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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Oligarchs Prevail 

The Senate votes down, by a 51-45 vote against, a measure that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to only permit creditors holding residential mortgages to recover the current value of the property as a secured debt. The remainder would have been downgraded to unsecured status. For those of you unfamiliar with the procedure of the bankruptcy court, secured creditors get paid ahead of unsecured ones, and, if there is no money left for the unsecureds after the secured get paid . . . yes, they get nothing.

The consequences of this defeat are significant. In the big, macroeconomic picture, it eliminates an incentive for financial institutions to write off losses on mortgages issued during the bubble, and replace them with new ones based upon current market values, thus keeping more people in their homes, out of bankruptcy court, and capable of contributing to a stabilization of demand. Instead, many of the people currently underwater in their homes will be sub-proletarianized. Furthermore, it permits these institutions to persist in attempts in bankruptcy court to collect the entirety of the amount due on the mortgage as secured, to the detriment of other unsecured creditors, who will have to wait for payment, if there is any, until the note holders capitulate to reality. As a result, the credit crunch will remain with us longer than necessary.

But, wait, you say, perhaps it is a good thing. Won't this push us towards a more collective response to the global recession? Doesn't keeping people in their homes merely perpetuate the privatization of social life? Do we really want people to regain their access to credit, and, thus, continue to perpetuate a capitalist system of production, distribution and consumption? Well, no. But the notion that we persuade people that a collective, non-hierarchical alternative is superior by throwing them out on the street and tearing up their credit cards doesn't strike me as plausible. Many socialists and anarchists have historically sought to build support for their vision of society by assisting people in their day to day struggles, and that is an apt strategy here. And, there is always the peril that desperate people will embrace right wing extremism instead of left radicalism.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder why other sectors of the economy outside finance weren't actively lobbying for the passage of this bill. Measures that redirect funds from finance capitalists to the manufacture of goods and the provision of services, as this measure would have indirectly done, would most definitely be in their interest. But they have been immobilized in the face of the power displayed by Wall Street as financial institutions dictate policy for their exclusive benefit. As Michael Hudson said last November: A kleptocratic class has taken over the economy to replace industrial capitalism. Hence, the US is now a country defined by those who aspire to be a Suharto, not a Ford, Edison, Gates or Jobs.

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Bury the Evidence 

Like the officials of the Bush admininstration, Tony Blair and his New Labour acolytes sought to make their own reality as well:

Government uncertainty about how to reply to a medical journal's article on the numbers killed in Iraq has been revealed in official documents.

In October 2004 the Lancet published estimates that 98,000 people died in the conflict's first 18 months.

Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected the figure, but one official warned the government would be "ripped apart" if it questioned the Lancet's methodology.

The government tried to stop publication, but was over-ruled.

A subsequent Lancet article claimed that the number of deaths caused by the conflict up to 2006 was more than 650,000.

Of course, Blair was far too concerned about the situation. A complaisant media ignored the findings of the Lancet while relying upon the much lower, less credible figures developed by Iraq Body Count. And, even more, the people behind Iraq Body Count, the same people who estimated the number of dead Iraqis by primarily reading the foreign language media, enthusiastically stepped forward to malign the statistical methodology of the Lancet, even as Blair's science advisor found it all too credible. If you can't prevent the evidence from being released to the public, sound the alarm for assistance from your allies in the NGO world. Or, maybe, they come to the rescue without being asked.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Arm the Spirit, a Woman's Journey Underground and Back (Part 1) 

In the post-9/11 world, people like Diana Block have been forgotten. Recollections of the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that exploded into violent domestic conflict have been suppressed, infrequently rising to the surface as farce, most recently with the belated celebrity of Bill Ayers. Through the publication of her memoir by AK Press, Block provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the strengths and shortcomings of radicals such as herself as they sought to transform the American political system.

Block was, and remains, first and foremost, an anti-imperialist in the broadest sense of the term. Just as the German director Fassbinder recognized the inward and outward manifestations of coercion and control, emphasizing the fascism of everyday life in many of his films, Block attempted to integrate the personally liberatory dimension of feminism and gay rights while drifting towards the confrontational leftism of the Weather Underground, and its successor, the above ground Prairie Fire. Her initial forays into activism in San Francisco in the early 1970s centered around confronting violence against woman within the larger context of the brutality of the American state. As the title of the book indicates, she later went underground in the late 1970s, aligning herself with the violent attempts to bring about an independent Puerto Rico, but I will examine that aspect of the book in a subsequent blog entry.

During this period, Block was sorting out her sexual identity while simultaneously trying to create viable Marxist-Leninist organziations capable of absorbing the energy of civil rights and national liberation movements. One the one hand, she strongly identified with a feminist program that included gays and lesbians, with an emphasis upon a communal social life as a substitute for the family. On the other, she was, like many others on the left, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, and, thus, accepted the practice of democratic centralism, described by Lenin as freedom of discussion, unity in action, as a means of creating a revolutionary vanguard.

Block candidly describes her entangled relationships, romantic and political, as she embraced her bisexuality within a turbulent life of contentious activism, a life where the most minor doctrinal disagreements could mean the end of a friendship, the need to find a new place to live and the collapse of yet another promising group. Her narrative is engrossing as she relates the interwoven personal and political events in her life in an straightforward, intimate voice. She is rarely arrogant, placing successes and failures within a collective and contingent context.

Block, and others like her, were unable to maintain a bridge between the burgeoning feminist and gay rights movements and the radical left. Many of her leftist allies, still influenced by the primacy that Marxism placed upon the working class, could not avoid the reflexive subordination of feminist and gay issues in their outreach to workers. They even diminished the emphasis upon liberation movements in the Third World, pushing Block into nearly complete isolation.

As a result, feminists, gays and lesbians, to the extent that they were ever economically radicalized, focused upon gaining acceptance within an increasingly open minded middle class, becoming indifferent to the revolutionary appeals of people like Block. This was most painfully brought home to Block and her friends when their leafletting during the 1978 Gay Pride Parade, leafletting for the purpose of connecting the gay rights movement with revolutionary change worldwide, was met with indifference.

Block describes all this with honesty and critical insight, and yet, she shrinks from directly confronting the limitations of Marxism itself, specifically, the constraints of the process of democratic centralism in attempting to fashion a revolutionary movement open to marginalized people like those she most strongly identifies with, women, lesbians and people of color, especially those outside the US seeking to free themselves from Eurocentric imperial dominance. Perhaps, one can say that it is implicit in her narrative, but that is a stretch.

Block's personal reflections strongly support the notion that the Marxist concept of a vanguard party, governed by the process of democratic centralism, was inherently biased in relation to gender, race and sexual orientation because the participants disproportionately retained the biases of the society that they were seeking to transform. She leaves us with the impression that she and her follow revolutionaries were inadequate to the task, rather than critique the process itself, and the hierarchical ideology ingrained within it. She never fully grasps the fact that, despite trying over and over again, the embrace of Marxist organizational principles perpetually generated the disappointing outcomes.

But there is a reason for this. Like her European comrades, Block was, as already noted, initially inspired by the Cuban Revolution. Unlike her European comrades, she, and many other American leftists, were incapable of recognizing that the permanent adoption of a hierarchical Marxist-Leninist social model was a dead end. In Street Fighting Years, his account of his early political life in Britain in the 1960s, Tariq Ali describes the New Left deification of Castro and its subsequent relationship with the Cuban embassy in London. However, the relationship ended abruptly when Castro, after an agonizing delay, gave a speech in support of the Russian invasion of Czechoslavakia in 1968. In Europe, unlike the US, leftists associated the May '68 uprising in France with the Prague Spring and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, considering these turbulent events as a reflection of global generational discontent.

