A recent painting by American artist R.A. Zimmerman offers oblique but apt observations on the eternal bullshit of empire:
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On Wednesday -- the day before Britain's unions launched the largest strike the country has seen in almost 90 years -- the UK's coalition government finally removed its mask of 'moderation' and showed its true, ravenous face. The government's economic honcho, George Osborne -- a young, smirking, smarmy upper class twit who makes George Bush look like Will Rogers -- announced yet another round of savage cuts that will batter and cripple the lives of the poor, the vulnerable, the young, the sick, and ordinary working people.
It is all part of a relentless program of "austerity" that is ostensibly designed to "cut the deficit" but is actually a ruthless, draconian -- and very deliberate -- attempt to radically remake society for the benefit of the wealthy few. (And considering how elitist British society has always been, this is ideological extremism at it most fanatic and frothing.)
But it's important to remember that this is not just a Conservative government. It is a full and formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats -- precisely the kind of "moderate centrists" and "serious, savvy progressives" so highly praised by the American commentariat. The LibDems are, in essence and practice, "Blue America": the goodhearted liberal folks who know "the perfect is the enemy of the good" and are willing "to work within the system," making the "tough choices" and sausage-grinding compromises necessary to mitigate the system's worst elements and maybe, just maybe, make things a little better.
But here is the result of all this serious savviness on behalf of progressive ideals: the LibDems are now helping implement the most regressive policies that Britain has seen since the Victorian era. They are presiding -- happily, even giddily -- over the wanton ravaging of a society already brought low by the brutal, bipartisan religious extremists -- blind, fanatic worshippers of Mammon -- who have held sway in Britain, America and Europe for more than 30 years. The LibDems are Obama: socially liberal, fiscally conservative, willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of millions of innocent people to save a thuggish elite from facing the slightest consequence of their own criminal greed and stupidity.
Still, today's strike is a hopeful sign -- a one-day "Occupy Everything" movement that is clearly just the beginning of a long, fierce pushback against the Mammonists. Even so, things are going to get much darker as the extremists fight with equal fierceness to preserve their feudal privileges. Polly Toynbee details the impact of the latest barrage from Osborne and his savvy, progressive enablers:
Class war, generation war, war against women, war between the regions: George Osborne's autumn statement blatantly declares itself for the few against the many. Gloves are off and gauntlets down, and the nasty party bares its teeth. …
Exposed was the extent of pain for no gain, exactly as Keynesian economists predicted, a textbook case. Things are "proving harder than anyone envisaged", says Cameron. But precisely this was envisaged by Nobel-winning economists. Extreme austerity is causing £100bn extra borrowing, not less, while everything else shrinks – most incomes (the poorest most of all), employment, order books and exports. …
What was missing from his list? Not one penny more was taken from the top 10% of earners. Every hit fell upon those with less not more. Fat plums ripe for the plucking stayed on the tree as the poorest bore 16% of the brunt of new cuts and the richest only 3%, according to the Resolution Foundation. … But not a word passed Osborne's lips on tax avoidance and evasion .. while some £25 billion is evaded and £70 billion avoided. In a time of national emergency, Osborne had no breath of rebuke about the responsibility of the rich not to dodge taxes, no threat to curb the culture of avoidance. Despite the High Pay Commission report on out-of-control boardroom pay – which even the Institute of Directors has called "unsustainable" – the chancellor said nothing. How adamantly he ruled out the Tobin tax on financial transactions, called for by those dangerous lefties Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.
Instead came the great attack on public sector employees on the eve of the biggest strike in memory. This was a declaration of open class war – and war on the pay of women, 73% of the public workforce. After a three-year freeze, public pay rises are pegged at 1% for two years, whatever the inflation rate. That means this government will take at least 16% from their incomes overall. …
But the direct assault on the poor is almost beyond belief. Watch how the big, powerful charities on Tuesday expressed uncharacteristic outrage. Along with the Children's Society, Save the Children is fiercer than I can ever recall, calling this "dire news for the poorest families – both in and out of work"; "A major blow", says 4Children; while Barnardo's calls it "a desperate state of affairs when the government's own analysis shows that a further 100,000 children will be pushed into poverty as a result of tax and benefits changes announced today".
That 100,000 is added to the 300,000 that the Institute for Fiscal Studies already expected to join the numbers of poor children from Osborne's previous cuts. ….
100,000 children crushed with a single stroke of a pen! That's class war with a vengeance. Not nearly as many children as our Anglo-American elite have killed outright in, say, Iraq, of course -- but still, pretty good work for one day. And the little twit says there will be at least "six more years" of austerity to come before his sacrifices to Mammon -- sorry, I mean his deficit reduction plan -- is complete.
Looks like I'll be trotting out this old chestnut for years to come.
Taking down the dribbling idiocies of Thomas Friedman is, of course, like shooting dead, bloated fish mired in utter, immovable stillness on the surface of a barrel full of thick, congealed liquid. Even so, as this gormless goober continues to serve as one of the most respected and representative voices of our gooberish overlords, it remains a salutatory exercise to pull out the shotgun now and again and point it, once more, into the festering barrel.
Belen Fernandez at the LRB blog performed this yeoman service for us this week, in a short piece reprising some of Friedman's latest and greatest hits. Well worth a quick read.
