Progressives angry over Biden consideration of Republican debt proposals / by Mark Gruenberg and John Wojcik

Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other GOP lawmakers at the Capitol as they announce their continuing intention to hold the economy and the people of the U.S. hostage to their demands to roll back hard won gains in exchange for the requirement to lift the debt ceiling. Progressives are angry now at signs that the Biden Administration may be willing to compromise with them on issues that are really matters of law already and should not be a topic for talks. Some are calling for Biden to use the 14th Amendment to bypass the hostage taking schemes of the Republicans. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Originally published in the People’s World on May 19, 2023

WASHINGTON—Congressional progressive Democrats are increasingly angry about Democratic President Joe Biden’s apparent willingness to give in to Republican budget cuts in safety net programs as part of a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

But they’re also proposing alternatives to avoid that catastrophe for millions of low-income and working people who would be clobbered by what the radical Republicans really want—massive cuts or, as the radical right Freedom Caucus wants, default involving the U.S. not paying its bills.

The House Republican debt limit bill is, at its core, nothing more than an attempt to create a crisis around the issue of paying bills already incurred in order to force through a wish list of their right-wing ideas. Their proposal includes stricter work requirements for recipients of food stamps, Medicaid, and temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Before he left the country this week for a meeting of the G-7 in Japan, Biden noted that he was leaving the door open to such proposals and he reminded the press that he had voted for such requirements as a senator.

That, perhaps more than anything else, triggered waves of anger on Capitol Hill with Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, for example, saying he would never vote for a debt ceiling deal that involved such proposals. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called the idea “unacceptable and absurd,” especially considering that the Biden administration “appears to have taken ending tax cuts for the rich off the table.”

At first, progressives were happy about Biden’s insistence that there be a clean lifting of the debt limit with no Republican cuts attached to it. Now those lawmakers and the labor movement and its allies are among the growing numbers of those concerned about what they see as an apparent shift in the stance of the Administration.

The flak directed at Biden comes as aides to the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.—beholden to the Freedom Caucus and its rich and corporate backers—continue to bargain over the debt limit hike, facing a drop-dead deadline of June 1 to raise the debt ceiling.

The Republican price for doing so is cuts in food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and “hostage taking” by imposing the stricter work requirements for safety net programs, while not touching tax cuts for the rich, Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., a member of “The Squad,” told her colleagues on the House floor.

McCarthy calls the demand for food stamp cuts and imposing more work requirements for such programs his own “red line” in the talks. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, last week added the group’s “Secure Our Borders Act,” banning further migration over the U.S.-Mexico border to the Republican list.

The progressives are dead set against such schemes, Lee and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said.

“No, we’re not going to swallow that,” Schatz told The Hill when he learned of McCarthy’s further work rules for food stamps. “I think that it is preposterous the Speaker of the House has woken up sometime this week and decided that work requirements for needy families was his hill to die on, that this is some high principle that is worth taking the country to default.”

“By forcing the choices of agreeing to their tactics or default, the Republicans are erasing the voices of millions of people in this country who oppose default, who oppose economic catastrophe, who oppose tearing away food stamps and health care and Medicaid and Social Security and Medicare,” Lee warned her colleagues in a House floor speech.”

“This is also about the billionaire CEO who is bankrolling the Republican politicians to buy themselves another shiny new yacht, another vacation home, or another fat check to those same politicians as a thank you for the favor.”

“Republicans are using the threat of default to bury millions of poor and working-class Americans and we cannot and will not let them,” Lee declared.

Press avoids the real issue

Rather than emphasizing the issue raised by Lee, the corporate media is portraying the whole fight as some type of negotiating game where what is at stake is who can get more of what they want in a final deal. The real issue, of course, is that the inclusion of any of the GOP demands amounts to rolling back what the Congress of the United States has already passed and what presidents have already signed into law. Any yielding on that amounts not to compromise but to an agreement to unravel the hard-earned gains of working people and their allies, gains achieved after hard fights ever since the passage of the New Deal in the 1930s. As far as the corporate media is concerned the task before the nation is simply to bridge the negotiations gap, not to save what the working class and its allies have won over the decades.

Also among the GOP demands is that unspent pandemic funds be restored to the Treasury. Once again they don’t admit to the continuation of the coronavirus situation and the ongoing need to protect the health of the American people.

Progressives have an alternative to the Republican hostage taking on the debt ceiling.

With the deadline looming, they are advocating ways to navigate around the Freedom Caucus-GOP blockade which insists on accepting their cuts, or else. Eleven senators, led by Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., and Tina Smith, DFL-Minn., wrote to Biden to invoke the Constitution’s 14th Amendment and override the debt ceiling cap.

The amendment says, in one section, “The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” Smith told MSNBC  invoking the amendment is one route to go, rejecting the Republicans’ cuts, which would also kill Biden’s—and their—program to combat climate change, too.

Sanders, in unveiling the letter, added he wants to raise taxes on the rich and corporations, an idea Biden earlier took off the table—yielding to McCarthy and his corporate capitalist backers.

“Their strategy is to cut money for food stamps and health care and kids and they won’t even consider raising a penny in taxes from their billionaires,” Smith said. “That is completely unacceptable.”

“We don’t want to take the path of invoking the 14th Amendment, but if that is the choice we’ll have to take it rather than being held hostage. If the choice is between default and invoking the 14th Amendment, that would be far better than default and its catastrophic consequences.”

Another possibility, admittedly a long shot, is a “discharge petition,” to force a debt-limit-increase-only bill to the House floor for a vote. It needs the signatures of 218 lawmakers, a majority, and there are 213 Democrats, so they’d need five Republican defectors to join them if every Democrat signs.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., gave the go-ahead for his caucus to round up the signatures anyway. The discharge petition drew support from the Government Employees (AFGE), the union whose members provide the services that a default would bring to a halt.

“The extraordinary step of a discharge petition is now necessary so that a responsible majority of House members–representing a majority of American citizens–can simply agree that America is a country that pays its bills,” AFGE President Everett Kelley wrote to lawmakers.

“A default will have an immediate, profound, and possibly irreversible effect…Not only will the government be unable to pay salaries for current workers, but federal retirees will also miss out on their pension payments. Like other working people, our members will face an unprecedented and unnecessary economic catastrophe: skyrocketing interest rates, cratering retirement funds, and ballooning inflation.

“It is beyond irresponsible to continue to hold the threat of a default over the heads of hardworking families. While process of negotiating future budget policies unfolds, please support the discharge petition immediately,” Kelley urged. “It may be the most important step you ever take in office.”

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People’s World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper’s predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Merrick Garland and Dick Durbin under pressure to act on SCOTUS scandal / by John Wojcik and Mark Gruenberg

Justice Clarence Thomas, in clear violation of U.S. law, has failed to disclose decades of questionable income. The Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee must now move on the case. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Originally published in the People’s World on April 18, 2023

WASHINGTON—More revelations about the corporate and right-wing ties of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his lobbyist wife Ginni Thomas and his failure for almost two decades to disclose even minimal information about both have raised pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to name a special counsel and act in the case and on Senate Democratic Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin to investigate all the justices’ ethics—with an eye towards writing an ethics code for the High Court since the jurists won’t do so.

It’s the only path to solving the problem since it is obvious that the High Court won’t fix itself. Chief Justice Roberts has obviously known for years about every single illegal act and ethics transgression committed by Thomas but he has done nothing. Republicans in control of the House would jump all over a case like this if it were Democratic appointed justices involved in scandal but since it is Thomas, a staunch right winger, they will also do nothing. This leaves it up to the Justice Department and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois to get the ball rolling.

Much has been said about the High Court having no ethics code with which to govern itself. This cannot be used as an excuse for inaction by the Justice Department and Senate Dems because the actions of Justice Thomas, particularly his egregious lies on financial transaction forms, are illegal — including checking “no” earnings when he and his wife brought in $700,000 in income from an extreme right-wing think tank. Beyond violating ethics rules that apply to all other judges and lawmakers, Thomas is in violation of a number of U.S. laws that apply to everyone.

The revelations about Thomas also throw yet another spotlight on the ways capitalists can secretly influence judges on the nation’s highest court—even if those moguls don’t specifically have cases pending there.

The latest disclosure involving Ginni Thomas was the revelation, first reported by Newsweek last September but repeated in news stories on April 17, that she earned $683,589 from the right-wing Heritage Foundation in 2003-07—and that Thomas didn’t even disclose her employment there, as required.

Meanwhile, Thomas himself collected $270,000-$750,000 in recent years from a real estate company, the Ginger Limited Partnership, which went defunct in 2006, the Washington Post reported. Ginni Thomas’s relatives set up Ginger and a successor, Ginger Holdings, which made the payments.

Jealous of private corporate lawyers

Thomas, jealous of private corporate lawyers who make millions of dollars more than his $300,000 salary paid by taxpayers, never listed either Ginger firm. He apparently felt he could go on forever this way, making up for the gap between his salary and what rich corporate lawyers make. He even found a way to enjoy trips on private jets and yachts, much the way many millionaire lawyers do.

Good government groups say his non-disclosure violates specific laws including the post-Watergate Ethics In Government Act. They demand Garland name a special counsel to investigate, and that the Senate Judiciary Committee hold hearings, then write an ethics code for the court.

Thomas has since “amended” his financial disclosures. The forms only ask justices to disclose ranges of income, not exact figures, except for book royalties and speaking fees.