Cuba and Castro were too close to home for American leftists like Block. Indeed, one reads her memoir in vain for any indication that she was influenced by the autonomous Marxist and anarchistic aspects of leftist activity in Europe and the express repudiation of the Soviet Union associated with them. Guerin, Cohn-Bendit, Lefebvre, the Italian workerists, they, and many others like them, were all apparently unknown to her, or if known, not considered particularly important. Block mentions the USSR infrequently, and when she does, it is usually in relation to the dependency of Cuba and Third World liberation movements for economic assistance. Some European leftists, unlike many American ones, still held a belief that there was a revolutionary alternative independent of both the US and the USSR.

Hence, Block and her associates were cut off from a different radical discourse that might have been more effective than the fusion of Marxist-Leninism with Third World liberation movements that grew stale with the passage of time. Of course, the rejoinder is that the Europeans failed, too, but Europe remains more left leaning than the US to this day. Certainly, leftist agitation in countries like France, Germany and Italy has been more influential than such agitation in the US, which is now virtually moribund. And, furthermore, leftist movements in South America have put this aspect of the European experience to good use. Within the context of US radical history, I also have no recollection of any mention of the IWW, even though that movement is probably closest to what Block was trying to accomplish across the boundaries of race, sex and class.

Significantly, one also reads Block's account in vain for any recognition of the ideological implications of consumerism. There are some oft-hand expressions of dismay about the inability to politically reach Americans increasingly absorbed in it, especially after she went underground, and found herself compelled to maintain her anonymity by living like most lower middle income and middle income Americans, but that's about it. She does not engage efforts to socially understand it, such as Baudrillard's shocking assertion that people in the developed world now define themselves in relation to consumption instead of their role in the production process. Nor does the related concept of the spectacle, as expressed by Debord and amplified by others, make an appearance, which is consistent with her seemingly disengagement from the European left. She therefore failed to perceive the perils in the colonization of public and private life entailed by it.

To some extent, this is unfair, and I admit to being a bit harsh, and yet, one of Block's central motivations for writing the book (it certainly wasn't commercial) was to promote introspection among leftists about the past, present and future. If such introspection is going to bear fruit, it must go beyond the admittedly powerful self-examination and candor exhibited by Block, because, as insightful as it is, as inspirational as it is, it is shackled by a Marxist-Leninist worldview that is inadequate to the task before us.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Good Germans 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Carpet Capital of the World 

During the course of my recent travel in Georgia and North Carolina, I introduced my young son to relatives there that had never seen him before. Naturally, they were delighted to see him. But I also learned more about the severity of the recession.

One of my aunts lives in Dalton, Georgia, a city in the Appalachian foothills that describes itself as the carpet capital of the world. Indeed, there are numerous plants sprinkled throughout the region that produce carpet. Unfortunately, with the collapse of new home construction, there isn't much demand for it anymore. Perhaps as many as half of the plants there have been shuttered. Unemployment in Whitfield County, the county where Dalton is located, is officially 12.5%, the highest in Georgia, comparable to the most devastated areas of the Rust Belt, like Detroit.

Last Saturday, we drove down the Old Dixie Highway into town to go to the grocery store. There were numerous empty store fronts along the way, and, at one point, I observed a Latino family in front of one of them, a family with a little girl, displaying some used children's toys in a row, including a tricycle. By the time that we passed them again on our return, about half an hour later, numerous other household items, including a microwave, had been added. Upon seeing the microwave, it dawned on me: the family is selling everything to return to Mexico.

An era of economic development in north Georgia was coming to a sad close, with the most bitter consequences for those who had arrived too late to permanently established themselves and their families. Back in the mid-1980s, the cities and counties of north Georgia discovered that they had one of the lowest percentages of high school graduates proceeding to college in the United States. Work in the carpet plants was sufficiently renumerative to enable these graduates to live quite comfortably, given the low cost of living there. Embarrassed local elites adopted a conscious policy of encouraging young people to go to college, while actively recruiting undocumented people from Mexico to serve as a workforce in the growing carpet industry.

By the mid-1990s, Dalton resembled a Southwestern city more than it did a Deep South one. Local political and business leaders mediated disputes between a growing, Spanish speaking immigrant population and resentful hill country whites, falling back upon a tried and true emphasis on economic pragmatism. Dalton was one of the epicenters of Latino migration into the South, one of the major demographic trends of the last 20 years, one that exploded onto the nation stage during the 2006 immigrants rights' protests, when people in small to medium sized towns throughout the Appalachians and the Piedmont were astounded to discover that there were not only Latinos in their town, documented and undocumented, but quite a lot of them. Latinos later played an important role in the success of the Obama campaign in states like North Carolina and Virginia, as well as his surprisingly strong performance in defeat in Georgia.

But that's ancient history now. Fleeing immigrants are a symptom of a much more serious disease, the loss of manufacturing jobs that aren't likely to return anytime soon. Furthermore, when manufacturing jobs finally do increase again, the recovery is going to be conditioned upon a restructuring of the economy to the detriment of the people who need them. My experience in Dalton was more generally confirmed when I talked to relatives in western North Carolina. My uncle-in-law ruefully told me that the region had lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, and doubted that they would ever return. His sadness was genuine. Well educated people like him live in communities with many high school graduates who have relied upon semi-skilled employment throughout their entire lives. A sense of community and extended family trump the class based elitism that one commonly experiences in most major American cities.

And, it is precisely that sense of community and family, both real and artificially constructed, that is being frayed by the severity of this recession. As I returned my rental car at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, accompanied by my son, safely secure in his car seat, the woman who about to give me my receipt asked me if I had a lot of luggage. I said yes, as I had to take the car seat and several other items of varying sizes home with us, and she immediately called for a valet. Within a couple of minutes, another women arrived, and got into the driver's seat to drive us to our terminal. Of course, as anyone who has traveled through Hartsfield-Jackson would know, both women were African American, as the airport and its myriad support services, such as rental car companies, have been a major source of employment for African Americans in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area.

Most people who work in these jobs are friendly and engaging, sometimes to a fault, it is one of those stereotypes about Atlanta that happens to be true. As I conversed with the woman during our quick trip to the terminal, she informed me that business at the rental car companies was down, that people had been laid off, and that her husband, who was a supervisor at an unspecified company of some kind, had been forced to lay off a lot of people as well. It had been painful for him, she said, as he was close to them after many softball games and barbeques. It hurt him to lay off the younger workers. Better them than us, she told him.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Fix is In 

From the Associated Press:

President Barack Obama has said Attorney General Eric Holder would determine whether anyone from the Bush administration broke the law by developing a legal rationale for the interrogations.

Right. Holder, the same guy that successfully got Chiquita executives off the hook when they violated anti-terrorism laws by paying Colombian death squads notorious for killing union organizers. Apparently, such a resume was a selling point in getting him the position. Someone was needed to create the illusion of credibility while making sure that nothing of substance is done.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Criminals 

Remember the Bush administration official who told Ron Susskind that we make our own reality? In the faith based presidency, facts were worse than irrelevant, they were an impediment to be brushed aside in a messianic effort to reshape the world.

