Is Ukraine’s Opposition a Democratic Movement or a Force of Right-Wing Extremism?


  News & Politics  





A debate on whether the rush to back Ukraine’s opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin obscures a more complex reality beneath the surface.


Photo Credit:’J




Ukrainian anti-government protesters have rejected an amnesty bill aimed at ending the country’s political unrest, refusing to vacate occupied government buildings and dismantle their street blockades in exchange for the release of jailed activists. The demonstrations in the Ukraine are collectively referred to as “Euromaidan.” They began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union to forge stronger ties with Russia instead. While the Ukrainian opposition has been hailed in the West as a democratic, grassroots movement, we host a debate on whether the rush to back opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin obscures a more complex reality beneath the surface. We are joined by two guests: Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University; and Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen and University College London researcher who has just returned from observing the protests in Kiev.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

Amy Goodman: We turn now to Ukraine, where thousands of anti-government demonstrators have constructed what amounts to a self-sufficient protest city within the capital, Kiev. The standoff prompted the country’s prime minister to resign on Tuesday. Its parliament has agreed to repeal a round of laws that cracked down on dissent. On Wednesday, lawmakers offered an amnesty to protesters who have been arrested during the standoff, but only on the condition that activists vacate buildings they’ve occupied in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine. This is the speaker of the Parliament, Volodymyr Rybak.

Volodymr Rybak: [Translated] Let me remind you that yesterday we have approved the bill number 4007 about the law of Ukraine that ceased to be in force. We have also agreed to discuss today the questions related to the “removal of the negative consequences and non-admission pursuit” and punishment of persons in relation to the events, which took place during peaceful rallies. So, I come up with a proposition to vote on legislation without discussion. I ask people’s deputies to vote.

AG: The government’s amnesty offer was an attempt to get people to remove their barricades and tents from the main protest zone in Kiev. But so far, demonstrators have vowed to continue their occupation.

Stepan: [Translated] If the authorities had shown honesty, according to the mandate they were given, we would trust them. But now they have compromised the guarantees. We have no trust in these authorities. We have doubts in their honesty and decency, and that’s why it’s risky. So we are not leaving. That’s for sure.

Vasil: [Translated] People came here so that all of them would be gone, so that the president would be gone and the government would be gone. We need full change. We cannot go on like this.

AG: The demonstrations in Ukraine are collectively referred to as “Euromaidan.” They began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union in a move that favored stronger ties with Russia instead. The protests rapidly grew in size after a violent police crackdown. While nationalists led the demonstrations at first, others have since joined the movement. At least five protesters have been killed in clashes with police; hundreds have been injured. Police have also attacked dozens of journalists, destroyed their equipment. As tensions continued to increase on Wednesday, Ukraine’s first post-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, emphasized the seriousness of the crisis.

Leonid Kravchuk: [Translated] The situation is, frankly, very dramatic. All the world acknowledges, and Ukraine acknowledges, that the state is on the brink of civil war. There are parallel authorities in the country, and there is a de facto uprising. When the power is taken over, which is a real fact, when the power is falling down and the constitutional authorities refuse to honor their responsibilities, it becomes clear that this is a fall of the power. This is simply a revolution.

AG: For more, we’re joined by two guests.

Here in New York, Stephen Cohen is with us, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War,” is now out in paperback. He recently wrote “A Letter to ‘The New York Times'” that was critical of its editorial on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the country.

Joining us from London, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen who just got back earlier this month from observing the protests in Kiev. He’s a researcher at the University College London specializing in studying the far right. He recently wrote a piece titled “What the West Should Know About the Euromaidan’s Far Right Element.”

Anton Shekhovtsov, Stephen Cohen, welcome both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Anton in London. What should people understand?

Anton Shekhovtsov: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation to Democracy Now!

I wrote the piece to highlight a very dangerous trend, in my opinion, is that many people in the West buy into Russian propaganda which is saying that Euromaidan is infiltrated by the neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. And this is completely untrue. There is a far-right element in the Euromaidan protests, but it is a minor element. And Euromaidan protest is basically a multicultural, democratic movement which is trying to build a new Ukraine, a democratic Ukraine. And sometimes, by the name “far right,” there goes Ukrainian nationalism, and Ukrainian nationalism has — its main thrust is building of a truly independent Ukraine, a Ukraine which would be a national democratic state and not a colony of Russia, as Ukrainian nationalists think Ukraine is.

So the move towards Europe is a move towards democracy and away from the authoritarianism of Russia and its projected Eurasian union, which would unite several authoritarian states, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. So Ukrainians do not want this. They want to be away from authoritarianism, and they struggle for democracy now in Ukraine. So, basically, Ukraine is now a front line of democratic Europe. And they’re not — Ukrainians are not only fighting for their own freedom, but they are fighting to stop authoritarianism to spread westwards.

