Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Is Revolution Necessary... Is it Possible?

A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness. Salon

If it was conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it.
The late Aaron Swartz


Revolution against what?


"Capitalism" like "Communism" is a word so overused, that like "awesome", it has become nearly meaningless. Let us instead just refer to our "Present, Global, Economic System" (PGES).
There is no other system, so for want of anything better, "PGES" will do just fine. It is morphing constantly so some "one size fits all" can morph with it.

Which bring us to the question, does life really, "suck any more than it did a generation ago"?

I would say, "yes", it does, wouldn't you?


Because we are being "optimized" by the new technologies beyond the dreams of the pioneers of PGES.

What is "optimization"?

Ask any battery chicken or your average pig... it's true they can't talk, but they are experts on the subject of optimization.

Seriously, since Andrew Taylor, invented "Scientific Management", managers have found more and more ingenious ways of optimizing the work force so that it produces as efficiently as the battery chickens lay eggs, but with computers their ability to do this has grown geometrically. To make it more onerous those who hold the levers that control this system give the impression that they no longer even breathe the same air as the rest of humanity.

To be brief, let us say that at this point in time we find ourselves writhing helplessly in the hands of an itinerant, universal, cosmopolitan, extractive, managerial oligarchy of no fixed abode, totally out of the control of any democratically elected institution, with no clear accountability for, or title to, the unimaginable wealth that passes through, and more often than not, sticks to their hands.

What has happened to a system that was always callous, but which didn't seem so insanely "out of control"?

Under the title, "Have US Corporations Renounced Citizenship?", which I recommend reading in full, William Pfaff gives a very serviceable explanation of many of the factors.  Among other things Pfaff writes:
Part of the reason for the dramatic change that has taken place in American business opinion obviously is globalization of business and production. A second is the onset of globalization-induced opportunities for tax minimization or sheer tax evasion. A third, as I have noted before, is the shift of corporate control from owners, now frequently powerless, even collectively, to opportunistic professional management. The most important reason, however -- in my opinion – has been the profound change that has taken place in economic ideology. Both monetarism and market theory remove from economic management voluntarism, political intelligence, and moral responsibility, by describing economic function as objective and automatic. Thus the customer always makes the most advantageous choice, so the market presents a perfect and efficient mechanism dictating the choices that must be made by businesses, while always tending towards perfect competition. Labor is a mere commodity, and unions and wage demands obstacles to the free function of markets. Governments by nature are obstacles to economic freedom. William Pfaff
To bring this down to the ground, where the rubber meets the road, where it connects with everyday life, I thought that this quote from an article from Time that I used to illustrate a piece on the fast food workers strike, would better give the rank flavor of the economic ideology that Pfaff analyzes.
A living wage would have more long-lasting effects on the industry than just the price of its menu items. Lichtenstein says it would likely create permanent employment in the industry, meaning more of its workers would stay for two to three years, likely leading to further demands on working conditions. “From the company’s point of view, if they know their employees are going to be there for three years, then there’s also this informal pressure on the managers to accommodate the workers,” he says, citing the possibility of wage creep and further increased labor costs for employers. “Managers then can’t just move people around all the time. Firing gets more difficult. So they don’t want a permanent workforce.” Time Magazine
The classic late 19th early 20th century image of work

Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times"

This is how work looked by the 1950s

Jack Lemmon's office in "The Apartment"

A big office might still look quite similar today, but the difference would be that one computer might be handling much more data than the entire office of the '50s did... multiply that by the workstations you see in the picture and you'll get an idea of the pressure created.

We should ask ourselves:

Do our societal institutions promote:
  • Enthusiasm—or passivity?
  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom

Of course all of this is aggravated by ours being a consumer society, where capitalism's foundational virtues such as patient suffering in the present for a better future tomorrow, sacrifice and the postponement of gratification are anathema and if followed would be the final coup d´grace for the wounded economy... Just ask Angela Merkel. According to the canons of marketing, people are supposed to be happy, they "deserve" being happy, but at the same time they never should be satisfied. This construction is obviously insane, but at the same time we are constantly being told, "there is no alternative".

