Can We Nooksack the Inupiaq?

While celebrating Columbus (https://www.thenation.com/article/the-invention-of-christopher-columbus-american-hero/) is as ludicrous as basing jurisprudence on Story’s Commentaries (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/inventing-a-christian-america-9780190230975), jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire is perhaps just as silly. Pushing tribal politics until we all look like Nooksackis (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/magazine/who-decides-who-counts-as-native-american.html) is perhaps a quantum too far.

One has to ask, who exactly are Alaska’s second peoples? There is some discussion as to whether Inupiaq (and their cousins to the East) are Alaska’s second or third peoples coming as they did rather later – some 20000 years after the first descendants of the Altaians made it from Asia (see for a general discussion http://www.pnas.org./content/113/23/6380.full), and of course, as there was no Alaska at the time, a broadening of the target brings to mind that there is evidence that Europeans made it to North America at least by 1500 ya – why not before the Inupiaq? And, of course, the purported lack of archeological evidence of humans in the Americas prior to 30000 ya is NOT evidence that there were NOT peoples here at the time. Lions and tigers and bears – don’t tell me we may have to drop someone’s cap N!?!?!?!?!

Every attempt at argument over who was there first ends up in finger-pointing and blood-letting and is, at its core, a version of “me, mine, and more”. We came down out of the trees just several hundred thousand years ago, and have been torturing each other since. We appear to have all come from what we now call Africa. The time that has passed since then is just the blink of an eye.

A Very American Tradition

Perhaps the oldest and most time-honored American political tradition is the laying on of propaganda, a very catholic (spreading truth, as it were) endeavor (Harper) for a democratic republic with a “wall”. The term “propaganda”  was not employed to describe the practices of 18th century America, which saw the broad use (or more appropriately, abuse) of the  pamphlet and the newspaper (Parkinson), which between them likely moved more manure than any hundred colonial farmers.

While it is seen as “good fun” on the “Left” to ridicule the “Right”‘s delusional love affair with a past that never existed (from Washington’s fledgling theocratic state to the libertarian utopia captured by Norman Rockwell), those doing the fiercest poking seem also to hearken back to an halcyon era of gentle discourse, where rational discussion charted the future of a free people. But, such daydreams are as fatuous as the revisionist histories of America’s culture warriors.

Our very own “Declaration” of independence is little more than a propagandistic screed (Hansen; Armitage; Jefferson) while the great art of “Common Sense” (Paine) is the rhetoric that so skillfully manipulates the reader.  The truth is that nothing was too low for the political strategists of our past. At the turn of the 18th century dueling over reputation was still to be seen (though largely illegal) while, based on the perceived reception of English common law, truth was no defense in suit for libel or slander (Kluft). Tar the man and kill the policy was the order of the day. Weinberg, in reviewing Burns’ “Infamous Scribblers”, gives us pause to ponder the fact that modern media warfare is not far removed from the rough and tumble of our brutal beginnings.

The U.S. has always been the very embodiment of the Hobbesian dilemma: affluence and stability come with moderation of individual freedoms. Yet our media has been telling us we can have our cake and eat it too for so long that the very idea has percolated into our poor excuse for beer: “Tastes great, less filling” (Miller). The predominant science of the 20th century is not physics, medicine, chemistry, or economics; it’s social psychology, the key to effective “advertising”, advertising being the methods by which attitudes of any population can be manipulated.

Our most staid organic political repartee, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, were composed anonymously. But this was not your kid’s Anonymous. By employing the allusion that was inherent in the use of a pseudonym (taken, itself, from an almost universal educational canon) the propounding pops  placed the discourse about our second attempt at sovereignty in a larger context (Richard 39), offering a sense of gravitas, or not (Klarman).

It may have been this sense of erudition that eventually gave rise to the extension of the Jeffersonian educational ideal to the unwashed (Notes on the State of Virginia 268-275); train the hoi polloi in “the canon”, and they too could be responsible participants in the republic! Et voilá, the great divide between those capable of ruling and those in need of rule is closed.

Many, like myself, are still enamored of the prospects of “education”. Even the kid with his finger in the dyke made some contribution, after all. But it is a losing battle where, the lower the socio-economic class the greater the spawning, and teachers (nominally, let alone good teachers) can’t compete with family and media when it comes to drama, comedy, time allotted, impact, etc. Indeed, we have moved rather aggressively to the point where the academy has been purchased by ideologues (Mayer 172).

The other two great divides are: a) the epistemological application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (there is either truth or process), and, b) the Gordian Knot of Sophism (Rhetoric and Dialectic deconstructed). The first, shorthand for the grand battle of the absolute versus the relative, Plato versus Aristotle, is what plays out all over our country between the religious right and everyone else (once the “truth” is grasped, very little persuasion is necessary). The latter is the essence of the interactions between the “inner chimp” and the Homo sapiens forebrain and likely should have been the real focus of this essay.

It belongs to Rhetoric to discover the real and apparent means of persuasion, just as it belongs to Dialectic to discover the real and apparent syllogism. For what makes the sophist is not the faculty but the moral purpose. But there is a difference: in Rhetoric, one who acts in accordance with sound argument, and one who acts in accordance with moral purpose, are both called rhetoricians; but in Dialectic it is the moral purpose that makes the sophist, the dialectician being one whose arguments rest, not on moral purpose but on the faculty (Aristotle). Your English teacher would have started off this essay with Aristotle’s remarks, but then, you didn’t listen to your English teacher back then either, did you?

Of course, any time one begins considering social upheaval (as in an attempted change in social structure via the rise of a lower caste or class) historically it is cotemporal with mob violence. Whether you wish to talk about Spartacus or Luther, the attack on authority results in general conflagration. We have moved, in an era of truthiness (Colbert) and alternative facts (Todd), to a place where all authority is “equal”, so all versions of “reality” are legitimate.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, nor a common sense of what is authoritative.

We are, in a  real sense, faced with the thr”E” alternatives to the Existing Quandary Underlying Angst Tortured Existentialists: Education (Where do you want to go today), Exclusion (Just Us), or Exhortation (MadAve).  We have seen that Education is not up to the challenge…   Exclusion (the tribal primal directive) works just fine until all the oligarchs become bombastic bullies (it’s what happens when the elite defining “philosopher kings” are disparu, as can be seen in the current Administration).  What we are left with, and what many on “the left” are now arguing, is the adoption of the sound bite magical libertarian mystery show; time to sell the “progressive” brand using the same kind of MadAve tools that the Scaifs and Kochs successfully used in the past, and were employed most recently to make the Maroon Tide believe that Donald Trump is Their Savior.

To put that in blunter terms, the question is put, “Shall we murder to stem the flow of murderers?” Perhaps the first and maybe least fortunate response to such a poser would be that in as much as 997 of any 1000 people likely would not be worth saving one way or the other,  if you are not going to put them down at birth, don’t waste the money to feed them. But let’s delicately back away from that moment of honesty and search for an historical example of a successful upstart taking on hegemony without becoming same. Stickier and stickier…

Nor is, “They will seize what’s yours”, a real barn-burner because the truth is, nothing I have is really mine. Yeah, we do a great deal of pretending about PROPERTY in this country, but is there really anyone who does not realize that it is largely a delusion (well, THEY are included in that 997). Thank you, for thinking of US, but no thanks. Yes, let the Maroon Tide dissolve my bones on the wretched strand, but playing the Devil’s fiddle, as Faust well knew, comes at a price I am not interested in paying.

