Archive for January, 2008

Virgin Summer

Monday, January 28th, 2008

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan, 2007

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A short novel in the style of Henry James describes the wedding night of two virgins in the very late Victorian year of 1962, just before the great sexual revolution of the mid 1960s. The groom is a west country village history major with a brain damaged mother and school teacher father. The bride is an Oxford born violinist music major just forming her own string quartet with a philosophy professor cold fish mother and a successful businessman father. Will they or won’t they consummate their marriage? A strangely readable anachronism.

Depression Shock

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

FDR, Jean Edward Smith, 2007


This largely overlooked biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is a wonderful reminder that a social shock, i.e. the Great Depression, can be used by enlightened leadership to promote the public good at least as effectively as the Chicago School neocons have used shock since the 1960s to promote a concentration of ownership and wealth with general misery for the masses. We needed a reminder in this dark day of the Chicago School neocons run amuck, that positive changes are possible when faced with a major shock but that these changes need constant diligence so the greedy neocons don’t slip us back into the dark days of Hoover and the Great Depression.

The media of FDR’s era was at least as conservative as today with moguls like William Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane), Henry Luce (Time Life), and Adolph Ochs (New York Times). FDR had an instinctive sense of where the country was and where it need to go. He managed the media brilliantly and led public opinion, taking care never to get too far out front, even into a necessary war, as opposed to pandering to public opinion like modern politicians, who are as likely to exploit and stampede public opinion with wedge issues they themselves have no personal interest in or opinions on. This is not cynicism, it is modern political reality in an age where ethics and decency have been lost in the interests of wealth and power.

FDR was born of the Roosevelt name (Hudson River side) with inherited Delano wealth. His maternal grandfather Warren Delano made two fortunes in the China trade, the second based on opium before the U.S. Civil War where it was used as the primary pain killer. FDR was to make good use of this opium fortune to support his lifelong political career.

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Privately schooled until he was 14, largely by his strong willed mother Sara, FDR attended exclusive private school Groton and then Harvard, where he resided in the exclusive Gold Coast, not mixing with poorer students. He attended during the time of William James’ philosophy department (and James deploring the social stratification at Harvard) but FDR was never good at abstract thought and never took philosophy courses. He quipped in 1941, “I took economics courses in college for four years and everything I was taught was wrong.” He is referring to the Adam Smith “invisible hand” of laissez-faire economics taught at Harvard at this time (and to Greenspan at Columbia later) and that led directly to Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of the 1950s. As President, his brain trust introduced FDR to the economics of John Maynard Keynes which formed the underpinnings of his fiscal policies. His proudest achievement at Harvard was to become editor of the Crimson Tide newspaper.

FDR served as undersecretary of the Navy during the Wilson presidency and WWI, giving FDR a unique insight into the workings of government in Washington and of the workings of the military and armaments industry. This experience was invaluable in his subsequent political career and his preparation to act as Commander in Chief during WWII. Unlike Lincoln in the civil war, FDR made hardly a misstep in selecting his military commanders in WWII.

Confirming the TV movie Warm Springs , FDR’s struggle with polio, discovery of Warm Springs Georgia, and meeting for the first time, the poor of America and particularly rural southern America resulted in a dramatic change in his perceptions and empathy with the struggling poor. Without his polio and Warm Springs, it is doubtful FDR would have conceived and implemented the far reaching changes underlying the New Deal.

FDR reentered politics after fighting polio with a run for Governor in New York in 1928. This election, with New York still largely under the control of the Tammany Hall machine in NYC, resulted in a 91% turnout in the city and a turnout in upstate New York exceeding registered voters; a reminder that corruption in voting is not new to the era of mechanized and electronic voting.

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The stock market crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression first gave Governor FDR the opportunity to test some of the programs and reforms in New York that were later central to the programs that became the New Deal. The worsening economic conditions unlike anything ever seen in America and the unwillingness of President Hoover to do anything to correct the situation resulted in a unique opportunity for FDR to take the Democratic nomination for President and to be elected President in 1932.

