Supermarkets and global inequality

An important article appeared in The New York Times today, "Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers". But this article gives us insight into much more than grocery shopping in Central America.

The nexus of agriculture and elite globalization is - along with the great migrations of industries and people that are part of the same process - the most important social development of our time. Its effects are everywhere: the way the global economy works, the globespanning power of multinational corporations from the rich world, the slums of Latin America, the factories of China, the steadily wasting environment, the cultural homogeneity spreading across the world.

The story told by reporter Celia W Dugger is rooted in Latin America. She writes

The transformation of Latin America's food retailing system began in the 1980's and accelerated in the 1990's as countries opened their economies, often to satisfy conditions for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As foreign investment flooded in, multinational retailers bought up domestic chains or entered joint ventures with them.
We can see here the tremendous power of free trade doctrine to expand the control of the already powerful: corporations from America and Europe. One terrible effect as been heavily subsidized food exports from the rich countries flooding into the newly opened economies, driving Latin American farmers from their land into the constantly expanding slums of São Paulo, Bogotá, México, Caracas, Santiago (as well as Manila, Mumbai, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mombassa, Lagos, Johannesburg...).

But the article highlights a different transformation, the trend of expanding supermarkets which is reinforcing the impact of foreign agricultural imports. Taking advantage of their massive scale and huge resources, and appealing to consumers' desire to be more "modern", supermarkets have been steadily destroying their smaller competitors. The process affects not just smaller food markets, but also those who grow the food in the first place. Supermarkets demand a steadiness of supply and a homogeneity of produce that only large producers can meet, so smaller producers are finding themselves with fewer and fewer outlets for their goods.

The implications are huge. First is the nature of agriculture in Latin America. Cash crops (coffee, sugar, coca) have long been organized as plantations, with one landowner employing many waged workers and reaping most of the profits. Increasingly this model is being extended to food crops as well, as small producers are driven out of business and the refugees of the small farm end up under the glower of the field foreman, in the slums of the city, or as illegal immigrants to the United States.

And the deepening poverty is not being mitigated by the growth of sweatshop jobs as it is in China, since what export factories existed in Latin America are leaving for the even cheaper labor of China.

The environmental effects, not mentioned in the article, are also important. The American style of large monoculture crops, maintained by the heavy use of chemicals, will follow as its organizational form spreads - poisoning and draining the land as it has in the USA. Moreover, supermarkets' use of centralized food distribution is also a problem ("At La Fragua's immense distribution center in Guatemala City, trucks back into loading docks, where electric forklifts unload apples from Washington State, pineapples from Chile, potatoes from Idaho and avocados from Mexico.") The environmental impact of moving such large amounts of food over such vast distances is not to be ignored.

The trends captured in the article apply not just to Latin America but to the entire world. The massive centralization of economic power in a handful of corporations from the rich countries is the face of a coin whose other side is the concentration of wealth and power, both within countries and between them. What drives this growing gap is the freeing of markets. Markets are built on inequality, and left unregulated they will naturally increase it as the winners use their greater resources to institutionalize their power and privilege and demand even further concessions from the losers.

The phenomenon is well understood by its victims. As one small farmer from Guatemala, on the verge of losing his livelihood, says, large supermarkets exploit their size by playing their suppliers off against one another. "There are a lot of competitors here," he said, "a lot of small farmers trying to sell to them, so the prices are low."

The same methods have allowed a handful of corporations from the rich countries to dominate the world's commodity markets (copper, diamonds, coffee, cocoa, &c) as the many small producers are at the mercy of a few buyers. (The only important exception is oil, whose price has been kept low in a different way, viz. the political domination of the USA over the Middle East.) The rich world buys cheap to supply its factories, but maintains its domination over industry by relentlessly attacking economic nationalism - the only force that has ever industrialized a country - and by maintaining ownership over those factories it builds in the poor countries. Thus the rich world continues to dominate the global economy 50 years after being forced to yield political control over its colonies.

In Dugger's article we can see the human face of these abstract forces. The weakest members of society are driven to destitution as the relatively privileged engage in Western-style consumerism. Faceless Western corporations move inexorably into a controlling position over the economies of countries in the global South. Expanding wealth is used not to help everyone but to reinforce the position and privilege of those who already have too much of both.

Things have been moving in this direction for the last 20 years. How much longer can it continue?


Helping the Chinese kill Americans more effectively

The European Union's slow movement toward ending its arms embargo on China has generated an interesting reaction from the Pentagon. Out of the media spotlight, US officials have started applying serious pressure on the EU to keep the arms ban in place.

While the reasoning is publicly framed in terms of human rights and peace (to prevent China threatening Taiwan), the real concerns are captured in this unnamed Pentagon official's quote, "[The Europeans are] talking about helping the Chinese kill Americans more effectively." Or as The Washington Post puts it, (only after rehearsing the various iniquities of China), "[this is] a government that does not disguise its aim to assemble a force capable of challenging American ships in the Taiwan Strait."

While American leaders publicly maintain a friendly face toward China, the resistance to resuming EU arms exports is further evidence that national security officials in the USA view China as a near-term enemy. That human rights and peace have little to do with US criticism should be clear from the fact that 15 years ago American officials had no scruples about sending weapons to China, despite its similarly questionable Taiwan and human rights policies. The public outrage following the Tiananmen massacre forced the original arms embargoes in both Europe and the States, but the enthusiasm for maintaining them that has since developed within the US government is rooted firmly in Asia's changing geopolitical situation.

Barring some sort of economic collapse, Chinese diplomatic and economic power will continue to expand, and the threat to American hegemony over Asia will become ever more pressing. The USA may eventually feel the need to provoke a crisis and pull its allies firmly back to its side, which would make the international turmoil surrounding the Iraq invasion seem like a spring shower.


Death of the imperial dream in Iraq?

Is it too early to declare the failure of the USA in Iraq?

Not the failure of its stated goals of bringing democracy and prosperity. As the Lancet paper conclusively showed, things are worse now than before, and evidence that already-high levels of child malnutrition have actually doubled clinches it. The failure of those goals was conclusive long ago.

But these goals were always merely rhetoric. Is it too early to declare that the real goals - control of oil, permanent military bases, and domination of the economy - are now impossible?

The razing of Falluja marks a reascendance for the neoconservative tendency of rule thru naked power. Its aftermath - spreading Sunni rebellion and a likely mass Sunni boycott of the January 30 elections - is probably the dying gasp for the re-Baathification strategy adopted last summer. Putting the old power structure back in place is impossible in the face of complete Sunni alienation.

As the likelihood of a near-complete Sunni boycott increases, so too does the likelihood of a sweeping Shi'i victory. Al-Sistani is in the process of putting together a unified Shi'i slate of candidates which is sure to overwhelm the few Kurds who will be elected.

A Shia-dominated legislature would significantly or completely extinguish American power over Iraq. At the same time, it would set the lines for the coming civil war as the Shi'i state goes to work against the Sunni insurgency and perhaps begins the resubjugation of the Kurds.

The only alternative for the Americans is to "delay" (cancel) the elections, governing thru the continued martial law of puppet Allawi. But this would immediately create a general insurgency against the Americans as the Shia joined the Sunnis in a campaign to eject the USA.

It was entirely predictable before the war that communal civil war would follow. It was less obvious that American goals were impossible. We may have reached the point at which nothing can now be salvaged for America's imperial planners.


Has the Iraq invasion killed 100,000?

The best estimate yet of the death toll of the Iraq invasion was recently published in the British medical journal The Lancet. Using statistical sampling, the researchers concluded that 98,000 more Iraqis have died since the invasion than would have if death rates had remained the same as in the months before the invasion. This number includes deaths caused by American bombing and ground attacks, insurgent attacks, increased crime, and disruptions to the food, medical, and economic life of the country.

In other words, the already high death rate in Iraq (caused primarily by the USA-maintained sanctions) has increased catastrophically due to the war.

The study is not foolproof, and it may overestimate - or perhaps even underestimate - the total death toll (a thorough discussion by researcher Stephen Soldz is available here). But it's the best study that's been done thus far. If even a fraction as many have died, the humanitarian disaster this represents is absolutely stunning.


Call for a culture war

The election’s finally over, and there’s no denying it: Republicans won. They decisively won the presidency (Bush even got the most votes this time); they significantly strengthened their hold on the Senate; they preserved their majorities in the House and the governors’ mansions. They overwhelmingly won 11 state referenda banning gay marriage. And they did all this in the face of a huge increase in voter participation, the Democrats’ first major grassroots election drive in decades, and George Bush’s record of lies and incompetence in office.

How did they pull it off? Exit polls identify four major issues that were important to voters: “moral values” (22 percent), “terrorism” (19 percent), jobs and the economy (20 percent), and the war in Iraq (15 percent). Eighty percent of those choosing one of the first two as their top issue voted for Bush, a similar number picking one of the second two as their top issue voted for Kerry.

