Counterpunch Articles

The Kurds Await Their Fate

Big powers, as with the greatest of gangsters, have always had a certain, indulgent luxury; their prerogative is to make promises they can choose to abide by or ignore.  A vision is assured, guarantees made.  Then comes the betrayal.  The small powers, often pimped in the process, can only deal with the violent consequences.

The United States has gone the way of other powers in this regard.  On Monday, the White House announced that US troops would be withdrawn from the Syrian-Turkish border.  At a press conference, President Donald Trump explained that the US had been in Syria “for a long time”.  The stint was intended to be short; and besides, the US had, by and large, “defeated ISIS.  One hundred percent of the caliphate.” (This point is confuted by the US Defence Department Inspector General.)  Distinctly un-imperial sentiments were expressed.  “We want to bring our soldiers home.  These are the endless wars.”

Ankara, having been beating at the door impatiently for some for action to be taken against the Kurdish fighters who form the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, has now been given what is tantamount to an encouragement: when we leave, do your worst.  Trump, for his part, has made less than convincing overtures that any violent action on the part of Turkish forces against the Kurdish fighters will lead to an economic retaliation from Washington. In operational terms, Turkey has also been scratched from the roster of coalition air operations over Syria and limited in terms of receiving US intelligence.

Critics of the decision see the matter less in pro-Kurdish terms than in those benefitting US adversaries in the region. Russia, Iran and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), would be delighted as this “precipitous withdrawal”.  Islamic State forces would also receive a boost of encouragement.  For Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) Trump had made “an impulsive decision that has long-term ramifications” cutting “against sound military and geopolitical advice.”

The United States has, like a deep-pocketed sugar-daddy, funded, watered and encouraged agents, allies, entities and states in various global theatres, only to withdraw support at vital moments. The Kurds and Marsh Arabs, or the Ma’dan, were offered promises of support in 1991 in taking up arms against the Saddam regime.  The more than heavy hint given was that Washington would put boots and vehicles on the road to Baghdad once the Iraqis were banished from Kuwait.  Rebellions were started in anticipation.

The mission never went much beyond the issue of restoring Kuwait’s sovereign status.  President George W. H. Bush felt that tic of restraint, the cold hand of geopolitical reason: to go further would inspire doom and possible quagmire, the US having previously received a most telling bruising in Indochina.  The result of this cruel calculus was simple: Best abandon the promised.  The result was massacre, with Iraqi forces mopping up with an efficiency unseen in its confrontation with Coalition forces.

The Kurdish story of abandonment and betrayal is historical staple.  No mention was made of the Kurdish nation in the Treaty of Lausanne, which saw Britain and France deal with Syria and Iraq in artificial, jigsaw terms.  Sects and tribes were jumbled.  The ingredients for future conflict were mixed.  Britain’s own great power contribution during the 1920s was to quash Kurdistan within the borders of Iraq.  But it saw little trouble, at least initially, in recognising the Kurdish Republic of Ararat, as it was set up within the boundaries of a severely weakened post-Ottoman Turkish state.  The Foreign Office, however, saw much value in Turkey as a geopolitical player. Britain duly repudiated its position, permitting Turkey to wipe that fledgling experiment from the map.

In time, the United States replaced European powers as the Kurds’ serial betrayers, and seemed to relish leading projects of autonomy down the garden path.  Washington did not shy away from providing assistance to Iraqi Kurds during the rule of Abd al-Karim Qasim in the late 1950s.  With Kassem’s overthrow in a 1963 military coup, support dried up.  The US objective of having Kassem removed had been achieved, allowing the new order to liquidate Kurdish resistance.

In February 1975, the Village Voice published details of a covert action program supplying Iraqi Kurds with weapons and material that had run for three years costing $16 million.  The aim was to turn the Kurds into a harassing force rather than a full blown autonomous unit.  This took place despite strenuous objections from those within the Central Intelligence Agency, a body not always known for its cautious take on such matters, warning that thousands of Kurds would perish.  As ever, the man behind the effort – President Richard Nixon – made sure that the State Department was left in the dark for a good time after the program had commenced.

Despite US approval of an Iran-Iraq agreement over the Shatt-al-Arab in 1975, the Kurds were purposely not informed about the political shift and encouraged to keep fighting.  For the border dispute, Saddam got what he wanted: Iranian-US cessation of support for the Kurdish cause, resulting in the deaths of 35,000 and the creation of 200,000 refugees.  Before the House Select Committee on Intelligence (also known as the Pike Committee), Nixon’s Iago, Henry Kissinger, was untroubled: “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”  The final report of the Pike Committee would not let this one pass.  “Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise.”

The pattern of cold indifference, fed by hardened cynicism, continues through the 1980s.  Few tears were shed in the White House over the use of nerve and mustard gas against the Kurdish populace of Halabja in March 1988.  In fact, President Ronald Reagan, in the great US tradition of he’s-our-sonofabitch, made a point of ensuring that Iraq was not penalised by sanctions.  In the 1990s, the Clinton administration separated its favourite, noble Kurds from their destabilising counterparts, the former a celebrated nuisance to Saddam; the latter a terrorist threat to Turkey, a US ally.  In 2007, just to recapitulate the point, Turkey was allowed free rein to target Iraqi Kurds within a post-Saddam country.

The rise of Islamic State with its daft and dangerous caliphate pretensions had a seedling effect in northern Syria and Iraq: an incipient Kurdish independence movement throbbed in resistance.  Turkey looked on, worried.  But US support for the Kurdish resistance was premised on the continuing presence of Islamic State, and its eventual neutralisation.  The defeat of its fighters, many of whom have found themselves in Kurdish custody, with their families in camps, gave Trump the signal to move US personnel out.  While his sentiment on not feeding eternal wars is eminently sensible, the consequences of this decision make it just another betrayal, and another bloodbath in waiting.  To the Kurds go the sorrows.

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Right Kind of Green: Agroecology

The globalised industrial food system that transnational agri-food conglomerates promote is failing to feed the world. It is responsible for some of the planet’s most pressing political, social and environmental crises.

Whether it involves the undermining or destruction of what were once largely self-sufficient agrarian economies in Africa or the devastating impacts of soy cultivation in Argentina, localised, traditional methods of food production have given way to global supply chains dominated by policies which favour agri-food giants, resulting in the destruction of habitat and peasant farmer livelihoods and the imposition of a model of agriculture that subjugates remaining farmers and regions to the needs and profit margins of these companies.

Many take as given that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. There is the premise that water, seeds, land, food, soil, forests and agriculture should be handed over to powerful, corrupt transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretence these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity.

These natural assets (‘the commons’) belong to everyone and any stewardship should be carried out in the common interest by local people assisted by public institutions and governments acting on their behalf, not by private transnational corporations driven by self-interest and the maximization of profit by any means possible.

Common ownership and management of these assets embodies the notion of people working together for the public good. However, these resources have been appropriated by national states or private entities. For instance, Cargill captured the edible oils processing sector in India and in the process put many thousands of village-based workers out of work; Monsanto conspired to design a system of intellectual property rights that allowed it to patent seeds as if it had manufactured and invented them; and India’s indigenous peoples have been forcibly ejected from their ancient lands due to state collusion with mining companies.

Those who capture essential common resources seek to commodify them – whether trees for timber, land for real estate or agricultural seeds – create artificial scarcity and force everyone else to pay for access. Much of it involves eradicating self-sufficiency.

Traditional systems attacked

Researchers Marika Vicziany and Jagjit Plahe note that for thousands of years Indian farmers have experimented with different plant and animal specimens acquired through migration, trading networks, gift exchanges or accidental diffusion. They note the vital importance of traditional knowledge for food security in India and the evolution of such knowledge by learning and doing, trial and error. Farmers possess acute observation, good memory for detail and transmission through teaching and storytelling. The very farmers whose seeds and knowledge have been appropriated by corporations to be bred for proprietary chemical-dependent hybrids and now to be genetically engineered.

Large corporations with their seeds and synthetic chemical inputs have eradicated traditional systems of seed exchange. They have effectively hijacked seeds, pirated germ plasm that farmers developed over millennia and have ‘rented’ the seeds back to farmers. Genetic diversity among food crops has been drastically reduced. The eradication of seed diversity went much further than merely prioritising corporate seeds: the Green Revolution deliberately sidelined traditional seeds kept by farmers that were actually higher yielding and climate appropriate.

Across the world, we have witnessed a change in farming practices towards mechanised industrial-scale chemical-intensive monocropping, often for export or for far away cities rather than local communities, and ultimately the undermining or eradication of self-contained rural economies, traditions and cultures. We now see food surpluses in the West and food deficit areas in the Global South and a globalised geopoliticised system of food and agriculture.

A recent article on the People’s Archive of Rural India website highlights how the undermining of local economies continues. In a region of Odisha, farmers are being pushed towards a reliance on (illegal) expensive genetically modified herbicide tolerant cotton seeds and are replacing their traditional food crops.

The authors state that Southern Odisha’s strength lay in multiple cropping systems, but commercial cotton monoculture has altered crop diversity, soil structure, household income stability, farmers’ independence and, ultimately, food security. Farmers used to sow mixed plots of heirloom seeds, which had been saved from family harvests the previous year and would yield a basket of food crops. Cotton’s swift expansion is reshaping the land and people steeped in agroecological knowledge.

The article’s authors Chitrangada Choudhury and Aniket Aga note that cotton occupies roughly 5 per cent of India’s gross cropped area but consumes 36 to 50 per cent of the total quantum of agrochemicals applied nationally. They argue that the scenario here is reminiscent of Vidarbha between 1998 and 2002 – initial excitement over the new miracle (and then illegal) Bt cotton seeds and dreams of great profits, followed by the effects of their water-guzzling nature, the huge spike in expenses and debt and various ecological pressures. Vidarbha subsequently ended up as the epicentre of farmer suicides in the country for over a decade.

Choudhury and Aga echo many of the issues raised by Glenn Stone in his paper ‘Constructing Facts:Bt Cotton Narratives in India’. Farmers are attracted to GM cotton via glossy marketing and promises of big money and rely on what are regarded as authoritative (but compromised) local figures who steer them towards such seeds. There is little or no environmental learning by practice as has tended to happen in the past when adopting new seeds and cultivation practices. It has given way to ‘social learning’, a herd mentality and a treadmill of pesticides and debt. What is also worrying is that farmers are also being sold glyphosate to be used with HT cotton; they are unaware of the terrible history and reality of this ‘miracle’ herbicide, that it is banned or restricted in certain states in India and that it is currently at the centre of major lawsuits in the US.

All this when large agribusiness concerns wrongly insist that we need their seeds and proprietary chemicals if we are to feed a growing global population. There is no money for them in traditional food cropping systems but there is in undermining food security and food sovereignty by encouraging the use of GM cotton and glyphosate or, more generally, corporate seeds.

In India, Green Revolution technology and ideology has actually helped to fuel drought and degrade soils and has contributed towards illnesses and malnutrition. Sold under the guise of ‘feeding the world’, in India it merely led to more wheat in the diet, while food productivity per capita showed no increase or actually decreased. Nevertheless, there have been dire consequences for the Indian diet, the environment, farmers, rural communities and public health.

Across the world, the Green Revolution dovetailed with an international system of chemical-dependent, agro-export mono-cropping and big infrastructure projects (dams) linked to loans, sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF directives, the outcomes of which included a displacement of the peasantry, the consolidation of global agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries into food deficit regions.

Often regarded as Green Revolution 2.0, the ‘gene revolution’ is integral to the plan to ‘modernise’ Indian agriculture. This means the displacement of peasant farmers, further corporate consolidation and commercialisation based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants. If we take occurrences in Odisha as a microcosm, it would also mean the undermining of national food security.

Although traditional agroecological practices have been eradicated or are under threat, there is a global movement advocating a shift towards more organic-based systems of agriculture, which includes providing support to small farms and an agroecology movement that is empowering to people politically, socially and economically.

Agroecology

In his final report to the UN Human Rights Council after a six-year term as Special Rapporteur, in 2014 Olivier De Schutter called for the world’s food systems to be radically and democratically redesigned. His report was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature. He concluded that by applying agroecological principles to the design of democratically controlled agricultural systems we can help to put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges. De Schutter argued that agroecological approaches could tackle food needs in critical regions and could double food production in 10 years. However, he stated that insufficient backing seriously hinders progress.