No, without a common frame of reference, the task is to simply make noise, as no real communication will take place…  The message, as it were, is the rumble… and rumble we must for a better world, because until the fundie right decamps their separate universe, or education turns a corner it has yet to even espy, the best we can do is let people know we are alive and well.


Armitage, David. “The Declaration of Independence and International Law.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2002, pp. 39–64. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3491637.

Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. PublicAffairs, 2007.

Colbert, Stephen. The Word – Truthiness. 2005. www.cc.com, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness.

Hansen, Ali. “The Declaration as Propaganda.” Digication, 12 Mar. 2017, https://bu.digication.com/ahansen/The_Declaration_as_Propaganda.

Harper, Douglas. “Propaganda.” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=propaganda. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. University of Virginia Library, Virgo, 710304, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:710304. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.

—. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. 1776.

Klarman, Michael J. The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kluft, David. “The Death Of Alexander Hamilton And The Birth Of The American Free Press.” Trademark and Copyright Law, 1 July 2016, http://www.trademarkandcopyrightlawblog.com/2016/07/the-death-of-alexander-hamilton-and-the-birth-of-the-american-free-press/.

Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017.

Miller, Carl. “Beer and Television: Perfectly Tuned In.” Beer History, 2002, http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/beer_commercials.shtml.

Nizkor. “Fallacy: Appeal to Authority.” Nizkor Project, 2012, http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html.

Paine, Thomas. “Common Sense.” Project Gutenberg, 14 Feb. 1776, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm.

Parkinson, Robert G. Print, the Press, and the American Revolution. Aug. 2015. americanhistory.oxfordre.com, http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-9.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Todd, Chuck. “Conway: Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts.’” Meet The Press, NBC News, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/conway-press-secretary-gave-alternative-facts-860142147643.

Weinberg, Steve. “Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns.” Houston Chronicle, 19 Mar. 2006, http://www.chron.com/entertainment/books/article/Infamous-Scribblers-by-Eric-Burns-1870445.php.

 

MALTHUS AND TODAY

***This essay and others also found at The Intellectual Plane

“It is an acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment. Yet so much friction, and so many minute circumstances occur in practice, which it is next to impossible for the most enlarged and penetrating mind to foresee, that on few subjects can any theory be pronounced just, till all the arguments against it have been maturely weighed and clearly and consistently refuted.”
– Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

As with all great thinkers the work of the economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) has been the subject of both praise and criticism. Both in life and long after his death Malthus’s ideas on political economy have been dismissed by both free-market ideologues on the Right and partisans on the Left as either unrealistically pessimistic or even inordinately optimistic.

Much like the work of Adam Smith, Malthus’s ideas on political economy have either been vilified or celebrated. As with Smith, ideologues have cherry-picked his arguments for their own purposes. Malthus has been decried by ideological publications like the Economist magazine as a “false prophet”. With typical corporatist rhetoric the Economist often argues that technological improvements pertaining to the status quo of agriculture and manufacturing will offset the negative externalities caused by corporate capitalism, thus rendering Malthus wrong on all points.

Ironically left wing thinkers like Friedrich Engels shared a similar technocratic contempt for Malthus. Engels, who spent much of his life working in a Manchester cotton mill saw the beneficial possibilities of technology as labour saving devices when combined with socialist practice and argued for sharing the gains of technology across the wider society.

Yet the reality of technological advances over the past three hundred years is that said advances have been largely directionless or employed against the majority of society. Undirected technology has and continues to displace workers and impact the natural environment.

Worse, the gains of technology – in terms of labour saving and wealth creation- have been creamed off by individuals and corporations at the expense of human dignity and environmental destruction.

An honest appraisal of Malthus (or anyone for that matter), his works and his critics must occur by also considering both the context of his time and ours and and to do so in a holistic manner. Also the wider historical realities that occurred after Malthus’s death must be weighed against the abstract thinking employed by both his admirers and detractors.

But first a little about the man himself.

A PHILOSOPHICAL CLERIC

Thomas Malthus was born in 1766 in Surrey in southern England. He was a prize student at Cambridge University and was later ordained into the Church of England.

Malthus had a deep interest in human society and in population growth in particular. His 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population argued that the growth in human population was subject to resource limits. In times of plenty, human populations would expand until shortages of food and other resources limited that growth or in many cases reduced the population through starvation, disease or war. He declared that there were two categories of checks on population: positive checks which increased the death rate (hunger) among the population and preventative checks that decreased the birthrate (birth control, celibacy).

At the heart of Malthus’s argument was the belief that the use of positive checks on population would create socioeconomic volatility and misery for the population. He was a staunch critic of the Poor Laws, arguing that they promoted inflation and undermined the purchasing power of the poorest sections of the society.

Malthus was sceptical of the idea that agricultural improvements could expand production without reference to the physical limits of environment. In many cases history would prove him correct.

From a modern sociological perspective Malthus can be criticized for his belief that populations will expand only in times of plenty. In the case of some Third World societies where there is a dearth of social safety nets such as social welfare, pensions and affordable medical care, poor families will have more children in order to ensure more income earners and future care for elderly family members.

Yet Malthus must be viewed in a historical context and in a period of rapid industrialisation and cartel behaviour by English landowners. His was the era of the Corn Laws and the Enclosure Acts. Technological advances in agriculture and industry had forced thousands of agrarian labourers into urban areas and slum housing. He was right to be pessimistic – as we should be today.

A CENTURY OF FAMINE

“A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted. For few persons will leave their families, connections, friends, and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages in the place to which they are going.”
-Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

Malthus died in 1834 but just over ten years later, the commercialisation of agriculture and laissez-faire economic thought led to the single greatest catastrophe ever to befall modern Ireland. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland lost a quarter of its population due to famine and displacement. The response of the British government and business was largely indifferent. Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant most directly responsible for organising what limited relief efforts were provided by Westminster and Lord Fitzwilliam were among many in government who bastardized Malthus’s idea of positive checks on population control by suggesting that Ireland’s problems were the result of “surplus people.”

The uncompromising, abstract economic model employed in Ireland left the population vulnerable to the harsh realities of the world’s climate. Ireland experienced a series of warmer, wetter summers in the years leading up to and during the Famine. The conditions were ideal for a bloom in Potato blight that wiped out the principle staple crop for most of the population. Despite that, the warmer weather actually led to bumper crops of Irish grain and other foodstuffs, but since these were reserved for the export market, much of the population was left to starve. It is hard to imagine that Malthus, the moral churchmen who held only a lukewarm belief in free trade would have approved of the economic barbarism being meted out in Ireland. Small wonder then, that Engels upon realising the dangerous misuse of Malthus’s ideas would condemn Malthus himself

The British employed the same cruel, moralistic indifference in their other colonies. The Madras Famine of 1877 was responsible for the deaths of between five and ten million people, despite record exports of Indian grains to the world market. Like Trevelyan in Ireland the British Viceroy Lord Lytton and his subordinate Richard Temple held the opinion that relief efforts would lead to moral “dependency”, a view still held by many prominent conservative thinkers today when issues like food stamps and social welfare are considered.

