Friday, November 23, 2012

Gaza & The Not So Slow Decline Of Israel

Not alone any more: Egyptian protestors in Tahrir last year
In some ways what just went down in Gaza was business as usual. Israel provoked a mini-war with Gaza killing a leading Hamas politician (who was, in fact, the chief negotiator for a long term ceasefire with Israel) after engaging in its "normal" policies of drone flights, missile strikes and, of course, economy-crippling embargoes. In the process they killed some Palestinians, primarily civilians, many of them children. The USA publicly backed every act of brutality and every lie of the Israeli government and military. Hamas, and other factions of the Palestinian resistance were hopelessly outgunned, while Abbas and the PLO were craven, irrelevant and despised by many Palestinians for being so. Most of the Israeli public cheered on the IDF and hoped for more Palestinian death and destruction.

And yet, things couldn't have been much different from one, let alone three decades ago. In the face of changes in the Middle East, not least the Arab Spring that kicked off last year, Israel is a European settler-colony in decline.

The changes are in many ways rooted in the economic developments of the Arab world that have pulled literally tens of millions of people into the cities - creating more workers, more literate people, more connected people. Turkey alone is industrializing with China-like speed, transforming the country and increasing its weight in the region. Alongside this has been a growing political awakening that received significant boosts from the two Iraq wars, the second Palestinian intifada and the indefatigability of Hizbullah in Lebanon. And the post-war, post-colonial set-ups, which often saw significant concessions to the masses by nationalist anti-colonial regimes – the Ba'ath party in Syria and Iraq, Nasser in Egypt, etc. – has been replaced by rapacious, go it alone neo-liberalism, creating resentment and class polarization.

Of course, this hasn't only affected Israel's standing as a few Arab dictators could woefully tell you - soon to be joined by Assad in Syria (I give him three months, tops). The accumulation of all those changes I indicated above were, at some point, bound to come together in an explosion. And what an explosion it has turned out to be. The Middle East is going through the kind of historic transformation that happens once in a century.

But neither has Israel been spared from this process. In many ways it had been spared from the more dramatic impacts of what was going on around it for the simple reason that it is the recipient of billions of economy boosting dollars in "foreign aid" from the USA (et al). It also receives the most advanced weaponry on the planet - often for free - from the USA. In fundamentals, Israel is a Sparta, an armed camp or, if you will, the USA's largest military base. Still, sooner or later, it was bound to catch up.

The first signs of how things were changing came from the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 (though I'm certain people could trace it back even further). Here was the IDF - an undefeated and feared military. It had launched wars before - pretty much every war, other than 1973 - and it had always won. In 2006, while it destroyed villages and neighbourhoods, and killed over 1000 people, it was forced to flee back to Israel. Hizbullah showed the whole of the Middle East (and the world) that Israel could be defeated and humiliated.

One year later Israel and the USA tried to depose Hamas in Gaza, though it had been chosen democratically in an election that was imposed upon Gaza - again, by the USA and Israel. And just as their forced election blew up in their faces, so did the attempt to foment a Fatah-led coup d'etat. Fatah was too corrupt and weak and Hamas simply drove them out of Gaza. In anger at their own stupidity and foreign policy failure, Israel imposed a near-total blockade of Gaza's economy. The idea was to put the Palestinians "on a diet" to cripple their ability to resist.

One year after that, in 2008, Israel invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, wreaking wide destruction and killing over 1,000 Palestinians - again, mostly civilians. Israel's goal was to destroy Hamas - not stop rocket fire, which Hamas had effectively policed after agreeing a truce with Israel, which Israel repeatedly broke. Not only did Israel fail to dislodge Hamas, they generated an enormous amount of global criticism, which helped to create the movement to break the Gaza blockade. That movement spurred Turkey to break all ties with Israel, once its only Muslim ally in the region.

Now, here we are in 2012, still in the throes of the Arab Spring, which has deposed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, once the region's greatest protector of the Israel/US hegemony in the Middle East. Israel is more isolated than it has perhaps ever been, with no regional friends whatsoever (though Morsi in Egypt is more moderate than his supporters and also more open to accepting the Camp David peace settlement as well - popularly hated in Egypt). This time Israel couldn't even invade Gaza. And, in proportion, as the popular voices in Israel became more shrill, with calls to wipe Gaza off the map and impose a Holocaust on the Palestinians, etc. Israel was more constrained from doing so.

