Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clearing Up A Few Common Misconceptions About the Arab Spring

Much is made, in both the media and in the halls of academia, of the so-called “Arab Spring.” As usual, most of it is self-congratulatory hot air. Let us review.

The nations in which the Arab Spring has occurred have for decades stood in a fake opposition to the West, defined here as those states in which consumer capitalism is most highly developed. While in the West, the population has been kept under control by the latex paradise of consumer goods, the nations of the "Arab Spring," like the USSR, Maoist China, and countless miniature hellscapes run by various autocrats, have been traditionally unable to offer such indulgences to the fearful, offering instead only the comfort of sheer ideology – identification with a Leader or a religion, for instance. These states have found their role to play in the worldwide economic shit parade, usually in flipping the bird from the sidewalk while the rich kids sneer at them from the floats, each finding its own legitimacy in the false choice represented by the other. Internally, the stunted development of these economies means the state must ultimately rely on brute force to keep their populations in line. As the economy of the “First World” expands, pushing with irresistible force against the thin, porous walls on its boundaries, such “Third World” nations must either play ball with the First or shrivel up in the cold wind of total exclusion. Those that choose the former, such as Mubarak’s Egypt, find security as a client state for more powerful economies, doing their dirty work and generally serving as a bogeyman, while those of less strategic geopolitical importance are made to bed down with organizations like the IMF, that Don Fanucci of the global economy. For those that choose that latter, such as Gaddafi’s Libya, it is only a matter of time before their own backwardness transforms the hallucinatory image of economic prosperity and "freedoms" of the West into the ultimate commodity for a worn down population - revolution. Except it’s not revolution, not really, but its consumable image, and one that stirs up the passion for all the others.

As for us, when those in the news media, those carnival barkers for the powerful, start yapping their fool heads off about the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East, this alone should raise the suspicion of any thinking person. Like an open carbuncle on the ass of a well-dressed gentleman, the question nags: what are they fighting for, exactly?

We all should unconditionally support a true, radical emancipatory spirit where we see it, but it is precisely the desire to see it where it doesn’t exist that has led popular movements down the garden path time and again, as the history of the Twentieth Century illustrates. A revolution, if this is how we are to consider these events, fails as soon as it squanders its moment by agreeing to terms with the society it is attempting to dismantle. In essence, the Arab movement is a mass demand for reforms, which may or may not lead to modest improvements in the conditions of everyday life – but its ridiculous to claim there is a radical emancipatory spirit at their core. Indeed, it is entirely silly, not to mention narcissistic, to laud such events as revolutions if their desired outcome is supposedly to have a society more like “ours” – though, let’s face it, this may be the source of Western enthusiasm for the Arab Spring in the first place… and you don’t need to get too close to catch a whiff of the cow pie. (We only really respect the “difference” if the Other is just like us.)

Thus far, this has been the case in Egypt. And the general consensus is that the best-case scenario in that once-great civilization will be the establishment of the kind of bourgeois-liberal democracy, gussied up in empty rhetoric of “multicultural pluralism,” which in the West is crumbling so quickly under the crushing weight of economic pragmatism that it can be had dirt-cheap. Sure, basic conditions of existence are better in, say, the US than Mubarak’s Egypt, but we cannot understand a revolutionary tide in terms of what is preferable over what is desirable. Having yet to assert itself incisively, meaning a total refusal of compromise with existing authority, and without any sign of that happening in the near future, the movement of Tahrir Square has thus far been brought back under the sway the state, which endured by shedding Mubarak, remaining otherwise intact. In point of fact, has reinforced its power by incorporating the demand for “democratic reforms,” but on its own terms. Like BP ousting Tony Hayward after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the Egyptian state solved its image problem by giving itself a makeover.

The situation in Libya is somewhat different, of course, but not fundamentally. Whatever new government takes control in Tripoli will face the same choice: submit or suffer, either to the Euro-American hegemon – or, should the reining champ go down, whatever country comes closest to perfecting the Holy Alliance between state and economic power, and at this point the smart money is on China.

