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The Last Time Democracy Almost Died!

28 Jan

Learning from the upheaval of the nineteen-thirties.

 

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The last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once, Americans argued about it, and then they tried to fix it. “The future of democracy is topic number one in the animated discussion going on all over America,” a contributor to the New York Times wrote in 1937. “In the Legislatures, over the radio, at the luncheon table, in the drawing rooms, at meetings of forums and in all kinds of groups of citizens everywhere, people are talking about the democratic way of life.” People bickered and people hollered, and they also made rules. “You are a liar!” one guy shouted from the audience during a political debate heard on the radio by ten million Americans, from Missoula to Tallahassee. “Now, now, we don’t allow that,” the moderator said, calmly, and asked him to leave.

In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson’s Administration had promised that winning the Great War would “make the world safe for democracy.” The peace carved nearly a dozen new states out of the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires. The number of democracies in the world rose; the spread of liberal-democratic governance began to appear inevitable. But this was no more than a reverie. Infant democracies grew, toddled, wobbled, and fell: Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, Yugoslavia. In older states, too, the desperate masses turned to authoritarianism. Benito Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922. It had taken a century and a half for European monarchs who ruled by divine right and brute force to be replaced by constitutional democracies and the rule of law. Now Fascism and Communism toppled these governments in a matter of months, even before the stock-market crash of 1929 and the misery that ensued.

 

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“Epitaphs for democracy are the fashion of the day,” the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, dismally, in 1930. The annus horribilis that followed differed from every other year in the history of the world, according to the British historian Arnold Toynbee: “In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” When Japan invaded Manchuria, the League of Nations condemned the annexation, to no avail. “The liberal state is destined to perish,” Mussolini predicted in 1932. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.” By 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, the American political commentator Walter Lippmann was telling an audience of students at Berkeley that “the old relationships among the great masses of the people of the earth have disappeared.” What next? More epitaphs: Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia. Authoritarians multiplied in Portugal, Uruguay, Spain. Japan invaded Shanghai. Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. “The present century is the century of authority,” he declared, “a century of the Right, a Fascist century.”

American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government. “What Does Democracy Mean?” NBC radio asked listeners. “Do we Negroes believe in democracy?” W. E. B. Du Bois asked the readers of his newspaper column. Could it happen here? Sinclair Lewis asked in 1935. Americans suffered, and hungered, and wondered. The historian Charles Beard, in the inevitable essay on “The Future of Democracy in the United States,” predicted that American democracy would endure, if only because “there is in America, no Rome, no Berlin to march on.” Some Americans turned to Communism. Some turned to Fascism. And a lot of people, worried about whether American democracy could survive past the end of the decade, strove to save it. “It’s not too late,” Jimmy Stewart pleaded with Congress, rasping, exhausted, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in 1939. “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.” It wasn’t too late. It’s still not too late.

 

Benito Mussolini marching with soldiers.

 

There’s a kind of likeness you see in family photographs, generation after generation. The same ears, the same funny nose. Sometimes now looks a lot like then. Still, it can be hard to tell whether the likeness is more than skin deep.

In the nineteen-nineties, with the end of the Cold War, democracies grew more plentiful, much as they had after the end of the First World War. As ever, the infant-mortality rate for democracies was high: baby democracies tend to die in their cradles. Starting in about 2005, the number of democracies around the world began to fall, as it had in the nineteen-thirties. Authoritarians rose to power: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald J. Trump in the United States.

“American democracy,” as a matter of history, is democracy with an asterisk, the symbol A-Rod’s name would need if he were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act can the United States be said to have met the basic conditions for political equality requisite in a democracy. All the same, measured not against its past but against its contemporaries, American democracy in the twenty-first century is withering. The Democracy Index rates a hundred and sixty-seven countries, every year, on a scale that ranges from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime.” In 2006, the U.S. was a “full democracy,” the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world. In 2016, the index for the first time rated the United States a “flawed democracy,” and since then American democracy has gotten only more flawed. True, the United States still doesn’t have a Rome or a Berlin to march on. That hasn’t saved the nation from misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.

 

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Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition. Mussolini called Italy and Germany “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today,” and Hitler liked to say that, with Nazi Germany, he had achieved a “beautiful democracy,” prompting the American political columnist Dorothy Thompson to remark of the Fascist state, “If it is going to call itself democratic we had better find another word for what we have and what we want.” In the nineteen-thirties, Americans didn’t find another word. But they did work to decide what they wanted, and to imagine and to build it. Thompson, who had been a foreign correspondent in Germany and Austria and had interviewed the Führer, said, in a column that reached eight million readers, “Be sure you know what you prepare to defend.”

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. American democracy in the nineteen-thirties had plenty of critics, left and right, from Mexican-Americans who objected to a brutal regime of forced deportations to businessmen who believed the New Deal to be unconstitutional. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that, unless the United States met its obligations to the dignity and equality of all its citizens and ended its enthrallment to corporations, American democracy would fail: “If it is going to use this power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace; then America will go the way of the Roman Empire.”

