tag: United States



14
Nov 2014

Oil at 80 dollars

Those who keep an eye on such things will know that something very strange has been happening with the oil price over the past few months. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the Emirates have been aggressively driving down the price of oil (and have just signalled their intent to continue doing so). This fall has not coincided with an equally precipitous drop in demand, and it is not – except tangentially, in a manner I’ll discuss in the fifth paragraph – related to the “unconventional oil” coming out of America thanks to the fracking boom. That whole fracking thing is smoke and mirrors of the first order by the way.

No, what’s happening with the oil price right now is geopolitical. What’s more, it heralds an era of increased geopolitical tension.. something that’s only starting to filter through into the mainstream. There’s a big wake-up call coming folks.

What do I mean when I say the price drop is geopolitical? Well, it’s important to understand that when it comes to oil, the Saudis (and the other Gulf Kingdoms) are very astute. Right now they possess a large enough share of the oil export market to effectively drag the global price any direction they choose. And this has a massive effect on the global economy. However, it is extremely unlikely they will still possess this influence in 20 years (even 10 years from now there’s no guarantee). Based on depletion profiles that they take very seriously (even if the western media does not), they will never possess as great a global influence as they do today.

Saudi Arabia is taking the lead on this, and is being backed by Kuwait and Qatar (with the United Arab Emirates a more reluctant fellow-traveller… this hurts their economy more than it hurts the others for a bunch of reasons). It’s important to realise that it is not an OPEC thing. In fact… OPEC is bloody furious. And with good reason; a number of OPEC nations are going to end up as collateral damage in all this (Venezuela and Nigeria are both being crucified).

Russia is also feeling the pinch. And the fracking boom in America is being hit very hard. That entire industry is a pipe-dream. It can only exist thanks to massive government subsidy in tandem with a very high oil price. Both of which can be arranged, it’s true, but more importantly… there just isn’t as much of it as has been suggested. Nowhere near as much. And ramping up production to cover the drop in conventional crude production simply isn’t going to happen.

Now, it’s unlikely the Saudis are willing to take such a large economic hit themselves simply to undermine the US fracking industry. That Financial Times article suggests that the low price could put a strain on US / Saudi relations, but as an overall economy the United States benefits from a low oil price. So I don’t see that being the case. Besides which, the US and Saudi Arabia are firm allies and they share a common enemy… Iran.

The real reason the global oil price is low* right now is because Saudi Arabia is waging economic warfare on Iran.

When a country gains a large proportion of its income from oil exports, it is possible to calculate a “breakeven oil price” for that country. That is, the price at which they must sell oil to cover government spending. Different economists tend to come up with different numbers (no surprise there) but if you see them as a guideline rather than an absolute value then they can be illuminating. CitiGroup say Saudi Arabia’s breakeven number is $89. The IMF says it’s $80. Deutsche Bank say $78. So you can see that having oil down below $80 per barrel is going to hurt the Saudis, but it’s something they can live with – this is not a nation that finds credit hard to come by. Qatar’s down in the mid-70s. While Kuwait’s breakeven is between $54 and $75 depending on who you listen to.

Not so Iran. According to CitiGroup they have a breakeven price of $130. The IMF suggests it could be as high as $140. And if you hear an analyst on the news try to explain the current fall in oil prices in terms other than an outright economic assault by Saudi Arabia against Iran, they simply do not know what they’re talking about. Because this is shattering the Iranian economy. It’s also giving a proper kicking to a bunch of other oil exporters. Nigeria and Russia both have notional breakevens above $110 and Venezuela is right up there with Iran when it comes to exposure to low oil prices. As for Iraq… if the country is to have any chance of surviving as a united entity it needs a reliable income stream, and with a breakeven price around the $100 mark, it doesn’t have that right now.

The effect on Russia is particularly concerning, especially if you’re a European like me who has just witnessed Putin sign a contract to sell a whole bunch of gas to the Chinese and can see the spectre of European gas shortages should this looming Cold War escalate (when the normally taciturn Finns start complaining about something, it’s a good idea to listen). The notion that “they need our money as much as we need their gas” has simply never been true (the Russian capacity for belt-tightening far surpasses the capacity of European governments to survive power-cuts and cold winters… so European governments will always cave first). And it’s especially not true now when the Asian economies can provide an alternate source of income. Falling oil prices puts additional pressure on Russia and is likely to drive Putin towards a more aggressive foreign policy (in my view).

But Iran is the target, and while nobody outside Gulf aristocracy knows how long they plan to keep up this assault, it is likely to only be the first in a series of oil price manipulations over the next few years. And as a result, we’re likely to see the kind of geopolitical brinkmanship that has the potential to end very very badly indeed.

* Incidentally, describing $80 as a “low” price for oil would have been dystopian madness just a decade ago.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Feb 2013

Oscar night on The Quiet Road

Welcome to my much-anticipated live-blog of tonight’s Oscar ceremony. Sadly, due to a scheduling conflict (who knew the Oscars were today!?) it was necessary to write the post last week. But thanks to the wonders of WordPress, it will be automatically published on Oscar night. So, in a sense, this is better than a live-blog as it’s actually ahead of its time. I also made sure to include at least 10% more than the minimum number of exclamation points mandated by the Academy.

