Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What exactly is the USA?

These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again. Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes. Paul Krugman - New York Times
David Seaton's News Links
Right now the question would have to be, what exactly is the USA? The people? The system? The economy? Whose economy?

What exactly is the USA?

This is really important in America's case, more so than in other countries, because "American" isn't an ethnic group or a religion or even a language and shared history, and people move around a lot and are not deeply rooted; and to top it off the family structure isn't very strong. All of these factors are what normally make up a "nationality". So the question, "what exactly is the USA" is something every new generation of Americans has to answer... and I believe it is getting more difficult.

When, back in the 50s "Engine Charley" Wilson enunciated his famous formula: "what is good for General Motors is good for the USA and vice versa", he was probably right, or it least  the phase made  some sense at that time. Today, could you say something like that about General Motors or substitute any other American corporation's name for GM's? Would it still make any sense? Try it with "Goldman Sachs".

Right now, we are looking at the possibility that the economy may "recover", but that its "recovery" will not mean any jobs. So we have to go back to the original question, The people? The system? The economy? Whose economy?  What exactly is the USA?

I think that the difficulty in answering this question, "what exactly is the USA", is what makes the situation much more worrisome today than the crisis of the 70s or even the 1930s. DS

PS:  Roger Cohen's article in the NYT relates nicely to what I am talking about:
On a weeklong visit, I found a mood of deep unease in an America that seems to have descended into tribalism — not ethnic, but political, economic and social. Uncertainty is pervasive. The government’s rescue of Wall Street combined with the acute difficulties of a middle class struggling to get by on stagnant or falling incomes has sharpened resentments.(...) Fragmentation holds sway. The stock market used to be a fair proxy for the state of the economy. Now it’s a market of traders, not investors. They want to know what the spread is today and tomorrow; they can make money on the way up or down; they care far less about U.S.A. Inc. So the market goes where it goes — up of late but largely directionless (which makes it harder on those up-or-down traders) — while out on Main Street the struggle to make family payroll continues. People work longer hours, they juggle how to cover their kids’ needs, how to de-leverage just a little — and they’re still meant to “consume” for the economy’s sake. The share of national income held by the top 1 percent of American families has doubled in recent decades to 20 percent. That’s a huge shift. I spoke to Doug Severance, a Vietnam vet who’s a hotel employee in Aspen, Colorado. “When I moved here in 1984 we were all family,” he said. “Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Observations of and on the rich

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand." F. Scott Fitzgerald - "The Rich Boy"

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes. And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices. But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people. Paul Krugman - NYT
David Seaton's News Links
There is a lot of talk about rich people, nowadays. About the sinister Koch brothers financing the "war on climate change science" or about Warren Buffet and Bill Gates promising to donate most of their fortunes to charity, so I have decided to chip in my two cents worth.

Looking back, I've known quite a few rich people over the years. While I've never known anyone as rich as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, I have known the grandchildren of people who, once upon a time, were as rich as those two are today.

They say that there are two types of people in the world, people who think that there are two types of people in the world and those that don't... I belong to the second grouping.  Having said that, and recognizing that the wealthy come in all shapes and sizes, I'd like to generalize about certain archetypes I've come across.

Lets begin with Buffet and Gates. Both men have worked very hard, obsessively hard, they have been creative and they have made huge, immense, enormous, unthinkable amounts of money... and although both of them are proud of what they have done, they have a certain humility about it all. They know, that no matter how clever and hard working they were, that they were also very lucky, that the rewards are out of proportion to any individual's effort.

The world's first pop star, Bing Crosby, whose version of "White Christmas" is still the biggest hit record of all time, expressed this sort of humility, when he once said, "There is probably a guy singing in saloons in New Orleans that can sing 'Stardust' better than I can, I have been very lucky".

Warren Buffet puts it like this:
“My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well... I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.”
Bill Gates expresses it more dryly:
"Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose."
On the other hand, I have observed that those who have inherited great wealth, more than feeling lucky, are haunted by their good luck and have a strange, rather patronizing attitude toward effort and merit, which  often combines both mystified awe with irony. Here is a quote of David Koch's from the New Yorker piece that illustrates this mentality perfectly:
"It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!”
Or George W. Bush at the Al Smith Memorial Dinner in New York, 19th October 2000:
"This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base."
This is how Buffet dispatches that mentality:
A market economy creates some lopsided payoffs to participants. The right endowment of vocal chords, anatomical structure, physical strength, or mental powers can produce enormous piles of claim checks (stocks, bonds, and other forms of capital) on future national output. Proper selection of ancestors similarly can result in lifetime supplies of such tickets upon birth. If zero real investment returns diverted a bit greater portion of the national output from such stockholders to equally worthy and hardworking citizens lacking jackpot-producing talents, it would seem unlikely to pose such an insult to an equitable world as to risk Divine Intervention.
In other words the Sage of Omaha is willing to pay income taxes and would encourage fellow billionaires to do the same. Buffet could be called the anti-Tea Party.  Bill Gates giving enormous sums to eradicate malaria, which is not much of a problem in Seattle where he lives, could be seen as the anti-Ayn Rand. Both of these men understand, in a practical sense, that humanity finally is a collective effort... We sink or swim together.

Then there is another type, one that has neither inherited great wealth nor managed to make a huge fortune by investing genius or creating the world's most widely used computer operating system. These are people who have more money than the average (or at least they imagine they do) it is true, but they don't feel lucky... they feel that they have worked very, very, hard for every dime they have (perhaps they feel they have worked harder than they actually have) and being better off certainly has not sweetened their natures one bit. To see anyone receiving anything or even enjoying anything they haven't suffered to obtain offends them deeply.

My intuition tells me that this last type is the backbone of the Tea Party movement. These are Murdoch and the  Koch's cannon fodder.

I know a couple with what I think might be a typical Tea Party or "partyesque" profile. He is a well off orthopedic surgeon, his wife is a religious nut, they live in Carmel, California and have their money offshore in a tax haven...

It wasn't always thus... They were childhood sweethearts, they grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, they played together in the streets as children in the same poor neighborhood where Elvis Presley lived before he hit it big. They used to hate Elvis, because, with the money he made off of his first, local, Sun Records hits he bought a big motorcycle and used to ride it up and down the street frightening the children who had no other place to play but the street.

When this couple grew up and got married, the husband joined the Navy in order to study medicine -- obviously his family couldn't afford to send him -- and the two of them spent 20 years traveling around the world:, their eldest children are all "Navy brats".

When he left the Navy he took up private practice and made enough money to put most of it offshore to avoid taxes and live in upscale Carmel... and even invest modest sums in art (my wife's, that's how I know of them). Naturally  between their Tobacco Road, hard shell Baptist childhood and the money he makes as an orthopedic surgeon, they are wildly conservative on social issues... and of course they hate black folks.

I think if you scratch the surface of many Tea Partiers you may find a story like this or people that relate deeply to a story like this.