And just for the hell of it, why not take a gander of my own blunderbuss outing at Friedman's stinking fish, way back in the day: Hideous Kinky: The Genocidal Fury of Thomas Friedman. Here are a few clips:
You would think that by now we would have "supp'd full with horrors" on the New York Times op-ed pages. What could be worse than the atrocities that have filled those gray columns in the past few years, the loud brays for war, the convoluted excuses for presidential tyranny, the steady murmur of chin-stroking bullshit meant to comfort the comfortable elite and confirm them -- at all times, at any cost -- in their well-wadded self-righteousness? Surely, you would think, we have seen the worst.
If this was your thought, then alas, alas, alack the day, you were bitterly mistaken, my friend. Comes now before us the portly, fur-lipped figure of Thomas Friedman, Esq., who today has penned what must be the most morally hideous and deeply racist column ever to appear in those rarefied journalistic precincts: "Ten Months or Ten Years."
It seems that this very enthusiastic promoter of the unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq .. has now discovered that Iraqi Arabs are hopeless, worthless barbarians, broken by "1,000 years of Arab-Muslim authoritarianism" and can only be held together by an "iron fist." (He got all this from reading a new book, apparently. Well, a little literacy, like a little learning, is a dangerous thing, I reckon -- and as anyone who has ever exposed themselves to the dull, flat buzz of Friedman's prose can attest, his literacy is little indeed.)
In fact, the only thing America did wrong in its "effort to bring progressive politics or democracy to this region" was not coming down hard enough on this darky riff-raff: "Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course. But instead we created a vacuum by not deploying enough troops." Instead, we took it easy on them -- I mean, Jesus H. Jiminy Cricket Walker Christ, we only killed 600,000 of them; what kind of pussyfooting around is that? -- and look what happened. ....
Here we come to the corroded heart of the matter. Friedman, like all the pro-war "liberal hawks" who see aggressive war as the very best method of implanting "progressive politics or democracy" in benighted lands, is personally affronted by the Iraqis' ingratitude. They will not and cannot accept even the slightest implication that there was ever any flaw in their philosophy of benign bloodlust. (Bloodlust by proxy, of course, always by proxy! Goodness gracious granny me, you'd never see one of these paladins so much as muss their cuticles in the service of their noble ideals. That's what God made Mexicans and Salvadorans and white trash crackers for.) ...
They didn't want the "progressive politics or democracy" that I wanted to give them at gunpoint -- or with an "iron fist" -- and now the whole thing's just a hopeless mess. Hell, the Arabs are so goddamned stupid, says Tom, that they "can't even have a proper civil war. There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons — religion, crime, politics — that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable."
...Ah, but wise old Tom has a proposal to settle this problem -- a most condign punishment for the Arab trash who have so bitterly disappointed him. Friedman proposes -- seriously, one assumes, for surely nothing is more serious than Tom Friedman in full cry -- that we "re-invade" Iraq with 150,000 more troops...and this time really do a number on those recalcitrant tribes, do whatever "is necessary to crush the dark forces in Iraq" and pound some sense into them, or at least some obedience, with our big "iron fist."
.... Whatever is necessary. Whatever it takes. This is, I believe, what is technically known as the "Close Your Hearts to Pity" strategy, in honor of that great war-of-choicer who thus exhorted his officers as they stood poised on the Polish frontier back in the glorious days when men were men and an iron fist was an iron fist.
... [And] who can forget Tom's giddy cheerleading for the Clinton-Blair air war against the civilian population of Serbia? Who can forget his bone-chilling warning to the unruly Slavs in his classic 1999 column, "Give War a Chance," when he wrote: "Let's at least have a real war. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted...Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too."
...This, ladies and gentleman, is what passes for Establishment thought on the most respected newspaper in the land. This complete and utter moral perversion -- like unto an act of sexual congress with the beasts of the field -- is now the conventional wisdom of the chattering classes, the "public intellectuals," and the powerful elites whom they so cravenly serve. This blood-flecked drivel -- a precise echo of the genocidal fury being voiced on what once was once considered the lunatic fringes of the far right -- is now at the heart of American political life.
How many more people will have to die to keep the warmongers from colliding with the enormity of their crimes? What child will be ripped to shreds tonight -- and tomorrow night -- and every night afterward, for "ten months or ten years," to keep Thomas Friedman snug and cozy in the gilded palace of his endless self-regard?
Well, the answer to this, my friend, is not blowing in the wind: it's on the front page of the newspapers -- in fact, the New York Times -- every single day in this our most blessed progressive Peace Laureated era. In stories like this and this, and so many, many others.
Every day, every night, more human beings ripped to shreds to keep little Tommy and way-cool Barry and weird Uncle Newtie and all the rest snug and cozy in their pampered splendor.
William Pfaff casts a cold eye on the Peace Laureate's latest tinpot strutting in Australia:
One might think that a bitter Central Asian war in Afghanistan, spilling into Pakistan, with no sign of ending, and an as yet ambiguous military commitment to a defeated and incompletely reconstituted Iraq, now overshadowed by Iran and the Arab Awakening across the Middle East, would be enough for President Barack Obama to cope with.
Why then does he now want a war with China? No one seems to have made much of this in American press reports and comment, but others have noticed, most of all in China. His journey to Asia this month proclaimed a Pax Americana for Asia -- which as such is absurd. The effort is likely to become just the opposite: a steadily deepening and costly engagement in suppressing China's attempt to reclaim the Asian preeminence it held for more than a thousand years.
