30 Nov 2010

The "American Exceptionalism" Smear And Epistemic Closure

by Jonathan Chait

The Washington Post has a story today about the common conservative meme that President Obama dismissed American exceptionalism:

But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world's other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

"This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney writes in his campaign setup book, "No Apology: The Case For American Greatness."

On Monday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is also considering a White House bid, is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club on "Restoring American Exceptionalism: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity."

For former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the concept is a frequent theme in her speeches, Facebook postings, tweets and appearances on Fox News Channel. Her just-published book, "America by Heart," has a chapter titled "America the Exceptional."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, contends in his speeches that Obama's views on the subject are "truly alarming."

In an interview in August with Politico, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee went so far as to declare of Obama: "His worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had. . . . To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

And last week, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, told a group of College Republicans at American University: "Don't kid yourself with the lie. America is exceptional, and Americans are concerned that there are a group of people in Washington who don't believe that any more."

The entire root of this attack line stems from a single sentence by Obama, endlessly repeated on the right: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." You see!, conservatives say -- he thinks American exceptionalism is no more valid than any other country's national pride!

In fact, Obama's remark was a nuanced defense of the idea. He began by acknowledging other forms of national pride, but proceeded to argue for American exceptionalism anyway:

"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

There's been a debate about epistemic closure on the right, and this is a prominent example. Conservatives repeat Obama's single sentence over and over, seemingly unaware that the context of his remarks leads to a conclusion very nearly the opposite of the one they claim. You could wade through this discussion in the right-wing media for hours and hours without ever coming across any excerpt of Obama's remark that goes beyond the one cherished sentence. It's pure epistemic closure. The other possibility, I suppose, is that all these people are dishonest hacks.

29 Nov 2010

Secret Justice Department Report Details How the U.S. Helped Former Nazis


An internal history of the United States government’s Nazi-hunting operation provides gripping new evidence about some of the most notorious Nazi cases of the last three decades. The Justice Department kept the 600-page report secret for the last four years, releasing a heavily redacted version last month to a private research group that sued to force its release. A complete version was obtained by The New York Times.

Waste Land: The Pentagon’s nearly unprecedented, wildly irrational spending binge

by Gregg Easterbrook for the New Republic

This year, the United States will spend at least $700 billion on defense and security. Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than America has spent on defense in any year since World War II—more than during the Korean war, the Vietnam war, or the Reagan military buildup. Much of that enormous sum results from spending increases under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Since 2001, military and security expenditures have soared by 119 percent.

For most of that time, of course, the United States has been fighting two wars. Yet that’s not the cause of the defense-spending explosion. Even if the costs of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are subtracted, the defense budget has swelled by 68 percent since 2001. (All money figures in this article are stated in 2010 dollars.) The U.S. defense budget is now about the same as military spending in all other countries combined.

In a historically unusual twist, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican appointee and a former CIA director, has repeatedly acknowledged that military costs are untenable and decried the Pentagon’s “culture of endless money.” But despite Gates’s advocacy, and Obama’s backing, not much has changed. Congressional leaders nod in agreement at talk of reform—then demand that their pet projects be fully funded. A recent Gates proposal, received as if it heralded dramatic cuts, seeks merely to constrain Pentagon budget growth to 2 percent to 3 percent over inflation. At that pace, defense and security costs will hit a ruinous $1 trillion annually by 2030.


Lieberman urges Europe embassies to use 'allies' in PR efforts

New advocacy campaign to begin early next year, will make extensive use of professional advocacy and public relations experts by Israeli embassies in Europe.

By Barak Ravid for Haaretz.com
Photo by Emil Salman
The Foreign Minister is planning to initiate a new public relations campaign in a number of European capitals early next year. The campaign, which will make extensive use of professional advocacy and public relations experts by Israeli embassies in Europe, aims to also use as many as a thousand people in each country, who will be willing to volunteer to spread Israel's message.
A week ago, the embassies of Israel in London, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Paris, The Hague, Oslo, and Copenhagen were informed about the basic principles of the new public relations plan.
"It was decided to give public relations emphasis in the countries you are serving," Naor Gilon, who heads the Western Europe division at the ministry, wrote the envoys.
"The Foreign Minister is very interested in this campaign and intends to meet with you on the issue at a meeting of ambassadors," the message wrote, referring to a meeting that is scheduled to take place next month.

The Foreign Ministry is putting its money on the gambit too, doubling the public relations budgets of the embassies in the nine capitals in Europe for next year.

Each ambassador was instructed to prepare, by January 16, a list of at least 1,000 "allies" who will be routinely briefed by the embassy for advocacy and public relations. These "allies" will have to be willing to take action on behalf of Israel, through support demonstrations and rallies, in publishing articles in the press, etc.

Among the types of persons that will be sought to assist in the campaign will be members of the local Jewish community, activists in Christian organizations, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, academics and activists in student organizations.

The novelty of this campaign is that it will not rely on the work only of Israeli diplomats and volunteer supporters, but on professional lobbying and public relations companies hired by the embassies.

The instructions from the Foreign Ministry to the embassies is that the firms not be "advertising firms but companies that will assist the embassy in its work vis-a-vis influential elements."

The professional lobbyists and PR agents will be provided with materials from the embassies, and which will be produced by a special team at the Foreign Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry team will produce three types of materials: political messages, in which Israel's positions on the peace process, the settlements, etc. will be encapsulated; "branding" messages which will position Israel in specific areas of activity, such as technology, economy, tourism, etc.; and messages about problematic developments in the Middle East which are not directly related to Israel, such as human rights in Iran or Syria, Hezbollah's take over in Lebanon, etc.

The ministry has also instructed the ambassadors in those nine capitals to focus their activities on organizing groups of influential persons from those countries to visit Israel.

The ambassadors were also instructed to hold, at least once a month, a high profile public event.

The public relations campaign will be evaluated in two surveys that the ambassadors were instructed to carry out during 2011, and reports every three months on the work of the "allies."

An American Jewish lobby at the European Union

Last Thursday a gala evening was held to celebrate the opening of the Transatlantic Institute, a Jewish research institute whose declared aim is no less than strengthening the ties between the United States and the countries of the European Union (the undeclared aim is to serve as a lobby).

By Amiram Barkat for Haaretz.com

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (left), with Javier Solana at the opening of the Transatlantic Institute.

BRUSSELS - Last Thursday a gala evening was held to celebrate the opening of the Transatlantic Institute, a Jewish research institute whose declared aim is no less than strengthening the ties between the United States and the countries of the European Union (the undeclared aim is to serve as a lobby).

After a formal dinner, there were speeches by the European Union's Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, and by Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio. Both of them showered compliments on the heads of the body that established the institute, the American Jewish Committee, and heaped praise on the importance of good relations.

The person who insisted on spoiling the conciliatory and relaxed atmosphere was in fact the United States Ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, who told the guests that to the best of his understanding, the problem of anti-Semitism has reached the point where it was in the 1930s. Later, in the wake of the tempest caused by Schnabel's remarks, the ambassador's spokesman published a clarification, saying that the ambassador was relating to assessments by other bodies and was not expressing his own opinion or that of his government.

The American Jewish Committee is an organization that sees itself as fulfilling the function of American Jewry's "state department." The Transatlantic Institute in Brussels joins offices that it has opened during the past decade in Berlin, Warsaw and Geneva close to United Nations headquarters. "Brussels today is the capital of 18 countries and within three months will become the capital of 25 countries, with a population of 500 million," explains David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "We need to be there, just as we need to be at the United Nations."

Harris does not believe that the name of the institute or its declared aims suffer from any degree of pretentiousness. "The American Jewish Committee has always been in many ways the most universal of all Jewish organizations. In other words, we are a Jewish organization, but we have always defined our missions very broadly. We are an American and Jewish voice in Europe. If you take for example our position on NATO's expansion, we were saying that what's good for the democratic countries and for their security is also good for the Jews. If NATO expands, it's good for the kind of world in which Jews feel more secure."

The main question is how the prominent presence of an American Jewish organization in the heart of the EU will be perceived. The World Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith have maintained offices to deal with their interests in Brussels for several years now but these offices are manned mostly by people from the WJC and B'nai B'rith in Europe. Other American organizations like the Anti-Defamation League considered opening offices in Brussels, but gave up the idea, in part for economic reasons: The cost of maintaining an office in Brussels comes to $2 million a year.

