'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, March 29, 2008

UPDATE 2: The Surge, Exposed 

On the ground, things are not going well for the US and its Iraqi surrogates:
. . . American aircraft launched air strikes in Basra yesterday and fought militiamen on the streets in Baghdad while British advisers have also been assisting Iraqi troops in Basra.

Mr Maliki retreated from his demand that militiamen hand over their weapons by yesterday and extended the deadline to 8 April. This is a tacit admission that the Iraqi army and police have failed to oust the Mehdi Army from any of its strongholds in the capital and in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army has either met stubborn resistance from Mehdi Army fighters or soldiers and police have refused to fight or changed sides. "We did not expect the fight to be this intense," said the officer from a 300-strong commando unit that has been pinned down in the Tamimiyah district in Basra, where the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, have strong support.

The officer said four of his men were killed and 15 wounded in the fighting. "Some of the men told me that they did not want to go back to the fight until they have better support and more protection," he added. The Interior Ministry threatened that the men would be court-martialled for refusing to fight. Government troops arriving in Basra complain that they are being fired on by local police loyal to Mr Sadr. Members of one police unit had fist fights with their officers after they refused to join the battle.

The failure of Mr Maliki to make good his threat so far to eliminate the Mehdi Army and growing signs of dissent in army units is damaging his authority, "It is possible that Muqtada and the Mehdi Army will emerge from this crisis stronger than they were before," warned one Iraqi politician who did not want his name published.

According to CNN:

A closely held U.S. military intelligence analysis of the fighting in Basra shows that Iraqi security forces control less than a quarter of the city, according to officials in both the United States and Iraq, and Basra's police units are deeply infiltrated by members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

A Reuters reporter in Nassiriya, capital of Dhi Qar province, said he could see groups of fighters with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The sound of sporadic gunfire echoed through the streets. Police appeared to be staying in their stations, he said.

Militants have also taken control of the town of Shatra, 40 km to the north, he said, citing witnesses.

Why are the US and the Maliki government attacking Sadr now? Perhaps, the effort to pass and implement an oil law friendly to transnationals has something to do with it? Sadr, as you might have guessed, opposes it because he believes that it would reward the US and the British for the invasion and occupation by directing contracts to US and British oil companies.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

UPDATE 1: The Surge, Exposed 

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Surge, Exposed 

From tomorrow's Independent, an article by Patrick Cockburn:

The Iraqi army's offensive against the Shia militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra is failing to make significant headway despite a pledge by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fight "to the end".

Instead of being a show of strength, the government's stalled assault is demonstrating its shaky authority over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq. As the situation spins out of Mr Maliki's control, saboteurs blew up one of the two main oil export pipelines near Basra, cutting by a third crude exports from the oilfields around the city. The international price of oil jumped immediately by $1 a barrel before falling back.

In Baghdad, tens of thousands of supporters of Mr Sadr, whose base of support is the Shia poor, marched through the streets shouting slogans demanding that Mr Maliki's government be overthrown. "We demand the downfall of the Maliki government," said one of the marchers, Hussein Abu Ali. "It does not represent the people. It represents Bush and Cheney."

The main bastion of the Sadrist movement is impoverished Sadr City, which has a population of two million and is almost a twin city to Baghdad. The densely packed slum has been sealed off by US troops. "We are trapped in our homes with no water or electricity since yesterday," said a resident called Mohammed. "We can't bathe our children or wash our clothes."

The streets are controlled by Mehdi Army fighters, many of whom say they expect an all-out American attack, though this seems unlikely since the US says that an attack on the Shia militias is a wholly Iraqi affair.

In Basra, Iraqi forces have cordoned off seven districts but appear stalled in their effort to dislodge the Mehdi Army fighters. Masked gunmen in some cases have captured or seized abandoned Iraqi army vehicles and painted pro-Sadrist slogans on their armour.

The surge was a qualified public relations success, as long as the US armed and paid Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda, and honored a unilateral cease fire called by Muqtada al-Sadr. A contemporary instance of phony war. Now, the magician's trick has been revealed. The prospects do not look promising, as there are already reports of police defections and Iraqi troops refusing to fight.

Hat tip to Lenin's Tomb and Missing Links.

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Why I Don't Listen to NPR 

Going back to the early 1990s, I always found it aggravating to listen to National Public Radio. There was an undercurrent of condescension in the style of most of the reporters, a feature that, with the passage of time, became more and more obnoxious, a form of journalistic passive aggression that bespoke an incorrigible elitism. I used to carpool to work with someone from my office in those days, a stereotypical liberal who knew best, and, not surprisingly, he loved to listen to NPR. Personally, I found his preferred alternative much more enjoyable, Frank and Mike in the Morning on KNBR.

Listening to Frank and Mike rhapsodically muse about the joys of playing golf in the Napa Valley after they went off the air was more pleasant than being subjected to the swarmy smugness of most NPR reporters and commentors. Even a good guy like Daniel Shorr came off poorly there, probably because it was obvious that he was a token of gritty integrity in a place where it was otherwise noticeably absent. NPR was the gatekeeper for acceptable mainstream moderate to liberal opinion in the US. Government sources were given deference, and gently contested if the facts were against them. Other sources were generally limited to academia, business people and professionals. Together they conspired to create a boundary of what constituted an acceptable political discourse, based upon middle to upper middle income social values.

For example, opponents to free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT were generally described as well-meaning (everyone in the world of NPR is well-meaning, even Dick Cheney and Richard Perle), but ignorant people with a susceptibility to populist manipulation. Nothing was considered more alarming in the world of NPR than populism. Similarly, it was, let's be candid, a publicly financed mouthpiece for the Clinton Administration, with the administration's failings presented more ruefully than critically. Prior to the emergence of the Internet, it was a major influence upon educated professionals, as it paradoxically mirrored and molded their opinions.

As you might have guessed, I haven't listened to it for years. The Internet provides numerous sources of information that have broken the NPR intellectual monopoly, and I much prefer it. Apparently, if the people that do continue to listen to NPR are to be believed, little has changed, except that, in the post-9/11 environment, NPR now, much like the New York Times and the Washington Post translates the street talk of the Bush Administration into a milder, acceptable form for the gentle ears of pleasant, soft spoken Americans. In other words, NPR smooths out the coarser, belligerent patois associated with the "war on terror" so that it sounds more reasonable.

No doubt, you've asked, what has prompted me to post about this today? Two things that I encountered in my perusal of the news. First, consider this Fairness in Accuracy in Reporting comment about an NPR report on the fifth anniversary of the war, a report on the subject on the number of Iraqi casualties:

Here's how NPR anchor Scott Simon introduced a segment on March 15 in which senators James Webb and Jon Kyl talked about "what the war has meant and what the future might hold":

"This coming Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. So far 3,975 U.S. service men and women have died. Estimates on the number of Iraqis killed range from 47,000 to 151,000, depending on the source."

But what sources are those? The New England Journal of Medicine (1/31/08) published a survey conducted by the Iraqi government on behalf of the World Health Organization, which estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed by violence between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006. This, presumably, is the source of NPR's 151,000 figure. The write-up in NEJM begins: "Estimates of the death toll in Iraq from the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 until June 2006 have ranged from 47,668 (from the Iraq Body Count) to 601,027 (from a national survey)."

Is the 47,668 figure from Iraq Body Count--a group that tabulates accounts of civilian Iraqi deaths that appear in Western news sources--the source for NPR's 47,000 number? There does not seem to be another major survey of Iraqi deaths that provides that estimate. Yet this is clearly described as a figure from June 2006--before the biggest peak of violence in late 2006-early 2007. Iraq Body Count currently reports that there have been at least 82,249 reported civilian deaths in Iraq; why didn't NPR use this number instead?

And if NPR is taking its lower estimate of Iraqi fatalities from the NEJM report, why does it ignore the higher estimate given in that same report of 601,000? That's the estimate made by the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, and published by the Lancet medical journal (10/11/06). It's a well-known study done by highly regarded scholars; indeed, when the 151,000 figure came out, NPR's All Things Considered (1/10/08) turned for comment to Les Roberts, co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, which NPR referred to then as "a survey that continues to be debated in the press and political circles." Between January and March, though, that much-debated study somehow vanished from NPR's collective memory.

