Syria and the drumbeat of world war

In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, Russian SU-24M jet fighter armed with laser guided bombs takes off from a runaway at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded, and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination and now, it seems, at risk of unintended conflict. The latest entry in the air war is Russia. It says it is bombing the Islamic State in line with U.S. priorities, but the U.S. says Russia is mainly striking anti-government rebels in support of its ally, President Bashar Assad. The Russians, who are not coordinating with the Americans, reportedly also have hit U.S.-supported rebel groups. (AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)

(AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)

8 October 2015

With Russia having completed its first week of airstrikes in Syria, firing some 26 cruise missiles from warships deployed over 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea, an escalating drumbeat of warnings and threats of a far more dangerous conflict and even world war has come to dominate discussions within ruling circles in both the US and Europe.

French President François Hollande, who has ordered French warplanes to bomb Syria, warned European lawmakers Wednesday that the events in that country could spiral into a “total war” from which Europe itself would not be “sheltered.”

Seizing on alleged incidents involving Russian warplanes straying into Turkish airspace, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” implicitly invoking Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits members of the US-led military alliance to an armed response against an attack on Turkey or any other member state.

The Turkish government, which has been one of the primary sources of support for Islamist militias such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front that have ravaged Syria, routinely violates the airspace of its own neighbors, carrying out bombing raids against Kurdish camps in Iraq and shooting down Syrian planes over Syrian territory.

Top NATO officials have also weighed in with bellicose denunciations of Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg charged that the alleged Russian incursion into Turkish airspace “does not look like an accident.” He continued, warning, “Incidents, accidents, may create dangerous situations. And therefore it is also important to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, who commands NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, accused Russia of building an “arc of steel” from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea. This deliberate paraphrasing of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech turns the real relationship of forces inside out, obscuring the relentless encirclement of Russia by Washington and the NATO alliance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s liquidation 25 years ago.

Describing Russia as the “most dangerous threat” facing NATO, Admiral Ferguson called for an increasingly aggressive NATO posture toward Moscow, recommending the honing of the alliance’s “war fighting skills” and the deployment of military forces “on call for real world operations.”

Former high-level US officials, whose views undoubtedly reflect the thinking within powerful sections of the American ruling establishment and its vast military and intelligence complex, have also weighed in with calls for confrontation with Russia.

In a column published by the Financial Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration and a longtime US imperialist strategist, wrote that Russian attacks on CIA-backed Islamist militias “should prompt US retaliation.” Like others in Washington, he avoided mentioning that the most prominent of these militias is Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.

Brzezinski advised that “Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland” and “could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.” Presumably, he inserted the quotation marks around “disarmed” to signal that he was employing a euphemism for “militarily obliterated.”

Similarly, Ivo Daalder, who was Obama’s ambassador to NATO until mid-2013, told Politico: “If we want to take out their military forces there, we can probably do it at relatively little or no cost to ourselves. The question is what will be Putin’s response. I think if you sit in the Situation Room you have to play this one out.”

Meanwhile, Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special envoy on a Syrian transition, compared Putin’s actions to those of Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the world to the precipice of nuclear war. “Like his predecessor over 50 years ago, he [Putin] senses weakness on the part of a US president. Like his predecessor, he risks discovering that trifling with the United States is not a healthy pursuit. But such a risk entails dangers for all concerned.”

Drawing out the ominous implications of these discussions, Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, compared the Syrian conflict with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. He wrote: “A similar proxy war is under way in Syria today—with both the Russian and US air forces bombing targets in the country, and foreign fighters pouring in.”

He continued: “The countries that were backing opposite sides in Spain in the 1930s were fighting each other directly by the 1940s. The risk of the Syrian conflict leading to a direct clash between the Iranians and the Saudis, or even the Russians and the Americans, cannot be discounted.”

This danger exists because Russia’s intervention—launched in defense of the interests of the Russian state and the ruling class of oligarchs who represent Russia’s energy conglomerates—has cut across US plans to effect regime-change in Syria and redraw the map of the Middle East that date back decades.

The proposal to bring about regime-change in Syria by backing proxy forces on the ground was advanced two decades ago in a document entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” drafted for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a study group that included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. All three were later to gain high-level positions in the Bush administration, participating in the conspiracy to launch the US war of aggression against Iraq.

A recently released classified document obtained by WikiLeaks establishes that active US planning for regime-change predated the outbreak of the Syrian civil war by at least five years. The secret report from the head of the US Embassy in Damascus outlined “vulnerabilities” of the Syrian government that Washington could exploit. At the top of the list were fomenting “Sunni fears of Iranian influence” to cause sectarian conflict and taking advantage of “the presence of transiting Islamist extremists.”

Given that the document was written in 2006, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian carnage caused by the US invasion and Washington’s divide-and-rule tactics, these proposals were made with full awareness that they would provoke a bloodbath. Nearly a decade later, the bitter fruits of this policy include the deaths of some 300,000 Syrians, with another 4 million driven from the country and 7 million more internally displaced.

While cynically exploiting the suffering of the Syrian people to justify an escalation of US militarism, Washington is not about to let Russia derail its drive to impose its hegemony over the oil-rich Middle East and the entire planet.

The path to war with Russia is by no means accidental. From the outset, the US intervention to topple the regime in Damascus was aimed at weakening the principal allies of the Syrian government—Iran and Russia—in preparation for a direct assault on both countries.

