Saturday, 29 March 2014

Quotes on Russia's War on Chechnya.

Chechnya as a Muslim Cause:

"In the West, our perception of the Chechen conflict has been focused on the dangers to the Russian Federation, the internal struggle in Moscow, the his- tory of the quaint "warrior people" who humbled the Tsar in the last century and have been doing the same to the troops of the old Red Army. But pick up a newspaper in Beirut or Cairo and the photographs are of Chechen men wearing Islamic headbands with "God is great" inked on to them in Arabic, of scarved women, of old Muslim men praying, of wooden grave posts with a crescent moon on them. In Russia, and even in the West, Chechnya is an illegal breakaway state threatening the cohesion of Yeltsin's regime; in the Middle East, the Chechens are seen as a Muslim people fighting for survival - with the same power to attract Arab sympathy as the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan once had." - Robert Fisk, 1995

Russia joins the 'War on Terrorism':

"We should look very carefully at this anti-terrorism coalition and who is joining it and why. Russia is happily joining the international coalition because it is delighted to have U.S. support for the horrendous atrocities it is carrying out in its war against Chechnya. It describes that as an anti-terrorist war. In fact it is a murderous terrorist war itself. They’d love to have the United States support it. China is very happy to join because it wants U.S. support for its wars in western China against Muslim groups who, in fact, were part of the coalition in Afghanistan 20 years ago and are now fighting for their rights in China, and China wants to suppress them brutally and would love to have the United States supporting that." – Noam Chomsky, 2001

The destruction of Chechnya:

"Chechnya had enjoyed de facto independence from 1991-94. Its people had observed the speed with which the Baltic republics had been allowed independence and wanted the same for themselves.
Instead they were bombarded. Grozny, the capital, was virtually reduced to dust as 85 percent of its housing was destroyed. In February 1995 two courageous Russian economists, Andrey Illarionov and Boris Lvin published a text in Moscow News arguing in favour of Chechen independence and the paper (unlike its Western counterparts) also published some excellent critical reports that revealed atrocities on a huge scale, eclipsing the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre in Srebrenica. Rape, torture, homeless refugees and tens of thousands dead was the fate of the Chechens. No problem here for Washington and its EU allies." - Tariq Ali, 2013

Putin's Wager.

Since the invasion of Crimea, Putin’s popularity has soared. The results of the Crimean referendum were obviously welcomed in Russia. Putin gave a speech the next day, proclaiming that the languages of Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars, would now be recognised. These events have been interpreted in the West as an illegitimate annexation. However, the Crimean peninsula has only been a part of Ukraine since 1954 when it was amalgamated into the state by Nikita Khrushchev as a gesture of goodwill. This didn’t really matter under Soviet rule, but the post-Soviet era has made Crimean independence a sore spot in the region.
Contrary to what the politicians in Washington and Westminster have said, the decision to seize Crimea must have been a well calculated move on the chessboard. It was not an order that Putin would have given at a whim. After all, the considerations to make are not insignificant by any measure.
Earlier this month, Paul Mason noted the potential of this crisis to sway the global economic order, which could have been Putin’s entire objective. As the US and EU have passed sanction after sanction against individuals in Russia and Crimea, we can certainly Mason’s point. He predicts that the Western response would amount to “the sudden end to toleration of the dodgy Russian money that has flooded into its finance, football and energy systems.”
We can’t have any illusions: oligarchic Russians and the nouveau riche have swarmed to European cities. It has long been the case that Western governments have been critical of Putin’s human rights record while their banks welcome the oligarchs that robbed Russia blind during the 1990’s. Putin knows this, the West knows this, and for him, it a source of continued bitterness.
Six years ago, there was a scandal in Britain after New Labour spin-master Peter Mandelson and then Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne were caught on a yacht in Corfu. The vessel belonged to the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, an aluminium magnate, and one of the richest men in the world.
When the financial crisis put the squeeze on Russia in 2009, the country was subject to factory closures and much higher unemployment. One of the factory towns hit resorted to blocking off the nearest road in protest. The highway was vital to the Russian economy, and Putin had to personally go to the town to defuse the situation.
The factory was owned partly by Deripaska and in a televised meeting, Putin humiliated the oligarch, and scolded the board of directors, calling them all ‘cockroaches.’ This was before having them sign an agreement he had written up. That type of intervention is unimaginable in places like Britain. It made Putin very popular, and also put Western leaders on notice for their economic interactions with Russia, even if they can potentially make Putin rich as well.
Mason went on to claim that if Moscow was faced with economic sanctions, then there could very well be retaliation. So far, we have seen the EU pass sanctions against over thirty people: freezing their assets, imposing travel restrictions, and so on. The sanctions have been derided as ‘toothless,’ and it has been reported that Putin has made it clear to his inner circle that there will be no retaliation, though the Russian foreign ministry has said that they have the right to do so.
The situation is still dangerous, though. The possibility for an economic war has been opened up by the crisis in Ukraine. It may even be a more realistic prospect than outright military conflict.
Military action could trigger a wider recession. We saw some early indicators of this when the Russian stock market plummeted after Putin formally annexed the Crimean peninsula. We can rule out from the outset that the US and the EU would go that far. Former ambassador Christopher Meyer has stated that there was never any serious likelihood that that Western powers would take a military stand over the Russian seizure of Crimea.
The fact that the US and UK are both signatories of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which guarantees the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine actually means very little. A partitioned Ukraine would still count as an independent country. As for NATO, it only has a duty to act if its member-states are threatened, which doesn’t include Ukraine.
Yet there are still signs of escalation. Although “smart sanctions” have been used until now, which target the private assets of individuals, the Obama Administration has listed metallurgy and energy sectors, as well as other industries, as possible targets for expanded sanctions. Britain and France seems more eager than Germany at the prospect of instituting such policy, but it could still occur. The interesting thing about financial warfare is that although tangible weaponry is less likely to be employed, its methods can be even more vicious.
If that happens, then Putin’s long-term reconciliation with China may play to his advantage. There is a reason we are seeing Sino-Russian unity on the UN Security Council. The Sino-Soviet split is now a thing of the past, and the Chinese Communist Party has found itself able to agree with Putin on many issues, such as opposition to US policy in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, it is in the Chinese government’s interests to strategically disrupt Western policy. The CCP has resisted calls to open up its banks to US investment, while maintaining a trade advantage over the West. China may side with the Russian Federation if an economic war comes about from this, which Mason speculates could change globalization irrevocably if the US and EU are in one corner, and Russia and China are in the other.
All this occurs as part of a conflict in Ukraine that has been reduced to market competition. Whatever the grassroots beginnings of the protests, as political economist Aleksandr Buzgalin observes, the conflict in Ukraine is now essentially a struggle between competing sections of oligarchy.
The coalition of forces which seized power in Kiev in February have ultimately taken oligarchs on as cabinet ministers and anointed them to governorships. The revolt’s legitimacy was an attempt to overturn the oligarchic regime of Viktor Yanukovich, through the EU if necessary. Ultimately though, it’s not really about quality of life Ukrainians can enjoy: it is about who exactly gets to plunder the country, its labour, and its resources.
This financial warfare may go further still. Putin is an excellent politician, though. The moral offense we take at his cynicism is actually just further testament to his skill. He is ready to see this crisis through to the end.