But, as the senior advisor told Susskind, the Bush administration did more than just disregard facts and reasoned analysis, they actively sought to manufacture a new truth in the absence of any evidentiary support for it. And, as we now know, the means that they used to do so were odious:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and others who advocated the use of sleep deprivation, isolation and stress positions and waterboarding, which simulates drowning, insist that they were legal.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.

"There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," he continued.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

So, of course, the interrogators just did what they were told, even though they knew that if they broke the will of the detainees, and got them to affirm a connection between Hussein and Bin Laden, it was false. Furthermore, such a gross lie, analogous to the propaganda disseminated by Goebbels to justify the annexation of the Sudetenland and the invasion of Poland, would have been used to create public support for an even more violent and aggressive militarism. And, yet, they pushed harder.

Meanwhile, in Congress, they didn't want to know. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Better to have a vague sense of what was happening, and avoid any responsibility to take action. That's now the official version that people like Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have adopted as the best of bad alternatives to explain their passivity.

But that's apparently another attempt to make their own reality:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.

In the first years following 9/11, the sadomasochistic allure of torture was such that nearly everyone in DC was seduced by it. According to Human Rights Watch, Rumsfeld personally participated in the torture of a purported al-Qaeda detainee at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003. Members of Congress were transfixed by the raw exercise of such brutality, and willingly entered into a relationship of servility with the Bush administration.

As an aside, there is one last note. The McClatchy article quoted above implies that only high value targets, an apparent euphemism for important al-Qaeda operatives, were subjected to harsh interrogation practices. We know, however, that this implication is erroneous, an attempt to deceive the public into believing that US officials resorted to torture in an infrequent and calculated way. We need only be reminded of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo generally, and Binyam Mohammed and Maher Arar more specifically, to see through this manipulation.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From the Archives: Fear Eats the Soul 

Here at American Leftist, it is not necessary to restrict film comment to current releases. There is, as we all know, the world of DVD, and almost everything, unless it is too avant garde, obscure or enmeshed in copyright disputes, is readily available, even the works of foreign directors that received limited to non-existent distribution in the US when their films were first released.

So, today, let's examine a great, representative film of one my favorite directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In 1971, he, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, personally met Douglas Sirk. Sirk was the master of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s, but his mastery was only then being belatedly recognized, years after he had retired to Switzerland.

Some say that Fassbinder discovered the films of Sirk as a result of this meeting, but that is probably an exaggeration. After all, he spent much of his childhood in the movie theatre while his mother worked at home, and he must have seen dubbed versions of Sirk's films. Accordingly, it is probably more accurate to say that Fassbinder remembered movies that he had forgotten, movies that made little impression upon him in his youth, but now reemerged as revelations.

In any event, it was a fortuitous encounter. Sirk's films, as acknowledged by Fassbinder in many public writings and statements, provided him with a cinematic language to address themes about the way people relate to one another while being subjected to societal pressures to conform. Fassbinder remade one of these films, All That Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul.

All That Heaven Allows has been described as a women's weepie in the argot of time, a May-September romance, starring Rock Hudson as a bohemian young landscaper who falls in love with a widowed socialite played by Jane Wyatt. Sirk took a story that he found implausible and transformed it into a withering condemnation of provincial, small town American life. No wonder it took film critics 15 years to appreciate it.

Fassbinder explosively transformed All That Heaven Allows into an intimate, emotional story about a romance between Ali, a young Morrocan guest worker, a Gastarbaiter, and Emmi, a widowed 60 year old German cleaning woman. Both Ali and Emmi are lonely, Ali because he is isolated and ostracized, even from other guest workers, and Emmi because she is no longer considered relevant or important in the economically successful Germany of the 1970s. Her adult children make periodic, perfunctory visits.

Such a simple story opens the door for Fassbinder to interweave many of his enduring themes into a melodramatic story that draws the audience into it. His affection for marginalized and abandoned people in society, the extent to which pressure to conform separates people from happiness, his belief, bordering on anarchism, that people, in the goodness of their hearts, know what is best for themselves and others, but lack the confidence to act upon it, and conversely, the extent to which people are capable of inflicting the most terrible cruelties upon one another in the most subtle ways.

In a Fassbinder film, scenes of violence, infrequent as they are (and, I can't recall any in Fear Eats the Soul, unless you count the smashing of a TV), are moments of rest between these frightening instances of what he called everyday fascism. One heartrending example of such behaviour takes place after Emmi has been replaced as a cleaning woman by a young immigrant gypsy, or, possibly, a Polish woman, and we see this young woman timidly sitting alone to eat her lunch on the steps of a winding staircase, while the older German cleaning women gossip amongst one another farther down. The film's ending is a statement of profound sadness about the ephemerality of love, and how, upon attainment, it can be destroyed by forces beyond our control.

Fassbinder used this film, as he did others, to display his respect for what his contemporaries disparagingly called My Father's Kino, the German film and television productions of the 1950s and early 1960s, an endeavor that struggled in the shadows of the glamour of Hollywood and the excitement of the French New Wave, by casting the popular Brigitte Mira as Emmi. He engaged pop culture; he did not abandon it. Ali is performed with admirable understatement by El Hedi ben Salem, who was his partner at the time.

Fassbinder also updated Sirk's visual approach for contemporary audiences. Despite being very low budget, there is an opulence, a skilled use of color and location set design that frames the emotional states of the characters. He integrated the Sirkean studio visual style into the world outside, as demonstrated by the brief clip from Fear Eats the Soul at the beginning of this entry. Note the staged seating of Ali and Emmi within a sea of empty yellow chairs at the outdoor restaurant, which, along with the reaction of the restaurant staff, underscores themes of ostracism and conformity.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From the Archives: You're an Educated Sort of a Swine 

Over the last several days, with my wife and son away visting relatives, I took the opportunity to watch one of my favorite television mini-series again, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced in the late 1970s. Based upon the novel by John Le Carre, it relates the story of how the protagonist, George Smiley, conducts an investigation of the British Secret Service, the Circus, in the late 1960s that results in the discovery and arrest of a Soviet mole.

For those of you who revere the work of the late Alec Guinness, his performance as Smiley is certainly one of his great ones, perhaps, as some have said, his signature one, one that put an exclamation mark on a brilliant career. If you are only familiar with him because of his role as Obi Wan Kenobi in the initial Star Wars trilogy, please consider watching this six part series to discover what he was truly capable of doing with a more serious, multifaceted character.

Upon watching the series again, I was struck by a number of things. First, the plot is centered around the reflections of older men about their lives, personally and professionally. Needless to say, this is not a common subject for contemporary film and television, given its emphasis upon the travails of young people. Despite, in the words of one Internet Movie Database user comment, a strong, uncompromising narrative drive, there is a contemplative mood of regret, a recognition among the characters that they had, by accepting the ideological boundaries of the Cold War, subjected themselves to a determinism that rendered their lives cold, sterile, and ultimately, irrelevant to the people in the world outside the Circus.

Second, adrift in the pigs and clover society of British consumerism, Smiley and his generation of Circus operatives can only mechanistically do, day by day, what they have always done, practice their tradecraft. It is striking feature of the series that many of the seminal cultural features of the 1960s in Britain, such as rock music, the drug culture, opposition to the Vietnam War and the rebellions of 1968, are not mentioned. Smiley, his field agents and the Circus suspects operate within a containerized world of their own making, as the need for secrecy and circumspection, along with a shared ideological mission, has isolated them. Smiley navigates a journey of self discovery wherein he is exposed as the only one who still believes in it, with the possible exception of his protege, Peter Guillam. The events of the 1960s may go unremarked, but, even at a distance, they have cracked the foundations of the Circus. In this respect, the mole merely anticipated the future when he agreed to spy for the Russians, starting in the late 1940s.

