|March 10, 2014|
|Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the founders of the messaging software WhatsApp, have ample reason to celebrate this week’s 25th anniversary of the Internet’s World Wide Web. The pair have just become billionaires.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire ever, gave Koum and Acton that distinction last month when he gobbled up WhatsApp for $19 billion. The three of them have lots of online company in the global billionaire club. Forbes now counts 120 other high-tech whizzes with billion-dollar fortunes.
The Internet has become, in effect, the fastest billionaire-minting machine in world history. Should we consider this incredible concentration of wealth an outcome preordained? Did the last 25 years of online history have to leave us so much more unequal? We ask that question in this week’s Too Much.
And what about the future? How might we change the online world to help create a more equal real world? We ask that question, too.
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|New European Union rules adopted last year limit banker bonuses to no more than triple their base salary. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green Party lawmaker, led the drive for that cap, and now he’s struggling to stop the British government from letting UK bankers sidestep the EU’s modest new pay restrictions. One such sidestep: Banking giant HSBC is now paying its CEO Stuart Gulliver an extra $53,500 every month as an “allowance.” Lamberts wants the EU to take the UK to court. Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, for his part, is defending his bank’s bonus culture. Nearly 500 power suits at Barclays, half of them in the United States, are taking home at least $1.6 million a year. Paying them any less, says Jenkins, would force his bank into a “death spiral.” To do business in America, adds the CEO, we must “reconcile ourselves to pay high levels of compensation.”
Don’t talk to Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker about greedy bankers. The real greedy, says Walker, are running cruise lines and incorporating their operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes and wage laws. The greediest cruise character of them all? That might be Carnival Cruise chair Micky Arison. He’s now selling off 10 million of his Carnival shares, a sale that figures to bring in $395 million and still leave his family holding over $6 billion in Carnival stock. Arison’s share sale began as passengers left adrift last year on a faulty Carnival cruise ship were testifying on the lawsuit they’ve filed against the company. That incident subjected over 4,200 passengers and crew to five days of overflowing toilets and rotting food. Carnival is dismissing the suit as “an opportunistic attempt to benefit financially” from “alleged emotional distress.”
You won’t find any billionaires standing in line to get their family heirlooms appraised on the hit public TV series Antiques Roadshow. But the world’s ultra rich, luxury editor Tara Loader Wilkinson noted last week, are definitely “going gaga for antiques.” The average billionaire, calculates a new billionaire census from the Swiss bank UBS and researchers at the Singapore-based Wealth-X, holds $14 million worth of antiques and collectibles. Why are so many uber rich hungering for antiques? French antiques expert Mikael Kraemer notes that “anyone with enough money can buy a jet.” Not everyone, he adds, has “what sets one billionaire apart from another”: enough “culture and knowledge” to find and buy something like an 18th century antique royal chandelier.
Quote of the Week
“Do you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? I remember.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|Fracking can be a dirty business. Big Energy CEOs don’t mind. Can’t let those environmentalists endanger our energy security, they like to insist. Unless the environment at risk happens to be their own. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that’s trying to stop the construction of a 160-foot water — for fracking — tower near his manse north of Dallas. Tillerson isn’t talking about his lawsuit. But an Exxon flack says his boss doesn’t object to the tower “for its potential use for water and gas operations for fracking.” He’s just upset because the tower would be “much taller” than originally proposed. If the lawsuit fails, Tillerson might have to buy the tower site himself to prevent the fracking eyesore. He can afford it. His 2012 Exxon take-home: $40.3 million.||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
The promoters of the new “Wealth Badge” are either cynically exploiting a new luxury niche or acutely exposing the cultural depravity of our unequal times. Their new Web site offers the affluent a metal pin that reads “Because I can.” The cost: $5,000. Explains the Wealth Badge pitch: “The idea is simple: If you buy something just because you can, you are truly rich.” The site claims to have sold 61 badges — and features photos of privileged people showing them off. The pins have begun drawing media play. But no one has so far answered the basic question: Is the Wealth Badge crew trying to make money or a point?
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Few people have contributed as much to our online world as Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who helped pioneer — and label — what we call “virtual reality.” Lanier has been wondering of late about his fellow contributors, those hundreds of millions of Internet users who donate — for free — the information that a tiny cohort of tycoons has been able to crunch into billion-dollar fortunes. In his latest book, Lanier envisions a “universal micropayment system” that pays people who go online for whatever information of value their online clicks may create, “no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not.” Such a system, says Lanier, would help us “see a less elite distribution of economic benefits.”||
Youth groups eager to help young people understand inequality’s impact on how we relate to each other can download the Theatre and Education Resource Guide from the London-based Equality Trust, part of a package of interactive learning materials.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The world’s “ultra high net worth” crowd — individuals worth at least $30 million — now number 167,669, says a new Knight Frank report. Their total wealth: $20.1 trillion in 2013, almost half as much as the combined net worth of the 4.2 billion global adults who hold less than $100,000 in wealth.
A Thought for the Web’s Silver Anniversary
Let’s learn from our not-so-distant past and share the gold. New technologies don’t have to bring us new inequalities.
Exactly 25 years ago this week the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conceptually “invented” the World Wide Web — and began a process that would rather rapidly make the online world an essential part of our daily lives.
By 1995, 14 percent of Americans were surfing the Web. The level today: 87 percent. And among young adults, the Pew Research Center notes in a just-published silver anniversary report, the Internet has reached “near saturation.” Some 97 percent of Americans 18 to 29 are now going online.
Americans young and old alike are using the Web to work wonders few people 25 years ago could have ever imagined. We’re talking face-to-face with people thousands of miles away. We’re finding soulmates who share our passions and problems. We’re organizing political movements to change the world.
Life with the Web has become, for hundreds of millions of us, substantially richer. Not literally richer, of course. The same 25 years that have seen the Web explode into our consciousness have seen most of us struggle to stay even economically. The Internet and inequality have grown together.
Tim Berners-Lee never saw this inequality coming. The ground-breaking research he published on March 12, 1989, the paper that proposed the system that became the Web, carried no price tag. Berners-Lee would go on to release the code for his system for free. He didn’t invent the Web to get rich.
But others certainly have become rich via the Web. Fabulously rich. Forbes magazine last week released its annual list of global billionaires. Some 123 of them, Forbes calculates, owe their fortunes to high-tech ventures. The top 15 of these high-tech billionaires hold a collective $382 billion in personal net worth.
Numbers like these don’t particularly bother — or alarm — many of today’s economists. Grand new technologies, their conventional wisdom holds, always bring forth grand new personal fortunes for the entrepreneurs who lead the way.
In the 19th century, points out this standard narrative of American economic progress, the coming of the railroads dotted our landscape with the fortunes of railroad tycoons. In the early 20th century, the new automobile age created huge piles of wealth for car makers like Henry Ford and the oilmen who supplied the juice that kept his auto engines humming along.
Why should the Internet age, mainstream economists wonder, be any different? A new technology comes along that alters the fabric of daily life. That new technology gives rise to a new rich. The one outcome naturally follows the other. No need to get bent out of shape by the resulting inequality.
But epochal new technology doesn’t always automatically generate grand new fortunes. The prime example from our relatively recent past: television.
TV burst onto the American scene even more rapidly — and thoroughly — than the Internet. In 1948, only 1 percent of American households owned a TV. Within seven years, televisions graced 75 percent of American homes.
These TV sets didn’t just drop down into those homes. They had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed. Programming had to be produced. Imaginations had to be captured. All of this demanded an enormous outlay of entrepreneurial energy.
But this outlay would produce no jaw-dropping grand fortunes, no billionaires, even after adjusting for inflation. That would be no accident. The American people, by the 1950s, had put in place a set of economic rules that made the accumulation of grand new private fortunes almost impossible.
Taxes played a key role here. Income over $400,000 faced a 91 percent tax rate throughout the 1950s. Regulations played an important role as well. In television’s early heyday, for instance, government regs limited how many commercials could run on children’s TV programming. TV’s original corporate execs could only squeeze so much out of their new medium.
And television’s early kingpins couldn’t squeeze their workers all that much either. Most of their employees, from the workers who manufactured TV sets to the technicians who staffed broadcast studios, belonged to unions. TV’s early movers and shakers had to share the wealth their new medium was creating.
Today’s Internet movers and shakers, by contrast, have to share nothing. In an America where less than 7 percent of private-sector workers carry union cards, online corporate giants seldom ever need bargain with their employees.
In a deregulated U.S. economy, meanwhile, these Internet kingpins face precious few public-interest rules that keep them from charging whatever the market can bear — and rigging markets to squeeze out even more.
And taxes? Today’s Internet billionaires face tax rates that run well less than half the rates that early TV kingpins faced.
