When looking over the newsworthy events that took place in the United States throughout 2016, a common thread ties many of them together. So many major events illustrate a real failure of the powers that be to solve problems.
And these problems are not new. The epidemic of opiate addiction has been brewing since the 1990s when American doctors, incentivized by medical drug manufacturers, began over-prescribing pain killers. The crisis intensified when the US invasion of Afghanistan unleashed the country's poppy growers, flooding the market, and driving the price down. Now, cheap heroin is everywhere and people are dying. In 2015, more Americans died from drug overdose than from gun violence, another problem plaguing America. As 2016 comes to a close, the numbers of drug-related deaths are still rising.
The Pulse nightclub shooting broke records in 2016 for America's ongoing problem of gun violence. Mass shootings, in which deranged individuals with guns begin slaughtering people, have become a regular occurrence in recent years. Many times President Barack Obama has appeared on television to comfort a grieving nation and call for tighter gun control. The present order is unable to adequately address the issue, and the shootings continue.
Guns, Racism & Discontent
One could say that problems related to race are almost a built-in problem for the United States, which defined African enslaved persons as 3/5 of a human being in its Constitution. Since the end of slavery, after a bloody civil war, there have been endless protests, tensions, and controversies, both violent and peaceful, related to racial questions. The death of Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion who had aligned himself with Black nationalism and converted to Islam during the 1960s, gave the country a moment to reflect on the long history of racial strife.
2016 is the final year of the presidency of Barack Obama. His presidency began with so much optimism about a "post racial society" and the belief that this age-old source of disagreement on the American continent could be finally resolved with a dark skinned man as commander in chief. This final year of Obama's presidency is notable for illustrating how one blatantly unfulfilled these expectations.
Protests swept Charlotte, North Carolina in response to the killing of Keith Lamont Scott by police. The country nervously watched as unrest swept yet another city, with fresh memories of the violence that swept Baltimore and Ferguson in the previous year.
In addition to the thousands of peaceful protests, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas, police officers were shot and killed by individuals who were angry about the documented wave of unpunished police brutality. After these shootings, many mostly white Americans, who had been almost silent during the continuous wave of "Black Lives Matter" protests, expressed sympathy for police. A huge gap in public opinion became very apparent.
The isolated, violent individuals who were outraged by police brutality were certainly not the only Americans to express their political views with firearms. The year of 2016 began with the seizure of federal property from January 2nd to February 11th by "sovereign citizens" and right-wing militia organizations in Oregon. A shootout with the FBI and state police eventually ensued. One of the armed militants was killed, and 27 were arrested. Gun-toting, right-wing organizations that talk of "constitutional liberties" and opposing the federal government are notably present across the US.
A Twist in American Politics
The 2016 presidential election, much like the increase of protests and political gun battles, revealed how divided, and desperate the country is. Bernie Sanders, a US senator from Vermont who describes himself as a "socialist," long a forbidden term in Americana, was welcomed onto the national political stage.
Millions of Americans voted for Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary. Leaked emails showed that the Democratic National Committee was working behind the scenes to ensure his defeat, and secure the nomination for longtime party power broker Hillary Clinton. The revelations showed a kind of cynical and dishonest internal atmosphere at the top of the Democratic Party, and therefore disillusioned many activists.
Sanders' challenge within the Democratic Party seemed mild compared to Trump's complete shake-up of the Republican Party. Donald Trump, a New York City real estate tycoon and billionaire, who declared his candidacy was at first treated almost as a joke, but ultimately won the election.
Trump's campaign used crass language, demonized Muslims and immigrant workers, opposed international trade deals, and criticized the failures of US military interventions. With slogans like, "America First" and "Make America Great Again," Trump won the electoral college vote, despite proof of a solid majority of voters favoring Clinton.
Neither Trump nor Sanders were, in reality, a very big departure from the American political status quo. Sanders talk of socialism was not a call for a centrally-planned economy, but just for some European-style welfare state reforms. Trump's nationalism and derogatory words for certain demographics is a far cry from fascism or Nazism. The sudden, unpredicted success of both political mavericks was based on an extreme dissatisfaction and a longing for "an outsider."
