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TAKE ACTION for Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner Jaan Laaman, Locked in Solitary Confinement and Facing Repression for Speaking Out for Human Rights

May 8, 2017

Jaan Laaman, Currently in Solitary Confinement

Jaan K. Laaman, long-time anti-imperialist political prisoner, is currently solitary confinement (“the hole”). Jaan has been in solitary confinement since his birthday on March 21, 2017 simply for issuing two political statements, a clear violation of free speech and human rights. [More details below.]

How you can support Jaan:

Write to Jaan and let him know he’s in our hearts and on our minds.

Jaan has no access to news and almost no access to phone calls. It’s important we send him some letters right now. Send him articles, so that he gets some world news.

Jaan Karl Laaman #10372-016
USP Tucson
P.O. Box 24550
Tucson, AZ 85734

Write and call the Warden and ask him to end the repression against Jaan.

Please write and call the Warden at USP Tucson and ask that Jaan be released from solitary confinement and that he not be punished for expressing his support for women’s rights and for writing a statement mourning the passing of his friend, Lynne Stewart. Remind the Warden that Jaan is an elder prisoner, and you’re concerned about his health in solitary confinement and you would be concerned about his safety if he is moved to another prison.

Warden

United States Penitentiary – Tucson
9300 South Wilmot Road
Tucson, AZ  85756
Email: TCP/ExecAssistant@bop.gov

Phone: 520-663-5000
Fax: 520-663-5024

You can also contact:
Mary M. Mitchell, Regional Director
BOP Regional Office
7338 Shoreline Dr
Stockton, CA 95219

Regional email:   wxro/execassistant@bop.gov

Thomas R. Kane,  Director
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Central Office HQ
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534

Background Information

Jaan is imprisoned at United States Penitentiary (USP) Tucson in Arizona, and is one of the last two remaining Ohio-7 political prisoners still locked up. The Ohio-7 were convicted in 1986 of direct actions to protest U.S. support for the white-supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa, illegal U.S. attacks on Nicaragua, and repression against advocates for Puerto Rican self-determination.

Jaan was placed into solitary confinement because of two short messages: one in support of the “Day Without a Woman Strike” (International Women’s Day, March 8, 2017) which was printed in the NYC Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) update, and his “Farewell Thoughts to My Friend, Lynne Stewart” which was broadcast on Prison Radio. Lynne Stewart, revolutionary peoples’ lawyer passed away on March 8, 2017. When the NYC ABC magazine arrived by mail to the prison, Jaan was promptly placed in solitary confinement. Prison officials charged Jaan with “threatening the security of the prison” because of these First Amendment protected statements.

No one should be punished for exercising their First Amendment Rights. The United States District Court in Pennsylvania recently ruled in a case involving efforts to censure Mumia Abu-Jamal:  “A past criminal offense does not extinguish a person’s constitutional right to free expression. The First Amendment does not disappear at the prison gate.”

Pattern of Increasing Repression

Being placed in solitary confinement is the latest act of repression by the prison administration, following increasing actions against Jaan. Over a year ago, the prison shut down Jaan’s access to email, and they have been censoring him in various ways since then, including withholding his mail and limiting access to his lawyer.

Jaan was placed in solitary confinement on his birthday and has been there ever since. There is a growing consensus as to the psychological harm caused by solitary confinement. In 2011 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture and can cause irreversible harmful psychological effects.

Jaan previously wrote about the increasing censorship he has been facing, here. Jaan has been writing reflections about global events since he was first captured in 1984, so this level of censorship is certainly something new and different.

This update was written by friends of Jaan Laaman. Reach us at jaanlaaman@gmail.com. On Facebook: Free Jaan Laaman; Twitter: @4StruggleMag.

The Context for the Trump Phenomenon

March 18, 2017
BY David Gilbert 

The bizarre and dangerous rise of Donald Trump did not just pop up out of the thin air. The very foundation of the U.S. is white supremacy. This country is, at its core, imperialist, patriarchal and based in a range of ways human beings are delimited and demeaned. Nor are the specific and terribly virulent politics of racial scapegoating brand new. Always a part of U.S. culture, that approach became more central in mainstream politics, with various ups and downs in the rhetoric, since the end of the 1960s. A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial “other.” The sectors of the population who buy into that get the “satisfaction” of stomping on their “inferiors,” which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class.

The eruption of mass protest against Trump has been exciting, and so far it’s been sustained. People seem to have a feel for the critical need for ongoing education, organizing, and mobilization. The movement also has to be prepared, both psychologically and in terms of legal and support networks, for greater repression, both state and extralegal.

The Democrats in blaming “those damn Russkies” are deflecting attention away from the real reason they lost: they represented the prevailing global capitalism and all the associated frustrations of the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the erosion of job security. Trump spoke to those anxieties – in a totally demagogic and dishonest way. For example, during the campaign he railed against Goldman Sachs as the prime example of how Wall Street banks screw the working man; then, as president he selected seven of his top economic appointments from the ranks of Goldman Sachs. The Democrats could not provide a compelling alternative to this racist scam artist because they too are fully based in the long bipartisan history of white supremacy, capitalism, and wars of aggression.

Regardless of these questionable charges, Russia can’t hold a candle to the U.S. when it comes to interfering in other countries’ elections, let alone more intrusive and violent means of regime change. The big push by the Democrats and allied sectors of the security apparatus for confronting Russia is not only unjustified bat also runs the risk of leading to a horribly destructive war. As much as we’re scandalized, and rightly so, by Trump‘s more blatant racism and misogyny, we need to look at the continuities as well as the departures.

