If you want to understand why a coalition of states invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, why drones are bombing people in a dozen countries and why Syria and Iran will probably be next, consider, as one reason, the logic of empire. Empires are always attempting to expand. For at least 20 years now, if not 50, people have been talking about the decline of the US empire. It’s not declining. It’s still expanding. But it’s a new kind of empire.
This empire does not consist solely of the US government. It includes considerable cooperation from other states. Contrary to what some realist scholars believe, states do not represent the people they rule over (and never have), but the elite of the given territory they rule. In recent decades, however, as legal regimes have converged and states have made it easier to make and move money across borders, the elite and their corporations have gone global. National and regional governments have become, to one degree or another, subordinate to this empire.
This empire is becoming less about the US than about multinational corporations and pliant states around the world. The UN and all affiliated organisations designed for global governance, aided in part by well-meaning non-governmental organisations, have spread constitutional and legal norms. Corporations now have the law (ie. words they have written to give them the use of hired guns) on their side when they repress and displace locals, whether kicking native people off their land in far-flung regions or tossing people out of foreclosed homes all over the US.
If states do not play by the rules of empire, they become targets for regime change. While the US is integral, as I mention elsewhere, this modern empire is not only about the US military but whichever militaries the elite want to use so they can enjoy a piece of the action. Look at how they carved up Iraq’s oil reserves. They went to oil giants from the most powerful countries, not just Shell, Exxon and BP, but the China National Petroleum Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., the Korea Gas Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas, Turkish Petroleum International and Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom. The conquerors auctioned off the oil in Iraq those who might otherwise have had the power to block future wars. Now that they profit from war, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.
Historically, all empires have declined and fallen. There are a variety of answers as to why. Suffice to say, we have it in our power to push this empire over the cliff of history as well. But it is not inevitable. The people of the world could eventually cave in, succumbing to the boot on their faces and accepting their enslavement. Most people do not even know what is going on. It is up to those who can see the system for what it is to show others. Resist. Disobey. Fight for freedom and justice. We can have it if we want it enough.
”If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” – Dresden James
“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” – Noam Chomsky
Many people live in a world of comforting illusion. They harbour the impression they are in charge of their democracy; they think the police protect their rights from bad guys; they think the military defends their freedom from foreigners; they do not want to challenge their own ideas; and they are convinced they are thinking for themselves. They are offered these illusions on a silver plate from every corner: governments, corporations, religious leaders and mainstream media. The collective term for the lies we choose to wrap ourselves in—or get caught up in—is propaganda.
The word “propaganda” is a widely used and potentially libelous term, so it requires definition up front. For the purpose of this post, propaganda refers to all lies and misleading images the government, corporations and the media tell you in order to control you. As you can imagine, there is plenty of it out there.
Among people who read non-mainstream newspapers, much has been made of a recent bill working its way through Congress, which Barack will probably threaten to veto again and will sign anyway, making psychological operations, meaning secretive propaganda, legal for use by the government within the US. It should frighten everyone, of course, that what was once used for war on third-world populations is soon going to be the norm for US citizens. But I wonder how much this bill will change what has been the norm for so long.
Because governments take as much of your money as you are willing to put up with, they can afford large “communications” teams. They use them to shape your views on their policies, to make you support their policies for all of their reasons. (Find some examples here.)
But most people realise that the government lies. The real key to understanding how the ideology of statism is disseminated is to listen to intellectuals. Public intellectuals are the ones who come up with the ideas that the people end up taking for granted. Originally, it was the clergy that rationalised the state, and got its share of public revenues in return. Now, the state enlists experts to sell its ideas in the media, and why those experts debate what kind of sanctions or bombs to use against Iran and none of them suggest leaving Iran alone. It pays for public education, giving public-school teachers a stake in the status quo. It subsidises professors to sell its ideas to the best and brightest, which is why few ever teach anarchist philosophy or Austrian economics in school. The apologists for the state are rewarded with jobs, prestige and high positions in the planning of the state. It co-opts the people with the intellectual power in society to spread propaganda.
Propaganda, in its broadest conception, creates what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. The various elements of society influence our consciousness, but the ruling class has the most influence. Since government requires not simply coercion but also some degree of consent, the ruling class projects an image of what the world is, turning what it wants us to believe into “common sense”. It is common sense that we need to be governed, for instance, and that democracy means the people are in charge. I studied government for years before I realised that it was based on the threat of violence, rather than consent and collective decision making. Hegemony is the pervasive belief in this common sense conception of the world that enables the ruling class to acquire the consent of the governed. The masses accept the morality, customs and rules handed down to them. Only by learning to think beyond the supposed universal truths imposed on their consciousness can the people shatter the illusions and break free of the ruling class.