In other words, Republicans lost overwhelmingly on Iraq and the economy, but won overwhelmingly on terrorism and “values”. That means the Republican message of fear and aggression against foreigners (what they call the war on terrorism) and their assault against gay rights, abortion rights, and the separation of church and state are deeply attractive to most Americans.

The first step in dealing with popular support for a reactionary agenda is recognizing its foundation. Social conservatism is not merely “false consciousness” or a Republican trick to secure support for tax cuts. People who oppose gay rights have just as much a stake in preventing gay marriage as they do in protecting their job. Their cultural and gender identity rests on the continued repression of gays, and an end to that repression is deeply threatening - often threatening in a much more intimate way than losing a job could ever be. This is why the “values” platform can be so compelling.

Support for the administration’s anti-“terrorism” policies is perhaps even more perplexing to progressives who know about its record of security and intelligence incompetence and overseas brutality. But most Americans are rooted in an extremely strong culture of hostility to and fear of foreigners, and belief in America’s benign influence. The 9/11 attacks brought these latent feelings to the surface, and along with Bush’s lies and the media’s broad complicity have sustained strong support for the administration’s foreign policies. Together with the successful longterm effort of Republicans to brand Democrats as soft on foreign threats, “terrorism” became a major advantage for Bush.

Progressives have two options in response to Republicans’ strength on “values” and security issues. They can move to the right (as they steadily have on economic issues for the last 25 years) or they can start a culture war of their own.

Democratic politicians and operatives, motivated by a short-term desire to win, will probably move to the right. But trying to out-Republican the Republicans has more often than not been a losing strategy, and when it has worked (as under Clinton), it proved a hollow victory. A better course is to face the cultural intolerance of Americans head-on in a long-term attempt to neutralize the only advantages Republicans have.

What does this mean? For starters, it means making gay rights a leading part of the agenda. Not just the fight for gay marriage, but demanding absolute acceptance of all queer lifestyles from all Americans. Thirty years ago a similar cultural fight, demanding equality for women, was launched. Today that equality is not yet a reality, but few people still question the principle. Elections are no longer won demonizing man-hating feminists. If the Democrats turn right and forsake the gay rights agenda, it won’t just represent a defeat for the principle of equality. It will also mean conceding in perpetuity an election issue to the Republicans. Democrats will never be able to position themselves as more intolerant, but they might eventually be able to neutralize the issue.

We face a similar fight against Americans’ nationalism and the imperial culture at home that consistently supports U.S. domination abroad. We have to break down the myth of American benevolence, and challenge the privilege most Americans enjoy as residents of the global hegemon. Ending the fear and hatred of foreigners felt by most Americans is a key part of this battle.

These culture wars can’t be won at the polls. It’s time for progressives to stop spending so much energy on elections that are already rigged against them and concentrate on community organizing and identity politics. Not the fragmenting racial identity politics of the early ’90s, but a universal cultural politics demanding equality and acceptance for all cultural practices except those that violate these principles. Hatred of gays and foreigners is what won this election for the Republicans, and until we face this hatred squarely and force it into oblivion the Republicans are going to keep on winning.


At last, truly experiencing socialism

For those of my legions of loyal readers who did not know, I've just move to Beijing for a year. Posting will probably be sparse as I get settled in and overwhelmed with language class. I've been having trouble accessing my blog, but apparently not the posting mechanism. The Communist Party moves in mysterious ways.

And btw, the main feature of Chinese socialism I've experienced so far is an overabundance of billboards.


Remember the sanctions

In 1990, despite 8 years of devastating war with Iran, Iraq could boast some of the most advanced medical, commercial, and energy infrastructure in the Middle East. This was Saddam Hussein's way of buying off the population — keep quiet and you'll live a comfortable life. Along with security (purchased at a terrible human cost), high material living standards were about the only benefit of Hussein's dictatorship.

Ten years later that level of development had been utterly destroyed, and living standards in Iraq ranked among the most miserable in the world. What happened? Hussein's instincts as a dictator didn't change. Iraq still had oil, which paid for everything in the first place. The difference was American policy.

In the 1980s Hussein was a useful ally for the United States, but with the invasion of Kuwait he became a potential threat to American power over the Middle East. The USA reacted by first brutally attacking Iraq, devastating its sanitation and power infrastructure, its roads and bridges, with weeks of bombing, as well as massacring much of its army. Then, since Bush I was unwilling to conquer the country, he merely ensured that Iraq would be unable to rebuild. A crippled country would be easier to deal with.

Bush had an extremely effective weapon at his disposal. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the UN reacted by forbidding any trade whatsoever with Iraq. Since Iraq relied overwhelmingly on imports for its food, medicine, and machinery, the sanctions hit civilians hard. But things got much worse after the USA bombed much of the civilian infrastructure to rubble. Diseases swept the populace as sanitation systems broke down and medicine was unavailable. Food supplies ran short. Without spare parts, electricity generators and communication systems couldn't be rebuilt. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war, sanctions killed far more people than bombs or bullets.

And the sanctions went on, with Clinton continuing Bush I's "containment" of Iraq. The devastation they wrecked against civilians turned virtually the whole world against them. But the USA wielded a veto in the UN, and blocked any attempts to end them. In time the severity of the sanctions regime was slightly alleviated with the oil for food program, in which Iraq could buy food and medicine by selling limited amounts of oil to the UN. But oil for food only stabilized an intolerable situation. Vital civilian infrastructure could not be repaired, the Iraqi economy remained caught in depression; the suffering continued. As Iraq sank back into desperate poverty, its middle class was destroyed, its medical system suffered catastrophic decline, death rates shot up. Perhaps 1 million people died as a result of the sanctions. The United States had succeeded in taking from the Iraqi people the single unmitigated benefit they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

There's a strong argument to be made that the sanctions met the legal definition of crimes against humanity. Some, including one of the two directors of the oil for food program who resigned in protest at the devastation of the sanctions, went so far as to label the sanctions genocide. But whatever the legal classification, there's no question that the sanctions were a policy of mass murder directed against the innocent of Iraq, used as a tool of American state policy.

Yet during the sanctions decade (actually over 12 years) there was virtually no debate about them in American civil society. The media didn't report on their effects, government leaders dismissed criticisms as pro-Hussein propaganda, discussion centered on whether to be more punitive. After the invasion there has been even less of a will to confront one of the worst atrocities ever committed by US policymakers. Ignorance of the sanctions is so deep that articles like this one can claim that infrastructure disrepair was caused by Saddam Hussein's insidious neglect, rather than the USA blocking spare parts imports.

One sanctions-related topic is up for discussion tho: corruption in the oil for food program. The New York Times is now writing long articles about allegations pushed by anti-UN forces in the USA that the oil for food program was illegally flexible in administering the exports and imports of Iraq.

I think it tells us something about public culture when this sort of flexibility — which probably saved a number of Iraqis' lives by making the sanctions slightly less harsh — should become controversial, while the policies that caused mass death have been wiped clean from historical memory.


The end of oil

Last month I wrote about the economic devastation and possibly even war that could follow a constriction in oil supplies, but I didn't really make the case that such a constriction is approaching. The current issue of Harper's Magazine features a concise and well-argued article explaining why cheap oil will soon be a thing of the past. I've posted it here. Take a look — within a decade or two this could be the most important issue the world faces.


The chance for peace with Iran further dissipates

The disposition of the Middle East after the Iraq war depends heavily on the relationships other countries establish with Iran. Will the USA seek to overthrow the government covertly or out in the open? Will Israel continue its belligerency up to the point of open hostilities? Will Iraq move toward friendliness or recreate the old enmities?

Recent indications are discouraging. As I wrote last week, a US policy to destabilize Iran may be coalescing. It now seems the "sovereign" Iraqi government is moving in the same direction. A couple weeks ago Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan made a series of anti-Iran comments, accusing it of fomenting terrorism in Iraq and threatening to retaliate militarily. Shaalan's views were immediately contradicted by other members of the government, including Prime Minister Allawi. But now Allawi is moving toward Shaalan, having cancelled a diplomatic visit to Iran in protest of Irani interference in Iraqi affairs.

