Thursday, January 31, 2013

New Cold War? U.S. Shifts Geographical Focus

To start, I want to make it clear that the true geographical focus of the U.S., as a world imperial power, is nothing less than the entire world. In this post I am referring specifically to its more overt military operations, as opposed to CIA actions and other things more “under the radar.” For the past decade or more, U.S. military focus has concentrated overwhelmingly on the Middle East, particularly at the sites of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that I see a complete abandonment of these regions anytime soon, but it appears that the center of gravity of military strategy is spreading in two different directions.

First, there is Africa. The ‘Arab Spring’ in its historic import is coming to symbolize not so much some real transformative movement, but more the moment when the U.S. military started bringing in “the big guns” to Africa. Obviously the U.S. has diligently been helping to overthrow governments and support brutal dictators and ethnic conflict in Africa for the duration of the decolonization/post-WW2 era. Yet, they never thought The Dark Continent deserved the best of its military resources. Not until they finally got their opportunity to overthrow Gaddafi.

Side note. Although I am restricting my discussion to the U.S., clearly, as always, the interests and actions of other Western powers are intertwined with those of the U.S. In that vein, the shift toward Africa has coincided with the re-emergence of French imperialism. The French, of course, were at the forefront of the decision to invade Libya, and are pretty much going solo right now in Mali.

Back to the U.S. Now that the U.S. has been getting weapons into the hands of militant groups, and Islamist movements are re-branding themselves as Al Qaeda syndicates, it is possible for the U.S. to argue that Africa is an important front in the War on Terror. As such, the military is very visibly upgrading its African operations, including more advanced surveillance and killing technology – complete with a brand new drone base in Niger! Some analysts are even predicting that Mali will become the next Afghanistan.

But that’s not all. The U.S. is also stepping up its military presence in the Pacific. The move was never designed to be secret and has been trumpeted by the Obama administration as a means of countering Chinese regional hegemony. Less well-known is the way in which the U.S. has been covertly trying to provoke conflict among various Asian states and China. For example, goading the Philippines (an important U.S. ally) into disputing the Chinese occupation of the Spratly Islands.

In fact, China may be a common denominator in both of these geographical shifts. True, Africa is rich with resources, including gold, oil, and uranium – all coveted by Western powers (and this may largely explain France’s interests). But the U.S. (and its Western allies) is concerned about the Chinese encroaching on its African investment opportunities. Many Africans are optimistic about the possible benefits of Chinese investment for “rising Africa,” and China, seeing limitless potential for exploitation, is pouring in the capital. The thing about capitalism, though, is that it is characterized by a centrifugal inertia which demands ever larger markets, resource-rich peripheries, and more opportunities for investment. Western economic hegemony cannot abide a competitor. Witness what happened to the Soviet Union! In this way, the characterization of relations between the U.S. and China as “the new Cold War” is quite apt. The differences in Cold War Part 2 are that 1) the ideological divisions have somewhat lost their significance, such that the Chinese can barely manage to still call themselves “Communist” and are in no way pursuing systematic support of socialist or communist regimes (although China is perceived by many in the Third World as more “anti-colonial” and friendly);  2) "Terrorism" has superseded "Communism" as The Great Evil;  3) far from having entered a period of great economic expansion, the world is languishing in the midst of the latest manifestation of a decades-long economic contraction, which has the power to create enormous global instability; and 4) U.S. hegemony may be teetering on the brink.

It’s hard to know how all of this will play out. At the very least, I am expecting to see Africa play a more significant role in U.S. foreign policy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Most Annoying Legacy of Occupy Wall Street

One of the greatest successes of the “Occupy” movement was its refusal to outline a specific platform and to thereby unite a broad coalition of groups based on a single, shared socioeconomic concern: inequality. I have on numerous occasions expressed my frustration with the divisions engendered by the non-profitization of the progressive movement and the concomitant reformist strategy. People focus on specific issues that they attempt to grapple with via policy changes and other mundane maneuvers. I have maintained, in contrast, that the only way to effect real social change is to create a united front based on a common critique of the global capitalist system. In support of this position, I described the way in which other issues (regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc.) stem from this fundamental social problem.

So, good for “Occupy” for trying to build a movement around basic socioeconomic concerns. My main problem with “Occupy” relates to some of the rhetoric used by the movement (which I already critiqued somewhat in this blog). However, it seems like the most lasting bit of discourse preserved from “Occupy” is the 99%/1% model that they used to characterize socioeconomic relations. At first it just seemed refreshing that anyone could even acknowledge that inequality really exists in the United States. Ultimately, however, the concept has serious weaknesses and the continued use of this terminology is getting a little irritating.