President Obama, with his kinder and more inclusive rhetoric, provided trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. He presided over seven wars (drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and are acts of war under international law). His administration deported a record number of immigrants. In his last year, Obama sought to burnish his legacy around climate change and mass incarceration. He issued a record number of clemencies, but earlier took legal action to keep far more in prison. After Congress passed a law somewhat reducing what had been draconian sentences for crack cocaine, the Justice Department went to court to prevent any retroactive application, and thus kept some 6,000 people behind bars. Similarly, Obama issued a number of executive orders, most of which can be readily reversed, to modestly rein in greenhouse gases. But earlier his administration played a key role in sabotaging the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties, which was the best chance to get a binding international treaty with some teeth in it, at a time when Democrats held a majority in Congress.

Recalling these dire problems is a reminder of how much the most basic issue is the very nature of the system. Nonetheless, there is something new and particularly threatening about Trump’s election: the way he has enlarged, energized and emboldened an active and aggressive base for white supremacy. Immigrants, Muslims, Native American water protectors, Black Lives Matter activists, women who’ve faced sexual assault, LGBTQ folks, those who can’t afford health insurance, and more all feel under the gun. The prospect of an unbridled pouring of more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is terrifying.

We can’t forget that an imperialism in crisis will turn to racist mobilizations to supersede obstacles to continued domination and expansion. The U.S. hasn’t yet reached that dramatic turning point, but it has been teetering in and out of economic and political crises since 1971. And on top of that, we now are on the brink of environmental disasters that can’t be resolved under capitalism.

As of this writing (February 2017) major sectors of the ruling class are still wary of Trump as too much of a loose cannon. They are making an effort at least to rein him in if not bring him down, although leading with the very dangerous push toward greater confrontation with Russia. It remains to be seen if Trump’s amalgam of billionaire businessmen and ultra-Right white nationalists can provide a coherent program or even hold together. Whatever happens with his presidency, we likely are in for a burgeoning of white supremacist movements. If Trump’s economic policies appear to be successful (possible in the short run of a couple of years but, if so, with giant dislocations and problems in the longer run), he’s a hero to those embittered sectors of the white working and middle classes who voted for him. On the other hand, if his administration implodes, millions of his fervent supporters will see it as the “elites” bringing down their champion. In either case our job, our challenge, is to build a strong movement that can articulate the real issues and clearly present humane, international and sustainable alternatives.

There’s been an outpouring of Left analysis on who voted for Trump and why. Some of it is very helpful about race, class, and the economy. From what I’ve seen there’s been very little that puts all that in the global context, with the U.S. as the premier imperial power but in decline. Nor has there been enough that has rooted Trump’s rise in the developments of the past 45 years. This is the challenge for our ongoing project of analysis and activism.

David Gilbert #83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187

“Day Without a Woman Strike” Statement

March 8, 2017

by political prisoner Jaan K. Laaman

A salute of Solidarity and Support on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2017 from political prisoner Jaan Laaman

Allow me to send warm, positive, hopeful and militant solidarity and revolutionary support to all the women leading, pushing, planning and participating in the very necessary ongoing freedom and justice struggles all across the US and around the world.

From the dynamic and historic marches of January 21 to the “Day Without a Woman Strike” today, March 8, women have been leading and advancing the overall freedom struggle just when this has been most needed.

Even behind these prison walls, the insight, fighting spirit, and direction you sisters are providing is seen and felt. We need this, and all of you, more than ever.

Let me close with the words of a fierce revolutionary, Marilyn Buck: “I thank all of you who struggle for a day, for a year, for a lifetime.”

And I send this out in the spirit of Lynne Stewart, our fearless Peoples’ Attorney, and dear friend, who just yesterday passed away.

 

Lynne Stewart in dire health – Send her love and donations!

March 7, 2017

A message from Bob Lederer – Please forward widely and share Facebook post to encourage donations

Ralph Poynter told me the following very sad news last night, and has authorized me to distribute it publicly:

Our beloved People’s Champion (and WBAI Local Station Board member) Lynne Stewart suffered a major stroke last Wednesday, the latest complication from the cancer that has now spread throughout her body and invaded her brain. She is resting comfortably at home and is not in pain, but can only speak sporadically. Her doctor has said she does not have much time left.

Ralph and Sister Betty Davis are of course taking good care of her, as are her doctor-daughter Zenobia Brown and long-term friend of 63 years Virginia Gernes. Ralph welcomes your emails (at ralph.poynter@gmail.com ). Because of the high expense of Lynne’s ongoing care, Betty has launched an online fundraising campaign.Please donate generously.

I learned all this minutes after Ralph accepted an award for Lynne at a major public event by the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, which honored a large group of lawyers and doctors who have supported U.S. political prisoners. As we know, for years Lynne went out of her way to provide strong representation to a pantheon of dedicated radical activists facing prison — before she herself suffered a similar, cruel fate.

Let’s all send Lynne, Ralph & Betty our hugs, love, and best wishes for this final journey. Such a heroic fighter – Lynne, we love you!

P.S. Ironically, her latest stroke occurred hours after a New York Times article appeared based on an interview with her, which noted that she had survived 3 years beyond the compassionate release granted her (on Dec. 31, 2013), following a statement by her prison doctor that she would not likely survive beyond 18 months:

Ms. Stewart said in a 12-page handwritten letter to the judge in 2013: “Isolated, in hospital, as I now am, I have time to contemplate life and death. I do not intend to go ‘gently into that good night,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote. There is much to be done in this world. I do know that I do not want to die here in prison — a strange and loveless place. I want to be where all is familiar — in a word, home.”

This is a fitting reminder of that people’s victory 3 years ago, brought about by Lynne’s will of steel, Ralph’s indefatigable barnstorming, and the movement’s rallying behind her.

Herman Bell: 43 Years and still in

March 6, 2017

I’ve lived in this cell longer than I’ve lived on the streets.  Its metal locker where I keep my food from the mice, the toilet and face bowl, the bed, the floor, the cell bars and metal clothes rack all have come to know some part of me.  I want to talk about me today.