Originally written for Souciant on March 26th 2014.

Nick Clegg has Only Himself to Blame.

Some of you may have tuned in to the LBC debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on the European union. This spectacle was hosted by reactionary lard-arse Nick Ferrari. It was everything one would expect. Nothing outside of the oscillation between mainstream liberalism and nationalism came up and this debate can largely be understood as a sign of the rightward trend of British politics over the last four decades. Liberal internationalism and conservative nationalism feed into one another, their relationship is dialectical, both oppositional and complimentary, and ultimately, they spiral into the same downward trajectory. It's no coincidence that the Liberal Democrats signed up for the Coalition with a party torn over Europe and he now finds himself poised against UKIP. For the Conservatives, Nick Clegg is the canary in the mineshaft and little more.

It must have been a disparaging experience for Liberal Nick. No longer a sponge sucking up all those disenchanted votes Nick Clegg stood as the establishment figure with his old place usurped by Nigel Farage of all people. Of course, the underdog status of UKIP is a falsehood. Nigel Farage railed against the bankrupt establishment, which Clegg now embodies so thoroughly, all the while UKIP stands in necessary relation to the status quo. He was probably expecting reason to triumph over reaction. He littered his phraseology with references to 'dogma' and appealed to common-sense. Bad moves by definition in this kind of debate. I don't know how he could have expected it to have gone his way. Without any grounding to maneouvre on economic and domestic policy (where he is wedded to Conservative policy-makers) the only issue of contention was going to immigration. That is hardly a threat to the Conservative Party. And of course UKIP has no interest in combating neoliberalism.

Outside of conventional politics the demagogue sets himself and poses as raising the real questions, the dangerous questions, to which the Establishment then reacts to preserve itself. As with Romania we find that the UKIP lot are playing this game again. The real issue that the people in countries like Romania and Bulgaria are fleeing from social conditions produced by neoliberal globalisation cannot be raised. Should we repair the damage? Now that's a dangerous question! It would only mean that the level of immigration would be based on the free movement of people, rather than on economic desperation. The Lib Dems can't make such a point because they've accepted the neoliberal model prescribed by Brussels, Whitehall, and Washington; while the only criticism UKIP may wage is that this hasn't gone far enough in tearing through all forms of state-ownership. This is why a key issue was never mentioned, namely the EU-US free trade deal currently being implemented by stealth.

The Liberal Democrats emerged from the consolidation of gains for a third party after the founding of the Social Democratic Party from the right-wing MPs who abandoned Labour. The loss of 10% of their MPs helped to secure Labour's defeat and a victory for Thatcher in 1983. So you can see how far the Party has come since helping to divide up the voters for Thatcherism thirty years ago. They have now graduated to joining those forces they helped deliver Britain to in the 1980s. This is the stinking filth of the body of liberalism: inaction, hot-air, and endless compromise. It's clear the trilateral consensus are not only complacent in the face of the nationalist reaction to the rapid internationalising trend of capitalism. We see this quite well demonstrated in Ukraine where a coalition of neoliberals, conservatives, ultra-nationalists, and oligarchs, have seized power only to wrench the country into the orbit of the European Union and open it up to the IMF prescription for an economic miracle.

Meanwhile here in Britain we find UKIP is looking to force the Conservatives further and further to the right as it condemns the EU. Clegg doesn't deserve our pity for his pathetic belief that if he just said the right words the audience would dutifully nod their heads for him. He was asking for the kicking he got.

Where was the outrage over Chechnya?

There's plenty of outrage in the West over Russian actions in Ukraine. Where was all this bluster in the 1990s when Russia waged war on Chechnya? Tariq Ali wrote a great article for The Guardian today raising this very question. He concluded:

The Crimean affair led to barely any loss of life, and the population clearly wanted to be part of Russia. The White House's reaction has been the opposite of its reaction to Chechnya. Why? Because Putin, unlike Yeltsin, is refusing to play ball any more on the things that matter such as Nato expansion, sanctions on Iran, Syria etc. As a result, he has become evil incarnate. And all this because he has decided to contest US hegemony by using the methods often deployed by the west. (France's repeated incursions in Africa are but one example.) 
If the US insists on using the Nato magnet to attract the Ukraine, it is likely that Moscow will detach the eastern part of the country. Those who really value Ukrainian sovereignty should opt for real independence and a positive neutrality: neither a plaything of the west nor Moscow.