Third, the series highlights this crisis of faith to indict the notion of ideological certainty more generally. One of the most compelling scenes is Smiley's recollection of a conversation between himself and another high level Circus figure, Roy Bland, before Smiley's mentor, the mysterious Control, lost his authority and Smiley left the service. While obstensibly talking about how Smiley can ensure that Bland will support Control in political power struggle, they actually engage in a philosophical discussion of the validity of defining oneself through the prism of the Cold War.

Bland served many years in Eastern Europe and Russia at great personal cost, in places like Poznan, Kiev and Budapest, and explains to an appalled Smiley that as a good socialist, I'm in it for the money, as a good capitalist, I'm for the revolution, because if you can't beat it, spy on it. Bland is now merely a mercenary who expects to be compensated for his years of sacrifice, and doubts that Control can do it. He needs the coin required to pay the price of admission into the pigs and clover society. Provoked, Smiley acknowledges that liberal democracy is compromised by the excesses of the acquisitive instinct, but that it is superior to the deprivation of the East. Bland brings the conversation to an abrupt end: Tell me about it, George. Poznan, Kiev, Budapest. The actor who played Bland so masterfully, Terence Rigby, died about a week and a half ago.

Bland exposes the falsity of the capitalist vision that motivated Smiley and his Circus colleagues to perceive their work as utopian. As another one, Toby Esterhase, told Smiley: I like the Circus. I may be sentimental about it, but I want to stay in it. Unlike Bland, Esterhase wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He craves a promotion, so that he can make more money, even as he clings to the ideals that Smiley used to recruit him. A firm, consistent emphasis upon understatement, professionalism and bureaucratic behaviour throughout prompts the question as to the extent one can maintain one's individuality as one ages. Spontaneity has been drained out of everyone in the story.

Alienation, isn't that what the Marxist sociologists, call it? The Freudians? Through an accumulation of detail and personal experience, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brings this troubling problem to the surface. Are the characters demoralized, going through the motions, because they have aged, or because it is a nearly unavoidable consequence of living in such a society? Such an inquiry may be more relevant to the participants in the current "war on terror" than we might think. Upon its conclusion, everyone appears awaiting the arrival of an alternative that will invest their lives with meaning once again. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can be construed as an allegory about managerial capitalism and its limitations, a foreshadowing of Le Carre's subsequent, more explicit condemnation of neoliberalism.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

From the Archives: Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist 

Alexander Berkman is a forgotten figure of American history, exiled to the periphery like many other radicals who do not fit comfortably within the traditional narrative. He lived during a time in which labor and capital were engaged in a seemingly perpetual violent conflict as the country industrialized during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Capitalists like Carnegie and Rockefeller brutally shattered the efforts of workers to challenge horrible working conditions in the mines, factories and railyards.

Berkman emigrated to the US from Russia, and he brought with him the paradoxical values of individual violent action on behalf of the working class, commonly known as propaganda by the deed, the recourse to physical violence against political enemies, frequently industrialists, police officers or prosecutors, as a way of inspiring the masses to make the revolution. In 1892, enraged by the breaking of the Homestead strike, Berkman attempted to assasinate Henry Clay Frick, a business partner of Carnegie who hired Pinkertons to attack the steel workers who had seized the Homestead Works when it became apparent that Frick wanted to break the union.

In today's postmodern world, a world in which consumerism and popular culture have pushed class conflict to the margins, a world in which life or death decisions are antiseptically implemented by spreadsheet, the notion of propaganda by the deed strikes one, at best, as romantically antiquated, at worst, an immoral violation of the pacifist ethos that so dominates left activism globally. But upon beginning to read Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, his account of the attempted assassination of Frick and his subsequent imprisonment, it becomes abundantly clear that it was a much different world in 1892.

Unlike today, the enemies of the working class appeared readily identifiable and accessible. In the first section of the book, Berkman describes how he was emotionally affected by the forcible suppression of the Homestead strike, a strike that he and his close associates, like Emma Goldman, believed, quite mistakenly, represented the ignition of a worker rebellion against the US capitalist system. Having persuaded himself that he was part of the revolutionary vanguard, he decided that he must kill Frick to inspire the workers to rededicate themselves to an even greater resistance. Berkman personifies the radical paradox: a man who intensely identifies with the suffering of peasants and workers, and yet presumes to act violently on their behalf without seeking their approval.

Upon being imprisoned, Berkman discovers that he had been quite misguided. The other inmates cannot understand why he did what he did, although he is respected by some because he superficially recognizes how they have been mistreated by the criminal justice system. However, even here, he suffered from a hyperideological, arrogant impersonal perspective, tending to initially perceive many of the other inmates as parasitic figures with no place in the workers' utopia that he envisions.

It was only with the passage of time and the shared experience of struggling to survive in the face of the medieval conditions within the prison that Berkman began to respect them and perceive them as equals. Through a spare, direct use of English, he describes encounters with inmates that grow slowly into enduring relationships. He speaks with an unpretentious voice that is clear, compassionate and candid. The prospect of dying within the facility haunts everyone. As he serves his long sentence, many of his friends die, one by one, from solitary confinement, disease, inadequate to non-existence medical care, madness and physical assaults perpetrated by guards.

The industrialization of America was creating an enormous population of impoverished people that invariably found themselves incarcerated. Berkman memorializes them through his recollection of their life within the prison, especially his accounts of the most mundane and intimate details of their daily activities. He is even capable of distinguishing amongst the guards, recognizing those who sought to make the lives of the prisoners more tolerable. In letters sent to Goldman, reproduced within the book, he began to understand that the violence of the American capitalist system was more sophisticated, and, hence, more effective than the feudal forms of social control practiced in the Czarist Russia from whence he came.

To Goldman's surprise, Berkman did not fully endorse the assassination of McKinley as consistent with anarchist ideals: In Russia, where political oppression is popularly felt, such a deed would be of great value. But the scheme of political subjugation is more subtle in America. And though McKinley was the chief representative of our modern slavery, he could not be considered in the light of a direct and immediate enemy of the people, while in absolutism, the autocrat is visible and tangible. The real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests upon the popular delusion of self-governance and independence. That is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet.

Berkman, it seems, never found a way to politically overcome the violence so effectively interwoven into the American social system. Having rejected assassination in 1901, he apparently returned to it in 1914, when he purportedly participated in a plot to kill Rockefeller after the harsh suppression of strikes in the Colorado mines. For him, the violence of American capitalism could only be overcome through the violence of the workers.

It is easy to dismiss Berkman in an age where the non-violence of Gandhi and King is ascendant. But as one looks around, he remains relevant for his honest engagement with the problem even if he has disappeared into the mists of history. After all, the non-violence of the global left hasn't prevented the predations of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Nor has it slowed the relentless process of primative accumulation by global finance capital in sweatshops throughout the lesser developed world. It has been left to the Iraqis themselves to resist through the killing of US troops and their local collaborators, actions condemned by many of the same liberal pacifists who are powerless to protect them, and even the Zapatistas, adored by many on the left, responded to the prospect of cultural genocide by launching attacks throughout Chiapas on January 1, 1994.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

From the Archives: A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess 

Last summer, Imamura Shohei, one of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, died. A self-described anthropological filmmaker, he emphasized the means by which people survive the commodification of the most intimate aspects of human behaviour in movies like The Insect Woman and The Pornographers.

