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Saturday, 24 January 2015

Will Putin fall?

The combination of economic sanctions and oil prices have led to the currency crisis in Russia mutating into the greatest crisis for Putin to face. The question which observers should be pondering is whether or not Putin will survive this storm. This is why I felt it necessary to write on the new crisis in Russia:

Putin’s brand of national capitalism, not to be confused with a neoliberal market economy, faces the greatest challenges in its short history. Economic nationalism meant the combination of a flat tax regime, land privatisation, state management of resources and protectionist measures to maintain industry. Oil revenue allowed Russia to secure growth and pay off its Soviet-era debt. But the nationalist push against international capital inevitably comes up against the limits of its own barriers.

Russia has a strategic interest in keeping Ukraine out of the EU-NATO orbit, but this doesn’t mean it produces results for its economy. On the contrary, the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea led to diplomatic and economic pressures being brought against Russian institutions. The sanctions converged with the collapse of oil prices, as OPEC maintains output, confident that it will break even sooner rather than later. The rouble is unstable, sanctions are beginning to cripple international trade, and the economy is logically contracting.

The full article can be read at Souciant.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The real sustance.

The real substance of Obama's state of the union address was in the positions he has already taken and merely reaffirmed yesterday. The truth of his government can be read in these statements. Below, I've included excerpts here and underlined particularly important sentences:

First, we stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists -- from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. (Applause.) We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies. (Applause.)  
At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years. Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who have now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.  
In Iraq and Syria, American leadership -- including our military power -- is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. (Applause.) We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.  
Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority. (Applause.)

Of course, it goes without saying that the Islamic State emerged out of an array of conditions which the US helped to create - not only in its destabilisation of the whole region, but in its encouragement of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to back Syria's Islamist rebels. The fact that the President has done this and reserves the right to act unilaterally against such 'terrorists' would have been noted by any serious observer. Instead the media was largely silent on these points and preferred to focus on 'middle-class economics'. But wait, it gets better.

Second, we’re demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small -- by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. (Applause.)  
Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads -- not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.)

What's missing from this picture? Well, the coup which threw out Viktor Yanukovych was supported by NATO and the EU to bring Ukraine within the US-EU orbit of influence. The US opposes Russian aggression, but only as a response to its own unilateralism. Don't just take my word for it. Here's what Mikhail Gorbachev said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel.

NATO's eastward expansion has destroyed the European security architecture as it was defined in the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The eastern expansion was a 180-degree reversal, a departure from the decision of the Paris Charter in 1990 taken together by all the European states to put the Cold War behind us for good. Russian proposals, like the one by former President Dmitri Medvedev that we should sit down together to work on a new security architecture, were arrogantly ignored by the West. We are now seeing the results.

NATO was founded to counter Soviet aggression. It makes little sense, if we accept its initial claims, why it would continue to exist after the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only does it exist, but it has been expanded. Now Obama brags about the economic sanctions he has imposed on Russia as a punishment. It's a clear message: the US will not accept the standards it applies to others.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

In defence of obscenity.

Whenever you hear the prattle of 'Western values' you should recall Gandhi's words when asked what he thinks to Western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

It's undeniable, Charlie Hebdo spewed a lot of filthy racist trash. However, free-speech should extend to precisely those people with despicable viewpoints; but it's odd that the West pretends it does so. If the French establishment did believe in free-speech then it wouldn't have criminalised Holocaust denial. The same can be said of other countries, if the UK government gives a damn about free-speech then it should ditch its crazy libel laws.

"If you believe in free-speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you dislike," said Noam Chomsky. It's clear much of Europe does not believe in freedom of speech for despicable views. In spite of the fact that the French Republic has long laid claim to the foundations of human rights and civil liberties, it does not act as if it is. It was only in July 2014 that the Hollande government banned the protests over the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. So much for freedom of speech.

Many liberals have been calling for the cartoons to be shown on the BBC and CNN as a kind of anti-clerical defiance. As Arthur Goldhammer argues, the satirists at Charlie Hebdo represented a provocative corner of mass-media in the tradition of gouaille. It's meant to be obscene, offensive and on the edges of acceptable opinion. Of course, this is less true of the Muhammad cartoons, which unites much of liberal Europe, than it is of the racist cartoons of the Chibok girls.

The right to free-speech, which may be limited at the point where violence is explicitly advocated, should be stretched as far as it can be. The right may not be the reason to say disgusting and offensive things, but it can't be policed on such grounds. Nevertheless, it is more in line with the Hebdo spirit to excoriate the magazine for its virulent caricatures than it is to embrace them as 'martyrs'. It's suspect that the magazine is celebrated in this way, and I think that the cartoonists would be suspicious of this process too.

What it seems to confirm is that the provocation of European Muslims really isn't that edgy and isn't repressed at all. The question we should be asking ourselves is: should this be the case? In Goldhammer's words: "To transform the shock of Charlie's obscenities into veneration of its martyrdom is to turn the magazine into the kind of icon against which its irrepressible iconoclasm was directed".

This is a separate observation to saying such views don't deserve protection. Free-speech never meant omnipresence, people have the right to express their viewpoint, no matter how vulgar, but we're not obliged to republish it (though I have here, so you can see what I mean). Just as if a neo-Nazi came into your home and put up a poster denying the Holocaust it's not a violation of free-speech for you to tear it down. Publications and public speech is another matter. The people advocating the Muhammad cartoons be shown on the BBC and CNN are looking for a fight. They want to normalise Charlie Hebdo rather than defend it as the filthy rag it is.