Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Fetish of Individualism Strikes Again

“A debate has arisen within the Occupy movement about gender equality and how it relates to the interests of the 99 percent. Leela Yellesetty explains why the Occupy movement must embrace women's rights.” -- Socialist Worker, 13 December 2011
Sigh. Once again, the “Left” dissipates into a pot pourri of “me, myself and mine” proving, once again, its incapacity to focus on structural economic issues.

The fetish of individualism is so pronounced in the United States that even putative socialists are indisposed to thinking in social terms. “Socialism” becomes the label stuck atop an aggregated heap of personal piss-offs and entitlements.

It is thus that the average leftist protest becomes an “all inclusive” carnival parade of issues: Out of Iraq! Free Biafra! Seattle Clinic Defense! Support Teachers Local 876! Gay Marriage Now! Legalize Marijuana! But All and Everything is not a focus. Is it any wonder the “Left” never gets anywhere?

The “Left” -- if it wants to be truly left -- needs to focus on structural issues; that is, on issues that concern how the economy is controlled and managed as a whole. Once the Left focuses on our economic modus operandi, the qui bonos will fall into place. Squawking chicks do not gather the worm.

The reasoning process of squawking chicks is illustrated by Yellesetty who declaims that “women are disproportionately impacted by the budget cuts that are shredding the social safety net.” Yellesetty acknowledges that the greatest disproportion lies with the “1 percent” who reap the benefits of “the most unfair tax structure in the country.” Nevertheless, her point is that, as a woman, she is more of a victim than gays, blacks, Native Americans, one-legged veterans and, of course, white working males. And so, a general, structural phenomenon gets particularized behind the veneer of an objective, sociological measurement -- in this case of the degree of impact.

From this artifice of Superior Victimhood, Yellesetty then turns her wrath upon the Occupy Movement which she says “is not immune to the sexism that is pervasive in society as a whole.” In other words, where women are concerned, the 99 Percent are as bad as the One Percent. Her proof? “A case in point was the sexist "Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street" video I wrote about a few months back ('No place for sexism in Occupy').”

Ah yes! In America, even progressives are puritanical. One supposes that Yellesetty would insist that we all march with mortifiers strapped to our thighs. No impure thoughts on the road to Perfect (Feminist) Socialism! (So much for Soviet Life pictures of muscled males and full breasted women building dams or bringing in the sheaves).

From this premise, once removed, Yellesetty then declaims against the “gender inequality” which she says pervades the Occupy Movement. By “gender equality” Yellesetty means: “the question of reproductive rights.” And in her lexicon “reproductive rights” includes “defend[ing] clinics against the anti-choice bigots who regularly picket them.”

Since men don’t reproduce, the word “equality” is a soft way of saying that men get to have sex without consequences and, therefore, so should women. And of course, Yellesety’s right to abort includes suppressing the First Amendment rights of those who disagree with Roe v. Wade because they are bigots who should not be permitted to “interfere” with “gender equality.”

From this rather dubious landing point, Yellesetty leaps to her conclusion which is that the Occupy Movement should make “reproductive rights” (and bigot-suppression) a central demand.

The leap is accomplished by unvarnished insult. According to Yellesetty, such “bigots” (like those who interfere with gender equality) include those in the Occupy Movement who think that the movement, should be focus “exclusively on corporate greed and the issues that unite the 99 percent.” Period. Q.E.D.

Actually, the economic inequities of capitalism produce “impacts” far more extensive and injurious than even an outright denial of abortion rights. Yellesetty might not want to hear that, but it’s a fact.

Under the spurious banner of “gender equality,” Yellesetty’s demand is fundamentally a-social. Its focus is on a paradigmatic individual right. The merits and contours of this right are not the point. Whatever they may be, they do not concern how society is structured and functions as a whole.

Neither do gay rights, black rights, disabled rights, gun rights, peer-to-peer rights, copyrights, prayer-rights, enlistment rights, victim rights and the whole panoply of squawking-chicks-assembled rights.

Such divisive hot button issues are honey and nectar to the One Percent, whose focus is exclusively on profit and screwing the 99 percent. Why do banks and corporations fund both parties? Why do they collaborate and coddle with Pinochet, Putin and Deng Xiaoping? Because ultimately they don’t give a rat’s rump about the very “hot button issues” they stir up. They have a modus operandi and it is called capitalism.

At bottom, capitalism is non-ideological. It is an economic technique. It can only be met by a counter modus operandi -- an equal but opposite material economy that relegates ideological squabbles to the back of the bus.

©Woodchipgazette, 2011.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Sha Nah Nah Revolution?

One of the truly amazing things about capitalism is its ability to trivialize anything it touches.

We never thought much of Flower Power as a political force; but we thought even less of daisy-decals stuck onto beetles, which metamorphosed into sunny smiley faces which in the end became the Walmart logo.

Similarly, we have not been very sanguine about the ultimate prospects of the Occupy Movement, the collective impulse of which strikes us as being counter-historical and slotted for failure without or without a strategic program.

Nevertheless, we would like the movement to have a fair crack at its paragraph in history even if it yields no more than les evenements of '48, '72 or 68.

Instead, the Occupy Movement has been reduced to the level of fracas at the frat house. Will Bloomberg evict the occupiers? Will the occupiers re-takey Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza? Whose panties will get stolen this time?

You can bet your last doughnut that the cops have been ordered not to do something stupid, outrageous and escalatory like blasting a rubber bullet into some pretty coed's eye. They have no doubt been issued strategic doses of prozac to keep their aggro levels in check. The kleptocracy wants to keep things as "sha nah nah" as possible -- good clean tussle-fun between our dear raucus kids (learning all aboout democracy) and our stern but patient campus constables.

If only we could bring back the Everly Brothers...or at least the Kingston Trio. We could turn the "movement" into a post-millenial version of occupying a telephone booth.

The worst thing that could happen to the movement is that it be turned into a cultural artifact... a street version of Beach Blanket Babylon, the "world's longest running musical revue" now going on 40 years of repeat original outrageousness. At that point middle aged couples from Iowa come to Oakland or New York to watch the occupiers do their monthly park takeover.

We have met the revolution and it is ours. None of the world leaders are loosing a night's worth of sleep over indignados or ninety-niners. They are off tete a teteting, trying to figure how much inflation to impose on us in order to save the banks.

Occupiers circa 1959


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Confluence and Coincidence -- the Calculus of 99 Percent

What do the 99 Percent stand for? Since the OWS movement started, that has been the question repeatedly asked, not only by corporate politicians and pundits but also by voices from the progressive-left. The frustrating non answer from “the movement” has been: nothing & everything.

This formlessness makes people decidedly uncomfortable. Geometry is a fundamental construct of the human mind and, as a result, the need to “box things in” becomes a basic intellectual urge. “Ti esti?” -- “what is it?” was the first and most annoying question Socrates kept asking.

Among political analysts and strategists, the Socratic question gets translated into: How can you achieve anything if you don’t lay down goals and demands? The question is certainly not illogical. Apart from boxing things in, if you don’t have a formulated destination, how can you get there, wherever there might be?

Isn’t the calculus of politics all about platforms and goals? It is. But the calculus of history -- that is, of whether movements will be successful or not -- is a different issue. What makes things happen and why do they happen the way they do?

Once Newton had explained the motions of the heavenly bodies and why things fall the way they do, Western philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Marx applied their minds to deducing the laws of history. If we can figure this out, so the thinking goes, we can soothsay the future.

Tolstoy was skeptical. His epic ‘War and Peace’ was an account of individuals within the inexorable flow of events. At the end of the novel he wrote an “Epilogue” in which he sought to explain the “calculus of history.”

Tolstoy dismissed the notion that “the movement of the peoples at the time of the Crusades” or “the ferment of the peoples of the West at the end of the Eighteenth Century” could be explained by the activities of popes, magnates or kings and “their mistresses and ministers.”

The French, he says, did not invade Russia because Napoleon wrote certain letters to Vienna and issued certain orders on a particular date. “Why then did the French invade Russia?” Tolstoy asks. “Because the impetus of the nation drove them there; and when the impetus was spent they receded back home. The letters and orders of Napoleon simply coincided with the will of the people; other letters he wrote, which did not, are simply forgotten.”

By a confluence of motives, Tolstoy did mean an identity of motives, or in other words, a shared platform of goals. On the contrary, he assumed that the 100,000 individual motives that made up the Army of the French were entirely idiosyncratic. The motives, each different from the other, simply flowed together and gave rise to an impulse in a given direction.

Just as Tolstoy was dismissive of attributed causes which seek to explain an event, he was equally unimpressed by strategies which seek to bring about a result. His hero of the war was General Kutuzof who was excoriated as an incompetent as he retreated before Napoleon’s advance and hailed as a hero as he advanced after Napoleon’s retreat.

Kutuzof understood the “calculus of history;” Napoleon (at that point) did not. In Tolstoy’s opinion, the calculus of history is formed by the swelling confluence of a myriad of individual motives and impulses which are beyond human calculation.

