My October reads

24 Oct

China leads the race for 5G leadership, a fact not only deeply alarming to Washington and Wall Street but with dire implications for a Europe left in the dust. Meanwhile a French Professor of Philosophy has a word or two on the links between liberalism and fascism, and this month saw what would have been the hundredth birthday of the man who made “an offer he can’t refuse” a household phrase.


The double decoupling (2208 words)

April before last, Mike Pompeo bragged of a CIA which:

… lied, cheated and stole … we had, like, entire training courses on this. It … er … reminds you of the glory of the American Experiment.

Fifteen years earlier, Dubya’s Chief of Staff Karl Rove had jeered that:

We’re an empire now. We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too. We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Not that Democrats have been less energetic reality creators. In that decade and a half between Rove and Pompeo, a black President and female Secretary of State bombed and laid to waste the middle east and beyond, torturing and drone-striking as they went.

But how does the mightiest empire of all time react when an entity outside its orbit is not only rising but has in some arenas already surpassed it? In this my first read, another gamekeeper turned poacher,1 former British diplomat Alastair Crooke, gives one answer.

As the race to set 5G standards intensifies, he reminds us,2 it is not Silicon Valley but China that is forging ahead.3 And taking Russia with it.

At first blush it seems odd that Crooke sees a parallel between the perilous situation currently unfolding, and that in the summer of 1914: those five weeks between a Sarajevo shooting in late June,4 and the outbreak of WW1 in early August. Five weeks when the world slept and:

Diplomats [had] of course understood that two heavily-armed alliances were potentially on a collision course, but there had been episodes of sabre-rattling for several years before, whose failure to come to a head had induced a sense that the status quo would extend indefinitely. Opinion then had been influenced by Norman Angell’s 1909 best-seller, The Great Illusion, arguing that war had become impossible, because global trade and capital flows were too closely interlinked.

What they did not understand at that earlier moment was that the circumstances of mid-1914 (the Sarajevo moment) seemed so propitious both for Germany to aspire to empire, and for Britain to believe that it could quash it utterly.  Just as circumstances are believed – by some in Washington – to be serendipitous today.

Trump et al seem convinced that the U.S. can use its financial and trade muscle – whilst America still predominates – to crush China’s rise, contain Russia, and arm-twist Europe into tech vassalage.  The Balkan war in the early 20th century locked Germany’s fickle ally Austria-Hungary into Germany’s greater fight against Russia.  And today, Pompeo hopes to lock (fickle) Europe into America’s containment of Russia. The Nordstream threats and the Navalny scam5 are just some of Pompeo’s ‘levers’.

NB Crooke’s piece appeared on the Strategic Culture Foundation site on October 5. Later in the month he wrote a related piece I also recommend: an 1800 worder, The Two Undersides to Geo-Politics.


Liberalism and fascism: partners in crime (2716 words)

The widespread idea that fascism was ultimately defeated by liberalism in WWII, due primarily to the U.S. intervention in the war, is a baseless canard … 80% of the Nazis who died in the war were killed on the Eastern Front, where Germany had deployed 200 divisions (versus 10 in the West). 27 million Soviets gave their lives fighting fascism, whereas 400,000 American soldiers died. It was, above all, the Red Army that defeated fascism in WWII, and it is communism—not liberalism—that constitutes the last bulwark against fascism. The historical lesson should be clear: one cannot be truly antifascist without being anti-capitalist.

Gabriel Rockhill is a Franco-American philosopher, activist and professor at Villanova University. My first exposure paired the photo of a dashing forty-something with a prose style to make Derrida and Lacan seem models of lucidity. With inexcusable prejudice I promptly bracketed the man as the kind of faux left poseur who dazzles his adoring students with obscurantism by day, screws them two at a time at night.

(That said, #MeToo, for all its contempt for the presumption of innocence, has – I hope – called time on those days. In any case I’m sure that M. Rockhill is the last word in academic rectitude on this front. As, indeed, was I.)

To be fair on Derrida and Lacan, it is not entirely clear to a non French speaker like me how much of their legendary opacity is due to their own shortcomings, how much to those of their translators. It may be that this applies also to Rockhill, whom I assume fluent in both languages, though that would not rule out third party translations of his French output.

Whatever the reason, subsequently read pieces – like that on les gilets jaunes and the failure of the French intelligentsia in The Philosophical Salon – suggest that first encounter to have been an anomaly. Mr Rockhill has a straight from the shoulder style, and grasp of both marxist theory and empirical detail, which instantly engages.

Here he uses these qualities to good effect in showing how, historically and in logic, liberalism and fascism are not opposites but two sides of one coin. And just as I recommended a second October piece by Alastair Crooke, so do I recommend that a reading of this one be followed by a second and related October piece from Gabriel Rockhill. The US did not defeat fascism in WWII assembles in some detail the facts on how Washington co-opted fascists before, after – and during – “the war on Nazi tyranny”.


He never met a real gangster, but his mafia melodrama remains timeless (2723 words)

And now for something different. Ever on the lookout for new and fresh descriptors for our capitalist ruling class – a mission sketchily discussed in a recent post, Politics and language – I’ve taken of late to calling them gangsters. Hardly original, I know, but new to my lexicon.

It happens that two of my favourite films – after Some Like it Hot, of course – are Godfathers I and II. The man who created the Corleones, Mario Puzo, was born a hundred years ago this month and is rightly celebrated in this enjoyable Independent piece from Martin Chilton.

One of many memorable Godfather scenes, in book and film both, has New York’s five Mafia families coming together, ostensibly to prevent the kind of all-out internecine war – following a failed attempt on Don Corleone’s life, and successful one on his would-be assassin’s – which is not good for business.

At a certain point in the parlay, the head of a rival family protests:

Don Corleone is too modest!

It’s not a compliment but an accusation. Its subtext is a complaint, understood by all present, that Vito Corleone downplays the extent to which he controls judges and police chiefs; judges and chiefs whose favours it is unchristian of him not to share:

… naturally he should charge a fee for these services. After all … [the plaintiff looks with  an expansive gesture around the august table to appreciative smiles from all but one] … we aren’t communists!

So too is Mario Puzo too modest when he says Francis Ford Coppola’s films are far better than his own book. Magnificent as the first two films are, they are matched by the elegance, insight, scope and story-telling genius on display in the greatest crime thriller of its century. (Thomas Harris comes a fair second with Hannibal Lecter, but lacks the Godfather’s sheer scale.)

And novels have one signal advantage, generally speaking, over drama: their greater capacity for introspection. As their characters hold forth we are simultaneously privy to their thoughts. Since so much of the mafia’s grip on our imagination lies in the disparity between speech and thought, text and subtext – those glorious euphemisms6 of ‘offers he can’t refuse’ … ‘the olive oil business’ … ‘sleeping with the fishes’ and ‘godfather’ itself – Coppola’s films, masterpieces though they are, do not and could not surpass Mario Puzo’s writing.

More to the point here, those calmly insane euphemisms, and the gangsters who deploy them, seem to me fitting metonyms for our times. Take another look at the Pompeo and Rove quotes I opened with …

… mull on the spiritual kinship between ‘an offer he can’t refuse’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’ …

… consider the similarities between Vito Corleone’s monopoly of judges and police chiefs at the expense of the ‘legitimate’ aspirations of other New York families, and Britain’s 1914 monopoly of the sea lanes at the expense of Germany’s ‘legitimate’ imperial aspirations.

I’ve no need to update that last analogy. Alastair Crooke did it for me.

