Thursday, April 30, 2015

This is the End for Both the Democrats and the Long U.S. War in Afghanistan

Democrats' hopes of holding onto the White House seem remote. Obama is in free fall. Anti-police #Black Lives Matter protests continue, now in their second year. When I got off the train last night and scooted up the escalator, a couple of officers from the King County Sheriff's Department stood at the entrance to the transit station. A sure sign that a protest was underway. Last year, beginning with Thanksgiving and the riots in Ferguson, the police stayed on the streets for a month, a massive display of force for the holiday shoppers.

The cities are protesting and Obama is trying to have it both ways, poo-pooing rioters while explaining the conditions -- drug abuse, broken homes, underdevelopment of black communities in the inner-city -- that make riot necessary. But Obama does not call out the system by name --institutional racism. The Kerner Commission Report identified the problems 50 years ago in the wake of the riots of 1967 and articulated solutions, principally economic investment. Half-a-century later solutions remain unimplemented, a huge failure.

Obama is paying out what little political currency he has left to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership  through Congress. In order to do so he is going to have to rely on Republican votes. In many ways the last year of Obama's presidency is shaping up to look like Bill Clinton's, and we know how that turned out for Democrats.

The difference between Obama and Clinton is that Clinton was waging war in a relatively modest manner, bombing Yugoslavia into submission and terrorizing Iraq. Obama has more wars on his hands than we can count.

The one that kicked it all off for Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, is promising to provide a spectacular failure for Obama as he exits the White House. U.S. forces in Afghanistan, despite the administration's declaration of the end of combat operations there at the end of last year, are actively engaging the Taliban in attempt to keep the government of Ashraf Ghani from losing large chunks of territory.

Two stories over the last two days -- Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar, "Afghan Troops Rush to Kunduz Amid Taliban Assault"; Azam Ahmed and Joseph Goldstein, "Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan" -- depict a dire situation. The coalition government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Adbullah is not fully functional after more than half a year. There is still no defense minister even though the Taliban spring offensive has jumped off to an earlier than expected start with the provincial capital of Kunduz threatened.

As Ahmed and Goldstein explain, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell is basically acting as Ghani's defense minister, and this despite the declared end of a U.S. combat role:
As early as January, when officials in Washington were hailing the end of the combat mission, about 40 American Special Operations troops were deployed to Kunar Province to advise Afghan forces that were engaged with the Taliban over a handful of villages along the border with Pakistan.
With the troops on the ground, the command for the American-led coalition called in airstrikes under the authority of force protection, according to two Western military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details of the operation were not public.
“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”
Commenting on the continuing military operations against the Taliban, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.
He has insisted that it is within his purview to target Taliban insurgents who pose a threat not just to American or NATO troops but to any Afghan security forces. And his options on the ground were clear, he said in an interview, even if Washington’s public description of them was not.
“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”
He added: “Combat and war and transition, as you know, it’s a very complex thing. For me, it’s not black and white.”
The operations are continuing during a troubling stretch for the Afghan security forces, as the Taliban are continuing to make gains. Members of the nation’s military and police forces were killed by the insurgents at a high rate last year. And in the first three months of this year, things already appeared worse: The casualty rate rose 54 percent over the same period last year, according to one Western and one Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures were not public.
The danger was highlighted in recent days in the northern province of Kunduz, where the Afghan Army has been forced to send thousands of reinforcements to beat back a major Taliban offensive. In addition to threatening to claim at least one district, the insurgents have come within a few miles of the provincial capital, officials in Kunduz said. Coalition forces deployed jets to the area in a show of force but no munitions were dropped, officials said.
In that environment, American military officials have been reluctant to let go of the war, arguing that their involvement remains necessary given the Taliban threat and changing regional factors.
But in March, when Mr. Obama and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan publicly announced that they had agreed to slow the withdrawal of American troops, administration officials emphasized that counterterrorism and training were still the focus, not everyday combat missions against the Taliban. The idea of the extended timeline was to bolster the ability of Afghans to fight, officials said, not to directly fight on their behalf.
Now, though, the distance seems to be widening between the administration’s public statements and what the military appears to be doing, whether at the behest of the White House or on its own, officials here said.
“What I’m thankful for is that I have the authority and flexibility to make those very tough decisions,” General Campbell said. “They could have said, ‘Every time you hit a target, you have to get approval.’ ”
Still, General Campbell has found strong support from Mr. Ghani, who became the president in September. Many officials characterize their relationship as a strikingly close partnership: General Campbell visits the president nearly every day — more than any other Western official in the country — and the commander’s staff has been tasked with not only helping to write policy for the Afghan forces but also helping direct overall strategy, at a time when the war is meant to be entirely in the hands of the Afghans.
Some Western officials have privately expressed discomfort with the American role and questioned how prolonging the American strategy in Afghanistan would be more effective this year than it was in the past 13.
“I’m not surprised they are continuing in this way,” said one Western diplomat living in Kabul. “What’s surprising is how much of it they’re doing.”
For an idea of the "thumb in the dike" nature of expanded U.S. airstrikes, read the Mashal and Sukhanyar story about the Taliban offensive in Kunduz. One thing that is apparent from their report is that there is a deep fissure in the Afghan force structure. The Afghan Local Police, militias set up and funded by the U.S., are often at odds with the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. (There is an excellent short film produced by The New York Times that documents this.) According to Mashal and Sukhanyar,
The intensity of the violence around Kunduz sent the government scrambling to respond, with three high-level visits to Kunduz on Monday alone, and with confusion and dissension reported among some of the forces fighting back against the insurgents.
The provincial head of the Afghan Local Police, militia forces that have often been on the front lines of fighting against the Taliban, was scornful. “The army and the police don’t coordinate the operations with the A.L.P.,” said the forces’ leader, Sayed Dawood Hashemi. “We are used as firewood in the fighting.”
Despite requests for assistance from the security forces, one A.L.P. unit with dozens of men was forced to retreat from the neighborhood of Talawka, on the outskirts of Kunduz, allowing Taliban fighters to flood in, according to a member of the provincial council. Elsewhere, 26 A.L.P. fighters have been captured by the Taliban and two killed, Mr. Hashemi said.
Intense fighting started relatively early this year. Two weeks before the official start of their spring offensive, the Taliban attacked Afghan Army positions in remote Badakhshan Province, with hundreds of fighters overrunning Jurm District, abducting and killing dozens of soldiers, some of whom were reportedly beheaded. The government says it has begun a counteroffensive in Badakhshan, even as heavy fighting has been reported in several other northern provinces, including Sar-i-Pul, Jowzjan and Faryab.
With so many battles raging across the country, visiting army officials have told provincial council members in Kunduz that the best they can do is push back the enemy a bit, and that they cannot afford to sustain a longer operation, according to Mr. Ayoubi, the council chief in Kunduz.
In the meantime, irregular militias that were once funded by the United States as bastions against the Taliban have largely been on their own.
In Qala-i-Zal District, the 300 men under a commander named Nabi Gechi have been trying to fend off the Taliban advance. After five days of sustained small-arms and mortar fire from the insurgents, Mr. Gechi said, his militia was forced to retreat from one of its posts, with three men killed and a dozen wounded.
“The people of Qala-i-Zal are paying for the ammunition and food to supply us enough so we can stand up to the Taliban attacks,” he said.
Not only is there a war with the Taliban, but there is a war within the U.S.-created Afghan state between local and national armed forces. This cannot end well. The question is when will it collapse not if it will collapse.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Japan's Re-Militarization: Obama to Make Comfort Women of Us All