Tolstoy’s Epilogue finds little resonance in an epoch addicted to the scientific method. We want maps not the meandering of a herd. The Occupation Movement, we are told, needs a brilliant, cunning strategist in the order of Carl Rove or at least in the magnitude of Lenin!

The historians among the strategists will argue that the Occupiers will fail unless they come up with a strategy. After all, is it not true that the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th Century England and the Peasant’s War in 16th Century Germany failed for want of a map?

This is not a patently unreasonable argument; but it is based on a false historical premise. The picture painted by the 14th and 16th century feudal-bourgeoisie was that of a rudderless mob of angry, dirty, uppity peasants who, being ignorant, resentful and dirty got what they deserved. Most subsequent historians have simply accepted the propaganda of the triumphant party as fact.

But the propaganda is over-painted. The coming together of English, and later German, peasants certainly was that “swelling of impulses” which Tolstoy says is the calculus of history. But it is incorrect to say that the peasants had no platform. In both cases, the uprising had very specific demands.

The English and German peasant revolts provide a good historical analogy for today’s 99 Percenters. In both cases, the peasant class was being destroyed by excessive taxation and laws which embarrassed their economic development.

In order to see how this was the case, it is first necessary to disentangle one’s thought from the anti-feudal capitalist propaganda that passes for orthodox history.

It is typically said that the peasants revolted against the oppressions of serfdom. But that is incorrect. Since the 4th Century, serfdom had provided much desired economic security. It may have bound the peasant to his land but it also prevented foreclosure on his land. What is called feudalism was a complex balance of horizontal and vertical economic flows. What caused the peasants’ revolt was that, as feudalism gradually gave way to a nascent capitalism, the flows down were all but eliminated by the suck ups.

The unbalancing of the feudal equilibrium was not just a matter of taxation but also of the privatization of common lands. For centuries the common use of fields, forests and streams had served as a kind of “public service” to the peasantry and these were now be foreclosed on and handed over to private individuals. Thus, the Twelve Articles of the German revolt (1525) demanded the return of communal lands.

The disequilibrium was also the result of legal class war. A major cause of the English revolt was the Statute of Labourers (1351) which forbade workers from demanding better pay and working conditions. What was occurring in both England and Germany was a gradual but inexorable dis possession and reduction of what had been a stable and relatively prosperous class.

Of course it was entirely within the interest of the newly emerging feudal-bourgeoisie to mischaracterize the balance they were destroying, so that to this day people are taught and believe what boils down to capitalist revisionism. Feudalism was by no means perfect, but it was a remarkably stable, generally equitable, and culturally democratic system. It did not last near 1000 years by being unremittingly unjust.

Once feudalism is cast in a more balanced light, the analogy between the peasants’ revolts and today’s Indignados and 99 Percenters can be seen. In all cases a defined and previously secured class protests against economic pillage, political disempowerment and cultural monopolization.

In each of these cases, the problem of the movement was not a failure to formulate specific demands. Nor was it a failure of collective impulses. The peasants’ revolts ultimately failed because both the substance of popular impulse and the form of their goals failed to coincide with an historical cycle.

The peasants’ revolts illustrate that Tolstoy’s calculus is only half correct. It is not sufficient to say (as he would) that the revolts failed because the collective impulse “spent” itself. No impulse lasts forever. The question is whether the impulse engages into a wheel that moves events.

Here the prognosis becomes elusive. Whether we regard history as cyclical or progressive, the critical factor becomes knowing where in the historical cycle (or progression) the present moment stands. This in turn becomes a question of knowing whether the present moment is a time to build on pre-existing achievements or to destroy the existing order.

If the confluence of impulses flows in a destructive direction and if the “historical moment” is one which is fertile for destruction, then the “movement” will amount to something. If not, not e converso.

Is all this not just a pompous way of singing Que será, será? I think it’s a tad more than that. It gives us a set of values to balance-out in an historical equation.

The peasants’ revolts failed not because there wasn’t a confluence of impulses among the peasantry, but because that confluence did not coincide with a generative stage as represented by the capitalist movement. The West was not simply destroying something old but building up to something new. The peasants, for all their radical “communistic” articles, wanted to revert to the statu quo ante; a quo ante that itself had started when the collective impulse of the German Barbarians had coincided with the decadence of the Roman Empire in a moment that was fertile for destruction.

Those who are quick to quibble will point out that every end is a beginning and all creation entails destruction. And right they are. All I can say is that if soothsaying were a matter of mere logic anyone could predict the future. But soothsaying is not mere logic. The one-eyed Russian general sniffed the wind, the world historical Man of the Moment got it all wrong. In this respect, Tolstoy was right.

The absence of a platform by the 99 Percenters is not critical. A platform will eventually emerge from the confluence of impulses assembled; and that emergence will manifest democracy in its most raw and pure form.

But whether the 99 Percenters succeed, depends on whether their impulse is revolutionary or reformist and, whichever it is, whether the present historical moment is one of generation or decay.

That is my calculus.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peeking in to the GOP Cave

I don’t have a T.V. In fact, for about half of my life I have gone without television. Even when my father was producing television shows our teevee was usually broken.

But from time to time, I have owned a television. Once, after a long hiatus, I bought a television to watch an advertised German series that seemed interesting. To this day, I remember the day I first switched it on.

Although the series was in black and white, this was my first color set. I was immediately struck by the glowing, bright carnival colors that magically appeared at the flick of a switch. For an instant, it was like: ballons, painted horses, party hats, streamers and cotton candy! I smiled like a child.

Then I heard the sound. It was as if the raving lunatics of bedlam had suddenly spilled into my living room. I can’t remember what all was said except that it was loud, hysterical, vulgar, inane and loud some more. I sat and stared transfixed, as if peering through a funnel into an alternate universe of alien insanity.

People watch this? I watched my series and then put the box aside using it only to tape documentaries and old newsreels. Then I moved to where there was no reception anyways.

Of course, now we have streaming video; but I only use it to catch the occasional speech or exceptional event. The last thing to stream onto my screen was the Pope’s visit to Westminister which was rather historic, all things considered.

For some reason, though, I decided to tune into last night’s GOP debate. There have been several of these events of late and I suppose I felt that given all the hoopla in the press I might as well have a look see. So I tuned in.

Then I heard the sound: a roar of cheers within a din of applause. “ on the ground...” “...electronic wall...” “...drones...” The candidates were declaiming against them aliens sneaking in here to “anchor” them selves in our homeland and the audience was respounding with shouts of atavistic anger.

If the Bible teaches us anything it is that the knowledge of good and evil is evil; for it is that divide from which all our woes flow. Once we know that evil lurks all around us out there, then the 'in here' becomes full of suspicion, fear and anger. We are caught by a divide that forces us to be arrayed in perpetual war.

And the candidates played to that divide ferociously: illegals, criminals, terrorists -- the vast swarm of evil thems lurking to attack the righteous us. No self respecting dog would think this way, and when he does we call him mad and put him down.

Of course, mixed in with the poisons were dollops of pure bullshit the basic texture of which was the candidates’ shared belief in something called Market Magick. With slight variations in verbal packaging, each of the candidates subscribed to ending government infringements on laissez faire capitalism. With nary a second thought or blush, each claimed to be the most experienced at letting the market do its thing and the best equipped to do nothing.

With nary a second gulp, the audience swallowed the oyster whole, just as they swallowed such nostrums as getting the federal government out of government and “returning sovereignty to the states.” But what, one might ask, are “the states” if not goverment? If the goal is to let the free market be totally free to do its market thing without supervision, regulation or control, why bother with states at all? Why not simply parcel out and hand over everything to private corporations?

That to be sure is exactly what each of the candidates truly stands for. What they call “America” or “our country” is simply a hallucinogenic narcotic to get the audience to believe that them corporations are us the people.

But it was an opiate that did not dull. The salient thing about the debate was that everything said was aimed at evoking a primitive snarl. A snarl against anchor babies, against criminals, against Iranians, against terrorists, against gubmint, against protestors, against lazy people. After a while, the pop-up targets were no more important than little tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. It was firing off against that mattered.

When the candidates duly and in sequence took turns at intoning the obligatto that they were not against legal immigration, the audience was perceptively indifferent. Yeah, yeah... “We’re a nation of immigrants...” Move on. Give us something to snarl at! As Rick Perry did with stunning, subliminal elegance when he pronounced that he offered the “brightest contrast” to president Obama.

As the candidates stood on their bright and colorful podium exchanging clichés and talking nonsense to the boos, hoots, cheers and whistles of the audience, I thought of Plato’s ancient cave where where imprisoned humans were trapped watching shadow puppets moving and talking on the cave’s wall. Being prevented from turning around and seeing the fire or the puppet masters behind them, the imprisoned audience did not doubt that the shadows before them were real and truly spoke to them. Never being allowed outside the cave, they had no idea that the world they lived in was a dark and insubstantial illusion.