Juan Cole comments:
Allawi's cozy relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and his snub of Iran, suggests an emerging pattern in the caretaker government. Secular, pro-American Shiites like Allawi and Shaalan are increasingly throwing their lot in with powerful Sunni Arab neighbors of Iraq, cementing their alliance with Sunni Iraqi politicians like President Yawar in the process. In contrast, the religious Shiite parties are not being given any significant role in the new government (al-Da`wa has a vice-presidency and SCIRI has the Finance Ministry, and that is about it; the Sadrists have nothing). They are the ones who would seek close relations with Iran if they could. The religious Shiite parties also appear to be being sidelined in the national congress. Are pro-American, secular Shiite leaders a trojan horse inside Shiite Iraq for restored Sunni power and diplomacy in Iraq and the Gulf?
As I wrote last month, the restoration of Sunni Baathist power seems to be the USA's goal in Iraq. Hostility to Iran is a key part of this program. From the time of the first USA-Iraq war to the runup to invasion in 2003, the biggest fear American planners had in overthrowing Hussein was that the Shi'i majority would ally with Iran once it was freed of Baathist tyranny. The neocons were convinced that the Shia would welcome them and accept American control, but more cautious types in State and the CIA worried that Iran would benefit and American power in the region be weakened.

Clearly the State/CIA fears were more grounded in reality than the neocon fantasies. But taking over Iran has always been at least as important to the neocons as taking over Iraq, just harder to do. Now that the Iraqi Shia have proved independent and the strategy in Iraq has been shifted to Baathist restoration, it has become an urgent priority for the Americans to contain the potential gains for Iran and prevent the emergence of a Shi'i regime in Iraq. These two aims are closely linked for both the Americans and those who head the government in Baghdad. As elections in Iraq approach, watch out for increasing attacks on Iran and Iraqi Shia as justification for containing the power of both.


Taking city politics seriously

Does it seem strange that people on the left don't talk about city politics? We know exactly what's going on in Iraq or Argentina, we know exactly which social forces are at work and what arguments to use against our opponents. But ask us how power is organized in Chicago or LA, what the key issues are, what social groups we can look to as allies, and we're completely lost.

At least I have been, and based on the lack of writing about it in progressive publications it seems like I'm not alone. Chicago is a city seemingly full of opportunities for the left. Huge inequalities of wealth, entire sections of the city (mostly populated by minorities) left to decay and violence, inadequate public transit, major environmental concerns, increasing business homogenization, loss of public space, low wages, exploitation of immigrants, &c, &c. Yet there's virtually no progressive civil society to speak of. Electoral politics is run by the Daley machine and there's basically no public debate over city policies. Hardly any local publications cover these issues, besides occasional good reporting in The Reader, The Chicago Reporter, and Chicago Indymedia. Community groups function here and there, but with almost no visibility or power. Cooperative businesses are nowhere to be found.

So this is a call for leftists to re'engage with city issues. It's not just that there are a lot of extremely important struggles that are being neglected, it's also an important strategic issue. The kinds of social movements we need to make any sort of national or global structural changes won't have any force without a strong base in communities and democratic businesses. We don't get that by ignoring what's going on where we live.

For my Chicago friends, this article is a good place to start. We need to understand how power works before we can confront it. In Chicago, Daley's machine Democrats work with developers, unions, businesses with city contracts, and international business interests in finance, law, and manufacturing to keep a stranglehold on politics and the economy. And they do it with virtually no dissent. That has to end.


Fun fact: China is big

New York
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Antonio

Those are all 9 US cities with a population of 1 million or more.


Those are the 9 largest cities in China with a population of 1 million or more — out of 166! And only 40 percent of Chinese live in cities.


Hope is on the way?!

Is MoveOn.org actually getting more annoying? I guess they were always wholly subordinate to the Democratic Party, but as the campaign progresses they become more and more shameless about it.

In an e-mail they sent out today, this is what they had to say:
When you watch John Kerry tonight, allow yourself to imagine a better future. Imagine an America which is respected throughout the world, and which strives to do right by all of the citizens of the world. Imagine living in a country where the values of community, respect, and empathy are held highest. Imagine having a President who, like President Roosevelt, believes that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

We'll have a lot of work to do on November 3rd when Kerry is our new President. But we'll wake up that morning able to dream big dreams for a country and a world that are once again headed in the right direction.
I know we're all taught as kids how important it is to exercise our imaginations, but to imagine a Democratic president leading the world in the "right direction" is asking far too much.

What we'd get with Kerry is what we had with Clinton: Policies meant to expand American global hegemony, but done under the guise of multilateralism — less aggressive, certainly, but perhaps more effective, especially in the current climate. Tepid support for progressive domestic measures to address social inequalities, with little to no policy follow-thru. Allowing corporate priorities to set the economic agenda at home and abroad.

Groups like MoveOn are far too quick to ignore how Democrats actually govern, and far too eager to amplify their campaign rhetoric. This is not how to build a progressive movement. Tricking people into having hope every four years doesn't do much good when those hopes are always cruelly disappointed. The outcome is apathy and cynicism.

I don't have a problem with people voting Democrat if that's what they want to do. But to do so naively is the worst possible course. Vote with your eyes open, and with the understanding that no matter how many times the Republicans are defeated, the Democrats will never eliminate fundamental global and domestic inequalities. For that to happen we must pursue the much harder work of organizing communities and building democratic businesses. Don't expect political elites to do the work for us.


Operation: Irani Freedom?

As if any more evidence was needed, the USA has once again proved that how it deals with terrorists has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with larger US strategic goals.

Everyone knows that the USA tries to destroy certain terrorist groups, mainly those that target US assets or Israel. And everyone who is reasonably well-informed and not blinded by American nationalism also knows that the US supports other terrorist groups and many kinds of state terrorism. But generally speaking, the USA doesn't actually include the terrorists it supports on its official list of terrorist groups.

The Irani group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is an exception. Until last year this organization periodically assassinated Irani leaders (including the president and premier in 1981), attacked Irani embassies, and launched mortars into Iran from their sanctuary in Iraq. Equipped by Saddam Hussein, the MEK helped crush the Shi'i and Kurdish revolts following the first American war against Iraq. In 1997 the USA, seeking to improve relations with Iran and seeing no loss in condemning an Hussein-allied group, added the MEK to the official list of terrorist organizations.

Things changed with the conquest of Iraq. Neoconservatives, looking ahead to the expected overthrow of the Irani regime, sought to protect MEK. But other forces in the administration pushed the other way. They hoped to improve relations with Iran and feared undermining American credibility with the unusually obvious hypocrisy proposed by the neocons.

It seems the neocons have won the argument. After the invasion, MEK members were confined to their camp outside Baghdad until the USA could decide what to do with them. Now the decision has come, and it seems to be the first step in signing up the MEK as a proxy army for aggression against Iran. After a 16-month review, the USA has reclassified them "protected persons", a classification under the laws of war that ensures members of the MEK will not face charges in Iraq or be extradited to Iran.

How could the USA protect people that America itself brands as terrorists? A senior American official explained the nuances, "A member of a terrorist organization is not necessarily a terrorist." In this case, apparently, none of the members of a terrorist organization are terrorists.

We could be seeing the opening moves in administration plans to destabilize or possibly even invade Iran. Middle East expert Juan Cole thinks so. In a post last week, he explained and debunked the latest allegations of Irani complicity with the 9/11 highjackers — the same sorts of insinuations and carefully-worded quarter-truths that launched us on the conquest of Iraq. Cole fears that a second Bush term will give us an invasion of Iran. That may be a little alarmist at this point, a covert destabilization campaign seems more likely (anyone remember 1953?). But let's not rule out some sort of crisis exploding over Iran's development of nuclear weapons, perhaps kicked off by an Israeli bombing of their facilities. In that situation, it might not matter who's in the White House.

Avoiding disaster while dealing with the China threat

Every so often a rash of articles appears warning about the dangerous rise of China. Increasingly tho — at least in more liberal publications — the rise of China is seen as inevitable and attention is focused on how to accomodate the new power rather than on the threat to American control.

One recent example is James Hoge writing in Foreign Affairs, "A Global Power Shift in the Making". He writes:
Major shifts of power between states, not to mention regions, occur infrequently and are rarely peaceful. In the early twentieth century, the imperial order and the aspiring states of Germany and Japan failed to adjust to each other. The conflict that resulted devastated large parts of the globe. Today, the transformation of the international system will be even bigger and will require the assimilation of markedly different political and cultural traditions. This time, the populous states of Asia are the aspirants seeking to play a greater role. Like Japan and Germany back then, these rising powers are nationalistic, seek redress of past grievances, and want to claim their place in the sun. Asia's growing economic power is translating into greater political and military power, thus increasing the potential damage of conflicts. Within the region, the flash points for hostilities Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and divided Kashmir have defied peaceful resolution. Any of them could explode into large-scale warfare that would make the current Middle East confrontations seem like police operations. In short, the stakes in Asia are huge and will challenge the West's adaptability.
And he's right. Even the worst horrors we've seen in the last ten years — the Rwandan genocide, the sanctions against Iraq, the Congo civil war — could pale next to war in East or South Asia. Of particular interest to Americans, there's no question that the USA would involve itself in any war over Taiwan or in Korea. Tho the chance of such wars is relatively low, the situations are volatile enough that even a minor incident could quickly escalate into a crisis.