Left unnoticed by the corporate media in all the brouhaha over his disclosure, or lack of it: A giant conflict of interest by the Thomases, given at least the appearance, if not the actuality of the justice being unduly influenced by the corporate class and its radical right allies.

The key point is whether federal officials, judges and justices included, should take any outside earned income from anyone at all, and especially from anyone—such as the corporate class—that always has business before the High Court.

“When a justice brazenly violates the law, he cannot be trusted to uphold that law,” said Rakim Brooks, president of the Alliance For Justice, referring to the 1978 ethics law. The Alliance noted in the court’s 2021-22 term, ending last July, Thomas sided with the corporate class on 72% of its cases. It did not list the percentages for the other justices.

“The rule of law is our most sacred treasure and Justice Thomas can no longer be trusted to protect it,” Brooks continued. “He has abused the power of his office for personal gain and given the American people more than reasonable apprehensions about whether he can be impartial.

“Justice Thomas should resign.”

If he doesn’t resign, to defend the Constitution Congress must “hold robust hearings to determine just how far this rot goes and how badly it has compromised the fair administration of justice.” That Brooks statement covers not just Thomas, but all the justices—and lower courts, too.

“The Senate cannot let this extraordinary display of corruption and lawbreaking go unanswered,” added Demand Justice Executive Director Brian Fallon. “Senate Democrats cannot force Thomas to resign or give him the impeachment trial he clearly deserves, but they can hold hearings to further expose Justice Thomas’s apparent lawbreaking and the Republican justices’ deep ties to far-right donors.

“As long as we are stuck with a Supreme Court made up of corrupt ideologues in the pocket of far-right donors, the American people deserve to know the truth.”

Not the only one

Thomas isn’t the only justice to make money outside the court. Virtually all of them do, but the money sources for the others are book royalties, teaching in law schools during the court’s summer recess, or giving speeches. One speech, though, by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, raised ethical eyebrows.

She spoke at an institution tied to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who introduced her—and who has led the Republican fight at the Supreme Court to obliterate campaign finance laws and regulations. The McConnell Institute also paid for her travel and accommodations.

As for the others, Republican-named Justice Neil Gorsuch earned $26,541.74 for teaching courses at the George Mason University Law School, well-known as an incubator of right-wing lawyers. So did Republican-named Justice Brett Kavanaugh ($25,541.66). Book royalties produced larger sums for Barrett ($425,000), Gorsuch ($250,308.44), and Democratic-named Sonia Sotomayor ($115,593.39).

The financial disclosure forms only mandate justices disclose the source, but not the amount, of spouses’ incomes, much less clients of the spouses. Thomas didn’t even list Heritage as a source for his spouse. In amending the forms, Thomas listed Ginni Thomas as CEO of her own company, Liberty Consulting, but not how much she made or her clients. She’s bragged to right-wing audiences that she and her firm served as a conduit between right-wing organizations and the Republican Donald Trump regime.

The forms also mandate justices disclose gifts, such as meetings and travel, unless they’re from close friends or close relatives. Justice Thomas used that loophole to keep under wraps millions of dollars worth of yacht trips and on a private jet from Republican right-wing big giver Harlan Crow. But Pro Publica discovered Crow’s companies owned the yacht and the jet. Both Thomases went on the trips.

It also discovered Crow paid above market price for Thomas’s childhood home in Georgia, where his mother, 94, still lives. Crow plans to turn it into a museum honoring Thomas.

All this prompted demands that Garland name a special counsel in the Thomas case and that the Senate Judiciary Committee hold hearings on the justices’ ethics, and write a strong ethics code. Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., promises hearings, but cooperation from the justices may be another matter.

He’s demanded before—almost 10 years ago—the court write a strong code for itself. Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t reply to the panel’s letter. Later, the Chief Justice left Justice Elena Kagan with egg on her face when she predicted four years ago he’d soon be forthcoming with a code, and he never did.

Durbin may have one more anti-Thomas piece of evidence to add to the case. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now an economics and political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, tweeted on April 17 that Thomas wanted, in 2010, to kill all High Court financial disclosures.

“Clarence Thomas not ONLY accepted free vacations and sold property without disclosing it,” Reich’s tweet reads. “THOMAS ALSO tried to KILL SCOTUS disclosure laws in his concurring opinion on the Citizens United decision.” SCOTUS is the nickname for “Supreme Court of the United States.”

In Citizens United, the Republican-named majority triumphed 5-4 in a case—backed by Republicans who were led by McConnell—to basically destroy all campaign finance limits for corporations, leaving only disclosures. Several years later that same Republican majority ruled corporations could keep their donors secret by using so-called “non-profit” groups and “independent expenditure” committees as conduits for their tsunamis of campaign cash. Which they have, in billions of dollars, ever since.

“Thomas insisted that SCOTUS should, ‘invalidate mandatory disclosure and reporting requirements,’” Reich wrote. “This opens Thomas up to ADDITIONAL scrutiny for DIRECT and PERSONAL conflict of interest. His actions drip with corruption.”

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People’s World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper’s predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

The Need for Independent Left Leadership / by Sudip Bhattacharya

Photo: Communist Party USA Archives

Originally published in Black Agenda Report on April 5, 2023

Leftists in the U.S. must forge independent formations. Electoral politics are still a dead end.

In March, it was reported that the Biden administration is planning to re-introduce a Trump-era measure on immigration detention policy along the U.S.-Mexico border. This policy would mean the detainment of families crossing the border in overcrowded ICE detention facilities rather than the current policy of allowing them to wait for their asylum trial while staying with family and friends or in some other location, albeit wearing a monitor.

“Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” Biden had said when condemning the same hideous policy when it had been introduced by the explicitly racist Trump administration. Somehow, now, it’s okay to traumatize migrants fleeing from countries ruined by far-right regimes our politicians have often propped up, not to mention escaping from ruinous neoliberal policies that have spread to all corners of the globe.

If this were to go through, this would be yet another broken promise by Biden and his acolytes inside the White House. From increasing funding for the police, to ending a possible strike among railway workers desperate for a day off, the Biden administration has been a laundry list of failed stances on policies that would have improved the living and working conditions of many of its alleged constituents.

“Election seasons are reality-creation festivals, during which the two corporate parties pretend to put forward different visions of the national and global destiny,” the imitable Glen Ford once wrote, “When, in fact, they answer to the same master and must pursue the same general strategy.”

Grace Dean at Bloomberg writes, “The financial-services sector gave $982.8 million in party-coded contributions across 2019 and 2020 through both individual employee donations and PACs, the report said. Of this, 47% went to Republicans and 53% went to Democrats.”

The GOP is the blunter interpretation of capitalist greed and id. It is a party now of white nationalists, and nihilism to a degree, a party of crass businessmen and white resentment that had been allowed to fester since Reagan’s rise to political infamy. That said, the Democrat party leadership itself, along with Biden, who has a long illustrious career of being a conservative pro-segregation type, are beholden to financial and other business interests. Because of such interests and their support for the party’s top-tier, progressive policies on labor, on empire, on issues surrounding migration and reproductive rights will never come about, let alone see the light of day when it comes to some reform in Congress, the so-called house of the people.

Massive changes in government policy won’t happen so long as the U.S. left works within the party system, thus allowing the masses to do the same, voting in candidates all the while private enterprise and industry amasses more and more power for itself. Instead, if the left is serious about improving the lives of the masses, especially black and brown, there is no other avenue towards that end apart from disrupting the daily churn of major corporations and businesses and those government agencies that prioritize their interests.

“The best way to counter the political power of those institutions is to disrupt their profits or their functioning,” write Kevin Young, Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz in Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It ,” adding, “The route to real progressive reform goes through the corporations and the state agencies that exercise power over the politicians.”

When large masses of people stop the money from flowing, that’s when the major institutions, especially private ones, start to panic and fold.

But this won’t naturally occur. Immiseration and economic crises do not inevitably lead people into organizing strikes and occupations and other actions that weakens capitalism’s hold. In fact, as evidenced in recent polling, people can become politically confused on what to believe. In recent surveys, while many African Americans desire dramatic changes to the so-called justice system, a significant number also want the same level or more of funding for the police. Among Asian Americans and Latinx populations in the U.S., there has been a rightward political shift, with others caring less and less about mainstream politics itself.

“The strikes and organizing drives that lit up the industrial landscape beginning in 1934 were not spontaneous eruptions, popular folklore notwithstanding,” historian Steve Fraser writes in Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property , “In virtually every case, they were prepared for and led by a menagerie of radicals: socialists, communists, Trotskyists, remnants of the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’), anarcho-syndicalists, and others.”

Oppressed and exploited peoples in the U.S. need a leftwing political party/organization independent of the two-party system. We need leftwing groups that are willing to organize strikes, occupations, as well as other effective modes of resistance that would truly help in shifting power from the capitalist elites over to the masses. We need a politicized constituency who recognize the objective need for socialism rather than for some bastardized form of regulated capitalism.

The Democrat party won’t allow for this type of organizing to occur, especially from within its ranks. Of course, the GOP would be salivating at the chance of murdering and disappearing more activists. Both parties serve to obscure and deflect from the true power sources in this country, the capitalist elites and the monsters that they create to protect them, from white racist mobs to police.

“You put them first and they put you last,” Malcolm X had stated decades ago about the Democrats when they championed themselves as civil rights fighters while wielding the FBI to suppress a burgeoning leftwing opposition.

