Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Best Reason for Supporting Bernie Sanders

MIT Technology Review
“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.”
"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
 Warren Buffet
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
What is the best reason for supporting Bernie Sanders?

How about: "the future of humanity is at stake"?

Exaggeration? Not really.

To get right to the point: in at most a generation, or perhaps much sooner, science, in the form of robotics and Artificial Intelligence, will have led humanity to a fork in the road. A clear choice between a dream utopia and utter dystopia lies before us... it reads like science fiction, but it isn't.

One path we could take holds the possibility of leading us to an amazing and paradisaical utopia of infinite possibilities for a full and enriched quality of life, an end to poverty and even alienation... for everyone... everywhere.

And the other path - the one we are traveling today - would eventually lead the immense majority of humanity, including most of today's middle class Americans, to live in conditions that would make the legendary slums of present day Calcutta look like Disneyland by comparison.

Calcutta today.- Your town tomorrow?
How can we take the right path?

The question is: what ideas and what political mobilization will best make sure that humanity takes the path of the greatest good for the greatest number, instead of the path that will lead to unimaginable wealth and power for a tiny minority and utter misery and a "life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"  for 99% of humanity.

Here is how the situation stands now, with the present technology... in the opinion of none other than Martin Wolf, someone who nobody could consider "radical". Here the prestigious, chief economist of The Financial Times says.
(T)here is anxiety over rising inequality and economic insecurity. Perhaps the most fundamental cause is a growing sense that elites are corrupt, complacent and incompetent.  Martin Wolf - Financial Times
And remember, that is with present technology.

Now meet Hod Lipson:
Hod Lipson (born 1967 in Haifa, Israel) is an American robotics engineer. He is the director of Cornell University's Creative Machines Lab (CCML), formerly known as Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL), at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Lipson's work focuses on evolutionary robotics, design automation, rapid prototyping, artificial life, and creating machines that can demonstrate some aspects of human creativity. His publications have been cited close to 10,000 times, and he has an h-index of 50, as of November 8, 2015. Wikipedia
Professor Lipson is very worried.
Hod Lipson’s vision of the future is one in which machines and software possess abilities that were unthinkable until recently. But he has begun worrying about something else that would have been unimaginable to him a few years ago. Could the rapid advances in automation and digital technology provoke social upheaval by eliminating the livelihoods of many people, even as they produce great wealth for others? (...)  Are we at the beginning of an economic transformation that is unique in history, wonderful for what it could do in bringing us better medicine, services, and products, but devastating for those not in a position to reap the financial benefits? Will robots and software replace most human workers?(...) A prevailing view among economists is that many people simply don’t have the training and education required for the increasing number of well-paying jobs requiring sophisticated technology skills. At the same time, software and digital technologies have displaced many types of jobs involving routine tasks such as those in accounting, payroll, and clerical work, forcing many of those workers to take more poorly paid positions or simply abandon the workforce. Add to that the increasing automation of manufacturing, which has eliminated many middle-class jobs over the past decades, and you begin to see why much of the workforce is feeling squeezed.(...) Whoever owns the capital will benefit as robots and AI inevitably replace many jobs. If the rewards of new technologies go largely to the very richest, as has been the trend in recent decades, then dystopian visions could become reality. (emphasis mine) - Who will own the Robots - MIT Technology Review
Newslinks Thought for the Day: If the word "democracy" has its origins in the Greek words demos, meaning "people," and kratia, meaning "power"; then what happens to democracy, when the demos don't "add value"?... "Not adding value" being a bland technicism that means people are not needed for much of anything anymore. Therefore power-less?
Some people and organizations who are paid to think are busy thinking about all this. One of them is  the Brookings Institute.

This is how Wikipedia describes them:
The Brookings Institution is an American think tank based on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., USA. One of Washington's oldest think tanks, Brookings conducts research and education in the social sciences, primarily in economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, and global economy and development. In the University of Pennsylvania's 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Report, Brookings is ranked the most influential think tank in the world
    This is how they see the problem and possible practical solutions to it.
    While emerging technologies can improve the speed, quality, and cost of available goods and services, they may also displace large numbers of workers. This possibility challenges the traditional benefits model of tying health care and retirement savings to jobs. In an economy that employs dramatically fewer workers, we need to think about how to deliver benefits to displaced workers.
    Darrell M. West proposes striking economic changes in order to restructure how our society delivers on the social contract, such as:
    • Separating the dispersion of health care, disability, and pension benefits outside of employment, offering workers with limited skills social benefits on a universal basis.
    • Mandating a basic income guarantee for a reasonable standard of living to combat persistent unemployment or underemployment posed by the automation economy.
    • Revamping the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to allow the benefit to support households in the grips of high unemployment.
    • Providing activity accounts for lifetime learning and job retraining to motivate the workforce to keep pace with innovation.
    • Offering incentives for volunteerism—beneficial for many people who in the future may not be able to provide for their families through regular employment but may still wish enrich their communities.
    • Encouraging corporate profit sharing to spread the benefits of improved productivity to the broader workforce.
    • Reforming the education curriculum to reflect the high premium STEM skills will offer employees in the future.
    • Expanding arts and culture for leisure time, ensuring that reduction in work will not eliminate chances for cultural pursuits.
    "There needs to be ways for people to live fulfilling lives even if society needs relatively few workers," West writes. Taking steps now in anticipation of the exciting new future that awaits will help people adapt to new economic realities.(emphasis mine"What happens if robots take the jobs?" - Darrell M. West
    If West's agenda could be realized, what might it look like?