The USA itself may set off such a crisis thru its belligerency against North Korea or by bringing into the open its support for de facto Taiwan independence and military containment of China. Starting under Clinton and accelerating rapidly after 9/11, the USA has quietly moved to hem in China with a ring of alliances (the most important being Japan, India, and Australia) and military bases and agreements (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, and soon Indonesia added to 60-year-old deployments in Japan and South Korea).

Hoge is the first mainstream commentator I've seen to acknowledge this, and he makes a strong case that we have to start thinking about more constructive ways to manage the transition to a China-centered Asia. But his suggestions for accomplishing this are, to say the least, inadequate to the task. His main ideas seem to be sending more staff to the US embassy in China and admitting China to the G8. (The Group of 8 is an organization of the rich countries plus Russia that holds an annual high-level meeting and doesn't do much else.)

In other words, Hoge isn't even beginning to confront the major divergence of interests between China and the USA that is already increasing tensions. The biggest issue is, as always, Taiwan. China claims the island as its own, and officially Washington agrees. But the USA also views Taiwan as an important strategic asset which, if China reaquired peacefully, would significantly expand Chinese geopolitical and economic power. Neither side is willing to back down, and some right-wing forces in the USA are even pushing for a "re-evaluation" of the official policy accepting Beijing's claim to Taiwan. Such a step would be disastrous.

Other potential points of contention include the USA's massive military presence surrounding China, American control of Asia's major shipping lanes, China's claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea, US support for Japanese remilitarization, and control over natural resources, especially oil.

If open conflict comes, it will be over these strategic issues. But the fundamental question is whether or not the USA can maintain its hegemony over Asia thru alliances with local elites in all the countries around China save North Korea and Myanmar. Will these alliances hold up, or will Asian elites begin to see realignment with China as better serving their interests? If they do, will the USA take destabilizing measures to wrench their allies back under American protection? If it comes to that, I fear for both Asia and America.


What to do about nationalism and electoralism

Justin Podur, a Canadian writer for ZNet, posted recently about two important topics for the left to think about: nationalism and electoralism.

I added my thoughts about nationalism in the comments to his post. The left has historically been internationalist in its rhetoric, but anti-imperialist movements and communist revolutions have almost always governed in distinctly nationalist ways when they came to power, generally to the great harm of their people. But would their success have been possible without nationalism to mobilize support? Do the gains they make outweigh the damage their nationalism does?

On electoralism I spelled out my thoughts in this article. While I'm ultimately opposed to representative "democracy", I also think electoral strength is an important means to a more progressive society. Yet the electoral system isn't much use to us as long as we remain weak in our ability to mobilize people or money. So the priority should be building social movements, community organizations, and democratic businesses. If that can be done thru electoral organizing, fine. But that should always be the focus, and mustn't be lost in the strange obsession many leftists have in figuring out who to vote for (as if one vote matters).


Radical thoughts on gay marriage

Today the Senate votes on a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Obviously this kind of ban would be totally unacceptable. But I have to admit being a bit conflicted on the issue.

First, I don't see why the institution of marriage is all that desirable in the first place. It might be better to eliminate marriage as a social norm altogether. Still, if people want to get married, that's their choice. Certainly there's no place for the state to interfere in consensual behavior.

But I don't think there's any place for the state to affirm marriage either. The basic set-up now is that the state recognizes marriages and provides financial benefits for people who get married. Why would we want or need state sanction for marriage? And why on earth would the unmarried subsidize those who are married?

Yet the movement for state-recognized gay marriage isn't only about eliminating discrimination between gay and straight marriages (which would be best addressed by removing state involvement altogether). It's also about using a hugely important symbol to push the dominant society into further acceptance of gay people.

Gay marriage does this in two ways:
  • As a provocation, by challenging people's conceptions of one of their most closely-held ideals, it forces them to confront the existence of different sexualities and come to terms with otherwise submerged prejudices;
  • As a move to normalize gays, making them less of a threat, by integrating them into the deeply conservative institution of marriage.
The first is useful, the second more questionable. But maybe acceptance of gay people needs to come before challenging more fundamental systems of gender and sexuality.


More on re-Baathification

Here's something interesting I hadn't heard before, which strengthens the point I was making in the last post:
As one of his final acts, [ex-proconsul of Iraq] Bremer revoked all [Coalition Provisional Authority] orders and directives relating to de-Baathification, the controversial process that banned all Baath Party members above a certain rank from posts in the occupation government. In April, Bremer announced that he would liberalize the law, which he said had been unfairly applied. On June 28, he went further, formally disbanding the Iraqi De-Baathification Council headed by former [Iraqi Governing Council] member Ahmad Chalabi.
Thus marking the end of a truly revolutionary experiment in colonialism, and acknowledging that a reconstituted Baath bureaucracy and military led by suitably loyal Iraqis will be necessary to achieve American goals in Iraq.


Indirect rule triumphs in Iraq

In his glowing portrait of "sovereign" Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reveals something very important. He quotes Allawi from over a decade ago, when he was attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein, as saying, "We were originally leading members of the Baath Party, so we still have a lot of supporters in the Iraqi establishment. We subscribe to the theory that we can only change the regime through the existing establishment."

And here we see the only viable option that the United States ever had in achieving its goals in Iraq — decapitate the Baath power structure but preserve the body, substituting the USA as the new overlord.

America's goals have always been control of Iraq's oil, permanent military bases from which to police the Middle East, and access for American corporations. The spectacularly arrogant neoconservatives in the White House and the Pentagon thought the best way to do this would be to eliminate the old power structure: abolish the army, dismantle the Baathist bureaucracy, transfer control of the economy from the state to American corporations, and impose American clients like Ahmed Chalabi as the new lords. They thought the Iraqi people would welcome foreign domination since it was replacing Sunni brutality.

But the occupation failed. Iraqis did not welcome the domination of the country that had attacked them twice in 12 years and imposed devastating sanctions on them in between. The promises of reconstruction were left unfulfilled. Security was impossible to maintain as members of the military and Sunni establishment took up arms, and were eventually joined by Shia. Privatizing the economy into American hands ran into legal trouble.

The balance of power within the administration shifted from the neoconservatives to the more cautious planners in State and the CIA. Allawi was a CIA asset for years, and always a rival to Chalabi. His elevation represents a decisive repudiation of the revolutionary neoconservative attempt at outright colonialism, now replaced by the honored imperial use of indirect rule thru existing power structures.

Allawi has moved quickly to reestablish the old ruling apparatus, reconstituting the military and giving himself sweeping powers to impose martial law. The Baath bureaucracy, because it was needed to keep things running, was never purged except at the highest levels. This will become the social base for the new American approach.

This is the same approach the USA used in the occupations it ran after World War II: West Germany, Japan, South Korea. Destroy the leadership for its crime of disloyalty to America, but retain the economic and bureaucratic elites as long as they swear fealty to the United States. In Germany and Japan the formula was highly effective. But Iraq may be more like Korea, because an independent power center exists outside of the state and business elites. In Korea, it was popular and highly organized revolutionary leftist organizations; in Iraq it's the Shia, organized thru important clerics. Resistance to American goals wasn't exterminated in Korea until the use of wholesale repression followed by catastrophic war. This may be Iraq's fate as well.

Where elite foreign policy debates come from

In an interview with Joshua Micah Marshall, Senator Joe Biden (possible secretary of state under a Kerry administration) gives as good a summary as you'll get of the differences between the multilateral imperialism practiced by most Democrats and many 'realist' Republicans on the one hand and the unilateral imperialism of the current administration:
[I support] what I refer to as this enlightened nationalism, that we operate in our national interests in every circumstance where we can under the umbrella of international rules and the international community. But where the damage and danger is irrefutable, we reserve the right to act in our own interest or in the interest of humanity, if we have the capacity. And that is a different standard than existed for the first 27 years I was a United States senator. [sic]

That is different than the standard and the rationale of our neoconservative friends. They argue that the exercise of force is important because we are at the apex of our power and that we are more enlightened than the rest of the world. And when we have the ability to exercise force it allows us to leverage our power in direct proportion to the moral disapprobation of the rest of the world.
The two factions have a very different conception of power: the liberals see it as a scarce resource, to be carefully shepherded and used in defiance of global opinion only when all attempts at consultation and bribery have been exhausted. The neoconservatives, however, believe that power must be used to be maintained, that when we have the most power is precisely the time that it must exercised most nakedly, to eliminate any remaining challenges to American hegemony while it is best positioned to do so. And to make an example of those who still resist.

