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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

We Will Build the Dubai of the North 

Башня. Зонгшпиль /// The Tower: A Songspiel from chto delat on Vimeo.

A fascinating video musical about contemporary development politics in St. Petersburg, centered around the proposed construction of an enormous skyscraper for the energy conglomerate, Gazprom. One can hear and see echoes of past dissections of the relationship between capital, personal power and the relentless transformation of the urban landscape, regardless of its consequences for the people who live within it, as subjectively addressed to varying degrees in films as disparate as Chinatown, In a Year of 13 Moons, When the Cat's Away, Lola and Sunshine State, as well as, of course, the foundational work on the subject, the Brecht/Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the State of Mahagonny. While watching it, I was struck about the extent to which the events, protagonists and social perspectives could have easily been transferred to an American context, which speaks to its universality.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The US and the Wolf Brigade 

Through the Wolf Brigade, the US carried out its policy of intensifying sectarian violence in Iraq in 2005 and 2006:

A visit from the unit to any neighbourhood was sure to bring trouble – as it it did for Omar Salem Shehab on 25 June that year.

We were at home that night, Shehab recalled this week. We were three brothers sleeping above my ice-cream shop. We were woken by soldiers entering our house by force. They came with Americans. They said we were wanted and produced a document. The Americans took our pictures, then the soldiers we now knew were the Wolf Brigade took us to the Seventh Division camp [of the Iraqi army].

Shehab and his brothers lived in Dora, in Baghdad's south, a lethal enclave of the city that was rapidly deteriorating into chaos. Like most of Dora's residents, they are Sunni Muslims.

The trio were at the army camp for a day, then transferred to Baghdad's main prison, known as Tsferrat.

We were tortured all the time, he said. We were never investigated, just tortured. The commander of the Wolf Brigade, Abu al-Walid was one of the torturers. My brother had a kidney problem and they continued to torture him without giving him medicine.

He died after a month and the doctor wrote 'kidney failure' as a cause of death, despite his body being covered with torture marks. When he died, they let me and my other brother out. I later learned that another man we had met in prison, Khalid Hussein, had also died.

Torture and death seemed synonymous with the almost exclusively Shia unit, which was tasked with rooting out Sunni insurgents from post-Saddam Iraq. As security unravelled across the country, they were often seen alongside US forces, particularly in Baghdad and Mosul.

As a consequence of the WikiLeaks document release, US support for Iraqi death squads is finally being exposed to the light of day.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Upcoming Election 

No doubt those of you who frequent this blog has noticed that I have said very little about the upcoming election, with the exception of this post on September 8th. Ideologically, this should not be surprising, as I have gravitated away from the bedrock principle of liberal democracy, namely, that people can be effectively represented by others within a constitutional system of governance. Indeed, I have posted a series about its defects, labeled Vote or Die, a label ironically derived from what I considered to be a hysterical assertion that we faced the choice of either voting or dying in the 2008 election.

Yet again, we are faced with a desultory choice between the lesser of two evils. But, in this instance, the choice is especially disturbing, given how the candidates of both major parties appear divorced from the struggles of day to day life. With an economy in free fall, and millions of Americans still unemployed and millions of others facing foreclosure, there is no sense of urgency. President Obama, despite the insistence of many economists, has indicated that austerity, not job creation, is the emerging priority, as planned reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits move forward. Of course, the financial sector remains the great exception as investors have already concluded that the Federal Reserve will initiate another round of quantatitive easing of the money supply right after the election.

In other words, there will be another jolt of stimulus for the banks, while the rest of us, (with the predictable exception of those who live in Manhattan), suffer from either stagnant wages or continued unemployment. We are living through the remorseless implementation of the neoliberal doctrine that exhalts the decisions of market participants over those who participate in political processes. Hence, while there has been some stimulus directed towards government programs and assistance, most of it has been for the benefit of those people and institutions dependent upon the financial markets. Now, they will get even more, while just about every other kind of government expenditure for the general welfare, such as funding for education, health care, child care and the environment, faces the prospect of significant reductions.

Naturally, it goes without saying that the military-industrial complex will continue to receive substantial funding for its wars around the globe, although, interestingly, even the Pentagon and its concentric circles of private contractors may find their funding needs subordinated to those of financial institutions. The shocking thing here is how rapidly elected officials have relinquished the power of the federal government to spend, thus transferring almost complete control over the economy to an appointed, elite group of bankers. As the beneficiaries of federal action narrows even more, the operation of the economy grows more and more undemocratic as well. As Martin Wolf has concluded: A lost decade seems quite likely. That would be a calamity for the US – and the world. Will it be a lost decade for the left as well?

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Frago 242 

Perhaps, you've already read about this subject in relation to the WikiLeaks release of material associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Even if you have, please bear with me, starting with the following from The Guardian:

A frago is a fragmentary order which summarises a complex requirement. This one, issued in June 2004, about a year after the invasion of Iraq, orders coalition troops not to investigate any breach of the laws of armed conflict, such as the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition. Where the alleged abuse is committed by Iraqi on Iraqi, only an initial report will be made … No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ.