Putin inherited the legacy of Russian policy in Chechnya. He has capitalised on this enormously over the years in different ways and it's a record worth exploring. In his bid for power Boris Yeltsin had conspired with the leaders of Soviet republics to dissolve the Soviet Union. In the aftermath secessionists in less convenient parts of the former Soviet Union, including Chechnya, which would make a bid for independence from Russia as soon as the old Communist leaders were overthrown. Yeltsin had gotten more than the powers he had sought at home. The Chechen nationalist Dzhokhar Dudayev was elected President of Ichkeria - effectively the independent Chechen state - in the midst of increasing instability and tension in the region. With the eruption of armed conflict in neighbouring North Ossetia the Chechens feared the presence of Russian troops and the prospects of escalation.

Dudayev initiated a state of emergency after Russian troops moved to the Chechen border. He had already faced a coup attempt from his opponents. The opposition would turn to armed means of deposing Dudayev in 1994. By this point Yeltsin was keen to bolster his popularity at home after his economic policies had led to disaster. The instability in Chechnya offered an opportunity for Yeltsin. The Russians lent support to the armed opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush his example of independence. Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Eventuating in the Battle of Grozny the Russian government was humiliated after the Chechens captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift clandestine operation to topple the government.

Still looking for a boost in ratings Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all factions in Chechnya (though not his own forces) demanding that they disarm and surrender. Knowing that this wouldn’t happen, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to invade and restore order and defend Russia’s territorial integrity. The Russian Security Council had already set its plans to intervene before Yeltsin even made the ultimatum. The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated. Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the killed range to 100,000 along with 500,000 people displaced.

Hipster Awareness.

I have to be honest. I had no idea what a 'Hipster' was four or five years ago. I was soon alerted to their existence by the Dickhead song of 2010 and since then I have been pretty conscious of Hipsterdom, or at least what we think it is. Ever since I have seen them everywhere and everyone has a disdainful remark to make regarding them. It's worth looking into the history of subcultures to really situate the hipster. Adam Curtis churned out an interesting article on his blog in time for the Mayoral election of 2012. He focused on Norman Mailer, who had been an early proponent and self-described 'Hipster' in the 1950s and 60s. He deemed it a culture of outsiders first pioneered by Black Americans in response to racial oppression, they were the original outsiders, only to overtaken by 'white negroes' as the outsider culture was co-opted. Curtis refers us to this section of Mailer's writing:

"In such places as Greenwich Village a menage-a-trois was completed - the bohemian and the 'juvenile delinquent' came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in the wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. 
So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro." 

This seems a far cry from the blokes in Shoreditch somehow. You might want to read Rob Horning's piece if you want something more up to scratch. One suspects the Hipster has come a long way since then, and yet Curtis goes on to tell us:

Mailer also pointed out that this new breed of "psychic outlaw" could be equally a candidate for the most reactionary or the most radical of political movements. And in the film there is a fascinating scene where Mailer takes on the trades unions on one of the avenues in New York. He tells them that in the past they were a heroic movement - but that now they have become a repressive, stultifying force in society - in particular in the way they are refusing to allow blacks and hispanics to move up society. It is an odd moment because as you watch you realise that it was elements of this rebellious individualism that both Thatcher and Reagan would later harness. And that possibly, if the left had got hold of it earlier, then the history of the West might have been very different.

Last year I found another video from Mike Rugnetta on YouTube about Hipsterdom. What provokes hatred against the Hipsters is that they don't disavow what every other subculture do, e.g. that their scene is made up of performance Hipsters wear things for irony whereas Punks and Goths and even wannabe gangsters claim a certain dress code, slang, music and mindset to be authentic to their scene. Actually sticking drawing pins through your flesh or leaving the sticker on your cap is about as 'authentic' as Hipsters are in buying over-sized glasses and growing funny beards. Rugnetta suggests it's a matter of cultural capital, and people feel the flippant appropriation of features of fashions undermines the value of the trend. But that still seems incoherent. The reasons to undertake a certain action are inseparable from it to some extent, but not substantial enough to change the content of the action and its significance. The reasons people smoke are not significant enough to change smoking and its consequences.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Gore Vidal and the Swingers.

As a Vidalophile I'm currently reading Myra Breckenridge (1968), a book Gore described as a masterpiece in bad-taste, which has been good fun so far and I foresee much more fun in this wonderful satire written at the apogee of the sexual revolution. The lead character, of whom the novel is named after, sets out to smash traditional masculinity, or in so many words:

I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life - if such a thing exists - accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfil my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.

One wonders how much of Vidal is in Myra. Of course, the author created the protagonist so it is natural for one to bleed into another and possibly vice versa. I bet a lot of the sex and drugs of the book comes out of the author's own lived-experience (he's said to have bedded more than 2,000). Gore had bought into Malthusian fantasies of overpopulation, so does Breckenridge. Gore was suspicious of Freudianism and traditional moralism in almost equal spades, so we find the same in Breckenridge. The work is littered with all of this. In a later passage Breckenridge weighs up the cultural mythology against the socio-economic reality when it comes to masculinity:

On the one hand, they must appear to accept without question our culture's myth that the male must be dominant, aggressive, woman-oriented. On the other hand, they are perfectly aware that few men are anything but slaves to an economic and social system that does not allow them to knock people down as proof of virility or in any way act out the traditional role. As a result, the young men compenstate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.

As this is a chapter in which the protagonist attends an orgy, the man born Eugene Luther writes:

It is the wisdom of the male swinger to know what he is: a man who is socially and economically weak, as much put upon by women as by society. Accepting his situation, he is able to assert himself through a polymorphic sexual abandon in which the lines between the sexes dissolve, to the delight of all. I suspect that this may be the only workable pattern for the future...

He goes on to remark that the 'rigid old-fashioned masculinity' is bound to end in either "defeat or frustration". Who can blame him for this conclusion? It's somewhat obvious in retrospect. Perhaps it was much less obvious in 1968 when the old conventions seemed to be approaching a precipice in the minds of so many optimists. It made me laugh, but it also reminded me of those swinger ads from the Sixties posted by Sabotage Times about a month ago.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

5 Years of Philistia.

I've been posting regularly on here for 5 years now. In that time I've blogged articles, as well as written essays, reposted writings of those I admire, and commented on a wide variety of subjects - from AV and alcohol to self-service machines and Syria - probably too varied, some would argue. Only the pace of events has challenged my typing abilities. I've since tried to expand my online presence to other websites and outlets, such efforts I'll be continuing and with much more success I hope. Below I've outlined a couple of new changes and additions to the blog coming up soon.

Writing aims: Since I think self-criticism is important I'm starting up a series of articles in which I go through old arguments where I could have taken a better line. The first article was posted just before the New Year, the subject: race and the riots. Future plans include my writings on the Libyan civil war, as well as some of my earliest articles. I do intend to produce something on my transition from anarchism to socialism at some point. Perhaps I'll write up a short critique of anarchism. On that note I've got to write more about 'New Atheism', as well as go after more liberal pieties around technological and scientism.

New comment policy: As I'm sick of spam and other assorted bullplop I have decided to remove the comment section of the blog. I'll be explaining why in a yet to be completed page, which will be added some time in the near future (at which point the comment section will disappear). The few interesting, and entertaining, comments will be posted on a separate page for all to see. I've created a proper email account for the blog - - for anyone shouty enough to follow up a post. Any and all feed back will be welcome. Any nutty rants that flood my inbox will be posted for all to see.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

What kind of regime does Putin head?

The Western mass-media have had for many years the problem of how to characterise the Russian government under Vladimir Putin. The most often characterisation draws upon crude simplifications of Russian history: the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. We're told Putin is a mini-Stalin and a mini-Tsar all in one. This is highly misleading for a number of reasons. Two come to mind immediately.

Firstly, it implies that the possibility of aggressive expansionism by Russia is a plausible likelihood. Putin has no plans to provoke a full-blown conflict with the European powers. He knows how vulnerable Russia is to such opponents. Putin now acts to hold-off encroaching Western influence and NATO outposts from the borders of the Russian Federation. It's not in the Russian interests to have NATO missile systems on its borders so close to major cities. He could live with Ukraine becoming a EU member-state, as long as the gas network is not effected seriously. In this regard, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and de facto annexation of Crimea does not compare to Stalin's 'spreading the revolution' by rifle and bayonet. Even when Stalin acted to build a buffer-zone of satellite states in Eastern and Southern Europe it was not a bid for global domination. It was about the consolidation of Soviet power by securing the country from any future Western intervention. The position Putin has taken is defined by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, the phase of development we currently see in Russia has little precedent in previous historical conditions. The Tsars of the 19th Century presided over a feudal society with an emerging industrial and capitalist base, perching over Orthodox Christendom at home and imperialism abroad. The USSR was defined by the exacerbation of such conditions of scarcity and dislocation in the First World War and Civil War. The mission was not to reproduce the feudal order of the past, nor to build from its remains a capitalist society, it was to establish the material pre-conditions for socialism. That amounted to the industrialisation of Russian society to create the material surplus of a capitalist society by non-capitalist means and ultimately to non-capitalist ends. The promised communist future never arose from this process. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 the whole edifice was then broken down and digested by economic shock therapy. Putin emerges out of this historical conjuncture.

So we find the situation in Russia is a period distinct from preceding epochs. The Russian Federation emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union to be forced through primitive accumulation by the Yeltsin administration. The immense resources were handed over to a small clique around Yeltsin as the Russian state-sector and public assets were dismembered and chucked to these ravenous beasts. The transformation of the material base of Russian society inevitably reverberated throughout its superstructure. The state became so weighed down by its own corruption that the oligarchs around Yeltsin decided to replace him with Putin. The hope was that Putin would deal with the officials looking to crackdown on corruption while simultaneously reinstating authority in the government. The liberalisation of the economy had led to the formation of an internationalising class, which in turn spurred on a recrudescent nationalism.

I've written before that it seem as if the Russian President stands at the apex where anti-political purism and ultra-political nationalism meet. He initially presented himself as a non-political man of action, who will enforce order and stability. Of course, there is nothing 'non-political' about the man at all. He appeals to Soviet nostalgia, particularly with regard to the defeat of German Fascism. Yet only in nationalist terms, the Soviet era was a great era when Russia wielded power on the world stage. The world was not unipolar and Russians did not have to live in fear of Western aggression. The victories in Georgia and Chechnya and now Ukraine can be understood as reactive. Putin wants to fend-off encroachments of non-Russian influence, primarily from the US, but also from independent actors, such as Chechen Islamists and separatists.

Many like to talk about 'Putinism' as if it signifies a clear characterisation of the Russian government. It is certain that the managed democracy in Russia represents a new order. The rapid and chaotic pace of primitive accumulation under Boris Yeltsin has been slowed by Putin, but it is not over by any means. It was Putin who furthered the privatisation of land. The concentration of economic power in the hands of oligarchs sits side-by-side with the state power. 'Putinism' is a very misleading and vague term. It's mainly another way of carrying out the spurious comparison between Putin and Stalin. The phrase 'Stalinism' was really used to signify a deviation from Marxism by the Soviet leadership. Perhaps in a similar vein 'Putinism' refers to a deviation from the Washington consensus which the Yeltsin administration was completely embedded in.

Aleksandr Buzgalin calls it 'jurassic capitalism' where the old state-order, as well as even older feudal structures (i.e. the Church), stand alongside a capitalist economy. We might see this as a developing form of corporatism or 'national' capitalism, rather than the internationalist and liberal variety we are so comfortable with in Western Europe. It's certain that Putin is a part of the right-wing economic consensus that has been ruling Russia since the Soviet Union was dissolved. But it is not the same as it was in the 1990s. The sympathies Putin has drawn from Westerners have been insightful. Among them we find the British journalist Peter Hitchens, a cultural-traditionalist conservative, who sees Putin as taking a stand against neoliberal globalization in defence of national sovereignty. Then there is the fascist Nick Griffin who sees Russia as the last bastion of the "white race".

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Update on Lockerbie.

In the latest Al-Jazeera documentary on the Lockerbie bombing a former Iranian intelligence officer was interviewed. Abolghassem Mesbahi claims that Tehran decided to retaliate against the US after the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988.  As an intelligence officer Mesbahi answered to President Rafsanjani and claimed Ayatollah Khomeini backed the plan to avenge Flight 655. The civilian airliner was mistaken for an F14 Tomcat about to attack and shot down over the Persian Gulf and 290 people died. Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein reported back in 1988: "A pair of binoculars could have told the officers of the Vincennes what was flying overhead. But binoculars don’t cost half a billion dollars. The more complex the weaponry, the deeper the pork barrel and the more swollen the bottom line." It was in December 1988 that Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

It seems plausible. In 1996 the Clinton administration cut a deal with President Rafsanjani to compensate the families of the victims with payments of over $200,000 per passenger amounting to more than $60 million. A part of the deal was that the US government did not apologise nor admit any responsibility for what it maintains was a 'mistake'. The Iranian government has consistently disputed this claim. Al-Jazeera interviewed Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, who claims that the Iranians turned to a free-lance Palestinian group to take down five planes. The group in question has been named by various sources as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC for short). The main problem is that we may never know the full truth as the trial of al-Megrahi was clearly so flawed. It's doubtful that there will be any retrospective investigation.

Al-Jazeera has covered this subject before. In 2011 the channel gave a platform to Scottish defence investigator George Thomson, who claims that the forensic evidence against al-Megrahi was "inaccurate" and may have been contaminated. In 2012 Al-Jazeera interviewed al-Megrahi on his deathbed and revealed that the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission had re-examined the case and had recommended it be referred back to the courts. I've covered this story myself on and off since 2009 when al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds to the outrage of the US hawks and their British sycophants. I first came across the claims in an article by John Pilger, which I drew heavily on in my early writing on this subject. Since then a lot has transpired in Libya, the Gaddafi regime disintegrated before a NATO onslaught and the country now seems to be rapidly descending into anarchy.

After Al-Jazeera released its documentary the BBC, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph, have given the claims coverage. With both Gaddafi and al-Megrahi in the ground it may be time for a serious reflection on what went on in 1988 and how the Lockerbie case was handled in the British legal system. It certainly seems that the UK media has opened itself to the possibility that Iran retaliated and that in turn opens up all kinds of troubling questions.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A Dirty Old Man.

The poet and self-described dirty old man Charles Bukowski died twenty years ago. He passed after a battle with leukaemia in which he finished his novel Pulp (1993). He gave up the ghost with a sigh of relief. He was the American equivalent of CĂ©line. He lived his work. It was the end of the Beatniks and the Hippies when Bukowski burst onto the scene, having been crowned King of the Little Magazines, and churned an incredible bulk of poems and short stories from the 1940s onwards. It was a hard struggle, writing from the gutter, mainly for others who found themselves there too.

Other poets such as WH Auden had seen structure, order and stability (not to mention hard work!) as the vital components to the life of a writer, Charles Bukowski was the manifest opposite and revelled in it. The writing was meant to be as alive as you are, so it was meant to sweat and bleed and reek to high heaven. It's all on show. As Nietzsche put it "Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them." He had little time for formal questions, and regarded the matter with scorn, as a retreat for the writer, carving out a minimalist body of work instead. He hated rules and regulations and quickly found enemies and friends. The novels were a fictionalised autobiography centred around Henry Chinaski. It is a portrayal of life in the darkest corners of American society, at times absurdly comic, inexplicable, and it all comes with an authenticity in its gritty texture as each word has to carry its own weight.

A friend of mine told me she feels like having shower after reading Bukowski's prose. As readers we follow the travails of Chinaski through dirt cheap apartments, menial work, drunken brawls, gambling, sexual escapades, and eventually to Hollywood. He opened Post Office (1971) with a real hook "It began as a mistake." And with that he reels you in to read a tale of a dozen years as a postie. He had written the book in about a month, after John Martin came to him and made an unconditional pledge. Martin promised to give Bukowski 25% of his earnings for life - it amounted to $100 at the time - every month if he quits and writes full time. Whether or not they succeeded the money would be there. It was this guarantee of a minimal income that gave him the motivation to leave the post office and start work on a novel. It was also what John Martin needed to build up Black Sparrow Books.

It was in the late 60s that Bukowski became a part of the countervailing forces of American culture and society. He had a column in the LA Free Press and Open City - with a column called 'Notes of a Dirty Old Man'. The Beat Generation was on the wane and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was on the lookout for the next big thing when he came across Bukowski. It should not surprise anyone that he was not too impressed with the Hippies. After all, this is the same poet who loathed Walt Disney for creating Mickey Mouse. He shared this disdain for the Hippie with Jack Kerouac, Much like Kerouac the dirty old man would be hoovered up by the prevailing spirit of Western life. It's almost as if there was no escaping it. The Hudson driven by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957) now sits in a museum with the same dust on it. There is Jack Kerouac Alley, just as there is Bukowski Court.

In Factotum (1975) Bukowski rails further against the Protestant work ethic and instead preached the refusal to work: "How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?" He was an individualist who hated rules, but he offered a counter-individualism to the pretences of the 'American dream' and its false promise of paradise by hard labour. He spat on its sunny optimism and expressed antipathy towards society at large. Solitude was the alternative. It was a conservative solution in that it had no care for the problems of society, or of people more generally. The solitary alternative was a kind of isolationism, an active policy of non-intervention with the world and its social ills.

It wasn't just a literary trope as we find if we examine his life. In the days when his father called him Heinrich, the young Bukowski studied at LA City College in the late 1930s just on the onset of the War. Once it had started he had moved to New York City and would explore the East Coast. He worked whatever menial jobs he could - even irking a living in a pickle factory - and filled his spare time with typing and drinking. He was first published at the age of 24 and that same year he was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of draft evasion. Bukowski was held for seventeen days in Moyamensing Prison before going on to fail a mandatory psychological exam. He had escaped conscription. Given the militaristic culture of the US there has been some discussion on whether Bukowski harboured pro-Nazi sympathies in those days. It seems more plausible that the young Bukowski simply evaded the draft because he didn't see any worthwhile effectuality in military service. It doesn't take a Nazi to believe that.

Besides, the most laden prejudice in Bukowski's work is not anti-Semitism by any match. It is misogyny, not racism. If Bukowski had been a fascist it would have been obvious. He had a lot to hide, but he chose not to. He was certainly a male chauvinist. In Post Office Bukowski puts it bluntly "Women were meant to suffer; no wonder they asked for constant declarations of love." Misogyny is certainly a major part of Bukowski's writing. The same year that the book came out Bukowski wrote in a letter to a friend "Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell." We got a glimpse into this 'living hell' in The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985) in which we can witness him verbally abusing and kicking his wife Linda off of their sofa.

We shouldn't turn a blind eye to Bukowski's misogyny even if we do take pleasure in the unexpected exuberance in his melancholic free-verse. It's charged with a life-affirming spark. Unlike the domesticated version of individuality Hank Chinaski finds more life in the bars than in the sweat and toil of the factory. This was at a time when the US was a major industrial and manufacturing hub, yet it was on its way to deindustrialisation. It's not clear where this man would fit in today. It was a different America where Chinaski roamed free. It's plausible he would have much more company in a post-industrial capitalist society. He writes "The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me." Elsewhere the dirty realist invites us to "go all the way" even at great cost to ourselves.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Tony Benn - He Encouraged Us.

You've all heard it said. It is one of the leading cliches in politics: the older one gets, the wider one's waistband expands, and the more conservative one becomes. There are notable exceptions to such sad cases that affirm this dictum of aging reactionaries. One such prominent case was Tony Benn, who started out as a mainstream Labour politician of the social democratic post-war establishment, only move further to the Left as he passed through Parliament and more than one Labour cabinet. The only thing startling about the old man was that he was ever a banal centrist.

The praise now being showered on Tony Benn relegates him to the dull realm of acceptability. It was not so in the days when Benn posed a serious challenge to the Labour leadership and the prevailing Cold War consensus. The Murdoch gutter press went after him with characteristic fairness, they went through his bins, produced a bogus report on his mental well-being, and probably tapped his land-line. The hysterical press barons saw a dictator of the proletariat on the horizon, but they also saw a similar figure under their beds at night. Those days are long gone. The Soviet Union collapsed and with it the threat of democratic socialism evaporated. The death of socialism and the end of history were proclaimed. Only liberal capitalism was left standing, seemingly everywhere triumphant. A socialist like Benn could be praised for his integrity only because the game was over. The conservatives and liberals can now applaud him precisely because they think the battle is over and his ideas don't really work.

No longer a prospective dictator, we find Anthony Wedgewood can be lauded as a man of principle from the old-fashioned days of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. The exactitude of the principles if a another matter entirely, we're led to believe that the 'Old' Labour Party was for stripping away the wealth of the propertied classes. It just didn't work. It turned Britain into the Sick Man of Europe. Have no doubt about it, the Labour government of 1945 to 1951 established a welfare state and mixed economy which produced greater development, economic stability, and growth, than have been enjoyed since the post-war settlement was dismantled from 1975 onwards. As much a creature of the War (not to be confused with any mere wars) and the social democratic consensus of the 1950s and 60s Benn had the qualifications to speak for the anti-war movement and the socialist movement.

As a Labour politician who lived through the first Wilson administration which had sought to deliver significant rates of growth rather than address the distributional basis of the economy. The hope was that the growth would raise living standards for the working-class without really changing the class structure of Britain. Yet Wilson had come to power just as an economic boom was hurtling out of control. The government had to look to hold down wages and prices to get a grip on inflation. In the midst of this Tony Benn was made the Minister of Technology and would go on to chair the Industrial Reorganisation Committee. He spent the last years of the Wilson government picking winners and backing takeovers in the midst of the Jim Slater era of asset stripping and ram-raids on corporate structures.

History is full of ironies. It was the beginning of the deindustrialisation of Britain that would eventuate in the 1980s and 90s. The conditions of the post-war settlement which amounted to the grave crises of the 70s are what led the way for Thatcherism and later Blairism. Only for the new establishment to lead to the current crisis we're living with today. The vast swathe of Labour parliamentarians were on board with the new consensus by the 80s and many of them had been even before it had fully emerged from the womb of social democracy. It was the Callaghan government which had signed up for the IMF austerity programme, which Denis Healey later admitted was unnecessary and probably cost Labour the election. We can and should praise Benn for learning from this experience and having the fortitude to take the stances he did against the onslaught which was well underway by 1979.