And so to the red carpet where lovely celebrities wearing expensive clothes are smiling and having their picture taken. Wheee! What fun! Don’t they look lovely!

There’s whats-her-name! Sporting a beautiful full-length gown by that designer everyone’s talking about. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

Because of its tremendous solemnity, death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances.

Søren Kierkegaard

And there’s that guy off the telly. Doesn’t he look dashing in that tuxedo. And what rugged stubble he has. Good for him.

Ooooh… and that actress who always wears daring outfits is wearing a daring outfit. The skirt is split right to the thigh and the word “strapless” will feature prominently in the photo captions tomorrow. Good for her. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

There’s a pop star. Wooo! A pop star.

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.

Søren Kierkegaard

Ha ha ha! The famous actor made a mildly witty remark to one of the reporters holding a microphone in front of his face. Chortle.

Uh-oh, there’s Hollywood bad-boy whats-his-name! Wherever he goes, controversy is never far behind. Look! Look! He’s wearing brightly coloured unmatched socks… what did I tell you… controversy!

Winners and losers

Of course, everyone’s a winner tonight. There are no losers. Just being nominated… heck, just being invited… makes you a winner in the eyes of this live-blogger.

And now, here’s your host… that dude! Look at him! He’s funny. Gosh! Did he really say that!? Talk about edgy. Ha ha! It’s funny because it’s true! Zing!

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now the Oscar for best use of hand-held cameras in a fight scene involving supporting actors… that woman from the telly pauses dramatically before opening the envelope. And the Oscar goes to… well, no surprises there. Anyone who saw that film was surely expecting it.

Oooh, a song. From a film. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best explosion in a period drama. Impossible to call. Critics agree that all five explosions are amongst the best we’ve ever seen. And the Oscar goes to… well, I never! I know some people will say that’s sheer tokenism… positive discrimination at work… but I thought it was a worthy winner. And an explosion we’ll be seeing again and again for years to come.

Listen to the cry of a woman in labour at the hour of giving birth – look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.

Søren Kierkegaard

And it’s another song. By a different singer. Oooh… and some dancers too. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best cameo appearance by an animated parrot. And the Oscar goes to… well, well, well… that makes it three Oscars in five years. And you know what? It’s absolutely deserved. Well done.

Ouch! Did the host really say that!? Zing!

The mood turns a bit more serious now… a short black-and-white montage of all the much-loved Hollywood personalities who have put on weight this year. Accompanied by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. There’s hardly a dry eye in the house.

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe; but precisely because I cannot do this, I must believe.

Søren Kierkegaard

Not to worry though… everyone’s soon laughing again as the Oscar for best use of product placement in a romantic comedy features some truly hilarious moments. No surprises who wins though!

And now, one of the most highly anticipated moments of the night as the Academy awards the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Science Fiction Costume Design. Ha ha! A funny anecdote from the actor with the stubble introducing the award. “This woman’s costumes in that 1964 classic were what inspired me to become an actor!!” You can almost hear the exclamation points! And there she is! Old yet sprightly. Well done her!

Zowie! Did the host really say that!? I bet he’ll get a telling-off in the tabloids tomorrow!

Once you label me you negate me.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now, the one we’ve all been waiting for… Best Film. For weeks now, absolutely everyone has been debating which film was the best. And now we’ll finally know! Lots of people will be pretty darn sheepish when they discover the film they said was the best turns out to not be the best. That actually, there was a better one than the one they said was the best. Though for some, this moment will be one of ecstatic vindication as they discover they were right all along. That the film they said was the best film, actually was the best film.

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

And the winner is…

you.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


12
Nov 2012

Send in the drones

Last Tuesday – mesmerised as I am by coloured maps – I stayed up late enough to see Barack Obama hold onto the US presidency. So I went to bed early Wednesday morning knowing that Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be President of the United States. And I was glad about that. The lesser of two evils won. And as a friend pointed out, “The lesser of two evils is still evil, but is also lesser. That’s just maths.”

When I awoke the following day though, I was a little taken-aback when I watched his victory speech online. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the people in that convention hall were precisely the people who will feel strongest about an Obama victory; but I found the sheer distance between their euphoria and my resigned fatalism a little disconcerting. Then I read an article about that mass re-tweeting of Obama’s “victory tweet” with the attached photo, and it floored me. According to a different article, that creepy photo of Barack and Michelle embracing has been shared by almost three quarters of a million people on twitter and 3.6 million Facebook users. That was last Wednesday; I feel certain the numbers are higher by now. And I’m pretty certain the vast majority of those people weren’t forwarding the photo as an example of “a creepy thing”.

And then I had three different discussions on social media forums which led me to realise that quite a lot of people seem to be relatively heavily invested in Obama; intellectually, emotionally, politically… however you want to put it. Mostly those on the American centre-left, but plenty of non-Americans too. They didn’t find that photo – and the shared urge of millions to forward it to their friends – at all creepy. They found it celebratory, uplifting, inspirational even. And that sense of disconnect I’d been feeling continued to grow.

