Saturday, March 17, 2007

Your Brain on Baseball

The New York Times
March 18, 2007

It’s spring training fielding practice, and Jeff Kent, the Dodgers second baseman, is covering first. A coach rolls the ball out toward the mound. The pitcher scrambles to pick up the ball. The catcher yells out which base he should throw to. Kent runs over and catches the ball at first.

Jeff Kent is 39 years old and has been playing professionally for 17 years. He’s probably been doing this same drill since he was 10 years old, because the practice drills the Little Leaguers do are basically the same drills the major leaguers do. Why is Jeff Kent, after all these years, still learning to cover first?

Because the institution of baseball understands how to make the most of the human brain.

One of the core messages of brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is not a swamp of repressed memories and childhood traumas, the way Freud imagined. It’s a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.

Baseball is one of those activities that are performed mostly by the automatic mind. Professional baseball players have phenomenal automatic brains.

As Jeff Hawkins points out in his book “On Intelligence,” it is nearly impossible to design a computer with a robotic arm that can catch a ball. The calculations the computer has to make are too complicated to accomplish in time. Baseball players not only can do that with ease, they can hit a split-finger fastball besides.

Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does. As we know the automatic brain only by the behavior it produces, so we can instruct it only by forcing it to repeat certain actions. Jeff Kent is practicing covering first after all these years because the patterns of the automatic brain have to be constantly and repetitively reinforced.

But baseball has accomplished another, more important feat. It has developed a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from interfering with the automatic mind.

Baseball is one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse you do. The more a pitcher aims the ball, the wilder he becomes. The more a batter tenses, the slower and more tentative his muscles become.

Over the generations, baseball people have developed an infinity of tics and habits to distract and sedate the conscious mind. Managers encourage a preternaturally calm way of being — especially after failure. In the game I happened to see here on Tuesday, Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson threw poorly, but strutted off the mound as if he’d just slain Achilles. Second baseman Kevin Hooper waved pathetically at a third struck fastball, but walked back to the dugout wearing an expression of utter nonchalance.

This sort of body language helps players remain steady amid humiliation, so they’ll do better next time.

Believe me, the people involved in the sport have no theory of the human mind, but under the pressure of competition, they’ve come up with a set of practices that embody a few key truths.

First, habits and etiquette shape the brain. Or as Timothy Wilson puts it, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings.”

And second, there is a certain kind of practical wisdom that is not taught but is imparted through experience. It consists of a sensitivity to the contours of how a situation may evolve, which cannot be put into words.

Baseball players are like storm-tossed sailors falling and rising with the slumps and hot streaks that emanate from inaccessible parts of themselves. The rest of us rationalists use statistics to try to understand the patterns of what they do.

Talking About Israel

The New York Times
March 18, 2007

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

Three years ago, Israel’s minister of justice spoke publicly of photos of an elderly Palestinian woman beside the ruins of her home, after it had been destroyed by the Israeli army. He said that they reminded him of his own grandmother, who had been dispossessed by the Nazis. Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?

One reason for the void is that American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic primaries, Howard Dean said he favored an “even-handed role” for the U.S. — and was blasted for being hostile to Israel. Likewise, Barack Obama has been scolded for daring to say: “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton has safely refused to show an inch of daylight between herself and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

A second reason may be that American politicians just don’t get it. King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Congress this month and observed: “The wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine.” Though widely criticized, King Abdullah was exactly right: from Morocco to Yemen to Sudan, the Palestinian cause arouses ordinary people in coffee shops more than almost anything else.

You can argue that Arabs pursue a double standard, focusing on repression by Israelis while ignoring greater human rights violations by fellow Arabs. But the suffering in Palestinian territories, while not remotely at the scale of brutality in Sudan or Iraq, is still tragically real.

B’Tselem, a respected Israeli human rights organization, reports that last year Palestinians killed 17 Israeli civilians (including one minor) and six Israeli soldiers. In the same period, B’Tselem said, Israeli forces killed 660 Palestinians, triple the number killed in 2005. Of the Palestinians killed in 2006, half were not taking part in hostilities at the time they were killed, and 141 were minors.

For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right’s aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, “Pandering Not Required.” He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: “If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians.”

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let’s be better friends — and stop biting our tongues.

The Ides of March 2003

The New York Times
March 18, 2007

TOMORROW night is the fourth anniversary of President Bush’s prime-time address declaring the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the broad sweep of history, four years is a nanosecond, but in America, where memories are congenitally short, it’s an eternity. That’s why a revisionist history of the White House’s rush to war, much of it written by its initial cheerleaders, has already taken hold. In this exonerating fictionalization of the story, nearly every politician and pundit in Washington was duped by the same “bad intelligence” before the war, and few imagined that the administration would so botch the invasion’s aftermath or that the occupation would go on so long. “If only I had known then what I know now ...” has been the persistent refrain of the war supporters who subsequently disowned the fiasco. But the embarrassing reality is that much of the damning truth about the administration’s case for war and its hubristic expectations for a cakewalk were publicly available before the war, hiding in plain sight, to be seen by anyone who wanted to look.

By the time the ides of March arrived in March 2003, these warning signs were visible on a nearly daily basis. So were the signs that Americans were completely ill prepared for the costs ahead. Iraq was largely anticipated as a distant, mildly disruptive geopolitical video game that would be over in a flash.

Now many of the same leaders who sold the war argue that escalation should be given a chance. This time they’re peddling the new doomsday scenario that any withdrawal timetable will lead to the next 9/11. The question we must ask is: Has history taught us anything in four years?

Here is a chronology of some of the high and low points in the days leading up to the national train wreck whose anniversary we mourn this week [with occasional “where are they now” updates].

March 5, 2003

“I took the Grey Poupon out of my cupboard.”

— Representative Duke Cunningham, Republican of California, on the floor of the House denouncing French opposition to the Iraq war.

[In November 2005, he resigned from Congress and pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors. In January 2007, the United States attorney who prosecuted him — Carol Lam, a Bush appointee — was forced to step down for “performance-related” issues by Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department.]

March 6, 2003

President Bush holds his last prewar news conference. The New York Observer writes that he interchanged Iraq with the attacks of 9/11 eight times, “and eight times he was unchallenged.” The ABC News White House correspondent, Terry Moran, says the Washington press corps was left “looking like zombies.”

March 7, 2003

Appearing before the United Nations Security Council on the same day that the United States and three allies (Britain, Spain and Bulgaria) put forth their resolution demanding that Iraq disarm by March 17, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, reports there is “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.”. He adds that documents “which formed the basis for the report of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger are in fact not authentic.” None of the three broadcast networks’ evening newscasts mention his findings.

[In 2005 ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.]

March 10, 2003

Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks tells an audience in England, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Boycotts, death threats and anti-Dixie Chicks demonstrations follow.

[In 2007, the Dixie Chicks won five Grammy Awards, including best song for “Not Ready to Make Nice.”]

March 12, 2003

A senior military planner tells The Daily News “an attack on Iraq could last as few as seven days.”

“Isn’t it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?”

— John McCain, writing for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

“The Pentagon still has not given a name to the Iraqi war. Somehow ‘Operation Re-elect Bush’ doesn’t seem to be popular.”

— Jay Leno, “The Tonight Show.”

March 14, 2003

Senator John D. Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, asks the F.B.I. to investigate the forged documents cited a week earlier by ElBaradei and alleging an Iraq-Niger uranium transaction: “There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq.”

March 16, 2003

On “Meet the Press,” Dick Cheney says that American troops will be “greeted as liberators,” that Saddam “has a longstanding relationship with various terrorist groups, including the Al Qaeda organization,” and that it is an “overstatement” to suggest that several hundred thousand troops will be needed in Iraq after it is liberated. Asked by Tim Russert about ElBaradei’s statement that Iraq does not have a nuclear program, the vice president says, “I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong.”

“There will be new recruits, new recruits probably because of the war that’s about to happen. So we haven’t seen the last of Al Qaeda.”

— Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar, on ABC’s “This Week.”

[From the recently declassified “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate of April 2006: “The Iraq conflict has become the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”]

“Despite the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress. Senior intelligence analysts say they feel caught between the demands from White House, Pentagon and other government policy makers for intelligence that would make the administration’s case ‘and what they say is a lack of hard facts,’ one official said.”

— “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” by Walter Pincus (with additional reporting by Bob Woodward), The Washington Post, Page A17.

March 17, 2003

Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, who voted for the Iraq war resolution, writes the president to ask why the administration has repeatedly used W.M.D. evidence that has turned out to be “a hoax” — “correspondence that indicates that Iraq sought to obtain nuclear weapons from an African country, Niger.”

[Still waiting for “an adequate explanation” of the bogus Niger claim four years later, Waxman, now chairman of the chief oversight committee in the House, wrote Condoleezza Rice on March 12, 2007, seeking a response “to multiple letters I sent you about this matter.”]

In a prime-time address, President Bush tells Saddam to leave Iraq within 48 hours: “Every measure has been made to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it.” After the speech, NBC rushes through its analysis to join a hit show in progress, “Fear Factor,” where men and women walk with bare feet over broken glass to win $50,000.