The concern that a permanent, high-profile presence would only reinforce the myth of the influence on the world of American Jewish power was considered by the founders but, says Harris, "I didn't lose any sleep over this."

And perhaps with justification. Ricardo Levy, diplomatic adviser to the European Commission President Romano Prodi, said that he is not worried that the institute will be perceived in the EU as an American Jewish lobby or as a source of special power. According to him, "We have so many institutes here, the opening of another institute will only add to the dialogue and the public debate."

American Jewish arrogance

Researchers of anti-Semitism like Henrik Bachner of Sweden see the resurgence of this myth, especially since the war in Iraq, as the most worrying anti-Semitic trend today in European society.

Harris: "There are some Jewish organizations who have thought about going in and creating, I quote a `lobby,' or trying to bring American political tactics, importing them to Brussels. In our judgment this may not be the most effective way to proceed. We have given a lot of thought to our own presence in Brussels, and we decided to open not an office but an institute, and we're calling it the Transatlantic Institute. The stated purpose of the institute is to contribute to the strengthening of relations between the United States and Europe."

The establishment of the institute raises another, intra-Jewish problem. After all, this is the home arena of European Judaism. People like Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, believe that a Jewish lobby in Brussels should be run by European Jews, and not by American Jews. "The message here for the European Jewish establishment is `you've failed in the fight against anti-Semitism,'" says Dr. Sharon Pardo, a researcher at the Center for European Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at Ghent University in Belgium. Pardo notes the criticism that has been expressed by American Jewish organizations of European Jewry's official line regarding the governments of their countries, a line that in their opinion expresses "weakness."

"It is clear that there is arrogance here on the part of the American Jews toward the Europeans," says a former Israeli ambassador who served for many years in Europe. "Imagine what the Jews in America would think if a European Jewish organization were to open an office in Washington." However, a pan-European Jewish lobby does not seem to him to be a practical possibility at this time, as in his opinion, "The European Jewish organizations are squabbling with one another to such an extent that any initiative by one of them to create such a lobby would be thwarted by the others."

Harris says he would, in fact, be glad to see a European Jewish organization open offices in Washington: "Why not? If a European Jewish organization says, `We believe that the link between Europe and the United States is very important to the world and to democracy and we want to be a voice for that relationship in Washington,' that would be very important. If that group became involved solely in American domestic issues, then that would be different, more problematic of course."

Oded Eran, Israel's ambassador to the European Union, believes that the comparison between European Jewry and American Jewry "is not fair," in light of the huge advantages of the community in the United States with respect to its size and wealth. However, he thinks that the Jewish organizations in Europe would do well to unite in the end and set up a lobby. "On issues like the fight against anti-Semitism, a pan-European organization makes a lot of sense," he says. "It is possible, for example, to influence the EU Council of Education Ministers to decide on joint curricula against anti-Semitism or to influence the Council of Interior Ministers, who are responsible for the police, to formulate a uniform policy for the fight against anti-Semitic incidents."

Eran, who has also served in Washington, also believes that there is still a huge difference with respect to lobbying between the European and the American political cultures.

The capital of the bureaucrats

EU headquarters in Brussels consists of three different centers of power. The first is the European Parliament, which functions in Brussels for three weeks every month and every fourth week moves to Strasbourg, in France, where the plenum holds its sessions. The second is the councils of the various ministers, which meet once a month and set the EU's policy in their various areas of jurisdiction, and the third is the European Commission, the huge bureaucratic arm of the EU that is responsible for its everyday administration.

The European Parliament is considered the least significant element of the three, as most of the legislation is still done in the parliaments of the individual countries. The councils of ministers have importance, both formal and informal, in that the arena of face-to-face meetings that they provide for the ministers is used for creating a pan-European stance.

The European Commission has enormous power, especially with respect to economic issues: It controls, for example, the whole issue of trade among economic firms inside and outside the EU. Most of the foreign clients of the law firms and lobbyists in Brussels are international companies and economic organization that engage in trade with the EU.

"Brussels is the capital of Europe and its power grows day by day," says Maram Stern, the head of the World Jewish Congress office at the EU. The office is personally funded by Jewish multi-millionaire Edgar Bronfman, and Stern has headed it since it was opened nearly 20 years ago. If Washington is the city of publicly elected representatives, says Stern, Brussels is the capital of the bureaucrats, and the key to the success in lobbying activities there lies in understanding their mentality. "No one here cares too much about who sent him or who is funding him. In Washington you introduce yourself as a pro-Israel lobbyist and ask for 45 minutes with the senator in order to explain to him why he ought to support the Israeli interest. In Brussels you can't present things so directly. It has to come up at the end of a dinner and toward the end of the conversation and after you have offered your help to your interlocutor on a variety of other issues."

The Transatlantic Institute will deal with the variety of issues that are on the agenda of the American Jewish Committee. Not surprisingly, it is possible to find there the fight against anti-Semitism and Israel-Europe relations. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the heads of the Committee stick close to the official line disseminated by the government of Israel and its head. Harris expresses unreserved support for the claim that the fence has no diplomatic significance and he eagerly even defends its controversial route. "What we are saying is that it's simply a fact that there are Israeli communities on the east side of the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border) ... We focus on Gaza; we focus on some of the outposts, but to look at Ma'aleh Adumim or Ariel and say we are going to unilaterally dismantle? These are facts on the ground. They won't be settled until the negotiated settlement addresses their future. In the meantime their citizens deserve protection no less than anyone else."

It is hard to find buyers nowadays for these arguments in the EU, and Harris knows this very well. He admits that he often finds himself in conversations with the deaf when he comes to talk about Israel with Western European politicians. And perhaps he intentionally chooses to present his arguments in such a blunt way. Confronting European politicians, says the former ambassador, serves a definite internal interest of American Jewish organizations. According to him, "This story that anti-Semitism in Europe has gone back to the 1930s plays very well among American Jews. The donors dearly love for `their' organization to be in the forefront of the struggle."

Harris says that the attempt to please the donors in no way characterizes the American Jewish Committee. He really and truly believes in the importance of long-term dialogue with the Europeans. There is, he says, a big difference between what politicians in Western Europe say and what their colleagues in Eastern and Central Europe say, adding that there are important nuances even within Western Europe. He tells of a senior politician in an important Western European country who for years rejected what his organization had to say about anti-Semitism, but has suddenly become open to discussion of the issue. "I believe," he says, "that if one knows how to talk to people, if one combines patience with perseverance, sekhel [brains, common sense] with sensitivity - with that I've seen the ability to change minds."

28 Nov 2010

Wikileaks release of embassy cables reveals US concerns

Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has released extracts from secret messages sent by US embassies which give an insight into current global concerns.
US officials were told to spy on the UN's leadership

They include reports of some Arab leaders - including Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah - urging the US to attack Iran and end its nuclear weapons programme.

Other concerns include the security of Pakistani nuclear material that could be used to make an atomic weapon.

The widespread use of computer hacking by China's government is also reported.

The US government condemned the release of the documents, which number in the hundreds of thousands, saying they put the lives of diplomats and others at risk.

The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, countered by saying the US authorities were afraid of being held to account.

The leaked US embassy cables, published at length in newspapers including the New York Times and the UK's Guardian, also reportedly include accounts of:

  • Iran attempting to adapt North Korean rockets for use as long-range missiles
  • Corruption within the Afghan government, with concerns heightened when a senior official was found to be carrying more than $50m in cash on a foreign trip
  • Bargaining to empty the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - including Slovenian diplomats being told to take in a freed prisoner if they wanted to secure a meeting with President Barack Obama
  • Germany being warned in 2007 not to enforce arrest warrants for US Central Intelligence Agency officers involved in an operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was abducted and held in Afghanistan
  • US officials being instructed to spy on the UN's leadership by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
  • The very close relationship between Russian PM Vladimir Putin and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi
  • Alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime
  • Yemen's president talking to then US Mid-East commander General David Petraeus about attacks on Yemeni al-Qaeda bases and saying: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours"
  • Criticism of UK politicians including Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Faltering US attempts to prevent Syria from supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon
The leaked embassy cables are both contemporary and historical, and include a 1989 note from a US diplomat in Panama City musing about the options open to Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and referring to him as "a master of survival" - the author apparently had no idea that US forces would invade a week later and arrest Noriega.

