terça-feira, 16 de julho de 2013

Billionaires: Oligarchy within Democracy?

de laviedesidees

by Peter Hägel , 26 October 2012

Political scientist Jeffrey Winters argues that oligarchy is timeless, but varying in its forms. For him, the political power of billionaires in democracies represents a transformation towards “civil oligarchy”. But his exclusive focus on “wealth defense” may oversimplify and underestimate the real influence of the moneyed few.

  • by Peter Hägel
Reviewed: Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 237 p.
We live in good times for billionaires, the ever-growing Forbes list of the world’s richest people seems to indicate. And, if one looks at the tax reforms under Bush in the U.S. or Sarkozy in France, politicians apparently like billionaires. The adventures of Berlusconi in Italy, Bloomberg in New York, Thaksin in Thailand, Piñera in Chile, or, most recently, Ivanishvili in Georgia, suggest that billionaires also like politics. This is disturbing for many of us if it happens in democracies. Why would the masses allow the extremely rich to govern, instead of asking for redistribution?
According to Jeffrey Winters, we should not be surprised by the appearance of oligarchy, not even in democracies, as “concentrated wealth in the hands of individuals empowers them in ways that produce distinct kinds of oligarchic politics that are not captured within a generic pluralist framework” (p. xiii). Despite significant flaws, his Oligarchy is an important book, especially because the role of billionaires in politics has not received enough academic attention so far. [1]
Of course, various approaches within the sociology of elites could be employed. As Winters rightly remarks, though, ever since Pareto and Michels, most modern elite sociology has embraced a broad understanding of oligarchy in which not just the very wealthy, but also top level bureaucrats, party officials or opinion leaders are part of the ruling minority. The author wants to narrow the concept again, bringing it back to what he sees as its original meaning in the scholarship of Aristotle: a focus on extreme wealth as the key source of the power of the few.

Four faces of oligarchy

The book’s ambition to situate the political power of today’s billionaires within a wider, understanding of oligarchy, both historically and geographically, is laudable. Its parsimonious definitions facilitate comparison and reflect the author’s materialist ontology: “Oligarchs are actors who command and control massive concentrations of material resources that can be deployed to defend or enhance their personal wealth or exclusive social position” (p.6). “Oligarchy refers to the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors” (p. 7). Two distinctions allow Winters to refine his analysis: the ultra-rich employ different strategies depending on whether they operate in political systems that are shaped by collective institutions or by more fragmented, personalistic forms of rule, and whether oligarchs can use violence or not (p. 34). This 2x2 matrix yields four ideal types: warring, ruling, sultanistic and civil oligarchies, which are treated in respective chapters.
In warring oligarchies, wealth goes hand in hand with coercive capacities, as warrior-oligarchs use violence to defend their property claims both against the people they rule and competing oligarchs. Winters gives us brief examples of the chiefdoms of the ancient Thy region in Denmark, the pre-colonial Wanka warlords in Peru, the Hawaiian Islands and the ancient Irish Celts (46-50), but these examples all lack a real demonstration of whether and how wealth defense was the preoccupation of warrior-rulers. Wealth and power were clearly intertwined, but the pursuit of material resources primarily in order to safeguard one’s power and survival would seem to follow a very different logic than a preoccupation with wealth that sees power only as a tool for its defense. Winters is aware of this problem (p. 49ff.), which reoccurs throughout his study, for example when he appraises the rise of Suharto in Indonesia (p. 157ff.) and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (p. 257ff.). But he only “solves” it by assuming wealth defense as the main driving force, not by actually proving it. The author goes into more details when he interprets medieval Europe as a patchwork of warring oligarchs, but almost all the historical research he musters predates the more recent deconstruction of “feudalism”. It seems as if Winters deliberately chose to rely mainly on historical sociologists like Perry Anderson who share – and hence confirm – his materialist outlook. It would also have been interesting if he would have included studies of more contemporary warlordism (e.g. in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone or Somalia).
In ruling oligarchies, the richest people form institutions of collective rule in order to limit the threat of infighting among oligarchs, and to better defend themselves against external attacks and rebellion from below. To what an extent this involves a monopoly of violence for the collective governing body – or whether individual oligarchs continue to be armed – is decisive according to Winters. His discussion of classical Athens exhibits the same problems as his examples of warring oligarchies: the reader learns about social and material stratification, but how the rich used their influence over the governing institutions to defend their wealth collectively remains unclear. Winters limits his explanation to stating that the wealthiest Athenians “dominate[d] the country’s affairs by populating all the top offices of their ruling oligarchy” (p. 83) and that “poorer citizens (...) never used democracy to encroach on the property wealth of the Three Hundred” (p. 87). This is simple inductive reasoning with no real proofs. Several of his observations actually muddle his analysis: many foreigner-metics were among the wealthiest residents (p. 78), without being citizens; and the richest citizens were heavily taxed, because it was they who personally had to pay for the armed forces and the frequent military ventures (p. 81, 86). Winters is more convincing (and trivial) when he sees all citizens forming an oligarchy against the majority population of slaves, but a closer look at the varied stages of Athenian politics, e.g. those dominated by the so-called “demagogues” and those by the “tyrants”, is lacking.
In contrast, Winters’ analytic framework seems to fit quite well the oligarchic politics of ancient Rome, which had a much more unequal distribution of wealth than Athens. [2] For him, the complex political arrangements of the Roman Republic mainly served to present any one oligarch to rule alone (pp. 96-106), while simultaneously allowing all of them to protect their wealth and income derived from a slavery-based landholding economy. The use of coercion in the city of Rome and the control over the armed forces were carefully regulated, and the system broke down when “martial oligarchs” like Julius Caesar “gained personal and private command over large segments of Rome’s legions” (p. 107), transforming the Roman Republic into a series of “sultanistic oligarchies”.
A specialist of Southeast Asia, Winters is on his home turf when he discusses Indonesia under Suharto and the Philippines under Marcos as sultanistic oligarchies: “(...) a personalistic rulership in which institutions and laws are enfeebled and the leader governs through the use of coercive and material power to control fear and rewards” (p. 136). When politics is highly personalized, understanding the inner workings of the ruling family clan(s) becomes crucial, which often severely limits academic research, as this kind of information is rarely public. Winters presents fascinating insights on Indonesia, gleaned from extensive interviews with members of the country’s oligarchy, making this chapter the book’s strongest in empirical terms. His analysis takes the countries’ colonial legacies and their post-independence integration into the world economy seriously, providing context-rich explanations of how Suharto and Marcos concentrated material resources and political power in their hands. Despite their historical differences – especially with regards to the use of political violence (p. 197ff.) – oligarchic politics in both countries appear to be converging since their dictators’ downfall: “Both have achieved democratic transitions with lively freedoms of press, assembly, and participation. Both have [...] electoral systems thoroughly captured by their respective ruling oligarchs” (p. 206).

Distribution of wealth and political regimes

Much of the pleasure of reading Oligarchy comes from the fact that one notices a sharp mind at work trying to get a grip on the relationship between money and politics without getting lost in the myriad academic debates that have addressed the issue before him. Even within a strictly materialist framework, however, a more thorough engagement with recent theoretical advances in political economy would have allowed Winters to further refine his analysis considerably. [3]
The rich literature on the nature of distributional conflicts that lie behind different political regimes, for example, could help with the questions of when and why different types of oligarchies wax and wane – an issue Winters is aware he has not treated theoretically (p. 276). Key insights from this research tradition, some of whose classics like Tocqueville and Barrington Moore the author mentions, while ignoring most of the progress of the last twenty years, relate to different sources of wealth. Thus, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that mass democracy becomes more likely not just once urbanization and industrialization lead to an empowerment of the masses, but also when it becomes more acceptable to elites whose fortunes shift from immobile resources to more mobile ones, which are less exposed to the risk of redistribution [4]. This corresponds well with Winters’ assertion that electoral democracy and oligarchy often co-exist in the same polity (p. 273).
The analysis of the political consequences of economies built on resource extraction (oil, gas, minerals, timber, etc.) – often discussed as the “resource curse” [5] – has also become quite sophisticated and could have strengthened Winters’ theory. He is aware that certain economic features – e.g. Indonesia’s reliance on the extraction of primary resources (p. 142) or Singapore’s dependence on international capital inflows (p. 259) – have strong impacts on the oligarchic politics of his case studies. But he does not try to abstract from the cases and draw more general conclusions.

