Sunday, January 30, 2011

Real Dominoes

In the fifties, President Eisenhower first referred to an idea that eventually became ‘the domino theory’: if one country falls to Com-munism, others nearby would too, like a standing row of dominoes. The United States failed to counter the Chinese Revolution, (wondering when it was too late ‘Who lost China’, but redoubled its efforts to maintain Korea and Vietnam in the Western camp, only half successfully.

I haven’t heard anyone mention dominoes yet in the Egyptian crisis, but the idea is as relevant in the Middle East now as it was in the Far East fifty years ago. Starting in Tunisia, which had been ruled for decades by a strongman, and within weeks spreading to Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon, the Middle East’s middle classes are finally determined to catch up with the rest of the world and secure a voice in their governance.

Analysts fear Jordan and Syria may be next, but most seem to have got it right, except when they warn against the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power.  Only one or two commentators seem to know that this foundational organization of Islamist revolt is today more like the governing party of Turkey than it is like the Taliban.

And here is where the old domino theory and the new one coincide:  in the fifties, in the Far East, coolies were revolting against feudal land-lords; today, the working and lower middle class of the Middle East orga-nize on Twitter against a klepto-corporatocracy with an international reach that keeps them in a position of democratic or material deprivation that is as intolerable in today’s world as feudalism was in the nineteen fifties.

The voices of reason with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood need to be heard: poverty - or the perception of relative deprivation - has always been at the root of every human revolt.  And whether it be the Brotherhood or organizations it has inspired such as Hamas and Hez-bollah, all emulate the Marxist guerilla program of concrete assistance to the needy, through schools, clinics, or cash payments.

A few American analysts are beginning to realize that it’s depri-vation that drives young people into the arms of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and Secretary Clinton and the President are unequivocal in calling for ‘free and fair’ elections in Egypt.

They are also suggesting that this an opportunity for Israel to settle the Palestinian question once and for all. Will Israel be content to allow the Stuxnet virus to hobble Iran’s nuclear program, and concentrate on picking its way through the field of dominos to become a helpful member of a modernizing Middle East community?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

From Pussy Moms to Politics as Entertainment

The book ‘Tiger Mom’ about the extreme parenting of a Chinese American lawyer, is getting a lot of attention, making some parents worry they are being too lenient, while others defend the ‘American model’ as conducive to creativity.

I see a link between our lax child-raising and a public that laps up media trivia with no realization that there is a world beyond our shores where important things are happening that affect us.

Perhaps it’s not a conscious conspiracy to keep Americans ignorant and content to watch wrestling or football while wolfing down potato chips and beer on a lounger.  If it’s not conscious, it’s certainly a result of the elite’s conviction that real democracy would hobble their aspirations.

Andrea Mitchell interviewed an Indian-American scholar who returned to India for six years after growing up in the U.S., and found that it was more forward-looking than we are.  His book is  India Calling .

As for school reform, it’s now the latest focus of attention.  One school in Tennessee is going to replace books with iPads.  If you look at the countries that score highest on math and science tests, I doubt they use advanced technology in the classroom.  My children benefited from open classrooms, but apparently, not all American children did.  For average learners, it may be that Tiger Ed is needed.

And also, X boxes and the like probably dispose American and other western children to view news programs as entertainment.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Glenn Beck Mutazilah?

After reading Will Bunch’s Backlash , I decided to watch Glenn Beck’s five o’clock show on Fox News.  Needless to say, everything Bunch reports is true, in fact there are now half a dozen companies selling gold on the show rather than one.  (The implications for Beck’s bank account are not immediately clear, but he is estimated to have earned $23 million in 2009, partly from his books.  And the other sponsors, as signaled by Bunch, also respond to the fear generated by Beck’s rants, notably a solar generator for when the electric grid tanks.)

Aside from that, Beck appears to be trying to create a new breed of politically aware voter: a God-fearing libertarian. Beck’s extensive - if tardy - reading probably hasn’t included any Muslim writers, so he would be unaware that what he is advocating harks back to an old Muslim tradition, Mutazilah, which originated in Basra and Bagdad in the eighth century in opposition to Sunni Islam. The Mutazilah school believes that human reason is as important as revelation, or belief in God.  This obvi-ously has been a minority view in Islam, but it is echoed today by the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, who calls for ‘independent brains, decentralization and flat networks’. As reported by Alastair Crooke in Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, it was because Hezbollah fighters were organized into horizontal networks, where they could take individual initiatives, that they defeated the technically far superior Israeli army in 2008.

