Sunday, November 30, 2008

The antisemitism of "the new antisemitism". posted by Richard Seymour

Supposedly, when Nixon was going off on one of his terminal antisemitic rants ("the Jews, Henry, they're the ones that are doing this to me, the Jews!"), Henry Kissinger soothingly replied, "yes, Mister President, but there are Jews, and there are Jews". The seemingly obvious implication is that there are Jews who conform to the racist stereotype, and others who are uncharacteristically loyal to an Anglo-Saxon quintessence. This recalls Winston Churchill's distinction between the 'International Jew' and the 'National Jew', the former a supposedly authentic incarnation of the antisemitic figment and the latter comprising nothing but good Europeans, doing what good Europeans do - vigorously colonising a territory inhabited by a putatively backward people. A more charitable if less tenable reading would be that Kissinger was subtly challenging Nixon's racism, by suggesting that there was a difference between his hallucinatory 'Jews', and actual Jews. Brian Klug, in a discussion of "the new antisemitism", phrased the question simply: "What, pray, is a Jew?":

In his essay, ‘The freedom of self-definition’, Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, reflects on Jewish identity in light of his experience during the Nazi Holocaust as a concentration camp inmate. He writes: ‘In 1944, they put a yellow star on me, which in a symbolic sense is still there; to this day I have not been able to remove it.’ He goes on to say that the name or label ‘Jew’ is ‘an unambiguous designation only in the eyes of anti-Semites’. I understand Kertész to be saying that the yellow star was not just a form of identification but a whole identity. Pinning the star to his breast, they were pinning down the word ‘Jew’, determining what it meant. Kertész observes that ‘no one whose Jewish identity is based primarily, perhaps exclusively, on Auschwitz, can really be called a Jew’. What he means is that they cannot call themselves a Jew – they cannot define themselves as Jewish – because the word is not theirs to use: it is someone else’s brand stamped on them and they are stuck with it: ‘Jew’.


Antisemitism is best defined not by an attitude to Jews but by a definition of ‘Jew’. Defining the word in terms of the attitude – hostility – rather than the object – Jew – puts the cart before the horse. Indeed, hostility is not the only ‘cart’ that the horse can ‘pull’ behind it.


Who, then, are the ‘Jews’ that the antisemite hates – or fears or despises or envies
or admires? What is the ‘unambiguous designation’ of the yellow star that Kertész ‘to thisday’ is unable to remove? When they pinned the badge on him and he became a ‘Jew’, what did he become? He ceased to be a mere mortal and became, in a way, timeless: a cipher of the eternal Jew, an expression of ‘Jewish spirit’ and ‘Jewish consciousness’. He became powerful, wealthy, cunning; rootless and cosmopolitan, merciless and vengeful, depraved and demonic; arrogant yet obsequious, secretive yet flamboyant, legalistic yet corrupt. He became a member – and agent – of a people apart, a state within a state, a cohesive community that holds itself aloof. At the same time, this powerful, wealthy, cunning group infiltrates society, pursuing its own selfish ends. Across the globe its hidden hand controls the banks, commerce and media, manipulating governments and promoting wars among nations. Wherever there is money to be made or power to be seized, he, Kertész, the ‘Jew’, can be found, even if only in disguise. Fundamentally, the yellow star designated the Jewish peril: a parasite that preys on humanity and seeks to dominate the world. This is what Kertész became when, stripped of everything except this badge, he was made a ‘Jew’ in Auschwitz.

In short, antisemitism is the process of turning Jews into ‘Jews’. (Brian Klug, 'The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism', Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 37, No 2, June 2003)

If anti-Zionists replicate such a gesture, he maintains, then they certainly are antisemitic. That is, if they pin a 'yellow star' on Israel, converting the self-styled Jewish state into the 'Jewish' state, a sort of timeless cipher of a 'Jewish spirit' or in Bernard Lewis' phrase a manifestation of "cosmic evil", they are guilty as charged by Phyllis Chesler, Bernard Lewis, David Mamet, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Walter Lacqueur, Daniel Pipes, Abraham Foxman, Melanie Phillips, et al. I think this a fair standard. Since I am one of 'they', moreover, I am anxious to protest that 'they' largely do not and are not, and that antisemitism is logically incompatible with anti-Zionism. The problem with this is that the charge from the "new antisemitism" crowd is not susceptible to such a rebuke. It does not make the distinction that Klug does, insisting instead that while criticism of Israel is not in itself antisemitic (albeit its intensity and supposed unfairness, they argue, is evidence of antisemitism), opposition to Zionism as such is antisemitic. Israel is 'the state of the Jews', the 'Jew of nations', and the attempt to deligitimise it is merely antisemitism transposed onto another plane. Moreover, Zionist logic holds that only by 'normalising' the status of Jews as a nation, integrated into a global system of nations rather than dispersed among other countries as a 'foreign' element, can antisemitism be thwarted and security provided for Jewish people. The attempt to roll back or undermine this project can only be interpreted according to such logic as an attempt to prevent normalisation and security. Finally, cultivating hostility to the 'Jew of nations' has wider ramifications since, it is argued, it has resulted in a growing climate of hostility experienced by Jews beyond Israel, from verbal abuse and sleights to physical harrassment and violence. Assertions of such a rising arc of harrassment have often been expressed in the most strident and hysterical accents. Alain Finkielcroat Finkielkraut sputtered that 2002 was a "Kristallyear". In 2003, hearing of a poll in which 60% of Europeans considered Israel a threat to world peace, Natan Sharansky averred that the EU was "brainwashing" people against Israel, and in the process preparing to sink back into "dark sections of its past". Bernard Lewis asserted in 2006 that the supposedly reigning atmosphere of hostility to Israeli was like 1938 all over again. If it is disputable whether there is in fact a growth in antisemitic attitudes, or whether any such observable increase has to do with a "new" antisemitism, it is more than disputable that there is anything like the rise of a Third Reich and Kristallnacht actually taking place.

Nonetheless, the underlying idea has been reproduced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia whose 2003 report considered displays of support for the PLO to be antisemitic, and by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism (published a mere month after the end of Israel's invasion of Lebanon), which held that delegitimising Israel by reference to apartheid or calling it a racist state is an act of aggression against the "Jewish people", and thus antisemitic. Denis MacShane MP has recently written a book, 'Globalising Hatred', devoted to the idea of a 'neo-antisemitism' that no longer depends on racial and religious dogma but rather centres on the vilification of Israel. Based on the nebulous EUMC 'working definition' of antisemitism [pdf], which includes "claiming that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour" as an example of antisemitism, supporters of Israel at Leeds University are pushing a motion stating that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, with the implication that any groups championing anti-Zionism should be denied access to union funding and freedom to operate. (NOTE: I have been advised that, contrary to earlier reports, the motion has not been won yet, and may still be thrown out). In fact, the EUMC definition also includes disproportionately singling out Israel for criticism, even though doing so is by no means an obvious case of antisemitism. Disproportionate attention to a specific injustice may in fact be a morally scrupulous thing to do. It would be morally ineffective to deploy one's energies and attentions in an entirely equal and proportionate way. Even where it is not a matter of such scruple, it may have reasoning behind it other than antisemitism. It may just be partisan. The effect of such indiscriminate reclassification is obviously to inflate the number of antisemitic instances recorded, and thus reinforce the claim that the world is experiencing a rise in antisemitism.

Despite the insistence on novelty, the theory of a "new antisemitism" is not at all new. The term first emerged in the context of the 1967 war, and was the title of a 1974 book published by the Anti-Defamation League, which argued that radical Left and pro-Arab opinion were the new vectors of antisemitic ideology. It was, as I pointed out previously, a habitual theme of the neoconservative right during the 1980s. An important component of the current hypothesis, explicated by Bernard Lewis in his 1986 book Semites and Antisemites, is that the locus of this "new antisemitism" is the Middle East, from which it filters into traditionally antisemitic European centres via Muslim immigration and - in the past - the influence of antisemitic Soviets. Thus, the 'two Easts' were held co-responsible for the phenomenon, while the 'West', particularly the Anglosphere, was implicitly congratulated for its historically progressive, liberal and humane values which alone were sufficient to mandate Euro-American dominance. Today, Bat Ye'or and co-thinkers hold that Arabs, Muslims and certain European politicians have formed a pact that derails Europe from its natural alliance with the US and Israel, diverting it instead down a cul de sac called 'Eurabia'. Meanwhile there is a cottage industry devoted to collecting expressions, real or contrived, of Muslim and Arab antisemitism. MEMRI is the most notorious dispenser in this industrious and invidious trade.