These “revolutions” do not take place in a vacuum: they are outbursts within the hierarchically structured world of sanctified power-through-capital. Although currently in crisis where it has traditionally been the strongest, it is not going anywhere into the foreseeable future. Whatever governments rise to power will emerge from their revolutionary punch-drunkenness into the same old system of capital that has built the world in its image and which, as class societies based on wage labor, are by necessity predicated on domination – and it is this world into which these new states will be integrated.  Herein lies the unity between these two societies, one in revolt and in the other in crisis: both are struggling to find better ways of operating the machinery of capital. No one seriously sees in the Arab Spring a refusal of the domination and degradation of life under the integrated state-economy that has ordered the globe – rather, they seek to improve its management on the local level, to participate more “equitably,” which is to say, to get a little more back for their trouble. In this sense, it is simply a quest for modernization of an old system that faces no serious challenges. What they’re fighting for, and what they will in fact be lucky to receive considering the realistic alternatives, is a kinder, gentler form of domination – a velvet glove on the iron fist.

Meanwhile, the postmodern-liberal academics can pat themselves on the back that the poor oppressed people of whatever country they didn’t care about until a couple of months ago rose up to overthrow their governments in order to establish the system they’ve been implicitly defending. Secretly satisfied that they were on the right side of the history they had made careers questioning the existence of, the liberal bourgeois democracy they’ve legitimized by turning critical theory against itself has apparently finally won out.

As China perfects the kind of authoritarian consumerism that will be the result in the United States and Europe of the ongoing “financial crisis,” the nations of the Arab Spring are indeed poised to reclaim their subservient role in this brave old world. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Abominable Season: Remembering 9/11 Ten Years Later

-Mike Ferraro

And of course this week the posts come pouring in. You people make me sick with your pep talk tributes and jingoistic profile pictures commemorating those twin dildos of American enterprise that once blighted the New York City sky.

And forget about your tear-jerking ‘morning of’ anecdotes, full of empty slogans and Hallmark sentimentality. Is there not an ounce of imagination among you? How about a braincell? Rest assured, what you lack in imagination you make up tenfold in slavish compliance and obsequity.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. It is after all a sensitive subject. And besides, conformity’s the only game in town, right?

Yet I stand firm in my pronouncements.

Let’s get one thing clear, panegyrists: Unless you were one of the chosen stuck in an incinerator of shattering steel and exploding flesh, who the fuck cares where you were the morning of 9/11? And even then, who gives a shit anyway, really?

And since we’re sharing ourselves so completely this abominable season, you want to know where I was that fateful morning? In bed, dead asleep. That’s right, our great national crisis and I slept right through it. Until the phone rang that is. My mother, calling to report that the Pentagon was on fire. (Her exact words, I remember. How could I forget them?) Then: How was I? Was I OK, was I safe?

And how did I respond to this news? I told her not to worry, that I was fine, and put the receiver down. Then I laughed my ass off, rolled over, and went back to bed.

It’s OK, I can say such things. See, my father worked on the 88th floor of both towers during their construction, when they were just scaffolding swaying in the wind. He’s a plumber, and a good one too, but quit the job after a few weeks because of the height. Since then he’s always felt a connection to those buildings. Nearly thirty years later, as a plumbing supervisor for the Newark Board of Education, my father watched his beloved towers burn and eventually collapse on his way to work.

Does this sketch lend my voice a more sympathetic note, does it somehow authenticate my perspective? Is the acerbity of my earlier remarks tempered by this knowledge that my father saw the towers go up and watched them come down, an entire landscape--both emotional and physical--displaced along the way, the measure of a man and his life hijacked in the span of a few hours?

Yet none of this changes the fundamental reality of our situation. Let’s not mince words: Don’t cry to me about the great tragedy of 9/11, how we'll never forget the events and inestimable loss of that terrible day. Don't tell me that everything’s changed. Get the shit outta your ears: Nothing’s changed, suckers. Unless, of course, you count the endless war profiteering, unparalleled national deficit and expenditures, and erosion of civil liberties racked up since that day, all of which were on the table long before the time of great tragedy struck. 9/11 was no catalyst--it was merely the excuse proffered to implement the dirty deeds of the corporate technocrats and militarists. It was, as they say in Washington, bizness as usual.

Such long term plans for global hegemony go back at least as far as World War II. That said, as cursorily reported by the least cowed members of the lapdog press, what we have in the latest US invasion of Iraq is something more primordial, and therefore more relatable: namely, a good old-fashioned blood feud. According to this theory, W’s ousting of our old ally Saddam was payback for Saddam’s bungled hit on pappy, itself an act of retribution for Gulf War I. Seen in this light, as flagrantly irresponsible and wrong-headed as it is, at least this war policy connects on a visceral level, which is more than can be said for the rest of W’s presidency.