* * *

  1. Gamekeepers turned poacher are very much a sign of our polarised times. Alastair Crooke’s name is to be added to the burgeoning list of establishment renegades – ambassadors, CIA officers, UN weapons inspectors, Reagan appointees, right wing media hosts and even one or two rogue journalists – who’ve broken ranks in disgust at the contempt in which our rulers and their media hold truth and the rule of law.
  2. In August, writing in CounterPunch, Medea Benjamin and Nicholas Davis touched on this issue. ‘The global rollout of 5G is a flashpoint … because Huawei and ZTE have  patented critical infrastructure, leaving Silicon Valley in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up.  Also, if 5G is built by Huawei and ZTE instead of AT&T and Verizon, the U.S. government can no longer require “back doors” for the NSA to spy on us all, so is stoking fears that China could insert its own back doors.’
  3. Apart from the commercial and socio-political implications of 5G, its importance to the ‘internet of things’ enhances China’s ability to defy US military might. Reduced ‘latency’ (delay in response) on tiny chips is of huge significance – the more so when considered alongside great strides in AI, neural networks and machine learning – to the SAMs on which China (and Russia with its world beating S400 system) appear to be focusing arms-spend. (The hawkishly Sinophobic, The War Zone, gives the game away. The opening paragraph to this May 2018 piece bewails “China’s long-standing determination to limit the ability of foreign militaries, especially the United States, to operate in [the South China Sea]”. We might take a nanosecond now to consider how Washington would respond to a China not only able “to operate in the Gulf of Mexico” but bemoaning America’s ‘aggressive’ efforts to deter it from doing so!)
  4. The assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was a 19 year old Serb nationalist, Gavriel Princip, born to a peasantry oppressed by its Muslim overlords. (Under the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Austria-Hungary, itself the instable power-sharing result of a compromise ten years earlier, administered what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina on behalf of a dying Ottoman Empire.) Three older assassins were hanged but Princip – who’d fired the fatal shots on Ferdinand and wife Sophie but was too young for a death sentence – was chained to a wall at Terezín fortress, where TB ate his bones so badly that his arm had to be amputated, and in 1916 he tried to hang himself. A psychiatrist wrote that he believed World War inevitable and “cannot feel responsible”. Princip died in 1918, weighing 40 kg. Fearing his bones might become relics for Slav nationalists, guards took the body to an unmarked grave but one of them memorised the site. In 1920 Princip and the others were exhumed and taken to Sarajevo for burial in the Vidovdan Heroes Chapel, with this epitaph: “Blessed is he who lives forever. He had something to be born for.” Meanwhile, in those ‘five sleepy weeks’ after the assassination, the Kaiser, in ostensible solidarity with what Alastair Crooke calls Germany’s ‘fickle’ Austro-Hungarian ally, served an ultimatum on Serbia. (This – forcing a ‘moderate’ Serbian Government off the fence vis a vis its suzerain – may have been the goal of the plot’s architects, as opposed to that of the hot-heads who carried it out.) Serbia could not honourably meet its terms. Treaties, ententes and concomitant rivalries kicked in like falling dominoes and the rest – including WWI’s replay, after a twenty-one year hiatus, in WWII – is history.
  5. As it happens, the “Navalny scam” is subject of my previous post. Of its antecedent, the Salisbury scam and those mysteriously vanished Skripals, another ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’, Reagan appointee Paul Craig Roberts, said this under the header, Can Nuclear War be Avoided? “Russia can be part of the West only if she surrenders to Washington’s hegemony … by now her government should have figured out that Washington is determined to marginalize and isolate Russia … to the point that her only alternatives are to surrender or go to war. Did it ever occur to Lavrov and Putin that the President of Russia would be called a murderer by a British foreign secretary on the basis of a fabrication created by the British government?”
  6. The mafia’s ‘glorious euphemisms’ are hilariously foregrounded in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot: “Friends of Italian Opera” … “something in the cake disagreed with him” … “join us” (subtext, “add yourselves [Curtis and Lemon] to the body count in Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre”) ...

