February 22, 2012

Finance, Food & Force: How We Wound Up In This Mess

[This is not the first time Stan Goff's name had cropped up at Fire on the Mountain. What was perhaps his single greatest contribution to the anti-war movement is remembered here, for instance. This piece, reposted with Stan's permission from his own Feral Scholar blog gives a masterful overview of the deep roots of the ongoing economic meltdown.]

The Roles of Finance, Food, and Force in US Foreign Policy

by Stan Goff

The Text of a Lecture at Pennsylvania State University-School of International Affairs, February 2, 2012

Before I begin, I’d like to thank Jan Burnett and Casey Hilland of the School of International Affairs Student Government Association, as well as Dr. Tiyanjana Maluwa, Dr. Tineke Cunning, and John G. Hodgson, all of whom I understand were instrumental in organizing this gathering tonight.

It seems important at the outset to make a few disclaimers. First of all, I am by no means qualified as an expert, in the usual sense of that word, on foreign policy. My personal experience of it was as an instrument of policy within the military special operations community. Even within that community, I was an enlisted man who had gone in and out of the service, graduating through five of my pay grades two times each because of breaks in service. I was not a commissioned officer, nor was I ever a member of anyone’s staff. In fact, I can say that I felt about staff positions about the same way most of us would feel about avian flu; and I earnestly and successfully avoided those positions.

Nor am I am academic. I hold a bachelor's degree from an institution that I have never seen firsthand that specialized in awarding non-resident degrees for military people. My degree, moreover, was in liberal studies with an emphasis in English literature. I have looked into foreign policy and a host of other subjects on my own since 1996 when I separated once and for all from military service. But I have not been formally trained as a foreign policy intellectual.

My work since leaving the army has included non-profit organizing, policy research, security consulting, technical advice, writing, some public speaking, grocery bagging, pizza delivery, landscaping labor, stone masonry, and deconstruction. The latter was not in any way associated with post-modern studies, but was literally deconstructing houses--demolishing them by hand to recover building materials for re-use.

So if there is an appeal to authority raised against my remarks tonight, I have no defense that can be based on credentials.

My political genealogy may also raise a few questions, because I have at different times throughout my life counted myself a conservative, a libertarian, an anarchist, a nationalist pragmatist, a liberal, a Marxist, a pro-feminist; and now my political identity is Christian, though in a way more closely associated with Mennonites or Catholic Worker communities than evangelicals. I am neither conservative nor liberal, and I dislike the term “progressive.”

Again, if anyone objects to my remarks, they are welcome to infer that I have an agenda based on any portion of that political genealogy. I probably have several agendas, but I hope by the time I am finished that you will allow that I am not hiding them.

In 1983, I was in Guatemala. I was there when General Mejia-Victores led a coup d’etat against Efrian Rios-Montt’s regime. In 1985, I was in El Salvador, at the same time that President Duarte’s daughter Inez Guadalupe was kidnapped by the FMLN and exchanged for a number of prisoners. In neither case was I involved directly with those most notable events, but in both cases I was working directly out of the United States Embassy. While my actual role in these places is still classified, what I have to say about these experiences does not relate directly to the work but to my observations of the inner workings of a US Embassy, and those observations are general enough to avoid running afoul of the law.

Embassies, I discovered, were not much different than the military staffs I’d avoided. They were bureaucratic, simultaneously authoritarian and conformist, and there was great deal of superficial courtesy that papered over a red-toothed and Hobbesian struggle for career advancement. But more to the point of this talk, I was obliged to check the Ambassador’s itinerary each day.

As it turned out in both cases, Guatemala and El Salvador, where each of these governments was waging war against its own people, the Ambassador’s most frequent visits were not to the chief of state, or the chief of state’s staff, or even to the host nation’s military chief of staff. The most regular and frequent meetings were with the national Chambers of Commerce. This is when--for a soldier who hadn’t thought enough about it--I came to realize that politics is about business, and that the political class serves the interests of the business class.

It was around that time, in the early 80s, that macro-economic forces were shaping a new form of international economy and corresponding changes in US foreign policy.

In 1973, as a protest against the US rescue of Israel from an impending defeat by the Egyptians in the Yom Kippur War, Arab nations implemented an oil embargo against the US, creating day-long gas lines that broke up only when filling stations pumped out their last drop of gasoline.

Oil prices rose dramatically, creating a tremendous windfall profit for oil producing states. Oil was denominated in US dollars, and those additional dollars were invested at Wall Street by the same oil producers who were withholding gasoline from the US.

Wall Street does not sit on money. Wall Street firms are rentier capitalists, that is, they use money to make more money; and so the glut of petrodollars from the Arab oil states was converted into vast development loans for poorer countries, especially in Latin America.

These loans, not unlike the subprime mortgages we know and love today, had adjustable rates. During the latter Carter years, the United States--for reasons we won’t elaborate here--suffered something the economists hadn’t anticipated: simultaneous lack of growth--stagnation--and rapid inflation, which came to be known as stagflation.

Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker responded to this with something called the Volcker Shock, that is, since inflation was the greater danger to the rentier capitalists, he raised the interest rate from 7.5% to 21.5%, doubling US unemployment rates, while making large creditors whole. These elevated interest rates were passed along, via Wall Street institutions, to those Latin American countries that had received the aforementioned development loans, creating a crisis in Latin America. This shock doctrine lasted from 1979 to 1982, and when Reagan was in office in 1982, Mexico announced that it was about to default on its Wall Street loans, stranding Wall Street with more than $100 billion in losses.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the US government stepped in to bail out Wall Street’s finance capitalists. This was a bailout loan to Mexico, but the intent and the urgency was to ensure that Wall Street didn’t take a bath on the Mexican default. The vehicle for loans to cover the previous loans to Mexico was the International Monetary Fund, an international institution formed in the latter years of World War II, in which the US exercises a very dominant role. But this time, the bailout loans had something attached to them in addition to interest, called “conditionalities.”

These conditions included several ultimatums--that Mexico’s internal markets be opened to US-based investors, including US multinational corporations, that labor and environmental standards be rolled back to increase the rate of profit in order to pay back the restructured loans, and that regressive tax structures be implemented – also to assist in the payback of the loans. A structural imperative, though not one of the specified conditions, was also that Mexican enterprises--in particular, agriculture--be converted from production for local consumption to export products to get more of the US dollars required to service the restructured but now vastly expanded external debt.

Using similar crises, the IMF proceeded over the next few years to impose these conditionalities--called structural adjustment programs--on the majority of nations of the global periphery, effectively undermining their national sovereignty inasmuch as the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, all US-dominated pre-market institutions that manage the so-called “free” market, came to dictate the economic policies of these structurally-adjusted nations.

While these were originally contingent measures used to take advantage of Mexico’s crisis, the Reagan administration soon realized that they had stumbled onto a model that could be used around the world to open home markets to US investment under conditions that were very advantageous to US investors. Moreover, it was a way to capture the political leadership of debtor nations in a dollar-dominated system, which would come to be known as neoliberalism.

I realize that this is a fly-over at several thousand feet, and that I am overlooking many of the details of this process, but I only want to establish a kind of historical context wherein neoliberalism is intelligible, in order to explain subsequent claims about US foreign policy, which has been largely formed by the imperatives of neoliberal policy.

Neoliberalism itself is now in a bit of a crisis, because the same financial establishment that was turned loose on the world by the emergence of neoliberalism has both worn out its welcome around the world--creating great popular resistance to its diktat--but it has created tens of trillions of dollars of fictional value from runaway speculation, threatening the very currency around which the entire system is based.

The US-dominated financial system, called the “Dollar-Wall Street regime” by Peter Gowan and Susan Strange, also found a way to exercise managerial control over first world economies like Western Europe and emerging market economies like China and Brazil. This power was exercised not in the US role as creditor, but in the US role as debtor.

This story actually begins at the end of World War II and continues to the present. The Soviet Union--itself savagely wounded by the war--attempted to secure a post-war partnership with its capitalist war allies in order to regroup. More than 27 million Soviet citizens had been killed, and cities were in ruins all the way to Stalingrad. When the Truman administration opted for the National Security State as an industrial strategy that could capitalize on the ramp-up for the war, it needed an enemy to justify the expenditures of what Eisenhower would christen the “military-industrial complex.” The overtures from the USSR for a post-war peace were rejected in favor of official hostility by Truman. This provocative posture locked Western Europe into a military alliance with the US, and put an official stamp on the US foreign policy of “containment.”