The historian Mary Ritter Beard warned that American democracy would make no headway against its “ruthless enemies—war, fascism, ignorance, poverty, scarcity, unemployment, sadistic criminality, racial persecution, man’s lust for power and woman’s miserable trailing in the shadow of his frightful ways”—unless Americans could imagine a future democracy in which women would no longer be barred from positions of leadership: “If we will not so envisage our future, no Bill of Rights, man’s or woman’s, is worth the paper on which it is printed.”

If the United States hasn’t gone the way of the Roman Empire and the Bill of Rights is still worth more than the paper on which it’s printed, that’s because so many people have been, ever since, fighting the fights Du Bois and Ritter Beard fought. There have been wins and losses. The fight goes on.

 

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Could no system of rule but extremism hold back the chaos of economic decline? In the nineteen-thirties, people all over the world, liberals, hoped that the United States would be able to find a middle road, somewhere between the malignity of a state-run economy and the mercilessness of laissez-faire capitalism. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on the promise to rescue American democracy by way of a “new deal for the American people,” his version of that third way: relief, recovery, and reform. He won forty-two of forty-eight states, and trounced the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, in the Electoral College 472 to 59. Given the national emergency in which Roosevelt took office, Congress granted him an almost entirely free hand, even as critics raised concerns that the powers he assumed were barely short of dictatorial.

New Dealers were trying to save the economy; they ended up saving democracy. They built a new America; they told a new American story. On New Deal projects, people from different parts of the country labored side by side, constructing roads and bridges and dams, everything from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Hoover Dam, joining together in a common endeavor, shoulder to the wheel, hand to the forge. Many of those public-works projects, like better transportation and better electrification, also brought far-flung communities, down to the littlest town or the remotest farm, into a national culture, one enriched with new funds for the arts, theatre, music, and storytelling. With radio, more than with any other technology of communication, before or since, Americans gained a sense of their shared suffering, and shared ideals: they listened to one another’s voices.

This didn’t happen by accident. Writers and actors and directors and broadcasters made it happen. They dedicated themselves to using the medium to bring people together. Beginning in 1938, for instance, F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration produced a twenty-six-week radio-drama series for CBS called “Americans All, Immigrants All,” written by Gilbert Seldes, the former editor of The Dial. “What brought people to this country from the four corners of the earth?” a pamphlet distributed to schoolteachers explaining the series asked. “What gifts did they bear? What were their problems? What problems remain unsolved?” The finale celebrated the American experiment: “The story of magnificent adventure! The record of an unparalleled event in the history of mankind!”

There is no twenty-first-century equivalent of Seldes’s “Americans All, Immigrants All,” because it is no longer acceptable for a serious artist to write in this vein, and for this audience, and for this purpose. (In some quarters, it was barely acceptable even then.) Love of the ordinary, affection for the common people, concern for the commonweal: these were features of the best writing and art of the nineteen-thirties. They are not so often features lately.

Americans reëlected F.D.R. in 1936 by one of the widest margins in the country’s history. American magazines continued the trend from the twenties, in which hardly a month went by without their taking stock: “Is Democracy Doomed?” “Can Democracy Survive?” (Those were the past century’s versions of more recent titles, such as “How Democracy Ends,” “Why Liberalism Failed,” “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” and “How Democracies Die.” The same ears, that same funny nose.) In 1934, the Christian Science Monitor published a debate called “Whither Democracy?,” addressed “to everyone who has been thinking about the future of democracy—and who hasn’t.” It staked, as adversaries, two British scholars: Alfred Zimmern, a historian from Oxford, on the right, and Harold Laski, a political theorist from the London School of Economics, on the left. “Dr. Zimmern says in effect that where democracy has failed it has not been really tried,” the editors explained. “Professor Laski sees an irrepressible conflict between the idea of political equality in democracy and the fact of economic inequality in capitalism, and expects at least a temporary resort to Fascism or a capitalistic dictatorship.” On the one hand, American democracy is safe; on the other hand, American democracy is not safe.

 

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Zimmern and Laski went on speaking tours of the United States, part of a long parade of visiting professors brought here to prognosticate on the future of democracy. Laski spoke to a crowd three thousand strong, in Washington’s Constitution Hall. “laski tells how to save democracy,” the Washington Post reported. Zimmern delivered a series of lectures titled “The Future of Democracy,” at the University of Buffalo, in which he warned that democracy had been undermined by a new aristocracy of self-professed experts. “I am no more ready to be governed by experts than I am to be governed by the ex-Kaiser,” he professed, expertly.

The year 1935 happened to mark the centennial of the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an occasion that elicited still more lectures from European intellectuals coming to the United States to remark on its system of government and the character of its people, close on Tocqueville’s heels. Heinrich Brüning, a scholar and a former Chancellor of Germany, lectured at Princeton on “The Crisis of Democracy”; the Swiss political theorist William Rappard gave the same title to a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago. In “The Prospects for Democracy,” the Scottish historian and later BBC radio quiz-show panelist Denis W. Brogan offered little but gloom: “The defenders of democracy, the thinkers and writers who still believe in its merits, are in danger of suffering the fate of Aristotle, who kept his eyes fixedly on the city-state at a time when that form of government was being reduced to a shadow by the rise of Alexander’s world empire.” Brogan hedged his bets by predicting the worst. It’s an old trick.