This is the sort of thing that starts world wars. Think of Hohenzollern, Germany, challenging British sea power before 1914. Think of Japan's long and bloody effort to make itself Asia's imperial power. Think of what it took for Napoleon to conquer Europe and much of the Mediterranean, and then what it took Britain, Russia, Spanish guerrilla-peasants, and assorted others to wear down and defeat Napoleon. The lesson is: Don't start wars with powers being driven by revolutionary enthusiasm or nationalism to claim -- or reclaim -- a place in the sun.
What is at stake between China and the United States? We are on the opposite sides of the world with next to nothing to fight about, except raw materials -- of which there still is a good deal available for all. Industrial domination of the world? What does that actually mean, and what is it worth? Bragging rights about who is top nation? That's what Washington seems to care about. If American leaders push that too far, they could end in a war that eliminates both from the competition ....
The president then went on to Canberra and signed an agreement with Australia to station 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia's Northern Territory (closest to mainland Asia). He said to the Australian Parliament that the United States is shifting its military weight from the Middle East to the Pacific, declaring in one of those "Let there be no doubt" phrases habitual to American presidents that "in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in."
Are we Americans really sure that we want to be "all in"? All in what? A war over China's claims on Taiwan and the South China Sea? Or over access to "rare earths"? Or over -- as just might happen -- a China reduced to ruins by revolutionary upheaval? Or, are Mr. Obama and the Washington elite looking for distraction from our own revolutionary unrest?
Pfaff's question is apt indeed: What is at stake between China and the United States? This could be asked about any aspect of America's aggressive and -- in Pfaff's apt phrase -- absurd foreign policy. And the answer would be the same: bragging rights and an utterly meaningless sense of "domination" -- a frantic, compulsive gnawing on tattered, bloodsoaked rags.
This is the squalid little madness that sits -- like a lonely, naked, fear-crazed imp -- at the hollow center of the vast machinery of empire. And the same imp squats in the souls of all our blustering, strutting elites. See through them; see through the bristling machinery, see through the self-regarding bluster, and see the crippled imp inside them, cringing and stupid, gnawing on rags.
The machinery is indeed formidable, murderous, and will yet inflict untold harm in many directions. But keep looking at the weak, curdled, blinded wretchedness in its center: that's the only thing holding the machinery together. That's the thing we have to overcome -- in the machine, in others, and in ourselves.
NOTE: How are these curdled wretches created? Arthur Silber has some insights: see this recent piece -- and follow the links! You might learn something.
I am glad to see the renewal of interest in "vulture funds," where predatory elites buy up bits of the debt of impoverished nations from various creditors – at pennies on the dollar – then use the courts of the 'developed,' 'civilised' world to force the debtor to cough up the full amount, plus punitive interest payments. The Guardian is running a series of articles on this heinous practice (here, here, here, here, here, here and here), and CounterPunch has a good piece as well.
I wrote about vulture funds back in 2007. This was one of the many posts which were destroyed in the many hack attacks on the website. So I'm taking the opportunity to re-post it full here, as background to the new push to combat these avid feasters on human misery.
Down By Law: Vulture Funds Feeding on the Dispossessed
I. The Lessons of Civilization
Every day, millions of people around the world are taught hard truths about how the instruments of "civilization" are used to help the powerful at the expense of the deprived. They see the brutal hypocrisy behind the soaring rhetoric of noblesse oblige that issues from the citadels of wealth and privilege. They see, and learn, that raw self-interest is the true coin of the global realm; they see it in the ruins of their own lives and in the blighted futures of their children. Is it any wonder, then, that many of them come to reject the putative offerings of civilization and embrace extremist or nihilistic or "asymmetrical" responses to their distress?
Every instance of systemic or institutional injustice contributes to the growing instability of the world community, to the violence and corruption and despair that howl outside the shrinking "Green Zones" of prosperity and security in the developed nations. This holds true at every level, from the vast and glaring crime of aggressive war, as in Iraq, to obscure rulings on arcane points of international finance – as in a London courtroom last month, when the British High Court upheld the right of a well-connected financial predator to feast on one of the world's poorest nations.
The case involved the little-known but highly lucrative world of "vulture funds" – or as its practitioners prefer to call it, the "secondary market in sovereign debt." It works like this: private investors buy up bits of the debt of impoverished nations from various creditors – at pennies on the dollar – then go to court to force the debtor to cough up the full amount, plus punitive interest payments. In the London case, a New York vulture named Michael Sheehan and his off-shore, UK-registered front company, Donegal International, were trying to turn a $.3.3 million debt purchase into a $55 million profit bonanza squeezed out of the Zambian people, some of the poorest on earth. Donegal won the case, even though Justice Andrew Smith ruled that Sheehan and one of his associates "were at times being deliberately evasive and even dishonest" in their testimony, as the Financial Times reports.
The amount Donegal is asking for would effectively wipe out the debt relief Zambia would have received this year from the deal signed at the famous "Live 8" summit in Scotland in 2005, when the G-8 nations agreed – amidst much harrumphing self-congratulation – to a large-scale debt relief and restructuring program for poorer countries. Zambia had earmarked the relief money for health programs and education, in a country where the life expectancy is 37, more than half a million children have been orphaned, and 1 in 5 adults have HIV, as Oxfam reports.