Given that the colonization of everyday life is implicit in many of his films, even if accidentally, he could be described as the great Situationist director, except that, in a departure from Situationist thought, his protagonists are never victims. He celebrates their capacity to adapt to their perpetually changing surroundings even as he suggests, unlike Fassbinder, that such adaptability paradoxically results in an a social and cultural identity that is essentially immutable. Indeed, when interviewed by Audie Bock in the 1970s, he asserted that the modernization of Japanese society was an illusion. He insisted that the Japanese people retained their fokloric perception of the world, with all attendant superstitions.

Last night, I had the good fortune to see Imamura's 1970 documentary, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess at the Pacific Film Archive. In this film, Imamura engages in a truly radical enterprise, he contrasts the official postwar history of his country, as depicted in the media, with the real life experiences of a bar hostess, Etsuko Akaza, near the US airbase in Yokosura. Etsuko has just closed her bar, the Bar Onboro, and Imamura interviews her in the now nearly empty business, asking her about her life and her responses to the newsreel depiction of major postwar events screened upon a back wall. A visually simple, yet explosive means of presenting the narrative.

Etsuko recalls the dismissive response in her neighborhood to the Emperor's radio broadcast announcing the end of the war. Everyone was relieved, although careful to make sure that the police did not see it, and no one felt compelled to bow in his honor. She, like the rest of her family, is a barukumin, stigmatized as part of a lower caste in Japan associated with professions like the slaughering of animals, but they profit from shortages of meat. While the left and the labor unions protest the newly elected government under US occupation, they focus upon making money and enjoying themselves. Her encounters with American troops are favorable, and she considers them superior to Japanese men like her husband, who she frequently maligns as a loafer prone to episodes of spousal abuse. In the early 1950s, she moves to Yokosura to open a bar for off duty US troops stationed there.

Etsuko is the right person in the right place. Her bar flourishes, and her love life does as well, even if monogamous bliss remains unattainable. It is not something that worries her very much. Unlike Maria, the protagonist in Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun, another woman in another defeated Axis power, Germany, a woman who prospers in the immediate postwar period, but, ultimately, does not survive, Etsuko is not prone to guilt and remorse, and seems to delight in the challenge of gratifying her appetites. And, of course, she most definitely survives.

As she does so, Japan becomes independent, and memorializes its subordination to the US through the US-Japan Security Pact in 1960. The terms of independence, especially the retention of the royal family, use of Japanese territory by the US military during the Korean War, and the granting of permanent bases to the US in 1960, provoked intense left protest. None of this touches Etsuko's life, except when the protests reach Yokosura. She observes, rather cynically, the contrast between the chants in Tokyo and Yokosura. In Tokyo, the protesters chanted, Down with the US-Japan Security Pact!, while, in Yokosura, they chanted, Yankee, go home! In Yokosura, she explains, the people only cared about closing the base.

By contrasting Etsuko's life with these highly charged political events, Imamura engages in a profound revisionism of one of the most highly charged questions of this period: why did the left fail? Oshima Nagisa, another directer who traveled over similar social and cultural terrain, attributed it to the corruption of Stalinism, as manifest politically and personally, in his film completed shortly after the 1960 protests, Night and Fog in Japan. It is an important question, because the US-Japan Security Pact has been the linchpin of US geopolitical dominance in East Asia.

Imamura, unlike Oshima, did not emerge from the 1950s Japanese left, and so, his evaluation of the question through Etsuko is so daring that he renders the question itself irrelevant, if not absurd. When asked about the Communist protests back during the occupation, Etsuko blandly observes that there were none in her town. Her brother talked like the reds, but even he did not travel to Tokyo to participate in them. Etsuko suggests that the town, much like herself, did not display hostility towards them, but, rather, even worse, indifference.

Such indifference persists through the newsreel footage of protests in the 1950s that foreshadowed the explosion of 1960. Her only remark about the 1960 protests is that a young college student killed by the police may have been paid to join them. For her, such an explanation is entirely logical. Overall, the implication is that the Japanese left failed to find a way to communicate with, much less organize, some of the very people that it purported to represent.

Even more importantly, Imamura implies that there was no way for the left to do so, because Japanese people like Etsuko rejected the notion that such relationships mattered. Etsuko, and people like her, lived a curiously anarchic social life. They engaged in activities that, while legal, were socially disreputable, and frequently crossed the boundary into criminality.

For them, the nation state of Japan, while they would never deny its existence, was not especially important to them as a day to day proposition. They made money during the occupation, they made money after independence, they were confident that they could make money under any regime. Etsuko drives this point home at the end of the film when, after another marriage to an American soldier, she describes how she plans to make money running a bar in . . . you guessed it, the US! She observes, rather pragmatically, that it is easier to run a bar there because she doesn't need hostesses, just a bartender, although it is difficult to obtain a license. Of course, she would still be Japanese, but she could be Japanese anywhere. Shortly therefter, she departs, along with her husband, to San Diego.

In other words, the left could only reach people like Etsuko by understanding that they identified themselves more as part of a social world than a jurisdictional one, a geopolitical one. Such a message, such a vision, would necessarily involve a political philosophy that evokes anarchism more than socialism or communism. It would have to be more Argentina, a country where the informal sector has flourished out of necessity, much like 1950s Japan, than Cuba.

Interestingly, the only protest that sparks an emotional response from Etsuko is an incident associated with the royal wedding of Prince Akihito in 1959. As the royal couple travels down a boulevard in an open car, a young man runs out into the street and throws stones at them. This, Etsudo viscerally understands, as she condemns the extravagant spending associated with the event. That's probably why he did what he did, she speculates. Of course, such a populist act is more akin to anarchism by the deed than to socialist reformism or Marxist-Leninist governance in the name of the proletariat.

Finally, Imamura paradoxically praises Etsuko's resistance to information produced and presented by the media. Etsuko is noteworthy for her absence from the media induced spectacles that had already begun to encroach upon our lives. In the late 1960s, protests against the Vietnam War erupt in Yokosura, and Etsuko recognizes that the salad days are over, that there is not much more money to be made running a bar for Americans, prompting her to leave for San Diego, as already mentioned. No doubt, if she is still alive, she is doing quite well there.

Imamura presses her about the war, showing her pictures of the My Lai massacre in a magazine. What does she think about it? She doesn't believe it, she says, Americans have always been well behaved. Imamura presses her further, turning through the pictures in the article, one by one. She still doesn't believe it. Why? I don't believe anything I can't see or touch. I don't believe the horse races because I can't touch the horses. Situationists like Debord and Vanetgem would have approved.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

From the Archives: The Whisperers 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vacation 

I am away on vacation through Thursday, April 23rd. I'm not sure whether I will have the time to post anything new. In the meantime, I have scheduled posts from the American Leftist archives for your enjoyment. Hopefully, you missed them the first time around, anyway.

Monday, April 13, 2009

14 Arrested at Creech Air Force Base 

A glimmer of real hope, as opposed to the illusory kind discussed here last Friday in relation to the killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Late this afternoon, fourteen peace activists were arrested at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The arrests occurred during a ten-day vigil whose goal is to raise public awareness of the increasing use of unmanned drones in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Air Force personnel based at Creech AFB pilot the Predator and Reaper drones being used in Central Asia.