Political puppets

Hey! There’s one guy holding both puppets!

Once again, let me stress that I’m glad Obama beat Romney. If someone put a gun to the head of someone I loved and told me to choose the next US president from between those two men, I would – of course – choose Obama. I’m not sad because the greater of two evils failed to win the election. I am, however, pretty sad that the entire world – but Americans in particular, as it’s their president we’re talking about here – appear to passively accept a state of affairs in which they choose between two evils every four years. Here in the 21st century, is that really the best we can come up with? Because it’s far from the best we can imagine. Is the gulf between our imagination and our ability to shape our society so vast? And have we completely abandoned all attempts to bridge it?

I understand that relatively rational, relatively liberal Americans are consumed by a fear of the right-wing crazies in their midst. There is a fundamentalist religious movement in America (along with a bunch of Machiavellian politicos willing to exploit it) whose views on many issues are right off the chart – whether it’s legitimate rape, the death penalty for rebellious children or that whole “teaching creationism as a scientific alternative to evolution” thing; there is a segment of the US population who appear to want some kind of psychotic theocracy. And I understand the celebrations of those who see Obama’s victory as having prevented that outcome.

But those celebrations rest upon two very dubious foundations (in my view). The first is the idea that a Mitt Romney victory represented such an outcome (I’ll explain in a moment why I don’t believe it would have). The second is the idea that returning a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America to the White House should be a cause for celebration under any circumstances. Even if the only alternative to Obama had been a bizarre genetic experiment comprising equal parts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Osama bin Laden… even then, the proper reaction to a victory for a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America should be some brief muted applause followed by an immediate decision to change the system so that the lesser of two evils is not the only option next time around.

Mitt Romney: He’s no Jim Jones

Firstly, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. While Mitt Romney would have offered the occasional bone to the Tea Party movement and other religious fundamentalists in America, he’s certainly not one of them (Mormon or not). As president he would have had to take them more seriously than Obama; so yes, once again, I’m glad he didn’t win; but Romney represented the rich, corporate wing of the Republican Party; not the poor, deluded, religious wing. His position on things like homosexuality and gender politics is less liberal than Obama. But he’s far from the religious extremist that many Obama supporters saw him as. Just as Barack Obama was painted as a far-left, ultra-liberal communist Kenyan by the US right, so Romney was also demonised by the US left (admittedly, not to quite the same extent). Those on the left who cannot see this, or deny it happened, or insist that “their side” would never use such dirty tactics are – sadly – just as deluded as those who believe the nonsense spewing from Fox News.

First and foremost Mitt Romney represented the wealthy elite. And exactly the same is true of Barack Obama. To suggest otherwise is either ignorance or wilful self-delusion. It’s almost certainly true that Obama doesn’t view everyone else with quite so much contempt as Romney (see: the 47 percent) and is willing to throw them a few more crumbs, but the fundamental changes necessary to rid America of deep economic injustices are just as far away under an Obama presidency as they would have been under a Romney administration.

Barack Obama: Liberal-lite

When it comes to social policy, there is some clear water between Romney and Obama. And it’s on this subject that the various Obama fans I have spoken to always want to focus. And yes, to return to the gun-to-head-Romney-or-Obama scenario, it’s here that I too would base my decision. Obama’s support for gay marriage is to be welcomed (though his unwillingness to be proactive on the subject is a bit of a cop out). And he doesn’t appear to view women with quite as much disdain as the Republican party – certainly if he does, he’s too smart to blurt out dodgy statements about “legitimate rape”.

But Obama’s presidency to date has seen no attempt to reform drug policy. And given the monstrous incarceration rate in the United States (with most of those in prison for non-violent drug offences) this is not “a minor issue”, as someone described it to me in a conversation. Far from it; this is one of the fundamental human rights issues facing America (indeed the world) right now. The US prison population is disproportionately made up of poor, young, uneducated men from ethnic minorities. The US state is destroying the lives of millions of these people for doing something that – at most – should be viewed as a public health issue, and in a lot of cases shouldn’t be anyone’s business at all. It’s called a “war on drugs” but it’s really a war on poor people (or as Bill Hicks described it, “a war on personal freedom”). And Obama has been fighting that war on poor people just as enthusiastically as any president before him.

And that’s not the half of it. The effects of the American drug war on places like Mexico and Colombia have been little short of devastating. Torture, corruption and tens of thousands of violent deaths… all because the United States refuses to take a rational approach to the issue. Some analysts believe Obama has plans to revisit US drug policy in his second term. If this does prove to be the case, then I have two reactions:

  1. Yay! Well done. Finally!
  2. Hang on, you waited until your second term to do something about this? Presumably because you were worried it might affect your chances of re-election? You spent four years trampling over local democracy by cracking down on popularly-mandated medical marijuana initiatives in your own nation, and watching while tens of thousands died horrible deaths at home and overseas… all because you were worried that to do otherwise would threaten your job security? Seriously? You absolute bastard!

But let’s hope he does something about this insane drug war over the next four years, even if it will demonstrate he’s a typical cynical careerist politician with no moral compass.