FDR’s first term as President was to see the most dramatic change in the role of government in American history. As he took office almost all banks were on “holiday” to stop the run on banks as Americans rushed to withdraw their funds, and the stock market was closed. The government promised to print as much money as required to meet the demand, went off the gold standard to allow the dollar to weaken against other currencies, increasing foreign demand for American commodities. Bank deposits were guaranteed by the government. The CCC, PWA, and WPR put millions to work building parks, roads, schools, hospitals, etc. The FCC was created to regulate the airwaves and the SEC was created to regulate Wall Street. States were encouraged to place a moratorium on foreclosures for homes and farms and the Federal government stepped in with massive programs of refinancing and mortgages for homes and farms, saving millions of homeowners and farmers. In 1935, social security was created as a self supporting (employee and employer contribution) security net guaranteeing unemployed and disabled workers income and providing retirement income. Unions expanded their role and representation throughout industry. Wage minimums and work hour limits were set in many states.

During his reelection campaign in 1936, Roosevelt warned the American people of a threatening new tyranny:

Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution.

FDR’s second term was marked by a number of missteps which Smith attributes to hubris on the part of the administration. FDR was dissatisfied with some decisions by the Supreme Court and attempted to add new justices to stack the court in his favor – he failed. Chief justice Hughes wrote letter defending the court and laying blame for the unfavorable decisions at the feet of the Attorney General for not paying enough attention to the law in drafting New Deal legislation. FDR cut back federal spending programs, sending the economy back into a severe recession. He reversed courses but not before significant damage was done. FDR attempted to eliminate Democratic congressmen who had opposed New Deal measures in the 1938 mid-term elections and largely failed. The only significant New Deal legislation of FDR’s second term was the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, setting minimum wages and maximum hours nationally.

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A second major shock following the great depression was unfolding throughout the rest of the world as Germany annexed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and other “German” territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles; Japan annexed Manchuria in 1932 then invaded China in 1937, and Italy joined by acquiring territory in the Balkans. It was these world events that convinced an exhausted FDR to seek a third term in 1940. An isolationist public had not forgotten the cost in American lives of WWI and the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed and while concerned about events in the world, did not want American lives at risk. FDR was able to expand spending on armaments and got legislation allowing him to sell arms to Britain on a cash and carry basis. The Republicans nominated Wendel Willkie who ran on an isolationist platform. When Willkie’s campaign gained traction, FDR weighed in with the promise “I have said before, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” To aides he added privately “If we’re attacked, it’s no longer a foreign war.” FDR waged a masterful campaign, slowly bringing public opinion around to the realities of the global conflict. He won in a landslide.

By inauguration day, Britain was running out of money to buy arms and FDR single handedly invented the Lend Lease program by which the allies would be able to “borrow” arms and then, theoretically, return them after the end of the conflict. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, FDR extended to lend lease program to them as well, amazingly with widespread public approval. FDR also succeeded in getting compulsory draft enacted using the effective argument that a draft is the most democratic way to raise an army. Soon 50,000 draftees a month were being added to our services. The draft age was set at 21 so it was American men who fought in WWII unlike the kids of 18 and 19 who fought in Vietnam. All four Roosevelt boys joined the military during the war and all received medals for their service.

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In June 1941 FDR imposed an oil embargo on Japan is an ill conceived effort to contain Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia. The embargo made Japan realize that they desperately needed the resources of the Dutch West Indies and Malaya. Japan sent delegates to the US and FDR appointed Cordell Hull to the negotiation. Smith wonders the extent to which racial prejudice distorted the US view of Japan that led to the failure of the negotiation but it clearly failed and Japan, with Yamamoto commanding, attacked Pearl Harbor, the most shocking thing they could have done, as Hawaii was so isolated and heavily armed. FDR got his non-foreign war. FDR’s seeming indifference to the relocation of west coast Japanese underlines the racially weighted way in which Japan was viewed in this era.

Once officially at war, the US threw its tremendous industrial potential into gear and complete recovery from the effects of the great depression were finally complete. A feature of the War Department contracts with armament suppliers allowed for renegotiation allowing the department to recapture government money from excess profits. There were no complaints of profiteering during this war. To stave off a massive demonstration to be staged by black leaders, FDR got legislation guaranteeing that government contracts would not be discriminatory. This is one of the few civil rights acts of the era.

