Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chomsky on What's Next After the Elections

Here. A surprisingly negative emphasis - maybe he's making up for having called for a vote for Obama. But his discussions both of the nature of US elections and of the difference between the Obama 'movement' and a real social movement are excellent.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Crisis of capitalism

The crisis is obviously not over. The stock market crash is, as of last week, officially the worst since the Great Depression (via), while $300 billion bailout has just been announced for the world's largest financial corporation, Citigroup (via).

Joel Geier, who's written several excellent articles on the crisis, gave the best concise explanation of the way what's happening is rooted in the US economic system that I've heard yet in a talk at last weekend's Northeast Socialist Conference. I'm going to try to write up his argument from my notes, here.

Capitalism is a dynamic and contradictory system. It is crisis prone, but it is also able to overcome its crises. An explanation of how this happens must go back to the social relations of production, the relationships between labor and capital, and between use, exchange, and profit.

Capitalism has two kinds of crises. The first are the cyclical crises, which occur every 8-10 years. These are 'realization crises' (that is, the value embodied in commodities due to the labor which produced them cannot be 'realized' as profit) or crises of 'relative overproduction' (that is, too many commodities have been produced relative to the market). The problem in such crises is that capital can't sell the commodities it has produced at the expected profit rate. Supply has become disjointed from demand. This is because the means of production have expanded much faster than the consumption, which in turn is rooted in labor's systematic subordination to capital.

Most bourgeois economists acknowledge these crises, as part of the 'business cycle'. Many of these economists (Keynesians) theorize them as the product of 'underconsumption' - people are not consuming enough, and so demand is too low. But 'underconsumption' has existed since the time of the Pharoahs, without crises taking the form that they do in capitalism. They come at the height of the boom, typically, when wages and profits are both at their highest. (Though this is not true in the current case, since the debt bubble has complicated the process; wages peaked in 1998.)

Capitalism has a second kind of crisis, which is deeper and which bourgeois economists do not acknowledge. This is a crisis, not in the 'realization' of surplus value as profit, but in the rate of profit, caused by too little surplus value being produced, period. The rate of profit falls because the 'organic composition' of capital, the ratio of non-labor expenses in production to the cost of labor, rises, and all profits ultimately come from labor. With the accumulation of capital, which is what capitalism is all about, this ratio naturally rises, meaning higher productivity, but (in an apparent but false paradox) a fall in the rate of profit.

There are ways in which this tendency may be postponed or overcome. Capitalists may get by on a rise in the mass of profit - even if the profit rate is lower, if capitalists invest enough, they will make a lot of money. The working class may be squeezed, directly by union-busting or indirectly through lower taxes & services. Labor may even be paid, for some time, less than its value. New export markets may provide an outlet for surplus capital, and the entry of new populations into the working class may improve the ratio from the other side. The elements of capital may be made cheaper.

Nevertheless, these deeper and more systematic crises occur. The Great Depression was one. The next and most recent one was at the end of the post-war boom, between 1973 and 1982, when the US saw three recessions, and the transformation of a system known as the 'permanent arms economy', where the US was the main world manufacturer and its economy was driven by military spending, by the rise of capitalist competitors such as Germany and Japan. This led to a massive restructuring; at the beginning of the crisis, US wages were higher and productivity lower than in Germany and Japan, but by 1990, the situation had been reversed. With the introduction of deregulation, privatization, and the other policies that went under the name of 'neoliberalism', profit rates were restored. In 1973, per capita GDP was $20000. In 2007, the same figure was $40000. Meanwhil, wages were lower in real terms. Everything went to capital.

A few on the Left (Robert Brenner, Chris Harman) have denied that the neoliberal boom was based on real growth. But the organic composition of capital was really lowered, most obviously by the collapse of Stalinism and the entry of the Russian and especially the Chinese populations into the global workforce, in regions with very little accumulated capital. By some academic estimates this cut the organic composition of capital in half. 2006 was a year with a record high both for profit rates and for profits as a percentage of GDP.

But, in the last business cycle, between 2000 and 2006, there was no expansion of the reproduction of capital in the US. There were fewer factories in 2006 than a decade before. Instead, growth came from a foreign trade deficit and a corresponding debt bubble, where US debt financed growth not just here but across the world.

Marx labeled the process of production from the point of view of a capitalist as 'M-C-M' - money-commodities-money. To a capitalist, the commodities produced are incidental; the point of production is to take money, and invest it to make more money. This perspective lends itself easily to speculation. The most recent speculative bubble is by no means the first in capitalism's history.

When there is an excess of capital, due to a crisis of overproduction, and especially when profit rates are declining, capitalists look for speculations as outlets for investment. The low interest rates and resulting housing bubble of the last decade were not just the work of the Fed - as Alan Greenspan himself put it, there was a 'global savings glut'. This created an asset bubble, a growth in 'fictitious capital'. Fictitious capital is what is created when there is a growth in the paper value of a company or other asset without a growth in its real value, the labor embodied in it. This is what happened in housing. Such bubbles are unstable, and can collapse very quickly, leading to enormous destruction. And the destruction is not 'fictitious' - not only is real capital destroyed, but people are bankrupted and human lives are devastated.