The U.S., an oligarchy?

Winters’ most polemical move comes when he introduces the concept of civil oligarchies and, drawing on ideas developed in a previous article [6], uses the United States (and Singapore) as an example. One sometimes even gets the impression that Oligarchy was written with an overarching concern for the rising inequalities in America. Just as Simon Johnson compared the recent financial meltdown in the U.S. to the crony capitalism once “reserved” for developing countries [7], Winters places the U.S. in line with other oligarchies. In civil oligarchies, “the single most important transformation in the history of oligarchy” (p. 208), a key shift among oligarchs’ objectives happens: as the rule of law converts property claims into property rights, enforced by the state, it is now mainly income that needs to be defended against redistributive taxation.
With their money, the ultra-wealthy can buy the services of what Winters calls the “Income Defense Industry” (p. 213ff.) – specialized law firms, accountants, banks and other tax planners that help with “tax minimization”, greatly facilitated by the availability of offshore tax shelters (p. 233ff.). This industry also lobbies for a tax regime that limits oligarchs’ exposure to taxation. In addition, the author sees the American oligarchs as a “donor class”, whose campaign contributions can be very influential (p. 249ff.). The key indicator of oligarchs’ success is taxation, which Winters examines via poignant case studies and illuminating data from the Internal Revenue Service. He shows that official tax rates – on income, especially capital income, but also the inheritance (“estate”) tax – have declined a lot over the past twenty years, indicating oligarchs’ lobbying victories. Effective tax rates (the amounts actually paid) have declined even more drastically, especially for the top 400 incomes, revealing the achievements of the income defense industry (p. 244ff.).
Increasing economic and political inequalities, also visible in many other developed nations, are certainly deplorable from the perspectives of democratic theory and various ethical positions. But do they merit labeling a country like the U.S. an oligarchy? From Aristotle to today, we normally use oligarchy as a term that, like democracy or monarchy, describes the main feature of a political system, and not just some aspects of it. For Italy under Silvio Berlusconi (which Winters never mentions), the category “civil oligarchy” would appear quite fitting: he used the resources of his corporate empire to become prime minister, and then he abused his political power to defend and enhance his fortune [8]. For market democracies in which the ultra-wealthy “merely” achieve a lot of control over their effective tax rates, it would seem more appropriate to speak of “oligarchic elements”. This also relates to the reverse question: under Winters’ definitions, when would a political system not be an oligarchy? If its society features no wealth stratification?

Can pluralism check the power of billionaires?

As Winters discusses his various examples of warring, ruling and sultanistic oligarchies, the very rich become the political leaders who actually govern. In his “civil oligarchies”, on the other hand, it does not matter whether billionaires aspire to rule – as long as they get what they want in terms of wealth and income defense. Here, the author incorporates Robert Dahl’s famous “critique of the ruling elite model”: “The actual political effectiveness of a group is a function of its potential for control and its potential for unity [9]”. The only objective that unites the ultra-wealthy, even if they never meet, is wealth defense, Winters contends (pp. 211, 220ff. and 280ff.). On other political issues, different oligarchs are likely to have different preferences; they thus participate in the pluralistic competition over values, which defines democratic politics.
Ironically, this line of reasoning is shared by Jim Bopp, the intellectual architect behind the recent liberation of campaign financing laws in the U.S., who sees more big money in politics as progress towards greater freedom of expression and hence larger voters’ choice [10]. Yet the underlying assumption, that members of the billionaire class represent the same diversity of values as the rest of society, is highly questionable. The rival attempts to influence U.S. elections by the Koch brothers (key supporters of the Tea Party movement) and George Soros (progressive) may look like a pluralistic battle of the oligarchs. In Switzerland, Austria and Georgia, though, the current political endeavors of Christoph Blocher, Frank Stronach and Bidzina Ivanishvili operate with no competing billionaires. It is in general rather unlikely that for every billionaire who makes his or her values a political cause, some other billionaire will act as a counterweight. The limited sociological research on “High Net Worth Individuals” that exists shows that their value systems differ from the rest of society. [11] As billionaires start to play politics for other purposes than wealth defense, we should therefore expect a more fundamental transformation of electoral democracy. Billionaires gaming the tax system represent a worrisome oligarchic intrusion into democratic politics. If they also use their material resources to control public policy beyond taxation, we may indeed observe a move towards civil oligarchies.
by Peter Hägel , 26 October 2012

Could the US Stop Another Edward Snowden?

