Friday, September 30, 2011

God is an American

Thursday, September 29, 2011

'The End of Loser Liberalism' and the myth of the free market

(This is the extended, Director's Cut edition of my review published by Inter Press Service)

The top 1 percent of earners in the United States now control more than 40 percent of the nation's wealth, their income steadily rising at the same time most of the country now takes home less pay than a decade ago, with an all-time high of 46 million Americans now living below the official poverty line.

To many on the right, this trend is the natural consequence of market forces, of freedom and free enterprise rewarding the more productive members of society. Many on the left also hold free markets responsible for the expanding gap between rich and poor and the global economic meltdown that accelerated it, arguing for a more interventionist role by the state to promote stability and arrest the growth in inequality.

But as economist Dean Baker observes in his latest book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, the truth is that those on both sides of the political spectrum who assert that the U.S. economy is based on free markets are fundamentally mistaken. Markets in the U.S. have never been free of state intervention. Rather, that which we call the “free market” has in fact been fixed, consciously designed to redistribute wealth from the working class to the idle rich, from patents that allow pharmaceutical giants to reap monopoly profits to restrictions on labor that neuter the ability of Americans to organize and demand better compensation.

If critics of the corporatist status quo want to quit losing policy debates, argues Baker, it's time they started accurately describing the system they're up against and quit debating on its apologists' terms.

“In reality,” writes Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, “the vast majority of the right does not give a damn about free markets; it just wants to redistribute income upward.” Though cloaking their language in the rhetoric of liberty, conservative politicians – both Democrat and Republican, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush – have in fact crafted an economic system based on coercion and dependent on state-granted corporate privilege.

Of course, they can't just say that, so they couch their rhetoric in terms of the American Dream, of hard work and ingenuity being rightly rewarded with prosperity. But politicians in Washington professing their allegiance to free markets should be no more believed than when they profess their devotion to peace.

Unfortunately, critics of a system crafted by and for the rich have accepted the “free market” framing of its defenders, which is why Baker posits the left has been losing the policy debate in recent decades. All too often, liberals have accepted the increased concentration of wealth as the natural result of free enterprise; if their opponents have any fault, then, it's that they have too much faith in people being left to conduct their own affairs free of intervention by the state. That, Baker maintains, is far too easy on politicians whose only allegiance is not to the principles of the free market, but the principal of the rich.

And blaming free markets for inequality and economic catastrophe in America is not only factually flawed, writes Baker, “it makes for horrible politics.” Accepting the right's framing of the debate allows conservatives to cast themselves as defenders of “productive” Americans who live in bigger houses than the rest of us because they worked harder, enabling the left to be “portrayed as wanting to tax the winners in society in order to reward the losers.”

Instead of devoting so much time to taxing the rich, Baker maintains the left would be better off striking at the root and attacking the state privileges that enrich them in the first place. Instead of allowing the right to masquerade as defenders of limited government, the left ought to reveal conservatives as the true proponents of massive state intervention in the economy.

Consider the debate over deregulation. A common liberal critique is that the repeal of the Great Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, enabling commercial banks to jump into investment banking, was an example of laissez faire ideology run amok, a move that led directly to the financial crisis of 2008. The truth, though, is that the repeal of the act didn't actually minimize state intervention in the economy at all. On the contrary, it only increased the state's role in shaping market outcomes, extending the deposit insurance the federal government provides commercial banks to the investment firms that could now operate under the same roof, providing a taxpayer-funded subsidy to risky investments and exotic financial instruments.

Proponents of “deregulation” in the 1990s were in truth the real advocates of Big Government. So why isn't the left saying that?

Baker also details how, under the watch of alleged free marketeer Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve – the very existence of which is at odds with a free market – pumped the economy full of cheap credit, fueling reduced lending standards and the creation of exotic financial instruments by banks confident that, should times turn sour, their allies at the Fed would refuse to let them fail.

Indeed, the Fed itself was from its founding in 1913 “deliberately designed to insulate it from democratic control and leave it instead to be a tool of the financial industry.” The problem was never a lack of regulation or state involvement in the economy, observes Baker, it was for whom those regulations and interventions served.

If Baker's assessment of the U.S. economy sounds radical to the liberal ear, his statement that, in general, “Progressives should want a free market,” probably seems heretical. But in most cases, he maintains, government intervention not only does not provide a check on the concentration of wealth and the rise of monopolies, but in fact is the underlying cause for the increasing gap between rich and poor. Be it overly restrictive licensing schemes that limit competition in the medical and legal professions, resulting in much higher salaries than would be possible in a free market, to labor laws that hinder organizing and prohibit unions from engaging in sympathy boycotts and other effective negotiating tactics, the overwhelming effect of government intervention is to make the wealthy elite wealthier.

