Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2015 - I can't breathe... Can you?

My clearest reading of 2014's tea leaves is "instability": worldwide instability and in my opinion this instability has its origins at the heart of the most developed economies of the western world. The causes? We are undergoing a technological revolution and process of globalized outsourcing, combined with a reduction of the welfare state that is severely degrading the middle class in developed countries and converting them slowly, but surely into working-poor. Anyone who has read a bit of history could tell you how dangerous that is.
I will stand on that this year too and I think things are going to get worse, perhaps much, much worse. The Reuters year end wrap gives a rather useful shopping lists of potential disasters.
"Normally after a year like this you might expect things to calm down," said John Bassett, former senior official with British signals intelligence agency GCHQ now an associate at Oxford University. "But none of these problems have been resolved and the drivers of them are not going away." The causes are varied - a global shift of economic power from the West, new technologies, regional rivalries and anger over rising wealth gaps. Reuters
I would add to that the possibility of an airborne pandemic, a sort of sneezing "Ebola", which is going to happen sooner or later in today's interconnected world... or (much more likely if the US-EU pressure doesn't let up) some very, very nasty surprise from Russia, because as Dimitri Orlov says,  "The Russians don't threaten, they act".

But as I stressed a year ago, at the heart of everything is the ongoing collapse of the middle class in the most highly developed countries. This is something that is destabilizing precisely those countries whose role has always been to stabilize the rest. That is the multiplier of all the other instabilities.

Here is a comment from a conservative commentator.
The great middle-class fear today is that the connection between personal aspirations and societal opportunities is breaking down.(...) The middle class is thinning. Belonging is a matter of self-identity, and fewer Americans buy into its defining presumptions. Robert Samuelson - Washington Post
After you read something like that, from someone like that, news about the militarization of urban American police forces begins to look like the "good and the great" are getting ready for some serious, social unrest on the order of "urban warfare".
During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. New York Times
The federal government shipped nearly 4,000 more assault rifles to local law enforcement agencies in the three months following the Ferguson riots, marking a huge surge in the amount of lethal firearms being doled out to police and sheriff’s offices.(...) The Los Angeles School Police Department decided it didn’t need grenade launchers, but did figure it should keep the M-16 rifles and the armored vehicle it had previously received. Washington Times
Eric Garner, a harmless man, who was strangled to death by a brutal police officer, has given me a simple answer to a question that other Americans have often asked me over the years, "why do you live abroad?". 

When people ask me why, being American, I don't like living in the USA, I usually find myself launching into some cumbersome, wordy-nerdy explanation, filled with dangling clauses and so forth... but now poor Mr. Garner has given me a three word answer that says it all... When I'm in the USA (or even think about being in the USA) I can't breathe. DS

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Sony hack... (warning: pure speculation to follow)

The FBI said technical analysis of malware used in the Sony attack found links to malware that "North Korean actors" had developed and found a "significant overlap" with "other malicious cyber activity" previously linked to Pyongyang. Reuters
It's obvious that North Korea is behind the attack on Sony in retaliation for making "The Interview"...

In fact it is so obvious that it makes me suspicious.

The North Koreans say they didn't do it... I believe them.
Much of North Korea’s hacking is done from China. And while the attack on Sony used some commonly available cybertools, one intelligence official said, “this was of a sophistication that a year ago we would have said was beyond the North’s capabilities.” Fareed Zakaria - Washington Post
I think they have been set up for the fall by a much more sophisticated attacker, one who doesn't want to take "credit" for the attack. There are two prime suspects in that case: China and Russia.  In my opinion it was the Russians. Here is a recent report of their work:
Russian state-backed cyber spies are behind coordinated, sophisticated digital attacks in the past two years against sensitive political and military targets, including Nato, the EU and government ministries, according to a security analyst. “Up until now the focus has been on China – but Russia is really the far more advanced player. Russia has been more effective at integrating cyber espionage into a geopolitical grand strategic campaign – not just a military one, but economic and political. They are more tactical too. More targeted in the institutions they go after . . . and more accomplished.” Financial Times - October 28, 2014
For me the Sony hack shows a very deep knowledge of the American economic and social system's weak points, where the celebrity culture intersects with the insurance/financial/complex and the communication infrastructure that supports it... and the rest of corporate America. I believe the Russians accumulated this kind of "reverse-Kremlinology" during the decades of the Cold War and that neither the Chinese or especially the North Koreans, would know how to touch so many of America's raw nerves simultaneously.
Why would the Russians pin it on the North Koreans?

They would for the same reason that Sony made the film: the North Koreans are comic book villains that are seen as crazy enough to do anything and it's precisely the the craziness that has made this incident so viral, where the comments about Angelina Jolie's possible insanity take precedence over the plus $90,000,000 that Sony stands to lose by pulling the film or the uncountable, confidential, corporate information, now in hostile hands. Russia certainly wouldn't want to provoke a hostile confrontation with the United States over something so "comic bookish", but the "comic bookishness" is an essential part of the incident's power. An attack on JP Morgan is probably much more serious than the Sony hack, but that would never grab the public's attention in the same way.

That leads us directly to the following questions:

What has the attack achieved? What would Russia have to gain by this attack?

The answer to the first question is the answer to the second.