The stagnation of the 1970s matched a political crisis within the establishment itself. The Conservative Party wasn't going to forget the humiliation of 1974 and was determined to inflict a historic defeat on the trade unions. Under these conditions Margaret Thatcher came to the foreground. Originally the candidate was going to be Keith Joseph, who had helped to spread the ideas of Milton Friedman. He argued the crisis was down to the decline of wealth-producing sectors of the economy and the growth of the public sector and government. It was tremendously popular in contrast to the perceived bungling of Ted Heath. In the end Joseph eliminated himself by giving a eugenicist speech on poor mothers and their children. This may have been the exuberance of the emerging consensus which would be consolidated under Thatcher. Few people saw what was coming.

The major ideological triumphs of the Thatcher regime can be rounded down to just two: the Falklands War and the Miners' Strike. Tony Benn was on the right side in both instances. He saw that the war was an unnecessary loss of life and should have been handled through the United Nations. It really was a battle between two bald men fought over a comb. Without the war the Thatcher government may have well paid the price for its vandalism and suffered a defeat in 1983. Instead the Conservatives benefited from the patriotic fervour whipped up for the war. It's possible that the subsequent battle over the mines would have not arisen had the tide been turned back at that point. Once the miners had been defeated in 1985 the Thatcherite era had well and truly consolidated its gains and could go on to further victories. The labour movement that had vanquished Heath was smashed.

Even in the face of such defeats Benn stood strong and kept to his principles. He maintained his position as MP for Chesterfield and condemned the pit closures which would toss so many onto the trash heap. He stood as a voice of working-class interests against the tidal wave of Thatcherism and its bid to dismantle the entire edifice of social democracy. He remained steadfast in his optimism, at a time when many despaired, and had good reason to do so. The arguments he put forward were rooted in common-sense and populist appeals to the moral collectivism of the people. He was not a Marxist, but a left-moralist. The influence of the Fabian tradition, with its gradualist approach, and fetish for reform, can be picked up here; but there's also a break with Fabian progressivism in Benn's shift to the Left. His faith in the democratic mechanism is not as lukewarm as some on the hard Left may like to claim. The welfare state was socialist development, but it wasn't the end itself. He wanted to see democracy extended to the economy, it was a syndicalist call for industrial democracy.

Yeltsin Nostalgia.