Indeed, the very corporations held up as the pinnacles of success in a free society “do not exist in the natural world or in the free market,” Baker notes, their very existence owed to an act of government that, thanks to the doctrine of corporate personhood, enables executives to evade legal and financial responsibility for poisoned rivers and fraudulent mortgages – and to avoid answering to shareholders who are ostensibly their bosses.

The rise in health care costs in America is also largely due, not to market forces, but state interventions, notes Baker. For example, Baker writes that Americans currently spend around $300 billion a year – or 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) – on prescription drugs. In a competitive market free from monopoly-granting patents, that figure would be closer to $30 billion.

This difference of $270 billion a year is more than five times as large as the annual cost of President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the population,” Baker writes, the same inflated costs applying to patented medical equipment. Yet, despite even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noting that “intellectual property” is the single greatest factor when it comes to redistributing wealth from the lower to upper classes, it receives nowhere near the attention that tax policy does from the left.

The End of Loser Liberalism demonstrates that what the left and right have come to call the “free market” is in fact an economy fixed by the wealthy and their allies in government to redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top of the economic pyramid. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Baker shows time and again a true free market would actually lead to more progressive outcomes and that there's nothing corporate America fears more than unbridled competition – and no institution it's more dependent on than the U.S. government.

Many liberals and progressives have been conditioned to view the state as the public's last best defense against corporate power; what Baker shows is that it is more often than not its chief enabler. But while his assessment is radical, his solutions are reformist – perhaps overly so. And if Baker's to be faulted, it's for thinking too much like an economist than a progressive visionary.

That is to say, while Baker ably demonstrates the many ways state interventions in the economy are designed to enrich the wealthy, he never fully articulates his vision of a what a more progressive economy would look like, so when he advocates a major government stimulus to reboot the American economy, the reader is left to wonder: absent radical reform, what's really the point? Sure people need money, and perhaps direct payments from the state would be more “loser liberalism” and syndicalism too radical for the time being, but if stimulus money is only going to help reboot the same crony capitalist economy as before, with its fixed wages and debt-based consumerism, will short-term reductions in unemployment come at the expense of more fundamental – and necessary – reform?

Some of Baker's other ideas also aren't likely to help liberals beat the “big government” rap and shift the terms of the debate, either. Providing every American a $100 voucher to give to an artist of their choosing could conceivably undercut the power of copyright-dependent media conglomerates, for instance, but's it's hard to imagine a GOP Congress approving of tax dollars going to any artist more radical than Norman Rockwell, much less Anarcho-Vegans Against War. In effect, the proposal could very well encourage bland, politically advantageous conformity in the art world at the cost of unpopular dissent. Taking on excessive and draconian intellectual property laws head-on would seem to be both politically more attractive, bringing on board both leftists and libertarians, and less likely to subject the art world to greater political manipulation.

Providing businesses incentives to hire more workers at shorter hours, meanwhile, might reduce unemployment. And Baker's likely right that a shorter work week would be closer to what would occur on a true free market, where tax codes tying health care to employment and labor laws undercutting worker bargaining positions would no longer conspire to force Americans to work longer hours with less time off than their counterparts in Europe. But even so, mandating a shorter work week is bound to be attacked by conservatives as liberal social engineering, a left-wing war against “hard work.” If the goal is to paint conservatives as advocates of state power in the service of the wealthy, why not focus instead on changing the manipulative tax codes and big government restrictions on labor?

If the American left is to capture the public's imagination, it will ultimately need to put forward a broader, more holistic and compelling vision of society than that offered by their opponents on the right, one based more on consensus and cooperation than corporations and coercion. That vision, while hinted it, isn't detailed in The End of Loser Liberalism.

But that's a rather minor quibble. Before it can achieve radical social change, the left needs to radically change its rhetoric and quit debating on the right's terms. And if leftists wants to quit losing to conservatives, they would do well to start listening to Dean Baker.

The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive” is available as a free download on the website of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The wrong side of history

Then and there:
President Obama calls Iranian martyr Neda's death 'heartbreaking'
Obama said he had watched the graphic Internet video of the death of Neda Soltan, which has turned the 26-year-old student into a global symbol of the pro-democracy protests.
"While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history," Obama said. 
Here and now:
White House Declines Comment on Troy Davis Case
“Dating back to his time in the Illinois State Senate, President Obama has worked to ensure accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system – especially in capital punishment cases,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “However, it is not appropriate for the President of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution."
Update: And let's not forget this:
Obama says Bradley Manning "broke the law"
Though Manning has yet to stand trial, Mr. Obama asserted yesterday that he is guilty.
"If you're in the military, and -- I have to abide by certain classified information," Mr. Obama explained to a supporter. "If I was to release stuff, information that I'm not authorized to release, I'm breaking the law. We're a nation of laws. We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate... He broke the law."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Putting drug company profits over people

Apparently the United States' "Responsibility to Protect" poor innocent people wherever they may live is limited to bombing and occupying their countries. Sacrificing some of the pharmaceutical industry's billions of dollars in profits so that poor innocent people wherever they may live may . . . live? Ha!