The main flaw of the 99%/1% rhetoric is that it tacitly presumes income distribution to be the most important feature of socioeconomic conditions. From a Marxist perspective, income distribution is a secondary – or even tertiary – concern. Of top significance is the way in which society – including economic activity – is organized. In other words, one must look at the relations of production, not income distribution, if one wishes to get to the root of the problem. All of this amounts to the fact (which I have already noted) that “Occupy” is not a comprehensive, systemic critique of capitalism, but merely a frustration with one of the more troubling manifestations of capitalism. The fact that “Occupy” would eventually have to contend with is that it is not possible to change the income distribution within the confines of capitalism.

This is more than just a theoretical error. It is a strategic blunder. Income distribution is a quantitative and not a qualitative phenomenon. Or, to put it another way, the criticism is based only on the feeling that the current income distribution is too skewed. But then the question becomes: what is an acceptable level of inequality? Where do we draw the line? No one (not even me!) is prepared to argue that income distribution should be completely even, so protesters have put themselves in a position where they are ultimately just haggling over numbers. This awkward position opens them to either the false criticism that they do support complete homogeneity, or the ideological criticism that they are jealous or unappreciative of the contributions of the creative people who rise to the top. The concept of “fairness” is nebulous and no one is going to agree about it what it means in practice.

If “Occupy” had initiated a discussion about the way in which capitalism organizes production and other social relations, and how that results in extreme income inequality, among many other things, it is true that they may have been just as easily dismissed by those people who are too devoted to neoliberal ideology to seriously think about any of their own assumptions. Yet, at least they would be opening to discussion certain considerations that have always remained outside of public discourse – and maybe, by bringing those arguments to light, many people who do not have such blind loyalty to neoliberal ideology may start to question the whole thing: the system and its ideological justification. That would be the start of a real conversation.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Toys, Cultural Transmission, and Recruitment

We like to think that a protective barrier separates children from society. Kids live in a bubble. They have special books and toys and television programs, all of which present them with a sanitized version of the world. We don't like to think about the ways in which the cultural elements of children's worlds are saturated with "outside" social forces of nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism.

Sometimes it is obvious. Feminists have done a fine job critiquing the image of womanhood and the female body promoted by Barbie dolls. Disney has been duly criticized for its patriarchal values and often explicit racism. Fads such as pogs (or bottle caps) have really laid bare the money-making schemes that, with the help of creative marketing and television/movie product integrations, have the power to shape children's behavior.

Then there are the still obvious but less uniformly accepted social/political implications of youth culture. There are endless debates about the harms of Gangsta Rap and violent movies and video games. We just had another round of this after the tragic shooting in Sandy Hook. Some people say, "It's no wonder we have all these mass shootings. Look at the games young people are playing, and the movies they are watching." And then of course others fire back with either the less persuasive argument that "kids really don't take the violence seriously and exposure to video games/movies alone doesn't predict whether any particular person will become a mass murder" (and then they typically blame the news media, because, as we all know, there is no greater young adult influence than the news) - or the slightly more convincing but nonetheless fallacious argument that "other countries have violent video games and they don't have these mass shootings.... ipso facto, there is absolutely no relationship between violence embedded in cultural artifacts and real, enacted violence."

Any kind of culture - whether it is adult culture, teenage culture, children's culture - penetrates individual consciousness and shapes behavior. If your argument is premised on culture being in any way inconsequential, then you are clearly wrong. Every encounter with a cultural production provides us with images, vocabulary, and morally charged narrative, which together compose a framework for interpreting, valuing, and talking about the world. To put it crudely: the images, words, and narratives that we are presented through cultural media determine what we believe and how we perceive the world around us.

So, for example, if one is consistently, from childhood, being presented with variations on the Good vs. Evil narrative, and if violence is perpetually being portrayed as the only effective means for Good to triumph over Evil (add in some patriotic symbols, perhaps, for greater emotional effect), then violence will likely occupy an ambiguous position within one's moral framework, making it easier to justify particular violent acts. On a more sensory level, the abundance of everyday play that involves acts of violence (from toy water guns to graphically violent video games), which are sanitized to remove both the physical gore and the psychological/moral quandaries associated with brutality, serves to normalize and trivialize violence. This can numb one to the real effects of violence and also allow an easier transition to actual brutality.

Meanwhile, as people continue to debate these sorts of issues, a third (but not unrelated) consideration lurks in the background. Are the purveyors of youth culture simply trying to make money, or is any active, purposeful transmission of values taking place? (We have agreed that some transmission of values is taking place; the question here is to what degree it is intended.) For example, there is a striking parallel between the attitudes and behaviors indigenous to team sporting events (from school sports to professional leagues) and those that are characteristic of nationalism. It is clear that the cultivation of these dispositions early in life prepares children to be receptive to nationalist ideology. Was that ever planned, and/or is anyone currently trying to maximize its political potential?