Justice Smith indicated that it is unlikely he will grant the company the full whack of $55 million when he makes his final ruling later this month; indeed, Smith made clear his distaste for the enterprise, but said current law compelled a ruling on behalf of the vultures. Even so, Sheehan and the boys will still walk away with a hefty profit – and many Zambians will die of disease or sink further into poverty and ignorance as a result. Meanwhile, some of Zambia's assets have been frozen until the final amount is set and the payoff to Donegal discharged, causing further financial distress to the poverty-wracked country, which is trying to emerge from the shadow of the corrupt and undemocratic regime that took on many of the onerous debts.
Although there are some novel elements to the Donegal-Zambia case, in many respects it is a typical example of how vulture funds use legal back alleys to profit from human misery. Donegal – a British Virgin Islands incorporation of Sheehan's U.S.-based firm, Debt Advisory International – uses all the tricks of the trade, including highly-placed political influence. For years, DAI paid huge fees to the lobbying firm of Jack Abramoff – the convicted wheeler-dealer at the center of the Republican Party's fund-raising (and fund-shuffling) apparatus, a man who had direct entrée to the White House before his current turn in prison stripes took him out of Beltway circulation.
And Donegal, like all vulture funds, preys on poor nations that are undergoing restructuring or forgiveness of debt. They pluck off small chunks of outstanding debt here and there – the Zambia case stemmed from Donegal's purchase of a 1979 loan from then-Communist Romania to Zambia to buy tractors – then, through the vagaries of financial law, they can hold up major debt relief until they reap vast profits from their miniscule share. Debtor nations are thus blackmailed into settling with the vultures in order to clear the way for large-scale initiatives like the G8 measures to take effect.
But Donegal's squeeze play on Zambia is actually rather mild compared to the operations of one of the giants in the field, a pioneer in global vulturing: Elliott Associates L.P., a New York-based hedge fund established by Paul Singer. In addition to managing $6 billion in assets for Elliott, Singer doubles as a major moneybags for the Republican Party. As Greg Palast reported last month on BBC's Newsnight, Singer has been George W. Bush's biggest donor in New York City – no mean feat among the Wall Street kingpins of whom Bush said in 2000: "Some people call you the elites; I call you my base." Singer has given Bush and the Republicans more than $1.7 million since that disputed 2000 race – and is now a top fundraiser for GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, promising to raise $15 million to put all of America on "Giuliani Time," as Palast reports.
Currently, Singer is hoping to litigate a $10 million purchase of Congo-Brazzaville debt into a $400 million payday – a magnificent profit to be wrung from the populace of yet another of the poorest nations on earth. And this latter point – the real targets of vulture funds – should be kept in mind For although it's true that the debts of these distressed nations are often run up by corrupt regimes – often in collusion with the lofty financial institutions of the civilized world, or with governments of the "developed" nations seeking political advantages for themselves or financial gain for their cronies – it is the ordinary people who pay the price when these bad debts come due.
But it was Singer's assault on Peru in 2000, with its hardball tactics of legally sanctioned extortion, that has proven to be the classic of the genre, clearing the path for a flock of vultures to swoop down from the financial heights and feed on the carcasses of ruined economies.
Singer put a new twist on an old piece of legal boilerplate – the "pari passu" clause – that had been part of debt instruments for more than a century, as Charles D. Schmerler notes in the New York Law Journal. The clause essentially means that all creditors of the debtor nation must be treated equally. When Peru, which had been devastated by the financial crises that shook global markets in the 1990s, struck a deal with governmental and private creditors that would allow it to manage some $3.7 billion in reduced debts, Singer – who had bought $20 million of Peruvian debt for $11 million on the secondary markets – refused to go along. Under pari passu, Singer said, it didn't matter that the other creditors were willing to restructure Peru's debt; he was their equal (despite the minor chunk he owned), and so his needs must also be met. After losing one round, he found friendly courts in America and Belgium that agreed and declared that Peru's debt relief program could not go through until Singer was paid – not just the $20 million he had purchased at knock-down prices, but an extra $38 million in capitalized interest as well. What's more, Peru's assets were frozen until the vulture got his feed. The country was unable to pay its other creditors under the $3.7 billion restructuring, and was thus in danger of defaulting on the new deal, which would have had catastrophic effects.
Peru fought the case but could make no headway against the multibillion-dollar deep pockets of Elliott Associates. Finally, just before defaulting, it bowed to main force and paid Singer the full $58 million. (The strongarm boodle arrived in Singer's coffers on October 7, 2000 – just in time for the home stretch of Bush's presidential run and the successful machinations that followed his second-place finish.) What's more, as Schmerler notes, the Elliott rulings have destabilized the entire structure of international debt relief, giving vultures a new weapon to hijack major restructuring programs and shake down cash-strapped debtors.
II. Broken Mercy
But let's be clear about one thing. What the vultures are doing is legal. They are building on two decades of precedents in which Western courts have "all but abandoned the protections against liability previously afforded sovereign (nations)," as Schmerler writes. "The debate now centers firmly on issues of enforcement."
And here we see financial law echoing long-running trends in foreign policy and domestic governance: first, the steady erosion of the idea of national sovereignty in the face of bristling official doctrines of military "pre-emption," then the equally relentless encroachment on individual liberties – personal sovereignty – in the Anglo-American "homelands." In these areas too, the debate centers firmly on "enforcement": What country do we strike next? Which freedom should we curtail now? Are there any limits to the powers of the "unitary executive" to spy and torture and jail indefinitely as he sees fit? The rise of the vultures is of a piece with this growing institutional bias toward authoritarianism and punishment. The quality of mercy is increasingly strained, often to the breaking point.
