Saturday, November 19, 2005

the geneology of horseback hall

I’ve said a bit about the imperial effect in my last post.

In this series of posts about Stephen, Mill, and the Pilate controversy, my point is both historiographic and current. I think that there has been, since the beginning of the Cold war, a systematic distortion of the real political history of the conservative/liberal split. To my mind, the canonical text in which this distortion is inscribed is The Road to Serfdom. In that book, Hayek attacks socialism as the source of the planned economy, identifies the moment that the planned economy took power as state policy with communism, and identifies the classic liberal era as the golden era of individual liberty. All of these claims are false. Hayek’s notion of the planned economy makes an eccentric exception for law – as though the body that lays down the law code is doing neutral work. It is this exception that allows him to plausibly lay out a case for his historical perspective. Without that exception, the history of central planning looks much different. In fact, laissez faire was not a matter of self organizing, but was highly dependent on the capture of state organizations and the rewriting of law to organize a whole different system of property rights. This central organization of the political economy was a key to bringing about the agricultural revolution in Europe. It was also a key to the famine in Ireland, and the repeated famines in India during the nineteenth century. It is no exaggeration to call these terror famines – around the natural core of a food shortage was woven a political scheme that exacerbated the famine and used it for political ends. One has only to trace the history of central planning in England to see that, far from originating with Marx, it originated with India. A goodly percentage of the Fabian group was connected, either by ties of family or career, to the Indian Civil Service. This was no coincidence – the rewriting of the Indian civil code and the enforcement of an entirely other regime of property upon Indian villages was widely viewed, by the British, as one of the great triumphs of the British Imperium.

That triumph justified an anomaly, as Macaulay called it, in British classical liberalism. The anomaly was the Empire itself. Of course, this is a difficult subject to encompass in a series of posts in a blog. For one thing, to background the Stephen-Mill controversy, one has to know something about the early Victorian synthesis of, as Mill put it, Coleridge and Bentham – that is, how the critique of the French revolution started by Burke and codified by Coleridge was assimilated into the liberalism of Bentham and the intellectual heirs of Adam Smith, who viewed the Revolution, in retrospect, as a progress marred by a few regrettable instances of radicalism. This is the context in which Burke, who in the 1790s still labored under the shadow of being a turncoat and a sell out, became a posthumous member of the British classical tradition. In this process, Burke’s disturbing legacy of showing the history of British encroachment into India as the advance of numerous small frauds was purged, and his crusade against Hastings fell into the category of mistakes that it would be a pity to dwell on. It is hard to legitimize power on the basis of an admitted series of robberies, which is how Burke framed the conquest of India. This isn’t to say that he wanted to give India back. A point we will get back to, perhaps. In any case, nobody was more acutely aware of these contradictions than John Stuart Mill, whose father, after all, wrote the standard history of India, and worked for the East Indian Company most of his life – as did Mill himself.

Okay, enough background. Here is an edited version of my first post.

James Fitzjames Stephen was a Victorian bravo, described in his entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, as a man “massive, downright, indefatigable and sincere even to unnecessary frankness.” I imagine him as a sort of Mr. Rochester.

Stephen was a member of the Apostles, the Cambridge group, in the 1840s, well before it became the conglomeration of aestheticism and the higher buggery under Keynes and Strachey. This was where he met some of his lifelong friends, like Henry Maine, the legal historian. Stephen’s father was a famous civil servant, whose office was satirized as the Circumlocution office by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Needless to say, Stephen detested Dickens. Probably some strain of that detestation came down the family line – Stephen’s niece was Virginia Woolf.

This is from Leslie Stephen’s biographical entry about his brother in the National Biography, which Leslie Stephen wrote. It gives us some idea of the kind of person James Fitzjames Stephen was in his Cambridge years, and afterwards:

“He speaks of the optimistic views which were popular with the Liberals after 1832, expounded by Cobden and Bright and supposed to be sanctioned by the Exhibition of 1851. It was the favourite cant that Captain Pen 'had got the best of Captain Sword, and that henceforth the kindly earth would slumber, lapt in universal law. I cannot say how I personally loathed this way of thinking, and how radically false, hollow and disgusting it seemed to me then, and seems to me now.' The crash of 1848 came like a thunderbolt, and 'history seemed to have come to life again with all its wild elemental forces.' For the first time, he was aware of actual war within a small distance, and the settlement of great questions by sheer force. 'How well I remember my own feelings, which were, I think, the feelings of the great majority of my age and class, and which have ever since remained in me as strong and as unmixed as they were in 1848. I feel them now [1887] as keenly as ever, though the world has changed and thinks and feels, as it seems, quite differently. They were feelings of fierce, unqualified hatred for the revolution and revolutionists; feelings of the most bitter contempt and indignation against those who feared them, truckled to them, or failed to fight them whensoever they could and as long as they could: feelings of zeal against all popular aspirations and in favour of all established institutions whatever their various defects and harshnesses (which, however, I wished to alter slowly and moderately): in a word, the feelings of a scandalised policeman toward a mob breaking windows in the cause of humanity. I should have liked first to fire grapeshot down every street in Paris, till the place ran with blood, and next to try Louis Philippe and those who advised him not to fight by court martial, and to have hanged them all as traitors and cowards. The only event in 1848 which gave me real pleasure was the days of June, when Cavaignac did what, if he had been a man or not got into a fright about his soul, or if he had had a real sense of duty instead of a wretched consciousness of weakness and a false position, Louis Philippe would have done months before.' He cannot, he admits, write with calmness to this day of the king's cowardice; and he never passed the Tuileries in later life without feeling the sentiment about Louis XVI. and his 'heritage splendid' expressed by Thackeray's drummer, 'Ah, shame on him, craven and coward, that had not the heart to defend it!'

