The American Bear


Can Civilization Survive Capitalism? | Noam Chomsky

There have been serious debates over the years about whether capitalism is compatible with democracy. If we keep to really existing capitalist democracy – RECD for short – the question is effectively answered: They are radically incompatible.

[…] Within the RECD system it is of extreme importance that we become the stupid nation, not misled by science and rationality, in the interests of the short-term gains of the masters of the economy and political system, and damn the consequences.

These commitments are deeply rooted in the fundamentalist market doctrines that are preached within RECD, though observed in a highly selective manner, so as to sustain a powerful state that serves wealth and power.

The official doctrines suffer from a number of familiar “market inefficiencies,” among them the failure to take into account the effects on others in market transactions. The consequences of these “externalities” can be substantial. The current financial crisis is an illustration. It is partly traceable to the major banks and investment firms’ ignoring “systemic risk” – the possibility that the whole system would collapse – when they undertook risky transactions.

Environmental catastrophe is far more serious: The externality that is being ignored is the fate of the species. And there is nowhere to run, cap in hand, for a bailout.

In future, historians (if there are any) will look back on this curious spectacle taking shape in the early 21st century. For the first time in human history, humans are facing the significant prospect of severe calamity as a result of their actions – actions that are battering our prospects of decent survival.

Those historians will observe that the richest and most powerful country in history, which enjoys incomparable advantages, is leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster. Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called “primitive” societies: First Nations, tribal, indigenous, aboriginal.

The countries with large and influential indigenous populations are well in the lead in seeking to preserve the planet. The countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction or extreme marginalization are racing toward destruction.

Thus Ecuador, with its large indigenous population, is seeking aid from the rich countries to allow it to keep its substantial oil reserves underground, where they should be.

Meanwhile the U.S. and Canada are seeking to burn fossil fuels, including the extremely dangerous Canadian tar sands, and to do so as quickly and fully as possible, while they hail the wonders of a century of (largely meaningless) energy independence without a side glance at what the world might look like after this extravagant commitment to self-destruction.

This observation generalizes: Throughout the world, indigenous societies are struggling to protect what they sometimes call “the rights of nature,” while the civilized and sophisticated scoff at this silliness.

This is all exactly the opposite of what rationality would predict – unless it is the skewed form of reason that passes through the filter of RECD. [++]

Wikileaks Planning To Drop 1,000,000+ Documents In Near Future.


Julian Assange has not given much detail on what the nature of the documents will be, except to say that they will “affect every country in the world.”

If these documents are standard Wikileaks fare, they will probably include embarrassing and/or scandalous matter about large powerful institutions—world governments in particular. Moreover, the diffusion of these documents will no doubt leave some grumbling about the risks attendant to their disclosure.

There are understandable arguments in favor of such a position. Critics of Wikileaks appear to favor government secrecy on certain topics because they believe it to be a necessary predicate to good governance (e.g. keeping information about matters of national security matters classified). Thomas Jefferson, during his time as President, noted that:

[T]he Executive ought to communicate such papers as the public good would permit, and ought to refuse those, the disclosure of which would injure the public …

The fundamental flaw of this apparently reasonable position, however, is that there is no way to determine when the government is keeping information out of public hands for legitimate purposes. This is undoubtedly why many of Jefferson’s contemporaries took hardline stances in the other direction. Here is John Adams:

[The People] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees. And the preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.

James Madison:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Benjamin Franklin:

I was struck dumb with astonishment at the sentiments … [t]hat the executive alone shall have the right of judging what shall be kept secret, and what shall be made public, and that the representatives of a free people, are incompetent to determine on the interests of those who delegated them … .

The legitimacy of Democratic governance depends on consent of the governed. It is impossible for people to consent to acts of which they had no knowledge. And if history is any guide on the matter, government secrecy is invoked at least as often to ensure that the public remains uninformed of acts of official wretchedness carried out in their name, as it is to secure the blessings of confidentiality to sensitive information.

