Sunday, November 25, 2012

Austerity in Uniform

When discourse about the rising/risen US police state, about drones, extra-judicial killings, the infinite war on terror, and the general erosion of civil liberties is connected to the economics of austerity, it is usually done in a purely budgetary way. The basic argument: we don't need austerity if we just cut back on military spending. Why cut medicaid and social security when we could end bureaucratic redundancy by folding the Air Force into the Navy? Or, more dramatically, why not cut our military spending in half? We'd still be spending three times as much as China, our next biggest rival, and four times as much as Russia. We could still kick their ass in the sort of war that hasn't been fought since World War II, but which such spending justifies, and divert that money toward real domestic concerns. Similarly, the UK and France can't possibly need to spend more than $50 billion dollars yearly on military power when they face such dramatic domestic cuts. But the connection between austerity and absurd military power is much more strategic, part of a generalized governing paradigm that is perfectly logical.

Austerity makes countries poorer. The last four years, especially in Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal have demonstrated this without a doubt. And, despite all the earnest pleas of Paul Krugman, political leaders don't just need to have the economics of the process explained to them to see the light. They want austerity ideologically (taxes staunch growth: neo-liberalism 101) and their supporters, who, in the US just spent $1billion on Obama alone, don't want to lose a penny to the crisis they created.

Austerity does, in fact, further enrich the top of the economic hierarchy, at least in the short term. It replaces tax raises and other redistributive programs with cash from the bottom (and middle) of society. Austerity is a technique for reverse Robin Hooding: cutting programs for the poor means they have to spend their own money to get services they require, so not only are the rich protected from economically punitive government (taxes, labor regulation), they also see poor people forced into their markets as consumers (privatization), a sort of double-dip bonus from their pals in DC, Brussels and Downing Street.

Old news, all, and we know in the long term it doesn't in fact enrich a country. Eventually, as in Greece, the government more or less runs out of assets to privatize, while the entire tax base collapses, and general impoverishment becomes the rule. It's Klein's Shock Doctrine applied in Europe. But what happens when a population is immiserated?

The end game of all this military/police spending and the death of civil liberties, why it's important for a president to be able to murder a sucker anywhere in the world at personal fiat, why we need drones and total electronic surveillance and a military trained in stale-mating (if not defeating) guerrilla uprisings becomes clear.

Poor people revolt.

The internal threat of revolution has always been the greatest threat to nations, and from the Patriot Act on, counter-terrorism laws have increased the power of the FBI, CIA and police forces in all their domestic operations. Civil libertarians have bemoaned the fact that these laws can't only target terrorists, that they will have chilling effects on free speech and could put 'innocent' (ie: non-terrorist) Americans at risk. But these consequences have hardly been unforeseen: they have always been half the point.

The last decade has seen a clear governmental calculus triumphant throughout the world. With government spending and intervention, and a defunding of the military/police state, the social services that 'must be cut' could easily be saved. Of course, to actually 'rebuild the middle class' wouldn't require only government spending, but also an across-the-board increase in wages, which have gone down under the last thirty years of union busting, off-shoring and precarity. Instead of giving up the money that would require, the owners are doubling down, and gambling on the increased capabilities of the government to stop one very likely outcome of austerity policies: open revolt.

A neo-liberal government is one that, in its purest form, never interferes in the internal functioning of the 'perfect' market, but enforces, through security apparatuses, the participation of the population in said market. The final act of neo-liberal government, then, is open war between the rich (increasingly indistinguishable from the state) and a population struggling to be free from all these 'free markets'.

In practicing extra-judicial killing, indefinite detention and total surveillance the government is getting ready for the big fight (if it should come), the fight that would, unlike terrorism, actually provide an 'existential threat' to the American state. They may be killing 'militants' in Pakistan today, but they're always also getting ready to kill 'militants' at home.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Spectacular Power

Last week, during Operation Kill A Bunch of Palestinians To Crush Their Resilience and Gain Political Capital Pillar of Clouds, a bunch of attention was paid to the fact that the IDF basically declared war via Twitter, and was soon met by opposing tweets from Hamas' Al Qassam Brigades. In all the analysis, I didn't see anyone mention that this "Twitter war" occurred entirely in English: that the conversation was not between Hamas and the IDF, but rather them and their respective global audiences, but no matter. The point is, both the IDF and Hamas used Twitter as a platform to project their power: it became a field of actual political contention.