'I have often wondered,' adds Fitzjames, 'at my own vehement feelings on these subjects, and I am not altogether prepared to say that they are not more or less foolish. I have never seen war. I have never heard a shot fired in anger, and I have never had my courage put to any proof worth speaking of. Have I any right to talk of streets running with blood? Is it not more likely that, at a pinch, I might myself run in quite a different direction? It is one of the questions which will probably remain unanswered for ever, whether I am a coward or not. But that has nothing really to do with the question. If I am a coward, I am contemptible: but Louis Philippe was a coward and contemptible whether I am a coward or not; and my feelings on the whole of this subject are, at all events, perfectly sincere, and are the very deepest and most genuine feelings I have.'”

Stephen was known as a not very subtle, but very ardent, debater. He went into law himself, and eventually devoted himself to grafting principles of English common law into the workings of the British Raj in India, completing Macaulay’s work. In actual fact, he did not spend a deal of time in India. But, on his return to England, he became a powerful figure in Indian politics, nonetheless. He became a power behind the throne in things Indian, a person to whose views a Governor of India had to hearken, a person to whom members of parliament went when they desired instruction on some point of colonial policy. Meanwhile, he was on his way to becoming a judge famous for his rather draconian style. Towards the end of his life, he became an embarrassment to the bench, since he was obviously suffering from the onset of senility.

It is said that on the boat back from India, Stephen, reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, devised his rebuttal, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The book rather sank. Lately, however, it has become the subject of a little Tory cult.

Among the little band of Fitzjames Stephen's acolytes, none is fiercer than Roger Kimball of the New Criterion. Kimball, who has done his warrior bit in the Kulturkampf of the early nineties, rousting out tenured radicals and exposing them for the dubious souls that they are, has featured Stephen as a sort of Archangel Michael, putting the sword in the breast of that loathsome liberal toady of Satan, John Stuart Mill. Kimball’s loathing of Mill has breathed even in the pages of the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal, where all conservative hobby-horses eventually find a home. But there's a problem. Mill is widely revered in Libertarian circles. Kimball represents one crucial side of the untidy conservative front. He is plainly unhappy with his libertarian allies.

In an essay in November, 1998, that served as the centerpiece for a later, book-length attack on liberalism, Kimball poured out the vials of his wrath on Mill. And, as is the way of New Criterion loathings and the mood of the time, he attacks him as a sexual being as well as a thinker. Kimball, like Ken Starr, is a great one for keeping up with the bedroom habits of his enemies. In Mill’s case, the great sin was one of omission, rather than commission. Kimball writes, of Mill's relationship to his wife Harriet, “it is noteworthy that this "lofty minded" relationship was apparently never consummated.” There are, it appears, no sexual depravities to which the liberal mind won’t sink - including chastity.

In this essay, Kimball referred to Stephen’s book, Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. The book has already been rescued by Richard Posner, and has found its way into the reading list of the Federalist Society. Here’s Kimball’s assessment of it:

”By far the most concentrated and damaging single attack on Mill's liberalism is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, first published serially in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1872-1873, and then in book form in March 1873 in the last year of Mill's life. It was written by the lawyer, judge, and journalist Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-1894): Leslie Stephen's older brother and hence--such is the irony of history--Virginia Woolf's uncle. Mill himself never responded to Stephen's book beyond observing, as Leslie Stephen reports in his excellent biography of his brother, that he thought the book "more likely to repel than attract." But several of Mill's disciples responded--the most famous of whom was the liberal politician and journalist John Morley (1838-1923). Stephen brought out a second edition of his book the following year, 1874, in which he reproduces and replies to many criticisms raised by Morley and others. Stephen described Liberty, Equality, Fraternity as "mainly controversial and negative." Pugnacious and devastating would be equally appropriate adjectives. As one commentator put it, Stephen made "mincemeat" of Mill.”

One notes that there is nothing worthy, sexually, of noting about Stephen. Thank God.

The confused elements of American conservativism, circa 1998 - the longing for an established religion, the opposition to dissent, and the confused sense that the marketplace is no model for ideas - already form the base of Stephen’s politics. In fact, this is no surprise - Mill might have been an eminent Victorian, but Victorian society, in its imperial flush, was much better represented by Stephen than by Mill. Stephen articulates a type that dominated the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain. Shaw, in Heartbreak House (his best play - the only play of Shaw’s that LI re-reads, as we re-read Shakespeare’s plays), was talking of the Mill/Stephen split when he describes the difference between Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall. Heartbreak’s liberalism, of course, was falling down around Shaw’s ears as he wrote. World War I was an unmistakable counter-blast to the genteel Victorian and Edwardian virtues, and seemed, at the time, to put an end to the matter. Shaw’s description of Heartbreak culture in the preface seems, to LI’s mind, alarmingly like contemporary academia, with the substitution of other references for Wells, of course -- try Foucault, or whoever:

”With their heads as full of the Anticipations of Mr H. G.
Wells as the heads of our actual rulers were empty even of the
anticipations of Erasmus or Sir Thomas More, they refused the
drudgery of politics, and would have made a very poor job of it
if they had changed their minds. Not that they would have been
allowed to meddle anyhow, as only through the accident of being a
hereditary peer can anyone in these days of Votes for Everybody
get into parliament if handicapped by a serious modern cultural
equipment; but if they had, their habit of living in a vacuum
would have left them helpless end ineffective in public affairs.
Even in private life they were often helpless wasters of their
inheritance, like the people in Tchekov's Cherry Orchard. Even
those who lived within their incomes were really kept going by
their solicitors and agents, being unable to manage an estate or
run a business without continual prompting from those who have to
learn how to do such things or starve.”

