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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Death of George Habash 

An excerpt from an excellent article by As'ad Abukhalil, posted at Electronic Intifada:

I lived more than half of my life in the US and I never felt the alienation that I felt on the day I read George Habash, the Palestinian revolutionary who passed away last week, labeled as a "terrorism tactician" in a front page obituary in The New York Times. What do you when they want to convince you that a kind and gentle man you met and respected as a person is a terrorist when you know otherwise? Do you quibble with their definitions to no avail? Do you go back and see how they wrote glowing obituaries for Zionist militia leader and later Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a man whose record of killing civilians is as horrific and grotesque as that of Osama Bin Laden, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Fatah Revolutionary Council founder Abu Nidal or Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet?

But they can't invent facts, and they can't distort the narrative of Palestinian history. Many of my generation and older knew and respected George Habash. We did not worship him or declare him infallible. We respected that on the personal level he was incorruptible. Here was a man who refused more than the $300 monthly pension he was receiving in Amman, Jordan. Once, a group of wealthy Palestinians schemed to try to pay him in his later years because they did not want the symbol of the Palestinian -- the Arab -- revolution to die in poverty. He would not budge, not even to accept funds to hire a research assistant to help with his memoirs.

George Habash was the antithesis of Yasser Arafat: he was honest, while Arafat was dishonest; consistent when Arafat was inconsistent; principled, while Arafat was shifty; transparent, while Arafat was deceptive; sincere, while Arafat was fake; dignified while Arafat was clownish; modest, while Arafat was arrogant; tolerant of dissent, while Arafat was autocratic, and on and on.

George Habash embodied an era that extended from the Nakba, or mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, until the beginning of the Lebanrse civil war in 1976, when the decline of the Left, and the launching of Sadatism began. Up until that time, when a deep ideological transformation took place in the Arab world, Habash was a major actor on the Arab political stage. He was feared by Arab regimes, and respected and loved in the refugee camps. I don't believe I have ever seen the ordinary people of the camps react to a person as they reacted to Habash. Their love for him was genuine because they felt that he was genuine.

If there is a world revolutionary symbol for the second half of the 20th century, it should be George Habash. He may not be widely known in 2008, but anybody who read a newspaper prior to the rise of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, when Islamism eclipsed the Arab Left, would know him. Habash is one of the main makers of Arab contemporary history and one of the handful of names who changed the course of the Palestinian political struggle.

Abukhalil has posted a number of his personal rememberances at his blog, The Angry Arab News Service. For example, here and here and here. Consider also this piece by Lamis Adoni.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Review of The Shock Doctrine 

[NOTE: I have transposed this post, originally posted before the Billary one below, because I wonder if people missed it as a result of that entry, which was posted about 5 hours after this one.]

Naomi Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine, has elicited a lot of justifiable comment for her portrayal of the evolution of what she has described as disaster capitalism. Michael Hardt, a professor at Duke University, famously known globally on the left for being the co-author of Mulititude and Empire, recently reviewed the book in the most recent quarterly issue of the New Left Review.

An excerpt:

The failures of the us project in Iraq also bring us back in interesting ways to Klein’s original guiding metaphor linking economic shock and electroshock therapy. The doctors experimenting with electroshock were repeatedly frustrated because they could never achieve their dream of a tabula rasa. The patient’s old psychic structures, memories and mental habits kept reappearing despite the shock treatment. The us administrators in occupied Iraq, led by Paul Bremer, were similarly frustrated in their efforts to construct a neoliberal economy from the ground up. They privatized state industries, dismissed workers from a wide range of jobs, rewrote the legal framework for business and investment, but could not create a clean slate. Established social structures, expectations of employment and income, and public fears of the new economic regime kept stubbornly reappearing. Klein even gives fascinating evidence that identifies job losses and economic outrage in Iraq as one source of the growth of armed resistance to the occupation. Klein’s point, finally, is that not only are the methods of the shock doctrine barbaric and cruel, they also do not work. The prophets of free-market revolutions and neoliberal transformations all preach that shock will create a blank canvas on which the new economic structures can be built from scratch—and inevitably their explanation for previous failures is that the shock was not sufficiently complete, the slate was not clean enough—but, in fact, this social tabula rasa can never be achieved, and all that is left behind is a society in ruins.

The Shock Doctrine raises a number of important questions. Some readers may ask, for example, what is the proportion of states in which full-scale neoliberal restructuring has been preceded or accompanied by shock, compared to those in which the authorities proceeded by stealth or ‘third way’ consensus? Others will question how, analytically, should we correlate the climatic and tidal forces that produce a hurricane or a tsunami with the long-term human planning that drove the invasion of Iraq? My interest, however, centres on a theoretical argument about the contemporary forms of capitalist domination and control. Klein’s theory fits well with a long theoretical tradition on the intimate link between capital and violence, and it may be helpful to situate her argument within that tradition in order both to give more solid foundation to some of its claims and to highlight its originality.

First of all, Klein’s exploration of the dependence of capitalist development on violence corresponds to and in some respects extends Marxian notions of primitive accumulation. The creation of capitalist and proletarian classes were not peaceful, quasi-natural processes, resulting from the thrift and prudence of future capitalists or the profligacy of future proletarians: the birth of capital required extraordinary violence both in the conquest, genocide and enslavement of foreign populations, which brought home enormous wealth and offered new markets for goods; and internally, in the expropriation of common lands, the clearing of peasants from feudal estates and the creation of new laws that effectively herded the poor into the cities and provided available labour-power. But whereas Marx’s history can lead one to think that the ‘extra-economic’ violence of primitive accumulation is needed only to set in motion the capitalist machine, whose own discipline and economic forms of violence can maintain its rule, Klein reminds us—as have many other authors, but it is an important point worth repeating—that primitive accumulation never comes to an end but continues as a constant complement and support to the functioning of capital.

Rosa Luxemburg’s argument about the violence inherent in the accumulation of capital is a second obvious point of reference. Luxemburg explains that capital requires constant expansion for its very survival, adding new markets, more resources, additional labour-power and larger productive circuits. Expanding these capitalist circuits of reproduction, however, cannot be accomplished by economic means alone. Extra-economic force is required. Specifically, Luxemburg establishes the intrinsic relation between the great European imperialisms of her day, the early twentieth century, and the expanded reproduction of capital: if you want to oppose imperialism, you have to challenge capital. Klein likewise demonstrates a necessary and intimate relation between capital and violence, but she broadens the category of disasters that can serve in this role, well beyond the imperialist apparatuses that were Luxemburg’s focus.

The third and perhaps most relevant theoretical reference point for Klein’s argument is the long economic tradition of ‘crisis theory’, which has powerful currents in both Marxist and capitalist thought. In particular, the notion of ‘creative destruction’ developed by the decidedly non-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter resonates strongly here. It is a commonplace that economic cycles and crises provide opportunities for the concentration and development of capital; Schumpeter insists specifically on the need for capital incessantly to revolutionize its economic and institutional structures from within. Crises, whether they result from purely economic causes or other sources, support capitalist development by clearing away the old structures of social institutions and economic practices. Such destruction is ‘creative’ only in the sense that it provides the space for innovation, the formation of new processes and institutions. Klein’s notion of the shock doctrine shares many aspects of this; but she looks well beyond the economic realm, to recognize the potentially extra-economic sources of disasters and to reveal their profound social consequences.