From The New York Times:
[G]eneric drug companies say they are on the verge of selling cheaper copies of such huge sellers as Herceptin for breast cancer, Avastin for colon cancer, Rituxan for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis. Their entry into the market in the next year — made possible by hundreds of millions of dollars invested in biotechnology plants — could not only transform the care of patients in much of the world but also ignite a counterattack by major pharmaceutical companies and diplomats from richer countries.
Already, the Obama administration has been trying to stop an effort by poorer nations to strike a new international bargain that would allow them to get around patent rights and import cheaper Indian and Chinese knock-off drugs for cancer and other diseases, as they did to fight AIDS. The debate turns on whether diseases like cancer can be characterized as emergencies, or “epidemics.”
Rich nations and the pharmaceutical industry agreed 10 years ago to give up patent rights and the profits that come with them in the face of an AIDS pandemic that threatened to depopulate much of Africa, but they see deaths from cancer, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases as less of an emergency and, in some cases, the inevitable consequence of better and longer living.
The inevitable consequence of putting patents and the monopoly profits they secure politically influential pharmaceutical companies over the interests of cancer-stricken patients is that many people will die preventable deaths. And Ronald Reagan's generic knockoff is cool with that. But hey, we all gotta go some time. It's inevitable, ya know

(via Chase Madar)

So this exists

Can anyone think of any alternative taglines, I wonder?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blogging our way to social transformation (or: How to change the world)

How do we get from here to there? That is, how do those of us who preach the virtues of neighborhood solidarity and mutual aid propose transitioning from a world where people tend to live atomistically and rely on government programs for support in times of misfortune to a society where people can lean on those in their our community?

It's a tough question and one posed by a recent post from Jim Henley pointing out some of the problems with conservatives who argue private charities can fill the void for social welfare programs they – and many Democrats, don't forget – would like to slash. However much we would it not to be so, charities today lack the capacity to deal with the problems of poverty and inadequate health care currently besetting a nation of 300 million.

The chief problem with conservatives appealing to voluntarism and making the let-them-rely-on-charity argument is that those on the right would by and large only like to cut those aspects of government that, however modestly, actually help people, while at the same time keeping intact the multitude of state-granted corporate privileges, from patent monopolies to corporate personhood, that impoverishes them.

Those of us on the more radical end of the spectrum don't have that problem. When we speak of a post-welfare state society, we're not imagining the status quo minus the social safety net, but rather a world where intellectual property doesn't exist, the corporation doesn't exist, and where private property isn't a sacrosanct right that entitles one person to exploit natural resources for their own personal gain while those around them are mired in poverty.

If I had to quibble with Henley's post – and this is the Internet, so I must – it would be his suggestion that left-libertarians and anarchists have any desire to form an “anti-welfare state coalition” with those on the right whose idea of a more perfect society is the status quo but with Bill Gates at the helm. An anti-warfare state coalition? Sure, by all means: let's invite all the conservatives and liberals and libertarians who oppose empire out to the next anti-war rally. But no anti-state leftists I know are interested in slashing the social safety, at least not until after we're done smashing corporate privilege.

Oh, but we radicals have a problem of our own, let's not kid ourselves: our ideal society largely exists in our imagination. And though our radicalism gives us more street cred, how the hell do we institute the more radical change that we seek?

I certainly wish I had an easy answer to that. While I'll admit to some residual fondness for pointless third party runs, I don't think electoral politics is the way to go, and I certainly don't think there's much hope in reforming either the Democratic or, clearly, the Republican Party. I'm not in the business of condemning people as sinners if they do participate -- partisan cheerleading is a different story -- as our options suck and people are often at a loss of what else to do. I just think the time and resources that go into elections could be put to better use actually building the institutions of the world we'd like to live in.

So far, what I've got is essentially living one's life as an example to others. Reject violence, including in your language. Volunteer. Build up the organizations you'd like to see fill the void left by slashed government social programs. Turn your back on materialism and live frugally. Basically, be the person you would like to see more of in society. What we need isn't some anarchist political revolution, we need an anarchist social revolution: we need a society of anarchists. Help make them.

Will it take a long time? Absolutely. But reducing coercion in our society is a worthy goal that, however much it might seem hopeless and as fruitful as tilting at windmills sometimes, is something worth pursuing in and of itself. I agree with Henley that American culture as it exists right now isn't terribly conducive to an anarchist, consensus-based society. But I would counter that, with bipartisan agreement that the social safety net needs to be slashed, it isn't conducive to social democracy either, so if we're playing the who's-more-realistic game, I'd call a draw.