AG: Stephen Cohen, what is your take on what’s happening in Ukraine right now?

Stephen Cohen: Well, it’s not what Anton said. Where to begin? Can we begin at the beginning? What’s happening in Ukraine, what’s been unfolding since November in the streets, is probably the single most important international story underway today. It may impact for a very long time the geopolitics of Europe, Russia, American-Russian relations, and a lot more. At the same time, media coverage of this story, particularly in the United States, has been exceedingly misleading, very close to what Anton just told you. I would characterize Anton’s characterization, to be as polite as I can, as half-true. But a half-truth is an untruth.

The realities are, there is no “the Ukraine.” All this talk about Ukraine is on the front line of democracy — there are at least two Ukraines. One tilts toward Poland and Lithuania, the West, the European Union; the other toward Russia. This is not my notion. This is what every public opinion poll has told us since this crisis unfolded, that about 40 percent of Ukrainians want to go west, 40 percent want to stay with Russia, and, as usually true in these polls, 20 percent just don’t know or they’re not sure.

Who precipitated this crisis? It was the European Union, in this sense. It gave the Ukrainian government, which, by the way, is a democratically elected government — if you overthrow this government, just like they overthrew Morsi in Egypt, you’re dealing a serious blow to democracy. So if the crowd manages to essentially carry out a coup d’état from the streets, that’s what democracy is not about. But here’s what the European Union did back in November. It told the government of Ukraine, “If you want to sign an economic relationship with us, you cannot sign one with Russia.” Why not? Putin has said, “Why don’t the three of us have an arrangement? We’ll help Ukraine. The West will help Ukraine.” The chancellor of Germany, Merkel, at first thought that was a good idea, but she backed down for various political reasons. So, essentially, Ukraine was given an ultimatum: sign the E.U. economic agreement or else.

Now, what was that agreement? It would have been an economic catastrophe for Ukraine. I’m not talking about the intellectuals or the people who are well placed, about ordinary Ukrainians. The Ukrainian economy is on the brink of a meltdown. It needed billions of dollars. What did the European Union offer them? The same austerity policies that are ravaging Europe, and nothing more — $600 million. It needed billions and billions.

There’s one other thing. If you read the protocols of the European offer to Ukraine, which has been interpreted in the West as just about civilizational change, escaping Russia, economics, democracy, there is a big clause on military cooperation. In effect, by signing this, Ukraine would have had to abide by NATO’s military policies. What would that mean? That would mean drawing a new Cold War line, which used to be in Berlin, right through the heart of Slavic civilization, on Russia’s borders. So that’s where we’re at to now.

One other point: These right-wing people, whom Anton thinks are not significant, all reports — and I don’t know when he was in Ukraine, maybe it was long ago and things have gone — but the reports that are coming out of Ukraine are the following. One, the moderates — that’s the former heavyweight champion boxer, Vitali Klitschko, and others — have lost control of the street. They’ve asked the people who have been attacking the police with Molotov cocktails, and to vacate the buildings they’ve occupied, to stop. And the street will not stop, partly because — I’d say largely because — the street in Kiev is now controlled by these right-wing extremists. And that extremism has spread to western Ukraine, where these people are occupying government buildings. So, in fact, you have a political civil war underway.

What is the face of these people, this right wing? A, they hate Europe as much as they hate Russia. Their official statement is: Europe is homosexuals, Jews and the decay of the Ukrainian state. They want nothing to do with Europe. They want nothing to do with Russia. I’m talking about this — it’s not a fringe, but this very right-wing thing. What does their political activity include? It includes writing on buildings in western Ukraine, “Jews live here.” That’s exactly what the Nazis wrote on the homes of Jews when they occupied Ukraine. A priest who represents part of the political movement in western Ukraine — Putin quoted this, but it doesn’t make it false. It doesn’t make it false; it’s been verified. A western Ukrainian priest said, “We, Ukraine, will not be governed by Negroes, Jews or Russians.” So, these people have now come to the fore.

The first victims of any revolution — I don’t know if this is a revolution, but the first victims of any revolution are the moderates. And the moderates have lost control of what they created, helped by the European Union and the American government back in November. And so, now anything is possible, including two Ukraines.

AG: Anton Shekhovtsov, can you respond to Professor Stephen Cohen?

AS: Yes. So, this is basically what I said, as I called as a distortion in the Western media. I don’t know if Professor Cohen have been in Ukraine. I’ve been to Ukraine just a few days ago. I haven’t seen that the right-wingers have taken control of the streets. The streets are controlled by Euromaidan, which is ideologically very different. There is a right-wing element, but this is the element which is only a minor component of Euromaidan. And if you remember the Solidarity movement in the ’80s in Poland, it also comprised some right-wing elements, but in the end they built a democratic national — national democratic Poland.

