1. The Western intervention in Ukraine has now led the region to the brink of war. Political opposition to government of President Viktor Yanukovych -- a corrupt and thuggish regime, but as with so many corrupt and thuggish regimes one sees these days, a democratically elected one -- was funded in substantial part by organizations of or affiliated with the U.S. government, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (a longtime vehicle for Washington-friendly coups), and USAID. It also received substantial financial backing from Western oligarchs, such as billionaire Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and sole bankroller of the new venue for "adversarial" journalism, First Look, as Pandodaily reports.
Yanukovych sparked massive protests late last year when he turned down a financial deal from the European Union and chose a $15 billion aid package from Russia instead. The EU deal would have put cash-strapped Ukraine in a financial straitjacket, much like Greece, without actually promising any path for eventually joining the EU. There was one other stipulation in the EU's proffered agreement that was almost never reported: it would have also forbidden Ukraine to "accept further assistance from the Russians," as Patrick Smith notes in an important piece in Salon.com. It was a ruthless take-it-or-leave-it deal, and would have left Ukraine without any leverage, unable to parlay its unique position between East and West to its own advantage in the future, or conduct its foreign and economic policies as it saw fit. Yanukovych took the Russian deal, which would have given Ukraine cash in hand immediately and did not come with the same draconian restrictions.
It was a policy decision. It might have been the wrong policy decision; millions of Ukrainians thought so. Yanukovych, already unpopular before the deal, would have almost certainly been ousted from office by democratic means in national elections scheduled for 2015. But the outpouring of displeasure at this policy decision grew into a call for the removal of the government. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Washington was maneuvering to put their preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatseniuk, in charge of the Ukrainian government, as a leaked tape of a conversation between Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, and Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, clearly showed. It is worth noting that when Yanukovych was finally ousted from power -- after the opposition reneged on an EU-brokered deal for an interim unity government and new elections in December -- Arseniy Yatseniuk duly took charge of the Ukrainian government, as planned.
By all accounts, Viktor Yanukovych was an unsavoury character running an unsavoury government, backed by unsavoury oligarchs exploiting the country for their own benefit, and leaving it unnecessarily impoverished and chaotic. In this, he was not so different from his predecessors, or from many of those who have supplanted him, who also have oligarchic backing and dubious connections (see addendum below). But in any case, the idea of supporting an unconstitutional overthrow of a freely elected Ukrainian government in an uprising based squarely on the volatile linguistic and cultural fault-lines that divide the country seems an obvious recipe for chaos and strife. It was also certain to provoke a severe response from Russia. It was, in other words, a monumentally stupid line of policy (as Mike Whitney outlines here). Smith adds:
[U.S.] foreign policy cliques remain wholly committed to the spread of the neo-liberal order on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions. This is American policy in the 21st century. No one can entertain any illusion (as this columnist confesses to have done) that America’s conduct abroad stands any chance of changing of its own in response to an intelligent reading of the emerging post–Cold War order. Imposing “democracy,” the American kind, was the American story from the start, of course, and has been the mission since Wilson codified it even before he entered the White House. When the Cold War ended we began a decade of triumphalist bullying — economic warfare waged as “the Washington Consensus” — which came to the same thing.
American policy is based upon -- dependent upon -- a raging, willful, arrogant ignorance of other peoples, other cultures, history in general, and even the recent history of U.S. policy itself. The historical and cultural relationships between Ukraine and Russia are highly complex. Russia takes its national identity from the culture that grew up around what is now Kyiv; indeed, in many respects, Kyiv is where "Russia" was born. Yet one of the first acts of the Western-backed revolutionaries was to pass a law declaring Ukrainian as the sole state language, although most of the country speaks Russian or Surzhyk, "a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish)," as the LRB's Peter Pomerantsev details in an excellent piece on Ukraine's rich cultural and linguistic complexity. This is not to say that Ukrainians are not justified in being wary of Russia's embrace. Millions of Ukrainians died in the 1930s from the famine caused by inhuman policies imposed by a Moscow government (although that government was itself headed by a Georgian, in the name of a trans-national ideology). The complexity and volatility is always there. Today, as Smith puts it, "many Ukrainians see room for closer relations with the West; the more sensible seem to favor a variant of “third way” thinking, no either/or frame. Many fewer desire a decisive break with Russia."
Yet at every turn, the new Western-backed government in Kyiv has stomped hard on these volatile fault-lines, pushing stringent anti-Russian policies, with Western governments pretending that this would have no consequences, no reverberations in Moscow. What's more, the neo-fascist factions that played a leading role in the uprising are now calling for Ukraine to become a nuclear power again, having given up the Soviet nuclear weaponry on its territory in 1994. Indeed, hard-right leader Oleh Tyahnybok made nuclear re-armament one of the planks of his presidential race a few years ago. Now the party is sharing power in the Western-brokered government; will we soon see Ukraine added to the ranks of nuclear nations? With a bristling nuclearized frontier with Russia -- like the hair-trigger holocaust flashpoint between India and Pakistan?
Again we see the blind stupidity of arrogance, of entitlement, as the "Washington consensus" of elitist neo-liberalism continues its blundering away around the world.
2. Now we stand on the brink of war over Crimea. Here too there are historical complexities entirely ignored by the media narrative. The Crimea was not considered part of Ukraine until it was simply tranferred by administrative edict in 1954 by the Soviet government, removing it from the Russian "socialist republic" to the jurisdiction of the Ukranian "socialist republic." When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Crimea became an autonomous republic operating under the constitution of Ukraine. Its population is about 60 percent Russian, yet this majority has had its language stripped of official status by the government in Kyiv which took power outside of constitutional means.
None of this justifies the heavy-handed muscle-flexing that Putin has been engaging in. But Russia, in post-Soviet times, with no trans-national ideology, has become a highly nationalist state. Putin is an authoritarian leader who now bases his threadbare claims to "legitimacy" -- and the dominance of his brutal clique -- on his championing of Russian nationalism and "traditional values". It is inconceivable that he would not consider the West's blatant interference in Ukraine to be an act of provocation and brinkmanship aimed at him and his regime, and that he would react accordingly.
So here we are. Chaos, strife, the threat of war -- and the heavy smoke of ignorance covering it all. Sleepwalking once more toward disaster. Deliberately setting tumultuous events in motion without the slightest concern for their ultimate consequences, or the suffering they will cause, now and perhaps for generations to come. (Think of Iraq, for example, or the spread of violence and chaos that has already flowed to many countries from the intervention in Libya's internal affairs.)
But why are we here? Greed. Greed and the lust for dominance. Let's not say "power," for that word carries positive connotations, and can also include an element of responsibility. But the oligarchs and ideologues, the militarists and ministers involved in this episode of Great Gamesmanship don't want power in any broader, deeper sense. What they want is dominance, to lord it over others -- physically, financially, psychologically. Among those at the top in this situation, on every side, there is not the slightest regard for the common good of their fellow human beings -- not even for those with whom they share some association by the accident of history or geography: language, nationality, ethnicity. The lust for loot and dominance outweighs all the rest, regardless of the heavy piety oozing from the rhetoric on all sides.
And if war is avoided, what is the likely outcome for Ukraine (aside from living in eternal tension with an enraged, threatened, authoritarian neighbor to the North)? Smith tells us: betrayal.
Instantly after Yanukovych was hounded from Kiev, seduction began its turn to betrayal. The Americans and Europeans started shuffling their feet as to what they would do for Ukrainians now that Russia has shut off the $15 billion tap. Nobody wants to pick up the bill, it turns out. Washington and the E.U. are now pushing the International Monetary Fund forward as the leader of a Western bailout.If the past is any guide, Ukrainians are now likely to get the "shock therapy" the economist Jeffrey Sachs urged in Russia, Poland and elsewhere after the Soviet Union's collapse. Sachs subsequently (and dishonestly) denied he played any such role -- understandable given the calamitous results, notably in Russia -- but the prescription called for off-the-shelf neoliberalism, applied without reference to any local realities, and Ukrainians are about to get their dosage.
It is wrong, as ahistorical thinking always is. Formerly communist societies, especially in the Eastern context, should logically advance first to some form of social democracy and then decide if they want to take things further rightward. Washington;s fear, evident throughout the Cold War, was that social democracies would demonstrate that they work -- so presenting a greater threat, paradoxically, than the Soviet model. Ukrainians favoring the Westward tilt, having idealized the E.U., appear to assume they are to evolve into some system roughly between the Scandinavians and Germany, as East Europeans earlier anticipated. They will thus find the I.M.F.'s deal shocking indeed. It will be bitter, after all the treacherous, carefully couched promises.
Whatever happens, it seems certain that oligarchs -- Western, Ukrainian, European or Russian, will continue to exercise dominance -- although some who backed the losing side too prominently may be cast down. Then again, most oligarchs, in every nation, are usually expert at playing both sides, or changing sides as necessary.
One is tempted to see this principle at work in the case of Pierre Omidyar, a prominent private backer of American efforts to fund and guide the Ukrainian opposition to power, as Pandodaily reported. Omidyar, who founded eBay and now owns PayPal, has recently become widely known -- and universally lauded -- for committing $250 million to fund First Look, a publishing group dedicated to adversarial journalism. He has assembled an all-star team for his venture, including Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, Marcy Wheeler and others of similar reputation. It is no exaggeration to say that he has become a bonafide hero of the left, which has tended to dismiss all criticism or questioning of his new enterprise, or his wider operations, as the grumbling of jealous losers -- or even as covert actions of the State, trying to derail this dangerous new threat to elite rule.