Israel started this latest war by murdering Hamas' military leader and chief negotiator. And they have ended it by allowing Hamas to demonstrate that it is growing more powerful, more able to strike inside Israel. They have also agreed a ceasefire - that Israel will break, like all others - that includes an end to the blockade and the policy of targeted killings inside Gaza. Moreover, Egypt gave no commitment to stop the flow of arms into Gaza. It's no wonder that Netanyahu is being assailed from all sides. He presided over another humiliation that has left their comprador ally, Abbas, even more despised and discredited.

With this secular decline of Israel's role and power in the region, one wonders how long the Americans will continue to sponsor their favourite regional gendarme. What will be the next crisis for Israel and will it lead to its further isolation?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Canadians Don't Trust Canada

Sao Paolo, Brazil - 140 people have died in the last two weeks in battles between
police and inner-city gangs. Be hard to be held in lower esteem.

This was an interesting poll in The Globe and Mail this morning. It seems that out of 26 countries in both hemispheres of the Americas, our very own Stephen Harper ranked as the national leader who was least trusted by the population. On top of that Parliament, political parties and the mass media were also not trusted by massive majorities.

The survey found only 16 per cent of Canadians place “a lot of trust” in their Prime Minister, putting Stephen Harper near the bottom among all leaders in the Americas.
“In an international context, Harper has a lower level of trust than almost every other national leader in the hemisphere,” Mr. Neuman said.
The levels of trust are also low for the Canadian Parliament (17 per cent), political parties (10 per cent) and mass media (6 per cent).
It's good to see that the population here hasn't lost their critical faculties after nearly a decade of the Tory rule - mind numbing and dishonest as it is. However, it's not like Harper has gone out of his way to be, you know, trustworthy. He has lied and covered up decisions of his government - from the F-35 boondoggle to handing over Afghans to be tortured. In fact lying seems to come second nature to the Tories. And when challenged on an issue, they throw mud at opponents rather than engage the issues - who can forget "Taliban Jack" that was thrown at NDP Leader Jack Layton for his anti-war position or the slander thrown at present NDP Leader Tom Mulcaire for suggesting that oil producers ought to pay the real cost of the tar sands.

The growing list of public shenanigans has grown quite long - using robocalls to misdirect voters; putting out a pamphlet to caucus members on how to disrupt and derail the work of Parliamentary committees - one can only imagine the kind of behind the scenes dishonesty that hasn't come to light. Harper has Brian Mulroney's arrogance and corruption. With any luck he and his party will suffer the same fate.

What was also interesting in this article though, was the lack of trust in all the main institutions of Canadian life. Not just those listed above but also the military (53 per cent) and the RCMP (36 per cent). Amusingly, the G & M (which suggests that Harper and Parliament aren't trusted because he was forced to endure six years of minority government), spins these numbers as though they represent a strong endorsement.

At the same time, Canadians are holding on to their positive views of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, an above-average appreciation of their law-and-order institutions.
Given that two of Canada's central symbolic pillars are the Dudley Do-Right Mounties, in their red jackets riding on a horse and the image of Canadian troops as peacekeepers in a conflict-riven world, this is hardly a ringing endorsement. In fact, its even less impressive that it's "above average" when you consider that the survey includes Haiti - run by former death squad leaders who overthrew their democratically elected president with US help - Colombia - which also has a long history of death squads - Honduras - where their elected president was overthrown by a right wing coup - Paraguay - ditto on the coup. The list could go on. If you can't come in above average against these regimes and their police forces, you're in big trouble.

No, what the survey indicates more than anything is that Canadians don't trust the institutions of the country. Stephen Harper and his gang of thieves has a lot to do with that. But they've had help along the way from a lot of other corrupt, unaccountable and out of touch institutions.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Joy At Republican Humiliation Shouldn't Make Us Forget The Choices Sucked

I was in a bar/restaurant near my house on election night, trying to get some work done and watching the results come in. At first it seemed like a nail-biter (though I was convinced that it would be a fairly easy sweep for Obama) and people were texting and Facebooking their fear that Romney the snake might win. Of course, he didn't.