Frago 242 appears to have been issued as part of the wider political effort to pass the management of security from the coalition to Iraqi hands. In effect, it means that the regime has been forced to change its political constitution but allowed to retain its use of torture.

The systematic viciousness of the old dictatorship when Saddam Hussein's security agencies enforced order without any regard for law continues, reinforced by the chaotic savagery of the new criminal, political and sectarian groups which have emerged since the invasion in 2003 and which have infiltrated some police and army units, using Iraq's detention cells for their private vendettas.

Hundreds of the leaked war logs reflect the fertile imagination of the torturer faced with the entirely helpless victim – bound, gagged, blindfolded and isolated – who is whipped by men in uniforms using wire cables, metal rods, rubber hoses, wooden stakes, TV antennae, plastic water pipes, engine fan belts or chains. At the torturer's whim, the logs reveal, the victim can be hung by his wrists or by his ankles; knotted up in stress positions; sexually molested or raped; tormented with hot peppers, cigarettes, acid, pliers or boiling water – and always with little fear of retribution since, far more often than not, if the Iraqi official is assaulting an Iraqi civilian, no further investigation will be required.

Beyond allowing the US and the other participants in the coalition to outsource the brutalization of detainees, Frago 242 created opportunities for a perverse voyeurism, whereby US troops were permitted to watch the most gruesome abuse of people without any obligation to do anything about it.

If there was any question that the US was complicit in much of this abuse, Justin Raimondo helpfully directs our attention to another article in the The Guardian that eliminates any remaining doubt:

Within the huge leaked archive is contained a batch of secret field reports from the town of Samarra. They corroborate previous allegations that the US military turned over many prisoners to the Wolf Brigade, the feared 2nd battalion of the interior ministry's special commandos.

In Samarra, the series of log entries in 2004 and 2005 describe repeated raids by US infantry, who then handed their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for further questioning. Typical entries read: All 5 detainees were turned over to Ministry of Interior for further questioning (from 29 November 2004) and The detainee was then turned over to the 2nd Ministry of Interior Commando Battalion for further questioning (30 November 2004).

The field reports chime with allegations made by New York Times writer Peter Maass, who was in Samarra at the time. He told Guardian Films: US soldiers, US advisers, were standing aside and doing nothing, while members of the Wolf Brigade beat and tortured prisoners. The interior ministry commandos took over the public library in Samarra, and turned it into a detention centre, he said.

An interview conducted by Maass in 2005 at the improvised prison, accompanied by the Wolf Brigade's US military adviser, Col James Steele, had been interrupted by the terrified screams of a prisoner outside, he said. Steele was reportedly previously employed as an adviser to help crush an insurgency in El Salvador.

The Wolf Brigade was created and supported by the US in an attempt to re-employ elements of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, this time to terrorise insurgents. Members typically wore red berets, sunglasses and balaclavas, and drove out on raids in convoys of Toyota Landcruisers. They were accused by Iraqis of beating prisoners, torturing them with electric drills and sometimes executing suspects. The then interior minister in charge of them was alleged to have been a former member of the Shia Badr militia.

According to this post by lenin in 2006, the situation in Samarra was not unique:

6,000 bodies in Baghdad's mortuaries since the start of the year, and what's more, no-one believes these are the true figures from the violence in and around Baghdad as many bodies are not taken to the morgue, or are never found.

Here's the thing: the US government can openly announce its intentions. It can even be reported once in a while (albeit with a rather crude apologia bracketing the facts). Knight Ridder correspondent Yasser Salihee can die while uncovering the truth behind it. Yet somehow, invariably, it's simply taboo to mention what is richly evident. The BBC did not mention any of this either on television or on the internet. No one mentions that the bulk of these deaths are attributed to the Special Police Commandos, who were formed under the experienced tutelage and oversight of veteran US counterinsurgency fighters, and from the outset conducted joint-force operations with elite and highly secretive US special-forces units.

Yasser Salihee found that many of the dead were apprehended by large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios. He died shortly after reporting this at a US checkpoint, with a bullet in the head.

As Patrick Cockburn drily observed: Of particular interest to Iraqis, when WikiLeaks releases the rest of its hoard of documents, will be to see if there is any sign of how far US forces were involved in death squad activities from 2004.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

I'm a Rainbow 

Just to show that I'm not entirely devoid of sentimentality:

And all the colors that you see, are all a part of me, in this crazy world of mine. Has anyone ever so concisely captured the personal alienation that so many of us feel from the world in which we live? Such a lightning flash of recognition can lead people to travel down many paths, including, but not necessarily, political activism. For my money, Donna Summer remains one of the most unappreciated pop musicians of my lifetime because of the racially tinged ridicule of disco. Another of my favorites, On the Radio, was a prominent feature on the soundtrack of an excellent, but now forgotten, Jodie Foster film, Foxes, where it was used to ironically comment upon the naive expectations of the teen protagonists in a jaded, late 1970s Los Angeles. Apparently, I'm a Rainbow was recorded in 1981, but not released until 1996. One of the impressive subtleties of this composition by her husband for her is the thread of self-doubt (or is it self-awareness?) that runs throughout: I'm a rainbow and sometimes I can shine.

