Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is Gun Control Debate Missing The Point?

The brutal and tragic killing of 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado has raised the thorny issue of gun control in an election year. Not surprisingly both Obama and Romney, fearful of being targeted the politically powerful National Rifle Association have dodged the issue and stated that they are committed to defending the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear arm. For or against gun control has become the central focus of the political debate.

But what if the entire debate is, in part, besides the point? Don't get me wrong, the American obsession with owning M-16s and Uzis is a clear signpost that America is a sick society. The fact that it is easier to get guns than it is to get decent healthcare or to organize a union is also a symbol of America's bizarro world priorities. And it is those priorities that ought to be interrogated because they are ultimately at the root of America's gun crime world record.

First, the idea that mass killers - or even just run of the mill murderers - are the result of gun availability or not misses the underlying point: why do so many Americans solve their problems with weapons? I mean, why would a guy who had a bright future, like James Holmes, do such a thing? Why would high school students show up to school and shoot their fellow students? Let's try to pick this apart.

There's an element of chickens coming home to roost in all of this - obviously not that any of the victims deserved what they got but rather that America valorizes violence in its foreign and domestic policy and, as a reflection of that, in its popular culture. The US spends more on the military than the next ten biggest military spenders combined. They spend as much on the military as on education and sixty percent more on the military than on welfare. America holds its pre-eminent place in the world order, as the empire that rules other empires, by use of that enormous military might. It propped up the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak by supplying weapons and money for weapons. It sells plentiful weapons to Saudi Arabia that are used, in part, to suppress their own population. The lion's share of aid to Israel is also in the form of military equipment. In fact, America is the world's largest supplier of weapons used in global conflicts.

Given the importance of weapons to the US political and economic system it's no surprise that the foreign policy response of the USA involves violence or the threat of violence. After 9/11 the first response of America wasn't to examine why they were targeted, it was rather to organize a war... against two countries that weren't responsible for the 9/11 attack, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, America has invaded more countries and overthrown more foreign government than any nation in history.

At home the response to social problems and social movements is also profoundly influenced by the role of violence. From the violent repression of the Black Panthers in the 1970s to the police brutality by leading NYPD officers that brought the Occupy Wall Street movement to national attention, violence is the go-to response to political movements. It's no surprise that America incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country on the planet. Punishment for deviancy is a core American value.

And this dependency on violence to maintain America's dominant position in the world order can't but help find its expression in popular culture. Of the top ten highest grossing films of 2011at least eight have plots that revolve around violence, or in which the problems of the lead character are solved through violence. I'm no prude and I like a good action movie; this isn't about judging people's personal tastes but rather making the point that American society is steeped in violence.

But it doesn't end with valorizing violence. That valorization itself is rooted in the fact that America is the most unequal society on the planet. America NEEDS violence to sustain that inequality - that and a stiflingly conservative and narrow ideology that labels anyone who disagrees with the main tenets of US foreign or domestic policy (never mind challenging the dominance of the market) as "UnAmerican." In part because social and political responses to inequality are shut down, the frustration that working people feel is often channeled into interpersonal violence, both verbal and physical. Secondly, the inequality and repressive laws, for instance around drugs, lead many poor people into a life of crime, understanding that "crime" is itself defined by those with power. It's OK to steal the homes and livelihoods of millions of ordinary workers (in fact, you will be rewarded with a bailout when the pyramid scheme comes crashing down). But if you sell a bag of weed or crack cocaine you will spend some serious time in jail. When people are defined as living outside the law they are the subject of violence, both by state institutions like the police and prison system, and from outlaw gangs who compete through violence as a side effect of their outlaw status.

