theAnalysis.news host Paul Jay is interviewed by activist Luke Alden about the state of the peoples’ movement and Paul’s own history of politicization.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast.
So my guest today is, well, me. Luke Alden, who’s a viewer, supporter, and he’s an activist who lives in Rome. He’s American, but he’s been there for a couple of decades. He wrote to me and said he’d like to interview me. And I figured, OK, well, let’s try it.
So Luke is on the line with me, and Luke is actually going to be the host, and I’m turning it over to him. Just one message from me before I do, which is theAnalysis.news only exists because people are donating. We don’t have any really big donors, and we really need people to contribute. And so if you are so motivated, and haven’t donated yet, you’ll find the donate button somewhere, or if you’re listening to this on one of the podcast platforms, just come to theAnalysis.news, and you’ll find a donate button there. Anyways, without any further ado, Luke Alden is an educator. He’s a school teacher. He’s a political activist. As I said, he lives in Rome, and he’s been involved for a decade in campaigns with local and international groups on issues of war and military spending, austerity, climate, and US/Israeli aggression in Palestine.
And so now over to you, Luke’s now the host.
OK, Paul. So Paul Jay, as I’m sure most of you know, is an individual, for me, with one of the most insightful and incisive fact-based and non-doctrinal independent analyses and overviews of the current global political economy that I’ve heard in media. And he’s known in the world as a documentary filmmaker and journalist, as a former creator and producer of Canadian CBC’s Counterspin, as the founder of the Real News Network in Baltimore, and currently, as the creator of theAnalysis.news podcast, where he conducts some of the most instructive interviews you’ll find out there at the moment.
He’s also currently working with Daniel Ellsberg on a documentary series based on Ellsberg’s 2018 book “The Doomsday Machine and Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” So I wanted to chat with Paul about, apart from his own work, the depth of the crises we’re currently facing, the prospects for maybe getting out of them, and what lessons of the past and left movements and media we may want to learn from.
So thanks very much for taking the time again to talk to me today, Paul, and for your insight you have to offer us.
Thank you, Luke.
All right, so, we have a global pandemic, of course, the likes of which is unseen in a century, medieval level inequality, reminding us more recently of the 1930s, financial crash after financial crash in recent decades, the explosion of debt, sustained attacks on welfare state measures, the tearing apart of the Middle East and other parts of the world through illegal war after illegal war on the part of US, coups and attempted coups backed by the US in South America and beyond, systemic institutional racism, the increase of nuclear disaster, and a climate catastrophe the likes of which humanity has never seen, all accompanied by misdirected anger, fear, and confusion. This all characterizes not only the current state of things, but increasingly, at least the last 40 years, an investors rights globalized state capitalism, commonly referred to as the neoliberal period, where a very substantial increase in the concentration of wealth, according to all international body figures, has produced a perhaps unprecedented increase in political power, and a turn to the right.
However, at the same time, despite a considerable degree of despair among some sectors of the left and in popular movements, the fact is the same period since the 60s, let’s say, has seen a remarkable increase in consciousness, may be hard for younger activists who may feel alone and losing hope to recognize this. But an antiwar movement, an opposition to aggression, anti-nuclear movements, women’s movements, third-world solidarity movements, the environmental movement, and so on simply didn’t exist before the 60s and they’ve had a dramatic impact on society since, not to mention the mass proliferation of new popular organizations, movements, and media, especially since the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy movement, which we’ll get into, if you like, in a bit, time permitting. So, Paul, speaking on these broad themes, we know which of these two tendencies has the upper hand right now. So tell me first and foremost, if you agree with this assessment overall, and which side for you may have better overall prospects for success in the coming decade.
On one hand, a more conscious population, on the whole, taking initiative and asserting itself, or on the other hand, economic and political elites more and more calcified and unresponsive to popular currents for democracy.
I don’t know.
That’s a good one.
Interesting thing Engles said towards the end of his life, he said one of the biggest problems they had, he was talking about the prediction where they thought there’d be a larger scale working-class revolution in Europe, and that there would be a socialist revolution of some scale. They expected more than what happened. He said that one of the reasons was that their data was always so far behind the moment they were in. And this is before the Internet, it took a lot longer to get economic data.
I don’t think we quite know what is the capacity of the Fed to just keep floating money and putting off the real depth of the crisis, especially in the heart of the empire.
So, just imagine in the United States, if there’d been no bailout package at all when they had to close down the economy because of the pandemic, just imagine no propping up of the stock market, no buying up corporate bonds, no subsidies to unemployed workers.
The depth of the crash would have made the 1930s look like a tea party. And as it is, it’s already in many ways worse than the 1930s. But the ability of the Fed, and it’s not just they’re making up money, they are. But it’s not just that. They’re making up money, in my opinion, as a reflection of the accumulated wealth in the society. They’re not really making up more money than there is wealth in the society.
