Friday, March 16, 2007

On Freedom & Violence

One of the central arguments of this blog in the past few months has been that the disconnect between elite and public opinion on issues of economic, foreign, and military policy are evidence of a systemic deficiency entrenched in the heart of American (and, by no coincidence, European) democracy. Sociologist William I. Robinson has called the American system "low-intensity democracy"; the democracy America "promotes", by means diplomatic and military are, therefore, correspondingly superficial.

Perhaps it is obvious at this point to most of my readers that the bromidic self-infatuation of neoconservatives and their like-minded "liberal internationalists", who have, quietly, pushed out most opposition in the executive and legislative halls of power could not possibly be sincere. Sovereignty and democracy couldn't be goals of the Iraq invasion. Any kind of democratically-elected Iraqi government, free of foreign influence, would see a law like the one governing Iraqi hydrocarbons, designed by foreign oil companies and the US and British Governments, as detrimental to the country's already poor economic situation, not to mention its sovereignty. The response to a democratic election in Palestine, yielding a victory for Hamas, has also been instructive: democracy is only valid when it benefits US (and, where applicable, Israeli) interests. All other democracy is unacceptable, and should be crushed.

This approach is not specific to the Middle East. Low-intensity democracy, as per Robinson, is not only a domestic reality--it is the model that elite US interests would like to impose on all other countries. The veil of popular participation is a boon to interests that would like to separate all true decision-making from the democratic process, allowing, as it does the vague sense of a better future--thus the important role played by liberals, as I have noted. Some real manifestations of this system would be a government that responds to public disgust and rejection of an illegal war by escalating that war, or a government that, in times of expanding wealth divides and crushing poverty, furthers the very policies that created the situation in the first place.

For instance, a $9 trillion national debt, a good portion of which finances the aforementioned unpopular and illegal war, will indeed have to be paid over time at some point in the future. Like a previously hidden flat tax (by amount, not rate), servicing such a national debt have dire effects imposed on a population that with already negative savings (this is not to mention the coming period of stagflation which many believe to be unavoidable). Flat taxes (by rate) are seen by many as among the most regressive forms of taxation possible. A flat tax by amount isn't even discussed, because it would be even more crushing on non-wealthy classes, and hence politically suicidal (even in a low-intensity democracy). But, by stealth, a national debt functions as just such a flat tax. Did anyone ever vote for it?

The economic future of the West seems grim, and that is largely caused by the lack of meaningful democratic choices on economic issues. If voters think that the billions in tax cuts, loopholes, and subsidies for particular industries with little public accountability or transparency should instead go towards meeting employment, environmental, educational, and health care needs, for whom can they vote? What effect can be expected of a Democratic Congress? What reward can they expect? A slightly higher but still sub-poverty minimum wage?

If a voter does not support the uncontested flow of taxpayer dollars into the violation of international law, by the state itself and its most prized allies, for whom can they vote? If a voter doesn't like paying for a war in which his/her child, or neighbor's child, is killing and dying, for whom can they vote? Or should they just shut up?

Decision-making, the province of true democracy, cannot be accountable to public will for the corporate project to proceed. For economic (and foreign) policy to be molded to the generation of ever-higher profits at the expense of the environment and human lives, at some level people can't have control over their governments. Votes are no longer for economic or foreign policy (if they were, most western countries would be significantly further left than the left wings of their avowedly left parties), thus the rise in import of "cultural" issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the like. The focus of political debate on bigotry, from Islamophobia to the emergence of nativist anti-immigration sentiment, homophobia, latent institutional racism in the criminal justice system and so on can be connected quite effortlessly to this decline in democratic choice, as it was in the interwar period in several European nations (current far-right parties may overtly draw inspiration from these precedents). The focus of political discourse on hatred is a common diversionary tactic in times of incompetence, impotence and corruption. Neoliberalism and racism, corporate interests and violence are umbilically connected.

