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Archive for October, 2010

Procrastination

We’ve all been there before, right? “I’ll do it tomorrow”… “No, of course it won’t leave a stain…” “You won’t get pregnant! besides they make my…”

Yes, procrastination – it’s a devil. It can wreak havoc on your life like nothing else. We set a goal in motion and then at a certain point, it gets arrested. This is precisely the point that the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis makes in his recent interview with Doug Henwood, posted on Irish Left Review, regarding the EU single currency.

Varoufakis points out that while the creation of a single EU currency was a gamble, but it was a gamble undertaken in the most rational of spirits. The architects of this plan were visionaries – they had great hopes for the Union. They thought that, in the face of adversary, we could work together to solve our problems.

First of all, let me say that Varoufakis – did I pronounce that right? – is an excellent commentator. Listening to him is like using some sort of intra-temporal stethoscope to listen to the past – the Europe of the past, before we handed ourselves over to the present monkeys. But, enough praise, now we must move on to the effects of that original gamble by the architects of the Euro… and the procrastination that resulted.

Well, let’s do a bit of shrinking here – what do the psychologists have to say about procrastination? Well, they put it down to “low self esteem, lack of confidence, stress, anxiety and fear of not knowing what will be the end result.” Yeah, that sounds about right. As Varoufakis points out in the interview, the original architects of the single EU currency didn’t really know how things were going to work out, but they had an idea – their successors, a bunch of pathetic political hacks, had none. They couldn’t put together a vision between them if they were all wasted on shrooms! And so, without a vision, when they were confronted with the void, they didn’t vigorously step in – they panicked.

And so we have another determinate of procrastination: anxiety. This is what Europe feels today – Europe feels scared for its future, so it takes it out on the smaller countries. It’s all very simple psychology – think of the schoolyard bully. He feels insecure – like the representatives of the EU – so he takes his aggression out on the smaller kids that haven’t conformed to his ideals – in this case the smaller EU countries.

But, the EU – like the bully – is only putting off the inevitable. Underneath it all, they’re deeply troubled and procrastination will only make things worse. And so with the EU. The EU can set up its penal institutions – the EFSF and its ilk – but it is only pushing its problems into the future. In order to overcome them it must tackle them head-on.

How? Varoufakis summed it up so neatly: the current leading EU politicians are ‘political dwarves’. They are pathetic, weak creatures – pulled from the generic stock of political fodder. They are ‘boom time politicians’ – people who secured their position with too much champagne and too little sweat; a little dull, a little stupid… little apparatchiks, to use the old Russian term – bureaucrats! So, come on Europe let’s lose the Merkels and the Sarkozys already – I’m sure they have photos to be taken and opinion columns to write… let them go already! For the good of all of us! Don’t procrastinate… history is waiting, for God sakes!

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Dude, where's my job?

 

Okay, it’s time to get all scholarly. I know, I know, yawn? right? But sometimes it’s important to see the bigger picture – even when that picture is inflated to the point of conjecture – in order to get your bearings. So, let’s begin. Why are we… Hey! You! Yeah, at the back – put away that laptop and stop looking up your Facebook page – no one’s forcing you to be here! Now, where were we…

There’s two very broad trends that interest me more than any other in the world today. First of all, there is the tendency toward financial instability – both in the advanced and the developing countries. The second, is the decline of the US – I mean that quite broadly: financially, militarily, economically and politically. Let’s be clear – the US is not going to collapse overnight, like the USSR, but everything that it once valued – from hard industry to a powerful currency (not floated by another country) – seems to have gone into irreparable decay.

The big question is: are these trends linked? I believe they are – indeed, how could they not be? So, let’s start with financialisation of the US economy – that is, the turn from industry to finance by American businessmen in order to create profit. It’s readily discernible that this shift has taken place – just look at this graph:

Hoo-boy – as the Yankees say! Finance has sure grown a lot in the States over the past few decades. But is it really replacing manufacturing? Well…

Well, yeah – it looks like it has. Why is this? Well, this is something of a mystery. When speculating on economic trends at this level of abstraction, data can quite literally be read in the most contradictory of ways – there’s so much shade at this level of abstraction one often feels that there is nothing but shade. So, let’s do it this way: I’ll put forward the narrative I find most convincing, while indicating where disagreements (that I know of) are put forward. Then I will give my reasoning as to why these disagreements are wrong. It’s a Socratic dialogue – but be warned, like all Socratic dialogues, Socrates gets the last word…

Strangely enough, in order to find a coherent convincing arguments, one has to go to the left, and then a bit more to the left – until you find yourself in Marxist-Leninist territory. Generally the economic theorising in these territories is quite weak – but when it comes to general surveys of the world economic system, you simply can’t beat certain figures on the far-left. Personally, I think it’s due to their inherent fatalism – but that’s another days discussion.