This inaugurated a long period of proxy war, the first in Korea, later in Vietnam. While the US was enjoying the fruit of post-war dollar dominance, Keynesian high employment, and a robust trade surplus, however, the militarization of US domestic and foreign policy created a mounting national debt. The US was indebting itself to other metropolitan nations. The US was borrowing money from Europeans to finance its military adventures in Asia, then running printing presses to make up the difference. Because the dollar’s value was fixed for redemption at 1/35th of an ounce of gold, the US could print money without fear of draining the dollar of its value, which was being used for capital investment in Europe.

In the theoretical market, the value of a currency is determined by how it balances against an aggregate of commodities. Too few units of currency and prices fall. Too many units of currency and prices rise. The latter is inflation--the nemesis of loan sharks and bankers because it reduces the future purchasing power of collected principle and interest. So the dollar was losing purchasing power on the market, even as it remained exchangeable for European currencies at the same fixed rate.

The US was printing more money, but because the dollar was fixed to gold, the Europeans were watching their markets flooded with overvalued dollars, which they had to accept. The market may have been saying that a dollar should be redeemable for francs or marks or pounds at one rate, but the post-war currency-control regime determined that Europeans had to continue to give away purchasing power with every currency exchange for devalued dollars. The US was exporting its inflation to Europe by repaying its military expansion debts to Europeans in under-valued dollars.

So when the first Special Forces advisors went to Vietnam in 1957, the system that appeared so robust on the surface was already creating the conditions for its next crisis.

The Europeans, later buying gold elsewhere at well above the $35 per troy ounce, held onto their dollar denominated assets, hoping to redeem their dollars at something approaching their initial investment later. But by 1967, with the Vietnam War driving the US deficit to record levels, France started cashing dollars out for US gold, draining the US gold stock. The Keynesian system of tightly controlling finance capitalists, which included fixed currency exchange rates pegged to a gold-backed dollar, began to collapse in the face of the US decision to militarize its domestic and foreign policy.

On March 31, 1968, millions of Americans heard Lyndon Johnson announce on television that he would not run again for the presidency, and that he would not substantially escalate the Vietnam War, despite the strategic setback of the Tet offensive nearly two months earlier.

Unperceived by the public at large, the point finally had been reached at which depletion of the U.S. gold holdings had abruptly altered the country’s military policy. As financial historian Michael Hudson noted:

"The European financiers were forcing peace on us. For the first time in American history, our European creditors had forced the resignation of an American president."

But when the 1968 elections arrived, we saw a scenario that is familiar to us again. Democrats could not publicly argue for an end to the war, because withdrawal would mark the destruction of the myth of US military invincibility. The options available in response to the collapse of the US Gold Pool were (1) withdrawal from Vietnam, (2) continue the war and accept further losses of gold and with it the erosion of US global power, or (3) force the abandonment of the entire Bretton Woods regime beginning with the gold standard. Because the Democrats alienate a huge fraction of their base by refusing to oppose the war, Republican Richard Nixon was elected. In 1971, he selected Option 3. He abandoned the gold standard for the US dollar.

This was a staggering checkmate against the US’s alleged global allies. They had to do something with their trainloads of dollars to prevent their uncontrolled devaluation.

Quoting Hudson, "By going off the gold standard at the precise moment that it did, the United States obliged the world’s central banks to finance the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit by using their surplus dollars to buy US Treasury bonds, whose volume quickly exceeded America’s ability or intention to pay.

Twenty-five years [after WWII], the United States [discovered] the inherent advantage of being a world debtor. Foreign holders of any nation’s promissory notes are obliged to become a market for its exports as the means of obtaining satisfaction of their debts."

As the old saying goes, “if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. If you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank has a problem.

Nixon had not only erased US debt held by allies and forced perpetual European support for US military expenditures with the threat of tearing everyone’s financial house down, he had opened the way for rentier capitalists to escape the limitations put on it during the New Deal. That is precisely why Peter Gowan referred to Nixon’s risky destruction of the Bretton Woods fixed currency exchange rates as the “global gamble.”

New system: debtor imperialism.

Susan Strange referred to the new system as “casino capitalism.” The rentier capitalists were free to speculate without constraints; but more importantly, the US government, in collusion with Wall Street, had a new weapon to use against recalcitrant nations. Domestic currencies could be speculatively attacked; which is exactly what the US did to several Asian countries in 1998, which unexpectedly almost crashed the world economy. The threat of attack on currencies obliged central banks abroad to hold US dollars--in the form of US Treasury Bonds--in reserve, as a defense against speculative attacks on their currencies. These nations then became US creditors; but they were the banks who--as in the banker joke--had the problem.

To this day, no one--including China, about which there is a great deal of financial fear-mongering--can afford to begin a run on the dollar. Too many nations hold too many dollars to sell the dollar down without cutting off their noses to spite their faces. And yet all these creditor nations know that the US has neither the capacity nor the intention of paying back those loans.

China holds over a trillion dollars in US Treasury Bonds. Japan holds almost a trillion. The United Kingdom holds over 400 billion. Brazil holds more than 200 billion. The list goes on. If China were to initiate--as some China-phobes suggest--a cash-out of its t-bills, and that cash-out caused a run on the dollar destroying half its value, China would lose more than half a trillion dollars in purchasing power. This is a game of chicken that the US has, so far, won every time.

The key to dominance in the world of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries has been dependency... interdependency, but of a very unequal nature. We see this in really bad, really patriarchal marriages. A husband depends on his wife for the management of the household, for a lot of unpaid labor, and for the care of children, and the wife depends on the husband for economic security; but in the event of a divorce, we find that the wife comes out much worse than the husband, giving the husband a threat to hold over the head of the wife. They depend on one another, but that interdependence is not synonymous with equal status or parity of power.

This is how US foreign policy is constructed for the most part, as interdependences in which the US is the dominant partner. And there are few things that human beings depend on more urgently than food; which brings me to a subject that is imbricated with finance, but not the same as finance.

Money is not theoretically necessary for life. Human life sustained itself before general purpose money. Human life cannot be sustained, however, without its material basis in food.

If I might, I’d like to actually go deeper on the topic of food than we generally do, into the realms of chemistry and biology, for just a moment. I want to say a few things about energy and nitrogen.

If you touch your neighbor in the seats there, appropriately, of course, you will find that they are heaters. You are all warm. That heat is thermal energy that is part of the overall energy system that constitutes your existence as an organism, as a mammal, as a primate, and as an omnivore. You eat plants and animals that have energy stored in them. The plant energy that animals eat comes from the sun, whose energy is stored in the plants by photosynthesis.

One of the chemical components of our world that is necessary for most plant growth, therefore necessary for food, and therefore necessary for our survival, is nitrogen.

Oddly enough, after Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City, everyone--even non-farmers--came to know that fertilizer is made with nitrogen.

Yet nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere, so why should anyone have to “produce” it as a fertilizer? We live our entire lives literally swimming in the stuff.

As it turns out, atmospheric nitrogen, like atmospheric oxygen, is a Siamese twin. It consists of two, fused molecules: N2, as it were. Plants have to break this down into single molecules, then mix it with other stuff, in order to turn sunlight into food. The process is called biological nitrogen fixation. Prior to human intervention, this fixation process was accomplished by prokaryotes (or non-nucleated bacteria) and diazotrophs (or ammonia-making bacteria.)

During World War I, the introduction of new technology, i.e. the machinegun, and the adherence to pre-machinegun tactical doctrines, led to huge armies being first mowed down like grass, then trapped facing each other from pestilential trenches. One of the bright ideas for taking advantage of this horror-film stalemate was the idea of killing the enemy with poisonous gas.

During the war, Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish chemist, was appointed director of the Berlin-based Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry.

One of his jobs became the development of chemical weapons. He would eventually invent a gaseous chemical called Zyklon-B, a cyanide derivative, which would be used to wipe out millions of his own co-religionists; but during WWI he was preoccupied with chlorine and ammonia for the development of poisonous gases for the battlefield.