Through and beyond the iron-framed windows before me, I see blue sky and the free world where I yearn to rejoin my family and community, wherein with just a single click serrated metal handcuffs produce extreme pain, and rattling gate keys may at any moment echo chain-like rushing down prison corridors often resulting in broken bones, bruised bodies, and affronted dignity.  Prison is a dangerous place.  And in a courtroom, whose words bear more weight — the prisoner’s or the prison guard’s?  Here, you may live or you may die; a prisoner awakens, a prison guard leaves home for work, both may never do so again.  At the edge of some distant tomorrow, I may walk free out the front gate.  I am 69 years old and my youthful and optimistic heart and good intentions have not gone unchallenged.

I remember back-in-the-day when I was a small boy in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn.  The neighborhood boys and I used to hang out at the local grocery store on Saturday morning helping mothers carry their groceries so that we could earn movie money.  I recall helping one mother lug her bags up tall flights of stairs to her apartment, and when she got them all in she smiled, thanked me, and closed the door in my face.  For her, that was perfectly fine – after all, my face is black.

Throughout the ensuing years, I have occasionally wondered about that.  Racial abuse, stereotyping and bigotry are deeply rooted in u.s. society.  Even as an adolescent, I’ve felt like a stranger in my own country, and I’ve not been given reason to feel much different today.  I’ve often been made to feel invisible, uncomfortable, out of place.   A black face, especially a male black face, automatically prompts suspicion.

While blacks and Native Americans in particular have long been excluded in u.s. society, they are inextricably linked to its origins and know too well its violence and bigotry.  No amount of native blood could quench the white settler’s thirst for native land, and the Afrikan whose slave labor largely built north america fared no better.  Wealth generated from this enforced labor profoundly transformed the u.s. and sowed the seeds of the modern world.  Slave owners drove their slaves from dawn to dusk into the tobacco and cotton fields, the mines, the rice paddies, the woods, sawmills and brick kilns.  This back-breaking labor, therefore, is what bind u.s. blacks to this land, and in a way, I believe, Native Americans can understand.  Not forgetting what the Buffalo Soldiers were ordered to do to them out West.

Yet despite this, slavery’s legacy endures.  It prevails not only in the U.S. Constitution as regards U.S. prisons, providing for “involuntary servitude,” where a disproportionate number of Afrikan-Americans now find themselves on “modern plantations,” but also in u.s. institutions and culture.  The ravages of slavery transformed the Afrikan into a nameless, stateless being bereft of tongue and cultural memory, and of some means to cut through the agony of his desolation and despair.  This bode ill for his descendants.  I am one of them.

As a young man, my thinking changed when I discovered my people in history.  Their significant contribution to the advance of human civilization amazed me.  This and their historic struggle to reclaim their rightful place under the sun affected me profoundly.  It changed the course of my life as well as that of many young people of my generation cognizant of this history.  Accordingly, we became advocates in the long-denied and unrecognized black struggle for social justice in the u.s.  The white power structure felt threatened by this advocacy, by its assertiveness and growing confidence.  Rather than with reason and fair treatment as its response, it chose a stick disguised as law enforcement.  Unfortunately, violence ensued and some of us went underground, some of us were subsequently murdered, imprisoned, or both.  As time passed, a few among us were released and have gone home.  But I and those left are still in after over 43 years.

Imprisonment exacts an incalculable toll on the body and mind and is the closest descent into Hell as one can imagine.  The warders aim to impress that every part of your being belongs to them.  If not now, then soon or soon enough, that time is on their side.  Whether you do or don’t know how to hate, they will teach you.  If God does not exist, in here, you may wish that he or somebody like him did exist to intercede and comfort you.  For you will presently discover that you and you alone are all there is in here.  Enduring prison is one thing, surviving it is another.

The alchemy of a prison sentence transforms a person into an “alien” or social outcast, which exempts him from the rights, privileges, and tender mercies that are commonly accorded to the non-sentenced person.  He is inventory on a shelf, color-coded, numbered, thrown in a cell and counted several times a day.  His mail is delivered with neither a smile nor eye contact.  He’s a blank face to be treated with studied aloofness.

All sentenced prisoners have experienced this.  Though our black faces abound inordinately in here, each prisoner is viewed up close as he steps inside the prison.  And while the government seem never to run out of money for guns, bombs and planes, prisons seem never to run out of cells to put somebody in.  Like shaking hands with the Devil, I found coming to terms with being in a cell to be quite the experience.  It bears a distinct quality with which one has to reconcile.  When you’re engaged in constructive activity in the cell, it seems less confining than it actually is.  Yet its distinct mind-squeezing quality applies especially when you brood, do nothing, indulge in self-pity, and see the space as having no possibilities.

Visualize a cell wall with a poster of an old tree-lined street, a bustling flower garden, a towering bridge and cityscape lighting up the night — those are portals through which I can be elsewhere whenever my mind falls upon them.  And when they are packed away for a cell move, the cell reverts to its dead, steely, cavernous state, echoing what it hears, and maybe could use a little paint.

Emerging from the cell heading own the tier and stairway out into the corridor towards the mess hall, an interview room or an assigned program area, regardless what jail I happen to be in, it’s “just another day at Flat Rock.”  This contrived routine often leaves me feeling like a mouse running a maze.  Often enough, I’ve had to re mind myself that in this maze, I can become lost to family and friends and the outside world, that as I navigate this space of endless tomorrows, continuous close contact with them is imperative.  Their presence in my life is what keeps me grounded, keeps my mind and hope alive.

I’ve been in a lot of prisons.  The older ones where I’ve been held most – Clinton, Attica, Comstock – their worn-down stone steps stand out, and if they could speak, I’ve often wondered what would they say about the men who trod on them, about what they dreamed, their life’s ambition, what went wrong.  One can but assume that their crimes were mostly economic ones.  If poverty generates obesity in that people eat what they can afford, the same may be said of certain crimes, because the vast majority of people in prison are poor and marginally educated.  Poverty, ignorance, and desperation are no strangers to crime.  It’s not uncommon for people in dire circumstances to commit illegal acts that they might otherwise refrain from committing.  When all else fails, people will desperately resort to doing whatever it takes, including crime, to support themselves and their families.  For taking a crust of bread, the police will pursue a poor man to the ends of the earth and turn a blind eye to a rich man’s theft of millions.  In the aftermath of the 2008 financial ruin of countless u.s. citizens, none of the Wall Street bankers and traders rushed for the exit doors.  Rich people, educated people, seldom go to prison or go to prison for very long.  And as the “race card” plays out, whites in general who do land in here get better job assignments than do people who look like me.