As for the neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in western Ukraine, there are some, but at the same time, if you talk to them, if you interview them, and if you read their demands, you will not find any discrimination laws among their demands. What they demand is the national democratic state, independent from Russia. Even if they say that they are against the European Union, they at the same time support the pro-European protests. And this is partly what Euromaidan is about.

And then, again, there are many false reports about the beatings of representatives of national minorities in Ukraine. And mostly these reports are all false. They are being spread by Russian-backed propagandists, like Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the pro-Eurasian, pro-Russian party, Ukrainski Vybir, Ukrainian Choice. So, these people, they’re trying to distort the image of Euromaidan and picture it as something very violent, as something very right-wing, although the right-wing element, as I said, is a minor element at Euromaidan.

AG: Professor Richard Cohen —

SC: Stephen.

AG: Professor Stephen Cohen —

SC: Richard Cohen writes for The Washington Post. We are completely different people.

AG: But he’s not a professor, so —

SC: No, we’re still different people.

AG: Stephen.

SC: Yeah, thank you, Amy.

AG: Can you respond to what he’s saying? And also talk about how people are informed here, largely through the media, the media coverage of what’s happening in Ukraine.

SC: I’ve already responded to what Anton has said. To me, it’s a fundamental misrepresentation, and it raises questions in my mind, though he’s entitled to his political allegiances, who he represents in Ukraine. He is clear where he stands. But even the American media, which deleted this right-wing element for two months, now has gotten worried about it. There was an article in Time magazine, I think the day before yesterday. I think, because I saw it on the Internet, but today’s New York Times, January 30th New York Times editorial, is now worried about these people. So, Anton is not worried about them, for his own reasons, but the plain reality is that the so-called moderates, who are democratic, have lost control of the situation.

And here’s the evidence. The moderate leaders, including Klitschko, the boxer, who wants to be president of Ukraine, entered into a negotiation with Yanukovych, the democratically elected president of Ukraine. And what did he offer them? He offered them a coalition government, which is a traditional democratic solution to such a crisis. He said, “We will give Klitschko and the other Ukrainian democratic leader the prime ministership and the deputy prime ministership.” That’s a colossal concession. It’s power sharing. That’s what you do in a crisis. They didn’t accept. Now, they didn’t accept for several reasons.

AG: The protesters didn’t accept.

SC: No, wait a minute. Klitschko and the other democratic leader didn’t accept. One reason, the main reason, is the street wouldn’t accept it. And since both of these guys want to be president, when there’s elections in 2015, if there are elections, they’re not going to go against the street. They’ve become captives of the street. Now, the street, increasingly, is in the control of these right-wingers.

Let me make a point, and it would be interesting to hear what Anton thinks about this. Many young thugs in the street are trying to kill policemen. They’re throwing Molotov cocktails at them. They’re beating them up. Now, the police are brutal also. But name me one democratic country that would allow mobs to attack policemen in the street of a capital city and not crack down? And, in fact, the Ukrainian police haven’t cracked down.

AG: Anton Shekhovtsov, your response?

AS: Well, the police has already cracked down on the protesters at the end of November, when peaceful protesters were brutally beaten by the riot police. They did not do anything except for staying on the Independence Square in Kiev, and they were beaten up. And some people have disappeared. And since then, since the end of November, there are tens of, dozens of people who have been kidnapped by the police, and now they are found sometimes frozen to death with their hands tied at their backs. So, there is a whole campaign of state terror going on in Ukraine. And more than five people were killed already.

And Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the whom — one of the politicians whom Professor Cohen called the moderates, he was offered a position of prime minister. But Ukraine is a presidential republic, so the whole power, the whole political power, is in the hands of President Viktor Yanukovych. So this position is not really powerful. A prime minister does not have any influence on politics and on the way Ukraine develops.

SC: Amy, I —

AS: So, it wasn’t really a concession.

AG: Stephen Cohen?

SC: Yeah, Anton may have been in Ukraine a week ago, but he’s completely out of touch. Part of the deal that Yanukovych offered the moderates was to change the constitution to deprive the president of the power he now has and switch it to the prime minister. So —

AS: This is completely untrue. This is simply untrue.

SC: Please — it’s not untrue. I mean, I’ve read the documents. I’ve read the speech. It hasn’t gone through. It’s still at the Parliament. They may vote on it; they may not. But you’re simply not representing the situation correctly.

AS: Well, I am representing the situation correctly, because I’ve been there. I’ve seen all the documents that were being discussed in the Parliament. And President Yanukovych never offered to go back to the constitution of 2004, which would reintroduce the parliamentary republic. He wants all the power he’s got during three years of his rule. He has now control of all the oligarchic business in Ukraine. He’s trying to build — he was trying to build a whole business empire and give his family and the oligarchs and businessmen connected to the family all the economic power in Ukraine. So, of course, he is now — will be fighting ’til death, because if he loses, his family is losing — will lose all the money that they’ve stolen from Ukrainian people and invested it in European banks, invested it in European businesses, as well as American businesses, as well.