We can’t — and shouldn’t — fault Tim Berners-Lee for any of this. He freely shared, after all, his invention with the world.
“I wanted to build a creative space,” Berners-Lee observed in an interview a few years ago, “something like a sandpit where everyone could play together.”
Some people didn’t play nice.
Isaiah Poole, Paul Ryan Misses Top Reason We Haven’t ‘Won’ the War on Poverty, OurFuture.Org, March 4, 2014. That reason: policy decisions that concentrate wealth in the top 1 percent.
Joseph Olanyo, African growth fails to bridge inequality gap, Observer, March 4, 2014. Nations need tax systems that could redistribute wealth more fairly.
J.D. Alt, Forget The 1%, New Economic Perspectives, March 5, 2014. They serve no useful social function.
Wayne Besen, Will Economic Inequality Undermine LGBT Equality? Falls Church News-Press, March 5, 2014. Growing divides spawn powerful right-wing movements that scapegoat minorities.
Kathleen Geier, The IMF (Finally) Admits That Inequality Slows Growth, Nation, March 6, 2014. Good background on an important new IMF study.
Colin Gordon, Our Inequality: An Introduction, Dissent, March 6, 2014. Exploring U.S. inequality and antidotes to it.
Yves Smith, Tax Havens Make US and Europe Look Poorer than They Are, Naked Capitalism, March 6, 2014. Around 8 percent of global financial wealth is now sitting in tax havens.
James Kwak, Posturing from Weakness, Baseline Scenario, March 6, 2014. The tax hikes on the rich in the new Obama budget: only for show?
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
A Statistical Guide to Our New ‘Plutonomy’
Sherle Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden, The U.S. Economy After The Great Recession, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., March 4, 2014.
Need to better understand how the Great Recession — and the political responses to it — have played out? This no-nonsense set of slides brings together, in one place, the key trends that have defined the the U.S. economy since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Just a few of the report’s many choice tidbits . . .
Good times at the top: From 2009 to 2012, America’s top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent. Bottom 99 percent incomes rose all of 0.4 percent.
Shrinking returns to labor: From 2007′s fourth quarter to 2013′s third, the labor compensation share of national income declined from 64 to 61% percent. If this labor share of national income had remained at the 2007 level, American workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013 than they actually did.
Enter the “plutonomy”: The U.S. economy is revolving ever more around consumption by the rich. In 2012 the top 5 percent of American income earners accounted for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995.
- The Observer, Saturday 8 March 2014
1 The importance of “permissionless innovation”
The thing that is most extraordinary about the internet is the way it enables permissionless innovation. This stems from two epoch-making design decisions made by its creators in the early 1970s: that there would be no central ownership or control; and that the network would not be optimised for any particular application: all it would do is take in data-packets from an application at one end, and do its best to deliver those packets to their destination.
It was entirely agnostic about the contents of those packets. If you had an idea for an application that could be realised using data-packets (and were smart enough to write the necessary software) then the network would do it for you with no questions asked. This had the effect of dramatically lowering the bar for innovation, and it resulted in an explosion of creativity.
What the designers of the internet created, in effect, was a global machine for springing surprises. The web was the first really big surprise and it came from an individual – Tim Berners-Lee – who, with a small group of helpers, wrote the necessary software and designed the protocols needed to implement the idea. And then he launched it on the world by putting it on the Cern internet server in 1991, without having to ask anybody’s permission.
2 The web is not the internet
Although many people (including some who should know better) often confuse the two. Neither is Google the internet, nor Facebook the internet. Think of the net as analogous to the tracks and signalling of a railway system, and applications – such as the web, Skype, file-sharing and streaming media – as kinds of traffic which run on that infrastructure. The web is important, but it’s only one of the things that runs on the net.
3 The importance of having a network that is free and open
The internet was created by government and runs on open source software. Nobody “owns” it. Yet on this “free” foundation, colossal enterprises and fortunes have been built – a fact that the neoliberal fanatics who run internet companies often seem to forget. Berners-Lee could have been as rich as Croesus if he had viewed the web as a commercial opportunity. But he didn’t – he persuaded Cern that it should be given to the world as a free resource. So the web in its turn became, like the internet, a platform for permissionless innovation. That’s why a Harvard undergraduate was able to launch Facebook on the back of the web.
4 Many of the things that are built on the web are neither free nor open
Mark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook because the web was free and open. But he hasn’t returned the compliment: his creation is not a platform from which young innovators can freely spring the next set of surprises. The same holds for most of the others who have built fortunes from exploiting the facilities offered by the web. The only real exception is Wikipedia.
5 Tim Berners-Lee is Gutenberg’s true heir
In 1455, with his revolution in printing, Johannes Gutenberg single-handedly launched a transformation in mankind’s communications environment – a transformation that has shaped human society ever since. Berners-Lee is the first individual since then to have done anything comparable.
6 The web is not a static thing
The web we use today is quite different from the one that appeared 25 years ago. In fact it has been evolving at a furious pace. You can think of this evolution in geological “eras”. Web 1.0 was the read-only, static web that existed until the late 1990s. Web 2.0 is the web of blogging, Web services, mapping, mashups and so on – the web that American commentator David Weinberger describes as “small pieces, loosely joined”. The outlines of web 3.0 are only just beginning to appear as web applications that can “understand” the content of web pages (the so-called “semantic web”), the web of data (applications that can read, analyse and mine the torrent of data that’s now routinely published on websites), and so on. And after that there will be web 4.0 and so on ad infinitum.
7 Power laws rule OK
In many areas of life, the law of averages applies – most things are statistically distributed in a pattern that looks like a bell. This pattern is called the “normal distribution”. Take human height. Most people are of average height and there are relatively small number of very tall and very short people. But very few – if any – online phenomena follow a normal distribution. Instead they follow what statisticians call a power law distribution, which is why a very small number of the billions of websites in the world attract the overwhelming bulk of the traffic while the long tail of other websites has very little.
8 The web is now dominated by corporations
Despite the fact that anybody can launch a website, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are run by corporations. The only real exception is Wikipedia.
9 Web dominance gives companies awesome (and unregulated) powers
Take Google, the dominant search engine. If a Google search doesn’t find your site, then in effect you don’t exist. And this will get worse as more of the world’s business moves online. Every so often, Google tweaks its search algorithms in order to thwart those who are trying to “game” them in what’s called search engine optimisation. Every time Google rolls out the new tweaks, however, entrepreneurs and organisations find that their online business or service suffers or disappears altogether. And there’s no real comeback for them.
10 The web has become a memory prosthesis for the world
Have you noticed how you no longer try to remember some things because you know that if you need to retrieve them you can do so just by Googling?
11 The web shows the power of networking
The web is based on the idea of “hypertext” – documents in which some terms are dynamically linked to other documents. But Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext – Ted Nelson did in 1963 and there were lots of hypertext systems in existence long before Berners-Lee started thinking about the web. But the existing systems all worked by interlinking documents on the same computer. The twist that Berners-Lee added was to use the internet to link documents that could be stored anywhere. And that was what made the difference.
12 The web has unleashed a wave of human creativity
Before the web, “ordinary” people could publish their ideas and creations only if they could persuade media gatekeepers (editors, publishers, broadcasters) to give them prominence. But the web has given people a global publishing platform for their writing (Blogger, WordPress, Typepad, Tumblr), photographs (Flickr, Picasa, Facebook), audio and video (YouTube, Vimeo); and people have leapt at the opportunity.
13 The web should have been a read-write medium from the beginning
Berners-Lee’s original desire was for a web that would enable people not only to publish, but also to modify, web pages, but in the end practical considerations led to the compromise of a read-only web. Anybody could publish, but only the authors or owners of web pages could modify them. This led to the evolution of the web in a particular direction and it was probably the factor that guaranteed that corporations would in the end become dominant.
14 The web would be much more useful if web pages were machine-understandable
Web pages are, by definition, machine-readable. But machines can’t understand what they “read” because they can’t do semantics. So they can’t easily determine whether the word “Casablanca” refers to a city or to a movie. Berners-Lee’s proposal for the “semantic web” – ie a way of restructuring web pages to make it easier for computers to distinguish between, say, Casablanca the city and Casablanca the movie – is one approach, but it would require a lot of work upfront and is unlikely to happen on a large scale. What may be more useful are increasingly powerful machine-learning techniques that will make computers better at understanding context.
15 The importance of killer apps
A killer application is one that makes the adoption of a technology a no-brainer. The spreadsheet was the killer app for the first Apple computer. Email was the first killer app for the Arpanet – the internet’s precursor. The web was the internet’s first killer app. Before the web – and especially before the first graphical browser, Mosaic, appeared in 1993 – almost nobody knew or cared about the internet (which had been running since 1983). But after the web appeared, suddenly people “got” it, and the rest is history.