Taking advantage of this draconian zeitgeist, the vultures operate profitably in the moral murk that shrouds the system of international debt. As noted, the debts accrued by poor nations are often the result of foolish or venal choices by despots (and a willing lack of due diligence by lenders). But it is hard to prove that a given debt is, technically, an "odious debt" – financial obligations "knowingly contracted without the consent of a population and without benefit to it," as New York attorney Jeff King told me. Odious debts are more narrowly defined than vulture funds. But with the standard practice of "developed" governments pushing arms deals and cozy arrangements for cronies on corrupt or unstable Third World regimes, the line marking off "odious debt" is vague indeed.
"Vulture funds may be morally odious, but the debts they enforce are not necessarily odious debts," said King, a research fellow at the Center for International Sustainable Development Law. "For example, the original debts in the Donegal case were meant for the purchase of agricultural machinery from Romania for the use of Zambia, a seeming benefit. Zambia later defaulted on that debt, and Romania sold it to Donegal."
Ironically, Donegal stepped in to buy the debt just before Zambia itself was about to redeem it. The original 1979 debt had a face value of $15 million; Romania had agreed to accept $3 million for it in 1999. Then Donegal intervened, offering approximately $3.3 million for the debt. In last week's court hearing, Zambia – whose case, in a further irony, was argued by Tony Blair's older brother, William – charged that "Donegal's local agent had bribed civil servants to pass the debt to Donegal rather than allowing Zambia to pay it off at a heavily discounted rate to Romania," the FT reports. But the court ultimately rejected the bribery charges.
"Thus the debt generated legally by Donegal was itself not necessarily odious in the technical sense," King said. "The moral outrage generated by this case is that Donegal seeks to realize an enormous profit at the expense of Zambia's desperate population."
That indeed is the crux of the matter: the disparity between the legality of vulture funds and the immorality of their pernicious effects on the world's most vulnerable people. It is this brutal disparity that teaches the dispossessed of the world the true meaning of the fine words that flow from the mouths of the powerful. "Blowback" doesn't always come from the launching of reckless wars or other high-profile depredations; it can also come from the sight of one's child dying of a preventable disease, while the guardians of civilization reward predators armed with the rule of law.
I had the pleasure and privilege of doing an interview with Cindy Sheehan on her radio show not long ago. She is, of course, one of the original modern 'Occupiers,' having "occupied" public space outside the fake dude ranch of George W. Bush (and other spaces) in the heroic attempt to force the twerpish little errand boy of empire to explain why America was waging aggressive war in Iraq -- a war that took the life of Sheehan's son, and shocked her into the life of dissent and activism that she carries on, bravely, today.
The interview can be heard here. I don't know how interesting or even coherent it is on my part. It was recorded the night my father died, a few hours before he slipped away. (I had already booked my overseas flight to say goodbye; I didn't make it.) But I do remember that Cindy had many good insights to offer, so it should be worth hearing for that, at least.
This also happens to be my swan song on radio. It's not a forum that I've ever been comfortable with or good at, so after years of blathering on nervously to hosts who were almost always more interesting and informed than I was (like Cindy or Scott Horton at Antiwar.com), I've decided to hang it up at last. Anyway, here it is. And many thanks to Cindy for having me on the show.Add a comment
A billionaire media baron presiding over a deeply corrupt plutocratic government -- no, not Berlusconi; Bloomberg -- has swept in to crush a small protest movement that dared question the legitimacy and efficacy of the ruling oligarchy. The 'ideological cleansing' of Zuccotti Park -- in the dead of night, with no warning, by hordes of heavily armed police, and the press literally penned up far from the action, all in the classic police-state style to which most Americans seem happily habituated -- is a temporary setback to the Occupy movement in New York.
But over in London, where -- at this writing at least -- the Occupiers are still firmy ensconced before St. Paul's Cathedral, John Gray has some thoughts on the movement's implications. From the Guardian:
The Occupy movements have been attacked for being impractical visionaries. In fact it is the established political classes of the west that are wedded to utopian thinking, while the protesters are recalling us to the actualities of human experience. Based on economic theories that left out human beings, the global free market was supposed to be self-regulating. Now a process of disintegration is under way, in which the structures set up in the post-cold-war period are visibly breaking up.
Anyone with a smattering of history could see that the hubristic capitalism of the past 20 years was programmed to self-destruct. The notion that the world's disparate societies could be corralled into a worldwide free market was always a dangerous fantasy. Opening up economies throughout the world meant ordinary people were more directly exposed to the gyrations of market forces than they had been for generations. As it overthrew existing patterns of life and robbed large numbers of people of any security they might have achieved, global capitalism was bound to trigger a powerful blowback.
For as long as it was able to engineer an illusion of increasing prosperity, free-market globalisation was politically invulnerable. When the bubble burst, the actual condition of the majority was laid bare. In the US a plantation-style economy has come into being, with debt-servitude for the many coexisting with extremes of volatile wealth for the few. In Europe the muddled dream of a single currency has resulted in social devastation in Greece, mass unemployment in Spain and other countries, and even, for some, reversion to a life based on barter: sucking society into a vortex of debt deflation, austerity policies are driving a kind of reverse economic development. In many countries a settled bourgeois existence – supposedly the basis of popular capitalism – has become an impossible aspiration. Large numbers are edging closer to poverty and a life without hope. ...