Rarely have the personal and the political been as brilliantly fused as in this 1964 Holland-Dozier-Holland composition for Diana Ross and the Supremes. As accurately noted by wikipedia: The song seemed to strike a chord in the USA as, while on one level it can be seen as a simple tale of a failed relationship, it can also been as capturing the spirit of the time after the assassination of JFK, racial tension, deepening problems in Vietnam and foreseeing the end of the early optimism of the 1960s.

But, at the gut level, this reaction by someone over at YouTube has it exactly right:

When this song came out I was 13 yrs old and my best friend Denise and I were walking up the street listing to the radio and it just blew my mind. I started walking backwards and she and I walked up Clinton Ave and I said, "Denise, this song will last FOREVER!" And it has.

And, finally, along similar lines, there is Angie, the Rolling Stones' valedictory to the communal spirit of the late 1960s:

Angie, Angie, when will all those clouds all disappear, Angie, Angie, where will it lead us from here, with no lovin' in our soul and no money in our coat, you can say we're satisfied, Angie, Angie, you can't say we never tried . . .

Typically, the Stones gave expression to a stark pessimism, which suggested a socially Darwinian future. Being the good cultural capitalists that they are, though, they continued to flourish by highlighting the sybaritic aspect of their music to the detriment of its other, more ambivalent qualities, so as to be compatible with Reaganism. If there could be said to be a pop music representation of neoliberalism, the Rolling Stones would be a strong candidate for it.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Second Reagan Revolution (Part 13) 


According to a study by the Foundation for Child Development, 2010 will see the highest rate of children living in poverty in two decades. Study results reported in USA Today (June 7, 2010) showed staggering increases since the start of the recession: One in five children live in poverty, approximately 18% of families are unsure where they will obtain food and an estimated 500,000 children are homeless. As always, poverty and health problems go hand in hand. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics states, Family poverty increases many risks for children, including low birth weight, premature delivery, learning problems, asthma and other health problems.


The government reported this week that the real wage and salary income of finance industry employees based in Manhattan rose nearly 20 percent in the first quarter of this year. That surge helped make Manhattan the fastest-growing county in the United States in terms of terms of year-over-year gains in income.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The French Resist Cuts in Pension Benefits (Part 2) 

Louis Proyect has two excellent on the scene reports of what transpired in France earlier this week:

Report on the French Struggle

Report #2 on the French Struggle

Both provide a sense of immediacy of what it has been like for people at the center of the conflict.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The French Resist Cuts in Pension Benefits (Part 1) 

UPDATE 2: Photo gallery of protests across France

UPDATE 1: About 2000 youths are roaming the streets in an insurrectional climate of urban guerrilla combat.

INITIAL POST: Despite the admirable qualities of this mobilization, it remains, by and large, an example of what Zizek has described, another instance of the left limiting itself to the preservation of social democracy, with the possible exception of the Black Bloc youth that have appeared on the streets of Paris, Nanterre and, possibly, Lyon. As noted in the update, the protests in Lyon have been riotous, with widespread looting and property destruction, so much so that the French government called upon counter-terrorist and hostage taking specialist teams to restore order.

A close reading of the remarks toward the end of video by a trade unionist, Patrick Sciruca, suggest that the unions are playing their historic role, serving as a release of anger in advance of an inevitable adverse outcome. Note, for example, how he characterizes the conflict as one centered around Sarkozy's refusal to negotiate. And what, one wonders, would the unions concede in such negotiations? John Mullen of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in Paris explains the ambivalence of the unions:

You might think that with such levels of public support, union leaders would pull out all the stops for a general strike, but professional negotiators don't think like that. The main trade union confederations have so far been united about the need for one-day mass strikes, which has made impossible the standard government tactic of luring one confederation to their side with minor concessions, and using this fact in propaganda to reduce public support for the strikers.

But union leaders aren't pushing for renewable strikes and are calling for negotiations, not for the simple defeat of Sarkozy's pension law. The union leaders' banner at the head of Saturday's demonstration read Pensions, jobs and wages are important to society when it should have read General strike to beat Sarkozy.

Please consider reading Mullen's article in its entirety, as it provides a thorough presentation of the current political situation in France in relation to the strikes and protests. Meanwhile, in the US, the public passively awaits cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

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The Legacy of Marla Ruzicka (Part 3) 

UPDATE: For a media chronology of how the Pentagon disseminated the lie that the WikiLeaks document release endangered people who had worked with the US occupation in Afghanistan, consider reading this article by Glenn Greenwald.

INITIAL POST: Remember this from August?

Want a good, shorthand way to determine if an NGO is collaborating with the occupation in Afghanistan? Look and see if they are scrambling to climb aboard the US public relations campaign against wikileaks. So far, we have Amnesty International, CIVIC, the Open Society Institute, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the the Kabul office of International Crisis Group, and, now, Reporters Without Borders:

The Pentagon has a task force of about 100 people reading the leaked documents to assess the damage done and working, for instance, to alert Afghans who might be identified by name and now could be in danger.

