Klein in a Bottle.

November 6, 2017

Not so very long ago, Naomi Klein, former Wall Street journalist turned celebrity leftist, was the bright shining hope of the world. Her books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, which revealed the horrifying truth (which had been kept secret for so long) that capitalism exploits workers and harms the environment, were on every leftist’s bookshelf, crowding out Marxist theory because her books were enormously expensive.

Not everybody quite believed this, of course. Alexander Cockburn’s review of The Shock Doctrine pointed out that what Klein was representing as her own brilliant idea was something which had been around since Marx at least, and probably since Rousseau and Blake (and some of it went back to Savonarola). Also, the revelations about the link between CIA torture, CIA mind control and capitalism had been traced in the 1960s when the facts about the CIA’s experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation started coming out — and the political implications came as no great surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to what happened in any fascist or quasi-fascist seizure of power in the twentieth century.

Of course, said Cockburn, it was good that someone was saying all this stuff again given the terrible drought of leftists in the twenty-first century. However, Klein is particularly mistaken in claiming that this “shock doctrine” is something relatively new, most particularly on display in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, based on the CIA ideas of the 1960s fused with the neoliberal triumph of the late 1970s. In fact, argues Cockburn, to say this is to pretend that the disastrous twenty-first-century neoliberals, the Bushes and Blairs and Berlusconis and their descendants, were something novel and something which can therefore be fought against as dangerous innovators. Instead, he remarks, they are very much within a long continuum of capitalism stretching back at least to the eighteenth century, and to fight against them you have to fight against the system which created them; it isn’t enough to vote out Bush. The long dark Obama era demonstrated that Cockburn was right and Klein wrong.

Now Klein has come up with another book. Unlike its three major predecessors, and like her journalism, it is very short on research and is unreferenced. Her argument is that we are in a big big crisis, due to Trump, and therefore we must do everything that we can, as fast as possible, to challenge the rise of whatever it is that we are supposed to fight against in Trump, and Brexit, the two official foes of the official liberal ruling class of the Western world.

The book is called No Is Not Enough. This is a weird title. Who ever thought that no was enough? When, in politics or anywhere else, has rejection been the be-all and end-all of activity? Perhaps, though, this is a sign that Western political thought has really lost its sense of self-worth and become no more than a knee-jerk resistance to right-wing initiatives which in themselves are not properly understood.

Manifestly there must be something positive towards which any political movement must mobilise its adherents. This is true of every political movement which can ever aspire to have any adherents for any length of time. So, then, what is the positive thing which Klein has hitherto provided? In the main, she has complained about the misbehaviour of big business and of Republicans, contending that it would be nicer if there were fewer sweatshops and more non-franchised coffee shops, that it would be better if capitalism did not entail using the government to frighten people into pursuing policies which harm their interests, and that it would be good if someone would do something about global warming. Effectively, this is nebulous reformism. It is the politics of hipster liberalism, wishing to carry on with one’s current life without change, but also without guilt or unpleasant news on the television or the social media, and without right-wing propaganda blaring in one’s ears.

Does this new book represent anything different? Ninety-nine percent of the book’s critique is an attack on Donald Trump and some of his Cabinet. This is not exactly courageous stand-taking; everybody who would purport to be on the left obviously opposes Trump. He is a very easy target to attack, and in attacking him it is easy to ignore the extremely odious and terribly powerful people who oppose Trump in order to put themselves in power and implement policies which are as destructive as Trump’s, but perhaps more coherently assembled and more effectively propagandised, and hence more dangerous in the long run. Ignoring such people’s existence — or worse, effectively allying oneself with them, as in South Africa where the same kind of sand-in-the-eyes leftism has been used to legitimate support for the richest and most right wing people in the country under the pretense of saving the nation from Zuma — is a suicidal policy.

So if the book were simply a criticism of Trump then it would be (in effect) propaganda for the kind of system which Trump represents. By claiming that the only problem to be addressed is this nasty chancre weeping pus on your cheek, you are ignoring the fact that your big problem is actually that you have syphilis. Fortunately, there is a 1% of the book in which Klein does mention that the opposition to Trump, in the person of Hillary Clinton, was a corrupt liar campaigning for the special interests of gangster capitalists. Also, she mentions the existence of that gangster capitalism and points out that it essentially runs the socio-economic system of the United States by remote control.

These are points with which any leftist can fundamentally agree. These are also points, however, which direct attention to a far more important problem than the problem of having a preposterous ignorant sociopathic gasbag in the White House, or even the people who helped to put that gasbag there. The solutions to that problem — the control of the system by a corrupt and largely invisible ruling class which uses that control to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else — are different from the problem of the wrong guy winning an election.

But this is the problem which Klein complains about. She endorsed Bernie Sanders as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Undeniably Sanders was a less odious candidate than Hillary Clinton; arguably, he was the least unpleasant prospect of all the figures who sought to stand for President in either the Democratic or Republican Party. However, Sanders is a right-wing figure, a military hawk, a Zionist and a supporter of most of the conservative policies pursued by the Democratic Party down the decades. His populist attacks on corrupt banks were unusual, but they also almost certainly led nowhere, since he had no mass base behind him and any attempt to implement an anti-trust law against the banks would certainly have been blocked by all parties. His claims to be a socialist are certainly as fraudulent as Hillary Clinton’s claims to be a feminist. Klein claims that the mere uttering of such terms is a good thing — but in both cases the term could be used safely because it had been drained of all practical meaning.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton for the Presidency. Klein criticises Clinton, but it is clear that she preferred Clinton over Trump. Therefore she was prepared to vote for the system and to call on others to do the same. What is the point of criticising the system if in practice you refuse to challenge it? This seems like the same sort of ineffectual hipster politics characteristic of Klein. It also explains why Klein spends so much more time criticising Trump than criticising the system which allowed Trump to rise, or, for that matter, criticising representatives of the system like Obama and Clinton who happen to use rhetoric which resembles Klein’s own rhetoric, but whose agenda is essentially the same as that of Trump: the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and through the degradation of the planet and its resources.

So Klein’s “yes” is a very small one compared to her “NO”, and it is also a very unappealing one. She tries to gussy this up (whatever that phrase means) with references to the victories which have been attained over neoliberalism and “Trumpism”. These victories include a massive populist revolt in Argentina against corrupt neoliberalism which eventually led to a slightly less reactionary ruling-class family taking power and pursuing a slightly less corrupt version of neoliberalism. There is also the massive populist revolt in Greece against corrupt neoliberalism, in which the Greeks boldly voted for the party which pledged not to implement corrupt neoliberalism, after which the party implemented corrupt neoliberalism. On the whole, Klein’s poster boys for the New Politics are neither attractive nor credible.

Victories over “Trumpism” appear similar. Her thesis is that Trump’s victory has ushered in a series of extreme-right movement, such as UKIP in Britain, or the BJP in India, or Duterte’s Presidency in the Philippines. She fails to notice that Duterte, for all his violence and populism, is rather different from Trump and his agenda, that UKIP is an insignificant party (the anti-EU vote was essentially a Conservative victory) and the BJP has been around since the 1930s in various Hindu incarnations.

Meanwhile, her evidence of victories over this nonexistent fascistic united front include the stitched-up victory of the vicious reactionary neoliberal Macron in France and the victory of the xenophobic reactionary populists in Holland (where she praises a “Green” party which committed itself to supporting the European Union in its current neoliberal form). It seems obvious from this that Klein is trapped within the confines of the status quo, like a cockroach in a corked bottle waiting for the ammonia to be dripped in. Since that status quo is essentially neoliberal and reactionary, her campaigns against neoliberalism and reactionary politics appear wholly cosmetic.

