August 10, 2011

Urban Uprising (London) and Implications for the New Movement Morality

Filed under: American Revolution, Civil Disobedience, Internet Democracy — Tags: , — Russell Bangs @ 1:46 am


One of the most interesting things about the London unrest, and of similar outbreaks in the past, is the way people loot corporate retailers in direct imitation of those corporations themselves, turning the exploiters’ own looting practices against them. I welcome every sign that the people are learning to give back to the system as they’ve received from it. This is the attitude we need to cultivate toward the real Work to Rule tactics and overall mindset.
While I’m not kidding myself that these demonstrations are on the whole politically conscious or guided by a strategy, they still evince a fierce energy ready to reject meek compliance with the system and lash out in some direction. (There’s also evidence that even “rioters” like these are mastering the techniques of the tactical use of communications media like Blackberries and Twitter to coordinate actions and fight the police in classic asymmetrical style. Pretty soon we’ll have a full-blown tactical doctrine for this stuff. Maybe someone’s already written it.) The will to renounce the system-imposed identity, to embrace something new (but the new something still being indeterminate), the readiness and ability to fight, the rage, the numbers – these are all a latent force, up for grabs.
The imitation of capitalism in the happy willingness to loot* foreshadows the bigger question of the willingness to imitate the system on the part of those called by many names in many national economies, the lumpenproles of Marxism. We can look with expectation to their frequent willingness to attack the system (during the first stage of the Egyptian Revolution shantytown dwellers attacked police stations in some smaller cities), doing so primarily based on a mirroring of the system’s own aggressive materialism. But at the same time we must beware of their propensity to let themselves be astroturfed by the system itself as mercenaries and thugs. So we face the question which has loomed for us at least since the mid 19th century. As Fanon put it, if the revolution doesn’t organize the lumpenproletariat, the counter-revolution will.
[*While in a perfect world an urban uprising would refrain from looting its own neighborhoods but systematically range into the commercial and residential neighborhoods of the enemy, the crowds seldom achieve that level of coordination at first. The opportunities immediately available for the people rising up include looting corporate stores, thereby striking a blow against globalism and at the same time acquiring often useful material things they couldn’t otherwise afford, but to which they have a perfect right given how these goods are the embodied form of their stolen labor and destroyed jobs. In that case, looting those stores is a moral and rational act. We could wish they’d refrain from attacking their own local businesses, but this isn’t always honored. That’s part of the imitation of the indiscriminate destruction of capitalism.]
Part of this goal is the new morality we need to build among the oppressed, which by now includes not just impoverished urban dwellers but all the non-rich, all of whom are on a direct downward vector to serfdom, no matter what their material status today. (As I wrote before, we’re all lumpenproles now.) This nothing but the same old Golden Rule morality among ourselves, Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, but with the added emphasis on community and democracy, for by now we know it to be a law of history that if we don’t hang together we’ll all hang separately. So the community-building and positive democratic morality is not only affirmatively a wonderful thing. It’s a self-defense imperative. (One of the purposes of my posts on co-production and time banking is to go toward building the ideas and forms of this new morality.) 
This leads to the corollary, Do unto others as they’ve always done to you. This must dictate all our relations with the system, which in principle we must renounce completely with loathing and contempt. This must dictate our relations with government, capitalism, corporation, employer, property. (In all these I’m talking about the big, powerful manifestations. Small manifestations of these should be seen as conscripted and exhorted to identify not with the elites, who are the enemy of the small businessman just as much as of the worker, but with the people. But if in his conduct a small actor or local politician proves his pro-elite malevolence, he should be regarded and treated accordingly.)
This will include mustering our own resolve, relentlessness, indefatigability, to match those of the system and its cadres. Since we’re driven by an ideal and by physical necessity, our will to fight should be more than a match for those who are actuated by purely mercenary concerns. (It’ll also mean that the erstwhile “rioters” we can bring to our side as true activists will be worth far more to us than those the enemy is able to astroturf as thugs will be worth to them.)
It’s important to start getting the ideas out there, fastest with the mostest. Here the perfect, as in waiting to perfect doctrine and strategy, will be the enemy of the good if the quest for such unachievable perfection turns into an excuse to procrastinate. We don’t need to struggle endlessly to achieve this. We only need to attain critical mass to achieve a tipping point at which point the movement ideal starts to exponentially propagate itself. This mass may be as low as 10% of the population.
There will certainly be vast convulsions in the mass psychic energy, and the forms this will take, the conscious ideas people will formulate, will depend completely on what ideas are available, what ideas are speaking to the suffering and fear and rage they feel. These go far beyond the inner cities. The arc of their explosion is longer among the incipient ex-middle class lumpenproles, but shall be the decisive detonation. This is where we must make the great push, where democracy will prevail or wither, where feudalism shall be resurrected or remain a corpse, where humanity shall triumph or perish.

March 15, 2011

Arcs of Revolution and Reaction (Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia)