Now, as the Walmart Black Friday protests are here, Walmart is turning to Twitter to display their power. And while these tweets will not be seen by nearly as many people, they are a much more effective deployment of spectacular power then the IDF's sputtering. First of all, the official Walmart twitter accounts say nothing about the 1000s of actions happening around the country. Instead they're tweeting things like this, which was sent out just before midnight:

The image is vertiginous, people and signs stretching all the way to the horizon, the foregrounded black shoppers, the harsh, bright glare that obliterates the night we know is beyond it, a night referenced in the text but completely invisible within the image it describes, the easy mix of chaos and orderliness. How could a bunch of striking workers ever fight that?

And what of those workers? Despite the hypocritical shout-out to "associates", the very people who hope to ruin Walmart's Black Friday because of how it has made them invisible are not pictured here, they are, once again, invisible. This tweet, this image is made to crush their struggle, to make their victory seem impossible, to make Walmart's power seem as endless as their store.

If you can, go out today and act in solidarity with the people this picture and its makers would like to eliminate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Morning After

Dear Obama Voters,

Are you still feeling euphoric? Joyous? I can understand that. Your guy won. Your team. Can I ask you to do something? I want you to remember this afterglow, to remember how you feel this morning as best you can for the next four years. And I also want you to remember how utterly important it was to you that Obama win, how seriously you argued, with friends and with yourself, that this was the right, the only thing to do. And to remember that you've done it.


Now, I want you to remember something else--someone else, actually. I want you to remember yourself on election night in 2008. I remember the euphoria of that night well. Although I never campaigned for Obama or had high hopes for him, I voted for him. (My horse in that race was John Edwards--he actually talked about poor people!--and what a horse he turned out to be). Still, that night, after it was clear we had elected a black president, I went out, like so many, and I danced. I danced all night.

Do you remember yourself then? Probably you do. If someone had asked that person (you circa November 2008): "Would you vote for a candidate who would deport a record number of immigrants, smash social movements and government whistle-blowers, stall or shut down international global climate change talks, prosecute neither torturers nor bankers, end habeas corpus with indefinite detention, bail out the banks but not the homeowners, assassinate US citizens at executive fiat, increase domestic oil drilling and fracking, continue war in Afghanistan, start wars in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan, and fail to close Guantanamo Bay?" You would have probably responded: "That's exactly what I'm voting against!" At least, I would have.

Many of these issues were opposed on the 2008 Democratic Party platform, so perhaps we could be forgiven for voting Obama, even if we were being naive. But to vote for him in 2012 is to vote for all these things, and more: in the next four years, we will see an expansion of free trade via the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a cornerstone of future Obama legislation which will more or less give international corporations sovereignty over the US government, a $4 trillion cut to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid via his Deficit Reduction Committee, and who knows what else.

Have you really changed so much in the last four years? Are your beliefs so easily turned on their head?

In the coming years, as you watch Obama double down on austerity, spread global violence and further foreclose civil liberties you will probably tell yourself that Romney would have been worse. And maybe you'll be right.

But that's why I'm most interested in one thing: your euphoria from last night, your feeling of accomplishment, your sense of duty, citizenship, of being part of something important. Because, although your vote didn't matter, that feeling does. You are not responsible for everything Obama does, or anything he does, really, but you have affirmed it, and, not only that, you've felt deep, abounding joy for his ability to continue doing it.

Where does this joy come from? From the exuberant sense that his victory is an incredibly important political outcome, and that you participated in it. That good feeling, that feeling of contributing, of winning? It's not false consciousness, it's the most important thing you will receive for voting yesterday. (And if you lived in a non-swing state, you knew before hand that it would be all you would receive.)

In exchange for a ballot, you received a tiny shred of Obama's freedom, a tiny piece of his power. That is what you get for your vote, not the policies you desire, not a say in the way the country is governed, but rather a single share in winning, one stock in the power of the most powerful nation on Earth. That is the 'empowerment' of voting. You voted for him, and no one can take that away, and you won.