Yet the fact remains that Omidyar's wider operations -- including those in Ukraine -- sit uneasily with the image of an adversarial paragon and danger to the system. Putting aside the troubling circumstance of adversarial activism being dependent on the personal whims of a billionaire, there is the fact that Omidyar's philanthropic vision lies largely in the monetizing of poverty relief efforts -- of turning them from charitable or government-based programs into money-making enterprises which reward investors with high returns while often leaving the recipients worse off than before. As nsfwcorp.com reports, these include micro-financing initiatives in India that have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor, and "entrepreneurial" programs which bestow property rights on the small plots of slum-dwellers -- who, still in dire straits, sell them, for a pittance, to large-scale operators who then clear the ghettos for profitable developments, leaving the poor to find another shanty-town elsewhere. In this, Omidyar has partnered with Hernando de Soto, a right-wing "shock doctrinaire" and one-time advisor to former Peruvian dictator, Alberto Fujimori; de Soto is also an ally of the Koch Brothers. Omidyar has also poured millions of dollars into efforts to privatize, and profitize, public education in the United States and elsewhere, forcing children in some of the poorest parts of the world to pay for basic education -- or go without.
Thus Omidyar seems very much a part of the "neo-liberal order" which, as Patrick Smith noted above, the United States has been pushing "on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions." So it is not surprising to see him playing a role in trying to spread this order to Ukraine, in tandem with the overt efforts and backroom machinations of the U.S. government. Omidyar is, openly, a firm adherent of the neo-liberal order -- privitazing public assets for individual profit, converting charity and state aid to profitable enterprises for select investors, and working to elect or install governments that support these policies.
None of these activities are illegal. None of them necessarily preclude him also funding independent journalism. But I can't see that it is unreasonable to bring up these facts and point them out. I don't think it's unreasonable to apply the same kind of considered skepticism toward this billionaire oligarch that you would apply to any other. For instance, if one of First Look's websites publishes some blistering expose on the nasty machinations of some other oligarch or corporate figure, I don't think it will be unreasonable for people to look and see if the target happens to be a rival of Omidyar's in some way, or if his or her removal or humbling would benefit Omidyar's own business or political interests. One does the same with the New York Times and its obvious pro-Establishment agenda, or with Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, and so on; the wider context helps the reader put articles in perspective, and weigh them accordingly. It doesn't mean the facts of this or that particular story are untrue; it does mean they aren't swallowed whole, uncritically, without awareness of other agendas that might be in play.
This seems so elementary that it's almost embarrassing to point it out. Yet for the most part, anyone who raises these kinds of questions about Omidyar's media enterprise has been immediately shouted down, sometimes vociferously, by those who otherwise evince a savvy skepticism toward Big Money and its agendas. Many of those assailing the Pandodaily report about Omidyar and Ukraine pointed out that "this is the world we live in" -- a world dominated by Big Money -- and you have to make the best of a bad lot. And anyway, news outlets have always been owned by rich and powerful interests, and First Look is no different.
Well yes, exactly. And thus First Look -- owned solely by a neo-liberal billionaire, who, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, takes a very active interest in the daily workings of his news organization -- should be subject to the same standards of scrutiny as any other news outlet owned by the rich and powerful. But this doesn't seem to be happening; quite the opposite, in fact.
I think perhaps there might be a category mistake at work here. Because of the reputations of those who have signed up with Omidyar, the idea has taken hold that Omidyar is dedicated to throwing a broad light on the secret machinations of the national security state and its imperialist rampages around the world. But Scahill's statement intimates that Omidyar's "vision" is actually much more limited. The interview that Scahill gave to the Daily Beast, quoted by Pandodaily, is quite revealing. Below is an excerpt, somewhat longer than the Pando quote:
The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media. Omidyar, he says, wanted to do the project because he was interested in Fourth Amendment issues, and they are hiring teams of lawyers, not just to keep the staff from getting sued, but to actively push courts on the First Amendment, to “force confrontation with the state on these issues.”
“[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.”
Omidyar is passionately concerned about government encroachments on privacy, Scahill says, while noting -- somewhat ominously -- that the enterprise will have "a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media." You might think this would set off alarm bells in a longtime adversarial journalist like Scahill, but apparently not. In any case, Omidyar's entire neo-liberal ideology is based on the ability of wealthy individuals to operate free from government control as they circle the world in search of profit. (And also, if it happens, some social benefits by the way; but if one's profit-making initiatives turn out to drive hundreds of people to suicide, well, c'est la vie, eh?) Naturally, wealthy individuals also want to be free from government spying as they go about their business. They are happy to cooperate with the National Security State when there is mutual benefit to be had, as with Omidyar and his government partners in Ukraine -- but they want it to be on their terms. They want their own information to remain within their control. The overthrow of foreign governments, the invasion of foreign lands, the extrajudicial murder of people around the world, the militarization of American policy and society -- this does not really concern them. In fact, it helps them expand the parameters of their business and extend their neoliberal ideology. But the idea that the government might also be spying on them -- well, this is intolerable. This must be resisted, there must be a "confrontation" about such behavior.
I'm sure the writers hired by Omidyar's quarter of a billion dollars will produce work of value, dig up some useful facts. So does the Times, so does the now oligarch-owned Washington Post, so do Murdoch's papers on occasion. But I don't think Omidyar's enterprise has been set up to challenge the status quo or pose the "threat" to the system that its hero-worshippers are looking for. Indeed, even Greenwald calls only for "reforms" of the system, for "real oversight" of the National Security State by legislators -- the same legislators bought, sold, cowed and dominated by Big Money. I honestly don't think that the powers-that-be feel threatened by an enterprise set up by one of their number that confines itself to calls for "reform" from "within" -- especially when its sole owner continues to cooperate with the Koch Brothers, hard-right ideologues like Hernando de Soto and indeed with the National Security State itself in subversive adventures overseas.
Omidyar's goals are limited: to protect the privacy of the individual from government. This is a noble, worthy aim. But based on his own actions, he is perfectly content for that privacy-protected individual to advance a punishing neo-liberal agenda on the rest of the world, and at home, in collusion with the National Security State if need be. Whether Greenwald, Scahill, Taibbi, Wheeler and the rest are equally content with this agenda is something we will find out in the months to come.
*** Addendum. Below is a passage cut out of the original text above, giving more detail on the opposition forces that the intervention by Omidyar and the U.S. government helped bring to power.
The occupation movement -- now the government -- is led by three main factions, one of which contains openly neo-fascist groups who -- while the protests were going on -- mounted a torchlight procession through the city of Lviv in honor of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian fascist leader who joined with Nazi invaders in World War II and took part in mass murders of Jews. As Max Blumenthal reports:
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate. ... Lviv has become the epicenter of neo-fascist activity in Ukraine, with elected Svoboda officials waging a campaign to rename its airport after Bandera and successfully changing the name of Peace Street to the name of the Nachtigall Battalion, an OUN-B wing that participated directly in the Holocaust. “’Peace’ is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes,” a Svoboda deputy explained. ...
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate.
Svoboda is the name of the top nationalist party. As Blumenthal notes:
Svoboda's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has called for the liberation of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” After the 2010 conviction of the Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk for his supporting role in the death of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor camp, Tyahnybok rushed to Germany to declare him a hero who was “fighting for truth.” In the Ukrainian parliament, where Svoboda holds an unprecedented 37 seats, Tyahnybok’s deputy Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn is fond of quoting Joseph Goebbels – he has even founded a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” .... Svoboda’s openly pro-Nazi politics have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a EuroMaidan rally alongside Tyahnybok, nor did it prevent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland from enjoying a friendly meeting with the Svoboda leader this February.
In a leaked phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland revealed her wish for Tyahnybok to remain “on the outside,” but to consult with the US’s replacement for Yanukovich, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “four times a week.” At a December 5, 2013 US-Ukraine Foundation Conference, Nuland boasted that the US had invested $5 billion to "build democratic skills and institutions" in Ukraine ...
As Smith puts it, the "the Nuland tape is the Rosetta Stone of the Ukrainian riddle. It was an early advisory that we were about to watch Washington at work corrupting the affairs of another nation, exactly as it has for the past 60–odd years elsewhere. Nothing new under the American sun, even as the afternoon light starts to fade."
Blumenthal has much more on the history of Ukrainian fascism, including the extensive and highly connected network established in American politics after WWII, when many of Bandera's party members -- Nazi collaborators and killers of Jews and Poles -- were funneled to the US, often with the CIA's help. He also notes that former Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, the Western-hailed hero of the "Orange Revolution" that brought regime change to Ukraine 10 years ago, had named Bandera "National Hero of Ukraine" in 2010.
The title of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story came to mind when I read of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust. She was 110, and grown up in Prague, where both Kafka and Mahler had been friends of her family. Herz-Sommer had gained some fame in her last years for her remarkable spirit, and her dedication to the music of Chopin, which helped sustain her during her time in a Nazi camp -- and probably saved her and her son from death.
She was in the "model" camp at Theresienstadt, used by the Nazis as a showcase for the Red Cross, to show their 'humane' treatment of prisoners. (Although the very fact of imprisoning, say, a young woman and her young child simply because they were Jewish perverts the very notion of "humane," however the prisoners might have been treated.) And of course,in reality, the regimen in Theresienstadt was harsh -- tens of thousands died there -- although it was lightened from time to time in preparation of a Red Cross visit.
Herz-Sommer was part of the camp orchestra. The New York Times recounts her experience with the orchestra, and how it saved her from the fate of many others in the camp, including her husband:
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
Thus she survived, due to the sentimental caprice of a Nazi officer, who had doubtless facilitated (or even directed) the transport of thousands of others to death camps. This is always the face of power, of dominance and control: we give, or we take away, we spare, or kill, at our own whim; there is nothing you can do about it.