Horseback Hall has, of course, few voices, because its texts are woven of such common-places of the governing classes as have, usually, no need for the exposure of literature, being content with the half-grunted affirmations of one's fellow club-men over a nice glass of port. However, Shaw creates a sort of ambassador from Horseback Hall in the play, Lady Utterword, whose husband, Hastings, has been a colonial governor over various tracts of the empire. At one point in the play, the house discovers a burglar, and there is a debate about sending for the police. If they do, of course, their names will be in the paper, which is the kind of publicity to which both Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall are constitutionally averse. Lady Utterword alludes briefly to her husband’s ways of dealing with crime:

”Think of what it is for us to be dragged through
the horrors of a criminal court, and have all our family affairs
in the papers! If you were a native, and Hastings could order you
a good beating and send you away, I shouldn't mind; but here in
England there is no real protection for any respectable person.”

Hastings Utterword, who never appears, in propria persona, on the stage, is embodied once and for all in that outburst. His type was invented by such as James Fitzjames Stephen.

pilate intro

Years ago, I played around with writing a series of essays – a small book, in fact, about the evolution of modern liberalism and conservatism from classical liberalism. My angle was this: the traditional model of the formation of political ideologies in the 19th and 20th century emphasizes the role of the conflict between labor and capital, with imperialism being derived from that central conflict. My idea was that this didn’t really capture the imperial effect. I thought that these essays could employ Pilate as a legend around which these issues gathered. In the enlightenment, Pilate had become a practical skeptic, a cousin of the enlightened ruler, dealing with religious enthusiasm by asking ‘what is the truth?” But in the 19th century, in Britain, there was a shift in the meaning of this legend. Just as the British empire became the new Rome, Pilate became a quietly heroic colonial officer, much like the officers in India, controlling the native inclination to superstition and riot. There was an exemplary controversy over the meaning of Pilate between John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen: Stephen provided a certain template for the Right’s modern, uneasy compound of coercive moralism and libertarian economics against an earlier version of liberalism represented by Mill, for whom empire represented an incoherence in the system – a political entity that liberalism both relied on and could not justify.

In my opinion, the Enlightenment and the late nineteenth century uses of Pilate overlapped. So it rather delighted me that Tony Blair, famously, wrote an encomium of Pilate as a representative of the modern politician. Since the Iraq war has politicized the question, what is the truth, rather than the usual question, what are we to do, it struck me that following Pilate’s image was a way of tracing the ruse of reason in history.

Anyway, all of this is an intro to republishing those Pilate posts this weekend. I want to see what they look like, for one thing. Also, I don’t know if LI’s readers read them, or remember them – and hell, I don’t know if LI’s readers will care one way or the other, but I hope you'all do.

Friday, November 18, 2005

your mission, if you take it, is to destroy the department of War

Two stories in the last two days shed little pinpricks of light on the wholly, deeply, astonishingly disastrous reign of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld has earned for himself a rare niche, as far as cabinet officers go. Usually, the worst ones are venal. The worst ones pocket money for selling federal mineral rights, or authorize bribes to quiet blown illegal operatives working for the White House. Rumsfeld is a different variety of cat. His mission has been to destroy the Department of War, and to do it while ensuring America’s defeat in Iraq against the insurgency. He came in with plans that would perfect the technostructure for our battle with Soviet forces on the plains of Poland, and has stuck to that task with all the vigor of the monomaniac in Dracula who collects flies. Apparently in the five long, long years he has been there, nobody told him that we aren’t endangered by Soviet forces any more. In an administration composed of Confederate re-enactors, I suppose it isn’t that odd that we have a Cold War reenactor as Secretary of War. It is sad, though.

The NYT today reported on a North Carolina felon who rehabilitated himself, at least financially, thanks to the Pentagon/Cheney plan for making spending in Iraq an excuse to directly route money to the network of pustular American war profiteers. If Haliburton gets its billions, why should we deny Robert Stein his paltry $82 million?

Unlike others who get out of prison and go through a period of uncertain employment, Stein got out of prison and made a beeline to where work was an unnecessary complement to Christmas. That is, he started working for the CPA in Iraq. Since the CPA was a pirate organization set up basically to steal Iraq’s resources and impose a thousand year neo-liberal Reich on the place (which lasted all of eighteen months), naturally they looked on pirates favorably.

As the NYT puts it:

“Along with a web of other conspirators who have not yet been named, Mr. Stein and his wife received "bribes, kickbacks and gratuities amounting to at least $200,000 per month" to steer lucrative construction contracts to companies run by another American, Philip H. Bloom, an affidavit outlining the criminal complaint says. Mr. Stein's wife, who was not named, has not been charged with wrongdoing in the case; Mr. Bloom was charged with a range of crimes on Wednesday.

In the staccato language of the affidavit, filed in Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, Mr. Stein, 50, was charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen property and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
But the list of charges does little justice to the astonishing brazenness of the accusations described in the complaint, including a wire transfer of a $140,000 bribe, arranged by Mr. Bloom, to buy real estate for Mr. Stein in North Carolina. The affidavit also says that $65,762.63 was spent to buy cars for Mr. Stein and his wife (he bought a Chevrolet; she a Toyota), $44,471 for home improvements and $48,073 for jewelry, out of $258,000 sent directly to the Bragg Mutual Federal Credit Union into accounts controlled by the Steins.