And this last point should not be understated. For instance, the success of the Green Revolution is often touted, but how can we really evaluate it? If alternatives had been invested in to the same extent, if similar powerful and influential interests had invested in organic-based models, would we now not be pointing to the runaway successes of organic-based agroecological farming and, importantly, without the massive external costs of a polluted environment, less diverse diets, degraded soils and nutrient deficient food, ill health and so on?

The corporations which promote chemical-intensive industrial agriculture have embedded themselves deeply within the policy-making machinery on both national and international levels. From the overall bogus narrative that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world to providing lavish research grants and the capture of important policy-making institutions, global agri-food conglomerates have secured a perceived thick legitimacy within policy makers’ mindsets and mainstream discourse. The integrity of society’s institutions have been eroded by corporate money, funding and influence, which is why agroecology as a credible alternative to corporate agriculture remains on the periphery.

But the erosion of that legitimacy is underway. In addition to De Schutter’s 2014 report, the 2009 IAASTD peer-reviewed report, produced by 400 scientists and supported by 60 countries, recommends agroecology to maintain and increase the productivity of global agriculture. Moreover, the recent UN FAO High Level Panel of Experts concludes that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture.

Writer and academic Eric Holtz-Gimenez argues that agroecology offers concrete, practical solutions to many of the world’s problems that move beyond (but which are linked to) agriculture. In doing so, it challenges – and offers alternatives to – plunder which takes place under a prevailing system of doctrinaire neoliberal economics that in turn drives a failing model of industrial agriculture.

The scaling up of agroecology can tackle hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation and climate change. By creating securely paid labour-intensive agricultural work, it can also address the interrelated links between labour offshoring by rich countries and the removal of rural populations elsewhere who end up in sweat shops to carry out the outsourced jobs: the two-pronged process of neoliberal globalisation that has devastated the economies of the US and UK and which is displacing existing indigenous food production systems and undermining the rural infrastructure in places like India to produce a reserve army of cheap labour.

The Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology by Nyeleni in 2015 argued for building grass-root local food systems that create new rural-urban links, based on genuine agroecological food production. It went on to say that agroecology should not become a tool of the industrial food production model but as the essential alternative to that model. The Declaration stated that agroecology is political and requires local producers and communities to challenge and transform structures of power in society, not least by putting the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of those who feed the world.

It involves prioritising localised rural and urban food economies and small farms and shielding them from the effects of rigged trade and international markets. It would mean that what ends up in our food and how it is grown is determined by the public good and not powerful private interests driven by commercial gain and the compulsion to subjugate farmers, consumers and entire regions.

There are enough examples from across the world that serve as models for transformation, from the Oakland Institute’s research in Africa and the Women’s Collective of Tamil Nadu to the scaling up of agroecological practices in Ethiopia.

Whether in Europe, Africa, India or the US, agroecology can protect and reassert the commons and is a force for grass-root change. This model of agriculture is already providing real solutions for sustainable, productive agriculture that prioritise the needs of farmers, consumers and the environment.

 

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Internal Dissolution: Brexit and the Disunited Kingdom

While the European family seems to be having its internal spats – populist sparks within threatening to light the powder keg – the marshals and deputies, for the most part, are attempting to contain the British contagion. Britain is still scheduled to leave on October 31 without a deal with the European Union. The divorce papers remain unimplemented, and the lawyers and mediators are chafing. Governments across the European Union are planning for the hardest of hard departures, and Yellowhammer, the emergency government document contemplating the worst – queues, depleted supplies of necessaries, possible riots, transport shortages – has become, in a short time, part of the canon of apocalypse.

As that date looms, the internal prospects for British dissolution cannot be discounted. What the Brexit to-and-fro has shown since 2016 is a certain version of boisterous and blind Englishness, rather than composed Britishness per se. In announcing a Brexit war cabinet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was really declaring war on Britain, with the EU enemy more spectral than ever.

The Britannic entity remains a political compact; England is a nation, albeit the dominant member. Scotland and Wales are also nations, but have been somewhat eclipsed by what Neal Ascherson describes as “the nation which still thinks it’s more than just a nation, which has been paranoid about ‘foreigners telling us what to do’ since Henry VIII told the pope where he could stick it.”

It was that Englishness, more than any coherent concept of Britishness, that Johnson has pursued, both as Brexit campaigner and scribe, penning pieces as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph from 1989 to 1994 that have now come to be described as true right-wing satire. Those observations about Brussels-styled lunacy in regulation, much of it painfully emptied of fact, furnished the stirrings of English revolt.

The UK compact is under siege from several angles. The prime minister’s attempt to prorogue parliament went to the highest courts in both Scotland and England, and perished in what can only be described as a cool, legal death. The suspension of parliament had been obtained for improper purposes, a measure designed to prevent Parliament from exercising its scrutinising, and accountability functions. The response from the Brexit platoons was one of horror and outrage: the people’s wishes had been repudiated by unelected judges. Those wishing for Britain to remain, and those wishing for a clear Brexit deal, cheered the judges as discharging a relevant democratic function. Parliament, in turn, has returned to type: a state of doomed paralysis seemingly awaiting some external catalyst.

The nations within the union are also unsettled. Scotland is perhaps the most likely candidate to exit the Britannic family first. While 51.9 percent of Britons voted to leave, 62 percent of Scots voted to remain. Its attempts at independence have thus far failed, but the last three years have seen more kindling for the effort. This has also been assisted by the refusal on the part of the UK government to offer Scotland a specially tailored variant of Brexit, a sort of Greenland-Denmark model. This has been a feature marked by Westminster’s blanket exclusion of devolved governments in any part of the negotiations.

As law academic Sionaidh Douglas-Scott pointedly reminds us, the UK EU Withdrawal Act 2018 covering post-Brexit domestic law was enacted without Scottish consent, a clear “breach of the Sewel Convention.” While Sewel is not a legally enforceable understanding, this very fact suggested the breach of mutual trust, an institutional sneer. Westminster, in short, had shown its true colours.

The All Under One Banner (AUBO) procession on Saturday in Edinburgh attracted thousands, though it was unclear whether the hundred thousand number sought by the organisation was reached. Irrespective of that point, background work is being done to stage the next independence referendum. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has re-busied herself with the project, hoping to re-run another vote in 2020. This would require dispensation from the UK government. Her advertising plea? We are doing more for infrastructure and the environment (better busses, a decarbonised Scottish rail network by 2035, a new green deal) and combating health inequality that Westminster has evidently loss interest in. “We will seek agreement to the transfer of power that will put the referendum beyond legal challenge. We have a clear democratic mandate to offer the choice of independence within this term of parliament and we intend to do so.”

Ironically, Wales, having propped the leave vote in 2016, is now muttering about a possible exit from the UK while flirting with the idea of European re-engagement. In July this year the BBC wondered whether it was becoming “indy-curious”. The network’s Welsh affairs editor Vaughan Roderick had this assessment: “there is not much evidence of growing support for independence itself, but there is evidence that it’s being talked about a lot more.” Welsh Labour, for instance, suggests more than a smattering of interest for the idea.

This month, Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price told BBC Radio Wales’ Breakfast program that a referendum on the subject would take place by 2030. He suggested the probable dissolution of the UK. “The UK as we know it could cease to exist in a few short years.” The message of the EU being the big bad wolf against British sovereignty does not feature in Price’s vision. As an independent state – independent, that is, from the UK, yet a member of the EU – Wales would be able to obtain up to £2bn in extra funds.

To the Plaid Cymru party conference, Price reiterated the vision of “independence” as an “imperative”. It was because of his party that “the argument for independence has moved from the periphery to the centre”. He also issued a stern warning to the governing English centre in Westminster: £20bn was needed, not as charity “but reparation for a century of neglect that has left a country, rich in its resources, a bitter legacy of poverty, sickness, blighted lives and broken dreams.”

Like a misguided effort at summoning demons, Brexit conjured up creatures that are proving impossible to contain. The forces of history are finding their unruly way; the disaffected are starting to tear and itch. The EU bogeyman is becoming less real than the kingdom’s internal conflict. Hail, the Disunited Kingdom!

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He Went Up, She Went Down

Pray you now, forget and forgive.

– Shakespeare, King Lear 

One went up and one went down.  Each enjoyed similar benefits as a result of their travels.  I refer to Brett Kavanaugh and Maryanne Trump Barry. Brett ascended to the United States Supreme Court and Maryanne descended from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  Their travels enabled them to escape the consequences of their misconduct.

Because of his ascension, Brett avoided facing any consequences for claims of sexual misconduct that followed him through his confirmation process, and more pertinently, complaints about his ethical misconduct during his confirmation hearing.

The misconduct during his confirmation hearing came about because of his inadequately developed sense of propriety that manifested itself when,  during the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee which was considering his appointment to the United States Supreme Court, he modelled himself after the White House juvenile (who in a recent moment of petulance described himself as having “great and unmatched wisdom”). Equally petulant during his confirmation hearing, Brett screamed and yelled at the committee which was trying to determine whether he was fit to serve on the United States Supreme Court.   He said the hearing was “a calculated and orchestrated political hit job . . .revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” By the time the senate voted on his confirmation, 83 complaints had been lodged against him with the Committee on Judicial and Disability because of, among other things, his puerile conduct before the Senators.  After his ascension, the Committee said he was no longer subject to the federal judiciary’s internal ethics review process.  That is because the Act does not give the Committee the ability to investigate grievances against members of the Supreme Court.  Brett is home free for life. So is Maryanne.

Maryanne is the sister and incidental, (and probably not unwitting), beneficiary of the illegal conduct of her baby brother, a man whose complete lack of anything bordering on ethical behavior, has resulted in his making huge amounts of money through his dishonest and corrupt business practices. His family, including Maryanne, have been the beneficiaries of his corrupt behavior.

According to a report in the  New York times there were, among other things,  many examples of successful tax fraud by the trumps when dealing with assets owned by their father.  The results of that fraud were that the trump and his siblings made huge amounts of money by cheating the federal government on the estate taxes owed on account of their father’s death and  undervaluing assets that were transferred to them in order to avoid payment of gift taxes, to give but two examples of their corrupt behavior. Other instances of fraudulent conduct were disclosed at length in the New York Times’ investigation.

Notwithstanding her participation in family fraud, Maryanne is not without a sense of propriety.  When her baby brother became the president of the United States, Maryanne notified the court that she would no longer be hearing any cases and would relinquish her staff and her chambers.  The only benefit she retained following her retirement was her salary.  Not only did she remain entitled to her salary following her retirement, but she remained subject to the rules pertaining to judicial conduct that apply to all federal judges except those on the Supreme Court. As a result she could be investigated for perceived misconduct.

Following the conclusion of the New York Times investigation, a complaint was filed with the appropriate Judicial Conduct Council by lawyers concerned about her apparent ethical breaches while a federal judge,  as the incidental beneficiary of her baby brother’s corrupt behavior.  Maryanne did not, it seems, want to wait to find out what the Council would conclude as to her participation in family fraud.  Instead, she fully retired from the court.  That deprived the Council of jurisdiction to determine if, in fact, she was subject to any form of discipline because of her involvement in her baby brother’s criminal activities. Her descent from the court into the world of everyday mortals was a great result for Maryanne if not for the reputation of the federal judiciary.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has now come up with a plan to put an end to the immunity for consequences of bad behavior by federal judges that now protects them. She wants to close the loophole through which Brett and Maryanne crawled. As she explained:  “My plan extends the authority of the Judicial Conference to former judges so that individuals under investigation cannot simply resign from the bench to avoid accountability.”  She also wants to extend the Code of Conduct for United States Judges to Justices sitting on the Supreme Court.  If Senator Warren’s  proposals were adopted, Brett-Maryanne results would no longer occur.

He went up, she went down. The American public went nowhere.  Neither did the investigations into their misconduct.  As the trump would tweet:  SO SAD.

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Joker: Cause Without a Rebel

Still from the Joker, Warner Bros. Pictures.

I generally found all the hype around the movie Joker to be overblown on all sides. The claim that a movie could end civility reflected the general hyperbole and panic in the Trump era. But the whining about woke culture and the left that came from the director were even more pathetic. All the people whining about cancel culture need to stop. If you’re whining, you haven’t been canceled.

The Joker director may be upset that some people are offended by violence but he is by no means censored. A movie like his will be made with a Hollywood budget every time because it has the two things all Hollywood movies need: violence and thoughtlessness. Or rather, a plot that is moved by violence instead of ideas. Not that you have to choose necessarily, but Joker did. Violence after all is for people who know they have lost the war of ideas.

