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A Basic Income Is Less Than Meets The Eye by Pete Dolack – Dandelion Salad

25 Apr


by Pete Dolack
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
Systemic Disorder, December 1, 2016
April 24, 2017

Source: A Basic Income Is Less Than Meets The Eye by Pete Dolack – Dandelion Salad

A basic income — the concept of everybody getting a regular check from the government regardless of circumstance — is one of those ideas that sound wonderful on the surface but proves to be much less so once we examine the details.

An idea that seems to have gained more traction recently, a basic income is a liberal utopia. It even has its proponents on the Right, including Chicago School godfather Milton Friedman. That alone ought to require us to pause for thought.

A basic income, also sometimes called a universal income, can be defined as a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirements, paid on a regular schedule. Everybody gets this money, on top of their regular earnings.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? The devil, of course, is in the details. And, as just noted, a basic income has support from Friedman and hard-line libertarian outfits like the Cato Institute. Friedman gave a talk on this topic (he called his version a “negative income tax”) in 1968, in which he said:

“The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need. Rather than as now by requiring them to come before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may spend x dollars on rent, y dollars on food, etc., and then be given a handout.”



Conservative economists, and certainly Friedman, who remains an icon of the hard Right, are hardly known for wanting government to help anybody (except capitalists). So what is behind this? We are talking here about the economist who helped military dictator Augusto Pinochet implement “shock therapy” in Chile, the result of which was the poverty rate skyrocketing to 40 percent while real wages declined by a third. One-third of Chileans were unemployed during the last years of the dictatorship and the privatized social security system was so bad for Chilean working people that someone retiring in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had they been in the old government system.

And let us not forget the extreme violence that was required to implement Friedman’s neoliberal dreams, with the total of those killed, jailed, “disappeared” or forced into exile totaling tens if not hundreds of thousands. Friedman claimed that he gave only “technical economic advice” and that Chile’s economic and political policies were totally separate, but also wrote that people who demonstrated in favor of human rights at his speeches were “fanatics.”



A back door to cutting services and wages

A basic income is popular among some right-wing economists because such an income would replace social services and provide a subsidy to employers who pay wages below a living level. The Marxist economist Michael Roberts puts this plainly:

“[P]aying each person a ‘basic’ income rather than wages and social benefits is seen as a way of ‘saving money,’ reducing the size of the state and public services — in other words lowering the value of labour power and raising the rate of surplus value (in Marxist terms). It would be a ‘wage subsidy’ to employers with those workers who get no top-up in income from social benefits under pressure to accept wages no higher than the ‘basic income’ which would be much lower than their average salary.”

Although it would likely be difficult for capitalists to force down wages on current employees remaining in their jobs in the short term, a basic income would enable bosses to cut pay to new hires. A prospective employer could easily offer reduced wages on the basis that the prospective employee already has financial support via the basic income. Few interviewers would likely say that so blatantly, but “market pressure” would cut the price of labor, which would remain a commodity in a fully capitalist economy. With starting wages offered to new employees reduced, eventually pressure would build on longer-term employees to accept wage cuts, too.

Already, low-wage employers like Wal-Mart receive massive subsidies that enable it both to rack up gigantic profits and pay its workers wages below subsistence levels. The spectacle of Wal-Mart workers holding food drives so they can eat might well be replicated on a much larger scale when the basic income proves to be worth less than the value of unemployment benefits and other social-welfare programs, combined with downward pressure on wages.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain notes that unions would not be able to counteract such downward pressure on wages:

“Unions do have some power, but it is limited to working with favourable labour market forces to get higher wages and better working conditions. When, however, labour market conditions are against them the most they can do is to slow down the worsening of wages and working conditions. If all workers got a basic income from the state of £5000, let alone £10,000, a year, this would change labour market conditions in favour of employers. In pay negotiations they would point to the state payment as evidence that they did not need to pay so much in wages or salaries to maintain their employees’ accustomed standard of living. The workers and their unions would realise this and the negotiations would be about what the reduction in wages and salaries should be.”


It won’t make capitalism kinder or gentler

Bargaining over wages in the best of times is no more than negotiating the terms of your exploitation. “Market forces” — which are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — will operate just as pitilessly with a basic income because neither a basic income nor collective bargaining over wages touches in any way the social relations of capitalism. A capitalist’s profit derives from paying employees a fraction of the value of what they produce; the inequality that results from that (and the relentless competitive pressure on capitalists to expand on pain of dying) will exist as long as capitalism exists. A basic income would have no effect on this.

