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January 27, 2010

Global Depression and Regional Wars

Reuel S. Amdur

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Global Depression and Regional Wars, James Petras, Clarity Press, Atlanta 2009.

Petras’ book is less a full exposition of a subject than a series of essays.  He deals with the economic crisis, its global impact, regional impacts, Bernard Madoff, U.S. foreign policy, and other matters.  Let us begin with his analysis of the current economic crisis.

According to Petras, we are in a depression, not just a recession. 

He describes Obama’s measures to get out of the crisis as a pillaging of the public treasury in which “those who caused the crisis are also those who have been the greatest beneficiaries of government largesse.”  No argument there. 

In Canada, economy-watchers have expressed optimism with a September rise in consumer spending, but if consumer spending is the key to economic recovery, why did government not simply give, say, $1,000 to everyone who had an income of less than $20,000 last year? 

That would be the fastest dollar in town.  Of course, such as move would have been contrary to the common wisdom identified by John Kenneth Galbraith: You have to punish the poor to make them work, and you need to provide incentives to make the rich work. 

In a carefully tailored argument, Petras, a Marxist, not only sees us in a depression but on the brink of the collapse of capitalism.  Perhaps, but I remember James Cannon’s pamphlet “The Coming American Revolution,” published shortly after World War II, in which Cannon, a Trotskyite, predicted that in short order the United States was headed for a depression that would be deeper and last longer than the depression of the 1930’s. 

Quite simply, he did not appreciate the resilience of the capitalist system.  Is Petras making the same error?  I don’t know. 

In partial support of his estimation of the seriousness of the economic crisis the economist Paul Krugman argues that Obama is seriously underfunding efforts to get the U.S. out of the hole, and rather than a V-shaped recession, with a rapid recovery, he foresees a W-shaped recovery, with a second big dip. 

In reaction to the economic collapse and the particular conditions in Latin America, Petras sees matters coming to a head, with either a shift to authoritarian right-wing forces or genuine socialist revolutions. 

The socialist governments in Latin America are not in his eyes genuine, but the longed-for mass risings that will bring in the glorious era are, I submit, wishful thinking. 

Spontaneous populist uprisings do not have a lasting potential and do not morph into ongoing institutions.  That is a lesson from the Paris Commune and the Parisian May Days in 1968. 

In Russia, Lenin raised the cry of “All Power to the Soviets,”  but the soviets could not run the country.  Lenin had to abandon that slogan and move beyond them to establish power.  Then the participatory popular control was gone.

One strange claim that Petras makes, without any elaboration, is that work by non-governmental organizations in small communities in developing countries works against social consciousness to overthrow reactionary governance.  I find it hard to understand the harm that NGO’s do by going into an isolated community and promoting education for women and girls or by setting up a Grameen bank program. 

Petras addresses Obama’s Latin American policies, arguing that the goal is to undermine populist and socialist governments and favor those that are prepared to serve U.S. masters.  That has certainly been the traditional approach, but it overstates the more nuanced current approach.  Consider for example U.S. support for Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, against the right-wing coup by Roberto Micheletti. 

The same kind of oversimplification marks Petras’ analysis of the Israel/Palestine situation. 

President Barak Obama’s policies in that area are far from praiseworthy, but they are certainly less pro-Israel than George W. Bush’s—or for that matter than Prime Minister Harper’s. 

Petras goes into great detail about the great number of ardent Zionists on Obama’s team, to show their influence on U.S. policy. 

All well and good, but one-sided.  It is a question of who is using whom, and to what extent. 

Petras sneeringly refers to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark that Jewish home construction in East Jerusalem is “not helpful.”  Her remark is a diplomatic rebuke to Netanyahu. 

While Clinton has had trouble keeping on message, the U.S. message under Obama has been constant: there needs to be a total settlement freeze.  No way that George W. Bush would have delivered such a message.

While the U.S. administration praised Netanyahu’s ambiguous settlement freeze, “it also clarified that the position has not changed (settlements are still considered illegal) and that future construction must be reviewed.” (Ha’aretz

The reaction from Israeli right-wingers was not surprising.  Israeli cabinet minister Limor Livmat declared that the Obama government is “terrible.”

Petras mentions the opposition to Israeli policies by small groups of Jews, but he barely mentions J Street, an organization that may be more significant in implications for policy.

As a moderate pro-Israel organization, it will find itself battling for footing in the territory occupied by AIPAC, the rabidly pro-Israel organization which attempts to monopolize the voice for American Jews. 

The existence of J Street may make it easier for politicians to resist some of the demands pushed by AIPAC.  J Street has been supportive of Obama’s less fulsome endorsement of Israeli behavior.

Petras believes that Iran is developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only, a debatable proposition. 

However, he does not raise the obvious question: if an Iranian bomb would be a threat to the Middle East and the world, what about the Israeli bomb, not to speak of the American bomb? 

He also states that there is no shred of evidence that the Iranian election was flawed.  However, Iranian electoral officials threw out the votes in two regions on grounds of fraud.  Perhaps a “shred?” 

A final note about Afghanistan: he foresees a defeat for the U.S. and its allies. 

Stephen Harper, who accused any who questioned Canadian military participation in Afghanistan as wanting to “cut and run,” now promises that in 2011 Canada will cut and run. 

As Petras put it, “Europe and most Asian allies are not willing to pour scarce resources and military personnel into a losing war, in a non-strategic region at a time of deepening economic recession.”

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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