16 WWW is linguistically unique
Well, perhaps not, but Douglas Adams claimed that it was the only set of initials that took longer to say than the thing it was supposed to represent.
17 The web is a startling illustration of the power of software
Software is pure “thought stuff”. You have an idea; you write some instructions in a special language (a computer program); and then you feed it to a machine that obeys your instructions to the letter. It’s a kind of secular magic. Berners-Lee had an idea; he wrote the code; he put it on the net, and the network did the rest. And in the process he changed the world.
18 The web needs a micro-payment system
In addition to being just a read-only system, the other initial drawback of the web was that it did not have a mechanism for rewarding people who published on it. That was because no efficient online payment system existed for securely processing very small transactions at large volumes. (Credit-card systems are too expensive and clumsy for small transactions.) But the absence of a micro-payment system led to the evolution of the web in a dysfunctional way: companies offered “free” services that had a hidden and undeclared cost, namely the exploitation of the personal data of users. This led to the grossly tilted playing field that we have today, in which online companies get users to do most of the work while only the companies reap the financial rewards.
19 We thought that the HTTPS protocol would make the web secure. We were wrong
HTTP is the protocol (agreed set of conventions) that normally regulates conversations between your web browser and a web server. But it’s insecure because anybody monitoring the interaction can read it. HTTPS (stands for HTTP Secure) was developed to encrypt in-transit interactions containing sensitive data (eg your credit card details). The Snowden revelations about US National Security Agency surveillance suggest that the agency may have deliberately weakened this and other key internet protocols.
20 The web has an impact on the environment. We just don’t know how big it is
The web is largely powered by huge server farms located all over the world that need large quantities of electricity for computers and cooling. (Not to mention the carbon footprint and natural resource costs of the construction of these installations.) Nobody really knows what the overall environmental impact of the web is, but it’s definitely non-trivial. A couple of years ago, Google claimed that its carbon footprint was on a par with that of Laos or the United Nations. The company now claims that each of its users is responsible for about eight grams of carbon dioxide emissions every day. Facebook claims that, despite its users’ more intensive engagement with the service, it has a significantly lower carbon footprint than Google.
21 The web that we see is just the tip of an iceberg
The web is huge – nobody knows how big it is, but what we do know is that the part of it that is reached and indexed by search engines is just the surface. Most of the web is buried deep down – in dynamically generated web pages, pages that are not linked to by other pages and sites that require logins – which are not reached by these engines. Most experts think that this deep (hidden) web is several orders of magnitude larger than the 2.3 billion pages that we can see.
22 Tim Berners-Lee’s boss was the first of many people who didn’t get it initially
Berners-Lee’s manager at Cern scribbled “vague but interesting” on the first proposal Berners-Lee submitted to him. Most people confronted with something that is totally new probably react the same way.
23 The web has been the fastest-growing communication medium of all time
One measure is how long a medium takes to reach the first 50 million users. It took broadcast radio 38 years and television 13 years. The web got there in four.
24 Web users are ruthless readers
The average page visit lasts less than a minute. The first 10 seconds are critical for users’ decision to stay or leave. The probability of their leaving is very high during these seconds. They’re still highly likely to leave during the next 20 seconds. It’s only after they have stayed on a page for about 30 seconds that the chances improve that they will finish it.
25 Is the web making us stupid?
Writers like Nick Carr are convinced that it is. He thinks that fewer people engage in contemplative activities because the web distracts them so much. “With the exception of alphabets and number systems,” he writes, “the net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” But technology giveth and technology taketh away. For every techno-pessimist like Carr, there are thinkers like Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Yochai Benkler, Don Tapscott and many others (including me) who think that the benefits far outweigh the costs.
John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg is published by Quercus
Seventy-four years ago, Russia accomplished what no country had before, or has since—it sent armed ground robots into battle. These remote-controlled Teletanks took the field during one of WWII’s earliest and most obscure clashes, as Soviet forces pushed into Eastern Finland for roughly three and a half months, from 1939 to 1940. The Finns, by all accounts, were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, with exponentially fewer aircraft and tanks. But the Winter War, as it was later called (it began in late November, and ended in mid-March), wasn’t a swift, one-sided victory. As the more experienced Finnish troops dug in their heels, Russian advancement was proving slow and costly. So the Red Army sent in the robots.
Specifically, the Soviets deployed two battalions of Teletanks, most of them existing T-26 light tanks stuffed with hydraulics and wired for radio control. Operators could pilot the unmanned vehicle from more than a kilometer away, punching at rows of dedicated buttons (no thumbsticks or D-pads to be found) to steer the tank or fire on targets with a machine gun or flame thrower. And the Teletank had the barest minimum of autonomous functionality: if it wandered out of radio range, the tank would come to a stop after a half-minute, and sit, engine idling, until contact was reestablished.
Notably missing, though, was any sort of remote sensing capability—the Teletank couldn’t relay sound or audio back to its human driver, most often located in a fully-crewed T-26 trailing behind the mechanized one. This was robotic teleoperation at its most crude, and made for halting, imprecise maneuvering across uneven terrain.
What good was the Teletank, then? Though records are sparse, the unmanned tanks appear to have been used in combat, including during the Battle of Summa, an extended, two-part engagement that eventually forced a Finnish retreat. The Teletank’s primary role was to throw fire without fear, offsetting its lack of accuracy with gouts of flame.
On March 13, 1940, Finland and the USSR signed a treaty in Moscow, ending the Winter War. It was the end of the Teletank, as well—in the wider, even more brutal conflict to come, the T-26 was obsolete in practically every way, lacking the armor and armament to stand up to German tanks, or even to antitank weapons fielded by the Finnish. With no additional units built after 1940, the T-26 was a dead design rolling, and the remote-controlled version was just as doomed.
For a few months, nearly three quarters of a century ago, Russia led the world in military robotics. It’s a position the country would never hold again, as both Soviet and post-breakup forces have all but abandoned the development of armed ground and aerial bots. Even as recently as 2008, during its conflict with Georgia—triggered, in part, by the downing of Georgian reconnaissance drones—Russian drones were all but absent, and its air strikes were entirely manned. While Russia hasn’t shied away from open warfare, it hasn’t made robots a battlefield priority.
Until recently, that is. A number of Russian-based aircraft makers have won contracts in the past few years to build combat drones, including a 5-ton model originally slated for testing this year, and a 20-ton model planned for 2018. Military officials now hope to have strike drone capability by 2020.
And while there’s no evidence that it will ever be deployed, Russia is, in fact, home to a gun-wielding ground drone. The MRK-27 BT, built by the Moscow Bauman Technical University and first unveiled in 2009, is a tracked weapon platform, armed with a machine gun and paired grenade launchers and flame throwers. Most likely, it will go the way of MAARS, SWORDS, MULE, and other imposing ground combat bots—which is to say, nowhere. So far, the Teletank is an anomaly among robotic weapons, a precursor with no real descendants. Or none, luckily, with any confirmed kills.
10 March 2014
Over the past several days, it has emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been illegally spying on the US Senate Intelligence Committee—the very legislative body that is charged with overseeing and regulating the agency—in flagrant violation of legality and the constitutional separation of powers.
Among the basic conceptions of the revolutionaries who created the American system of government was the conviction that the natural trajectory of government, left unchecked, was toward executive tyranny. To combat this tendency, the Founders designed a system in which state power was divided among separate branches of government. The separate branches, under a system of “checks and balances,” were meant to limit the powers of the other branches. Legislative oversight of federal agencies, including intelligence agencies, is one historical outgrowth of this conception.
The revelations of CIA spying on Congress underscore the fact that America is run by an unelected, unaccountable military/intelligence apparatus. It is this apparatus, in conjunction with the corporate-financial elite, that dictates official policy in Washington, irrespective of which political party is in power.
The outlook of those who run this apparatus is one of utter impunity and contempt for basic democratic principles. In the day-to-day activities of the intelligence agencies—spying, conspiracy, infiltration, subversion, torture, assassination—the limitations imposed by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and existing law are seen merely as impediments to be evaded or overridden. This contempt for democratic rights is consistent with a political system that as a whole carries out its reactionary foreign and domestic policies over the heads of the population, which overwhelmingly opposes them.
The CIA spying scandal has its origins in a Senate investigation into the CIA system of abductions (“renditions”), secret prisons (“black sites”) and torture dating from the period following September 11, 2001. It goes without saying that these CIA practices were and remain completely illegal, violating both US and international law.
To date, under the Obama administration’s slogan of “looking forwards not backwards,” not one individual involved has been criminally prosecuted or otherwise held accountable. Instead, the Obama administration has threatened to prosecute (and has actually prosecuted) anyone from within the agency who publicly revealed the agency’s activities. The Senate Intelligence Committee has produced, but not publicly released, a 6,300-page report documenting these crimes.