It's worth noting that 601,000 figure from Johns Hopkins study and the 151,000 number from WHO both only go up to June 2006, and therefore also leave out the worst of the violence. The most recent survey of Iraqi deaths is the poll conducted by Opinion Research Business, a top British polling firm, in August 2007, which found an estimated 1.2 million deaths by violence among Iraqi households. If NPR really wanted to inform its listeners about the range of credible estimates of Iraqi deaths, it would have included this survey--but instead left them with the impression that the highest plausible estimate was one-eighth as high.

Where or where to begin? All of the failings of NPR coverage are condensed within this report. Deference to the government, in this case, Representative Jon Kyl and Senator Jim Webb, by relying upon limited sources of information that will not discomfort them. Anyone with a computer, a web browser and an ISP can readily find more information on this subject, and the fact that there are surveys that place the total number of Iraqi deaths at over 1 million, within about 10-15 minutes. If you are interested in this subject, just click on the Iraqi Deaths label a the end of this post. And, of course, we shouldn't ignore the possibility that NPR doesn't want to discomfort its listeners too much, either, by examining the actual catastrophic consequences of the war on a day where it was getting a lot of public attention.

Second, consider this article by Norman Solomon:

While the Iraqi government continued its large-scale military assault in Basra, the NPR reporter's voice from Iraq was unequivocal this morning: "There is no doubt that this operation needed to happen."

Such flat-out statements, uttered with journalistic tones and without attribution, are routine for the U.S. media establishment. In the "War Made Easy" documentary film, I put it this way: "If you're pro-war, you're objective. But if you're anti-war, you're biased. And often, a news anchor will get no flak at all for making statements that are supportive of a war and wouldn't dream of making a statement that's against a war."

So it goes at NPR News, where -- on "Morning Edition" as well as the evening program "All Things Considered" -- the sense and sensibilities tend to be neatly aligned with the outlooks of official Washington. The critical aspects of reporting largely amount to complaints about policy shortcomings that are tactical; the underlying and shared assumptions are imperial. Washington's prerogatives are evident when the media window on the world is tinted red-white-and-blue.

Earlier this week -- a few days into the sixth year of the Iraq war -- "All Things Considered" aired a discussion with a familiar guest.

"To talk about the state of the war and how the U.S. military changes tactics to deal with it," said longtime anchor Robert Siegel, "we turn now to retired Gen. Robert Scales, who's talked with us many times over the course of the conflict."

This is the sort of introduction that elevates a guest to truly expert status -- conveying to the listeners that expertise and wisdom, not just opinions, are being sought.

Siegel asked about the progression of assaults on U.S. troops over the years: "How have the attacks and the countermeasures to them evolved?"

Naturally, Gen. Scales responded with the language of a military man. "The enemy has built ever-larger explosives," he said. "They've found clever ways to hide their IEDs, their roadside bombs, and even more diabolical means for detonating these devices."

We'd expect a retired American general to speak in such categorical terms -- referring to "the enemy" and declaring in a matter-of-fact tone that attacks on U.S. troops became even more "diabolical." But what about an American journalist?

Well, if the American journalist is careful to function with independence instead of deference to the Pentagon, then the journalist's assumptions will sound different than the outlooks of a high-ranking U.S. military officer.

In this case, an independent reporter might even be willing to ask a pointed question along these lines: You just used the word "diabolical" to describe attacks on the U.S. military by Iraqis, but would that ever be an appropriate adjective to use to describe attacks on Iraqis by the U.S. military?

In sharp contrast, what happened during the "All Things Considered" discussion on March 24 was a conversation of shared sensibilities. The retired U.S. Army general discussed the war effort in terms notably similar to those of the ostensibly independent journalist -- who, along the way, made the phrase "the enemy" his own in a followup question.

Obviously, if anything, things have gotten worse since I stopped listening to NPR years and years ago. I'm not missing it, and you won't, either.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

There is a New Sheriff in Town 

From today's New York Times:

The top State Department officials responsible for the alliance with Pakistan met leaders of the new government on Tuesday, and received what amounted to a public dressing-down from one of them, as well as the first direct indication that the United States relationship with Pakistan would have to change.

Onthe day that the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Richard A. Boucher, also met with the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, whom they had embraced as their partner in the campaign against terrorism over the past seven years but whose power is quickly ebbing.

The leader of the second biggest party in the new Parliament, Nawaz Sharif, said after meeting the two American diplomats that it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a “killing field.”

If America wants to see itself clean of terrorists, we also want that our villages and towns should not be bombed,” he said at a news conference here. Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister, added he was unable to give Mr. Negroponte “a commitment” on fighting terrorism.

The statements by Mr. Sharif, and the cool body language in the televised portions of his encounter with Mr. Negroponte, were just part of the sea change in Pakistan’s domestic politics that is likely to impose new limits on how Washington fights militants within Pakistan’s borders.

That fight, which has recently included American airstrikes in the lawless tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have made sanctuaries, has become widely unpopular, particularly in the last few months as a surge in suicide bombings here has been viewed as retaliation for the American attacks.

Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, also met with the Americans but did not speak to reporters afterward. Husain Haqqani, an adviser who attended the meeting with him, said, though, that the American officials had been given notice that the old ways were over.

If I can use an American expression, there is a new sheriff in town,” Mr. Haqqani said. “Americans have realized that they have perhaps talked with one man for too long.”

The US has treated Pakistan as a client state since its inception, relying upon a corrupted political and military elite. Are we now to believe that the US is willing to accept a new independent leadership unwillingly to participate in the war on terror in the tribal areas and Afghaniston on US terms? It sounds rather implausible, especially when one realizes that the effort in Afghanistan would become untenable without the suppression of pro-Taliban elements across the border in Pakistan.

I'm no Pakistan specialist, but I am familiar with US imperial policies since the beginning of the Cold War. There are two possibilities that should be considered: (1) this encounter was merely for purposes of public display, with tough bargaining behind closed doors as to how the relationship will go forward; or, (2) if this exchange is for real, there is a good chance that there will be a coup within the next 6 months to a year, getting rid of both Musharraf and the leaders that won this election. Negroponte, the man known for his skill in promoting the use of death squads, doesn't strike me as someone who would tolerate such impertinence.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Poverty of the Presidential Campaign (Part 2) 

On Friday, I suggested that, instead of supporting third, fourth and fifth party candidates for President, like Cynthia McKinney, Gloria La Riva and Ralph Nader, we should instead consider boycotting the election entirely. Why legitimize a process that is designed to favor the major party candidates who can access enormous amounts of money and mainstream media attention? Furthermore, why do we believe, recent experience to the contrary, that the presidential campaign constitutes an effective form of political action for the left?

In that post, I neglected to address an important subject, the extent to which there are better alternatives than putting a lot of time and money into qualifying additional candidates for the ballot and informing the public of their existence. An individual who frequently posts comments over at Lenin's Tomb, a person who goes by the online moniker, i on the ball patriot, has incisively described such an effort as a time sink. Just look at the Nader campaign in 2004.

Faced with a concerted Democratic effort to keep him off the ballot in many states around the country, the Nader campaign became commonly identified with the issue of ballot access instead of the war, the economy or corporate privilege. Of course, that's when he wasn't being vilified for being financed by Republicans from behind the scenes to sabotage John Kerry. His ability to reach the public with a coherent ideological message was virtually non-existent.

I doubt that this year is going to be different. Accordingly, the question becomes, why dedicate such resources to an effort that is unlikely to reach much of the public and, hence, unlikely to educate people as to different approaches to current US policy? Especially when the inevitable result, a low percentage of the vote, is then highlighted by the media as indicative of a public rejection of them?

Such questions become particularly salient when we realize that Nader, McKinney and La Riva could channel their efforts into other activities that might well be more effective. For example, all three oppose the war in Iraq. Perhaps, instead of running for President, the three of them could form an organization dedicated towards ending the occupation by economically pressuring the corporations that directly benefit from it. Imagine a national campaign against corporations that contract with the Pentagon to provide equipment and services.

Of course, most Americans would find such an effort deplorable, but remember, you don't need 50% plus one, to win this sort of confrontation with a corporation just 2%, 3% or 5% could have a significant impact. Even if it objectively failed to change corporate policy, which is probable, it would also highlight the interrelationship between the US government, transnational corporations and the occupation in Iraq, a relationship that significantly explains the persistence of the US presence there.

