My December Reads

27 Dec

What would you do if stuck in a lift with John Pilger? Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in a new book reviewed here by Media Lens, quotes with approval a fellow journalist saying he’d stick pins in his eyes to avoid such a predicament.

Did the drone murders Obama signed off every Tuesday leave you incandescent? Are the spy-cam fitted drone fliers descending on our parks and beauty spots giving you the pip? You ain’t heard the half of it till you read Scott Ritter on how a quantum leap in military drone use gave Turkey’s proxy, Azerbaijan, a decisive edge over Russia-backed Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What does the word, condor, conjure up? A huge raptor? A pipe tobacco? Branco Marcetic gives the low-down on US complicity, under that code name, with Latin America’s death squads and juntas in the second half of the twentieth century – and on why it still matters.


Stuck in a lift with John Pilger (3725 words)

David Cromwell and David Edwards, who make up Media Lens,1 know former Guardian editor Rusbridger of old. Indeed, prior to his blocking them, the pair had almost collegiate relations2 with him. Drawing on their own pre-freeze exchanges, on Chomsky and Herman’s Propaganda Model, on the fact the book they are reviewing makes many references to Media Lens, and on what Rusbridger does – and does not3 – say in News And How To Use It, their calmly forensic approach nails all that is wrong with ‘our’ media; even and perhaps especially liberal media.

Here’s a (slightly abridged) taster:

The first resort of corporate journalists attacking a dissident is to focus on ‘narcissism’:4

‘… John Pilger. With his tan, Byronic haircut, trudging priestly delivery and evident self-love, your main instinct is to flip right over to BBC1…’

Pilger … reports on the crimes of state-corporate power – including ‘liberal’ power, including corporate media power. Pilger tells the unfiltered, uncompromised truth about the foundations of power. His focus is on speaking up for the victims of power, not on serving power.

Serious analysis of Pilger’s work, then, has to include honest appraisal of his deepest criticisms of power – these are what make Pilger unusual and important. But this Rusbridger cannot do … Instead, he focuses on Pilger’s supposed character flaws.

‘even some of his greatest fans have found him an increasingly difficult, prickly figure shooting first and not always asking questions later’.

‘He is undoubtedly a prickly character … a hero until you know him.’

‘someone I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than be stuck in a lift with’.

These ad hominem attacks on Pilger are, in fact, a rejection of honest debate.

Reviewing Pilger’s 2000 documentary, ‘Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq’, on the UN’s assertion that US-UK sanctions had been responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children under five in Iraq, Joe Joseph wrote in The Times:

‘In his latest, harrowing documentary… the fearless Australian journalist reminds us that – however daunting the odds stacked against him – he is not going to shy away from his lifelong commitment to make TV programmes with extremely long titles…’

‘His angry, I-want-some-answers-please documentary style, like his haircut, is a hangover from the 1970s; and like much of the Seventies, he is enjoying a small retro revival. Pilger is the Prada of TV journalism.’

This was a review of a documentary exploring highly credible claims that Britain and the US were responsible for the deaths of half a million small children.5

Imagine someone with serious, verifiable evidence interrupting a town hall meeting to warn that government troops were at that moment burning hundreds of children alive in the local school. Now, we might urgently seek to challenge and check the claims, but what would we make of one who responded by mocking the haircut of the person raising the alarm? Would we not find this a morally depraved response?

Quite. And a point well made by the two Davids. As is this one:

In 2006, Pilger wrote:

‘In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned – that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness, or otherwise, to “us”, and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us.’

This is not something Rusbridger could ever honestly discuss. Why? Because it’s exactly the role he performed as editor of the Guardian.


Like Horse Mounted Cavalry Against Tanks (1578 words)

No halfways informed person doubts that Turkey, though its future orientation and concomitant alliances remain shrouded in uncertainty, is a formidable military force. But should we think of her as enjoying a decisive military edge over premier league imperialisms within the EU? Former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter is in no doubt on the matter.