A movie like Joker is made every time. The people who are canceled are those who challenge capitalism’s grip of death. When was the last mainstream communist movie? (Boots Riley’s brilliance as exception of course). When was the last movie that addressed climate change in a way that was pro-earth and pro-human? When was any movie that challenged the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the theft known as private property or the institution of marriage? When was such a film that dealt with the fossil fuel industry or the two-party duopoly?

And that is just cultural examples. Who is really canceled in our society? The poor who live in debt, are thrown in jail, work several jobs, can’t pay for child care, must drop out of school and live in communities of polluted air, water and food. If people really wanted second chances in our ruthless society how about we first start with the young black people targeted as children?

The only thing worse than Joker and its alt-right director were its liberal critics, who rightly noted that the film lacked a clear direction and was just confused cynicism. That it was, it was quite Trump-like that way and it, of course, attracted the typical liberal triggered response. The character of the Joker is at once severely brain-damaged and resentful of the entirety of society. There are a million excuses for his murdering spree but it seems impossible they could all exist at once. But the same is probably true for Trumpism. The country is a lot more stupid, but also a lot more racist, and a lot more poor, and all of these things can exist at once, but certainly aren’t correlated, as liberals want you to think.

Joker isn’t very well thought out. It has the singular gear of rage. But it is, like Trump, simply vomiting all its spare thoughts out. It does in some ways reflect an accurate depiction of someone in isolation who just circles the drain and therefore has no genuine populist connection. This, unfortunately, was just as much the movie maker’s dilemma as the characters. As a rich-hating mob of humorless loser clowns kill a rich guy we are meant to think: the socialists are coming, they are violent, they are crazy and they hate us for no reason.

There was perhaps a criticism of austerity in the movie as Joker lamented his drugs were being cut off because of cuts to state spending. I think this was a criticism of austerity, but perhaps Joker was supposed to be so unsympathetic that we weren’t supposed to take anything he says seriously. After all this guy is just really sad and really brain damaged. There is not a functioning citizen here, let alone a coherent political ideology. Liberals were right to point out this movie can’t be apolitical, as nothing is, but other than the movie not being made at all (a good idea), where was one to go with what this guy thought?

Brushed aside are the Incel fantasies of Joker as he relentlessly stalks his neighbor. Joker is supposed to be a hero so most of the movie we see his fantasy of the young woman loving the stalking. Such realism in the fantasies was confusing because of Joker’s mental illness. It made one think that it wasn’t Joker who was supposed to be fooled by his fantasy, but the audience. Needless to say, the resentment of women and the entitlement to their bodies was unaddressed in this apolitical vacuum.

I don’t think the director could argue I was spoiling the fun. This was the most self-serious and intense movie I’d seen in a long time. But this seemed to be his gripe about most of his critics.

Clearly this movie was a timely and opportunistic chance to try and explain vigilante violence and political unrest in the age of Trump. It was so sloppy, and intentionally so, that it combined all political ideologies into one big opposition tent. Along the way we were supposed to believe that everyone who feels lonely and defeated turns to violence and that we should not fear the rich, but the dark underbelly who resents them.

The New Yorker lamented that race was ignored in this movie, and it may have been. But what was The New Yorker looking for? A reason for Joker’s motives? The only merit of the film was that it was pointless. There could perhaps be meaning there. The liberal critics were clearly wanting to reference the racist mass shooters but weren’t there more glaring racial omissions?

The scene of the cops getting beat up by the mob, and everyone being happy about it seemed like such a blind interpretation of the present-day left, particularly Black Lives Matter which is explicitly a non-violent movement despite the relentless police violence against these communities.

But like individual police officers, wackos like Joker often are used by White America as scapegoats for white supremacy as liberals can only critique the excess of white supremacy, and never the root cause and mass appeal. It was entirely possible, even likely that Joker wasn’t racist, given his severe brain damage from the age of five. Unable to understand any social norms, it seems unlikely that he would have picked up the social norm of white supremacy. Of course, it was even less likely that he would start shooting everyone but the movie would have lasted about two minutes without this element.

While critics saw Joker as unrealistic because he was a rebel without a cause, perhaps the greater problem for the critics is that their cause has no rebels. One of the misconceptions of Sigmund Freud is that Freudian slips only happen occasionally. For Freud, these slips happen constantly. Trump is one big Freudian slip of what America believes, was founded on, was built on, and what it relies upon.

What the media attempts to blame on individual actors are dynamics they know they are responsible for throughout society. Across the world soldiers and policemen are spread to protect the private property of rich white families. This property can be expressed through countries, through individual ownership but also more crucially through the protection of currency. No one is interested in seeing the violence necessary to maintain this hierarchy but it is clearly there. Now the ironic liberal complaint is that Joker did not express this ideology clearly. They didn’t like this because now Joker can no longer be the one who takes the blame for white supremacy. Instead, it just sits there as the elephant in the room.

Joker rather was just acting without any cause. He somehow knew it was all fucked up. It was here where the director’s imagination failed to create a response beyond the most predictable and regressive, and one would have to assume he failed to even imagine his liberal foil, as much joy as it may have given him.

Joker was a horrible experience. It exhausted the viewer with relentless violence and the only point of it seemed to be that people who are mentally ill are dangerous. And so are poor people, who are also probably mentally ill. It flirted with an interesting “why” for the danger, but it mostly failed to understand, which makes sense seeing that the assumption of the poor being a mob of self-pity was equally delusional. It clearly failed to understand the human condition and the variety of responses to despair. Instead, the rich Hollywood think thank just expressed its greatest fear: angry poor people—without much reflection on how these people would actually act. Much of the tension here on both sides has to do with the climate catastrophe, as it always does.

But why did the critics hate it? Probably because the critics had the same fear of the poor, and this movie was so utterly perplexing that it just left the viewer holding the bag of fear. But why be scared of the poor in the first place unless you have stolen something from them? It is in this way that the Trump hysteria has still not been seriously discussed. The Trump hysteria has nothing to do with Trump. It has much more to do with the guilt of a failed system that has lost control of itself. Rather than tear it all up we are desperately trying to repair capitalist democracy. That includes the wealth distribution musical chairs of Bernie and Warren.

What critics looked for was an easy answer out of Joker. But it had no answers. It wasn’t that kind of movie, if that kind of movie exists at all anymore. It lost the reigns of its own expression and ended up being an incoherent ego grab for director and star alike (Joaquin Phoenix is good, but lost himself here). Now as liberals grasp for someone to blame for this all this anger perhaps one shouldn’t be looking to that mob of discontent.

Rather, one should address the necessity of the twin pillars of Western society to maintain itself. These pillars are of course violence and thoughtlessness. It is only by a conceited educational and cultural apparatus that the elites learn of supposed sociological causes for societal chaos. These sociological reasons attempt to explain humanity through a series of victim-blaming diagnoses and individualized grievances.

Left to the side is that the reason for all migration, war, jail, poverty and even despair and mental collapse have to do with the theft of wages and property by the rich and powerful. It is only through top-down, fascist organized forms of violence—causes without rebels—that such wealth is protected. It is only through thoughtlessness and blindness to the obvious that the middle class defends such values. Joker was such a swing and a miss that it failed to follow through on the scapegoats it intended. This left the liberal frustrated and in need of someone to blame.

While resentment of the rich and powerful may be alive, its over-emphasis among Hollywood and other propaganda institutions reflect the narcissism of the rich and powerful making this propaganda. The rich would rather think the poor want to be like them than have their money. One condition of human suffering, not addressed in this film that was supposed to capture it, is that petty grievances are left behind when we suffer and meaning begins to form, whether in despair or joy.

So it seems less likely that Joker wanted to be funny because even the comedian he admired lacked humor—he was just a bully with an audience. What Joker may have wanted, if he was real, would be to gain a life of dignity and community away from his dingy apartment. But Joker was just a figment of rich people’s imagination and therefore his character was completely flat and devoid of any real motivation beyond resentment of his creators. Unfortunately for the rich the real motivations for hatred of them may be more straight forward: you stole our shit and now we are hungry.

That takes away almost all the drama of Joker—which wanted so badly to be important and authentic and most importantly non-political. The ultimate failure of liberalism is that it fails to address the fundamental need for the rich to defend their property, either by force or ideology. The right uses force and is ruthless in its cynicism about human nature. Joker reflects the failure of the right to even have a conversation outside of violence at this perilous time that endangers both the rule of law and the admirable values liberalism has brought us.

It is however also true that the ideology of liberalism effectively shifts the blame away from the control of the property to distinctly human causes. Joker is so abysmally non-human it leaves the door open for an embrace of communism simply because the various forms of individual diagnosis need at least an ideological structure to give them merit, which in turn needs a middle class, which America no longer has. This could go one of two ways but likely neither will involve a clown mob.

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Sure Trump is ‘Betraying the Kurds!’ but What’s New about That?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is attacking President Trump for pulling US troops out of Syria, where they’ve been engaging in an illegal and bloody war against the Syrian government and its military for at least five years (not counting the three prior years when the US was providing arms and training to Syrian rebels, including groups associated with Al Qaeda).

McConnell and other Republicans, as well as most leading Democrats, are calling Trump’s move “precipitous” despite the years US troops have been fighting in Syria, and like McConnell are saying his decision is “benefitting Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” and is a “betrayal” of America’s ally in Syria, the armed Kurdish minority.

For starters, I would argue that pretty much anything that McConnell is opposed to — such as a US military withdrawal from Syria, an improvement in US-Iranian relations, an end to the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen or an end to the state of war between the US and North Korea — is almost by definition a good thing.

In fact, I would argue that, regardless of Trump’s despicable character, personal lack of ethics or morality, his racism, sociopathy and fascist proclivities, and his willful efforts to destroy the biosphere, this bat-shit crazy president has done at least two good things: calling off an aerial blitz on Iran and deciding to pull US troops out of the Syrian civil war.

Craven Democrats who call for more war in Syria and for a war footing towards Iran, who back a new Cold War with Russia, and who apparently would prefer a nuclear North Korea to talks with that country’s ruling tyrant, all simply because Trump seems to want the opposite, are the enemies of peace, regardless of the dangers posed by the current damaged and unstable denizen of the White House.

Probably the silliest claim, trumpeted by Republicans and Democrats alike and by our leading news organizations, is that Trump, in pulling US forces out of Syria just as Turkey is massing troops and armored vehicles on Syria’s northern border for an assault on Syrian Kurdish forces, is “betraying” US allies and “ruining America’s reputation.”

What a joke!

The US, through the entire Cold War era, has used rebellious minorities and political groups to fight its battles around the globe. From the Montagnard hill people in South Vietnam and the Hmong minority in Laos to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during that country’s era of communist rule and to the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and now Syria, the US has encouraged minorities like the Kurds to fight its battles, and now, as with the Hmong and Montagnards in Southeast Asia, it is leaving them to their fate. The US promise of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, held out during the Iraq War and subsequent troubled occupation of that country by US forces, was forgotten as the US left Iraq. Now the Kurds of Syria are similarly being left to their fate.

This is nothing new. Those who stand with the US in its battles, incursions and wars for global dominance need to know that they will be dropped like yesterday’s garbage once the US decides to move on to other things, having wreaked the desired level of destruction upon some nation that showed the temerity to refuse being a US vassal.

Trump must be resisted for his autocratic efforts to expand the power of the president. His destruction of the environment must be challenged, as must his efforts to pack the federal courts and the Supreme Court. But when, for whatever inscrutable reasons, he manages to do something right, like trying to tamp down the conflict with Russia, to end the 69-year state of war between the US and North Korea, or to get the US out of Syria, it is madness to cynically oppose his actions simply because they are his actions.

When those actions objectively make sense, the reasons for his making them should not matter.

For all his bluster and threats, for example against Venezuela and Iran, Trump has yet to start a war as president. In that respect, he is one of only a few presidents in US history of whom that can, at least so far, be said.

We should be glad of that, and encourage more such good moves.

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The Global Corruption Rebellion Americans Don’t Know They’re Part Of 

Abuse of power, corruption, violation of the social contract… If you’re an American Democrat, chances are Donald Trump’s disdain for all of those has been evident to you for quite a bit. The spectacle of the President using the power of his office to urge the leader of Ukraine, and now China, to investigate a political rival has pushed even reluctant impeachers over the brink.

The American people deserve to know the full story, says House Leader Nancy Pelosi—and she’s right.