In other words, it would, unlike a presidential campaign, successfully convey a political theme with the synergistic potential for new organizing campaigns. Imagine if such an effort went global. And, this could be done with other critically important economic issues as well. On Saturday, I published a post about a possible bailout of the international finance system through central bank purchases of mortgage backed securities.

There are almost unlimited possibilities with this one. Nader, McKinney, La Riva and others could create a coalition that would either oppose the bailout, or insist that central banks like the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the European Bank only move forward if the financial institutions in possession of the securities agree to provide more capital for an array of socially compelling needs, such as affordable housing, health care and education. After all, the banks are governmental institutions capitalized with our money, so, if they are going to dispense with the ruthless application of neoliberal policies in regard to banks, savings and loans, brokerage houses and hedge funds, shouldn't they do the same for us?

Again, starting domestically and expanding the effort internationally appears to be essential. But doing so requires abandoning a narcissitic perspective about the centrality of the presidential election, and instead moving to align ourselves with emerging global trends on the left. A campaign for President by a third, fourth or fifth party candidate has a beginning, a middle and an end, but an effort of this kind possesses the potential of creating an internationalized American left capable of playing an important role in the defeat of military neoliberalism.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Largest Bailout in History? 

From Friday's Financial Times:

Central banks on both sides of the Atlantic are actively engaged in discussions about the feasibility of mass purchases of mortgage-backed securities as a possible solution to the credit crisis.

Such a move would involve the use of public funds to shore up the market in a key financial instrument and restore confidence by ending the current vicious circle of forced sales, falling prices and weakening balance sheets.

The conversations, part of a broader exchange as to possible future steps in battling financial turmoil, are at an early stage. However, the fact that such a move is being discussed at all indicates the depth of concern that exists over the health of the banking system.

It shows how far the policy debate has shifted in recent weeks as the crisis has spread to prime mortgage assets in the US and engulfed Bear Stearns, the investment bank.

The Bank of England appears most enthusiastic to explore the idea. The Federal Reserve is open in principle to the possibility that intervention in the MBS market might be justified in certain scenarios, but only as a last resort. The European Central Bank appears least enthusiastic.

Any move to buy mortgage-backed securities would require government involvement because taxpayers would be assuming credit risk. There is no indication as yet that the US administration would favour such moves. In the eurozone it would require agreement from 15 separate governments.

The implications of such an effort would be staggering. Earlier in the week, Paul Krugman, the economic house liberal at The New York Times, described the use of trillions of dollars of public funds to bail out the global financial sector as inevitable.

His column read suspiciously like a preemptive effort to condition people to accept it. If I find the time next week, I will post about how the left should consider responding to this situation. Needless to say, it will be something different than just accomodating the needs of the transnational institutions and financial markets that created the problem in the first place.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Poverty of the Presidential Campaign 

From Sam Smith over at the Progressive Review:

. . . my work leads me into a frustrating dichotomy. At some points of the day I concern myself with the often trivial distinctions we make between candidates. But then, moments later, I find myself facing news that glaciers are in their worst shape in 5,000 years, that the Iraq War may cost $1 trillion, that Bush has assaulted the Constitution again, and that the financial markets are in their worst shape in decades. And none of the candidates who stand a chance of being elected - McCain, Clinton or Obama - have anything useful or meaningful to say on such topics.

Indeed, the candidates' emphasis upon trivialities is remarkable, as their campaigns look more and more contrived with each passing day. But it raises another related question: Is it an inevitable product of the US political process, and, if so, should we participate in it at all?

A couple of days ago, I commented upon the deficiencies of Obama's foreign policy positions over at Left I on the News, and suggested that we refuse to vote, because we merely legitimize this illusory process of political participation by doing so. After all, people have historically advocated electoral boycotts in a variety of contexts when it was apparent that an electoral process was being manipulated. Like any political strategy, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't.

Eli Stephens over at Left I on the News rejected my suggestion:

Richard, not voting is precisely what the ruling class would love for you to do. By not voting at all, you are sending a message that you are one more apathetic American who is perfectly content in your own little house, and isn't concerned that the world is blowing up and falling down outside you. Every vote garnered by a Ralph Nader or a Cynthia McKinney or a Gloria La Riva is one more vote that says, OUT LOUD, that you are fed up with the system and want real change. Not voting is like having an antiwar protest in your living room. No one hears it.

In a different way, Justin Raimondo over at antiwar.com would reject it as well. In regard to the anti-imperialist struggle, he has exhibited, as a libertarian, a remarkable degree of political pragmatism. In 2004, he openly exhorted people to vote for John Kerry, in 2006, he fervently hoped for a Democratic victory, and, now, in 2008, it is clear that he wants to see Barack Obama elected as the next President. Given his belief that the anti-imperialist struggle is the essential one of our time, one that I share with him, he is quite willing to support political figures that are, in most other respects, antithetical to his libertarian philosophy. He is also willing to support them with full knowledge that none of them will bring the troops home tomorrow, but may assist with the creation of a social movement that will do so in the future.

But there are problems with the views of both Stephens and Raimondo. Stephens, to his credit, supports a candidate for President, Gloria La Riva, whose views closely parallel his own. But does a vote for her, or Nader or McKinney really say that I am fed up with the system and want real change? For those of you familiar with my postmodernist sensibility, it should come as no surprise that I doubt it. Instead, I tend to believe that the presidential campaign has become a manifestation of a spectacle of the kind described by Debord. In this instance, the imagery of the campaign has long ago substituted for the notion that we actually exercise political power by participating in it.

There is also the practical aspect, as presented in my original comment over at Left I. Do Nader, McKinney and La Riva challenge the system by standing as candidates, or do they legitimize it? If they did not run, there would only be two candidates, the Republican and the Democratic one. Regardless of the outcome, we could plausibly argue that much of society was not represented in it. But, what happens when, as in 2004, Nader runs and gets approximately 0.5% of the vote? Of course, the result is taken as proof that the remaining 99.5% of the voters were perfectly happy with a limited choice between the two major party candidates.

A response to Raimondo requires walking upon different terrain. As I said, his disciplined pragmatism is commendable. Most people find it hard to understand that, to obtain an absolutely essential result, one must often vote for candidates that have other disreputable qualities. He is consistently willing to do it in order to curtail, and eventually eliminate, US imperial influence. No, the flaw lies elsewhere. Raimondo is operating on the assumption that the person who becomes President matters in regard to transforming the American Empire. Or, to put it differently, that it is possible to elect someone who will retain their independence from the powerful interests that dominate this country and much of the world.

Unfortunately, a Napoleon, a Gorbachev, an FDR, they don't come around that frequently, and, even when they do, they require a confluence of external events, a backdrop of domestic and international turmoil, to empower them. Perhaps, we are living in such a time, but, as my evaluation of Obama and the activism of Direct Action to Stop the War indicate, I consider the underlying social aspects of US life more important than the political process, at least at this time. It is also important to note that Raimondo, unlike Stephens, is more willing to vote for a major party candidate as a form of long term reformism.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iraq War Blogswarm 

During the lunch hour, I, along with my young son, attended a protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war on the north side of the capital here in Sacramento. The crowd numbered 75 to 100 people, and I recognized a number of them from past instances of activism related to peace issues, immigration, Chiapas and the environment. Unlike, say, the Bay Area, which has a social history of confrontational left activism (as shown by Act Against Torture today, to the left), antiwar activism in Sacramento is predominately influenced by progressive liberalism, by people who share a sincere belief that you can eventually persuade the government to do the right thing if you pressure it enough.

After holding up signs at the 11th and L Street intersection (an intersection where lobbyists for corporations, labor unions, non-profits and local government entities go back and forth between their offices and the legislature), the crowd walked to the north steps of the capitol building and listened to several dedicated, long time activists speak about their dismay over the inability to persuade Congress to end the war, the horrible consequences of the war for both Iraq and the United States and, frankly, the burnout that some of them had experienced. Towards the end, I was surprised when one of the organizers walked up to me and asked if I wanted to speak. I thought about it for a moment, and accepted the invitation.