By a bitter irony, the story about Herz-Sommers' death appeared on the NYT website alongside a story about the Obama Administration wrestling with the "thorny question" of whether they should murder an American citizen in cold blood or not. It was the usual fluffy "process piece," where White House insiders relay the thoughtfulness and moral struggle of the noble president and his death advisers as they pore over their "kill lists" each week. The Times has become the primary 'normalizer" of this unbelievably hideous, barbaric and inhumane practice, which of course extends not only to named, specific targets like the American in question here, but to unnamed, unknown individuals who are murdered by the president and his agents in "signature strikes," attacks based on certain ill-defined "behaviors" recorded by robot drones.
The president and his agents kill people -- or spare them -- without any due process of law, any oversight, without giving their victims a chance to defend themselves or even prepare themselves for death. They decide, they strike -- out of the blue, with drone missiles, inhuman, implacable, and very often killing other people in the vicinity of the impact. They kill in perfect safety, without the slightest threat to their own person, inviolable, completely dominant, striking down defenseless victims who have no power to strike back. In this they are no different from the officers in the Nazi camps.
It may be that on occasion President Obama is moved by a sentimental whim to spare some potential victim. Perhaps he's had a touching moment with one of his daughters at breakfast, or seen a photo that called up a piercing memory of his mother -- or perhaps he's just been listening to a piece of music that moved him. And so, on that particular "Terror Tuesday," when he sits down with advisers to go over the list of "extrajudicial killings" they should authorize that week, Obama hears the intelligence report on a target -- a young man, say, who had (allegedly) joined a jihadi group after his mother had died -- and, still under the influence of his sentimental mood, says, "Let's hold off on this one, fellas. Let's get a little more data on this." Thus the young man is spared, and they move on to other targets, most of whom are not so lucky, and are marked for death.
Obama and his advisors don't see themselves as monsters, any more than the Nazi officer who saved Herz-Sommer did. They see themselves, as he did, as moral men, carrying out difficult but necessary duties yet still retaining their humanity, their compassion, their capacity for kindness and empathy. But of course none of that matters. What matters is not how we regard ourselves, for good or ill, but how we actually treat others, the actuality of what we do.
History records saints of many religions who spent their entire lives in a paroxysm of self-hatred -- for their unseemly lusts, murderous rages, sickening thoughts and urges, their inner madness -- yet acted toward others with love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. If they acted with love, what did it matter what they might have felt or thought in the always-churning, flowing, passing mental and emotional streams that pass through our minds? And similarly, what does it matter how righteous and self-regarding we feel, how deeply we might be touched by some affecting situation or work of art, if our actions lead to evil?
The sentimentality of brutal power spared Herz-Sommer, but the life of deep meaning she made in the aftermath stands as a stark rebuke to the very notion of domination.
*** While writing this, I thought of another piece I did a while back that touched briefly on some of these themes -- the dichotomy between inner life and outward action, malevolent currents and ordinary goodness, etc. It even mentioned a 'grand lady' of ancient age. Of course this wasn't a reference to Herz-Sommer, but the piece did seem somewhat apt in this context, so here's a link.
It is no secret that Barack Obama is one of the supreme illusionists of modern times. The disconnect between his words and his deeds is so profound as to be almost sublime, far surpassing the crude obfuscations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Their projections of unreality were more transparent, and in any case were merely designed to put a little lipstick on the pig of policies they were openly pushing. For example, they openly wanted to conquer Iraq and expand the militarist state, they openly wanted to redistribute national wealth to the elite, so they just gussied up this unhidden agenda with some fantasies about WMD and the occult magic of "tax cuts," whereby enriching the rich and degrading all notion of the common good would somehow create a utopia of prosperity (for deserving white folk, at least).
There was a disconnect between their rhetoric and reality, to be sure, but it was easily seen through (except, of course, by the highly-paid credulous cretins of our national media). Indeed, the Bushists seemed unconcerned by how threadbare their lies were; they delivered their lines like bored performers at the end of a long stage run, not caring whether they were believed or not -- just as long as they got to do what they wanted.
But Obama has taken all this to another level. He is a consummate performer, and strives to "inhabit" the role and mouth his lines as if they make sense and convey some sort of emotional truth. Also, most of the time his rhetoric, his role, his emotional stance are in stark opposition to his actual policies. He is not just gilding his open agenda with some slap-dash lies; he is masking a hidden agenda with a vast array of artifice, expending enormous effort not to prettify an ugly reality but to create an entire counter-reality, an alternate world that does not exist. Again, no one one was in any doubt about the Bushists' militarism, their dedication to the financial elite or their disdain for anyone who was not, in their view, a "normal American" (white, traditionalist, bellicose, greedy). In fact, that's exactly why millions of "normal Americans" voted for them. But Obama's image -- cool, compassionate, progressive, peace-seeking, non-traditionalist, anti-elitist -- is so far at odds with his actual policies, and with the world as it actually exists, that you can get severe whiplash turning from his rhetoric to reality.
Take his astonishing attack on Vladimir Putin for "interfering" in Ukraine. That Obama could make this charge with a straight face -- days after his own agents had been exposed (in the infamous "Fuck the EU" tape) nakedly interfering in Ukraine, trying to overthrow a democratically elected government and place their own favorites in charge -- was brazen enough. But in charging Putin with doing exactly what the Americans have been doing in Ukraine, Obama also fabricated yet another alternate world, turning reality on its head.
Speaking at a summit in Mexico, Obama unilaterally declared that Ukraine should overturn the results of its democratic election in 2010 (which most observers said was generally "fair and free" -- perhaps more "fair and free" than national elections in, say, the United States, where losing candidates are sometimes wont to take power anyway, and where whole states dispossess or actively discourage millions of free citizens from voting). Instead, the Ukrainians should install an unelected "transitional government" in Kiev. Why should they do this? Because, says Obama, now channeling all Ukrainians in his own person, "the people obviously have a very different view and vision for their country" from the government they democratically elected. All of the people of Ukraine have a different vision, you understand; every last one of them. And what is their vision, according to Obama the Ukrainian Avatar? To enjoy "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections." Something you might think they had enjoyed by having fair and free elections in 2010, and exercising freedom of speech and assembly to such a degree that a vast opposition force had occupied much of the central government district for months. But the Avatar knows better, of course.
Now, this is not a defense of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government. It is, by all accounts, a highly corrupt enterprise given to insider deals for well-connected elites who influence government policy for their own benefit. I guess this might be a reason for overthrowing a democratically elected government with an armed uprising supported by foreign countries, but I would be careful about espousing this as a general rule if I were an American president. The old saw about stones and glass houses comes to mind.
The reality (if anyone cares about such a thing) is that the situation in Ukraine is complex. Opposition forces have a legitimate beef against a corrupt and heavy-handed government. The Kremlin is obviously trying to manipulate events and policies in Ukraine, just the United States is doing. (Obama's remarks on this topic are comedy gold: "Our approach in the United States is not to see [this] as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future." Yes, as long as they make the right decisions, unlike in 2010, when they voted for the wrong person.) Ukraine is polarized along several different lines -- political, ethnic, historical, religious, linguistic -- but these lines are not clear-cut, and often intersect, intermingle, are in flux. The pull away from Russia's orbit is strong in many people; the desire to retain close relations to Russia is equally strong in others. (Although any attempt by Russia to quash Ukraine's independence would likely unite all factions in resistance.) Many people look to the West as a model, even a saviour, although the EU deal that Yanukovych turned down, precipitating the outpouring of opposition, actually offered Ukraine very little other than Greek-style financial servitude, while the Kremlin, at least, proffered cash on the barrelhead. The opposition itself is not a monolith of moral rectitude; one of its driving forces is an ultra-nationalist faction that happily harks back to Ukraine's fascist collaborators with Nazi invaders and spouts vile anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is likely that the ultra-nationalists are chiefly behind the opposition's turn toward violent resistance, overshadowing the young, moderate, West-yearning, anti-corruption factions that have been the face of the uprising thus far.
And the fact is, not a single one of the Western governments now denouncing Ukraine for its repression would have tolerated a similar situation. Try to imagine thousands of, say, Tea Partiers, having declared that the elected government of Barack Obama was too corrupt and illegitimate to stand, setting up an armed camp in the middle of Washington, occupying the Treasury Building and Justice Department for months on end, while meeting with Chinese and Russian leaders, who then begin demanding a 'transitional government' be installed in the White House. What would be the government's reaction? There is no doubt that it would make even Yanukovych's brutal assault this week look like a Sunday School picnic.
So the situation in Ukraine is many-sided, complex, filled with ambiguity, change, nuance and chaos. Protest against a specific unpopular government policy first turned into a broader opposition to the government in general and is now threatening to turn into civil war. Such things do happen in the world, and yes, great powers do seek to influence and direct these events to their own advantage. It would be good if Ukraine could be rid of rule by corrupt elites; it is not all clear that a civil war led, at least in part, by racist nationalists, would lead to this happy outcome. But one thing that is not happening in Ukraine is Barack Obama's fantasy that the entire Ukrainian people is rising to rid themselves of a tyrant so they can hold fair and free elections. They had such elections in 2010; and if the entire Ukrainian people now wants to get rid of their president, there are free elections scheduled for 2015. It is highly likely that Yanukovych's corrupt and maladroit performance in office -- not least his reaction to the protest movement itself -- would have guaranteed his peaceful defeat at the ballot box next year. But it is also likely that these elections will not be held now. One way or another, Yanukovych will be forced out of office by the violent chaos that he, and sections of the opposition, and the machinations of Moscow and Washington have together produced. In any case, there is almost certainly more needless suffering in store for ordinary Ukrainians.
This is the reality, and tragedy, of the situation. But in the artfully hallucinated world of Barack Obama – a fantasy-land in which the entire American political and media elite also live – none of this matters. All that matters is the real agenda (which was also the agenda of George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin for that matter): advancing the dominance of a brutal ruling class through manipulation, militarism, and deception, whenever the opportunity arises.