More and more directly each day, the eruption of American militarism, rooted in the historic crisis of American and world capitalism, confronts humanity with the specter of a nuclear Third World War.

Bill Van Auken

Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich


One day in March of 2014, a Google engineer named Justine Tunney created a strange and ultimately doomed petition at the White House website. The petition proposed a three-point national referendum, as follows:

1. Retire all government employees with full pensions.
2. Transfer administrative authority to the tech industry.
3. Appoint [Google executive chairman] Eric Schmidt CEO of America.

This could easily be written off as stunt, a flamboyant act of corporate kiss-assery, which, on one level, it probably was. But Tunney happened to be serious. “It’s time for the U.S. Regime to politely take its exit from history and do what’s best for America,” she wrote. “The tech industry can offer us good governance and prevent further American decline.”

Welcome to the latest political fashion among the California Confederacy: total corporate despotism. It is a potent and bitter ideological mash that could have only been concocted at tech culture’s funky smoothie bar—a little Steve Jobs here, a little Ayn Rand there, and some Ray Kurzweil for color.

Tunney was at one time a prominent and divisive fixture of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Lately, though, her views have . . . evolved. How does an anticapitalist “tranarchist” (transgender anarchist) become a hard-right seditionist?

“Read Mencius Moldbug,” Tunney told her Twitter followers last month, referring to an aggressively dogmatic blogger with a reverent following in certain tech circles.

Keanu Reeves cartoon

Keanu cartoon by Pete Simon

Tunney’s advice is easier said than done, for Moldbug is as prolific as he is incomprehensible. His devotees, many of whom are also bloggers, describe themselves as the “neoreactionary” vanguard of a “Dark Enlightenment.” They oppose popular suffrage, egalitarianism and pluralism. Some are atheists, while others affect obscure orthodox beliefs, but most are youngish white males embittered by “political correctness.” As best I can tell, their ideal society best resembles Blade Runner, but without all those Asian people cluttering up the streets. Neoreactionaries like to see themselves as the heroes of another sci-fi movie, in fact, sometimes boasting that they have been “redpilled,” like Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix—a movie Moldbug regards as “genius.”

“Moldbug.” The name sounds like it belongs to a troll who belches from the depths of an Internet rabbit hole. And so it does. Mencius Moldbug is the blogonym of Curtis Guy Yarvin, a San Francisco software developer and frustrated poet. (Here he is reading a poem at a 1997 open mic.)

According to Yarvin, the child of federal civil servants, he dropped out of a graduate computer science program at U. C. Berkeley in the early 1990s (he has self-consciously noted that he is the only man in his immediate family without a PhD) yet managed to make a small pile of money in the original dot-com bubble. Yarvin betrayed an endearingly strange sense of humor in his student days, posting odd stories and absurdist jokes on bulletin board services, contributing to Wired and writing cranky letters to alternative weekly newspapers.

Yet even as a student at Brown in 1991, Yarvin’s preoccupations with domineering strongmen were evident: “I wonder if the Soviet power ladder of vicious bureaucratic backbiting brings stronger men to the top than the American system of feel-good soundbites,” he wrote in one board discussion.

Yarvin’s public writing tapered off as his software career solidified. In 2007, he reemerged under an angry pseudonym, Moldbug, on a humble Blogspot blog called “Unqualified Reservations.” As might be expected of a “DIY ideology . . . designed by geeks for other geeks,” his political treatises are heavily informed by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas. What set Yarvin apart from the typical keyboard kook was his archaic, grandiose tone, which echoed the snippets Yarvin cherry-picked from obscure old reactionary tracts. Yarvin told one friendly interviewer that he spent $500 a month on books.

Elsewhere he confessed to having taken a grand total of five undergraduate humanities courses (history and creative writing). The lack of higher ed creds hasn’t hurt his confidence. On his blog, Yarvin holds forth oneverything from the intricacies of Korean history to contemporary Pakistani politics, from the proper conduct of a counterinsurgency operation to macroeconomic theory and fiscal policy, and he never gives an inch. “The neat thing about primary sources is that often, it takes only one to prove your point,” he writes.

In short, Moldbug reads like an overconfident autodidact’s imitation of a Lewis Lapham essay—if Lewis Lapham were a fascist teenage Dungeon Master.

Yarvin’s most toxic arguments come snugly wrapped in purple prose and coded language. (For instance,“The Cathedral” is Moldbuggian for the oppressive nexus of liberal newspapers, universities and the State Department, where his father worked after getting a PhD in philosophy from Brown.) By so doing, Moldbug has been able to an attract an audience that welcomes the usual teeth-gnashing white supremacists who haunt the web while also leaving room for a more socially acceptable assortment of “men’s rights” advocates, gun nuts, transhumanist libertarians, disillusioned Occupiers and well-credentialed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

When Justine Tunney posted her petition online, the press treated it like comic relief that came from nowhere. In fact, it is straight Moldbug. Item one, “retire all government employees,” comes verbatim from a 2012 talk that Yarvin gave to an approving crowd of California techies (see video below). In his typical smarmy, meandering style, Yarvin concluded by calling for “a national CEO [or] what’s called a dictator.”

“If Americans want to change their government, they’re going to have to get over their dictator phobia,” Yarvin said in his talk. He conceded that, given the current political divisions, it might be better to have two dictators, one for Red Staters and one for Blue Staters. The trick would be to “make sure they work together.” (Sure. Easy!)

“There’s really no other solution,” Yarvin concluded. The crowd applauded.

This plea for autocracy is the essence of Yarvin’s work. He has concluded that America’s problems come not from a deficit of democracy but from an excess of it—or, as Yarvin puts it, “chronic kinglessness.” Incredible as it sounds, absolute dictatorship may be the least objectionable tenet espoused by the Dark Enlightenment neoreactionaries.

Moldbug is the widely acknowledged lodestar of the movement, but he’s not the only leading figure. Another is Nick Land, a British former academic now living in Shanghai, where he writes admiringly of Chinese eugenics and the impending global reign of “autistic nerds, who alone are capable of participating effectively in the advanced technological processes that characterize the emerging economy.”

These imaginary übermensch have inspired a sprawling network of blogs, sub-Reddits and meetups aimed at spreading their views. Apart from their reverence for old-timey tyrants, they espouse a belief in “human biodiversity,” which is basically racism in a lab coat. This scientific-sounding euphemism invariably refers to supposed differences in intelligence across races. It is so spurious that the Wikipedia article on human biodiversity was deleted because, in the words of one editor, it is “purely an Internet theory.” Censored once again by The Cathedral, alas.

“I am not a white nationalist, but I do read white-nationalist blogs, and I’m not afraid to link to them . . . I am not exactly allergic to the stuff,” Yarvin writes. He also praises a blogger who advocated the deportation of Muslims and the closure of mosques as “probably the most imaginative and interesting right-wing writer on the planet.” Hectoring a Swarthmore history professor, Yarvin rhapsodizes on colonial rule in Southern Africa, and suggests that black people had it better under apartheid. “If you ask me to condemn [mass murderer] Anders Breivik, but adore Nelson Mandela, perhaps you have a mother you’d like to fuck,” Yarvinwrites.

His jargon may be novel, but whenever Mencius Moldbug descends to the realm of the concrete, he offersfamiliar tropes of white victimhood. Yarvin’s favorite author, the nineteenth-century writer Scot Thomas Carlyle, is perhaps best known for his infamous slavery apologia, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” “If there is one writer in English whose name can be uttered with Shakespeare’s, it is Carlyle,” Yarvin writes. Later in the same essay Yarvin calls slavery “a natural human relationship” akin to “that of patron and client.”

As I soldiered through the Moldbug canon, my reactions numbed. Here he is expressing sympathy for poor, persecuted Senator Joe McCarthy. Big surprise. Here he claims “America is a communist country.” Sure, whatever. Here he doubts that Barack Obama ever attended Columbia University. You don’t say? After a while, Yarvin’s blog feels like the pseudo-intellectual equivalent of a Gwar concert, one sick stunt after another, calculated to shock. To express revulsion and disapproval is to grant the attention he so transparently craves.

Yet the question inevitably arrives: Do we need to take this stuff seriously? The few mainstream assessments of the neoreactionaries have been divided on the question.

Sympathetic citations are spreading: In the Daily Caller, The American Conservative and National Review. Yet the conservative press remains generally dismissive. The American Spectator’s Matthew Walther calls neoreactionism “silly not scary” and declares that “all of these people need to relax: spend some time with P.G. Wodehouse, watch a football game, get drunk, whatever.”

TechCrunch, which first introduced me to Moldbug, treats the “Geeks for Monarchy” movement as an Internet curio. But The Telegraph says, yes, this is “sophisticated neo-fascism” and must be confronted.Vocativ, which calls it “creepy,” agrees that it should be taken seriously.

The science fiction author David Brin goes further in his comment on a Moldbug blog post, accusing the blogger of auditioning for the part of Machiavelli to some future-fascist dictator:

The world oligarchy is looking for boffins to help them re-establish their old – pyramidal – social order. And your screeds are clearly interview essays. “Pick me! Pick me! Look! I hate democracy too! And I will propagandize for people to accept your rule again, really I will! See the fancy rationalizations I can concoct????”

But your audition materials are just . .  too . . . jibbering . . . loopy. You will not get the job.

As strange as it sounds, Brin may be closest to the truth. Neoreactionaries are explicitly courting wealthy elites in the tech sector as the most receptive and influential audience. Why bother with mass appeal, when you’re rebuilding the ancien régime?

Moldbuggism, for now, remains mostly an Internet phenomenon. Which is not to say it is “merely” an Internet phenomenon. This is, after all, a technological age. Last November, Yarvin claimed that his blog had received 500,000 views. It is not quantity of his audience that matters so much as the nature of it, however. And the neoreactionaries do seem to be influencing the drift of Silicon Valley libertarianism, which is no small force today. This is why I have concluded, sadly, that Yarvin needs answering.

If the Koch brothers have proved anything, it’s that no matter how crazy your ideas are, if you put serious money behind those ideas, you can seize key positions of authority and power and eventually bring large numbers of people around to your way of thinking. Moreover, the radicalism may intensify with each generation. Yesterday’s Republicans and Independents are today’s Libertarians. Today’s Libertarians may be tomorrow’s neoreactionaries, whose views flatter the prejudices of the new Silicon Valley elite.