With my son playfully trying to take the microphone out of my hands, I briefly highlighted the relationship between the global neoliberal policies of the US and the war in Iraq, suggesting that the war itself was part of a profound challenge, one that requires a more socially aware approach than communicating with elected officials. Afterward, I wondered why it is so difficult to mobilize opposition to the war, and decided to write my Blogswarm post on the subject. After all, I doubt that there are very many blogs that have published more posts on the subject of the catastrophic consequences of the war and occupation, especially for the Iraqis, than this one. An examination of the label, Occupation of Iraq, reveals 108 posts, while a more specific subject subsumed within it, Iraqi Deaths, has 37. Both labels can be found at the end of this post, so please click on them if you are willing to educate yourself about the more brutal aspects of the conflict.

So, again, the question, why is it so difficult to mobilize opposition to the war? Of course, we know some of the reasons. For example, the extent to which the execution of the war and its adverse impact upon the US has been compartimentalized is well known, although we often overlook it. Since Vietnam, the military relies upon volunteers, so no one is forced to fight in Iraq if they don't want to do so, or, at least, very few are, when one accounts for conscientous objectors, like Lt. Ehren Watada. It is very easy to live in the US and have little or no contact with the war, except for the random encounter with someone who has enlisted, or someone with a relative who has done so. It is a sad thing to say, but it increasingly seems that many relate to such people as people who have an incurable disease or have been exposed to one. In other words, shikata ga nai, it can't be helped, a topic that induces some expressions of empathy at dinner, along with a more relieved, thank G-d it's not us, but not much else.

We are also aware of the economic consequences, but they have been compartmentalized as effectively as the social ones. A declining currency, signalling a lesser standard of living in comparison with others around the world, a rapidly growing budget deficit, a credit crunch, making it difficult for millions of Americans to escape foreclosure on their homes, and the high price of oil, all can be traced to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. Despite the efforts of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Linda Blimes and Justin Raimondo, it is not something that can be easily explained, although there was a recent glimmer of hope when Americans, in a recent poll, selected getting out of Iraq as the best proposal for getting out of the recession.

Then, there are the interwined elements of ambivalence and powerlessness. In the parts of the country where the war has disrupted the lives of people the most, where units have been sent to Iraq for 3, 4 and 5 tours of duty, leaving behind emotionally and financially broken families, there is still a hesitancy about immediately ending the war. One can speculate on the causes, a desire to retain the belief that the sacrifice meant something, a fear that it might be a mistake, a deference to people in positions of authority, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility that there is a deeply ingrained feeling of powerlessness. Many of these same people experienced the social dislocations that resulted from NAFTA, deregulation and the elimination of pension plans and affordable health care. The sacrifices of the war are just the culmination of a long list of them inflicted upon these people in the last two decades. Faced with such economic insecurity, and a political system that is tone deaf to their needs, why would they believe that anyone would listen to them if they demanded an end to the war?

It is a hard question to answer. If the US political system is so unresponsive to conventional forms of activism, such as petitions, marches, communication with elected representatives, the election of new representatives aligned with our beliefs, in short, strategies based upon the notion that the empowerment of the Democratic Party, while simultaneously trying to push it in a progressive direction, then isn't it time to seriously start investigating alternatives? If the political parties, and the activists connected to them, such as MoveON.org, have proven themselves incapable of bringing the war to an end, as they did after the Democrats took over Congress in the 2006 election, doesn't that tend to prove that we need to do something different?

Of course it does. Within the past week, I have published two posts about Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), one here and the other one here. By practicing a decentralized form of direct action politics, one that encourages people to empower themselves by protesting the war in ways that conform to their values and abilities, it inspires individuals to reconstitute a collective participation in social life that has been forgotten. It additionally motivates people to recognize and understand the socioeconomic forces that promote and benefit from the war in Iraq. As DASW flyers and postcards in 2003 said, resist the war and the empire and uproot the system behind them.

It is this emphasis upon the underlying system of militarism and global economic exploitation that makes the DASW approach so essential. With such an emphasis, we begin to identify the corporations aligned with the war in Iraq, with US imperial policies generally, thus making it possible to educate the public about them, and subject them to political and economic pressure. For example, DASW, influenced by the work of people like Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch, protested Bechtel and Halliburton as especially flagrant corporate miscreants in Iraq before they were commonly exposed as such by the mainstream media. Bechtel was no surprise as DASW was already familiar with what it had attempted to do in Bolivia. Such an emphasis further opens the door towards the delicate task of persuading people to open their minds to considering whether the needs of people would be better satisfied by a society structured along lines very different than the US. In the meantime, a targeted boycott of US corporations that profit from the war in Iraq, with an emphasis upon ones dependent upon retail consumers, might be a good idea.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Protest the War in San Francisco 

Of course, there's not likely to be an outpouring of protest and civil disobedience tomorrow like there was on March 20, 2003. But as it has become increasingly evident that the electoral system is incapable of ending the occupation of Iraq, there is an urgent need for people to express their opposition to it, and the neoliberal policies embedded wtihin it. By challenging the occupation and those institutions that benefit from it through direct action, we take the first small steps towards a different world in which those with money and power no longer achieve their ends through violence. Indeed, the first steps toward eliminating the destructive hierarchies associated with money and power themselves. Implausible? Perhaps. Yet no less so than the amoral brutality of military neoliberalism, that system of global economic and military coercion that we implicitly accept as an immutable feature of our daily lives. As Sam Smith says, you never know how its going to work out when you confront entrenched authority, unless, of course, you don't bother at all. For my perspective on the people that sent out the call for these protests, the people associated with Direct Action to Stop the War, go here. And, if you can't participate, donate.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

UPDATE: Keep Score While Rome Burns 

UPDATE to the UPDATE: Half the world will be slashing rates this year to stave off credit contraction.

Even the weekends, when markets are closed, require urgent action by the Federal Reserve:

In a potentially even bigger move, the Federal Reserve also announced its biggest commitment yet to lend money to struggling investment banks. The central bank said its new lending program would make money available to the 20 large investment banks that serve as “primary dealers” and trade Treasury securities directly with the Fed.

Much like a $200 billion loan program the Fed announced last Tuesday, this program will essentially allow the government to hold as collateral a wide variety of investments that include hard-to-sell securities backed by mortgages. But Fed officials told reporters on Sunday night that the new program would have no limit on the amount of money that can be borrowed.

In a conference call with reporters, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said the central bank was moving to provide money to financial institutions that need it.

“The Federal Reserve, in close consultation with the Treasury, is working to promote liquid, well-functioning financial markets, which are essential for economic growth,” he said. “These steps will provide financial institutions with greater assurance of access to funds.”

While the purchase of Bear Stearns by J.P. Morgan, assisted by financing from the Federal Reserve, will get most of the media coverage, as it did in the New York Times article linked at the beginning of this post, it may well be this program, a program that enables primary dealers to exchange their toxic financial instruments, like mortgage backed securities, in unlimited amounts for US treasuries, that will be remembered as the most significant.

Of course, the policy is based upon the notion that the instruments provided as security for the loans will retain, and perhaps even enhance, their value through more orderly selling in the market over time. But there is good reason to be suspicious. Vulture funds, which have already visited and walked away from the scene of the accident, have declined to buy them, even at heavily discounted rates, because they could find no way to confidently ascertain their value.

Why should the Federal Reserve assume that the passage of time is necessarily going to improve the situation? In the 1990s, Japan was known for its zombie companies, companies keep alive by the lenders and shareholders, even though, as the term implies, they were moribund. Now, the US may be known for the Federal Reserve taking zombie notes off the hands of zombie banks and zombie brokerage houses. Guess who going to end up paying the bill?

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Direct Against to Stop the War 

From the website:

Several months ago, a group of Bay Area activists got together and re-started Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW). Five years ago, on March 20, 2003, DASW – a coordinating body/spokescouncil that brought together several thousand people from a broad cross-section of communities, social justice groups, and anti-war organizations – organized a massively successful shutdown of the San Francisco financial district, in protest of President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq. This mass direct action of over 10,000 people was planned and carried out using an anti-authoritarian and highly effective organizing model of affinity groups, decentralized leadership, and coordinated action through mass spokescouncil meetings.

