Three short reads on empire hot spots

6 Aug

Few in the West, even on the Left, see the extent of capitalism’s existential threat. One reason is that most of us are doing OK from a status quo whose benefits may be shrinking but still put us ahead of the vast majority on this earth. To recognise that our (dwindling) good fortune, and the wretched lives of millions in the global south, are two sides of the same coin requires a leap of abstraction most of us aren’t up for without a compelling motive. Short of such an incentive, which usually has to be concrete and imminent, we do not peer closely into the nature of things best left to the experts. That’s the way we’ve evolved and most of the time, give or take a world war or two, it has served us tolerably well.

It’s just that now isn’t most of the time. Now is a time of impending catastrophe on two fronts, environmental calamity and nuclear armageddon, both of which can be proven to be logical end-games in a system for organising wealth creation based on three interdependent realities:

  1. Production enabled or disabled not by human need or its absence but by fluctuating profitability in markets regulated by boom and bust.
  2. Minority ownership of the means of production. Which is to say plant, land, materials and money on the scale needed to compete with rivals whose numbers fall in inverse ratio to their rising size and capitalisation, since economies of scale favour monopoly.
  3. Most folk having no choice but to sell their labour power to such monopolies on terms which enable the creation of exchange values1 greater than those of the labour power sold. The biggest value surpluses are to be had in the global south and this, in tandem with oil grabs and geopolitical calculations related to point 2, is why ours is the age of imperialism.2

The violence and larceny which gave birth to these realities is a story too long to be told here – try the less theoretical chapters of Capital One, such as those on ‘primitive accumulation’ and those on the creation of a ‘free’ proletariat – but the violence and larceny they in turn give birth to is not. Which brings us to the second reason for our failure to see why and how capitalism threatens us all. Since few examine how it works – how profit originates and how those origins direct its laws of motion – we accord too much agency to human feeling, too little to the iron logic of capital accumulation. Like ingenues, unschooled in the mechanics of our very political economy and relying instead on the idealistic3 readings of history absorbed through a Western upbringing, we tell ourselves that some things are too dreadful to happen in this day and age.

“They” – the powers that be – would not allow them, you see.

And yet “they” – the powers that be – have of late been allowing all manner of obscenity: jails run for profit … creeping (for now) NHS privatisation … secret treaties that prioritise corporate profits over national sovereignty … the slaughter of millions, overwhelmingly dark of skin, via sanctions and wars sold to us again and again on the back of lies.

One such war, on the back of one such lie, has led – we came, we saw, he died, ha ha – to the return of slavery. Yes, really. In this day and age!

How strong is our I’m-alright-Jack conditioning? How deep our faith in the Western nations as not only democracies run by and for Joe Public but, for good measure, bringers of freedom to those benighted souls who need our bombs, sanctions and depleted uranium shells for their own liberation? How far will we go – as if in some experiment by a Stanley Milgram, a Philip Zimbardo or a Solomon Asch – in shutting out the evidence hiding in plain sight: even to the extent of turning with bared teeth on those who dare bring us the truth?

Despite the odds against its founder-editor, WikiLeaks continues its work, as cool and insouciant as ever. Most recently it has offered $100,000 for “smoking gun” documents on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade agreement between Europe and the United States that aims to give multinational corporations the power to sue sovereign governments that do things that adversely impact corporate profits. Criminal acts could include governments increasing workers’ minimum wages, not cracking down on “terrorist” villagers who impede mining companies, or having the temerity to turn down Monsanto’s offer of GM corporate-patented seeds. TTIP is just another weapon like intrusive surveillance or depleted uranium in the Lifestyle Wars.

Looking at Julian Assange across the table from me, pale and worn, without having had five minutes of sunshine on his skin for [what was already] nine hundred days, but still refusing to disappear or capitulate the way his enemies would like, I smiled at the idea nobody thinks of him as an Australian hero or an Australian traitor. To his enemies, Assange has betrayed much more than a country. He has betrayed the ideology of the ruling powers. For this, they hate him even more than they hate Edward Snowden. And that’s saying a lot.  Arundhati Roy (2015)

What we need to realise is that “they” will “allow” anything at all if the sole alternative is a hit to profits in what is risibly, in the age of monopoly capital, spoken of in hallowed tones as Free Enterprise. They’ll tell themselves that this anything – no matter how inhumane, depraved and life negating – is for the greater good. And they’ll believe it. Not because they are evil, though this can be a tough call, but because they are self servingly blinkered to the point of insanity.

How else explain Madeleine Albright’s reply to the question of whether the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under five had been “a price worth paying” for sanctions on Saddam? How else explain John Bolton’s hope that sanctions equally murderous will make life so vile for ordinary Iranians (and Venezuelans) that they rise up to overthrow the theocrats in Tehran (and socialists in Caracas)?

You’re smart, else you wouldn’t have read this far. You know what Iraq, Iran and Venezuela have in common. Sure, there are geopolitical factors, some of equal or even greater weight, unique to each. But a past or present intent to have their oil enrich their own people rather than distant shareholders is what all three share.