The box (solitary confinement) is another nasty lil spot to avoid in here if you can.  Rich people are seldom found in these places, because they are so good at escaping.  I’ve been in the box more than a time or two, though less so lately.  It’s a cheerless, unpleasant place, and it smells bad.  It brims with the sins and crimes committed against helpless men that can never be atoned for.  In this world I live in, you have to make the best of what’s before you.  Laughter, for example, is “on the house,” and no laughter is quite like the laughter you encounter in prison, often because we have little else.  Sometimes, when we’re feeling up to it and “on the down low,” we talk so bad about a guard’s momma, his fat kids, his big-nose wife with one eye, til if he knew, we’d never make it out the box alive.

One time I was in the box, they gave me a blanket that covered only half my body.  The guards were amused.  I was pissed!  But after several days, they gave me a full one, just to keep me quiet.  Each time in the box, its cold, gray, cheerless atmosphere packs me down inside myself, affording no relief except what I create for myself.  So I would save my dry breakfast cereal and seek a trade with the guys.  The haggling excited some – how many tiny boxes of cereal to trade for a piece of fruit, a chicken leg, or for something else?  Others never saved and therefore had nothing to trade.  From a sheet of writing paper, I would create a chessboard, write numbers on the squares, and fashion chess pieces with sliced bread.  Push-ups and sit-ups, jogging in place, and taking naps were a fixed part of my daily routine.

During the night and early morning, I would sometimes lie awake, feeling the silence and its peace wash over me.  Throughout the day, one can write but so long with a pen the length of my middle finger, read but so much “piss-poor” material that’s almost like not reading at all, do but so many exercises.  And my naps had to be sparing, otherwise my nights would be restless.  Our rations were meager, and our hunger the day long.

Indeed, a routine in the box is imperative – making a way out of no way – and is as basic and urgent as a desperate gasp for air around something lodged in your throat.  Some days I feel my blood racing to the stout beat of my heart; my thoughts refuse to be still.  I want to shut down, but there’s no off-switch.  My years in the box were long, hurtful, mentally exhausting, and they may put me there again.  What happens to men confined this way, for decades, often without feeling or seeing sunlight and devoid of meaningful human contact?  When retribution becomes torment, prison conditions often teach men to hate.  I ponder this in general population as I walk lock-step down prison corridors with other men.

As these years trickled by, photos of family and friends show that they have aged.  My own face, hair, declining agility, show that I, too, have aged.  A new world is out there now.  It’s as though I’ve hibernated these past 40+ years.  So much has changed; so much to learn anew.  The guards and prisoners I see now were not even born when I started this sentence.  I was brave and brash back then.  I was bold and presumed to know more about life and people than I had a right to.  My aging journey has taught me that youth and ignorance often pave a thorny path.  It’s just as thorny as the one laid out for those who fight for social justice and what they believe is right.

Forty-three years in prison?  Someone may wonder do I ask myself, “What am I doing here?”  Or ask, “What’s this prolonged imprisonment all about?”  Save the occasional visit and phone call, my children, and now my grandchildren, have spent only a bit of time with me.  Holding everything together while I’m away, my wife has suffered throughout all this. Family pressure, prolonged separation, all too often break up families.  Thus, new relationships may form, and the prisoner may find himself even further removed from his family than he was before.  A harsh penalty on top of his sentence.  He himself may sometimes wonder:  “Does anyone care?”  His children, his grandchildren might sometimes ask, as do mine, “Why you, Dad; why you, Grampa?”  Or wonder to themselves, “Why couldn’t someone else take his place?”  Questions born of love and earnest desire to have me home, not out of selfishness.

I serve an indefinite prison sentence and hope to survive it, but the parole board or you, my supporters, will decide my fate.  Sensitive to both political pressure and “special interest groups,” the Board’s decisions are widely regarded as arbitrary and capricious.  Because I’m a political prisoner, the Parole Board is far more predisposed to releasing an apolitical (or social) prisoner on parole than it is to releasing me.  Otherwise, I would have been home years ago.

It maintains that its decisions are impartially made after an interview.  Myself and others are persuaded that their decision is made prior to the parole interview.  Before commencing the interview, Board commissioners rifle through their papers, which I think is mostly theater.  But it’s the only time you get to size them up; and they in turn take a quick peek at you.  Though now most interviews are done by teleconference, seldom in person.  They talk to you and you to them on video-screen.  A panel of three usually conduct the interview, though sometimes two does it.  They are ex-prosecutors, state investigators, and retired police.  They will interpret and even twist every explanation of insight and expression of remorse offered by a prisoner.  They ignore favorable psychological evaluations, rob prisoners of hope, promote despair, discourage personal growth, and strip us of incentives.  They are well practiced in manipulating human emotions.  They open with pummeling questions about your offense, rake up your “criminal history,” pick and pause over reports on your prison activity.  They then make you wait five to six days before sending you their decision, which almost always is a denial.

“If the envelope bearing your decision is thick,” guys used to say, “you’ve been denied, and if it’s thin, you’ve made it.”  And there are those who say theirs were “thin” and they were still denied parole.  Obviously, size doesn’t matter.  You simply know when you know!  As the guard callously opened the envelope from my last Board appearance, “the appeal form” fell out before I could read the decision.  I had only waited 40 years for it.  Still, I read it, looking for some sign of hope.  Accordingly, guys are reluctant to open a parole board decision.  Having complied with all the rules and satisfied all structural requirements, how would you feel having to tell your mother, wife, and children that you’ve failed them!?  You smother your disappointment and wish that you could shield them from that feeling, too.

