Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Green Movement is one year old

One year ago, vast crowds took to the streets of Iran to protest what they believed to be a stolen election and demand more freedoms. The international media celebrated their actions, and liberals the world over showed their support (many further to the left joined in, at least in the Anglo-American world). Two things come to mind now that a year has passed. First, although no evidence has ever been presented that the election was in fact stolen, the idea that it was has firmly taken root, at least in the US. Here it should be noted that while it is always difficult to assess how valid an election was, in most cases where fraud is alleged (Afghanistan last year for example, or the US in 2000, or Mexico a few years ago) those making the accusations produce an account of what they think happened--ballot boxes were stuffed, election laws were manipulated, opposition activists killed or intimidated, etc. This has not been the argument made about Iran. Instead, the argument has been exclusively that the results do not look right to those who expected a victory for Mousavi. But this perception is not evidence.

Secondly, several parallel mobilizations have occurred around the world. In Thailand, 'red shirt' supporters of former prime minister Thaksin protested in Bangkok. In Nepal, Maoists who have felt increasingly betrayed by the political process since the civil war called for a general strike which produced considerable participation. And in Greece, the economic crisis produced huge protests against demands for austerity. None of these protests generated even a small fraction of the sympathy produced by the Green wave. The Thailand protesters were vilified as the violent dupes of a corrupt billionaire. Greek protesters have been portrayed as entitled brats who fail to appreciate that their claims for pensions rest on foundations of clay. And Nepal generated virtually no interest outside of a few far left quarters and those with a specialized interest in South Asia. This suggests that it is only very specific forms of people power that generate international sympathy among liberals. The Green wave was rooted in the more educated, wealthier portion of the Iranian population, although it was not necessarily limited to them. The suspicion that their demands for more freedom would probably lead to reduced state control over the economy (creating more 'opportunity' for the middle class and foreign investors, and greater inequality in Iran), and perhaps a more pro-Western geopolitical orientation may not have been unfounded. On the other hand, the protests in Thailand, Nepal, and Greece all in one way or another insisted that economic resources be deployed to improve the lot of the worse off portion of the polities in question. It seems to me that the differences in the class basis of the protests explains entirely the huge disparity in attention and sympathy for Iran on the one hand, and neglect or vilification for protests in Thailand, Greece, and Nepal, on the other.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Search for Sovereignty: A Review

In A Search For Sovereignty, Lauren Benton uses deep historical research to undo the sense of sovereignty and colonial empires many readers may have derived from theoretical discussions of 'modernity', 'coloniality', and such. The standard image--again, derived more from theoretical debates than careful engagement with the historical record--is that European empires increasingly controlled space rationally, as epitomized by the standardized geography of modern cartography. Furthermore, distinctions were drawn and maintained between rational European subjects and others who supposedly lacked rationality and thus could not be agents of the modern world. These vague generalizations are eroded by the evidence presented in A Search for Sovereignty. Rather than producing a homogeneous, smooth space, empire-builders are portrayed as having to improvise through a number of types of territories that confounded them--rivers, mountains, oceans, islands. In turn, efforts to define sovereignty in these ambiguous spaces produced opportunities for multiple agents to make contradictory claims about law and their rights. Far from producing a smooth space, one might instead picture a space that is more deeply and coherently produced near centers, and then becomes increasingly vague and contradictory (although claims made about the hinterlands were often ruled on in the centers, and redounded there). Even oceans, for example, were the site of contradiction between corridors which were relatively controlled and expanses where who could exert sovereignty was much less clear. The bulk of the text is given over to illustrating the contradictions of each of these spaces. Rivers are the sites of claims and counter-claims of treason, as actors near ports or further upriver attempt to use loyalty to the crown to undermine their rivals and assert their own autonomy. In oceans, pirates were actors who often asserted a relation to the law, claiming to act on behalf of various sovereigns. Islands, often used as penal colonies, were the site of the ambiguous development of martial law, as it was unclear whether non-prisoners residing on the islands (often soldiers) were subject to the arbitrary rules developed for prisoners, or what the rights of everyone were in relation to the rights developed in the states controlling the island. Mountains were imagined as places where less civilized people resided (although the historical development was much more contradictory-they were often refuges from oppression in the lower lands) and forms of indirect rule, involving inconsistent concepts of who (representatives of the colonies, or indigenous leaders) had jurisdiction over what. In all these cases, concepts of law and sovereignty only emerge from repeated contestations and claims by different actors. There was no palimpset of colonial law that could be imposed and stably reproduced. The different European powers picked up on and developed what each other was doing. Several of these chapters resonate with the present--most dramatically, the question of whether rights recognized elsewhere are nullified for island prisoners jumps out for its similarities to Guantanamo. Benton only makes the most passing reference to this continued parallel and her gentle hand is appreciated here(she also notes the parallels between questions of indirect rule and problems of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan--note the indeterminancy as to who has the right to hold those employed by the US (such as Blackwater mercenaries) responsible for crimes committed in Iraq. Piracy has of course also returned lately, although to date the Somalis have not attempted to use law to defend their actions).
I found the general pattern laid out in the book to be quite stimulating, and it shook up my (admittedly limited) framework for understanding these questions. However, each chapter tended to lapse into somewhat turgid prose as different cases and claims were laid out. I altogether lost track, for example, of the difference between the Grotian and Gentilian conceptions of the rule of the sea. In other words, this is one more academic book that could have really have used a more careful edit.
Benton eschews any simple directionality to the processes she describes. While many people writing about colonialism emphasize the exertion of power by Europeans and the resistance of various 'Others', she emphasizes that diverse actors tried to employ the law to strengthen their claims, and European classification of non-Europeans was not stable and already-known before the colonial process developed. Or to take another example, she disputes Peter Linebaugh's claim that pirates were resolute opponents of the states in the eighteenth century. Instead, pirates themselves often made legal claims in the name of various sovereigns to legitimize their actions. It is very useful to blur boundaries and complicate the picture in this way. In a sense, although this is fairly large scale history, moving across many continents and through several centuries, it parallels the anthropological insistence on the contradictory effects of power when it is localized and played out among a number of actors. However, as with this sort of anthropological work, Benton's book left me wondering why European empires achieved a stability of sorts that lasted for several centuries, and whether any sort of directionality to events can be identified. Is it possible to write grand narratives of colonial empires that do justice to the contradictory and ambiguous processes highlighted here?

