Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2014

Addendum to “Is Russia Imperialist” — what to make of state ownership of Gazprom

Filed under: corruption,oil,Russia,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

In Roger Annis’s article there is a problematic reference to state ownership that I want to address:

It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.

But before attending to that, there are a couple of other matters requiring attention. Annis claimed that since Russia’s GDP per capita is only about half of South Korea’s, it ruled out the possibility that it can be imperialist. I am not sure whether that statistic can in and of itself be used to establish a nation’s place in the capitalist food chain since Ireland ranks higher than Germany.

Consider the example of Czarist Russia, a nation that was both imperialist and underdeveloped according to Leon Trotsky, a thinker who had some influence on Annis in his youth. According to Vitali A. Meliantsev, a Russia economist, the GDP per capita in Russia on the eve of WWI was a third that of the West (page 13 of a paper linked here). Per capita GDP in Russia ran between 18-22 % that of the United States. Despite this, Lenin had no problem referring to Russia as imperialist in 1917, just before the Bolsheviks seized power.

The other thing that strikes the eye to anybody familiar with Ukrainian history is the image at the top of Annis’s article:

It has the caption “People’s Friendship Arch: This steel rainbow was erected in 1983 to commemorate the unification of Ukraine and Russia in 1653 and is meant to symbolize friendship and mutual respect between the two nations.”

I wonder if Annis has any inkling of what that “unification” means to Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine and Czarist Russia signed an agreement in the town of Pereislav not on the basis of “mutual respect” but mostly on the basis of Ukraine’s need to find a military ally against Polish domination. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Ukrainian Cossacks were locked in battles against the Poles, finally making an alliance with the Crimean Tatars in the 1650s that only achieved a stalemate. Led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossacks viewed the Czar as a lesser evil.

Paul Robert Magosci sums up the treaty in his “History of Ukraine” as follows:

Aside from the debates among legal scholars and historians, Pereiaslav and its reputed architect, Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi, have taken on a symbolic force in the story of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and have become the focus of either praise or blame. For instance, in the nineteenth century the Ukrainian national bard, Taras Shevchenko, designated Khmel’nyts’kyi the person responsible for his people’s ‘enslavement’ under Russia. The government of Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881-1894), however, erected in the center of historic Kiev a large equestrian statue of Khmel’nyts’kyi, his outstreched arm pointing northward as an indication of Ukraine’s supposed desire to be linked with Russia. After World War II, the Pereiaslav myth was resurrected, this time by Soviet ideologists, who, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the agreement in 1954, transformed the event into the ultimate symbol of Ukraine’s ‘reunification’ with Russia, from whom it had been forcibly separated by foreign occupation since the fall of Kievan Rus’.

Whatever writers subsequently have speculated about Pereiaslav, one thing is certain: after 1654, the tsardom of Muscovy — which within seventy-five years would be transformed into the Russian Empire — considered Malorossiia (Little Russia, i.e., Ukraine) its legal patrimony. Since the tsar considered Little Russia part of his Kievan Rus’ inheritance, whatever rights or liberties he granted the Cossacks at Pereiaslav were gifts he could take back whenever he wished.

From what I have seen from Roger Annis to this point, I am afraid that his intentions of using this photo was to help propagate the Pereiaslav myth favored by Soviet ideologues.

Let’s now take a look at Annis’s observation that “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”, which is obviously a reference to Gazprom. One is not quite sure what state ownership has to do with whether a nation is imperialist or not, especially in light of Lenin’s references to German state-capitalism. In his 1921 article “Tax in Kind”, Lenin makes the case for state-capitalism but under the control of the working class:

To make things even clearer, let us first of all take the most concrete example of state capitalism. Everybody knows what this example is. It is Germany. Here we have “the last word” in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisationsubordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state put also a state, but of a different social type, of a different class content—a Soviet state, that is, a proletarian state, and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism.

However, it would seem that Lenin was referring more to state control than state ownership. After all, wasn’t it the case that monopoly capitalism is pretty much based on a kind of planning done in conjunction with the state? I reject Tony Cliff’s use of the term to describe the USSR but it seems useful as a way of understanding the “military-industrial complex” referred to by President Eisenhower.

What I think is more important is the usefulness of a phrase like “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”. It is safe to say that I own the Macbook that I am typing this article with but is there the same relationship between the state and Gazprom?

According to Wikipedia, the largest shareholder in Gazprom as of the end of 2006 was Gazprombank at 41.235%, a chunk of stock that would ensure corporate control. You, of course, would wonder what was going on when Gazprombank, a subsidiary of Gazprom, is the largest shareholder. That is like saying that BP Bank (if there was such a thing) owned the biggest bloc of shares in BP.

Since the Wikipedia article contains no new information after 2006, you have to do a bit of digging around. A Financial Times article from November 30, 2011 brings things relatively up to date:

When Gazprom transferred control in 2007 of Gazprombank, its banking arm and the country’s third biggest lender, to Gazfond, the gas giant’s $6bn pension fund, the deal was seen as so incremental that the investor community barely noticed.

But Gazfond was closely linked to Bank Rossiya – which owned Lider Asset Management, the company that managed Gazfond’s assets and held most of the latter’s stake in Gazprombank as a nominee shareholder.

Keeping up with me? Gazprom spawned Gazprombank, which became the largest shareholder in Gazprom. But then Gazfond took over Gazprombank that was partnered with Bank Rossiya, which owned Lider Asset. Is your head spinning at this point? Try a little Dramamine.

While it is obviously difficult to penetrate through the interlocking directorships and ownerships of all these corporate entities, one thing is clear. Gazprom exists to make a group of men wealthy beyond comprehension. The NY Times reported on March 1 2012:

Arkady R. Rotenberg, a former judo coach, is now a billionaire industrialist, having made a fortune selling pipe to the state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Yuri V. Kovalchuk owned a minority stake in a small bank in St. Petersburg that in recent years won control of a number of Gazprom subsidiaries. He is now worth $1.5 billion.

Gennady N. Timchenko, once the little-known sales manager of a local oil refinery, is now one of the world’s richest men, co-owner of a commodity trading company that moves about $70 billion of crude oil a year, much of it through major contracts with Rosneft, the Russian national oil company.

What these men share, besides staggering wealth and roots in St. Petersburg, is a connection to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who is poised to win a new six-year term as president in elections on Sunday. The three billionaires are members of a close circle of friends, relatives, associates, colleagues from the security services and longtime advisers who have grown fabulously wealthy during Mr. Putin’s 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader.

Critics say these relationships are evidence of deeply entrenched corruption, which they view as essentially government-sanctioned theft invariably connected to Russia’s abundant natural resources: gas, oil, minerals. This has become a persistent grievance of demonstrators who have staged four large street protests since December and are promising more after the election.

“The basic point is that these guys have benefited and made their fortunes through deals which involved state-controlled companies, which were operating under the direct control of government and the president,” said Vladimir S. Milov, a former deputy energy minister and now political opposition leader who has written several reports alleging corruption. “Certain personal close friends of Putin who were people of relatively moderate means before Putin came to power all of a sudden turned out to be billionaires.”

Those street protesters that Kagarlitsky derided as effete liberal yuppies had it right. What you are seeing is government-sanctioned theft. This was alluded to, after a fashion, in the CIA Handbook that Annis cited: “the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.” For Annis, “heavy state interference” must smack of St. Petersburg 1917 when in fact it has more in common with crony capitalism everywhere in the world, starting with those Middle East and North African countries that so often get included in the “anti-imperialist” bloc.

On December 23, 2011 Reuters published “Special Report: The Gaddafi oil papers” that will give you a strong sense of why the Kremlin and the toppled dictator found such an affinity:


In a separate report published in 2010, Ben Amer’s ministry said almost five million barrels of oil worth around half a billion dollars had disappeared from a particular field in 2008.