     Going back to the piece from MIT:
    Software and digital technologies have displaced many types of jobs involving routine tasks such as those in accounting, payroll, and clerical work, forcing many of those workers to take more poorly paid positions or simply abandon the workforce.
    The disappearance of paper pushing jobs doesn't have to be a tragedy. Read this from the philosopher, Erich Fromm:
    Marx did not foresee the extent to which alienation was to become the fate of the vast majority of people, especially of the ever increasing segment of the population which manipulate symbols and men, rather than machines. If anything, the clerk, the salesman, the executive, are even more alienated today than the skilled manual worker. The latter's functioning still depends on the expression of certain personal qualities like skill, reliability, etc., and he is not forced to sell his "personality," his smile, his opinions in the bargain; the symbol manipulators are hired not only for their skill, but for all those personality qualities which make them "attractive personality packages," easy to handle and to manipulate.  Erich Fromm
    So if, thanks to AI and robots, it is no longer possible to "earn" a living, but the rights to "life itself, + liberty + the pursuit of happiness", are still maintained, then offering West's menu of "Incentives for volunteerism—beneficial for many people who in the future may not be able to provide for their families through regular employment but may still wish enrich their communities." or "Expanding arts and culture for leisure time, ensuring that reduction in work will not eliminate chances for cultural pursuits.", while making sure everyone, everywhere, has decent health care, education etc, would,  in short, mean a recipe for heaven on earth.

    Of course the money for all of this would have to come from taxing the only ones who would still have any money... the one-percent.

    Now stop for a moment and think a bit... Can you imagine the "one-percent" buying into any of Darell West's agenda? For example: the Koch brothers... or Sheldon Adelson or the right-wing think tanks, like The Heritage Foundation The American Enterprise Institute, Standford's Hoover Institution, etc, etc,etc, all the "greed is good" crowd, Ayn Rand's Objectivists, or any of their political errand boys: Cruz, Trump, Christie, Rubio, Bush... and the endless lobbyists and their hordes of parasitical congress-persons and assorted senators or governors. Can you imagine them swallowing West's program without the assistance of a nationwide, massive, political, "Great Awakening", to "help" them gag it down.

    Facing such hard, ruthless, well-funded and organized opposition, those who call themselves "realists", those possibilists said to "living in the real-world"; in other words, those settling for small "realistic", incremental gains, would be putty in the hands, of such brutal opponents .

    It will be a long hard fight and very different from the old-fashioned labor battles... because with robots doing everything and the one-percent owning the robots... who could go on strike? In the meantime, until all the robots arrive, the one-percent is moving more and more manufacturing to China: a one-party dictatorship where strikes are illegal.

    The fight

    Below I have included a classic political fight song, "Which Side Are You On?", sung by the iconic folk singer, Pete Seeger, in social-democratic Sweden, in the no less iconic year, 1968. It's about a coal miner's strike in Kentucky.... It is a wonderful song, wonderfully sung, but coal's going out these days and so are strikes... so only the title makes much sense today... and one single phrase in the song... which sums up why I believe that anyone who thinks that Darell M. West's agenda is worth fighting for, should support Bernie Sanders.



    The single phrase?

    You guessed it!

    It's,  "Us workers haven't got a chance, unless we organize."

    Recite that as a liberating mantra.