Taliban spokesmen have said they would use the material to try to hunt down people who've been cooperating with what the Taliban considers a foreign invader. That has aroused the concern of several human rights group operating in Afghanistan — as well as Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which on Thursday accused Wikileaks of recklessness.

Jean-Francois Julliard, the group's secretary-general, said that WikiLeaks showed incredible irresponsibility when posting the documents online.

The presence of the Open Society Institute, an organization funded by George Soros, is an interesting one. Perhaps, it is to be expected that an NGO funded by a currency speculator is, at the end of the day, supportive of the violent modernization project underway in Afghanistan. Indeed, don't all of these organizations rely upon such an endeavor for their very existence?

Well, here's the update:

With a new round of document leaks from the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks expected on Monday, a separate leak of a letter related to a previous leak suggests administration claims regarding the risks to intelligence sources were, as with so many statements beforehand, a lie.

The August letter, from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin (D – MI), conceded that the WikiLeaks documents related to the Afghan War did not expose any sensitive intelligence sources. He insisted the documents were still a threat to national security.

The private letter was released at roughly the same time that Secretary Gates and other Pentagon officials were making public proclamations about the number of people WikiLeaks had potentially killed in releasing the information.

No doubt all five of the organizations that rushed to the microphone to malign WikiLeaks have been rewarded handsomely for their participation in this recent PSYOPS campaign.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Consumption Haters 

Today, the New York Times has an excellent article about the economic decline of Japan and its implications for the US. I found this passage to be particularly interesting:

After years of complacency, Japan appears to be waking up to its problems, as seen last year when disgruntled voters ended the virtual postwar monopoly on power of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, for many Japanese, it may be too late. Japan has already created an entire generation of young people who say they have given up on believing that they can ever enjoy the job stability or rising living standards that were once considered a birthright here.

Yukari Higaki, 24, said the only economic conditions she had ever known were ones in which prices and salaries seemed to be in permanent decline. She saves as much money as she can by buying her clothes at discount stores, making her own lunches and forgoing travel abroad. She said that while her generation still lived comfortably, she and her peers were always in a defensive crouch, ready for the worst.

We are the survival generation,” said Ms. Higaki, who works part time at a furniture store.

Hisakazu Matsuda, president of Japan Consumer Marketing Research Institute, who has written several books on Japanese consumers, has a different name for Japanese in their 20s; he calls them the consumption-haters. He estimates that by the time this generation hits their 60s, their habits of frugality will have cost the Japanese economy $420 billion in lost consumption.

The author of the article, Martin Flackler, compares this current frugality with the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s, which he presents rather oddly, through various interviewees, as the norm. Anyone with the most cursory familiarity with post-war Japanese history knows that this period of extravagance associated with the real estate and stock market bubbles was an aberration, although it first manifested itself in the 1960s. Furthermore, as in the US, the UK and much of Europe, it was a direct consequence of Reagan's economic policies, which resulted in a hollowing out of manufacturing in the US through an overvalued dollar that effectively subsidized Japanese exports.

Of course, once Flackler has established the bubble years of the 1980s as the norm (much as many in the US have a similar misunderstanding about the bubble years of the late 1990s and early 2000s), the current refusal of many Japanese to consume at anywhere near that level becomes one of its problems, thus requiring a solution that is nowhere in sight. And, people like Higaki are the source of it, justifying the condemnation of Matsuda and, by extension, Flackler, as Matsuda is one of the people through whom he speaks. Given the severity of the situation, one wonders why he hasn't quoted someone to the effect that Japan should pass a law authorizing the government to seize any unspent savings at the end of the year. But if one goes too far in that direction, one discovers that people like Higaki have nothing to spend as they are, in her words, just surviving. It would appear that an old capitalist contradiction has risen to the surface, the excessive accumulation of capital that destroys the ability of the middle and lower classes to consume sufficiently to perpetuate economic growth. This is the real problem that Flackler fails to perceive, and a problem that has serious implications for the US as well.

Beyond that, there is also the possibility that young people in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a good proxy for the developed world, have rejected the consumption practices that fueled the growth of the post-war era and subsequent bubbles. As noted by Yusef, the emergence of barter as an alternative to the use of money to obtain goods and services is arguably indicative of such a phenomenon. Or, consider how people under the age of 30 are seeking to sever their relationship with the automobile, the centerpiece of post-war global manufacturing production:

Selling cars to young adults under 30 is proving to be a real challenge for automakers. Unlike their elders, Generation Yers own fewer cars and don’t drive much. They’re likely to see autos as a source of pollution, not as a sex or status symbol.

They’re more apt to ride mass transit to work and use car sharing services -- pioneered by Zipcar -- for longer trips. And car sharing choices are expanding, with car rental firms moving into the market, making it convenient for young folks to rent with hourly rates and easy insurance. Connect by Hertz, for example, is rolling out its car sharing services in the New York metropolitan area, with plans to eventually expand them to around 40 college campuses nationwide.