Making an example out of current whistleblowers only allows future ones to adapt

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 10:20 AM PDT

Edward Snowden
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
It's hard even to know how to take it in. I mean, what's really happening? An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America's developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong. His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans. He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post. The response is unprecedented: an "international manhunt" (or more politely but less accurately, "a diplomatic full court press") conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet's sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.
And that's just for starters. Let's add another factor. The leaker, a young man with great techno-savvy, lets the world know that he's picked and chosen among the NSA files in his possession. He's releasing only those he thinks the American public needs in order to start a full-scale debate about the unprecedented secret world of surveillance that their taxpayer dollars have created. In other words, this is no "document dump." He wants to spark change without doing harm.
But here's the kicker: he couldn't be more aware of previous whistleblower cases, the punitive reaction of his government to them, and the fate that might be his. As a result, we now know, he has encrypted the full set of files in his possession and left them in one or more safe places for unknown individuals—that is, we don't know who they are—to access, should he be taken by the US
In other words, from the time Edward Snowden's first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA's secret world would be seen. It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him, and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents. Knowing that, the Obama administration and the representatives of our secret world went after him anyway—after one man on a global scale and in a way that may not have a precedent. No thought of future embarrassment stopped them, nor, it seems, did they hesitate because of possible resentments engendered by their heavy-handed pressure on numerous foreign governments.
The result has been a global spectacle, as well as a worldwide debate about the spying practices of the US (and its allies). In these weeks, Washington has proven determined, vengeful, implacable. It has strong-armed, threatened, and elbowed powers large and small. It has essentially pledged that the leaker, former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, will never be safe on this planet in his lifetime. And yet, to mention the obvious, the greatest power on Earth has, as yet, failed to get its man and is losing the public opinion battle globally.
An Asylum-less World
Highlighted in all this has been a curious fact of our twenty-first-century world. In the Cold War years, asylum was always potentially available. If you opposed one of the two superpowers or its allies, the other was usually ready to open its arms to you, as the US famously did for what were once called "Soviet dissidents" in great numbers. The Soviets did the same for Americans, Brits, and others, often secret communists, sometimes actual spies, who opposed the leading capitalist power and its global order.
Today, if you are a twenty-first-century "dissident" and need asylum/protection from the only superpower left, there is essentially none to be had. Even after three Latin American countries, enraged at Washington's actions, extended offers of protection to Snowden, these should be treated as a new category of limited asylum. After all, the greatest power on the planet has, since 9/11, shown itself perfectly willing to do almost anything in pursuit of its definition of "security" or the security of its security system. Torture, abuse, the setting up of secret prisons or "black sites," the kidnapping of terrorist suspects (including perfectly innocent people) off the streets of global cities and in the backlands of the planet, as well as their "rendition" to the torture chambers of complicit allied regimes, and the secret surveillance of anyone anywhere would only start a far longer list.
Nothing about the "international manhunt" for Snowden indicates that the Obama administration would be unwilling to send in the CIA or special operations types to "render" him from Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, no matter the cost to hemispheric relations. Snowden himself brought up this possibility in his first interview with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. "I could," he said bluntly, "be rendered by the CIA." This assumes that he can even make it to a land of exile from somewhere in the bowels of the international terminal of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport without being intercepted by Washington.
It's true that there remain some modest limits on the actions even of a rogue superpower. It's hard to imagine Washington dropping its kidnappers into Russia or China to take Snowden, which is perhaps why it has put such pressure on both countries to turn him in or hustle him along. With smaller, weaker lands, however, non-nuclear allies or enemies or frenemies, don't doubt the possibility for a second.
If Edward Snowden is proving one thing, it's this: in 2013, Planet Earth isn't big enough to protect the American version of "dissidents.Instead, it looks ever more like a giant prison with a single implacable policeman, judge, jury, and jailer.
Deterrence Theory the Second Time Around
In the Cold War years, the two nuclear-armed superpowers practiced what was called "deterrence theory," or more aptly MAD, short for "mutually assured destruction." Think of it as the particularly grim underside of what might have been but wasn't called MAA (mutually assured asylum). The knowledge that no nuclear first strike by one superpower could succeed in preventing the other from striking back with overwhelming force, destroying them both (and possibly the planet) seemed, however barely, to hold their enmity and weaponry at bay. It forced them to fight their wars, often by proxy, on the global frontiers of empire.
Now, with but one superpower left, another kind of deterrence theory has come into play. Crucial to our era is the ongoing creation of the first global surveillance state. In the Obama years, the sole superpower has put special effort into deterring anyone in its labyrinthine bureaucracy who shows a desire to let us know what "our" government is doing in our name.
The Obama administration's efforts to stop whistleblowers are becoming legendary. It has launched an unprecedented program to specially train millions of employees and contractors to profile coworkers for "indicators of insider threat behavior." They are being encouraged to inform on any "high-risk persons" they suspect might be planning to go public. Administration officials have also put much punitive energy into making examples out of whistleblowers who have tried to reveal anything of the inner workings of the national security complex.
In this way, the Obama administration has more than doubled the total whistleblower prosecutions of all previous administrations combined under the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act. It has also gone after Army Private Bradley Manning for releasing secret military and State Department files to WikiLeaks, not only attempting to put him away for life for "aiding the enemy," but subjecting him to particularly vindictive and abusive treatment while in military prison. In addition, it has threatened journalists who have written on or published leaked material and gone on expeditions into the telephone and email records of major media organizations.
All of this adds up to a new version of deterrence thinking in which a potential whistleblower should know that he or she will experience a lifetime of suffering for leaking anything; in which those, even in the highest reaches of government, who consider speaking to journalists on classified subjects should know that their calls could be monitored and their whispers criminalized; and in which the media should know that reporting on such subjects is not a healthy activity.
This sort of deterrence already seemed increasingly extreme in nature; the response to Snowden's revelations took it to a new level. Though the US government pursued WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange abroad (while reportedly preparing to indict him at home), the other whistleblower cases might all be considered national security ones. The manhunt against Snowden is something new. Through it, Washington is now punitively expanding twenty-first century deterrence theory to the world.
The message is this: nowhere will you be safe from us if you breach US secrecy. Snowden's will surely be a case study in how far the new global security state is willing to go. And the answer is already in: far indeed. We just don't yet know exactly how far.