    This brings us to Bernie
    When Sanders says — as he does in every speech — that he’s seeking to build “a revolution,” that’s not just rhetoric. What Sanders understands in his bones is that every period of progressive reform in U.S. history has come as a result of massive street heat, of energized movements that push policymaking elites to the left. Abolitionists pressured the Lincoln Republicans toward a policy of emancipation. Militant workers and a socialist left, whose general strikes shut down several major cities in 1934, prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats to legalize collective bargaining and create Social Security in 1935. The civil rights movement enabled the Kennedy-Johnson Democrats to pass the landmark legislation of the ’60s. Progressive reform doesn’t happen absent a large and vibrant left. Harold Meyerson - Washington Post
    Now Robert Reich, the brilliant Atom Ant of left-wing, economists and agitators, describes how it was done before and how it could be done again.
    Teddy Roosevelt got a progressive income tax, limits on corporate campaign contributions, regulation of foods and drugs, and the dissolution of giant trusts – not because he was a great dealmaker but because he added fuel to growing public demands for such changes.(...) "The real world we’re living in” right now won’t allow fundamental change of the sort we need. It takes a movement. Such a movement is at the heart of the Sanders campaign. The passion that’s fueling it isn’t really about Bernie Sanders. Had Elizabeth Warren run, the same passion would be there for her. It’s about standing up to the moneyed interests and restoring our democracy. It Takes a Movement, Like the One at the Heart of Bernie Sanders’ Campaign, to Change the World -  Robert Reich 
    Reich makes a very, very important point... This is not really about Bernie himself, it is about the people themselves, the Demos and their Kratia.  

    Bernie Sanders is simply the only one who has had the guts to rise to the occasion. 

    The only "mouse" brave enough to volunteer to "bell the cat"...

    Bernie Sanders + enough voters = Mighty Mouse

    And finally Bernie speaks for himself:
    As he looked ahead to carrying on the fight in New Hampshire, he used many of his favorite lines. “It is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.” “We do not represent the interests of the billionaire class, Wall Street, or corporate America. We don’t want their money.” “The American people are saying no to a rigged economy.” “We are going to create an economy that works for working families, not just the billionaire class.” - Bernie Sanders Just Changed the Democratic Party - The New Yorker
    You could say it louder, but it would be hard to say it more clearly. 

    Moral of the story: It has happened before and it can happen again and God help us if it doesn't. DS


    PS: Here is the Brookings document in full to download:

    http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/10/26-robots-emerging-technologies-public-policy-west/robotwork.pdf 

    Monday, January 18, 2016

    Reliving the tragic 1930s... this time as farce


    "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." Antonio Gramsci

    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 
     
    Most newsaholics tend to limit their reading to people they agree with... I think that is a big mistake, especially for anyone who is trying to make a serious analysis of reality. Why? Because it's always interesting, instructive... and creatively disturbing when you find that someone you detest is saying something that makes a lot of sense.

    For example, an arch-villain of any progressive citizen, Charles Koch, (yes one of the brothers who are busy corrupting the entire US democracy in order to discredit climate science), is here found talking much sense about the "War on Terror":
    “We have been doing this for a dozen years. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. Has that made us safer? Has that made the world safer? It seems like we’re more worried about it now than we were then, so we need to examine these strategies.” (...) “I’ve studied revolutionaries a lot,” he says. “Mao said that the people are the sea in which the revolutionary swims. Not that we don’t need to defend ourselves and have better intelligence and all that, but how do we create an unfriendly sea for the terrorists in the Muslim communities? We haven’t done a good job of that.” With about 1.6bn Muslims worldwide “in country after country. What,” he asks, “are we going to do: go bomb each one of them?". Lunch with Charles Koch - Financial Times
    Koch quotes Chairman Mao! How is that for chutzpah?

    In an odd sort of way Koch practices what he preaches; for example by trying to create an "unfriendly sea" for ecologists and climate scientists in America's mainstream media and the US Congress. Having said that, what he affirms in the quote above is one of the most sensible thing that I can remember having read about America's "War on Terror". It will be interesting to see how the Koch brothers, with all their oil interests, will react if Muslim-baiter, Donald Trump, is finally the Republican nominee.

    ...Morbid symptoms appear

    There are reputable analysts who today are predicting a worse recession than 2008.

    For example: if  Lehman Brothers' collapse  in 2008 was 1929's tragedy repeated as farce, where we are moving right now could be seen as a priapistic version of the same thing.  
    Three of the biggest US banks revealed the damage wrought by a plunging oil price this week, disclosing big jumps in costs for bad energy loans and fears of contagion in other portfolios. Financial Times

    Cleaning up the aftermath of financial mistakes — a depressingly familiar experience — is just a part of the challenge the world confronts. Equally important is finding a powerful new engine of demand as old ones splutter and die. It is not at all obvious where this is to be found. But the rest of the world is hoping, probably over-optimistically, that the US will provide what it seeks. Unfortunately, it will not do so.  Martin Wolf - Financial Times
    We seem to have come to a dead end.
    There has always been a tension at the heart of capitalism. (...) Its self-regulating properties, contrary to the efforts of generations of economists trying to prove otherwise, are weak.(...) A low oil price historically presages economic good times. Instead, the markets are panicking. They are panicking because what is driving the lower oil price is global disorder, which capitalism is powerless to correct. Indeed, it is capitalism running amok that is one of the reasons for the disorder. Profits as a share of national income in Britain and the US touch all-time highs; wages touch an all-time low as the power of organized labor diminishes and the gig economy of short-term contracts takes hold.(...) All this requires a new generation of political leaders prepared to throw off the categories in which thinking has been cast since 1980(...).  Will Hutton - The Guardian

    The Unborn

    Another commentator who is often worth reading, despite being even further to the right than the Koch brothers is Pat Buchanan. He is a paleolithic-conservative, pre-conciliar Catholic and the adviser behind Nixon's "Southern Strategy", which has probably been the most noxiously successful and sinister political ploy since the disenfranchisement of African-Americans ending Reconstruction.

