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The logic of the new empire

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Iraq Iran US war oil

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.

The war on the native

July 16, 2013 1 comment

The nation state is a very new invention. It originated in Europe in war and conquest, as armies conquered some tribes and massacred others. It has expanded and grown and continues to do so to this day. The state was forged in war to subdue others. This basic form remains constant, though the scope of the state has grown, along with expectations about what it can and should do.

The nation was shaped by other processes. Benedict Anderson famously explains that print capitalism was the strongest driver of the forming of the nation and nationalism, as it spread a common language within the borders of the state that did not exist prior to conquest. Since then, the idea of a common culture has taken hold and the nation grows more certain of itself. The advance of media technology in the twentieth century continued this trend. Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, because they were huge groups of people who would never meet with a communitarian identity.

From a different angle, Ernest Gellner writes,

nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalised diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30-Years War (yes, the history of the state is of chaos; it is hard to think one’s idea of “anarchy” could be as bad), effectively baptized the nation state. State borders grew stronger. It was assumed among states that sovereignty, meaning the mutual acceptance of the other’s monopoly on crime within its boundaries, was to be respected. Of course, the urge to use an army at one’s disposal is too great, and the fighting continued until the number of states in Europe shrank and the power of each one to kill grew.

Around 1789, the idea that the state should represent the people, preserve liberty, equality, fraternity, or other revolutionary slogans, caught on. National education systems were erected, inculcating everyone in the logic of the state and the primordiality of the nation. The nation state became timeless, obvious and unassailable. The nation state expanded beyond its borders, as European empires built big ships and conquered the globe. To reach their goals, they killed whomever they had to kill, on any continent they felt like taking.

Ultimately, what the empires left their conquered peoples with was the nation state. The nation state has broken down old social structures and erected new ones. It groups millions of disparate people and assumes they can be represented by a ruling class. It assumes rule by a ruling class is preferable to whatever it has destroyed. It has institutionalised theft and slavery. It has militarised the criminals and disarmed their victims. And even though it legally covers every inch of land in the world, its power over the people within those lines continues to expand. One result of modern state expansion is a war on the native.

Indigenous people all around the world have been persecuted since the inception of the state. They have been forcibly moved so they could be taxed or so the powerful could gain access to land and other resources. They have been killed when they have resisted. Many groups we have never heard of have been wiped out over the years. Others have been decimated and pacified and pushed onto “reservations”. In recent years, much of this wanton violence has been at the request of large extracting corporations. Such corporations, oil and gas concerns, for example, function almost as the right arm of the modern state. The state is a vehicle for accumulating power; the corporation is the most powerful modern tool for accumulating wealth. Heads of state and corporations work together to extract wealth and repress those who challenge them.

Under the nation-state system, the real owner of all land (and thus resources on that land) within the borders of the state is the state. Some states afford a measure of land or property ownership to those not connected to the state, but not many. Even Canada has seen a number of oil spills on supposedly-private land in recent months. Perhaps the people living on the poisoned land will be compensated. But the fact that someone else could ruin their land and they will need to petition the state for restitution is evidence they did not own the land to begin with. Moreover, secession is an option for free members of a federation, but not for citizens of the modern nation state.

Kayapó people being "evacuated"

Kayapó people being “evacuated”

A number of indigenous groups in the Amazon, such as the Kayapó, above, have protested the state’s plan for the Belo Monte Dam. This dam promises to flood a large area of land, dry up other land around the river, devastate parts of the rainforest and hurt fish stocks. Tens of thousands of people in the Xingu River basin are in danger. The locals have protested since the initial proposal of the dam in the 1980s and their demands have been ignored. They are now being attacked and moved. The dam will be built. The people with deep, spiritual ties to this land never had any recourse because those in power did not recognise their claim to the land. The state treats those it can use as tools and those it cannot as waste.

Similarly, in Indonesia, conflict is growing as large corporations have been tearing down forests and erecting palm oil plantations. Henry Saragih, founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union says

The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger. Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common. There are thousands of cases that have not surfaced. Many remain hidden, especially by local authorities.

Naturally, no one is ever consulted or compensated when their habitat is stolen from them. Local security forces protect foreign corporations. The beneficiaries of globalisation and economic growth do not need to pay its prices.

Unsurprisingly, some people have resisted with violence. Under modern state parlance, they are called terrorists and insurgents. People who once farmed land in much of India until they were kicked off have formed a loose movement known as the Naxalites, led by Maoist intellectuals. Companies such as South Korea’s Posco Steel have appropriated other people’s land for their own purposes, with the help of local police. A peaceful anti-Posco movement has arisen, but protests have gone nowhere. Politicians are under pressure from the companies they have already promised to let build and the villagers who will lose their land; they make more money off the corporations so they just repress the villagers. The Naxalites oppose the advance of the state, and have killed civilians and security forces alike.

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Naxalites “left-wing extremism” and “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. Bolstered by the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Indian government has arrested and killed thousands of Naxalites and their supporters in order to maintain its monopoly on crime. On the violence committed by both sides, Arundhati Roy opines

I think you’ve got to look at every death as a terrible tragedy. In a system, in a war that’s been pushed on the people and that unfortunately is becoming a war of the rich against the poor, in which rich put forward the poorest of the poor to fight the poor, [security forces] are terrible victims but they are not just victims of the Maoists. They are victims of a system of structural violence that is taking place.

In some places the Naxalites enjoy popular support. As with other violent, persecuted groups, however, some Naxalites have used violence against unarmed locals, and have been less popular. As with the War on Drugs and countless other cases of aggression, violence begets violence.

At the same time, the Indian government has pursued a hearts-and-minds campaign of offering “development”, such as roads and schools. The simultaneous application of force and the promise of economic incentives has been praised by the Economist and others of similar persuasion. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, believes “If the government continues its land wars in the heart of India’s bread basket, there will be no chance for peace.” This strategy is bound to fail as it does not address the roots of the problem. Indeed, it has failed. The people are not interested in being absorbed by the nation state. Explains BD Sharma, “[f]or them, development means exploitation.” This should not be surprising. The nation state views incorporation into its ambit a step up, from barbarism to civilisation. The discourse assumes a model of progress from life outside the state, thought of as unhealthy, backward and hostile to life as part of the state, meaning education, health and higher culture. It defends displacing people from their ancestral homes with its offer of schools, hospitals and integration into the wider economy. But the state always achieves its goals with violence.

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed explains the logic of the state and escape from it through the case of the highland people of Southeast Asia. The evidence is strong that many or all of the people living in the mountainous region recently dubbed Zomia are there because some time over the past thousand years or so they have chosen the life of barbarity over forcible incorporation into the state. One of a number of groups Scott considers is the Karen.

Zomia

Many of those we now call the Karen consciously fled the predatory state to escape appropriation of their land and agriculture, forced relocation or slave labour. The Burmese military government has attempted to subdue and incorporate the Karen. They fought back for many years, but eventually, technology caught up and the last major Karen base was destroyed in 1995. The people continue to hold out, however, in small groups. The Burmese military continues to wage its campaign against them. It burns down fields and lays mines there. Soldiers fighting Karen guerrillas, conscripted and paid a pittance, take whatever they want from villages on the front lines, and end up terrorising their inhabitants. Like other persecuted groups of Zomia, the Karen have adopted flexible agricultural techniques, mobility, shifting ethnic identities and social structures that split easily over political, social or religious issues. But the state advances and the Karen get easier to destroy. Scott believes it is only a matter of time before the people of Zomia become tax-paying subjects of the state once again.

Nigeria has also seen terrorism as natives of the Niger Delta have defended themselves against oil companies. The campaign to defeat the locals long enough to extract oil and dump waste has involved police and military, who have done their best to turn ethnic groups against each other. As a result of two decades of conflict, the entire region has militarised. Royal Dutch Shell was implicated in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As with other corporate malfeasance punished by a monopolist court system, it cost a trifle and enabled the firm to return to business as usual. Shell is not the only company working the area, as Chevron and Nigeria’s national petroleum company are involved as well. The struggle for freedom from the state in the Niger Delta is not over.