Part of the charge against the anti-Zionist left, then, is that in its sympathy with anti-colonial forces and Third World liberation movements it has adopted a discourse that is objectively antisemitic, (and thus also liable to reproduce to a tee the antisemitic tropes of Old Europe). A corollary of treating anti-Zionism as objectively antisemitic is that pro-Zionism is objectively not antisemitic. The century old tradition of collaboration between antisemites and Zionists is acceptable because those antisemites objectively embraced the means by which their own doctrines would be undermined and the Jewish people strengthened. So, whether it is antisemites in the upper echelons of the British civil service cutting deals with Zionist leaders, or Israel working with the Nazi-inspired Phalange and allying with Anwar Sadat who fought alongside the Nazis in WWII, or Zionists embracing the most reactionary antisemites from the US Christian Right, it is all part of the necessary dirty work entailed by the need to build and conserve the purported safeguard. One could even go further and argue that the explicit colonialist and imperialist ethos of the Zionist founding fathers, from Herzl to Ben Gurion, was itself an unfortunate necessity in a world characterised by empires and colonies and in which the project's only chance lay in acquiring a colonial sponsor. Therefore, objectively, collaboration with European empires served anti-imperial ends that would be expressed when the Zionists finally expelled the Brits. And if it follows that the greater part of Palestinian Arab society must be destroyed, a process which Martin Shaw argues fits with current definitions of genocide, then it is only to prevent another Shoah. In just the same way, contemporary anti-Arab racism in Israel and among the pro-Israel commentariat is instrumental to creating a positive atmosphere for the 'Jewish state', and thus is objectively anti-racist. Anti-racist racism, anti-genocide genocide, anti-colonial colonialism: a great deal of arrant nonsense becomes 'objectively' true if one follows this logic.

The strangest thing about the "new antisemitism" charge is that its champions almost uniformly maintain that failing to distinguish between the state of Israel and Jewish people is a certain sign of antisemitism. This is true enough, but is usually explained just before they go on to insist that you can't be opposed to Israel without opposing the Jewish people (and also that people like this and this are traitors). To plant one flat-footed, strident assertion on top of the other, each new assertion obliviously contradicting the previous, is not a unique method of exposition and argument. It is just that in the case of this argument, it can't be avoided. Either the progenitors of "the new antisemitism" come out openly and admit that they themselves are among the most energetic disseminators of antisemitism, or they drop their charge, or they proceed as if they were blithely innocent of any contradiction on their part and return to shrill denunciations.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Also appearing... posted by Richard Seymour

Me, next Monday, 5.30pm at the Institute of Historical Research in Senate House, discussing "The Liberal Defence of Murder- the 'pro-war left' and US foreign policy since 1989". T-shirts will be on sale at reception.

Also: you can hear my interview with Doug Henwood on the WBAI archives if you scroll down to 5.00pm Thursday. It will also probably appear on Doug Henwood's radio archives at some point in the near future. You can download it for your ipod, and let the gentle sound of me babbling and umming away in the background remind you of a long lost childhood.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mega bailout posted by Richard Seymour

I missed this. They've got a lot of what it takes to get along. The first column in the chart below represents the figure proposed to bail-out banks and credit institutions in TARP. The second represents the total amount that the US government is now committed to supplying to the same institutions.

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Mumbai posted by Richard Seymour

The shocking and depressing news from India would seem to defy any glib conclusions or slogans beyond the patently obvious - namely, that this grotesque hunting and killing of innocents is likely to succeed in (what appears to be) its principle aim of generating both a repressive response from the Indian state and a communal reaction. The facts so far reported do point to some general conclusions about the likely aims, and possible culprits. There has been a claim of responsibility from the 'Deccan Mujahideen', which could be related to the 'Indian Mujahideen' (IM), who in turn are alleged to be the latest incarnation of banned right-wing Islamist groups, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). The former originated in Uttar Pradesh in 1977, inspired by the Iranian revolution, championing a Deobandi strain of Muslim revivalism. The latter originated in Kashmir in 1990 and is, alongside the Jaish-e Mohammed, one of the larger Islamist groups operating in Pakistan. It has been associated with figures belonging to 'Al Qaeda'. This is presumably the basis for Indian intelligence claims that the violence of the IM is the result of ISI subventions across the subcontinent. Whatever the ratio of truth and falsehood in those claims, two other dimensions are probably far more important: one is the domestic aspect of communal violence, and the other is the global politics of the jihadis presumed to be involved. The choice of targets suggests that the emphasis must be on the latter. One analysis in the Telegraph explains that the symbolic significance of the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel is that it was built to give the Indian upper class somewhere decent to stay in an age of colonial racism and segregation. The hotel is now "a symbol of Western decadence", because of the rich tourists it attracts. Similarly, the train station attacked was a terminus busy with tourists. Unlike the attacks in 2006, which were designed to exact maximum casualties among Hindu civilians, this attack seems to have been designed to kill foreigners.

Let's suppose that the 'Deccan Mujahideen' is indeed a name chosen by members of the IM based in the Deccan plain of Maharashtra. According to the Indian government, the IM is a front for members of the banned SIMI and LeT groups. But these are very different organisations - if not doctrinally, then certainly in origin and manner of organising. SIMI was originally the student wing of the Jama'at-i-Islami Hind (JIH), who expelled it on the basis of its ultra-radicalism (the JIH today work alongside the Indian communist parties against the BJP and Congress Party). It was a tiny sect for years. But the accelerating trends in communal violence over the last two decades of the twentieth century saw it gain members beyond its areas of strength in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, into some areas of the south. It has been banned several times, the first time shortly after 9/11 on the basis of claims of involvement in terrorist activities. Human rights advocates among others noted that Hinduta groups promoting racist violence, with close ties to the government, were not banned. They argued that the ban was a pretext for harrassing and terrorising Muslims in general, and indeed subsequent events bore this assessment out. The police slaughtered protesters supporting SIMI's legalisation in Lucknow shortly after the first ban was imposed. The subsequent massacre of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat, with the involvement of state officials including Narendra Modi, demonstrated that the Indian state was indeed on the war path against Muslims. The recent finding by the Justice Navati commission, exculpating Modi and pinning the blame for the violence on a 'Muslim mob' who are held responsible for the burning to death of 58 Hindu passengers on a train, rather suggests that the war is not over. Actually, a number of armed Hindutva groups were reportedly able to train and operate with impunity under the BJP.

At any rate, the bans on SIMI appear to have been based on insubstantial evidence of involvement in terrorism. In August this year, for example, a Delhi High Court tribunal lifted the ban, stating that evidence from the home ministry was inadequate to maintain it, although the Supreme Court threw this ruling out. The bans would certainly have seriously impacted on the organisation's size and ability to act, given that its members must retire from the organisation after thirty while new recruitment would have been impossible under conditions of illegality. This weakened organisation was held responsible by the Indian authorities for the Mumbai bombings in 2006 as well as attacks against Hindus in Malegaon the same year, both of which were communal attacks (subsequent attacks in Malegaon this year appear to have been carried out by Hindu nationalists seeking to re-create the fabled 'Aryan' state of old, the 'Hindu Rashtra' ideology of the BJP). It is possible that the SIMI, or elements of it, have engaged in some attacks. Eight years of repression, scapegoating, and some of the worst anti-Muslim violence for years, might have radicalised layers within it. However, the Indian state has too much of an interest in demonising all Islamist groups as a means toward repressing Muslims in general for its claims to be taken at face value.

LeT supposedly has connections with SIMI, but to the extent that these are reported they seem tenuous, and LeT is a very different kind of organisation. It was funded from the start by the Pakistani state to facilitate its control over the Kashmiri struggle for independence, which emerged through years of torture and murder by the Indian state (the Indian government's widespread practise of torture has led to the formation of a people's tribunal to combat it). This is part of the Pakistani state's general strategy of promoting various groups to create a pro-Pakistan consensus across central and southern Asia. Even under the conditions of the 'war on terror', the ISI has been able to redeploy these groups, including LeT, moving their camps to avoid detection by US bombers and so on. Unlike SIMI in India, LeT has some real social weight in Pakistan - after the US bombing of Afghanistan in 1998, it mobilised 50,000 youths at a religious gathering near Lahore at which attendees vowed to avenge the attacks. It also undoubtedly has a willingness and an ability to plan and execute highly sophisticated attacks. This doesn't mean any accusations against them are reliable, or that the ISI in any sense co-ordinated it. The Indian government is already more or less explicitly blaming Pakistan, which is one reason to be wary of such claims.