If such tantrums seem like the pathological behavior of a spoiled, petulant child, that’s because they are. An unmitigated disaster politically and policy-wise--expanding with a vengeance Reagan’s abysmal borrow and spend legacy--W was, as far as zeitgeist barometers go, the best president around; the one we, as a nation, unequivocally deserved. The figure this president cut required no metaphoric gloss or interpretation outside the obvious--the caricatures themselves more than sufficed. Embodying in thought and action the US’s interests and stature in the world, here was a walking, talking, dick swinging horror show, a most unholy mix come terrifyingly to life: part cowboy gone off the range, part superhuman bully, rolled into one inarticulate, bumbling, coke-snortin-til-he-became-saved trust fund baby. Shit, he’s not even a real goddamn cowboy. In short, W was the kind of incorrigible frat boy we would most like to have a beer with, to invoke some idiot pollster’s enduring election time conceit. With one glaring exception of course: this fun-lovin’ joker’s loosey-goosey antics had dire consequences for an inestimable number of people the world over, of which the final toll and magnitude of suffering have yet to be realized.

Myself, I remember waking up the morning after the 2004 presidential election feeling violated. Not that I needed further corroboration on this front, I understood clearly, and not for the first time, that the system was hopelessly and irredeemably fucked, and that baring a full blown miracle we were all doomed. I mean, it’s not like Kerry was even warm shit in comparison to W’s cold. But what could you do?--those were the choices, little more than simple, indistinct variations on a theme. This then was the measure of our America: Elections were meaningless charades, our democracy a fraud and piss poor decoy for the thing it purported to be. Were things ever any different? If so, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that time now.

These were not completely demoralizing and unsatisfactory realizations however. They were, in fact, deeply liberating. For example, that morning I knew I’d never vote again. And I haven’t. Like a newly baptized AA member, I'm proud to say the urge to take another hit of the old Jesus juice never once returned--black president be damned.

Yet such sentiments are commonplace, and the knowledge of the transgressions of government power passe, to the point of both seeming hopelessly irrelevant. What is clear, however, is that in an age where the public dwells in a ‘post-ironic’ fugue--where the incontestable assumption that the emperor has no clothes is a foregone conclusion, as the lack of surprise or even outrage over the Wiki-leaks scandal illustrates--this deep cynicism serves to further re-inscribe the values and practices of our broke and downward spiraling system. And in turn such blind acceptance and complete desensitized tolerance of the status quo work to condone these routine and egregious abuses of power and the overall functioning of a toxic and perennially mismanaged system. In this way, then, and in a manner unlike any before thanks to the over-saturation of information through digital media platforms, we are all unanimously complicit in the principal objective and operation of everyday life, namely the sanctification of power through capital.

In this respect no one is off the hook. Ten years ago today, for the first time in recent memory, the bully got punched back. To ignore this obvious reality embraces a total ignorance of historical fact.

Doesn't matter if it was ten years ago or ten minutes--as long as people are fighting for basic survival under the iron-fisted rule of capital, the real tragedy is happening the same place it always has: out in the streets.

Yes, it’s all happening right outside your window, whether you choose to admit it or not. Take a good look sometime if you don't believe me. Or better yet, go to the mirror. Open your fucking eyes and look carefully. Think about what the fuck it is that is making you so fucking miserable. Can you still see that view outside your window? Good. Look back and forth between mirror and street as needed to make the necessary connections, till it registers what the fuck the problem really is. Stare in the face, if just this once, the things that are making you so miserable and alienated and be done with it. Be honest with yourself. For once in your miserable fucking life.