So then, let’s look at that full story. Abuse of power, corruption, a social contract in shreds. Think corruption in the USA, and the American media have trained us to think of one man: Trump. He is the perfectly constricting frame. His name’s emblazoned on clothing and consumer goods and buildings across the world—in gold. He’s obsessively concerned about his own personal brand and snarls back at every slight in his own personal way with his own personal tweet.

With his decades in the spotlight, Trump’s a TV star in a fame-addled state that loves to love or hate stars. Trump makes it easy to pin our corruption problem on a person, and that’s the story our clicks-and-commercials-driven media likes.

But what if our corruption problem wasn’t purely personal? The personal matters when the person in question is the most powerful man on the planet, but what if the full picture is fuller than that?

Look around. From Puerto Rico to Hong Kong, and now Iraq, Haiti, and Kiev, people everywhere are rising up.

Writing in a local paper blessedly preserved for the people in Philadelphia and kept out of monopoly control, Will Bunch, columnist for the Inquirer, wrote Sunday that the autumn of 2019 is fast becoming the most revolutionary season on Planet Earth since 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and it took a dictator’s tanks to subdue protesters at Tiananmen Square.

The common thread, he writes, from Moscow to San Juan, has been “an epidemic” of political corruption.

“It’s a story that arguably begins in the 1980s, when a worldwide movement toward liberal democracy masked the more significant fact that an elite technocratic class and a religious fervor for unrestrained capitalism was creating inequality on an epic scale.”

To return to that fuller picture, we live in a nation where at least 40 million, and in reality, as many as 140 million, live in poverty, and three individuals have a combined wealth of $248.5 billion—the same wealth as the bottom 50%. We live in a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, where especially if you’re poor or restive or dissatisfied, getting locked up is a constant threat. We live in a nation where the highest court in the land defends the freedom of money more assiduously than the freedom of people. Our democracy, like our media, is essentially pay to play. Many believe it’s rigged.

In a system that unequal, corruption is not just the way we swim, it’s the water we swim in, and no inquiry on earth is going to fix that.

From that sort of corruption, a whistleblower won’t save us. A whole nation of them of might.

You can see my recent interview with the good people from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and see my upcoming interview with activists from Hong Kong, at our website: Lauraflanders.org

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Bojo Goes Bonkers: Two Borders Will Divide Ireland From Northern Ireland

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

BoJo is nothing if not inventive. The Irish backstop problem had derailed the premiership of his predecessor the Maybot, and he was making no headway in dealing with it up to now.

The Good Friday peace agreement between the north and the south of Ireland requires a flexible border to exist between the two.

But Brexit would have (the non-EU) UK share a border with (the EU-member) Ireland, and the EU does not countenance a flexible border (tariff-free, free movement of peoples, etc.) between itself and non-EU countries– unless the UK strikes an agreement with the EU similar to the one Norway has. But that would amount to a soft Brexit, which of course is absolutely unacceptable to hardline Brexiters.

A hard border would therefore scupper the prospect of a Brexit deal between the UK and the EU, leaving an economically-catastrophic No Deal Brexit as the only option.

So BoJo, or someone in his team, came up with a jolly wheeze.

Why not have 2 borders, with the soft one existing where the Ireland-Northern Ireland border currently exists, and have a second border perhaps a few miles down the road, fully in Northern Ireland itself, where all the hard stuff (customs checks, immigration controls, and so forth) could be done?

When BoJo presented his 2-border proposal to the EU president Jean-Claude Juncker in a phone call, BoJo described his plan was a “fair and reasonable compromise”, saying that if the two sides could not reach agreement it would amount to “a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible”.

While the EU is expected to take a few days to respond officially to this hare-brained proposal, the head of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group Guy Verhofstadt said immediately it was “absolutely not positive” since it did not provide the required safeguards for Ireland. Donald Tusk, the EU Council President, informed BoJo the EU is “still unconvinced” by his 2-borders proposal while telling Ireland “we stand fully behind you”.

Ireland’s agreement is therefore essential if the 2-borders plan is to go through, but its prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said in response that “I don’t fully understand how we can have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a separate customs unions [sic] and somehow avoid there being tariffs and checks and customs posts between north and south”.

Varadkar is right: the presumed 2-borders notwithstanding, there would still be tariffs on north-south trade, which would undermine the crucial farming and agri-food sector in both parts of Ireland, while businesses adjacent to the border would have to contend with barriers separating them from their customers and supply chains.

A key concern in the north of Ireland (as is the case elsewhere in the UK), is the Tory Brexiter plans to replace the EU’s regulatory framework prevailing in the UK up to now.

A key element in the ending of the Troubles in Northern Ireland has been the relative prosperity brought about by the peace agreement. A cessation of this prosperity would probably contribute to the undoing of the peace agreement.

It’s clear the Tories want a very different regulatory environment, one approximating more to the US than the EU— that is, much more “flexibility” on wages, lower taxes for the rich, and an across-the-board relaxation of environmental standards currently imposed by the EU.

The suspicion in some quarters is that BoJo advanced his absurd 2-borders proposal to gull his followers into thinking that he is serious about negotiating with the EU in a “spirit of compromise”, when of course anyone adequately informed (a description alas not applicable to most of his Brexiter followers) will know that putting forward such proposals for an “agreement” that are belly-up the moment they are mooted is exactly BoJo’s well-planned road to a No Deal Brexit.

He can then say to these followers that he tried ever so hard to secure a “compromise” with the EU, but those bastard eurocrats simply refused to meet him halfway.

A leaked memo from Johnson’s office to Tory MPs confirms this suspicion by saying that “This [rejection of the 2-border proposal] will be seen by everybody as a crazy policy. We have offered a compromise to avoid this situation”.

BoJo’s blaming of the EU for the failure to reach a Brexit agreement will of course be amplified in the rightwing tabloids supporting him to the hilt.

Also supporting BoJo’s 2-border plan is the predecessor, Dodgy Dave Cameron, who got this shambles on the road by calling for the referendum in 2016, and who resigned rather than clear-up the mess he created.

Getting an endorsement from Dodgy Dave is like having your newly-purchased shares endorsed by Bernie Madoff, so this one will probably not be talked-up by BoJo.

BoJo, though, as always, speaks with a forked tongue.

He told the right-wing Brexiter loons in his party that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than seek an extension, and that the UK will leave on 31 October “do or die”.

At the same time government documents submitted to the Court of Session said BoJo will send a letter asking for an extension to Article 50 – despite his repeated assertions that he will never delay Brexit.

So which BoJo are we to believe?

As I write the French president Emmanuel Macron has given BoJo until the end of the week to revise his Brexit plan to be accordant with EU requirements, something BoJo can’t do without causing his party to meltdown.

All escape tunnels are now being sealed-off for the ferret-like British prime minister.

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Iraq Protests: Death Toll Soars as Militias Target Protesters

Photograph Source: Alyaa99 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Iraqi paramilitary groups close to Iran are suspected of joining attacks on protesters in Baghdad and other cities, leading to heavy loss of life among demonstrators. Some 107 people have been killed and over 6,000 wounded in the last six days, though hospital doctors say the government is understating the true number of fatalities.

“The pro-Iranian militia have each taken a sector of Baghdad and are responsible for its security,” a source, who does not want his name published, told The Independent.

He said that snipers belonging to these groups had fired live rounds at protesters, often aiming for the head or heart. Eyewitnesses say that Iraqi soldiers are also firing directly into crowds of the protesters, who are demanding the fall of the government, jobs and an end to corruption.

The gunmen shooting protesters come from pro-Iranian factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, an 85,000-strong strong body that came into being to stop the Isis advance on Baghdad after the fall of Mosul in 2014. It is a coalition of about 30 groups, many of them predating Isis, which is paid for by the Iraqi government and nominally under its control, but with widely varying political loyalties. They includes powerful units, such as Ketaeb Hezbollah, which say opening that their first loyalty is to the Iranian leadership.

The demonstrations in Baghdad and in much of Shia southern Iraq are largely spontaneous, but where there are local leaders they have sometimes been singled out for killing.

Haider Karim Al-Saidi, a leading organiser of the protests, was shot dead by a sniper near Al-Mudhafar Square late on Sunday night. Earlier, witnesses had reported that they had seen snipers taking up positions on roof tops overlooking the square.

The paramilitaries have assaulted injured protesters in hospital: a doctor working in the Medical City complex in central Baghdad said that members of a paramilitary group called Asaib Ahl al-Haq, known for its pro-Iranian sympathies, had broken into a hospital ward filled with wounded demonstrators and started hitting them. When he protested, he was told “to mind his own business” and was beaten with a baton.

An Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said that 6,107 people had been injured in the unrest, including 1,200 members of the security forces. Public buildings and political party headquarters have also been destroyed.

A paramilitary group called Kataib Hezbollah, which has no connection with the Lebanese group with a similar name but is strongly supportive of Iran, is alleged to have ransacked at least ten television stations that had been giving full or sympathetic coverage to the demonstrations. In one case gunmen in balaclavas arrived in twelve white cars without license plates and wrecked studios, seizing computers, beating up staff and taking their wallets and mobile phones.

The government has expressed suspicion that a third party is playing a role in provoking greater violence, through using snipers who shoot to kill. Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said at a press conference that “malicious hands” were targeting protesters and security forces alike. This may be true in part but is also a bid by the security forces to evade responsibility for firing directly into crowds, though there is every sign that they have been doing just that. Repressive measures have included a two-day curfew, a continuing ban on the internet, and pre-emptive arrests.

The demands of the protesters have become more radical since last Tuesday, as the casualty toll has mounted, with growing calls for the fall of the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi. He has shown himself to be ineffective, making a speech at the weekend in which he outlined a 17-point plan including unemployment benefit and subsidised housing but he made little impression. In his year in office, Mr Mahdi has failed to introduce any important reforms, so his sudden zeal for change carries little credibility.

The signs are, for the moment that repression will continue but also that it will not succeed.

“The protesters are very young and feel they have little to lose,” says one observer. “They will go on protesting whatever happens.”

Despite Iraq enjoying monthly oil revenues of over $6 billion, pervasive government corruption since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 has meant that there has been little new building of roads, schools and hospitals and there is a chronic shortage of electricity and, in some cities, water.

Above all there is a lack of jobs with a population pf 38 million, growing by one million year and 70 per cent below the age of 30. Many of these are jobless and include 307,000 graduates. Some of the have been camped outside ministries in Baghdad for the last three months asking for jobs appropriate to their qualifications, but not getting them.

Popular anger over long-standing socioeconomic grievances has been increasing year by year and the defeat of Isis in the siege of Mosul in 2017 means that the government no longer has the excuse that all its energies and resources are absorbed by the war against al-Qaeda type groups.

But this does not quite explain why the Iraqi government – along with pro-Iranian paramilitary groups – should have reacted so violently and counter-productively against a relatively small protest march on the Jumhuriya Bridge in Baghdad last Tuesday.

There have been much bigger protests without provoking such violence in previous years, including one last year in Basra that was close to a general uprising, but without live rounds being fired at demonstrators. In 2016, demonstrators stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad and ransacked the parliament building and the prime minister’s office while the security forces stood by.

Explanations for the self-destructive reaction of the government this time round include Prime Minister Adel Andul Mahdi’s advisers being dominated by military hawks prone to rely on force and with little political understanding. The aggressive role of the pro-Iranian paramilitaries is evidence that Tehran fears peaceful anti-government mass protests, along the lines of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and in Syria in 2011, both of which, at their peak, threatened regime change.

“The Iranians want to militarise the situation so it cease to be a mass movement,” says one Iraqi commentator. This would explain the shooting of so many demonstrators. But by over reacting the government and the Iranians may have provoked the very situation that they want to avoid.

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Trump’s Trade War: a Report From the Front

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

Donald Trump is bravely carrying on a trade war, not just with the bad guys with China, but with longtime allies like Canada and the European Union. Incredibly, the media just don’t seem that interested in reporting on the ongoing progress.

Last week the Commerce Department released trade data for August, and it got almost no attention whatsoever. The report showed that the trade deficit increased modestly from $54.0 billion in July to $54.9 billion in August. This is virtually identical to the deficit from August of 2018, so comparing these two months year over year, at least the trade deficit is not expanding.

Looking at a slightly bigger picture, in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, the trade deficit was $518.8 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP. The trade deficit expanded in both 2017 and 2018, reaching $638.2 billion in 2018, or 3.1 percent of GDP. It looks to come in slightly higher in 2019, with the deficit averaging $648.3 billion in the first half of 2019.

There are many factors behind the rise in the trade deficit. Growth in the U.S. has been somewhat faster than in major trading partners like the EU and Japan. The dollar has also risen in value, although most of that rise pre-dates Trump. But putting these aside, if Trump’s goal was to bring the trade deficit closer to balance, he’s been going the wrong way in the first two and half years of his administration.

If we look at his major nemeses in the international arena, there are not many signs of Trumpian success. Starting with China, in the last year of the Obama administration, the trade deficit in goods with China was $346.8 billion.[1] This had increased to $419.6 billion last year. It looks like the trade deficit is coming down somewhat in 2019, with the deficit for the first eight months at $231.6 billion, compared to just over $260.0 billion last year. Nonetheless, we are still likely to end up with a higher deficit with China in 2019 than we had in the last year of the Obama administration.

It is also worth remembering that it is difficult to calculate bilateral trade deficits with rigor. Suppose that iPhones, which had previously been assembled in China, are instead assembled in Thailand. If we imported the iPhone from China, the full value of the iPhone would have been recorded as an import from China, even though the assembly may have counted for less than 10 percent of the value added.

When the assembly shifts to Thailand, the reduction in our reported imports from China is equal to the full cost of the iPhones that we previously imported from China. The actual hit to China is just the small share of the value-added that is attributable to assembly.

If Trump’s battle with China is not going well, he seems to be doing even worse with other trade combatants. The trade deficit with Mexico was $63.3 billion in 2016. It hit $80.7 billion last year, and is virtually certain to come in even higher in 2019. The trade deficit with the European Union $146.7 billion in 2016. It had risen to $168.7 billion last year and is on a path to come in $10-$15 billion higher in 2019. The deficit with Canada rose from $11 billion in 2016 to $19.1 billion last year. It is likely to be roughly $1 billion higher in 2019.

In short, the trade war doesn’t look like it is going well for Donald Trump, at least by his chosen measure of success. If trade deficits mean other countries are ripping us off, then they are ripping us off considerably more under Trump than when Barack Obama was in the White House.

Notes.

[1] I’m just using goods, because these data are most readily available.

This column first appeared on Dean Baker’s “Beat the Press” blog.

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Public School Uniforms: Symbol of the Times 

Photograph Source: Henrickson – CC BY-SA 3.0

The uniformity of the shades of dark and light blue clothing on the children fans out from the New York City street corner next to a charter school and seems to cover an entire city block. The uniformity is everywhere. Even the student backpacks are blue.

Growing up in the late 1950s and early to mid 1960s, the kind of uniforms I see in New York were reserved for schools in my community that had religious affiliations. Even the staid, but slowly changing 1950s would never have had any hint of the loss of individualism that comes from wearing school uniforms. My family owned a clothing store during those years and I got to dress fairly well in some new styles of the day and that dress, although entirely superficial to learning, didn’t seem to be out of place with the times.

In “The Downsides of School Uniforms” (New Yorker, September 6, 2017), the beginning of the move toward wearing school uniforms is placed historically within the Clinton administration:

Bill Clinton happened. In 1996, Clinton, running for reelection and eager to shore up his conservative credentials, championed mandatory school uniforms “as the kind of small-bore, low-cost, common-sense policy initiative that might appeal to a broad cross-section of voters,” as the legal scholars Deborah M. Ahrens and Andrew M. Siegel write, in their forthcoming paper “Reconsidering the Constitutionality of Student Dress Restrictions.” Clinton plugged uniforms in his State of the Union address that year and had his Department of Education issue a manual for schools that were transitioning to require uniforms. While some schools had experimented with uniforms in the eighties and nineties, it’s clear, Ahrens and Siegel argue, that “the modern enthusiasm for uniforms can be traced pretty directly to the 1996 Clinton administration initiative.”

So, it wasn’t a Republican administration such as that of Ronald Reagan with his administration’s attack against public schooling that began with A Nation At Risk (1983), but within the neoliberal Clinton administration that the push toward uniformity in school dress began in earnest.

I recently spoke with the parent of a New York City elementary school student who changed schools during the current academic year because of moving to a new neighborhood. The old school and the student’s new school had different uniforms and both were still public schools with the common “PS” prefix. Even shoes were different and when the student was outfitted in his new uniform, the bottom line ended up costing several hundred dollars. Some clothing items of the new uniform were not all that easy to purchase, like the specific color of tie that male students had to wear (girls wear a kind of bowtie). Problem is, that even with a strong velcro closure for the child’s tie, the ties went the way of the Edsel on some days, causing a constant replenishing of the tie cache. Shoes must be black at this child’s school and that requirement creates a whole other problem since many black shoes are sneaker-type shoes and those kinds of shoes are only allowed at this school on gym day. The required black shoes are difficult to find and they have to be bought from specific sources, another hassle of the school uniform requirement.

An argument is often heard surrounding the school uniform debate that uniforms remove status connected to a particular kind of clothing or shoes that are in fashion and impart status to a student whose family can afford that particular clothing or shoe item and make less well-to-do students feel left out and stigmatized.

Well-tailored kids’ clothing has become reasonably priced because of the availability of that clothing from cheap sources around the world that a globalized economy has created. While worker conditions could be used as an argument against individual expression through free clothing choices, it must be noted that school uniforms come from the same global sources and are not as easy to find as some general clothing choices available today.

While studying school administration at the graduate level, the school law case decided by the Supreme Court’s in 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines held that public high-school students could wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The case was a positive affirmation that students don’t leave their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. How far that decision is from the movement toward requiring students to wear school uniforms today.

When I see the masses of sameness on the streets of New York City today, I recoil at the fact that uniforms take away a kind of free expression of kids’ individualism and recall that when growing up, it was the kids at religious-affiliated schools who all dressed the same.

There are many variables that factor into children’s education. Among those variables are economic level, early learning experiences, and language development. The clothes a student wears are not one of those variables.

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Zelensky’s Capitulation and Trump’s Open Appeals for Foreign Help on Biden Dirt

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

“It looks like Zelensky has capitulated” reports MSNBC’ Matt Bradley in Kiev, to President Trump’s demand that he “play ball” and investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. The investigation of Burisma Holdings has been reopened at U.S. mafiosa-like prodding.

In other words, Trump’s threat to withhold aid pending an agreement to investigate a political foe worked. Even if the impeachment process proceeds smoothly and Trump is increasingly discredited, Biden may suffer too as Zelensky’s hand-picked prosecutor looks for dirt to curry favor. Ideally, this Ukrainegate scandal could produce both Trump’s impeachment and Biden’s defeat in the Democratic primaries.

But what is the real issue here? The propriety of an elected U.S. official asking foreigners for potentially damaging information about political rivals. It is understood that Trump can do “oppo research” using U.S. sources. But there are vague laws prohibiting candidates from soliciting or accepting any kind of foreign assistance. (This did not prohibit George W. Bush from hiring a Canadian speechwriter.) There is moreover an unofficial article of the creed in the national U.S. religion that holds Russia to be an “adversary” and so any aid from that quarter is toxic.

Trump has taken endless flack for importuning the Russians (in July 2016) to hand over Hillary’s emails, “if you have them.” When DNC emails were in fact released (by Wikileaks, dubiously attributed by U.S. intelligence to Russian hackers) the Democratic-dominated media focused not on their content (which was damning to the DNC, exposing its sabotage of the Sanders campaign) but on their supposed provenance.

Never mind that the leaks showed that the U.S. is not a functioning democracy but that capital determines nominations, that Bernie never had a chance, that the Bernie kids were being used shamefully to elect a warmongering thug. The only thing the Democrats and their media cared about was alleged Russian interference to reveal ugly truths.

Thus what should have been a scandalous news story about Democratic corruption became a story of outrage about “Russian undermining of U.S. democracy.” As though in the real world there were such a thing.

How dare the Russians expose my dirty laundry! Debbie Wassermann-Schultz must have felt as she had to tender her resignation to the party (also July 2016) after Wikileaks exposed her as the conniving opportunist she is. Having arranged through duplicity Trump’s accession to power, Democrats now seek to topple him on the same charge they have pursued against him since the election: collusion with foreigners to affect U.S. elections.

It’s just that this time, it’s Ukrainians (not Russians) colluding. And while the Mueller probe found no evidence that Trump reached out to Russians seeking aid, beyond the public appeal for Clinton’s emails, he has clearly appealed overtly to Zelensky for “oppo research.” And while Trump denies requesting Russian help in 2016, and calls the open appeal a joke, he has frankly told the press that the Ukrainians “if they’re honest” they will “investigate the Bidens.”

He sees nothing wrong with this. The Democratic establishment finds it utterly and obviously wrong and evil. When the Republicans side with Trump, they explode in exasperation. Surely one thing we Americans can agree on is not to take information from abroad on rival candidates! But no. The nation in its current fractured form does not necessarily agree.

Trump is openly questioning this doctrine. Why not get dirt from China, Australia, Ukraine, Norway? Why not just boldly boast: “Yes, I intimidated the new Ukrainian president, who knows that since the Feb. 2014 coup his government is completely dependent on U.S. and U.S.-shaped EU support. Yes, I told him to play ball to get the arms we promised and expose the Bidens’ corruption in Ukraine to prove goodwill to the U.S. and myself. What’s wrong with that?”

His base responds. Bravo! What a man! Showing these corrupt allies who’s boss. Exposing the corruption of the Bidens—somebody had to do it! If the Ukrainian president caved in, forced to show the world how evil Obama’s sidekick was, praise God!

One should not suppose that even maximum exposure of Trump’s antinomian behavior will alienate him from his base. So Joe Biden (according to MSNBC) “has been forced to defend his reputation against specious charges.” Thus the mainstream news media will insist on the charges’ speciousness (even if some real dirt is in fact unearthed, which I think likely). When the dirt appears, Democrats will cry foul and move to suppress evidence.

The world will see the systematic corruption and filth that is U.S. capitalist imperialism, period. Good. May we all make good use of the information.

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Time to Leave the Political Ghosts of 2016 Behind and Face the Future

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The citizenry has been pummeled with the panoply of controversy and corruption that marked the 2016 elections for four very long years now. But as the years passed, the very serious problems facing the nation and planet have only gotten worse. It’s time to leave the mud wallow of the 2016 elections behind and address the future with clear eyes unclouded by the political ghosts of the past.

Russian election interference on behalf of the corrupt Donald Trump campaign is well known and his campaign manager is now in prison. The corruption of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee’s successful efforts to throttle Bernie Sanders’s ascendancy in the primary is also well known, as well as the disastrous outcome. And despite the endless blather emanating from the Oval Office, we all know that Clinton won the popular vote by millions while Trump rode the Electoral College vote to the presidency.

Trump is now facing his own impeachment. Not for 2016 crimes, but those of 2019 in seeking yet more foreign interference in U.S. elections on his behalf. In the meantime, the crimes his policies and political appointees are inflicting on the environment and humanity roll on, unimpeded by a divided Congress and a Senate Republican majority too intimidated by the ghosts of 2016 and Trump’s MAGA hat-wearing base to do their constitutionally mandated duties of checks and balances on the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the promises Trump made in 2016 amounted to exactly nothing. There is no 2,000-mile border wall and Mexico isn’t paying for anything; that money for replacement panels came from schools, housing and services for military families. The Rust Belt has not had a resurgence of industry and continues to rust as the U.S. manufacturing sector shrinks. Nor has the “chosen one” managed to intimidate China with his ill-fated trade war — although he is driving farmers and ranchers into bankruptcy at an alarming rate. As for getting rid of the deficit, we are now at record levels of debt and it’s getting worse.

Simply put, the Trump of 2019 is not the Trump of 2016 and his power and influence are as faded as his broken promises to make America great again.

The future, however, cares less about Trump’s demise than the impacts from a planet warming faster than predicted. British Columbia’s grizzly bears are starving due to vastly diminished salmon runs as the ocean warms. Here at home, massive “landscape level” deforestation continues, obliterating not only existing ecosystems, but neutering the ability of the forests to efficiently pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while providing “optimal natural protection against extreme weather events, like flooding and droughts.

Unfortunately, Montana’s politicians, like far too many nationally, continue to prevaricate when it comes to the mounting disasters of global warming. Just last week Montana’s Democrat Sen. Jon Tester said “the Green New Deal presented an opportunity to have a debate about climate change.” Just what we need, “a debate” to add more hot air to the atmosphere. And of course our Republican congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, are still lashed to the mast of Trump’s denials that climate change exists.

2016 is far behind the nation and world but a perilous future looms. Time for our politicians to face that fact, leave the ghosts of that disreputable election behind and start providing vitally needed concrete policies and actions to address global warming — or just admit their shameful legacy of selling out future generations because they fear the no-longer-relevant political past.

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Of Horses and Civilization

An image of a centaur and Greek soldier possibly of the Greco-Parthian kingdom, 250-225 BCE. This image comes from a woolen hanging from the Sampui Tapestry, Lop County, Xinjiang, China. Public Domain.

I love all animals. I grew up in a Greek village where domesticated animals were part of my family. We had chickens, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, donkeys and mules.

I rarely saw a horse because horses then, now, and in antiquity were and are possessions of rich people. However, while a teenager, I did have the pleasure of riding a horse a few times. I still remember that experience of becoming almost one with that magnificent animal.

Horses were fundamental to the Greeks.

The Greek god Poseidon was the king of the seas, earthquakes, and horses. The Greeks had imagined a race of horse-men they called centaurs. These were wild, savage monster-like forest animals with a human voice, being half human and half horse. They lived between mount Pelion and Mount Ossa in Thessaly.

One of those horse-men was an exception. He was very much like a superb craftsman: a master in music, archery, hunting, healing, and natural philosophy. This was Cheiron, a gentle and wise centaur. He was as ancient as the gods. He was the immortal son of the Titan Cronus and the Ocean goddess Philyra. He lived on Mount Pelion in Thessaly. Tradition has it that he introduced medical knowledge to Hellas. Greek kings and famous people sent their sons to Cheiron for education. Jason, the hero who led the Argonauts to Asia for the golden fleece, and Achilles, the greatest Greek hero of the Trojan War, were pupils of Cheiron. So was Asclepius who became god of medicine.

To this day, Pelion, the kingdom of Cheiron, is a sanctuary for rare medicinal plants and extremely valuable biodiversity.

Homer speaks of Balios and Xanthos, the divine horses of Achilles. They wept over the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend. Achilles asked the horses why they failed to save Patroclus. After all, they were faster than the West Wind, which men thought was the swiftest. Xanthos replied that a great god, son of Leto, Apollo, killed Patroclus. Xanthos warned Achilles that his hour was near. A god was about to kill him, too.

Homer says Troy was famous for breading horses. The “wooden horse” of Odysseus doomed Troy.

The founders of the Olympics, and other Panhellenic religious and athletic competitions and festivals added the chariot and horse races to the games.

In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus said horses were the “crowning glory” of rich men. They were the pride of those who could afford them. In his Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles speaks of the Athenian owners of horses who formed a distinct class of knights and came from the district of Colonus.

Athena, daughter of Zeus and patron goddess and protector of Athens, invented the bridle that made the domestication of the horse and other animals possible.

In Macedonia, we have King Philip II (Philippos, lover of horses). Philip was a great leader who united Greece for the first time. In addition, he prepared the way for his son Alexander the Great to conquer Persia. Alexander, a brilliant strategist and student of Aristotle, spread Greek civilization to the world. He lead his armies to battle always glued to Bucephalus, a horse whose head was like the head of an ox.

These are a few examples of the mythological, cultural and military importance of the horse in Greek history. Moreover, the horse supplemented the ox, mule, and donkey in the cultivation of the land.

Other rural and pre-industrial societies probably have similar stories of the vital significance of the horse in the growth and survival of their civilization.

In modern times, starting with the mechanization of everything in the nineteenth century, the horse in the West survived in the cavalry of the armed forces, in horse racing, and as luxury pets.

In the tropics, those who can afford horses, employ them in farming and horse racing.

The tragedy of the modern age is the dismantling of ancient traditions and respect for animals, including the magnificent horse.

In 1928, Henry Beston published The Outermost Housein which he expressed a philosophical understanding of the hazards of his age. He lived alone in a tiny wooden shack facing the ocean lapping the coast of  New England.

I read Beston’s book long time ago, but I never forgotten its reflections:

“We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. They are not underlings; they are other nations.”

Beston spoke to the winds.

In the United States, animals, both domesticated and wild, continue to be underlings for food, the zoos, laboratories, and extermination. Domesticated animals are grown fat for mechanical slaughter. Others, like cats and dogs, survive for pets. And wild animals are furiously pushed to extinction.

In the United States, one rarely sees horses, unless one watches military parades or lives in a cowboy country like Texas.

If, however, one is addicted to betting on racing horses, one goes to Kentucky, a kingdom of impoverished Americans ruled by oligarchs of horses and whiskey.

Horse racing has been a banality since Roman times. Now, in 2019, it is like casino gambling. Here, rich and poor, bet money for more money. The owners of the horses are so devoted to the winning of their thoroughbreds that they drug them and, in unfathomable ways, push them to exhaustion and death. In 2018, about 493 thoroughbred horses died in the United States. The National Geographic describes horse racing as “a dangerous sport.”

At the very least, we should protect the surviving horses from abuse and exploitation. We owe them that much.

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The Battle for the Soul of India

We are witnessing a battle for the rational soul of India. It has long been the conventional wisdom that the country’s historic and admirable diversity and tolerance would prevent the creation of a Hindu-first nation. But it seems increasingly likely that the narrative of India as a Hindu democratic state will prevail.

There is a danger that India’s secular political culture and pluralistic state for all citizens, regardless of religion, may cease to exist. The world, fixated on India’s ascent as a confident and thriving global economic and military power, has been slow to appreciate a seismic shift in its politics. The country has rapidly moved away from the values of non-violence and secularism espoused by eminent leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Although seen from another perspective, India is coming of age. At some stage, all nations have to move forward and leave the past behind. India’s attraction to majoritarian nationalism and national greatness is also consistent with global political trends. And Prime Minister Modi’s broad popularity attests to the fact that India expects decisive leadership and that the end justifies the means.

However, even as India slowly dispenses with secularism, Indians should know that sustaining a progressive country by a slogan of religion is fraught with hazards. Pakistanis have found this out at enormous cost. Nationalism is a political strategy, one of the many that politicians have in their kitty to win popularity and elections.

Feeling slighted since Independence  the Hindu majority – rebelling against minority appeasing corrupt elites, and cutting across caste and class lines has jumped on the nationalist bandwagon. Taking advantage of these beneficial conditions, Modi has built a formidable following. As a charismatic populist, he has promised the Hindu masses salvation from poverty and misrule. Modi’s detractors say that his success will be short-lived as it works on exploiting divisions in society.

While we can’t take issue with Modi’s quest to make India great, we hope that he can avoid incendiary politics to achieve his goal. After two successful elections, for a consummate politician like Modi, his vilification of the opposition Congress party’s corruption and Pakistan-inspired terrorism, are winning themes. But he should be mindful that inciting his Hindu nationalist base doesn’t trigger deadly violence against Muslims and other vulnerable minorities.

There are telling signs that the dark lurking forces of hyper-nationalism and communalism are determined to crush pluralism and tolerance. It is part of the alarming Hindu-only agenda feared by minorities. In a sign of the changing times, the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse who assassinated Gandhi in 1948 for selling out to Muslims is a revered figure in rabid Hindutva “Hindu nationalist” circles today.

More recently, 800,000 soldiers holding 9 million, mostly Muslim civilians in Indian Kashmir in siege conditions, for over two months, is a blot on Indian democracy. This flagrant denial of human rights can’t be whitewashed or forgotten. It seems too glib and disingenuous for Indian officials to describe the change in the status of Kashmir, as mainstreaming the disputed territory into India’s thriving and vibrant democracy.

We shouldn’t view the projection of power and self-belief, by the modern Indian state, based on significant achievements entirely negatively. For example, India’s growing scientific prowess confirmed by a near landing on the moon is a matter of pride for all South Asians. But India ought to be especially careful that it doesn’t crush criticism, dissent, and debate on its path to progress, which we have seen happen elsewhere.

But all is not lost as secular Indians keep reminding us. They place their faith in India’s inclusive constitution, considered one of the best that has been written and enacted. We hope that any attempt to subvert it will fail as that would be a disaster for Indian democracy.

The other promising factor is that Hinduism doesn’t naturally lend itself to authoritarianism. Unlike Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Hinduism isn’t bound by strictures. A Hindu can be deeply or mildly religious an agnostic or an atheist – and yet can call himself a Hindu.

Moreover, India does pass the diversity test. Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs don’t view themselves Hindus, neither do a substantial number of Dalits; some South Indians consider parts of Hinduism as an imposition of Aryan North on Dravidian South.

Ultimately, it is for Indians to decide if they want to sacrifice their rich culture and democratic values on the altar of nationalism. A firm rejection of a Hindu state or temperance of its excesses will send a clear message, beyond India’s borders, particularly neighboring China and Pakistan, that the land of Emperor Asoka and Emperor Akbar has room for all Indians, not just Hindus. We hope they make the right moral choice.

 

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Colin Powell’s Trump Problem

When the compromised speak of judgment, the voice of credibility vanishes. In its place, a certain niggling sense of hypocrisy and weakness prevails. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of those of those compromised voices. He presided over a redundant State Department before the pressures of the Pentagon and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, keen to initiate an invasion of Iraq. He oversaw the bankruptcy of the Republican ideal before the nibbling sharks of neoconservatism within the administration of President George W. Bush. But that has not prevented him from being cavalier in assessing the legacy of Donald Trump.

In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Powell came across with an account pickled by the language of patriotic management and boastfulness. “I was a Republican who was Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor. I was a Republican who worked for George Herbert Walker Bush, and worked for George W. Bush. I’m a moderate Republican who believes that we should have strong foreign policy, strong defence policy, that we have to look out for our people, and we ought to work hard making sure we’re one country and one team.”

He took issue with the reticence and gingerly approach adopted by the Republicans to the president, who “are holding back because they’re terrified of what will happen to any one of them if they speak out.” They needed to “get a grip, and when they see things that are not right they need to say something about it, because our foreign policy is in shambles right now in my humble judgment.”

Those are the words from a man who clumsily added several paving stones on the road to war against Iraq in the United Nations on February 5, 2003. If a shambles was what was needed in US foreign policy, Powell was going to do his bit. His address was an effort to furnish delegates “with additional information… about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq’s involvement in terrorism, which is also the subject of resolution 1411 and other earlier resolutions.” The picture drawn by Powell was of an Iraq hostile and prevaricating, intent on overwhelming weapons inspectors with “useless information about Iraq’s permitted weapons so that we would not have time to pursue Iraq’s prohibited weapons.”

The evidence cited by Powell was given a cast iron guarantee, though anyone listening would have gotten the impression that it risked sinking. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.” The sinking began early. Did Iraq, for instance, have a revived nuclear weapons program? “There is no doubt in my mind”.

During the display, a set of purposely engineered howlers found their way into the show. The evidence drawn from an intercepted conversation about UN inspections between Iraqi army officers was turned on its head, giving somewhat deceptive stuffing. The intercept, for instance never had such words as “Clean out all of the areas. … Make sure there is nothing there.” As Jon Schwarz helpfully reminds us in The Intercept, these are just a few pointers in what amounted to a grand game of Powellian deception.

Privately, the view from the self-advertised moderate was not so certain. “I wonder,” he pondered to his chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, “how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.”

Trump’s defects in foreign policy are vast and extensive. His bullying, hectoring style to allies; his unorthodox and as-yet-to-be determined legality of using his office to solicit investigations from foreign leaders; his spontaneous, exit-driven obsession with existing treaties, all suggest a bleak record. Yet this is the president who brought North Korea, in drips and drabs, to the negotiating table, checked global US military interventions and farewelled the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is nothing more than a Corporations’ Charter of Rights over the commonweal. And this is the same president who has one refreshing vice: he lies in public, in open, all the time.

As for the general, Iraq was not his debacle but that of others. He has spent years cultivating his apologias, showing up his peers as imbeciles and he, a warning filled sage of reason. One of these efforts, from May 2012, can be found in Newsweek. “According to plans being confidently put forward, Iraq was expected to somehow transform itself into a stable country with democratic leaders 90 days after we took Baghdad. I believed such hopes were unrealistic. I was sure we would be in for a longer struggle.”

Powell’s Sunday barb fest is a reminder of how much form he has on this. Trump is but one in a cast of US political figures who have never matched the general’s own Olympian sense of worth, suggesting that Powell sports a vast chip on his shoulder. In September 2016, a leaked trove of his emails shows his spraying approach in terms of bile and critique. Trump, running as a presidential candidate, was naturally “a national disgrace and an international pariah”.

In a July 2014 email exchange with New York financier Jeffrey Leeds, Powell reserves a few nuggets of abuse for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton was replete with electoral liabilities, a “person with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational, with a husband still dicking bimbos at home (according to the NYP).” But what irked Powell most of all was the effort by the Clintons to link his approach to information security and email usage to that of her own when she occupied his office. In August 20, he noted in an email how the Clinton campaign’s “email ploy this week didn’t work and she once again looks shifty if not a liar. Trump folks having fun with her.”

To James Carville, a steadfast friend of the Clintons, and one who had openly made the suggestion that both secretaries of state had used similar email practices (“Colin Powell said he has used his personal email address for work-related emails and said that he does not have any emails to turn over”), Powell fumed. “Dear James, you are the latest HRC acolyte trying to use me to cover her on the email caper. All these attempts and her dissembling have just made it Worse.”

Does of all this point to the grievances of history, failed hopes, and missed chances to reach the pinnacle of power in the US? Trump can, after all, always tell Powell how he slayed the GOP establishment and defeated his Democratic rival on his way to the White House. He effectively triumphed over two machines long encrusting the country’s politics. Powell’s sole role now is that of others on the cocktail and lecture circuit: the politics of resentment played on an expensive, endless loop.

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The GM Strike: a Century of Context

Wars end with treaties. In the middle of the 20th century, the “class war” that finished off America’s original plutocracy ended with the “Treaty of Detroit.”

Fortune, the business magazine, came up with that catchy turn of phrase back in 1950 to describe the landmark collective bargaining agreement that the United Auto Workers union had just reached with General Motors. What made the pact so historic? America’s most powerful corporation was essentially agreeing to “share the wealth.”

In exchange for labor peace, notes historian Nelson Lichtenstein, GM guaranteed auto workers what amounted to “a 20 percent increase in their standard of living” over five years, along with a new health care benefit and a standard $125 monthly pension, the equivalent of about $16,000 annually in today’s dollars.

This “Treaty of Detroit” would help energize a huge postwar shift in the distribution of U.S. income and wealth. In the quarter-century after 1945, the real incomes of average Americans would double, in the process manufacturing the first mass middle class the world ever seen.

Now UAW workers are once again making headlines, demanding just as they did decades ago that General Motors share the wealth with the workers who toil to create it. And GM is sitting on plenty of wealth. Since 2015, the company has posted $35 billion in North American profits alone. But GM workers today find themselves struggling in a far different — and more difficult — political and economic environment than their UAW forbears.

In 1950, the U.S. labor movement was beginning a third decade of sustained and significant growth. By the mid 1950s, over one out of every three workers in the nation carried a union card. Last year, by contrast, only 6.4 percent of American private-sector workers belonged to a union.

The executives who run General Motors are operating in a different environment, too. In the 1950s, the U.S. tax code subjected the nation’s rich to consistently steep tax rates. Individual income over $200,000 faced a 91 percent federal income tax throughout the decade. In 1950, GM’s top executive, Charlie Wilson, paid 73 percent of his $586,100 total income in taxes.

With tax rates on high incomes that high, top corporate executives had little incentive to squeeze their workers ever tighter. Most all of any extra personal rewards that squeezing might bring would soon funnel, via the tax code, to Uncle Sam.

Today, the opposite dynamic. GM’s top executives get to keep the lion’s share of whatever they can grab. And they’re grabbing plenty. The five highest-paid General Motors executives last year averaged nearly $10 million each. Not one dollar of those millions faced a tax rate higher than 37 percent.

All these millions for GM execs have come at the expense of GM workers, especially those hired since 2007. GM employees hired before 2007 have the protection of a traditional pension that guarantees a set income. They earn about $31 an hour. Workers hired since 2007 have no traditional pension guarantee and start at $17. About 7 percent of the GM workforce — the temps that GM has begun hiring over recent years — don’t even get that. They earn, the New York Times reports, about $15 per hour and don’t get full benefits.

These sorts of attacks on workers reflect the current weakness of the labor movement in the United States. The tax rates of the 1950s that discouraged corporate attacks on worker well-being reflected the labor movement’s strength. Unions helped establish those high mid-century tax rates on the rich. During World War II, the UAW and other progressive unions pressed President Franklin Roosevelt to push for a 100 percent top tax rate. FDR did just that, proposing that no individual American should have over $25,000 — about $400,000 today — after paying federal taxes.

Congress didn’t go along with that 100 percent top rate. But lawmakers did set a 94 percent top rate for the war’s last two years, and the nation’s top tax rate would hover around 90 percent for the next two decades, creating in the process a much more equal America. This greater equality meant more dollars in the pockets of average people. Americans of modest means could suddenly afford to buy cars, and auto makers like GM rushed to serve the huge new mass middle-class market with modestly priced auto offerings.

Today, in a top-heavy America with a shrinking middle class, companies like GM can make more money selling high-mark-up expensive products to small numbers of affluent consumers than they can make by selling large numbers of affordably priced products to people of modest means.

In our unequal contemporary America, in other words, corporations like GM don’t need to sell lots of product to make big profits. They can get richer running companies that produce less. Last November, GM announced plans to shut down four U.S. plants that make product that’s not moving. This past February, GM announced the elimination of 8,000 additional white-collar jobs.

The not-so-subtle message to GM workers from GM’s executive class: You may need your jobs. But we don’t need you. So swallow whatever we offer.

By going out on strike, some 49,000 GM workers have served notice that they don’t intend to swallow that whatever. But are today’s GM workers facing a war they cannot win? Does our ferociously unequal America leave them little chance of success?

A little more history might help here and give GM workers — and all of us who want to see a more equal America — some real reason to feel hopeful.

A century ago, in the early days of mass auto production, jobs in auto plants ranked among the worst that Americans could get. In 1927, a young Walter Reuther started working for a company just outside Detroit that made auto bodies for Ford. Reuther worked the night shift, from 5:30 in the evening to seven in the morning. Each shift had just one half-hour break. At one point, young Reuther labored 21 consecutive nights.

Auto workers had to struggle for years to change these sorts of working conditions. But change them they did, with Reuther their most illustrious union leader.

In 1961, a retired UAW rank-and-filer by the name of Frank Tuttle would write Reuther — and the UAW — a heart-felt tribute. Tuttle had a special distinction. He had been the first Chrysler worker to start collecting a UAW-negotiated pension.

“On my 65th birthday in January 1950 I had three important messages before me,” Tuttle wrote, “from Social Security, telling me that I had an assured life income of exactly $38.69 a month; from Chrysler Corporation, declaring it would never grant the ‘preposterous’ pension demands of our union; and one from you saying that those demands would be won, either at the bargaining table or at the picket line.”

Chrysler workers went to that picket line, Tuttle continued, and won that “preposterous” pension.

“Without the protection of our union it is highly improbable that I would have lived to be 65 at all and without the union who would want to?” Tuttle summed up. “Before our union, the best a worker could hope for was to die on the payroll — before he became old enough to be replaced by a younger worker.”

Change can happen. Inequality just makes that change harder — and ever more necessary.

This essay first appeared on Inequality.org.

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Imagine That

Detail from cover of Imagine.

In 2010, Capitol Records released remastered versions of John Lennon’s entire catalog, the best of which remains the Phil Spector-produced Imagine. The title track has become an integral part of the world’s cultural fabric–the centerpiece of a ghetto high school halftime show at a basketball game in New York or a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor (“Imagine Whirled Peace”).

Artists ranging from Madonna to A Perfect Circle have covered it. All this is somewhat amazing, considering that the message of “Imagine” is among the most radical imaginable.  John Lennon described “Imagine” as “anti-capitalistic” but his message is more than that. The song, a top five hit, not only imagines a world without war or religion, but as a communal society in which money no longer exists.

“Imagine” informs all the songs on the album, not just the likes of “Gimme Some Truth” or “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier” but “Jealous Guy,” “It’s So Hard,” and “Crippled Inside.” Don’t like the world? Don’t like yourself? Imagine something different.

Musically, the spare piano accompaniment of “Imagine” is atypical on an album featuring spirited honky-tonk, King Curtis, strings, and intense playing by George Harrison and pianist Nicky Hopkins. The merger of all this sound with a great lyricist/singer results in an album where emotions create ideas and ideas make you emotional. Imagine that.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon would have been 79 on October 9th.

This piece is excerpted from Lee Ballinger’s latest book,  Love and War.

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From Kabul: Youth on the Road to Peace

Photo: Dr. Hakim Young.

In September 2019, facing everyday dangers of the war and under constant pressure to view those from other tribes as enemies, young people from each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces gathered for a three day “On the Road to Peace” conference in Kabul.

30th September 2019 / 8th Mezan 1398.

Despite the violent crises which we human beings have created for Afghanistan and our planet earth, I have witnessed yet again how renewing our relationships with Nature and one another can calm us, teach us, and change us.

I saw this happening among the 26 participants of the “Youth on the Road to Peace Conference” organized by the Afghan Peace Volunteers from the 18th to the 21st of September.

The youth were rightfully feeling disheartened by the ongoing challenges in their country: war, opposing local and foreign groups in conflict, ISIS, Taliban, U.S./NATO forces, capitalism, climate-change related drought, inequality, racism, rhetoric with no action, societal and personal confusion…

Name any global problem, and we’ll find it looming in this ‘forgotten’ war-playground housing 35 million ordinary Afghans.

Since the beginning of 2019, the UN had reported “shocking and unacceptable” numbers of civilian casualties across Afghanistan, noting a big increase in the number of casualties caused by government and NATO-led troops.

So, imagine that everything is going wrong in our lives, and then, a pause and a space opens up. We get in touch with our feelings for life and people again, and our being shifts.

“We’re not even at peace with Mother Nature who gives serenity,” remarked Tamana, a 16-year-old Conference participant.

Mahdia also echoed these sentiments, “Before this Conference, I never made an effort to be kind towards Nature or to take care of her, because I never thought seriously about Nature. I have been motivated to work for Nature, for our very own survival.”

In considering their shared humanity and relationships, the youth began to think critically about their relationship to money and power. Kamal was visibly shaken by life’s very basic questions, “Our humanity doesn’t require religion, race or nationality. Money is imaginary, and at our deaths, we will not regret having little money. We shouldn’t work for ourselves, but for the people and the world.”

Over just four days, their humanity arose above the barriers of culture, language, political divisions, and the distrust and bad vibes generated by an ongoing war. “We have two things in common among everyone, humanity and relationships.” Ali Sina spoke with conviction. While Ali is engaged to someone from his ethnic group, he had exhorted the participants to consider inter-ethnic marriages as a way to break ethnic borders.

Kamran reflected in Pashhto, “I used to think of Afghans as Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras or Tajik. But now, I believe that we are all human beings!”

What about all the blood feuds, revenge and endless cycles of retaliatory violence over the past five decades of war?

Sakina, a 12th grade student, said, “We are human beings who are not perfect, so we should forgive one another.” This is radical, especially in the light of generational prejudices among other ethnic groups. For Sakina’s ethnic group of Hazaras, this discrimination extended especially to Pashtuns like Maiwand, who was standing across from her in a circle. Maiwand, also a 12th grade student, agreed, “I’ve learned the important life lesson of ample forgiving. Forgiveness can prevent other persons from being killed in revenge.”

Shahdab, a Tajik university undergraduate, described how a web of blue thread held between the circle’s participants was an example of unity, “If I let go of the thread, it will weaken the unity that we have now.”

Sohrab said in Uzbeki, “Youth are the future of a country, and should be nurtured to be like medicines for the illnesses of their country.”

Anis Gul resounded, “We shouldn’t live as we did in the past or like our forefathers, but as a new generation, we should think differently!”

However badly the Afghan war has affected each of these youth, they are ‘hardwired’ to pursue relationships. I was moved by the quiet but revolutionary power of reconnecting with nature, and with one another.

A video made to accompany this article can be found at youtu.be/sCB-MFe8SQ4

 

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Sowing the Seeds of the Climate Crisis in Odisha

In Kaliponga village, farmer Ramdas sows Bt and HT cotton a few days after dousing the land with glyphosate, a broad spectrum herbicide. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury.

“Everybody is doing it. So we are too,” said Rupa Pirikaka, somewhat uncertainly.

‘It’ is genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton seeds, now easily bought at the local market, or even in one’s own village. ‘Everybody’ is countless other farmers like her in the village of and across the rest of south-western Odisha’s Rayagada district.

“They are getting money in their hands,” she says.

Pirikaka is a Kondh Adivasi farmer in her 40s.  Every year, for over two decades, she would prepare a hill slope for dongar chaas – literally, ‘mountain farming’ (shifting cultivation). Following traditions honed by the region’s farmers over centuries, Pirikaka would sow mixed plots of heirloom seeds which she had saved from family harvests the previous year. These would yield a basket of food crops: millets like mandia and kangu, pulses like pigeon pea and black gram, as well as traditional varieties of long beans, niger seeds and sesame.

This July, for the first time, Pirikaka switched to Bt cotton. That was the time we met her, sowing the dark pink, chemical-doused seeds on a hill slope at her village in Bishamakatak block. The penetration of cotton into the shifting cultivation practices of the Adivasis was striking, making us ask her about this switch.

“Other crops like turmeric also give money,” admits Pirikaka. “But nobody is doing that. Everyone is leaving mandia [millet]… and going after cotton.”

The area under cotton in Rayagada district has risen by over 5,200 per cent in barely 16 years. Official data show just 1,631 acres under cotton in 2002-03. In 2018-19 that was 86,907 acres, according to the district agriculture office.

Rayagada, with close to 1 million people, is a part of the Koraput region, one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, and a historical area of rice diversification. A 1959 survey of the Central Rice Research Institute showed the region still had over 1,700 rice varieties at the time. It’s down to around 200 now. Some researchers believe it to be a birthplace of rice cultivation.

The Kondh Adivasis here, largely subsistence farmers, are known for their sophisticated practices of agro-forestry. Even today, many Kondh families across the region’s emerald-green terraced fields and mountainside farms, cultivate a dizzying array of paddy and millet varieties, pulses and vegetables. Surveys by Living Farms, a non-profit in Rayagada, have recently documented 36 millet varieties and 250 forest foods.

Most Adivasi farmers here work on individual or common property farms ranging from 1 to 5 acres in size.

Their seeds are largely nurtured and shared within the community, using almost no synthetic fertilisers or other agri-chemicals (also called agro-chemicals).

Yet, cotton has become the second-most cultivated crop in Rayagada after paddy, overtaking millets – the premier traditional food crops of the region. It covers a fifth of the 428,947 acres under cultivation in this district. Cotton’s swift expansion is reshaping this land and people steeped in agro-ecological knowledge.

Cotton occupies roughly 5 per cent of India’s gross cropped area, but consumes 36 to 50 per cent of the total quantum of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides applied nationally. It is also a crop with the greatest correlation to indebtedness and farmer suicides across India.

The scenario here is reminiscent of Vidarbha between 1998 and 2002 – initial excitement over the new miracle (and then illegal) seeds and dreams of great profits,  followed by the effects of their water-guzzling nature, the huge spike in expenses and debt, and various ecological pressures. Vidarbha subsequently ended up as the epicentre of farmer suicides in the country for over a decade. Those farmers were overwhelmingly Bt cotton growers.

 *****

The shop we’re standing in is owned by Chandra Kudruka (name changed), a 24-year-old Kondh youth. Returning from Bhubaneswar with a degree in hotel management, he started this store in his village of Rukaguda  (name changed) in the Niyamgiri mountains this June. Potatoes, onions, deep-friend snacks, sweets – it seemed like any other village shop.

Except for his hot-selling product – stacked under the counter. A large sack of glossy, multi-coloured packets of cotton seeds, many featuring images of happy farmers and Rs. 2,000 notes.

A bulk of the seed packets in Kudruka’s shop were illegal and unauthorised. Some packets were not labelled at all.  Several were not approved for sale in Odisha. Nor was his shop licensed to sell seeds and agri-chemicals.

Also in stock, to be sold with the seeds, were cartons of green and red bottles of the controversial herbicide glyphosate. A World Health Organisation report in 2015 (later contradicted by the WHO under industry pressure) termed glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. It is banned in states like Punjab and Kerala, restricted in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and is currently at the centre of multi-million dollar lawsuits brought by cancer patients in its country of origin, America.

All this is unknown to farmers in Rayagada. Glyphosate, referred to as ‘ghaasa maraa – literally ‘grass killer’ – is marketed to them to destroy weedplants on their fields swiftly. But it is a broad spectrum herbicide, which kills all plants other than those which have been genetically modified to resist it. Kudruka also breezily showed us seeds of cotton, which he said will survive the spraying of glyphosateSuch ‘herbicide tolerant’ or ‘HT seeds’ are prohibited  in India.

Kudruka had already sold 150 seed packets to farmers in the past fortnight, he said, adding. “I have ordered more. They will be here by tomorrow.”

Business seems to be roaring.

“About 99.9 per cent of the cotton in Rayagada today is Bt cotton – non-Bt seeds are just not available,” an officer observing the crop’s cultivation in the district told us off the record. “Officially, Bt cotton is at a standstill in Odisha. It is neither approved, nor banned.”

We found no authorisation from the central government agency responsible for allowing release of Bt cotton in the state of Odisha. The Ministry of Agriculture’s cotton status report of 2016 in fact shows figures for Bt cotton in Odisha, year upon year, as nil, suggesting that governments would rather not acknowledge its existence.  “I don’t have information on HT cotton,” state agriculture secretary Dr. Saurabh Garg told us on the phone. “On Bt cotton, whatever is the government of India policy is our policy. We do not have anything separate for Odisha.”

That attitude has serious consequences. Trade in unauthorised Bt and illegal HT seeds, as well as in agri-chemicals, is thriving and fast penetrating new areas of Rayagada, as was evident in Kudruka’s shop in the Niyamgiri mountains.

Globally, agri-chemicals have destroyed soil microbes, eroded fertility and harmed “countless habitats of plants and animals, both on land and in water,” as Prof. Shahid Naeem recently said. Naeem, who heads the department of ecology, evolution and environmental biology at Columbia University, New York, says, “All these organisms are important, because collectively they make up healthy ecosystems that remove pollutants from our water and air, enrich our soil, nourish our crops and regulate our climate systems.”

 *****

“It did not come easy, I had to work very hard to get them (Adivasi farmers) to switch to cotton,” said Prasad Chandra Panda.

‘Kappa Panda’ – literally ‘Cotton Panda’ – as he is called by his clients and others, was speaking to us at his seed and chemical inputs shop, Kamakhya Traders, in the tehsil town of Bishamakatak in Rayagada.

Panda opened the shop 25 years ago, all the while holding his job as an extension officer in the district’s agriculture department. He retired after 37 years there, in 2017. As a government officer, he pushed villagers to abandon their “backward agriculture” for cotton, while his shop, licensed in his son Suman Panda’s name, sold them seeds and associated agri-chemicals.

Panda saw no conflict of interest in this, saying, “Government policies introduced cotton as a cash crop for farmers. The crop needed market inputs, so I established a shop.”

Through the two-hour conversation we had in Panda’s shop, farmers kept dropping in to purchase seeds and chemicals, seeking his counsel on what to buy, when to sow, how much to spray and so on. He answered each one with an air of infallible authority. For them, he was the scientific expert, the extension officer, their advisor, all rolled into one. Their ‘choice’ was his command.

The scenes of dependence we witnessed at Panda’s shop played out across the cotton-growing villages we toured. The coming of ‘the market’ has had an impact way beyond the cotton crop.

“As the farm land is entirely allocated for cotton, farmers have to buy all their household necessities from the market,” Debal Deb, scientist and barefoot conservationist, told us. Based in Rayagada since 2011, Deb runs a remarkable in-situ rice conservation project and conducts farmer trainings.

“The traditional knowledge of farm-related as well as non-farm occupations are rapidly disappearing,” he said. In village after village, there is no potter, no carpenter, no weaver. All household goods are bought from the market, and most of these – from the pitcher to the mat – are made of plastics, imported from faraway towns. Bamboos have disappeared from most villages, and with them bamboo crafts. They are now substituted by wood from the forest and expensive concrete. Even for erecting a pole or making a fence, villagers have to cut trees from the forest. The more people depend on the market due to the lure of profit, the more the environment degrades.”

  *****

“The shopkeeper said these were good,” Ramdas (he only uses his first name) told us sheepishly, of the three Bt cotton seed packets he had bought on credit from Kudruka’s shop. We had met the Kondh Adivasi farmer at the foothills of the Niyamgiri as he was walking back to his village, Kalipanga, in Bishamakatak block. The shopkeeper’s advice was the sole reason he gave us for choosing those seed packets.

What had he paid for them? “If I had paid just now, Rs. 800 each. But I do not have Rs. 2,400, so the shopkeeper will take Rs. 3,000 from me at harvest time.” But even if he were paying Rs. 800 per packet and not the Rs. 1,000 he eventually will, that would still be costlier than the mandated price of Rs. 730 for the most expensive cotton seed: Bollgard II Bt cotton.

None of the packets Ramdas had purchased displayed a printed price, a manufacturing or expiry date, name or contact details of the company. They featured a huge red ‘X’ overlaid on an image of a bollworm, but were not labelled as Bt seeds. Although the packets did not specify ‘HT’, Ramdas believed the crop “can be sprayed with ghaasa maraa [herbicide]” since the shopkeeper had told him so.

Like every farmer we interviewed over a fortnight in July, Ramdas was unaware that herbicide-tolerant seeds are disallowed in India. He did not know that companies cannot sell unlabelled seeds, or that there are price caps on cotton seeds. Given that none of the writing on seed packets and agri-chemical bottles was in Odia, farmers here would not know what claims manufacturers were making, even if they could read.

Yet, the prospect of money was drawing them to cotton.

“If we grow this, I might make some money I need this year for my son’s fees in a private English-medium school” – that was the hope of Shyamsundar Suna, a Dalit tenant farmer speaking to us in Kerandiguda village of Bishamakatak block. We found him, his Kondh Adivasi wife Kamala, and their two children Elizabeth and Ashish, hard at work sowing cotton seeds. Suna had applied all kinds of agri-chemicals, of which he knew little, to his seeds. “The retailer told me the cotton will come out well,” he explained.

Pirikaka, Ramdas, Suna and other farmers told us that cotton was unlike anything they had planted before. “Our traditional crops do not require anything to grow – no fertiliser, no pesticide,” said Pirikaka. But with cotton, Ramdas said, “each packet demands further expenses of 10,000 rupees. Only if you can spend on these seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, might you get some return at harvest time. If you can’t do this… you will lose all your money. If you can, and things turn out good [with] stable weather – then you might sell it [his harvest] for Rs. 30,000- Rs. 40,000.”

Even as farmers were taking to cotton in the hope of making money,most were hard-pressed to say how much they earned through it.

Come January-February, farmers will have to sell their produce back via the input retailer, who would recoup his costs with exorbitant interest, passing on what remained to them.  “I have just ordered 100 packets from the trader in Gunpur on credit,” Chandra Kudruka told us. “I will repay him at the time of harvest, and we will split the interest paid by the farmers.”

What if the farmers’ crops fail and they cannot pay him back for the packets he has sold them on credit? Isn’t that a big risk?

“What risk?” asked the young man, laughing. “Where will farmers go? Their cotton is sold to the trader through me. If they harvest just 1-2 quintals each, I will recover my dues from that.”

What went unsaid was that the farmers might be left with nothing.

Rayagada will also be left shorn of its precious biodiversity. As Prof. Naeem puts it, globally, eliminating crop diversity means jeopardising food security and reducing the ability to adapt to global warming.  He also warned that climate change and biodiversity loss are deeply linked: “a planet that’s less green and less biologically diverse is likely to be hotter and drier.”

And as Rayagada’s Adivasi farmers abandon that biodiversity for a monoculture of Bt cotton, Odisha is undergoing a far-reaching shift in ecology and economy, sparking crises at both, the level of the individual household and at that of climate impact. Pirikaka, Kudruka, Ramdas and ‘Cotton Panda’ are among  the unlikely cast of characters caught up in this shift.

“Southern Odisha was never a traditional cotton-growing area. Its strength lay in multiple cropping,” said Debal Deb “This commercial cotton monoculture has altered the crop diversity, soil structure, household income stability, farmers’ independence, and ultimately, food security.” It sounds like an infallible recipe for agrarian distress.

But these factors, especially those relating to changes in land use, plus what all this implies for water and the rivers, and loss of biodiversity – could also be playing themselves into another long-term, large-scale process. We are witnessing the sowing of the seeds of climate change in this region.

Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist, and a member of the core group of the People’s Archive of Rural India.

Aniket Aga is an anthropologist. He teaches Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Sonepat.

This story is part of PARI’s ongoing coverage of the climate crisis in India.

 

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