In a statement, the White House said: "Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government.
"President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal."

Earlier, Wikileaks said it had come under attack from a computer-hacking operation.

"We are currently under a mass distributed denial of service attack," it reported on its Twitter feed.

No-one has been charged with passing the diplomatic files to the website but suspicion has fallen on US Army private Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst arrested in Iraq in June and charged over an earlier leak of classified US documents to Mr Assange's organisation.

Wikileaks argues that the site's previous releases shed light on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

27 Nov 2010

Rethinking the Global Economy: The Case for Sharing

by Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons

As the 21st Century unfolds, humanity is faced with a stark reality. Following the world stock market crash in 2008, people everywhere are questioning the unbridled greed, selfishness and competition that has driven the dominant economic model for decades. The old obsession with protecting national interests, the drive to maximise profits at all costs, and the materialistic pursuit of economic growth has failed to benefit the world’s poor and led to catastrophic consequences for planet earth.

The incidence of hunger is more widespread than ever before in human history, surpassing 1 billion people in 2009 despite the record harvests of food being reaped in recent years. At least 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, a number equivalent to more than four times the population of the United States. One out of every five people does not have access to clean drinking water. More than a billion people lack access to basic health care services, while over a billion people – the majority of them women – lack a basic education. Every week, more than 115,000 people move into a slum somewhere in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Every day, around 50,000 people die needlessly as a result of being denied the essentials of life.

In the face of these immense challenges, international aid has proven largely ineffective, inadequate, and incapable of enabling governments to secure the basic needs of all citizens. Developed countries were cutting back on foreign aid commitments even before the economic downturn, while the agreed aid target of 0.7 percent of rich countries’ GDP has never been met since it was first conceived 40 years ago. The Millennium Development Goals of merely halving the incidence of hunger and extreme poverty, even if reached by 2015, will still leave hundreds of millions of people in a state of undernourishment and deprivation. When several trillion dollars was rapidly summoned to bail out failed banks in late 2008, it became impossible to understand why the governments of rich nations could not afford a fraction of this sum to ‘bail out’ the world’s poor.

The enduring gap between rich and poor, both within and between countries, is a crisis that lies at the heart of our political and economic problems. For decades, 20 percent of the world population have controlled 80 percent of the economy and resources. By 2008, more than half of the world’s assets were owned by the richest 2 percent of adults, while the bottom half of the world adult population owned only 1 percent of wealth. The vast discrepancies in living standards between the Global North and South, which provides no basis for a stable and secure future, can only be redressed through a more equitable distribution of resources at the international level. This will require more inclusive structures of global governance and a new economic framework that goes far beyond existing development efforts to reduce poverty, decrease poor country debt and provide overseas aid.

In both the richest and poorest nations, commercialisation has infiltrated every aspect of life and compromised spiritual, ethical and moral values. The globalised consumer culture holds no higher aspiration than the accumulation of material wealth, even though studies have shown that rising income fails to significantly increase an individual’s well-being once a minimum standard of living is secured. The organisation of society as a competitive struggle for social position through wealth and acquisition has led to rampant individualism and the consequences of crime, disaffection and the disintegration of family and community ties. Yet governments continue to measure success in terms of economic growth, pursuing ever-greater levels of GDP – regardless of the harmful social consequences of a consumption-driven economy.

Although the crises we face are interlinked and multidimensional, the G20 and other rich nations offer no vision of change towards a more sustainable world. The old formula, based on deregulation, privatisation, and the liberalisation of trade and finance, was unmasked by the economic crisis and shown to be incapable of promoting lasting human development. Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have failed the world’s poor, and the myth that economic growth will eventually benefit all has long been shattered. As we also know, endless growth is unsustainable on a planet with finite resources. This impasse is further compounded by ecological degradation and climate change – the side-effects of economic ‘progress’ that disproportionately affect the poorest people who are least to blame for causing these multiple crises.

Humanity’s ability to effectively address these interrelated crises requires governments to accept certain fundamental understandings that are instrumental to securing our common future. Firstly, that humankind is part of an extended family that shares the same basic needs and rights, and this must be adequately reflected in the structures and institutions of global governance. And secondly, that many basic assumptions about human nature that inform the thrust of economic decision making – particularly in industrialied nations – are long outdated and fundamentally flawed. The creation of an inclusive economic framework that reflects our global interdependence requires policymakers to move beyond the belief that human beings are competitive and individualistic, and to instead accept humanity’s innate propensity to cooperate and share. This more holistic understanding of our relationship to each other and the planet transcends nations and cultures, and builds on ethics and values common to faith groups around the world. It also reflects the strong sense of solidarity and internationalism which lies at the heart of the global justice movement.

International Unity

The first true political expression of our global unity was embodied in the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. Since then, international laws have been devised to help govern relationships between nations and uphold human rights. Cross-border issues such as climate change, global poverty and conflict are uniting world public opinion and compelling governments to cooperate and plan for our collective future. The globalisation of knowledge and cultures, and the ease with which we can communicate and travel around the world, has further served to unite diverse people in distant countries.

But the fact of our global unity is still not sufficiently expressed in our political and economic structures. The international community has yet to ensure that basic human needs, such as access to staple food, clean water and primary healthcare, are universally secured. This cannot be achieved until nations cooperate more effectively, share their natural and economic resources, and ensure that global governance mechanisms reflect and directly support our common needs and rights. At present, the main institutions that govern the global economy are failing to work on behalf of humanity as a whole. In particular, the major bodies that uphold the Bretton Woods mandate (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation) are all widely criticised for being undemocratic and furthering the interests of large corporations and rich countries.

A more inclusive international framework urgently needs to be established through the United Nations (UN) and its agencies. Although in need of being significantly strengthened and renewed, the UN is the only multilateral governmental agency with the necessary experience and resources to coordinate the process of restructuring the world economy. The UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been adopted by all member states and embody some of the highest ideals expressed by humanity. If the UN is rendered more democratic and entrusted with more authority, it would be in a position to foster the growing sense of community between nations and harmonise global economic relationships.

Being Human

Establishing more inclusive structures of global governance will only remedy one aspect of a complex system. Another key transformation that must take place is in our understanding and practice of ‘economics’ so that government policies can become closely aligned with urgent humanitarian and ecological needs.

The economic principles that have fashioned the world’s existing global governance framework – particularly in relation to international trade and finance – can be traced back to the moral philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers during the emergence of industrial society in Britain. Drawing on the ideas of these early theorists, mainstream economists have assumed that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive, acquisitive and individualistic. Such notions about human nature are now firmly established as the principles upon which modern economies are built, and have been used to justify the proliferation of free markets as the best way to organise societies.

Particularly since the 1980’s, these basic economic assumptions have increasingly dominated public policy and pushed aside ethical considerations in the pursuit of efficiency, short-term growth and profit maximisation. But the ‘neoliberal’ ideology that institutionalised greed and self-interest was fundamentally discredited by the collapse of banks and a world stock market crash in 2008. As a consequence, the global financial crisis reinvigorated a long-standing debate about the importance of morality and ethics in relation to the market economy.

At the same time, recent experiments by evolutionary biologists and neuro-cognitive scientists have demonstrated that human beings are biologically predisposed to cooperate and share. Without this evolutionary advantage, we may not have survived as a species. Anthropological findings have long supported this view of human nature with case studies revealing that sharing and gifting often formed the basis of economic life in traditional societies, leading individuals to prioritise their social relationships above all other concerns. As a whole, these findings challenge many of the core assumptions of classical economic theory – in particular the firmly held belief that people in any society will always act competitively to maximise their economic interests.

If humanity is to survive the formidable challenges that define our generation – including climate change, diminishing fossil fuels and global conflict – it is necessary to forge new ethical understandings that embrace our collective values and global interdependence. We urgently need a new paradigm for human advancement, beginning with a fundamental reordering of world priorities: an immediate end to hunger, the securing of universal basic needs, and a rapid safeguarding of the environment and atmosphere. No longer can national self-interest, international competition and excessive commercialisation form the foundation of our global economic framework.