In a widely covered secessionist speech at a Silicon Valley “startup school” last year, there was more than a hint of Moldbug (see video below). The speech, by former Stanford professor and Andreessen Horowitz partner Balaji Srinivasan, never mentioned Moldbug or the Dark Enlightenment, but it was suffused with neoreactionary rhetoric and ideas. Srinivasan used the phrase “the paper belt” to describe his enemies, namely the government, the publishing industries, and universities. The formulation mirrored Moldbug’s “Cathedral.” Srinivasan’s central theme was the notion of “exit”—as in, exit from democratic society, and entry into any number of corporate mini-states whose arrival will leave the world looking like a patchwork map of feudal Europe.

Forget universal rights; this is the true “opt-in society.”

An excerpt:

We want to show what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like. That’s where “exit” comes in . . . . It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology. And this is actually where the Valley is going. This is where we’re going over the next ten years . . . [Google co-founder] Larry Page, for example, wants to set aside a part of the world for unregulated experimentation. That’s carefully phrased. He’s not saying, “take away the laws in the U.S.” If you like your country, you can keep it. Same with Marc Andreessen: “The world is going to see an explosion of countries in the years ahead—doubled, tripled, quadrupled countries.”

Srinivasan ticked through the signposts of the neoreactionary fantasyland: Bitcoin as the future of finance, corporate city-states as the future of government, Detroit as a loaded symbol of government failure and 3D-printed firearms as an example of emerging technology that defies regulation.

The speech succeeded in promoting the anti-democratic authoritarianism at the core of neoreactionary thought, while glossing over the attendant bigotry. This has long been a goal of some in the movement. One such moderate—if the word can be used in this context—is Patri Friedman, grandson of the late libertarian demigod Milton Friedman. The younger Friedman expressed the need for “a more politically correct dark enlightenment” after a public falling out with Yarvin in 2009.

Friedman has lately been devoting his time (and leveraging his family name) to raise money for the SeaSteading Institute, which, as the name suggests, is a blue-sea libertarian dream to build floating fiefdoms free of outside regulation and law. Sound familiar?

The principal backer of the SeaSteading project, Peter Thiel, is also an investor in companies run by Balaji Srinivasan and Curtis Yarvin. Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal, an original investor in Facebook and hedge fund manager, as well as being the inspiration for a villainous investor on the satirical HBO series Silicon Valley. Thiel’s extreme libertarian advocacy is long and storied, beginning with his days founding the Collegiate Network-backed Stanford Review. Lately he’s been noticed writing big checks for Ted Cruz.

He’s invested in Yarvin’s current startup, Tlon. Thiel invested personally in Tlon co-founder John Burnham. In 2011, at age 18, Burnham accepted $100,000 from Thiel to skip college and go directly into business. Instead of mining asteroids as he originally intended, Burnham wound up working on obscure networking software with Yarvin, whose title at Tlon is, appropriately enough, “benevolent dictator for life.”

California libertarian software developers inhabit a small and shallow world. It should be no surprise then, that, although Thiel has never publicly endorsed Yarvin’s side project specifically, or the neoreactionary program in general, there is definitely a whiff of something Moldbuggy in Thiel’s own writing. For instance, Thiel echoed Moldbug in an infamous 2009 essay for the Cato Institute in which he explained that he had moved beyond libertarianism. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel wrote.

Thiel’s eponymous foundation funds, among other things, an institute to advance the ideas of a conservative Stanford academic, René Girard, under whom Thiel studied as an undergraduate. In 2012 Thiel delivered a lecture at Stanford that explained his views regarding the divine rights of Silicon Valley CEOs. The lecture did address some of Girard’s ideas about historical “mimetics,” but it also contained a heavy dose of Moldbuggian thought. Thiel says:

A startup is basically structured as a monarchy. We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable. We are biased toward the democratic-republican side of the spectrum. That’s what we’re used to from civics classes. But the truth is that startups and founders lean toward the dictatorial side because that structure works better for startups.

Might a dictatorial approach, in Thiel’s opinion, also work better for society at large? He doesn’t say so in his Stanford lecture (although he does cast tech CEOs as the heirs to mythical “god-kings” such as Romulus). But Thiel knows where to draw the line in mixed company. Ordinary people get so “uncomfortable” when powerful billionaires start talking about the obsolescence of participatory government and “the unthinking demos,” as he put it in his Cato essay. Stupid proles! They don’t deserve our brilliance! “The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom,” Thiel wrote.

It is clear that Thiel sees corporations as the governments of the future and capitalists such as himself as the kings, and it is also clear that this is a shockingly common view in Thiel’s cohort. In a 2011 New Yorkerprofile, George Packer wrote:

Thiel and his circle in Silicon Valley may be able to imagine a future that would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful wonder which life forces most human beings to outgrow . . . . He wants to live forever, have the option to escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state, and play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien, because these were the fantasies that filled his childhood imagination.

Packer is perhaps too generous to his subject. But he captures the fundamental problem with these mouthbreathers’ dreams of monarchy. They’ve never role-played the part of the peasant.

Corey Pein is a writer and reporter in Brighton, England. He offers free samples at

The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

Washington’s war crime in Afghanistan


6 October 2015

The massacre of 22 people—12 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, along with 10 patients, three of them children—in Saturday’s airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical center in Kunduz, Afghanistan is an appalling war crime for which the US military and Obama administration are responsible.