Liberals and Leftists are not the same

I've actually been thinking of writing a similar article to this one by Ron Jacobs. The confusion between the center (eg liberalism) and the left is one of the most infuriating aspects of American discourse. Basically, the right supports maintaining the power of traditionally powerful groups (in the US, whites, males, straight people, the military, the wealthy...) by defending all their privileges. Liberals try to maintain most of the status quo by pushing through some reforms to quell demands for more far-ranging change. And the left seeks to upend these hierarchies altogether. Almost all public debate in the US is between the right and the center, with the left altogether excluded, notwithstanding that the right labels the center 'liberals', 'socialists', etc. At times the center repudiates these labels, and joins the right in denouncing the left; at other times, it embraces the 'liberal' label, claiming for itself the right to draw the bounds on legitimate reforms.
There are a couple of things Jacobs gets wrong. Neither right, left nor center maintains a principled support for private property. The sort of economic strategies epitomized by Robert Moses or the Kelso Supreme Court decision, in which the state's ability to seize property for the greater economic good overrides property rights is entirely consistent with liberalism. And Dennis Kucinich is part of the left. Faced with a two-party system, some on the left will work within the Democratic Party. It is a question of strategy, not orientation.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When it rains it Pours

Here is the basic news for the last week from the 'fronts' of the 'war on terror'.

1. Wikileaks released a video showing that US military claims that a Reuters photographer was shot dead by the US in the midst of a battle in Baghdad were false; there was no enemy fire. On the tape, troops can be heard joking and congratulating each other about killing people.

2. Afghan president Hamid Karzai stepped up his rhetorical attacks on his Western backers/occupiers.

3. The government was overthrown in Kyrgyzstan, site of "an important US air base" for the Afghanistan mission. "It also posed a potential embarrassment for the Obama administration, which angered the Kyrgyz opposition last spring by courting Mr. Bakiyev in an ultimately successful attempt to reverse his decision to close the base."

Along with his prayers that the economy does not officially tank again before November, I'm guessing Obama is adding a few about all of this not blowing up in the US too soon. There will not be a dignified finish to these wars.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Afghanistan FUBAR

For the last eight years, Afghanistan has been contrasted in the liberal imagination with Iraq, as 'the good war'. After all, Al Quaeda had a base there. And women had it really really bad under the Taliban. If only the president would direct his attention away from Iraq and towards Afghanistan...

It should not come as any surprise that this naive imperialist mentality was not an accurate guide to the situation. Eight years in, all the US cares about is trying to keep an ally in control of the country, and it is not getting that. Karzai realizes he actually has some options, and that the US is not the only game in town. He has moved closer to China and Iran. He has threatened to move closer to the Taliban. It's not emphasized in American news reports, but it seems likely that his distancing himself from the West plays well given the numerous Afghan civilian deaths that are coming with the 'surge' in troops. This has led to predictable condescending fulminations from the neoconservative/neoliberal/whatever New York Times editorial board. The generally astute M K Badrakumar suggests that Obama intuits sympathy for Karzai against the alignment with Pakistan promoted by Richard Holbrooke et al. The problem is that, as with Iran, where Obama also showed some decent instincts at times, it is easy to get outflanked by the reactionary foreign policy wing, both in various entrenched wings of the US state and in the mainstream media.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Bloomberg Way

Excellent interview that clarifies the Bloomberg Way.
" It’s a notion of governance in which the city is run like a corporation. The mayor is the CEO, the businesses are clients, citizens are consumers, and the city itself is a product that’s branded and marketed. And New York is a luxury product."
Doesn't look like the book has been published yet, although this interview is dated 2008.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Empire of Bases or Baseless Empire?

The US has the most impressive array of bases in the history of the world. Yet there is growing reason to question whether the US can actually exercise power--get others to do what they want--through the empire of bases.

It is striking that even in Iraq and Afghanistan,countries where the US maintains a giant military presence and the political leadership perhaps could be described as US puppets, the US is increasingly seen as just one of several countries to deal with, by actors including that leadership ("Karzai has coolly defied the President Barack Obama's do-or-die diplomatic campaign to "isolate" Iran in the region - not once but twice during the past fortnight"). Controlling foreign policy is, after all, practically the first directive of empire. Whether you have direct or indirect rule, whether you regard the ruled as citizens of the empire or something else, all that may vary. But if a state is part of your empire, you must be 'the decider' as to who they are allying themselves with worldwide. Otherwise the concept of empire--real or de facto--is meaningless. In the New Left Review, Tariq Ali commented that China may be building pipelines and importing oil and gas from Afghanistan, but it remains dependent on US troops for protection. The concept should be turned around. Why would China complain if the US is picking up the tab and doing the dirty work of policing these resource routes. And what exactly is the US accomplishing if the oil and gas are heading east?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Alternative Explanations for the US v. China currency confrontation

Could US bluster about the Chinese currency overvaluation be rooted in the frustrations of US multinationals? " A growing number of U.S. companies feel unwelcome in China, according to
a new survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China...Negative
sentiment among Amcham's members, which traditionally have been a ...strong
lobby in Washington arguing for more engagement with China, adds to
wider risks in U.S.-China relations...." (quote is from the Wall Street Journal). Mike Whitney explains "
The multinationals see a "deteriorating investment environment" because of "rules on indigenous innovation." In other words, China's leaders want to strengthen their own industries and keep more of the profits for themselves (which is what governments are supposed to do.) The proposed rules will affect "dozens of products sold by foreign companies, including servers, mobile base stations, security and finance software, and wind-power generators." So, naturally, the multinationals are angry."

And what if China devalues, rather than revalues, the remimbi? Again, from Whitney: "China's economy is dangerously off-kilter and headed for a reckoning. The current rate of investment is over 50 per cent and rising. That's clearly unsustainable. By focusing on real estate and exports, China has failed to create strong domestic demand; personal consumption needs to increase and investment needs to slow. But that will take time, and now the situation is dire. If exports collapse because of a stronger currency, China might do "the unthinkable" (as Auerback suggests) and devalue the remnimbi which would further widen the trade deficits, exacerbate global imbalances, and increase the present rate of inflation. That would force Obama to step in and take decisive action whether he wants to or not. Perhaps a full-blown trade war is not so far fetched, after all."

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Cheer for HRC

From her speech at AIPAC: "There is another path, a path that leads toward security and prosperity for Israel, the Palestinians, and all the people of the region. But it will require all parties, including Israel, to make difficult but necessary choices. Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests." I'd say two cheers, but this line kind of turned my stomach: "The United States has also led the fight in international institutions against anti-Semitisms and efforts to challenge Israel's legitimacy. We did lead the boycott of the Durban Conference and we repeatedly voted against the deeply flawed Goldstone Report. (Applause.)" Full transcript here.

