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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Film Notes: V for Vendetta 

[First posted 3/27/06: though flawed, V for Vendetta still represents the best, most sincere attempt to capture the social and culture dimension of the so-called war on terror, far better than more dignified, serious attempts to do so.]

Remember, remember
the fifth of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot.


I know of no reason
why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

V for Vendetta is the one of the most exciting pulp action political allegories since Executioners, a 1993 futuristic Hong Kong martial arts film featuring the Heroic Trio of Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and the now deceased Anita Mui. Both films are noirish, violent and psychologically disturbing as they emphasize the irresistable temptation to seize and maintain power by appeals to fear in all its variations. Both also shamelessly steal from The Phantom of the Opera, displaying, yet again, the inexhaustible artistic potential of this seemingly simple story, although V for Vendetta does so more than Executioners, and both look to feminine heroines for salvation. Stephanie Bunbury, of the Australian newspaper, The Age, has chronicled the making of the film in detail, with an emphasis upon its cultural sources.

V for Vendetta is overtly political in its purpose, as the official Warner Brothers website ominously declares: People should not be afraid of the governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. Conversely, to this day, as Executioners is known primarily only to Hong Kong action film fans, it is still mistakenly viewed by many as little more than a high wire special effects extravaganza, and hence judged in comparison, sometimes unfavorably, to other productions in the genre.

In fact, Executioners was politically visionary, with a story line that exploited anxieties about the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China as an opportunity to explore the far more serious interrelated subjects of spectacle and military neoliberalism, with the latter concept being one that did not gain common currency until after the turn of the century, as a consequence of 9/11 and the publication of books like Afflicted Powers. The plot now strikes the ear as banal. The wealthiest man in Hong Kong conspires with the head of the military to destabilize the government and impose martial law by depriving the city of its water supply (seven years before Cochabamba, Bolivia violently erupted after Bechtel took over the municipal water supply and implemented nearly exponential prices increases!). Fortunately for Hong Kong, Michelle, Maggie and Anita overcome the combined forces of militarism and finance capital, if only to the extent that Hong Kong still has water. A small victory, but a victory, nonetheless.

While V for Vendetta is more a response to events than an anticipation of future ones, or, so we can only hope, the protagonist, the mysterious V, has a far more ambitious goal: the instigation of a 21st Century anarchist revolution that echoes the earlier Bolshevik one in St. Petersburg in 1917. Adult comic fans know that the film is based upon a 1980s series written by Alan Moore and predominately illustrated by David Lloyd. Moore reportedly created the series to give artistic expression to his revulsion of Thatcherism.

V is inspired by Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605, a plot to blow up Parliament, portrayed in the film's prequel to the activities of V as an attempted act of liberation instead of a conspiracy of Roman Catholics, consistent with the incorporation of Fawkes into anarchist histories as the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions. His failure has been forever enshrined in British history as he was recently acknowledged as one of the "100 Most Famous Britons".

As Fawkes is hung for treason, a voiceover from the narrator, Evey, a young woman who finds her life inextricably bound with V's, states: 400 years later, an idea can change the world. Wikipedia thereafter describes the momentum of the film into the not-so-distant future:

. . . . The story then moves to the movie's present day, where government spokesman Lewis Prothero gives a speech showing England to be under the rule of a religious, fascist, and bigotted regime. There is a curfew in effect.

Evey, a young woman who breaks curfew is caught on the street by members of the secret police, known as "fingermen." They are about to rape Evey when a man dressed in black, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, intervenes by either incapacitating and killing the fingermen. After introducing himself to Evey as V, he takes her to a London rooftop to show her an event. As the clock strikes midnight of the fifth of November, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" begins playing through the city's PA system and the citizens of London go outside, astounded, to listen to the symphony. In the symphony's climax, The Old Bailey is blown up and fireworks are released.

The Norsefire regime, the futuristic totalitarian regime of Britain headed by High Chancellor Sutler, explains the destruction of The Old Bailey as a voluntary act of emergency demolition on the part of the government. The police are also dispatched to find Evey, who was identified based on closed-circuit television images showing her in the company of V.

Clearly, the most controversial aspect of the film is the daring inducement to the audience to interpret it in light of emerging developments in the United States, such as Guantanamo and the war in Iraq (clearly, periodic references to the US being in the throes of a perpetual civil war are cosmetic). V is, by turns, warm, engaging, refined, violent and deranged. Through his ability to perform spectacular stunts, he disorients both the government and the people as he proceeds to undermine the regime, constituting the flip side of a cinematic coin that bears the image of German film director Fritz Lang's infamous creation, Dr. Mabuse, a 1920s and 1930s movie meglomaniac that disrupted society to lay the ground for fascism.

V for Vendetta has that electric quality that one associates with the greatest creations of the silent era, before cinema was reduced, except in rare instances, to commercially providing immediate representations of reality. Slavish adherence to plot rationality (how did V get all those masks and mail them to everyone in London?) is bravely jettisoned to the higher aspiration of exploring the limits of film as a method of story telling and political agitation in its own right. One critic deliriously responded to the film's poster art provocations, its masterful juxtaposition of a cinema verite present with a dystopian future, a London tricked out with noirish settings culturally expropriated from the industrial past and the postmodern present, and its blunt, politically uncompromising character, by invoking Eisenstein. Now, this, unlike the movie, is certainly over the top. But, having been mesmerized by the film myself, I can certainly understand how someone couldn't resist the comparison.

Moore has expressed unhappiness with the film's conception of V, asserting that he wanted to contrast the extremes of anarchism and fascism, seeking to encourage the audience to determine if V was insane or justified in his actions. Personally, I believe that Moore is too harsh on the scriptwriters, the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame, and the disagreement highlights an essential aspect of the film. V carries out a killing spree for reasons of revenge (evocative of the great Vincent Price cult film, Theatre of Blood, wherein Price, playing a Shakespearan actor, kills the critics who denied him a prestigious acting award), but for V, the personal is the political, as they used to say, with his vengence releasing the latent discontent of the populace against their authoritarian government.

Accordingly, the Wachowski brothers are traveling over a terrain that is most disconcerting to anyone who believes that the hegemony of the US empire can be overcome solely through non-violence. V is a flawed, egomanical character that reveals the extent to which rebellions are often lead by marginalized figures who live outside of societal convention in profoundly troubling ways. Revolutions invariably, as shown in the film, involve a complex interweaving of violent and non-violent components. One need only look at the extent to which the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela basks in the security offered by the resistance in Iraq, a resistance that prevents the US from taking action thousands of miles away, as a contemporary example.

Significantly, however, the true protagonist of the film is Evey (a strong performance by Natalie Portman), not V. V needs someone who will carry his vision forward, because it will die with him, a solitary dream, a fantasy, if the next generation does not share it. Evey's evolution into a fearless, nameless (she ultimately survives with a fake ID), confident woman as she is forced to confront more and more harrowing degrees of loss, violence and deprivation, most memorably in a prolonged incarceration sequence, is therefore central to the film's premise. In this, V transcends his desire for grandiose revenge, and creates an enduring social legacy, much as the character of Prospero does at the conclusion of the great Shakespeare play, The Tempest, but the legacy requires that someone grasp it, and that person is Evey. Thus, the Wachowski brothers, paradoxically through the genre of the comic book action film, insist that we engage with the past, present and future by recognizing history as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Indeed, a detective, Eric Finch, played by Stephen Rea, is involuntarily compelled to do so in one of the film's most compelling sequences, as V, reminiscent of Prospero, skillfully stage manages his impending insurrection, navigating the chaos around him with ease. V's willingness to voluntarily hand over his movement, no strings attached, to Evey, leaving success or failure to her, distinguishes him from the fascist, Mabuse.

All along the way James McTeigue, the director, utilizes some effective alienation effects, as the past (Fawkes), our ephemeral present (through flashbacks of Evey, V and Valerie, an incarcerated lesbian) and the impending future, the present setting of the film's narrative, are powerfully contrasted. The surface normality of our times, with our knowledge of its concealed atrocities, and our belief that we are privileged enough to remain securely and happily independent of them, degenerates into the explicit brutality of an authoritarian future. Valerie's recollection of her affectionate London life with her partner, as the world around them becomes more and more intolerant of any expressions of compassion, is especially poignant.