At work I have a little cubicle. I wish I were there more often. The way my position has developed I backup or assist, or so it seems, just about everyone in an office of approximately 20 people. So I am constantly, depending on who is out sick or on vacation -- really, even if everyone shows up to work -- bouncing from one desk to another. It is stressful. Arriving at someone else's desk you have to determine where everything is and then what work needs to be expedited; you have to be familiar with another person's process.

At this job, and at the job, where I worked as a dispatcher, at the union local prior to this one, I likened myself to a "comfort woman." The union members would come in to "fire off their guns" and I would absorb the salvos.

So I always felt some sort of solidarity with the old Korean women trying to hold Japan accountable for its Imperial past. During World War Two Japan established a brothel system of sexual slavery in territory it had conquered. As Japan, under prime minister Shinzo Abe, moves to shed itself of its pacifist constitution, Abe has been reluctant to express contrition to the comfort women.

This week Abe has come to the United States on a state visit, the first by a Japanese leader in nine years, in order to confer with the White House on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the re-militarization of Japanese society as part of Obama's "pivot to Asia."

Last night there was a state dinner. Some organizations had been demanding that Abe acknowledge the comfort women and apologize to them. According to the account in this morning's paper by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "No Deal, but Progress on Trans-Pacific Trade, Obama and Shinzo Abe Say After Meeting," Abe sidestepped the issue:
If Mr. Abe’s visit carried powerful historic significance and the promise of closer ties with the United States, it was also plagued by longstanding controversy. Korean-Americans and several members of Congress pressed him to use the occasion to make an official apology for the use of so-called comfort women in wartime military brothels. 
Mr. Abe did not offer one.
“I am deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking,” Mr. Abe said in response to a question about whether he would apologize. “This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors.” 
He said he stood behind previous government apologies for the issue, and noted that Japan had provided $12 million last year for international efforts to eliminate sexual violence during conflicts and would provide $22 million more this year. 
That fell far short of the personal apology activists have sought. 
In a statement, Korean American Civic Empowerment, a nonprofit group, called Mr. Abe’s words “gravely offensive to the victims of the Japanese comfort women system.” 
The group called the previous apologies to which Mr. Abe referred “not clear” and “not acceptable to the victims,” and said it was enraged by the prime minister’s mention of how much money he has devoted to the issue. 
“The comfort women survivors are only asking sincere acknowledgment and apology, not money,” the statement said.
What is important to note, and what is not part of the reporting in the mainstream press about Abe's scrapping Japan's pacifism, is that it is being done at the behest of the United States. How else to interpret Monday's story by Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Gordon, "Japan and U.S. Set New Rules for Military Cooperation"?
On the eve of a formal state visit by Mr. Abe to the White House, American and Japanese officials announced an agreement on Monday that would expand the reach of Japan’s military — now limited to its own defense — allowing it to act when the United States or countries American forces are defending are threatened. 
The agreement reflects worries about North Korea and, especially, China, whose territorial claims in the South China Sea and growing military spending have upset its neighbors. 
“With China’s growing assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Japan, like a lot of allies, wants to be there for us so we’ll be there for them,” said Michael J. Green, the senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It allows the U.S. military to plan Japan in, so that when we turn to them and say, ‘Can you deal with our left flank?,’ the Japanese, in principle, now can do that.”
The military agreement announced on Monday replaces guidelines geared exclusively toward the defense of Japan with new rules that eliminate any geographic restriction
Now Japanese forces also could aid American ships involved in missile-defense activities in the region, or Japan could intercept a missile heading for the United States. “That is a very big change from being locally focused to being globally focused,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at a joint news conference in New York with Secretary of State John Kerry and their Japanese counterparts. 
Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations called the deal a “very significant transformation” between the United States and Japan. “It’s about deterrence and de-escalation, to guard against the risk that something small could quickly become a major armed conflict.”
As Ukraine readies itself for another failed offensive against Novorossiya, it is important to remember that the New Cold War encompasses not just Russia by the Chinese Dragon as well. Just as the U.S. is fanning the flames of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, it is relaunching Japanese militarism -- all under the watch of the Nobel Peace Prize winning POTUS. Surely, for those of us who thought for a moment that Obama might actually be a candidate of "Hope and Change," he has made comfort women of us all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore's Freddie Gray Riots: U.S. Thuggishness Comes Home to Roost

There is something that seems not quite right in the explanation of why Baltimore police mustered in force the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. In her front-page story, "Baltimore Enlists National Guard and a Curfew to Fight Riots and Looting," Sheryl Gay Stolberg says the decision was based on rumor and a flyer posted on social media:
The police said early in the day that they had received a “credible threat” that members of various gangs, including the Black Guerrilla Family, Bloods and Crips, had “entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.” But officers kept a low profile in the neighborhood during Mr. Gray’s funeral. The police also said that a flier circulated on social media called for a period of violence on Monday afternoon to begin at the Mondawmin Mall and move toward City Hall downtown.
Warned by the police of possible violence, the University of Maryland campus in downtown Baltimore closed early, as did the Mondawmin Mall. The Orioles postponed their home game against the Chicago White Sox. The Baltimore police vowed the authorities would take “appropriate measures” to keep officers and the neighborhood safe. 
“You’re going to see tear gas. You’re going to see pepper balls. We’re going to use appropriate methods to make sure we can preserve the safety of that community,” a spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, said at a news conference. Fifteen police officers were injured, some with broken bones, and one was unresponsive, according to the department.
Well, the "appropriate methods" -- tear gas, pepper balls -- didn't keep the community safe. Parts of Baltimore burned last night, despite a curfew being declared by the mayor. The National Guard, called out by Maryland's governor, now patrols the streets with rifles drawn (Richard Oppel and Stephen Babcok, "Morning Brings Wail of Fire Engines in Wake of Baltimore Riots").

A display of force in a community by ninja-clad, armor-wearing police firing off tear gas and pepper spray never works to keep the peace. It didn't work in Hong Kong to tamp down the pro-Democracy protests, nor in Kiev on the Maidan. People in charge know it doesn't work to keep the peace. What they know is that it sends a message, and that message is that I am stronger than you are. I am the biggest thug on the block.