A basic income bears some resemblance to the concept of “block grants,” a particular obsession with right-wing politicians in the United States. Block grants are money that would be handed to lower levels of government by the federal government to be dispersed as local officials wish with no accountability as a substitution for money that is ear-marked for specific social programs. These are continually proposed as a back door to dismantling social programs. Similarly, a basic income would be a cash transfer for recipients to pay for whatever services or needs they might have in a private market system, assuming they have adequate total income to obtain it, rather than having services provided for free or at subsidized cost as a public service on the basis of need, as a civilized society ought to do.

The use of the “market” to determine social outcomes would only increase. In other words, more neoliberalism! More people being unable to meet their basic needs would result as wealth would become more of a determinant of results.

It is also argued that a basic income could disproportionally affect women. The feminist economist Barbara Bergmann countered advocates of basic income who argue that such payments would enable parents to stay home with young children by pointing out that women disproportionally are the stay-at-home parents, to the detriment of their long-term earning potential. Thus a basic income would make women more dependent, not less, she wrote:

“Many if not most employers have come to see women as likely to be continuous labor force participants, not inevitably destined to leave the work force, and therefore as people worth training, worth putting into jobs leading to promotion, worth considering for promotion. This kind of progress would be reversed if a higher proportion of women withdrew from the labor force when their first child was born. For this reason, the full-blown implementation of Basic Income schemes in the near future should not appeal to those for whom gender equality is an important goal.”

Nor would the weakening of health care systems that would be a likely result of cutting social services do any better in fostering equality. Professor Bergmann wrote:

“Both the welfare state and Basic Income reduce inequality of condition. But the welfare state does so with greater efficiency, because it takes better account of inequalities due to differences in needs. If I need an expensive operation and you don’t, giving both of us a Basic Income grant will not go far to make our situations more equal. Only the provision of health services has the chance of doing that.”



Would governments really increase spending?

Those who advocate for a basic or universal income do so on the basis of affordability — there would not be a strain on the treasury, presumably because a spur to consumer spending would boost the economy. But is this so? A hard look at the numbers is not encouraging.

In all types of capitalist societies, from the neoliberalism of the United States to the social democracy of Sweden, the costs of a basic income would far outstrip current spending on social welfare programs.

In the U.S. an annual figure of $10,000 is often bandied about as the appropriate level for a basic income. If this sum were paid out to every U.S. adult, it would cost about $2.4 trillion. That total vastly outstrips current spending on social programs. A Wall Street Journal analysis (hostile to a basic income for the expected conservative reasons) suggests that scrapping income support for the poor, disabled and unemployed, and eliminating veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, Medicare and other health care subsidies would save a composite $1.5 trillion — and likely be quite unpopular.

It could be argued, as the Journal wouldn’t, that money for a basic income could come instead from other sources, such as eliminating massive corporate subsidies, drastically cutting the military budget and even printing money to go toward people instead of the trillions of dollars conjured out of thin air by central banks for “quantitative easing” programs that do little other than fuel stock-market bubbles and inflate speculators’ assets. But for that to happen an immense popular movement would be required, and the enormous effort that would be poured into such a movement would better direct its energies to much more thorough-going changes.

Thus, realistically, a basic income that could hardly be lived on (likely far less than $10,000 annually for United Statesians if it actually came into existence) would be paid for by an effective elimination of the remaining social safety net. Hardly a desirable outcome.



No better prospects where the safety net is stronger

This dynamic would hold in countries with better safety nets. In Canada, a basic income of $10,000 per person would cost 17 percent of Canadian gross domestic product, more than twice what all levels of government in Canada spend on social benefits. Toby Sanger, a Canadian economist who works with unions, argues that any basic income, due to its expense, would soon cease to be universal. He writes:

“Any fiscally sustainable basic income program with an adequate level of benefits would need to be income tested or subject to relatively high clawback or tax rates and so wouldn’t end up being universal and unconditional.  While such a program would be fiscally feasible, it would be subject to many of the same problems with the existing social assistance system that many basic income advocates want to escape.”