A fusion of fear, fascism and media manipulation relentlessly devours all remaining sanctuaries of personal kindness and autonomy, as Evey's dear friend Gordon, who shelters her, tragically discovers as a result of V's obssessive pursuit of Old Testament revenge and revolutionary transformation. Yet another splash of ice cold water from the Wachowski brothers: a radical consciously goes forward despite the certain knowledge that some good hearted innocents will inevitably be consumed by the conflict around them, something that John Sayles acknowledged as an essential feature of his brilliant 1987 film about a turn of the century West Virginia coal miners strike, Matewan. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has warmly described V for Vendetta as a supremely tasteless movie. Let's have many more of them.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

The Sub-Proletarianization of America (Part 1) 

[First posted on July 31, 2007: at the time, I didn't realize that the housing bubble would cause the worst global recession since the 1930s, but I did recognize that it would immiserate the middle and lower middle class. It is also worth noting that, at the time of this post, many economists, market watchers and governmental officials were saying that the problem was contained.]


With the exception of the late, lamented Steve Gilliard and Mike Whitney, my impression has been that few bloggers and mainstream media sources have examined the profound social consequences of the puncturing of the housing bubble. Typical of such stories, coverage has instead emphasized the impact upon the stock, bond and housing markets, treating it primarily as an issue for investors.

Hence, there has been no shortage of articles about the transformation of home mortgages into collateralized debt obligations, the impact of loan defaults upon the value of these instruments, the destruction of hedge funds that used incomprehensible amounts of leverage (otherwise known as loans to you and me) to purchase them and the chaos that is now erupting in the bond and equity markets as a result.

If you want to read all about it, go to thehousingbubbleblog.com or Calculated Risk. As for the people who purchased homes with all of these strange new mortgage products such as adjustible rate loans, interest only loans, and, my personal favorite, stated income loans (yes, as incredible as it sounds, your guess is correct, banks loaned money to people based solely upon what people said they earned), they are frequently maligned as either greedy or stupid. In other words, they got what they deserved.

At best, they are just another nameless, faceless population of people run through the system to be fleeced by sharp financial operators, while serving as a cautionary example to the rest of us. A classic instance of the creative destruction that perpetually transforms and preserves our capitalist society. But such a superficial analysis barely scratches the surface of some serious questions about the extent to which the lower middle class and middle class workforce of this country can afford to pay for its basic needs of survival.

We all know that health care is increasingly unaffordable to many Americans, and that the coverage that they receive, if they can afford it, is often mediocre. Sicko merely gave cinematic expression to the lived experiences of millions. We are now discovering, as a consequence of the housing bubble, that housing, as measured by home ownership, is also increasingly unaffordable to many people as well. This is true revelation of the proliferation of exotic credit instruments for home purchases in recent years.

People in places like Sacramento, where I live, could no longer afford to purchase homes as they had done for generations, with a payment of 20% of the purchase price and a 30 year fixed mortgage for the remaining 80% of the price of the home. Cities and regions like Sacramento, Las Vegas, Phoenix, the Inland Empire of Southern California and much of Florida, places where people had fled the cost of living on the coasts were now becoming more and more expensive, as speculators and foreign investors juiced demand to new extremes.

So, it became necessary to devise new financial instruments to enable people who actually wanted to live in the homes to purchase them. Lenders looked to the credit card industry as the model, using low introductory interest rates to close deals, letting the buyers sink or swim when these rates expired, replaced by much higher ones, requiring much higher monthly payments. For the lending industry and Wall Street, it was a great party while it lasted, as the loans were securitized and purchased by hedge funds, with lucrative fees pocketed by all.

Of course, they now have their own problems, as you can read on all over the web, but what about the people who are losing their homes? What is going to happen to them? The answer is, as we all know, it is going to be brutal. Many of them are going to be pushed into the rental market for the rest of their lives, and many are going to have to leave the locations where they currently reside because even the cost of rent is going to be too much for them. So, we are looking at the prospect of two migrations, one from houses to rentals, and the other from expensive parts of the country to less expensive ones. Furthermore, quite a number of communities built for home owners will rapidly become rental ones. Some may even resemble ghost towns, as it becomes impossible to fill all of the homes with residents.

Left academics would say that the socioeconomic life of the US will subtlely display more and more features of sub proletarization, as more and more people in the lower middle class and even the middle class find themselves forced to migrate internally within the country (an economically generated group of internally displaced people?) and live under conditions of financial insecurity. Analogizing them to global migrants is a stretch, demeaning their struggle for survival, and, yet, many Americans face a future of insecurity in all aspects of their lives.

It is easy to blame them as being greedy, stupid and gullible, and no doubt many were, but the fact is, they wanted something that they have been induced to believe that they should be able to achieve as Americans, and they were afraid, during the peak of the speculative mania, that, if they didn't buy a house, that they would never be able to do so. Financial institutions ruthlessly exploited this combination of fear, greed and lack of knowledge to destroy their financial futures, just as mutual funds and brokerage houses did during the stock market bubble of the turn of the century.

At the heart of it all remains the reality that the standard of living for many Americans has declined since the last 1960s. It has been artificially preserved, temporarily, by the creation and marketing of exotic forms of credit, such as the infamous home equity loan, that enabled them to live in a manner consistent with societal expectations. For example, the Sacramento Bee recently reported that the length of the average car loan is now almost 6 years, and that car sales have fallen in the last two years because of, yes, the bursting of the housing bubble, and the lack of any trade in value for vehicles purchased with loans over such a long period of time.

In other words, consumption at all levels has been subsidized by access to readily available credit. This is the portentious social change encapulated within the seemingly bland term that is now ubiquitous, the credit crunch. Going forward, money must be lent according to the remorseless calculations of risk that were suspended during the stock market and housing bubbles. As a society, we will be forced out of the universe of liberalized access to credit into an alternative one with pay as your go features, and it will be an agonizing exodus for many.

Socially, it is impossible to know how people will respond to it, just as it is equally difficult to predict how people will respond to the Iraq catastrophe, the flip side of the bubble coin. It is likely, however, that whatever transpires will be turbulent. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we are experiencing the end of neoliberal economics, a transformation of the American economy that will rival the industrialization of the 19th Century and the deindustrialization of the late 20th Century in terms of importance.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving 

I am away on vacation with my family for the holiday, and won't return to the blog until next Tuesday. I have, however, lined up a couple of posts from the archives for your reading enjoyment, ones that I consider most pertinent to our present predicament. They emphasize some of the enduring themes that influence my personal social and political perspective. The first post will appear early tomorrow, the second one, early Sunday.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Assassination of Harvey Milk 

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, was, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, assassinated by Dan White thirty years ago tomorrow. A movie based upon his life, with Sean Penn in the role of Milk, will open this weekend in San Francisco. People there who have attended a special screening say that Penn's performance is remarkable, as did San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.

For many, Milk is a figure who has receded into the mists of time, and this film will introduce them to someone who was one of the most dynamic and inclusive political figures in American history. His participation in the emerging movement for gay and lesbian rights is deservedly legendary, as reflected by this excerpt from his famous Hope Speech:

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant in television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us'es, the us'es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Milk placed the struggle for gay rights within the context of the need for progressive social change in this country. He was known for his willingness to enter into coalitions with labor unions, as he did when the Castro virtually eliminated the sale and consumption of Coors beer in honor of the Teamsters boycott. In return, the Teamsters endorsed him during his campaign that got him elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Less known is the hostility that Milk's progressivism engendered. He supported the efforts of Moscone to reform the police department, generating tremendous hostility among the rank and file cops. One of my friends told me that, during the booking of White, a former SFPD officer himself, the cops slapped him on the back, saying, Attaboy, Danny.

Maybe, that's an urban myth, or perhaps it comes from the reporting of Warren Hinckle. Hinckle did write that the cops wore Free Dan White T-shirts after the killings, and it is one of the quirks of history that Milk is universally remembered as a victim of White, with a popular vigil in his memory every year in The City, while Moscone has become a footnote, or, more accurately, a supporting character in the saga of Milk's life and times. Hinckle also said that someone sang Danny Boy on the police radio when the manslaughter verdict at the conclusion of White's trial, a verdict that would result in White spending only five years in prison, was announced. During the course of the riots that erupted that night, the police entered a bar in the Castro and savagely beat many of the patrons.

Milk knew he was going to be killed. He was challenging the homophobic values of a country that had responded to the civil rights movement with violence in the previous decade. He spoke at Gay Pride Day in 1978 after receiving a death threat moments before taking the stage. He traveled the state speaking in opposition to the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from employment in the public schools. Of course, the more outspoken he became, the more death threats he received.

Many speculate about what would have happened had Milk lived. Most say that his progressive, community oriented populism would have helped push San Francisco, and perhaps, the state of California, in a direction away from the gentrification and economic conservatism that has marked the last 30 years, a conservatism personified by the person who announced his death, Dianne Feinstein.