Consider the national-security narrative we are exposed to over our lifetimes. We are all Americans/British/Chinese/Turkish. When one of us is under attack by foreigners, all of us are under attack. When foreigners attack or threaten to attack us, it is justified to attack them. When attacking them, whatever needs to happen to subdue them is justified. If innocents get killed, that’s the price of it. It is right to take huge amounts of money to build up militaries to enable these things. We are entirely moral in doing all these things, and if you disagree, you hate our country. We take all these things for granted, but why? This and other accepted wisdom is part of the hegemony.
Think of the images associated with this paradigm. Take the photo opportunity. Politicians love going to Afghanistan to get a photo with the troops. It makes their poll numbers rise. Do you think they add that to their calculations when they decide whether or not to prolong the war? But people have been told they are citizens, these are their representatives and their representatives’ visiting soldiers they sent to Afghanistan for a few minutes on their world tour helps those soldiers. As long as they believe all that, the politicians have their mandate for war. A magician will tell you his job is about what the eye sees: illusion, not truth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Take David Cameron’s posing with protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. All people who yearn for freedom were there in spirit with the protesters. What the shiny smiles hid was the fact that David had just come from touring other restive Arab states with a delegation of British arms dealers. But people do not see beyond the photo op, and are led to believe their government supports freedom.
Terrorism is massively overblown. Everyone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the word “terrorism” affect us? When we are told that the people killed were terrorists, we are given the opportunity to presume the good guys, the soldiers, are killing the bad guys. Our consciences are assuaged, and the killing can continue. The word militant, for instance, really means anyone who was killed by the US military, such as 16-year-old Abdelrahman al Awlaki. Did more than a handful of people speak out against it?
Could they use another word that would give it a different meaning? Why didn’t they use that word? Why do we undergo ‘liberation’ or ‘intervention’ instead of invasion? Why do we kill “militants” instead of people? Does it change how we think about the thing? When detention and torture without trial are labeled “extraordinary rendition”, most people turn away in boredom. The most despicable acts are cloaked in jargon and made mundane. Do not worry about it: we don’t torture men, women or children; only insurgents, terrorists and the Taliban.
Like most subjects related to government, there is a double standard at work with propaganda. Surely a society that believed in basic freedoms would not criminalise speech. It grants us the freedom to be wrong and to lie, as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. The government is wrong (as when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). The government lies (as when…well, all the time). It suffers no consequences when caught. Citizens, however, do. Muslims, the new enemy, are targeted in the US all the time for spreading “terrorist propaganda” by speaking out in favour of anti-US-empire terrorism. The US Department of Justice arrested Jubair Ahmad for uploading a video to Youtube that the DOJ considered “material support” for terrorists. He might be locked up indefinitely. The FBI called what he posted propaganda. One wonders how much of what the FBI says is not.
But who is the real terrorist? Anarchists frequently point out the hypocrisy of the state in its justification of everything it does as criminal (and immoral) for everyone else. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,
I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.
(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but then he was in an interview, so we can forgive him.)
Yes, words matter. We are flooded with words like “national security”. Those two words have been used to justify everything from aggressive (sorry, “preventive”) war to secret meetings between politicians and lobby groups. The UK government told the world Afghanistan’s Helmand province is vital to British national security, presumably for the same reasons Guam is to that of the US. The term is ambiguous, because it is used for every priority of the ruling class. It is used so often as to be meaningless.
It is used to glorify military service, along with words like “sacrifice”, “duty” and “honour”. Militaries market themselves to the populaces that support them by various channels. The US military has been in bed with Hollywood for decades. The Pentagon provides moviemakers with real aircraft, tanks and soldiers for all manner of movies, in return for a favourable image. It has created an exciting, video game-like perception of what it does, instead of the reality of raining fire on villages in distant parts of the world to kill one person deemed a “high-value target”.
It is not only in security matters that the state lies. It misinforms and distorts the truth at every turn. Take, for instance, how it has skewed employment figures (in this, an election year) by quietly removing 1.2m unemployed people from the list and celebrating it as a win. People can believe the economy is picking up, even though they see no evidence of it, and will vote for the incumbent, even though Barack has made things worse.