The 14 people walked through the open main gate shortly after 3:00 p.m. Air Force security rsonnel stopped them after they walked into the base. They were seeking to engage in ialogue with the Air Force service members controlling the Predators and Reapers used in Central Asia. In a gesture of good will, they offered to break bread and share Passover pizza with Air Force personnel.

The Nevada State Highway Patrol esponded, as did the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. Police officers and Air Force security rejected the dinner offered by the 14 activists.

Meanwhile, 20 other activists continued the vigil. The 14 were arrested on the charge of trespass and transported to the Clark County Detention Facility, from where 13 were booked and released
by 7:30 the following morning.

One priest refused to sign his paperwork, and expects to be arraigned before April 15th.

This Jesuit (named Steve Kelly), says he’s disappointed he’ll miss today’s prayer-action of the Stations of the Cross at Creech AFB, “It’s inconvenient for all of us, we’re disturbing the war and I’ll be pleading ‘not guilty’.” The other 13 will be arraigned on June 9th 2009.

Those arrested include:

Fr. John Dear, S.J. (New Mexico)
Dennis DuVall (Arizona)
Renee Espeland (Des Moines, Iowa
Catholic Worker Community)
Judy Homanich (Binghamton, New York)
Kathy Kelly (Chicago Illinois, she has been
nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize)
Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. (California)
Mariah Klusmire (Trinity House Catholic
Worker, Albuquerque, New Mexico)
Brad Lyttle (Chicago, Illinois)
Elizabeth Pappalardo (Crystal Lake, Illinois)
Sister Megan Rice, SHCJ (Nevada Desert
Experience, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Brian Terrell (Strangers & Guests Catholic
Worker, Maloy, Iowa)
Eve Tetaz (Washington, D.C.)
Fr. Louis Vitale, O.F.M. (Oakland, California)
Jerry Zawada, O.F.M. (Tucson, Arizona)

Will we have to rely upon religious progressives, as opposed to secular ones, to press the struggle against US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan? It would appear so, at least for now.

Hat tip to Catherine for drawing my attention to it.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hope 


Updated accounts on the killings in Khost by US forces are even worse than initially reported:

An Afghan army colonel whose wife and children died in a US-led raid demanded action against the troops responsible Friday as President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings.

The operation in the eastern province of Khost around midnight Wednesday killed the wife of Afghan National Army artillery commander Awal Khan, two of his children and a brother.

The troops, who had been hunting a militant linked to radical Islamist groups, also shot a pregnant woman and killed her unborn baby, which had almost come to term, Khan and a provincial health official said. The woman survived the shooting.

Across the border in Pakistan, US drone attacks, along with Pakistani military operations, have created approximately 536,000 internally displaced people, commonly known as refugees, as reported last Sunday in the Times of London:

American drone attacks on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are causing a massive humanitarian emergency, Pakistani officials claimed after a new attack yesterday killed 13 people.

The dead and injured included foreign militants, but women and children were also killed when two missiles hit a house in the village of Data Khel, near the Afghan border, according to local officials.

As many as 1m people have fled their homes in the Tribal Areas to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army. In Bajaur agency entire villages have been flattened by Pakistani troops under growing American pressure to act against Al-Qaeda militants, who have made the area their base.

Kacha Garhi is one of 11 tented camps across Pakistan’s frontier province once used by Afghan refugees and now inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis made homeless in their own land.

Yet another human catastrophe in a region misfortunate enough to find itself at the center of American geopolitical designs:

Many have terrible stories. Baksha Zeb lost everything when his village, Anayat Kalay in Bajaur, was demolished by Pakistani forces. His eight-year-old son is a kidney patient needing dialysis and he has been left with no means to pay.

Our houses have been flattened, our cattle killed and our farms and crops destroyed, he complained. There is not a single structure in my village still standing. There is no way we can go back.

He sold his taxi to pay for food for his family and treatment for his son but the money has almost run out. God bestowed me with a son after 15 years of marriage, he said. Now I have no job and I don’t know how we will survive.

If Zeb is lucky, some NGO worker will contact the reporter who wrote this article, track the man down and get him connected with an American medical organization willing to have him and his son flown to the US so that his son can receive necessary medical treatment for his kidney condition. And then, of course, we will all be subjected to media accounts about the child's salvation, accounts that serve the purpose of humanizing our military invention, similar to previous accounts regarding the treatment of Iraqi burn victims, like this and this and this.

More likely, Zeb is going to experience the agonizingly painful death of his son because of his inability to pay for the dialysis treatment. It is the new American progressivism, a self-induced delusion paid in full with the deaths of Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans. Perhaps, it is time for the reissuance of the iconic HOPE poster, splattered with the symbolic blood of the victims of the shockingly cynical politics that it now ironically represents.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Lehman Shokku 

From Bloomberg News:

Within two months of losing his job packing shelves at a cold-storage company in Osaka, Toshiyuki Miki says, he was homeless. “Lehman Shock” turned his life upside down, he says.

Lacking the 60,000 yen ($600) a month he needs to pay rent, Miki, 40, sleeps in cardboard boxes under the elevated Hanshin expressway in Umeda, Osaka’s central business district. It’s his home as the global recession triggered by the implosion of Wall Street banks batters Japan. About 460,000 people have lost their jobs since the Sept. 15 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., according to government data.

I never realized it would affect me in this way, said Miki, who picked up the Japanese phrase Lehman Shokku from the pages of discarded newspapers. Before, I could always find some kind of job, but now there’s nothing.

Miki’s loss of housing shows how Japan’s 2.95 million unemployed people threaten to fuel a rise in homelessness. Prime Minister Taro Aso may unveil a 15.4 trillion yen stimulus package tomorrow, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News. Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano said April 6 the package will include a new social safety net for non-regular workers.

Yosano didn’t specify what help would be given to the lower-paid temporary or part-time workers. They accounted for 34.5 percent of Japan’s 55.3 million employed in September 2008 compared with 24 percent in 1999, official data show.

Yes, Japan has actually been in the forefront of switching from permanent to temporary workers:

No one knows how many like him are moving on to Osaka’s streets, charity officials say.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi extended labor laws, allowing carmakers and other manufacturers to use more lower-paid temporary workers and for longer periods. That helped employers cut production costs because they could hire and fire to meet demand.

The labor laws switched the burden for supporting Japan’s workforce from the companies to the government, said Wataru Kishi, in charge of welfare assistance at Osaka’s city government. The issue is whether the government can provide the support or the entire system will collapse.

Japan’s national government, which pays 75 percent of welfare costs, according to Kishi, has already pledged 1.1 trillion yen in economic stimulus to subsidize temporary workers’ jobs and house those out of work.

As capitalism has gone global, so has the intensity of the destitution associated with its turbulence. So far, there has been no spark to ignite resistance.

Hat tip to The Little Mandarin over at Calculated Risk.

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Quagmire 

From The News of Pakistan:

Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the US predator strikes thus comes to not more than six per cent.

Figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities show that a total of 701 people, including 14 al-Qaeda leaders, have been killed since January 2006 in 60 American predator attacks targeting the tribal areas of Pakistan. Two strikes carried out in 2006 had killed 98 civilians while three attacks conducted in 2007 had slain 66 Pakistanis, yet none of the wanted al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders could be hit by the Americans right on target. However, of the 50 drone attacks carried out between January 29, 2008 and April 8, 2009, 10 hit their targets and killed 14 wanted al-Qaeda operatives. Most of these attacks were carried out on the basis of intelligence believed to have been provided by the Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen who had been spying for the US-led allied forces stationed in Afghanistan.