Finally, the military and repressive priorities of the US federal and state governments and the lack of a comprehensive and universal health care system, austerity to social programs at the state level, etc. means that deeply disturbed people are on their own. The destruction of any institutions of social solidarity - outside of the family, which lacks the training and resources to tackle mental health issues - means that someone as deranged as James Holmes is left to fend for himself. He had more opportunity to purchase guns and ammunition online than he did to receive treatment. If the money spent on the US military were instead spent on a comprehensive network of support services - from welfare to mental health services and more - it would be less likely that someone like James Holmes would fall through the cracks. And it would also create a paradigm shift in some of the dominant values of American society, making it less likely that his mental derangement would lead him towards violence.

Gun control? Sure. But it's time to talk about the sickness at the heart of American society that is at root - not least because that is exactly the model which Harper's conservatives would have us emulate here in Canada.

Obama, Romney back gun owners as they decry shootings - The Globe and Mail:

'via Blog this'

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spain & The Madness of Europe

There's a saying that defines madness as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. By that criteria, it's clear that the European Union's response to the long and painful crisis unfolding on that continent is utterly and completely mad.

With the appearance a few years ago of a Greek sovereign crisis - it must be said for debt levels that weren't much higher than those of the USA - the alpha and omega of the EU's response has been to demand austerity. There's two things to be said for Greek austerity. The first is that Greece's difficulties - condemned by German politicians and capitalists as being the result of greedy workers living the high life - is actually the result of the fact that the Euro is too high given the level of development of the Greek economy. On the other hand, the downward pressure that Greek underdevelopment exerted on the EU had the effect of boosting German exports. Not only did German capitalism sell abroad, it also colonized the European economy, competing on an equal footing with unequally developed economies, like those of Portugal and Greece. So, German finger-wagging is utter hypocrisy. The greasy Euro notes that line the pockets of German capitalists were squeezed out of the pockets of Greek and Portuguese workers.

But the second thing that must be said about austerity is this: it doesn't work. As Larry Elliott notes in today's Guardian:

"The lesson from Greece is absolutely clear: slashing spending and increasing taxes when an economy is in free fall leads to higher, not lower, levels of debt. Spain is following Greece down the vicious spiral that starts with weak growth and rising unemployment and ends with expensive bail outs that do more harm than good."
And therein also lies the madness. Having haughtily and with much chest-thumping bravado, utterly destroyed the Greek economy, these idiots are now proceeding to perform the same savage surgery on the Spanish economy. But if the Greek economy represents merely cutting off an EU earlobe, the Spanish economy - the fourth largest in the EU - is like losing an arm or a leg. Such a large wound won't cauterize itself and Europe could easily bleed out with Italy following Spain down the path to ruin. European capitalists, again, led by the Germans, remind me nothing so much as a medieval leech, who cures the patient by killing them. The only hope for both Greece & Spain is that the revolt of the masses, still on a simmer in Greece and heading for a boil in Spain with demonstrations last week involving millions, forces the ruling class of Europe to give up on austerity as a strategy. The long term hope is that the masses kick out the ruling class of Europe and run the continent in the interests of the people who do the work, not the parasitic bankers and bond traders who brought the continent to this pass in the first place.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Mayor Ford Is Mad. Mean Mad. And, Oh Yeah, A Racist.

I'm mad, really mad!

Mayor Ford wants to clarify his comments from the other day, following the tragic shooting in Scarborough. Here's what he said at the time:
Asked how he planned to force gangsters out of Toronto, Mr. Ford said: “I don’t know and that’s what I’m going to sit down with the prime minister and find out: how our immigration laws work. Obviously I have an idea. But whatever I can do to get them out of the city I’m going to, regardless of whether they have family or friends, I don’t want these people, if they’re convicted of a gun crime, to have anything to do with the City of Toronto.”
But, we got it all wrong see. He's not anti-immigrant. He's just mad. Darn mad. Mean mad. Muley mean mad, in fact. And he's not gonna take it any more. In fact, he's so made that when he tried to explain what he really meant, he didn't make a damn bit of sense.
Maybe I’m not an expert on, you know, the ministries, but I’m saying that if it’s foreign affairs or immigration and citizenship, I want to talk to the PMO to find out if we can – and maybe we can’t. But I’m just trying to clarify that if you’re caught with a gun and convicted of a gun crime, I do not want you living in this city any more. To find out that information you have to go through the PMO, and that’s what I’m doing. So, I’m not an expert in this but I’m trying to resolve the issue that’s at hand.
I'm open to all translations of this backpeddling, mealy-mouthed gobbledygook. However, what it sounds like to me is the following: "What I really think is that immigrants are responsible for gun crime but I can't say it so I'm going to try and say it without saying so that my supporters know that I agree with them that it's the immigrants but people who aren't my supporters - like those jerks at the Toronto Star - can't say that I'm saying what I'm really saying, which is that it's the immigrants."

