Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sidewalks of Mexico City

The sidewalks of Mexico City were built to bear the tireless strides of giant statues. I long for legs of marble here. The sidewalks have been so patched and battered, been so drilled through, picked at, trampled on, and generally raddled by earthquake, that they take on an air of something dug up by archaeologists, something bearing the marks of some grand fall. Even when, as around the Park in Polanco, they are relatively new.

This morning, I went in search of a memory; and as is the way with all such quests, it turned into a lugubrious fugue. I was thinking of having breakfast at the Habana, a café in the newspaper district. The first time I came to Mexico City, I was taken there by my friend Stefan. Stefan, K. and me travelled to Mexico together, first to San Allende, then by train to Mexico City. It was a notable trip. Stefan was a German American who was stuck in the Sargossa Sea of Eternal Studenthood back when that was still cheap. He´d been at U.T. for a long, long time, and was a fixture in the café/coffeehouse scene. He was a wiry man with short dark curly hair and he had the air of one of the Castle´s messengers in Kafka´s novel. He seem bent over by some invisible wind. It was his fatal bent for perfection that undid him. He never finished a class – he never finished a piece of writing, so torn was he by the thought that anything he wrote would inevitably expose him in some way. He could not accept the sheer humanity of making a fool of himself on paper, as though he were surrounded by enemies that would jeer at him for a faulty clause, a banality, or a tedious theme. He dreamed of a writing a novel about Boswell – or was it in the style of Boswell. Besides literature, he had a passion for the kitschier songs of Meatloaf, pool, a blond waitress at Les Amis, and Mexico. When he was a teen, he said, he had gone hiking, or even hitchhiked, in the backlands of Chihuahua.

The Habana was just the kind of place that Stefan would discover. It had been there forever, or at least since the 50s. Castro had once drunk his coffee there, but the world had smiled on him since those days, and now his enemies, exiles from the Castro monarchy, sat around the tables and grew grayer and fatter. But the way Stefan presented the place instantly turned these old boys into the denizens of some Cabral Infante novel – or the journalistic comrades of Garcia Marquez. Whenever I have come back to Mexico City, I make an effort to go there again. Except this September. So, since I am down here now, I wanted to make up for my neglect. Unfortunately, it was two years ago that I had breakfast there last, so how to get there was not entirely clear in my mind. I took the subway to Bellas Artes, emerged at streetlevel, and immediately took off, as though I could get there if I went decisively enough. I zigzagged through the area, passing by a demonstration of teachers on Balderos, finding myself in an industrial area at one point, passing by a theater for children and then a college for police men. At that point, I thought that I would not find the Habana. And I did want breakfast. So I ducked into a restaurant near the cop school, with the vague thought that this, too, would be colorful material. The place was a mistake. I was the only customer. The breakfast was execrable. The waiter emitted a suspicious smell, the electricity went off, the coffee was made out of some material that might have been like coffee once, two men started a jackhammer outside the door of the place to batter the sidewalk for another project, and the chilequiles with eggs were tossed together in some fit of absentmindedness which made me wonder what the huevos borrachos were like.

But laying out the princely sum of forty pesos, I proceeded to go up to the center of town, and did, at least, go to the top of the Holiday Inn and have a beer to settle my nerves and write this account in my notebook. And now here it is in Limited Inc.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

conversation in mexico

LI had drinks with a well known Meican historian last night. After some shop talk concerning editing his upcoming book, the conversation got around to what was happening in Mexico.

I asked him why Mexico seemed to be falling apart, like Colombia in the 80s.
In the old system of the PRI days, he said, Mexico was divided almost medievally into fiefs, territories ruled by the caciques, the big bosses: PRI functionaries, union leaders, elites from the landholding, merchant and industrial classes. The caciques were not only the cops, but also the robbers. They enforced an order on crime, that is, if the crime were of any large scale. So, whatever illegal enterprises were set up had to pay the caciques, and had to submit – sometimes unwillingly – to the enforcement of limits. At that time, then, the drug lords had to have a certain respect.

This system dissolved rapidly as the PRI lost its mandate. With the ¨democratic moment¨, there was a genuine pause. Nobody knew what the state would do to replace the old system. The cops and robbers waited, as it were, for the new order to appear.

Unbelievably, the historian said, the New Order never appeared. The state never replaced the caciques. It simply let the old ones vanish where it could.