His other preoccupation was nitrogen fixation. He learned how to do that, synthetically, by combining hydrogen and N2 under heat and pressure, along with an iron isotope and aluminum oxide as catalysts. He had already patented this process before the war; but it would take Carl Bosch, the eventual co-founder of I. G. Farben (the company that marketed Zyklon-B) to commercialize the process… which laid the basis for a population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to more than 7 billion today. What he’d made was chemical fertilizer, and it meant that even land that was unfit for agricultural cultivation could be rendered “productive.” The food that feeds that additional 5 billion people is largely produced with the assistance of chemical fertilizers and chemical poisons.

But “heat and pressure” are not some infinite essence like space, nor are they immediately available like atmospheric nitrogen. They are transient phenomena that must be created through some procedure; in this case, using fossil hydrocarbons... lots of them. Haber was looking at a crisis created by the depletion of guano--bat and bird droppings used as fertilizer--mostly collected from the islands off the coast of Chile; so he fell on a system that depended on another exhaustible resource: fossil fuel.

After WWII, American farmers were using prodigious quantities of chemical fertilizer across prodigious expanses of arable land, along with a new chemical weapon itself, nerve gas… or organophosphates, as insecticides, expanding their harvests far beyond the American public’s capacity to consume.

The American manufacturing base had also expanded during the war, and given that the US did not suffer the devastation that Europe and Asia did during the war, the US emerged from the war as a uniquely powerful actor. The other variable in the expansion of food production was the thoroughgoing mechanization of agriculture, another net consumer of fossil energy. The US began to build farm machinery; and as part of its goal of maximizing profit for farm machinery industries, as well as agricultural chemicals, it began to promote something called “developmentalism” for the so-called under-developed nations.

In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Motor Company, and the Mexican government established a joint venture called--in English--the International Center to Improve Corn and Wheat. Standard Oil--a Rockefeller company--was manufacturing fertilizer, and Ford was building tractors. This was the beginning of the organized effort by first world corporations, with the active support of the US government, to push agricultural commodities into these so-called underdeveloped nations. By 1959, they had opened rural development academies in Pakistan, and by 1963 in the Philippines. These academies were performing research and development on high-yielding cultivars of wheat, corn, and rice. By the time of the Nixon administration, 120 of the largest agribusiness multinationals had established a joint program with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The transformation in agriculture that followed was called the Green Revolution, a term coined in 1968 by US Agency for International Development Director William Gaud.

If ever there were a revolution from above, this was it. And it did accomplish a great deal. Caloric intake from cereal grains worldwide increased 30 percent per capita by 1990, and the prices of grains fell. The availability of more staple grains also supported a doubling of world population between 1960 and 2000.

Yet these very general statistics don’t tell the whole story. There were a number of qualitative changes that accompanied these statistical quanta. One early condition of World Bank development loans was that recipient nations industrialize their agriculture.

Smallholders were pushed off land to make way for large monoculture fields. Mechanization cut the number of necessary field workers to a fraction, and a process began whereby millions of formerly rural people--who were monetarily poor, but capable of self-reliant subsistence agriculture--were pushed into cities, where they came to rely more directly on the mass-produced staple cereals, which they now had to buy, and where they provided a windfall to urban manufactories of desperately cheap labor.

Peripheral nation agricultural production was being exported, in order to get precious US dollars for use in international markets and to service external debts. The agri-barons of the periphery were not feeding their own countries, but engaging in monoculture for export, like coffee, sugar, and bananas (ergo the term, “banana republic”).

Urban hunger is a specter that most leaders understand only too well.

I witnessed two food riots when I was in Haiti, and I can say they were among the most memorable experiences of my life.

Political leaders know very well that mass urban hunger is a recipe for political destabilization, and they avoid it at all costs. Because many of these nations were exporting crops, they fell short in providing basic nutrition to their own growing urban populations.

The United States, however, was uniquely positioned to take advantage of this situation, because the agricultural subsidies of the New Deal, originally meant to rescue family farms, had been carried forward to the benefit of large agribusiness corporations that were pushing the American family farm into the dustbin of history. Price supports for US grains meant that agribusiness could produce as much grain as possible, and for every bushel produced the government would pay them a subsidy.

This, along with the arable land mass of the American Midwest, quickly led to massive overproduction of US grain in the face of periodic grain shortages around the world, which gave US agribusiness unprecedented pricing power in grain markets.

In 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that the dominance of US grain production in the world was a foreign policy weapon that was more powerful than nuclear bombs.

Grain was on a lot of political minds those days. Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 Democratic challenger for the presidency, had received an illegal campaign contribution of $100,000--a fact that would emerge during the Watergate hearings. The same contributor would also give the Nixon administration $25,000 to assist in its cover-up of the Watergate break-in. These were not insubstantial sums then, as they seem now.

Not many people had then heard of this fountain of largesse, whose name was Dwayne Andreas. Andreas pushed through a historic grain sale to the Soviet Union for the Nixon administration, worth $700 million, with his company as the middleman. That company was named Archer Daniels Midland.

It was the next year, however, when Green Revolution food production was exposed to another vulnerability, the aforementioned Arab oil embargo.

It is here that we can see how the history of the Green Revolution as an instrument of US foreign policy interweaves with the history of neoliberal finance--which we covered earlier--that began its gestation with the Nixon administration.

By 1973, the US was running not a trade surplus but a deficit of $6.4 billion. Even more momentously and permanently, US domestic production of crude oil had peaked and was now known to be in a permanent and irreversible decline that would increase US dependence on imports of this commodity into the foreseeable future. Oil remained the principle feedstock of American domestic agriculture, and of the Green Revolution that was articulating the decolonizing periphery into a new, neo-colonial order. At the same time, the US would become increasingly dependent on fossil energy imported from abroad, not merely to power its machines and transport, but to eat and to maintain the power of the US over food markets worldwide.

Even the Soviet Union had been pulled into the American grain-trade orbit by Nixon, proving Kissinger’s thesis that food was more powerful than nukes.

The increasing dependency of peripheral nations on American agricultural goods, as well as American support for the industrial capitalist model being adopted for peripheral nation export agriculture, would lead to decreases in national per-capita food production as well as financial and ecological bankruptcy.

Nixon broke up the old order; but the new order was not firmly established except serendipitously by the Reagan administration. In the interim, after a period of three years stewardship of the White House by the immanently forgettable Gerald Ford, the next elected president would have a dual-resume: a Naval officer and an agribusiness CEO.

Jimmy Carter.

Under Jimmy Carter, a southern agribusiness plutocrat posing as a good ol’ boy (a peanut “farmer”), an interesting thing happened. Something we Southern folk used to call “white liquor” or “white lightning” became legal and began magnetizing massive cash flows from US taxpayers in the form of corn subsidies.

Corn liquor has been produced for many years by rural scofflaws. My own father did a short stretch in the hoosegow when he was discovered with a car trunk full of it in the 1930s.

When Nixon was taking money from Dwayne Andreas, the CEO of the sugar and corn conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland, ADM was concocting a new scheme that would simultaneously justify more “farm” subsidies to agribusiness and claim to address the “energy crisis” of 1973, which was also such a windfall to Wall Street. The scheme was to make massive quantities of corn liquor, which is of course flammable, and re-christen it “ethanol.” This was proposed as an “energy independence” measure for the US. It is made, naturally, with sugar and corn.

ADM found a friend in Jimmy Carter.

Carter called the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war,” and his administration exempted ethanol-spiked gasoline from a federal fuel tax.

Carter began a loan program to build ethanol plants, which was halted by the Reagan administration… for a while, until farm lobbyists paid serial visits to Capitol Hill, whereupon the Reagan administration recanted.

To this very day, neither party will challenge agribusiness subsidies; and to this day, both parties are avid ethanol boosters.

It was this influence, in conjunction with neoliberal “free trade” policies, that allowed US grain producers to begin a process called agricultural dumping. Dumping is introducing a surplus into a foreign market below market value, which results in local producers’ inability to compete. Taxpayer-subsidized US corn, for example, is still routinely dumped into foreign markets at prices often as little as 30 percent of market value. This leads to bankrupted local markets, and a growing and increasingly poor urban population that becomes hostage to an imperial food market.

A Mexican farmer who grows traditional corn is wiped out by genetically modified, chemical-industrial corn that is subsidized by a foreign power. His family loses their land to debt, moves to the city, where they may or may not find work to get money to feed themselves, and barring that, they may take the risk of illegal migration to the north to find work in the United States. One seldom hears about neoliberalism or agricultural dumping when the subject of illegal immigration comes up in the United States; but the connections are clear. US policies have created the conditions that make mass migration inevitable.

