Monday, June 13, 2016

Wall St. vs. Islam

I’ve taken to reading the slimmed down Time, which covers few stories, but at least one in depth. In the May 23rd issue I was impressed with Rana Foroohar’s cover story, ‘Capitalism’.  Perhaps under the influence of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ that made all the best-seller lists, it dispassionately lays out the system’s crimes, revealing in simple language how the world made its way to the disastrous place it’s in today. After noting that fewer than half of American adults call themselves capitalists, or support the capitalist economic system, it lays out the role of Wall Street in the current world economic debacle.
Starting in the 1970’s and accelerating from the nineteen-eighties onwards, banks became more interested in using money to create more money than using it to back businesses, inventing a myriad of ‘financial tools’ to achieve this. “Debt is the life-blood of [this business model], while rising levels of debt and credit levels stoke financial instability”, Foroohar writes. 
In a world economic system in which machines increasingly replace humans and investing is replaced by high-stake games, ever fewer jobs are created. This brings us to the May issue of Harpers, where George Packer writes about “Exporting Jihad” from Tunisia, the former French North African colony where the Arab Spring took off in 2011. The present head of state, Mohamed Ghannouchi, is known to students of Islam as a serious reformist thinker, yet six or seven thousand young Tunisians, male and female, have left to wage Jihad. According to Packer, it’s because “by raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive.…”
Describing the suburban town of Douar Hicher, portrayed in a two-page spread as a desolate place “whose streets are narrow and rutted, with rains cut through the middle”, Packer notes that “educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the country creates so few professional jobs.”  The same frustration that drove secular Tunisian youth into the streets in 2011 is now driving them toward jihad, because in a world economy, economic solutions cannot be found in one country alone (just as communism could not be built in one country isolated from the rest of the world, as was the case of the Soviet Union). But Packer also mentions ‘spiritual emptiness’ as an emotion driving the young, especially women, to jihad. 
’Spiritual emptiness’ is the subject of the French bestseller ‘Submission’ by Michel Houellebeq, who imagines his country electing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as president in order to avoid a far-right win. The novel mainly chronicles the sexual frustrations of a forty-some single academic, resolved when he converts to Islam and can look forward to having three wives. Although his spiritual emptiness is reflected in the subject of his research, a nineteenth-century author who ultimately converts to Catholicism, the inner despair of French society is mentioned only casually. However, a novel in which contemporary political actors are mentioned by name surely mirrors the current zeitgeist…
Back to Tunisia again, its oscillation between secular and moderate Islamic governments is elucidated in the April 7th New York Review of Books. Malise Ruthven’s “Inside Obedient Muslim Minds” is the most far-reaching explanation of the Sunnia/Shia antagonism that I have read. It is known to have started shortly after the Prophet’s death and to center on the dispute between rationality and blind faith, but Ruthven, who is a student of Islam, reveals the facts behind it: Early Muslims attributed their ability to conquer a good part of the ancient world to God’s support, causing those we now call Salafists to believe that devotion to the Prophet’s precepts guarantees success.  (Currently, the theology of conquest, or ‘manifest success’ is illustrated in videos of ISIS fighters charging across the Arab world in their white-pick-ups, arms and banners raised.) 
Very differently, says Ruthven, far from experiencing heady victories, Islam’s Shiite minority, like Jews and Christians, have historically had to adopt to situations of failure, persecution or exile, confirming their belief that God intended men to be rational, thinking creatures, able to cope with misfortune. In 1979, the Shiites of Iran used a socialist-tinged ideology of liberation from Western domination to forge a successful revolution and a religiously-inspired government that has lasted for almost four decades, gradually becoming less radical and reclaiming Persia’s historical role in central Asia. Very differently, the Sunni Arab world’s participation in the Western economic system lead to a gradually worsening situation: finance having abandoned ‘business’, the developing world, like the first world, is increasingly unable to provide jobs, notwithstanding its desperate needs. 
The turn of disaffected Muslim youth unable to enjoy the fruits of the modern world from secularly-oriented demonstrations to jihad brings us back to the lack of inner satisfaction derived from the pursuit of ‘stuff’. An RT documentary recently quoted a Tunisian youth saying “Now that we can have a few things, we want it all”.
The ‘pursuit of happiness’ immortalized by the authors of the American declaration of Independence gradually led to what President Vladimir Putin calls the degeneracy of western culture. While twentieth century Middle Eastern rulers such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi or Hafez al-Assad modernized their countries, there as well as in the west, technological conquests ultimately led to a hollowing out of inner life, recognized most dramatically by Salafists. And the seemingly incomprehensible hesitancy of many lesser educated Americans between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is part of the same phenomenon that causes European working class voters to desert the Communist Party for the National Front. 
Under the label of ‘post-modernism’, the far-right not only condemns sexual liberation in favor of traditional family values, it favors ‘nativism’ (an extreme form of nationalism which only recognizes the ‘native-born’ American, French or German).  The rise of nativist groups across Europe is related to the influx of Muslim refugees fleeing the financialization of their societies promulgated by Wall Street (with help from the IMF, the World Bank and Brussels) via ‘reforms’ that dismantle a century of working-class social achievements, as is the case presently in France. When bankers are not lending money to entrepreneurs, business seeks savings in longer working hours, lower pay and easy firings.