On Monday, the top US commander in Afghanistan admitted that a US warplane carried out the deadly attack, while seeking to shift the blame onto Afghan puppet troops for calling it in.

“An air strike was then called to eliminate the Taliban and several civilians were accidentally struck,” Gen. John Campbell told a Pentagon press conference. This account is at odds with the Pentagon’s initial story that US special forces troops had come under fire and called in the airstrike.

The plane involved was an AC-130, nicknamed the “Angel of Death,” a huge, slow-flying aircraft equipped with multiple cannons, rockets and bombs that is capable of circling a target for long periods, delivering devastating firepower. The Pentagon has boasted about this flying fortress’s ability to strike targets with “pinpoint accuracy,” in this case a huge, well-marked hospital.

Survivors of the attack described horrific scenes, with patients burning in their beds and doctors and nurses covered in blood from multiple grievous wounds.

Afghan officials shamelessly defended the attack on the hospital. “When insurgents try to use civilians and public places to hide, it makes it very, very difficult…” Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament from northern Badakhshan Province, told the Washington Post. “You have two choices: either continue operations to clean up, and that might involve attacks in public places, or you just let the Taliban control. In this case, the public understands we went with the first choice, along with our international allies.”

Similarly, the acting governor of Kunduz, Hamdullah Danishi, told the Post, “The hospital campus was 100 percent used by the Taliban. The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there. We tolerated their firing for some time” before responding.

These statements constitute an “admission of a war crime,” MSF General Director Christopher Stokes said Sunday. They “imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present,” he said.

MSF has categorically denied that any armed Taliban were present in the hospital and reported that it had repeatedly advised the US military as to the location of the hospital, which has operated in Kunduz for years.

The most plausible explanation is that the US military and its Afghan forces decided to attack the hospital because of its well-known practice of treating all in need of care, including wounded Taliban fighters. Such an atrocity is meant to send a message: anyone who aids an enemy of the US military forces occupying Afghanistan will die.

The attack is further evidence to be used in future war crimes trials. During its nearly seven years in office, the Obama administration has doubled down on the atrocities carried out by its predecessor.

Tomorrow marks the 14th anniversary of the October 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon dubbed America’s conquest of the impoverished country straddling the strategic regions of Central and South Asia “Operation Enduring Freedom.” It would have been more accurate to call it “Operation Enduring Slaughter.” According to the extremely conservative estimate made by the United Nations, over 19,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2009 alone.

Conditions have only continued to worsen. Civilian casualties have hit a record high, increasing by a staggering 60 percent during the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2014. The UN acknowledged that the rise was “mostly due to increased civilian casualties caused by pro-Government [i.e., US-backed] forces during ground engagements.”

Meanwhile unemployment has peaked at 40 percent, while the poverty rate is roughly the same. Social inequality has risen dramatically, as Afghanistan’s US-backed kleptocracy pockets the lion’s share of foreign aid money. These increasingly intolerable conditions have forced many to flee, with Afghans making up 13 percent of the refugees attempting to reach Europe, second only in number to those escaping Syria.

Sold to the American people as revenge for the 9/11 attacks, the war grinds on 14 years later with the US military continuing the slaughter of innocent Afghans for the purpose of keeping a corrupt and impotent puppet regime in power.

Within two days of Washington launching the war, the WSWS rejected the official pretext, insisting that: “… while the events of September 11 have served as the catalyst for the assault on Afghanistan, the cause is far deeper…

“The US government initiated the war in pursuit of far-reaching international interests of the American ruling elite. What is the main purpose of the war? The collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago created a political vacuum in Central Asia, which is home to the second largest deposit of proven reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the world.”

The statement continued, “By attacking Afghanistan, setting up a client regime and moving vast military forces into the region, the US aims to establish a new political framework within which it will exert hegemonic control.”

14 years later, with Washington in a de facto alliance with Al Qaeda in Syria, and amid a steady ratcheting up of tensions with Russia and China, this assessment has stood the test of time.

The war in Afghanistan has turned into a debacle, one of US imperialism’s own making. Washington’s earlier intervention in Afghanistan, directed at toppling the Soviet-backed government in Kabul beginning in 1979, saw billions of dollars in arms and aid funneled to Islamist guerrillas that included those who formed both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This effort ravaged Afghanistan, killing over one million and turning five million more into refugees.

The response to the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban will inevitably be another escalation of the US intervention and even more war crimes like that against the MSF hospital.

While those immediately responsible for the killing of medical personnel and patients must be held accountable for last weekend’s crime, the far greater criminals are those in the Bush and Obama administrations who launched and continued this predatory war based upon lies.

These political criminals can be brought to justice only through the mobilization of the working class against imperialist war and the capitalist system that is its source.

Bill Van Auken

Is the dotcom bubble about to burst (again)?


In Silicon Valley, millions of dollars change hands every day as investors hunt the next big thing – the ‘unicorn’, or billion-dollar tech firm. There are now almost 150, but can they all succeed?

Have you heard the story about the tip from the shoeshine boy, a Brit called James Pallot asks me on my last day at TechCrunch Disrupt. I have, I say, though later I Google it to get the facts straight.