    To give you an idea of how far to the right Buchanan is, none other than Donald Trump (way back in the 1990s) considered him a "Nazi-whacko".

    This is how Pat Buchanan sums up the present situation:
    Everyone sees clearly now the de-industrialization of America, the cost in blood and treasure from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants. (...) (W)hen you see Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and Trump and Ted Cruz with a majority of Republican voters. Not to put too fine a point on it, the revolution is at hand. Pat Buchanan - Washington Post
    What is Trump's reaction to Pat Buchanan in 2016?
    Donald J. Trump 
    @realDonaldTrump
    Pat Buchanan gave a fantastic interview this morning on @CNN - way to go Pat, way ahead of your time!

    How is that for chutzpah?

    What is interesting for me in the Buchanan quote above is that he groups both Sanders and Trump as "revolutionaries". The old is dying and the new is yet unborn.

    Lets hear from Bernie:
    “If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now,” Sanders said in a television interview in June 2007. But in his current campaign for president, Sanders has been unequivocally in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he has spoken passionately on protecting families from deportation. Many immigration activists note that Sanders’ plan is more detailed than Hillary Clinton’s. Time Magazine
    What we see here from Sanders is nuance: recognizing that massive third world immigration is a huge problem for underpaid American workers and at the same time compassion and practical solutions for the problems of the immigrants already in the USA, who are also helpless, innocent, victims of the globalization process.

    And now here's Trump's official position on immigration:
    When politicians talk about “immigration reform” they mean: amnesty, cheap labor and open borders. The Schumer-Rubio immigration bill was nothing more than a giveaway to the corporate patrons who run both parties. Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first – not wealthy globetrotting donors. We are the only country in the world whose immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own. Donald Trump's official webpage
    Notice all the dog-whistle words: "amnesty", "cheap labor", "wealthy globetrotting donors" ("rootless cosmopolitans"?), "needs of other nations". That vocabulary and not the actual content is the real message

    Now Sanders on China:
    One of Bernie’s key goals is to end our disastrous trade policies with China which force American workers to compete against low-wage labor, which serves largely to benefit already wealthy corporations. Feel the Bern
    Now Trump:
    We have been too afraid to protect and advance American interests and to challenge China to live up to its obligations. We need smart negotiators who will serve the interests of American workers – not Wall Street insiders that want to move U.S. manufacturing and investment offshore. Donald Trump's official webpage
     Again, notice the word choice: "afraid",  "protect", "challenge", "live up to", "smart", "insiders", "offshore", etc.

    Repetition?

    At the top of the page I put: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce"  and "The old is dying and the new cannot be born". Those two quotes could well define the historical period we live in.
    Where Buchanan may be on to something is in calling both Trump and Sanders "revolutionaries"; revolutionaries in the same sense that both Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt were revolutionaries in the context of the 1930s,.

    FDR changed the classic capitalism practiced by  the Republicans beyond recognition and saved America from the sort of turbulence that  tore Europe apart.

    Hitler, on the other hand rode that turbulence to power and literally destroyed Germany and most of Europe with it.

    Here is a definition of Hitler's method of taking power, from Adam Gopnik's New Yorker  piece on the new edition of Mein KampfSee if you can observe a formula that is still in use:
    "The faith in a strong man; the love of the exceptional character of one nation above all others; the selection of a helpless group to be hated, who can be blamed for feelings of national humiliation. He didn’t invent these arguments. He adapted them" 
    Sound familiar? It should, it is being used every day and not just by Donald Trump, even nominal liberals have invoked "American exceptionalism" in recent memory to justify interfering in the internal affairs of other countries or even voting in favor of "wars of choice".

    Rhyme or farce?

    Back in the 1930s the Republican party's laissez faire, hands off, version of capitalism was finished (for the moment). The choice of a way forward then was between Hitler/Mussolini, Joseph Stalin... or FDR.

    Now the Nazis and the fascisti are long gone and Stalin's Marxist-Leninism is on the ash heap.

    Today the categories of "ists" and "isms" are different:  Now Russia's ruling ideology is Putinist-Hands-in-the-cookie-jar-ism, while China is following Friedmanist-Leninism and apparently is entering into some kind of a shitstorm with it.

    Meanwhile the United States and all who sail in her seem to be experiencing a terminal crisis in the economic policies that have been in favor since the 1980s, which we might call Reaganist-Thatcherism or Clintonist-Blairist-Bushism.