A failure to develop a constituency of people willing to leverage their power as workers, as tenants, as masses against the GOP, against Democrat leadership, against the corporations that fuel them will always lead us down a path of political impotence and wandering. A failure to develop a constituency of people willing to agitate beyond the bounds of voting booths and public relations will mean policies like Biden’s immigration detention policy, and the continued financial support for the U.S military complex, for the police, for the corporatized state shall persist, regardless of whom the people claim to elect and believe in.

This is going to be difficult work and will require dedication and leadership. But it’s either developing true leftwing and socialist power, or remain trapped in this loop, where elected officials like Biden promise the people some reforms, and in the midst of those promises, more and more people are hurt, left in overcrowded prisons and detainment facilities.

Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers University. He also has a background as a reporter, having gotten his Master’s in journalism at Georgetown University. You can find his work at outlets like Reappropriate, The Aerogram, Protean Magazine and Current Affairs, among others. 

Joe Biden Is Shrinking the Welfare State / by Branko Marcetic

Joe Biden speaks with the press on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Demetrius Freeman / the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on April 3, 2023

Because the Biden administration refuses to make a public case for keeping alive the pandemic emergency declaration that led to a huge expansion of desperately needed programs like Medicaid, millions are about to lose their health insurance.

Americans alive today can consider themselves lucky, because as you read these words, you’re bearing witness to the unfolding of monumental history. No, not the transformative presidency of Rooseveltian ambition for the age of climate disaster that we’ve been promised since mid-2020, or even a Great Society–like major expansion of the often punishing US safety net. It’s the exact opposite in fact. Under President Joe Biden, Americans are currently witnessing one of the most significant contractions of the US welfare state since the Bill Clinton years.

In this case, the vehicle isn’t a radical, anti-government budget or legislation aimed at ending “welfare as we know it,” but a far more low-key strategy: Biden’s simple refusal to renew the public health emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic first issued three years ago.

As a result, this past Saturday marked the start of the government’s unraveling of the pandemic-driven expansion of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which saw enrollment in the programs swell 28.5 percent since February 2020 to a historic 91 million beneficiaries. Five GOP-controlled states got the ball rolling this past weekend on shunting people off the programs’ rolls, with all other states set to follow suit between May and July.

What this means is that, by the estimates of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 15 million people are going to lose their health insurance over the next few months, including 5.3 million kids. Worse, based on historical trends, 6.8 million of those people will lose their Medicaid coverage in spite of still being eligible for it simply because of bureaucratic trifles: they’ll fail to renew their enrollment, something the emergency declaration meant they haven’t needed to do for the past three years, or because they’ve changed addresses, they won’t get the blue envelope letter in the mail for them to carry out their renewal.

The fact that this is happening under a self-proclaimed progressive president that wants to win back working-class voters makes this all the more galling. So does the fact that he’s undoing a major welfare state expansion that his right-wing predecessor Donald Trump put in place — the same man who may well wind up being his election opponent again in 2024.

Back Into Deprivation

Under the Families First Act, signed into law by former president Donald Trump in March 2020, federal subsidies for states’ Medicaid programs were made more generous, but on two conditions: as long as those states didn’t make being eligible for the program harder for their residents and as long as they didn’t kick anyone already enrolled in the program off their rolls. That meant that anyone who ended up crossing their state’s (sometimes absurdly paltry) income threshold for Medicaid in the years ahead didn’t stop being eligible, as they normally would, but rather kept their benefits. The law stipulated this would continue as long as the public health emergency Trump had declared over COVID-19 was in place.

Unfortunately, that emergency declaration is ending on May 11 thanks to the Biden administration’s determined efforts to “move on” from the pandemic, heralding the end of Trump’s Medicaid expansion. In fact, the effects of the declaration’s end will go well beyond this, affecting working people’s ability to get free tests, vaccines, and affordable treatment for the virus. It also means the end of extra food stamps, another generous program set to continue as long as the emergency exists and a vital lifeline for working people struggling to keep up with grocery bills in the face of inflation.

But it’s the mass disenrollment from Medicaid and CHIP that’s arguably most alarming. As anyone who has to navigate the dysfunctional, corporate-controlled US health care system knows, those who aren’t covered by the government often have no good options. Not having insurance can in the worst of times be a death sentence, while getting it is either prohibitively expensive or requires having a job — and even then, you can still be screwed over by insurance companies six ways to Sunday if you get sick.

All of this makes the large number of people who are about to lose their Medicaid and CHIP benefits even more alarming. One single mother in Texas who suffered numerous complications after a pregnancy told the Washington Post that keeping her Medicaid coverage after the birth “probably saved my life,” a benefit new mothers won’t get when the state unravels the program’s expansion. Another single mother in Michigan suffering from bipolar disorder worries that she now falls perfectly into the income gap that leaves her too poor to afford health care but not quite poor enough to still get Medicaid. Busy Missouri pediatricians warned NPR it would mean a return to pre-2020 days when they were turning sick children away left and right. One Arkansas man told ABC that losing his coverage would mean having to choose “whether I would eat or whether I will get my medication.”

Then there’s the administrative chaos this is about to set off, as state governments take on the monumental task of sifting through tens and hundreds of thousands of enrollees to figure out who’s no longer eligible and who needs to be assisted to avoid losing their benefits, all while processing a sudden, massive influx of renewal applications, which can take months.

This would be a heroic undertaking at the best of times, but it will be made more difficult by the fact that many state governments are suffering from worker shortages, forcing them to press on while understaffed or with inexperienced workers who, having been employed during the pandemic, haven’t had to carry out renewals until now. Some states have hired extra staff to reach out to beneficiaries or spent millions on a public outreach campaign, all to try to prevent people from falling through the cracks.

Everything Wrong With Politics

From a practical and moral standpoint, this is obviously a travesty. But it’s also a needless own goal for the president, putting an already deeply unpopular Biden in the position of running for reelection in a year’s time with millions of people losing their health insurance — and his potential Republican opponent being able to boast he’d been the one to extend it to them in the first place. More than that, it makes a mockery of his frequent public statements insisting that his administration will “continue to fight for racial justice,” since, as the HHS, acknowledges, 15 percent of those who are about to lose their coverage as a result of his decision are black and one-third are Latino.

So why is this happening? Biden has made a recent rightward pivot since the hire of new chief of staff, vulture capitalist Jeff Zients, notorious for his longtime passion for spending cuts, a trait he shares with the president himself. With the heady days of 2021 and its talk of something like a new New Deal long behind him now, Biden is back to his career-long obsession with government debt, having put forward a budget earlier this month that aimed to cut the deficit by nearly $3 trillion, something the winding down of extra generous federal Medicaid subsidies will contribute to, if modestly.

The president has also seemingly long been particularly eager to treat COVID-19 as bygone, having reportedly taken some of his own staff by surprise last September when he declared on 60 Minutes that “the pandemic is over.” Those words had a knock-on effect at the time, assisting fierce GOP opposition to long-sought public health funding for COVID and even helping trigger some employers to announce the end of their own pandemic-related provisions.

A similar dynamic may be at play here. Twenty-five GOP governors called for an end to the public health emergency in December, in part complaining that it had “artificially” grown Medicaid rolls and was “costing states hundreds of millions of dollars.” Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have engineered repeated showdowns over the public health emergency to put Biden on the spot.

But if the idea is that Americans are now tired of thinking and caring about the pandemic, making supporting any COVID-related policies politically toxic, then this is the wrong way to go about unwinding those. Americans didn’t hate that the pandemic response included protecting them from being kicked out of their homes by greedy landlords, getting financial support for the government while they were unemployed, or having health insurance and a variety of other health care needs guaranteed. It was the elements that disrupted normal, daily life like forced mask-wearing, isolation, and even being coerced into getting vaccinated. The politically smart thing would have been to dismantle the divisive, behavior-based policies according to best public-health practices and work to hang on to, even institutionalize the bread-and-butter parts of the pandemic response that directly benefited working Americans’ pocketbooks.

Once upon a time, Biden’s own COVID plan said outright in the wake of the Omicron wave that “our path forward relies on maintaining and continually enhancing the numerous tools we now have to protect ourselves and our loved ones” — not by systematically taking apart those tools as soon as a bit of political pressure tried to end them.

Meanwhile, it pays to think about how the pandemic-expanded welfare state has been stripped away bit by bit these past two years in comparison, say, to the US response to the three thousand people murdered on September 11 twenty-two years ago. While a shocking crime, the government response to this unique and isolated event has been to continually throw untold amounts of money and expand an already invasive and bloated government bureaucracy without question, even as there’s little evidence doing so is keeping Americans safer.

Meanwhile, more than two-hundred people are still right now dying from COVID every day — meaning, a 9/11’s worth of US deaths roughly every two weeks — and the US political class can’t be bothered to keep in place the policies to fight it for more than two years.

The massive contraction in the US social safety net that we’re now witnessing under Biden embodies all that’s wrong with Washington politics, from ongoing Democratic timidity in fighting for working people’s needs in the face of right-wing attacks, to the misplaced priorities of elected officials. And while there’s a large chance this will become a political liability for the president, it’s the most vulnerable who suffer worst as a result.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Progressive coalition brings Brandon Johnson across the finish line in Chicago / by John Wojcik

Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters after defeating Paul Vallas after the mayoral runoff election late Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Chicago. | Paul Beaty / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on April 5, 2023

CHICAGO – Brandon Johnson, a progressive African-American community activist, union organizer, and former teacher, defied the pollsters and was elected as Chicago’s next mayor yesterday in a major victory for progressives. His win was propelled, in major part, part by a huge turnout among enthusiastic young voters.