How to Down a Plane to (Not) Catch a Whistleblower
In this light, no incident has been more revealing than the downing of the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the democratically elected head of a sovereign Latin American nation, and not an official enemy of the United States. Angry Bolivian authorities termed it a "kidnapping" or "imperialist hijack." It was, at the least, an act for which it's hard to imagine a precedent.
Evidently officials in Washington believed that the plane bringing the Bolivian president back from Moscow was also carrying Snowden. As a result, the US seems to have put enough pressure on four European countries (France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) to force that plane to land for refueling in a fifth country (Austria). There—again, US pressure seems to have been the crucial factor—it was searched under disputed circumstances and Snowden not found.
So much is not known about what happened, in part because there has been no serious reporting from Washington on the subject. The US media has largely ignored the American role in the downing of the plane, an incident regularly described here as if the obvious hadn't happened. This may, at least in part, be the result of the Obama administration's implacable pursuit of whistleblowers and leakers right into the phone records of reporters. The government has made such a point of its willingness to pursue whistleblowers via journalists that, as Associated Press President Gary Pruitt recently pointed out, national security sources are drying up. Key figures in Washington are scared to talk even off the record (now that "off" turns out to be potentially very "on"). And the Justice Department's new "tighter" guildelines for accessing reporters' records are clearly filled with loopholes and undoubtedly little more than window dressing.
Still, it's reasonable to imagine that when Morales's plane took off from Moscow there were top US officials gathered in a situation room (à la the bin Laden affair), that the president was in the loop, and that the intelligence people said something like: we have an 85% certainty that Snowden is on that plane. Obviously, the decision was made to bring it down and enough pressure was placed on key officials in those five countries to cause them to bow to Washington's will.
One can certainly imagine that, but know it? At the moment, not a chance and, unlike in the raid that killed bin Laden, a triumphant situation-room photo hasn't been released, since there was, of course, no triumph. Many questions arise. Why, to mention just one, did Washington not allow Morales's plane to land for refueling in Portugal, as originally planned, and simply strong-arm the Portuguese into searching it? As with so much else, we don't know.
We only know that, to bring five countries into line that way, the pressure from Washington (or its local representatives) must have been intense.  Put another way: key officials in those countries must have realized quickly that they stood in the way of a truly powerful urge by the planet's superpower to get one fugitive. It was an urge so strong that it overrode any other tactical considerations, and so opened the way for Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua to offer asylum to Snowden with the support of much of the rest of Latin America.
Imagine for a moment that an American president's plane had been brought down in a similar fashion. Imagine that a consortium of nations pressured by, say, China or Russia, did it and that, with the president aboard, it was then searched for a Chinese or Soviet "dissident." Imagine the reaction here. Imagine the shock. Imagine the accusations of "illegality," of "skyjacking," of "international terrorism." Imagine the 24/7 media coverage. Imagine the information pouring out of Washington about what would no doubt have been termed "an act of war."
Of course, such a scenario is inconceivable on this one-way planet. So instead, just think about the silence here over the Morales incident, the lack of coverage, the lack of reporting, the lack of outrage, the lack of shock, the lack of... well, just about anything at all.
Instead, the twenty-first-century version of deterrence theory ruled the day, even though Snowden is the proof that deterrence via manhunts, prosecution, imprisonment, and the like has proven ineffective when it comes to leaks. It's worth pointing out that what may be the two largest leaks of official documents in history—Bradley Manning's and Snowden's—happened in a country increasingly under the sway of deterrence theory.
Slouching Toward Washington to Be Born
And yet don't think that no one has been affected, no one intimidated. Consider, for instance, a superior piece of recent reporting by Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. His front-page story, "In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of NSA," might once have sent shock waves through Washington and perhaps the country as well. It did, after all, reveal how, in "more than a dozen classified rulings," a secret FISA court, which oversees the American surveillance state, "has created a secret body of law" giving the NSA sweeping new powers.
Here's the paragraph that should have had Americans jumping out of their skins (my italics added): "The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said."
At most moments in American history, the revelation that such a secret court, which never turns down government requests, is making law "almost" at the level of the Supreme Court would surely have caused an outcry in Congress and elsewhere. However, there was none, a sign either of how powerful and intimidating the secret world has become or of how much Congress and the rest of Washington have already been absorbed into it.
No less strikingly—and again, we know so little that it's necessary to read between the lines—Lichtblau indicates that more than six "current and former national security officials," perhaps disturbed by the expanding powers of the FISA court, discussed its classified rulings "on the condition of anonymity." Assumedly, at least one of them (or someone else) leaked the classified information about that court to him.
Fittingly enough, Lichtblau wrote a remarkably anonymous piece. Given that sources no longer have any assurance that phone and email records aren't being or won't be monitored, we have no idea how these shadowy figures got in touch with him or vice versa. All we know is that, even when shining a powerful light into the darkness of the surveillance universe, American journalism now finds itself plunging into the shadows as well.
What both the Morales incident and the Lichtblau article tell us, and what we've barely taken in, is how our American world is changing. In the Cold War years, faced with a MAD world, both superpowers ventured "into the shadows" to duke it out in their global struggle. As in so many wars, sooner or later the methods used in distant lands came home to haunt us. In the twenty-first century, without another major power in sight, the remaining superpower has made those "shadows" its own in a big way. Just beyond the view of the rest of us, it began recreating its famed tripartite, checks-and-balances government, now more than two centuries old, in a new form. There, in those shadows, the executive, judicial, and legislative branches began to meld into a unicameral shadow government, part of a new architecture of control that has nothing to do with "of the people, by the people, for the people."
Such a shadow government placing its trust in secret courts and the large-scale surveillance of populations, its own included, while pursuing its secret desires globally was just the sort of thing that the country's founding fathers feared. In the end, it hardly matters under what label—including American "safety" and "security"—such a governing power is built; sooner or later, the architecture will determine the acts, and it will become more tyrannical at home and more extreme abroad. Welcome to the world of the single rogue superpower, and thank your lucky stars that Edward Snowden made the choices he did.
It's eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly "totalistic" if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.
We have now experienced deterrence theory in two centuries. Once it was brought to bear to stop the wholesale destruction of the planet; once—and they do say that if the first time is tragedy, the second is farce—to deter a small number of whistleblowers from revealing the innards of our new global security state. We came close enough to total tragedy once. If only we could be assured that the second time around it would indeed be total farce, but at the moment, as far as I can tell, no one's laughing.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
[Note: Special thanks go to Irena Gross who sparked my thinking about American "dissidents" and this prison planet of ours.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