Mr. Stein's wife even used $7,151.58 of the money for a "towing service," the complaint says. Much of this money was intended for Iraqi construction projects like building a new police academy in the ancient city of Babylon and rehabilitating the library in Karbala, the southern city that is among the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.”

Stein obviously was inspired by Wolfowitz’s soaring rhetoric before the war, when the NYT reported on his testimony to the senate on February 28,2003:

Mr. Wolfowitz spent much of the hearing knocking down published estimates of the costs of war and rebuilding, saying the upper range of $95 billion was too high, and that the estimates were almost meaningless because of the variables.

Moreover, he said such estimates, and speculation that postwar reconstruction costs could climb even higher, ignored the fact that Iraq is a wealthy country, with annual oil exports worth $15 billion to $20 billion. "To assume we're going to pay for it all is just wrong," he said.”

It would be just wrong to lavish that money on Iraqis, when Americans need their towing and jewelry looked after. And this is true even though – miraculously, who’d have thought it? We went past Wolfowitz’s high end estimate in eight months. But in the Bush administration, price is no object when you can stuff the pockets of your buddies with cash and you have the government to do it.

Well, wars are mostly about theft, and the U.S. policy of stealing greatly certainly didn’t begin with the Pentagon pumphouse gang under Rumsfeld. However, our biggest successes usually consist of getting some Central American caudillo to massacre peasants for us. Operating directly, with a black mask tied over our face, always gets us into Vietnam like situations.

Our second story, from the WSJ, is on a more technical matter. Having decided to occupy Iraq, in the first place, with far too few men, the Americans are now supposedly taking proactive measures. Every other day they launch much heralded offenses in Anbar province, or sweep through towns on Iraqi border with Syria, shooting people in great numbers and calling them insurgents – which is Pentagon speak for any Iraqi they have killed. In fact, D.C.’s pro-war clique has been chomping on the bit to attack Syria this year. Meanwhile, according to the WSJ, the Pentagon is withdrawing “foreign-area officers” from Iraq. They can’t afford em, it appears – not and go buying pieces of real estate in North Carolina, too.

What are foreign-area officers? In Iraq, they are officers trained to speak Arabic, and educated in Middle Eastern culture. The WSJ article concentrates on one “David,” who is deployed near the Syrian border:

“As they had done in the past, the Rangers took positions around each village and Bedouin encampment. At one village, an officer named David, accompanied by a small security team, strode into the center looking for someone who would talk. Unlike the clean-shaven, camouflage-clad Rangers, David wore a thick goatee and civilian clothes. The Rangers carried long, black M-4 carbine rifles. David walked with a small 9mm pistol strapped to his leg. The Rangers spoke English. He spoke Arabic tinged with a Yemeni accent.
As he recounts the day, David met a woman with facial tattoos that marked her as her husband's property. As they chatted, the pale-skinned, sandy-haired North Carolina native imitated her dry, throaty way of speaking. "You are Bedu, too," she exclaimed with delight, he recalls.

From her and the other Bedouins, the 37-year-old officer learned that most of the cross-border smuggling was carried out by Shamar tribesmen who peddle cigarettes, sheep and gasoline. Radical Islamists were using the same routes to move people, guns and money. Many of the paths were marked with small piles of bleached rocks that were identical to those David had seen a year earlier while serving in Yemen.”

As you can plainly see, having someone like David around doesn’t fit in with hiring mercenaries from GOP contributing “security” companies, so naturally they are taking him out.

“David is part of a small cadre of cultural experts in the Army known as foreign-area officers. The military would only allow him to be interviewed on the grounds that his last name and rank be withheld. U.S. officials say he'll be spending the rest of his career in the Middle East, often operating alone in potentially hostile territory. Naming him, they say, would make him more vulnerable to attack.

His colleagues in Iraq say his presence has been invaluable. "We ought to have one of these guys assigned to every [regional] commander in Iraq," says Col. John Bayer, chief of staff for Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. forces in the northern third of the country. "I'd love to say `assign me 100 of these guys.' "

That's not happening. Instead, the military is pulling David out of Iraq later this month along with seven other officers who make up his unit. Before the end of the year, David will resume his previous post in Yemen.”

And so it goes as we stay the course in Iraq. I wonder ‘stay the course” was what Bush used to say instead of chug-a-lug at the keg parties?



Belated congrats to William Vollman for winning the national book award. I interviewed him this spring about Europe Central for Publishers Weekly, and found him a very genial sort of guy. He was surprised that I was such an ardent fan of Argall. I have very nice memories of reading Europe Central in a hammock, drinking a tequilla, in a garden in Mexico -- an oddly idyllic context within which to read about twentieth century butcheries.

Other note. I'm going on vacation next Tuesday. I'll be back the eighth of December. Those of you who have contributed to LI during the last couple of weeks - our official total was something like 450 dollars by November 15th, which wasn't bad -- should be sending me mailing addresses for your dopamine cowboy stuff, and telling me exactly what you want.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

the U.S. and the people without history

Years ago, Eric Wolf wrote a book with the catchy title, Europe and the People without History. The book was about a pattern in the early modern mindset that became a template for the colonialist ideology. Europe, in this perspective, or the West, had a history – there was a definite progressive pattern to the changes in the West over time. But the Other did not have a history. The other lived in eternal cycles – the Asiatic despots – or had no history at all worth speaking of – the noble savage.