Such a state of affairs is intolerable in a free society. As Thomas Paine noted in the Dissertations, “In republics, such as those established in America, the sovereign power, or the power over which there is no control, and which controls all others, remains where nature placed it—in the people[.]” Government secrecy, no matter how well intentioned, subverts that control by ensuring that people cast their votes ignorant to potentially embarrassing, disagreeable, or perhaps even shocking actions which the government carries out in their name. One cannot vote against something they have knowledge of. And being ignorant of the same, a person would have little reason to. And therein, as they say, lies the problem.

(via canadian-communist)

If legitimation is an activity which serves to confirm the identity of the legitimator, then democratic legitimation is not an exception to this function. In so far as people act as citizens as well as subjects, they too engage in actions, legitimations which cultivate, sustain, create, or conform to that identity. ‘Democratic legitimation’ is most commonly thought of as the transfer of consent from citizens to the government. But there is another activity, also democratic, also legitimation, whereby subjects cultivate and sustain their own identity, the legitimation, not of rulers, but of citizens. Democracy involves subjects cultivating their own identity as participating and active members of the polity. A recognition of the self-legitimation of the rulers, in other words, is only problematic for democrats if it is not realised that citizens too legitimate themselves, and do so in a way which makes them more than simple clients of a democratically sanctioned state. So it is appropriate to ask where this activity can be observed. What do subjects do which seems to them similar to that of the various self-legitimating actions conducted by rulers?

Rodney Barker, Legitimating Identities: The Self-Presentations of Rulers and Subjects, p. 112

via Notes on a Theory…

When corporations bankroll politics, we all pay the price | George Monbiot

It’s a revolting spectacle: the two presidential candidates engaged in a frantic and demeaning scramble for money. By 6 November, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will each have raised more than $1bn. Other groups have already spent a further billion. Every election costs more than the one before; every election, as a result, drags the United States deeper into cronyism and corruption. Whichever candidate takes the most votes, it’s the money that wins.

Is it conceivable, for instance, that Romney, whose top five donors are all Wall Street banks, would put the financial sector back in its cage? Or that Obama, who has received $700,000 from both Microsoft and Google, would challenge their monopolistic powers? Or, in the Senate, that the leading climate change denier James Inhofe, whose biggest donors are fossil fuel companies, could change his views, even when confronted by an overwhelming weight of evidence? The US feeding frenzy shows how the safeguards and structures of a nominal democracy can remain in place while the system they define mutates into plutocracy.

Despite perpetual attempts to reform it, US campaign finance is now more corrupt and corrupting than it has been for decades. It is hard to see how it can be redeemed. If the corporate cronies and billionaires’ bootlickers who currently hold office were to vote to change the system, they’d commit political suicide. What else, apart from the money they spend, would recommend them to the American people?

In a study of 392 campus speech codes last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, found that 65 percent of the colleges had policies that in our view violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to free speech.

- Greg Lukianoff, the New York Times. Feigning Free Speech on Campus. (And here’s a link to the study he mentions above)

Take from those numbers what you will — universities are home to either smart, enlivened debate or misguided enthusiasm — but Lukianoff’s op-ed piece is worth a read. In the framing of his piece, university life looks a bit like micro-life. Which is what it should be but usually isn’t.

See one of his examples:

Civility is nice, but on college campuses it often takes on a bizarre meaning. In 2009, Yale banned students from making a T-shirt with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation — “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” from his 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise” — to mock Harvard at their annual football game. The T-shirt was blocked after some gay and lesbian students argued that “sissies” amounted to a homophobic slur. “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable,” said Mary Miller, a professor of art history and the dean of Yale College.

(via futurejournalismproject)

Green Party candidate arrested outside debate site

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested outside Long Island’s Hofstra University ahead of tonight’s debate.

After being denied entrance to the campus because they lacked credentials, the two candidates sat down in the street in front of the university with an American flag on their laps, the Long Island Report explains. They were led away by police officers after refusing to move.

Stein and Honkala objected to being excluded from the debate, saying they are on 85 92 percent of state ballots and should be part of the national discussion.