Indeed, she went on a lot of marches in the United States to protest against Trump. Good for her; it is good for the legs and the lungs, assuming you don’t breathe too much of the city air. These marches, however, were mostly organised by the Democratic Party and were essentially calls for the installation of Hillary Clinton as President, so Klein was marching against her own professed principles and policies. The purposes of the marches were to mobilise specific interests, such as technology professionals and women, who normally tend to support the Democrats. Of course one may try to take advantage of such campaigns to challenge the system. There is little sign, however, that this happened, and Klein certainly did nothing to pursue that.

In the end she does come up with a call for the masses to rise up in what she calls the “Leap”, a call for a transformation of society on Utopian grounds. At last! Someone who will save us! Indeed, she says that this has happened before — when big oil spills happened in 1969, the people rose up and called for someone to do something about the environment, and lo, someone did and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Air Act passed. Klein says that this kind of triumph of the people can be done again. Erm, well perhaps, but shouldn’t we remember that the person who answered the call of the people was President Richard Nixon, saving the environment in his spare time when he wasn’t murdering hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese and overthrowing Latin American governments.

Her other inspiration is Standing Rock, where the evil government wanted to run a pipeline carrying Canadian tar-sands oil through an Indian reservation (this being government land the pipeline could travel free there). To further save money they wanted to run the pipeline slap through the local lake. And there the people rose up and said NO! Hurray for the people! Oh yes — except that the government rose up and said PISS OFF!, violently chased the Indians and their supporters away, and built the pipeline slap through the local lake. So she is celebrating the disastrous failure of weakly-supported single-interest campaigns to attain anything positive.

Her Leap is no leap. It’s a vague call for someone to do something, something nice, something like a higher minimum wage and more windmills and solar panels and child-minders and fewer police shooting black people. It has no political support worth mentioning  and no capacity to develop any. It is the feel-good politics of hipsterism, incapable of accomplishing anything and devoid of any potential to build the political analysis — the class analysis, especially — which it completely lacks.

And there we leave Klein in her bottle. A Klein bottle is a three-dimensional Moebius strip, a bottle with no actual inside or outside. As a result it’s difficult to see how to get out of the bottle. On the positive side, it cannot actually be build in the real world, any more than can Klein’s mythical politics.

 

 

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Captivation (II): “Jump in the urinal and stand on your head: I’m the one who’s alive, you are all dead.”

November 6, 2017

The decisive and smashing victory of the Republican wing of the 1% Party, over the Democratic wing of the 1% Party, has not gone unnoticed. With speed and stamina the heroes of American liberalism and their bought-and-paid-for toadies across the world have rushed into the breach (after making sure that there were absolutely no weapons trained on them from anywhere).

Their conclusions are straightforward: the American people have betrayed the Party and therefore deserve neither support nor allegiance. Therefore they have sent their minions out into the street to fight against the American people. Down with the people, down! Or, at best, as Brecht sarcastically put it, the call goes out to dissolve the people and elect a new people who will vote for the correct candidate.

The Democratic Party faithful are also pointing out how bad the people are for voting for the wrong candidate. Obviously they must be racist, misogynist and fascistic. How could one vote against the Democratic Party when its previous candidate was black, except on grounds of racism? How could one vote against the Democratic Party candidate when she is a woman, except on grounds of sexism? Obviously, too, voting for a bullying male candidate shows that one is voting for the bully because one is embedded in Nazi-style politics. Besides, the enemy candidate is known to be covertly supported by Vladimir Putin, who is Hitler, and therefore the Republican Party are all Hitler supporters. The evidence is clear, and only a racist misogynist fascist could challenge it.

Notice something interesting about these conclusions: they say essentially nothing about what the Democratic Party was planning to do, had it happened to win the election. In fact it was openly admitting that it was planning to do very little. Instead, where there were policies, these amounted to “Defend the Obama legacy!”; the extension of state-subsidised but private health management organisations to large numbers of people who would otherwise be unable to afford such healthcare. (Unfortunately, the soaring cost of these private health management organisations is increasingly making this Affordable Care Act unaffordable, which rather undermines the project.)

The rest of the legacy that they make a fuss about is Obama’s enthusiastic signing on for the Paris accord on climate change, which is non-binding and hasn’t been approved by Congress so his signing means nothing. Also, his actual energy policy involves building more coal-fired power stations, promoting tar sands in Canada, and fracking for oil and gas all over the United States, so Obama’s policies are aimed at accelerating climate change even though he and all his supporters claim the opposite. (Trump is supposedly a climate change denialist. Which is worse, a climate change denialist who pursues policies which encourage global warming because he doesn’t realise it, or a person who acknowledges climate change but encourages global warming because it’s good for the income of his financial backers?)

As for the rest of the Obama legacy, it’s difficult to make much out; the extension of NAFTA across the Atlantic and Pacific seems to be collapsing, the wars in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East are not going well, and apart from that, promoting the interests of the banks and the stock market ahead of everybody else in the country doesn’t seem to play very well in Peoria. So, basically, the Democratic Party ran on a platform of “Vote for us despite the fact that we haven’t done anything worthwhile in eight years and have no plans to do anything worthwhile in the next four!”.

The remarkable thing about this is how few Democrats can see that this wouldn’t have been a winning strategy even if they didn’t have a widely loathed candidate who had alienated a vast chunk of Democratic supporters by strenuously undermining and then dismissing a widely admired and much more popular competitor, Bernie Sanders (who seems a much more amiable person despite his lack of any clear distinction from her Hillaryship). It seems quite obvious that the Democrats are politically clueless. They don’t even know how to deceive the voters any more; they are so committed to serving the interests of the American ruling class that they’ve forgotten the political tricks which the American ruling class, like ruling classes everywhere, have played to game the system and fool the boobs.

Now, this is not new. It was in the pipeline when Hillary’s husband was running the show in the 1990s, when his speciality was going to working-class people and telling them that they were going to be fired, but that he felt their pain, and that in the long term they would be better off for it. After eight years of that the New Democrats were thrown out of power when they tried to elect Al Gore, an animatronic captive balloon. On mature consideration of their defeat, the New Democrats concluded that they had been robbed of power by their evil enemies and should become more New Democrat, which would obviously lead to success because their policies of rewarding the rich and punishing the poor were the royal road to victory in all elections. They then decided to cover up for this by putting up a black candidate, thus gaining themselves the black vote. However, when they put up a female candidate, they somehow failed.

The French Socialist Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the British Labour Party and of course the South African ANC have gone essentially the same way. They have adopted the economic policies of their enemies, thus betraying every principle they ever professed, and then tried to cover it up by adopting some of the practices of their enemies, such as identity politics, demonized enemies and figer-pointing at everyone but oneself. It is hardly surprising, then, that these parties have become almost indistinguishable from their opponents, and also hardly surprising that their support has plunged because nobody who really cares about the policies which they once professed will vote for them.

The shrewd-looking assumption of these parties was that people who care about policies are only a tiny minority of the voting public, and therefore the overwhelming majority of their supporters wouldn’t mind if they sold out. This turns out to be a highly problematic assumption. Of course most voters couldn’t be arsed to understand exactly what they are voting for, so they vote for glamour and surfaces.

However, the people generating the glamour and surfaces need to have some dim idea of what their potential customers are attracted to – and when you burn out the brains of your leadership and abolish all purpose in life, you also lose touch with your customers. Then you have to hire market research companies to tell you what the customers want, and these companies are trained to tell their employers what they want to hear. So in the end the people who destroyed the party on the assumption that destroying the party would do their interests no harm, are paying people to tell them what they desire to hear. They might as well be listening to the voices in their heads.

Apart from the fact that this leads to a ridiculous political disconnection from one’s constituency – and this is an almost universal characteristic of modern political parties – in the long term it also means that a whole class of self-deluding people with complete contempt for voters become the leading fitures in the cabal. Since nobody ever criticises them for this in their hearing (or if anyone does, they don’t listen, because anyone who disagrees with them is wrong) it follows that they don’t understand that their behaviour is conspicuously alienating their supporters. So they start behaving like this where their supporters can hear, and they start attacking their potential voters, because they hate and despise them all and they are arrogant enough to want to show it. And then they alienate those voters (very often by attacking the supporters of their opponents and thus making those supporters resentful).