The war further consolidated the New Deal whose social institutions became finally entrenched into the American system. It required two shocks to effect these social changes; the great depression followed by a great war. Without them the stranglehold of the conservatives on the distribution of wealth and concentration of power would not have been broken. The final piece of the New Deal came with passage of the GI Bill in June 1944 entitling veterans generous unemployment insurance, job counseling and enhanced medical care as well as guaranteed low cost loans for buying homes and farms and covering business costs. GI housing changed the face of almost every city in the country. Most importantly, the GI Bill provided federal money for university education. Of 15 million who served in the war, half took advantage of this assistance to attend college and by 1947 half of all college enrollees were veterans. This education created a trained work force that acted like an afterburner kicking the economy into the transformative decade of the 1950s.

FDR with Lucy Mercer fdr-lucy.jpg FDR Missy LeHand ER fdr-lehand-er.jpg

Smith spends some time exploring the strange dynamic of FDR and Eleanor’s (ER) marriage and family life. The personal life of politicians was considered off limits for the media in this era and the public was largely unaware of details of their private lives. FDR fell in love with Lucy Mercer Rutherford and she worked with him as his secretary at the navy in WWI. When FDR announced his intension of leaving Eleanor for Lucy, lifelong political adviser Louis Howe and mother Sara intervened, convincing FDR and ER to stay together for the sake of his political career. Sara even threatened to disinherit Franklin if he divorced. In 1936 King Edward VII of England abdicated his throne to marry twice divorced American Wallis Simpson, and in 1964 it is thought that Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce played a large role in his failure to gain the party’s nomination for president. Although no correspondence has been found, FDR and Lucy stayed in touch for the remainder of Franklin’s life. Lucy married and had a child with Rutherford, but attended each of FDR’s inaugurations and was the only person present when he died in 1945. Missie LeHand became FDR’s personal secretary in 1921 and was to stay with him at Warm Springs during his polio recovery, acting as his nurse and caretaker as well as his secretary. Smith says she was clearly in love with Franklin and accompanied him into the White House where she was said to be the fifth most powerful person in Washington. After a stroke disabled LeHand in 1941, Lucy seems to have reentered the picture on a more regular basis.

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Eleanor always supported her husbands political ambitions but was never central to his decision making. On a number of occasions she proved invaluable to him (meeting the veterans camped in Washington in 1933, attending the democratic convention in 1940). Eleanor formed close friendships with women and FDR built her a retreat on the Hudson River at Val-Kill near Hyde Park which he called the “honeymoon suite” where Eleanor, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook lived and shared a single bedroom. The women made rustic furniture at the house. Marion and Nancy also retained an apartment in Greenwich Village in the city. FDR called them the three graces. Smith does not speculate on the women’s sexual orientation.

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As governor of New York, FDR assigned police sergeant Earl Miller, who was the Navy’s middleweight boxing champion and kept watch over FDR during his 1918 trip to France, as Eleanor’s bodyguard in 1929. Thus began a lifelong friendship between Eleanor and Miller that one biographer of ER compares to that of Queen Victoria and Scotsman John Brown (subject of the movie Mrs. Brown starring Dame Judi Dench). Son James believed the two were more than just friends but again there is no written evidence. The effects of growing up in this “open marriage” and political environment on the five children is hard to say but each of the children had multiple marriages.

New Hampshire Digression

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Voters in New Hampshire mysteriously changed their minds about who to vote for in the last 24 hours before the Tuesday primary, defying nine polls showing a double digit lead for Barack Obama; but (even more mysteriously) only in those precincts using Diebold optical scan voting machines. See The Brad Blog. And Check the Votes. The pundits were working overtime to explain the unexplainable – Hillary showed emotion, more women showed up, Barack’s young voters stayed home, they showed up but voted for (Edwards or McCain take your pick), etc. all without any evidence. When Karl Rove of all people shows up to explain Hillary’s miraculous comeback, (in the Wall Street Journal, no less) red flags go up all over the place. Is Karl, master of character assassination and wedge issues politics, now secretly working for the Clinton campaign? Or are the Republicans simply trying to ensure that divisive Hillary is the Democratic nominee?