Some of the people who were involved in that organizing effort, along with many new people, have come together to organize two mass direct actions on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We believe that the time has come for the anti-war movement to escalate our tactics, and put pressure directly on the people who are waging this war. We’re sending out this overview of our organizing plan because we know that in order for this action to be successful, it needs the creativity, energy, experience, and connections that you and many others can bring.

On March 19, 2008 - the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq - Direct Action to Stop the War will be organizing a day of decentralized, multiple-target direct action against government offices and war profiteers in downtown San Francisco. We have created a list of San Francisco offices of federal agencies, corporations with military contracts or contracts in Iraq, politicians who have failed to stop the war, and foreign embassies of countries linked to the war in Iraq. We are focusing primarily on corporations with military or Iraqi contracts, because we want to focus attention on the prominent role played by war-profiteering corporations in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We will take direct action on March 19th against as many of these locations as possible, in order to send a clear message to the economic and political elites that control this country: No business as usual until all U.S. troops are withdrawn from Iraq!

Having participated in some of the DASW actions in 2003, I have always had a fondness for the people involved in it. I believe that they possess a sophisticated perspective, one that draws upon an autonomous history of social organization in the US, Italy, Germany and South America, especially Bolivia and Argentina, and, hence, transcends the failed hierarchical Marxist-Leninist approaches of the past.

People and organizations are invited to participate in DASW actions in their own unique and creative ways. This is important. People are no longer motivated to become involved in fundamental political and social questions through existing institutions like the government, political parties and labor unions. So, it is now essential that we reach people by reference to what is important to them personally, and actively encourage them to incorporate their values and skills within a larger, loosely confederated collective, and empower themselves through direct action.

As Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi stated in relation to the Italian autonomous movements of the 1970s: Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a "general line", to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity. DASW grounds its opposition to the war in Iraq, and global neoliberal economics more generally, in this principle. In its own way, the counter-recruitment effort has achieved some successes by adopting the same kind of practices, even if only implicitly.

Respect for personal and group autonomy present the prospect of a a more vibrant future left. With military neoliberalism in the ascendancy, as currently on display in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, possibly, Iran, and no coherent ideological alternative to resist it, there really is no other way to proceed at this time, no other way to create the sort of global coalition required to defeat it. Through decentralized groups like DASW and OlyPMR, many Americans many find their own place within it. Of course, even if you can't participate in its activities, DASW still needs money to organize in this capitalist society, so please donate if you are so inclined.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Calculated Risk: Keep Score While Rome Burns 

UPDATE: You have to go back to the banking crisis of the Great Depression to find a moment when the financial system as a whole seemed so close to the precipice.

INITIAL POST: Too busy to post anything at length, but the most important news of the week has been the continuing collapse of the financial institutions that provide the necessary funds, both real and virtual, through a myriad of sophisticated financial instruments, for the operation of the US economy and much of the global one.

Another hedge fund dies, a 21 billion dollar one that purchased mortgage backed securities with mind boggling 32 to 1 leverage, a major brokerage house is now on life support, surviving only because of a bailout engineered by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and J. P. Morgan, and the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States intervenes, yet again, to prop up stock prices (what is it? the 3rd or 4th time in the last 6 months?), this time by providing 200 billion dollars in US treasuries to primary dealers in exchange for mortgage backed securities.

Any one of these events is worthy of a detailed, analytical blog post in itself, but I just don't have the time to keep up with all of it. But don't worry, Calculated Risk and Tanta over at the Calculated Risk blog do, and they are much more knowledgeable on this subjects than I am, so let me recommend it again for those who want to keep track of the runs scored and runs allowed in the continuing meltdown of the American neoliberal finance economy, as described on this blog here and here.

They post frequently during the day in response to events, and the comments are absolutely phenomenal, with some more radical than what you would encounter on political blogs, because some of the posters understand the relationship between the methods of crony capitalism and political power. It is, despite its absence of any overt ideological perspective, one of the most left blog sites around because the events that it examines are essential for any leftist to understand when contemplating the future of neoliberal capitalism and the American Empire.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Film Notes: Charles Foster Kane and . . . 

. . . . Susan Alexander

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Join the March 19th Blogswarm Against the War in Iraq 

March 19th, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, has been designated as the day for an Iraq War Blogstorm. As long time readers of this blog know, Joe and I here at American Leftist have posted numerous posts about the war and occupation. Accordingly, it is not difficult for me to commit to post a blog entry against the war on that date. I also encourage other bloggers to click on the Blogstorm link and join the effort. For the story behind the photograph to the left, and its relevance to the Blogswarm, go here and here.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Icon of Feminist Racism 

UPDATE: People fought back, so now Ferraro is a victim. She's served her purpose for the Clinton campaign, and now it can go through the charade of accepting her resignation.

INITIAL POST: And their candidate for President is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Too bad Lester Maddox and George Wallace are dead, either would make a good vice presidential nominee, after all, doesn't she need help down south? And where are Sarah Jones and Chuck D. when you need them to confront this sort of thing?

Meanwhile, the establishment of the Democratic Party continues to sit on the sidelines as the Clintons and their surrogates, like Ferraro, ignite a racial firestorm that will burn the party down to the ground. As a non-aligned leftist, I can only marvel at their cowardice, even as the obvious appeals to bigotry, now that we have moved beyond the more subtle dog whistles, anger me. Is this the sort of world that I should anticipate, one in which the violence of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan persists indefinitely, while the Clintons mainstream the vitriolic politics of racial and gender division into the Democratic Party, and thus, much more broadly throughout society?

In this brave new world of perpetual warfare abroad and racial conflict at home, one wonders whether crowd control will become a growth industry. One also wonders whether the new found associates of these feminists like Ferraro, Steinem, NOW and Emily's List, those Rust Belt blue collar workers that have responded to Hillary's fear tactics, will become steadfast allies in the fight for choice. It seems rather improbable. Meanwhile, African Americans are likely to be preoccupied with more immediate concerns, increasingly unable to discern friends from enemies.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Playing to the Racism of American Feminists 

UPDATE: Gaius provides his perspective, based upon his good memory when it comes to Democratic Party politics. Yes, Ferraro was a classic instance of the Peter Principle in action, someone who rose far beyond their capabilities, which renders her insulting remarks about Obama especially ironic. Oh, you want to know why some updates are posted separately, why others are not? Generally, the lengthier ones got separate post treatment, while shorter ones don't. And, then, of course, there's always the whim of the blogger.

INITIAL POST: No doubt, Ishmael Reed is not surprised. If African American men are not sinister threats, they are the recipients of opportunities to which they are otherwise not entitled, opportunities that come at the expense of others, in this instance, a white woman. African American women get it, too, even if Gloria Steinem doesn't.

I guess I shouldn't be shocked that Geraldine Ferraro said it, after all, Italian Americans and African Americans have historically gotten along so well in New York City. You just get the impression that some of the white female supporters of the Clintons believe that it would be an honor for Obama to drive Hillary around.

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The Postmodern Politics of the Clintons 

A great article by JoAnn Wypijewski about the Clintons:

The people never have been interesting to the Clintons, not in organized, confident form. They have been interesting as election props and poll numbers, and interesting as victims, atomized, whose pain could be felt, causes championed, and misery exploited. They are interesting to Bill on rope lines, as exemplars of popular adulation and individuals to be charmed or lectured. Hillary used to hate the rope lines, hate being touched, and in the 1992 campaign she used to make sure that big men were around her to keep the plebs at bay. That changed as her ambition grew and she discovered Purell instant hand santizer. Having purelled universal health care as a live issue for a generation, she's back at it, just where she wants to be, as an answer to a murmured prayer, among a populace mobilized for nothing but elections.

Wypijewski masterfully summarizes the amorality of the Clintons in terms of their political practices. But that is not the source of the brilliance of the article. Others, including her friend, Alexander Cockburn, have done it many times in the past, although her piece is an exemplary exampe of the genre, and should be read in its entirety for that reason alone.

No, the brilliance lies elsewhere. Despite the fact that she never once uses the term postmodern or alludes to the postmodern condition, she has, by interweaving recent political history, personal experience and subjective analysis, presented one of the most concise descriptions of it in recent memory.