After many NAFTA provisions went into effect that allowed US dumping in Mexico, between 1997 and 2004, taxpayer-subsidized US corn exports increased by 413%, while Mexican corn production fell by 50% based on a 66% devaluation of Mexican corn. In the same period, US soybean production increased by 159%, and Mexican soybean production decreased by 83% based on a 67% devaluation. Mexican pork production fell by 40%, corresponding to a 707% increase in US exports. Pork itself is not directly subsidized, but the corn that feeds industrial pork is. It is not a coincidence that NAFTA corresponds to the most massive wave of Mexican immigration to the United States in history.

So the combination of developmental imperatives to mechanize and enclose agriculture for monocrop production, as well as agricultural dumping by the United States has created a situation where most of the rapidly urbanizing world is now dependent on US grain or US seeds and chemicals in order to eat. US foreign policy pertaining to food has become what the late Ivan Illich called “a war on subsistence.” The androcentric cliché for holding power over others as “having them by the balls,” might better be replaced by “having them by the bellies.”

US international power politics combines the neoliberal debt traps with food monopolization as an effective mechanism of indirect control over a good deal of the globe. This is not, however, sufficient to exercise the kind of total dominance the US would require to halt the very real decay of US power that results from various kinds of imperial over-reach. The debt system is not sustainable. The energy system upon which the current system depends is not sustainable. The material resources upon which economic expansion is based are finite. And the tolerance of others is reaching its limits.

The fallback position of any imperial power, when indirect controls are no longer effective, is direct control in the form of violence. That is one of the reasons the United States--with some of the best naturally defensible borders in the world, and an impossibly large land mass for any would-be invader--maintains a military force that is more expensive than the combined military forces of the rest of the world. Calling the War Department the Department of Defense is perhaps the most ironic example of PR-speak you might encounter The US military is almost exclusively dedicated to missions of aggression abroad.

Moreover, the force component of US foreign policy is not merely the uniformed services, it includes a shadowy and well-financed covert operations component that allows military actions by US-directed surrogates to provide an element of plausible deniability to US actions that might undermine ideological claims of commitment to principles like “freedom,” “human rights,” and “democracy.”

Neoliberal theology asserts the primacy of the private, the value of small government; but neoliberal practice has been massively underwritten by the state. The assurance of the market economy--as Karl Polanyi pointed out almost 70 years ago--requires a network of regulatory institutions. Without the state’s affirmative actions on behalf of the international business class, the system would collapse. Begin by thinking about how six battle groups from the US Navy are required to ensure the flow of fossil hydrocarbons into the industrialized metropolis, and you can extrapolate from there.

The failed attempt to conquer Iraq in 2003, while it certainly involved oil, was also part of an effort to maintain a forward deployed US military capable of strategic intervention far from home. The Cold War had ended, and the disposition of US military forces had become obsolete. They needed to be redeployed from positions that were calculated to contain the USSR into positions that would give the United States more capacity to intervene in energy-rich Southwest Asia, to put the imperial hand--as it were--on the spigots of global energy.

The goal of the Iraq invasion was permanent bases; but instead the Bush administration managed to win the Iran-Iraq war on behalf of Iran. The Obama administration has decided that the next best thing is to forward base near the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific Theater to prepare to contain China; and the Obama administration has vastly expanded the role of the covert operations forces, as well as armed mercenaries, in its expansion of the Afghanistan War into Pakistan and increased covert operations against Iran. For myself, I believe Obama’s military moves in Southwest and South Asia will prove as disastrous as those of his predecessor.

Obama’s administration was instrumental in the execution and consolidation of the coup against the democratically elected president of Honduras in 2009, just as the Bush administration was in the failed coup against the democratically elected president of Venezuela in 2002, and its successful coup against the democratically elected government of Haiti in 2004. In two cases, the offending parties--President Chavez of Venezuela and President Zelaya of Honduras--were guilty of defying the Washington Consensus, that is, of opposing neoliberalism. President Aristide had merely criticized neoliberalism.

More than strategic interests drive the reliance on military operations. In the United States, the Department of Defense has become a substitute export market for US industries. The reason the taxpayers are not bailing out Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, KBR, L3 Communications, SAIC, Dyncorp, Hewlett-Packard, and a host of other major American corporations, including General Electric, Motorola, Goodrich, and Westinghouse, is that the margin of earnings that ensure their continued viability as capitalist enterprises comes from DOD contracts. If war spending were ended tomorrow, the US would experience a dramatic loss of jobs across a wide spectrum of Congressional districts that have hitched to the DOD pork wagon.

American foreign policy is amphibious. It operates through both the wet depths of public institutions and the dry lands of private institutions, and it has an integrated public-private perception management apparatus.

One of the key advantages of the public-private partnership is that foreign policy is insulated from accountability to those below those institutions on the social hierarchy. The boundaries are blurred, via contracts and memoranda of understanding, between the US public sector--with its administrative apparatus, and its military and intelligence establishment with their vast budgets--and the private sector, composed of publicly funded “non-governmental organizations,” think tanks, foundations, and an army of horizontally-integrated perception managers.

Those perception managers use mass media as a conformity-producing web of influence that reaches right into the living rooms of a US culture that has 2.24 television sets per household, running an average of six hours and 47 minutes a day, 2,476 hours a year. To appreciate the latent power of television, realize that the average college class has a student in tow for three hours a week, approximately 45 hours for an entire course, excluding out-of-classroom study.

The limits of public discourse are established de facto by a media that operates on the same liberal market principles as the people who own them and exercise hegemony within the government and in those sectors sometimes called civil society. The media, the governing apparatus, and civil society are in fact three faces of the same dominant interests in the same epoch.

In saying this, I am obliged to clear up a common misunderstanding of what this means and what I mean to say. It is easy to jump from the very general outline I have presented of three aspects of US foreign policy--finance, food, and force--to the conclusion that I mean to say, or that these facts tend to support the idea that, there is a conscious group of the conspiring powerful who direct the world. On the contrary, I want to emphasize that this system has evolved through a series of contingencies, and that its stability is maintained precisely because it is what some systems theorists call self-organized. It’s most powerful actors are in many ways as constrained, or more constrained, by neo-neo-liberalism – or whatever you choose to call this particular period – than most of us are. President Obama is far less free, for example, to say the kinds of things I can say here as an unemployed grandfather.

I, on the other hand, do not have the legal power to send US troops to war, or to call them home.

We each play our parts, and while some conspiracies have always been part of the terrain of politics, they are generally reactive, and far less determinative of large-scale outcomes than, say, changes in the built environment, demographic shifts, or institutional inertia. Many of the most pivotal events in history emerge unexpectedly from long-standing trends that have gone unnoticed or ignored until they reach a breaking point--the 2008 housing bubble crash being a good recent example.

Remember, in our saga about the birth of neoliberalism, there was no straight line, but a confluence of events and contingent decisions: French buying US gold, Nixon dropping the gold standard, the Egyptian war for the Sinai, the American decision to airlift TOW missiles to the Israelis, the decision of Arab oil producers to embargo oil to the US, the US balance of payments deficit, Nixon drops fixed currency exchange rates, rising oil prices creating petrodollars, the petrodollar tsunami being converted into opportunistic development loans, the Mexican threat of default, and so it goes. These were not plots, but actions and reactions, each producing a number of unintended or unanticipated consequences, which stimulated new actions and reactions.

The belief in a conspiratorial view of history seems to me to be a psychological reaction to the fear of chaos. If the world is not as one would like it, at least a conspiratorial view of history suggests that history as a process is still subject to human control, and that once we wrest control from the unjust conspirators, the world can be made right again.

This unpredictability, this sense of instability that compels some of us to reach for order in chaos with a history of conspiracy, ironically, has been produced by the current political milieu, one wherein neoliberalism has disembedded economies from local control and re-embedded them in national and transnational institutions, and those institutions are themselves now experiencing a loss of control in the face of unanticipated changes.

Structural adjustment programs have become political lightning rods that are igniting mass unrest around the world. Green Revolution agriculture has spawned megacities that are entropic black holes, teeming with desperation and crime. The US military, long considered the guarantor of last instance for the world order, has proven to be both the least cost effective institution on the planet and a perennial source of new resistance and unintended outcomes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the myth of US military invincibility was shattered; and the costs of the Southwest Asia wars have bled the US Treasury white. Offshoring of US industry and the political empowerment of rentier capitalists--Wall Street--that was accomplished through foreign policy, has transformed much of the US domestic population not merely into wage workers, but debt slaves.