AG: I want to — I want to get Stephen Cohen’s response to last month Senators John McCain and Christopher Murphy visiting the protesters at their hub in Kiev’s Independence Square and voicing support for their cause.

Sen. Christopher Murphy: We are here to tell you that the American people and the United States Congress stands with the people of Ukraine.

Sen. John McCain: I am a Republican. Senator Murphy is a Democrat. We are here together speaking for the American people in solidarity with you.

AG: Professor Stephen Cohen?

SC: Well, that’s Anton’s position. I mean, Anton represents — at least his description of the situation — the mainstream American media political view of what’s going on in Ukraine. And when I say “mainstream,” I mean it extends from the right wing in America to MSNBC, to the so-called liberals and progressives, to Bill Maher, who did this on his show the other night. There’s no alternative voice in America, except what I’m trying to say to you today. It’s wrong — it’s wrong factually, it’s wrong in terms of policy — for McCain to go, as he’s done in other countries. He once said, “We’re all Georgians.” Now he’s saying, “We’re all Ukrainians.” If he understands the situation in Ukraine — and he may not — then he’s being reckless.

But a true understanding of Ukraine begins with the fact that there are at least two Ukraines, two legitimate Ukraines, culturally, politically, ethnically, economically, culturally. This isn’t Putin’s fault. This isn’t Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine’s fault. It’s either God’s fault, or it’s history’s fault. This is what came down through the centuries. The situation has been explosive since the end of the Soviet Union 22 years ago. When Western politicians go there, they’re playing with fire, metaphorically, and now they have real fire.

AG: Do you think this is about the media’s vilification of Putin?

SC: I think that the vilification of Putin in this country, demonization, is the worst press coverage by the American media of Russia that I’ve seen in my 40 years of studying Russia and contributing to the media. It’s simply almost insane. This idea that he’s a thug —

AG: Ten seconds.

SC: — and that explains everything, passes for analysis in America today —

AG: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Stephen Cohen, as well as Anton Shekhovtsov, for joining us to talk about Ukraine. We’ll continue to follow it.

Are Fitbit, Nike, and Garmin Planning to Sell Your Personal Fitness Data?

These popular fitness companies say they aren’t selling your info, but privacy advocates and the FTC worry that might change.

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 3:00 AM GMT

Lately, fitness-minded Americans have started wearing sporty wrist-band devices that track tons of data: Weight, mile splits, steps taken per day, sleep quality, sexual activity, calories burned—sometimes, even GPS location. People use this data to keep track of their health, and are able send the information to various websites and apps. But this sensitive, personal data could end up in the hands of corporations looking to target these users with advertising, get credit ratings, or determine insurance rates. In other words, that device could start spying on you—and the Federal Trade Commission is worried. 

“Health data from [a woman’s] connected device, may be collected and then sold to data brokers and other companies she does not know exist,” Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau for Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said in a speech on Tuesday for Data Privacy Day. “These companies could use her information to market other products and services to her; make decisions about her eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance; and share with yet other companies. And many of these companies may not maintain reasonable safeguards to protect the data they maintain about her.”

Several major US-based fitness device companies contacted by Mother Jones—Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike—say they don’t sell personally identifiable information collected from fitness devices. But privacy advocates warn that the policies of these firms could allow them to sell data, if they ever choose to do so.

Let’s start with the popular Fitbit. When you buy one of these bracelets or clip-on devices, you have the option of automatically sending fitness data to the Fitbit website. And the site encourages you to also submit other medical information, such as blood pressure and glucose levels. According to Fitbit’s privacy policy, “At times Fitbit may make certain personal information available to strategic partners that work with Fitbit to provide services to you.” Stephna May, a Fitbit spokesperson, says that the company “does not sell information collected from the device that can identify individual users, period.” However, she says that the company would consider marketing “aggregate information” that cannot be linked back to an individual user—which is outlined in the privacy policy as aggregated gender, age, height, weight, and usage data. (This is similar to what Facebook does.)

Nike, which makes the Nike + Fuel Band, says in its privacy policy that the company may collect a host of personal information, but doesn’t say that it can be shared with advertising companies. Joy Davis Fair, a Nike spokesperson, says that the company, “does not share consumer data” with outside advertisers, but selectively shares it with other companies under the Nike’s corporate umbrella, including Converse and Hurley. Garmin’s policy says that users have to consent in order for the company to sell personal information. A Garmin spokesman says the company doesn’t sell personal or aggregated information to advertisers, and doing so isn’t part of the company’s business model. (Polar Flow, which makes the Polar Loop band, is the only company with a privacy policy that explicitly says it won’t sell personally identifiable data for advertising. It is based in Finland and subject to stringent European Union privacy laws.)

Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, says that these privacy policies are so broad that they could allow the companies to sell health data—even if they aren’t doing so now. “When companies promise that they aren’t selling your data, that’s because they haven’t developed a business model to do so yet,” Chester says.

Scott Peppet, a University of Colorado law school professor, agrees that companies like Fitbit will eventually move toward sharing this data. “I can paint an incredibly detailed and rich picture of who you are based on your Fitbit data,” he said at a FTC conference last year. “That data is so high quality that I can do things like price insurance premiums or I could probably evaluate your credit score incredibly accurately.”

Even if the companies that make these devices aren’t selling the data, there is another potential privacy concern. Users can send their data to dozens of third-party fitness apps on their phone. Once users do that, the data becomes subject to the privacy policies of the app companies, and these policies do not afford much protection, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. The group examined 43 popular health and fitness apps last year, and found that, “there are considerable privacy risks for users.” A spokesperson for the FTC told Mother Jones that “fitness devices often work by having apps associated, and [Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s] analysis here may be relevant.”

If there’s one entity that knows the value of the health data uploaded to these devices, it’s the CIA. Last year, at a data conference in New York, the CIA’s chief technology officer, Ira Hunt, gave a talk on big data. During the discussion, he told the crowd that he carries a Fitbit. “We like these things,” he said. “What’s really most intriguing is that you can be 100% guaranteed to be identified by simply your gait—how you walk.”


Dana Liebelson


Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. Her work has also appeared in The Week, TIME’s Battleland, Truthout, OtherWords and Yahoo! News. RSS |

Obama’s low-wage “recovery”

31 January 2014

President Obama’s State of the Union address this week coincided with the release of several year-end profit reports. Profits for the firms listed on the S&P 500 stock market index jumped 11 percent in 2013, in large part because of declining wages and the increased exploitation of American workers.

In his national address Tuesday night, Obama acknowledged that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.” The “cold, hard fact,” he added, “is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead.”

As is his wont, the president posed as an innocent bystander, suggesting that some sections of the population had unfortunately missed out on “four years of economic growth.” In fact, the explosion of social inequality the president paid lip service to is the product of quite deliberate polices spearheaded by his administration.

Obama’s principal task on coming to office was to initiate the largest transfer of wealth—from the working class to the corporate and financial elite—in US history. This began with the bailout of the financial system. It continued through the 2009 restructuring of GM and Chrysler, premised on the halving of wages for new hires and a shift in the burden of health care expenses from employers to workers.

Billions have been slashed from social programs, including the cut-off of long-term unemployment benefits and cuts in food stamps, and the administration has backed the bankruptcy of Detroit, which is seen as a national model for forcing through pension cuts and other measures.

The surge in corporate profits is one consequence of these policies. According to Bloomberg, US corporations’ after-tax profits have grown by more than 170 percent under Obama, more than any president since World War II. They have reached their highest level relative to the size of the economy since the government began keeping records in 1947. Profits are more than twice as high than their peak during the Reagan administration, which, beginning with the smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981, initiated a class war against workers.

Since Reagan, the American ruling class has waged an unrelenting campaign, utilizing the services of the trade unions, which abandoned any defense of the working class. Deindustrialization and financialization has been accompanied by the destruction of millions of jobs and the decimation of entire industries. To the extent that any jobs are created, it is on the basis of poverty level wages.

Labor’s share of the Gross Domestic Product has now fallen to 57 percent, the lowest portion of the country’s output since 1950. Since the recession officially ended in January 2009, wages for auto workers have fallen by 10 percent in real terms, and for manufacturing as a whole they have fallen by 2.4 percent.

Although the global economic crisis resulted in losses or slower profits in Europe, China and the so-called emerging markets, multinational manufacturing firms reaped huge profits in the US. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing saw its profits rise 18 percent to $4.6 billion last year, while Ford saw profits rise 26 percent to $7.2 billion. Caterpillar beat analyst expectations with a 44 percent jump in fourth quarter profits, due primarily to “aggressive cost-cutting,” i.e., mass layoffs and wage cuts, which its CEO promised would accelerate in 2014.

US corporations are holding on to a record $1.5 trillion in cash reserves, according to Moody’s credit rating agency. Rather than investing in new plants or hiring, let alone raising wages and benefits, corporations are chiefly spending this stockpile of cash on dividend payouts to their investors and stock buybacks to drive up share values, like Caterpillar’s $10 billion program.

Talk of a manufacturing “renaissance” is largely a fraud. Only 568,000 manufacturing positions have been added since January 2010, a small fraction of the nearly six million lost between 2000 and 2009, according to a New York Times column published last week by Obama’s former “car czar,” Steven Rattner.

Employers that have moved production to the US have been lured through wage reductions and massive tax cuts, like the $280,000 a job credit given to Volkswagen for its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant. Pointing to the German auto company, Rattner noted that it “moved production from a high-wage country (Germany) to a low-wage country (the United States).”