In a little noted irony, Europe and the Third World it previously failed to support, are experiencing the same cruel paradox: instead of flourishing, both have evolved into undemocratic vehicles for the expansion of international capital paid for by an increasingly desolate people.

Europe: A Peninsula Twixt Spheres of Influence and Phony Wars

Europe is the birthplace of most of the ideas that gave Western Civilization its edge over the rest of the world, yet geographically it is a peninsula of Eurasia, and Africa’s backyard. Dribbling away to the West of the earth’s largest landmass, at its most extensive from North to South it is only equal to one third the area of Eurasia, and Mare Nostrum makes clear that another immense continent is only a boat ride away. Add the fact that forty or so nationalities are crammed into a space less than one tenth that of Eurasia, and it’s easy to see why Europe has been the scene of endless internecine squabbles and major wars.
Catholic and Protestant Europeans fought each other for a hundred and fifty years, from 1524 to 1648. But the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, while seeming huge at the time, pales in comparison to that between Christianity and Islam today. The religions of the book as they are  called (the third being Judaism), acknowledge several of the same major figures (such as Abraham and Jesus), but that matters not a whit when compared to the cultural abyss between the me revolution and underdevelopment.
Stepping back a moment, the lead-up to World War II was known as the ‘phony war’: Military alliances required the United Kingdom and France to defend Poland from a German invasion, but they did nothing until they were attacked eight months later. After the war, Europe was divided into Soviet and American ‘spheres of influence’. Coca Cola and jazz were thrust into the wine and beer drinking lands of Beethoven and Debussy, distracting their people from the fact that the US was provoking coups and revolutions in the Islamic world. 
In he fifties, when Europe decided to unite to prevent further wars, the US directed the process to make certain it remained hostile to the Soviet Union. Although it was never in the cards, in another, decades-long phony war, Washington claimed that without its protection, Soviet tanks would roll across Europe to the Atlantic. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, Eastern Europe was integrated into the Western-oriented European Union, and the US moved the North Atlantic Treaty alliance’s military arm, NATO, right up to Russia’s frontiers, ignoring its promise to Gorbatchev that this would not happen. 
Today, NATO tanks roll from their base in Germany across Eastern Europe into the formerly Soviet Baltic states, which Washington claims Russia wants back, yet Europe is again accused of shirking its frontline role in Washington’s standoff with Russia. A midsize political commentator, Mark Halperin claimed recently in the Wall St. Journal that ’The Candidates Ignore Rising Military Dangers’
American politicians have become fit for the fall of Rome… Russia, China and Iran have been racing ahead, stimulated by a disintegrating Europe that neither spends sufficiently on its defense, nor defends its borders… The US has allowed its nuclear forces to stagnate and decay into literal disarmament. 
This third phony war is part of a plan published by Zbignieuw Brzezinski in 1997 under the title The Grand Chessboard, to divide Russia into smaller, easier to control entities. As a first step toward that goal, in 2009 an obedient Europe tried to draw former Soviet republics away from Russia through an “Eastern Partnership.” That having failed, in 2014, the US spent five billion dollars, as Victoria Nuland bragged to a Washington audience, on a ‘popular’ coup against Ukraine’s president, backed by militias faithful to World War II fascists. 
Fascist militias are just about the only thing the Ukraine has in common with today’s Europe. Thanks to decades of deliberate labor policies, 10% of the French and German populations are now Muslims and they have responded differently to assimilation strategies. While native-born Germans torch new refugees shelters, many of France’s second generation Muslims, feeling like strangers in both worlds, leave to join ISIS, while security services worry about ISIS members pretending to be refugees. 
 In this latest phony war, as Russia’s air force rightly buzzes the US fleet just outside its Baltic waters, Europe must recover its independence before it becomes Eurasia’s Atlantis.