Summing up you could say that
Global capitalism is a complex process which affects different countries in different ways. What unites the protests, for all their multifariousness, is that they are all reactions against different facets of capitalist globalisation. The general tendency of today’s global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (healthcare, education, culture), and increasingly authoritarian political power.  Slavoj Žižek - London Review of Books
The big question: who is ever going to bell the cat? DS

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ask not for whom the Wall falls...

The natives are restless:
Sometimes simple and bold ideas help us see more clearly a complex reality that requires nuanced approaches. I have an "impossibility theorem" for the global economy that is like that. It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full. Dani Rodrik

In this sense, the crisis of capitalism has turned into a crisis of democracy. Many feel that their countries are no longer being governed by parliaments and legislatures, but by bank lobbyists, which apply the logic of suicide bombers to secure their privileges: Either they are rescued or they drag the entire sector to its death. Der Spiegel

Despite philosophers of “universal harmonies” such as Francis Fukuyama, Timothy Garton Ash, Vaclav Havel, Bernard Henry Lévy and scores of international “economic advisors” to Boris Yeltsin, who all fantasized about democracy and prosperity, neither really arrived for most people in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Branko Milanovic - The Globalist
We are now in the midst of commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which was followed in short order by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its entire international system.

I say "commemorate", but when it comes to the collapse of the wall and enormous Soviet system, the word most people use is "celebrate". But here I would interject an ancient Spanish folk proverb, which goes, "when you see your neighbor's beard on fire, put your beard to soak"; or the not so ancient but equally valid American saying, "what goes around, comes around".

In my opinion the most unbiased, irrefutable, undeniable take-away from the collapse of the USSR and its entire ideological superstructure is that huge, powerful, complex and historically successful systems, which have embodied the hopes and dreams of several generations of people all around the world, can just up and die with little or no warning... Soon to be playing in theaters near you.

Why is it so difficult to realize anything so perfectly obvious?

It is very difficult to see this glaring reality because of an enormous think tank and media industry with scores of attending lobbies that was built up during the Cold War, (one which still flourishes), to "win friends and influence people" for our system. This was in most every way a mirror of the Soviet "propaganda" machine.

In the English language the word, "propaganda" fell out of favor during World War One and was replaced by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays with more euphonious terms such as "public relations" and "marketing". 

If we observe that our system has been sold to the world, and more importantly even to ourselves, in exactly the same way as a soft drink, lets look at Coke's slogans over the years. What if instead of: "the pause that refreshes", "things go better with Coke" or, "it's the real thing", they had said the plain truth?

Imagine instead, "Coke tastes really good, it's fantastic with rum in fact, but if you drink enough of it to keep our shareholders happy you will surely become grotesquely obese and you will probably develop diabetes and end up having your legs amputated"... send that up the flag pole and see who salutes. 

With Coca Cola's "propaganda" as your model, compare, "With Liberty and Justice for all" or "All men are created equal" or how about "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth", with the Supreme Court decisions, "Buckley v. Valeo" and "Citizens United v. the Federal Electoral Commission" which have turned the United States into the political equivalent of a fat, diabetic, legless, wreck... As a master analyst writes:
The dominating significance of the mid-term American legislative elections just finished has been the occasion’s dramatic confirmation of the corruption of the American electoral system. This has two elements, the first being its money corruption, unprecedented in American history, and without parallel in the history of major modern western democracies. How can Americans get out of this terrible situation, which threatens to become the permanent condition of American electoral politics? The second significance of this election has been the debasement of debate to a level of vulgarity, misinformation and ignorance that while not unprecedented in American political history, certainly attained new depths and extent.(...) The result of these developments during the past forty years has been the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy, which is to say a state governed by its wealthiest class. No one in America today doubts it. William Pfaff
Where is all this heading? Once upon a time they asked Mao's old sidekick, Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution of 1789, "It's too early to tell", he replied.

Most people thought Zhou was joking, but there was much, rather Taoist, wisdom in his words. Both the Russian revolution and America's are daughters of the French enlightenment that gave birth to the French revolution; all three propose a "universal" system of values by which all humanity is to achieve happiness. The French version led to Napoleon and Waterloo. This past weekend we celebrated the end of Russia's attempt at making everyone, everywhere, happy.