This was what Mitt Romney did in 2012 with his “moochers” remark about the entire Democratic Party constituency, and what Hillary Clinton did in 2016 with her “deplorables” remark about the entire Republican Party constituency. It’s worth remembering, incidentally, that Romney endorsed Clinton and her moochers. The fact is that they both hate not only those who vote for their opponents, but those who voter for them. The political system has generated a “political class” in Peter Oborne’s term, which has essentially the same attitude towards the people living in their nation that Marie Antoinette had. (And if you doubt this applies to South Africa, listen to a senior South African politician talking about his opponents; the DA/EFF alliance claim that everyone opposing them is a crook, while the ANC claims that everyone opposing them is a racist.)

This is an understandable process; it is a natural product of the hostility of the social democratic movement in Europe and the psuedo-social democratic movement in the United States, to any serious pursuit of socialism. Once they were fully convinced that no socialist movement could pose a threat to their status, they naturally stopped pretending to be socialist, and once they did that, they had no defenses, or even any desire for defense, against a hostile takeover by the forces of neoliberalism.

However, this has always been the way of the social democrats. What of the actual left which appeared to have some kind of commitment to socialism? What steps have they taken, over the last fifteen years when this process has been on the go, to build structures which can accomplish something? Obvious policies would be either to take over the social democratic parties from within and turn them into something more meaningful, or build an alternative party which draws away all the dissatisfied and purged membership from the social democratic parties and then tries to beat them at their own game.

It seems obvious that, apart from the extremely flimsy campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour (which seems more nostalgia than anything else, even if it was a hopeful sign at the time) the left has done nothing of the kind. Nor has it built, nor attempted to build, a radical non-parliamentary alternative, whether revolutionary or reformist. All that the Western left has been able to manage has been to ineffectually criticise multinational corporate capital (without finding any means for practically expressing that criticism where it is substantive) and to critique the residue of Third World nationalism which still survives, and in doing so to support, possibly intentionally, the activities of NATO imperialism in attacking that nationalism and supplanting it with theocracy or plutocracy or, ideally, both.

So, we are in a bad way because not only is the system rigged against us, but the people whom we trusted to protect us against the system being rigged, or to expose the rigging when it happened, are doing absolutely nothing about this. This cannot end well.


At Last, the Creator Reads the Mars Trilogy.

November 6, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a great deal of future history. Most of it centres around two things: the decline of the American capitalist empire in the early twenty-first century, and the rise of alternatives to capitalism in the solar system in the ensuing centuries. In a sense, then, his work is rather like the 1980s work of Bruce Sterling (think Schismatrix), albeit considerably more sophisticated and less pretentious.

The gist of his work is that the near future is going to be bad, because of capitalism, but after capitalism everything will be all right, because of technology. If this sounds simplistic, it isn’t — not altogether, because the only way that the technology can become unfettered is by getting rid of capitalism as an exclusive and overarching dominant concept — that is, by getting rid of what we now call neoliberalism, although Robinson’s ideas were formed in the 1970s and he doesn’t quite talk that way. He also isn’t particularly interested in postmodernism, even though he is interested both in art and in Fredric Jameson, the man who attempted to Marxise postmodernism (although he may have only succeeded in postmodernising Marxism).

But although the Creator has admired books like Icehenge and Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness, all of which are set in this Robinsonian future history, the Creator never yet read the Mars Trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. It was all just too much. The Creator used to fantasise about being a science fiction writer, and the problem with Robinson was that he was just too good to serve as a model; it was impossible to do as well as him, let alone better. And these three texts were supposedly the very best of them all. Let them alone, lest you become depressed. Anyway, there are other things out there to read.

Anyway, the other day the Creator was at a Bargain Books, which is the only place where one can obtain remotely affordable texts off-line, and came across a copy of Blue Mars. There was nothing else worth getting in the shop apart from ridiculously expensive South African ruling class propaganda, so Kim Stanley Robinson was a perfect means of counteracting this. But, having bought it, it seemed right to read it. And the Creator saw that it was good.

The trouble was that Blue Mars is the third volume in the trilogy, and a great deal of it was obviously heavily dependent on knowing what had happened in the earlier two. Vaguely remembering that there was a lot of Robinson in the bookshelf, the Creator went into the dark crevice where such books are kept, and discovered that Red Mars and Green Mars were side-by-side with all the Robinson books which the Creator had actually (more or less) read. The trilogy had been looming untouched for a decade. Perhaps the Creator had unconsciously been putting it all off until the last volume manifested itself.

OK, so what’s it about? Ostensibly, the colonisation of Mars. The Americans send a man to Mars. Then the Americans and the Russians get together and send a hundred colonists to Mars to set up things so that actual colonisation can get going. Presently the colonisation gets going, and that, of course, is where the trouble starts. By the end of Red Mars, the trouble is in full swing, because the corporations — “transnationals”, Robinson calls them — are taking over and using Mars both as a source of income and as a way of scoring off each other — corporate war by other means — and because profit and military power are involved, they grow increasingly intolerant of the hippy-dippy society which the scientists, engineers and psychologists evolved in the early decades of colonisation. And so something has to be done, and the corporations decide to kill off all the trouble-making colonists and start all over again with nice corporate clones and zombies who will do what they are told.

Green Mars deals with the failure of the corporate project. As might be expected, they manage to kill off just enough of the troublemakers to make the survivors bitter and resentful, and therefore the survivors are gradually able to keep the flame of resistance alive as Mars is flooded with drones — especially because the cheese-paring bean-counters whom the corporations put in charge invariably skimp on things like healthcare and social services, because this is the Great Frontier and everybody should be a Rugged Individualist, or else get nabbed by the corporate police and dragged off to the torture-chambers (and of course Rugged Individualism doesn’t apply to the bean-counters or to the billionaires who drop in from time to time to check that their investments are generating sufficient short-term profit at the expense of the people and environment of Mars. Anyway, in the end everybody gets pissed off enough to launch a revolution — which is only possible because the Earthies get a bit tangled up in a slight environmental problem they face — the sudden six-metre rise in sea-level as a result of the collapse of the whole Antarctic ice sheet.

Blue Mars is probably the most boring of the trilogy texts; having succeeded in winning independence from Earth, the Martians have to create a new society, and of course they fail; what they create is a collage of old societies, and meanwhile, because capitalism is defeated and discredited and hence humanity has the opportunity to achieve the goals which Marx wanted them to accomplish and which capitalism always stifled, there are new kinds of society and new technological systems appearing everywhere, and therefore there is no simple ownership of the mode of production, and therefore not even a Marxist can figure out what is going on. While nothing clear or coherent is happening, what is clear is that the future is as bright as the new fusion “gaslights” illuminating and heating the outer worlds, and as new as the asteroidal generation starships roaring off. to colonise new worlds and spread humanity’s genius and screwups to the stars.

So that’s the technological side of the trilogy, which is in itself interesting, with its tension between huge “Pharoanic” projects to provide Mars with the water, nitrogen and heat it needs to be terraformed, and the small-scale, “ecopoetic” transformations which are supposed to do the same thing, but in a nice way, of course. It all runs by machinery anyway; the question is only how big it is.

And who’s in charge, and what their motives are, and that raises all the human questions which are what makes the trilogy really interesting.

The First Man On Mars, John Boone, is one of the First Hundred, the unacknowledged ecopoetic legislators of the world called Mars. Virtually all of the story is told through members of the First Hundred, who witness the gradual transformation of Mars, which happens according to their wishes or against their wishes, depending on whether they are Reds who want to keep Mars pristine and inhabitable only inside pressurised buildings, or Greens who want to turn Mars into a second Earth (no prizes for guessing which side wins, although it is the Reds who often appear the more interesting figures, apart from the autistic scientist-hero Sax). The First Hundred can witness the development of Mars (which spans two centuries) thanks to the convenient invention of a life-prolonging DNA auto-repair treatment — although this means that they live to become both mythic heroes and to witness the death of almost all of their dreams, and to become crotchety oldsters in a world of youth, the world of the “Accelerando” which Robinson represents as the speeding-up and perfecting of humanity’s mission to dominate the solar system and itself.