But the state is not the only source of propaganda. Any medium that produces disinformation, lies, coverups, or deliberately misleading images and words is propaganda. The media have been lying to us about war for a hundred years. (Lots of examples here.) Look at the way some of the most popular media soften up the language of the war for Afghanistan. While Afghans protested the repeated killing and descration of their friends and family, media like the New York Times said they were protesting the burning of Qurans only. “Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Not only were the protesters “armed”; as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.” People reading do not have to blame the killers—perhaps protesting killed the people. They portrayed the protests as irrational acts of outrage, just anger over a book. Glenn Greenwald gives an apt analogy:
[J]ust imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?
There is no reason to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their kowtowing to power in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom should have put them out of business and led their heads to hang in shame. Both papers issued apologies (here and here)—over a year too late—and no one in the newsrooms suffered any consequences. Why would we pay attention to them at all anymore?
Various estimates of the real death toll of that war have come out in the hundreds of thousands; the number may have reached a million. But mainstream media outlets do not report a million. They report low-end estimates of tens of thousands, sometimes adding the words “at least”. Regardless, people are more affected emotionally when shown a human face and story. Which Iraqi humans did the media choose to profile? The insurgents. All the more reason to dig in one’s heels and keep fighting.
The mainstream media benefit from the status quo and often end up the lapdogs of the powerful. Even when one TV station appears relatively right wing or left wing, that simply means they will defend a different party when it takes power. However, the task before the media is to give us the information we need in order to understand and question power, not to serve it. All corporations receive legal protection and indirect subsidy; in addition, the media that pander best to the powerful get access to top officials for interviews and sources. Media types socialise with government types. Instead of holding them to account through investigative journalism, many of them accept what the government says without question. They also need to fill in blanks due to deadlines, and may embellish or simply quote an official to complete their stories. Those poor people who cannot turn off their televisions are exposed to news that makes them think crime, terrorism and diseases are everywhere. They see one police drama after another, drinking in the image of the heroic cops catching gang leaders and stopping terrorists.
When all these things are taken together, they become our narrative, what we believe without questioning. It does not benefit us to leave this situation unquestioned; it only benefits the ruling class.
A fixation on the news is not conducive to understanding. Most news media focus on what is happening now. What is happening is a consequence of what has happened before. However, it is easy to forget or not know about what happened before. How many Americans understand the causes of any of the wars their rulers start? Or of 9/11? How many understand why Iran might want to build a nuclear weapon? We do not ask “why?” enough.
I have heard both Al Jazeera and Russia Today called propaganda. Perhaps that is because the angles from which they view the news and the people they interview are less commonly found in the more mainstream news outlets. To close one’s mind by calling something propaganda without having considered it is not wise. The reason we can safely call government communications propaganda is that they are consistently proved to be so. Critical thinkers consider various viewpoints. And in contrast to the records of the mainstream US media, the foreigners have more credibility.
Then there is Fox News. Wait. It’s too easy. (You may want to watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism for a look at how Fox has erased the line between journalism and propaganda.) Suffice to say, studies indicate Fox News viewers are less well informed than anyone else who watches television. Whatever Fox News says, I object to attacks on Fox from people who believe what they hear on CNN, MSNBC or other corporate news stations. Do you really believe any one of these channels consistently tells the truth? That they do not try to influence your point of view and subtly manipulate you? Why should we trust this source? Do they know what they are talking about? Why would they tell us what they are telling us? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can we speculate what that might be? Why do we only have the choices we are presented with? Why is it only either intervene militarily in Syria or let genocide take place? Why, why, why? We need to consider why they show what they show and what we are missing that they do not show.
When I am asked which news source I think is most reliable, I reply “none”. Take a look at the sources for this blog: they are from a variety of people and media. (However, I sometimes repeat some I perceive to be informed or wise. I must admit, I am more likely to believe Democracy Now than Fox News.) To truly understand a phenomenon is to know it from various perspectives. To understand a news story, it helps to read various accounts and ask ourselves several questions about what we read.
Without having witnessed an event ourselves, we do not know what happened. Every source has its own reasons to manipulate the facts, though probably not all do all the time. The best we can do is listen to varying accounts, consider carefully each one’s possible motives and assume we cannot be sure about any of them. The worst we can do is listen to accounts that do not vary significantly, pretend each source confirms the other and accept the information as given. At a more fundamental level, we need to question the entire hegemony and move away from thinking the world is as we are told it is.
The trend in warfare for the past hundred years or more has been to involve civilians gradually more in every conflict. Many of today’s wars, such as those in Iraq, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka and Chechnya, pit a government against one or more terrorist organisations who consider their territory occupied by the government. The government, usually a democracy, is attempting to project its power over a wider territory than the people of that territory consider legitimate, with the added bonus of providing the government’s constituents with an enemy around which they can rally, distracting them from the government’s other crimes. They spend millions of dollars buying PR in order to paint themselves as the moral side in the conflict. (Indeed, the Israeli government and its supporters never tire of repeating that it has “the most moral army in the world”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The enemy kills babies. We build homes. Because the organisations resisting occupation are non governmental, they are not militaries and are usually called “terrorists” (or more recently “insurgents”). Particularly since 9/11, soldiers have been the good guys who fight terrorists, and terrorists have been, in George W.’s mindless phrasing, “the evildoers”. Terrorists, insurgents and so on mix with the people, their base of support, which means that when militaries go after them, civilian casualties result. The occupying troops want to convince the locals that they are there to help, and the locals do not really buy it. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan epitomises this trend.
It seems that the ideal outcome of the mission in Afghanistan is the following. First, decimate the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the other insurgent groups, or at least lop their heads off. That should lead to the outcome of ending tyranny in Afghanistan once and for all. (Officially, as of March 2009, the ISAF is there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Voters like that mission: the bad guys are mean, sexist, Islamist dictators; and even though we messed up Iraq, maybe we have learned something from it?) Second, help the local population build up infrastructure, improve their health and education, etc., both to win hearts and minds and for the good it would do them. Third, reduce terrorist attacks on Western and other targets. Sorry if this looks like a straw man. I am under the impression it is the vision of ISAF commanders and the public.
The first point regards the difficulty the foreign militaries face in fighting their chosen enemies. First, there is al Qaeda, which is highly resistant to decapitation because it does not really have a leader or a centre. (I suggest not buying into the Zawahiri or Awlaki hype. They are not terrorist masterminds. Let them actually succeed again before we start fearing them.) I do not know if it is possible to drop a bomb that would kill more than five of them. More centralised groups like Hamas and the PKK have survived the loss of leaders, partly because this kind of group is highly adaptive (more so than large, hierarchical militaries). Then there is the indigenous anti-occupation resistance. As far as I know there are three large groups fighting the foreign troop presence (not including a number of Afghanis recruited for government security forces who have turned on the ISAF). The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are (I think, though I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan) examples of organisations that it would be very hard to destroy, because they are made up of locals banded together by the cause of ejecting foreigners. They are different from Iraqi resistance organisations, because many of the latter engaged in street warfare, whereas Afghan resistance groups populate the many villages of Afghanistan. In journalist Nir Rosen’s words,
It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.
There are some defections from these groups to national troops, but when that happens the defectors are usually enticed by the money. We could probably get most Afghans on our side for, say, $10 trillion over 5 years, but is Afghanistan really worth it? It is even worth the $10m in aid some say is being siphoned out of the country every day (that might be going to anti-ISAF militias)?
(I will not go too far into the regional instability that governments are only exacerbating, but insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan give support to the Afghan resistance and render all attempts to “stabilise” Afghanistan impossible. Even the best “regional strategy” imposed from the top is likely to fail.)
No less significantly, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and all other sources), the Taliban get a big part of their funding from the drug trade. Until the main drug consuming countries (mostly the US, but Canada too) legalise drugs and let legal competitors enter the market, the price of drugs will remain high, Afghanistan will continue to provide the vast majority (about 70%) of the world’s heroin and the Taliban will continue to make millions of dollars off it. Many supporters of the push against the Taliban and other bad guys is their claim that the Taliban are bad, therefore we must fight them. But this argument begs the question. What is missing is the major premise: if someone is bad we should fight them. However, that is not the case. Sure, another 20 years of killing and trillions more dollars and maybe the war could be won for the “good guys”. But besides being a waste of money and lives, I seriously doubt the political will exists for it. The fact is, Afghanistan will go to whomever wants it more, and the indigenous resistance have already shown who that is.
Second, helping the locals. Gordon Brown mapped his vision in 2009: “build basic services — clean water, electricity, roads, basic justice, basic health care, and then economic development.” What a warm feeling taxpayers must get from such a selfless and charitable mission. I am sure some local Afghans have benefited from what the ISAF governments have given them. (See some of those things here.) However, photos for Stars and Stripes tend to obscure reality. Journalist William Dalrymple describes the situation on the ground.
[T]here have been few tangible signs of improvement under the western-backed regime. Despite the US pouring approximately $80bn into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care; for any severe medical condition, patients still have to fly to India. A quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate. In many areas, district governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an office, more than half have no electricity, and most receive only $6 a month in expenses. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.
This is largely because $76.5bn of the $80bn committed to the country has been spent on military and security, and most of the remaining $3.5bn on international consultants, some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report. This, in turn, has had other negative effects. As in 1842, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall. The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer.
The locals are not yet on their way to prosperity. In fact, they are suffering. (See Kate Brooks’ photo essay here.) The situation of women is not getting better, either. The cover of Time a year ago portrayed a frightening picture of an Afghan girl whose husband had cut off her nose, saying that this would happen more if “we” left Afghanistan. What it overlooked was that 9 years of occupation had still not ended the abuse of women. Neither the ISAF nor the Karzai government have brought education or rights to women, and they cannot unseat the people who are taking them away, and they have no credible plan to do so. Moreover, there is something larger that NATO is taking away from Afghans.
The very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths, either in the crossfire of firefights, misplaced (or just really big) bombs, drone attacks that have killed a number of civilians that is still unknown, or when foreign troops go on a killing spree. For example, on May 19, 2011, the Taliban killed 35 people working on US-financed road projects which, at least according to journalist Hashim Shukoor, “the insurgents believe threaten their access to refuges in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” They would not have killed these people had the US not been in the picture. Foreign troops attempting to protect civilians from the Taliban tend to increase civilian casualties directly or indirectly. Brutal weapons are systematically destroying innocent people: they are not as discriminating as those who order their use would have us believe. A tribal elder told William Dalrymple, “How many times can they apologise for killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them? They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people.’ And they keep doing that.” The recent escalation of the war is presumably why risk to minorities grew more in Afghanistan this year than in any other country (“Civilian deaths have climbed every year for the past five years, totalling nearly 3,000 in 2010 according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”), and almost certainly why so many Afghans are angry with the foreigners and can’t wait to see the back of them. People tend not to fall for the “throw off your oppressors and we’ll stop bombing you” approach. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to blame the foreigners for their plight, turning to the devil they know to protect them from the one they don’t. As long as the madness of the occupation persists, Afghans will not be turned against the indigenous oppressors in favour of the foreign ones. How many civilians need to die before “the country” is “free”?
The intervening powers might be even less welcome in Pakistan. The ISAF has pushed some of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, and as a result, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have become “AfPak”, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army has lost many soldiers fighting what many Pakistanis complain (ever more frequently with bombs strapped to their chests) is the US’s war. The US has been using drones, an unmanned airplane controlled from the other side of the world. In doing so, it is able to target suspected militants for assassination while exposing no Americans to danger. The number of drone attacks has increased dramatically under Barack Obama, and drones are killing civilians. How many is uncertain, but the painstaking work of Noor Behram suggests that for every 10 to 15 people killed, one militant goes down. (The Brookings Institute finds roughly the same proportion, though it encourages the strikes as a way to prevent al Qaeda terrorism.) One report identified 168 children killed in drone strikes as of August 2011. The strikes injure countless more and “radicalise” (which I believe means “infuriate to the point of violent retaliation”) the locals. There are also certain legal questions regarding drone attacks that have not been resolved, and unsurprisingly the Barack administration does not seem interested in them. As a result of all this unthinking intervention, Pakistan, a country riddled with Islamic extremism and terrorism, armed with nuclear warheads, is becoming less stable by the day. Anatol Lieven fears not so much the Islamist terrorist threat but that a portion of the Pakistani army will mutiny, and the state of Pakistan will collapse. The US destabilised Cambodia while fighting in Vietnam, and we can only hope the fate of Pakistan is less bad than that of Cambodia.
The other thing the ISAF is inflicting on the locals is the single most corrupt and ineffectual government in the world, the government of Hamid Karzai. I know a Taliban or whoever government would be bad, but I don’t really see what good the present one is doing anyone. Karzai knows his people see him as a foreign puppet, and has attempted to distance himself from his backers. He accused the US, UK and UN of orchestrating an election fraud, called NATO an “army of occupation” and threatened to join the Taliban. Attempts to strengthen the central government will not work, as, according to Professor Paul Staniland, “there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it).” (That should not be surprising to anyone reading this blog. Governments fail to win hearts and minds not because of lack of money or posters but because they are self-interested, violent and irretrievably rapacious.) The Afghan state is not likely to retract its hand from poppy money any time soon, however much control the ISAF governments think they have over it. (Find more on the Afghan drug business and corruption here.) Any government with any hand in Afghanistan is likely to do whatever it can to take the trillion dollars’ worth of minerals reportedly lying under the ground from the locals. Attempts to train locals in being the military or police of a central Afghan state (and the $9b spent on it in 2010) are, needless to say, not going according to plan. More and more “inside attacks” are occurring as Afghans the ISAF trusted turn on the coalition. If the foreign militaries really want to help the people, my suggestion is to help people defend themselves from oppression on the local level and don’t try to prop up or take down any kind of government.
Regarding terrorism, I do not think foreign occupation will reduce terrorism anywhere in the world. There are a few things to note here. Though terrorism itself has various motivations in various situations, a major cause is perceived foreign occupation. In Dying to Kill and Cutting the Fuse, Robert Pape explains a clear pattern in suicide bombings leading to that conclusion, among others. (I’ll let you read those books—they are excellent.) And on the whole, suicide bombings are deadlier than other forms of terrorism. There were no real terrorist attacks by foreign nationals on Western soil until 9/11. After the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were a bunch.
Terrorism is designed to send a message. When the recent invasion of Libya began, my parents said, “good: get the guy who orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing.” I was initially surprised that they did not realise that Lockerbie had been in retaliation for the attempt on Gaddafi’s life that killed his adopted daughter. Apparently the news, which my parents watch every night, does little to explain that terrorism has causes. In 2006, 18 young Muslims were arrested in Toronto for plotting to detonate truck bombs, storm the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and behead the PM. According to Mubin Shaikh, one of the two guys who infiltrated the group, the ringleader’s main point of contention was that “troops are in Afghanistan raping Muslim women”. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely in protest of the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq. There is no reason to believe that foreign interventions will reduce terrorism. In fact, as Anatol Lieven points out, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.” One possible reason for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on is to increase the foreign terrorist threat that elites can use to take away more of your freedom. It has worked out that way so far.
But there are other, less official but nonetheless very good reasons for being in Afghanistan.
One is that the US military and its political sponsors have come to regard failure as inconceivable, not an option. This is partly due to the fact that a superpower abhors defiance (which was one reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom), and partly because the military-civilian establishment of the US sees military power as a solution to everything from flexing muscles in order to menace rival powers to staying in power by continuing to supply Americans with cheap consumer goods so they do not have to ask them to lower their standards of living and pay off their credit cards.
Remember how Unocal was trying to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in the 90s? Did you know about that? Well anyway, a natural gas pipeline is still being built. It is a long pipeline, about 1700km long, from Turkmenistan south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. It is not owned by Unocal but is still expected to supply gas to the US and Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran, the traditional routes. The US and its allies have an interest in protecting the pipeline.
Even bigger is Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in mineral deposits: “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world”. Do you think ordinary Afghans will benefit from this find? Finding billions worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone didn’t help the people. Let’s ask Libyans and Nigerians how much of their countries’ oil revenue they got. I think fighting over these minerals will make things worse for them.
It almost seems futile to protest the war, because every few months politicians promise they are about to end the mission and draw down troops. Every year they say that this will be “the decisive year”. Then things get more violent, as the opponents of the occupation get more desperate and recruit more people, and the politicians say “just a little bit longer”, like children asking their parents’ permission to stay up late. But the parents are unaware how devious their kids are, and what their kids are doing when the parents’ backs are turned. There is no reason to believe the occupiers and their sneaky, underhanded attempts to hide the truth from those funding the war. The ISAF has 700 bases in Afghanistan, with a $100m expansion of Special Operations headquarters approved only last year. Do you think they are about to leave any time soon? The best we can hope for is enough reporters on the scene who exposes the abuses of all sides, as violence by any party in the name of this war is an indictment of it.
Why do you think Afghanistan is the way it is? It is because war has been imposed on it for decades. Desperate people under pressure for so long do not turn out like us rich-world people. The most competent NATO general will never understand what it is like to be an Afghani. What hearts-and-minds strategy could he possibly contrive? Now we have these self-important democracy promoters, who could do a little better than to prop up the least effective government in the world, and who seem to think we just need a little bit more war before Afghanistan will be fine again. Governments of the ISAF have given no vision—that’s something leaders do—for what Afghanistan should look like, and have no plans that have worked so far. And the heads of state shuffle their national security teams and nothing changes. Now, you can say that the troops are in Afghanistan helping people, but they are also killing people. So whom are they really helping? If foreign troops are there and Afghans who do not like them try to kill them—I know, such ingrates, right?—regular people will get caught in the crossfire. That means the presence of those troops is a cause of the violence. It does not matter who pulled that particular trigger. But these people who think democracy is so important it is worth keeping up this kind of war believe that we have to win and impose our values on these ignorant yokels, and that if some die in the meantime, well, that’s the price you pay. Little bit more war, then we’ll defeat the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and any other groups that pop up in the meantime, and Afghanistan will be on the road to democracy! Some roads are so bumpy you are better off not driving on them.
Saigon fell to bad guys and the world did not end. Stop trying to control everything. Stop chasing the illusion of stability through dictatorship or military force. It is having the opposite effect.
“A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.” – Texas Guinan
“In the eyes of empire builders men are not men but instruments.” – Napoleon
Not all sheep are docile. Some become soldiers. Soldiers are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.
I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?
Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary). (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.
I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) On Memorial Day 2012, the Economist wrote
Calling ‘hero’ everyone killed in war, no matter the circumstances of their death, not only helps
sustain the ethos of martial glory that keeps young men and women signing up to kill and die for
the state, no matter the justice of the cause, but also saps the word of meaning, dishonouring the
men and women of exceptional courage and valour actually worthy of the title. The cheapening
of “hero” is a symptom of a culture desperate to evade serious moral self-reflection by covering
itself in indiscriminate glory for undertaking wars of dubious value.
Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either.
I do not think we should have any troops that are answerable to the state, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Do not expect government to make it happen, either. In free societies, people take care of their soldiers. In statist societies, we expect the state to do so. We sweep the issue under the rug, and hope others will solve it. And how could we hold them to account if they did not? When was the state of veterans’ care ever an election issue? It will not be until the problem is unbearable (like say, seeing two guys get married). If you support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.
What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).
And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.
Deep down I cannot bring myself to blame the troops.
They do not start wars. They are picked at a young age, lied to and exalted. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of the noblest cause. Indeed, these actions are supposedly the epitome of service to one’s country, and their deaths will not be in vain. But they are pawns in the hands of the powerful. Killing bad guys is meaningless without the context of the longer-term effects. It might make things worse. I believe it is an insult to the dead and damaged of past and future wars not to consider the evidence that they did die in vain.
But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.
One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.
Fortunately, there are some soldiers who refuse to fight the state’s vile wars. They speak out in protest of aggression, occupation and torture.739 Some soldiers have witnessed or undertaken such cruelty against fellow humans they realise the injustice and irrationality of the war. I ask soldiers to adopt the non-aggression principle and only defend the innocent.
When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill
Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.
The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.
A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?
In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.
One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?
In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?
Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.
He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.
The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.
Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.
So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.
Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?
That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.
All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.
Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.
You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.
Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.
What is government capable of? What does it do that is indispensable? What benefits does it bring? What difference does voting make? If you answered “nothing” or “none” to all of these questions, you might be cynical, but you might be right. To everyone else, you could be a political activist, or you could be a devout political escapist.
As government has grown over the centuries, it has taken control of more and more areas of human life. Everything that is not illegal is regulated and taxed. There is no free market, because there is no area of human life literally free of government intervention. As a result, citizens have come to believe that government can and should solve all of their problems. Climate change? Don’t ask people to change voluntarily: force them to. Crime? Don’t let people own guns; the government will prevent crime. Disease? People cannot prevent anything themselves, so the government must hand out the vaccines. Market crash? The government will bail us out. Natural disasters? Don’t worry: the government will be along soon.
Such thinking is similar to religious faith. Religious faith assumes that something for which there is no evidence exists. Belief that government protects your life, for example, is based on government claims that it does so. Your government protects you from foreign enemies with its military, right? But wars are nearly always initiated by political elites and lobby groups. If not for them, wars would be little more than feuds. Instead, government justifies taking your money and your freedom and provides you with glimpses of submarines and fighter jets in the name of keeping you safe from non-existent enemies.
The religious faith shines when people listen to their favourite politician. They list the issues they are concerned about and then explain how their messiah will come down and resolve them. They watch with rapt attention, they clap and they cry. They rationalise failures and blame everything on their guy’s opponents. Damn Party B! It’s all your fault! Party A would never do anything bad.
Government has not solved any of the problems it has not caused itself, and has perpetuated many more. Governments have no interest in solving problems, because if the agencies and departments and programs created to deal with them end, government control over that part of life ends. Spending would have to decrease as well, reducing the number of reasons governments have for high taxes. There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.
Like religion, politics is full of illusions that we swallow because we want to believe. Protection or safety are just the bones thrown by the political class. You pay our salaries, we will throw you the protection bone. Likewise, the middle and lower classes can have an education bone and we will take many times that amount to cover military adventures overseas. Have a health care bone (because only government could possibly provide health care) in return for paying farm lobbyists. Health care is not perfect: it might benefit from more money, so we could cancel farm subsidies and put that money into public health, but not enough people think it would be a good idea, so we do not. The government throws just enough bones that most people shut up and believe in democracy.
