Monday, December 22, 2014

Political violence in the post-Ferguson era

After the murder of two New York police officers assassination-style, the usual suspects treated it as another chapter in the "culture war."

Nancy LeTourneau provides several examples in Flame Throwers and Fire Fighters Political Animal, including Rudy Giuliani and NYPD Union Chief Patrick Lynch.

The Giuliani quote to which she refers continues with the authoritarian, white supremacist stance he has struck lately (Igor Volsky, Rudy Giuliani: 2 NYC Cops Were Killed Because Obama Told Everyone To ‘Hate The Police’ Think Progress 12/21/2014):

“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said during an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

Giuliani then argued that most of the city’s violence is centered in the black community through so-called “black against black” crime and heralded the police for keeping African Americans safe. “Actually, the people who do the most for the black community in America are the police,” he explained.
LeTourneau contrasts the flame throwers like Giuliani to the "fire fighters" like President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, who condemned the killings without reservation and sought to discourage further violence.

But there is a notable asymmetry between the two positions. The "flame throwers" are encouraging the kind of reaction described by Masoninblue in It’s Just a Shot Away Firedoglake 12/21/2014:

Yesterday’s murders by ambush may freak out many cops who, if not already, will become paranoid hyper vigilant drones with automatic trigger responses.

The ambush was a tragic but predictable and inevitable push-back to the epidemic of murders committed by our militarized police who will in turn increasingly react like a besieged occupation army. The only certainty is an escalating death rate for citizens and police.

White supremacists are seeking to present peaceful protest as a murderous threat to police, surely knowing it will encourage and legitimize the kind of police violence that Masoninblue describes.

When it comes to the murder of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who committed suicide afterward, was it an act of political violence?

Apparently so. But here is where the radically contrasting approaches the press takes to murders of police compared to murders of young black men by police. And also how they treat acts of terrorism.

The press with astonishing consistency treats even blatantly political acts by white rightwing terrorists as deeds committed by the proverbial "lone nut." Brinsley apparently has a history of being in trouble with the law, shot his girlfriend before killing the cops and then killed himself. If this were a white militia guy, the standard "lone nut" narrative would have likely swung into usage right away.

As we see from the statements by Giuliani and the other "flame throwers," they are willing not only to treat this as a political assassination but as one instigated by the President of the United States.

But however great or small a role rational calculation may have played in Brinsley's attack, it still serves as a good example of why political assassination is virtually always counterproductive as a political act.

Obviously to anyone who has paid any attention to the anti-police violence protests knows, they are demanding that the police do their jobs by enforcing the law against rogue cops who murder people for no good reason and by doing their duty to protect the citizens they serve instead of acting like an army of occupation that have to put "force protection" first at all times - including when they are dealing with a child with a toy gun. They are also demanding that police address the painfully obvious white racism that results in disproportionate violence against black citizens, including children.

Anyone who considers those demands to be "anti-police" is not a supporter of the rule of law and certainly has no business being on a police force.

We've seen that when a white cop murders a black man or boy, police are eager to make public any aspects of the dead person's life that make them look threatening. So far, the NYPD doesn't seem to be eager to make the murder victims Liu and Ramos look sinister. Instead, they have seemingly every public figure in the country praising them to the high heavens.

This report by the New York Daily News goes out of its way to link Brinsley's action to the Sixties, which appeals to rightwingers who seem perpetually stuck in 1969 (BY Tina Moore and Bill Hutchinson, Police believe New York City cop killer was a member of the Black Guerrilla Family: sources 12/2ß/2014):

The cold-blooded cop-hater who gunned down two police officers in Brooklyn on Saturday is suspected of being a member of a notorious prison gang that has declared open season on the NYPD.

Detectives were headed to Baltimore on Saturday night to probe Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s ties to the Black Guerrilla Family, sources told the Daily News.

One source said Baltimore police were already investigating Brinsley’s connection to the gang, which started in California’s San Quentin Prison in the 1960s by Black Panther member George Jackson.
As we've seen with the police leaks in the Michael Brown murder, it's worth taking a careful and critical view of such anonymous leaks. Especially when they fit so nicely into the rightwing "culture war" frame.

Chauncey DeVega offers this harsh judgment on the public dialogue on the Liu-Ramos case (The Lives of the Two Police Killed in Brooklyn on Saturday are No More Valuable Than That of Eric Garner WARN 12/21/2014):

Contemporary America is a society that is sick with torture, white victimology, gross wealth inequality, and other illnesses that together have created a culture of delusions and lies. Plain spoken truths by people of conscience are a partial antidote.

I will attempt to offer one here: the lives of the police are no more valuable than those of Eric Garner or any other human being.

Human rights trump the "unique", particular, and somehow imagined as "special" lives of the police. We are all human beings with universal rights. The public good will be much better served when the police as a social institution (many of whose members feel empowered to violate the rights of non-whites, the poor, the mentally ill, and those others who society has marginalized) internalize and act upon such a basic and foundational principle. [emphasis in original]

Reminder of regime changes past

It really is remarkable how confident American policymakers still are about the American ability to stage "regime change" operations, despite their actual record. John Prados' Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (2006) describes how bumbling many of them have been and how even the two postwar regime-change operations considered big successes at the time - in Iran and Guatemala - were successful in large part through dumb luck.

And, of course, we're still wrestling with the consequences of the "successful" regime change operation in Iran. President Obama's decision to lift the embargo against Cuba is also a recognition of how poorly our regime-change efforts in Cuba worked. Poorly, as in total failure in Cuba's case.

I was reading an interview with German writer and political activist Günter Grass, in which he mentions in passing the democratic revolution in Portugal of 1974. (Andrej Ivanji, Günter Grass: "Der dritte Weltkrieg hat begonnen" Der Standard 20.12.2014) Henry Kissinger was then Republican President Gerald Ford's Secretary of State. And as Grass reminds us, he regarded the revolution much as he regarded Salvador Allende's elected government in Chile and wanted to handle it the same way, i.e., to overthrow the democratic government and substitute and authoritarian dictatorship. As Grass says, Willy Brandt was then head of the Socialist International, the international organization of social-democratic parties, and the SI had much more significance as a leadership group than it does now. (It has very little at all now.) But, in Grass' account, Brandt in particular along with other social-democratic leaders, blocked Kissinger's regime-change aspirations for Portugal.

The American record on regime change hasn't improved much since 1974.

Pat Kennelly reports on the status of one of our more recent regime-change adventures in The Unspeakable in Afghanistan Truthout 12/21/2014:

2014 marks the deadliest year in Afghanistan for civilians, fighters, and foreigners. The situation has reached a new low as the myth of the Afghan state continues. Thirteen years into America’s longest war, the international community argues that Afghanistan is growing stronger, despite nearly all indicators suggesting otherwise. Most recently, the central government failed (again) to conduct fair and organized elections or demonstrate their sovereignty. Instead, John Kerry flew into the country and arranged new national leadership. The cameras rolled and a unity government was declared. Foreign leaders meeting in London decided on new aid packages and financing for the nascent ‘unity government.’ Within days, the United Nations helped broker a deal to keep foreign forces in the country, while simultaneously President Obama declared the war was ending—even as he increased the number of troops on the ground. In Afghanistan, President Ghani dissolved the cabinet and many people are speculating the 2015 parliamentary elections will be postponed.
While the exact role of the US in the change of regime in Ukraine earlier this year is contested, it's very clear from what's in the public record that neocon US Ambassador to Ukraine Victoria Nuland and the neocon-run and Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) were actively and recklessly working for regime change against the elected pro-Russian government that was overthrown by the rebellion earlier this year. (See for instance: Angela Merkel: Victoria Nuland's remarks on EU are unacceptableUkraine crisis: Transcript of leak1ed Nuland-Pyatt call BBC News 02/07/2014; Ed Pilkington and Luke Harding, Guardian 02/07/2014)

The Institute for Policy Studies' Right Web information page on the NED (updated 03/02/2014) includes the following:

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was created by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s to push democratic reforms and roll back Soviet influence in various parts of the globe. In his 1983 speech inaugurating NED, President Ronald Reagan said: "I just decided that this nation, with its heritage of Yankee traders, ought to do a little selling of the principles of democracy."[Ronald Reagan, "Remarks at a White House Ceremony Inaugurating the National Endowment for Democracy" NED, 12/16/1983]

The private, congressionally funded NED has been a controversial tool in U.S. foreign policy because of its support of efforts to overthrow foreign governments. As the writers Jonah Gindin and Kirsten Weld remarked in the January/February 2007 NACLA Report on the Americas: "Since [1983], the NED and other democracy-promoting governmental and nongovernmental institutions have intervened successfully on behalf of 'democracy'—actually a very particular form of low-intensity democracy chained to pro-market economics—in countries from Nicaragua to the Philippines, Ukraine to Haiti, overturning unfriendly 'authoritarian' governments (many of which the United States had previously supported) and replacing them with handpicked pro-market allies."[Jonah Gindin and Kirsten Weld, "Benevolence or Intervention? Spotlighting U.S. Soft Power" NACLA Report on the Americas Jan/Feb 2007] ...