    However, this not the 1930s, Pope Francis is not Pius XII, Stalin is gone, with no one to follow. Donald Trump is a Monty Python parody of Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, Hillary Clinton is not Herbert Hoover and Bernie Sanders is not (yet) Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    But, as Mark Twain said,"History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes". This is the interregnum that Gramsci spoke of, with all its morbid symptoms, the old is dying... and the new, whatever that might be... Can it be born? DS


    Thursday, December 31, 2015

    2016: Trump, meths and heroin: the white man's burden

    If World War Three doesn't break out in the Middle East (a big if), 2016 may well feature the increasingly grotesque and tragicomic banality of American life.

    Not long ago in these pages, I wrote about the massive addiction of white Americans with only a high school diploma or less to the stimulant, methamphetamine.

    Now this same demographic group appears to be "hooked" on Donald Trump, who has a real chance of becoming the next POTUS.


    Washington Post

    Moving up the social feeding chain, now it seems that heroin addiction is soaring among affluent, suburban, young white people,
    When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white. New York Times
    Since Heroin is no longer about black people in the inner city ghettos, this is leading to a growing clamor for a kinder, gentler, war on drugs.

    The affluent taking opiates is not entirely new, there have always been rich old ladies shooting morphine prescribed by a "doctor-feelgood" and administered by a nurse, but not  middle class young people, with a higher education, or possibilities of getting one, OD-ing in public toilets.

    Heroin is very different from methamphetamine, That drug is a powerful stimulant, one that was given to starving, freezing, German soldiers fighting in Russia is WWII in order to keep them awake and aggressive. That might come in handy in today's America if you are forced to work 60 or more hours a week at minimum wage.  Heroin, however, goes like this:
    Injecting can give a pleasant rush, where there is an immediate feeling of intense euphoria, warmth, and general apathy toward anything that doesn't involve one's high.  Drugs-Forum
    Which might be a good fit for a rich, lonely old lady, not something that can help you hold down a couple of McJobs, but then again might be quite useful in calming the angst of an empty, alienated life or the anxiety of paying back a student loan, while living off your parents.
    Nationally, nearly half of 25-year-olds lived with their parents in 2012-2013, up from just over a quarter in 1999. (...) many factors have been suggested for why young adults return to or continue living at home, including significant student debt, weak job prospects and an uncertain housing market.(...) additional research has shown that the underemployment rate for recent graduates was about 40 percent during the Great Recession. Canon and Gascon noted: “An implication is that a significant portion of recent graduates were earning lower wages than what they should have been, given their education.” Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis
    Adding to this, being raised in what most consider a privileged environment can lead to much mental distress as many brought up this way are led to automatically assume that life should be wonderful, but as that "wonderful" is ever out of reach, vacuity, frustration and boredom fill its space, There is even a name for it now: "affluenza".

    Thanks to the continuing escapades of Ethan Couch, these days we are hearing a lot about "affluenza". 
      Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001) defines affluenza as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."The term "affluenza" has also been used to refer to an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege, notably in the case of Ethan Couch.(...) British psychologist Oliver James asserted that there was a correlation between the increasing nature of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens. Referring to Vance Packard's thesis The Hidden Persuaders on the manipulative methods used by the advertising industry, James related the stimulation of artificial needs to the rise in affluenza. Wikipedia
      The poor whites on meths and the coddled millennials on heroin, the angry, undereducated white people who will vote for Donald Trump are all the flotsam and jetsam of neoliberalism and globalization, the crippled stepchildren of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

      How does their economic philosophy lead to such damage? The late William Pffaf diagrammed it perfectly:
      Both monetarism and market theory remove from economic management voluntarism, political intelligence, and moral responsibility, by describing economic function as objective and automatic. Thus the customer always makes the most advantageous choice, so the market presents a perfect and efficient mechanism dictating the choices that must be made by businesses, while always tending towards perfect competition. Labor is a mere commodity, and unions and wage demands obstacles to the free function of markets. Governments by nature are obstacles to economic freedom. — William Pfaff
      That is the aquarium we swim in today.

      We are seeing a massification of a classic American recipe for dealing with angst.
      "Basically, I'm for anything that gets you through the night - be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels."  -  Frank Sinatra
      Not to contradict the lord of the ring a ding dings, but nowadays it might be more productive to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind.

      Perhaps this presidential election year, of all times, Americans should meditate more intensely on who exactly the "We" are, that we are talking about when we say, "We The People". DS

      Saturday, December 19, 2015

      Zen koan of the day: who or what is Donald Trump?

      Koan
      noun: A paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. Oxford Dictionary



      David Seaton's Zen koan of the day: who or what is Donald Trump?

