Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Of all the things

The year is 2016. It is the future. Incredible technology exists. It is feasible for all human knowledge to be available to every person at an instant. It is feasible to run all of human civilization on a sustainable basis. It is feasible, technologically, as it has never been before, for advanced civilization to run for a million years. It is feasible technologically, as it has been for a long time, for human society to exist without hunger, poverty, and war. It is even feasible to satisfy all human needs and almost all (maybe all) material desires, with a minimal burden of toil.

We have won. We have triumphed. From here on the technological questions are mere improvements, icing on the cake, and the engineering questions are mere practicalities; as to the possibility of the above, there is really no question.

It is entirely possible now to banish to the annals of pre-modern barbarism all the accumulated damage of the history of the world. Old petty divisions and sectarianisms need not exist. Ancient moral codes of honour, shame and violence can be discarded for tolerance, dignity, autonomy, solidarity, community, diversity, freedom, and justice. The root causes of most human problems can dry up and wither, and flowers may bloom in their place.

Human life will never be perfect; human life will never be without suffering. The pangs of lost love, thoughts in old age of what one’s life might have been, the knowledge of mortality, the contemplation of non-existence, disease, decay, and death — and jealousy, bitterness, anger, quarrels, and the full spectrum of human emotional life when fully lived — the mystery of the universe, our place in it, how it works, our conscious selves — all these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life will never be without these. (Though perhaps some optimistic transhumanists, biologists and physicists might even disagree on some of these.) Existential drama will never cease as long as we exist. But the drama of material poverty, of stunted human development, of resource depletion, of ignorance, of civilization powered by sickening, polluting, dirty fossil fuels — all these can, at least as a matter of technology and engineering, be avoided. In this regard, we really have won, as much as it is possible to win.

There have been past eons of more or less indefinitely sustainable living — epochal climate change, meteor strikes, and supernovae aside. And there have been past eons of peace. There have even been, to some extent, past eons of human societies that were sustainable and, relatively speaking, at peace. But there has not been a human society that had the capacity to do all that, simultaneously with advanced technology, material comfort, and instant total knowledge.

Until now. That possibility exists now. Possibly it existed a decade ago; but renewable energy technology has developed so quickly that we can now say “now” without hesitation.

The future is bright. And yet, it is not. It is terribly, tragically, world-shatteringly not.

But it is only social structures — more specifically, political, economic and cultural structures — that lie in its way. By now everybody recognises the crisis of capitalism, and increasingly many understand the need for a new system. It is the economic system that prevents goods from going where they need to go. And it is increasingly recognised how intractable the problems are, within the present system.

There are a million pressing needs in the present. Wars are continuing right now. Carbon emissions are increasing right now. New coal mines and power plants are being built. Rising carbon, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, warming seas, dying coral, extreme weather. Mass extinctions. Nuclear proliferation. Ethnic violence. Failed states. Marginalisation, dispossession, incarceration, violence against women, poor, black, brown, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled people. Hunger. Unemployment. Precarious employment. Demeaning, soul-crushing, underpaid, sweatshop employment. Religious hatred and extremism. Nationalist hatred and extremism. Anti-religious warmongering. Drone murders. Unregulated weapons exports. War crimes. Impunity. Refugee outpourings. Xenophobia. Media misinformation. Total government surveillance, surveillance capitalism, collecting it all. Governments that treat the governed like mushrooms: kept in the dark, fed shit. Dissent criminalised; whistleblowers demonised and prosecuted. Militarised, racialized, brutal policing. Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Deregulations. Privatisations. IP stealing knowledge from the commons. Defunding of health, education, welfare institutions. Tax breaks for the rich. Trade treaties for multinational corporations. Corporate capture of the state. Unregulated corrupt political donations. Abyssal gap between rich and poor. The 1%. A financialised, Ponzi economy. Mass unpayable debt. International financial markets holding governments to ransom. Greece crushed. Occupation of Palestine. Coup in Brazil. ISIS. Putin in Russia. Authoritarian China. Obama a terrorist on Tuesdays. Trump in the US. Erdogan in Turkey. The House of Saud. EU collapsing. NATO aggressing. Unions in decline. Social democracy in decline. Neoliberalism ascendant. Fascism rising. How many fronts are there to fight on?

And it will continue, it will feed back on itself, it will worsen, if nothing is done.

But the only lasting solution, to at least some of these, is, at least, a new system, a wholesale change in how our society is organised and run — political, economic, cultural. But it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

And yet the future is so close. We have to imagine it, and create it. Despite the poverty of our imagination, it is almost within our grasp. What could it look like? How could things be? These are the questions we must ask, and the answers we must create.

Meanwhile, in the forsaken and privileged south-east corner of the globe, an election will take place shortly for who is to govern 0.3% of the planet’s population. The major issues are whether a tax loophole favouring the rich should be closed; the appropriate degree of shame for politicians to make use of said loophole; and whether an actor in a political advertisement about said tax loophole is genuinely a tradesman. On the fringes, there are occasional murmurs that the gulag archipelago created to punish a tiny fraction of the world’s suffering refugee population, fleeing war and persecution, should be wound down; but such suggestions are largely ignored, drowned out of sight, along with the refugees, by three-word slogans.