The CIA lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee in an effort to cover up its activities. In September of last year, CIA Director John Brennan, appointed by President Obama, filed a 122-page answer to the committee’s report that purported to rebut the committee’s findings. This answer was later exposed as a fraud when the Senate committee obtained a document reviewing CIA practices prepared for Brennan’s predecessor, Leon Panetta.
While the CIA granted the Senate Intelligence Committee restricted access to certain documents, requiring Senate staff to physically attend a facility set up by the CIA for that purpose, the CIA had attempted to conceal the Panetta document from the investigation. Senator Mark Udall, a member of the committee, said the Panetta document was “consistent with the [Senate] Intelligence Committee’s report” and “conflicts with the official CIA response to the committee’s report.”
Finally, having committed these crimes and then lied about them, the CIA retaliated against the Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who viewed the Panetta document by spying on them and monitoring their computers.
The revelations of executive spying on Congress bring to mind the Watergate scandal of 1972-74, which involved the Nixon administration’s illegal attempts to spy on and discredit political opponents. In the wake of that scandal, no less than 43 people were prosecuted, convicted and jailed, while Nixon himself was forced to resign in the face of near-certain impeachment and removal from office by Congress.
A far different response greets the exposure of executive criminality 40 years later. The media has expressed indifference to the story and the episode has thus far generated no significant response from anywhere in the political establishment.
The Senate Intelligence Committee did refer the CIA’s actions to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. The CIA’s provocative response was to demand that instead of prosecuting the CIA, the Department of Justice prosecute the Senate staffers for allegedly gaining “unauthorized access” to “classified” material.
In recent weeks, the American political establishment supported an armed coup in Ukraine by a coalition of far-right and fascist forces, recklessly bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia. One of the US-backed parties, Svoboda, has called for the summary execution of all “Russian-speaking intellectuals” and all “members of the anti-Ukrainian political parties,” while publicly denouncing Jews as enemies of the Ukrainian people. A government that forges such alliances abroad is perfectly capable of developing similar forces at home.
The “military-industrial complex” against which Eisenhower warned in 1961 has massively increased its size and power. In numbers, resources, wealth, connections and influence, the 21st century American military/intelligence/corporate-financial complex dwarfs anything Eisenhower could have imagined. Congress is subservient and impotent before it, and the president functions largely as its public relations representative and functionary.
A major factor in the ever more reckless and aggressive foreign policy of the United States is the unprecedented scale of social inequality within the country and the explosive social conditions that it produces. One motivation behind repeated military interventions is the desire to divert social and political opposition outward. At the same time, the rise of an unimaginably rich oligarchy at one pole of society and ever-greater misery and poverty at the other pole is incompatible with democratic forms of rule.
The American ruling class is terrified above all that a movement will develop in the working class against capitalism. The growing list of police state measures—NSA spying, drone assassinations, internment without trial, renditions—are directed against popular opposition.
US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently told an audience in Hawaii that “you are kidding yourself if you think” there will not be mass internment in the United States along the lines of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Doubtless, “classified” lists of “enemies of the state” have already been drawn up. While American political functionaries mouth empty phrases about “freedom and democracy,” their open support for out-and-out fascists in the Ukraine indicates where they really stand. The defense of basic democratic rights necessitates that the military/intelligence complex be permanently broken up and abolished. All of the intelligence agencies must be disbanded, all of their “classified” files must be published, and all of the poison fruit of their illegal spying operations must be destroyed. In order to accomplish these necessary tasks, a confrontation with the capitalist system that has produced this complex cannot be avoided.
The world capitalist crisis has generated untenable levels of social inequality worldwide and in the United States in particular. Social inequality drives the collapse of democracy and the turn towards a police state, together with the bloody and provocative expansion of American militarism abroad. The only means of halting and reversing these processes—which lead inevitably to totalitarianism, mass poverty and world war—is the independent mobilization of the working class on the basis of a socialist program.
Written By: Cameron Scott
Posted: 03/9/14 9:00 AM
Technology promises to improve people’s quality of life, and what could be a better example of that than sending robots instead of humans into dangerous situations? Robots can help conduct research in deep oceans and harsh climates, or deliver food and medical supplies to disaster areas.
As the science advances, it’s becoming increasingly possible to dispatch robots into war zones alongside or instead of human soldiers. Several military powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and China, are already using partially autonomous weapons in combat and are almost certainly pursuing other advances in private, according to experts.
The idea of a killer robot, as a coalition of international human rights groups has dubbed the autonomous machines, conjures a humanoid Terminator-style robot. The humanoid robots Google recently bought are neat, but most machines being used or tested by national militaries are, for now, more like robotic weapons than robotic soldiers. Still, the line between useful weapons with some automated features and robot soldiers ready to kill can be disturbingly blurry.
Whatever else they do, robots that kill raise moral questions far more complicated than those posed by probes or delivery vehicles. Their use in war would likely save lives in the short run, but many worry that they would also result in more armed conflicts and erode the rules of war — and that’s not even considering what would happen if the robots malfunctioned or were hacked.
Seeing a slippery slope ahead, human rights groups began lobbying last year for lethal robots to be added to the list of prohibited weapons that includes chemical weapons. And the U.N., driven in part by a 2013 report by Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, has set a meeting in May for nations to explore that and other limits on the technology.
“Robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings,” Heyns wrote in the report.
There’s no doubt that major military powers are moving aggressively into automation. Late last year, Gen. Robert Cone, head of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, suggested that up to a quarter of the service’s boots on the ground could be replaced by smarter and leaner weaponry. In January, the Army successfully tested a robotic self-driving convoy that would reduce the number of personnel exposed to roadside explosives in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Heyns’s 2013 report, South Korea operates “surveillance and security guard robots” in the demilitarized zone that buffers it from North Korea. Although there is an automatic mode available on the Samsung machines, soldiers control them remotely.
The U.S. and Germany possess robots that automatically target and destroy incoming mortar fire. They can also likely locate the source of the mortar fire, according to Noel Sharkey, a University of Sheffield roboticist who is active in the “Stop Killer Robots” campaign.
And of course there are drones. While many get their orders directly from a human operator, unmanned aircraft operated by Israel, the U.K. and the U.S. are capable of tracking and firing on aircraft and missiles. On some of its Navy cruisers, the U.S. also operates Phalanx, a stationary system that can track and engage anti-ship missiles and aircraft.
The Army is testing a gun-mounted ground vehicle, MAARS, that can fire on targets autonomously. One tiny drone, the Raven is primarily a surveillance vehicle but among its capabilities is “target acquisition.”
No one knows for sure what other technologies may be in development.
“Transparency when it comes to any kind of weapons system is generally very low, so it’s hard to know what governments really possess,” Michael Spies, a political affairs officer in the U.N.’s Office for Disarmament Affairs, told Singularity Hub.
At least publicly, the world’s military powers seem now to agree that robots should not be permitted to kill autonomously. That is among the criteria laid out in a November 2012 U.S. military directive that guides the development of autonomous weapons. The European Parliament recently established a non-binding ban for member states on using or developing robots that can kill without human participation.
Yet, even robots not specifically designed to make kill decisions could do so if they malfunctioned, or if their user experience made it easier to accept than reject automated targeting.
What if, for example, a robot tasked with destroying an unmanned military installation instead destroyed a school? Robotic sensing technology can only barely identify big, obvious targets in clutter-free environments. For that reason, the open ocean is the first place robots are firing on targets. In more cluttered environments like the cities where most recent wars have been fought, the sensing becomes less accurate.
The U.S. Department of Defense directive, which insists that humans make kill decisions, nonetheless addresses the risk of “unintended engagements,” as a spokesman put it in an email interview with Singularity Hub.
Sensing and artificial intelligence technologies are sure to improve, but there are some risks that military robot operators may never be able to eliminate.
Some issues are the same ones that plague the adoption of any radically new technology: the chance of hacking, for instance, or the legal question of who’s responsible if a war robot malfunctions and kills civilians.
“The technology’s not fit for purpose as it stands, but as a computer scientist there are other things that bother me. I mean, how reliable is a computer system?” Sharkey, of Stop Killer Robots, said.
Sharkey noted that warrior robots would do battle with other warrior robots equipped with algorithms designed by an enemy army.
“If you have two competing algorithms and you don’t know the contents of the other person’s algorithm, you don’t know the outcome. Anything could happen,” he said.
For instance, when two sellers recently unknowingly competed for business on Amazon, the interactions of their two algorithms resulted in prices in the millions of dollars. Competing robot armies could destroy cities as their algorithms exponentially escalated, Sharkey said.