Whoever the 'Deccan Mujahideen' turn out to be, Jason Burke argues that the signs point to them being a home-grown movement. This means that any attempt to comprehend what is happening has to start with the Indian social structure, and particularly the position of Muslims in Indian society. So, let's stick with the obvious. Indian Muslims, comprising 13.5% of the population of India, are poor and disenfranchised: under-represented in most official organs, among the most exploited layers of society, and vulnerable to chauvanistic attack by Hindu nationalists. Their status as an insecure minority within a Hindu-majority state is one of the deadliest issues in Indian politics. The rise of atrocious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) throughout the 1990s reflected the growth of communal politics that was due to a number of factors. Demographically, Muslims were a faster growing group than any other, a fact that right-wing politicians sometimes ascribed to illegal migration by refugees from Bangladesh (many of these were actually Hindus). The rise of Islamist politics amid the disintegration of Congress hegemony (the Congress Party had failed to alleviate the extreme polarities of wealth or fulfil its pledges on poverty as outlined in Ghandi's Garibi Hatao programme was accompanied by the rise of other forms of politics rooted in caste or regional interests - so, for example, the Dalit party sought to build a coalition between Muslims and low caste blocs. Hindutva politicians and activists successfully exploited these changes to argue that the Muslim population was a surging menace, and that it would become a threat to the security of the Hindu population. The BJP's rapid ascent helped to accelerate the rise of communal violence. The party, which had at its core another organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known for its fascistic tendencies, began its most illustrious phase with bouts of vicious sectarianism. One of these was the demolition of the Babar mosque in Ayodhya, in 1992. The demolition was not really an attack on a religious symbol so much as an attack on a symbol representing the integration and acceptance of Muslims. It was an attack on the very idea that Muslims were a part of Indian society, which the BJP explicitly rejected in their literature and speeches. And it duly prompted one of the worst riots in recent Indian history. Subsequently, it incited pogroms against Muslims in Bombay/Mumbai in 1993. (Just in passing, it was the far right BJP ally Shiv Sena, whose candidate threatened the extermination of the city's Muslims, which changed Bombay's name to its Marathi name, Mumbai, in 1995). The BJP are the most vicious exponents of communal politics, and it is no exaggeration to say that they came close to fascism at times, albeit the Indian ruling class wasn't ready for that level of repression and instability. It is now quite possible that they will sweep back to power, and the Gujarat massacre may be multiplied many times over.

All of this bodes extremely ominiously for the future of the world's largest democracy. Every filthy reactionary and pogromist will be strengthened, while the more violent jihadi groups will probably expand under a wave of state terror and communal violence. The only hope is in the Left organising a coalition to stop this horrible political logic in its tracks, and to my mind that entails defending Muslims from the inevitable resurgence of anti-Muslim hatred, while opposing the politics of the jihadis. The hypocritical policy of banning Islamist groups over allegations of terrorism while tolerating and even encouraging violent Hindutva groups has to be opposed. Those who try to mount pogroms have to be fought in the streets. Any escalation of the struggle with Pakistan also has to be opposed. Even if Manmohan Singh's government doesn't treat Pakistani intelligence as the ultimate culprit, there are other ways in which escalation can take place. Given that the largest concentration of India's Muslims is based in Jammu and the Indian-occupied area of Kashmir, any generalised repression by the Indian state will inevitably intensify the Kashmir conflict - and provoke further set-piece atrocities such as we have seen over the last day or so.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The class composition of fascism. posted by Richard Seymour

From Socialist Worker, a breakdown of fascists by occupation:

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That Gaza 'Holocaust' back on again posted by Richard Seymour

So maybe, while Ehud Barak was trying to find ways to justify bombing civilian targets, Israeli cops were headbutting Palestinian women who protested against demolitions in East Jerusalem, and Kadima was finding ways to cope with the Likud surge, you thought they were giving up on the project of putting Gaza on a 'diet'. Nope:

It has been two weeks since Israel imposed a complete closure of Gaza, after months when its crossings have been open only for the most minimal of humanitarian supplies. Now it is even worse: two weeks without United Nations food trucks for the 80% of the population entirely dependent on food aid, and no medical supplies or drugs for Gaza's ailing hospitals. No fuel (paid for by the EU) for Gaza's electricity plant, and no fuel for the generators during the long blackouts. Last Monday morning, 33 trucks of food for UN distribution were finally let in – a few days of few supplies for very few, but as the UN asks, then what?

Thing is, when you consider what has been done and what continues to be done against the Palestinians, it becomes grating when a nice chap like the UNRWA chief of operations says silly things like, "They are paying a very heavy humanitarian price for the actions of extremists". This is like saying, "Those Hindoo chaps paid a heavy price for the actions of brutes in Meerut".

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I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll reflate the economy. posted by Richard Seymour

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has a big red lunchbox, and he knows what to do with it. So, is everyone excited by Darling's red hot budget injection? Best news since 1997, according to Polly Toynbee, who is delighted to see the Tories pushed into defending the richest 2% of income earners. Right direction, but inadequate, says Bill Emmott of the Economist - and while we're at it, he suggests raising the upper income tax level to 60% at least. That's Bill Emmott, defender of the "free market", "globalisation" and practically every chimera that is now falling around our ears. Martin Wolf of the FT thinks it's a gamble, but by and large one worth taking. These two views probably reflect the mainstream of business opinion. On the other hand, the budget was howwibly howwibly iwwesponsible according to the Tory wet Michael Brown, apparently reflecting the mainstream of Conservative Party thinking, also expressed by BoJo the Clown. All of this economic stimulation is apparently driving the 40k+ commentariat wild with exaggeration. Politicos' heads are swimming with rumours of a return to the Seventies, and the death of New Labour. Even an anonymous cabinet minister is supposedly high on this dope, claiming that: "Centrist consensus is dead, the old battle lines are back."

The measures announced yesterday won't make a great deal of difference to the crisis. To be clear, the pre-budget report at least had the virtue of not simply offering a moderate version of the Tory policy, which is to cut public spending in order to find tax cuts for businesses and higher income earners. It crossed a symbolic barrier by raising taxes on the top 2% of income earners, although that will only bring in £2bn per annum. When the Chancellor announced this, he used a turn of phrase that the poor man had obviously purloined from a Lenin's Tomb post some weeks back, so I want it remembered that I am personally responsible for the 'death of New Labour'. Me and the credit crunch. Darling also threw a few quid the way of people on 'lower incomes', which is welcome. The VAT cut at least means that you might pay a little bit less for a burger on the way to work, if you've still got a job. The overall effect, as this graphic suggests, is to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. The government has signalled a slight shift to the left, which is better than the habitual lurch to the right. Yet, despite the overheated imaginations of centre-left plaudits and Tory carpers, this was a moderate and inadequate response to a massive economic crisis. Given the expected slump in consumer spending, shops are offering price cuts of anything between 20% and 70% (one marvels at the inbuilt profit margin that they must have to be able to afford such cuts). A 2.5% cut in VAT will hardly make a dent in the current circumstances. Welcome as the tax changes are, it looks as if the government is depending on a revival in bank lending to enable people to really spend, but that is neither happening nor will people necessarily want to borrow more in this climate. The Bank of England is calling for another capital injection for banks to stimulate such lending - so we should throw billions at the banks in the vain hope that they will use it to help working class consumers rather than increase bonuses to the directors and management. In truth, the pre-budget report will surely be supplemented by future temporary cash boosts, resulting in further conservative cat-calls about government waste and high taxes.

But the Tories are, happily enough, in a mess over this crisis, and George Osborne's current incarnation as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas isn't going to alleviate the mess. It has eroded the poll lead that Brown and Darling handed them last year on a big silver platter, and it has widened Labour's lead on 'economic competence'. And the Tories have incurred the wrath of most of the large and small business organisations over their economic recovery plan, so even their core constituency doesn't trust them. For their part, retailers seem to think the VAT cut is a move in the right direction, but that the government should go further. So the Tories can't even carry the High Street. I daresay it won't be long before they are back below 40% in the polls.

Another matter of some urgency is that if Labour wins the next election, Brown is planning a massive contraction of public spending in 2011, when the polyannas of Her Majesty's Treasury supposedly conclude that recovery will begin. That means the public sector pay cuts we have already seen would be dwarved, as would the massive job cuts in the civil service. One alternative fund-raising scheme would be to cancel all PFI projects with immediate effect and to apply a windfall levy to the hucksters who have made off with billions of pounds of public money while providing a miserably poor service. Also, oil prices are falling at the moment, but the energy giants could still pay a lot more tax than they do, and a windfall tax would pay for a sizeable stimulus here and now. Or the government could always break another taboo by increasing corporation tax and shutting down the tax havens. It could also reverse the recent cuts to inheritance tax. The severity of the crisis may still force some such measures, but inevitably it will be too little, much too late.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

I Want To Make You Happy, Darling posted by Richard Seymour

How to respond to such a serenade? Even as his colleague Jack Straw is busily pandering to our primitive passion for punishment, and while Blears is patronising the 'white working class', Chancellor Darling promises he will cut taxes for the poor and raise them for the rich. VAT will supposedly be cut from 17.5% to 15% and income tax on those earning £150k or more will be raised from 40% to 45%. These are not huge shifts, but I must advise the Chancellor that he risks being associated with the dread word, 'redistribution'. It is, as Nick Robinson of the BBC says, of "huge symbolic importance". Listen to me, Darling. New Labour's pact with the rich was that it would not touch their property. For a decade, it has stuck with that promise, freezing higher rate incomes taxes, slashing corporation taxes and cutting inheritance taxes. It has contained trade union pressure and implemented a public sector pay freeze. It threw tens of billions at Northern Rock in a desperate bid to maintain the institution as the private property of rich investors. Even when the government nationalised the bank, it appointed business managers to run it down, cut jobs and prepare it to be returned to the private sector. And now you tell us that you intend to cast prudence aside and embrace a minimal meliorist agenda comparable to that of, say, the Liberal Democrats or Barack Obama. What could possibly be motivating this minute shift away from kapitalist realism?