Perhaps the way the system is set up, they only ones that can save us from the Kochs, the Murdochs, the libertarians and the objectivists, will have to be the Buffets and the Gates... the politicians are certainly too corrupted by the wealthy to ever do it. DS

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tea Party: Nixon's chickens come home to roost

David Seaton's News Links
The political climate in America is toxic and it has been ever since Richard Nixon launched his Southern Strategy and caused Republicans to pause from their golf and stock coupon clipping long enough to plunge into neofascist populism and charismatic religion. The fiscal conservatives have been using the social conservatives and the just generally resentful and racist elements as cannon fodder to win elections and now they finally see what Nixon hath wrought.

Nixon's "southern strategy" is the cause of what we are seeing now. Nixon began it and Reagan fine-tuned it, with his "welfare queens" and "state's rights". It was all very simple: it was postulated on the theory that southern whites, who had supported the Democrats solidly (the solid south) since the Civil War and had been some of most favored by FDR's "New Deal", in fact hated black people more than they loved their own children, who needed health care, housing and schools. This curious theory proved correct and since then, the southern states and a great many poor whites elsewhere vote Republican.

The Republicans have begun to see that they have fallen into a trap of their own construction: the party of the rich, which catered to the yokels is now in danger of being taken over by the yokels... which could be catastrophic for American business interests all over the world.

We are looking at a scenario that could produce a serious mutation in the system, which, even if it doesn't make it all the way to the White House, could seriously warp America's political landscape.

Most informed observers seem to concur that high unemployment is here to stay for quite a long time. That the number of white, working poor is growing exponentially and that this group, very large although unhyphenated, with all of its former, 1930s, left wing populist fervor long since extirpated, is bereft of any ideology except charismatic Christianity; with its critical faculties dulled to disappearance by a brutish corporate entertainment culture and drugged with sentimental, xenophobic patriotism and with nowhere to go except toward racism and paranoia.

These people have no defense against globalization and the new technologies except fear and resentment. And having an African-American in the White House has destroyed the last citadel of their precarious, tattered and battered self-esteem: the thought that, no matter how far down they were, there was someone they could look down on... black people.

Incoherent, celebrating violence, sentimental, paranoiac and resentful: it's all there cooking on the stove of high unemployment.

Certainly continuing high unemployment with no relief on the horizon is the recipe for populism. Since left wing populism is out of the question in America, then it would have to be right-wing populism.

The rise of socially conservative populism is the joker in the deck that could derail globalization and interrupt the pantomime of American politics. The idea sounds fun, but the reality could be pretty terrible. DS

Thursday, September 16, 2010

American fascism and musical chairs

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I've had a few comments on my last post from people who didn't really see any similarities between today's America and Germany and Italy of the 1920s and 30s.

I'm sorry if my previous  post on American fascism wasn't as clear as I would have wished. When I talk about fascism in America I do not envision torch-lit parades of brown shirted skinheads giving the roman salute. Anything America is going to do is going to have a distinctly American flavor. I am saying that we are already there.

What you see is what you get. American fascism has already arrived and we have to deal with it.

We have to ask ourselves why people like Glen Beck, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are having such success communicating (ideas?) that any levelheaded person can easily identify as absurd, abominable, horseshit?

Why is what these creatures serve so widely consumed?

Because with limited menu choices, many people, faced with eating cold reality straight out of the can, would rather gulp down steaming horseshit, that's why.

Why is that?

What it all boils down to in the end is that the party is over, but nobody want to go home.

The era of phenomenal growth that has lasted for over 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution began, is drawing to a close. It is literally running out of gas.

From now on the world will operate more and more in the "zero-sum" mode, which is going to be like old fashioned musical chairs.

In the Industrial Revolution version of musical chairs the music hardly ever stopped and the system kept adding more and more chairs: anybody who didn't have a chair now could dream of having one in the future or at least dream of their children having chairs someday. Who cared if some had more chairs than others? Everyone was going to have some sort of chair sooner or later.

That seems finished.

Now we are going back to the classical game of musical chairs, the version we used to play as school children, where they take away the chairs when the music stops and the music stops often. You remember how it goes, more and more people are left standing.

In this new version of the old game we are playing, a few still are sitting and they are afraid that those standing will start thinking about taking their chairs away from them and sitting on them instead.

This has to be avoided at any cost.

What are the political consequences?

If people really understood that there wasn't going to be future abundance on its previous scale, that it was going to be like in a lifeboat, or like the buried miners in Chile, with only so much water and so much food, survivors would demand, as in a lifeboat, that the provisions be shared equitably. This would mean that people with huge fortunes would have to take an enormous haircut, as their abundance would have to be shared out... they don't like that idea one bit.

They don't want anybody else to like that idea either and that costs a lot of money to pull off.

The key phrase would be, "if people really understood". So it is important for those who own the chairs to keep the chairless from thinking, from understanding what their situation really is.

This is especially difficult for Americans to come to grips with, as America's whole culture, both the real everyday one and the Hollywood mythical one, are built around the idea of limitless horizons and unlimited opportunity. There has always been a lot of unreality in this, but it is the foundational myth and emotionally a very sustaining one, especially for Americans now going through a rough patch. It will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for most Americans to face the new reality soon and to think clearly about its implications.

That is what the Tea Party, Fox, etc is all about: keeping people from thinking straight. The idea is to play on people's emotions: fear, hate, racism, xenophobia, just to keep them from doing the math. The Teabaggers, Beck, Gringich and Fox are often criticized for not making any sense... this is not a failure of communication or an error on their part... that is the object of the exercise: to make rational thought difficult or impossible due to emotional overload. This is a slippery slope that usually leads a country that travels it into more emotions,  more war and less and less cool headed thinking.

This is the world that readers in their teens and twenties are going to spend the rest of their lives trying to make habitable.

We are already there.DS

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fascism is coming to the USA... Literally (no kidding)

David Seaton's News Links
I thought twice before using the word "fascism" in the title of this post, because by now the word "fascism" and "fascist" have become degraded into simply all purpose terms of abuse without any concrete meaning, except disaproval: so perhaps it might be a good thing to go straight to how  fascism is defined by former Columbia University Professor Robert O. Paxton in Wikipedia's article on the subject and see how it fits with some of what we are looking at today:
"Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."
I would say that professor Paxton's definition is a useful one and that the far right in the USA has gone through most of the steps that Paxton has outlined right up to pursuing "with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." unless, of course, you count the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act and Guantanamo, as steps in that direction.
Let's take a look at a few sentences in an essay by Dinesh D' Souza in Forbes and see how they jibe with Paxton's parameters of "community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood":
The U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father's dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost. Dinesh D'Souza - Forbes
Now, if you think that all this is too weird to be relevant, just read the comments on D' Souza's "thoughts" by one of the Republican party's guiding lights, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich quoted in The National Review:
Gingrich says that D’Souza has made a “stunning insight” into Obama’s behavior — the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama. What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.” “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich tells us. National Review
To give some more context and to heighten the flavor of Gingrich's comments, it might be useful to view a trailer of his latest film, "America at Risk", stressing professor Paxton's themes of "community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood".