Of all the things, this is what our system concerns itself with. This is our current incarnation of democracy. It is time for a new one.


Written by dan

June 21st, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Libertarian socialist reading

Is there a standard set of libertarian literature? Well, of course there is a long history in the socialist tradition. I tend to roll together libertarian socialism and anarchism together, as historically tends to happen. Here is a brief list off the top of my head.

  • Daniel Guerin (ed), No Gods No Masters — the standard anthology of anarchist writings.
  • Peter Marshall, Demanding the Imposible: A History of anarchism — probably the best historical reference on the topic, though I find him a bit idiosyncratic in places.
  • Noam Chomsky, Power and Prospects, and, Government in the Future — talks/articles where he speculates on future organisation. Of course almost anything by this author is a good reference.
  • Robin Hahnel, Economic Justice and Democracy — more general as the title suggests, but there is a very good chapter on Libertarian Socialism and another chapter by Chomsky in reply.
  • Michael Albert, Parecon — presents an economic model, essentially an updated version of the Spanish libertarians, for a post-capitalist society.
  • Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ self-management in the Spanish revolution — useful description of libertarian activities during the revolution including lots of primary sources.
  • Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom — maybe a little outdated now, and probably not exactly in the libertarian tradition, but a useful presentation of Russell’s version of socialism.

Then there are the classic anarchist and libertarian texts like: anything by Emma Goldman; Kropotkin, Mutual Aid; Proudhon, What is Property?; Bakunin, God and the State. Oscar Wilde also has a wonderful essay called The soul of man under socialism.

There are then authors less identified as libertarian and more as left-marxist or left communist, who are not so far away philosophically: Gramsci, Pannekoek, Luxembourg, and even Marx, particularly his earlier work. There is also the utopian socialist tradition, often placed in contrast to the marxist “scientific” idea of socialism and sometimes overlapping with libertarian ideas: Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on. There is also something of a utopian/libertarian socialist fictional literature, of which I think Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is far and away the best. Others like Thomas More’s Utopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward lie in the same tradition and I find as wonderful books but are more
authoritarian and betray their age.

A lot of good stuff on the topic is accumulated on znet, which is run by Michael Albert, mentioned above, and others. They are trying to build something like a left-libertarian social network.

Written by dan

November 5th, 2010 at 2:59 am

What do “liberal” and “conservative” actually mean?

These terms by now can mean almost anything you want them to mean.

I tend to view liberalism as a right-wing ideology, basically running together with capitalism. “Liberals” and “conservatives” in the US argue about parameters of state policy within the context of a state capitalism. This isn’t just a theoretical or philosophical observation, it’s also a practical and empirical fact in the world. In Australia, the Liberal party is the conservative party. In Western Europe, to be “liberal” is to be on the centre-right, i.e. conservative.

So the right, as far as it is concerned in economics, and so far as it expresses itself ideologically (the reality is often different), has been split between those who advocate less (conservatives, capitalists, “free-marketeers”) or more (liberals, Keynesians) State activity in the economy

On the left, I would place anarchism/marxism/socialism and some forms of social democracy, though most social democratic parties have long betrayed their socialist roots and become identified with various forms of class compromise; their various welfare state structures have long been under attack and have been rolled back, often by the social democratic parties themselves. But the decline of social democracy is another long question and less relevant to the US.

Historically, I think one can basically understand this, at a ridiculously broad level of caricature, by noting that “history moves left” in the following sense.

1800: Democracy/capitalism/liberalism/left vs Monarchy/feudalism/conservatism/right

1900: Socialism/Social-democracy/liberalism/left vs capitalism/political-democracy/conservatism/right

1950: Socialism/Keynes/”modern liberalism”/left vs. capitalism/Hayek/”traditional liberalism”/conservatism/right

2000: Socialism/”neo-Keynesianism”/left vs capitalism/liberalism/conservatism/right

And, extrapolating, based on this I fancifully postulate an optimistic future history.

2050: Anarchism/Socialism/left vs social-democracy/capitalism/right

2100: Anarchism/participatory-economics/left vs market-socialism/social-democracy/right

2150: anarchism/left vs participatory-economics/right

Of course, history is full of setbacks, regressions, and catastrophes; and there is nothing deterministic about the future of humans, much depends upon will, intention, and political and social dynamics at every well.

Still, I would like to hope that if I live to 2150, then I will have to think about whether or not to join the conservative party.

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Written by dan

October 25th, 2010 at 12:59 am

Why international law?

When debating a matter of international law with people (say, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) they will often say “Well, international law is illegitamate / doesn’t matter / no one follows it / US law supersedes it / etc. so your appeals to international law are moot.” What do I say to these people to convince them of the legitimacy of international law?

I once read in my international law textbook that the question “Is international law `law’?” is “a standard sherry party question”.

Let me give a few different approaches, of increasing complexity. The appropriate answer no doubt depends on the audience! And their level of knowledge, analysis, friendliness, disposition, and so on…

1. What’s the alternative?

Sometimes a good rhetorical approach, although not with much in the way of analysis, is: “Well, you are against international law then? Would you rather see international chaos? Don’t you think there should be rules regulating the way States act in relation to each other?”