Boone, however, the mythic American hero of the frontier, is killed right at the start of the first volume of the trilogy, by thugs egged on by another American — a Mission Control administrator jealous of the celebrity status of astronauts — who believes that he can turn Mars into an American paradise if only the problematic Boone were out of the way. So for the rest of the book, as the reader follows Boone’s blundering attempts to understand what is going on and formulate an appropriate liberal response to the radical circumstances of terraformed, corporate-dominated Mars, it is already written that Boone will fail, and the catastrophe of 2061, the failed revolution against the capitalists, is already written into the book from the beginning.

But the revolution wins in the end — the revolution for freedom, that is; freedom from not being punished for interfering with corporate interests, freedom to develop your own lifestyle, but not freedom to keep the water down in the aquifers, or the carbon dioxide in the icecaps; that freedom is lost along with 2061, when the massive civil war shatters what remains of Red Mars and leaves the corporations who win the war paradoxically free to dump nitrogen from Titan to beef up the atmospheric pressure and fly space mirrors to reflect heat onto the planet. (The mirrors are eventually moved away after the Revolution and become Venetian blinds for Venus, cooling it down until the atmosphere freezes out.) The whole intellectual conflict, between individual freedom and social restraint, and between political need and economic necessity, and between the way we used to do things in the good old days and the way these uppity young troublemakers want to do it now, is beautifully played out and makes the text probably the most interesting and sophisticated science fiction sequence ever written.

Technically and historically, of course, it’s not about Mars at all; it’s about how we could turn the human race, on Earth or anywhere else, into a bunch of happy campers, all well-fed, relaxed and living the way we want to be, if only we could get capitalist acquisitiveness out of the way. It’s apparent throughout the text that there’s always plenty of resources — generated by robots which can build anything to any amount at any time. Only greed and envy keep the resources from being spread around. Technology and social science and democratic debate can resolve all problems.

Yes, but will they? The depressing thing about the book is that it’s twenty-five years since Red Mars was conceived, and we ought to be going to Mars by now; the First Hundred set off in 2020 on the Ares. Boone ought already to have returned by now to the last hurrah of American governmental space imperialism. He hasn’t, and we aren’t doing any of this. We don’t even have fusion power, which is absolutely essential for the bulk of the projects which are bustled through space.

Nor have we got the cash and the impetus to go into space. Instead of gigantic Energias boosting space shuttles two at a time into orbit, the Energia and the space shuttle have both been closed down and there is no sign of any serious replacement. This is partly because Robinson assumes that the end of the Cold War would also mean the end of the arms race, the end of global conflict, and therefore the military and aerospace industries are obliged to plug for a huge space boondoggle in order to preserve their corporate identity — one of the first corporations to dominate Mars is Armscor, which of course no longer exists in our real world except as Denel, a stumbling relic of apartheid South Africa’s techno-fetishism. But Armscor died because the global war machine opposed its competition; Robinson simply underestimated the corruption and self-destructive nature of capitalism, being a traditional Marxist who, like his mentor Fredric Jameson, has a poisoned, guilty admiration for what capitalism was (but seems to be no longer).

Robinson, indeed, also has a Good Capitalist, a man who recognises that the world cannot continue going to hell in a handbasket forever, that sooner or later the handbasket must arrive in hell, and rather than have that happen, decides to throw in his lot with the enemies of corporate capitalism and trust that he can do a deal with them by working along with the Martian resistance to corporate capitalism. It is, of course, possible that people might pretend to do that sort of thing, but in fact the experience of corporate capitalists working with revolutionaries in South Africa is not exactly encouraging. Meanwhile, Robinson’s corporate capitalist is something of a combination of Egon Musk and Howard Hughes — suggesting that Robinson is desperately buying into capitalism’s own fraudulent image of the risk-taking, edge-living entrepreneur. We don’t see much of that stuff in the real world.

Robinson’s wonderful world of a new bright future does include trifling sacrifices which have to be made for freedom  — like the corporate warriors who reprogram city environment maintenance systems to hyperoxygenate the atmosphere under the domed cities. In one spectacularly horrible scene, some of Robinson’s heroes find themselves facing this crisis, and when a fuse is lit their living bodies burn like torches (Robinson helpfully reminds us of what happened to the early Apollo astronauts in an oxygenated space capsule). But this isn’t the problem. The problem is that this future isn’t going to materialise. We aren’t going to Mars, and we aren’t even going to build Mars on Earth. What we seem to be building instead is a cesspool filled with barbed wire.

 


So This Is Freedom? They Must Be Joking!