Allen Weinstein, a member of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) working group known as the Democracy Group, which first proposed the formation of a quasi-governmental group to channel U.S. political aid, served as NED's acting president during its first year. Talking about the role of NED, Weinstein told the Washington Post in 1991 that "a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA."[David Ignatius, "Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups" Washington Post 09/22/1991 September 22, 1991]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

José Pablo Feinmann on thinking Louis XVI's head off, Philosophy Here and Now (Temporada 1-4) (Spanish-language video)

This is Chapter 4 of the first season of Argentine philosopher José Pablo Feinmann's public TV series Filosofía aquí y ahora, “T1 CAP 4. La filosofía corta la cabeza de Luis XVI” Encuentro n/d Filosofía y Praxis YouTube 02/05/2013:

The first segment of this installment deals with defining idealist philosophy. The dichotomy that is often drawn between the categories of Idealist and Materialist philosophies dates back in its current usage to Friedrich Albert Lange's (1828-1875) highly influential Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeutung in der Gegenwart (1866). But even Lange cautions his readers about assuming too casually a general and neat history of idealism vs. materialism (Book 1/Chapter 1 of Geschichte des Materialismus):

Da Aristoteles und Plato unter den griechischen Philosophen, deren Werke uns erhalten sind, an Einfluss und Bedeutung weit hervorragen, so ergiebt sich leicht die Neigung, sie in einen stark en Gegensatz zu bringen, als hatte man in ihnen die Vertreter zweier Hauptrichtungen der Philosophie: der aprioristischen Speculation und der rationellen Empirie.

[Because Aristotle and Plato stand out in influence and significance among the Greek philosophers whose works we retain, the tendency to bring them into a strong opposition can easily emerge, as though one had in them the representatives of two main directions of philosophy: a priori speculation and rational empiricism.]
Kant and Hegel are generally regarded as the two greatest figures of German Idealism. But Kant's philosophy was heavily influenced by the arch-empiricist David Hume. And Hegel criticized Kant's philosophy for being insufficiently empiricist.

Feinmann defines the idealist tradition as starting with Descartes, as that tradition that proceeds from the I, the ego, in its approach, as Descartes did with his cogito ergo sum. And he further defines idealist philosophers as "those who divide the subject in its work of knowing reality." ("Son los que parten del sujeto en su tarea de conomcimiento de la realidad.")

Here, Feinmann proceeds to Immanuel Kant, who he warns is listeners "is not an easy philosopher."

What does all this have to do with the lost head of Louis XVI? As earlier, Feinmann uses the French Revolution as a major signpost in the development of the historical period during which about about which the modern philosophers philosophized. He states the conventional (and correct) historical assumption, "Inf effect, with the taking of the Bastille and the decapitation of Loius XVI, the bourgeois capitalist class seized power" from the aristocracy and the nobles and the monarchy that ruled that established order. And in Feinmann's view, the philosophy of the time in Europe spoke to that broader historical development. "If the bourgeoisie is seizing power, Kant has a different relationship with external reality" than earlier thinkers like Descartes.

I tend to avoid terms like bourgeois and bourgeoisie, because they are French terms taken into English. But in American English, no one seems to know exactly what they mean. Even people who understand them in their general historical usage have to take account that other people use the terms in other ways. Both German and Spanish have their own equivalents of the French bourgeois: bürgerlich and burgues, respectively. And their usage is not so problematic as it is in American English.

Kant, he explains was part of the Enlightenment, a movement which breaks up Reason like a prism breaks up light, producing "the lights of reason." Feinmann says, "For a follower of the Enlightenment, Reason is that power that is capable of organizing all of reality." He presents this as analogous to the active spirit of capitalism that was shaping Nature and society in its own interests at a previously unprecedented pace. Enlightenment philosophy with its idea that people can form social reality according to the dictates of Reason, not just according to dogmas of the Church and monarchical traditions, proved to be a revolutionary one.

I suppose it's fair to say that such a presentation is reductionist, if only because covering centuries of complex ideas in a popular form in half-hour segments requires a certain amount of simplification. But he's not arguing in a larger reductionist way; he's not trying to present philosophical ideas as empty reflections of social or economic processes. Instead, he's talking about the ways ideas are formed by the human history in which they emerge and how they in turn help to form that larger historical reality. And the Enlightenment thinkers wanted humanity to make history in the name of the Rights of Man. (And, yes, they pretty much meant Man at the time.)

He refers here to two key leaders in Argentina of the early 19th century, Mariano Moreno (1778-1811) and Juan José Castelli (1764-1812).

Moreno was the most important leader in the early national independence movement. He was an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political philosophy and a radical-democratic Jacobin in his outlook. Moreno translated Rousseau's The Social Contract into Spanish. Argentina's current President Cristina Fernández has named Moreno as one of the historical figures she most admires. Silvana Corozzi deals with Moreno's political philosophy in a recent study, Las filosofías de la revolución. Mariano Moreno y los jacobinos rioplatenses en la prensa de Mayo: 1810-1815 (2011).

Juan José Castelli was an early advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples in Argentina and leader of a political movement to defend those rights.

Mariano Moreno (1778-1811)

Here Feinmann brings up the great Enlightenment philosophers D'Alambert, Diderot and Voltaire. And he defines a person of the Enlightenment as "someone who is so sure of that which his reason tells him is needed [that he] fells justified in imposing his reason by deeds and in modeling (forming) reality in accord with what his reason tells him."

His explanation here is a good one, referring to the image of the Goddess of Reason invoked by the French Enlightenment thinkers: "The Goddess of Reason" - who advocates the Rights of Man [sic] - "is that which creates reality because she rises up again reality, that is, Reason is revolutionary, Reason doesn't believe in reality. When reality is not in accord with Reason, Reason revolutionizes reality to the point where this reality stands in relation to her like a mirror." In words, Reason rejects a reality that does not conform to the dictates of Reason and therefore acts to bring it into conformity with Reason.

Feinmann assures his listeners that if one understands this key notion of the Enlightenment, "it won't be so hard for you to understand Kant."

He also explains Enlightenment ideas with reference to Voltaire's literary character Doctor Pangloss from Candide. Pangloss was an advocate of an idea advanced by Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But from Voltaire's perspective Pangloss' idea made him into a reflexive supporter of existing social and political conditions. "Pangloss was a very miserable person," in Feinmann's reading, "destined to justify the unjustifiable."

Feinmann expands this into the observation that when a person in misery first fully understands their misery and says, "This can't be!", this represents a rupture in which the person is revolutionizing their particular situation be beginning to try changing it.

And Feinmann emphasizes that it was only ideas that made the French Revolution. "The French Revolution is not only the taking of the Bastille. It is also the Terror, it is Robespierre, it is Saint-Just, the guillotine." The role of the Enlightenment intellectuals in setting it off, he says, was to help people to see their disgrace under existing conditions in a new way, to look at it with a new consciousness, with a personal, subjective awareness that this needs to change and should change. "This has to change," was the sentiment that drove the French Revolution.

José Pablo Feinmann on Descartes and Coumbus,, Philosophy Here and Now (Temporada 1-3) (Spanish-language video)

This is Chapter 3 of the first season of Argentine philosopher José Pablo Feinmann's public TV series Filosofía aquí y ahora, “T1 CAP 3. Colón descubre América; Descartes, la subjetividad” Encuentro n/d Filosofía y Praxis YouTube 02/05/2013:

Feinmann returns in this installment to discussing Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America in tandem with Rene Descartes cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), which Feinmann considers here as the discovery of subjectivity. The point he makes in pairing the non-philosophical Portuguese discoverer with the innovative French philosopher is that they played important and highly symbolic roles in the early stages of the rise of capitalist modernity to a dominant position.