For a long time, the institution of slavery was held up as just and right, as something that, because it had been around for thousands of years, was the fruit of inalterable Human Nature that wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon, hippie. Abolitionists were pretty much the silly, limp-wristed idealists of their day. But, slowly, opinion began to change. And while we still have plenty of repression in our society, people no longer leap to the defense of the outright enslavement of other human beings.

Social transformation is long, arduous process. But the same change in opinion that took place with slavery can, I believe, take place with how a society views the use of violence and voluntary communalism; the hierarchies and coercion accepted as normal today need not, and I trust will not, be accepted as such forever. For now, the task of the radical is to educate people on the evils of violence, be it perpetrated by individuals or states, and the benefits of cooperation. More important than evangelism, though, is to live life in the manner you would like others to live; people tend to respond better to actions than sermons.

Transforming society will take time but, at the risk of provoking groans, anything worth fighting for usually does. And I haven't heard any better ideas.

UPDATE: Some liberals really don't like it when you suggest that, perhaps, electing more and better Democrats isn't the best or only way to affect radical social change. Here's how American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie interprets this piece:

At least I know they're reading.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oh, to be a pundit

I've always been a bit confused as to whether I ought to view the Tea Party as the over-hyped creation of a self-interested corporate media, as I'm inclined to do, or a serious threat to Democracy that requires forgiving Obama and the Democrats their many sins lest fascism come to America wrapped in a Gadsden flag and carrying Glenn Beck's latest manifesto.

You're probably just as confused as me if you've been reading liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, who like much of the left-leaning (for international readers: right-leaning) blogosphere can't seem to decide whether to be mildly amused by the reactionary movement or to wet his pants. If you haven't been exposed to Dionne's thoughts on the matter, well, good for you. But if you're interested, here's a quick collection on what the Washington Post pundit -- who, while probably not the worst offender out there, actually gets paid for this stuff so I'm going to go ahead and pick on him -- has written about the totally fake but serious fascist threat that's yesterday's news but oh no they're back and they're carrying dynamite Tea Party:

"The Tea Party: Populism of the privileged":
"The Tea Party is nothing new. It represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics, and it will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections.

In fact, both major parties stand to lose if they accept the laughable notion that this media-created protest movement is the voice of true populism."
"The Tea Party is winning":
"No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, Tea Party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country's dialogue."
"The Tea Party Is Yesterday's News":
"From the beginning, too many Republicans (and too many in the media) saw the tea party as a broadly based movement whose extreme anti-government views reflected the popular will.
This was never true. The tea party consisted of citizens on the right end of politics who were always there but got angrier and better-organized after Obama was elected."
"Get the tea party away from that fuse — now":
"The tea party’s followers have endangered the nation’s credit rating and the GOP by pushing both House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor away from their own best instincts."
To recap: The Tea Party is a media creation with no popular support; the Tea Party has fundamentally changed political discussion in the U.S.; the Tea Party is over and done with and, again, has no popular support; and the Tea Party is back, has so much support it can dictate the actions of GOP leaders, and it's threatening to blow up America.

Any questions before the quiz?

My two cents: Politicians would have pursued the same policies, "Tea Party" or not. But the existence of the faux-mass movement, hyped by its corporate media partners, allows Democrats and Republicans alike to justify their actions by pointing to a form of populism that, in truth, isn't all that popular.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Is the mandate really the only answer?

Offer me a choice between a corporatist or socialist government health care system and I'll gladly take the latter. Within the confines of acceptable Washington discourse, we're not debating whether the state should intervene in the health care market and whether it that will cause more harm than good, but what form that massive intervention should take; should it be marginally more beneficial to the poor or to corporations. And though far from my ideal though the current system may be, I'll take it with the few scraps we call a safety net rather than without.

The persons that line the road to my anarchist paradise aren't those living on the margins of society, after all, but the corporations largely responsible for the stagnant wages that put them there.

Unfortunately, the health care reform bill signed into law by President Obama doesn't strike me as a marginal improvement of an awful status quo, but rather a significant step toward further entrenching the corporate health care model that's created the awful situation the reform was purported to address. For that reason, I'm not buying our old friend Matt Yglesias' claim that, in order to deal with a hypothetical “30-year-old man with a decent job [who] decides to go without health insurance” and ends up falling into a coma, the only real option available to us is to mandate that he have purchased private health insurance, as required by the latest health care reform.

Yglesias arrives at this conclusion by labeling discussion of why the costs of the status quo might force a 30-year-old man with a good job to forgo any sort of health coverage side-stepping "nonsense." Indeed, Yglesias rather ludicrously dismisses the question of cost with the headline to his piece: “Should We Let People Die If Unrelated Government Policies Tend To Drive Up The Costs Of Health Care?” When you call any health care reform other than an individual mandate “unrelated,” it's no wonder the only answer you're left with is the individual mandate.