The root causes of the 1877 Madras Famine were environmental and economic. The years 1876 to 1878 were El Nino years and the monsoons in India failed. The economic and moral causes of the Madras Famine were laissez-faire trade and racist indifference towards the Indian population.

There were other famines in the nineteenth century. The same El Nino cycle combined with inadequate maintenance of traditional irrigation systems and colonial “free” trade in Northern China was responsible for the deaths of twenty million Chinese.

Brazil also suffered appalling loss of life in the Sertão and over a hundred years later the region still suffers the ravages of the El Nino cycle.

The famines that tortured the Russian countryside throughout the 1880’s were also the result of climactic events aggravated by harsh Tsarist policies. The long term result of the famines in Russia was the 1905 Russian Revolution that led to an even more violent upheaval in 1917.

TECHNOLOGY AS A FALSE REMEDY

The modern corporatist economist and free-market ideologue still clings to the misguided notion that these events were aberrations and that today’s technology can prevent such tragedies.

Yet the application of agricultural and industrial technology not only exacerbated problems, but ensured environmental catastrophe.

The expansion of railways in India served two purposes. The first was military. The second was economic. Railways were the means for moving massive quantities of grain and other food-stuffs out of famine stricken areas in southern India.

The steam ship enabled the rapid exporting of these goods.

The spread of steam powered tractors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to deeper ploughing and the disruption of fragile soils in both the Russian black soils and the American Great Plains.

That the fossil record indicates that these regions are vulnerable to prolonged periods of drought was never considered by the farmers ploughing up the prairies in Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico – the epicentre of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

Instead in the United States, technology and an irrational, religious optimism pervaded the development of the Southern Plains. Quoting the Bible, many religious agriculturalists in places like the Oklahoma panhandle declared with no scientific basis, that where the plough went, the rains would follow.

When El Nino brought drought to the west of the 100th Meridian in the 1930’s the result was the most significant environmental disaster in the history of the United States. One hundred million acres of farmland was devastated as high winds carried top-soils from Kansas and other southern plains states into the atmosphere before dumping their contents onto neighbouring states and distant countries alike. Recent tests performed in the Himalayas found traces of plains dust on Mount Everest. In some areas up to seventy five percent of the top-soil was blown away.

The Southern Plains was hit by another Dust Bowl in the 1970’s that was an unfortunate side effect of geopolitics. During the Détente between the US and the former Soviet Union, the Carter Administration agreed to supply the Soviet Union with grain in exchange for security guarantees for Western Europe. The result was a boom in US wheat production and exports and the further degradation of the Southern Plains.

Today, technological advances in irrigation wells have been posited as solutions to future Dust Bowls. Yet these wells are reliant on ever decreasing quantities of aquifer, which in turn are dependent on rain for replenishment. Droughts on the Southern Plains can last for decades.

THE RELEVANCE OF MALTHUS TODAY

Therefore from a historical context, Malthus was in many ways correct to be pessimistic about the ability of the human population to grow exponentially without limit or environmental intervention.

While critics of Malthus may deride him for suggesting that 19th century Britain would be unable to feed itself a more cynical analyst might point out that Britain’s population growth and food supply in the same period was secured by the deaths of millions in Ireland, India and China.

Similarly the remarkable growth of the United States was predicated on the environmental degradation and destruction of the centre of the North American continent.

A further lesson, identified by Malthus and proved by historic events is the failure of technology alone to ameliorate the condition of society or to safeguard it from food scarcity.

Despite the proliferation of tractors, combines, improved irrigation and ploughing techniques, the underlying soils are vulnerable and require increasing amounts of oil-based fertilizers to produce the food we need.

Neither soil conditions nor crude oil are infinite resources, nor is the amount of available arable land. In fact in parts of the Middle East water shortages have led to a decrease in the amount of arable land available for agricultural production. Rising food prices were a catalyst for the Syrian Civil War that began in 2014 and continues at the time of writing.

Rather than accept that humans are limited by physical reality, the Trump Administration has, in recent days opted to deny reality by choosing to leave the Paris Accords. Like George W Bush with the Kyoto Protocol, Trump and his cabinet of reactionaries are unwilling to accept or adhere to a fundamental humane principle of Malthus:

“I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one.”
– Thomas Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population

Sensible people today would do well not just to comprehend and challenge Malthus, but also to question the assumptions of our technocracy and the irrational optimism that it peddles. Furthermore instead of operating under the assumption that infinite economic and population growth without reference to physical limits is either possible or desirable, we might choose a more sensible socioeconomic order based on reasonable, compassionate stability.

The fate of our population, indeed of our planet depends on it.

Select Bibliography:

Thomas Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

One of the most biased articles in mainstream publication against Malthus in recent years can be found in The Economist – “Malthus, the false prophet” May 17th 2008

On Friedrich Engel’s criticism of Malthus see Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” (1844)

On the Irish Famine and Lord Fitzwilliam see Surplus People: From Wicklow to Canada by Jim Rees (2014) and This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52 by Christine Kineally (1994)

On 19th century famines in India, Brazil and China see Mike Davis Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2002)

On the Dust Bowl see Donald Worster Dust Bowl : the southern plains in the 1930s (2004)

US/Soviet relations, detente and the Carter Administrations agreement to sell wheat to the the Soviet Union are described ibid and in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy (1988) and Richards Rhodes Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007)

On the Russian Revolution and the impact of the populists in addressing the famines in the 1880’s see Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924(1997)

Work: SERIOUS AND ABSURD PART TWO (NSFW)

Part one of this essay can be found at Chris O’Connell’s Intellectual Plane and Pardon me, but… .

As mentioned in my previous blog, the average person spends more time with work colleagues than they do with their friends and loved ones.

Furthermore we live in a society that is increasingly managerial and obsessed with abstract concepts of professionalism.

There’s a big difference between being professional and getting your work done to a high standard versus the appearance of being professional. Since the former is hard to do, most people tend to attach great importance to the latter.

It’s easy to appear professional. You wear the correct uniform. You keep workplace conversation revolving around banal topics and you pretend that what you are doing is serious business even if it amounts to pointless paper-pushing.

To show just how much you’ve sold out to corporate artifice, its best to talk about corporate brands.

True story.

I once walked into an office where the conversation concerned which store-bought frozen French fries were best: McCain brand or Green Giant.

My initial response was “Who gives a flying fuck?” Even if I did care about the quality of French fries I hardly consider it a subject worth discussing in a corporate environment! What does it matter? Furthermore, if you’re attempting to sound like a food connoisseur, why the flying fuck would you buy pre-made frozen fucking French fries?! If you’re serious about food quality, by goddamned bag of potatoes, cut them up and fry or bake the motherfuckers until they satisfy your palette.

But that might be too difficult for most “professional” people.

Regarding the workplace conversation in question, my attitude was deemed “unprofessional” as was my response to that rebuke. When I pointed out that while human characteristics like humour, joy, hard-work and efficiency were frowned upon in that particular workplace, jaws dropped open like marionettes. If we were so “professional” I argued, why were we not discussing the company’s future prospects? Why were we not formulating ways to improve our processes so that we could better achieve our goals as individuals and as a company? There, where humour was viewed with suspicion, why in such a supposedly serious work-place were my daily goals and targets being impacted by straight-faced discussions about irrelevance?