Cluster bombs and predator drones

And here, finally, we get to the main reason I felt such a disconnect with the euphoria surrounding Obama’s re-election… the main reason I found that photo of him and his wife hugging so very creepy…

The man’s a child killer. And not just kids. He’ll kill pretty much anyone – man, woman or child. And not just one or two of them either… Barack Obama has ordered the deaths of dozens – perhaps many hundreds – of children. And people are sharing a photo of him hugging his wife? Seriously, I just don’t understand it. So what if he’s better than Romney? He murders children, what the hell are you celebrating!?

I have addressed the issue of cluster bombs on this blog before; but it’s not an issue that can be discussed too often. Handicap International “is an independent and impartial aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.” They – along with many other campaigning organisations – have highlighted the role played by the United States in the “production, stockpiling, trade, and use of cluster bombs”. In fact, during the past four years the Obama administration has been hugely instrumental in obstructing international efforts to ban the production and eliminate the use, of cluster munitions. Despite the fact that the use of cluster bombs clearly contravenes several international treaties (including the 4th Geneva Convention and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions), Obama has consistently reasserted the right of the United States to deploy these heinous weapons – weapons which, let us not forget, disproportionately result in civilian casualties (note: the US is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions but boycotted the Convention on Cluster Munitions when it was signed in 2008 and continues to do so).

Only last week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of cluster bombs in Syria citing them as “further evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime.” He went on to insist that “the apparent use of cluster munitions shows an appalling disregard for human life.” I completely agree with Hague’s statement, but I find it pretty weird coming from him of all poeple. While the UK was actually instrumental in setting up the 2008 Convention, it is one of the closest military allies of the nation most responsible for the use of these weapons. Furthermore, Hague’s government – unlike the previous New Labour administration – appears to be quietly backing US efforts to overturn the Convention.

Let’s not be under illusions; any state military or non-state militia using cluster bombs is an enemy of humanity. It’s that simple. Barack Obama – by asserting the US right to use these vile things, and furthermore to actively obstruct international attempts to end their use – is a goddamn monster. When you forward that photo of the Obamas, you may as well be fawning over a photo of Syria’s Assad hugging his wife. Or Saddam Hussein hugging his. Because to knowingly use cluster bombs is to knowingly murder and maim children. There is no other way of looking at that issue. In the murky world of global politics you rarely find a black-and-white issue. Well, cluster bombs is one of the rare ones. And if you think it’s not; then go do some bloody reading on the matter. And that’ll be “bloody” in both a literal and an expletive sense.

Predator droneAnd then there’s the predator drones. Imagine a scenario where the Pakistani government regularly flew remote control weapons platforms over Texas. Platforms that periodically launched missiles at buildings suspected of housing enemies of the Pakistani state. Imagine a large proportion of those buildings also contained innocent civilians; sleeping families, students studying for their exams, average Americans watching TV. Imagine if the US government had issued repeated statements forcefully demanding that Pakistan cease their bombing campaign. Imagine this went on for years.

I’ve heard people argue that “while the number of drone strikes has increased significantly in the last few years, US intelligence is getting better and there are now fewer civilian deaths”. Would that placate the population of Texas, I wonder? “Hey Hank, I know you lost your kids in that last drone attack, but actually the Pakistanis have killed less children this year than they did last year. So chin up, eh?”

Maybe you’re happy with a US president that oversees such a policy. Maybe cluster bombs and drone attacks are cause for rejoicing in your world. They’re not in mine. And they never will be.

And no, Mitt Romney would not have been any better in that respect. He wouldn’t have halted drone strikes. He wouldn’t have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. But that just means modern politics is deeply screwed up. If the best we can do is manufacture a false choice between two murderers every four years (or a murderer and a would-be murderer), then we really don’t have much to celebrate at all. I’m glad that Mitt Romney is not the president of the United States. Truly I am. But don’t expect me to jump for joy at the re-election of a mass murderer. And next time you see that victory photo, try to remember that the man with the satisfied smile on his lips also has the blood of children on his hands.

UPDATE: Worth mentioning that I didn’t even get around to Obama’s lamentable environmental record… worthy of a blogpost (nay! a book!) all its own. “Clean coal” my arse!

Note: I had intended to illustrate this blogpost with an image of a cluster bomb victim, but I felt uncomfortable posting such a photo as I would inevitably be using an image of an individual in great distress to make a political point (albeit a valid moral point as well). However, I suggest you do a quick google image search on “cluster bomb injuries” if you are in any doubt about the horrific nature of these weapons. And if you do so, note the high proportion of children… because of the nature of the devices; cluster bombs disproportionately target children. How? Well, they leave lots and lots of shiny unexploded bombs lying around – the kind of things that most adults would know to avoid but which attract the inevitable curiosity of children and toddlers.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


15
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

This time last year I published a piece over at Dorian’s site, On This Deity. It commemorated the final withdrawal – on this day in 1989 – of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the end of that disastrous, bloody and futile invasion.