It dawned, then, on the drug lords that they didn´t have to pay the debt of respect to anyone. That there was nobody over them. That they did not have to fear the elites.

The drug lords, I said, were the true children of neo-liberalism. They got it. They understood an opportunity when it appeared before them.

Right, said the historian. So the drug lords rushed in, and soon they were overwhelming the local elites.

Take Tampico, he said. Tampico is at the center of the Gulf oil indrustry, and it used to be that the oil workers union was in everything. They owned markets, they owned hospitals, they rented apartments. If comething happened, there was a little bit of the oil union that got in on it. So the Gulf Cartel had to pay a cut to the union leaders and the PRI. This went without saying.

Today, all that system the union had created has vanished. And along with it, the subservience of the narco bosses.

Here´s the strange thing to me, the historian said. What I´m expected, although it hasn´t happened yet, is for the elites to strike back. I´m surprised that they haven´t yet started organizing paramilitary forces. It is only a matter of time. They haven´t done it yet because, I think, they are still stunned.

What about the military, I said.

You know, the military is not an instrument designed to fight the drug war. 150,000 soldiers have dropped out in the past couple of years.

And, I said, the idea that the poor recruit is going to face the narco soldier, who is from the same class but is much better paid, without asking what side am I on –

Exactly, said my friend. The infection has already been spreading in the army.

So, I said, I see the probability of the paramilitaries. But let´s take this further. I just edited a paper about the dirty war between the Turks and the Kurds in Southeast Turkey. What the Turks did is hire village ¨guards¨- essentially, they recruited death squads. Now, in the situation as you´ve outlined it, I don´t see how the state, if it continues the war, is going to avoid this step. The border, for instance, is a disaster. There isn´t a sane man who would volunteer to police Nuevo Laredo. They´ve slipped almost completely under the control of gangs that fight it out there. They´ve escaped the state´s reach. And how can the state allow that? Better the state sponsored anarchy of the death squads than merely anarchy.

The thing the government really has to do is get back to the old narco system. What is killing everybody is that it has fragmented, and nobody has monopoly power. So they are fighting it out. And not like the old days, when it was the bad guys just killing bad guys.

The interesting thing, I said, is that the state has put itself into a corner. It started this under American pressure. But now, if it doesn´t take control of the border towns, I can envision a scenario where the Americans incurse. Wouldn´t it be ironic if Obama, now considered an angel from heaven, has to play the heavy role once assumed by Woodrow Wilson? I mean, think of the situation. Paramilitaries battling drug lords, death squads in the cities. Unless, of course, Calderon simply stops the madness. If he does the smart thing and refuses to accede to American pressure and deals with the drug lords like the PRI did.

That is what I think could happen, the historian said. The PRI is waiting to come back. They know how to deal with this.

Well, said my friend M., how about trying education? How about infrastructure? How about sewers?

Both the historian and me turned on M. – That is a non-starter. Security has to come first. If you send your seven year old daughter to school and she´s kidnapped on the way, raped, tortured, dumped in the desert, you aren´t going to be begging for schools, you´ll be begging for armed men.

This is Hobbes, M. said.

What puzzles me, I said, is why just drugs? It is a funny thing, the narcos are showing you something – they´ve discovered Mexico is next to the U.S.! So why not a higher value crime. IP crime. Blackmarket software. Illegal generic pharmaceuticals. You know, the illegal drug racket, in the U.S. , instituted practices that are now common among the drug companies. For instance, you know, giving the doctors free drugs to distribute to clients, the doctors not even knowing what they are, so that the clients get a taste. The promise of mood alteration. Most of all, the network of pushers. All taken directly from the narco trade. In fact, legal drugs, sold on the street, are taking the place of illegal ones in some places.

Like Marx said (and I raised my forefinger), the criminal enterprises on the fringes today pioneer the business practices of tomorrow.

I continued, Mexico should follow up the narcos, maybe even consult with the leaders in secret. Thailand and Taiwan have done it, why not Mexico.

Just great, said M. Our tone displeased her. She has kids, and the vision of Mexico dissolving in an orgy of bloodshed is no joke to her. And bloodshed there is every day. It has leaked into the countryside, the routine of slaughter, 20 people here, 20 there, just to send a message. So it is no longer a joke to the vast, poor majority, who used to look on in bemusement.