What is this really all about? Why is so much money being spent to make American's angry and afraid?

Professor Paxton's text also gives us a clue, when he speaks of:
"A mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites"
Sounds a bit like the Tea Party, doesn't it?

During the Wiemar period in Germany, many of the country's richest industrialists, concerned about the rise of communism, saw fit to finance the rise of Adolph Hitler... was this a mistake on their part?

In World War Two, Germany was burnt to the ground and nearly seven million Germans died, but the families that financed Hitler such as the Krupps and the Thyssens are still some of Germany's richest citizens. I think that answers the question. Obviously the vital concerns of the super rich and those of ordinary citizens often don't coincide and the ruin of nearly everyone is not necessarily the ruin of a few.

We could use that hypothesis when studying which public affairs organizations the Koch family, for example, finance with their fortune.

Here is would be correct to note that the USSR has disappeared and with it the "international communist conspiracy" that went with it. We live in a period where the free market's hegemony is absolute. Why are rich people like the Koch's spending such sums on political agitation? What are they afraid of?

Looking through my files, I stumbled on an important article written in 2007, in my opinion one of the most important articles of our brief century, written by Martin Wolf, the head economist of the Financial Times, one the most level headed, best informed and least controversial writers on world affairs in the English language.

It seems to me that the article, which seems to have been forgotten , entitled, "Living in a Zero-Sum World", gives us the key to the "Tea Party" phenomenon and all the strange and contradictory and sometimes quite senseless, behavior we associate with it. As I hope you will see, reading the following extracts, there is method in their madness:
We live in a positive-sum world economy and have done so for about two centuries. This, I believe, is why democracy has become a political norm, empires have largely vanished, legal slavery and serfdom have disappeared and measures of well-being have risen almost everywhere. What then do I mean by a positive-sum economy? It is one in which everybody can become better off. It is one in which real incomes per head are able to rise indefinitely. How long might such a world last, and what might happen if it ends?
Obviously the idea that we may coming to a point where an irresistible force, our (over) capacity to produce is running into an immovable object, our finite energy resources and the disastrous effect of global warming. This puts into question the entire idea of a "positive-sum" world, and in many ways takes us back to the times before the Industrial Revolution. Here is what Wolf has to say (emphasis mine):
"A zero-sum economy leads, inevitably, to repression at home and plunder abroad. In traditional agrarian societies the surpluses extracted from the vast majority of peasants supported the relatively luxurious lifestyles of military, bureaucratic and noble elites. The only way to increase the prosperity of an entire people was to steal from another one. (...) Democratic politics became increasingly workable because it was feasible for everybody to become steadily better off.(...) in the new positive-sum world, elites were willing to tolerate the enfranchisement of the masses. The fact that they no longer depended on forced labour made this shift easier still. Consensual politics, and so democracy, became the political norm.(...) The biggest point about debates on climate change and energy supply is that they bring back the question of limits. If, for example, the entire planet emitted CO2 at the rate the US does today, global emissions would be almost five times greater. The same, roughly speaking, is true of energy use per head. This is why climate change and energy security are such geopolitically significant issues. For if there are limits to emissions, there may also be limits to growth. But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart. Intense distributional conflicts must then re-emerge – indeed, they are already emerging – within and among countries." Martin Wolf - Financial Times
The bottom line that ties together all the above quotes are the taboo words, "class struggle" or what Martin Wolf artfully calls, "intense distributional conflicts."
"if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart"
What does Martin Wolf mean by the "underpinnings of our world"? The great (huge understatement) British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, puts it this way in "The Age of Revolution":
"... some time in the 1780s, and for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies, which henceforth became capable of the constant, rapid and up to the present llimitless multiplication of men, goods and services."
This is the world we have lived in since the end of the 18th century, we know no other and it is predicated on limitless growth. Limitlessness is an article of faith, so is optimism. 

In an article from the Weekly Standard from all the way back in 2005 there is a relevant paragraph on this optimism and the conflict that is brewing today:
"...the core of the GOP's support turns out to be drawn from "Enterprisers," affluent, optimistic, and staunchly conservative on economic and social issues alike. Enterprisers represent just 11 percent of registered voters--and apart from them, the most reliable GOP voters are Social Conservatives (13 percent of registered voters) and Pro-Government Conservatives (10 percent of voters). Both groups are predominantly female (Enterprisers are overwhelmingly male); both are critical of big business; and both advocate more government involvement to alleviate the economic risks faced by a growing number of families. "
I'm sure my readers will have noticed that whenever you talk to one of these "Enterprisers", they invariably pooh pooh any doubts about the sustainability of our system. These people have a taliban-like faith that there will always be a technological solution to any "limit" that might ever pop up.

Until recently this optimism was not confined to the Rotarian, Republican, booster crowd, it was also an article of faith of the left. Every Soviet five year plan that ever was, was filled with this very same optimism. Up till recently the only argument between the left and the right on the question of growth was to whom would fall the privilege of fulfilling mankind's destiny to soar ever upward on the wings of growing productivity... and the right is the last man standing.

At this point, as the evidence of the reality of global warming piles up, most of these optimists are whistling past the graveyard or in denial. Some of them, however, may be prudently planning for the future.

Martin Wolf is the chief economist of the Financial Times and a wonderful journalist. In his work: at international conferences, and over a thousand dinner tables and at countless coffee sessions, he comes into daily contact with some of the most wealthy and powerful men and women in the world and those that serve them. Wolf hears them speak and most of all picks up their body language, their silences and vibrations. His article on "limits", which I am quoting abundantly is the cri de coeur of a man who, though not wealthy and powerful himself, knows the ways of the wealthy and powerful as no other does... with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch's butler. For the language of a sedate, financial newspaper, Wolf practically weeps:
"The response of many, notably environmentalists and people with socialist leanings, is to welcome such conflicts. These, they believe, are the birth-pangs of a just global society. I strongly disagree. It is far more likely to be a step towards a world characterised by catastrophic conflict and brutal repression. This is why I sympathise with the hostile response of classical liberals and libertarians to the very notion of such limits, since they view them as the death-knell of any hopes for domestic freedom and peaceful foreign relations."
If we examine what Martin Wolf is saying logically, not even really reading between the lines, this supremely informed man is declaring that he knows that, before they will ever pay Scandinavian like income taxes, drive small cars and wear sweaters around the house on cold winter days, the elites of the United States will create a police state and go to war endlessly to dominate the resource rich areas of the world. Hyperbole? Examine George W. Bush's presidency in that light and perhaps Dubya may not really have been as dumb as he looked.. Or maybe he was more like what May West once said about Ronald Reagan, "dumb but willing."