November 6, 2017

The politics of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave are beyond belief as well as beneath contempt – like the politics of most similar countries, of course.
The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both, of course, the same party; the party of wealth, privilege, power and disdain for anyone who lacks these things. Both are also parties of global military violence and domestic economic oppression (which, when challenged, often morphs into global economic violence and domestic military oppression). The difference between them is one of style, and to some extent of constituency which determines that style, plus the fact that there are different market segments seeking to appeal to them. This style, and those different market segments, determine who votes for the different halves of the party – rather like the ANC and the DA in South Africa, although here it’s three-quarters and one-quarter, or at least has been since 1994 when the first polls were held.
But still, this recent Presidential primary election season has gone beyond the usual joke, beyond the usual surrealism, into something which makes one begin to believe that perhaps the Satanic deity which created this world to torment us is beginning to manifest itself in all its hideous clarity.
The primary nightmare is being constructed around Donald Trump, the ex-bankrupt real estate and casino tycoon, who decided to stand for the Presidency as a potential Republican candidate. Since many Americans either passionately love or passionately dislike the rich, this could either be a problem or an advantage. He’s not, of course, the first billionaire to stand for the Presidency — anyone remember Mitt Romney? However, the issue about Trump is not that he is a billionaire at all; the issue around Trump is that he is a racist and a misogynist.
There is a degree of truth in this. Trump wants to keep out the illegal Mexican immigrants, so that makes him a racist (since he doesn’t want to keep out all those illegal British immigrants who come flooding into the country, smelling the place up with their spiceless food). He also wants to keep out the Muslims, merely because they are shooting back at the Americans who shoot at them. Trump has also said some rather unpleasant things about female journalists, usually the blow-dried, overgroomed, excessively made-up right-wing ones on TV shows who try, without much competence or conviction, to make fun of him.
So he doesn’t like brown-skinned people or women. That should make him unelectable. However – and here’s where it gets complicated – it isn’t actually clear that Trump doesn’t like brown-skinned people or women. He certainly claims to dislike people who come into the country and steal jobs and women and all of the usual xenophobic rubbish which one hears from all conservative politicians (most of them pretending to be liberals), many of whom have no difficulty getting elected or re-elected. His hostility to Muslims is based entirely on the fact that the United States happens to like going to war wuith Muslim countries, and seems to have no basis in any religious prejudice of his own (although he is happily exploiting anti-Muslim prejudice in others, just as Clinton and Bush and Obama did). Similarly, he dislikes anybody who opposes or challenges him, regardless of gender (like any CEO, that is) and therefore abuses and despises female journalists who serve other people’s agendas. Soi, basically, Trump is a nasty person, but not unusually nasty.
Of course, then, that’s politics. One does what one can to make one’s opponents look objectionable; George W Bush was depicted as an inebriated simian miscreant, John Kerry was depicted as an irresponsible coward, Barack Obama was depicted as a weakling and (worse still) a black — and, of course, all these things turned out to be true. Yet there was nothing novel about any of these points. And there is nothing novel about Trumpitude except for the fact that he is unusually brash about his odiousness — which many people, not all of them Republicans, find refreshing. Much better to be sold a plate of shit than a plate of shit labelled “Chocolate ice cream” — although it makes little difference if you are still forced to eat it at gunpoint.
Turning to the Democratic Party side of the aisle, a Titanic Struggle was waged between the Socialist Monster Bernie Sanders and the Shrieking Harpy Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a socialist in the sense that he wants to see a little more regulation applied to the major banks — in other words, he’s a socialist like Winston Churchill was a socialist when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Accusing Hillary of being a harpy makes a little more sense, since the Harpies were monstrous female creatures which killed people, and Hillary has certainly killed a lot of people. However, almost nobody is talking about that; instead they are accusing Hillary of being in league with the banks, just because she was on a retainer from Goldman Sachs, how unfair can you get, shame.
Like most Titanic Struggles, this one was fixed from the start; Hillary was always going to win, because she was the Chosen One of the sponsors of the Democratic Party; the conflict between Obama and Hillary in 2008 was more even-handed because the sponsors liked each of them equally. Sanders was always going to lose, because he isn’t wrapping himself in the bloodstained dollar of global aggression. Oddly enough, he actually supports American global aggression (he’s a big fan of Zionist aggression, for instance, which is American aggression by proxy) but rather than appropriate that he prefers to talk about other things, like how awful the bankers are. He is, thus, a populist, seeking to pretend to serve the people, one who possibly intends well in some ways but generally will serve the interests of the ruling class in whatever minor sense that he holds power. (This is approximately what we saw with Obama, although Sanders is more effective at playing the populist game than Obama was because Sanders has some limited understanding of what the people want.) This is why, when Clinton eventually racked up enough delegates to win on a first ballot at the Convention, Sanders immediately cast aside all his valid criticisms of Clinton and became a Clintonista; you gotta Get With The Program.
This is, therefore, a bizarre situation. One party is nominating an anti-politician who is almost certainly going to lose, not because they want to lose, but because pressure from grassroots is forcing them to nominate someone whom they really don’t like and who doesn’t actually stand for their principles. One party is nominating a career politician, a complete insider who is ludicrously pretending to be an outside, who is widely despised, notoriously corrupt and dedicated to principles which her party professes to oppose (although it actually supports them). Both are committed to values and policies which make their country’s name stink throughout the world, and one of them is even acknowledged as such by the media (because he represents a challenge to the individuals and groups which control the media). His likely competitor represents no such challenge, being entirely in thrall to those individuals and groups.
What’s bizarre about this? The ruling class remains in charge. Assuming that Clinton wins, there will be no problem controlling her. If Trump wins, the ruling class can accommodate themselves to his blustering manner and presumably they will have no difficulty in making him do what they tell him.
But still, one gets the impression that the system is losing control of the democratic charade, putting forward much more blatantly ludicrous and odious people than usual. Furthermore, the public is no longer deceived in the same way that it was. Granted, the public is still trying to elect a leader who will serve them, so they are still utterly deluded. But they are also trying to counteract the lies which they are told by the establishment, with a different set of lies. These lies are provided to them by their masters, but are cunningly packaged to appear to challenge the lies they have been told in the past. Those who can remember the lies of the past will recognise that these lies are valueless – but fortunately the whole tenor of contemporary culture is aimed at forgetting everything in the past, especially the lies which we have been told.
As a result, informed people know that the situation is just as bad as it has been for decades, and that it is more conspicuously so than before. But uninformed people do not know this, although they doubtless have a vague notion that the situation is indeed bad.
In the real world, too, there is no alternative to the promotion of bad policies. Clinton stands for everything bad about the Obama administration and is resolved that nothing good will materialise. Trump stands for a rhetorical fantasy of corporate power and reactionaries saving the world through violence and willpower — arguably fascistic, but then all contemporary politics are fascistic. In the end, then, both are committed to pursuing policies of national suicide to the bitter end — which will be the destruction of far more than that odious country stretching from sea to shining sea, from the halls of Montezuma to the plains of Abraham.
Can this be challenged? Can the United States rescue itself from a situation in which the leader of the state must inevitably be a hypocritical liar, simply because the ruling class will not permit any other category of people to hold the post, and because the policies pursued by any leader of the state must oppose the interests of the people who vote for that leader, so therefore the leader must lie and distract? It seems impossible to challenge this in the United States, partly because of repression, partly because of media disinformation, and partly because of more than a hundred years of conformist brainwashing which has turned even the people who think of themselves as radicals into goose-stepping, unthinking supporters of a ghastly, suicidal status quo.
And this is the Land of the Free, this is the country which rules the world on the basis of its claim that all alternatives to it are worse — that anyone who doesn’t knuckle under to the supremacy of Uncle Sam is a clone of Kim or Castro. This is the country from which our own media draw much of their material and virtually all of their ideological dogma. Looked at closely, the situation doesn’t bear thinking about. Maybe the end of the world will not be such a bad thing after all, if it draws down the curtain on this long global nightmare.


Teetering.

May 19, 2016

The last few years have seen a number of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, all of which have been disastrous. The U.S. government has avoided taking responsibility for these disasters by claiming in retrospect that it had nothing to do with them — the “Arab Spring” calamities, the invasion of Libya, the assault on Syria, the attack on Russia, the invasion of Yemen, the deliberately raised tension with China, the political and economic chaos in Brazil, the political, military and economic chaos all across West Africa. All of these were problems which could have been avoided, but the U.S. government and its allies in NATO determined to promote the problems as if they were solutions. This, on top of all the calamities which arose out of the Afghan, Iraqi and Somali invasions, has generated the greatest global refugee crisis in history (which is a pretty impressive accomplishment given the bloody history of the past couple of hundred years) and a scale of political chaos almost unprecedented; vast areas of Africa and Asia either have no effective government, or no legitimate government, and the march of disaster continues ceaselessly.

So we have grown accustomed to bad political conditions in countries which cannot defend themselves. What is a little unusual about this is not only the scale of the problem, but also the fact that some countries, it would appear, can defend themselves. Syria and Yemen did not just roll over and submit to the Wahhabi aggression of Saudi Arabia. Russia resisted the attempt to seize her military bases in Crimea. Iran was not bullied by American warmongering. China was fazed neither by the American blustering attempt to bully them out of the South China Sea, nor by yet another risible American attempt to seize control of the faltering economies of the Pacific Rim. (The Trans-Pacific Partnership, if successful, will deftly eliminate competitors to China, since American economic domination of a country invariably means the collapse of manufacturing there, and hence the countries involved will be more dependent on China and financially weaker in relation to it).

It would appear that not only is America a gangster who can only effectively rough up toddlers, but that some of the toddlers have called in their big brothers, or invested in steak-knives. That is why the American gangster is now obliged to rough up babies in pushchairs (Honduras, the Central African Republic, Burundi and so on) because it dares not take on anything that can even feebly fight back — a logical extrapolation of the Powell Doctrine.

All this is bad, but it’s not very bad for those not directly bombed, shot, burned or robbed. It does little harm to that part of the world which is able to defend themselves against imperialist aggression. Admittedly, it means that those countries where imperialist aggression is most effective are growing steadily economically weaker. This might be quite beneficial for those who can defend themselves (basically, Russia, China and their friends). The big problem is, however, that economic activity is global, and those who are able to defend themselves against bombers and gummen might not be able to defend themselves against bankers.

Why is the global financial system behaving so oddly? The DOW is up to levels which were only fantasies in the 1990s — a book called DOW 18,000 was jeered at when it came out, but now the DOW has reached that level. European and NATO-supporting Asian stock markets are at record highs. The US unemployment rate is down from where it was five years ago. It appears, according to the financial trade papers, that we are booming, and yet those same trade papers are telling us that there is a crisis, the exchanges are jerking around wildly, currencies are bouncing up and down as if they were on bungee cords, and Solemn Utterances from Lenders of Last Resort are delivered to Inspire Confidence, which of course causes panic because everybody knows that the lenders of last resort, the privatised entities which were once national banks, have no money worth the paper it is printed on or the electrons it was created with.