As Feinmann puts it, Columbus didn't discover America for the first time in human history, he discovered it for the rising, new, dynamic system of capitalism. Descartes' reflections on subjectivity and the centrality of the individual in his theory were an expression on the emerging European modern worldview which at the same time helped to shape that reality. He uses the Columbus-Descartes pairing to stress that philosophers are just spinning ideas in the their heads, they are immersed in a historical process within which they work. Feinmann's sees Descartes' individual's subjectivity as that the "capitalist subject of history."

Feinmann opens this episode with a discussion of humanism, which he takes to be the kind of philosophy that takes humanity rather than God as the starting point for philosophy, as he argues that Descartes does. He defines humanism as "a conception that makes man (el hombre) the fundamental epistemological point of departure." Humanism is broadly associated with the Renaissance, which also placed a new emphasis on the work of Greek and Roman classical philosophers. Classical studies thrived in the Islamic world during the European Middle Ages. And it was from Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, that much of the knowledge of the early classical sources of Western learning were re-introduced into Europe, though the European Catholic monasteries had also preserved a great deal of the source material.

Descartes, Feinmann argues, departed from his basic subjective method in explaining how the individual ego can know that the perceived external world (res extensa) is really there, an empirical reality. Descartes established this by arguing that if the external world wasn't real, then God was running a gigantic deception on humanity. And since God is infinitely good, He would do that. Therefore, the res extensa must be real. In making this argument, Descartes was relying on a philosophical deus ex machina, arguing dogmatically from the existence of God rather than developing the argument out of the cogito ergo sum.

Feinmann makes an interesting "move" here (as the academics say) and talks about his own memories and experiences of the repression against the universities that came with the coup of 1966 and subsequent military dictatorship first lead by Juan Carlos Onganía, who held the leadership position until he was ousted by the generals and replaced by Gen. Roberto Livingston in 1970. He uses this as a way to describe the common-sense materialist understanding of empirical reality. On his university campus, he says, he and other philosophy students had discovered that reality exists, and it was a fascist one. (He's making a joke, not a political theory point about the nature of the Onganía regime.)

But he's not doing so to belittle the question of the relation of the individual ego to the external world. On the contrary, the subject-object question continues to be an important theme in philosophy until this day. While materialism generally dominates in philosophy today, the kinds of issues raised by the various forms of idealist philosophy continue to be raised and grappled with.

Feinmann makes a point to explain that Descartes, who lived in the Netherlands, wrote in French, not in the Latin more common for his type of scholarly work in that time and place. He wrote in French, Feinmann says, because he wanted to be understood.

Juan Carlos Organía,  José Pablo Feinmann's deux ex machina to explain empirical reality's existence

He deals in this lecture with the "transparent subject." And in doing so, he jumps to the more recent thinker, Sigmund Freud, who established in a new way that the conscious ego of Descartes theory of subjectivity, is actually driven by unconscious physical drives and psychological features. Feinmann frames this as Freud saying to Descartes that the mind is not a transparent as Descartes believed, that in fact major aspects of the mind of typically hidden from consciousness. "Don Sigmund," he says, presents Descartes with a wound to the narcissism of the Cartesian cogito ("I think").

Feinmann thinks that the most "genuinely Cartesian" point that Descartes made came in his ontological proof of the existence of God. Descartes argued that because we have in us the idea of perfection, even though we are not perfect, someone must have put that idea into us, and that must have been someone perfect, i.e., God. Unlike Descartes' argument for the real existence of the res externa, his argument for the existence of God is developed out of the human ego's subjectivity.

A question that Descartes' philosophy raised that hasn't gone away is whether the dualism between subject (the human ego) and the Object (external reality) is a dualism that cannot be overcome. That very question would later be at the heart of Kant's transcendental idealism and the theories that followed it from Fichte and Hegel, to mention two of his more prominent successors. He starts off explaining this question by talking about Jean-Paul Sartre concepts that the consciousness if necessarily continually engaged with the external world, it doesn't exist in some completely separate realm, it's part of what the mind perceives as external reality. Consciousness, in this way of viewing it, is always a consciousness of the world. Sartre saw consciousness as intentional, as directed toward the world outside itself.

And he works phenomenological philosophy into the discussion here, which he considers to be the strand of thought that see consciousness as in being in "a pact of pure intentionality" directed toward the outer world. And he ropes in the two 20th-century philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to illustrate the importance of the view of the philosopher as someone deeply connected to his/her world and involved in transforming it. Arendt described Heidegger's active engagement for the Nazi doctrine and Hitler's regime as resulting from having his eyes on the stars and not on what was right in front of him. Feinmann - who has written quite an interesting philosophical novel about Heidegger - doesn't buy it. As he says Heidegger was very conscious of what he was doing in his engagement for the Nazis.

This circles back to his pairing of Columbus and Descartes to emphasize that philosophy and philosophers are very much a part of the real history which they not only observe passively but have an active role in making.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

German trends in anti-Russian thought

I've been reading more of the coverage in the German media on the tensions with Russia.

Before discussing that more specifically, I'll mention a few points that to me should be obvious. But apparently not to everyone.

  • Russia considers several neighboring countries as part its sphere of influence: Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia.
  • The NATO countries are not going to war over any of those countries.
  • Recognizing the latter fact is not a normative judgment of Russia's claims of influence over those countries. Russia's annexation of Crimea was clearly done outside international law. That Crimea had a referendum on secession from Ukraine did not obligate Russia to accept its annexation.
  • Russia has a distinct military advantage in Ukraine in comparison any local forces that NATO could sponsor or with which it could ally.
  • Ukraine's strategic value for the West is minimal, including the naval bases in Crimea, while the Crimean bases have a critical strategic function for Russia.
  • Putin is running an authoritarian regime with democratic trappings that evidently are not entirely fictive. He is also promoting Russian nationalism in a systematic way. After the spectacular failure of the extreme neoliberal experiment in post-Soviet, post-Communist Russia, which saw general living standards decline at the same time a few oligarchs accumulated extreme personal wealth, Putin rejected aspects of neoliberal policies, particularly with state control of the oil and gas industry. The latter fact alone means that the advocates of the neoliberal outlook, aka, the Washington Consensus, do not look at Putin's model favorably.
  • Speaking of which, unlike the Soviet Union, today's Russia is a petrostate which is also an important geopolitical player. That status is captured in Krugman's designation of it as "Venezuela-with-nukes". Being a petrostate brings particular difficulties and opportunities, and Russia is feeling the difficulties very strongly now. It also makes Russia's economic model one with limited general appeal in the world. You can't be a petrostate if you don't have lots of oil. And if you do, aspiring to be a petrostate very heavily dependent on oil exports would be a dubious goal.
  • International relations is about just that, relationships across international borders. Both internal imperatives and the actions of other countries shape policymakers foreign policy decisions.
  • As the old saying has it, the only legitimate aim of war is to produce a better peace. American policymakers and legislators and media commentators should be taking full account of how our various American adventures in "regime change" have come up short in producing a better peace. Very dramatically so in Iraq.
  • And the final one of these observations: yes, Virginia, there are warmongers in America. Some of them, like Bill Kristol and various other neoconservatives, have made careers of it. And there are armaments firms that make good profits on war and rumors of war. For most everyone else, war is a bad thing. But the fact that some people make big bucks off war makes advocacy for war obscenely respectable, especially in the US.

Paul Krugman looks at the Russian economz in Putin’s Bubble Bursts New York Times 12/18/2014:

The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage. [my emphasis]
And he gives this description of Russia's current economic/social system:

Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.
Robert Parry harshes on Krugman over this column in Krugman Joins the Anti-Putin Pack Consortium News 12/19/2014.

I'll let readers judge for themselves how justified Parry's criticism of Krugman's particular column may be. But he does raise an interesting point, that hawkish conservatives praise Putin's toughness as a way of painting Obama as a wimp by contrast. But that doesn't mean they are taking Putin as some kind of model. What Parry doesn't mention there is that there is a subset of American conservatives who do admire Putin for his posturing as the leader of a re-Christianizing Russia and his hostility gays and lesbians.