No one could give me an answer. To be fair, looking back at that episode, it occurred to me that my colleagues might have been trying to make the best out of a shitty situation – but I doubt it. Lacking in imagination as most “professionals” are, my colleagues had mistaken process and etiquette for substance and productivity.

I don’t consider myself the smartest person in the world. Like everybody else I’ve done some pretty dumb shit in my time and chances are I’ll probably do more dumb shit throughout the course of my life. I’m also a goal-oriented person. I go to work so that I can achieve something banal so that I can earn money and have available time to spend with friends, loved ones, my many interests like writing – all of which are far more important to my life than wage slavery. My vision of the workplace is more humanist than professional and I think it makes me a better leader.

Yeah, you read that right. The guy mouthing off about motherfucking frozen French fries holds a position of authority at his job.

But bear with me for a moment. Which is better: actual achievement or the appearance of achievement?

Some might argue that true professionalism calls for a balance between the two but I simply call that common sense. On top of that most professionals in recent decades don’t really achieve anything concrete. Managers especially.

The late Peter Drucker in his seminal work Principles of Management argued that managers are key to the healthy functioning of a business. But he wrote that book back in the 1950’s when managers actually knew shit! In fact they knew a lot of shit because they did a lot of shit! Most CEOS in the 50’s and 60’s had engineering degrees. They could actually build things, unlike the dense motherfuckers with MBAs found in most boardrooms today.

The process of building something useful, especially when that construction involves contributions by other people forces the individual to learn about humanity- theirs and that of others. Management training courses treat human beings as abstracts and while I’ve met a lot of unimaginative, stupid and soulless people during my life, none of them were abstract! They had flesh and bones, hopes and dreams, prejudices and vices. The best people I ever worked with and for were first human and humane, and professional second. More importantly they got shit done and I never recall having conversations with them about frozen fucking French fries.

I don’t take myself all that seriously and I’m baffled by anyone who takes themselves seriously. Serious people are usually seriously fearful people. They seriously distrust those around them and in a workplace that leads to serious discord and unhappiness for everyone involved. Serious people claim to be realist but above all they are obsessed with abstract protocols that don’t matter for shit in the real world. In every job there are people who believe that the process of the company is more important than the company’s goals. They place a huge emphasis on numbers and methods, particularly when those methods suit their delusions of importance. There’s something pathetic about someone ascribing moral virtue to pointless protocol. I know I’m being harsh here, but if you are someone whose life revolves around basking in the reflected glory of abstract nonsense not of your own making, then you’re a fucking loser!

I’ve never formally studied how to be a leader because truth be told, I don’t care for authority. I accept that some authority must exist in the world, but I demand that said authority be wielded with kindness, generosity and vision as well as resolve and common sense. If that doesn’t occur, I’m inclined to tell said authority to fuck off.

Tyrants tend to be fearful people who distrust others. A practical dimension of management leadership is the ability to delegate. But how can you delegate effectively if you don’t trust the people you work with? In addition how can you ensure that the work you delegate will be done well, if you’re an asshole to your staff?

Call it laziness on my part, but I’d much rather work with people who want to work with me and who will own their responsibilities without bullshit, then work with people I have to micromanage. I’ve got better shit to be doing with my time!

Another important dimension to successful leadership is one’s acceptance that from time to time you’re going fuck things up. I make mistakes because I’m human and flawed. Consequently I’d rather have my staff feel that they can make their voices heard before letting me lead them down the road to Fuck-up-istan and its capital, Disaster-Town. As Master Splinter would say, the teacher must also learn from the student.

At the end of the day, we need to hold genuine respect for one another first as human beings and as employees second. I’ll never be a parental figure to any of my staff or liked by everyone, but I’m pretty confident that even those who dislike me understand that I try to be fair, even when I’m less than perfect.

Over the years I’ve been told by others that I need to moderate my work-place conduct and in some cases they were right. Overall, I aspire to an approach that would please both Peter Drucker and the cartoonist Scott Adams: I get my work done but I have fun doing it because when it comes to work, you have to get your life back any way you can.

Though I’m nowhere near as intense as the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from BBC’s The Thick of It I must confess that a small part of me views him as spirit animal. It’s not the psychotic anger or the bullying aspects of the character that appeal to me but the no-bullshit approach concerning etiquette combined with his cynical understanding of the shallowness of work and society resonates with me. Most of all, I find him hilarious.

A warning to anyone about to view the following link: There’s a lot of adult content so for the sake of nearby children and snowflakes, you might want to turn the sound down a bit.

Or not.

I don’t really care!

    The Best of Malcolm Tucker

John Henry Will Not Save Me

The premise I found most disturbing in reading Whitehead’s “John Henry Days” was the List, the super-secret roll of press junketeers who are called on to crank out media fill.  It still haunts me. And every time I read some crap by some little wet behind the ears twit I have to take a moment and breathe, and ponder how that kid came to that juncture in their life. I want to find fault, lots and lots of fault, in someone, anyone, for filling our bitstreams with arrant juvenile nonsense, but the entire enterprise sometimes appears as Kabuki, a media dance, richly stylized, engaged in for the purpose of exploring the cultural themes on which the dance is constructed. If only.
 
Perhaps we should not blame those who are giving the kids a chance, nor chastise them for leaving it to their consumers to differentiate content (which we consumers so often are wholly unable to do, which doesn’t not offer much in the way of counter-pressure, does it?) Maybe I am just suffering, as so many antique cranks do, from a surfeit of papers graded – I suppose it is possible that when you wield a red pen, all the world looks like a hackneyed essay.
 
And why blame the kids, when we have “senior correspondents” and “seasoned experts” who are incorrigible in their myopic provincialism, grotesque in their wild posturing, and intemperate in their broken prose.

Work: Serious and Absurd

**Below is the first in a two part series of essays about work and life. The second installment, much less serious and NSFW (not safe for work),  is also available on this site.

Such is the screwed up nature of our society that most of us spend more time with people we work with than then we do with our loved ones and friends. Sadly the nature of modern employment is that much of what we do, be it at the office, the store, or on the road is largely pointless.

As the anthropologist David Graeber correctly points out, most of us are employed in “bullshit jobs.” There are many reasons for this, but the two principle causes are technological determinism and the moral and political failure of governments and societies to sensibly integrate and offset gains and losses caused by technological advances for the well-being of society.

Japan is one of the few countries to have attempted a balanced approach to technological changes. Prior to their amalgamation in 2001 into the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, state agencies such as the Industrial Science and Technology Policy and Environment Bureau were influential in seeking sensible solutions to problems caused by technology. The ISTP worked in concert with many private and public agencies to identify prevailing economic trends and developments in manufacturing and science. With this knowledge the Japanese gradually wound down industries that were becoming obsolete and provided retraining to displaced workers in order that they could find jobs in new areas of employment.

Consequently, many socioeconomic problems caused by technology were mitigated against or ameliorated. Combined with extensive funding for research and development, Japan’s cohesive approach to science enabled the Japanese to overtake most world powers in the economic sphere during the post-World War II period.

Critics will argue that Japanese socioeconomic policies aren’t without their faults and in many cases they are correct. However, it can also be pointed out to those same critics that most western societies in the same period endured considerably more social unrest, higher unemployment and slower economic growth. This occurred because western societies allowed technological advances to be implemented without consideration for wider consequences.

Worse, these sweeping technological changes have been brutally aggravated by political attitudes. A historic case in point is the Thatcher government’s treatment of coal workers during the 1980’s. In fact since the 1970’s concerning technology and economic changes, most western governments have out of lazy ideological convictions outsourced these problems to the marketplace with disastrous consequences. The free-market reforms implemented by the IMF and World Bank in the former Soviet Eastern Bloc resulted in enormous hardship to those populations.

Richard Nixon’s destruction of the Bretton Woods Agreement contributed to massive world-wide inflation. The collapse of the US/Canada Auto Pact – the bedrock of Canada’s postwar industrial growth – and its replacement by NAFTA has led to high unemployment, inferior and costly telecommunications, reduced public transport and an increase in illegal drug imports across North America. Many Mexican farmers, forced to compete with subsidized US counterparts have turned from corn production to the cultivation of cash crops like marijuana, heroin and cocaine.

Protest groups such as Occupy Wall Street and far right populist movements are as much a response to political problems as to socioeconomic changes caused by technology. Writing in 1995, the philosopher Jeremy Rifkin accurately predicted the rise of such protest movements in his book The End of Work.

There isn’t a blanket solution to these problems but sensible points made by Rifkin and John Maynard Keynes are worth discussing. To start Keynes predicted that technology would reduce the work-week to fifteen hours by the beginning of the 21st century and as David Graeber correctly notes Keynes was right.

Rifkin suggests that a twenty hour work week where employees are paid for forty hours would sensibly reduce unemployment, stimulate demand for consumer goods, increase workplace productivity, reduce poverty and unburden overstretched health care systems. The result would be a happier, more socially engaged citizenry and a wealthier society.

Something

A Less Modest Proposal

Recently some folk have gotten their shorts in a twist because someone has the temerity to suggest that killing a 200 year old whale is not necessarily a good idea. Efforts to address those upset have been very unsuccessful because any word to suggest that Native harvest of whales should be challenged is labeled racism (which it, by definition, is not).

There is way too much emotive baggage, way too little reflection on issues underlying our cultural prejudices. Tribalism is inherent in Homo sapiens… we are virtually hard wired to be tribal as that provided some selective benefit as we evolved from under the shadows of the thunder lizards , but now it will kill us all. The harvest of marine mammals is still (and will likely become more of) a widely debated ethical decision (much as has happened with respect to pigs) as no human will die of lack of whale meat. The question is one of cultural relativism. If I eat children should I be allowed to continue eating children? Really. Why shouldn’t I eat your child? Or just mash it up as a blood sacrifice to my gods (which, after all, is not atypical for Homo sapiens)? While Dean Swift was being ironic when he penned “A Modest Proposal”, the point he makes is still very poignant, and the taking of marine mammals is as close to the dominionism now infecting our political culture.

If Critter A is hungry and he wants to eat another critter, he will run into some issues eventually, and he develops a credo that allows him to eat some (but not all) other critters. That credo, based largely on belief, is a matter of faith. You eat pig because you believe the pig is dumb, or you have some divine authority, or other excuse that applies to pig, but not dog, horse, or people. Many Neolithic and tribal cultures invent a mythology that results in their belief that their prey gives themselves freely to predator. This is, as suggested above, no far reach from dominionism.

Arguing that a specific cultural approach to life is inappropriate is not necessarily racist (and I think is rarely so, though humans are particularly inventive when it comes to being stupid). I think Female Genital Mutilation is horrific, yet I have no real qualms about Male Genital Mutilation… imagine that! Such cultural prejudices are endemic to Homo sapiens. At core it is now essentially a matter of faith. With the clash of cultures, questions will be asked, and I think that is appropriate – that is what Montesquieu was talking about when he discussed commerce, and the claims of “historical accident”, “cultural artifact”, or “religious tenet” can, and eventually will,  wear thin.


Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. 1729. https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/modest.html

The Real Theft: taxation versus the volatization of money

Like other silly ideologies, libertarianism excels at creating slogans. Like libertarianism itself, slogans have the strength of an inflated balloon: there is an appearance of something solid but once the pin of logic is applied, what emerges is a lack of content.

One of the most common slogans of right-wing libertarians is the phrase “Taxation is theft.”

The phrase conveniently ignores the fact that in modern times what is allegedly being “stolen” isn’t private property to begin with. Neither is what is being allegedly “stolen” even real. More about that in a moment.

The phrase confirms the basic ignorance behind the purpose of taxation which isn’t to raise revenue. For that to happen, the government would have to charge the taxpayer interest on the money it created. What is the point of producing something for profit and loaning it out without charging a fee? If the government was engaged in that practice, we wouldn’t be talking about government taxation. We’d be talking about usury, an activity performed by every private commercial lending bank on the planet.

The purpose of taxation is to regulate aggregate demand. Since most people, (and we should assume most libertarians) are unfamiliar with the phrase let me put it another way.

When a government requests that each citizen provide a certain amount of a good or item each year, the effect is to create demand for that item. That item need not be money (which isn’t real to begin with). The item could be bananas, rubber, tin or diapers. If you think I’m mistaken consider the hut tax employed by the British in their African Colonies during the 19th century.

More importantly in modern times where tax is paid in currency (cash) the money that is being requested by the national treasury originated in the treasury in the first place. As the businessman and academic Warren Mosler succinctly puts it, “…the funds to pay taxes, from inception, come from government spending.”

Since the government issues the currency and requests that taxes be paid in that currency, the government has created a demand for that currency.

But why create the demand?

Because when there is a demand for an item, value for that item is created. In the case of money, demand for money creates a symbolic value for that currency. Taxation therefore is an intervention in the market-place for the public good.

And I say symbolic because as previously mentioned money is not real. It is a conscious agreement on measuring an abstract value. It can take many forms however the underlying value of money is determined by the abstract notion of trust. Here the history of Ireland provides a useful example.

In 1970 during a six month banker’s strike in Ireland where cash was in short supply, the Irish resolved the short term problem of cash-flow by creating their own currency. As journalist and historian Rutger Bregman notes the Irish:

… started issuing their own cash. After the bank closures, they continued writing checks to one another as usual, the only difference being that they could no longer be cashed at the bank. Instead, that other dealer in liquid assets – the Irish pub – stepped in to fill the void. At a time when the Irish still stopped for a pint at their local pub at least three times a week, everyone – and especially the bartender – had a pretty good idea who could be trusted. “The managers of these retail outlets and public houses had a high degree of information about their customers,” explains the economist Antoin Murphy. “One does not after all serve drink to someone for years without discovering something of his liquid resources.

In no time, people forged a radically decentralized monetary system with the country’s 11,000 pubs as its key nodes and basic trust as its underlying mechanism. By the time the banks finally reopened in November, the Irish had printed an incredible £5 billion in homemade currency. Some checks had been issued by companies, others were scribbled on the backs of cigar boxes, or even on toilet paper. According to historians, the reason the Irish were able to manage so well without banks was all down to social cohesion.

In essence what the Irish public did in 1970 is the same thing that governments do on a daily basis with banks: governments issue bonds which commercial banks lend to the public at interest, thus expanding the money supply. Taxation ensures a minimal level of demand for the currency, thus adding symbolic value to what is otherwise worthless paper. As a medium of exchange, money has value. However as the Irish demonstrated, it holds an abstract value.

Since money is neither a private good nor real, the argument that taxation is theft is nonsense. It is symptomatic of the poor health of a society when it starts believe that money is a concrete good. The result is cash hoarding and rent-seeking behaviours which undermine the practical value of money as a vehicle for meaningful investment in areas of the economy that promote growth. As economist and finance expert Rana Foroohar points out:

…only around 15% of the money flowing from financial institutions actually makes its way into business investment. The rest gets moved around a closed financial loop, via the buying and selling of existing assets, like real estate, stocks, and bonds.

In essence, most financial exchanges in the money markets are concerned with spinning paper to no practical use in the wider economy.

Like other narrow-minded ideologues, libertarians are either consciously or unconsciously blind to the greater injustice that occurs in the money markets: the volatilization of money.

For those unfamiliar with the term this occurs when a bank takes its customers (those who deposit money in their bank accounts) funds and uses them to invest in abstract assets like stocks bonds and real estate, while simultaneously avoiding investing those deposits (through loans) to the businesses that create concrete goods services and most importantly jobs.

As noted earlier, only fifteen percent of the money from financial institutions ever reaches the real economy. The rest is creamed off in dividends and interest – rent seeking – by the non-productive sectors of society.

Not only does this represent real theft but a wider violence towards society.

But that might not fit so well into a libertarian sound-bite.


Further Reading:

On Warren Mosler and money supply: http://moslereconomics.com/wp-content/powerpoints/7DIF.pdf

On taxation in Africa during the Colonial Period : https://global.oup.com/academic/product/taxing-colonial-africa-9780199661527?cc=ca&lang=en&

On Ireland:http://evonomics.com/why-garbage-men-should-earn-more-than-bankers/

On Investment: http://evonomics.com/financialization-hidden-

War, Korea and reality: an historical reflection

In my previous post “Reflections on War and Reality” I described how in the 20th century nationalist movements in South-east Asia used communism as a legitimizing philosophy. In particular Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Mao-Tze Tung of China interpreted Marxist philosophy in a manner that appealed to local nationalists thus garnering widespread popular support.

As a friend reminded me just before the article was published, Ho Chi Minh was well known to the United States and the West. He had implored the Big Four to recognize Vietnam’s right to self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Later he served as an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) during World War II. In the latter role he helped lead the anti-Japanese resistance in French Indochina. When the Allies refused to recognize Vietnamese demands for independence from France, Ho Chi Minh became the leader of a national resistance to colonial rule.

Ho’s story is worth revisiting since it contains parallels to a similar communist East Asian figure – one who like Ho would become a pariah in the eyes of the Western World. His name was Kim Il Sung and he would rise to become the first president of an independent North Korea.

Like Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung grew up in the shadow of imperialism. In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan. Kim’s parents were active in the anti-Japanese resistance but were forced to flee to Manchuria. There Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party and later joined the Communist guerillas in their fight against the invading Japanese Army. After a long and brutal campaign, Kim and some surviving guerillas fled to the Soviet Union. There Kim and his comrades were re-trained by the Red Army and Kim eventually rose to the rank of army major.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Kim returned to Korea and established the Korean People’s Army. With the support of China and the Soviet Union he took control over the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile South Korea became an independent entity led by the American trained and backed Syngman Rhee.

Both Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee were repressive strongmen backed by rival superpowers. Yet both men were representative of a broader Korean nationalism. Where they differed was how that ideology should be expressed and to what end: A worker’s dictatorship or a hierarchical capitalist oligarchy. Eventually, their differing visions led to all-out war between the North and South.

When a widespread insurgency against Rhee’s government broke out in the South in 1950, Kim saw an opportunity to untie the two Koreas. Initially the North possessed greater firepower and in a matter of months, they had conquered most of the peninsula. But for U.S. intervention, the North would have completely overrun the South. Instead, the U.S. President Truman sent an American Army commanded by the increasingly unstable Douglas MacArthur to Korea, supported by a multi-national force including British, Canadian and ANZAC troops operating under the auspices of the United Nations.

MacArthur and the UN Forces routed Kim’s armies, prompting China to intervene on behalf of North Korea. In turn the Chinese drove the American-led coalition back to the 38th Parallel, where a truce between the North and South was agreed. A full armistice between the two sides was delayed at first by an intransigent Syngman Rhee, who even went as far to say that should the US pressure South Korea into an armistice, he would order the UN and American Forces out of Korea so that the South’s armies could die fighting the enemy alone. Finally in July 1953, both sides laid down their arms.

However the stalemate at the 38th Parallel did not result in a peace treaty. Instead every morning since the armistice of July 27th 1953, officers from both the North and South meet in order to agree to another twenty four hour extension to the truce.

Relations between the two Koreas remained tense up until the 1990’s. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim proved more moderate than his father. In 1998 he initiated the Sunshine Policy intended to improve relations with the South. South Korean companies were allowed to bid on contracts in the North. A rail-service between the two states opened for the first time since the Korean War.

Relations with the West also improved. In an agreement with the Clinton Administration, North Korea agreed to curb its development of nuclear weapons. Relations between the Koreas, the US and China were on the path to normalcy. To help facilitate better relations, the US agreed to sell fuel oil and other commodities to the North.
However that agreement was never finalised. In 2000, US President George W Bush came to power bringing with him to the White House the Manichean world view of the neo-conservative lobby. Clinton’s agreement with Pyongyang was thrown out. In response North Korea resumed its pursuit of the nuclear bomb – and by 2006 it had procured it.

North Korea carried out four more nuclear tests between 2006 and 2016 and on each occasion the responses from its neighbors and the West were full of bellicose rhetoric. George W Bush described North Korea in silly terms. North Korea was part of the “axis of evil” he said and Richard Perle who served as on the Pentagon’s National Security Council regularly used the word “evil” when discussing North Korea with journalists. The hypocrisy of Perle, Rumsfeld and Cheney regarding the issue was striking considering neo-conservative connivance with dictators in the Middle East and Latin America under Reagan. As a Clinton Administration diplomat described the Bush Administration’s stance on North Korea, the Republicans didn’t have a policy on North Korea –they had an attitude.

The ideology of the Bush presidency trumped common-sense and objective reality when it came to North Korea’s actual nuclear capabilities. Eleven years after North Korea’s first nuclear test, Pyongyang hardly has an effective nuclear arsenal. What weapons it possesses are insignificant in number (perhaps a dozen) compared to those in the possession of the US and China (around 4000 and 600, respectively).

The drive behind North Korea’s quest for nuclear capability is motivated less by military considerations than simple economics and domestic politics. North Korea suffers from a shortage of energy and trade. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s she has also suffered chronic food shortages. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a loss of a vital trading partner. China’s development of her own extensive coal and oil reserves has lowered the demand for imports of North Korean coal. South Korea too has enjoyed an economic boom.
Compounding matters is Kim Jong Un’s unpopularity at home. He is the first North Korean President born after 1950 and cannot claim the same lofty status as his father and grandfather.