But the obligatory gestures toward the "interests of humanity" aside, both factions are seeking the same thing: permanent American supremacy in the realms of economic and military power (i.e. "national interests"). Neither side is interested in international law except to the extent it can be used to advance these goals. Both sides support parliamentary democracy, but only if the government it produces assents to American suzerainty. Both sides regularly use extreme violence, and neither side will criticize the other for doing so. The only criticisms exchanged between the two are on how effective their tactics are for advancing the shared goals.

Despite the different outlooks and occasionally fierce tactical disagreements, the two factions often function in complementary ways. A unilateral administration takes sometimes shocking steps to expand American power, increasing global resistance to American hegemony. Multilateralists are then elected who deploy soothing diplomacy, listening to alienated allies, supporting multilateral initiatives, and generally rebuilding American standing — all while consolidating the gains made under their expansionary predecessors. This is a longstanding pattern: expansion under Eisenhower, consolidation under Kennedy, expansion under Johnson, consolidation under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, expansion under Reagan, consolidation under Bush I and Clinton, expansion under Bush II...consolidation under Kerry?


Market discipline for Europe

For some time now people on the left have been warning that EU expansion into the former Soviet empire would be used European elites to drive down working conditions and dismantle the European social compact. That effort is now starting to shift into high gear.

Siemens, one of Germany's most important corporations, has just used the threat of shifting work to Hungary to force workers at two of its factories to accept a 5-hour increase in the work week and elimination of the Christmas bonus with not increase in wages. This is part of a Europe-wide effort on the part of employers to break the limited work weeks that have been won over the last 30 years.

Since World War II, Europe's strong labor movement has won impressive gains that the much weaker unions of the United States could only dream of. 35 hour work weeks, 25-30 vacation days/year, universal healthcare, good unemployment insurance. American commentators like to ascribe this to cultural differences: Americans have a stronger work ethic, Europeans value leisure more. But unless someone can point out the millions of American workers who would turn down a month of vacation every year at the same wages, the difference is simply one of power. In the fight over who will control the wealth generated by industrial economies, the workers are weaker in the USA so they get less of the benefits.

Unfortunately, European unions became complacent and stopped short of demanding truly radical transformations: workers' control of factories, the elimination of management, ending private ownership of businesses, abolition of markets. The fundamental dynamics of a capitalist economy were not done away with, merely repressed. Now that employers can take advantage of low-wage competition in Eastern Europe and other poor countries to increase their leverage, they'll go back on the offensive.

This is part of a worldwide reassertion of power by the ownership class against workers that's been unfolding for 30 years. In the poor countries it's called "structural adjustment" and imposed by the IMF. In the USA it's seen in the shift to casual/part-time work for low benefits and pay as the cities deindustrialize. Here it's called "globalization". Western Europe is the last holdout, but the process is getting underway there too. Everywhere, welfare measures are being dismantled, businesses are privatized, regulations are eliminated, labor is increasingly exploited, elites are increasingly powerful and rich.

If all you do is reform capitalism when you're strong, it'll only be a matter of decades before the system reasserts itself and all your gains are undone.


Watch out for the apocalypse

A week ago the most widely-read liberal imperialist, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, informed us that he'd be taking a break for three months to finish a book (he's being replaced in the month of July by the first decent liberal to be given space as a columnist, Barbara Ehrenreich). Friedman wrote about world developments he'd like to see in his time away. As usual, he was extremely annoying:
  • He insisted on plugging his new book by name;
  • The new book has a lame title, The World is Flat;
  • He was, as usual, embarrassingly naive about American actions in Iraq;
  • He was, as usual, embarrassingly naive about the war on "terrorism".
On the other hand, he didn't use any of his intolerable business-writing metaphors (remember this one from a few weeks ago, about how Indians are saying, "Slow down the globalization train, and build me a better step-stool, because I want to get on.")?

And he raised an extremely important idea, which I haven't seen in the mainstream before:
a grand China-US Manhattan Project — a crash program to jointly develop clean alternative energies, bringing together China’s best scientists and its ability to force pilot projects, with America’s best brains, technology and money.
The most dangerous thing facing humanity right now is how we deal with energy. Currently the world relies overwhelmingly on oil, coal, and natural gas to produce its energy, and extensively uses oil to produce chemicals and plastics.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, industrial society would collapse without fossil fuels, so if the supply ever starts getting tight we can anticipate fierce competition — up to catastrophic war — among the major consumers over access to supply. And second, fossil fuels devastate the environment, causing air and water pollution (and a whole range of human health problems), and probably worst of all, threaten us with global warming. Global warming is a time bomb that will likely increase sea levels (inundating coastal cities and increasing devastating floods in places like Bangladesh), make extremes of weather worse, hurt agricultural production, and increase the spread of disease.

The environmental reasons alone should have us taking drastic measures to substitute clean and sustainable fuels for fossil fuels. But the other matter — a tightening supply of fossil fuels, especially oil (far and away the most important of the three fossil fuels) — should have us scared to death.

For one thing, within a matter of years we may reach the peak of global oil production, as argued in the new book The End of Oil. If so, supplies of oil will rapidly decline in coming years. Either way, large poor countries with rapidly expanding economies — above all, China — will send demand ever higher, with supply lagging increasingly far behind. As Paul Krugman has laid out, this summer's oil price increase is the first hint of things to come. Add to that the possibility of supply disruptions because of instability in the major producing nations. Because industrial economies are so thoroughly dependent on oil, any large price spike can easily drive them into recession.

A particularly rapid price increase would be even more devastating. The prices of everything we use oil for — gasoline, medicines, pesticides, fertilizers, plastics, industrial lubricants — would shoot up too. With the food, transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare industries in crisis, industrial society might start breaking down. Competition over declining resources would be fierce, possibly to the point of general war among the industrial powers. It's a terrifying prospect.

The only alternative is to begin the transition away from fossil fuels early enough that constricting supplies won't cause such violent disruptions. A concerted shift away from fossil fuels would be a mammoth undertaking, and would have to be driven by large government expenditures from all the rich countries. The richest countries, who got rich in the first place thru intensive use of fossil fuels and stayed that way by maintaining control of the Middle East and imposing low oil prices, have a duty to contribute most of the money and expertise to develop alternative energy sources and make us much more energy efficient. But they must also work closely with the poor countries to teach them the science and engineering skills and give them the clean technologies that will allow economic development without the destructive environmental impact of Western industrialization.

Yet even a massive crash program to develop alternative fuels is unlikely to fully replace the energy we can so easily extract from fossil fuels, especially if we were to evenly distribute the consumption of energy (the USA, 4 percent of the world's population, uses 25 percent of its energy; the OECD, a club for the rich countries, consumes on average 450 percent more energy than the non-OECD countries). That means a major change in our own consumption patterns is also necessary: the elimination of private vehicles in cities; the transition to sustainable agricultural methods that use little petroleum, and the necessary corollary of shifting to a meatless diet; decreased new consumption and increased recycling and reusing.

Unfortunately, the capitalist global economy has not only given us this crisis, it also stands in the way of a solution. The logic of competition bars sharing of money, technology, and expertise for clean alternatives; the culture of consumption demands ever-increasing production; the rules of capitalism prevent the social and environmental costs of energy use from being reflected in its price. Those with a material and power interest in the status quo control not only the rich countries but countries like China as well. Despite Friedman's praiseworthy idea of a Sino-American clean energy project, maybe he's simply being naive again.

Those of us with a better understanding of state behavior might put our hope elsewhere: that enough regular people could change their own habits and bring enough pressure to bear against their leaders that they would be forced to change the institutions that have brought us here.

Hussein's Iran atrocities reported

At last, the American media have covered the story of Saddam Hussein's anti-Iran war crimes being excluded from the indictment against him. The newspaper? The New York Daily News. At the end of an article on page 12.

No word yet from any of the supposed papers of record.

The charges, by the way, can be found here. Reporting on the charges has been very vague, with more than one newspaper mistakenly making reference to the Iran war.


Anti-Iran atrocities don't count?

Following up my post from yesterday, Reuters reports that Iran is wondering why Saddam Hussein's war crimes against it are not included in his indictment. Hussein's illegal invasion of Iran in 1980, his repeated use of chemical weapons against Irani soldiers, his massive indiscriminate bombing campaigns against Irani civilians — apparently all off limits in his trial. With the exception of his genocide against Iraq's Kurds, these crimes are Hussein's worst, far worse than his invasion of Kuwait or the various assassinations he ordered. Perhaps there's an unwritten rule in international jurisprudence: immunity for any acts committed with the support of the United States.

A Lexis-Nexis search shows that no major newspaper in the United States has covered this issue or even commented on it.


Does the left love capitalism?

Michael Albert today added an interesting post to his blog on participatory economics. It seems that while audiences up to and including the mainstream in countries around the world are interested in hearing about parecon, in the USA not even liberals will give it a shot.