In some possible world, all of this would perhaps be acceptable if the current economic model, empowering private tyrannies, were capable of creating economic and international stability. Thus far, contrary to the pretensions of free market devotees, the track record is one of minimal success. Why? Scholar John McMurtry says this:

The deepest confusion is the equation of private money stocks to “capital”. Real capital is wealth that produces more wealth - from ecological services and social infrastructures to scientific knowledge and technologies that produce life goods. All have been subjugated to private money-capital which produces nothing. Few recognize that money-capital is not real capital, but demand on real capital by private money-stocks seeking to be more. So every form of life capital is sacrificed to the growth of money capital concentrated in in the possession of about 2% of the population who always have more than the bottom 90%. This is not an economic order, but a system of predatory waste called “wealth creation”.

There would be less cause for alarm if any governments (besides the oft-mentioned and sadly marginal Latin American exceptions) were attempting to turn back this tide of plutocracy and imperialism. Of course, they are not, and the elite fealty to the growth of corporate profit, which at the same time externalizes environmental and human costs, has only had the effect of deepening existing inequalities--accordingly, the future is not hard to forecast. State failure may indeed have a strong correlation to market failure

The absence of economic security does not bode well for the possibilities of economic and political democratization in the coming decades. Perhaps it is this very paradox that characterizes the aims of reactionary governments like that of the United States; its economic policy benefits its own "base", which also laying the ground for a further curtailment of the moribund American democracy/simultaneous seizure of power. In his January 11, 1944 State of the Union address, FDR said as much:

"True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

Something to think about.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Congressman Gilchrest, Meet Lord Churchill

Here's a gem:

"What the British are doing, and what we really need to do, is to tease out the cultural complexities of this thing," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.). "On the one hand, they are signaling to all the Iraqi people, whatever sect they are -- Sunnis, Shias, Kurds -- they are not going to be an occupying force. That's a powerful signal to send. And the other signal is that they are passing the torch to the Iraqis, who are the only ones who can handle this ancient -- I'd say primitive -- sectarian dispute."

Remind me again, Congressman Gilchrest, did you vote to allow the invasion and occupation of this primitive, savage land?

Never mind that since the event that Shi'a Muslims mark as the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the seventh century AD, there hasn't been any comparable dispute between Sunni and Shi'i Arab inhabitants of Mesopotamia. Never mind that Iraqis being tortured by other Iraqis or by Americans, asked "are you Sunni or Shiite?" may never have been asked such a question before the Anglo-American invasion. Once upon a time, Iraq was a secular state. Never mind that, despite this "ancient -- I'd say primitive -- sectarian dispute", there was (at least before CIA-backed strongman Saddam Hussein came to power) a relatively high proportion of Shi'i politicians and military officers in places of power in the Iraqi state. Never mind that this "ancient -- I'd say primitive -- sectarian dispute" wasn't raging before the Anglo-American invasion. So how primitive is it?

American lawmakers, and indeed many Americans in general, tend to see the Middle East as a land of perpetual violence and nonstop hatred (as with Webb's remark). They would be surprised to know that the Muslims are actually human, and many (I daresay most) would prefer to live their lives in peace. But this is a necessary illusion, because it extricates the US Empire from any blame in the tragedies daily facing the locals.

Such rationalizations are but a step away from this:

"I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes."

Divide-and-rule is an old imperialist trick. The west has used it on Iraq (and much of the Middle East) for nearly nine decades. The Iraqi people shouldn't be blamed that it is finally working. The west should be congratulated.

The willful ignorance necessary for such racist criminals to continue their fantasies of the wisdom and beneficence of the white man is astounding, as usual.

The Case for Reparations

As the stench of Bush-era Washington gradually spreads to envelop a globe where hypocrisy is the modus operandi of governments and the corporations they serve in every corner of the globe, Americans need to understand that they are not a uniquely noble people. The cultural malaise that has led to widespread abuses of "sand niggers" in Iraq cannot be blamed on Iraqis themselves; the democratic deficit that has led to a classic nineteenth century policy of spreading democracy and enlightenment to brown-skinned lands cannot be blamed on Old Europe. America is a dying nation, and it digs its grave almost happily.