What a sensible observer in the period of the Sunshine Policy and beyond would have recognized was the opportunity help end Pyongyang’s isolation. They would also have acknowledged the late Kim Jong Il’s admiration for China’s modernization efforts and interpreted his pronouncements as an opportunity to assist North Korea with meaningful economic reforms. Trade between the North and South might have been encouraged and with that trade a normalization of relations between the two Koreas and an eventual peace treaty might have occurred.

But instead of a sensible, measured policy towards Pyongyang, the US offered ramped up militarism. Under Bush, American troops participated in war-games with Taiwan, annoying China and by extension alarming North Korea. Instead of diplomatic overtures, Bush and the neo-cons talked of “regime change.” Once again the Hermit Kingdom retreated into itself.
Under Barack Obama, a measure of sanity was restored to US-North Korean relations, yet the fundamental issues driving North Korea’s quest for nuclear power were ignored by the West. Kim Jong Il’s death brought his son Kim Jong Un to power and with him a hardened attitude towards the rest of the world.

Yet looking beyond the bluster of Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric a picture emerges of a rather insecure and immature man, unsure of his position and willing to engage in compensating behaviors such as military displays and absurd pronouncements regarding North Korea’s military power. Sensible diplomacy with this in mind would do wonders for relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors.

But as in 2000, 2016 has brought with it another missed opportunity in the form of US President Donald J. Trump. Like Kim Jong Un, Trump displays a narcissistic insecurity and a penchant for bellicose and silly rhetoric. Neither Trump nor his cabinet possess the necessary understanding of history or the tact to address North Korea’s issues or concerns about its own security.

Like the administration of George W Bush, Trump’s cabinet makes up for a lack of policy with a cavalier attitude. This was on display Friday April 14th when with typical vague bluster Trump stated to reporters “North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of.” On Fox Business News he said “We are sending an armada. Very powerful” and of Kim “He is doing the wrong thing. He’s making a big mistake.” Incapable of self-reflection, Trump clearly missed the irony of this last statement.

These statements also indicate the idiocy of current administration policy towards Pyongyang. Threatening pre-emptive action against North Korea in the event of further nuclear weapon’s tests ignores the reality of Pyongyang’s weakness as well as overestimating the extent of US military power to deliver on those threats. Much of North Korea’s military infrastructure was built underground in anticipation of enemy airstrikes. North Korea’s topography is mountainous and heavily forested providing additional protection against any “precision” aerial bombardment. Limited airstrikes against North Korea would accomplish little. Meanwhile, Pyongyang possesses enough conventional artillery to level most of the South Korean capital Seoul in a matter of minutes. Civilian casualties would be enormous in the event of that bombardment.

There is also China and its formidable military to consider, yet the White House has stated that it is prepared to act with its allies against North Korea without Chinese support.
Yet all of the above can be avoided once the past is considered and the meaning behind Kim’s rhetoric is understood. However despite decades of bluster from North Korea, Trump the reality TV president seems unable to differentiate talking tough from being tough and to comprehend North Korea’s actual economic and military reality. A truly strong and sensible leader would work to de-escalate tensions and seek a long term solution to East Asia’s security concerns. However Trump, himself a blusterer, is playing the role of president instead of behaving with common-sense.

The moral vacuum that is the Trump Administration was put on display earlier in the week when Syria was bombarded by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles and the largest conventional bomb in the US arsenal was detonated in Afghanistan.

Like Bush’s war-games with Taiwan in the early 2000’s the effect of these acts on Pyongyang has been considerable. In the face of an equally insecure and narcissistic American President, Kim Jong Un feels compelled to escalate his own silly self-serving behaviours. His planned nuclear test, intended to coincide with the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday, is a show of force to prove to the North Korean population that he is a strong leader and equal to his grandfather. Seen for what it really is the act while disreputable is insignificant in the broader international sense. However in the mind of an immature US President, Kim’s nonsense is something to be taken seriously.

There is an irony that both Trump and Kim Jong Un share an identical characteristic: they are both unpopular in their home nations and fearful of their political legitimacy.

Like that of Vietnam, Korean history has been shaped and scarred by attitudes both foreign and domestic. The Ancient Chinese believed Korea to be a disobedient child. The Japanese condescendingly viewed Koreans as their “little brothers”.  The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 was aggravated by Western attitudes towards communism and local animosities between Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee. The current crisis between the US and North Korea is based on a dangerous combination of ignorance, insensitivity and boorishness. Assuming that there is a de-escalation of tensions, those who will claim victory will be Trump and Kim Jong Un for standing firm.

Ho Chi Mihn – 1946

Yet the true victors of this grubby fiasco will be China for winning the diplomatic victory and holding the moral high ground, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe, an outspoken Japanese militarist will use the crisis to drum up support for rebuilding the Japanese military along Imperial lines. From there arises the potential for a case to be made for Japan to possess its own nuclear deterrent to counter both China and North Korea.
Since Japan’s economy is faltering and its population dropping, Abe’s resort to militarism is a logical step for an unimaginative character who has failed to address Japan’s economic woes. These failings will be glossed over by his stance towards North Korea: another example of a politician acting tough.

In the meantime, and until the latest crisis is resolved, the fate of millions hangs in the balance – assuming of course that the reality of their predicament is considered at all by our political leaders.

Reflections On War And Reality

Carl von Clausewitz, the author of On War witnessed the brutality of modern warfare. He was present at some of the most critical battles of the Napoleonic Wars and saw first-hand the carnage large groups of armed men and artillery can inflict on one another.

He fought on the side of the Russians at Borodino (1812) where approximately 80,000 men on both sides were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Clausewitz saw the horrific slaughter of French Infantry at the Raevsky Redoubt – a series of earthworks from which a rain of cannon and musket fire scythed down the advancing French troops in grim a precursor to the trench warfare later played out at disparate locations such as Sebastopol (1854-55),Cold Harbour (1864) and the Marne (1914). Later he fought at the lesser known but equally significant battle of Wavre where the Prussian Army blocked French reinforcements from joining Napoleon at Waterloo (1815).

On War, which was published after his death in 1832 is both a theoretical treatise on warfare and rational summary of Clausewitz’s experience of combat. Typically, as in the case of all great thinkers, later academics both military and non-military have misinterpreted or misunderstood Clausewitz in order to justify their various ideological agendas. His most famous aphorism that “war is a continuation of politics through other means” has been removed from its context and used to justify massive public spending on armaments.

Yet one of the most significant and relevant passages from On War is probably the least famous [italics are mine].

Wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situation which gives rise to them. The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgement that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

Here Clausewitz is talking about the reality of motivation for war rather than the ideological convictions behind those motivations and how that reality should shape the tactics for the successful completion of a war. A further extrapolation being that the resolution of any conflict is dependent on what is real not what its actors desire it to be.

Yet since the end of World War II both the public and western militaries have dwelt in a bubble of non-reality. Since the conclusion of World War II one thousand soldiers and five thousand civilians have been killed per day in regional wars across the world. This is approximately the same number of deaths per diem as during World War II.