An even likelier outcome would be that human enemies would target the weaknesses of the robots’ algorithms to produce undesirable outcomes. For instance, say a machine that’s designed to destroy incoming mortar fire such as the U.S.’s C-RAM or Germany’s MANTIS, is also tasked with destroying the launcher. A terrorist group could place a launcher in a crowded urban area, where its neutralization would cause civilian casualties.
Or consider a real scenario. The U.S. sometimes programs its semi-autonomous drones to locate a terrorist based on his cell phone SIM card. The terrorists, knowing that, often offload used SIM cards to unwitting civilians. Would an autonomous killing machine be able to plan for such deception? Even if robots plan for particular deceptions, the history of the web suggests that terrorists could find others.
Of course, most technologies stumble at first and many turn out okay. The militaries developing war-fighting robots are assuming this model and starting with limited functions and use cases. But they are almost certainly working toward exploring disruptive options, if only to keep up with their enemies.
Sharkey argues that, given the lack of any clear delineation between limited automation and killer robots, a hard ban on robots capable of making kill decisions is the only way to ensure that machines never have the power of life and death over human beings.
“Once you’ve put in billions of dollars of investment, you’ve got to use these things,” he said.
Few expect the U.N. meeting this spring to result in an outright ban, but it will begin to lay the groundwork for the role robots will play in war.
Photos: Lockheed Martin, QinetiQ North America, NASA
Is it really possible that the European public has no clue what was done to Ukraine? Are the men and women of the continent that lives in hallucination, that it is well educated and well informed, really unaware how its own governments have created and supported that ‘opposition movement’ in Kiev; a movement full of fascists and bigots?
Unfortunately, it is possible, and it is to be expected!
After working in some one hundred and fifty countries, in all the continents, I have finally come to the absolutely clear conclusion: there is no part of the world as brainwashed, so programmed, so indoctrinated, as are both Europe and North America.
There are no people so out of sync with the global reality; people so naively and willing to follow the religious doctrine of market fundamentalism and the self-righteous belief that they, and only they, are the sole guardians of democracy, freedom and virtue, on this planet.
The world is once again in flames, and both Europe and North America (let us please not pretend for one second longer, that the Empire is actually somehow divided between that bad United States and that ‘moderate’ Europe) are bulldozing, demolishing, moving out of their way everything that is still standing straight and proud; everything that is defending those who used to be defenseless, everything and everyone who is dreaming about, and actually building egalitarian and decent societies.
And the great majority of Europeans are clapping. They read their propaganda sheets and they are clapping. And they are engaged in pathetic pseudo-intellectual discussions, (while sipping, Oh! – In such a sophisticated manner, their refined wine and beer), while millions are being murdered by implementing their bigoted ‘interests’.
Entire nations are, again, bleeding, in order to make sure that millions of French or Italian farmers can drive their luxury BMW’s (oh, sorry, in Europe they are not marketed as luxury, but as ‘reliable cars’), consuming enormous subsidies, for producing and often for not producing anything at all.
The subsidies are paid with the blood of African and Asian people.
How many people in poor countries have to die, so some grandma in Germany or the Czech Republic can go to a doctor, for free, again and again, simply because she is lonely or bored staying at home?
Should there be free medical treatment for all? Yes! Yes. It should be free, and for all. But not just for Europeans, while the rest of the world has to pay the going rate!
How many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have to be destabilized, so that the Empire can enjoy its privileges? So that the rich there can be even more obnoxiously rich, and even the poorest citizens can afford to live way above those who belong to the middle classes in the countries that are still being plundered by the West?
Now, please, I am not trying to be funny and I am not trying to play with words: I am honestly wondering… I am humbly asking: “Are people in the West, particularly in Europe… are they pretending that they don’t know what is happening in Syria, Venezuela, Thailand and now, particularly, in Ukraine? Or have they simply turned into a cynical assembly of brainwashed degenerates?
Where is that fabled diversity? Where is intellectual courage?
Where are huge demonstrations shaking Paris, Rome, Berlin; demonstrations trying to bring down governments that have been destabilizing a huge European nation – Ukraine, while provoking Russia, the nation that saved the world from Nazism and later helped to liberate many African and Asian nations from the claws of colonialism?
Where are those loud voices protesting against the antagonizing Russia? Don’t Europeans know their own history? Russia is not an aggressor; it has been a victim, for at least a hundred years. Russia was attacked by Europe, again and again, and in just one century, tens of millions of Russian people were slaughtered by European fascists, imperialists and ‘democrats’.
Russia was attacked at the onset of the WWI, then again, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, by a joint invasion of US and UK troops. Russia was also attacked by Czech legions, fighting their way to the front, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and getting there by circling the globe). Czech legions occupied almost the entire area surrounding the Trans-Siberian railroad, raping, looting, and murdering indiscriminately as they progressed.
Then WWII came, before which, both France and the UK sacrificed just about everything that stood in the way of the Nazis towards the Soviet Union. And yes, then the war itself took at least twenty million lives. Soviet people vanished in an enormous struggle against Nazism.
Half of my family, of my ancestors, vanished there too, during the siege of Leningrad.
The Cold War was next, and finally that most cynical and Machiavellian act by the West: dragging the USSR into Afghanistan, and destroying it, using jihadi cadres from the Middle East, from South and Southeast Asia.
Finally, the Western puppet – ‘opposition democrat’, Boris Yeltsin – an alcoholic with a clearly decomposing brain, was helped by Western powers, to grab power. And when the Parliament and the Russian people rebelled, Yeltsin sent the tanks in against both Members of Russian Parliament, and the people on the streets. The Western lackey mass media cheered: “Democracy! Victory!”
Thousands of unarmed people died. The 5th Column smashed the Soviet Union to pieces, using lies, using vicious propaganda that came from Washington, London and elsewhere.
And then the West stood suddenly unopposed. It appeared that there was nothing blocking its way, towards absolute control of the world, anymore.
Colonialist nightmares from the past returned. The world became mono-polar. With only one dogma, one ideology, and only one Empire.
And in just a few years after the Soviet Union ‘collapsed’, it became total… Total shit!
Is Europe so indoctrinated, is it propagandized to the point that it is really not actually able to recognize, anymore, what their regime has been doing, all over the world?
For years, the West in general, and the European Union in particular, have been destabilizing Ukraine, paying for its ‘opposition’… Wait; damn… what are we talking about? Everybody knows it, right? No? Really? Not everyone?
It is not about ‘proof’ or ‘the avalanche of information’. For years, for decades I have been amassing proof and arguments about the horrendous and unthinkable crimes that the West had been committing on all the continents of the world. I have been painstakingly researching what was going on, sometimes risking my life or ruining my health, sometimes doing it without being supported by anything or anyone… actually, that was the scenario, most of the time.
I was doing it because I believed; I believed like an idiot, I believed day and night, that my findings would shock the world, particularly the West… That it will shame the European and North American dictators… That what I show will enrage the public… That the horrors that I had witnessed all over the world, will finally end… you know: That bloody idiotic fairytale world of mine: “People will see the truth and force the monsters who are ruling them, to stop killing human beings everywhere on this beautiful planet.”
Today, I have to declare, publicly: I was a fool!
I failed to move people, of course! I tried. I even dropped the journalistic style in my writing, and I began writing as a poet, as the novelist that I am.
I did it because I realized that nobody cares only about facts! There are facts everywhere. Everything is documented. Coups all over the world, financed and planned by the US – it is all available, easily accessible. Yet nobody bothers to read about it!
I tried other tactics – novels, films, journalism mixed with poetry. Nothing! Nothing pushed Westerners to the barricades.
Yes, people like me, we are failing to move, to touch, those who are committing crimes against humanity… and also those who are benefiting from enormous global plunder.
Those, mostly well-fed masses, don’t give a shit: in Europe, or in the United States. Their governments and companies rule the world, and at least most of the citizens of those countries – Those that get some crumbs. Their level of understanding, their political awareness is way below those in Africa, Latin America and Asia, those very people who are being constantly robbed and sacrificed.
To know and to understand… that would make many Europeans and North Americans uncomfortable… That would mean having to take responsibility; to be co-responsible for the crimes committed by Western governments and multi-nationals. It would mean, god forbid, to take action.
In one recent Reuters article, an author argued that China is watching what Russia is doing. Of course, from the tone of the article, right from the beginning, it was clear that, that what Russia, China, Iran and other countries that disagree with ‘Western-style democracy and capitalism’ are thinking and doing is absolutely wrong.
Without inviting Russian, Chinese or Venezuelan polemicists, the author selected the ‘grievances’ of the world, saying that the West should face criticism, by some, for Kosovo and maybe for Libya… Although such criticism would be wrong…
Such a degree of self-discipline and propaganda would be fitting for German newspapers in the 1930’s and 40’s. And it is becoming the norm in both Europe and North America, as well as in many countries in the ‘developing world’, where information is fully controlled by Western funding, training programs and other means of arm twisting.