The demands of the Occupy movement may be inchoate, or else conflicting. But it is not the protesters who threaten the world economy. The danger comes from denying the fact of systemic crisis. By trying to prop up a system that is chronically dysfunctional, our rulers are making a cataclysmic collapse more likely. ...The people camped outside St Paul's may have no clear solutions. But it is they – not ruling elites in thrall to a defunct market utopia – who are engaging with reality.
** Photos of Occupy London site by Avalon Floyd.Add a comment
My old Moscow Times colleague, Matt Taibbi, has this to say about Occupy Wall Street:
I have a confession to make. At first, I misunderstood Occupy Wall Street ... there were scads of progressive pundits like me who wrung our hands with worry that OWS was playing right into the hands of assholes like Krauthammer. Don't give them any ammunition! we counseled. Stay on message! Be specific! We were all playing the Rorschach-test game with OWS, trying to squint at it and see what we wanted to see in the movement. Viewed through the prism of our desire to make near-term, within-the-system changes, it was hard to see how skirmishing with cops in New York would help foreclosed-upon middle-class families in Jacksonville and San Diego.
What both sides missed is that OWS is tired of all of this. They don't care what we think they're about, or should be about. They just want something different.
We're all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive. We see 10 million commercials a day, and every day is the same life-killing chase for money, money and more money; the only thing that changes from minute to minute is that every tick of the clock brings with it another space-age vendor dreaming up some new way to try to sell you something or reach into your pocket. The relentless sameness of the two-party political system is beginning to feel like a Jacob's Ladder nightmare with no end; we're entering another turn on the four-year merry-go-round, and the thought of having to try to get excited about yet another minor quadrennial shift in the direction of one or the other pole of alienating corporate full-of-shitness is enough to make anyone want to smash his own hand flat with a hammer.
If you think of it this way, Occupy Wall Street takes on another meaning. There's no better symbol of the gloom and psychological repression of modern America than the banking system, a huge heartless machine that attaches itself to you at an early age, and from which there is no escape. ...
That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.
There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.
But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.
We're a nation that was built on a thousand different utopian ideas, from the Shakers to the Mormons to New Harmony, Indiana. It was possible, once, for communities to experiment with everything from free love to an end to private property. But nowadays even the palest federalism is swiftly crushed. If your state tries to place tariffs on companies doing business with some notorious human-rights-violator state – like Massachusetts did, when it sought to bar state contracts to firms doing business with Myanmar – the decision will be overturned by some distant global bureaucracy like the WTO. Even if 40 million Californians vote tomorrow to allow themselves to smoke a joint, the federal government will never permit it. And the economy is run almost entirely by an unaccountable oligarchy in Lower Manhattan that absolutely will not sanction any innovations in banking or debt forgiveness or anything else that might lessen its predatory influence.
...People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes. I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation. Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn't need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.
Or as I said a few weeks ago, here:
... I will say that I've been surprised by the hostile reaction of many who count themselves rock-ribbed dissidents against the imperial warmaking corporcracy to a movement that is doing what so many dissidents have dreamed of for years: refusing to acknowledge the system's authority and legitimacy, and exploring alternatives to the rapacious, bloodsoaked brutality of our global elites.
As for me -- and again, this is just my personal opinion -- I'm glad about the Occupy movement. I'm glad to see sparks and glimmers and partial, provisional expressions of some of my own most deeply held principles showing up here and there on the streets of the world. I hope the movement keeps growing, I hope it stays chaotic -- I hope it gets even weirder. I hope it continues to make the comfortable uncomfortable, to the greatest degree possible. ...
The Occupation movement, which has erupted across the world this year -- and is now spreading through the United States from the epicenter of Wall Street -- is not the Sixties come again. It might, in small part, build upon some of the fragments left by that now long-dimmed eruption -- and others that came before it in history. After all, as the Preacher says, there is nothing new under the sun. But of course to the young, everything is authentically, genuinely, thrillingly new: a leap into the unknown, exhilarating, bewildering, vivid.
Yet whatever it antecedents, the Occupation movement is in essence, and in practice, very much its own thing, its own moment, its own upsurging through the silt into the open air. It will make its own breakthroughs, its own spectacular mistakes, its own many permutations, all formed by the younger generation's unique experiencing of the world -- which older generations can never fully know, having been formed in a different time, under different conditions.
Today, due to the intolerable pressures from the heaped-up follies and failures of the past, the times have been torn open in a special way, and there is now a chance for new energies, new approaches and understandings to pour in. It's time for us, the older generations, to give way to this new energy -- supporting and helping it as far as we are able, but with the realization that it is not ours to direct or shape or scold or instruct ....
We have had our future, but it's over; we have used it up, and, in so many ways, botched and wasted it; the future now belongs to the young. The kairotic moment of the Occupation movement is theirs, to make of it what they can. It won't be easy -- it may be more difficult, even more horrific than anyone can envision, as the powers that be strike back with growing force against this unexpected, leaderless, shape-shifting challenge to the dead hand of their corrupt dominion. The dangers are great; but this moment -- this opening, this rip in time -- is alive with rare promise.
And finally, just for the hell of it, and because I mean it, I'll say this again:
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Thomas Jones, at LRB, says what I wanted to say about the exit of the plutocratic goon Silvio Berlusconi from his post as Italian prime minister:
At last Berlusconi has said he’ll step down. It should be a good day for Italian democracy. Except that – assuming he really does go – Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister will have been finally driven from office not for corruption, croneyism, tax evasion or colluding with the mafia; not for the conflict of interests between his media empire and his political position; not for having presided over years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and crumbling public services, and otherwise generally enriching himself at (almost) everyone else’s expense; not for his outspoken xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; and not even for having sex with underage prostitutes; but because the EU, the IMF and the bond markets think he can’t be trusted to push through the austerity regime they want Italy to enforce, which will almost certainly make everything even worse.