If so, that would suggest that we are entering an era of regulated scarcity, one in which governments increasingly dictate the distribution of essential goods and services to the populace in response to deflation. Paradoxically, a movement by people towards more sustainability could initially provoke a governmental response of intensified, more authoritarian practices to deal with the unraveling of a social order centered around perpetual growth.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

What is the Left to Do? 

An excerpt from an uncharacteristically clear and concise Zizek article about the inability of the left to effectively respond to the current global economic crisis:

One thing is clear: after decades of the welfare state, when cutbacks were relatively limited and came with the promise that things would soon return to normal, we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent: turning into a constant, a way of life. It brings with it the threat of far more savage austerity measures, cuts in benefits, diminishing health and education services and more precarious employment. The left faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing ‘natural’ in such a crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously being fully aware that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, the violation of its rules effectively causes economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, rendered easier by the conditions of the global market (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse.

It would thus be futile merely to hope that the ongoing crisis will be limited and that European capitalism will continue to guarantee a relatively high standard of living for a growing number of people. It would indeed be a strange radical politics, whose main hope is that circumstances will continue to render it inoperative and marginal. It is against such reasoning that one has to read Badiou’s motto, mieux vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre: better a disaster than a non-being; one has to take the risk of fidelity to an Event, even if the Event ends up in ‘obscure disaster’. The best indicator of the left’s lack of trust in itself today is its fear of crisis. A true left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions. Its basic insight is that, although crises are painful and dangerous, they are inevitable, and that they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. Which is why today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.

There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, tv reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime. There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism—through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations—but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law. This remains the sacred cow, which even the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’—the Porto Allegre World Social Forum, the Seattle movement—do not dare to touch.

Of course, while Zizek emphasizes the prospects for the survival of social democracy within Europe, his perspective has a much broader resonance. Please consider reading his article in its entirety.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death by COIN 

Last weekend, British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed in Afghanistan during a rescue attempt after she had been abducted by insurgents in the mountainous eastern part of the country. It was initially reported that she had been killed by her abductors, but it now appears that she was killed by a Navy SEAL after she had gotten away from the insurgents and lay in a foetal position to avoid harm.

But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the propriety and execution of the rescue mission. There is an ongoing discussion of this subject in the British media. Instead, I am curious about what the death of Norgrove reveals about the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Peter Beaumont of The Guardian described Norgrove as an aid worker associated with Developmental Alternatives, Inc. She was specifically working on a DAI project funded by the United States Agency for International Develoment, commonly known as USAID, in eastern Afghanistan, a project described as the Incentives Driving Economic Alternatives for the North, East and West Program.

According to DAI:

Afghan farmers cultivate opium poppy because they need to feed their families. For many poor rural Afghans, poppy is the only reliable source of cash, credit, and access to cropland to supplement subsistence farming. Sometimes, coercion is also a factor. IDEA-NEW is designed to dissuade Afghans from growing poppy by increasing access to licit, commercially viable, alternative sources of income.

In alliance with Mercy Corps and ACDI/VOCA, DAI adopts a technical approach that DAI used with tangible success in USAID/Afghanistan’s Alternative Development Program–Eastern Region. This approach defines program interventions with reference to customers, uses value chain techniques to reveal customer needs, and then provides tailored, customer-specific incentives to help meet those needs.

The IDEA-NEW project builds on DAI's successful work in the eastern part of the country and extends it into the north. Its primary customers are the communities where poppy is (or is likely to be) cultivated. Infrastructure is our point of entry to a community because the immediate needs of farmers and villagers typically consist of building or repairing basic infrastructure—including roads from farm to market, irrigation, electricity, and cold storage. We offer technical expertise and cash-for-labor.

DAI’s value chain analysis reveals opportunities and high-priority needs, prioritizes subsectors, targets markets, reveals comparative advantages and weak links, and indicates how best to improve value chain functioning and increase community participation in viable value chains. Our diverse program interventions—including efforts to expand private sector activity—then address identified needs by exploiting the opportunities in collaboration with community leaders, government ministries and agencies, and the private sector.

DAI identifies USAID as the client for the project, and Beaumont concisely explains the purpose of the program as follows: A large part of the effort was focused on rebuilding local infrastructure, part of a programme seen as key to denying the Taliban its support among the Afghan population. In other words, Norgrove was a participant in the US military counterinsurgency program there that goes under the acronym COIN.

Accordingly, it is no wonder that the insurgents considered her an adversary. Given her involvement in a pacification project that the US military openly promotes as a part of the war effort, media characterizations of her as merely an aid worker don't fully capture the true nature of her activity in Afghanistan. For example, consider this excerpt from Beaumont's article:

DAI's president, James Boomgard, said: This is devastating news. We are saddened beyond words by the death of a wonderful woman whose sole purpose in Afghanistan was to do good – to help the Afghan people achieve a measure of prosperity and stability in their everyday lives as they set about rebuilding their country. Linda loved Afghanistan and cared deeply for its people, and she was deeply committed to her development mission. She was an inspiration to many of us here at DAI and she will be deeply missed.

At least Beaumont acknowledged that USAID funded Norgrove's project. David Harrison couldn't find any space to mention it in an obituary published in the London Telegraph.