The crucial first step towards creating an inclusive world system requires overhauling our outdated assumptions about human nature, reconnecting our public life with fundamental values, and rethinking the role of markets in achieving the common good. In line with what we now know about human behaviour and psychology, integrating the principle of sharing into our economic system would reflect our global unity and have far-reaching implications for how we distribute and consume the planet’s wealth and resources. Sharing the world’s resources more equitably can allow us to build a more sustainable, cooperative and inclusive global economy – one that reflects and supports what it really means to be human.

Rajesh Makwana is the director of Share The World's Resources and can be contacted at rajesh@stwr.org. Adam Parsons is Editor of Share the World's Resources and can be contacted at adam@stwr.org. Read other articles by Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons, or visit Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons's website.

25 Nov 2010

Slavoj Zizek - Living in the End of Times

According to the renowned philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, the bankrupt capitalist system is pushing us all towards an apocalyptic doomsday.

He points to the faltering economy, global warming and deteriorating ethnic relations as evidence.

Moreover, while pointing to the fact that "neoliberalism is not economic practice [rather], "it's an ideology", our post-political society globalizes a "decafeinated", utterly alienated other ignoring the signs of its ontological demise at its peril!

23 Nov 2010

The Irrepressible 1930’s

By Robert Skidelsky

The just concluded G-20 meeting in Seoul broke up without agreement on either currencies or trade. China and the United States accused each other of deliberately manipulating their currencies to get a trade advantage. The Doha Round of global trade talks remain stalled. And, amid talk of the “risks” of new currency and trade wars, such wars have already begun.

Thus, despite global leaders’ vows to the contrary, it seems that the dreadful protectionist precedent of the 1930’s is about to be revived. That decade’s trade war was started by the US with the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. The British retaliated with the Import Duties Act of 1932, followed by Imperial Preference. Soon, the world economy was a thicket of trade barriers.

Britain fired the first shot in the 1930’s currency war, leaving the gold standard in September 1931. The US retaliated by leaving the gold standard in April 1933. The pound fell against the dollar, then the dollar against the pound.

While the two main currencies of the day were slugging it out, France headed a European “gold bloc” of countries whose currencies became increasingly overvalued against both, until the bloc collapsed in 1936. A world economic conference, convened in London in 1933 to end the currency war, adjourned without reaching any decision.

Substitute China for Britain and today’s eurozone for the gold bloc and the trend of events today has the same ominous feel.

The US Federal Reserve now proposes to stimulate the American economy by printing more money – a second round of (quantitative easing, or QE2), to the tune of $600 billion. Almost no one remembers that President Franklin Roosevelt tried the same thing in 1933. Prices had started falling in September of that year, following a brief commodity boom. George F. Warren, a professor of farm management at Cornell University, told FDR that the way to raise prices was by reducing the gold value of the dollar.

Under the gold standard, the dollar was convertible into gold at a fixed price of $20.67 an ounce. To stabilize the price level, the economist Irving Fisher had produced a plan for a “compensated dollar,” which would vary the dollar’s gold value to offset rising or falling prices, in effect allowing the Fed to issue more or fewer dollars as dictated by business conditions.

In response to deflationary pressure, Fisher’s plan would have enabled banks to draw down their reserves and thus, supposedly, increase their lending (or create deposits). The extra spending would cause prices to rise, which would stimulate business activity. Fisher provided a new rationale for an old practice of debasing the coinage called seignorage.

The variant proposed by Warren, and followed by FDR in 1933, was to raise the price at which the government bought gold from the mint. Since a higher price meant that each dollar cost less in terms of gold, the result would be the same as in the Fisher plan. Domestic prices would rise, helping farmers, and the external value of the dollar would fall, helping exporters.

Starting on 25 October 1933, Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau, his acting Secretary of the Treasury, and Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, met every morning in Roosevelt’s bedroom to set the price of gold. One day, they increased it by $0.21, since 21 seemed like a lucky number. At first, they bought only newly minted gold in the US. Later they bought up gold supplies from abroad.

The gold-buying policy raised the official gold price from $20.67 an ounce in October 1933 to $35.00 an ounce in January 1934, when the experiment was discontinued. By then, several hundred million dollars had been pumped into the banking system.

The results were disappointing, however. Buying foreign gold did succeed in driving down the dollar’s value in terms of gold. But domestic prices continued falling throughout the three months of the gold-buying spree.

The Fed’s more orthodox efforts at quantitative easing produced equally discouraging results. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s summary: “Either from a shortage of borrowers, an unwillingness to lend, or an overriding desire to be liquid – undoubtedly it was some of all three – the banks accumulated reserves in excess of requirements. Reserves of member banks at Fed were $256 million more than required in 1932; $528 million in 1933, $1.6 billion in 1934, $2.6 billion in 1936.”

What was wrong with the Fed’s policy was the so-called quantity theory of money on which it was based. This theory held that prices depend on the supply of money relative to the quantity of goods and services being sold. But money includes bank deposits, which depend on business confidence. As the saying went, “You can’t push on a string.”

Keynes wrote at the time: “Some people seem to infer…that output and income can be raised by increasing the quantity of money. But this is like trying to get fat by buying a larger belt. In the United States today, the belt is plenty big enough for the belly….It is [not] the quantity of money, [but] the volume of expenditure which is the operative factor.”

Now the US, relying on the same flawed theory, is doing it again. Not surprisingly, China accuses it of deliberately aiming to depreciate the dollar. But the resulting increase in US exports at the expense of Chinese, Japanese, and European producers is precisely the purpose.

The euro will become progressively overvalued, just as the gold bloc was in the 1930’s. Since the eurozone is committed to austerity, its only recourse is protectionism. Meanwhile, China’s policy of slowly letting the renminbi rise against the dollar might well go into reverse, provoking US protectionism.

The failure of the G-20’s Seoul meeting to make any progress towards agreement on exchange rates or future reserve arrangements opens the door to a re-run of the 1930’s. Let’s hope that wisdom prevails before the rise of another Hitler.

Copyright Project Syndicate

Power and the Tiny Acts of Rebellion

by Chris Hedges

AP / Jeff Widener

There is no hope left for achieving significant reform or restoring our democracy through established mechanisms of power. The electoral process has been hijacked by corporations. The judiciary has been corrupted and bought. The press shuts out the most important voices in the country and feeds us the banal and the absurd. Universities prostitute themselves for corporate dollars. Labor unions are marginal and ineffectual forces. The economy is in the hands of corporate swindlers and speculators. And the public, enchanted by electronic hallucinations, remains passive and supine. We have no tools left within the power structure in our fight to halt unchecked corporate pillage.

The liberal class, which Barack Obama represents, was never endowed with much vision or courage, but it did occasionally respond when pressured by popular democratic movements. This was how we got the New Deal, civil rights legislation and the array of consumer legislation pushed through by Ralph Nader and his allies in the Democratic Party. The complete surrendering of power, however, to corporate interests means that those of us who seek nonviolent yet profound change have no one within the power elite we can trust for support. The corporate coup has ossified the structures of power. It has obliterated all checks on corporate malfeasance. It has left us stripped of the tools of mass organization that once nudged the system forward toward justice.

Obama knows where power lies and serves these centers of power. The tragedy—if tragedy is the right word—is that Obama, after selling his soul to corporations, has been discarded. Corporate power doesn’t need brand Obama anymore. They have found new brands in the tea party, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Obama has been abandoned by those who once bundled contributions for him by the millions of dollars. Obama and the Democratic Party will, I expect, spend the next two years being even more obsequious to corporate power. Obama clearly loves the pomp and privilege of statecraft that much. But I am not sure it will work.

Reformers on the outside, while they remain militant and faithful to issues of justice, nevertheless depend on the liberal establishment to respond to public pressure. If these reformers cannot pressure the liberal class and the power elite to evoke real change, they become ineffectual. Our fate is intimately tied to the liberals who have betrayed us. We speak in the language of policies and issues. We will find it harder and harder, given our impotence, to compete with the impassioned calls for new glory, revenge and moral purity that resonate with a public beset by foreclosures, long-term unemployment, bankruptcies and a medical system that abandons them. Once any political system ossifies, once all mechanisms for reform close, the lunatic fringe of a society, as I saw in Yugoslavia, rises out of the moral swamp to take control. The reformers, however well meaning and honest, finally have nothing to offer. They are disarmed.

