Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bahrain Implements Martial Law

Given the current situation in the Middle East, I'll come back to At War With Asia later.  There are two prominent types of governments in the Middle East: monarchies and republics.  The monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, etc) tend to be richer oil producing states.  The republics (Egypt and Tunisia, formerly secular republics, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, etc) tend to be poorer states, usually with larger populations, and not oil producing states.  The only theocracy in the Middle East is Iran, though Saudi Arabia is close.  To give an idea of fiscal differentiation, a week or so ago Kuwait paid each of its citizens $3,000… a roundabout stimulus package type way of saying "please don't follow suit and protest the monarchy, we don't want our country to go to hell in a handbasket like every other country in the region."  Could Egypt afford to do this? Could Tunisia afford to do this?  Could Yemen afford to do this?

Here in the last day or so Bahrain went on military lockdown, its leaders banned public gatherings and sent tanks to the streets killing some anti-government protestors.  Thousands across the region defied authorities and marched to the streets in Libya and Yemen, in the same fashion of political unrest that we saw succeed in toppling regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.  

Some of this revolt in the Arab world is, for the most part, inconsequential to the U.S., however, Egypt and Bahrain are hardly inconsequential.  The United States' Fifth Fleet naval force for the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea, is located in Bahrain… a vital component of the U.S. Navy.  In fact, because of this, Bahrain is a key part of U.S. counterbalance to Iran.

The unrest is jeopardizing the future of a vital U.S. ally.  The base isn't the most important U.S. base in the Middle East, but it does oversee all the naval operations.  Due to a Sunni conflict (as I understand it), Bahrain is susceptible to become subdue to Iranian influence, which could be disastrous to both the U.S. and the world's oil markets (Bahrain is an oil state).  Initial U.S. reactions to the deaths of the anti-government protestors, as caused by Bahrain's implementation of marshall law, have been relatively quiet.  But recently the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, expressed deep concern over the event.  A U.S. State Department spokesman said "this is something that the Bahrain government needs to address in greater fashion" and "the U.S. is expressing full support for the rights of these people to express themselves."

This wake of unrest in the Middle East was immediately predictable after the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and especially when protests started in Egypt.  These next few months in Egypt, and in the region as a whole, are going to be most interesting.  This might be the most substantial amount of revolution the region has seen since the fall of the Ottoman empire.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Indochina and the American Crisis

Chomsky analysis month continues.  At War With Asia, Chomsky's second political book, delves further into U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia.  British economist Joan Robinson described the American crusade against communism in the following terms, as quoted in the book by Chomsky:

"It is obvious enough that the United States' crusade against Communism is a campaign against development. By means of it the American people have been led to acquiesce in the maintenance of a huge war machine and its use by threat or actual force to try to suppress every popular movement that aims to overthrow ancient or modern tyranny and begin to find a way to overcome poverty and establish national self-respect. In those countries whose governments have been prepared to accept American support, ‘aid’ is given in a form which may do more to inhibit development than to promote it.”

Chomsky also quotes John K. Fairbank:

"Our fear of Communism, partly as an expression of our general fear of the future, will continue to inspire us to aggressive anti-Communist policies in Asia and elsewhere, [and] the American people will be led to think and may honestly believe that the support of anti-Communist governments in Asia will somehow defend the American way of life. This line of American policy will lead to American aid to establish regimes which attempt to suppress the popular movements in Indonesia, Indochina, the Philippines, and China…. Thus, after setting out to fight Communism in Asia, the American people will be obliged in the end to fight the peoples of Asia.

This American aggression abroad will be associated with an increasing trend toward anti-Communist authoritarianism within the United States, which its victims will call fascism and which may eventually make it impossible to have discussions like this one today. This American fascism will come, if it comes, because American liberals have joined the American public in a fear of Communism from abroad rather than fascism at home as the chief totalitarian menace."

Both these quotes depict perfectly the opposition liberals took to American action against communism.  Joan Robinson is a famous Marxian economist.  She wrote one essay in 1942 concentrated solely on Marxism, trying to revive this aspect of his legacy. Regarding her stated passage above, yes, we can say that American opposition to the Communists is an inadvertent effort to oppose the communists who think their ideology will "develop" their nations (in North Korea and North Vietnam, for instance).  And yes, we can say that many non-communist U.S. backed governments, that we supported because of their opposition to communism, were tyrannies.  At the time communism was considered, by some at least, a system that promoted development (by select factions of the left, mostly).  However, after the Fall of Saigon and during the post-Vietnam years, when South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos fell to communism, as well as communist states outside Southeast Asia, hindsight tells us communist systems hardly succeed in "developing their respective nations."