One thing this government appears to have lacked for the last year was the elemental instinct for survival. It seemed there was not a challenge it could not fluff, not a 'heartland' it could not lose, and no limit to its prevarication and deer-caught-in-the-headlights inaction in response to the economic crisis. Yet, of late, it has been rising in the polls. Labour appears to have recovered at least 5% of its vote since the Summer, and the Tory lead is no longer in double figures [pdf]. Compared to September, when the Tory lead was a whopping 24%, today's 5% looks manageable (see tracker poll [pdf]). In a recent poll taken just before Cameron abandoned his promise to match Labour's spending commitments, Mori put the Tories just 3 points ahead. Brown's personal rating has increased from 17% in May to 41% today [pdf]. And they managed to retain Glenrothes, in part because the collapse of Scottish banks necessitated a bail-out for London, which rather undermined Salmond's claim that Scotland could be part of an arc of prosperity alongside (whoops) Iceland. The government's psephological advisors have presumably recognised that the economic crisis that was killing the them last year is now redounding to their benefit. The hopeless flailing that characterised the initial response to the crisis, and the desperate clinging to neoliberal orthodoxies that even a right-wing Republican administration discarded without hesitation, were replaced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers by what looked like a far more decisive set of interventions including part-nationalisations and some curbs on the City's extravagant pay and bonuses. These were still basically pro-business policies, and they still transferred money from the public sector to the rich, but it looked far better than the Northern Jelly episode. And unlike in the US bail-out, the government insisted on voting rights in exchange for the money invested. Meanwhile, David Cameron's promises of tax cuts for businesses and big public spending cuts are probably not resonating far beyond the rabid Tory base.

Whatever is announced today is unlikely to be equal to the crisis. It will be a heavily politicised budget, however, sending out signals in advance of a 2009/10 election. A few tax cuts targeted at the poor will not substantially improve consumer spending ahead of Christmas, and the tax increases proposed for the wealthy will not raise much money, but an overall package of moderate wealth redistribution means that Darling is betting on a political realignment. And that is an interesting story in itself: it shows that the government, in its weakened state, is highly susceptible to public pressure. It shows that now is no time to relent on struggles for decent public sector pay, for better pensions, for an emergency house-building and debt-relief programe, and for public investment to protect jobs. Now is the time to push aggressively and confidently for a radical alternative programme.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Iraq Protocols posted by Richard Seymour

It is interesting to observe the unfolding dynamics around the US-Iraqi 'Status of Forces Agreement' that is currently teetering between success and defeat. First of all, the SOFA agreement - being negotiated in considerable secrecy by the Bush executive with little consultation and no thought of seeking Congressional approval - makes some interesting concessions. If the reports are accurate, it does effectively put a time limit on the occupation (2011), prevents the US from using Iraq as a base to attack another country, and does not allow permanent bases. Moreover, quite unusually for such agreements, it says that US soldiers who commit crimes outside American bases are liable to be prosecuted under Iraqi law.

Of course, the UN mandate expires on 31st December so this gives the US an extra couple of years. It is a face-saving move for the US. Moreover, any limitations on the ability of occupation forces to act are strictly conditional on the willingness of the US to adhere to its agreement, which in turn depends on American perceptions of likely resistance to its actions. Finally, it does allow US troops to remain militarily active to hunt down 'terrorists' and 'Al Qaeda' and so on - which basically means that America's immense firepower will probably be trained on Sadrist forces and Sunni insurgent groups. And even when US troops are being drawn down there are no provisions, so far as I have seen, to get Blackwater mercenaries out of there. Their contract with the State Department runs out in April, and given the number of criminal investigations going on into the organisation, a large number of Democratic legislators want their executives in cuffs. Obama is typically bland: he says he wants to gradually withdraw the contractors, but certainly not ban them or anything bold like that. And, of course, the draw-down is tactically linked to the plans to increase the troop commitment in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if the provisions are as reported, then the pact already expresses a substantial defeat for the occupiers. It would be preferrable to see the last soldiers and diplomats chased out of the country, a la 22 Gia Long Street, Saigon. But the occupiers would never have proposed the exit terms they have without years of armed struggle and political resistance. The US, despite the self-congratulatory language of the 'surge' preferred by the Bush administration, had to cut a series of ignominious deals with armed resistance forces that basically demonstrated the complete inability of the occupiers to remain without the acquiescence of leading resistance forces.

The Sadrists, quite rightly, reject the agreement, and have been threatening a return to full-scale armed resistance. That would mean 'Iraqi security forces' being chucked out of Sadr City and other 'strongholds' for a start, which would be a serious setback for both the Maliki government and the occupiers. Maliki was humiliated last April when a combined Iraqi and US assault failed to take Sadr City or conquer Basra. They had to negotiate a ceasefire with Moqtada on both occasions. The Sadrists probably surmise that the US is in a panic, anxious to get some sort of accord before transition to the Clinton Obama executive, and before the UN mandate expires. So, either the US can run out the clock trying to obtain an agreement and thus be force to leave in an awful hurry, or it can stay on in perpetual limbo and risk an uprising, or it can make further concessions in the hope of winning over the Sadrists and Sunni opposition groups. At any rate, the only losing position for Iraqis at the moment is a quick agreement. The more the anti-occupation parliamentarians disrupt any quiet transition to SOFA, and the more Iraqis stage mass protests against the occupation, the more the US will be forced to concede. Why give them an inch when the occupiers' presence in Iraq is a clear and present danger to Iraqis? Present them with a breathing space now, and they will regroup, find ways to violate the agreement, expand their scope of activities, and stretch out the occupation even longer.

It is no surprise, obviously, that the Kurdistan Alliance, Maliki's Da'wa Party, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council support the agreement and want it to be endorsed as quickly as possible. They two want an extra couple of years to build up their forces and more thoroughly dominate the repressive apparatus of the state. Maliki has reportedly been developing new militias to support his position in the 'new new Iraq'. The Kurdish peshmerga are advancing into non-Kurdish areas of Iraq and set up checkpoints. This expansionism is usually accompanied by ethnic cleansing, the better to consolidate their hold over the territory. So, they are also playing for time. Moreover, the upcoming January elections may substantially weaken some of the currently dominant parties, and they will want to assure their stake by guaranteeing a US presence before then. And there will be infighting between the different parties and militias over the future settlement. The ISCI wants to create a federal region of 9 provinces in the south, which it believes it could dominate. The Da'wa Party is opposed to this. The Basra-based Fadhila wants Basra itself to be given a referendum on autonomy, which both the ISCI and the Da'wa oppose. And the Sadrists, consistent with their Iraqi nationalism, insist on a strong central authority. That is a battle that is likely to be violent, and it is one in which Maliki and his cohorts will want US backing for crackdowns on opposition movements. So, all power to the rejectionists, I say. If the Americans don't like it, let them eat lead.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alternative People's Meeting posted by Richard Seymour

It's one thing to have seen this crisis coming, and to have understood roughly why it was happening. Now that it's upon us, with the full horror emerging day by day, with headline after headline announcing massive job cuts, stagnant or falling wages, the threat of deflation, closures - its overwhelming and exhausting and terrifying just keeping up. Every day, it seems, somewhere else has officially slid into recession, and unemployment numbers rise. And there's always some jerk calling for huge public spending cuts - the Tory press is filled with this nonsense which, aside from being hateful and destructive for those depending on public service provision, is an unbelievably stupid idea when we actually need an economic stimulus, not to deflate the economy further. I don't even think British capital is up for massive spending cuts at this point. So, it becomes essential that we do something, build a movement to press our needs and demands, register dissent and create new alliances. This is the sort of thing we need to get us off the ground:

One important feature of meetings like this, which will be happening up and down the country, is that an argument is taking hold among union leaders - and it is sure to be filtering down to substantial layers of the rank and file - that we can't resist job cuts and pay freezes and closures precisely because the economy is in such a parlous state. This is nonsense, yet it has arguably contributed to a number of recent betrayals by union leaders who have reneged on strike pledges. Obviously, there is a great deal of pressure on the bureaucracy from the Labour leadership, with the usual combination of small carrots and big sticks. So we need to get together to hammer out our ideas, think through what we want to achieve, disseminate those ideas and give people the confidence to resist. That confidence is what will make the difference between lean years, and years of successful struggles. Anyway, if you're in London, you might want to come along.

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Before and After posted by Richard Seymour

One of the most amusing moments from the last presidential debate before the election was when Obama and McCain discussed Colombia. It was interesting at least to see that Obama would criticise the Colombian regime for not prosecuting the murderers of labour leaders. McCain's eyebrows went fucking wild with outrage and insane bewilderment. He couldn't believe that Obama would disrespect the Family. So maybe after watching that, you were thinking, "this Obama guy might not be too bad for Latin America". Maybe. But look at his latest presumptive appointment, Eric Holder for Attorney General. Now, the Chicago Tribune article tells you many things. It tells you that Holder would be the first African American to head the Justice Department, that he worked under Clinton, that he is really a jolly top rate lawyer with lots of experience doing complex cases. What are they missing out, I wonder? Well, his support for terrorism. Namely, his work on behalf of Chicquita executives who paid "protection money" to Colombian death squads, who duly "protected" the interests of said executives. To think, there's a District Attorney out their who's ready to indict Cheney and Gonzales - and Obama appoints the number one advocate for death squad capitalism in the US.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama's two constituencies posted by Richard Seymour

At its simplest, Obama's electoral coalition can be expressed as comprising Wall Street dough on the one hand, and most oppressed social groups on the other, including African Americans, Latinos, women, and the poorer working class white voters (those earning less than $50,000 a year). As Socialist Worker put it last week:

Obama won huge support from the African-American population – some 95 percent of black voters backed him.

He also won two thirds of the Latino vote. This was a significant win – the Latino population favoured George Bush in 2004, and during the primaries they rallied behind Hillary Clinton.

One factor was crucial in breaking support for the Republicans among Latinos – the immigrant rights demonstrations of May 2006.

More than two million Latinos and their supporters came onto the streets to protest against a vicious anti-immigrant bill being pushed by the Republicans.

Among white Americans some 43 percent voted for Obama and 55 for John McCain. But these proportions were reversed for white voters under the age of 30.

And the Democrats registered some of their strongest swings in overwhelmingly white, rural and traditional Republican states such as North Dakota, Utah and Montana.

So there is no doubt that Obama’s appeal spanned racial divisions. But the class composition of his vote tells a more complex story.

If you divide Americans up by their income levels, the poorest households were the ones who voted the most heavily for Obama – 73 percent of voters with an annual family income of less than $15,000 backed him.

As you go up the income level, Obama’s vote steadily drops – until you reach the very top bracket, where this trend reverses.

A majority – 52 percent – of households that earned over $200,000 a year opted for the Democratic candidate.

The victorious Republican electoral coalition in 2004 mobilised quite different groups, with a hardcore of white Christian rightists among them. Bush lost every income layer below $50,000 and won every layer above $50,000. Bush won more Hispanic votes than McCain, but still didn't gain a majority. He lost overwhelmingly among African American voters. What Obama did was to win over white women, who voted 55% for Bush in 2004; he gained a larger majority among voters earning under $50,000 than Kerry had; he increased the Democratic support among both African American and Hispanic voters; and he cut away at Bush's 63% support among those earning $200,000 or more. It is also worth noting that Obama benefited from the demoralisation of a substantial sector of the Republican base. While Obama won a higher share of white voters than Kerry did in 2004, 1 million fewer turned out to vote. The increase in turnout was entirely made up of ethnic minorities.

Obama's appointments, the only major policy signals he can make at the moment, thus far reflect his commitment to the Wall Street constituency rather than to those worst off in American society. Thus, we have endless Clinton-era appointments, Senator Clinton offered the position of Secretary of State (which reports say she has accepted), Republicans offered top posts (it looks as if Robert Gates has been begged to stay on as Secretary of Defense) and a right-wing scumbag from the Chicago boss politics scene and the Democratic Leadership Council named Rahm Emmanuel made chief-of-staff. Thus far, organised labour hasn't got a look-in as far as appointments are concerned, but representatives of corporate America saturate the economic advisory board. Selecting Clinton as Secretary of State indicates that Obama intends to run a hawkish foreign policy, and it also demonstrates that he genuinely wasn't all that upset about the Clinton team's endless race-baiting and crazed smears in the primary. The vast majority of Obama's voters will already have cause for grave disappointment.

To the extent that Obama has to offer something to his majority supporters, he tends toward vagueness, and is already under immense pressure to back off from anything specific. Corporate America is getting terribly worked up about the Employee Free Choice Act, a moderate piece of legislation that they are working to ensure will either be bottled up and killed or watered down to near vacuity. Obama's efforts to 'tweak' the borderline criminal TARP plan includes redirecting some funds to help homeowners, while also protecting US auto manufacturers (to the chagrin of Gordon Brown). But so far the only concrete proposal is $25bn for the car companies. It is simply impossible to imagine that any 'bail-out' for working class households that gets passed will be remotely adequate. It will be better than nothing but, at best, like the modestly redistributive measures Obama has proposed, it will sweeten a lousy deal.

The vital question is, what are the majority of Obama's supporters going to do? For example, if those immigrant workers who marched in such vast numbers in 2006 recognise that they have not so much a friend in the White House as a brief window of opportunity opened up by a slightly more humane policy, they may well be the cutting edge of popular movements of the future. Immigrant groups are already protesting the escalation of ICE raids under Bush, and are pressuring Obama to scale them back. Any reforms they can win will enhance their ability to organise, and all indications are that they are the most militant and effective organisers when given the chance. They will drive up wages and conditions for other workers too. Similarly, if the antiwar movement has learned from its huge setback in 2004, when it subordinated its campaigns to help the pro-war Kerry to victory, then it can limit Obama's scope for widening America's brutal engagements in south Asia and Africa, and for any subversion in Latin America. Obama is already hinting through subordinates that he may be 'flexible' on withdrawal from Iraq, which means he may back off his already vague electoral promises. Given that the Sadrists are about to toss out the gradualist 'withdrawal' plan with its 'status of forces agreement', it would be an ideal point for the antiwar movement to apply pressure for rapid withdrawal with no further delays. The momentum that went into securing Obama's victory shouldn't be dropped for a second. Larry Summers, another Clinton-era revamp in the Obama administration (and former Reaganaut), is warning Wall Street backers that the administration won't be able to diminish the government's involvement in healthcare, and therefore any cost reductions will have to come from efficiency savings. The intriguing thing about this is that the emphasis for the corporate audience is miles away from the promise of increased government involvement to support universal healthcare that Obama has been touting. So, again, this is an issue on which organised labour in particular will have to be actively campaigning about right away. This is becoming a critical issue as state and city budgets plummet due to the economic crisis - so, if Obama can support a bail-out for investment banks, he ought to be able to bail out city treasuries to support existing public services, at a minimum. As it stands, threats of cuts to education and health budgets are already current.

The one advantage that the Left has now is that Obama needs his active constituents. He could not have won 'blue-collar' Pennsylvania as well as Jesse Helms' old state of North Carolina without them, and he can't necessarily repeat his success in 2012 without giving them something. So, there is an opportunity now to decisively shape the agenda of the new administration, precisely because their aim is to contain social movements and stabilise American capitalism. Silence and passivity at this point will simply be rewarded with condescending lectures, put-downs, attacks, and the occasional bit of flattery.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Death of the liberal world order posted by Richard Seymour

A set of parallel intuitions developed with the collapse of the USSR and quickly became hegemonic. Even if one didn't accept the more comical variants of the 'end of history' parable, public discussion was governed by three fundamental suppositions: 1) globalisation meant the end of national state economies with extensive regulation and inbuilt welfare safety nets; 2) the end of the USSR meant that state sovereignty was no longer as central to the world system, and new forms of cosmopolitan law were emerging which might override national sovereignty given a failure to respect certain basic norms. Pinochet might be arrested in London, Kissinger might end up on trial in the Netherlands, Milosevic might end his years in jail. UN forces and regional security alliances might mediate in domestic crises, not necessarily with the approval of the state, and always to reinforce a minimal liberalism in the treatment of people. The overthrow of authoritarian regimes in 1989 was seen to propel other, similar revolts in South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea, and eventually Serbia and perhaps the 'colour-coded' revolts of the early 2000s - however different these examples were, they were all seen as part of a democratising process immanent to the new world order; 3) subjacent to both processes was an unprecedented global unipolarity in which America, whose awesome dominion had invaded the previously hostile territory of the Warsaw Pact states, accumulated epithets including Hubert Vedrine's choice phrase: 'hyperpower'. Its resources, its domestic liberalism and rights culture, its pro-capitalism and its freedom to act outside the constraints of a dirty Cold War would - given a globally oriented executive - propel it to take liberal internationalism through its final negation, toward a cosmopolital liberal world order.

Unipolarity has a certain charm as a theory. The US is the world's largest economy, and military power. The second and third largest national economies in the world remain Japan and Germany (the EU is larger than the US, but is hardly a 'national economy'), both of whom developed under US tutelage and both of whom retain American garrisons. The fifth largest economy, the UK, remains committed to a strategic alliance with the US, and subordinates its foreign policy goals to those of Washington. Several regionally important countries around the world are tied to America by defense and economic interests - for example, South Korea on the Pacific side, Poland on the Atlantic side. The apparatus of economic and financial dominance belongs effectively to the United States. These include not just the IMF and WTO, but also organisations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is mainly funded by the US and which oversees neoliberal restructuring in 'transitional' countries. The NATO alliance binds 25 European and Asian countries to the US, and comprises 70% of global military spending. Neither of the main emerging competitors, India and China, have the military clout or the economic leverage to match the US. India, the fourth largest economy by purchasing power parity, having embraced Washington-driven neoliberalism in the 1990s, is now party to a nuclear alliance with the US (voted for by both 2008 presidential candidates, incidentally). This deal is supposedly restricted to civilian nuclear fuel, but it is no secret that the Indian state was running out of uranium ore, was anxious to build up its nuclear threat in opposition to Pakistan as quickly as possible, and will use the opportunity to reclassify military sites as civilian ones to refuel, and use its domestic uranium resources for the remaining military sites. This is unmistakeably a military agreement in civilian drag. India's days of non-alignment were, realistically, over long ago, but this arguably sealed the deal: it is now effectively a US sattelite.

One could rattle off factoids and examples in a similar vein for some time, but it would only be more misleading. We can overstate the unity of the Euro-American alliance, only if we forget about South Ossetia. The capacity of American military power to defeat resistance met clear limits in Iraq, despite the obviously disarticulated, fractious nature of the opposition. Latin America, including Brazil - the ninth largest economy by purchasing power parity, and one of the largest emerging markets - is slipping out of the US grasp, partially through popular movements and partially by cutting deals with Russia, China and Iran. The US even embarrassingly lost a key 'lily pad' in Uzbekistan, after it bent over backward to defend its local torturing dictatorship. The trends militating against sustainable American dominance were already becoming visible in the latter half of the 1990s, but it is precisely at this point that a deranged triumphalism was most likely to be vocalised alongside clamorous demands for intervention here and there.

The particularism embedded in universal claims is a distinctive American tradition: an evangelising, universalising Americanism is equally suffused with an American parochialism, a nationalism that embodies a local ruling class interest. In his appearance before the G20 recently, Bush made a last-ditch appeal to respect the terms of free market ideology, placing particular emphasis on free trade. Such an appeal from such a highly protectionist American president would seem rather odd if it wasn't reasonably well understood that the jargon refers particularly to various 'free trade' agreements that are advantageous to the US. It obviously does not refer to an institutionalised framework of free trade in which America and the EU abandon agricultural subsidies in exchange for the concessions extracted from developing countries. Moreover, the president who oversaw a drastic expansion of the state's role in the economy, responsible for the largest nationalisations in history, might have seemed an odd person to be making reassuring noises about the fundamental aptitude of 'free markets', were it not obviously a conventional code for policies that run down the social-democratic content of the state. The evidence is that far from governing a gradual process tending toward the subsumption of national polities into a heavily institutionalised global order, the US continues to pursue the usual hub-and-spoke mechanisms of control, ad hoc bilateral agreements, status of forces agreements, security arrangements etc. Now, this obviously has implications for the seductive vision of a cosmopolitan liberal world order. American interests are often not only at odds with those of its subordinate allies, but so much so that they will actually buck the trend and throw out American-led agreements. Emboldened by anticapitalist movements, this is exactly what many states did at Cancun. Tensions with the EU over tarrifs, subsidies and WTO rulings may seem like small beer, but when substantial strategic differences, compounded by popular movements, lead to major European states (half-heartedly) obstructing an American-led war, it obviously has wider significance. Further, a great deal of US foreign policy can be explained by attempts to outmanoeuvre advanced capitalist rivals - think of the rapid efforts to supplant Germany and France in Yugoslavia, with additional benefits in encircling Russia. The resumption of the nuclear arms race with Russia in the 2000s, the pursuit of the defense shield, the expansion of NATO, and the placement of American bases across Central Asia ultimately led to a conflagration in South Ossetia in which Georgia took its American-trained troops and its American-supplied weaponry and carried out an indiscriminate attack on Tskhinvali which killed Russian peacekeepers. Russia responded with a brutal invasion of Georgia, would-be future NATO member. The US responded with some tough talk and threats, but also watched helplessly as European allies noisily broke ranks. It has been noted, and merits repetition, that if Georgia had been a NATO member at the time of the conflict, then other members of the alliance would have been obliged by its terms to 'defend' Georgia. No road to global peace, this.

So, what if the liberal teleology was wrong? What if the US was not the bearer of the Spirit of History, and what if its various auxiliaries were not governed by an obscure cunning of reason - in which, for example, the ICTY would eventually morph into a judicious and impartial world court? Suppose the US ruling class meant that shit when it told the ICC to go fuck itself and continued to support death squads, dictatorships and anti-democratic movements? Imagine that the presumed symbiosis between 'Western power' and global institutions of political, legal and economic governance did not materialise? What if the liberals' solipsistic conviction that political opposition to neoliberal hegemony was either temporary irrationality or non-existent proved a false consolation? What if the 'Pacific Union' of states bringing Japan, Europe and America together really was just a version of American hegemony, not an 'international community', and certainly not a germinal 'global state'? What if America's habitual disregard for the rules of the institutions that it promulgates, including the WTO and the IMF, proved to be less than accidental? What if the world didn't flatten, the global economy continued to be crisis-prone, and relations between the advanced capitalist states were not so pacific as to rule out inter-imperial rivalry of the pre-1945 variety? And, finally, what if the most likely future vista is one of increasingly autarkic states, more authoritarian government, an escalated arms race, riskier confrontations on the global frontiers, sustained economic turmoil and renewed political polarisation?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

CIA Aesthetics posted by Richard Seymour

It isn't all Jackson Pollock and Encounter, you know:

Not until 1996 did the CIA announce, with little fanfare, that it had established an Entertainment Liaison Office, which would collaborate in a strictly advisory capacity with film-makers. Heading up the office was Chase Brandon, who had served for 25 years in the agency's elite clandestine services division, as an undercover operations officer. A PR man he isn't, though he does have Hollywood connections: he's a cousin of Tommy Lee Jones.

But the past 12 years of semi-acknowledged collaboration were preceded by decades in which the CIA maintained a deep-rooted but invisible influence of Hollywood. How could it be otherwise? As the former CIA man Bob Baer - whose books on his time with the agency were the basis for Syriana - told us: "All these people that run studios - they go to Washington, they hang around with senators, they hang around with CIA directors, and everybody's on board."

There is documentary evidence for his claims. Luigi Luraschi was the head of foreign and domestic censorship for Paramount in the early 1950s. And, it was recently discovered, he was also working for the CIA, sending in reports about how film censorship was being employed to boost the image of the US in movies that would be seen abroad. Luraschi's reports also revealed that he had persuaded several film-makers to plant "negroes" who were "well-dressed" in their movies, to counter Soviet propaganda about poor race relations in the States. The Soviet version was rather nearer the truth.

Luraschi's activities were merely the tip of the iceberg. Graham Greene, for example, disowned the 1958 adapatation of his Vietnam-set novel The Quiet American, describing it as a "propaganda film for America". In the title role, Audie Murphy played not Greene's dangerously ambiguous figure - whose belief in the justice of American foreign policy allows him to ignore the appalling consequences of his actions - but a simple hero. The cynical British journalist, played by Michael Redgrave, is instead the man whose moral compass has gone awry. Greene's American had been based in part on the legendary CIA operative in Vietnam, Colonel Edward Lansdale. How apt, then, that it should have been Lansdale who persuaded director Joseph Mankewiecz to change the script to suit his own ends.

The CIA didn't just offer guidance to film-makers, however. It even offered money. In 1950, the agency bought the rights to George Orwell's Animal Farm, and then funded the 1954 British animated version of the film. Its involvement had long been rumoured, but only in the past decade have those rumours been substantiated, and the tale of the CIA's role told in Daniel Leab's book Orwell Subverted.

The most common way for the CIA to exert influence in Hollywood nowadays is not through anything as direct as funding, or rewriting scripts, but offering to help with matters of verisimilitude. That is done by having serving or former CIA agents acting as advisers on the film, though some might wonder whether there is ever really such a thing a "former agent". As ex-CIA agent Lindsay Moran, the author of Blowing My Cover, has noted, the CIA often calls on former officers to perform tasks for their old employer.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Hint posted by Richard Seymour

"I was convinced we'd have a revolution in [the] US and I decided to be its leader and prevent it. I'm a rich man too and have run with your kind of people. I decided half a loaf was better than none - a half loaf for me and a half loaf for you and no revolution." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Moral of the story: if you really want Obama to be like FDR, threaten him with revolution.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama and the nuclear option posted by Richard Seymour

One of the ways in which popular movements achieve their goals is by exploiting divisions in the ruling class. One such may just rebound slightly to our advantage if elements of the US foreign policy elite move to return to pre-Bush disarmament procedures. Kate Hudson of CND points out in today's Morning Star that Obama's position on nuclear weapons is aligned to that of old right-wing 'realists' like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who favour a gradual disarmament process focused on bilateral agreements between the US and Russia. It's a grim moment when those two old blood-soaked war criminals represent the 'moderate' option on nuclear weapons, particularly since Kissinger was co-responsible for beefing up America's atomic diplomacy in the early 1970s in order to try to reverse America's declining leverage and help force North Vietnam and the NLF to accept Washington's peace terms. Yet, we have to reckon that this is indeed the situation, and those two figures have been joined in advocating such a process by William Perry and Sam Nunn, both utterly respectable specimens of the American foreign policy intelligentsia.