Simply instituting a basic income, even if it were fiscally possible, in itself doesn’t address the structural causes of poverty. Mr. Sanger writes:

“While lack of financial resources is of course a primary aspect of poverty, simply providing more money won’t eliminate poverty alone. Social exclusion, inadequate access to education, public goods, opportunities, networks, lack of political influence and many other factors contribute to a persistent of poverty. Systemic racial, gender, class, and ability-based discrimination have resulted in higher rates and a persistent of poverty among women, racialized Canadians, Aboriginal peoples, differentially abled and among those whose families were poor.”

Even a country with generous social-welfare programs like Sweden would find the institution of a basic income difficult. Professor Bergmann calculated that sending a basic-income check equal to a poverty-line income to all Swedes not already recipients of government programs would require about 15 percent of gross domestic product. Doing that, while retaining current benefits, would require higher taxes. As a result:

“[I]f an extra 15 percent of GDP were added to cash payments by government to households, those extra funds would have to be taxed away from households’ wage and property income now devoted to buying consumer goods, now 32 percent of GDP, leaving households just 17 percent of GDP as their net reward for their participation in the production of the entire GDP. That could hardly be tolerated.”



A previous experiment in Canada

Advocates of a basic income often point to the experiment conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, in the 1970s. A University of Manitoba economist, Evelyn Forget, recently studied the results (a new Conservative government ended the program and the intended government study was never performed) and found positive results. Hospitalization rates declined, more adolescents stayed in school and workforce participation remained steady.

But the experiment in Dauphin, a town of about 12,000 people, wasn’t actually a basic income. There was an income eligibility rate, meaning that only about 30 percent of the town residents actually got a check. A family of four could receive $15,000 per year on top of whatever benefits were already in place. So this was a case of living in a lucky spot.

The province of Ontario, under a Liberal administration, announced this year that it would conduct an experiment in a basic income, to be conducted in selected towns to be determined. But the provincial government has hinted this may be intended as a way of reducing benefits. Its explanation in the budget for this proposal states: “The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports.”

Finland is going forward with its own experiment. The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is soliciting input on a program that would provide €560 per month tax-free to 2,000 people in a mandatory test case that would run in 2017 and 2018. The ministry, in a press release, first states it seeks to determine if a basic income would “promote employment,” but then hints at a desire to cut benefits:

“The basic income experiment is one of the activities aiming to reform social security so that it corresponds better to the changes of working life, to overhaul social security to encourage participation and employment, to reduce bureaucracy, and to simplify the complicated benefits system in a sustainable way regarding public finances.”

We live under capitalism, and we don’t get something for nothing, regardless of advocates issuing statements calling for a basic income without any cuts to existing benefits. The measures of democracy and social welfare that have been obtained are a direct result of social movements and the work of activists. They are not gifts handed down to us.

Liberals and social democrats ought to be careful for what they wish. Our energies can better go toward the creation of a sustainable economy that provides for human needs with jobs for all who need them, rather than begging for extra crumbs (that might turn out to be fewer crumbs) from capitalists’ tables.

from the archives:

Debate: Basic Income: A Way Forward for the Left?

Universal Basic Income–Not The Answer, Yet But Needs To Be Discussed by Graham Peebles

How Bankers Became the Top Exploiters of the Economy by Michael Hudson

If This Is The Last Century Of Capitalism, What Will Replace It? by Pete Dolack

If We Don’t Solve The Problem Of Economic Polarization, We’re Going To Go Into Another Dark Age by Michael Hudson

Wealth Belongs To All Of Us – Not Just To The Rich by Dariel Garner


#BecomeUngovernable .  We will never be Free while the Rich Rule Over Us!!  The “Rigged System” holds no future for the 99% a Political Revolution does – beungovernable .com 



American Dream in Freefall: It’s This Bad | Common Dreams

25 Apr


Whither the American Dream?

It may not be totally dead, but a new study suggests that it is certainly on life support.

Published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal Science, the team of researchers led by Raj Chetty and David Grusky of Stanford University used data from federal income tax returns and U.S. Census and Current Population Surveys to look at trends of this “absolute mobility,” or earning more than one’s parents.

What they found was a dramatic decline over the past several decades. While nearly all—over 90 percent—of children born in 1940 were able to earn more than their parents, that figure drops to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s.

The authors write that the decline was particularly acute “in the industrial Midwest,” states like Michigan, and hit the middle class hardest, though they note “that declines in absolute mobility have been a systematic, widespread phenomenon throughout the United States since 1940.”