A little late with this, but I meant to mark Boris Pasternak's birthday this week (Feb. 10, 1890). It would be hard to express how much his work meant to me when I was first finding my way into the world. In later years, I had three brief, indirect contacts with Pasternak, beyond his work. In the mid-1990s, I went to his house in Peredelkino, remarkably preserved since his death in 1960, and got to spend a few minutes in his upstairs study, where he'd written his late verse and much of Doctor Zhivago. That same day, after a long, convoluted search, I found his grave nearby. Then a few years after that, in the downstairs den of a well-appointed house in Oxford, I came face to face with Pasternak's oldest son, Yevgeny -- by then an old man. He had come to Oxford for the opening of an exhibition of paintings and drawings by his grandfather, Leonid, Boris's father. They were to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum, but for now, before the opening, many of them had been hung throughout this private house, the home of the poet Craig Raine, who is married to Boris Pasternak's niece, Anne Pasternak Slater. It was some sort of open house for the paintings, I suppose; I don't remember how I heard about it, but I lived a couple of blocks away at that time, so I went over. I didn't expect to see Pasternak's son there. He was standing just across from me, chatting with someone; I thought I saw something of his father's face in him. I wanted to say something to him, shake his hand, but I hung back. I didn't know if he spoke English, and I knew my own poor Russian couldn't sustain even a light conversation very far; I was afraid of embarrassing myself, I suppose. I wouldn't hang back today, but it's too late. The moment has passed. (And Yevgeny Borisovich died in 2012, at the age 89.) But I was glad I saw him, glad for the other fleeting contacts.
Below are a couple of previously posted pieces on Pasternak, just to mark (belatedly) the occasion.
From February 2010:
From April 2008: Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power
1. Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, is best remembered for its star-crossed love story and its sweeping panorama of the Russian Revolution – themes amplified in David Lean's 1965 film version, a beautiful travesty which has largely supplanted the book in the public mind. But within his conventional narrative of shattering passions and historic upheavals, Pasternak subtly diffuses a deeply subversive philosophy that overthrows power structures and modes of thought that have dominated human life for thousands of years. Yet remarkably, this far-reaching, radical notion is based on one of the most humble concepts and lowly words in the Russian language: byt.
The word has no precise equivalent in English, but in general it means the ordinary "stuff" of life: the daily round, the chores, the cares and duties, the business and busyness that drives existence forward. The connotations of byt are not always positive; it is frequently associated with another Russian word, poshlost', a more pejorative term for the miserable muck of daily life that can trap a noble soul yearning for transcendent heights – for shattering passions and historic upheavals, perhaps. Benjamin Sutcliffe has described this association well in his extensive analysis of the notion of byt in Russian literature by women:
"The 'everyday' is a problematic concept that Russian culture consistently links with women. Byt is not only povsednevnaia zhizn' (daily life), but also a corrosive banality threatening higher, often intellectual aspirations…. Vladimir Nabokov connects byt to poshlost', the soul-killing realm of the crass and insensitive. In an even more sepulchral metaphor, Andrei Siniavskii compares Soviet culture to a pyramid: the grandiose grave of a hollow society whose time has passed. Byt is the sum of both those constituent parts, often seen as 'women’s work' (care for the self, care for others, maintaining a household) and the negative adjectives ascribed to them: petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening."
In contrast to this mundane and deadening level stands the realm of the transcendent: the "great questions" of life, the grand abstractions – nation, faith, ideology, honor, prosperity, family, security, righteousness, glory – for which millions fight and die. It's the world of power, fuelled by the dynamic of dominance and servitude – a dialectic that governs relationships in every realm: political, economic, religious, artistic, personal. Everywhere, hierarchies abound, even among the most professedly egalitarian groups, from monasteries to movie sets, from ashrams to activist collectives. Everywhere we find, in Leonard Cohen's witty take, "the homicidal bitchin'/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat."
This, we are given to understand, is the real world, the important world, far above the tawdry, tedious humdrum that fills the dead hours between epiphanies and exaltations. The Russian Revolution is of course one of history's great manifestations of this dynamic, where the "transcendent," world-shaking abstractions of ideology and high politics (imperialism, capitalism, revolution, Bolshevism) uprooted whole nations and produced suffering and dehumanization on an almost unimaginable scale. The modern era's "War on Terror" bids fair to surpass the Revolution in this regard, with its wildly inflated rhetoric and grand abstractions, its epiphanies of violence and exaltations of terror – on both sides – inflaming a conflict that has already devoured nations and destabilized the entire globe. The dominance paradigm – so thoroughly worked into our consciousness, so ever-present in our interactions, large and small, public and private – is the engine driving this vast machinery of death and ruin.
But below this "higher plane" lies the reality of byt. Far from the soul-killing muck that Nabokov found so distasteful, in Pasternak's hands the true nature of byt is revealed: creative, sustaining, nurturing, an infinite source of meaning. For the most part, the novel conveys this indirectly, in passages where Pasternak shows us byt in action – people going about their work, having quiet conversations, preparing food, fixing stoves, tending gardens, washing floors – or in the richly detailed backgrounds and descriptions given for minor characters who pop up briefly in the narrative then are rarely, perhaps never, seen again.
Over the years, some critics have decried these passages as the clumsy strokes of a fictional amateur, a poet gamely trying and failing to match the rich plenitude of Tolstoy's novels. (And to be fair, the English translations of the novel, though serviceable, are hobbled by clunky prose that ill-serves the original Russian.) But surely Pasternak, a writer of immense talent and intelligence, knew exactly what he was doing with these portions of the novel. The "clumsy" strokes that brake and complicate the grand narrative are central to the book's meaning. "Zhivago" means "the living," its root word is "life." And life is immense, comprising every aspect, every atom of reality. "Life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed in every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses," as Zhivago says at one point. It is in the careful observation and deeply felt experiencing of the details of daily life that the meaning of existence can be found – or rather, consciously created.
Elsewhere in the novel, Pasternak deals with more openly with this theme, especially in one of the book's central chapters, made up of a diary that Zhivago keeps when his family have been driven from Moscow by the privations of the Revolution – and by Zhivago's own political unreliability, which stems from his refusal to hew to any party line and its grand, impersonal abstractions, its distorted caricatures of the infinite complexities of human reality. They are living off the land, deep in the countryside, their whole life taken up by the struggle to survive: byt in its starkest terms. Only at night, their work done, can they turn to their books, the handful of Russian classics they've taken with them into exile.
The whole chapter is like a marvelous concerto, blending and concentrating all of the novel's themes and variations in what appears to be the most artless of forms: the ramblings of a private journal. Among the many passages that illustrate the relation of byt to the "overworld," the realm of dominance and hierarchy, this one stands out:
"What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy unconcern with such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn't that they didn't think about these things, and to good effect, but they always felt that such important matters were not for them. While Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worried and looked for the meaning of life and prepared for death and drew up balance-sheets, these two were distracted, right up to the end of their lives, by the current individual tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all; their work has ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness."
2. Of course, the supreme irony of the relation between the humble, private, "pointless" world of byt and the "real world" of power and exaltation is that the former is actually where any genuine "transcendence" can be found, while the latter is the merely the outgrowth of our most primitive and meaningless urges.
For what is the desire to "project dominance," to erect hierarchies, but the elaboration of the same unconsidered instinctual drives that underlie the social structures of the animal world? You can see it in any colony of apes (although they too have their forms of sustaining, nurturing byt). I've written of this elsewhere, but I think it has some application in this context as well:
Is it not time to be done with lies at last? Especially the chief lie now running through the world like a plague, putrescent and vile: that we kill each other and hate each other and drive each other into desperation and fear for any other reason but that we are animals, forms of apes, driven by blind impulses to project our dominance, to strut and bellow and hoard the best goods for ourselves. Or else to lash back at the dominant beast in convulsions of humiliated rage. Or else cravenly to serve the dominant ones, to scurry about them like slaves, picking fleas from their fur, in hopes of procuring a few crumbs for ourselves.
That's the world of power – the "real world," as its flea-picking slaves and strutting dominants like to call it. It's the ape-world, driven by hormonal secretions and chemical mechanics, the endless replication of protein reactions, the unsifted agitations of nerve tissue, issuing their ignorant commands. There's no sense or reason or higher order of thought in it – except for that perversion of consciousness called justification, self-righteousness, which gussies up the breast-beating ape with fine words and grand abstractions…
Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it's a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.
It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary. Because that's all there is, that's all we have – the moments.
The moments, and their momentary power – a power without the power of resistance, defenseless, provisional, imperfect, bold. The ape-world's cycle of war and retribution stands as the image of the world of power; but what can serve as the emblem of this other reality? A kiss, perhaps: given to a lover, offered to a friend, bestowed on an enemy – or pressed to the brow of a child murdered by war.
Both worlds are within us, of course, like two quantum states of reality, awaiting our choice to determine which will be actuated, which will define the very nature of being – individually and in the aggregate, moment by moment. This is our constant task, for as long as the universe exists in the electrics of our brains: to redeem each moment or let it fall. Some moments will be won, many more lost; there is no final victory. There is only the task.
And of course, that's what byt entails, in both its literal sense and in the heightened, deepened understanding of Pasternak's art: the task, the work, the busyness of sustaining life.
One last passage from Zhivago provides a striking encapsulation of this, although a word should be said about the Christian symbolism it employs – a symbolism worked deeply into the plan and language of the entire novel. As Pasternak told one interviewer, the religious symbols were "put into the book the way stoves go into a house – to warm it up. Now they would like me to commit myself and climb into the stove." Later he added: "The novel must not be judged on theological lines. Nothing is further removed from my understanding of the world. One must live and write restlessly, with the help of new reserves that life offers. I am weary of this notion of faithfulness to a point of view at all cost. The great heroic devotion to one point of view is very alien to me – it's a lack of humility."