The remaining 50 drone attacks went wrong due to faulty intelligence information, killing hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children. The number of the Pakistani civilians killed in those 50 attacks stood at 537, in which 385 people lost their lives in 2008 and 152 people were slain in the first 99 days of 2009 (between January 1 and April 8).

Of the 50 drone attacks, targeting the Pakistani tribal areas since January 2008, 36 were carried out in 2008 and 14 were conducted in the first 99 days of 2009. Of the 14 attacks targeting Pakistan in 2009, three were carried out in January, killing 30 people, two in February killing 55 people, five in March killing 36 people and four were conducted in the first nine days of April, killing 31 people.

Of the 14 strikes carried out in the first 99 days of April 2009, only one proved successful, killing two most wanted senior al-Qaeda leaders - Osama al Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. Both had lost their lives in a New Year’s Day drone strike carried out in the South Waziristan region on January 1, 2009.

Gaza from the sky, but with an exponentially greater percentage of civilians killed. Both the US military and the IDF have the mission of compelling subservience through the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Plans for perpetual, ongoing operations of this kind are now being perfected by the Pentagon, with an additional 2 billion dollars for the use of drones currently on display in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, operations on the ground in neighboring Afghanistan aren't going much better:

Early this morning, the United States reported that its forces in the Khost Province had attacked and killed “four combatants,” ostensibly saving the lives of “fifteen women and 30 children.” It mentioned in passing that one of those killed in the attack, which at the time they claimed was a defensive action, was a woman. They added that another militant was wounded.

By the end of the day, the military was forced to admit that the four people killed were not in fact combatants, but a mother and three of her children. The person wounded in the attack was in fact an infant, who died later of his wounds.

Long time readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with how such disregard for the lives of civilians has been a common feature of US military activity.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Decade of Darkness 

As some of you have already noticed, I am posting links to articles that I consider to be especially informative about the global economic crisis to supplement my periodic posts on the subject. This one, by Mike Whitney, is a must read, an excellent analysis of a catastrophically failed governmental response, and the dire consequences that will inevitably ensue. Attentive readers of the last paragraph will recognize that Whitney undoubtedly read the naked capitalism post that I linked here on Tuesday.

In the past, I have tried to keep the number of these sorts of posts to a minimum, because I believe that I should provide an original perspective to readers of this blog, something beyond just referring people elsewhere. After all, portals do that. But the issues associated with this economic collapse are so important, so integral to our lives, and so poorly presented in the commercial media, that I consider it essential that we familiarize ourselves with the invaluable work of people like Whitney, Michael Hudson, Calculated Risk and Mr. Mortgage, among others. Of course, you can visit the sites where they post their work as I do, and I strongly recommend it. Hudson and Whitney can be frequently encountered at Counterpunch. Calculated Risk also has links to numerous other sources of information about the crisis.

But, never fear, I will continue to post my own opinions, as I did yesterday.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

These are depression conditions 

A Note on the Stimulus Plan (Part 2) 

Back in early February, I expressed my concerns about the stimulus plan within the larger context of a bailout of the insolvent financial institutions, an ongoing bailout of historically unprecedented cost, and the perpetuation of militaristic policies that necessitate enormous military expenditures. At the conclusion of that post, I suggested a couple of alternatives to a stimulus proposal that, when considered along with the bailout and the Pentagon budget, I considered too costly and poorly targeted.

First, I advocated for the federalization of the unemployment insurance programs run by the states, with a much higher wage replacement rate of 60%, capped at $50,000 in benefits per year. Stimulus funds directed in such a manner would arrest the decline in consumption, reduce the number of foreclosures and preserve the jobs of people still employed. Current wage replacement rates are far too low to achieve these outcomes, based as they are on the belief that reasonable replacement rates discourage people from seeking work. Indeed, the rate of job loss is accelerating and , while the attempt to reduce foreclosures through loan modifications has been shockingly unsuccessful.

Second, it is time for the government to take action and utilize its regulatory control over the financial sector, a control utilized to date in the service of bailing out the institutions that created the housing bubble, to induce them to implement Mr. Mortgage's recommendation that upside down borrowers be granted principal reductions. He correctly observes that only in this way can the economy be resuscitated. As someone who exalts individual decisionmaking through the markets, he would probably consider this inappropriate governmental coercion, but, as a leftist, I am much more sanguine about it.

Why am I revisiting the subject after the stimulus plan has already been passed? Well, as recent unemployment and foreclosure data indicate, there is good reason to believe that the bailout and the stimulus plan have failed, intensifying the risk that of an even more intense and socially disruptive collapse of the global economy. Just because they got it wrong the first time, and continue to get it wrong, doesn't mean that we should stop promoting better alternatives. Furthermore, if we give it some thought, there are other proposals worthy of consideration as well.

Ponder, for a moment, the demand killing consequences of the costs of a college education and the need to service student loans upon graduation. It is hard to buy much, or just make end's meet, when you are paying back student loans that can easily exceed over $100,000. Or, even worse, as is now being reported, the inability of people to attend college at all because they can't afford it. Why not just direct a lot of stimulus money towards grants for people to attend school, rather than dole out tax cuts? Didn't the government implement a program like that for veterans after World War II? Why not direct funds into the educational system itself, so that they can avoid reducing the number of applicants admitted?

Ponder also the emerging trend of people refusing to go to the doctor to receive periodic tests and preventive care:

Kimberly Ragucci, a graphic designer, has a high-deductible health plan that pays for expenses only after she has spent $5,000 in a year.

The 23-year-old mother, who lives in Long Beach, doesn't have dental or vision insurance. She takes her son for regular pediatric care, but barring a medical emergency, she said she didn't plan to seek healthcare for herself any time soon.

"I have astigmatism, and I need a new prescription," she said. "I haven't been to the eye doctor for more than two years. And ever since I got pregnant, my teeth have moved a lot. I know I need to see a dentist, but I can't afford it."

Surely, we could direct stimulus monies toward paying for such care?

I know, I know, we should have a single payer health care system, and such spending, as with the educational grant program, may have a marginal direct economic impact. But do they? As noted elsewhere in the article, dentists in Southern California are experiencing a 15% to 30% decline in business. Reduced enrollment by universities result in pressure upon employees to accept less pay and benefits, if not layoffs. As the cultural left recognized long ago, the provision of medical care and educational instruction are forms of production as well, as much a part of the capitalist processes of the expropriation of surplus value and primitive accumulation as the more commonly historically recognized forms of manufacture.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Worse Than the Great Depression? 

The Angry Arab Debates Zionism with an Israeli Consular Official 

As promised, here is the video of the debate last Wednesday between the Angry Arab and an Israeli consular official, Akiva Tor, at San Francisco State, a debate in which the real subject in dispute was the Zionist project itself:

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Friday, April 03, 2009

663,000 

Meanwhile, bonuses for management at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you know, the two government sponsored entities, the two home mortgage giants, that should have been investigated for fraud.