Source: American Dream in Freefall: It’s This Bad | Common Dreams


An infographic conveying results by Chetty et al., which reveal that the probability for children to attain a higher income than their parents has dropped dramatically -- from more than 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the 28 April 2017, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by R. Chetty at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and colleagues was titled, 'The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940.' (Image and caption: AAAS/Science)

An infographic conveying results by Chetty et al., which reveal that the probability for children to attain a higher income than their parents has dropped dramatically — from more than 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the 28 April 2017, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by R. Chetty at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and colleagues was titled, ‘The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940.’ (Image and caption: AAAS/Science)Intertwined with the ability to move upward is the inequality gripping the nation. They note: “Higher GDP growth rates do not substantially increase the number of children who earn more than their parents because a large fraction of GDP goes to a small number of high income earners today.” Put another way, “Absolute mobility is highest when GDP growth rates are high and growth is spread broadly across the distribution.”

Thus, a big part of reversing the trend means “more equal economic redistribution,” the researchers conclude.



Noting the economic benefits that have been reaped most by those at the upper echelons, noted commentator Bill Moyers wrote months ago of “an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education.”

It was a major theme of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who continues to rail against the country’s “massive income and wealth inequality,” and condemned President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint last month as “morally obsence” for including “unacceptably painful cuts to programs that senior citizens, children, persons with disabilities, and working people rely on to feed their families, heat their homes, put food on the table, and educate their children.”


The “Rigged System” holds no future for the 99% – but a Revolution does –Earth  First  “Serve the People – Defend the Planet” – #BecomeUngovernable –

 The Red Emigrant By Bruce Robbins – The Nation MARCH 30, 2017

7 Apr

Born in 1907, in a small Polish village that was then part of the soon-to-vanish Austro-Hungarian Empire, Deutscher was 10 when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. He would later chronicle their story, in incredibly gripping detail, in his monumental three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, but his preparation for that work started with a sense that many of the solid things around him were at or near the point of melting into air. His Orthodox Jewish family was strictly observant, and as a child (and something of a prodigy) he was sent to study with a Hasidic rabbi. At the age of 13, Deutscher was consecrated as a rabbi himself. But as we learn from the beguiling biographical sketch that his wife and longtime collaborator, Tamara Deutscher, appends to The Non-Jewish Jew, a collection of Deutscher’s essays now republished by Verso Books, his father—a printer—­also passed along his fervent, if religiously troublesome, passion for modern German writers, including the poet Heinrich Heine. If you write in Polish, Deutscher’s father repeatedly advised him, no one will understand you beyond Auschwitz. At that point, Auschwitz was merely the name of a nearby town.

In November 1918, the first week of Polish independence brought to the region where the Deutschers lived not one but three pogroms. Yet as Poland and other new nations emerged from the ruins of shattered empires after the First World War, the young Deutscher became something of a Polish patriot. At 14, he repudiated his family’s Judaism as a vestige of feudalism. At 16, he began publishing poetry in Polish that was influenced by Jewish mysticism and Polish romanticism, and he translated German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latin verses into Polish. At 20, he joined the Polish Communist Party.

In 1931, Deutscher was sent by the party to Soviet Russia to report on the economic results of the first Five-Year Plan. He learned more about the trajectory of the revolution than the party was comfortable with him knowing. A year or so later, he was expelled for “democratic deviations,” including his refusal to treat Western social democracy as the moral equivalent of Nazism. He got a job with a Jewish newspaper in Poland and, in April 1939, was sent off to London, where he set about learning English. The move saved his life: The Nazis invaded Poland around five months later, and Deutscher never saw his parents again.

Exile spelled the end of the Eastern European phase of Deutscher’s career, but he didn’t allow it to define him. In his own eyes, he was rooted—and proudly so—in the tradition of Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud, the “non-Jewish Jews” he discusses in the title essay of this still-sparkling reprint. He was also rooted in leftist internationalism, a tradition that provided him with a home wherever he happened to live.

Deutscher’s political commitments and his experiences with the Polish Communist Party also gave him an activist’s sense that timing was at least as important as principle, a sense that subtly relativized his judgments and clearly informed everything he went on to write, whether it was his journalism as a Russian-speaking commentator on the Kremlin, his political criticism, or the works of history that subsequently made him famous.