      One finger pointing at the moon
      Some standard definitions of "trump"

      noun
      ▸a card belonging to the suit (=one of the four types of cards) that players decide will be worth the most in a card game

      verb
      ▸to win or to succeed, for example in sports or business, because you have an advantage that your opponent does not have
      Quick definitions from Macmillan

      Suggested "enlightened" answer to the koan*:
      (*only for the youngest grasshoppers):
      Donald Trump is an "ahso"...

      ... which, of course, is just the beginning of yet another koan. DS

      Tuesday, December 08, 2015

      ISIS: the Caliphate, what's in a name?

      First, terrorism is a form of communication. It is an act that uses violence to convey a political message intended to shape public opinion or political debate on policy issues. Arie Perliger - New York Times
      One of the principal difficulties in trying to analyze ISIS is that we concentrate our attention almost exclusively upon their identity as terrorists and we don't pay sufficient attention to their identity as a political movement with clear objectives: objectives which they pursue in a patient, methodical and even "sophisticated" manner.

      Experience shows that a subversive movement with a social base, even a small one, can resist decades of intense pressure, both political and military. Groups without such a base, such as Italy's Red Brigades or Germany's Baader Meinhof are quickly extinguished, but organizations with a social base such as Peru's Shining Path or Spain's ETA can go on for decades.

      An example from a modern, European country:

      ETA, has killed over 800 people in Spain since the 1960s, they have been defeated militarily and they now solemnly abjure violence. Despite this, ETA can, even today, put thousands of their sympathizers onto Basque streets demanding amnesty for their imprisoned members. They could reorganize at the drop of a beret.

      ISIS, more violent than any of the groups named above, has as its target a growing base of followers and potential sympathizers within a world-wide community of an estimated 1.3 billion Muslims. Someone once compared mass movements to a very fat lady in a very small canoe: any sudden movement of hers can tip over and sink the canoe. Terrorism itself pales in importance next to a potential mobilization of even a tiny fraction of the Muslim masses by ISIS.

      We are just extras in ISIS's ad campaign

      19th century Anarchists referred to their acts of terrorism as "propaganda of the deed". This still holds true:

      Bottom line: The western victims of ISIS's beheadings, bombings and drive-by shootings are simply extras in ISIS's advertising campaign directed at that potential world-wide audience of 1.3 billion.

      "We" (the prosperous westerners) are not ISIS's "audience"; we are simply tools to reach that audience.

      Simply put: Our (over) reaction to their terrorist acts is meant to create a counter reaction favorable to ISIS in their target audience. This strategy is quite effective.                        
      You are far likelier to die in a car crash, or even choke on a pretzel, than to fall victim to terrorism on US soil. But fear is not a statistical calculation. That is the point of terror.(...) With a presidential election now in full swing, the stage is set for further polarization that may play straight into the hands of Isis. Thirty-one Republican governors have said that they would deny sanctuary to any Syrian ­immigrants. (emphasis mine) Edward Luce - Financial Times 
      Those who have to deal directly with the threat of local terrorism, the police, are not happy with this hysteria:
      Counter-terrorism officials of the Los Angeles Police Department met on Thursday with Muslim-American leaders to reassure them and the community at large that they are not alone and that they are facing this challenge together. “Muslim communities are our strength — not our weakness,” Deputy Chief Michael Downing told The Times. “We can’t let this deteriorate our relationship or allow others to isolate or stigmatize the Muslim community.” Chief Downing said law enforcement needs the trust and cooperation of the majority of Muslims in the mainstream, those who can raise the alarm about the radicalized few.  Editorial New York Times
      To translate the above into plain English: From time immemorial, more than using brilliant, Sherlock Holmes type deduction and state of the art laboratory work, efficient policeman-ship has, depended mostly on creating networks of tattling informers.

      Obviously if panic merchants like Donald Trump create some sort of anti-Muslim Kristallnacht movement, the American Muslim community will naturally pull itself into its shell like a turtle and reliable sources of information will dry up.

      Thought for the day: If we treat all 1.3B Muslims in the world as our enemies, eventually all 1.3B Muslims will become our enemies. Could anything be more stupid than that?   

      Meanwhile, back in the Middle East

      What are ISIS's objectives?

      Names and titles are important, especially in a religious/political context, a Pope, for example, is not a bishop or a parish priest and a Pope is not really a Pope if he doesn't control the Vatican and with it the spiritual life of the world's Catholics... Thus, among Muslims,  ISIS's calling itself a caliphate and naming its leader the caliph is a clear declaration of its intentions.
      A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, and a leader of the entire Muslim community. Wikipedia
      File:Mugshot of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 2004.jpg
      Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - source Wikipedia
      Here is the leader of ISIS and if he is killed they will simply name another because as long as there is a caliphate there will be a caliph.
      Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi born 28 July 1971 as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also known as ISIS or Daesh, an Islamic extremist group in western Iraq, Libya, northeast Nigeria, and Syria. He has been proclaimed by his followers to be a caliph. Wikipedia
      As you can see the soi-disant caliph's real name is Ibrahim and he has changed it to Abu Bakr. What does that mean?