This is likely to be prompted by the perceived failure of the aggressive nuclear posture of the last eight years. The Bush gang systematically set about tearing up the existing structure of nuclear diplomacy from their first moments in government in 2001. Well before 9/11, one of their biggest foreign policy drives to abrogate the ABM treaty. They pressed for the development of new missile defense systems linked to 'first strike' doctrines, with China as the main target. All of this was very much a part of the PNAC doctrine of unleashing America's military might to re-order planetary arrangements and secure future US dominance. The Bush team fantasized about being co-equivalents to Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Their strategy involved fast-forwarding a new array of missile defense shields that, once put in place, would be irreversible; engineering a 'revolution in military affairs' in order to enable America to convincingly and rapidly defeat enemies; and diversify existing bases and installations, the better to encircle rivals effectively. The Nuclear Posture Review in December 2001 placed particular emphasis on the development of a new nuclear deterrent which in turn had to result in the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, as well as the continued undermining of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The published version of Rumsfeld's 'Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations' [pdf] highlighted the 'deterrence' value of a nuclear weapons system developed to capacities not seen since the Cold War. Specifically, it would "influence potential adversaries to withhold actions intended to harm US’ national interests". But it would also enable the US to "decisively" defeat adversaries "if deterrence fails". This document is quite explicit in stating that the US anticipates the physical destruction of civilian life, and only intends to ensure that such destruction is not "disproportionate" to "the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained." This is not necessarily new. The US has repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear strikes against enemies, as Joseph Gerson's Empire And The Bomb shows in some detail. And, lest the novelty of the Bush doctrine be over-stated, it is worth pointing out that it was really an extreme variation on traditional strategy, and that the Clinton administration had worked hard to develop more advanced nuclear weaponry and elaborated its own doctrine, The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, which expressed a commitment to terrorising potential opponents with the prospect of massive nuclear retaliation should they act in such a way as to seriously harm US interests.

Clearly, the Bush administration's entire strategy for securing future domination failed, and that failure was made abundantly apparent during Russia's assertiveness over South Ossetia. But is it realistic to expect the US to scale back its nuclear ambitions given the stupendous advantages that such weapons systems offer? Is it not more likely that realpolitikers favour the more effective management of the nuclear system, in order to prevent geopolitical rivals gaining possession of the requisite technologies? And is the US foreign policy establishment really about to turn against the 'missile defense shield'? Obama has cautiously supported the idea of such a shielf if the technology can be developed, but has been ambiguous to the point of obscurity about whether that means he supports the one being developed under the rubric of Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 23. When the Polish President Lech Kaczynski claimed on his website that Obama had assured him of his commitment to the shield, Obama's advisor was sent out immediately to repudiate the claim. It looks as if the Obama-Biden team is temporising by adhering to the 'when-the-technology-is-ready' argument for, despite confident claims about the workability of the technology, the Bush administration had to press ahead with it against a background of constant technological failure. The trouble is that if Obama seriously intends to engage in sustained bilateral agreements with Russia, then he can't also engage in a policy that the Russian ruling class won't stand for (because they know it is aimed at them). Medvedev has already sent some hard signals on this issue, threatening retaliatory measures and offering to withdraw them if the US backs off. Obama has indicated that he will not pursue any policy or diplomacy that weakens America's image. He is determined to be even more aggressive than the Bush administration has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He publicly supports Ukraine and Georgia's claim for admission to NATO. So, while the Obama executive may wish to forge a slightly more productive relationship with Russia, the belligerent programme that it is committed to substantially undermines this.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Humanitarianism went to war posted by Richard Seymour

Conor Foley's new book, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, comes highly recommended. The author has been obliged to debate the oleaginous Oliver Kamm in the course of promoting his book, so I am doing my part to reduce the necessity of such an indignity. Foley does a number of things fairly effectively: first, he debunks 'humanitarian intervention' as an ideology from its origins in the Biafran War (there is some useful detail covering Bernard Kouchner's early ascent here, though he is much more generous to Kouchner than I would be); secondly, he demonstrates conclusively that key examples of such 'intervention' were far from humanitarian in effect (he leaves the question of intent or strategy largely unexamined), for example the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; thirdly, he shows how the regnant discourse of a 'Responsibility To Protect' that emerged principally during the Balkans Wars provided much of the legal and moral cover for the invasion of Iraq - indeed, a consistent theme is just how much of the present barbarity was prepared in the decade of vicarious militarism that was the 1990s.

One of the strongest chapters in the book is the discussion of the Kosovo war. Foley takes the time to examine the context in which the KLA emerged, outlines some of their provocative conduct, shows with the help of some personal experience how they were active in ethnically cleansing Serb and Roma in the immediate aftermath of the war, and how their successors have been engaged in murdering members of both groups for years afterward. He nicely dissects Clare Short's post-hoc rationalising scheme for the war, and shows - with the assistance of the Campbell diaries - that even Blair, the most belligerent of the warmongers, was himself doubtful about what the bombing was supposed to achieve. Those doubts were obviously suppressed by the time Blair made his Chicago speech, adumbrating a new doctrine of interventionism, which explicitly bracketed Milosevic and Saddam Hussein as the main threats to global peace. Rigorously citing figures and context, he debunks the claim that the war prevented a genocide, showing that what was actually exacerbated by the intervention was an insurgency by an extremely dubious gang of 'Greater Albanian' nationalists, and a counterinsurgency by the Serbian military. The chapter closes with a quote from Tony Blair in 2001, bragging about the success of an intervention that had made a humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe, savouring the prospect of "one of the great dictators of the last century" ending up on trial, and citing it as a precedent for future action.

The overarching story of Foley's is a part-biographical one in which he observes up close how humanitarian organisations, traditionally committed to the politically neutral delivery of aid, end up as often unwitting auxiliaries to war-making states. One of the recurring themes is the way in which human rights and humanitarianism merged, particularly as left-wing politics subsided, into what he calls 'political humanitarianism'. He notes, for example, that Amnesty International today has over a million members, far higher than the Labour Party. Its advocacy on any particular issue can galvanise substantial constituencies and, even where it does not call for military action, it can provide the moral and intellectual case for such action with an authority that governments compromised by their own bloody actions cannot. Rony Brauman, the former head of Médecins Sans Frontières, makes the argument in my book (you know the one I mean) that this merger of the two trends is a dangerous one. The reason is that when supposedly neutral humanitarian agencies delivering relief end up calling for the enforcement of human rights standards, and then in turn become dependent on those making war, they become co-belligerents. The trust that they require from all sides in order to be able to deliver aid is ruined if they are seen as accessory to one party in a conflict. Further, in order to elicit support, they can all too often end up disseminating misleading or exaggerated information about a given conflict, which can feed into the propaganda for war or produce calls for solutions that are at best counterproductive. In this connection, Foley has been particularly scathing about the calls for military intervention into Darfur from advocacy groups like Save Darfur.

The trouble that 'political humanitarians' faced was that their criticisms of various governments were always blunted to the extent that they refused to take a clear position themselves on what might be done in a given circumstance. So, MSF can demand action on Kosovo, but without saying what that might entail, they exposed their urgent appeals to ridicule. And so, in a way that Alex de Waal and others have related previously, 'political humanitarians' - quietly at first, but with increasing openness - began to mandate military action as a necessary supplement to their own campaigns. The obvious question that occurs to an outsider is this: why should humanitarians, even those with a commitment to basic human rights standards, have the answers to the world's problems? How do they come to be the arbiters of just political action? Foley provides a very good sense from the inside of how it felt to be trying to bring about humanitarian outcomes, and how compelling the appeal to military force is when relief workers are trying to deliver people from terrifying physical danger and feel compromised by the bureaucratic structures, legalism and neutralism under which they are obliged to work. But he also shows how arguments for war on humanitarian bases came to be alibis for obvious, outright aggression - as when the Blairite inner circle appealled to international humanitarian norms to justify the invasion of Iraq. Behind all the moral and political arguments foregrounded by this discussion, of course, are immense historical, political and geographical facts which intersect in the fate of the 20th Century Left. (More on which can be found in my own book - you know the one I mean).

Foley is by no means a radical anti-imperialist. He is himself a humanitarian worker with extensive background experience in various 'theatres' from northern Iraq to Afghanistan. Nor is he necessarily opposed to all such ventures - he is just far more sceptical about the arguments supporting them than most of his liberal cohorts have been. And if a solution emerges from this book clearly, it is that the UN must be strengthened and reformed, and that multilateral policies should be engaged instead of unilateral ones. Foley doesn't take seriously the criticism that this refulgent Victorian humanitarianism is implicated in a renascent imperialism - in fact, it has to be said that his handling of these arguments is embarrassingly slight. While Foley is expertly equipped to deal with legalistic arguments about war, there is a basic failure to engage with theory on other levels: those of geopolitics and geoeconomics. To that extent, he seems to grapple with the arguments at their weakest - for example, he dismisses the idea that the invasion of Afghanistan was for the purpose of securing an oil pipeline dominated by Western energy concerns, as if this exhausted the anti-imperialist critique of that invasion. In general, it seems that unless there is some direct economic kickback, then there is no strategic interest involved - although we have just been through a dangerous Georgian spectacle in which the strategic ramifications of US action in Yugoslavia and southern Asia came increasingly to the fore. Similarly, he offers some shockingly blase justifications for the most controversial components of the failed Rambouillet Accords. Of the notorious clause admitting NATO personnel uninhibited access throughout the whole FRY, he dismissively refers to this as a normal part of UN peacekeeping: if this was so, why was it insisted on in the early negotiations phase and dropped in the final Ahtisaari-Chyrnomirdin-negotiated agreement that concluded the war? If it was so essential, why drop it? If inessential, why allow the negotiations to fail partially on account of it? Of the 'free market' clause, he says that Kosovo was going through a process of privatization and some stipulation had to be made about future property arrangements. One would not know that privatization in the former Yugoslavia was a deeply controversial matter, and that the process was itself implicated in the break-up of the country. A reading of Susan Woodward's Balkan Tragedy would have helped here. (More on this in my own book - you know the one I mean). I could go on in this vein, but it would seem to be beside the point, as well unduly diluting the force of my earlier recommendation. Foley is trying to get to grips with how humanitarianism has in different ways been usurped, side-tracked, co-opted and diverted into the blind alley of Western militarism. To that extent, you are unlikely to get a more honest appraisal of how utterly mendacious our governments have been in casting their recent interventions as humanitarian.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gramsci and the crisis posted by Adam Marks

"In this first crisis of the global age the old free market fundamentalism, no matter how it is dressed up, has been found wanting”. The £500 billion bailout is not “to help the bankers, but to help people like you who put away your savings in a bank, or need a loan to buy a house or start a business…"

This is what Gordon Brown said in Sunday’s Observer. It is a fantastically rich and revealing statement. I will restrict myself to regarding how much pressure Gordon Brown is under at the moment. He has to simultaneously rescue British capitalism and the Labour Party. Going into a recession he has to find a way to make working people pay without generating a passive (election defeat) or active (strike wave) reaction from the population.

If you take what he has done and what he proposes to do in the near future at face value, he intends to make workers pay, while rescuing savers and homeowners: there is, of course, a great deal of crossover between the categories.

We have moved from inflation and credit crunch to a full on banking crisis, which, as even Gordon Brown acknowledges, has completely destroyed the governing neo-liberal orthodoxy. The ruling class has to reorganise its system of government across all fronts, economically, politically and ideologically. If it doesn’t it faces the rise of a new politics that puts the entire system into doubt.

The concept of passive revolution, developed by Antonio Gramsci, can be a useful way into thinking about the coming period. Gramsci’s intellect flowered at a time when capitalism and anti-capitalism fought each other to a high stalemate across the globe. Gramsci noted in the related concept of revolution/restoration that this produced unusual and unstable political hybrids. He harvested great insight from comparing the hybrid results of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions.

Let’s run through passive revolution:

1. Social revolution is the going over of a society from one socio-economic order to another.
2. Successful revolution is usually a combination of two factors, event and process: the storming of the Winter Palace and the toppling of the Provisional government next to the nationalisation and redistribution of land, the agitation for peace on the eastern front, and the establishment of workers control of major industries.
3. The link between these two factors is the mobilisation and organisation of the masses.
4. Significant social change has taken place without obvious mass mobilisations, especially without obvious revolutionary events.
5. Vincenzo Cuoco was a conservative philosopher who speculated upon “passive revolution” in Italy. He wanted to unite the Italian people under a modern state without passing through the Jacobin experience of the French revolution.
6. Antonio Gramsci used the term passive revolution to his own ends. He used it as a way to describe a process of change where the expected bearer of change does not carry out their function. He talked primarily of the Italian Risorgimento of the 19th century but expanded the concept in order to probe the realities and weaknesses of Mussolini’s fascist regime (to a lesser extent developments in the United States and USSR).
7. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels describe how non-capitalist countries adopt capitalist ways on “pain of extinction”. Revolutions of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries created liberal states in Britain, France and the Low Countries, allowing capitalism to develop and grow. In order for the Holy Alliance countries to compete (economically and militarily) they had to adopt aspects of the new society, despite having formally restored the Ancien Regime. This is Gramsci’s related concept of revolution/restoration. The old society takes on aspects of the new in order to sustain itself.
8. In the absence of a wealthy bourgeoisie with a strong culture able to lead masses of ordinary people other actors filled the void. In the 19th century this was commonly the state. For Germany the Prussian monarchy, for Italy Piedmont, for Japan the restored emperor. These bodies, linked to old ruling classes, generally carried out basic reforms essential to the growth of capitalism: a unitary state with a single set of laws, customs and currency, a single monopoly of violence and so forth.
9. Gramsci took Mussolini’s regime to be a modern incarnation of the passive revolution. The working class proved itself unable to strike for power during the Red Years of 1919-20. The capitalist class could no more establish order and stable hegemony. Mussolini’s fascists became a middle-class proxy for capitalist rule. The regime firstly crushed the working class as an organised political force but secondly adopted aspects of the working class programme, in particular the planned economy, and used them for capitalist ends.
10. Another example of the adoption of socialist measures for capitalist ends is international co-operation. The working class invented international cooperation, practiced through several Internationals. As capitalism grows and ages it produces bodies and agencies such as the EU, NAFTA, IMF, WTO, the UN and so forth. The interpenetration of national capital requires international cooperation to work.
11. The progress of passive revolution toward socialism creates a problem. Capital and Labour are antagonistic opposites. There cannot be hybrid worker/capitalist formations therefore there cannot be (stable) worker/capitalist states.
12. The passive revolution can be adapted to modern conditions through the theory of deflected permanent revolution. Middle class radicals in 3rd world countries looked to the USSR, with a formally socialist framework left over after the defeat of the 1917 revolution, as a means of overcoming imperialism and underdevelopment. The revolutions carried out by these groups were bourgeois. They created independent centres of accumulation.
13. The only way to achieve genuine, worthwhile socialism is through an active revolution: the conscious actions of oppressed people, led by the organised working class.

There are some simple applications we can make to modern politics and the current situation. Firstly, international cooperation is the recognised future of mankind. Every serious political and economic force in the world today recognises this. All artistic and philosophical speculation about the future takes this for granted.

The International Working Men’s Association formally consecrated cooperation in 1864, when the ruling class was still trying to form bodies such as Italy, Germany and the United States. There is a reason for this.

Capitalism was founded by revolutions creating unitary states. Competition between different blocs of capital in time became fused with competition between different states. A new, global system was formed out of the feudal patchwork where the ruling class, through its internal competition, was crucially for and against itself.

All subsequent attempts to foster ruling class unity and harmony have foundered on the same fact. The United Nations, for example, was formed at the end of World War Two to promote understanding between peoples. If it ever fulfilled that function it was soon taken over by the five permanent members of the Security Council, dominated by the USA.

It’s worth remembering, with the calls for a new Bretton Woods agreement and the general revival of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, ‘Keynesianism’ as JM Keynes understood it was never really put into practice. The original plan was to have an international super-currency for nations to multinationals to trade in. The American government nixed this, insisting the dollar become the international reserve currency. Much of modern economic and social history has been shaped by this fact.

The short answer is cooperation between competing blocs of capital and their associated states will be difficult to pull off and hard to sustain.

One final observation, there is a theme running through the list of actors in the passive revolution: deep authoritarianism. As Engels once said, a revolution is an authoritarian thing. There is a huge difference between authority imposed from above and authority developed from below, transformation driven by a minority and transformation driven by the majority. Whether it was led Hitler, Stalin or Joe McCarthy, the ruling class movement needed huge doses of violence and militarism to effect the passive revolution.

The global crisis of capitalism is the cue for the anti-capitalist actor to step in from the wings. If the movement against capitalism does not begin to reach for power, power may begin to reach for us. We could face an unpleasant future.

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