Thanks to the fact that we live in an imperialist world, where capitalist states compete against each other economically and politically when not militarily, there can be no centralized response to crises of this sort. The current crisis is pulling apart the global trading system.

This system has grown very bizarre, especially since the Asian debt crisis of 1997-1998. The US trade deficit went from a miniscule figure to the range of $700/$800 billion each year. Growth in the US surpassed growth in most other developed countries, but not that in China, South Korea, etc, and so US capitalism has become less competitive relative to the world as a whole. Instead of producing things, the US has acted as the 'buyer of last resort'. 55% of goods produced in the East Asian countries are exported. As far as the means of productions go, China has become a full member of the advanced industrial world - but the Chinese working class gets only 35% of what it produces, making it probably the most exploited national working class in the world.

The US can finance its trade and budget deficits by means of a 'savings glut' elsewhere, but this involves a giant transfer of wealth away from the US, and relative US decline. But then, of course, the rest of the world is being hit as hard, if not harder, by the current crisis, so we can't say that the US is necessarily about to lose its dominant position. In fact, this is the first time since 1973 that the entire world is going into crisis together.

Crises are overcome. Profits are restored by cutting the cost of the elements of capital, variable and constant. The two most important ways this happens: (1) cutting wages, which involves a class struggle; and (2) cutting the other element of capital, 'constant' capital, partly by shutting down or destroying factories and offices, and partly by simply devaluing them.

Surviving firms can benefit from collapses and bankruptcies. Best Buy is happy to see Circuit City go bust. Warren Buffet can buy a company whose shares were $100/each a year ago for $0.26/share - and partly the dropping price is just the disappearance of fictitious capital, but he's still getting a deal. PNC can buy National City, with some bailout money. All this leads to the concentration of capital, which can enhance future crises - witness the systemic impact of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The US is a low-wage country now. This is already visible in the auto industry, but is extending to others.

The current crisis started with the debt bubble of 1997-8, when, to avoid recession, the US government stimulated an economy already in boom, with massive liquidity. This fed the dot com and stock bubble. This postponed the recession, but still 2001 saw the biggest fall in profits in decades. But then the economy bounced back the next year, with giant government stimulus in the form of a domestic spending package, tax cuts, and war spending. This expanded a debt bubble, especially in housing.

Working class debt exploded, because the only way to maintain consumption was through more credit, more debt, borrowing against houses. $5 trillion in home equity loans were made in the last five years. The expansion of debt was facilitated by the deregulation of the banking system, and the growth of a shadow banking system larger than the regular one, consisting of investment banks, hedge funds, SIVs, etc. All of these were unregulated and held large amounts of mortgage debt. Now, the banks are bankrupt, because the debt is worthless, and they held it at fantastic leverage.

'Leverage', the ratio of money loaned out to money held, is traditionally 10:1 for a bank. But in the last few years it has become effectively 30, 40, 50:1. This led to enormous profits, and therefore even more investments in subprime mortgages, etc. In turn this meant overproduction of housing, followed by price decline, then market collapse, foreclosures, and bank meltdowns, and therefore enormous destruction of both fictitious and real capital.

There have been $11 trillion total in stock losses and $5 trillion in housing, with $2 trillion lost by pension funds and $1 trillion in bank capital - which means a $10 trillion decrease in lending. The rate and mass of profits are in free fall.

How deep is the crisis? It already requires restructuring of the finance, auto, airline, and other industries. Banks have been recapitalized by $2-3 trillion in Europe and $3-4 trillion in the US, but this may not be enough, because the debt bubble was not only in housing, but also in corporate assets, which have not yet really popped. And when banks must sell their assets to raise capital, that leads to further asset deflation. Deleveraging leads to a credit squeeze, preventing economic expansion. Things will get worse. Unemployment will go up; we went from 7 to 10 trillion unemployed last year, and there will be more.

This is an international crisis. There were housing and asset bubbles outside the US too. The theory of 'decoupling', that national economies had become less interdependent, was of course a myth. On top of the debt bubble bursting, there is a commodities bust, and not just in the price of oil. This produces recessions in commodities-exporting countries. Stock markets in most of the world have dropped more than in the US, 50-70% in 'BRIC' - Brazil, Russia, India, and China. There is currency instability, with a rising dollar, and currency crises in Brazil, Mexico, and Korea. Trade has collapsed, withe the cost of shipping measured by the Baltic Dry index down 93%.

Will this be the 1930s again? Bush said it would be worse, absent action. This is possible, but won't necessarily happen. The Great Depression only became 'Great' in 1931, because of international bank collapses which had to do with the post-World War One imperialist system. The world economy even in 1929 had grown no bigger than in 1913.

Capitalism learned its lesson: save the banks! But the bank rescues haven't led to resumed lending. So now Paulson is saying the government will put up money for consumer lending directly. The plan is that the government will put up $50 billion and get 20 times that in private leverage - good luck with that.

It's too early to say what will happen. There will be many more surprises, with new companies and new countries going bankrupt. We do know that this will be a long and deep recession, but not the last crisis of capitalism - unless we overthrow it, the system will find a way out.

Update: Videos of another talk of Joel's at Prisoner of Starvation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The first Black president

The blog isn't dead quite yet. I hope to post something on the economy soon. Meanwhile, to complement the critiques of Obama below, a couple of excellent Socialist Worker articles on the possibilities nevertheless opened by his election:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fafblog on Obama

To complement Adolph Reed's take below:
Change is in the air - bright new shiny change, lemon-scented and shrink-wrapped to preserve freshness, and its bold laminated name is Barack Obama! Oh sure, all the lefties and the liberals and the constitution-coddlers are whining and moaning about Obama right now. Well maybe he's no "liberal Jesus." Maybe he's been "moving to the right" a little lately. Maybe he wants to "restrict abortion rights" and "execute people for non-capital crimes" and "give himself the unchecked ability to spy on everyone whenever he wants." "Oh the rule of law," you say, "oh our basic rights and freedoms." Well boo hoo hoo! Do you hear that, liberals? That is the sound of the world's smallest violin playing just for your basic rights and freedoms. You have to listen pretty close, it's hard to hear over all these other violins getting waterboarded.
The rest.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Adolph Reed on Obama

I'd been thinking about doing a "See, I told you so" column about Obama; then, especially given the torrent of vituperation and self-righteous contumely I got after arguing that he's not what far too many nominal leftists were trying to make him out to be, I was tempted instead to do a "To hell with you, you deserve what you get" column. But the smug yuppies to whom I'd address that message -- the fan club we encounter in foundation offices, faculty meetings, soccer games and dinner parties and on MSNBC and in the Nation -- are neither the only people who've listened to Obama's siren song nor the ones who'll pay the price for their self-indulgent idiocy. (And Liza Featherstone deserves acknowledgement for having predicted early that the modal lament of the disillusioned would compare him unfavorably to Feingold.) Among other things, as I saw ever more clearly while watching Rachel Maddow talk with another of that Dem ilk about Obama and his family -- how adorable and "well-raised" or some such his kids are, etc, etc -- a few nights ago on Keith Olberman's show, an Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy, and, since even "left" discourse in this country seems capable of conceptualizing the latter as a politically significant matter only in terms of the former (or its gender or similar categorical equivalent), that could just about complete purging entirely out of legitimate political discourse the notion that economic inequality is rooted fundamentally in capitalism's political and economic dynamics.

Underclass ideology -- where left and right come together to embed a common sense around victim-blaming and punitive moralism, racialized of course but at a respectable remove from the familiar phenotypically based racial taxonomy -- will most likely be the vehicle for effecting the purge. Obama's success will embody how far we have come in realizing racial democracy, and the inequality that remains is most immediately a function of cultural -- i.e., attitudinal, and behavioral -- and moral deficits that undercut acquisition of "human (and/or "social," these interchangeable mystifications shift according to rhetorical need) capital," a message his incessant castigation of black behavior legitimizes. In this context, the "activism" appropriate for attacking inequality: 1) rationalizes privatization and demonization of the public sector through accepting the premise that government is inefficient and stifles "creativity;" 2) values individual voluntarism and "entrepreneurship" over collective action (e.g., four of the five winners of the Nation's "Brave Young Activist" award started their own designer NGOs and/or websites; the fifth carries a bullhorn around and organizes solidarity demos); 3) provides enrichment experiences, useful extracurrics, and/or career paths for precocious Swarthmore and Brown students and grads (the Wendy Kopp/Samantha Power model trajectory), and 4) reduces the scope of direct action politics to the "all tactics, no strategy," fundamentally Alinskyite, ACORN-style politics that Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone have described as "activistism" and whose potential for reactionary opportunism Andy Stern of SEIU has amply demonstrated. Obama goes a step further in deviating from Alinskyism to the right, by rejecting its "confrontationalism," which severs its rhetoric of "empowerment" from political action and contestation entirely and merges the notion into the pop-psychological, big box Protestant, Oprah Winfrey, Reaganite discourse of self-improvement/personal responsibility.
...

Indeed, Obama represents a class politics, one that promises to cement an alliance anchored in the professional-managerial class (including, perhaps especially, the interchangeable elements of which now increasingly set the policy agendas for what remains of the women's, environmentalist, public interest, civil rights and even labor movements) and the "progressive" wing of the investor class. (See, for example, Tom Geoghagen, "All the Young Bankers," The American Prospect, June 23, 2008.) From this perspective, it is ironic in the short term -- i.e., considering that he pushed HRC out of the way -- that Obama would be the one to complete Clintonism's redefinition of liberalism as conservatism. So there's no way I'm going to ratify this bullshit with my participation, and I'm ready to tell all those liberals who will hector me about the importance of voting that it's the weakest, most passive and least consequential form of political participation, and I'm no longer going to pretend it's any more than that, or that the differences between the Dem and GOP candidates are greater than they are, just to help them feel good about not doing anything more demanding and perhaps more consequential.
That man (Reed) is a talented polemicist.

I haven't been posting to this blog as much as I'd planned - I've had a shortage of time & energy, for various reasons. But it's not going to just die, not without notice.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Achcar interview on Middle East

Gilbert Achcar makes a number of good points in an interview on ZNet. I can wholeheartedly endorse his discussions of the history of Israel and the PLO, of the surge, the Sadrists, and the Kurds.

There are a couple of points where I'm not sure whether or not I agree. First, his view on the one-state/two-state debate:
To be frank, I consider this debate to be largely a waste of time. I mean this is a debate on utopias in both cases and yet, some are conducting it as if the stakes were at hand... Of course, an "independent Palestinian state" that would be limited to the West Bank and Gaza is totally utopian. But I would also say that a single state with ten million Palestinians and six million Jews is much more of a utopia, since it requires the destruction of the Zionist state... That is why I think that these are utopias and too much energy is focused on this debate, such that it becomes a waste of time. In my view there are two levels to be considered when facing the Palestinian issue. On the one hand are the immediate and urgent interests or needs of the Palestinian people. What are the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank fighting for? They are fighting to get rid of the occupation, of course -- not for the right of voting in Israel. They want sovereignty over their territories. Their fight should obviously be supported... Now, on the other hand, if you are considering a long term solution to the question, I mean if one wants to elaborate a long term program with a utopian dimension, then why limit it to Palestine, whether with one or two states?

... I would say that no long term, final, lasting and just solution can be conceived other than at a regional level and under socialist conditions -- through a socialist federation of the Middle East and beyond. Of course, this is a utopia, but this is an inspiring utopia. As I say all the time, if you want to be utopian, go for an inspiring utopia, not a mean one. Go for the big one... This is an interesting utopia, whereas a one-state, "one person one vote" solution limited to Palestinians and Israelis strikes me as an uninspiring utopia. I'm not convinced at all that the Palestinians would like to be citizens of the same state with the Israelis, even if they were the political majority under hugely unequal social conditions like what you have now in South Africa where whites still constitute by far the main section of the dominant class and are getting richer, many of them living in gated communities. And I am positively sure that the Israelis will never accept being a political minority. So this is a dead end.
Achcar is right, on the one hand, that we must support the demand for an end to the post-1967 occupations. He's also right that there's no solution within historical Palestine alone, and that even a secular binational state modeled on modern-day South Africa would hardly be all joy and goodness. But I'm not sure that makes the one-state/two-state debate "a waste of time". The promotion of a two-state "solution" as, in fact, a sufficient and complete solution, is used consciously both by the Fatah leadership Achcar rightly excoriates and by liberal and centrist Zionists to foreclose debate on Zionism as such and on the settler-colonial nature of Israel. A one-state solution might not be feasible absent a massive regional upheaval of the sort that would place greater things on the table, but it can illustrate the basic issues of justice and equality at stake without assuming agreement on the need for a socialist revolution. This is fine. A revolutionary must agitate not only on the basis of demands that can be won short of revolution, but also on the basis of demands which, while not on their face revolutionary, cannot ultimately be satisfied under the capitalist world order.

The second point, on supporting the resistance:
I don't think that you can have a general rule here. It depends on which situation you are talking about. For instance in Iraq you have groups that are fighting the US occupation but the same groups are simultaneously involved in sectarian violence. And these groups have killed many more civilians on sectarian grounds than coalition troops. In such circumstances, to say "We support the Iraqi resistance" is completely wrong and misleading. You cannot say that you support such forces. One should say "We support the fight against occupation" or better, for didactic purposes: "The fight against the occupation is legitimate, by all means (truly) necessary." That's fine. You support the acts selectively, not the actors when you cannot take responsibility for all their acts. In Iraq, you cannot support any specific force because all forces that are fighting the occupation are at the same time sectarian forces. So two wars are being waged at the same time: a just war and a very reactionary one.
Achcar goes on to argue that by contrast, one can say "we support the resistance" when one is referring to Hezbollah or Hamas in the fight against Israel, though one must also remain critical of their leaderships. With that I have no issue.

The thing is, no one of whom I am aware who says "I support the resistance" means "I support the groups resisting the U.S. no matter what they do, be it attack U.S. soldiers or bomb Iraqi civilians." The "resistance" in leftist usage refers to precisely what Achcar wants to support - "the acts selectively, not the actors". (This may not be just a Western leftist usage; though I do not have the book in front of me, I recall that Nir Rosen writes in In the Belly of the Green Bird that Iraqis too commonly make a distinction between the "honorable resistance" and the salafis or jihadis.) So Achcar's critique here is really linguistic rather than political. Of course, as far as language goes, he may be right.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Cops are here to protect you

Latest post in an ongoing series from Rad Geek People's Daily:

Cops are here to protect you by stopping an upset man from cutting himself with a knife by shouting at him in a language he doesn’t speak, then, after he fails to obey commands he couldn’t understand, by tasering him, firing pepperballs at him, and then shooting him dead — with several shots fired after he had dropped the knife.

All for his own good, of course. It became necessary to kill Odiceo Valencia in order to save him.

Cops are here to protect you by pulling you over if your car seems suspicious to them and then, if you want to know what you were pulled over for, pulling you out of the car, getting up in your face, and shouting, Ever get smart-mouthed with a cop again, I show you what a cop does, threatening to arrest you for some fucking reason I come up with, bragging that they can come up with nine other things to arrest you for, insisting, when you tell them that their conduct is being recorded, shouting I don’t really care about your cameras, ‘cause I’m about ready to tow your car, then we can tear ‘em all apart, and then proceeding to give you a ten-minute lecture on how you should properly address your public servants.

...

When every fucking week brings another story of a Few More Bad Apples causing Yet Another Isolated Incident, and the police department almost invariably doing everything in its power to conceal, excuse, or minimize the violence, even in defiance of the evidence of the senses and no matter how obviously irresponsible or dangerously out-of-control the cop may be, it beggars belief to keep on claiming that there is no systemic problem here, that cops ought to be given every benefit of the doubt, that the same police department that hires and trains these goons ought to be trusted to handle it internally (which means secretly), and that any blanket condemnation of American policing is a sign of hastiness and unfair prejudice. The plain fact is that what we have here is one of two things: either a professionalized system of control which tacitly permits and encourages cops to exercise this kind of rampant, repeated, intense, and unrepentant abuse against powerless people—or else a system which has clearly demonstrated that it can do nothing effectual to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.

Indeed. It's worth reposting here some of what Tim Wise wrote a few months ago after the Sean Bell verdict:
... there are any number of problems with the resurrection of the "heroic cop" image in the public imagination.

First, if we define heroism by the extent to which one puts his life on the line in the course of his work -- and apparently that's the operative definition nowadays -- then there is nothing all that heroic about policing. According to the Department of Labor, the on-the-job fatality rate for police is lower than that for gardeners, electricians, truck drivers, garbage collectors, construction workers, airline pilots, timber cutters, and commercial fisherman. In fact, fishermen have an occupational fatality rate that is fifteen times higher than that for cops, but rarely do we hear those who provide us with an endless supply of mahi-mahi described as heroes.

An average of 66 police officers per year were killed feloniously during the 1990s, with the number falling to only 42 in 1999. As Marie De Santis, Director of the Women's Justice Center explains, the flawed presentation of cops as embattled heroes is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous: "By cultivating a hyper-inflated myth of heroes sacrificing their lives for you, police have created a shield of public veneration to defend against criticism of any misdeed. Who then can blame police for building arsenals against the citizens, for firing at first blink, for medieval codes of silence?"

...

Secondly, there is nothing inherently noble about police work. After all, would most Americans think highly of law enforcement officers in North Korea? Or Iraq? Of course not. What makes policing noble is always and only the validity of the system for which officers are working. And while I am hardly analogizing the U.S. justice system to that of North Korea, Iraq, or any other authoritarian nation, the point is still valid. If the system is rife with inequality and injustice, then those whose job it is to uphold that system are part of the problem...
The fundamental role of the cops under capitalism is to preserve bourgeois rule. That's not all there is to say, but ultimately it's that simple.

Obama on Israel

Al-Jazeera:
Arab leaders have reacted with anger and disbelief to an intensely pro-Israeli speech delivered by Barack Obama, the US Democratic presumptive presidential nominee.

Obama told the influential annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Council (Aipac): "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided."
Of course, no one has any justification for being surprised. Ali Abunimah described Obama's move away from any sympathy with Palestine in early 2007, his refusal to promise to be out of Iraq by 2013 was news later last year, and Stephen Zunes outlined the conventional nature of his broader foreign policy thinking several months ago.

Continuing from the Al-Jazeera article:
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told Al Jazeera on Thursday: "This is the worst thing to happen to us since 1967 ... he has given ammunition to extremists across the region".
The worst thing? Really? Not Black September? Not the PLO's defeat in Beirut, and Sabra & Chatila? This is a reductio ad absurdum of the Abbas/Oslo position.

The Hamas spokesperson is the only one quoted in the article who is willing to say the obvious:
"These statements slash any hope of any change in the American foreign policy. [They] assure that there is a total agreement between the two parties, the Democratic and the Republican, on support for the Israeli occupation at the expense of the rights of Arabs and Palestinian interests."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Moscow lesbians & gays fool homophobic government and reactionaries

A press release from the Gay Liberation Network:
Despite the banning of their protest for the third year in row and attempted pre-emptive arrests by the authorities, Moscow Lesbians and Gays today successfully held Pride with widespread coverage by alternative, prominent international and some mainstream Russian media. A few hours before the protest, authorities attempted to arrest Moscow Pride's most prominent organizer, Nikolai Alekseyev, who successfully evaded them in a car.

A little later, the authorities, neo-fascists and religious zealots took the bait that Pride was going to take place as a picket in front of notoriously anti-gay Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's City Hall. While riot police were busy blockading City Hall and arresting some of the fascists and religious fanatics who showed up to physically stop Pride, Alekseyev had secretly spirited the media to a nearby monument to the great 19th Century Russian Gay composer Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, where Pride was successfully held with widespread coverage.

To add icing to the cake, Moscow Pride organizers then pulled off a dramatic banner drop right across the street from City Hall while the fascists and riot cops fumed below. The banner read "Rights to gays and lesbians - homophobia of Mayor Luzhkov to be prosecuted."

Russian authorities later arrested some of the activists who pulled off the banner drop, and for several hours put an activist's apartment under siege for more than 7 hours before apparently getting a court order to kick in the door and arrest the four activists inside – but not before they conducted a series of media interviews through the locked door, including with Interfax and RTR (the main TV channel in Russia).

Despite the arrests, the day was a resounding success for Russian gays and lesbians, who through clever organizing and hard work hoodwinked the authorities at just about every turn. As Alexeyev commented in an email posted after the actions:

"No human rights group or opposition [has] ever humiliated the Moscow authorities so much. We wanted to defy the Mayor in front of his office. Not only [has the] homophobia of Mayor Luzhkov been advertised today, but also the full collapse of his administration to prevent gays and lesbians [from] realiz[ing] their constitutional rights to march. Today, we showed that our group is powerful not only in gay and lesbian aspects, but in general. Our fight is only at its beginning."

Even during the siege of their apartment, the activists inside managed to keep good humor about the situation. When a journalist asked one of the besieged, Kirill Nepomnjaschij, if the four had enough food and other supplies to last very long, Nepomnjaschij replied, "Well, we are not going to beat the record of the blockade of Leningrad, but we will stay. We have food here and everything." In the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, during World War Two, Nazi armies besieged the City of Leningrad for more than 900 days, before the blockade was defeated.

Shortly after the arrests of the activists in the apartment, all major Russian gay websites went down, in an apparent attempt to squelch news about the successful Pride events. In spite of the censorship, as of this writing, Russian gays were still able to keep news flowing through their blog, ukgaynews.org.uk/Archive/08/May/3107.htm, which is by far the best and most complete account of the day's events.

This is the third year in a row that Moscow Lesbians and Gays have attempted to commemorate the 1993 decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia. Before the previous two years' events, Russian gays filed for permits to hold Pride events, only to be rejected by Moscow authorities. This year the authorities banned the event even before GayRussia.ru applied for the permit.

Previous years' Pride events have seen physical attacks by Russian fascists on Pride participants, infamously bloodying German MP Volker Beck, British gay activist Peter Tatchell, and Austrian gay activist Kurt Krickler last year. They, along with many other international LGBT supporters, had attended Moscow Pride in solidarity.

Despite the "pre-emptive" ban on this year's Pride, there were contradictory signals from the authorities that indicated that this year's event might not face the same degree of repression that previous year's events had endured. A few weeks ago, in response to active campaigning by GayRussia.ru, Russian authorities finally dropped the ban on gays donating blood – a gain that many western countries, including the United States, have yet to achieve.

A few days ago Russian federal authorities reported that they had "suggested" that the city authorities allow Pride to proceed unmolested this year. Given the near-total control of Russian political affairs by the increasingly autocratic government of President Dmitry Medvedev (and power behind the throne, Prime Minister Vladmir Putin), such a "suggestion," if it were genuine, should have meant clear sailing for this year's Pride.

Fortunately, Russian Lesbians and Gays were not so gullible as to believe this subterfuge by the Medvedev/Putin government, and carefully prepared some subterfuges of their own so as to successfully carry out today's Pride activities.

Activists around the world are strongly encouraged to contact the Russian embassies in their countries and to demand that the Russian authorities immediately release all Pride participants who have been arrested, and drop all of the charges that they are facing.

In the United States, please phone the Russian Embassy at the following telephone numbers:
202-298-5700, 202.298-5701, and 202.298-5704
The Pride participants have since been released, per a blog of events by activists in Russia.

A good example, maybe, of the kind of tactical acumen Roobin recently advocated at Lenin's Tomb.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

New Communist Movement working-class colonization

I've just finished Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air and will likely have something to write about it sometime in the next few days. Meanwhile, here are an interesting couple of stories from Mike Ely, who was active in the RCP in the 70s, about the role of religion among his fellow coal-miners:
And Don stood up, with great emotion, to speak about the loss of his son. And then, to everyone’s astonishment announced that he would not sign the petition. And no one should either. And the reason, he said, was that the whole meaning of this incident and this death was being misunderstood by everyone. And that it had nothing to do with railroad companies or the disrespect shown to people living on the river bottom. Don said that he believed that his son had died because God had wanted this boy’s great goodness to be with God in heaven. And his son had died to punish him, Don, because his love of this boy had come to rival and even eclipse his worship of God. And that there was a lesson here about the larger meaning and plan behind all events, even when they seemed so horrific and painful.

...

But he did tell me how the split had happened in the larger church. It has happened when my co-worker Don and Ron (the twin holly rollers of the Jimmy Swaggert camp) had asked to come preach (as often happens in these church circuits). And when they got to the podium they had launched a huge attack on the reactionary campaign this church was waging. I later learned that Don had spoken quite boldly (given the times and the kinds of red-baiting going on) about working with me, and knowing my wife, and learning what our views were. And without, for a second (!), retreating from his own, very extreme and conservative views, he tore into (and he could be scorching!) how ignorant and wrong it was to launch a campaign against people active in the cause of working people.

And by the time he was done, folks in that congregation who were uneasy about all this, were embolded to walk out. And the folks left behind were never able to escalate their attacks on us any further.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Fulbrights revoked for Gaza

Ethan Bronner in the New York Times:
The American State Department has withdrawn all Fulbright grants to Palestinian students in Gaza hoping to pursue advanced degrees at American institutions this fall because Israel has not granted them permission to leave.
Of course, even in an article highlighting the absurd inhumanity of occupation, the NYT can't be honest about events in Palestine:
Since Hamas, a radical Islamist group that opposes Israel’s existence, carried out what amounted to a coup d’état in Gaza against the more secular Fatah party a year ago, hundreds of rockets and mortar shells have been launched from here at Israeli civilians, truck and car bombs have gone off and numerous attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers have taken place.

While Hamas says the attacks are in response to Israeli military incursions into Gaza, it also says it will never recognize Israel.

No mention of the fact that Hamas was the elected governing party in the Palestinian parliament. No mention of Vanity Fair's confirmation via leaked documents that the US "backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off [the] bloody civil war in Gaza" which the NYT prefers to describe as a Hamas "coup". Discussion of the bloody Israeli military incursions is limited to the passing reference quoted. Mention of the 40:1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths in the last year of the struggle? Fat chance.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The new smear against Chavez

Chris Carlson writes:
Washington and its faithful lackeys in the media have launched a new offensive against Hugo Chávez and the government of Venezuela... Washington and its unofficial spokesmen in the media are... accusing Hugo Chávez of having ties to the Colombian guerrilla organization FARC. And they claim that the computer recently "uncovered" from a guerrilla camp has the evidence to prove it.

...

After all, how easy would it have been for the Colombian government to simply load whatever files they wanted onto the computer, or simply prepare the computer ahead of time and claim that it was found it at the FARC camp? As Venezuela expert Eva Golinger said, "How easy it is to just write a document in Word on some computer and say it was written by someone else!"

For this reason, the Colombian government invited the International Police (Interpol) to analyze the data and validate the information found on the computers. But contrary to the claims of the Colombian government and the international media, Interpol did nothing of the sort. The Interpol examination was limited to determining one thing: whether or not the computer files were manipulated after March 1, the date the Colombian military bombed the FARC camp and supposedly gained possession of the evidence.

When Interpol's report stated that there was no evidence the files were manipulated, Colombia and Washington immediately jumped on this as validation for their claims. The international media faithfully echoed the official line. "FARC Computer Files Are Authentic," said one headline from the Washington Post. "Venezuela Offered Aid to Colombian Rebels," read another. And the next day, the BBC confidently stated, "Colombia did not fake Farc files."

But even Interpol's own report reveals that they have no way of verifying this. Many of the files found on the computer were dated in the future, in 2009 and 2010, throwing out the reliability that any of the dates on the computer are accurate, and suggesting that the dates had been altered.

The Interpol report is interesting reading. It's written at a very low level of technical detail - at one point it footnotes the word "encrypted"! ("Encryption is a method of scrambling and encoding data to prevent anyone except the intended recipient from reading that data.") This is a political document, not a technical one. But it's still possible to glean a little bit of technical information about Interpol's forensic methods.

Much has been made of Interpol's acknowledgment that "Access to the data contained in the eight FARC computer exhibits between 1 March 2008, when they were seized by Colombian authorities, and 3 March 2008... did not conform to internationally recognized principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement."

Per Interpol's account, soon after the seizure, some Colombian intelligence officer accessed the data on the computers directly, by booting up their operating systems and browsing the files, whereas the proper forensic procedure is to first copy the hard drives bit-for-bit with special computer forensic equipment and then examine the copies. The problem is that even if nothing is deliberately changed by the user while browsing, various system and application files will be automatically updated by the operating system and by applications like Word. (Presumably among other things Interpol is referring to swap and hibernation files.)

However, Interpol asserts, Colombia's improper procedures did no real damage: "The direct access to the eight seized FARC computer exhibits between 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 left traces in the system files... However, INTERPOL’s experts found not a single user file... had been created, modified or deleted."

The obvious question is, how do they know? The following is all Interpol tells us in its paragraph on methodology:
Each file on a computer or an electronic storage device has an electronic timestamp that specifies the date and time on which the file was created, last accessed, last modified or deleted. Using forensic software, INTERPOL’s experts extracted the timestamp information for the files on each exhibit, distinguishing between system files and user files. They also verified the system time settings on each of the three seized laptop computers, as these settings provided a baseline for the timestamps. For files on external hard disks or USB thumb drives, the date and time settings are usually taken from the computer to which they were connected when the files were created, accessed, modified or deleted.
This is in accord with Interpol's detailed descriptions of what it found, and in particular with its defense of Colombia's improper handling of the evidence. While many user files were timestamped as "accessed" after March 1, none were timestamped as "created" or "modified" after March 1.

But, the file timestamps prove nothing alone; they're easy to fake. Interpol itself implicitly acknowledges this, when they explain the files dated to 2009 and 2010 as having been copied from a computer with an erroneous system time setting. Changing the system time setting is one way to make fake timestamps, but not the only way; timestamps can also be modified directly. With root access, on a Unix machine, this is within my capabilities, as a half-decent programmer without any expertise on computer security or forensics.

Did Interpol check anything else, then? A few oblique references suggest they did - for example, the assertion regarding the future-timestamped files that "analysis of the characteristics of these files" shows they were "originally created prior to 1 March 2008 on a device or devices with incorrect system time settings". But, the unclassified version of the report doesn't even clearly assert that some deeper examination was carried out, let alone explain how. If we are determined to have faith in Interpol's competence and impartiality, we can assume that the classified version includes better evidence; I admit my faith is lacking. And raw faith is the only option - if I'm reading the report correctly, the classified version with a "full, in-depth forensic analysis" was "delivered to Colombian authorities" and no one else.

There are a couple of reasons to doubt Interpol's ability to detect forgery even assuming timestamps were just the beginning of its investigation. I'm no expert, but the acknowledged modification of system files by Colombian officials between March 1 and March 3 has to have reduced the possibility of using these files, or physical traces of activity on the hard drives, to verify the timestamps. Further, Interpol lauds Colombia's handling of the electronic evidence after it was handed over to the Colombian computer forensics experts on March 3. Apparently, Colombia has access to the same kind of sophisticated computer forensic equipment, capable of bit-by-bit operations on a hard drive, as Interpol. One has to assume that this equipment could also be used to make forgeries of a sophistication beyond what I, or even the most skilled hacker accessing a system remotely, could manage.

There is also reason to doubt Interpol's impartiality. The report tends to conflate the absence of evidence of tampering with proof that no tampering occurred, but it does not use wording as strong as that of Interpol head Ronald Noble, who has insisted, "No one can ever question whether or not the Colombian government tampered with the seized FARC computers", and that, "We are absolutely certain that the computer exhibits that our experts examined came from a FARC terrorist camp." While Noble described FARC as "terrorist", he "commended the professionalism of Colombian authorities", according to the Washington Post. Noble came to Interpol after more than a decade of work in various departments of the U.S. government, which the WaPo prefers not to mention. Chavez' description of him as a "gringo policeman" appears to be basically accurate.

Taking a step back, even if the electronic evidence Colombia claims to have seized from FARC is authentic and unmodified, this doesn't prove Chavez is backing FARC. Others have discovered good reason to doubt both whether the documents and photos leaked by Colombia to the media really come from the computers Interpol examined, and whether the interpretations of their contents given by Colombia and by Chavez' media foes are accurate. We have to conclude that despite all the fuss in the past few weeks, we've really learned nothing new about Venezuela's relationship to FARC.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The blog to come

At the moment I am only setting up this blog and do not yet intend to start posting regularly. This is a layout test.

I am an activist based in New York City, a programmer, and a member of the International Socialist Organization. Though my identity would not be hard to discover, and is not very interesting, I'd rather remain pseudonymous here. I plan to write about war, occupation, and resistance in the Middle East, struggles in the United States, and socialist theory and practice.