At the moment it’s looking bad in Bahrain and Libya. Although the force of freedom is undeniably on the rise, as demonstrated by this great wave of rebellions, this may be a long, ponderous curve. In the meantime, the forces of reaction are retrenching.
In Libya, Gaddafi’s counteroffensive is gradually engulfing the country, crawling eastward toward the rebel stronghold at Benghazi. Yesterday loyalist jets bombed the transportation hub at Ajdabiya, which the rebels call the last line of defense. From there the roads to Benghazi and Tobruk are wide open. “We will defend it”, vowed a rebel commander.
Meanwhile there are dueling reports over the disposition of the oil town of Brega. The rebels had held it, regimists retook it, then the rebels claimed they captured it back. As of now (Tuesday morning EST) both sides are claiming to hold it.
It seems like in the initial confusion and exhilaration of the uprising, it was difficult for Gaddafi to know which forces were reliable, and it simply took time for generals loyal to him to muster the forces they could vouch for and then launch a coordinated counteroffensive. Unfortunately, it now looks like the initial rebel surge was illusory. It didn’t reflect the balance of real forces. Right now the best we might be able to hope for is if the rebels can hold in the East, providing the basis for a future resumption of the drive to overthrow the regime. If they’re driven out of Benghazi, a bloodbath is likely to follow, and it’s hard to see where the fugitives can go from there.
(The notion of a no-fly zone seems pointless by now. Gaddafi will win or lose on the ground. It’s long been clear that his use of aircraft is more for harassment and terror value than any real military effect it may have. He doesn’t seem to have enough jets to use them for more than this. Although I suppose it’s also possible that he’s been restrained by the threat of a no-fly.
So the whole debate over whether or not getting help from the neoliberal system was worth the risk to the political integrity of a successful rebellion looks moot in this case. A no fly zone by itself couldn’t make the difference in whether the rebellion succeeds or fails, and I think we all agree that ground troops would merely replicate the tyrannical experience of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But through all this I’ve basically held the same position, that if a rebellion:
1. Can possibly get limited help from the West, and
2. Such help looks like it would be necessary make the difference between success or failure,
then it may be worth the risk of asking for such limited assistance as a no fly zone.
As I said, it looks like in this case a no fly zone would fail to meet at least the second condition, so it’s not worth risking.)
Libya is the relatively less important front. The revolt in Bahrain (and signs of it in Saudi Arabia itself) hits closer to the heart of the world’s power structure. Bahrain, like the UAE and Kuwait, is a post-modern City of the Plain. It’s a Persian Gulf banking center, a hedonist paradise for the corporate jet set, and home to the US Fifth Fleet, front line enforcers of the Carter Doctine, linchpin of neocon strategy. It’s a primary Saudi proxy.
The unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is largely along sectarian lines, with the economically and politically disadvantaged Shiites (large majority in Bahrain, significant minority in Arabia, concentrated in the oil-important eastern provinces) opposing Sunni-dominated regimes. Counter to this US –> Saudi –> Sodom-Bahrain hierarchy, Iran seeks regional hegemony and sees all restive Shiites as clients. They in turn must thread the same needle of using Iranian help without coming under its thumb.
I’m not sure to what extent these protestors are dedicated to economic and political demands independent of their sectarian interest. There’s been some labor unrest in Saudi Arabia where the workers made purely economic demands. But such demonstrations have been sporadic and minor. Meanwhile last Friday’s intended Day of Rage fizzled out on account of a proactive Saudi security deployment.
But the Bahrain uprising flared up to new heights on Sunday, as protestors defied riot police and Sunni mobs to lay siege to the capital’s financial center. This is a direct assault on at least a symbol of the neoliberal order in the Gulf. The Saudi regime again took action. At the “request” of Bahrain, redolent of Cold War Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, Saudi forces crossed the causeway to deploy across the country. UAE troops were also said to be on the way. Regime hardliners are calling for martial law under this “foreign” force.
This stick has been raised even as the regime is pretending to negotiate with some of the protestors. There seems to be some division among the Shiites, between a democratic group which wants to overthrow the regime and a conciliationist group willing to “negotiate”, that is beg for some crumbs (and cushy positions for its own leadership, no doubt).
If the GCC is determined to impose martial law (de jure or just de facto) in Bahrain and anywhere else among the Gulf Gomorrahs where protest flares up, it’s hard to see what immediate response the people can have which could counteract it. I think the best thing to do would be to directly challenge the foreign thugs just as the Egyptians challenged the riot police. It’s one thing for Gaddafi to open fire in Libya. It’ll be harder for the direct proxies of the US to invade and open fire in the West’s own pleasure cities. Not that I think it’s unlikely they’ll try to do it. But we already saw Bahrain’s own police back down after their initial recourse to savagery was met with defiance. The consistent lesson everywhere seems to be: Stand up and keep fighting back, even in the face of open state violence.
I’ll close today where this all began a few months ago. The Tunisian Revolution continues to develop, continues to make gains. The people’s continued bottom up pressure and continual resort to street demonstrations has forced out several generations of would-be Ben Ali successors. In the latest turnover, the provisional government has been forced to move up the timeline and enhance the scope of promised elections. The government had planned to hold only a presidential election in July. It now promises to hold an election on July 24 to elect a constituent assembly which will write a new constitution. Interim president Fouad Mebazza says a “special electoral system” will run the election. Existing dissident or pseudo-dissident parties expect to do well in this new election. There’s no word on the status of the existing parliament, where Ben Ali’s cadres still numerically dominate. It sounds like that body is superannuated and should be bypassed completely. (Much like my view of how a new constitutional convention here in the US should try to bypass the articles of the main body of the document.)
So there’s the state of things around the revolutionary rim, as I see them. It’s a perilous moment, and there’s an excellent chance we’ll be seeing temporary, perhaps ugly setbacks. But these setbacks are ephemeral in the great movement of history. There’s no doubt that the rising, vibrant force is one which liberates. This is the force of democracy, rising from the heart of the people. No matter what temporary forms it takes, and whatever temporary detours it may have to make, there’s no doubt about the reality of the people’s sovereignty. The modern revolution in all its economic and political aspects finally awoke this human latency and nurtured it to maturity. All of history was an evolution toward this awakening.
Many mistook the economic forces and forms as the real genius of the age, and in my lowest moods I too still lapse into such fears. But in fact these forms were just epiphenomenal. The true genius of the age is democracy. I often mention how all of today’s trend lines point toward feudalism. But these are only the shortest, most proximate lines, a mere fleck of turbulence amid the far vaster current. The real arc of history leans toward democracy, as all the long-term historical evidence demonstrates. That means it also leans toward justice, as MLK said, quoting abolitionist Theodore Parker.
It’s one of history’s great ironies that this newest green shoot of the democratic imperative is sprouting in the heart of the great classical source of oil. Oil has been the driver of all the modern economic forms, the forms so hyped or feared as having been the End of History. From that point of view, Peak Oil has also often been depicted as the end of history.
But Peak Oil is really just the logical exhaustion of what was always a temporary, epiphenomenal form. It isn’t the end of anything affirmative, but the clearing away of an obstacle to democracy’s further development. Democracy shall now reach maturity, and we the people shall take adult responsibility for ourselves. It’s time to remove the training wheels, which are completely rusted anyway.

February 28, 2011

Revolutionary Tour

Filed under: American Revolution, Civil Disobedience, Freedom — Tags: , , , — Russell Bangs @ 12:48 pm


It looks like the Qaddaffi regime is down to just his capital in Tripoli. Although I’ve been reading for days about an imminent counter-attack of his supporters, it doesn’t come, the people keep advancing, and I figure if they were really able to attack they would’ve done it. We’ve already seen Qaddaffi’s big attack, and even bombing and strafing his own cities with aircraft wasn’t able to save him.
This is a milestone in the liberation wave. It’s not complete proof that a resolute people can defeat even disciplined instruments of government violence, since many army units refused to obey orders and in many cases actively turned against the regime. But the fact remains that disciplined units did exist, did carry out orders, did launch their full fury against civilian protestors, and the people kept coming.
I’ve read that by now it’s the troops and thugs who are loyal to Qaddaffi who are reduced to wearing masks and scarves, while the rebels enjoy the sun and wind on their proud faces.
The latest battleground was the town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, where insurgents took the town after pro-Qaddaffi forces shot up a mosque where a sit-in was in progress. This is the town where for days we’ve had a stand-off and these rumors of “counterattack”. Qaddaffi must be reduced to Hitler’s delusional state in the bunker, crazily demanding information about Steiner’s non-existent counterattack.
Meanwhile the neoliberal West has more easily let Qaddaffi go then they did Mubarak. Although they refused to impose a no-fly zone, the EU issued a travel ban, a list of sanctions, while others promised ICC investigations against him, his sons, and many regime nabobs. Apparently, according to neoliberalism bombing your own cities is out, at least for someone on probation like Qaddaffi. (He’s also not a personal friend of the Bidens and Hillary Ribbentrop the way Mubarak is, and Obama probably doesn’t consider him one of the Cool Crowd.)
Back in Tunisia, the place that started it all, the situation continues to evolve. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali’s equivalent of Suleiman, who took over from him and has tried to preserve the regime intact, was forced to resign after a new wave of protests and violence. The Tunisians understand that this is far from over.
Progress in Egypt has been fitful. The army wishes to curb the ongoing wave of strikes, but so far has not tested the situation by actually banning them, although it keeps threatening to. The army leadership remains stuck with the same problem it’s had since day one – how far could it trust the rank and file conscripts to obey orders? To remain disciplined at all? What misstep might trigger a confrontation which forces a test the generals don’t want to risk? So brinksmanship continues, albeit at a lower level of intensity for now. The Egyptians understand that this is far from over.
Bahrain is perhaps the most advanced example. There too the demonstrators have braved open violence from police and military. But unlike Libya, only lately being integrated into neoliberalism, Bahrain is a postmodern City of the Plain, fully financialized, a state of the art coordination center much like the UAE itself. Revolution in Sodom Bahrain conjures the image of the slaves of Dubai itself rising up and burning that Gomorrah to the sand.
And does it offer a possible precedent for democratic revolt in the ultimate bastion, Saudi Arabia itself? The government is treading very carefully, dealing gently with the first signs of worker protests.
Back in America, we have the Wisconsin protest, where in spite of the hostile Democratic establishment (but with some decent discipline from state-level Dems) and feckless, conciliatory union leadership, the rank and file have maintained their vigil for an impressively long time. They keep this up and they’re going to have to think about organizing their own street democracy. But they’d better be ready to continue the protest indefinitely, and find ways to escalate it, if they want to win. If I understand the Wisconsin Mubaraks correctly, and I think I do, they’re not going to give in. Why would they?
So there’s a short tour of our state of self-liberation. Nowhere has there yet been a complete breakthrough, but everywhere (except the standoff in Wisconsin) we’ve seen steady progress. The situation today seems vastly brighter than I ever would have dreamt at the down time following the moral collapse in France, and the continuing abject submission in Ireland and elsewhere, and of course in America.
More than ever before, I think the system is rotten to the core, physically strong but morally and intellectually weak, and with its physical strength ready to collapse at any time as well. More even than before, I think things are in our hands, that we the people are masters of our fate, free to dictate our future by making our choices.
What an exhilarating ride this is becoming. The path before us is coming into focus. The ideas are being collected and arranged. The spirit is regrouping. Like Naomi Klein writes in Shock Doctrine, at some point the people become numb to the shocks, and find ways to withstand them, and then realize that they no longer fear them, and then develop contempt for them.
This world process is now coming to light, after years in the incubation of our souls. It’s a new sun rising, the dawn of humanity’s new day. It wasn’t capitalism and oil which embodied the genius of the age, but democracy. This rising spirit of a new, fully responsible humanity was only temporarily obscured by the noise and flash of fossil-fueled corporatism. But it was that shallow clamor and smoke which was ephemeral. It shall be our democratic heritage which is lasting, which shall be co-eternal with history itself. We need only choose it. 