Beck and his gold merchants, however, are not interested in the religious commonalities between American Christian fundamentalists and some of those America is fighting. Bespeckled professor Beck’s lessons focus on the idea that the left invented propaganda before the Nazis did, seeing the common man as part of a herd of cattle that has to be kept in a pen ‘for his own good’, because he is not smart enough to think for himself.

This accusation rests on the fact that the nineteen-twenties American inventor of public relations, Louis Bernays (twice related to Sigmund Freud), pioneered the manipulation of public opinion based on knowledge of the subconscious. In an interview with the BBC, cited over and over by Beck, his daughter, Anna, referred to his ideas as ‘enlightened despotism’. Instead of focusing on Madison Avenue’s systematic use of group psychology to persuade Americans to consume ever more unneces-sary products, Beck underlines the fact that Hitler’s propagandist in chief, Joseph Goebbels, was familiar with Bernays’ work.

Tagging Bernays as a leftist, Beck then jumps to his favorite con-temporary nemesis, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who advocates ‘nudging’ people into do what is good for them. Sunstein’s ideas were made to look quite scary by Glenn Greenwald in a article last January /, but at least they are intended to promote socially desirable behavior, as opposed to mindless consumption.

Personally, I am a strong advocate of individual reason.  The problem is that our system of education, while promoting creativity, does not enhance reason.  If it did, Beck wouldn’t be making millions.

P.S. Just as I finished this blog, the latest issue of In These Times arrived, with an excellent article on Beck, Glenn Beck’s American Ark. Among other things, the author, Theo Anderson, notes Beck’s links to the John Birch Society, saying: “Think of witches slavery, Catholics, Jews and blacks. Think of the John Birch Society and godless Communists.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Widening Oceans

If you don’t watch the news on the BBC, you probably didn’t see the stunning picture of thousands of Italian Fiat workers marching with huge red banners billowing in the wind, refusing management’s plan to demand wage cuts in order to invest in modernization. The idea that we could ever see such a show of force by industrial workers in the United States is ludicrous.

We might as well be on another planet from the rest of the world.  Here the talk is of congresspeople toting guns in the hallowed chambers of government; of ‘blood libel’ tossed out over the airwaves without knowing what it refers to; of pistols that can fire thirty rounds without reloading, and threats against left-wing academics such as seventy-eight year old Francis Fox Piven, a recent president of the American Sociological Association, for plotting socialism.

In the current Nation, on newly released tapes, Nixon’s top foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger is quoted as saying:  “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy.  And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” Deadline Poet Calvin Trillin remarks that “He would have fit in well at State in Nineteen hundred thirty-eight.”  Indeed, in The People’s History of the United States, the late Howard Zinn noted that President Franklin Roosevelt had left the fate of German Jews in the hands of the State Department, known for its anti-Semitism. This week, some commentators noted worriedly that Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congress-woman shot a week ago in Arizona, is Jewish, while Israelis argue about the legitimacy of Army conversions, mostly of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, again in Italy, where the Prime Minister finally lost his immunity from prosecution and faces embarrassing charges of cavorting with party girls, the left is circulating a petition to ban the sentence of life in prison, while United States, along with only a few other ‘developed’ nations (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan), have still not banned the death sentence!

China holds the record for executions, with numbers estimated from two to ten thousand. India applies the death sentence ‘only in the rarest of cases’, of which there were 100 in 2007 to our 52, Saudi Arabia’s 69 and Yemen’s ‘at least 30’ according to Wikipedia.

Long overdue, labor lawyer Thomas Geogehen’s new book Were you Born on the Wrong Continent?, that details the superior European social systems (such as the 35 hour work week in France, the six weeks vacation everywhere, comprehensive health care and education for all), is on back order at The Free Press, after an initial printing of 3,000 copies (one for every hundred Americans). No wonder that in this week’s Nation Harry Sloan, a former Washington D.C. Health Commissioner, cites the need for teach-ins on Obama’s timid health reform, which he thinks may be in jeopardy, even if only from the deliberate withholding of funds by the Republican congress.

In Backlash, Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the age of Obama, Will Bunch signals the return of the John Birch Society.  He also notes that Scott Brown, the Tea Party candidate who won Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat defended Joe Stack, who flew his private plane into the IRS building in Austin, killing an employee, as motivated by “the same anger that got him elected”.  In other words, an American terrorist attack is okay, even if there is an innocent victim.