The thought of spending the rest of my days in prison is despairing.  I’ve not begun to think that yet and hope I never shall.  Nowadays, people my age say, “Due to terminal illness or incapacitation, write a will and tell how you wish your remains disposed of.”  Talk like that makes me nervous.  Before and during these 43 years in prison, I’ve lived according to my beliefs, fought for myself-respect, my community, and for social justice; along the way I’ve helped people where I could and have striven to make myself a better human being.  I’ve kept faith with the belief that we humans are responsible for each other and for the welfare of all.  So what to make of these long years in prison, I cannot say, I’m still here.

All Power To The People!
Herman


Herman Bell
79C0262
Great Meadow Correctional Facility
11739 State Route 22, PO Box 51
Comstock, NY 12821-0051

Governor Cuomo: Don’t Restrict Visits in NYS Prisons!

February 6, 2017

Governor Cuomo has just proposed to limit visiting at New York State maximum security prisons to 3 days a week instead of the current 7.

If passed, this measure will cause suffering and separation for thousands of imprisoned people and their loved ones.

PLEASE sign this petition and call Governor Cuomo TODAY at (518) 474-8390 to insist that the Governor retract this proposal.

Restricting visits is regressive, counterproductive, and cruel. Family visits are often the only ways people in prison can maintain connections with children, spouses, elderly parents or grandparents, and other family and friends. These ties are crucial for loved ones on the outside, as well as for people to survive their incarceration with their health and well-being intact and to successfully navigate their eventual return home after prison. Evidence has long shown that enhancing family and community connections is not only extremely valuable for people incarcerated and their loved ones, but also increases safety in prisons and improves people’s success after their release.

It is already incredibly difficult for family and friends to visit their loved ones in prison in New York. Governor Cuomo’s proposal to limit visiting at maximum security prisons to just the weekends instead of the current policy of visits on any day of the week will both restrict the ability for people to visit and impose unnecessary burdens on weekend visit days. Under the current seven day system, already visitors often wait two to three hours to see their loved ones – typically after traveling for hours. With reduced days, the wait will be longer, the visitor rooms more crowded, and the visiting days and hours even more limited. This will be terrible for everyone and impossible for many visitors.

While in other contexts the Governor claims to want to support compassionate policies and reduce mass incarceration, his visit reduction proposal will seriously escalate suffering and family disruption, as well as have a negative impact on prison safety and people’s success upon release. Governor Cuomo must withdraw this proposal, and instead take steps to further expand access for people to visit their loved ones in prison.

You can also write to Governor Cuomo opposing the cutback in visiting hours at NYS max prisons.

https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
New York State Capitol
Albany, NY 12224

Surplus Absorption, Realization Crisis, and Imperialism

February 5, 2017

By DAVID GILBERT

David Gilbert, a political prisoner held in New York State since 1981, wrote the following text in 2015, examining the the ways in which capitalism is confronted by, and contends with, crises in surplus absorption and realization, in the imperialist age.

David was not entirely satisfied with this text in the end, however here at Kersplebedeb i thought it actually was pretty thought-provoking and useful, so he agreed that i could put it online, which is what i am doing. For more information about David, including his contact information, please click here


 

Synopsis

Left authors often describe various political developments as resulting from the economic imperative for “surplus absorption”—without much further explanation. This paper seeks to ground that phenomenon more explicitly in mature capitalism’s chronic and mounting “realization crisis”—the difficulty in selling what’s produced, at least at the expected price. There are two main reasons for developing this analysis: 1. This approach emphasizes that whatever wasteful methods capitalism generates, the system still totally depends on the exploitation of labor, especially on the high rates achieved through imperial expansion and through women’s un- and under-waged work. 2. Highlighting such realization costs provides one indication of modern capitalism’s colossal wastefulness, politically critical in an era when environmental destruction has become an urgent front-line struggle.

Introduction

When writers on the Left refer to economic drives and contingencies behind various political changes, they often cite the compelling need for “surplus absorption.” That formulation draws on Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s seminal 1966 book, Monopoly Capital, and also on many subsequent essays in Monthly Review (MR) magazine. Monopoly capitalism generates vast profits which are difficult to profitably re-invest due to a chronically stagnant economy. That problem within what was called “the industrialized countries” led to a mushrooming of certain sectors that previously were not seen as productive: the frenetic sales effort, the military industrial complex and many other state expenditures, the burgeoning of the financial sector. Their analysis, among other contributions, underscored the wastefulness of modern capitalism, along with providing an early alert about the dangers of the dizzying upward spiral of financial speculation.

Yet there’s a problem in how this analysis has been used by some writers in citing “surplus absorption” without more careful and detailed analysis. By itself the phrase can conjure up an image of simply disposing of the surplus in any old way—even in economic boondoggles or perhaps dumping it in a hole in the ground. In contrast, we need to be clear that for capitalism the compelling drive always is to make a profit, which entails exploiting labor along with, in a stagnant economy, finding ways to sell goods and services in order to realize the potential profit embodied in the results of earlier labor. This overriding need to always create and reap more profits makes the continued imperial expansion, with its very high rates of exploitation of labor and the extraction of resources, crucially important. (In addition to direct, poorly paid workers, imperialism extracts value from the global South’s small farmers and agricultural workers whose products sell on the world market for way below the value of the labor that went into them.) Similarly women’s unwaged labor in the domestic sphere to cheaply raise the next generation of workers (and thereby lowering the subsistence wage), along with their under-waged labor in social production, is also crucial. A major development in the current “globalized” stage of imperialism is the creation of hundreds of millions of workers in the informal sectors. E.g., a family may scour a garbage dump, despite the high toxicity, to find items that can be re-sold. Analogous to domestic labor, those cheap recycled goods can lower the survival costs for wage workers.

What’s crucial here is that stagnation does not eliminate but rather heightens capitalism’s compulsion to exploit labor. At the same time the increasing portion of society’s efforts that goes into realization, to finding ways to sell previously created products rather than create new value, is one measure of how scandalously profligate modern capitalism is, a major factor hurtling humanity toward the cliff of multiple ecological catastrophes, most dangerously global warming.

This paper is an attempt to re-root surplus absorption in realization crisis and thereby highlight the relationship to imperialism, the oppression of women, and the exigent environmental crises. First, though, I want to offer a brief personal note and then a word on method.

Personal Note

In the late 1960’s my analytical work focused on imperialism, consumerism, and growing waste in the economy. Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital was a welcome advance. At the same time I wanted to develop an analysis that closely related growing waste with the imperatives of imperial expansion. But by the late 1960s, the high tide of struggle in the streets, and then my joining the underground resistance in 1970, meant that I never fully developed, let alone wrote up, my approach. I haven’t returned to that type of work since. Some 45 years later, without ongoing study of the literature, I obviously can’t offer any rigorous exposition of what’s commonly called “Marxian economics.” (I use quotes because for Marx economics can’t be neatly separated out from the broader relations of production and the class and social struggles they engender.) Nonetheless, recent examples I’ve seen of using “surplus absorption” in isolation have led me to feel it might be useful to engage some of the broad concepts involved. My following word on method argues for a framework that avoids narrow economism.

Method

To me, the best starting point for analyzing a society is Marx’s “the sum total of the relations of production” (from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). He focused on, but did not reduce it to, wage-labor and capital, which were playing an especially dynamic role in the Europe of his day.

But we need to be clear that capitalism also subsumed the preceding foundation of patriarchy, using that to impose the massive exploitation of women’s un-waged reproductive labor (caring work), as well as lower pay for women in jobs. Homo- and trans-phobia have been key means for building and enforcing patriarchy, along with terribly pervasive violence against women. Imperialism, with its super-exploitation of the labor and resources of entire nations and continents, including the internal foundation of white supremacy in building and structuring this country, is a completely central and defining relation of production. And while I’m not sure exactly how to put it, ecology, imperialism’s rapacious plunder of humanity’s common wealth in nature, is also critical to defining today’s social and economic reality.

The validity of the following analysis does not depend on accepting my exact formulation above, as long as there is broad agreement that patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism and ecology are all of crucial importance and, while overlapping in many ways, not completely reducible one to the other. This paper doesn’t attempt to develop a comprehensive analysis of the economy as shaped by that set of relations, but rather that’s the context for examining the particular issue of surplus absorption.

A Few Building Blocks

People familiar with Marxian economics have undoubtedly seen the famous formula for the rate of profit, s/c+v. The rate of profit is of crucial importance because the only reason that capitalists invest is to make a profit. If the rate goes down for a company or for an entire industry, that will deter new investment and new economic activity in those areas. If it goes down for the economy as a whole, investments could dry up, leading to an economic contraction and even a depression. Marx created this formula as a way to show a powerful and disruptive tendency in the capitalist economy. Subsequently this formulation has been terribly misused as a kind of talisman directly precipitating economic crisis.

“v” stands for variable capital, the wages the capitalist pays to workers. “c” is constant capital, the investment in producer goods such as plant, equipment and raw materials.

Constant capital has been purchased at a price that covers both the wages of the workers who made it and the profits realized when it was sold. The new profits generated, “s” for surplus, come from the difference between what the workers produce and what they receive. Thus, s is directly proportional to v, but capitalists strive to make that ratio of exploitation as steep as possible by minimizing wages. s/c+v gives the overall profit rate, but not for each particular firm since those with market advantage extract some surplus from weaker ones; landowners and financiers also appropriate a portion of surplus. But it does give what will be the average rate of profit for society as a whole.

A contradiction arises from how c becomes disproportionately larger as capitalism develops. Each unit is compelled to “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate” (to quote Marx) on pain of extinction, especially to invest in machinery that raises productivity. The first firm that does so can make bigger profits by underselling competitors, some of whom will go under while others manage to catch up. After a while the industry as a whole evens out at a new level of constant capital, productivity and price; but, these dynamics entail a major increase in c. Since s is proportional to v, a growing c with all other things being equal would make s/c+v go down, for a falling rate of profit.

Unfortunately many Marxists parlayed this into an iron law that led to inevitable depressions. Marx himself, as a historical materialist, understood that the contradictions of capitalism got fought out in the arena of class and related political struggles. The rate of profit and the state of the economy depend on a number of factors like the length of the working day, battles over wage levels, new areas for exploitation, wars, and more.

Nor did his economic analysis hinge solely on s/c+v. There are many possible counter-tendencies. A key one, as it turns out, is that increases in productivity can mean that a smaller portion of what workers produce can be adequate for their survival and continued ability to work; thus, the rate of exploitation can go way up. To take a striking example, the mechanization of cotton production in California meant the labor that went into producing a bale of cotton went down from 423 hours in 1940 to 26 hours in 1960. This means a lot smaller proportion of labor time—or the wages needed to cover that—is required for workers to buy the clothes they need. While c continues to grow, s/v isn’t static and might rise at an even greater pace, keeping s/c+v high.

Other tensions, however, can create contradictory pressures. In Vol. II of Capital, Marx devoted considerable attention to the two main departments of production: I. — goods and services that go into production; II. — goods and services for final consumption. They have to complement each other in proper proportion for supply and demand to balance and to afford the basis for continued economic growth. But there’s a problem, a contradiction between what capitalism needs in production and what it needs for consumption. In production the capitalist seeks to maximize profits by minimizing labor costs, or v. But on the consumption end the vast majority of goods are purchased by the working class. Sure, the bourgeoisie is known for lavish luxury, but when you’re worth, for example, $30 billion, even buying 1/2-dozen mansions doesn’t make much of a dent. The capitalists accumulate such vast wealth mainly for purposes of investment. The working class and poor constitute the vast majority and are the main source of consumption.

On the production end the capitalists are hell bent to minimize wages, but on the consumption end it’s hard to sell all that’s put out, especially as productivity rises, with wages so constricted. There are conceivable mathematical solutions, but they don’t work in practice. The capitalist could invest almost all their profits into making new producer goods, but such investments lead to more consumer goods, already hard to sell. They could keep consumption apace by passing on all productivity gains to the workers in the form of higher wages, but they won’t do that because of the impact on class struggle. Workers who are that highly paid would be in a position to take time off or readily quit a job they didn’t like, thus undermining the class discipline so essential to continued exploitation.

This growing tension means that capital is caught in a kind of scissors, closing down as productivity rises, where moving away from one blade pushes them closer to the other. If they lower v to raise their profits, they have trouble selling enough consumer goods; if they raise v to boost consumption, they threaten profit and class discipline. Even this “scissors” isn’t any kind of inexorable iron law, but it does help illustrate capitalism’s instability and can be a catalyst for a range of class and social struggles.

In early, competitive capitalism when new productivity led to lower prices, economic crises often started with declining profits.
With the development of monopolies (really “oligopolies” with a few giant firms dominating, which leaves some aspects of competition) that can keep prices high, problems of selling all that was produced at the expected price became endemic. Thus capitalism’s mania to increase productivity at a faster rate than wages leads to “overproduction”—not in terms of human needs but rather for what a constricted market will bear for the products offered.

Historic Stages

Capitalism, with its compulsion to accumulate, is a system that powerfully channels society’s resources toward the rapid expansion of the means of production. For society that means—or meant 200 years ago—new factories and more powerful machines and processes.

Without at all forgetting the brutal human costs and the now accumulating environmental dangers, we can recognize that the drive to accumulate played a certain role in increasing the means of production. (Even in the attempt at a noncapitalist route to rapid industrialization in the Soviet Union, Stalin ruthlessly pushed to maximize the portion of value that went into developing means of production.)

That channeling of resources plays a partially productive role when infrastructure is being newly constructed. It takes a lot of capital—even before any consumer goods come out—to build a factory from scratch or construct a network of railroads to transport those goods. Capitalism is still uncoordinated and unstable, but the maximizing of investment does not directly lead to overproduction.

However, once that basic infrastructure is established new investment more immediately leads to new output of consumer goods; at this point the drive to minimize wages, restricting what working families can buy, becomes a crimp on what can be sold, thereby limiting the outlets for new, productive investment. That leads to stagnation, a chronic slowing of growth. As MR has elucidated often and so well, monopoly capitalism has a long-term and growing tendency toward stagnation.

Some economic historians mark the period of 1870-1900 as when the basic infrastructure was built. That makes sense to me because this period was the takeoff point for some major, structural changes: 1. Oligopolies became dominant in the economy. 2. Government and its role in the economy expanded qualitatively, in part to maintain standing armies but also with other expenditures to help bolster demand. 3. While capitalism always depended on the plunder of the global South, the form changed, as outlined by Hobson and Lenin, to center on finance capital and direct control of the subject economies. That need engendered fierce inter-imperialist rivalries leading to world wars. (Imperialism has in many ways entered a new stage since the 1970s, which I won’t address here. The above changes that started with mature capitalism are part of what has led to a new stage and continue to create mounting problems of surplus absorption today.) 4. The sales effort moved from a minor complement to production to becoming a major sector of the economy, leading to today’s giant scope of advertising, style changes, planned obsolescence, the manipulative creation of pseudo-needs, and the proliferation of luxury items. 6. Finance began its transformation from a small adjunct of production to becoming the largest, most dominant sector.

Surplus Absorption / Realization Crisis

Mature capitalism means that the system’s compulsion to maximize investment generates chronic stagnation. Economic tendencies are not fixed inevitabilities, and there are possible counter forces. For example Baran and Sweezy point to the impact of an epochal new invention, like the automobile, which can stimulate massive investment in new infrastructure such as roads. But such a stimulus is very unusual; even computers today do not call for such massive new infrastructure, and stagnation tends to be chronic and growing.

Thus the greatly increased rate of exploitation, a rising s/v, promises greater profits, but they can’t be realized due to constricted consumption, creating a growing problem of surplus absorption. Here, “surplus” is not the same as the total of surplus value created by exploiting labor, but rather the portion of the latter that can’t be reinvested productively. Still, from the capitalists’ point of view the only thing that matters is how to make a profit. Even parasitic sectors can’t snatch profits out of thin air; the surplus value had to be created somewhere. The capitalist imperative to maximize profits requires either the creation of new value or at least a recouping of surplus value created by social labor but not realized if the goods can’t be sold at the expected price. To me, realization has become a core problem within the centers of imperialism, one that has driven the explosion of waste in the contemporary economy.

How do we define “waste”? Here we’re not delving into the (completely apt) critique of capitalism’s totally backward social and environmental character. Socialism will be qualitatively different in that production will be determined by (democratically decided) use values—what’s useful to human beings—rather than the current basis of exchange values, what can sell for a profit. Here though, for the more limited purpose of highlighting some internal contradictions and the historic decadence of capitalism, I’ll define productive as all that contributes to future production. That very much includes the goods and services needed to reproduce the work force, to provide for their lives and ability to work and to raise a new generations of workers. (Today such consumption is also intertwined with much that is wasteful or even harmful.) Luxury goods and services for the bourgeoisie or other nonworking classes are not productive, even when provided by a company making a profit.

Waste

Many authors would argue that the old distinction between productive and non-productive labor no longer applies in our post-industrial economy. After all, finance, advertising, and military industries are some of the most profitable sectors today. Also, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate out the categories. Workers need footwear—but that doesn’t account for most of what’s spent on getting the latest Nike Jordans. Computers may be helpful in developing a modern work force, but not at the rate of the 47 million discarded a year in the U.S. Similarly, “government expenditures” can’t all be lumped together. Funds going to health and education help reproduce the work force; expenditures for wars and repression don’t.