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Here is a sample blog entry from Black Box Voting (Bev Harris’s group) following the New Hampshire Primary

Sunday the New York Times Magazine featured an article by Clive Thompson Can You Count on Voting Machines? The article paints a rather benign view of the machines and their vendors, does not even mention Bev Harris and her group’s work, and worse makes no mention of the many successful lawsuits against the machines. Thompson claims there is no evidence anywhere of fraud or tampering, flying in the face of massive evidence to the contrary and mounting numbers of mysterious outcomes. The article concludes that optically scanned, voter marked ballots are the best available system but neglects to point out that manual recounts of optical ballots are almost never done, making them as vulnerable to tampering as any other form of electronic counting.

And so, inevitably, controversy rages about the New Hampshire primary outcome. Kucinich is asking for a Recount. Even the Republicans are getting into the act. Yet here, finally, is an ideal opportunity for voting machine advocates to put the system to the test. Diebold, who are complaining that the machines give them terrible publicity, should sponsor a manual (no machines involved) recount of those optical ballots for both the Republican and Democratic primaries. So few people voted in this small state that the time and cost of a manual recount shouldn’t be prohibitive. Also the stakes are still low enough (this is only the second primary) to keep outside pressures to a minimum. If a manual recount confirms the machine counts, it would go some ways to reassuring a very nervous public that something is not seriously amiss with these machines.

Shocking Greed

Monday, January 7th, 2008

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, 2007

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Milton Friedman friedman-galbraith.jpg and John Kenneth Galbraith -The long and short of Twentieth Century Economics.

This book is a history of neoconservatism from its Milton Friedman Chicago roots in the 50s to today. The use of shock to effect neoconservative economic transformations started with the Indonesian military coup of 1965 and continued into Latin America (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) in the 1970s. Bolivia and Poland demonstrated in the 1980s that sufficient economic shock (inflation devaluation flight of capital) could coerce democratically elected governments to implement neocon economic “reforms”. Trinidad and Tobago showed that the IMF could effect an economic crisis by fabricating statistics and causing a flight of capital. With Russia and the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the neocons perfected the mechanism of crisis to engender massive transfers of wealth and ownership into private and foreign hands. And finally, the Bush administration neocons have learned to use armed force and the threat of force to create the crisis that can then be exploited to massively move ownership and wealth into new private hands. In fact, the force itself has largely been privatized. The public core is being emptied of all its critical functions.

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The theoretical underpinnings of neoliberalism (Neoconservatism) were born at the Chicago School of Economics in the 1950’s with Milton Friedman as chief guru although significant contributions were made by Harvard and Berkeley (in 1965, at the height of the Vietnam protests). Klein discovers that the Keynesian era with its New Deal, European and Japanese reconstruction under the Marshall Plan, and European social welfare programs were all made possible by the threat of Communism and radical socialism at the time. The Chicago (and Berkeley) boys (economists educated at these schools) were able to effect massive changes in Indonesia and in several Latin American countries such as privatization (often selling key national assets to foreign multinationals), removal of price controls, free trade, and reduction of social programs and safety nets because of crisis conditions in those countries. The crises led to or resulted in military coups and reigns of terror such as Pinochet in Chile and Suharto in Indonesia where thousands were arrested, tortured and died. Then the neoconservatives learned to exploit economic crises in a democracy without overthrowing the government with examples from Bolivia and South Africa.

To aid in creating or expanding economic crisis worldwide, the Chicago School effectively took control of both the IMF and the World Bank, created after WWII to reduce economic crises. By insisting that massive foreign debt incurred by corrupt dictatorships or Apartheid regimes be honored, and by refusing aid and loans to desperate governments, the IMF and World Bank could manipulate and expand economic crises to create conditions (runaway inflation, massive unemployment) to force governments to implement neoconservative policies or to be overthrown by those who would be willing to implement such policies.

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The Chicago School crisis addicts were certainly on a speedy intellectual trajectory. Only a few years earlier, they had speculated that a hyperinflation crisis could create the shocking conditions required for shock policies. Now a chief economist (Michael Bruno), an institution funded, by this time, with tax dollars from 178 countries and whose mandate was to rebuild and strengthen struggling economies, was advocating the creation of failed states because of the opportunities they provided to start over in the rubble.