Europe Twixt Nationalism and Unity

Recently, Austria almost beat France for the doubtful honor of being the first European country since World War II to elect a far-right president. A last-minute postal ballot count saved the day. 
For decades France’s National Front was in the spotlight, while Austria continued in the shadows where it had spent the Cold War years. The only time it made the news was when Kurt Waldheim, a former UN Secretary general, was accused of condoning Nazi war crimes, before becoming the country’s president. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the former Eastern European Soviet satellites become part of Europe for what was really the first time since Charlemagne, Austria was a sort of no-man’s land between East and West: a small, neutral country in Europe’s heart of stone.  Although it became part of the Third Reich under the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler, it has always refused to examine its role in the Holocaust, to pay compensation to Nazi victims, or investigate senior Nazis. 
Perhaps its Alpine location in the heart of the European peninsula played a part in all of this. The seat of the Habsburg monarchy that held sway in Europe from 1291, in 1918 Austria became a small enclave surrounded on all sides by larger geo-political entities. At one time or another, almost every country in Europe had come under its rule, but its subjects were often restless. The mid-nineteenth century saw the birth of European nationalism, called the Spring of Peoples, as Austrians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs and Italians, struggled in vain to become independent. (Italy was unified in 1870, followed by the German states, including Austria, in 1871.) World War I erupted in 1914 when the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a member of a Serbian secret society trying to unify Europe’s southern Slavs (something briefly achieved with the creation of Yugoslavia that lasted until the US sponsored a revolt in the province of Kosovo). With hindsight, it’s easy to see a European zeitgeist that survives to this day: nationalism versus cooperation.
World War II brought the United States to the rescue of the old continent for the second time in a generation, this time, with the decisive help of the Soviet Union. Reporting on the war, the American press emphasized the suffering of the Soviet people, while ignoring or downplaying Soviet military achievements. To support its war interests without being overextended militarily, the US created the Lend Lease Program that transferred arms and other defense materials without charge to Britain, China, the Soviet Union and other countries fighting on its side. 
Linked to the participation of hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground and in the air, Lend Lease permitted the United States to sustain the impression that it was the main force in play against Nazi Germany. Americans were taught that without American intervention, Hitler would have won the war. And once President Truman set the Cold War in motion, the 26 million Soviet dead were never revealed to the American people. 
Riding high on a carefully constructed fairytale, postwar America oversaw the future of the old continent down to its smallest details, while portraying its former ally, now literally on its knees, as increasingly threatening. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended as much as a warning to the Soviet Union as it was to force Japan’s unconditional surrender. In reality, the war had been a temporary detour against Hitler’s excesses on behalf of capitalism from a much more fundamental campaign against communism, that encompassed any ideology to the left of center. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘witch hunt’ against ‘reds’ and even ‘pinkos’, took many lives, and set the United States on a path it has still not abandoned: that which replaces the notion of solidarity, anchored in every religion, with the condemnation of ‘handouts’  to people too lazy to work.
This notion was at the root of US policy toward post World War II Europe, based on close supervision of Christian Democratic parties. (Referring to Eurocommunism, an attempt by Western European Communist parties, led by Italy, to create ‘Socialism with a human face’, the PS to a memo that landed on my desk in the Carter State Department read: “To think we used to run this place…” 
Still, nothing could dampen Europe’s determination to end for all time war on the continent through cooperation. Step by step starting in the fifties, the European Union came into being in 1993. Alas, along the way, those campaigning for a true federal state were defeated: the introduction of the Euro in 1999 sealed the economic fate of a Union that had a weighty bureaucracy but no political arm. Only a dozen years later, a combination of austerity imposed by the Wall Street controlled World Bank and IMF, combined with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and Africa, threatens to tear the entire edifice apart. though it may appear to be bad luck, it is part of a plan to achieve ‘globalization’: the supremacy of business over governments that would replace the struggle between cooperation and nationalism with a global dictatorship.