March 18, 2003

Barbara Bush tells Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she will not watch televised coverage of the war: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

[Visiting the homeless victims of another cataclysm, Hurricane Katrina, at the Houston Astrodome in 2005, Mrs. Bush said, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this is working very well for them.”]

In one of its editorials strongly endorsing the war, The Wall Street Journal writes, “There is plenty of evidence that Iraq has harbored Al Qaeda members.”

[In a Feb. 12, 2007, editorial defending the White House’s use of prewar intelligence, The Journal wrote, “Any links between Al Qaeda and Iraq is a separate issue that was barely mentioned in the run-up to war.”]

In an article headlined “Post-war ‘Occupation’ of Iraq Could Result in Chaos,” Mark McDonald of Knight Ridder Newspapers quotes a “senior leader of one of Iraq’s closest Arab neighbors,” who says, “We’re worried that the outcome will be civil war.”

A questioner at a White House news briefing asserts that “every other war has been accompanied by fiscal austerity of some sort, often including tax increases” and asks, “What’s different about this war?” Ari Fleischer responds, “The most important thing, war or no war, is for the economy to grow,” adding that in the president’s judgment, “the best way to help the economy to grow is to stimulate the economy by providing tax relief.”

After consulting with the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, the N.C.A.A. announces that the men’s basketball tournament will tip off this week as scheduled. The N.C.A.A. president, Myles Brand, says, “We were not going to let a tyrant determine how we were going to lead our lives.”

March 19, 2003

“I’d guess that if it goes beyond three weeks, Bush will be in real trouble.”

— Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel teaching at Boston University, quoted in The Washington Post.

[The March 2007 installment of the Congressionally mandated Pentagon assessment “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” reported that from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9, 2007, there were more than 1,000 weekly attacks, up from about 400 in spring 2004.]

Robert McIlvaine, whose 26-year-old son was killed at the World Trade Center 18 months earlier, is arrested at a peace demonstration at the Capitol in Washington. He tells The Washington Post: “It’s very insulting to hear President Bush say this is for Sept. 11.”

“I don’t think it is reasonable to close the door on inspections after three and a half months,” when Iraq’s government is providing more cooperation than it has in more than a decade.

— Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector for the United Nations.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 71 percent of Americans support going to war in Iraq, up from 59 percent before the president’s March 17 speech.

“When the president talks about sacrifice, I think the American people clearly understand what the president is talking about.”

— Ari Fleischer

[Asked in January 2007 how Americans have sacrificed, President Bush answered: “I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.”]

Pentagon units will “locate and survey at least 130 and as many as 1,400 possible weapons sites.”

— “Disarming Saddam Hussein; Teams of Experts to Hunt Iraq Arms” by Judith Miller, The Times, Page A1.

President Bush declares war from the Oval Office in a national address: “Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure.”

Price of a share of Halliburton stock: $20.50

[Value of that Halliburton share on March 16, 2007, adjusted for a split in 2006: $64.12.]

March 20, 2003

“The pictures you’re seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the Seventh Cavalry racing across the deserts in southern Iraq. They will — it will be days before they get to Baghdad, but you’ve never seen battlefield pictures like these before.”

— Walter Rodgers, an embedded CNN correspondent.

“It seems quite odd to me that while we are commenced upon a war, we have no funding for that war in this budget.”

—Hillary Clinton.

“Coalition forces suffered their first casualties in a helicopter crash that left 12 Britons and 4 Americans dead.”

— The Associated Press.

Though the March 23 Oscar ceremony will dispense with the red carpet in deference to the war, an E! channel executive announces there will be no cutback on pre-Oscar programming, but “the tone will be much more somber.”

March 21, 2003

“I don’t mean to be glib about this, or make it sound trite, but it really is a symphony that has to be orchestrated by a conductor.”

— Retired Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, CNN military analyst, speaking to Wolf Blitzer of the bombardment of Baghdad during Shock and Awe.

[“Many parts of Iraq are stable. But of course what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everyone.”

— Laura Bush, “Larry King Live,” Feb. 26, 2007.]

“The president may occasionally turn on the TV, but that’s not how he gets his news or his information. ... He is the president, he’s made his decisions and the American people are watching him.”

— Ari Fleischer.

[The former press secretary received immunity from prosecution in the Valerie Wilson leak case and testified in the perjury trial of Scooter Libby in 2007.]

“Peter, I may be going out on a limb, but I’m not sure that the first stage of this Shock and Awe campaign is really going to frighten the Iraqi people. In fact, it may have just the opposite effect. If they feel that they’ve survived the most that the United States can throw at them and they’re still standing, and they’re still able to go about their lives, well, then they might be rather emboldened. They might feel that, well, look, we can stand a lot more than this.”

— Richard Engel, a Baghdad correspondent speaking to Peter Jennings on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Thousands protest as war enters 5th year

Demonstrators march in an a protest against the war in Iraq from the National Mall to the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, March 17, 2007. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


Associated Press

Washington -- Denouncing a conflict entering its fifth year, protesters across the country raised their voices Saturday against U.S. policy in Iraq and marched by the thousands to the Pentagon in the footsteps of an epic demonstration four decades ago against another divisive war.

A counterprotest was staged, too, on a day of dueling signs and sentiments such as "Illegal Combat" and "Peace Through Strength," and songs like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "War (What's It Good For?)."

Thousands crossed the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial to rally loudly but peacefully near the Pentagon. "We're here in the shadow of the war machine," said anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. "It's like being in the shadow of the death star. They take their death and destruction and they export it around the world. We need to shut it down."

Smaller protests were held in other U.S. cities, stretching to Tuesday's four-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion. In Los Angeles, Vietnam veteran Ed Ellis, 59, hoped the demonstrations would be the "tipping point" against a war that has killed more than 3,200 U.S. troops and engulfed Iraq in a deadly cycle of violence.

"It's all moving in our direction, it's happening," he predicted at the Hollywood rally. "The administration, their get-out-of-jail-free card, they don't get one anymore."

Other protests — and counter-demonstrations — were held in San Francisco, San Diego and Hartford, Conn., where more than 1,000 rallied at the Old State House.

Overseas, tens of thousands marched in Madrid as Spaniards called not only for the U.S. to get out of Iraq but to close the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Smaller protests were staged in Greece and Turkey.

Speakers at the Pentagon rally criticized the Bush administration at every turn but blamed congressional Democrats, too, for refusing to cut off money for the war.

"This is a bipartisan war," New York City labor activist Michael Letwin told the crowd. "The Democratic party cannot be trusted to end it."

Five people were arrested after the demonstration when they walked onto a bridge that had been closed off to accommodate the protest and then refused orders to leave so police could reopen it to traffic, Pentagon police spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. They were cited and released, she said.

President Bush was at Camp David in Maryland for the weekend. Spokesman Blair Jones said of the protests: "Our Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully express one's views. The men and women in our military are fighting to bring the people of Iraq the same rights and freedoms."

People traveled from afar in stormy weather to join the march.

"Too many people have died and it doesn't solve anything," said Ann Bonner, who drove through snow with her husband, Tom O'Grady, and two children, 13 and 10, from Athens, Ohio. "I feel bad carrying out my daily activities while people are suffering, Americans and Iraqis."

Police on horseback and foot separated the two groups of demonstrators, who shouted at each other from opposite sides of Constitution Avenue in view of the Lincoln Memorial before the anti-war group marched. Barriers also kept them apart.

But war protester Susanne Shine of Boone, N.C., found herself in a crowd of counterdemonstrators, and came out in tears, with her sign in shreds. "They ripped up my peace sign," she said, after police escorted her, her husband and two adult daughters from the group. "It was really pretty scary for me."

Protesters walked in a blustery, cold wind across the Potomac River with motorcycles clearing their way and police boats and helicopters watching.

Police no longer give official estimates but said privately that perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 anti-war demonstrators marched, with a smaller but still sizable number of counterprotesters also out in force. An hour into the three-hour Pentagon rally, with the temperature near freezing, protesters had peeled away to a point where fewer than 1,000 were left.

Protesters met at the starting point of the Oct. 21, 1967, march on the Pentagon, which began peacefully but turned ugly in clashes between authorities and more radical elements of the estimated crowd of 50,000 on the plaza in front of the Defense Department's headquarters. More than 600 were arrested that day.

That protest has lived on in the popular imagination because of the crowd's attempts to lift the Pentagon off the ground with their chants; they fell short of their fanciful goal.

Veterans lined up at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and waved U.S, POW-MIA and military-unit flags. Not all were committed to the U.S. course in Iraq, however.

"I'm not sure I'm in support of the war," said William "Skip" Publicover of Charleston, S.C., who was a swift boat gunner in Vietnam and lost two friends whose names are etched on the memorial's wall. "I learned in Vietnam that it's difficult if not impossible to win the hearts and minds of the people."

But Larry Stimeling, 57, a Vietnam veteran from Morton, Ill., said the loss of public support for the Iraq war mirrors what happened in Vietnam and leaves troops without the backing they need.

