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.

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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?

Sentient World: War Games on the Grandest Scale

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on September 30, 2009 by CjH

By Mark Baard, The Register

Perhaps your real life is so rich you don’t have time for another.

Even so, the US Department of Defense (DOD) may already be creating a copy of you in an alternate reality to see how long you can go without food or water, or how you will respond to televised propaganda.

The DOD is developing a parallel to Planet Earth, with billions of individual “nodes” to reflect every man, woman, and child this side of the dividing line between reality and AR.

Called the Sentient World Simulation (SWS), it will be a “synthetic mirror of the real world with automated continuous calibration with respect to current real-world information”, according to a concept paper for the project.

“SWS provides an environment for testing Psychological Operations (PSYOP),” the paper reads, so that military leaders can “develop and test multiple courses of action to anticipate and shape behaviors of adversaries, neutrals, and partners”.

SWS also replicates financial institutions, utilities, media outlets, and street corner shops. By applying theories of economics and human psychology, its developers believe they can predict how individuals and mobs will respond to various stressors.

Yank a country’s water supply. Stage a military coup. SWS will tell you what happens next.

“The idea is to generate alternative futures with outcomes based on interactions between multiple sides,” said Purdue University professor Alok Chaturvedi, co-author of the SWS concept paper.

Chaturvedi directs Purdue’s laboratories for Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulations, or SEAS – the platform underlying SWS. Chaturvedi also makes a commercial version of SEAS available through his company, Simulex, Inc.

SEAS users can visualise the nodes and scenarios in text boxes and graphs, or as icons set against geographical maps.

Corporations can use SEAS to test the market for new products, said Chaturvedi. Simulex lists the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and defense contractor Lockheed Martin among its private sector clients.

The US government appears to be Simulex’s number one customer, however. And Chaturvedi has received millions of dollars in grants from the military and the National Science Foundation to develop SEAS.

Chaturvedi is now pitching SWS to DARPA and discussing it with officials at the US Department of Homeland Security, where he said the idea has been well received, despite the thorny privacy issues for US citizens.

In fact, Homeland Security and the Defense Department are already using SEAS to simulate crises on the US mainland.

The Joint Innovation and Experimentation Directorate of the US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM-J9) in April began working with Homeland Security and multinational forces over “Noble Resolve 07”, a homeland defense experiment.

In August, the agencies will shift their crises scenarios from the East Coast to the Pacific theatre.

JFCOM-J9 completed another test of SEAS last year. Called Urban Resolve, the experiment projected warfare scenarios for Baghdad in 2015, eight years from now.

JFCOM-9 is now capable of running real-time simulations for up to 62 nations, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and China. The simulations gobble up breaking news, census data, economic indicators, and climactic events in the real world, along with proprietary information such as military intelligence.

Military and intel officials can introduce fictitious agents into the simulations (such as a spike in unemployment, for example) to gauge their destabilising effects on a population.

Officials can also “inject an earthquake or a tsunami and observe their impacts (on a society)”, Chaturvedi added.

Jim Blank, modelling and simulation division chief at JFCOM-J9, declined to discuss the specific routines military commanders are running in the Iraq and Afghanistan computer models. He did say SEAS might help officers determine where to position snipers in a city square, or to envision scenarios that might emerge from widespread civil unrest.

SEAS helps commanders consider the multitude of variables and outcomes possible in urban warfare, said Blank.

“Future wars will be asymetric in nature. They will be more non-kinetic, with the center of gravity being a population.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan computer models are the most highly developed and complex of the 62 available to JFCOM-J9. Each has about five million individual nodes representing things such as hospitals, mosques, pipelines, and people.

The other SEAS models are far less detailed, encompassing only a few thousand nodes altogether, Blank said.

Feeding a whole-Earth simulation will be a colossal challenge.

“(SWS) is a hungry beast,” Blank said. “A lot of data will be required to make this thing even credible.”

Alok Chaturvedi wants SWS to match every person on the planet, one-to-one.

Right now, the 62 simulated nations in SEAS depict humans as composites, at a 100-to-1 ratio.