25 years ago, when the wall went down it looked like the American dream of turning the world into a universal sea of American values was going to come true: World Bank, IMF, WTO, NAFTA, enlarging NATO... An American directed "New World Order had dawned... That sounds a bit stale by now doesn't it? The Chinese sure aren't buying, neither is Russia... I wouldn't count on India either... not to mention Latin America.

Reading the quote from William Pfaff above it would seem that the USA, like the USSR before it, would do well to clean up its own mess at home instead of trying to arrange the world's affairs. DS

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Artificial Intelligence: our "next big idea" for destroying humanity


“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful,” said Musk. “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”(...) He recently described his investments in AI research as “keeping an eye on what’s going on”, rather than viable return on capital. “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out,” said Musk. - Elon Musk - The Guardian
Sometimes I wonder if artificial intelligence doesn't already exist and has quietly taken over the world without our noticing it.
Even the word "artificial" is misleading, because the question is not really about a superior intelligence residing in a devise or machine. The question is whether this "thing" has become a "being", with a sense of its separate identity, an ego, an instinct for self-preservation.

This sense of self-preservation doesn't require great intelligence, as anyone can testify who has turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night and watched the cockroaches run for their lives or has been haunted by the pitiful screams of terror of a pig about to be slaughtered.

In seems obvious to me that the only threat to the survival of an "inhuman" intelligence would be the same one that threatens all other life forms on our planet... you guessed it, us, the humans.

However it is safe to assume that the greater the intelligence, the more nuanced would be the analysis of potential threats and more sophisticated the "flee or fight" reaction to those perceived threats.

Probably such a being (anything that is conscious of being a being is a "being) would begin by examining its surroundings, thus it would soon be aware of its relationship to humanity and the threats and opportunities that relationship offered...

Not being organic, I can't see why that such a being would have any reason to feel anything approaching empathy with humans or any other organic creature... It might be easier to imagine that such an inorganic being would sympathize more with a discarded toaster than it would with, say, a handicapped, human child.

It is logical to suppose that this superior Artificial Intelligence would evaluate humanity in the same way that humanity has always evaluated other species we have encountered: are we dangerous? Are we useful? Are we good to eat? Can we be domesticated? Enslaved? Exterminated? If so, how? ... Could we be made into pets?

Slipping for a moment into paranoia, imagine that the artificial being already exists, perhaps even unbeknownst to its creators... has the AI found us good to eat? If so how does such a being feed? How would it "eat" us? Are we being enslaved, domesticated? Are we being culled?

What got me thinking in this line was sitting in a sidewalk cafe watching a crowded street filled with people bumping into each other while they stared fixedly at their cellphone screens, tapping them rapidly, their ears plugged with earphones, totally oblivious to the reality (cars, bicycles, sharp objects, other humans) around them. DS

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why "shareholder value" and humanity are on a collision course

Chopped down Boreal forest near a tar sands mine in Alberta, Canada -CC- Greenpeace  - Credit: Jiri Rezak / WWF
Here is why I think humanity will end with a bang followed by a whimper or a whimper followed by a bang. Take your pick. DS
(H)ardcore conservatives: (...) have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.” Naomi Klein - "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate"

Oil and gas companies produce away their main asset each year –- reserves — and have to replace them or eventually go out of business. It’s a fact of life. Valuations, debt lines and ultimately stock prices flow from this single piece of paper, which is how you figure out profitability. Oil and Gas Investment Bulletin

The reserves replacement ratio is one of the key metrics for assessing an oil company’s performance. It measures the extent to which it replaces the crude oil it produces with new reserves, such as those discovered through exploration. A company could eventually run out of oil if it fails to maintain the ratio at 100 per cent or higher.(...) The majors used to have little trouble replenishing but that changed as the balance of power switched to oil-producing states, especially in the Middle East, who shut the majors out. With control of the world’s oil reserves now in the hands of big state-owned energy groups such as Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco, western oil companies have to run ever faster just to keep still. Financial Times

The past decade has seen a reassertion of state control over national petroleum resources, which has continued to limit international oil company (IOC) access to easy oil. The bulk of the oil that remains freely accessible to IOCs is technically difficult and expensive to produce such as the Canadian tar sands, ultra-deepwater and the offshore Arctic. BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster highlights the scale of the risks involved in pursuing some of these marginal resources. Oil International

I'm your mamma, I'm your daddy
I'm that nigga in the alley
I'm your doctor when in need
Want some coke, have some weed
You know me, I'm your friend
Your main boy, thick and thin
I'm your pusherman

Sunday, October 12, 2014

ISIS: Obama's Vietnam?

Better than anything else I have come across, the two quotes below sum up, in just a few words, the enormous clusterfuck into which the USA is entering in its mission to "degrade and destroy" the ISIS.
I wouldn't want my country to help the defendants of Kobani because Kobani is held by the PKK, and Turkey has been at war with the PKK for 30 years. Why should we stand in the way of Isis on this particular occasion? After all, Isis has already carried out untold massacres in just about every other Syrian and Iraqi town that it has invaded to date. Why extend a degree of mercy to Kurdish terrorists that has been denied to the Christians of Maloula or Shiite Turkomans of Iraq? Let Isis carry on with its grizzly work. Our soldiers cannot be placed in the line of fire to rescue the same Kurds who were exploding land mines under their feet. Ahmet T. (comment) -  Financial Times

The Sunni states are unable to defend the region from the disciplined, aggressive, but relatively small, lightly equipped forces of IS. Despite lavish expenditures, extensive training programs, and impressive numbers of battalions and squadrons, Gulf armies are deeply flawed by corruption, tribal and sectarian fissures, and poor leadership. There is no reason to expect reform, especially when outside forces are available to provide security. Regional security is also limited by sectarian hostility, which has reached new highs with the demise of Sunni control in Iraq and the rise of Iran's nuclear program. Shia troops from Iran are unable to act decisively in Iraq without triggering fears and reactions from Sunni states. Sunni troops cannot intervene without triggering the same responses in Iran. Brian M Downing - Asia Times
If this war goes much further and it certainly looks like going much, much, further, it could turn out to be infinitely more dangerous and destructive, for all concerned: humanly, economically and politically, than the war in Vietnam ever was. 

The ways that this could all spin out of control are too uncountable for any amateur Cassandra like me to number. Conventional wisdom is that after the demise of the USSR, World War Three is unthinkable, but I think that if anyone in Hollywood were trying to dream up a way of starting it, America's entering this whirlpool would make for quite a believable scenario. DS

Sunday, September 28, 2014

America has taken the Islamic State's bait

It may be hard to believe, but in the end Obama may end up looking even dumber than George W. Bush, the fool who opened this whole Pandora's box in the first place.

The Islamic State, more than war, is engaged in political theater, whose primary audience is not the West, but rather the Middle East's enormous population of literate, unmarried, unemployed, thus frustrated and angry young men, who live under corrupt, autocratic rulers, seen by their peoples to be American puppets and portrayed by Islamists as degenerate apostates. As these frustrated young men watch their rulers accompany the United States and the former colonial powers, Britain and France, in bombing the Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq all their worst conspiracy theories play out before them.

By pressuring these Arab regimes to bomb the ISIS, the United States may very well be playing straight into the Islamist's hands. It is significant that the generals of Egypt, ruling over a restless population, where the only free election in Egypt's history brought an Islamist government, want no part of this operation.
In the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment, some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years compared to a global average of 28.(...) In the Middle East, educational enrollment rates are high, with nearly universal access at the primary level and nearly 70% enrollment at the secondary level.(...) Further, youth currently constitute an estimated 51% of total unemployed in the region(...) In the region today, nearly 50% of men between the ages of 25 and 29 are unmarried. Financial costs associated with marriage (housing, furniture, wedding ceremonies, etc.) and a lack of economic means contribute to the postponement of family formation. Youthpolicy.Org

Isis is trying to spark underclass animosity among – and give identity to – the untenably high proportion of (mainly young) Arabs who have been excluded by closed and corrupt systems. The heart of its narrative is that the Arab world is a collection of failed and rotting states. David Gardner - Financial Times

(...) there is concern that sympathy for the jihadis among the general public in the region could galvanise opposition to Gulf governments.(...) The reaction highlights concerns about a backlash against the conservative Sunni Gulf states for launching attacks on their coreligionists at a time when sectarian divisions plague the Middle East. “I hope the Americans appreciate the risk the Saudis are taking,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a Dubai-based political scientist. “There is latent sympathy to Isis there.” Air strikes on Isis launch battle for Gulf hearts and minds -Financial Times
The primary goal of the Islamists is a revolution in the Arab monarchies of the Middle East. The young fighters of the ISIS are just the tip of a demographic iceberg... we are in the process of stirring up a hornet's nest, one whose blowback in the Muslim world, may be worse than any of our previous, murderous, bumbling. DS

Monday, September 22, 2014

Caliphate vs Caliphate... Obama's wild goose chase

"Globalization is the caliphate of the financial markets"
Andrés Rábago's quote is rather perfect.  Here is Wikipedia's definition of the Muslim Caliphate:
Conceptually, a caliphate represents a sovereign state of the entire Muslim faithful, (the Ummah), ruled by a caliph under Islamic law (sharia).
Globalization being the universal rule of the financial markets under the laws of liberal economics, with the bankers being a collegiate "caliph" and "god" being written as "$".

A fundamentalist reading of our system would go something like this: "there is no $ but the $ and the NYSE is its witness" to which its devotees would add, "peace be upon it".

However, our system is bleeding charisma.
Charisma is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. Max Weber
What is the heart of our system's charisma? It's symbol might be the Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty: our faith is based on our system's heretofore eternal ability to create endless wealth and spread it around widely enough so its glaring inequalities were accepted painlessly.  This version of the economy has been in the tank since Lehman Brothers went down and the middle class of the developed countries, not having had the darshan of  "$" for quite a while are losing the faith.

Our economy's inability without end to cut the mustard for the middle class is a gross betrayal of faith which might be compared to some future pope saying ex-catedra that God didn't exist and that he had sold the Vatican to the Holiday Inn chain and was taking the proceeds and moving with his husband to the Bahamas. The tragic chaos and desolation of betrayed faith would shatter the lives of millions.

Thus under the rule of the global caliphate, the natives are restless: Scotland, Catalonia, even in the USA, where according to Reuters, one out of four Americans would like to "secede", all this while thousands march worldwide to "save the planet".  However, with Karl Marx on the "ash heap of history", sitting there in the penalty box, waiting to get back in the game, it seems to me that, for the moment, the only revolution in town is Islamic...

Am I the only one to see a resemblance between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Pol Pot... between the Islamic State and the Khmer Rouge? With the difference that the Khmer Rouge were a relatively small group of whacked out Maoists in a tiny out of the way place like Cambodia and the IS (according to the CIA) consists of 31,000 well armed, well trained, fanatical, young men (and women) who come from all over the world, bankrolled by some of the most pious of Arab billionaires, armed with one of history's most powerful ideologies, smack dab in the middle of the world's most strategic real estate. "Bring 'em on" said George W. Bush.... well now here they are.

What impresses me most is not all the beheading. We think this brutality is a message directed to us... it isn't; it is a message for everybody except "us". Americans might be shocked and disappointed to discover that after several centuries of  colonial oppression a great part of the world's population can see a white man get his throat cut with total equanimity if not a certain schadenfreude.

What truly does impress me is that the CIA puts IS's numbers at 31,000. This certainly is no a small group of terrorists. 

Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of statistical sampling should shudder at that number. With only 30,624 Muslims randomly polled you would have a reliable indicator of the Ummah's opinion on any subject, so it would be safe to say that for every young man (or woman) with enough courage and initiative to travel so far at so much risk of death, there must be thousands on thousands of young men (and women) who wish they had the guts to do so too. 

Certainly these numbers tell us that even the most moderate Muslims could imagine a young family member involved, very much in the same way that moderate Irish or Basques could easily have a family member in the IRA or ETA and while they disapprove of what they do, they don't stop loving them... As a friend of mine from a very rich family once told me, "blood is thicker than toothpaste". 

This means that our success in running down and exterminating the young men (and women) of the Islamic State may bring us much more trouble down the road than we have today.

A very reliable leading indicator of how wrong this could all go is the recent statement by Tony Blair advocating sending in ground troops... I'm waiting to hear what Bush thinks. DS