The Bushes and Cheneys, the Albrights and Clintons, answer not to the oft invoked American Citizen, who in reality has near zero say in electing them, but to a Wall Street without whose backing they could not in a thousand years have climbed so high. Ditto classy Mr Obama.

Ditto too, with the part exception of war veteran Tulsi Gabbard, the ‘progressives’ lining up for 2020. This from a Jacobin piece last week, tepidly welcoming Elizabeth Warren’s tepid moves to distance herself from hard line Zionism:

She supported the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, blaming Hamas even as Israeli forces killed over two thousand Palestinians, mostly civilians and children. In her defense of the assault, Warren sounded more like a spokesperson for Netanyahu than a progressive US senator: ‘When Hamas puts rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself … America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, where there aren’t liberal democracies and rule of law. We very much need an ally in that part of the world.’

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As for Kamala Harris, well, Caitlin’s been doing good work on that subject too. Try this.

I want to say a little on the means by which the illegitimate is legitimated and the indefensible defended. First, though, one last remark on political economy. After two decades of unbridled supremacy following the fall of the USSR, America is under challenge as never before: chiefly from a rising Eurasia, from China’s Belt and Road, and from mounting disaffection – in a world beginning to sense alternatives – with a dollar hegemony going back to Bretton Woods. But as Russia’s intervention in Syria has shown, such challenges could never – forget Karl Marx, this is basic von Clausewitz – be confined to economic and fiscal arenas. The reason above all others for the world being so dangerous right now is that the mightiest empire it has ever known, with all the voracity of appetite attendant on that fact – and on the dynamic at the heart of capital – is a waning force, busily burning bridges and scorching the earth.


Few in the West, even on the Left, grasp the extent to which mainstream media, spanning the tiny gamut of acceptable perspectives some call the Overton Window, are in the business of opinion manufacture by deception. I’ve written before on this, and on the corrosive effects not just of billionaire ownership of rightwing media which at least do what they say on the tin, but the more pernicious bias of liberal media subject directly or indirectly to market forces.4

To borrow from Professor Chomsky, “These are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations.”

Which means their loyalties are divided at best.

I’ve written too of the deep irony of our fond belief that advanced capitalism, having drawn on the best psychological findings money can buy – the better to channel our deepest yearnings down the blind alleys and five minute highs of retail therapy – would sternly refrain from using the same know-how to shape our opinions on who are the Good Guys and who the Bad, who can be Trusted With The Economy and who cannot.

That being the case, I’ll keep this short.

Since the worst media lies, those legitimating wars in the name of high ideals but in the actual interests of profit, are lies more of omission than commission, we need not suppose armies of conscious fabricators staffing our newspapers and broadcasters. We need only suppose most journalists to be scarcely less ignorant, conditioned and credulous than the next guy, and that they know which side their bread is buttered. As I wrote two years ago in a post on Monbiot and ‘universalism’:

Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please proprietors. Proprietors, by definition fully paid up members of the ruling class, crave honours and need advertisers.

Yes, we do have such as the Guardian’s Luke Harding: he of the ‘Assange-Manafort meetings’. And yes, we have evidence of that same newspaper’s collusion, including lies of commission, over Assange.

An editorial … supporting extradition to Sweden to face “charges” that don’t exist, stated, “The Guardian disapproved of the mass publication of unredacted documents … and broke with Mr. Assange over the issue.”

This is a self-serving lie. WikiLeaks has pointed out that the editorial “conveniently leaves out” that it was the Guardian—through a book by David Leigh and Luke Harding—that disclosed the password to the digital file Assange had given them in confidence.

In such ways the Guardian, whose influence and importance to the notion of a media fearlessly holding power to account far exceed its circulation and modest finances, exemplifies the shady hand of military intelligence in mainstream media.

And yet … conscious lies and dark interferences tend to be confined to matters non negotiable for the ruling class.5 On lesser matters, even important ones, minor damage to one or other of its wings is a price worth paying to maintain the charade of democracy served by independent media. Why? Because though initially resisted, and gained after no small sacrifice and struggle, parliamentary democracy is a cost effective form of class rule. But to pull off the balancing act of safeguarding profits with the seemingly full assent of the masses, the notion of access by all to accurate information brought by independent media is crucial. Only in those non negotiable arenas, above all the wars waged directly or by proxy, is ‘media independence’ trumped by a greater imperative.

(That’s why we have things like the Treason Act, and that’s why writers like me know only too well that any turn for the worse in ‘our’ relations with, say, Russia could put us foul of it.)

But even in these arenas of exception, the really important whoppers are still of omission. Take Owen Jones and George Monbiot, both of whom write stuff I wholeheartedly agree with. Both I deem dead wrong on Syria but both, I think, sincerely believe the things they say about it.

That (putative) sincerity notwithstanding, the objective role of both is to provide left cover for a Guardian which, on top of the above lies and collusions, has consistently failed to present to its readers the existence of war motives – these for instance – very different from those it does present. Which in my book makes the Guardian (and, lest I be misunderstood on why I so often pick on that organ, all the others) an accessory to war crimes: Nuremburg having taken a rather dim view of “waging aggressive war”.