One recent German article by Katja Gloger, "Der Preis der Freiheit" Stern print edition 11.12.2014, presents Russia oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a great liberal hope (liberal in the political and free-market sense of the word) for Russia. When you get to page 5 of the Khodorkovsky booster article, something appears there to be some actual journalism that slipped in. Khodorkovsky, we learn, was a financial backer of Boris Yeltsin's 1996 successful re-election campaign. After which Yeltsin arranged for Khodorkovsky and a handful of his fellow oligarchs-to-be to acquire huge portions of large firms in "questionable auctions." That put Khodorkovsky majority control of Yukos, the country's second-largest oil company. He reportedly became the richest person in Russia.

Gloger describes his rise to dominance of Yukos this way:

Es war ein gigantischer Raubzug im Namen von Demokratie und freier Marktwirtschaft. Damals rissen sich Männer wie Chodorkowskij ein ganzes Land unter den Nagel.

[It was a gigantic raid in the name of democracy and the free-market economy. At the time, men like Khodorkovsky hogged the limelight of an entire country.]
She also reports that Khodorkovsky describes himself as a "nationalist" and that he "wrestles with values like tolerance and equal rights." He also disapproves of homosexuality and holds to so-called traditional values of what women ought to be able to do in their lives. She writes that she was irritated by Khodorkovsky's "unwavering conservatism."

Otherwise, the article portrays the exiled oligarch as a kind of free-market Lenin, living in Zurich and plotting the overthrow of the new Czar, Vladimir Putin. (See also: Neil Buckley, Mikhail Khodorkovsky offers himself as Russia’s ‘crisis manager’ Financial Times 12/19/2014.

But if this guy is one of the West's best hopes for an alternative to Putin, it would be prudent to be very cautious in seeking "regime change" in Venezuela-with-nukes.

None of the above means that his conviction for corruption was achieved completely on the up-and-up. (Tom Parfitt, WikiLeaks: rule of law in Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial merely 'gloss' The Guardian 12/27/2010)

Prudence is not on the menu for Romain Leick in his article, "Europa darf nicht blinzeln" Der Spiegel print edition 51/2014 (15.12.2014). This piece really strikes me as though the writer picked through several bits of stock Cold War propaganda and pieced this together using "Russia" instead of "the Soviet Union." I don't mean he's plagiarizing, rather that he's suffering from lac post-k of imagination and maybe nostalgia for the Good Ole Days. The basic conceit of the article is that not much has changed since the 19th century when czarist Russia stood as the ultimate enforcer of conservative/royalist government in Europe against democratic revolutions.

He presents quotes and historical references to illustrate the unexceptional point that democrats in Europe thought that the Russian Empire sucked. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, the "July revolution" of 1830 in France, the Polish uprising of 1830, the Hamburger Schloss movment, the Paulskirche Parliament, Victor Hugo, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Nietzsche, even Bruno Bauer (!) make an appearance.

This is all propaganda, not serious historical analysis. He uses these examples to paint a picture of Russia as the enemy of democracy and Western civilization for at least a couple of centuries. Using 19th century imagery to make this case has the advantage of referring to events that are not necessarily well-known to present-day Europeans. It also avoids having to deal with explaning that particularly ill-fated obsession of onetime German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to put an end to the Russian menace.

His propagandist twist is especially apparent in the way he characterizes the three positions he sees in German opinion toward Russia: the sensible Putin-resisters, with whom he clearly aligns himself and which he says value freedom; the Putin-Versteher, literally those who understand Putin, who he notes are really Putin sympathizers and he says value reaction (as in "reactionary"); and, the Putin concilators, who he says value appeasement. He gives them the "polemic" names, respectively: Cold Warriors, Realpolitiker and those driven by worry.

The second group seems to bother him the most, identifying as he does with the Cold Warrior group, in which he includes Angela Merkel. The third group must appear to him as wimps whose views are scarcely worth considering. He derides the Realpolitiker as being willing to throw third countries under the bus.

Other arguments he makes are mainly interesting for his lack of concern for coherency. In a piece dedicated to the idea that present-day Europeans should regard Russia as threatening as 19th-century European democrats did, he mocks the idea that Putin would actually fear western Europe. Actually, you don't have to go back to the 1800s to find events that might lead Russian leaders to be leery of Western countries. He gets in a dismissive dig at the German Left Party. Because they haven't joined the New Cold War chorus, he says they have "been pushed to the side of extreme European Right." This is just silly on his part.

He does have a policy suggestion, though: take Ukraine into the European Union right away, even though it doesn't meet the admission conditions. Apparently just to escalate the confrontation with Russia.

This doesn't strike me as a very good plan.

Part of the crisis that led to the overthrow of Ukraine's elected if authoritarian-leaning government earlier this year involved the draconian austerity measures the EU was requiring of Ukraine as part of the process of qualifying for admission. The EU's glowing faith in such policies burns brightly, despite years of failure in the eurozone. With the current Ukrainian government, the path to EU membership chugs forward along with the accompanying austerity policies. It's hard to see how austerity policies in the present moment will help the current Ukrainian government maintain public support in the conflict with separatists and Russia.

Anatol Lieven earlier this month had some worthwhile cautions on Ukraine, How can the West solve its Ukraine problem? BBC News 12/04/2014:

Russia is suffering badly as a result of Western economic sanctions - but Ukraine's situation is far worse, with a predicted fall in GDP of 7% this year.

If this decline continues, the Ukrainian state will face collapse, ...

In their zeal to denounce Russia for putting pressure on Ukraine over gas supplies, Western commentators usually neglected to mention that, through cheap gas and lenient payment terms, Russia was in fact subsidising the Ukrainian economy to the tune of several billion dollars each year - many times the total of Western aid during this period.

This allowed the same commentators not to address the obvious question of whether Western states would be willing to pay these billions in order to take Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence and into that of the West.

Western commentators were not wrong to portray Russia as supporting a deeply corrupt and semi-authoritarian system of government in Ukraine - but they too often forgot to mention that trade with Russia has also been responsible for preserving much of the Ukrainian economy.
David Stern also reports for BBC News that while Russian propaganda exaggerates the role of far-right, fascist-type groups in the new Ukrainian government, their role is real and a real problem (Ukraine underplays role of far right in conflict 12/13/2014):

But Ukrainian officials and many in the media err to the other extreme. They claim that Ukrainian politics are completely fascist-free. This, too, is plain wrong.

As a result, the question of the presence of the far-right in Ukraine remains a highly sensitive issue, one which top officials and the media shy away from. No-one wants to provide fuel to the Russian propaganda machine. ...

This hyper-sensitivity and stonewalling were on full display after President Petro Poroshenko presented a Ukrainian passport to someone who, according to human rights activists, is a "Belarusian neo-Nazi".

The Ukrainian leader handed out medals on 5 December to fighters who had tenaciously defended the main airport in the eastern region of Donetsk from being taken over by Russian-backed separatists.

Among the recipients was Serhiy Korotkykh, a Belarusian national, to whom Mr Poroshenko awarded Ukrainian citizenship, praising his "courageous and selfless service".

The president's website showed a photo of Mr Poroshenko patting the shoulder of the Belarusian, who was clad in military fatigues.

Friday, December 19, 2014

José Pablo Feinmann on how Descartes decapitated Louis XVI, Philosophy Here and Now (Temporada 1-2) (Spanish-language video)

This is Chapter 2 of the first season of Argentine philosopher José Pablo Feinmann's public TV series Filosofía aquí y ahora, “T1 CAP 2. Sacar la filosofía a la calle” Encuentro n/d Filosofía y Praxis YouTube 02/04/2013:

"The gods don't make philosophy," he says, because they don't have to worry about dying. But mortals make philosophy because they do have to understand our mortality.

He cites Jorge Luis Borges' (1899-1986) story "El Inmortal," with an aside that not everything about the (notoriously conservative) Borges is good, but the part he cites is. Which has to do with the idea that immortals don't need to say goodbye, because they know they are likely to see each other again. But with mortals, we know that any parting might be our last. Thus, Feinmann concludes, that every moment in a human life is important and precious, while no moment in the life of an immortal has particular significance because they will be endlessly repeated.

He cites Heidegger for the idea that people live in a "state of interpretation." (Blogging must be kind of a concentrated form of that!) And he reflects on aspect of authenticity, a key concept for Heidegger.