Keep that in mind when you hear "thug" thrown around in the wake of the Freddie Gray Baltimore riots. Freddie Gray was murdered in police custody; his neck was broken and his larynx crushed. Yet it is people like Freddie Gray, young men living in the Gilmor Homes of Baltimore, who are labeled "thugs" by the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland.

As Sheryl Gay Stolberg notes,
Also among the mourners [at the Gray funeral service] were Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and chief of the N.A.A.C.P.; three aides to President Obama; and several family members of others killed by the police in various parts of the country, including Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, a man who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold last year on Staten Island. She said she had come “to stand with the family of Freddie Gray. It’s unfortunate, but I feel we have a connection.” In his eulogy, Mr. Bryant [Pastor Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple] spoke of the plight of poor, young black men like Mr. Gray, living “confined to a box” made up of poor education, lack of job opportunities and racial stereotypes — “the box of thinking all black men are thugs and athletes and rappers.”
Sure enough, at the beginning of Stolberg's article, you have the white Republican governor of Maryland and the black mayor of Baltimore both invoking the talisman-like term "thug" to dismiss the riots yesterday:
In Washington, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, on her first day on the job, briefed President Obama, who in turn called Governor Hogan. Mr. Hogan said the president urged him to have law enforcement officers exercise restraint, and he assured the president they would. “But,” the governor added, “I assured him we weren’t going to stand by and allow our city of Baltimore to be taken over by thugs.”
City officials said schools would be closed on Tuesday for the safety of children. At City Hall, Ms. Rawlings-Blake, sounding exhausted and exasperated after days of appealing for calm, announced that a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew would be imposed for a week beginning on Tuesday. The city already has a curfew for juveniles under age 17.
“Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs,” she said. “I’m at a loss for words. It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city that you’re going to make life better for anybody.” The police said that at least 27 people had been arrested.
But the important takeaway from Stolberg's piece is this: the #Black Lives Matter uprising will not die down anytime soon.
It was the second time in six months that a state called out the National Guard to enforce order in a city shaken by violence after a black man died in an encounter with police. Missouri deployed the guard in Ferguson in August after a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, and then again in November when violence greeted the news that a grand jury had not indicted the officer who shot Mr. Brown.
At a late night news conference, the Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, noted that Ferguson is a much smaller city than Baltimore, which covers 80 square miles. “We were pulled so thin,” he said, adding, “We had opposite ends of the city pulling us at the same time.”
Policing is a bigoted and thuggish profession with an institutional memory that knows nothing but racism and violence.

And that is the United States in a nutshell. From the genocide of the American Indians and the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade to the crimes against humanity in Yemen and the re-militarization of Japan, the United States raison d'etre is first and last to be the biggest thug on the block.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Greece and the Troika: Climax Near

Each week since January when Syriza won the election in Greece and formed a new government I have been looking forward to some sort of climax to the battle with the troika and the troika's neoliberal austerity diktats.

If Syriza buckles, and, contrary to all that Tsipras and Varoufakis have promised, accepts the austerity diktats of the troika, the government will fall and we can get on with seeing what to do next. If the troika buckles, and accepts Syriza's non-austerity plan to pay off its creditors, there will be a much-needed crack in reigning neoliberal orthodoxy, a ray of sunshine for non-traditional democratic movements such as Podemos in Spain.

But week in and week out there has been no resolution as acrimonious negotiations have ground along with very little movement if any between the parties.

Now, finally, we seem to be in the home stretch.

I know it seems like we've been here before. But I think this is really it. And not just because of the public display of acrimony in Riga this past Friday (James Kanter, "Eurozone Ministers Admonish Greece for Slow Progress on Overhauls"). As Kanter makes plain, the issues have finally been distilled to the simplest elements. The neoliberal orthodoxy wants Greece to sacrifice pension benefits. Syriza has no more wiggle room because a €750 million payment to the IMF is coming due on May 12:
The frustration with Greece is boiling over more than two months after the international lenders gave Athens until late June to present plans for reforms that would both ease austerity and overhaul its economy. 
The lack of agreement on those plans means European lenders will not release the next allocation of bailout money — a 7.2-billion-euro, or $7.5 billion, payment — to keep the Greek government running and avoid a potential default. 
Mr. Dijsselbloem said it was up to Mr. Varoufakis and his government to present more ambitious proposals, noting that the next scheduled gathering of the Eurogroup would be on May 11, a day before Greece must pay €750 million to the International Monetary Fund as part of its loan agreements.
There was “a great sense of urgency around the room,” acknowledged Mr. Dijsselbloem. 
As negotiations have continued between Greece and representatives of its creditors in recent weeks — meetings separate from the periodic gatherings of the finance ministers — the two sides are said to remain divided on significant issues. Greece has insisted that it cannot cut pensions any further or accept creditors’ demands for a budget that would require a relatively high primary surplus — a surplus when debt repayments are not taken into account.
Greek officials have insisted that these issues are “red lines” that cannot be crossed, and Mr. Varoufakis underscored them in his comments to reporters in Riga.
Some of the antagonism between the Eurogroup and Greece stems from continuing disagreement over whether lenders can conduct fact-finding at Greek ministries in Athens, to verify the true state of the country’s finances, for example, rather than meeting in hotels with Greek officials.
A Finance Ministry official in Athens on Friday, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the political tensions surrounding the discussions, said that the Greek government was “not bluffing” in opposing tough measures and was intent on protecting the country’s interests.
Mr. Varoufakis, speaking separately to Greek reporters in Riga on Friday said that the country had submitted a new, revised list of reforms at a discussion between deputy finance ministers this week — but that the document had not been presented to the Eurogroup for procedural reasons that he derided as unnecessarily complicated. He accused eurozone officials of “undermining tactics” and “negativism” and said the climate in Friday’s meeting had been tense, although he denied reports by some news media that officials had verbally attacked him.
Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith has a must-read article this morning, "Eurogroup Demands Varoufakis’ Ouster; Trajectory Toward Default Continues." It is less sneering in tone than her usual posts, which have been very skeptical of the Syriza-led government's negotiating position. Of late, Smith has chosen to emphasize, helpfully, that Tsipras and Varoufakis are moderates, and that about one-third of their governing coalition is to their left; hence, there is little possibility that Tsipras will suddenly kowtow to the troika:
The problem, as we’ve said before, is that the government is boxed in by its coalition members. Even if the moderates in Syriza wanted to make concessions (and Tsipras and Varoufakis are both moderates), they need the support of the hardline left Syriza members, which are about 1/3 of their bloc. And they won’t give in. They’ll bring down the government first. 
What are the bones of contention? We have said that the new government has repeatedly tried end-running the process set forth in the Eurogroup memo, which was for the government to produce a detailed list of structural reforms which would then be approved by the members of the Troika, and finally by the Eurogroup before the bailout funds would be released. The Greek side has instead tried going directly to the Eurogroup to get draft memos approved, going to the European Commission, and going to Merkel, now twice. That’s fed the Eurocrat complaint that the Greeks have wasted time. The various reform lists that the Greek government has produced so far have been dismissed as insufficiently detailed. Just based on media reports on their length, that beef seems to be valid. 
But does that mean the solution is to let the bailout monitors beaver away? While Varoufakis’ detractors may have a point that he wants to negotiate too many issues at the key policy player level, the fact is that the two sides have no agreement at a high level. How does it make sense to work on details?
What appears to be in the offing over the  next several weeks is a default by Greece when it can't re-pay the IMF loan; then it will be up to the ECB to force a Grexit by either cutting off entirely or making further Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to Greek banks so onerous that Greece will have to leave the eurozone. As Yves outlines for her readers:
Defaulting in May is particularly bad for Greece. The Greek public is overwhelmingly opposed to a a Grexit, and as we’ve indicated, it’s the ECB, and not the Greek government, that determines whether a default means a Grexit.
The Greek government appears to be in denial or paralysis. Officials have made conflicting statements on whether the ruling coalition is willing to hold its ground even if the cost is leaving the EU and on whether the government will have a referendum to resolve the matter if talks break down. On the referendum matter, financial time is already moving faster than political time. In most countries, the process for conducting a referendum involves lead time (a Parliamentary vote and a period of time, often Constitutionally mandated, before polling). With a default likely in early May, and a deal needing to be agreed at breakneck speed to avert that, Greece would seem to be past the point where a referendum could inform decisions.
Diane Shugart points out in a later tweet that the Kapa poll shows Syriza support at 36.9%, or virtually the same level they had when voted into office. However, that is a big drop from recent ratings.
While the cost of a Grexit would be extremely high in economic terms (I’ve seen a forecast of a fall of 20% in GDP, worse than anyone anticipates from continued austerity), Kouvelakis contends that citizens have been given only one side of the story:
The main element fueling this troubled atmosphere is, however, the fact that the scaremongering on the theme of the “Grexit” remains unchallenged at the level of broad public opinion. The right-wing opposition and the mainstream media, increasingly hostile to the government and using all possible arguments to push it towards full surrender, associate the break with the eurozone with an apocalypse — as they have done relentlessly since the start of the crisis.
But the response on the part of the government tends to be that this perspective will be avoided thanks to the “honest compromise” to which the Europeans will finally have to agree. Hardly a discourse, to say the least, that can mobilize Syriza’s base and prepare society for an eventual rupture with Europe.
Both Greece and its creditors look to be sleepwalking into a breakup that both profess they want to avoid. But the mutual distrust and denigration are classic divorce dynamics, and there is no relationship counselor in the mix. Tsipras is right to regard Merkel as his best, or more accurately, only hope, but the fissure may be too far advanced for her to paper it over, assuming that she is willing to do that.
In this scenario, default leads to a Grexident because the parties at this point after months of impasse are thoroughly alienated from one another.