Is there hope in democracy? Under Rafael Correa, the government of Ecuador sued Chevron for billions for the destruction of the environment of thousands of people. Of course, a few billion is a drop in the bucket for such a firm, but at least a symbolic victory is possible. Says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, Chevron

left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction. And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.

Perhaps. Will it set a precedent? An example for other indigenous people? The damage has been done. The environment has been wrecked. And it might just leave the same people open to abuse from Petroecuador, which has caused its share of oil spills. And other Andean people are even less fortunate. (See here and here.) The people have been forced to work through state structures, further integrating them into the nation state, and have been lucky enough finally to have someone in the state who will fight for them. None of these things will last if their sovereignty, over their land and their labour, is not recognised.

It is important that we learn the history of both states and nations. On the history of the state, I recommend Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State and Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State. For more on the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nation’s and Nationalism and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are basics of the canon.

War, part 6: Iran

June 29, 2012 20 comments

“Many in the United States have a rampant, untreated case of enemy dependency. Politicians love enemies because bashing them helps stir up public sentiment and distract attention from problems at home. The defense industry loves enemies because enemies help them make money. Pundits and their publications love enemies because enemies sell papers and lead eyeballs to cable-news food fights.” – David Rothkopf

“Here’s your enemy for this week, the government says. And some gullible Americans click their heels and salute – often without knowing who or even where the enemy of the week is.” – Charley Reese

Axis of Evil

The war drums are now beating for Iran. Politicians in the US and Israel are screaming about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran attacks the countries with the two most dangerous militaries in the world. Iran is an example of the desire to create new enemies from non-existent threats since the fall of the Soviet Union. The think tanks, the ones who said before the Iraq invasion that US troops would be treated as liberators and that the oil would pay for the war, and media commentators, the ones who did not question the government’s assessments of the threat from Iraq, are helping bring public opinion in line once again. Clarity is needed on this crucial issue.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories know that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke in July 2009 in support of Iranian pro-democracy activists; Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in quite the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so in line with some US oil interests, but counter to others. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel lobby, the collection of hardline-Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves in hopes that relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.” Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

It was at this time that the Iranian government proposed a peace treaty to Washington. It was making a final effort, after helping with Afghanistan, to reach out. In it, the reformist government put everything on the table: support for terrorism, the nuclear program, its hostility to Israel; and in return they asked not to be attacked. They never received a reply.

Along with the Israel lobby and Pentagon hawks, heads of the influential House of Saud and other Middle Eastern governments have repeatedly urged the US government to go to war with Iran. Iran poses them no real threat, but they have no qualms about having someone else pay to wipe out a rival for dominance of the region.

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran… Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel… I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.

Hype

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warned with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says in Engaging the Muslim World that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. (That should not be surprising, as most or all of the Muslim world has been subject to foreign occupation and humiliation for hundreds of years.) As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention over its history, is no exception.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, if we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one.  Barack talked about eliminating them, presumably to shape the Iran agenda, but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Moreover, why would they give up the bomb for some financial inducements to make themselves more dependent on outside powers? Aid can be sneakily withdrawn by governments at any time; a nuclear weapon is the only real deterrent against invasion.

Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. It protects against invasion.

In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records (and the strengths of their militaries), who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence.

Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy. Iran probably provided money or weapons to militias that killed US soldiers in Iraq; like the acquisition of nuclear weapons, this action is rational. The idea is, given that the US invaded two of Iran’s neighbours, and that its bases surround Iran like noose, tying the military down as best it can makes it harder for the US to invade yet again.

But to listen to the mainstream media, one would think Iran’s hand is in every terrorist plot in the world. In October 2011, the FBI alleged that Iran had hired a Mexican drug gang to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US. We have strong evidence, asserted the FBI, but we can’t show it to you. Bombs went off in Thailand and the Israeli government accused Iran of attempting to kill its diplomats. Meanwhile, agents murdered an Iranian nuclear scientist and the world said “he had it coming”.

Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon (though no one seems to have any hard evidence), and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. (Presumably, few people know that the US gave some encouragement to its ally the Shah to build a nuclear weapon back before Iran was ruled by Bad Guys.) But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? (Please do not believe that the Barack administration has extended a diplomatic hand to Iran. It has done no such thing.) Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Will it give nukes to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through. Moreover, Ahmadinejad does not have power over the government, and certainly not over the deployment of heavy weapons. But unless one pulls back the curtain, one could be led to believe he is an imperialist warmonger.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

Like all governments, the people running Iran want to remain in power. The idea that Iran is a “martyr state” is little more than a myth. Once-respectable historian Benny Morris said Iran is Nazi Germany. I hope such cheap, populist rhetoric destroys his reputation for thoroughgoing research, as he has clearly outgrown it.

But they continue to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Have Americans already forgotten how they were duped into supporting the war against Saddam? All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Have those pages of history already been rewritten? Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel lobby and neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. Shame, really, as Iranians are among the most pro-American people in the region. They may not like the US government—few around the world do—but they like the ideals the US used to stand for. Iranian-American author Hooman Majd explains that “Chants of ‘Death to America’ are meaningless–the phrase refers to US foreign policy, hegemony, and imperialism; not the American dream or the people.”

Threats

But the absence of a threat does not mean no march to war. The US and its allies are encircling Iran.

Thousands of US troops deployed to Israel recently. The Israeli military announced it as a major missile defense exercise with its ally. The reason for this “defense” preparation is the big, scary country on the other side of the Middle East. It is also being encircled by US and UK aircraft carriers.

CBS news reported the Israeli military as saying the drill had been long anticipated and was unrelated to recent events. The article explained the drill would take place “as tension between Iran and the international community escalates”, as if Iran is defiantly taking on the world, rather than being pummeled into submission. If we are still not sure who the aggressor is in this conflict, let us review the facts.

  • Iran is, at present, surrounded by US military bases. If everyone in your neighbourhood were armed to the teeth and yelling about how dangerous you were, would you feel threatened?
  • In recent years, the US has invaded and occupied two of those neighbours, Afghanistan and Iraq, for all the same reasons it may want to occupy Iran. Iran has oil; it is strategically located; it is a manufactured enemy; Americans do not know anything about the country except that it’s evil, and will thus give the green light to their politicians.
  • Israelis have been subjected for years to media bombardment about the perils of an Ahmadinejad-led, nuclear-armed Iran. There seems to be broad consensus in the Israeli right wing and other circles that the Islamic Republic cannot wait to “wipe Israel off the map”. Again, the enemy is largely manufactured and sold by elites who want to send more people to die.

John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies points out the “peculiar” time for the march to war: the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is it time for Operation Iranian Liberation? The foolishness with which the US stumbled into Iraq in 2003 is repeating itself.

Sanctions

The US and the EU (“the international community”) are ramping up economic sanctions unnecessarily. EU politicians have willingly endangered the European economy by moving toward choking Mediterranean countries’ oil supplies. Paul Stevens of Dundee University in Scotland says that Greece, which imports 30 percent of its oil from Iran, would be pushed off the cliff on which it is already perched. “It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.” Tough sanctions on Iran will not stop it from producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in fact, a very rational exercise for a state expecting to be attacked. (In fact, Iran has been under attack for thirty years.) They may, however, repeat the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as the sanctions on Iraq did to that country during the 1990s.

The sanctions have been painful, and will get worse. The price of imports and consumer goods, including food, is rising. The value of the currency is dropping, making it harder to export goods. Juan Cole calls them “the most crippling sanctions that have been placed on any country since the case of Iraq in the 1990s. It’s no longer a matter of just sanctions. I think the US is now engaged in a blockade of Iranian petroleum. It’s trying to prevent Iran from selling its major export.”

Sanctions, much like interstate wars, exemplify the punishment of civilians that inevitably results from interegovernmental disputes. The pain of sanctions is not an unintended consequence, however. The hoped-for effect is to turn locals against the regime. But the locals are not stupid. At least as many who oppose their local oppressors understand that it is foreign oppressors who are making them suffer now. The sanctions applied to Iraq during the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and no uprising. Madeleine Albright, whose policy it was, continues to say those deaths were justified.

Reasons

The US has threatened India for violating the sanctions. Why? India, you see, is one of the countries that buys Iranian oil and does not use the dollar to do so. It cannot be allowed to slip out of Washington’s grip, so it will be punished.

Iran is a major oil source, and it is trying to ditch US dollars. The endless printing of money by the Federal Reserve has led to a serious devaluation of the USD. More and more countries are seeking to divest themselves of it. The US government will threaten those it can not to leave. If enough states stop using US dollars for international trade, the value of the USD drops, and the ability of the US government to print its way out of deficits goes away. It also gives the US government less leverage over foreign states, because they do not have to bow to its dictates regarding currency and foreign exchange. If the petrodollar is no longer the all-purpose medium of exchange for the oil market, the power of the US government over that market deteriorates. In September 2000, Saddam Hussein dropped the petrodollar as the currency for Iraqi oil, opting for the euro. By following the money, we can see the true nature of the desire for war with Iran. History repeats.

But fear of the evaporating petrodollar is not the only reason for aggression against Iran. It is presumed in Washington that Israel should have the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Though a nuclear weapon would probably never be used against Israel (and plenty of top Israeli intelligence and military men know that), one cannot attack a country with nuclear weapons. Israel wants to retain the power to attack anyone. The Israel lobby in the US and its hawkish supporters in Israel would love to see the destruction of their rival, just as some of them are (prematurely) rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Syria’s fragmentation.

Finally, the very existence of a “national enemy” is of enormous benefit to a state. It is a distraction from local problems, which the US government has in abundance at the moment, as people rally round the flag. It is a chance to curb civil liberties and enlarge the state. It is a way to give publicly-funded handouts to pressure groups.

Needless to say, full-blown war with Iran would be devastating. The war on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered the country intractably unstable for a long time to come for no other reason than to please the Washington power elite. And what is the desired outcome? National security? Can national security ever be achieved by waging endless wars? No, suggest the history of Israel and the 9/11 attacks. The entire Middle East and Central Asia could be engulfed in war.

Warmakers are not merely shortsighted, though. They understand the consequences. More devastation, more instability, more religious extremism, more terrorism, more pain: these are all foreseen and desired outcomes. More instability in western Asia will mean two things that keep the powerful happy: higher oil and gas prices, and more enemies to fight and justify more military intervention. If the elites can benefit, the war with Iran will no longer be clandestine, and millions of people could die as a result.

The environment

January 20, 2012 6 comments

Among fears of a stateless society is concern for the environment. If we get rid of government, what will happen to the environment? We need to be sure we are not fooling ourselves into thinking government is doing something positive about it at the moment. What is happening to it now, under the auspices of democratic governments, that protects the environment? Why would a change necessarily be worse?

This post looks at the government’s role in harming the environment. Then, it provides solutions to environmental problems in the absence of government, touching on resources, pollution, endangered animals and land. It concludes with an opinion (of someone much more exxperienced that me) on so-called green jobs and environmentalist entrepreneurship. It goes through each briefly because it is partly a summary of information on subjects that is available elsewhere.

Sure, a government could fix the environment. Enough force could “solve” almost any problem (except the initiation of force, which is the biggest problem). Throwing anyone who drives a car, burns coal or eats beef in jail would clean up our air pretty quickly, notwithstanding any hamburger terrorist movements that might arise. But is a society that trusts all its freedom to an omnipotent clique one worth inhabiting? At the moment, we live somewhere in between the totalitarian state and the free society, and the results are not good for the environment.

Do I blame the government for the poor state of the environment? Is the government the cause of all problems everywhere? Of course not. But it does not help much. Let us be specific.

We cannot farm hemp. A crop with all kinds of benefits, that farmers could be farming, we cannot farm. More plants means cleaner air. But because it can, the government does not allow us to grow natural fibers. In fact, the police and associated paramilitary (like the DEA) burn hemp and marijuana crops they find. They also poison coca plants and poppies in South America and Afghanistan. People still do drugs, of course, so the government is not protecting our health in that way. It is merely adding to the toxins in the air.

The US government contributes to pollution by subsidising coal. Coal! How dirty can you get? And why coal? Because of the coal lobby. As usual, a lobby and a government go hand in hand to take your money and use it to make the world worse off.

Then there are the effects of war. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the US federal government to clean up 17 weapons plants that were leaking radioactive and toxic chemicals—an estimated $100b—and nothing happened. No bureaucrat got fired, no government department was disbanded, and nothing got cleaned up. Depleted uranium leads to birth defects and cancers and has been fired all over Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The destruction of ecosystems, War on Drugs defoliation schemes, the effects of nuclear weapons testing, the increased cancer rates–all are products of an institution that wages a never-ending war on non-existent enemies and cannot be trusted to care for something as important as the planet.

It is important to remain skeptical that the government (aside, perhaps, from the toothless EPA) ever actually tries to protect nature. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Housing Boom and Bust, details how land use restrictions, often a bone thrown to environmental groups (even though more than 90% of the land in the US is not developed), did little more than inflate the housing bubble of the past decade. Other policies appear, on the surface, to protect the environment, but in fact have left it wide open to abuse. Aside from direct results of government malfeasance, indirect results need to be taken into account when considering whether to retain or reject government.

The main reason we have polluted air and water is what is called the tragedy of the commons. When something is commonly owned (in other words, unowned), no one has enough incentive to preserve it. If I do not use it for my own benefit, someone else will, so I might as well extract what benefits I can as fast as I can. But since everyone thinks that way, everyone might do so and might exhaust the resource. At the moment, much of the environment is the commons. Governments have done nothing to stop climate change and the pollution of the oceans, and little to prevent air pollution without businesses having voluntarily adopted measures. Likewise, no one owns most wild animals, and as a result, people can hunt them (with no regard to endangered animal laws) wherever they want for little cost. A government that does not allow private ownership of the air, water and fauna has allowed those things to remain common. So what is the anarcho-capitalist solution? Privatise them.

Economist Walter Block has done significant work on the privatisation of the commons. Privatisation has traditionally meant selling partial or whole stakes in government-run enterprises on the stock market. It has never meant a reduction of the government’s power over a section of society, but simply a transfer of the wealth generated by formerly state assets. I do not advocate this kind of rearrangement of power under the guise of freeing the market. Rather, this post is about why a stateless society could protect the environment far better than the government.

The private sector (not only business but free people) thinks more long term than politicians. A politician’s incentive is to survive until the next election. Voters cannot force otherwise. Most businesses try to survive to bring in revenue indefinitely. And it is well documented that businesses that think long term benefit their shareholders long term; and businesses that focus only on the short term crash and burn. Of course, they might get bailed out by the government; I guess that is the corruption democrats always work in vain to eliminate. Let us look at the economics of privately-run resources.

Wheat exists because there is demand for it. The government does not need to supply wheat or ensure a certain quantity of bread is being made. If we all decided to stop eating wheat, we would stop growing it and it would disappear. The same is true for fish, trees and whatever else. (See more here.) Maybe we should start eating tigers. (More on endangered animals later.)

A rise in prices means that more exploration will take place, and supply might even go up. That is what has been happening since the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” and the 1972 book “Limits to Growth”. Another possibility, some might say inevitability, is that alternatives to expensive materials will be found, hence the current push for research into alternatives to oil. And the research does not need to be subisidised because the potential for profit is huge. Just imagine if you discovered or produced a viable substitute for oil or copper or iron. You would get investors lining up around the block and become a millionaire. So what does the state need to protect?

An owner of a copper mine needs to balance expectations of future prices with concerns about current ones. If he completely strips an area of copper, the supply will be higher in the present, which implies lower prices, and he will have nothing for the future, when prices might be higher. Likewise, the owner of an acre of forest who wants to profit from that forest might strip it bare for now but will probably only cut down some of the trees, then reseed, to ensure the land’s viability as a source of revenue for the future. That is long-term thinking, and that is leadership. Leadership that only thinks four or fewer years in advance is not leadership.

In fact, when it protects resources against “greedy capitalist exploitation”, government does not actually destroy the market for those resources; it does one of two things. If there are already producers of a resource, prices go up and their profits go up. Then, they become an interest group with a stake in the status quo. If no one is producing the resource, but there is still demand for, government protection still drives the price up and drives the production underground. Hence the lucrative trade in endangered animals, for instance. Governments have done nothing to protect the elephant. How could they? Could they get police to follow elephants around the bush all the time to make sure no one hunts them? Some have called for worldwide bans on ivory. But a worldwide ban on drugs has not done much to the drug trade—quite the contrary. Drugs and ivory are still both big business. A government solution is not a solution. It’s just violence.

Am I saying we should not protect endangered animals? Not at all. Let’s protect them through private ownership. NGOs, communities or even individuals could own and protect land. Of course, we could force everyone to pay for it through government action; though sometimes even then governments sell off land to businesses. If you really want to protect it, buy it. It’s yours. You can preserve it however you like. Banning the elephant trade depleted their numbers; privatising the elephant helped them flourish. The main reason we are running out of things that people want, like seals, is that their hunting takes place in the commons. Everyone can do it (well, they need a license, but that doesn’t have to stop anyone), and so overhunting is likely. But if people own the land or sea where the hunting is taking place, they will breed the animals more conservatively, for the long term, because they can make money off it.

Let us make barnyards out of oceans. Farms protect animals—when was the last time anyone said we had to save endangered cows? So let us own sections of ocean and the whales within them. It is possible that the new owner would kill all the whales in his part of the ocean and sell them, but there is nothing to­­ stop anyone doing that right now. Well, except Greenpeace. Let Greenpeace buy up the ocean too. Because of the different incentives at play, it is illogical to think that private owners would not protect the environment and the government would. Take these things out of the commons, let someone own them and they might flourish like the elephant.

Is privatising the environment purely theoretical? A publicly-traded company named Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd. saved several species from extinction and brought many back to their pre-colonial levels by owning about 90,000 hectares of land in Australia. Unfortunately, this company went bankrupt. Nonetheless, it did its job while it existed. Like other failed ventures, it provides a model for what not to do. One failure does not mean it could never work: it means another try might get it right. (Find more examples of free-market conservationism here.) Same goes for such practices as fish farming. Privatising oyster beds has brought oysters back from the brink of extinction. Fish farming is a potential solution to both the extinction of fish stocks and the satisfaction of our cravings for fish. Some fish farming is unsustainable, but again, if we keep trying, we can get it right. We’re a smart bunch that way.

Privatisation of land and waste disposal would likely reflect the true costs of dumping garbage. Let’s say you want to dump your plastic bags somewhere. If they are very bad for the soil, the people on whose land you dump them will expect you to pay a proportionally high price for dumping them, because that land would not be useful for a long time to come. The waste disposal companies would pass those costs onto the people who use and buy plastic bags, who would thus consume fewer in favour of less environmentally-damaging alternatives such as paper. (Walter Block on the subject here.) Another free-market solution to an environmental problem.

Air pollution is the kind of challenging question that some economists love to search for solutions to. Milton Friedman finds that there are usually free-market solutions that do not require government intervention, and pollution is one. Murray Rothbard provides an elaborate theory on the subject, based on private law. Stefan Molyneux has some practical ideas; and if you do not like them, as he says, “no problem – in the free market, there are as many solutions as there are interested parties!”

Oil spills often upset indigenous people because oil companies do not care about those people. The oil companies move in, protected by the government, and anything they leave, they do not bother to clean up. Property rights—nothing more than people protecting the land they live on—would enable the people of those areas to decide if they want the companies to enter or not, and hold them to account for everything they do. They would have contracts, regulated by dispute-resolution organisations. And the people would no longer be called terrorists for wanting to protect their holy land.

One way to deal with such corporations is the boycott. More and more corporations, either in reaction to consumer pressure or proactively, are pursuing green strategies. And before you say “that’s just greenwashing”, bear in mind that if you can recognise a company that is harming the environment, you can recognise when its actions are only superficial. Companies know you know, and that’s why so many are going beyond the superficial to real attempts to make their businesses sustainable. (Learn more here.) Unfortunately, consumer boycotts work far less well on corporations that produce for the government, because the chance of their being punished by their customers is almost zero.

The entrepreneurs who developed most of the “green technologies” we have today were not funded or directed by governments. Julian Morris gives the examples of the transistor, which enabled the mass production of high-tech electronics; the integrated circuit, which enabled mass production of personal computers, and the automation of all kinds of things; the fiber optic cable, which revolutionised high speed telecommunications and enabled the internet. “Why do I give these three examples?” he asks. “These are green technologies. They weren’t developed as green technologies, though. And this is important. No government official started a programme in the 1920s saying, ‘We’ve gotta develop some green technologies, let’s invest in green jobs. I’m going to invest in the transistor, the integrated circuit and low-loss fiber optic cable.’ This is not how innovation takes place.”

Innovation relies on local, independent knowledge, specific understanding of the gizmo. The innovators did not know when they started what problem they would end up solving. Through innovations, products have become more efficient, which might mean smaller, using fewer resources to make and dispose of; consuming less energy for greater output; or simply costing less, which aids wealth creation. Morris also points out that cars are lighter, cheaper, safer and pollute less than they did 20 years ago; pop cans have much less than half the metal they had in the 1970s thanks to aiming to reduce costs and raise profits. And when you raise profits, you raise productivity, making innovation possible, growing the economy and reducing poverty. When the economy grows, we have more wealth to spend to reduce environmental damage further. Some venture capitalists  and angel investors are always on the prowl for new green technologies, and if you can show you can make them money, you can get funding.

The state’s record of environmental stewardship is not encouraging. The free market, on the other hand, the truly fair and accountable system, has potential for sustainability that the world under centralised authority does not.

Iraqi oil and global power

January 8, 2012 3 comments

The oil is flowing again in Iraq. Iraq’s oil ministry hopes 4.5m barrels per day will be extracted by 2013. Even if production falls short of this goal, it will bring in considerable revenue to those who own it. Where will that money go?

First, it will go to oil companies, executives and shareholders in particular.  Not only do large oil firms, which function largely as the right-arm of the modern state, benefit directly from the forced opening up of the resources of weaker states; they also benefit from the higher prices that result from the instability in the newly-“liberated” nation. Let us see which firms have acquired the largest stakes.

The usual suspects, such as Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, have won the usual concessions. Mixed in with them, though, are 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. Iraq’s oil is being auctioned off to the powerful people who might otherwise have had the power to block future war. Now that they profit from it, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.

Some Iraqis will make money from it as well. Those in the government, plus the rich and powerful connected to the government, will likely profit heavily. Corruption and inequality will increase. Some of the people who do not benefit from oil revenues will demand some of it. Rather than give it up, the new rulers of Iraq will spend it to repress the Iraqi people. If history is any guide, that repression will lead to protests, religious extremism and terrorism.

Iraq is not very democratic, as a mere glance at the violence of Iraqi politics makes clear. Democracy does not, in any case, mean justice or equality. It does not guarantee that voters will have any control over the oil or see any revenue from it “trickle down”. One might say it would be fair to give that oil to the Iraqi people, particularly the millions that lost loved ones over the past twenty years due to sanctions and invasions. Those having babies with birth defects could probably use the cash, too. But then, fairness is not something the powerful tend to bestow on the world.

The spreading around of Iraq’s oil to the global power elite will have the effect of making similar aggression against weak but resource-rich states worldwide easier. When Russian and Chinese oil firms profit from the newly-acquired oil fields, they will support more such interventions. Of course, they will protest, but only in public. We have seen the uprising against Gaddafi turned into an excuse to invade another OPEC member. The multilateral nature of the intervention grants it the veneer of legitimacy while the plunderers make off with the booty.

Taxpayers from powerful countries are paying for invasions of weak countries and the killing and torture of resisters so that the world’s power elite can become more powerful. Expect less democracy, more terrorism and more “humanitarian intervention” everywhere as a result.