But though he's dismissive and myopic, seeking to limit the debate over health care to WhatDoWeDoAboutJoeComa?, the costs of the U.S. health care system are hugely relevant. And huge.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anarchy and Ometepe

“I think they're sexual deviants,” my traveling companion said, leaning over a fruit salad at breakfast.

The not unexpected comment came after a night of alternately delightful and terrifying conversation with a couple who, over the course of three liters of Toña – Spanish for “Bud Light” – explained that they were in Nicaragua to swab frogs (for science, not pleasure). And that they had been more or less locked up in a ranger's station on the side of Ometepe's Volcan Maderas for the past six months with next to contact with anyone who spoke their language.

Which was Dutch. They spoke Dutch. They were Dutch people.

Sexual deviance, including a horrifically detailed discussion of what perhaps happened to Eva Perón's missing corpse? Explained. Left unresolved: whether the tale of a traveling Frenchman they met who got high smoking Mexican scorpion tails and decidedly poisonous secretions from the frogs they were swabbing had any basis in truth. I like to think that it did.

You meet a lot of interesting people in Nicaragua, from die-hard Sandinistas who fought as child soldiers during the 1979 revolution against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship to the aforementioned couple from Holland in the country to track down an apparently deadly, amphibian-based fungus. Oh, there are boors too. In the beach town of San Juan del Sur, you'll have to put up with the pressed-at-an-Abercrombie-factory bros and a few nausea-inducing, not-a-word-of-Spanish-speaking in town only to pick up a young Latin hunny, under-age if they can manage it. And in Grenada, a city burnt down 150 years ago by an asshole American, you can find his modern-day successors and the prostitutes and signs saying “no dogs” – and don't give money to the homeless kids – that they've brought with them.

Refreshingly, the Ugly Expat is not to be found in tranquil Ometepe, the pot-smoking “ex-CIA” man I met there last time the one possible exception. A tropical volcanic island located an hour's ferry ride out in Nicaragua's Lake Cocibolca, Central America's largest, Ometepe is lush year-round, with Quetzals and Howler monkeys filling the vacuum left by the lack of loud bars and nightclubs . The last time I was there, the active volcano that makes up the more populous and developed northern half of the island, Volcan Concepción, almost – in a complete dick move -- killed me after by tour-guide-who-wasn't forgot how to get back down from its sulfur-spewing crater. Fun times!

My trip to the island this time around didn't result in any near-death experiences, sad to say, but I did get to leave the main port town to the see the rest of the place, spending most of my time at the base of Volcan Maderas, the inactive volcano that forms the much-less traveled southern half of the island, where nice paved streets turn into Oregon Trail-style, boulder-filled “roads” barely navigable by SUV. While I did spend one day biking out to the Ojo de Agua, a man-made lagoon filled with volcanic water that felt like swimming in a pool of Perrier, most of my time was spent at a hostel on the grounds of Finca Magdalena, a cooperative coffee farm that 28 local families expropriated from their wealthy, absentee landlord during the early years of Sandinista rule. A stately, century-old wooden house at the center of the estate, the hostel is surrounded by beautiful gardens full of butterflies of all colors and provides hammocks so you can lay around and watch them, which isn't a bad way to spend a day; if I were dying, I'm pretty sure I'd like to do it here. It's also the chief source of income for the coop these days, which might surprise you when beds go for just $3 a night.

Radical, anarcho-syndicalist credentials? Bolstered.

Say what you will about the Sandinistas today – I've met many a former member disenchanted with the party's drift towards neoliberalism and the personalty cult that's formed around its leader and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – the party did institute several much-needed reforms upon taking power after the 1979 revolution, chief among them the redistribution of the country's land, the majority of which was in the hands of the ruling Somoza family and its cronies. It's that revolutionary reform, taking land from wealthy and politically-connected land owners and handing it to the poor peasant farms from whom it was originally stolen, that seems to have had the most visible lasting impact on the country today; it's also the one that helped spur the Reagan administration to fund and arm a right-wing insurgency that left 50,000 Nicaraguans dead over the course of the 1980s. It's that reform that made Finca Magdalena and thousands of other coops possible.

Land redistribution was a major issue not just for the FSLN, but for the man the party's named after: Augusto Sandino, an anarcho-syndicalist rebel leader made infamous for refusing to accept the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s; he was ultimately martyred by the first in a 40-year line of U.S.-backed dictators from the Somoza family, making him a tragic hero not unlike Emiliano Zapata in Mexico – a man who died for his principles rather than conveniently compromise them for political power.

