Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Electrifying Secrets of So-Called "Free Market"

In THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, Naomi Klein brilliantly proposes a compelling counter-story to the prevailing fable of free market infallibility. Buttressed by painstaking and wide-ranging research, and an ability to see connections where others only see coincidence, Ms. Klein amply shows that profit-making is not the essence of democracy as Milton Friedman and his minions would have it. She shows instead that the machinery of the state and the requirements of "disaster capitalism" are now so tightly synchronized in their exploitation of disasters both man-made and natural as to be virtually one in the same.

Citing pertinent examples to prove her thesis that "disaster capitalism" is now rampant around the world - in Russia, in China, in Iraq to name just a few - she describes how in times of crisis, elites everywhere have learned that they can profit by implementing policies, e.g., "shock therapy" or "shock and awe," that would have been vigorously opposed in normal times. When these changes to Friedmanite free-market dicta are opposed, as they were in Chile, a third shock is implemented. This, according to Klein is a shock that is entirely man-made - the torture and murder of those who would stand in the way of the takeover of the public sector, or, as neo-liberal economists would have it, the bringing forth of a new birth of freedom.

During the "Reagan Revolution," Klein argues, the notion of the `Entrepreneur As Hero' was buffed to a high gloss though the influence of right-wing think tanks whose pronouncements were reported by a cowed and obedient media. A decade later in the dot.com era, entrepreneurs were burnished to blinding sheen when the media fed the world images of swashbuckling venture capitalists who were touted as bringing forth a new millennium through the Internet. Klein maintains that George W. Bush's "public offering" -- the War on Terror - covered slavishly and avidly by the media, has been wildly successful, lining the pockets of investors in the new Homeland Security sector as promises of taxpayer money everlastingly flowing into the coffers of the military-industrial-energy complex have been fulfilled. This is the new "new economy:" the looting of the public sector through the now tried-and-true methods of disaster capitalism.

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE reveals the many wounds that disaster capitalism has inflicted upon the body politic both here in the U.S. and throughout the world over the past 25 years. It is a breathtaking achievement. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bush and Vietnam: Rewriting History

Last week, Bush finally spelled out the neo-con re-write of the Vietnam war to explain why our troops must stay there forever. Almost two years ago, I wrote the following explanation about why the Bush administration can never pull troops out of Iraq. See if I wasn't right in my diagnosis.

Saturday, November 19, 2005
The Importance of Being Earnest -- or Why the Cabal Won't "Cut and Run"

The Bush administration will never pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. To do so would be to violate a sacred principle of the ideologues who run George W. Bush and the U.S.: America must never again retreat.

"Again" is the operative word here. Again, because this principle rests upon the foundational belief of the neo-cons that the US must never show weakness again as it supposedly did in Vietnam. According their view Vietnam wasn't an unwinnable conflict against an enemy that could not be defeated in the conventional US manner.

Nope. That view wouldn't serve their imperial agenda, or stimulate their appetite for conquesst. No. According to the neo-con rewrite, the U.S. was on the cusp of victory when American leadership knuckled under to student protestors (dupes of Communism), lily-livered peaceniks, dope-smoking journalists in the liberal media, limousine liberals in Congress, etc., etc.

Had the US only persisted long enough and strenuously enough, if only the military hadn't been hamstrung by the politicians who had foolishly listened to the anti-war elite, then -- and here's where I have trouble with the neo-con rewrite -- everything would have turned out the way we wanted it to turn out. Sound familiar?

I've never been very sure what that would have looked like, the American victory in Vietnam. And I'm wondering if it's a coincidence that we don't really know what the American victory in Iraq is supposed to looks like either. Here's some possible versions: A series of rigged elections the outcomes of which are consistent with US goals of freedom and democracy (and US business interests) are organized and executed. A puppet government is installed that opens the door to American business interests. Hydroelectric plants are built on the Mekong by US construction companies with loans from Citibank, suburban homes are erected in the outskirts of Saigon/Baghdad with loans from Fannie Mae. Oil fields are tended by Halliburton, roads are built across the desert by US companies paid for with Iraqi oil/and/or loans from Chase. Or maybe it just looks like Afghanistan looks nowadays what with its new birth of freedom, the reflowering of poppies and the Taliban. But I digress.