Afghanistan is BurningIn my piece I draw the obvious parallels between the ill-fated Soviet occupation of that central Asian country and the modern US-led Western occupation. In both cases the stated reason for the invasion was to combat terrorism. In both cases the invaders believed they were liberating the people of Afghanistan from the clutches of an aggressive religious fundamentalism. In both cases the occupying forces went about trying to install relatively progressive policies: the insistence on a national legal system that would supersede tribal and Sharia laws; the promotion of greater equality for women (just as, if not more, aggressively pursued by the Soviet puppet regime than by the US puppet regime it should be noted); the establishment of secular health and education facilities; the de-politicisation and secularisation of the police force and civil administration.

All of these policies were pursued vigorously by the Soviet occupiers. Just as they have been by the western forces. And – I would suggest – with roughly the same level of success. Perhaps the current occupation has it slightly easier thanks to the relative lack of external support for the Afghan militants. Whatever aid being supplied to the Taliban opposition by dissident Saudis, sympathetic elements within the Pakistani security forces and Iranian smugglers is as nothing compared to the huge resources made available to the mujahideen by the CIA during the 1980s. Indeed, it was fairly obvious to the world that the United States was fighting a proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. They pumped money, weapons and military training personnel into Afghanistan on a massive scale and in so doing, they strengthened the ultra-reactionary Islamist elements within Afghan society. Those very same elements who are now killing US and other western troops today.

Rarely has the old adage about being careful what you wish for been so dramatically demonstrated in the arena of world affairs. The United States wished to turn the fundamentalist elements of Afghan society into a force capable of resisting a superpower. I suspect they no longer find Charlie Wilson’s War quite so clever.

Just as with the fall of the Soviet Union – an empire that was militarily over-extended and consumed from within by an economic system that was unfit for purpose – the United States must surely now face up to its own slow collapse. They are mired in debt that nobody sane believes will ever be repaid, and which is being aggressively ignored by both debtor and creditors alike in the mistaken belief that the elephant in the room can be trusted not to break the furniture so long as nobody talks about it. They are rapidly reaching the limits of their ability to intimidate the world with military power (how long before China decides to repossess the US 5th fleet in lieu of the money they are owed?) And while there is currently little sign of a wane in their cultural influence, that too can hardly be far away. On top of that, the rifts in US society – between their own religious fundamentalists and the besieged bastions of liberal secularism – threaten to rip the nation to pieces from within.

Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be blamed on their invasion of Afghanistan – the invasion functioned both as a symptom of that collapse and one contributing factor; so the US involvement in that nation will not, historically, be viewed as the reason for the decline of America. However, it will be heralded as an obvious symptom of western self-delusion and over-extension. And I suspect it will also be considered a contributing factor – albeit a relatively minor one, compared to our psychotic financial system and the inability of consumer capitalism to cope with resource depletion.

So today we pause to recall the final humiliation of the once proud Red Army. And we take a moment to look a few years into the future at that humiliation being mirrored on the other side of that old Cold War divide.

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16
Jan 2012

We are the 1%

You know that “We Are The 99%” slogan adopted by the Occupy Movement? Well, at the risk of alienating many of my regular readers, I have to say it annoys the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point it’s trying to make. And I see how it cleverly allows Occupy to assert a non-partisan stance. “We’re not left or right”, it says. “We’re not about the working class or the middle class. We’re about The People. We’re about You and Me.” It’s a good strategy. Good branding, if you will.

The problem I have though is… well, it’s kind of a lie. Not in the pedantic sense that “it should be 97.6% instead of 99%”. No, it’s a lie in the sense that the distinction it makes is not necessarily the important one. Because the Occupy Movement is – in part – actually a reaction by disenfranchised western consumers to a reduction in their ability to consume at levels to which they became accustomed.

No, that’s not all it is, but that’s why the first people took to the streets of New York. It’s why there are people camping outside the Central Bank on Dame Street here in Dublin. And it’s what those people are doing on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They are protesting because they feel that their standard of living is under threat.

Which it is. Everything I’ve written here lately about private financial institutions raiding the public purse is true, so far as I can tell. The populations of the “industrialised west” are under attack by the market forces of private capital. And we have every right to fight back. I’m not objecting to the Occupy Movement, I’m objecting to the slogan.

Because the lay-offs and the foreclosures, the regressive taxes and vicious cuts to public services, the mantra of austerity… these are all attacks on a lifestyle that doesn’t represent 99% of the world. Not even close. They are attacks on a level of consumption that was always unsustainable. That these attacks are being carried out; not so western society can move towards sustainability; but so that a tiny minority can continue to hoard ever-increasing mountains of wealth is – it goes without saying – obscene. But the people Occupying Wall Street were not there when the property boom of the nineties and early-to-mid-noughties provided the illusion of increasing wealth for the masses in the “developed” world.

See, for decades, we in the west have been consuming vastly more that our fair share of global resources. And we’ve been doing so at the expense of billions of people who had no voice. Or if they did, we rarely if ever listened. Sure, we might have given some spare cash when Bob Geldof came on the TV to shame us in the 80s. But the very fact that the term “ethical consumerism” exists speaks volumes about the level of delusion suffered by the world we built. And it is an attack on that world that sparked the Occupy response.

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition
hard to be part of the 99% if you're in the green zone


Our collective conscience was bought and paid for with bread and circuses. The bread came in a dozen different combinations… from Happy Meals to Artisan Loafs (made with the finest imported olives and sun-dried tomatoes, no less). And the circuses appeared on 236 different channels beamed via satellite to our 43″ plasma screens. We bombed distant nations so we could fill our cars with cheap petrol allowing us to drive to shops where we bought Smart Phones made with rare metals that only cost a pittance thanks to the millions dying in Central Africa in our Resource-War-by-proxy.

And I do mean “we”. This article is being written on a computer with components which I’ve no doubt are of ethically dubious provenance and being read on a device much the same. It is possible to completely drop out of your own society, but almost nobody does because it’s only just about possible. It’s certainly far from easy.

Which is why I have such a problem with “We are the 99%”. The accuracy of the number isn’t at issue. It’s the fact that the people camping on Dublin’s Dame Street ultimately have more in common with the 1% they decry, than with the downtrodden masses whose nations we have spent decades pillaging for resources. And call me a cynic if you like, but if we were to discover untold riches in Mozambique tomorrow… near endless lakes of sweet crude oil lapping against shores of the finest coltan and platinum… and if we were to buy back the illusions of the nineties and the noughties; sending our armies to Africa to secure those resources and put money back in our bank accounts, cheap petrol in our new cars and a sense of security in our continued consumption… I just don’t think the Occupy Movement would last very long.

Sure there’d still be anti-war protests. And we’d all pile into coaches to drive to the big city where we’d raise our “No Blood for Oil” placards; the irony noted but never likely to force a change in behaviour. And then, having protested against the politicians who took us to war, we’d re-elect them in the name of stability when they promised us tax cuts and the continuation of a comfortable life.

Our civilisation is an unsustainable disaster. It is destroying the world in slow but inexorable steps. And it needs to be radically reconfigured into something that places justice and sustainability at its core. The fact that anti-capitalist protests began long before these days of austerity is cause for some small hope, and if the Occupy Movement can help with that reconfiguration – or even just prompt discussion and thought on the subject – then it is to be supported in any way we can. I’m not defending the austerity policies that are ransacking Europe and beyond (anyone who has read this blog for the past few years will know that). And I’m certainly not trying to justify the further concentration of wealth at the very top. I’m just pointing out that for many years the people currently Occupying Dublin, London and New York were closer to the top than perhaps they realised and weren’t particularly interested in relinquishing that position. As their anger now demonstrates. Fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth is a noble cause. But claiming to be “The 99%” just seems in bad taste to me.

It’s a lot like when the Congestion Charge was being introduced in London… forcing people to pay in order to use their private cars in the city… and left-wing critics insisted that it would hit the poorest people the hardest. They were somehow forgetting that the poorest 20% of people didn’t own cars, they were too poor to afford them, and that the money raised from the Congestion Charge – if invested in public transport – would actually help the poorest people.

So if “We Are The 99%” is supposed to highlight a disparity between the Haves and Have-Nots, then we should take a look at those who truly Have-Not. Because it’s not really us. It’s not the people camping in Dame Street. And it’s not the people watching them on the news or reading about them on the internet. We are rightly angered by the sight of a small minority syphoning wealth from our pockets. But we should pause for a moment in our anger and realise that we’re far from the bottom of the global ladder. That the masses below us can also be rightly angered by the sight of their wealth in our pockets. Like it or not, in the eyes of billions of dispossessed around the world, it is we who are the one percent.

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10
Jan 2012

Thomas Paine publishes ‘Common Sense’ (10 Jan 1776)

It’s a year old now (where has the time gone?) but one of my pieces has come around again over at On This Deity.

At the beginning of 1776 the American Revolution was well underway and growing in intensity with each passing week. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June ’75 had shaken the British army so badly they’d been on the back foot ever since. And by March of 1776 Washington’s advance on Boston would drive the bulk of that army into Canada. Of course, King George would respond with a lengthy military campaign and the War of Independence would continue for some years. In truth though, it was back between Bunker Hill and Boston that American independence became inevitable. Because it was on this day, January 10th back in 1776 that Thomas Paine published Common Sense.

With a US election later this year that looks like it will be a run off between an incumbent corporatist and a religious challenger, the tensions that divide American society, and which can be found even within the pages of Paine’s book (despite his overt call for religious pluralism) will once again bubble to the surface.

For those who have not read it and who are interested in one of the most culturally influential texts in American history, the entire thing (and it’s pretty short) can be read on this page. It’s definitely worth a read.

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5
Jan 2012

Politics, religion and the United States

Earlier today the TV news broadcast a report about the victory of Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucus. This signals the beginning of the 2012 US Presidential Election and is the first step taken by the Republican Party in choosing who will run against Barack Obama in November. The report on RTÉ included short clips of the two front-runners, Romney and Santorum, speaking to their supporters. I was fascinated by Romney’s veiled reference to Manifest Destiny when he described America as the “hope of the world”, and by the openly religious language used by both candidates. In fact, in the case of Santorum I found the phrase “aggressively religious” leaping unbidden to mind.

Rick SantorumOf course, I’ve long been aware that the United States, for all its superficial similarities, is very much “a foreign country” from a European perspective*. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense, but simply as a description of the experience I had when I lived there. Just as with the time I spent in Egypt or Brazil, there was a real sense of being “outside Europe” when I worked in the US heartland, which is pretty odd considering the wide gulf that exists between many European cultures. I’ve lived in five European countries and I married a woman from a sixth. Yet despite the language barriers and the clear cultural differences, I felt much more of an alien when I lived in the English-speaking American Midwest than when I lived in Athens or Berlin.

No amount of US sitcoms or Hollywood movies can prepare a European for time spent in Ottumwa or Des Moines or Columbus. There’s a sense of dislocation precisely because everything seems so familiar on the surface, and yet the people you work with and spend time with clearly possess a very different value system. There’s the strange ideological attachment to gun-ownership, which I found quite disconcerting at times. And there’s the extreme patriotism, which in most European countries would be considered close to the dodgy end of nationalism despite being part of the mainstream of US society. And most of all there’s the heavily religious aspect of American life. Even coming from an Irish Catholic background, I found the seriousness with which many Americans take religious belief to be remarkable.

Although the United States is clearly in decline, it remains the only superpower at this moment in time; certainly the only superpower capable of projecting military and economic power around the world. One imagines that China or India might be at the stage where they could flex their muscles should they so wish, and test the dominance of the United States. But right now they haven’t done so, and so long as that’s the case, the US remains the only global superpower. Which is why US policy matters to the rest of the world. And why we should never forget – particularly when they have a Republican president – that US policy is not necessarily guided by the same considerations as those of European governments.

Witness, for example, the stark contrast between otherwise bosom-buddies Tony Blair and George ‘Dubya’ Bush when it came to their faith. Both professed to be religious Christians. But while Bush spoke proudly of leading his staff in daily White House bible readings, Blair’s irritation when asked by Jeremy Paxman if he ever “prayed together” with the US president (50 seconds into this video) was palpable. Blair clearly viewed the very premise of the question as being an attempt to ridicule him; as indeed, from a European sense, it probably was. But Bush would never have reacted in such a way and would almost certainly have taken the question at face value. That clip of Blair’s discomfort – almost embarrassment – when faced with questions about his faith (a faith that, let us not forget, he expressed openly in his writing) always calls to mind Matthew 26:31-75.

Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice…

Take the – admittedly more extreme than most – Rick Santorum who, having made it clear that he was running on an anti-abortion platform and “the sanctity of the American family” (which is almost certainly a reference to his profoundly homophobic views), came out with the following…

… America is a moral enterprise. Our founders understood that for the constitution to work, it had to be based on something deeper, something grounded. Our rights came from a creator [Santorum points upwards to heaven] and the creator has rules… ‘Nature and Nature’s God’, that was another phrase in the declaration of independence. They understood that through reason and through faith we could build a strong country from the ground up, based on a moral society. John Adams said our constitution was made for ‘a moral and a religious people; it is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other’. That is the mission of America

Prior to the report on the Iowa Caucus, the RTÉ news had run a story about the increasing tensions between Iran and the west, complete with a clip of President Ahmadinejad working himself into an impressive fury and shaking his fist at America. So when the Santorum clip was shown, Citizen S who was sitting next to me, wondered aloud, “how is that any different to the rhetoric of the Iranian government?” My reply… “it’s not”.

Indeed this point is made rather well by Ronald Wright, author of What is America? A Short History of the New World Order in this interview…

It’s well worth watching that clip. Wright lucidly explains how America developed as a nation riven with tension between religious fundamentalism and predatory capitalism, and how it has somehow managed to combine the two into a strange hybrid that has antecedents in the ‘frontier spirit’ of the 17th and 18th century and still looks forward with evangelical zeal to a world reshaped in its own image. The fact is, there are few things more dangerous than a powerful person who believes God is on their side. It makes them reckless with the lives of others and it provides them with a spurious justification for idiotic decisions. And it’s all the worse when that person feels backed into a corner, as the decline of the debt-ridden American Empire must surely do to future presidents.

Having said all that, and it pains me that religious discussion has become so polarised that I feel obliged to add this disclaimer; none of this is meant to be an attack on religion in and of itself. I believe the mytho-poetic aspects of religion and religious faith are of genuine importance to the future well-being of humanity. I believe the sterile atheism currently in fashion is also extremely dangerous in the long run; though in a different way to the various flavours of religious fundamentalism that grips much of humanity today. I believe that those “intellectuals” who are making a living tearing at the fabric of religion are doing terrible damage to our culture and our collective psyche. Yes, we need to radically re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but it needs to be done constructively and with subtlety and sensitivity. The boorish attacks of the new atheists are as unimaginative and unintelligent as the fundamentalist literalism of Rick Santorum or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

* Incidentally, I would exclude New York from that “foreign country”. Just as London is in no way representative of much of the rest of the UK, so New York feels more like an island off the coast of America than a part of the place.

Rick Santorum photo courtesy of salon.com

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15
Dec 2011

Hey Mister, can we have our drone back please?