Though England took him in, Deutscher remained an exile from the world of the English university. Unlike many of his leftist peers, he wrote his long, richly documented books on Trotsky and Stalin without the benefit of an academic post. Deutscher’s chance at a university job and a stable income was stopped cold by no less than Isaiah Berlin, according to Michael Ignatieff’s biography of the Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, whose considered opinion when consulted on the hire was: Over my dead body. Perhaps this was owing to political differences; perhaps it was the result of a bitingly negative review of Berlin that Deutscher had published some years earlier. Once Deutscher was out of the picture, Berlin insisted that his evaluation had not been decisive, but this claim has not stood up to scrutiny. Deutscher’s name also figured on the list of communist sympathizers that George Orwell secretly gave to the British Foreign Office in 1949, the year when Deutscher’s biography of Stalin was published.

In “Components of the National Culture” (1968), Perry Anderson argued that some of the most influential intellectuals who fled to Britain from political violence on the continent—people like Berlin, Karl Popper, Bronislaw Malinowski, Melanie Klein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—had elective affinities with Britain’s very uncontinental tradition of nonviolent continuity and relative social stability. Once established in Britain, Anderson said, they reinforced and expanded that tradition, leaving Britain more conservative still.

In Anderson’s view, Deutscher was the most prominent exception to this “White emigration.” Perhaps because of the idiosyncrasies of his radicalism—one that did not quite conform with either British communist or social-democratic politics—Deutscher was ignored by Britain’s academic world. Or perhaps it was because his intellectual independence, his journalistic flair and polemical style, didn’t conform with England’s cloistered and sometimes stodgy university culture. In any case, Anderson never ignored him—in fact, anyone searching for evidence of Deutscher’s intellectual afterlife would need look no further than Anderson’s brilliant accomplishments as a historian and political analyst.

Like Deutscher, Anderson has proved over the years to be a polyglot polymath; like Deutscher, he recognizes no appeal above or beyond what Gregory Elliott calls, in his book about Anderson, “the merciless laboratory of history.” Both were drawn to the “olympian universalism” of Marx and Engels, although perhaps not equally so.

Anderson related an anecdote that suggested a small but telling difference between the two men. In the 1960s, Anderson was loudly indignant at England’s lack of political dynamism. Why, he asked, could France boast of so many revolutions, while modern England had had none? In a foreword to the volume in which “Components” is reprinted, he recalled Deutscher informing him that he could not fully approve of Anderson’s disengagement from political possibilities on the ground, imperfect as they might be. Borrowing a term from Rosa Luxemburg’s misguided refusal to support Polish independence before World War I, Deutscher said that Anderson’s position was guilty of “national nihilism.”

In saying no to nihilism even about nationalism, of which he was no fan, Deutscher was passing on some practical wisdom—­wisdom intended in particular for anyone trying to stretch political commitment beyond the heady enthusiasm of youth. To judge everyday politics by the high standard of revolution is to make oneself vulnerable to despair, or at least apathy. It can also be self-defeating, parachuting a set of abstract standards into a community that might be receptive to a politics’ goals but is either confused or alienated by the language in which those goals are pursued. As a longtime revolutionary, Deutscher was well-placed to insist that there are other paths toward social justice.

Unlike more mainstream critics of Soviet Russia, Deutscher was not a liberal. He was committed to democracy, and his objections to the Soviet regime overlapped in places with the standard liberal objections, but one of the things he appreciated in Trotsky was the latter’s firm belief that, despite Russia’s social and economic backwardness, the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 should not aim for a liberal government that would leave private property untouched. Instead, as Trotsky argued, he believed that the revolution could leap over the constitutional stage, seeking to satisfy the material demands of workers and peasants. Of course, no one reflecting on what would ultimately happen to the revolution under Stalin is likely to conclude that this question has been resolved in Trotsky’s favor. Was Russia too backward to skip liberal capitalism? And, more to the point, would a constitutional system that protected bourgeois rights have created the necessary impediments to the terror that followed once Stalin secured power? Trotsky himself was to change his mind on these issues, and to Deutscher’s credit, he didn’t pretend that he possessed a higher or privileged knowledge.

Deutscher’s open questions about the subsequent course of the Russian Revolution—a revolution he never entirely gave up on—also help explain his extraordinary moral generosity, what one might even call the Tolstoyan quality of his historical writing. Strident advocacy was something that Deutscher just could not seem to pull off. Every sentence he wrote as a historian bore some mark, however faint, of ongoing self-disputation.