8 Replies to “My October reads

  1. Here is another ‘read’ for you, Phil.

    It is a very interesting read, and if you give any credence to ‘Social Psychology’ it may give pointers into how to “reach the parts other ideologies fail to reach”. However, it is conspicuous that there is no Marxist (or similar) analysis of the results, and the authors make various assumptions – such as that division in society is bad, but no analysis is made as to the right or wrongness of the sources of division, and whether resolution of division in certain directions may lead to a better (or worse) outcome for society. In other words they accept the status quo and are content with it, and generally see any deviation as undesirable. They don’t actually say this, and would probably deny it, but that is what I get from their comments. Anyway, if you have time, have a look at its.

    • Well it’s a huge report Jams, so you won’t be surprised to hear I’ve read only the conclusion, while skimming the exec-summary. I’m sure there’s useful detail in there, but I’d endorse your own observations about the authors’ “various assumptions”.

      That lack of Marxist (“or similar”) analysis is reflected in a failure to address the stark truth that not only seventy-five years of ‘caring capitalism’, but 500 years of Western ascendancy, are drawing to a close – with massive implications for social cohesion.

      As you know, Marxists aren’t egalitarians in the sense of locating capitalism’s problems in its relations of distribution. (Though Thomas Piketty’s empirical work, utilising the vast datasets now crunchable in ways Marx and Engels could only dream about, shows levels of inequality as dysfunctional as they are morally offensive.) Rather, they locate them in its relations of production. That things haven’t yet gotten worse for the West’s have-nots I put down to the fact Marx’s relations of production are now globalised, with capital/labour relations largely global-north/global-south relations, and the majority in the West important less as labour sellers (or to be accurate, as value producers) than as consumers. The rise of Eurasia threatens this beyond the ken of the report’s authors.

  2. Phil, some unsupported assertions: more Americans died in the Civil War than any of the other conflicts the US has been involved in. Along with Vietnam, they’re arguably still coming to terms with those conflicts in the same way us Brits are with Flanders and Dunkirk. Also, most contemporary French intellectual culture comes back to Sartre.

    • Thanks Mick. The oracles bear you out on Civil War deaths – “at least 618,000” says this source. Assuming Rockhill right, its second highest death count, in WW2, was 400,000. Late entry to WWI kept the count there at 116,000 while millions of Vietcong and NVA deaths were matched by some 58,000 US deaths.

      (On that last, the Pentagon-Washington propaganda machine, less effective than that of today, used body count to assure growingly concerned voters it was winning the war. Like cricket scores, it called a win to any battle or skirmish where, as was almost always the case, GI casualties were dwarfed by those of the Viets. This of course disregarded the sacrifices Vietnam was prepared to make.)

      You may be right about Sartre, though I wouldn’t discount a structuralist tradition going back to de Saussure by way of Levi-Strauss. But where would Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire fit into such a reckoning?

      • Actually I can answer that last question myself. You said, ‘contemporary’. Descartes et al – arguably the only French philosophers comparable in stature to German counterparts – were modernists at the dawn of the Enlightenment, whereas the intellectuals you (and Rockhill) speak of are still heavily invested in postmodernism.

  3. A couple of other French ‘influencers’, Barthes and Goldmann. I struggled through ‘le dieu caché’ in a wonderful little library in Tunis Medina (Showing off now!) Goldmann attempts to reconcile Pascal and Marxism. Can’t be done in my opinion. Another other fab library in Tunis is the British Council reading room where I came across Hugh McDiarmid’s ‘Hymn to Lenin’ Also a good read

    • I was much taken as a young man with Barthes’ Mythologies. I don’t know Hymn to Lenin but, assuming I don’t have to go to Tunis to do so, will check it out.

      • You’re right about Structuralism of course. Barthes’ was as rive gauche as it gets. ‘S/Z’ is a tour de force regarding sexual identity. Another interesting frog factoid : Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the PCF – the French Communist Party, maybe less relevant now than previously, though I expect you’ll disagree.

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