This joy of victory is the thing in you that will always agree to his most abhorrent actions. It is the part of you that directly identifies with his power, that most craves to be led. It is also a mere shadow of the joy of real freedom, real liberatory struggle, real power, but that shadow is the only socially legitimated route to freedom's joys most Americans will ever be allowed to take.

You may not be responsible, but you are complicit. No matter how loudly you disavow specific actions, until you stop getting joy and pleasure from electing these people, you will always be the legitimacy behind their violence.

I don't care that you voted. But if you liked it? Well...

Who Was Here

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the Eve of Your Voting

"Did anarchist [election] abstentionism ever, in the slightest degree, affect the course of events? There was one occasion when it was tested simply because it was one of the rare times and places when anarchism really influenced a mass movement. And the irony was that the effectiveness of abstentionism was demonstrated only when it was abandoned.

In Spain, in the 1930s, there were two huge trade union federations. On one side was the socialist UGT and on the other the syndicalist CNT, strongly influenced by the anarchist federation FAI. The membership of both these bodies was vast. (By the time they agreed on joint action each could claim, according to whose estimates you read, between a million and one and a half million members.) After the dictator Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930, his supporter the King abdicated in 1931, but the new socialist-republican government continued the repression of the revolutionary left. In the elections of 1933 the CNT used the slogan Frente a las urnas, la revolucion social (the alternative to the polling booth is the social revolution). The triumph of the right was attributed to the mass abstention of the workers, and the usual sporadic confrontations followed.

Then came another chance to vote in the February elections of 1936. Very quietly, the CNT leadership tacitly abandoned the position it had held since 1911, that elections were a fraud and that “workers and peasants should seize the factories and the land to produce for all. They and their members voted for the Popular Front (a kind of joint Alliance and Labour tactical voting). Our most revered chronicler of the events of 1936, Gerald Brenan in his Spanish Labyrinth, explained that the electoral victory of the Popular Front ‘can to a great extent be put down to the anarchist vote’. And certainly a deal behind the scenes ensured that many thousands of political prisoners would be released. Brenan says that ‘in many places the prisons had already been opened without the local authorities daring to oppose it’.

But the triumph of electoral common sense over the convictions of a lifetime had many consequences in Spain that no one had anticipated. The Spanish workers were ready to take on the political right, but the politicians of the left were not. The army was poised to seize power, but the government was not willing to resist. In his book Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, Vernon Richards raised a forbidden question: did the CNT leadership take into account that by ensuring the electoral victory of the left it was also ensuring that the generals of the right would stage a military putsch which the respectable left politicians would not restrain? ‘On the other hand a victory of the right, which was almost certain if the CNT abstained, would mean the end of the military conspiracy and the corning to power of a reactionary but ineffectual government which, like its predecessors, would hold out for not more than a year or two. There is no real evidence to show that there was any significant development of a fascist movement in Spain along the lines of the regimes in Italy and Germany.’

In fact, Spain had three different Popular Front governments on 18 and 19 July 1936, each of which was anxious to cave in to the insurgent generals. It was only the popular rising ( on traditional anarchist lines) and the seizure by workers and peasants, not just of arms and military installations, but of land, factories and railways, that ensured that there was any resistance at all to the generals. These are ordinary facts, totally contrary to what Orwell used to call the News Chronicle / New Statesman version of what happened in Spain. The Spanish revolution of 1936 was forced upon the working class by the election of the Popular Front and its capitulation to the insurgent generals. It was subsequently eliminated in the name of national unity in combating the right, which by then had won international backing. Having participated in the elections the next step was participation in government by the CNT/FAI leadership. This led to the permanent destruction of their own movement and the suppression of the popular revolution, and was followed by 40 years of fascist dictatorship.

And all this because of the decision to abandon the tradition of non-voting. If history has any lessons for the conscientious abstentionists it is that every time they get lured out of their self-imposed political isolation into participation in the electoral lottery, they make fools of themselves.

From The Case Against Voting, by Colin Ward