Hillary Clinton: The Right-Wing Cash Machine

from motherjones

No one knows whether she will run for president, but that hasn't stopped conservatives from raising money off Hillary '16.

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Is she running or not? Hillary Clinton herself may not know if she'll seek the presidency in 2016. But such uncertainty is not stopping right-wing political operatives, and a host of Republican political action committees and nonprofits in full buck-raking mode are using Clinton's name, face, and the chance of a President Hillary Clinton to fill their own coffers.
The biggest anti-Hillary money-grabber is America Rising, a Republican super-PAC created to research and track Democratic candidates on a year-round basis. Run by Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, America Rising planted its anti-Hillary flag last month with the creation of StopHillary2016.org, a website dedicated to raising cash for America Rising.
For $5, online donors get a Stop Hillary 2016 bumper sticker—before there is anything to stop. And this past week, America Rising hosted a "Stop Hillary"-themed fundraiser in Manhattan. "The Clinton machine is extremely powerful, and we have seen it in action time and time again," Rhoades wrote in an email to supporters. "We need to stop it before it is too late." The group has yet to file any reports on how much it's spent or raised.
Tim Miller, a spokesman for America Rising, would not say how much money the Manhattan event brought in, but he adds, "Absolutely we will continue with Stop Hillary efforts." He says it's never too early to start fundraising to fund opposition research efforts for 2016. "One of the biggest lessons learned from 2012 is that President Obama gained an advantage from having a head start on the GOP competition, and we need to remedy that in 2016," Miller says.
America Rising has the slickest anti-Hillary fundraising operation, but others are looking to cash in on the supposed threat posed by HRC. Stop Hillary PAC, not to be confused with the aforementioned Stop Hillary 2016, seems to be little more than a photo on a website of Clinton looking angry accompanied by an email sign-up and a bright red "DONATE TODAY" button. "Stop Hillary PAC," its site claims, "was created for one reason only—to save America from the destructive far-left, liberal cancer created by Bill and Hillary Clinton that's trying to corrupt America. Stand with Stop Hillary PAC today to take a stand for America's future and STOP Hillary dead in her tracks."
Yet the brave Hillary-stoppers won't say much about who they are. On its website, Stop Hillary PAC lists Colorado state Sen. Ted Harvey as its honorary chairman. Harvey did not respond to requests for comment about his role with the group. Stop Hillary is a hybrid PAC—a plain vanilla political action committee (subject to contribution limits and able to give to candidates) with a super-PAC affiliate (able to take unlimited sums of money to spend on attack ads but barred from contributing to candidates). Formed in May, the group asks for donations as small as $25 up to $1,000 (or enter your own donation), but it has yet to disclose any fundraising and spending figures.
Hillary Clinton has been a conservative lightning rod since at least "HillaryCare," and the paper trail of anti-Hillary PACs is long. There was Americans Against Hillary, founded in 2000, which didn't raise any money or do anything; the Stop-Hillary Political Action Committee set up in 2004, which the Federal Election Commission shut down for failing to file any reports; Americans United Against Hillary created in 2009, which the FEC also shut down for failing to report on its activities; and most recently the Defeat Hillary Super-PAC, created in April and then shuttered a month later by a onetime congressional candidate named Laurence Socci. "I terminated the Defeat Hillary Super PAC a couple of months ago and have no interest in it," Socci wrote in an email, declining to explain the outfit's origins.
Paul Begala, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, isn't surprised that conservatives are targeting Hillary. A favorite line of hers, Begala says, is Eleanor Roosevelt's observation that "every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide." Begala says, "As a strategist, I know the GOP attacks what it fears. Or, as [former Georgia Gov.] Zell Miller says, a hit dog barks."
The anti-Hillary fundraising effort extends beyond Hillary-specific groups. In May, American Crossroads, the national super-PAC advised by Karl Rove, set its sights on Clinton and the Benghazi tragedy. In a minute-and-a-half-long web video, Crossroads suggested that Clinton bungled her handling of the Benghazi attack and silenced a State Department whistleblower. "Was she part of a cover-up?" the ad asks, ending with a well-placed donation plea.
A PAC called Special Operations Speaks has also zeroed in on the death of four Americans at the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, among them Ambassador Chris Stevens. Headed by a former Air Force colonel named Dick Brauer, Special Operations Speaks wants Clinton indicted for lying about what happened in Benghazi. "It's time for former Secretary of State Clinton to be prosecuted for perjury," reads an April 13 email from the group. "Please help us hold their feet to the fire with any contribution you can afford."
The group's campaign filings, though, indicate Special Operations Speaks has done more to pay its consultants and lawyers than bring Clinton "to justice." In the second half of 2012, the group spent $371,839—93 percent of which went to media consultants, fundraising costs, lawyers, graphic artists, and the group's own staff.
Republican outfits like American Crossroads and Special Operations Speaks have drawn some criticism for fundraising off Clinton and Benghazi mere months after the 2012 presidential election. Strangely enough, one of Crossroads' loudest critics was neoconservative Bill Kristol, who edits the right-leaning Weekly Standard magazine. "I do not like the conservative Republican groups putting ads up about Hillary Clinton," he said on Fox News. "This is just fundraising by American Crossroads and these other groups. It's ridiculous!"
But no amount of umbrage, from Democrats or Republicans, will stop the Hillary Clinton fundraising machine. As I write this, an email landed in my inbox written by tea party favorite and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (or his ghost writer) warning of "the damage a Hillary Clinton presidency will do to the America we know and love." She will "continue Obama's assault on free markets." She'll be the "ultimate implementer [of] Obamacare." She'll create "Jimmy Carter-style joblessness." Writing on behalf of Stop Hillary PAC, Arpaio says Clinton "is even closer to the presidency now than ever before." And the way to stop her is by donating $25, $50, $100, or more.
Front page image: Christy Bowe/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll is a reporter at Mother Jones.