I was affirmed in my decision not to allow a cave into my house.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Silence of the Shams

One month into the Occupation protests, our editorial staff of one got to wondering what, if anything, the Democratic members of the U.S. Senate had to say about the movement. The answer is: nothing.

Since the corporate media tried its best to suppress news of the OWS protests, it stood to reason that it would suppress any reaction to it. So, this Sunday, we went to the U.S. Senate home page and clicked on the links to the Senators' official pages. We checked each senator's Pet Issues & Legislation as well as their "Newsroom" and press release sections. The absence of any comment at all on a growing world-wide protest against bankster and corporate graft and pillage told us all we might ever have needed to know.

The silence in the United States contrasts with the eagerness of German politicians of all stripes to show their solidarity colors. Monday's on-line issue of Der Spiegel reported that Chancellor Merkel's finance minister, Wolfgang Schäubel, vowed to take the protests "very seriously" adding that banks needed to submit to "clear controls." The leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, stated that "we have to force the banks back into their role as servants to the real economy." Even the pro-business Free Democrats came out in favor of stronger bank regulation.

According to Spiegel, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso chimed in, calling for legislation to criminalize "abusive behavior" by the banks. Future head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi said that "the young people have a right to be furious."

But in the United States Senate -- the self-proclaimed "world's greatest deliberative body" -- the deliberation was so intense one could hear the sound of flesh on flesh hand-wringing. What to do? What to do? For now, the fearless tribunes in the Democratic Party have evidently decided that mum is the better part of mutt (that's German for "courage").

As depressing as the silence was the burble and blather that brimed over from the senatorial home pages. With allowances for "local varietal packaging," all senators lent their voices to the same cant. After expressing various degrees of outrage at Iran's dastardly, nefarious narco-for-hire bomb plot, they went on to assure their readers that: we had to rise above politics in order to get our "fiscal house in order," find a long-term solution to our budget crisis, while helping our struggling middle class by supporting the president's jobs bill, cutting taxes for small businesses and supporting more free trade agreements.

All that is why Senator [so-and-so] supports [such-and-such bill] to provide incentives and support for his/her state's [energy/agriculture/green technologies/old technologies/ transportation / research / whatever... ] sector.

Senator Jeff Bingham (D-NM) informs his readers that "we can lower deficit only by cutting spending or increasing taxes." Senators Max Baucus (Dem-Montana) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) ask constituents to send in their ideas about the debt.

Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) announces that he is "Keeping Massachusetts' Fishing Industry Strong" and then pronounces that "The American people deserve a serious dialogue about our fiscal situation, discretionary spending, entitlements, and revenues. We need a long-term solution."

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) feels constrained to tell us that he "supports a strong middle class" and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), standing in front of a sign that reads EXXON 4.29, 4.39 and 4.59, assures us that he "has a long record of standing up for consumers."

California Senator Dianne Feinstein trumpets her bill to "ban dangerous chemicals in Baby Products" while Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ.) announces that he is working on legislation to "elminate" smuggled tobacco. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tells us that she supports legislation to promote medical device innovation and boost international tourism. "Minnesotans believe in hard work, fair play and personal responsibility," she intones, "We believe that no matter where you come from, if you work hard...." etc. etc.

Virtually all senators acknowledged that the country was in a "recession" and that millions had been thrown out of work and stood in danger of loosing their homes. But they spoke of this as if the recession were something that just kind of, well, happened, like a storm or something. The causal connect between bankster malfeasance and the global economic crash was simply not spoken.

Within this public relations wasteland, a few senators intimated, tepidly and indirectly, that bad banking may have had something to do with the economic crisis.

Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) announced that, as Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, he takes "an active role in seeing that a competitive marketplace ensures the lowest possible prices for high quality and innovative goods and services." It might appear odd that he is silent on Bank of America's debit-card charges until one deciphers the code-speak. What Kohl thinks will insure low prices is a "competitive marketplace" -- in other words market magic will do the trick. Taking an "active role" in laissez faire is quite a feat.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) says he's been fighting for Ohio’s middle class families who are demanding Congress address weaknesses and loopholes in our financial regulatory system. Apparently he has teamed up with Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to "continue fighting for good, effective regulations that balance consumer protection and allow for sustainable economic growth." But "economic growth" is simply what official Washington calls corporate or banking profit. The juxtaposition between "consumer protection" and "economic growth" bespeaks the usual trade-off that will seek to get by with as little consumer (or environmental) protection as possible without cutting much into profits.

Four senators spoke with some specificity about banking and/or investment reform.

Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) trumpeted that fact that he "co-sponsored and championed bankruptcy reform legislation in the Senate. After years of stalemate on this issue, Congress finally passed a bipartisan bankruptcy reform bill in 2005." That's the bill that makes it more difficult for ordinary people to get out from under crushing bank debt.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced that she had supported the Dodd-Frank bill in order to create a "new transparency of our financial markets to keep our economy stable, growing, and working for all." At the same time she pointed out that "the future well-being of New York City depends on the recovery of the financial sector."

Senator Carl Levin (D-Minn.) went a little further promising to "support continuing efforts to protect consumers from abusive practices in the financial industry" and to insure that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, would not be "watered down" by federal regulators.

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank "reform" was pretty much water to begin with. It provided the clear-view of "transparency" but it did nothing to control usurious interest rates or to sever the connection between commercial banking and investment speculation.

Only Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) addressed part of the overall problem stating that the Dodd-Frank bill's limitations on commodity index swaps had been so eviscerated by federal regulators that the ultimate effect would actually be to "encourage speculation and make markets more volatile." Nelson's Anti-Excessive Speculation Act of 2011, would set limits on energy contracts ... aiming to cap the overall level of speculation in the market...."

Thus, of all the Democratic senators, four addressed banking issues directly (one on the wrong side of aisle) and none at all had any response to the broad discontent in the streets against a financial-corporate capitalist system that works to despoiling peoples economic and social well being.

That left Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.) as sole voice on the "liberal-left" to speak up for the protestors and to call for fundamental reforms. [Read]

While there is nothing inherently wrong in senators functioning as a conduit for funding specific projects in their home states, what was dismal (beyond the utterly smarmy blather) was the bland acceptance of the systemic status quo. The usual and vaguish cant about making this system work better simply refers to tinkering around the edges. The Democrat senators are incapable of acknowledging that the system is fundamentally disfunctional and requires deep-cutting and pervasive reforms. Their dilemma is to find a way to seem to support the protest movement without giving it any momentum.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bank of America versus America the Beautiful

A public hew and cry has arisen against the announced plan of major banks to charge depositors three to five dollars a month for the use of debit cards to make purchases. In an extremely rare instance of 'market justice' the value of Bank of America’s shares tumbled.

As significant as the fact of the planned charges is the logic that drives them. Facts on the ground are always merely manifestations of a paradigm in the air. As important as opposing the charges is opposing the twisted thinking behind them.

The shylockian mind-set behind the planned debit-card charges was best illustrated by JPMorgan-Chase's Jamie Dimon who stated, “If you’re a restaurant and you can’t charge for the soda, you’re going to charge more for the burger.”

Dimon was referring to the fact that, under the Durbin-Frank financial “overhaul” law, banks are prohibited from charging more than 24 cents in service fees per purchase transaction. Prior to the “overhaul,” banks were charging 44 cents per purchase transaction. The law halved the amount they could charge.

But like most garbage flowing down from Capitol Hill, the overhaul contained a loophaul. (We are shocked!) The debit fee was charged to the merchant not to the customer and the law only limited the amounts banks can charge their merchant customers. There was a silver streak in the legislative swill after all.

With this background in mind, Jamie Dimon’s twisted logic boils down to saying that what the banks can’t take from Paul’s hide, they will take from Peter’s. But one way or another the banks will get their pound -- a full English pound -- of flesh.

The rhetorical cheat behind the financial cheat is easy to see. The banks are not charging more for one service (a coke) to make up for price controls on another (the burger); they are rather like gangs of hoods prowling the street looking for pockets to plunder. “Hey! If we can’t roll the guy in the suit, let’s roll the little old lady in the walker.”

But, irrespective of Jamie Dimon’s spurious analogies, the driving force of the paradigm is the notion that banks are entitled by some divinely ordained law of nature to a certain maximum level of profit. The point of departure for Bank of America, JP Morgan-Chase and Wells Fargo is simply the presumption that they are entitled to 44 cents per purchase transaction.

The banks would have us believe that this amount reflects some sort of “natural market law” like water seeking its own level. If they can’t get the quantum of flow from one source it is “only natural” that they should extract it from another. Dimon’s analogy simply assumes and would have us believe that 44 cents is what banks are entitled to and cannot be faulted for demanding.

Wherefrom this 44 cents? Banks no longer bother with the pretence of justifying the charge on the basis of costs of operations. The amount is simply what they (on average) have decided to charge. The “natural market level” is nothing more than the ad hoc level of banker avarice.

A 2010 Nilson Report report showed that in 2006 debit card usage generated just over 10 billion dollars in profits. In 2010 those profits had soared to just over 20 billion. This roaring, soaring surge of money certainly did not reflect a doubling of the costs of maintaining installed telemetric swiping machines.