"We didn't lose the war in Vietnam, we lost it right here on this same ground," he said, pointing to the grass on the National Mall. "It's the same thing now."

In Sacramento, Calif., nearly 200 veterans and parents of troops gathered on the steps of the state Capitol to rally in support of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"This is not a war that can be fought under a white dome in Washington, D.C.," said Kevin Graves, whose son died in Iraq. "If politicians can't support the troops, they should go fight instead."

Opening weekend events, more than 200 were arrested in a demonstration late Friday in front of the White House and charged with disobeying a lawful order or crossing a police line.


Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and Cal Woodward contributed to this report.


In this photo taken with a video camera, Virginia state police block the entrance to the Pentagon during a protest against the war in Iraq near the Pentagon Saturday, March 17, 2007 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


(At least not until you testify before the Waxman Committee…)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Attorney General Gonzo

[ Click on image to view animated political cartoon. ]

War, Neoliberalism and Empire in the 21st Century

by Noam Chomsky and Sameer Dossani
March 14, 2007

Sameer Dossani: Let's talk about the recently passed Iraqi oil law. It's well known that the law was drafted in the U.S. and then consulted on by very few Iraqis all loyal to Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki, then finally pushed through the Iraqi parliament. This law paves the way for regionalization and privatization of Iraqi oil. What's the U.S. economic agenda in Iraq and will it be able to carry that agenda out, given the disastrous nature of the occupation so far?

Noam Chomsky: It's not very clear. What you said is correct. The law was not even seen by the Iraqi Parliament until it was finished, so it's an inside job. Exactly what this entails is still kind of open. It allows for Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) which have traditionally been a way of gouging the producer and ensuring that foreign corporations have control and make huge profits. It's quite different from other contractual arrangements in the region--it's what they used to have but they've since nationalized their oil production and countries set terms more in their own interest with the corporations that are moving in. This law is vague on that so it leaves it open.

As far as the U.S. economic interests I think we have to make a distinction. The primary interest, and that's true throughout the Middle East, even in Saudi Arabia, the major energy producer, has always been control, not access, and not profit. Profit is a secondary interest and access is a tertiary interest.

So in the years when the U.S. was not using Middle East oil at all, [the U.S.] was the largest producer and the largest exporter, it still had the same policies. It wanted to control the sources of oil and the reasons are understood. In the mid-1940s, the State Department made it clear that the oil resources of the region, primarily then Saudi Arabia, were a stupendous source of strategic power which made the Middle East the most strategically important area of the world. They also added that its one of the greatest material prizes in world history. But the basic point is that it's a source of strategic power, meaning that if you control the energy resources, then you can control the world, because the world needs the energy resources.

This was made explicit by George Kennan when he was one of the Middle East planners [in the U.S. State Department]. [He said that] control over Middle East oil will give us veto power over our rivals. He was specifically talking about Japan, in case Japan industrialized, it was devastated by the war still, we'll have veto power as long we control the oil. And that's been understood through the years. So in the early stages of the Iraq war [former U.S. National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski, who's one of the more astute of the planners--he was not terribly enthusiastic about the war--said that if the U.S. wins the war, which means that it succeeds in imposing a client regime in Iraq, then the U.S. will have critical leverage over its industrial rivals in Europe and Asia because it will have its hand on the spigot.

And that is also understood very well at the highest level of the administration. So a few months ago, Dick Cheney said that control over [oil] pipelines can be "tools for intimidation and [blackmail]". He was talking about control over pipelines in the hands of others, so if our enemies have it, it's a tool of intimidation and coercion. But of course the same is true if it is in our hands. We're not supposed to think that because we're supposed to be noble, but the rest of the world certainly understands it. Yes, it's a tool of intimidation and coercion, whether it's the direction of pipelines or whether its control over the production or over the regimes in question, and control can take many forms.

So that's the primary concern--control. A secondary concern is undoubtedly profit for U.S.-based corporations and British based corporations and several others of course. And yes [in the case of the Iraqi oil law] that's a possibility. The Production Sharing Agreements and the other arrangements for long-term contracts at ridiculous rates, those are expected to be sources of immense profit as they have been in the past, so for example a couple of weeks ago Exxon-Mobil posted its profits for 2006 which are the highest for any corporation in U.S. history. That broke the record of the preceding year, which also happened to be Exxon-Mobil and the other energy corporations are doing just great--they have money pouring out of their ears. And the same with the corporations that link to them, like Haliburton, Bechtel and so on.

The material prize of oil production is not just from energy. It's also from many other things. Take Saudi Arabia or the [United Arab] Emirates. They have huge constriction projects paid for by petro-dollars which recycle back to Bechtel and other major construction companies. A lot of it goes right back to U.S. military industry. So these are huge markets for U.S. military exports and the military industry in the United States is very closely linked to the high-tech economy generally. So it's a sort of a cycle--high prices for oil, the petro-dollars pour back to the U.S. for major construction projects for high-tech industry, for development, for purchasing treasury securities which helps bolster the economy--it's a major part of the economy and of course it's not just the United States. Britain, France and others are trying very hard to sell them the same things and sometimes succeeding. There was a big bribery scandal in Britain recently because of efforts to bribe Saudi officials into buying jet aircraft and so on. So the basic idea of the energy system is that it should be under the control of loyal clients of the United States, and they're allowed to enrich themselves, become super rich in fact, but the petro-dollars are basically to cycle back to the West, primarily the United States in various forms. So that's a secondary concern.

A tertiary concern is access. That's much less of a concern. One of the reasons is that the distribution systems are pretty much in the hands of big energy corporations anyway and once oil is on the high seas, it can go anywhere. So access is not considered a major problem. Political scientists, when they make fun of the idea that the U.S. invaded Iraq to gain its oil, they point out is that the U.S. can get Middle East oil in other ways so therefore that can't be the reason. That's true, but it's irrelevant because the true issues are and always have been control and secondarily profit and in fact U.S. intelligence projections for the coming years have emphasized that while the U.S. should control Middle East energy for the traditional reasons, it should rely primarily on more stable Atlantic basin resources, namely West Africa and the Western hemisphere. They're more secure, presumably and therefore we can use those, but we should control the Middle East oil because it is a stupendous source of strategic power.

SD: The difficulties surround the occupation Iraq has deflected the U.S.'s attention away from other parts of the world, including Latin America. Recently, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and others such as Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, have been talking about regional trade agreements such as ALBA and, in the case of Venezuela, aid packages that are supposedly designed to actually benefit local populations as opposed to transnational companies. Critics claim that these policies are a) unsustainable, because they depend on revenues from Venezuela's oil wealth, and b) self serving for the government of Hugo Chavez. What is your response to these criticisms?

NC: It's very odd criticism in the first place. Are U.S. aid programs sustainable? No, not if there's a depression or even a recession. Furthermore, U.S. aid happens to be about the lowest relative to the economy of any advanced society so there isn't much of it in the first place and it also can be withdrawn at any time and often is.

As for doing it for self interest, what do you think other countries provide aid for? They're perfectly open about it. Sometimes, there's something done for altruistic reasons maybe by Norway, but overwhelmingly, aid is openly presented as "in our interest", not just by the U.S. but by Britain and France and others. It is part of general strategic policies of controlling whatever part of the world you can. So, if in fact Venezuela's doing it for that reason, that just says, "yeah, they're just like us". So whatever that is, it's not a criticism.

What are the reasons? Well, they're complicated. First of all, there's a background. For the first time in 500 years since the Spanish conquest Latin America--especially South America--is beginning to move towards some sort of integration. Actually it's a dual type of integration. Part of it is international integration meaning the countries are becoming more integrated with one another. The traditional structure in LA has been that each of the countries is primarily oriented towards Western imperial powers. So [economies are oriented toward trade with] Spain, and in recent years mostly the United States, not with one another. That's even true of the transportation systems. They're designed for export of resources abroad and import of luxury goods for the rich within.

There's a very clear contrast with East Asia. East Asia is resource poor, Latin America is resource rich. You would have expected Latin America to have rapid growth, not East Asia, but it didn't. One of the reasons is that Latin America adhered very rigorously to the neo-liberal policies of the last 25 years, the IMF World Bank policies, and those are basically offshoots of the U.S. Treasury department. They adhered to the rules and they suffered severely--most of the population that is. The rich sectors did ok. East Asia just disregarded the rules and followed the same kinds of programs that the rich countries themselves, including the U.S., had followed to gain their wealth and power. So East Asia grew, but in addition to that, if you look at say imports and exports, Latin America exported raw materials, which is low income basically, and imported luxury goods for the wealthy. East Asia imported capital goods and moved up the ladder of industrial progress and ended up exporting high technology goods.

SD: What do you mean by "capital goods"?