I must say that there was a palpable sense of relief. Like the whole city of Toronto let out a collective sigh. (Except for the Ariel Sharon supporting Israeli dude who kept shaking my hand and kissing me on the top of my head - but that's another story). And, I cannot lie, I was one of them. Romney and Ryan were such an odiously diabolical duo that one can hardly NOT be relieved and filled with joy that they were defeated. Here we had a reactionary plutocrat in alliance with a running mate who represented the most profoundly racist and paranoid lashing out of white, middle class (as in petty bourgeois) America. Hell, just the pleasure of reading Donald Trump's shrieking twitter feed was worth the price of admission.

They were defeated and now will commence a process of Republican auto-destruction that ought to be entertaining to watch. Hopefully it will lead to a split between the (cough, cough) moderates and the Tea Party radicals. Likely there will be a shabby compromise that keeps the two demented siblings in the same party.

In the meantime, their defeat will have given hope to tens of millions that America won't be taken over by Christian fundamentalists and free-marketeers who will dismantle what little social safety net exists (and shut down Sesame Street!). Tens of millions will feel that they have beaten back the right and won some space for more social change - an impression that will be strengthened by the victory for state ballot initiatives that won same sex marriage rights in several states and the legalization/decriminalization of marijuana in two states.

All that is worth celebrating.

But we can't stop there because we need to be honest that Obama isn't the answer either. Things have gotten worse under Obama, not better. America has become more unequal and there is more racism than before his election. Of course, the racist backlash of the Tea Party lunatics can't be blamed on Obama but there are plenty of ways to reduce racial inequality in America through government policy and public statements & campaigns; initiatives that were never taken. America's policy of drone strikes inside Pakistan continues, as well as continuing support for repressive regimes in the Middle East - like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Obamacare was a sop to the health insurance industry and not a cure for an unaffordable, inaccessible healthcare system. These betrayals are surely a part of the reason by the biggest bloc of votes for any candidate were the 80+ million abstentions (vs 62 million votes for Obama). Those who abstained are more than twice as likely to support Obama and the Democrats as they are to support Republicans.

The victory for progressive politics that Obama's re-election represents is an almost purely symbolic victory. And, to steal a phrase: symbolism don't pay the bills.

To turn Obama's victory into a real one will require mobilizations that don't depend on the magnanimity of Democrats or Obama. The successful maneuver by trade union leaders in Madison, Wisc. to deflect a mass movement against the GOP governor's vicious union busting into a recall movement to get a Democrat elected was an abysmal failure. The movement was derailed and defeated and Wisconsin is still a red state, run by a Republican governor - and just re-elected Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, to the House of Representatives.

On the other hand, Obama's early failure to support gay rights in anything more than a timid, prevaricating way led to mass mobilizations by the LGBT community, including a mass protest in Washington that had hundreds of thousands of people. I am convinced that a key reason for the ballot victories backing the right to same sex marriage (and the election of the first lesbian senator in Wisconsin) was that the LGBT movement didn't wait for Obama to come around and maintained their independence. Hopefully that lesson has been learned.

Ultimately, workers and the oppressed in America will need to create their own party to represent their interests, rather than a corporate dominated lash-up like the Democrats. That's not likely to occur in the short term but that shouldn't make us depressed or fatalistic - after all the Republicans just got their asses handed to them and gay rights scored some big victories. It is possible to win. But it should inject an element of sobriety.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rob Ford Isnt The Mayor, He's A Reality TV Show

Cue circus music: "It's the Rob Ford Show"

OK, OK, I get the joke now. For most of the last two years I've watched in horror as our metropolis was being run like a bingo game for compulsive cheaters. It was bad enough that his raison d'etre seemed to be to shut down as many programs and services as he could before some kind of finish bell went off in his head - Transit City, garbage collection, etc. etc.

Besides that, the guy is just so damn embarrassing. I mean, him and his sidekick brother think that a giant ferris wheel is what we need on our waterfront. They run a regular radio show where they muse about the media conspiracy against them. He won't even talk to the Toronto Star or send them his itinerary of public events. Can you believe the gall of the media, to actually scrutinize the actions of public officials?

But as bizarre as his behaviour became, he still had supporters. Even when his incompetence allowed city council to reverse his major election platform promise: to kill Transit City. Along with most of his other initiatives (including his attempt to stage a coup against the head of the waterfront restoration agency, who didn't like the ferris wheel idea). So Rob kicked it up a notch. Not only was he frothing about the Red Menace at City Hall - along with Giorgio Mammoliti, who plays an uber-loopy Igor, to Ford's bumbling Frankenstein - he was openly and defiantly slacking off work and using city resources like they were his personal property. I realize now that this just couldn't have been real. It must have been staged.

Remember, this is the guy who was all about cleaning up the gravy. That was his damn election slogan. Now, tell me, is it gravy to cut out early several times a month - even during important council meetings - to go and be a volunteer coach for a high school football team? Don't we pay teachers to coach high school football teams? Wouldn't you say paying another person - the mayor - to do a job already done by a paid teacher is, you know, gravy? Add to that the fact that Ford hired some former university football player in his office who drives a city vehicle to practices and games to help out on the city dime.

And what about the rushed infrastructure work done around Rob Ford's business in time for their fifty year anniversary party? Do you think that any old business could have called up the heads of the works department and gotten them to come by and do all kinds of work - including work that wasn't technically in their jurisdiction?

But it was this whole bus fiasco that gave away the game. I mean, his football team was getting a school bus in 45 minutes and they were right outside of a high school. Could they really not walk fifty metres to wait in the change room (presumably there is a visiting team change room) or the cafeteria or something. Did they really need to throw an entire busload of passengers off of a TTC bus to "rescue" his team for inclement weather? And then to divert another bus after Ford made a phone call to the head of the TTC?

This can't possibly be real. It's some kind of candid camera type reality show where they push the limits of credulity to the absolute maximum. Then, if the mayor's supporters still defend him with a straight face, somebody jumps out of the bushes and yells: "SURPRISE! You're on Mayor of the Madhouse!" Or maybe some other name: The Pathetic Partisan, Fool Me Twice, I'll Believe Anything You Say As Long As You're A Right Wing Sociopath Like Me.

What do you think the name of the Rob Ford Mayoralty Show ought to be? And what will it require to get it taken off the air?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Why Are The Tories Pushing Canada Into Recession?

Remember how the Tories are the party you want to vote for in tough economic times because they're great managers and willing to make the tough decisions? Remember all that stuff?

Yeah, well, the Tories are poking holes in the Canadian economy faster than the rest of us can bail.

Two figures tell the tale. The first relates to the government's quiet austerity. At a time when, if anything, the economy faces contraction and deflation, the last thing you want to do is add momentum to that contraction and deflation. In fact the Tories promised a stimulus budget in the last election - they fought the election on that basis. But as soon as they were elected, it now turns out, the Tories scrapped the budget and started slashing. Is it any surprise that unemployment remains stuck at 7.4% and that the economy shrank in August?

Really, the only thing that has kept the economy on life support has been China's continued demand for resources and cheap money, that made it possible for workers with otherwise stagnant income (at best) to borrow & buy. But the Tories & Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney have put the kibosh on that strategy of ad hoc Keynesianism by making mortgages harder to get. There's still cheap money for the corporate sector - but they aren't buying and are, instead, simply banking hordes of cash. There's no stimulus to the economy from here.

The result: the housing sector, particularly the condo market are headed towards freefall with a 30 percent contraction in Toronto's condo market in the third quarter. Home sales nationally are off by 15 percent. With the industrial sector contracting, this is like solving the sickness of the economy by killing the patient. According to a CIBC report:
"A 5-per-cent per year drop in house prices, for example, would shed roughly a half-point off GDP growth through its wealth effect on consumer spending, given historical sensitivities," he added in his report. "The shift in the volume of construction will be even more consequential. If, as we expect, homebuilding returns to levels aligned with the longer-term trend in household formation, taking [housing] starts from the 220,000 per year range today to 180,000 by 2014, there will be a near 1-per-cent adverse swing in the contribution of homebuilding to GDP growth ... before allowing for any multiplier effects.
The same report forecasts growth of perhaps one percent, but given that August saw a .1 percent contraction, even that seems optimistic. If the housing market continues to contract, with house prices declining, that 1 percent prediction could easily be wiped out. The real question that arises is: why do the Tories want to push the country back into recession?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Arab Revolutions Put Iran Attack On Back Foot