There are trillions and trillions of dollars in private hands, according to the Brookings Institute, American households held over 98 trillion dollars of wealth in 2018.
That’s assets minus total liabilities. And 77 percent of that wealth is in the hands of the top 10 percent of the population.
So the wealth is there and someday one would think they’re going to want to pay down some of the government debt. They may not have to, but they may want to. And if they do decide they want to, it’s going to be because the wealthy require it. Of course, it’s mostly the working class that they will want to tax more, and indirectly tax by cutting and privatizing public services, charging fees for things that are now covered by taxes.
For now, Wall Street seems to have little trouble with more infusion of Fed and government cash, especially when it’s propping up the stock and bond markets.
But not every country can create so much money, because very few countries have so much wealth. Perhaps the European Union, China, countries like Canada, you know, a few others here and there. But many countries in Asia and certainly in Africa and Latin America, don’t have the wealth to just make up that kind of money. And the reason they can’t make up that kind of money is that because bondholders, the creditor countries, will simply hold them to ransom.
You know, you could say any country can just print more money, make up money, but you can’t if you’re dependent on international investment, because there’s a point where they’re going to say, well, no, we won’t invest in your country. We’ll take our money somewhere else because we don’t believe your currency is worth anything anymore because you just made it all up.
They can’t say that to the United States at this point, one, because the whole system depends on US dollars anyway.
But more they’ve not created more money than there actually is accumulated wealth, in a sense, to back it up. And they also have a military to back up their positioning in the world and so on.
So you ask who’s going to win here?
It’s a sort of similar thing as what Engles said, I don’t know if we know how deep this crisis gets, and how long, or what is the capacity to keep throwing money at it if they have to.
Now, the Republicans have looked at the situation and they think, well, you know what? We actually didn’t see a big rise in any working-class movement, the antiracist stuff in the cities, yeah, it created a stir, but it’s not threatening in the sense that, look at the NBA can adopt all the slogans. So it doesn’t have much of an anti-capitalist character. And there’s an underlying in it you could say, there are activists within the movement that get the connection between racism and capitalism. On the whole, it’s one of these things that society, capitalist society in the United States, it can absorb it, it can live with it, especially when the Democrats are in power and they can pay lip service to the demand for racial justice.
The police murders of black men caught on video, did cause a shift in public opinion. The protests across the country did awaken people who live in a bubble and were in denial of the daily brutal violence suffered by black people across the country. I was more or less one of those people myself until I lived in Baltimore for eight years. If you don’t live surrounded by the violence, it’s really out of sight, out of mind. So there will be some response to the protests across the country. Some necessary reforms will be passed, like some measures to mitigate police violence. But little will be done about the underlying problem, which is chronic poverty and low wages. Why? Because of the profits made from exploiting black and Latino cheap labor are just too significant to give up.
It’s the super-exploitation of the cheap labor of workers of color that is at the heart of systemic racism. So as much as people say Black Lives Matter, profits matter more. So there’s not yet a mass movement with consciousness and strength that threatens the status quo in a fundamental way.
The question of what happens if there is a second or third shutdown of the economy, how much more propping up the Fed can do? I’m not sure anyone really knows.
The corporate Democrats realize there has to be more subsidy, more stimulus, because they need to please their urban voters to some extent, to gain and keep power. They understand the consequences of not propping up consumer demand and not just the stock market. There will be a deeper depression, and they fear that the mass movement will get radicalized.
The Republicans fear more that poor people won’t go back to work for such lousy low wages and believe that with law and order, and that means brutal force, they can control any resistance that develops.
So if Biden gets elected, the Democrats will throw more money at the situation and get closer to an FDR’ish kind of plan. I don’t think they’ll go nearly as far as FDR, especially no large scale direct government hiring. Like Obama, Biden will keep the money in the private sector and Biden won’t move in the direction of public ownership of key sectors as to some extent, FDR did. But that said, how far can they go, will they go, especially if, or when, the second wave of pandemic hits and there are more lockdowns?
So I don’t know. It’s a crucial question because if there is another shutdown or if the current high unemployment continues and the cities and states descend further into massive debts and the cutting of services, then the extreme right is in a better position than the left to take advantage of the mass unrest. If Biden wins and Wall Street runs his economic policy, and the Fed money goes mostly to corporations and the stock markets and large numbers of workers are dispossessed, then Trump or another Trump type can emerge and the situation becomes even more dangerous.
On the other hand, if there’s a slow but steady recovery and massive amounts of Fed funding prevents a deeper depression, then maybe the left has more time to organize and get ready for the next great shock, which is sure to come.
I’m encouraged by the Bernie Sanders campaign and progressives like AOC that have been elected. They are leaders of a mass movement with an electoral strategy and with time, this movement for a Green New Deal could develop with a much larger mass base. New leaders are coming forward in the anti-racist struggle.
