Reviewed by Raj Sahai
July 28, 2018
Follow the Money is a collection of interviews by radio journalist Dennis Bernstein in the period of US economic crisis and the resulting changed political landscape. These interviews from 2009 to 2016 stop just short of the campaign and subsequent election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States in November 2016.
It seems an era has passed between the last interview Bernstein conducted in February 2016 in this book on radio program Flashpoints on listener-sponsored radio station KPFA (FM 94.1) in Berkeley which reaches much of California. It a period of only 18 months, but to understand the last 18 months we need to understand what was happening in the crucial period of eight years prior to the election of the right-wing populist and race-baiting Trump. And that is a main reason why this book is significant.
Mumia Abu Jamal wrote the foreword to this book. Mumia was railroaded, judicially condemned to death and kept in death row in a Pennsylvania prison for decades for a crime he says he did not commit. Evidence in support of his innocence is plentiful enough for him to be found not guilty and released, but he is still in prison, though now not on death row. He received no presidential pardon. Here the Mumia case exposes Obama, not for the first time. As president for 8 years Obama represented the interests of the rich and powerful, while sometimes mouthing sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. The first exposure was when he threw his truth-telling pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus in order to be accepted by the white power structure.
Mumia, an exemplary fighter for social justice, points out that there are places, such as prisons, where the oppressed have been incarcerated for petty crimes or no crimes at all, other than having born with the wrong skin color. In such places Flashpoints 60-minute radio interviews are not heard. And a book can always be referred back to, unlike a radio program which passes from the scene. But for Flashpoints and programs like it so many of the important stories of oppression and resistance would go unheard in the United States.
When citizens in large numbers act collectively in a movement is when social injustices — racial, economic, gender — are dealt with by the government. But people act only when they have been made aware of injustice time and again, and because they can no longer live with it , and when there exists a disciplined organization to lead them. Of course, the ultimate goal of this movement is ridding the world of capitalism, or else all gains are at best temporary.
Police State – New and Not so New
The mass media would have us believe that the great danger of a police state began with the election of Donald Trump, that somehow all presidents preceding him kept us out of the net of the national security state. But as the interviews in the book reveal, the surveillance state began well before the Patriot Act enacted in October 2001. Bernstein’s interview of Darryl Cherney in May 2013 records the car bombing of Earth First activist Judi Bari in 1990. Before that we know about the Nixon’s FBI targeting the Black Panther Party to liquidate it in violation of the law that requires proving someone guilty in a court of law, not executing him or her because the president orders it. The killing of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the Chicago police and the FBI occurred in December 1969 . But the Patriot Act of 2011 has allowed wholesale surveillance of US citizens, so it is a qualitative jump in the scope and intrusiveness of the police state.
The suppression of the open flow of information occurred in both the Republican and Democratic administrations, as cited in the Flashpoints interview of Shahid Buttar in June 2013. In the interview of Christopher Simpson, writer of Blowback and other books on the history of US intelligence agencies conducted in June 2013, we learn the falsehood of government officials’ claims about the ‘data-mining’ of phone and internet communications, the claim that these are not surveillance, i.e., not listened to or read by the government. Having done nothing against the law one can get in trouble just because of the pattern of phone connections one makes, which are monitored by NSA computer programs.
Whistleblowers are an important source for public to know what bad things their government is doing behind their backs and even against the law. But it was the liberal, “Audacity of Hope” Obama as president who went after the whistleblowers with a vengeance. The persecution of Edward Snowden is one of the two most well-known cases. The other is that of Chelsea Manning. Both are examined in the book’s interviews. In an interview with British intelligence officer Katherine Gun, who worked as a linguist at the NSA’s UK counterpart, and who had anonymously revealed the UN Blackmail scheme of the Bush government during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we learn that as a result of her courageous whistleblowing, she lost her job and was charged under British secrecy laws. But her case was dropped because the court would have required the Blair government to disclose the fact that it had twisted the arms of its legal advisors to extract a legal opinion in support of the Iraq invasion. How imperialism works behind our backs is thus exposed thanks to Bernstein’s Flashpoints.
The Class War
This section of the book is very important, now that we have the right-wing populist Trump as the US president. The history of the two-party “democracy” in the US in the past 40 years is a history of class war on the workers by the capitalist class, reducing workers’ share of the national product, to the point that today the bottom half of the population cannot properly feed, clothe, and shelter their families, nor educate their children in schools that provide them skills for life, nor take care of themselves in old age. When a left-wing populist Sanders was edged out by the DNC’s corruption, which had become a Clinton- controlled organization, Trump with the help of the mass media was elected at the 45th president. According to one of the dominant narratives, the lower 50% of the US population, the “deplorables” in Mrs. Clinton’s terms, chose a loud-mouthed “politically incorrect” Trump, who they saw as someone who tells the “blunt, honest truth” and who despite being a rich man and lacking the ethics expected of a public official, would somehow restore “greatness” to America.