“Democracy starts today with opening up the debates for every single political party in the United States of America,” Honkala told reporters.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, founded by the Democratic and Republican parties, mandates that a candidate must have at least 15 percent support in national polls to be included. Since the CPD’s inception in the 1988 campaign, that has only happened once — when Ross Perot went onstage with President George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992.

An Elite Like Any Other? | Mike Konczal

[A] typical criticism of the meritocratic system is the idea that the game is rigged, as in the common example of wealthier students paying to learn how to take tests that allow meritocratic advancement. Though an important part of the discussion, this focus on improving the meritocracy can lead people to think that making a better test—or, more broadly, expanding equality of opportunity —is enough to fix the problem. This doesn’t leave room for a more extensive discussion about the way elites function in society, even when they reach the top fairly.

Twilight of the Elites avoids that trap by creating a framework for discussing meritocratic elite failure. This framework is best thought of as a map in two dimensions. The first is the horizontal relationship the meritocracy produces among the elite, and the second is the vertical distance the meritocracy puts between them and the rest of the population.

The meritocratic elite, according to Hayes’’ reporting, take their ethos very seriously, but also have an edge of contempt. Because the ideology of the meritocracy reduces all success to narrow measures of intelligence, or of money (which to the elite looks like intelligence rewarded in the marketplace), those at the top become extremely anxious about even the minutest differences among themselves. And given how inequality skyrockets the further up you go in the top 1 percent, in a pattern the book cleverly refers to as “fractal inequality,” there is all the more room for elites to nervously compare themselves to their betters. The American meritocracy is among the richest in the world, yet its members are always worried they are falling behind. No elite can afford to stop pushing forward.

This isn’t unrelated to the various ways in which the system has been gamed. From test prep to performance-enhancing drugs to the manipulation of energy prices, elites can boost their performance in many small ways. Some of these are illegal or unethical, but once some people begin to cheat, a prisoner’s dilemma scenario develops, and everyone has to toss their ethics aside to remain in the game. These “open secrets,” as the book describes them, show the dark side of having a single metric for all success.

Hayes also discusses the relationship between the meritocratic elite and those that they have power over. Existing in a separate universe of high-end schools and office places, the elite’s interactions with everyone else in the world are limited. This significant social distance blunts any attempts at democratic accountability, including the accountability that comes through shared social and cultural norms. And the more the elite are isolated from the rest of the country, the more likely that their failures, when they inevitably occur, will be massive and spectacular. [++]

Feast of Fools: How American Democracy Became the Property of a Commercial Oligarchy | Lewis Lapham

[…] The shaping of the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, a.k.a. the 20% of the population that holds 93% of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas. Their anxious and spendthrift company bears the mark of oligarchy ridden with the disease diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the appetite for more of everything — more McMansions, more defense contracts, more beachfront, more tax subsidy, more prosperous fools. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”

The hostile intent has been conscientiously sustained over the last 30 years, no matter which party is in control of Congress or the White House, and no matter what the issue immediately at hand — the environment or the debt, defense spending or campaign-finance reform. The concentrations of wealth and power express their fear and suspicion of the American people with a concerted effort to restrict their liberties, letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the infrastructure — roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals — that provides the country with the foundation of its common enterprise.

The domestic legislative measures accord with the formulation of a national-security state backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the eighteenth-century British crown. The Justice Department reserves the right to tap anybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, decide who is, and who is not, an un-American. The various government security agencies now publish 50,000 intelligence reports a year, monitoring the world’s Web traffic and sifting the footage from surveillance cameras as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way. President Barack Obama elaborates President George W. Bush’s notions of preemptive strike by claiming the further privilege to order the killing of any American citizen overseas who is believed to be a terrorist or a friend of terrorists, to act the part of jury, judge, and executioner whenever and however it suits his exalted fancy.

Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law.

The upper servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.

[Thomas] Paine had in mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality… the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.”