At this juncture, the elites of the Republican Party begins to separate from their middle class and working class base and the only way to keep them on board would be endless war and endless fear. Terror and paranoia,
what moldy old Marxists used to call, "false consciousness", may be the key to this year's and the 2012 election.

The Republican Party, to use another worn but useful Marxist term, has entered into contradiction with itself and using Wolf's analysis as our text, is probably going to finally tear itself apart. Unfortunately I don't think the Democrats will ever have the chops to pick up the pieces.

I think that without pulling any rhetorical rabbits out of hats, Martin Wolf's insights give a clear idea of what is going on in the American right and why they are acting so strangely lately. DS

Monday, September 13, 2010

Erdogan and the future of... Egypt

 "For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations." George W. Bush, Speech to UN General Assembly, September 21, 2004
David Seaton's News Links
Bush was actually right when he said that democracy would change the Muslim world, he just muffed the details a bit.
I'm surprised that the son of the only president of the USA to have ever headed the CIA could have been so naive about how American foreign policy actually works. I guess this was just another one of Dubya's many oedipal issues.
I'm in the midst of reading a very interesting book that came into my hands; "For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (Dad)", from way back in 1996, written by British historian, Christopher Andrew. It contains the following priceless quote, "The most powerful government ever to fall as a result of covert action was the administration of Richard Nixon." Not for want of trying all around the world, he might have added, (he does actually and in great and fascinating detail).
During the Cold War military dictatorships that were convincingly anticommunist, like Franco's  in Spain, had a blank check from the USA  to repress their populations and regimes that voted the way they weren't supposed to, like Chile, or looked like moving to the left, like Indonesia, got military dictatorships in short order: the list of these countries is very long.  Summing up, the USA has a long and varied tradition of supporting military establishments in repressing any democratic, civilian dissent, if it didn't jibe with what Washington perceived as US interests.
This is part of what is extraordinary about Erdogan moving as far as he has, at the same time confronting Israel over Gaza, and, with Brazil (another Cold War, ex-military dictatorship), voting against US sponsored Iran sanctions in the UN, he is also apparently being allowed to bring the Turkish armed forces, which have always been seen in Washington as the guarantor of Turkey's modern (read pro-American and pro-Israeli) foreign policy under civilian control.

In short. the United States has always supported the Turkish army's ultimate control of Turkish life and now the generals are being hung out to dry.

Now, it must be said that the Turkish army has in no way hindered Turkey's modernization, quite the contrary. That has never been the issue. The Turkish army has been the guardians of the legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a secular nationalist bent on turning Turkey into a modern European country, despite the continuing traditionalist piety of Turkey's masses. The irony is that the culminating of  Atatürk's ambition of European-ization, joining the European Union, is helping an Islamist-traditionalist political party to disassemble the Kemalist, pro-western, power structure.

Here is a little light reading on Erdogan's referendum:
The referendum result is a triumph for Erdogan's ideology. It's hard to imagine the heads of Turkey's army plotting another coup, given that the reforms now allow them to be tried in civilian court, or the country's high court banning certain political parties as it has in the past.(...) Erdogan will remain hated by the Turkish secular elite, which is concentrated in the army, universities and business community. But he is beloved by Turkey's poorer, devout periphery. The prime minister has straightened the backbone of the marginalized, and in return has received their undying loyalty. Haaretz
In a largely Muslim country that sits at the crossroads of East and West, Turks who treasure secular rule are again warning about a “creeping coup” of political Islam. (...) In truth, the constitutional changes conform to democratic norms. They strengthen individual rights, privacy, and unions. They bring the military – which ousted four governments in the last 50 years – further under civilian control. But the abstract truth is not the same as the political reality in Turkey. The reality is that this is a polarized country, with a large segment of the population increasingly mistrusting of the government. Editorial - Christian Science Monitor
Logically one could suppose that, either the American leopard has changed its spots, has had a massive change of heart and has become willing to let the democratic chips of the world fall where they may, or that perhaps, the US feet are slipping off the pedals of the world's bicycle... (How's that for assaulting and battering a couple of helpless metaphors?).

Now, as important a client as the Turkish army is, there are much more important ones, if money is the measure. Of course, it goes without saying that Israel is the number one recipient of America's military aid, but number two is Egypt and according to the New York Times, Egypt's military consider Israel their "primary threat". Now it would seem obvious to me that the US has not given the Egyptian armed forces some $40 billion dollars over thirty years just to protect them from the Israelis, when it could have been done much more cheaply by simply giving less money to the Israelis.  So it stands to reason that the Egyptian armed forces are receiving the money in order to make it easier for them to control Egypt. Here is how it all works:
 (T)he rules that apply to the rest of Egypt do not apply to the military, still the single most powerful institution in an autocratic state facing its toughest test in decades, an imminent presidential succession.(...)Technically, Egyptian voters will determine their next leader in the 2011 elections, but in practice the governing party’s candidate is almost certain to win. The real succession struggle will take place behind closed doors, and that is where the military would try to assure its continued status or even try to block Mr. Mubarak’s son Gamal.(...) The military has much to lose in the transition, these officers and analysts say. Over the years, one-man rule eviscerated Egypt’s civilian institutions, creating a vacuum at the highest levels of government that the military willingly filled. “There aren’t any civilian institutions to fall back on,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about the Egyptian military.(...) The beneficiary of nearly $40 billion in American aid over the last 30 years, the Egyptian military has turned into a behemoth that controls not only security and a burgeoning defense industry, but has also branched into civilian businesses like road and housing construction, consumer goods and resort management.  New York Times
Egypt, like Turkey, is a large and important country. Culturally Egypt is by far the most important Arab state and significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood has its origins there. Quite a few knowledgeable observers think that, if free and fair elections were ever held in Egypt the Brotherhood would win them. That would explain this further snippet from the New York Times:
The military interprets its writ broadly. A retired army general, Hosam Sowilam, recently said the army would step in “with force if necessary” to stop the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, from ascending to power.
In fact elections are to be held in Egypt next year, because the ancient dictator, Hosni Mubarak, is ailing, but it would be a miracle if the coming elections turned out to be "free and fair".
(Nobel Laureate and) Former UN nuclear weapons chief and prominent Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei (...) warned that the (Egyptian) poll would be marred by fraud, and that "anyone who participates in the vote either as a candidate or a voter goes against the national will". He went on to claim that the three-decade rule of president Hosni Mubarak was a "decaying, nearly collapsing temple", and promised activists that regime change was possible in the coming year. Guardian
Sufficient to say that if a process similar to Turkey's were to take place in Egypt -- and although it is a vastly different country from Turkey, the human resources exist in Egypt to make it happen -- all bets would be off in the Middle East.
I have no idea what form a free and democratic Egyptian government would take, only that a country of the size and cultural power of Egypt following the desires of its people would change the entire region in days.
It will be interesting to hear Secretary of State Clinton's comments on Turkey and even more interesting to hear her comments on Egypt and its democratic process... if she makes any. DS

Friday, September 10, 2010

9-11: Nine Years On

David Seaton's News Links
Seen through a cloud of burning Koran smoke, nine years on and counting, most Americans still have no real idea what happened on the eleventh of September in 2001 or why it happened.

The big mistake almost all Americans make when contemplating 9-11 is to think that we were attacked, when if fact we were counterattacked. Americans have been just too self-absorbed to ever know, or even probably care what was being done all over the world in their name. We have been blithely pushing ourselves into other cultures, into other traditions and other economies without ever thinking that this might have painful consequences or that those offended could ever really hit back in a meaningful way. And now that the new technologies have made it possible, we are surprised that somebody who drinks the same Coke we do could explode right next to us.

9/11 was basically imperial blow back, as if Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse could have raided Wall Street with a Sioux war party in the 1870s. The seeds for the attacks on Manhattan and Washington were planted when the United States of America took over Britain and France's imperial role in the Middle East after World War II.  The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union  left the anti-imperialist movement without a superpower patron and overseer and the ideological packaging that went with it.

The anti-imperialist movement has existed since the local (called "native") elites of the European colonies absorbed the western concept of nationalism, it certainly was not invented by the USSR, who used it as a weapon against the "free world". When the USSR went down, opening the way for globalization, the national liberation movements were orphaned and, like orphans, those who wanted to continue to struggle against imperialism had to make their own way in the world.

"Imperialism" here is taken to mean the domination of non-Christian, non-European peoples, by European or Euro-American-Christians (since roughly the 1950s the Jewish people of the United States under the neologism, "Judeo-Christian" have been given the status of "honorary Christians", in much the same way that the Japanese were considered "honorary whites" under the former apartheid regime of South Africa). Certainly for the inhabitants of Muslim countries the distinction between Zionists (read Jews) and "crusaders" (read Christians) has become rather blurred over time.

At first the political tools used by "third world" countries to resist this domination were nationalism (emphasizing local sovereignty, UN seat, nationalized-socialized economy, etc.) and in many cases simultaneous alignment with the Soviet block in "national liberation struggles". In order to weaken the allure of left-wing nationalism, the United States and her allies often encouraged Islamic fundamentalism and encouraged the growth of movements such as the Taliban, Hamas and Hizbullah. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of globalization, secular nationalism and socialism lost practically all their usefulness as tools for loosening the grip of aliens on the economies, lives and customs of non-"European" peoples.

However, by now, many Muslims have discovered that, for better or worse, Islam is the one idea, culture and "way of life" that cannot be dissolved or co-opted by the omnivorous powers of synthesis and the economic and military hegemony of the "New World Order". Thus, as day follows night, with nowhere else to turn, "Islam is the Answer" has now become the default slogan of anti-imperialism among Muslims and may, who knows, begin to resonate among disaffected, heretofore non-Muslims, that find themselves helpless victims of American-led globalization.

What makes the situation today more explosive than the cold war is the difference in ideological potency between Islam and Marxist-Leninism. Marxist-Leninism had a great attraction for young, nationalist intellectual elites in the third world and gave them an organizational structure, international connections and financing for forming a revolutionary vanguard and cadres.

However Marxism never had much attraction in itself for the masses in Muslim countries (or any other for that matter) and neither did proletarian internationalism. A traditional "ultra-nationalist-international" is a contradiction in terms. But, Islam squares that circle: Islam works on the level of the most militant, nationalist chauvinism, while at the same time being totally international constantly searching for common denominators among Muslims everywhere.

In the cold war equation there was no wild card factor like Israel, which, with the demise of South African apartheid, can be seen as the last "western colony" left standing, something, which at the same time stimulates nationalist and internationalist feelings among the masses and elites alike in Muslim countries. This is what makes political Islam so revolutionary... Really, all that was necessary was to add modern communications (Internet, with its social networks and chat rooms and Satellite TV) to  the Israel/Palestinian/Iraq conflict for the waiting Umma to get to critical mass.

This is the context that made Osama bin Laden's "super stardom" possible.
Through the initial spending of a few hundred thousand dollars, training and then sacrificing 19 of his foot soldiers, bin Laden has watched his relatively tiny and all but anonymous organization of a few hundred zealots turn into the most recognized international franchise since McDonald's. Could any enemy of the United States have achieved more with less?  Ted Koppel - Washington Post
Al Qaeda exists because of a political failure that goes back many years. A political failure born of contempt for a stubborn culture's refusal to bend its neck to "reality".

At the heart of the GWOT is a rebellion of the most proactive, hard core and daring of the Muslim world against Western domination of their space. Once that political failure connects with a plan to attack it, organizations will spring up spontaneously to continue that attack.

Religion in itself is not really the only driving force here, but rather serves as the ideological adhesive to articulate a cultural rebellion that cuts across nationalities and ethnic groups and welds them into a force for violent change. Osama's Islam replaces Marxist-Leninism and nationalism, all of which have failed to free Muslim countries from their perceived oppression. Tied to the newest technologies the ancient concept of the Muslim Umma is proving more potent than any imported ideology ever was.

I agree with Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson, who thinks that Osama Bin Laden is in reality more a "Leninist" than a religious leader. Just as Lenin was first a revolutionary and second a Marxist. Bin Laden's Islam structures his proud rebelliousness. Bin Laden shares with Lenin the rather unique ability to see revolutionary possibilities where others see only backward and illiterate masses and then to craft an organization and an ideology to fit that vision... and he also shares Lenin's "just do it" insistence on action instead of endless talk.

Americans love to personalize things, but important as they are, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are more symptoms than causes.

Today in countries like Egypt even moderate Muslims, people that don't plan on ever putting a bomb in their jockey shorts, are wearing beards and hijabs and chorusing, "Islam is the answer": They see it as a vaccine against being digested and assimilated and then excreted by the dynamics of globalization.

Are Muslims just being insanely paranoiac when they accuse the United States of trying to "destroy" Islam?

In my opinion, yes and no. "Yes", from the American point of view, where we think it jolly nice if some people go to church on Sunday, others go to temple on Saturday and, what the heck, others can go to mosque on Friday if they want to... but for the rest of what is left of the week, it is business as usual or else.

"No", from the point of view of many Muslims, if by "to destroy" means "to trivialize" their religion, which, in their view, is a seven day, 24 hour a day project, which is the arbiter of all human affairs. This is contrary to the rules of our economic system: within globalization the "market" has taken on the role that Islam assigns to God. Therefore Islam being indigestible in its present form must be reshaped or "Disneyfied" if you will. Except it can't be and still be Islam.

More than confronting the American people themselves, it seems to me that Muslim fundamentalists are confronting history's most powerful exponent of a system that was once described as turning "all that is solid into air", leaving commerce as the fundamental activity of all human beings. If we consider in what shape our economic system has left the teachings of Jesus Christ, perhaps the Muslims aren't as far off target as they appear at first glance.

If you stop and think about it, every traditional relationship between human beings that ever existed anywhere, clan, tribe, nationality, religion, family authority, has been either dissolved or degraded by our economic system: this is what we have lost in exchange for our standard of living. We happen to be cool with that, but not everybody else is.

Be that as it may, the principal objective of Muslim fundamentalists, in my opinion, is to eject an alien civilization (us), and all those who empower it (ME, American client regimes), from the spiritual-emotional center of Islam. At heart this is just an continuation of the dismantling of the Euro-American (white) domination of the world that began at the end of WWII, a domination which globalization has given a new breath of life.

So basically this is yet another "national liberation struggle". If we look at the cost-effectiveness of everything Al Qaeda have done since the attack on the USS Cole and the African embassies and compare it with the sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people to finally gain their independence, I imagine that sooner or later the Muslim fundamentalists are going to succeed in driving us out of the Middle East.

What happens then?

Obviously if there is a general Islamist revolution in the Middle East followed by the Magreb, with America's client regimes falling like dominoes, it would have the immediate effect of pushing the price of oil through the roof and that alone would bring on a major economic crisis. It would be every man for himself as Europe, Japan and China scrambled to assure their energy supplies. This might bring protectionism roaring in, if it didn't start a series of wars. Israel, of course, might always do something crazy, but I think that in such a situation, observers might be amazed at how "prudent" the Israelis could be, if Egypt, Jordan and Syria, for example, fell to the Muslim Brotherhood in short succession.

Whatever finally happened, the period of transformation would be a harrowing, violent roller coaster ride, however, when the transformation had been completed, we would find the resulting situation:
  • The new rulers would immediately have to find some way of feeding their populations
  • The only thing they would have to sell to feed them would be oil. 
  • The thirst of the developed and developing nations for oil would be as great as ever.
In those three points we have the makings of a workable peace.

What would that peace look like?

The best model I can think of would be some Muslim/post-Christian version of the Treaty of Westphalia, a miracle of diplomacy whereby Protestants and Catholics managed to end the "Thirty Years War", religious conflict in Europe, and perhaps most importantly enshrined the idea of state's non-meddling in the internal affairs of other states. This idea of inviolable sovereignty had managed to limp along for hundreds of years until Bush and Blair under aegis of the neocons trashed it... with the results we are living with today.

In some perfect neo-Westphalian world, the Muslim minority of Europe would be allowed to practice their religion in peace and the Christian and Jewish minorities in the Middle East practice theirs. Too good to be true? Well, the part about Christians and Jews being able to practice their religions in peace in the Middle East is a workmanlike description of how the Ottoman empire worked, otherwise how do you think that 19th century Zionist settlers under the patronage of the Rothschilds were allowed to settle in Palestine in the first place?

The bit about the Ottoman empire being a place where the three religions "of the book" lived in peace is why, contrary to many commentators, I view very favorably Turkey's moves to cool their relations with Israel and reclaim a prominent place in the world of Islam. Turkey's role in the post-American-hegemony, multipolar world of compartmentalized and case by case globalization is a key one.

Of course the joker in the deck is Israel. There is always a possibility that Israel, finding itself "eyeless in Gaza", might Samson-like pull the whole thing down around their ears, but I don't think so. I imagine rather that there will be a series of tipping points, where American public opinion visibly sours on Israel's involving the US in an endless, fruitless series of wars that deteriorate America's power and endanger American lives, combined with the aforesaid rise of Islamic republics in the Middle East and the Magreb... not to mention Iran's future possession of the atomic bomb, followed closely by Egypt and Saudi Arabia (then probably called the Islamic Republic of Mecca and Medina). These tipping points will send many Israelis with double nationality heading for the doors and make it obvious to those who stay that a more accommodating manner of behavior, shall we say, is now required.

Summing up, the years ahead will surely be horrible and dangerous, like the period of the above mentioned Thirty Years War, but the peace that may follow it, like the peace that followed that endless religious war, could be very stable and last for quite a long time. DS

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Burning a Koran in a crowded theater

"America - the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."
Sinclair Lewis's Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1930
Sinclair Lewis should rise from his grave, have a stiff drink and write up the following story:
A small US church says it will defy international condemnation and go ahead with plans to burn copies of the Koran on the 9/11 anniversary. The top US commander in Afghanistan warned troops' lives would be in danger if the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida went ahead. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the church's plan was "disrespectful and disgraceful". Muslim countries and Nato have also hit out at the move. And the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, called the idea "idiotic and dangerous". But organiser, Pastor Terry Jones said: "We must send a clear message to the radical element of Islam." News Item - BBC News

(...) Terry Jones, the pastor of a tiny Florida church with just three or four dozen members, whose every stray thought on the subject of Koran burning is now reported each day by thousands of news organizations worldwide, has proved himself to be a master of public relations. On Wednesday, Mr. Jones — currently the subject of 4,102 news stories linked to by Google News — told the world that he would press ahead with the publicity stunt he announced in July - New York Times

The White House says an American church's threat to burn copies of the Muslim holy book could endanger U.S. troops serving overseas, and the State Department denounced the plan as "un-American." Associated Press

(New York) Mayor Bloomberg said Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who plans on a Koran-burning rally on Saturday's 9/11 anniversary, has every right to burn the sacred books – even though he finds it distasteful. New York Daily News
David Seaton's News Links
The story of the Koran burning, Florida pastor, Terry Jones, is having a massive, worldwide, media repercussion. There are riots in diverse places in Muslim countries and American public figures from the White House to Hillary Clinton, to the American commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, even Angelina Jolie, all have had their say in the matter.

However, when you come right down to it, the name of the church in question, "The Dove World Outreach Center" is almost longer than a list of its members... There are little more than fifty parishioners involved in this! For me, that is the story: how the media has taken up this malignant goofiness  and given this pitiful rustic the worldwide "fifteen minutes of fame" that the late Andy Warhol said finally awaits us all.

Sociologically speaking, I find it passing strange that a church made up of poor, white, southerners, America's traditional military caste, would do anything that the American army says could put the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy. I could just as easily imagine President Obama's former pastor, the Right Reverend Jeremiah Wright, burning a cross in front of Chicago's, Trinity United Church of Christ. None of this makes any sense.

In short: the story is the story is the story is the story... that all over the world we are talking about this clown and his tiny band of imbeciles is the real story. DS

Saturday, September 04, 2010

What makes the Kochs and the neocons nervous enough to spend so much money

David Seaton's News Links
If you study the following two clippings from the UK's Guardian and from Germany's Der Spiegel you can why the Kochs, libertarians of every stripe, AIPAC and the neocons, have every reason to have (as the British would put it) their knickers in a twist.
Speculation that government ministers are far more concerned about a future supply crunch than they have admitted has been fueled by the revelation that they are canvassing views from industry and the scientific community about "peak oil".(...) Experts say they have received a letter from David Mackay, chief scientific adviser to the DECC, asking for information and advice on peak oil amid a growing campaign from industrialists such as Sir Richard Branson for the government to put contingency plans in place to deal with any future crisis. Guardian
A study by a German military think tank has analyzed how "peak oil" might change the global economy. The internal draft document -- leaked on the Internet -- shows for the first time how carefully the German government has considered a potential energy crisis.(...) The scenarios outlined by the Bundeswehr Transformation Center are drastic. Even more explosive, politically, are recommendations to the government that the energy experts have put forward based on these scenarios. They argue that "states dependent on oil imports" will be forced to "show more pragmatism toward oil-producing states in their foreign policy." Political priorities will have to be somewhat subordinated, they claim, to the overriding concern of securing energy supplies. (Germany) would also have to show more restraint in its foreign policy toward Israel, to avoid alienating Arab oil-producing nations. Unconditional support for Israel and its right to exist is currently a cornerstone of German foreign policy. (...) "A readjustment of Germany's Middle East policy … in favor of more intensive relations with producer countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have the largest conventional oil reserves in the region, might put a strain on German-Israeli relations, depending on the intensity of the policy change," the authors write. Der Spiegel
I don't ever write about Peak Oil, because, among my many odd jobs, (some odder than others), for over ten years I have been doing news aggregation for a major Spanish energy futures portal and have had to read hundreds and hundreds of articles about oil during those years. I also have friends who are real industry experts on the subject (I just know what I read in the papers) and up till now "received" opinion is that Peak Oil is tinfoil-hatsville, and so I stay away from it. But, these two articles in publications that I respect have made me realize that the subject is now being discussed at (gasp) the highest levels.

OK, so the cat is out of the bag.

Let's look at what this might entail. As the first clipping from Der Spiegel points out, Peak Oil's effects touch the Zionist third rail of course, which explains some of the neocon's skittishness, but what about the Koch's end of the coalition of freedom loving Americans?

Der Spiegel with Teutonic thoroughness, spells out what The Guardian, with British understatement merely hints at. Check this list.  I have taken the liberty of putting some emphasis here and there.
  • Market failures: The authors paint a bleak picture of the consequences resulting from a shortage of petroleum. As the transportation of goods depends on crude oil, international trade could be subject to colossal tax hikes. "Shortages in the supply of vital goods could arise" as a result, for example in food supplies. Oil is used directly or indirectly in the production of 95% of all industrial goods. Price shocks could therefore be seen in almost any industry and throughout all stages of the industrial supply chain. "In the medium term the global economic system and every market-oriented national economy would collapse."
  • Relapse into planned economy: Since virtually all economic sectors rely heavily on oil, peak oil could lead to a "partial or complete failure of markets," says the study. "A conceivable alternative would be government rationing and the allocation of important goods or the setting of production schedules and other short-term coercive measures to replace market-based mechanisms in times of crisis."(five year plans?)
  • Crisis of political legitimacy: The Bundeswehr study also raises fears for the survival of democracy itself. Parts of the population could comprehend the upheaval trigged by peak oil "as a general systemic crisis." This would create "room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government." Fragmentation of the affected population is likely and could "in extreme cases lead to open conflict.
What does all this mean, really

Doomsters like James Kunstler and Dimitri Orlov, especially Kuntsler, paint the oil-less future as some sort of survivalist's Arcadia, where self-reliant citizens, grow vegetables,  sew their own clothes and do a lot of carpentry without power tools. I think the post-Peak Oil world will look more like the following story:

A man is walking home from work, when he sees a long line forming in front of a government store, he asks the people what they are in line for and they tell him "lemons"... Frantically he runs home, arriving much earlier than normal, and finds his wife in bed with his next door neighbor, confronting them furiously he shouts:
What are you doing here, don't you know that today they are selling lemons?
This is a classic joke from the now defunct German Democratic Republic.

What brought the GDR down and the rest of Really Existing Socialism, including the USSR along with it, was not really people's chaffing under the repression of totalitarianism, but rather our system's miraculous ability to produce and distribute an infinite variety of affordable consumer goods, which their godless, planned economy couldn't. Free health care, social equality, guaranteed employment, good schools (Angela Merkel graduated from the University of Leipzig) and guaranteed housing couldn't compete with our cornucopia.

The essence of our system is a quite recent -- and never before in history achieved -- endless variety of things, many of them amazingly cheap, to choose from.  Think about it, you wander into a shopping mall looking to buy some deodorant and you'll be forced to choose between dozens of different brands at many different prices until you find exactly the one that suits your pocketbook or your "unique lifestyle" and image. You can eat your favorite fruit at any time of the year, flown in from the other side of the planet. This is freedom! This cornucopic miracle is all about logistics and logistics depends on oil.

No oil means either starvation or what are you doing here, don't you know that today they are selling lemons?

If Peak Oil finally happens we will be looking at some stark choices: whether we serve the Koch's as slaves or serve the Kochs boiled, baked or fricasseed. I can easily imagine which outcome they would prefer we chose.

I'm sure the Kochs know more about oil than Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change or Germany's Bundeswehr combined and the Koch family's intervention in America's political life may be explained by that knowledge and by every good businessman's effort to produce predictable outcomes. DS

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Kochs: paying to keep America dumb

AJ Goode and his wife Mary who live in a shelter in Los Angeles - BBC News

David Seaton's News Links
Around the world people ask themselves, if Americans are so dumb, why is the country so rich? Americans are not really born that stupid, but making them stupid is a huge industry.

The Koch Brothers are leaders in that industry.

At this juncture, the interests of America's wealthy are totally separate from those of the middle class and working class base  just as they would be in a third world autocracy and the only way for them to keep the hoi poloi on board, in what is still formally a democracy, is by endless war, endless fear and xenophobia. That is why so much is being spent on think tanks and AstroTurf organizations.

Two things strike me right off the bat:
  1. It costs a huge amount of money to get people to vote and to be organized against their own vital interests.
  2. I believe it would be absurdly cheap to demolish the entire Koch strategy.
Knowing how vulnerable and absurd their ideas are is why people like the Kochs are more than willing to spend that type of money, just as the Dutch are willing to spend a fortune to be able to live below sea level or why it costs more money to fly in a plane than to fall off a cliff, because they all entail thwarting the natural tendency of things.

What is the tendency of our world, where is it headed?

Anyone who is paying attention realizes that the world of the future is going to be so dangerous and so complex, what with climate change, wars for food and water and genetic manipulation, that it is either going to be heavily regulated or it will be a hell that will make Blade Runner look like Hannah Montana. The Kochs are obviously cool with that, with their kind of money they will live well in an America filled with the desperately poor, just like Mexican or African billionaires do in their countries, but they are smart enough to realize that if most people ever came to their senses they would not be one bit enthusiastic for such a program. So a huge amount of money is being spent to keep people from understanding reality and to ridicule those who do.

You have to ask yourself how an espèce d'ordure like George W. Bush ever got elected president and stayed president in the first place and then accept that those very same forces are still at work today.

The big question is...

Why can't the Democrats who were once supposed to be the "people's party", come up with candidates that connect solidly with "deep" America.

How is it that a piece of work like Sarah Palin is the one who isn't (wasn't) a millionaire, the one who went to a state university, the one who was a commercial fisherman, (fisherperson?) served on the PTA and whose husband carries a steelworker's union card? Why is this objectively working class woman a Republican of the most brutish sort?

Why is it that the only Democrat that seems acutely aware of this problem is a born aristocrat like Howard Dean?

This is the real question.

Can you have a working class movement without the working class?

To paraphrase the demon Rumsfeld, you go with the working class you have, not with the working class you would like to have.

America's working people are in desperate need of health, education and welfare, but they are also mostly social conservatives. They generally are religious.

Why should this social conservatism and religiosity automatically be a force for economic reaction? Why should this folk culture serve the interests of people like the truly elitist Koch brothers, who are objectively the enemies of the working poor?

There is nothing in the teaching of Jesus Christ that intrinsically supports economic libertarianism, xenophobia, racism, military adventures at the expense of health or education, or connects in any way with the beggar thy neighborism of the disciples of Ayn Rand.

Imagine how the following text would sit with Ayn Rand or the Koch Brothers, in fact, can you imagine it being spoken at Tea Party event?
'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.' Matthew 25:41-45
Or these
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. Proverbs 21:13

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. Proverbs 14:31

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses. Proverbs 28:27

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Deuteronomy 24:14
(Hat to Scott Manley)
I believe that it is no coincidence that more emphasis is usually given in the USA to the apocalyptic "the end of days" scenario, than to the Biblical quotes above. Even the age old religion of the have nots in today's America has to be warped to suit the needs of those who have.

Certainly there is no better country than America in the whole world to be rich. It is probably the only country in the world where the rich are loved. Conversely there is no worse country in the world to be poor. America's working poor have every reason to be paranoid, the system literally hates them.

Religion and populism go hand in hand. "Religion is the opium of the people" in the same sense that "opium is the opium of the cancer patient". At issue is pain, if you propose no real cure for the disease, why begrudge the palliative drug? Jesus offers a far better deal for the working poor than the Tea Party does.

Many progressives have problems with all of this, they are repelled by what they consider the gross superstition of creationism, for example. As to evolution, however, if the Democrats want to ever win southern white people or even a lot of evangelical black people, they had better not put evolution at the center of their program, More than religious, this is a cultural thing. Poor people never have liked Darwinism very much... think about it. What does "survival of the fittest" hold for them? What is their role in "the devil take the hindmost"?

Why are so many of the poor of America, white and black, socially conservative? Because without a welfare state, the only institutions that offer any comfort or protection are the church and the family. The family is the first welfare state. In the USA there is no welfare state and the family is also under heavy pressure from the system. Single parent families are increasingly common, The United States has the highest percentage of single-parent families (34% in 1998) among developed countries. The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, twice that of Denmark, Canada, or the United Kingdom. The divorce rate is highest among lower income couples. With reason, poor people in America are terrified: frightened people take comfort where they can. A divorced waitress with two kids who has to take them to an emergency room to treat their asthma can't be criticized for being a "Left Behind" enthusiast: she and her kids fly up to heaven and the stingy tippers go to hell.

The Evangelicals love for creationism and the literal reading of scripture is because the Bible trumps the "experts"... any hick quoting the good book is superior to a PhD from MIT quoting Darwin. The same psychology holds true for "Rapture" enthusiasts, they will be saved, taken directly up to heaven and all the people who have ever treated them so shabbily here on earth will suffer indescribable torment and humiliation, which the chosen will be able to watch from heaven. This is a form of sedition.

I find any rebellion of the "lower orders" in the USA positive per se. I start from the premise that it is really the poor, the sniggered at, the excluded and the disadvantaged -- what are called the "lower classes" -- that have to be the protagonists of any authentic change. Up till now, all the "struggle" is coming from the top against the down. And many middle class Democrats that think they are progressives are merely water carriers for the "one percent".

What is new is that now it is America's lower middle classes, once the envy of the entire world, that can't pay for health and education any more and find themselves losing their homes and being pushed toward pauperization.

How can the billionaire's conspiracy be defeated on the cheap? 

You have to start from where you are.

Perhaps the only thing that the white, black and Latino populations really have in common is their fear of destitution and their faith in Jesus.

The basic message of Christianity, especially the Evangelical variety, is that Jesus died in great agony on the cross to redeem those who believe in him, out of pure love for each of them, one at a time, although they have done nothing in particular to deserve this, the most precious of rewards.... and it's free... an "unlimited offer".

This means that a person who has been "born again", no matter if they are fat or have bad breath or don't have a high pay grade, are beloved and unique in the eyes of the central figure of Western civilization. Some may not think this is so special but they might admit that it is a culturally more grounded reason to feel special than because the brand of underwear they have on reflects their "unique lifestyle".

That is why, despite much of the grotesque tackiness and fanaticism of some of it, that, at the risk of sounding condescending, I find the Evangelical movement filled with such promise, because it alone, even without knowing it, is the only serious rebellion against the "unhappiness principal" that drives American capitalism. The entire American economy is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure. Americans are hardly ever away from a voice that tells them that they don't measure up to some impossible standard of perfection. The message is like the song, "all in all you're just another brick in the wall" ...unless you buy what the voice is selling.

The sort of Christianity practiced by America's charismatic Christians, both black and white, means that joy can be found for free... this is positively "un-American".

That is why I think that some sort of "liberation theology" is finally going to the only idea or movement that is going to change America. I'm sure that most of the Evangelicals that were attending the Republican convention would be horrified to know that British Socialism has its deepest roots in the Baptist and Methodist chapels of Wales and the industrial north of England. But there is no reason to believe that someone who drove the money changers out of the temple is a fan of Ayn Rand's.

I think that America's most deeply rooted institutions are now in conflict with our modern, globalized economy or as Joe Sleeper says:

(...) obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin's small-town America and Obama's urban America, a capital whose injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character.
There has to be found or be created, an overlap between American progressives and the Evangelicals.

There has to be rebellion for anything to happen and the culture of the people has to be taken into account. The lower middle class and poor people of America are religious and we have to start from there. The only strategy that will ever reverse the enormous inequality and the oppression of the poor in the USA is an American version of "Liberation Theology".

And remember it is cheap, really cheap, there are over 2000 years of what an MBA would call "sunk costs" working for it.

You don't believe in any of it?

No problem.

If you are truly progressive and want to change the system, then you should say like Henry of Navarre, "Paris vaut bien une messe"... Or study up on "Pascal's Wager".

Like Howard Dean, I believe that America's progressives have to make their peace with evangelical America and find defenders of the "little man" that vibrate in the same cultural key as they do. Where is a contemporary William Jennings Bryan? It is absurd that a credible case can be made that the Democrats are elitist, but it is being made effectively every day of the week. DS