Still, the historian has what I think of as a Mexican sense of humor, which finds the worst to be the funniest. The worst, after all, is a challenge thrown into the very face of the devil. Top this! How else are you going to get the Prince of Darkness to do his best work.

Your IP idea is good, the historian said. You need to write a proposal to the government. You should consult with them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Cioran, in his essay on tyranny in History and Utopia, quotes one of those marvelous marbleized sentences of Montesquieu: When Sylla wished to give liberty to Rome, Rome could no longer receive it, having only a feeble remnant of virtue left. And as it had always even less, instead of waking up after Caesar, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero, Domitian, it was ever more the slave; all blows were directed against the tyrant, none against the tyranny. Watching Bush dodge some shoes, to the general delight of the world, Montesquieu´s phrase seems appropriate. Although LI, being only human, would have liked, too, for the man to have been given at least a small bruise, it is still too little, and no blow against tyranny. The draining of republican feeling, the draining of the energy it takes to be democratic, can be measured by Bush´s unheckled and rather comfortable existence as a president. Johnson, by contrast, had to chose where he´d appear in America in 1968, so great was the fury against him. Cioran uses a wonderful word to describe a certain kind of politician in the Europe of the 1950s – tyranneau – a mini-tyrant. The label fits our second tier caddy of a president well. And though I don´t have any desire to subscribe to Cioran´s repentent fascist description of democracy as a paradise of debility, I will grant, in the case of my U.S.A., during the time of the Great Fly´s reign, a certain degree of utter senility. Far from being a great scoundrel, a sadist, an adorer of bloodshed, a major vampire, the scandal of Bush is his utter insignificance. He is an object rebarbative to meditation, like a stain, or a dirty rag. He is, in fact, in the damning phrase of the journalists who have formed his most enthralled claque, the kind of guy ´¨you could go out and have a drink with.¨ That rotten male amiability, mediocrity poisoning itself in healthful doses until reaching the point when all the inhibitions dissolve and the flow of cliches, the orgy of them, amazes our meritocratic reporters with the underside wisdom of the frat house – yes, it is to this that the American power elite has dwindled. Once, they were exalted by the power of life and death given them, synechdocally, by the ICBM, a monomania that at least produced an elevation of the elite type. Now, we have reprised past glories with the comic opera global war on terror, the kind of thing that would come out of a confab of barstools in our more meritocratic city districts. A war in the name of democracy by its undertakers and most rabid opponents. A war in the name of free enterprise by the fixers and the frauds.

There is, at least, something new under the son in this corruption, this contagion that has rotted us all. It is, of course, the corruption of meritocracy, the American superstition that virtue – the virtue which the Romans, in the age of their enfeeblement, lacked enough of to attack the system of tyrrany instead of the eccentricities of any particular tyrant – is something accorded by multiple choice, or a thumb´s up job assessment by the boss. For a culture that has retained its ideals from the stage of toilet training, and only those ideals, Bush is the tyranneau it deserved. But this is no excuse for inflicting him on the rest of the world.

Now, of course, our feeble virtue has been reawakened as the Great Moderation has shed all masks, and displays itself as the Great Peculation, starring Bernie Madoff. Meanwhile, the most odious group of legislators to foul Congress since the class of 1850 is busy shooting the American auto industry, the largest manufacturer, in the head this winter, due to the greed of the assembly line worker. Keep your needle eye on them sonsobitches, boys! Since, in spite of the cliché that the system is all connected, which has been mouthed a million times by economists and hacks over the last twenty years, the system really is all connected, the bullet intended for the UAW is sure to lodge in the banker´s brainpan. And, of course, the meritocratic chorus in the NYT and other good establishment papers has been moaning, for months, about the very idea of interfering with creative destruction, while holding out the can for Wall Street. It is their way of throwing shoes at the workers, those overpayed extras. Extras in life, and in death, not like, say, your go to guy in the gated community who can guarantee you a 1 percent gain per month per year.

Ah, Zona Zona, I would sit by the waters of Babylon and weep – but I am in Mexico City, and can only cast one baleful crow´s eye on the moronic inferno I call home.

Monday, December 15, 2008

repost of The Year of Cooling the Mark Out

This was my post of February 2, 2008. Not bad as a prediction:

the year of cooling the mark out

And Burn my shadow away…

Erving Goffman wrote an often referenced paper in 1952 entitled On Cooling the Mark Out. To understand this election year, LI advises our readers to read it.