Consider Wypijewski's introduction:

Three weeks before the Ohio primary Blanche McKinney, an assistant manager at Stark Metro Housing and a member of CWA Local 4302 in Canton, told me, "Do we have the time to get someone in there who's inexperienced? No. It's got to be someone who on day one can immediately begin solving problems, because we don't have the time." Her union brothers in the group I was talking to were still undecided at that point, but McKinney was for Hillary. The only thing she wasn't sure she liked about the candidate was her health care plan: "a lot of Canadians don't like their program." She seemed relieved when I assured her Hillary was not promoting a Canadian-style single-payer system.

McKinney is solidly in Hillary's most solid base: 59, white, a woman, making less than =$50,000, rural. Although she works in Canton's public housing, she and her husband are also small farmers. He doesn't buy anything unless the label says "Made in America". She says she "never seriously thought this was a problem" but asks her union brothers anyway about Barack Obama's name and the "Muslim connection back then in Indonesia": "You say that doesn't bother you even a little?" The four men, three white and one black, said they didn't think so. Dustin Robinett, white, 33, an AT&T repairman, explained what he saw as Obama's slim "connection to the Muslim nation" (his father's childhood religion, his step-father's religion) before going into an extended consideration of multiculturalism, the melting pot, global experience, religion and politics, the habits of men: "we're all afraid of things that are different."

"In God we trust", said Bob Ramsey wryly, a long-hair AT&T inspector in a camo baseball cap, 41, white.

These were the first people I talked to during a week in Ohio before the primary, so it wasn't until later that I noticed there was something else about McKinney that seemed common among Clinton's most passionate supporters. Most really believed Hillary herself would begin to solve problems immediately upon taking residence at Pennsylvania Avenue. For all the talk after her victory of Hillary as "a fighter" and Ohioans as "fighters" and all of that being a perfect match -- the boxing gloves she held up at events, the endorsement from world middleweight champion and Youngstown native Kelly ("The Ghost") Pavlik -- what seemed truer was that Hillary's solid rank and file aren't fighters at all, or haven't been for a long time. The late Youtube entry into the campaign, a sequence of visuals from Clinton's TV commercials and some still photos backed by John Stewart's "Survivors," made the point precisely. Clinton Country doesn't fight; it survives, and hopes for deliverance.

Within these four paragraphs, Wypijewski identifies many of the primary features of postmodern politics in the US: (1) the marginalization of class conflict; (2) the accompanying demoralization of people who significantly viewed the world through the lens of their class identity and acted upon it; (3) mistrust of collective action and collective political solutions to social problems; (4) a vulnerability to appeals to fear and uncertainty, or, to put it differently, a reflexive tendency to associate the prospect of social transformation with unacceptable risk; and (5) a pseudo-religious reliance upon others for one's protection, and, perhaps, even more broadly, a willingness to relate to external events in pseudo-religious ways.

Wypijewski's social realism paradoxically invokes the abstract theory of Baudrillard as manifested in his early 1980s book, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. In Silent Majorities, he rejected the notion that the masses or social classes existed in such a way as to render the utopian abandonment of capitalist society possible. Of course, Baudrillard was far from the only person to develop this insight, but he did express it in a way that retains great contemporary relevance.

With the collapse of Marxism, there remains, according to this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, only participation in the cultural creations of media and contemporary communications technologies:

Baudrillard's postmodern world is also one in which previously important boundaries and distinctions — such as those between social classes, genders, political leanings, and once autonomous realms of society and culture — lose power. If modern societies, for classical social theory, were characterized by differentiation, for Baudrillard, postmodern societies are characterized by dedifferentiation, the "collapse" of (the power of) distinctions, or implosion. In Baudrillard's society of simulation, the realms of economics, politics, culture, sexuality, and the social all implode into each other. In this implosive mix, economics is fundamentally shaped by culture, politics, and other spheres, while art, once a sphere of potential difference and opposition, is absorbed into the economic and political, while sexuality is everywhere. In this situation, differences between individuals and groups implode in a rapidly mutating or changing dissolution of the social and the previous boundaries and structures upon which social theory had once focused.

In addition, his postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior. Yet determination itself is aleatory in a non-linear world where it is impossible to chart causal mechanisms in a situation in which individuals are confronted with an overwhelming flux of images, codes, and models, any of which may shape an individual's thought or behavior.

It is tempting to say that the inevitable consequence of such a world, one which persists today, is disempowerment. In Ohio, Wypijewski encountered union members who could no longer respond to a presidential candidate who sought their active participation, and instead aligned themselves with the one who emotionally understood their passivity. But that requires us to speak in the language of a sociological perspective of the world that no longer exists.

Rather, it may be more accurate to say that in today's postmodern political environment, people have been conditioned through hyperreal experiences with media and communications technology to associate in ways that are hierarchical instead of egalitarian. The key phrase in the encyclopedia citation is the last one: Yet determination itself is aleatory in a non-linear world where it is impossible to chart causal mechanisms in a situation in which individuals are confronted with an overwhelming flux of images, codes, and models, any of which may shape an individual's thought or behavior.

Yes, you have the same question that I do: what does aleatory mean? Fortunately, wikipedia comes to the rescue: Aleatory means "pertaining to luck", and derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice. Aleatoric, indeterminate, or chance art is that which exploits the principle of randomness. If luck is an increasingly powerful determinant in contemporary social and political outcomes, then, paradoxcially, the consequence is the reenforcement, if not expansion, of the current neoliberal political order, as people are disinclinded to believe that their rational decisions will result in any beneficial outcomes.

One need only spend some time around gamblers to immediately recognize the truth of this statement. In my experience, they were either completely disassociated from mainstream social and political experience, or, if not, prone to taking the most cynical and self-interested interpretation of people and events, leading them, quite predictably, to express a negative, reactionary perspective. Their utopianism ended rather abruptly at the card table or betting window.

The Clintons, as described by Wypijewski, have quite skillfully manipulated these social conditions to their advantage. But they merely constitute a symptom instead of the disease. It is easy to vent righteous anger towards them, but the fault lies, as you might guessed, not with them, but with us.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Israel of Latin America (Part 2) 

To read the original post, go here. Colombian President Uribe has a provocative resume. According to the Pentagon in 1991: Alvaro Uribe Velez--a Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the U.S.... Uribe has worked for the Medellin cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

And here is a summary of his political allies:

>>> Fourteen of Uribe's closest congressional allies remain behind bars for their terrorist links, and are slowly revealing where bodies have been dumped, leading to discovery of mass graves last spring.

>>> His foreign minister was forced to resign a year ago when her brother (a senator) was arrested for overseeing the killing of thousands of peasants. (Yeah that’s “thousands” with a “thu”)

>>> His campaign manager/secret police chief was jailed that same month for “giving a hit list of trade unionists and activists to paramilitaries, who then killed them.”

>>> His Army chief “collaborated extensively” with illegal death squads and, back in 2002, colluded in the massacre of 14 people for their supposed leftist politics.

>>> His police intelligence unit illegally wiretapped the phones of journalists and opposition figures for two years

>>> His Defense Minister “tried to plot with the outlawed private militias to upset the rule of a former president," and

>>> In last fall’s elections, a whopping 30 major candidates turned up murdered.

Hat tip to Borev over at Information Clearing House. His post has links in support of all of these assertions.

Of course, the obsession of the US elite and its media allies will remain Chavez and Venezuela. I'm beginning to think that he was incorrect in his description of Uribe's Colombia. Given media disinterest in Colombia in marked contrast to its hysteria in regard to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, rather than Israel, may be a more apt comparison.

Admittedly, Colombia lacks oil (although it does have natural gas), but the media seems willing, as it is with Saudi Arabia, to ignore the flagrant human rights abuses there. One wonders whether Chavez would be more acceptable to the US if he was connected to narco traffickers and killed his political opponents. If US policy prevailed and resulted in the removal of Chavez, Venezuelans would probably find themselves facing the institutionalized state violence inflicted upon the people of Colombia.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Israel of Latin America (Part 1) 

Earlier this week, after the Colombian military launched an airstrike within Ecuador to kill a high ranking figure within the FARC insurgency, Chavez described Colombia as the Israel of Latin America. Predictably, he was subjected to ridicule within the US, but, as this post by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb reveals, there is a solid historical foundation for it. lenin's post is a good summary of the historic relationship between Israel and the repressive right wing regimes of Central and South America.