NC: Machine tools, things that you can use for producing commodities, electronics, bio-technology and so on. I mean those are the high-value exports, not rice. I mean for the U.S., rice is such a low value export that agribusiness has to get about 40% of its profit from U.S. government subsidies, provided primarily since the Reagan administration, as part of their efforts to undermine markets--they love rhetoric about markets, but they greatly dislike the concept applied to us. And the terms of trade tend to decline for commodities, you know there's variation, but they tend to decline for primary commodities as compared with high value goods like industrial exports. So [economists like to talk about] this notion called "comparative advantage", you should produce what you're good at, but the way countries develop is by rejecting that principle and acting in order to shift their comparative advantage.

So let's take the United States. 200 years ago the comparative advantage of the United States was exporting fish and fur, and maybe cotton, thanks to slavery. If the U.S. had followed the principles that are dictated to the poor countries, we'd be a sparsely populated, pretty poor country, exporting primary resources. Instead, the United States violated all of the rules--the rules of the economists and the neo-liberal principles. It imposed extremely high tariffs on imports from Britain, textiles at first, later steel and others, and it had the highest tariffs in the world, the highest protection in the world in the 19th century. As a result, it was able to shift its comparative advantage from primary resource exports to manufacturing, finally high-tech technology and so on, and that goes on right until today. Only the poor countries are supposed to follow the principles that economists dictate. In the United States there's a state sector of the economy, which is the core of high-technology advanced production. That's where computers come from, and the Internet, and lasers, and containers for trade; civilian aircraft are mostly an offshoot of the military industry, right now moving on to genetic engineering, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals, and so on. Research and development--which are the risky, costly parts of development--those costs are imposed on the public by funding through the state sector and development in the state sector. When there are profits to be made it's handed over to private corporations and that's the basic structure of the advanced economy.

That's one reason why the U.S. simply can't enter into the free trade agreement--it just doesn't accept market systems internally. So going back to East Asia and Latin America, Latin America followed the rules and became impoverished; East Asia ignored the rules, and was able to grow and develop pretty much the way the rich countries had themselves. So one form of integration in Latin America is integration of the societies with one another, although the alternative is the more far-reaching version of this, but there are others. And the second form of integration is internal. Latin America at last is beginning to do something, not much, but something about the internal fracturing of the societies, which is extreme. Each of those societies is characterized by a very wealthy small elite, and a huge impoverished mass. There's also a pretty close correlation to race. The wealthy elite tends to be the white, Europeanized part of the society; the huge impoverished mass tends to be the Mestizo, Indian, Black part of the society. Not a perfect correlation, but it's very noticeable. And that's beginning to be addressed, in large part as a result of the pressure of mass popular movements, which are very significant in Latin America now more than any other part of the world.

It's in this context that the Venezuelan phenomenon surfaces. Venezuela is indeed now, under Chavez, using its oil wealth to accelerate these processes--both the international integration and the internal integration. It's helped countries of the region free themselves from U.S. controls, exercised in part through the traditional threat of violence, which has been much weakened, and in part through economic controls. That's why country after country is kicking out the IMF, restructuring their debts, or refusing to pay them, often with the specific help of Venezuela. In Argentina particularly, Venezuela bought about a third of the debt and enabled Argentina to "rid herself of the IMF" as the President [Nestor Kirchner] put it. The international integration is also proceeding, not just through Venezuela. It doesn't get reported here because it's sort of not the right story, but a lot of things are happening. So in early December for example, there was a meeting of all South American leaders in Cochabamba, Bolivia--which is right at the heart of Morales territory, Indian territory--and they proposed, they had constructive ideas and suggestions which could lead towards sort of a European Union type structure for South America.

The more extreme version of this, advanced version of it is ALBA, which you mentioned, the Venezuelan initiative, but there are others. MERCOSUR, which is a regional trade alliance is stumbling, but it exists. There are great barriers to integration, it's not an easy matter to dismantle 500 years of history, either internally or regionally, but there are steps towards it, and Venezuela is playing a significant role in them. In the U.S. there's kind of a new party line on this matter. The party line is that, OK, we admit the subcontinent is drifting to the Left, but there are good Leftists and bad Leftists, and we have to distinguish between them. The bad Leftists are Chavez, of course, Morales, and probably Correa, not certain yet, and Kirschner's also one of the bad ones. The good Leftists are Lula in Brazil, García in Peru, they don't know about Bachelet in Chile, and so on.

In order to maintain this propaganda line, it's necessary to suppress quite a lot of facts. For example, the Cochabamba conference that I mentioned, or the fact that when Lula was reelected in last October, his first foreign trip and one of his first acts was to visit Caracas to support Chávez and his electoral campaign, and to dedicate a joint Venezuelan-Brazilian project, a major bridge over the Orinoco river, and to discuss some other projects. Well that doesn't fit the story so, as far as I can tell, I don't think it was reported anywhere in the United States--I didn't check everything, but I couldn't find it--and many other things like that. I mean with any kind of propaganda, there's at least some thread of truth to it, but it's much more complex than that. There's a real will towards integration and popular pressure towards internal integration, which are very significant. It's worth remembering that these are steps toward reversing a 500-year-old pattern, and among other things, it's weakening the traditional measures of U.S. control over South America. So the kind of governments the U.S. is supporting now, including Lula, are the kinds of governments they might well have been overthrowing not many years ago.

SD: In Latin America, Venezuela is only one part of the general discontent that is driving governments away from the IMF. But in other parts of the world, notably Africa, the IMF and its neoliberal diktaats are as strong as ever, and the predictable result is that extreme poverty is still on the rise. Other countries -- for example India -- are not under this pressure but still are wildly pursuing neoliberal economic policies. What hope do you see for citizens and movements in these places? Are there lessons to be learned from the case of Latin America? How can we in the U.S. be supportive of struggles for economic justice in these places?

A lot depends on what we do. After all [the U.S. is] the most powerful country in the world and the richest country in the world and has enormous influence. These policies that you describe are not without reason called the Washington Consensus; that's where they emanate from.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are the two areas of the world that most rigorously followed the neo-liberal principles, the orthodox principles of the Washington Consensus, and those are the two parts of the world that suffered most severely. And you're right, in Sub-Saharan Africa it largely continues. They simply do not have the resources, the capacities, the countries are torn to shreds as a result of history of imperial conquest and devastation, and they've not been able to put themselves back together again. Their hopes for revival after the the formal end of colonialism were pretty much shattered by Western intervention. So for example, the murder of [Patrice]Lumumba in the Congo, which is the richest, and potentially the most powerful country of the region, and the installation of the corrupt and brutal murderer Mobuto [Sese Seko] not long after, I mean that set off a chain of catastrophes which is still devastating the area and no sign of resolution.

The French in their regions of Africa did the same. One gangster after another, the French backed state terrorism, and did all sorts of things. And pretty much the British, too, in their regions. So [many African countries] have a hideous legacy to overcome, and it's very difficult, and they're not getting much support from the outside. But we should be doing what we can to support authentic liberation struggles within the countries.

It's too complicated to go into the history here, but it's worth remembering many of the things that happened. So for example, when the Portuguese empire collapsed in the mid-70's, the former Portuguese colonies had a chance, Angola, Mozambique, a couple other Portuguese colonies, might have moved towards some sort of independent development. But South Africa, with U.S. backing, would not allow it--remember that's apartheid South Africa. So for example in Angola, South African troops backed by the United States just invaded to try to throw out the elected government, and again, with U.S. support, supported terrorist movements, the Savimbi movement, to try to undermine the government, and they would have succeeded had it not been for the fact that Cuba sent forces to support the government.

That led to hysteria in the United States. You had [the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Daniel Moynihan saying 'the Russians are trying to cut our lifeline, our oil supplies to the Middle East', [Henry] Kissinger raving and so on, and it was all, believed to be or presented to be a Russian operation. In fact, we now know from excellent contemporary U.S. scholarship that it was a Cuban initiative--it was mainly Piero Gleijeses at Johns Hopkins University who's going through the archival material and has done outstanding scholarship. What happened is that Cuba entered on its own initiative and very selflessly--they never took any credit for what they were doing, it's still mostly unknown--but Cuban troops beat back the South African offensive, and not only did that prevent the re-conquest of Angola, but it also had extraordinary symbolic significance. Those Cuban troops were black, and that broke the kind of mythology of white conquest; it was the first time that black soldiers had defeated advanced white armies, South African with U.S. backing. And that was a very important, had a very important effect on all of Africa. For the South African whites it was a sign that their conquest was not permanent. And for blacks in South Africa and elsewhere in the region, it showed that you don't have to subordinate yourself to white power.

That breaking of the hold of the mythology of [white] power is extremely significant, not just in this case. The same is true with many other cases, slavery, the women's movement, all sorts of things. Just breaking the idea that you must subject yourself to overwhelming power, when that's broken, a lot collapses with it. So that was a very important step towards the liberation of Africa, and Cuba deserves enormous respect for this, also for never taking credit for it, because they wanted the credit to be taken by the African countries themselves. It's only now beginning to be known, and mostly only known in scholarly circles because you don't get front page stories in the New York Times about topics like this. And then Angola fell into total catastrophe, mainly because of the depredations of the U.S.-backed terrorist forces, which were horrendous, and now it's a horror story. Similar things were happening elsewhere. The United Nations commission on Africa estimated that in the former Portuguese colonies alone--Mozambique and Angola--about a million and a half people were killed by South African aggression backed by the Reagan administration, just during the Reagan years. That's a pretty serious catastrophe. They also estimated about 60 billion dollars of damage, and the French and Algeria and their regions elsewhere were doing pretty much the same. It's a hideous, ugly story, and sub-Saharan Africa has a long way to go to extricate itself from these centuries of destruction still continuing.