Outside the country, Albert is invited to conferences, the latest parecon book is translated and reviewed, meanwhile American leftist publications like The Nation or The Progressive won't even review the book much less start up a discussion on the vision.

This is strange, to say the least. Liberals know that free markets make all kinds of social inequalities much worse, that they destroy the environment, that they corrupt politics. And here's a proposal that would eliminate markets and replace them with something egalitarian and democratic. Wouldn't we at least want to talk about it?

Maybe these liberals are afraid of appearing too radical? Do they fear that talking about ending capitalism would hurt their credibility? It's possible. But credibility with whom? Who is their audience? Is it regular men and women, or is it those who hold power in society? Most mainline liberal organizations, like NOW, the PIRGs, NAACP, &c, focus their attention on appeals to legislators, corporate leaders, and other highly-placed authority figures. These people would of course dismiss any fundamental challenge to free markets — their power is based on the status quo.

Regular people are too often merely foot soldiers to man the phone banks and collect the petitions, not individuals to be mobilized and empowered in new structures of power. Maybe this audience would be more receptive?

Another possibility, as Albert has suggested, is that the leaders of these magazines and organizations themselves have a class interest in preventing the sort of nonhierarchical structures of parecon. They, like their counterparts in government and corporations, serve at the top of hierarchies, receiving greater pay and authority than those they order around. The people who fund these organizations and read these magazines, too, tend to be from an educated, professional background, expecting the power and perks that accrue to their class. In parecon these sorts of inequities would be eliminated.

Whatever the reason, it's time for the left to stop being afraid. The injustices we fight against, from race to foreign policy, can't be solved as long as capitalism reigns.

(I make the case for parecon here)


Here's what Saddam Hussein had to say when asked about the genocidal anfal campaign he waged against Iraq's Kurds, "Yes, I heard about that."

It's nice to see him in the dock, even if it is a puppet government trying him.

The only question is whether the trial will suppress information on the US government's complicity in Hussein's worst crimes, which he committed while an American ally in the 1980s. Strangely absent from the indictment against Hussein was his use of chemical weapons against Irani soldiers and his killing of Irani civilians in the Iran-Iraq war, both of which he did with the material aid and advice of the Americans.


Iraq returns to the family of (American-controlled) sovereign nations

In the perfect "end" to the American occupation of Iraq, the USA secretly and abruptly turned over "sovereignty" to the new Iraqi government.

As The New York Times diplomatically put it, "Although Dr. Allawi's government will have "full sovereignty," according to a United Nations Security Council resolution earlier this month, there will be limits."

The reporter only mentioned a few of these limits. Here's a more complete list:
  • The government was appointed by the United States, real power given to those willing to do US bidding.
  • The US military will remain, continuing as the most powerful force in the country while establishing a permanent foothold in the country.
  • The Iraqi budget will be provided almost completely by the Americans, giving Iraqis almost no leverage over funding decisions.
  • All American soldiers, mercenaries, and contractors will have complete immunity from Iraqi law, in a decision unilaterally imposed by the Americans — so that the puppet government wouldn't have to be embarassed by granting immunity itself.
  • The government will have no power to change any of the laws imposed by the occupation.
The transfer of "sovereignty" is a PR move. It's been done to help Bush's election prospects by deceiving Americans into thinking the occupation is over. It's been done to get the American media to focus less on Iraq now that its own government is supposedly in control. It's been done to give Americans a scapegoat as the country descends into civil war. It's been done to shift anti-imperialist Iraqi anger onto other Iraqis instead of Americans.

It has nothing to do with liberation or democracy.


Democracy hating in Latin America

It's not often that the corporate press acknowledges the abject failure of free market reforms, but this is one exception.

Commenting on a UN survey last April of 19,000 Latin Americans that showed declining support for "democracy", reporter Juan Forero writes:
The United Nations report noted that the promise of prosperity offered by democracy has gone unfulfilled. Economic growth per capita, it said, "did not vary in a significant manner" in Latin America in the last 20 years, even though analysts had predicted that growth would pick up as governments flung open the doors to free-market changes prescribed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund. That institution has instead come to be considered a bête noire in this and many other developing parts of the world.

A slump in local economies that has lasted years has only deepened the discontent with governments already widely scorned as corrupt and overly bureaucratic. Predictions that economic growth is on the way — economists say Latin America will record a 4 percent growth rate this year after a long slump — have done little to quell the dissatisfaction.

The main reason: recent growth has not been widely shared, but concentrated in isolated pockets, usually attached to multinational investments that employ few people.
Of course this has been the left's critique all along, summarily dismissed as the ravings of economic illiterates by the American establishment.

Unfortunately, the rest of the article is spent casting Latin America's marginalized and disenfranchised in a very bad light, portraying them as members of violent mobs yearning for strongman rule.

Sadly, when you define as "democracy" a political order characterized by massive economic inequality, poverty, racism, corruption, and foreign influence, it's not surprise that support for "democracy" is waning.

Juan Forero, "Latin America Is Growing Impatient With Democracy"
The New York Times, 2004 June 24

Here comes the Green Party

Even most leftists probably don't know the Greens are holding their presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee right now. The candidate will be announced on Saturday. Ralph Nader, who's running as an independent, has taken himself out of the process but said he would accept the Greens' "endorsement".

This seems like a bad idea. Electoral politics is a losing proposition for the left in the first place. It doesn't make sense to put any effort or thought into it unless it's part of what our real focus should be, building grassroots social movements, community organizations, and democratic businesses.

A lot of people thought Ralph Nader's 2000 run for president as a Green could do just that. And the broad similarities between Bush and Gore did bring a lot of people into independent organizing as they sought out an alternative. But Nader — unforgivably — followed up that momentum with nothing. He let that energy dissipate, and let those people demobilize.

Ah well, maybe it's for the best. A good left electoral party can't depend on the charismatic appeal of one (rather authoritarian) leader anyway. Nader served his purpose by publicizing the Green Party, and now he's left it, hopefully allowing it to prosper on its own. And hopefully the Greens don't make the mistake of going back to him.

Unfortunately Nader is determined to run again, this time explicitly forsaking party organizing. This is only going to distract from the task at hand, building a strong grassroots party that can thrive if the movement behind it ever starts expanding. Progressives would be wise to repudiate the great-man Nader approach and seriously consider whoever the Greens choose.

The leading non-Nader candidate for the Green nomination is David Cobb, a lawyer and Green activist from Texas. Salon inteviewed him, sadly/predictably concentrating on Nader and the Democrats rather than the Greens or actual issues, but at least you get a feel for the guy. He seems committed to building the party, and the issues he singles out are key:
we're going to articulate the need to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home, we're going to make the case for universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, the need to publicly fund elections, to end the racist war on drugs, and to provide a fair tax policy that provides tax relief to the poor and working classes in this country.
For those of you who care about such things, he wants to run a "safe-states" strategy concentrating resources on uncompetitive states and leaving the swing states for Kerry to win.

People in swing states will actually have to consider voting for Kerry. But for people in states like California, Illinois, or New York, the question should only be whether to pick Nader or whoever the Greens nominate. Hopefully the convention gives us that choice by denying Nader the endorsement, and hopefully we choose the party over the man.


Bicycles are the answer

Bicycles are one of the best things ever. They're a joy to ride, good exercise, and give you great mobility (in Chicago biking is faster than the el up to maybe 12km / 7-8mi). And most important they solve all the problems of cars: air pollution, global warming, huge amounts of space taken over by roads and parking lots, encouraging sprawl, killing people right and left, breaking down all the time, &c, &c.

Of course bikes have important limitations: they're bad for transporting stuff, they're not much fun in winter and rain, they're not too desirable for distances past about 15km, and as long as cars are so dominant, they're dangerous to ride on the street. But if we built our cities around bikes and public transit instead of around cars, most of these issues would be mitigated or eliminated.

It's just not that hard to imagine cities that could function well without any privately-owned cars. Think about it: a multi-branch light rail system running high-speed expresses and local lines. An efficient public bus system running on main arterials. a few roads devoted to emergency vehicles, freight-moving trucks, and trucks that deliver heavier items directly to people. Other streets given over to bikes, rollerbladers, and pedestrians.

It's true that such a city would mean more walking and occasionally less convenience. (Tho more walking is probably a benefit considering what sedentary life has done to most people's health.) But the improvements in city life would be huge. First, we'd save huge amounts of money. Right now local and state taxes heavily subsidize the costs of cars: roadbuildng and maintenance, parking lots, dealing with pollution, emergency costs associated with accidents. (Compared to these costs, subsidies for public transit and biking are currently miniscule, and even at this inadequate level they are often better choices.) Plus, individual car owners pay thousands to buy their cars, repair them, pay for parking, &c. All of these costs would be eliminated.