Perhaps. But there was also a sybaritic side to him as well. For example, I have no doubt that he would have opposed Proposition 8, but he never showed the slightest inclination that he wanted to be married himself. He was having too much fun in the liberated sexual climate of the 1970s, although like many from that time, he might have settled down by now. In any event, we should not ignore the possibility that, while unlikely, Milk could have instead adapted a more pro-business, corporate politics instead. Projecting the future of someone who has died is always a rather speculative endeavor.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Enter Hawks, Stage Right (Part 2) 

The Daily Telegraph nails it:

Mr Obama has moved quickly in the last 48 hours to get his cabinet team in place, unveiling a raft of heavyweight appointments, in addition to Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

But his preference for General James Jones, a former Nato commander who backed John McCain, as his National Security Adviser and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a supporter of the war, to run the Homeland Security department has dismayed many of his earliest supporters.

The likelihood that Mr Obama will retain George W Bush's Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has reinforced the notion that he will not aggressively pursue the radical withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq over the next 16 months and engagement with rogue states that he has pledged.

By selecting such hawks, Obama is pushing antiwar supporters to the sidelines:

There is growing concern among a new generation of anti-war foreign policy analysts in Washington, many of whom stuck their necks out to support Mr Obama early in the White House race, that they will be frozen out of his administration.

Mrs Clinton is expected to appoint her own top team at the State Department, drawn from more conservative thinkers.

A Democratic foreign policy expert told one Washington website: "They were the ones courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many supported Obama in the first place." Their fear, he added, is that they will not now secure the mid-level posts which will enable them to reach the top of the Washington career ladder in future.

Suspicion of Mr Obama's moves has been compounded, for some liberals, by the revelation that Mr Obama has for several months been taking advice from Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush.

His return to prominence in Washington represents a resurgence of the old school conservative realists, who were largely eclipsed during this Bush administration by the neoconservatives.

They place US national interests above the quest to defend human rights or to spread democracy. Progressives and liberals see Mr Scowcroft's hand in the move to retain Mr Gates, an old friend, at the Pentagon and also in the expected elevation of Gen. Jones.

The article, written by Tim Shipman, is a very good one that highlights the fundamental issues in play, despite recourse to some questionable characterizations of the participants. For example, the defense of human rights and the spread of democracy have often been a pretext for US imperial activity, as it was in Iraq, so advisors with such a background aren't necessarily superior to conservative realists. It all depends on the situation and the particular realist and human rights defender involved.

With this aside, the article points towards three important issues related to US democratic processes. First, Obama's abandonment of his antiwar advisors demonstrates how impervious the foreign policy establishment is towards even the most mildly dissenting view. US intervention in the Middle East has been historically bipartisan, and remains so. Regardless of any electoral result, representatives of the bipartisan consensus will remain in power, except that the means to achieve agreed upon objectives may change. Hence, US forces may soon find themselves predominately engaged in combat in Afghanistan, rather than the other way round in Iraq, but the goal of imperial dominance remains.

Second, there is the fact that the institutions of the military-industrial complex, as manifest in the Defense Department, Homeland Security, the Pentagon and, yes, even the State Department, possess accumulated institutional values that cannot be challenged within the electoral process. It is acceptable for ambitious people who intend to make careers in these institutions to make aggressive errors in support of US policy, recalling Barry Goldwater's famous line, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, but even the mildest criticism or public disclosure of internal decisionmaking processes is heresy.

Accordingly, that new generation of antiwar policy analysts in Washington has been taught a rather painful lesson. They won't make the mistake of publicly expressing their antiwar views again, if anything, they will err on the side of utterances of a markedly violent, unilateralist kind, and the generation behind them will be instructed to keep their mouths shut as well. We are not just experiencing a short term fight over patronage within the Obama administration, but one that will shape the contours of acceptable dissent within the foreign policy establishment for many years. It is a great tragedy that will cast a long shadow.

Finally, there is the even more frightening prospect as to whether the US electoral process itself is merely an entertainment spectacle for the purpose of inducing the public to believe that it has a power that it does not, in fact, have. Obama frequently relied upon his opposition to the war in Iraq to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton. He emphasized it as an indication that his election would result in meaningful change, a departure from the bipartisan practices of military aggression that characterized the Bush presidency. And, yet, now we discover that Hillary will be approving the appointments to the State Department, and that his appointments to military, foreign policy and intelligence positions are nearly uniformly in support of the war, as is his chief of staff.

One is tempted to call this a coup, but that would be a mistake, because we are merely observing the intended operation of the system. Predictably, local progressives counsel me to be patient, even as the right pushes on, full steam ahead. Has American liberalism, or progressivism, if you like, been reduced to a form of social symbolism, divorced from the material realities of the world around it? We will soon find out, because Obama has already expressed his intention to send 15,000 to 25,000 more troops to Afghanistan immediately upon taking office. Will they object?

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

20 Hawks, Clintonistas and Neoconservatives to Watch in the Obama White House 

Keep this scorecard for future reference, an excellent article by Jeremy Scahill profiling the rightward emphasis of the Obama foreign policy, military and intelligence appointees.

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Enter Hawks, Stage Right (Part 1) 

The Clintons rolled Obama on foreign policy. Not only are we not getting out of Afghanistan, we aren't getting out of Iraq, either:

Before Hillary Clinton has been formally offered the job as Secretary of State, a purge of Barack Obama's top foreign policy team has begun.

The advisers who helped trash the former First Lady's foreign policy credentials on the campaign trail are being brutally shunted aside, as the price of her accepting the job of being the public face of America to the world. In negotiations with Mr Obama this week before agreeing to take the job, she demanded and received assurances that she alone should appoint staff to the State Department. She also got assurances that she will have direct access to the President and will not have to go through his foreign policy advisers on the National Security Council, which is where many of her critics in the Obama team are expected to end up.

The first victims of Mrs Clinton's anticipated appointment will be those who defended Mr Obama's flanks on the campaign trail. By mocking Mrs Clinton's claims to have landed under sniper fire in Bosnia or pouring scorn on her much-ballyhooed claim to have visited 80 countries as First Lady they successfully deflected the damaging charge that he is a lightweight on international issues.

Foremost among the victims of the purges is her old Yale Law School buddy Greg Craig, a man who more than anyone led the rescue of his presidency starting the very night Kenneth Starr's lurid report into the squalid details of the former president's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky were published on the internet in 1998. Despite his long and loyal friendship with the Clintons, Mr Craig threw his lot in with Mr Obama at an early stage in the presidential election campaign. As if that betrayal to the cause of the Clinton restoration was not enough, Mr Craig did more to undermine Mrs Clinton's claims to be a foreign policy expert than anyone else in the some of the ugliest exchanges of the battle for the Democratic nomination.

Until this week he was poised to be the eminence grise of the State Department, organising as total revamp of America's troubled foreign policies on Mr Obama's behalf. Its turns out that Mrs Clinton's delay in accepting the president elect's offer to be his top foreign policy adviser had much to do with her negotiating the terms of the job and insisting on the right to choose her own state department staff and possibly even some of the plumb Ambassador postings. She wanted guarantees of direct access to the president – without having to go through his national security adviser. Above all she did not want to end up like Colin Powell who was completely out-manoeuvred by the hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney who imposed neo-conservative friends like John Bolton on the State Department and steered the US towards a policy of using torture to achieve its aims.

Leonard Doyle of The Independent tells the story as primarily one of political inside baseball, a story of personalities caught up in the fight for spoils as a new administration takes power. But it is much more serious than that. Hillary Clinton has been consistently hawkish in regard to Iraq and Iran, and her advisors, the people that are now going to find themselves in the State Department, despite backing the losing candidate, share those views:

It should come as no surprise that during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Obama spoke at a Chicago anti-war rally while Clinton went as far as falsely claiming that Iraq was actively supporting al-Qaeda. And during the recent State of the Union address, when Bush proclaimed that the Iraqi surge was working, Clinton stood and cheered while Obama remained seated and silent.

Clinton's advisors are similarly confident in the ability of the United States to impose its will through force. This is reflected to this day in the strong support for President Bush's troop surge among such Clinton advisors (and original invasion advocates) as Jack Keane, Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon.

Clinton's top foreign policy advisor -- and her likely pick for Secretary of State -- Richard Holbrooke, insisted that Iraq remained "a clear and present danger at all times." He rejected the broad international legal consensus against such offensive wars and insisted European governments and anti-war demonstrators who opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam Hussein.

Clinton advisor Sandy Berger, who served as her husband's national security advisor, insisted that "even a contained Saddam" was "harmful to stability and to positive change in the region" and insisted on the necessity of "regime change." Other top Clinton advisors -- such as former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- confidently predicted that American military power could easily suppress any opposition to a U.S. takeover of Iraq.

By contrast, during the lead-up to the war, Obama's advisors recognized as highly suspect the Bush administration's claims regarding Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and offensive delivery systems capable of threatening U.S. national security.