And today instead of crying over the dead in sanctimonious and false eulogy, why don’t you go out and live a little while you still can? It’s the only honorable thing to do, the only decent commemoration of the dead to be made on this solemn day or any other.
Take heed: For once I know what the fuck I’m talking about. Do you?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Reichstag Is Still Burning: 9/11 and the Conspiracy Theory of History

“… we live and die at the confluence of innumerable mysteries.” 
-Guy Debord

The intervening decade since 9/11 certainly lends credence to the air conspiracy surrounding those events. Before the dust had settled and dead were buried, and without any of the usual pretense to debate, the federal government, through legislation such as the Patriot Act, empowered itself to strip any person of their “civil liberties,” a quaint term indeed in these times, and invested law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels with Stasi-like authority. President Bush assumed emergency powers, declaring a permanent state of emergency that made the exception to the law the rule of law, and reserved the right to freely monitor the citizenry while stripping “detainees” from around the globe of their very status as humans beings in the grotesque carnivals of Abu Grahib and Guantánamo Bay, and in the process rendered the distinction between war and peace impossible, becoming the closest the world has seen in to a modern day sovereign. Two wars were launched in areas of the globe most hostile of American interests and which also hold the largest and most important reserves of fossil fuels, the very fuel of the economy, in what turned out to be a hare-brained attempt to control those regions and by extension the world. Of course, defense contractors and investment firms of all stripes made an absolute killing in the process. Meanwhile, we the bewildered herd clung to cheap sentiment, feigned outrage, and showed our resolve by merchandising in the face of tragedy, with all the FDNY/NYPD hats, t-shirts and bumper stickers you can imagine. The government was assured of no pesky pushback from the masses.

No one disputes these facts, they only attempt to apologize for or justify them to varying degrees. These explanations and justifications need not be reasonable if they are the only ones on offer. Considering these events, if you don’t view the events of 9/11 with a certain skepticism, you might indeed be the one who is crazy.

And it would be far from the first time this had happened. On February 27, 1933, four weeks after Hitler had become Chancellor, Marinus van der Lubbe, a mentally unstable bricklayer and council communist from the Netherlands, was arrested for setting fire to the Reichstag, the parliament building of the German government in Berlin. Hitler subsequently assumed emergency powers, suspended civil liberties and crushed the left opposition to the Nazis. The circumstances surrounding this event remain murky, but no one seriously believes van der Lubbe simply acted alone.

In 1978, Italian politician Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades at a time when communist and anarchist groups were gaining ground politically in Italy. After the events, as the state was able to justify stricter control measures, this radical high tide broke and receded. Years later, the findings of the Italian government itself would find that the Brigades had been manipulated in some way by a faction within the state apparatus.

The 1990s saw the emergence of anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements throughout the world, culminating in the 1999 Seattle riots, which shook the assumptions of the final victory of American capitalism around the world after the fall of the USSR. In this case, the actual deficiencies of this movement are irrelevant – all that matters is how they would have been perceived by the state. Two years later, the specter of terrorism not only made the US appear as a paradise in comparison to the seeming chaos outside its borders, but it also dramatically increased the already incredible power and influence of that state. Any nascent left-wing movement was thoroughly trounced and is still in absentia: the 2008 “financial crisis” created as ripe conditions for revolution as most of us have seen in our lifetime and without so much as a peep from any group that might seriously challenge to the normal state of affairs. And in this sense, the state capitalized on terrorism as a kind of preemptive counter-revolution.

The "conspiracy theory of history" may have at once been a ridiculous belief, but the times have breathed new life into it. The “9/11 Truth movement” itself, however, focuses on what we might call “Wile E. Coyote” logic in its obsession with physics: how come a plane crashing into the Pentagon doesn’t leave plane-shaped hole in the building, like a cartoon character running through a doorway? Indeed, they act like such belligerent buffoons and make such obviously spurious claims that it is impossible to take them seriously. And since anyone who questions the events associated with 9/11 is lumped in with them, its as though they themselves serve as unwitting disinformation agents. These dupes ultimately reinforce the legitimacy of the very government they allege to question, and the fantasy they cling to is one in which bad people do bad things who must be punished, just like in the movies. They see only people, not systems. But the ease with which they manipulate and conceal information ultimately demonstrates their fundamental unity with the world of the global spectacle.

Indeed, so many groups – from terrorist organizations to the most repressive regimes on the planet – took advantage of the events of 9/11 that the most basic question we could ask - “cui bono?” - becomes utterly meaningless. Who is the prime suspect when everyone benefits? (Everyone in power, that is.)

As Malcolm X, that voice we so desperately need in these ominous times, would have been compelled to reiterate had he lived, 9/11 was indeed a case of the chickens coming home to roost. But the power of the state was ultimately reinforced and expanded. The American government may have had its nose bloodied, but when the bully becomes the victim, he is freer than ever to do as he pleases. And the insignificant masses of this world are ground into dust more easily and more quickly than ever before.