Similarly, we may never know whether Disney intended to reinforce racist attitudes or whether Mattel tried to promote a particular image of an ideal female body. We do know about all the various ways in which the makers of toys, games, and tv shows try very intently to promote the development of different cognitive skills (we now even have Goldiblocks to encourage girls' interest in engineering) - but this is not only an uncontroversial goal, but more importantly, it is a great marketing ploy.

What about the violence? It is so pervasive in youth culture... does it serve any purpose other than its supposedly inherent entertainment value? I think it is clear that the processes of normalization and desensitization are supremely useful to the maintenance of a social order that requires violence as its modus operandi. Plenty of movies and video games have explicitly defended and glorified courses of action taken by the United States. More than this though, the military has seen the motor coordination skills that are cultivated by video games as a valuable resource in the operation of drone technology. They have a keen interest in video game competitions and view the events as recruiting grounds. How innocent, then, are video games when the military seriously considers them as a preparatory stage to real warfare?

We all, generally, feel a need to brainwash children. Usually this is framed in terms of socialization, education, and instilling values. Regardless, though, we still see children as the blank slates that we can form to our liking. The problem is that, through mass-produced cultural productions, multiple interests are trying to shape any given child, and we hardly know who or what they are.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What is Important about the Benghazi Attack?

I previously asserted that structured opposition (organizing and condensing a limitless variety of viewpoints into two ostensibly antagonistic factions) serves to create an illusion of free speech and a "free marketplace of ideas," when, in fact, anything outside of that dichotomous scheme is actively suppressed. Obviously, as a Marxist, my first example is the way in which Marxist arguments are routinely stigmatized and undermined. They are not legitimate in the public sphere.

But this phenomenon has even deeper significance, particularly for the way in which information is transmitted. Each side of the opposition has their own ideological framework, commitments, and a set of talking points, all of which completely determines the treatment of any new information. It reminds me of Mad Libs. The narrative is already set, but new adjectives and nouns can fill in the blanks as the circumstances require.

So, let's look at the Benghazi attack (obviously my ultimate goal with this post). From the beginning, the military intervention in Libya was framed as a humanitarian undertaking, designed to aid an independently thriving grassroots opposition movement. When Gaddafi was captured, the Obama Administration quickly proclaimed that the operation was done - quick and clean. So easy.

Then there's this attack on an embassy in Benghazi, which we are initially told was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim film. When information gets out that it was actually a planned attack and there is a large CIA base nearby, there is now the potential for probing questions. What is the CIA doing there? What kind of presence have they had in Libya? Why was the embassy attacked? There is, of course, plenty of evidence that the CIA was quite involved, from the beginning, in the Libyan civil war. There is also plenty of evidence that it is currently using this base to transfer weapons to militant groups (particularly to Syrian rebels) and that the embassy was just providing a cover for the operation. The group that coordinated the attack was upset that the CIA merely used them to serve broader geopolitical goals.

All of this information had the potential to explode into the public sphere. This would have initiated discussions about the role of the CIA in organizing rebel groups and fomenting revolution for the ultimate purpose of regime change. Maybe we could have linked all of this information to the current situation in Mali and then voiced our opposition to military incursions in this region.

But what happened was this. The Republican Party wanted to use the cover up to their benefit, without exposing the CIA. No one wants to mess with the CIA. (Plus, the Republican Party has an ideological loyalty to the military-intelligence complex.) So, in their messaging, they decided to bracket all the information about the CIA, still treat the Benghazi embassy as a legitimate embassy under the control of the State Department, and direct all of their criticism toward the way the State Department secured the embassy and responded to the attack. In other words, they framed it as another case of government incompetence (which is a primary Republican ideological narrative). Of course, the Democrats have the same loyalties to the military-intelligence complex, and simply formed their talking points in reaction to the Republican argument.

The result? A debate about security, and honesty, and the State Department, and very little about the CIA. Since both political parties share a key commitment (and are probably completely subservient to the military and intelligence communities) the public conversation about a potentially illuminating event has elided everything that is important for the public to know, instead focusing on the most trivial details.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Myths About Poor People

One crucial means by which the ideology of progress is sustained is the pervasive yet tacit act of mapping progress schematically onto the existing human population on the basis of race, class, gender, health status, and so on. As a consequence, certain people are made to bear pre-modern traits and represent the conditions from which more enlightened humans have evolved.

This past year poor people have been a  particularly favorite target of this ideological mapping, which imbues them with such primitive features as: laziness, irrationality (they spend their money on tvs and cellphones rather than food!), selfishness, addictive behavior, and foolishness (they needed to be educated about how to take care of themselves). The Poverty Myth:  people are poor because they don't want to work and they waste their money on drugs and tattoos. In the Social Darwinist view, these are the feebleminded runts of humanity who deserve to die off.