Over at Crooked Timber, there’s a post about the Jane Fonda myth that has aroused a lot of hot comments, some by LI. And the comments about the Vietnam war are oddly consonant with that old White Mythology, to use J.D.’s phrase. The war on the American side is considered to be full of dynamic changes. The students, the soldiers, the media all producing changes in the way the Americans felt and acted during the war. But on the other side, there are only monolithic, intemporal blocks. There are the South Vietnamese. There are the Vietnamese Communists. And though one can find, in fact must find, events that happened to these two blocks (reluctantly, Americans sometimes even concede that the Vietnamese war was about the Vietnamese), they remain unchanged players in an American folk drama.

I think this denial of time is an essential part of the American military mindset. By means of it, America has developed an onslaught strategy that attacks as though the enemy were an unchanging block. Dependent on this view of the unchanging block is the American fascination with counting enemy casualties. What do you do with a block? You atomize it.

That the enemy might not be a block – that it might be a shapeshifter, that it might have a history – is excluded from the picture. For instance: in Vietnam, the casualties that the U.S. inflicted undoubtedly impacted some parts of the guerilla structure more than others. In particular, by instituting village Einsatzgruppe-like warfare (the Phoenix program), the U.S. undoubtedly decimated the cadre of fighters who were native to the southern Vietnamese provinces. This gave a distinct advantage to the fighters from the North, in terms of organization. The war that the Americans fought was producing this kind of change in the “Vietnamese communists”, but the Americans couldn’t see it. That decimation of the village cadre had another effect on the “South Vietnamese.” As the war went on, a genuine, anti-communist, anti-american nationalism emerged in South Vietnam, undoubtedly filling a space left empty by the NLF’s decimation. This, too, happened under the radar.

The blindness in Iraq is even greater. We seriously doubt that most Americans know anything about the Iraqi government for which American soldiers are fighting. The American penchant for creating timeless blocks plays out, in the media, in terms of the ‘democratically elected” government versus the “terrorists.” That the democratically elected government consists of people once labeled terrorists by the Americans, for the very good reason that they devoted much organizational energy, in the eighties, to blowing up Americans has certainly gone under the radar. It simply doesn’t fit the atemporal story. It makes the blocks go wobbly. Wobbliness is a thing for which we all have a Thatcherite disdain, n’est-ce pas?

The real clash of civilizations is here: a civilization has grown up, has ideologically constructed itself, around the idea that no other civilization has a history. That ideology operates like a denial mechanism, allowing the West to simply forget its long, intricate history of dealings with the other. Those who have no history contaminate, with a sort of oblivion, those who do have history. Because the pattern of those dealings – the dealings of conqueror to conquered – don’t exactly reveal a progress, this story is best told as a magic act, in which the conquered ‘vanish.’ That’s, after all, what happened to the Indians – they vanished. They pulled a magic act.

That’s the Ur-story. Those dealings all happen in the heart of darkness, so to speak.

But the return of the vanished is now the story of our own era. The images of this story, although utterly unreal, operated, in the past, as an advantage to the West. But as the US stumbles and falls in slow motion in Mesopotamia, we can see the old Leatherstocking tale is on its last legs.

ps -- LI readers are urged to visit Chris Floyd's Empire Burlesque. Floyd has been gathering a lot of materials about the war crimes being committed in Iraq by the Americans and their allies, and he has a nice synopsis of the accusation that the Americans used chemical warfare in Falluja -- that is, they used phosphorus bombs for their napalm like effects, and not as a means of "illuminating' the battle scene. Those WMDs just keep coming back to haunt this war.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

lies of intention and lies of fact

Although I’ve pretty much stopped reading Christopher Hitchens on Iraq, curiosity made me peek at his last Slate column. After two years, I wonder how he would stand up for his friend, Chalabi, whose speech he attended last week.

Although the column is written in Hitchen’s now normal tendentious tone, a mix of scorn and insult that gives the effect of Captain Bligh giving his last speech to the crew of the Bounty, and though, of course, Hitchens is simply a lunatic about Iraq, he does have a valid central point about the Democratic claim to being mislead about Iraq.

Hitchens simply points to a long line of legislation, going back to 1998, as well as Clinton’s own actions, to make the point that the Dems were on board the regime change ship (hey, having thrown in Captain Bligh, I’m sticking with this metaphor, sailor!). I think this is fairly accurate. The rush to war was a peculiarly D.C. moment. The DLC wing of the Democratic party – from Lieberman to Clinton – let Bush carry the message; nor did they scream or yell when it became obvious, in the countdown to the invasion, that other means of settling the question of the weapons of mass destruction – letting the inspectors do their job, for instance – were counterproductive not to Saddam, but to Bush’s policy. This is what Daschle said on October 7, 2002, quoting from the Houston Chronicle:

“Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the Democratic-led Senate, over the next week or so, will overwhelmingly approve a resolution giving Bush the go-ahead to invade Iraq if necessary to eliminate any effort to develop or use weapons of mass destruction.
"We've got to support this effort," Daschle said during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "We've got to do it in an enthusiastic and bipartisan way." Daschle said the vote would be lopsided, with roughly 75 senators or so supporting the resolution.
But lawmakers are nervous about handling the issue correctly, Daschle said. "This is the first pre-emptive, unilateral authorization of the use of force that we've ever passed."