What he ought to mention is that he voted against multiple gang prevention initiatives. He'd rather stir up racism and fill up the jails with alienated, poverty-stricken youth than deal with the real source of the problem. As city councillor Adam Vaughn notes, that just won't do:
“If all we’re going to talk about is more jails, and building more jails, and not better housing, and building better housing,” Vaughan said. “The cutting has got to stop, because the cutting is contributing to the problem.”
Ford can spin his racism any way he likes and he can try the "I'm just too stupid to really understand the meaning of what I'm saying" escape route. But he stands exposed - again - for what he is: a small-minded bigot.

Toronto Mayor Ford clarifies his comments on gun criminals and immigration - The Globe and Mail:

'via Blog this'

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Syrian Endgame: Bye Bye Bashar?

Who won't celebrate the (probably nasty) end of Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria? This is a regime that has suppressed pretty much all forms of internal dissent and democratic participation and ruled with an iron fist for the better part of the last 40 years. There are no independent trade unions, no independent media. There are secret police, pro-regime militias ready to kill all opponents and torture chambers aplenty. When last there was a revolt against this stifling regime, in Hama in 1981, it ended with the regime bombarding the civilian population, killing somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people.

This is a vile regime that deserves to be sent to the ashcan of history. And the sooner the better. Luckily, it looks like that day is growing closer with the present offensive by rebel forces in Damascus and elsewhere, following the spectacularly successful operation against the Syrian cabinet that left the Defense Minister, Deputy Defense Minister (and Assad's brother-in-law), Assistant Vice President and Minister of the Interior dead (and celebrations in the streets). But it has been (and will continue to be for some time) a hard and blood struggle. Back in February I compared the Egyptian and Syrian revolution and wrote the following:
In Syria, [as opposed to Egypt, the] process of "gestation" only really began a year ago with the first protests against Assad's regime. Of course there have been struggles and uprisings in the past - most notoriously the uprising in Hama in 1982 that led to a massacre of somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people. There are opposition movements and parties as well. But the brutal suppression in Hama led to decades of quiet relative to Egypt where there was no comparable massacre (though there was certainly repression, torture and even extra-judicial killings). There is also an important component that is a side effect of the pressure of imperialism and Zionism on Syria. Syria is a "pariah state", which doesn't tell us anything about its character - democratic, liberal, or authoritarian - only that it doesn't bend its knee with suitable rapidity to American whims and Israeli bullying. That pressure - just as in Cuba, Iran or other countries that have historically resisted US imperialism - creates pressure for a "union of necessity" amongst progressive and nationalist forces. The present movement has to therefore achieve the first condition of Lenin's formula - the undermining of the unity of the ruling class - as well as uniting the broadest section of the population against the dictatorship of Assad, undermining the idea of there being any union of necessity with the Assad regime in order to resist imperialism. It seems that this is beginning to take place and even to gather steam as the incredibly brave Syrian people continue to broaden and deepen their revolution in the face of regime brutality. It is likely, then, that when Assad finally goes out the revolution will begin in an entirely different place, with much deeper networks of revolutionary mobilization than in Egypt (though the exact character of those networks, their connection to the workplaces, their political program for the democratic development of the nation, etc. remains to be seen).