One of the most exploited of the working-class jobs in the US is that of domestic workers. In his interview with Ai-Jen Poo, the co-director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-founded by her in 2007, Poo reports that it is not uncommon for the domestic workers, estimated to be 2.5 million, to work 12, 13 or 14 hours per day, often at below-minimum wage, and be subjected to abuse and denial of basic rights. Although they have won some rights in several states, domestic workers remain a most exploited and oppressed section of the US workers.
The other set of the most exploited and oppressed workers are the farm workers in the US. Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) over 55 years back, and with his tactic of consumer boycott, brought a new method of struggle for workers. The farm workers are also drawn largely from the undocumented workers who come through the southern border of the US with Mexico. Yet, even after a more than 40 years of struggle, farm workers continue to die doing their work in hot fields where they are pushed to the limit of human endurance, previously using hand-held implements but now gasoline- powered machines. Within capitalism, reform does not make life qualitatively better for the workers, even though some of the worst practices may be eliminated, but for those eliminated, all too often new ones get substituted.
From Obama’s Fence to Trump’s Wall
NAFTA was sold as a way for US workers to work on higher-end production by Bill Clinton, the US President (1992-2000), who did much to roll back the welfare state created under Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. As the danger of communism subsided with the fall of the USSR in 1991, US capitalism did not have the old incentive to compromise with the working class. Instead, the US workers soon found they no longer had the relatively better-paid industrial jobs in the global economy, which they held in the 30 year period following the Second World War.
The historical reversal arrived with the weakening of unions, the offshoring of industrial jobs to China and new advances in automation. Latin American workers driven from their own lands where the societies have become more dysfunctional with the failure of the socialism of the 20th century and emergence of right-wing regimes frequently installed by the US have exacerbated the problem of undocumented immigrants in the US. But it is the failure of capitalism in the most advanced country of capitalism that is reflected in the anti-welfarism of Clinton, the war mongering of Bush, the roundup and expatriation of huge numbers of undocumented immigrants by Obama, and now Trump’s cruel separation of children from parents at the border. A whole section of the book is devoted to the topics under this heading, topics made even timely and urgent with Trump’s presidency.
Immigrant, Gender and Black Lives. Struggles amid Militarism, Imperialism and Ecological Crisis
The book has sections with transcripts of Bernstein interviewing activists and writers with issues of social justice. All these matters are of course also related and connected to the system of capitalism in its late rotten stage in which many things acquire a distinctly contradictory character. Consider the “Great Society” of 1960s, when the US capitalism boomed and dominated the markets worldwide. The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people to rid themselves of the colonial bondage began to undermine the strength of the US . While the effect did not show itself immediately, nevertheless, by the middle of the 1970s, profit rates began to decline in the US. The capitalist class decided then to invest huge sums in the military industry, a decision that undermined the position of US workers, and in time resulted in the shifting of US capital overseas by the 1980s. The book has interviews related to the effect all these changes in the lives of those struggling for a better life after the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
Is Socialism Possible in the United States?
Marxist economist and University of Massachusetts Professor Emeritus Richard Wolff, interviewed by Bernstein, suggests a path forward by helping us imagine socialism in the US. Wolff says that a socialist president should be no more difficult to imagine than an African-American president was before 2008, but adds that none of Europe’s socialist presidents have undermined or overthrown capitalism. He reminds us that it is childish to tell the American people they can “use their vote to change the inequality that the economic system has dumped on us” without taking on the control of government, which augments the riches of the One Percenters, the beneficiaries of the growing inequality.
Obama told us to vote for “hope and change” while Wall Street funded his campaigns and as a result, he served them faithfully, bailing them out, while the workers lost their life savings, jobs, housing. And when Clinton cheated on Sanders, we got Trump. Now the same Democrats are out to create more tensions with Russia, so more spending on the military is what we get, and workers suffer.
Follow The Money gives us a look at this emerging scene after the Great Recession.
Follow the Money, Pacifica Radio Voices for Peace and Justice is published by Left Coast Press, 2018. It can be ordered from University Press Books or from Lulu Press. Riva Enteen is editor of Follow the Money, and a former Program Director of the National Lawyers Guild.
Raj Sahai is an activist and writer; a member of Institute for Critical Study of Society, in Oakland, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org