Here Pasternak, like his Zhivago, resists adherence to any party line, even one that he finds enormously congenial, like Christianity. It is not in pious certainties but in the humble, shifting, temporary coalescences of everyday existence, in byt, that some measure of always-imperfect, always-provisional meaning can be found.
But the languages of faith – structures that for centuries were the chief embodiment and expression of the human yearning for illumination, encounter and escape from the brutalities of dominance and servitude – can still serve as vehicles to convey a deeper reality, as Pasternak shows here, in the voice of one of his characters, the philosopher Nikolai Vendenyapin:
"I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion-tamer with his whip, not the preacher who sacrificed himself. But don't you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the attraction of its example. It has always been assumed that the most important things in the Gospels are the ethical teaching and commandments. But for me the most important thing is the fact that Christ speaks in parables taken from daily life, that he explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning."
Immortal communion, in the transient, private, churning flow of byt: this is what Pasternak offers as an alternative to the violent estrangement of the "overworld," to its violence and fear, its bombast and lies. This lowly word could bring down empires, and stands in defiance of death itself.
Arthur Silber is in dire straits again. Another bout of bad health has laid him low, bills are coming due, and now a computer breakdown threatens to silence him completely. At the moment, he is working with an antiquated back-up, not likely to last long. If it goes, then his voice will be lost to us -- and he will lose his lifeline to the world. If you are able to help at all, or know someone who can, I urge you to go to his website here, and get more information.
Silber has long been one of the most insightful, intelligent -- and indispensable -- analysts of our dismal and despairing age. But he is no mere compiler of crimes and outrages; he also offers thoughtful and practical ideas for genuine change, different approaches, new understandings of our political and personal realities. To resort to what has become a thoroughly degraded vernacular, what Silber offers is simply (and complexly) this: hope.
Are we so surfeited with hope and wisdom these days that we can afford to let a light like this go out? I think not. So please, if you can, do what you can to give Silber some assistance. We will all reap the benefit.
On Monday, the New York Times featured, on the front page of its website, a long piece of giddy gush about the latest trend in luxury hoteling: super-suites for the super-rich, costing up to $28,000 a night.
For more than 1,100 words, the Times gives us an uncritical (indeed, adoring) panorama of the new high-swankery expected by our owners as they perambulate around the global plantation. There's the $25,000-per-night room in the New York Palace, a three-story "penthouse Versailles," the Times, all atremble with excitement, tells us, which comes complete with a million dollars' worth of designer jewellery on display to refresh the weary eyes of the travelling titan. Or New York's Mandarin Oriental, 3,300 square feet of even greater opulence -- a steal at $28,000 a night.
Such elite enclaves are springing up all over the country, say the many industry insiders and financiers quoted in the piece. (Despite the vast acreage of news-hole available, the 'paper of record' could not find any space for comments voicing even the slightest hint of unease at these developments. Of course, it would be very hard to find anyone within the ambit of a NY Times business reporter who would object to such brutal ostentation; still, you'd think the paper could drag out some wheezing moderate-liberal-centrist type academic who could offer up a bromide on how this trend is, potentially, something that could possibly be somewhat troubling. I mean, the paper's rolodex is crammed with such worthies. But apparently not even the mildest moderate's most gentle murmur was to be allowed to besmirch the story's sweet, glossy bussing of oligarchical posteriors.)
However, you shouldn't think the frenzied construction of these gilded hog pens is simply a matter of Heep-like toadying to every whim of super-rich (although it is that). No, it's also a question of 'brand-building,' of luring in envious middle-class patrons who want to catch a faint whiff of elite effluent as it wafts down from on high. As the Times notes:
Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.
“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.
They also indirectly attract a middle-class, aspirational traveler, Mr. Chase said. “It is the attention — the halo effect — doing a suite like this brings,” he said. Even if they’ll never be able to drop the cost of a new compact car on a night’s stay at a hotel, some travelers want to brush elbows with that level of wealth.
Yes, work really, really hard, and you too might one day be able to afford one night on the bottom floor of a hotel where a Saudi prince or a movie star once actually took a dump hundreds of feet above you. Now there's something to fire up your pathetic little middle-class imagination!
The story is summed up with a piercingly accurate phrase from one of the chief quotees in the piece, Pam Danziger, the "president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of 'Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.'" (Follow-up volumes will include Putting the Use Back in Usury: From Payday Loan-Sharking to the Penthouse, and Putting the Pen Back in Penury: Parking the Poor Where We Don't Have to See Them.) Eschewing the gauzy rhetoric of a "halo effect" and other euphemisms for protecting the power and privilege of the rich by exciting envy in everyone else, Danziger cuts right to the heart of the matter:
Ms. Danziger described it as a “shock and awe” campaign that would help drive bookings of regular rooms.
Shock and awe, baby: that's right, it's war -- class war. And guess who won?
But it's not enough just to win; you must be seen to have won, you must have your conqueror's status confirmed for you, at every turn, in the most ostentatious way, so that your victims know they have been crushed and dare not rise again.
2. On the same day -- the same day -- that the NYT's grovel-and-gush piece appeared, Oxfam released a report on the astonishing, well-nigh incomprehensible level of inequality between the Times' celebrated super-rich and the rest of the human race.
The Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 individuals on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. 85 people control as much wealth as 3.5 billion.
This is not the natural fruit of the market's mythical "invisible hand." It is the result of carefully crafted, deliberate policies put in place over the past 40 years by elected leaders who have been bought, like chattel, by the rich, and have used the power of the state to skew the political, economic and social structure of nation after nation toward the ever-increasing domination of an ever-smaller circle of elites. As Larry Elliot points out in the Guardian:
For much of the 20th century, the more far-sighted business leaders … understood that their workers needed reasonable wages so that they could buy the goods and services they were making. They grasped the idea that a market system in its rawest form was incompatible with democracy and so acquiesced while some of the rough edges were knocked off via progressive taxation, welfare states and curbs on capital. Deep down, they feared that the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the west.
Attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. The so-called Great Compression of incomes seen from the 1930s to the 1970s went into reverse, with the top 1% grabbing the fruits of growth. The rich used their money and their influence to ensure that governments did their bidding. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was no rival model and less need to show restraint. With the arrival of a unipolar world came a return to a more aggressive form of market economics that had not been seen since the early days of industrialisation.
Elliot then quotes the Oxfam report:
"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich."
Anyone see any sign of one of these fatcat-curbing "bold political solutions" coming down the pike anytime soon? In most countries -- including most emphatically the US and UK -- even the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" factions who one might wistfully expect to wanly offer such solutions long ago sold themselves, happily, giddily, to Big Money. Who dismantled most of the (few) "curbs on capital" that had been instituted during those 40 years of growing income equality (and more widespread prosperity)? Why, Democrat Bill Clinton and Labour's Tony Blair, who else? Both of these cool, young, swinging liberal-type guys did more to destroy the restraints and unleash the elite dogs of domination than their conservative predecessors such as Reagan and Thatcher.
And the beat goes on under the even cooler, younger, hipper more liberal progressive-type guy in the White House today. As Elliot notes, one of "the most striking findings of the Oxfam report is this little nugget:
"…In the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer."
Yes, this is the real truth of the much-vaunted "recovery" of the U.S. economy under the leadership of Barack Obama: 95 percent of the tepid growth since he took office has gone to the 1 percent. A full 90 percent of the American people have grown poorer. This is because Obama's carefully crafted, deliberately chosen economic policies have been designed to use the power of the state to skew the nation's economic, social and political structures toward the super-rich, in some of the most brazen ways imaginable. From the very beginning, the focus has been almost exclusively on "saving" the financial sector that caused the crisis, bailing it out, protecting its privileges, extending its reach and -- as the statistics clearly show -- enriching it at the expense of every other sector of American society.
Obama's defenders will point to the intransigence of the Republicans as the reason why the rich are getting obscenely richer under Obama while the rest get poorer and the 'safety net' and social structures (and infrastructure) of American life are relentlessly degraded. But of course, it is only this intransigence that has saved us so far from the even greater degradation that Obama has been seeking since his first days in office: the "Grand Bargain" that will slash the remaining threads of the safety net and gut most non-military spending in order to "balance the budget" (while maintaining a world-encircling military machine and all-pervasive "security" apparatus).
Over and over, Obama has offered the Republicans savage budget cuts and safety-net gutting that were beyond the wildest dreams of the arch-conservatives of yore -- or even, say, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's administration. But the GOP is now dominated electorally by theocratic extremists who believe any tax rise (even the minuscule bumping Obama meekly suggests as part of his "bargain') is of the devil, while the corporate interests who let these theocrats front for them have decided to vanquish even the pretense of any restraint on their power once and for all. Their scorched-earth campaign and the zero-cooperation stance of the zealots have blocked Obama's frantic efforts to destroy the remnants of the New Deal, but one day, they may take the bait -- and then you can tell Granny to go dumpster-diving, because the state ain't gonna feed no useless eaters no more.
And let's not forget that it was Obama's choice not to spend the enormous political capital of his first election triumph to rescue the millions of workers and homeowners going under, but to instead put all his energy into "saving" the perpetrators of the global collapse -- and pushing a "health reform" plan created by a right-wing think tank in the 1990s: a wretched piece of corporate profiteering that cleverly, and completely, co-opted the "left" into defending an elitist boondoggle and effectively killing genuine health care reform for years, perhaps for generations.
No; we are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they've imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished -- and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and 'specialist suites,' where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they've left behind.
As soon as you're awake, you're trained to take What looks like the easy way out -- Bob Dylan, "Political World"
Once more, as so often, I want to point you to a powerful and important article by Arthur Silber, which will tell you a great deal about where we are as a culture and as individuals -- and how we got here. I'm not going to excerpt it, because I'd like you to read the whole piece as it is, take it straight, no chaser, without my own spin on it. It will be well worth your time.