Europe Backtracking

It’s hard to believe that in 2016, part of the world is looking so much like it did seventy years ago - and  yet so different. US-led NATO troops are sitting on Europe’s closest border with Russia: the one with Ukraine, where, during the second world war, German troops began their invasion of the Soviet Union, aided by Ukrainian nationalists seeking independence. In 2014, the grandchildren of those nationalists helped overthrow the elected president of Ukraine, and are part of the government the US shepherded to power, with Neo-con Victoria Nuland playing the role of Deus ex-macchina from her desk in the State Department and on Maidan Square.
There is little chance that the Ukraine will soon join NATO, however, its far-right Ukrainian nationalists are a stark inspiration for far-right groups across Europe, as they gain power and influence in the wake of an unprecedented flood of mainly Muslim refugees. They can teach Europe a thing or two about violence, pushing it back toward the same fascism it defeated in 1945.  The numbers are cause for alarm:
The Austrian Freedom Party almost won this year’s presidential election. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party leader, Frauke Petry tweeted it could be "a foretaste of positive change in Europe.” Although her party still polls in the twenties, she recently made headlines for saying police should have the power to shoot migrants and refugees trying to enter the country. 
In Italy, where the Prime Minister’s party got 34% and Five Star came in at 27%, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia got 11%, Fratelli d’Italia 5%, and most significantly, the Northern League came back from the dead with 17%, thanks to “those who would like to stop the spread of a progressive and cosmopolitan worldview; who feel uncomfortable with multi-ethnicity and living with foreigners, as well as homosexual unions.”
The Northern League is close to France’s National Front, which is the third strongest party in France, and could win 28% in next year’s presidential election. Together, Europe’s far-right European parties formed a new group in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedom. Its 38 MEPs include the Dutch Freedom Party and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and see the refugee crisis and related security concerns as an opportunity to move from the political fringe to real power.
This brings us to Turkey, which in addition to supporting ISIS, has been cast in a dangerous role in Europe.
Most Western Europeans are oblivious of a fact that has long haunted Eastern Europe: centuries-long Turkish domination. The Ottoman Empire’s onslaught was halted at the Battle of Mohacs back in 1687, and the Hungarians still claim they saved the West incarnated at the time by Habsburg Austria. Current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s defiant stand against Muslim refugees can be partly attributed to that history - even if that doesn’t make it acceptable in a multi-cultural 21st century. In the mid-19th century, the Crimean war pitted the Turks against the Russians and Europeans.  During World War I, Turkey sided with the Kaiser’s Germany, and in World War II, it sided with Hitler.
In a pattern that would become standard for Washington, of enlisting right-wing governments in the fight against Communist Russia, Turkey was brought into NATO, partly to counter Greece’s left-wing partisans and partly as the ‘bulwark of Europe’s southern flank’, due to its proximity to the Soviet Union. At the time, Europeans (i.e., Western  Europeans, a label that would stand for Europe as a whole until the fall of the Berlin Wall), paid little attention to what went on beyond the Elbe, other than to vaguely lament an enduring Greek-Turkish standoff that resulted in the 1970’s division of Cyprus between the two countries.)
Currently, Turkey and Russia are again at odds over the war in Syria, but it’s Turkey’s role in Europe that is most threatening. While Russia, to defend Assad, could wipe Turkey off the map, Europe has put itself at Turkey’s mercy with hardly a backward glance at history.
Having held a secular Turkey at bay for decades in its request to join the European Union, now Europe needs a re-Islamized Turkey’s help to avoid absorbing many more Muslims than those represented by that country’s population. And Turkey is taking full advantage of a disaster that the EU helped bring upon itself by going along with US-led actions in the Muslim world.  In return for a hefty financial package and visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens, Turkey will process Syrian refugees and send them on to Europe under safe conditions, while Europe will send refugees who arrive illegally on its shores back to Turkish camps to be processed, and for most, deported back to their home countries.
As if the refugee crisis were not dire enough in itself, it has catalyzed a new and dangerous political situation. Washington is systematically using austerity to eliminate the European welfare state as an intolerable impediment to the 1%’s program of globalization. Laws being debated in the French parliament would turn the labor clock back to the nineteen-thirties, when the Popular Front government first dropped the work week from 48 to 40 hours. In the 1990’s, a socialist government brought forty down to thirty-five, in an attempt to combat unemployment, and no one believes the world has changed so drastically that combatting unemployment now requires increasing the work week. Adding insult to injury, the law would lower the overtime rate from 25% to 10%. 
What started as a laid-back occupy-type movement, ‘Up all Night’, complete with mic checks and hands wagging approval or disapproval, has spread from Paris to a hundred other cities in France, as well as to Belgium, gradually turning violent. On a continent with a long history of protest (the French Revolution didn’t just erupt out of thin air), anti-worker legislation cannot be expected to pass quietly. The latest labor move in France has been to stop refining gasoline, a move that could paralyze the country. 
As ISIS threatens Europe with a reply of its sixteenth century Europe’s religious wars, this time emanating from the South, the North is already turning its clock back a hundred years to the struggle between socialism and capitalism. Combined with the refugee crisis, rolling  back the welfare state could either bring Europe to a 21st century version of the French Revolution, or back to the nineteen thirties that ushered in World War II.