In the seven months since I wrote those words the process of regime decomposition - measured by a loss of cohesion, growing defections from the lowest to the highest levels of the state machine - has proceeded apace. As well, the revolutionary leadership and movement also seems to have matured, both in terms of organization and politics. For several months the Syrian National Council, darlings of the west, were able to use the prestige of their international supporters to make ideological inroads into the movement. But the growing confidence of the revolution inside Syria (where the SNC has little presence), combined with the craven careerism of the SNC's leading figures and willingness to go cap in hand to the USA and Europe in return for foreign intervention, undermined their base inside the country. The recent conference in Doha of SNC types was marred by literal brawling and was boycotted by the Free Syrian Army and the Local Coordination Committees, which provide the political and military leadership on the ground. There are no longer any calls for foreign military intervention - the revolution feels its own strength and doesn't feel the need for it any longer.

Will the Syrian revolution win? Will the present offensive lead to the collapse of the regime? Who's to say but there can be no doubt that the uprising has matured and is making every effort to storm the heavens. Even if they don't bring down the regime this time or with this push into Damascus, Syrian Ba'athism will be forever changed, its prestige damaged, its state weakened.

There are those on the left who are blinded by the Assad regime's putative anti-imperialism and "progressive" character. Others who can't see past the fact that the Americans (contra the Russians) are saying things in support of the opposition - or, rather, saying things against Assad w/o supporting the opposition within Syria. Or the fact that the sectarian Gulf monarchies want to see the overthrow of a Shiite dominated regime that has been a thorn in their side. These leftists draw the conclusion that to support the revolution in Syria (or to be making a revolution in Syria) is to be "objectively" in league with imperialism. Of course, the old "objectively" tag was always used by Stalinists to smear opponents of their crappy politics and there is no shortage of that type of politic floating around the left, sadly. But it is worth answering the claim here in brief.

First off, there has never been a modern revolt in which imperialism has not tried to turn it to its advantage. The German Kaiser tried to aid the Irish rebellion against British rule. Did that make the Irish rebellion not worth supporting? Germany sent Lenin and other leading Russian revolutionaries back to Russia through its territories in the hopes of weakening their World War One enemy. The classic film Lawrence of Arabia is precisely about the British using the just discontent amongst the Arab population to help defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War One and replace it with their own, which was then overthrown by the anti-colonial revolts that were supported by the Soviet empire as it tried to weaken their American/British competitors in the region. Imperialism is always maneuvering to its advantage.

Does anyone really think that the Russians give a damn about Syrian self-determination - rather than their strategically important Mediterranean naval base in Syria (the only presence that Moscow has in the Middle East)? Or that the Americans care about democracy - as they back the Saudi suppression of the movement in Bahrain?

Whoever thinks that revolutions should wait until the moment in time when imperialism won't try to take advantage of their revolt is telling the oppressed to wait till the Kingdom of Heaven arrives on earth. It will never happen this side of the worldwide destruction of imperialism.

To be frankly honest, I think that half of the problem - besides the nostalgia for a "progressive state" like the former Soviet Union (cough, cough, Gulags, cough cough) - is that the left is infected with xenophobia and Islamophobia. The Syrian revolutionaries say Allahu Akbar and don't sing The Internationale. They want to see revolutions that are steeped in the European Enlightenment tradition and discourse, which sound and look European. Get over it. Marxism has a place in the Arab revolts - and the growing importance of a labour revolt in Egypt's continuing revolutionary process speaks to this - but it won't sound and look like Bastille Day or May Day necessarily. If it is to be a living revolutionary process, it will have to be rooted in the day to day experience and culture of the indigenous populations in the Middle East. As a Marxist, I celebrate that. Ideologies that isolate themselves from the influx of fresh experience and change become dogma - perhaps comforting to repeat to yourself like a rosary in tough times but not much use for changing the world.

Long Live The Syrian Revolution!

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