In Europe, austerity’s failures open radical opportunities.

Demonstrators in front of a banner reading "TROIKA: unemployment" in the May Day rally in downtown Lisbon on May 1 (Henriques Da Cunha / Getty).

The Subversive Summit

From in these times
BY Randy Malamud
The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.
ZAGREB, CROATIA—What is often described in media, political and financial circles as the global “debt crisis” actually poses even more insidiously widespread dangers than the ubiquitous doom-filled reports commonly inform. “The greatest catastrophe threatening Greece and Europe is not the economic crisis,” says Costas Douzinas, professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, “but the total destruction of the social bond, the way we see ourselves, the way we see our relation to the community. This is long-term. Economic crisis, fiscal deficits, can be restored in the medium term. But once you lose the social ethos, then there is no way back.”
That was the takeaway in May as scholars, writers, politicians and activists came together at Zagreb’s sixth annual Subversive Forum to plumb the depths of the current malaise, but also to propose remedies for the five years of European economic upheaval that has produced personal hardship, civic unrest, governmental instability and a general sense of paralysis.
For two weeks every year, Zagreb’s civic festival welcomes hordes of progressive lecturers and audiences to a program of films, debates, roundtable discussions and protest-planning sessions. Running past midnight in the city’s elegant 1920-vintage movie house Kino Europa, standing-room-only keynote speeches attract staunch partisans for advancing the interests of the public sphere against the authoritarian mediocracy that now prevails.
The cataclysm of human and social devastation in Europe is this generation’s defining moment. But calling it a debt crisis, as Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis explains, is like going to the hospital with advanced inoperable cancer and having the doctor diagnose your suffering as a pain crisis.
Yes there is pain, but the pain is symptomatic of bigger problems. The “debt crisis” is also a food crisis—people can’t afford to buy enough to eat. It’s a housing crisis, an education crisis, an unemployment crisis, an immigration crisis, a human rights crisis. In Greece, the New York Times reports, prostitution has surged 150 percent in the last two years as a direct result of social desperation, with supply-and-demand dynamics driving prices for sex work as low as five euros.
The Left rightly rejects austerity, despising it as collective punishment of citizens who had nothing to do with the financial collapse. Public health scholars David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu explain in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills that such spending cuts drastically lower life expectancy due to a higher prevalence of suicide, HIV, alcoholism, heart disease and depression.
Underlying all these other crises is the steady transformation of the over-bureaucratized European Union into a democracy-free zone. Voter turnout is in decline (especially for European Parliament elections, but also in national contests), as constituencies manifest apathy or disenfranchisement. Decisions that people should be able to make for themselves and that are consequential for their lives—how much society spends on healthcare, on education, on defense—emanate instead from afar by EU administrators. A “Merkiavellian” regime, some call it; a secular empire of finance.
The principles of democratic self-determination are hamstrung by the powerful Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission (the EU’s legislative and operational council)—which a disempowered citizenry increasingly views as an automaton that squelches democracy as it protects the interests of the power elite.
A teachable moment
But as many Europeans grow resigned to the “new normal,” a passionate movement of social democrats and subversive activists aims to recast a fatalistic narrative of inevitable capitulation. From the rubble of this financial catastrophe, they are extrapolating a systemic critique of how this mess came to pass and more importantly, how to use the collapse as a teachable moment. The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.
The EU had been promoted as a strong “single market” (by many reckonings, the world’s largest economy) that would defuse Europe’s centuries of conflict: shared economic prosperity would generate cooperative unity. But clearly the EU has not delivered the promised transnational harmony. Capitalism is, after all, inherently a competition, which means there are winners and losers. Labor, always a weak player in this competition, loses the most in a race to attract foreign investment. Consequently, the labor movement fears a descent into what Slavoj Žižek calls a tyrannical “capitalism with Asian values.”
“Peripheral countries,” a label that has become so prevalent in the EU discourse, typifies the fault lines in the “union.” At the Subversive Forum, I noticed how keenly language highlights these tensions and fissures. Not surprisingly, people don’t like being thought of as peripheral—a lesson that might have been learned in light of the offense that the “third world” has always felt about that similarly condescending term. They also don’t appreciate being called PIIGS, the acronym that lumps together Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the extra “i” doesn’t soften the blow). The term is outdated anyhow as more countries slide into severe downturns. With France and the United Kingdom falling into recession and Cyprus imploding, we can expect even coarser acronyms in the future.
It’s not just about nomenclature. The discourse of “othering” reveals old and supposedly effaced neocolonialist prejudices at their worst. In the minds of those who oppose humane terms of support, the “pigs” are lazy and corrupt, unsophisticated and out of date. They have brought their troubles on themselves and forced austerity will do them good.
The idea of Europe and even the word itself, has become toxic, unstable; co-opted by the bureaucrats’ failed vision, nobody knows exactly what it means. Is the UK in Europe? What about other EU but non-Eurozone countries—like Poland or Sweden? Is Iceland, the canary in the coal mine for financial meltdown, European? Euro-Asiatic hybrids such as Russia and Turkey? Non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland? Can a country be expelled from Europe?
“Europe” is uttered with a sneer or a spasm of abjection. “Euro,” which once denoted simply a strong cosmopolitan currency, is now a root that has spawned a more cynical vocabulary: Eurocritic, Euroskeptic, Europhobe. But if the establishment’s lexicon is becoming degraded, the radical retorts are more fiercely honed. “Union” and “unity” have been exposed as feckless in the face of European inability to sustain these, inspiring a more rousing synonym, “solidarity,” that resounds among those who are focused on social equality rather than financial technicalities. Paradoxically, the counter-rhetoric of the Left has expanded the context of the crisis by contracting the terminology. What was originally construed as “the global economic crisis” morphed into “the Eurozone crisis,” or “the Eurocrisis,” then became more tightly compressed into “the crisis,” and finally—stripping away everything else to convey simply a primordial vortex of personal agony and social decrepitude—the definite article dropped off, leaving just “crisis.”
“Crisis” has mobilized a radical critique of European capitalism. It’s not as simple as debating whether countries should leave the EU, or the euro—as bad as things are now, the alternative is probably catastrophic. But the Left has embarked upon a deep analysis of what sort of society has grown out of the EU’s financial autocracy. “Criminals, disguised as statesmen, were robbing us blind,” says Slovenian poet and critic Aleš Debeljak. “Crisis made us realize this truth.”
The radical mission is to uncover and expose the roots of this incompetence and institutional corruption, to question the motives and hidden agendas lurking beneath the “bankruptocracy” (another salient coinage), to educate and motivate suffering masses, and to reform the system.
“We can’t leave economic issues to the experts any longer,” says Maja Breznik, from the Slovenian Peace Institute. “It’s time for amateur investigations.”
These investigations, an end-run around the self-interested strategies of bankers and other EU cronies, begin from the premise that the vicious circle of debt is not the fault of immoderate spending by governments or households. Instead the primary goal of “recovery” has been a non sequitur: protecting the interests of private moneylenders and multinationals and refilling their coffers after their financial miscalculations and chicanery. The problem as it is being addressed bears little relation to the actual predicament, so society has plunged into deep recession.
As Europe tries to emerge from crisis, an exclusive focus on debt represents a class struggle designed by financiers to transfer losses from their books on to the taxpayers. Troubled countries are forced to sell off their economies to foreign investors. The Troika arranges bailouts under the harshest terms, with the heaviest burdens borne by agencies that support public welfare, because reducing social spending allows countries to pay more money, more quickly, back to the banks.
Privatization of the commons en- sues: everything that can be liquidated is sold, then rented back to the most disempowered classes. Much of the population is perpetually indebted and the idea of “permanent work” becomes a rarity, replaced by piece-work, part-time work and frequent lay-offs. The social contract has been broken.
We “amateur investigators” must ask questions about real value, as opposed to the merely monetary expressions of value that the Troika fetishizes. It seems reasonable to proclaim “bankrupt” (figuratively and literally) the discourse of valuation that culminated in the exotic, abstruse financial products that precipitated the crash.
It is our turn to open the discussion of what is valued from the perspective of the victims of fiscal malfeasance. (By “us” I refer to non-bankers, non-wealthy, non-functionaries and for good measure a healthy cadré of academic fellow travelers.) GDP itself is a subjective measure of value, a war-accounting mechanism that is not the only way to count. A euro is not just a euro: not every use of money is equally valuable. A different model of social accounting—one that focuses on the bottom, the workers, the poor and middle class, and starts with wages, taxes, social security—will produce a very different economic narrative than the one that has predominated for the last five years.
“We demand a new right,” argues Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a Marxist scholar from Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts, “The right to insolvency. We are not going to pay the tax. If I am insolvent, I don’t have money, so I won’t pay the debt.” Instead, there should be a moratorium on interest payments, some debt should be canceled and some repaid with a growth clause (as Germany did in the 1950s). Countries would pay as they grow, and as they can afford it.
Žižek—the Subversive Forum’s patron saint since its inception—warns that the radical Left has historically had a proclivity to sit on the sidelines: “They prefer sometimes not to take power so that when everything goes wrong they can write their books explaining in detail why everything had to go wrong. There is some deeply rooted masochism of the radical Left. Their best books are usually very convincing stories of failure.”
But today there is an especially high onus to take action, to engage in political reform. Leftist activists and politicians do have a concrete agenda for fixing the crisis. In Greece, defying the eulogies of democracy, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza coalition has shown impressive strength in the last few elections and stands within grasp of parliamentary victory and a majority coalition in the near future. Nearly destroyed by crisis, Greece may soon emerge as the most advanced site of resistance. “The future of Greece is the future of Europe,” Tsipras proclaims, providing a heartening reverberation for the slogan that protestors chant across the continent, “Nous sommes tous des grecs”: We are all Greeks.
The Left’s challenge is to reorganize in a more cooperative, collective way: reclaiming the commons, reappropriating the wealth that is now in the hands of the state and the banks, and reconstituting the social fabric that was destroyed by economic restructuring.
Political platforms like Syriza’s draw on a wealth of theoretical foundations and strategic visions for reform.
Erik Wright, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias, is one of many academic subversives who offered Zagreb audiences a sophisticated array of fresh ideas for transcending the status quo of capitalism and replacing it with an emancipatory alternative, a democratic egalitarian pathway that empowers people to take control of their own destinies. Wright described a range of innovations that can be introduced “inside of capitalism” but that embody non-capitalistic principles and more fully reflect the values of democracy: worker-owned cooperatives, participatory budgeting (where citizens help determine civic priorities), freely provided public services like transportation and libraries (which we can think of as anti-capitalist ways to give people mobility and books), and unobstructed access to the commons of intellectual property. Peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia illustrate how a non-capitalist means of production can flourish within capitalism and ultimately displace capitalism altogether (as evidenced by the recent demise of the print edition of that imperialist icon, the Encyclopedia Britannica).
Urban farms organized through community land trusts can support food production divorced from agribusiness. Crowd-sourcing finance like Kickstarter sidesteps the entrenched hegemonies of cultural production. The gift economy in music from the Internet allows people to download songs for free and pay whatever they want. (Wright believes these musicians actually make more income than they would in a conventional sales model because they have created a more palatable moral economy with their fans.)
The crisis of capitalism offers, as a silver lining, the opportunity for us to reconceptualize more democratic and sustainable systems of social and commercial existence. It’s a moment that is uniquely receptive to new ideas, as the old ones have proven so worthless. A subversive smorgasbord can be created in the world as it is, prefiguring things that might be in the world as it could become. Are these just utopian fantasies? A questioner at Wright’s lecture asked whether a smattering of such small-scale interventions could really inspire fundamental social change, to which the sociologist responded sublimely: “We don’t know for sure. The day before Wikipedia was invented, it was impossible.”
Dr. Randy Malamud is regents' professor and chair of the department of English at Georgia State University. He is the author of eight books, including Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (NYU Press, 1998) and An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).   He can be reached at rmalamudgsuedu.