Now advising Obama, former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, argued that public support for war "should not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy." Brzezinski seems to have learned from mistakes like arming the Mujahideen. He warned that invading a country that was no threat to the United States would threaten America's global leadership because most of the international community would see it as an illegitimate act of aggression.

Another key Obama advisor, the Carnegie Endowment's Joseph Cirincione, argued that the goal of containing the potential threat from Iraq had been achieved as a result of sanctions, the return of of inspectors, and a multinational force stationed in the region serving as a deterrent. Meanwhile, other future Obama advisors -- such as Susan Rice, Larry Korb, Samantha Power, and Richard Clarke -- raised concerns about the human and material costs of invading and occupying a large Middle Eastern country and the risks of American forces becoming embroiled in post-invasion chaos and a lengthy counter-insurgency war.

These differences in the key circles of foreign policy specialists surrounding these two candidates are consistent with their diametrically opposing views in the lead-up to the war, with Clinton voting to let President Bush invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, while Obama was speaking out to oppose a U.S. invasion.

Hillary Clinton has a few advisors who did oppose the war, like Wesley Clark, but taken together, the kinds of key people she's surrounded herself with supports the likelihood that her administration, like Bush's, would be more likely to embrace exaggerated and alarmist reports regarding potential national security threats, to ignore international law and the advice of allies, and to launch offensive wars.

By contrast, as The Nation magazine noted, a Barack Obama administration would be more likely to examine the actual evidence of potential threats before reacting, to work more closely with America's allies to maintain peace and security, to respect the country's international legal obligations, and to use military force only as a last resort.

In terms of Iran, for instance, Cirincione has downplayed the supposed threat, while Clinton advisor Holbrooke insists that "the Iranians are an enormous threat to the United States," the country is "the most pressing problem nation," and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is like Hitler. This is consistent with Clinton's vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that opened the door to a potential Bush attack on Iran, and with Obama's opposition to it.

Or, to put it concisely, Obama has subcontracted foreign policy out to Clintonista hawks.

Oh, but you say that he will stand up to them when Hillary, taking advantage of her direct line to the President, pushes their crazy interventionist ideas? Sure he will, just like he stood up to her when she and Bill demanded that he throw some of his most loyal foreign policy advisors over the side of the boat. This is beginning to look more and more like an unmitigated catastrophe. Even I'm shocked at the rapidity by which Obama is abandoning loyal constituencies in a misguided attempt to consolidate his power inside the Beltway. Meanwhile, I continue to get self-congratulatory e-mails from local progressives who supported Obama even as the election is stolen from them.

UPDATE: The content of The Independent article is briefly confirmed in a soft focus personality piece in today's New York Times.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Deflation is Here (Part 2) 

From today's New York Times:

The farmers said it would not last, and they were right.

When the price of wheat, corn, soybeans and just about every other food grown in the ground began leaping skyward two years ago, farmers were pleased, of course. But generally they refused to believe that the good times would be permanent. They had seen too many booms that were inevitably followed by busts.

Now, with the suddenness of a hailstorm flattening a field, hard times are back on the American farmstead. The price paid for crops is dropping much faster than the cost of growing them.

The government reported this week that the cost of goods and services nationwide fell by a record amount in October as frantic businesses tried to lure customers. While lower prices are good for consumers in the short run, a prolonged stretch of deflation would wreak havoc as companies struggled to stay afloat.

In this lonesome stretch near the Texas border, farmers are getting an early taste of a deflationary world. They have finished planting next year’s winter wheat, turning the fields a brilliant emerald green. But it cost about $6 a bushel in fuel, seed and fertilizer to put the crop in. That is $1 more than they could sell it for today, and never mind other expenses like renting land.

Finally, the peril is perceived, but is it too late?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Death of Detroit (Part 3) 

If you hadn't noticed, the unwillingness of the President and the Republicans to support a $25 billion loan to the auto industry, even from the proceeds of a loan in this amount already approved to retool auto plants, after $2 trillion has been dispensed to the financial sector, is really about shattering the United Auto Workers, even if it intensifies the severity and length of the recession:

Earlier, in Detroit, the president of the United Automobile Workers union, Ron Gettelfinger, on Thursday urged Congress to approve some type of financial support for automakers before adjourning for the year to prevent millions of people from losing their jobs.

“If one of these companies goes over the cliff, it could for sure take at least one of the others, if not both, with them,” Mr. Gettelfinger said, speaking at a news conference at the U.A.W.’s headquarters, known as Solidarity House. “We cannot allow one of these companies to fall off a cliff.”

Mr. Gettelfinger joined the leaders of General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler in testifying before two Congressional committees in Washington this week, as the companies requested $25 billion in loans to avoid bankruptcy.

The executives encountered harsh criticism and little sympathy on Capitol Hill toward the auto industry’s plight, and so Mr. Gettelfinger is now attempting to focus the discussion on saving jobs rather than the much-maligned automakers.

He said that a Detroit bankruptcy, which many industry critics have said is the best option to allow for effective restructuring, would ripple throughout the United States economy and that “the current recession would be made much worse.”

Hundreds of thousands would be laid off by companies that supply parts to the automakers, he maintained, and each job related to automotive manufacturing supports many more in other fields.

Mr. Gettelfinger blasted members of Congress whose states enticed foreign automakers like Honda and Mercedes to open plants there by giving out $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives since 1992 but who oppose help for Detroit.

He specifically cited Alabama, the home of four nonunion car factories, and of Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican who condemned the Detroit carmakers and their chief executives this week.

“We can help the financial industry and give incentives to let foreign automakers compete against us,” Mr. Gettelfinger said, “but at the same time we’re able to walk away from the industry that is the backbone of our economy.”

It is a markedly different approach than the one taken by Sarkozy in France:

Vowing to protect French industry from foreign predators and a worsening economic slump, President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a strategic investment fund of 20 billion euros ($25 billion) on Thursday.

He also announced its first investment and promised a stimulus package in coming weeks with the aim of investing “massively” in infrastructure, education and research, and hinted that the auto industry might get a helping hand.

The European Commission is likely to scrutinize the fund’s investments to ensure they do not restrict the free flow of capital, a violation that could lead to legal action by the commission.

Mr. Sarkozy said the first investment would be made in Daher, an aeronautics supplier located near Tours, in central France.

Speaking at Daher, Mr. Sarkozy said the fund stood ready to take stakes in large and strategically important companies vulnerable to takeovers because of falling stock prices.

I won’t let foreign funds get bargains thanks to the current levels of the stock market,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “I won’t let French industry move out.”

The fund will also invest in smaller companies that have high growth potential but are having trouble getting loans from fearful banks, the president said, a gesture that officials hope will appease the competition authorities in Brussels.

As an aside, it is interesting to note the the implied inducement by the author of the article for the EU competition authorities in Brussels to intervene to stop the disbursement of monies to French industry. Not surprisingly, the article was published in the New York Times, one of the media bastions of neoliberalism, as reflected by Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristoff and others. Nothing is more horrifying to the Times and its staff than the prospect that a country might use its resources to prevent US capital from obtaining a dominant position within it.

More substantively, the notion that the EU could act to prohibit such policies sounds ludicrous. Most countries are going to invariably undertake whatever pragmatic prolicies they consider appropriate to escape one of the most merciless economic downturns in decades. Unfortunately, so far, the US is not one of them. Political and media elites remain mesmerized by memories of a US global financial dominance that was swept away by the bursting of the housing bubble.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deflation is Here (Part 1) 

End of Woolworths 

I didn't know that Woolworths survived in the UK after the closure of the 400 remaining stores in the US in 1997. Here in Sacramento, Woolworths had a very popular store on the corner of 10th and K Streets, one of the most successful businesses on the K Street Mall, a street that had been closed to vehicle traffic in the late 1960s. Woolworths was an anchor in an otherwise turbulent situation as the mall to this day has never established a clear commercial identity.

My mother shopped there frequently before retiring with my stepfather in northern Arizona, and the famous lunch counter was packed every day around noontime, right up until the day it was closed. With a large population of non-transient state workers nearby, there were plenty of older patrons who retained their nostalgic bond with the store. It was a very convenient place for people to purchase gifts for friends, family and coworkers, as well as practical household necessities. I've always thought the Sacramento Woolworths may have been the most profitable of the chain's stores at the end.