In fact, the Federal Reserve has calculated the average variable costs of a debit charge at $0.071 for transaction processing, $0.059 for network fees, $0.049 for fraud losses, and $0.018 for fraud prevention costs, for a total of .19 cents per purchase. There can be no claim that banks are simply passing along their operating costs to the customer be it in the price of a coke or of a burger.

In fact, the Federal Reserve limit of 24 cents has a built in profit of 4.8 percent per transaction. That’s over half the average State sales tax. But that is not enough to satisfy the rapacity of Jamie Dimon or Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. They want more, more and more of your flesh.

The bankers’ lust for geld is epitomized by a famous motto from Spain’s Siglo de Oro which symbolized the conquistadors’ lust for gold.

Al espada y el compás, más y más y más y más.
By sword and compass, more and more and more and more!

The lust for more is the same sin as the ne plus ultra of rapacious Iberia. The only difference is that today’s river of gold is extracted from the diminishing pay checks of struggling workers rather than from the sweat of Indian press gangs.

Needless to say, if they don’t bother justifying the charges on the basis of costs, it would never occur to Dimon or Moynihan to justify them on the basis of social utility. The idea that privilege, position and property should subserve the social good simply does not exist in the world of so-called “financial services”.

Understandably, most people oppose the monthly charges because they financially hurt. But there is a more fundamental point that progressives in particular need to press.

Defining the Progressive platform a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt insisted that corporate profit should be allowed “only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” “The true conservative,” he said, “is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.”

Progressives should not concede or overlook fundamentals while complaining about symptoms. They need to drive home the point that banks and all financial institutions should be treated and regulated as public utilities. They exist to lubricate the economy, not to suck it dry.


But the issue is broader than utility. The other half of the equation is sin which, in its most primary sense, refers to those concepts of conduct and being that arise from subjective knowledge, shared by all, concerning the objective phenomenon of the “all” -- of society, of creation and, ultimately, of the cosmos.

There is a reluctance in progressive circles to talk about sin, as if doing so entailed an abandonment of reason and a return to archaic and repressive mind-sets. I believe this is a mistake. Social utility and social morality are two sides of the same coin. They are complimentary perspectives which, when harmonized, broaden perception and strengthen the argument.

Utility represents what the French mathematician and philosopher, Pascal, called l’esprit de geometrie -- so called ‘linear thought’ which orders inferences and causes toward postulated conclusions or goals. The concept of ‘sin’ reflects what he called l’esprit de finesse -- best translated as ‘collective intuition’.

This intuition is more than just an historical consensus or agreement among individuals. Like the faculty of physical sight, it is a ‘brain wiring’ which we all share and which enables our awareness to be embraced by the whole of all parts and to be infused with a sense of the whole in each of the parts. When we see the whole we necessarily see our place in it; and seeing one’s place understand how we are supposed to be.

Philosophers have used various terms to denote this intuitive faculty. According to Pascal, l’esprit de finesse “is simply a question of seeing -- but of seeing well and completely.” Plato called this faculty ‘nous’ which, he said, was a passive state of knowing one step beyond the struggling effort or 'mathesis' of learned, logical knowledge. In Medieval usage, the act of intuitive knowing was referred to as an intellection or “in-taking” of the true nature of things.

Howsoever called, the myriad insights which comprise intuitive thought are “so fine and so numerous” (Pascal) that they can only be expressed in the form of a metaphor, an allegory, a parable, a poem or a song wherein the ‘argument’ consists in shades of meaning and resonances of feeling. It is from this esprit de finesse that we derive our concepts of sin.

Sin is typically thought of in terms of discrete personal failings. But before we can call something “wrong” we have to have a sense of what is “right” - what Eastern philosophy calls Tao. More essentially than any particular wrong, “sin” denotes an absence of harmony and this absence presupposes an ordered social relation which we intuit ought to be there.

Thus understood, our concepts of sin are fundamentally social in two ways. First, they arise from an intuition that we are part of the whole. Secondly, they are formed by an intuition which is itself collective.

Man’s earliest intuitions identified sin with harm to the pack. As a young man once told Socrates, “the just man is he who does good to his friends and harm to his enemies.” In a famous exchange, Socrates proved that the young man was wrong; that the just man, if he truly loved justice, had to do good to his enemies. Socrates did not deny that evil or injustice or sin consisted in doing harm to the pack, he simply enlarged the circle so as to include a greater whole.

Over the course of history the scope of our shared subjective awareness of sin has enlarged as we ourselves have evolved. What was at first viewed as transgression against a tribal god and “our” pack got reformulated into the unawareness of a “universal father” and alienation from humanity. But within the process of becoming, the constant has always been a consciousness of our shared predicament with others “of our own kind”. At whatever stage of our historical development, the idea of sin derives from a societal sense of social self -- from social self-recognition.

This collective mutuality is what the words 'society' and 'community' hearken to. The Latin 'socius' means companion or ally, and the word 'comunis' derives from sharing or commingling. From these roots, 'society' is defined as a collaborative fellowship for a common purpose. Thus, Aristotle wrote that all social interaction was comprised of varying levels of friendship.

This friendship is not just something that takes place “within” society (a geometrical perspective); society itself is a state or condition of friendliness. The concept of society is, at its core, coextensive with the Golden Rule which is the sum and whole of moral law.

Curiously, the limited “pack morality” of primitive societies was more closely connected to an intuition of the greater animated natural whole and it is only now that we are re-opening our minds to an intuition of the great natural society that is our ultimate home.

But it was never entirely lost. The Tenth Century abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx, describes our universal friendship thus:

“What forest bears but a single tree? Even in inanimate nature a certain love of companionship, so to speak, is apparent and thrives in society with its own kind. And surely in animate life who cannot easily see how clearly the picture of friendship is, and the image of society and love? For, although in other respects animals are rated irrational, yet they imitate man in this regard to such an extent that we believe they act with reason. How they run after one another, play with one another and betray their love by sound and movement. So eagerly do they enjoy their mutual company, that they seem to prize nothing else so much as they do whatever pertains to friendship.”

What Aelred intellected “rings true” just as the tones of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony convince us that an elixir of joy permeates all creation from the lowly worm to the cherub by god’s throne. Ultimately, sin is simply un happiness.

Pharisees and moral philosophers have brought discredit on the concept of sin by trying to rationalize it with l’esprit de geometrie thereby reducing it to a species of accounting which in turn leads to a “privatization” of morality and a divorcing of sin from its primary social context.

On the other hand, to say that the concept of sin is intuitive does not signify an individualistic “feels right” relativism. The intuition is social and shared universally. It requires us to submit ourselves to the broader social conscience. The less shared, the more the acuity of the vision is suspect as astigmatic or partial.

It is certainly true that throughout time witchdoctors and priests have misused the concept of sin to agitate and mislead people. But the same might be said of science which can just as readily be abused in order to wreak harm. Collective intuition is not less reliable than scientific objectivity; it simply represents an alternative basis of knowing. We should trust our subjectivity and not be frightened away from a proper awareness of sin.

In allowing itself to be frightened away and in seeking refuge in a supposedly more certain “objective rationality,” progressives concede the field of “public morality” to fundamentalists who would trivialize sin into questions of sex, alcohol and nudity. The concession looses half the argument and fails to give tenor to what we all intuitively know.


Bringing l’esprit de finesse to bear on Jamie Dimon’s paradigm of behavior allows us to see the fundamentally sinful and socially destructive nature of the bankster soul.

The geometry of avarice is simple. It consists in grabbing more than one needs and, given the finitude of resources, thereby taking what is needed by others. The finesse of the matter is not simply charging more than what is needed to cover the costs of operations, but a repudiation of our communality. It is a mindset from which fellow feeling is absent.

This absence is expressed in art by paintings of the hunched and inwardly turned miser counting his coin. The miser’s turn inward is a turn away from society. He represents the paradox that a bloated ego is a shrivelled one.

In the Old Testament, indifference to the needs of the poor is the Sin of Sodom. (Ezekiel 16:46-50) The New Testament calls avarice "the root of all evil." (1 Timothy 6:10) Medieval thought viewed avarice as the sin most offensive to the spirit of love which, as we have noted, was understood to be the animating and unifying force of society.

It is a mistake to ignore this tradition of moral understanding or to be embarrassed by it. William Jenning Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech is powerful to this day not because it is good rhetoric but because the image is true.

And crucifying man is what Dimon and Moynihan have done and continue to do. We should not forget that Bank of America, Wells Fargo and banks throughout the land were, directly or through fraudulent alter egos, responsible for the mortgage meltdown and global financial collapse that ensued.

We do well to remember that the corporate cretins who want to charge “more for the burger” are the same criminals who fraudulently colluded in chopping, packaging and off loading knowingly worthless mortgages. These same crooks are now trying to foreclose on properties they don’t have title to precisely because they “diced and dished” the securities. Next to such scum, Shylock was a saint.

But in the twisted world of perfect bankster equity, the same parties who caused the financial meltdown, get bailed out with tax-payer money. When flooded with treasury dollars at effectively negative interest, these same banks still refuse to lend or to renegotiate mortgages. When the common economic interest depends on restimulating consumer spending, these same banks still insist on charging 15% to 24% credit card interest and now insist on the right to suck out of the economy 20 billion a year in debit card fees.

The planned debit charges are not some isolated incident of over-reaching. They are yet another maw of a man eating plant that needs to be raked up, eradicated and purged from the garden.

America the Beautiful sings to us about more than amber fields of grain. Katherine Lee Bates, gave voice to an American exceptionalism grounded in a higher consciousness purified of sin,

Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

And nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

That happier song should be our anthem.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In the Shadow of the Shibboleth

Once again, 9/11 has rolled around and the media is overflowing with stories of horror and heroism. They publish analyses of the event, analyses of the aftermath, analyses of the war on terrorism and spectacular reruns of buildings collapsing in gargantuan clouds of smoke. Already in the run-up to the anniversary the New York Times ran a front page picture captioned “APOCALYPSE”. Nine Eleven has become a shibboleth.

A shibboleth is an arbitrary, and often insignificant, quality, fact or circumstance which is used to draw a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The fact -- in this case an event -- is endowed with a sacrosanct status and soon becomes a taboo because its divisive force can only be maintained through unquestioning horror buttressed by emotions of fear and pity. Once so endowed, the shibboleth becomes its own self-sustaining psychologic -- a sort of perpetual emotion machine; a monstrous idol before whom all mutely bow.

The Tar Baby was (and in many ways remains) America’s fundamental shibboleth. The taboo quality was, of course, blackness, against which Bre’r Rabbit became hopelessly and helplessly stuck the more he tried to analyze and deal with the situation.

Let us hazard to put an end to the nonsense.

The lesson to be analyzed out of 9/11 was as plain as day for anyone to see, even on Apocalypse + Two. All that was needed was to listen to what the Administration was actually saying.

As soon as he was released from whatever bunker he had fled to, President Bush announced a War on Terrorism. Wherever they were, whoever they were, them terrorists would be hunted down and brought to justice. But the Administration went further, also promising to "go after terrorism and get it by its branch and root."

In so saying, the Administration blurred the distinction between the specific and the general, between reaction and preemption, between punishing culprits and crusading against an abstraction. Bush's declaration of war against an invisible danger at once created its own necessity and gave birth to a vicious paradox that just as necessarily confused 'them' and 'us'.

Whoever they are.” The entire difficulty with the phenomenon of terrorism is that it is not conducted by official or state agents but is carried out by anonymous actors at random. The proposed action -- in this case a 'war' -- immediately embroils us in three levels of 'known unknowns': a non-present, unspecified harm by an uncertain actor. The object which we declare to be our enemy is simply a “potential” -- something that could, but has not actualized.

Fighting an unknown enemy is not the same thing as chasing after an unknown suspect. From the outset, the Administration confused the two, so that the chase after bin Laden illustrated the fundamental fault involved in creating the hybrid of a 'suspect enemy'.

Within hours of the Twin Tower collapse and even before the identities of the hijackers were known, U.S. officials began fingering Osama bin Laden as a possible or potential suspect based on a so-called “list of candidates.” Within a day, he became a “likely” suspect and a day later got elevated to "a" [sic] “prime” suspect -- none of which said more than that he was a probable, possible culprit.

The Administration's redundant blabber betrayed that the Government had nothing more than the usual scuttlebutt of links, leads, associations and activities "consistent" with an hypothesis of guilt. In the criminal context, such so-called 'soft evidence' will eventually coalesce around the hard facts of a crime that has happened. But everyone and anyone is a 'possible suspect'. How is it possible to 'root out' unknown suspects of terrorism that might happen? As we noted at the time,

“What the Government will have to presume is that everyone is at least a potential terrorist. In the most fundamental sense that is a presumption which is entirely antithetical to the concept of civil friendship, i.e., societas." (Woodchip Gazette, 010915)

The spectacular shibboleth of 9/11 gave rise to a massive self perpetuating contradiction. The enemy against whom we distinguished ourselves was in ourselves.

In 2008 then CIA chief, Mike McConnell, told Congress that “the enemy” had developed the capacity to “blend in” such that anyone one of us could be one of them. If it took McConnell seven years to figure out that terrorists tend to “blend in” he is the stupidest man on the planet.

In fact, the Administration understood perfectly well from the start that 'prime suspects' tend to 'hide out' within the general population. McConnell was just spooking a terrorized Congress into another round of liberty concessions.

But the spooking works because a cry of danger always creates its own apparent necessity. A danger is simply the possibility of a harmful event. Because a potential can always potentially be present, the declaration that the potential exists cannot be refuted. It is impossible to prove that what could exist in actuality doesn't exist in potentiality. As a result, we become trapped by what is, at bottom, an imaginary evil.

The evil is imaginary not because an instance of it may not have happened but because a danger is no more than a potential evil which might and, thus, can be imagined to happen. The awful spectacle of towers collapsing in flame and smoke was a true picture of an evil that had taken place. It was also the image of an evil that could again take place. The smoldering ruins became the conjunction between "hunt down" culprits and "root out" terrorism.

Transfixed by the spectacle, our consciousness was suspended between horrified pity for the desperate victims jumping to their deaths and equally horrified fear that such a thing might happen again, perhaps even to us, ourselves. In this way the shibboleth of 9/11 fed off our own natural sentiments of sympathy and selfishness, so that the smouldering ruins became the visible symbol of Bush's bi-polar crusade to "smoke em out."

It is in this way as well that shibboleths induce collective madness. For the fight against an imagined, potential or hypothetical harm - in turn creates a reaction without an actual object. The fight becomes the exercise of a means without any actual and present purpose.

This is not to say that terrorism, like disease or like crime, does not exist. But it is to point out that the term “terrorism” is a general abstraction which covers all possible variants and instances. While it may be reasonable to take some precautions against a foreseeable harm, the wisdom of doing so depends on the specificity of the adverse potential, the probability of its occurrence and the impact of the precautionary measures on the people to be protected. Fighting potential terrorism wherever it may hide and however it may strike destroys the very thing one intends to save.

Doctors do not prescribe drugs for conditions which might exist undetected; and, despite destructive rhetoric from stupid and insipid politicians, we do not, in fact, “wage war on crime.” Society prosecutes specific instances of crimes that have taken place. The Bill of Rights places limits on searches and seizures and confessions precisely because not to do so results in society terrorizing itself under color of law.

And yet it was upon such a Crusade of Self-Destruction that Chief Beelzebub beckoned us when, from the pulpit at National Cathedral, he exhorted the Country “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

To retaliate against the actual perpetrators of specific attacks is one thing but to seek to rid the world of “evil” is in fact a sin. Christianity rejects the Manichean division of the world into forces of good and forces of evil precisely because to create the distinction necessarily endows an absence of good with a force mere emptiness would not otherwise have. We can respond to specific wants or injuries as conscience leads us, but to crusade against “evil” anywhere “righting the world’s wrongs” becomes its own catastrophe.

No doubt the Administration was impaling the country on an ambiguity which could be understood as equating the fighting of evil with the hunting down of culprits. But listening carefully to the way officials were talking over the course of three days, it was evident that the Government had in mind -- and confused -- two distinct objectives.

Politically speaking, Bush embarked us on an active war against variable and interchangeable suspect enemies anywhere coupled with an ongoing surveillance everywhere which assumes everyone's potential guilt unless and until actual innocence is proved. And it is worth noting that every time a person is asked to show identification or to pass through a scanner he is being required to prove his innocence. A nation that sees potential enemies everywhere is a psychotic danger to the world. A country that suspects itself has succumbed to political cancer.

This, then, is the sum and substance of the War on Terrorism and of everything that has ensued from the “apocalyptic” Twin Tower collapse.

There was, in fact, nothing “apocalyptic” about it. In the historical scheme of things the events of 9/11 do not hold a candle to the firestorms of Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima or to many other natural or man-made catastrophes. In all such grim and murderous events, victims meet horrible deaths and survivors bear devastating griefs. But while such misfortunes merit a decent respect, they do not become, by the mere fact of their existence, social or historical turning points.

What the events of 9/11 provided was a rivetting pyrotechnic spectacle which held us in a state of horrified suspended judgement neutralized by the twin prongs of pity and fear.

That! is what They! do” came the shout and with all the histrionic hysterics it could muster the Country ran into the chasm. Ten years on and we are still there; sagaciously, sentimentally, lacrimosely, obsessively tracing our steps and picking our wounds, “reliving the horror” and “taking stock of what it means for us”.

But the remembrances and analyses are merely shadows of the shibboleth, and do not seriously question its validity. The official and respectable opinion never questions whether we should be “at war” at all. Not at all. Evil did it; Evil must be punished! Again and again and again...

The comic moral of the Tar Baby fiasco is: Just let go! The tragic moral of the story is that Br’er Rabbit can’t.

We have met the enemy and we is stuck.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Friday, September 9, 2011

Obama’s Trojan Horse

In Thursday night’s Address to Congress and the Nation [1], President Obama seized the podium and, in echoes of Reagan to Gorbachev, repeatedly defied Congress to “pass this bill.” Congress is more likely to tear it down.

Obama used the occasion, first off, to appear aggressively in command. Congress is in disrepute and what better time to kick it when it is down? But Obama’s “in your faceness” betrayed his political weakness. From a truly powerful man, a wink or a nod is more than sufficient. Chanting demands is for the streets.

On the merits, Obama used the occasion to reclaim his tattered “progressive” mantle. One’s initial reaction could only be, Why didn’t he speak this way on behalf of a public option for medical care? The question contains the answer; but in order for it to reveal itself one has to first ask, What is progressivism ?

The essential idea of progressivism, by whatever of many names it might be called, is that the parts of the whole each and all operate for the sake of the whole. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it states a very different premise from saying that the parts of the whole each operate for their own benefit, or from saying that the parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves.

Americans have confused the three formulations and as a result the “progressive” or “liberal” or “union” movement in the country is itself in tatters. Contrast Teddy Roosevelt with Obama.

Defining the principles of the American Progressive Movement in Osawatomie Kansas, in August 1910, Roosevelt announced that “the New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” “Equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable... the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.” [2]

This formulation went beyond “levelling the playing field” or insuring that the competitive game was clean and fair. While progressivism included laws against “unfair” competition and “unsafe” profit-making as well as provisions for some redistribution of wealth, it went beyond the mere softening of hard-knock capitalism. Its fundamental tenet was that all components of society were answerable to the good of the common wealth.

In his address to Congress, there were moments when Obama sounded almost Rooseveltian. “Yes, we are rugged individualists” whose self-reliant drive built the world’s greatest economy, he said; “but there’s always been another thread running throughout our history -- a belief that we’re all connected... that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. ... No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.”

But Obama’s fine print told a more nuanced story. The immediate goal of the Jobs Act, he said, was “to provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled” by putting money into consumers’ pockets. The long term goal was to “mak[e] America more competitive.” The difficulty with this goal is that, from a progressive point of view, it is incomplete. It omitted the at least co-equal goal of making America more fair and socially secure for its citizens. Obama's goal-formulation subtly equated “America” with “business” -- an equation worthy of Calvin Coolidge.

The equivalency occurred more than once throughout his delivery. At the beginning of his speech Obama alluded to an America “where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while.” And further, “On all of our efforts to strengthen competitiveness, we need to look for ways to work side by side with America’s businesses.”

Such statements were a clear retreat from the concept of business as a “servant” of the commonwealth. They returned instead to the idea that parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves. The goal was simply to get the existing machinery moving again. The paradigm Obama announced was that of government helping business while business kept labor peace with decent salaries and benefits. This was little different than, “For God’s sake! Keep the peasants placid!”

Perhaps we are quibbling over semantics? After all, “why roam the world looking for better bread than is made from wheat?” Obama is certainly not a socialist. Whatever he does, it is clear he aims to do it with and through business. And, at a strictly functional level, progressivism has always engineered things with and through business, regardless of how it formulated its overall political concept or purpose.

However, the deceit of a Trojan Horse is that it looks like a horse and may function as a horse while it contains a secret, different and destructive purpose inside.

Obama tipped his hand midway through the speech when he stated that his proposed Jobs Act would be fully “paid for” through “a more ambitious deficit plan ... that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run. This approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.”

The use of the word “more” was like a Greek toe sticking out from the hoof of the Trojan Horse. Was the Jobs Act really a “deficit plan” ? If the Jobs Act is paid for through an overall deficit plan, it becomes a component of that plan as much a closing loopholes, revising tax rates or anything else.

And the “anything else” which Obama has been “advocating for months” since he released his budget Fact Sheet in April 2011 includes cutbacks to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. April's budget fact sheet acknowledged,

“The President does not believe that Social Security is in crisis nor is a driver of our near-term deficit problems.” [3]
Nevertheless, the deficit reduction plan called for reduced pay-outs to medical service providers and for "adjustments" to Social Security cost-of-living increases.

In in his July 16th Weekly Address, Obama again elaborated on his concept of "shared sacrifice" stating,

“If we’re going to ask seniors, or students, or middle-class Americans to sacrifice, then we have to ask corporations and the wealthiest Americans to share in that sacrifice.” [4]
In other words, Obama's budget and deficit plans have always demanded that the poorest weakest elements of society "share" in the burden of reducing a deficit they in no way caused.

Last night, Obama all but stuck out a full foot when he acknowledged later on in his speech that the Jobs Act cum Deficit Plan would be paid for “by making modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid...” Why “like”? Are there other health programs that are significant? What other programs are “like” Medicare?

Anyone can compare Obama’s address last night with his April 2011 Deficit Plan. The bottom line is that the address was chock full of quotes and cribs from the Deficit Plan; and the core essence of that plan is to stimulate business while reducing the long term deficit.

However since the deficit was indisputably caused [5] by war spending and lower tax rates for the “corporate class” and since Obama proposes merely fringe adjustments to either, the difference has to be taken out of the hide of the old, the poor and infirm. That is nothing a true progressive would propose. Once again, Teddy Roosevelt,

“I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective - a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion.”

In contrast, President Obama has never proposed a genuinely progressive tax reform. Allowing tax give-aways to expire and closing "evasion" routes here and there does not reduce the grotesque income disparity which exists in the country. A key element of progressive thought has always been the belief that there can be no equal justice and no equal opportunity without equality of condition.

But that is not Obama's framework. In his view, America is a business dynamo and everything else is geared into making that dynamo spin. The reason he did not sound like a progressive in the Spring of 2009, is that he had no intention of substituting even an optional national health service in place of channelling funds into the "health dynamo" of for-profit drug and insurance, companies.

Polls show that the American people demand higher tax rates on those that own and control the economy. They demand an end to foreign wars and no cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare.

Those who enthusiastically voted for Obama hoping for a change did not sufficiently scrutinize his “puff talk”. Obama’s mephistofelian rhetoric is very good at insinuating an impression of what it is not. Last night’s was a stellar performance.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Linked References

[1] office/2011/09/08/address-president-joint-session-congress


[3] office/2011/04/13/fact-sheet-presidents-framework-shared prosperity-and-shared-fiscal-resp

[4] press%20office/2011/07/16/weekly-address-unique opportunity%20secure-our-fiscal-future



Friday, September 2, 2011

Flighting for Freedom

Yvonne is a cow. On May 24th she escaped en route to slaughter. Since then she has eluded the full force of the German Waldmacht and has remained on the lamb (oooooooh) despite the latest and bestest in cow-capturing technology: helicopters, heat-seeking cameras infra-red sensors and human bush-beaters wired into their cell phones. On August 30th, Yvonne was captured.

But not without an heroic fight, struggling ferociously to the last despite being stunned by two tranquilizer shots and being beset by a small swarm of humans with the Dread Opposable Thumb.

To give credit where credit is due, the Germans long ago abandonned the idea of shooting Yvonne and dragging her carcass to the chop shop (oooooooooh). Hunters were warned off while her would be-captors tried instead to coax her out of hiding with a handsome bull. No dice. The authorities were more or less resigned to letting Yvonne romp in the wild while they tried to figure something out. Now that Yvonne has been captured, she will be taken to a bovine rescue farm in Bavaria where her sister, Waltraud, and son, Friesi, await her. Although it appears that Bull Stud was a one time offer, it all ended well enough.

But as we contemplated the picture of Yvonne's heroic resistance, we thought back to Greek and Rennaisance sculptures of captured slaves and of Africans running through the forest of the South the sound of baying coon-hounds in the distance. Why, we wondered, should it be thought unusual that any sentient creature will flight for his freedom; what debasement of soul allows us to think that beating the spirit out of living things is natural and pastoral?

©Woodchipgazette, 2011
photo courtesy Der Spiegel ©

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mining, Harvesting and Civic Carcinogens in the National Security State

Two seemingly disconnected news articles recently caught our attention.

On May 30th, the New York Times News Service published a report on how the “FBI’s Counter-terrorism Operations” were “Scrutinizing Political Activists.” The article described the great lengths to which the Bureau went to spy on a self-described anarchist and organizer of anti corporate protests whose criminal record consisted entirely of being arrested at those demonstrations. In addition to combing through garbage, emails, and bank accounts, the FBI infiltrated meetings and deployed agents to strike up fake friendships with the investigated suspect. A former FBI agent turned civil libertarian considered the program to be a colossal farce. “You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find terrorism,” he said, “fortunately, there isn’t a lot of terrorism in many communities, so they end up pursuing people who are critical of the government” and mislabelling non violent civil disobedience as ‘terrorism’.

A few days before, on May 25th, the U.K. Guardian carried a story which reported on criticism of General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to the war-torn country. Earlier this year, Petraeus told Congress that “precision operations by US special mission units” were killing or capturing “some 360 targeted insurgent leaders” every 90 days. [1] According to the Guardian, Petraeus’s staff argued that the tactic was demoralizing the Taliban and would ultimately make the movement more likely to agree to a peace deal on the terms agreeable to the West. [2] Cowper Coles criticised the strategy, stating that “boasting” about “body counts” was “profoundly wrong” and not “conducive to a political settlement.” Cowper-Coles added, “it produces tactical success in cleansing insurgents out of particular areas, but it's essentially moving water around a puddle, and I think any general who boasts of the number of Pashtun insurgents he's killed should be ashamed of himself."


At first blush, the stories fell into the Keystone Kops category -- gub’mint unglued, doing outrageous but otherwise ineffectually stupid things. However, the apparent ineffectiveness hides a more sinister and socially cancerous mechanism at work. The stories illustrate how the National Security State creates its own non-existent necessities.

The denouement was the poisonous fruit of the Government’s vow to protect the country from terrorism. Ten years ago, when President Bush first announced the “war on terrorism,” our blog observed

“What the Government will have to presume is that everyone is at least a potential terrorist. In the most fundamental sense that is a presumption which is entirely antithetical to the concept of civil friendship, i.e., societas." (Woodchip Gazette, 010915)
The fight against an imagined harm -- that is, a harm which could exist in general but which is not specifically present -- creates a reaction without an actual object; the exercise of a means without an actual purpose.

It always helps to begin with Latin. To pro-tect means to raise a barrier before something. By extension, it means to take preventative measures against a contemplated harm. How then does government protect us from terrorism? To erect a wall against a present and identifiable external enemy is one thing; but what happens when the harm is an enemy who might e anyone, anywhere? How do we fight a war against potential enemies?

The entire difficulty with the phenomenon of terrorism is that it is not conducted by an official or state agent but is carried out by anonymous actors at random. We are immediately embroiled in three levels of “known unknowns” -- a non-present, unspecified harm by an uncertain actor.

In 2008 then CIA chief, Mike McConnell, told Congress that “the enemy” had developed the capacity to “blend in” -- in other words, that anyone one of us could be one of them. If it took McConnell seven years to figure out that terrorists tend to “blend in” he is the stupidest man on the planet. [3]

President Bush’s vow to detect and defend against terrorism ipso facto placed all ‘blendables’ under suspicion. By definition, su[b]-spicion (from the Latin 'to look under') replaces the face-value of things with an imagined harm or hypothesized guilt assumed to be lurking behind appearances. Since everyone is at least a ‘a potential enemy suspect’, civic trust is replaced by suspicion and a necessity for general surveillance has been created ex nihilo.

This is not a play on words. The general theory of data mining is that random bits of innocent facts can and eventually will disclose guilty patterns not detectable with primitive linear thinking such as concepts of probable cause. Innocence Hides Guilt and In Garbage There is Truth.

Nor are these simply Orwellian slogans, they are slogans which reflect an Orwellian corruption of civil society at a very root level.

Apologists for the national security state have argued that “rooting out” terrorism was no different than “waging war” against crime. Without doubt, terrorism is a species of crime; i.e. random, unauthorized, anti-social behavior committed by anyone so inclined. The defect was not in the analogy but in the assumed premise that we “wage war” against criminals. We do not and the Constitution with good reason places strict limits on the official reaction to criminality.

Aristotle pointed out centuries ago that what we call society is simply a network and hierarchy of friendships. We assume that everyone of us, at some basic level, is at least not an enemy. If our root assumption is precisely the opposite -- that anyone is a potential terrorist -- our self-protection has metastasized into self-destruction.

The same cancerous paradigm applies to the New World Order’s ongoing “zonal wars” in Iraq, Af-Pakistan and -- soon -- Mexico. The difference is that what is guarded against in this case is not potential terrorism but potential potential. This necessitates more drastic measures such that surveillance is replaced by killing.

Colonialism is nothing new and has existed at least since the days when Greeks and Romans established outpost settlements (coloni) in hostile territories. What distinguishes present day zonal wars from their historical antecedents is the method and nature of their emplacement.

The post Cold War methodology was first drafted as of 1992 in Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s proposed Defense Planning Guide. [ 5 ], [ 6 ] This draft was then polished up in a white paper entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses [ 7 ] published by the defense-industry funded Project for a New American Century (PNAC). This paper in turn got massaged into the official National Security Strategy of the United States of America, promulgated in September 2002. Although not an official government document, the PNAC paper serves as a fundamental text which accurately reflects official policy.

The premise of zonal wars is that “potentially powerful states” might challenge America’s geo-political preeminence or “expand their own influence.” (Rebuilding etc., p. i; ch. 1, p. 2.) This requires a “refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential global competitor." (Planning Guide Memorandum, 18 Feb. 1992, I 91/28291, p. 4.) Accordingly, the United States needs to “preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces” and by developing “the full range of missions needed to exercise U.S. global leadership.” (Rebuilding, p. iv.)

The key word, here as in other contexts, is ‘potential’ which, it bears repeating, refers to a happenstance which can be imagined to occur. Here, as with suspicion, an actual policy is built upon an imagined circumstance. Of course, ‘contingency planning’ is nothing new but critical to the reasonableness of the plan is the probability and specificity of the allegedly foreseeable condition. To plan for ‘a possibility’ without specification is nonsense.

Once again Latin. The word ‘potential’ derives from potens or “power” -- and refers to a latent or possible power to do something. To speak of “potentially powerful states” is to say nothing more than that another country could become powerful.

Thus deconstructed, the avowed purpose of U.S. geo-political policy is meaningless as a true purpose. A purpose consists in the doing of X in order to cause or achieve a specific Y. In contrast, the goal of the so called ‘missions’ is to prevent a potential -- to stop something that might occur but has not occurred. How does one stop something that has not occurred?

Since the object-condition is in fact imaginary, the only real factor left is the means itself; that is, the meeting of an imaginary power with the exercise of real power.

As implemented, the full range of zonal missions includes, “deployment o[f] forward operating bases” as a “force multiplier” in “power projection operations.” (Rebuilding, p. 20.) These power projection operations include “constabulary” duties for "shaping the security environment in critical regions.” ( Ibid, pp. iv and 6.)

Once again, ‘purpose-based language’ is merely a cover for the ongoing exercise of so-called ‘leadership’ and what the leadership boils down to is ‘power projection’ and the purpose of power projection is to prevent any other state or group from becoming a ‘potential rival’.

Americans are notoriously careless of language, as if meaning could be conveyed apart from the words used. But it is critical to grasp the meaning of policy junk-speak that employs terms like “potential rival” or “potential threat.” A potential rival is an entity which is not but could become a rival. A potential threat is the possibility of a potential harm.

In either case a policy is conjured up against potential but imaginary objects so that the means is the only reality left. Stripped of bureaucratic burble, U.S. policy is simply Bad Bad Leroy Brown Comes to Town to throw His Weight Around. (See Rebuilding, p. 11.)

And what is brought to town are zonal occupations in which everyone is placed under suspicion and treated accordingly. The word ‘constabulary’ used in the PNAC paper never found much acceptance among military bureaucrats who prefer words like ‘stabilizing’ or the more traditional ‘peace-keeping’. No matter; the underlying concepts are the same. The 'shaping' takes the form of degrading civil society and making the zone itself less viable and less secure on the theory that a weakened zone presents less of a so-called ‘potential threat’.

Needless to say, the usual pogey-bait is proffered up with yap about enhancing democracy, protecting human rights and building economies where individual entrepreneurship can thrive. Without deconstructing each of the tweets, it will suffice to say that each of these subsidiary goals must ultimately align and conform to the primary goal of ‘power projection’. Whatever might be served up as window-dressing, ‘shaping the security environment’ means promoting chaos in order to retain control.

The PNAC mavens were brazenly candid about this, going so far as to state that "constabulary missions" were "likely" to "generate" violence. (Rebuilding, p. 11.)

How does maintaining security manage to generate violence? It does so because the reality under the label consists in degrading infrastructures while engineering a low level state of ongoing urban, ethnic and social warfare. So called ‘full spectrum’ military-police-intelligence operations include infiltration, random searches, arbitrary arrests, and generally brutalizing the civilian population by both provoking incidents and responding to the provocation.

It is within this full-spectrum, strategic context that Petraeus’s reference to “precision operations by US special mission units” must be understood. These American einsatzgruppen are simply the ongoing preemptive response to potential provocation.

Such a policy of ‘power projection’ against potentials is simply an abuser’s wet dream. “I’m going to beat you until you love me” is not a true foundation for civil society; unless, that is, civil society is to be degraded in to a vast sado-masochist spectacle.

The difference between the FBI’s “ongoing surveillance of potential terrorists” and U.S./NATO “power projection missions” is simply a question of spectral intensity; but the inherent purposelessness is the same.

In the concluding chapters of 1984, Orwell explains that, under IngSoc, the Inner Party realized it was no longer necessary to conjure up reasons for the exercise of power; rather, the projection of power was its own self sufficient good.

The image of society in 1984 is that of a boot in the face.

Effectively speaking, Orwell’s image forms the operative nexus between the two seemingly disconnected reports. It makes no difference that the FBI surveillance is teleologically absurd; it is the nature of NatSec to maintain surveillance, period.

Similarly, it makes no difference to Petraeus that the best way to negotiate with a party is to set up a table and chairs; “disposing” the Taliban to negotiate is its own power-projecting goal.


The mistake of progressives and the so-called Left has been to assume that what was at issue is a policy -- a Bush doctrine, a NeoCon strategy an Obama Formula. What evolved was not a “policy” but a political cancer.

The metastasizing event was like a tromp d’oeil in which positive potentials got replaced with negative ones. As with individuals, it is the nature of the social organism to give vent to inchoate, latent potentials -- what is usually called the 'creative energy of a people.' These are unknown but knowable. In contrast, defense against knowable unknowns produces a contractive effect. The fight against potential terrorism and potential power ends up suspecting everything, disorienting everything, subverting everything and, ultimately, destroying everything. As a society, the United States is being consumed by its self-defense.

That said, it is important not to confuse the image of the state with underlying causes. While it is possible that a state could become endemically and institutionally sadistic per se, it behooves us to attempt a diagnosis as to what forces or factors are driving the Orwellian denouement.

Likewise, while it is true that the United States has turned its own citizens into “potential enemies” and has become the abuser in ongoing abusive relationships around the world, it overstates the case to say that there is no ulterior purpose beyond sadistic indulgence in a power-projection paradigm.

The difficulty in detecting a qui bono results from the contextual shift entailed in global capitalism.

Wars for bananas are nothing new. However, they have hitherto followed a discrete national pattern whereby country X saw resource Y in region Z and thereupon intruded and grabbed. If profit followed the flag it was because capitalism itself subsisted in a national context or phase. In contrast, the globalization of capitalism necessarily resulted in a corresponding globalization of gunboat diplomacy.

At that point, a threshold was passed. What is the target when all is one? When two parts operating within a larger sphere are at war, the picture is one of con-flict, meaning literally the butting of two rams heads. But what is the picture when the inter-national whole is itself at war with itself? The picture there is simply one of ongoing convulsions and contractions, globally.

The “war” in Afghanistan corroborates this analysis. Since the 1980’s the existence of natural gas reserves in Central Asia (Turkmenistan) implicated the foreseeable need for a pipeline either through Turkey to the Mediterranean or through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

However, the building of such a pipeline represented a major investment requiring multiple investors, the consent of multiple countries and multiple agreements concerning purchasing rights, transit licenses, transport agreements and so on. One does not sink billions into a project only to see what fair winds might bring at the end of the day.

Thus, as of 1997 UNOCAL, on behalf of an international consortium of oil companies entered into negotiations with the Taliban [sic] over pipeline rights through Afghanistan. In 1998, UNOCAL (USA), Gazprom (Russia), Delta Oil. Co. (Saudi Arabia) and TurkmenRusgaz, as investors, finalized a sheaf of agreements with Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as represented by the Taliban.

Speaking on behalf of UNOCAL, V.P., John Maresca, tooted the benefits of these agreements but told Congress that “without [a] peaceful settlement of conflicts within the region, cross-border oil and gas pipelines are not likely to be built.” Noting that the proposed pipeline traversed Taliban controlled territory, he stated that UNOCAL could not begin construction “until an internationally recognized Afghanistan government [was]in place.” [8 ]

Some have interpreted this statement as a call for the Taliban to be overthrown. It was not. UNOCAL had just reached an agreement with the Taliban. It was politically neutral statement which belabored the obvious fact that solid agreements can exist only between solid parties.

Instead, President Clinton bombed Afghanistan and UNOCAL halted its activities (Aug. 1998). A month later, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency financed an Enron study for a pipeline through Turkey. In April 1999 Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan re-activated the pipeline project without UNOCAL participation. Two months later, Clinton froze Taliban assets in the U.S. Thereafter, the U.S. government and the Taliban held intermittent negotiations through August 2001.

Historically speaking, business has always been conducted in tandem with ongoing collateral power-projections. But where business deals themselves involve a full spectrum of interests and issues, it inevitably follows that the ancillary gunboat “diplomacy” should also involve the deployment of “full-spectrum” activities.

This brief recapitulation illustrates the multi-party, multi-region, multi-issue complexity of resource wars within a globalized economy. It is very difficult to see whose flag is flying over what where.

What we are witnessing is the turning of a grand historical cycle whereby capitalism reverts to the feudalism from which it emerged.

Economically speaking, what is conveniently called “feudalism” was a system in which government and economy were localized and privatized. Although the chaos of the Middle Ages has been exaggerated by bourgeois apologists, as a whole, the feudal system was both fragmented and fluid. The emergent nation state, solved the fragmentation problem on the domestic level and translated the fluidity problem to the newly defined ‘inter-national’ sphere.

From this perspective it can be seen that national capitalism and nationalised control of production served at least to delineate, and to some extent, restrain conflict. However, as far back as 1994, Le Monde Diplomatique [ See Note 9, infra ] warned that nation states had lost control over their economies and had been reduced to mere agencies which could do little more than react to international corporate behemoths. The state no longer included corporate personalities acting under its umbrella but rather global corporations used subsidiary states as agents and user-interfaces. Dick Cheney seized the day and turned this circumstance into his “Kill the Beast” policy which explicitly aimed to destroy government as an autonomous actor.

If a corporate creature like Cheney can regard the United States Government as a beast, what must he think of insects like Bolivia or Iraq?

As a result, ‘global capitalism’ is at once a progression forward and a reversion backwards. The system of capitalist production and exchange has reached an end state apotheosis. A mode of analysis that is stuck in an archaic and linear concept of causality does not take into account that, under global capitalism, chaos serves profit. The last thing corporate privateers want is a strong nation state (e.g., “Saddam”) in potential control of its own resources.

Within this globalized commerce, the qui bono both exists and does not exist at the same time. Ongoing full spectrum power projections do not really benefit “American” interests or “French” or “Brazilian.” Nor can they be said to benefit this or that international corporation because, as the Afghanistan situation illustrates, even with respect to a single commodity, no single corporation has its hand on the full banana.

After six years and billions of U.S. dollars, no American company controls Iraqi oil. In 2009, the government in Baghdad held two rounds of oil auctions. In the first round, of U.S. companies, only Exxon-Mobil won any contracts. The rest went to approximately 35 oil companies from China, India, Algeria, Angola, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. [10] [6] Winners in the second round included Russia’s Lukoil, UK’s Shell, Malaysia’s Petronas without there being any American takers. [11] [13]

"No one, even the United States, can steal the oil, whatever people think," an Iraqi oil ministry spokesman crowed. [ 12 ] But there is no “Iraqi” oil. Thirty six years after Saddam Hussein had nationalized the oil, the current auctions were held on a field-by-field basis with various provinces and ethnic groups imposing their conditions and demanding their cuts. The “oil ministry” is simply a flow through valve for petro-feudalism.

As the denouement in Iraq illustrates, ‘power-projections’ end up benefitting a systemic variable; that is, any entity which may be a ‘significant player’ at any given time. There is simply no ‘qui’ rather the system as such serves as its own ‘bono’. Where the evil to be feared and the benefit to be gained are both merely ‘possible potentials’ the means generates its own good.

Thus distilled, the civic cancer and the global qui bono are one and the same. Putting aside the irrelevance of what individual borg-units might feel, the full boot of the national security state is not an exercise in sado masochism for its own sake but is engaged in for the “good of the system” -- a good which serves any potential beneficiary in any instance but no one and nothing permanent at any time.

In a word, capitalism’s ultimate commodity has become civil society itself.

©WoodchipGazette, 2011.

Notes & References

[1] Petraeus Testimony, 3/11/2011 matrix/archives/2011/03/full_text_of_general_petraeus.php#ixzz1OyeyY4fj

[2] Cowper-Coles Criticism tactics-profoundly-wrong-ambassador?intcmp=239

[3] Blendables

[5]Defense Planning Guide

[6]Defense Planning Guide

[7]PNAC: Rebuilding America’s Defenses

[8] UNOCAL Corp. to House Committee on International Relations, SubComittee on Asia and the Pacific (February 12, 1998)

[9] Une Capitalisme Hors de Control -Les Chantiers de la Démolition Sociale par Serge Halimi Le Monde Diplomatique (July 1994)

[10]Iraqi Oil Contract Auctions

[11] Iraqi Oil Contract Auctions

[12] Iraqi Oil Contract Auctions usa-oil-idUSTRE5BB18Q20091212

[13]Iraqi Oil Contract Auction

[14] Woodchip Articles on National Security & Zonal Policies