood and treasure" spent justify the outcomes. And these millions are now opposed to sending large numbers of U.S. troops abroad for additional adventures, and favor cutting military spending rather than cutting social programs in hard economic times.
Substantial work needs to be done to win majorities to the view that drone killings and covert actions aimed at "regime change" are also to be opposed. But the public consciousness that does exist is a foundation on which to build. Linking the role of imperial interventions, military bases abroad and the military-industrial complex to the economic hardships of the 99% is an ongoing task with huge potential for fostering anti-militarism, internationalism and overall radicalization. This is especially the case with the economic situation being so dire:
In 2011 49.9 million people went without health insurance in the U.S. If trends from previous years held true, an estimated 44,000 of them died because they could not get needed medicine or care. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 21% of our children spent the year living in poverty and some 17.1 million households went hungry. Hundreds of thousands of foreclosures put vacant homes in our communities where once there were families. The latest unemployment figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that 13.3 million are unemployed; 43% of those have been without a job for more than six months.  An additional 2.6 million were counted as marginally attached to the labor force, including 1.1 million who had become discouraged and were no longer looking for work. These official statistics substantially understate the degree of real unemployment, and also don't indicate the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are unemployed.
In 2011, our cities once again were home to street violence born of desperate conditions that left thousands of mothers and fathers grieving the loss of their children – children grieving the loss of their parents and loved ones their beloved - to guns. Trauma upon trauma sears the memory of our nation in grotesque scenes of lives made cheap by bullets tearing through flesh. In a shameful legacy of genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, on any given day of the past year a country that claims to lead in spreading democracy to the world locked more than two million souls behind bars.
Meanwhile, the average executive in an S&P 500 corporation will make 211 times more per year ($11,400,000) than the typical Navy SEAL ($54,000). The richest families in the U.S. live in 30,000 square foot mansions. They can afford to send their children to exclusive boarding schools, watch movies on $20,000 home theater systems, enjoy annual vacations to island resorts, and drop a few thousand dollars on a single night out. No wonder "tax the rich" proposals are supported by more than 70% of the population, despite the massive media campaign against such proposals paid for by the rich themselves.
The military budget – used for high-tech death wielding equipment and fortresses flung across the globe to project the dominance of the 1% of the population who benefit from U.S. foreign policy – exceeded $700 billion this year. The U.S. now spends as much for "defense" as all the rest of the countries in the world combined.
Even as competition between nation states around the globe induces vast expenditures on arms – mainly among those nations in the North who benefit from the current order and use force to exercise their will across international boundaries - more than 2.8 billion human beings live on less than two dollars a day. Throughout the global South shanty towns are densely populated with a seething mass of humanity who lacks access to jobs, decent shelter, doctors, clean water and other basic necessities of life. These conditions now afflict more and more people in the U.S. as well.
One hardly has to be a radical to recognize that giving priority to military over social spending is disastrous for the well-being of this country and the world. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican President and former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, said back in 1961:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
He also said:
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…
"Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield."
Battling inequality and fighting the bloated war machine appeals to the 99%'s self-interest, and is simultaneously a matter of universal justice. No decent person wants poverty and endless bloodshed for his or her community. It is as though the injustice runs long enough to fill an ocean with tears dropped from a broken faucet.
This year will see a presidential election. The airwaves will be saturated with partisan advertisements and election year stories. Some issues will be posed in ways that press millions to think; many others will be obscured and covered over with layers of misinformation and distortion.
It is almost never easy for radicals to engage effectively with this kind of process. In 2012 as in previous election years partisans of peace, justice and equality will hold different views of the course to take. But most will agree that whatever else activists do, however they cast or don't cast their votes and/or ask others to cast theirs, Occupy and the dynamic it has unleashed adds a new and vital element to the terrain. As a grassroots upsurge casting a spotlight on inequality, targeting the 1%, calling out Wall Street and frequently naming capitalism itself, Occupy in whatever form(s) it takes in 2012 can put issues before large numbers in undiluted form and drive the public agenda in a progressive direction.
Occupy will be challenged of course to keep broadening its appeal and find ways to include more of the 99% in its actions activities and direct orbit. The same challenge faces all other initiatives that have been inspired or energized by Occupy and are attempting to mobilize around one or another variant of a progressive or radical agenda. Can we meet that challenge? Let's resolve as we ring in the New Year to help make that happen and act on our dreams and hopes for what life could be.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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