The store has just been recently converted into a small entertainment complex for what we used to call yuppies, with a musical theatre, a dance club, a bar and a restaurant. Naturally, the facility has been architectually altered to conform to the trendy Art Deco style that is so pervasive in the downtown and midtown. The timing is not very propicious for this sort of thing. With deflation stalking the US economy, which is entering its worst economic downturn in decades, an upper middle income entertainment facility doesn't strike me as the most prudent project. Absent a substantial amount of redevelopment subsidy, which have admittedly flowed freely here, I wouldn't be surprised if it closed within a year. It certainly isn't going to last as long as the Woolworths store it replaced, that's for sure.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Nine Lives of Joe Lieberman 

Of course, the Kossacks over at Daily Kos, as well as the FDLs over at firedoglake, are, with a few exceptions, enraged that the Joe Lieberman has been permitted to retain his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security committee. Yet again, we are treated to that classic liberal binary opposition, that terrible Joe Lieberman versus those wishy washy Senators who just can't stand up to his bullying, manipulative practices. If only they would spend the 99 cents and buy the body building kit advertised for sale in the back pages of their EC comic.

There's only one problem. There's no truth to it. As I explained when the congressional Democrats approved funding for the Iraq war in late March of 2007 with the assistance of openly antiwar representatives:

. . . . a brief consideration of the career of Joseph Lieberman is instructive. He entered politics as an opponent of the Vietnam War, but, by 1988, he successfully ran to the right of liberal Republican Lowell Weicker to win a seat in the Senate. Weicker personified two evils: he was too dovish on foreign policy, and his style, if allowed to go national, implicitly threatened elites by appealing to people across party lines.

Ned Lamont presented a similar threat last year, and prominent Democratic Senators like Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer answered Lieberman's fire alarm for assistance. Lieberman is frequently reviled for being a turncoat, a hypocrite, but he is, in fact, a visionary, he anticipated the current political landscape of the country, and, indeed, the world, before the Cold War ended and has played an essential role in shaping it. Unlike other liberals, who feign opposition to neoconservative policy, while facilitating the funding of it, Lieberman expresses his support for it unabashedly.

So, there is nothing surprising about Lieberman's retention, because, campaign antics aside, he remains firmly within the flexible center of Democratic politics in support of military neoliberalism at home and abroad. Again, as I explained back in March 2007:

Given the choice between energizing a populist movement for the fulfillment of domestic needs instead of using 9/11 for colonial intervention, liberals, at best, selected the course of ineffectual, theatrical opposition. Even the catastrophe of Katrina did not cause them to question their core belief that populism presents a grave social threat to the preservation of the American system, so much so that the international state violence of the neoconservatives is begrudgingly accepted. If one accepts the controversial premise that military neoliberalism is now the only plausible means of enforcing a US inspired global economic system that prioritizes the privileges of finance capital above all human concerns, they may well be correct.

It is essential to observe that Lieberman and President-elect Obama share a commitment to a post-partisan politics based upon consensus and the need to end the politics of division and distraction. Not surprisingly, Obama communicated his wish to Senate Democrats that Lieberman remain in the Democratic caucus, making it difficult to impose any sanction upon him.

It is also essential to recognize, that, in the current environment, there is only avenue available for such an approach, the one already mapped by Lieberman. But if you want to challenge the privileges of finance capital, reduce the US global military presence by, among other things, deescalating the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reinvest the proceeds within the American economy, then polarization is the only way forward. So far, the only indication is that Lieberman and Obama are still political soulmates, even if their personal relationship has become problematic.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Giveaway (Part 3) 

A prominent feature of societies in irreversible decline is that their leadership is incapable of addressing a crisis in any manner other than the perpetuation of the cronyism that created the problem in the first place:

Mr. Paulson and other U.S. officials have long been promising foreign finance ministers that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities are as good as U.S. Treasury bonds while yielding higher interest. The resulting investment in these two mortgage-packaging agencies was a major factor in their $200 billion bailout. Letting their securities go under would have ended Dollar Hegemony for good. So getting foreign acquiescence in financing future U.S. balance-of-payments deficit is inextricably bound up with how to resolve the U.S. financial and real estate bubble.

Its bursting has prompted Congress to authorize $700 billion supposedly to re-inflate the property market. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) gives Wall Street money in the hope that it will lend enough to start inflating asset prices again, enable borrowers to get rich by going into debt again – “wealth creation” Alan Greenspan-style. It is as if the neoliberal bubble years 2002-07 were a golden age to be recovered, not the road to financial perdition. In doing this, Mr. Paulson is using junk economics to cope with the junk mortgage problem that in turn was based on junk mathematical models. His problem is to keep the fantasy going.

Congress has caught onto the game being played. Now that the bailout looks like a last-minute giveaway to insiders while the giving is good, Congress held hearings last week to ask why the Treasury abandoned its plan to buy the “troubled assets” (junk mortgages) that Mr. Paulson had originally said was the problem. Why has the Treasury bought $250 billion of ersatz “preferred common stock” in banks at prices far above what private investors such as Warren Buffett paid?

Drawing a picture of a just-pretend world to rationalize Wall Street’s free lunch, Mr. Paulson sought to deflect the issue by postulating a series of “ifs.” The Treasury’s $250 billion in bank stock would give lenders money that might be used to re-inflate the credit supply if banks chose to re-enter the commercial paper market and provide more mortgages on easier terms. This trickle-down patter talk is what passes for neoliberal economic theory these days. The fantasy is for banks to restore “balance” by granting more credit, increasing the indebtedness of bank customers so as to restore the housing market to its former degree of unaffordability.

Congressional interrogators pointed out that banks were not lending more money. Mortgage interest rates have risen, not fallen, even though the Fed is supplying banks with credit at only a quarter of a percentage point (an average of about 0.30 per cent last week). Credit standards (understandably) have been tightened to require prospective buyers to put up more of their own money. Foreclosures and evictions are up and real estate prices continue to plunge. Also plunging almost straight down has been the Dow Jones Industrial Average, sinking below the 8000 mark last week to the lowest levels in years. Nothing is working out the way Mr. Paulson promised.

Nor did he intend it to do so. But the cat is out of the bag. Everyone realizes that the TARP is merely just a big pot of money, to be laddled out, like a tasty stew, to people smart enough and influential enough to demand some. So, of course, the line of supplicants is getting longer and longer, the auto industry, bankrupt states, like California, and even cities like San Jose.

But, not to worry, bailouts are only for banks, not for participants in the real economy. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom made that clear when he asserted that the European Union would challenge any assistance to the US auto industry as an illegal subsidy before the World Trade Organization. Strangely, Brown and the EU have been silent, or, as they say over in the liberal blogosphere, crickets, in regard to the trillions already poured into US financial institutions.

Meanwhile, the oversight board for the bailout is devoid of members, and the Federal Reserve is refusing to publicly release information in regard to the financial institutions that have received the 2,000,000,000,000 released to date or the collateral posted by them. Predictably, the Democratic point person, Representative Barney Frank, is supportive of the Fed's refusal, and the Obama economic team has no comment, despite prior commitments to transparency in governmental operations. What a way to run an economy! If only we could bring back the Marx Brothers. With a good script writer, they would produce a classic comparable to one of their masterpieces, Duck Soup.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Unforgiving Years 

Victor Serge was a revolutionary who never strayed from his liberatory instincts. Born in Brussels to exiled anti-Czarist parents, he watched his younger brother waste away as his family lived in poverty. He moved to Paris as a young adult, and participated in the final spasm of anarchism within France before World War I. In 1917, he was among those in Barcelona that carried out the first failed Spanish Revolution. As you might expect, he made his way to Petrograd to align himself with the Bolsheviks in January 1919.

Serge opposed the Bolshevik turn to autocracy from its inception. During the 1920s, he sought to create a coalition that would effectively resist the onset of Stalinism. He displayed a remarkable bravery in doing so, continuing to speak out at mass meetings of workers despite threats of violence. After being jailed on a number of occasions, he was exiled to France in 1936, making his way to Mexico in 1941, where he died six years later. His biography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, relates these experiences in rich detail, and, perhaps, I may get around to reviewing it some day.

Today, however, I am more interested in examining his great novel, Unforgiving Years, written in 1946, published in France in 1971 and translated into English in 2007. If not for the anti-Stalinism of the French New Left, it is doubtful that the book would have ever been published as Communists and liberals collaborated in its suppression. If not for the efforts of the translator, Richard Greeman, it would have probably never been available in English. Serge has a reputation as someone who placed politics before art, which is undoubtedly true, but Unforgiving Years is the equivalent of a deceased relative's diary accidentally discovered in a musty crate in the attic. Like such a diary, the narrative cuts through our preconceived notions of the past.