As Obama boasted in his address, “for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.” The president added that, “over half of big manufacturers say they’re thinking of in-sourcing jobs from abroad.”

As a model of success, the president pointed to Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a business that hires welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed to produce components for Ford. A Washington Post article noted that the workers, who are members of the United Auto Workers union, are hired “at far lower wages than many had been earning in their previous jobs.”

The Obama administration and the ruling class have counted on the UAW, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and other trade unions, whose executives and their financial advisors see “in-sourcing” as a growth strategy. Manufacturers making some of the largest profits have relied on the treachery of the unions to impose wage-cutting contracts and suppress struggles when they did erupt.

This included the UAW’s collaboration in the restructuring of the auto industry, which reduced wages of new hires to the equivalent, in real terms, of what was earned by workers in 1914, when Henry Ford first established the $5 day. The UAW was rewarded with corporate shares and millions more in dues money from newly hired workers, who, on top of suffering the indignation of poverty wages, are soon to be hit with a 25 percent dues increase.

Most recently at Boeing, the IAM rammed through a contract extension originally defeated by rank-and-file workers that allowed the jet manufacturer to end company paid pensions, won in 1947, and ban strikes for the next decade.

The experience of the Obama administration, which has overseen the greatest explosion of social inequality in US history, while accelerating the attack on democratic rights and war-mongering policies of his Republican predecessor, has provoked widespread disgust and anger. The president’s election-year rhetoric about “equality” and his proposals for token “reforms” is largely falling on deaf ears.

The historic reversal in living standards for the working class in the United States and around the world is producing enormous levels of social anger, which the capitalist parties, the trade unions and their apologists will not be able to contain. It is only a matter of time for these tensions to erupt into massive struggles. When they do, however, they must be guided by a new leadership and political program, based on the international unity of the working class, its political independence from the corporate-backed parties and the fight to replace the capitalist profit system with socialism, that is genuine social equality.

Jerry White


2014 State of the Union Response



The Dark Side of the “Smart City”


Annalee Newitz on io9

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

The “smart city” is a futurist’s dream town. It’s carbon neutral because computers regulate its energy use perfectly. It has no traffic jams because sensors capture real-time data on the roads and guide drivers to optimal routes. Other sensors can quickly alert police to crime, or send information to your mobile about cool events. But living in a smart city could be a nightmare.

Photo of graffiti in Rio de Janeiro by Paul Keller.

If you want to know where the idea of the smart city came from, you have to look at advertising brochures from IT giants like IBM and Cisco.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

About a decade ago, these companies wanted to figure out how they could turn their computer networking products into something that made sense in physical space. Essentially, they were wondering how they could start selling networking devices to cities, governments, and even consumers — not to connect their computer devices, but to connect the physical objects around them.


They were, in essence, trying to figure out how to monetize what is now often called “the internet of things.” Out of those early brainstorms at large companies emerged the idea of a smart city, where buildings, cars, infrastructure, and public utilities would all be networked. They could be easily regulated and controlled with a “city operating system” that could figure out where power was needed and wasn’t in the city — or where police were needed and they weren’t.

Most of all, this city would be a data-gathering machine. Sensors would adhere to every surface, monitoring air quality, foot traffic, crime, water use, and even how many insects were flying around. Smart phones would be one of the most important sensors of all, as they would track the activities of every person in the city. Once Cisco or another company had enough of that data, they could use algorithms to optimize everything in the city, routing traffic, stationing police officers — or planting trees to draw insects away from schoolyards.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

Eventually this data could even be used to drive city government, generating information about what citizens need before they even realized they needed it.

It all sounds lovely in theory, and the idea has now leapfrogged out of the corporate R&D zone, into academic research and enthusiastic pop science books. There are even smart cities being built, with help from Cisco, like Songdo in South Korea.

The problem is that making a city “smart” could also crush everything that makes it a city, argues urban studies expert Adam Greenfield in a new pamphlet called “Against the Smart City.” A former designer for Nokia and professor at NYU’s design school, Greenfield has written extensively about urban life and technology. He believes that cities have a logic all their own, which is based on chaos and diversity. Making them “smart,” and subjecting their citizens to the logic of algorithms, could be more like authoritarianism than freedom.

Though the idea of a smart city is appealing, it’s crucial to keep Greenfield’s perspective in mind. He and I talked about the dark side of smart cities by email, right after Greenfield had relocated to London — one of his favorite cities — from New York.

io9: Your essay is a response to advertising about smart city products, primarily from IBM, Cisco and Siemens. Why are tech companies leading the conversation about future city planning? How is that changing the way people understand cities?