There can be little doubt that the Arab revolutions have already transformed the Middle East and look set to continue and deepen that transformation. Dictators in Tunisia, Yemen and, most spectacularly thus far, Egypt have gotten the boot. In Tunisia and Egypt the working class played a sizeable role in their ouster and this has led to a labour spring involving the explosive growth in independent unions, rank and file confidence, wild cat strikes and political demands that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

But while most of the left have applauded the revolts in those three above countries, they have been much more circumspect - and in some cases downright hostile - to the revolts in Syria and Libya (or the earlier and less successful Green Movement in Iran). The reason is honourable enough - they see the hand of imperialism stirring the pot in countries that, if not openly anti-imperialist now, were in the past and, in the case of Syria, still support anti-imperialist movements like Hizbollah and Hamas. The USA and its allies, the logic runs, want to see Assad overthrown in order to weaken the "axis of resistance" (as Iran's president branded Iran, Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon, in a clever twist of the Bush mantra that labelled Iran and North Korea as part of an axis of evil). Many have even argued that the revolts in Libya and Syria aren't even really revolts but merely fabricated coups by pro-imperialist elements.

This is to miss the point on a number of levels. First the mass and sustained character of the revolts in both Libya and Syria (in particular Syria) bely the notion that these are mere quislings risking their necks to sell out their country. It also starts from a profoundly naive belief that true and pure revolts have no truck with imperialism. Sadly, no such revolt has ever existed. By definition a revolt is both the underdog - lacking the weapons and infrastructure of their oppressor state(s) - and heterogenous politically.

Since humans aren't the Borg and don't think the same things simultaneously, they can reach myriad conclusions, arising from their social location and personal experiences. Some sectors of a revolt will draw the conclusion that the quickest road to victory is by aligning with the big countries of Europe or America to get access to guns and even the playing field militarily - not thinking about the price to be paid (or even accepting that price). Others will resist the conditional aid of outside states and prefer to build an indigenous mass movement.

And, lastly, imperialist countries never just sit on the sideline. Their multitude of intelligence agencies, secret services, state-funded aid organizations, etc. exist for a reason: to promote the hegemony of their country abroad. They will seek to influence opposition organizations and individuals and to bend them - and through them opposition movements - to supporting the strategic interests of their state. The proxy wars of the Cold War era were precisely the result of maneuverings between the USSR and the USA. Sometimes it involved supporting opposition movements (particularly in the case of the USSR, which was always considerably weaker than the USA) and sometimes it involved supporting the regimes already in power to crush opposition movements. Imperialism is, by definition, opportunistic.

It is a mistake to base our support for opposition movements on whether or not imperialism is trying to influence them - and even where they are succeeding to a degree. Revolts, even ones compromised by imperialism, have a way of getting out of the control of those who would use them to their advantage. One need only look at the challenges that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is facing in trying to rein in the tumultuous movement in Egypt that brought them to power.

There is a final reason for supporting the Arab Spring with great enthusiasm and not viewing it through the narrow lens of state-to-state relations. Western imperialism's hope that the weakening of the Syrian regime would permit greater pressure on Iran isn't happening quite that way. The belief that the Arab Spring would allow Iran to be isolated and make it more susceptible to military assault has turned out to be quite the opposite as this article in the Guardian makes clear:

US naval, air and ground forces are dependent for bases, refuelling and supplies on Gulf Arab rulers who are deeply concerned about the progress Iran has made in its nuclear programme, but also about the rising challenge to their regimes posed by the Arab spring and the galvanising impact on popular unrest of an Israeli attack on Iran...

US naval commanders have watched with unease as the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, has made overtures towards Iran. US ships make 200 transits a year through the Suez canal. Manama, the Fifth Fleet headquarters, is the capital of a country that is 70% Shia and currently in turmoil.

Ami Ayalon, a former chief of the Israeli navy and the country's internal intelligence service, Shin Bet, argues Israel too cannot ignore the new Arab realities.

"We live in a new Middle East where the street has become stronger and the leaders are weaker," Ayalon told the Guardian. "In order for Israel to face Iran we will have to form a coalition of relatively pragmatic regimes in the region, and the only way to create that coalition is to show progress on the Israel-Palestinian track."
The conclusion seems pretty clear: the greatest threat to the goals of western imperialism in the Middle East is the Arab Spring. The deeper grows that revolt, particularly in the Gulf states and especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the more imperialism will be constrained in its actions and agenda.
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