In an analysis written for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow, argues that the extensive (and successful) use of military drones by Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh holds “distinct lessons for how well Europe can defend itself.”

Gressel warns that Europe would be doing itself a disservice if it simply dismissed the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting as “a minor war between poor countries.” In this, Gressel is correct – the military defeat inflicted on Armenia by Azerbaijan was not a fluke, but rather a manifestation of the perfection of the art of drone warfare by Baku’s major ally in the fighting, Turkey. Gressel’s conclusion – that “most of the [European Union’s] armies… would do as miserably as the Armenian Army” when faced by such a threat – is spot on.

What happened to the Armenian Army in its short but brutal 44-day war with Azerbaijan goes beyond simply losing a war. It was more about the way Armenia lost and, more specifically, how it lost. What happened over the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh – where Azerbaijan employed a host of Turkish- and Israeli-made drones not only to surveil and target Armenian positions, but shape and dominate the battlefield throughout – can be likened to a revolution in military affairs. One akin to the arrival of tanks, mechanised armoured vehicles, and aircraft in the early 20th century, that eventually led to the demise of horse-mounted cavalry.

The Nagorno-Karabakh war saw largely Sunni Turkey backing largely Shia Azerbaijan against an Armenia under the protection of Russia, with which Ankara’s relations are a mixed and unclear picture. Leaving aside the complexities (explored here) of that war, Ritter has this to say of its most telling military aspect …

Turkey was facing some of the best anti-aircraft missile defenses produced by Russia. The reality is that most nations confronted by a Turkish “drone swarm,” would not fare well.

… before concluding that:

… multiple deployment of drones is only going to expand. The US Army is working on “Armed, Fully-Autonomous Drone Swarms”. AFADS will – autonomously, without human intervention – locate, identify and attack targets using a “Cluster Unmanned Airborne System Smart Munition,” which dispense a swarm of small drones that fan out over the battlefield to locate and destroy targets.

China has likewise tested a system that deploys up to 200 “suicide drones” designed to saturate a battlespace and destroy targets by flying into them. And this September, the Russian military integrated “drone-swarm” capabilities for the first time in a large-scale military exercise.

Modern warfare has been forever altered, and nations not equipped for a battlefield where drone technology is fully incorporated can expect outcomes similar to that of Armenia: severe losses of men and equipment, defeat, humiliation and likely loss of territory. This is the reality which, as Gressel notes, should make any nation not fully vested in drone technology “think – and worry.”

Which last observation sets the tone, if you’re not already depressed beyond measure, for my final read …


The CIA’s Secret Global War Against the Left (6114 words)

Back when the man was still alive, loved and feared, I read of a comment by Mao Zedong that went like this:

America’s student protesters amaze me. They aren’t one bit afraid of their government’s tanks and bombs, yet are terrified by the sarcasms of a few reactionary professors.

Things haven’t much changed. Those likeliest to cry Revolution Now! seem those least likely to have spent time thinking it through. That’s hot-headed youth for you. Less forgivable in my view are those Left groups whose theoretical understandings of capitalism I take seriously, but which devote no space to the not insignificant problem of how a revolution can be made in a context of bourgeois states armed to the teeth and skilled in counter insurgency – and possessors of surveillance technologies beyond the wildest dreams of 20th century totalitarianisms – which makes the Russian Revolution look like a palace coup.

As one who so often sets out the problems – and insists that capitalism and decency never did co-exist in the world as a whole, and are growing less and less able to do so even in the West – I am painfully aware that I bring no solutions. As I put it in a recent BTL exchange:

I have faith in neither reformist nor revolutionary roads to what has to happen if barbarism is to be averted. Does that mean I should shut up? I think not. I never saw the logic in insisting that, if we have no solution, we have no business speaking of the problem. I can barely see a yard ahead, but continue to speak to all who’ll listen about the evils I see in that single yard.