The general issue seems to be twofold: the collapse of the oil price, and the collapse of the Chinese economy. Together these are sending the world into a tailspin. The collapse of the oil price is of course nobody’s fault because that is the inscrutable working of the invisible hand in the free market. But the collapse of the Chinese economy is the fault of the Communists, and the solution to that problem is to overthrow the Communist Party and have the IMF install a free-market dictatorship in Beijing (possibly Chiang Kai-Shek could be disinterred and propped up with cushions), a policy which worked so well in saving the economies of Italy, Greece and above all Ukraine.

Now that we’ve all had our little laugh at the explanations in every newspaper in the world, shall we consider what is actually happening?

The big hidden issue is that national treasuries, mainly the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, have been creating money and using it to buy bonds from various financial institutions which were in trouble, so that those institutions could have liquidity and could lend money without fearing that they might be caught short without cash and go bankrupt. This has been going on since 2008 in some cases, and it involves vast amounts of money, none of which has anything to do with productivity.

If the money had actually been lent to producers in the form of investment, then it would have generated massive economic growth (and also quite a lot of inflation). This is the theory behind the concept of monetarism, of supply-side economics; create enough money and the economy will automatically look after itself. It has been repeatedly disproved, but it remains alive because it puts financial institutions, which are highly centralised industries with few employees, at the centre of the national economy, relegating all productive activities to the margins. Anyway, once again the theory was disproved. What the banks did was to plough the money into the stock markets all over the world, which duly soared, although the money was not used for productive investment there either; it was mostly recycled into web-based and financial companies.

What all this means is that the global economy is now more of a Ponzi scheme than it was in 2007; the bulk of economic growth in the NATO countries and their allies is in financialised systems which depend heavily in cash generated by national treasuries. This money is virtual, however; if anybody starts to sell seriously, the value of the stocks and bonds will fall precipitately, as began to happen in China before the Chinese government stepped in to stop the game of musical chairs (the Chinese National Bank is not a private entity and the Chinese stock exchange is under government control). In other words, the moment the mythical gold actually needs to be produced, it will turn back into straw — which is what you expect from fairy gold. Meanwhile, the US government has stopped pumping money into the system, and although the Japanese and the Europeans are pumping money into the system it is not taking up the slack, partly because the US government has also raised interest rates and is expected to do so some more.

Basically, everybody is waiting for a huge financial crisis which will probably make the 2007 crisis look puny (since the global economy is more fragile than it was, and since the financial system is less resilient and more endebted than it was) and the Americans are pursuing policies which seem likely to precipitate the crisis, believing (almost certainly wrongly) that they are better able to ride out a crisis than their competitors in Europe and Japan. In other words, while NATO is engaged in a shooting or a cold military war with the rest of the world, the U.S. is engaged in a financial war with the rest of NATO.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has slowed down. We are told that this is a crisis, but in fact the Chinese economy has slowed from a growth rate of 7.7% to a growth rate of 6.9% per annum — in other words, instead of growing three and a half times faster than the U.S. economy and eleven times faster than the South African economy, it is growing three times and ten times faster respectively. A recession that ain’t.

What is more significant is that the Chinese financial economy is in trouble — a real estate bubble and various related financial scams has taken severe toll on the Chinese stock exchange and banking system, although there have been few substantial failures and of course there is plenty of money sloshing around because of China’s rigid exchange controls and nationalised central banking system. Many of China’s billionaires working in hot money and derivative scams have lost their shirts — which pleases the Chinese government, because financial billionaires are much too independent for their liking, and they don’t want to have to kowtow to them. However, the West ploughed a lot of money into those silly schemes, and so a lot of Westerners have lost a lot of money and are worried about it. Hence they are blaming the Chinese in order not to blame themselves.

Maybe that isn’t a big enough disaster to trigger a financial crisis — although given the feeble state of the European and Japanese financial economies, and America’s destructive financial policies, it might be. But the fall in the oil price is an ostrich delivering its plops on the head of Wall Street’s bronze bull.

The oil price has fallen because the Americans wanted it down. Having so much money, they could easily manipulate the futures price in oil, and that would spook investors to bring the current price down in line with that. Meanwhile, when they told the Saudis that they wanted the oil price down, the Saudis were happy to oblige. The Saudis were flush with cash, and they were busy eliminating two of their enemies by overthrowing the Ba’ath Party in Syria and persuading the Israelis and Americans to invade Iran. Cutting the oil price wouldn’t have to be a long-term thing, and once the Wahhabis were in power in Damascus and Iran had collapsed into civil war and chaos, the Saudis would rule the region.

But the other big thing was to hammer the U.S. fracking industry. Fracking in the U.S. is to some extent another Ponzi scheme — it doesn’t produce nearly as much oil and gas as the propaganda pretends, it’s grotesquely expensive and environmentally devastating, and in the long run it makes it harder to get the bulk of the hydrocarbons out because they get lost in the cracks. However, in the short term it was the biggest growth industry in the U.S. and the thing which was going to make Barack Obama’s Presidency look good in its last year. But that was when oil was $60 a barrel and set to rise. Now that it’s below $35 a barrel, no sane person would invest in fracking. So the industry has lost its investments and is frozen — actually it’s set to collapse. So why did the Americans permit this? Because they wanted to see Russia, Iran and Venezuela collapse first, and because the fracking industry is insured against losses.

So the American insurance industry is having to bail out the fracking industry. But this has been going on for a long time, and the heat is on the insurance industry and on the fracking industry, both of which look in a bad way. At a time when the possibility of a financial crisis looms large, this is not a good thing to see. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have shown no sign of collapsing — the American-promoted sanctions against both countries have meant that they don’t need all that much foreign currency to survive, and both countries have developed strong manufacturing industries. Venezuela is in a bad way, but that doesn’t really matter. And also meanwhile, the Saudis have spent vast amounts of money in the Syrian quagmire and their dream of a Wahhabi regime in Syria is nowhere near fruition; meanwhile they overstretched themselves by invading Yemen and are in another quagmire there, and so they are blowing vast amounts of cash which they don’t have, based on income they aren’t getting, and are screaming for help. As is Nigeria, America’s closest ally in West Africa (and an economic basket case).

So, basically, the next few months could see a calamitous global financial collapse. But not just a financial and banking collapse; a serious decline in the purchasing power of Western currencies, and a substantial crisis of overproduction in Asia and Germany which will throw people out of work in those regions — problems which didn’t come up in 2007. That will combine with the bursting of the bubbles which have been inflated by massive money-creation over the last few years, and with the decline in trade caused by the devastation of so many minor countries in recent years. This looks like a perfect storm — and given that there are so many politico-military flashpoints which the Americans have engineered between themselves and their allies and their competitors, and given that the NATO countries will be the big victims in any such collapse, the consequences could be a global war.

Invest in candles and cans of beans!


The Force is the Last Refuge of the Incompetent.

January 12, 2016

Matthew D’Ancona, the dishonest right-wing journalist, says that the Star Wars narrative is a myth, or mythos, or legend, or whatever, for our time. Although this sounds like the kind of drivel which is always said about anything which looks remotely like fantasy, and although the source is almost guaranteed to generate bullshit, let us not dismiss this instantly. Let us examine it for a moment, and then dismiss it instantly.

A myth is a way of accounting for the mysteries of the world. Usually it is in some way actionable — either as a warning, or as an example to be followed, although usually not completely literally. It is never completely banal or meaningless.

So, assuming that Star Wars is a myth, what does it constitute? Well, there are heroes and villains. This is not like the Iliad, where there are no such simple differences. Instead, the heroes are impossibly good, although occasionally outfitted with clunky minor negative qualities in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them from being saccharine. The villains, meanwhile, have all the tropes of evil apart from one — namely, motivation. The villains are evil for the sheer joy of being evil, a collection of Saurons obsessed with power for its own sake. This does not really provide us with any example for acting in the real world — instead, what it does is to confirm the propaganda mythos of the Western imperialist states, most particularly the United States, under which everybody except “us” is evil, and it is not necessary to comprehend evil because they must simply be blown up.

The universe is exciting, but in a wholly innocent way; it is there to be explored, but (except when the evil Empire is involved, when menace is always present) there are no consequences arising from this exploration. There is little to be learned from this exploration. Rather, what must be learned is a simple series of techniques (somehow not available to everyone) by which one may use the “Force”, along with a few talismans like “light sabers”, to become invincible. Of course this “Force” may be used for evil, and that is what the Empire is doing, so therefore by conquering the Empire one is also purifying the basic nature of the universe.

All this sounds childish — in the most precise sense; it is the fantasic response of a bullied eleven-year-old boy to his objective circumstances; if only I had a gang to join, if only I weren’t picked on, if only Dad understood me more, if only Mom were a little more indulgent, if only I didn’t have to go to school, hey, look at that pretty frog sitting on that log! It is no accident that the original Star Wars was consciously aimed at prepubescent children (though with a few nods to older people so that their parents — and the reviewers — could sit through it) and that is why the central characters are so young, and consciously presented as even younger than the ages of their actors. And that is why so much of the second trilogy (which is the first trilogy in the narrative — like some Soviet technology, Star Wars is crude but far from simple) also features children. (However, the second trilogy is much more sexualised, not because this is integral to the plot but because of cultural changes among Western youth over thirty years.)

An important point here is that the story being told in the original Star Wars was very much a Cold War narrative. The story being told to the U.S. public was that a gigantic and loathesome Soviet Union had nearly taken over the world, and that the United States stood as a lone and feeble paladin against this vast, expanding monster. It was a crock of shit borrowed by Harry Truman’s spooks and thugs from the Second World War narrative developed by the Roosevelt administration (and even then it was deeply flawed). It was intended to scare the people into obeying their leaders, and it succeeded and the result was the Miltown-tranquillized 1950s, and this is the period to which Spielberg and Lucas were referring, a time of placid, unthinking obedience and confidence in one’s own rectitude.

As such, then, Star Wars is not a myth or an epic. It is an appealing but false story told to children to make them docile and perhaps educate them to comply with their parents’ commands. It is, thus, a fairy-tale.

This is not to condemn it. Fairy stories are not necessarily degraded or despicable. However, they have their limitations.

One of the most positive things about the original Star Wars, a feature which to some extent survived in the sequel but gradually disappeared over time, was that the backstory was told only through brief and casual allusion. The point about a fairy story is that you have to suspend disbelief except in certain crucial cases where elements are introduced to generate plausibility. If the story is of such a kind as to make the child ask “But why did that happen? Why did she do that? What did he want?” then the story is failing. (This, by the way, is different from a slightly young child asking “Why?”, where this word is code for “I’m bored and want to change the subject”.) There is nearly nothing of this in the original Star Wars because the action is carried along at speed with minimal explanation and therefore minimal demand for plausibility, and above all, minimal opportunity to ask why something is happening. More to the point, the gaps in the plot are plugged with references to a backstory in which one may assume that someone out there is in charge without being expected to ask who, or to what end.

Unfortunately, this backstory came to dominate the narrative. Just as while the Galactic Emperor was simply a flicker in the distance he was a genuinely scary figure, but shrank into pathetic pretense when he appeared in the flesh, so the crass, ill-conceived bricolage of the story of how the bad guys overthrew the Old Republic detracted from the fairy-story without providing any genuine mythology to take its place. Clumsy Oedipal imagery didn’t help much, and the ghastly racism entailed in the treatment of aliens like the Ewoks and Jar-Jar showed how little real taste Lucas, and to some extent even Spielberg, really possessed when they were not guided by masters like Eisenstein (whose genius in Alexandr Nevski Spielberg plagiarised to create his storm troopers). The problem is that when Lucas was working within a childish framework his project functioned well; outside that framework, the attempt to turn fairy-story into myth failed.

Moreover, when adults, who should have discriminatory capacity, are told that they, too, should believe in fairy stories, there is something wrong. It is perhaps no accident that Star Wars appeared at the beginning of the neoliberal era, when the whole of society began to rely, ideologically, on complete claptrap instead of partial claptrap. It is certainly no accident that Ronald Reagan immediately took up Star Wars imagery for his campaign to remilitarise and depoliticise American society, in his “Evil Empire” speech, going full circle back to the roots of the movie in Truman-style politics.

This is the basic problem. The most recent Star Wars work is, in a technical sense, simply a collage of imagery from the earlier Star Wars movies. There are vaguely interesting ideas — part of the story is set on a planet littered with the wreckage of the previous war, for instance — but none is developed, nor are they related to the action in the way that the fragmented backstory was in the first Star Wars. For no apparent reason, the current bad guys (who are allegedly a sort of fascist movement) have adopted all the trappings of the previous bad guys, the Sith regalia, the storm trooper armour, and even Darth Vader’s silly shuttlecraft.

There is no backstory here, or none worthy of the name; just unmotivated evil which must be fought against. It is the triumph of stupid authority; do what we tell you, fight against the enemy, although without having to make any obvious sacrifice yourself (but respect those mercenaries who are paid to sacrifice themselves on your behalf). We have seen this in the various wars launched by NATO countries against demonised enemies from the Taliban to the Islamic State, and the fascist tropes of the most recent enemy are similar to the Islamofascist tropes used to justify the invasion of the Middle East in pursuit of oil.

This introduction to a fresh trilogy has nothing fresh about it — except for one thing; it is no longer intended for children. Or, to be precise, in the modern American visual culture, it is no longer possible to discriminate between works intended for children and those intended for adults. (The most popular movies in America, and some of the most popular in the world, are based on comic strips for teenagers, and it is solemnly pretended that these pitiful pretexts for garish computer-generated special effects are serious, message-laden narratives.) The central characters in this work are young adults in their late teens or early twenties — immature, of course, but not dependent on others and not willing to learn from anything except their Jedi and Sith masters. The heroine is sexy, the hero is hunky, the villain is rather reminiscent of a youthful, callower version of Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There are vague sexual tensions between the three, never properly explored, of course. So the narrative is no longer a fairy-story — or else it is a fairy-story for what passes for grown-ups in the modern world.

And this is the problem: the narrative is not a narrative for grown-ups. It is a child’s story, a battle between a good which has no merit and an evil which has no credibility, with evil bound to lose because it is supposed to in the comic-books, and with no real plausible representation of the world at all, not even the distorted and symbolic representation of a child’s vision. The logical contradictions and farcically inept emotional manipulation are not excused by any merits on any other level, nor can you write it off by saying that this is not intended for grown-ups. It is the triumph of the people whom Hunter S Thompson rightly defined, in his depiction of the Clinton years, as the New Dumb.

Perhaps the coming of a fresh Clinton provides the perfect background to this horridly ill-conceived, clumsy, brutalising and wretchedly unimaginative movie.


Doomsday Scenarios.

November 28, 2015

A mildly fascinating question: how close are we to global thermonuclear war?

This is not a jocular question. In South Africa we are obsessed with the failings and foibles of our own government (though these are often covered up by the press, who single out very specific failings and foibles and deploy them for the purposes of their controllers). We are also, sort of, aware of the potential global economic crisis, and are growing increasingly aware of the undeniable global environmental crisis. But the fact that we might be killed off by a war, either vapourised by igniting lithium deuteride or frozen in the ensuing global winter (rather ironic that it would sort out the global warming problem) is out of our consciousness.

This question is raised by the shooting-down of a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft by the Turkish Air Force over northern Syria.

Is this going to lead to a world war? Informed sources closely connected with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the countries under its ambit say, “No, the Russians wouldn’t dare” in various ways. Obviously war can only be started by Russia, since NATO countries, by definition, do not start wars — they engage in humanitarian interventions, as in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Iraq, etc., etc., etc.