That report said its investigation was triggered by information from Beshti. Ghanem, the oil minister and head of the NOC [the state-owed National Oil Company]  at the time, said he did not know about the missing oil; he depended on departmental heads for information and the NOC could not control the activities of its subsidiaries. He believes Beshti was motivated by a personal grudge.

“When you are in charge of 45,000 people you are going to make enemies,” Ghanem said, adding that in Libya’s current climate, witch hunts are inevitable as individuals struggle for power. “People will come up with rubbish stories just to tarnish others for personal revenge.”

The 2010 report also found millions of dollars in payments for oil had been erratic and difficult to trace. This was partly because multiple bank accounts had been opened in the NOC’s name. On top of that, deals had been cut by individuals without authorization.

“The Director of the Crude Oil Department used to sell instant shipments on his own and without referring to … even his own superior officer,” the report says. The crude oil manager at the time, Khaled Nashnoush, is also the signatory of at least one of the allegedly backdated contracts. He could not be reached for comment, and no one at the NOC could say where he is now.

Ghanem said it would be unreasonable to expect him to monitor the activities of all individuals. “Otherwise what is the point of having a head of department?”

May 5, 2014

Obiang’s enablers

Filed under: Africa,corruption,oil — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

President Barack Obama, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, and their First Ladies

From Wikipedia:


In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang “the country’s god” and had “all power over men and things.” It added that the president was “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” He personally made similar comments in 1993. Macías had also proclaimed himself a god.[14]

Obiang has encouraged his cult of personality by ensuring that public speeches end in well-wishing for himself rather than for the republic. Many important buildings have a presidential lodge, many towns and cities have streets commemorating Obiang’s coup against Macías, and many people wear clothes with his face printed on them.[15][16]

Like his predecessor and other African dictators such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, Obiang has assigned to himself several creative titles. Among them are “gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni.”[17] He also refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss).[18]

In 2008, American journalist Peter Maass identified Obiang as Africa’s worst dictator, worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.[19]

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Obiang has been the world’s longest-ruling non-royal head of state.

In an October 2012 interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Obiang whether he would step down at the end of the current term (2009–2016) since he has been reelected at least four times in his over thirty years’ reign. In a Gaddafi-like reply, Obiang categorically refused to step down at the end of the term despite the limits set on presidential service in the 2011 constitution.[20]


Abuses under Obiang have included “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention.”[21]


Forbes magazine has said that Obiang, with a net worth of US$600 million, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.[22] Official sources have complained that Forbes is wrongly counting state property as personal property.[23]

In 2003, Obiang told his citizenry that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. To avoid this corruption, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by Obiang and his family at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., leading a U.S. federal court to fine the bank $16 million.[24] Later scrutiny by a United States Senate investigation in 2004 found that the Washington-based Riggs Bank took $300 million on behalf of Obiang from Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess.[25]

In 2008, the country became a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an international project meant to promote openness about government oil revenues – but never qualified and missed an April 2010 deadline.[25] Transparency International includes Equatorial Guinea as one of its twelve most-corrupt states.[25][26]

Beginning in 2007 Obiang, along with several other African state leaders, came under investigation for corruption and fraud in the use of funds. He was suspected of using public funds to finance his private mansions and luxuries, both for himself and his family. He and his son, in particular, owned several properties and supercars in France. In addition, several complaints were filed in US courts against Obiang’s son. Their attorney’s stressed that the funds appropriated by both Obiang’s were done so entirely legally under Equatoguinean laws, although they may not agree with international standards.[27]

From the Militant newspaper, a socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people:

N.Y. conference discusses
Equatorial Guinea today
(feature article)

HEMPSTEAD, New York—A three-day international conference at Hofstra University on Long Island was a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of topics about Equatorial Guinea—its history, economic development, languages, natural resources, literature and art, biodiversity, and ethnic composition and conflicts. The event, held here April 2-4, was titled “Between Three Continents: Rethinking Equatorial Guinea on the 40th Anniversary of Its Independence from Spain.”

Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country of about 1 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Spanish colonial rule in October 1968. For 11 years the people of Equatorial Guinea faced a brutal dictatorship under the first president, Francisco Macías, who in 1979 was overthrown by young Guinean military officers led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current president. Since the mid-1990s the exploitation of the country’s newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

In what was one of the least economically developed nations in Africa, the government is today using some of the revenues from the labor of those who work in the oil fields to begin to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary for industrial development—such as paved roads, electrification, cellular phone networks, safe water distribution, primary health care, and the national university. Equatorial Guinea remains marked by the contradictions between this rapid transformation of production and the legacy of millennia of economic activity based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence agriculture, distorted by subjugation to slave traders and colonial domination.


August 16, 2012

The Blackfoot Indian versus fracking

Filed under: energy,indigenous,oil — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

Today’s NY Times has an article on the divisions among the Blackfoot people in Browning, Montana over fracking.

It is an increasingly common sight for tribes across the West and Plains: Tourist spending has gone slack since the recession hit. American Indian casino revenues are stagnating just as tribal gambling faces new competition from online gambling and waves of new casinos. Oil and fracking are new lifelines.

One drilling rig on the Blackfeet reservation generated 49 jobs for tribal members — a substantial feat in a place where unemployment is as high as 70 percent. But as others watched the rigs rise, they wondered whether the tribe was making an irrevocable mistake.

“These are our mountains,” said Cheryl Little Dog, a recently elected member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. “I look at what we have, and I think, why ruin it over an oil rig?”

Oil exploration here began in the 1920s, largely on the plains along the eastern edge of the reservation, but it died off in the early 1980s. Over the last four years, though, new fracking technologies and rising oil prices have lured the drillers back, and farther and farther west, to the mountains that border Glacier National Park.

Oil companies have leased out the drilling rights for a million of the reservation’s 1.5 million acres, land held by the tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have drilled 30 exploratory wells this year alone, and are already engaged in fracking many of them, pumping a slurry of water, sand and chemicals to crack open underground rock beds to pry out the oil.

“It’ll change the lives of a lot of people,” said Grinnell Day Chief, the tribe’s oil and gas manager. “It’ll be a boost to everybody. There’s talk of a hotel coming up.”

Read full article

Facebook group for Blackfeet anti-fracking coalition

As it turns out, this is an Indian reservation I visited in the late 90s through connections I had made with Jim Craven, an economics professor of Blackfoot descent who was subscribed to PEN-L at the time. About three years after that trip I returned to the Blackfoot reservation in Alberta, Canada just north of Browning to participate in a tribunal on residential school abuse that Jim Craven had organized. Through my trips out west and through research on the Blackfoot I managed to learn quite a bit about their struggle and eventually wrote an article on “The Blackfoot and the Barbarian” that pretty much exemplifies my approach to indigenous issues as a Mariátegui disciple.

(I should mention that I have used the word Blackfoot rather than Blackfeet over the years mainly because of Jim Craven’s insistence that the latter term is racist. Frankly, I am not so sure whether the distinction is as important to the tribe as it was to Jim but as is generally the case I am happy to respect the views of a member of an oppressed nationality when it comes to matters such as this.)

In 1998 I wrote an article titled “Energy Tribes” that addresses the economic contradictions that led to fracking on the Browning reservation. I am reproducing it below in order to provide some insights into what is called commonly called environmental racism and that is felt particularly hard by indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Energy Tribes

One of the crowning ironies of the history of this racist, capitalist country is that Indian reservations today hold enormous quantities of coal, oil, gas and uranium. If the 19th century architects of genocide had been able to predict this startling outcome, they probably would have simply killed every last Indian in order to put a lock on future profits. The struggle for Indian control of these resources has turned out to be one of the sharpest struggles of the past 25 years.

What is the magnitude of these reserves? “Breaking the Iron Bonds,” by Marjane Ambler (U. of Kansas, 1990), lays out the numbers for the year 1974:

The Interior Department said thirty-three reservations had as much as 200 billion tons of coal, which represented as much as 30 percent of all the coal west of the Mississippi. Federal estimates of uranium holdings ranged from 16 percent to 37 percent of the nation’s total. The department said forty Indian reservations held reserves of 4.2 billion barrels of oil and 17.5 trillion cubic feet of gas–3 percent of the nation’s known reserves. Most of these minerals still lay underground; so even if the tribes had been politically able to operate as a cartel, they could not have influenced energy fuel prices. Nevertheless, they represented the largest mineral owners in the country outside the federal government and the railroads.

These reserves became the subject of intense interest in the early 1970s during the so-called energy crisis. Almost overnight, tribes who eked out a living as ranchers or farmers were receiving bids from some of the biggest and most avaricious companies in America. Two American Indians emerged as champions of tribal rights against the marauders. They sought to accurately measure the amount of energy reserves. They also had to figure out how to defend the development needs of the tribes against the interests of corporations who were merely out to make a quick profit. In other words, all corporations.

One of these was the Comanche LaDonna Harris, who was instrumental in the formation of Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1975, a coalition to protect Indian interests. Not coincidentally, she was Barry Commoner’s vice-presidential running mate on the Citizens Party ticket in 1980. Such was the racism of the radical movement that when her name used to come up that year, they referred to her as “Just some Indian woman.” That was enough to satisfy the curiosity of a brain-dead leftist movement that could not appreciate the importance of ecologists and American Indians coalescing. There is evidence that it still doesn’t.

Harris had founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) in order to promote tribal self-government. Concerned about disadvantageous contracts with energy companies, she hired 3 interns from Dartmouth University to review federal records. The results were earthshaking. Nobody had ever realized the magnitude of the potential wealth. She presented Federal Energy Administration (FEA) chief Frank Zerb with the evidence in the summer of 1975 and read him the riot act. “You can’t have an energy policy without Indians; collectively, they’re the biggest private owners of energy in the country.”

Another key figure was Chuck Thomas, a Cherokee who worked as an oil-field inspector for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). If Harris was instrumental in putting a spotlight on the existence of huge energy reserves, Thomas was critical in raising tribal awareness about the need to tightly control them. He figured out something was amiss on June 13, 1980 when he caught an oil truck leaving the Wind River Reservation without a permit. This led to a full-scale investigation and upgrade of the inspection and accounting system on the energy-rich reservations. Thomas was the right person to help put new training procedures into place. Before going to work for the USGS, he had worked in the oil fields for fifteen years as a roustabout and roughneck. He was plain-spoken about his qualifications. “I’m not a man of long words and big politics…I have a worm’s eye view of it (oil thefts) because I was the man in the field.” He had blunt advice for Indian youth who were interning with him: “Be suspicious and trust nothing or nobody.”

CERT played an important role in defending tribal interests during the energy boom years. The revenues that came from royalty payments from big corporations, while not eliminating Indian poverty, did play a role in tribal development. One of the most tangible results was the creation of the Blackfeet Tribal bank, the beneficiary of Jim Craven’s consultation services. The Blackfeet tribe derived 90 percent of its total income in 1985 from oil and gas royalties and taxes.

The emergence of a cartel-like formation like CERT scared the tribes’ enemies out of its wits. During the mid-1970s OPEC was the bogeyman of many Americans, rich and not-so-rich. The notion that Americans would have to pay top dollar for petroleum was shocking. It was one thing for Americans to have a monopoly on computer software, automobiles, weapons, medicine, etc., but it was another thing for the rest of the world to assert itself in this manner. All nations were equal, but some nations were more equal than others.

The Denver Post fretted over the emergence of CERT in a 1979 editorial:

Supposedly we are to pony up cheerfully so the noose of escalating energy prices can be tightened around our necks… The people who manipulate Indian policies are indulging in much nonsense…Admittedly, justice has not always been dispensed equitably. But is the sufferance of our national government–dedicated to tribal advancement [??!!]–that gives the tribes leeway to act with more independence than other Americans.

But limits there are. Imagine what would happen if some adviser persuaded a tribal group to sign a treaty with Libya which Colonel Quaddafy was to ship Russian missiles to the reservation to guarantee the tribe’s integrity.

These fears, which were largely a psychological projection of rapacious American capitalists on their victims, were heightened when CERT hired Ahmed Kooros as its chief economist. Kooros had served as Iran’s deputy minister of economics and oil under both the Shah and Khomeini.

The parallel with OPEC nations was of course overdrawn. The true relationship between the U.S. and the energy tribes was not unlike that which exists between it and oil-producing countries like Nigeria and Angola that have non-industrialized, financially weak economies. The possibility for exploitation is much greater. The producers do get royalties, but it comes at a price. The big corporations leave the underdeveloped countries in a state of ecological ruin while draining the life-blood of the nation. The relationship is like Dracula’s to his victims. Dracula might treat somebody to a good meal but afterwards the guest became a blood-pudding dessert.

The most dramatic instance of the social and environmental costs of energy development was the break in a tailing dam at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock, New Mexico uranium mill on July 16, 1979. (Tailings are the residue of uranium mining.) One hundred million tons of radioactive water spilled into the Rio Puerco River on the Navajo reservation and it took on a sickly yellow hue, like battery acid. Animals that stepped into the river developed sores on their legs and died almost immediately. For the next year Navajos could neither eat nor sell mutton, an economic mainstay of the tribe. For the next decade the Indians and other people living near the river could not use local water supplies for drinking or stock watering. Despite all the publicity surrounding 3-Mile Island, this was the worst nuclear plant accident in American history.

Another noteworthy example of the destructiveness of unregulated energy development is what happened at the Upper Missouri River Basin in the 1980s. The tribes of the Northern Plains felt the need to defend their long-term interests against some powerful energy corporations that were planning a huge coal gasification plant in Wyoming. The companies needed water from nearby states where Indians had ownership of the potential supply. The plant and ancillary energy development operations would require huge amounts of water. The only source was the nearby Yellowstone River, as important to the Northern Plains tribes as the Rio Puerco was to the Navajos.

The federal government was all for the diversion of water to the Wyoming mega-project. A formal request had come from the following companies: Peabody Coal, Gulf Oil, AMAX, Shell Oil, Exxon, Kerr-McGee, Western Energy Corporation, Consolidated Coal, ARCO, Conoco, Mobil and WESCO. How could the US turn down a request from such companies? After all, they bribe both parties to carry out their wishes.

Arrayed against the government and energy companies was a coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and Indians. Potential royalty payment to the tribes was not enough to placate them. Their relationship to the land and water, which had pastoral and spiritual dimensions, could not easily be priced. This in essence is the source of the conflict between the tribes and capitalist America, just as it is in other parts of the world. Last week 10,000 villagers occupied the construction site of a dam on the Narmada river in India. It would destroy their livelihood as well as strip the river of the sacred quality it held in their lives. The main beneficiaries of the dam would be wealthy farmers.

A final example will illustrate not only the conflicts between the corporations and the tribes, but within different tribes themselves. The power of the dollar is enormous. A big corporation will not be above pitting one group of Indians against another when it is seeking to advance its bottom line. Capitalists have been dividing and conquering for centuries. Since they are such a tiny percentage of the population, they are always seeking ways to weaken their potential victims.

I am referring here to the conflict between the Hopi and Navajo tribes over development in the Black Mesa region of New Mexico. This is an extremely complex problem that pits the development needs of the Hopi tribe against Navajo sheepherders. There are enormous profits at stake as the Peabody Coal Company has targeted this area for extensive development of coal and other energy resources. I will not even begin to try to arbitrate the rival claims of the two tribes, but refer to the Black Mesa Web Page for testimony from both sides in the dispute.

In a 1993 complaint to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the Navajos complained about the slurry line that transports approximately 5 million tons of coal each year from Black Mesa to Laughlin, Nevada. It was “the only instance in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater that represents the only source of drinking water for an Indian Tribe.” Since the Peabody Coal Company uses over a billion gallons of pristine drinking water from the Navajo-Aquifer, it is no surprise that a drought afflicted both the Hopi and Navajo reservations in 1996. Development comes at a cost.

As long as tribes insist on putting their own interests above other tribes, the capitalist will come out ahead. The capitalist has trained himself to do this. Cecil Rhodes perfected this art in Africa and was able to safeguard the interests of the mining companies while trampling on the rights of the tribal peoples. A recent PBS biography of the arch-imperialist showed how he did it You promise one tribe one thing as long as it will make war against the other. When the tribe is victorious and hands the spoils of war over to the British colonists, they simply find another tribe to enlist in their sordid fight.

There is absolutely no question that a higher level of American Indian unity is necessary to protect the economic and ecological rights of one and all. This is easier said than done because the tribes have histories that go back for hundreds of years. Some experts analyze the conflicts between Hopi and Navajo as having existed long before the appearance of Peabody. Their resolution would seem to be one of the most urgent tasks facing Indian peoples.

Economic necessity is driving Indian nationalism, a progressive force. The emergence of CERT shows that Indians can coalesce nationally when their interests as a people coincide. Despite a downturn in the energy sector of the economy through the 1980s and 90s, there is little question that it will reemerge with a vengeance. There are several factors that lie behind this.

First of all, energy companies have a double standard when it comes to pollution. They view Indian reservations and Third World countries as less deserving of the sort of protections that white American neighborhoods enjoy. The term for this is “environmental racism.” This is in part a reflection of the tendency of mainstream environmental organizations to fight harder for their own constituencies, which are largely white and middle-class. An oil spill in the ocean near Santa Monica aroused the affluent swimmers and surfers to action. A uranium spill in New Mexico hardly registers on mass consciousness, even when it is greater than what occurred at 3-Mile Island.

Energy companies have less latitude in white, middle-class or even working-class neighborhoods, so they go overseas to make the kind of profits they need to satisfy Wall Street. Chevron Oil had to clean up its act in the waters off Santa Monica, but throws caution to the wind in Nigeria. Nigeria, like large sections of New Mexico, is an environmental disaster. When poor people object to pollution, their “benefactors” argue that they have to make a choice between clean air and water, and jobs. The term for this is “greenmail.” Opposed to greenmail is the demand that all development take place under the strictest environmental guidelines. People must come before profits.

Another important consideration has to do with the potential importance of uranium mining in the near future. Concerns over global warming have spurred new interest in alternatives to oil and gas, greenhouse emission producing fuels. The more sensible approach would be to explore solar and wind energy, but nuclear power companies have been pressing their case. Their lobbyists were very active at the recent Kyoto Global Warming conference. East Asia is a potential market for their poisons. The Chinese and other Asian governments are planning to build 70 nuclear power plants in the next 25 years. A large portion of the fuel will certainly come from the Indian reservations, where more than 1/3 of potential reserves exists. The capitalist would love to mine uranium without caution in such places and sell it to Asian governments whose willingness to poison for profits equals their own.

The choice is not between poverty and pollution, although this is what the big corporations would have us believe. Development can take place without destroying rivers and soil in the process. Mining and oil-drilling can take place in a relatively safe manner, as long as certain guidelines are in place. The decision to mine or to drill for oil must first of all be made by the tribal peoples who will suffer the consequences both good and bad. Once they make this democratic decision, the oil, coal or uranium companies must respect the surrounding ecology.

How can the numerically small and impoverished Indian tribes force huge corporations like Peabody Coal or Exxon Oil to respect their economic and ecological demands? The answer is that they first must find ways to merge their tribal interests into a larger Indian collective. The American Indian nation would not abolish the local traditions of the tribe; it would simply present a united fist to those who would exploit it.

Closely related to this task is the need to internationalize the struggle. The American Indians on their own are a tiny percentage of the United States. However, they are part of an immense struggle that is going on world- wide against the same exact corporations who are attempting to foul their air, soil and water in the pursuit of profits. The Indians of the Amazon rainforest, the aborigines of Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand, the Odongi people in Nigeria are all in similar fights. There are signs that this type of internationalism is already beginning to take shape. North American Indians have offered solidarity to the peoples of Chiapas, who are defending themselves against a capitalist system that has more and more of a global character.

NAFTA and similar agreements accelerate the economic onslaught that has taking place within the borders of the United States, but displaces them into regions where protection of human rights are weaker. When a corporation faces a determined coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, trade unions and tribes within our borders, it has no recourse except to go places where the cops or army can openly repress such a coalition. This is what happens in Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil where the popular movement must deal with death squads and lesser forms of intimidation.

There is no other way to defend oneself from a marauding, profit-hungry, globe-trotting capitalist system except through international solidarity. The collapse of the East Asian economies makes the promise of prosperity through low wages and polluting industry even more hollow than it ever was. The only beneficiaries of low wages and pollution are the shareholders of the corporations who expect maximum profits. To satisfy these shareholders is to risk death from the poisons that the corporations spew in their name, since cutthroat competition will simply allow the investor to shift his money to a more profitable and anti-human corporation.

In my next post I will discuss American Indian beliefs about ecology, which are essential to understanding a way out of the madness of a capitalist system run amok.

(sources for this post include Marjane Ambler’s book and the Short History of Big Mountain – Black Mesa Web Site at http://www.aics.org/BM/bm.html)

December 4, 2011

Malefactors of great wealth in three new films

Filed under: capitalist pig,Film,financial crisis,oil — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Regular readers of my film reviews know that I do not tend to hype a film. Except for a comment like “a must see”, I generally prefer understatement. That being said, I strongly urge New Yorkers to go see the documentary “The Big Fix” that opened on Friday at the AMC Loews Village Theater. Co-directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, a husband and wife team, it is a searing investigation of BP’s ongoing trashing of the Gulf of Mexico that has largely gone unreported since the supposed capping of the Deepwater Horizon well and the cleaning up of the Gulf.

As someone who generally keeps up with environmentalist issues, I sat watching a press screener with my mouth agape at the horrors perpetrated by an out-of-control oil company and their paid servants in Congress. No other film have I seen in the past five years or so has left me with the feeling that the people running the country—both in government and in corporate boardrooms—are no different than the mafia. In fact we might be better off if the mafia was running the country since these gangsters at least have a feudal sense of noblesse oblige.

Josh Tickell is a Cajun, a descendant of French settlers in Louisiana, who grew up to become a film maker rather than a musician, cook, or oil field worker that are the typical jobs that members of this ethnic group take on. But despite his achievements as a documentary filmmaker, his heart is obviously with the working people of Louisiana, who are being screwed royally by BP.

The film begins with a historical survey of Louisiana that establishes its status as a kind of internal colony of the U.S. With the stranglehold of oil companies on the state’s political machinery, those in the “99 percent” have much more in common with the people of Iran under the Shah than they do with most Americans. As the film points out, British Petroleum was a key player in Iran until the 1979 revolution and now views Louisiana as just another source of superprofits, whatever happens to the environment and the local population being utterly immaterial.

There is some fascinating archival footage of Governor Huey Long, who was dubbed a “fascist” when I was a high school student. “The Big Fix” makes a convincing case that Long only became demonized when he demanded that oil companies doing business in Louisiana pay their fair share of taxes.

The Tickells decided to go down to Louisiana to make a film after becoming convinced that BP was involved in a cover-up. The film combines their own cloak-and-dagger filming of the company’s deceitful practices as well as interviews with economists and scientists who make the case that the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead now, despite BP’s nauseating commercials about people coming down to enjoy the seafood and the beaches.

The gist of their investigation reveals that the waters appear clean because BP has been spraying enormous amounts of Corexit, a chemical dispersant used widely by Exxon and BP after one of their disasters. The purpose of Corexit is to reduce oil slicks into tiny droplets that sink beneath the surface of the water, thus making it appear as if it is clean. However, small fish ingest the chemical and are then eaten by others higher up on the food chain. As one long-time fisherman in the area told the Tickells, dolphins can be seen coughing as they rise to the surface of the water.

Whole coughing dolphins is an image that is hard to shake from your mind, what is even harder to shake is the sight of ulcerated skin that is fairly endemic to people living near the waters. So pervasive are the toxic chemicals used in the “clean up” that Rebecca Tickell became permanently affected herself and will probably never enjoy a complete recovery from various illnesses, including the lingering effects of chemically-induced pneumonia.

The final moments of the film are devoted to an exploration of how BP gets away with its criminal activity, which involves many of the same themes raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It pays millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike in order to get them to serve as lackeys. What is even more disheartening is to see how compromised the university system is in Louisiana. Typical is Ed Stapleton, a professor emeritus at LSU who was initially alarmed by the impact of the BP spill but after the company lavished 10 million dollars on the school he became a fixture on shows like David Letterman giving jocular remarks on how clean the waters were. The only parallel is watching some of the nuclear industry functionaries in Japan announcing to their countrymen that there was nothing to worry about.

“The Big Fix” is the real deal. It does not spare any politician or corporate functionary and goes after Obama with the kind of fury that I have not seen in any documentary since this rotten tool of corporate America took office. The film relies on Chris Hedges to help make their case and he is in fine fettle. Don’t miss this one. It will remind you why you became a socialist and if you are still a liberal, it will turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary.

Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.

Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six years tacked on.

Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.

The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.

The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.

Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.

I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a subsequent issue:

The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of ‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer reliant on loans or approbation from the West.

Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that would secure its survival in the longer term.

Turning from documentary to fiction, I can recommend “Margin Call”, now playing in theaters all across the U.S. as the best dramatization of the 2008” subprime meltdown whose effects are still being felt.

By contrast, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Wall Street is incoherent trash and the HBO mixture of fiction and documentary titled “Too Big to Fail”, starring William Hurt as Henry Paulson, is best described as a whitewash of bankster malfeasance. With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking whether he had anything to worry about with the OWS movement, this is a story about the public-mindedness of Paulson and company who saved the country from going under. It was hard to take this seriously when the HBO movie aired. It is even harder now in light of a Bloomberg News report:

The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.

The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.

Directed by J.C. Chandor (his first film), “Margin Call” takes place in a 24 hour span as a financial analyst—an MIT graduate with an engineering degree–discovers that his firm’s collateralized mortgage holdings were likely to bankrupt the company given the direction of the market.

The CEO, played to a tee by Jeremy Irons, orders the traders to dump the subprime holdings on unsuspecting customers no matter the long-term consequences. Playing his second in command, Kevin Spacey bridles at this proposal and only accedes under pressure. This was the only thing in the film that did not quite ring true. If you get to be second in command at a place like this, clearly modeled after Goldman-Sachs, you sold your soul to the devil long before becoming that powerful.

The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.

That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.

November 16, 2010

Guest post: the economy is not coming back

Filed under: financial crisis,oil,swans — louisproyect @ 1:53 am
The Economy Is Not Coming Back 

Part III: The Reasons it Shouldn’t

by Gilles d’Aymery

Fundraising Drive: If rants appeal to you, dear readers, then turn your attention to MSNBC, Fox News, Antiwar.com, other news aggregators, and the myriad noisy outputs that emphasize either the status quo or some reactionary future. If not, and you wish to keep thinking about real matters like, say, working to change the socioeconomic system, and you consider that culture is an intrisic component of society, then Swans is directed to you. If a few original thoughts (and original work not found anywhere else) are your call, then Swans is for you. Understand the difference. Whether a donation of $5, $75, or $100, they all are welcome, but again — if our approach is worthy of your interest — you need to up the ante. $180 in the past cycle were much appreciated. Still it won’t be enough to keep Swans going in its current form. Please, friends and comrades, help us. We need another $1,700+ to keep providing you with real content. Do Donate now!

Many thanks to Brandon Haleamau, Dimitri Oram, and Philip Fornaci for their generous contributions.

Read the first part of this essay, “A Short History of the Maelstrom.”
Read the second part of this essay, “The Reasons it Won’t [come back].”

“This meeting is part of the world’s efforts to address a very simple fact — we are destroying life on Earth.”

—Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program, Nagoya, Japan, October 18, 2010

“We are nearing a tipping point, or the point of no return for biodiversity loss. Unless proactive steps are taken for biodiversity, there is a risk that we will surpass that point in the next 10 years.”

—Ryu Matsumoto, Japanese Environment Minister, Nagoya, Japan, October 18, 2010 (1)

(Swans – November 15, 2010) The first part of this long essay presented an abridged history of the road to the current deep socioeconomic crisis that some observers had predicted, even though no one could pinpoint the exact timing of the implosion. The second part submitted that there are objective factors that explain why the economy is not going “to come back” any time soon. But, more importantly, profound and intensifying environmental and ecological crises militate in favor of not having the economy revert to the shape and form it had. Some of these crises are the object of this third part. In short, to return to business as usual will lead to collective suicide, which Mother Nature will trigger in the not so distant future.

According to the WWF (2) 2010 Living Planet Report, “human demand outstrips nature’s supply.” “In 2007,” the report states, “humanity’s Footprint exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity by 50%.” The Global Footprint Network (GFN) has calculated that on August 21, 2010, the world reached Earth Overshoot Day — that is, “the day of the year in which human demand on the biosphere exceeds what it can regenerate.” As GFN president Mathis Wackernagel stated: “If you spent your entire annual income in nine months, you would probably be extremely concerned. The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages are all clear signs: We can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.” Though these environmental organizations are promoting policies that are essentially based on demographic and increasingly economic Malthusianism — independent researcher Michael Barker has written in-depth analyses, particularly in regard to the WWF, in these pages (3) — they do acknowledge the gravity of the situation. As the WWF report states, “An overshoot of 50% means it would take 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people used in 2007 and absorb CO2 waste. … CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are far more than ecosystems can absorb.” In other words, the world, or to be more precise, some parts of the world, over-produces and over-consumes natural resources that are being depleted at an exponential rate. That’s the main reason for not having US (and other rich nations’) households “spend again at pre-crisis levels.” (4) The socioeconomic paradigm built on capital accumulation, perpetual material growth, and financial profits for the infinitesimal few must be not just overhauled but buried, and replaced by an equitable new arrangement that takes into account all natural ecosystems.

read full

November 7, 2010

Clifford Krauss: propagandist par excellence

Filed under: media,oil — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

Clifford Krauss

After having seen the powerful documentary Gasland that shows the impact of “fracking” on households across the United States, including flammable tap water and cancer clusters that are the inevitable outcome of natural gas drilling byproducts, I have begun to pay closer attention to news coverage, including my hometown papers in Upstate NY where energy companies are attempting to buy support from impoverished land owners.

So with that in mind, I read the article “When a Rig Moves In Next Door” by Clifford Krauss and Tom Zeller Jr. in the Business section of today’s NY Times with keen interest. As is so often the case with the newspaper of record, it has to maintain the illusion of objectivity, so necessary for its market niche: college-educated professionals who vote Democrat, watch PBS, listen to NPR, drive a Lexus, and donate money to the ACLU or mainstream environmentalist organizations. It simply would not suffice for Krauss and Zeller Jr. to write the sort of thing that you would hear from Rupert Murdoch hirelings, even if it amounts to the same thing more or less.

The article reports on the riches gas drilling has bestowed on Louisiana:

By the 2000s, De Soto, with a population of about 28,000, was one of the poorest parishes in the state.

Then came the shale.

“People went to bed one night poor and woke up the next day rich, enabled to buy a Cadillac and pay cash,” said Mayor Curtis McCoy of Mansfield, the parish seat. “It’s kind of like the show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ ”

Farmers who once lived check to check are now extremely comfortable, if not downright wealthy. New cars, recreational vehicles and trailers are parked in nearly every driveway. Vinyl siding has been applied to weather-beaten cottages and clapboard houses.

But to make sure that he maintains the aura of objectivity, Krauss reports on the negative consequences as well:

The Haynesville area has not been spared from drilling accidents, experiencing several over the last two years that might make residents howl in some other parts of the country.

Nearly 150 homes had to be evacuated in the neighboring Caddo Parish in April, when drillers of an Exco Resources well struck a shallow pocket of gas, causing a blowout. Exco says methane was already in the drinking water, and suggests that further study is needed to determine whether some gas came from the well.

Careful readers will note, I’m sure, that he is sure to turn a negative into a positive: “further study is needed to determine whether some gas came from the well.” You almost need to study Hegel to master all the contradictions contained in the article.

I especially enjoyed his reporting on how some environmentalists are for gas drilling despite the inflammatory water faucets and cancer clusters:

Some environmentalists support fracking and other means of extracting natural gas because gas emits a fraction of the carbon of either oil or coal. They also prefer it because it could replace coal as the nation’s principal source of electricity and provide a lower-carbon bridge before renewable energy sources can be developed on a larger scale.

You don’t have to be working at FAIR to ask the question which environmentalists. Back in junior high school, our social studies teacher explained what good reporting is all about. It has to address the questions of who, what, when, where and why. The NY Times is fully capable of answering these questions when it is in the interests of the class it speaks for, just as it is capable of fudging them when it is not. I was not surprised to discover that a google search on “environmentalists support fracking” only turned up links to Krauss and Zeller’s article. Maybe they are the environmentalists they are talking about, since both contribute to Green, a Blog about Energy and the Environment at the NYT.

In the course of finding out more about Clifford Krauss, I discovered that he is someone who has been responsible for shoddy reporting in an entirely different arena. Along with Simon Forero, Krauss was writing articles about Hugo Chavez that were compliant with American foreign policy imperatives. In an article “High Stakes: Chávez Plays the Oil Card” from April 10, 2007, Krauss informed his readers:

We are on a collision course with Chávez over oil,” said Michael J. Economides, an oil consultant in Houston who wrote an influential essay comparing Mr. Chávez’s populist appeal in Latin America with the pan-Arabism of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya two decades ago. “Chávez poses a much bigger threat to America’s energy security than Saddam Hussein ever did.”

Needless to say, Krauss did not bother to cite anybody like Mark Weisbrot or Eva Gollinger.

Along with Forero, he has also been presenting Chevron’s case in Ecuador most assiduously: Chevron Offers Evidence of Bribery Scheme in Ecuador Lawsuit.

So one can only surmise that as a watchdog of American energy corporations’ vital interests in Latin America, it was only natural for him to adopt the same fighting stance in places like Louisiana or Pennsylvania.

But it is in Sandinista Nicaragua where Clifford Krauss sharpened his propaganda skills working for the Wall Street Journal prior to landing a job at the Times. On May 18, 1987 Krauss wrote a piece for the WSJ with the unwieldy title Central Issue: If the Contras Collapse, U.S. Faces Bigger Task In Containing Marxism — Officials Fear an Adventurism By Nicaragua Sandinistas Similar to That of Castro — The Likely Refugee Problem. It pretty much dispenses with any pretensions toward impartiality that would be necessary for the NY Times readers and presents an analysis that might have been written by a State Department flack:

No one knows the future of Nicaragua. The image of a triumphant, militaristic, Marxist-Leninist Nicaragua torments antiCommunists. Others think the Sandinistas will broaden civil and economic liberties once the Contra pressure is released. Some observers speculate that Managua will face serious internal political pressures from the Nicaraguan public and from within the Sandinista party itself once the war fades and domestic crackdowns are no longer justifiable. The Sandinistas’ future may be profoundly affected by whatever commitment the Soviet Union makes in Nicaragua, and by the moves Washington makes.

“We don’t have a wall to stop Sandinista ideology or subversives,” complains William Hall Rivera, the Honduran president’s chief of staff. “It won’t be a fight over land, but over minds.” He adds: “We’ll need a Marshall Plan.”

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy faced an arguably comparable situation. Fidel Castro quickly consolidated his revolution in Cuba, defeated a U.S.-organized counterrevolutionary force and attempted to export his ideology to the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. His adventurism failed, partly because Washington pushed Alliance for Progress social programs and military training in Latin America, but mostly because of indigenous anti-communism in the hemisphere.

Krauss is an Edward J. Murrow Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), a policy review body filled to the rafters with inside-the-beltway pundits and NY Times reporters. Whatever qualms I might have about Murrow’s own connections to power, he had the guts to take on McCarthy at a time when Krauss would have likely been raising a ruckus over atom spies.

In an interview he gave to the CFR, Krauss answered the question about the most important story he covered in his career:

No question, the most impactful story I ever covered were the wars in Central America during the late 1970s and 1980s. The fall of Somoza, the Sandinista revolution and Contra counter-revolution, and the revolutions and U.S. policy in El Salvador and Guatemala were dramatic events that brought an otherwise remote part of the world into focus for Americans and the world. It was a challenging story for many of us young reporters because we carried lessons and baggage from the Vietnam era.  Some were pertinent to this story, while others were not, and we had to sort it out. The Cold War loomed large, of course, with Cuban and even Soviet bloc involvement. But there were also crying human needs and suffering that needed to be addressed, and revolutionaries not particularly sympathetic to American interests (to put it mildly)  sometimes appeared  to be the only ones eager to address them. In the end, good reporting was needed to break through the simplistic perceptions of both left and right. I was attracted to Central America at first because of my own Vietnam experience as a high school and college student, and I left with a much more nuanced view of the world.  As for Central America, it’s still a mess, but the foreign correspondents are essentially gone.

You’ll note his self-justification thatIn the end, good reporting was needed to break through the simplistic perceptions of both left and right.” And the older but wiser bullshit about a “more nuanced view of the world”. Such formulations reflect the “sensible” way that American ideologists see themselves, from Krauss’s thumb-sucking apologetics for gas-drilling corporations to Jon Stewart’s idiotic rally. As a way of maintaining the status quo, there is no better tactic for persuading the affluent middle class that its interests are the same as the people who own the NYT or Comedy Central (Time-Warner actually). But when the status quo amounts to job loss, foreclosure, deteriorating water and air, pension uncertainties and ever-escalating health costs, that status quo will begin to appear more and more inadequate. That will most certainly begin to persuade the formerly complacent that radical change is not only desirable but necessary.

August 12, 2010

Steven Seagal raps it down

Filed under: oil — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

August 2, 2010

Time Magazine: still setting the ruling class agenda

Filed under: Afghanistan,media,oil — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

Admired Mussolini

Time Magazine still has the capability of defining the agenda of the ruling class even though the magazine no longer has the reach it once did. In the 1950s, it was practically de rigueur for working class and middle class families (like my own) to have a subscription. This magazine was not just where I learned about Jack Kerouac. It was also where I learned to hate Communism, which in my adolescent mind was interpreted as the world’s greatest threat to abstract expressionist art, atonal music and “freedom” more generally.

This week the mendacious newsweekly made bold attacks on behalf of the national-security state on two fronts. Michael Grunwald (possibly related to former chief editor Henry Grunwald?) told Time Magazine readers on Thursday July 29 that the damage to the Gulf of Mexico has been “exaggerated”, citing a local scientist:

LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana’s coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. “We don’t want to deny that there’s some damage, but nothing like the damage we’ve seen for years,” he says.

Grunwald also cites Ivor Van Heerden, another scientist, to this effect but admits that he “like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds.” Well, what difference does that make? We all know that it is only the conspiracy-minded who would make a connection between somebody making light of the spill and being on the payroll of BP.

If this article gave what amounts to a green light for deep-water drilling, a cover article that displayed an Afghan woman with her nose cut off by the Taliban gave the Obama administration badly needed propaganda support for “staying the course” in Afghanistan:

For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous. An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show in which she has been able to subtly introduce questions of women’s rights without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human-rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment — only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield. As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. “When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

For young people fortunate enough to have been spared the kind of diet of Time Magazine that I received in the 1950s, a word or two about this fetid newsweekly might be in order. It was founded in 1923 by one Henry Luce as the first news magazine in history.

Luce was a powerful member of a Republican Party that was more in line with Eisenhower, Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller than the current outfit identified with Rush Limbaugh and the tea party. This was a Republican Party that differed little from the current Democratic Party. Luce was also closely associated with “the China lobby” that pushed for war against Mao’s China. His wife Clare Booth Luce was a major figure in anti-Communist politics who was to the right of her husband, backing Goldwater enthusiastically in 1964.

While not exactly the kind of ferocious attack that Henry Luce deserves, Alan Brinkley’s (a Columbia University history professor) recently published biography reveals how the magazine winked its eye at fascist dictators. Michael Augspurger, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, wrote an article on Luce that contained the following:

In the late twenties and thirties, Henry Luce was accused of harboring fascist tendencies. His accusers pointed primarily to the editorial practices of Fortune and its older sibling, Time. Time, a magazine notorious for its editorializing news copy, was particularly well-known in its support of Mussolini. As Herzstein notes, “When important issues were at stake, one knew where Time’s editors stood…. The magazine approved of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, il Duce” Time’s involvement with fascism was not limited to Italy, either. Time foreign correspondent Laird Goldsborough, for example, called supporters of Spanish fascist leader General Francisco Franco “… men of property, men of god and men of the sword.” And while Luce was not nearly as vocal as Goldsborough, he did support his correspondent’s writing even when it became a highly divisive staff issue at Time, Inc. But there was more to the accusations than just these editorial tendencies. Observers as disparate as Fortune writer Dwight Macdonald, Fortune managing editor Eric Hodgins, and biographer W.A. Swanberg have seen fascist leanings in Luce himself. Macdonald, referring to the anonymous corporate structure of Time, Inc., accused Luce in 1937 of “fascist capitalism.” Hodgins, in his 1973 autobiography, recalled that Luce liked “the purported aims of fascism.” And Swanberg claimed that Luce admired the dynamism, militarism, strong leadership, and anti-Communism of Mussolini’s Italy. Clearly, Luce appeared to some of those familiar with him to be attached to certain fascist ideals.

Returning to the questions of the BP spill and the war in Afghanistan, it first of all has to be understood that the magazine is a cut above the Murdoch press in terms of credibility. In fact, Time Magazine’s website is co-sponsored by CNN, a news organization that is still capable of solid reporting. (Newsweek has a similar connection to MSNBC.)

Michael Grunwald, the author of the BP article, is the also the author of a highly regarded book on the Florida Everglades. He has written for www.grist.com, a highly respected environmentalist online magazine, including a piece on the Everglades that states:

But starting in the 1880s, Americans determined to subdue Mother Nature started trying to drain the Everglades with canals, hoping to create a new paradise for agriculture and development. A few lonely voices warned that ditches could turn the swamp into a desert, but most Floridians agreed with Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who declared in the early 1900s that if drained swamps could really burn, “the great bogs of Ireland would have been ash heaps long before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.”

But sure enough, the early ditches started sucking the marsh dry, ruining wells, damaging soils, and, yes, igniting fires so smoky that children in Miami had to cover their faces at school. And in the summer, southern Florida’s torrential downpours overwhelmed the ditches, converting farmland back to swampland, inspiring the first jokes about buying Florida land by the gallon. The jokes seemed a lot less funny in 1928, when a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy muck dike, killing 2,500 pioneers in the Everglades.

So clearly we are not dealing with John Stossel or Spiked Online, especially since Grunwald hedges his bets:

The potential long-term damage that underwater oil plumes and an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants that BP has spread in the area could have on the region’s deep-water ecosystems and food chains might not be known for years.

Well, I should say so. Not long after the ink was dry on his article—metaphorically speaking—there were reports on dispersants that undercut his article. Even his own magazine was forced to go along with what the Washington Post and New York Times have been reporting about the looming threat:

In humans, long-term exposure to dispersants can cause central nervous system problems or damage blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

BP’s apparently generous use of dispersants helps explain why so little oil has been spotted on the surface recently, said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Whether the benefits of dispersants outweigh the possible risks is a “debatable point,” he said, noting that they’ve protected some fragile coastal wetlands from heavier bands of oil.

More to the point, we are dealing with a situation in which BP and the government have a vested interest in controlling the flow of information, something they were much better at than controlling the oil spill. Reporters and scientists were not allowed to conduct their own survey of the troubled waters. In light of this, it is hard to take Michael Grunwald’s bromides seriously. He has only damaged his own reputation through such a specious article, although I am sure that he is rewarded handsomely by Time Magazine for writing such nonsense.

Turning to the question of Taliban cruelty, we wonder if the magazine has a double standard (gasp!) when it comes to such questions. While preaching the need to stay the course in Afghanistan to defend women from sexist brutality, it seems quite content over how things have turned out in Iraq, with a Shi’ite government working assiduously to deny women the limited gains they achieved under Saddam’s government, not to speak of the misogyny of Afghan warlords on “our side”.If the magazine was really concerned about the status of women in Afghanistan, it would publish the speeches and articles of Malalai Joya, a fearless defender of peace, human rights and social justice. As it turns out, Time did recognize her as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010 but in their typically dishonest fashion as Salon.com blogger Judy Mandelbaum pointed out:

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Homer wrote thousands of years ago. Today human rights activists would be well-advised to beware of major American news magazines passing out honors. Last week, noted Afghan politician Malalai Joya, the author of “A Woman Among Warlords” whom the BBC has called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan,” was named one of TIME Magazine’s “World’s Most Influential 100 People” of 2010. The trouble is, the magazine presented her to the world in a brief but misleading text by Islam critic and American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who concluded her tribute with the words:  “I hope in time she comes to see the US and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”

What an odd choice of words, considering that Ali is writing about a woman who wrote in the Daily Beast last week that:

more than eight years of occupation have made life bleak, and we are tired of being pawns in the US and NATO’s game for control of Central Asia. We can longer bear the killing of our pregnant mothers, the killing of our teenagers and young children, the killing of so many Afghan men and women. We can no longer bear these “accidents” and these “apologies” for the deaths of the innocent.

Are Ali and the editors of TIME really entitled to tell Malalai Joya what to think about her country’s plight? To set the record straight and to find out what really motivates this activist, journalist Sonali Kolhatkar of UprisingRadio contacted Ms. Joya yesterday and conducted an interview, which I have excerpted below (you can – and should – read the entire discussion here):

I am very angry with the way they have introduced me [Joya said]. They have a completely painted a false picture of me that does not mention at all about my struggle against the occupation of Afghanistan by the US and NATO, which is disgusting. In fact every one knows that I stand side by side with the glorious-anti war movement around the world and have proved again and again that I will never compromise with the US and NATO who have occupied my country, empowered the most bloody enemies of my people and are killing my innocent compatriots [inaudible] in Afghanistan. What TIME did was like giving an award to someone by one hand and getting it back by another hand. I have sent my protest to it to the Defense Committee [for Malalai Joya] but TIME did not bother to even answer than protest letter. Perhaps this is the kind of freedom of expression exercised by TIME and the USA. …

May 1, 2010

Obama’s Katrina?

Filed under: Ecology,oil,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Barack Obama statement on April 2, 2010:

I don’t agree with the notion that we shouldn’t do anything. It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.

John McCain statement on June 17 2008:

As for offshore drilling, it’s safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston.

But according to the official report prepared for the US Government by a Norwegian firm:

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Caused 124 Offshore Spills For A Total Of 743,700 Gallons. 554,400 gallons were crude oil and condensate from platforms, rigs and pipelines, and 189,000 gallons were refined products from platforms and rigs. [MMS, 1/22/07]

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Caused Six Offshore Spills Of 42,000 Gallons Or Greater. The largest of these was 152,250 gallons, well over the 100,000 gallon threshhold considered a “major spill.” [MMS, 5/1/06]

If 100,000 gallons is considered a “major spill”, what are we to make of the discovery that the BP platform has been dumping 210,000 gallons per day since April 20? Furthermore, unlike the Exxon-Valdez this spill is impossible to quantify since the oil is coming from the ocean bottom rather than the innards of a ship.

Even at this late date, Obama has not backed off from the idea of offshore drilling as the McClatchy news service reported yesterday:

President Barack Obama on Friday appeared unwilling to scrap plans to expand oil and gas exploration, but promised that the administration will carefully study what mistakes led to the explosion of an oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

As is the case with just about every other Obama policy, his commitment to offshore drilling is portrayed as transcending traditional divides:

Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place. Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.l

Not surprisingly, this very same speech proposed a renewed commitment to nuclear power. Despite his insistence on avoiding “tired debates”, Obama manages to repeat the same talking points as John McCain about Hurricane Katrina and oil spills. Looking back at the 2008 election, frightened liberals urged a vote for Obama since a McCain victory would amount to a 3rd Bush term. If they had the capability to think honestly, they’d have to admit that this is what we got anyhow.

Like the slasher villain who refuses to die in a Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth movie, Halliburton turns up in this oil spill catastrophe. Not content to have ruined Iraq, this energy tools and technology company that Dick Cheney ran from 1995 to 2000 now appears ready to commit homicide on the U.S. itself as yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reports (the news section of the paper has not been completely tainted by Rupert Murdoch, the new owner, at least not yet.)

An oil-drilling procedure called cementing is coming under scrutiny as a possible cause of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that has led to one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history, drilling experts said Thursday.

The process is supposed to prevent oil and natural gas from escaping by filling gaps between the outside of the well pipe and the inside of the hole bored into the ocean floor. Cement, pumped down the well from the drilling rig, is also used to plug wells after they have been abandoned or when drilling has finished but production hasn’t begun.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, workers had finished pumping cement to fill the space between the pipe and the sides of the hole and had begun temporarily plugging the well with cement; it isn’t known whether they had completed the plugging process before the blast.

Regulators have previously identified problems in the cementing process as a leading cause of well blowouts, in which oil and natural gas surge out of a well with explosive force. When cement develops cracks or doesn’t set properly, oil and gas can escape, ultimately flowing out of control. The gas is highly combustible and prone to ignite, as it appears to have done aboard the Deepwater Horizon, which was leased by BP PLC, the British oil giant.

Concerns about the cementing process—and about whether rigs have enough safeguards to prevent blowouts—raise questions about whether the industry can safely drill in deep water and whether regulators are up to the task of monitoring them.

The scrutiny on cementing will focus attention on Halliburton Co., the oilfield-services firm that was handling the cementing process on the rig, which burned and sank last week. The disaster, which killed 11, has left a gusher of oil streaming into the Gulf from a mile under the surface.

Federal officials declined to comment on their investigation, and Halliburton didn’t respond to questions from The Wall Street Journal.

British Petroleum, a European conglomerate that took advantage of American deregulation, owned the oilrig. They wanted to make bigger profits at the public’s expense just like that other scumbag corporation Goldman Sachs. In one case, you get a ruined environment and in the other ruined homeowners all for the sake of the almighty dollar.

Last night Mike Papantonio was a guest on the Ed Schultz show on MSNBC. He is an environmental attorney, lawyer whose firm has filed a class-action lawsuit in three states on behalf of the shrimpers, fisheries, oystermen and business owners. Here’s the exchange between host and guest that demonstrates the clash between social needs and private property:

SCHULTZ: Where`s the liability? Where`s the culpability here? What`s the call for the lawsuit?

PAPANTONIO: You nailed the story perfectly at the beginning of this program. Deepwater Horizon had two trip devices to use in blowout catastrophes. Both of them failed because of either human error or defect.

Now, here`s what people don`t know. BP didn`t want to spend the money for a system. It`s a fail-safe system, absolutely fail-safe. It`s a device system that`s used all over the world except in the United States, because we give them a free pass in the United States.

SCHULTZ: What system is that, Mike?

PAPANTONIO: The system`s called the acoustic switch system. It`s a relay system that blows out the bottom of the catastrophe. In other words, it stops the oil where it — exactly from the source.

Now, here`s what`s interesting. If BP has to do business in Norway, they have to use the switch. When they do it in the U.S., they don`t have to use it.

It happened because of this — during the Bush deregulation years, you had the Minerals Management Service that told companies like BP that, gee whiz, we have a new policy. It`s the closed-door Dick Cheney policy.

That Dick Cheney program allowed the industry to bypass safe systems like the acoustics switch, and there was no need to spend $500,000 with a company that was making $40 billion. It was a complete bypass of safety.

So is this Obama’s Katrina? Apparently the liberal apologists for this 3rd Bush term president reject this notion, especially since the chief outlet for such a charge is Fox News, WABC talk radio, Matt Drudge and all the other rightwing shitheads who care little for the environment or the New Orleans poor.

Media Matters, a Democratic Party website funded by George Soros, takes pain to distinguish Obama from Bush by citing the federal response the day after the oilrig explosion:

April 21: Deputy Secretary of Interior, Coast Guard dispatched to region. An April 22 White House statement noted that following a briefing with President Obama, Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, Admiral Thad Allen, United States Coast Guard Commandant, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, “Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes was dispatched to the region yesterday to assist with coordination and response.” The Coast Guard announced that four units were responding to the fire, with addition units en route.

While all this might be true, the real similarity between Katrina and the current disaster is that the two-party system—not individual presidents—bears the brunt of responsibility. In Katrina, you had faulty levees brought on by government neglect. With priorities set on destruction in Iraq, the government allowed levees, roads and bridges to become risks to humanity. It was understood by both parties that the fight to control oil in the Middle East meant much more to the future of capitalism than flooded homes in an African-American neighborhood.

That devotion to the needs of oil companies continues unabated. President Obama, just like the president who preceded him, sees the world in the same way as the men who run Exxon, BP, Chevron and all the rest. For most of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, wars between nations have often involved power grabs over oil resources. Some scholars explain the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a response to an embargo on oil by the U.S.

Meanwhile confrontations with Iran threaten once more to let loose the dogs of war at the very same time that oil itself makes war on nature. Either the human race gets rid of capitalism, including its wasteful and destructive dependence on greenhouse emission fossil fuels, or the system will get rid of us.

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