As interpenetrated as this all is in the advanced economies, to me the distinction between producingsurplus value and realizing it is still critically important. The massive economic activity that doesn’t add to production exposes how capitalism is a decadent system even relative to its own claim to fame of expanding the forces of production. All of that waste, at the same time that basic human needs are not being met, is another count in the long indictment of this system’s rapacious destruction of human life and the environment. In addition, for analytical purposes, calling out the waste necessitated by mounting realization costs clarifies that the direct exploitation of labor—including the high rates achieved through imperial penetration and through the oppression of women—is the fundamental basis for generating surplus value.

The areas that bloomed under mature capitalism are mainly about realization. The one trillion dollars a year spent on marketing in the U.S. is primarily about promoting sales of other goods and services. A multi-million dollar aircraft carrier doesn’t add to production, regardless of whether it sits in a harbor or launches lethal attacks. Today’s financial frenzy is in large part an effort to make money independent of, really appropriated from, production, and has created a mountain of debt that is four time GDP. (It’s worth noting that consumer debt is a way to expand working class consumption beyond what can be covered by wages … at least until the credit bubbles burst. The imposition of irrational debt on many of the poorest countries has been a primary weapon for imposing “structural adjustment programs,” painful austerity measures, the project most destructive to human life and the environment in the world today.) Since areas like advertising and the military don’t involve the output of either producer or consumer goods, I believe (as Baran and Sweezy also posited) that they constitute a third department, one defined by waste. Within the U.S. it’s probably now bigger than either of Marx’s original two.

Let’s look at advertising. It functions like c in that it enables the firm to fight for market advantage and doesn’t raise the wages of production workers. But unlike productive investment, it doesn’t increase the output of the goods involved or raise productivity. On the consumption end it works like v in putting more money in circulation, which then can be used to buy consumer goods. Much of that is in the form of wages to workers, but not to those producing the goods involved. Rather than enhancing labor’s bargaining position, this different layer of jobs creates more stratification within the work force. (In my view, these nonproductive workers are still part of the working class because their families live by the sale of their labor power, but their role and status contribute to the very harmful divisions that have made it so hard to forge a conscious, international proletariat.)

Stagnation and Profits

Expenditures such as advertising, taxes and interest payments bolster consumption and thereby facilitate realization—but at a cost. What’s the impact of the mammoth realization efforts on profits? Please bear with me as I use some unfamiliar nomenclature, which hopefully helps clarify but is not essential for the concepts involved. To apply Marx’s s/c+v given stagnation, we need to distinguish sr for realized surplus value, from sp for potential surplus value. With stagnation and the challenge to realizing s, the gap between sp and sr, between potential and actually realized profits, grows. Now let’s call what goes into realization, our third department, “k”; k is a cost of production, whether in the form of marketing costs, taxes or interest payments, but it doesn’t generate new value the way productive investment in new c and v would. In other words, instead of our having a new s/c+v, k is an added cost to what was already produced. In terms of profit, it would be added to the bottom, with sr on top, and change it to sr/c+v+k, lowering the rate. But that’s not the only impact. To the degree it is successful it adds to what is realized, which I’ll call “kr.” So the way to express the profit rate under stagnation is sr+kr/c+v+k. That formulation doesn’t provide a predetermined mathematical result that covers all inputs. But the way it has generally worked under real world conditions is to provide a higher profit rate than would sr alone, but a significantly lower one than if sp could be fully realized without the costs of k at the bottom. Thus, to finish up with these formulas, under most real world conditions, sr+kr/c+v+k will be larger than sr/c+v, but smaller, and increasingly so as stagnation and waste mount, than sp/c+v.

Letters and subscripts aside, the point is that the bigger k is the further the economy is from its productive potential. Also, the way k bolsters realized profits but causes them to become progressively lower than potential profit rates is another indication of the continued importance of productive labor.

Here are some of the political implications of this analysis:

  • The ongoing creation of new surplus value via productive labor is still essential. Imperialist penetration is a cutting edge for that as is women’s un-waged and under-waged labor.
  • Clearly defining the now colossal Department III, the sectors of the economy devoted to realization, as waste helps to spotlight how capitalism has become a decadent system—even relative to its own claim to fame of developing the productive forces. The centrality of such waste can be an impetus for arenas of political struggle such as anti-consumerism and ecology.
  • Capitalism’s inherent drive to expand is incompatible with having an environmentally sustainable society. At the same time the colossal level of waste shows us that we can radically cut back on the energy and resources we use, still have considerable productive capacity to take major steps toward the long-range project of repaying the debt to people of color and the poor throughout the world, and still have a good—in many ways better—quality of life.

Conclusion

Economic tendencies are helpful to indicate possible tensions—but the outcomes are products of class and related social struggles. The system we face is built on the super-exploitation of the labor and resources of entire nations and continents, on the imposition of un- and under-waged labor of women, on the labor and abuse of a wide range of workers, and now on the rapacious destruction of the environment, an existential threat to humankind. These essential and overlapping relations of production—patriarchy, class rule, imperialism/white supremacy, and ecocide—are enforced through the incredibly pervasive use of force and violence, along with incessant cultural and political offensives. The summary term that I prefer for the system is “imperialism,” to emphasize its global nature along with the intense oppression and leading examples of resistance of 3/4 of humankind. But no single word is adequate unless it clearly and fully includes all these fundamental relations of production.

All these structures and dynamics overlap and reinforce each other in major ways, but they can’t be reduced to one or the other. If we gloss over the differences, we won’t be fully equipped for the complexity of building principled alliances or for the depth of struggle needed against these forms of oppressiveness within us.

Recognizing the power and scope of these interlocking structures makes the challenges we face far more daunting. At the same time, that reality expands the range of people in fundamental contradiction to this system and gives us all so much more to win.