Let’s start with the economic historian Robert Brenner – author of ‘The Boom and the Bubble‘ and more recently ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence‘. Brenner’s a Marxist – nay, a Marxist-Leninist – but for all that he’s one of the least dogmatic writers I’ve ever come across. He draws on Schumpeter as much as on Marx for his historical account of global capitalism since 1945 – what’s more he’s a good strong writer who doesn’t try to mystify the reader with econo-speak hocus-pocus. Brenner’s argument is simple – indeed deceptively so, because Brenner painstakingly reconstructs his assertions with minute historical analyses.

Basically, he claims that competition between various national economic blocks is causing profit-rates to fall in the manufacturing sector. This, he argues, hits the more advanced industrial countries – such as the US and the UK – harder than the recently industrialised countries – such as South Korea and Germany. This leads investors in the US and the UK – seeing profit margins shrink in the ‘real economy’ – to pump their money into finance. This leads to bubbles and… well, we know the rest of the story.

Okay, here’s the fundamentals of Brenner’s argument. Deep breath – you ready? Say, I’m a capitalist in the US. Say, I’m old-skool and I want to invest in a factory – the factory makes, I don’t know, rubber chickens. So, I pump in – that is, invest – $5m into the factory’s equipment (rubber chicken-making machines presumably – you know, the very latest in rubber chicken-making technology). Now, say that I figure this equipment will last me, I don’t know, 15 years. So, I’m making money for a few years and everything is hunky-dory. But then, 5 years later another capitalist opens up a rubber chicken factory in South Korea – but he has access to technology that makes ten times more rubber chickens per hour than I can make. I can’t compete with that, so I close down my rubber chicken factory – but I’ve lost a shitload of money, because of the original $5m I invested I made $4m, so I lost $1m and all I’ve got is an attic full of rubber chickens. I’m broke; my spouse thinks I’m bizarre – in short, life is bad.

Now say another slapstick-loving capitalist opens another rubber chicken factory in, say, China. And he has technology even better than the last guy. So the last guy has to shut down his factory too – thus making a loss. Now, say this process keeps happening over and over again. How the hell is rubber chicken manufacture ever going to turn a significant profit with all these loses being incurred? Well, according to Brenner, it doesn’t. This is why the profit rates in manufacture sink – and the more places that set up rubber chicken factories, the more the profit rate dives. So, what do I do? – well, I stop making rubber chickens (it was a dumb idea, anyway) and start speculating in the financial markets…

Oh, you thought you were sooo smart...

The argument against this is that, well, profit-rates aren’t so bad (for manufacturing profit-rates in the US, scroll up there a bit and look at the second graph with all the blue and red deelies). Brenner assumes that profit-rates after WW2 should be the norm for the rest of the century, but this was an exceptional time and should not be made the standard. There critics point out that the fall in profit that Brenner points to is not a great depression of profit-rates – but a ‘great moderation‘.

Personally, I don’t find this argument convincing. First of all, the economic landscape attests to Brenner’s assertions. Critics claim that profit-rates in the ‘real economy’ are moderated by the entry of new technology markets – so, like, computerized 3d rubber chicken models that render the real deal obsolete. But we’ve seen how volatile and fragile this New Economy-model can be. Remember the dot-com bubble? Didn’t that conclusively show that new technologies are a sort of ephemeral phantom, chased by investors whose minds are filled with hooey and whose pockets are stuffed with disposable money? I’m not saying that new technology hasn’t led – as Nicholas Crafts points out – to increased productivity, but I think that he exaggerates just how much this productivity growth was the true unmoved mover behind economic growth in the past two decades (for an extremely succinct overview by another chronically underrated far-leftist commentator, see Doug Henwood’s ‘After the New Economy‘).

Secondly, this argument can’t provide an over-arching historical narrative for why the present crash happened. Indeed, note the publication date for Craft’s article: November-December 2008. So it was written when? Would he write the same thing today – or even four months later? I doubt it. Brenner’s argument – like it or not – provides an explanation. What’s more Brenner was probably the first economist in the world to see the current financial crisis coming – and I say that without any exaggeration.