I could have added Gramsci’s comment that when that which must happen cannot happen we are in the age of monsters. So while I do so hate to be the bearer of bleak news, in the interests of telling it like it is I feel bound to say that this third read, on the atrocities of a CIA in cahoots with fascism under the codename Operation Condor, is as relevant now as when swathes of Central and South America were subject to the vilest oppression, with Condor at its bloodiest.

This – and do feel free to tell me on the basis of detailed evidence how and where I’m wrong – is what we’re up against and this is the true nature of capitalist rule. Note the final sentence of this extract.

With South America in the grip of military dictatorships and rocked by the same kinds of social and political movements that were demanding change all over the world in the 1960s and ’70s, a handful of the continent’s governments made a pact to work together to roll back the rising tide of “subversives” and “terrorists.”

What followed was a secret, global campaign of violent repression that spanned not just countries, but continents, and featured everything from abduction and torture to murder. To say it was known about by the US government, which backed these regimes, is an understatement: though even this simple fact was denied at the time, years of investigations and document releases since then mean that we now know the CIA and top-ranking US officials supported, laid the groundwork for, and were even directly involved in Condor’s crimes.

Zooming out, Condor was hardly some uniquely shocking case of anticommunist paranoia spiraling out of control. As its connections to anticommunist terror in Europe have become clearer, it looks more like a particularly successful example of the covert war the US national security state had set into motion all over the world against democracy and the Left, a war that saw it get into bed with fascists and that, in some cases, arguably constituted genocide. It was the system working exactly as intended, in other words, and a stark reminder of the lengths the global centers of power will go to keep things the way they are.

As it happens, author Branco Marcetic finishes the piece on a note of optimism I don’t share:

Examining the legacy of Operation Condor should prompt us to think about which institutions in American life have been most hostile to democracy and, when the time calls for it, eager to align with fascists. But it’s also a reminder that, in the face of popular struggle, even this violence has a shelf life, and impunity doesn’t last forever.

State and supra-state violence in Latin America had a finite “shelf life” not because The People fought back and ultimately prevailed but because, with a few exceptions, it worked. You don’t continue to hammer a nail already driven in, and terror and violence are expensive options for a ruling class – be it a domestic comprador class or the imperialists in Washington, London and elsewhere. The trappings of democracy make better business sense.

Pessimist and gloom merchant? Moi? If you say so. But this piece makes salutary and therefore essential reading for those who value the unvarnished truth on what decent folk like you and me are up against.

* * *

  1. See my review of the Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz.
  2. ‘… almost collegiate relations …‘ In a pattern Media Lens have experienced again and again, initial contact with journalists is met with friendly courtesy; a spirit which soon evaporates as ML’s unfailingly polite probes turn up the heat.
  3. Rusbridger’s silences, like the Guardian’s and like those of mainstream media at large, are often more telling than his utterances. As I keep saying on this site, while all media actively lie when the stakes are high enough, their biggest deceptions are of omission rather than commission.
  4. Not just Pilger but Assange, Chavez, Corbyn, Putin and Scargill are or were routinely called out as narcissistic. How convenient that so universally ridiculed a trait should exist in such abundance in those our rulers consider a threat! How revealing that ‘our’ media should give it, like John Pilger’s hair cut, centre stage! How dismaying that an intelligentsia priding itself on critical thinking should fall for this crap every time!
  5. The claim of half a million Iraqi under fives dying as a result of Bill Clinton’s sanctions was given infamous corroboration by his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when she said they were a price worth paying. Her words merit airing at every opportunity. While imperialism’s hot wars on the global south do impose on our rulers a threshold of justification – however low, and however intelligence-insulting the narratives aimed at crossing it – sanctions like those on Iran, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, though equally and indiscriminately murderous, evade scrutiny almost entirely. Worse, aided by the silences (at best) of the Rusbridgers of this world, their lethal effects can be blamed on the target ‘regime’. Two years ago a liberal pal, a Brit in Columbia and not a stupid person, told me that Venezuelan refugees pouring across the border into her adoptive country were victims of “failed Chavism”.