The endless train of academics were also called upon to contribute to the nation’s growing number of periodicals. In 1937, The New Republic, arguing that “at no time since the rise of political democracy have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today,” ran a series on “The Future of Democracy,” featuring pieces by the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. “Do you think that political democracy is now on the wane?” the editors asked each writer. The series’ lead contributor, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, took issue with the question, as philosophers, thankfully, do. “I call this kind of question ‘meteorological,’ ” he grumbled. “It is like asking, ‘Do you think that it is going to rain today? Had I better take my umbrella?’ ” The trouble, Croce explained, is that political problems are not external forces beyond our control; they are forces within our control. “We need solely to make up our own minds and to act.”

Don’t ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain.

Here are some of the sorts of people who went out and stopped the rain in the nineteen-thirties: schoolteachers, city councillors, librarians, poets, union organizers, artists, precinct workers, soldiers, civil-rights activists, and investigative reporters. They knew what they were prepared to defend and they defended it, even though they also knew that they risked attack from both the left and the right. Charles Beard (Mary Ritter’s husband) spoke out against the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, when he smeared scholars and teachers as Communists. “The people who are doing the most damage to American democracy are men like Charles A. Beard,” said a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, speaking at a high school on the subject of “Democracy and the Future,” and warning against reading Beard’s books—at a time when Nazis in Germany and Austria were burning “un-German” books in public squares. That did not exactly happen here, but in the nineteen-thirties four of five American superintendents of schools recommended assigning only those U.S. history textbooks which “omit any facts likely to arouse in the minds of the students question or doubt concerning the justice of our social order and government.” Beard’s books, God bless them, raised doubts.

Beard didn’t back down. Nor did W.P.A. muralists and artists, who were subject to the same attack. Instead, Beard took pains to point out that Americans liked to think of themselves as good talkers and good arguers, people with a particular kind of smarts. Not necessarily book learning, but street smarts—reasonableness, open-mindedness, level-headedness. “The kind of universal intellectual prostration required by Bolshevism and Fascism is decidedly foreign to American ‘intelligence,’ ” Beard wrote. Possibly, he allowed, you could call this a stubborn independence of mind, or even mulishness. “Whatever the interpretation, our wisdom or ignorance stands in the way of our accepting the totalitarian assumption of Omniscience,” he insisted. “And to this extent it contributes to the continuance of the arguing, debating, never-settling-anything-finally methods of political democracy.” Maybe that was whistling in the dark, but sometimes a whistle is all you’ve got.

 

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The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him. Denny, who helped run something called the League for Political Education, thought that was nuts. In 1935, he launched “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” an hour-long debate program, broadcast nationally on NBC’s Blue Network. Each episode opened with a town crier ringing a bell and hollering, “Town meeting tonight! Town meeting tonight!” Then Denny moderated a debate, usually among three or four panelists, on a controversial subject (Does the U.S. have a truly free press? Should schools teach politics?), before opening the discussion up to questions from an audience of more than a thousand people. The debates were conducted at a lecture hall, usually in New York, and broadcast to listeners gathered in public libraries all over the country, so that they could hold their own debates once the show ended. “We are living today on the thin edge of history,” Max Lerner, the editor of The Nation, said in 1938, during a “Town Meeting of the Air” debate on the meaning of democracy. His panel included a Communist, an exile from the Spanish Civil War, a conservative American political economist, and a Russian columnist. “We didn’t expect to settle anything, and therefore we succeeded,” the Spanish exile said at the end of the hour, offering this definition: “A democracy is a place where a ‘Town Meeting of the Air’ can take place.”

No one expected anyone to come up with an undisputable definition of democracy, since the point was disputation. Asking people about the meaning and the future of democracy and listening to them argue it out was really only a way to get people to stretch their civic muscles. “Democracy can only be saved by democratic men and women,” Dorothy Thompson once said. “The war against democracy begins by the destruction of the democratic temper, the democratic method and the democratic heart. If the democratic temper be exacerbated into wanton unreasonableness, which is the essence of the evil, then a victory has been won for the evil we despise and prepare to defend ourselves against, even though it’s 3,000 miles away and has never moved.”

The most ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties came out of Des Moines, Iowa, from a one-eyed former bricklayer named John W. Studebaker, who had become the superintendent of the city’s schools. Studebaker, who after the Second World War helped create the G.I. Bill, had the idea of opening those schools up at night, so that citizens could hold debates. In 1933, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and support from the American Association for Adult Education, he started a five-year experiment in civic education.