In my experience, very few people are against international law per se. But if they are, then they essentially accept that might makes right in international relations. They must, to be consistent, reject reciprocity as a moral principle. They must say that, if my State considers its “national interest” to be in invading and destroying yours, then it can and should do so; just as your State can legitimately eat mine. It is the law of the jungle, embracing without restraint the primordial political terror that the more powerful can consume the weak. Perhaps some extreme jingoists think this in the US, because they really think America really is the best. (I should add that such extreme jingoists contain most of the conservative and liberal establishment; but this is a small fraction of the population, which is much more humane.) Well then, such extreme jingoists are shown to have rejected the first moral principle of reciprocity, that you should do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and is not a very good thing for a wholesome God-fearing patriotic Christian to say, is it? And, if we really need to prove that America is not the best in international relations, well I think we are capable of doing so from a few historical facts of foreign policy.

But in my experience that doesn’t happen much. People think international law is a good idea, but it’s just ineffective, a joke, etc. Well, fantastic — in that case they agree with you that it wold be great to follow international law! And presumably also, that it’s a catastrophe when it is not followed as regards war and peace, which are the worst possible international crimes. If one calls it a joke, there is not much humour in it: seems one is shrugging one’s shoulders, with a snicker, at vast suffering and terror.

So, they should work with us to see that it is followed.

But in fact international law is not ineffective. Which brings me to the next approach…

2. International law is followed every day, all the time, everywhere.

Every time you step on a plane, every time you buy something that has been imported, every time a ship crosses the ocean, international law is being applied, indeed followed in minute detail. There are conventions, regulations, customs, regulating all of these things, which form the body of international law. And, when such laws are breached, its sanctions will usually be applied, whether voluntarily, through the implementation of international law by national governments, or by bodies like the WTO. The laws of the EU — which are more regional than international law, but nonetheless supra-national — are now so intricate and cover so much of everyday life that it has become in some ways the de facto or default lawgiver in Europe. It has a mission to harmonise many, ever-increasingly many aspects of member states’ laws; and as we see especially in the news recently, similar considerations apply to fiscal policy.

Sure, these mundane laws are very different from the laws about war and peace. But that is only a matter of degree. From these regulations of trade and commerce and the like, we have conventions on labour rights, endangered species, trade in drugs, dangerous chemicals, etc; and all manner of human rights, economic, social, cultural, civil, political; from these we have conventions regulating the treatment of human beings in prisons, trafficking, indigenous peoples; against maltreatment and torture; regulating the treatment of human beings in conflict situations; through to the laws of war, public international law, the principle of self-determination and the prohibition on the use of force in international relations.

How many of these laws are effective? All of them, though in different ways and to different degrees. There is barely a national supreme court in the world that will not stop and consider national laws in the light of international conventions and law. There is not a government that will not view criticism from the UN or human rights organisations as a political cost, and usually a significant one. The EU has courts which will override national laws when they abrogate human rights or other laws. International treaties are sometimes automatically implemented in national law; in the US constitution once ratified they automatically become “the supreme law of the land” (although that may not have much effect without national legislation). The ICC is now actively using international police mechanisms to apprehend international criminals. The UN has a court which will rule on any matter of international law between States (although its jurisdiction must be voluntarily accepted by the parties). Indeed it can and does rule on matters of war and peace — and in 1986 did so rule against the US for its use of force against Nicaragua, despite the US trying to escape its prior voluntary submission to the court’s jurisdiction. The Security Council can approve all manner of measures, from declarations through economic sanctions through to the use of force, to achieve legal objectives.

The direction in which things are heading, then, is clear. International law covers increasingly many aspects of our lives; and the proportion that is followed, rather than is flouted, is rapidly tending to unity.

It is true that those laws which are most difficult to enforce are those dealing with the use of force. There is no standing international army or police force (and it is not clear to me whether that would be a good thing). The international organisation of the world is still as “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths”, to borrow Alexander Hamilton’s nice phrase. But peacekeeping missions can well be thought of as upholding the international law of war, and there are cases where the UN has more or less fought under its own banner, rather than peacekeeping, at least ostensibly (perhaps not in reality) for international law: in Korea, maybe in Somalia, various places in Africa (“peace enforcement” is now the preferred euphemism). And as regards non-superpower States, however, the law holds almost without exception, though the exceptions are certainly significant. Note how quickly much of the world lined up with Kuwait when Iraq invaded — despite geopolitics, despite oil interests, despite the curious meeting of the US ambassador to Iraq shortly beforehand, etc. It was a clear breach of international law, and it was rapidly rectified. Moreover, the force of international law, also as reflected in the composition of the international coalition, was at least part of the reason the US-led force did not proceed futher into Iraq once Kuwait was liberated, and did not assist subsequent anti-Saddam rebellions (probably a small part; the other, probably preponderant, reason being that the US had an interest in keeping Saddam Hussein in power, usually expressed as a desire for “stability in the region”).

It is probably true that effective implementation of prohibition on the use of force is more likely to come through political pressure than by court decisions, though court decisions add ideological weight and pressure. The ICJ deicision in Nicaragua vs. US can arguably be seen as a Marbury vs Madison type moment in legal history, as the assertion of a court’s power in a constitutional balance. But its effect so far is quite different, in fact, leading to its marginalisation and blacklisting from history by the superpower perpetrator.

As I have found personally, international law is a powerful argument for activists. It appeals to law-and-order conservatives — “We should enforce the law!” And it also appeals legalistic-minded liberals — “If you want to change the world, change the law! Oh wait, the law is already good! Well then apply it!” As such, it is a powerful ideological weapon which can be used politically to achieve rational, peaceful, ends — which are also the self-proclaimed ends of international law itself.

It is mainly radicals, I find, with whom arguments based on international law do not work so well; because they tend to have a (largely correct, I think) critique of law in general, and eschew legalistic analysis. The stereotypical liberal view that great change can be achieved merely by elections and legislation is extraordinarily narrow view, an anaemic analysis; the stereotypical radical view is to see a whole of legal change, social change, activism, economic activity, culture, and often repression, as all part of the activity of the social organism — a view much closer to the sociologists and, I think, much better grounded in history and social science; the view we ought to take, I should say, if we want to understand the dynamics of human societies so as to move them towards some degree of civilization.

Indeed the law is often written by the powerful, and serves the interests of the powerful. Its proclamations of justice are often hypocritical; its proclamations of equality are often superficial and purely formal. The law may equally protect the strong and the weak, but the strong will afford better lawyers, who will cover the vastest crimes in words of crowning glory. As Anatole France famously said long ago, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The law also, in its majestic equality, puts massive procedural obstacles in the face of the oppressed, and it relies upon the policeman’s baton and the jailer’s key — always preponderantly weapons of the strong against the weak — for its application in the final instance. Such critiques of law and legalistic thinking are long and powerful, I think. The law is indeed an ass.

But as against this analysis, there is also a broad view of international law, putting it in a world-historical context. (Either as an aspect of the world-system, of historical materialism, of the progress of Reason and civilization, etc., depending on one’s philosophical predilections.) Essentially, all radicals, in my view — all those wishing to analyse and change the system at its roots — should view global political unification as at least as important a goal as any economic one. If you are prepared to countenance or advocate for radical change or revolution in the economic sphere, you should consider something similar at the global political level also. It seems to me there is much more focus among radicals on economic revolution than on world federation; perhaps because the latter is so obvious and also so distant. But I think more should be said about it; it is inspiring, and it appeals both to the dignity and unity of humanity as a whole, as well as to a proper outlook on the universe. As to which…

3. International law develops quasi-inexorably by world-historical forces

Of course, it’s true that international law is in many ways still embryonic. I have heard it said (possibly in the same international law textbook that informs me about sherry party conversation) that the level of development of law at the international level historically lags about 500 years behind the national level.

So, one can think of international law as being vaguely analogous to law in, say, England or France 500 years ago. At which time, at least as I understand it, law was basically enforced by local courts and magistrates, tied to the feudal power structure, with more or less injustice depending on the autonomy of the town, the cruelty of its rulers, its economic condition, and so on — and with separate ecclesiastical and civil courts, with laws and regulations differing from town to town, a fantastically intricate mess. Laws slowly congealed out of customary practice, not to mention political expediency, but, especially in England, the doctrine of precedent led to an increasingly universal, increasingly generalised and abstract systems of laws, though developing in piecemeal, often haphazard, often contradictory fashion. (In medieval France and Italy attempts were made at compiling vast compendia of local customary law as early as the 12th century — but not until Napoleon did national codification occur. Germany is perhaps the extreme example of codification, but not until 1900; a vast code have been written starting from axioms and proceeding, in deductive Euclidean fashion, to deduce every law from them. Sadly human society is more complicated than Euclidean geometry.) This was not a fast process, evolving in historical time periods, for instance with the essential notions of modern English tort law not crystallizing until 1932. And while we could see jurisprudence as some rationalist development of the eternal light of Reason through History, the inexorable path from Darkness to Light, that is not the case either: important advances in the justice and individual liberties enshrined in legal systems were not (and could not have been) won by convincing the King’s Bench, but by armed rebellion; of which the Magna Carta is the most obvious example.

In any case, we see that, over periods of historical time, there are pressures to harmonise and to unify disparate laws across territories: political unification (by rape and pillage, royal marriage, etc); deepening of economic integration by trade and commerce; loss of authority by parochial institutions like landed gentry; loss of dogmatic power in the church; rise of a bourgeois merchant class; and so on. In different countries the process varied of course: England and France may be the most historically significant because of their imperialism, not only in terms of plunder and genocide, but also in terms of export of legal systems. So the evolution is interesting, and I am no expert in it, but one can well make the claim that inexorable political and economic forces — the facts of economic growth and integration, the scale of agricultural and manufacturing industries, the growth in size of sovereign political units (often by means of vast brutality), the revolts by populations discarded and trampled in these developments — led to abstract systems of laws which covered vast expanses of the globe and which, in earlier time periods, would have appeared impossible.