We have reached a point where stunted and deformed individuals, whose rapacious greed fuels the plunge of tens of millions of Americans into abject poverty and misery, determine the moral fiber of the nation. It is no more morally justifiable to kill someone for profit than it is to kill that person for religious fanaticism. And yet, from health companies to the oil and natural gas industry to private weapons contractors, individual death and the wholesale death of the ecosystem have become acceptable corporate business. The mounting human misery in the United States, which could lead to the sporadic bursts of anger we have seen on the streets of France, will be met with severe repression from the security and surveillance state, which always accompanies the rise of the corporate state. The one method left open by which we can respond—massive street protests, the destruction of corporate property and violence—will become the excuse to impose total tyranny. The intrusive pat-downs at airports may soon become a fond memory of what it was like when we still had a little freedom left.

All reform movements, from the battle for universal health care to the struggle for alternative energy and sane environmental controls to financial regulation to an end to our permanent war economy, have run into this new, terrifying configuration of power. They have confronted an awful truth. We do not count. And they have been helpless to respond as those who are most skilled in the manipulation of hate lead a confused populace to call for their own enslavement.
Dr. Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician from Maryland who volunteers for Physicians for a National Health Program, knows what it is like to challenge the corporate leviathan. She was blacklisted by the corporate media. She was locked out of the debate on health care reform by the Democratic Party and liberal organizations such as MoveOn. She was abandoned by those in Congress who had once backed calls for a rational health care policy. And when she and seven other activists demanded that the argument for universal health care be considered at the hearings held by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, they were forcibly removed from the hearing room.

“The reform process exposed how broken our system is,” Flowers said when we spoke a few days ago. “The health reform debate was never an actual debate. Those in power were very reluctant to have single-payer advocates testify or come to the table. They would not seriously consider our proposal because it was based on evidence of what works. And they did not want this evidence placed before the public. They needed the reform to be based on what they thought was politically feasible and acceptable to the industries that fund their campaigns.”

“There was nobody in the House or the Senate who held fast on universal health care,” she lamented. “Sen. [Bernie] Sanders from Vermont introduced a single-payer bill, S 703. He introduced an amendment that would have substituted S 703 for what the Senate was putting together. We had to push pretty hard to get that to the Senate floor, but in the end he was forced by the leadership to withdraw it. He was our strongest person. In the House we saw Chairman John Conyers, who is the lead sponsor for the House single-payer bill, give up pushing for single-payer very early in the process in 2009. Dennis Kucinich pushed to get an amendment that would help give states the ability to pass single-payer. He was not successful in getting that kept in the final House bill. He held out for the longest, but in the end he caved.”
“You can’t effect change from the inside,” she has concluded. “We have a huge imbalance of power. Until we have a shift in power we won’t get effective change in any area, whether financial, climate, you name it. With the wealth inequalities, with the road we are headed down, we face serious problems. Those who work and advocate for social and economic justice have to now join together. We have to be independent of political parties and the major funders. The revolution will not be funded. This is very true.”

“Those who are working for effective change are not going to get foundation dollars,” she stated. “Once a foundation or a wealthy individual agrees to give money they control how that money is used. You have to report to them how you spend that money. They control what you can and cannot do. Robert Wood Johnson [the foundation], for example, funds many public health departments. They fund groups that advocate for health care reform, but those groups are not allowed to pursue or talk about single-payer. Robert Wood Johnson only supports work that is done to create what they call public/private partnership. And we know this is totally ineffective. We tried this before. It is allowing private insurers to exist but developing programs to fill the gaps. Robert Wood Johnson actually works against a single-payer health care system. The Health Care for America Now coalition was another example. It only supported what the Democrats supported. There are a lot of activist groups controlled by the Democratic Party, including Families USA and MoveOn. MoveOn is a very good example. If you look at polls of Democrats on single-payer, about 80 percent support it. But at MoveOn meetings, which is made up mostly of Democrats, when people raised the idea of working for single-payer they were told by MoveOn leaders that the organization was not doing that. And this took place while the Democrats were busy selling out women’s rights, immigrant rights to health care and abandoning the public option. Yet all these groups continued to work for the bill. They argued, in the end, that the health care bill had to be supported because it was not really about health care. It was about the viability of President Obama and the Democratic Party. This is why, in the end, we had to pass it.”

“The Democrats and the Republicans give the illusion that there are differences between them,” said Dr. Flowers. “This keeps the public divided. It weakens opposition. We fight over whether a Democrat will get elected or a Republican will get elected. We vote for the lesser evil, but meanwhile the policies the two parties enact are not significantly different. There were no Democrats willing to hold the line on single-payer. Not one. I don’t see this changing until we radically shift the balance of power by creating a larger and broader social movement.”

The corporate control of every aspect of American life is mirrored in the corporate control of health care. And there are no barriers to prevent corporate domination of every sector of our lives.
“We are at a crisis,” Flowers said. “Health care providers, particularly those in primary care, are finding it very difficult to sustain an independent practice. We are seeing greater and greater corporatization of our health care. Practices are being taken over by these large corporations. You have absolutely no voice when it comes to dealing with the insurance company. They tell you what your reimbursements will be. They make it incredibly difficult and complex to get reimbursed. The rules are arbitrary and change frequently.”

“This new legislation [passed earlier this year] does not change any of that,” she said. “It does not make it easier for doctors. It adds more administrative complexity. We are going to continue to have a shortage of doctors. As the new law rolls out they are giving waivers as the provisions kick in because corporations like McDonald’s say they can’t comply. Insurance companies such as WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, Cigna and Humana that were mandated to sell new policies to children with pre-existing conditions announced they were not going to do it. They said they were going to stop selling new policies to children. So they got waivers from the Obama administration allowing them to charge higher premiums. Health care costs are going to rise faster. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated that after the legislation passed, our health care costs would rise more steeply than if we had done nothing. The Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured in the U.S. jumped 10 percent to 51 million people in 2009. About 5.8 million were able to go on public programs, but a third of our population under the age of 65 was uninsured for some portion of 2009. The National Health Insurance Survey estimates that we now have 58 or 59 million uninsured. And the trend is toward underinsurance. These faulty insurance products leave people financially vulnerable if they have a serious accident or illness. They also have financial barriers to care. Co-pays and deductibles cause people to delay or avoid getting the care they need. And all these trends will worsen.”

In Manuel de Lope’s novel “The Wrong Blood,” set during the first rumblings that led to the Spanish Civil War, he writes “... nobody knew this at the time and those who had premonitions wouldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what intuition accepts.”
But the signs are now so palpable that even fear is not working. Our worst premonitions are becoming reality. Our intuition has proved correct. We are reaching the breaking point. An explosion, unless we halt the increased pressure, seems inevitable. And what is left for those of us who cannot embrace the contaminants of violence? If the system shuts us out how can we influence it through nonviolent mechanisms of popular protest? How can we restore a civil society? How can we battle back against those who will mobilize hatred to cement into place an American fascism?

I do not know if we can win this battle. I suspect we cannot. But I do know that if we stop resisting, if we stop rebelling, something fundamental will die within us. As the corporate vise tightens, as the vast corporate system begins to break down with fossil fuel decline, extreme climate change and the expansion of global poverty, even mundane and ordinary acts to assert our common humanity and justice will be condemned as subversive.

It is time to think of resistance in a new way, something that is no longer carried out to reform a system but as an end in itself. African-Americans understood this during the long night of slavery. German opposition leaders understood it under the Nazis. Dissidents in the former Soviet Union knew this during the nightmare of communism. Resistance in these closed systems was local and often solitary. It was done with the understanding that evil must always be defied. The tiny acts of rebellion—day after day, month after month, year after year and decade after decade—exposed to everyone who witnessed them the heartlessness, cruelty and inhumanity of the oppressor. They were acts of truth and beauty. We must take to the street. We must jam as many wrenches into the corporate system as we can. We must not make it easy for them. But we also must no longer live in self-delusion. This is a battle that will outlive us. And if we fight, even with this tragic vision, we will lead lives worth living and keep alive another way of being.

Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and writes a column every Monday for Truthdig. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.”

Of culture and anarchy

by Daniel Trilling

The student protests were not an aberration but part of Britain’s rich history of public protest and direct action.

"Drum and bass is playing and the beer is open." That was how the Sky News presenter Kay Burley ended a report on the student protests of 10 November, which culminated in the occupation of Tory HQ on Millbank in central London. The affected horror and banal sensationalism of her words encapsulate the mainstream media's reaction to the day's events.

The next morning, almost every national newspaper published an identical photograph of a masked man kicking at one of the plate glass windows that lined the ground floor of the building. (A wider crop of the same picture, ­circulated online several days later, showed the man surrounded by a throng of photo­graphers.) How could a protest consisting of the "sons and daughters of Middle England", as one BBC reporter put it, be hijacked by “anarchists"?

The truth is that the protest was not hijacked. The occupation was a spontaneous display of the anger shared by many of the 52,000 people who had turned up to march that morning. Most of the several hundred teenagers and twentysomethings who streamed into the foyer and on to the roof of 30 Millbank were not hardened subversives. They showed themselves capable of distinguishing between ­minor property damage and violence directed at people, rounding on the idiot who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof, with boos and chants of "stop throwing shit".

What's more, the breakaway protesters had a clear, coherent political message. As one told a Guardian journalist at the scene: "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

Those words could prove to be prophetic. In recent months, as talking heads have debated whether Britain could or would emulate the mass protests against spending cuts seen in continental Europe, we've been given the impression that social unrest is something that happens elsewhere. The prospect of its crossing the Channel has been invoked as if public protest were a foreign disease, picked up on summer holiday, perhaps, and brought home to wreak havoc in the winter months. Strikes, protests and riots are a speciality of the French and Greeks, so goes the suggestion, and not very British. That's not how we do things here.

Yet Britain, too, has its own submerged history of protest. In this country, as elsewhere, the great advances in democracy have been pushed forward by unrest; popular movements that the wealthy and their defenders in parliament or the press have sought to denigrate, dismiss and repress. "The thing that is frustrating," the historian Edward Vallance, author of A Radical History of Britain, tells me, "is the sense that mass demonstrations and riots are different from politics. They come from the same source. They are an extension of the kind of political developments that we think are part of politics - for example political parties, holding elections and electioneering."

Rise like lions

Vallance's point is well illustrated by the long struggle for votes of the 19th and 20th centuries. At St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819, a peaceful crowd numbering well over 60,000 assembled to see the radical politician Henry Hunt demand universal suffrage. Soldiers charged the crowd on horseback, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. The Peterloo massacre, as it became known, inspired Shelley's poem "The Masque of Anarchy", with its exhortation to "Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number!".

It seemed as if his call had been heeded a decade later when, in 1831, after the House of Lords voted against the Reform Bill, British cities erupted in violence. Nottingham Castle was burned to the ground and gangs of men armed with muskets took over the streets of Bristol. In 1839, the first wave of the Chartist movement came close to resulting in a general strike, as the campaign's leaders debated whether to call a "national holiday" if their petition to parliament was rejected.

But it is the story of the suffragettes, who achieved the greatest extension of democracy in Britain's history, that shows the crucial role direct action can play in a protest movement. In 1908, well over a quarter of a million women attended a London rally, wearing ribbons with the purple, white and green colours of the Women's Social and Political Union. Sylvia Pankhurst later described it as "the ­greatest meeting ever known"; yet it was only one face of a long campaign that included other, more contentious forms of activism.

The suffragette Margaret Thomas recounted in her autobiography of 1933 how militancy "had come like a draught of fresh air into our lives. It gave us release of energy, it gave us that sense of being some use in the scheme of things, without which no human being can live in peace. It made us feel we were part of life, not just watching it . . . It gave us hope of freedom and power and opportunity . . . nothing can stop this movement."

This is not to promote violence as a preferred political solution. In 1968, during an earlier era of student radicalism, the cultural critic Raymond Williams drew parallels with the Victorian era. In his essay "A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy", Williams recounted the outrage that followed the ­violence that erupted after an attempt in July 1866 by the Reform League, which campaigned for the right of working-class men to vote, to hold a demonstration in Hyde Park in London.

A crowd of 60,000 workers converged on Marble Arch, only to find the gates of the park locked and guarded by police. Most of the demonstrators trudged reluctantly off to Trafalgar Square, but a smaller group stayed behind and ripped up the park railings. The rioters reportedly trampled flower­beds, "raced over the forbidden turf" and threw stones at houses in upper-class Belgravia.

Many liberal observers at the time were ­horrified. Matthew Arnold, the poet and lit­erary critic, encouraged harsh action against the Hyde Park rioters. The government, he said, had a duty to repress "anarchy and disorder; ­because without order there can be no society; and without society there can be no human perfection".

Yet what Williams argued in his essay was that the intellectual sleight of hand practised by critics of direct action is to overlook or obscure the root causes of public anger. In the current context, it is notable that David Cameron, fresh from a trip to China where he had been piously preaching human rights (although not to the extent that it might sour trade relations), made no significant comment on the Millbank occupation until a group of lecturers from Goldsmiths College in south London praised the "magnificent" demonstration. Their transgression, which brought swift condemnation from Downing Street, was to point out that "the real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts." As Williams wrote: "The attachment to reason, to informed argument, to considered public decisions . . . requires something more than an easy rhetorical contrast with the practices of demonstration and direct action."

End of the party

The point, for Williams, was not to celebrate disorder for its own sake, but to show how protest has become necessary at "those points where truth and reason and argument were systematically blocked".

Have we reached that point once again? Or does recent history teach us how easily politicians ignore popular protest? After all, Tony Blair was able blithely to disregard the two ­million who marched against the Iraq war in 2003. And while the anti-capitalist protests that have been a feature of the past decade have gathered large crowds, they have been marked by a strangely weightless, carnivalesque feel; a celebration of a cause without any real political dir­ection, which the critic Mark Fisher has described as "feelgood feelbad".

The stereotype that Britons don't really "do" protests is just that - a stereotype. But it exists for a reason. Since Margaret Thatcher's assault on organised labour in the 1980s, and her deliberate destruction of the industries that fed the unions, protest has been neutered. This has gone hand in hand with a reigning ideology that there is "no alternative" to the neoliberal economics that led us to the financial crash of 2008. In the words of the US theorist Fredric Jameson, we have been living through a time in which it has seemed easier "to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism".

University reform is a clear example of this ideological straitjacket. It was initiated by a Labour government and is now being carried through by the Conservatives, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, a party that won votes and seats on a clear pledge to oppose it.

However, as a political activist who was one of the first through the door at Millbank described it to me, 10 November was a "game changer". Before the protest, even commentators on the centre-left, such as the Guardian's Polly Toynbee, had dismissed in advance the students as "middle class" and their plight insignificant in comparison to the devastation that is about to befall benefit claimants. Now, even the right recognises that the attack on Millbank was about more than just increases in tuition fees. Writing in the London Evening Standard the day after the protest, the pro-cuts financial columnist Chris Blackhurst warned that the increasing gap between rich and poor in Britain was stoking popular fury. "The temperature is rising all the time," he wrote. "Already, we've had strikes from the Tube drivers and firefighters, and now students are taking to the streets. More groups are likely to follow suit . . . Disturbingly, the scene is set for more yesterdays. The police will undoubtedly be better prepared. But that is not to say there won't be trouble or that the rage is going to disappear."

Those on the right of the Labour Party have no doubt watched this story unfold with disgust. They will see it as a return to the early 1980s, when the left was wiped out electorally, despite the anger at Thatcher's reforms. But this is not the 1980s: unlike Thatcher, the coalition cannot buy popular support with the sell-off of council houses or public utilities.

After ­almost ten years of slaughter in Afghan­istan and Iraq, there is much less appetite for Falklands-style jingoism. The huge personal wealth of the current cabinet makes Cameron's insistence that "we're all in this together" ring hollow. As Fisher wrote recently, that slogan "may turn out to be a phrase that comes to haunt the Tories in the way that 'Labour isn't working' dogged Labour for a generation . . . cuts of this kind being forced through by a cabinet of aristocrats and millionaires make brutally apparent a class antagonism that the New Labour government obfuscated. Whenever the ruling class tells us that 'we're all on the same side', it is a sure sign that we can hurt them."