 

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The meetings began at a quarter to eight, with a fifteen-minute news update, followed by a forty-five-minute lecture, and thirty minutes of debate. The idea was that “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.” When Senator Guy Gillette, a Democrat from Iowa, talked about “Why I Support the New Deal,” Senator Lester Dickinson, a Republican from Iowa, talked about “Why I Oppose the New Deal.” Speakers defended Fascism. They attacked capitalism. They attacked Fascism. They defended capitalism. Within the first nine months of the program, thirteen thousand of Des Moines’s seventy-six thousand adults had attended a forum. The program got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding. The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

The federal government paid for it, but everything else fell under local control, and ordinary people made it work, by showing up and participating. Usually, school districts found the speakers and decided on the topics after collecting ballots from the community. In some parts of the country, even in rural areas, meetings were held four and five times a week. They started in schools and spread to Y.M.C.A.s and Y.W.C.A.s, labor halls, libraries, settlement houses, and businesses, during lunch hours. Many of the meetings were broadcast by radio. People who went to those meetings debated all sorts of things:

Should the Power of the Supreme Court Be Altered?

Do Company Unions Help Labor?

Do Machines Oust Men?

Must the West Get Out of the East?

Can We Conquer Poverty?

Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?

Is Propaganda a Menace?

Do We Need a New Constitution?

Should Women Work?

Is America a Good Neighbor?

Can It Happen Here?

These efforts don’t always work. Still, trying them is better than talking about the weather, and waiting for someone to hand you an umbrella.

 

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When a terrible hurricane hit New England in 1938, Dr. Lorine Pruette, a Tennessee-born psychologist who had written an essay called “Why Women Fail,” and who had urged F.D.R. to name only women to his Cabinet, found herself marooned at a farm in New Hampshire with a young neighbor, sixteen-year-old Alice Hooper, a high-school sophomore. Waiting out the storm, they had nothing to do except listen to the news, which, needless to say, concerned the future of democracy. Alice asked Pruette a question: “What is it everyone on the radio is talking about—what is this democracy—what does it mean?” Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer. Democracy, Alice, is the darnedest thing.

That broadcast was made possible by the workers who brought electricity to rural New Hampshire; the legislators who signed the 1934 federal Communications Act, mandating public-interest broadcasting; the executives at NBC who decided that it was important to run this program; the two ministers, the three professors, the former ambassador, the poet, and the journalist who gave their time, for free, to a public forum, and agreed to disagree without acting like asses; and a whole lot of Americans who took the time to listen, carefully, even though they had plenty of other things to do. Getting out of our current jam will likely require something different, but not entirely different. And it will be worth doing.

A decade-long debate about the future of democracy came to a close at the end of the nineteen-thirties—but not because it had been settled. In 1939, the World’s Fair opened in Queens, with a main exhibit featuring the saga of democracy and a chipper motto: “The World of Tomorrow.” The fairgrounds included a Court of Peace, with pavilions for every nation. By the time the fair opened, Czechoslovakia had fallen to Germany, though, and its pavilion couldn’t open. Shortly afterward, Edvard Beneš, the exiled President of Czechoslovakia, delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago on, yes, the future of democracy, though he spoke less about the future than about the past, and especially about the terrible present, a time of violently unmoored traditions and laws and agreements, a time “of moral and intellectual crisis and chaos.” Soon, more funereal bunting was brought to the World’s Fair, to cover Poland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. By the time the World of Tomorrow closed, in 1940, half the European hall lay under a shroud of black.

The federal government stopped funding the forum program in 1941. Americans would take up their debate about the future of democracy, in a different form, only after the defeat of the Axis. For now, there was a war to fight. And there were still essays to publish, if not about the future, then about the present. In 1943, E. B. White got a letter in the mail, from the Writers’ War Board, asking him to write a statement about “The Meaning of Democracy.” He was a little weary of these pieces, but he knew how much they mattered. He wrote back, “Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.” It meant something once. And, the thing is, it still does.

 

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Published in the print edition of the February 3, 2020, issue, with the headline “In Every Dark Hour.”
Jill Lepore is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book is “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

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‘Entire Species Are Being Wiped Out’: Ecologists Say Half a Billion Animals May Have Been Killed by Australia Wildfires

5 Jan

Published on Thursday, January 02, 2020 by

Ecologists at the University of Sydney are estimating that nearly half a billion animals have been killed in Australia’s unprecedented and catastrophic wildfires, which have sparked a continent-wide crisis and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in desperation.

News Corp Australia reported Wednesday that “there are real concerns entire species of plants and animals have been wiped out by bushfires following revelations almost 500 million animals have died since the crisis began.”

“Ecologists from the University of Sydney now estimate 480 million mammals, birds, and reptiles have been lost since September,” according to News Corp. “That figure is likely to soar following the devastating fires which have ripped through Victoria and the [New South Wales] South Coast over the past couple of days, leaving several people dead or unaccounted for, razing scores of homes and leaving thousands stranded.”

The horrifying figures come as images and videos of animals suffering severe burns and dehydration continue to circulate on social media.

Mark Graham, an ecologist with the National Conservation Council, told the Australian parliament that “the fires have burned so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies.”

Koalas in particular have been devastated by the fires, Graham noted, because they “really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away.”

