Towards the Brink of What?

May 16, 2018

Clever people think there is going to be a nuclear war. Noam Chomsky is worried about it. American Democrats pretend to be worried about it as part of their campaign to demonise President Trump; supposedly in his childishness he might fire America’s nuclear arsenal at someone else. He has said that weapons are to be used, and no Democrat dares to point out that the words which President Trump employed are almost identical to the words used by Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton’s godmother, on much the same topic.

Which suggests that blowing up the world could be a bipartisan initiative.

American people who are depicted as clever in the American propaganda media say that a nuclear war would be a one-sided affair. They say that nobody could harm the United States except possibly the Russians; everybody else has too little weaponry to matter. In reality, the Chinese, should they wish to do so, could destroy fifty or a hundred American cities, meaning killing at least half the population of the United States. The French could do almost as much, and the British if they have worked out his to disable the safety locks on their American-made Trident missiles and control systems. (The British could also fire nuclear cruise missiles from their Tornadoes.) The Indians have a nuclear submarine capable of launching a few nuclear weapons at the United States, which would do more harm to that country than Hitler did to the USSR in three years of fighting. Even the Israelis have nuclear cruise missiles in their submarines which could probably reach the United States (the anti-submarine defenses of which have been wound down to almost nothing).

In other words, the American people depicted as clever in the American propaganda media are ignorant psychopaths trying to use the menace of nuclear war to terrify the boobs, as usual, and appear not to realise that they would also be turned into charcoal shadows on the calcined wall if anything serious were to happen.

Above that level, however, there is almost a certainty that the Americans are not so psychopathic as they present themselves (and have done so since the 1950s), that Donald Trump is not a deranged child-man bent on suicide, and therefore, that nuclear war is not very likely except as a by-product of a cold war turning hot by accident. This is the real danger, and has been growing in intensity over the past two decades.

The West’s war with Russia began in the 1990s, when the West’s allies in the Gulf offered military and financial aid to the Wahhabi rebels in Chechnya. It is for this reason, and no other, that the West pledged eternal love and admiration to those rebels; granted there is some sneaking admiration for people prepared to fight against impossible odds and appear to win, but on the other hand no Western country loves secessionists in any territory of which they approve. What is obvious is that the West was hoping that the fragmentation of the Soviet Union would be followed by the fragmentation of Russia, and Putin’s refusal to accept this, and his brutal prosecution of the war in Chechnya to prevent any further fragmentation, was the principal reason why Putin began to be demonised.

The West’s war with China began much later; it is difficult to put a finger on it. Adoration for the Tienanmen Square uprising showed the direction which things would take — China must become a satrapy of the West or else — but there was much less concern with China at that time. The British had to make nice with China in order to keep a toehold of control in Hong Kong; the Americans had to make nice with China in order to have an alternative to Pakistan in case things went bad in Afghanistan. (As they did.) Nobody else apart from the Japanese had any reason to worry about China; India’s sabre-rattling is entirely for home consumption, part of the general manipulation of foolish Hindu fanatics.

But the potential for the war was there, and the Chinese expansion into the oil-rich waters of the South China Sea was a military expansion which the Americans did their best to exploit (although since the expansion was already in place in the 1980s, the campaign twenty years later to challenge China’s position based on the Law of the Sea which the United States never ratified is both ridiculously belated and pathetically dishonest).

The NATO expansion up to the borders of Russia was annoyingly provocative, but this has probably been overstated. Much more serious was the attempt to get Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, which the Russians correctly saw as a process of encirclement and rolling back Russian access to the Middle East and Central Asia, the two areas where Russia sees potential for reconstructing its old empire with Chinese financial aid. This was compounded by the fact that the states which NATO was backing were preposterously unstable, as was shown by the mad Georgian attempt to defeat Russia in 2008 which nearly lost Georgia its army and air force without in any way inconveniencing Russia — actions almost certainly green-lighted by the Americans.

Then came the NATO war with Syria, which the Russians immediately recognised as a carbon copy of what the West had tried to do in Chechnya, and which the Chinese speedily recognised as a close relative of what seemed to be going on in China’s Islamic far west, where Uighur gunmen and bombers were trying to push for a Wahhabi separatism, though without much success. As a result, China began to sit up and take notice, and offered some aid to the Russian efforts to block an American invasion of Syria after the initial flooding of the country with foreign gunmen failed to overthrow the Ba’ath Party.

And then, of course, came the decider; the American-sponsored coup in Ukraine aimed at bringing that country into NATO and throwing the Russians out of Crimea, their principal southern naval and air force base. As everybody knows, this was a disaster; not only did the coup bring a spectacularly incompetent government to control of Kyiv, making them remarkably unfit NATO allies, but the Russians refused to be thrown out of Crimea and instead annexed the peninsula to the cheers of the locals, most of whom were horrified at the racist shenanigans in the rest of Ukraine.