The root lie, the one Hitchens doesn’t talk about for all his quoting of previous resolutions, was the lie that Bush did not want war. This is a sore point. Since the war’s supporters did, visibly, want war in that period, defending the truthfulness of Bush’s claim that he didn’t means discussing why he didn’t. And those supporters have long claimed that the WMD was merely the mask thrown over the complex of reasons we went to war, which definitely leaves the impression that Bush’s gang was playing the American people for suckers. In fact, on October 7, 2002, Bush, in his key speech in Cincinnati, made it clear that the resolution of Congress did not necessarily mean war:

"Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable," Bush said. "The resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice and it is determined to make the demands of the civilized world mean something."

That, of course, was the lie. Bush did everything he could to make military action both imminent and unavoidable. What, one wonders, would it have taken to avoid war? Bush’s answer was that it would have taken complete disarmament by Iraq – but that simply isn’t true. It would have taken Iraq’s complete surrender to Bush, Saddam’s removal and the removal of the Ba’ath party leadership. In other words, the conditions that Bush claimed to be setting for the American audience would always be set a little higher for the Iraqi audience, so we would have our war. The pro-war crowd – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. – found nothing wrong with this. And the D.C. consensus viewed it, at the time, as the necessary buildup to a necessary war. The Dems under Daschle admitted that they were voting for a unilateral military action on intelligence that consisted of “might be”s – Iraq might possess this, and it might possess that. The talk about what might be is such that it baffles our notion of direct truths – rather, we have to talk about what is plausible and implausible. When, in the same speech, Bush said "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," he was distorting the evidence – a minor lie, since it was by no means clear – but he wasn’t lying about it in the traditional sense if he was saying that, in his judgment, it was clear. In September, 2002, the dossier on Iraq compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies was published. That study concluded, as it turned out correctly, that nuclear weapons “seem the furthest from Iraq’s grasp,” and that Iraq possessed, at best, residual WMD capabilities in chemical and biological arms.

The point, then, is that if we are to go back (again and again and again) to how we got into Iraq, the question of intelligence is subordinate to the question of intention. And all of these questions are academic if they don’t lead us to get out of Iraq, now. To create excuses for our failure in Iraq while remaining as a failing force in Iraq is the kind of malign joke that we do not want to see played on American soldiers or Iraqis.

Monday, November 14, 2005

to bring the neo-liberal hero to life

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man's embers
And a live flame will start.

Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours…
- Robert Graves, “To Bring the Dead to Life”

Graves biographical method of going from the outside in is useful in bringing the neo-liberal hero to life. It is no great magic to imagine any European politician receiving the undiluted affection of American journalists. Given an X in, say, Spain, let him proclaim the need to reform the labor market; let him speak of tax cuts; set him up before audiences of working men, where he can frankly tell them he means to attack their standards of living – and they will applaud him fiercely, of course. Let him say that we have a few things to learn from America. And let him praise the free market, and let him be frank. Among the journalists who write of Spain, then, the story will soon form itself: of how our X is gaining popularity; of how our X is going to effect a revolution; of his humble origins and of his great future. If X is a woman, she may be Spain’s Maggie Thatcher; if a man, Spain’s Tony Blair.

In “Waiting for Sarko”, the Atlantic Magazine’s September love letter to France’s interior minister, Sarkozy, the elements are laid out precisely as with the mythical X. It is important that the neo-liberal hero be a kind of outsider – Merkel being a woman from East Germany was perfect for that part. Sarkozy is “The middle son of a bourgeois Hungarian immigrant in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.” If the X is from a powerful, insider family, like Chalabi, well emphasize that the family was exiled, dispersed, broken up, impoverished. This is important, because the Neo-liberal hero’s act is to take money from the working class and give that money to the rich. As countless fairy tales have taught us, such people are villains – Sheriffs of Nottingham and the like. If we are going to reverse the moral brunt of the fairy tale with our new, reformed fairy tale, it is best to view the working class as a special interest – and the institutions that have grown up around the social welfare model as insiders, while the corps of upper management, in this tale, becomes a band of Merry Men. This is a sort of hard switch to make, so it is best to make it all at once.

And then there is Sarkozy’s proclaimed affection for the American model. A courageous politician to proclaim such a thing in “an anti-American” country like France – but our neo-liberal hero, having read his Ayn Rand, is an individualist:

“"Where do we get off looking down our noses at countries that have half the unemployment rate we do?" he said matter-of-factly to an audience of students at the Dauphine campus of the University of Paris in May. "Don't we have an interest in looking for models elsewhere? We don't know how to do everything. Voila. I've said it. We might have something to learn."
The students burst into hurrahs. "I said it," Sarkozy pressed on through the clamor, "and if I say it, it is because I believe it profoundly. A little benchmarking, as you say here at Dauphine, wouldn't hurt.”
Yes, indeed, French students, radical lefties all, applauded the man like mad. But wait, what is this about benchmarking? Oh, the Dauphine campus is the University’s Business school. So, business students applauded him like mad about – increasing their chances for wealth and power.
The neo-liberal hero cannot, however, look entirely like Reagan or Thatcher in the American press, since the audience might be composed of some few who don’t regard Reagan and Thatcher as the highest elevations of the human spirit in its struggle to the stars. So he is most safely seen as that most approved of all the animals on Noah’s ark, the Centrist Democrat:
“Like Godot, Sarko is what you want him to be, and there are plenty who are skeptical that he is any different, or holds any different convictions, from the rest of the French political class. By French standards he is a man of the right, which would place him on the middle-left in the United States. Where Chirac is an ardent Gaullist, Sarkozy is described as an "Atlanticist." He talks a modestly free-market line and is often savage about the cuckooland of French labor law and even the sorry state of the French work ethic. These views may explain why, according to the rumor mills here, Sarkozy is beloved of the Bush administration--the kiss of death, of course, for a French politician.”
That a rightwing leader would savage French labor law – a cuckooland compared to the cool American alternative, which is a race for the minimum wage and the bankruptcy court in which the corporation can purge itself of those cuckoo contractual promises of pensions and health care – is presented, of course, as a rare thing. This tickles the American fancy, which, when not ardently believing that France and Germany are collectively poorer countries than the state of Mississippi – a rightwing meme with an astonishing vigor – is convinced that France is the new Soviet Union.
And so onto the cuckooland of the new, pensionless corporation. Today’s business paragon is Delphi corporation, which has bravely decided to throw its pension obligations at the foot of the American taxpayer. The wondrous Gretchen Morgenson’s Sunday article in the NYT, “Oohs and Ahs At Delphi's Circus,” should be read by anyone who can get their hands on it – it is behind the NYT payment barrier, but those with library access should be able to get it for free. Delphi, remember, is the spin off from General Motors that is being lead by the most quoted man in America at the moment, Robert S. Miller. Morgenson puts the story in a nutshell thusly:
“Delphi, which has 185,000 employees, argues that its woes are a result of high union wages, a fiercely competitive industry and rising commodity prices. The company plans to turn itself around, according to its lawyers, by improving its manufacturing and ''eliminating noncompetitive legacy liabilities and burdensome restrictions under current labor agreements.'' Put in plain English, that means dumping its pension liabilities on American taxpayers and cutting its workers' wages and retirees' health and life insurance.”
Here’s a case for a neo-liberal hero, and they are delivering. But the ultimate plan is, of course, to deliver the company from bankruptcy. And the management must get paid for that, n’est-ce pas? So Morgenson reports on the compensation plan for upper management submitted to the court by a “compensation expert,” Watson Wyatt. It is a hoot. Rarely do you get such a gorgeous glimpse of the CEO ethic in action. Even Al Capone didn’t propose to rob quite so openly, and to use the court to do it. Here are some highlights:
“Interestingly, nowhere in the plan filings does Delphi concede that mismanagement in the executive suite had anything to do with its problems. In fact, the documents draw a picture of a company that has been managed splendidly over the years. Never mind that Delphi accounting practices are under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission or that the company has recorded losses of $6.3 billion in the last seven quarters.”
The loss of money on that scale, to Watson Wyatt, shows management skills of a high order. And they must be compensated in a competitive way – one doesn’t want a group that can lose 6.3 billion in two years to be taken away by some greeneyed other company! To keep the top four execs, we are talking about $3.1 million a year in salary. Peanuts of course. What we really want, to keep them running the company like the model MBAs they are, are the little extras:
“The incentive bonus program, to be divided among an unspecified number of Delphi executives, has an estimated cost of $21.5 million for the first six months, Watson Wyatt said. That amount equals the entire compensation paid for all of last year to Toyota's 33 top executives, a group that oversees a highly profitable company in the automotive business.”
Why, of course! This is America, not some place with a cuckooland full of lousy labor laws. Neo-liberal heroes everywhere realize that this is a sort of, well, benchmarking. We are benchmarking just how servile the American spirit is.
And then – ah, you thought that Delphi was going to be chintzy, didn’t you? You thought that the 21.5 million per half year was the most that could be squeezed out of a company that can’t afford to pay its retired workers their health benefits. That is why you, reader, are not in upper management. One must learn to think big.
“But wait, there's more. An additional $88 million in cash would go to Delphi's top 500 employees when it emerged from bankruptcy proceedings or if the company's assets were sold. The top four executives -- again, excluding Mr. Miller -- would receive a total of $8.9 million of this, or 10.1 percent.”
Graves poem about bringing the dead to life ends like this:

“So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.”

Which, god help us, seems to happen not only to the biographer, but to those countries that conjure up the neo-liberal hero, and end up lying in a grave of an ersatz America, the banks re-financed from the public till, the currency collapsing, the frenzy of consumerism turned into a frenzy of unemployment. Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, New Zealand… so it goes.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

heroes on parade

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend who teaches at Berkeley. I was complaining, for some reason, about the ineffectuality of lefty political movements. My pet peeve – for instance, the way the anti-war movement gets continually diverted to supporting factional and hopelessly unlikely projects, thus foreclosing on allies to the right that could seal the closure of this occupation. And he told me that sometimes he gets tired of his radical students playing the ultra game, with their seeming program of getting guns and going to the hills to fight capitalism. And, although he didn’t add this, their probable real future in business, entertainment, law and medicine.

I said that this is just the kind of romantic lefty shit I hated. Especially the projection of a heroic ideal embodied by some revolutionary leader, Castro or Che or, as is the case right now, Chavez. Chavez, who has quite correctly begun diverting revenue from petroleum exports to human capital projects (just like Kuwait has done since 1964), while at the same time quietly continuing to pay the premium for those massive Venezuelan debts accrued over the past thirty years in such a manner that, in the business world, there would definitely be huge and winnable suits over the manner of their composition and delivery. No bolivarian revolution is required – just re-tooling international corporate law. The problem is the symbiosis between lender and emerging market debtor, with their neo-liberalism guaranteed by cyclical and cynical socialism for the wealthy, robbing the public till to sustain a con man’s dream of unneeded infrastructural projects. But both the left and the right, in the Latin American context, still loves those infrastructural projects, as though this was still the golden era of damming.

In fact, my opinion about the bad gas emanating from the neurotic projection of white boogey kids is itself an old clich̩ from the cold war Рsee any essay by Naipaul, circa 1970-1980.

However, we don’t live in a time warp. The projections that endanger us don’t come from the infantile left, but from the infantile CEO set. Oddly enough, nobody, to my knowledge, has tracked down the characteristic tropes of the neo-liberal hero, that comic counterpart to the Berkeley vision of the Motorcycle Diaries. And yet they are all around us: the Merkels, the Chalabis, the Sarkozys, succeeding the Fujimoras and the Pinochets and Salinases of yesteryear.

This struck me as I read the NYT’s report about Merkel on Thursday. The NYT has been very disappointed in Germany since the election. Here is how the election was supposed to go: the Germans, realizing that the political economy of America was superior in every way, was supposed to flock to Merkel’s standard. An orange, or a red white and blue revolution, if you will. Soon union membership would decline, and high tech service jobs would flourish. German CEOs would soon be raking in the chips. And the whole thing would be baptized: the entrepreneurial society. Or how about: the ownership society.

But this is the way the election went: the entrepreneurial society lost. The Germans flocked to the slow the ‘reform’ or ‘stop the reform’ parties, the SPD, the Greens, and the Left. Between them these accrued 51 percent of the vote. And this wasn’t an Ohio or a Ninevah province vote, either.

This leaves Mark Landler, the NYT reporter, with a heavy hearted task. What if you gave a party for morning in Deutschland and nobody comes? Here’s how you report it:

“Germany’s two major political parties on Friday sealed an agreement to govern the country together under Angela Merkel, who would become the country's first female chancellor.

But after six weeks of grueling negotiations, which exposed fissures on both sides and necessitated deep compromises, the new government faced a murky future, shorn of the reformist zeal that many here believed is necessary to fix Germany's stagnant economy and stem its soaring unemployment.”

That “many” which obtrudes itself in the second graf is the many-headed minority to which the whole story is keyed. It is the many who think of Tom Friedman as God’s own son. It is the many who compose the editorial board of the Times. It is the many who see past the fog of unsustainable worker’s rights and pensions and health care a little something else, a little lexus and the olive tree, chugging away. Everything, in this vision, can become America, and America can become everything! We have it in our hands to distribute a universal solvent, melting away bad old socialism, and creating a new economy in which the GDP grows by leaps and bounds, and most of the wealth of it is captured by the upper ten percent, or the exciting success class. And that class, like the engine of a train, will pull behind it the investments of the working class. Nirvana and Dow 36,000 are just around the corner.

The NYT view, of course, papers over the reality of the meaning of “reformist zeal.” Reform unleashes reform in a chain reaction. There's the tax “reform” and labor market “reform.” There's the pension reform and the reform on corporate holdings. There are reform going all the way out to the horizon. What this view really means is this: a politics that would essentially junk the social welfare state. The way in which Europeans ask the question: to what extent can we preserve a system that guarantees health and retirement and worker’s rights? is of course ignored with the pretense that that system is far too expensive – on the principle of the richer we are, the poorer we are. No, in the new, competitive world, the only viable option is a politics of growth that skews wealth wildly to the wealthiest and creates mindboggling personal and public debt, as well as mindboggling inequality. Growth, here, becomes the enemy of social welfare, not its ally. Keynesian economics is turned on its head.

This return to the politics of an old capitalist elite, circa 1890, with the new twist that the state becomes a player for the corporations, requires a myth. The myth is that the business cycle is dead. With growth becoming a linear and predictable thing, everybody becomes an owner, and nobody needs those antiquated benefits.

So who wants this? Heroes do. Heroism is coupled with myth, requires it. Just as every myth generates heroes, every hero defines him or herself in terms of myth. Especially when the myth obscures a sharp and cruel desire, and when that desire can only succeed by means of sacrifice, heroes come to the fore to make that sacrifice seem virtuous.

Our current crop of neo-liberal heroes are all little Reagans and Thatchers. Their bios are oddly similar. They start out as outsiders. They talk tough, and directly to their enemies – who are portrayed as the insider elites. That tough talk appeals to the street.

Merkel has proven to be a big disappointment on the hero level. She came from East Germany, and that was good. Her outsider credentials were burnished. She was a woman, hence the Thatcher image. And she brought in a flat taxer to talk tough. Instead of campaigning like a neo-liberal hero, however, she campaigned like a wall flower. This was not at all good. She did not plug into the secret desire on the street to junk the system of social welfare and plunge into the ownership society. Hence, the melancholy of Landler’s story:

“She would emerge from that vote with half her cabinet - including the foreign, finance, and labor ministries - in the hands of her former political opponents, the Social Democrats.

Even more important, Mrs. Merkel has had to set aside many of her proposals for overhauling Germany's economy, including a simpler tax regimen; reform of health care and pensions; and a more flexible labor market. The Social Democrats objected to Mrs. Merkel's proposals to curb unions and to make it easier to dismiss workers.

Plans to restructure the medical and pension systems were also either watered down or deferred. And the Social Democrats succeeded in nudging up the tax rate for people with high salaries.”

Like Kurz dying in his dark canoe, one can only imagine this NYT-er gasping out the immortal words: the horror! the horror!

For a look at neo-liberal mythography in action, LI’s readers should get ahold of the Atlantic magazine in September and read Charles Trueheart’s Waiting For Sarko. We’re going to put on our Barthes glasses and analyze that tomorrow.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...