India is a complicated story; it has been independent since 1947. Before the British conquest back in the 18th century, India and China had been the commercial and industrial centers of the world. British conquest turned India into a poor, peasant society. [The British] built roads and infrastructure, but they were mostly for the benefit of the invaders, the export of goods and so on. There were hideous famines--Mike Davis has a wonderful book on this Victorian famines, huge famines that could have easily been prevented, right thru the British rule up to the very end in the 1940s. Since Indian independence, they resumed their growth and there were no more famines; it became a more or less governable society and was beginning to develop. In the 1980s, there was a significant increase in the rate of growth. In the 1990s, they instituted the so-called neo-liberal reforms on their own, I mean, that was not under IMF control, as you said, and since then there have been changes.

They're very highly praised in the West--you know, the Thomas Friedman-style adulation of the new India--and in fact growth has increased, and a sector of the society has become much better off, has been raised from poverty. But remember that means a sector of the society; the large majority of the society is deeply impoverished, maybe even harmed by the neo-liberal policies, the same policies that are responsible for the marvelous labs in Hyderabad and Bangalore - which are indeed marvelous, I've seen them and they're just like MIT - and there is increase in the wealth of that sector of society. Those same policies are undermining the large majority of the population, which is peasant-based. Also the government has withdrawn support for peasant agriculture, meaning cheap credits, irrigation, rural aid, assistance programs, and so on, and they've also kind of pressured the poor farmers to turn from subsistence crops to export crops--that's the advice of economists generally.

Mexico, for example, under NAFTA was supposed to turn away from producing rice for the population and corn, turned away from that to, say, producing flowers for export to the United States with "more valued added". In some seminar somewhere that might look good, but in the real world it happens not to work for very simple reasons. Commodity prices tend to vary quite a lot, and if there's like a natural disaster, say a hurricane or whatever, and you're producing flowers, they might be wiped out that year, just like the citrus crop has been pretty much wiped out in California this year because of the cold spell. Well if you're agribusiness, you can handle that. So wiping out the citrus crop in California may raise the price of oranges in the United States, but U.S. agribusiness is going to survive it just fine. However, poor farmers cannot, I mean a farmer can't tell his children 'don't bother eating this year' because cotton prices went down, or because a storm wiped out our flowers, and 'maybe you'll be able to eat the next year', you can't do that. So what you have to do is to try to get credit. Well with the government having withdrawn support for the vast majority of the population, you go to usurers, who charge you huge levels of interest, which you're not going to be able to pay, so then you have to sell off the little plot of land you have, and pretty soon you can't support your family at all, so you commit suicide.

And in fact the rate of peasant suicides has been rising [in India] about as fast as the adulation by Thomas Friedman for the marvels of the economy. The per capita grain intake for people in India has declined, the average has declined considerably, since the onset of the reforms. Manufacturing productivity has gone way up, manufacturing wages have gone way down. At the beginning of the so-called reforms, India was ranked around 124th or so in the UN development rankings, which measure infant mortality and so on. Since the reforms have been undertaken, it's actually declined--the last time I looked I think it was 127th, it certainly hasn't advanced.

Well, these are parts, I can go on, but these are the several aspects of the Indian development story. For some it's been very good, and for others it's been, at best, stagnation, at worst, a disaster. And remember, for huge parts of India, like say for women, life is kind of like under the Taliban. Careful studies of say [the Indian state of] Uttar Pradesh, which maybe has 160 million people, has found that they have about the lowest female to male ratio in the world and it's not because of female infanticide, it's because of the way women are treated, which would make the Taliban look pretty decent. And these are huge areas, and they're not getting better, many are getting worse. The same is true in China, it's harder to say about China, it's a closed society, I don't know the details, but it's probably quite similar. India's a more open society so there's a lot of evidence.

Going back to Mexico and producing corn and beans, I mean, why is there a vast increase in illegal immigration from Mexico in recent years? It's partly the predicted effects of NAFTA. If you flood, the worst is yet to happen but even the beginning of it, if you flood Mexico with U.S. agribusiness exports, which are highly subsidized--that's how they get their profits--then Mexican farmers aren't going to be able to compete. Then comes the economists' theory, you know, turn from producing corn and beans and rice to producing flowers and [other] export crops, and you have the mode I described, and people can't survive. So there's a flight of people from the countryside to the cities where there are no jobs because Mexican businesses can't compete with U.S. multinationals, which are given enormous advantages under the mislabeled trade agreements. And yes, you get a flight of population [across the border]. The price of tortillas, you know, the basic food for the poor, it's gone out of sight, people can't pay for it. If you're growing your own food, you can manage, or if there's a subsistence agriculture, yeah, you can kind of manage, but not when you abandon it.

Again, for parts of the population it's been a benefit, so the number of billionaires has gone way up, just like in India. India now ranks very high internationally among the number of billionaires, but also for peasant suicides, and for severe malnutrition and so on. These countries, which are pretty rich, [are in some respects doing worse than] the poorest countries. GDP per capita in India is below Bolivia. That's nothing to rave about, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. These are several sides of the same policies.

Remember that when NAFTA was enacted in 1994, another policy was enacted. In 1994, Clinton militarized the border in Operation Gatekeeper. Now previously, that had been a pretty open border. The border, of course, was established by conquest, like most borders. And there were similar people on both sides, people who would cross the border to visit their friends and relatives and that sort of thing. Now the border was militarized in 1994. OK, maybe it's a coincidence, more likely I think it's because the Clinton administration understood that their glowing predictions [about the benefits of NAFTA] were for propaganda, and that the likelihood was that there would be effects in Mexico which would lead to substantial flight, immigration, joined by people fleeing the wreckage of Central America after Reagan's terrorist wars there. And yes, now you have what they call an immigration crisis. These things are connected, you can't look at them in isolation.


Sameer Dossani is the Director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice.

Noam Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books are Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy and Interventions, forthcoming from City Lights.

Ghosts—a harrowing and honest depiction of modern slavery

By Robert Stevens
17 March 2007

Ghosts, directed by Nick Broomfield, screenplay by Nick Broomfield and Jez Lewis. Based on articles by Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts, about the fate of undocumented Chinese workers in the UK, is a powerful work. The semi-factual account is constructed around the drowning deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers who were caught by incoming tides at Morecambe Bay, England in February 2004.

Shown at the Sundance film festival in the United States in January, it was the first film to be screened at the 2006 San Sebastián International Film Festival, whose main theme was immigration.

The film is something of a departure for Broomfield, who is normally associated with documentaries in which he takes a confrontational role, often in front of the camera. His previous efforts include two feature-length documentaries about the South African fascist Eugene Terreblanche. He also directed Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, about Aileen Wuornos, who was found guilty of killing seven men in the US. The film explored her case and its exploitation by the mass media. It included footage revealing her to be insane at the time of her execution.

Ghosts is a slang term used by the Chinese to describe Caucasians, but in the context of the film it is also a description of the army of immigrants who are forced to undertake the most menial and low-paying jobs whilst remaining hidden from official society.

The inspiration for Ghosts came from a series of articles on the Morecambe Bay tragedy by journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai featured in the Guardian. During his research for the subject, he went undercover as an undocumented worker.

Ghosts centres mainly on the experiences of the fictional character Ai Qin—a brilliant and touching performance from Ai Qin Lin—as a young single mother who reluctantly leaves her home village in the poverty stricken Fujian Province to become an illegal immigrant in England.

Most of those who died at Morecambe Bay were from the province and Broomfield employed non-professional actors mainly from this region for the film. All the other actors in the film were non-professional.

Ai Qin Lin was herself an illegal immigrant who undertook a four-and-half-month journey to England on a false passport in 1998. She arrived in England via Moscow, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Holland. At just 21 years of age she was forced into a series of low-paid jobs, including at a garment factory where she was paid £2.50 an hour and worked 80 hours a week, in an attempt to pay back her massive debts. She was then separated from her son for more than five years (he was sent back to China as she was unable to provide for him) as she struggled to come to terms with a life of brutal toil and exploitation. She now has legal status to stay in England with her son, with whom she was reunited in China during the making of the film.

Ai Qin Lin commented on her own experience: “No one wants to take a risky route. But what alternative have we got? We Fujianese don’t stand a chance of getting a proper visa—the British government sees us as bogus. There was simply no legal means to enter Britain.”

Ai Qin Lin came from Jinfen, a small town near Changle, in Fujian Province where most of the 30,000 population is under the age of ten or over 60. According to Hsiao-Hung Pai, many of the young adults in the town are in the process of or have already been smuggled abroad. It is estimated that there are more than 70,000 Chinese illegally working in Britain alone.

Prior to shooting the film, Broomfield and Lewis spent several weeks in China researching and trying to find somebody to play the lead role. The director has recounted in the Guardian how he was unprepared for the “incredible poverty” he found: “I suppose it’s how the Industrial Revolution was here, but on a much greater scale. What I certainly didn’t expect was for China to be quite so blatantly headed for the West. I still thought of it as a socialist economy; in fact, it’s more like a capitalist dictatorship.”

Due to its honest portrayal of poverty in China and the inclusion of scenes revealing the criminal underworld of human trafficking, this research also took on an “illegal” form.

The opening moments of the film show scenes of village life and a clip of screen text tells us that the average worker earns just a few dollars a month. We then see Ai Qin eating at a table with her family. They are embroiled in a discussion about the pros and cons of Ai Qin having to leave China, seen as the only way she will ever be able to take care of her child or have enough money to get married. Shedding tears, Ai Qin comes to the realisation: “I can’t make a living here.”

Having been loaned the $25,000 needed for her be travel illegally to Britain by family and the local “snakeheads”—human trafficking gangs—she sets off. Her arduous six-month journey sees her smuggled from country to country hidden in the sealed-off, dark compartments in the backs of trucks and lorries.

Arriving in England Ai Qin is forced by Chinese gang members into the hands of the local gangmaster, Mr. Lin (Zhan Yu). The film pulls no punches in portraying the terrible exploitation the Chinese workers face. At every turn they are met with naked profiteering and corruption from gangsters, officials and employers. Forged documents and bribery are used by Mr. Lin to obtain work from the local employment agency for Ai Qin and the others. They work long tiring shifts in meatpacking plants before walking back to the house through deserted streets in the early hours of the morning. Ai Qin and her friend are shocked to find their wage slip is much lower than they had been led to expect. They are informed that they are paying “taxes” levied at a rate of 44 percent and that there is nothing they can do about it.

These scenes reflect the research carried out by Hsiao-Hung Pai. As he told the New Statesman, “It took me more than two weeks to get the work-permit photocopy and the contact number for the recruiter in Norfolk that would enable me to enter this hidden world.

“There, in the country town of Thetford, I witnessed almost unbelievable exploitation. Legitimate British agencies were taking advantage of the unauthorised status of workers, employing them as a half-price army of labour to run the food-processing factories that supply supermarkets. I witnessed how these men and women risked their health and safety to improve the lives of their families, how they struggled from day to day with ruthless exploitation in a first-world country. They lived in social isolation, suffering constant insecurity and anxiety.”

In the aftermath of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, press attention was largely focussed on the role of the gangmasters involved in the cockling industry. Only one person was ever called to account for the deaths of the 23 Chinese cockle pickers—the gangmaster himself, Lin Liang Ren, who was given a 14-year prison sentence. Following the deaths toothless legislation was introduced, supposedly to regulate gangmasters and to ensure they were licensed.

In Ghosts the gangmaster, Mr. Lin, works alongside Ai Qin and the other illegal workers picking crops, cockles, etc. Although he is happy to make a living from the sweat of the labour of the Chinese immigrants, he also lives in the same house as them, and is under the control of an English gangster to whom he pays rent, after taking his own cut.

Broomfield goes further still, shifting attention away from the role of the “parasitic” middlemen in the exploitation of the workers onto the role of the supermarket giants.

He told the Times, “I wanted to do a film about modern slavery. It’s ironic that, 200 years since the abolition of slavery, there are more slaves than there ever have been, just in a different form. I also felt it was interesting that so many illegals were working in the production of food, most of which is for the supermarkets. Somehow this is able to go on in this country, which prides itself on civil rights. I was horrified by what I learnt in making this film.”

The supermarket chains are engaged in a constant “price war” that is based on maximising profits at the expense of both their suppliers and their customers. Enormous pressure is placed on farmers to drive down the price that the major food retailers pay for agricultural produce.

Britain’s food retailing is the most concentrated in Europe. The top five chains—Asda, Morrison, Safeway (now merged with Morrison), Sainsbury and Tesco—control over 70 percent of all food purchased. Tesco’s revenue for the 52 weeks to February 25, 2006 was £38.259 billion. It is now the largest British retailer by both global sales and domestic market share and is the world’s third-largest grocery retailer. Such is the grip that the supermarkets have over the retail of food in the UK, it is estimated that nationally one in every £8 spent is in a Tesco store.

The final scenes of Ghosts are harrowing, in which the soon to be fatally trapped workers are forced to work at night. The desperation and helplessness on their faces, as they try to call their families as the tide rushes in, leave an indelible memory.

The Blair Labour government has washed its hands of the tragedy. To this day it has refused to help the families of those who died at Morecambe Bay pay back their debts, amounting to a total of £500,000.

Broomfield has responded by setting up his own fund. In making Ghosts, he has produced a drama that, whilst shaped by the tragic events in Morecambe Bay, has a more universal motif. In lifting the lid on the terrible hardship, exploitation, state-sanctioned racism and general misery facing immigrant workers, Ghosts highlights a situation replicated throughout the supposedly “advanced” capitalist nations of the world.

See Also:

Britain: 19 Chinese workers drown working on slave labour gang [11 February 2004]

Britain: report documents widespread forced migrant labour [12 February 2005]

58 Chinese migrants found dead in lorry at Dover, Britain [21 June 2000]

Elect the Lords? On This One, the Lords Are Right Again

The New York Times
March 17, 2007

When I visited Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, I found senior people in the Coalition Provisional Authority largely uninterested in events in the province where I was based. They focused on writing a draft constitution for Iraq. Paul Bremer III was excited about the document and thought it could be a source of national pride. But very few Iraqis had been consulted. They did not think it would bring a more effective government and felt it would be dangerously disruptive. I was reminded of this when I read about the vote this week to turn the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber.

Britain’s unwritten constitution has adapted incrementally over centuries to challenges to the political system. The House of Lords once represented hereditary noblemen against the king; its power was later limited by the House of Commons. Recent changes have been positive.

It is now, like the Canadian Senate, essentially an appointed house, consisting of senior community leaders, generals, academics, business people and retired ministers, with a small rump of bishops and hereditary nobles. Members serve for life; they can scrutinize and delay but can’t veto bills. The House of Lords is much less powerful than the House of Commons or the prime minister. Its primary role is as a watchdog.

On Monday, the House of Commons voted 336 to 224 to introduce elections into the Lords. This Wednesday the Lords objected. An elected Lords would bring changes in fundamental constitutional relationships that have not been adequately considered.

It would have the democratic legitimacy to demand more power at the expense of the Commons and the prime minister. Two elected houses make sense in a federal system, where the lower house represents individuals and the upper house states. But Britain is not a federal country. Both houses would probably duplicate the same principle of representation. An elected Lords would have the democratic legitimacy to demand more power at the expense of the Commons and the prime minister.

There will be other, more eccentric, consequences: an elected house would exclude the bishops, severing the constitutional connection between the state and the Church of England, a subject over which governments were destroyed in the 19th century. It would remove the remaining 92 hereditary peers, who now serve until their deaths. The queen will then be even more of an anomaly. These changes, perhaps overdue, are fundamental and should not be entered into lightly.

Real constitutional change should be driven by crisis and necessity. The United States achieved change on this scale only through revolution. That crisis created the opportunity for the Founding Fathers to define their basic philosophical principles and write a new constitution, which remains to this day both a cornerstone of national pride and also a formal political instrument, governed by strict rules.

But in Britain there has been no such crisis. In fact, most believe the House of Lords is being a good watchdog. It has recently publicized and defended principles of justice and liberty against the government’s Human Rights and Terrorism legislation. Even the reformers want to preserve this positive function. Their problem is not with what the House of Lords is doing, but with how it is chosen.

The reformers are trying to change the selection processes without changing the outcomes. They fail to see that these things are connected. It is because House of Lords’ members are appointed for life that they have an independence that allows them to challenge party policy. Meanwhile, the British public is largely frustrated with elected politicians and not enthusiastic to see more of them in the Lords. It understands that the Lords remains anachronistic, irrational and imperfect, but feels no pressing need for change. Much of this has encouraged the Lords to vote overwhelmingly to remain an appointed house. The party leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have evasively favored a hybrid — partly elected, partly appointed — house.

In Britain, the grand banner of democracy is cloaking flimsy and unnecessary policies. There is room to make the appointments process more transparent, representative and nonpolitical. These flimsily motivated and inadequate policies are cloaked in vague and lofty ideals. But in reality, an elected upper house can make sense only in the context of a new written constitution that redefine the separation of powers; the relationship with the lower house, the church and the monarchy; and deep issues of national identity. But to do this would require the rigor, seriousness and courage of the Founding Fathers.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Marching With a Mouse

The New York Times
March 16, 2007

There aren’t a lot of environmental groups with their own investment bank consultants, so when you hear that Environmental Defense has just hired the boutique Wall Street firm Perella Weinberg Partners, you know that we’re in a new world. Every college activist should study this story, because it is the future. In the old days, when activists wanted something done, they held a sit-in or organized a protest march. Now they hire an investment bank.