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IMF staffer and whistle blower Davison Budhoo explained some tactics used to precipitate and expand an economic crisis, the manipulation and fabrication of statistics, which he called statistical malpractice. In the mid 1980s Budhoo wrote reports doubling the actual cost of labor in oil rich Trinidad and Tobago and fabricated huge unpaid government debts. This resulted in financial markets labeling the area a bad risk and cutting off financing. The resulting crisis forced the government to come begging to the IMF for a bailout. The IMF could then impose its conditions. Budhoo’s confessions never made the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or any major newspaper.

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In China Deng Xiaoping had to call out the army with tanks in Tienanmen Square to put down the student rebellion against his economic policies,

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On Yeltsin and the remaking of the Russian economy:

…he (Yeltsin) ordered a reluctant army to storm the Russian White House (Parliament), setting it on fire and leaving charred the very building he had built his reputation defending just two years earlier. Communism may have collapsed without the firing of a single shot, but Chicago style capitalism, it turned out, required a great deal of gunfire to defend itself: Yeltsin called in five thousand soldiers, dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers, helicopters and elite shock troops armed with automatic machine guns – all to defend Russia’s new capitalist economy from the grave threat of democracy.

With the conversion of China to free market policies under Deng Xiaoping and the collapse of the Soviet Union and overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary), the Chicago school disciples were free to carry out their shock therapy throughout the world without fear of revolutionary reactions.

This volumes makes an interesting companion piece to the Legacy of Ashes. The CIA was directly involved in creating and exploiting virtually every crisis in Asia and Latin America, allowing the Chicago (or Berkeley) boys to remake their economies along Neoconservative lines. While the CIA history is a legacy of incompetence and blindness, the Neoconservative history is a history of success after success until the entire world is being remade in their image.

And that is how the crusade that Friedman began managed to survive the dreaded transition to democracy – not by its proponents persuading electorates of the wisdom of their world view, but by moving deftly from crisis to crisis, expertly exploiting the desperation of economic emergencies to push through policies that would tie the hands of fragile new democracies. Once the tactic was perfected, opportunities just seemed to multiply. The Volcher Shock (interest rates of 18-22%) would be followed by the Mexican Tequila Crisis in 1994, the Asian Contagion in 1997 and the Russian Collapse in 1998, which was followed shortly by one in Brazil. When these shocks and crises started to lose their power, even more cataclysmic ones would appear: tsunamis, hurricanes, wars and terrorist attacks. Disaster capitalism was taking shape

Nature Helps the Neocons neworleansflooding.jpgtsunami.jpg

The movement that Milton Friedman launched in the 1950s is best understood as an attempt by multinational capital to recapture the highly profitable, lawless frontier that Adam Smith, the intellectual forefather of today’s neoliberals, so admired – but with a twist. Rather than journeying through Smith’s “savage and barbarous nations” where there was no Western law (no longer a practical option), this movement set out to systematically dismantle existing laws and regulations to re-create that earlier lawlessness. And where Smith’s colonists earned their record profits by seizing what he described as “waste lands” for “but a trifle”, today’s multinationals see government programs, public assets and everything that is not for sale as terrain to be conquered and seized – the post office, national parks, schools, social security, disaster relief and anything else that is publicly administered…Where Smith saw fertile green fields turned into profitable farmlands on the pampas and prairies, Wall Street saw “green field opportunities” in Chile’s phone system, Argentina’s airline, Russia’s oil fields, Bolivia’s water system, the United States’ public airwaves, Poland’s factories – all built with public wealth, then sold for a trifle. Then there are the treasures created by enlisting the state to put a patent and a price tag on life-forms and natural resources never dreamed of as commodities – seeds, genes, carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. By relentlessly searching for new profit frontiers in the public domain, Chicago School economists are like the mapmakers of the colonial era, identifying new waterways through the Amazon, marking off the location of a hidden cache of gold inside an Inca temple.