As for the U.S. inhibiting development, I think there's something to this.  It was certainly the case in South Vietnam.  Had there been no reunification of North and South Vietnam, development in South Vietnam would have been inhibited sheerly because of American/Saigon Government/Viet Cong destruction, most of which was American.  We saw similar instances of violent U.S. opposition to communism  in Central America in the 1980's, leaving Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in a close to devastated state.

Also, history has proved, very well, America hasn't become a fascist state.  And fascism was never the "chief totalitarian menace." History reserved that honor for Stalinism.              
There was an argument as well, at the time, that there was no differentiation between American imperialism and Stalinism, and that America behaved no differently than the Stalinists, well… I think that's a bit of a stretch (to be modest).  More people were killed in Vietnam and Cambodia post-1975, after the war ended, than during. America isn't accountable for that.  The pattern that's intrinsic to Stalinism is: 1) the Stalinists come into power, and 2) they purge their nation of all actual and potential opposition.  We haven't an ounce of that pattern in America.  There was no anti-war movement in Russia under Stalin.

Chomsky states in his book:

“I mean to suggest that the Cold war is highly functional for the American elite as well as for its Soviet counterpart, who, in a similar way, sends its armies into Czechoslovakia to ward off Western Imperialism. It serves to proved an ideology for empire and to mobilize support for the government subsidized system of military state capitalism. It is predictable, then, that opportunities to end the Cold War will be side-stepped, and that challenges to Cold war ideology will be bitterly resisted.”

Chomsky has preconceived ideas about America's liberal democratization, and makes a bold cynical prediction in writing this. This is basically a statement saying the Cold War will continue indefinitely because it supports both liberal democracy and soviet communism. The prediction was proved false in 1989 with the failure of the Soviets, 19 years after At War With Asia.  However, Chomsky's rationale backing that theory isn't too far gone.  He believed American capitalist self-interest would drive the need for the continuation of the Soviet Union, that the United States, economically, actually benefitted from the USSR.  I'm no economist, but that theory makes sense.  When Reagan addressed Gorbachev, I guess a few other factors were weighing in.

Back to the complicated situation in Indochina in 1970.  There was a time when America justified  bombing Laos because it was claimed that North Vietnam had 50,000 troops in northern Laos.  Chomsky tells an interesting story regarding one of his visits to Laos in March of 1970.  Wanting documented proof of the claimed 50,000 troops, he visited the American Embassy and asked to speak to the CIA Representative/political officer, whom he asked if he could see some background material on the alleged troops.  The CIA Rep gave him piles of documentation, which he read through to find evidence that there was one North Vietnamese battalion of maybe 2,500 soldiers somewhere up in northern Laos.  The rest was a fabrication.

Chomsky also touches again on the anti-war movement (which I went over in the previous article), criticizing it because most of the condemnation that fueled the opposition and the protests was centered around America's bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia.  There was practically no condemnation over the bombing of the South, which by 1965 was even more extensive than the bombing of the North, at least according to Bernard Fall (a correspondent and intellectual of the war, in fact, he's cited by Robert McNamera, the Secretary of Defense under JFK and Johnson, to be the one non-government person cited as a military historian of Vietnam).  According to Fall the bombing of the South was at triple the scale of the bombing of the North.  In fact, I'm not sure how many people even know about the bombing of the South.  In 1962 Kennedy launched outright aggression against South Vietnam, authorizing bombings and napalm and such.  But there were no protests over this.  The protests didn't start until the bombing of the North.

TRB, the editor of The New Republic magazine, states:

"The moral pull for the U.S. to go on rescue missions will always be enormous.  There are dozens of such spots.  Our conscious aches for them.  But our capacity?  It is probably limited…"

The lesson he draws from Vietnam is that the U.S.'s capacity to aid foreign countries from tyranny is limited.  This is a rescue mission we should not have undertaken.  He surely represents a fair segment of American opinion, but ultimately saw our intervention in Vietnam as a tragedy.  He also says "what is our primary duty?  Is it to the South Vietnamese who might be massacred if we quit?  Or to the 150-200 American boys who lose their lives weekly if we don't withdraw?" What of those massacred by American military actions?

I'm unaware of any historian of Indochina during the 1960's more informed than Bernard Fall.  I wish I had the will to get through Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, but man, what a doozy.      

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

American Power and the New Mandarins

This marked the beginning of Chomsky's embarking from linguistics to politics.  Written in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Chomsky, in a collection of adamant essays, depicts at the very least the evil impulses of American foreign policy and at the most America as a whole.  While this book is very political, the application of Chomsky's left skewed ideals to his political ideals (when he says things like U.S. policy was to destroy the nationalist movement in South Vietnamese peasantry rather than to defend them from the communists) aren't nearly as intriguing as the morality that accompanies these ideals.  And in this book we get, among other things, a great deal of morality.  This was one of the most interesting aspects of the 1960's.  There was a massive movement in opposition to the war because of this feeling of "guilt," which Chomsky touches on in his book.  In fact, this was the first real anti-war movement in America.  We had that marginal core peace movement that had existed prior to Vietnam, largely based in religious beliefs (unitarianism), that opposed Kennedy's failure to halt nuclear proliferation, but it failed to gain massive popularity until the Cold War era.  Any other peace unions that existed in the 1950's were more liberal than radical.  By the mid 1960's, the opposition was rampant.  Even Martin Luther King expressed support for the anti-war movement.