Even as western capitalism teeters on the edge of an abyss of debt, tensions between the United States and Iran are increasing… threatening yet another international crisis. I’m pretty convinced that sometime during the next couple of years we will awaken one morning to the news of a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Iran. This will almost inevitably drag the United States into yet another war in the region. Which in turn will almost inevitably see British forces (and perhaps some Aussies and others) – even if only a token contingent – killing and dying in Asia once again. What it will do to a global economy already on life-support is anybody’s guess.

It’s a grim prospect and one that will – I’m almost certain – have a far worse outcome than either the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions. Israel’s involvement (and I can’t see them not being involved, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides) will make it a lot more messy than it would otherwise be, and Iran won’t be shocked or awed quite so easily as other recent targets of the US military. On top of that, the rise of political Islam (which I suggested would be a likely consequence of the Arab uprisings) is likely to shift the balance of power in the region and exacerbate any conflict; particularly one that involves Israel.

As I stressed in a piece on the North African revolutions, my problem with the rise of political Islam is nothing to do with Islam specifically and everything to do with the influence of any religious fundamentalism on the political landscape. From my perspective, given their access to massive military might, Israel (with their increasingly Orthodox approach to both domestic and foreign policy) and America (with the rise of the religious right) are far more worrying than any individual Islamic nation. But the ‘clash of civilisations’ that US neoconservatives appeared to relish so much during the Bush years could finally become a reality should Arabic nations that were once relatively secular (despite being brutal dictatorships) shift towards theocracy during a period of US / Israeli involvement in Iran.

It is against this worrying backdrop that one of the most farcical news stories of recent weeks has been playing out. The story began about eight days ago when the US military admitted that it had “lost a drone” over Iran. This alone caused me some degree of consternation. I appreciate that the official US position on Iran is that it’s a rogue state, actively developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, and guilty of destabilising the region. Yet by carrying out military incursions (whether manned or unmanned is surely academic) into Iranian airspace the United States is effectively acting like a rogue state and further destabilising the region. How can it not see this? I guess the big difference is that the US has already developed (and deployed) WMD rather than – allegedly – merely contemplating it.

US drone captured by IranIncidentally, can you imagine the US response if an unmanned Iranian military aircraft had crashed / been brought down while flying over Texas? Seems to me that in this instance, unlike with their decision to send warships through the Suez canal, the Iranians have been a model of restraint.

Still, despite the surely criminal actions of the US military (am I wrong in thinking that sending military aircraft into the airspace of a sovereign nation without prior clearance is a crime?) we were assured by defence analyst Loren Thompson that at least the drone would not be offering up any military secrets… “This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth. It’s likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces”, said Loren.

A couple of days later, however, Iranian news media showed images of the drone. Far from being broken up into hundreds of pieces, the unmanned aircraft appeared in pristine condition. Moreover, claimed the Iranians, it didn’t malfunction but was in fact “hijacked” by their electronic-warfare experts who over-rode the control system and landed the drone intact. The United States is scornful of such a suggestion, but frankly the machine doesn’t look like it recently plummeted to the ground from high altitude… so until we have further evidence either way, I’m leaning towards the Iranian version of events.

I guess this possibility is giving the US military a bout of the heebie-jeebies… “if they can remotely over-ride our drones”, they’re probably wondering, “then what about our cruise missiles? Even worse!… what about the electronic systems on our manned aircraft? Just how safe are they?” I guess this new development has resulted in a lot of late nights at The Pentagon. People with job titles like “Deputy Assistant to the Director of Electronic Warfare” are producing lengthy reports, risk assessments and flow-charts. I wager that in the executive summary of one such report there appeared a statement along the lines of, “Of course, without access to the captured drone, we may never know precisely how – or even whether – the remote flight system was compromised”. And I suspect it was as result of such a statement that the truly farcical element of this story was born.

Ludicrously, the day after the Iranians had displayed the drone on TV, the United States government formally requested that the Iranians return the captured aircraft. It’s pretty unusual for me to actually laugh at something on the internet… lots of smiles but few proper laughs… and it’s even rarer for me to laugh at a story involving a US military incursion into Iran. But upon reading that headline – US asks Iran to return captured drone – laugh I most certainly did. The story gets even better when Hillary Clinton gets involved (and how often can you say that?)…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

I have to say that I rarely find myself in whole-hearted agreement with Mrs. Clinton, but on this issue we are definitely of one mind. She went on…

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

I hate to perpetuate a lazy stereotype, but the Americans really don’t understand irony, do they?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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25
Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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16
Jul 2011

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project

I’ve got a new article up at On This Deity. To be honest, I could easily have written four or five times as much on this subject as it’s something I was obsessed with for quite a while, and it also feeds into my “advanced technology as pathology” thesis. But 12 hundred words is already a lot in these days of abbreviated attention spans.

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project.

At half past five on the morning of July 16th 1945, The Gadget exploded and the whole world shook. Three square miles of desert sand was melted into glass. A mushroom cloud rose almost 8 miles into the sky and cast a shadow that darkens our world even now. For it was on this day, in the final year of the second world war, that humanity entered the atomic age. A day of infamy. A day to lament. A day on which we should – as a species – collectively reflect on just how far our ingenuity has exceeded our wisdom.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Albert Einstein

read the rest…

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