February 17, 2011

Egyptian Seed Bank Looted by Thugs; Seeds Safe

Filed under: American Revolution, Civil Disobedience, Food and Farms, Freedom, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 4:31 am


After the Egyptian people chased the uniformed police from the streets, the police pivoted to plain-clothes and a looting offensive. This was meant to terrorize citizens and smear the protests. As we know, it failed miserably, as the people took responsibility for defending their homes and streets, public property, and confronting the thugs.
Mubarak’s thugs were eventually reduced to attacking Western media figures and carrying out revenge attacks in isolated places. They were routed.
But one location which fell victim to the thugs was the Egyptian Deserts Seed Bank in North Sinai. Luckily, the seeds themselves weren’t damaged (read the comment thread at the link), although lots of equipment was stolen or damaged. This confirms not only the viciousness and stupidity of existing governments (early in the Afghan war a seed bank there was completely destroyed for no apparent reason but pure neoliberal terrorism), but the strategic principle that while state of the art centralized seed banks are good as long as they’re not corporatized, they are not sufficient. In a world of increasing civil disturbance, counter-revolutionary destruction, and natural disaster, it’s imperative that the Freedom Seed movement develop a broadly decentralized system of seed saving. This seed bank relocalization is necessary as both complementary to and independent of any formalized system.
Meanwhile the strikes continue in Egypt, as the workers defy regime threats to criminalize worker assemblies. The democracy is calling for a Day of Victory demonstration on Friday. The Military Council continues to try to ease into “normalization” while postponing the most formal measures. It keeps pushing back bank reopenings and lifting other suspensions. By trying to refuse the democracy’s economic demands, the regime continues to damage the very stability it claims to want to restore.
Egypt’s continued revolution is now the center of a vast fan of uprisings which have broken across the wings of the North African/Middle East eagle. In Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen the people are demonstrating against varying levels of repression, making demands similar to those of Egypt. (In Bahrain there’s also a strong Shiite vs. Sunni aspect to it.)
These are all repressive regimes, perhaps worse than that of Mubarak. But we see the contagion of democracy. Even more imminently potent, we see the contagion of political self-respect, self-confidence, courage. Almost everywhere the people are realizing that no matter how forbidding the regime’s ugly face, if they go to the streets confidently, in critical numbers, these gangs of thugs turn into paper tigers. In the end they’re just cowardly bullies who can’t stand up to the defiance of the unified democratic people, but can only foment division and prey on despair.
So the lesson is clear. Reject despair, reject “fear itself”, reject the failed “reformist” counsel of cowardice (which has its basis only in this despair and fear, where it’s not simply treacherous). Face the enemy with confidence and resolve. Perhaps, especially in a place like America, most of the initial work must be organizational and directly affirmative, indirectly subversive. There are also innumerable opportunities for direct action and civil disobedience right now. All this will be laying the groundwork for the eventual great democratic assertions, once our own discipline and confidence reach critical mass. 

February 15, 2011

Some Preliminary Ideas on the Egyptian Revolution So far

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Freedom — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 4:00 pm


1. The people who went to the streets are not the destitute, but rather those who hold a decent economic position but feel cramped. They experience pressure either pushing them downward or blocking their attempts to rise.
This highlights the question of how decisive a factor food (and fuel) stagflation has been here, and how decisive it’ll be going forward. We’ve already seen several years’ worth of demonstrations over artificial blockages to food security. (There’s more than enough food, but corporations and governments set up price barriers to exclude billions from easily accessing it. This is the basic goal of food globalization.) As the masses become more used to these assaults, more used to demonstrating, and place food stagflation within the context of globalization as a systematic policy, the uprisings will less and less have the character of “food riots”, as the MSM disparages them, and will become larger, better-planned, and embedded within the broad front of political revolution as we saw in Egypt.
2. The street democracy was primarily a political convocation and made political demands. Once again we see how in the first rush of demonstration, the people experience true democracy with exhilaration. It inspires, it fulfills, it drives. This graphically exposes what a sham our “representative democratic” forms really are. Those aren’t the food of life. They don’t make us experience our humanity. Only the vibrant, fully lived democracy can do this. It’s the highest, finest, most satisfying communal experience humanity has ever known. For those wondrous moments, it makes us whole. It’s so potent, even its reverberations down through history, or as experienced through the present communications media, convey and bestow some of the blessing.
Under such an intoxication, it’s natural to focus on the enshrinement of this political freedom. It may even seem like a subtraction from the moment to focus on economic grievance. Perhaps the task of a fundamental transformation of the economic dispensation seems too daunting to think about at first. At any rate, the first cadre of street demonstrators tends to focus on political demands. So it was in Egypt, although increasing strike activity bolstered the political uprising and eventually powered it to its first great victory.
3. This trend of labor unrest goes back several years. That Egyptian workers have alone defied the police state for so long and under such a media blackout is the most unsung story of heroism in this revolution. Compared to that, going to the streets last week must have been more of a carnival.
Seeing the great political movement at least temporarily joining their longstanding strike movement, the striking workers put themselves at its service. They submerged their demands in the political movement and seconded its political demands. They did this in the expectation that the political movement’s advance would help their own economic movement’s advance. More on this below.
4. The regime is inefficient and clumsy. This is a standard feature of successful revolutions. The regime was clueless about the situation, even after the mass street protest broke out. Belatedly noticing it, Mubarak wavered between pledges of reform and threats of repression, but the people correctly didn’t believe he was capable of following through on either. Mubarak’s promises were consistently too little, too late, and at any rate not believable as anything but sham. His threats were the classic mixture of a collapsing regime: Brutal enough to infuriate the people further, but too uncoordinated and haphazard to successfully put down the uprising. Malevolent in intent, incompetent in execution: This is the classic state of a brutal, stupid leadership ready to fall.
The vaunted police may actually have been hollowed out by embezzlement and stupidity. The rank and file riot police, who are supposed to be well-trained elites or at least motivated regime ideologues, may in fact have mostly been ill-trained conscripts. Many may have shed their uniforms early in the protest. Meanwhile, the regime chose to use its committed cadres not for direct crowd suppression, but for provocation activities, looting, mugging, vandalism, arson, and organizing mobs of scum to throw rocks. That should give an indication of the quality of personnel the regime was reduced to leaning upon, and the quality of its own mindset.
At the same time they made the mistake of sending the army in among the democracy and then leaving it to sit there, bombarded with the good will and friendship of the people. I assume the idea was that the mere sight of the tanks would scare off the demonstrators. When this predictably failed, the result was the worst of both worlds, from Mubarak’s point of view. It would already have been dubious to order the rank and file troops to open fire on the people. Any general who ordered it would be courting a mutiny, which would immediately have escalated things to February 1917 levels. Basically sending in the troops without a plan, as if you wanted them to do nothing but fraternize, could only increase this likelihood. At the same time the idea that the army was among them, was with them, and the sight of the troops often running interference for the demonstrators against the uniformed police and the thug mobs, could only further hearten the people and bolster their resolve.
Mubarak bluffed and failed miserably. It’s no surprise that when he finally did try to give an order for the troops to attack the democracy, they simply ignored it. The order was considered so absurd and depraved, the troops could disregard it without fear of repercussions from their officers. They didn’t even bother to mutiny, Mubarak had so stripped himself of authority.
More on the army below.
5. In Egypt the call to go to the streets was coordinated by political and perhaps labor activists. It’s still difficult to parse the intentions of these activists, but at the least they wanted to overthrow Mubarak and his NDP. More on them below.
6. Once the people were in the streets, the movement was spontaneously self-organizing. Although the basic idea of assembling at set points and from there converging on the Square was laid out in prepared material ahead of time, and the idea of using the mosques as embarkation points on the first Friday was also preplanned, from there the massed democrats of the streets had to make it up as they went along, and they did so with great ingenuity, discipline, and spirit. They met every challenge the same way, from keeping their processions moving to confronting the riot police to greeting the tanks to protecting the Museum and other worthy public property to defending their neighborhoods to dealing with police looters and muggers to fighting the mobs to building the barricades to manning them in shifts to preventing the tanks from moving to the more mundane and more difficult challenges of arranging food, water, shelter, medical care, and sanitation. They did all this with great skill. Through it all they remained non-violent except in direct self-defense. They also spontaneously found religious amity, with Muslims and Christians protecting one another’s prayer sessions and even joining together for some collective services.
7. At all times, self-confidence and self-respect remained high, and often surged. Most pivotal, and most indicative of true fighters, they escalated their resolve and demands at every new obstacle, every provocation. That’s the exact opposite of the dynamic with which we in the West are familiar, when we look at our existing “political” types. There’s zero sign of the revolutionary spirit among them. I think most of it will have to come from those who have renounced existing politics completely, and especially from those who are completely new to politics.
8. The whole thing has depended upon the forbearance of the military. That should be obvious, but it’s weird how many people I see discussing that as if they just discovered it, because Egypt is for the moment under military rule. They act as if they just had an epiphany regarding something which was obvious to most of us from day one, and they see this as a bad sign.
But the historical fact is that revolutionary, as well as many reform movements, often depend upon the state instruments of violence not to practice anything near their full violent potential. To give some obvious examples, both the Gandhi and King movements depended upon this forbearance. That’s one of the basic parts of the revolutionary mix, upon which the success of the movement rises or falls: Are the troops ordered to open fire, and if so do they obey? Positive answers to these may not be sufficient, but they’re usually necessary. It’s funny how many observers seem not to know this, and regard the current state of affairs as a sign of the movement’s failure, when this is only the beginning.
9.  Western governments and media were helpless. They had no words, not even the slightest idea how to respond to this. “Do I lie and embrace a democratic movement, hoping to help destroy it behind the scenes? Do I disparage it? Openly or subtly? Do I even believe this is democracy? It’s just troublemakers, right? Riled up by Islamists and foreigners, just like Mubarak says? Mubarak’s not a dictator. His son is the friend of our worthy banks. Suleiman tortures for us. Maybe he’d be better as head of state. What about Israel? What about the Suez Canal? What about our oil? What is our $1.5 billion a year buying, if it can’t deal with a street mob? What the heck is that they keep chanting? ‘Democracy’? No, we’re democracy, right? That’s what we always say. It must be true. Mubarak’s a democrat too, just like us. Do I tell the truth and reject this obnoxious movement? Maybe an orderly transition would be better. Can’t they just shoot them down? Or would that be too embarrassing to us all? Surely nobody in the West would care, right? Muslim Brotherhood equals bin Laden. What kind of corporate opportunities will this open up in Egypt?…”
Disgruntled confusion.
10. The democracy won its first great victory. It toppled Mubarak and seems to have prevented Suleiman from seamlessly taking up his position. Obama and Hillary’s “orderly transition” was defeated.
The next real political demands are an end to the state of emergency, prosecution and disgorgement for all Mubarak criminals, a new constitution, and new elections. All striker demands must also be met. The army has already suspended the Mubarak-corrupted constitution and dissolved the fraudulent parliament.
But beyond this, the army’s indications have been underwhelming at best, menacing at worst. With Mubarak gone, the Council has resumed the call for the protestors to go home, since “your demands have been met”. They’re again trying to dismantle the democratic structures in the Square. The tents are gone, the barricades may be gone. The people are still there, but they’re being pushed to leave.
The Council also threatened to ban strikes and labor demonstrations, although the last I saw they hadn’t yet gone ahead and done this. Instead they bought time by declaring Monday a holiday, while Tuesday was already a holiday.
The Council also at first said it was going to rewrite the constitution in ten days and submit it for a referendum. Last I heard, this impetuous scheme has been replaced by the appointment of a jurist to supervise the writing of a new constitution. This is hardly the democratic constitutional convention the democracy of the streets must have been thinking of. This kind of instant constitution, made to order by technocrats, has never had any authority anywhere.
According to what I read this jurist is a pillar of the legal establishment, the same type as the “wise men” who offered a tepid set of demands on arrogated behalf of the democracy (they had no authority to do so, that’s for sure) which didn’t even demand Mubarak’s ouster.
When we consider this, the picture starts to resolve. We see how the prefabricated action figure Ghonim appeared on the streets at a critical point as if by magic to start striking heroic poses and making lame demands, including his recent calls, aping the generals, for the democracy to adjourn and go home, since the process is now in the hands of adults. (I heard the A6Mers also said Go Home Hippies and Strikers.) Many of them were willing to sit down with Suleiman when Mubarak was still in place. (And Elbaradei seemed upset he wasn’t invited.)
To make a 1917 comparison, it looks like this whole crew is analogous to the Kadets, the Constitutional Democratic party of liberal politicians and professionals. They never had any ambitions beyond some basic political reforms, but intended to leave the evil property structure intact. Their main preoccupation was to freeze the revolution in place and then euthanize it. They still had great enthusiasm for the war and wanted it to continue.
That’s just an analogy, but it seems fairly close to what we’re seeing so far. The people must be vigilant against such hijackers of their revolution, lest they allow them to betray it. In particular, they seem set to betray the democracy’s brothers in arms who continue on strike.
11. Protest action should shift to supporting all strikes, just as last week the strikers shifted their focus to supporting the political revolution. Under global kleptocracy the struggle of the workers is the same as the struggle of the cramped middle class. This cramp the middle classes feel is simply the same robbers of the workers now directing their crimes at them. From here on we shall surely hang together of hang separately. Unfortunately, political reformers have a nasty historical record of selling out the real economic struggle. But the Egyptian movement has been so overflowing with good faith so far, I have every confidence that it’ll rise to this challenge the same as it has risen to all others.
12. Finally, as I’ve written several times already, the democracy must not take its hand off the wheel and let the “normal”, designated forms and processes resume their normal course. The democracy is a new normal and must sustain itself as such. It must remain in session. The Committees must remain in existence and ramify themselves. They must continue with their quasi-governmental activities. They must support the strikers, on the street, in the factories, confronting the army leadership, offering themselves as mediators, but always on behalf of the strike demands. (The strikers should be organizing councils as well to coordinate with the political and community councils and ensure that these don’t sell out the strikes or neglect them.) They must confederate as a democratic Commune parallel to the pre-existing forms, claiming co-equal legitimacy with them.
Today the people of Egypt want a better constitution and representative government. Their best way of achieving this, and at the same time of seeing how they can grow beyond this as well, is to keep their positive democracy of the Square in living session. It can serve as the voice, the watcher, the promise of action if the people’s rightful wishes are subverted, and most of all the promise of this new, lived political freedom which has flowed as the essential lifeblood of this movement since it took to the streets. 
This is the only way the democratic revolution can continue as a living force, fulfilling on a daily basis the great promise with which it fired the hearts of millions who went to the streets, and of billions who watched, who knew, who felt with them, who now aspire.

February 14, 2011

The Next Big Test of Egyptian Democracy, Today

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Freedom — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 2:59 am


The Egyptian Revolution got off to a great start by forcing out Mubarak, but so far the main significance of that is the moral and tactical example the movement has provided. As far as the freedom and prosperity of the Egyptian people, it’s nothing but a start.
The country is now nominally under the power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The extent to which this Council does hold the real power of the country and dispenses its will from the top down going forward depends upon the continued resolve of the people.
The Western media, having failed to subvert the revolution previously, will now go with the theme that with its ouster of Mubarak the democracy achieved its goal and can adjourn. Even many liberal commentators who cheered on the democracy now seem sick of it and want it to go home. Once again, it’s time for Leadership to take over. Adults.
The workers of Egypt didn’t get this memo. The strikes which broke out last week and which seem to have put the demonstrations over the top were not a new development, but a great escalation of several years of intensifying strike action. Although most strikers intermingled their pre-existing economic demands with the demonstrators’ political demands, they were really continuing this existing economic movement. Today they will try to maintain this new level of strike action. They plan to continue the strikes of last week, and there are new calls to strike. This is the logical continuation of the democratic movement. Its real basis was in economic grievance, it remained in economic grievance even as the movement was temporarily lofted euphorically on political aspirations (a common revolutionary development), and will continue to be an economic movement for as long as these grievances aren’t resolved. I don’t know to what extent the workers can be appeased with reforms the way most of the political protestors have been. 
But at the moment it looks like even that’s not on the table for the workers. The army has granted another political demand of the protestors, dissolving the recently “elected” parliament. This parliament was the result of massive electoral fraud, absurd even by the normal standards of rigged elections. The Council is also claiming it will accede to the basic demands for new, more clean elections and constitutional reform. It still refuses to lift the state of emergency, however. So there’s the state of the political demands.
But at the same time the Council wants to crush the strike movement before it continues to intensify. It wants to ban all strikes and worker demonstrations. This is an assault and an affront which will be rejected by anyone who’s truly a member of the democracy, and by anyone who truly supported the movement. We’ll now see the true mettle of the democracy, as the going starts to get tough. The workers will continue to strike, and the military threatens to use force to break up those strikes. Will millions surge back into the streets? Will ongoing democratic assemblies outside the designated forms and parallel to them condemn such repression and demand it stop?
The early indications are mixed. As many of us predicted, the middle class “leadership” of the movement has been saying in effect “Mission Accomplished, now it’s time for everyone to go home.” In Liberation Square thousands of demonstrators want to stay and have so far resisted army attempts to push them out. But they’re not just facing army pressure; a new gang of goons has appeared, chanting “They want the Square cleared!” Whoever’s chanting this may or may not have been protesting last week, but in that case democratic action has already crossed the line those people set for themselves, and they’re now on the side of the thugs. We in America who truly opposed Bush policy saw in 2009 how that happens. “They want the Square cleared.” – That can go down as an iconic slogan of cheaply bought sellouts everywhere.
Liberation Square remains contested ground, but for the moment is still in the hands of the people. But the Square is also everywhere a strike continues, and everywhere a new one is launched. No democratic politics worthy of that name will fail to see this as its own struggle, or will fail the call to support it.
If the repression units target the strikes, the people must go to the streets. And the democratic council forms must be organized to coordinate this support and formalize the economic demands of the democracy. Certainly this won’t be effectively done by constitutional reform delegates meeting someday (days from now? weeks? months?) with military representatives to plan elections. The new democracy is under assault right now. 

February 12, 2011

Today’s the First Day of the Rest of Your Democratic Lives

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Sovereignty and Constitution — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:20 am


Yesterday was a great day for Egypt and humanity. If only for a moment, humanity has shone forth in all its best qualities. Aspiration, resolve, courage, faith, the will to freedom, discipline, grace under pressure, good will, generosity, self-organization, and an effusive heart have been the defining themes of this great democratic movement. Anyone who doubted whether such things could exist again on this scorched earth can never doubt again. The revolution has already achieved this great goal. It has added another glorious tale to the annals of freedom’s history, which is the defining line of human history itself, the core of what makes us human.
At Egypt’s Liberation Square, which has now expanded to encompass the entire country, the great achievement has been a self-sustaining movement. In principle there’s no reason for the democracy to physically adjourn, and every reason for it to stay in session. This physical convocation has won its first demand and in the process has constituted itself as the ongoing demonstration of the people’s belief in and respect for themselves. It looks like they were having lots of fun as well.
These are the things that make us human, not the toil we allegedly must perform to receive a meager portion of a vast productive output. So if it were me I’d be saying now’s not the time to return to what the still existing system, and much of our own indoctrination, will still be telling us is “normal”. I’d say let’s make this living democracy our new normal. Let’s cycle between it and our workaday lives while we formulate a new Constitution which will change this strange wealth distribution which forces us to work so hard for such a small portion of what only we produce. Let’s hold open democratic session where every citizen has the full opportunity to be a democratic participant. Our citizenship shall reform our work arrangements while our work informs our citizenship. Thus we shall circle the Square.
The identifiable spokesmen gave different versions of the same basic plan for a transitional government toward real elections. There’s a definite difference on whether the Constitution merely needs tweaking (which may or may not even be actual reform), or whether there must be a whole new convention. That’s a clear measure of real vs. phony democratic aspiration. The transition-to-election plan will depend on the integrity of whoever is delegated to negotiate with the military, on the military’s own good faith (I don’t expect this to be overflowing, but perhaps there might be some flexibility there), and on whoever runs for office. All this sounds uncertain, but this election along with constitutional change comprise the highest hope of the Egyptian people. A street democracy (I don’t mean the assembly has to literally be held in the Square) could serve as the democratic vigilance committee, keeping military and wavering democratic “leaders” on notice that they’ll be held to the standard of the movement’s promise to the people.
In that way democracy could continue its development independently of the pre-existing political forms. This evolution has cycled from the original planning of the April 6th Movement (A6M), building on the example of years of intensifying strike activity, which was able to propel enough people into the streets to achieve critical mass for revolutionary spontaneity to take off. This spontaneity then masterfully organized itself to meet every challenge over two weeks of stand-off, tension, threat, violence, on top of all the mundane yet critical logistical challenges. This provided the space for the strike movement to achieve its own breakthrough, and together the political revolution and the strikers achieved the first proximate goal, forcing out the hated figurehead and severely damaging his regime.
Now begins the far longer work of preserving, nurturing, and building on this democracy. Since the living democracy is in the Square, while the rest remains fraught potential, the people must cherish and defend the ground they’ve won, and continue the assertive fight from that terrain. Everything points in the same direction – the Commune, to import a term from the glorious episodes of another city and people, must stay in session to oversee the work of the “designated” committees and assemblies. It’ll be a great development if the people constitute some vigorous form of this. It’s the most logical thing, the most practical thing, and the best way to keep alive the new democratic spirit which has become such a part of the demonstrating citizens’ day-to-day lives. Surely they don’t want to hand off such a wonderful self-bestowed gift to “representatives”? The higher, better mode of organization, the true natural development of the democracy, will now be the organization of this bottom-up form. From there, every kind of council can ramify throughout Egypt. Not to fully replace the designated top-down forms (yet), but to exist parallel and co-equal. That would be the goal for anyone who would say, “We have a democracy, if we can keep it.”
The American Revolution proclaimed that revolution is the true redemption of the best spirit of antiquity, the original democratic aspiration which was so obscured through the dark centuries of empire and the degradation of the intellect. Therefore revolution, true to its name, is in one sense a circling back and the restoration of a lost heritage. So, just as the positive circle of the democratic citizen’s activity between economic and political democracy circles the Square, to continue the Egypt-specific metaphor, this revolving back to ancient redemption is a Squaring of the circle. Just as the Square cannot survive except through the permanent living circle, so this virtuous circle cannot exist except as sustained by the intrepid spirit of the Square.  

February 11, 2011

New Critical State in Egypt

Filed under: American Revolution, Civil Disobedience, Freedom, Reformism Can't Work — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:12 am


I’m sure everyone’s seen the news. Excellent recaps here and here. For hours the indications were piling up that Mubarak would resign. The army engaged in ostentatious coup-like behavior, convening a public meeting without Mubarak or his goons in attendance, declaring it will sit in permanent session to assess the situation. In communiques and in person at the Square, generals told the people, “All your demands will be met.” NDP leaders issued statements implying Mubarak would go. The MSM and the adminstration all gave similar indications based on their sources and knowledge. It was a done deal, Mubarak would resign and try to hand off power to Suleiman. In the Square, at the Parliament, and amid the thousands of striking workers and demonstrating civilians at countless other protests all over Cairo and the rest of Egypt, there was jubilation. The only question, perhaps likely to become a critical one in the days ahead, was whether Mubarak’s resignation would be sufficient or whether the democracy, true to its name, would demand the entire regime Get Out. Although it’s not clear how the vast new cohort of protestors feels about that question, there’s no doubt about the demands issued by many of the strikers, and there’s no doubt about the resolution of Liberation Square: Mubarak’s resignation is necessary, and a precondition for any negotiation whatsoever, but not remotely sufficient. The people know that it’s not just Mubarak the person, but the regime as a whole, whose existence is an affront to the revolution and democracy, and an ongoing physical threat to the people, for as long as it exists.
Instead, the bloated thug went on TV and promised the status quo. He’s not going anywhere, although he might share power with Suleiman. (With some variation, my early assessments of each actor in this saga have proven to be accurate. The people are assertive and resolute; the army leadership, whatever its personal opinion, won’t run the risk of ordering aggressive action against the protestors, not for the likes of Mubarak and probably not for Suleiman; Mubarak may or may not be delusional, but he’s morbidly stubborn and intransigent; the administration is malicious but confused and incompetent. All four patterns of action have largely held true to these descriptions.)
The people responded with dismay and then rage and then resolve. Again the calls resounded for a march on the palace. 
Thursday was shaping up to be a momentous day, and so it was, although again the stakes have been raised. We’re again at the point of revolutionary brinksmanship, but the democracy is in a much stronger position than it was several days ago. Then, the idea of a march on the presidential palace looked more like an act of desperation more likely to be set upon by thugs while it was strung out along the road than to reach the palace in one piece.
Today there seems to be no chance of the thugs reappearing. It’s full state violence or nothing. But there’s been little word in recent days of the police reassembling and taking back the streets. For days that rumor kept being floated, but never materialized. The fact that the police never did reappear has probably encouraged the democracy to believe it’s impossible for them to reappear. I suppose most of the police have shed their uniforms and gone home. Many, the conscripts, may have joined the demonstrators. It seems likely the police threats were just more empty emanations from a regime which is nothing but one big stuffed shirt by now. Even the sinister Suleiman looks smaller and more hapless all the time. He keeps threatening the democracy: But if he could have tried to disperse it Tianenmen-style, he would probably have already made the attempt.
On Sunday, it seemed like the revolution was in a doldrum. It looked isolated in the Square, while “normalcy” was being restored elsewhere. I and many others pondered the palace march, however tactically dubious, as a way to resume the initiative. “They can’t stay in the Square forever.”
We were soon proven wrong about that. Even as millions of protestors took to the streets anew, and the Square’s population again surged, its revolutionary city took on a more permanent aspect. At the same time the entire movement took on a new character in the form of a wave of strikes, economic demands coordinated with the overarching political demands. The regime’s pandering gesture, giving government employees a raise, only encouraged all other workers to put forward their own demands. Like every other concession from the regime, it backfired. It was too little, too late, and too obviously meant to set people against one another.
Why have these concessions backfired? Because the Egyptian people are asserting themselves with rising political self-confidence and self-respect. Their sense of democracy and freedom is in the ascent. Under such conditions, this regime’s characteristic mix of half-assed concessions, arrogant threats, and inflammatory but ultimately ineffectual violence will only encourage the people to demand ever more of their birthright and refuse to settle for a demeaning crumb which will likely be fictitious in the end anyway.
(Is the spectacular difference between these vibrant democratic citizens and the contemptible cowardice and pettiness of America’s political “progressives” another symptom of America’s late imperial decadence? Within the framework of normal politics or street protest, it seems clear that Americans are incapable of taking any action whatsoever, or standing up for themselves at all. I find it hard to believe the vast majority of those who still support the Democrats are so stupid that they don’t intellectually understand the Democratic party’s treason against the people. So the fact that they still obey it must be a matter of temperament. They’re simply too weak, psychologically, spiritually, to break with the pattern of meek, despicable collapse and surrender.
As for breaking with the obsolete faith in representative government itself, here there’s still some intellectual education to be done. There’s more and more people who have (mostly) lost faith in the Democrats, but are still in the thought box of “representation”, that the most important thing is to build an alternative party for national-level action. “We don’t need better Democrats, we know that doesn’t work. But we do need better elites!” But this is equally delusional, for the same reason. Perhaps here a truly democratic ideology can do worthwhile persuasive work. But we shouldn’t waste time on those who are simply incapable by temperament of having the courage of this conviction.)
What backfired most of all was this latest debacle. I can’t imagine what could have been better calculated to tremendously escalate the unity and radical resolve of the demonstrators than this revolutionary coitus interruptus. I bet there’ll no longer be debate in the Square about whether a Suleiman caretaker regime is acceptable. If there was anyone to whom it wasn’t already clear, every citizen on the street today must understand that this regime is absolutely incorrigible and must be torn out to the deepest roots.
(What was Mubarak thinking? Does he really prefer a shabby personal calvary to leaving with what little pseudo-grace was still possible, and most of what he looted no doubt intact? As we’ve learned by now, we must never underestimate the capacity of these kleptocrats to see themselves as the victims. It’s just another typical repulsive element of their gutter nature; they don’t even have the character traits of ancient nobility, who at least tried to pretend they were comporting themselves with dignity. Today’s “elites” are deep down just spoiled, snivelling brats. Although I’ll admit Mubarak seems more willing to run a physical risk than most of them are. Most are pure physical cowards as well. All this is also part of modern decadence.)
So what’s the difference in the streets today, compared to several days ago? Then, we were looking at the prospect of a smaller number of marchers having to file out of the Square and traverse a long, uncertain road to the palace. Today a much larger surge would flow from the Square, and everywhere it would be joined by springs, rivulets, streams, flows, torrents, as all of Cairo is now aroused and unified in the great resolve to be rid of this putrid regime once and for all. There are now demonstrations all over. The Square isn’t just the Square, but the city itself. The streets are extensions of the Square. It’s now the palace which is isolated. It’s the palace which is now an island in the midst of a new normalcy which is being built in real time.
After Thursday, I can’t imagine things reverting to the status quo pre-Thursday. The people know that enough is enough. There will be no accommodation with this regime. There can be none. As always, the bad faith of the counter-revolution forces the revolution to move on. Each instance only births the revolution anew, innocent, while the dying regime strips itself further of what few shreds of credibility it had left. After Thursday’s disgraceful performance, I wonder how many people still think “Mubarak served his country.”
And yet, in so definitively disgracing himself, all he stands for, and all who still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, Mubarak did in the end serve the day’s purpose. He provided new clarity, and so shone a spotlight on the road to his own final destruction. It all works out in the end, and history reaches its goal.
Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good
    steadily hastening towards immortality,
And the vast all that is call’d Evil I saw hastening to merge itself
    and become lost and dead.
Walt Whitman, “Roaming in Thought (After Reading Hegel)”  

February 10, 2011

The Revolution of Food


Two years ago a hideous surge in food prices triggered spontaneous crowd scenes the MSM termed “food riots”. These stout writers and editors didn’t let us know how they think they’d fare if they and their families were being intentionally starved amid plenteous food, on account of purely artificial scarcity generated by purely political choices made by criminals. Today this food stagflation is upon us again, and this time it looks permanent.
We’ve long known the nature of these political decisions. It’s fundamental to capitalism that scarcity be generated amidst plenty. This is accomplished by stealing the vast majority of what the productive people grow and craft. In the case of agriculture, the basic mechanisms of this crime were land enclosure in the West and globalization for much of the global South. The result in both cases was to drive vast amounts of people off the land, generating mass migrations similar to the barbarian migrations into Europe in the first millennium. This migration headed to the shantytowns of the cities (and their ghetto and project and trailer park, and now tent city, equivalents in America). In the wake of globalization, in line with the new feudalism, the South is undergoing a new onslaught of land enclosures, as regional kleptocracies “sell” vast amounts of land in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and elsewhere to corporations and conglomerates from places like Sweden, the UK, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and of course Wall Street.
The number one reason for this new colonial land grab is to grow jatropha and palm oil feedstock for biofuels. This is just the latest and most malevolent result of the West’s biofuel mandates, a policy as wicked as it is irrational. Within a country like the US, ethanol mandates are pure corporate welfare, and globally they serve only to degrade the environment, cause further rainforest destruction and greenhouse gas emissions, and drive up the price of food by diverting it from the mouths of billions of the most vulnerable to the gas tanks of the richest and fattest. Now they’re also the engine of the new feudal enclosures.
These assaults on the Southern farmer are the latest depredation of the same globalization in agriculture which has dumped subsidized Western commodities on the domestic markets of almost every country. The goal here was to force all agriculture on Earth, the vast amount of which is logically subsistence agriculture and agriculture grown for local and regional markets, to conform to the practices, prices, and power relations of globalized corporate commodity agriculture. At the same time the IMF, as part of its structural adjustment assaults, forced most of these countries to dismantle their well-functioning state investment programs whose explicit goals had been to assure decent prices for their farmers and make affordable credit available to them. This helped keep much of the wealth generated by small farmers in the hands of those farmers. (If one chose, one could cite this as an example of a liberal government program which worked well. In that case, the Western liberals’ betrayal of such enlightened Southern governments in favor of Western globalization and agribusiness is just another on the ledger of their great crimes.) Today the dumping includes subsidized GMO crops as well as the proprietary seeds, which cabals like Bill Gates’ AGRA (Alliance for A Green Revolution in Africa) are trying to force upon these already beleaguered farmers, to further enforce this global indenture.
Another major driver of grain prices, similar to biofuel mandates, is the diversion of grain from food to feed for livestock. As more people in the East can afford to eat more meat, this generates more demand for the inefficient use of grain to feed cattle and pork rather than be used directly for food. The conversion rates are c. 7 grain calories to produce 1 calorie of beef; for pork it’s 4-5:1. People wanting to eat more meat isn’t intrinsically wicked the way using food to fuel one’s SUV is. What is evil is the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) mode of animal farming which has been designed to foster this conversion process. Everywhere CAFOs exist they’ve destroyed all independent cow and pig farmers and radically accelerated the food conversion process and concomitant structural price increase for grain. This process, too, has been subsidized by Western governments. 
Today every survey of food stagflation cites biofuel mandates, CAFOs (though they usually blame the consumers themselves; this was Bush’s favorite culprit) and the decline of agricultural investment as two of the main drivers. Over the last ten years, we can add food speculation to the indictment against Western capitalism. There’s been a lot of controversy lately over how much of an effect on prices food speculators really have. It’s true that they don’t have the same structural effect as subsidized commodity dumping, subsidized proprietary inputs and seeds, the forced privatization of investment, and biofuel mandates. These are all structural crimes. In light of these, speculators may serve as a scapegoat for some who want to politically shield these interests. Then we have globalization ideologues like Paul “It’s not class warfare” Krugman who are ardent to absolve all direct criminal actors of blame. So in desperation he blames poor harvests, this time in Russia, which are perhaps effects of climate change and its volatile weather patterns. He claims that the absence of evidence of significant grain hoarding proves his case. He trots out his stupid supply-demand graph which conveniently assumes and therefore conceals all the structural criminal aspects of the system, the crimes he spent years fighting to see committed. “Once we ignore the artificial scarcity built into the system, and all the rents it extracts, then we can call it a ‘market’. And once we’ve rationalized, moralized, normalized the status quo in this way, it’s easy to see that speculators can’t have any effect compared to a failed harvest.” 
But this whole line of argument is ridiculous. The very fact that climate change may be affecting harvests renders the effects of speculation all the more destructive, as the margin is that much more thin. The market already teeters on the brink of a price explosion even under the best conditions, on account of the system’s already being a hostage to global commodification in all its aspects. Under these conditions of structurally hardwired volatility, how much would a speculator have to hoard in order to drive up prices enough that his bets would win? I bet it’s not much. What other manipulations could a player like Goldman Sachs perform?
It’s common sense that if banksters start messing around with a market and the price explodes, they played a role in it, even if exactly how they did it isn’t always immediately clear. As Sherlock Holmes said to Watson, “If I asked you to prove two plus two is four you might have some trouble doing it, even though you know it’s true.”
So we have permanent food stagflation afflicting billions in the non-West as well as, increasingly, the West itself. We know this is not the result of supply-demand fundamentals, since supply has been grotesquely manipulated by power. Subsidies in the form of direct payments, tariffs, IP policy, and one-way globalization “treaties” which boil down to “free markets for me, prostrate victimization for you”, more than make up for any revenue which would otherwise be lost according to textbook supply inefficiencies. Globalization was never anything but colonialism by other means. And just as the original imperialism eventually came home politically to Europe in the form of totalitarian politics, so today’s globalization is coming home in the form of totalitarian corporate economic rule.
This is the essence of globalization, and it’s the structural reason for food stagflation as we descend into global depression and permanent mass unemployment (also an intentional policy). Food speculation is the last straw added to the already burning pile. Given how the banksters were the ones who coordinated the globalization onslaught, set in motion the process of mass permanent job destruction, and have now intentionally crashed the world’s real economy and used this as the pretext to steal trillions more in the form of the Bailout, it’s not surprising that their speculation in food is the most inflammatory element of the price explosion, even if relative to the structure its effect is supplementary. In essence, speculating in food, just like any predatory manipulation of food supplies, is a crime against humanity. All of commodity agriculture, and all proprietarianism related to it (it’s conceptually impossible to have a property right in any food plant, since commercialized plant varieties are already the result of thousands of years of grower selection and breeding, and any new work is merely a miniscule add-on, like placing a pebble on a mountain; any intellectual property is already long since hardwired into its public domain existence), is such a crime. So if food speculators are becoming the public face of infamy, this is really an armed robber and mass murderer being hanged for one of his lesser muggings. He still deserves it, of course. I’ll go along with whatever’s most politically effective, since it’s the same capital criminal. But our analysis should identify what’s fundamental (globalization itself, capitalism itself) and what’s ancillary. 
The peoples of the world know these crimes for what they are, evidently far better than those of the West itself. It makes sense – they have far more experience as the victims of these crimes. Unlike in 2008, they’re reacting to this new, permanent round of food price crime, not with “food riots” but with revolutions. I have high hopes that we’re finally seeing the anti-colonial movement resuming after so many decades of having been hijacked and subverted. This time the people of the world won’t fall for the lies of the West. They’ve been through this too many times before. This is the final bid for liberation, and although many of its initial demands will be political, it’s more profoundly about the people taking control of their economies. Most of all, it’s about food. These are lessons we’ll have to bring home to ourselves to meet the totalitarianism now coming home to us. Here too, it’ll be about food.
Meanwhile, I haven’t been seeing much of the MSM calling this a food riot anymore. That must be why they sound so confused, tentative, disgruntled – such easy dismissals will no longer be easy for them. Oh no! Somebody’s actually making them work! Horrible. Hopefully we’ll soon be making them work as well.

February 9, 2011

“We Are the Government Now”

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Freedom — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:48 am


Tuesday saw the biggest demonstrations yet as Egypt’s democracy swelled and marched and surged and struck in dozens of cities.
Eyewitnesses called the convocation at Liberation Square the biggest yet. Another large demonstration came together at the Parliament building. Even as Mubarak continues his intransigence, a group of lawyers presented a petition demanding he be put on trial. This is more evidence that, far from feeling the energy dispersing, the people on the ground feel their strength gathering.
A new development, big news especially for the Leader-seeking Western media, was the release from secretive custody and appearance at the Square of Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose “We Are All Khalid Said” Facebook page is getting credit for having played a significant role in organizing the original uprising. (The media keeps saying that; it’s unclear how much credit the people on the street give to these websites.)
He’s been making statements and giving speeches correctly crediting the people for the uprising. It’s unclear who he is or what he wants, although there’s already a move to “authorize” him to speak for the democracy. A new Facebook page to that effect exists. Since such hysteria is alien to the spirit of the democracy thus far, we should classify this as an astroturf until we get better information. Many within the Square said they never heard of him. And those who expressed admiration for him were still insisting “We don’t need Leaders. We are the government now.”
They’re right to be skeptical of all would-be Leaders who didn’t arise from their own ranks. While I don’t know who Ghonim himself is, on its face we have to be suspicious of an IT sector cadre. And it’s clear that he has connections with telecom racketeers, one of whom is purported to have secured his release through a conversation with Suleiman. (I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about him.)
Meanwhile we have the self-appointed “wise men” who represent no one among the people but are clearly the voice of a new gang of bourgeoisie who want to become part of the power structure. The Muslim Brotherhood’s intent – democratic or just wanting a piece, or most likely some combination – is also unclear. Elbaradei may have sidelined himself by sounding too shrill (from the system point of view) in repeating the protestors’ demands. According to him he wasn’t invited to the sham meeting Suleiman held a few days ago. Maybe they’re looking for a more pliable figurehead for a pseudo-democratic “opposition faction”. Maybe Ghonim is earmarked to play that role.
Suleiman himself is doing nothing but looking for ways to preserve the regime. He says Egypt is “not ready for democracy”, thereby admitting that the meeting he held was a sham. He’s merely promised that two “committees” will meet sooner or later to talk about some of the things the regime has vaguely promised to maybe pretend to do someday.
Meanwhile he refuses to do the one clearcut thing the regime could do right now (besides Mubarak leaving) – repeal the emergency law. That proves that everything he says is a lie, since the only things he’ll promise are things which are usually vague and always regarding the future. A future, of course, that’ll come only after the democracy disperses. But anything which can be clearly done right now, the regime refuses to do. (Even the administration, in the four demands it made public on Tuesday, included alongside three pieces of boilerplate this clear demand to repeal the emergency law.)
So there’s how much faith ought to be placed in Suleiman and in anyone who wants to “negotiate” with him. Fortunately, the democracy seems to understand this, and will continue to reject the idea of striking a bargain with these criminals who are clearly dealing in bad faith.
So there’s the politics of the moment. Elsewhere, there’s been a surge of more directly economic protest.
6000 workers at several Suez Canal service companies declared an open-ended sit-in strike. They’re demanding higher wages (in line with those of the Canal Authority) and better working conditions. Workers at Telecom Egypt protested outside the Ramses office, threatening their own open-ended sit-in. They’re demanding a 10% raise and that the managing director be fired.
Surveying several other actions:
Suez: Textile workers staged their third day of a sit-in strike. They cite a workers’ salary law which guarantees them raises which management refuses to obey. 2000 unemployed also demonstrated, demanding their right to work*.
[*Several times I’ve wanted to use that term but refrained because in America it seems to have been irretrievably Orwellized. Does anyone think it’s worth trying to reclaim it? Liberalism, which also denies that people have a right to work (since it too believes in coercive corporatism and concentrated property), played a major role putting us in such a state.]
Luxor: Thousands lined up to file for compensation on account of the suspension of tourism. (Which is the government’s fault. Only its own intransigence and defiance toward the people is keeping things in this state of limbo.)
Mahalla: 1500 workers of the Abu El-Subaa company demonstrated, demanding back pay owed them. They’ve been intermittently striking for two years now.
Quesna: 2000 Sigma workers are on strike, demanding that suspended wage and benefit increases be honored.
Aswan: 5000 unemployed demonstrated and tried to storm a government building. They demanded the governor be sacked.
Cairo: 1500 sanitation workers demonstrated, demanding a raise and lunch as a benefit. They want permanent contracts and that the Authority’s president be sacked.
It looks like the demand that the worthless thug tyrant be sacked is scalable to many levels below Mubarak himself. They’re distilling the principle: Everyone must go.
So we can see how it’s a lie that the protestors are just some socioeconomically isolated (read, a bunch of spoiled students, and tools of foreigners as well) bunch of malcontents who don’t represent the pulse of the country.
Just that brief survey of a few examples of labor unrest shows how the democratic uprising grew out of the long-festering economic conflict, and how the political uprising has in turn encouraged a non-linear escalation of worker actions. Economic and political action are dialectically gathering strength from one another, as happens in every true revolution. The next step would be if the workers started forming political councils of their own.
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