The propaganda coming out of Europe is so mighty, so potent, that it has blurred the eyes of even those that live in the former colonies of the West, including China, India and Indonesia.
It is not about Kosovo and it is not only about Libya, damn it!
In Yugoslavia, which I covered intensively from all sides, the West destroyed an entire country, a great country, one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (Indonesia had already paid the price in 1965, with between one and three million people brutally slaughtered, in an US-orchestrated coup performed by the military and religious cadres).
In Africa, an entire continent screams in pain. Pretty close to ten million people, have been slaughtered in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone since 1995, by Uganda, and Rwanda, on behalf of Western geopolitical interests. DRC has uranium, Coltan, and diamonds… Its people do not matter. The Belgian King Leopold II succeeded in killing ten million people there one hundred years ago, by chopping off their hands and burning people alive in huts.
France is involved in all of its former colonies. It is once again as sickeningly brutal as it was in the past.
Mali, the Central African Republic, and almost all the countries in the area are destabilized and close to total ruin.
The US-UK-Israeli coalition is undermining Somalia, using Ethiopian, Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian forces. South Sudan, an artificially created entity, with oil but no ability to govern itself independently, is now on the verge of famine and civil war. And it is at the total mercy of the West.
Zimbabwe and South Africa are standing tall against Western imperialism, but in both places, the West directly finances the ‘opposition’, and propaganda viciously smears both nations.
Eritrea is facing a direct embargo. For being what is called – The African Cuba (of course nobody knows anything about Eritrea in Europe, except for some educated Italians).
Even the tiny and prosperous Seychelles, known for royal weddings and honeymoons, is facing an ‘opposition’ groomed from abroad (particularly from the UK), mainly for its free, excellent medical care, and its Cuban-influenced education system.
In both Uganda and Rwanda, brutal and insane fascist regimes are clinging to power, coached openly by people like Tony Blair (advisor to President Kagame).
The Arab Spring has been fully derailed, and in Egypt, a country with powerful labor movements, that have been openly murdered. In the process, thousands of people have died, as pro-Western military and elites have overthrown a democratically elected moderate Muslim government.
The most horrendous religious regimes like those of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, are being pampered and defended by both North America and Europe.
In Latin America, the governments of Honduras and Paraguay have been overthrown; Venezuela has had to face coup attempts and its own brutal ‘opposition’, fully and openly financed by the West. Cuba has survived countless terrorist attacks from the North, and the ‘opposition’ there is also directly financed and supported from abroad.
Bolivia and even Brazil were targeted by the malicious attempts to destroy their left-leaning governments, as is the case with Bolivia, even the geographical integrity of the country has been threatened.
In Asia, things go from bad to worse. Both China and North Korea are being literally provoked, often militarily, from US air force bases located in Okinawa and elsewhere. Countries like the Philippines are being openly pitched against China (PRC) by the US, while Vietnam is also being ‘encouraged’ to antagonize its enormous neighbor.
It goes without saying that the Chinese ‘opposition’ has been financed mainly from abroad, for decades. On the contrary, in pro-Western brutal regimes like Indonesia, the Philippines but also Thailand, the West is paying and helping the military and elites to actually control and if necessary, destroy the genuine opposition.
The ‘opposition’ has been clearly employed to ruin Syria (the West created refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere, to train and arm the so called ‘opposition’ there), Venezuela, Ukraine and even Thailand. It has also caused some great damage to Russia and China, as well as countless Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The West is directly attacking foreign countries, by arming and indoctrinating thousands of people who are then paid to overthrow governments and political systems.
Not only is it illegal – it actually amounts to an act of war… undeclared, and covert, but war.
Do the citizens of Europe and North America ignorant of the fact that their governments and companies are fighting undeclared wars and committing acts of terrorism all over the world?
And it has been done for decades, with total impunity, it is perfectly well documented and it takes tremendous discipline to overlook it!
I have worked in almost all those places, making films, writing books and reports. I am intimately familiar with what the West has been doing in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, the Philippines…
I have proof. But have you noticed that proof is, these days, worth nothing? You can come with the most powerful, most damning and shocking proof, but it will move nobody, propel nobody to action… In the West, I mean. In that ‘democratic’ and ‘free’ West!
You can proof that 10 million people were slaughtered, and you will be told: “Thank you… Wonderful! Another cup of coffee?”
And even this incomplete but powerful list of horrors that the West is administering all over the world, is not something that could be defined as new.
It is simply a continuation of colonial culture, of plunders and of mass exterminations, of genocides and holocausts, those that have been taking place for many centuries.
Look at the map of the world at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and everything will be clear. The West was basically occupying almost the entire planet.
It was plundering thoroughly all that it controlled. It destroyed cultures, raped women, robbed all that it could get its hands on.
Ever wondered from where all that wealth that allowed Europe to build lavish palaces, theatres, museums, public buildings came from?
Of course it came, and is still coming, from the blood of oppressed people, from their hard labor for a pittance, from their sweat, from their humiliation.
And now, people from India, China, Indonesia, Peru, Nigeria, Senegal – they come to Europe and they sigh in front of those tremendous facades of enormous buildings, in the middle of well-manicured parks, on board fast moving trains.
And some say: “What a civilization! What a wonderful part of the world! Here they respect other human beings. Here they are kind to others.”
Well, it is built from your wealth that evaporated, from the terrible labor of your grandparents, from the rape of your female ancestors, from the cracking of whips on the naked backs of your male ancestors…. It is built on the ruins of your culture, of your civilization. It is all built, because you were left with nearly nothing, and for decades and centuries forced to live in shit…
The majority of people of what is now Latin America vanished! Their religions were destroyed and so were their languages. The Inca people had to obliterate their temples, and from those stones, enormous Christian cathedrals were erected. And they were decorated with gold and silver, dug by once free but now enslaved Incas. In Cusco and Potosi, Quito and Cuenca, everywhere.
Slaves poured out from Africa to Latin America and to North America, as well as to the Caribbean! Entire states in Africa, entire families were ruined, destroyed, uprooted. Human beings were treated like animals, while literary salons in London and Paris were enjoying refined music and perfumes.
Countries like Germany and Belgium performed clear genocides – The Belgians in Congo, Germans in what is now Namibia.
There was no mercy then, as there is no mercy now.
The Christian religion, that outrageous machinery of terror has been part of this for centuries, walking hand in hand with the Conquistadors and Crusaders. Periodically it took the lead in the massacres. The Church had been greedier than monarchies, and it was power hungry, oppressive and brutal.
Christianity, that symbol of Western civilization, brought torture and slavery; it blessed the men and the deeds that murdered millions.
So far, there has been no attempt to declare Christianity illegal because of the genocides it performed, strictly based on crimes against humanity.
And this culture is now scalding Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran – this culture that has murdered billions. And nobody is laughing. No one is rolling on the floor, dying from amusement.
In the Middle East, the Brits bombed and gassed ‘those niggers’ (both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill saw ‘lesser races’ as something worth exterminating, if ‘necessary’), divided nations, manipulated and enslaved them.
‘Divide and rule’ led to horrific consequences later, like the ‘Partition’ of India and Pakistan, or genocide in what is now Bangladesh.
In Asia, just about everything was occupied, plundered and raped, including such enormous areas as the sub-Continent, or China and the archipelago that is now known as Indonesia.
All was neatly divided. French Indochina, British India, and Dutch Indonesia.
Western Empires fought over vast foreign lands and no Europeans protested (as they are not protesting now, against neo-colonialism) against the genocides that were committed by their rulers. Some countries like France ‘successfully’ exterminated a hundred percent of the people on some islands in the Caribbean, and came very close to exterminating the entire population of Rapa Nui in Polynesia.
Rape, looting, murder, have been all over the world. The West still feels that it has the full right to determine who lives and who dies, and who should live which way.
The great Swiss psychoanalyst Gustav Jung described European and Western culture as a ‘pathology’, as an illness. To him, as a doctor, Europe was a patient, a seriously ill one, in constant need to terrorize others, to control, to steal, and to murder.
And Jung was not the only one. J. P. Sartre’s writing on colonialism is as damning and also much more detailed.
But now, after decades of huge propaganda injections, everything is ‘forgotten and forgiven’. But is it? Europeans ‘do not know’ what horrors they have been spreading all over the globe. Westerners in general do not know. They are conditioned not to know. They have eliminated almost all ‘comparative thinking’ in their own continent, and simultaneously in their colonies.