This was true even when it came to Stalin, and it was perhaps one reason why many found his biography of Stalin so troubling. Stalin had ordered the murder of Trotsky, along with so many others, and in Deutscher’s hands, Stalin is a monster—but he is not simply a monster and Deutscher tried to understand Stalin’s motives. “It is not necessary to assume that he acted from sheer cruelty or lust for power,” Deutscher wrote in his biography. “He may be given the dubious credit of the sincere conviction that what he did served the interests of the revolution and that he alone interpreted those interests aright.”

This was never intended as a defense of Stalin, but rather as an argument that even his most appalling actions did not lie beyond the possibility of historical explanation. To put them beyond historical explanation would be to pretend that the revolution did not embody its own contradictions, which predated Stalin’s years of monomaniacal dictatorship and (as Deutscher didn’t fail to note) marked Trotsky’s political career as well.

It might seem that accepting the existence of those contradictions—contradictions that Deutscher believed were baked into the very soul of leftist revolutionism in general and the Russian Revolution in particular—would lead him to opt for fatalism. But somehow it did not. Deutscher was able to make the contradictions very clear (and make a life outside the Communist Party) without giving up on the hope of revolution itself, whether in Russia or as a planetary goal that must continue to take heart from the initial triumphs of 1917. The peoples of the West needed to be reminded, Deutscher thought, that when the Russians fought the Nazis in World War II, it was not out of primal patriotism alone; they were engaged in “a battle for the existence of the workers’ movement.” His audience at Berkeley in 1965 needed to be reminded that the threat of aggression from the Soviet Union, which supposedly justified America’s Cold War mission in Vietnam, was in his view ludicrous. There was no parity of power between the United States and the USSR: One was a superpower, while the other had emerged from World War II “prostrate and bled white.”

Now the Russian people were trying to shake off that nightmare along with the memory of Stalin. Progressives in the West had the obligation to help them do it. This meant viewing the Cold War not only from the standpoint of the West but also from that of the East. The Vietnam War exacerbated the Cold War, thereby making Russian life worse. What Deutscher was trying to offer to the crowd of antiwar protesters in 1965 was a Russia-centered case against the Vietnam War. It was almost certainly not what the audience had been expecting to hear, but somehow it was at once both politically inspiring and bracingly independent from the simple moral binaries that antiwar protest seemed to demand.

In 1903, at the Brussels congress where Bolsheviks and Mensheviks first laid out their differences of opinion, Trotsky made one of the rare speeches in which he referred to himself as a Jew. He did so in order to speak with personal authority against the Jewish Bund, which was demanding the right to “cultural autonomy,” including the ability to elect its own governing body and set its own policy with regard to the Jewish population. Of course the Jews should have the right to be educated in Yiddish, Trotsky explained, but how could socialism—which was interested in overcoming the barriers that divided countries, religions, and nationalities—­turn its hand to erecting its own barriers to this vision of universal emancipation?

Deutscher had been raised at the very heart of Yiddish culture in Polish Austro-Hungary and had played an active and creative part in it. For him, Yiddish was a 
language and culture that was always entangled with the labor movement. Like Trotsky, he tended to think of himself as a revolutionary first and a Jew only afterward. But Deutscher also did think of himself as a Jew, and in ways that encourage a variation on the question in Anderson’s essay: What are the components of Jewish identity?

As the title of this collection suggests, Deutscher’s own sense of Jewish identity is completely disconnected from the Jewish religion. As an adult, he announced his atheism without apology, finding no virtues in the Hasidism of his youth and describing as Kafkaesque “the fashionable longing of the Western Jew for a return to the sixteenth century.” But his secularism was not merely negative; it was also positive, active, emancipatory, and above all sociable. For Jews, it entailed a gesture of trust in the gentiles around them, trust that they and non-Jewish progressives could make common cause and share in its victories.

From this positive, humanist view of secularism, Deutscher asserted that Jewish identity could never be a matter of Jewish control over territory. “I have nothing in common with the Jews of, say, Mea Sha’arim,” he declared, “or with any kind of Israeli nationalists.” The obsolescence of the nation-state had been proven in the meaningless slaughter of World War I. There was thus a terrible irony for him in the founding of Israel: Jews were investing in the nation-state just as it had gone into what Deutscher thought (prematurely) was a state of terminal decline.