Interestingly, this article was the most e-mailed one from the New York Times website for two days in a row, and, on the third day after posting, remains fourth on the list. An excerpt:

As the national economic crisis has deepened and social services have become casualties of budget cuts, libraries have come to fill a void for more people, particularly job-seekers and those who have fallen on hard times. Libraries across the country are seeing double-digit increases in patronage, often from 10 percent to 30 percent, over previous years.

But in some cities, this new popularity — some would call it overtaxing — is pushing libraries in directions not seen before, with librarians dealing with stresses that go far beyond overdue fines and misshelved books. Many say they feel ill-equipped for the newfound demands of the job, the result of working with anxious and often depressed patrons who say they have nowhere else to go.

The stresses have become so significant here that a therapist will soon be counseling library employees.

“I guess I’m not really used to people with tears in their eyes,” said Rosalie Bork, a reference librarian in Arlington Heights, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. “It has been unexpectedly stressful. We feel so anxious to help these people, and it’s been so emotional for them.”

Urban ills like homelessness have affected libraries in many cities for years, but librarians here and elsewhere say they are seeing new challenges. They find people asleep more often at cubicles. Patrons who cannot read or write ask for help filling out job applications. Some people sit at computers trying to use the Internet, even though they have no idea what the Internet is.

Elsewhere, the reporters note that children's programs and cultural arts events are filled to capacity, suggesting the need for people to rely upon sources of free entertainment. Sad, but not really very surprising, as modern Hoovervilles abound.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

My Debate with that guy 

As'ad Abukhalil, a professor at California State University Stanislaus, known over the Internet as the Angry Arab, debates an Israeli diplomat at San Franciso State:

We go to the hall and I notice that there are two chairs and two name signs: for me and for him (the Israeli representative of the usurping entity). I did not like the arrangement. So I tell her: I don't want to sit next to him. I would like you as a moderator to sit between us. She asked me whether I was kidding. I said: do you see me in a joking mode? Do you see me kidding with you? You think that this is a joking matter for me? She realized--let me just say--that Angry Arab was not kidding. She said that she was planning to make her remarks and sit in the audience. I said: that is easy: instead of sitting here, we can move your chair to separate between me and him. I also was told that she (or the university) was planning to host a reception for the two guests before somebody who knew about me told them: I can assure you that As`ad will not agree to a reception with the Israeli diplomat. So the reception was scrapped. I then told the host that I will not be recognizing or talking with the Israeli guest. She looked baffled but nervous. She asked me why do I have these positions? I said you will understand after you hear my remarks. She was getting more nervous, I could tell, by the minute. She then upset me more by saying something about "academic" environment or collegiality and then added something about "us" getting along. I was more angry at that. I got more angry (but that was a good preparation for my debate) and said: this is no joke or a game or schtick for me. This is about killing 400 Palestinian children in Gaza in three weeks. I don't "get along" and I don't want to "get along." The security and the police only got more visible and more extensive. The moderator then remarked that the security was required for "his safety" in reference to the Israeli speaker. I was here more pissed (all that getting angry before the debate was preparation as far as I was concerned). I said: what about my safety? Did that enter into the picture? or do Arabs don't deserve safety?

Of course, there is more, much more, and I recommend that you read his post about the encounter in its entirely. It is also anticipated that video of the debate will soon be posted on YouTube. If it is, I will let you know.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

G-20 in London: Seattle Revisited? 

Today, as leaders of the G-20- met to discuss a coordinated response to the global financial crisis, protesters sacked a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the most notorious recipients of bail out funds from the Exchequer, while another protester collapsed in a police cordon in central London, and subsequently died.

As with the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999, protest from below is converging with opposition from within. In Seattle, lesser developed countries refused to accept a trade liberalization treaty that preserved protections in the US and Europe, particularly in regard to agriculture, while forcing the opening of markets in poorer countries around the world. Meanwhile, out on the streets, police struggled against protesters that had initially shocked them by shutting down the areas around the conference center where the ministerial conference was being held. Residential neighborhoods adjancent to the center of the city were put under curfew until the conference was concluded.

Similarly, in London, protesters pressured the police, successfully sacking the Royal Bank of Scotland. But, equally important, as the protests erupted, divisions among the G-20 participants emerged. President Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany conducted a joint press conference in which they objected to the refusal of Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to adopt a more rigorous regulatory approach to the address the financial crisis:

In a day of breathless diplomacy in London, ranging across arms control and financial capitalism, Brown and Barack Obama emphasised a developing convergence, only for Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to lay down non-negotiable red lines on issues such as hedge funds and tax havens which they insisted had to be met today and not deferred until future gatherings.

The belligerent tone jarred as it came hours after Brown, standing side by side with Obama in the gilded splendour of the Foreign Office, had declared that the leading countries were hours away from securing a deal to reform the global economy.

Far from rowing back from the aggressive posturing which Sarkozy had adopted before flying to London, the French leader resumed the theme, saying this was no time for making fancy speeches and dismissing the idea of a summit later in the year. Speaking at a Knightsbridge hotel, he said he trusted Obama, but he blamed America, saying: The crisis didn't actually spontaneously erupt in Europe, did it?

The German leader joined in. This is a historic opportunity afforded us to give capitalism a conscience, because capitalism has lost its conscience and we have to seize this opportunity, she said.

Similarly, as reported in The Independent:

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said he expected a confrontation at the summit between two worlds: one that wants more regulation, and the other that wants less and which is closer to so-called 'liberal' positions.

Ms Merkel warned that today's summit would be a failure if it only produced a vague statement of intent. We want results that yield concrete results and change the world as we know it, she said. The day after tomorrow will be too late. The decisions need to be taken today and tomorrow.

President Obama, who praised Mr Brown's extraordinary energy and leadership at their joint press conference, endorsed his call for other countries to stimulate their economies further. Although he played down the transatlantic split, the President said other nations could not rely on America's voracious consumer market to drive the global recovery. It cannot just be the United States that's the engine room – everybody is going to have to pick up the pace," adding: "Don't short change the future because of fear in the present.

Over the next course of the next day or so, we will discover if this is really serious. In Seattle, the developed world was united in its in attempt to impose neoliberal trade and finance against lesser developed countries for their benefit. Now, in London, nine years later, France and Germany, with Russia and China in the background, have broken ranks. Do they have the resolve to persist in their opposition to a ruinous combination of stimulus and subsidy for financial speculators? Time will tell, but it is worth noting that the Sarkozy/Merkel press conference has been consistently described as a surprise.

If the French and the Germans hold firm, the anti-neoliberal contagion that initially broke out on the periphery in 1999 will have entered the capitalist metropolis within the European Union nine years later. In Seattle, the neoliberal order was incapable of incorporating the mild reforms of inclusion and fairness demanded by developing nations, effectively terminating the process of trade liberalization on the terms of finance capital as manifested in the WTO and the IMF. Now, in London, it appears equally incapable of accepting the demands of other countries within the developed world itself. The consequences of such a refusal will be profound, with the probability that the decline of American and British dominance within the global economic system will be accelerated.

Three interrelated currents are at work here: (1) increasingly angry and confrontational protest from below, as already demonstrated in protests in Iceland, France and Greece before the ones in London today; (2) a divergence of self interest among countries near the top of the capitalist hierarchy, like France and Germany, as they follow the lead of other dominant countries like Russia and China; and (3) the inability of the United States and the United Kingdom, as the governmental representatives of the capital class of speculators that crashed the global economy, to accept even the mildest of reforms, because they require the leaders of these countries to acknowledge the unspeakable, the permanent diminishment of their power and influence.

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