As Reuters reported Tuesday, “Australia’s bushland is home to a range of indigenous fauna, including kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, possums, wombats, and echidnas. Officials fear that 30 percent of just one koala colony on the country’s northeast coast, or between 4,500 and 8,400, have been lost in the recent fires.”

 

The new normal, except it isn’t. It’s going to get much worse.
And the longer we delay climate action, the worse it will get https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=12297648 

 

 

There are real concerns entire species of plants and animals have been wiped out by bushfires following revelations almost 500 million animals have died since the crisis began.

Ecologists from the University of Sydney now estimate 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been lost since September.

That figure is likely to soar following the devastating fires which have ripped through Victoria and the NSW South Coast over the past couple of days, leaving several people dead or unaccounted for, razing scores of homes and leaving thousands stranded,

 

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Australia’s coal-touting Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced growing scrutiny for refusing to take sufficient action to confront the wildfires and the climate crisis that is driving them. Since September, the fires have burned over 10 million acres of land, destroyed more than a thousand homes, and killed at least 17 people—including 9 since Christmas Day.

On Thursday, the government of New South Wales (NSW) declared a state of emergency set to take effect Friday morning as the wildfires are expected to intensify over the weekend.

“We’ve got a lot of fire in the landscape that we will not contain,” said Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service. “We need to make sure that people are not in the path of these fires.”

 

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THE DECADE OF SOCIALIST REVOLUTION BEGINS – Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International

3 Jan

The arrival of the New Year marks the beginning of a decade of intensifying class struggle and world socialist revolution. Be…..

 

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In the future, when learned historians write about the upheavals of the Twenty-First Century, they will enumerate all the “obvious” signs that existed, as the 2020s began, of the revolutionary storm that was soon to sweep across the globe. The scholars—with a vast array of facts, documents, charts, web site and social media postings, and other forms of valuable digitalized information at their disposal—will describe the 2010s as a period characterized by an intractable economic, social, and political crisis of the world capitalist system.

They will note that by the beginning of the third decade of the century, history had arrived at precisely the situation foreseen theoretically by Karl Marx: “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.”

What, in fact, were the principal characteristics of the last ten years?

 

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The institutionalization of unending military conflict and the growing threat of nuclear world war

There was not a single day during the last decade when the United States was not at war. Military operations not only continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. New interventions were undertaken in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Ukraine. Even as 2020 is just getting under way, the murder of Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani, ordered by President Donald Trump, threatens all-out war between the United States and Iran, with incalculable consequences. The involvement of an American president in yet another targeted killing, followed by bloodthirsty boasting, testifies to the far-advanced derangement of the entire ruling elite.

Moreover, the adoption of a new strategic doctrine in 2018 signaled a vast escalation in the military operations of the United States. In his announcement of the new strategy, then defense secretary James Mattis declared: “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” The new doctrine revealed the essential purpose of what had previously been called the “War on Terror:” the attempt to maintain the hegemonic position of American imperialism.

The United States is determined to maintain this position, whatever the financial costs and the consequences in terms of human life. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) states in its recently released Strategic Survey: “For its part, the US is not likely voluntarily, reluctantly or after some sort of battle, to pass any strategic baton to China.”

All the major imperialist powers escalated, during the past decade, their preparations for world war and nuclear conflict. The trillion-dollar military budget adopted in 2019 by the Trump administration, with the support of the Democratic Party, is a war budget. Germany, France, the UK, and all the imperialist countries are building up their armed forces. The targets of imperialism, including the ruling elites in Russia and China, alternate between threats of war and desperate efforts to forge some sort of agreement.

The institutions developed in the aftermath of World War II to prevent another global conflict are dysfunctional. The Strategic Survey writes:

The trends of 2018–19 have all confirmed the atomisation of international society. Neither ‘balance of power’ nor ‘international rules-based governance’ serve as ordering principles. International institutions have been marginalised. The diplomatic routine of meetings continues, yet the competing exertions of national efforts, too rarely coordinated with others, matter more—and most often they are erratic in both execution and consequence.

The end of a “global rules-based order”—i.e., one dependent on the unchallengeable dominance of US imperialism—sets into motion a political logic that leads to war. As the Strategic Survey warns: “Law is made and sustained by politics. When law cannot settle disputes, they are shunted back to the political realm for resolution.” To understand what the “realm” to which the IISS is referring, one must recall Clausewitz’ famous definition of war as politics by other means.

And what would a modern world war entail? The IISS calls attention to new plans for the use of nuclear weapons. “Meanwhile, the US and Russia are modernizing their arsenals and changing their doctrines in ways that facilitate their use, while the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir remains a potential flashpoint for the use of nuclear weapons.” The recklessness, bordering on insanity, that prevails among policy makers is indicated in the growing conviction that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is a feasible option. The IISS writes:

All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that a limited, regional nuclear exchange, under some circumstances, has severe global environmental effects. But under other circumstances, the effects could be minimal. [emphasis added]

The movement toward a Third World War, which would threaten mankind with extinction, cannot be halted by humanitarian appeals. War arises out of the anarchy of capitalism and the obsolescence of the nation-state system. Therefore, it can be stopped only through the global struggle of the working class for socialism.