Unforgiving Years relates the collapse of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left just before World War II, the horrors of that war its brave adherents anticipated and their ultimate demise upon the defeat of the Nazis. Serge tells this melancholy story episodically: Paris before the war, where he introduces us to the two protagonists, Sacha (or "D") and, briefly, Daria, his protege, as Sacha, a brilliant Comintern operative, renounces Stalinism and seeks to depart with his lover, Nadine, for the Americas as they leave Daria behind, Leningrad during the siege where Daria participates in the heroic, yet bittersweet, defense of the city, Berlin, just before the fall of the Reich, where Daria, as well as one of Sacha's undercover French Stalinist operatives, Alain, have organized the underground resistance against the Nazis, and, finally, Mexico, where Daria reunites with Sacha.

Serge draws upon his personal experience with all four locales to vividly dramatize the personal and political struggles of his protagonists. He subtlely portrays Paris as immersed in a self-satisfied absorption of the delights of bourgeois life, even as Sacha and his wife flee for their lives, fearful of being assassinated by Stalinist agents for their betrayal. The overall effect is one of a political noirism, with the subsequent fall of France in 1940 a foregone conclusion. But the most riveting aspects of this segment are Sacha's recollections of his involvement in the Bolshevik revolution. They convey an immediacy and intensity that one rarely encounters in any work that purports to emotionally expose the reality of past history.

For example:

If I passed my memories in review, scant happiness was there, no serenity, much harshness, steely exhaltation, labor, hunger, filth, danger, and moments torn as if slashed by knives; a host of cherished dead whose faces memory averts (because they were often worth more than I was), the woman of a night or of a season, the one I thought I loved who betrayed me while I was in prison, and the one who was faithful but died of typhus during a winter of famine, and I arrived too late to see her again, having crossed three hundred miles of snow; there was nothing left for me to keep of her, the neighbors had filched the sheets from the deathbed, the bed boards, the four books we owned, the toothbrush. I called together the taciturn bearded men, the women who faces were stiff with guilt, the nailbiting children. "Citizens!" I said. "You have stolen nothing from us. You have taken what is yours. The belongings of the dead are for the living, and for the poorest first. And we are scarely the living! We live for the men of the future . . ." I was a bad speaker in those days. Some of them came up and shook my hand, saying, "Thanks Citizen, for your kind words, your human words. What do you want for us to give back?" I cried: "NOTHING!"

Similarly, Sacha recalls a subsequent encounter with Daria after he had first met her in 1919:

In the year 1922, I ran into her in Feodossia, tending to her lungs which she said were "as wrecked as the floors of that factory, do you remember?" and striving to keep a glimmer of life going in the body of a scrawny baby girl, ten months old, who was soon to die. Daria was a director of schools, "no paper, no books, twice the children, half the teachers" and those at their wits' end. Hunger: two successive waves of terror. Premature aging had spoiled the childish charm of her youthful looks; her nose was pinched, her lips drained of color; her mouth twisted slightly out of line. I found her obtuse, almost stupid, with an edge of hysteria, one cool night on a pebbly strand bewitched by the most sparkling stars, when I tried to dispel the bitterness I perceived in her by trying to defend the Party's behavior . . . . Forehead banded by a black lace scarf, hands on knees, squatting on her heels like a sulky tomboy, Daria answered me curtly, clipping her phrases as she would have coldly ripped up the beliefs without which we could not have lived: "Spare me the theoretical considerations. And the lofty quotations out of books! I've seen the massacres, theirs and ours. Them, they're made for that, the rubbish of history, the debased humanity of drunken officers . . . But us, if it's no different, then it's a betrayal. We've betrayed plenty, I can tell you. See that rock over there? Officers trussed together, driven with sabers to the edge of the cliff. I saw men falling in bunches like big crabs . . . There are two many psychopaths on our side . . . Our side? What do I have in common with them? And you? Don't answer. What do they have in common in socialism? Keep your mouth shut, or I'll leave."

I kept my mouth closed. Then she let me put an arm around her shoulders. I felt her thinness, I wanted to squeeze her to me in a rush of affection. I only wanted to make her warmer, she froze. "Leave off, I'm not a woman anymore." "A great big child is what you are and always have been, Daria," I told her, "a wonderful child" . . . She shoved me so violently, I almost lost my balance. "Be a man, then. And keep your platitudes for a more appropriate time." We remained good friends.

Serge reportedly wrote quickly, on the run as it were, believing that he did not have the time required to polish it because there was too much to do, too many books and articles to be written in defense of the working class against the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism, and, yet, you would never know it unless you were told. As proven by the foregoing passages which are consistent with the quality of the novel as a whole, Serge was an extraordinarily gifted prose stylist, capable of fusing abstract concepts, naturalism and personal intimacy within an engaging narrative. Through it all resides a compassionate humanism with which the reader never loses contact.

Such compassion is the touchstone of the remaining three interludes. In the first one, Daria, after being exiled to Central Asia because of her connection to Sacha, is called to Leningrad to assist in the defense of the besieged city. Here, Serge interweaves several paradoxical themes about the nature of the resistance. Most importantly, he respects it as the collective spontaneous response of a people facing the threat of extinction, but one that required that hierarchical leadership of the Party to prevail. It is this dependence to the point of accepting the continuance of the Party's power to set the boundaries of personal relationships, as symbolized by a Party decision to send away Daria's lover without telling her where he had been sent and what was likely to happen to him, that rendered any prospect of immediate reform after the war implausible.

To his credit, Serge does not romanticize this struggle, even as he romanticizes its participants. It was one of his gifts that he could convey an objective sense of history while personalizing those who shaped it. Drawing upon his memories of Petrograd in 1919 and 1920, when the impoverished city nearly fell to the Whites, he highlights the perils and the privations, and, of course, the extent to which the Party leadership exempted themselves from them, while describing the resistance as the accumulation of individual acts of heroism, often of the most mundane kind, sometimes bordering on irrationality and incomprehension. Victory is only evident through the rear view mirror, as are the acts that achieved it.

In the second one situated in Berlin just before the collapse of the Reich, Serge does something quite remarkable: he acknowledges the brutalities perpetrated by Germans even as he empathizes with the physical and psychological destruction of their society. In the 1920s, he had worked inside Germany with the Comintern to clandestinely organize the German working class to overthrow the Weimar Republic. He reveals his emotional attachment to it through several well developed, sympathetic characters, making him possibly the first revisionist who rejected the collective condemnation of the Germans people for the atrocities of the Reich. Coming from a revolutionary leftist associated with countries and peoples victimized by the Nazis, such a perspective comes across as much more sincere and compassionate than its subsequent espousal by right wing Germans seeking to resuscitate a dormant German nationalism.

But there is a more specific reason for it beyond the credibility of the speaker. Serge feminizes the destruction of the German working class in the character of Brigitte, a young woman whose husband was killed on the Eastern Front because, as she is informed by one of his returning friends, his fellow soldiers considered him insufficiently desensitized to the need to undertake savage measures against the populace. Having lost her husband as she experiences the destruction of her community by Allied bombers, she, like everyone around her, lacks the capacity to address anything other than her willingness to live.

Through Brigitte and those around her in the Alstadt district, Serge mourns the burial of the German working class that he and the Bolsheviks had hoped would lead the revolution in Europe. With the Russians remaining under the control of Stalin, and the German proletariat having immolated itself through its involvement, whether passively or enthusiastically, with the Nazis, the period of revolutionary struggle that had commenced with the Bolshevik Revolution was now at an end. Serge acknowledges it through the decision of Alain, now an undercover Communist operative working with Daria in Alstadt, to abandon political action for art upon the arrival of the Americans.

Finally, in the last segment, straightforwardly entitled, Journey's End, Daria travels to Mexico to reunite with Sacha and Nadine. Sacha lives on a remote rural estate in San Blas, the revolutionary now reduced to benevolent plantation owner. As he explains to a disoriented Daria upon their reunion:

I work my peons and pay them well; they steal from me well, too, but within reason; they're aware that I know about it, but not that I judge them to be in the right. If I paid them any more, they'd lose motivation and the local powers would brand me a public menance.

Even a European revolutionary like Sacha, it seems, slips into the role of a paternal father figure in relation to the indigenous populace with ease, without much introspection. As you might have guessed, this is Mexico as seen through the eyes of involuntary exiles. No longer on the cutting edge of history, no longer identified with the purported proletarian agents of transformation, Sacha, Nadine and Daria live a life most analoguous to the aristocracy of the Spanish latifundia. None of them appear to recognize the revolutionary potential of Central America that would manifest itself within the next ten years, as Sacha immerses himself in the geology and the flora of his adopted home.

Upon reading Unforgiving Years in 2008, one recognizes a new theme that has engrafted itself upon the novel. Faced with the brutalities of Stalinism, the anti-Stalinist left, the one that survived Khrushchev's secret speech and the collapse of state socialism in the USSR, increasingly abandoned violence and coercion to acheive its political ends. By the end of the novel, it is evident that Sacha, Daria and Alain no longer possess the will to act violently to bring about the revolution. Pacifism is now the order of the day for their real life descendants. King and Gandhi have replaced figures like Lenin, Trotsky and, to a lesser extent, anarchists like Durruti, as the motivational icons of the left.

It is a substitution that is universally celebrated across the political spectrum. It is unremarked, however, that it is also one that has, with the exception of the emergence of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, worked to the great benefit of capitalism. Since the time of the novel, capitalism has expanded its reach from being regional to nearly global in scope. While the left has generally rejected violence as a means to attain power, capitalists have used it without hesitation. By the time of the Bush presidency, the US, as the country with the express mission of imposing a global capitalist order, had implemented express policies of first strike military action against any country or group that it perceived as either a military or economic threat.

Pacifism was definitely not an effective means of resistance, as the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza, among others, can explain. It is an inescapable fact that violent non-leftist movements associated with Political Islam have been more effective at restraining the US than non-violent leftist ones. The left has evolved, therefore, into something akin to a secular version of Catholicism. If we nurture non-violence within ourselves, then, someday, we, in the sense of the human race, will someday march into the garden of socialism.

But the left lost more than just the willingness to act violently as a consequence of the grosteque extremes of Stalinism. It also lost the ideological justification for it, a justification that would render it acceptable to many people as a form of self-defense and empowerment. Within the American context, Alexander Berkman recognized that the violence of the state retained a legitimacy that the violence of the individual and non-state groups did not. He never discovered a way out of this dilemma. To this day, the left remains enshackled by it, and until it finds a way to resolve it, capitalist domination through nation states is likely to persist.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Bad Is It? 

Pretty bad, if you believe what blunt spoken retail business analyst Howard Davidovitz says during this interview:

10% unemployment next year, that will, according to Davidovitz, feel like a depression, four consecutive quarters of negative GDP, with at least two of them -5%, and beyond that . . . ?

Davidovitz doesn't know, because his economists, which he claims are very good ones, and anticipated much of what has transpired to date, can't see beyond the end of next year. But, he reassures us, they will have a better idea by late spring or early summer. As will the rest of us, undoubtedly. The word that he most frequently associates with retailers is liquidation instead of consolidation, something that we will hear in relation to much of the rest of the economy as well. Just another indication that neo-Clintonism is not going to get it done.

Hat tip to Calculated Risk.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's that time again 

Time to support antiwar.com during its quarterly fund drive. Yes, antiwar.com is libertarian instead of left, but for the reasons that I first presented back in 2006, it is still worthy of support, especially now as we face the possibility that liberals, having attained a slice of power, will abandon any efforts to pull the military out of Iraq and Afghanistan:

. . . I believe that it is very important that we support antiwar.com during its quarterly fund drive. Fund drives are always challenging, and it is easy to succumb to the temptation that a wealthy saviour will step forward at the last minute, as has appeared to have happened during previous antiwar.com drives. In this instance, we need to resist it, and show our appreciation for the most dynamic American anti-imperialist site on the Internet.

Admittedly, antiwar.com is not a leftist one, it is avowedly libertarian. I have substantial disagreements with the social and economic beliefs of the people who operate it. Even so, on the most important issue of our time, the expansion of the American empire through extreme violence and economic coercion, the people involved with antiwar.com are unequivocal and forthright in their opposition to it.

It is the portal to news articles and columns from around the world regarding the war in Iraq, the war on terror, a possible war in Iran and the perpetual attempt of the Israelis to colonize the entirety of Palestine. It has played an essential role in destroying the monopoly of information that the US media once possessed. No longer are we at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and, worst of all, FOX News.

The breath of news and commentary at antiwar.com is, quite simply, without peer. Ideologically, one finds the anarchist Noam Chomsky alongside Reaganite Paul Craig Roberts, the Tory Peter Oborne with Tom Engelhardt of The Nation Institute. Indispensable reports and analysis from Dahr Jamail, Aaron Glantz and Jorge Hirsch are readily available. Without antiwar.com, it would be much more difficult to readily access such disparate sources of information.

The thread tying them all together is the essential cause of creating a broad based coalition from right to left to resist the predations of the American empire, a cause that has become even more urgent as a consequence of neoconservative control over US foreign policy. The quarterly fund drive goes through this Sunday at midnight, but donations will, of course, be accepted at any time. . . For anyone else who is interested, please click here.

And, of course, war with Iran remains a real possibility. Times are tough, but it is essential that we preserve anti-imperialist voices like those found at antiwar.com. On a programming note, I hope to have a book review of Victor Serge's novel, Unforgiving Years, posted in the next couple of days.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama and the Existential Crisis of American Capitalism (Part 2) 

On Friday, I analogized the challenges facing Barack Obama to the ones that confronted Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, as a number of others have done. Coincidentally, Gorbachev himself did the same in an interview with an Italian newspaper:

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said that the Obama administration in the United States needs far-reaching perestroika reforms to overcome the financial crisis and restore balance in the world.

The term perestroika, meaning restructuring, was used by Gorbachev in the late 1980s to describe a series of reforms that abolished state planning in the Soviet Union.

In an interview with Italy's La Stampa published on Friday, Gorbachev said President-elect Barack Obama needs to fundamentally change the misguided course followed by President George W. Bush over the past eight years.

Gorbachev said that after transforming his country in the late 1980s, he had told the Americans that it was their turn to act, but that Washington, celebrating its Cold War victory, was not interested in "a new model of a society, where politics, economics and morals went hand in hand."

He said the Republicans have failed to realize that the Soviet Union no longer exists, that Europe has changed, and that new powers like China, Brazil and Mexico have emerged as important players on the world stage.

He told the paper that the world is waiting for Obama to act, and that the White House needs to restore trust in cooperation with the United States among the Russians.

"This is a man of our times, he is capable of restarting dialogue, all the more since the circumstances will allow him to get out of a dead-end situation. Barack Obama has not had a very long career, but it is hard to find faults, and he has led an election campaign winning over the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton herself. We can judge from this that this person is capable of engaging in dialogue and understanding current realities."

But, of course, Gorbachev ultimately failed, eventually requiring the emergence of Vladimir Putin to implement a more cyncial, less ambitious goal of preserving Russian sovereignty over its peoples and resources. Gorbachev sought to withdraw from Eastern Europe and thereby enter the European Union, but, as he implies, a triumphant American capitalism was disinterested in anything other than a remorseless exploitation of his country's people, resources and infrastructure.

Gorbachev appears to believe that the current economic crisis will empower Obama to steer the US, and much of the world, in a different, more humane direction. But has Gorbachev accurately assessed Obama's acumen and motivation? If so, has capital really been sufficiently weakened so as to create an opportunity that Obama can exploit? Is the American public willing to support Obama in an effort to pursue the reforms required for capitalism with a human face? Difficult questions, to be sure, but we can safely say that the accelerating rapidity of events will not permit Obama to govern in the Clinton mold, no matter how many Clintonistas he appoints.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Bailout: Bush's Final Pillage 

Naomi Klein and The Nation should know better. The Democrats are entirely complicit, as a brief reference to Barney Frank in a more extensive article published by Rolling Stone reveals. The financial institutions administering much of the bailout and receiving funds from it supply both parties with substantial amounts of political contributions. Or, maybe, Naomi has forgotten that it required Democratic votes for the bailout to pass? This is a bipartisan elite theft operation, one that Obama will allow to be successfully concluded before he takes office. Perhaps, the gatekeepers at The Nation required her to characterize the bailout as primarily Republican in order for her article to be published.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama and the Existential Crisis of American Capitalism (Part 1) 

On Tuesday, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States. On Wednesday, US forces in Afghanistan launched an airstrike that killed at least 40 civilians and probably many more. Drones continue to launch missile strikes within the nearby border regions of Pakistan, although it is unclear whether these strikes are being done with the approval of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, approximately 150,000 US forces remain in Iraq as the US and Iraqi government negotiate over the terms of over their future presence.

Today, the Labor Department announced that the US economy lost 240,000 jobs in October, and revised the number of jobs lost in September from an initially reported 159,000 to 284,000, in addition to revising the number jobs lost in August from initially reported 73,000 to 127,000. Accordingly, it is quite reasonable to suspect that the total number of jobs lost in October is in excess of 350,000. Both GM and Ford are hemorraghing cash, and an anticipated merger of GM and Chrysler may result in the loss of 200,000 jobs. The federal deficit is now over 10 trillion dollars and growing as the bailout is implemented.