Even the popular red-and-black flag used by the FSLN today is none other than a slightly modified version of the red-and-black flag of anarcho-syndicalism that Sandino hoisted 80 years ago . As one would expect of a ruling government party, however, the colors have been stripped of their original meaning, no longer signifying “syndicalism” (red) nor, obviously, “anarchism” (black), but rather “blood” and “death.” And that makes sense: as a political party defined not but its eradication of state power, but by its capture of it, its leaders wouldn't want to be bound by any actual principles and political concepts that might be seem at odds with their penchant for centralized power; the more vapid, pliable notion of “sacrifice” will do just fine, thank you.

Indeed, the reasons for the co-option would soon become clear after the Sandinistas took over. Rather than maintain strict fidelity to the principles of the man whose name they adopted as their own and simply hand over land to poor farmers, the FSLN chose to install a state intermediary to administer the land. According to the operators of Finca Magdalena, it wasn't until the early 1990s that their land was legally recognized as an independent cooperative; before that, when the land was held by the Sandinista government, “the members' lives did not improve.”

With little apparent help from the government outside of the original land reform, which ultimately only removed the threat of state violence should local farmers reclaim that which was rightfully theirs, the Finca Magdalena coop has managed to raise the standard of living of not just the families who run it, but the surrounding community. Their livelihood, as far as I can tell, isn't dependent on the benevolence of politicians or capitalists. While the country is nominally socialist, there are next to no signs of government involvement on the island to begin with; on the south side where the coop is located, there's not even much in the way of infrastructure.

The life is a simple life – and a largely self-sufficient one. There aren't any flat-screen TVs. There's no Internet, outside of a few cafés. And there's not much if anything to do once the sun goes down. But people seem happy. And why not? They live on some of the most fertile land in Central America on an island made up of two beautiful volcanoes. If you want some food, you grow it or catch it from the lake. If you're bored you play baseball or go swimming. You watch a sunset. Who the hell needs HBO?

Of course, there are no doubt problems that I as a glib, know-it-all gringo backpacker am not going to pick up on. But in contrast to some places I've lived – North Philly comes to mind – the people here, though poor, seem content with their place in life, none of the visible brutishness of daily violence that characterizes a lot of major cities. Largely left alone, with absolutely no police presence in the more rural communities, meaning 95 percent of the island, the people of Ometepe in a lot of ways show the possibilities of working together collectively toward a common goal, rather than acting as the atomized capitalistic competitors that a lot of conservatives and libertarians appear to see as the only sane alternative to statism.

Whoa now, I hear you say. Let's talk about the pot-smoking CIA guy, not all this oh-glorious-syndicalism talk, crazy anarchist guy. And don't let ideology blind you, silly: Have the people abolished the state? Has capitalism been eradicated? Has a glorious workers paradise been established? Have the means of producing reggaetone been seized and destroyed for the good of the proletariat? Well, no, not exactly. But anarchy isn't just a utopian end goal, dear reader. It's a mundane reality.

Whenever people work together cooperatively without the need for coercion, that's anarchy in action. Twenty-eight families collectively working the same farm for their mutual benefit? That, my friends, is anarchy; a small window into a world where peoples lives are bases on consensus and cooperation, no coercion. And it's why I think every decent person ought to be anarchist. Hear me out: While we can argue and bicker over how to get to anarchtopia, or how long it might take or the details of who will deliver the mail and make sure the neighbor kid stays off your lawn, why shouldn't every person's goal be a society that minimizes the use of violence? Go ahead, say pure anarchy is unworkable, incompatible with human nature – to which I'd rejoin that governments with their mass murdering wars and nuclear weapons seem to be incompatible with human kind – shouldn't we at least strive to create a society that minimizes the use of violence to the greatest extent possible?

Anarchism is not about Molotov cocktails and car bombs, it's about cooperation; it's about order built from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top down. And the people at the bottom have to want it for it to succeed. An anarchist society, if it is ever to come about, won't be the result of a mere political revolution like in Egypt or Libya, where the institutions of power are maintained, just staffed with different people. It will come from a social revolution -- from creating a society of anarchists who reject the notion of coercive power and the use of violence as a means of material and political gain. It will come from people coming to see, like the families of Finca Magadalena, the empowerment that comes from voluntary collectivism and from learning to appreciate the wisdom of devolving power from states and presidents to communities and individuals.

Already, most people reject the use of violence not because the government tells them that, say, murder is bad, but because they believe in their hearts it is wrong. It's why the vast majority of people don't ever kill anyone. It's how places like Ometepe, and most of the rest of the world, frankly, exist in harmony without the need for a uniformed officer with a handgun and a Taser on every corner.

The next step, and it's an admittedly difficult one that won't happen overnight, is convincing a critical mass of people that violence isn't just wrong in their personal life, but in their political life too. Murder by proxy – murder by politician – is just as evil as if you personally bashed an Afghan child's head open with a rock. Don't support and don't enable it. And that means rejecting the idea that any person or institution can or should claim a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.