We would reclaim huge amounts of wasted space. Roads, parking lots, and street parking often take up 25 percent or more of urban space, and even then parking can be extremely tight. Imagine how many more public parks we could have, or how many trees we could plant. Imagine what we could do with all the space occupied by eyesores like gas stations and parking lots.

But the most important benefits would be better health, fewer deaths, and environmental protection. Air pollution from cars makes us all sicker, with unknown longterm effects on our health, and helps cause the asthma so many children suffer from. Car accidents kill tens of thousands every year just in the United States, and cause over 3 million injuries (think about the hysteria if Al Qaeda were capable of such devastation). And cars are the single biggest source of greenhouse gases, whose buildup will cause an environmental catastrophe if we don't change things soon. These problems would all be significantly improved if we made our cities friendly to bikers and walkers and made public transit the prime mode of transportation.

Instead we build ever more roads — and fewer sidewalks. We subsidize driving to no end, but can't be bothered to build even a handful of bike lanes. Public transit, where it exists, languishes low among budget priorities. And we're all driven to rage just trying to drive a few miles in congestion. How much road rage do you see among bus passengers?

We have a choice: change now, or try to pick up the pieces when our currently unsustainable systems collapse.


Lamest defense ever

As the administration aggressively attempts to contain the damage done by the 9/11 commission report that contradicted its repeated assertions of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, it and its apologists have wheeled out some of the weakest arguments ever. (See editorials in The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.) It generally goes like this:

1. We already knew there was no Iraq involvement in 9/11; this isn't news; why are you making such a big fuss about it? Probably because reporters are so liberal.

2. The commission didn't say anything different than what the administration has been saying — it acknowledges longstanding ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Yeah. Right.

1. It's true that we've known for quite awhile that there was no Iraqi involvement in 9/11. Unfortunately, before the Iraq war a clear majority of Americans thought there was, and right before the commission reports 40 percent still thought there was. This is a serious indictment against both the administration and the news media. Such shocking ignorance would not have been possible without a clear effort by the administration to confuse people and imply that there was a link, or the media's absolute failure to correct the administration's propaganda. If some official report is the excuse the media need to finally fix things, it doesn't seem like a distraction at all.

2. It's true the commission acknowledged repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda. But the administration was never talking about mere phone calls — it was talking about active cooperation, which according to the report never occurred. The administration and its defenders need to make up their minds. Did we invade Iraq because of its supposed links to international terrorism? (In which case the administration was lying about those links.) Or did we invade Iraq because the government exchanged pleasantries with Al Qaeda — and then refused to help it. (In which case Botswana could be next.)

Fear not! Chicago friends: we too can now have — fashion!

Some of us here in Chicago complain about the shocking levels of segregation and inequality, the entrenched political machine of Mayor Daley, the gentrification pushing working folks to the wall. But you know what? I think things are looking up.
"So many people outside Chicago still think we're all eating deep-dish pizza and wearing sweat pants," [boutique owner Lance] Lawson said. All that, he insisted, is changing. There is an emerging fashion scene in Chicago, marked by an explosion of small, progressive boutiques catering to a style-starved population, and, perhaps as telling, an infiltration of luxury stores — Louis Vuitton, Prada, Giorgio Armani — near Lake Michigan on the city's Gold Coast.
(What does the word "progressive" mean in this context?)

Ruth La Ferla, "Chicago Moves Out to America's Edge", The New York Times, 2004 June 22


Re: torture, let's be more like we were in...Vietnam?!

Writing in The Washington Post, National War College Professor John Stuart Blackton criticizes the Bush administration for not making clear to the troops in Iraq that they shouldn't torture. Which is all well and good, but he makes his case by comparing Bush's faults with what Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam, where great efforts were made to "ensur[e] an environment in which every American combatant understood the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions".

Blackton goes on for awhile about the praiseworthy steps taken by the USA, up to and including having every soldier carry "a plastic pocket card bearing the signature of our commander in chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson" stating that "It is both dishonorable and foolish to mistreat a captive. It is also a punishable offense."

Unfortunately, Blackton never turns his attention to what actually happened in Vietnam, as opposed to the PR steps taken by the administraion. As journalists Perry Deane Young and John Pilger recall, that plastic pocket card didn't do much in the face of an ingrained culture of brutality and racism that resulted in the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the extensive use of torture.

American conduct in Vietnam was a lot of things, but it certainly isn't an ideal to strive for.


The media finally expose the myth of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties

The other day I overheard a couple guys complaining about how The New York Times was inadequately right-wing. They were particularly exercised about how The Times covered the staff reports issued by the independent commission Congress formed to examine the 9/11 attacks and the government response. The Times (and most other major newspapers) emphasized the commission finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a direct contradiction of numerous administration statements about "longstanding ties" between the two. The Times article on the commission findings ran under the headline "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie".

In making the case for conquering Iraq, the Bush administration repeatedly highlighted these supposed ties, using careful wording that did not explicitly link Iraq to 9/11 but strongly implied Iraqi involvement. The media's uncritical relaying of these assertions accomplished exactly what the administration hoped: a majority of Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein had taken a direct role in the 9/11 attacks. Popular support for the war in good measure came from this false belief. (Just prior to the publication of the commission's findings, 40 percent still believed it.)

Most experts doubted even the existence of the links the administration used to conflate Iraq and Al Qaeda, but the media always prefer official sources to independent experts. Perhaps because the 9/11 commission is itself an official source, and perhaps also because the media feel a bit guilty over having allowed themselves to be so crassly manipulated by the administration, they are now playing up the commission's finding that there were no operational ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Dick Cheney has insisted that the media are confusing two issues: Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks (which the administration never asserted) and other ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda (which he says the commission affirms). He argued that the commission "did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda in other areas, in other ways."

But, as with so much else the vice president says, this is not true. The commission report states, "Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded....We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." The report said that despite evidence of several contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the '90s, "they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship" (p. 5). The only "ties" that can be substantiated are a handful of meetings between Iraqi representatives and Al Qaeda agents, in which Al Qaeda appealed for help and Iraq declined.

The right-wingers I was eavesdropping on thought that the original Al Qaeda plan to hijack up to 10 planes and crash them into targets around the United States should have received more prominence. Is a plan that Al Qaeda considered but then rejected more important than extensive lies by our own government, which led us into war and conquest, killing hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis? To ask is to answer.


The Iraq PM was CIA-supported terrorist, but we don't remember if he killed kids or not

The US-appointed leader of "sovereign" Iraq, Iyad Allawi, ran a group that planted bombs (including one that may or may not have blown up a school bus with children on it) and sabotaged Iraqi government facilities in the '90s. (The New York Times article) Zeynep Toufe's analysis is right on.

So Allawi received CIA aid to commit the same acts that Palestinians or anti-occupation Iraqis are condemned as terrorists for committing. That is, the CIA sponsored terrorist acts in Iraq in the '90s, and the USA has just named a terrorist as the leader of Iraq. Yet this story has generated no controversy in the United States. In fact, a Lexis-Nexis search shows that the only articles from major newspapers in which both "Allawi" and "terrorism" have appeared since this story ran have been ones featuring Allawi condemning acts like...bombings and sabotage.


Good thing we privatized those govt services, what with all the efficiency gains

Waste in education spending, or the IRS, or welfare services: HUGE story.

Waste at the Pentagon, on a vastly larger scale, and probably involving high-level corruption: please turn to page 13.

"Auditors Testify About Waste in Iraq Contracts", The New York Times, p. A13

Hate the other, take his stuff

The media usually cover communal conflict with a superficial "this religion/tribe/ethnicity attacked this other one today, causing bloodshed, isn't it terrible." With this kind of coverage, it's not surprising that people in the USA and other stable rich countries end up thinking people in the poor countries are filled with barbaric hatreds — one factor in the long tradition of popular support for imperialism.

But as this rare article from The New York Times shows, irrational hatred is hardly ever the only thing going on. While suspicion and prejudice against communal others can be found everywhere in the world, it seldom escalates into violence unless there's an economic stake involved.

The example used in the article, violence between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria, is more a competition for land and how it will be used (for pasturage or agriculture) than it is a conflict over religion. The communal differences make it easier to demonize the rival group, but can't explain how these groups managed to live together peacefully for years.

We find similar conflict over the control of resources wherever communal strife breaks out. Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998 were the product of ethnic chauvinism, it's true. But the resentment generated by the fact that Chinese Indonesians, a mere 3 percent of the population, control 70-80 percent of its wealth, was just as important. As was the economic crisis caused by the Panic of 1997, which was increasing prices for basic food items (see this article).