Philosophy, Feinmann argues, "is a system of formulating questions." (Which is why, I would add, that studying philosophy is one good kind of preparation for studying law.) One of those famous questions with which philosophy - and theology - wrestle is, "If history is in the hands of God, what do humans do?" He uses that as the title for the second section of this presentation.

In discussing what he sees as the stranglehold Christian theology and the Catholic Church had on European thought during the Middle Ages, Feinmann cites Michel Foucault's (1926–1984) idea of "pastoral power" as one of the most dictatorial owers known to humanity. Foucault talked about ways in which modern institutions like psychotherapy and prisons have inherited the power in the modern world that once belonged to the priest in confession. Feinmann uses this as a way of encouraging his listeners to think about the breaks, transformations and continuities between the way Western philosophy has regarded about truth and power, thereby stressing the long connecting links between philosophy old and new and the sometimes surprising relevance of old ideas.

In the first Chapter, Feinmann talked about how his perspective would be an Argentine one. In this segment, he begins a segment on what was the nature of the rupture that Rene Descartes made with medieval Christianity by talking about Christopher Columbus' (1451—1506) "discovery" of America and the resulting massacres of native peoples.

Beginning in 1637, he explains, Rene Descartes put the human individual in the center of thought rather than God. And he says, "From 1637 to 1789 was a very short time. When Descartes is writing the Discourse on the Method [1637], he was cutting of the head of Louis XVI [1754-1793]." And he teases future segments by talking about the progression from Descartes to Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), who called Descartes a "hero of thought," and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). He throws in Copernicus (1473–1543), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Galileo (1564–1642) into the mix with Descartes and the Renaissance as beginning to establish the notion that humanity is the Subject of history, the Subject that makes history. And the French Revolution was a key moment in which people started acting in a more collective and conscious way as the Subject(s) of history.

Feinmann discusses how Descartes thought was "subversive" by challenging the authority of medieval theology, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, the latter a topic that looms larger in the history of Latin America than in that of the United States.

And he uses the situation of Descartes, who worked in the more liberal environment of the Netherlands, to talk about the importance of freedom of thought and how "totalitarian" governments suppress it. This segment stresses the interaction of thought and changes in society during the period leading from Descartes to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He even works in Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) and her statement upon being informed that people were starving because they didn't have bread, "Let them eat cake!" ("Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!")

José Pablo Feinmann, Philosophy Here and Now (Temporada 1-1) (Spanish-language video)

This is Chapter 1 of the first season of Argentine philosopher José Pablo Feinmann's Filosofía aquí y ahora, “T1 CAP 1: ¿Por qué hay algo y no más bien nada?” Encuentro n/d Filosofía y Praxis YouTube 02/04/2013:

This is program on a public Argenine channel whose purpose is to provide an overview of philosophy for the general public.

He begins the series and the season looking at the question, "Why is there something and not nothing?"

He poses the question as that of existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). And, like Heidegger, he puts the question in the context of the human fear of death. As he puts it, if death means that we become nothing, then we will "be nothing for a long, long time." And he draws an existentialist conclusion that "every minute is absolutely precious" and that Now has an "ontological density," a moment of Being "in which we have to participate."

He also quotes Albert Einstein's famous saying that God doesn't play dice with the universe.

And he talks about how philosophy and the great life questions it addresses also concerns itself with pre-death issues like hunger and physical want and economic inequality, perhaps most famously in that of Karl Marx (1818–1883.

But he also talks about the founding moment of modern Western philosophy with Rene Descartes' (1596–1650) famous cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am." This was a starting position of radical doubt, which as Feinmann points out was a drastic departure from medieval Christian theology.

Then he brings another 20th-century existential philosopher into the picture, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Russia Week

I didn't plan ahead of time for this to be "Russia Week" at the blog. But it has wound up that way.

Robert Parry continues to warn of neocon hubris and adventurism over US relations with Russia in The Crazy US ‘Group Think’ on Russia Consortium News 12/18/2014. Parry doesn't necessarily pay as much attention to internal Russian political dynamics in this situation as one might wish. But he's raising some very important considerations, including his cautions about economic sanctions.

Paul Krugman provides some wonky observations about the Russian debt situation, charts included, in Notes on Russian Debt 12-18-2014.

Nikolas Gvosdev in Russia's Moment of Crisis: Moscow Might Be Down, but Not Out The National Interest 12/18/2014 cautions against Western triumphalism with Russia right now:

Western commentators reporting on events in Russia have a tendency to swing from one extreme to the next. Seven months ago, when oil prices were high and the Kremlin had seemingly amputated Crimea off from Ukraine without firing a shot, the narrative was about an unstoppable Vladimir Putin who would soon be overrunning all Eastern and Central Europe. Today, he is being placed on deathwatch, with prognosticators speculating about precisely when the Russian economy will collapse and Putin will be overthrown. With the precipitous fall in the value of the ruble—something a major interest-rate hike by the Russian Central Bank seemed unable to reverse—some pundits are even crowing that the Ukrainian hryvnia is doing better than the Russian currency.

It helps to step back and put the larger picture in perspective.
It would help. But neocons don't real real-world "perspective" well.

And in Ukraine, now applying the neoliberal prescriptions of the EU and the IMF to their economy, they are facing some big challenges, as Jeffrey Michels explains in Whither Ukraine’s Revolution? Foreign Policy in Focus 12/17/2014:

If this feels like déjà vu, that’s because it is.

Ten years ago, Ukraine was in a similar position — hoping to reform itself after kicking the very same man, Viktor Yanukovych, out of the presidency — in the so-called Orange revolution of 2004. Yet after a few years of disappointing “reformist” government, Ukraine found itself back where it started. To break the cycle, the newly elected officials will need to learn from the past and devolve power from themselves and their corporate allies.

Yet it’s a particularly challenging time to do so: Ukraine’s economy is disintegrating. Its foreign debt is growing as its currency’s value shrinks. Russia continues to embed itself in Crimea as it pushes separatists forth over Ukraine’s industrial heartland. And winter accentuates the need to keep energy flowing from Ukraine’s hostile neighbor in the east.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jamie Galbraith on oil price uncertainty

Jamie Galbraith in his new book The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014) has this observation about the uncertainly of oil prices up and down and its effect on investment calculations:

... energy markets remain both high cost and uncertain. And energy prices determine the price of all other resources, including food. The age of growth was enabled by cheap oil (and coal, and later gas) at stable prices. It created a system of fixed technologies that make heavy use of energy. Under fixed technologies, there is a world of difference between oil at $30 a barrel and oil at $100 or more. It's the difference between a world of high profits and rapid growth, and a world where margins are thin, profits alternate with losses, and where growth is likely to be slow at best.

Further, and of nearly equal importance, the world no longer expects any price of oil to remain stable. If demand rises sharply, investors know that hoarding and speculation will drive up the energy price. When the price is rising, it always makes sense to hold the product and sell it just a bit later, when the price is higher still. Volatile resource prices strongly discourage private investment at both ends of the energy market. When the price is high, new energy-using investment becomes unprofitable, so less of that will be done. But while high prices encourage new high-cost energy production, those investments (including renewables) can be undermined by the ensuing price fall. In this way, cost uncertainty as such slows the pace of economic activity. To the choke chain of speculative energy prices, one must add a whiplash effect of rapid changes. [emphasis in original]
The recent plunge in oil prices and its particular effect on Russia have been attracting attention lately. Sergey Radchenko writes in A Geopolitical Nightmare: No Happy Endings If Russia Melts Down The National Interest 12/17/2014:

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet behemoth, comparatively disconnected from the world economy. Nor is it the struggling reform economy of the 1990s. It is the world’s eighth largest economy, well integrated into the global marketplace. If Russia goes into a prolonged recession, it is not just Russia itself that bears the consequences—it will be the rest of the world as well. First in line is the European Union, whose member states—some barely emerging from recession—have extensive trade links with Russia.

Ukraine’s economic fiasco has already put Europe under stress. Russia’s collapse will make Ukraine’s problems seem insignificant. In our days of global risks and mutual interconnectedness, “losing” Russia is like shooting yourself in the foot. Or in the head. [my emphasis]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Putin and his Western fans

My recent Facebook discussion on Russia and Ukraine got me looking again at the state of play in the "new Cold War" the neocons are trying to drum up between NATO and Russia.