Americans need to admit that they were lied into attacking Iraq, lied into killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and that the only acceptable penalty for such glaring stupidity is that they must pay massive reparations to the Iraqi people. The case for reparations is made with every suicide bomb explosion in Baghdad, every crisis, every death. If we take the median number of deaths for the Lancet study, the generally accepted estimate of deaths linked to US-UK sanctions after the first Gulf War, and the casualty figures from that first war, the West has violently killed some 2 million Iraqis, which is ten percent of the country's current population. A combined 3.5 million have been displaced within Iraq and in neighboring nations.

Imagine if Iraq had waged continual war on the United States from 1990 to the present day, and an estimated 30 million Americans had been killed, with 50 million more forced from their homes. Would reparations not be in order?

This war was about establishing a neoliberal colony in the heart of the Middle East; the (probably illegal) policies of Proconsul Bremer and the local raj that followed him have hollowed out Iraq's economy just as structural adjustment has done in countless Latin American, African, and Asian nations. Early on in his tenure, Bremer ended tariffs placed on food imports, an act that destroyed the millenia-old Iraqi agricultural tradition and has made the country completely reliant on other countries for its very survival. The food crisis in Iraq, like the alarming figure of deaths and displacements, can only be solved through reparations. Reparations are recognized under international law and laws of war as the appropriate penalty for an act of aggression by a wealthy state against an overwhelmingly poor one. This does not mean paying American companies to go to Iraq, hang out for a few months, and then leave without doing the reconstruction they have been entrusted. It means giving money to Iraqis and letting them do what they will. Even the widespread corruption in the Iraqi government (which began with the Bremer-led CPA) cannot be worse than that of the kleptocratic American reconstruction industry; as my fellow Iranian Reza Fiyouzat says in his recent tour-de-force, "in this day and age of post-industrialism, not even electricity is provided to the conquered peoples! That's how inept western imperialism has become. It can only destroy and do nothing more."

In any case, there is still profit from the veneer of reconstruction, with characteristic American superficiality--much as destruction has become a multi-billion dollar business, reconstruction has emerged as an industry to scoop up the second helping of profits from American state terror. This has been documented by various excellent journalists. The reconstruction industry can be seen as the natural extension of the military-industrial complex, long the jewel in the crown of American state capitalism. The cyclical nature of destruction and reconstruction allows for indefinite government investment, and thus indefinite private profits, often at the expense of any real reconstruction--but who cares? Ultimately, no one is going to see it except for the natives. Brilliant.

From a legal perspective, reparations should be required. From a moral and completely practical perspective, the billions spent thus far on reconstruction have not been effective--thus, reparations should be required. Reparations are the only humane way for the criminal American political class to contribute to stability in the country they have (most recently) destroyed. Any purportedly ethical discussion of withdrawal cannot leave out this issue.

Keep in mind, however, that on this issue, the US Congress (not to speak of the murderous MBA branch of government) isn't interested in even the standard ethical artifice; in fact, take note that "credible" mainstream resolutions on the de-escalation of the Iraq War do not call for full withdrawal of all troops (vs. "combat troops"). The relevant legislation put forth by heavyweights like Clinton and Obama call for redeployment. The corporate media, loathe to speak the truth, and the public usually unable or unwilling to seek it have not yet discussed the important differences between calls for withdrawal and redeployment (that last link is good for a laugh). There is a difference, and it has to do with something called oil.

The vapid, simple-minded narrative that "a new strategy" is justified because the United States has already invested plenty of "blood and treasure" in Iraq, and if Iraqis don't want to play nice, then we can't make them. It is nothing but repetition of the racist mantras necessary for the continuation of empire, as it presumes that the intentions of such an investment were noble, whereas the investment itself has been made entirely to the benefit of American capital. This is so glaringly obvious that members of Congress couldn't possibly talk about it.

Withdrawal isn't justified because Iraqis are too depraved to deserve American violence. It is justified because the war was a criminal act in the first place. It is justified because it what the Iraqi people, living under occupation, overwhelmingly want. This too should be obvious.