//

One organisation has achieved a one-to-one level of granularity for its simulations, according to Chaturvedi: the US Army, which is using SEAS to identify potential recruits.

Chaturvedi insists his goal for SWS is to have a depersonalised likeness for each individual, rather than an immediately identifiable duplicate. If your town census records your birthdate, job title, and whether you own a dog, SWS will generate what Chaturvedi calls a “like someone” with the same stats, but not the same name.

Of course, government agencies and corporations can add to SWS whatever personally-identifiable information they choose from their own databases, and for their own purposes.

And with consumers already giving up their personal information regularly to websites such as MySpace and Twitter, it is not a stretch to imagine SWS doing the same thing.

“There may be hooks through which individuals may voluntarily contribute information to SWS,” Chaturvedi said.

SEAS bases its AI “thinking” on the theories of cognitive psychologists and the work of Princeton University professor Daniel Kahneman, one of the fathers of behavioural economics.

Chaturvedi, as do many AR developers, also cites the work of positive psychology guru Martin Seligman (known, too, for his concept of “learned hopelessness”) as an influence on SEAS human behaviour models. The Simulex website says, if a bit vaguely, SEAS similarly incorporates predictive models based upon production, marketing, finance and other fields.

But SWS may never be smart enough to anticipate every possibility, or predict how people will react under stress, said Philip Lieberman, professor of cognitive and linguistic studies at Brown University.

“Experts make ‘correct’ decisions under time pressure and extreme stress that are not necessarily optimum but work,” said Lieberman, who nevertheless said the simulations might be useful for anticipating some scenarios.

JFCOM’s Blank agreed that SWS, which is using computers and code to do cultural anthropology, does not include any “hard science at this point”.

“Ultimately,” said Blank, “the guy to make decision is the commander.”

Victory on preventive detention law: in context

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on September 25, 2009 by CjH

By Glen Greenwald, Salon.com

When Barack Obama gave his “civil liberties” speech at the National Archives in May, he advocated a new scheme of preventive detention for detainees whom he claimed “cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people,” and he unambiguously vowed to develop a new statutory regime, enacted by Congress, to vest him with the power of what he called “prolonged detention”:

I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges. . . . But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for Guantanamo detainees — not to avoid one.  In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. And so going forward, my Administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.  As our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. . . . [I]f we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.

Obama has now changed his mind about seeking a new law, and instead will continue to detain Terrorism suspects without charges under the current system (the one used by Bush/Cheney as well):

The Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday.

Instead, the administration will continue to hold the detainees without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the president to use force against forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.

Regardless of what motivated this, and no matter how bad the current detention scheme is, this development is very positive, and should be considered a victory for those who spent the last four months loudly protesting Obama’s proposal.  Here’s why:

A new preventive detention law would have permanently institutionalized that power, almost certainly applying not only to the “war on Terror” but all future conflicts.  It would have endowed preventive detention with the legitimizing force of explicit statutory authority, which it currently lacks.  It would have caused preventive detention to ascend to the cherished status of official bipartisan consensus — and thus, for all practical purposes, been placed off limits from meaningful debate — as not only the Bush administration and the GOP Congress, but also Obama and the Democratic Congress, would have formally embraced it.  It would have created new and far more permissive standards for when an individual could be detained without charges and without trials.  And it would have forced Constitutional challenges to begin from scratch, ensuring that current detainees would suffer years and years more imprisonment with no due process.

Beyond that, as a purely practical matter, nothing good — and plenty of bad — could come from having Congress write a new detention law.  As bad as the Obama administration is on detention issues, the Congress is far worse.  Any time the words “Terrorism” or “Al Qaeda” are uttered, they leap to the most extreme and authoritarian measures.  Congress is intended to be a check on presidential powers, but each time Terrorism is the issue, the ironic opposite occurs:  when the Obama administration and Congress are at odds, it is Congress demanding greater powers of executive detention (as happened when Congress blocked Obama from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.).  Any process that lets Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein anywhere near presidential detention powers is one that is to be avoided at all costs.  Whatever else is true, anyone who believes in the Far Left doctrines known as the Constitution, due process and what Thomas Jefferson called “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution” (i.e., jury trials) should consider it a very good thing that the Congress is not going to write a new law authorizing presidential preventive detentions.  However bad things are now, that would have made everything much worse.

All that said, in a practical sense, this is still an extremely incremental — one might even say cosmetic — development.  After all, the Obama administration is continuing to assert the power to detain people without charges or trial based on the Bush/Cheney theory (accepted by several courts) that they already have implied statutory authority (under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force) to do so and therefore don’t need a new law.  It’s true that the Obama administration, to its credit, is no longer relying on the theory that the President has “inherent authority” to detain Terrorism suspects without charges, but that makes no practical difference since they claim the same exact power based on the AUMF.  And, according to the New York Times, Obama’s decision not to seek a new detention law “applies only to those already held at Guantánamo . . .  it remain[s] an open question whether the administration would seek legislation or establish a new system for indefinite detention of suspected terrorists captured in the future.”

So all one can really say about all of this is that while no improvements have been made, something that would have been extremely bad has been averted, at least for now.  And while the administration continues to assert the power of indefinite detention even without a new law, at least detainees now have the right of habeas corpus review as established by the 2008 Boumediene Supreme Court decision, and thus far, 30 out of 38 detainees have won their habeas hearings and have had courts ordered them released (although 20 of the “winners” continue to remain imprisoned because we can’t place them anywhere).  Whatever else might be true, in our political culture, especially when it comes to Terrorism and civil liberties, blocking a new and terrible development — even as it keeps very bad things largely in place — is an important victory.

This leads to a more general point:  when it comes to uprooting (“changing”) the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties — the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else — the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do.  They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers.  With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites — at a time when none was operating.  They trumpeted the President’s order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used — at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn.  They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo “inherent power” theories — while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is.  They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo — while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram.  Their “changes” exist solely in theory — which isn’t to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice:  i.e., in reality.

That’s why I called yesterday’s announced changes to the state secrets policy a “farce” (here’s a Washington Times article today reporting on reactions, including mine).  Yes, the changes they announced sound better in theory than what existed previously.  It’s nice that the DOJ claims it will voluntarily impose a higher burden on itself before asserting the privilege, will require the approval of the Attorney General, will avoid asserting the privilege only to avoid embarrassment over government wrongdoing, etc.  But none of that would have altered the Obama administration’s controversial, Bush-replicating assertions of the privilege.  Not only the Attorney General, but the President himself, explicitly endorsed the specific assertions of the privilege that triggered the controversies in the first place:  to block, in advance, lawsuits brought by victims of Bush’s torture, rendition and illegal eavesdropping programs.  This “new policy” would plainly allow the continuation of that conduct because the decision-makers now — the DOJ — are the same ones who asserted the privilege in the first place.  So how, in practice, would this change anything?

Most important of all, the central abuse is rooted in the ability of the Executive Branch to assert the secrecy privilege without any binding limitations imposed by Congress and enforced by courts.  We’re not supposed to have a system of government where we rely on the good faith of the Executive Branch to monitor itself.  Without a law in place that limits the President’s ability to have entire lawsuits dismissed on secrecy grounds, abuse is inevitable.  The last administration proved that, and so has the current one.  The institutional bias of the Justice Department is that it sees the world from the perspective of the Executive Branch and wants to win cases on its behalf, and the state secrets privilege is far too potent and tempting a weapon to leave in their hands in unfettered form, hoping upon hope that they will exercise it responsibly. The abuses were coming from the DOJ in the first place; how can the solution possibly be to trust that the DOJ will police itself responsibly in the future? Why shouldn’t these abuses be curbed by an act of Congress and enforceable by courts?  Yet again, the policy the Obama administration announced — clearly designed to undermine the perceived need for a law to limit the privilege — has pretty words in it, but it enacts no real changes.

* * * * *

In an excellent new article in The New York Review of Books this week, Gary Wills examines the underlying systemic and cultural reasons why, in the areas of civil liberties and national security, “the Obama administration quickly came to resemble Bush’s.”  Wills makes the point I’ve been emphasizing for some time:  as long as we remain a nation in a permanent state of war, devoted to imperial ends, maintaining our National Security State ensures that the core assaults on civil liberties will never end; at best, we can tinker with them on the margins with the types of pretty words that the Obama administration adores, but it will persist and grow on its own accord:

But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order. . . .

Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium. . . . .

Now a new president quickly becomes aware of the vast empire that is largely invisible to the citizenry. The United States maintains an estimated one thousand military bases in other countries. . . .

That is just one of the hundreds of holdings in the empire created by the National Security State. A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

Wills’ whole essay is highly worth reading.  None of it excuses “how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium.”  But it does explain it and put it into context.  Even if Obama were committed to undoing these policies — just assume hypothetically that this were true — the nature of America’s imperial and militarized political culture would make that, as Wills says, “a hard, perhaps impossible, task.”  The President is powerful, but there are many other factions that wield great power as well — the permanent Washington political class, both public and private — and they are firmly entrenched against any type of “change” in these areas as one can imagine, as it’s from those policies that their power and purpose (and profits) are derived

That’s why I keep quoting the 1790 warning of James Madison about what happens — inevitably — to a country when it chooses to be a permanent war-fighting state devoted to maintaining imperial power:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied : and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Shouldn’t we think about what that means?  All of these subsidiary, discrete battles are shaped by this larger truth.  We’re a country that has been continuously at war for decades, insists it is currently at war now, and vows that it will wage war for years if not decades to come (Obama:  we’ll be waging this war “a year from now, five years from now, and — in all probability — ten years from now”).  Exactly as Madison said (and as Wills this week emphasized), as long as we’re choosing to be that kind of a nation, then the crux of the Bush/Cheney approach will remain in place.  We can sand-paper away some of the harshest edges (“we’re no longer going to drown people in order to extract confessions”); prettify some of what we’re doing (“we’re going to detain people with no charges based on implied statutory power rather than theories of inherent power”); and avoid making things worse (“we won’t seek a new preventive detention law because we don’t need one since we already can do that”).  But no matter who we elect, the pervasive secrecy, essentially authoritarian character of the Executive, and rapid erosion of core liberties will continue as long as we remain committed to what Wills calls “the empire created by the National Security State.”

Everyone Seems to Be Agreeing with Bin Laden These Days

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on September 21, 2009 by CjH

By Rrobert Fisk, The Independent/UK

Obama and Osama are at last participating in the same narrative. For the US president’s critics – indeed, for many critics of the West’s military occupation of Afghanistan – are beginning to speak in the same language as Obama’s (and their) greatest enemy.

There is a growing suspicion in America that Obama has been socked into the heart of the Afghan darkness by ex-Bushie Robert Gates – once more the Secretary of Defense – and by journalist-adored General David Petraeus whose military “surges” appear to be as successful as the Battle of the Bulge in stemming the insurgent tide in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

No wonder Osama bin Laden decided to address “the American people” this week. “You are waging a hopeless and losing war,” he said in his 9/11 eighth anniversary audiotape. “The time has come to liberate yourselves from fear and the ideological terrorism of neoconservatives and the Israeli lobby.” There was no more talk of Obama as a “house Negro” although it was his “weakness”, bin Laden contended, that prevented him from closing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any event, Muslim fighters would wear down the US-led coalition in Afghanistan “like we exhausted the Soviet Union for 10 years until it collapsed”. Funny, that. It’s exactly what bin Laden told me personally in Afghanistan – four years before 9/11 and the start of America’s 2001 adventure south of the Amu Darya river.

Almost on cue this week came those in North America who agree with Osama – albeit they would never associate themselves with the Evil One, let alone dare question Israel’s cheerleading for the Iraqi war. “I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan,” announces Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the senate intelligence committee. “I believe it will remain a tribal entity.” And Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, does not believe “there is a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan”.

Colin Kenny, chair of Canada’s senate committee on national security and defense, said this week that “what we hoped to accomplish in Afghanistan has proved to be impossible. We are hurtling towards a Vietnam ending”.

Close your eyes and pretend those last words came from the al-Qa’ida cave. Not difficult to believe, is it? Only Obama, it seems, fails to get the message. Afghanistan remains for him the “war of necessity”. Send yet more troops, his generals plead. And we are supposed to follow the logic of this nonsense. The Taliban lost in 2001. Then they started winning again. Then we had to preserve Afghan democracy. Then our soldiers had to protect – and die – for a second round of democratic elections. Then they protected – and died – for fraudulent elections. Afghanistan is not Vietnam, Obama assures us. And then the good old German army calls up an air strike – and zaps yet more Afghan civilians.

It is instructive to turn at this moment to the Canadian army, which has in Afghanistan fewer troops than the Brits but who have suffered just as ferociously; their 130th soldier was killed near Kandahar this week. Every three months, the Canadian authorities publish a scorecard on their military “progress” in Afghanistan – a document that is infinitely more honest and detailed than anything put out by the Pentagon or the Ministry of Defense – which proves beyond peradventure (as Enoch Powell would have said) that this is Mission Impossible or, as Toronto’s National Post put it in an admirable headline three days’ ago, “Operation Sleepwalk”. The latest report, revealed this week, proves that Kandahar province is becoming more violent, less stable and less secure – and attacks across the country more frequent – than at any time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. There was an “exceptionally high” frequency of attacks this spring compared with 2008.

There was a 108 per cent increase in roadside bombs. Afghans are reporting that they are less satisfied with education and employment levels, primarily because of poor or non-existent security. Canada is now concentrating only on the security of Kandahar city, abandoning any real attempt to control the province.

Canada’s army will be leaving Afghanistan in 2011, but so far only five of the 50 schools in its school-building project have been completed. Just 28 more are “under construction”. But of Kandahar province’s existing 364 schools, 180 have been forced to close. Of progress in “democratic governance” in Kandahar, the Canadian report states that the capacity of the Afghan government is “chronically weak and undermined by widespread corruption”. Of “reconciliation” – whatever that means these days – “the onset of the summer fighting season and the concentration of politicians and activists for the August elections discouraged expectations of noteworthy initiatives…”.

Even the primary aim of polio eradication – Ottawa’s most favored civilian project in Afghanistan – has defeated the Canadian International Development Agency, although this admission is cloaked in truly Blair-like (or Brown-like) mendacity. As the Toronto Star revealed in a serious bit of investigative journalism this week, the aim to “eradicate” polio with the help of UN and World Health Organization money has been quietly changed to the “prevention of transmission” of polio. Instead of measuring the number of children “immunized” against polio, the target was altered to refer only to the number of children “vaccinated”. But of course, children have to be vaccinated several times before they are actually immune.

And what do America’s Republican hawks – the subject of bin Laden’s latest sermon – now say about the Afghan catastrophe? “More troops will not guarantee success in Afghanistan,” failed Republican contender and ex-Vietnam vet John McCain told us this week. “But a failure to send them will be a guarantee of failure.” How Osama must have chuckled as this preposterous announcement echoed around al-Qa’ida’s dark cave.

Filmmakers vs. Capitalists

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on September 17, 2009 by CjH

Move Over Congress, Here Comes Achbar, Moore and the Yes Men

Pam Martens, CounterPunch

We’re about to find out if the filmmakers can succeed where Congressional hearings and mainstream media have failed.  Will the film documentaries examining insatiable corporate greed and Wall Street malfeasance provide the American people with the necessary foundation of understanding and activist tools to seriously tackle the problem head on?

The embryo of a breakthrough idea is emerging amidst the smell of popcorn and Raisinets in theatres around the globe: the mega corporate structure is no longer facilitating product innovation as much as it is spawning audacious crime innovation. So big and bulky it can’t get out of its own way, let alone innovate, the bloated behemoth resorts to crime for profits.  Unless we think there is a future for our nation in patenting, securitizing and exporting felonious acts, we need to change course and fast.

Three films are standouts as a combined curriculum for leading Americans out of the darkness.  Together, they provide a compelling argument that the seeds of today’s financial calamity were planted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1886 to effectively grant corporations the same protections as humans.

Each film uses its own unique stories of corporate atrocities but delivers the same underlying message: corporate personhood, heeding only the clarion call of profits at any cost, has developed the endemic traits of a psychopath, corrupting everything it touches from its own managers, courts, or governments.  As these corporate tentacles of corruption now reach into every conceivable part of our existence, the corporate personhood structure is effectively snuffing out human personhood, one foreclosed family at a time, one Bhopal disaster at a time, one corrupt judge jailing children for profit at a time.  If there is a Dickensian feel to all of this, it’s because deregulation of corporations is accelerating the devolving human nature of our society.

Ideally, the films should be viewed in this order: First, “The Corporation,” a 145 minute film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan that premiered at Sundance in January 2004 and has racked up 26 international awards. A two-disc DVD now includes an additional eight hours of deleted scenes, Q and A’s, and clips sorted by person’s name or topic.

Next, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” which will be released to mass audiences in the U.S. on October 2 after September premieres in Venice and Toronto.  (I researched Moore’s film from released clips, web archived interviews and an extensive amount of European press.)

And, third, the uproarious corporate prankster movie which will begin its U.S. theatre release on October 7, “The Yes Men Fix the World.” This film presents a hilarious and ingenious how-to program on inflicting public shame on corporations within the confines of their own corporate confabs.

“The Corporation” begins by tracing the birth of the corporation and its rise to “personhood” status.  Prior to the Civil War, corporations were restrained by having their charters issued by states for specific purposes and terms.  If corporations engaged in illegal acts, their charters could be revoked.  But following the passage of the 14th Amendment, which provided that no state could “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” the corporations aggressively sought to gain personhood status for themselves.  The film notes that while 600,000 people died in the Civil War to give rights to people, from 1890 to 1910 the U.S. Supreme Court heard 307 cases under the 14th Amendment: 288 came from corporations; 19 by African Americans.  (The pivotal case the corporations use to cite their legal personhood is the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific.)

The Yes Men have honed in on this same corporate personhood problem.  On November 12, 2008 the Yes Men (known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) participated in a hoax that saw 1.2 million copies of an extremely high quality, but fake, New York Times being distributed in New York City and other major metropolitan areas.  The newsprint edition was backed up by an equally high quality web site.  Above the fold headlines declared “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy.”  A spoof article outlines how John McCain is heading up a program to help corporations finish their quest to become fully human persons by achieving that one distinguishing characteristic: a conscience.  “You’d have to be very cynical to think that corporations, when they won protection as ‘persons’ under the ‘Freed Slave’ Amendment, were thinking only of their own wealth…It’s clear that corporations just admire humans and what we have. We should be good hosts and help them however we can. Right now, that means making them responsible and responsive.”

All three films, wittingly or unwittingly, focus the audience on the psychopathic tendencies of the modern day corporation.  Moore’s film delves into a host of malfeasances including some markedly grotesque examples.  One, previously detailed in the February 2, 2008 CounterPunch article “Global Finance and the Insanity Defense,” is the corporation’s purchase of large life insurance policies on their workers without their knowledge.  Called dead peasants’ insurance, janitor’s insurance or Corporate Owned Life Insurance (COLI), here’s what we reported in February 2008:

“Some of the largest corporations in America have been boosting their income statements by including cash buildup in the policies as well as receiving the death benefit tax free.

In 2003, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a study with the startling findings that companies were taking out multiple policies on the same individual and that 3,209 banks and thrifts had current cash values in these policies totaling $56.3 Billion.

But instead of a congressional revolt against this revolting practice, it remained in place for at least 16 years after Congress first learned about it.  Then along comes the worker-friendly sounding Pension Protection Act of 2006 submitted by our Congress and signed by the President. Buried deep within this massive document was the grandfathering of the millions of previously issued policies with a little tinkering at the edges of tax and reporting issues on newly issued policies.”

Moore’s movie has not yet hit U.S. theatres and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have already published pieces that discredit the filmmaker.  Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, says “Mr. Moore can’t be judged as a documentary film maker, except dismissively. He confuses issues on purpose. He repeatedly ignores the other side of the story. He never asks why, for example, a company might take out an insurance policy on a key employee.”    Here, Kaminski is guilty of his own charge, ignoring the other side of the story: billions of dollars of life insurance was taken out on non-key employees, without their knowledge.  In many cases the insurance remained in force after the employee left the firm, extinguishing any possible claim to an insurable interest as required under the law.

The New York Times, which together with Judith Miller relentlessly waved the pompoms in the leadup to the Iraq war, notes the following in a piece on Moore’s film by Michael Cieply, citing a study from the Center for Social Media: “The report found that documentarians, while they generally aspire to act honorably, often operate under ad hoc ethical codes. The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.”  The Times ran another piece by Bruce Headlam which devoted four words (“privatized juvenile detention centers”) out of a 2100 word article to Moore’s expose in the film on the jailing of children for profit.  Following is the background on what locals in Pennsylvania are calling the Kids for Cash scandal, a growing and fluid public corruption case. You decide if four words get the job done.
Our society has apparently begun to mimic the psychopathic corporate personhood role model.  Two judges (Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan), a lawyer (Robert Powell), and a builder (Robert K. Mericle) of privatized juvenile jails in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania have been charged by Federal prosecutors in a scheme to essentially sell kids, as if they were commodities, to fill up the for-profit jails.

Here’s how the scam went down according to criminal charges and civil suits:  first,  one of the judges cut off funding to the county’s own juvenile detention center; next he gave a green light to the builder and co-owner lawyer to build the first jail (a second one was later constructed); a 20 year, $58 million lease was signed by the county;  then his pal judge who headed the juvenile court facilitated a form being shoved under parents’ noses just before entering his courtroom waiving the child’s right to counsel.  Typically, within a few moments of the child entering the courtroom for “crimes” as small as slapping another child, making fun of school personnel on a website, or stealing change from unlocked cars, children were handcuffed, shackled and sent off to the privatized juvenile jail leaving parents stunned, crying and even fainting in the courtroom.  In many cases, children were incarcerated for months.

Very likely, many of these children will never again feel safe in our society; a precious part of their childhood has been viciously removed for profit.  The judges received over $2.5 million from Powell and Mericle in reward for their efforts.

You can bet that the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal will see no connection between the above episode and Wall Street’s transgressions.  So let me make the connection.  Attorney Powell needed the same comforts as Wall Street titans: a mansion, a private plane, and a 56’ yacht named “Reel Justice.”  The builder, Robert K. Mericle, has been permitted to essentially reduce his charges by placing $2.1 million in a fund for children.  According to the Times-Shamrock newspapers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, “In his plea agreement, Mericle agreed to donate $2.1 million to local programs promoting the health and welfare of children. Mericle has already placed the funds in an escrow account with his attorney, William Winning of the Philadelphia firm Cozen O’Connor, according to the agreement.”  This sounds very similar to Wall Street’s perpetual habit of committing massive crimes against the public and then settling for millions with the SEC.

And then there’s the matter of the two judges, who prosecutors say have been showing signs of hiding assets and may be a flight risk.  The judges are free on bail and not confined to their homes.  That’s more generous than Bernie Madoff’s home detention while he awaited sentencing.  What message does that send to these children and their families?

Also similar to the Madoff matter, for years people in Luzerne County tried everything short of shouting from the rooftops to expose the fact that these judges were up to no good but the investigation of these high powered people went nowhere: the list of people speaking out included the former county controller, Steve Flood, who eventually suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak; the Juvenile Law Center which has now brought a civil suit on behalf of the children; a former Judge, Ann Lokuta, who says she was politically targeted for challenging the corruption; and parents of the children.

When Michael Moore says “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I’m not leaving,” he extols us to look deeply within ourselves.  How did we, some of the most hard working and creative people on the planet (as surely evidenced by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) allow our democracy to be transformed into a massive corporate crime scene?   (Moore wraps yellow crime scene tape around Wall Street in the film to underscore the point.)

Here’s my creative thought to start taking back our country: instead of giving gifts this holiday season that are made by corporations who have pillaged our democracy, give sets of the above three films.  For extra good measure, include Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s film “American Casino,” the most insightful look yet at the foreclosure and housing crisis.