There is a public disconnection between the perception of this ongoing death and destruction and the reality of why it is occurring. Part of the blame for this lies with the unofficial covert status of modern warfare as practiced by Western powers. At the time of writing, French troops are embroiled in Mali while American military advisers in Kenya are assisting Kenyan troops in an ongoing fight with Al-Shabbab in Somaliland.

At the same time, troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria with the backing of the American CIA and Britain are pursuing a war with Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding states.

In the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and the United States are locked in a dirty war in Yemen while to the north, Palestinian opposition to US-supported Israeli occupation continues its violent cycle, a conflict that has since 1948 spilled over into Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

The Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2011 has drawn outside forces into that conflict. There are parallels with the Syrian Civil War and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 in that outside powers are working to influence the outcome of that conflict. In Syria, Russian, American and Turkish forces and their proxies are vying for control of an area crucial to oil exports and regional trade.

In each of these cases, the root causes of each conflict are environmental and nationalist. Each of the countries listed has suffered from climate change, most notably Syria where a series of failed harvests and the failure of the Assad regime to address food shortages ignited the popular revolt that triggered the recent Civil War.

The nationalist aspects of each conflict are visible in the manifestos of the groups involved. The organisations have different names – ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Quaeda, Al-Shabbab- and while their Islamist principles have been made evident through their many pronouncements on social issues, these groups are at the core, nationalist movements. Just as communism served as a legitimising ideology for nationalist movements in China and Vietnam, and Korea in post-World War II era, Islamism is being used by nationalist groups in Africa and the Middle East to create a sense of philosophical legitimacy.

None of this is to condone the methods employed by ISIS and other groups. It is merely an effort to provide an accurate portrait of these groups that is untainted by the jingoistic descriptions emanating from the Western powers.

Moreover, when the situation is looked at without an ideological lens, what is apparent is that all of the above conflicts are connected. In each case, Western powers and their proxies are fighting to maintain control over regions containing strategic resources.

Leaving aside the dubious ethical reason for the fighting, the ideological convictions at play on all sides are rooted in fantasy. The United States claims to be fighting a war against “terrorism” and against Islamist forces that want to control the world. The reality is that the groups they are fighting are local nationalist movements with an Islamist philosophy. The reality of geopolitics is that even if a group like Al-Shabbab came to power in its locale, it would be limited by both physical geography and ethnic geography. The latter is of crucial importance.

Consider Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even at the height of its power, the Afghan Taliban only controlled eighty percent of the Afghan landmass. They were limited by topography and the ethnic divisions that coalesced around the Northern Alliance, including the Tajiks and the Pamiris.

Similarly, the Domino Theory behind French and US intervention in Vietnam did not stand up to reality when in 1979 the Vietnamese defeated the invading Chinese forces during the Third Indochina War. American assumptions that China would absorb Vietnam ignored the centuries of ethnic rivalries between the two powers that predated Western colonialism.

Regardless of the reader’s stance on the so-call War on Terror, any sensible resolution to the above conflicts can only occur when reality is acknowledged and accepted over ideological agendas. To do otherwise is to deny Clausewitz’s correct assertion that statesmen and commanders neither mistake this war for, nor try to turn it into, something alien to its nature.

Failure to acknowledge that reality will result in the geopolitical, military, economic and political defeat of the West.

There are many reasons why militaries (and the societies that produce them) fail to come to terms with reality and all of these are rooted in ideology. In the case of the United States there exists at a tactical level, an obsession with military technology and equipment. Yet as defeat in Vietnam attested, technology alone does not ensure victory.

Second, there exists a moral dimension to America’s failure to grasp military realities; that being the contradiction of spreading democracy and free markets by armed force. Like the Athenians of the Classical Era, there is a dishonesty at the core of American foreign policy that denies the brutality and larceny that occurs when its military is unleashed against a foreign population.

Third and of primary importance is a religious ideology at entirely at odds with reality. US support for Israel, while ostensibly serving as a pillar of regional control is rooted in a fundamentalist Christian belief that the Final Conflict between the Messiah and the Anti-Christ will occur in Israel. That this belief (best described by the term dispensationalism) is not derived from the Gospel but from the Book of Revelations, – which in itself is derived from the pre-Christian Book of Daniel – and has no basis in physical reality is beside the point. The fact is believers in such abstract nonsense have influenced Western policy towards the Middle East for the last two hundred years. Most notably in the twentieth century was Prime Minister Lloyd George and his colleague Lord Balfour from whose foreign policy helped create the modern state of Israel. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair subscribed to dispensationalism and those beliefs influenced his determination to draw Britain into Gulf War II.

In the United States, dispensationalists have included former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. Donald Trump’s current energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry is a member of the Dominionist Church, a militant Christian grouping that seeks to set-up a Christian nation governed by biblical law. A planned consequence of this would be the criminalization of homosexuality, adultery and public blasphemy to name but a few “biblical crimes”, all of which would carry a death sentence.

That such beliefs are predicated on abstract nonsense does not diminish the fact that these beliefs have profoundly influenced American foreign and domestic policy since the end of World War II. In turn, these beliefs have hindered effective foreign and domestic policy during the same time period. The hardline Anti-Soviet stance adopted by the Christian Right helped precipitate the Cold War.

The dispensationalist support for “regime change” in the Middle East has cost the lives of millions of people and bankrupted the US treasury. These beliefs have had a deleterious effect on the effectiveness of the US military in foreign operations. The US military operates under the illusion that it is a crusading force for good, rather than an occupying army. The inability of US forces to handle the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was evident in its conduct towards civilians, its many war-crimes (Abu Ghraib being the most notorious) and the contrasting success of British forces operating in Basra.

Before these issues can be addressed, there first needs to be a widespread acknowledgement of reality among the citizenry. A capable president with the backing of popular support could do much to deal with these problems. Doing so would not be easy and it would require a great deal of personal courage. However, these issues are not insurmountable. Precedent can be found with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Faced with opposition to the policy of Glasnost and Détente with the US in the 1980’s Gorbachev was able to outmaneuver his critics and his own generals. After Mathias Rust flew his plane over Red Square, Gorbachev used the incident to marginalise the army generals who opposed his reform policies. The result for the world was the aversion of nuclear conflict with the US and the end of the Cold War.

War is as Plato noted, a reality “that exists as if by nature between every city-state.” However a constant state of war as exists in the Western World today undermines the foundations of civilisation. Wars, then while an occasional and unpleasant necessity should therefore be ended as quickly as possible. Instead, the dominant ideologies behind modern Western militarism persist in perpetuating unlimited, endless warfare. These forces must be stopped and controlled through democratic means otherwise they will continue to undermine the moral and economic well-being of society.

Carl von Clausewitz

Doing so will not be easy. The journalist Chris Hedges compared war to an addictive drug and like addicts western militarists are unable to perceive the damage they are doing to society. There is no easy solution to that addiction but the first step is the acceptance of reality. That requires an informed citizenry rejecting the nonsensical views of ideologues like Karl Rove who once said of the Republican Party “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Regardless of the cognitive dissonance of Rove and others, the most important lesson of war was best stated by Sun-Tzu: There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.