For a more cooperative society to succeed, people will also have to develop faith in themselves and in a world without leaders. And they'll need to know that anarchism isn't an ideology for some far-off utopia, but something they already take for granted in their own lives, whether its working at a coop like the one in Ometepe, helping out at a soup kitchen or just not killing that pesky neighbor kid when you know the police aren't around.

Put it like that, and I think you might be surprised how many anarchists there are – and how many acts of anarchy you commit everyday.

In the next installment, I get slightly less preachy and write about watching a stray dog chew on a horse's leg in the center of León, Nicaragua.

Deep thoughts

blasts fox's corporate bias and deference to power // friends msnbc on facebook

becomes congressman, blames presidential power // becomes president, blames congressional power

mars volta's biggest fan // who's at the drive-in?

says 24-hour cable news is ruining america // is watching 24-hour cable news

fiercely proud of white culture // thinks shakespeare's 'gay'

food is too hot // keeps eating

bored all the time // bores all the time

impeach bush // reelect obama

fears homosexual agenda, bashes queers // well gee, i wonder

finds porn degrading // watches porn because of it

hates annoying upper-class hipsters // is annoying upper-class hipster

loathes preachy evangelicals // is vegan

2.3 million prisoners, none of them presidents // 'with liberty and justice for all'

wishes there were more real world activism // RT if you agree

opposes western imperialism // next adolf hitler

commits crimes against humanity // well it depends

Monday, September 12, 2011

US Army's 'Soldiers' magazine lies to soldiers

I can't say I expected the U.S. Army to declare "Bush Lied, People Died," on the cover of its Very Special 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Collector's Edition in-house magazine, Soldiers, nor for it to include an introductory essay from Noam Chomsky on how political elites manufacture consent for endless war and empire. I'm an idealist not, as some might credibly contend, an idiot.

To my surprise, though, the last line of defense between god-fearing Americans and the Soviet/Chinese/Islamic/Beiber hordes did do a pretty capable job detailing the lies the Bush administration told an admittedly gullible and blood-thirsty nation in orde sell a war against Iraq that, conservatively, killed more than 100,000 people. It's just unfortunate they didn't tell any of their readers they were lies.

Here, for instance, is how the U.S. Army recounts the events immediately following the September 11 attacks:

Well, now. Where to begin? Just six little sentences packed with so much disinformation.

Let's start with the claim that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was trained at a facility in Iraq, an allegation the Army helpfully notes was disseminated by Iraqi defectors -- meaning the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi's group, which was of course agitating for war under the hope its members would be installed as Iraq's new leaders. As PBS' Frontline notes, "there has been no verification of the [defectors'] account of the activities at Salman Pak. In fact, U.S. officials have now concluded that Salman Pak was most likely used to train Iraqi counter-terrorism units in anti-hijacking techniques."

Okay, so that one's bullshit claim down for the count. Next!

Let's examine the claim about the meeting in the Czech Republic, the one the official voice of the Army confidently states was "later verified." What does the 9/11 Commission Report, the official view of the U.S. government, have to say about that? It's interesting, really: "No evidence has been found that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001," the time of the alleged -- no, verified! -- meeting (p. 228). Where was he? "The FBI has gathered evidence indicating that Atta was in Virginia Beach . . . and in Coral Springs, Florida." Whoops! 

But what of the claim about Saddam and Osama hanging out at Muslim poker night shootin' the shit over how best to defeat America? Let's go back to the 9/11 Commission and look at what it has to say about ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq: "We have seen no evidence . . . [of a] collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States" (p. 66). Whoops again!

Besides the Bush administration lies the Army forgets to tell its readers are lies, we are also presented a timeline of the events leading up to the March 2003 invasion. Events like this one:

And, Soldiers magazine? What did they find? Can you tell us? Oooh, I bet they totally found the WMDs, didn't they? Guess we'll never know.

My favorite part, however, is this:

Whose intelligence estimates, U.S. Army? And how and why were they "increased"? Better leave that one ambiguous.

Alright, I've been bit a bit hard on the Army's writer-warriors. I acknowledge this. And I acknowledge that they're only doing their propagandizing jobs and that we "should support [them] . . . unconditionally because their service is unconditional." My bad. So let me at least give the writers of the prestigious Soldiers magazine some credit for letting us know Why We Fight in this item from their 2009 timeline:


Friday, September 09, 2011

The real death panel

Over at AlterNet (chuckle), Medea Benjamin and I note that the so-called "Super Committee" tasked with slashing federal spending -- including, we're told, spending on empire -- is composed of Congress' most reliable defenders of the military-industrial complex. The committee co-chair, Washington Democrat Patty Murray, is even openly campaigning for another term, not on the basis her long career of service on behalf the public (another chuckle -- no, belly laugh), but on behalf of Boeing.