Today’s tensions with Vladimir Putin probably make American policymakers nostalgic for the days of Boris Yeltsin. If we wish to understand today’s Russia, we have to look at the way the Federation emerged from the tumultuous collapse of the USSR. Putin’s allegiances were clear from the beginning. He was not a mindless KGB thug, as he is often portrayed.His intelligence career ended with a principled stance in support of Mikhail Gorbachev, and against his superiors, when he opposed the Communist attempt to overthrow the leader and turn back the tide in 1991. Years later, much of his ideology would be affected by its fallout.
The possibility of a new order was realistic in the days before the attempted coup. Gorbachev had initiated a modicum of reform. The bloody war in Afghanistan was over. It looked as if the US might actually want a settlement on missiles. Bush had promised the Soviet leader that he wouldn’t expand NATO any further eastwards. It’s no wonder  that the majority of Russians, along with Putin, were on the side of glasnost and perestroika.
However, Yeltsin, and his backers, had other plans. His ambitions were right for the time, although they were wrong for Russia. His ascendency came at the heel of the Bush administration’s efforts to back nationalists in Yugoslavia, adjusting its aid policies accordingly and ending Josip Broz Tito’s dream of a state for all Southern Slavs. Following suit, Bush took the side of Russian nationalism in order to definitively break up the Soviet Union.
The “great reformer” Gorbachev, and his supporters, were a hindrance to these objectives. Thus, the United States backed Yeltsin, who became instantly popular in the aftermath of the botched coup. Many democrats hoped that their new political centre would guide Russia into a new era. However, the enthusiasm wouldn’t last, since Yeltsin’s real agenda had little to do with democracy.
The right-wing consensus was that a selection of tiny, fractured states would succeed the USSR. They were designed in this manner so that they could easily be picked off, and be subjected to economic underdevelopment. These plans aligned with Yeltsin’s personal aims for power and grandeur in the post-Cold War era.
The Russian President was integral to it happening. In a series of manoeuvres, Yeltsin cut deals with the various leaders of Soviet republics, including Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and saw the Soviet Union dissolved. Yeltsin could do this because Gorbachev had guaranteed a policy of non-intervention towards Eastern Europe. Signalling just how much the balance of power had shifted after the events of 1991, Gorbachev’s resignation was accepted pre-emptively.
Shock Therapy
The fall of Gorbachev marked the end of the Soviet era and set things in a completely new direction. Russia’s Parliament gave Yeltsin free reign to implement an economic programme of rapid deregulation and privatisation, known as shock therapy. Yeltsin had the advice of US economist Jeffrey Sachs and Clinton administration official Larry Summers, who is often blamed for the post-Communist Russia’s first, and most severe downturn. The plan was to establish the conditions for a market society as fast as possible.
First, price controls were eliminated. The resulting hyperinflation quickly ate through the savings of most Russians. This was soon followed with a rapid privatisation of over 200,000 state-run companies.
The Russian people suffered greatly for this and the rouble was tremendously devalued. Living standards plummeted. Millions fell into unemployment. Even the employed were not guaranteed a wage. Every Russian was given vouchers to buy shares in the newly private companies. However, since most were desperate for cash, they sold their vouchers cheaply to ruthless businessmen who began to organize the early phases of “mafia rule.”
After a year of ruling by decree, Yeltsin’s struggles with wresting government controls from parliament and state institutions reached a head. Apart from its effects on citizens, the privatization program had also led to a credit crunch and heavy taxes, causing a prolonged depression. Legislative-executive tensions peaked with the 1993 constitutional crisis, when Parliament presented its own draft constitution.
This quickly led to a general repeal of ‘shock therapy,’ and Yeltsin responded by dissolving the legislature and suspending Russia’s constitution. The Clinton administration, along with many Western governments, backed Yeltsin’s decision to shell Moscow’s White House when it was occupied in protest. This was the bloodiest non-foreign violence that Moscow had seen since the October Revolution. Yeltsin justified it by saying it was necessary to remove impediments to a market economy.
After he regained control, the market reforms went further. More price controls were removed, going as far as basic food stuffs like bread. State expenditure on social services was slashed, and the rate of privatization increased dramatically. Yeltsin found enthusiastic support in a newly ascendant upper-class, later to be dubbed “the oligarchs.” He assisted them in wiring approximately $2 billion out of the country per month. He also undersold enormous industrial assets and resources to his constituents at sometimes less than 2% of their actual value.
The end result was that by 2000, 74 million people were in poverty, with 37 million of them ranked as “desperate.” Meanwhile, Moscow became home to more billionaires than other city in the world.
Yeltsin was a barely functional figurehead by 1999, and kept a coterie of close advisors and friends around him at all times. It included oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky. Although corrupt, and exploitative, many Western leaders were relieved to see the Federation controlled by people who were reliably compliant. This same entourage would be the one that ultimately selected Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.
He was an appealing choice. Yeltsin may have survived multiple crises, but the Kremlin was wracked with corruption scandals. Putin was head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, and oligarchs thought it could use him as a battering ram against their enemies who were looking to crack down on their activities. Putin was soon made Prime Minister in 1999, and Yeltsin’s resignation was secured the same year.
Putin’s Wager
The oligarchs had underestimated Putin. He skilfully used a series of terrorist attacks as a justification to wagewar in Chechnya and consolidate his rule. The conflict boosted his popularity, and also legitimized his budding push for an Orthodox Christian nationalism.
He followed up by turning on The Family, rather than simply rubber-stamping their extraction of wealth. Shortly after Putin became President in 2000, Boris Berezovsky fled to London to escape arrest, and was soon joined by other oligarchs who now live in exile. They were smashed by Putin, who strengthened his position as a Hobbesian force of stability after the disarray of the 1990s.
Putin didn’t take long to find new oligarchs to support his rule, ones that were subservient to him and disproportionately employed in the energy industry. He reasserted the role of the state and buttressed his rule with tough appeals to populist chauvinism, which affected such decisions as the 2002 storming of the Dubrovka theater.
Putin is now seen as the man who can flush out all the “problems” affecting Russian society, whether they be Chechen terrorists, corrupt oligarchs, or more recently, homosexuals. The contrast with Yeltsin is stark. The Soviet Union isn’t back, but for Putin’s supporters, Russia is strong again.
This is exhausting for Western leaders, who yearn for a Yeltsin Kremlin. The difference between Putin and Yeltsin is the spin of the strongman policies. Yeltsin’s policies rarely antagonized the West, while Putin almost craves the opportunity.
This is how we should read the international outcry against Russia’s most recent military incursions: one in Georgia, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. Both efforts were preceded by Yeltsin’s decision to invade Chechnya in 1994, setting off an ongoing conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. However, Chechnya still rarely gets substantive coverage in Western media outlets, and certainly did not provoke the same level of Western outrage when Yeltsin was at the helm.
The real problem is Putin himself, who is comparatively disagreeable to say the least. His Kremlin is also much less willing to accept the expansion of NATO outposts into bordering states. Putin’s Russia is a brutal one, which deserves the fear and loathing it provokes. However, for Western leaders, it is despised mainly because of what it represents. Putin’s Russia is a Russia that has abandoned Yeltsin’s subservient market reforms, and positions itself against the United States in a manner that many believed had died with the Soviet Union.
The evaporation of Viktor Yanukovych’s government was welcomed by many in Ukraine and in the West. It was not welcomed in Russia, partly for reasons that any military historian can grasp. Russia has long been vulnerable to invasion on its Western frontier. One of Stalin’s major motivations for building the Eastern bloc was to create a buffer-zone between “the motherland” and Western powers. This is understandable, given that 23 million Russians died during World War II. Those concerns also framed the vicious crackdowns of 1956 and 1968.
However, since the world appears to have moved beyond major interstate warfare, these concerns are moot, for the most part. They make for strong rhetoric, but the real problem is that Putin recognizes how the EU’s and NATO’s presence in Ukraine will affect gas pipelines. This is part of the reason that Russia’s military assets in the Crimean Peninsula are so important: a state’s military presence bolsters its market activity in an area.
Putin’s actions are currently forcing a political compromise that Yeltsin wouldn’t have dared to even mention.
It is likely that Crimea will leave Ukraine, giving Putin a major strategic victory as well as a domestic image of rebuilding a foregone era of Russian glory.
He has proven himself so cunning that a future Ukrainian NATO bid is now effectively impossible, even if it does slip into the European orbit. It appears that due to Russian hostility, the future of the EU may be tied to it easing away from NATO.
Putin can also be a little more secure about the state of gas pipelines in the country, which are an even greater concern for him now that North America’s fracking boom threatens to corner Russia out of the market.
The wider picture, though, is that Putin has continued his original allegiance to Gorbachev into a rollback of the short-lived dream of a Western-friendly Russian Federation. For better or worse, the West now has to deal with a Russia that is an opponent again. Hence the fond memories of Yeltsin. Statements of “remember when we didn’t have to deal with this” are probably ringing through every Western capitol at the moment.
Originally written and published at Souciant Magazine on March 12th 2014.