Saturday, January 31, 2004

Drunk on Power?

Bush may not technically be a deserter, but he's probably a "Dry Drunk".

Maybe he should be served another DUI -- for Driving the U.S. into Isolation. After all, what bigger rush could there be than being able to drive the world's biggest military machine to war?

The problem is, once an addict has done something that gets his adrenaline going, he wants to do it again and again.

Craig Nakken, The Addictive Personality:

"Raw power as seen in the eyes of the power-centered person carries with it the right to define what is meaningful and what rules will be followed, as well as the right to gain more power, even at the expense of others. ... For power-centered people, power in the form of control becomes the main goal. The more control they have the more their self-confidence seems to grow. ... Like pleasure seekers, power seekers work hard to feel good, and, for them, the best way to maintain that feel-good feeling is by proving themselves "right" by whatever means possible. ... They think it's okay to reach their goals by resorting to secrecy and exclusivity, and to playing one group against another. Often they believe the end justifies the means -- power at all costs."


"If the by-product of a pleasure-centered life is grief, then the by-product of a power-centered life is fear. Dedication to power produces a narcissistic and paranoid lifestyle that attempts to avoid anxiety and fear by maintaining and increasing its power base whenever possible."

Lesson: Don't press the president's buttons, or he might press THE button.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

"Get out of here."

In the middle of winter it's nice to go somewhere warm. But if you can't, then a good travel novel ain't half bad. And it's a lot cheaper, without the fleas or giardia.

And for those of you who've already had kids, are in deep mid-career, or otherwise settled down there's little chance you'll take six months off to backpack the Southern Cone, or will ever be found fucking a stranger at one of those all-night beach raves in Thailand, walking through the Forum tripping, or walking around the canals of Amsterdam so stoned that you forgot exactly where your hotel was. But if you wanna remember what it's like to do any of this, or learn more about taking Ex at Burning Man, then I suggest you read Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It. It's one of the most entertaining travel books I’ve read since The Songlines. And bound to be a hippie backpacker classic.

Another in the travel novel genre is Michel Houellebecq's Platform. This is a great post-9/11 novel that's about the clash of civilizations without being a grand historical novel (pre-9/11, I suppose the best would be The Sheltering Sky or some other book by Bowles). The protagonist is a French sex tourist who goes to Thailand to get what he wants and finds more -- falls in love with a woman who works for the company that organized his tour. He convinces her and a colleague to try openly marketing sex tours to the Third World, selling them on his theory that Westerners have lost touch with their own sexuality and that therefore the idea would take off as a popular form of therapy.

Finally, for armchair browsing about what it would be like to go to a war zone and other parts of the dark side, try The World's Most Dangerous Places. If he was any more of a mercenary rather than an adverturist, I'd imagine this guy advertising in the back of Soldier of Fortune and titling his next book The Conquest is Cool, but luckily he's not over-the-top in that kind of Ugly American kind of way and if he's been to half the hellish (5 star) places he writes about here then I guess he's in his rights to be dishing out survival tips.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Thoughts on MLK Day:

"Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted. We must, of course, be well-adjusted if we are to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but there are some things in our world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the cripping effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanities of militariism and the self-defeating effects of physical violation."

"Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. ... Not a few men, who cherish lofty and noble ideals, hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different."

"If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we celebrate today.

P.S. If you haven't read his speech at Riverside Church in a while, it's worth checking out.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

The End of Politics:
Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere
(Guilford, 2000)
by Carl Boggs

Masters of War:
Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire
(Routledge, 2003)
Edited by Carl Boggs

"The broadest measure of a depoliticized society ... is the overall decline of civic consciousness. A civic culture (understood in the broadest sense) requires extensive processes of interaction in the public sphere, a sense of community, general citizen access to decision making, and social obligation, but historical trends in the United States have worked inexorably against such a culture. In its place has emerged a phenomenon quite different, an ethos of extreme individualism, consumerism, and parochialism that devalues not only politics but any form of civic involvement."

When I first read The End of Politics in 2001, I found it to be the most eloquent assessment of one of the most obvious systemic dilemmas we currently face in American politics: a popular detestation of politics. I've since been surprised by how few of my friends and colleagues (generally more politically active and astute than the average) have read this tremendous book. That only proves Boggs' point.

Still, if I were to recommend one book to people about how to understand the general political culture in America (not the culture of those who are political professionals, but of this country as a whole), this would be a strong contender.

Boggs writes in the tradition of the best of American political sociology. Like C. Wright Mills, he strives for an accessible and convincing synthesis. And it is his ability to write clearly and engagingly throughout this rigorous and far-ranging assessment of the depoliticization of American culture and its sources in corporate power that makes Boggs' book much stronger, for instance, than Bowling Alone, the bestseller that makes some of the same points.