And what of the Holocaust, which might well have shaken Deutscher’s trust in the possibility of Jews finding common cause with the gentile world? Though it more or less bisected his life, the Holocaust did not lead him to defect from the camp of the secularizers and believers in modernity. The Nazis were the reason, after all, why the Eastern European Jewish culture in which he was raised no longer existed. But when Deutscher talks about that culture, he quotes a conversation he had with the Yiddish satirist Moshe Nadir in the 1920s. Nadir was already predicting that in the future Yiddish would no longer be spoken, perhaps because the Jews, now happily assimilated, would be speaking Polish or Russian. Nadir looked to that day with equanimity, because when Yiddish became a dead language like Latin, his satires would be read as classics, on a par with those of Horace and Ovid. By invoking this old line from Nadir, Deutscher seemed to be saying that the Yiddish culture the Nazis took away would have been lost in any case to a history that was both merciless and progressive. What should be mourned, therefore, was not the culture but the lives that had disappeared into the immense maw of World War II. About history itself, which he’d always imagined as shared between Jews and non-Jews, he remained confident that despite its brutalities, humanity would emerge from it better off. One of the less obvious qualities he attributes to the line of “non-Jewish Jews” running from Spinoza to Freud is optimism. Yes, he saw Freud too as an optimist.

If Deutscher had gone to New York instead of London, his anti-Stalinist leftism, his literary verve, and his liveliness in debate would no doubt have earned him speedy entrée into the talkative circles of the New York intellectuals. Trotsky had admirers there, and Deutscher did make a couple of visits. But keeping up his membership might have required some negotiation among that rancorous crowd. As these essays show, Deutscher wasn’t shy about expressing his contempt for Jewish intellectuals in the West, who, he believed, had become conservative during the Cold War, championing the so-called liberal “way of life” of Britain and the United States, and he would have also become uncomfortable with those who shed the radical, universalistic impulses of Jewish culture in favor of a more particularist one.

For Deutscher, geographical and class differences among Jews were pronounced enough to make him skeptical of any such thing as a “Jewish community” that currently exists or could come into being as religious observance fades. In his lifetime, the history of persecution had not yet quite replaced Judaism at the center of Western Jewish identity. But his own thoughts on Jewish identity did center on the Holocaust, perhaps inevitably so. “I am a Jew,” he says in a piece discussing the Holocaust, “because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy.” It was the Holocaust that caused Deutscher to unbend toward Zionism, if only slightly. “If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s,” he wrote, “I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.” But even here, he is careful to make clear his aversion to any form of Jewish nationalism: “Even now, however, I am not a Zionist.”

The book contains two versions of a famous parable of Israel’s founding in the wake of the Holocaust, a parable that is sometimes all that people remember of Deutscher. In the first telling, from 1954, a man jumps from a burning ship onto a raft. Deutscher’s point is that any nation-state is merely a raft, a temporary solution that should not be turned into a permanent (nationalist) program, as Israel seemed to be doing. In the second telling, from 1967, written in response to the Six-Day War, the man jumps from a burning building and survives, but he lands on a person on the sidewalk below (who stands in, of course, for the Palestinians) and breaks his arms and legs.

“If both behaved rationally,” Deutscher comments, “they would not become enemies.” But rationality does not prevail. “The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished.”

I don’t imagine that many will be entirely happy with this parable. Still, it offers an interesting alternative to the concept of settler colonialism, and it did not stop Deutscher from remaining sharply critical of Israel, reminding his readers that David Ben-Gurion referred to non-Zionist Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans”—Stalin’s favorite euphemism for the Jewish Bolsheviks and intellectuals he wiped out. Or, in Deutscher’s commentary on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, written two months before his death, that he saw in Israel’s “victory” a prophecy of disaster and in Moshe Dayan a kind of Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, then the preferred tool of the Americans in Vietnam. It also didn’t stop him from criticizing Israel’s collusion with American foreign policy during the Cold War and its refusal to be a neighbor to its neighbors. Israel’s future depended, Deutscher believed, on the ability of the Israelis “to find a common language with the peoples around them.”

As Deutscher wrote in the collection’s final essay, the Holocaust was the one event that transcended historical explanation. By historicizing his internationalism, it changed his mind about his programmatic anti­-Zionism, albeit without making him a Zionist. But it did not shake his core conviction that for Jews, as for everyone else, history does not demand the purity of an ethnocentric utopia—or any kind of utopia, for that matter. Instead, history demands of us the harder work of change in the nations we live in and with the neighbors we’ve been given. It also requires a careful attention to timing. BRUCE ROBBINS Bruce Robbins, a professor of English at Columbia University, is the author, among other books, of Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress(NYU).


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