The same faulty logic goes into our belief in the ability of politicians or politics to save the economy. There is no doubt that an organisation with trillions of dollars at its disposal affects the incentives in society, but the great illusion is that the downtrodden believe politicians when they promise to get the economy back on track. However, no one, including politicians, can control markets without destroying them (eg. under communism). The evidence is all around. The government contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis by enacting legislation making it easier for Americans to buy homes they could not afford. When the economy went belly up, the brightest economic minds in the land did not save it. They only made the bankers richer.
Like religion, democrats are so keen on their ideology that they want to export and even impose it on others. As soon as there is a crisis in an authoritarian state, some democrats rush in and push for a new government. This place needs to become a democracy, so that we, the ones who possess the revealed truth, can remake this society in our own image. However, when a new government is encouraged, it is sometimes no better than the last. What is needed in these situations is a grassroots political culture of self-reliance, so that government is redundant. Afghanistan is an obvious case of people who reject central government, and do just fine without it, but are having to fight against its imposition on them. Do not expect the bloodshed there to end while democrats are promoting their inappropriate model of coercive, centralised institutions on Afghanis.
The culture war in the US is of particular interest. The so-called liberal, so-called conservative divide is over how to use government power to coerce people into morality. Conservatives believe that government cannot eliminate poverty, discrimination, guns, smoking and drinking. However, when it’s time to fight crime, abortion, drugs, foreign dictators, or anything else Christ would be against, we need more money and we can save the world. When the government fails to deliver, it is because not enough money was allocated for it, or because of too much liberal opposition. Liberals, on the other hand, think it is silly to try to eliminate crime, drugs and dictators with the government; but they are more than happy to use the government to fight poverty, discrimination, gun ownership, etc., etc.
So what is politics good for anymore? It provides money and power for politicians. It helps provide the public with the illusion that caring people are in control of its security. It holds back cultural evolution for a short while. If politicians tell you they are doing anything other than that, they are probably lying.
They are not even capable of agreeing on subjects all of the rest of us believe in. There is a wide consensus in our society that climate change is bad and should be avoided. Yet “leaders” who met in Copenhagen not long ago to fix the climate problem left empty handed. It is shameful, but not surprising. But at least they got a nice vacation out of it.
The great illusions of democracy are that democracy means freedom, elections mean progress, the right candidate will make the world better, governments have to and do take care of you, war is for humanitarian purposes and law protects people rather than the state.
In today’s world, we should look beyond traditional electoral politics as the key to solving problems and start looking at how we can organise ourselves and others to change the things we can. Many people, of course, already realise this, which is why there are so many NGOs. Here we have initiated people who did not wait patiently for politicians to get round to ending poverty.
At least as important, your dollar is your vote. Every dollar you spend goes to someone else. Is that person going to spend your money in a way you approve of? Could your money be better spent if given to someone else? These are the choices we make every day that affect others. If we buy jewelry, we might be perpetuating war in the Congo. If we give money to the food bank, we might be helping people get back on their feet.
I have some suggestions for those who follow politics with baited breath. First, stop voting. If you vote, you encourage the people who are taking away your freedom and giving you illusions in return. They will promise you the moon, take it away from you and then give you a small piece of it back. Meanwhile, your friends and acquaintances will try to convert you to their party, because the more people agree with you, the more right you can think you are. Do not fall for it. Shuffling any number of empty suits around the seats of power only matters if one of them is going to change the system fundamentally, and none of them ever will.
Second, stop reading or watching political news. Either it will get you angry, because your issues are not being addressed in the way you want, or you will receive the false hope that things are getting better; and when they do not, you will be all the more disappointed. Besides, since voting does not matter, the day to day catcalling and empty legislation of party politics is meaningless. If you do hear about a huge spending increase, a tax increase, a deficit increase or a ridiculous new law, think about how it will affect you personally, then laugh it off as typical.
Third, shed the beliefs that politicians–any politicians–are looking out for you. They are looking out for themselves. You are nothing more than tools to help them achieve their dreams of power. Inasmuch as you can, disengage from politics and refuse to support those who would exploit you. We should educate ourselves and each other on the most effective ways we can make a difference in the world around us with our money and our voices.
A guy named Stephen F. Roberts once said “We are all atheists. Some of us just believe in fewer gods than others. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I dismiss the god of politics. Become a political atheist and free yourself of the illusions of politics.