Rather than dismissing protesters as "Trots" and "anarchists", as Caroline Flint did on Question Time, the Labour Party should seek to give a parliamentary voice to this discontent. As for the anti-cuts movement, what it needs is unity and the recognition that a range of tactics, including protests, strikes and direct action, will be necessary. The president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, who days before the Millbank occupation had declared his support for direct action, has since wavered and condemned the occupation as "despicable". What he and others who are unsure about the correct way to fight the cuts should ask themselves is: would anyone have cared about the demonstration otherwise?

Daniel Trilling is deputy culture editor of the New Statesman

22 Nov 2010

Invasion of the Land Grabbers

U.S.-based multinational corporations are buying up massive chunks of Africa.

by Joice Biazoto
Sixty-eight-year-old Rachel Njeri plants potato seedlings on her small plot of land in the outskirts of Nairobi

Suppose that, one day, a foreign investor decided to buy a vast tract of fertile land in the United States. Suppose all that is grown or produced on that land, and all profits made, would be shipped directly overseas. Worse, imagine that those Americans who had been living off that land for decades, maybe centuries, would be forced to move and given little to no compensation.

Such an event would undoubtedly spark public outrage, yet this scenario is not far from reality—only the roles are reversed. American companies have recently been investing heavily in foreign land, and many involved in the worldwide struggle against hunger believe that is a cause for concern. What investors call “agricultural development” is described by critics as “land grabbing,” which they say undermines food security in developing countries.

Land grabbing is nothing new, according to Flavio Valente, secretary general of Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) International, a nonprofit that advocates for the right to food. “But recently, the practice of land grabbing has been intensifying and affecting the most vulnerable—peasants, farmers and indigenous people,” Valente says.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates more than 75,000 square miles have been acquired by foreign interests in Africa alone. A 2010 field study conducted by FIAN in Ethiopia found that the equivalent of up to 20 percent of the country’s arable land has been bought by or made available to foreign investors.

American companies are among those making land deals in Africa. New York-based Jarch Capital, bought an area the size of Dubai from a warlord in South Sudan last year, and Dominion Farms Ltd., which bought swampland in Kenya in 2003 to turn it into a rice plantation, has reportedly intentionally flooded local farms to force the relocation of farmers.

Despite promises of creating jobs and increasing food production, foreign investment hardly ever benefits local communities because it aims to secure crops and profits for those back home, the FIAN report states.

Food security advocates say that even initiatives touted for presenting solutions to the land-grabbing problem, such as the World Bank’s Principles for Responsible Agricultural Development, fail to address the lack of concrete mechanisms to hold companies and governments accountable. “These principles, which are meant to be voluntary and self-regulated by the private sector, distract from the fact that what is needed is mandatory and strict state regulation of investors in several policy fields, such as financial markets and agriculture,” says Sofia Monsalve Suárez, land program coordinator at FIAN International.

Resolutions to regulate foreign land acquisition exist, but are ineffective and weak, Valente says. He is hopeful that the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), a United Nations body which last year became more attuned to indigenous and peasant interests, will act.

“The CFS is the only organization with a clear mandate to uphold food security, and each country gets one vote,” Valente says. “Facilitating the participation of those most affected [by land-grabbing] was the first step; now we must see if those voices will actually be heard.”

“War Criminals” Leak Strikes at Heart of Israeli Society

by Paul Larudee

When unknown elements in Israel leaked the name, rank, identification number and other information about two hundred Israeli military personnel who reportedly participated in the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, the effect was sudden and profound, according to sources in Israel.

Although the first site on which it appeared was taken down by the host, it has continued to circulate via email, and has appeared on at least one other site. The Israeli military and other Israeli agencies are reportedly doing all they can to shut down every site on which it appears, and to prevent it from “going viral.” At least one popular blog that links to the site has received a record number of death threats.

What is so special about the list? As several critics have pointed out, it doesn’t even state the crimes that the listed individuals are alleged to have committed.

The root of the problem, according to the sources in Israel, is a poorly kept secret – namely, that it is hard to serve in the Israeli military without committing war crimes, because such crimes are a matter of policy. What Israeli soldier has not ordered a Palestinian civilian to open the door to a building that might house armed militants or be booby-trapped? Who has not denied access to ambulances or otherwise prevented a Palestinian from getting to medical care, education, or employment?

Some, of course, have gone much farther, and deliberately targeted unarmed civilians (as in the “buffer zones” along the border of the Gaza Strip), tortured detainees, and have either ordered or participated in massive death, injury and destruction at one time or another. These acts have all been heavily documented by numerous credible agencies, such as the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Goldstone Commission, Human Rights Watch, and B’tselem.

What has been missing in large measure is accountability. To be sure, isolated victories have been won, usually with great effort. Within Israel, token trials and punishment, such as the conviction of the shooter of British human rights volunteer Tom Hurndall, continue to provide a thin cloak of respectability to the Israeli justice system. Beyond Israel’s control, however, senior Israeli officials have been forced to avoid travel to an increasing number of countries for fear of law enforcement action. Nevertheless, ordinary Israelis had not yet been made to feel directly subject to such pressures.

The publication of the list of two hundred changes everything. The list contains the names of a few high-ranking officers, but many of those named are in the lower ranks, all the way down to sergeant. The effect is to make ordinary Israelis concerned that they, too, may be subject to arrest abroad, and without the protection that well-connected higher officials might enjoy. They know what they have done, or been ordered to do, or have ordered others to do, and they suspect that they may be held accountable by foreign laws, over which their government has little control.

Many Israelis already fear that an anti-Semitic world is looking for an excuse to shut down the Zionist experiment. It is therefore not a great leap to believe that they could become pawns – or scapegoats – in the rising chorus of voices speaking out for Palestinian rights and against Israeli abuses.

Coupled with this is the Israeli addiction to vacationing abroad, which is a national obsession and almost a right, in the mind of many. The result is that suddenly, with the release of the list of 200, the prospect of being held accountable outside Israel is no longer an abstraction, to be dealt with at the level of diplomats, government policy and the news stories. It hits home.

This has serious consequences for Israeli society. It potentially increases the number of youth who will try to avoid the military, the rates of emigration and immigration, and other patterns of commitment to Israel and its military. Most of all, according to the sources, it may cause soldiers to begin to question policy and orders far more than in the past, because of the way it may affect them personally. The debate is already taking place around the question, “Can I be held responsible?”

The answer to that question could potentially determine whether it will be possible to mount a massive offensive against a population that has no effective military forces, as in Gaza, or where saturation bombing, cluster munitions and depleted uranium might be used, as in Lebanon. This is potentially a daunting prospect for Israeli military commanders, and some sources in Israel believe that the publication of the 200 has already had that effect.

More likely, however, it is premature to make such a call. It seems unlikely that Israel will succeed in putting the genie back in the bottle with regard to the list of 200. It is already leaping from one place to another in cyberspace, via website and email (although Israel seems to have been temporarily successful in banning it from Facebook). However, will it generate further research and release of information on the potential offenses committed by the named individuals, and will it lead to further publication of such lists?

According to the sources in Israel, the military and perhaps other agencies have gone into high gear to track down the source of the leaks. This is a typical Israeli response to the problem. Instead of asking why some groups or individuals in Israeli society are willing to take great risks to hold that society accountable for its actions, Israel prefers to blame the problem on treacherous, self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews, and to instill fear and hatred as the means for preventing Israelis from examining their consciences.

Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements, and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement. Read other articles by Paul.

Eastern Europe’s Tito Option

by Andrew Wilson

Success stories in what the European Union calls “the neighborhood” have been hard to come by. First Georgia, then Ukraine, and most recently Moldova have all been big EU hopes. But, in each case, those hopes were dashed. Unfortunately for the EU, this year’s annual summit with Ukraine (on November 22) will likely showcase this failure.