That’s it for now. In the next segment we’ll look in a little more detail at the financialisation of the US economy… Stay tuned!

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Well, Halloween’s coming up – and everyone likes Halloween, right?….. right? Well, I do, anyway. You’re never too old to dress-up, in my book. And most of us, as adults – or, more precisely, the imitation thereof – have found that we can replace sweeties with other orally-consumed yummies – like alcohol! A combination of these two things always ensures that my Halloween weekend is, well, special.

So, today I’ll temporarily stop complaining about everything and give you guys a lovely ‘trick or treat’.

Eri Yamamoto is an extremely talented jazz-pianist. Born in Okinawa, Japan, but based in Nu Yawk, she produces some of the most compelling and innovative Jazz music being composed today. Her music is also extremely accessible – so you don’t necessarily have to be an obsessive jazz-freak to appreciate it.

The song is from her wonderful new-ish album ‘Redwoods’, which you can (and should) buy here. If you enjoy this song and want to sample more, there are a few on her MySpace page – I’d particularly encourage you to listen the up-tempo ‘Bottled Water Princess’, which will, in combination with ‘Magnolia’, give you a good feel for what the album contains.

Bottled Water Princess

The photographs are all my own – all taken around South Dublin. Sorry about the repetition – but when you trick or treat, you’re always going to come away with some duplicates, right?

Happy Halloween!!!

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Ex-president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner passed away two days ago – dying from heart failure at the regrettable age of sixty. Behind him he leaves a country with a booming economy – and a  guaranteed historical legacy.

After years of military dictatorship combined with neo-liberal economic policy – you know, the ‘Latin Cocktail’, a favorite drink among the Washington elite – by about 1998 Argentina had come to the brink. Argentina had been there many times before, but this time she went over the edge. The ensuing recession was definitely comparable to the Great Depression in scope – unemployment peaked at 21%, while lost output hovered around the 20% mark!

Between December 2002 and January 2003, the country defaulted on a record $95bn worth of debt. Kircher took office shortly thereafter, as the country was trying to crawl it’s way back toward some sort of recovery. From the beginning the scoundrels at the IMF were on his back. Offering no real assistance, the Ignorant Monkey Fund tried to convince Kirchner and his administration to accept it’s usual poison – cuts, austerity, blah, blah, blah.

But the Fund’s reputation had been damaged immeasurably by their monstrous failures in Asia, after the crisis that had occurred there a few years previous. So, Kirchner told them where to stick it and the Fund flipped him finger in return – they refused to roll over Argentina’s debt. Kirchner was not only standing up to what was widely perceived by the developing world to be a failed institution – he was also standing up to powerful moneyed interests and, ultimately, to Washington. A brave move in those dark days, when the US government was at the peak of it’s collective mental breakdown.

This culminated in Kirchner telling the IMF and their policy wonks to stick it in 2003 – and defaulted on the debt Argentina owed them. This was a very brave move. Only failed states – like Congo or Iraq – refused to bow to the Fund; Kirchner and his administration had cojones and, in the eyes of many IMFish economists, a misunderstanding of the fundamentals. But economics is, as we all know, 98% politics and the IMF backed down in the end and rolled over on Argentina’s loans.

The country went on to record excellent growth – more than 8% annually through 2008, pulling more than 11m people out of poverty – over 1/4 of the population.

What did Kirchner do? Well, here’s where us Irish should really stop and reflect for a moment. First of all, the Kirchner took a hard line with the creditors that had defaulted – he took no prisoners and cleared the system of rot as best he could. Secondly, he maintained a competitive real exchange rate, which in turn increased exports. Neither of these policies went down well with the international business press – the former measures got under the skins of many in the business community, while the latter were viewed as currency manipulation; but I think it could equally have been said that Argentina deserved a little slack on their exchange rates – after all, the IMF and the international business community had supported the policies that had led to the crash, because their interests were benefiting. If Argentina needed a competitive exchange rate to kick-start it’s economy, so be it.

Kirchner’s most important legacy is that he refused to listen to conventional wisdom. He saw through the half-truths that the IMF and the international business press were peddling – being president of a country with powerful, selfish business interests, he could see the man behind the curtain. Kirchner will undoubtedly go down in history as a great Argentinian statesman – in the vein of FDR – and a great Argentinian nationalist – for putting his country’s interests before that of the intentional business community and their institutions. Irish politicians could learn a lot from Kirchner today.