I don't want to seem brutally cavalier -- because a further 20% drop in GDP for Greece already reeling from a depression will be cataclysmic -- but it is high time that something gives here. If Syriza can't deliver on what it promised, an end to austerity, new elections should be called. If the troika is so addicted to austerity, let it force Greece out of the eurozone and bring on the market response.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Colt 45 Chronicle #92

The summer before the summer I left the Groves of Academe behind I worked as a laborer at a construction site, an apartment building that was being built in downtown Oakland not far from the public library and Lake Merritt. My friend Greg lined up the job for me.

Greg was the friend of a friend who I got to know mostly through working this construction job in downtown Oakland. His cousin was a drywall contractor based in Seattle who had decided to bid work in the Bay Area because Greg lived in Berkeley. (Greg had lived in Seattle but couldn't take the dark falls and winters; so he had relocated to the Golden State.)

The summer of 1987 was sort of an ideal time for me. My girlfriend, whom I would marry the next summer when we were in our way to New York City for her to attend medical school, had moved out, leaving me to my buddies and my books.

That summer was a steady bacchanal. The San Francisco Giants were playing well. And on the days I wasn't needed at the construction site, and my cousin, who had moved into the apartment with me when my girlfriend had moved out, was off working at the health food store where he was employed, I sat in a large stuffed chair and read Homer's Odyssey or Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or a collection of Frege's writing.

I idolized Greg because he was older than I was, a big guy with a wry sense of humor who was a superb multi-sport athlete; he was also a big drinker. Mostly I think that I looked up to him because he seemed very independent. Unattached to a woman, though the ladies loved him, unencumbered by familial ties, though he worked for his cousin, his lot seemed to me worthy of emulation (since I was ensnared in a long, flawed relationship).

That summer of '87 freedom seemed possible to me. My girlfriend, as I said, had moved out, and, while we were still seeing each other, it was not clear that she would reel me back in (which she would do effortlessly four or five months later after whatever tryst she had been pursuing expired).

In the short letter below, addressed to Greg, I look back drunkenly and longingly on that summer from two years on. For some reason, I choose to focus on the morning ritual of making coffee for us to drink while we make the short drive from Berkeley to downtown Oakland.

Autumn 1989
Greg, goddamn, it's always good to hear from you. You're always up and going forward, and taking no prisoners while you're at it. -- Let me quote: "Go to the job site and do the job. FIRE OUT!" That's it. 'Nuff said.
I'm drunk. I've finished all the malt liquor in the house, but fortunately there's a half-filled fifth of Jack Daniels and I've been dipping into that; at first it was shots, but now I've moved on to ice and a little bit of tap water. I put the ice and the Jack and the tap water in an old salsa jar, and I swirl it around vigorously. It's doing the trick. I've got Neil Young on the turntable. TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, a great album, one of my all-time favorites, and I'm thinking back to those 6:30 AM truck rides to downtown Oakland in the gloomy bay fog. 
I'd wake up before 6 and start that mud brewing in my Norelco coffeemaker (Norelco. Yes, that's right. The same company that makes electric shavers, but, sure enough, they make a fine coffeemaker). My cousin Colin was asleep in the living room on the futon; I'd stay in the kitchen, at the kitchen table, waiting on the coffee, reading a little Homer and thinking about the gray sunshine of life. 
You'd show up sometime between 6:30 and 7, ringing the buzzer. I'd rush down the stairs, two big peanut-butter-jar glasses full of coffee and half & half in each fist (you dubbed 'em, "tank shells of mud"), and we'd scoot off towards Shattuck Avenue and the freeway and the workday. 
Oh, well, as Dylan says, "The past is gone," or, as Neil says, "What do you mean he had bullet holes in his mirror. He tried to do his best, but he could not." 
-- Give me a burlap Sun and I'll bury the Earth. But let's not stop to investigate the shark's teeth! 
Keep in touch, and don't let the bedbugs bite or the toilet give you any pepper.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ms. Marvel #11

I read comic books on the weekends, usually a few, as a way to reboot. The toxicity and exhaustion suffered during the work week -- the repetition, petty slights of coworkers, exploitation by supervisors -- requires strong tonic. My remedy is to go out for an early-morning run, followed by -- while the endorphins are still fresh -- a colorful Marvel superhero title or two.

Lately, I have been working my way through the new Ms. Marvel. In issue #11, G. Willow Wilson concludes her story arc oriented around The Inventor.

The Inventor is a clone of Thomas Edison -- the American genius who had a large stake in the creation of modernity with his inventions of electric light, power utilities, sound recording and motion pictures -- whose DNA has been inadvertently mixed with that of a pet cockatiel to create a monster with the body and mind of the famous inventor but the head of a bird.

The Inventor is harvesting the bio-energy of teenagers in order to power a slew of diabolical machines that he believes will save the world. In issue #11, Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, takes him out.

Author Wilson is making a Luddite statement here. Present-day youth is being sacrificed to sophisticated electronic machinery.

The terrific art found in the ten scans below is by Adrian Alphona. (The art to the cover of Ms. Marvel #11, depicting Kamala slurping down a gyro on the roof of her Jersey City home under a full moon, is by Kris Anka.)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Let's Take a Time Out with Black, Brown and Beige

Last Saturday I ran a race, a 15K, longer than I usually do. The weather was beautiful, and I took it slow. After the first loop around the course, after the 5K runners had finished, congestion diminished and it became possible to plod along with nary a competitor in sight; at points, it was as if I were running alone on a country lane with a large lake nearby.

About halfway through the run, with the Saturday-morning sun shining, a cut from Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige (1958) album shuffled on my iPod. The big band jazz orchestra and the voice of Mahalia Jackson were, for some reason, the perfect accompaniment.

I ended the race feeling fine. After a longer-than-usual wait for the bus back to my neighborhood, and then stopping on the sidewalk to sign a signature-gatherer's petition to place Kshama Sawant's name on the ballot for reelection, I ended up back at my apartment a little before 1:30 in the afternoon. By happenstance, because I had recently imported several Duke Ellington records to my iTunes library, I listened to the great jazz composer for the rest of the day.

I mention all this as a prelude to what happened the weekend before, two-weeks ago now. On a Sunday I listened to all the Yes studio albums from The Yes Album (1971) to Going for the One (1975). The idea was to listen to the records from Yes's breakthrough in the early 1970s to the widely disparaged Tormato (1978), when the band lost its compass as the Hippies gave way to the Punks.

Though I downloaded the 2004 remaster of Tormato, I didn't get to listen to it. I jumped instead to the first two Black Flag EPs, Nervous Breakdown (1978) and Jealous Again (1980), followed by the indispensable compilation of early recordings, Everything Went Black (1982).

By the end of the day Sunday it felt like my ears were bleeding. They say digital recording is hard and flat. I would have to agree. (I have pretty good speakers on my laptop too.) In any event, since then, nearly two weeks ago, I have been reticent to dive into my weekly immersions of Hippies vs. Punks because my ears have not felt up to it.

Hence the diversion to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Big band jazz is a deeper and broader and for the most part temporally more complex music than that produced by the Hippies and the Punks. More horizontal than vertical, more aerobic than anaerobic, big band jazz speaks of a time when there was more space. Both the Hippies (some very articulate, like the "present-at-creation" San Francisco psychedelic ballroom music) and the Punks are a reeling reaction to the vertiginous rise of electronic technology and its effect on everyday consciousness.

The question we need to ask ourselves, as we enjoy this interlude of Black, Brown and Beige, is this -- "If the Hippies and the Punks both failed to provide an answer to the riddle of electronic technology, what hope is there for us?"

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cracks in the Washington Consensus

The writings of Thomas Friedman, longtime foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, are a contradictory mishmash of Panglossian optimism (in American hegemony) spiced with paragraphs of accurate assessment. His column on Iran yesterday, "Deal or No Deal," is a good example. After repeating all the old stale thoughts on Iran being a rogue outlier led by an irrational ayatollah committed to mendacity and mayhem -- a more accurate description of Israel and the Gulf monarchies -- Friedman does a somersault and concludes his piece with the following prescient paragraph:
Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors. Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.
The first point, that Iran is the dynamic state of the Middle East, should be clear by now. I remember reading that during World War Two Goebbels complained that the U.S. was getting more out its population for the war effort than Germany. I am sure there are officials at Langley who are making a similar assessment about Iran.

The point can be expanded to include Russia and China, two nations that seem to be getting more from their people than the West is from theirs. Recently I watched a travel video produced by The New York Times, "36 Hours in Beijing," and I was blown away by how clean and prosperous the megalopolis looked, like San Francisco. I have been mentioning it to coworkers when the discussion veers to the perilous condition of the United States. After recently reading Tariq Ali's "The New World Disorder," I'm starting to repeat his line from that essay, something to the effect that, "A friend asked me what happened to the U.S. working class. I told him it is in China."

Ali downplays American declinism, seeing plenty of testosterone left in the corpus of the global Leviathan. But I am not so sure. There has been a dialectical shift in the U.S. since W.'s presidency; a combination of Citizens United and the abject failure of Obama as a progressive leader has led to precipitous collapse of confidence in the political system which resulted in the record low turnout in the 2014 midterms. Harvard academic Larry Lessig addresses this in a recent talk he gave imploring Elizabeth Warren to challenge Hillary.

It is going to be hard to overcome people's distrust in reformist politicians after the epic failure of Obama.

Which brings us to the Friedman's final point: Iranian dynamism is being translated into an arms race in the Middle East that will destroy the region and is leading to a new world war. How is that prevented?

Given that the U.S. is a pay-to-play system that the sheikhs and the Israelis seem to have wired, it is difficult to imagine a reformist situation that can change the ongoing addiction to warfare and destruction. What is needed are two things, which might be the same thing: 1) a crack in the Washington Consensus, whether a default by Greece, a Le Pen victory in France, a nativist rebellion in Germany that collapses Merkel's government, and/or 2) the war needs to come home; the leaders of the Western core nations need to feel the death and destruction that they export around the globe -- in Libya and Syria -- lap up on their shores. This is happening already.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

EU Antitrust Case Against Gazprom: Allow Backflow to Ukraine, Beat Back Pipeline to Greece

The New Cold War enters a potentially more dangerous phase today with the announcement (James Kanter, "E.U. Charges Russian Energy Giant Gazprom With Abusing Its Dominance") by the European Commission that it will bring antitrust charges against Russia's Gazprom:
BRUSSELS — European antitrust regulators on Wednesday charged the Russian energy giant Gazprom with abusing its dominance in natural gas markets, a move amounting to a direct challenge to the authorities in Moscow. 
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said that unfair pricing might have resulted in higher gas prices in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which have long been wholly or substantially dependent on Russian gas. In those countries, the commission said, Gazprom was suspected of charging wholesalers prices that were significantly higher compared with the company’s costs or to benchmark prices. 
The commission also suspects Gazprom of quashing competition by restricting gas flows to some parts of Europe. Gazprom seems to be “pursuing an overall strategy to partition Central and Eastern European gas markets, for example by reducing its customers’ ability to resell the gas cross-border,” the commission said.
The commission also said that Gazprom might have been leveraging its dominant market position in Bulgaria and Poland by making supplies of gas conditional on those countries’ participating in infrastructure plans such as building a new pipeline route to Europe under the Black Sea.
“Keeping national gas markets separate also allowed Gazprom to charge prices that we, at this stage, consider to be unfair,” said Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner. 
“If our concerns were confirmed, Gazprom would have to face the legal consequences of its behavior,” she said. 
The charges make it more likely that Gazprom could eventually face a fine theoretically running higher than 10 billion euros, or about $10.7 billion. But the larger worry for Gazprom is the prospect of being forced to allow more competition in markets it has long controlled. Russia supplies about one-third of the European Union’s natural gas.

Gazprom said in a statement that it “considers the objections put forward by the European Commission to be unfounded.”
A couple points need to be made. First, Gazprom is synonymous with the rebirth of the Russian state under Putin. With the success of Gazprom you have the success of Russia with Putin at the helm. I am a believer in Russia; therefore, ten years ago, wanting to express this belief, I decided to become a shareholder in Gazprom.

Point two: Up until now, despite all the fighting in Ukraine, the destruction of the country's industrial heartland by the junta in Kiev, the myriad U.S. and EU sanctions, it has been hands off Gazprom, with a few exceptions: some financial restrictions placed on dealings with Gazprombank, a ban on the export of cutting-edge drilling technology, and the vetoing of the South Stream pipeline under the Black Sea bypassing Ukraine.

Now all that changes. James Kanter had a longer piece yesterday on the EU antitrust case, "Europe Is Expected to Bring Antitrust Charges Against Gazprom," where, even from within the standard Russophobic confines purveyed by The New York Times, he guided his readers to the end game being played here by Brussels officials -- backflow to Ukraine:
The larger worry for Gazprom would be the prospect of being forced to allow more competition in markets it has long controlled. The company, for example, could eventually have to drop conditions in its contracts that restrict those utilities’ power to share the gas with other countries. That would give individual countries more control over whether they consume all the gas themselves or sell some of it on to other countries, including Ukraine, something Gazprom has opposed.
An EU antitrust against case Gazprom has been hanging out there for years. Why now? I would imagine it has something to do with the deal Russia is negotiating with Greece on a pipeline. Russia could then forward cash to the Syriza-led government that would provide it with some much-needed leverage against the ghoulish troika.

I would also speculate that the antitrust case provides more proof that Ukraine as presently ruled by the junta in Kiev is not a viable state; many structural changes need to be engineered by the U.S./EU to make it one, and the ability for EU members to backflow Russian gas is key.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

U.S. Institutional Racism: a Genocide of 1.5 Million Black Men, or the Maintenance of the Three-Fifths Compromise

No one will be tried at The Hague. The crimes against humanity, the disappearance of 1.5 million black men in the prime of life, 25 years of age to 54, have been going on for a long time in the United States. One would have to go back to the founding of the nation and the "Three-Fifths Compromise" at the 1787 Constitutional Conventional to appreciate the genocidal nature that lies at the core of the country.

That is why the work The New York Times has done exposing American institutional racism in wake of the Mike Brown shooting last summer is appreciated. The Gray Lady might be a willing accomplice in the ongoing destruction of the Middle East and the New Cold War because of slanted reporting that bolsters the false narrative peddled by USG, but in the homeland she advocates relatively progressive positions.

This morning's "1.5 Million Missing Black Men" by Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy puts a statistical face on institutional racism:
In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.
They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to an Upshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.
African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.
Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas.
And what is the city with at least 10,000 black residents that has the single largest proportion of missing black men? Ferguson, Mo., where a fatal police shooting last year led to nationwide protests and a Justice Department investigation that found widespread discrimination against black residents. Ferguson has 60 men for every 100 black women in the age group, Stephen Bronars, an economist, has noted.
Ferguson is literally trying to be true to the "Three-Fifths Compromise":
Since the 1990s, death rates for young black men have dropped more than rates for other groups, notes Robert N. Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both homicides and H.I.V.-related deaths, which disproportionately afflict black men, have dropped. Yet the prison population has soared since 1980. In many communities, rising numbers of black men spared an early death have been offset by rising numbers behind bars. 
It does appear as if the number of missing black men is on the cusp of declining, albeit slowly. Death rates are continuing to fall, while the number of people in prisons — although still vastly higher than in other countries — has also fallen slightly over the last five years.

But the missing-men phenomenon will not disappear anytime soon. There are more missing African-American men nationwide than there are African-American men residing in all of New York City — or more than in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Washington and Boston, combined.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Staying Power of Neoliberalism and U.S. Unipolarity

Krugman was in Athens recently to survey the damage the troika has wrought and to offer his idea for a solution.

No keen insight will be found in reading "Greece on the Brink." Krugman, one of the preferred thinkers of the Democrats, begins his column tut-tutting the perception held by Greeks that a bloodsucking neoliberal establishment is out to get them:
"Don’t you think they want us to fail?” That’s the question I kept hearing during a brief but intense visit to Athens. My answer was that there is no “they” — that Greece does not, in fact, face a solid bloc of implacable creditors who would rather see default and exit from the euro than let a leftist government succeed, that there’s more good will on the other side of the table than many Greeks suppose.
Krugman then basically performs a somersault and acknowledges that Greeks have a point: a way forward is clearly visible; Greece recently achieved a budget surplus; all that needs to be done is to freeze the implementation of further austerity measures -- cuts to pensions and labor rights -- and let the country stabilize; but the troika appears to be in no mood to bargain in good faith:
The shape of a deal is therefore clear: basically, a standstill on further austerity, with Greece agreeing to make significant but not ever-growing payments to its creditors. Such a deal would set the stage for economic recovery, perhaps slow at the start, but finally offering some hope.
But right now that deal doesn’t seem to be coming together. Maybe it’s true, as the creditors say, that the new Greek government is hard to deal with. But what do you expect when parties that have no previous experience in governing take over from a discredited establishment? More important, the creditors are demanding things — big cuts in pensions and public employment — that a newly elected government of the left simply can’t agree to, as opposed to reforms like an improvement in tax enforcement that it can. And the Greeks, as I suggested, are all too ready to see these demands as part of an effort either to bring down their government or to make their country into an example of what will happen to other debtor countries if they balk at harsh austerity. 
To make things even worse, political uncertainty is hurting tax receipts, probably causing that hard-earned primary surplus to evaporate. The sensible thing, surely, is to show some patience on that front: if and when a deal is reached, uncertainty will subside and the budget should improve again. But in the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, patience is in short supply. 
It doesn’t have to be this way. True, avoiding a full-blown crisis would require that creditors advance a significant amount of cash, albeit cash that would immediately be recycled into debt payments. But consider the alternative. The last thing Europe needs is for fraying tempers to bring on yet another catastrophe, this one completely gratuitous.
So in the end Krugman obliquely endorses the Greek belief that their country is being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal orthodoxy.

A particularly good read from this past weekend but one sure to depress those who like myself see a fast-approaching collapse to the U.S. neoliberal global hegemony is Tariq Ali's "The New World Disorder: They Knew Exactly What They Were Doing."

Ali argues that U.S. unipolarity has more staying power than is commonly acknowledged and "declinism" as a school of thought is superficial and overrated; he then takes the reader on a brief  yet magisterial global tour to emphasize that U.S. leadership while maybe not waxing is certainly not waning.

Towards the end of his essay he comes to Europe:
What is the situation in Europe? The first point to be made is that there isn’t a single country in the European Union that enjoys proper sovereignty. After the end of the Cold War and reunification, Germany has become the strongest and strategically the most important state in Europe but even it doesn’t have total sovereignty: the United States is still dominant on many levels, especially as far as the military is concerned. Britain became a semi-vassal state after the Second World War. The last British prime ministers to act as if Britain was a sovereign state were Harold Wilson, who refused to send British troops to Vietnam, and Edward Heath, who refused to allow British bases to be used to bomb the Middle East. Since then Britain has invariably done the Americans’ bidding even though large parts of the British establishment are against it. There was a great deal of anger in the Foreign Office during the Iraq War because it felt there was no need for Britain to be involved. In 2003, when the war was underway, I was invited to give a lecture in Damascus; I got a phone call from the British embassy there asking me to come to lunch. I thought this was odd. When I arrived I was greeted by the ambassador, who said: ‘Just to reassure you, we won’t just be eating, we’ll be talking politics.’ At the lunch, he said: ‘Now it’s time for questions – I’ll start off. Tariq Ali, I read the piece you wrote in the Guardian arguing that Tony Blair should be charged for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Do you mind explaining why?’ I spent about ten minutes explaining, to the bemusement of the Syrian guests. At the end the ambassador said: ‘Well, I agree totally with that – I don’t know about the rest of you.’ After the guests had left, I said: ‘That was very courageous of you.’ And the MI6 man who was at the lunch said: ‘Yeah, he can do that, because he’s retiring in December.’ But a similar thing happened at the embassy in Vienna, where I gave a press conference attacking the Iraq war in the British ambassador’s living room. These people aren’t fools – they knew exactly what they were doing. And they acted as they did as a result of the humiliation they felt at having a government which, even though the Americans had said they could manage without the UK, insisted on joining in anyway.
The Germans know they don’t have sovereignty, but when you raise it with them they shrug. Many of them don’t want it, because they are over-concerned with their past, with the notion that Germans are almost genetically predisposed to like fighting wars – a ludicrous view, which some people who should know better have expressed again in marking the anniversaries of the First World War. The fact is that – politically and ideologically and militarily, even economically – the European Union is under the thumb of the global imperial power. When the Euro elite was offering a pitiful sum of money to the Greeks, Timothy Geithner, then US secretary of the treasury, had to intervene, and tell the EU to increase its rescue fund to €500 billion. They hummed and hawed, but finally did what the Americans wanted. All the hopes that had been raised, from the time the European idea was first mooted, of a continent independent of the other major powers charting its own way in the world, disappeared once the Cold War ended. Just when you felt it might be able to achieve that goal, Europe instead became a continent devoted to the interests of bankers – a Europe of money, a place without a social vision, leaving the neoliberal order unchallenged.
The Greeks are being punished not so much for the debt as for their failure to make the reforms demanded by the EU. The right-wing government Syriza defeated only managed to push through three of the 14 reforms the EU insisted on. They couldn’t do more because what they did push through helped create a situation in Greece which has some similarities with Iraq: demodernisation; totally unnecessary privatisations, linked to political corruption; the immiseration of ordinary people. So the Greeks elected a government that offered to change things, and then they were told that it couldn’t. The EU is frightened of a domino effect: if the Greeks are rewarded for electing Syriza other countries might elect similar governments, so Greece must be crushed. The Greeks can’t be kicked out of the European Union – that isn’t permitted by the constitution – or out of the Eurozone, but life can be made so difficult for them that they have to leave the euro and set up a Greek euro, or a euro drachma, so that the country keeps going. But were that to happen conditions would, at least temporarily, get even worse – which is why the Greeks have no choice but to resist it. The danger now is that, in this volatile atmosphere, people could shift very rapidly to the right, to the Golden Dawn, an explicitly fascist party. That is the scale of the problem, and for the Euro elite to behave as it’s doing – as the extreme centre, in other words – is short-sighted and foolish.
And then there’s the rise of China. There’s no doubt that enormous gains have been made by capitalism in China; the Chinese and American economies are remarkably interdependent. When a veteran of the labour movement in the States recently asked me what had happened to the American working class the answer was plain: the American working class is in China now. But it’s also the case that China isn’t even remotely close to replacing the US. All the figures now produced by economists show that, where it counts, the Chinese are still way behind. If you look at national shares of world millionaire households in 2012: the United States, 42.5 per cent; Japan, 10.6 per cent; China, 9.4 per cent; Britain, 3.7 per cent; Switzerland, 2.9 per cent; Germany, 2.7 per cent; Taiwan, 2.3 per cent; Italy, 2 per cent; France, 1.9 per cent. So in terms of economic strength the United States is still doing well. In many crucial markets – pharmaceuticals, aerospace, computer software, medical equipment – the US is dominant; the Chinese are nowhere. The figures in 2010 showed that three-quarters of China’s top two hundred exporting companies – and these are Chinese statistics – are foreign-owned. There is a great deal of foreign investment in China, often from neighbouring countries like Taiwan. Foxconn, which produces computers for Apple in China, is a Taiwanese company.
The notion that the Chinese are suddenly going to rise to power and replace the United States is baloney. It’s implausible militarily; it’s implausible economically; and politically, ideologically, it’s obvious that it’s not the case. When the British Empire began its decline, decades before it collapsed, people knew what was happening. Both Lenin and Trotsky realised that the British were going down. There’s a wonderful speech of Trotsky’s, delivered in 1924 at the Communist International, where, in inimitable fashion, he made the following pronouncement about the English bourgeoisie:
Their character has been moulded in the course of centuries. Class self-esteem has entered into their blood and marrow, their nerves and bones. It will be much harder to knock the self-confidence of world rulers out of them. But the American will knock it out just the same, when he gets seriously down to business. In vain does the British bourgeois console himself that he will serve as a guide for the inexperienced American. Yes, there will be a transitional period. But the crux of the matter does not lie in the habits of diplomatic leadership but in actual power, existing capital and industry. And the United States, if we take its economy, from oats to big battleships of the latest type, occupies the first place. They produce all the living necessities to the extent of one-half to two-thirds of what is produced by all mankind.
If we were to change the text, and instead of the ‘English bourgeois character’ say the ‘American bourgeois character has been moulded in the course of centuries … but the Chinese will knock it out just the same,’ it wouldn’t make sense.
Ali does not provide much in the way of hope other than the assertion that when people get truly fed up with neoliberalism there will be change. But how many lives will be lost in the process? All we need do is look to Yemen to see that the U.S. and its client states are more than willing to embrace genocide to maintain full-spectrum dominance.