It seems unlikely that the Russians planned for the separatists in Novorossiya to take things as far as they did — Russia didn’t really want a permanent enemy in Ukraine, though obviously seizing Crimea would be a thorn for decades — but when it happened, largely as a consequence of artificially-stoked Russophobia in western Ukraine, the Russians naturally made sure that Novorossiya would not be stomped flat, and that any reunification of Ukraine would have to happen with Russian approval. And the Americans didn’t like that, so they began to use claims that the Russians were coming to fool the Western European boobs into doing whatever they were told.

Then came the “Pivot to Asia”, meaning that the Americans began bustling around the Asian continent telling everybody to have nothing to do with the Chinese initiatives to link Europe, South and Central Asia with a belt of transport and manufacturing hubs (it has been proved that you can make a belt out of hubs, so stop complaining). And what do we get out of this? asked the Asians. Why, said the Americans, sign up for our Free Trade Agreement, grant American corporations absolute control of your economies, and every Asian country can become as successful as Mexico in the next twenty years! The Asians looked thoughtfully at Mexico, looked thoughtfully at the supertanker-loads of money which the Chinese were spending on economic development throughout the Asian continent, and kicked the American envoys down the steps.

Well, that couldn’t be tolerated, so the Americans ramped up tension with China by trying to pick a renewed fight with North Korea. Meanwhile, they decided to solve the Syrian problem once and for all by sending more and better-armed Wahhabi gunmen to conquer that country, and as an afterthought, by tying the Iranians down in a quagmire in Yemen thanks to the invasion of that country by the invincible Saudi Royal Armed Forces.

All that this accomplished was to get the Russians to make a deal with the Iranians and the Lebanese to offer ground support to the Ba’ath in Syria, while the Russians provided air support and intelligence. This very nearly led to a war between Russia and Turkey, and caused the Israelis to ramp up their participation in the war, sponsoring gunmen to keep Syrian troops away from the borders of the Golan Heights and periodically bombing Syrian targets. Anything which involves the Turks and the Israelis tends to arouse the ire of the average Arab, and the fact that the Saudis were happily fighting side by side with the Israelis did nothing to reduce the tension there or encourage them to be frightened of the Iranians, who were now best friends with the Russians (while they were also major suppliers of oil to China and therefore umbilically linked).

When the Russian initiative succeeded and the Syrian government recovered great swathes of territory and incidentally demonstrated both the complicity of the West in ghastly Wahhabi massacres in the area, and the complicity of the Western media in lying about the whole context and process of the war, this did no good for the American-Saudi-Israeli cause, and meanwhile the Americans began relying so heavily on Kurdish gunmen linked to separatists in Turkey, and botched an attempted military coup in Turkey, that Turkey began tilting towards Russia. It was a huge, and hugely predictable, mess.

Having been defeated (although perhaps only temporarily) in Asia and the Middle East, losing face calamitously, the West had to fall back on lies. Hence the claims that the Russians engineered the election of President Trump and the departure of Britain from the European Union, and perhaps also the North Korean development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. These claims are ludicrous, and grow more ludicrous with every repetition as more lies and exaggerations are added, but they serve to rally the boobs behind a new cold war with Russia, and meanwhile there is also the demand that the West should punish China for unsportingly manufacturing goods more cheaply than the West can, and in far greater quantities, by slapping tariffs and fines on imports from China, thus making consumer goods in the West more expensive and scarce.

These two cold wars are dangerous, although they segue into one cold war because China and Russia are militarily and economically very close these days. The war in Syria is hot, however, and both China and Russia are involved on one side, and the West on the other. The situation in Ukraine is unstable, with Russia and the West at loggerheads. Meanwhile the aftermath of Western aggressive imperialism has left unresolved wars flaring in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Niger, Central Africa and the Congo. Any one of these wars could lead to problems between the Sino-Russian alliance and the West, especially since China is increasingly concerned to build strategic partnerships in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, where the wars are happening.

So what? the purportedly clever Americans and Britons say. Yes, Western policies have driven the world closer to the brink of war than it has been since September 1939 or July 1914. But unlike those months, today nobody is ready for war. The West does not want to start a war, even though it would win, and the Sino-Russians are too weak and would not dare, because they would lose. Therefore, the central element of Western foreign policy should be to press further into the hedge around war, because it is impossible to burst through the hedge into actual war.