Michelle Bachman, leader of the Tea Party caucus, managed to secure a seat on the House Intelligence Committee. She announced that Americans should be ‘armed and dangerous’ to prevent higher taxes on energy, or an intrusive census, and fears a global currency could take away America’s independence.

As for the increasing number of militias shooting in the woods, some cite a recent candidate for governor who claimed his opponent’s bill to encourage the use of bicycles was part of a U.N. plan to take over the world.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

This is Getting Boring

In the Jan 3rd Common Dreams Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader commiserate with each other: “The Left Has Nowhere to Go”.

Every night on MSNBC Ed Schultz wonders aloud as he pounds the pavement on his way to the studio, what has happened to ‘common sense’.

Really?  Isn’t ‘common sense’ what the Tea Party is touting?  And isn’t ‘the tan man’ Ed Shultz’s personal nemesis (when it isn’t ‘the Beckster’?)

Helloo-oo...? Ever heard of social democracy? Will one of our fearless ‘liberal’ warriors please stand up and tell me why, fifty years after McCarthy, the left is still cutting off its nose to spite its face?

All that hand wringing!  All those laments!  The left is doomed, and the country with it!

Somebody has to come out of the closet and start using the right words: not only a vague ‘revolt’, as Nader says, lamenting the lack of union leadership, but:

1) general strike

2) tax strike

During the Vietnam War, the draftees’ “Hell no, we won’t go” was enough to finally break the war machine, but we don’t have a draft - so we give up.

How about all the progressive magazines out there competing as to who can run the best features on social democracy: the Swedish, the Norwegian, the Dutch, the French, the Italian, the German, the Finnish, etc., etc.  (There’s strength in numbers, right? Let them agree to all do a special issue at the same time and distribute advance copies to the New York Times and the Washington Post - and the one fearless commentator out there, Rachel Maddow.  (Will you tell it like it is, Rachel?)

Let those publications invite Bernie Sanders, Denis Kucinich, and all the members of the Progressive Caucus to come out of the closet - or in the case of Bernie Sanders, way out of the closet - and say loud and clear that the left has a great place to go.  It isn’t enough to mention now and then that other countries do better at health care and education, as if the reasons were elusive.  ‘Liberals’ - whatever that means - have to let the cat out of the bag, reveal the common sense solution that works everywhere else:

1) Only government can make the rich share.Without concentration camps and without nationalizing the entire economy.

2) Some goods such as air, water, electricity, roads, railroads, belong to everybody, and should not be a source of private profit.

Yesterday Denis Kucinich remarked on television that if the health care bill were actually repealed, that would provide a perfect opening for Obama to go forcefully for single payer. The recent court ruling that Obama’s bill was unconstitutional because it forced people to take out insurance from private companies invites the response: if people have to pay into a government program, it will be constitutional.

Personally, I’m beginning to wonder whether all the liberal pundits are falling into the trap they denounce: that of turning politics into a spectacle: tragedy, after all, is the highest form of art.

American fear of government goes way back to the Pilgrims. Our fear of socialism is a mixed bag that’s weighing down common sense.  Let’s get out from under before it’s too late for us to catch up with the rest of the civilized world.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Transformation II

Transformation I (see below)  noted that all rulers tend to go as far as their people will let them in the abuse of power, a notion admirably tagged with the word ‘kleptocracy’ by jared Diamond  in Guns, Germs and Steel.

The follow-up illustrates Chris Hedges’ contention in Death of the Liberal Class that when the needs of the majority are not met by the kleptocracy, and the middle class that stands between it and the majority fails to take its responsibilities, violent change tends to occur. Hedges’ diagnosis is not only illustrated by history, it is born out by the second law of thermo-dynamics, which I have found to be a precious matrix for political analysis.

Energy organizes molecules to do work, creating what physicists call ‘order’. The lack of energy to do work is called entropy, which physi-cists call ‘disorder’. The state of entropy, when nothing can happen, is associated with the notion of equilibrium, and occurs in systems such as automobiles, that do not communicate with their environment, and therefore are ‘closed’ systems, when their supply of energy runs out. By this definition, oligarchical political systems - or kleptocracies - are also closed systems, since they do not respond to inputs from society.