People do not know how to compare, anymore. The media and scholars are discouraged from comparing crimes and brutality. It is obvious why. No continent, no culture, committed such monstrous crimes, performed such horrible and unforgiveable deeds, as Western ‘cultures’ and ‘civilizations’. They committed them and they are still busy committing them. Until this very moment!
This essay is just a brief reminder of ‘who is speaking’! Who is pointing fingers at Russia right now, and who is demonizing China, and calling true Latin American democracies – ‘dictatorships’.
One feels like paraphrasing an old Communist slogan, and shouting:
“People of the world who still have some brain left – wake up and unite!”
It is clear that the West is on an offensive: it tries to annihilate all dissent that has grown since the destruction of the old multi-polar world.
But a new, perhaps better, multi-polar world has emerged.
Some parts of it are much more informed and educated about the horrific terror that comes with allowing the West to rule over this world, unopposed.
It is not Russia that is ‘on the wrong side of the history’, as Obama recently declared.
It is the West, clearly and patently. And just to say; that it is not good enough… Not good enough, anymore!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.
As states begin to rein in mass surveillance,
corporations argue that they have a right to collect data.
‘This is the same argument that the NSA made in the face of public outcry about its collection of telephone metadata.’
Do corporations have a legal right to track your car? If you think that is a purely academic question, think again. Working with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, states are considering laws to prevent private companies from continuing to mass photograph license plates.
This is one of the backlashes to the news about mass surveillance. However, this backlash is now facing legal pushback from the corporations who take the photographs and then sell the data gleaned from the images.
In a lawsuit against the state of Utah, Digital Recognition Network, Inc. and Vigilant Solutions are attempting to appropriate the ACLU’s own pro-free speech arguments for themselves. They argue that a recent Utah law banning them from using automated cameras to collect images, locations and times of license plates is a violation of their own free speech rights. Indeed, in an interview, DRN’s counsel Michael Carvin defends this practice by noting, “Everyone has a First Amendment right to take these photographs and disseminate this information.”
He argues that a license plate is an inherently public piece of information.
“The only purpose of license plate information is to identify a vehicle to members of the public,” he says. “The government has no problem with people taking pictures of license plates in a particular location. But for some irrational reason it has a problem with people taking high speed photographs of those license plates.”
The analogy to an individual’s right to take photos only goes so far, though. Vigilant’s website notes that “DRN fuels a national network of more than 550 affiliates,” its tracking “technology is used in every major metropolitan area” and it “captures data on over 50 million vehicles each month.”
“This is a complicated area where we are going to need to carefully balance First Amendment rights of corporations versus individuals privacy rights,” says ACLU attorney Catherine Crump. “The mere fact that an individual has a First Amendment right doesn’t mean that right is unlimited. There are circumstances under which the government is free to regulate speech.”
Crump cited the Fair Credit Reporting Act and laws regulating the dissemination of health information as examples of legal privacy-related restrictions of speech rights.
“One could argue that the privacy implications of a private individual taking a picture of a public place is sufficiently less than a company collecting millions of license plate images,” Crump says. “Especially with technology becoming more widespread and databases going back in time, there may be justification for regulation.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that DRN’s own website boasted to its corporate clients that it can “combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars … with household income and other valuable information” so companies can “pinpoint consumers more effectively.” Yet, in announcing its lawsuit, DRN and Vigilant argue that their methods do not violate individual privacy because the “data collected, stored or provided to private companies (and) to law enforcement … is anonymous, in the sense that it does not contain personally identifiable information.”
In response, Crump says: “This is the same argument that the NSA made in the face of public outcry about its collection of telephone metadata, The argument was essentially, we’re not collecting information about people, we are collecting info about telephone numbers. But every telephone number is associated with an individual, just like a license plate is.”
The courts could follow corporate personhood precedents and strengthen First Amendment protections for private firms. Alternately, the courts could more narrowly rule on whether individuals’ license plate information is entitled to any minimal privacy protections.
Either way, the spat epitomizes how the collision of free speech rights, the desire for private and the expansion of data-collecting technology is raising huge questions about what is—and is not—public.
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts “The Rundown” on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at http://www.davidsirota.com.
Heads-up, veterans of the nuclear freeze movement in the US, the anti-Euromissile campaigns in Western Europe, and the various anti-nuclear weapons efforts in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Incoming.
We spent much of the eighties resisting Ronald Reagan’s new Cold War, and his new nuclear weapons of all shapes and sizes. We pushed back against his giant ‘defense’ budgets and countered his harrowing rhetoric. We knew Star Wars was a scam, and the MX missile a danger. We grimaced at his appointments to key policymaking positions, and scoffed at his insincere arms control efforts.
In the end, we prevailed (after a sort). We get much of the credit for preventing planetary incineration that seemed frighteningly close at the time (Gorbachev deserves some too). Professional activists, Plowshares heroes, and a handful of stalwart others stayed in the anti-nuclear weapons movement trenches. Although nukes were not abolished with the end of the Cold War, most of the rest of us nonetheless moved on to fight other evils, and to work on one or more better world construction projects.
It’s time to return. President Obama released his FY 2015 budget on Tuesday, March 4. Ready for this? It asks for considerably more money (in constant dollars) for nuclear weapons maintenance, design and production than Reagan spent in 1985, the historical peak of spending on nukes: $8.608 billion dollars, not counting administrative costs (see graph below). The Los Alamos Study Group crunched the numbers for us.
Next year’s request tops this year’s by 7%. Should the President’s new Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative be approved, yet $504 million more would be available for warhead spending. The OGSI is $56 billion over and above the spending agreed to in the December 2013 two-year budget (unlikely to pass given that it’s an election year, would be paid for by increased taxes on the retirement funds of the rich, and reduced spending in politically dicey areas like crop insurance).
Increased lucre for the nuclear weapons complex maintains Obama’s inconsistency on the Bomb. He wrote his senior thesis at Columbia on the arms race and the nuclear freeze campaign. Two months after his first inauguration, he uttered these words in Prague: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
The Pentagon’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review promised to avoid “new military missions or . . . new military capabilities” for nuclear weapons (don’t laugh, you’d be surprised how imaginative those guys can be). 2011 was even better: Obama signed the New START Treaty. It limits the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1550, a 30% decrease from the previous START Treaty, signed in 2002. New START also lowered limits on the number of launch platforms — ICBMs, ballistic missile launching subs, and nuke-equipped bombers.
At the same time, his State Department refuses—under first Hilary Clinton and now John Kerry—to present the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification out of timidity over expected resistance (never mind that the US has essentially figured out ways to circumvent the Treaty’s spirit if not letter; the CTB was once the ‘holy grail’ for arms control and disarmament advoates).
That same State Department refrains—under both Hilary Clinton and John Kerry—from getting tough with Pakistan over its years-long obstruction of United Nations-sponsored negotiations over a global ban on the stuff needed to make bombs. (Pakistan is the country building them faster than any other; how about: ‘we’ll ground the killer drones in exchange for a fissile material cut-off?’). And Obama now wants to outspend Reagan on nuclear weapons maintenance, design and production.
Winding down nuclear weapons spending, and eventually abolishing the things (for which no negotiations are underway) has been the right thing to do since the first bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert in 1945. State Department support for the coup in Ukraine and the resultant saber rattling (echoes of August 1914?) make it as urgent as ever.
Steve Breyman was 2011-12 William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Euro-Atlantic Security Affairs Office of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the US Department of State where he worked fruitlessly on reforming nuclear weapons policy. He is author of Movement Genesis: Social Movement Theory and the West German Peace Movement and Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Ulrich Rippert
7 March 2014
So-called liberal German media outlets such as the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, which is close to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Green Party-aligned TAZ have responded to the intensification of the crisis in Ukraine with a vehement campaign for war. As though they had received their training in Goebbels’ propaganda ministry, some commentators are openly defending fascist parties, hailing anti-Semitic militias as freedom fighters, and calling for a military strike against Russia.
On Monday, TAZ Russian correspondent Klaus-Helge Donath railed against “Berlin’s cuddly diplomats” in a lead article. He accused the German government of allowing Putin to lead them “around the arena by the nose.” On the title page, an oversized telephone receiver was featured, designed to show that Berlin’s policy was restricted to diplomatic efforts.
The west could no longer allow Putin “to make a fool of them,” TAZ insisted.
Donath explicitly justified collaborating with fascists. “No one disputes that there are influential, radical right-wing forces,” he wrote. “But are there not several groups in the Ukraine as in other European democracies?”
When violent groups overthrew the President in Kiev two weeks ago, Donath defended the Ukrainian fascists, who enjoy close ties to the German government. He described them as “an active part of Ukrainian society,” which had driven forward “the protests of Ukrainian society against a pro-Soviet, kleptocratic autocracy.”