Unfortunately, Hardt's review is not available online, unless you are an NLR subscriber. Given that the NLR is an excellent, scholarly, thought-provoking publication, it is well worth the cost of a yearly subscription, about $60, I believe. But if that is too much for you, the hard copy, the November/December 2007 issue with Hardt's review, can be readily found at any good bookstore or newsstand.

Hardt concludes his review with a provocative question: does Klein believe that disaster capitalism is a particularly virulent form of capitalism (implying that capitalism can be reformed along the lines of Scandanavian social democracy), or is she saying that disaster capitalism is merely the current malevolent version of it (necessarily establishing that it is irredeemable). A question of enduring importance.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Billary 

Turns out that Hillary Clinton supporters take offense at describing her and her husband as Billary. Today, it has turned up in the context of this column by Frank Rich in today's New York Times. It's a right wing meme, they say, and, of course, it's implicitly misogynistic, Hillary is the candidate, not Bill.

Oh, really? Apparently, they missed the South Carolina primary, where Hillary skeedadled out of the state after Monday's debate, calling upon her husband to protect her against the awful black man. So, while Hillary spent time within the comfortable confines of Harlem in her home state of New York, safe and secure from having to confront the trauma of a dealing with the self-assured Obama in a state with numerous African American admirers, Bill, her chivalrous husband, traveled around South Carolina lecturing reporters while trying to solidify the white vote behind his wife. He was even gentlemanly enough to make her concession speech for her.

It brought tears to the eyes, truly, and reminded me of how Ashley Wilkes and his friends rode to Scarlett's rescue in Gone With the Wind. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Hillary. Her decision to delegate South Carolina to her husband, apparently in the belief that Bill was more popular, contributed to an overwhelming defeat. Criticizing Obama for being friendly with a slumlord named Rezko, after the Clintons graciously had their picture taken with him while in the White House, didn't help, either. It wasn't much of a surprise, after all, if Rezko is that sleazy, it makes perfect sense that he crossed paths with the Clintons, whose history with ethically challenged fundraisers is notorious.

But, then, maybe, you can't play in the big leagues of US politics without associating with people who accumulate money in the most unsavory of ways. Even the straight talker himself, John McCain, took a lot of money from a corrupt savings and loan operator named Charles Keating. No, the most interesting aspect of Bill's appearances in South Carolina as a surrogate for his wife is the extent to which it raises paradoxical questions about Hillary as the feminist candidate, the woman on the verge of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming the President of the United States.

Hillary is an extraordinarily talented individual, a skilled attorney, among other things, who might, if she had never married Bill, become a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals justice, or even a justice of the United States Supreme Court. During an earlier reincarnation, before welfare reform and the war in Iraq, she was a dogged children's advocate who may have become a Secretary of Health and Human Services, or served in a similar capacity internationally. But even the most cursory exposure to her political persona reveals that it is doubtful that she would have progressed far in electoral politics without Bill.

She is elitist, condescending and petty when challenged, as are a lot of politicians, except that she can't avoid displaying these qualities publicly. Campaigning is not second nature to her, a term that is frequently applied to baseball and basketball players who have attempted to learn new skills as professionals is apt here: one might say, as sportswriters of say of them, that she is mechanical. Her response to being confronted with the Rezko photograph was classic Hillary: we don't know the guy she said, we've taken pictures with thousands of people.

Now, that last part is undoubtedly true, except that Hillary, in her typical dismissive style, made sure to underscore that, boy, taking those pictures with all those nobodies sure was a chore. It was reminscent of the Lou Reed/John Cale song about Andy Warhol's contempt for his fans in later years, Nobody But You. Most people don't get far in electoral politics by expressing such obvious disinterest in the people that they purportedly want to represent, unless, of course, you have a partner whose personal qualities of charm and charisma compensate for it.

It is, however, a gross exaggeration to claim, as Chris Matthews did, I believe, that Hillary would be nowhere without Bill, as if Bill handed everything over to her. It is more accurate to say that Bill's presidency created the opportunity for her to become a Senator from New York, an opportunity that she seized through hard work and her trademark political toughness. Furthermore, Bill and Hillary were, in many ways, a team, the Clinton presidency was a joint project, even if Bill was the managing partner, so Hillary did participate in the achievements that lead to her election to the Senate in her own right. Hillary may have made a lot of mistakes (health care, Zoe Baird, anyone?), but separating Bill from any culpability as well can be fairly said to reflect a resentment towards a woman in a position of power.

South Carolina revealed that, when Hillary gets in trouble, she turns to Bill to salvage the situation. Not exactly a paragon of feminist self-reliance. Perhaps, though, the fact that it failed so miserably will induce Hillary to further assert her independence from Bill, and those other practical men around her, like her campaign manager, Mark Penn. It may well be the only way for her to become the next President, although her lack of magnamity towards Obama after his victory remains troubling. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea for her supporters to become less thin skinned, and embrace the more complex aspects of her political relationship with her husband. Yes, they might just admit, Bill Clinton played an indispensable role in the emergence of Hillary as a major political figure in the country, and what's wrong with that? If you want to describe that relationship as Billary, go ahead, we're proud of it.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Is the US Economy in Free Fall? 

Read this shockingly candid interview of Henry Wirz, the CEO of the Safe Credit Union here in Sacramento, and decide:

Q: You've been here since 1984 and seen all the cycles, up and down, good and bad. And this is the worst credit problem you've ever seen in Sacramento?

A: The reason I say that is this is touching not just the people who have traditionally always been a problem, which is people who have lower credit scores. In every crisis, when we first have a downturn, it's the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid who seem to experience the worst outcomes.

I think what surprised us was in this downturn we're seeing people who had, at the outset, relatively good credit having negative outcomes
.

Like most lenders we use the Fair Isaac credit scoring system, the FICO score. In this downturn, where we analyzed the folks having problems, we saw a disproportionate number of people in that 680 to 719 credit score. And those are people who generally don't have a lot of credit problems. They tend to do pretty well. We give them the benefit of better rates and fairly liberal credit because they have a history of repaying their obligations. That was a real surprise in this credit cycle.

Q: You've said you saw the problem start in September with auto loan delinquencies. What explains what you're seeing?

A: It makes sense in retrospect. You kind of prioritize your obligations. You do that. I do that. I think, for a lot of people, the most important thing was to hang onto their house. This is primarily a problem of people having too many bills and not enough income to cover them. So they began juggling their bills. Credit cards, auto loans, things like that took second place to keeping the mortgage payment up.

I think that's why we started seeing it in auto loans. We've seen it in credit cards, and now most recently, we've seen it in real estate loans. People have done everything possible. We've seen a lot of the credit cards and home equity lines get fully utilized as people have drawn them down to support their monthly expenses.

I think we're now at the end of that rope. There just isn't any more credit card balance available. There isn't any home equity available, and now people are having to confront the ultimate problem, which is how do I keep my house? How do I keep my mortgage intact? I think that's why we're seeing people coming in
.

Unfortunately, for all of us, the members and for us, we'd have been better off had they contacted us earlier in the process. There's more we can do earlier in the process than we can do at the last instance of them being out of all other alternatives.

Q: You say we're at the front end of this credit crisis? How long might this continue?

A: In almost every kind of lending problem it takes 18 to 24 months to work through it. I hope this one is a problem we can work through that quick. I've heard some others say it might not be.

One of the problems in this is for every one of these people who ends up going through a foreclosure, or ends up going through one of these programs, it's a significant hit to their credit. That can take up to seven years on their credit report to go away. It's going to impair an awful lot of people for an long period of time.