The paper begins by describing the confidence game, which involves roping a mark, getting him to invest, financially, in some scheme or game, and clearing him out. At this point, the confidence gang has the option of simply leaving the mark behind. But…

“Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators' point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not. yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team﷓mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

This pretty much describes the two cases we have before us this election year. The ruinous Bush years involved two con games that were entwined one with the other. We have the con game that keeps us in Iraq, one fully supported by the ropers in – the governing elite – and we have the con game that is now busting, the full fruit of Bush’s economic policy, which involved minimizing regulation of the financial markets while maximizing the amount of money they had to play with. In this way, credit could fill up that hole where compensation from work used to be – and so productivity gains could be appropriated at a much higher rate by the richest, while home equity could be tapped, via mortgages, for the good life by the debtors.

Goffman points out that the mark’s psychology is a tricky one. To an economist, it might just look like utility maximization. But…

“In many cases, especially in America, the mark's image of himself is built up on the belief that he is a pretty shrewd person when it comes to making deals and that he is not the sort of person who is taken in by any thing. The mark’s readiness to participate in a sure thing is based on more than avarice; it is based on a feeling that he will now be able to prove to himself that he is the sort of person who can "turn a﷓fast buck." For many, this capacity for high finance comes near to being a sign of masculinity and a test of fulfilling the male role.”

Warmonger psychology unerringly follows this primitive but powerful gender program. This army of pissants shows all the signs of having had trouble emerging from the sack of their twelve year old selves, when, apparently, the separation anxiety produced by throwing out their G.I. Joe doll became frozen in place. A smaller contingent of this army – much smaller – forms the viewing core of financial porno tv networks, like CNBC. These people actually believe that they are part of the confidence game gang, which is how they came to mouth a rote optimism that had as little relation to reality as your average automobile ad has to how you would really drive an automobile.

“A mark's participation in a play, and his investment in it, clearly commit him in his own eyes to the proposition that he is a smart man. The process by which he comes to believe that he cannot lose is also the process by which he drops the defences and compensations that previously protected him from defeats. When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defence for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miser ably lacking in them. This is a process of self﷓destruction of the self. It is no wonder that the mark needs to be cooled out and that it is good business policy for one of the operators to stay with the mark in order to talk him into a point of view from which it is possible to accept a loss.”

Goffman’s analysis of the mark points us to the form of the presidential election – that Halloween for grownups. Whoever the candidates are, they will represent wings of an established power that has made suckers of the vast majority of the population over the last four … eight… twelve…sixteen years. An established power that has assured America that the costs of running this empire will always be paid by third parties – whether these consist of tropical countries dealing with the forces unleashed by the American appetite for junking up the atmosphere with CO2, or Middle Eastern countries struggling with the yoke of American oppression in a more direct form – the soldier in their face, the mercenary who shoots them for fun in the traffic jam. Of course, this isn’t true. Those costs will come back here. The cost of the Middle East adventure can be seen in the run up of oil prices, a very small intimation of a much larger and connected group of problems that come with running out of prestige and power in a large area of the world while at the same time maximizing the number of people who hate you. As for CO2, it will turn out that melting the glaciers in the west during the drought cycle was not a good idea. The American west, overpopulated, overdeveloped, its water overpromised, is going to learn the lesson of the Hummer, too. This isn’t just something we can sluff off on Bangladesh.

“For the mark, cooling represents a process of adjustment to an impossible situation﷓ - situation arising from having defined himself in a way which the social facts come to contradict. The mark must therefore be supplied with a new set of apologies for himself, a new framework in which to see himself and judge himself. A process of redefining the self along defensible lines must be instigated and carried along; since the mark himself is frequently in too weakened a condition to do this, the cooler must initially do it for him.

One general way of handling the problem of cooling the mark out is to give the task to someone whose status relative to the mark will serve to ease the situation in some way. In formal organizations, frequently, someone who is two or three levels above the mark in line of command will do the hatchet work, on the assumption that words of consolation and redirection will have a greater power to convince if they come from high places.”

It is going to be an excellent year for spectators.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

such a clever boy

I have a clever little review up of the new Ferguson book, plus Michael Lewis´ anthology. It is here.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...