The Timothy Snyder clip I previously discussed focused on some extreme examples of ham-handed Russian propaganda claims about the conflict over Ukraine. I haven't tried to verify his description from other resources. But if he's right about Russian propaganda claims, they seem to have been remarkably ineffective in terms of their influence on the American policy debate. And apparently not that effective in Europe either.

Today I see a post by Gérard Roland, Is Putin out to destroy the EU? Berkeley Blog 12/15/14, which he opens by focusing on Russian propaganda claims:

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, tensions between Russia and the West have not abated. Nonetheless, it has been striking how much support Putin still enjoys in Europe, from intellectuals and politicians, from the extreme left and extreme right, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen in France, and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and from the “Putinversteher” of Germany that includes not only former East German communists but many prominent German politicians and businessmen as well.

The Kremlin’s narrative that the Euromaidan was a fascist coup, and that the annexation of Crimea and support for the Donbas separatists were defensive moves to protect Russia’s strategic interests, has been repeated through a dense network of Putin supporters and Russian media outlets in Europe. While reminiscent of former Comintern propaganda, that narrative has been embraced by many Europeans at a time when European governments, and the European project, are already under great stress from Europe’s growth crisis. [my emphasis]
Honestly, this framing sounds depressingly like warmed-over stock Cold War claims. It's bad enough that we have anti-Islam zealots describing Islam in general and Islamic terrorist and military groupings in more-or-less the same terms that Cold Warriors described Communism. Now we're starting to hear it about a Russia that, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, is not a Communist country nor one trying to offer itself as a generally valid alternative to Western capitalist and political models.

I have a hard time buying the formula that Putin has western European fans "from the extreme left and extreme right." I'm probably more familiar with the discussion over Ukraine within the German Left Party than with other well-known left-of-social-democracy groups like Greece's SYRIZA, Spain's Podemos and Italy's Five Star Movement. The Left Party (Die Linke) is presumably what Roland means by "former East German communists," since it is considered the "postcommunist" successor party to the former East German ruling party. (See my German Left Party gets a governorship 12/07/2014 for more of my perspective on that particular matter.) And it's true that Die Linke are opposed to escalating tensions with Russia. But there has been some public bickering among Party leaders on how censorious an attitude toward Russia the party should take.

Former Social Democratic German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his SPD are still considered center-left, despite their loyal support for Angela Merkel's Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies. But the SPD and SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been backing their Chancellor Merkel as junior partner in her Grand Coalition government in her carefully anti-Russian position on Ukraine and sanctions. Sanctions which the Hoover/Brüning policies have left the eurozone economy ill-prepared to sustain. (See: Steinmeier für rasches Treffen der Ukraine-Kontaktgruppe Neues Deutschland, whose editorial line reflects the positions of Die Linke 15.12.2014; „Es geht nur mit Russland“ taz 12.12.2014) Steinmeier asserts in the TAZ interview, "die Verantwortung für die zugespitzte Situation, die mit der Annexion der Krim begonnen hat, ganz wesentlich auf russischer Seite liegt" ("the responsibility for the intensified situation that began with the annexation of Crimea, lies very essentially on the Russian side").

The Merkel-Steinmeier posture on Ukraine is less militant than American neocons would like to see. Berlin has a bigger immediate stake in peaceful relations with Russia than Washington does. And with low oil prices at the moment putting serious pressure on Russia's petrostate economy, the need for economic sanctions seems more symbolic than substantive for now. As Wolfgang Münchau writes in Ölpreis: Hurra, er fällt! Spiegel Online 15.12.2014, "Aufgrund ihrer ökonomischen Monokultur ist die russische Wirtschaft voll und ganz vom Energieexport abhängig" ("On the basis of its economic monoculture, the Russian economy is fully and completely dependent on energy exporting").

Schröder's more friendly attitude toward Russia in the Ukraine crisis has to be viewed in light of his personally lucrative business ties to Russian business interests, though that doesn't mean we should disregard his arguments entirely on that account. (Gerhard Schröder, Russia and the Crimea 03/09/2014) His former Green Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, is more supportive of the more hardline Merkel-Steinmeier positon. (German Foreign Policy Comes of Age/25 Jahre deutsche Einheit und ihre Folgen für Deutschlands Außenpolitik Project Syndicate 12/05/2014)

The more concrete political ties with Russia that Roland describes, which he notes are not entirely well-documented, are with far-right, "Euroskeptic" groups:

There is also evidence, much of which is circumstantial but not all, that the Kremlin is providing financial assistance to Euroskeptic parties. Marine Le Pen, for example, acknowledged last week that her far right party, The National Front, received a nine million Euro loan from a Russian bank. There are also rumors of Russian financing of Jobbik in Hungary and UKIP in the UK.
In current usage, "Euroskeptic" is used to designate rightwing nationalist anti-EU parties, "Eurocritic" for those demanding an end to Hoover/Brüning austerity policies in the eurozone and reforms to address the EU's "democratic deficit."

There are some American Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives who are Putin fans, who have been impressed by Putin's calls to reinforce Christian civilization. Particularly the part that involves repressing gays and lesbians. Accompanied at times by some fairly weird gushing about what a manly man bare-chested Putin is. They would likely be dismayed to hear the extent to which Putin's vision is married to a Russian Orthodox Christian notion of a distinctive Russian civilization.

Cenk Uygur pokes fun at this trend in You'll Never Guess Who Loves Putin The Young Turks 03/19/2014:

The notion of some kind of international alliance of nationalist parties seems strange on its face. But politics is politics, as Stalin said in 1939 shortly before concluding his Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler Germany. And the Russian model of oligarchical capitalism and authoritarian semi-democracy would presumably more ideological appealing to far-right parties than to the left, for whom the Putin model doesn't offer much that looks appealing.

Even so, the Russians obviously know that the decision-makers in the EU are found among the center-right and center-left parties. Roland uses the evidence of Russian collusion with the far-right anti-EU parties to show that Putin would like to weaken the EU, which seems very plausible. But he also makes an excellent point at the end: "The German government continues to promote economic austerity in the Eurozone, despite weak demand and very high unemployment. If Putin wants to destroy the European Union, there is no better way to help him."

No argument from me on that one!

Roland uses the German term Putinversteher (one who understands Putin), which is commonly used in Germany as an ironic-polemic way of suggesting someone is naive or careless about Russian policies. It has the implication of "Russian dupe" or "Russian sympathizer."

But in a literal sense, actually understanding Putin would be a valuable thing. I'm inclined to think it's more urgent to understand actual adversaries in foreign policy than allies.

Historian Jutta Scherrer has an article called, "Russland verstehen? Das postsowjetische Selbstverständnis im Wandel" (Understading Russia? The post-Soviet self-understanding in process" in the Ukraine, Russland, Europa issue of Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ 47–48/2014). I find helpful in describing Putin's nationalistic definition of Russian identity. It seems consistent with other things I've seen on this. The integration of Czarist and Stalinist symbolism is fascinating, as is the length to which Putin is going to integrate his version of, uh, Russian Exceptionalism into the schools' history curricula. Scherrer also makes clear, "Heute instrumentalisiert auch die politische Propaganda „den Westen“ als Feindbild." ("Today the [Russian] political propagand instrumentalizes 'the West' as the Enemy.")

I'm sure a lot of Americans and probably Europeans, too, would find the degree to which Putin views the collapse of the USSR as a "catastrophe" surprising. Scherrer's analysis does suggest that the Putinist outlook would place a higher value on dominance in Belarus and Ukraine than in other former parts of the USSR.

We don't have to grant such claims by the Russians normative value to recognize that they may be operative values for the Russian leadership. As Scherrer puts it in a clarification that historians sometimes make when writing about touchy topics: "Die Herkunft einer Argumentationsweise zu verstehen, bedeutet in keiner Weise sie zu rechtfertigen" ("Understanding the origin of a line of argumentation in no way means justifying it").

In the same issue of APuZ, Hans-Georg Ehrhart writes ("Russlands unkonventioneller Krieg in der Ukraine: Zum Wandel
kollektiver Gewalt") that Russia has made a major shift in its military strategy over the last decade toward more emphasis on "unconventional warfare" that the United States and its allies have successfully applied in "regime change" operations like those in Libya. (The Russians would be well-advised to look carefully as the uninspiring aftermaths of such operations, as well.) He writes that his shift accelerated after the Georgian conflict in 2008.