At some point we're going to come back and ask the question: What are we going to do to rehabilitate all these people who have had these problems? My guess is there's going to be some accommodation for that down the road. It's too early to talk about that now. But it has to happen. There's too many people that have been affected.

Q: So this doesn't end when the housing market hits bottom? We're talking about lots of people with ruined credit for years. What will that be like?

A: Your credit report affects more than just your borrowing. I was struck by something Sheriff (John) McGinnis said when he talked to us not too long ago. He said one of the top problems they have in hiring deputies is they run a credit score on the new deputies. He says you can't have a deputy that has credit problems out there. You're always wondering, is he going to be subject to bribes or some other issue?

When you rent an apartment these days, what do they do? They run a credit report on you. Credit, and your credit score, affect so many things other than just loan availability.

Again, that's why I say at some point we're going to have to go back and say we had a major credit crisis here. And that it affected a lot of people to an extent greater than maybe should be attributed in total blame just to the borrower. I think at some point there's going to have to be some accommodation by the credit-scoring world to give some allowances to some of those people. Otherwise, we're going to be punishing them for an awfully long period of time by having all the negatives that come with having poor credit
.

Q: You described this long aftermath of people still struggling with their credit problems as a potential hole in the economy.

A: I think it punishes the larger economy. My wife is a teacher, and so many of the problems we see in families, probably in our schools, come from people having financial struggles, among others. There will be other consequences to this in terms of how it affects families, and I think that has to be weighed into this as well.

Q: Earlier you said that homebuyers are bypassing sellers altogether and waiting for a bank to take back the home. They think that's where the better deal is. When do you see this housing market starting to stabilize?

A: We'll know there's a turnaround when we see buyers come in and buy these properties earlier in the process. Right now, were not seeing that. People are waiting for the bottom. Everybody wants to buy at the bottom, and there cannot be a bottom until buyers come in. We're not there yet. My guess is we're maybe into April, maybe June or July, before we see that.

Q: And then what happens?

A: I wouldn't be surprised to see this take two years to get back to something that approaches normal. The one thing we have going for us is this is an extremely desirable area. We have a lot of things that are attractive to people who want to live in this area.

If the state resolved its budget problems and state employment remains steady, that's a tremendous underpinning to this area. About 12 percent of all the jobs in this area are state jobs, and that's a great underpinning [NOTE: the state of California currently has a 14-18 billion dollar budget deficit, and public employment is under pressure nationally from declining property tax, capital gains and sales tax revenue].

I think an ominous sign for us, when this thing first started, we didn't see a lot of our problems coming from unemployment. Now we're starting to see people in the real estate and construction industry have layoffs, for obvious reasons. To the extent that unemployment goes up, that's going to add to the problem. We're just now starting to see that. How long does it take for that to fully stabilize and work itself through? I'm not sure. But that generally is going to take a period of time to resolve itself.

My guess is June and July feels like the period we might bottom out, and then after that we'll start to work our way back up, and in two years we're back to something you might call normality.

Basically, Wirz is saying what I posted here back in July 2007. He doesn't want to be even more alarmist, but he acknowledges that a lot of people are going to lose their access to credit, and even, possibly, places to live, as a result of this crisis. Meanwhile, as noted by Justin Raimondo, in an incisive column today, our imperial policies are playing a central role in the country's economic collapse.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

7 Billion in US Dollars 

The glories of the 24/7 global financial marketplace:

A brilliant young rogue trader, who spun an elaborate web of fake transactions from his desk, has cost France's second-biggest bank €4.9bn (£3.7bn) in what appears to be the largest-ever fraud by a single trader.

Société Générale was last night struggling to shore up confidence in the banking system after the huge fraud was conducted undetected by the junior trader at its headquarters.

Jerome Kerviel, 31, deemed "a genius of fraud" by France's top banker, caused five times the financial damage of the notorious rogue trader Nick Leeson, who sparked the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995 with losses of £800m.

The discovery at the weekend of what SocGen deemed an isolated fraud of "unprecedented size" caused concern in a market already reeling from the sub-prime crisis. There was astonishment at how a junior trader on the bank's award-winning derivatives desk, described as both "brilliantly intelligent" and a troubled Walter Mitty character, could create fictitious accounts and wreak havoc. The young trader appeared to have acted alone and reaped no personal financial benefit. "[It's] everyone's worst nightmare," said Richard Fuld, chairman of the rival bank Lehman Brothers at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The City of London was yesterday awash with rumours that SocGen's desperate race to clear up the damage and unravel Kerviel's trading positions were at the heart of the stockmarket turmoil on Monday when share prices across Europe crumbled by 7%. Even the insistence of the French prime minister, François Fillon, that SocGen had "nothing to do with the situation on the financial markets" failed to stop the gossip.

SocGen insisted it would weather the storm and still post €800m profits for 2007. But news of the fraud could not have come at a worse time, with investor sentiment already fragile and confidence battered. "How will we [the market] ever get investor confidence back?" asked analysts at the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort in a research note.

At SocGen's giant glass tower in the Parisian business district of La Défense, where Kerviel worked, the normally sedate corridors yesterday thronged with people in crisis management.

The trader, who joined the bank in 2000, aged 23, was extraordinarily sophisticated and technically proficient. In his first job, he started out developing the intricate computer systems used to control the positions that traders across the bank could take out in markets around the world. To try to control risks, it is now commonplace for each trader to be given a limit on the positions they can take. The SocGen computer was regarded as a hi-tech piece of kit, the best in the business for the best derivatives house around.

But Kerviel knew how to manipulate it. He was moved to a trading job in 2005 to work on a desk known as Delta One. Kerviel had a junior job as a hedger - essentially paid to reduce the bank's risk by taking out opposite positions to the ones being run by the traders. His salary was not in the stratosphere of high-flying City traders. He was on around €100,000. His personal trading limits would have been small, in the tens of millions of euros.

Around December, he seems to have removed all the limits on his personal trading positions and created fictitious customer accounts. Through December he seems to have taken out a series of short positions - essentially betting the markets would fall - and closed them all out so that by the end of the month he was flat. In January, though, he decided to do the opposite, buying the markets through futures contracts in the expectation that the markets would rise. They did anything but and he seems to been got caught out.

Kerviel was found out at the end of last week when one of his trading positions popped up on SocGen's internal system as being over his trading limits. He immediately confessed to senior executives.

The head of the investment banking arm Jean-Pierre Mustier, who interviewed him throughout Saturday, was said to have become increasingly concerned about him during the course of the day. Kerviel was said to be a Walter Mitty character and was provided with counsellors by the bank. "Sometimes people don't know the size of what they are getting into," Mustier said yesterday.

He apparently acted alone and did not personally make any money from his fictitious customer accounts. The bank said it was baffled as to his "irrational" motives. But there is a suggestion that he did it to prove the system could be broken. Michel Marchet of the French CGT banking union warned he may have been trying to get spectacular results to boost his bonus.

Kerviel seems to have believed he had uncovered a sophisticated new way to trade that would unleash huge profits for the bank. It appears he had been trading futures contracts on three major stockmarkets - the French CAC 40 index, Germany's Dax index, and on the EuroStoxx 50, comprising the biggest stock market-listed companies in the eurozone. The positions appear to have been for €1bn each. By the time they were assessed on Sunday night they were valued at €2bn. Kerviel is thought to have helped unravel them. The losses escalated as the stock markets fell.

SocGen's chief executive, Daniel Bouton, said the fraud was "very simple in its techniques but extremely sophisticated in his method of concealing it".