      Who was the original Abu Bakr?
      Abu Bakr was a senior companion and—through his daughter Aisha, the father-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr became the first openly declared Muslim outside Muhammad's family.(...) he became the first Muslim Caliph following Muhammad's death. As caliph, Abu Bakr succeeded to the political and administrative functions previously exercised by Muhammad. Wikipedia
      Again papal comparisons might be roughly useful; Just as the present Pope, born Jorge, has taken the name "Francis" as a declaration of the church's return to Franciscan poverty and simplicity, in similar fashion an aspiring caliph's taking the name Abu-Bakr is probably a declaration of a return to some mythical  origins of purity and simplicity.

      As to where ISIS and its caliphate are headed, nothing could be clearer. Just as the Pope must occupy the Vatican, a caliph should live in or at least control the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which are in Saudi Arabia, which is called thus, because it is controlled by the House of Saud.

      And since ISIS's ideology and the official one of that kingdom are one and the same, the only real obstacle to Abu-Bakr taking up residence in Mecca is the Saudi Royal family.
      The Saudi royals are caught in a perfect trap: Weakened by succession laws that encourage turnover, they cling to ancestral ties between king and preacher. The Saudi clergy produces Islamism, which both threatens the country and gives legitimacy to the regime. Kamel Daoud - New York Times
      The royal house of Saud are perfectly aware of this trap:
      (Former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove) remembers the then head of Saudi General Intelligence "literally shouting at me across his office: '9/11 is a mere pinprick on the West. In the medium term, it is nothing more than a series of personal tragedies. What these terrorists want is to destroy the House of Saud and remake the Middle East.'" In the event, Saudi Arabia adopted both policies, encouraging the jihadis as a useful tool of Saudi anti-Shia influence abroad but suppressing them at home as a threat to the status quo. It is this dual policy that has fallen apart over the last year. The Independent
      One of the reasons this "dual policy" is falling apart illustrates the contradictions that Saudi Arabia's present rulers have to deal with. They have been dumping oil on the market to try to break the American fracking industry by lowering prices and thus maintain their market share. This means that their cash reserves are being rapidly depleted and since basically the Saudi royal family holds onto power by subsidizing a largely unproductive population... they are in big and growing trouble.
      Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began. Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.(...) In hindsight, it was a strategic error to hold prices so high, for so long, allowing shale frackers - and the solar industry - to come of age. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.(...) Social spending is the glue that holds together a medieval Wahhabi regime at a time of fermenting unrest among the Shia minority of the Eastern Province, pin-prick terrorist attacks from ISIS, and blowback from the invasion of Yemen. Diplomatic spending is what underpins the Saudi sphere of influence in a Middle East suffering its own version of Europe's Thirty Year War, and still reeling from the after-shocks of a crushed democratic revolt. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard - The Telegraph
      It's obvious to me that in a few years the House of Saud will probably take up residence close to their billions on the shores of some frigid Swiss lake... Will this mean that Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, A.K.A, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi finally gets his chance to be a real live caliph in Mecca? 

      Probably not.... but it might very well be somebody even worse... so stay tuned.  DS

      Tuesday, December 01, 2015

      Tinfoil hat questions about ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Paris and climate change

      Question one:

      What country gives the most intellectual and perhaps financial aid to ISIS? 
      Answer: Saudi Arabia


      Question two:

      What Middle Eastern country, totally dependent on selling oil, has the most to lose if the Paris climate change conference is a success and the use of oil is severely curtailed in the foreseeable future? 
      Answer: Saudi Arabia


      Question three:

      Isn't it strange that there was a massive Jihadist attack on Paris shortly before the climate change meeting? 
      Answer: I don't know, you tell me. 

      DS

      Sunday, November 22, 2015

      Blood in Paris and beyond...

      What follows is a sort of smorgasbord-compass that I have put together to help me, and hopefully others, get some idea of where this mess we now find ourselves in comes from and where it might lead us,

      I hope the material quoted below might help to provide readers with a workmanlike framework for thinking about the new era we have entered into, with  ISIS' attacks on Paris...  a conflict which might be turning into the "Third Gulf War" or even WWIII.

      We begin with what I would call the "mantra" to repeat constantly while reading, watching and hearing the news these days:
      Multiculturalism is not a naive liberal aspiration — it is the reality of the modern world
      This is simply reality:

      With globalization and its new communication tools, we have all been thrown together brutally, helter skelter, in a worldwide, multinational-economy-mishmash, with no regard for history, culture, faiths or national idiosyncrasy, like having several different, large families, who don't even speak the same language, shut up together in the same small flat, sharing, bedrooms, kitchen... and bathroom. And somehow we are going to have to learn to live like this together in peace and harmony or else.