That summit comes at an auspicious time, as the EU reviews its European Neighborhood Policy (launched in 2004) and the Eastern Partnership (launched in 2009), ahead of a second grand summit in Budapest under the Hungarian EU presidency in May 2011. But France has dragged its feet on easing visa requirements for Ukrainians, and EU negotiators are frustrated with the total lack of progress towards a Deep Free Trade Agreement, which they blame, rightly, on the Ukrainian “oligarchs” who have returned to power since Viktor Yanukovich became President in February.

One problem has long been the lack of enthusiasm on the EU side for further expansion into the region. More recently, the EU has also had to face the reality of competing with Russia in what President Dmitri Medvedev calls Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests.” Increasingly, however, the problem is with Eastern Europe’s states themselves.

First, these are new states whose sovereignty was often contested at their birth in 1991, and that have remained weak. Their independence was a result of the USSR’s collapse, and, while some had national revolutions, in most Soviet elites and political culture remained entrenched. Corruption is rife, state capture by powerful vested interests is the norm, and institutional effectiveness and capacity for reform are weak.

Second, they have the economies of weak states. With the crucial exception of energy-rich Azerbaijan, they have few natural resources or high-value manufactures, and have large agricultural sectors. They also depend on economic rents or Russian derivatives rather than adding value themselves – Ukraine makes profits from gas transit, Belarus from oil refining.

Many sell raw materials or base products – Ukrainian steel, for example – where export competitiveness depends less on product quality than on global commodity prices. The two economies in the region that appear most successful – Belarus and Azerbaijan – are the furthest from the EU model. Their good fortune is not due to their domestic policies, but to hydrocarbons in Azerbaijan’s case and, in Belarus, to Russian subsidies.

The emulation effect that spurred Central European reform in the 1990’s is not working farther east. Unlike the EU accession candidates of the 1990’s, the states of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have little incentive or capacity to adopt the Union’s body of law, the acquis communautaire, and move up the value chain.

Third, although they would no doubt protest loudly at such a description, states like Ukraine are better thought of as balancers rather than joiners. Playing a game of balance between Russia and the West allows the elite to remain in power, and to preserve the oligarchical economy in an otherwise harmful equilibrium of semi-reform.

Indeed, local leaders are modern-day Titos, unable or unwilling to join either Europe or Russia. But both Russia and the West are sufficiently interested that they feed the game of balance with enough resources to enable local leaders to fend off rivals and excuse their own lack of reform.

Some are reluctant balancers. Moldova’s current government, the Alliance for European Integration, might be a lot more pro-European if it had not seen how Russia treated supposedly pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine before it. Some play the game with relish – ironically, Belarus’s President Aleksander Lukashenka [sic!] is suddenly something of a regional role model in this regard.

The increasing role of other powers in the region – Iran and Turkey, but China above all – gives local leaders even more wriggle room, particularly because, as Lukashenka [!] said in characteristically unguarded fashion during a visit to Beijing, “China’s investment has never had any political strings attached.”

Fourth, elements of the “Beijing Consensus” are increasingly entering the region by the back door. As Yanukovich’s Ukraine rolls back democratic reforms, Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Gryshchenko says that Ukraine should “use all that is best from China’s experience,” particularly “the ability to think and act strategically” – which is, of course, easier in countries where the government faces no opposition.

The EU can continue muddle along with its one-size-fits-all policy of “enlargement-lite” in the region. Or it can work harder to turn balancers into joiners.

There are genuine prospects for changing the incentive structure in small states like Moldova, particularly if the EU can help build up long-term institutional capacities. But, elsewhere in the region, the Union should recognize the reality of each individual game of balance, and work within the limits of what is possible in order to promote EU interests.

First, the EU should work to Finlandize Ukraine, whose foreign policy, like Tito’s, is now officially “non-aligned.” NATO expansion is off the table. Yanukovich has leaned towards Russia in the short term, but has already reached the point that he needs other powers to balance Russia. The EU can accept Ukraine’s foreign-policy constraints, while concentrating on helping it transform its economic and social structures, and preserving its democracy.

A second strategy is to Serbianize Georgia. Like Serbia and Kosovo, Georgia should be encouraged, if not to forget about its rebel provinces, then to abandon the kind of manifest-destiny politics that subordinates everything to the recovery of sacred lands, leaving the country free to concentrate on internal reform.

Finally, the EU should work to Francoize Belarus. Like Spain in the dictator’s final years, a political opening is unlikely. But the Belarusian economic model cannot survive, with the trade deficit forecast to exceed $7 billion (14% of GDP) this year. Belarus cannot borrow enough to cover this. As with Spain under Franco, Belarus’s economy will change before Lukashenka does, laying the basis for rapid development once he is gone.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

N.B. Beyond Andrew Wilson's rather haughty, modal auxiliary know-it-all recipes for success, funnily enough, probably the most upsetting bit for some was turning Lukashenko into a woman: Lukashenka!

21 Nov 2010

To Deter Crime, Get Tough on Wall Street

When was the last time someone on Wall Street faced any real punishment? What if a bank CEO was given life without parole?

By David Sirota

Often, the most provocative ideas arise after swigs of whiskey. This is especially true when a Rolling Stone reporter is around — and, as I recently learned, it’s all but guaranteed when that Rolling Stoner is Matt Taibbi, aka the heir to the magazine’s gonzo throne.

I had the chance to hang with Taibbi last week after he spoke to a Denver audience about his new book, “Griftopia,” which argues that Wall Street’s bubble-bailout cycle has been one of the greatest — and least prosecuted — crimes in history. His presentation was serendipitously timed, coming the same week as a local Bonfire of the Vanities-esque scandal was underscoring the speculator class’s privilege. In Colorado’s own Bonfire of the Rockies, a local prosecutor had just reduced hit-and-run charges against a fund manager because the prosecutor said a felony would have “serious job implications” for the Sherman McCoy in question.

Over drinks in my living room, Taibbi and I pondered the financial Masters of the Universe and their maddening infallibility. I asked him why they never fear facing legal consequences. Do they believe they’re untouchable? Or do they know law enforcement won’t pursue them?

“They’re not afraid because other than Bernie Madoff, when was the last time someone on Wall Street faced any real punishment?” he responded. “Sure, a few go to jail once in a while, but they’re usually out in a few months and then on the speaking circuit. That’s not exactly a deterrent against bad behavior that’s making you millions.”

Deterrence — it’s the vaunted idea behind “tough on crime” sentences for violent offenses. Lock the door, throw away the key, and the theory says that heinous acts will be prevented.

However, things haven’t worked out that way because the toughest “tough on crime” policies are most focused on crimes of passion, derangement and destitution — crimes that are often not calculated and therefore not deterrable. This is probably one of the reasons why the murder rate has been higher in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states, leading most criminologists to conclude that capital punishment does not hinder conventional homicide.

But what about crimes of economic homicide? These are the opposite of crimes of passion. When, say, a speculator securitizes bad mortgages and peddles them to pension funds as safe investments, that fraud involves exactly the kind of calculation that might be deterred via the prospect of harsh punishment.

“What if a bank CEO was given life without parole?” I asked Taibbi. “What if instead of country club jail, one of these guys was shown experiencing prison like a regular convict? That would have to stop some of the worst stuff, right?”

“Right, and go a step further,” Taibbi countered. “How about putting a few of them in the electric chair? Are you telling me Goldman Sachs execs aren’t then going to change?”

We both busted out laughing — and hard. Not at the truth behind the theorizing, but at the idea that any of it would actually happen today. In 2005, Washington couldn’t even pass a post-Enron proposal to hold CEOs legally liable for their companies’ corporate tax fraud. So the notion that the same money-dominated capital will now subject CEOs to anything remotely “tough on crime” is, well, far-fetched.

And yet, the hypothetical is compelling, isn’t it? That’s because it highlights how our society misapplies deterrence — and how it might apply the concept more successfully.

The necessity of such a criminal justice shift should be obvious. With financial fraud now so sophisticated and pervasive, we clearly need zero-tolerance solutions to change Wall Street’s culture. Indeed, without true shock-and-awe deterrence, most regulatory reform will likely be an ineffectual thumb in the economic dike — just as the thieves desire.

David Sirota is the author of the best-selling books “Hostile Takeover” and “The Uprising.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and blogs at OpenLeft.com. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.