Slavoj Žižek on the global protest

Trouble in Paradise

In his early writings, Marx described the German situation as one in which the only answer to particular problems was the universal solution: global revolution. This is a succinct expression of the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary period: in a reformist period, global revolution remains a dream which, if it does anything, merely lends weight to attempts to change things locally; in a revolutionary period, it becomes clear that nothing will improve without radical global change. In this purely formal sense, 1990 was a revolutionary year: it was plain that partial reforms of the Communist states would not do the job and that a total break was needed to resolve even such everyday problems as making sure there was enough for people to eat.
Where do we stand today with respect to this difference? Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions? The most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories. We know why people are protesting in Greece or Spain; but why is there trouble in such prosperous or fast-developing countries as Turkey, Sweden or Brazil? With hindsight, we might see the Khomeini revolution of 1979 as the original ‘trouble in paradise’, given that it happened in a country that was on the fast-track of pro-Western modernisation, and the West’s staunchest ally in the region. Maybe there’s something wrong with our notion of paradise.
Before the current wave of protests, Turkey was the very model of a state able to combine a thriving liberal economy with moderate Islamism, fit for Europe, a welcome contrast to the more ‘European’ Greece, caught in an ideological quagmire and bent on economic self-destruction. True, there were ominous signs here and there (Turkey’s denial of the Armenian holocaust; the arrests of journalists; the unresolved status of the Kurds; calls for a greater Turkey which would resuscitate the tradition of the Ottoman Empire; the occasional imposition of religious laws), but these were dismissed as small stains that should not be allowed to taint the overall picture.
Then the Taksim Square protests exploded. Everyone knows that the planned transformation of a park that borders on Taksim Square in central Istanbul into a shopping centre was not what the protests were ‘really about’, and that a much deeper unease was gaining strength. The same was true of the protests in Brazil in mid-June: what triggered those was a small rise in the cost of public transport, but they went on even after the measure was revoked. Here too the protests had exploded in a country which – according to the media, at least – was enjoying an economic boom and had every reason to feel confident about the future. In this case the protests were apparently supported by the president, Dilma Rousseff, who declared herself delighted by them.
It is crucial that we don’t see the Turkish protests merely as a secular civil society rising up against an authoritarian Islamist regime supported by a silent Muslim majority. What complicates the picture is the protests’ anti-capitalist thrust: protesters intuitively sense that free-market fundamentalism and fundamentalist Islam are not mutually exclusive. The privatisation of public space by an Islamist government shows that the two forms of fundamentalism can work hand in hand: it’s a clear sign that the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce.
It is also important to recognise that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one, with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content; it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself, which is taking place within the protests themselves. Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration? Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule? Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space? The question is open, and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process.
In 2011, when protests were erupting across Europe and the Middle East, many insisted that they shouldn’t be treated as instances of a single global movement. Instead, they argued, each was a response to a specific situation. In Egypt, the protesters wanted what in other countries the Occupy movement was protesting against: ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Even among Muslim countries, there were crucial differences: the Arab Spring in Egypt was a protest against a corrupt authoritarian pro-Western regime; the Green Revolution in Iran that began in 2009 was against authoritarian Islamism. It is easy to see how such a particularisation of protest appeals to defenders of the status quo: there is no threat against the global order as such, just a series of separate local problems.
Global capitalism is a complex process which affects different countries in different ways. What unites the protests, for all their multifariousness, is that they are all reactions against different facets of capitalist globalisation. The general tendency of today’s global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (healthcare, education, culture), and increasingly authoritarian political power. It is in this context that Greeks are protesting against the rule of international financial capital and their own corrupt and inefficient state, which is less and less able to provide basic social services. It is in this context too that Turks are protesting against the commercialisation of public space and against religious authoritarianism; that Egyptians are protesting against a regime supported by the Western powers; that Iranians are protesting against corruption and religious fundamentalism, and so on. None of these protests can be reduced to a single issue. They all deal with a specific combination of at least two issues, one economic (from corruption to inefficiency to capitalism itself), the other politico-ideological (from the demand for democracy to the demand that conventional multi-party democracy be overthrown). The same holds for the Occupy movement. Beneath the profusion of (often confused) statements, the movement had two basic features: first, discontent with capitalism as a system, not just with its particular local corruptions; second, an awareness that the institutionalised form of representative multi-party democracy is not equipped to fight capitalist excess, i.e. democracy has to be reinvented.
Just because the underlying cause of the protests is global capitalism, that doesn’t mean the only solution is directly to overthrow it. Nor is it viable to pursue the pragmatic alternative, which is to deal with individual problems and wait for a radical transformation. That ignores the fact that global capitalism is necessarily inconsistent: market freedom goes hand in hand with US support for its own farmers; preaching democracy goes hand in hand with supporting Saudi Arabia. This inconsistency opens up a space for political intervention: wherever the global capitalist system is forced to violate its own rules, there is an opportunity to insist that it follow those rules. To demand consistency at strategically selected points where the system cannot afford to be consistent is to put pressure on the entire system. The art of politics lies in making particular demands which, while thoroughly realistic, strike at the core of hegemonic ideology and imply much more radical change. Such demands, while feasible and legitimate, are de facto impossible. Obama’s proposal for universal healthcare was such a case, which is why reactions to it were so violent.
A political movement begins with an idea, something to strive for, but in time the idea undergoes a profound transformation – not just a tactical accommodation, but an essential redefinition – because the idea itself becomes part of the process: it becomes overdetermined. Say a revolt starts with a demand for justice, perhaps in the form of a call for a particular law to be repealed. Once people get deeply engaged in it, they become aware that much more than meeting their initial demand would be needed to bring about true justice. The problem is to define what, precisely, the ‘much more’ consists in. The liberal-pragmatic view is that problems can be solved gradually, one by one: ‘People are dying now in Rwanda, so forget about anti-imperialist struggle, let’s just prevent the slaughter’; or ‘We have to fight poverty and racism here and now, not wait for the collapse of the global capitalist order.’ John Caputo argued along these lines in After the Death of God (2007):
I would be perfectly happy if the far-left politicians in the United States were able to reform the system by providing universal healthcare, effectively redistributing wealth more equitably with a revised IRS code, effectively restricting campaign financing, enfranchising all voters, treating migrant workers humanely, and effecting a multilateral foreign policy that would integrate American power within the international community etc, i.e. intervene upon capitalism by means of serious and far-reaching reforms … If after doing all that Badiou and Žižek complained that some Monster called Capitalism still stalks us, I would be inclined to greet that Monster with a yawn.
The problem here is not Caputo’s conclusion: if one could achieve all that within capitalism, why not stay there? The problem is the underlying premise that it’s possible to achieve all that within global capitalism in its present form. What if the malfunctionings of capitalism listed by Caputo aren’t merely contingent perturbations but structural necessities? What if Caputo’s dream is a dream of a universal capitalist order without its symptoms, without the critical points at which its ‘repressed truth’ shows itself?
Today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination of overlapping demands, and this accounts for their strength: they fight for ‘normal’, parliamentary democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially when directed at immigrants and refugees; against corruption in politics and business (industrial pollution of the environment etc); for the welfare state against neoliberalism; and for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals. They also question the global capitalist system as such and try to keep alive the idea of a society beyond capitalism. Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism (‘what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, all other fights are secondary’), but also false gradualism (‘right now we should fight against military dictatorship and for basic democracy, all dreams of socialism should be put aside for now’). Here there is no shame in recalling the Maoist distinction between principal and secondary antagonisms, between those that matter most in the end and those that dominate now. There are situations in which to insist on the principal antagonism means to miss the opportunity to strike a significant blow in the struggle.

Representatives of the ruling ideology roll out their entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibilities, that it comes at a price, that it is immature to expect too much from democracy. In a free society, they say, we must behave as capitalists investing in our own lives: if we fail to make the necessary sacrifices, or if we come up short in any way, we have no one to blame but ourselves. In a more directly political sense, the US has consistently pursued a strategy of damage control in its foreign policy by re-channelling popular uprisings into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist forms: in South Africa after apartheid, in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after Suharto etc. This is where politics proper begins: the question is how to push further once the first, exciting wave of change is over, how to take the next step without succumbing to the ‘totalitarian’ temptation, how to move beyond Mandela without becoming Mugabe.
What would this mean in a concrete case? Let’s compare two neighbouring countries, Greece and Turkey. At first glance, they may seem to be entirely different: Greece is trapped in the ruinous politics of austerity, while Turkey is enjoying an economic boom and emerging as a new regional superpower. But what if each Turkey generates and contains its own Greece, its own islands of misery? As Brecht put it in ‘Hollywood Elegies’:
The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.
This describes today’s ‘global village’ rather well: just apply it to Qatar or Dubai, playgrounds of the rich that are dependent on conditions of near slavery for immigrant workers. A closer look reveals underlying similarities between Turkey and Greece: privatisation, the enclosure of public space, the dismantling of social services, the rise of authoritarian politics. At an elementary level, Greek and Turkish protesters are engaged in the same struggle. The true path would be to co-ordinate the two struggles, to reject ‘patriotic’ temptations, to leave behind the two countries’ historical enmity and to seek grounds for solidarity. The future of the protests may depend on it.