As significant as the 2020 elections are, 2024 may even be more important. It requires organizing at workplaces and unions, schools, communities. And I know there are activists doing this now. And it requires a fight with the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party inside the party and outside of it.
The current temporary truce will end, if Trump loses, that fight against corporate Democrats will be renewed with force.
There needs to be a Popular Front, a real membership organization with a national scale outside of the Democratic Party. In the long run, the Democratic Party will never be the vehicle for transformative change. But we need to be realistic about what’s possible now and realistic about what’s possible within the center of the empire.
At this point, the difference between Republican austerity and big stimulus spending that goes to working people, if the Democrats do it, is of great importance not just for people’s daily lives, but because of the threat of fascism, if the economic crisis gets worse.
Which party controls the Senate will make a big difference. Wall Street’s counting on the Republicans to control the Senate, and gridlock will prevent any policies they don’t like. The bottom line is it matters a great deal whether Trump loses and the Dems control both houses, but that doesn’t guarantee a progressive outcome, it’s just a better field of battle for working people and progressives to fight on.
So, yeah, people have to make sure that the Democrats and Biden win this election without having any illusions about who Biden the Democrats are. At the same time, you can’t stay aloof from this. You can’t think it doesn’t matter. I mean, you can think it, but if you do, you’re really if you act that way, contributing to the rise of fascism. And that’s not to say there is the danger of fascism anyway. You know, the situation may get where the Democrats are capable of some pretty horrible things. But let’s not forget the Vietnam War. But for now, it’s like I said, it’s a better field of battle with the Democrats in power at this point in history.
And another piece to it, which is at least in the United States, the American left, and I should say this is true in too many places around the world and maybe everywhere, is so segmented, is so siloed, there’s terrible sectarianism.
I don’t know if there’s a single country where a powerful political progressive force has emerged with a unified message, with a broad coalition of forces, which at the heart, though, has a working-class, class perspective, but able to build a broad front against fascism and so on. I don’t know if it exists anywhere. And honestly, I’m not entirely sure why it hasn’t emerged anywhere.
I always thought something like it might happen in Brazil and maybe it will. But right now I’m told the left in Brazil, is somewhat similar to the left everywhere else.
And so the answer is, I don’t know. But I also know we have no damn time to find out. Because of the climate crisis, there is simply no time for a kind of evolution of the politics, you know, what do we have, less than a decade to avoid getting to 1.5 degrees? And the way we’re going, it ain’t happening.
So we’re really on course to hit two degrees by, who knows, 2030, 2040, maybe. It’s actually looking now, 2050 would be the outside, probably sooner.
If you hit two degrees, the odds of hitting three, and they’re now predicting by the end of the century without a really radical change of the economy and energy policy, that by the end of the century, we could be hitting four, five and one of the predictions gets us up to six and seven degrees.
Well, that’s an unlivable earth.
You know, at the very least, we’re looking at it in the lifetime of our children, that most of the planet is unlivable. So what does that mean? Most of the population of the south has to go north. Just imagine that.
And the lack of recognition of the urgency amongst the elites is just mind-boggling, that even in their own most narrow interest, it’s just shocking.
So so the answer is all I know is we don’t have a hell of a lot of time. And, you know, Dan Ellsberg has a great idea, a great way of saying this. He says, “We have to act as if we can do it.”
Absolutely. Well, that’s the theme we’re certainly going to come back to if we have more time. We’ll definitely come back to it, at least at the end of this little talk. But that is a certain sameness in terms of the movements being fragmented. That’s another huge theme that’s tormented so many of us for so many years. And we don’t work on that. And I don’t see where our chances are. But we’ll come back to as I said right now if you don’t mind, just a few words about yourself here. You said at the left forum, I remember a few years back in New York City, that one of the media’s duties should not be just to interpret but to change the world along with what we’re speaking about here.
And we can get much more into what you see as the media’s role and what it should be in a moment. But I’m just wondering if you can tell us a little bit about your own voice from wanting to just interpret the world to being a part of changing it, to wanting to be a part of changing it.
And as per your Reality Asserts Itself interviews in the past, I was wondering what flipped the switch for you in terms of your own consciousness being raised as a young man, as you grew up in a particularly politically active family. Tell us a little bit about that.
I did grow up in a political household. My father and mother were both involved with . . . My father worked with the Mine Mill Trade Union, which was the left-wing, communist-led union in the late 1940s. My mother grew up in a Republican household, but she became an actor, and then moved to Hollywood and got radicalized and wound up in the circles of the Hollywood Ten.
They came back to Canada because of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They were afraid of getting named and maybe my father getting deported. My mother was an American. My father was Canadian. And so they came back to Toronto.