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Tourists learn more about Ireland's economic model

A post by James Kwak today got me thinking – as it so often does.  Now that it looks like Ireland is swimming into the jaws of the IMF-style creature that the EU – under the guise of ESFS – is becoming, what’s going to happen to our beloved education system? You know how the myth goes – Ireland has a top-notch education system that churns out workers with swollen super-brains and this leads to (a) an increase in economic productivity and (b) consequently, a lure to foreign investment.

I say this is a myth; it is – personally I don’t think much of the Irish education system. The secondary schools are increasingly drawn-up along class-lines – which, even ignoring questions of social justice, clearly marginilises potential future super-brains – and geared toward crass point-systems that encourage students to try to figure out ways to ‘cheat’ the system (see how far that attitude will get you in the real world – oh wait! Anglo Irish…). As for the third-level education system, I for one have always been rather nonplussed – although, I’ll admit that our science/engineering/general techie institutions seem to be extremely impressive (ironic, perhaps, that you don’t need big points to into them…).

At the same time, free third-level education is a huge step forward – quite literally one of the most important and impressive policy measures Ireland has ever passed (not to mention a great advertisement for the Social-Democratic model). And for all their faults, our secondary schools aren’t even nearly in the state of those in the US (but then, this is probably reflective of both societies as a whole).

The problem is that when the IMF-ESFS-EU-whatever monster comes knocking at the door, not only is he going to try to blow down our educational house – he’s also probably going to try some of those pseudo-market reforms out on our education system. I’ll quote Kwak at length here, because he sums this up so eloquently and succinctly. Speaking of the so-called ‘professor P&L’, that is, sans econo-jargon, a system in which professors are chosen according to weird quantitative pseudo-market mechanisms, he says:

The “professor P&L” is an attempt to bring private-sector “efficiency” into higher education, but I can’t believe anyone who actually worked in the private sector could think this could work. At my company, we thought a lot about the problem of software productivity and how to measure it. And the problem is, there really is no way to do it on an individual level. Measuring lines of code is crazy, because ideally you want to solve a given problem in as few lines of code as possible. Measuring classes or methods is equally crazy. Measuring what some people call “function points” is crazy, because they depend on what you call a function point. Most fundamentally, measuring quantity of output is crazy, because quality is much, much, much more important than quantity. It’s better to write a little bit of software well, in a way that doesn’t break anything else, can be tested reliably, and can be expanded on in the future, than to write a lot of software badly. So instead, we look at whether the software does what it is supposed to do, whether it can be tested, and whether it does what our customers want it to do. That’s how the private sector works.

So, get ready folks… it looks like a storm is coming – a big, stupid storm of ignorance. Kwak sees it on the horizon too – he sees the ‘cheat-the-system’ culture that such ‘reforms’ will inevitably produce:

In some fantasyland, you might think that the “free market” for college classes will make students flow toward the professors who teach useful things well. As anyone who has ever gone to a university knows, however, students flow toward (a) required courses and (b) professors who give easy grades.

Teacher gives easy grades; teacher gets more students; teacher gets salary increase – talk about incentivising your way into oblivion!

Of course, we don’t know what types of ‘reform’ lie in store for our education system – but we can be sure that they’ll restrict our ability to produce cerebrally massive Irishpeople. So, next time you see a throbbing super-brain, with his or her forehead pulsating sitting, say, in front of you at the bus or obscuring your view at the cinema, spare a thought – this unusual phenomenon may not be around too much longer.

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Obammmmaaaaaa!!!

It's the... it's the... USA... You maniacs! You blew it up! Goddamn you! Goddamn you all to hell!

There’s something tragic about a great power in decline. Many on the left today take it for granted that America should serve as their political punch bag. But the US was once a landmass upon which great political dreams were projected. A new land – a wealthy and prosperous land, with a solid democratic, anti-imperialist tradition.

One can barely imagine this today. Forty years ago, it was clear that the American dream was drowning in a sea of stagflation, unemployment, scandal and… eh… Jimmy Carter – whatever the hell THAT was!

Rewind thirty years and we see gathering the nightmare that was coming – Ronald ‘The-Cowboy-Movie-Cliche’ Reagan was at the helm, preaching the grace of God, while steering the US people into the fires of hell.