John Williamson, inheritor of Friedman’s guru status, explained the new strategy in January 1993:

One will have to ask whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform. For example, it has sometimes been suggested in Brazil that it would be worthwhile stoking up a hyperinflation so as to scare everyone into accepting those changes…Presumably no one with historical foresight would have advocated in the mid-1930s that Germany or Japan go to war in order to get the benefits of super growth that followed their defeat. But could a lesser crisis have served the same function? Is it possible to conceive of a pseudo-crisis that could serve the same positive function without the cost of a real crisis?

The human costs of the IMF’s opportunism were nearly as devastating in Asia (1997 economic crisis) as in Russia. The International Labor Organization estimates that 24 million people lost their jobs in this period and that Indonesia’s unemployment rate increased from 4 to 12 percent. Thailand was losing 2,000 jobs a day at the height of the “reforms” – 60,000 a month. In South Korea, 300,000 workers were fired every month – largely the result of the IMF’s totally unnecessary demands to slash government budgets and hike interest rates. By 1999, South Korea’s and Indonesia’s unemployment rates had nearly tripled in two years. As in Latin America in the seventies, what disappeared in these parts of Asia was what was so remarkable about the region’s “miracle” in the first place: its large and growing middle class. In 1996 63.7 percent of South Koreans identified as middle class; by 1999 that number was down to 38.4 percent. According to the World Bank, 20 million Asians were thrown into poverty in this period of what Rodolfo Walsh would have called “planned misery”.

Rumsfeld and Cheney Enjoy New Wealth rumsfeld_cheney.jpg

As proto-disaster capitalists, the architects of the War on Terror are part of a different breed from their predecessors(like Allan and John Foster Dulles in the 50s), one for whom wars and other disasters are indeed ends in themselves. When Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld conflate what is good for Lockheed, Halliburton, Carlyle and Gilead with what is good for the United States and indeed the world, it is a form of projection with uniquely dangerous consequences. That’s because what is unquestionably good for the bottom line of these companies is cataclysm – wars, epidemics, natural disasters and resource shortages – which is why all their fortunes have improved dramatically since Bush took office. What makes their acts of projection even more perilous is the fact that, to an unprecedented degree, key Bush officials have maintained their interests in the disaster capitalism complex even as they have ushered in a new era of privatized war and disaster response, allowing them to simultaneously profit from the disasters they help unleash.

The right to limitless profit-seeking has always been at the center of neocon ideology. Before 9/11, demands for radical privatization and attacks on social spending fueled the neocon movement – Friedmanite to its core – at think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, and Cato.
With the War on Terror, the neocons didn’t abandon their corporatist economic goals; they found a new, even more effective way to achieve them.

Iraq’s current state of disaster cannot be reduced either to the incompetence and cronyism of the Bush White House or to the sectarianism or tribalism of Iraqis. It is a very capitalist disaster, a nightmare of unfettered greed unleashed in the wake of war. The “fiasco” of Iraq is one created by a careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology.

The Chicago School crusade, which emerged with the core purpose of dismantling the welfare statism of the New Deal, had finally reached its zenith in the corporate New Deal. It was a simpler, more stripped-down form of privatization – the transfer of bulky assets wasn’t even necessary: just straight-up corporate gorging on state coffers. No investment, no accountability, astronomical profits.

Paul Bremmer Remakes Iraq bremer.jpg

Iraq under Bremmer was the logical conclusion of Chicago School theory: a public sector reduced to a minimal number of employees, mostly contract workers, living in a Halliburton city state, tasked with signing corporate friendly laws drafted by KPMG and handling out duffel bags of cash to Western contractors protected by mercenary soldiers, themselves shielded by full legal immunity.

Seen from this perspective the documentary film No End In Sight by Charles Ferguson containing interviews with the bewildered participants of the Iraqi occupation including Retired Gen. Garner who can’t understand why the policy decisions were made now make sense, if only to the neocon true believers who made them – total destruction of a country so it can be rebuilt from a clean slate.

For the Bush administration, it was a natural evolution: after claiming it had a right to cause unlimited preemptive destruction, it then pioneered preemptive reconstruction – rebuilding places that have not yet been destroyed…
Until Iraq, the frontiers of the Chicago crusade had been bound by geography: Russia, Argentina, South Korea. Now a new frontier can open up wherever the next disaster strikes.