 

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The breakdown of democracy

The extreme aggravation of class tensions and the dynamic of imperialism are the real sources of the universal breakdown of democratic forms of rule. As Lenin wrote in the midst of World War I: “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and intensification of antagonisms in this field.”

Lenin’s analysis is being substantiated in the turn of the ruling elites, during the past decade, toward authoritarian and fascistic methods of rule. The rise to power of such criminal and even psychopathic personalities as Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the United States, and Boris Johnson in the UK is symptomatic of a systemic crisis of the entire capitalist system.

Seventy-five years after the collapse of the Third Reich, fascism is making a comeback in Germany. The Alternative für Deutschland, which is a haven for neo-Nazis, emerged during the past decade as the main opposition party. Its rise was facilitated by the Grand Coalition government, a corrupt media, and reactionary academics, who whitewash with impunity the crimes of Hitler’s regime. Similar processes are at work throughout Europe, where the fascist leaders of the 1930s and 1940s—Petain in France, Mussolini in Italy, Horthy in Hungary and Franco in Spain—are being remembered with nostalgia.

The decade saw the resurgence of anti-Semitic violence and the cultivation of Islamophobia and other forms of national chauvinism and racism. Concentration camps were constructed on the US border with Mexico to imprison refugees fleeing from Central and South America, and in Europe and North Africa as the frontline of the anti-immigrant policy of the EU.

There is no progressive tendency to be found within the capitalist parties. Even when confronted with a fascistic president, the Democratic Party refrains from opposition based on the defense of democratic rights. Employing the methods of a palace coup, the Democrats seek Trump’s impeachment only because he, in their view, has undermined the US campaign against Russia and the proxy war in Ukraine.

The attitude of the entire bourgeois political establishment to democratic rights is summed up in the horrific treatment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. With the support of both the Democrats and Republicans, Assange remains confined in Belmarsh prison in London, awaiting extradition to the US. Manning has been imprisoned for nearly a year for refusing to testify before a grand jury called to indict Assange on further charges.

The persecution of Assange and Manning is aimed at criminalizing the conduct of constitutionally-protected journalistic activity. It is part of a broader suppression of dissent that includes the campaign of internet censorship and the jailing of the Maruti-Suzuki workers in India and other class-war prisoners.

The preparations for war, involving massive expenditures and requiring the accumulation of unprecedented levels of debt, snuffs the air out of democracy. In the final analysis, the costs of war must be imposed upon the working people of the world. The burdens will encounter resistance by a population already incensed by decades of sacrifice. The response of the ruling elites will be the intensification of their efforts to suppress every form of popular dissent.

 

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The degradation of the environment

The last decade was marked by the continued and increasingly rapid destruction of the environment. Scientists have issued ever more dire warnings that without urgent and far-reaching action on a global scale, the effects of global warming will be devastating and irreversible. The deadly inferno engulfing Australia, as the year ended, is only the latest horrific consequence of climate change.

In November, 11,000 scientists signed a statement published in the journal BioScience warning that “planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” It noted that over the course of four decades of global climate negotiations, “with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament…

The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity…. Especially worrisome, are potential irreversible climate tipping points and nature’s reinforcing feedbacks that could lead to a catastrophic ‘hothouse Earth,’ well beyond the control of humans. These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.

Earlier in the year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that 821 million people, who were already suffering from hunger, face starvation as agricultural regions are impacted by global warming. Hundreds of millions could lose access to fresh water, while many more will be affected by increasingly severe weather patterns: flooding, drought and hurricanes.

Climate change, and other manifestations of environmental degradation, are the product of a social and economic system that is incapable of organizing global production in a rational and scientific manner, on the basis of social need—including the need for a healthy environment—rather than the endless accumulation of personal wealth.

 

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The aftermath of the 2008 crash and the crisis of capitalism

Underlying all other aspects of the social and political situation is the malignant growth of extreme social inequality—the inevitable and intended consequence of all the measures adopted by the ruling class following the economic and financial crisis of 2008.

Following the financial crash, which occurred on the eve of the 2010s, world governments and central banks opened the spigots. In the United States, the Bush and particularly the Obama administrations engineered the $700 billion bailout of the banks, followed by trillions of dollars in “quantitative easing” measures—that is, the purchase by the Federal Reserve of the worthless assets and securities held by financial institutions.

Overnight, the federal deficit of the American government was doubled. The assets of the Federal Reserve rose from under $2 trillion in November 2008 to $4.5 trillion in October 2014, and the figure remains at more than $4 trillion today. With a new $60 billion a month asset purchase program, initiated in late 2019, the balance sheet is expected to surpass post-crash highs by the middle of this year.