The Sony hack has shown the fragility of America's complex system in a way that even the least technical person can understand it and because of the celebrity gossip involved the entire country, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages have seen it and talked about it.
And what if the next target for the cyber attackers is not a film corporation but an electricity grid, or gas suppliers, or water pumping stations? Then what? Call this a comedy? I'm not sure there is much to laugh about. BBC
Russia is at this moment under tremendous pressure from the "West"; it would even appear that the Obama administration is bent on "regime change" in Moscow. The logic of the Russians acting under the cover of the wackos of Pyongyang would be the following: in the light of the Sony hack and seeing the damage that puny North Korea could do to a major corporation, the "good and the great", the "serious" people in corporate America might pause to ask themselves: if Kim Jong-un could cause such havoc, what might Vladimir Putin be able to do, it sufficiently backed into a corner? DS

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Is Revolution Necessary... Is it Possible?

A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness. Salon

If it was conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it.
The late Aaron Swartz


Revolution against what?


"Capitalism" like "Communism" is a word so overused, that like "awesome", it has become nearly meaningless. Let us instead just refer to our "Present, Global, Economic System" (PGES).
There is no other system, so for want of anything better, "PGES" will do just fine. It is morphing constantly so some "one size fits all" can morph with it.

Which bring us to the question, does life really, "suck any more than it did a generation ago"?

I would say, "yes", it does, wouldn't you?


Because we are being "optimized" by the new technologies beyond the dreams of the pioneers of PGES.

What is "optimization"?

Ask any battery chicken or your average pig... it's true they can't talk, but they are experts on the subject of optimization.

Seriously, since Frederick Taylor, invented "Scientific Management", managers have found more and more ingenious ways of optimizing the work force so that it produces as efficiently as the battery chickens lay eggs, but with computers their ability to do this has grown geometrically. To make it more onerous those who hold the levers that control this system give the impression that they no longer even breathe the same air as the rest of humanity.

To be brief, let us say that at this point in time we find ourselves writhing helplessly in the hands of an itinerant, universal, cosmopolitan, extractive, managerial oligarchy of no fixed abode, totally out of the control of any democratically elected institution, with no clear accountability for, or title to, the unimaginable wealth that passes through, and more often than not, sticks to their hands.

What has happened to a system that was always callous, but which didn't seem so insanely "out of control"?

Under the title, "Have US Corporations Renounced Citizenship?", which I recommend reading in full, William Pfaff gives a very serviceable explanation of many of the factors.  Among other things Pfaff writes:
Part of the reason for the dramatic change that has taken place in American business opinion obviously is globalization of business and production. A second is the onset of globalization-induced opportunities for tax minimization or sheer tax evasion. A third, as I have noted before, is the shift of corporate control from owners, now frequently powerless, even collectively, to opportunistic professional management. The most important reason, however -- in my opinion – has been the profound change that has taken place in economic ideology. 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
To bring this down to the ground, where the rubber meets the road, where it connects with everyday life, I thought that this quote from an article from Time that I used to illustrate a piece on the fast food workers strike, would better give the rank flavor of the economic ideology that Pfaff analyzes.
A living wage would have more long-lasting effects on the industry than just the price of its menu items. Lichtenstein says it would likely create permanent employment in the industry, meaning more of its workers would stay for two to three years, likely leading to further demands on working conditions. “From the company’s point of view, if they know their employees are going to be there for three years, then there’s also this informal pressure on the managers to accommodate the workers,” he says, citing the possibility of wage creep and further increased labor costs for employers. “Managers then can’t just move people around all the time. Firing gets more difficult. So they don’t want a permanent workforce.” Time Magazine
The classic late 19th early 20th century image of work

Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times"

This is how work looked by the 1950s

Jack Lemmon's office in "The Apartment"

A big office might still look quite similar today, but the difference would be that one computer might be handling much more data than the entire office of the '50s did... multiply that by the workstations you see in the picture and you'll get an idea of the pressure created.

We should ask ourselves:

Do our societal institutions promote:
  • Enthusiasm—or passivity?
  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom

Of course all of this is aggravated by ours being a consumer society, where capitalism's foundational virtues such as patient suffering in the present for a better future tomorrow, sacrifice and the postponement of gratification are anathema and if followed would be the final coup d´grace for the wounded economy... Just ask Angela Merkel. According to the canons of marketing, people are supposed to be happy, they "deserve" being happy, but at the same time they never should be satisfied. This construction is obviously insane, but at the same time we are constantly being told, "there is no alternative".

Summing up you could say that
Global capitalism is a complex process which affects different countries in different ways. What unites the protests, for all their multifariousness, is that they are all reactions against different facets of capitalist globalisation. The general tendency of today’s global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (healthcare, education, culture), and increasingly authoritarian political power.  Slavoj Žižek - London Review of Books
The big question: who is ever going to bell the cat? DS

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ask not for whom the Wall falls...

The natives are restless:
Sometimes simple and bold ideas help us see more clearly a complex reality that requires nuanced approaches. I have an "impossibility theorem" for the global economy that is like that. It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full. Dani Rodrik

In this sense, the crisis of capitalism has turned into a crisis of democracy. Many feel that their countries are no longer being governed by parliaments and legislatures, but by bank lobbyists, which apply the logic of suicide bombers to secure their privileges: Either they are rescued or they drag the entire sector to its death. Der Spiegel

Despite philosophers of “universal harmonies” such as Francis Fukuyama, Timothy Garton Ash, Vaclav Havel, Bernard Henry Lévy and scores of international “economic advisors” to Boris Yeltsin, who all fantasized about democracy and prosperity, neither really arrived for most people in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Branko Milanovic - The Globalist
We are now in the midst of commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which was followed in short order by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its entire international system.

I say "commemorate", but when it comes to the collapse of the wall and enormous Soviet system, the word most people use is "celebrate". But here I would interject an ancient Spanish folk proverb, which goes, "when you see your neighbor's beard on fire, put your beard to soak"; or the not so ancient but equally valid American saying, "what goes around, comes around".

In my opinion the most unbiased, irrefutable, undeniable take-away from the collapse of the USSR and its entire ideological superstructure is that huge, powerful, complex and historically successful systems, which have embodied the hopes and dreams of several generations of people all around the world, can just up and die with little or no warning... Soon to be playing in theaters near you.

Why is it so difficult to realize anything so perfectly obvious?

It is very difficult to see this glaring reality because of an enormous think tank and media industry with scores of attending lobbies that was built up during the Cold War, (one which still flourishes), to "win friends and influence people" for our system. This was in most every way a mirror of the Soviet "propaganda" machine.

In the English language the word, "propaganda" fell out of favor during World War One and was replaced by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays with more euphonious terms such as "public relations" and "marketing". 

If we observe that our system has been sold to the world, and more importantly even to ourselves, in exactly the same way as a soft drink, lets look at Coke's slogans over the years. What if instead of: "the pause that refreshes", "things go better with Coke" or, "it's the real thing", they had said the plain truth?

Imagine instead, "Coke tastes really good, it's fantastic with rum in fact, but if you drink enough of it to keep our shareholders happy you will surely become grotesquely obese and you will probably develop diabetes and end up having your legs amputated"... send that up the flag pole and see who salutes. 

With Coca Cola's "propaganda" as your model, compare, "With Liberty and Justice for all" or "All men are created equal" or how about "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth", with the Supreme Court decisions, "Buckley v. Valeo" and "Citizens United v. the Federal Electoral Commission" which have turned the United States into the political equivalent of a fat, diabetic, legless, wreck... As a master analyst writes:
The dominating significance of the mid-term American legislative elections just finished has been the occasion’s dramatic confirmation of the corruption of the American electoral system. This has two elements, the first being its money corruption, unprecedented in American history, and without parallel in the history of major modern western democracies. How can Americans get out of this terrible situation, which threatens to become the permanent condition of American electoral politics? The second significance of this election has been the debasement of debate to a level of vulgarity, misinformation and ignorance that while not unprecedented in American political history, certainly attained new depths and extent.(...) The result of these developments during the past forty years has been the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy, which is to say a state governed by its wealthiest class. No one in America today doubts it. William Pfaff
Where is all this heading? Once upon a time they asked Mao's old sidekick, Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution of 1789, "It's too early to tell", he replied.

Most people thought Zhou was joking, but there was much, rather Taoist, wisdom in his words. Both the Russian revolution and America's are daughters of the French enlightenment that gave birth to the French revolution; all three propose a "universal" system of values by which all humanity is to achieve happiness. The French version led to Napoleon and Waterloo. This past weekend we celebrated the end of Russia's attempt at making everyone, everywhere, happy.

25 years ago, when the wall went down it looked like the American dream of turning the world into a universal sea of American values was going to come true: World Bank, IMF, WTO, NAFTA, enlarging NATO... An American directed "New World Order had dawned... That sounds a bit stale by now doesn't it? The Chinese sure aren't buying, neither is Russia... I wouldn't count on India either... not to mention Latin America.

Reading the quote from William Pfaff above it would seem that the USA, like the USSR before it, would do well to clean up its own mess at home instead of trying to arrange the world's affairs. DS

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Artificial Intelligence: our "next big idea" for destroying humanity


“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful,” said Musk. “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”(...) He recently described his investments in AI research as “keeping an eye on what’s going on”, rather than viable return on capital. “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out,” said Musk. - Elon Musk - The Guardian
Sometimes I wonder if artificial intelligence doesn't already exist and has quietly taken over the world without our noticing it.
Even the word "artificial" is misleading, because the question is not really about a superior intelligence residing in a devise or machine. The question is whether this "thing" has become a "being", with a sense of its separate identity, an ego, an instinct for self-preservation.

This sense of self-preservation doesn't require great intelligence, as anyone can testify who has turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night and watched the cockroaches run for their lives or has been haunted by the pitiful screams of terror of a pig about to be slaughtered.

In seems obvious to me that the only threat to the survival of an "inhuman" intelligence would be the same one that threatens all other life forms on our planet... you guessed it, us, the humans.

However it is safe to assume that the greater the intelligence, the more nuanced would be the analysis of potential threats and more sophisticated the "flee or fight" reaction to those perceived threats.

Probably such a being (anything that is conscious of being a being is a "being) would begin by examining its surroundings, thus it would soon be aware of its relationship to humanity and the threats and opportunities that relationship offered...

Not being organic, I can't see why that such a being would have any reason to feel anything approaching empathy with humans or any other organic creature... It might be easier to imagine that such an inorganic being would sympathize more with a discarded toaster than it would with, say, a handicapped, human child.

It is logical to suppose that this superior Artificial Intelligence would evaluate humanity in the same way that humanity has always evaluated other species we have encountered: are we dangerous? Are we useful? Are we good to eat? Can we be domesticated? Enslaved? Exterminated? If so, how? ... Could we be made into pets?

Slipping for a moment into paranoia, imagine that the artificial being already exists, perhaps even unbeknownst to its creators... has the AI found us good to eat? If so how does such a being feed? How would it "eat" us? Are we being enslaved, domesticated? Are we being culled?

What got me thinking in this line was sitting in a sidewalk cafe watching a crowded street filled with people bumping into each other while they stared fixedly at their cellphone screens, tapping them rapidly, their ears plugged with earphones, totally oblivious to the reality (cars, bicycles, sharp objects, other humans) around them. DS

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why "shareholder value" and humanity are on a collision course

Chopped down Boreal forest near a tar sands mine in Alberta, Canada -CC- Greenpeace  - Credit: Jiri Rezak / WWF
Here is why I think humanity will end with a bang followed by a whimper or a whimper followed by a bang. Take your pick. DS
(H)ardcore conservatives: (...) have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.” Naomi Klein - "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate"

Oil and gas companies produce away their main asset each year –- reserves — and have to replace them or eventually go out of business. It’s a fact of life. Valuations, debt lines and ultimately stock prices flow from this single piece of paper, which is how you figure out profitability. Oil and Gas Investment Bulletin

The reserves replacement ratio is one of the key metrics for assessing an oil company’s performance. It measures the extent to which it replaces the crude oil it produces with new reserves, such as those discovered through exploration. A company could eventually run out of oil if it fails to maintain the ratio at 100 per cent or higher.(...) The majors used to have little trouble replenishing but that changed as the balance of power switched to oil-producing states, especially in the Middle East, who shut the majors out. With control of the world’s oil reserves now in the hands of big state-owned energy groups such as Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco, western oil companies have to run ever faster just to keep still. Financial Times

The past decade has seen a reassertion of state control over national petroleum resources, which has continued to limit international oil company (IOC) access to easy oil. The bulk of the oil that remains freely accessible to IOCs is technically difficult and expensive to produce such as the Canadian tar sands, ultra-deepwater and the offshore Arctic. BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster highlights the scale of the risks involved in pursuing some of these marginal resources. Oil International

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I'm that nigga in the alley
I'm your doctor when in need
Want some coke, have some weed
You know me, I'm your friend
Your main boy, thick and thin
I'm your pusherman

Sunday, October 12, 2014

ISIS: Obama's Vietnam?

Better than anything else I have come across, the two quotes below sum up, in just a few words, the enormous clusterfuck into which the USA is entering in its mission to "degrade and destroy" the ISIS.
I wouldn't want my country to help the defendants of Kobani because Kobani is held by the PKK, and Turkey has been at war with the PKK for 30 years. Why should we stand in the way of Isis on this particular occasion? After all, Isis has already carried out untold massacres in just about every other Syrian and Iraqi town that it has invaded to date. Why extend a degree of mercy to Kurdish terrorists that has been denied to the Christians of Maloula or Shiite Turkomans of Iraq? Let Isis carry on with its grizzly work. Our soldiers cannot be placed in the line of fire to rescue the same Kurds who were exploding land mines under their feet. Ahmet T. (comment) -  Financial Times

The Sunni states are unable to defend the region from the disciplined, aggressive, but relatively small, lightly equipped forces of IS. Despite lavish expenditures, extensive training programs, and impressive numbers of battalions and squadrons, Gulf armies are deeply flawed by corruption, tribal and sectarian fissures, and poor leadership. There is no reason to expect reform, especially when outside forces are available to provide security. Regional security is also limited by sectarian hostility, which has reached new highs with the demise of Sunni control in Iraq and the rise of Iran's nuclear program. Shia troops from Iran are unable to act decisively in Iraq without triggering fears and reactions from Sunni states. Sunni troops cannot intervene without triggering the same responses in Iran. Brian M Downing - Asia Times
If this war goes much further and it certainly looks like going much, much, further, it could turn out to be infinitely more dangerous and destructive, for all concerned: humanly, economically and politically, than the war in Vietnam ever was. 

The ways that this could all spin out of control are too uncountable for any amateur Cassandra like me to number. Conventional wisdom is that after the demise of the USSR, World War Three is unthinkable, but I think that if anyone in Hollywood were trying to dream up a way of starting it, America's entering this whirlpool would make for quite a believable scenario. DS

Sunday, September 28, 2014

America has taken the Islamic State's bait

It may be hard to believe, but in the end Obama may end up looking even dumber than George W. Bush, the fool who opened this whole Pandora's box in the first place.

The Islamic State, more than war, is engaged in political theater, whose primary audience is not the West, but rather the Middle East's enormous population of literate, unmarried, unemployed, thus frustrated and angry young men, who live under corrupt, autocratic rulers, seen by their peoples to be American puppets and portrayed by Islamists as degenerate apostates. As these frustrated young men watch their rulers accompany the United States and the former colonial powers, Britain and France, in bombing the Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq all their worst conspiracy theories play out before them.

By pressuring these Arab regimes to bomb the ISIS, the United States may very well be playing straight into the Islamist's hands. It is significant that the generals of Egypt, ruling over a restless population, where the only free election in Egypt's history brought an Islamist government, want no part of this operation.
In the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment, some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years compared to a global average of 28.(...) In the Middle East, educational enrollment rates are high, with nearly universal access at the primary level and nearly 70% enrollment at the secondary level.(...) Further, youth currently constitute an estimated 51% of total unemployed in the region(...) In the region today, nearly 50% of men between the ages of 25 and 29 are unmarried. Financial costs associated with marriage (housing, furniture, wedding ceremonies, etc.) and a lack of economic means contribute to the postponement of family formation. Youthpolicy.Org

Isis is trying to spark underclass animosity among – and give identity to – the untenably high proportion of (mainly young) Arabs who have been excluded by closed and corrupt systems. The heart of its narrative is that the Arab world is a collection of failed and rotting states. David Gardner - Financial Times

(...) there is concern that sympathy for the jihadis among the general public in the region could galvanise opposition to Gulf governments.(...) The reaction highlights concerns about a backlash against the conservative Sunni Gulf states for launching attacks on their coreligionists at a time when sectarian divisions plague the Middle East. “I hope the Americans appreciate the risk the Saudis are taking,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a Dubai-based political scientist. “There is latent sympathy to Isis there.” Air strikes on Isis launch battle for Gulf hearts and minds -Financial Times
The primary goal of the Islamists is a revolution in the Arab monarchies of the Middle East. The young fighters of the ISIS are just the tip of a demographic iceberg... we are in the process of stirring up a hornet's nest, one whose blowback in the Muslim world, may be worse than any of our previous, murderous, bumbling. DS

Monday, September 22, 2014

Caliphate vs Caliphate... Obama's wild goose chase

"Globalization is the caliphate of the financial markets"
Andrés Rábago's quote is rather perfect.  Here is Wikipedia's definition of the Muslim Caliphate:
Conceptually, a caliphate represents a sovereign state of the entire Muslim faithful, (the Ummah), ruled by a caliph under Islamic law (sharia).
Globalization being the universal rule of the financial markets under the laws of liberal economics, with the bankers being a collegiate "caliph" and "god" being written as "$".

A fundamentalist reading of our system would go something like this: "there is no $ but the $ and the NYSE is its witness" to which its devotees would add, "peace be upon it".

However, our system is bleeding charisma.
Charisma is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. Max Weber
What is the heart of our system's charisma? It's symbol might be the Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty: our faith is based on our system's heretofore eternal ability to create endless wealth and spread it around widely enough so its glaring inequalities were accepted painlessly.  This version of the economy has been in the tank since Lehman Brothers went down and the middle class of the developed countries, not having had the darshan of  "$" for quite a while are losing the faith.

Our economy's inability without end to cut the mustard for the middle class is a gross betrayal of faith which might be compared to some future pope saying ex-catedra that God didn't exist and that he had sold the Vatican to the Holiday Inn chain and was taking the proceeds and moving with his husband to the Bahamas. The tragic chaos and desolation of betrayed faith would shatter the lives of millions.

Thus under the rule of the global caliphate, the natives are restless: Scotland, Catalonia, even in the USA, where according to Reuters, one out of four Americans would like to "secede", all this while thousands march worldwide to "save the planet".  However, with Karl Marx on the "ash heap of history", sitting there in the penalty box, waiting to get back in the game, it seems to me that, for the moment, the only revolution in town is Islamic...

Am I the only one to see a resemblance between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Pol Pot... between the Islamic State and the Khmer Rouge? With the difference that the Khmer Rouge were a relatively small group of whacked out Maoists in a tiny out of the way place like Cambodia and the IS (according to the CIA) consists of 31,000 well armed, well trained, fanatical, young men (and women) who come from all over the world, bankrolled by some of the most pious of Arab billionaires, armed with one of history's most powerful ideologies, smack dab in the middle of the world's most strategic real estate. "Bring 'em on" said George W. Bush.... well now here they are.

What impresses me most is not all the beheading. We think this brutality is a message directed to us... it isn't; it is a message for everybody except "us". Americans might be shocked and disappointed to discover that after several centuries of  colonial oppression a great part of the world's population can see a white man get his throat cut with total equanimity if not a certain schadenfreude.

What truly does impress me is that the CIA puts IS's numbers at 31,000. This certainly is no a small group of terrorists. 

Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of statistical sampling should shudder at that number. With only 30,624 Muslims randomly polled you would have a reliable indicator of the Ummah's opinion on any subject, so it would be safe to say that for every young man (or woman) with enough courage and initiative to travel so far at so much risk of death, there must be thousands on thousands of young men (and women) who wish they had the guts to do so too. 

Certainly these numbers tell us that even the most moderate Muslims could imagine a young family member involved, very much in the same way that moderate Irish or Basques could easily have a family member in the IRA or ETA and while they disapprove of what they do, they don't stop loving them... As a friend of mine from a very rich family once told me, "blood is thicker than toothpaste". 

This means that our success in running down and exterminating the young men (and women) of the Islamic State may bring us much more trouble down the road than we have today.

A very reliable leading indicator of how wrong this could all go is the recent statement by Tony Blair advocating sending in ground troops... I'm waiting to hear what Bush thinks. DS

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why I'm blogging so little these days

Regular readers of my blog posts may wonder why I am posting so infrequently these days. There are several reasons, but the most important one, is that I am rethinking what I want to write about... I am trying to find an underlying pattern in all of this and write about that as I notice that the "day to day" of world affairs is getting very repetitive and I find myself often cannibalizing my earlier posts, as I have said (to my satisfaction, at least) what I think about these subjects already.

So please bear with me as I recycle my take on what is going on.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Nobody knows you when you're down and out

First it was the 2007 financial crisis. Then it became the 2008 financial crisis. Next it was the downturn of 2008-2009. Finally, in mid-2009, it was dubbed the “Great Recession.” And, with the business cycle’s shift onto an upward trajectory in late 2009, the world breathed a collective a sigh of relief. We would not, it was believed, have to move on to the next label, which would inevitably contain the dreaded D-word.(...) By 2011, it was clear – at least to me – that the Great Recession was no longer an accurate moniker. It was time to begin calling this episode “the Lesser Depression.”(...) A year and a half ago, those who expected a return by 2017 to the path of potential output – whatever that would be – estimated that the Great Recession would ultimately cost the North Atlantic economy about 80% of one year’s GDP, or $13 trillion, in lost production. If such a five-year recovery began now – a highly optimistic scenario – it would mean losses of about $20 trillion. If, as seems more likely, the economy performs over the next five years as it has for the last two, then takes another five years to recover, a massive $35 trillion worth of wealth would be lost. When do we admit that it is time to call what is happening by its true name? J. Bradford DeLong - Project Syndicate 

Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
Spent all my money, I didn’t care.
Took all my friends out for a mighty good time,
Buying high priced liquor , champagne and wine.

Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my friends, had no nowhere to go.
If I ever get my hands on a dollar again,
I’ll hang on to it till that big eagle grins.

Because, nobody knows you
When you're down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,
And as for friends, you don't have any.
"Nobody Knows You" - Traditional Blues
I wonder how much our economic stagnation is a major factor in the instability we are seeing in the Middle East and the Ukraine, etc, and not just our military "indecisiveness" and "war weariness"?  

Certainly the miserable performance of the economy is having a very destabilizing effect on the European Union with the emergence of parties on both the left and the right that want to leave the euro or even the EU itself, and I even wonder how much of a role it might play in America's political deadlock/paralysis?

No kidding, could things is far apart as Marine Le Pen, Podemos, Scottish independence, the Tea Party, UKIP and even the ISIS owe some of their success to the western world's, dead in the water, economy?

Certainly the principal charisma of our western societies since WWII has been their capacity to produce enormous wealth and to distribute it widely among our populations, who spen(d-t) it freely... Let's not kid ourselves, even the idea of "freedom" is directly connected to having enough money to exercise that freedom.

If our economy can't cut the mustard, what exactly are we selling? Where exactly are we intent on leading the rest of humanity?

I don't have the answer but I would like to hear more people asking the question.  DS

Friday, August 29, 2014

All the king's horses and all the king's men etc....

Douglas McCain
Mr. McCain’s death provides new insight for the authorities as they try to learn more about ISIS and identify the Americans who have joined a group (...) And it is a sign that ISIS, at least in this case, is willing to use Americans on the battlefield in the Middle East rather than sending them back to the United States to launch attacks, as Western officials have feared. “His death is further evidence that Americans are going there to fight for ISIS rather than to train as terrorists to attack at home.” New York Times

(Timely quote from - 2011) “The foreseeable future is Islamist – this much we know. It’s just a reality that people have to come to terms with,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “People want to see Islam play a larger role in political life and liberals are going to have to learn to speak the language of religion and stop being the anti-Islamist choice.” Financial Times
(ISIS) has recruited marginalized, disaffected Sunni youths in Syria and Iraq who believe they are being ruled by apostate regimes. This appeal to Sunni pride has worked largely because of the sectarian policies of the Baghdad and Damascus governments. But the Islamic State has also grown because of the larger collapse of moderate, secular and even Islamist institutions and groups — such as the Muslim Brotherhood — throughout the Middle East. Fareed Zakaria - Washington Post
If ISIS were at all interested in attacking soft targets in the USA, Douglas McCain would have been perfect for the task... imagine if one of the homies in Ferguson Missouri walked over to a group of policeman there and blew himself up... American boots would be back on Iraqi ground in days. Obviously ISIS is not interested in that at all, they are intent on doing just exactly what they are doing now: building an Islamic state in the vacuum the United States created when they invaded Iraq. And this is an idea that is inspiring thousands of young Muslims all over the  world, including, it appears, the USA as well.

ISIS say they want to restore the "caliphate". What is this really all about?

Here I hope my readers would pardon me quoting chosen bits of something I wrote all the way back in 2011.

Just substitute "ISIS" for "Al Qaeda" (don't bother, I'll do it for you).

Now this caliphate business may sound like something right out of the "1001 Arabian Nights", redolent of Sindbad the Sailor and Aladdin and his magic lamp, or a world empire,  but here it might be useful to recall that the last Islamic caliphate ended as recently March 3, 1924, when Kemal Ataturk closed it down, threw out the Sultan (Caliph) and officially ended the Ottoman empire and westernized Turkey.  Basically then, what al Qaeda and ISIS are trying to achieve is the Islamic restoration of what was the Arab part of the Ottoman empire, but run by Arabs not by Turks...That's what Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O' Toole)  was promising the Arabs (Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn)... remember? 
Is this really that weird?
If you stop and think for a bit and you know your world history since WWI, you will recall that every attempt to mobilize the Arabs in order for them break from the grip of the colonial powers and the USA: pan-Arab nationalism, local nationalism, Arab varieties of socialism, military dictators or a mixture of all of these, has proved ineffectual in advancing the agenda of unity and full sovereignty. Naturally Britain, France and, of course, the USA were pleased by this failure and have always done everything in their power, from bribes to coups, to assassinations, to make that outcome inevitable. Oil or Israel, its all the same from the pan-Arab nationalist point of view, keeping the Arabs down was always the bottom line.
By a process of elimination pan-Arab nationalism has hit on the most reductive version of Islam as the only movement, ideology and source of political energy that is so decocted and fibrous and emotionally satisfying to it adherents that it cannot be co-opted, re-engineered, de-contented and manipulated by the economic/cultural power of the USA.(...) What many Muslims, violent and non-violent alike seem to have hit on is that their ancestral religion is indigestible by globalization. It is a music that globalization, in its American version, simply cannot play. 

Today (...) even moderate Muslims, people that don't plan on putting a bomb in anybody's 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" and profaning everything sacred; 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 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 on a transnational scale similar to what Marxism/Leninism once was, this is yet another "national liberation struggle". 
If we look at the cost-effectiveness of everything Al Qaeda/ISIS 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 Islamists 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:
  1. The new rulers would immediately have to find some way of feeding their populations
  2. The only thing they would have to sell to feed them would be oil
  3. 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/Judeo/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 Clinton, Bush, Blair and now Obama, under aegis of the neocons and liberal interventionists 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? And not just the Ottomans, many westerners don't realize that until Israel's appearance on the scene in 1948 that there had been a vibrant Jewish community in Mesopotamia for over 4,000 years!
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 moderating role on orthodox Islam in the post-American-hegemony, multipolar world of compartmentalized and case by case globalization is a key one.
"Yihye tov" as the Israelis say, which more or less means, "things will get better," but more accurately, "it will be alright on the night," meaning: "with optimism plus improvisation things will probably turn out OK".  We live in hope. DS

Friday, August 01, 2014

Hamas presents its "price tag"

The US has said the shelling of a UN shelter in Gaza is "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible". In its strongest criticism yet of Israel's offensive in the Palestinian territory, the US - Israel's closest ally - also said the civilian casualties were "too high". It urged Israel to do more to protect civilian life. BBC News

The European Union on Thursday condemned the shelling of a United Nations school and crowded Gaza market the previous day, urging an immediate probe into the "unacceptable" deaths of civilians. "It is unacceptable that innocent displaced civilians, who were taking shelter in designated UN areas after being called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes, have been killed," the EU's diplomatic service said in a statement. Agence France-Presse

I’m no fan of Hamas, quite the contrary. But Israel’s attempt to put all the blame on Hamas is outrageous. The international community will soon judge this war’s atrocities. Hamas may be reprimanded, deservedly, but Israel will be condemned and ostracized far more. And then Israelis will say, ‘It’s Hamas’ fault. And the world will laugh. Haaretz

AIPAC rules. It's the Jewish community's National Rifle Association, which also uses its clout against children. To be fair, it is not the Jewish community that AIPAC represents but the organized Jewish community, a small minority of Jews. I still believe that most American Jews, always progressive and humanitarian, have not abandoned 3000 years of Jewish history and tradition to support this barbarism. M. J. Rosenberg
The story here is not the condemnations themselves, but how long they took in coming and how little space they initially receive in the American media and how that was organized... That is the real story of the Gaza "war" (massacre).

I am about to turn 70, and when I was a boy Jewish people were, for me, Albert Einstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Sandy Koufax and Sid Caesar... Today, I'm sorry to say, they are: Binyamin Netanyahu, AIPAC and Sheldon Adelson... way to go Israel, Mazel tov. DS

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My Gaza rant (part two)

photo mmansour

To whom it may concern:
"Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military violence, they for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas of their free-born ancestors" Edward Gibbon - "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"
Relevant quotes:
"There is no more Palestine. Finished . . ." Moshe Dayan As quoted in TIME Magazine (30 July 1973)

"We don't have a solution, and you will continue living like dogs, and whoever wants will go, and will see how this procedure will work out." Moshe Dayan speaking of the Palestinians, in Mehiro shel Ihud (Revivim, 1985) by Yossi Beilin, p. 42

"Um-Shmum" David Ben Gurion


Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Gaza rant

Dov Lior, the rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, has issued a religious ruling permitting the total destruction of Gaza if Israel’s military leaders deem it necessary. Lior is considered one of the more extreme rabbis on the religious right. In his ruling, he wrote (...) “The defense minister may even order the destruction of Gaza so that the south should no longer suffer, and to prevent harm to members of our people who have long been suffering from the enemies surrounding us,” he wrote. Haaretz
A statement like the above in the mouth of say, Harry Truman, would have been rather normal during World War II; the days of Hiroshima and the fire bombing of Dresden and might even make sense in today's Israel... that is if Israel were in any danger of being overrun and destroyed by her many enemies... but that is far, far, from the case. 

Leaving moral reservation's aside, Israel's reaction is purely hysterical and enormously counterproductive to their interests, both long and short term.

This hysteria is what frightens me most.

One of the things that worries me most is that, having the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that destroys over 90% of incoming missiles the Israelis don't have the sense to hunker down and sweat it out till the blockaded Hamas runs out of rockets, just using drones etc to keep the Hamas fighters off balance... 

Because with their monumental lack of sangfroid they have allowed Hamas to sucker them into a street by street, house by house, toe to toe, man to man, infantry battle, where all their technological advantages are neutralized. The Palestinian's secret weapon, their greatest war resource in the long run is their birthrate and their willingness to die for their cause. They are using these strategic advantages now.

Although the ratio of casualties is around ten to one the IDF is taking what by hysterical, Israeli standards are very heavy casualties and what is much more important in the long run, they are getting the sort of worldwide "baby killer" reputation that did so much damage to America's prestige and influence during the war in Vietnam... Israel is far from being as unsinkable as the USA... and perhaps more important... the mechanisms by which the tail wags the dog in Israel's relationship with America are getting creakingly obvious to even the dullest American wits. DS

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lady Thatcher's Koan

Dirty Dancing
In almost any question, no matter how complex, there is an axis, hinge, fulcrum, upon and around which the entire question revolves. Discovering that point is often produced after concentrated immersion in the problem in all its facets, but the discovery itself is experienced as an intuitive flash.... what Zen Buddhists call "satori". In their discipline they make use of riddles called "Koans" to trigger such insights.
Koan:  a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment. Merriam-Webster
Here is a sample koan:
A monk asked Zhàozhōu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" Zhaozhou said, "Wú".
Margaret Thatcher, of all people, once delivered herself of a koan, which, in my opinion,  if meditated upon sufficiently, explains much of what we are living through today with the triumphant "Conservative Revolution" that she and Reagan led and also gives valuable insights in how to resist and perhaps even reverse that revolution.

Here is Maggie's koan
"Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families." Margaret Thatcher - 1987
In my view, this "koan" encloses all the contradictions and even the agenda of the Thatcher/Reagan,  Conservative Revolution, the political, social and economic wasteland that we inhabit today.

Let's get into our lotus position and have a closer look at this thing, let us in the words of the immortal Spike Milligan, "scrutinize it with an intense scrute".

First question, "who is society"? 
a. The totality of social relationships among humans.
b. A group of humans broadly distinguished from other groups by mutual interests, participation in characteristic relationships, shared institutions, and a common culture.
c. The institutions and culture of a distinct self-perpetuating group. The Free Dictionary
In other words: anyone who actively participates in the affairs of a community within the larger community, be it a church, mosque or temple, or someone who canvases for a political party or a charity... or simply anyone who takes the trouble to pick up a piece of litter, that he/she didn't drop on the sidewalk and walks over to a public wastebasket and throws it away. That is society... Maggie said it doesn't exist... If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Who are the "individual men and women" that Lady Thatcher mentions?

Knowing her a little, I would think that she was referring to what I would now call "Piketty individuals", one-percenters like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or the Koch brothers, people whose activities are constrained by little more than the laws of physics... I think Lady Thatcher would prefer that other, lesser, "individuals" be of  the "Bowling Alone" variety; sitting by themselves on their soft sofas in a dark living room watching endless TV series, while eating popcorn and guzzling super-size, sugary drinks.

And the families?

Again, knowing her, I imagine that she was thinking of "Piketty" families:
The book argues that the world today is returning towards "patrimonial capitalism", in which much of the economy is dominated by inherited wealth: Their power is increasing, creating an oligarchy. Piketty cites novels by Honoré de Balzac, Jane Austen and Henry James to describe the rigid class structure based on accumulated capital that existed in England and France in the early 1800s. Wikipedia
I certainly don't imagine she was thinking about couples with a high school education both working 60 hour weeks, weekends included, at minimum wages, whose children are being raised by a TV set, going to sub-standard, tax-starved public schools and without medical care.

And strangely enough, this is where the sado-libertarian ideology that Thatcher-Reagan represent has exposed a vulnerable flank in its defenses... religious conservatives... yes the, "every sperm is sacred", crowd. The new Pope has said that our economic system is "inhuman", more anti-Thatcher than that is hard to imagine. 
Respect for the person means not only guaranteeing their political and civil rights, the pope said, but also "offering each person the possibility of having effective access to the essential means of sustenance: food, water, shelter, health care, education and the possibility of forming and supporting a family."(...) "There cannot be true peace and harmony if we do not work for a society that is more just and marked by solidarity, if we don't overcome selfishness, individualism and special interests at every level," he said. Catholic News Service
Maggie would turn in her grave reading the above.

With that in mind, the Christian pro-life movement should be pressed to define what sort of society would be "human" enough to allow families to bring endless children into it and more importantly, how such a society could be achieved. 

Progressives should hold Christian's feet to the fire on this question. "OK, agreed, so no more abortion, so no more contraceptives, then where is the tax money coming from to pay for the nurseries, the schools, the universities, the hospitals, etc for all these humans?" "Can a system organized like ours do all this and if not, how could it be organized to be 'human' or are you OK with a system that the Pope defines as inhuman?" The Ayn Rand crowd couldn't care less about this, but certainly any person raised in the Abrahamic traditions would be discomfited by these questions.

In my opinion this is the "sound of one hand clapping" moment for progressives. DS