And while you are there, why not throw something in the hat, if you can spare it? Silber lives solely on the earnings from his writings, while battling chronic illness year after year (and attacks on his threadbare livelihood by the government). Keeping this important voice of truth going -- in the midst of the endless tsunami of lies that overwhelm us (latest example: Obama's NSA speech, which Silber, characteristically, nailed even before it was given) -- is, in every sense, a worthy cause.
A few years ago, we saw them blazoned across our screens and newspapers: rugged, tough, battle-grimed warriors, slogging through hell to conquer evil and bring light to a land lost in darkness.
Last week, the New York Times brought them out again. But this time around, our clean-limbed, God-blessed fighters for a noble cause weren't conquering -- they were suffering. They felt sad, let down, even betrayed. Why? Because what had been the high point, the shining pinnacle, "the most iconic moment" of their righteous campaign was now tainted. Their conquest hadn't held; the old enemy had reared its head again in the city they had pacified with so much rugged, battle-grimed toughness long ago.
Now their feelings were hurt, their souls were troubled. All the goodness of their righteous campaign, all the noble intentions of their light-bringing crusade -- all had been for naught, it seemed. Theirs was indeed a lamentable tragedy. Here was real suffering, raw and anguished.
But what were they talking about exactly? What was this pinnacle, this extraordinary achievement whose great moral worth has now been besmirched?
The battle of Fallujah.
I kid you not.
2. Just over nine years ago, in November 2004, the United States military carried out an atrocious war crime at the behest of its civilian leaders. Having already committed what America's chief jurist at the Nuremberg trials called "the supreme international crime" -- aggresive war -- the American military now declared a whole city full of innocent civilians to be a "free fire zone" and proceeded to pulverize the town with bombs, missiles, chemical weapons and finally a ground attack by thousands of troops. This came after the American military had cut vital supplies of food and water to the city -- another brazen war crime.
"There are more and more dead bodies on the streets and the stench is unbearable. Smoke is everywhere. It's hard to know how much people outside Fallujah are aware of what is going on here. There are dead women and children lying on the streets. People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying are from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens."
One of the first moves in this magnificent feat of arms was the destruction and capture of medical centers. Twenty doctors – and their patients, including women and children – were killed in an airstrike on one major clinic, the UN Information Service reports, while the city's main hospital was seized in the early hours of the ground assault. Why? Because these places of healing could be used as "propaganda centers," the Pentagon's "information warfare" specialists told the NY Times. Unlike the first attack on Fallujah last spring, there was to be no unseemly footage of gutted children bleeding to death on hospital beds. This time – except for NBC's brief, heavily-edited, quickly-buried clip of the usual lone "bad apple" shooting a wounded Iraqi prisoner – the visuals were rigorously scrubbed.
So while Americans saw stories of rugged "Marlboro Men" winning the day against Satan, they were spared shots of engineers cutting off water and electricity to the city – a flagrant war crime under the Geneva Conventions, as CounterPunch notes, but standard practice throughout the occupation. Nor did pictures of attack helicopters gunning down civilians trying to escape across the Euphrates River – including a family of five – make the TV news, despite the eyewitness account of an AP journalist. Nor were tender American sensibilities subjected to the sight of phosphorous shells bathing enemy fighters – and nearby civilians – with unquenchable chemical fire, literally melting their skin, as the Washington Post reports. Nor did they see the fetus being blown out of the body of Artica Salim when her home was bombed during the "softening-up attacks" that raged relentlessly – and unnoticed – in the closing days of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the Scotland Sunday Herald reports.
This was the battle of Fallujah. This is the noble cause that our Marlboro Men (and our "paper of record," which gave their laments such prominent play) now feel has been besmirched by the fact that some militant Sunni factions (many from the same groups the United States is now supporting, directly or indirectly, through its assistance to the Syrian rebels) seized control of the city for a time. It is this incident that has made the Marlboros and the Timesters suddenly feel that the "great sacrifices" of America's war of aggression in Iraq were made in vain. This -- not the multitude of Iraqis who have died this year alone in the violent sectarian strife that was created by the American invasion, and exacerbated by deliberate American policy.
Al Qaeda and its allies had no presence in Iraq before the American invasion. No, wait, that's wrong: al Qaeda associates were in fact living safely in Iraq before the invasion -- in Kurdish territory, which was controlled not by Saddam but by American-backed militias. Indeed, the seeds of the Fallujah atrocity sprang from this strange situation, where al Qaeda operatives lived under American protection -- or at the very least, their "benign neglect" -- even after the 9/11 attacks. As I noted during the 2004 storming of Fallujah:
What [we] saw instead were two loudly devout Christians, Bush and Tony Blair, clasping hands and proclaiming that Artica Salim had been torn to shreds in order to fight terrorism – specifically, the terrorism of Jordanian thug Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The city's alleged refusal to turn over Zarqawi was the ostensible reason for the attack; yet halfway through the assault, with dead civilian bodies already stinking in the streets, Coalition commanders finally admitted the truth: Zarqawi wasn't in Fallujah – and hadn't been there for weeks, perhaps months.
But then, Zarqawi leads a peculiarly charmed life. Three times before the war, U.S. forces were set to kill him and destroy his organization. It wasn't that difficult; after all, he was operating in Kurdish-held Iraqi territory, where the U.S. military had free rein. Yet each time, Bush called off the strike, the Wall Street Journal reports. He needed Zarqawi for his pre-war propaganda, so he could point to an "al Qaeda ally in Iraq" – even though Zarqawi was on Bush's Iraqi turf, not Saddam's.
The vicious, murderous, criminal attack on Fallujah was a microcosm of the vast atrocity of the invasion of Iraq -- an atrocity that continues today. A fake reason for an act of aggression was sold to a gleefully gullible media, and through them to a docile public raised on the potent poison of "American exceptionalism," to provide a "justification" for an action whose real purpose had to be concealed. And what was that purpose? To demonstrate and advance the bipartisan American elite's unslakeable desire for domination -- and to demonstrate that anyone who resists that desire will be punished, tormented or killed.
Iraq had no connection to 9/11, and the architects of the aggression (and their Democratic enablers, and their 'progressive' defenders like Christopher Hitchens and the New York Times) knew it. Zarqawi and his group were not in Fallujah, and the military planners of the atrocity knew it. (Indeed, they had let him go long before, even as they imposed a months-long siege on the city.) The civilian and military instigators and enablers of the invasion of Iraq (and of all of the inevitable crimes and atrocities that followed) acted in the full and conscious knowledge that they were perpetrating acts of mass murder on innocent people. This is an historical fact, this is what actually happened. And, according to the reckoning of America's willing executioner in the Iraq war crime, the government of Great Britain, somewhere around one million innocent people have been needlessly slaughtered as a result of the war. And the slaughter goes on -- again, as a direct result of this willful, deliberate, savage, inhuman act of mass murder, which was carried out to further the domination agenda of a morally depraved elite.
This is what actually happened in Iraq. This is the reality.
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the soldiers who fought in Fallujah or took part elsewhere in this gigantic war crime thought of themselves as good people trying to do a good thing in difficult circumstances. That's what they were told they were doing; and, poisoned from birth, like all of us, by that all-pervasive myth of exceptionalism, of special privilege for anything and everything done by the United States, most of them lacked the will -- or even the conceptual tools -- to question this belief. (Brave souls like Chelsea Manning and the Iraq Vets Against the War are among the exceptions.) I am sorry if some of them -- and the survivors of the thousands of Americans killed in the process of unleashing this mass murder -- now feel that the war was fought in vain, and that the American dead "were sacrificed for nothing," as one "angry" ex-Marine told the Times after hearing that Fallujah was temporarily in the hands of the extremist militias engendered by the American invasion of Iraq.
This is unfortunate for them -- but let us be absolutely clear on this point. To any American soldier who thought he or she was fighting in Iraq for anything other than the aggrandizement of a bloodthirsty elite, then yes, yes, a thousand times yes: you fought in vain. You fought under false premises, you were ordered to carry out a great crime -- and you carried it out. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes: every American soldier who was killed in Iraq was "sacrificed for nothing." This was true from the very first moment of the war, from the moment you set foot in Iraq. [As Arthur Silber notes here.] It did not suddenly become the truth 11 years later, when Fallujah became embroiled in the sectarian strife the war set loose.
So remember again the reality. Remember again what actually happened. The United States military, at the behest of its political leaders, carried out an abominable war crime in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Think of those innocent people who were murdered -- and those who go on being murdered in the hellhole America made of Iraq -- and then consider where the real tragedy lies, whom the real victims are. Some might think it was people like Artica Salim, whose young body was blown apart by an American bomb during weeks of bombardment to "soften up" the city before the Marlboro Men moved in. But the New York Times -- which "stovepiped" so many helpful lies from government warmongers to help make the entirely specious case for aggression, and speaks today, as it spoke then, as the voice of the American establishment -- thinks the real victims were the Marines who attacked Fallujah.
3. As noted, the Iraq war was an atrocity from the beginning -- from long before the beginning, in fact. Its very conception -- the idea of launching an act of aggression against a broken-down country which posed no threat, could not defend itself, and which had already seen more than half a million of its children killed by American-enforced sanctions -- was an atrocity. And the brutal -- and brutalizing -- atrocities on the ground began long before the attack on Fallujah.
Just as a brief reminder, let's go back in time with -- who else? -- the New York Times, which carried this report about our Marlboro Men and their crusade for truth and light just a few days after the invasion began.
At the base camp of the Fifth Marine Regiment here, two sharpshooters, Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, 28, and Cpl. Mikael McIntosh, 20, sat on a sand berm and swapped combat tales while their column stood at a halt on the road toward Baghdad. For five days this week, the two men rode atop armored personnel carriers, barreling up Highway 1.