This policy has continued under Trump, with his massive corporate tax cuts and demands for further reductions in interest rates. The New York Times noted, in a January 1 article (“A Simple Investment Strategy That Worked in 2019: Buy Almost Anything”) that the value of almost all investment assets jumped sharply over the past year. The Nasdaq rose by 35 percent, the S&P 500 by 29 percent, commodities by 16 percent, US corporate bonds by 15 percent, and US Treasuries by 7 percent. “It was a remarkable across-the-board rally of a scale not seen in nearly a decade. The cause? Mostly a head-spinning reversal by the Federal Reserve, which went from planning to raise interest rates to cutting them and pumping fresh money into the financial markets.”

All the major capitalist powers have pursued similar measures. The allocation of unlimited credit and money printing—and this, in the final analysis, is what quantitative easing is—intensified the underlying crisis. In trying to rescue themselves, the ruling elites enshrined parasitism and raised social inequality to a level unknown in modern history.

Benefiting from the limitless infusion of money into the market, the fortunes of the financial elite rose during the past decade to astronomical heights. The 500 richest individuals in the world (0.000006 percent of the global population) now have a collective net worth of $5.9 trillion, up $1.2 trillion over the past year alone. This increase is more than the GDP (that is, the total value of all goods and services produced) of all but 15 countries in the world. In the US, the 400 richest individuals have more wealth than the bottom 64 percent, and the top 0.1 percent of the population have a larger share than at any time since 1929, immediately preceding the Great Depression.

The social catastrophe confronting masses of workers and youth throughout the world is the direct product of the policies employed to guarantee the accumulation of wealth by the corporate and financial elite.

The decline in life expectancy among workers in the US, the mass unemployment of workers and particularly young people throughout the world, the devastating austerity measures imposed on Greece and other countries, the intensification of exploitation to boost the profits of corporations—all this is the consequence of the policy pursued by the ruling elites.

 

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The growth of the international working class and the global class struggle

The objective conditions for socialist revolution emerge out of the global crisis. The approach of social revolution has already been foreshadowed in the mass demonstrations and strikes that swept across the globe in 2019: in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, France, Spain, Algeria, Britain, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Kenya, South Africa, India and Hong Kong. The United States, where the entire political structure is directed toward the suppression of class struggle, witnessed the first national strike by auto workers in more than forty years.

But the dominant and most revolutionary feature of the class struggle is its international character, rooted in the global character of modern-day capitalism. Moreover, the movement of the working class is a movement of the younger generation and, therefore, a movement that will shape the future.

Those under 30 now comprise over half the world’s population and over 65 percent of the population in the world’s fastest growing regions—Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia. Each month in India, one million people turn 18. In the Middle East and North Africa, an estimated 27 million young people will enter the workforce in the next five years.

From 1980 to 2010, global industrial development added 1.2 billion people to the ranks of the working class, with hundreds of millions more in the decade since. Of this 1.2 billion, 900 million entered the working class in the developing world. Internationally, the percentage of the global labor force that can be classified as peasant declined from 44 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2018. Nearly one billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to join the working class in the coming decades. In China alone, 121 million people moved from “farm to factory” between 2000 and 2010, with millions more in the decade since.

It is not only Asia and Africa that have seen a growth in the working population. In the advanced capitalist countries, large sections of those who would have previously considered themselves middle class have been proletarianized, while the wave of immigrants from Latin America to the United States and from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe has added millions to a highly diverse workforce.

From 2010 to 2019, the world’s urban population grew by one billion, creating a network of interconnected “megacities” that are both hives of economic productivity and social powder kegs, where inequality is a visible fact of daily life.

And these workers are connected with each other in a manner that is unprecedented in world history. The colossal advances in science, technology and communications, above all the rise of the internet and the proliferation of mobile devices, have allowed masses of people to bypass the fake news of the bourgeois media, which function as little more than mouthpieces for the state and intelligence agencies. More than half of the world’s population, 4.4 billion people, now have access to the internet. The average individual spends over two hours on social media each day, largely on handheld devices.

Workers and youth can now coordinate their protests and actions on a global scale, expressed in the international movement against climate change, the emergence of the “yellow vests” as a worldwide symbol of protest against inequality, and the solidarity of auto workers in the United States and Mexico.

These objective changes are producing major shifts in social consciousness on the central question of social inequality. The 2019 United Nations Human Development Report explains that in almost all countries, the percentage of people demanding greater equality increased from the 2000s to the 2010s by up to 50 percent. The report warned: “Surveys have revealed rising perceptions of inequality, rising preferences for greater equality and rising global inequality in subjective perceptions of well-being. All these trends should be bright red-flags.”

 

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The role of revolutionary leadership

The growth of the working class and the emergence of class struggle on an international scale are the objective basis for revolution. However, the spontaneous struggles of workers and their instinctive striving for socialism is, by itself, inadequate. The transformation of the class struggle into a conscious movement for socialism is a question of political leadership.

The past decade has provided a wealth of political experiences demonstrating, in the negative, the critical role of revolutionary leadership. The decade began with revolution, in the form of the monumental struggles of Egyptian workers and youth against the US-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership, and with the assistance of disorientation introduced by the petty-bourgeois organizations, the masses were channeled behind different factions of the ruling class, culminating in the reestablishment of direct military dictatorship under the butcher of Cairo, al-Sisi.