One effect of that shift that he describes has been the reduction of Russian ground forces from 400,000 to 270,000 despite a significant increase in the military budget, which presumably has been made momentarily more problematic because of the oil price slump. He notes that the size of the Air Force has not been reduced. But that does mean that, however one judges their intentions, the Russians are increasing their capabilities of making regime-change and counter-regime-change operations in nearby countries while reducing their capabilities to credibly threaten a land invasion of NATO countries.

Ehrhart observes that Russia's actions in the 2008 Georgian crisis "war eine eindeutige Warnung. Man mag diese Haltung als altes Denken abtun. Es leitet aber die gegenwärtige politische Führung." ("was an unmistakable warning. One may dismiss this way of acting as old thinking. But it guides the present political leadership").

Monday, December 15, 2014

The "new Cold War": Timothy Snyder

I really hate to think that matters might actually develop into a "New Cold War" between the NATO countrie and Russia. One of my Facebook friends called attention to this 11-minute clip from Timothy Snyder, Renommierter US-Professor entlarvt Russische Propaganda in nur 10 Minuten! (English with German subtitles) 11/09/2014:

His opening statement in this clip says that when Russia presents the confrontation over the Ukraine -"the Ukrainian revolution," he calls it - as a geopolitical matter, they are making propaganda marketed toward "the European left, and partially the American left, who really do, kind of, tend to think that America is behind everything."

This strikes me as a fairly heavy-handed attempt to re-create the old Cold War anti-Russian positions of the Cold War, when "the left" was accused of being allied with Russia, which was only a credible charge against Moscow-line Communist Parties. If anything, "the left" in the Cold War spent way too much time, energy and thought demonstrating all they ways that they were against the Soviet Union, too.

Some did so with more serious thought than others. And the more serious criticisms provided suggestions of alternative interpretations of the fall of the USSR to the preferred Western triumphalist, neoliberal narrative. A lot of it generated only sterile polemics, much of it reflected the Sino-Soviet split.

Much of this clip seems to be a critique of the coverage on RT (Russia Today), the state-owned channel which I've never considered especially reliable on matters directly pertaining to Russia. I haven't actually paid a lot of attention to RT reporting since Putin reportedly tightened official control over its reporting several years ago. But I also wouldn't dismiss it entirely. A critical view toward news reporting is always in order, with some sources more so than others.

I find Snyder's presentation here more puzzling than anything. He references RT (Russia Today) and other Russian government propaganda positions. And with these remarks in a conference in Chicago, he's presumably mainly addressing an American audience when he says, "You have heard there is no Ukrainian state." And more:"You have heard there is no Ukrainian nation," "all Ukrainians are nationalists," "there is no Ukrainian language," "Russia is fighting a war to save the world from fascism," etc. Actually, for all those points I just quoted, Synder's clip was the first and only time I've heard them. In the American discussions actually influencing policymaking on Ukraine, so far as I can tell those arguments play no role.

Snyder has had several pieces in the New York Review of Books this year, including: Ukraine: The New Dictatorship 01/23/2014; Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine 02/19/2014; Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda 03/01/2014; Crimea: Putin vs. Reality 03/07/2014; Ukraine: The Edge of Democracy 05/22/2014; Ukraine: The Antidote to Europe's Fascists? 05/27/2014; Putin’s New Nostalgia 11/10/2014; Ukraine: Putin’s Denial 12/13/2014.

Snyder's articles in the New York Review pretty much guarantee that his views will get a hearing among the liberal interventionists in the US. I can't claim to be any kind of specialist on Ukraine. But I have tried to follow the situation this year, with particular reference to US policy.

I find Snyder's presentation here more puzzling than anything. He references RT (Russia Today) and other Russian government propaganda positions. And with these remarks in a conference in Chicago, he's presumably mainly addressing an American audience when he says, "You have heard there is no Ukrainian state." And more:"You have heard there is no Ukrainian nation," "all Ukrainians are nationalists," "there is no Ukrainian language," "Russia is fighting a war to save the world from fascism," etc. Actually, for all those points I just quoted, Synder's clip was the first and only time I've heard them. In the American discussions actually influencing policymaking on Ukraine, so far as I can tell those arguments play no role.

My own view of US policy in the Ukraine crisis has been heavily affected by the arguments of the "realist" school of foreign policy thinkers like Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and even the late George Kennan, who was warning up until the end of his life about the risks of expanding NATO far into the former Warsaw Pact.

Which makes the first part of this clip, when Snyder says Russian propaganda is marketed to "the European left, and partially the American left, who really do, kind of, tend to think that America is behind everything," also murky. Even if he's only referring to the conflict in the Ukraine, I don't know who he's talking about in the American context. The Republicans will cheerfully refer to anyone who disagrees with any war they want to start as being part of what neocon godmother and Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick liked to call the "blame American first" crowd. But that's a propaganda intimidation tactic of its own. I suppose someone who reads uncritically the articles on Ukraine at, say, the Consortium News website, which is edited by the able and experienced investigative reporter Robert Parry and would qualify as "left", might think some of them one-sidedly skeptical of the neoconservatives' claims against Russia in the Ukraine crisis. But if that site or any other is making the claims quoted above from Snyder's speech, it's escaped my notice.

See this interesting piece from Robert Parry at Consortium News on the blame-America-first insult, How Reagan Enforced US Hypocrisy 12/13/2014. I included a number of links to Consortium News pieces on the Ukraine crisis in Mearsheimer on the Obama Administration's policy on Ukraine 10/11/2014.

We've just had a reminder with the release of the Senate Torture Report this past week that senior national security officials are willing to lie, even to use torture to provide phony support for false claims, in pursuit of foreign policy objectives they think they can't convince the public to support with the truth. All Americans who don't want to be suckered into supporting more unnecessary wars should want to look carefully and critically at claims being made that would lead to major shifts in foreign policy, especially one as significant as a new Cold War with Russia.

And the people advocating for war should be able to come up with a better answer that post-Soviet redbaiting.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014: Argentina vs. the vulture funds

One of the most interesting and significant events of 2014 was the battle of Argentina against Paul Singer and the vulture funds trying to drive Argentina into bankruptcy with the assistance of the apparently senile Nixon-appointed zombie judge Thomas Griesa.

This is a background report on the debt issue with which Argentina has been dealing, V7inter - Soberanía y reestructuración de deuda TV Pública argentina 20.09.2014:

Argentina has gained considerable international support for reforms in the international debt market to prevent such predatory banking and judicial practices as we've seen in this case (Argentina welcomes G20 call for work on debt restructurings Reuters 11/16/2014):

In Brisbane, Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof welcomed the final G20 statement, which recognized the need to strengthen the "orderliness and predictability" of sovereign restructurings, and the challenges of litigation to the process.

"We are extremely satisfied", Kicillof said in comments posted on the government's YouTube page.

"Argentina denounced the actions of vulture funds and this is something that should be taken up by the leaders of countries because the truth is that limiting the reach of speculators ... must be a constant concern of the G20."

In October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged a rethink of how sovereign bonds should be structured to avoid future debt restructurings turning into a repeat of Argentina's disruptive court battle with a few disgruntled creditors.

The IMF called for more robust so-called collective action clauses -- aimed at making restructuring agreements binding on all bondholders -- to remove the risk of some investors shunning debt workouts and taking legal action for years to squeeze cash from the debtor.
Argentina has so far been successful in preventing default and in maintaining its credibility in its international credit-worthiness. ("Un espaldarazo de confianza" Página/12 14.12.2014)

2014: Euro crisis and stopped clocks

The year 2014 is coming to an end. News magazines and websites come out with recaps of major events of the year about this time. I always intend to read through one or two of them. But I normally don't make it.

But I'll try to put a few items up as reflections on events of 2014.

One of the big stories this past year, and for several years before that, has been the eurozone crisis. Budnesbank head Jens Weidmann has been consistent on his solution for it. Austerity. More austerity! And more austerity! He's more of a fan of Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics than Angela Merkel herself is.

But in September, he did manage to be right about the eurozone crisis not being over, in a stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day kind of way. His solutions, of course, was ... more austerity!