As Europe literally disintegrates, allowing everything that made it the envy of the world to be destroyed by a greedy ‘ally’, the question is: who will lead humanity into the twenty-second century? Washington is now trying to prevent the BRICS from doing so, declaring itself in favor of Brazil’s leftist President being impeached. With Cuba once again under US control, this could be the first step in a plan to formally unite the US with Canada and a neo-liberal Latin America to vie with the BRICS’ Eurasian project.

The World-as-System, Riding the Tiger

The world as system is the subject of much study. Among early theoreticians, Richard Falk, now the UN Rapporteur for Palestine, headed the World Order Models program at Princeton in the seventies, and Emanuel Wallerstein, who runs the Braudel Institute in New York, was probably the first to coin the notions ‘center’ and periphery’.  Unfortunately, America’s prima donna of world affairs analysis, Zbig Brzezinski, took as his model the work of an early twentieth century British historian, Sir Halford Mackinder, who focused on the Eurasian continent as the world’s key landmass, which he referred to as the World Island. Paraphrasing what I wrote on January 2, 2016

Mackinder foresaw that ‘Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland and who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island’. The location of Ukraine, bordering on Poland, Bela Rus, Slovakia and Romania clearly marks it as the final lap of the invasion route from Eastern Europe to Russia, hence its strategic importance, aside from its minerals and black earth farmland, to the World Island theory. It inspired the Neo-cons to detach Ukraine from Russia by getting the EU to back the deposition of the democratically pro-Russian President in 2014.”  

Mackinder’s theory reflects the twentieth-century worldview according to which power rests with a white, mainly Christian center, to be exercised over a darker, tribal or Muslim periphery. Reprised by Zbig a century later, it remains a colonial theory, the only relevant difference being that a neo-liberal America rather than Europe, was now in charge.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia took the initiative of organizing the main world island players into an economic organization, known by the first letters of its members names: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, or BRICS (Africa being separated from the Eurasian landmass only by the closed Mediterranean Sea.…)

By the time the US, caught up in its self-congratulatory role of lone superpower, realized that the two countries it had identified as future antagonists, Russia and China, had teamed up with three other significant players on the world stage, it could only try to counter the weight of these giants by corralling its partners in Europe and Asia into highly unfavorable trade deals, the TTIP and TPP. The reluctance of these ‘allies’ to sign on the dotted line has left Washington riding the tiger of financialization, hoping to be able to dismount before the world plunges into a worse economic disaster than in 2008.