Ahmadenijad bucks the religious establishment

"When addressing an Iranian university in November, (chief of staff) Mashaei took the attack on the mullahs' authority much further: "God does not unify humans . . . [because] each person's [notion of] God varies from the God of others based on individual understanding." His words, it was quickly noted by aghast ayatollahs, are blasphemous under Islamic law and therefore punishable by death. Rebukes by Shiite leaders fell on deaf ears in the executive branch... the government's cultural adviser, Javad Shamaghdari, is recommending that the hijab, or veil, not be mandatory..Recently Ahmadinejad has even begun rephrasing his oft-repeated statements about the end of the world -- in strictly religious terms. In an interview with U.S. news media in September, he commented: "The [Mahdi, or 12th] imam will come with logic, with culture, with science. . . The stories that have been disseminated around the world about extensive war, apocalyptic wars . . . are false."..Ahmadinejad separated himself further from the mullahs by nominating three women for cabinet portfolios. Ahmadinejad ridiculed his opponents, demanding to know: "Why shouldn't women be in the cabinet?""( via mrzine)

Obama, Bagram and Bush

Why exactly did we all hate George Bush? And what is the change Barack Obama brings? "That the option of detaining suspects captured outside Afghanistan at
Bagram is being contemplated reflects a recognition by the Obama
administration that it has few other places to hold and interrogate
foreign prisoners without giving... them access to the U.S. court system,
the officials said.

Without a location outside the United States
for sending prisoners, the administration must resort to turning the
suspects over to foreign governments, bringing them to the U.S. or even
killing them."LA Times [the location outside the US, turning them over to foreign governments, and killing them being the options that we were all so horrified about when George W. Bush employed them].

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Texas School Board Controversy: The Center Cannot Hold

At first I thought this was absurd (obliterated from the article is the way the board overrode all sorts of recommendations from professional educators--also note that he hauls out a lecture from 1964 to demonstrate how reasonable claims are about the Christian origins of the US), but Tanenhaus has a point. The center is not holding in US history. Pining for the good old days of Daniel Borstin won't help much. Does it matter that the scholarship on the left is massive, while quite modest on the right? On the other hand, the right seems to understand the fight they are in, unlike the forces on the left (sigh).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cockburn is Wrong

I've enjoyed Alexander Cockburn a great deal over the years, but lately he has come off crotchety and depressed. In his latest column, he suggests anxious establishment opinion that Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are bungling foreign policy is misplaced:
"Obama has smoothed off the rough edges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and, indeed, widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945. ...All of this is scarcely a catalogue of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm."

There are two issues here. The first is whether Obama marks a significant departure for US foreign policy. Here Cockburn is correct. So far, he does not. Although a few early signals--his forthright discussion of the US role in the Iranian coup of 1954 in his Cairo speech, shaking hands with Hugo Chavez--raised hopes, so far, everything else he has done has dampened those same hopes. Most significant have been the Obama administrations backing for the coup in Honduras, the continued martial drumbeat in Iran, and the troop surge in Afghanistan, along with the extension of that war into Pakistan. But Cockburn seems to overrate the prospects for continued US power when he quotes Peter Lee:
"Peter Lee hits the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that“the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach … heft in the global financial markets.""
The problem is that, because of its ideological isolation, all the other mechanisms of US power are misfiring. Lula well captured an element of the international mood when he testily told Clinton to lighten up on the drive for sanctions against Iran. However much the European Union, and maybe (maybe) Russia can be dragooned into this cause, there is widespread suspicion of the largest nuclear power in the world declaring Iran can't have weapons while winking at Israel (or more recently India). Much of the left wishes China, or perhaps the EU, would directly stand up to the US and engage in some sort of hegemonic showdown. The Soviet Union tried this, and it bankrupted itself with endless commitments and an inability to set effective priorities. These days, the strategy of many of the rising 'semiperipheral' states is to speak softly while reaching out in many directions. This is true not only of Brazil and China (and Russia) but many other states, such as Turkey or South Africa. the goal is not to provoke the US, but loosen its centrality. Much of the establishment in the US senses that less and less attention is paid to the US. And so they lash out at the 'bungling' of Clinton or Obama. But there is little that could be done. Perhaps some elements of US power could be prolonged with a new strategy in which the US listened to Latin America, shifted its friendship in the Middle East towards Iran, etc. But this is inconceivable. Instead, expect more charges of 'bungling' as US power drifts downwards, and the search for the scapegoat intensifies.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 10

Granny D, Presente!

Quote can't be right: “If you’re serious, as the Obama administration is, about being a leader in the multinational system, you can’t provide leadership in the international trade arena,” said Robert Z. Lawrence, a professor of international trade and investment at the Harvard Kennedy School.

How not to build 'soft power'.

Don't expect a big union turnout for the Fall elections.

Does The Hurt Locker actually suck?