Very differently, open systems are those which communicate with their environment and hence receive a constant flow of energy/information that keeps them in a state ‘far-from-equiibrium’ that avoids entropy. People tend to visualize a stable state as immobile, when in fact to maintain itself, it must oscillate, however slightly. However, any number of factors can cause the flow of energy to increase to the point where oscillations become totally unstable. When an accelerated flow of energy takes the system too far from equilibrium, it eventually reaches a threshold known as a bifurcation point, or tipping point, from which it dissipates and reforms at a new level of organization. (Open systems are also known as ‘dissipative systems’, and it is the process of dissipation that creates life.)

The irreversible, multiple feedback process that leads to the tipping point makes an open system unpredictable: partly depending on the its previous history, if it does not break down, the new level of organization it creates may or may not represent a higher level of order and complexity, and that is why physics is relevant to politics:

According to the biologist Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe there are three possible states that societies - seen as systems - can be in: one of equilibrium, one of near equilibrium - both of these being closed systems - or a far-from-equilibrium, open state that takes energy from outside and will eventually evolve toward a new dynamic regime.

Think of a system in equilibrium as one that corresponds to a totalitarian state: it does not communicate with its environment. An ‘open’ system takes energy from its people, and by constantly counter-balancing these energy flows, maintains itself for a time in the ideal far-from-equilibrium state. In this state, which we call democracy, it can achieve relatively good compromises. Democracy oscillates between oligarchy - rule by a few - and the inefficiency of a multi-party regime. Constant counter-balancing between order and disorder - or what the Russian physicist Prigogyne calls order floating in a sea of disorder -  is what makes it so unsatisfying. Eventually, democracy reaches a tipping point from which something new emerges, possibly a closed system embodied in a totalitarian regime. According to Kauffman, in this kind of system, poor compromises are found quickly (lots of people go to jail). On the other hand, democracy can dissipate into a chaotic regime (anarchy), where no compromises are found (everyone does his/her thing). Warnings of anarchy are brandished by power to discourage change, but in fact, the opposite of democracy is neither anarchy, nor totalitarianism. Embodying the state of constant balancing between two extremes, democracy stands alone as a yin/yang system.

One of the reasons why even at its best democracy doesn’t solve all our problems, is that we can’t accept the idea of life being sustained at the edge of chaos, to be eventually followed by dissipation. Oblivious to the fact that there’s no definitive, final state, in our linear determination to achieve ‘it’, we overrun everything in our path, opting out of the processes of gradual trans-formation followed by other life forms.

To be sure, we continue to take in ordered structures (food), using them as resources for our metabolism. But instead of allowing  waste - a dissipative structure of low order, hence close to entropy - to be recycled into the environment where it will eventually recreate food/energy, we accumulate it in the form of things. The environmental crisis we’re in results from a lack of open system exchange, partly caused by the human tendency to cling to things.

If we wish to save ourselves when the present chaotic climate becomes an accelerated feedback loop rushing us toward disaster, we will have no choice but to abandon most of our things. Only a world tota-litarian regime would be able to enforce such discipline, and stop the world from falling off a cliff. Such a regime is taking shape before our very eyes, but its purpose is to save the planet for the few. Suffice it to evoke the fundamental difference between a tribal circle and an elected government, to realize how decisively we’ve lost our voice in the decision-making process.

Next - Totalitarianism vs Anarchy

Ideas for Transformation - I

A Daily Kos reader of my Chris Hedges article asked me to provide some ideas for transformation. That’s an awesome responsibility, and has to start with a few basic points.  Then I’ll try to provide a new way of thinking about politics.

Put succinctly, I believe that with brief exceptions, ALL RULERS take advantage of the ruled to the fullest extent that they can get away with.  It’s amazing how similar rulers are, no matter what the country or regime. Notwithstanding their differences, they are acutely aware of having in common the fact of being, as Johann Galtung long ago said: “Top  dogs.”  Recently, as populations have soared, and life has become more complicated, it has become become more difficult to rule, resulting in a proliferation of security apparatuses. While much fear of the Soviet Union was based on the fact that it was ‘a police state’, today, not only Russia and China, but the United States has thousands of sites across the land dedicated to security.

In China, as in the United States after World War II, foreign affairs was conducted by the pro-detente foreign ministry. (In the fifties, Joseph McCarthy accused the State Department of ‘losing China’, and recently the  Tea Party has admonished politicians to ‘Man Up’!) Currently, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is mocked as the “ministry for selling out the country”, and some readers sent it calcium pills to “stiffen its spine”. Like America’s mainstream media, China’s commercial media has found that nationalism sells. According to Susan Shirk, an American academic “...readers as well as censors like stories complaining about Japan, Taiwan and America, and the most influential foreign policy journalism appears in the hardline nationalist The Global Times.”

In China, as in the U.S. and Russia, state security has acquired a bigger role in foreign policy, as have mid-level bureaucrats in domestic ministries, more nationalistic than senior foreign-ministry officials.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, when the state’s assets were handed out to eager entrepreneurs, the ‘oligarchs’ became favorite targets of the increa-singly impoverished middle class. The January 13th issue of The New York Review details the treatment meted out to two prominent oil tycoons who, for having favored greater legality in the business world, were seen as political threats and hence became personal enemies of Putin. Their oil company Yukos was taken over by the state and they were convicted to seven years at hard labor. Those sentences were just extended for fourteen years on charges of embezzlement. The story is part of an analysis of the mushrooming Russian security apparatus, and its implications for the rivalry between Putin and Medvedev.

The Economist’s yearbook, The World in 2011 reports that Vladimir Putin portrays the 1990s, “when Russia struggled to embrace economic and political freedoms, as a decade of chaos and disintegration, halted only by his coming to power. Political freedoms achieved in the 1990s, including regional elections, competitive politics and independent (of the Kremlin) television, have eroded.....Russian elections are increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet era, when choice was narrowed to one candidate and one party.” Believe it or not, there is no attempt to hide this consensus at the top. The United Russia party received 92% of the votes in the last election, and both Putin and Medvedev run under its banner. Putin told journalists over a year ago that at some point the two of them would “sit down and decide which run would run in 2012”.

In the United States, lack of education accounts for the public’s failure to realize that the American Democratic and Republican parties are only slight variations on a predominantly centrist theme.. According to a March 12, 2010 article in The New York Times:

“After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Educa-tion....approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economic textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philoso-phies in a more positive light.

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school....There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc claimed expertise on certain topics.”

Education is undergoing a change whose political implications have failed to attract attention. In Britain, the United States, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and perhaps other countries that I may have overlooked, university fees are being raised dramatically. (In China, high school students have trashed canteens to protest the rising cost of school meals.)

What is the reason for this growing tendency to increase the cost of higher education? Might it have something to do with the lack of jobs that await graduates? Raising tuition costs is a disincentive to enrollment, with the long-term result that there will be fewer highly educated people out of work. Why does that matter?  Because the more educated people are, the more able they are to put two and two together.  As Che told me, almost fifty years ago, the leaders of revolutions invariably belong to the middle class.  Will it really matter whether a potential revolutionary has a high school diploma or a BA?  Among other lacks, high school curricula do not include the study of economic systems or ideologies....

Another age-old problem, is trying to solve current problems according to yesterday’s paradigms. While the Chinese, according to The Economist, believe that the West needs them more than it needs us, Henry Kissinger, who engineered the 1972 trip to China by then-President Nixon that reopened relations with the Communist country, warns that ‘bringing China into the global order would be even harder than bringing in Germany a century ago.” (This presumably refers to the punishments meted out after World War I that impoverished the country and led to the rise of Hitler.)

The China that Kissinger talks of “bringing in” to the global order, now has the second largest economy, and is our primary banker.

Governments have the same crank fears, and use the same tools to influence their citizens and keep them in line, hence people everywhere complain of not being heard by rulers. But even as Chinese rulers are made increasingly nervous by millions of citizens venting on the net, the battle over net neutrality in the United States seems destined to favor the powerful.

Each state applies the means that its population will tolerate to crush dissent. In China and Cuba, dissidents are jailed, and when freed, prevented from traveling to receive international prizes. The United States can now legally assassinate American terror suspects without trial, and Julian Assange is detained in loyal Britain on spurious Swedish sex charges with a view to hauling him in front of an American Grand Jury for leaking American secrets to the world.

Individual protests, including hunger strikes, serve to alert the wider world to government abuses in a particular country. By revealing malfeasance and plans by the most powerful nation to take over increa-sing parts of the world, by making public conversations between world actors large and small, Wikileaks reveals to the global community both its ignorance and its impotence in the face of the corporate state. But will it bring change?

Below: Seeing politics in systems terms.