The May issue of Harpers carries a story that better than numbers and theories illustrates what financialization means. It is titled ‘The Long Rescue’, and in it, Sonia Faleiro tells of a lower caste Indian whose children are kidnapped and taken to Nepal to work 12 hours a day in brick kilns. In “the local government-run school, children of different ages are forced to recite the Hindi alphabet by rote”, causing the older ones to abandon their education and take any menial job offered. Government entities, including the police, do not even try to punish child abductors and ‘employers’.

Financialization’ is about the 1% using money to make more money rather than underwriting industry and services. India is a technological powerhouse involved in that activity, its elites buy designer clothes and travel the world, but they have no interest in preventing child slavery. Its downtrodden have been revolting for decades, even if they do not make the western headlines, and the 2014 election of a Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi as Prime Minister was probably intended to ease that formerly left-leaning country’s turn toward the United States. This, combined with the impeachment of Brazil’s Workers Party President Dilma Roussef, backed by Washington, signals a determination to break up the BRICS as an organization that threatens US hegemony.  
This year will be crucial to determining whether the world economy will return to creating wealth for increasing numbers of the earth’s people, or continue to self-destruct.

US Election: Ignorance in Charge

 Republican despair over the fact that Donald Trump has managed to become, for all intents and purposes, the Republican nominee for President, shows one striking thing: for one man, one vote, to ensure enlightened governance, democracy has to be backed up by a very high quality compulsory education system.
Donald Trump won more primary votes than any other American candidate ever, forcing the Republican establishment to anoint him as their candidate, against their better judgement. But if you are going to limit voter education to television reality shows and video games, you should not be surprised if anger over government failings leads a lot of ordinary people to vote for the candidate who encourages them to have a gun. Donald Trump didn’t become a billionaire by being a couch-potato or toting a gun, but his message is clearly designed to appeal to such voters.
That message is the equivalent of Hitler’s appeal to disenchanted 1920’s and thirties German voters, who longed for past glory, and it’s a stinging indictment of a century of compulsory eduction. Television is a wonderful means of mind control, and when its appeal began to fade, video games and smart-phones came along to pick up the slack. Technology opens up a world of unlimited information if one cares to look for it, but obsessive use of computers and its offshoots leaves little time for independent thinking, which requires a silent environment without too much visual stimulus.
In mid-nineteenth century America, education was seen as the key to democracy: voters needed to master the three r’s (reading, writing and arithmetic, sic!) to make meaningful decisions in the voting booth on issues facing the country.  But at some point, the decision to invest in advertising in order to sell more stuff, rather than in schools, meant that more money was invested in ‘fun’ than in knowledge, filling the coffers of manufacturers while emptying minds. Most progressive analysis since the end of World War II has focused on the ever-growing role of publicity in consumer choices.  But advertising also plays a crucial role in the willingness of voters to pay attention to what goes on beyond their neighborhood or town - not to mention their ability to do so meaningfully.
The American population can be divided into two main groups: an overwhelming majority that hardly knows there is a world beyond our borders, and a very small minority - probably no more than 10% - that pays attention to international developments.  

That is why a year-long presidential campaign - longer than those of any other country, by far - holds Americans spell-bound, to the exclusion of wars or natural disasters occurring elsewhere. And when someone like Donald Trump comes along bragging about his commercial - not academic, scientific, artistic or spiritual - accomplishments, large numbers of voters, especially men who have seen their dreams of success (those promised by television ads) fade away, leaving as only recourse access to a gun with which potentially to alter reality, literally rise up, as we have seen at countless rallies, giving him the primary votes needed to become the candidate of a Republican Party whose 2012 candidate was the milk-toast Mitt Romney.