Check it out. Or if you don't feel like sending AlterNet traffic or would prefer a different font, go read it at

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Pastor Proudhon

"[I]f you've got a clergyperson preaching anarchy, do you really think the police department shouldn't try to send somebody and listen and see if they're trying to foment a riot? You can't wait till the riot's on the streets." 

-- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Update: Turns out that, according to The New York Times, there at least used to be "Sunday Schools That Teach Children Anarchy" (exclamation point implied).

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Casualties of America's less casual violence

"American foreign policy is much less casually violent than it was during the Vietnam War." 

 (An Iraqi child thanks U.S. soldiers for being deadly serious when they killed her parents.)

Deaths from Sanctions Against Iraq

Infant Mortality Rate, prior to the U.S. embargo (1989): 56 per 1000 live births
Infant Mortality Rate, after the U.S. embargo (1999): 131 per 1000 live births

Maternal Morality Rate, prior to the U.S. embargo (1990): 117 deaths for every hundred thousand births
Maternal Morality Rate in Iraq, after the U.S. embargo (1998): 294 deaths for every hundred thousand births (one-third of all female deaths)

Per capita income, prior to the U.S. embargo (1989): $3,510
Per capita income, after the U.S. embargo (1996): $450

Overall child deaths due to the embargo: ~500,000. "[As of 1999] [c]hildren under 5 years of age are dying at more than twice the rate they were ten years ago."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright: 

Iraqis Killed As Result of 2003 Invasion (*)
Iraqi Body Count: 102,416 -- 111,937

U.S. Government: 104,111

Lancet Medical Journal (March 2003 to June 2006): 601,027 -- 654,965

 Opinion Business Research: 1,033,000

Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan

Initial Invasion: 3,000 -- 3,400

On One Day in August 2009: 140, with 93 of them children

Civilian Deaths from Drone Strikes in Pakistan

New America Foundation: 293 -- 471

Brookings Institution (July 2009): >600 ("That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.")

Pakistani Government (2009): Average of 58 per month, >700 per year

Deaths in Other Random Wars We Barely Acknowledge Exist

Cluster Bomb Strike in Yemen (December 17, 2009): 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children

Proxy War in Somalia: 16,210 and counting

 Number of Fucks Given by a Certain Think Progress Blogger


(*Supported by Matt Yglesias)

¡Con Fabio!

This is Fabio Gadea, a 79-year-old radio businessman campaigning against the incumbent Daniel Ortega to be the next president of Nicaragua:

Running on the ticket of a splinter conservative political party, Gadea's odds of winning are rather slim, especially in light of the FSLN's huge institutional advantage -- the country is decked out in the Sandinista's red and black flag (co-opted, interestingly enough, from the anarcho-syndicalists) -- and the fact a former president and fellow conservative is also running, splitting the opposition vote. Given this stark reality, how can a man nearly eight decades old appeal to voters in a country with one of the youngest populations in the Western Hemisphere?

With this, his official campaign song. It might sound familiar:

I've never been a fan of the Black Eyed Peas, but even I didn't believe they could cause so much harm -- not just to music, but to global politics.

Photo Credit: Tico Times

Ever hear of the Seattle Seven?

Jamie Kirchick, a former writer for The New Republic who now works for the U.S. government's Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for some reason looked me up on Twitter today and took issue with my bio:

I think it's safe to say Kirchick, last seen around these parts inadvertently accusing Barack Obama of defending the Trinity and the doctrine of transubstantiation, probably doesn't read IOZ.

(Psst: for those who don't get it.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

'Hello, is it me you're looking for?'

Disclaimer: The following post, every word of which is true, contains imagery that some may find disturbing. Parental discretion is advised.

(Scene: Bus ride from Managua to Rivas, Nicaragua. Driver puts on DVD containing two hours worth of 1980s American rock ballads and other love songs.)

“God damn it," I cry. "First an hour of Jesus rock en español, now this shit.”

First video plays. Staring ahead, expressionless, I feel nothing.

Five minutes pass. Foot twitches. I put a stop to it. REO Speedwagon plays. Foot is now tapping, uncontrollably. I can't fight this feeling anymore. Fuck.

Ten more minutes pass.

♬ “More than words is all you have to do to make it real. Then you wouldn't have to say that you love me. 'Cause I'd already know.

I'm now humming. I'm fucking humming. No, more than that that: I'm mouthing the words.

Phil Collins starts playing. *(Ed. note: Due to its graphic nature, this section has been removed.)*

An hour into the DVD, the worst is now behind us. Or is it?

“Hello,” a lone voice calls out, “is it me you're looking for?”

My eyes are tearing up now. “Ugh, these contacts,” I mutter under my breath. “Allergies.”

I reach my destination, full of shame and self-loathing. And Lionel Richie's voice.

(This post composed in a pink notebook with a broken heart and the word “feelings” on the cover.)