According to the Chicago Board of Elections, a third of eligible voters 18 to 24 turned out, eclipsing turnout in the older groups of voters. Close to a third of eligible voters also cast ballots among slightly older young people in the 24 to 35 year age group.

The victory happened despite racist dog whistles blown by supporters of Johnson’s right-wing opponent, Paul Vallas, and threats by the politically powerful and entrenched right-wing Fraternal Order of Police that hundreds of cops would quit if Johnson were elected.

Johnson campaigned on an approach to crime that calls for going after the root causes of crime, poverty, and lack of investment in neighborhoods in need of better public services, including schools, and the hiring of professionals to do many of the jobs, like mental health care, that have been foisted upon untrained police.

When pressed by reporters who asked him how he would close the gap between the police and City Hall this morning Johnson said, “There is no gap, we all presumably want the same thing for Chicago, that it be safe and prosperous for everyone.” Again he displayed his characteristic refusal to give in to rightwing fear mongering.

He also paid homage in his victory speech yesterday to what he described as a “movement that was already underway before and during the Harold Washington administration, led by people like current Congressman Chuy Garcia and community leader Rudy Lozano in bringing together the Black, Latino and white communities. We continue that work today and include all the groups that make up this, the greatest city in the world,” Johnson declared in his victory speech.

Johnson, a Cook County commissioner endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, benefitted from an incredible ground operation conducted by that union. Members knocked on the doors of tens of thousands of voters, explaining to them how Johnson’s opponent, Paull Vallas, had left behind himself a trail of destruction of public education in cities across the country.

The strong support for Johnson by the CTU, SEIU, National Nurses United, and numerous other unions led his detractors to accuse him of being in the pocket of so-called big labor. Refusing to hide from his support for and by labor unions, Johnson declared in his victory speech, “Chicago is and always will be a great union town.” His backers were not deterred by attacks on unions and even increased their support for him as he called upon corporations and the rich to pay their fair share of taxes. His election, coming after his strong campaign against corporate abuse, and the victory of a liberal judge in neighboring Wisconsin who was also opposed by major corporations, combine to send a message across the country that voters in cities understand what side they must be on in the continuing political battles in the country. In Los Angeles too the recent victory of Karen Bass reflected the progressive trend sweeping U.S. cities.

Morgan Elise Johnson, founder of The Tribe, noted that, “opponents of Johnson have no problem with politicians being in the pocket of powerful corporations or wealthy donors but as soon as unions or people’s organizations back someone they have a problem.”

Won for many reasons

Johnson won for many reasons, she said, not the least of which is that “he went to countless house parties where young people gathered. They turned out for him in huge numbers,” she said.

The CTU declared jubilantly in a statement after the election results were known: “What started as a movement in 2012 for better schools has blossomed into a citywide multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational movement that has done the impossible: Elect a middle-school teacher, public school parent and son of a pastor as mayor of Chicago.”

Johnson’s victory in the nation’s third-largest city capped a remarkable trajectory for a candidate who was little known when he entered the race last year.

He attracted the attention of and support of leaders in the national progressive movement including, for example, people like Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Chicagoans who know and support Sanders but didn’t know Johnson took the Sanders support as a cue to come out and vote for Johnson who openly welcomed and embraced Sen. Sanders when he campaigned in Chicago. Many corporate and establishment Democrats who backed Vallas, including some incumbent members of the City Council, are likely wishing now that they had not done so.

People like Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Chuy Garcia, and Danny Davis, all progressives who rejected corporate Democratic Party appeals to back Vallas, were once again on the right side of history last night as progressives scored an impressive victory in both Chicago and in neighboring Wisconsin where the election of a progressive judge to the state Supreme Court ended 15 years of right-wing control of that court.

Taking the stage Tuesday night for his victory speech, a jubilant Johnson thanked his supporters for helping usher in “a new chapter in the history of our city.” He promised that under his administration, the city would look out for everyone, regardless of how much money they have, whom they love, or where they come from.

Johnson recalled growing up in a poor family, teaching at a school in Cabrini Green, a notorious former public housing complex, and shielding his own young kids from gunfire in their West Side neighborhood.

“In Cabrini Green, we could see wealthy neighborhoods outside of our windows on one side of the apartment, and on the other side we could see the bulldozers ready to push out of our homes,” he said.

He referenced civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and called his victory a continuation of their legacies. He also noted that he was speaking on the anniversary of King’s assassination.

Despite it being the anniversary of King’s death, Johnson declared, “Today the dream is alive and so today we celebrate the revival and the resurrection of the city of Chicago.”

The victory was not just his victory, according to both Johnson himself and his supporters but the victory of a multi-racial, multi-national diverse coalition that has been being built in Chicago for quite a few years now, a coalition that rejects the old machine politics for a new politics of inclusion and progress.

Will join other fights

Members of Our Revolution, the progressive group started by supporters of Bernie Sanders, is telling People’s World that the Johnson victory has motivated them to join the fights in many more local and state elections where they say the Republican lock on power can and must be broken. They point to the coming mayoral elections in Philadelphia as an example of where they plan to be involved.

In a statement, incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot congratulated Johnson and said her administration will collaborate with his team during the transition.

On Tuesday, Johnson took many of the predominantly Black southern and western areas where Lightfoot won in February, along with the northern neighborhoods where he was the top-vote getter back then, according to precinct-level results released by election officials. Vallas did well in the northwest and southwest areas.

Johnson and his supporters characterized Vallas — who was endorsed by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat — as too conservative and as a Republican in disguise.

Both Johnson and Vallas have long been in the Democratic Party, showing that within that party, in Chicago as elsewhere, there are sharply different progressive and pro-corporate trends.

After teaching middle and high school, Johnson helped mobilize teachers, including during a historic 2012 strike through which the Chicago Teachers Union increased its organizing ability and influence in city politics. That has included fighting for issues such as housing and mental health care, in addition to just issues directly involving the classrooms. The strike actually increased support for the union among many parents in the city who see teachers and school staff as their allies in the fight for their children.

Vallas, a former Chicago budget director, later led schools in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut on disastrous paths that dismantled schools and weakened education services across the board.

Vallas catered to the extreme right-wing leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police by saying he would hire hundreds more police officers, while Johnson said he didn’t plan to cut the number of officers, but that the current system of policing isn’t working. Johnson argued that instead of investing more in policing and incarceration, the city should focus on mental health treatment, affordable housing for all, and jobs for youth. He has proposed a plan he says will raise $800 million by taxing “ultrarich” individuals and businesses, including a tax on large corporate employers and on big hotel chains raking in huge profits from tourism.

Johnson and the coalition behind him will have their work cut out for them because right wingers in the Illinois state legislature are already saying they will do battle against any plans that involve taxing the rich. There are those in the pockets of corporations who still sit on the City Council and can also be counted on to oppose Johnson when they can.

Progressives are gaining in the Chicago City Council, however, The 46th Ward that includes Uptown saw Angela Clay, an African-American woman elected last night. She had the support of the Democratic Socialists of America and backed the progressive planks advocated by Johnson. Her ward has long been considered a bellwether of where things are going politically in Chicago. The message last night was that they are going in a progressive direction.

The Johnson election was also seen as a major victory for reform of the police department. Johnson is a strong supporter of police accountability and backed the movement led by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and others in Chicago to set up police accountability boards in the various precincts.

Among Johnson supporters is State Sen. Robert Peters who holds the seat in Hyde Park and along the Lakeshore once held by Barack Obama. Peters said yesterday that “the Johnson campaign was a composite, a progressive composite including young people and a wide variety of truly diverse groups. It is a real progressive, all-encompassing coalition. Look around here,” he said, pointing to the diverse crowd at the campaign’s election night gathering, “This is why Johnson won.”

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People’s World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper’s predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Starbucks CEO Schultz raked over coals by Sanders in the Senate / by Mark Gruenberg

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz smugly drinks from a Starbucks mug as he is grilled by Sen. Bernie Sanders at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Washington. Sam Amato, left, of Buffalo, N.Y., listens in. Amato is a member of Starbucks Workers United and says he was illegally fired from Starbucks after 13 years. | All photos: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on March 30, 2023

WASHINGTON—In an often-contentious 4-1/2-hour Senate hearing, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz denied, ducked and stonewalled workers’ reports and National Labor Relations Board findings of the monster coffee chain’s constant, centrally-controlled and nationwide labor law-breaking.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., led off the March 29 session by declaring of Schultz that “Even if he’s a multimillionaire, he’s not entitled to break the law.”

Things went downhill from there when Schultz was in the witness chair.

Whenever Sanders and other committee Democrats, using worker statements and evidence unearthed by the NLRB in a 218-page order banning Starbucks’s constant labor law-breaking in Buffalo and nationwide, tried to get the ex-CEO to promise to obey the law—or at least come to the bargaining table with workers of the 300 Starbucks stores who have unionized so far—he refused.

Instead, Schultz claimed his team scheduled 85 face-to-face meetings with workers at individual stores. But when workers elsewhere zoomed in, his bargainers left. Wrapping himself in privacy concerns, Schultz claimed they did so because the sessions could divulge personal information.

One late witness, after Schultz finished, former NLRB member and veteran labor lawyer Sharon Block, put the Starbucks unionization campaign, and the company’s reaction, into a national context, and not just one of fed-up low-wage workers unionizing for protection, recognition and financial improvements.

Those are all true. But Block added that in her decades of writing labor law as a congressional staffer, enforcing it at the NLRB and now teaching it at Harvard, she has never seen such widespread defiance by any company. And if Starbucks gets away with it, she warned, other firms will be even more emboldened to resist, defy and break labor law against workers.