More recently, the neo-cons point to Reagan's withdrawal of the US Marines from Lebanon after their base was destroyed by a suicide bomber as a colossal misstep in recent foreign/Mid East policy. Again, according to the neo-con interpretation, by pulling up stakes, by doing the "cut and run" America lost credibility, sullied its image among consumers. Its enemies and friends saw the US as weak, a "helpless giant" -- a shameful and humiliating reiteration of Vietnam. Grenada was qickly invaded to wipe the stain from America's military escutcheon a couple weeks after, of course, but the neo-cons knew that this bit of public relations would have be redone on a much larger scale in order to build a stronger, more fearsome brand image. This new brand image would have to be scary enough so that even Arab extremists would think twice before going up against the rebranded "Bad 'Ol USA."

So the war in Iraq is an object lesson, (as well as the usual grab for the invadee's political and economic short hairs). It's a lesson to American's friends and enemies that we will not retreat again, that we are not weak as we were in the past, that, if need be we can be as resolute as any totalitarian state or terrorist gang. That in the Bad Ol' USA we will engage in torture, if need be, just as any totalitarian state or terrorist gang does. That we will not be hamstrung by an anti-war elite or student protestors or the liberal media because in totalitarian states those impediments to policy have been suppressed. There will be no further discussion, just like in any other -- but you get the picture.That's why all the shouting and hysteria this week from Bush and Cheney, the smear tactics used on Jack Murtha, the absolute refusal to put any end date on the U.S. occupation. Perception police, they cannot brook dissent.

To allow dissent would be to give credence to other points of view, to the possible desecration of the brand, maybe even to the opening the coffin of the "helpless giant" they have spent so much time, money and blood nailing shut.The monocultural machine that they have built through intimidation, blood and terror, must be maintained at all costs.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Brothers Myshkin & Raskolnikov

My review of THE IDIOT. Read it for my bookclub.

Written immediately after CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Dostoevsky gives us THE IDIOT, whose hero, Prince Myshkin, is gentle and Christ-like - the polar opposite of Raskolnikov, the nihilist murderer. Taken together, the two novels give us a fascinating critique of Russian (and Western) society from the perspective of a sinner and a saint, and of a society that has produced both.

Admittedly, THE IDIOT must be seen a minor novel in comparison to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. It lacks its psychological power and narrative drive. But I would suggest that the greatness of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is enhanced by reading THE IDIOT. Further, I would argue that much of what is seen to be the greatness of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT originates in the location of the narrator's point of view inside the teeming and tortured mind of the ultimate outsider, Raskolnikov. The third person narrator inside a single consciousness became the "default" practice in the late 19th and early 20th century. This is perhaps why the story of Prince Myskin, our gentle insurgent in THE IDOT who is nearly always seen inside of a Russian society, and whose story is told in a mix of omniscient narrator and from Myshkin's point of view is seen to be old-fashioned or hard to read.

I would argue that given the nature of the story Dostoyevsky is telling here - of a society that cannot cope with an honest and compassionate man that the omniscient narrator's voice is warranted and appropriate (unlike a number of reviewers below for whom this technique comes off as creaky and plodding). To tell the story he wants to tell, Dostoyevsky must move from one drawing room to another, one set of eyewitnesses, gossips, and minor characters to another. These set pieces - such as Natasya's "party" where she chooses whom she will marry, or the nihilist Ipollit's reading of his Confession, also locate THE IDIOT more in the realm of traditional 19th century novel of manners than CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. And its ostensible subject matter - marriage - places it squarely in the genre.

I find it sad that the set pieces in THE IDIOT can seem interminable to some modern readers. Yes, characters do hold forth for pages and pages, propounding theories, relating anecdotes in excruciating detail. In the society of the 19th century, even in the chaotic society of post-feudal Russia where the social order was in flux, the conversational customs of a court society still held sway. Even in the considerably more democratic United States, the presence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. at social functions was highly prized by elites because he was universally recognized for his acumen as a speaker and conversationalist. These days we don't talk anywhere near as intelligently, as passionately or grandly these marvelous characters, and our suburbanized circumstances reduce our chances for unsettling social encounters as well. Which do you more often attend - parties featuring a stew of anarchic social criticism, bizarre personal attacks and grotesque dissembling, or a dull pudding of sitcom japes and bumpersticker politics? Which would you prefer?

Dostoyevsky fills his drawing rooms with challenges to the status quo, with intemperate invective, with radical claims on the political and economic system. At the same time he gives voice to conservative views, e.g., that Russia was better before Alexander II freed the serfs (in 1861, only 6 years prior to the publication of THE IDIOT), better before the aristocracy began to rub shoulders with powerful merchants and usurers, better before the atheists, nihilists and anarchists attacked the church and the social structure.

Interestingly, many of these contretemps are, as in so much 19th Century fiction, posed in connection with "the woman question." Our heroine, Natasya, raised by her guardian and seduced at a young age. is intent upon exposing Russian society for its hypocritical attitudes and brutal behavior toward women. Brilliant and beautiful, Natasya concoct a series of circumstances that both outrage and shame conventional society. She is the demonic critic of Russian society, her vindictive spirit contrasting sharply with Prince Myshkin's penchant for compassion and forgiveness. Together they form a unique double-edged critique of the bourgeoisie. And both are broken by their society's cruel intolerance and vast hypocrisy.

Prince Myshkin's conversation marks him among members of his society an "idiot" because he speaks forthrightly and answers truthfully without regard for the consequences. So disturbing is this behavior that Aglaya, the woman he hopes to marry, tells him not speak at the gathering at which he is being introduced to high society as a suitor. But driven by the onset of an epileptic fit, he disobeys and gives himself up to a remarkable speech in which his praise for the assembled company, his views on politics and religion are interpreted by most as an insult, and by many as the ravings of a madman. His speech is a form of social suicide, self-murder, and as such the flip side of Raskolnikov's homicide.

In the largest sense, what's at stake in these conversations and disputes is no less than the soul of Russia. Through the prince's speech Dostoyevsky poses the question as to whether Russia will reawaken to her deep and unique Christian heritage and behave, like the prince, with virtue, compassion and honor, or become like the empires to the West whose money-grubbing ways have begun to infect Russia and her people.

THE IDIOT has flaws. There is too much disquisition and exposition even for a 19th century novel. Sometimes, Dostoyevsky will vamp along for a few pages, trying to figure out what to do next. But still, THE IDIOT is well worth reading by itself, or even better, in combination with CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for its psychological acuity and its devastating dissection of a unique social world under stress.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Attack of Ayn Rand & The Objectivists

Here's my review of The Fountainhead, for which I've received a sound drubbing on Amazon. At the bottom I've posted comment that was made by a fan of the book. If you read my review and then the comment, I think you'll see how this person actually proves my point.

Unkindness as Philosophy, January 28, 2007
THE FOUNTAINHEAD has been described by one of its many followers - yes, followers, not readers, for the book is essentially unreadable -- as a "passionate defense of individualism [that] presents an exalted view of man's creative potential." This is a fair description, although it points unintentionally to the book's main flaw: it is not a novel, but a tract posing as a novel.

Traditional progressive novels tend to be suspicious of the exalted, especially of those who occupy exalted positions based on birth or social class. In the case of Ms. Rand, the exalted are those rare individuals who, like herself, must be allowed to work their will upon the world because they believe themselves exalted. A circular argument at best, a bad faith argument in truth, this tacit nod to the slow ascent of the common man and woman since the Enlightenment spares Ms. Rand from plumping for monarchy which, even by today's repellent neo-conservatives standards, is universally seen to be repellent.

Because her main character, Howard Roark, architect extraordinaire, is an argument and not recognizably a person, he not surprisingly suffers from a lack of inner-animation. Sensitive readers will chafe against the underlying and predictable framework that ultimately treats characters as props for Ms. Rand's objectivist philosophy, an anti-progressive stew of prejudices posing as a critique of the welfare state and its "leveling effects."

Here's the problem with her "philosophy:" for every Howard Roark it raises up as Hero, it writes off millions of people as unworthy of our interest, our sympathy and our compassion. Unkindness is not a philosophy most find acceptable. With THE FOUNTAINHEAD, Rand attempted to make it so and has managed to fool many. Because she has, she is therefore lauded by her conservative followers because her apologia absolves them of any responsibility for the fate of their fellow men and women.

Regrettably, this book and her other tendentious work, ATLAS SHRUGGED, have found their way into the backpacks of idealistic college students. One suspects that many, because their relative youth causes them to see themselves as unique individuals, are seduced by the notion that they, too, are slated for Heroic status. I have nothing against people having heroes; young people especially should have them. But Howard Roark is no hero. He's a stick figure that represents a hero. I suspect too, that because of their general unreadability, students think the books are "deep."

In retrospect, it seems true that those people whom I knew in college who didn't finish this tract-posing-as-a-novel were people who tended to be relatively reasonable in their social and political views. Those who did finish it, on the other hand, tended to be immoderate and dogmatic. Judging by some of the reviews posted here, this probably remains true today.

Now here's the comments of Lonnie E. Holder, a Top 500 Amazon reviewer.
Lonnie E. Holder
I disagree with your comments starting from the beginning. I have read this book, twice. I loved it both times. I found the book easy, yes, I said easy, to read. I was gripped by the story line and the concept of the purity of Roark's purpose.

Your second point is that this book is a "tract." A "tract" is defined as a leaflet or pamplet containing a declaration or appeal. Rand's novel contains elements of a philosophy, not a declaration. If there is an appeal, it is an appeal to sanity and away from socialism. Read Mikhail Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel." Rand meets Bakhtin's highest standard, an original voice. There are critical essays noting that when someone speaks (or writes) with an original voice and the voice attains authority that is substantially different from established authority, then frequently the voice is reviled. On the other hand, Rand knew that she would be reviled by those who failed to understand her and her not-so-subtle preaching against socialism.

In your second paragraph I see you totally missed the point of Rand's novel. Her central point was that no one should work their will upon the world. Rand deliberately fashioned Toohey to be someone who imposed his will on the world so that she could point out that these are the people she felt were destructive and anti-progressive. Roark did what Roark did and he knew that there would those who understood him and those who did not understand him could never be his clients and he would not work for them. Roark was an anti-manipulator because he could not manipulate or work his will on anyone, nor would he want to.

You next argue that "exalting" Roark is anti-progressive and anti-leveling. You sort of have that right. Rand recognizes that (revelation here) not everyone is equal. Oh my. Guess why communism failed. Some people are suited to be mathematicians and physicists, others art not. People are born equal in rights, but not in capability, and no amount of wishing and hoping will ever change that. I admire Roark's purity of purpose. Many in our so-called "modern" society would repress his creativity and talent for the sake of making inferior talents "equal." Such repression and imposition of will by the masses is wrong and removes the benefits of great creativity and genius from being able to improve our technology and our society.

Rand did not intend Roark to be a hero. She intended Roark to be a role model for purity of purpose. Never did she say that millions should be written off. Neither was she preaching or suggesting that we have no compassion for people that fail to meet the high standards of Roark. What she did say is that the vast majority of people will follow what someone suggests they should follow (read sheep), and those people should speak with their own mind rather than being dutiful robots. As noted above, people that speak with their own mind are often reviled by those who follow current authority.

You state that Ayn Rand's works are tendentious. Really? Well, is that not good? Your comments are tendentious, in case you had not noticed. Of course, they are also specious, but that is only because you failed to understand the novel.

You stereotyped people with respect to Rand's novel. Those who did not finish it are nice moderate people. You mean boring. So sad for them and their tedious little lives. Those who finished the book are dogmatic and immoderate. Those are your tendentious statements, not mine. I have a flexible point of view and am generally moderate. I have found that most people who have read this book, understood it, and enjoyed it, are seekers of truth and like people who think for themselves. They do tend to be generally in favor of individualism and are anti-communists. However, the converse (meaning those people who have not read the book) is not necessarily true, because there are people with those characteristics who have not read the book.

One final point. I suggested in my review of this book that Howard Roark would likely not have read "The Fountainhead." Something for you to think about.
I shall continue to think, but so far, count myself Roark-like in that I did not finish the book, while my critic did. Three times.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss

Here's a review I just posted on Amazon. The paragraphs in bold type at the bottom were not included in the Amazon review because of the 1,000 word limit there.

Mysteries of Corporate Mayhem Revealed!
November 26, 2006

Richard Sennett, in THE CULTURE OF THE NEW CAPITALISM reflects upon the reactionary extirpation over the past three decades of the Western social capitalist state. Starting with a discussion of Bismarckian social capitalism which was founded on the model of the Prussian Army's highly successful bureaucracy and which provided structure and discipline to cultural relations, Sennett ends with a bleak meditation on the values encoded in the New Economy versus the Old. These include the elevation of process over craftsmanship, of "flexibility" over stability, of superficial over deep knowledge, and of centralized power over mediated authority. Along the way, Sennett shares pithy insights into the nature of this revolutionary shift and the cultural and economic dislocations it has caused.

Sennett states that three new pages were turned in the late twentieth century workplace. "First has been the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies." (pg. 37) This shift in power, according to Sennett turned a second new page: "The empowered investors wanted short-term rather than long-term results." The third new page representing a challenge to the past "lay in the development of new technologies of communication and manufacturing." He notes that "one consequence of the information revolution has...been to replace modulation and interpretation of commands by a new kind of centralization." (pg. 43) At the same time, automation, growing out of technological innovation "...has affected the [social capitalist] bureaucratic pyramid in one profound way: the base of the pyramid no longer needs to be big." (pg. 43). Circuits replace people.

According to Sennett, the old model, built on the pyramid model with a mass of workers at the bottom responding to a chain of command situated at the top is on the way out. In contrast, the new model he likens to an MP3 player: "The MP3 machine can be programmed to play only a few bands from its repertoire; similarly, the flexible organization can select and perform only a few of its many possible functions at any given time. In the old-style corporation, by contrast, production occurs via a fixed set of acts; the links in the chain are set. Again in an MP3 player, what you hear can be programmed in any sequence. In a flexible organization, the sequence of production can be varied at will." (pgs.47-48). (Notably, and perhaps inevitably, the new model got its start in the cutting edge businesses of finance, technology, pharma and media and their support industries: marketing research, advertising, and business consulting).

In a remarkable section on the shift in how employees are assessed - based on achievement in the old structure and "potential" in the new -- he shows how SAT testing supports the new regime. Sennett notes that "in the search to consummate the project of finding a [Jeffersonian] natural aristocracy, the mental life of human beings has assumed a surface and narrowed form. Social reference, sensate reasoning, and emotional understanding have been excluded from that search, just as have belief and truth. ...These [flexible] institutions ... privilege the kind of mental life embodied by consultants, moving from scene to scene, problem to problem, team to team. He says that "...this talent search cuts reference to experience and the chains of circumstance, eschews sensate impressions, divides analyzing from believing, ignores the glue of emotional attachment, penalizes digging deep--the state of living in pure process which the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls 'liquid modernity.'" (pgs. 120-122)

He notes that while citizen-workers might have been trapped in Max Weber's "iron cage" under the old system, nevertheless the structure gave its denizens a sense of meaning and was roughly consonant with general social values. In essence, Sennett says: "Time lay at the center of this military, social capitalism: long-term and incremental and above all predictable time." (pg. 23).

This new architecture, crafted by the business consultant class to whom agency is given by the new corporation, enables the exercise of enormous centralized power through new communications technology, and at the same time evades the responsibility of its recommendations, as do those who hire them. Bloodless terms like "flexible" workplaces," "off-shoring" and "right-shoring," "downsizing" and "right-sizing" are, for instance, deployed to mystify mass firings and those responsible for them.

The ideal worker in this paradigm is conceived to be flexible, cooperative, efficient and not get too involved in the nuts and bolts when doing problem-solving. Want ads looking for "entrepreneurs," and "self-starters" are emblematic of this shift. The ideal worker is most of all attuned to short-term shareholder values, values which insist on change. Whether the change is good or bad is almost irrelevant: change is in and of itself a signal to investors of impending short-term gains.

Sennett offers "five ways in which the consumer-spectator-citizen is turned away from progressive politics," each element of which arises from the culture of the new capitalism. He says that the consumer-spectator-citizen is "(1) offered political platforms which resemble product platforms and (2) gold-plated difference; (3) asked to discount 'the twisted timber of humanity' (as Immanuel Kant called us), and (4) credit more user-friendly politics; (5) accept continually new political products on offer."(pg. 163). Summarizing these points, he says: "The culture of the new capitalism is attuned to singular events, one-off transactions, interventions; to progress, a polity needs to draw on sustained relationships and accumulate experience. In short, the unprogressive drift of the new culture lies in its shaping of time." (pg. 178).

In his last paragraph, Sennett attempts to end on a hopeful note: "What I have sought to explore in these pages is thus a paradox: a new order of power gained through and ever more superficial culture. Since people can anchor themselves in life only by trying to do something well for its own sake, the triumph of superficiality at work, in schools, and in politics seems to me fragile. Perhaps indeed, revolt against this enfeebled culture will constitute our next fresh page."

I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sennett offers as the historical turning point from the old pyramid to the unraveling of the Bretton Woods agreement in the oil crisis of 1973. This rupture caused the weakening of national constraints on investing. Wealth, suddenly liberated, was available for investment, and began chasing after short-term profits where once it had been satisfied with long-term dividends. The post-war consensus, that social compact which attempted to regulate business, government and labor, slowly came apart.

Notably, the unraveling of Bretton Woods happened at the same time that the U.S. and Soviet governments put aside their inflammatory anti-communist and anti-capitalistic rhetoric and sought to demonstrate to their unruly citizens and client states that as nations they could and would work together in peaceful coexistence. Jeremi Suri, in POWER AND PROTEST: GLOBAL REVOLUTION AND THE RISE OF DETENTE, suggests citizens had become unruly because of their leaders' charismatic rhetoric in the early 60s -- the "New Frontier," the "Great Society," "Communist Construction (and DeStalinization)" – a rhetoric of rising expectations that promised more prosperous, more egalitarian societies. But when these promises could not be kept, the U.S. and Soviet Union found it useful to engage in an era of détente, the strength of which "…derived from the fact that it addressed the fears and served the interest of the leaders in the largest states."

Doug Henwood in AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY, notes that it was at this same time that the conservative movement in the United States, which had been mostly quiescent in the 50s and 60s, gained a new counter-
revolutionary impetus as the ruling class, the top 1% which had traditionally controlled about 40% of the wealth in the United States, found their share reduced to approximately 20% in the early 70s. (Pg. 121). It was then that The Chicago School economists, led by Milton Friedman, sharpened their neo-liberal apologia for anti-Keynesian capitalism. Their theories were embraced by the denizens of the Business Roundtable, their friends in the Treasury Department and the White House. Eventually, in Henwood's words, "...through benefit cutbacks by employers, outsourcing, speedup, permanent downsizing, cutbacks in regulation, the central-bank-led class war succeeded in more than doubling the profit rate for non-financial corporations between 1982 and 1997" (pg. 210).

Also at this same time (1971) future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System" that warned of an assault by environmentalists, consumer activists, and others who "propagandize against the system, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it." The memo called for an organized effort by a powerful coalition of business groups and ideologically compatible foundations to align the U.S. political and legal system with their own vision. To see that this reactionary memo did in fact call forth the very forces that Powell sought to conjure, one has to look no further than the rise of K Street lobbyist and right-wing think tank in Washington, D.C.

And so we find a remarkable similarity in the goals of business and government during this pivotal time. All were reactionary attempts to tamp down the insurrection by citizen-workers as well as unruly client states and non-aligned and third-world countries.

At the same time in a feat of singular cynicism, as Thomas Frank
(in THE CONQUEST OF COOL and ONE MARKET UNDER GOD) notes that while business which becoming more regressive in the 1970s, business also began to sell soft-core versions of revolution to world consumers: revolution by Nehru jacket, by suits with bell-bottom trousers, by VW bug, by blow-dryer and ever more outrageous entertainments. Then, in the 80s during the Reagan revolution, business took an even more amazing liberty: it began to position itself as promoters of Populism, Progressivism, and personal freedom. Business began to advertise itself as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement, a movement in which the magical workings of the market would smooth the way for a new birth of personal freedom and human dignity in the U.S.A., and throughout the world.

Frank notes that this fake populist "revolution" continued in the 90s when Americans were told that average working stiff could easily become the "millionaire next door," and further, that the average guy was much better off owning stock than relying on his pension or Social Security to see him through his golden years. So pervasive did this free market farrago become in the media, that even now, well after the New Economy bubble has burst, many still hear it as gospel truth, believe that inevitably everything must be privatized for "efficiency's sake." So cunning has the pro-business rhetoric of the corporate state become that the average American blames himself for not being "entrepreneurial" enough, when instead Frank says he should be working to reverse the corporatocracy's 30-year rollback of worker's and citizen's rights.

I couldn't agree more.

One final thought. I was reminded in writing this review of THE CULTURE OF THE NEW CAPITALISM of Rory's Stewart's harrowing chronicle of his walk across Afghanistan, THE PLACES IN BETWEEN. At the end of his walk he makes the observation that the "neo-colonialists" have one plan for every developing country, a plan that is based on a modern "fundamentalism" -- the infallibility of the Free Market. And when this ideology fails, Stewart notes, as it has failed in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the new neo-colonialist administrators pack up their bags and move on to the next international hotspot, touting the same panacea despite its repeated failure to take hold. He observes that this kind of failure would never have been tolerated among earlier colonial empires; that it may be emblematic of America's schizophrenic, impatient, inconsistent brand of imperialism.

Sound familiar?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Frank Rich vs. The White House Propaganda Factory

Here's my review of Frank Rich's THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD" that I posted on Amazon today.

There's a new twist on Amazon -- people can leave comments on reviews. The first comment I got was from someone who claims that the United States is practically the only democracy left, then called me a "bad American" and "Bushophobic." Read my review and see if you agree!

That's Showbiz!, September 19, 2006

In THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD, Frank Rich amply proves that in these United States, we no longer have a functioning democracy but instead a taxpayer-funded theatrical enterprise which serves up to an increasingly restless public endless variations of cynical melodrama designed to scare the American people into submission, neutralize opponents, and surreptitiously realize big profits for its investors in the military-industrial-energy complex.

As long-time theater critic at the New York Times, Frank Rich is clearly better suited to seeing though the stagecraft of the Bush administration than the so-called "hard news" reporters like those in the stage-struck White House press corps. Reporters like the New York Times' Judith Miller, for example, who swallowed the Nigerian yellow cake uranium melodrama hook, line and sinker, and credulously fell for one red herring after another.

Hypnotized by their front row access to the White House melodrama and the threat of losing it, Rich argues that hard news reporters were played for suckers in the run up to the war by the morality play presidency of George W. Bush. The White House press corps became invested in the story, Rich argues, perpetuating the story line and profiting from it in the form of a rapt readership, and high ratings. The apocalyptic story line of a smoking gun that would become a mushroom cloud was just too sensational to pass up.

Rich wrote in an editorial a week before he went on sabbatical to write his book: "The highest priority for the Karl Rove-driven presidency is...to preserve its own power at all costs. With this gang, political victory and the propaganda needed to secure it always trump principles, even conservative principles, let alone the truth. Whenever the White House most vociferously attacks the press, you can be sure its No. 1 motive is to deflect attention from embarrassing revelations about its incompetence and failures."

As much as I am grateful for Rich's book and his columns -- one of the last voices, along with Paul Krugman's, of the Times' once-proud bourgeoisie brownstone liberal tradition -- I find myself shaking my head at the notion that the Bush administration might be "embarrassed" by its "incompetence and failures." One can only be embarrassed at incompetence and failure if you believe you have been shown to be incompetent or to have failed. But since this production is designed only to line its investors' pockets with loot, and has been doing so very nicely, there is no reason for embarrassment.

The Bush troupe, cynically directed by Karl Rove, while not capable of embarrassment, is, as Rich points out, very good at sniffing the political winds and sensing what its audience needs. As Rich says, depending on the situation, Rove will put on a new performance to draw attention elsewhere, and/or shine a harsh interrogatory spotlight on those who dare to respond to their latest offering with a sigh, a snort, or a Bronx cheer. Rove is particularly adept at creating villains as foils to an heroic Bush. While it's nothing new -- the divide and conquer melodrama has been big box office for Republicans and conservatives since Joe McCarthy came up with the formula back in the 50s - Rove has refined the stagecraft, sharpened the script into soundbites.

Recall if you will Bush's "inability" to admit to making any mistakes in his Presidency a few years ago under questioning at a White House press conference. Many commentators saw that as an example of Bush's unwillingness to examine a new set of facts, draw new conclusions and make new plans. But, in fact, Bush was playing his role of heroic common man perfectly, "catapulting the propaganda" over the heads of elites to his real audience - those true believers who embrace with all their hearts the Rovian melodrama of the strong, tough hero.

The problem with a steady diet of melodrama, of course, is that after a while the audience begins to lose interest. At some point, as Mr. Bush's poll numbers suggest, the tear-jerking and fear-jerking no longer work. The Manichaean plot becomes ever more apparent and the players are at last revealed as stick figures, as puppets, as empty ciphers in the service of the deus ex machina.

Perhaps even Mr. Bush has at last grown tired of the limited role of cock-sure, tough-talking, God-loving hero, the stock character he and director Rove artfully recycled from movie westerns, dime novels and tall tales: recently Mr. Bush told Brian Williams of NBC that he read "three Shakespeare's" and "The Stranger" during his summer vacation.

The final tragic message of THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD is that the curtain on this base melodrama could have come down years ago had only the "reviewers" in the American press corps and the Congress been doing their jobs for the American people. Frank Rich has done his job from the very beginning of this longest running melodrama in American political history. Thankfully, he continues to do so.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Sorrows of Neo-Colonialism

Here's my Amazon review of "The Places In Between" by Rory Stewart, a remarkable book by a remarkable man.

Walking To Enlightenment, August 27, 2006

Serendipitously, I finished Rudyard Kipling's masterpiece, KIM, on the same day I read the NY TIMES review of Rory Stewart's THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, a review that was so compelling that I bought the book that very Sunday.

Serendipitous because there are many remarkable resonances between Stewart's narrative of his walk from Herat to Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2002 and Kim O'Hara's fictional walk along India's Grand Trunk Road during the period circa 1900 known as The Great Game -- the struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia.

In both works we find the omnipresent influence of religion upon the social and political spheres. Interestingly, in KIM, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists of many sects mingle with one another inside the discipline of an ancient feudal caste system, (a system the British adroitly exploited for economic gain). By Stewart's time, however, the Taliban's religious fundamentalism has violently undone the tradition of tolerance and hospitality.

Then, on a more mundane level, in both works, we encounter civilizations where distance is calibrated by a day's journey on foot. Both "characters" walk ancient routes dotted with caravanserai, roadside inns where travelers could rest and recover from the day's journey. In Stewart's case, these shelters are mostly abandoned; it is often the mosque that is now the way station. In Kim's world, the shelters and markets are teeming with travelers from far away places who trade stories, foods, goods, songs, jokes, and often hilarious verbal abuse. That Stewart is told by Afghani officials he will likely be killed during his walk is indicative of how much this ancient culture has changed.

In an arresting footnote (pgs. 247-248), Stewart, after reading a post-war development plan for Afghanistan when he arrives in Kabul, remarks that "Critics have accused this new brand of administrators of neo-colonialism," then goes on to say "Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing."

That is certainly the case of the British in India as described by Kipling in KIM. Kim himself simultaneously takes up the roles of spy for the British and novice to a Tibetan Buddhist lama. Kim can dutifully attend a Catholic school for children of colonial officers where he becomes a skilled surveyor, then during vacations disappear into India's teeming masses of beggars, holy men, and traders -- the familiar life he grew up in as the orphan of a British soldier. In this, he is a perfect instrument of both British military intelligence, and, ironically, the questing Chinese lama whom he guides through the rough and tumble world of street thieves, beggars and mountebanks to a prophesied river of forgiveness and enlightenment.

The new neo-colonialists, Stewart suggests, have one plan for every developing country, a plan that is based on a modern "fundamentalism" -- the infallibility of the Free Market. And when this ideology fails, Stewart notes, as it has failed in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the new neo-colonialist administrators pack up their bags and move on to the next international hotspot, touting the same panacea despite its repeated failure to take hold. This kind of failure would never have been tolerated among earlier colonial empires; it may be emblematic of America's schizophrenic, impatient, inconsistent brand of imperialism.

In THE PLACES IN BETWEEN we see the vestiges of an ancient civilization, its passing hurried by the new version of The Great Game which demands adherence to the universalist creed of economic freedom. Common human decency, once supported by the strictures of Islam that demanded among its followers hospitality to strangers, is fading fast as the project for a new American century polarizes and radicalizes traditional cultures everywhere.

Whether you read it as an adventure, a travelogue, a guide to what's happened and what's happening in Afghanistan, THE PLACES IN BETWEEN is truly a remarkable achievement.