Adam Greenfield: In order to understand the disproportionate influence these companies have on a domain as seemingly distant from their remit as urban planning, I think we need to start from the idea that the perception of where capability resides has shifted in our culture. We live in a time when the popular imagination positions any individual who made their name and fortune in information technology — a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, a Jeff Bezos, or even, latterly, a Mike Bloomberg, a Marissa Mayer or a Mark Zuckerberg — as some kind of universal genius, capable of speaking meaningfully to just about any domain of human endeavor, and the enterprises they founded as being capable of productive intervention in just about any state of affairs you care to mention.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

This is why Bill Gates’s opinions on family planning in the Global South are taken seriously, and nobody bats an eyelash when a company whose best-known and most widely-used product is a search engine proposes to intervene in automotive design. That’s just where all the grandeur has come to reside in our age, and inevitably a tremendous share of the capital as well. So when a municipal governing body finds itself confronting the kind of wickedly complicated, multidimensional challenge that any real city generates on a routine basis, it’s natural (or “natural”) that it would turn for help to the institutions that appear to have all the answers.

The enterprises you mention just organically have a better grasp of the specifically information-technological possibilities cities and city governments now have available to them. So they’re well-positioned to profit from the general sense abroad in our culture that whatever the domain, problems that have bedeviled people for decades or even centuries will readily yield to the application of insight founded in these technologies. And while I don’t, myself, think that sense is entirely misguided, I definitely don’t think that an IBM or Cisco is ever going to have anything like the whole picture, either. To them, the city’s just another terrain for business operations; they’re inevitably (and, if you’re a shareholder, maybe even properly) oriented toward selling the products and services they already know how to sell, and the systems they propose to deploy are no different than those one might use to manage any other large, complex organization. As far as I’m concerned, they completely miss most of the salient, defining features of urban life in doing so.

io9: Do you think there are aspects of city life that every city shares, no matter where it is in time or place? What are they?

AG: I do, yeah. I think they mostly have to do with personality — with the kind of affect, subjectivity or sensibility the act of living in a great city reliably seems to produce in people. Negotiating the circumstances of everyday life in any true city tends over time to create a broad-minded, feisty, opinionated personality type we’d have no problem recognizing, wherever and whenever it appears in human history. City people may well be tolerant of diversity not out of any personal commitment to a utopian politics, but because that’s just what the daily necessity of living cheek-by-jowl with people who are different imposes upon you. City people are possessed of a hard-earned savoir faire; they know how to operate. They’re not easy to cow, to snow, to take advantage of or to dominate. They like to believe, anyway, that they think for themselves.

From what I can tell, this is so across cultures and centuries both. It’s this kind of personality that underlies the culture, the innovation, the urban productivity economists like Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser seem so transfixed by. And yet it’s just this set of characteristics that so many smart-city provisions seem hellbent on undermining, or even eradicating. The ability to search the space of the city for the perfectly congenial set of circumstances, to tune the environment until we never have to leave the contours of our own comfort: where the making of citydwellers and citizens is concerned, that’s a bug, not a feature. It erodes the development of savoir faire; it eliminates the risk, but also everything wonderful, that arises in the confrontation with difference.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

It seems bound to produce self-absorbed, self-centered people, trapped in a foam of epistemic bubbles, each unable to communicate meaningfully with all of the others, acknowledge the validity of anyone else’s prerogatives, or even stipulate the basic humanity of the others who happen to share the space and time of the city. And at the limit, the technical capability to bring the environment under arbitrarily finely-grained personal control ultimately means each of those bubbles is the size of a single individual. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but I sure don’t want to live in a densely packed hive of ten or twelve or twenty million such individuals.

io9: You argue that there are elements of the smart city idea that are already creeping into our everyday urban lives without most of us realizing it. Can you talk about what these elements are, and why some of them are dangerous?

AG: Well, the first and most obvious to me is the emphasis placed on quantification in the smart-city discourse — the idea that something doesn’t exist, or has no meaning, unless it can be measured. As it happens, I believe that the qualities most of us cherish about urban life just aren’t susceptible to direct measurement, whether that’s the pleasure of the “sidewalk ballet,” the thrill of discovering something secret, the solidarity when times are rough or the tacit understanding that neighbors help each other when the chips are down. You may be able to infer the presence of these from metrics you can actually garner from a distributed net of sensors, but in themselves they’re just not the kind of indices that show up on a wallscreen dashboard in City Hall. So I worry that we’ll undervalue precisely those qualities that are the most important to us, and the most definitive of metropolitan experience, because they can’t be harvested from a camera, an accelerometer, a load cell, a GPS trace or some other order of machinic perception.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

The next concern I have is a sentiment you overwhelmingly encounter in smart-city advocates, which is that the act of quantification is somehow neutral — that there somehow haven’t been deeply interested decisions made about how, when and where to collect data, using what means, or how it’s labeled, characterized, represented and made use of, that color its interpretation profoundly. I mean, I actually heard a very senior scientist at IBM say, in so many words, “The data is the data,” perfect, serene and eternal, at which his colleagues nodded sagely. I confess that I have a hard time understanding how any adult could believe that, let alone an incredibly bright and accomplished adult whose job it was to build systems capable of acting on collected data. But there it is. It’s inexplicable to me.