It’s attributed to Joseph Kennedy, paterfamilias of the Kennedy clan who, in 1929, was getting his shoes shined by a young boy who was also making confident predictions about which stocks would rise. For Kennedy, it was a moment of revelation. He sold his portfolio. Not long afterwards, Wall Street crashed and the world was plunged into the greatest depression ever seen. So a tip from the shoeshine boy is a sign that the bubble is about to burst. That the wave of confidence will finally crash upon the shore. That the jig is up.

Pallot used to be the digital editorial director of Condé Nast in New York and now he has a startup. But then, we’re at the world’s biggest startup conference in San Francisco, a few miles down the road from Silicon Valley where the world’s greatest concentration of technology startups first started up.

His company is in the booming field of VR, or virtual reality, which is to 2015 roughly what Rubik’s Cubes were to 1982, though with rather bigger potential consequences. Pallot claims it’s the logical next step for journalistic content. In 20 years’ time, you won’t be reading this on the page, I’ll probably be leading you by the hand through a 3D rendering of a virtual TechCrunch conference floor. Or, more likely, you’ll be leading yourself and I’ll be claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

But anyway. In the meantime, Pallot asks me if I’ve heard of the tip from the shoeshine boy. I have, I say, and tell him it’s been on my mind. Because for three days, I’ve been hearing about “unicorns” – a Silicon Valley term for companies that have been valued at more than $1bn. When this usage was first coined, less than two years ago, there were 39 of them. Today, there are 147. Or as Matthew Wong, a senior analyst at CB Insights, tells me: “The funding is at levels that we haven’t seen since 2000.”

As those with longer memories will recall, that was the year the dotcom bubble burst. It needs explaining because there are an awful lot of people at TechCrunch whose memories simply don’t go back that far: the typical startup founder is male and in his 20s. Back in 2000, Google was less than 18 months old and Facebook wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye – he was still at high school. (At 31, he’s now practically Silicon Valley’s elder statesman.)

Everything has changed. And is changing at an ever-faster pace. Eight years ago, TechCrunch launched its Disrupt conference with 45 startups. This year, there are 5,000 of them. Over three days I talk to founders of companies from San Francisco and Texas and Uruguay and Beirut and Stockholm and Tel Aviv and Warsaw. There are apps for crowdfunded mortgages and cheaper divorces and better sex. There’s “Expedia for golf” and “Facebook for cars” and “Nest for water” and “Tinder for dogs”. There’s a virtual reality teddy bear, a device that claims it will be able to read your emotions via a contact lens in your eye and another that will automate your home cannabis farm (marijuana is a big deal in Silicon Valley right now). I miss the panel on nuclear fusion startups but they’re around.

They’ve all paid upwards of $3,000 (£1,900) to be here and they’re all trying to attract the attention of Silicon Valley’s biggest beasts. The VCs – venture capitalists to you and me. The money guys.

“How do you spot them?” I ask Peter Becronis, the founder of a real estate startup called Owner’s Vault. “Oh, it’s easy,” he says. “They’re all men, older guys who are in jeans and brown boots and perhaps a blue jacket. Oh, and a good watch. They’re the ones who shuffle past you trying not to catch your eye.”

It’s a long shot for the likes of Becronis to be here, but not a total pipe dream. Because hundreds of startups are being funded each month. Vast sums of money are changing hands. Crunchbase, TechCrunch’s sister site, lists the deals that are being done on a daily basis. On the day I write this, I check it and find 24 companies that have just received funding, including Kreditech, which got $92m (it uses “big data and complex machine-learning algorithms to credit score everyone worldwide”) and Medium, which received $57m (it’s a platform that has found another new business model that seems to involve not paying journalists).

Every month the amount of money being invested in early-stage startups goes up. And every month, more and more people are starting to use the B-word. Bubble. The last time this amount of money was swilling around, we know how it ended. “Back then, a lot of websites launched but that’s all they were, websites,” Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s editor-at-large, tells me. “Now in 2015, all those technologies that were predicted – AI, drones, VR – have all turned up. The innovation is real. And it just continues to get bigger and bigger. There are more VC firms here than you can poke a stick at.

“Is it a bubble?” he asks and then answers the question himself, vividly, if not entirely clearly. “It depends. How many unicorns can you fit through the eye of a needle? Anyway, unicorns are over. It’s all about decacorns now. Companies that are worth tens of billions of dollars.”

In 2000 the bubble was in publicly listed companies – organisations like the then upstart AOL, which bought Time Warner for $164bn, the largest merger in America business history, and then most spectacular blow-up. Or in Britain,, whose share price peaked at 511p before crashing to 80p a month later. Both companies survived, unlike many, but it was a long struggle back up for both of them. (In a neat bit of circularity, AOL bought TechCrunchalong the way.) In 2015, it’s private money flowing into companies that may or may not go public one day.

The shoeshine boy wouldn’t be tipping stocks in 2015, but what would he be doing? I ask Ned Desmond, the chief operating officer of TechCrunch. He thinks for a moment. “He would probably be an Uber driver who has his own angel investment line,” he says.

But James Pallot tops that. He’s flown in from JFK and had his shoes shined in the airport. “And the guy had a startup. I literally got a tip from the shoeshine boy! He was trying to find an investor for his national shoeshine franchise.” But then, in many ways, there has never been a better time to be a startup. Niko Bonatsos, a VC with General Catalyst Partners, tells me that the sheer number of companies at TechCrunch “speaks volumes about how the barriers to entry have been removed. It’s really easy to start a company. And lots of companies from other parts of the world see this as a lottery ticket. And for some of them, it will be. It’s the survival of the fittest. And the luckiest.”