The sources of this detachment appear almost irreversible. They include the marketing of consumer-based values, the location of solutions to common problems in personal habits instead of systemic design (hence the rise of self-help "movements" and the location of answers to the ecological crisis in consumer choice instead of a collective push to democratize fundamental technological decision-making -- considered the inviolable prerogative of corporate managers), the spread of technologies like computers (blogging can isolate people in their own cynicism as much as Meetup style organizing on the Internet can quickly connect them) and the general corrosion of civic values and political thinking.

Our deep detachment from politics has resulted in the fetishization of individual personalities as a substitute for candidacies that bring an analysis accountable in any significant way to a movement-building process; private forms of alienation (drugs, alcohol, and their obverse in self-centered recovery programs); "vague planetary (or interplanetary) conspiracies," and spontaneous outbursts of collective action (e.g. Seattle) that have the potential to be misinterpreted as evidence of mature developments in movement-building. [Allow me to pause here and explain: although Seattle catalyzed some of that "Teamsters and Turtles" optimism and a convergence of different movements against a common target -- a rare phenomenon for the U.S. Left -- it's also true that the "summit-hopping" since then, particularly among Americans who apart from the World Bank bonds boycott have made little little permanent connection between the World Bank/IMF protests and mainstream culture ("IMF riots" have been going on in countries like Indonesia and Argentina for decades) though the protests were a huge leap forward, and it would be a mistake to read the catharsis of such mass-protests as a sign of mature movement-building -- though there is much potential for global synergies). As long as most people see mainstream political activism as corrupt and futile, rather than as a viable means of collective action (how much has voter participation increased since Seattle?), they will cede most everday important decisions to corporate interests, and protests like Seattle will be a momentary surge. That's largely because the central issue in the Seattle WTO protest is rarely so centrally addressed: corporate power.]

Indeed, "nothing has undermined the public sector or eviscerated political discourse more than [the] process of corporate colonization," Boggs writes. "The issue of corporate power, manifest today in every area of social life, has never been placed on the public agenda, owing not only to the vast power of corporations but surely also to the profound cynicism among so many people convinced that the political game is rigged in favor of the dominant interests."

Corporations foster a mood of antipolitics by dominating the two major parties through the vast machinery of campaign finance and lobbying, eviscerating their engagement with real issues (by, for example, sanitizing the Presidential debates), controlling the mass media (e.g. keeping popular opinions against war or corporate ownership of the media itself from being aired over the people's own airwaves), and fostering a sense of futility in the face of economic globalization and the rise of remote and unaccountable centers of corporate power, such as the WTO.

Meanwhile, social life is increasingly atomized outside the confines of the corporation (inside, the hierarchies are virtually totalitarian, despite superficial and unconvincing suggestions to the contrary such as Wal-Mart's use of "team member" to describe a low-paid employee).

Of course, the extreme individualism that has resulted from American consumerist culture was always a strand in the country's liberal tradition. But corporate conservatives have stripped it of any connection to an ethos of civic action for the collective good.

In exploring all of this Boggs avoids offering any easy answers, instead adopting a healthy pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, as suggested by his intellectual mentor the Italian political philosopher Gramsci. It may be true that there may be no easy answers, but I wish Boggs had suggested how a significant challenge to corporate power and the colonization of our politics might take form -- beyond simple platitudes about public funding of elections and other campaign finance reforms.

For example, Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange suggest some interesting ideas in their new book: Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. The Multinational Monitor also has explored this issue in a couple of recent issues and other groups like POCLAD and Reclaim Democracy offer a analysis that points to a more fundamental conceptual framework for challenging corporate power.

We can regain a faith in civic action -- the notion of government as a legitimate vehicle for asserting our collective will -- only when we see it as a means of asserting our right as a sovereign people to govern over corporations, which we should view as potentially worse tyrannies than governments. People already see HMOs as a bigger threat than the HHS. And they should. But they want to know what they can do. Poll after poll taken even before Enron revealed people already believe corporations have too much power. The challenge we face is an organizing challenge -- giving that impetus constructive form (the alternative, as Boggs also suggests, is misdirected rage).

There is a serious debate about all this among a growing network of activists, many of whom believe it would be activist malpractice to offer corporate reforms such as changes in internal governance as a serious organizing objective. Shareholder activism has done much to challenge CEO pay and other abuses (I believe that's largely because wealthy outside stockholders' interests are aligned with those of the reformers here). But if we think the political game is rigged, the notion of "shareholder democracy" should be laughable on its face: a Democracy is defined by one-person/one-vote, not by proportional representation based on ownership, which of course is corporate plutocracy. And since corporate laws defined the maximization of shareholder value as the obligation of corporate officers and directors, having proxy access to nominate pension fund reps, unionists, environmentalists, or whoever to a corporate board won't make much difference until the duties and obligations of corporate officers are changed -- because even those directors who wish to do the right thing often can't, a phenomenon described by Ralph Estes as the Tyranny of the Bottom Line. A new initiative that has sprouted in California and Minnesota -- the Code for Corporate Responsibility attempts to address this question of the duties of officers and directors as defined by state corporate laws. Those duties could be redefined to reflect a broader set of interests (including the protection of jobs, the environment, etc.) and redefined in a way that challenges deeply-embedded corporate doctrines that shield ruthless corporate behavior, such as doctrine of limited liability.Other fledgling efforts to challenge corporate power have been moving from theory to action, including California's Corporate 3 Strikes campaign, which would require the state to revoke a company's charter (or business license if they are incorporated out-of-state) for recidivist or criminogenic behavior were also initiated even before Enron.

Meanwhile, POCLAD, CELDF and other groups are educating activits in strategies that would challenge illegitimate corporate claims to Constitutional Rights and the doctrine of corporate personhood (by which courts have conferred the rights of the people to nonliving fictional entities -- show me where corporations are mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights).

All of these efforts point in a direction that suggests possible ways to challenge corporate power in a significant way. None of them have a significant organizing constituency, though interest is growing.

Thus our challenge is politicize our culture in a way that is tied to an effort to reassert our authority over corporations as a collective citizenry. (The fight against the media monopoly -- supported by both the left and right -- may be a hopeful sign of how this new populism could take shape. That fight has yet to figure out a way to use some of these other ideas).

The point is that the legitimacy of a corporation's existence is not merely as a contract between private parties, but as a public institution whose legitimacy is granted by the People, through our government (corporate charters and the process of incorporation are a rote bureaucratic process, but this wasn't always so. In our nation's early history, corporate charters were given a limited life, and had to be renewed by state legislatures, which used to regularly review a company's operations before the charters were renewed. See this piece in Multinational Monitor for more.)

Getting to the point where we demand this kind of thing means a fundamental shift in our understanding. We must view ourselves as citizens rather than consumers -- which is the point of Boggs' book. The colonization of our thinking by corporations is not just measured by the number of brands we can recognize, but by our own alienation from our own government.

After four years, it's easy to see a few things that Boggs got wrong -- largely due to the consequences of unpredictable events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration's response. For example, he groups the neo-conservatives with others -- identity groups, new-agers and the 1960s counterculture (including the New Left) and others who retreated from politics. Now we know better. And few would probably agree today with his Nader-like assertion that "the real ideological gulf separating Republicans and Democrats had narrowed beyond recognition," though that certainly seemed obvious at the end of 8 years of Clinton, who moved the Dems further towards the Republicans than any Democratic president before him (e.g. by keeping the minimum wage down to $5.15 during a period of unparalleled growth and prosperity, passing welfare "reform", escalating the ruthless war on drugs, putting 100,000 more police on the streets, pushing for NAFTA, etc.)

Yet despite the radical nature of Bush's agenda, in the long run Boggs' description of the convergence of the two parties may be more true than we want to believe (accepting this as fact means many intelligent people will further detach from politics, especially if they hold out the hope that the nomination of a Democrat could turn much of this around) -- and will lead to deeper cynicism and despair, as well as more marginal experimentation on the fringes, at least for some time, until such efforts can connect with mainstream America.

Unfortunately, it will be hard to discuss these questions until after the election. The hijacking of the Republican party by the neocons and the possible rise of a non-DLC candidate like Dean, along with new forms of organizing like has made the 2004 choice between the two parties potentially the most significant in a generation, and there are signs of a significant lift in new voter participation (though it's hard to imagine Move On is activating a large percentage of people that didn't vote before). The palpable fear of the consequences of another four years of Bush will probably activate many Democrats and liberals who have been pretty apolitical in the past, but the organizing ability of the Right should also not be underestimated (in terms of mobilizing their own base).

Underneath all this, the same political currents are continuously flowing:

"The erosion of civic values is no momentary phase but is rather the product of deep material and cultural forces at work since at least the 1950s. Vital elements of the political enterprise -- participation, community, governance -- have been distorted or obliterated bypostwar depoliticizing trends."

Which makes me want to suggest (heresy?) that this political season's battles may be less important than we'd like to believe, unless we're ready to begin to analyze those currents and address them. Perhaps we could close the gap by using a Dean (or whoever) victory as an opening, or, in the nightmarish event that Bush wins, building a more fundamental resistance from the ground up that can do more than put up modest speedbumps against Bush's next imperial adventure and ruthless domestic policies.

The point is that, apart from minor flaws in his argument discussed above (and below), after 4 years much of Boggs' analysis seems as apt and urgent as ever; sometimes it seems downright prescient. For example, at one point he contrasts a political culture that pays more attention to the president's sexual pecadillos with deep regulatory reforms that no one seems to be paying attention to, such as energy deregulation, which is certain to have much greater consequence for the majority of Americans (this was written before Enron, the California crisis, last summer's blackouts, the Cheney task force and the debacle known as the Energy bill, which has a clause that would further deregulate the industry by totally gutting the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, the New Deal era-law that kept companies from jeopardizing essential services through speculation in unrelated businesses).

The downward spiral of public life cannot be measured simply in terms of passivity and cynicism. As Boggs observes, "there is also the phenonomenon of sustained citizen anger -- an anger that is deep-seated, increasingly overt, sometimes directed against hated or feared "others," most commonly focused on "government" but rarely channeled in the direction of the military-industrial complex or "private" corporations." ... "Strong antigovernment feelings, of course, can be a prelude to mobilization for radical change--but only where such feelings take shape in a milieu of widely shared values of public engagement and collective action."

Which brings up another point: Without general engagement and education around the question of the dangers of unaccountable corporate power, we should be suspicious of the direction that rapidly-developing mass movements can take.

In 2000 Boggs wrote, "striking parallels between the present-day American extreme Right and European fascism of the 1920s and 1930s clearly exist and deserve further analysis." But he dismisses the possibility of fascist totalitarianism taking over the U.S. government. Yet I wonder, if Boggs was given a chance to rewrite this book now -- after 9/11 and resulting mass psychological fear, the emergence of the neocon cabal, Iraq and other signs like Nuremberg-style rallies sponsored by Clear Channel (and all the other stuff Harvey Wasserman wrote in his book) -- would he have made a stronger case for the potential for an emerging American fascism?

Perhaps he would agree with Sheldon Wolin that we live in a kind of "inverted totalitarianism" (Wolin: "while the current sysem and its operatives share with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive expansionism [but] their methods and actions seem upside down. For example, in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis took power, the "streets" were dominated by totalitarian-oriented gangs of toughs, and whatever there was of democracy was confined to the government. In the United States, however, it is the streets where democracy is most alive -- while the real danger lies with an increasinly unbridled government.")

In 2000, however, Boggs' skepticism was based upon his identification of the potential for American fascism in fringe groups like the scattered militias, cults and fundamenlists -- groups that are "undoubtedly a long way from seizing state power. ... There is probably no Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco on the horizon. Yet the ideological affinity of such groups with earlier incarnations of fascism and neofascism, along with certain undeniable similarities in the historical context, cannot be overlooked."

There may not be any charismatic dictator in the wings, or any threat that these militia-like groups will ever come into power, politically, but does it make any difference if, instead, they align themselves with other right political movements like the neoconservatives. It's easy to imagine them functioning in a manner similar way as the brownshirts -- as a radical base that the right can call upon to intimidate dissent, especially if their energy is fed by escalating economic despair and their consequent rage is directed at "liberals" who don't support the country's war on terrorism. As Boggs puts it:

"The fascist party-state set out to either destroy or incorporate autonomous groups and subcultures, albeit with mixed results. The state assumed primacy ... in most cases (Italy, Germany, Spain) the party actually wound up subordinated to the state system. As Mussolini once stated: "Everything for the state, nothing against the state, no one outside the state. Although such monolithic rule always remained outside the grasp, and probably the intentions, of fascist regimes, Mussolini's dictat nonetheless reflects the essence of fascist ideology. The very genius of fascist leadership in Europe resided in its capacity to forge a coherent social bloc of forces among widely dispersed and often conflicting groups..." When two parties converge into one government dominated by the military-industrial complex how far can it be from moving towards becoming this kind of system, especially if hijacked by an ideological cabal?

Another reason Boggs was skeptical that fascism could happen here is that "present-day reactionary populist groups lack a coherent, future-directed ideology that could give political shape to their vast assortment of antistatist beliefs and irrational fantasies."

Again, I'm not sure that matters, so long as the right has people like Ralph Reed or Grover Norquist (described by Bob Dreyfuss as the "Field Marshall of the Bush Plan") who has a multi-decade ideological plan to use the anti-political sentiments of most Americans to push a plutocratic economic agenda.

Grover is building a grassroots base ("little me's") state-by-state. In a recent Washington Post article("Sewing the Seeds of GOP Domination," 1/12/04), he said his group (the supposedly "center-right" Americans For Tax Reform, which has pushed the paradoxical anti-big-government line for tax cuts for the rich, never talking about the military, which is far and away the fastest-growing part of the budget) had to shut down one of its "mini-Grover" state coalition meetings in New Mexico, after the "black helicopter crowd" took it over. A sign of what I mean -- Norquist and other political operatives are creating legitimate political space for dangerous right-wing political movements.

Boggs' last reason to be skeptical that fascism could happen here reads like a dire omen to this pessimist: "Finally, fascist movements and parties were able to seize state power in Europe because large sectors of the power structure -- the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, big business, the military -- swung over to the fascist side at decisive moments. ... In the United States today, however, there are few signs of such a critical alignment: corporations, Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the bulk of the political estalishment are all lined up resolutely against the extreme Right, particularly where destabilizing forms of insurgency or domestic terrorism enter the picture."