College Students vs. the Corporate Machine – Machine’s Winning

Once this nation saw higher education as a citadel of learning, growth, and opportunity. Now student debt is being used as a cash cow to subsidize corporate tax breaks, while universities become incubators for corporate employees and cheap laboratories for private-sector patents.California State University Long Beach students protest against budget cuts (Reuters)
The new student loan deal being cooked up in Washington is part of a larger picture. The forces of technology, globalization and wealth are calling the shots in government nowadays, and they’ve got higher education in their sights. Corporations want colleges and universities to serve them, not students.
In the dystopian future unfolding before our eyes, whole segments of the population are being offered up to the Corporate Machine. And unless we reject the corporate commodification of our common humanity, there’s no end in sight.
We can start by doing something about student loans. But that’s only a start.
Future Fail
They’re designing the workforce of the future and, frankly, traditional education doesn’t figure into it very much.
As Andrew Leonard notes in Salon, the Internet is creating new and unjust markets for piece work. Online workers provide temporary “assistant” tasks for the well-to-do, competing for the jobs based on who’s the most eager to please – and who’s cheapest.
“Fancy Hands, “Mechanical Turk,” “Task Rabbit”: As the website names make clear, we’re not talking about the dignity of labor here.  And it’s a buyer’s market. The consulting group Deloitte waxes rhapsodic in a report for its corporate clients:
“The range of skills available through these platforms is expanding; among the workers offering their services through such marketplaces are … translators, business analysts, and financial modelers.”
Then there’s automation, often described (or mis-described) nowadays as “artificial intelligence” or “AI.” A PBS program quotes Prof. Gary Marcus of New York University as saying, “Once somebody develops a good AI program it doesn’t just replace one worker. It might replace millions of workers.”
As Deloitte’s consultants breathlessly put it: “Talent clouds make it possible to engage individuals anywhere in the world. AI and other technologies make it possible to automate knowledge work … These trends are anticipated to shape the future of knowledge work.”
“Knowledge work” is what we typically acquired a college education to perform. Think it’ll be worth taking on a six-figure student loan debt to become a “Task Rabbit”?
Welcome to Your Pod
Colleges and universities have traditionally taught critical thinking, offered a breadth of social and human knowledge, and sought to provide students with the insight, skills, and courage to become the leaders of the future.
Not anymore. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, corporations want to turn college education into an employee training program.  “To expect business to bring graduates up to speed,” says an executive for Boeing, is “too much to ask.” (“Too much to ask”? Boeing receives billions each year in government contracts and corporate profits are at record highs.)
“Once upon a time, ‘trainee’ used to be a common job title,” says Philip D. Gardner of Michigan State University. “Now companies expect everyone, recent graduates included, to be ready to go on Day One.  The mantle of preparing the work force has been passed to higher ed.”
But students, not corporations, will be expected to pay for these ‘trainee’ programs – along with whatever government subsidies can be extracted from taxpayers.
Two-year colleges were created, in part, to meld workforce needs with educational resources. But the Corporate State sees no need for any other form of education. The university lecture halls of the past are becoming incubator pods for the disposable corporate employees of the future.
Lab Rats
This corporatization of education is reflected in the appointment of Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary and former Governor of Arizona, to head the statewide University of California system. As the Los Angeles Times reports this week, it was “an unusual choice … (for) a position usually held by an academic.” The Times reports that unnamed officials felt Napolitano’s Cabinet background “will help UC administer its federal energy and nuclear weapons labs and aid its federally funded research in medicine and other areas.”
Energy and nuclear weapons research helps fund university budgets. It also leads to lucrative government contracts for corporations. Medical research leads to lucrative drug patents for Big Pharma.
That’s how the Corporate Machine works. Colleges and universities are there to generate its “inputs,” intellectual and human, not to advance our collective understanding and knowledge.
Workerless America
It’s all part of a decades-long pattern. Once we had a thriving middle class. Then the ability of working Americans to earn a living wage was systematically destroyed by a series of deliberate policy decisions.
The minimum wage was frozen, driving ever-greater numbers of working people into poverty. The rights of employees to organize and negotiate were eroded, driving down wages even more.  Elected leaders looked the other way as corporations gutted pension plans. NAFTA and other trade deals drove working wages down even further.
As middle-class Americans plunged further behind, their families and their communities fell with them.  That’s when the Corporate Machine learned something very important: It didn’t need them.  Business leaders discovered the Workerless Economy.
There was good money to be made by using cheaper workers overseas and temporary and unskilled employees at home.   The U.S. job market increasingly swung toward unskilled jobs, a trend that’s been accelerated by the current “recovery” – which is really a radical economic shift toward a corporate boom for the few, and away from prosperity for the many.
Money for Nothing
As the collapsing middle class lost much of its buying power, Corporate America discovered another way to make money: Why pay you to buy their goods when they can lend you the money instead?
Americans plunged into ever-increasing cesspools of debt, fueled first by the Clinton stock market bubble and then by the bank-designed (and fraud driven) mortgage bubble. Deregulation meant that anybody with a large enough corporate presence could get in on the bank boom.
Goodbye, General Electric. Hello, “GE Capital”!
But what goes up must come down – and you can be sure the Corporate State didn’t plan to pick up the tab. Once they had been rescued – by the same taxpayers they’d been exploiting – financial executives went back to profiting from the declining wage base of the middle class.
Building and selling things takes a lot of work. You have to hire and pay people, both to produce and ship your goods and so they can buy the goods you produce.  It’s easier to financialize your corporation and capitalize on government’s extraordinary generosity to bankers.
To squeeze out even more profit, they learned how to charge more for holding and managing money. Thomas Philippon of the New York Federal Reserve found that the cost of “intermediation” (banking services) was 2 percent in 1870, rose to 6 percent by Depression-era 1930, and fell below 4 percent in 1950.
These banking charges rose slowly to 5 percent in 1980 – and then shot up to almost 9 percent by 2010. They become banks for the same reason Willie Sutton allegedly robbed them: That’s where the money is.
Cash Cows
If you don’t need an educated workforce or prosperous consumers, you certainly don’t need to worry about making sure that students can afford college.  So it’s no surprise that students would be shafted by the new student loan agreement being cooked up in Washington.
As David Dayen explains, many of the claims being made about this deal are misleading. Rates would rise from the fixed rate of 3.4 percent, which expired at the start of this month, and could soar as high as 8.25 percent for graduate students and 9.25 percent for undergraduates.
The New York Times reports that Republicans are refusing to accept any deal that adds to the deficit. That means no reduction in the huge profits the Federal government is making off these loans – $51 billion this year alone, as Shahien Nasipour reports in the Huffington Post.
In other words, Republicans want to keep bleeding America’s students so they can keep taxes low for America’s billionaires and corporations.
Washington ignored Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to offer students the same low rates American banks get from the Federal Reserve. Our representatives have the power to treat students the same way they treat Wall Street – but they won’t.
Sorry, students: You’ve become cash cows for billionaires and the Corporate State.
The White House, which fought the good fight on student loans early in Obama’s tenure, had already turned its back on debt rates.  As Dayen notes, this apparent compromise is very close to what the Administration proposed in its 2014 budget.
Liberals are going to hate the new student-loan deal,” says Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic. Forget liberals: Students are going to hate it, especially because it will doom many of them to a form of debt penury.  (You can demand a better deal from your representatives here.)
Know what students are going to hate even more? Graduating four years from now, after four years of financing a college turned corporate training facility and laboratory, into an economy which still won’t have regained all the jobs destroyed by Wall Street’s 2008 crisis. While Washington works to extract more money from students, it’s doing virtually nothing about unemployment.
Young people will still face the imprisoning burden of student debt, the fragmentation and exploitation of the American workforce, and the conversion of education from an engine of democracy to a consumer-funded service division of corporate America.
The Machine Stops
Undoubtedly many executives and politicians admire the principles of social mobility and educational access. But they’ll continue to act in their own self-interest, and the student loan deal that’s taking shape reflects that.
We have a choice: We can passively accept this commodification of our young people’s humanity and our own. Or we can resist it.
That means refusing to accept rhetoric instead of action – whether it comes from Republicans or the White House, whose use of the Twitter hashtag #dontdoublemyrate was a cynical ploy to score political points against a plan it had already essentially endorsed.
We need to reject the politics of cynicism and demand that politicians refuse any increase in student loan rates. We need to stand firmly behind the proposals and the values represented by the educational positions of politicians like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
And we need to be in the streets demanding change.
Everybody’s Revolution
We need a college education revolution. Student loans are only part of the problem. College education should be affordable – or free – to students at any income level willing to learn. Exploitative educational corporations like the “University of Phoenix” must be investigated. And we need to ensure that institutions of higher learning aren’t turned into instruments of lower servitude.
The fight for higher education is part of a larger fight for the soul of our society. The discarded American middle class can still be rescued.  We need to ensure that the college graduates of today are the productive citizens of tomorrow, able to find meaningful work and participate fully in democratic society. We need to build a future in which they have productive, healthy work lives and secure retirements in their old age.
In other words: The college revolution is everybody’s revolution.
But it’s nearly too late. The operators of the Corporate Machine need to be stopped, because they’re don’t plan to stop with college students. They’re coming for the children.
Richard Eskow
Richard (RJ) Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician. He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology. Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries.