Archive for March, 2010

Stop cheering, start pushing

As a vote in the US Congress passes, with far too much blind opposition and also far too much cheering, it’s refreshing to hear a civilized discussion about healthcare in the US. Not in the Congress, of course, or in the mainstream media.

An elementary moral point must be made: without universal healthcare, barbarism prevails in any society. This bill is arguably a lessening of that barbarism, possibly even significantly. But barbarism still prevails.

Those who cheer for this legislation must be careful, lest they be mistaken for cheering for the barbarism, albeit reduced, which it implements.

The following discussion is a good example of a debate from a civilized perspective.

Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader: A discussion on Healthcare, Politics, and Reform

On the left, Nader:

this is the latest chapter of corporate Democrats crushing progressive forces both inside their party and against third parties…

there will be 180,000 Americans who will die between now and 2014 before any coverage expands, and hundreds of thousands of injuries and illnesses untreated. This bill does not provide universal, comprehensive or affordable care to the American people. It shovels hundreds and billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the worst corporations who’ve created this problem… For the drug companies, it’s a bonanza.

On the right (for once), Kucinich:

I don’t like much of anything of what’s happening here, except to say that I think that down the road we need to jump over this debate and go right to a bigger debate about how do we get healthcare that’s significant, how do we supplant the role of private insurers…

the whole system is wrong. But, you know, there’s a point at which you are in the system and you have to figure out, is there a way to try to use the moment to move in a direction that gives you a chance to keep pushing the point.

Indeed. Stop cheering, and use the moment to move in the direction out of previous barbarism, out of the new version of barbarism, and towards a minimal degree of civilization.


Written by dan

March 22nd, 2010 at 5:29 am

On militarism

During the US wars in Indochina, a tumult of protest and activism at Stanford brought many momentous changes to the university. Among these was the banishment of the ROTC from campus. But recently, the suggestion has been made in the faculty senate that the ROTC return to campus; a committee has been formed to investigate the matter. These developments have provoked much discussion, including among current and former campus antiwar activists.

In this discussion, even among activists, I have been a little surprised as to which arguments have and have not been made. In particular, one argument seems to have been missing: the argument against militarism. This is a glaring omission, and the argument should be made. And so I think it is worth chiming in with my view, to present my version of this argument. As I consider anti-militarism an involved question, this is long; read in your own time!

* * *

At present, one of the main arguments keeping ROTC off campus is its anti-queer prejudice, enforced through the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. But it would be deeply deficient, in my view, to oppose military recruiting, ROTC, etc, on campus merely for such reasons. It may be enough to add in the history of US foreign policy, as some have noted: what the US military does, has done, and will do if things continue on their current course — these are all shocking and reason enough to oppose its presence on campus anywhere.

But these are the easy arguments. The argument against militarism is a bit more difficult to make, strategically, I would say, but it is a deeper one and in the end it goes to the heart of the system we oppose in opposing wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody has yet made the argument against militarism per se, but I think someone must. Such an argument may appeal to activists more than others. But I think that is not just a quirk of us strange creatures. I think it is because this argument is correct, because we are right when we make this argument. It is an argument that is deeply offensive to received conventional barbaric wisdom: there are formidable propaganda forces at work to instill and indoctrinate the population with the opposite view, and formidable cultural forces at work to demonize it. Anti-militarism is a dangerous set of ideas, threatening to power, poorly understood by the population at large, and easily demonized in current cultural conditions. Reactionaries will have no trouble trying to paint anti-militarism as a bunch of “hippies” making peace signs and drawling “war is bad” as their sole argument against militarism. But that is all the more reason to make the argument, make it clearly, and make it well. In my view there will be no end ot the vast worldwide injustice and destruction such as currently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan until not only these particular wars, but the systems and institutions supporting them, are all effectively opposed and neutralised. Militarism is an integral part of this system.

So, why oppose militarism? The argument is much stronger than the mere observation that war is bad.

* * *

When we speak of militarism we speak of many things. Perhaps it is not even a well-defined term. I am afraid I cannot give you a one-sentence definition of militarism. Let me give some overview of what I mean when I say I oppose militarism.

Militarism is integrally connected to a substantial part of the State apparatus, the Congress, and the economy at large. It is a principal instrument of State foreign policy; indeed, for the US, the principal instrument. In this sense the US State is heavily invested in militarism.

Militarism plays a prominent role in culture. Its operations are affected by, and in turn affect, gender relations, race relations, class, and sexuality. In general, the size, freedom, and legitimacy of a military is a measure of a society’s readiness to embrace illegitimate force: it is therefore a measure of uncivilization. As the US is a nation of about 1/20 of the world’s humans and 1/2 of its military spending, the level of uncivilization is clear.

Militarism is fundamentally connected to authoritarianism; and its obverse, obedience. The military is the instrument of brute force at the international level, and it often acts lawlessly (more on this below). As long as there is a strict chain of command, ideal soldiers in existing militaries are mindless automatons carrying out orders. Even when the orders are pure murder. Albert Einstein put this best:

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

Militarism is fundamentally connected to patriarchy and homophobia. This is hardly a controversial statement, at least at the cultural level. By its nature, any culture of fighting wars and killing will celebrate aggressive, macho aspects of human nature. With that comes the entire cultural-historical legacy of women’s oppression and queer oppression. There is a fundamental cultural, psychological, and philosophical connection between militarism, patriarchy, and homophobia. But to attack only the most obvious aspects of this homophobia, such as the “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy, must necessarily rest upon the most anaemic of analyses.

The military’s daily duties are to train killers and to find the optimal implementation of destruction and murder. In this sense, institutional and habitual, there is a fundamental and obvious connection between militarism and death — spiritual death as well as physical destruction of property and of the living organism. As a military acquaintance of mine once said, “What we do is kill people and break their stuff.” The military is a machine for the creation of monsters — and I think many within the military realise this. There has been a long process within the military of optimizing the process by which the instinct to avoid killing another human being can be overcome — or better, overlaid with conditioning to kill without thinking, without the impulses of humanity kicking in, leading naturally to massive psychological trauma.

This process of monster-creation is not just obvious from the training sessions where recruits yell “Kill kill kill!”. The military is the cultural and institutional embodiment of death. And a culture of worship of the military is a necrophiliac culture. The unthinking applause for a marine is not only applause of reflexive obedience and willing subjugation to authority and the State — it is also applause for death. It is human society cheering itself into its own grave.

All of these give rise to deeper questions. The antipathy towards mindless murderous obedience must necessarily give rise to an uneasiness between anti-militarists and the military, and potentially the individuals within it. And it leads to some deep reflections on the nature of the military, as an institution, and its legitimacy. So let me make some comments on these questions, which are somewhat involved, but I think some things can be said.

* * *

In general, the relationship between the anti-war movement and the military has always been somewhat uneasy. On the one hand, the testimonies of anti-war soldiers are often powerful and moving. A soldier telling of their experiences, participating in atrocities, forced into impossible moral decisions, stumbling upon catastrophe, ordered unwillingly into barbarism, is powerful to hear. Nobody knows the horrors of war more than the people who participate in them. Moreover, anti-war soldiers appeal powerfully to mainstream audiences for whom the military is a sacred institution and the (false) patriotism of “serving one’s country” is the highest moral virtue. And, even if they may have initially signed up for reason of this false, barbaric moral anti-virtue of flag-waving patriotism, anti-war soldiers are in general deeply moral people: they have come to oppose an institution (or at least its practices) to which they signed up voluntarily, and they have suffered all the consequences of opposing a powerful institution from the inside. The testimonies at the Winter Soldier conferences in the US, over recent years, were powerful beyond words. (Of course, this is the reason they were blacked out of the mainstream media.)

But on the other hand, there is no getting around the fact that every soldier is a trained killer. And, in the absence of conscription, in the absence of aggressive external military threat, every soldier is a trained killer who willingly signed up to be a trained killer, for reasons that may be difficult to justify. Of course the reasons given are usually not sadistic: but even commonly-given reasons like “serving one’s country”, “patriotic duty”, or family tradition, all collapse upon the slightest examination. It is trite to have to say in the 21st century that we should have no loyalty to any country but to humanity, to justice, to the moral good; that you don’t have to do what your dad did; that patriotism in the form of worship of a flag is a moral idiocy; that nationalism beyond the liberation of oppressed groups and societies, and the preservation of cultural heritage, is provincial nonsense — but we must continue to say it. Of course this is not a complete set of reasons why people join the military. Given the absence of economic opportunities for people in many parts of the US, the military offers good prospects. Given the general level of ignorance about the history of US foreign policy, it’s not surprising that the military is regarded as a noble institution: it offers discipline, it abhors waywardness and indirection, it knocks you into shape. In lands of unemployment, drug use, and street violence, military violence and adventure is hardly a worse alternative. In peacetime, it is a safe (physically as well as economically) way to get through university or college. Many people in the military, even in the US, I am sure could not give a rat’s arse about flag-waving bullshit. Of course I cannot second-guess the reasons of every military recruit. But the point remains: there is tension between any soldier and antiwar politics.

This tension is a source of continual struggle for movements against war and militarism; but struggle is good, struggle maintains vitality.

Soldiers themselves are one thing; but they are individuals, and they are often good people. In opposing militarism, however, we focus more on the military institution itself, than the soldier as individual. In general, in all social analysis, we must draw a distinction between institutions and the people who occupy them. This is an obvious point but it is often lost, and usually missing from mainstream analysis — institutional analysis goes to the root of the system, is inherently radical, and it leads to too many disturbing conclusions. In opposing militarism we are not prejudiced against soldiers. In opposing the State we are not prejudiced against every public sector employee. In opposing turbo-capitalism we are not prejudiced against every bank employee. In opposing capitalism per se we are not prejudiced against every property owner, manager, rich person or boss. People are people, and if nothing else they are redeemable; institutions, being the systems, habits, roles occupied by people and to which they must conform, require no such sympathy. Militarism is a point of view against certain institutions, roles, and cultures within society, rather than individuals, and although this is a difficult point for many people to understand, it is an elementary one. All institutional analysis is, formally at least, independent of the individuals holding positions within that institution.

Thus, if the military, as an institution, causes horrid effects on the individuals within it; tends to engage in atrocities, violence, overthrow of legitimate popular governments — these are good reasons to oppose militarism; they are in my view largely valid reasons. But we can say something more fundamental about the nature of the military itself.

* * *

Having made the qualification that we speak of institutions rather than people, let us make no bones about it. What is the military, as a social institution?

The military is the State’s will to power. It is, by definition, the instrument by which the State exerts brute physical force over the world. All force is prima facie illegitimate — reasonable minds may differ, I would say, about when physical force can be justified; they may differ on whether it is ever justified on the scale writ large of war. At the small-scale level there are clear situations where physical force can be justified, for instance pushing a person out of the path of an oncoming train. But the burden of justification on those who advocate force is always heavy, and it is rarely borne out. Any military institution is, therefore, a prima facie illegitimate institution. Its right to exist depends on proof that the world, at the international level, is so savage that standing armies are required. Indeed the world at the international level is savage, but much of this is caused by the US military, not prevented by it. Peacekeeping efforts are another matter, and may even bear out the need for a military. But anyone who says that a military is necessary must do so with a heavy heart and a tear in their eye. Anyone who says that a military is a desirable institution is confused or sadistic.

Therefore, the military is dangerous; it demands massive institutional checks and balances on it. As long as it exists, the savagery of the military’s animating purpose must be tamed by some countervailing dynamic. We must ask: what are the countervailing dynamics against violence and the use of force? We see these from the smallest interpersonal level to the most global scale. I think that analysing this question at the individual scale has important implications for the question at the global scale.

At the interpersonal level, violence is prevented by many mechanisms. In the first instance, it is prevented by social norms, habits and social respectability: it is not polite to start arguments, or to fight. And while social respectability, in its more class-based and elitist forms, may be putrid, at a minimum it prevents the use of force. Beyond that we have psychology and social dynamics, reason and culture: we have evolved as social animals, we know instinctively how to get along, or at least avoid the worst confrontations; and we can be convinced to avert them. Beyond that again we have the law, acting upon society to restrain it: in most quarters it is stronger to say that someone is breaking the law, than to say that they are behaving badly; note that the force of law, while resting upon the threat of judicial punishment, acts quite independently of the State which implements it. The law, in this sense, is not a moral code of what should and should not be done, but a set of prohibitions on the worst deviations from moral conduct; this is as juridical law should be, for not every immorality deserves judicial punishment. But as a final sanction against violence, there is State authority, acting with its usual brute force — and often worse violence than that which it is supposed to prevent — through its constabulary or para-military forces. The need for a police force, like a military, can only be justified upon the basis that society is not yet sufficiently advanced to be free of violent conflict of its own accord; since most societies are shockingly unjust, such conflict is inevitable, and the role of the police force will be to maintain power and privilege. The argument for an *armed* police force, however, is much weaker than the argument for a police force per se; recall that many of the most peaceful contemporary societies are those in which most police are routinely armed with nothing more than a stick. In a good society, the withering away of the State precisely means that there is no need for police to repress conflicts arising from injustice; that the law is internalised, and acts through the force of individual reason than through coercive State action; that people take control over their own lives and learn to live with each other. It is in this sense that anarchism is the highest possible form of human social organisation, and the most optimistic political philosophy. It may be a vision unlikely to be achieved except in the long term; but it is a positive vision nonetheless, a direction towards which we aim.

But the same applies at the local level of police forces and sheriffs, as at the global and international level of national militaries. The State institutions supposedly designated to prevent violence — the police, the para-militaries, the courts — may not achieve their goals, and they may often cause more violence than they prevent. But in the democracies, the State’s coercive power over its citizens is severely curtailed under the law. If the State wants to punish you, it must have a clearly defined crime to charge you with; it must tell you what you are charged with; it must inform you of your rights; it must provide you with a lawyer; your must be heard in public before an independent judge and a jury of peers; you must be able to testify or not testify in your defence; the burden is on the State to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that its charges are borne out, and otherwise you are free. These are fantastic achievements of centuries of struggle, limiting the violent apparatus of the State, civilizing the State from its natural condition of lawless authoritarianism.

In a similar way, while militaries still exist, as a minimal step, they must be tamed by force of law, the law governing the use of violence in international relations. International law is only minimally developed; it is still in embryonic form; the world at the global level lags centuries behind many nations in its political development. But it has already developed a minimal set of rules for the use of force; these exist in customary international law, in various national and international court judgments, in treaties and conventions and the UN Charter. Moreover its content is appropriate and mostly defensible: it takes the minimal position that the use of force is prima facie illegal, unless some justification can be found. The only justifications recognised are self-defence and the vote of the UN Security Council — these are not without their problems, particularly the Security Council — but the general prohibition on war is sound.

There is no supra-national State to enforce international law; this law, by its nature, it must depend upon its internalisation and political pressure, rather than State coercion, for its implementation. International law is constrained to act only in its most legitimate form, by the power of its moral force. There are increasingly judicial mechanisms at the international level, but these are still embryonic.

In every national military, then, this force of law must act. It is true that there are some checks on the US military, included under the US Constitution: the military is under civilian control; Congress is given the power to declare war; and so on. Needless to say, these are utterly ineffective today. Every general should be a professor of international law, not just a connoisseur of the forms of destruction and domination. Every soldier should be given courses on not only international humanitarian law and the laws of war (as occurs in some militaries now) but also the public international law of when force can and cannot be used in international relations. Every soldier, every officer, and more importantly every general, should be put on trial or court-martialed for every violation of the UN Charter and conventions against the use of force in international relations. Every soldier should be free to refuse to participate in a campaign or an operation breaching these laws — and arguably should have even more personal freedom over their own role in the military. Operational considerations aside, every order within the military must rest upon consent. Every army should not be a formation of automatons under arms and mindlessly obeying orders, but a free citizen militia, in the original sense of the word, implying individual choice and autonomy. This is all, of course, only to the extent any standing army should exist at all, as long as the world remains barbaric at the international level.

As long as a military does not possess these basic features of civilization, it should be regarded as an illegitimate institution. At the very least, it does not belong in any other civilized institution, such as a university.

* * *

If nothing else, we should remember the following: the abolition of ROTC from some university campuses, such as Stanford, was an awesome achievement, an advanced achievement, far more advanced a victory than would be, say, not permitting torturers and instigators of aggressive war to teach classes celebrating their crimes. It may be true that the victory was in part a lucky turn of history, caught up in the details and the currents of the time. That does not diminish the scale of the victory. If, thirty, forty years later, all the arguments have been forgotten, all the activists have moved on, and everyone has gone to sleep while we regress backwards to militarism, what hope is there?

Have no doubt about it: the fight for a better world is a fight not only against the most obvious injustices like aggressive war, war crimes and torture. They may be in one’s face at Stanford but they are very much the tip of the iceberg. The fight for a better world is also a fight against militarism, against patriarchy, against homophobia, against racism, against class division, and against hierarchies of illegitimate power — not only the tyrannical military chain of command, but also the tyrannical orders of the boss in every capitalist workplace all the way through to the web of mechanisms by which State and corporate power holds the world in economic and spiritual chains.

Whether to focus only on the tip of the iceberg, or to focus on deeper aspects of the system, is an important and difficult strategic choice — the question must be constantly revisited and the approach re-negotiated within a movement. I understand that antiwar groups often focus on the easy questions at the tip of the iceberg. There is good reason for that: with political action, one wants to win concrete gains. Educating the population in a culture of obedience and worship of authority, where dissent is marginalised and ridiculed, is a difficult process, and one does not want to alienate the audience immediately by proceeding first to the most challenging questions. Starting with a radical critique may do more than alienate the mainstream; it may lead to marginalisation and a loss of perceived legitimacy among the more establishment sectors of progressive movement — even if the analysis is sound, even obvious, even correct at the level of scientific truth.

Much conventional wisdom collapse upon the slightest examination. We all know that we live in a world of Sunday truths, repeated unthinkingly, utter nonsense. Reflexive support, admiration, veneration of the flag, the geographical nation, the State, the military, are among the worst of these. They must be overcome.

And war is bad too.


Written by dan

March 16th, 2010 at 9:07 am

Savaging the Tapestry of the Law

Getting off the bus at Berkeley, my stop is right next to the law building.

I know that is where John Yoo, the torture lawyer, is a professor.

There are over a thousand students and faculty in the law school, who go there all the time.

And everybody knows what John Yoo has done, and that he is in the school there.

So what else would you do but go in?

* * *

Approaching the Berkeley law school, on a massive monumental inscription, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr intones:

When I think thus of the law, I see a princess mightier than she who wrought at Bayeux, eternally weaving into her web dim figures of the ever-lengthening past — figures too dim to be noticed by the idle, too symbolic to be interpreted except by her pupils, but to the discerning eye disclosing every painful step and every world-shaking contest by which mankind has worked and fought its way from savage isolation to organic social life.

Let us put aside for a moment any potential differences with such a hagiographic description of the State and its judicial apparatus.

Let us merely ask: could there be any more beautiful description of precisely that which Yoo’s work has systematically destroyed?

* * *

Entering Boalt Hall, the building housing the school of law, one sees students working hard, lectures in progress, the usual goings-on of an academic paradise.

On bulletin boards are plastered advertisements and posters: for law journals, talks, panels, conferences, classes, and more.

Many of these posters advertise a talk on the obscuranta of the Ninth Amendment to the US Constitution: a debate on “Unenumerated rights”.

Hardly the best-known amendment, and hardly the sexiest topic.

But the moderator of this debate is none other than John Yoo.

So what else could you do but make a note of it?

* * *

The strategy seems clear: a gradual normalisation of academic presence, testing the waters with esoteric scholasticism.

There is no advertisement of the event online: google searches turn up nothing. Clearly attempting to fly under the radar.

From lower to higher profile events, evidently hoping that, step by gradual step, nobody will remember the dictum from Nuremberg:

The prostitution of a judicial system for the accomplishment of criminal ends involves an element of evil to the State which is not found in frank atrocities which do not sully judicial robes.

Even the dedicated activists of Fire John Yoo have nothing of it at their website.

So what else could you do but notify

* * *

A protest is held, and press conference given, below the mighty words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Nonviolently, peacefully, even politely, we march into the school.

Some in jumpsuits, some carrying pictures, some wearing ribbons, the procession enters the library.

Have you ever seen police blocking off access in a public library?

* * *

The room is full, explain the officers, looking a little guilty: someone exits the room even as they say it.

Full minus one equals full — the officers of the Law now deny arithmetic and the conservation of matter.

There is no sense to it, but Yoo’s intentional nonsense wrought far worse.

But with the Law’s tapestry so savagely riven, and the architect inside, what could one expect?

* * *

But I looked beyond the Law’s tapestry, here represented by automatons under arms, brute force blocking off publicly owned bookshelves.

And I looked at the students all around studying: we had speeches but we kept it quite quiet in the library.

Almost every one refused to make eye contact. Elsewhere I have seen the secret smile, the secret wink, the secret fist, the secret delight in violation of obedient social norms. Not here.

Should we pity the children — but they are not children! Should we educate them — but they are highly intelligent!

Should we teach them the law in law school? Is it too confusing to differentiate academic debate from criminal behaviour?

There were some students with us, but the silence spoke to me. It whispered of late Weimar Germany.

Do they have too much work? Stress? Debt? Is protest inherently crazy? I felt like a homeless outcst beggar pleading for change.

But I will plead for change, as long as it is necessary.

Why did it take a peripatetic mathematician, on a research visit, on wanderings preoccupied with symplectic geometry, to instigate this?


Written by dan

March 10th, 2010 at 7:51 am