In the same vein, Stefan Kornelius went on the offensive in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He described the overthrow of Yanukovych as a “revolution” which had to be defended. By contrast, he accused Russian President Putin of knowing only the language of violence, striving for a counter-revolution and being intent on war. Therefore, he had to be forcibly resisted.
That Kornelius dares to describe the fascists as national revolutionaries, in Ukraine of all places, where names like Babi Yar recall some of the worst Nazi crimes, is not only deeply repugnant but also politically criminal.
Yet Kornelius is aware that the right-wing putsch in Ukraine was guided by external forces, above all by the deliberate actions of the German and American governments. He wrote in his comment that the previous power relations in Ukraine were overturned by a “political intervention.”
The course of this political intervention is well known. When Viktor Yanukovych refused last November to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), the governments in Washington and Berlin began a systematic campaign of destabilisation. They supported the pro-EU opposition which organised protests against Yanukovych. Along with Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland and Vitali Klitschko’s Udar, both right-wing parties with close ties to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, the fascist Svoboda party of Oleg Tyahnybok was also included.
The fact that Svoboda employs neofascist symbols, rails against foreigners, Jews, Poles and Hungarians, maintains close ties to the French National Front, and that it was compared with Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik by the World Jewish Congress did not prevent the German and American governments from publicly supporting Tyahnybok.
Kornelius defended this collaboration with the fascists and was supported by his editorial colleague Daniel Brössler. In the same paper, Brössler demanded, “The west has to set limits for Putin.” Brössler demanded that the west had to “establish a state of emergency” for Russia. This meant sanctions at least.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kornelius went one better. In an online comment, he called on the German government “not to accept the facts created by Putin.” Then he posed the question, “Can Russia only be impressed by counter measures if the navy is sent quickly?”
He did not provide a direct answer, but noted that all diplomatic and psychological efforts or the “restricted pinpricks of sanctions” were failing to achieve anything. “A brutal but calculated duel” was necessary. He demanded that decisiveness be answered with decisiveness, leaving no doubt that he was talking about military escalation.
Similar war propaganda came from Eric T. Hansen in Die Zeit. He wrote that although reason, caution and compromise were good virtues, Europe had “to learn power politics.” The article went on: “We convince ourselves that the world works generally on a rational basis, with lots of compromise and consideration.” This is false. “Man is not a moral animal, but an animal of power.” The EU stood at a crossroads, Hansen continued. “Does it have the guts to meet power politics with power politics? Or will it withdraw into the old patterns, like the Germans in the Cold War?”
He wrote of post-war Germany with disdain. “Above all that means peace demonstrations, and statements, and anger, and talk shows. Oh god, the talk shows! All of this is called moral politics, and the emphasis is on moral.”
To leave no doubt about for what he was calling for, Hansen wrote, “Now I know what you’re thinking. Hansen wants to take us to war. But that is the moral politician in you who is speaking. He screams ‘war, never again’ at every opportunity, he can’t do anything else.”
This is explicit. When Hansen ridicules “moral politicians,” he means the replacement of the demand “war, never again,” which became deeply imbedded in the population after two world wars with hundreds of millions of dead, with the call, “we want war again!”
As with Kornelius and Klaus-Helge Donath, Hansen speaks for a super-rich layer at the top, who set the tone in politics and the media, and, as in the 1930s, are crying for war and dictatorship. At that time, many lackeys of the Nazis sat in the editorial offices and at university lecterns.
As one reads such comments, the angry remark of Max Liebermann springs to mind. When he saw the hordes of the SA marching through the Brandenburg Gate in 1933, he said, “I can’t eat as much as I would like to throw up!” But anger and outrage are not adequate to combat the cheerleaders for war. The working class and youth must take up the struggle against war and fascism on the basis of an international, socialist programme.
Or How the U.S. Military Avoided Budget Cuts, Lied About Doing So, Then Asked for Billions More
By Mattea Kramer
Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II. Headlines about this crisis followed in papers like the New York Times and members of Congress issued statements swearing that they would never allow our security to be held hostage to the budget-cutting process.
Yet a careful look at budget figures for the U.S. military — a bureaucratic juggernaut accounting for 57% of the federal discretionary budget and nearly 40% of all military spending on this planet — shows that such claims have been largely fictional. Despite cries of doom since the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration surfaced in Washington in 2011, the Pentagon has seen few actual reductions, and there is no indication that will change any time soon.
This piece of potentially explosive news has, however, gone missing in action — and the “news” that replaced it could prove to be one of the great bait-and-switch stories of our time.
The Pentagon Cries Wolf, Round One
As sequestration first approached, the Pentagon issued deafening cries of despair. Looming cuts would “inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country,” said Secretary Hagel in December 2012.
Sequestration went into effect in March 2013 and was slated to slice $54.6 billion from the Pentagon’s $550 billion larger-than-the-economy-of-Sweden budget. But Congress didn’t have the stomach for it, so lawmakers knocked the cuts down to $37 billion. (Domestic programs like Head Start and cancer research received no such special dispensation.)
By law, the cuts were to be applied across the board. But that, too, didn’t go as planned. The Pentagon was able to do something hardly recognizable as a cut at all. Having the luxury of unspent funds from previous budgets — known obscurely as “prior year unobligated balances” — officials reallocated some of the cuts to those funds instead.
In the end, the Pentagon shaved about 5.7%, or $31 billion, from its 2013 budget. And just how painful did that turn out to be? Frank Kendall, who serves as the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has acknowledged that the Pentagon “cried wolf.” Those cuts caused no substantial damage, he admitted.
And that’s not where the story ends — it’s where it begins.
Sequestration, the Phony Budget War, Round Two
A $54.6 billion slice was supposed to come out of the Pentagon budget in 2014. If that had actually happened, it would have amounted to around 10% of its budget. But after the hubbub over the supposedly devastating cuts of 2013, lawmakers set about softening the blow.
And this time they did a much better job.
In December 2013, a budget deal was brokered by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. In it they agreed to reduce sequestration. Cuts for the Pentagon soon shrank to $34 billion for 2014.
And that was just a start.
All the cuts discussed so far pertain to what’s called the Pentagon’s “base” budget — its regular peacetime budget. That, however, doesn’t represent all of its funding. It gets a whole different budget for making war, and for the 13th year, the U.S. is making war in Afghanistan. For that part of the budget, which falls into the Washington category of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), the Pentagon is getting an additional $85 billion in 2014.
And this is where something funny happens.
That war funding isn’t subject to caps or cuts or any restrictions at all. So imagine for a moment that you’re an official at the Pentagon — or the White House — and you’re committed to sparing the military from downsizing. Your budget has two parts: one that’s subject to caps and cuts, and one that isn’t. What do you do? When you hit a ceiling in the former, you stuff extra cash into the latter.
It takes a fine-toothed comb to discover how this is done. Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, found that the Pentagon was stashing an estimated extra $20 billion worth of non-war funding in the “operation and maintenance” accounts of its proposed 2014 war budget. And since all federal agencies work in concert with the White House to craft their budget proposals, it’s safe to say that the Obama administration was in on the game.
Add the December budget deal to this $20 billion switcheroo and the sequester cuts for 2014 were now down to $14 billion, hardly a devastating sum given the roughly $550 billion in previously projected funding.
And the story’s still not over.
When it was time to write the Pentagon budget into law, appropriators in Congress wanted in on the fun. As Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight discovered, lawmakers added a $10.8 billion slush fund to the war budget.
All told, that leaves $3.4 billion — a cut of less than 1% from Pentagon funding this year. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy of the Defense Department will even notice. Nonetheless, last week Secretary Hagel insisted that “[s]equestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that… the only way to implement [them] is to sharply reduce spending on our readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force.”
Yet this less than 1% cut comes from a budget that, at last count, was the size of the next 10 largest military budgets on the planet combined. If you can find a threat to our national security in this story, your sleuthing powers are greater than mine. Meanwhile, in the non-military part of the budget, sequestration has brought cuts that actually matter to everything from public education to the justice system.
Cashing in on the “Cuts,” Round Three and Beyond
After two years of uproar over mostly phantom cuts, 2015 isn’t likely to bring austerity to the Pentagon either. Last December’s budget deal already reduced the cuts projected for 2015, and President Obama is now asking for something he’s calling the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” It would deliver an extra $26 billion to the Pentagon next year. And that still leaves the war budget for officials to use as a cash cow.
And the president is proposing significant growth in military spending further down the road. In his 2015 budget plan, he’s asking Congress to approve an additional $115 billion in extra Pentagon funds for the years 2016-2019.
My guess is he’ll claim that our national security requires it after the years of austerity.
Mattea Kramer is a TomDispatch regular and Research Director at National Priorities Project, which is a 2014 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the lead author of the book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.
Copyright 2014 Mattea Kramer