But what if it is? The Americans think of themselves as militarily all-powerful, but their armed forces are extremely clumsy and ineffective, especially their ground forces. Their navy is hugely vulnerable. Their air force is obsessed with the “silver bullet” and in developing ever more expensive, ever more complex, ever less reliable warplanes. Their “special forces” are little more than a global death squad. Meanwhile, Russia has developed some fairly effective basic weaponry and sold the designs to China, which is producing them in gigantic quantities, and the Chinese and Russian militaries are both much more serious and sober, and much less politicised, than the American or European militaries. Both Russia and China are concentrating on defending their local areas of influence; China on the local seas out to Japan and Taiwan and the Philippines, Russia on Eastern Europe, the Baltic, Black Sea, White Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, and they would both be difficult countries to invade.

But if war breaks out, Europe will be in danger of invasion, as will the American allies off China’s coast — Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — and without Europe and the Asian allies, the United States would face a grave economic crisis. In order to defend its Asian allies it would have to expend its navy, and unlike the Chinese, who have been turning out warships like so many sausages, they cannot replenish their losses. As for the prospects of defending Eastern Europe, it seems unlikely that anything could stop the Russians from overrunning the territories which they conquered in 1945, and then using these as bases from which to bombard America’s allies — while Russia’s formidable submarine fleet would make resupply for American forces in Europe very difficult. It would be an extremely scary and troublesome war, and the long-term prospects for American victory are not good (the United States no longer possesses a huge manufacturing base to convert to military purposes as it did in 1940).

So it seems that war is not very likely, but if it does come, the United States will lose. This, however, was also the judgement made about the Kaiser’s Germany, and in a sense about Tojo’s Japan, both countries which felt themselves encircled and threatened and decided, despite the strong position they were in, that they could only get weaker in future and that now was the moment to strike against their enemies. (Adam Tooze makes a convincing argument that this was why the Nazis went to war in 1939, contradicting both the assessments of the Wehrmacht and Hitler’s own plans laid out both in Mein Kampf and in the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937, usually represented as the blueprint for war.) In other words, it’s not so very unlikely as all that, and the prospects for the actual conduct of such a war, with all sides possessing vast weapons of mass destruction, are more terrifying than almost anyone in this day and age can imagine, remote as we are even from the genocidal conflicts of the 1980s which have been swept under the carpet.

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Dowling’s Good Bad Book.

May 19, 2016

Finuala Dowling is one of the more interesting writers working within the white community in South Africa at the moment, largely because she is working for her own amusement rather than seeking to fulfil the expectations of a market in return for cash. Therefore it is possible to read her work without devoting too much time to identifying the familiar political buttons being pressed by the writer so as to manipulate the reader, and which are so irritating when one reads, say, Deon Meyer.

But since she is serving herself rather than market, it is natural that she should draw on her own life. Although Dowling’s life has been interesting enough to be worth writing about, it also leads to a certain repetitious self-consciousness — even self-indulgence — in her works. Also, where she is making use of painful memories, there is a certain manifest difficulty in what she is producing, a degree of blockage and distance between the creative writing and the material being utilised. This blockage is probably not artistic but is likely to be produced by Dowling’s own sense of hurt and loss.

This was already present in Home-Making For the Down-At-Heart, where she was writing about the dementia and death of her mother. She had already written most of a volume of poems about this, and the novel seemed to be a way of addressing the issue in a sustained way. The poems were usually short vignettes depicting her mother’s bizarre behaviour or utterances. The novel was a sustained depiction of decline and death (seen from the perspective of a person who had her own problems with coming to terms with daily life.)

However, both of these volumes managed to evade the essential horror of the issue by exploiting the dark, ironic humour which could be derived from living with someone who has lost touch with reality. As a result, although Dowling was managing to make the painful episodes of her life appear entertaining for the reader (and not so painful as to be difficult to read, which would have been commercial suicide) it’s a moot point whether the end product was therapeutic. Perhaps art shouldn’t be therapeutic.

So is this true of her most recent book, The Fetch?

Well, the work is interesting because it is an attempt to break out of the Hout Bay Bohemian-suburban environment which is the setting for her earlier novels. Instead it is set in Slangkop, an imaginary village across False Bay from Hout Bay, making it the mirror-image of her hometown. Daringly, in a sense, there is a tough, no-nonsense, elderly black person who acts as foil to the central character, a naïf librarian who stumbles into the inner circle of both the village’s only aesthete and the village’s only hippie.