So, let’s put the question another way. Is this going to lead to a world war in the real world, as opposed to the fantasy world in which the Western politicians and their bought media live? The answer is that we really don’t know yet. It could have been said that when Kaiser Wilhelm sent the gunboat Panther to Agadir, it didn’t start a world war — but the First World War was partly provoked by French fears of German meddling in what it considered its own affairs, so yes, that action did in a sense start the world war, or at least contributed to it. So, if there’s going to be a global thermonuclear war within the next couple of decades, if there are any subsequent historians, they would certainly say that the Turkish shootdown was a major contributing factor.

What actually happened is fairly simple and clear. The Russians were giving close air support to the Syrian Arab Army, which is taking over the area between Aleppo and the Turkish border so as to cut the supply lines of the Wahhabi guerrillas who control half of Aleppo. This area is partly occupied by Turkmen guerrillas linked to the Al-Nusra Front, which in turn is part of the Army of Conquest funded by Saudi Arabia. These guerrillas are from Central Asia, and are associated with the Islamic extremist movements in that region; they were presumably recruited there and trained in Turkey, and the Turks are pretending that they are Turks (they have some ethnic connections, although the territorial links have been broken for half a millennium) and supposedly under Turkish protection.

The guerrillas in question are connected to al-Qaeda and are in an informal alliance with the “Islamic State” guerrillas, so in theory the United States is at war with them, and NATO is at war with them, and therefore, Turkey is at war with them. In practice, the guerrillas were brought there by NATO countries, and could not survive without Turkish support, including aerial reconnaissance (this was what a Turkish RF-4 was doing over Syrian territory when the Syrians shot it down) but providing aerial fighter cover for the guerrillas is a step much further than the Turks have taken before.

The big question is whether the Turks did it on their own, or whether this was part of a NATO (for which read, of course, American) project to raise the stakes in the fight.

The same question can be asked about the bomb which blew up a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula. This was claimed by the Islamic State, and it’s perfectly possible that the Egyptian authorities at the Sharm-el-Sheik airport were so sloppy as to allow Islamic State guerrillas to smuggle a kilogram of high explosive connected with a barometric-pressure fuse (the airliner exploded when it reached cruising altitude, exactly like the Lockerbie airliner which was bombed with a barometric-pressure fuse) on board. After all, the Egyptians are only fighting a massive war in the Sinai Peninsula, part of their massive war against political dissidents everywhere, they are only a police state, they are only utterly dependent on foreign tourism to prop up their ramshackle dictatorship — how unsurprising that the first attempt to bomb an airliner in the area should succeed!

Or else we might ask if the Saudi intelligence services, or the Israeli intelligence services, or even the American intelligence services, might have been involved, with the goal of making the Syrian intervention unpopular with the Russian public. It’s the kind of exceptionally stupid thing they would do. (Using a barometric-pressure fuse instead of a time fuse is also a hint; the Lockerbie bomb was set by the Iranians in revenge for the shooting-down by the Americans of their airliner the previous year, and the Russian war in Syria is in support of Iran, and in alliance with Iran. A message from the Godfather, like a horse’s head in your bed.)

Of course IS might have acted alone, and the Turks might have acted alone (although NATO has backed them to the hilt and denounced the Russians for having an aircraft in a place where the Turks could shoot it down, and pretended to believe all the transparent lies the Turks have provided to excuse this incredibly provocative behaviour). The point is that nobody has acted to calm the tensions (except the Russians, who responded very cautiously to the airliner downing, in contrast to the excited yelps of joy coming out of the Western media on the subject, and who have responded to the Turkish action by simply beefing up their air defenses in Syria and imposing economic sanctions against Turkey — by any standards a proportionate reaction).

The thing is that the Russians are supposedly acting in an informal alliance with NATO, and yet it was a NATO country which shot the aircraft down while it was engaged in combat with the “extremist terrorists” whom NATO politicians are forever denouncing verbally. And yet despite these denunciations, NATO countries (and their allies, such as Australia) are major sources of recruitment for these Wahhabi guerrilla forces in Syria. Somehow, thousands of young disaffected Muslims manage to leave Britain and France and Australia and travel to Syria, and nobody stops them. After they have been trained and experienced combat, some of them come back, and of those, some proceed to try to shoot up trains with automatic weapons, or shoot up concerts with automatic weapons, or blow up bars with explosive belts.

Where do they get the guns and the explosives, and how is it that the most intensive political surveillance in the world is incapable of noticing either the weapons, the training, or the willingness to use them? Or is it that the surveillance notices them and the political control behind the surveillance is quite happy to see it all happen, because it can be used politically to justify more complete political repression and panic the public into blind support for the ruling class and racist endorsement of xenophobic and imperialist policies? Or is it that the surveillance notices them and the political control encourages it all to happen?

None of this is certain, except that no NATO country can be trusted to tell the truth about what is going on. (And Syria can’t be trusted much more, and Russia only a little more.) However, one minor point is that China stands with Russia in its Syrian policy, while the Chinese are very uneasy about the Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla movement in its Central Asian provinces, and are worried that the Americans seem to be supporting this movement — so the Turkmen receiving training and combat experience in Syrian Wahhabi guerrilla forces might ultimately be used to destabilise China, as the Chechens receiving the same things in the same forces might be used to destabilise Russia. China also sent a small naval force to support Syria when the Americans were trying to invade Syria in 2013 over the fake chemical weapons crisis. It does, then, seem that some sort of global bloc is forming.

The trouble is that NATO has been on the march since it invaded Serbia in 1999, and as NATO becomes economically weaker it becomes more and more dependent on military strategies. Its leadership, to put matters politely, lives in la-la land; one of its current propaganda tropes is that the Syrian government is backing ISIS, which makes exactly as much sense as the notion that Francisco Franco was backing the Spanish anarchist movement in 1937 (the claim then made by the Stalinists).

And as a result of floating on an ocean of fantasy pumped out by their public relations consultants (some of whom go under the name of intelligence agencies) the ruling class of the NATO countries has decided to launch a cold war against Russia and China (and incidentally to promote political turmoil in Brazil and economic sanctions against South Africa — of the BRICS countries only India is exempt from assault because it is so very, very right wing that the NATO ruling class hasn’t the heart to hurt it). But this cold war hasn’t been very effective; Russia wouldn’t give up its military bases in Crimea, and wouldn’t knuckle under when sanctions were imposed as if Russia were Equatorial Guinea. And then Russia went and decided to offer support to Syria, and coordinate the military and political cooperation between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, far more effectively than America was able to coordinate the cooperation between Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And so Russia must be punished, and so the Su-24 was shot down.

But all that does is piss off the Russians and trouble the Chinese (who aren’t keen about the Americans muscling in on their turf, although the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is allegedly aimed against the Chinese will probably damage the economies of the participating countries, and the Americans are incapable of doing anything effective in the South China Sea except irritate the Chinese military and Chinese big business). It also creates the impression that the NATO countries are both heavily armed and slightly crazed, and possibly desperate.

The last time the situation was like this, in the early 1980s, everybody in the world was scared, and as we now know, the most scared people of all were sitting in the Kremlin, nibbling their nails up to the elbow and jumping whenever a fresh radar blip showed another NATO combat or missile testing their defenses. Putin and Xi don’t give the impression of being frightened — but the NATO leadership scamper in circles on a regularly choreographed basis. “The Russians are coming! The Chinese are coming! ISIL/ISIS/Daesh are coming! The anti-semites are coming! Jeremy Corbyn is coming! We officially call for public panic and amok-running!” As a result, the Russians and Chinese (and the Indians) are all boosting their militaries quite substantially.

And these maniacs, and these more measured but quite clearly worried people, are the people with their fingers on the nuclear buttons, and there is no way of snipping those fingers off, or taking the fuses out of the nuclear warheads. If we get through the next decade without mushroom clouds in all directions, we will be exceedingly lucky. Maybe the Malagassy lemurs will survive. Maybe they will make a better job of it than we did.