Aside from the structuring idea of progress, other assumptions underly The Poverty Myth.

1. A vast majority of human beings are naturally lazy and inept. Now, I don't think most people overtly think about this implication. However, ascribing to The Poverty Myth logically entails this belief on some level of consciousness. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the world lives in poverty. Somehow human beings were able to travel across continents, oceans, and ice bridges; successfully adapt to every climate on earth; learn how to hunt mammoths and buffalo.... and yet most humans are inherently lazy and stupid?  Admittedly, there is a certain plausibility to the Great Man Theory of history, if one does not look too far back. But if you examine the earliest years of human existence, the human population was just too small, and the number of obstacles overcome were too great, to sustain that theory. In order to figure out how to cross the Pacific ocean in a small boat, or to survive in the Arctic or the desert, the genius and perseverance of almost every member of these small communities was required. So if the majority of the world's population can't even manage to feed itself hundreds of millennia later, humans have undergone some major devolution.

2. (in response to my conclusion to #1) They may not be naturally lazy and inept, but a vast majority of human beings are handicapped by __CULTURE__ or __SIN__ or __RELIGION__ (fill in the blank however you like). Regardless of how you fill in the blank, the condition of poor people is attributed to their habits and beliefs. Even if it is learned, it is still their fault.  Once again, though, if one goes back to the earliest human beings, one has to wonder if any of these things was really absent then, and why is it all of a sudden working against humanity now? Of course, the real culprit is our social system. In the modern world, capitalism necessitates unemployment (the "natural unemployment level"), low wages, and de facto (or real!) slave labor. Capitalism organizes production so that wealth is continually redistributed into the hands of fewer and fewer people. In the modern era, poverty occurs because people cannot organize production to satisfy their own needs, cannot earn enough money to feed themselves, and sometimes cannot find any role in society at all.

Plus, one has to account for the fact that the characteristics associated with poor people often apply as or more aptly to rich people. In this society, rich people (particular those with an inheritance) are much more likely to be lazy and and feel entitled than poor people. Rich people do cocaine and get addicted to prescription pain meds and spend their money on frivolous, irrational things (like jewelry for their pets).

TIME OUT:  How are we defining "lazy" and "hardworking"?  If we are defining the latter in terms of duration of a task or the physical strength required, poor people have rich people beat.  Poor people work multiple jobs. They work in plantations, mines, and factories. They work as maids, field hands, and construction workers. This is the hardest work of all! If you are trying to argue that wealth is associated with hard work, then you would have to define the latter in terms of intellectual labor. Of course, it is not always the case that the ideas come from the top of the hierarchy, or that innovation is independent of opportunity (both in terms of education and employment). Maybe that woman in the Apple sweatshop could be a Steve Jobs if she were born into different circumstances. To contend that the fact of her current existence alone proves she does not have such capabilities is to merely employ circular reasoning. Furthermore (and this is a whole different story for another day), it is not so easy to prove that wealth is a function of good ideas.

3. Starvation and disease are appropriate punishments for laziness. Let's just assume for a second that poverty is caused by laziness. Is it really just - does it fit the "crime" - that lazy people should starve to death? [Well, sure. If someone refuses to do the work to feed themselves, why should they not starve?] Social science to the rescue! Pretty much every human being on this planet has enough of a self-preservation instinct  - and a strong enough drive for food  - to make that level of laziness impossible. No one is so lazy that they will not feed themselves if they can feed themselves. [Yes, but if someone is always there feeding them, why would they do it themselves?] Clearly, for most of the world, someone is NOT there feeding them, and that is why so many people die of starvation. Even in a welfare state, most people find it demeaning to live on "handouts" and anyway, these are often not sufficient to sate the basic human urges that would impel them, in the absence of obstacles, to work harder. People who talk about welfare queens and the high life of food stamps obviously do not have an experience with poverty that would enable them to make such judgments.

So let's get rid of this ridiculous notion that a considerable number of people are too lazy to feed themselves. The only plausible indolence is the lack of desire to work beyond what is necessary to obtain the means of satisfying basic human urges and necessities. 

So what. I am lazy. I do not like to work. I rarely work for the entire 8 hours that I am at the office because it is not necessary. Do I deserve to live in tatters on the street, watching my body decay of malnutrition and AIDS? 

Or is laziness more of a tendency that everyone has to some degree, depending on conditions and varying according to the circumstances  - not a static and consistently manifested trait, not an essence.

Where did we get this idea that laziness is the worst thing in the world? This is where we circle back to the ideology of progress.