Before that, Schultz kept denying every single labor-law breaking charge thrown at him by the workers and the NLRB. So far, there are more than 500 charges, formally called unfair labor practices. And Schultz kept returning to Starbucks’s supposed reputation as a caring company. The Starbucks workers, testifying later, refuted him.

Operating from the grass roots

The workers, operating from the grass-roots but aided by Starbucks Workers United, have won union recognition votes at more than 300 Starbucks stores nationwide, and triumphed in 83% of all elections. They’ve also had to file more than 1,200 labor law-breaking complaints to the NLRB.

“You cannot be pro-people and anti-union,” Tennessee worker Maggie Carter said.

Carter and Jayson Saxton, an illegally fired worker from Augusta, Ga., testified after Schultz’s 3-1/2 hours in the witness chair. They told quite a different story of company pursuit of profits, low pay, lousy working conditions and severe discipline, all of which and more drove them to unionize.

Now ex-CEO Schultz, who’s worth $3.7 billion and who made $21 million in total compensation last year, dismissed their charges, along with those in the NLRB’s ruling, or denied knowing anything about them. When one Republican asked him how much top Starbucks execs made, he ducked.

Meanwhile, Carter and Saxton brought walking, talking evidence of how Starbucks mistreats its “partners,” as the company calls workers, when they try to unionize to protect and better themselves.

It was a tale of forced captive audience meetings, discrimination in hours and transfers between stores, benefits offered to non-union store workers but denied to those in unionized stores—using labor law as an excuse—minimum wages until last May and no health coverage through an already expensive company policy if you worked fewer than 20 hours a week.

And there were arbitrary cuts in hours, too, Saxton said. In one three-week period, a worker could go from 25 hours—qualifying for coverage—to five hours to 15.

Single mom Carter told senators Starbucks retaliated against her union organizing by holding up her transfer request from Jackson, Tenn., to Knoxville, Tenn., for three months. She had to quit while awaiting a decision, and that denied the health benefits she needed for her child. Carter wanted to transfer to Knoxville so she could go to college part-time.

Pro-union workers “were getting disciplined for minor violations” like dress code variations, she added. When the union won the Jackson vote—its first win in the South—on March 29, 2022, Starbucks retaliated “by walking out after 30 minutes” of their first bargaining session. “And on May 3, they said we wouldn’t get any” benefits that were promised to non-union store workers.

Schultz’s reason, repeated over and over to senators? Labor law, he claimed, bans additional benefits during an organizing drive—even when the union waives its right to contest those increases.

And Starbucks’s “captive audience” meeting in Jackson had an extra twist due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Such meetings, which feature anti-union harangues by bosses, union busters or both—and discipline if you don’t attend—are common.

Worked from Day 1 of pandemic

“I worked—we all worked—from Day 1 of the pandemic” in Jackson, Carter explained. “It was the only one that stayed open” despite the spreading modern-day plague. She was paid $8.35 an hour. This past May, Starbucks raised all baristas to $17.50, an outcome one speaker said was due to the union drive.

“They brought in a manager from outside we had never seen before” for a captive audience meeting, she said. “We weren’t told we didn’t have to attend.” Schultz says Starbucks prefers “direct communication” with workers—a common employer argument.

“This manager gave us Covid. We had to shut the store down for five days.”

Saxton, an illegally fired Starbucks worker from Augusta, Ga., and a partially disabled veteran, said even before the firm canned him for organizing its store there, it cut his hours so much he lost its already costly health insurance. That retaliation meant he had to go back to the local Veterans Administration clinic for his care, but also left his wife and child without coverage.

After the firm fired an Augusta manager for being too sympathetic to the workers, it brought in an anti-union manager “who moved everything around every day. Then she wrote down names” for discipline when disoriented workers couldn’t find the new locations of the machines.

“They were definitely engaging in anti-union activity,” Saxton said.

If Starbucks beats the unionization drive by dragging it through the board and the courts, using its wealth to produce interminable delays to wear down the grass-roots workers and their union backers, Starbucks Workers United, that sends a message to rest of the corporate class, said Block.

“What has happened” at Starbucks “is not just a collection of individual violations. It is a coordinated company campaign that shows the company has the will, the stamina and the resources” to defeat any union organizing drive.

“What will other workers around the country think of when they see Starbucks can do this?”

Her answer: “Workers rights” in the U.S. “are as weak as a Starbucks coffee cup.”

Video of the hearing is at

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

Once Dismissed as Absurd, Ronald Reagan’s “October Surprise” Is Now Confirmed as True / by Branko Marcetic

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands as they greet one another before their presidential debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, October, 28, 1980. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on March 26, 2023

It’s not a conspiracy theory: Ronald Reagan secretly negotiated to keep the Iran hostages captive for an extended period to try to keep President Jimmy Carter from winning reelection.

It seems like some small marker of cosmic justice that just as former US president Jimmy Carter lies in a hospice awaiting death, the long-alleged but never-proven political crime that sabotaged his reelection just got another, major piece of corroboration.

This is the original “October surprise”: the charge that Ronald Reagan, Carter’s Republican opponent in the 1980 presidential election, made a secret deal with the new, fundamentalist Iranian government to delay releasing the American hostages held in the wake of the revolution that brought it to power. The 444-day-long hostage crisis had become a major black mark on Carter’s presidency, and resolving it before the election would have given him a major, unexpected bump going into voting. Hence the phrase, “October surprise.”

Through it has long been charged that a Reagan campaign with victory in sight went behind the US government’s back to secretly reach out to the Iranians and prevent this bump from happening, this weekend, the New York Times published an explosive piece of evidence that backs it up. Ben Barnes, a former Texas politician, told the paper how he and his mentor — former Democratic Texas governor John Connally, who had run for the GOP nomination in 1980 and had a plum Reagan administration post in his eyes — traveled around the Middle East delivering a message to be relayed to Iranian leadership, that Reagan would give them a better deal when he won the presidency. Connally then briefed Reagan’s campaign chair, William Casey, about the effort upon returning home, according to Barnes.

While acknowledging that confirming the account is “problematic,” the Times did, to its credit, corroborate parts of the story. Four prominent Texans confirmed to the paper that Barnes had told them the story years earlier, and various personal records back up Barnes’s claims about his and Connally’s travel dates and locations, their contact with the Reagan campaign, and their meeting with Casey upon getting back.

Blindfolded American hostages being held by their Iranian captors, 1979. (Reuters via Wikimedia Commons)

But this is far from the only recent piece of reporting backing up the “October surprise” story. A little more than three years ago, the Times published another report that touched on the matter, this one charging that Chase Manhattan Corporation chair David Rockefeller (brother of GOP politician Nelson) and a team assembled at the bank “helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release.” Unlike the most recent Times piece, this report was based on documents that had been sealed until Rockefeller’s death, one of which was a letter from his chief of staff (incidentally, named Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco in 1981) to his family admitting he had “given [his] all” to sabotaging the Carter administration’s efforts “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise.’”

Former world leaders have also corroborated the story. As the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz pointed out on the occasion of the death of former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr (the country’s first following the revolution), the leader had written in his 1991 memoir that “Americans close to Reagan” had proposed to the nephew of Iran’s postrevolutionary supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini “a secret agreement between leaders,” and that in late October 1980, “everyone was openly discussing the agreement with the Americans on the Reagan team.” Twenty-two years later, Bani-Sadr again repeated this charge, adding that the deal between Khomeini and Reagan had prevented his and Carter’s efforts to resolve the crisis, with two of his advisors “executed by Khomeini’s regime because they had become aware of this secret.”

Others who have affirmed the existence of such a deal include former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (who told the late Robert Parry that “of course” there was such an agreement) and former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and one of his senior aides, who both affirmed that Republicans offered a deal to the Palestine Liberation Organization if they helped keep the hostages in Iran. Years later, Parry also discovered — in a converted women’s bathroom in the parking garage of a federal building — a report sent by Moscow to the House task force investigating the story, which similarly backed up the claims, and was left out of the task force’s final report.

In other words, there was good reason to believe the story long before this past weekend, but the latest reporting by the New York Times offers even more reason. Yet the “October surprise” was dismissed widely and confidently, often by being slapped with the instantly delegitimizing label of “conspiracy theory,” a term thrown around with breathless irresponsibility in the ironically named “post-truth” era. The evidence for the story was a “myth,” blared a 1991 Newsweek headline, the contents of which declared it a “conspiracy theory run wild,” while the New Republic confidently deemed it “a total fabrication.” (One of the coauthors of that story, Steven Emerson, later wound up on Fox spreading racist nonsense about Muslims controlling British cities).

“It never happened,” asserted the hard-right Daniel Pipes in George Mason University’s History News Network, claiming it was merely the “guilty pleasure of die-hard conspiracy theorists.” (Like Emerson, Pipes is also an anti-Muslim racist who warned about “massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene,” and once expressed concern that the “enfranchisement of American Muslims” would threaten Jews). As recently as 2012, a Daily Beast headline declared that the “October surprise” is “still getting debunked.”

In other words, according to all the “serious” people, the “October surprise” story was misinformation, a conspiracy theory, fake news, and so on . . . until more evidence came to light and it turned out it wasn’t. None of this should inspire confidence that the traditional gatekeepers of political discourse — politicians, the mainstream press, intellectuals in establishment circles, and the fact-checkers and government bureaucrats that treat their words as gospel — can be trusted to responsibly regulate “misinformation” and wield censorship powers, as many such figures long for these days.

It’s also a reminder that contrary to the fairytale the public is being fed by many of these same sources, US politics and the GOP were far from bastions of decency and righteousness until the dastardly Donald Trump came along and messed everything up. It was Reagan, the Republican president most often cast these days as Trump’s polar opposite, who carried out something close to treason to win an election, before carrying out a host of other crimes and outrages as president. Everything in our scandal-filled times is, sadly, part and parcel of decades of US political tradition.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Alain Badiou Is the World’s Leading Philosopher of Communism / by Caitlyn Lesiuk

Alain Badiou speaking on May 5, 2016. (Wassilios Aswestopoulos / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on Febraury 18, 2023

While many radicals of the 1968 generation shifted to the right, French philosopher Alain Badiou maintained fidelity to the revolutionary communist project.

For leftists today, it’s common to regard the idea of communism with skepticism, or to view events like the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Paris Commune as failures. For French philosopher Alain Badiou, however, the fact that these moments of revolutionary upheaval did not absolutely overturn the status quo is no reason to discard them — or, for that matter, the idea of communism.

Badiou likens the communist project to a theory that mathematician Pierre de Fermat first proposed in the seventeenth century. In 1994, after three hundred years of failed attempts, English mathematician Andrew Wiles finally substantiated Fermat’s “Last Theorem.” For Badiou, the example is instructive: the communist hypothesis is true, even if it remains to be proved. “Failure is nothing more than the history of the proof of the hypothesis,” he writes, “provided that the hypothesis is not abandoned.”

It’s this lifelong commitment to radical philosophy that marks Badiou out among intellectuals of his generation. In his youth, he interviewed philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jean Hyppolite, and Georges Canguilhem for a TV show L’Enseignement philosophique. Today, at eighty-five years of age, Badiou continues to interrogate the relationship between politics and philosophy with his monthly seminar series, which begun in 2021, titled “How to live and think in a time of absolute disorientation?”

Nevertheless, the Anglophone left has been slow to engage with Badiou’s thought, perhaps due to the demands he places on readers. But this is to overlook a philosopher who insists on reviving the idea of communism against the many who have “cheapened” it or who would rather communism be “sentenced to death.” Indeed, Badiou offers an example of what it is to live one’s politics in the most radical sense. He thinks and writes in the spirit of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong, and his chief contribution is a philosophy that defends the core tenets of revolutionary Marxism with unrivaled rigor.

Who Is Alain Badiou?

Badiou grew up in Morocco under French colonial occupation, a childhood that left him keenly aware of class inequality. In the 2018 documentary “Badiou,” he recalls noticing that white colonial women occupied the upper rooms of his family’s house, while the Arabic women who largely raised him lived below and worked in the kitchen.

A gifted student, when Badiou was nineteen, he enrolled at the École Normale Supérieure where he was taught by the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. At the time, Althusser criticized Badiou’s approach to philosophy for what he called “Pythagorism,” that is, an overindulgence in mathematics. Readers of Badiou, however, will agree that this is a warning he didn’t heed. As Badiou later reflected, “as so often happens to the Master’s injunctions when the disciple is stubborn, I simply went on to make things worse for myself.”

After graduating, Badiou first became a high school teacher and later a lecturer in Reims, where he took part in the student and worker uprising of May 1968. Reflecting on this period, Badiou explains that it “breaks my life in two parts,” forming the impetus behind much of his later work.

When Badiou’s university in Reims joined the 1968 general strike, he marched alongside his students to the gates of the Chausson automotive factory, the largest local workplace to down tools. However, neither Badiou nor his students had a clear idea of what they would do when they arrived. Later, he reflected on the initial uncertainty that characterized the meeting between radical students and factory workers:

We approached the barricaded factory, which was decked with red flags, with a line of trade unionists standing outside the gates, which had been welded shut. They looked at us with mingled hostility and suspicion. A few young workers came up to us, and then more and more of them. Informal discussions got under way. A sort of local fusion was taking place. We agreed to get together to organize joint meetings in town.

Prior to this uprising, there had been little dialogue in France between working-class people and students because union representatives generally served as mediators between the two. The protests, however, created a newfound possibility for communication and collective action. Indeed, as Badiou recounted, factory-gate discussions like the one he and his students had initiated “would have been completely improbable, even unimaginable, a week earlier.”

Like the Paris Commune and the Cultural Revolution, this moment of resistance ultimately died down. Yet, Badiou insists that we must not consider it a failure. The lesson of 1968 is that there is a common politics that can unite student and working-class radicals and actualize the potential of joint resistance. As he would put it, we are “still contemporaries” of 1968, and indeed, the event had such an impact on Badiou that for the subsequent decade, he entered into a period of “no philosophy,” and instead dedicated himself to political action.

Rather than distance himself from the academic world, Badiou sought to bring political militancy to bear on it. So, he took a teaching position at Paris 8 University Vincennes-Saint-Denis, which was founded in response to May 1968 and counted a number of radicals among its staff, such as philosopher Gilles Deleuze. While at the university, Badiou led several unorthodox protests aimed at countering ideas he regarded as conservative or elitist.

“I myself once led a ‘brigade,’” Badiou recounts, “to intervene in his [Deleuze’s] seminar.” This was not lost on Deleuze’s students, one of whom later recalled Badiou’s pupils “turning up with copies of Nietzsche and asking trick questions to try and catch [Deleuze] out.” Alternately, Badiou invoked the “people’s rule,” calling on students to leave Deleuze’s class in favor of a political protest or meeting. On these occasions, Deleuze would signal his resignation by raising his hat — a white flag of surrender — and placing it back on his head.

As Badiou explains in his monograph Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, he was concerned with the political import of Deleuze’s philosophy. Today, his methods of intervention have changed and he reflects on these youthful protests humorously. However, Badiou’s sentiment remains unchanged: one must be vigilant in thinking through the political implications of any given philosophical system taken to its limits.

In the Name of Truth

Badiou is a prolific writer, and in addition to many philosophical treatises, he has published plays, novels, and translations. He has also remained engaged with live political debates, publishing commentaries on the election of Donald Trump and the Yellow Vests movement, for example. However, the centerpiece of Badiou’s oeuvre is the Being and Event trilogy in which he pursues the main goal of his philosophy: to develop a theory of truths.

As Badiou notes, this project clashes with contemporary academic fashion, which frequently considers it gauche to speak earnestly of “truth.” Against this, Badiou argues that there are such things as truths — and they run contrary to the two dominant characterizations common to our times.

On the one hand, it is conventional to think of truths as relative, that is, as only being true within particular contexts and for certain communities, but not others. On the other, we might favor a notion of truth as singular or legislative. This approach upholds the idea that there is only one truth to which everyone must submit. The former, relative approach to truth, is common coin in undergraduate social or cultural studies programs, and is often associated with the liberal left. The latter, by contrast, is more commonly favored by those working in the hard sciences, or by certain religious or political movements that propose one spiritual truth or one national identity.

Both understandings of truth present problems. If truths are relative, we sacrifice any idea of universal truth, and are therefore forced to deny that we are united by shared ideas. Consequently, we have nothing but our differences. Conversely, if truths are universal, the challenge is to give an account for how they can be true for radically different peoples and contexts. And we must do this without inadvertently legitimating structures of oppression — like colonialism — that historically have used the language of universal truth to justify their violence.

Badiou’s theory of truths attempts to resolve this tension by establishing truths as both universally applicable and particular to the local situation. Truths emerge in historically determinate events while also ringing true in times, geographical locations, and cultures outside the place of their emergence.

Importantly, truths shape and constitute the possibility of philosophy itself. Badiou insists that philosophy does not itself produce truths but must think through truths as they appear in art, science, love, and politics, which he terms the four “conditions.” Here we encounter one particularly valuable feature of Badiou’s schema vis-à-vis politics. By insisting that philosophy does not produce political truths, he ensures that philosophy doesn’t attempt to determine politics. Instead, by arguing that philosophy should be determined by politics, he attempts to maintain the potential for political thought as such.

What’s crucial for Badiou is that we learn to think in ways that do not follow from the existing situation of capitalist oppression. The fact that there is no clear example of a perfectly realized emancipatory politics makes this harder — but it doesn’t mean that the task Badiou sets us is impossible. However, the politics that we begin to construct cannot be based on pure conjecture, otherwise we are bound to fall into abstraction or tend toward fascism.

This is where philosophy can help us develop political alternatives, but only provided we maintain fidelity to a revolutionary sequence — such as 1968 — set in motion by real political events. In short, Badiou suggests that we avoid the twin dangers of relativism and abstraction by insisting that philosophy must follow from politics, as thought in action.

The Mathematics of Resistance

If Althusser was taken aback by Badiou’s emphasis on mathematics, what are we to make of it? Historically, it’s not uncommon for philosophers and theologians to attempt to think through mathematical problems like the nature of the infinite. However, the connection between mathematics and Marxist political action might seem obscure.

While Badiou does offer a philosophical argument that reconciles mathematics and politics, he’s clear that it’s not just a scholarly question. He points out that historically, many mathematicians have upheld fervent political convictions, and that their discipline has drawn them toward political life, not away from it. As an example, he points toward his father Raymond Badiou, a mathematician and enthusiastic member of the resistance against the Nazi occupation of France.

Badiou also writes about the more widely known mathematicians Albert Lautman and Jean Cavaillès, who were both killed for their anti-Nazi activism. For example, in 1942, disguised in nothing more than a boiler suit, Cavaillès broke into a German submarine base in Lorient. Although French police arrested and interned him, Cavaillès escaped later that year. In 1944, German counterintelligence arrested him again before he was eventually shot and buried in a grave marked “Unknown Man No. 5.”

Both Cavaillès and Badiou’s father explained that their choice to resist oppression was a necessary consequence of the mathematical logic to which they were committed. Indeed, it is worth noting that Cavaillès worked in the field of pure mathematics. He advocated for a methodology that divorced mathematical reflection from any notion of the subject and emphasized the potential internal to mathematics itself.

This is important for Badiou who, following Plato, argues that mathematics is the first point where logic demands that we break with opinion. He writes, “the essence of politics is not the plurality of opinions. It is the prescription of a possibility in rupture with what exists.”

The Event

This is to say, political truths cut through the proliferation of political debates and identities, offering an alternative to the prevailing social structure. Ruptures like these, in Badiou’s theoretical schema, are understood as “events.” An event is inherently challenging because it produces a new truth that goes beyond the geographic and historic conditions that gave rise to it.

Consequently, the task for radical philosophy is to discern between what is genuinely new and what recapitulates a version of the existing state of affairs under the guise of novelty. For instance, contrast the uprising of 1968 against the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The former created new forms of political action, broadening our horizon of possibility. The latter was a symptom and, ultimately, a repetition of the status quo.

Badiou’s point is that mathematics can provide us with resources for thinking through an event as it ruptures the dominant political order. Reduced to its simplest form, the question of politics is: How can we imagine and actualize a different situation to the one we are currently in? And from this, a further question flows: How can moments of resistance to oppression come to restructure society, beyond the often brief and chaotic moment of revolt?

Because mathematics provides a mode of thinking according to axioms, philosophy informed by mathematics allows us to think at the point of what cannot be determined. This helps us answer the question: What do certain decisions allow? And how, by a series of inquiries into the unknown, might we begin to actualize an alternative to oppressive political realities?

For Badiou, these inquiries help us address all contemporary social and economic threats that result from capitalism by positing a higher, communist truth. Rather than “participate in the festivities of capital or roam aimlessly,” he calls on those with a commitment to philosophy to think the political truth of communism through to its consequences.

The result will be thought in action and the proof of a communist hypothesis that will have been true since its birth.

Caitlyn Lesiuk is the convener of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy and a PhD candidate at Deakin University, where she teaches philosophy.

Bernie Sanders to reintroduce the PRO Act into the Senate / by Press Associates

Sen. Bernie Sanders will reintroduce the PRO Act into the Senate this session. | David Becker/AP

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will reintroduce the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act. He should use it to really throw the book at corporate crooks.

Sanders will be able to push it through his panel, via a one-vote majority there. If all 49 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents hang together to outvote the chamber’s corporate puppets, also known as Republicans, there’ll actually be a debate on it in the Senate.

Unfortunately, the Senate filibuster rule or the Republican-run and equally ideologically polarized House Education and the Workforce (not “Labor”) Committee will then kill the bill.

So let’s take a leaf out of the Republican playbook and make the PRO Act even tougher on corporate crooks and their aiders and abetters, like union-busters, than it is. You’ve heard of “messaging” bills? Make the PRO Act a real message to that criminal class and to the rest of the country: Abuse, exploit, and break the law against your workers and you’ll pay a huge price.

As you know, the PRO Act, as written by Sanders and then-House E&L Chair Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., plus labor’s legislative representatives, would make gaining union recognition easier and ban many obstacles—such as captive audience meetings which feature illegal intimidation, lies, and threats bosses now use to thwart organizing drives.

Bosses who don’t bargain after workers vote union would face mandatory arbitration. Card-check recognition would be explicitly in federal law. Delay tactics bosses use to postpone elections would go. Joint employers would be jointly responsible for obeying or breaking labor law. Illegally fired workers would be reinstated as soon as they win a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge’s order in their favor, rather than being forced to wait through interminable delays, first at the board and then in the courts.

The PRO Act would empower the NLRB to easily seek court injunctions against flagrant labor law-breakers, such as Starbucks and Walmart. And instead of forking over only net back pay to harmed workers, Sanders proposed firms would face civil fines of $50,000 for a first offense and $100,000 for subsequent ones.

But the new version of the PRO Act we envision is a messaging bill, remember? So let’s really clobber criminal companies and their honchos where it hurts. Here are the additions we’d make:

High fines, maybe on a sliding scale varying by corporate size. The basic idea is “hit ‘em in the wallet, hard.” One way: Add a “0” to the end of those fines above, making them $500,000 for a first offense and $1 million for each following offense. And each instance of labor law-breaking would cover one worker, not dozens. The numbers add up.

Let’s see, the first 101 workers Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz illegally fired for trying to unionize would cost him $500,000 for worker #1 and $1 million each for numbers 2-101. Even Schultz couldn’t just shrug off $100,500,000 in fines. Nor could his board of directors. And if they, and his union-busters, aided, abetted, or condoned the lawbreaking, they’d be fined, too.

Further, if individual Chapter 7 bankrupts can’t avoid paying “debts for certain criminal restitution orders,” according to the legal website Findlaw, outlaw that escape hatch for firms.

Commit the crime, do the time. Corporate pooh-bahs shrug off fines, which are civil penalties. But crime is crime, even—maybe especially—among executive suits in executive suites. Make labor law-breaking, formally called unfair labor practices, a criminal offense.

South Korea does. In December 2019, Samsung Electronics Board Chairman Lee Sang-hoon was sentenced to 18 months in jail “for sabotaging labor union activities” by illegal spying and illegally stalling bargaining. Six other Samsung senior honchos joined their boss in doing perp walks in handcuffs. Nineteen more received suspended sentences in Seoul District Court. A higher court later tossed his sentence, but the others stood.

“We humbly accept that how the company perceived labor unions didn’t meet citizen’s eye-level and society’s expectations,” Samsung said. “We will establish a forward-looking and healthy labor union culture that is based on the spirit of respect for our employees.” A higher court overturned Lee’s conviction, but the other verdicts stood.

Extend criminal penalties. The Protect The Right To Organize Act made more offenses–such as captive audience meetings—labor law-breaking. We’d go even further and make more people, besides line managers, CEOs, company directors, and other top executives, guilty of labor law-breaking. Extend criminal penalties to, to use the Nixonian phrase, currently “unindicted co-conspirators,” also known as union-busters. They’re as guilty as their clients.

No more letting firms off the hook when a contract is reached. This one’s prompted by the story we just posted about the settlement of the 175-day strike which Ingredion forced on its 120 workers, members of Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 100-G. Ingredion also brought in scabs to run the plant.

Undoubtedly as part of bargaining, the local withdrew its complaints of labor law-breaking—bad-faith bargaining, illegal spying, direct dealing with workers, and Ingredion’s refusal to recognize the union as their representative. With the settlement and the union’s withdrawal of its complaints, the NLRB closed the cases. It’s a common practice.

Why? Why should a labor law-breaker get away with what is in essence a plea bargain? Prosecutors use plea bargains to save the costs of criminal trials and obtain convictions. But where the crook is known, the crime is known and the impact on workers is enormous, there should be little plea-bargaining, and preferably none at all.

Ban hiring scabs. In 1938, the Supreme Court legalized letting firms hire “permanent replacements” for economic strikers. Letting firms do so undercuts the clout of workers’ most-powerful weapon of last resort, boss-forced strikes. And firms have no incentives to settle. Indeed, they frequently contract with scabs beforehand, anticipating pushing their workers out.

There’s no constitutional justification that we can see for letting firms hire scabs. End it.

Put all this in the PRO Act and you might get corporate chieftains and their lackeys to really think twice before combating their workers through illegal spying, threats, firing, and worse.

Just imagine everyone from an anti-union Starbucks manager on up to Starbucks CEO Schultz, plus his union-buster, getting hauled off to the hoosegow. Or the whole Walton family trundled off to Leavenworth after forking over $288 million for accumulated labor law-breaking against their workers over the years, as documented by Cornell Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.

The PRO Act may be a “messaging” bill in this Congress, but what a delicious prospect with additions like these. Let’s use it to really send a message to the criminal corporate class.

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.

People’s World, February 3, 2023,

Compassion in an age of anxiety and disillusionment / Review by Lital Khaikin

Originally published in Canadian Dimension on February 2, 2023

Gabor Maté’s new book explores questions of survival and thriving in a traumatized and and (re)traumatizing society

Published in September 2022, Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, is a rich examination of the conditions that lead not only to individual illness, but to the cultural normalization of stress, emotional repression, alienation, and disenfranchisement. Through his therapeutic practice of ‘compassionate inquiry,’ Maté shows how psychological trauma is exacerbated by cultural norms and capitalism, and emphasizes a curiosity toward individual circumstance as a way of understanding and healing core psychic wounds.

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture
Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté
Knopf Canada, 2022

Accessibly written in collaboration with his son Daniel Maté, The Myth of Normal questions and dismantles notions of ‘normalcy,’ interrogating the factors behind the apparent rise of trauma-related illnesses and the oft overlooked social and economic circumstances that can make us sick.

The theme of disillusionment anchors The Myth of Normal, and the book signals in many ways an evolution from Maté’s earlier works including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008), a study of the addiction and opioid crisis in Canada. In that acclaimed earlier work, Maté makes a clear link between economic precarity, social disenfranchisement, and the stigmatization of difference with an individual’s predisposition to opiate addiction. As he wrote: “The question is never ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’”

Where Maté’s extensive study of the social roots of the opioid crisis ended, however, his new book picks up, tying in common threads with his 2003 work When the Body Says NoThe Myth of Normal broadly explores the consequences of the “mind-body bifurcation,” or the dissonance between the mind’s narrative and the body’s sensed reality. This division is encouraged by social conditioning that traps people in traumatized patterns and maladaptive coping mechanisms based on emotional repression and denial.

Reiterating his past insights, Maté shows how chronic illness and immune disorders from cancer, multiple sclerosis, and ALS are often symptomatic of emotional repression and accumulated stress. The urgency of Maté’s arguments is clear as Canada’s health care system sees intensifying privatization, while social support systems become increasingly difficult to access.

As Maté writes, it is the “willingness to be disillusioned” that serves as a point of departure for bringing trauma awareness into medicine, legal systems, and educational environments in an intentional and systematic way.

“The personality is an adaptation”

While Maté emphasizes compassionate inquiry as a core element of his therapeutic practice, The Myth of Normal proposes curiosity as the foundation of a caring society. Curiosity, by nature, embraces the unknown. Its absence shapes a society where individuals are not in dynamic conversation with their environments and with unknown ‘others,’ and relate to one another through an ‘identity-by-template’ formula.

Without curiosity, we may become emotionally repressed, resentful, and disempowered. This is exacerbated when selected fragments of our lives are uploaded to social media platforms that are optimized based on unattainable ideals, and which are designed to capitalize on our most vulnerable insecurities.

Maté explores how dependence on external self‐presentation is an extension of neuromarketing, the normalized corporate strategy of targeting the pleasure response, which is often foundational to the algorithms that shape the content and behaviours of internet communities.

Indeed, social media is the ultimate marketplace for the self as product. It is geared towards optimizing the performance of self, of one’s visible social networks, and of a person’s aesthetic, gestures, expressions, and tonality. The result is a closed system where the self that best matches an algorithm displaces multiplicity and authentic diversity, convincing people into desiring to be anything but themselves. This creates a tension between the perception of self and an uncanny absence of self. As Maté writes, citing Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton, this results in “living always in somebody else’s imagination” within a society “whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension.”

Contrary to notions of a fixed self, The Myth of Normal emphasizes permeability and changeability. “It is closer to the truth to think of the personality as a recurring phenomenon than a fixed or permanent one,” he writes, “much like the way individual movie frames projected at rapid speed create the optical illusion of a single, continuous narrative.”

This principle, however, doesn’t fit capitalist incentives for profit that trap us within states of insecurity and precarity, and which engender a perception of inner lack. Feelings of self-completeness, the absence of desperate co-dependence, and the fluidity of self-expression are much harder to influence and control—and are not profitable for industries that depend on keeping people stuck in their traumas, scrutinizing and fixating on their shortcomings.

But it also poses a challenge when a person’s sense of self is shaped by the narrative and scars of trauma, and disruptive traumatic response is internalized as an immutable part of one’s identity. Maté has addressed this in his previous writings, showing how addiction (a form of traumatic response and coping) can become an anchor for identity, with the addict seeing no other possibility for existence: “No matter how much he may acknowledge the costs of his addiction, he fears a loss of self if it were absent from his life. In his own mind, he would cease to exist as he knows himself.”

In an honest reflection on his own evolution in therapeutic practice in a chapter entitled “An Inaccurate Map of Our Pain,” Maté acknowledges the potential benefits of pharmacological approaches to treating symptoms of trauma, but bases the heart of his new book on healing the root of suffering rather than medicating. “In my medical practice I became something of a Prozac booster, succumbing to the error of looking for pathology where there was only everyday unhappiness,” he writes. “I am primarily interested in what will promote the healing of the psychic wounds the ongoing traumatic patterns represent.”

As in Maté’s previous books, The Myth of Normal includes many examples and stories of patients and individuals Maté has encountered to support his emphasis on psychic wounds within therapeutic practice in order to treat the root causes of suffering. Recounting the story of a young doctor in the section “A Physician Heals Herself,” Maté draws a portrait of a woman who systematically repressed her emotions and tolerated harassment at work. It took being admitted to a hospital for coronary distress and pre-cancerous cervical abnormality, and later becoming suicidal, to confront the abuse the interpersonal stress was inflicting on her emotional self.

Maté shows how these superficial symptoms can be addressed through a change of environment, with what appears to be a facet of personality or an unsolvable crisis transforming in conditions that are conducive to temperament and thriving.

Similarly, in the popular book Attached, authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller write how elements of seeming pathology, which they reframe as chronic activation of attachment systems, can be understood and transformed by changing one’s environment. Through numerous examples of relationships with conflicting needs, the authors demonstrate how the absence of what Maté might call ‘compassionate inquiry’ within a relationship creates a defensive environment that shows fundamental lack of care for wellbeing.

Levine and Heller describe a relational framework that, rather logically, sees behaviours as interdependent and the conditions for wellbeing as being a product of reciprocation in their environments. While seemingly obvious, such thinking is not as normalized as punitive judgements of individuals. Crucially, the authors of Attached don’t assign moral judgement or prescribe doom to any attachment pattern or combination thereof. Rather, they emphasize the plasticity of behaviour through awareness, allowing people to retain dignity within confusion, and illustrating how different approaches can either contribute to perpetuating or resolving traumatic patterns.

Dr. Gabor Maté. Photo from Flickr.
An inherited legacy

The Myth of Normal offers many segues into domestic and global political issues, and many of them relate to repression and punishment of difference, and the internalization of shame as a mode of social control. In particular, Maté explores the profound consequences of emotional repression in intimate and social relationships due to a fear of risking non-compliance, and of disappointing or being cut off from a caregiver or authority. But as trauma theory and its vocabulary gain mainstream acceptance, the knowledge of traumatic response and its manifestations can also be used to discredit and exert coercive control over individuals, and to invalidate their criticisms—be it in the bedroom, the workplace, or in the geopolitical theatre.

In his chapter “A Template for Distress,” Maté describes the phenomenon of self-abandonment in the face of threats as ‘hypnotic passivity,’ which is programmed through punitive measures for non-conformity, protest, and spontaneity in ways of being. “As citizens in ostensibly democratic countries, we have free will, up to a point—but in practice that freedom rarely strays beyond the frontier of what is socially acceptable,” he writes. “Not daring to rock the boat, we risk sinking with it.”

In Sara Ahmed’s acclaimed book Complaint! (2021), the feminist theorist’s analysis of how institutional power in academia protects itself by discouraging, suppressing, disappearing, or even co-opting complaint shows the extent of normalization around guilt and shame for being a “trouble-maker” or “feminist killjoy.” Illustrating this phenomenon in an interview with The Paris Review, Ahmed described how institutional power pathologizes complaint and capitalizes on the internalization of shame to target individuals rather than confronting embedded, systemic problems: “A lot of people talked to me about how when they tried to make complaints, it was often the diversity agenda that would be used against them—as if they weren’t doing this the right way, as if they weren’t being appealing enough, as if by even using certain words they were trying to make life difficult for other people, including other minoritized staff.”

The relational nature of trauma explored in The Myth of Normal also recalls the cautionary angles on trauma’s place in social institutions raised in the book The Empire of Trauma (2009) by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman. Using France’s immigration system as an example, Fassin and Rechtman offer a nuanced critique of treating trauma as an unassailable moral category within systems that are already antagonistic toward vulnerable and marginalized people like refugees, veterans, and survivors of abuse and torture.

Reflecting on how the category of trauma has moved from clinical psychiatry into “everyday parlance,” the authors are wary of how, outside of a clinical context, the category of trauma gives a sense of social validation and status which are not otherwise afforded by society. “[T]he truth of trauma lies not in the psyche, the mind, or the brain,” they write, “but in the moral economy of contemporary societies.”

Fassin and Rechtman criticize the ideological underpinnings of social infrastructures based on a lack of compassion, and the trap of a cynical era that demands performance of victimhood in order for suffering to be heard and validated, and thus as “an important indication of the way in which the tragic is understood in contemporary societies.”

Speaking with Canadian Dimension, co-writer Daniel Maté explained that The Myth of Normal makes a point of trying to reach those “who might not already be convinced” by trauma theory. His response echoes the challenge of creating a ‘new normal’ and unmaking myths presented in the book’s last chapter.

“There are medical practitioners who haven’t fully ‘lost their religion’ or become disillusioned entirely with Western medicine, yet there is a sliver of openness there,” he described in an email. “And then there are the real tough nuts: people deeply ensconced in academia or scientific institutions who might have a knee-jerk distaste for this project.

“Often there are culture-war aspects to this: some people distrust the ‘woke’ use of victimized identity as a cudgel to force compliance in others, particularly on the level of oppressed groups, and see coddling as a danger.”

The Myth of Normal is a comprehensive volume that ties in common threads from across Gabor Maté’s previous works, and connects a progressive therapeutic approach toward trauma with the social crises borne under capitalism. The humanitarian tone of the book and the inherent liberatory potential of trauma-informed social praxis are at the heart of building a world whose visible and invisible structures can be guided by compassion instead of fear.

At its heart, the arguments presented in the book encourage the possibility that each of us can play a redemptive role in one another’s life; nudging off the well-trod pathways of self-sabotage, transforming one another’s betrayed sense of safety and vulnerability, and allowing the possibility for just one thing, this time, to be different on the way to an authentic life. As Maté invokes by quoting Victor Hugo: “At intervals can be seen a glimpse of truth, the daylight of the human soul.”

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal.