Monday, April 30, 2007

After this, they'll go home and get themselves a Ford...

That Ineffable Islamic Threat to European Civilisation.

As threats to life and limb go, terrorists have always been pathetically low on the list compared to, say, motorists or police stations. A recent Europol report on terrorism on the continent, despite having been released a few weeks ago, has been curiously neglected by the media. One outstanding fact obtains: in 2006, of almost five hundred terrorist attacks in Europe, only one was by Islamists - and it failed. While the report mentions a cluster of other attacks in previous years and spend a lot of time discussing terrorist activity originating from Islamist groups, the cold facts indicate that there is little of it about. Much is made of the fact that half of the arrests for terrorist offenses were related to Islamist activity, but we already know that the arrests far outweigh the actual scale of activity. As the report notes, "the arrests and convictions were not necessarily related to terrorist offences that took place during the reporting period." Arrests are a reflection of policy focus, and dont' necessarily correlate to an actual threat. Thus, the report notes that only 32% of those arrested were suspected of involvement in or the preparation of a terrorist attack. Further, "the number of arrests made in relation to Islamist terrorism in the UK is among the highest in the EU". Elsewhere, the largest number of arrests is for separatist activity in France. However, there is no accounting for the perfidy of those who march under the black flag:

The frequency of video statements by members of the original al-Qaeda leadership and other Islamist terrorists shows a marked increase. The propaganda is of greater sophistication, of high quality and more professional. English is used more often, either in direct speech or in subtitles, allowing potential access to a wider audience.

Video attacks, the cunning bastards. At least the Home Secretary can no longer claim that Islamist activity is related to a refusal to speak English.

The report is so far the most systematic attempt by European police to gather together data on this matter, and can be seen as definitive. Indeed, if anything, Europol was pitching for a greater batch of funding with this report, seeking to upgrade itself from a continental crime-fighting force to a mainstay of the 'war on terror'. Every national police or intelligence force contributing data could be said to have a similar reason for wishing to amplify the threat. Yet, the most they could come up with was a single failed attack. I can find only two references to this report in mainstream media outlets, one in the Boston Herald, the other in Deutsche Welle, neither of which refers to these figures, but both of which discuss a 'growing terror threat'.

So much for 'Eurabia' and 'Londonistan'. So much for the Clash of Civilisations. The counter-climactic truth is that the incidence of Islamist activity, including that using terrorist tactics, is concentrated in parts of the world where US imperialism operates.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sponging rich bastards.

It's official: Tony Blair will leave office, having overseen the rise of the richest rich bastards that have ever raked it in on UK soil. The wealthiest 1,000 people in the UK have seen their wealth grow by 20% in the last year. Since these people are multi-millionaires and multi-billionaires (65 of the top 1,000 are billionaires), a growth at that rate involves the transfer of millions and billions of pounds to them. Unsurprisingly, many of these people (Mittal, Branson, the Hinduja brothers) have been close to New Labour.

The Telegraph reports today that: "The top one tenth of the top one per cent of earners now take home the same slice of total national income as they did in 1937. The gap between the super-high earners and the rest has widened to pre-war levels after decades of convergence." Much of the annual growth in the wealth of the very rich is accounted for by massive corporate bonuses for the top CEOs, particularly in the financial zone. At the same time there is a wave of sackings going on in that very same square mile: funny how that works.
This news emerges not long after the UN report suggesting that Britain was one of the worst places to grow up in, and shortly after it was revealed that 200,000 more children live in poverty this year. Only a few months ago, figures revealed that the cost of living is shooting up for ordinary people, while the government and the Bank of England have set out to restrain wage growth, despite the fact that most people's wages fall behind inflation growth.

Gordon Brown has decided to foreshadow his brief reign as Prime Minister with an attack on public sector pay, reneging on previous agreements with health workers. Strike action is very close, it seems. This Tuesday, Mayday, a quarter of a million civil servants will be on strike over job cuts, low pay and privatisation.


This weepy little drama has been seen on US television. I'm not spoiling any surprises. Watch it all the way through.

Coming Home From War

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Murderous Smile: Mark Ames on American shoot-ups.

Someone in the comments boxes recommended Mark Ames' Going Postal shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre. You can read Ames' take on the Virginia Tech Massacre here, but do pick up the book if you see it. An aphotically witty and fact-heavy investigation such as this ought to be supplied to workers and students who want a preparatory course on the sources of these massacres. The heuristic is infallibly correct, which is remarkable since he starts with a hypothesis that the killings are in some senses 'justified'. That, I assume, has a few jaws dropping - but stick with this.

Little Doughboy's revenge
The title refers to the fact that these massacres began to occur in the 1980s in the US Postal Service (USPS) and expanded rapidly to various American workplaces, from Louisville to Honolulu, often destroying companies in the process. Hence, a workplace assassin has 'gone postal'. The turning point came when Joseph Wesbecker entered his workplace in September 1989, a printing press called Standard Gravura, and shot seven of his co-workers to death, causing twenty others devastating wounds. He then put a gun to his own face and pulled the trigger. Ames was able to interview one of the survivors, Michael Campbell, whose body is deformed by the impact of six bullets from Wesbecker's various munitions. Oh hell, Campbell has told Ames' contact, "everybody supported him, everybody saw where he was coming from. His only problem was that he shot the wrong people." He isn't alone. Another worker at the plant tells Ames that Wesbecker was "pressed into it" And if he'd only got "the right people", he would have "had a lot more sympathy. Still does, as it is!" Finding out what could induce workers at the plant to say that takes Ames on a scintillating journey through America's corporate landscape. The initial media reaction - indeed the stock reaction to these events - was to describe a 'flip-out'. For here was a man who had been a conscientious worker, working enormous amounts of overtime, taking on the onerous role of working a noisy and dangerous machine called 'the folder' (which, due to its fumes and emissions, is a dangerous device and can only be worked for half-hour stretches). He saves up, buys a nice car and a good house. He is ambitious, but always good-humoured. Ah, but - he has marital problems, and suspects (apparently with some reason) that his wife sleeps with his co-workers. He is mocked and derided by his co-workers. He is on anti-depressant drugs. One of his sons had been seriously ill, and another had been caught flashing. And perhaps, oweing to his nickname, 'Rocky', he was known for violent tendencies. That must explain the indiscriminate rampage, then. Except that the massacre wasn't indiscriminate at all - he specifically, despite media depictions, picked his victims off while leaving others unharmed, and there is a great deal more to the story. Firstly, 'Rocky's' first nickname was 'Little Doughboy' on account of him being overweight and soft - he acquired the sobriquet 'Rocky' after mouthing off to a woman in a bar for the benefit of his friends, who then kicked the shit out of him. Secondly, his marital difficulties and his general difficulties with women were not new, nor had they exactly stopped him from trying.

In 1978, however, after working for the firm for seven years, he started to experience a multitude of problems - this was when he divorced his wife, when he son became sick and his other son got busted. In 1980, naturally enough, the stress of the work he had devoted himself to became too much. He requested that he be taken off 'folder' duty, and claimed that it was harming his health - other workers say that the 'folder' is indeed damaging. But the company refused to do so, and continued to refuse his request for years: no other worker wanted to take over, and he - a sort of laughing stock with both management and staff - didn't have any leverage. The union's strength had been diminished by economic hard times, and a Reaganite anti-union drive was about to make it even weaker. The plants was exposed to severe job cuts and wage freezes, and the owners - the wealthy Bingham family - were secretly constructing a new plant in Tennessee to shift production. They told the union leadership, when it was discovered, that they had either to agree to austerity measures or face the plant's closure. The union caved. So, when Wesbecker is expected to continue in a role that could well be killing him for a company that doesn't appear to care about him and indeed seems intent either on getting rid of him or squeezing the last drop out of him, he looks for every means to escape. The union will do little, so a doctor writes a letter for him begging the company to take him off the 'folder', to no avail. He files a discrimination complaint against the company on the grounds that he is diagnosed as a manic depressive, a form of incapacitation, and the company has made allowances for incapacitation in the past. The company's 'Human Resources' department (how I hate those words, and those people) stonewalls, offering the county's Human Relations Commission, which supports Wesbecker's claim, an outlandish string of claims explaining why Wesbecker and only he must be available for the 'folder'. Eventually, Wesbecker has to drop the claim and take medical leave for psychological stress. When he returns, instead of compromising, they stick him on long-term disability and drastically reduce his pay. The company was planning to cut his disability pension to 60% of its previous value in October 1989 - Wesbecker got them before they got him. After his massacre, the company was destroyed and had to shut down: such was the aim. He wished to destroy both the specific agents he saw as responsible for his miserable condition and the company that encouraged the bullying and victimisation that he experienced.

Slave rebellions and the capitalist road to serfdom
Wesbecker was not to be a one-off, and the circumstances tended to be similar: it was not a social type that could be identified so much as a set of conditions. The infamous postal massacres had always involved an element of workplace bullying and victimisation by management. The USPS, regarded somewhat benignly by most, was an arena of cruelty and suspicion between management and workers. And since the Nixon administration had forced the postal service for the first time in 140 years to subsist on its own profits, with competitors like Federal Express introduced later on, the workers were being squeezed to the last pip to get those profits in, with weekly workloads extending to 70 or 80 hours, and an increasing of terror and intimidation on the shop floor. It was Wesbecker who introduced the office massacre to the corporate mainstream, and in short order 'white collar' workplaces were being shot up all over America. Repeatedly, the killer is perceived as mild-mannered, pleasant, the last person to flip out. Repeatedly, it is discovered that the killer is experiencing either direct victimisation or serious distress as the corporate culture undermines basic conviviality. Repeatedly, the victims were picked off and others deliberately left to survive, with the supervisor being a primary target (often lucky enough to be out of the office, however). This is not random mayhem: it is insurgent rage.

Ames compares the office shoot-ups to the antebellum slave revolts, often involving doom-laden, violent outbursts, inspired by 'visions' or a sense of religious purpose. These modern Nat Turners are seen as incomprehensible lunatics, ingrates, precisely as the slave rebels were. To be clear, since some people have a knack for misunderstanding, Ames isn't saying that the condition of 'postindustrial' American workers is equivalent to that of slaves. But he notes that there were few such revolts, and suggests that the slaves adapted to their fate for a number of reasons: it was routinised, and became over the long-term a 'normal' state of affairs, such that resistance was often incomprehensible; another is the endless multidimensional PR efforts to get slaves to accept their position, usually led by the Church; another is the overwhelming militarisation of America before and after the Revolution, and the ability and willingness of the local ruling class to viciously suppress any manifestation of revolt; most important, in his view, is the willingness and ability of human beings to adapt to a great variety of oppressive or difficult situations. While we now regard the abolitionist position to be obvious and its challengers absurd and despicable, the situation in the early 1800s was quite the reverse. Even when abolitionism came to be an acceptable political platform, the 'moderate' or 'realistic' abolitionism was preferred to the 'radical' version. And so, we might discover with a shift of perspective that these massacres are comprehensible as a revolt against intolerable, desperate conditions, a result of a sustained blitz on workers' security and income.

Well, there is plenty of evidence for the latter, and you wouldn't have to read Ames' book to find that out. The statistics on wage growth, inequality and workplace safety tell their own tale, as does the almost psychopathic denial that is issued by corporate spokespeople every time a similar 'tragegy' occurs. But Ames discusses the full range of the attacks on workers since 1980. This includes not only the atrocious ways in which wealth has been transferred to the rich, while ever-expanding numbers of American workers have to put up with no health insurance, lousy wages, diminishing benefits, eroding pension schemes, and longer hours, but also the much-celebrated drives by people like Al 'Chainsaw' Dunlap and General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who insisted that workers have 'unlimited juice to squeeze', and that fear in the workplace was an invaluable tool of business. Indeed, the assumption of the right of capitalist firms to terrorise their staff is so ingrained that Ames has no difficulty turning up editorials and statements from successful CEOs on the topic, as well as some detail on the practise. One document, an internal memo from the CEO of the Cernel Corporation, is sickening and vile in its attempt to bully the middle managers into bullying the staff more effectively. The car parks aren't full at 8am, the boss whines, people are being allowed to come in late, and leave early. The managers are told that if they don't make sure that everyone is at work, arriving half an hour early and leaving half an hour late, they will be fired: and this is to be achieved by out-of-hours emergency meetings with staff in which they are threatened with the boot. Staff numbers are cut, facilities are cut, benefits are frozen, etc etc. There ought, says the boss, to be pizza men arriving at 7.30pm to feed starving workers. And there is no shortage of official corporate ideology legitimising this. Welch explains, for instance, that fear is "healthy, like pain is healthy" because it "gets you out of that comfortable equilibrium". It destroys "comfortable equilibrium" alright - sanity, marriages, families, livelihoods, communities...

Middle managers are therefore expected to humiliate and abuse, because it creates the necessary atmosphere for the efficient accumulation of capital. And surprise - the massacres often attempt to target victimising supervisors, screaming middle-managers, puffed up little tyrants who like to spy on the staff or threaten them with disciplinary action on the slightest grounds. In the absence of collective action, Ames suggests, more and more workers are internalising these corporate norms, making their diminishing office space into their personal sitting room, unlearning the average forms of communication that one needs to get on with the family on the odd occassion one sees them, losing touch with leisure time which they are increasingly unable to enjoy. Indeed, such is their fear of the sack that a new phenomenon started to emerge in the 1980s known as 'presenteeism' - people coming to work even though they were too sick to do their duties properly. Without a general critique, a frame in which to perceive these issues correctly, people tend to internalise the torment. They see themselves as at fault for not being perfectly happy. They put about that bonhomie that puts others at ease and protects them from the suspicion that they are losers. They conceal their stress, their difficulties, their depression. They're often noted for precisely their mild-mannered and commodious disposition. But sometimes, especially if their long hours and commitment have been rewarded with singling out, bullying, degenerating conditions - well, then they might stalk from office to office, single-mindedly tearing up selected victims with a stash of guns in a gym sack. These slave revolts are therefore the isolated acts of those finally and permanently deranged by corporate culture. They take out their perceived enemies, often shouting some vengeful last words as they do, and then (usually) destroy themselves while still on top of matters.

But, why the schools?
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are heroes to some. It wasn't long after their massacre before notes appeared on message boards or lists explaining that they did what many young people want to do. Tribute sites appeared, some offering advice on how you might complete your "mission" even more successfully than "St Eric" and "St Dylan". Subsequently, as we know, a bunch of 'copycats' were stopped in their tracks. Intelligent student misfits from two-parent loving families in 'Middle America' probably aren't the usual candidates for deification, but the act of mass murder has propelled them into many young hearts. They were not, as is usually claimed, Nazis, goths, gay, druggies or Marilyn Manson fans. Even so, as Ames points out, you don't go expressing sympathy for these people in public, otherwise you're off to boot camp, where you stand a chance of dying from wounds incurred there. You go online and chatter away to other assassinophiles, with a reasonable prospect of anonymity.

Well, before you get to the reason for this covert sympathy, you need to try and understand the nature of the crime. As has been repeatedly pointed out, no successful profile of a typical school shooter has yet been devised. Good students, bad students, wealthy ones, poor ones, ones from stable familes, others from broken homes... there's no archetype. This is because, as Ames puts it, "It isn't the office or schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled - they can't be. It is the workplaces and schools that need to be profiled". Now, this bit is rather crucial. I quote verbatim from his list of characteristics to watch for:

complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure;

antiseptic corridors and overhead fluourescent lights reminiscent of a mid-sized airports;

rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and

maximally stressed parents push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.

The second point, to avoid misunderstanding, is serious. The dispiriting, uglified surroundings provide an important experiential backdrop for the bullying and hypocrisy and stress. But of course, the main points here are the competitive social structure and the parents' eagerness to ensure children succeed within it. The school is a training ground for the workplace, inculcating the kind of discipline and habits that one will be constant throughout one's life. Most waking hours, at least five days a week, will be spent in competition with one's peers, and the assholes will always rise to the top if they weren't there to begin with. Bullying will be overlooked or tacitly condoned by people who sympathise with the bullies and find it difficult to manage their subordinates without them. They call it 'hazing', apparently, and its often meted out in a formal fashion along socioeconomic lines, sometimes by sororities and fraternities. It's defended as a bit of fun, or as a means to inculcate respect: on the contrary, it is often quite serious and generates fear and mistrust. Aside from the formal 'hazing', there are asshole teachers who will emotionally humiliate students in the name of discipline, and the usual ritual drudgery and idiocy that goes on the minutiae. Many of the most miserable, demeaning things that can happen at work can happen at school, and anyone who remembers their school years knows that it seems to matter a great deal more at that age, and it seems to last forever, even if its only a few years.

That this is an experience with at least some widespread purchase is evident in the subterranean sympathy for the mass murderers. The support of some young people wasn't restricted to Klebold and Karris. When Andy Williams, a lower middle class student attending an upper class college in the fading Republican town of Santee, decided to wipe out many of his classmates, within weeks there were attempted and actual 'copycat' massacres. So far from the Pump Up the Volume fantasy, these kids don't solve all their problems by learning to express themselves through pirate radio stations, and sincerely talking through all of their problems. They implode or explode. The implication of the phrase 'copycat' is that people really want to be like the hick serial killers and destroy their own lives in the process, so that someone who doesn't matter will say they were cool. That's a cheap and lazy excuse for analysis. But, precisely as the slave revolts in the workplace often involve explicit or implicit reference to previous revolts, the example of others provides an interpretive framework, and a 'way forward'. And it might be added, as with those other slave revolts, the kids who do it are often (not always) the ones you'd least expect. So quiet, so diligent, and so pleasant.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The murderous smile in question is the quality of 'niceness' that one is supposed to evince in a company setting, the ability to smile and put others at ease. The killers so often have been among those who have taken the corporate 'Don't Worry Be Happy' bullshit as the normal response to wage-cuts, hateful competition, slashed benefits, longer hours and management terrorism, and have done their best to comport themselves in a fitting fashion. I suppose, in light of the Zombie Labour theme, you could call this 'playing dead'. So be wary of niceness. It's the last step before someone goes postal.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bipartisan Bill to Divide Iraq.

A right-wing Republican presidential candidate Senator Sam Brownback, and right-wing Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden, have collaborated on a bipartisan bill to divide Iraq into three states. They call this 'Plan B', although a more appropriate title would be 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'. It's been floated by liberal-leaning intellectuals like Peter Galbraith, as well as former Carter assistant Leslie Gelb, and has been echoed by 'realistic' critics of the war in the British papers. The White House have not favoured this so far, despite the fact that their divisive strategies and patronage of corrupt Kurdish and sectarian Shiite groups are certainly likely to generate a weak central state, and despite the fact that the 'federal' constitution they have tried to impose does more or less divide Iraq into three. Note that the formal structure of a single country would remain in any event - no American politician wants to give a large part of Iraq effectively to Iranian control. But the central state would be weak, vulnerable to fracture and patrimonial corruption, and ultimately guided by the American embassy.

The wall in Adhamiya, which analysts say is creating de facto segregation, and which has already produced several local protests, is a crucial test for the American state. If they can use this formal sectarian lockdown to gain better control of the situation, then the Bidens and Brownbacks will probably have a better hearing in the NSC and other policymaking bodies.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Baghdad Clampdown

Is it humorous or grim, this pretence that American actions in Iraq have anything to do with the well-being of Iraqis? Perhaps both, a death-head grin, that favour to which almost a million Iraqis have returned. On the one hand, the atrocious rate of mortality under the rubric of the 'surge' is being deliberately suppressed, even as the Foreign Office works hard to prevent one of the Lancet authors from presenting the information that was knowingly smeared by the Ministry of Defense. On another entirely separate field of digits, what Reuters refers to as "the Baghdad neighbourhood wall" (fuck off) is proceeding despite "the hostility the project sparked among residents in Adhamiya", also reflected in comments by Sadr, several Sunni representatives, and even Maliki who (gasp) is supposed to be flexing his muscles with the Americans to 'modify' the wall. Maliki, like an Anglican church-goer, has no muscles to flex. He is a hanging vine draped around the American embassy. If anyone is exerting any pressure, it is probably those capable of mobilising popular constituencies.

As Simon Assaf rightly points out, the wall is being built around a stronghold of anti-occupation resistance in a fashion similar to the carving up of Fallujah after it was destroyed by two successive American attacks. It has nothing to do with protecting the people that America wishes to crush. There have already been protests about this in Adhamiya, but Sadr has called for a mass protest against this "sectarian, racist and unjust wall that seeks to divide" Iraqis, a hugely positive step. Unity over this crucial battle could ironically have the effect of substantially undermining the sectarian political dynamics supported by the US and its client-regime.

Another aspect of the Baghdad clampdown is the appearance of torture stations across the capital. Aside from erecting enclosures, some of them formal walls, others make-shift concrete barriers, the US has been building up a large and secret apparatus of incarceration across the capital, with a rolling wave of torture - the scorched, blackened skin of an electrocuted detainee is the ensign of the occupation. And let us not forget, since a large number of the new civilian deaths are attributed to death squads, that the Special Police Commando unit, particularly its notorious Wolves Brigade, continues to operate on behalf of the occupiers (although you have to love the US army pretending that these guys are somehow maverick outsiders, as if General Petraeus didn' take full credit for their training and operations). No small part of the toll from death squad activity will be directly attributable to those forces.

And they're worried about sectarianism in Iraq. Sure.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Canada votes against troop withdrawal ... or does it?

Canada's parliament has voted against a motion for limited troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite solid public backing for the troops to be home at least by the deadline proposed by the Liberals (which was February 2009). However, all that is not quite as it appears. First of all, it is important to bear in mind how this happened. The NDP, a Labour Party equivalent with a broadly left-wing base and a right-wing leadership, holds the balance of power in Canada's parliament with 29 seats - a result of their popular antiwar stance among other things. The vote was defeated by only 16 votes, with the NDP voting alongside the Conservatives against the motion. This was, on the face of it, because they demanded immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, not another year of torture.

Was this a genuinely principled stance? Doug Nesbitt wrote about the NDP's position a couple of weeks ago:

Today, the Liberals are presenting a motion to end Canada's involvement in Afghanistan by February 2009 - the end date of the current two year mission which started last month (and was narrowly authorized 149-145 last May with the support of thirty Liberal MPs). The motion was put forward by Liberal defence critic, Denis Coderre. He is stating that he will not compromise on the matter, such as having the mission moved to a less tumultuous region of Afghanistan or reassigned as "peacekeeping." But the motion actually says nothing about withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but rather withdrawal from southern Afghanistan - it's in fact the proposal of Gerard Kennedy - "let's withdraw to Kabul!" The motion is in fact a step backwards from the vote last May where the Liberals were actually split on whether to continue the mission past February 2007. Now they are supporting it up until 2009.

The NDP has decided it will caucus before this motion. Why? Will they suddenly oppose the motion with a "troops out now" stance. It would be unlikely for them to do so after months of back-tracking towards a "change the mission" position like Kennedy.

Ideally, the NDP should call for immediate withdrawal. But the point is, they've been beaten to the punch by the Liberals, trying to win points off the recent deaths in Afghanistan, and using the media's complete incompetence to get the pro-war motion spun as an anti-war motion - just check out the headline from this Globe & Mail article. In the past six months, the Liberals have seemingly positioned themselves on the left of the NDP on the two main issues of the day: the environment and the war. Once again, the NDP leadership have been caught with their pants down in the cookie jar (yes, it's that bad). It seems the only party in Canada not doing anything is the NDP. And now they've allowed the Liberals this opening and an attempt to reframe the question of withdrawal.

So, we had a motion for withdrawal that was not a motion for withdrawal. We consequently had a vote that misleadingly placed the Liberals in the 'antiwar' camp. At the same time the NDP has tried to recoup some of the initiative and momentum that it has lost by inflicting a defeat on a pro-occupation motion that is nevertheless interpreted as a mandate for the continued occupation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bush the 'fascist'?

Naomi Wolf, a Clintonite feminist, on Bush's ten steps toward fascism. I don't doubt the existence of fascist potencies in the United States, but to speak of it as a clear and present danger is misleading, to put it blandly. If you ask me, it's part of this 'Anyone But Bush' politics that is destroying the American left and drawing the antiwar movement into the frigid Democratic Party graveyard. The politics of, Howard Dean's fan club, and such alignments, are to divert mass disaffection with Bush's wars into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Wolf rightly criticises Bush's openly repressive measures, including the Patriot Act. However, there is no mention Democratic complicity. There is no effort by the Democrats to reverse these measures at all (indeed, most Democratic senators have consistently supported its re-authorisation, often at the behest of the most 'liberal' senators such as Diane Feinstein), no effort to counter the crackdown on immigrants, and more basically the plan for 'withdrawal' from Iraq is - despite appearances - a plan for escalation. The Democrats will certainly, if they get Clinton elected, manage an eventual, prolonged withdrawal to the comfort of the fortified military bases if they are forced to, but what's going to happen to the troops? They're going to Afghanistan. And as for the prospects of a strike on Iran? Leading Democrats are all for it.

In the middle of all the heat on the Iraq war, debate over the 'war on terror' (or the policies implemented under its rubric) has been occluded. What the US is doing to the horn of Africa has been practically unnoticed, and Afghanistan is rarely debated (although most Americans now oppose that venture too). So, the mainstream of the Democratic Party, so often depicted as to the left of a cautious public, actually enforces a consensus on a range of issues where there is in fact broad dissent. There will certainly be no debate on Palestine, and the evidence is that Clinton will be a great deal worse on this question than Bush. This is going to become the decisive problem in American politics, since Bush will be out in 2008, and there will probably be a Democratic president with allies in both houses. The Republican Party is being splintered by Bush's intransigence on a whole range of issues, and we have had the corrollary spectacle - perhaps a first in American politics - of a number of conservatives moving to the left. The era of a Rovean 'permanent Republican majority' is finished.

Bush's catastrophic regime will be gratefully terminated, but talk of him being a 'fascist' is, in my view, an ideological secretion of the 'Anyone But Bush' alignment that seeks to suck all of the popular movements that have sprung up, all of the hope in American politics, under the canopy of the DLC. And that is lethal.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Paul Gilroy and Weyman Bennett on the anti-slavery struggle.

There was an excellent debate hosted by the SWP between Weyman Bennett and Paul Gilroy on the struggle against slavery and what really ended it. Ady Cousins did us a favour by filming it. The opening contributions are here:

You can watch the whole playlist, including debate on the floor and summaries here.

Divide and conquer: Baghdad's separation wall.

What can you say? Ostensibly, it is being built to protect the citizens of Adhamiya from sectarian war, but the citizens don't want it, their representatives don't want it, and even the spineless Maliki is saying don't build it - construction has already began without consultation or permission from anyone because, of course, Iraq is now a democratic society with a free government.

This carve-up, the Yugoslavian Solution, was recommended by Harry Reid, reflects a strategy long advocated by Democrats like Biden, but also Chalabi groupies like Nibras Kasimi of the Hudson Institute and also the De-Baathification Committee, who recommended a 'closed canton model':

The ‘Fallouja Model’ and the ‘Kadhimiya Canton’: After the November 2004 offensive to take-back Fallouja from the insurgents, the U.S. military embarked on a drastically new experiment of controlling the turbulent town of 200,000 souls: fence the population in. Instead of bringing back old Ba’athists like the failed ‘Fallouja Brigade’ experiment of April 2004 to police the town, which only ended-up emboldening the insurgents, the Americans opted to turn Fallouja into a vast interment camp. But for a few incidents here and there, the plan worked very well.

All residents of Fallouja were issued special localized IDs, and unknown vehicles were barred from entering the town. The US forces set-up a perimeter around the dense urban center. However, this chokehold did not completely surround Fallouja’s ‘rural suburbs’ on the western back of the Euphrates River—hence, there is room for improvement on this particular model.

A ‘closed canton’ model was voluntarily imposed on the Kadhimiya suburb in northern Baghdad. This Shi'a center with a population of 500,000 is now virtually closed off: entry points have been bottle-necked to a handful, and no unfamiliar cars are allowed to pass through. The levels of violence in Kadhimiya have been drastically reduced over the past year since this model was put in place. In lieu of car bombs and suicide bombers, the insurgents now resort to lobbing mortar attacks to get the residents of Kadhimiya. But there is a feeling among the resident that their town is safe—a spectacular feat considering that it borders some major hotbeds of insurgent activity.

Certainly, if you were to turn Iraq into a vast prison camp with walls, concrete perimiters and barbed wire fences dividing the place up, it would be much easier to control. On the other hand, that doesn't look like much fun for Iraqis, and it does tend to reinforce the 'civil war' dynamic.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The invisible war again.

Another thousand killed, hundreds of thousands of refugees, shells falling on Mogadishu. The dead rot in the streets. Medical infrastructure at breaking point. And the new UN head makes his pro-empire mark by advocating a 'coalition of the willing' for Somalia, to keep the US-backed warlords in place. A thousand deaths in a week is quite a strong showing for this sub-theatre of the 'war on terror': if it goes on like this, the carnage in Iraq could face some stiff competition.

French Elections News.

First of all, the turnout is much higher than it was last time round at approximately 84%. Secondly, the voting estimates are as follows:

1. Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) 29,4 %
2. Ségolène Royal (PS) 26,2 %
3. François Bayrou (UDF) 18,6 %
4. Jean-Marie Le Pen (FN) 10,8 %
5. Olivier Besancenot (LCR) 4,7 %
6. Marie-George Buffet (PC) 2,1 %
7. Philippe de Villiers (MPF) 2,5 %
8. Arlette Laguiller (LO) 1,5%
9. José Bové (Alter) 1 %
10. Dominique Voynet (Verts) 1,6 %
11. Gérard Schivardi (PT) 0,4 %
12. Frédéric Nihous (CPNT) 1,2 %

Actually, as I write, I've seen a new list of estimates on the Wikipedia site, which puts Besancenot's vote slightly higher at 5.4%, enough to entitle the LCR to a substantial sum of money to organise with, no bad thing. But unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn't link to a source for its estimate, so I'll stick with the conservative assumptions of the Temps report.

It means a strong vote for Sarkozy, who probably picked up a number of Le Pen voters. Bayrou will not make the second round on this estimate despite getting almost a fifth of the vote and beating Le Pen (against the expectations of some polls), so one can only hope that his votes tend toward Royal, because Sarkozy is fucking menace. However, look at the splintered far left vote! Besancenot is a mere whisker from the 5% threshold, but if there had been a unity candidate for the left-of-left, perhaps with Bove an early leader, their results would have been very sizeable, and probably much higher than their combined votes here, which amounts to 11.3% (including the Greens) or 9.7% (excluding the Greens). It's a strong show of support for the radical and revolutionary left, and Besancenot's vote does him great credit, but it's also a terribly wasted opportunity. A united anti-liberal left getting a strong vote could have produced the groundwork for a new alignment and a new alliance in French politics.

42.7% of the votes went to the right if my calculation is correct (I'm not including the CPNT because I can't tell what their politics are), 18.6% voted for the centrist candidate, and 37.5% voted for the left. The main reason the centrist vote is so strong, I suspect, is because the PS practically threw away their campaign. Not only because Royal was 'gaffe-prone', but also because she offered practically nothing distinctive. Bayrou positioned himself as a "Clintonian" supporting Third Way politics, and a renegotiated EU Treaty, while opposing the Iraq war. Royal is a self-declared Blairite, supporting Third Way politics, and a renegotiated EU Treaty, while opposing the Iraq war. Sarkozy is for tough anti-crime policies, a renegotiated EU Treaty, and 'family values', and so is Royal.

The sight of senior PS right-wingers advocating a PS-UDF coalition, repeatedly, despite official denials from Royal, is indicative of how much head-way Bayrou was able to make with left-voters by positioning himself as a critic of the immigrant-bashing, racist rhetoric and anti-civil-libertarian politics, while the Royal camp was extremely timid on all of those points. If the aim was to create a Blairite centre-left electoral coalition, it has not succeeded. On the other hand, Sarkozy has run a slick campaign with some carefully drip-fed noises to appease the far right (including the eugenicist line that paedophiles and suicides are genetically determined to be that way), and careful cultivation of the UMP electoral base with promises of authoritarian crackdowns on the banlieues.

So, since Bayrou's main beef these days is with the conservatives he was once happy to work with and serve under, one assumes that he will ask his voters to support Royal. PS right-winger and privatiser-in-chief during the last Socialist-led administration is now clumsily appealing to the voters for the losing candidates, emphasising that a vote for Royal would not be merely anti-Sarkozy, but would be a positive vote - for nothing less substantial than 'revival' or a 'house of revival', mind you.

Capitalism, gun crime and ideology.

The Virginia Tech massacre continues to attract commentary, and some of it is indeed splendid, either because barking mad or because brilliantly splenetic. Fred Gardner's attack on 'Prozac Madness' is a heart-warming; Alex Cockburns call for transferring the means of violence from tyrannical fat-asses in the state to local democratic militias is funny, but in my view is mistaken, for reasons I'll come to, and contains an unfair attack on the 'anti-gun lobby'; Gerald Kaufman blaming it on the movies is stunningly inept; Henry Porter comparing the massacre to chlorine bombings in Iraq, and demanding that Islam 'damns' the use of such weapons is its usual trashy worst; Roy Greenslade commanding the moral high ground by pointing out how little attention is paid to the daily catastrophe in Iraq compared to thirty-two deaths in Virginia is to the point, to a point; and a poll finding that women and minorities are most likely to favour gun control probably reflects the distribution of victimhood.

Yet it seems unlikely at the very least that this one instance, treated as an anecdotal source for instapunditry, is likely to generate the kind of questions - let alone answers - that we really need. You cannot extricate the lone nut from the total prior circumstances, and those extend well beyond the availability of potentially damaging anti-depressants or even the availability of guns. Because any solution you attempt is going to impact on the entire criminal justice system, not to mention giving the state certain rights in respect of, say, controlling film production, or controlling student behaviour, that it might not otherwise have, or disbursing weaponry among authorities in schools who might be no better at handling them than SWAT teams. To evaluate these pleas properly, it is essential to have an evaluation of the society for which they are proposed: at any rate, such is my way of segueing to the topic I want to comment on, which I shall relate to Cockburn's article.

The simple fact is, as the criminologist Jeffrey Reiman has argued, the system - including not only the courts and police, but also the process of lawmaking - is designed to fail at reducing crime. This doesn't mean that politicians maliciously maintain high levels of crime, but that they refuse to undertake the kinds of measures that could reduce it substantially where it is reasonable to expect that they understand the consequences of their inaction; and at the same time, they have pursued a drastic expansion of the punishment system, creating new crimes, extending sentences, making nonviolent or even victimless activities (such as prostitution) imprisonable, with the predictable consequence that crime rates continue to rise, declining only where exogenous factors impact on it: such as a decrease in unemployment, or a stabilisation of the drugs trade. They have created a heavily privatised penal system, knowing that this gives an incentive to providers to ensure that they do not have any effect in reducing recidivism, since high crime equals high profits. On the one hand, this programme of drastic expansion of prisons, harsher punishments and the reintroduction of the death penalty, a process initiated in the late 1960s when it was feared that crime was getting out of control, has coincided with a dramatic increase in that makes certain parts of the society unbearable; on the other, it tears up poor neighbourhoods, especially black neighbourhoods, since the criminal justice system disproportionately locks up young black men. And here I'm not playing any games: it isn't only disproportionate to the actual black population, it's radically disproportionate to the incidence of crime among black people. Incidentally, repeated studies suggest that not only one's 'racial' background, but also affluence is a primary determinant of the likelihood of one's incarceration: for instance, Reiman cites a study of convicted youths in Philadelphia by Terence Thornberry, which discovered that the more privileged youths were less likely to be incarcerated, and far more likely to get probation. There are similar trends throughout the entire system. The system is designed to fail at the task of reducing crime, although it happens to be a highly apt form of repression in a polarised liberal democracy, in which the manifestations of social distress can be contained rather than seriously addressed (which would require a redistribution of class power and privilege).

For, more fundamentally, that system is integrated into a capitalist society in which the very definition of crime results from an ideology appropriate to claims of 'property rights'. In particular, large amounts of harmful activity, which involve intent (inasmuch as the agents of it, usually corporations, cannot reasonably be unaware of the harmful effects their conduct has), is not criminalised. What is called 'white collar crime' is not merely underpunished in comparison to ordinary crime: it is often not recognised as such either by the state or in official ideology. And while most crimes committed are property crimes, Reiman estimates that 'white collar crime' (which includes mostly property crime, but also serious physical harm to human beings) is immensely more costly than the forms of crime for which most people are convicted. The total cost of 'white collar crime' in 2000 was, according to Reiman, $404bn, mostly pertaining to corporate offenses (theft from consumers usually, but also environmental crimes etc). That only includes those forms of conduct actually defined as illegal, not those that legally kill American workers and consumers every year. The reality of incarceration of mostly young, mostly working class, mostly male, and disproportionately black, people in America is a result of a process of decision-making mediated by ideology, that runs the whole gamut of the system. It runs from the decision as to what constitutes a crime, inflected as it is by class power and the lobbies and basic assumptions that append to it; to the decision as to what sentences there should be, given a prevailing conservative consensus that we're too damned soft (which is obviously inflected with racism and class contempt); to the enforcement of cops, often racist ones, but less famously often hostile to the working class and poor; to the decisions of magistrates and parole boards, whose decisions reflect the same basic biases.

If the legal system is designed to fail at protecting human beings and maintaining basic minimums of civility and security, it is also unlikely to overcome problems that the government itself introduces, such as the addition of crack cocaine to American streets in order to fund the Contra army in Nicaragua, under circumstances in which the drug is controlled by violent gangs as an artefact of its illicit nature (actually, if it wasn't illicit, you couldn't fund secret wars from it). One of the main contributors to violent crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s was precisely the struggle for control of the distribution of that substance. Indeed, every time a new substance like that comes into the market, there is a similar struggle for control before it becomes routinised: this accounts for some of the acute increases in violent crime, while the routinised control by violent gangs and the necessity of paying for the stuff through robbery and so on accounts for a part of the ongoing high rates of crime. State planners must be perfectly aware of the effect that the criminalisation of drug users has on crime rates, but continue to pursue it relentlessly, even while state bodies surreptitiously bring the substance into communities. This isn't a policy designed to reduce the use of drugs or the incidences of crime associated with drug use. The solution would plainly be, as a first step, to make cheaper drugs available in legal ways.

Now add one more element: the guns. You have a society in which millions are intentionally, knowingly fucked over on a regular basis. Aside from being exploited and oppressed, their lack of control over the means of production, never mind the means of state rule, means that they are denied adequate healthcare, and often killed by the companies they pay to cure them; are often killed by their work, if they can find employment; are often killed by the food that they eat, especially if it happens to be low-cost food. They are criminalised, often for harmless behaviour, imprisoned, often for nonviolent offenses and petty crimes. Others are incorporated into illicit economies that operate through coercion. And you have this immense industry that thrives off social breakdown, whose impact on American society is almost uniformly negative: I speak of the weapons industry. When they're not producing the means by which Iraqis are gunned down in their cars or houses, they are encouraging homeowners and middle class suburb dwellers to fancy themselves either inheritors of the American Revolution, or hardass homesteaders, wild west heroes, war veterans or something else appropriately ridiculous. Grandad therefore has an arsenal which one can loot from to shoot up the local school. On top of that, you create a demand for property-driven criminal activity, create the supply of propertyless criminals to carry much of it out, and then you have an industry that is desperate to sell its product, with the reasonable expectation that they will be used in criminal transactions. In the United States, between 1965 and 2000, more than a million Americans were killed by firearm, and almost the entirety of increases in the murder rate in the early 1990s was provided by lethal semi-automatic weapons. Aside from that, many of the murders are committed within the household, and those households with at least one gun (over half of American households today) have been more likely to experience a homicide for that reason. The facts suggest that the circulation of firearms in America is far too free, but under the rubric of states rights, many states opt out of obligations proposed by, for instance, the Brady Bill, which simply proposed a five day waiting period, (and even that no longer obtains). If the system was designed to succeed in reducing especially violent crime, then a waiting period and a register of gun ownership would surely be a minimum expectation.

So, this is why Cockburn's contrarian swipe at the 'anti-gun lobby' comes rather cheaply. In a capitalist state there is always de facto gun control, since the state ensures that it has the biggest and baddest weapons. The current gun industry has nothing to do with ensuring the democratic right of citizens to resist an overly aggressive or tyrannical state, as per the libertarian fantasists. It is an industry that has killed more than enough Americans, usually poor Americans. The question is, what kind of gun control should be permitted and under what circumstances. On the other hand, Cockburn's call for the replacement of quasi-military and police rule by popular militia rule could in principle be a revolutionary demand. Duncan Hallas made a similar argument, much better put, in 1985. Standing armies are indeed inherently undemocratic and permit the state to wage aggressive wars; the current police and death penalty regimes are brutal and racist. To transfer control over the means of violence in this way would be a revolutionary change in itself: as such it could only occur as a result of, or in the process of, a serious social revolution. Yet, the context of Cockburn's argument is otherwise. Invoking the posse, or the popular militia, he actually calls for teachers and hall monitors to be armed as an alternative to cops on campus and SWAT teams. It is true that the campus cops did not evacuate the campus as they should have when the first two bodies were discovered, and that the SWAT teams did not intervene to stop the killings. It is also true that they are given to torturing students from time to time. Yet, hall monitors are as likely to plug an overactive student as a dangerous assassin. Teachers are as likely to shoot their own students as a mass killer on the loose. It's curious, since Cockburn is so dyspeptic about the absolute failure of the institution and its teaching staff to respond to the warning signs apparently so evident in Cho, that he thinks they can be trusted with brandishing pistols. This isn't a society on the brink of a democratic revolutionary upheaval. It is a society experiencing serious disintegration and polarisation, and it isn't sensible to proliferate weapons in the school system. The number of guns and access to them is contributing to widespread social misery - not originating it, but compounding it, and making its effects more deadly.

There is a lot of romanticism in the imagery of Black Panthers holding guns outside police stations, thus symbolising the defense of black communities against state repression. I don't propose that their right to do so should have been abolished, nor should it be today. But what did that achieve in itself, and since when has the strategy of armed combat with the police been effective? Since when have people not been easily outgunned by the cops? And such is the ideology of crime in a capitalist society that even armed self-defense against criminal agents of the state, or even against the wrong kind of civilian, will invariably be treated and prosecuted as a capital crime. The left's attitude to gun control has to be situation-specific, and pragmatic. In some societies, restricting guns would make precious little difference, since the murder rate is already quite low. In the US, the opposite obtains.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

American troops "devalued Iraqi lives".

Awe, gee, say it ain't so, say it ain't so. But mom-meee, I thought they were there to help the Iraqians. According to this story, "a US general investigating the 2005 killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha" has said that US marines thought "Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes". Well, that's how they deal with hajis, General. What's more, they think it's funny as fuck. And do you know, General, I have a suspicion that the people who ordered torture, promulgated rape, refused to reconstruct, sent out death squads and refused to even count the bodies - well, they seem to believe that black life is cheap. Merely a hunch based on every policy choice and signal they send out to the world.

A profound sense of audience.

A wholesome moment from the Herald Sun:

Friday, April 20, 2007

A note on those neocon conspirators.

So, if it isn't the Israel Lobby, it's the fucking neocons, who almost entirely overlap. They are the evil ones responsible for overthrowing decades of sensible American foreign policy according to a widespread liberal and paleoconservative critique. Okay, then, one thing merely. Explain Saudi Arabia. Practically a common stipulation of most neocons is that Saudi Arabia be 'dealt with', either by being ostracised or by being bombed or by some careful extrication. This is not only because they are racist fuckwits, nor is it only because Israel has some measure of local competition with Saudi Arabia. It is because the fact that Saudi Arabia, by far the most repressive state in the whole system, makes a mockery of their claim to principled opposition to 'totalitarianism'. So if the neocons direct US foreign policy, why is the Saudi regime still locked in a cluster-fuck with American power?

If only he'd been a Muslim.

Some of the American conservatives are irate at what they perceive to be a mainstream media conspiracy to deny Cho Seung-Hui's Islamic connections. You see, if the massacre could be Islammed-up a bit, then it could be described as a 'suicide attack', and a deliberate signal to evildoers all over the world as to what easy prey American youths are. Initially, it was revealed that Cho was an 'Asian' of some kind, and with the customary alacrity, neoconservative and fascist commentators in the media and through the blogosphere thought of the i-word. Then it was revealed that the phrase 'Ismail Ax' was scrawled on his body (although his package to NBC had 'A. Ishmael' written on it), and all hell broke loose on the farm. Doesn't the name alone connect him to something it says in Islam? Doesn't it relate to some Quranic tale or some disagreement Muslims have with Christianity? Why, the evidence is crystal-clear: "[Muslims] believe that Abraham was supposed to go out and attack idols with an axe, and some also attribute the phrase to meaning that Ishmael was supposed to kill Isaac, the father of all Western culture, with an axe. Cho was a South Korean immigrant to the US, but it seems undeniable that his killing spree, at least in part, was motivated by some sort of belief in Islam."

Well, let's look at Cho's statements and see if we can't find some clues in there:

You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.

Or again:

Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? [source]

Did you notice that, right there? Christ and crucifixion, dreams of immortality, hopelessly muddled references to some wider ramifications of the killings. Never mind that, however, and never mind that he chose to commit a crime that is perpetrated by and on Americans every year: it must be energetically removed from that context. Korean-Americans are warned to expect a backlash. Predictably, there has been a great deal of attention to the fact that he was 'Asian' (not Korean, not American, not South-East Asian - Asian, with all its civilisational overtones), and no doubt we can expect the usual sub-anthropological curiosity about 'Asian culture' rather soon. Pat Buchanan has decried 'multiculturalism' as usual, even while noting the all-American pedigree of the crime.

This is all the expected editorial bilge from the right, an effort to override the obvious and elementary considerations that the gun industry should be in some way restrained; that American institutions, especially educational institutions, have to look at how they treat non-white students; that this wave of attacks on school students, whether from adults taking an easy target before killing themselves, or from other students, gives the lie to the myths of comfort, privilege and comity that Americans are encouraged to feel are uniquely their possession. One can't help noticing that it is only after these repeated 'tragedies' (is that the appropriate word?), that this sense of 'community' is materialised in America, either with candle-lit gatherings, emotional sermons or mere politeness on New York streets, as attested to following the carnage in 2001. Every other day is fuck-you day, is it not? America is not unique in that aspect, but it is unique in its emphasis on competitive culture, on the wonders of creative destruction and disintegration. Only by perpetually retooling 'national identity' around war and empire are the inevitably breakdowns, violence, and mayhem temporarily and partially overcome: in a martial America, the class-supremacist and racist aspect of nationalism is subordinated to the primary need to Kick The Other Guy's Ass, whether it is the gook today or Muhammed himself tomorrow. (Of course, as the 'refugees' discovered after Katrina, the 'national' purview cannot be so easily disburdened of its raciological contaminants). Only through the imaginary collective experience of the frontier, and of death, is the individual refused into the social matrix, not as part of a society - nothing so Bolshevik - but as part of a shared national experience known as 'community', (a distinction with its roots in German Kriegsideologie). Since today that 'community' is defined almost primarily by the fact that it ain't Islam (never mind that Muslims are the second largest religious group in America), the cri de coeur of American reactionaries today is that 'there must be an Islamic connection'.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Under socialism, everyone will have to do the shit work.

A Znet commentary reproduced on MediaLens discusses what it calls 'balanced job complexes'. Essentially:

Every workplace is just a set of tasks. Tasks are bundled to create jobs. Currently, tasks are bundled according to their relative desirability and empowerment effects to create jobs that are quite disparate from one another. So today, we have jobs like nurse aide ad doctor, secretary and manager, or assembly line worker and CEO. A relatively small percentage of people, whom I call the coordinator class, primarily do work that increases their self-confidence and gives them a fair amount of control over their own work lives. The majority of people, the working class, do work that is deadening, disempowering, and sometimes even dangerous - not to mention commonly smashing their self-confidence, and essentially never increasing it.

And so:

[W]hy should anyone be stuck with a job which consists of only screwing sprayers, or only sitting in a cubicle, while others primarily get to do work which increases their energy and confidence? Why can't workplace tasks be apportioned more fairly, so that everyone has to do their fair share of less-desirable labor?

It is precisely this which makes a balanced job complex what it is: Everyone gets to do some tasks that are desirable or empowering, and everyone has to do his or her fair share of shit work. It doesn't mean everyone performs every task. That would literally be impossible. It just means that everyone's work circumstances are comparable to everyone else's.

Of course, this is practically unimaginable in a capitalist economy, so chalk it up to Parecon's ongoing efforts to rethink the nature of production and exchange. The idea should resonate with anyone stuck in menial work as I have been, again. This time I'm temping in the City, which is even more lowly (if slightly better paid) than temping elsewhere. While not always onerous, the work is mundane, uninspiring, and drags out the hours. What is more, in an environment packed with bouffant-haired rich boys with crystalline accents, the menials are silent and invisible (while thinking things like, 'come the revolution, you guys are soooo fucked'). As I suppose you already know, in these kinds of roles it is necessary to "switch off", which practically everyone who has done call centre work, served at the tills or worked on production lines knows how to do. To put it another way, any kind of work that does not engage your creativity at some level generates a set of automaticities, machinic glances, clockwork smiles, tics, hand movements and so on, while your mind wanders off and solves the crossword puzzle. You become a simple means of production, an accumulation of dead labour time.

Classify this post with the zombie labour collection.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

French elections: revenge of the neocons?

It is looking increasingly likely that the neoconservatives will see their preferred candidate, Nicholas Sarkozy, elected. It would, for them, be a surprising and satisfying turnaround in the heart of 'Old Europe' or 'social Europe', 'Gaullist' France. To say 'increasingly likely' is not necessarily to say 'very likely' since a few factors have emerged to complicate the picture, as we'll see. There has been a huge heap of horseshit spread around by disgusting hypocrites like pro-war 'leftists' Andre Glucksmann and Pierre Bruckner about Sarkozy's commitment to opposing 'totalitarianism'. Yet, Sarkozy recently met President Mubarak of Egypt, whose recent record on torturing dissidents is discussed here, and assured him that he looked forward to a "trustful and friendly relationship". Sarkozy isn't the only reactionary to get the support of left-renegades. Former communist Alain Soral has apparently signalled his conversion to the fascist Le Pen's camp following a stream of anti-gay and antisemitic comments in the national media. But Sarkozy is working hard to muscle in on Le Pen's rhetoric, while at the same time citing his 'left' supporters.

He is much admired by the American neoconservatives, who have reservations only about his occasional 'economic nationalism'. His most important asset for them is that he will suspend any effort at an independent foreign policy by one of the main European powers, while another potentially independent power, Germany, is largely playing ball under the leadership of Merkel.

The complicating factors are as follows. Firstly, 42% of French voters are undecided, and it is unclear in which direction they will go. Some reports suggest that about half of the industrial working class has not decided who to vote for, and this could well redound to Royal's benefit at the last moment. According to some polls, the centrist Bayrou could well end up opposing Sarkozy in the second round, and left voters would tactically back him. Secondly, there have been suggestions from senior PS figures of a coalition with Bayrou, on the grounds that there are no differences of substance between Royal's policies and those Bayrou. Royal doesn't favour it in public, since the effect would be to abandon her campaign, but it is such a fuck up to date that one can imagine her last-minute capitulation. Thirdly, one recent poll puts Sarkozy and Royal neck and neck, although other polls continue to give Sarkozy a 6% lead. Finally, the position of the radical left-of-left candidates is not strong. Olivier Besancenot of the LCR looks like he's the only far left candidate, including the charismatic Bove, who will make the 5% barrier. So, many of the left-of-left votes could well collapse into support for Royal.

It is hard to overstate what a complete and utter farce this whole thing is. On the one hand, the radical and revolutionary left had a fantastic chance, after its stunning wave of victories against the right-wing government, to unite around a good candidate and to pose a serious left-challenge to the neoliberal consensus. One can say with some certainty that if this effort had not been scuppered by the treacherous sectarianism of some elements, notably the PCF, there wouldn't be senior PS figures bragging that their programme is essentially the same as that of the UDF. On the other hand, the disgrace of nominally 'left' figures flocking to Sarkozy has given some fleeting credibility to his racist diatribes, reactionary rhetoric on crime, neoliberal policies, corruption, and his hawkish, pro-Israel foreign policy stance. Sarkozy offers the French ruling class the opportunity to pursue an aggressive, if difficult, war against the working class and its resistance to the attempts to remove labour protections and create a more casualised, insecure, and eventually lower-paid labour market. He offers the upwardly mobile middle class a policy of aggressive repression in the poor banlieues and tighter immigration controls, while allowing employers to benefit from the even more parlous condition of migrant labourers. He promises to reorient the French state more firmly toward Washington and its interests, in the hopes of gaining French capital a bigger share of the imperial spoils. He will maintain the imperialist mission force in Africa, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, and the French mercenaries operating in Iraq will not be discouraged.

I wish Besancenot well, and don't underestimate the impact a sizeable vote for him could have. Yet, the extent to which it has already been pissed up against the wall is remarkable, and this should really lead to a bashing together of heads after the whole fracas has played out, hopefully without the grotesque spectacle of a Sarkozy-Le Pen final round.

Red Hot May

Unions take action on May Day. PCS strikes against Brown. Nurses to strike during May. Government meltdown on May 3rd. Blair's resignation may come hours after poll defeat.

Fast Food Nation

My review of Richard Linklater's super adaptation of Eric Schlosser's book here

Monday, April 16, 2007

Red America

Tax the rich, redistribute the wealth, increase wages! Crawling with socialists, that place.

Another one?

Why do they keep shooting up the students? Don't get me wrong, I am fully aware that this can be hyped, and used to justify the transformation of educational institutions into heavily policed camps, or 'profiling' that enables violating students' privacy. What's more, the ideological structures prevalent in American society have permitted these events to be understood in extraordinary ways that enable schools to suspend students or send them to the cop shop for wearing black clothing, issuing threats (however insincere) or using allegedly inappropriate language. Sometimes when the perpetrator is far too young to be held responsible for their actions, they are either tried as adults or they find an adult to try for something. Or when they have been tried as minors, various people have complained that their punishment isn't severe enough, as in the case of the Jonesboro Massacre. Clearly, these are ways to avoid dealing with the problem. For, surely the incidence of this in the US is at the very least way above average. What is more, it is suggested that many more are planned than succeed - for instance, after Columbine, a number of 'copycats' were allegedly attempted. One guy even runs a blog devoted to the topic.

These aren't always sudden outbursts: rather, they are often planned some time in advance, and weapons are accumulated to accomplish the act. There are often social causes involved, such as the destruction of the welfare state, yet the agents are often reasonably well off. I can only too easily fashion an Amisian response: killing is fun, a real kick, and the only wonder is that the civilised facade holds so well for so much of the time. Yet, I don't fancy the idea at all. I can't bring myself to seriously contemplate the idea of killing someone with pleasure, not even Martin Amis. I suppose, aside from the usual nutters blaming it on the teaching of Darwin in schools without an accompanying prayer, we will have to hear from people who think there's a 'culture of violence' - video games, movies, heavy metal and hip hop. To be sure, there is no shortage of cultural output that valorises random killing, but I can't help noticing a few things. Firstly, these complaints are usually tinged with racism (complaining about gritty movies with Fifty Cents and not the sexy ones with Brad Pitt). Secondly, they rarely focus on the involvement of the military-industrial complex in producing such output (video games with advertising that encourage you to 'Command Respect' by wiping out towns and villages, or that envision the overthrow of the Venezuelan government; Hollywood participation in the 'war on terror'). Thirdly, the 'culture of violence' never involves the actual business of strafing communities with bullets, cluster-bombs and daisy-cutters. Finally, of course, plenty of societies are entirely plugged into violent American culture, and generate cultures of violence all on their own, without necessarily having this scale of ongoing murderous assault on the young.

And then there will be the calls for gun restrictions, which would seek to restrain the use of an easily handled and highly effective weapon of death. No bad thing in my view. Yet, as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, there are plenty of societies where gun ownership is prevalent, and where there isn't the repeated spectacle of classroom massacre. Student alienation in a viciously competitive educational system that prepares children for life in a capitalist society that where forms of social solidarity are embattled and diminished can have its role, perhaps, but then again, many of these shootings have been perpetrated by adults outside of the school system, often exacting some kind of bizarre 'revenge' on the children before committing suicide. Perhaps, then, it is too simple to locate a single cause: rather, a combustible fusion of most of these factors in various ways could produce the necessary circumstances.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The smallness, fear and resentment of the paid columnist.

Blogs are bad, blogs are wicked, blogs are too democratic, blogs are corrupting the democratic process, blogs aren't making all that much difference, really...

A heartening stream of recent complaints about bloggery, including the charge that blogs often contain mistakes (whereas printed column inches foreswear all error); are insular (whereas the media class wouldn't know the meaning of the words 'navel-gazing'); are abusive, (whereas the daily newspapers are not packed with a million and one petty slanders); are irrelevant (the blogosphere's spectacular growth being unworthy of contrast with the contraction of the audience for newspapers); are parasitical on 'old media' (the average columnist being not at all parasitical on the industry's product, and not at all leeching off the blogosphere for the occasional bit of controversy). To be sure, blogs can be all those dreadful things, yet a moment's reflection indicates that they can also be a source of untold stories that need to be told, vectors for the disclosure of valuable information, forums of more or less modest investigative journalism in their own right, providers of an alternative analytical frame to that usually imposed on events by the capitalist media, sources of humour and release from the humdrum and mundane and so on. It so happens that the most worthless, trivial blogs are usually the ones patronised by the media outlets that are now skidding their undercrackers.

Why, then, waste time with these tedious, banausic complaints? Well, they happen to coincide with, or are prompted by, a move to create a bloggers' code of conduct, something that the cretins hope will be taken up by the service providers. It says 'voluntary' now, but if it were to be taken up by, say, Blogger, it would conceivably involve a more widespread pulling of blogs, especially if complaints against them were lodged by journalists or states. This is something that some undertalented and overexposed columnists could regard with some relief. Their effort to denigrate such popular participation in online comment as exists simply provides a background score for the wider effort to bring the internet under control, to reduce popular participation to an endless exchange of moderated opinion, a feedback chamber for the advertisers, and a gentrified nattering zone for those who imagine themselves uniquely placed to pronounce on public matters, because News International, the Washington Post Company, the Guardian Media Group [etc etc] says they are.

Notes on a scandal.

Don Imus. No, I don't know who he is either, much less care. Apparently some sort of radio personality, or possibly a weather balloon. But you might, even if you don't live in America, have caught the recent controversy over his racist and sexist remarks, which led to him being fired by his employer CBS. Over at Counterpunch, Dave Marsh notes that some reacted by demanding that hip hop artists get their act clean before Imus has to apologise for anything. Because apparently, in order to qualify for basic respect, you have to be considered part of a pristine culture that has never actually existed. There is also a terrible amount of bullshit about free speech, as per this atrocious image: as if CBS are somehow obliged to pay Imus a salary; as if they extend free speech on a regular basis to anti-racists and lefties.

But that wasn't what I wanted to mention. Because, you see, I do know a tiny little bit about who Don Imus is. I know he repeatedly describes Arabs as "ragheads". I know that he has suggested that he rather liked Rudi Giuliani because he is "somebody who's willing to take three big ones and drop one on Mecca, one on Jeddah, and one on Riyadh." I know that he has repeatedly made racist comments about black people and Jews, and admitted that one of his co-hosts was hired to perform "nigger jokes". And so on and on, with the usual sexism and gay-bashing to boot, a history as rank and grotesque as you can imagine. So, never mind "free speech", how come this scumbag was employed for more than five minutes to spout this shit? Because, despite the hand-wringing and apologies, the reality is that it is mainstream: for instance, if Thomas Friedman can advocate genocidal violence against Arabs, why can't Imus recommend a nuclear holocaust? It is good that Imus was fired, and it reflects a critical mass that anti-racists were able to achieve. But it has given some yet another opportunity to reflect the prevailing mythology that racism is something happenstance and accidental, something that the dominant culture is assiduously separating itself from. Having ascertained that, it remains only to chastise hip hop artists for being the real problem.