Beyond this mystification, there are also the perils associated with her efforts to facilitate a modernization project in a region where much of the populace remains hostile to centralized state authority. Perhaps, it is impolite to say it at this sad time, but there is hint of what Edward Said described as orientalism in the accounts of her enthusiasm for her work, such as, in addition to the ones of Beaumont and Harrison, this one in the New York Times, although the reporters themselves may be responsible for it.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Man With No Name 

Blue Texan has a good post over at firedoglake today, one about the extreme concentration of wealth in the US economy. He cites a salon.com article that highlights confirmation of a 2005 study by Citigroup:

In 2005, three Citigroup analysts -- Ajay Kapur, Niall MacLeod and Narendra Singh -- answered yes. They explained: Plutonomies have occurred before in sixteenth century Spain, in seventeenth century Holland, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the U.S ... Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time. According to the Citigroup experts, a plutonomic economy is driven by the consumption of the classes, not the masses: In a plutonomy there is no such animal as 'the U.S. consumer' or 'the UK consumer,' or indeed the 'Russian consumer.' There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the 'no-rich,' the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie. The Citigroup analysts speculated that a plutonomic world economy could be driven by the spending of the world’s rich minority, whose ranks are swelling from globalized enclaves in the emerging world.

The data support their analysis. According to Moody’s Analytics, the top 5 percent of American earners are responsible for 35 percent of consumer spending, while the bottom 80 percent engage in only 39.5 percent of consumer outlays. Meanwhile, the top 20 percent received nearly half of all income generated in the U.S. -- 49.4 percent -- and the ratio of the income of the top 10 percent of Americans to the poor has risen from 7.69-to-1 in 1968 to 14.5-to-1 in 2010.

The author of the article, Michael Lind, a well known advocate for a progressive populism in the US, then explains the perils of such a concentration by invoking the famous New Deal department store owner, Edward Filene:

At the same time, however, the top 10 percent of earners received 50 percent of all income, while they accounted for only 22 percent of spending. Where did the rest of their money go? Much of it went into speculation in the two waves of the bubble economy between the late 1990s and 2008. Had more of that money been in the hands of the bottom 50 percent, more of it would have been spent on consumer goods, including manufactured products, and far less would have gone to gambling on condos in Manhattan and Miami and trendy stocks.

One was Edward Filene. With his brother Lincoln, Filene had sought to implement the principles of welfare capitalism in their Boston department store, where they established a company union, an employee thrift plan, an insurance plan, a free health program, and a cafeteria. Filene became a spokesman for the credit union movement in the U.S. and a champion of progressive causes. Among his legacies are the Century Foundation and Filene’s Basement, a discount clothing store.

In his book Successful Living in This Machine Age (1932), Filene argued that the drive for lower wages and the privileging of investment over consumption had produced chronic overcapacity: At a time when more buying was the need of the hour, [capitalists] were still calling upon the masses to refrain from buying goods, and to invest their savings in more production; and when industries languished from want of customers, they advised reducing wages, a process which must result in a further falling off of sales. As in the stock bubbles of the 1990s and 2000s, financial experts in the 1920s urged ordinary Americans to emulate the rich by gambling in stocks. According to Filene, financial experts recommended that ordinary people hould better themselves by investing their savings and drawing either interest or dividends, instead of having to depend forever upon the wages which they might receive from week to week.

Uh, I could be mistaken, but wasn't there someone who figured out almost all of this 60 to 70 years before Filene published his book? Someone who wrote extensively on the subject, and recognized that capitalism would invariably generate overcapacity? Someone who theorized on everything that Filene describes, with the possible exception of the encouragement of the middle class to select investment over purchasing goods and services? Apparently, Lind had to substitute Filene for him in order to avoid breaking the taboo against acknowledging he had said anything that was actually validated by subsequent experience.

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Starbucks and BDS 

Just in case you might go out and about and decide to get some coffee:

In 1998, Starbucks' C.E.O. Howard Shultz was given The Israel 50th Anniversary Friend of Zion Tribute Award, by Aish HaTorah. News of the award was once displayed on the Starbucks website, but later deliberately removed to erase the link between the company and apartheid Israel after the boycott campaign gained momentum. The original page displaying the award can be seen at http://www.inminds.co.uk/boycott-starbucks.html.

Aish HaTorah, headquartered in the Old City of Jerusalem [internationally recognized as occupied territory], has been awarded by the government of Israel 40 percent of the Palestinian-owned land facing the Western Wall. Aish HaTorah champions the return of Jewish youth to Israel, and thus continues to prop the exclusivist nature of Israel as an apartheid state shutting out Palestinians and depriving them en mass of their right of return to their historic homeland. Such right has been enshrined in international law and U.N. resolutions. Howard Schultz has accepted an award from Aish HaTorah whose existence in Jerusalem violates Palestinian rights and is illegal under international law.