6 Replies to “My December Reads

  1. You are not alone in your pessimism, every word that you write and every email that I send maybe recorded and analysed by the ruling class’s agents. The new technology of surveillance, which brings us as a species, closer to the societies of ants and bees than ever, represents a real challenge, as well as an opportunity, to those who aspire to freedom.

    The challenge is, as you note, implied in the Operation Condor story and indeed more than a century of systematic ‘death squad’ activities in every continent. We can no longer hide in the shadows because to do so implies cutting off all communications with others.

    Instead what we have to do is think and to begin by recognising that much of the heritage that we have inherited needs to be junked. First and foremost the Leninist Party which might have been designed to facilitate counter revolution, with its strict military hierarchy and its inevitable promotion of the worst characters to the ‘leadership’ positions which are crucial in the model. As the Police Spy stories become more understood, and provided we can stop thinking about their importance as lying in the sexual escapades of the cops, it will become clear that one of the reasons why the ‘left’ has made so little real progress in the past half century is that it has been directed, to an extent much greater than is recognised, by agents of the ruling class. In some cases this has been not only obvious but undoubted: the intelligentsia is part of the ruling class system.

    The great lesson that we need to learn, I believe, is one that has often been recognised before: the working class, if it is to overcome capitalism, must besiege it. It must sever itself, culturally from the society whose main purpose is to devour it, to exploit it, to harm it.
    Its curious that the Labour Party not only has not got a daily newspaper but hasn’t had one since the late fifties when the Daily Herald was sold.

    I live in Canada so I’m not up to date on all that is going on in the Labour Party but my guess is that Political Education is of even less importance today than it was on the seventies. How could it be otherwise when an obvious and very crude smear campaign like the antisemitism nonsense had such an effect not only among Labour voters but among party members. Had there been any real understanding of the nature of imperialism and capitalism in the party, these emanations of the security services, the media and the Israeli Embassy would have had no effect at all on a constituency-the working class- which understands that attacks on the Labour movement are attacks directed at them, their living standards, their rights, their aspirations.

    In my view Starmer/Rayner represent an actual conspiracy by imperialists, just as did Blair/Mandelson, to cripple the Labour Party but it is conspiracy that only had any chance of success because the level of political consciousness and awareness of the reality of class society, among members, was so low that there was not an immediate uprising against the candidates for leadership-and Momentum’s adoption of the IHRA definition, which would have made the Starmer phenomenon politically impossible.

    The fact that ‘we are many, they are few” has been interpreted largely as meaning “we” have more votes, “we” have more bodies to be mobilised, “We” have more in every physical and material sense. In fact the importance of the “many” is primarily that “we” have more brains, millions more experiences, millions more in the way of practical and theoretical knowledge, many, many more points of contact with living reality than the “few” who constitute a distant, alien caste with little understanding and no empathy with the lives of the ‘people.’ The ‘few’ are corrupted by prizing their separation and celebrating their ignorance. Thus it is that, in the last analysis, their power rests entirely on their ability to employ violence against their opponents: death squads work but not for long. Wherever Operation Condor operated- and it did so it is worth recalling with the approval of the bulk of Labour’s leadership- ‘communists’ were wiped out, and still are being massacred, but the steady rise of socialism in Latin America is not deterred.

    Argentina is once more under a leftish Peronist populist government, Peru is likely soon to have one-after years of reaction. Chile is soon going to have a newly drafted constitution to replace Mr Kissinger’s. Ecuador after a period of reaction under a traitor named Lenin, is likely soon to elect a new, if wiser, iteration of the government that offered Julian refuge. Everywhere in Latin America there are scars of the death squads but everywhere, too, the majority of people want socialist governments and given a faint chance will have them. And where, as in Brazil, the left seems weakened its weakness has to be understood as having come about as a result of its own faults. Lula might not have been corrupt but he was inexcusably moderate, unprepared to address the sources of the power that erased the PT, his policies exemplified by the eagerness with which his Brazil embraced the role of leading enforcer for imperialism in Haiti.

    It was one of William Cobbett’s ‘eccentricities’ that he urged his followers to join no political organisations and to engage in no plots, to keep all political activity public and to assume that wherever they were, there would be spies and provocateurs, that whatever they said would be retailed to the authorities and that any plans they made would be instantly known by their enemies. Even in the 1820s it was clear that the path for those who wanted to change the system lay in mass organisation, not in substitutions for the masses but in aiming at social unanimity – a real belief that an injury to one is an injury to all. This solidarity makes a movement impervious to the smears and misrepresentations that are the stock in trade of the ruling class- the pseudo psychology of the journalists at the BBC, The Guardian and The Times, at any of their media only works because the ‘left’ is riven with sectarian jealousies and insecurity. Astonishing as it is, we take most of our information, even information about ourselves, from those motivated to mislead and misinform us.

    We were talking of Latin America and the example of Bolivia is one that we would do well to think about. Last year, as we know, there was a classic coup, founded on misrepresentation and carried out by an armed minority financed by capitalist speculators and presided over by the CIA. A year later the coup is defeated. The constant factor in both the defeat of the coup and the rationale employed to justify it was the solidarity of the indigenous communities, which voted almost unanimously for MAS, the socialist party. It was the predictability of that solidarity which allowed the malicious social scientists prostituting themselves to imperialism to claim that the pattern of voting returns indicated that Morales would lose. In fact once the results of the ballots in the poor areas and particularly the subsistence farming villages came in Morales was shown to have an unassailable majority. A year of coup government by fascistic, militarist and violently repressive forces later and the vote was unchanged- once again MAS won by about 55% to 30%.

    And the significance of this is that the Bolivian socialist constituency proved impervious to a campaign of anti MAS propaganda, unanswered in the cowed and bought media, which not only trashed Morales’ character, accused the party of corruption and mobilised the Church against its paganism but was able to draw upon the culture of the imperial metropolis to second the partisan attacks.

    And, in the working class areas? Nobody listened. Or those who listened laughed at the predictability of the campaign. They had heard it before, they had heard it for five hundred years.

    What the ‘left’ in the ‘west’ needs to do is to follow the Bolivian example- the indigenous people of Bolivia and Latin America are not a racial classification but a class- the exploited, oppressed class. Certainly the descendants of the incas and the other pre Columbian nations are over represented, so too are the descendants of the tens of millions of African slaves . The same will be true of the working class in the UK- largely composed of the descendants of the village cultivators crushed by enclosures, but also consisting of large contingents of those capitalism mobilised into cheap and bonded labour, from the Irish to the Caribbean immigrants to the millions from the sub continent and elsewhere in the Empire. Turning these people the indigenous of the ‘west’ into communities capable of the solidarity the Bolivians, the descendants of the slave labour which mined the silver mountain at Potosi, which fueled the commerce which grew into modern capitalism, have learned as the alternative to perpetual and cruel slavery is the job of political education.

    It begins with the development of places like Steel City Scribblings and the organisation of the masses of talent and energy that the many and those who identify with them can dispose of. And which properly directed will overwhelm the media of the few and their academies too as easily as Jeremy Corbyn charmed the people at Glastonbury and Tranmere Rovers.

    AS easily and for the same reason: authenticity and honesty.

    • Much food for thought, bevin. I may come back and make further reply. I’ve given too little thought to the wider implications of the police spy accounts, perhaps because they were predominately within direct action environmentalism, an arena I’ve no experience of. I’m sure cops and/or spooks infiltrated Militant Tendency and perhaps SWP but less sure they’d find the really tiny groups like my old sect, Workers Power, with no roots in the working class, worth the candle. It’s likely they’ll keep tabs on WSWS and, if they haven’t already, infiltrate should its influence cross whatever thresholds they apply.