Pallot and his co-founder are currently “bootstrapping” their company, Emblematic Group, which is creating virtual reality news content. “Bootstrapping” is Silicon Valley jargon. It means getting by with what you’ve got. It’s how people have set up companies since the dawn of capitalism. You start a business with a bit of money you already have and you try to attract customers and build it from there.

“Bootstrapping” is how you figure out if there’s a market and, if so, how you reach it. It’s also, like, totally 20th century. The reason 5,000 companies pay $3,000-plus to come to TechCrunch is because Silicon Valley has another model. People – strangers – will give you vast sums of cash to build your company into a global brand overnight. If you can deliver the killer pitch. The pitch that convinces the valley’s top VCs that you are the next Facebook, the next Uber, the next Airbnb.

“It doesn’t work like this in the rest of the world,” Ned Desmond tells me. “In Indonesia or Turkey or wherever, normal business culture demands collateral and security. Venture investing has none of that. You are investing in potential.” You’re gambling, basically. Silicon Valley, in 2015, is a giant casino. And the bets are so large because the potential payoffs are so huge. The next Google has to start somewhere.

So is it a bubble? “Everything is cyclical,” says Desmond. Does he remember the last crash? “I was there! I was in it. It was terrible. We had just launched a magazine, Business 2.0. Even the name sounds so cringeworthy now. We launched in May 2000 with a record number of advertisements. We had 150 ad pages. A year on, we had 15.”

This is not exactly an answer, so I try again. Is it a bubble? “We published a graph showing the unicorns. It’s a hockey stick. It’s near vertical growth.”



New App Lets You Rate and Review Actual Human Beings

Imagine all your worst ideas poured into an app and you’ve basically got it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Chaikom

If there is one thing that absolutely no one has been asking for, it is a social media app that lets you rate people as if they were products or restaurants. But a Calgary-based company isn’t letting that major issue get in the way. Instead, it’s developed an app called Peeple, which allows anyone age 21 or over who has your phone number to rate you on a scale from 1 to 5, and to give you a review.

Sounds like just what the Internet needs, right? Another way for people to voice their unfiltered and unsolicited opinions on something — or someone, in this case — just because!

Here’s how this awful, no-good idea, which cofounders Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray say will launch in November, will work: Users will log into Peeple via Facebook and enter their phone numbers to demonstrate they aren’t bots and to verify their identity. Then, to rate a person, they’ll have to pick a category that defines the nature of their shared relationship: personal, professional or romantic. From there, they can issue a rating and write a review, the way you might on Yelp or Amazon, only about a flesh-and-blood human being.

But wait, there’s more! Even if you don’t sign up for the app, someone else can create a profile for you. According to the Peeple site, “[i]f the person you are searching for is not in the app you can add their name, profile picture, and start their profile by rating them.” All you need is said person’s cell phone number. And once you have a profile in the Peeple app — even one you yourself didn’t create — it’s there for good.

Peeple co-founder Nicole McCullough, speaking to the Calgary Herald, said, “The aim of our platform is to showcase a person’s true character. I came up with this idea over a year and a half ago from wanting to find a good babysitter in my neighborhood. We tend to trust referrals and so we wanted to create a platform that allowed people to refer each other in several different ways.”

“People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” co-founder Julia Cordray told the Washington Post. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”

The short answer is, because people are not cars or objects. Summing a person up on a scale of 1-5 seems irresponsible and overly simplistic, not to mention completely unnecessary. (You want to know what someone’s like? It sounds crazy, but you might try talking to that person.) If, as McCullough suggests, the company was simply interested in creating a means of vetting service providers — e.g., baby sitters — why not build a site like Healthgrades or Rate My Professor, which focus on rating a person in a capacity that it makes sense for a reviewer to comment on, or a potential customer to know? Why would anyone think that essentially inviting any acquaintance — from old lovers to former co-workers you mostly avoided — to weigh in with thoughts on a person is a good idea? Knowing what we know about the Internet, and how people behave online, who wouldn’t see this as a devolutionary step in social media? It’s all just so obviously made to go terribly awry.

What’s more, the Washington Post also notes that, even under the best of circumstances, rating sites and app users exhibit inevitable human biases:

[A]ll rating apps, from Yelp to Rate My Professor, have a demonstrated problem with self-selection. (The only people who leave reviews are the ones who love or hate the subject.) In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My Professor have shown, ratings typically reflect the biases of the reviewer more than they do the actual skills of the teacher: On RMP, professors whom students consider attractive are way more likely to be given high ratings, and men and women are evaluated on totally different traits.

McCullough and Cordray point to Peeple’s terms and conditions, which rule out things like bullying, abuse, hateful content, sexism and more, but I think we’ve all seen how effective that is in practice on any number of sites. Still, there may be one way to avoid the inevitable downsides of this whole thing. Positive ratings will post on a profile the instant they’re submitted, but negative ratings will be withheld for 48 hours while the parties involved attempt to settle the issue. If you aren’t registered for the site, you can’t engage in that process, and your page will therefore only display positive comments. (You can also respond to negative comments, Yelp-style, but I say not registering seems like the best route for everyone.)