Oligarchy prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind — that of the obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation and the speeches, spend 50% of their time soliciting campaign funds. When standing in a hotel ballroom or when seated in a television studio, it is the duty of the tribunes of the people to insist that the drug traffic be stopped, the budget balanced, the schools improved, paradise regained. Off camera, they bootleg the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the gentry at whose feet they dance for coins. [read]

The Democratic Convention and The Illusion of Democracy | Jonathan Turley

While Democracy and the Democratic Party may sound similar, the party leaders again showed yesterday that one has little to do with the other. President Obama and party leaders wanted the party’s platform changed to include a reference to both Jerusalem being the capital of Israel and God. The omissions however were not accidental and a high number of delegates opposed the change, which had to be agreed to by two-thirds of the delegates. … [In] calling for a voice vote, the leadership was shocked when it appeared that more people voted no than yes — certainly well short of two-thirds in support of the changes. That did not matter. The leadership just declared the vote as having passed by two-thirds acclamation.


For those long unhappy with the Democratic leadership, it was a telling symbolic moment. Once again, it appeared that Democratic voters (even delegates representing the most loyal activists) are given only the appearance of participation in their party. For years, Democratic leaders lied to their members about their knowledge and even support for Bush’s torture program and surveillance policies until it was revealed that key Democrats were briefed on the programs. The party leadership then worked with Bush to scuttle any effort to investigate torture and other alleged crimes to avoid implicating key Democratic members. Likewise, while the majority of Democratic voters opposed the continuation of the wars, the Democratic party leaders blocked efforts to force a pull out under both Obama and Bush. These controversies were seen by many that the Democratic Party is primarily run to ensure the continuation of a small number of leaders in power with voters treated as ignorant minions. It was a particularly poignant moment in an uncontested convention after Democratic voters were not given any alternative to Obama.

The image of the chair just ignoring the obvious opposition from the floor of the conventional symbolized this long simmering tension. For full disclosure, I have long been a critic of both parties and have argued for changes to break the monopoly on power by the two parties. It is really not the merits of these two changes that is most bothersome. Arguments can be made on both side of such issues. It is the disregard of the views of the members and the dishonesty in how the matter was handled. The illusion of democracy was all that the leaders wanted in the vote. [++]

Authoritarian Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism | Henry Giroux

"Under casino capitalism, the spaces, institutions, and values that constitute the public are now surrendered to powerful financial forces and viewed simply as another market to be commodified, privatized and surrendered to the demands of capital.  With religious and market-driven zealots in charge, politics becomes an extension of war; greed and self-interest trump any concern for the well-being of others; reason is trumped by emotions rooted in absolutist certainty and militaristic aggression; and skepticism and dissent are viewed as the work of Satan."

If the Republican candidacy race of 2012 is any indication, then political discourse in the United States has not only moved to the right—it has been introducing totalitarian values and ideals into the mainstream of public life.  Religious fanaticism, consumer culture, and the warfare state work in tandem with neoliberal economic forces to encourage privatization, corporate tax breaks, growing income and wealth inequality, and the further merging of the financial and military spheres in ways that diminish the authority and power of democratic governance. Neoliberal interests in freeing markets from social constraints, fueling competitiveness, destroying education systems, producing atomized subjects, and loosening individuals from any sense of social responsibility prepare the populace for a slow embrace of social Darwinism, state terrorism, and the mentality of war—not least of all by destroying communal bonds, dehumanizing the other, and pitting individuals against the communities they inhabit.

Totalitarian temptations now saturate the media and larger culture in the language of austerity as political and economic orthodoxy. What we are witnessing in the United States is the normalization of a politics that exterminates not only the welfare state, and the truth, but all those others who bear the sins of the Enlightenment—that is, those who refuse a life free from doubt. Reason and freedom have become enemies not merely to be mocked, but to be destroyed. And this is a war whose totalitarian tendencies are evident in the assault on science, immigrants, women, the elderly, the poor, people of color, and youth. What too often goes unsaid, particularly with the media’s focus on inflammatory rhetoric, is that those who dominate politics and policymaking, whether Democrats or Republicans, do so largely because of their disproportionate control of the nation’s income and wealth. Increasingly, it appears these political elite choose to act in ways that sustain their dominance through the systemic reproduction of an iniquitous social order. In other words, big money and corporate power rule while electoral politics are rigged. The secrecy of the voting booth becomes the ultimate expression of democracy, reducing politics to an individualized purchase—a crude form of economic action. Any form of politics willing to invest in such ritualistic pageantry only adds to the current dysfunctional nature of our social order, while reinforcing a profound failure of political imagination. The issue should no longer be how to work within the current electoral system, but how to dismantle it and construct a new political landscape that is capable of making a claim on equity, justice, and democracy for all of its inhabitants.