The oil and gas industry is so intimately entwined with the economy of disaster – both as root cause behind many disasters and as a beneficiary from them – that it deserves to be treated as an honorary adjunct of the disaster capitalism complex.

This discarding of 25 to 60 percent of the population has been the hallmark of the Chicago School crusade since the “misery villages” began mushrooming throughout the Southern Cone (South America) in the seventies. In South Africa, Russia, and New Orleans the rich build walls around themselves. Israel has taken this disposal process a step further: it has built walls around the dangerous poor.

Kline ends on a higher note. The “third way” of Chile’s Allende is reemerging throughout Latin America. The IMF and World Bank are in sharp decline with only a fraction of their peak loans and struggling to survive. Lebanese poor, Thai fishing villagers, and New Orleans neighborhoods are learning to take control of their own reconstruction and recovery. Chinese protests and demonstrations are forcing improved rural health care and education.

For a short film inspired by the book see Alfonso Cuaron’s Shock Doctrine

Muslim Empire

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, Hugh Kennedy, 2007

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This is an account of the spread of Islam through conquest in the century following the death of Muhammad in 632AD. The resulting empire was far larger than the Roman and was achieved in half the time. The first 30 pages explore the difficulty of doing a history of this period. Many accounts were written two centuries after the fact, are contradictory, and were never intended to capture the kind of details modern historians are interested in. Historians have sorted through the Arab and conquered peoples accounts of battles and generals to come to a rough consensus of the conquests. Most of the book is a summary of this consensus given on a region by region basis of the generals, the size of their forces, the battles and tactics, and the results.

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Kennedy starts with a rough picture of the Arabs as divided into settled town traders and farmers and nomadic Bedouins who over time had developed a symbiotic relationship. The Bedouins relied on the settled Arabs for supplies and luxuries and the settlers relied on the warrior mobile Bedouins for military support and protection. The generals came from the settled and prestigious tribes usually from Medina or Mecca and often of the Quraysh tribe of Muhammad himself. The armies themselves would be made up of a variety of people often speaking several languages. The Bedouins would give these armies a unique mobility and the ability to cross deserts thought by the enemy to be impassible. They could survive in harsh environments and fight at night. Their tenacity and toughness, rather than superior weapons or tactics gave the Muslim armies their advantage.

Kennedy notes that the conquests took place during a time of plague and thinks the taking of slaves was an effort to repopulate badly depleted populations. The lack of resistance to Muslim invasions may have been the effects of plague on a tired remaining population.

As to the success and stability of the empire Kennedy attributes this to the great cultural self confidence of the Arabs given them by Muhammad. Unlike many other empires that relied on Latin or Greek as the official and written language, the Muslims could rely on written and spoken Arabic. On the conversion to Islam Kennedy concludes:

The success of the Muslim conquests was the product of a unique set of circumstances and the preaching of a simple new monotheistic faith. There were many features of Islam that would have made it approachable to Christians and Jews. It had a Prophet, a Holy Book, established forms of prayer, dietary and family laws. Abraham and Jesus were both great prophets in the Muslim tradition. From the very beginning Islam established itself as a new faith, but it was one that claimed to perfect rather than destroy the older monotheistic ones… These similarities, this common tradition, must have aided and encouraged conversion.

Kennedy also points out that the Muslims ruled through a meritocracy where kinship did not automatically result in inherited position. Even enemies, if they converted to Islam and adopted written and spoken Arabic could rise to positions of power and wealth in the new empire. This inclusiveness and openness gave little cause for rebellion and unlike the Roman and Byzantine Empires, rebellion and uprisings almost never occurred.


On the inevitable charge that Muhammad and Islam gave rise to a uniquely warlike jihadist violent culture, Kennedy points out that after an initial pacifist phase of Christianity, the late Roman and Christian Byzantine empires were very warlike and violent.

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On Jerusalem and the temple mount, Kennedy notes that Muhammad received his first divine revelations from Jerusalem making the city central in importance to Islam. The famed temple of Herod was destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish uprising in 70AD and lay in ruins until the Muslim conquest. It was the Christians of Jerusalem who gave the Muslims permission to construct their mosque on the Dome of the Rock.