Anyone subject to the US elite obsession with Venezuela in recent years would probably tend to believe that Venezuela is the violent, dangerous, politically and economically unstable country, primarily because of the Chavistas, of course, while Colombia represents a mature, American style democracy. What a shock to discover that the Colombian right wing and US corporations destroyed the electoral left in the mid-1980s by relying upon paramilitary death squads to kill and intimidate anyone who attempted to participate in the political system.

Throughout the 1990s to the present, they continue to kill and threaten to kill students and labor leaders. According to Gary Leech in the Colombia Journal:

In the past 20 years, more than 3,000 Colombian unionists have been assassinated. And of the 144 unionists killed worldwide last year, 78 were Colombian—eight more than the previous year. According to the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU), there were 1,165 documented murders of Colombian trade union members between 1994 and 2006. However, the state has convicted the perpetrators in only 14 of these cases—an impunity rate of over 95 percent.

Venezuela is certainly not perfect. It is confronting the economic challenges associated with being a lesser developed nation, challenges that it may or may not overcome. It also has an alarmingly high crime rate, including murder. But it remains an open society, one in which people can participate in the political system without the risk of being targeted by death squads, with the exception of campesinos agitating for land reform.

Who's killing them? Yes, you guessed the prime suspect: Blame has focused on right-wing Colombian paramilitaries hired by Venezuelan latifundistas to intimidate campesinos who move to take control of under-utilised land. I was personally told the same thing by people that I spoke with when I traveled to Venezuela in 2005. Of course, neither the opposition nor their allies in the US media ever express any concern for them, as they would not assist in the project of reinstating neoliberal economic policies there.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

UPDATE: The Debacle of March 4, 2008 

For a well reasoned, thoughtful, alternative to my post about Obama yesterday, read The Obama Craze, written by Matt Gonzalez, the former San Francisco Supervisor who recently agreed to run with Ralph Nader as his vice presidential candidate.

An excerpt:

Let's start with his signature position against the Iraq war. Obama has sent mixed messages at best.

First, he opposed the war in Iraq while in the Illinois state legislature. Once he was running for US Senate though, when public opinion and support for the war was at its highest, he was quoted in the July 27, 2004 Chicago Tribune as saying, "There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage.

The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute." The Tribune went on to say that Obama, "now believes US forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation ­ a policy not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration."

Obama's campaign says he was referring to the ongoing occupation and how best to stabilize the region. But why wouldn't he have taken the opportunity to urge withdrawal if he truly opposed the war? Was he trying to signal to conservative voters that he would subjugate his anti-war position if elected to the US Senate and perhaps support a lengthy occupation? Well as it turns out, he's done just that.

Since taking office in January 2005 he has voted to approve every war appropriation the Republicans have put forward, totaling over $300 billion. He also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her complicity in the Bush Administration's various false justifications for going to war in Iraq. Why would he vote to make one of the architects of "Operation Iraqi Liberation" the head of US foreign policy? Curiously, he lacked the courage of 13 of his colleagues who voted against her confirmation.

And though he often cites his background as a civil rights lawyer, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worse attack on civil liberties in the last half-century. It allows for wholesale eavesdropping on American citizens under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.

And in March 2006, Obama went out of his way to travel to Connecticut to campaign for Senator Joseph Lieberman who faced a tough challenge by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. At a Democratic Party dinner attended by Lamont, Obama called Lieberman "his mentor" and urged those in attendance to vote and give financial contributions to him. This is the same Lieberman who Alexander Cockburn called "Bush's closest Democratic ally on the Iraq War." Why would Obama have done that if he was truly against the war?

Recently, with anti-war sentiment on the rise, Obama declared he will get our combat troops out of Iraq in 2009. But Obama isn't actually saying he wants to get all of our troops out of Iraq. At a September 2007 debate before the New Hampshire primary, moderated by Tim Russert, Obama refused to commit to getting our troops out of Iraq by January 2013 and, on the campaign trail, he has repeatedly stated his desire to add 100,000 combat troops to the military.

At the same event, Obama committed to keeping enough soldiers in Iraq to "carry out our counter-terrorism activities there" which includes "striking at al Qaeda in Iraq." What he didn't say is this continued warfare will require an estimated 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq according to a May 2006 report prepared by the Center for American Progress. Moreover, it appears he intends to "redeploy" the troops he takes out of the unpopular war in Iraq and send them to Afghanistan. So it appears that under Obama's plan the US will remain heavily engaged in war.

This is hardly a position to get excited about.

Gonzalez conducts a political autopsy of Obama on a wide variety of other issues as well. Personally, I think that he should be at the top of his ticket, not Nader. Readers of both can decide whether his political evaluation trumps my social one.

As an aside, I would appreciate if people decline to use the comments section as an opportunity to vent tiresome rants about Nader and Gonzalez and how they might cost the Democrats this election. If you want to do that, go over to Daily Kos. Additional remarks that address the substance of my original post yesterday, and Gonzalez's perspective here, are, of course, appreciated.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Debacle of March 4, 2008 

Like many leftists, I don't look to the two party system, and the presidential candidates that it produces, as the means for socially tranforming the US and its role in the world. Given the massive sums of money required to be elected to Congress, much less the White House, as well as the power possessed by the major lobbies, politicians have little room for manuever.

Eli over at Left I on the News has diligently catalogued the woeful deficiencies of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. It makes for pretty depressing reading. One can pretty much predict, within a narrow range, the policies that will be put forward by these candidates. As one might expect, they have been market tested in an effort to appeal to the most people and alienate the least.

With that said, however, leftists make a mistake if they dismiss the mainstream political process as meaningless, or allow themselves to reflexively evaluate it in a jaded, cynical way. Why? Because the process has a social dimension as well as a political one, and leftists need to be cognizant of this social aspect in regard to being able to recognize the prospects, if any, for left activism.

The conventional left response to the emergence of Barack Obama as a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination has primarily been one of sharp criticism, with the exception of this nuanced analysis by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb. Yes, Obama isn't particularly great on the issues, but the importance of his emergence is social rather than political, and the social dynamism of his campaign presented the prospect of a new American public attitude in which left values would no longer be marginalized.

How so? First, Obama has been challenging the hierarchical structure of the US political system, one that possesses the rigidity of purported competitive democracies like Japan, Colombia, Germany, Taiwan and Mexico. In all of these countries, there are some significant differences between the parties, but none of them object, with the possible exception of the PRD in Mexico and the Linkspartei in Germany, to the fundamental allocation of power in support of neoliberal economic policies, an allocation that rests upon persuading the public that it has no meaningful political role other than validating the illusion of democratic participation.

Baudrillard, in a typically cutting example of creating a new terminology to describe our contemporary world, described the transfer of power from one party to another in such systems as alternation. Obama does not challenge this process directly, but he has structured his campaign around the most unforgivable taboo: he encourages his supporters to organize themselves as active participants within the US political system, as people capable of making demands and bringing about policies that fulfill their needs.

It is easy to ridicule. Obama's supporters are displaying the qualities of cult members, they are responding to the superficial appeal of a charming candidate with the skills of a televangelist. Such criticisms reveal more about the extent to which we have internalized our own passivity than it does about the people who have responded so passionately to Obama. Throughout much of the modern period, people commonly responded to political figures with the excitement associated with Obama's supporters. FDR, Churchill, JFK, RFK, deGaulle and Trudeau are good examples, with Thatcher and Reagan being the ones who presided over the transition from the enthusiasm of the past to the disinterest of today.

The left does not seem to grasp the importance of this development. It does not understand that people cannot organize and insist upon progressive, and even radical, changes in society unless they first perceive themselves as empowered participants in the evolving history of their time. In the absence of such empowerment, a left emphasis upon policy analysis is little more than pouring a pitcher of water into a sand dune.

The political elite in the US does understand, however, and it frightens them. No one is ever supposed to seriously invite the public to participate in the political process. That's why, in the last two weeks, we have witnessed an amazing coordination between the Democratic campaign of Clinton and the Republican campaign of McCain to destroy Obama's appeal. Taking a page out of the Karl Rove playbook, they have described him as a great speechmaker devoid of substance, in other words, all talk and no action.