They said Iraqi fighters had often mixed in with civilians from nearby villages, jumping out of houses and cars to shoot at them, and then often running away. The marines said they had little trouble dispatching their foes, most of whom they characterized as ill trained and cowardly.
''We had a great day,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said. ''We killed a lot of people."
...But in the heat of a firefight, both men conceded, when the calculus often warps, a shot not taken in one set of circumstances may suddenly present itself as a life-or-death necessity.
''We dropped a few civilians,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said, ''but what do you do?'' ... He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.
''I'm sorry,'' the sergeant said. ''But the chick was in the way.''
"The chick was in the way." I've carried this story with me for 11 years. Less than two weeks into the war, it seemed to sum up the whole shebang. It embodied the amoral philosophy that has guided the bipartisan American elite -- and its media enablers -- not only throughout the Iraq War and its still-churning aftermath, but in every action undertaken to advance the agenda of domination. This is what it all comes down to, this is the blank, inhuman, heartless heart of the imperial enterprise: "The chick was in the way."
And those who get "in the way" -- even if they are innocent "chicks" -- get "dropped." That's just how it is. "What do you do?" Shrug it off. Keep going. Keep shooting
And if it doesn't work out, start crying.
4. When I first saw the headlines of the NYT story, "Fallujah's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There," I confess I couldn't read it. I knew what it would say. I knew it was a specimen of the "shooting and crying" genre that is so popular in Israel, where soldiers tell of the anguish they suffer in their own noble occupation duties. I knew it would be a sickening display of exceptionalism. I planned to get to it at some point, but I just couldn't face it at the time.
Then I saw that Arthur Silber had bravely waded into the Times' morass of tears and gunpowder. And his powerful essay went much further into the deeper implications of the story than the background and context I've given above. Indeed, I had intended this piece to be a short introduction to extensive excerpts from his post. But once I got into the story, following Silber's lead, and began recalling the actual history of the atrocity, it "did put me into a towering passion," as the Elsinorean said, and I ended up writing much more than I'd planned. Silber is inspiring that way.
Now here some of those excerpts. But you must, without fail, read the whole of this eloquent blast of hard truth. (And follow the links! There's gold in them thar archives.)
On numerous occasions (here's one representative example from August 2008), I also pointed out that the most severe criticisms of these monstrous crimes permitted by our culture of denial were (and are) that it was a "mistake" based on "bad intelligence," and that it was a "blunder." The first of these evasions is a lie based on a complete misunderstanding of the role of "intelligence" with regard to decisions of policy, while the second represents the superficial babblings of a person so severely damaged that he is incapable of grasping the meaning of words such as "value" and "life." The U.S. government and its military (and all other personnel involved) committed a series of horrifying crimes, they murdered countless people, they wounded and damaged huge numbers of additional persons, and they destroyed a country. Carelessly smashing a vase or blurting out an inappropriate comment before your employer is a "mistake" or a "blunder." Murder and destruction on a vast scale require deliberate, intentional, planned actions over a lengthy period of time; they are crimes which annihilate the concept of forgiveness.
I frequently argued that there is still one more horror beyond these crimes: that neither the U.S. government, nor the ruling class, nor many Americans have learned a single, goddamned thing from these ghastly events. The commitment to America's "right" to dominate world events and the necessarily related commitment to America's perpetual military superiority remain axiomatic and unchallengeable. The ongoing treatment of Iran as a nation that must be brought to heel, the "pivot" to Asia, and the actions of the U.S. government around the globe all attest to the ruling class's belief that America remains unique and uniquely suited to lead and direct events everywhere, a belief that most Americans also continue to accept enthusiastically.
It is one thing to simply deny the reality of our own history. It is quite another to reach back into the past, completely recast the actions of the U.S., transform horrifying crimes which defy description into acts of nobility, and make ourselves into sympathetic victims -- moreover, the only sympathetic victims worthy of note. This New York Times story does all of that, in a manner which caused me to veer between shocked disbelief and nauseated horror: "Falluja's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There." The article discusses the "Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to Al Qaeda," who "retook" Fallujah "and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings" where American Marines had fought. Its focus is on the reaction of the Marines who fought there, and its tone is one of deep sympathy and understanding. That is, deep sympathy and understanding with regard to the Marines. Is there any recognition of the ongoing agony of the Iraqis, agony which is the direct result of the U.S.'s actions -- and of the actions of these Marines themselves? Of course not.
Silber gives many examples of the Marines' shooting-crying anguish -- and the vast rewriting of history -- in the story, including this:
...The officer cited what he called the Marines’ success in helping foster the Awakening movement — where local tribesmen turned against jihadists and partnered with American forces — and said that “without these victories, we might still be there today.” The officer added: “What the Iraqi forces lost in the last month, four years after transition, is not a reflection of Marine efforts. If it is a reflection of anything, it is the nature of the Iraqi social fabric and long-suppressed civil discord.”
...Those who refuse to acknowledge the horror of what the U.S. government has done -- and the horror of what they have done -- are always led to the final redoubt of the blasted, shriveled, unrecognizable soul: Anything bad that has happened and that continues to happen is the fault of the Iraqis -- those primitive, barbaric, uncivilized Iraqis. This is exactly what Hillary Clinton has said, as well as almost any politician you can name. We are expected to forget that the U.S. deliberately fomented "civil discord" (and "ethnic cleansing," too) among the contending groups as a means of fostering "stability," which they also knew would only be temporary in nature but would allow the U.S. to claim "victory" for a brief moment.
Siber kindly quotes from some of the articles I've written about Fallujah, detailing the horrors of the American chemical attack on the city, and its continuing aftermath. (But as you are going to read his piece in full, I won't requote those bits here.) He also provides a sharply illuminating passage from Hannah Arendt, where she writes of "those who adamantly refused to be 'participants' in the Nazi regime." Silber writes:
Arendt asks: "in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?" Here is part of her answer:
The answer to the ... question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way—as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer—themselves. The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.
The story of Fallujah, and the war that engendered that atrocity -- and the attitude toward that atrocity shown in the New York Time's recent story -- all speak plainly, despairingly of "the total moral collapse of respectable society" in this imperial age of ours. Silber concludes:
Our politicians, our military personnel, and many Americans still refuse to face honestly and completely the reality of what the U.S. did in Iraq, just as they refuse to recognize the blood-drenched reality of U.S. foreign policy in general. It is inconceivable that any of the catastrophic consequences of our actions, including the suffering of U.S. military personnel, should be our own responsibility. We therefore blame anything and anyone else, including the victims of our own crimes.
The article makes one further fact unavoidable: The U.S. government, and many Americans, are fully prepared to do it all again. Perhaps in the next year or two, perhaps further in the future, perhaps against Iran, perhaps against some other country that will be designated as the target of our next campaign of destruction once it has been suitably demonized. When that happens, we must resist in every way we can, and we must say, No.
* Below is my most recent column for CounterPunch Magazine.
Last month, 500 famous authors signed a petition protesting the encroachments of the all-pervasive, techno-surveillance culture that is covering the earth with hidden eyes and ears, like a metastasized Stasi run amok. We’re talking heavy literary lumber here: Nobel Prize-winners, critic list-toppers, best-sellers – big names calling on the UN to create “an international bill of digital rights.”
The authors state the indisputable truth: the "fundamental human right" of personal privacy "has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations.” They rightly declare that “a person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space."
Of course, one might like to see those “democratic rights in real space” applied a bit more vigorously in these days of airport x-rays, mandatory drug tests, “indefinite detention,” “extrajudicial execution,” “free speech zones,” etc. The accelerating degradation of “real space” liberties hardly inspires hope for preserving freedom in the virtual realm. Still, no sensible person would dispute the very worthy goals espoused in the petition.
And yet, a cankerous old worm of skepticism keeps creeping in. Especially when the petitioners declare that this assemblage of Tolstoyan speakers of truth to power is not actually “against government.” Good gracious no! As Danish writer Janne Teller told the Guardian: "This initiative must be seen as helping governments, who like to preserve democracy in the western world."
Now, you rubes out there probably think that “governments” are actually prime culprits in the mass evisceration of privacy. But no; it seems our good-hearted, democracy-preserving leaders are victims: helpless babes manipulated by their sinister intelligence services, who, Teller tells us, "abuse power.” (Power that has been given to them by, er, governments.) Not to worry, though: a nice UN resolution -- and the stinging moral censure of petitioners like Iraq War supporter Ian McEwan, ethnic profiling enthusiast Martin Amis, and William Boyd, author of the latest “literary” sequel to the saga of James Bond, state assassin extraordinaire -- will doubtless bring these rogue services to heel. Then our noble rulers will be free at last to pursue their tragically frustrated dreams of peace, prosperity, equality and justice.
But wait; what about the literary luminaries' warning against "technological developments … by corporations" which suck up private data for profit? Oddly enough, the petition was coupled, as part of a one-two punch, with an "open letter" written by civic-minded corporate citizens such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, demanding "sweeping changes in surveillance laws" to "restore confidence" in companies like, well, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, whose sole reason for existence is to mine private data for corporate profit.
Here our earnest authors come up against a very 21st-century conundrum: the ever-widening notion that the fate of our liberties should be taken out of the hands of governments and given to … corporations and oligarchs. This is the logic behind the move by Glenn Greenwald and other dissident superstars to “partner” with hi-tech oligarch Pierre Omidyar, “leveraging” Greenwald’s control of Edward Snowden’s NSA documents to create a profitable new media venture. This would be the same Omidyar whose PayPal cut Wikileaks off at the financial knees in its hour of greatest peril, whose “microfinancing initiatives” have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor in India and who now appears driven to monetize dissent in the same way he’s monetized poverty relief. It’s unlikely that hard-hitting exposes of hi-tech corporate chicanery will feature overmuch at Pierre’s new plaything.