"You're on Your Own"
American political discourse has long been defined by liberalism. The ideals of the European enlightenment, expressed by John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and others, and applied by Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton put the individual above all else. In a repudiation of feudalism, the revolutionaries of 1776 embraced "freedom" as the true value of America.
In economic terms, this has meant unrestricted capitalism. Unlike most western countries, the US government does not provide public healthcare to its citizens. American college students, even those who attend public universities, must pay for their education, and millions remain in debt for decades. Employment is not guaranteed, and social services for low-income families are limited.
The American economic mantra is "personal responsibility," i.e. "you're on your own." While the US has the richest of the rich, measurements of basic societal health show that many get left behind. The rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, and poverty are statistically much worse than other western industrialized countries.
In social terms, American liberalism has meant an ever increasing break down of traditional structures. Religion is considered to be a personal matter, and government institutions are forbidden from expressing faith or invoking divine authority. The US Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Now debates about whether or not bathrooms in elementary schools should be gender segregated have erupted across America.
The ideology of liberalism, which has escalated over the course of American history, prescribes for the citizen to be like Thomas Jefferson's ideal "yoeman'; alone, unmolested and unattached to others, free to "pursue happiness" on his own, with no obligation to society, to his family, to God, or to anyone else.
However, as the crisis of racial tension illustrates, "No man is an island." Americans can watch the exact same video recordings, yet a majority of whites will defend the police, while African Americans will see brutality. Despite the obsessive individualism, Americans still identify themselves with groups they consider to be similar to themselves, and thus view the world accordingly.
Group identification is natural, and people have always had a collective nature. The entire history of humanity consists of humans cooperating, working together, agreeing on rules and expectations, and in the process, advancing civilization toward greater heights.
Liberalism & The American Dream
A severe lack of collective identity is very apparent in present day America. Items considered to be "public property" are in severe decay. The system of public transportation in Washington DC made national headlines when it shut down for a single day because of continued accidents, which had resulted in injuries and a single fatality. Throughout 2016, accidents plagued the Amtrak public train system, which like DC transit system, also faces a lack of funding. During the 2016 academic year, millions of children have been left without schools to attend, as their for-profit charter schools, run by corporations, which have replaced public schools in many cities, have closed down mid-semester.
In the states that ultimately secured Trump's victory (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) one can find numerous neighborhoods that were once prosperous, now filled with empty, foreclosed homes. The factories that once employed millions of American industrial workers have closed their doors. The jobs that have replaced them offer much lower pay, to a generation which is unlikely to see the once lauded "American dream" of middle class prosperity.
Suicide rates across the United States are rising, as are cases of mental illness. Polls show that Americans increasingly find a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives, as their TVs and iPhones push them to purchase more and more, and live in pursuit of short-term pleasures. Economic security is also in question, as employment is far more short term for young workers, while the cost of housing and other living expenses are rising.
The changing political stage and rising instability shows a desperation on the part millions who are dissatisfied. The widely acknowledged problems facing the country are simply not being addressed.
As Trump is sworn in at the beginning of 2017, the attempts to resolve the escalating crisis will continue. The search for answers outside of standard political discourse is likely to continue as well.
Uniting Theory and Practice: What US activists can learn from Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro passed away on Nov. 25, 2016. Fidel was the face of the Cuban Revolution, which was born on Jan. 1, 1959. He was a political giant in his own right, but his leadership was always rooted in the interests of the oppressed in every corner of the globe. However, a majority of Americans know little about Fidel Castro's significance other than the US media and government’s depictions of him as a tyrant and dictator. What this means is that even fewer activists in the US have the opportunity to learn from Fidel’s truly revolutionary life.
There are activists in the US who have rejected Washington's perspective and greatly respect Fidel Castro. Some revere his leadership in the Cuban Revolution and credit him with many of the gains the Cuban people have made since 1959. Others sympathize with Fidel Castro's leading role in providing military, logistical, and medical support to a number of liberation struggles worldwide. Indeed, Fidel's leadership has been a critical component to the success of the Cuban Revolution. What is often minimized, however, is Fidel's theoretical genius and how it can be applied to the struggle against imperialism in the US mainland.
Fidel's Marxist ideas, and their application
Fidel Castro was a revolutionary who identified strongly with the tenets of Marxism. In a fiery speech on Dec. 2, 1961, just months after Cuba defeated the US-sponsored "Bay of Pigs" invasion, Fidel declared that he would be a "Marxist-Leninist to the end of my life."[i] Fidel's practical leadership was informed by the idea that the working class and oppressed must rule society. But it could not be just any form of rule. Fidel believed that the peasants and workers of Cuba had to seize the means of production from private ownership. Only this could prevent the rise of a class of exploiters willing to throw the Cuban people back into a state of poverty and indignity.
Fidel's Marxist ideas deeply influenced the Cuban revolutionary process from the very beginning. Fidel told author Igancio Ramonet that he was a convinced Marxist-Leninist by 1952.[ii] Fidel found Marxism as a law student at the University of Havana. Cuba at the time was ruled by the brutal neo-colonial dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Nearly all of Cuba's wealth had been siphoned to the US via the plunder of multinational corporations such as the United Fruit Company.[iii] The majority of Cubans were impoverished, illiterate, and without access to healthcare.[iv]Fidel Castro, inspired by the ideas of Marx and Jose Marti, organized the first guerrilla strike against the Batista dictatorship on July 26, 1953 at the Moncada Barracks.
The commitment to armed struggle on the part of the original Cuban revolutionaries was greatly influenced by the Marxist idea that only armed struggle could bring about genuine liberation. At first the struggle was difficult. Fidel and the Cuban revolutionaries were detained for their attacks on the Moncada Barracks, only to be pardoned by the Batista dictatorship in 1955 due to popular pressure. Fidel’s comrades went into exile in Mexico to train, and sailed back to Cuba in 1956 for the Sierra Maestra. Once in Cuba, Fidel encountered a number of difficulties. Of the 82 that made the journey, only 12 would survive the dictatorship’s attacks.[v] Cuba possessed a deeply impoverished countryside that left peasants untrustworthy and backward. To overcome these difficulties, Fidel and the Cuban guerillas applied Marxist thought to the situation of the countryside, providing healthcare free of cost and politically educating peasant workers on how their individual oppression related to the broad crisis facing the Cuban nation.
Connecting the general to the particular is a core tenant of Marxism called dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is explained in depth by other 20th century Marxists such as Mao Tse-Tung.[vi] Fidel's applied dialectical materialism and Marxist philosophy to the Cuban Revolution after it seized power in 1959. The new provisional government immediately expropriated the private holdings of landowners and US corporations. A campaign of land reform and nationalization gave the revolutionary Cuban government the ability to subsidize universal healthcare, housing, and education efforts throughout the country.[vii] In this way, the Cuban Revolution immediately resolved the particular contradictions in the country by generalizing fundamental human rights.
Fidel Castro served as head of state for the majority of Cuba's post-revolutionary process. During this time, Fidel led what V.I. Lenin called a "dictatorship of the proletariat" or the dictatorship of the oppressed. Lenin stated that the transition from capitalism to socialism was marked by the need to both administer the needs of the masses and defend the revolution from attack. In 1959, the old dictatorship of the US-backed oligarchy was replaced by a state where unions, mass organizations, and popular institutions became the primary channels from which peasants and workers exerted genuine power.[viii] Batista’s police and military institutions were dissolved in place of armed popular militias called Committees to Defend the Revolution and the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Both continue to protect the Cuban people from counter-revolutionary activity.