Read the whole piece

Escaping the Matrix (2)

[Harvard professor Samuel P.] Huntington tells us that democratic societies “cannot work” unless the citizenry is “passive.” The “democratic surge of the 1960s” represented an “excess of democracy,” which must be reduced if governments are to carry out their traditional domestic and foreign policies. Huntington’s notion of “traditional policies” is expressed in a passage from the report:

“To the extent that the United States was governed by anyone during the decades after World War II, it was governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment’.”

In these few words Huntington spells out the reality that electoral democracy has little to do with how America is run, and summarizes the kind of people who are included within the elite planning community. Who needs conspiracy theories when elite machinations are clearly described in public documents like these?

US Drone Attacks in Pakistan Violate Sovereignty, Weakening Democracy: Diplomat

As High Commissioner to London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan is one of Pakistan’s top ambassadors. Now four years into his second stint in the post, Ambassador Hasan argues that US drone strikes risk significantly weakening Pakistan’s democratic institutions and that the US prefers dealing ‘one man’ and not ‘democratic institutions’ when it comes to such matters.

“What has been the whole outcome of these drone attacks is that you have directly or indirectly contributed to destabilising or undermining the democratic government. Because people really make fun of the democratic government – when you pass a resolution against drone attacks in the parliament and nothing happens. The Americans don’t listen to you, and they continue to violate your territory,” he said.

Despite repeated government requests and eve-growing public protest, he says, the Pakistanis are too weak to halt the US superpower. “We cannot take on the only superpower, which is all-powerful in the world at the moment. You can’t take them on. We are a small country, we are ill-equipped,” he said.

Mr Hasan was also scathing about what he sees as the US’s weak commitment towards democracy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also implies there are those in the US government who would still prefer to be dealing with a dictator:

They talk in miles in support of democracy, but they move in inches. They say, ‘We are fully for democracy, we want democracy, we support the Arab Spring, we are opposed to military interference in Egypt.’ All of these things are very good. They are music to my ears. But when it comes to real politics they are different. [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton has really supported democracy. But she is one person. There are so many pillars of power in the United States, and they act differently.”

“The United States if you look at Pakistan’s 65 year history,” Hasan said, “has always preferred to deal with one man rather than with institutions. They would never like a matter to go to the parliament, to be debated there, for issues to be accountable to the parliament and the people, they don’t want that, they want one man.”

(Source: jayaprada)

A Model Democracy? Really? | Dave Lindorff

On healthcare:

Even with the passage of a sort of healthcare reform, the ludicrously and optimistically named Affordable Care Act, most Americans still tell pollsters that they would prefer a Canadian-style plan in which the government provides health insurance coverage for all, paid for by taxation. For decades this has been true. In 1988, a Harvard University/Harris poll found 61% favoring a Canadian-style so-called “single-payer” healthcare system. By 1990, the LA Times found support for such a system had risen to 66%, while in 1991, the Wall Street Journal found public support had reached an astonishing 69%. In 2003, the Washington Post and ABC-TV found 62% in favor of extending Medicare, the government health program for those over 65, to cover everyone. In 2007, despite decades of anti-government ideological rhetoric, CNN found that 64% favored government health insurance for all. In 2009, as the Obama administration was flat-out refusing to even discuss the idea of Medicare-for-all, or a Canadian-style health program, the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is associated with a private health insurance organization, found 58% of Americans nonetheless were in favor of a Canadian-style health program. So far, however, neither the President nor Congress or either of the country’s two political parties will even consider a national health program.

Find out some of the other ways the United States a democracy in name only.