O.K., maybe every activist group can’t afford Goldman Sachs, but such groups should nevertheless analyze how Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council used the Internet and the market to save the planet from tons of CO2. The story started last year when a giant Texas power company, TXU, announced plans to build 11 coal-fired, CO2-belching power plants, raising the ire of environmentalists worried about climate change. Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, which has an office in Texas, wrote to John Wilder, TXU’s chairman, and asked for a meeting, but was brushed off. TXU made it clear that it was on a fast track to build its plants and had the governor of Texas on its side.

Talk about not knowing what world you’re living in.

So Environmental Defense and its allies turned to the Web and created the Web site, which put out regular electronic newsletters on the TXU plans and built a national constituency opposed to the deal. They also took TXU to court.

None of that might have been enough, though, had the big buyout firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Texas Pacific Group not teamed up to offer to buy TXU in February — a deal valued at $45 billion that would be the biggest leveraged buyout ever. But there was a catch: “The buyers did not want to take over a company enmeshed in a war with environmentalists,” Mr. Krupp said, “so they came to us and said, ‘We only want to go forward if you and NRDC will praise what we are trying to do here.’ ” Mr. Krupp and NRDC were ready to engage, but only if the deal could be made more climate-friendly.

“The negotiations involved talks over 10 days,” Mr. Krupp said, “and the key session was compressed into 17 hours in the Oriental hotel in San Francisco from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next morning.”

Eventually, the private equity group agreed to cut the number of new TXU coal plants from 11 to 3, to support a U.S. cap on greenhouse gas emissions and to commit TXU to plowing $400 million into energy-efficiency programs and doubling its purchase of wind power. In return, the environmentalists blessed the deal, but Mr. Krupp also hired Perella Weinberg to negotiate the fine print.

That is a pretty good day’s work for people who had no money on the table. There are a lot of lessons here.

First, Mr. Krupp said, “what is the message when the largest buyout in history is made contingent [by the buyers] on winning praise for its greenhouse gas plan? ... The markets are ahead of the politicians. The world has changed, and these guys see it.”

TXU not only didn’t understand that the world was getting green; it didn’t understand that the world was getting flat. “Going online,” Mr. Krupp said, “we shifted this from a local debate over generating electricity to a national debate over capping and reducing carbon emissions.” So, what TXU had hoped would be just a local skirmish was instead watched on computer screens in every global market.

The Internet age is an age of transparency, when more people than ever can see right into your business and judge you by your deeds, not words. TXU could not manage its reputation by just hiring a P.R. firm and issuing a statement — because, thanks to the Internet, too many little people could talk back or shape TXU’s image on a global basis through the Web, for free.

“The reputations of companies are going to be less determined by the quality of their P.R. people and more by their actual actions — and that empowers more of an honest debate on the merits,” said Mr. Krupp, adding, “It’s just harder to keep bad environmental news secret and expect the public to sit on its hands in the Internet era.”

Message to young activists: If you do your homework, have your facts right and the merits on your side, and then build a constituency for your ideals through the Internet, you, too, can be at the table of the biggest deal in history. Or as Mr. Krupp puts it: the TXU example shows that truth plus passion plus the Internet “can create an irresistible tide for change.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Long Exit

The New York Times
March 15, 2007

Senator Carl Levin has always been one of the most serious participants in the Iraq debate. He’s one of those politicians who could actually pass a test of Middle East cultural literacy — who could tell you what the Mahdi Army is or whether Al Qaeda is a Sunni or Shiite organization. He’s one of the Democrats who generally hasn’t formed his Iraq position with an eye to Iowa primary voters or the party’s donor base.

Which is why it’s significant that his speeches during yesterday’s Senate war debate were so utterly unconvincing.

The essential Levin argument was that the Iraqi leaders have been shirking their duties and it’s time to force them to get serious. “It is time for Congress to explain to the Iraqis that it is your country,” Levin declared. It is time to shift responsibility for Iraq firmly onto Iraqi shoulders, and give them the incentives they need to make the tough choices. The Democratic timetable resolution, Levin concluded, “will deliver a cold dose of reality to Iraqi leaders.”

But does anybody think that Iraqi leaders, many of whom have seen their brothers and children gunned down, need a cold dose of reality delivered from the U.S. Congress? Does anybody buy the Levin model of reality, which holds that Iraqi leaders are rational game theorists who just need to have their incentives rearranged in order to make peace? Does anybody believe the rifts in Iraqi society can be bridged by a few “tough choices” made by the largely reviled Green Zone politicians?

The Democrats spent three years attacking the Bush administration for ignoring intelligence, but now they’re making the Republicans look like pikers. In this debate, they have rigorously ignored the latest intelligence estimates, which take a much deeper, more organic view of Iraqi reality than the technocratic, top-down approach Levin was articulating Wednesday afternoon.

The intelligence agencies paint a portrait of a society riven at its base with sectarian passion. They describe a society not of rational game theorists but of human beings beset by trauma — of Sunnis failing to acknowledge their minority status, of Shiites bent on winner-take-all domination, of self-perpetuating animosities, disintegrating bonds and a complex weave of conflicts.

The intelligence agencies see chaos if the U.S. withdraws. Carl Levin, based on phantom intelligence, sees newly incentivized Iraqis returning to reason and moderation.

The fact is there are two serious approaches to U.S. policy in Iraq, and the Democratic leaders, for purely political reasons, are caught in the middle, and even people like Carl Levin are beginning to sound silly.

One serious position is heard on the left: that there’s nothing more we can effectively do in Iraq. We’ve spent four years there and have not been able to quell the violence. If the place is headed for civil war, there’s nothing we can do to stop it, and we certainly don’t want to get caught in the middle. The only reasonable option is to get out now before more Americans die.

The second serious option is heard on the right. We have to do everything we can to head off catastrophe, and it’s too soon to give up hope. The surge is already producing some results. Bombing deaths are down by at least a third. Execution-style slayings have been cut in half. An oil agreement has been reached, tribes in Anbar Province are chasing Al Qaeda, cross-sectarian political blocs are emerging. We should perhaps build on the promise of the surge with regional diplomacy or a soft partition, but we certainly should not set timetables for withdrawal.

The Democratic leaders don’t want to be for immediate withdrawal because it might alienate the centrists, and they don’t want to see out the surge because that would alienate the base. What they want to do is be against Bush without accepting responsibility for any real policy, so they have concocted a vaporous policy of distant withdrawal that is divorced from realities on the ground.

Say what you will about President Bush, when he thinks a policy is right, like the surge, he supports it, even if it’s going to be unpopular. The Democratic leaders, accustomed to the irresponsibility of opposition, show no such guts.

As a result, nobody loves them. Liberals recognize the cynicism of it all. Republicans know the difference between principled opposition and unprincipled posturing. Independents see just another group of politicians behaving like politicians.

What we get is foreign policy narcissism. The Democrats call it an Iraq policy, but it’s really all about us.

The Danger Zone

The New York Times
March 15, 2007

The national unemployment rate came in at 4.5 percent last week and was generally characterized as pretty good. But whatever universe those numbers came from, it was not the universe that black men live in.

Black American males inhabit a universe in which joblessness is frequently the norm, where the idea of getting up each morning and going off to work can seem stranger to a lot of men than the dream of hitting the lottery, where the dignity that comes from supporting oneself and one’s family has too often been replaced by a numbing sense of hopelessness.

What I’m talking about is extreme joblessness — joblessness that is coursing through communities and being passed from one generation to another, like a deadly virus.

Forget, for a moment, the official unemployment numbers. They understate the problem of joblessness for all groups. Far more telling is the actual percentage of people in a given segment of the working-age population that is jobless.

Black men who graduate from a four-year college do reasonably well in terms of employment, compared with other ethnic groups. But most black men do not go to college. In big cities, more than half do not even finish high school.

Their employment histories are gruesome. Over the past few years, the percentage of black male high school graduates in their 20s who were jobless (including those who abandoned all efforts to find a job) has ranged from well over a third to roughly 50 percent. Those are the kinds of statistics you get during a depression.

For dropouts, the rates of joblessness are staggering. For black males who left high school without a diploma, the real jobless rate at various times over the past few years has ranged from 59 percent to a breathtaking 72 percent.

“Seventy-two percent jobless!” said Senator Charles Schumer, chairman of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, which held a hearing last week on joblessness among black men. “This compares to 29 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.”

Senator Schumer described the problem of black male unemployment as “profound, persistent and perplexing.”

Jobless rates at such sky-high levels don’t just destroy lives, they destroy entire communities. They breed all manner of antisocial behavior, including violent crime. One of the main reasons there are so few black marriages is that there are so many black men who are financially incapable of supporting a family.

“These numbers should generate a sense of national alarm,” said Senator Schumer.