The Cuban Revolution will celebrate 57 years on January 1st. Over this period, the application of Fidel’s ideas has produced profound changes in Cuba and the world at large. Cuba’s transition to socialism has eradicated malnutrition, illiteracy, and homelessness in the island country. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US, and one of the best universal healthcare systems in the world.[ix] It was the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, and create a lung cancer vaccine free of cost. Cuba possesses the best education system in Latin America from primary to college level, also free of cost.[x]
These gains are a reflection of Fidel's theoretical contribution to the revolution. The relationship between the two can be clearly seen in a UN General Assembly speech in 1979 when Fidel stated:
There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to talk of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk barefoot, so that others can travel in luxurious cars? Why should some live for 35 years, so that others can live for 70 years? Why should some be miserably poor, so that others can be hugely rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak on the behalf of the sick who have no medicine, of those whose rights to life and human dignity have been denied.[xi]
Cuba has applied Fidel's revolutionary ideas to the international struggle as well. A key aspect of Marxist philosophy is that socialism ultimately cannot survive in one country. V.I. Lenin saw self-determination and genuine independence from colonialism as a necessary stage in the development of socialism on a global scale.[xii] The Cuban Revolution has stayed true to Lenin by being a consistent friend to the oppressed all over the world. Cuba sent some 400,000 soldiers, doctors, and technicians to Angola in their fight for independence from apartheid South Africa between the years of 1975-1988.[xiii] This assistance was critical in the eventual defeat of apartheid in South Africa in 1991.
Cuba is best known for its medical internationalism. Cuba has around 37,000 doctors around the world practicing free healthcare in Haiti, Venezuela, and Syria.[xiv] It was Fidel and the Cuban Revolution that reached out to President Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fidel's offer to send medical and technical assistance to help repair the lower 9th Ward was categorically rejected by the US government. Washington has been hostile to Fidel and the Cuban Revolution since 1960, when the US imposed an illegal embargo that has stolen billions of dollars of revenue from the island.
What can Fidel teach the activists of the US?
Despite an embargo, a nonstop anti-Castro propaganda campaign led by the US, and over 600 attempted CIA assassinations, Fidel lived a long time. The Cuban Revolution lives on. Activists in the US have much to learn from Fidel’s Cuba in a period of great upheaval and crisis in the US mainland. A movement has emerged in the US in protest of the near daily murders of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. A recent study by Harvard and Princeton economists has found that 95 percent of jobs added since 2005 have been temporary or part time.[xv] Nearly half the country is poor, yet the US government spends trillions of dollars abroad waging ceaseless war.[xvi]
These issues are interconnected and point to a deep systemic crisis of the US political and economic system as a whole. US activists must make these connections in order to build an effective movement to end them. Fidel united theory and practice by utilizing Marxism as a theoretical guide. His primary goal was always the placement of power in the hands of the oppressed. By studying how Fidel and the Cuban Revolution united Marxist theory with concrete action, activists can chart a similar course toward liberation inside the US empire.
[ii] Cuba's Fidel Castro made revolutionary mark on history. (2016). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-castro-obituary-idUSKBN13L05O
[iii] Before the Revolution Socialites and Celebrities flocked to Cuba (July 31, 2007). Retrieved December 27th, 2016 from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/before-the-revolution-159682020/.
[iv] Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, Vintage Books, New York, 1984
[v] Sierra, J. A. (n.d.). The Landing of the Granma. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/granma.htm
[vi] Knight, Nick, Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism, M.E. Sharpe Inc, New York, 1990.
[vii] Alvarez, José. 1990. A Chronology of Three Decades of Centralized Economic Planning in Cuba." Communist Economies 2: 101–125.
[viii] CubaSí: All in this together: Cuba’s Participatory Democracy. (2015, December). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/cubasi/article/187/all-in-this-together-cubarsquos-participatory-democracy
[ix] Devarajan, S., & Reinikka, R. (2003). World development report 2004: making services work for poor people. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
[x] Cuba rates the highest EFA Development Index in Latin America and the Caribbean | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/santiago/press-room/newsletters/e-newsletter-education-for-all-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/no16-may-2014/nota-habana-03/
[xi] Coltman, Leycester (2003). The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
[xiii] Cuito Cuanavale 25 years on: celebrating revolutionary internationalism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. (2013). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.invent-the-future.org/2013/06/cuito-cuanavale-25-years-on/
[xiv] Knowledge @Wharton (2015, February 12). How Cuba's Health Care Sector Aims to Grow. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-cubas-health-care-sector-aims-to-gain-a-greater-foothold/
[xv] Investing. (2016, December 21). Nearly 95% of all new jobs during Obama era were part-time, or contract. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.investing.com/news/economy-news/nearly-95-of-all-job-growth-during-obama-era-part-time,-contract-work-449057
[xvi] Associated Press. (2011, December 15). Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/census-data-half-of-us-poor-or-low-income/