All the alternatives to Marxism, concocted by the representatives of the affluent middle class, have been discredited: The “apolitical” and neo-anarchist Occupy Wall Street movement in the US in 2011 was revealed to be a middle-class movement whose call for a “party of the 99 percent” sought to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of the top 10 percent.

New forms of “left populism” were promoted in Europe, including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Syriza came to power in 2015 and for four years implemented the dictates of the banks. Podemos is now a governing party, in coalition with the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which is committed to a right-wing, pro-austerity program. The “Five-Star Movement,” presented as an anti-establishment insurgency, ended up in political alliance with the Italian neo-fascists. Corbynism, which peddled the illusion of a revival of the Labour Party as an instrument of anti-capitalist struggle, proved in the end to be synonymous with political cowardice and prostration before the ruling class. Were Sanders to make his way to the White House, his administration would prove no less impotent.

In Latin America, the “left” bourgeois nationalism that was part of the “Pink Tide”—Lulaism in Brazil, the “Bolivarian Revolution” of Chavez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia—has been shipwrecked by the crisis of world capitalism. Their own austerity and pro-corporate policies prepared the way for a sharp shift to the right, including the rise to power of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the US-backed military coup against Morales in 2019.

The trade unions, which have long served as mechanisms for the suppression of the class struggle, have been exposed as agents of the corporations and the state. In the United States, the struggles of auto workers have been waged in conflict with the corrupt executives of the UAW, under indictment or investigation for taking bribes from the companies and stealing workers’ dues money. The UAW, however, is only the clearest expression of a universal process.

A vast political and social differentiation has taken place between the working class and an international tendency of politics, the pseudo-left, which is based on sections of the affluent upper middle class who purvey the politics of racial, gender and sexual identity. The politics of the upper middle class seeks access to and a redistribution of some of the wealth sloshing about within the top 1 percent. They wallow in their obsessive fixation on the individual, as a means of leveraging “identity” into positions of power and privilege, while ignoring the social interests of the vast majority.

 

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The tasks of the International Committee of the Fourth International

In many of the comments in the bourgeois press, the protests and struggles over the past year are referred to as “leaderless.” But this is only a preliminary stage in the development of the consciousness of the masses. The masses, accumulating experience in the course of struggle, are undergoing a profound change in their social and political orientation. It is in the context of this revolutionary process that the fight for socialist consciousness will develop.

The new decade of social revolution brings with it a new stage in the history of the International Committee of the Fourth International. The practice of the revolutionary movement is decisive. The resolution of the Socialist Equality Party (US) National Congress in 2018 explained:

An evaluation of the objective situation and realistic appraisal of political possibilities, which excludes the impact of the intervention of the revolutionary party, is utterly alien to Marxism. The Marxist revolutionary party does not merely comment on events, it participates in the events that it analyzes, and, through its leadership in the struggle for workers’ power and socialism, strives to change the world (see: “The Resurgence of Class Struggle and the Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party”).

There are many signs of the growing international political influence of the ICFI. During 2019, the WSWS experienced an enormous growth in its readership, despite a campaign of internet censorship. The total number of page views increased to 20 million, from 14 million in 2018 (a growth of more than 40 percent). The largest period of readership, with more than two million people accessing the site each month, corresponded with the General Motors strike and the auto workers’ struggle in September and October.

These developments mark a significant advance, but there is no cause for self-satisfaction. The growth of the influence of the ICFI poses all the more clearly the immense responsibilities and tasks that lie ahead.

The turn must now be to the working class, to the active intervention in every manifestation of the opposition of workers and youth to inequality, war and dictatorship. There must be tireless work to raise the political level, to create a cadre in the factories and in the schools, to explain the lessons of history and the nature of capitalism. There will be no shortage of people determined to fight for socialism.

But this determination must be armed with a strategy that unifies the struggles of the working class in a worldwide movement for socialism.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky—the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Fourth International—by a Stalinist agent on August 20, 1940. In the final years of his life, Trotsky placed enormous emphasis on the role of revolutionary leadership. “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership,” he wrote in the founding document of the Fourth International.

Now it is a question of building the ICFI internationally, of expanding the Socialist Equality Parties in countries where they exist, and building new sections in countries where the ICFI does not yet have an organized presence. The enormous historical foundation upon which this movement rests, the conscious repository of the experiences of the international working class, must be brought forward in the developing struggles of the working class and forging the path to socialism.

As we begin this decade, the ICFI recalls the words with which Trotsky concluded the founding document of the Fourth International:

Workers—men and women—of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!

For information on joining the SEP or building a section of the ICFI in your country, click here.

David North and Joseph Kishore

 

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The 1917 Russian Revolution

No War but Class War! “None are more helplessly enslaved than those that believe they are free.” – New & Used Revolutionary & Progressive Books, 60s 70s Memorabilia, Posters; fah451bks.wordpress.com

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