But these characters are distinctly stereotypical and their interactions are not coherently motivated; nobody seems to have any real desire to do anything other than fulfil their role as defined by their status in the book. They bounce between each other like billiard-balls, remaining completely unaffected by being bounced (as when the hippie is obliged to adopt an abandoned baby). It is not really possible to engage with these characters as people; the problem isn’t so much that Dowling is trying to appeal to her audience, as that she needs these characters to provide a background for the central feature of the story which is the relationship between the librarian and the aesthete. Therefore, although the characters are supposed to be human, they are actually mechanical dolls.

The trouble with Slangkop itself is that it is not a realised place. There are occasional references to location and to events, but it is not a community; there is none of the subtle interaction between people which exists in small towns. Everybody is isolated, but this is not social commentary, it is rather a lack of development. Again, a place was needed to provide a background for the relationship between the central character and the aesthete, but it is not described in a way which would make the reader want to visit it, let alone believe that it exists.

The narrative is a series of vignettes, often stylised (as with the lone baboon which has lost its troop, which is obviously a metaphor for the doomed male homosexual character). The book is similarly fragmented into episodes which appear arranged to show the innocence of the central character and the way in which harsh reality crushes it. She does not understand the world, but the more she tries to engage with it by falling in love with the aesthete and then becoming his dogsbody, the more she is setting herself up to show that the world is not prepared to conform to her expectations.

This is a fair enough point. Of course, it is a very old story, the story of the romantic young person who imposes her own values on the world and thus manages to kid herself that she has attained her goal, when she is simply living in a fantasy. The person who tries to risk all for love — and it is always tempting to give in to the deliriums of desire — is going to be disappointed in the object of the love, because nobody is as perfect as a fantasy partner. The more the lover gives to the object of desire, the more the lover surrenders, the greater the eventual disaster is likely to be when reality breaks in. It is well resolved in the book; the aesthete is (of course) bisexual and runs off with a beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy is (of course) a psychopathic manipulator who steals all the aesthete’s money. It is a familiar white middle-class Cape Town story, and the bulk of it is the story of Dowling’s own disastrous marriage.

And then what? Dowling makes the librarian a rather hapless figure (actually everybody in the book is rather hapless, but she stands out in this respect), easily threatened by dangerous urban women her age in expensive outfits which they are more willing to take off than she is. This is slightly Jamesian (and in a way perhaps Dowling is trying to be a bit Michiel Heyns). For a contrast to this we therefore need a corrupt but fascinating central character, which it seems likely that the aesthete is meant to be. But in the book, he isn’t; unlike the corrupt milieu figures in Heyns’ Invisible Furies, Dowling’s aesthete isn’t sufficiently strongly constructed to bear the weight of being a tragic hero.

It seems likely that he is loosely modelled on some of the figures at the English Department at UCT where Dowling studied, some of whom tried to fulfil the role of being life-artists and big frogs in tiny artistic ponds. Slangkop, however, cannot provide a background like this because nobody there cares about aesthetics or life-artists, and the aesthete is thus suspended in a void; only his parties and his journalism exist to impress anybody (and what pitiful accomplishments these are, getting an article published somewhere or getting some pretty people to come and drink your whisky). Nothing that happens seems unusual or interesting enough to justify making this person the centre of attention. Therefore his fall, and his subsequent death from AIDS, appear both inevitable and insignificant; since the central character is no longer in love with him and nobody cares about him, and nothing he has done suggests that the planet is losing a giant talent or intellect, however much compassion Dowling pours into the last part of the text it still amounts to very little impact.

Again, perhaps this is part of the problem. Dowling seems, on one hand, to be offering a kind of tribute to her ex-husband. On the other hand, her ex-husband was himself a master of illusion, creating the impression of being a giant talent on the basis of very little accomplishment, so this is a fair representation. But it’s in a sense sad and squalid, and it’s never quite clear in the text whether the aesthete is indeed a no-talent, delusional loser, or whether he is indeed a great talent gone to seed and ultimately to waste.

Perhaps, then, Dowling is torn between the artistic need of the text and the truth of the material which she is dealing with. But still more important is the problem that she is dealing with her own sense of pain and loss, making it difficult for her to engage with anything; on one hand the other characters in the work are foils for the aesthete and the librarian, yet on the other hand if the aesthete and the librarian’s interaction is made too powerful then this opens all the wounds of her marriage. Thus if the book had been more of a success as a narrative, it might also have been horribly painful for its author — and maybe she wasn’t ready, or even able, to go there.

Maybe the moral of the story is that Dowling made a mistake in trying to do this in the first place. It’s an honourable failure; the book is reasonably well-constructed and written with Dowling’s customary skill and there is a lot of potential there, even if it has its trivial and manipulative side. But it does seem to be a failure, and the failure does seem to arise from trying to exorcise a ghost who simply won’t go away however much Dowling tries to drive him out.