Exactly. Berlusconi's fate was sealed when Italian bonds broke the 7 percent mark, thereby threatening to lower, slightly, the gargantuan profit margins of the rapacious speculators who gorge themselves on chaos and suffering. The high crimes and low comedy (to coin a phrase) of his years in power never troubled the great and good (such as the saintly Tony Blair, who used to fly down for personal holidays with the Big Bunga-Bunga); but put a crimp in their bottom lines, and see how fast they turn on you.
Now the Italian government is to be led by a "technocrat" -- i.e., an unelected apparatchik of the global financial elite. Just as in Greece, where a regime change was imposed after the elected leader had the temerity -- the unmitigated gall -- to suggest asking the Greek people if they approved the savage gutting of their society to preserve the profits of our gilded gorgers. Democracy -- in Greece? Outrageous! Well, he's gone now, and an American-educated elitist apparatchik has been appointed -- not elected -- in his place. It's the very latest in "managed democracy": no muss, no fuss, no messy voting!
This kind of thing couldn't happen in the United States, of course. Next year, Americans will proudly uphold their ancient principles of popular democracy by going to the polls and ... er ... choosing between two apparatchiks of the financial elite to serve as lackey-in-chief of the plutocracy. Pericles must be proud.Add a comment
One day several years ago, I was killing time -- and trying to cool my nerves -- before a job interview. I was wandering in a bookstore, leafing idly through this book and that, when I came across a slim volume called "Responsibility to Awe." It was poetry by someone named Rebecca Elson.
I read a few of the poems, and liked them. Then I looked at the back and saw that she had died not long before, at 39, of lymphoma. This had special resonance to me, for personal reasons, but other parts of her biography were striking as well. She had been an astronomer, born in Canada and ending her career at Cambridge. She studied "dark matter," the invisible, mysterious substance -- known only by inference from its effects on other matter -- which is believed to make up the bulk of the universe, holding it together. And, as the book bio said, her work "also focused on globular clusters, teasing out the history of stellar birth, life and death."
I bought the book, which also contained a long section from her journals, and poems in manuscript, and other fragments. Not long after, this song came to me. I recorded the very rough sketch here in a back room a couple of years ago; one of these days, I'll do it up right maybe, and do her more justice.
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No more words, Rebecca,
From your mouth or your pen.
The sky is closed, Rebecca,
Those stars won't shine again.
It's all gone wrong, Rebecca,
But that's the way it always goes.
Give me your book, Rebecca,
And let me hold you close.
Another man, Rebecca,
Knew the lightning in your eyes.
He felt your heart beneath him
As it yearned toward the skies.
Now he's lost, Rebecca,
The silk has fallen through his hands.
The last wave, Rebecca,
Has washed it from the sands.
In the farthest reaches
Where the first ray of light
Sends its echo to us
Through the dark weight of night,
Are you there, Rebecca,
Like a fire in the mind,
In the sparks that glisten
On the water and the wine?
Hugh Roberts' new article in the London Review of Books is the best story I have yet read about the war of regime change in Libya. It is meticulously detailed, rich in context -- historical, cultural, political -- carefully measured and soberly expressed.
The article should be read in full -- anyone who cares at all about a deeper understanding of these events would be foolish to miss it -- but I want to highlight just one aspect: the deliberate falsehoods -- fanned by the media, including many "progressive" voices -- which were used as a justification for the Western military intervention.
Roberts first details how the Western powers and the Libyan rebels repeatedly rejected all opportunities for a ceasefire in the conflict -- despite the fact that a ceasefire was the first and chief demand of the UN resolution used as the authorization for the Western attacks:
Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. ...
London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers. The sight of representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonisation of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that would have ruled out violent – revolutionary? – regime change and so denied the Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring, and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped. The logic of the demonisation of Gaddafi ... meant that Gaddafi was banished for ever from the realm of international political discourse, never to be negotiated with, not even about the surrender of Tripoli when in August he offered to talk terms to spare the city further destruction, an offer once more dismissed with contempt. And this logic was preserved from start to finish, as the death toll of civilians in Tripoli and above all Sirte proves. The mission was always regime change, a truth obscured by the hullabaloo over the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi.
Here Roberts gets to the crux of the matter: the lie that launched the wider war.
The official version is that it was the prospect of a ‘second Srebrenica’ or even ‘another Rwanda’ in Benghazi were Gaddafi allowed to retake the city that forced the ‘international community’ (minus Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Turkey et al) to act. What grounds were there for supposing that, once Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Benghazi, they would be ordered to embark on a general massacre?
Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.
There was no question of anything that could properly be described as ethnic cleansing or genocide in the Libyan context. All Libyans are Muslims, the majority of Arab-Berber descent, and while the small Berber-speaking minority had a grievance concerning recognition of its language and identity (its members are Ibadi, not Sunni, Muslims), this was not what the conflict was about. The conflict was not ethnic or racial but political, between defenders and opponents of the Gaddafi regime; whichever side won could be expected to deal roughly with its adversaries, but the premises for a large-scale massacre of civilians on grounds of their ethnic or racial identity were absent. All the talk about another Srebrenica or Rwanda was extreme hyperbole clearly intended to panic various governments into supporting the war party’s project of a military intervention in order to save the rebellion from imminent defeat.