So much has happened since 9/11, hasn't it? Many foreign policy establishment figures voiced opposition to the Iraq war once it was announced, including Admiral Zinni, Schwarzkopf (remember the article that came out the morning of last year's State-of-the-Union speech, where he criticized the proposal to go to war? Then he was the first responder on TV, suggesting how great Bush's speech was. A Rove set-up? Or did they manage to turn him that quickly?) and many other members of the intelligence and foreign policy establishment. Yet we live in a time when even the inertia of a foreign policy establishment reluctant to go to war for unwarranted reasons can succumb to an atmosphere of fear, party discipline and reprisal, especially if popular sentiments are pushed along by right-wing propaganda such as Clear Channel radio, and the Democratic party is so compromised that it can rarely pull together long enough to take a stand before the ground shifts (why did it take an ex-Klan member to make the most eloquent case against war on the floor of the Senate? Where was Kerry?). It's hard to stop something like war once the gears are set in motion. Yes, it could easily happen here -- and the conditions for it to happen may already be in place.

But Boggs makes a good point: it isn't coming in the same form, so that if we can be critical of people like Christopher Hitchens for calling stateless terrorist networks like al Qaeda "fascistic," so could using the F-word be an imprecise term for what's happening here:

"Surely corporate colonization in the early twenty-first century America will depend far more on the workings of ideological hegemony than on the tools of institutional coercion or terror. If the "new world order" means anything, it refers to an administered system in which popular consciousness is shaped and contained by the media spectacle, the culture industry, the shopping malls, and the charade of democratic politics -- all inducing privatized retreat, depoliticization, and withdrawal from the public sphere, against a backdrop of reinforced state-corporate networks of surveillance and controls. (Fascism, on the other hand, always set out to mobilize the masses, hoping to instill new modes of active participation- however narros these turned out to be.) In such a rationalized, high-tech, globalized universe there seems to be little role for a Mussolini, Hitler or Franco; instead of charismatic passions and adventurous schemes, what the system requires is more the routinized managerial intervention of market-oriented CEOs who reside at places like IBM, Bank of America, Mitsubishi, General Motors, and Walt Disney/ABC. Hence, the menacing incursions of reactionary populist groups in the Unied States represent not so much the harbinger of a coming fascist nighmare as the localized, defensive, antipolitical, and ultimately impotent response to globalizing forces that seem outside the purview of active human control."

All of this would make it interesting to find out how Boggs' thinking has evolved since 2000.

You can find out by reading his new collection of essays about a related topic that suggests how far he believes the situation has evolved: Empire.

In fact, apart from Boggs' Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire there are a number of recent books that pick up on the theme of Empire, including Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire and Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire has probably stirred up the most debate on the topic, including assertions that the faddish use of the E-word is as unpersuasive and imprecise a description of modern global capitalism as use of the word "globalization" was in recent years. (There are many more books on the American Empire: 267 if you search "U.S. Empire" as Title on; 1467 titles include "globalization." So it will probably be a few years before the intellectual fetish for understanding Empire exhausts itself).

This fetish is shared by writers across the spectrum. On the right, we have Max Boot's pro-imperial editorials in the Wall Street Journal and books like Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Zbiegnew Brzezinski's The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives.

Any progressive/radical bibliography on the question of American Empire would have to include books such as William Blum's Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Sidney Lens' The Forging of the American Empire: From the Revolution to Vietnam, a History of U.S. Imperialism, both which were recently reissued. Also Larry Everest's Oil, Power and Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda and Peter Gowan's The Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian Bid for World Dominance (Verso).

Regardless of one's views, unchallenged American global dominance in military, political and (to a lesser extent) economic arenas is a certainty, and even if "Empire" conjures up difficult-to-swallow notions of legions of soldiers conquering distant lands (Johnson points out that we have over 700 mmilitary bases on foreign soil) there is certainly some truth in framing an understanding of U.S. politics around this question, particularly if we are willing to engage the question as a complex one. E.g. It would also be a mistake to understand the concept of American Empire as simply a military-industrial agenda completed by force. Much of what is understood to be the central process of globalization could also be considered to be part of the process of Empire. E.g., as Michael Hudson's Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance explores, U.S. foreign policy has worked through surrogate institutions and in partnership with capitalist allies -- hence -- a view of the history of financial diplomacy that formed, sustained and used the Bretton Woods triad (World Bank-IMF-GATT/WTO) as an instrument of global imperialism.

Boggs' book -- which includes essay by Chalmers Johnson and Noam Chomsky -- attempts to grapple with some of the more obvious variables involved with this question of Empire. As a collection of different essays by a variety of writers, it pulls the evidence together from different directions. The chapters on the evolution of the domination of space (where the technology has evolved from observatory spy satellites to being part of an aggressively-postured, integrated global battlefield), oil wars, "The Geopolitics of Plan Columbia" (James Petras), the role of media in wartime (Norman Solomon) and the depoliticization of the public sphere (Boggs, again) present important evidence of the direction we're headed, even if they are only part of a grim picture.

In Masters of War, he has this to say about Wesley Clark, referring to the 1999 war in Yugoslavia: "NATO Commander Wesley Clark boasted that te aim of the war was to "demolish, destroy, devastate, degrade, and ultimately eliminate the essential infrastructure" of Yugoslavia. As Takis ftopoulos has persuasively argued, the NATO destruction of Servia can best be understood as the first war systematically waged in defense of the global market system, a "war" involving few if any casualties for the perpetrators. Do you want a guy like that heading a country that has developed an aggressive and preemptive military posture not just through Bush's most recent National Security Doctrine, but by the inherent nature of the technologies it is developing? If you're enamored with Clark, as Michael Moore seems to be, check out "Clark's True Colors," the Nation, December 15, 2003)

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Iraq Stories You May Have Missed (and other key links)

Sam Gardiner's National War College Report which suggests the White House and Pentagon made up or distorted over 50 war stories (e.g. Jessica Lynch).

Some of Nicholas Kristof's Name That War Contest Winners:

Operation Quicksand
The Mother of Oil Wars
Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL)
Bush's Botch
The Empire Strikes Out
"Coup d'√Čtats Unis"
Rolling Blunder

The documents that O'Neill was holding up on 60 Minutes last week which show a map of the oil regions of Iraq were first revealed by Judicial Watch, who didn't get them from the Pentagon, but from their lawsuit against Cheney for his secret energy task force.

National Security Archive's Saddam Hussein Sourcebook documents U.S.-Saddam ties going back to 1960s, and include the documents SEEN discovered in its research, which uncovered the story about Rumsfeld lobbying Hussein on behalf of a Bechtel pipeline after it was known Saddam was gassing his own citizens. Hence the story behind the handshake.

Calvin Trillin's questions for Bush at press conference.

The opening of a new military mortuary.

Sy Hersh: The Stovepipe

Bushitters' lies about how much the war would cost

George H.W. Bush gives award to Teddy Kennedy!! See story by Georgie Anne Geyer.

A detailed analysis of how wrong Bush was by Thomas Powers, NY Review of Books (12/3/03)

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

American Dynasty:
Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush

by Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips is a former Republican strategist, a sharp political commentator and author of nine books, including the Politics of the Rich and Poor and Wealth and Democracy. He has an explosive new book out about the Bush family, wich he contends "has used all its resources to create a political dynasty that has gained the White Hosue to further its family and ideological agenda, which would have horrified America's founding fathers."

"The Bush family has never produced a doctor, judge, teacher, scholar, or lawyer of note. As far back as World War I, the family's single-minded focus has been on three major areas: intelligence, energy, and national security."

Of course it's not a flattering portrait of the Bushes -- but like O'Neill, Phillips is a lifelong Republican who can hardly be tagged as unsympathetic to conservative or corporate interests.

If you want a preview, read this he piece penned for the L.A. Times

Democracy Now interviewed Phillips on Monday, listen here.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

What's Nader up to? By now you've probably heard the rumors that he may run as an independent and not a Green.
See his exploratory committee web site for his own explanation.

Other views:

Norman Solomon 1/8/03

Response to Solomon from Tarek Milleron (Ralph's nephew, worked on 2000 campaign)

Ted Glick
(National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network)

Green Party

Matt Rothschild
(editor of the Progressive and old friend of Ralph's, plus Green Party responses)

Micah Sifry (who wrote Spoiling for a Fight -- a book about Third Parties)
After the New Economy
By Doug Henwood

Economics deserves its reputation as “the dismal science” for being so dismally disconnected from reality. In Mexico they call mainstream neoclassical economic theory (learned by elite Mexican scholars and policymakers at the University of Chicago) “chalkboard economics" because it looks good on the chalkboard, and may even improve the national GDP (on paper). But Mexicans don’t eat chalk or paper, they eat tortillas.

Most economists write so dismally that non-insomniacs rarely read their work.

That’s why Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy, while nowhere near as comprehensive as his previous tome, Wall Street, has been worth waiting for (he announced it years ago, delaying publication when the bomb began). This is the most entertaining critical deconstruction of the U.S. economy in recent years .

Henwood, who lives in New York City, is editor of the Left Business Observer. His previous experience working on Wall Street is unusual for a radical economist. But he doesn't write from the gut until he's had a chance to research and evaluate the statistical facts, a methodology which allows him to cut through all the cant about class mobility, “shareholder democracy” and shared prosperity. The statistics alone make this book a useful reference.

Armed with the facts, Henwood exposes the fallacy of arguments put out by well-known pundits and activists across the political spectrum. He not only takes on the New Economy's biggest boosters, but its most vociferous critics -- including those who would have us believe that "globalization" is something radically new, instead of just late-stage capitalism.

Of course, most of the fire is appropriately directed at people like George Gilder and other easy targets on the right who never seem to go away. It's amazing how all the post-materialist fantasies about the "overthrow of matter," the "End of History" (Fukuyama) and the Dow hitting 36,000 (James Glassman, who continues to pick stocks for the Washington Post) have done nothing to ruin their authors' reputations. Henwood dutifully reminds us of these and other hysterical fantasies of the "new economy." Readers of The Baffler and Boob Jubilee will recognize the tone here.

Yet combining that kind of research and critical bemusement is a diffcult balancing act. His gadfly tendencies can sometimes get the best of him. The problem is that Henwood’s contrarian editorializing is often erratic. It can either be spot on or a bit too cranky.

In his chapter on globalization, for example, one of his points is this notion that globalization is nothing new (itself not a new point, but the explanation is better here than in most writing you’ll find out there, and the notion that globalization is new -- rather than just late-stage capitalism -- is still a common myth). But his examples aren't always the most convincing.

For instance, he accurately quotes World Bank statistics to show that multinational corporations are not investing in the poorest countries of the Third World, but mostly in each other and middle-tier countires like Brazil and Mexico. He's right to point out that this pattern of investment is not a repeat of what Lenin described as the super-exploitation of the third world. (MNCs, as a rule, don't go to the poorest countries unless they harbor certain resources like oil.) What he fails to mention is that this same data points to a failure of the dominant development model, as pushed by the World Bank itself, along with the IMF. The World Bank, whose mission is to help poor countries develop, is the leader of the banking pack. Where its investments go, MNC investments often follow. MNCs rarely invest in countries unless the bank has been there first. In effect, the bank does due diligence on third world risks for the multinationals. The problem is that most of the Bank's money (particularly investments from the IFC, the World Bank's own corporate investment bank) has gone to middle-tier countries, despite its professed mission to help the most impoverished areas of the world. Most of the Bank's loans and investments in poor regions like Africa go for export-oriented development projects rather than for projects that develop the infrastructure needed to feed and otherwise provide for the basic needs of the majority of the population. And the Bank's own studies have demonstrated that certain corporate investments in the third world -- especially as oil, mining and gas -- lead not to the enrichment of countries that have an abundance of such resources, but just the reverse -- corruption and impoverishment. A similar phenomenon occurs with trade. As CEPR economist Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, an increase in trade in Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico in the past 20 years has not helped those countries' economic growth rates -- in fact just the reverse, in comparison with the previous two decades (1960 to 1980) when they didn't follow the IMF/Bank's prescriptions for growth so closely. Unfortunately, Henwood leaves these points out. It's almost as if he wishes to ignore the strongest arguments of the left, or sets up a sectarian straw man to argue with.

Henwood also makes fun of Wayne Ellwood’s No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization (by quoting this passage:

“Whether you walk the streets of New York or Nairobi, Beijing or Buenos Aires, globalization has introduced a level of commercial culture which is eerily homogenous. The glittering, air-conditioned shopping malls are interchangeable; the fast food restaurants sell the same high carbohydrate foods with minor concessions to local tastes. Young people drink the same soft drink, smoke the same cigarettes, wear identical branded clothing and shoes, play the same computer games, watch the same Hollywood films and listen to the same Western popular music. … Welcome to the world of the multinational corporation, a cultural and economic tsunami (tidal wave) that is roaring across the globe and replacing he spectacular diversity of human society with a Westernized version of the good life….In the worlds of the sociologist Helena Norberg-Hodge, there is a ‘global monoculture which is now able to disrupt traditional cultures with a shocking speed and finality and which surpasses anything the world has witnessed before.' ”

Henwood’s response:

“Really? Let’s read this text closely. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s average income is about 3% of the U.S.’s, China’s about 11% and Argentina’s about 32%. I doubt there are as many air-conditioned shopping malls in China as in the U.S. or that many Kenyan kids are playing video games. But even within New York City, there isn’t anything like a monoculture; Queens, one of the five boroughs that make up New York City, is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse jurisdictions in the world, wth Chinese, Indians, Central Americans, and third-generation descendants of Italian migrants living side by side.”

There’s something a bit tendentious in an argument that concedes nothing. Queens does have its McDonald’s and Subways (though not as many Starbucks as Manhattan). And the upper middle class in virtually every country -- as slim a sliver of the demographic pie as that may be -- is increasingly captive of commercial culture. Rich Argentines shop for the same brands in New York and Europe that they can find in Buenos Aires. The upper classes may be a tiny part of Kenyan society, but it’s a huge and growing class in China, and they have many shopping malls where western brands are rapidly being introduced (even authentic, non-knock-offs).

There’s nothing wrong with a sober reconsideration of globalization, but Henwood undermines his point by taking a lot of fairly gratuitous swipes at key leaders of the anti-globalization movement without acknowleging (or realizing) that they have often made the same points he does. For instance, he seems willing to pick on David Korten’s work without acknowledging its strongest points, particularly Korten's useful deconstruction of neoclassical economics and its betrayal of Adam Smith in When Corporations Rule the World.

Or take this paragraph:

“Among NGOs and intellectuals working on development issues, there is talk of apartheid South Africa and Smith’s Rhodeisa as models of a possible autarkic delinking from the world economy, and admiration for Mahathir’s capital controls in Malaysia during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. It’s often overlooked that Mahathir is a repressive bigot, and that the Southern African examples were part of strategies to sustain horrible societies. Any “progressive” alliance with national capitalism in the name of resistance to international capitalism can get very smelly.”

There’s a similarly snarky remark about Ralph Nader’s alliance with right-wing protectionists like textile tycoon Roger Milliken on the next page: “That’s bad enough, but Naderite trade rhetoric about how the [WTO] threatens U.S. sovereignty is pretty bad too; the world has suffered from too much U.S. sovereignty and could do with a little less.”

Just five pages later, Henwood describes the WTO (along with the IMF and other trade agreements like NAFTA) as “the cells of an embryonic transnational state,” a point that could have been lifted from Nader’s speech. But why bother explaining how the WTO serves the interests of transnational corporations, a good third of which are American (the threat of the WTO and other trade pact provisions NAFTA Chapter 11 is to the sovereignty of all nations, including the U.S., not to mention the decision-making authority of local and state governments here in the U.S. (Nader's point, the nuance of which Henwood doesn't bother with.)

And what about Mahathir’s capital controls? Would they be useful (and worthy of consideration) if applied by a more progressive democracy? Henwood won’t say. The contrarian’s purpose is less to sort through these issues than to expose the hypocrisy of activists who fly half way across the world to talk about local solutions and the fallacy of their and others' arguments. That's where the balance between solid, objective research and critical enterprise becomes lost.

An attempt at the end to avoid being labeled a cynical curmudgeon is unconvincing: he finds optimism in Hardt and Negri’s book, Empire. But if the two Marxists are to be faintly praised for not being “gloomy and resigned” like much of the left, the reader is still forewarned that they are often “uncritical and credulous.” That's not a ringing endorsement. Nor does it leave the reader with the idea that there's much with any concerns about economic justice (no mention of groups like United for a Fair Economy).

Nevertheless, if you're looking for an entertaining response to right-wing popular economists like George Gilder (he's an easy target), answers to questions like why the U.S. has such a polarized income structure, and a quick explanation of how Enron can be viewed as the logical outcome of the economic hysteria (the market bubble burst a year before Enron declared bankruptcy), this is a useful read.

Incidentally, Robert Pollin's new book, Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity might be better, if you're looking for a more sweeping structural economic critique of Clintonomics and how the U.S. economy fits within the global capitalist economy of the last decade.

PS for a group-blog discussion of this book see Crooked Timber (1/27)

Friday, January 02, 2004

How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy?
(A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration)

by William Hartung

"Our current debacle in Iraq is just the beginning of the troubles that this obscenely irresponsible approach to national security policy may bring down on our nation if all of us don't stand up and say no," says Bill Hartung, who runs the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. Hartung has written an excellent introduction to the U.S. military-industrial complex, which is on the verge of being out of control.

"Crony capitalism" was always bad in countries like Suharto's Indonesia. But now it's time to look at this dynamic within our own government.

For instance, of the thirty-two major Bush administration appointees with direct or indirect links to the arms industry, eight once worked for Lockheed Martin, whose ties to Bush go back to his days as governor when they attempted to privatize Texas's state welfare and Medicaid programs. That bid was blocked by a skillful counter-campagn run by the state employees union, which ran a series of radio ads featuring the sound of a toilet flushing, followed by a narrator saying "Remember the company that brought you the $3,000 toilet seat? Well now that same company wants to come here and run public services...").

Lynne Cheney served on Lockheed Martin's board from 1994 to 2001. Others with L-M ties include Otto Reich (the right-wing Cuban -American and Iran-contra re-tread who was Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs until shortly after the attempted coup against Chavez in Venezuela failed, and Ex-Lockheed COO Peter B. Teets, who was appointed to serve as Undersecretary of the Air Force and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, a new post created by Rumsfeld with an eye towards putting the responsibility for acquiring military space assets for the Pentagon under one person's command...and more and more.

With so many ex-employees, lobbyists etc. passing through the revolving door, it's no wonder that Lockheed Martin's annual "take" in federal contracts exceeds the entire payout of the largest federal welfare program -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- which is responsible for providing millions of poor families with income support. So much for cracking down on welfare cheats.

Obviously, Cheney, who continues to receive $162,000 a year from Halliburton, epitomizes the revolving door:

"Of all the loyal, secretive, inside-delaing cronies in the Bush camp, Cheney is the unrivalled master of the game. He is like the guy at the poker game who never makes a joke, never brags about his hand, but always seems to go home with the big pot of money at the end of the night while everyone else wonders what hit them. ... Dan Baum revealed in his analysis of the (no-bid Halliburton contract) in the New York Times magazine that Halliburton was uniquely situated to win the Iraqi oil industry rebuilding contract because the company actually wrote the contingency plan that the Army used to determine what work was needed. As Army spokesman Lt. Col. Gene Pawlik put it, "They were the company best positioned to executive the oil field work becase of their involvement in the planning." (This all sounds a bit like Dick Cheney's "self-selection" of himself to be Dubaya's VP candidate...)"
Bob Dreyfuss and Jason Vest have an excellent piece in Jan/Feb Mother Jones about the Secret Intelligence Unit at the Pentagon.

Check out the new GI Joke.