Second, Obama is equally threatening because of his concerted effort to move the country beyond the fear mongering that has become so entrenched in the aftermath of 9/11. Without fear, the government couldn't have moved forward with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a contemplated attack upon Iran. It would be impossible to sustain the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight. It couldn't launch attacks in other countries like Somalia as part of the war on terror. Nor would it so brazenly seek to destabilize Lebanon and Palestine, with both on the brink of civil war.

Put more simply, it would be impossible to sustain US foreign policy in its current neoconservative, militarily interventionist imperial form without perpetual recourse to fear. Leftists rightly point out that Obama has not repudiated the basic outlines of US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, except for a vague willingness to remove US troops from Iraq. It's true. But withdrawing troops from Iraq and advocating the use of military force in the context of real threats, such as, for example, al-Qaeda, is actually quite radical in the current neoconservative environment as neoconservatives like Bush, McCain, and, yes, Clinton (look at her record) utilize fear to justify the use of force against targets, such as Iran, that the public would not otherwise accept.

Hence, Clinton and McCain coordinated an effort to persuade the public that Obama cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of being commander in chief. Clinton has openly, and repeatedly, said that she and McCain have the foreign policy experience to be president but that Obama does not. Our children would be unsafe it we left it to him to answer that 3 a.m. phone call. Here, finally, they hit upon the theme would condense all those slanders about Obama (he's Muslim, he may have been a drug dealer, he's unpatriotic, like Martin Luther King, he's a plagiarist, he's blacker than black), many of them spread by Clinton operatives, into a potent means of persuading enough voters to reject him.

Unlike Nixon, and his political daughter, Clinton, he's not one of us, and therefore can't be trusted. He is a political manifestation of what sociologists call the Other, the exoticized people of a different race, religion or culture upon whom we project our negative traits (yes, you guessed it, Clinton fulfills the same role for evangelicals). Turning to country's defense over to him would be as if we gave it over to someone who personified all of our worst qualities of weakness, indecision and incompetence. The inability of Clinton's campaign staff to describe one episode in which she acted decisively during a foreign crisis during a conference call with reporters is irrelevant in this context.

Yesterday, in the primaries in Ohio and Texas, Clinton and McCain harvested the fruit of their efforts. Confronted by their combined assault, conveyed by a receptive media, Obama fell from his high water mark, probably attained in the early part of the previous week, and lost both states. By themselves, the primary losses are not significant, he still leads Clinton in delegates. But that's not what should be important to the left. Winning or losing isn't the subject, but rather the social consequences of it based upon how it happened.

Yesterday was a debacle because Clinton and McCain succeeded in containing his mass movement, rendering it innocuous, and, perhaps, even worse, relegating it to a legitimization of the existing order, something akin to the Pepsi Generation or Just Do It. See, there really is a competitive politics in America and, upon reflection, we decided that the established way of doing things is just fine. Equally disturbing, they convinced the public that fear, and the need to assuage it, must remain the guiding principle of our relationship with the world.

Of course, there was no guarantee that if Obama prevailed his movement (and the left as well) would have fulfilled the promise created by this opportunity. It would have been, as Sam Smith of the Progressive Review has said, upon us and them to seize the moment and press for more compassionate and less interventionist policies. We might have failed. Now, we don't need to worry about it. The glimmer of light that shone through my kitchen window for a few brief weeks is gone, and the fog of irrationality that arrived after 9/11 has returned.

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UPDATE: Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist 

How can there be an update, you ask, about a book first published in 1912? Easy. To let you know about an even better review of it over at The Existence Machine.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist 

Alexander Berkman is a forgotten figure of American history, exiled to the periphery like many other radicals who do not fit comfortably within the traditional narrative. He lived during a time in which labor and capital were engaged in a seemingly perpetual violent conflict as the country industrialized during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Capitalists like Carnegie and Rockefeller brutally shattered the efforts of workers to challenge horrible working conditions in the mines, factories and railyards.

Berkman emigrated to the US from Russia, and he brought with him the paradoxical values of individual violent action on behalf of the working class, commonly known as propaganda by the deed, the recourse to physical violence against political enemies, frequently industrialists, police officers or prosecutors, as a way of inspiring the masses to make the revolution. In 1892, enraged by the breaking of the Homestead strike, Berkman attempted to assasinate Henry Clay Frick, a business partner of Carnegie who hired Pinkertons to attack the steel workers who had seized the Homestead Works when it became apparent that Frick wanted to break the union.

In today's postmodern world, a world in which consumerism and popular culture have pushed class conflict to the margins, a world in which life or death decisions are antiseptically implemented by spreadsheet, the notion of propaganda by the deed strikes one, at best, as romantically antiquated, at worst, an immoral violation of the pacifist ethos that so dominates left activism globally. But upon beginning to read Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, his account of the attempted assassination of Frick and his subsequent imprisonment, it becomes abundantly clear that it was a much different world in 1892.

Unlike today, the enemies of the working class appeared readily identifiable and accessible. In the first section of the book, Berkman describes how he was emotionally affected by the forcible suppression of the Homestead strike, a strike that he and his close associates, like Emma Goldman, believed, quite mistakenly, represented the ignition of a worker rebellion against the US capitalist system. Having persuaded himself that he was part of the revolutionary vanguard, he decided that he must kill Frick to inspire the workers to rededicate themselves to an even greater resistance. Berkman personifies the radical paradox: a man who intensely identifies with the suffering of peasants and workers, and yet presumes to act violently on their behalf without seeking their approval.

Upon being imprisoned, Berkman discovers that he had been quite misguided. The other inmates cannot understand why he did what he did, although he is respected by some because he superficially recognizes how they have been mistreated by the criminal justice system. However, even here, he suffered from a hyperideological, arrogant impersonal perspective, tending to initially perceive many of the other inmates as parasitic figures with no place in the workers' utopia that he envisions.

It was only with the passage of time and the shared experience of struggling to survive in the face of the medieval conditions within the prison that Berkman began to respect them and perceive them as equals. Through a spare, direct use of English, he describes encounters with inmates that grow slowly into enduring relationships. He speaks with an unpretentious voice that is clear, compassionate and candid. The prospect of dying within the facility haunts everyone. As he serves his long sentence, many of his friends die, one by one, from solitary confinement, disease, inadequate to non-existence medical care, madness and physical assaults perpetrated by guards.

The industrialization of America was creating an enormous population of impoverished people that invariably found themselves incarcerated. Berkman memorializes them through his recollection of their life within the prison, especially his accounts of the most mundane and intimate details of their daily activities. He is even capable of distinguishing amongst the guards, recognizing those who sought to make the lives of the prisoners more tolerable. In letters sent to Goldman, reproduced within the book, he began to understand that the violence of the American capitalist system was more sophisticated, and, hence, more effective than the feudal forms of social control practiced in the Czarist Russia from whence he came.

To Goldman's surprise, Berkman did not fully endorse the assassination of McKinley as consistent with anarchist ideals: In Russia, where political oppression is popularly felt, such a deed would be of great value. But the scheme of political subjugation is more subtle in America. And though McKinley was the chief representative of our modern slavery, he could not be considered in the light of a direct and immediate enemy of the people, while in absolutism, the autocrat is visible and tangible. The real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests upon the popular delusion of self-governance and independence. That is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet.

Berkman, it seems, never found a way to politically overcome the violence so effectively interwoven into the American social system. Having rejected assassination in 1901, he apparently returned to it in 1914, when he purportedly participated in a plot to kill Rockefeller after the harsh suppression of strikes in the Colorado mines. For him, the violence of American capitalism could only be overcome through the violence of the workers.

It is easy to dismiss Berkman in an age where the non-violence of Gandhi and King is ascendant. But as one looks around, he remains relevant for his honest engagement with the problem even if he has disappeared into the mists of history. After all, the non-violence of the global left hasn't prevented the predations of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Nor has it slowed the relentless process of primative accumulation by global finance capital in sweatshops throughout the lesser developed world. It has been left to the Iraqis themselves to resist through the killing of US troops and their local collaborators, actions condemned by many of the same liberal pacifists who are powerless to protect them, and even the Zapatistas, adored by many on the left, responded to the prospect of cultural genocide by launching attacks throughout Chiapas on January 1, 1994.

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