Twenty years ago, the cynical Bill ‘If-It-Wasn’t-Me-It-Would-Have-Been-Someone-Far-Worse’ Clinton was presiding over an America whose economic growth was moderate, whose lunatics had been pushed to the sidelines and, well, let’s be honest, whose main cultural production was the TV show ‘Friends’ – in other words, it was tolerable; a little dull, slightly plastic and funny in a way that doesn’t make you want to laugh.

At the beginning of our present century, the bad dream was to become a veritable attack of night-terrors – George ‘What’s-a-President?’ Dubya and his Neo-Con buddies were busy trying to lay the groundwork for a doomed-from-the-beginning New World Order.

And today? More light blue mediocrity from an emasculated Democratic administration, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, we’ve come to realise something that we didn’t really notice while Slick Willy was charming us all with his tepid New Economy growth, craazay frat-boy antics and his big horn – er, saxophone. We’ve come to notice just how deeply reliant we all are on the US economy, not to mention her financial system – and just how troubled this economy is.

As anyone who does me the good grace of reading my blog from time to time will know, I recently gave a brief overview of the political situation in the US. What I didn’t write about – but which most informed readers should already know – is that in the US there is a war underway; a misguided, phony war being fought against the grim specter, nay, rather friendly ghost, of the budget deficit (that sounds familiar…). Flying the red and blue is… well… the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively – the rest of the population, with little other choice, hunker down, grab the scraps that remain of the stars-and-stripes and wave the white-flag in terror.

This is a war alright – a war waged by the elites against the unfortunate American people. Why is this a war ? Because if the deficit is cut, the threads upon which the US economy is hanging will snap and it will begin it’s gradual – but terminal – decline; taking the rest of us with it on this downward spiral. I’m not exaggerating. Without a strong, well-directed stimulus (no more tax-breaks, lads – give us some public works, for Godsake!) the American economy will continue to decline.

The US has reached a certain point in history – it has reached its nadir as THE world economic power. Just like Britain and Holland before her, this historical crest was surfed by extending the country’s financial sphere – to the point of absurdity (I’ll do a post on this important topic soon, I promise). But unlike, say Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, there is no other big power waiting in the wings to step in to pick up the gauntlet. China?… pssshhh! Maybe someday, but for the moment it’s a second-rate power. All that talk you hear? that’s just businessmen and economists projecting what people have always projected onto the East – their fantasies.

This is worrying – very worrying. If the US doesn’t decline with grace and dignity as she sings her swansong, all of us are for the vultures. Yet, within the US the very idea of another stimulus – particularly one that moves away from pro-business, anti-economic growth tactics and toward public investment – is a pipe dream. The arguments against another, proper stimulus – so pertinently summed-up and demolished by James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario today – are garbage. But hey! these arguments are being launched by the same people who gave you such world historical events as: the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war and Gitmo! so what do you expect?

George ‘The-Big-Guy-Told-Me-To-Do-It’ Dubya once said, “One of the great things about this country is a lot of people pray.” Well, thank God for that!

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The rest of the world is finally beginning to cop on. To what? To President Barack Obama being – well – either incompetent or a big pseudo-populist fraud. In the US this has been known for some time – indeed, only those who seem to have tied themselves to the Democrats as if with a noose around their necks continue to defend the Administration; and these people, in their defences of Obama, often appear more hysterical than rational.

The disappointments have been numerous. From the Administration’s support of the phone-tapping of civilians, to legitimising assassinations of US citizens, to dodgy health care ‘reforms’ that were so favorably balanced in favor of the big drug companies that their stock went soaring after they were passed. Then there is the continuation and expansion of the Afghanistan war (and the ‘Terminator’ style incursions into Pakistan). Yes, the list is long, alright.

The political scene in America has certainly shifted to the Right in the past few decades – often remarkably so. And many of Obama’s entranced devotees point to this as the root cause of his massive failures. As reluctant as I am to say it, they may have a point. The US political commentator Bill Maher summed it up rather well when he said that, “The Democrats have moved to the Right and the Right have moved to the mental institution!”

This is certainly not to excuse the Obama Administration for its consistent policy failure and political ineptitude – merely, I seek to provide some context.

Speaking of political ineptitude, when it comes to political tactics, Obama often seems to have a marked desire for self-destruction. Since his election, the Republicans have used the classic ‘take no prisoners’ strategy. They have blocked the Democrats at just about every turn – and, in Obama’s own words, treated him “worse than you would treat a dog”. But rather than bite back, Obama and his fellow political pacifists have continued to try to appease these people. Even now, with the Republicans set to scoop up the House [of Representatives] in the upcoming midterm elections, Obama’s team – if we should indeed call them that – are… optimistic! optimistic that this will encourage the Republicans to ‘act like grown-ups’ and show some friendly Bipartisanship.

Many predict, however, that a more realistic outcome will be that the already fired-up and foaming-at-the-mouth Republicans – some of whom have denied Obama’s US citizenship and warned that his health care reform will bring ‘death-panels’ to kill off the old and infirm – will use this opportunity to launch a Clintonesque, “Ah did nawt have sexual realtions with that wuman”-style impeachment. Let’s just hope that poor Barry cleaned those bones out of his closet when he took up his post…

The greatest tragedy about all this is that if the rest of the world is to recover from the current economic crisis, then the US will have to lead the way. Not only does the US economy make up a great deal of the total world economy, but it also houses the largest and most important slice of the world’s financial pie. So far, Obama’s financial reform has been weak – and many expect there to be another financial crash as a result.  It’s not surprising that the reform was so weak. After all, it is all too well-known how cosy the Democrats are with Wall Street.

As far as the coming crash goes, Simon Johnson put it well a few months back in an interview dealing with the insufficiency in the financial reform. Regarding the coming crash he said:

The question is: Is it three years or seven years? The timing is very hard to call. And right after you’ve had a very big crisis, you’d expect people to be more careful. To the extent that the people running the big banks got their fingers burned a little bit or were scared at any stage, they will not be so reckless. But those people will pass on and memories will recede. … By the way, I would pick emerging markets as the next place for a boom that gets carried away.

So that’s the way it’s going to be. The Obama Administration proves its incompetency; the country move further into the bowls of Bedlam – the American people continue to suffer, pulling the rest of us into the madhouse with them.

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No one else would publish it – I wonder why…

 

Change Landed

By Philip Pilkington


Open fields and barren grounds and scattered seeds,

Upon which humankind’s memory feeds.

A meeting place for some supposed wants and needs,

Here a history of man finds voice and reads.

 

Ploughs of chaos tear through soil with bricks and mortar,

Cobblestones and paths devoid of proper order.

And leisured planners backed with money-greed and mirth,

Cannot curb this burst of life from out of earth.

 

But now they try to structure this fair place with structures,

Solid beams – standard casts

Precise mosaics of shattered glass.

 

While all the while beneath the surface discord rumbles,

The printed clergy lean on ink preventing stumbles.

The man of means stands atop the highest building,

And the pundit pleads to those who are still willing.

 

But alas such a state cannot a-fare,

For soon all will be clutching at mere air.

From out of numbers will come death’s frozen stare,

Of which every man must recognise his share.

 

Pigs led to slaughter, vaults skilfully bled,

Balance sheets and screens turn glossy sticky red.

And sure the public’s tears will have to all be shed,

Alas such will not stop the swine from getting fed.

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Hush. On the edge
Of the woods I do not hear
Words which you call
Human; but I hear
Words which are newer
Spoken by droplets and leaves
Far away.
Listen. Rain falls
From the scattered clouds.

It’s 1919, the Austrian-Hungarian empire has just crumbled following WW1, and the small port-city of Fiume is under dispute. Will Fiume be handed over to Croats or remain under the Italian state? Well, it certainly looks like the Allies are going to hand the city over to the Croats – and yet, the city is filled with noble and patriotic Italians.

One Italian, a poet called Gabriele D’Annunzio, couldn’t stand the thought of his beloved Italy losing such a limb. On September 12th, 1919, he and over 2,000 Italian nationalist irregulars seized the city and declared a republic. Under the Charter of Carnaro, D’Annunzio established a corporate state. Inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as much as by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, D’annunzio set up a state with ten corporations, each representing key sectors of the economy, from farming to fishing – the tenth set up to represent ‘superior individuals’ or ‘superman’; people, presumably, like D’Annunzio himself.

“The tenth [corporation] has no special trade or register or title. It is reserved for the mysterious forces of progress and adventure. It is a sort of votive offering to the genius of the unknown, to the man of the future, to the hoped-for idealization of daily work, to the liberation of the spirit of man beyond the panting effort and bloody sweat of to-day. It is represented in the civic sanctuary by a kindled lamp bearing an ancient Tuscan inscription of the epoch of the communes, that calls up an ideal vision of human labour: “Fatica senza fatica”.”

Music was also considered to be one of the fundamental principles of the state.

“In the Italian Regency of Carnaro, music is a social and religious institution. [...] music, the language of ritual, has power, above all else, to exalt the achievement and the life of man. [...] In every commune of the province there will be a choral society and an orchestra subsidized by the State. In the city of Fiume, the College of Aediles will be commissioned to erect a great concert hall, accommodating an audience of at least ten thousand with tiers of seats and ample space for choir and orchestra. The great orchestral and choral celebrations will be entirely free – in the language of the Church – a gift of God.”

It was thus that D’Annunzio had laid the groundwork for European fascism. A virulent and unrelenting nationalism mixed with ideas about the Nietzschean ‘overman’, with all this channeled through a militaristic and highly-disciplined corporate state – this model was soon to become a popular one.

This small sovereign state fell after a bombardment by the Italian navy and D’Annunzio went on to other adventures – although he never formally signed up to the fascist movement that was to grow up in his shadow.

The fascists that came later were inspired mainly by D’Annunzio’s style. His style was a sort of theatrical or histrionic masculinity – mixed with a sentimentalism fit for a poet. Poetry at the pull of a trigger. What D’Annunzio had done was to take over a certain mentality that had been born just after the Enlightenment had taken place – as a reaction against – and politicize it. This was not the first time Romanticism had been actively politicized. Robespierre and Saint-Just had, during the French Revolution, tried to push the Romantic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as far as it could realistically go. The difference was that whereas Robespierre had sought dissemination of Rousseau’s by establishing a religion – probably thought at the time to be the ultimate ‘mass-medium’ – D’Annunzio was at the forefront of modern politics. This was a time when mass-politics itself would become a sort of religion.

One could point to Lenin and the other Communists and claim that they too were representatives of the Romantic tradition – and, to an extent, they were; although tended to suppress these sentimental tendencies and kneel at the alter of modern science. Communism, according to Lenin, was to be Soviet power and electrification – not to mention Tayloristic ‘scientific management’. In Lenin and his successors one notes that the elements of the Communist doctrine that can be traced back to the Romantics – such as Marxian ‘alienation’ – are all but absent.

D’Annunzio, on the other hand, almost completely ignored the more rational and rationalised elements involved in founding a modern state. For him politics was glory – pure self-actualisation. D’Annunzio channeled Nietzsche and the other neo-Romantics, who believed that only through pure creativity could man free himself from the shackles of enlightened boredom. These grandiose idea were what was to appeal to his fascist successors.

D’Annunzio was one of the first political figures to try to incorporate the Romantic principles of self-realisation into politics. These ideas and their politicization was later to be taken over by the fascist movements. Finally, after WW2 these ideas were taken over by another two groups: the counter-culture movement and the advertisers. The former sought to destroy capitalism in the name of self-actualisation; like D’Annunzio, they were not fascist, but used similar rhetorical tactics: sentimentality, appeal to emotions etc. that the fascists were later to perfect (Glenn Beck is the key representative of this trend today, incidentally). The advertisers picked up on this discourse – always anti-establishment and geared toward self-empowerment – but channeled it away from politics and into the sphere of mass-consumption.

And it is thus that we live such principles today. Our aesthetics are neither politicized in the state, nor widely distributed through advanced art and literature. Instead, they are predominantly geared toward ensuring that certain rates of consumption – that is: effective demand – are kept up. But don’t doubt it – these are the same principles and the same ideas. Indeed, even the language is the same – albeit today it is predominantly a ‘will to sex’ rather than a ‘will to power’.

I began to think again about D’Annunzio after writing today about the Iraq war. As the wonderful BBC filmmaker, Adam Curtis, pointed out some time ago, D’Annunzio’s influence was also felt by certain key Neo-Conservative figures – such as Michael Ledeen. They too used a political discourse based on sentimentality to launch idealistic wars. But this time it was not the self that had to be actualised – according to the Neo-Cons, the self has already been far too actualised for it’s own good – it was, this time, the Other whose freedom was the main concern. Once again art was to become politics – and politics to become madness.