      Glad you make the point on class in Bolivia and other parts of Latin America. Liberals, more at home challenging racist language than class rule, would do well to heed EM Forster’s advice and ‘only connect’. Given the dangers on the one hand of a crude economism that sees racism, misogyny, homophobia etc as diversionary issues, on the other of identity politics induced blindness to the reality that those oppressions take place within a context of surplus value extraction, it’s vital to keep plugging away at this. (Lack of a class perspective, hence of an anti-imperialist stance, is practically a defining feature of liberalism. That’s why so many progressives were incandescent in 2016 when folk like me refused to see HRC as lesser evil to DRT. To them it was a slam dunk because they were attending too much to HRC’s socially inclusive language; too little to the fact that the victims of her wars on the global south were not only dark of skin but, since women always bear the brunt of such wars, disproportionately female.)

    • I think you are correct that pessimism is unwarranted. Working class resistance continues around the world, a result of the fundamental contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Inevitably there will be ebbs and flows in that struggle.

      Your rejection of what you term the “Leninist Party” is, it seems to me, a conflation of the Bolshevik party under Lenin with that party under Stalin, a bloody transition which most of Lenin’s leading comrades paid for with their lives.

      The Russian revolution of 1917, against a new and inexperienced bourgeoisie, will be quite different to a revolution in the West. Trotsky, like Gramsci, recognised the difficult task of confronting the “heavy reserves” of the developed bourgeoisie. Today those heavy reserves include not only capital’s “labour lieutenants” in the labour movements, but also a highly developed ideological apparatus.

      It is precisely the strength of the bourgeoisie, of international imperialism, that demands a party of committed revolutionaries, able to distil the lessons of the past and map a way forward, but also listening to and in dialogue with the masses. This was the conception of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.

      You appear to view the type of movement led by Corbyn as a way forward. I think, on the contrary, it is a negative confirmation of the need for a revolutionary party. Far from confronting the ruling class, he could not confront their representatives in his own right wing, or even defend left wingers such as Livingstone and Williamson, let alone Julian Assange, about whom he and his allies have said virtually nothing. In the end he was finished off by the reactionary forces which prevail (in the absence of a sharp fight for principles) in a “broad church”.

      In relation to your final point, none of this is to say that those not in a revolutionary party, amongst whom I include myself at present, may not have valuable contributions to make in one way or another. Trotsky said on this score:
      “I am neither a fanatic nor a sectarian. I can very well understand a person who sympathises with the communist cause without leaving his milieu. Assistance of this sort can be very valuable for us. But it is the assistance of a sympathiser.”

  2. Moon of Alabama posted a recent informative piece on the CIA’s propaganda machine, dubbed the Mighty Wurlitzer, with specific reference to the recent prosecution of the Chinese “citizen journalist”.

    • Thanks Colin. I just skim-read the Moon of A piece and will have a more leisured look tomorrow. If I can find the time I’ll get a post out of it. The constant vilification of China, and the fact people buy it, need to be combated constantly.

      • Not ten minutes after writing my reply to you, I read Caitlin Johnstone’s post for today. It begins:

        We’re now getting mass media reports that yet another country the US government doesn’t like has been trying to kill American troops in Afghanistan, with the accusation this time being leveled at China. This brings the total number of governments against which this exact accusation has been made to three: China, Iran, and Russia.

        “The U.S. has evidence that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] attempted to finance attacks on American servicemen by Afghan non-state actors by offering financial incentives or ‘bounties’,” reads a new “scoop” from Axios, quoting anonymous officials who refused to name their sources.

        The Trump administration is declassifying as-yet uncorroborated intelligence, recently briefed to President Trump, that indicates China offered to pay non-state actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers, two senior administration officials tell Axios,” the evidence-free report claims …

        Full post here

        As I keep saying to anyone who’ll listen, “we have evidence” is not evidence. I’ve lost count of folk with degrees, doctorates and professorships who needed to be reminded of this …

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