The terrible wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia were cast in the West as a result of "ancient hatreds". But it wasn't the resurfacing of submerged identities that tore the country apart; rather, it was opportunistic politicians using ethnic chauvinism to mobilize support behind themselves. Yet these appeals were only compelling because the country was experiencing an economic crisis. The IMF had imposed its typical "shock therapy" program of austerity measures and contractionary policy and the economy was rapidly shrinking. Once competition for the declining wealth of the country had begun along ethnic lines, everyone was forced into increasingly rigid ethnic identities for protection and, as the violence mounted, for revenge.

The periodic anti-immigrant backlashes in the USA and Europe, which usually happen during a recession or periods of high unemployment, involve the same dynamics.

So the typical pattern is preexisting communal distrust being used by demogogic leaders to generate support in a climate of struggle over economic resources. But we shouldn't overlook one other factor that shows up again and again: the creation of rigid communal categories in the first place thru encounters with imperialism.

To go back to the Indonesian example, it was the Netherlands, the colonial ruler before indepedence, that singled out the Chinese as collaborators in handling most commercial matters. Or in Rwanda, where the ruling Belgians seized upon the loose division between Hutu and Tutsi, proclaimed the Hutu racially inferior, issued identity cards to differentiate between the two, and systematically empowered the Tutsi. Drawing fast boundaries around what had been fluid identities was a key precondition for the genocide of 1994.

Or take the terrible communal conflicts that have afflicted South Asia for decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, the cohesive groups "Hindu" and "Muslim" did not exist in British India. People called themselves Hindus or Muslims, but few identified with a colony-wide communal group; primary identification was to native place and one's position of wealth and power in the village. It was the colonial experience that created these splits — Britain's use of the categories to classify and divide people, Indian politicians' exploitation of them to generate national networks of support, and the British division of power and resources along communal lines as they devolved power. The horrors of partition, the India-Pakistan wars, the riots and massacres up to this day — South Asia would be a very different place had it escaped colonizing.


Warlords vs democracy in Afghanistan - guess which side the USA prefers

Last January, in a State of the Union Address full of fantasy sequences, this one stood out:
As of this month, [Afghanistan] has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With the help from the new Afghan army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror — and America is honored to be their friend.
The media lost interest in Afghanistan once the American bombs stopped falling, but the real story has gotten out here and there. A good recent summary of exactly what kind of liberation the Americans brought is in the current Foreign Affairs: Kathy Gannon, "Afghanistan Unbound", May/June 2004.

The country is run not by enlightened rights-protecting men and women, or even by the disturbingly photogenic Hamid Karzai, the nominal president. Rather, a handful of brutal and ruthless warlords have split the country among themselves and, drawing funds and weapons from the United States and other foreign powers, maintain fearful militias to protect their position.

These are the same warlords who the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia built up to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. The same warlords who, after the Soviet withdrawal, tore the country apart in bloody rampages to see who would control it. The same warlords who used extortion, torture, rape, and murder to secure control of their regional fiefdoms.

When the Taliban finally drove the warlords from power in the mid-90s, regular Afghans — despite the incredible repression and Pashtun-chauvinism of the Taliban — celebrated their victory since it rid them of the warlords.

As Gannon writes, these men have stayed true to their pasts. Today,
not only are the warlords complicit in drug-running and corruption, but according to Afghanistan's Human Rights Committee, they are also guilty of abusing and harassing the population. The warlords have stolen peoples' homes, arbitrarily arrested their enemies, and tortured them in private jails....The public has grown disappointed and disillusioned with the international community, which it increasingly blames for failing to deliver on the lofty promises that preceded the U.S. attack on the Taliban. The West has even empowered their former persecutors....The international community also failed to make good on its aid commitments.
This is hardly surprising, since it was never America's intent to liberate Afghans. As I wrote two years ago, the US goal in Afghanistan was
to produce a reliable client government propped up by a US-trained military that provides a permanent base for US troops in the region. Already the American military base at Bagram is being converted into a permanent installation that, along with bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, will cement the American military presence in Central Asia. This greatly advances US efforts to secure control over the major oil and natural gas reserves of Central Asia and provides a key barrier to the reassertion of Russian influence or the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.
The only thing I got wrong was the tactics: instead of building a central government from scratch and an army to enforce its will, expediency-minded Americans simply chose to deputize the warlords, give them free reign outside Kabul, and supply them with weapons and cash. A form of indirect rule all too familiar from the days of empire.

Yet Gannon seems confused. She writes, "The United States is betting that the same men who caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it to democracy and stability in the future."

Yes, I supppose it's possible that the men making American policy are overly optimistic and amazingly stupid. Perhaps the cable traffic between Zalmay Khalilzad, the American proconsul in Kabul, and Washington discusses at length how being nice to the warlords really will win them over to democracy.

Or maybe democracy is irrelevant to their plans, outside of its uses in rhetoric. You'd think that well-informed American liberals, confronting the 10,000th instance of US government collaboration with murderous autocrats, would figure out that something other than well-intentioned but misguided policy might be at fault.


It's not exactly incompetence in Iraq

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott debunks the ideology of "high modernism", the simplifying and standardizing concepts used by states to make their impossibly messy domains coherent to central authorities. State planners impose these standardizations — whether of measurement, city road grids, landholding patterns, even ethnicity — on the population to advance goals like social control and extraction of resources (taxation, natural resources, conscription). Sometimes these measures of central control become caught up in utopian ideologies and aesthetics, giving birth to massive social engineering projects. Be it Soviet bureaucrats collectivizing agriculture or Brasilian city planners building Brasilia, their visions are deeply homogenizing, authoritarian, and arrogant. Only they know how things should be done, and regular people exist only to carry out their orders.

But this always leads to disaster because it delegitimizes and ignores the practical, on-the-ground knowledge that regular people possess. This specialized knowledge, gained from experience rather than pure modernist theories built on supposedly universal principles, is vital to the everyday workings of complex social systems. Of course it's the regular folks who are always sacrificed to the high planners' visions.

Here's an interesting small-scale example in USA-occupied Iraq of what Scott is talking about:
Some Iraqis also complain that Western engineers have been unable to grasp the complexities of a creaky electrical grid that is a patchwork of ancient Russian, German, Yugoslavian, Chinese and American equipment. The Iraqis say that the engineers, often Americans, reflexively reach for fancy new gear costing tens of millions of dollars that can take months or years to order, ship and install. Iraqis are skilled at balancing the vast swirl of electrical supply and demand on their grid with phone calls and intuition, while Americans rely on computerized sensors and automatic control circuitry. (The New York Times, "In Race to Give Power to Iraqis, Electricity Lags", 2004 June 14)
After the United States devasted Iraq's electrical system in the first USA-Iraq war and then used sanctions to prevent it from rebuilding, Iraqis developed complex and highly local forms of knowledge as they jury-rigged the system to keep going. Now that the United States is saddled with the problems it created, its engineers and bureaucrats disdain the methods of Iraqis and try to impose their own elegant, "advanced" solutions. It's no wonder the occupation has failed to return electricity service even to its pre-conquest levels, much less to the levels reached before sanctions and the 1991 war.

This is an important but isolated insight from The New York Times. Sad to say, the rest of the article features subtle racism against Iraqis, as when the reporter, James Glanz, has the deputy minister of electricity "spitting out the words [critical of Americans] in slightly imperfect English"). He also passes on, without comment, the explanation from the senior American adviser on electricity that rebuilding is taking longer than expected because "engineers discovered that Saddam Hussein's government had left [generators] in a decrepit state". It seems that the deliberate American bombing of the electricity grid in 1991 and the sanctions that prevented its rebuilding have, thru some incredible process of alchemy, become the perfidy of Saddam Hussein.


Eulogizing one death, ignoring hundreds of thousands others

Wading thru all the newspaper hagiographies of Reagan, it turns out the only controversial policies of his administration were budget deficits and Iran-contra. Not the redeeming of militarism and imperialism ('american strength'). Not American-backed genocide in Guatemala. Not supplying weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein and looking the other way when he used them on Iranis and Kurds. Not hundreds of massacres in El Salvador by the USA-armed and trained security forces. Not laying waste to Afghanistan in order to bleed the Soviets a bit — and in the process creating warlords who then tore the country apart in civil war. Not bringing Muslim fundamentalists from around the world to Afghanistan and organizing them into a single network of well-armed and highly trained terrorists that we now call Al Qaeda. Not propping up Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos until the last minute. Not enthusiastically supporting the bloody dictatorships of Cheon Duhwan (South Korea) and Suharto (Indonesia). Not supporting apartheid South Africa against international sanctions and in its wars thruout southern Africa.

The media had no problem chiding China last week about the need to face up to the crimes of the past. Closer to home, I guess great war criminals seem much less of a moral problem.

(I wrote a detailed article on this: Devastation and blowback: The Reagan legacy you didn't read about)