According to an article written on Sept. 26th 2008 by Meg Lauglin in the St. Petersburg Times, the same organization, Aish HaTorah, also developed the Clarion Fund, which distributed millions of DVDs through major newspapers across the U. S. of the anti-Islamic film Obsession, which characterized Islam as a terrorist dogma. The Clarion Fund and Aish HaTorah International are also connected to a group called HonestReporting which produced Obsession. All three companies share the same address in Manhattan and have shared staff.

Starbucks' Chairman Howard Schultz most critically has championed and funded defense of Israel on U.S. university campuses. He "has been praised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry for allowing American students to hear Israeli presentations on the Middle East crisis. It was this propaganda work on behalf of Israel that earned Schultz The Israel 50th Anniversary Friend of Zion Tribute Award by Aish HaTorah.

Even more damaging are the comments made by Schultz himself during Israeli massacres of Palestinians in Jenin in early April 2002. According to Starbucks: The Cup That Cheered written by William McDougall and published on Znet, July 11th 2002, quotes Shultz speaking at a Seattle synagogue, criticizing the Palestinians, saying, They aren't doing their job ... they're not stopping terrorism. He also warned attendees at the synagogue that the rise of anti-Semitism is at an all-time high since the 1930s, and If you leave this synagogue tonight and go back to your home and ignore this, then shame on us. His comments were protested for being anti-Palestinian and for comparing legitimate criticism of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and its human rights violations against Palestinian citizens with anti-Semitism.

The hastily retracted comments — which had received an ovation from the crowded synagogue — have further added to the growing unease amongst corporate watchers who are concerned that Schultz's growing reputation as a mouthpiece for Israeli propaganda could have an adverse effect on Starbucks business.

Actions against Starbucks are ongoing in the US and the Middle East.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Anti-War Activists Have Nothing to Say to the Grand Jury 

A release from the Committee to Stop FBI Repression on Tuesday:

Chicago, October 5th, 2010, five anti-war and international solidarity activists from Chicago and Minneapolis announced they are invoking their 5th amendment right to not testify in front of a Grand Jury investigation. Stephanie Weiner, one of those raided and subpoenaed spoke to 150 supporters at a press conference outside the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago, This is an attack on the anti-war movement, but the strong response of our movement, where more than 61 protests in cities across the country, makes it absolutely clear that this is about more than just 14 activists in the Midwest. It is an attempt to limit the voice of anti-war, peace, and international solidarity activists.

The five signed letters to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox. They informed him of their decision to invoke their 5th amendment rights to not testify. One of those subpoenaed to appear today, Meredith Aby of the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, said, Our opposition to U.S. war and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, our scathing criticism of U.S. government support for repressive regimes and death squads in Colombia and Israel is well known and public. This attempt to criminalize the fourteen of us in the anti-war movement must be stopped. The Grand Jury should be ended. There should be no charges.

Joe Iosbaker stated, We have nothing to say to a Grand Jury. Most people do not understand how secretive and undemocratic the Grand Jury is. I am not allowed to have my lawyer with me. There isn’t even a judge. How strange is that? It is the U.S. prosecutor with 23 people they hand picked to pretty much rubber stamp whatever the prosecutor says. A person is defenseless in that situation.

Jim Fennerty an attorney working to defend the activists said, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fox is cancelling the subpoenas for the five due to appear today. This does not put an end to the Grand Jury investigation however. Fox can reissue subpoenas for new dates or decide to arrest the activists and charge them with crimes.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tanker War 

UPDATE: 35 more tankers burnt on the GT Road near Nowshera

INITIAL POST: The US blinks in Pakistan:

Dozens of tanker trucks carrying fuel to Afghanistan for NATO troops were torched near Quetta in western Pakistan on Wednesday, the third major attack on supplies since Pakistan closed a border crossing to Afghanistan a week ago and the first at the only checkpoint that remained open.

The latest sabotage came as American officials for the first time offered an explicit apology to Pakistan over a shooting that led to the closing of the other border crossing, possibly laying the ground work for its reopening.

At least one person was killed in the Quetta torchings after three carloads of gunmen fired at the tankers and then burned them, the police said.

According to eyewitnesses and initial reports some terrorists came on vehicles a few minutes before morning prayer and started firing and then burned some of the tankers, said Hamid Shakeel, the deputy inspector general of the Quetta police.

About 40 tanker trucks were at the terminal, and about half were saved from the attack, Inspector Shakeel said.

The attacks began last Friday after Pakistan closed a border crossing into Afghanistan at Torkham. Interestingly, the first attack took place in southern Pakistan, away from the border crossings:

More than 27 oil tankers carrying supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan were burnt Friday when some attackers fired rockets at the vehicles parked at a fuel station in southern Pakistan, Geo News reported.

NATO sources told media, the ambush took place around 2 a.m. near Shikarpur Super Highway where over 30 fuel tankers were parked at a fuel station. Two civilians were also injured in the attack.

The miscreants unleashed rocket assault, which raged fierce fire in consequence, while the blazes engulfed 27 tankers laden with highly inflammable fuel, witnesses said, adding that three other vehicles parked nearby also caught fire.

Shikarpur police have placed stern cordon around the district, Saeed Ahmed, district coordination officer, said. Nearly 15-20 men were behind the attack, he added.