They haven’t. However much this epidemic of joblessness may hurt, very little is being done about it. According to the Labor Department, only 97,000 new jobs were created in February. That’s not even enough to accommodate new entrants to the work force.

And then there’s the question of who’s getting the new jobs. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, the only groups that have experienced a growth in jobs since the last recession are older workers and immigrants.

People can howl all they want about how well the economy is doing. The simple truth is that millions of ordinary American workers are in an employment bind. Steady jobs with good benefits are going the way of Ozzie and Harriet. Young workers, especially, are hurting, which diminishes the prospects for the American family. And blacks, particularly black males, are in a deep danger zone.

Instead of addressing this issue constructively, government officials have responded by eviscerating programs that were designed to move young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the labor market.

Robert Carmona, president of Strive, an organization that helps build job skills, told Senator Schumer’s committee, “What we’ve seen over the last several years is a deliberate disinvestment in programs that do work.”

What’s needed are massive programs of job training and job creation, and a sustained national effort to bolster the education backgrounds of disadvantaged youngsters. So far there has been no political will to do any of that.

You get lip service. But when you walk into the neighborhoods and talk to the young people, you find that very little, if anything, is being done. Which is why the real-world employment environment has become so horrendous for so many.

The struggle in Chávez’s Venezuela

The Socialist Worker
March 16, 2007

BY UPSTAGING George W. Bush’s tour of Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was out not only to expose the reality of U.S. imperialism in the region, but to promote “socialism for the 21st century” as an alternative to Bush’s neoliberal corporate globalization.

“Those who want to go directly to hell, they can follow capitalism,” Chávez said at a stop in Bolivia during his anti-Bush tour. “And those of us who want to build heaven here on earth, we will follow socialism.”

According to Chávez, the next step in the “revolutionary process”--the Venezuelan left’s term for the social and political changes in the country since Chávez took office in 1999--involves the re-nationalization, by presidential decree, of telephone and electrical power companies, and, in the future, the nationalization of operations by multinational oil companies.

Chávez also wants to replace state and local governments with “communal councils,” declaring that it’s necessary to “dismantle the bourgeois state” and create a “communal state.” At the same time, Chávez seeks to merge parties allied to him into a united socialist party of Venezuela, or PSUV, by its initials in Spanish.

These new initiatives have led to debates on the left in Venezuela and internationally--mainly over why Chávez used decrees to carry out the re-nationalization rather than legislation, and whether the establishment of the PSUV represents a step toward a Cuba-style one-party state.

Moreover, Chávez has raised the possibility of constitutional reform to remove term limits on the presidency, which has led the right-wing opposition to charge that he’s seeking to become president for life.

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WHAT DO these changes in Venezuela really mean? Can they be seen as a step toward establishing socialism? Or, to put it another way, who will lead the struggle for socialism in Venezuela today--and what will take to achieve it?
The question of the agency for social change has repeatedly emerged within Chávez’s movement since his failed attempt to lead a military coup in 1992.

In a corrupt system that had lost legitimacy amid economic crisis and austerity, Chávez became widely popular. His military backers forged an alliance with far-left and center-left parties to win election in late 1998, and got substantial backing from the middle class.

Chávez called the movement “Bolivarian” after the hero of the 19th century independence movement, Simón Bolivar. But beyond a vague nationalism and populism, just what the Bolivarian revolution aimed to accomplish--and what social forces could lead it--wasn’t clear.

How would Chávez, a self-styled revolutionary leader as head of state, carry out a social transformation to benefit the 80 percent of Venezuelans who lived under the poverty line by the end of the 1990s?

His first attempts at change were more political than economic or social--a constituent assembly to rewrite Venezeula’s constitution, create vehicles for popular participation, and re-elect Chávez under the new system. Meanwhile, efforts at anti-poverty programs were limited as the economy shrank amid falling oil prices.

The Venezuelan ruling class--known as the oligarchy--won over sections of the middle class to the right-wing opposition. The oligarchs made their move in a U.S.-backed coup in April 2002, with the corrupt CTV labor federation providing political cover through a mass march on the presidential palace.

The stunning mass mobilization of the poor that followed in Caracas, however, paralyzed the coupmakers and gave Chávez supporters in the military time to act and return him to power.

The right’s next move again used the CTV as a front--this time in a “strike” at the state oil company PDVSA that was really a lockout by employers. The lockout, which put enormous pressure on Venezuelan society, was defeated when rank-and-file oilworkers and soldiers kept the pipelines and refineries running, and workers elsewhere defied other employers’ efforts at economic sabotage.

If the failed coup had led to a critical show of support by the urban poor for Chávez, the oil lockout led to a decisive shift in the working class behind the “revolutionary process.” A key development was the formation of a new left-wing labor federation, the UNT, which soon outstripped the old CTV as the main force for organized labor.

With oil prices rising, Chávez was able to fund government “missions” to bypass the inefficient state structures to carry out a wide range of reforms, including literacy, education, health clinics in the slums staffed by Cuban doctors, subsidized grocery stores, and programs to support the indigenous population.

At one level, the missions resemble a combination of old-school Latin American populist clientelism--doling out cash and jobs for political support--and social reform projects carried out by non-governmental organizations in developing countries. But what makes them different is that they were created under pressure for change from below, and intersect with an increasingly mobilized and politically conscious layer of activists in the barrios.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s booming oil economy--growth rates are among the highest in the world--has given workers leverage to fight back. This set the stage for Chávez’s solid victory in the 2004 recall election, a move by the right wing that backfired and instead served to ratify and consolidate Chávez’s mass support.

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SINCE THEN, strikes have become frequent, and government laws on workplace “co-management” have put pressure on government and private employers to make concessions to unions and guarantee workers the right to organize.
Workers’ occupations and nationalization at a paper and valve factories highlighted the pressure for change, and in early 2005, Chávez declared that Venezuela was moving to socialism--a model that was to differ from both the Stalinist dictatorships of the old USSR and its satellites, as well as European reformism.

The cornerstones of Chávez’s plan are, internationally, using oil money and regional integration to counter the hegemonic power of the U.S.; and, at home, using nationalized industry as a lever of economic development and industrialization. This model was used in the heyday of Third World nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s.

But the strategy, points out left-wing economist Claudio Katz, isn’t the same as socialism from below. “This dilemma of socialism versus development economics is a dispute between tendencies that favor the radicalization of the Bolivarian process and those that want to freeze it,” he wrote. Those in the best position to “freeze” the revolution are, he notes, within the Chávez camp itself--typically, mid-level government bureaucrats and a small layer of pro-government business interests.

The rightist opposition has fallen into disarray. In the 2006 presidential candidate, it fielded a weak candidate, and Chávez won handily. The oligarchy has to bide its time--a course made more palatable by big profits amid the oil boom.

The class struggle, however, has been intensifying. With the election behind him, Chávez moved quickly to respond to this social polarization. He aims to “deepen the revolution” by obtaining decree-making powers from the National Assembly, restructuring local government and announcing plans for the PSUV.

The challenge for the left in Venezuela is to determine whether these moves represent the consolidation of one-man or one-party rule under Chávez--widely called “el commandante”--or reflect popular pressure for further radicalization.

Chávez’s supporters point out that past Venezuelan presidents have been authorized to rule by decree. But Chávez has long criticized those governments as corrupt and flawed--and although decrees can be made only in limited areas, rule by decree bypasses the National Assembly, elected under a far more democratic system.

Moreover, Chávez’s rule by decree contradicts the aim of popular participation in communal councils, which he wants to replace the current local and state governments--as well as the creation of a grassroots PSUV party.

Essentially, Chávez’s use of decrees highlights the fact that the “Bolivarian revolution” still relies on a symbiotic relationship, in which Chávez mobilizes the working class and poor majority, and is in turn pressured by it--but nevertheless presents himself as a substitute for the self-activity of the working class.

This isn’t a static picture, however. The relentless squeeze from U.S. imperialism and the oligarchy--which recently took the form of a shortage of meat engineered by big food companies--continually pushes Chávez to lean toward the workers and the poor to counteract the pressure of the Venezuelan capitalists.

Thus, Chávez has criticized co-management as ineffective and encouraged workers to take a leading role--as they’ve recently done at Sanitarios Maracay, a factory that makes bathroom fixtures. Chávez has also disparaged companies ostensibly operating as workers’ cooperatives for maintaining capitalist exploitation.

Politically conscious workers and the poor, therefore, continue to look to an alliance with Chávez against the employers and the right.

And while the Venezuelan Communist Party has decided not to participate in talks about forming the PSUV, others on the left want to use Chávez’s initiatives to advance their own arguments about socialism as workers’ control of production.

For example, Orlando Chirino, the leading member of the left wing of the UNT labor federation, proposes that the communal councils include workers’ councils. “For us, labor councils, oriented by the UNT, must have the mission of developing the struggle for the expropriation of the businesses, and to exercise their direct control over those businesses,” he said in a recent interview.

Revolution can’t come through presidential decrees and nationalized industries, of course. The future of socialism in Venezuela depends on the ability of the working class to take the initiative, develop its political independence and confront capital directly.

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