So I grew up in a milieu . . . I would have to say, they were a little reticent about being too overtly political. I think my mother especially was a little, got a little intimidated by McCarthyism and such, and was afraid of not being able to work in Canada, because Canada was not as exaggerated in terms of McCarthyite type tactics. But it certainly existed.
And she was working in the media, and there were media people who couldn’t get work here because they were considered too left-wing. My father left Mine Mill disillusioned actually with the Communist Party, he thought they rigged an election at the INCO mine in Sudbury and one of his jobs as a business agent was to register the results of that election. And he later found out, he thought the election was rigged and was very pissed off that they had gotten him to register the results.
But also he was very angry at them for capitulating to the Steelworkers. It’s a long story, but the CIA worked through a guy named Hal Banks, who was the head of the Seafarers Union to purge the Canadian unions of the left. And the real target of McCarthyism, as opposed to the House un-American Activities Committee, the real target was the trade unions and to purge the unions of the left. And it was true in Canada as it was in the US.
And so the leaders of the Communist Party at the big INCO mine, they kind of made a sweetheart deal with Steel, where the individual leaders got cushy jobs with Steel. And they let Steel come in and kick Mine Mill out of INCO, and my father didn’t like that either and he quit. He got a job at another union and after six months, even though the executive, which was very, very progressive, loved him, a couple of very well-known people, this was a media union, a couple of very well-known people in the media got him fired because of his previous connection to Mine Mill. So anyway, I grew up in a household where real things were talked about. I read newspapers at a young age and so on. And I always had kind of a political orientation.
My first jobs were all working-class jobs. I quit school, really before I finished high school and I didn’t go to university. I drove a truck for the post office for three years and I fixed freight cars on the railroad for five years on midnight shift as a carman mechanic. I guess I got kind of radicalized myself while I was working and then got into filmmaking and so on. And it’s a long story, but my filmmaking and then getting into the Real News has all been an education for me. And I’ve gotten the chance to talk to a lot of smart people.
Could you possibly say whether you were more radicalized in the end by your parents’ experiences or by your own experiences in the working class?
Oh, I was really the thing that radicalized me most, I suppose I’ve jumped right over it, was the Vietnam War. Yeah, I mean, I got caught up in the protests and I started a nonprofit record store in Toronto in 1969. I was supposed to go to film school in 1970. I got accepted to the London School of Film Technique, and I was so young they made me wait a year before I could get in. And during that year, you know, they bombed Cambodia and so on. And my record store became a big center of people who are involved in progressive politics. So I started meeting people.
So I would say more my own experiences than through my parents, and I guess the most radicalizing thing in many ways was for the first time I met people that when you ask the question about what was going on, they would give a historical perspective.
That is fascinating because I didn’t know the history other than, you know, what B.S. I learned in school, so I would say my own experiences.
OK. And certainly, things all coming back to context there. We don’t understand anything without context. So forget about it. But speaking of films there, again, just for little parentheses, do you think your filmmaking had a bigger impact or your role as a journalist? It’s a big open-ended question in itself, but, you know, at least in your own life.
Well, it depends. My films were not overtly political. They were sort of indirectly, meaning like my wrestling film, which was, I guess, the film that made the biggest impression because it aired on television everywhere. It went to festivals everywhere. “Hitman Hart, wrestling with shadows”, which you can find on theAnalysis.news website.
It was about, are you naive if you think there’s more to life than money, than making money. So it was about that theme.
My film on Las Vegas, is on the face of it, about two guys that impersonate a Blues Brothers routine. But it was really about Las Vegas as the shape of things to come. If you’re going to live in a society which is about neoliberal economics and I got to say, I actually don’t like that phrase neo-liberal, so maybe you can ask me about that.
So my films had mainstream power. I was on all the major networks and also the television show you mentioned in the intro counterSpin, which I Exec produced for 10 years. That was on CBC’s news channel. So, again, mainstream distribution. In fact, there’s never been anything before or after on mainstream Canadian television where the left got a real say on things, that that show was really quite unique.
So in terms of broader influence, when I was doing stuff within the mass media, mainstream mass media, it had more influence. In terms of clarity of analysis and my own evolution in terms of understanding what’s going on in the world, doing The Real News and now doing theAnalysis, and even in some ways more theAnalysis, because I get a chance really to focus on my own work, and in a format that’s longer, I get to go deeper, in terms of presenting more clarity of analysis. But what I really want to do, and in some ways, I hope the Ellsberg film is that, is bring the two together. The Ellsberg film we’re hoping is like a Netflix or HBO, as a major mass platform. But now bring to that what I’ve learned during these more recent years.
OK, thanks. Thanks for listening to Paul Jay and I. I’m Luke Alden here in Rome, and listen in for the next installment of our conversation. Thanks.