      The French part of all of this not that new, the unrest among young French citizens of North-African origin has been growing for some time, it came to a head 10 years ago:
      In October and November of 2005, a series of riots occurred in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities, involving the burning of cars and public buildings at night.  The unrest started on 27 October at Clichy-sous-Bois, where police were investigating a reported break-in at a building site, and a group of local youths scattered in order to avoid interrogation. Three of them hid in a power-station where two died from electrocution, resulting in a power blackout. (It was not established whether police had suspected these individuals or a different group, wanted on separate charges.) The incident ignited rising tensions about youth unemployment and police harassment in the poorer housing estates, and there followed three weeks of rioting throughout France. The rioters were the children of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa for whom Islam was an inseparable component of their self-identity which strengthened their sense of solidarity, gave them the appearance of legitimacy and drew a line between them and the French. Wikipedia
      Why are there so many  North-African Muslims living in France?

      After WWII there was a literally wonderful period of never before experienced prosperity in France:
      Les Trente Glorieuses (French pronunciation: ​[le tʁɑ̃t ɡlɔʁjøz], "The Glorious Thirty") refers to the thirty years from 1945 to 1975 following the end of the Second World War in France.(...) Over this thirty-year period, France's economy grew rapidly like economies of other developed countries within the framework of the Marshall Plan such as West Germany, Italy and Japan. These decades of economic prosperity combined high productivity with high average wages and high consumption, and were also characterized by a highly developed system of social benefits. Wikipedia
      Because of this economic boom there was a tremendous need for low-paid manual labor, which the native French population couldn't satisfy and at the beginning of "The Glorious Thirty" most immigrants came from poorer southern European countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal... white and Christians.  Many of them became totally assimilated, took French nationality and have become quite successful. The mayoress of Paris was born in Spain and so was the present Prime Minister's father. However in the mid-1960s the economies of these southern European countries also began to boom and they dried up as a source of cheap labor for France.

      At this point, still booming France turned to its former colonies in North Africa for the workers who would accept low pay doing the dirty jobs the French didn't want to do and southern Europeans didn't need to do anymore... And when in the 70s, the economy cooled off, the North Africans were left stranded in immigrant urban ghettos, and unlike the southern Europeans, they had nowhere to go back to, as things were even much worse in North Africa than in France.

      So you could say that in some way, today the French are paying their imperial "karma":
      Paris, November 20, 2005 - 'We're here because you were there'
      Three Weeks of urban rioting by thousands of children and grandchildren of post-colonial migrants have finally forced France to grapple with the bitter fruits of its fallen empire. The lesson should not be lost on any Western nation. It is encapsulated in the slogan that activists have been employing throughout Western Europe for the past few decades: "We are here because you were there." Gregory Rodriguez - LaTimes
      What has turned the secular urban riots of 2005 - rather similar to the "burn baby burn" riots in the USA during the Civil Rights period of the 1950s and 60s - into the militarily organized horror of ISIS' attacks in today's Paris?

      The answer is simple: Ideology, that is to say, structure for action.

      Wahhabite Islam is the specific ideology that is structuring the turbulence. You might say that Whahhabism is a sort of Muslim version of "ultra-Calvinism", iconoclastic: lunatic-fringe, but very, very well financed:
      Wahhabism has been accused of being "a source of global terrorism", inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and for causing disunity in Muslim communities by labeling Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabi definition of monotheism as apostates (takfir), thus paving the way for their execution for apostasy. It has also been criticized for the destruction of historic mazaars, mausoleums, and other Muslim and non-Muslim buildings and artifacts. The "boundaries" of what make up Wahhabism have been called "difficult to pinpoint", but in contemporary usage, the terms Wahhabi and Salafi are often used interchangeably, and considered to be movements with different roots that have merged since the 1960s.But Wahhabism has also been called "a particular orientation within Salafism", or an ultra-conservative, Saudi brand of Salafism.
      That's right, the center of this ideology is coming from the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, straight from the world's filling station, Saudi Arabia.  Literally every time you fill up your gas tank you might be financing Al Qaeda or ISIS (Daesh):
      Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex. Until that point is understood, battles may be won, but the war will be lost. Jihadists will be killed, only to be reborn again in future generations and raised on the same books. Kamel Daoud - New York Times
      I'll try to illustrate the center of the problem, past, present and future with this simple photo-montage:
      Charlie Foxtrot
      The the best caption I could find for these photos is...
      Clusterfuck ‎(plural clusterfucks) (slang, vulgar) A chaotic situation where everything seems to go wrong. It is often caused by incompetence, communication failure, or a complex environment. Wiktionary
      To be continued... DS