Why did the panic factor work so well with international, or at any rate Western, public opinion and especially governments? ... I believe the answer is that Gaddafi had already been so thoroughly demonised that the wildest accusations about his likely (or, as many claimed, certain) future conduct would be believed whatever his actual behaviour. This demonisation took place on 21 February, the day all the important cards were dealt.
On 21 February the world was shocked by the news that the Gaddafi regime was using its airforce to slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities. The main purveyor of this story was al-Jazeera, but the story was quickly taken up by the Sky network, CNN, the BBC, ITN et al. Before the day was over the idea of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya was widely accepted, as was the idea of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, freezing Libya’s assets and referring Gaddafi and his associates to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. Resolution 1970 was duly passed five days later and the no-fly zone proposal monopolised international discussion of the Libyan crisis from then on.
Many other things happened on 21 February. ...The minister of justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, resigned ... Two airforce pilots flew their fighters to Malta claiming they did so to avoid carrying out an order to bomb and strafe demonstrators. By late afternoon regime troops and snipers were reliably reported to be firing on crowds in Tripoli. ... The European Union condemned the repression, followed by Ban Ki-moon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Ten Egyptians were reported to have been killed by armed men in Tobruk. William Hague, who had condemned the repression the previous day (as had Hillary Clinton), announced at a press conference that he had information that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was en route to Venezuela. The Libyan ambassador to Poland stated that defections from the armed forces as well as the government could not be stopped and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. Numerous media outlets carried the story that Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, had joined the rebellion.
Libya’s ambassadors to Washington, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia all resigned, and its deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rounded off the day by calling a news conference at Libya’s mission in New York and claimed that Gaddafi had ‘already started the genocide against the Libyan people’ and was flying in African mercenaries. It was Dabbashi more than anyone else who, having primed his audience in this way, launched the idea that the UN should impose a no-fly zone and the ICC should investigate Gaddafi’s ‘crimes against humanity and crimes of war’.
At this point the total death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400 (but it also announced the same day that Sirte had fallen to the rebels). We can compare these figures with the total death toll in Tunisia (300) and Egypt (at least 846). We can also compare both HRW’s and FIDH’s figures with the death toll, plausibly estimated at between 500 and 600, of the seven days of rioting in Algeria in October 1988, when the French government rigorously refrained from making any comment on events. But the figures were beside the point on 21 February; it was impressions that counted. The impression made by the story that Gaddafi’s airforce was slaughtering peaceful protesters was huge, and it was natural to take the resignations of Abdul Jalil and the ambassadors, the flight of the two pilots, and especially Dabbashi’s dramatic declaration about genocide as corroborating al-Jazeera’s story.
Goodies and baddies (to use Tony Blair’s categories) had been clearly identified, the Western media’s outraged attention totally engaged, the Security Council urgently seized of the matter, the ICC primed to stand by, and a fundamental shift towards intervention had been made – all in a matter of hours. And quite right too, many may say. Except that the al-Jazeera story was untrue, just as the story of the Warfalla’s siding with the rebellion was untrue and Hague’s story that Gaddafi was fleeing to Caracas was untrue. And, of course, Dabbashi’s ‘genocide’ claim was histrionic rubbish which none of the organisations with an interest in the use of the term was moved to challenge. [Italics added.]
These considerations raise awkward questions. If the reason cited by these ambassadors and other regime personnel for defecting on 21 February was false, what really prompted them to defect and make the declarations they did? What was al-Jazeera up to? And what was Hague up to? A serious history of this affair when more evidence comes to light will seek answers to these questions. But I don’t find it hard to understand that Gaddafi and his son should suddenly have resorted to such fierce rhetoric. They clearly believed that, far from confronting merely ‘innocent demonstrators’ as the Canadians had it, they were being destabilised by forces acting to a plan with international ramifications. It is possible that they were mistaken and that everything was spontaneous and accidental and a chaotic muddle; I do not pretend to know for sure. But there had been plans to destabilise their regime before, and they had grounds for thinking that they were being destabilised again. The slanted coverage in the British media in particular, notably the insistence that the regime was faced only by peaceful demonstrators when, in addition to ordinary Libyans trying to make their voices heard non-violently, it was facing politically motivated as well as random violence (e.g. the lynching of 50 alleged mercenaries in al-Baida on 19 February), was consistent with the destabilisation theory. And on the evidence I have since been able to collect, I am inclined to think that destabilisation is exactly what was happening.
The evidence is indeed compelling on this point. Most of the people making these initial accusations almost certainly knew they were false, and part of a wider agenda of regime change. These noxious seeds of deceit very quickly bore fruit in the work of credulous commentators, including the influential progressive, Juan Cole, as Roberts reports:
In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens.
The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue. But as Mohammed Khider, one of the founders of the FLN, once remarked, ‘when everyone takes up a falsehood, it becomes a reality.’ The rush to regime change by war was on and could not be stopped.
As I said, there is much more to the article, extending far beyond the headlines of the recent upheaval. But this sorry episode takes on heightened importance as the world enters yet another round of ratcheted-up tensions based on hearsay, exaggeration, supposition -- and outright, deliberate deceit -- aimed at instigating violent regime change in Iran.Add a comment