The way I see it, there were two types of opposition to Vietnam:

One, and this one pertains to the intellectual class, there was opposition because the war was not winnable, it was expensive, politically it was a bind, and it was costing too many American lives.  The implication of this is, had the U.S. crushed the Vietnamese resistance without significant loss of American life, in which case the war might've been more popular and thus not as tactically difficult politically, these intellectuals would have supported the war (with Vietnamese life being irrelevant).  

Two, and this is the one I already touched on, there was a massive youth movement in opposition to the war because of this feeling of guilt.  American atrocities committed during this war, to my knowledge, are unparalleled.  At the time (late 1960's), there were two possible outcomes for Vietnam.  One: Withdrawal.  Two: The destruction of Vietnam as a social and cultural entity.  This is just one reason for the 1960's counter-culture movement.  People were starting to ask "where exactly does America stand in the world?"  And it was this feeling of guilt, of emotional and moral falseness, largely, that drove this opposition.

Chomsky addresses the issue of morality very closely in his book, saying towards the "moral American class" that there's no ground for elitism and moral superiority because anyone who expressed opposition to the war did so long after opposition should've been initialized.  He even says "I hate that I didn't come to this position earlier" and "no one who involved him/herself in anti-war activities as late as 1965, as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction."  Even those who expressed opposition to the policy in the mid 50's didn't engage in anti-war protests until the mid 60's, by which time Vietnam had been underway for 10 years.

Also suggesting a moral implication, there's a point in the book where he says something like "aside from any point of politics" … then goes on to argue the issue.  

Another interesting aspect to Chomsky's argument, is, unlike many radical critics, he does not build his case against U.S. foreign policy by magnifying the innocence or goodness of those who oppose us internationally.  Rather, he argues brilliantly against perhaps the most common misperception of international American intervention: that our interventionist policies are merely a defense reaction to Russian or Chinese aggression, that we intervene only to defend the people of Asia (or Africa, or Latin-America) from the evils of communist totalitarianism.       

There's one section juxtaposing Vietnam events with the Spanish Civil War and Japanese imperial politics during the 1930's (policies such as the "naked expression" clause).  He argues that Naked Expression is plausible only by disregarding precisely the claims of national self-interest and the right to protect a puppet government (Manchurian) from Chinese domination.  This is a textbook perfect analogy to the American justification of Vietnam.  However, Chomsky does not claim that his view of either pre-World War II Japanese policy or of the Spanish Civil War is the only possible one, which differs from Vietnam because, according to Chomsky, by the mid to late 1960's Vietnam was about as arguable as Auschwitz.

However, beyond justification of American intentions in Vietnam the analogy isn't quite as strong.  Chomsky's essay on Japanese imperialism of the 1930's is overt in its effort to describe the U.S.'s foreign policy goals with the same terminology used to describe Japan's foreign policy goals.  This analogical approach may be intended to demonstrate the universal evil of imperialism, whether practiced by the Japanese in the 1930's or the American's in the 1960's, but Chomsky's prose style is rarely felicitous.  And that's significant because it's something one would expect in a trenchant, straight forward, well-organized, direct political essay.  But Chomsky's material is extremely chaotic and unorganized, thus leaving the reader somehow with the bizarre notion that Chomsky's defending Japanese imperialism of the 1930's, a position that even the most severe critic of American Far Eastern policy prior to the second World War would be reluctant to take. 

The essay on Spain is both more ambitious and more significant.  He demonstrates most convincingly that the anarchist revolution was misrepresented towards the Spanish struggle.  Here he makes the analogy that Spain's crushing of the anarchists was far more important than defeating Franco's rebels, analogous to the West's crushing of the communists.  Or so i make of it.

The other rhetoric used, besides the focus on morality, was aimed at emotion.  He describes the war as "barbarous," "obscene," "butchery," and "a depraved act by weak and miserable men" … the sort of terms that appeal to the emotions rather than the intelligence.  He claims the war is no more debatable than the Italian war in Abyssinia or the Russian suppression of Hungarian freedom.  These aforementioned emotional arguments, I think, only succeed in further convincing those who are already convinced.  Those simply looking for guidance, or those new to studying the issue, will probably just be deeply outraged.  I quickly get fed up with overly emotive-type argumentation.  Chomsky goes way overboard in my opinion, saying things like "what America needs is a kind of denazification."  Surely there are better things to say, especially coming from a competent scholar and linguist.   


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Intellectuals

"If it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue.

Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavor, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defense against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated.

And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it's necessary, can be shared among the population; where centralized autocratic control of, in the first place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a destructive vestige of history.

They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated in favor of direct participation in the form of workers' councils or other free associations that individuals will constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence and their productive labour.

Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will."

--Noam Chomsky
For the full debate between Chomsky and Foucault, see:
(and it's a great debate)

This debate, if it's fair to call it a debate, regarding human nature, boils down to whether or not meaning, epistemology, and creativity, among other things, are intrinsic to it. Chomsky believes that they are; that is, he believes humanity has a need to inquire on such things. Foucault does not deny the possibility that they are, but he does deny Chomsky's ability to define human nature, in any sense, because Chomsky's definition will invariably be ethnocentric (as will anyone's). Foucault uses culture to explain culture, as it exists here and there or now and then; Chomsky uses culture to explain reality. (I know… Nietzsche wouldn't approve)

Now, in theory, anarcho-syndicalism is indistinguishable from libertarian socialism. Chomsky has a long history of regarding states as power centers, and has expressed that "no state meets even the minimal level of morality," thus the reason for his anarchist tendencies. But the more interesting part of Chomsky's argument is not necessarily his favoring a stateless society, but how he intends to get there. Chomsky has argued that it would be a mistake to attempt to eliminate the state in the short run, and that the first step towards achieving this would be to strengthen the state, because it's needed as a check on the power of large corporations. Now, the question that should be asked, or rather, the point that should be made, is why exactly is this the case given that the power of large corporations is mostly state driven. The beneficiary of a more powerful state is going to be the same corporate elite Chomsky's trying to oppose.

Chomsky is very Marxist inspired as well. He argues that the best transition would be derived from a war waged against the ruling class by the proletariat (or so that's what I make of what he says), and that this is necessary to lead to a more just society, in which the state will dissolve and in which the proletariat will be a universal class. He argues that the need for a violent revolution, and those who argue the need for a violent and bloody revolution, argue so falsely, and that there's no sense in a violent revolution, especially should there be no future justification (which would be liberation). He says that if the attainment of power by the proletariat leads to human relations being destroyed, he wouldn't want the proletariat to take power, and that the only reason for wanting such a thing is because one thinks some fundamental human values will be achieved, or realized, by that transfer of power. Then Foucault makes the point, in this case the point that I'd make and have made in the past, that there's a probable chance when the proletariat takes power it will exert violence towards the once ruling class, and in effect become what it opposed. One would definitely think that should there exist a stateless society, someone will capitalize on the opportunity to dictate that society. Historical experience tells us that a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat, when controlled by self-appointed representatives of a vanguard party, has at its end this society simply being ruled by the vanguards.

Chomsky is familiar with Bakunin I'm sure, but I haven't heard him address Bakunin's criticism of Marx. How can the working class ever take over an institution as massive as the state without violence?

To digress a bit, I think Chomsky is great on foreign policy, propaganda and the media networks, the U.S. power structure, etc… but there's definitely an economic side to achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat, and economics is not Chomsky's strong suit. Also, Chomsky is a state-employed anarchist. He works for MIT, which receives most all its funding from the state. This makes me question his status of an anarchist… aren't these folks supposed to have mohawks and "walk the earth," living in emancipation from a power structure?

In regards to anarcho-syndicalism/libertarian socialism, representing his side I tend to gravitate towards, he goes on to say…

"I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some notion of social structure in which those properties could be realized and in which meaningful human life could take place. If we are thinking of social transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach, still we should know something about where we think we are going, and such a theory may tell it to us."

There are a few intellectual tasks: One, we must envision a just society in which there exists the basic minimal moral standards of a humane egalitarian existence. Two, we must realize that this society will most likely never exist, save that there's a drastic metamorphosis of humanity (in which case we already have this ideal society envisioned). Three, and this is probably the most important, we must recognize the negative forces at work in the world, which includes looking in the mirror at our own society... the power and oppression and terrorism and destruction... and through what seems to be the most reasonable approach, via opposition and reducing the equanimity, we must fight these forces.

(I feel like now's the time where I'm supposed to rear up on my horse with my sword in the air and lead my troops into battle)

To conclude with one last quote...

"If we have the choice between trusting in centralised power to make the right decision in that matter, or trusting in free associations of libertarian communities to make that decision, I would rather trust the latter. And the reason is that I think that they can serve to maximise decent human instincts, whereas a system of centralised power will tend in a general way to maximise one of the worst of human instincts, namely the instinct of rapaciousness, of destructiveness, of accumulating power to oneself and destroying others. It's a kind of instinct which does arise and functions in certain historical circumstances, and I think we want to create the kind of society where it is likely to be repressed and replaced by other and more healthy instincts."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Human, All Too Human

Nietzsche wrote:
"Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man's torment."