Yet again, newly created financial instruments designed to reduce risk actually increase it exponentially. Yet again, frauds and bubbles, formerly national in character, now impact markets around the world. And, yet again, an institution at the heart of investment activity and the provision of credit finds itself engaged in the virtual destruction of its capital that is normally made available for these purposes.

Can the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank drop enough money from helicopters to revive the credit markets and prevent a deflationary spiral? Will the President and Congress undertake meaningful action to stimulate the US economy so that it retains its ability to serve as a global engine of growth? So far, it doesn't look very promising, but, at least we will be getting some rebate checks in June or July.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the monoline insurers, the institutions that insure mortgage bonds, may need as much as 200 billion dollars to maintain their AAA ratings so that they can continue to insure bonds in the future while maintaining the value of the bonds that they have already insured? And, if they can't? Fewer and costlier home mortgages (and, necessarily, even more declines in home prices), with more banks and savings and loans in extremis, because someone has to take responsibility for all that bad paper backing those mortgage bonds if the monoline insurers are no longer able to do so. Day by day, the relentless destruction of capital and asset values proceeds, seemingly without restraint.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Genocide Option 

Amazing. Generals from five NATO countries advocate the use of nuclear weapons and the mass slaughter of civilians to prevent the proliferation nuclear weapons:

The west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, according to a radical manifesto for a new Nato by five of the west's most senior military officers and strategists.

Calling for root-and-branch reform of Nato and a new pact drawing the US, Nato and the European Union together in a "grand strategy" to tackle the challenges of an increasingly brutal world, the former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands insist that a "first strike" nuclear option remains an "indispensable instrument" since there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world".

The manifesto has been written following discussions with active commanders and policymakers, many of whom are unable or unwilling to publicly air their views. It has been presented to the Pentagon in Washington and to Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, over the past 10 days. The proposals are likely to be discussed at a Nato summit in Bucharest in April.

"The risk of further [nuclear] proliferation is imminent and, with it, the danger that nuclear war fighting, albeit limited in scope, might become possible," the authors argued in the 150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures. "The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."

The morality of such a proposal is, of course, appalling. The existing nuclear powers abrogating to themselves the right to use nuclear weapons against the peoples of other countries to stop them from obtaining nuclear weapons themselves. Of course, as has been recently demonstrated with Iran, a country doesn't actually have to be attempting to develop nuclear weapons, or obtaining them from elsewhere, but merely accused of doing so. Strangely, the article describes such a policy as part of a larger root and branch reform of NATO. Sort of like, I guess, how Hindenburg and the Nazis, with some behind the scenes help from the Soviets, reformed the defensive Reichswehr into the first strike capability of the Wehrmacht.

It is essentially the genocide option. Bin Laden and al Qaeda are maligned, and justifiably so, for launching attacks upon the US that resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 people, and yet US and European military strategists are now proposing the right to kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to enforce nuclear non-proliferation. Predictably, the authors of the report fail to mention that one of the primary reasons that there is no realistic prospect of a nuclear free world is because countries with such a capability have displayed no willingness to reduce their arsenals, much less eliminate them.

Furthermore, they, again, quite predictably, refuse to acknowledge that US threats against countries without nuclear weapons, such as Iran and North Korea, are leading countries to conclude that the only deterrent to US conventional military force is a nuclear one. US insistence that countries around the world acquiesce to US military and economic coercion is a major source of global instability that contributes to nuclear proliferation, and an alternative that advises US policymakers to stop using the war on terror to facilitate imperial expansion is not even recognized.

If one engages in the morally dubious enterprise of engaging the policy on its merits, it quickly reveals itself as ridiculous. A nuclear first strike upon any country would result in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of deaths, initiate an open-ended conflict with the likelihood of killling many thousands more, and present the country who initiated the strike with the necessity of killing millions more in the country that it attacked through more nuclear and conventional attacks in an effort to bring the conflict to a conclusion, assuming, of course, that other countries did not intervene.

Or, to describe it in less alarmist language, the policy assumes that the country engaged in the first use of nuclear weapons possesses the power to decide when to initiate the conflict, and when to bring it to a conclusion. One need not know very much history to immediately perceive that such arrogance is without any factual foundation whatsoever.

Basically, as noted by Jorge Hirsch, any country launching a first strike will be immediately elevated to the status of global pariah. Domestically, any country engaged in such a strike will confront significant social unrest to the extent that the ability to maintain public order would be lost for quite awhile, if not permanently. The emergence of underground domestic groups, organized around the principle of violent resistance (one hesitates to call them terrorist in this context), is highly probable.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

To Know Terror, You Have to Be a Palestinian, an Iraqi, or an Afghan 

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Masque of the Red Death (Part 1) 

Just as the revellers in the abbey of Prince Prospero gruesomely discover that they are not immune the plague, the wealthy are now recognizing that their exclusive, high end homes are not protected against the the contagion of the subprime mortgage debacle:

With a picturesque little downtown area and large, expensive houses -- according to the Headrick-Wagner Consulting Group, the average home sale price here in the 12 months to September 30, 2007, was around $1.15 million -- Hinsdale seems a world away from the housing slowdown that may have brought the U.S. economy to the brink of a recession.

But even here, far from the housing crisis' epicenter, high earners with good credit may be heading for trouble as their adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) adjust beyond their means, local real estate agents and others say. In a normal housing market they'd be able to sell, but now they are stuck.

"The next wave of problems will come from prime borrowers who bought too much house or borrowed too much against it," said Michael van Zalingen, director of home ownership services at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. A "prime" borrower is one with good credit.

Real estate agents warn that some high-income borrowers have already been forced to sell or leave their homes and more will follow. Especially those who used their homes as ATMs, withdrawing cash via home equity loans.

"For those who utilized home equity loans for five to ten years to finance their lifestyle, the chickens are coming home to roost," said Chicago-based real estate agent Marki Lemons.

One might naively hope that some of the vicious moral condemnation of many lower middle income and middle income Americans that are unable to pay their ARMs will end in light of this development. But that would indeed be naive. Policymakers have often adopted the paradoxical philosophy of one rule for masses and another, more lenient one for the wealthy. For example, just look at the ability of wealthy homeowners to shield the equity in their homes from creditors in states like Texas and Florida.

So, expect the wealthy to be portrayed as victims, with the ability, as noted in the Reuters article linked here, to quietly, and very privately, negotiate their way out of their homes by way of short sales, while middle income borrowers are villified as fraudulent scofflaws. After all, some of these same people rely upon investment income from funds holding bonds backed by mortgages. Hence, the necessity of presenting the prospect of ostracism to anyone who considers walking away from their home instead of paying ever more astronomical adjusted monthly mortgage payments.

There is, however an even more alarming aspect to this story, the prospect that the inability to contain the credit crunch to middle income subprime borrowers suggests that a brutal deflation lurks just over the horizon. Hard to believe in light of today's news about inflation, and yet, it is difficult to see the withdrawal of easy credit and the destruction of home equity resulting in any other outcome. Time to prepare for the sub-proletarianization of America?

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Quote of the Week 

Ishmael Reed's Tour De Force on Race and Gender in America 

An excerpt from Ma and Pa Clinton Flog an Uppity Black Man:

Having been educated at elite schools where studying The War of the Roses was more important than studying Reconstruction, the under educated white male punditry and their token white women, failed to detect the racial code phrases that both Clintons and their surrogates sent out- codes that, judging from their responses, infuriated blacks caught immediately. Blacks have been deciphering these hidden messages for four hundred years. They had to, in order to survive.

Gloria Steinem perhaps attended the same schools. Her remark that black men received the vote "fifty years before women," in a Times Op-Ed (Jan.8) which some say contributed to Obama's defeat in New Hampshire, ignores the fact that black men were met by white terrorism, including massacres, and economic retaliation when attempting to exercise the franchise. She and her followers, who've spent thousands of hours in graduate school, must have gotten all of their information about Reconstruction from Gone With The Wind, where moviegoers are asked to sympathize with a proto-feminist, Scarlett O'Hara, who finally has to fend for herself after years of being doted upon by the unpaid household help. Booker T. Washington, an educator born into slavery, said that young white people had been waited on so that after the war they didn't know how to take care of themselves and Mary Chesnutt, author of The Civil War Diaries, and a friend of Confederate president Jefferson Davis's family, said that upper class southern white women were so slave dependent that they were "indolent." Steinem and her followers should read, Redemption, The Last Battle Of The Civil War," by Nicholas Lemann, which tells the story about how "in 1875, an army of white terrorists in Mississippi led a campaign to 'redeem' their state--to abolish with violence and murder if need be, the newly won civil rights of freed slaves and blacks." Such violence and intimidation was practiced all over the south sometimes resulting in massacres. One of worst massacres of black men occurred at Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873. Their crime? Attempting to exercise the voting rights awarded to them "fifty years," before white women received theirs. Lemann writes, "Burning Negroes" met "savage and hellish butchery.

"They were all killed, unarmed, at close range, while begging for mercy. Those who tried to escape, were overtaken, mustered in crowds, made to stand around, and, while in every attitude of humiliation and supplication, were shot down and their bodies mangled and hacked to hasten their death or to satiate the hellish malice of their heartless murderers, even after they were dead.

"White posses on horseback rode away from the town, looking for Negroes who had fled, so they could kill them."

Elsewhere in the south, during the Confederate Restoration, black politicians, who were given the right to vote," fifty years before white women" were removed from office by force, many through violence. In Wilmington, North Carolina, black men, who "received the vote fifty years before white women," the subject of Charles Chesnutt's great novel, The Marrow of Tradition:

"On Thursday, November 10, 1898, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, a Democratic leader in Wilmington, North Carolina mustered a white mob to retaliate for a controversial editorial written by Alexander Manly, editor of the city's black newspaper, the Daily Record. The mob burned the newspaper's office and incited a bloody race riot in the city. By the end of the week, at least fourteen black citizens were dead, and much of the city's black leadership had been banished. This massacre further fueled an ongoing statewide disfranchisement campaign designed to crush black political power. Contemporary white chronicles of the event, such as those printed in the Raleigh News and Observer and Wilmington's The Morning Star, either blamed the African American community for the violence or justified white actions as necessary to keep the peace. African American writers produced their own accounts-including fictional examinations-that countered these white supremacist claims and highlighted the heroic struggles of the black community against racist injustice."

Black congressmen, who, as a rule, were better educated than their white colleagues were expelled from Congress.

Either Gloria Steinem hasn't done her homework, or as an ideologue rejects evidence that's a Google away, and the patriarchal corporate old media, which has appointed her the spokesperson for feminism, permits her ignorance to run rampant over the emails and blogs of the nation and though this white Oprah might have inspired her followers to march lockstep behind her, a progressive like Cindy Sheehan wasn't convinced. She called Mrs. Clinton's crying act," phony."

Moreover, some of the suffragettes that she and her followers hail as feminist pioneers were racists. Some even endorsed the lynching of black men. In an early clash between a black and white feminist, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells opposed the views of Frances Willard, a suffragette pioneer, who advocated lynching.

"As the president of one of America's foremost social reform organizations, Frances Willard called for the protection of the purity of white womanhood from threats to morality and safety. In her attempts to bring Southern women into the W.C.T.U., Frances Willard accepted the rape myth and publicly condoned lynching and the color line in the South. Wells argued that as a Christian reformer, Willard should be speaking out against lynching, but instead seemed to support the position of Southerners."

Ms. Willard's point of view is echoed by Susan Brownmiller's implying that Emmett Till got what he deserved, and the rush to judgment on the part of New York feminists whose pressure helped to convict the black and Hispanic kids accused of raping a stockbroker in Central Park. After DNA proved their innocence (the police promised them if they confessed, they could go home), a Village Voice reporter asked the response of these feminists to this news; only Susan Brownmiller responded. She said that regardless of the scientific evidence, she still believed that the children, who spent their youth in jail, on the basis of the hysteria generated by Donald Trump, the press, and leading New York feminists, were guilty.

As you might guess, there's much more, with Reed's observations about the tendency of some feminists to conflate white women with women, and the reaction of African Americans to the coded attacks upon Obama, constituting essential reading. As his ascerbically observes, mainstream feminists don't appear to be very concerned about the black and brown deaths in Iraq, deaths that have resulted from a war that Hillary authorized. But sadly, as Reed explains, that's entirely consistent with the history of American feminism.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Only 151,000 Violent Iraqi Deaths? 

I have frequently posted on the subject of Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the 2003 US invasion, especially the uses and abuses of the numbers developed by Iraq Body Count, and the politically motivated criticisms of the studies performed by survey teams supervised by John Hopkins University. Click on the Iraq Body Count tag at the end of this post to read them.

Earlier this week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that indicated that only 151,000 Iraqis had violently died since the March 2003 invasion, disputing the much larger numbers of violent deaths estimated by the John Hopkins survey teams. Significantly, the study did not reach deaths from illness that would have not otherwise occurred if not for the invasion, as the John Hopkins study did, and relied upon the discredited Iraq Body Count numbers as part of its methodology.

For two critiques of the study that address these issues, consider this article by Andrew Cockburn and this post by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb. Yet again, we encounter the manipulation of the numbers generated by Iraq Body Count, an imputation of statistical credibility that doesn't exist. Will the people responsible for the IBC numbers publicly disassociate themselves from such a use of their admittedly subjective data? Doubtful.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Haditha: No Murder Charges 

For background on this grisly incident, go here and here and here and here. According to the eyewitness accounts of Iraqis, 24 Iraqis were massacred by Marines after a roadside blast. Consider, for example, this televised interview with a 10 year girl who saw the Marines kill 7 members of her family.

Or, these two accounts from my post of May 29, 2006:

A harrowing eyewitness account of the killings at Haditha in the London Times:

The latest accounts given to The Times paint a gruesome picture of events on November 19. About a quarter of an hour after the attack on Iman’s house, Mohammed Basit, 23, an engineering student, said that he watched as Marines entered the home of his neighbour, Salim Rasif, He peered from a window as the family, including Salim’s wife, sister-in-law and their five children, rushed into a bedroom.

I saw them all gathering in their parents’ room, then we heard a bang which was most likely a hand grenade, then we heard shooting,” he said. Fearing for his life, he moved away from the window.

Throughout the next day the Americans cordoned off Salim and Iman’s homes, which are located about 20 metres apart. The next night Basit and his father slipped inside Salim’s house. “The blood was everywhere in Salim’s bedroom,” Basit said. “I saw organs and flesh on the ground and a liver on the bed. Blood splattered the ceiling. The bullet holes were in the walls and in different parts of the house.

Even the editors of the New York Times have been compelled to get the story:

Hiba Abdullah said that after the killings in her father-in-law's home the American troops moved to the house of a neighbor, Younis Salim Nisaif. She said he was killed along with is wife, Aida, and Aida's sister, Huda. She said five children were also killed at that home, all between ages of 10 and 3.

There was one survivor, Safa Younis Salim, 13, who in an interview said she lived by faking her death. "I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me and he was bleeding like a faucet," she said. She said she saw American troops kick her family members and that one American shouted in the face of one relative before he was killed.

The Marines initially brought murder charges, but, predictably, these killings of Iraqis by US troops, some of them execution style, no longer merit such serious charges:

After a two-year investigation into the killings of up to 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, the Marine Corps has decided that none of the Marines involved in the incident will be charged with murder. Instead, two enlisted Marines and two Marine officers will face trial in coming months for the killings and for failing to investigate them.

The most serious charges have been leveled against Marine Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who is scheduled to be arraigned on charges of voluntary manslaughter in California next week, the last step before the case officially moves to trial.

Initially called a massacre by Iraqi residents of Haditha and later characterized as coldblooded murder by a U.S. congressman, the case has turned not on an alleged rampage but on a far more complex analysis of how U.S. troops fight an insurgency in the midst of a population they seek to protect.

The Marine Corps at first charged eight Marines and officers with murder or failing to investigate an apparent war crime. The charges have since been narrowed to four men in the unit, after three were cleared and a fourth was granted immunity to testify.

Wuterich is charged with nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, with the charges alleging that he had an intent to kill and that his actions inside a residential home and on a residential street in November 2005 amounted to unlawful killing "in the heat of sudden passion caused by adequate provocation." Charging documents released this week say he killed at least nine people without properly obtaining positive identification that they were the enemy in the midst of an attack. 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson has been charged with obstructing the investigation.

Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum are the only two shooters that day to face criminal scrutiny; Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander, faces charges that he was derelict in his duty for failing to ask for an investigation.

The charges arise from the Nov. 19, 2005, shootings of as many as 24 innocent civilians who were nearby when a roadside bomb killed a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Wuterich and others in his unit killed a group of men who were in a white car near the blast and then stormed into two nearby houses, killing unarmed men, women and children after the Marines believed they were taking fire from the homes.

Did you catch it? . . . the case has turned not on an alleged rampage but on a far more complex analysis of how U.S. troops fight an insurgency in the midst of a population they seek to protect . . . An alleged rampage? They burst into people's homes and killed 24 people, some by shooting them dead, others by sitting off a grenade. There are numerous Iraqi eyewitnesses who provided statements to the media and the investigators.

Which is why, of course, it was essential for the case to turn, not on the facts, the brutality of the massacre, but, instead upon the complex analysis of how U. S. troops fight an insurgency. Apparently, the lesson to be drawn from the desultory outcome of the Haditha prosecution is that, at worst, U. S. troops can arbitrarily kill civilians and only face the reduced criminal charge of manslaughter, as Wuterich currently does. Another soldier, Tatum, faces an unspecified charge, a reduced one of some kind, related to the killings. Two others, Chessani and Grayson faces ones related to the need for an investigation and the subsequent obstruction of it. Charges against four others have been dropped.

One suspects that the charges may have been dropped against many of the soldiers involved, and reduced against Wuterrich, Grayson and Tatum, because it would have resulted in a full airing of the rules of engagement for U. S. troops in Iraq. It is common for the attorneys representing soldiers facing serious discipline to claim that the actions of their clients, no matter how grotesque, are consistent with them. In other words, the rules of engagement place no restriction upon the use of deadly force against anyone or anything in event of an attack.

Note, for example, the remarks of one of Wuterich's defense attorneys:

Mark Zaid, one of Wuterich's defense attorneys, said the charges show there was no "massacre" and that the case highlights how difficult it is for U.S. troops to make tough battlefield decisions. He said Wuterich and the other Marines were following their rules of engagement when they shot and killed their targets in Haditha, with unfortunate -- but not illegal -- consequences.

"Every Marine, period, is trained with the intent to kill," Zaid said. "What everyone will realize at the end of the day is that the characterization of the events was nothing like reality, that the training the troops on the ground received was primarily responsible for what happened, and that the fog of war sometimes ends up with terrible results."

In any event, the Haditha killings exposed a face of the occupation that one rarely encounters in the U. S. They constitute the most extreme manifestation of the violence and degradation that U. S. troops inflict upon Iraqis as a matter of course. But don't expect anyone in the U. S. media and political system to emphasize it, or even acknowledge it, that's something that only Iraqis need to know.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Death of Philip Agee 

UPDATE: A January 2007 interview of Agee.

INITIAL POST: A brave, principled man who exposed the brutality of US covert operations around the world in the 1970s and the individuals responsible for them:

'Why did I leave the CIA?" the former agent Philip Agee, who has died aged 72, once asked himself at a public meeting. "I fell in love with a woman who thought Che Guevara was the most wonderful man in the world." It was this mixture of commitment and romance that was to characterise the man who was denounced as a traitor by George Bush Sr, threatened with death by his former agency colleagues and deported from Britain as a threat to the security of the state.

Agee had left the CIA in 1969 after 12 years working mainly in Latin America, where he gradually became disgusted by the agency's collusion with military dictators in the region and decided to blow the whistle on their activities. The Mexico City massacre of student protesters in 1968 also stiffened his resolve. His 1975 book Inside the Company: CIA Diary spilled the beans on his former employers and enraged the US government, not least because it named CIA operatives.

"It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America," he told the Guardian in an interview published a year ago today. "Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador - they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries."

To carry out his work, Agee moved to London in the early 1970s with his then partner, Angela, a leftwing Brazilian who had been jailed and tortured in her own country, and his two young sons by his estranged American wife. He worked with the magazine Time Out and other publications to expose the CIA's work internationally. His activities had already alerted the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who urged the prime minister, James Callaghan, to deport him. After an arcane legal process, Agee was deported in 1977, along with a young American journalist, Mark Hosenball (now a senior investigative writer with Newsweek), who had worked at Time Out. The then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, who issued the deportation order, claimed - falsely and maliciously, according to Agee - that he was behind the deaths of two British agents. Their case became a liberal cause celebre.

It was a different time. Americans, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, were willing to confront the immorality of their government's covert operations around the world. Now, at least in New Hampshire, Republicans, and some independents, select a man for President celebrated as a war hero because he was captured after bombing a light bulb factory in Vietnam.

But we shouldn't be surprised. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times read like newspapers published by the CIA as business fronts. Hollywood transforms the covert campaign to drive the Russians from Afghanistan, a campaign that was significantly responsible for the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in its current violent, vanguardist form, into a popular entertainment, a serious comedy, according to its star, Tom Hanks.

Covert operations are the flavor of the month for all the major presidential candidates, as, even for candidates opposed to the Iraqi war, they constitute a relatively casualty free alternative to policing the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualty free when it comes to Americans, that is. The notion that there is something wrong about secretly intervening in the social and political affairs of another country, violently, if considered necessary to attain a policy objective, is just so antiquated. Haven't you heard about 9/11? The Arabs want to kill us, you silly fool.

If only there was a contemporary Agee willing to make similar disclosures, although I realize they would run the risk of getting killed or subjected to rendition to some faraway place in Eastern Europe. Well, at least the National Intelligence Estimate put the brakes on attacking Iran for awhile. It certainly was a shocking development, US intelligence analysts issuing a report that directly contradicted the President's policy. It stopped Bush, the neoconservatives and their Zionist allies in Israel in their tracks, and they still haven't figured out how to get around it. The legacy of Agee resides in the most unlikely of places.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Silly Me 

Yes, Lucy pulled away the football at the last minute, and I fell on my ass today. To think that I was silly enough to believe that the corporate and political establishment of this country would permit an antiwar candidate, no matter how pallid, no matter how willing to finance it after the fact, to be the nominee of either of the two major parties. To think that they would permit a nominee that actually energizes people around any issue other than the perpetuation of the existing neoliberal order. I'm frequently told that yogurt is good for the brain development of my young infant son. I'm hoping that it still has some residual benefit for a 47 year old man like me.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Obama: The Resurrection of American Liberalism 

The extraordinary emergence of Barack Obama as the probable Democratic nominee for President is exposing fissures within American liberalism, fissures that will revitalize it as force for progressive change. Yes, I admit it, I exaggerate a little here, these fissures have already been increasingly visible over the course of the Bush presidency. A populist liberalism, one that initially emphasized aggressive activist opposition to the Bush agenda has now matured into a movement that recognizes that the transformation of the Democratic Party is essential if any of its goals are to be achieved.

But Obama's success in shattering the Clinton machine (a task that he will complete tomorrow in New Hampshire) has brought these fissures to the fore front, and hastened the creation of a new progressive coalition. The Clinton machine, while disliked by many for its political expediency, released liberals from the necessity of confronting basic questions about themselves, their methods and political values. With Hillary the presumptive nominee, the only challenge facing liberals was how to persuade themselves that voting for her was an affirmative act. It was understood that the Clintons were going to make all the tough calls, and even, when they deemed necessary, revile their own base to preserve their power.

Hence, there was no need for self-reflection, just a willingness to celebrate the mercenary ruthlessness of the Clintons as essential to electoral success. As a consequence, liberalism no longer possessed the attributes of a social philosophy, a perspective about the relationship of people to each other and their government, a means of inspiring people to believe that they could act to change the circumstances of their lives for the better. Instead, it had been reduced to the practice of power politics for the benefit of an entrenched elite within the Democratic Party, as embarrassingly exposed by the willingness of congressional Democrats to rescue Joe Lieberman despite his primary loss to Ned Lamont. That's all in the past now. Obama, along with Edwards, has destroyed a Democratic Party apparat constructed over 16 years since 1992.

Accordingly, many liberals find themselves disoriented, adrift in unfamiliar waters. Some still hold tightly to the hierarchical Clinton political model. They uncritically parrot false Clinton attacks upon Obama: he's inexperienced, he's just a mesmerizing speaker, he lacks substance. Even the most cursory investigatory effort reveals that all of these criticisms are untrue. His experience compares quite favorable to Hillary's once one discounts her pitiful attempt to expropriate her husband's achievements as her own, he directly engages people in a low key manner in any type of forum and his policy initiatives are well reasoned.

Sadly, there is a racial undercurrent in some of the more extreme expressions of these themes. For example, to see people at some liberal sites, like, for example, firedoglake, perpetually harping on Obama's lack of substance in the debates implies that, well, of course, how could a black man possess extensive knowledge of political subjects in a debate with a professional white woman like Hillary Clinton? I wouldn't have thought that there was a racial dimension to this criticism until I actually spent the time to watch the Saturday debate in New Hampshire.

After reading numerous comments to this effect, predominately on the firedoglake site, but also at Daily Kos, I expected to hear Obama speak in vague, unsubstantiated generalities, sort of like if Tony Robbins ran for President, while Hillary, the reputed policy wonk, ran rings round him. Imagine my shock when Obama displayed a confident command of the issues, effortlessly refuting Hillary's desperate attempts to distort his record. She came off especially poorly during a protracted exchange about their health care proposals. I remembered one of my more ascerbic political remarks that I make to close friends, some white liberals are white before they are liberals.

It gets especially distasteful when you read remarks posted by some apparently female Clinton supporters on these sites, as well as the New York Times (I say, apparently, because I am taking the gender of the Internet handles at face value). They openly assert that nominating Obama is a bad idea because it will be impossible to elect a black man President of the United States. If required to create a category for this sort of criticism, we might call it backhanded racism, the expropriation of concern about racism to engage in a racist attack upon an African American political figure. Some of Hillary's supporters seems to come from feminists who have little, if any, interest in the civil rights struggles of African Americans, much less sympathy for it.

But this is a digression that distracts from the real problem as far as the Clintonistas and their liberal supporters are concerned. Such accidental expressions of racial animus are being generated by something else: the fact that Obama, like Samson, is destroying the hierarchical temple of political power constructed by the Clintons and their corporate sponsors. The Clinton model enforces the rule that political needs must be channeled up to the top of the pyramid, where the Clintons and their operatives, people like Rahm Emanuel, decide to what extent they should be addressed, if at all. Nothing is more frightening to them than the prospect of real political empowerment, real political participation by a significant portion of the public. Accordingly, the Clinton model places a priority upon the demoralization of social movements, and the substitution of symbolic gestures for material rewards.

Thus, one reads numerous posts at firedoglake and Daily Kos decrying the demogoguery of Obama, posts that express the preposterous fear that Obama is multicultural pied piper leading his guileless supporters over the abyss. Leaving aside the hilarity of people decrying Obama precisely because he motivates people to support him, and inspires otherwise alienated people to participate in the political process, these posts reflect anxiety that Obama is refashioning American liberalism in a way that is open and inclusive. Hillary and her liberal supporters, permanently attached to the hierarchical Clinton model, and the power they possess within it, have no way to challenge Obama other than through character attacks, distortions of his record and coded racist references.

Obama is going to succeed in this endeavor, and his success is going to transform American politics. John Edwards understands it, which is why he volunteered to serve as Robin to Obama's Batman, and openly maligned Hillary as part of the ossified status quo in Saturday's debate. It will take some time for the liberals that accepted the Clintonian mantras of polarization, incremental change, triangulation, concealed political agendas and the marginalization of social movements as necessary pillars of progressive politics in America. But probably not too long, because the longer they stay with the Clintons, the more isolated they will find themselves as the new Obama coalition of Democrats, independents, and, yes, even some Republicans, coalesces. By the time the results from South Carolina come towards the end of the month, most of them will have performed the required acts of obeisiance for their survival. Fear of political oblivion concentrates the mind wonderfully.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Whisperers: Private Life in the Time of Stalin 

Through the publication of The Whisperers, Orlando Figes has presented us with a profound work of scholarship that will endure as one of the most nuanced personal accounts of the ravages of Stalinism. Integrating social and political history with the individual experiences of government officials, peasants, industrial workers and Gulag survivors, his account reads like one of Tolstoy's novels.

Of course, I was both riveted and appalled by the day to day brutalities, the tragedy of shattered lives amid the idealism associated with the attempted construction of a socialist utopia, but I became engrossed through the accumulation of detail about the lives of the individuals and families over the course of the Stalinist period. Only a fellow academic, with the ability to review this monumental achievement in the course of their work, can provide a comprehensive evaluation. As a blogger, with a family and a day job, I can only emphasize some of the more fascinating aspects of the book.

Figes is masterful at relating how people, often through necessity, became obsessed with their public class identity. Significantly, as illuminated through personal accounts cited by Figes, this was a primary feature of Soviet life from the country's inception. Communists, and what little remained of the proletariat after the civil war, were privileged. People on the losing side of the civil war, including their children, were not. Such privileges were given expression in the most petty ways, at work, at school and in the allocation of scarce resources, such as housing. Hence, people quickly understood that nothing was more essential than manufacturing a proletarian identity for themselves if they did not already possess it.