It is possible that the war has entered a new phase, with Taliban allies within Pakistan targeting NATO supply routes. The attacks upon the tankers highlight one of the major vulnerabilities of US forces in Afghanistan, its dependence upon fossil fuels transported over long distances. Michael Klare addressed this subject in relation to the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan back in 2007:

Sixteen gallons of oil. That's how much the average American soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan consumes on a daily basis -- either directly, through the use of Humvees, tanks, trucks, and helicopters, or indirectly, by calling in air strikes. Multiply this figure by 162,000 soldiers in Iraq, 24,000 in Afghanistan, and 30,000 in the surrounding region (including sailors aboard U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf) and you arrive at approximately 3.5 million gallons of oil: the daily petroleum tab for U.S. combat operations in the Middle East war zone.

Multiply that daily tab by 365 and you get 1.3 billion gallons: the estimated annual oil expenditure for U.S. combat operations in Southwest Asia. That's greater than the total annual oil usage of Bangladesh, population 150 million -- and yet it's a gross underestimate of the Pentagon's wartime consumption.

Such numbers cannot do full justice to the extraordinary gas-guzzling expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, for every soldier stationed "in theater," there are two more in transit, in training, or otherwise in line for eventual deployment to the war zone -- soldiers who also consume enormous amounts of oil, even if less than their compatriots overseas. Moreover, to sustain an expeditionary army located halfway around the world, the Department of Defense must move millions of tons of arms, ammunition, food, fuel, and equipment every year by plane or ship, consuming additional tanker-loads of petroleum. Add this to the tally and the Pentagon's war-related oil budget jumps appreciably, though exactly how much we have no real way of knowing.

And foreign wars, sad to say, account for but a small fraction of the Pentagon's total petroleum consumption. Possessing the world's largest fleet of modern aircraft, helicopters, ships, tanks, armored vehicles, and support systems -- virtually all powered by oil -- the Department of Defense (DoD) is, in fact, the world's leading consumer of petroleum. It can be difficult to obtain precise details on the DoD's daily oil hit, but an April 2007 report by a defense contractor, LMI Government Consulting, suggests that the Pentagon might consume as much as 340,000 barrels (14 million gallons) every day. This is greater than the total national consumption of Sweden or Switzerland.

Not surprisingly, there are reports that the Pentagon is becoming a champion of alternative fuels:

The Pentagon is working hard to promote development of biomass fuels that could power future fighter jets and other warplanes, but defense officials say it could take years to get a full-fledged industry on its feet.

Top U.S. defense officials and executives from the petroleum, alternative fuels and renewable energy sectors are meeting outside Washington this week to address new technology developments and initiatives such as the Pentagon's work on developing biofuels to power military aircraft.

The long-term goal is to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign crude oil, said Air Force Colonel Francis Rechner, director of operations of the Defense Energy Support Center, run by the Pentagon's main logistics agency.

Rechner cited the March flight of an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack plane, powered by a mix of biomass and jet fuel, and the flight of the Navy's Green Hornet, a Boeing Co (BA.N) F/A-18 fighter jet powered a blend of jet fuel and a biofuel made of camelina, a hardy U.S. plant.

But can it be done quickly enough to escape the perils on the ground in places like Pakistan?

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Political Science Fiction 

An on the scene report about the One Nation rally yesterday from Louis Proyect:

To start with, I have to confess that I didn’t attend the entire rally. At around 2:30 I decided that I had heard enough blather for one day and took off. As might have been expected, the speakers were handpicked in order to satisfy the main organizer’s One Nation theme, which has largely left them helpless before the unrelenting bared fangs approach of the Republican Party.

Yes, yes, yes, believe it or not, American unions and civil rights organizations spent substantial resources upon a rally for jobs, justice and education for all that did not place responsibility upon the Obama admininstration and the Democratic Congress for the failure to take meaningful action in these areas. In effect, the event was a form of political science fiction that served the purpose of diverting public attention from the failure of the Democratic Party to assist anyone other than capital interests by scapegoating the Republicans. It was one of the most cynical, most dishonest political events in recent memory.

On Democracy Now! this morning, Amy Goodman aired three of the speeches at the event for her audience, speeches by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, Colin Whited, a student at Gallaudet Universty and Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO. They were worse than worthless, they were deliberate obfuscations of why so many are demoralized in a social system that treats them as disposable. To encourage people to put their time and energy into participating in an event like this is contemptible, and can only result in further alienating them from activism and the political process.

In January 2009, Barack Obama took office with the largest Democratic majorities in the Congress since LBJ. The Democratic Party had the opportunity, through elimination of the filibuster and use of the reconciliation process, to implement the most progressive agenda since the Great Society. Instead, it relied upon Republicans, moderate Democrats and their covert allies, the Tea Party movement, to implement corporate friendly policies reminiscent of Reagan, with plans already in place to cut Social Security and Medicare after the election. Meanwhile, Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan and expanded the conflict into Pakistan. Outside the rally, the reality based community is well aware, which may partially explain why attendance was spotty.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

What's Happening in Ecuador? 

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