My third beef is something I’ve already alluded to, the belief inherent to a product like IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center that municipal administration is a straightforward matter of triggering stereotyped, preformulated protocols in response to the fluctuation of key performance indicators. You might be able to run a small commercial enterprise that way, or a battalion-sized military unit — some organization where there’s a relatively clear and uncomplicated chain of command and accountability, and a single, overridingly shared mission. But a city? Come on. Any city, at least in a nonauthoritarian society, is a roiling cauldron of contestation, in which a million constituencies, with profoundly different conceptions of the right, the just and the good — constituencies, mind you, which are themselves in a constant, ongoing process of coherence and decoherence — jockey for access to spatial, budgetary, attentional and other resources, and it’s impossible to satisfy them all simultaneously. And that’s true even in principle. There are and will be no Pareto-optimal solutions to the city. Cities are inherently tragic.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

So, again, it’s inexplicable to me that you would even for half a heartbeat entertain the idea that a city can or should be managed like a top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control organization. Finally, there’s a sense that hovers over the more recent “urban science” work, that it very definitely shares with the smart-city rhetoric, that a city is in some sense algorithmic — that all its perceptible operations are little more than the shadow cast in four dimensions by an equation or set of equations that persist in some eternal Platonic hyperspace, and that if we could but wrap our head around these equations we’d be able to intervene in urban affairs more or less as we chose to. That however blindly we’d been feeling our way through the dark, we’d at long last stumbled onto the royal levers that govern systemic behavior, and found them numeric. This mindset feels pernicious to me because the state of affairs it implies is so profoundly corrosive of our sense of agency, whether individual or collective.

I’m not saying that systemic approaches to things aren’t useful, and potentially hugely and irreplaceably so. Nor am I afraid of whatever uncomfortable truths might be waiting for us in future explorations of the Big Set. But even so profoundly cybernetic a thinker as Stafford Beer placed the greatest stock in our ability to choose among the futures available to us. I think it’s just disappointing that the parties currently carrying on this work seem to so badly misunderstand what cities are, what they do and what they’re for.

io9: You contrast the corporate vision of the smart city with the idea of an open city that is heterogeneous, and whose citizens participate in creating an “emergent order.” I love the moment toward the end of your essay where you talk about a city that uses information gathering to empower citizens, inform political debate, and improve the city. What does this open city look like, and what kind of government does it have?

AG: I mean, “Against the Smart City” was essentially hygienic, right? It just felt necessary to clear the table, sweep these fatally flawed and shallow and ultimately antidemocratic smart-city visions away, and open up some space for alternatives, before laying out what I think is ultimately much more interesting (to me and to everyone else), which is some kind of affirmative proposition.

What is it that I do think we can achieve in our cities with sensitively-designed informational-technical tools and services? I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War.

I found it fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief. It was profoundly hopeful and encouraging. And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.

io9: What is it that you love about London?

AG: Oh, god. Damn near everything. The texture of it, to start with. Even though London is not in any meaningful sense any older than New York — relatively few extant buildings are any older than the Great Fire of 1666, vast swaths of the East End were bombed to rubble by the Nazis during the Blitz, and some fairly misguided “regeneration” projects have done for a lot of the rest — it’s still built to the contours of a medieval street plan, and that’s what furnishes the urban fabric with its enduring drama, mystery, and human scale. Every corner is, quite literally, a revelation.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

Photo by Jason Hawkes

My sense is that they’ve done a better and more sensitive job here of interpolating high-quality contemporary architecture with pre-modern than in the States. I’m a sucker for the imperial pomp of Regent Street or Admiralty Arch, the scale of the Georgian and neo-Georgian squares, what you might call the voice of the public signage you encounter in the Underground and on the streets. I admire the long local history of mostly working-class resistance to oppression and authoritarianism, whose traces can be found right beneath the seemingly pacified suface of London life (and occasionally breaching it).

There are any number of landmarks of personal significance to me — here’s the sidestreet in Hackney where Throbbing Gristle had their Death Factory, there’s the Mayfair storefront where Archigram launched “Living Cities,” and that’s supposedly where the infamous schoolkid’s issue of Oz was put together. There’s an arcane, eldritch, non-Euclidean aspect to the city that delights me, as well, on a daily basis — I mean, you’re not going to find anything as weird as the mythos around the Hawksmoor churches in the States. And finally, the sense that you’re swimming in a different gene pool here — you just see different faces on the bus or the sidewalk than you do in New York. It’s just, in so many ways, an overflowingly generous base of operations for an urbanist and a lover of cities.