Many surviving offspring of the aristocracy, the Czarist bureaucracy, merchants and the intelligentsia consciously educated themselves at vocational schools for industrial work, because such work automatically recast them as proletarian. Once they had obtained degrees and worked in the factory, they could then subsequently qualify for preferences that would enable them to become doctors, engineers and technicians. As you might guess, Figes provides numerous examples of the ingenuity associated with this endeavor.

The consequences of this social process were twofold. First, there was always this residual anxiety that the Party had been infiltrated by class enemies, requiring periodic purges to cleanse them. Second, the policy of rapid industrialization set forth in the Five Year Plan of 1928, and the professional education of proletarians required to administer it, produced the bureaucracy so maligned by Trotsky and others as state capitalism. Figes explains their ascension to positions of authority and the consumerism associated with their exclusive lifestyle.

Stalin brilliantly manipulated the social tensions released by this process to destroy the Party created by Lenin, and substitute himself in its place. Figes identifies five interrelated reasons as to why he was able to do so with such success through the Great Terror of the late 1930s: (1) the strong identification of the newly created proletarians with Stalin and the Communist project, an identification compelled by a craving for personal acceptance; (2) competition within the bureaucracy as ambitious subordinates informed on their superiors to create promotional opportunities for themselves; (3) the hostility of actual proletarians to the privileges restricted to Party leadership; (4) the willingness of people to inform on others to save themselves; and, finally, (5) fear of fascism.

To his credit, Figes recognizes that Stalinism was not possible without the complicity of many Soviet citizens. Chronic housing shortages, and the placement of families within the rooms of houses and apartments, played an essential role in the Soviet system of surveillance. Community housing, originally idealized as a way of architectually fostering social bonds between people, was transformed into a means whereby it became impossible to speak about any subject without fear of being overheard and denounced. Thus, as related by many interview subjects, the necessity of whispering as symbolized by the title of the book.

If one looks carefully, there are some flaws in the grand conception of The Whisperers. Figes rightly emphasizes the fundamentalist vision of the Communists that prevailed in the Civil War, and the centralization of power in the succeeding years, a centralization that served as precondition to the terror and the cult of Stalin. One looks in vain, however, for any acknowledgement of the dilemma recognized 50 years ago by Isaac Deutscher in his three volume biography of Trotsky. The Communists won the Civil War at the cost of the near destruction of the proletariat in whose name they purported to rule. How then, to proceed?

Stalinism was certainly one answer, perhaps the only one, if the Communists intended to perserve their power, and indeed, even survive, as the equivocation of Stalin's opponents, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, suggests. From the tone of The Whisperers, one gets the impression that Figes believes that the liberalism of the NEP should have been expanded, but even Figes points out the resentment, verging upon violence, that the rapid accumulation of wealth by merchants was engendering in the laboring classes. Of course, Stalinism was a human atrocity, but it would have been bracing to read Figes' perspective as to whether the Communists could have survived at all by taking a different path.

Figes also fails to place the consolidation of Communist power prior to Stalinism in the context of a capitalist world that was uniformly hostile to it. Britain, the US, France, Germany and Japan did want the Communists to be overthrown. Britain and France did not change this policy until they faced the peril of the Nazis, and, even then, Stalin believed, perhaps correctly, that they really wanted to instigate a war between the Soviet Union and Germany to protect themselves. The Communists lacked the prospect of any foreign investment that would have financed the industrial ambitions of the Five Year Plan. As Gorbachev learned about 60 years later, there was no Third Way as far as American, Japanese and European capitalists were concerned. Thus, the troubling historical question, one that eludes the liberal Figes: to what extent was the West, as it was known then, complicit in the atrocities of Stalinism?

Accordingly, in regard to his presentation of his peasant victims, one wonders whether Figes has simplified the political conflict between Communists and communal land owners in the villages. Invariably, these kulaks are presented as socially benevolent, while the proponents of collectivization come across as malicious. To be fair, this is not totally true, the urban Communists involved in collectivization are described as displaying a misguided idealism, but the peasant proponents tend to appear as envious of the accomplishments of the victims. Of course, that's predictable given the accounts of the victims, and the subsequent failure of collectivization itself. Even so, the skill of measured political and moral evalution that Figes exhibits elsewhere is not so pronounced in this instance.

As I read The Whisperers, I recalled Baudrillard's analysis of Marxism in the 1970s. Marxism, he seditiously concluded, crippled the revolutionary potential of the populace by accepting a proletarian class identity conceived and imposed by the bourgeoisie. Figes describes the inevitable consequences of this permanent disability: an obsession with class that requires a tentacular bureaucracy to distribute rewards and punishments, all the while eviscerating the capacity of people to aspire to a more perfect world. The Whisperers can be implicitly read, against the sober liberalism of the author, as supportive of Baudrillard's belief that the spontaneity of the Paris Commune is superior to the scientific historicism of the October Revolution.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Benedict: Abortion, Birth Control and Same Sex Marriage a Threat to World Peace 

The mendacious Pope, at it again:

Pope Benedict XVI said in a statement on Tuesday that abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage are threats to world peace, on the same level as nuclear arms proliferation, environmental pollution and economic inequality.

In a 15-page message for the World Day of Peace, which will be observed Jan. 1, the pope links sexual and medical ethics to international relations and presents the nuclear family as the "first and indispensable teacher of peace" and the "primary agency of peace."

"Everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of new life ... constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace," the pope writes.

This is an important statement that clearly sets forth the Vatican's priorities: dissent from Church doctrine on abortion, birth control and same sex marriage are transgressions that require progressive levels of discipline, but Catholic policymakers involved in nuclear arms proliferation and warfare are merely given the religious equivalent of verbal warnings. The apparent equivalency of the statement is revealed to be false by day to day Church administrative practice.

Or, to put it more bluntly, the references to nuclear arms proliferation, environmental pollution and economic inequality are just window dressing. After all, when has this Pope, or any major Vatican figure, taken Bush and Blair to task personally for invading Iraq and killing hundreds of thousands of people? Right, the Church just permitted Blair to convert to Catholicism.

On its face, the statement is comical, like most Vatican pronouncements on these subjects. The notion that the nuclear family is the "first and indispensable teacher of peace" has been historically disproved on too many occasions to count. Racism, religious intolerance, homophobia and anti-semitism, with their attendant expressions of violence, have been communicated to successive generations through the nuclear family celebrated by Benedict. Indeed, the purported necessity of protecting the family has often been invoked as a justification for them.

Furthermore, the family has been the centerpiece of consumption within capitalist societies. Modern advertising highlights appeals to familial concerns, such as personal safety, the education and comfort of children and social status, as a means of encouraging modes of consumption that are injurious to the environment, with an accompanying disinterest in the overall well being of society. One of the infrequently recognized aspects of neoliberalism has been its success in encouraging people to limit their social concerns to their immediate family.

Just as Stalinists and Maoists celebrated the rarely, if ever, found socialist man as the linchpin of their new egalitarian societies, Benedict exalts an idea of the family that has no relationship to the real world. His specific reference to same sex marriage as a threat to peace is troubling, as it suggests that violence and discriminatory behavior directed against them, while not publicly praiseworthy, should be considered the inevitable consequence of its proliferation. Gays and lesbians, acutely aware of their marginal societal status do not often act out violently, but people hostile to them do.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Your Revolution 

Sarah Jones got in trouble with the FCC years ago when she recorded this riveting spoken word performance, this humorous, incisive condemnation of misogyny in hip hop, as a song:

For those of you who use Windows, you can listen to the song here.

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