Ali concludes his piece with some fine words from third century BC Sparta:
It’s a mixed and confused world. But its problems don’t change – they just take new forms. In Sparta in the third century BCE, a fissure developed between the ruling elite and ordinary people following the Peloponnesian Wars, and those who were ruled demanded change because the gap between rich and poor had become so huge it couldn’t be tolerated. A succession of radical monarchs, Agis IV, Cleomenes III and Nabis, created a structure to help revive the state. Nobles were sent into exile; the magistrates’ dictatorship was abolished; slaves were given their freedom; all citizens were allowed to vote; and land confiscated from the rich was distributed to the poor (something the ECB wouldn’t tolerate today). The early Roman Republic, threatened by this example, sent its legions under Titus Quinctius Flamininus to crush Sparta. According to Livy, this was the response from Nabis, the king of Sparta, and when you read these words you feel the cold anger and the dignity:
"Do not demand that Sparta conform to your own laws and institutions … You select your cavalry and infantry by their property qualifications and desire that a few should excel in wealth and the common people be subject to them. Our law-giver did not want the state to be in the hands of a few, whom you call the Senate, nor that any one class should have supremacy in the state. He believed that by equality of fortune and dignity there would be many to bear arms for their country."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ms. Marvel #3

Marvel's re-creation of Ms. Marvel with the character Kamala Khan, a Jersey City high school kid and Pakistani Muslim, is a strong argument for why it is important to keep an eye on what the corporate behemoth is producing. At once timely -- exploring the Muslim experience in America at a moment in history when Wahhabi jihadists are destroying the Middle East -- and traditional -- the superhero as high-school nerd, e.g., Steve Ditko's The Amazing Spider-Man -- Ms. Marvel is everything a superhero comic should be. The credit goes to editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona.

I realized on the train into work this past week that no superhero has been as strong and alone as the high school Peter Parker who Stan Lee and Steve Ditko brought to life in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #38, 1963 - 1966. More vulnerable than Superman, Batman and Captain America, Spider-Man nonetheless battled alone. All Peter Parker received from his peers was derision. Truly, the guy had a spine of stainless steel.

The new Ms. Marvel is not as edgy as the initial run of The Amazing Spider-Man. It is more whimsical. Kamala Khan is a NuHuman, part of the new crop of Inhumans that sprang up after the Terrigen Bomb was detonated releasing a cloud of Terrigen Mist that activated dormant Inhuman genes dispersed among the general population by the "Lost Tribes" of Inhumans.

In the 12 scans below Kamala goes to the mosque with a girlfriend and then tries to get a handle on her morphing powers while at high school.

The final scan is a flyer for an appearance that G. Willow Wilson made last month at my neighborhood comic shop. Sadly, wiped out from a weekend of training for an upcoming race, I stayed home and missed out on the event.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Yes vs. Black Flag, Round 1, "Mood for a Day" vs. "Wasted"

On a recent Saturday, while out for a run, a Yes song shuffled on my iPod, something off one of the three seminal studio albums of the early 1970s -- The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) -- and it sounded good. Lush, sweeping, soothing, harmonic -- whatever you want to call it -- "big ticket" rock 'n' roll.

Then, up next or shortly thereafter, came a Black Flag song, "Wasted," off the band's first record, the Nervous Breakdown EP (1978), and it pretty much said it all in terms of Hippies vs. Punks:

I was so wasted I was a hippie I was a burnout I was a dropout I was out of my head I was a surfer I had a skateboard I was so heavy man, I lived on the strand I was so wasted I was so fucked up I was so messed up I was so screwed up I was out of my head I was so jacked up I was so drugged up I was so knocked out, I was out of my head I was so wasted I was wasted
The contrast between these two songs, Yes's "Mood for a Day" and Black Flag's "Wasted" couldn't be greater. Yet there it is -- Hippies vs. Punks. It is almost as if there is no reason to continue on with these Hippies vs. Punks posts because aurally the matter has been settled. But who won?

One thing that leapt to my attention out of the happenstance iPod shuffle was the realization that Black Flag's first record, Nervous Breakdown, an EP that clocked in at all of 5 minutes 13 seconds, was recorded as early as January 1978, the month that Punk is supposed to have died when the Sex Pistols broke up after their show at Winterland. This qualifies Black Flag as a first-wave Punk band.

Nervous Breakdown didn't appear until the fall when foot-dragging by Bomp Records! motivated Black Flag founder and guitarist Greg Ginn to use funds from his ham radio business, Solid State Transmitters, to establish, along with Black Flag bass player Chuck Dukowski, a new record label, SST Records. Nervous Breakdown is the first SST Records disk, 001.

Black Flag was formed in 1976. Originally the band's name was Panic. But just as Joy Division had to change from Warsaw to Joy Division because there was another band going by Warsaw, Panic changed its name to Black Flag because there was another band called Panic.

In 1976 Yes was at the top of the heap along with Peter Frampton. This is what the kids were listening to when Greg Ginn put his band together. Skateboarding was very big. Skateboards with wheels of polyurethane instead of clay. Puka-shell necklaces and rugby shirts, long hair and Ocean Pacific drawstring cotton pants. Hippies, without a war to protest or a president to impeach, decided to let the good times roll. They might not necessarily have absconded to the discotheque but they had certainly found their way to AstroTurfed sports stadiums, where, along with tens of thousands of other shaggy-headed boys and girls, drunk and stoned, they, in the words of Crass, stared "up a superstar's arse."

This is the milieu that created Punk. The summer of 1976. The American Bicentennial. The summer that the boys from Joy Division see the Sex Pistols in Manchester and decide to start a band; the same summer that Mari Elliot, a.k.a., Poly Styrene, sees the Sex Pistols in Hastings and decides to start a band. The Yes-Frampton-Gary Wright sold-out stadium tour is happening simultaneously. The sonic womb that begets Punk is the no-longer-Hippie corporate sounds of Hippies like Yes, Peter Frampton and Gary Wright.

We'll have to tarry here a bit longer.