Armin Mahler and Anne Seith, German Central Bank Head Weidmann: 'The Euro Crisis Is Not Yet Behind Us' Spiegel International 09/24/2014:

SPIEGEL: Yet Spain, once wracked by the euro-zone crisis, can today borrow money more cheaply than ever before in the history of the monetary union. Do you not think that is a consequence of Mario Draghi's 2012 pledge to save the euro "whatever it takes"?

Weidmann: You shouldn't mistake the thermometer for the illness. I have never disputed that the ECB could impress and move the markets with the announcement that it would make massive purchases of sovereign bonds if necessary. But such measures focus on the symptoms and don't cure the causes of the crisis. As such, the current calm is misleading and even dangerous, because it takes pressure off of the governments to implement badly needed reforms. If they are not undertaken, investors could quickly change their risk evaluations.
In austerity-speak, "badly needed reforms" means cuts wages, slash benefits, cut pensions and public services.

Milton Ezrati had a more accurate view of the road to a soltuion in France and Friends Are Letting Germany Conquer Europe The National Interest 08/24/2014. The article is behind subscription. But quotes the following from Ezrati:

German dominance, even hegemony, will expand if France and the nations of Europe's beleaguered periphery fail to enact fundamental economic reform. Without it, they will remain economically weak, financially fragile, dependent on Germany and subject to its lead. With effective reform, however, France and the periphery have a chance to regain economic vitality and shed the need for German support. These are the options. Ironically, all the initiative lies with the weaker countries. Germany is bound to the union. It will have to play the hand France and Europe's periphery deal it. They will determine whether Berlin gains dominance or whether Europe can restore its former balance.

Commentator Robert Misik writes opitimistically about the slowly building democratic opposition to the Hoover/Brüning pockies, "Merkels antidemokratisches Eliten-Europa ist am Ende" ("Merkel's anti-democratic elite-Europe is at an end"). (EU-Europa kommt auf den richtigen Kurs - aber nur sehr, sehr langsam Der Standard Der Standard 01.06.2014)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Obama and the torture program

Alyona Minkowski has a post detailing the deficiencies of Obama's policy on enforcing the anti-torture laws, Obama's Cowardly Response to Torture Revelations Huffington Post 12/12/2014:

This one sentence really dramatically describes the ugliest side of the Obama Administration from a democratic point of view: "The only man to go to prison in relation to torture is John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who was the first to inform the public that the program existed."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More liberal concern-trolling from Thomas Edsall

I've been toying for years with the idea of setting up a Facebook page called Bernard-Henri Lévy Please Just STFU.

But if I did that, I would feel some obligation to read his stuff on some kind of regular basis to keep a discussion going. And I haven't gotten to the place I'm willing to put myself through that.

Maybe I'll set up a Thomas Edsall Please Just STFU page instead. Because as depressing as it is, I do often taken the time to read his liberal concern-troll advocacy for conservative ideology. The latest I've seen is Have Democrats Failed the White Working Class? New York Times 12/09/2014. He does his usual song-and-dance routine of presenting Republican narrative as brow-furrowing friendly advice to the Democrats. He kicks this one off with:

Why don’t white working-class voters recognize where their economic interests lie? Somewhat self-righteously, Democrats keep asking themselves that question.

A better question would be: What has the Democratic Party done for these voters lately?
Yeah, them thar snotty Democrats thank they know what's good for us Real Amurcans better'n we do ourselves! What a bunch of "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show" snobs, to use a phrase I think I heard somewhere:

What kind of people try to persuade other people that they have programs that will produce the best results? That would be the people known as "politicians." This kind of attempted persuasion take place in recurring rituals known as "campaigns." These are part of a form of governance called "democracy."

But, according to Tom Edsall and the Republicans, the Democrats do it "self-righteously." No self-righteousness on the Republican side, no way. They are very modest in presenting themselves as the party of God, Jesus Christ and the American flag and their Democratic opponents as the enemies of those things. But there's no trace of self-righteousness in the Republicans tirades about "traditional values" and defending the "traditional family," uhn-uhn.

The white working class has been having hard times for, well, several decades. Ole Tom doesn't need fancy words like "neoliberalism" to talk about what might be causing then, fortunately freeing him form having to take a sentence or two to explain what neoliberalism is, since it is still not a staple of the Beltway Village narrative about the world. He explains instead that what causes white workers' problems is black people. And Latinos ("Hispanics"). And wimmin of all kinds and colors.

This is how daily life feels, to many in the white working class. Unlike blacks and Hispanics, whites are not the beneficiaries of affirmative action programs designed to open doors to higher education and better jobs for underrepresented minorities; if anything, these programs serve only to limit their horizons.

Liberal victories in the sexual and women’s rights revolutions – victories that have made the lives of many upscale Democrats more productive and satisfying — appear, from the vantage point of the white working class, to have left many women to struggle as single parents, forced to cope with both male defection from paternal responsibility and the fragmentation of a family structure that was crucial to upward mobility in the postwar period.
Maybe I lack an eye for nuance. But I don't see how this differs in any way from the narrative the Republican Party has been promoting more-or-less continually since 1964, or 1969 if you want to be generous. The fact that it was cheap, transparent demagoguery to begin with an has been debunked over and over in its various incarnations, none of which are very different from each other, doesn't stop Republicans and their liberal concern-troll friends from promoting it endlessly.

The word "racism" does not appear in Edsall's concern-troll column here. And obviously a phrase like "white racism" is left out.

In the original Republican SegregationSpeak, the underlying message is: Dang, boy, them blacks and illegal Latinos and dikey wimmin are takin' away your opportunities. And the Democrat Party supports all of them. Stay with the party of the White Man and vote Republican!

Here's the Tom Edsall mealy-mouthed version of this appeal, from his last paragraph:

The linked problems of eroding social cohesion, the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, deteriorating communal ties and weakened social norms, appear to have led to a degree of chaos and disintegration that those accustomed to a secure – and, indeed, a fixed — social order bitterly resent. The central task that the center-left coalition and its political representative, the Democratic Party, now faces is how to make progress in resolving the conflicting needs and values of the vastly different types of people who populate the bottom ranks of the income distribution.
Dude, why don't you go make out with Bernard-Henri Lévy? The two of you are made for each other!

If you had to untangle this mess one strain of sticky spaghetti from the other, some of the main guidelines could be:

  • How does he define "white working class" and does it make sense? (Answer: probably not.)
  • Does it make jack for sense to talk about female voters as a category completely separate from the "white working class"?  (Answer: No, because any half-decent definition of working class would include most white women.)
  • Can the Democrats effective hold their voting base, much less turn them out on Election Day, if they adopt the implied policy of Edsall's concern-troll analysis, i.e., pander to white racism and become hostile to women's rights? (Answer: as Charlie Pierce sometimes says: Honky, please.)
  • Has the corporate bias of the heavy neoliberal influence in the Democratic Party (see so-called "free trade" treaties) contributed to high unemployment, low social mobility and stagnant-to-declining wages among white people not part of the One Percent? (Answer: Of course.)
  • Would Republican policies reverse that trend? (Answer: Oh, hell no!)
  • Did Republicans candidates get help among working-class voters from President Obama's foolish, repeated efforts to cut benefits on Social Security and Medicare, proposals which Republican ads highlighted in 2010 and 2014? (Answer: Duh!)
  • Will concern-trolls ever stop peddling this nonsense? (Answer: sadly, no.)

White racism in the real world

Sam O'Bryant describes the current state of white racism well in A racist system Arkansas Times 12/11/2014:

This question forgets how systemic racism is in America. At its foundation, we are a nation that was established by white men drafting rules and laws from their point of view. The mistreatment of people of color has never been an isolated incident. It's a continuum of purposeful, often legal, actions to keep people of color in a constant state of second-class citizenship. As noted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article "The Case for Reparations," America's history includes 250 years of legally justified slavery, followed by 90 or so years of lightly challenged Jim Crow polices, overlapped and followed by 60 or so years of separate-but-equal doctrines, and followed by almost 40 years of state-sanctioned economic policies that control where or if black people could own homes. Today, thanks to the effects of the so-called war on drugs, we're living in a new era of Jim Crow. Although rates of drug use are comparable across racial lines, police and prosecutors disproportionately target people of color for arrest and prosecution. The U.S. jails a higher percentage of its black population than did South Africa at the height of apartheid, according to Michelle Alexander in her devastating book, "The New Jim Crow."

"Once you're labeled a felon," Alexander writes, "the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow."