Thursday, 26 September 2013

Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Only 'Slightly Fundamentally Wrong'


In the wake of the Boston bombings this summer, it is worth remembering that such massacres, and even worse, are a regular occurrence in places like Iraq or Syria. The Syrian rebels themselves drove the point home, expressing condolences to the Boston victims through a touching banner displayed at a protest in the city of Kafranbel:



A group of Bostonians replied with their own banner:



The beauty of these reciprocal gestures is that despite the apparent incongruity, neither minimizes the other's tragedy. They contextualize one another in a way that transcends the global political game that their respective governments are involved in, authentically approaching a kind of collective intersubjectivity. To paraphrase C.G. Jung, the closer together the individuals, the weaker the state, and vice versa. This works across national boundaries, too. True communal/collective spirit is not and should never be about negating the individual, but on the contrary - it is about making the collective, and each individual within it, stronger.** 'Individualism', as commonly understood in the sense of 'each man for himself' - weakens and alienates us, isolating and exposing each individual to the whims of state authority.

This Syria-Boston exchange of solidarity is not an isolated instance, either - during the Egyptian protests against Mubarak, while the people of Wisconsin were in the streets protesting against Governor Walker's all-out assault on unions, there were reports of Egyptian protesters holding signs in solidarity with Wisconsin. And it is not far-fetched to imagine that the domino effect that may have played a role in the 'Arab Spring' uprisings goes well beyond the Arab world, as discontent with governments worldwide grows and protest movements are spawned, from Spain to Greece to Turkey, Brazil, Israel, just to name a few of the bigger ones.

Vladimir Putin may be a total crony proto-fascist, but it's always amusing to see crony politicians/states calling out one another over each other's doublespeak. In particular, this: “I was always appalled when our western partners and the western media called the terrorist, who did bloody crimes in our country, ‘insurgents’, and almost never ‘terrorists’,” Putin explained, in reference to the fact that Russian authorities had alerted US authorities to Tamerlan Tsarnaev's activities and links to fundamentalist groups, long before the Boston bombings.

This reminds me of the film 'Good Kurd, Bad Kurd' - which explores the baffling incongruity of the Kurds in Turkey being on the CIA list of terrorist organizations (Turkey is a NATO ally), while the Iraqi Kurds are 'freedom fighters', even though they are both part of the same national liberation movement and fighting for the same thing.

It would be trite to criticize the US media for devoting more coverage to a tragedy closer to home - however another incongruity is worth noting. On the heels of the Boston bombings, two days later in fact, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, claimed far more casualties - at least 15 killed and more than 160 injured, with more than 150 buildings damaged or destroyed - registering as a 2.2 richter scale tremor.



According to an article in the Guardian, this is largely attributable to austerity cuts to agencies such as OSHA as part of the right's war on 'big government'. Greater reliance on self-reporting following the de-funding of government enforcement is "just one more part of a cycle that began in this country with the collapse of collective bargaining, an institution that at one point created workplace safety committees, which took the place of both expansive state regulation and whistleblowing as a means of securing safe places to work...It's no coincidence that many of the worst such incidents occur in states affected by both austerity cuts and low or declining union membership."

Indeed, OSHA had not made a site visit to the West, Texas plant since 1985, despite occasional complaints.



And yet - industrial accidents in remote, rural areas are just not sexy stuff, like terrorism. You can't make spy stories or exciting terrorist-hunting flicks like Zero Dark Thirty out of that.

So the US government pours billions of taxpayer dollars into spying on the entire world and fighting a 'terrorist' threat that, according to the FBI's own statistics, claims less lives globally every year - 12,533 in 2011, virtually none in the US - than there are gun homicides in the United States alone. (14,612 in 2011)

The threat from terrorism was never particularly significant in comparative terms, even if you take an anomaly year like 2001, and factor in the deaths on September 11. The total number of deaths from terrorism in the United States, from 1980 to 2001, including September 11? 2,993. In 2007, the highest year on record since 2001? 15,732 deaths from terrorism globally, of which only 33 Americans, 21 of those in Iraq. Tom Diaz, until recently a senior analyst at the Violence Policy Center, gives similar figures: "In 2010, 13,186 people died in terrorist attacks worldwide; in that same year, in America alone, 31,672 people lost their lives in gun-related deaths." That's a global rate of 0.23 per 100,000 population for 2007 (or 0.00023%), and 0.19 per 100,000 population for 2010.(0.00019%)

By contrast, here are some interesting bullet points:

  • According to OSHA, there were 4,609 fatal industrial accidents in the USA in 2011 - an improvement compared to 20 years ago, but a slight increase on 2009.  That's a rate of 1.4 per 100,000 population, about 6 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism, according to the FBI's 2007 figures, and 139 times greater than the rate of Americans killed by terrorists, worldwide.
  • Over 30,000 Americans die in motor vehicle accidents each year. That's 9.6 per 100,000 population, about 48 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism, and 900 times greater than the number of Americans killed by terrorism every year.
  • According to a Harvard study, over 44,789 Americans die each year due to lack of health insurance. That's 14.4 per 100,000 population, about 60 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism. That's also an annual rate about 15 times greater than the number of Americans killed by terrorism in 2001 (the year of September 11), and 1,357 times greater than the number of American deaths from terrorism in 2007, the highest year on record since 2001. Let me rephrase that, just to make sure it sinks in - Americans die from lack of health insurance, every year, at a rate about one thousand three hundred and fifty-seven times greater than the rate at which they are killed by terrorists, worldwide. Talk about death panels.
  • In summary, far more Americans die every year from any one of these causes than have died from terrorism in the 33 years since 1980. In the case of annual healthcare-related deaths, based on the Harvard study figures, about 10 times more Americans die from lack of healthcare - every year - than the number of Americans killed by terrorists in the last 30+ years - according to FBI figures.


Driving a car or working in heavy industrial labour jobs in America - or for that matter, just being here, especially without health insurance - poses far greater risks than global terrorism, from a purely statistical point of view.



And it's not as if all the military/intelligence spending is what's keeping anyone safe from terrorism - on the contrary, the highest annual death toll from terrorism on record since 2001, as I mentioned, is 2007, which saw the most intense fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are wars started by the US, the latter as we know on completely false pretenses, and moreover fueled by an official and secret US policy of 'divide and conquer' - courtesy of one Colonel Steele, a veteran of the "dirty wars" in Central America in the 1980s who was sent to Iraq precisely for the purpose of organizing paramilitary Shia militias and uniformed death squads, along with interrogation/torture centers, inciting sectarian violence. (explored in a BBC documentary, James Steele: America's Mystery Man in Iraq)  Of the 100,000+ killed in the Iraq war, at least 30,000 - according to leaked documents included in the Wikileaks Iraq war logs - were innocent civilians killed by US troops. In other words, US troops have murdered at least 6 or 7 times more innocent men, women and children in Iraq than the number of Americans killed by terrorists in the 30+ years from 1980 to today, including those killed on September 11, 2001. The United States government may still be, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."***



Furthermore, deaths from terrorism worldwide, comparatively insignificant as they were to begin with, have declined since Bush left office, and since the 'war on terror' ceased to be as much of a policy priority. Which is a good reminder of Foucault's dictum on how law enforcement breeds its own monsters, where a given 'vice' - [insert "terror" or "drugs"] - "may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and the invisible, rather than to disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace." (The Will to Knowledge, 42) In much the same way as Wall Street bankers are said to turn to Karl Marx for instructive tips on the functioning of the capitalist economy, this passage from Foucault easily sounds like a page from Colonel Steele's field manual.



The vast state surveillance apparatus devoted to fighting terrorism (or drugs, for that matter) is basically a bunch of grown-up kids with technology and guns living out their sick, violent fantasies, snooping on the whole world, and leaving it to the rest of us to solve the world's real problems, including the ones they create.

A quick browse through my notes on Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is a good reminder that neoliberal economic policies will kill far more of us than global terrorism. They already have. Far more people die every year from the combined effects of hunger, treatable diseases, industrial accidents, pollution, malnutrition, mismanaged natural disasters, etc - or from any one of these causes - than from terrorism. In other words, from the effects of deregulation, post-colonial economic imperialism, austerity cuts, the hypocritical enforcement of patent regimes on pharmaceuticals in the developing world (see my Medicine, Ethics and Law paper on the left), and so forth. Not to mention state-sponsored violence - war, terrorism, drone strikes - which in the case of Iraq, basically comes down to one big, disastrous experiment in neoliberal/neoconservative free marketeer nation-building, given what we know of the motivations that drove the Straussian Milton-Friedmanite Chicago School devotees in the Bush administration.



So while more billions are being poured into fighting 'global terrorism' with its relatively negligible casualties worldwide, and military aid to corrupt third-world regimes, a single industrial accident this summer, the last in a series of similar accidents - the building collapse in Bangladesh - killed more than 230 sweatshop workers and left hundreds trapped under the rubble. Gotta keep those cheap goods comin'. As reported in the Guardian:

'...police ordered an evacuation of the building after deep cracks became visible in the walls, officials said. But factories based there ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working.

Dilara Begum, a garment worker who survived the accident, said supervisors had told them to return to work on Wednesday, saying the building had been inspected and declared safe. 

"We didn't want to go in but the supervisors threatened to dock pay if we didn't return to work."




More recently, another Guardian article reported on the deaths of dozens of Nepalese migrant workers due to brutal labour conditions in Qatar, where employers routinely confiscate workers' passports and hold back wages to keep labourers from running away. Thirty Nepalese recently took shelter in their embassy to escape working conditions:

"The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world's most popular sporting tournament."



This might, I suppose, sound ironic to someone still labouring under the illusion that wealth in capitalist societies is accumulated through hard work rather than theft, lies, luck, and plunder. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the exploitation of migrants in Qatar is not news - this has been going on for years. The difference is that the World Cup preparations have drawn the world's attention to it, and perhaps exacerbated the situation somewhat.

In a recent episode of the Colbert Report, featuring Thomas Herndon, the UMass grad student who discovered the infamous 'spreadsheet error' in Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhardt's highly influential pro-austerity paper (incidentally, Herndon did his undergraduate study at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where I live), Stephen Colbert eloquently and cheekily summed up the twisted logic of austerity: "we need to keep cutting the government budget, and keep laying people off until those people get jobs."


And the schtick goes on: "an academic paper by Harvard economists Rogoff and Reinhart, that fiscal conservatives worldwide used to argue for austerity, was recently refuted by a UMass grad student just because it had a few simple spreadsheet errors, and a couple of little staggering omissions, that made it slightly fundamentally wrong."

That's right. Only slightly fundamentally wrong. We don't need to worry about getting the numbers right - about the industrial accidents, gun homicides, car accidents, lack of access to healthcare, the economic stupidity of suicidal austerity cuts, corporate welfare, bank bailouts, foreclosures, exporting of jobs overseas, deregulation, drones, disaster response, starvation, malnutrition, foreign wars, state-sponsored violence, torture - as long as the borders are secure and we're safe from terrorists.



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NOTES
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** This is actually pretty straightforward stuff - in line with Marx and Engels' dictum (in the Communist Manifesto) that in a communist society "the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all." It is in fact under conditions of capitalism that the needs of the individual are subjected to the needs of the market, capital, state, etc.

*** Given the US government's position in the bully pulpit of the world, its long-standing official refusal to even recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, as well as - in practice - international and local jurisdiction law generally in relation to its military activities, along with the Obama administration's effective amnesty of any wrongdoing by the Bush administration, it is unlikely that any US official will be brought to justice for crimes that, at a minimum, equal those of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides - the latter at least in severity, if not in magnitude. The occasional crime that is prosecuted, of individual low-ranking soldiers and on US soil, is basically a farce - and a classist/chauvinist one at that. Obama's statement upon entering the White House: "We've been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." Really? Nice going, Obama. Try telling that to the survivors and victims of the Iraq war. And is this meant to suggest that nothing was gained by the Nuremberg trials, or by prosecuting criminals like Karadzic and Milosevic? Or is there just a double standard at work here? Was it the Iraqis misfortune that their oppressors were American? Not even 'truth and reconciliation' for them, then?




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