And rain falls on our faces-
Sylvan,
Rain falls on our hands-
Naked,
On our clothes-
Light,
On the fresh thoughts
That our soul discloses-
Renewed,
On the lovely fable
That yesterday
Beguiled me, that beguiles you today,
O Hermione.

- Gabrielle D’Annunzio ‘The Rain in the Pine Wood’

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If someone says the words ‘Iraq’ and ‘war’ to you what image immediately springs to mind – this one? This one? Maybe, this one? It’s not so surprising that these images caused such shock and outrage – they cut right to the heart of the ideology of US interventionism.

Some have called US interventionism imperial. I don’t think this is the right word. The imperialism of yore had very specific goals – to exploit a population considered a lesser species. This is how the French and the British used to justify their empires. They argued that their imperial subjects were savages and that they had to be civilised by the British or the French. In practice, of course, British and French ‘civilising’ really meant bondage.

This idea of ‘civilising’ the populations of the Empire was ideological in the strongest and most cynical interpretation of that word. The British and the French barely believed that their mission was to ‘civilise’ these populations – they were really just interested in exploiting them. This cynicism is what led Karl Marx to reevaluate the term ‘imperialism’ in his magnum opus ‘Das Kapital’. He argued that the whole imperial phenomenon was just an ideological justification sitting atop a wholly economic rationale. This is the source implicitly drawn upon today when people refer to ‘US imperialism’ – yet, these people are speaking about an entirely different phenomenon than that considered by Marx.

The Americans for all their faults, don’t seem to reason in the same manner. The Americans seem to believe what they say. In classic Wilsonian fashion, Americans loath imperialism. Like Marx, they saw through the tissue of lies and webs of justifications put forward by the old imperial powers – and they were among the first to unmask it for what it was. Even though this country had internal problems of its own – from segregation to a rather questionable past when it came to the Native Americans – there was always a spirit of radical egalitarianism in Washington.

What the Americans engage in today is not imperialism; just as what the ex-Soviet Union engaged in was not imperialism. Recall the old Cold War discourse: the US would accuse the USSR of trying to destroy the freedoms of poor populations under the totalitarian yoke; while the USSR would accuse the US of capitalist imperialism. There were grains of truth to be found in both these accusations, but, ultimately, they both missed the mark. Both the US and the USSR genuinely wanted to deliver these countries from serfdom – they both believed that increased freedom and civilisation came with increased economic and industrial progress. Essentially, both these superpowers – both born from the revolutionary tradition – took the ideological masks that they had torn from the old imperial powers and began to take these completely seriously.

Today, the US – and now Britain too – still holds these conceptions. This is not surprising, as so does just about everyone. From the left to the right, almost everyone today equates social and cultural progress with economic progress – and they implicitly associate economic progress with democratic progress; whether this be America’s pet democracies, or the left’s pet democracies in South America.

This is why those torture pictures had such an impact. There, in full color, was evidence that the US had moved away from the ideals of democracy and had embraced the old imperial attitudes of subjection. We should be careful to note, however, that should America’s wars be thought of as imperialism proper, the shock values of these photos would have, perhaps, been null.

Naturally, the photos fed into a debate over what was torture and what was not. The Bush administration tried desperately to either justify their practices or to justify instances in which torture would be acceptable. Once again, this debate would have been meaningless in the frame of classic imperialism – where those subjected are less-than-human and thus aren’t even discussed in terms of human or civil rights.

This weekend the Guardian released a story indicating that the US were deeply involved with seasoned torturers and other barbarians that, in all likelihood, were still hanging around after the overthrow of Saddam. This will undoubtedly be another nail in the coffin of US interventionism. You see, it doesn’t fit with the narrative. The narrative insists that the Americans are liberating these people from tyrannous leaders (leaders which the US often had a hand in installing) – and when the Americans are seen to be partially reconstructing Saddam’s blood-soaked state apparatus, the whole project becomes bunk.

The wars undertaken by the US in this decade were not imperial wars – any more than Vietnam or Korea were imperial wars; any more than US intervention in Latin America was (is?) imperial. This is an altogether more confused form of violence – a violence pegged to the loftiest ideals that makes use of the basest methods. It is these features that the US shares with the Soviet regimes – this idealism that permeates both of them completely. It is an almost purified idealism, one that wants to know no limits or impediments. Modernisation – in short – fired straight from the barrel of a gun.

 

UPDATE: The UN are now calling for investigations into the most recent torture scandals.

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