Accordingly, as the euphoria over his decisive victory fades, the contours of the challenge facing Obama are coming sharply into focus. A country experiencing one of the most severe economic downturns in its history simultaneously finds itself militarily overextended around the world. It is tempting to construe them, as most liberals do, as the consequences of the policy failures of the Bush presidency. Bush, like LBJ, pursued utopian policies in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres, acting as if American resources to achieve its goals were unlimited.

Domestically, as Robin Blackburn observed, Bush substituted the promiscuous extension of credit for governmental expenditure as a means of constructing his own Great Society:

The Bush administration’s vision of the ‘ownership society’ somehow latched onto codicils of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ to encourage the poor to take on housing debt at the pinnacle of a property bubble. The quality of the arrangements made for poorer mortgagees was manifestly inadequate—they had no insurance provision—and also avoided the real problem, which is the true extent of poverty in the United States and the folly of imagining that it can be banished by waving the magic wand of debt creation.

Internationally, an even more grandiose Bush went far beyond the messianic anti-communism of LBJ in Southeast Asia and launched a self-described global war on terror that has resulted in two open ended wars in the Middle East and the prospect of a third. The US military budget is currently about one trillion dollars, and nearly equals the military spending of all other countries in the world. It constitutes about 8% to 9% of US gross domestic product.

It is therefore tempting to blame Bush for a deindustrialized, bankrupt domestic economy and military entanglements that have spun out of control, but such a personalized analysis obscures the real nature of the problem. In her concise book, Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood describes the current capitalist order, one that aspires that impose itself upon the entire world, as one that requires the US to maintain and deploy the most expensive and most technologically advanced military ever created. It is essential, in her view, for the US to preserve unquestioned military supremacy as a means of effectively arbitrating disputes between competing nation states, all of whom accept the necessity of this supremacy.

Of course, there are ancillary features associated with this order, such as the use of the US military to intimidate what the US rather theatrically defines as rogue states, and the need to periodically display the frightening destructive capability of the military to discourage any country that might be inclined to resist the softer aspects of US coercion as exercised through social and financial institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that, while important, should not distract us from recognizing the fundamental problem at hand.

The US is broke, and, as already recognized by Giovanni Arrighi in 2005, it has failed in this endeavor to impose neoliberal capitalist values upon the world. Soft power, as exercised by US dominance within global institutions, such as the ones already mentioned, along with the financial clout of banking firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citicorp, has been curtailed by a financial crisis that has grown into the first global recession since the 1970s. Hard power, in the form of the US military, has been degraded by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hence, Obama finds himself taking office when the principle around which his campaign was organized, his intention to marry neoliberalism with multiculturalism, is no longer relevant. Walter Benn Michaels has enunciated this principle most precisely:

This is also why the real (albeit very partial) victories over racism and sexism represented by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are not victories over neoliberalism but victories for neoliberalism: victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims. That is the meaning of phrases like the ‘glass ceiling’ and of every statistic showing how women make less than men or African-Americans less than whites. It is not that the statistics are false; it is that making these markers the privileged object of grievance entails thinking that, if only more women could crash through the glass ceiling and earn the kind of money rich men make, or if only blacks were as well paid as whites, America would be closer to a just society.

It is the increasing gap between rich and poor that constitutes the inequality, and rearranging the race and gender of those who succeed leaves that gap untouched. In actually existing neoliberalism, blacks and women are still disproportionately represented both in the bottom quintile—too many—and in the top quintile—too few—of American incomes. In the neoliberal utopia that the Obama campaign embodies, blacks would be 13.2 per cent of the (numerous) poor and 13.2 per cent of the (far fewer) rich; women would be 50.3 per cent of both. For neoliberals, what makes this a utopia is that discrimination would play no role in administering the inequality; what makes the utopia neoliberal is that the inequality would remain intact.

Thus, acutely aware of the tensions lying beneath the surface of American capitalism in its present neoliberal manifestation, it was Obama's intention to construct a winning electoral coalition around the concept of releasing them, or at least the ones associated with racial and gender bias. He obviously succeeded, but failed to take power before contradictions of a more serious nature erupted. Now, as FDR did, he finds himself compelled to preside over an attempt to reform American capitalism in order to save it.

FDR is, naturally, the optimistic scenario, one that invokes that American positivism that the country can overcome any crisis. There are, however, gloomier ones. For example, that old anti-semitic Communist, Vladimir Zhironovksy, has apparently described Obama as an American Gorbachev, a figure that, in his view, will destroy the country through his naive efforts to reform it. While the notion that Obama will destroy the country is over the top, there is some merit to what Zhironovsky says.

Gorbachev initially tried to revitalize Soviet society through mild reforms that did not imperil the Communist monopoly of power. As each successive reform effort failed, he was forced to adopt more and more aggressive policies that reached higher and higher into the leadership. Radicals found such efforts inadequate, and moved into open opposition, while conservatives eventually sought to remove him from office. He was never able to reinvigorate the moribund Soviet economy and the apparat, having masterfully aligned themselves with nationalist forces in the provinces, compelled the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. By the time he recognized this threat, he no longer possessed the capability of forcibly preventing it.

Obama is likely to follow a similar trajectory initially, but with different, unpredictable outcomes. His economic policies are awowedly neoliberal, and, if he persists with them, as is likely, he will fail. In order to move forward, he must bring resources home for economic development by downsizing the US military, but, instead, he has said that he will increase defense spending to provide for an additional 90,000 troops in addition to his commitment to send more troops to Afghanistan. An escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan could entrap Obama, rendering it impossible for him to dedicate any meaningful resources to domestic renewal. Such proposals are consistent with the voracious appetite for military activity associated with the global reach of American capitalism as described by Wood, but the country cannot support it.

What will Obama do then? The American left believes that he will embrace a socially progressive program, and there are at least some indications that his advisors are considering a substantial public works program. Even if they implement such a program, which remains to be seen, it is doubtful that they will eliminate subsidies to the financial sector and reduce the US military presence around the world. So, for now, we can look forward to a meek version of the sort of guns and butter that pushed the US economy into the dark days of stagflation in the 1970s.

Facing economic collapse, Gorbachev, to his credit, withdrew the Red Army from Eastern Europe. Will Obama withdraw US troops from South Korea, Germany, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, to jump start an American recovery? It seems unlikely. He looks too cautious for such a daring move. If forced to choose between aligning himself with the elite, as he has always done, and suppressing social unrest, or bending to the will of popular movements from below, and bravely transforming the power relationships within society, he would probably, unlike Gorbachev, choose the former. Furthermore, he would have to consciously implement policies that would abandon the US imperial role as the arbiter of global capitalism. In short, he would have to consciously bring down the curtain on the American empire.

No doubt, his supporters feel differently. They should, however, ponder a number of things. First, Clinton and Bush have expanded the power of the government over private individuals through surveillance, police action and incarceration. Will Obama consciously refuse to use it if challenged from the left? If so, he would be the first President to do so. Second, while the mass movement created by Obama is celebrated, and rightly so, there is a sinister side to it. Obama has a large group of people that he can call upon to not only agitate on his behalf, but, potentially, in difficult times, to intimidate those who oppose him.

Obama's personality, especially his cautiousness, makes such conduct hard to imagine, although we should not underestimate what political figures are capable of doing when pressed to the wall. In the 1970s, capital interests responded to a global crisis of similar severity by embracing neoliberal policies that rendered the lives of workers more transient and insecure, policies ultimately adopted by both Republicans and Democrats. If capital determines that a merciless regime of subproletarianization of the workforce is required, including recourse to extreme methods of suppression, why should we feel confident that Obama will resist? Obama has skillfully fused his political skills with new technologies to excite millions, but it remains to be seen whether his efforts will ultimately be empowering, alienating, or even a more refined method of social control.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Another Air Strike on a Wedding Party in Afghanistan 

From antiwar.com:

Afghan officials and local residents say that a US air strike struck an Afghan wedding party on Monday, killing at least 40 civilians and wounding 28 others (including the bride). The strike occurred in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar Province. Reporters on the scene say that villagers are still search the debris for survivors, and the toll is expected to rise even further.

Another report from the Globe and Mail states:

Survivors of the attacks, which occurred in the village of Wech Baghtu in the district of Shah Wali Kowt on Monday evening, said the majority of the dead and injured were women – the bombs struck while male and female wedding guests were segregated, as is customary in Kandahar province.

They said the bodies of at least 36 women have been identified, and hundreds more men and women have been injured. Local leaders have yet to establish a firm casualty count because many of the victims remain buried beneath rubble, said Abdul Hakim Khan, a tribal elder from the district.

Poor Afghans. Has no one told them that they are going to pay for the new dawn of progressivism in America? As for why this continues to happen, please consider my August 4, 2008 post entitled People in White. It provides a partial explanation as why the US military invariably directs its firepower against non-combatants.

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