This argument from the long view clearly applies in the present day; there are important differences in the twentieth century, as outright imperialism is renounced and notions arise like self-determination, decolonization, and so on. But imperialism by other means — and sometimes the original means — is alive and well, and the economic trajectory seems to be continuing. The world will increasingly need stronger and stronger international laws. Indeed, just like the rising bourgeoisie of the 17th and 18th centuries, modern transnational capital demands it. Not just the growth, but the mere stability of the global economic system are imperiled by an international regulatory vacuum. Speculative capital flows devastate national economies on a regular basis; not just the poor people in such economies, but capital also is devastated in the process. So it comes to pass now that the IMF — essentially transnational capital incarnate, although importantly it consists of nation state members — is now advocating to Wall Street and G-20 nations for a tax on financial firms and activities. Such a policy, if it is to be applied consistently, or meaningfully, must be transnational in nature, and include something like a Tobin Tax — which would be a remarkable revocation of sovereignty. If there is one right that the sovereign State guards most jealously for itself, it is the right to collect taxes. Nothing will provoke a crushing military response from the State like the city in rebellion that refuses to pay taxes and grants itself the right to collect them itself.

Something similar is true with climate change. The response must be global. Any global trading scheme — indeed, any global scheme whatsoever to act against it — must be administered at a supra-national level. At the very least, some wealth will be collected and distributed according to international rules. This is the kernel of truth in the climate denialists’ hilarious claim that a global emissions trading scheme is a conspiracy to create a world government.

Less legalistically, but at least as powerful politically, is the power of organised populations as a force for international law; and as a force to achieve its most difficult aims. The mobilizations of well over 10 million people around the world against the Iraq war, before it even started, were historically unprecedented; the organised population is now called by elites “the second superpower”. There is no doubt that the law against the use of force in international relations is gaining momentum, though the superpower government is an exception, and its wars set the cause back significantly. Hence the crucial need for the US antiwar movement — to remove the superpower’s roadblock in the path of historical progress.

World government, or world federation, are very distant possibilities, but one can see the pressures towards them. Historically, such great unifications have come only in the wake of vast tragedies (the EU, the UN), as against an external oppressor (ancient Greece, the US), or by brute force and war (most European states, all European colonies). Somehow royal marriage is no longer an option! The existence of sovereign States as the supreme arbiters of power over arbitrary geographical regions is objectively irrational and absurd, something which is so obvious that a child can see it, yet so inured is the national mentality that almost no adult can.

Today we have vast tragedies still unfolding — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the middle East. We are only seeing the beginnings of the tragedy of climate change. We have recent past tragedies: New Orleans, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and so on. We may well view climate change as an external threat. It often seems to me that only fantastic cataclysmic events — an asteroid strike, contact with an alien species — could really move us significantly towards world federation. But that is only in the short term; in the long term, we can say very little, and things change so fast today that all we can say is that the world in 10 years (let alone 100, or 1000), will be completely different from today’s.

Reason alone demands a federation of human beings, I would say, and economics, politics, civilization — including short-term and long-term factors — are inexorably taking us in that direction. That is, if we do not destroy ourselves in the process, which we very well might. It is still the stuff of distant utopias, but it is still, I think, an inspiring goal. If there is any political lesson to be learned from the axiomatic scientific fact that we live on a small planet in an unfathomably vast universe, it is that our national boundaries and differences are petty, arbitrary, and in the final analysis, meaningless — we are but one small world, and ought to act and govern ourselves that way.

Written by dan

April 30th, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Requiem for Howard Zinn

The recent death of Howard Zinn is a tragedy, and leaves a great loss — a vacuum, even — amongst those who work towards peace and a better world.

But to say this is not enough. It is not enough to applaud his  pioneering intellectual work in history and historiography. It is not enough to praise his courage, intellectual and physical, against both vicious establishment academics and menacing police batons. It is not enough to admire his modesty, humour, good nature and kindness. It is not enough to celebrate his virtue while living deeply among the worst moral filth of the world — namely, those destroyers of worlds whose legacy is whitewashed and handed down to children and to future generations as heroes with great names like Reagan, Clinton, Shultz, Rice, and Bush.

In short, it is not enough to say that Zinn was a great man for the obvious reasons. More is required. Zinn was a great man, but he was a great man of a special type. He was a great man of the type that plants the seeds for the renewal of the world. I do not mean this only in a philosophical or quasi-spiritual sense. I mean it in a concrete institutional sense.

Zinn waded through the most obscene filth on an everyday basis, both  as a professional historian and an activist for social justice. True, Zinn was not at a campus like present-day Stanford, where the mass murderers were actually physically present; but he wrote about it, talked about it, unceasingly for decades; he lived within it. He was a friend to Daniel Ellsberg and Daniel Berrigan, people whose proximity to that filth, and action in the face of it, led them to face the full force of the repressive State. He worked tirelessly within this cesspool — all the obscenities and mendacity of great power, the jackboots with the fallout of a nuclear winter, the unerring brutality which killed and still kills the hope of the world.

Great power, in destroying these brief glimpses of humanity — and especially the US State since it rose to great power status, in which it is now alone — has not only killed hope, not only crushed it with military might, ensnared it with political might, and enslaved it with financial might. It has also erased it from memory: it has erased from the memory of humanity the crushing of its hope; it has erased from the memory of humanity, indeed, the radical formulation of hope itself. It has removed from collective consciousness not only the memory of the great struggles that it mercilessly slaughtered, but the memory of struggle itself, per se. Collective memory then lives in an anaemic, amnesiac twilight, bereft of the history of its soul, a soul artificially transplanted with sanitized fairytales, distracted by superficial overconsumption and lobotomised entertainment, and led into obsession with self, wealth, popularity and vanity. Collective memory is even, perhaps, bereft of the very notion of its social soul in itself, and the solidaristic impulses only clinch insofar as the fire spontaneously erupts, or catches across hermetically sealed boundaries.

The project of power in the contemporary era — or perhaps better, the processes of powerful institutions which dominate the evolution of the contemporary world — operate by various means: diplomatic, power-political, propaganda-journalistic, economic-structural, military-terrorist-barbaric. One merely runs through a list of the less powerful nations of the world — and several of the more powerful ones — to observe a litany of destruction in the last 60 years: Italy, Greece, the Philippines, Indonesia, Guatemala, Iran, El Salvador, Honduras, the Congo, Palestine, Brazil, East Timor, Guyana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Haiti… there are many nations on planet Earth, and few are immune. The books all testify to the facts, which are not in dispute. The yoke of indebted economic restructuring, the bullets fired into demonstrations, the rivers of blood, the mainstream-media articles celebrating the death of hope and the rise of tyranny, the establishment-academic tracts explaining the higher worth of the State’s noble purpose — these are all real enough and are not confined to the past. But one only needs examine one’s own memory, education, and knowledge, and that of others, to notice how much of this is ever discussed, can ever be discussed. Usually, the answer is zero.

And so, the project of power has a foundation below all this. Structurally, the project of power is deeper than the instant death of proxy armies and killer robots; deeper than the grinding servitude of structural adjustment and the receiving end of “free trade”; deeper than the stenographic emollient that journalists pour upon the festering wounds of the present; deeper even than the subservience of approved academic truth that rises above the need for mere fact. Below it all is an historical project: to rewrite history. Nay better, it is an historiographic project: to rewrite what history is and how it is told, so that much of it is not told.

Of course, as with all institutional analysis, I do not say that any of this is deliberate or consciously willed by any individual person, though indeed sometimes it may be. (One need only read the diaries of CIA agents!) I say this is the outcome of the operation of systems of power. I say this is how the world has worked, and still works.

And so it is in this sense that the project of people’s history, of  unearthing the histories of struggle, of retelling the stories long forgotten by dominant classes and power structures — Howard Zinn’s project — goes to the foundation of the world. It is indeed planting the seeds for the renewal of the world, in a concrete sense. It is nothing less than an attempt for humanity to remember its own soul: its heroics, its mischief, its rebellion, its intransigence towards oppression, its occasional triumphs, and above all, its relentless tragedies. For we are not there yet: the present is merely the unfinished business of history.

* * *

Time evolves, and societies also. Different times require different  kinds of action, and people to carry them out. In various epochs of history, the most effective, most complete, most transformative person of that age would have had vastly different characteristics, traits, and values.

No doubt, in each age, the transformative woman or man must be an intellectual, although not necessarily one with a formal education: one who thinks, one who thinks critically, and one whose own mind is independent enough to hold beliefs against the current — not only as against the vicious undertow of reactionaries and conservatives of every age; not only as against the crashing waves of fomentation and the swirling eddies of the minutiae of the present; but also as against the entire prevailing currents of the time. It must be an intellect strong enough to turn those currents in the direction of progress.

To turn those currents — to be the transformative woman or man, to be complete — requires more than mere thought, discourse, and debate; there must also be some form of action. At certain times in history, perhaps, the most effective agent of social progress would have been a street fighter; in other times and places, a national leader; in other times and places again, a guerilla; and in others again, a leader of nonviolent civil disobedience. It is not for no reason that the person whom Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age” was Che. Whatever one thinks of his judgment, in the present day, in the post-industrial West at least, violence against State military and para-military power is instant death, morally, politically, strategically, tactically, institutionally, and biologically. Nonviolence is the easiest conclusion of the historic present.

But the character of the present, at least in the post-industrial West, combines with this axiom of nonviolence to demand more of its transformative agents than ever before in history. It demands nonviolence in the face of injustice, provocation, inequality, avoidable death, justificatory doctrinal apparatus and oncoming catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen. It demands optimism of the will in the face of a rational assessment of near-certain disaster. It demands knowledge and accuracy as against an a corporate and State propaganda apparatus which will ignore, and an academic establishment which will defame, debunk and ridicule the slightest of mistakes, even non-mistakes. It demands courage and hope as against a prevailing culture of apathy, materialism, and doom. And, in the age of the miniscule attention span, infantile popularity contests, and global disillusionment with vision for the future, it requires wit, humour, and panache.

The complete human being today has laid upon them all these demands. They are nigh impossible. The human being who can carry them out is infinitesimally rare.

Not everyone need carry out all these demands completely. Nor would I say that everyone needs to carry them out in order for the world to emerge from its present state of crisis with humanity intact.

But there must be people of this calibre, or all is lost.

Howard Zinn was one such person. He was a complete human being of our age.

Written by dan

February 10th, 2010 at 12:58 am

Reflections on history

Given that today is the 20th anniversary of a pivotal event in history, perhaps some reflections on history are in order. But “optimism” is not the right word for it; neither is “pessimism”.

Certainly, if we emphasise the world wars, utopian thinking seems like hopeless naievete. If one is to consider what human nature is capable of, the lower bound is barely imaginable: Holocausts, pogroms, pillages, rape, torture, assassinations, massacres, genocides, and war upon war upon war — these are the fodder of history. It seems to me this is less appreciated than it should be. Among conservatives and capitalists, for instance, we often hear the argument that human nature is so bad that we cannot hope for anything else. But if they really appreciated how bad human nature can be, they would live in perpetual astonishment that we have what we have today. Those who truly understand the horrors of the human species and think they are unavoidable should not be conservative, or capitalist, but Hobbesian, monarchist, or fascist. I would agree that human institutions are established and upheld by fallible and corruptible humans — but more: by murderous, vengeful, aggressive, malicious humans.

On the other hand, the range of freedoms, level of civilization, and social development achieved today would be scarcely imaginable half a century ago — and entirely alien to society a century ago. This is not merely a statement about technology, but about attitudes and general social progress. And so on: the general position a century ago would be unimaginable a couple of centuries before that. For most of human history, any notion of governance other than absolute tyranny would be considered a naive pipe dream; any notion of individual freedom an unattainable and indulgent luxury; and any notion of social equality pure treason to the tribe, or caste, or class, or race, or nation. And more, we see a steady growth in the range of beings considered worthy, or “us”, or worth defending: from the family, or tribe, to the village, the nation or race, to the civilization, to the entire world. Of course there are exceptions — exceptions spelt out in destruction and broken lives — but I find this identifiable.

A generally positive trend of course does not imply that we are approaching utopia. One may easily note that some of the greatest advances follow the greatest catastrophes — the UN after the Holocaust and the second world war; government stabilization of the economy after the Great Depression; socialist revolutions erupting out of war; monarchies overthrown out of hunger; right back to the Persian invasion uniting the ancient Greeks and further. The next catastrophes which, on a sober analysis, seem quite likely to occur — vast global climate change and the end of oil — and those which are still highly possible, like global nuclear war — are of such an order that we barely know if the human race will come out of it with any civilization intact. If we do, I would imagine that an improved social and political order would follow; but this seems to me by no means a likely outcome.

To ask what the human race is capable of, it seems to me not a complete answer to say we are horrible. We are, but we got this far, somehow. I see no reason why we cannot go further. Moreover, it’s trite to point out how fast society changes today, and that society is changing ever more quickly. The only thing we can say about the world a decade or more from now is that it will be vastly, even unimaginably different.

At least as far as economic institutions are concerned, the general pessimism has a clearly identifiable historical cause: indeed today it is the 20th anniversary of it. The horrors of the systems and governments that claimed to be “socialist” and offer the better alternative to capitalism are well known. Their collapse means that no alternative to capitalism appears to exist. (It does, but we have to look harder.) And their (false, in my view) claim to the label of “socialist” means that even to talk about a better system than capitalism is to enter a linguistic, definitional, and substantive political minefield.

The only scientific response we can give (if one were at all possible) to the question of what social systems are compatible with human nature is that we have no idea. We know some lower bounds but have no clue as to upper bounds. It seems clear that human tendencies and potentials may or may not flourish depending upon the environment, the institutions in which they develop — we do not know how far. We can say that human nature is capable of supporting vastly morally and politically better systems than have been thought possible for most of history. Moreover we have multiple previous instances of false announcements of the “end of history”. It would be extraordinary if that were actually the case today.

Can our “collective egoism” be transcended? Of course we all hope so. But we have no idea. All we can say maybe is that the collective of the egoism does seem to be historically broadening in scope — and, probably, largely due to social movements against war and for international solidarity. In truth we have very little evidence as to how human beings would live in a democratic, participatory economy, free of the authority of the boss, of the shareholder, greed, the profit motive, the authoritarianism of property, and all the deadening and infantilizing pressures and incentives that come with a market system. Such a situation has barely ever existed. We have some evidence that it is possible, from a few isolated historical examples, usually crushed by military force at the disposal of power.

And so it does not seem that history has foreclosed on us yet. I would say there is still a light upon the hill.

But still I would say that human history is not necessarily a staircase to utopia. It does not automatically progress; on the contrary. It is made by women and men, who make choices about how they act and how they live their lives. The trajectory of a society can be changed, or perhaps, perturbed from its orbit; existing habits and institutions exercise a stranglehold over much of how people act and think. Marx seems right when he says that “Men [and Women!] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But they must make it; it is not done for them, and it is their struggle to do so.

In the case of those seeking a better economic system, reflecting on the 20th century, and its culmination in the events of 20 years ago today, again to paraphrase Marx, the weight of history hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living.

Of course we can only be glad at the fall of the authoritarian communist regimes. We are glad they are gone. But today, a day of capitalist triumphalism, relentlessly repeating that greed has conquered the earth, is not a day for optimism. And, on any rational analysis, optimism is hard to find. Rationally speaking, the human race usually appears (and is) headed towards disaster.

But if we do not force ourselves into an optimistic orientation, we guarantee the worst. This is Gramsci’s optimism of the will.

Looked at another way, the potentials are clear. We have the technology to avert catastrophic global warming; we just need to implement it. We have technology progressing beyond our comprehension. We have a world fed up with capitalism, and yearning for something more: everywhere we look, in mainstream thought but even in popular culture, figures of power are demons and their system is leading us to doom. The institutions of global capitalism are no more than a few decades old, they are historically young. We have increasingly unified movements to oppose them, in spite of a vast propaganda apparatus to the contrary. We need a vision of what we want to achieve in this wondrous, still-young world, and then we can go out and build it for all the world.

And if we make it out of this century intact, who knows what we may achieve? It seems to me, therefore, imperative to ensure that we do.

Written by dan

November 10th, 2009 at 1:12 am

Rice’s nonsense on torture

Oh wow, I only got around to watching this video now, and from some of the comments I thought she must have been making some half-convincing arguments… nope!

Well, first we upgrade al Qaeda to tyrants, okay. Then one gets the impression that the US homeland was not attacked in WWII. Those little incidents at Pearl Harbor and on the Aleutian islands are called bombing and occupation, to most people.

Then we are informed that 500,000 deaths in WWII is “no!” Why? Perhaps we should have got the figure correct to the precise soldier?

The problem with the internet is that you can actually find obscure references instantaneously. In this case, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report on Guantanamo. Turns out, with ten seconds of google:

* the OSCE people were only allowed in on the condition of not actually interviewing any detainees! These same conditions were rejected by other human rights organisations, like Amnesty.

* and, the guy who led the OSCE team, Alain Grignard, with the Belgian federal police, thought detaining prisoners for years with trial was a form of “psychological torture”.

“Did you know that? Alright, no, well wait a second, if you didn’t know that, maybe before you make allegations about Guantanamo, you should read.”

But it gets better!

CR: “The ICRC also had access to Guantanamo, and they made no allegations about inerrogations about Guantanamo. What they did say is that they beleived indefinite detention…”

What sort of access did the ICRC have? Does anybody remember? Like, there were some prisoners that were deliberately kept away from the ICRC? And, like, this was such an official policy that it was actually written into the operating manual for the prison, there was an official level given to each prisoner, and the top level were kept away from the ICRC?

In fact, you can read various versions of the manual online.,_Red_Cross_Muzzled_at_Gitmo_in_2004

In any case, with its access, the ICRC did write a detailed report, which was leaked recently. Perhaps you might actually like to read what the ICRC *did* have to say.

From the introduction, the very first paragraph:

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has consistently expressed its grave concern over the humanitarian consequences and legal implications of the practice by the United States (US) authorities of holding persons in undisclosed detention in the context of the fight against terrorism. In particular, the ICRC has underscored the risk of ill-treatment, the lack of contact with the outside world as a result of being held incommunicado, the lack of a legal framework, and the direct effect of such treatment and conditions on the persons held in undisclosed detention and on their families.”

It’s clearly a glowing report, with sections entitled “Suffocation by water”, “Prolonged stress standing”, “Beatings by use of a collar”, “Beating and kicking”, “Confinement in a box”, “Prolonged nudity”, and so on. And clearly none of this involves any allegations about interrogations, surely.

And here is an example of non-allegations about interrogations, from the summary, section 1, page 5:

“as outlined in Section 4 below, and as concluded by this report, the ICRC clearly considers that the allegations of the fourteen [detainees interviewed] include descriptions of treatment and interrogation techniques — singly or in combination — that amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Can’t you see there are no allegations about interrogation?

And this is fantastic:

CR: “By definition, if it was authorised by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

I didn’t know we had monarchists left in this country!

Hmm, I wonder which article of the Convention has the “President said so” defence? Dang, that could have come in handy for Pinochet’s lawyers when he was being extradited for torture under the same convention! Pity he didn’t notice that provision, having been President of Chile and all, since by definition anything he authorises doesn’t violate the convention!

Written by dan

May 1st, 2009 at 2:56 am

The Herd strikes again

These have been around for a while now, but still, songs about history, US foreign policy, and war, are always interesting.

The first one in particular is one of the most educational music videos I’ve ever seen (read the headlines!).

And we you knew you were frauds
But onwards we went to war
Nothing could be said to convince you
We’ve already seen it before

I’m a Starship Trooper
This is my letter to dad, transferred from Saigon to Baghdad
and now I’m dead

Written by dan

March 25th, 2009 at 7:02 am