There is a bumper sticker that sums it up: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.”

Consumer debt in the United States is above $2.4 trillion. In 2010, consumer indebtedness amounted to $7,800 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. 33% of that debt is in revolving credit, that plastic you carry in your pockets. The rest is in mortgages, student loans, automobile loans, and other non-revolving credit schemes. You students collectively owe $556 billion dollars. Good luck with that.

US household leverage, the ratio of debt to disposable income, was 55% in 1960. By 1985, that number was 65%. Today, household debt is 133% of household disposable income.

Yet when the crisis of fictional value created by Wall Street came home to roost, trillions in bailout money were awarded to Wall Street, while Main Street was left holding its debts. Wall Street, according to the experts who work the Wall Street-Washington nexus, was too big to fail. Generations into the future are now saddled with paying for these bailouts. We are being structurally adjusted, which has always been a euphemism for privatizing the gains and socializing the losses.

Meanwhile, far away, in response to US and EU attempts to form an economic blockade against Iranian oil, rumors have begun to circulate that China and India, both on steep industrialization gradients and thirsty for oil, are figuring out how to pay for Iranian oil with gold. These two countries already constitute 40% of Tehran’s oil market; and they are not prepared to cut back consumption in support of an American belligerence in which neither of them have any vested interest. India flatly refuses to abide by the sanctions, and is working with the Russians to act as middle-men for Tehran to New Delhi oil transactions; and China knows that the efficacy of the sanctions depends completely on whether China participates or not. The US has no capacity as a unilateral actor any longer, still smarting from its defeat in Iraq and its interminable and expensive entanglement in Afghanistan. The threats against Iran’s oil exports, however, are likely to drive up the price of oil, which will drive up the price of grain, which will drive up the price of food. And so we see, even today, the interaction of forces between finance, food, and military force in foreign affairs.

With that, I will say that I have held you hostage quite long enough, and I thank you for your kind attention.

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February 17, 2012

Concerning the Violent Peace-Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges

[A few days ago, Fire on the Mountain published an incensed and incisive response by Puerto Rican Marxist SKS to an article on the Occupy! movement by Chris Hedges calling the Black Bloc and militant resistance more generally "a cancer in Occupy." As the debate on this has not yet died down, FotM is pleased to post another response to Hedges, this one by an anarchist, David Graeber, who gave permission to borrow it from the blog n+1, where it originally appeared.]

In response to “The Cancer in Occupy,” by Chris Hedges.

by David Graeber

I am writing this on the premise that you are a well-meaning person who wishes Occupy Wall Street to succeed. I am also writing as someone who was deeply involved in the early stages of planning Occupy in New York.

I am also an anarchist who has participated in many Black Blocs. While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction, I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred. (I have taken part in even more Blocs that did not engage in such tactics. It is a common fallacy that this is what Black Blocs are all about. It isn’t.)

I was hardly the only Black Bloc veteran who took part in planning the initial strategy for Occupy Wall Street. In fact, anarchists like myself were the real core of the group that came up with the idea of occupying Zuccotti Park, the “99%” slogan, the General Assembly process, and, in fact, who collectively decided that we would adopt a strategy of Gandhian non-violence and eschew acts of property damage. Many of us had taken part in Black Blocs. We just didn’t feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in.

This is why I feel compelled to respond to your statement “The Cancer in Occupy.” This statement is not only factually inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerous. This is the sort of misinformation that really can get people killed. In fact, it is far more likely to do so, in my estimation, than anything done by any black-clad teenager throwing rocks.

Let me just lay out a few initial facts:

1. Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.

2. Black Blocs do not represent any specific ideological, or for that matter anti-ideological position. Black Blocs have tended in the past to be made up primarily of anarchists but most contain participants whose politics vary from Maoism to Social Democracy. They are not united by ideology, or lack of ideology, but merely a common feeling that creating a bloc of people with explicitly revolutionary politics and ready to confront the forces of the order through more militant tactics if required, is, on the particular occasion when they assemble, a useful thing to do. It follows one can no more speak of “Black Bloc Anarchists,” as a group with an identifiable ideology, than one can speak of “Sign-Carrying Anarchists” or “Mic-Checking Anarchists.”

3. Even if you must select a tiny, ultra-radical minority within the Black Bloc and pretend their views are representative of anyone who ever put on a hoodie, you could at least be up-to-date about it. It was back in 1999 that people used to pretend “the Black Bloc” was made up of nihilistic primitivist followers of John Zerzan opposed to all forms of organization. Nowadays, the preferred approach is to pretend “the Black Bloc” is made up of nihilistic insurrectionary followers of The Invisible Committee, opposed to all forms of organization. Both are absurd slurs. Yours is also 12 years out of date.

4. Your comment about Black Bloc’ers hating the Zapatistas is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen. Sure, if you dig around, you can find someone saying almost anything. But I’m guessing that, despite the ideological diversity, if you took a poll of participants in the average Black Bloc and asked what political movement in the world inspired them the most, the EZLN would get about 80% of the vote. In fact I’d be willing to wager that at least a third of participants in the average Black Bloc are wearing or carrying at least one item of Zapatista paraphernalia. (Have you ever actually talked to someone who has taken part in a Black Bloc? Or just to people who dislike them?)

5. “Diversity of tactics” is not a “Black Bloc” idea. The original GA in Tompkins Square Park that planned the original occupation, if I remember, adopted the principle of diversity of tactics (at least it was discussed in a very approving fashion), at the same time as we all also concurred that a Gandhian approach would be the best way to go. This is not a contradiction: “diversity of tactics” means leaving such matters up to individual conscience, rather than imposing a code on anyone. Partly,this is because imposing such a code invariably backfires. In practice, it means some groups break off in indignation and do even more militant things than they would have otherwise, without coordinating with anyone else—as happened, for instance, in Seattle. The results are usually disastrous. After the fiasco of Seattle, of watching some activists actively turning others over to the police—we quickly decided we needed to ensure this never happened again. What we found that if we declared “we shall all be in solidarity with one another. We will not turn in fellow protesters to the police. We will treat you as brothers and sisters. But we expect you to do the same to us”—then, those who might be disposed to more militant tactics will act in solidarity as well, either by not engaging in militant actions at all for fear they will endanger others (as in many later Global Justice Actions, where Black Blocs merely helped protect the lockdowns, or in Zuccotti Park, where mostly people didn’t bloc up at all) or doing so in ways that run the least risk of endangering fellow activists.

All this is secondary. Mainly I am writing as an appeal to conscience. Your conscience, since clearly you are a sincere and well-meaning person who wishes this movement to succeed. I beg you: Please consider what I am saying. Please bear in mind as I say this that I am not a crazy nihilist, but a reasonable person who is one (if just one) of the original authors of the Gandhian strategy OWS adopted—as well as a student of social movements, who has spent many years both participating in such movements, and trying to understand their history and dynamics.

I am appealing to you because I really do believe the kind of statement you made is profoundly dangerous.

The reason I say this is because, whatever your intentions, it is very hard to read your statement as anything but an appeal to violence. After all, what are you basically saying about what you call “Black Bloc anarchists”?

1) they are not part of us

2) they are consciously malevolent in their intentions

3) they are violent

4) they cannot be reasoned with

5) they are all the same

6) they wish to destroy us

7) they are a cancer that must be excised

Surely you must recognize, when it’s laid out in this fashion, that this is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form. Far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary. I recognize that you’ve managed to find certain peculiar fringe elements in anarchism saying some pretty extreme things, it’s not hard to do, especially since such people are much easier to find on the internet than in real life, but it would be difficult to come up with any “Black Bloc anarchist” making a statement as extreme as this.

Even if you did not intend this statement as a call to violence, which I suspect you did not, how can you honestly believe that many will not read it as such?

In my experience, when I point this sort of thing out, the first reaction I normally get from pacifists is along the lines of “what are you talking about? Of course I’m not in favor of attacking anyone! I am non-violent! I am merely calling for non-violently confronting such elements and excluding them from the group!” The problem is that in practice this is almost never what actually happens. Time after time, what it has actually meant in practice is either a) turning fellow activists over to the police, i.e., turning them over to people with weapons who will physically assault, shackle, and imprison them, or b) actual physical activist-on-activist assault. Such things have happened. There have been physical assaults by activists on other activists, and, to my knowledge, they have never been perpetrated by anyone in Black Bloc, but invariably by purported pacifists against those who dare to pull a hood over their heads or a bandana over their faces, or, simply, against anarchists who adopt tactics someone else thinks are going too far. (Not I should note even potentially violent tactics. During one 15-minute period in Occupy Austin, I was threatened first with arrest, then with assault, by fellow campers because I was expressing verbal solidarity with, and then standing in passive resistance beside, a small group of anarchists who were raising what was considered to be an unauthorized tent.)

This situation often produces extraordinary ironies. In Seattle, the only incidents of actual physical assault by protesters on other individuals were not attacks on the police, since these did not occur at all, but attacks by “pacifists” on Black Bloc’ers engaged in acts of property damage. Since the Black Bloc’ers had collectively agreed on a strict policy of non-violence (which they defined as never doing anything to harm another living being), they uniformly refused to strike back. In many recent occupations, self-appointed “Peace Police” have manhandled activists who showed up to marches in black clothing and hoodies, ripped their masks off, shoved and kicked them: always, without the victims themselves having engaged in any act of violence, always, with the victims refusing, on moral grounds, to shove or kick back.

The kind of rhetoric you are engaging in, if it disseminates widely, will ensure this kind of violence becomes much, much more severe.

Perhaps you do not believe me, or do not believe these events to be particularly significant. If so, let me put the matter in a larger historical context.

If I understand your argument, it seems to come down to this:

1. OWS has been successful because it has followed a Gandhian strategy of showing how, even in the face of strictly non-violent opposition, the state will respond with illegal violence

2. Black Bloc elements who do not act according to principles of Gandhian non-violence are destroying the movement because they provide retroactive justification for state repression, especially in the eyes of the media

3. Therefore, the Black Bloc elements must be somehow rooted out.

As one of the authors of the original Gandhian strategy, I can recall how well aware we were, when we framed this strategy, that we were taking an enormous risk. Gandhian strategies have not historically worked in the US; in fact, they haven’t really worked on a mass scale since the civil rights movement. This is because the US media is simply constitutionally incapable of reporting acts of police repression as “violence.” (One reason the civil rights movement was an exception is so many Americans at the time didn’t view the Deep South as part of the same country.) Many of the young men and women who formed the famous Black Bloc in Seattle were in fact eco-activists who had been involved in tree-sits and forest defense lock-downs that operated on purely Gandhian principles—only to find that in the US of the 1990s, non-violent protesters could be brutalized, tortured (have pepper spray directly rubbed in their eyes), or even killed, without serious objection from the national media. So they turned to other tactics. We knew all this. We decided it was worth the risk.

However, we are also aware that when the repression begins, some will break ranks and respond with greater militancy. Even if this doesn’t happen in a systematic and organized fashion, some violent acts will take place. You write that Black Bloc’ers smashed up a “locally owned coffee shop”; I doubted this when I read it, since most Black Blocs agree on a strict policy of not damaging owner-operated enterprises, and I now find in Susie Cagle’s response to your article that, in fact, it was a chain coffee shop, and the property destruction was carried out by someone not in black. But still, you’re right: A few such incidents will inevitably occur.

The question is how one responds.

If the police decide to attack a group of protesters, they will claim to have been provoked, and the media will repeat whatever the police say, no matter how implausible, as the basic initial facts of what happened. This will happen whether or not anyone at the protest does anything that can be remotely described as violence. Many police claims will be obviously ridiculous – as at the recent Oakland march where police accused participants of throwing “improvised explosive devices”—but no matter how many times the police lie about such matters, the national media will still report their claims as true, and it will be up to protesters to provide evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, with the help of social media, we can demonstrate that particular police attacks were absolutely unjustified, as with the famous Tony Bologna pepper-spray incident. But we cannot by definition prove all police attacks were unjustified, even all attacks at one particular march; it’s simply physically impossible to film every thing that happens from every possible angle all the time. Therefore we can expect that whatever we do, the media will dutifully report “protesters engaged in clashes with police” rather than “police attacked non-violent protesters.” What’s more, when someone does throw back a tear-gas canister, or toss a bottle, or even spray-paint something, we can assume that act will be employed as retroactive justification for whatever police violence occurred before the act took place.

All this will be true whether or not a Black Bloc is present.

If the moral question is “is it defensible to threaten physical harm against those who do no direct harm to others,” one might say the pragmatic, tactical question is, “even if it were somehow possible to create a Peace Police capable of preventing any act that could even be interpreted as ‘violent’ by the corporate media, by anyone at or near a protest, no matter what the provocation, would it have any meaningful effect?” That is, would it create a situation where the police would feel they couldn’t use arbitrary force against non-violent protesters? The example of Zuccotti Park, where we achieved pretty consistent non-violence, suggests this is profoundly unlikely. And perhaps most importantly at all, even if it were somehow possible to create some kind of Peace Police that would prevent anyone under gas attack from so much as tossing a bottle, so that we could justly claim that no one had done anything to warrant the sort of attack that police have routinely brought, would the marginally better media coverage we would thus obtain really be worth the cost in freedom and democracy that would inevitably follow from creating such an internal police force to begin with?

These are not hypothetical questions. Every major movement of mass non-violent civil disobedience has had to grapple with them in one form or another. How inclusive should you be with those who have different ideas about what tactics are appropriate? What do you do about those who go beyond what most people consider acceptable limits? What do you do when the government and its media allies hold up their actions as justification—even retroactive justification—for violent and repressive acts?

Successful movements have understood that it’s absolutely essential not to fall into the trap set out by the authorities and spend one’s time condemning and attempting to police other activists. One makes one’s own principles clear. One expresses what solidarity one can with others who share the same struggle, and if one cannot, tries one’s best to ignore or avoid them, but above all, one keeps the focus on the actual source of violence, without doing or saying anything that might seem to justify that violence because of tactical disagreements you have with fellow activists.

I remember my surprise and amusement, the first time I met activists from the April 6 Youth Movement from Egypt, when the issue of non-violence came up. “Of course we were non-violent,” said one of the original organizers, a young man of liberal politics who actually worked at a bank. “No one ever used firearms, or anything like that. We never did anything more militant than throwing rocks!”

Here was a man who understood what it takes to win a non-violent revolution! He knew that if the police start aiming tear-gas canisters directly at people’s heads, beating them with truncheons, arresting and torturing people, and you have thousands of protesters, then some of them will fight back. There’s no way to absolutely prevent this. The appropriate response is to keep reminding everyone of the violence of the state authorities, and never, ever, start writing long denunciations of fellow activists, claiming they are part of an insane fanatic malevolent cabal. (Even though I am quite sure that if a hypothetical Egyptian activist had wanted to make a case that, say, violent Salafis, or even Trotskyists, were trying to subvert the revolution, and adopted standards of evidence as broad as yours, looking around for inflammatory statements wherever they could find them and pretending they were typical of everyone who threw a rock, they could easily have made a case.) This is why most of us are aware that Mubarak’s regime attacked non-violent protesters, and are not aware that many responded by throwing rocks.

Egyptian activists, in other words, understood what playing into the hands of the police really means.

Actually, why limit ourselves to Egypt? Since we are talking about Gandhian tactics here, why not consider the case of Gandhi himself? He had to deal with what to say about people who went much further than rock-throwing (even though Egyptians throwing rocks at police were already going much further than any US Black Bloc has). Gandhi was part of a very broad anti-colonial movement that included elements that actually were using firearms, in fact, elements engaged in outright terrorism. He first began to frame his own strategy of mass non-violent civil resistance in response to a debate over the act of an Indian nationalist who walked into the office of a British official and shot him five times in the face, killing him instantly. Gandhi made it clear that while he was opposed to murder under any circumstances, he also refused to denounce the murderer. This was a man who was trying to do the right thing, to act against an historical injustice, but did it in the wrong way because he was “drunk with a mad idea.”

Over the course of the next 40 years, Gandhi and his movement were regularly denounced in the media, just as non-violent anarchists are also always denounced in the media (and I might remark here that while not an anarchist himself, Gandhi was strongly influenced by anarchists like Kropotkin and Tolstoy), as a mere front for more violent, terroristic elements, with whom he was said to be secretly collaborating. He was regularly challenged to prove his non-violent credentials by assisting the authorities in suppressing such elements. Here Gandhi remained resolute. It is always morally superior, he insisted, to oppose injustice through non-violent means than through violent means. However, to oppose injustice through violent means is still morally superior to not doing anything to oppose injustice at all.

And Gandhi was talking about people who were blowing up trains, or assassinating government officials. Not damaging windows or spray-painting rude things about the police.

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February 10, 2012

The Psychopathology of a Liberal OWS! Baiter

[Since Chris Hedges, a columnist at the website truthdig published the provocatively titled, "The Cancer in Occupy" four days ago, there has been boocoo Internet debate and some vigorous responses, for example, this one at Counterpunch. Occasional Fire on the Mountain essayist SKS, who wrote a widely read piece on this blog on the problems of infiltration and provocateurs in OWS!, posted this angry reply to Hedges on Facebook. FotM republishes it with his permission to help it get the wider circulation it deserves.]

The Stockholm Syndrome of Occupy:
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

by SKS

I do not want to repeat what many have said, more eloquently or timely. Any repetition will either be unconscious or inevitable--but I do try to bring some fresh perspectives, or at least accents. So bear with me.

Ever since the Oakland Commune came into national consciousness with their successful strike in November, liberals who initially became infatuated with Occupy Wall Street! as a possible liberal Tea Party have been launching increasingly virulent attacks against OWS!, and in particular, its most militant element.

Naomi Wolf launched perhaps the first notorious salvo of the liberal commentariat, when, going all in with her arrest cred, she called OWS! protesters against NBC (a corporation) "fascists".

While debate is healthy, and diversity of opinions and views is both inevitable and one of the refreshing things of OWS! as a movement, the interventions from the liberal camp have been increasingly totalitarian, undemocratic, and full of factual and historical inaccuracies.

They have moved from honest, concerned, disagreement within the movement, to dishonest hit pieces worthy of the worse dirty politics.

And this is something we predicted: we knew that the primary contradiction within this movement would be the need of liberals and the Democratic Party machine to turn this movement into a huge astroturf project to counter the successful co-optation by the Republicans of the Tea Party--of huge importance if Obama is to be re-elected.

This has been done with a carrot and stick approach. The carrot has been the apparently open arms of labor unions and non-profit organizations, not to mention several elected officials of the Democratic Party.

The stick has two sides: one is represented by poster child of all-that-is-wrong-with-the-Democrats, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her Swine Corps of the brutal and brutalizing Oakland Police Department--an OPD she ran on an unfulfilled promise to reform and transform.
In fact, it is in Democratic cities were the police repression and police action have been the strongest--Chicago even took the opportunity to institute surveillance and free-speech limitation ordinances worthy of 1984. Of course, aside from a few feeble protests from the ACLU, this largely has happened with the silent consent of the liberal commentariat, and when not silence, with ineffective chatter coupled with "critical" support for the elected officials promoting these things.

The other side of the stick is the concerted effort of the liberal commentariat. At first rather benign, starting with the mantra--a sheer lie--that the movement had no goals, and with disingenuous criticism of liberal We foretold this: even at the very earliest most committed Occupy! activists knew this was coming.

We did not know how, but we had an idea, which is why we refused giving these commentators special status in the movement--we knew instinctively that they would turn on us come 2012 and the presidential election. Now it is upon us. Chronicle of a death foretold. None of this should come as a surprise, but buyer beware: you might think you agree--after all, the black bloc can be insufferably cocky and elitist, but you do not. Your legitimate tactical concern and strategic considerations are quite different from Chris Hedges'.

Pathologizing the Other: what abusers and repressive regimes can tell us about Chris Hedges

Nazis knew the value of pathology in politics.

As a large body of literature demonstrates, repressive regimes throughout history have used this very technique to throw political opponents into jails called "mental hospitals". Abusers--be they bullies or domestic--routinely try to smash the self-esteem of their victims by questioning their mental health. "You are crazy" is a favorite phrase of the abusive spouse or partner, of the abusive boss, of the abusive authority figure. Fear of being labeled "crazy" is in fact one of the most powerful ways of social coercion and social discipline know. Even good parents tell their kids they are being "crazy" when they do things they are not supposed to do.

Chris Hedges, in his hit piece, does several things of this sort: first he pathologizes "violence"--using prose worthy of a pulp novel with Fabio on the cover, the kind they sell in supermarket checkout lines. Then he claims the black bloc is "hypermasculine"--a ridiculous term pulled out of the same kindergarden infantislism that gives you a whole range of funny, yet unnecesary, superlatives. Without getting into this rather old and extensive debate, many feminist voices have eloquently countered the presumption--gendered and sexist in itself--that violence has a gender, let's just say that this confuses an important discussion on tactics with an ad hominem intended not to discuss, but to rally the liberal troops for an attack. In other words, exactly what he describes as "hypermasculinity".

Unlike Hedges, I do not have a romantic, nihilist violent self buried inside. My views on violence are rather conscious--do not initiate aggression, but defend yourself from it. This basic human instinct seems beneath the elevated Hedges, whose superior god-like peace elevates him above us mere mortals.His god-like powers allow him to bury his violent instincts deep in his psyche.

(See what I mean about pulp prose?)

In pathologizing the political, Hedges is re-establishing the patriarchal and racial supremacy of white male hetero-normativity: those who disagree with him are not normal like him, they are crazy, they must be excluded from normal society.

He is calling out his wayward children, like all good patriarchs do. Very hypermasculine.

Interestingly, his pathologizing doesn't stop at mental health. It gets even worse.

As the title "Cancer of Occupy" explicitly tells us, the crazy children are not just crazy, they are a cancer.

Well, the use of "cancer"--and other body diseases--in political speech has a rather interesting origin that Chris Hedges either overlooked, or consciously deployed: Nazi eugenics and racial hygiene. "Jewish bacillus," "the Bolshevist poison," "the Jewish plague," "the Jewish parasites," and the "Jewish cancer.

These are the ripped from the headlines terms of Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine. Unlike Naomi Wolf, I only call fascists those who are actually fascist--I do not cheapen the word by using it to attack everyone that irks me--but it is indeed telling about the way Chris Hedges' mind works that he chose this term.

What is the cure for cancer? Chemotherapy, radiation, extirpation, all which are extremely violent--and much less successful than what we would like them to be.

So Chris Hedges implies--in contradiction with his argument--that this cancer must be cured. He leaves the question open--but the emotional response in the reader, and this is by choice, is to respond as we all do: kill it with violence. No one loves cancer. No one thinks of the feelings of cancer. You try to kill it, or it kills you.

That is one from the Nazi playbook: it's how a whole country was mobilized to destroy the "Jewish cancer". Hitler did not need to order them what to do. We all know, intuitively, what to do with cancer. Hedges joins a proud tradition.

(Ironically, in the channer culture that gave birth to Anonymous "cancer" is also used to describe newbies to the culture--and if there is a hypermasculine place in the world, it is channer culture--Hedges does have a lot of self-hating to do.)

And it is ironic, too, that in purporting to be part of this movement, Hedges has no article calling the Democrats cancer. After all, the black blocs have yet to kill someone, but the Democrats have killed millions--often at the push of a button.

So let's pathologize--just to not combo break!

That brings me to my title. A little flair of my own pathologization. In my defense, it is the game field Hedges presents.

So why Stockholm Syndrome? Well, as you might know, this syndrome is the apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them*.

A lot of the response to so-called "black bloc violence" smacks precisely of this phenomenon. Chris Hedges is either a victim of this syndrome, or an enabler of its suffering.

He makes a storm in a teapot on so-called "black bloc violence"--justifying the violence of the OPD, of the State, of our captors--of the very State and repressive forces of the dictatorship of the 1%. He is not one of them, yet defends them and justifies and covers their crimes.

A few broken windows are nothing compared to the hundred of extrajudicial killings on the part of police, or dozens of executions, not to mention overseas.

Let's have a sense of proportion. Let's break out of the Stockholm Syndrome. The violence that matters, the true violence, is that of the State, not the black bloc. We do not need to be uncritical of the black bloc--but to hide behind their actions to call for inaction when much greater crimes are being committed, on a daily basis and using your tax money, is to cower in fear in front of power.

