Archive for October, 2009

Agaisnt Prometheus

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Welcome to The Machine on October 29, 2009 by CjH

An Interview with Derrick Jensen on Science and Technology

Derrick Jensen is the prize-winning author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Listening to the Land, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, and Walking on Water. He was one of two finalists for the 2003 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which cited The Culture of Make Believe as “a passionate and provocative meditation on the nexus of racism, genocide, environmental destruction and corporate malfeasance, where civilization meets its discontents.” He is an environmental activist and lives on the coast of northern California.

Frank Joseph Smecker: You write that this culture is murdering the planet – species extinction, entire continents of clear-cuts, the removal of 90 percent of the large fish from the oceans, global warming – all are but a handful of the dire effects of industrial civilization; how has philosophy shaped and influenced the behavior that has led to these despairing conditions?

Derrick Jensen: The stories we are told shape the way we see the world, which shapes the way we experience the world. R.D. Laing once wrote that how we experience the world shapes how we behave in the world. If the world is presented as resources to be exploited, then more than likely, you’re going to exploit the world. For example, if one sees trees as dollar bills, then one will look at trees and treat trees one way; if one sees trees as trees, for what they are – as other beings to be in communion with – then one will see them and treat them another way. Philosophy is the telling of the world a certain way.

FJS: Would you say that the stories and ideas passed on by Western philosophers and other ideologues, which have influenced the modern behavior of the dominant culture, are perpetuated through other mediums today?

DJ: Absolutely. Even today our media and entertainment present stories that affect our behavior. Take for example Ugly Betty – that new show on television. This is just cruel, and ultimately influences the way this culture sees and treats women. Personally, I think she’s fairly cute, and if I’m going to do the objectifying rating of women thing, scores easily a six or more on a scale of one to ten– but they throw some glasses and braces on her and suddenly the culture is telling us that she is ugly. My point is that in Hollywood, even someone who is explicitly labeled as “Ugly Betty” is still reasonably good looking. What does that, along with all the other images of women that are put out there, do to both women’s and men’s perception of women? Newspapers, too, are just as responsible. For example, I recently read an article in some newspaper about the decline of certain frog populations, and the header of the article read something along the lines as: “Another Frog Croaks…” What that does is trivializes… it makes a joke out of species extinction! Or how about the salmon that are going extinct? In this culture, if salmon are of no economic utility then what good are they? This seems to come from a place of hatred and narcissism. I write in Endgame how the narratives we are told shape the way we live. If you are told your entire life that only the most successful at dominating survive; that nonhumans have no desires of their own and are here for us to use; that the U.S. has your best interests at heart; that those in power hold some inherent moral and ethical value; that trees and mountains are resources to be extracted, then you will come to believe all of that and behave in the world one way. If the stories that are told are different, then you will come to believe and act much differently. If your culture told you stories since childhood that eating dog shit tasted good, that’s going to affect your behavior. What I mean by this is that if someone told you story after story extolling the virtues of eating dog shit since you were a child, you’ll grow to believe them. Sooner or later, if you are exposed to other foods, you might discover that eating dog shit doesn’t taste too great. Or if you cling too tightly to these stories of eating dog shit – that is if your enculturation is so strong that it actually does taste good to you, the diet might make you sick or kill you. To make this example less silly, substitute pesticides for dog shit, or for that matter, substitute Big Mac™, Whopper™, or Coke™. Eventually physical reality trumps narrative. It can just take a long time.

FJS: You often write that the dominant culture has robbed the world of its subjectivity; how does this influence our behavior? And if the stories we are told inculcate an objective perception of the world and those around us, then how do we shatter those lenses in order to begin perceiving the world for what it is – a matrix of subjective relations to be in communion with?

DJ: If you do not perceive the fundamental beingness of others (i.e. nonhuman animals, trees, mountains, rivers, rocks, etc), or in some senses do not even perceive their existence, then nothing I say or write can convince you. Nor will evidence be likely to convince you, since, as already mentioned, you won’t perceive it, or more accurately, won’t allow yourself to perceive it. No matter how well I write, if you have never made love, I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like to do so. Even moreso, if you insist that no such thing as making love even exists, then I will certainly never be able to adequately explain to you what it feels like. For that matter, I cannot describe the color green to someone who is blind, and who even moreso insists that green does not exist, could never exist; as well as to someone who knows that philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Dawkins have conclusively shown that green does not exist, could not exist, has never existed, and will never exist; or to someone who is under the thrall of economic and legal systems (insofar as there is a meaningful difference, since the primary function of this culture’s legal systems is to protect—through laws, police, courts, and prisons—the exploitative activities of the already-wealthy) based so profoundly on green not existing; who cannot acknowledge that this culture would collapse if its members individually and/or collectively perceived this green that cannot be allowed to exist. If I could describe the color green to you, I would do it. I would drive you, as R.D. Laing put it, out of your wretched mind. And you might be able to see the color green.  Or someone else could drive you out of your wretched mind. It certainly needn’t be me. I’m not the point. You’re not the point. Your perceived experience isn’t even the point. The point is your wretched mind, and getting out of it. And beyond that, the point then is your experience.

FJS: So to “see green,” figuratively speaking, is to experience the world personally, emotionally, convivially and reciprocally with other beings, rather than to experience it as a set of objective truths for personal material gain or information, or as protocol to maintain the status quo?

DJ: Exactly. This culture is based on the assumption that all of the world is without volition, is mechanistic, and is therefore predictable. The existence of the willfully unpredictable destroys a foundational assumption of this culture. The existence of the willfully unpredictable also invalidates this culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophies, and reveals them for what they are: lies upon which to base this omnicidal system of exploitation, theft, and murder; it’s much easier to exploit, steal from, or murder someone you pretend has no meaningful existence (especially if you have an entire culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophy to back you up), indeed, it becomes your right, even your duty (e.g. war, genocide, death squads, mercenaries, etc). The existence of the willfully unpredictable reveals this culture’s governmental and economic systems for what they are as well: means to not only rationalize but enforce systems of exploitation, theft, and murder (e.g., effectively stop Monsanto’s exploitation, theft, and murder, and see how you are treated by governments across the world).

FJS: So it’s really about personal experience over narrative, over inculcation?

DJ: In many ways it is. R.D. Laing began his extraordinary The Politics of Experience with: “Few books today, are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become very alienated from our own experience, from whom we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves, that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. I of course agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. This culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding—that the culture is murdering the planet—is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be no dreams. There can be nothing.

FJS: It’s about experiencing a symbiotic world that is in dynamic equilibrium, not a world that is at our disposal. It’s about recognizing the pervading relationships between all of us: trees and fresh water, birds and wall-eyed pike, mountains and the sky, you and I; not about hours and wages, markets and policy, resources and industrial modes of production.

DJ: Correct.

FJS: The indigenous were and are in kinship with nonhumans, and in fact indigenous peoples never once held a utilitarian worldview over their landbase insofar as they perceived the natural landscape as a matrix of reciprocal relationships to enter into. Why do you think it is that the dominant culture cannot engage with the land in the same way?

DJ: In all of my books I’ve emphasized that the fundamental difference between civilized and indigenous ways of being is that for even the most open-minded of the civilized, listening to the natural world is a metaphor. For traditional indigenous peoples it is not a metaphor. It is how you relate with the real world. This culture’s way of life is based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder. And why? Because it is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. If you see yourself as entitled to a resource, and if you’re not willing or incapable of seeing this other as a being with whom you can and should be in relation with, then you’re going to take the resource.

FJS: Do you believe that scientific philosophy galvanizes the exploitative utilitarian worldview?

DJ: Richard Dawkins, the popular scientific philosopher—he’s got almost as many Google hits as Mick fuckin’ Jagger—states that we exist in “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication.” Implying that humans are the only meaningful intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe, the world then consists of objects to be exploited, not other beings to enter into relationship with. Dawkins also writes: “You won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [the universe], nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Because the latter scientific assumption posits that nonhumans have no meaningful intelligence, they have nothing to say, to each other or to us. Thus interspecies communication is bunk, no matter who the nonhumans are: animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars, muses, and so on. Anyone who thinks otherwise, and this is key, is superstitious, that is, delusional, maybe primitive, maybe crazy, maybe childish, maybe just plain stupid. Suddenly science has a stronger hold on one’s belief moreso than any religion. Scientific philosophy is much better at controlling people because if you don’t buy into it, you’re stupid. The fundamental religion of this culture is that of human dominion, and it does not matter so much whether one self-identifies as a Christian, a Capitalist, a Scientist, or just a regular member of this culture, one’s actions will be to promulgate this fundamentalist religion of unbridled entitlement and exploitation. This religion permeates every aspect of this culture.

FJS: In the book you wrote with George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, you elaborated on the conflation of science and control; can you talk a bit about what you wrote? And would you agree that there’s also something to be said of this culture’s conflation of the power of command and truth?

DJ: Absolutely. First, if the scientific materialist instrumentalist perspective is right and every other culture is wrong, the universe is a gigantic clockwork – a machine: a very predictable and therefore controllable machine. Power in this case, then, is like meaning in that there is no inherent power in the world (or out of it)—just as no power inheres in a toaster or automobile until you put it to use—and the only power that exists is that which you project onto and over others (or that others project onto and over you). Power exists only in how you use raw materials – the more raw materials you use more effectively than anyone else, the more power to you. And science is a potent tool for that. That’s the point of science. This means, of course, that might then makes right, or rather, right, too, is like meaning and doesn’t inhere anyway—if nonhumans are not in any real sense beings and are here for us to use (and not here for their own sakes, with lives as meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me) then using (or destroying) them raises no significant moral questions, any more than whether you or I do or don’t use or destroy any other tool—which means right is what you decide it is, or more accurately, it’s irrelevant, right is whatever you want it to be, which means it’s really nothing at all. But this malleable notion of right means that you can fairly easily talk yourself into feeling good about exploiting the shit out of everyone and everything else. If all of this sounds sociopathological, that’s because it is. Western philosophy and scientific philosophy is sociopathological, it finds logic through the power of command. It makes us all insane. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.” Do you see the fundamental flaw in logic here? I’m guessing that if we lived in a culture that wasn’t sociopathological we would all see through this in a heartbeat. Let’s ask a simple question: How does science boost its claim to truth? Here is Dawkins’s (and the culture’s) answer: by making matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and by predicting what will happen and when. Do you see the problem yet? Okay, let’s try it a different way: Let’s say Dawkins has a gun. Let’s say he points this gun at your head. Let’s say he commands you to jump through hoops. Let’s say you do it. He does, after all, have a gun pointed at your head. Now, with this gun pointed at your head, he tells you to jump through those hoops again. And then he predicts that this is precisely what you will do. You do it. Whaddya know, he’s a fucking genius: He commanded you to jump through hoops, and he predicted right when you’d do it. Dawkins was with this sentence incredibly intellectually dishonest—and sneaky as hell—and the only reason he hasn’t been called out on it – and someone seriously needs to call this fucking guy out – is that he has a whole culture of sociopaths for company. He has conflated the power to command with truth. He has conflated domination with truth. But neither the power to command nor domination is the same as truth. The power to command is the power to command, domination is domination, and truth is truth.

Richard Dawkins could put a gun to my head. He could even kill me. But that wouldn’t mean that he is telling the truth. This culture is dominating the planet. This culture’s domination of the planet is killing it. That does not mean this culture is telling the truth, or is even capable of understanding it. At the same time, the power to dominate is a sort of truth. But there are other truths as well, that can be masked, obscured, or destroyed by this truth. An example should make this clear. Let’s say I force you to jump through hoops. Let’s say I enslave you. Are there not other truths that have been closed off because I forced you to jump through hoops, because I enslaved you? Any path forecloses others. Some paths foreclose more than do other paths. The same is true with truths: some paths to certain forms of knowledge, and some paths to certain forms of truth, irrevocably foreclose other paths to knowledge, and other paths to other truths.

I recently read an essay by Sam Harris, an ally of Dawkins and a full-blown nature-hater in his own right. The essay is entitled “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology. Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything [sic] that [sic] lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.”
The whole essay is as shoddy as it is full of nature-hating. I’m not sure why he couldn’t be bothered to spend a whole thirty seconds doing a Google™ search to learn that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. I’m also not sure why he didn’t just say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and be done with it. The exploration of mass extinctions is based on data gathered by scientists using the premises, methods, and tools of science, then turned into stories by these or other scientists using the framework of scientific stories to assign meaning to these data points.

Big deal, you might say. Well, it is a big deal. The premises and other preconditions of any story nearly always overdetermine the direction of that story. They especially overdetermine a story’s morality, and even moreso they overdetermine the moral of the story (which is not the same as the story’s morality). And of course the story about multiple mass extinctions has a moral that is obvious at least to Sam Harris. This moral is precisely that of the larger scientific materialist instrumentalist mechanistic perspective, that, “Nature” is, as Harris says, “indifferent.” Or actually “Nature” is—as Harris would say were he a clear enough thinker to have even the slightest bit of internal consistency—even less than indifferent: “Nature” is insensate: indifference implies a capacity to feel. I can reasonably be described as indifferent as to whether the Knicks or the Spurs win tomorrow night. That may also be true for you. But one does not normally describe one’s clothes hamper as “indifferent” as to the outcome of tomorrow night’s game. I want to focus just a bit more on Harris’s sloppy word usage here, because I think it’s indicative of something far deeper than unclear thinking. Part of my clue for this is that his use of the word indifferent wasn’t the only interesting choice of words. Another was his title: “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” I am fascinated by the fact that although people like Harris and Dawkins claim to believe that the universe is mechanistic, they so often use emotion-packed words like mother and friend and trust and merciless, and their language is quite often hostile, as though they’re describing not a machine as they pretend, but rather an enemy, or someone who has betrayed them. Think about this in your own life: how often have you said that your clothes hamper is not your friend? How often have you said your toaster is merciless? If you truly believe that something—something—is utterly insensate, you would hardly be likely to describe this thing as either a friend or an enemy or as anything other than a thing. These supposedly clear thinkers are, I believe, very confused in their thinking and most especially in what they feel about all of this, by which I mean what they feel about life. I can’t prove this, of course, but it seems very clear to me that the emotions they express toward life and toward the natural world are not the sort of neutral feelings one would normally experience and express toward an inanimate object, but rather a hatred toward, and fear of, life and the natural. I believe, and once again I can’t prove this, but it feels right, and has felt right since I first read Dawkins twenty years ago, that they really fear life, and fear death, and feel betrayed by life in part because they, too, like everyone else, must suffer, and they, too, like everyone else must die. The fact that they, too, must pay this price of suffering and death as a cost of participating in the joyous web of experience and relationship that is the ongoing and eternally creative process of living, somehow seems to them an affront. To which I have a two-word response: grow up. Clearly in their descriptions of life, they focus more on inherent suffering than they do on inherent joy and delight. Were they not so influential their perspective would merely be pathological and pathetic. As it is, their popularity is of course what one would expect it to be in a culture that hates and fears wild nature, that attempts to control and destroy wild nature, and that is in fact killing life on earth. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins (and indeed most people in this culture)—that of believing that the universe is “merciless” or is otherwise insufficient and needs to be significantly manipulated and/or improved in order to make it bearable—is a central perspective and driving motivator of the murder of the planet, and is in utter contrast to the perspectives and motivations of most of the indigenous, who generally perceive the natural world as sufficient, as bountiful, as beautiful, as generous, as provider, as mother, as father, as family. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins—the perspective that underlies civilization—is not only murderous, but it is also extraordinarily ungrateful.

Whether or not you believe the universe is mechanical, it gave you your life, your extraordinary, unique, awe-filled life. Unless your life truly is miserable, to not show gratitude for this gift is to show yourself a spoiled, immature wretch.

FJS: Has science provided the world with anything good?

DJ: That’s a very common question that is asked: Hasn’t science done a lot of good for the world? For the world? No. Show me how the world—the real, physical world, once filled with passenger pigeons, great auks, cod, tuna, salmon, sea mink, lions, great apes, migratory songbirds, forests—is a better place because of science. Science has done far more than facilitate the destruction of the natural world: it has increased this culture’s ability to destroy by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all we want about conservation biology and about the use of science to measure biodiversity, but in the real, physical world the real, physical effects of science on real, living nonhumans has been nothing short of atrocious. Science has been given three hundred years or so to prove itself. And of course three hundred years ago great auks (and fish, and whales) filled the seas, and passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews filled the skies, and soil was deeper, and native forests still stood. If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.

Without science, there would not be ten times more plastic than phytoplankton in the oceans. The Nazi Holocaust was, as I made clear in The Culture of Make Believe, and as Zygmunt Bauman made clear in Modernity and the Holocaust, a triumph of the modern industrial rationalistic scientific instrumentalist perspective. Global warming, which may end in planetary murder, would not be running rampant without the assistance of science and scientists. Without science there would be no hole in the ozone. Without science and scientists, we would not face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Without science, there would be no industrial civilization, which even without global warming would still be leading to planetary murder. Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture. If it’s the case that evolution happened so that we would come to exist, then it’s pretty damn obvious we’re fucking up whatever we were brought into being to do. How much sense would it make to have all of this evolution take place simply so that the point, the apex, the pinnacle of this evolution can end life on the planet? Talk about the world’s longest and stupidest shaggy dog story.

FJS: Is there any personal philosophy you do uphold? And is there any hope for the future survival of life on the planet?

DJ: Everything is circumstantial. We can definitely rely on tenets to guide our behavior, but ultimately, care about what happens in the world supersedes philosophy. We need to recognize that physical reality trumps our philosophy. Life is far more complex than philosophy can state. I can’t even figure out romantic relationships, or the relationship between what I eat and my Crohn’s disease. As for philosophy, it is like a map. The map is not the territory – the territory is far more complex than the map, and the constituents of the territory are even far more complex. Ourselves, trees, mountains, nonhuman animals – everyone alive in this world is far more complex than the philosophy or science that seeks understanding (viz. control). In all honesty, we can’t talk a philosophy. Philosophy teaches us how to live, so a philosophy must be land-based. Therefore, the philosophy of Vermont has to be different in Vermont than the philosophy of northern California. As for hope, hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. That’s how we use it in everyday language: we don’t say, “I hope I eat something today.” We just do it. But the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash, because once I’m in the air I have no agency. So I don’t hope this culture doesn’t kill the planet: I’ll do whatever it takes to stop it. I have agency. So do you. We must actively protect as much of the natural as possible. When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to hope at all. Think about it: what is the real source of our life? Of our food, our air, our water? Is it the economic system? No. It’s the landbase. And those in the future will only care about whether or not we left them with clean air, clean water, and healthy intact landbases. The world is being killed and we have to stop this.

Thousands of years of inculcation and ideology all aimed at driving us out of our minds and bodies, away from any realistic sense of self-defense, real land stewarding, have gotten us to identify not with our bodies and our landbases, but with our abusers, governments, and civilization. Break this identification, and one’s course of action becomes much clearer. Love yourself and love the land, and each other, and you will act in the best interest of, and defend, your beloved. The material world is primary. This doesn’t mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It also means that real world actions have real world consequences. It means this mess really is a mess, and we have to face this mess ourselves; that for the time we are here on Earth – whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here – the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home and it is everything. It’s silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is very silly to not live our lives as though our lives are real.

America’s Drug Crisis

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on October 29, 2009 by CjH

Brought to You by the CIA

By David Lindorff, CounterPunch

Next time you see a junkie sprawled at the curb in the downtown of your nearest city, or read about someone who died of a heroin overdose, just imagine a big yellow sign posted next to him or her saying: “Your Federal Tax Dollars at Work.”

Kudos to the New York Times, and to reporters Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, for their lead article today reporting that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghanistan’s stunningly corrupt President Hamid Karzai, a leading drug lord in the world’s major opium-producing nation, has for eight years been on the CIA payroll.

Okay, the article was lacking much historical perspective (more on that later), and the dead hand of top editors was evident in the overly cautious tone (I loved the third paragraph, which stated that “The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raises significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.”  Well, duh! It should be raising questions about why we are even in Afghanistan, about who should be going to jail at the CIA, and about how can the government explain this to the over 1000 soldiers and Marines who have died supposedly helping to build a new Afghanistan).  But that said, the newspaper that helped cheerlead us into the pointless and criminal Iraq invasion in 2003, and that prevented journalist Risen from running his exposé of the Bush/Cheney administration’s massive warrantless National Security Agency electronic spying operation until after the 2004 presidential election, this time gave a critically important story full play, and even, appropriately, included a teaser in the same front-page story about October being the most deadly month yet for the US in Afghanistan.

What the article didn’t mention at all is that there is a clear historical pattern here. During the Vietnam War, the CIA, and its Air America airline front-company, were neck deep in the Southeast Asian heroin trade. At the time, it was Southeast Asia, not Afghanistan, that was the leading producer and exporter of opium, mostly to the US, where there was a heroin epidemic.

A decade later, in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, as the late investigative journalist Gary Webb so brilliantly documented first in a series titled “Dark Alliance” in the San Jose Mercury newspaper, and later in a book by that same name, the CIA was deeply involved in the development of and smuggling of cocaine into the US, which was soon engulfed in a crack cocaine epidemic—one that continues to destroy African American and other poor communities across the country. (The Times role here was sordid—it and other leading papers, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times—did despicable hit pieces on Webb shamelessly trashing his work and his career, and ultimately driving him to suicide, though his facts have held up. For the whole sordid tale, read Alex Cockburn’s and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press) In this case, Webb showed that the Agency was actually using the drugs as a way to fund arms, which it could use its own planes to ferry down to the Contra forces it was backing to subvert the Sandinista government in Nicaragua at a time Congress had barred the US from supporting the Contras.

And now we have Afghanistan, once a sleepy backwater of the world with little connection to drugs (the Taliban, before their overthrow by US forces in 20001, had, according to the UN, virtually eliminated opium production there), but now responsible for as much as 80 percent of the world’s opium production—this at a time that the US effectively finances and runs the place, with an occupying army that, together with Afghan government forces that it controls, outnumbers the Taliban 12-1 according to a recent AP story. (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jWM24PqWpJg-935bFXbYANhGJ_lQD9BJLDVO0).

The real story here is that where the US goes, the drug trade soon follows, and the leading role in developing and nurturing that trade appears to be played by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Your tax dollars at work.

The issue at this point should not be how many troops the US should add to its total in Afghanistan. It shouldn’t even be over whether the US should up the ante or scale back to a more limited goal of hunting terrorists. It should be about how quickly the US can extricate its forces from Afghanistan, how soon the Congress can start hearings into corruption and drug pushing by the CIA, and how soon the Attorney General’s office will impanel a grand jury to probe CIA drug dealing.

Americans, who for years have supported a stupid, blundering and ineffective “War on Drugs” in this country, and who mindlessly back “zero-tolerance” policies towards drugs in schools and on the job, should demand a “zero-tolerance” policy toward drugs and dealing with drug pushers in government and foreign policy, including the CIA.

For years we have been fed the story that the Taliban are being financed by their taxes on opium farmers. That may be partly true, but recently we’ve been learning that it’s not the real story. Taliban forces in Afghanistan, it turns out, have been heavily subsidized by protection money paid to them by civilian aid organizations, including even American government-funded aid programs, and even, reportedly, by the military forces of some of America’s NATO allies (there is currently a scandal in Italy concerning such payments by Italian forces).  But beyond that, the opium industry, far from being controlled by the Taliban, has been, to a great extent, controlled by the very warlords with which the US has allied itself, and, as the Times now reports, by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s own brother.

Karzai, we are also told by Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen, was a key player in producing hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots for his brother’s election theft earlier this year. Left unsaid is whether the CIA might have played a role in that scam too. In a country where finding printing presses is sure to be difficult, and where transporting bales of counterfeit ballots is risky, you have to wonder whether an agency like the CIA, which has ready access to printers and to helicopters, might have had a hand in keeping its assets in control in Kabul.

Sure that’s idle speculation on my part, but when you learn that America’s spook agency has been keeping not just Karzai, but lots of other unsavory Afghani warlords, on its payroll, such speculation is only logical.

The real attitude of the CIA here was best illustrated by an anonymous quote in the Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen piece, where a “former CIA officer with experience in Afghanistan,” explaining the agency’s backing of Karzai, said, “Virtually every significant Afghan figure has had brushes with the drug trade. If you are looking for Mother Teresa, she doesn’t live in Afghanistan.”

“The end justifies the means” is America’s foreign policy and military motto, clearly.

The Times article exposing the CIA link to Afghanistan’s drug-kingpin presidential brother should be the last straw for Americans.  President Obama’s “necessary” war in Afghanistan is nothing but a sick joke.

The opium, and resulting heroin, that is flooding into Europe and America thanks to the CIA’s active support of the industry and its owners in Afghanistan are doing far more grave damage to our societies than any turbaned terrorists armed with suicide bomb vests could hope to inflict.

The Afghanistan War has to be ended now.

Let the prosecution of America’s government drug pushers begin.

A note about Sen. John Kerry: Kerry (D-MA), who went to Afghanistan to press, for the Obama administration, to get his “good friend” President Karzai to agree to a run-off election after Karzai’s earlier theft of the first round, has played a shameful role here. Once, back when he still had an ounce of the principle that he had back when he was a Vietnam vet speaking out against the Indochina War, Kerry held hearings on the CIA’s cocaine-for-arms operation in Central America. Now he’s hugging the CIA’s drug connections.

Will California become America’s first failed state?

Posted in Political Economy, Welcome to The Machine on October 4, 2009 by CjH

Paul Harris, The Observer

Los Angeles, 2009: California may be the eighth largest economy in the world, but its state staff are being paid in IOUs, unemployment is at its highest in 70 years, and teachers are on hunger strike. So what has gone so catastrophically wrong?

California has a special place in the American psyche. It is the Golden State: a playground of the rich and famous with perfect weather. It symbolises a lifestyle of sunshine, swimming pools and the Hollywood dream factory.

But the state that was once held up as the epitome of the boundless opportunities of America has collapsed. From its politics to its economy to its environment and way of life, California is like a patient on life support. At the start of summer the state government was so deeply in debt that it began to issue IOUs instead of wages. Its unemployment rate has soared to more than 12%, the highest figure in 70 years. Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave. In a state made up of sprawling suburbs the collapse of the housing bubble has impoverished millions and kicked tens of thousands of families out of their homes. Its political system is locked in paralysis and the two-term rule of former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a disaster – his approval ratings having sunk to levels that would make George W Bush blush. The crisis is so deep that Professor Kenneth Starr, who has written an acclaimed history of the state, recently declared: “California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America.”

Outside the Forum in Inglewood, near downtown Los Angeles, California has already failed. The scene is reminiscent of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as crowds of impoverished citizens stand or lie aimlessly on the hot tarmac of the centre’s car park. It is 10am, and most have already been here for hours. They have come for free healthcare: a travelling medical and dental clinic has set up shop in the Forum (which usually hosts rock concerts) and thousands of the poor, the uninsured and the down-on-their-luck have driven for miles to be here.

The queue began forming at 1am. By 4am, the 1,500 spaces were already full and people were being turned away. On the floor of the Forum, root-canal surgeries are taking place. People are ferried in on cushions, hauled out of decrepit cars. Sitting propped up against a lamp post, waiting for her number to be called, is Debbie Tuua, 33. It is her birthday, but she has taken a day off work to bring her elderly parents to the Forum, and they have driven through the night to get here. They wait in a car as the heat of the day begins to rise. “It is awful for them, but what choice do we have?” Tuua says. “I have no other way to get care to them.”

Yet California is currently cutting healthcare, slashing the “Healthy Families” programme that helped an estimated one million of its poorest children. Los Angeles now has a poverty rate of 20%. Other cities across the state, such as Fresno and Modesto, have jobless rates that rival Detroit’s. In order to pass its state budget, California’s government has had to agree to a deal that cuts billions of dollars from education and sacks 60,000 state employees. Some teachers have launched a hunger strike in protest. California’s education system has become so poor so quickly that it is now effectively failing its future workforce. The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California’s schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation. Its government-issued bonds have been ranked just above “junk”.

Some of the state’s leading intellectuals believe this collapse is a disaster that will harm Californians for years to come. “It will take a while for this self-destructive behaviour to do its worst damage,” says Robert Hass, a professor at Berkeley and a former US poet laureate, whose work has often been suffused with the imagery of the Californian way of life.

Now, incredibly, California, which has been a natural target for immigration throughout its history, is losing people. Between 2004 and 2008, half a million residents upped sticks and headed elsewhere. By 2010, California could lose a congressman because its population will have fallen so much – an astonishing prospect for a state that is currently the biggest single political entity in America. Neighbouring Nevada has launched a mocking campaign to entice businesses away, portraying Californian politicians as monkeys, and with a tag-line jingle that runs: “Kiss your assets goodbye!” You know you have a problem when Nevada – famed for nothing more than Las Vegas, casinos and desert – is laughing at you.

This matters, too. Much has been made globally of the problems of Ireland and Iceland. Yet California dwarfs both. It is the eighth largest economy in the world, with a population of 37 million. If it was an independent country it would be in the G8. And if it were a company, it would likely be declared bankrupt. That prospect might surprise many, but it does not come as news to Tuua, as she glances nervously into the warming sky, hoping her parents will not have to wait in the car through the heat of the day just to see a doctor. “It is so depressing. They both worked hard all their lives in this state and this is where they have ended up. It should not have to be this way,” she says.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger when he walks into a room. He may appear slightly smaller than you imagine, but he’s just as powerful. This is, after all, the man who, before he was California’s governor, was the Terminator and Conan the Barbarian.

But even Schwarzenegger is humbled by the scale of the crisis. At a press conference in Sacramento to announce the final passing of a state budget, which would include billions of dollars of cuts, the governor speaks in uncharacteristically pensive terms. “It is clear that we do not know yet what the future holds. We are still in troubled waters,” he says quietly. He looks subdued, despite his sharp grey suit and bright pink tie.

Later, during a grilling by reporters, Schwarzenegger is asked an unusual question. As a gaggle of journalists begins to shout, one man’s voice quickly silences the others. “Do you ever feel like you’re watching the end of the California dream?” asks the reporter. It is clearly a personal matter for Schwarzenegger. After all, his life story has embodied it. He arrived virtually penniless from Austria, barely speaking English. He ended up a movie star, rich beyond his dreams, and finally governor, hanging Conan’s prop sword in his office. Schwarzenegger answers thoughtfully and at length. He hails his own experience and ends with a passionate rallying call in his still thickly accented voice.

“There is people that sometimes suggest that the American dream, or the Californian dream, is evaporating. I think it’s absolutely wrong. I think the Californian dream is as strong as ever,” he says, mangling the grammar but not the sentiment.

Looking back, it is easy to see where Schwarzenegger’s optimism sprung from. California has always been a special place, with its own idea of what could be achieved in life. There is no such thing as a British dream. Even within America, there is no Kansas dream or New Jersey dream. But for California the concept is natural. It has always been a place apart. It is of the American West, the destination point in a nation whose history has been marked by restless pioneers. It is the home of Hollywood, the nation’s very own fantasy land. Getting on a bus or a train or a plane and heading out for California has been a regular trope in hundreds of books, movies, plays, and in the popular imagination. It has been writ large in the national psyche as free from the racial divisions of the American South and the traditions and reserve of New England. It was America’s own America.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and now an adopted Californian, remembers arriving here from his native New England. “In New England you would have to know people for 10 years before they let you in their home,” he says. “Here, when I took my son to his first play date, the mother invited me to a hot tub.”

Michael Levine is a Hollywood mover and shaker, shaping PR for a stable of A-list clients that once included Michael Jackson. Levine arrived in California 32 years ago. “The concept of the Californian dream was a certain quality of life,” he says. “It was experimentalism and creativity. California was a utopia.”

Levine arrived at the end of the state’s golden age, at a time when the dream seemed to have been transformed into reality. The 1950s and 60s had been boom-time in the American economy; jobs had been plentiful and development rapid. Unburdened by environmental concerns, Californian developers built vast suburbs beneath perpetually blue skies. Entire cities sprang from the desert, and orchards were paved over into playgrounds and shopping malls.

“They came here, they educated their kids, they had a pool and a house. That was the opportunity for a pretty broad section of society,” says Joel Kotkin, an urbanist at Chapman University, in Orange County. This was what attracted immigrants in their millions, flocking to industries – especially defence and aviation – that seemed to promise jobs for life. But the newcomers were mistaken. Levine, among millions of others, does not think California is a utopia now. “California is going to take decades to fix,” he says.

So where did it all wrong?

Few places embody the collapse of California as graphically as the city of Riverside. Dubbed “The Inland Empire”, it is an area in the southern part of the state where the desert has been conquered by mile upon mile of housing developments, strip malls and four-lane freeways. The tidal wave of foreclosures and repossessions that burst the state’s vastly inflated property bubble first washed ashore here. “We’ve been hit hard by foreclosures. You can see it everywhere,” says political scientist Shaun Bowler, who has lived in California for 20 years after moving here from his native England. The impact of the crisis ranges from boarded-up homes to abandoned swimming pools that have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Bowler’s sister, visiting from England, was recently taken to hospital suffering from an infected insect bite from such a pool. “You could say she was a victim of the foreclosure crisis, too,” he jokes.

But it is no laughing matter. One in four American mortgages that are “under water”, meaning they are worth more than the home itself, are in California. In the Central Valley town of Merced, house prices have crashed by 70%. Two Democrat politicians have asked for their districts to be declared disaster zones, because of the poor economic conditions caused by foreclosures. In one city near Riverside, a squatter’s camp of newly homeless labourers sleeping in their vehicles has grown up in a supermarket car park – the local government has provided toilets and a mobile shower. In the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima, one in nine homeowners are now in default on their mortgage, and the local priest, the Rev John Lasseigne, has garnered national headlines – swapping saving souls to saving houses, by negotiating directly with banks on behalf of his parishioners.

For some campaigners and advocates against suburban sprawl and car culture, it has been a bitter triumph. “Let the gloating begin!” says James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, a warning about the high cost of the suburban lifestyle. Others see the end of the housing boom as a man-made disaster akin to a mass hysteria, but with no redemption in sight. “If California was an experiment then it was an experiment of mass irresponsibility – and that has failed,” says Michael Levine.

Nowhere is the economic cost of California’s crisis writ larger than in the Central Valley town of Mendota, smack in the heart of a dusty landscape of flat, endless fields of fruit and vegetables. The town, which boldly terms itself “the cantaloup capital of the world”, now has an unemployment rate of 38%. That is expected to rise above 50% as the harvest ends and labourers are laid off. City officials hold food giveaways every two weeks. More than 40% of the town’s people live below the poverty level. Shops have shut, restaurants have closed, drugs and alcohol abuse have become a problem.

Standing behind the counter of his DVD and grocery store, former Mendota mayor Joseph Riofrio tells me it breaks his heart to watch the town sink into the mire. His father had built the store in the 1950s and constructed a solid middle-class life around it, to raise his family. Now Riofrio has stopped selling booze in a one-man bid to curb the social problems breaking out all around him.

“It is so bad, but it has now got to the point where we are getting used to it being like this,” he says. Riofrio knows his father’s achievements could not be replicated today. The state that once promised opportunities for working men and their families now promises only desperation. “He could not do what he did again. That chance does not exist now,” Riofrio says.

Outside, in a shop that Riofrio’s grandfather built, groups of unemployed men play pool for 25 cents a game. Near every one of the town’s liquor stores others lie slumped on the pavements, drinking their sorrows away. Mendota is fighting for survival against heavy odds. The town of 7,000 souls has seen 2,000 people leave in the past two years. But amid the crisis there are a few sparks of hope for the future. California has long been an incubator of fresh ideas, many of which spread across the country. If America emerges from its crisis a greener, more economically and politically responsible nation, it is likely that renewal will have begun here. The clues to California’s salvation – and perhaps even the country as a whole – are starting to emerge.

Take Anthony “Van” Jones, a man now in the vanguard of the movement to build a future green economy, creating millions of jobs, solving environmental problems and reducing climate change at a stroke. It is a beguiling vision and one that Jones conceived in the northern Californian city of Oakland. He began political life as an anti-poverty campaigner, but gradually combined that with environmentalism, believing that greening the economy could also revitalise it and lift up the poor. He founded Green for All as an advocacy group and published a best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy. Then Obama came to power and Jones got the call from the White House. In just a few years, his ideas had spread from the streets of Oakland to White House policy papers. Jones was later ousted from his role, but his ideas remain. Green jobs are at the forefront of Obama’s ideas on both the economy and the environment.

Jones believes California will once more change itself, and then change the nation. “California remains a beacon of hope… This is a new time for a new direction to grow a new society and a new economy,” Jones has said.

It is already happening. California may have sprawling development and awful smog, but it leads the way in environmental issues. Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen as a leading light, taking the state far ahead of the federal government on eco-issues. The number of solar panels in the state has risen from 500 a decade ago to more than 50,000 now. California generates twice as much energy from solar power as all the other US states combined. Its own government is starting to turn on the reckless sprawl that has marked the state’s development.

California’s attorney-general, Jerry Brown, recently sued one county government for not paying enough attention to global warming when it came to urban planning. Even those, like Kotkin, who are sceptical about the end of suburbia, think California will develop a new model for modern living: comfortable, yes, but more modest and eco-friendly. Kotkin, who is writing an eagerly anticipated book about what America will look like in 2050, thinks much of it will still resemble the bedrock of the Californian dream: sturdy, wholesome suburbs for all – just done more responsibly. “We will still live in suburbs. You work with the society you have got. The question is how we make them more sustainable,” he says.

Even the way America eats is being changed in California. Every freeway may be lined with fast-food outlets, but California is also the state of Alice Waters, the guru of the slow-food movement, who inspired Michelle Obama to plant a vegetable garden in the White House. She thinks the state is changing its values. “The crisis is bringing us back to our senses. We had adopted a fast and easy way of living, but we are moving away from that now,” she says.

There is hope in politics, too. There is a growing movement to call for a constitutional convention that could redraw the way the state is governed. It could change how the state passes budgets and make the political system more open, recreating the lost middle ground. Recently, the powerful mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, signed on to the idea. Gerrymandering, too, is set to take a hit. Next year Schwarzenegger will take steps to redraw some districts to make them more competitive, breaking the stranglehold of party politics. He wants district boundaries to be drawn up by impartial judges, not politicians. In previous times that would have been the equivalent of a turkey voting for Christmas. But now the bold move is seen for what it is: a necessary step to change things. And there is no denying that innovation is something that California does well.

Even in the most deprived corners of the state there is a sense that things can still turn around. California has always been able to reinvent itself, and some of its most hardcore critics still like the idea of it having a “dream”.

“I believe in California. It pains me at the moment to see it where it is, but I still believe in it,” said Michael Levine.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a fellow believer is to be found in Mendota in the shape of Joseph Riofrio. His shop operates as a sort of informal meeting place for the town. People drop in to chat, to get advice, or to buy a cold soft drink to relieve the unrelenting heat outside. The people are poor, many of them out of work, often hiring a bunch of DVDs as a cheap way of passing the time. But Riofrio sees them as a community, one that he grew up in. He is proud of his town and determined to stick it out. “This is a good place to live,” he says. “I want to be here when it turns around.” He is talking of the stricken town outside. But he could be describing the whole state.

IMF Catapults From Shunned Agency to Global Central Bank

Posted in Global Order, Political Economy on October 2, 2009 by CjH

The Rise of the SDR’s

By Ellen Brown, CounterPunch

“A year ago,” said law professor Ross Buckley on Australia’s ABC News last week, “nobody wanted to know the International Monetary Fund. Now it’s the organiser for the international stimulus package which has been sold as a stimulus package for poor countries.”

The IMF may have catapulted to a more exalted status than that. According to Jim Rickards, director of market intelligence for scientific consulting firm Omnis, the unannounced purpose of last week’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh was that “the IMF is being anointed as the global central bank.” Rickards said in a CNBC interview on September 25 that the plan is for the IMF to issue a global reserve currency that can replace the dollar.

“They’ve issued debt for the first time in history,” said Rickards. “They’re issuing SDRs. The last SDRs came out around 1980 or ’81, $30 billion. Now they’re issuing $300 billion. When I say issuing, it’s printing money; there’s nothing behind these SDRs.”

SDRs, or Special Drawing Rights, are a synthetic currency originally created by the IMF to replace gold and silver in large international transactions. But they have been little used until now. Why does the world suddenly need a new global fiat currency and global central bank? Rickards says it because of “Triffin’s Dilemma,” a problem first noted by economist Robert Triffin in the 1960s. When the world went off the gold standard, a reserve currency had to be provided by some large-currency country to service global trade. But leaving its currency out there for international purposes meant that the country would have to continually buy more than it sold, running large deficits; and that meant it would eventually go broke. The U.S. has fueled the world economy for the last 50 years, but now it is going broke. The U.S. can settle its debts and get its own house in order, but that would cause world trade to contract. A substitute global reserve currency is needed to fuel the global economy while the U.S. solves its debt problems, and that new currency is to be the IMF’s SDRs.

That’s the solution to Triffin’s dilemma, says Rickards, but it leaves the U.S. in a vulnerable position. If we face a war or other global catastrophe, we no longer have the privilege of printing money. We will have to borrow the global reserve currency like everyone else, putting us at the mercy of the global lenders.

To avoid that, the Federal Reserve has hinted that it is prepared to raise interest rates, even though that would mean further squeezing the real estate market and the real economy. Rickards pointed to an oped piece by Fed governor Kevin Warsh, published in The Wall Street Journal on the same day the G20 met. Warsh said that the Fed would need to raise interest rates if asset prices rose – which Rickards interpreted to mean gold, the traditional go-to investment of investors fleeing the dollar. “Central banks hate gold because it limits their ability to print money,” said Rickards. If gold were to suddenly go to $1,500 an ounce, it would mean the dollar was collapsing. Warsh was giving the market a heads up that the Fed wasn’t going to let that happen. The Fed would raise interest rates to attract dollars back into the country. As Rickards put it, “Warsh is saying, ‘We sort of have to trash the dollar, but we’re going to do it gradually.’ . . . Warsh is trying to preempt an unstable decline in the dollar. What they want, of course, is a stable, steady decline.”

What about the Fed’s traditional role of maintaining price stability? It’s nonsense, said Rickards. “What they do is inflate the dollar to prop up the banks.” The dollar has to be inflated because there is more debt outstanding than money to pay it with. The government currently has contingent liabilities of $60 trillion. “There’s no feasible combination of growth and taxes that can fund that liability,” Rickards said. The government could fund about half that in the next 14 years, which means the dollar needs to be devalued by half in that time.

The Dollar Needs to be Devalued by Half?

Reducing the value of the dollar by half means that our hard-earned dollars are going to go only half as far, something that does not sound like a good thing for Main Street. Indeed, when we look more closely, we see that the move is not designed to serve us but to serve the banks. Why does the dollar need to be devalued? It is to compensate for a dilemma in the current monetary scheme that is even more intractable than Triffin’s, one that might be called a fraud. There is never enough money to cover the outstanding debt, because all money today except coins is created by banks in the form of loans, and more money is always owed back to the banks than they advance when they create their loans. Banks create the principal but not the interest necessary to pay their loans back.

The Fed, which is owned by a consortium of banks and was set up to serve their interests, is tasked with seeing that the banks are paid back; and the only way to do that is to inflate the money supply, in order to create the dollars to cover the missing interest. But that means diluting the value of the dollar, which imposes a stealth tax on the citizenry; and the money supply is inflated by making more loans, which adds to the debt and interest burden the inflated money supply was supposed to relieve. The banking system is basically a pyramid scheme, which can be kept going only by continually creating more debt.

The IMF’s $500 Billion Stimulus Package:
Designed to Help Developing Countries or the Banks?

And that brings us back to the IMF’s stimulus package discussed last week by Professor Buckley. The package was billed as helping emerging nations hard hit by the global credit crisis, but Buckley doubts that that is what is really going on. Rather, he says, the $500 billion pledged by the G20 nations is “a stimulus package for the rich countries’ banks.”

Why does he think that? Because stimulus packages are usually grants. The money coming from the IMF will be extended in the form of loans.

“These are loans that are made by the G20 countries through the IMF to poor countries. They have to be repaid and what they’re going to be used for is to repay the international banks now. .  . . [T]he money won’t really touch down in the poor countries. It will go straight through them to repay their creditors. . . . But the poor countries will spend the next 30 years repaying the IMF.”

Basically, said Professor Buckley, the loans extended by the IMF represent an increase in seniority of the debt. That means developing nations will be even more firmly locked in debt than they are now.

“At the moment the debt is owed by poor countries to banks, and if the poor countries had to, they could default on that. The bank debt is going to be replaced by debt that’s owed to the IMF, which for very good strategic reasons the poor countries will always service. . . . The rich countries have made this $500 billion available to stimulate their own banks, and the IMF is a wonderful party to put in between the countries and the debtors and the banks.”

Not long ago, the IMF was being called obsolete. Now it is back in business with a vengeance; but it’s the old unseemly business of serving as the collection agency for the international banking industry. As long as third world debtors can service their loans by paying the interest on them, the banks can count the loans as “assets” on their books, allowing them to keep their pyramid scheme going by inflating the global money supply with yet more loans. It is all for the greater good of the banks and their affiliated multinational corporations; but the $500 billion in funding is coming from the taxpayers of the G20 nations, and the foreseeable outcome will be that the United States will join the ranks of debtor nations subservient to a global empire of central bankers.

Coups, UNASUR, and the U.S.

Posted in Global Order on October 1, 2009 by CjH

By Noam Chomsky, Z Magazine

The last time I had the opportunity to speak in Caracas—at long-distance that time—was about a year ago, right after the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) meeting in Santiago in September 2008. That meeting was called “with the purpose of considering the situation in the Republic of Bolivia,” after an uprising backed by the traditional elites who had lost power in the impressive democratic elections of 2005. UNASUR condemned the violence and the massacre of peasants by the quasi-secessionist elements, and declared, “Their fullest and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a wide margin in the recent referendum.” These are the words of the final Declaration, which also warned that the participating governments—all of the South American Republics—”energetically reject and do not recognize any situation that implies an intent of civil coup d’état, the rupture of institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.” In response, President Morales thanked UNASUR for its support and observed that, “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States.”

True, and a fact of historic significance.

It is instructive to compare the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) with that of the African Union (AU). The latter permits intervention by African states within the Union itself in exceptional circumstances. In contrast, the Charter of the OAS bars intervention “for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.” The reasons for the difference are clear. The OAS Charter seeks to deter intervention from the “colossus of the North”—and has failed to do so. That is an enduring problem in the Western hemisphere, nowhere near solution, though there has been significant progress. After the collapse of the apartheid states, the AU has faced no comparable problem.

Last year’s UNASUR meeting in Santiago took a step forward in the difficult process of integration that is taking place in South America. This process has two aspects: external and internal. The external process establishes bonds among countries that had been largely separated from one another since the early European conquests, each one oriented towards the West. The internal process seeks to integrate the vast impoverished and oppressed majorities into the societies that took shape under colonial and neocolonial domination. These societies have typically been ruled by small Europeanized elites who had amassed enormous wealth and were linked to the imperial societies in many ways: export of capital, import of luxury goods, education, and many other dimensions. The ruling sectors assumed little responsibility for the fate of their own countries and their suffering people. These critical factors sharply distinguish Latin America from the developmental states of East Asia. The processes of internal integration in South America, quite naturally, are arousing great concern among the traditional rulers at home and abroad, and strong opposition if they go beyond minor reforms of the worst abuses.

In early August, UNASUR met in Ecuador, which assumed the presidency of the organization. The announced goal of the meeting was to carry forward the process of integration, but the meeting took place under the shadow of renewed U.S. military intervention. Colombia did not attend, in reaction to broad concern in the region over its decision to accept U.S. military bases. The host of the meeting, President Correa of Ecuador, had announced that the U.S. military would no longer be permitted to use its Manta base, the last major U.S. base remaining in South America.

Establishing U.S. bases in Colombia is only one part of a much broader effort to restore Washington’s capacity for military intervention. In recent years, total U.S. military and police aid in the hemisphere has come to exceed economic and social aid. That is a new phenomenon. Even at the height of the Cold War, economic aid far exceeded military aid. Predictably, these programs have “strengthened military forces at the expense of civilian authorities, exacerbated human rights problems and generated significant social conflict and even political instability,” according to a study by the Washington Office on Latin America. By 2003, the number of Latin Americans troops trained by U.S. programs had increased by more than 50 percent. It has probably become higher since. Police are trained in light infantry tactics. The U.S. Southern Military Command (SOUTHCOM) has more personnel in Latin America than most key civilian federal agencies combined. That again is a new development. The focus now is on street gangs and “radical populism”: I do not have to explain what that phrase means in the Latin American context. Military training is being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon. That shift is of some importance. It frees military training from human rights and democracy conditionalities under congressional supervision, which has always been weak, but was at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses.

Military bases are also being established where possible to support what are called “forward operations”—meaning military intervention of one or another sort. In a related development, the U.S. Fourth Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated a few weeks after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador in March 2008. With responsibility for the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters, the Fleet’s “various operations…include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training,” the official announcement says. Quite properly, these moves elicited protest and concern from the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, and others.

In past years the U.S. routinely helped carry out military coups in Latin America or invaded outright. Examples are too numerous and familiar to review and are awful to contemplate. That capacity has declined, but has not disappeared. In the new century there have already been three military coups: in Venezuela, Haiti, and now Honduras.

The first, in Venezuela, was openly supported by Washington. After a popular uprising restored the elected government, Washington immediately turned to a second plan to undermine the elected government: by funding groups of its choice within Venezuela, while refusing to identify recipients. Funding after the failed coup reached $26 million by 2006. The facts were reported by wire services, but ignored by the mainstream media. Law professor Bill Monning of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California said that, “We would scream bloody murder if any outside force were interfering in our internal political system.” He is, of course, correct: such actions would never be tolerated for a moment. But the imperial mentality allows them to proceed, even with praise, when Washington is the agent.

The pretext, invariably, is “supporting democracy.” In the real world, the measures employed have been a standard device to undermine democracy. Examples are numerous. To mention just a few, that is how the ground was prepared for the U.S.-backed military coup in Haiti after its first democratic election in 1990, bitterly opposed by Washington. And in another part of the world, it is happening right now in Palestine where the outcome of a free election in January 2006 was counter to Washington’s wishes. At once, the U.S. and Israel, with Europe tagging politely along as usual, turned to severe punishment of the population for the crime of voting “the wrong way” in a free election, and also began to institute the standard devices to undermine an unwanted government: “democracy promotion” and military force. In this case, the military force is a collaborationist paramilitary army under the command of U.S. General Keith Dayton, trained in Jordan with Israeli participation. The Dayton army received great acclaim from liberals in the government and the press when it succeeded in suppressing protests in the West Bank during the murderous and destructive U.S.-backed Israeli military campaign in Gaza earlier this year. Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, was one of many close to the Obama administration who saw in this success a sign that Israel may at last have a “legitimate negotiating partner” for its U.S.-backed programs of taking over what is of value in the occupied territories, under the guise of a “political settlement.”

All of this is routine, and very familiar in Latin America, where U.S. invasions have regularly left what remains of the country under the rule of brutal National Guards and collaborationist elites. The policies were initially developed with considerable sophistication a century ago after the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, which left hundreds of thousands of corpses. And these measures have often been successful for long periods. In the original testing ground, the Philippines, the impact still remains a century later, one reason for the continuing ugly record of state violence, and the failure of the Philippines to join the remarkable economic development of East and Southeast Asia in recent years.

Returning to coups in Latin America in the new millennium, the first one, in Venezuela, was unsuccessful. The second was in Haiti two years later. The U.S. and France intervened to remove the elected president and dispatched him off to Central Africa, actions that precipitated yet another reign of terror in this tortured country, once the richest colony in the world and the source of much of France’s wealth, destroyed over the centuries by France and then the U.S. I should add that the harrowing history, in Haiti and elsewhere, is almost unknown in the U.S.—worse, it is replaced by fairy tales of noble missions that have sometimes failed because of the unworthiness of the beneficiaries. These are among the prerogatives of power, and facts that cannot be ignored by the traditional victims.

The third coup is of course the one taking place right now in Honduras, where an openly class-based military coup ousted left-leaning President Zelaya. This coup was unusual in that the U.S. did not carry it out or directly support it, but rather joined the Organization of American States in criticizing it, though weakly. Washington did not withdraw its ambassador in protest as Latin American and European countries did, and made only limited use of its enormous military and economic influence, as it could easily have done by simple means—for example by canceling all U.S. visas and freezing U.S. bank accounts of leaders of the coup regime. A group of leading U.S. Latin American scholars recently reported that “not only does the administration continue to prop up the regime with aid money through the Millennium Challenge Account and other sources, but the U.S. continues to train Honduran military students at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation—the notorious institution formerly known as the School of the Americas,” from which much of the top Honduran military has graduated. Amnesty International has just released a long and detailed account of extremely serious human rights violations by the coup regime. If such a report were issued concerning an official enemy, it would be front-page news. In this case it was scarcely reported, consistent with the downplaying of coups to which U.S. political and economic power centers are basically sympathetic, as in this case.

The U.S. surely hopes to maintain and probably expand its military base at Soto Cano (Palmerola) in Honduras, a major base for the U.S.-run terrorist war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. There are unconfirmed rumors of plans for other bases. (The best source of information and analysis is the consistently outstanding work by Mark Weisbrot at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who also reviews the media’s refusal to rise to minimal journalistic standards by reporting the basic facts.)

The justification offered for the new military bases in Colombia is the “war on drugs.” The fact that the justification is even offered is remarkable. Suppose, for example, that Colombia, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement their programs to eradicate tobacco in the U.S., by fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the U.S. to ensure it was eradicating this poison—which is, in fact, far more lethal even than alcohol, which in turn is far more lethal than cocaine or heroin, incomparably more than cannabis. The toll of tobacco use is truly fearsome, including “passive smokers” who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves. The death toll overwhelms the lethal effects of other dangerous substances.

The idea that outsiders should interfere with U.S. production and distribution of these murderous poisons is plainly unthinkable. Nevertheless, the U.S. justification for carrying out such policies in South America is accepted as plausible. The fact that it is even regarded as worthy of discussion is yet another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, and the abiding truth of the doctrine of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must—while the intellectual classes spin tales about the nobility of power. Leading themes of history, to the present day.

Despite the outlandish assumptions, let us agree to adopt the imperial mentality that reigns in the West—virtually unchallenged, in fact, not even noticed. Even after this extreme concession, it requires real effort to take the “war on drugs” pretext seriously. The war has been waged for close to 40 years and intensively for a decade in Colombia. There has been no notable impact on drug use or even street prices. The reasons are reasonably well understood. Studies by official and quasi-official governmental organizations provide good evidence that prevention and treatment are far more effective than forceful measures in reducing drug abuse: one major study finds prevention and treatment to have been 10 times as effective as drug interdiction and 23 times as effective as “supply-side” out-of-country operations, such as fumigation in Colombia, more accurately described as chemical warfare. The historical record supports these conclusions. There is ample evidence that changes in cultural attitudes and perceptions have been very effective in curtailing harmful practices. Nevertheless, despite what is known, policy is overwhelmingly directed to the least effective measures, with the support of the doctrinal institutions.

These and other facts leave us with only two credible hypotheses: either U.S. leaders have been systematically insane for the past 40 years; or the purpose of the drug war is quite different from what is proclaimed. We can exclude the possibility of collective insanity. To determine the real reasons we can follow the model of the legal system, which takes predictable outcome to be evidence of intent, particularly when practices persist over a long period and in the face of constant failure to approach the announced objectives. In this case, the predictable outcome is not obscure, both abroad and at home.

Abroad, the “supply-side approach” has been the basis for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency strategy in Colombia and elsewhere, with a fearful toll among victims of chemical warfare and militarization of conflicts, but enormous profits for domestic and foreign elites. Colombia has a shocking record of human rights violations, by far the worst in the hemisphere since the end of Reagan’s Central American terror wars in the 1980s, and also the second-largest internal displacement of populations in the world, after Sudan. Meanwhile, domestic elites and multinationals profit from the forced displacement of peasants and indigenous people, which clears land for mining, agribusiness production and ranching, infrastructure development for industry, and much else. There is a great deal more to say about this, but I will put it aside.

At home, the drug war coincided with the initiation of neoliberal programs, the financialization of the economy, and the attack on government social welfare systems, real, even though limited by international standards. One immediate consequence of the war on drugs has been the extraordinary growth in scale and severity of incarceration in the past 30 years, placing the U.S. far in the lead worldwide. The victims are overwhelmingly African-American males and other minorities, a great many of them sentenced on victimless drug charges. Drug use is about the same as in privileged white sectors, which are mostly immune.

In short, while abroad the war on drugs is a thin cover for counterinsurgency, at home it functions as a civilized counterpart to Latin America limpieza social cleansing, removing a population that has become superfluous with the dismantling of the domestic productive system in the course of the neo-liberal financialization of the economy. A secondary gain is that like the “war on crime,” the “war on drugs” serves to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies are implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority, leading to staggering inequality that is breaking historical records, and stagnation of real wages for the majority while benefits decline and working hours increase.

These processes conform well to the history of prohibition, which has been well studied by legal scholars. I cannot go into the very interesting details here, but quite generally, prohibition has been aimed at control of what are called “the dangerous classes”—those who threaten the rights and well-being of the privileged dominant minorities. These observations hold worldwide, where the topics have been studied. They have special meaning in the U.S. in the context of the history of African-Americans, much of which remains generally unknown. It is, of course, known that slaves were formally freed during the American Civil War, and that after ten years of relative freedom, the gains were mostly obliterated by 1877 as Reconstruction was brought to an end.

But the horrifying story is only now being researched seriously, most recently in a study called “Slavery by another name” by Wall Street Journal editor Douglas Blackmon. His work fills out the bare bones with shocking detail, showing how after Reconstruction African-American life was effectively criminalized, so that black males virtually became a permanent slave labor force. Conditions, however, were far worse than under slavery, for good capitalist reasons. Slaves were property, a capital investment, and were therefore cared for by their masters. Those criminalized for merely existing are similar to wage laborers, in that the masters have no responsibility for them, except to make sure that enough are available. That was, in fact, one of the arguments used by slave owners to claim that they were more moral than those who hired labor. The argument was understood well enough by northern workers, who regarded wage labor as preferable to literal slavery only in that it was temporary, a position shared by Abraham Lincoln among others.

Criminalized black slavery provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century. It continued until World War II, when free labor was needed for war industry. During the postwar boom, which relied substantially on the dynamic state sector that had been established under the highly successful semi-command economy of World War II, African-American workers gained a certain degree of freedom for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction. But since the 1970s that process is being reversed, thanks in no small measure to the “war on drugs,” which in some respects is a contemporary analogue to the criminalization of black life after the Civil War—and also provides a fine disciplined labor force, often in private prisons, in gross violation of international labor regulations.

For such reasons as these, we can expect that the “war on drugs” will continue until popular understanding and activism reach a point where the fundamental driving factors can be discerned and seriously addressed.

Last February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the U.S. “war on drugs” in the past decades. The Commission, led by former Latin American presidents Cardoso, Zedillo, and Gavíria, concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from criminalization and “supply-side” operations and towards much less costly and more effective measures of education, prevention, and treatment. Their report had no detectable impact, just as earlier studies and the historical record have had none. That again reinforces the natural conclusion that the “drug war”—like the “war on crime” and “the war on terror”—has quite sensible goals, which are being achieved, and therefore continue in the face of a costly failure of announced goals.

Returning to the UNASUR meeting, a dose of realism, and skepticism about propaganda, would be helpful in evaluating the pretexts offered for the establishment of U.S. military bases in Colombia, retention of the base in Honduras, and the accompanying steps towards militarization. It is very much to be hoped that South America will bar moves towards militarization and intervention, and will devote its energies to the programs of integration in both their external and internal aspects—establishing effective political and economic organizations, overcoming the terrible internal problems of deprivation and suffering, and strengthening varied links to the outside world.

But Latin America’s problems go far beyond. The countries cannot hope to progress without overcoming their reliance on primary product exports, including crucially oil, but also minerals and food products. And all these problems, challenging enough in themselves, are overshadowed by a critical global concern: the looming environmental crisis.

Current warnings by the best-informed investigators rely on the British Stern report, which is very highly regarded by leading scientists and numerous Nobel laureates in economics. On this basis, some have concluded, realistically, that “2009 may well turn out to be the decisive year in the human relationship with our home planet.”

In December, a conference in Copenhagen is “to sign a new global accord on global warming,” which will tell us “whether or not our political systems are up to the unprecedented challenge that climate change represents.” I am quoting Bill McKibben, one of the most knowledgeable researchers. He is mildly hopeful, but that may be optimistic unless there are really large-scale public campaigns to overcome the insistence of the managers of the state-corporate sector on privileging short-term gain for the few over the hope that their grandchildren will have a decent future.

At least some of the barriers are beginning to crumble, in part, because the business world perceives new opportunities for profit in alternative energy. Even the Wall Street Journal, one of the most stalwart deniers, has recently published a supplement with dire warnings about “climate disaster,” urging that none of the options being considered may be sufficient and that it may be necessary to undertake more radical measures of geoengineering, “cooling the planet” in some manner.

Meanwhile, however, the energy industries are vigorously pursuing their own agenda. They are organizing major propaganda campaigns to defeat even the mild proposals being considered in Congress. They are quite openly following the script of the corporate campaigns that have virtually destroyed the very limited health care reforms proposed by the Obama administration so effectively that the business press now exults that the insurance companies have won—and everyone else will suffer.

The picture might be much grimmer even than what the Stern report predicts. A group of MIT scientists have just released the results of what they describe as, “The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth’s climate will get in this century, [showing] that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago—and could be even worse than that [because the model] does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane.” The leader of the project, a prominent earth scientist, says that, “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks,” and that, “The least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies.” There is little sign of that.

While new technologies are essential, the problems go far beyond. It will be necessary to reverse the huge state-corporate social engineering projects of the post-World War II period, or at least severely ameliorate their harmful effects. These projects quite purposefully promoted an energy-wasting and environmentally destructive fossil fuel-based economy. The state-corporate programs, which included massive projects of suburbanization along with destruction and then gentrification of inner cities, began with a conspiracy by manufacturing and energy industries to buy up and destroy efficient electric public transportation systems in Los Angeles and dozens of other cities; they were convicted of criminal conspiracy and given a light tap on the wrist. The Federal government then joined in, relocating infrastructure and capital stock to suburban areas and creating the interstate highway system, under the usual pretext of “defense.” Railroads were displaced by government-subsidized motor and air transport.

The public played almost no role, apart from choice within the narrowly structured framework of options designed by state-corporate managers. One result is atomization of society and entrapment of isolated individuals with self-destructive ambitions and crushing debt. A central component of these processes is the vigorous campaign of the business world to “fabricate consumers,” in the words of the distinguished political economist Thorstein Veblen, and to direct people “to the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption” (in the words of the business press). The campaign grew out of the recognition a century ago that it was no longer as easy as before to discipline the population by force, and that it would therefore be necessary to resort to propaganda and indoctrination to curtail democratic achievements and to ensure that the “opulent minority” is protected from the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” the population. These are crucial features of really existing democracy under contemporary state capitalism, a “democratic deficit” that is at the root of many of today’s crises.

While state-corporate power was promoting privatization of life and maximal waste of energy, it was also undermining the efficient choices that the market does not provide—another destructive built-in market inefficiency. To put it simply, if I want to get home from work, the market offers me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s a social decision and in a democratic society would be the decision of an organized public. But that’s just what the dedicated elite attack on democracy seeks to undermine.

The consequences are right before our eyes, in ways that are sometimes surreal—no less surreal than the huge resources being poured into militarization of the world while a billion people are going hungry and the rich countries are cutting back sharply on financing meager food aid. The business press recently reported that Obama’s transportation secretary is in Europe seeking to contract with Spanish and other European manufacturers to build high-speed rail projects in the U.S., using federal funds that were authorized by Congress to stimulate the U.S. economy. Spain and other European countries are hoping to get U.S. taxpayer funding for the high-speed rail and related infrastructure that is badly needed in the U.S. At the same time, Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of U.S. industry, ruining the lives of the workforce, families, and communities.

It is difficult to conjure up a more damning indictment of the economic system that has been constructed by state-corporate managers, particularly during the neoliberal era. Surely the auto industry could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled workforce—and what the world needs—and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. During World War II, the semi-command economy not only ended the Great Depression, but also initiated the most spectacular period of growth in economic history, virtually quadrupling industrial production in four years as the economy was retooled for war, and laying the basis for the “golden age” that followed.

But all such matters are off the agenda and will continue to be until the severe democratic deficit is overcome. In a sane world, workers and communities would take over the abandoned factories, convert them to socially useful production, and run the factories themselves. That has been tried, but was blocked in the courts. To succeed, such efforts would require a level of popular support and working class consciousness that is not manifest in recent years, but that could be reawakened and could have large-scale effects.

These issues should be very prominent right here in Venezuela, as in other oil-producing countries. They were discussed by President Chavez at the meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2005. I will quote his words, which unfortunately were not reported, at least in the U.S. press: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing an unprecedented energy crisis in which an unstoppable increase of energy is perilously reaching record highs, as well as the incapacity of increased oil supply and the perspective of a decline in the proven reserves of fuel worldwide…. It is unpractical and unethical to sacrifice the human race by appealing in an insane manner to the validity of a socioeconomic model that has a galloping destructive capacity. It would be suicidal to spread it and impose it as an infallible remedy for the evils which are caused precisely by them.”

These words point in the right direction. To avoid the suicide of the species there must be coordinated efforts of producers and users, and radical changes in prevailing socioeconomic models and global organization. These are very large and urgent challenges. There can be no delay in recognizing and understanding them, and acting decisively to address them.

Is Democracy a Hit with Humans because it Mirrors our Myopia?

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on October 1, 2009 by CjH

By Arundhati Roy, ZSpace

While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.

So, is there life after democracy?

Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: ‘Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia…is that what you would prefer?’

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all ‘developing’ societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn’t meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It’s meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy-too much representation, too little democracy-needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is: what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly-our nearsightedness? Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.

It would be conceit to pretend that the essays in this book provide answers to any of these questions. They only demonstrate, in some detail, the fact that it looks as though the beacon could be failing and that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.All the essays were written as urgent public interventions at critical moments in India-during the state-backed genocide of Muslims in Gujarat; just before the date set for the hanging of Mohammed Afzal, the accused in the December 13, 2001, Parliament attack; during US President George Bush’s visit to India; during the mass uprising in Kashmir in the summer of 2008; after the November 26, 2008, Mumbai attacks. Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses.

Though many of them were written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something, the essays do have a common thread. They’re not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the democratic process. They’re about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy; they’re about the fire in the ducts. I should also say that they do not provide a panoramic overview. They’re a detailed underview of specific events that I hoped would reveal some of the ways in which democracy is practised in the world’s largest democracy. (Or the world’s largest ‘demon-crazy’, as a Kashmiri protester on the streets of Srinagar once put it. His placard said: ‘Democracy without Justice=Demon Crazy.’)

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahminical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favourite new Superpower. Repression ‘through proper channels’ sometimes engenders resistance ‘through proper channels’. As resistance goes this isn’t enough, I know. But for now, it’s all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

‘Listening to Grasshoppers’, the essay from which this collection draws its title, was a lecture I gave in Istanbul in January 2008 on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was shot down on the street outside his office for daring to raise a subject that is forbidden in Turkey-the 1915 genocide of Armenians in which more than one million people were killed.My lecture was about the history of genocide and genocide denial, and the old, almost organic relationship between ‘progress’ and genocide.

I have always been struck by the fact that the political party in Turkey that carried out the Armenian genocide was called the Committee for Union and Progress. Most of the essays in this collection are, in fact, about the contemporary correlation between Union and Progress, or, in today’s idiom, between nationalism and development-those unimpeachable twin towers of modern, free market democracy. Both of these in their extreme form are, as we now know, encrypted with the potential of bringing about ultimate, apocalyptic destruction (nuclear war, climate change).

Though these essays were written between 2002 and 2008, the invisible marker, the starting gun, is the year 1989, when in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan capitalism won its long jehad against Soviet Communism. (Of course, the wheel’s in spin again. Could it be that those same mountains are now in the process of burying capitalism? It’s too early to tell.) Within months of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Indian government, once a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, performed a high-speed somersault and aligned itself completely with the United States, monarch of the new unipolar world.

The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely. Millions of people who lived in remote villages and deep in the heart of untouched forests, some of whom had never heard of Berlin or the Soviet Union, could not have imagined how events that occurred in those faraway places would affect their lives. The process of their dispossession and displacement had already begun in the early 1950s, when India opted for the Soviet-style development model in which huge steel plants (Bhilai, Bokaro) and large dams (thousands of them) would occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. The era of privatisation and structural adjustment accelerated that process at a mind-numbing speed.

Today, words like ‘progress’ and ‘development’ have become interchangeable with economic ‘reforms’, ‘deregulation’ and ‘privatisation’. ‘Freedom’ has come to mean ‘choice’. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. ‘Market’ no longer means a place where you go to buy provisions. The ‘market’ is a de-territorialised space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling ‘futures’. ‘Justice’ has come to mean ‘human rights’ (and of those, as they say, ‘a few will do’). This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalise their detractors, deprive them of a language in which to voice their critique and dismiss them as being ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-reform’ and of course ‘anti-national’-negativists of the worst sort. Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, ‘Don’t you believe in Progress?’ To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs and whose homes are being bulldozed they say, ‘Do you have an alternative development model?’ To those who believe that a government is duty-bound to provide people with basic education, healthcare and social security, they say, ‘You’re against the Market.’ And who except a cretin could be against a Market?

To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when free speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it-and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and special economic zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

The battle for land lies at the heart of the ‘development’ debate. Before he became India’s finance minister, P. Chidambaram was Enron’s lawyer and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, a multinational mining corporation that is currently devastating the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa. Perhaps his career graph informed his worldview. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In an interview a year ago, he said that his vision was to get 85 per cent of India’s population to live in cities. Realising this ‘vision’ would require social engineering on an unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about five hundred million people to migrate from the countryside into cities. That process is well under way and is quickly turning India into a police state in which people who refuse to surrender their land are being made to do so at gunpoint. Perhaps this is what makes it so easy for P. Chidambaram to move so seamlessly from being finance minister to being home minister. The portfolios are separated only by an osmotic membrane. Underlying this nightmare masquerading as ‘vision’ is the plan to free up vast tracts of land and all of India’s natural resources, leaving them ripe for corporate plunder. In effect, to reverse the post-independence policy of land reforms.

Already forests, mountains and water systems are being ravaged by marauding multinational corporations, backed by a State that has lost its moorings and is committing what can only be called ‘ecocide’. In eastern India, bauxite and iron ore mining is destroying whole ecosystems, turning fertile land into desert. In the Himalayas, hundreds of high dams are being planned, the consequences of which can only be catastrophic. In the plains, embankments built along rivers, ostensibly to control floods, have led to rising river beds, causing even more flooding, more waterlogging, more salinisation of agricultural land and the destruction of livelihoods of millions of people. Most of India’s holy rivers, including the Ganga, have been turned into unholy drains that carry more sewage and industrial effluent than water. Hardly a single river runs its course and meets the ocean.

Based on the absurd notion that a river flowing into the sea is a waste of water, the Supreme Court, in an act of unbelievable hubris, has arbitrarily ordered that India’s rivers be interlinked, like a mechanical water supply system. Implementing this would mean tunnelling through mountains and forests, altering natural contours and drainage systems of river basins and destroying deltas and estuaries. In other words, wrecking the ecology of the entire subcontinent. (B.N. Kirpal, the judge who passed this order, joined the environmental board of Coca-Cola after he retired. Nice touch!)

The regime of free market economic policies, administered by people who are blissfully ignorant of the fate of civilisations that grew too dependent on artificial irrigation, has led to a worrying shift in cropping patterns.Sustainable food crops, suitable to local soil conditions and micro-climates, have been replaced by water-guzzling, hybrid and genetically modified ‘cash’ crops which, apart from being wholly dependent on the market, are also heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, canal irrigation and the indiscriminate mining of ground water. As abused farmland, saturated with chemicals, gradually becomes exhausted and infertile, agricultural input costs rise, ensnaring small farmers in a debt trap. Over the last few years, more than 1,80,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. While state granaries are bursting with food that eventually rots, starvation and malnutrition approaching the same levels as in sub-Saharan Africa stalk the land. Truly the nine per cent growth rate is beginning to look like a downward spiral. The higher the rate of this kind of growth, the worse the prognosis. Any oncologist will tell you that.

It’s as though an ancient society, decaying under the weight of feudalism and caste, was churned in a great machine. The churning has ripped through the mesh of old inequalities, recalibrating some of them but reinforcing most. Now the old society has curdled and separated into a thin layer of thick cream-and a lot of water. The cream is India’s ‘market’ of many million consumers (of cars, cell phones, computers, Valentine’s Day greeting cards), the envy of international business. The water is of little consequence. It can be sloshed around, stored in holding ponds, and eventually drained away.

Or so they think, the men in suits. They didn’t bargain for the violent civil war that has broken out in India’s heartland: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal.

Coming back to 1989. As if to illustrate the connection between ‘Union’ and ‘Progress’, at exactly the same time that the Congress government was opening up India’s markets to international finance, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in the opposition, began its virulent campaign of Hindu nationalism (popularly known as ‘Hindutva’). In 1990, its leader, L.K. Advani, travelled across the country, whipping up hatred against Muslims and demanding that the Babri Masjid, an old 16th-century mosque that stood on a disputed site in Ayodhya, be demolished and a Ram temple built in its place. In 1992, a mob, egged on by Advani, demolished the mosque. Feeding off the communal frenzy it had generated, the BJP, which had only two seats in Parliament in 1984, defeated the Congress in 1998 and came to power at the Centre.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of Hindutva corresponded with the historical moment when America substituted Communism with Islam as its great enemy. The radical Islamist mujahideen-whom President Reagan once entertained in the White House and compared to America’s founding fathers-suddenly began to be called terrorists. CNN’s live broadcast of the 1990-91 Gulf War-Operation Desert Storm-made it to elite drawing rooms in Indian cities, bringing with it the early thrills of satellite TV. Almost simultaneously, the Indian government, once a staunch friend of the Palestinians, turned into Israel’s ‘natural ally’. Now India and Israel do joint military exercises, share intelligence and probably exchange notes on how best to administer occupied territories.

By 1998, when the BJP took office, the ‘Progress’ project of privatisation and liberalisation was about eight years old. Though it had campaigned vigorously against the economic reforms, saying they were a process of ‘looting through liberalisation’, once it came to power the BJP embraced the free market enthusiastically and threw its weight behind huge corporations like Enron.(In representative democracies, once they’re elected, the people’s representatives are free to break their promises and change their minds.)

Within weeks of taking office, the BJP conducted a series of thermonuclear tests. Though India had thrown its hat into the nuclear ring in 1974, politically, the 1998 nuclear tests were of a different order altogether. The orgy of triumphant nationalism with which the tests were greeted introduced a chilling new language of aggression and hatred into mainstream public discourse. None of what was being said was new, only that what was once considered unacceptable was suddenly being celebrated. Since then, Hindu communalism and nuclear nationalism, like corporate globalisation, have vaulted over the stated ideologies of political parties. The venom has been injected straight into our bloodstream. It’s there now-in all its violence and banality-for us to deal with in our daily lives, regardless of whether the government at the centre calls itself ‘secular’ or not. The Muslim community has seen a sharp decline in its fortunes and is now at the bottom of the social pyramid, along with Dalits and Adivasis. Certain events that occur in the life of a nation have the effect of parting the curtains and giving ordinary people a glimpse into the future. The 1998 nuclear tests were one such. You didn’t need the gift of prophecy to tell in which direction India was heading.

In February 2002, following the burning of a train coach in which 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned alive, the BJP government in Gujarat, led by chief minister Narendra Modi, presided over a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state. The Islamophobia generated all over the world by the September 11, 2001, attacks put the wind in their sails. The machinery of the state of Gujarat stood by and watched while more than 2,000 people were massacred. Gujarat has always been a communally tense state. There had been riots before. But this was not a riot. It was a genocidal massacre, and though the number of victims was insignificant compared to the horror of say Rwanda, Sudan or the Congo, the Gujarat carnage was designed as a public spectacle whose aims were unmistakable. It was a public warning to Muslim citizens from the government of the world’s favourite democracy.

After the carnage, Modi pressed for early elections. He was returned to power with a mandate from the people of Gujarat. Five years later he repeated his success: he is now serving a third term as chief minister, widely appreciated by business houses for his faith in the free market, illustrating the organic relationship between ‘Union’ and ‘Progress’. Or, if you like, between Fascism and the Free Market.

In January 2009 that relationship was sealed with a kiss at a public function. The CEOs of two of India’s biggest corporations, Ratan Tata (of the Tata Group) and Mukesh Ambani (of Reliance Industries), while accepting the Gujarat Garima (Pride of Gujarat) award, celebrated the development policies of Modi, architect of the Gujarat genocide, and warmly endorsed him as a future candidate for prime minister.

As this book goes to press, the nearly two-billion-dollar 2009 general election has just been concluded. That’s a lot more than the budget of the US elections. According to some media reports, the actual amount spent is closer to ten billion dollars. Where, might one ask, does that kind of money come from?

The Congress and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have won a comfortable majority. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent of the independent candidates who stood for elections lost. Clearly, without sponsorship it’s hard to win an election.And independent candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes, those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced to.

When you take a closer look at the calculus that underlies election results, words like ‘comfortable’ and ‘majority’ turn out to be deceptive, if not outright inaccurate. For instance, the actual share of votes polled by the UPA in these elections works out to only 10.3 per cent of the country’s population! It’s interesting how the cleverly layered mathematics of electoral democracy can turn a tiny minority into a thumping mandate. Anyway, be that as it may, the point is that it will not be L.K. Advani, hate-monger incarnate, but secular Dr Manmohan Singh, gentle architect of the market reforms, a man who has never won an election in his life, who will be prime minister of the world’s largest democracy for a second term.

In the run-up to the polls, there was absolute consensus across party lines about the economic ‘reforms’. Govindacharya, formerly the chief ideologue of the BJP, progenitor of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, sarcastically suggested that the Congress and BJP form a coalition. In some states they already have. In Chhattisgarh, for example, the BJP runs the government and Congress politicians run the Salwa Judum, a vicious government-backed ‘people’s militia’. The Judum and the government have formed a joint front against the Maoists in the forests who are engaged in a deadly and often brutal armed struggle against displacement and against land acquisition by corporations waiting to set up steel factories and to begin mining iron ore, tin and all the other wealth stashed below the forest floor. So, in Chhattisgarh, we have the remarkable spectacle of the two biggest political parties of India in an alliance against the Adivasis of Dantewada, India’s poorest, most vulnerable people. Already 644 villages have been emptied. Fifty thousand people have moved into Salwa Judum camps. Three hundred thousand are hiding in the forests and are being called Maoist terrorists or sympathisers. The battle is raging, and the corporations are waiting.

It is significant that India is one of the countries that blocked a European move in the UN asking for an international probe into war crimes that may have been committed by the government of Sri Lanka in its recent offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Governments in this part of the world have taken note of Israel’s Gaza blueprint as a good way of dealing with ‘terrorism’: keep the media out and close in for the kill. That way they don’t have to worry too much about who’s a ‘terrorist’ and who isn’t. There may be a little flurry of international outrage, but it goes away pretty quickly.

Things do not augur well for the forest-dwelling people of Chhattisgarh.

Reassured by the sort of ‘constructive’ collaboration, the consensus between political parties, few were more enthusiastic about the recent general elections than some major corporate houses. They seem to have realised that a democratic mandate can legitimise their pillaging in a way that nothing else can. Several corporations ran extravagant advertising campaigns on TV, some featuring Bollywood film stars urging people, young and old, rich and poor, to go out and vote. Shops and restaurants in Khan Market, Delhi’s most tony market, offered discounts to those whose index (voting) fingers were marked with indelible ink.Democracy suddenly became the cool new way to be. You know how it is: the Chinese do Sport, so they had the Olympics; India does Democracy, so we had an election. Both are heavily sponsored, TV-friendly spectator sports.

The BBC commissioned a coach on a train-the India Election Special-that took journalists from all over the world on a sightseeing tour to witness the miracle of Indian elections. The train coach had a slogan painted on it: ‘Will India’s voters revive the World’s Fortunes?’ BBC (Hindi) had a poster up in a cafe near my home. It featured a hundred dollar bill (with Ben Franklin) morphing into a 500 rupee note (with Gandhi). It said: ‘Kya India ka vote bachayega duniya ka note?’ (Will India’s votes rescue the world’s currency notes?) In these flagrant and unabashed ways, an electorate has been turned into a market, voters are seen as consumers, and democracy is being welded to the Free Market. Ergo: those who cannot consume do not matter.

What does the victory of the UPA mean in this election? Obviously a myriad things. The debate is wide open. Interpreting an Indian election is about as exact a science as sorcery. Voting patterns are intricately connected with local issues and caste and community equations that vary, quite literally, from polling booth to polling booth. There can be no reliable Big Conclusion. But here’s something to think about.

In its time in office, in order to mitigate the devastation caused by its economic policies, the former Congress regime passed three progressive (critics call them populist and controversial) parliamentary acts. The Forest Rights Act (which gave forest-dwellers legal right to land and the traditional use of forest produce), the Right to Information Act and, most important of all, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The NREGA guarantees every rural family a hundred days of work (hard, manual labour) a year at minimum wages. It amounts to an average of Rs 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough for a good meal in a restaurant, including wine and dessert. Imagine how hellish times must be for even that tiny amount of money to come as a relief to millions of people who are reeling under the impact of the precipitous loss of their lands and their livelihoods. (Talk about crumbs from the high table. But then, which one of us has the heart, or the right, to argue that no crumbs are better than crumbs? Or, indeed, that no elections are better than meaningless elections?) Implementing the NREGA, seeing that the crumbs actually reach the people they’re meant for, has occupied all the time and energy of some of India’s finest and most committed social activists for the last several years. They have had to battle cartels of corrupt government officers, power-brokers and middlemen. They have faced threats and a fair amount of violence. One rural activist in Jharkhand immolated himself in anger and frustration at the injustice of it all.

Ironically, the NREGA only made it through Parliament because of pressure brought to bear on the UPA government by the Left Front and, it must be said, by Sonia Gandhi. It was passed despite tremendous resistance from the mandarins of the free market within the Congress party. The corporate media was more or less unanimously hostile to the Act. Needless to say, come election-time and the NREGA became one of the main planks of the Congress party’s election campaign. There’s little doubt that the goodwill it generated amongst the very poor translated into votes for the Congress.But now that the elections are over, victory is being attributed to the very policies that the NREGA was passed to mitigate! The Captains of Industry have lost no time in claiming the ‘People’s Mandate’ as their own. ‘It’s fast forward for markets’, the business papers crowed the morning after, ‘Vote [was] for reforms, says India Inc’.

There is an even greater irony: the Left Front, acting with the duplicity that has become second nature to all parliamentary political parties, took a sharp turn to the right. Even while it criticised the government’s economic policies at the Centre, it tried to enforce similar ones on its home turf in West Bengal. It announced that it was going to build a chemical hub in Nandigram, a manufacturing unit for the Tata Nano in Singur, and a Jindal Steel plant some kilometres outside the forests of Lalgarh, home to the Santhal people. It began to acquire land, most of it fertile farmland, virtually at gunpoint. The massive, militant uprisings that followed were put down with bullets and lathicharges. Lumpen ‘party’ militias ran amok among the protesters, raping women and killing people. But eventually the combination of genuine mass mobilisation and militancy worked. The people prevailed. They won all three battles, and forced the government to back off. The Tatas had to move the Nano project to Gujarat, that laboratory of fascism, which offered a ‘good investment climate’. The Left Front was decimated in the elections in West Bengal, something that had not happened in thirty years.

The irony doesn’t end there. In a fiendishly clever sleight of hand, the defeat of the Left is being attributed to its obstructionism and anti-development policies! ‘Corporate captains feel easy without Left’, the papers said. The stockmarket surged, looking forward to ‘a summer of joy’. CEOs on TV channels celebrated the new government’s ‘liberation’ from the Left. Hectoring news anchors have announced that the UPA no longer has any excuse to prevaricate on implementing reforms, unless of course it has ‘closet socialists’ hiding in its midst

This is the wonderful thing about democracy. It can mean anything you want it to mean.

The absence of a genuinely left-wing party in mainstream politics is not something to celebrate. But the parliamentary Left has only itself to blame for its humiliation. It’s not a tragedy that it has been cut to size. Perhaps this will create the space for some truly progressive politics.

For the sake of argument, let’s for a moment contemplate the absurd and accept that India Inc and the Captains of Industry are right and that India’s millions did in fact vote for the speeding up of market ‘reforms’. Is that good news or bad news? Should we be celebrating the fact that millions of people who have something to teach the world, who have another imagination, another worldview and a more sustainable way of life, have decided to embrace a discredited ideology, one that has pushed this planet into a crisis from which it may never recover?

What good will forest rights be when there are no forests? What good will the Right to Information do if there is no redress for our grievances? What good are rivers without water? What good are plains without mountains to water and sustain them? It’s as though we’re hurtling down a cliff in a bus without brakes and fighting over what songs to sing.

‘Jai Ho!’ perhaps?

For better or for worse, the 2009 elections seem to have ensured that the ‘Progress’ project is up and running. However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the ‘Union’ project has fallen by the wayside.

As the 2009 election campaign unrolled, two things got saturation coverage in the media.One was the 1,00,000 rupee (two thousand dollar) ‘people’s car’, the Tata Nano-the wagon for the volks-rolling out of Modi’s Gujarat. (The sops and subsidies Modi gave the Tatas had a lot to do with Ratan Tata’s warm endorsement of him.) The other is the hate speech of the BJP’s monstrous new debutant, Varun Gandhi (another descendant of the Nehru dynasty), who makes even Narendra Modi sound moderate and retiring. In a public speech, Varun Gandhi called for Muslims to be forcibly sterilised. ‘This will be known as a Hindu bastion, no Muslim dare raise his head here’, he said, using a derogatory word for someone who has been circumcised. ‘I don’t want a single Muslim vote.’

Varun is a modern politician, working the democratic system, doing everything he can to create a majority and consolidate his votebank. A politician needs a votebank, like a corporation needs a mass market. Both need help from the mass media. Corporations buy that help. Politicians must earn it. Some earn it by dint of hard work, others with dangerous circus stunts. Varun’s hate speech bought him national headlines. His brief stint in prison (for violating the Election Commission’s code of conduct), cut short by a court order, made him an instant martyr. He was gently chastised for his impetuousness by his party elders (on TV, for public consumption). But then, in order to export his coarse appeal, he, like Narendra Modi, was flown around in a chopper as a star campaigner for the BJP in other constituencies.

Varun Gandhi won his election with a colossal margin. It makes you wonder-are ‘the people’ always right? It is worrying to think what lessons the BJP will draw from its few decisive victories and its many decisive losses in this election. In several of the constituencies where it has won, hate speech (and deed) served it well. It still remains by far the second largest political party, with a powerful national presence, the only real challenge to the Congress. It will certainly live to fight another day. The question is, will it turn the burners up or down?

This said, it would be a travesty to lay all the blame for divisive politics at the door of the BJP. Whether it’s nuclear tests, the unsealing of the locks of the Babri Masjid, the culture of creating fissures and pitting castes and communities against each other, or passing retrograde laws, the Congress got there first and has never been shy of keeping the ball in play. In the past, both parties have used massacres to gain political mileage. Sometimes they feast off them obliquely, sometimes they accuse each other of committing mass murder. In this election, both the Congress and the BJP brazenly fielded candidates believed to be involved in public lynching and mass murder. At no point has either seen to it that the guilty are punished or that justice is delivered. Despite their vicious public exchange of accusations, so far they have colluded to protect one another from real consequences.

Eventually the massacres get absorbed into the labyrinth of India’s judicial system where they are left to bubble and ferment before being trundled out as campaign material for the next election. You could say it’s all a part of the fabric of Indian democracy. Hard to see from a train window. Whether the new infusion of young blood into the Congress will change the old party’s methods of doing business remains to be seen

As will be obvious from the essays in this book, the hoary institutions of Indian democracy-the judiciary, the police, the ‘free’ press and, of course, elections-far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite.They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.

Speaking of consensus, there’s the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hardcore. It cuts across every section of the establishment-including the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia and even Bollywood.

The war in the Kashmir Valley is almost 20 years old now, and has claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have ‘disappeared’, women have been raped and many thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir Valley, making it the most militarised zone in the world. (The United States had about 1,65,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of its occupation.) The Indian army now claims that it has, for the most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that’s true. But does military domination mean victory?

How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for India’s Deep State. Intelligence agencies have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the people of Kashmir.

In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, non-violent uprising. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen-who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people-and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of ‘azadi! azadi!’ (‘freedom! freedom!’). Fruit-sellers weighed fruit chanting, ‘azadi! azadi!’ Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet-sellers-everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted ‘azadi! azadi!’ The protests went on for several days.

The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were non-violent. For the first time in decades, fissures appeared in mainstream public opinion in India. The Indian state panicked. Unsure of how to deal with this mass civil disobedience, it ordered a crackdown. It enforced the harshest curfew in recent memory with shoot-at-sight orders. In effect, for days on end, it virtually caged millions of people. The major pro-freedom leaders were placed under house arrest, several others were jailed. House-to-house searches culminated in the arrest of hundreds of people. The Jama Masjid was closed for Friday prayers for an unprecedented seven weeks at a stretch.

Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did something extraordinary-it announced elections in the state. Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were re-arrested. Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades and embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy.No chances were taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on, was put under house arrest in Srinagar for two days.)

Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so that the first districts to vote were the most militarised even within the Kashmir Valley.

None of India’s analysts, journalists and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-at-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy-who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast, exit poll and minor percentile swing in the voteshare-talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment. (An armed soldier for every 20 civilians.) No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialised out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious.

No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls. Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to delink ‘azadi’ and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues-roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades-where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night-might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.

The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again. The most worrying fallout was that in Kashmir, people began to parrot their colonisers’ view of themselves as a somewhat pathetic people who deserved what they got. ‘Never trust a Kashmiri,’ several Kashmiris said to me. ‘We’re fickle and unreliable.’ Psychological warfare has been an instrument of official policy in Kashmir. Its depredations over decades-its attempt to destroy people’s self-esteem-are arguably the worst aspect of the occupation.

But only weeks after the elections it was back to business as usual. The protests and demands for azadi and the summary killings by security forces have begun again. Newspapers report that militancy is on the rise. Unsurprisingly, the poor turnout in the subsequent general elections did not elicit much comment.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy.

The trouble is that Kashmir sits on the faultlines of a region that is awash in weapons and sliding into chaos. The Kashmiri freedom struggle, with its crystal-clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines, is caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies-Indian nationalism (corporate as well as ‘Hindu’, shading into imperialism), Pakistani nationalism (breaking down under the burden of its own contradictions), US imperialism (made impatient by a tanking economy), and a resurgent medieval-Islamist Taliban (fast gaining legitimacy, despite its insane brutality, because it is seen to be resisting an occupation). Each of these ideologies is capable of a ruthlessness that can range from genocide to nuclear war.Add Chinese imperial ambitions, an aggressive, reincarnated Russia, the huge reserves of natural gas in the Caspian region and persistent whispers about natural gas, oil and uranium reserves in Kashmir and Ladakh, and you have the recipe for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is cold for some and hot for others).

In the midst of all this, Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem unfolding in Afghanistan and Pakistan spills into India, where it will find purchase in the anger of the young among India’s 150 million Muslims who have been brutalised, humiliated and marginalised. Notice has been given by the series of terrorist strikes that culminated in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there, along with Palestine, as one of the oldest, most intractable disputes in the world. That does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Only that the solution will not be completely to the satisfaction of any one party, one country or one ideology. Negotiators will have to be prepared to deviate from the ‘party line’. Of course, we haven’t yet reached the stage where the Government of India is even prepared to admit that there’s a problem, let alone negotiate a solution. Right now it has no reason to. Internationally, its stocks are soaring. Its economy is still ticking over, and while its neighbours deal with bloodshed, civil war, concentration camps, refugees and army mutinies, India has just concluded a beautiful election.

However, Demon-crazy can’t fool all the people all the time. India’s temporary, shotgun solutions to the unrest in Kashmir (pardon the pun) have magnified the problem and driven it deep into a place where it is poisoning the aquifers.

Perhaps the story of the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the cold-from frostbite and sunburn. The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war, thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice-axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly. While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They’re good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. .. it’s a long list.) The glacial melt will cause severe floods in the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight. We’ll need more weapons. Who knows, that sort of consumer confidence may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession. Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life-and the glaciers will melt even faster.

While I read ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ to a tense audience packed into a university auditorium in Istanbul (tense because words like unity, progress, genocide and Armenian tend to anger the Turkish authorities when they are uttered close together), I could see Rakel Dink, Hrant Dink’s widow, sitting in the front row, crying the whole way through. When I finished, she hugged me and said, “We keep hoping. Why do we keep hoping?”

We, she said. Not you.

The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung so hauntingly by Abida Parveen, came to me:

Nahin nigah main manzil to justaju hi sahi, Nahin wisaal mayassar to arzu hi sahi

I tried to translate them for her (sort of):

If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place, If reunion is impossible, then longing must take its place.

You see what I meant about poetry?