Until their launch, McCullough and Cordray are speaking with angel investors and venture capitalists to raise funds. The Post estimates the company is currently valued at $7.6 million.

“Peeple will revolutionize the way an individual is seen in this world through their relationships,” Cordray said to the Calgary Herald. “When social graces are becoming lost to the past, we want to revive this forgotten manner and bring attention to how a person appears to others.”

It’s an ironic statement, considering the app seems to eschew the very social graces Cordray suggests it was created to promote.

The US-Russian clash in Syria


1 October 2015

The initiation of air strikes by Russian warplanes against Islamist militia targets inside Syria, followed by Washington’s bellicose denunciations, threatens not only to escalate the slaughter in Syria, but create the conditions for a far more dangerous military confrontation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Both the Obama administration and the Putin government claim that their militaries have been sent into Syria to wage war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as part of a broader fight against terrorism. Both are lying.

Washington, which spawned ISIS, has intervened in Syria to further the aims of US imperialism and its key regional allies–Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Persian Gulf oil monarchies and Israel. They seek to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace him with a puppet government subordinated to their interests.

Moscow’s main aim in Syria is not to eliminate terrorism, but to keep the Assad regime in power—with or without Assad as its president—and thereby maintain its sole ally and foothold in the Middle East. Syria is the site of Russia’s one naval port outside the former Soviet Union.

Two major foreign military forces, each claiming to be combating the same enemy, are, in fact, fighting for diametrically opposed aims. Scores of warplanes of hostile powers are carrying out military operations in a country barely larger than the US state of Missouri. The potential for armed clashes between them is undeniable.

The reasons for the Putin government’s intervention in Syria are clear. It fears that if Washington succeeds in its campaign to overthrow Assad, that will serve only to escalate the US drive to encircle, weaken and ultimately dismember Russia itself. Thousands of Islamist fighters who have poured into Syria from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus will be sent home to lead separatist uprisings against Moscow, undoubtedly with backing from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. Moscow’s brutal suppression of the Chechen population in the course of two wars has created fertile soil for such an operation.

The ouster of the Assad regime, moreover, would further Washington’s drive to assert US hegemony over the entire oil-rich Middle East, while clearing the way for a new gas pipeline route that would provide Qatar with more direct access to the Western European market, undermining the interests of the Russian energy conglomerates.

While there is a defensive character to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, it is nonetheless thoroughly reactionary. It is directed not at defending the people of Syria, or, for that matter, protecting working people in Russia itself. Rather, it is aimed at upholding the interests of the Russian ruling elite, which Putin’s regime represents.

This class of criminal oligarchs, who enriched themselves through the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the theft of state property, and the impoverishment of the Soviet working class, is organically incapable of carrying out any progressive action on the world stage. A comprador regime, it is unable to maintain any genuine independence from imperialism.

The reactionary character of Moscow’s intervention was neatly summed up Wednesday by the Russian Orthodox Church, which proclaimed it a “holy battle.”

That being said, Washington’s denunciations of Russia’s actions are beyond hypocritical. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter denounced Russia on Wednesday, charging that its air strikes amounted to “pouring gasoline on a fire.”

The fire was set by Washington, the Saudi monarchy and the other reactionary oil sheikdoms that constitute the principal allies of US imperialism in the region. The Islamist militias the US claims to be fighting are their own creations, armed, funded and supported to serve as proxy ground troops in the war for regime-change in Syria, just as they did in Libya.

Carter and other US officials have indicted Russia for not restricting its air strikes to ISIS targets, but instead hitting other militias fighting against the Assad regime. “They attacked places where (ISIS) is not present,” said Carter. His odd diction was aimed at covering up US concern for who was present—the al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The so-called “vetted” rebels the US military has trained, armed and sent back into Syria have repeatedly turned over their weapons and joined al-Nusra soon after their arrival. So much for the “war on terrorism.”

The US is engaged in a policy of endless war on a global scale that has destroyed one country after another, a fact that was driven home this week with the Taliban’s seizure of the Afghan city of Kunduz and the announcement that some 10,000 US troops will remain there, 14 years after the US first invaded.

The prospect of this policy of global militarism spilling over into a direct confrontation with Russia is real and present. Last April, the Pentagon announced that it had altered the US rules of engagement in Syria to allow military action against any force that attacked US-backed “rebels.” Washington’s allies, meanwhile, have issued similar threats, with the Saudi regime threatening direct military intervention, and France, which began its own bombing campaign this week, declaring that its air strikes would be aimed not just at ISIS, but also at the Syrian regime, alongside which the Russians are fighting.

Meanwhile, the US and NATO have dramatically escalated their military presence and battle readiness across Eastern Europe in the wake of last year’s Western-backed coup in Ukraine. Russia has also beefed up its forces near the country’s western borders.

A quarter century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the threat of a military confrontation igniting a nuclear war is greater than it has ever been in history.

The international working class must oppose the slaughter in Syria and the threat of world war by its own means. It cannot give the slightest support to the intervention of Russia or any other capitalist power. It is necessary, in the words of Trotsky, to “follow not the war map, but the map of the class struggle.”

Workers must fight for the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from Iraq, Syria and the entire Middle East.

Bill Van Auken