Just like a hostage in front of his or her captor.

We are hostages to the 1%. Do we justify them or do we fight for freedom?

Violence, non-violence, and disingenuousness

Are we the 99% or are we Democrats?

For liberals of the Naomi Wolf and Chris Hedges brand, revolutions are something that happens elsewhere. Regimes that need changes are overseas--preferably in countries with long histories of "authoritarian regimes". In their twisted worldview--and one that gets fed to us as somehow radical--what problems exist in the USA can be resolved in the framework of civil liberties provided by the Constitution, the institutions being neutral servants of the common good. Such lofty ideals fly in the face of the actual realities of life in the USA, in particular for the 99%. The USA has, for example, one of the highest rates of extra-judicial killing and death penalty in the world.

A significant percentage of this country's population express support for this appalling situation. So did, for that matter, a significant percentage of Egypt's population before the Revolution threw the doors open to true dissent, rather than fear. Transformation is about critical masses, not simple majorities.

We cannot be both for regime change and for the Democrats, who are part of the regime.

The Democrats' main funder is, consistently, Goldman Sachs--one of the worse criminal gangs of the 1%.

In Chris Hedges' view, Goldman Sachs is an upstanding citizen that makes mistakes, a person worthy of our democratic respect. The black bloc is cancer.

He serves his masters well.

Curiously, the way that he speaks of violence vs non-violence echoes the same way that the current regime in Egypt speaks of the Revolution--and we see this world-wide: the "good" protester versus the "bad" protester. Even in Syria, there is the opposition that meets with the Regime, and there is the Free Syrian Army. It is not a new argument.

Now, I also have a sense of proportion--we are far from living in a situation where we need a Free America Army. But the black bloc is not that. Its worst violence is a few broken windows--if that.

To begin with, there is much conflation here: the black bloc is not responsible for all the so-called vandalism or violence. The poster child for the liberals, the Whole Foods vandalization in Oakland, was by all accounts the work of a few individuals against which even black bloc members intervened.

The black bloc however, has been responsible for successful evasion, even de-arrest, of activists - of protective, defensive, non-violent tactics, such as the use of shields, the lighting of bonfires (which clears tear gas quickly), and providing first aid and medevac. They have intervened against sexual and criminal predators in Occupations, serving as stalwarts of discipline in a chaotic environment. This is the reality of those of us who actually are the boots in the ground. Yes, there is much to be critical of in them--but let's leave that for another time: much better commentary is floating around in this respect. They are not cancer--they are part of the body that is maturing, and causes growing pains.

So why the fuzz?

There seems to be a problem of definition in which non-violence is equated with non-resistance. This flies in the face even of Gandhi's and Dr. King's tactics: non-violent resistance is still resistance. It is non-compliance with orders from the powers that be. "We shall not be moved". All those water cannon that Dr. King endured were a result of his movement's steadfast refusal to obey orders from above--to force change.

We can agree that throwing a rock at someone is violent. But is throwing a paint bomb (which obscures police visors) violent? Are shields and grenade nets violent? I do not think so. They are forms of non-violent resistance, practiced by the black bloc--that protect the movement from the inevitable onslaught of the police.

This is not trivial: I understand the need to be non-violent as a tactic, but when non-violence gets reduced to picketing in circles in a "free speech zone," there is no resistance--we are not following Gandhi or Dr. King, we are following the instructions of the regime. No regime has fallen when people obey it. They only fall when people cease to obey it.

Hedges and co-commentators miss this point. Entirely. They equate any resistance with violence.

And without resistance, how can we Occupy? It says it right there in the name!

Diversity of Tactics and Unity of Strategies

What will kill OWS! is not violence, but the people who want to have meetings and voting drives instead of actions of resistance, occupations, and protests. Do not get me wrong, we need meetings--but with a purpose. As for voting, I voted for Obama and all I got was a lousy t-shirt, which I had to pay for.

With protests and occupations, with masses of people out in the street, will come repression. And on the edges, some will want to fight back by means we might not agree with.

It's worth the price, no matter what the anti-resistance commentariat tells us. That is the lesson of Tahrir Square.

It's time we stop lying to ourselves, and realize that this regime--regardless of what party is in power--is repressive regime, based on war profiteering, a racist prison-industrial complex, extrajudicial violence, and destroying the ability of people to achieve their dreams by concentrating wealth and power on the 1%. Dictatorships do not fall on their own.

We live in the dictatorship of the 1%. The time for regime change is long overdue.

That is the stark reality that faces us. If, for you, a few broken windows are too much to oppose the regime, then it means that for you, windows are more important than the millions who have their lives destroyed and extinguished by this regime--in the ghettos, in the prison-industrial complex, overseas, and in the soul-killing petty dictatorship of the workplace.

We need to have real solidarity--the more militant of us need to consider that not everyone is willing or able to, emotionally and physically, to deal with the outcomes of militancy. Those who advocate non-violence out of true principle, need to understand that the deep emotional commitment this requires, while noble, is not for all.

Honest diversity of tactics is a strength, not a weakness.

But we need to be united on the strategic goal of regime change--of transforming the dictatorship of the 1%. And there are those, Chris Hedges and his ilk, who hide behind the language of non-violence to bamboozle and split the movement: he is pretty happy supporting a government that breeds war--while he can speak against it and sue it in court, supporting real violence perpetrated by this regime. He remains silent as police murder people extrajudicially--the very real violence of the State.

What is worse, as argued, he uses the age old tactic of abusers and repressive regimes throughout history: he pathologizes those he disagrees with, calling into question their mental health and treating them as a public health issue that needs a hygienic response--in the tone of the Nazi racial hygiene. Chris Hedges and his ilk, defend the regime in deeds and words--they are at best a loyal opposition content with commenting rather than transforming. Do not join them.

Join the resistance: the path is long, the path is painful, but the path is righteous.

Refuse and resist!

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February 5, 2012

The Superbowl, the People's Daily Campaign for Jobs & Justice, and the African-American Freedom Struggle

While the media attempts to make major news out of the small size of the labor demonstration at Lucas Oil Stadium protesting Indiana's new so-called "right to work" law, this entirely misses significance of the National Football League Players Association statement opposing this legislation.

The NFLPA wrote:
“‘Right-to-work’ is a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights. It’s not about jobs or rights, and it’s the wrong priority for Indiana. It is important to keep in mind the plight of the average Indiana worker and not let them get lost in the ceremony and spectacle of the Super Bowl."

As Jamilah King noted in the online journal Colorlines
"The statement was hugely important, considering what’s at stake for Indiana’s workers, particularly black ones. Black workers are disproportionately union members. They’re more likely than whites, Asians, and Latinos to be in public-unions, and make up 15 percent of total membership, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Historically, unions have been crucial gateways for black workers to earn higher wages and break into the middle class.

While supporters of Right to Work argue that the laws are needed to foster a “pro-business” atmosphere that helps generate desperately needed jobs, research has shown that the laws can have disastrous effects on workers. The Economic Policy Institute released a report in January showing that workers employed in Right to Work states makes less money and are less likely to be offered health care."
DeMaurice F. Smith, executive director of the player’s union, pressed the point even further in an op-ed published a week later in one of Indiana’s most widely read newspapers. ” An indisputable lesson of our American history is that none of those workplace protections came as a gift from corporations,” wrote Smith, who’d previously made a name for him self as a hard-nosed litigator. “Rather, all of them resulted from the ability of workers to stand united and demand change when it would have been easy to fire or silence the voice of a single worker.”

But what does this have to do with the New Jersey-based coalition for jobs and justice that  has sponsored daily demonstrations for the past 225 days? When the People's Organization for Progress proposed this campaign last July, we understood the need to defend union jobs. But more than that, we also understood that elected officials who claimed to support the right to organize (like our own NJ governor, Krispy Kreme Christy) while insisting that this right to unionize shouldn't apply to state workers, weren't simply attacking union workers, they were attacking the living standard of African-American workers in particular.

Just as school vouchers are not simply attacks on public education, statements challenging public-sector workers' right to unionize are directed at Black and other minority workers in particular.

As we celebrate the Giants exciting victory over the Patriots, we must appreciate what the players of both teams (and all NFL players) recognized before the game, what was at stake at the Lucas Oil Stadium had nothing to do with a NY-NJ team vs a New England franchise. The challenge in Indiana was (and is) about our very right to survive…

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