Saturday, May 30, 2015

American Politics: There's No Success Like Failure

American Politics: There’s No Success Like Failure
P. Schultz
May 30, 2015

            I have been reading a book entitled, The Selling of ‘Free Trade’ by John MacArthur, about the passing of NAFTA during the Clinton administration. And this book is one of the best I have read for understanding how the American political order actually works. Or, to put this another way, it is an excellent book for understanding how our oligarchy governs us.

            At least two phenomena of our political order become clear in MacArthur’s telling of the passage of NAFTA. The first phenomenon is how little the distinction between Republicans and Democrats means when it comes to political activity in the United States. For example, MacArthur points out that Clinton followed “a political calculus” of “scrounging for votes” to pass NAFTA despite having Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. And, as MacArthur says, this kind of thing is “far from unusual.” “Collusion between the parties is routine . . . , “ as MacArthur points out.

            Yet what happens isn’t exactly “between the parties,” except superficially. That is, “Republicans” and “Democrats” are not labels that explain how our politicians actually behave, as MacArthur’s account makes clear. So, when MacArthur writes that Clinton’s “push for NAFTA” went to “extraordinary lengths . . . to collude with [his] putative enemies, the Republicans and the Fortune 500,” he is only partly right because those Clinton “colluded” with were not his enemies, putative or otherwise. They only pretended to be such in order to disguise their alliance, an alliance meant to serve the interests of the ruling elite rather than the popular will.

            And why is this disguise necessary? To convince us, “the people,” that our “parties,” the “Republicans” and the “Democrats,” are in fact parties in that they seek to adopt and pass policies that serve “we the people.” But as Clinton’s “push for NAFTA” illustrates so well, being a “Republican” or a “Democrat” has little bearing on how most of our politicians behave or act. Nor does the popular will.

            Sometimes, this disguise is revealed by those using it. For example, consider the following from JFK:  

“Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political point of view – Republican of Democrat, liberal or conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most problems . . . that we now face are technical problems, administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of ‘passionate movements’ which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.” [JFK, May 21, 1962, cited in Free Trade]

            In a revealing or candid way, JFK pronounces that both the Republican and the Democratic points of view are irrelevant for politics now. While we have been “conditioned” to think being a Republican or a Democrat matters, it doesn’t when it comes to governing because we face – and here comes the obfuscation – “technical problems” and/or “administrative problems” that require “very sophisticated judgments . . .  which are beyond the comprehension of most men,” i.e., those conditioned to think that being a Republican or a Democrat matters.

            So, being a Republican or a Democrat is, according to JFK, essentially meaningless. And he is correct but not because those in power want to “solve problems” that are “technical” or “administrative.” Rather, this is correct because when it comes to preserving the power of the prevailing political elite, to preserve “the regime” as Aristotle would say, being a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t matter. NAFTA served the interests of the prevailing elite, both political and social, and hence “Republicans” and “Democrats” colluded to get it done.

            This dynamic may be illustrated as follows. Ask yourself, “Why Vietnam?” An answer that is quite common and seems persuasive is: The Democrats didn’t want to “lose” Vietnam like they “lost” China because that would cost them their power. But the “they” here should be seen for what it is, viz., not only the Democrats but the prevailing political elite, as evidence by the fact that the Republicans also embraced the war. And both embraced the war despite knowing that it could not, in all likelihood, be won. To “succeed” the war did not have to be won; it merely had to be fought.

            And this brings up the second phenomenon quite common to our political order, viz., the usefulness of “failure.” In this example, even “failure” in Vietnam could help maintain the prevailing political elite, especially if this “failure” were the result of a particularly bloody or expensive commitment. Such an effort, such a policy, even though it “failed,” could be made to seem “noble,” as Ronald Reagan and many others portrayed the war in Vietnam. Did our politicians fail in Vietnam? Yes, but it was a noble failure as evidenced by all those deaths, the atrocities committed under duress, and the environmental destruction made necessary by the tenacity of our enemies. Even in failure, perhaps even especially in failure, our politicians were “successful” when success is understood as preserving the regime.

            If you think this line of thought strange, ask why the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to higher approval ratings for President Kennedy. Or ask why even though Nixon “failed” in Vietnam, pulled out, and Vietnam “fell,” this did little to undermine his power or disempower the prevailing political elite. And, of course, the event that makes this phenomenon crystal clear is 9/11, a failure of immense and deadly proportions but one that led to the empowerment, not the disempowerment, of President Bush and the established or embedded political elite.

            The connection between these two phenomena is as follows: “Republican” and “Democrat,” as understood conventionally as the most important of determinants of political behavior, are misleading insofar as they imply that our politicians seek to “solve problems,” to be “successful problem solvers” at all costs. Republicans have their solutions, and the Democrats have their solutions. And it is adherence to these different solutions that make one Republican or Democratic.

But, in fact, our politicians are, for the most part, more interested in preserving the status quo, that is, their own power and authority, and so this becomes the standard by which policies are assessed. And because this is their goal, “success” in terms of policy is not necessary or, in some circumstances, even desirable. “Failure” in terms of policy often works just as well in preserving the status quo, the prevailing regime. As Bob Dylan put it: “there is no success like failure. And . . . failure’s no success at all.” [“Love Minus Zero. No Limit.”]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Plato, Politics, and the Establishment

Politics, Plato, and the Establishment
P. Schultz
May 25, 2015

            Recently, I read a book, Inside Out, by Barry Eisler, a former spook with the CIA that presents a rather clear and provocative view of the American political order. That view is accurately summed up, in part, in the following passages. The first to speak is Ben Trevon, a spook, who is being educated by another spook named Horton about the character of our political order. Horton is Ben’s boss and is showing Ben he has little choice but to go on working for him and for the Establishment, also called the oligarchy.

            “Come on, Hort, Republicans, Democrats . . . they hate each other, right? There’s competition.”
            ‘Hort laughed. “That’s not competition. It’s suppose to look that way, so people think their interests are being looked after, they have a choice, they can make a difference, they’re in charge. But they don’t.’
            ‘”That doesn’t make sense.”
            ‘”I’m afraid it does. You see, there’s more money to be made in cooperation than in competition. It’s the same dynamic that leads to cartels. You can argue that cartels should be competing. But they don’t see it that way. Their profit motive enables them to rise above the urge to compete. In the service of the greater good, naturally. People who think there’s actual friction, and real competition, between Democrats and Republicans, or between the press and politicians, or between the corporations and their supposed overseers, they’re like primitives looking at shadows on the wall and believing the shadows are the substance.”’

            First, this is a rather provocative view of the American political order, but not one devoid of foundation. Time and again, if one is looking for it, the collusion Horton describes here is visible. In fact, it isn’t too much to say that if it is hidden at all, it is hidden in plain sight. Being that the United States is said to be a republic, one to which school children pledge their allegiance daily, some obfuscation of the true state of affairs is needed. Moreover, those with power need to genuflect, as it were, toward our “republic;” they must make people think “their interests are being looked after, they have a choice, they can make a difference, they’re in charge.” But this is, for the most part, smoke and mirrors.

            Second, though, as Horton here refers to the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, I cannot resist adding something here, viz., that Socrates/Plato knew, unlike Horton, that the shadows on the wall thing was not a primitive phenomenon. In fact, given the context of the allegory, it seems apparent that the shadows on the wall are more likely to exist and more likely to be mistaken for “reality” in what we call “civilized” or “developed” societies than in primitive societies. It is “civilized” societies that need such shadows, much more so than primitive ones.

            Consider that primitives, because their lives are far more endangered than the lives of civilized people, cannot afford to take the shadows too seriously or mistake them for reality. Were they to do so, their lives would be endangered in an immediate way. Being “closer” to death, primitives must be far more sensitive to “real reality” than we civilized types.  

            Also, consider the following question: Who is more comfortable with such shadows as “success,” “wealth,” or “social status,” Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? It seems pretty clear it is Tom Sawyer. It is Huck who refuses to be “sivilized,” as he puts it, and “lights out for the territories,” because he knows he will never be happy being “sivilized.” Perhaps this is Twain’s way of endorsing Plato allegory of the cave, while illuminating that it is in civilized societies that people are most dependent upon shadows and, hence, most willing to believe “the shadows are the substance.”

See the following blog:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Means and Ends: Seymour Hersh and bin Laden

Means and Ends: Seymour Hersh and Bin Laden
P. Schultz
May 23, 2015

            Seymour Hersh’s article on the killing of bin Laden raises the question: Just what happened? That is, what is it that we witnessed? Was it as presented in the movie Zero Dark Thirty or was it as presented by Hersh?

            Some have argued that it really doesn’t matter whether Hersh’s account is correct or not insofar as, however it happened, bin Laden is dead, justice has been served, and the ends justifies the means, whatever the means employed. And, of course, the latter “thought,” that the ends justify the means is usually labeled “Machiavellian” and, so, given the “realist” seal of approval.

            But what Machiavelli knew, I suspect, is that “the means” become “the ends.” That is, this phenomenon is not utilitarian; at least not in the way we usually understand it. “The means” have a “value,” and not only “a value” but are actually what is valued and “the end” to be achieved.

            Assuming this to be true, what was the value of the means used as described by our official organs rather than as described by Hersh? That is, who benefitted and how?

            Well, it is safe to say that “Obama” benefitted, with “Obama” representing the authority of the presidency as well as representing this particular president. And, of course, because the presidency benefitted, so too did the much maligned political order/system/regime of which it is a part. And this means that the “ruling class,” those who control this regime, benefitted, and this regardless of whether these people were Republican or Democratic, “liberal” or “conservative.” The ruling class is, of course, “bipartisan” in its attachment to maintaining its power.

            And, so, “the means” used can easily be seen as “the end,” viz., the end or goal being that of fortifying the power of the ruling class, the “establishment,” or the “oligarchy.”

            [And, I would wager, Pakistan’s collusion in this event served to fortify the power of its ruling class, its “establishment,” its “oligarchy,” an end which required that establishment to pretend to be powerless against the America’s clandestine military. But then if this were so, it would merely be a reflection of the broader relationship between the US and Pakistan, where the latter pretends to necessarily be serving as an ally in the war on terror.]

            Confirmation that this was “the event” we witnessed comes by way of two other phenomena. First, the bipartisan acceptance and even praise of “Obama” illustrates that this was an event that fortified the power of the ruling class, that made it look competent and, most importantly, powerful. No fiasco in the desert, ala’ Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis. No, in this instance the establishment was “all in,” as perhaps it was not for Carter as he was not of the establishment.

            Second, there was the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, made with the help – to put it mildly – of the CIA, which made this event into a Hollywood thriller, starring a somewhat “rogue” bureaucrat who, like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” tenaciously takes on not only bin Laden but also the bureaucracy and its head honchos, who are of course men. Now that is “the right stuff,” no?

            The movie, however, helps underline how “means” become “ends,” because it is obvious in the movie – and meant to be – that the female agent, Maya, is a hero doing heroic things. That bin Laden was killed only confirms her heroism and, so, it is her heroism – and by implication the heroism of the ruling class of which she is part – that is the end, just as in our war on terror, our “heroism” in fighting it is the end, and this whether we “win” or not. War is the end, not the means.

            And this helps to explain why the powers that be cannot just dismiss Hersh’s account as irrelevant, because after all bin Laden is dead. His death was not the end. And if Hersh’s account is allowed to stand, then the end, the real end, the fortification of the ruling class, fails insofar as we will see that class as little more than what it actually is, a clique that keeps itself in power, not by means of its virtue but merely by pulling strings like puppeteers, its virtue mere “virtu,” ala’ Machiavelli but without his insight into the limitations of “virtu.” One might even say that they “fiddle while Rome burns,” but don’t know they are fiddling or even that Rome is burning. And those like Hersh, who look behind the curtain as it were, must be marginalized.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Evil: Ordinary and Otherwise

Evil: Ordinary and Otherwise
P. Schultz
May 9, 2015

            Some years ago, a book was recommended to me, Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, by Fred E. Katz. Katz argues therein that it is quite common, apparently, for “ordinary people” to commit evil acts or participate in “extraordinary evil,” ala’ Adolph Eichmann, Rudolf Hoess, and Lt. William Calley. According to Katz, this phenomenon takes place when people are “mentally locked into a particular context . . . where ‘outside’ values are excluded and locally generated values dominate.” [p. 26]

            By way of example, Katz considers in some detail Lt. Calley’s actions at My Lai, where he commanded troops and participated in a massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, including old men, women, and children, even babies, As Katz argues, drawing on Calley’s testimony at his court marital, his actions are to be explained by his orders to “move his troops through the village and do it rapidly.” [p. 26] As Katz summarizes his argument, “In short, Calley’s horrendous deeds were carried out as he addressed himself to an innocuous (but, to him, very real) immediate problem – to avoid another reprimand for slowness.” [p. 28] So, as a result of his addressing this “immediate problem,” Calley allegedly forgot those “outside values,” apparently American values, that had he followed would have prevented him from massacring those Vietnamese old men, women, and children.

            There is only one small problem with Katz’s argument here, viz., that Calley’s actions in My Lai were merely reflections of the actions of the United States in Vietnam generally. This leads me to think that the “outside values” Calley allegedly “mentally locked” out did not condemn mass killings, at least not when undertaken in accordance with the nation’s foreign policy, including of course waging war to protect “national security.” Just as Calley was ordered to “clear” the village “as fast as possible,” meaning to destroy it and its inhabitants if necessary, so too the U.S. was in “South” Vietnam to “clear” it of communists, even if that meant destroying it and many of its inhabitants. As one soldier put it, again reflecting the essence of U.S. policy in Vietnam, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Some Americans labeled this process “modernization.” And, of course, they realized, being the “realists” they were, that modernization might well require both death and destruction. As the common American saying goes, “You can’t make mayonnaise without breaking some eggs.”

            My point is this: While it is comforting to think that Lt. Calley was acting in an “un-American” fashion in My Lai, given that the nation he was serving was inflicting similar death and destruction on Vietnam, it is less than persuasive. What was it about “American values,” those “outside values” Katz refers to, that allowed, even justified the United States in bringing massive death and destruction to Vietnam? And why should we be surprised when such a policy, seen as justified, even as “noble,” leads to actions by soldiers that resemble the nation’s policy?

            In sum, the “problem” wasn’t that Calley “mentally locked” out American values. The “problem” was that he embraced them. He was being a “good American.” But, as Aristotle was one of the first to recognize, being a good citizen and being a good human being only “go together” in the best regime. And it would appear that this is not the case in the United States.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hillary Will Only Make Things Worse

Hillary Will Only Make Things Worse
P. Schultz
May 6, 2015

            Some interesting comments from a concerned citizen, Brandy Baker, in the book, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

            “The problem is that we have a . . . women’s movement that is not equipped to address the collective oppression of women who are on the lower rungs of the economic ladder because the movement restrains itself with blind support for the Democratic Party . . . . When women only seek to get a seat at the table of elites for themselves instead of dismantling that table, we get Hillary Clinton voting for the war in Iraq, Eleanor Smeal thanking Bush for bombing women in Afghanistan, and an upper middle class feminist movement that helps Democrats get into office and keeps a two party corporate system in power that hurts, not helps the majority of women and men in this society.” [Pp. 69 & 70]

            The election of Hillary Clinton, should that happen, promises no more change from what is currently transpiring than did the election of her husband in 1992. Again, from the book cited above, in an article entitled, “The Instructive History of Jackson’s Rainbow,” by JoAnn Wypijewski:

            “By a brisk accounting of 1993 to 2000, the Black stripe of the Rainbow got the Crime Bill, women got ‘welfare reform,’ labor got NAFTA, gays and lesbians got the Defense of Marriage Act. Even with a Democratic Congress in the early years, the peace crowd got no cuts in the military; unions got no help on the right to organize; advocates of DC statehood got nothing; the single payer crowd got worse than nothing. On affirmative action, Jackson had to threaten Clinton privately with an independent run in 1996 before the president declared the weasalish ‘mend it, don’t end it.’ Manning Marable points out that between Clinton’s inaugural and the day he left office, 700,000 more persons were incarcerated, mostly minorities; today [2004] one in eight black men is barred from voting because of prison, probation or parole.” [ p. 89]

            With Hillary’s election, should that happen, many will be all agog over the apparent transformation of American society from a sexist one to one that will elect a woman president, just as Obama’s presidency was said to herald the onset of a “post-racial/racist” society. But just as with Obama’s presidency, which can hardly be described as marking any kind of transformation from the Bush presidency and the Clinton presidency, and which seems to be awash in significant racial unrest created by our current police state, a Hillary presidency will do nothing but further secure this militarized police state while also continuing the fleecing of the middle and lower classes, including of course the fleecing of the women who are members of those classes.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Making Sense of Our Smoke and Mirrors Politics

Making Some Sense of the Smoke and Mirrors
P. Schultz
May 3, 2015

“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me. Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The Grateful Dead

            To cut to the chase, the political project that has been aborning for some time, but especially since the demise of the Soviet Union is one that aims at “surveillance, work discipline, and social control.” [p. 128, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber] That is, our politics is “part of an all-out effort to follow the technological humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war: not only the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, but the utter rout of social movements at home.” [p. 128]

            And this kind of politics is advanced by those appearing in the guise or, rather, the disguise of “neoliberalism,” making what appear to be economic arguments, that is, “pro-market” arguments, to advance their political agenda. What appears to be an agenda of minimal government is actually an agenda of maximizing bureaucracy, even if not always governmental bureaucracy. And the results are: “A timid bureaucratic spirit [that] has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life . . . [while] more often than not, [coming] cloaked in the language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism.” [p. 137]

            But, of course, this “language is meaningless.” [p. 137] That is, it has no relation to what is actually going on, no relation to the intended goals of those guardians who have power and aim to keep it. This could be labeled a politics of the status quo but it is not simply that. It does seek to preserve the status quo in terms of who actually wields power; but it seeks also to do far more than simply continue or “conserve” the character of U.S. society. It seeks to advance or create a society dedicated to “surveillance, work discipline, and social control . . . thus achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites . . . indeed see as a global class war.” [p. 128, 130]

            That this line of argument makes sense is underlined by such bad arguments from these “neoliberals” as, “destroying job security while increasing working hours [will] create a more productive . . . workforce,” an argument that “there is every reason to believe [is] exactly the opposite” of what takes place. “In purely economic terms the result of neoliberal reform of labor markets is almost certainly negative . . . However [this argument] has been spectacularly effective in depoliticizing labor.” [p.129] Meanwhile, there has been “the burgeoning growth in armies, police, and private security services [which] are utterly unproductive – nothing but a resource sink.” [p. 129-130]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Quiz: Why Was Dan Quayle Papa Bush's VP Choice?

Quiz: Why Did George H.W. Bush Pick Dan Quayle for his VP?
P. Schultz
May 1, 2015

            This question bugged me for some time until a friend pointed out to me that Papa Bush was the head of the CIA and, hence, probably played a role in some clandestine activities both then and as Reagan’s vice president, activities that, if exposed, could lead to his impeachment, conviction, and removal from office. The “October Surprise of 1980” would be one example of such an activity, the “surprise” by which the Reagan team made a deal with the Iranians not to release the hostages held by Iran until after the election, which of course would also connect to what got labeled the “Iran-Contra Scandal” during Reagan’s tenure.

            Well, here is some information that would support the answer that Dan Quayle was George Bush’s “insurance policy against impeachment,” from Kevin Phillips’ book, American Dynasty, his account of the Bush family’s history and considerable involvement with the CIA and its many subsidiaries.

            “As president, Bush senior gloried in the Gulf War and the 1989 invasion of Panama, both cast as strikes for democracy – even if the dictators attacked were former friends. Over a decade . . . his web of covert international relationships prompted charges of his participating in and covering up in three actual or alleged illegalities: the Republican Party’s ‘October Surprise’ negotiations with Iran in 1980, supposedly undertaken to ensure that no hostages taken in Iran would be released before the election; the Iran-Contra scandal; and ‘Iraqgate,’ secretly arming Iraq from 1984 to 1990 before hurriedly changing course after Saddam Hussein took Kuwait. Two catchphrases recur in the family resume: ‘arms deals’ and ‘clandestine operations.’ A third recurring association would be ‘cover-up.’” [p. 268]

            Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? For example, what was in John McCain’s closet that led him to pick Sarah Palin as his VP nominee? Hmmmm……