But even the exposure of government misdeeds is to be kept within discreet limits by our new-style, media-savvy dissidents, who, like Greenwald, constantly assert they would never publish secrets that might “harm national security” or interfere with the “legitimate operations” of our neo-Stasis. Guardian editor and dissident hero Alan Rusbridger made that clear in his recent appearance before a Parliamentary committee investigating the Snowden revelations. As Arthur Silber, one of the most insightful political writers of our day, notes, the many press plaudits for Rusbridger's “bold” testimony overlooked the editor’s shocking admission that the Guardian has only published "one percent" of the Snowden material, while dutifully consulting "the FBI, the GCHQ, the White House and the Cabinet Office on more than 100 occasions before the publication of stories." Rusbridger also assured MPs that his paper will soon stop publishing stories from the Snowden cache.
Greenwald promises that his upcoming book on Snowden will provide a few more all-important revelations that the public absolutely must know (but which he must unfortunately withhold from us until the sale date). Yet as Silber points out, even with a few extra dollops of data here and there, it’s now obvious that only a tiny percentage of the massive Snowden archive of spy-state malfeasance will ever be revealed.
As always, our betters – in this case, not government apparatchiks but knee-capping oligarchs and government-consulting journalists – will let us know whatever modicum of truth they deem fit for our limited understanding. Or as another, long-dead literary luminary once said: four legs good, two legs better.
Hirthler examines the real-life aftermath of the social breakthroughs and advances represented by the social justice campaigns of Martin Luther King, the ending of apartheid under the aegis of Nelson Mandela, and racial symbolism in the election of the first black American president, Barack Obama. In every case, Hirthler notes, genuine social achievements were followed by a brutal and ruthless expansion and entrenchment of 'neoliberal' economics -- that is, the aggrandisement of elite power and privilege.
One of the most glaring examples detailed by Hirthler is what happened after the genuinely astonishing and significant triumph of Mandela and the ANC: the share of South Africa's wealth owned by whites has actually increased since the ending of the apartheid, thanks to the ANC's betrayal of its own economic principles and its capitulation to the existing economic power structure.
This is the pattern that has been followed for decades: some social advances are accepted by the power structure -- as long as the economic dominance of the ruling elite is not challenged. In Obama's case, of course, this was a prerequisite, not a consequence, of his election. He would not have been allowed to be in the position of being elected president had he not clearly and continually signalled to the elite that he was in no way a threat to their power; in fact, as Hirthler notes, he went much further, and made it clear that he would be a more efficient and effective promoter of economic elite than cack-handed Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin. And so it has proved. The nation's oligarchs, corporations and financial sectors have devoured ever greater proportions of the nation's wealth under Obama's rule, while chronic unemployment and underemployment grinds on, the nation's infrastructure rots, and the quality of life (and hopes for the future) of ordinary people continues to be degraded.
The case of King is somewhat different. Unlike Mandela, who acquiesced in the ANC sell-out to the elites (no doubt as a tactical decision; social freedom would be more likely to come sooner, and with less violence, than economic justice, which could remain a future goal), and Obama, who was a signed-up sell-out from the beginning, King was actually growing more radical as time went on, broadening his critique from racial oppression to the underlying, all-pervasive evils of militarism and elitist greed that shaped American foreign policy and its economic system. He was killed for this, of course, having already become increasingly marginalized by "serious" and "respectable" political opinion -- precisely because of his increasing radicalism.
This dynamic is not confined to Hirthler's three examples. It was also played out in the breakdown of the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts at broad social reforms (and mild economic and political reforms) were met first with the backlash of an attempted coup by Soviet hardliners, and then, after the dissolution of the Union and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, by the imposition of "Shock Doctrine" economics. Here was the very apotheosis of neoliberalism -- unrestrained, unopposed, relentless. The result, as we know, was the beggaring of the nation, an unprecedented plunge in life expectancy, the collapse of society and the ascendancy of a rapacious elite. (Plus the loss of many of the political and social freedoms that had been genuine gains from the otherwise traumatic regime change.)
And so on it goes. In our day, social progress is a tool used deliberately by our leaders to extract more gains for the elite at the expense of the general public. Vast amounts of energy and attention, especially potentially dangerous progressive and/or populist energy, is expended on social gains -- on winning them, opposing them, maintaining them, trying to reverse them, etc. -- while the overall system of domination rolls on unopposed. Obama benefits from this on the left, where his cynical nods to social progress -- without actually doing anything very concrete about it with all the power he holds -- mutes 'progressive' criticism of his truly abominable foreign and economic policies, which include state murder, Stasi-like surveillance, the exaltation of the rich and the degradation of everyone else. In the same way, George W. Bush gave lip service to the opposition to social progress, on abortion, for example, while never really doing anything about it, which fired up his own political base even as he, like Obama, advanced economic and foreign policies that degraded the lives of ordinary people -- including his own fired-up followers. (Ironically, anti-abortion forces have made much greater strides during Obama's tenure, as the NY Times reported on Friday.)
None of this is to gainsay the great worth of those social freedoms we have managed to advance over the past decades. It is a great thing, a wonderful thing, that American and South African blacks have more political freedom than they once had. It is a great thing, a wonder, that people who love people of the same sex are no longer subjected to quite so many of the legal restrictions and cultural calumny that they have long endured.
But the dynamic -- social freedoms being 'allowed' or accepted only if the ever-increasing power of the economic elite is not threatened -- still holds. Hirthler's piece provides a good analysis of this phenomenon. Below are a few excerpts:
Almost as an antidote the onset of holiday cheer, the 2014 budget deal was released in December as a sort of deflationary tactic—lest the masses get their hopes too high … The 2014 budget strips away unemployment benefits, food stamp assistance, while doing nothing to shutter tax loopholes for the wealthy, all while proposed military cuts are essentially restored with some fantastic sleight of hand. This represents a continuation of the neoliberal austerity program implemented by bi-partisan consensus after the meltdown of 2008. And how nicely timed it was to follow on the heels of the global outpouring of feeling for the dearly departed Nelson Mandela.
…Alive, King was a provocation, and at the time of his assassination seemed to be turning toward racism’s companion grievances of poverty and war. How fortunate for the shadowy redoubts of wealth and militarism that he was slain. In death, his economic and foreign policy challenges were interred with his casket, and he was posthumously pedestaled for his commitments to civil rights alone—a cause that no right-thinking human could deny. Those companion causes, however, were bold and contentious critiques of power itself, and its capacities for self-enrichment. As such, the tidy janitors of historical revisionism swept them from sight.
How interesting that King died in 1968—just as he was shifting course, attacking the Vietnam War and the economics of poverty—and Lewis Powel’s rallying cry to the American Chamber of Commerce appeared in 1971, effectively launching the politicization of neoliberalism as a form of class war by elites against the disenfranchised, prioritizing the very evils—war and disenfranchisement—against which King fought.
…How curious that Barack Obama ascended to the throne of American power in 2008, just as the African-American populace found itself on the wrong end of one of the greatest transfer of wealth from one group to another—over half their wealth, mostly in the form of real estate, largely from black hands to white hands, from vulnerable families to faceless real estate trusts. One would think, by listening to the glistering orations of Mr. Obama, that he would have acted to instantly restore the wealth of an abused minority. But, of course, Obama would never have been handed the scepter of American power had he not first paid fealty to the embedded wealth of American society. Had he not assured real estate, finance, and insurance sectors he was “a free market guy”, capable of enabling corporatism like the best of Republicans. And that he could in fact do it better than his predecessor. Simply swap out the labels to suit the changing economic climate. Deregulation would be reconfigured as toothless regulation (with its overweening regard for the market). Privatization would be swabbed off as energy independence (using the American obsession with independence to undermine ecological mandates). Federal downsizing would be recast as deficit reduction (falsely conflating declining growth with social spending). But as he shouldered his way through the living rooms of silent power, he assured the assembled doyens of industry that it all came to the same. Thus, the downward spiral of blacks was simply accelerated, their claims denied, their houses foreclosed upon, their creditors enriched.
…How instructive that Nelson Mandela precipitated and oversaw the dismantling of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, but his ascendancy to power corresponded with a fatal shift in the economic fortunes of black South Africans, who would watch manufacturing, employment, and wages all decline during Mandela’s prime (see Patrick Bond’s expert summary). Even as whites watched their share of South African wealth rise, as white-held corporations evacuated their money from the newly free state, and as all the best land, mines, manufacturing, and finance remained in the hands of white power.
…What can we surmise from these three paradoxes of justice? Namely, that social gains seem to happen only when they don’t threaten established wealth, which is ensured by a clandestine decoupling of social issues from economics. As society steps forward socially, it steps backward economically.
…In each instance—following King’s assassination, and Obama and Mandela’s election—the social gains made by the majestic courage of millions were balanced by a backdoor betrayal of their economic interests. … All of this is disguised by the clever machinations of the budget office, which is able to artificially create the impression of general growth and prosperity by masking the negative metrics with astonishing stock market growth. Rather than investing in more productive fixed assets in the real economy, from which it is harder to extract one’s capital, investors prefer the easy mobility of financial speculation. Preferably through the creation of a derivatives-based real estate bubble (see Japan, the U.S., and Ireland for instructive examples in this regard). The numbers from this stupendous growth for the few are conflated with the figures of stupefying decline for the majority to produce a perverted per capita profile—one that characterizes a nation in free fall as one in flight.
And that process leaves us with a picture that oddly resembles modern South Africa. Enfranchised blacks in dire straits, with no political party representing their interests. A well-tanned imperial elite doing fabulously well. The government doing little to help the poor, but plenty to enable the rich. And when the complicit politicians and court journalists get a free minute, they step forward with poetic odes to another fallen champion of the underclass—even as they quietly celebrate the renewal of mass delusion and the injustice of the status quo.