It also makes Jones and Monbiot (and, lest I be misunderstood on why I so often pick on them, most Syria commentators with the part exceptions of Robert Fisk and Peter Hitchens6) party to that crime.

In my book.


Forgive my word count. I wanted all the bases covered before revealing my three recommends. All focus on current trouble spots and all point, most explicitly in the Stephen Gowans piece on Venezuela, to the wider workings of – and ailments besetting – the US Empire and its junior partners.

One – Lust for Profits … The Real Reason Washington Wants Maduro Gone – 2600 words

Even when we don’t believe what the media say, we are still hearing or reading their viewpoints rather than some other. They are still setting the agenda.

Stephen Gowans – author of Israel, a Beachhead in the Middle East, reviewed by me a month ago – begins with the above quote by political scientist Michael Parenti. It could have opened for any of the three pieces I’ve chosen. In this case it opens for a contextualising of the plight of the Venezuelan people within America’s global record of asset grab, super exploitation of third world labour, and regime change.

Two – MH17 Evidence Tampering – 2700 words and/or 28 minute video

Where Stephen Gowans takes Venezuela as point of departure and return, weaving between its specifics and the wider behaviour of US imperialism, this does the opposite. It spotlights one instance, the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, of how readily our leaders, and the media which supposedly scrutinise them on our behalf, act in bad faith on matters crucial to empire interests.

It is significant on several counts, headed by these:

  • As with other revelations that challenge at micro level the fabric from which empire serving narratives are spun – think Ghouta 2013, Khan Sheikhoun 2017, Douma 2018 and Salisbury 2018 – hard but inconvenient evidence is ignored by mainstream media.
  • Unlike Syria or Venezuela, Russia is neither imperialist nor imperialised.7 (Even if we  concede Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine – I do not, but that’s a separate issue – it is a childish trope to reduce imperialism to regional belligence.) But Russia is a capitalism with nuclear and advanced conventional military capacity; one, moreover, with a powerful ally. Baiting her may advance Wall St interests. It does not serve ours.
  • In a rare departure from form, the government of an imperialised nation, albeit one of the most advanced, has refused to be cowed. To their undying credit the Malaysian authorities, including Prime Minister Mahathir, have prioritised fearless investigation over bowing to US strong-arming.

NB: I have gripes about both the video, and 2700 word precis of its key points. I find the video hard to follow in places while the precis, infuriatingly, uses white text on dark background – unforgivable, almost, in a document of this length. Persevere, though. It’s worth it.

If you do opt to watch the video, highlights include the interview with Malaysia’s PM, and the smirk of Dutch Police Chief Paulissen, caught lying at a press conference on the source of the (doctored) tapes offered as smoking gun evidence of Russian involvement.

Three –  How do you wage war without allies?

I posted recently on Iran, the day Revolutionary Guards made a tit-for-tat seizure of the Stena Impero. This Global Research piece is a transcript of an interview with Montreal economics professor Michel Chossudovsky. It adopts a similar approach to that of Stephen Gowans but, where Gowans uses Venezuela’s plight as anchor for a wider assessment of US bullying on the world stage, Chossudovsky uses Iran’s as anchor for assessing US military options. These, he finds, are not nearly as bountiful as the map below might suggest.

No photo description available.

That just about covers it. Sufficient unto the day the evils thereof.

* * *

  1. I’m using the term, ‘value’, in the sense classical political economists from Smith and Ricardo to Marx used it. This is a quantitative rather than qualitative sense, and fewer and fewer workers in the West produce value. Rather, teachers, nurses, soldiers, spies and cleaners are overheads incurred by value creation (and surplus value extraction) elsewhere in an economy whose relations of production, like its divisions of labour, are now global.
  2. This side of producing my woefully overdue essay on the law of value, my writings on imperialism are confined to two book reviews: of John Smith’s Imperialism in the twenty-first century, and of Stephen Gowans’ Israel, a Beachhead in the Middle East.
  3. I use the term ‘idealism’ in the epistemological sense of seeing ideas rather than material imperatives as history’s primary driver.
  4. The Washington Post – Jeff Bezo owned and CIA linked – relies on advertising and is ipso facto directly subject to market pressures. The BBC is subject both to direct state pressure and market forces channeled through politicians fearful of irking a Murdoch or Rothermere. For its part the Guardian is dependent on a mix of falling ad revenues and rising donations. But however we slice it, all three – exemplifying a wider pattern – serve masters other than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
  5. I’m with Marx in defining a ruling class by its monopoly ownership of some essential of wealth creation. Under capitalism that essential is capital on a grand scale, without which production cannot take place.
  6. I say ‘part exceptions’ because, while Fisk and Hitchens have been shining exceptions to the rule of journalistic credulity – I’m being kind here – in relaying evidence-lite but empire-friendly charges against Syria, I’m unaware of either writing about the material drivers of the West’s wars in the region. I’d be thrilled to be shown otherwise.
  7. The depiction of Russia as imperialist is not confined to the notions, ignorant as well as childish, espoused in the mainstream and eagerly swallowed by the intelligentsia. It also permeates much of the Left, which really should know better. As antidote to such superficiality I recommend this essay by Roger “Socialist in Canada” Annis.

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