Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

Why didn’t we listen? The fourth season of The Rockford Files, arguably the greatest television show of all time, features a “futuristic” storyline about a terrible threat. What if a private corporation used computers to gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans? Could we trust them with that data?

I know, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening — a private company, collecting private and personal data on ordinary Americans and other people around the world. It sounds far-fetched, right? But Jim Rockford, the toughest and most incorruptible P.I. ever to live in a trailer with his dad, teams up with a younger detective to investigate the suspicious death of an old friend, a private detective named Tooley, in the episode “The House on Willis Avenue.” (This episode is written by the show’s co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who also gave us The Greatest American Hero.)

And what Rockford finds in his investigation is baffling — a mysterious set of real estate developments, with lots of suspiciously huge air-conditioning units attached. What’s going on? Turns out that a corporate scumbag, amusingly played by Jackie Cooper, is creating a secret computer system to spy on ordinary Americans and sell the info — or ruin your reputation — for profit. It should be illegal for corporations to spy on ordinary Americans, Rockford protests. You can see the highlights above.

It all leads up to this solemn cue card at the very end of the episode:

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

The Rockford Files really wants you to know that corporations should not use computers to collect your personal information. Those final words, “Our liberty may well be the price we pay,” seem especially prophetic nowadays.

The other amazing part of the episode is all the parts where Rockford and his temporary sidekick pretend to be computer experts, and spout ridiculously made-up computer jargon, to try and fool people in the facilities they’re sneaking into. Here are the two best examples of that:



Snowden: iPhones Have Secret Spyware That Lets Govt’s Monitor Unsuspecting Users


The NSA whistleblower’s lawyer says the secret software can be remotely activated to watch the user.

The iPhone has secret spyware that lets governments watch users without their knowledge, according to Edward Snowden.

The NSA whistleblower doesn’t use a phone because of the secret software, which Snowden’s lawyer says can be remotely activated to watch the user.

“Edward never uses an iPhone, he’s got a simple phone,” Anatoly Kucherena told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “The iPhone has special software that can activate itself without the owner having to press a button and gather information about him, that’s why on security grounds he refused to have this phone.”

Apple has been active in making the iPhone harder for security services to spy on, and the company said that iOS 8 made it impossible for law enforcement to extract users’ personal data, even if they have a warrant. The company has also been active in campaigning for privacy reform after the Snowden revelations,joining with Facebook and Google to call for changes to the law.

But recently published files from the NSA showed that British agency GCHQ used the phones UDIDs — the unique identifier that each iPhone has — to track users. While there doesn’t seem to be any mention of such spying software in any of the revelations so far, a range of documents are thought to be still unpublished.

Snowden opts not to use the phone for professional reasons, but Kucherena said that whether or not to use one was a personal choice, Sputnik News reported.



Drones and the New Ethics of War

Protesters march against President Obama’s drone wars on the day of his second inauguration on January 21, 2013. (Photo: Debra Sweet/flickr/cc)

This Christmas small drones were among the most popular gift under the tree in the U.S. with manufacturers stating that they sold 200,000 new unmanned aerial vehicles during the holiday season. While the rapid infiltration of drones into the gaming domain clearly reflects that drones are becoming a common weapon among armed forces, their appearance in Walmart, Toys “R” Us and Amazon serves, in turn, to normalize their deployment in the military.

Drones, as Grégoire Chamayou argues in his new book, A Theory of the Drone, have a uniquely seductive power, one that attracts militaries, politicians and citizens alike. A research scholar in philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Chamayou is one of the most profound contemporary thinkers working on the deployment of violence and its ethical ramifications. And while his new book offers a concise history of drones, it focuses on how drones are changing warfare and their potential to alter the political arena of the countries that utilize them.

If Guantanamo was the icon of President George W. Bush’s anti-terror policy, drones have become the emblem of the Obama presidency.

Chamayou traces one of the central ideas informing the production and deployment of drones back to John W. Clark, an American engineer who carried out a study on “remote control in hostile environments” in 1964. In Clark’s study, space is divided into two kinds of zones—hostile and safe—while robots operated by remote control are able to relieve human beings of all perilous occupations within hostile zones. The sacrifice of miners, firefighters, or those working on skyscrapers will no longer be necessary, since the collapse of a tunnel in the mines, for example, would merely lead to the loss of several robots operated by remote control.

The same logic informed the creation of drones. They were initially utilized as part of the military’s defense system in hostile territories. After the Egyptian military shot down about 30 Israel fighter jets in the first hours of the 1973 war, Israeli air-force commanders decided to change their tactics and send a wave of drones. As soon as the Egyptians fired their initial salvo of anti-aircraft missiles at the drones, the Israeli airplanes were able to attack as the Egyptians were reloading.

Over the years, drones have also become an important component of the intelligence revolution. Instead of sending spies or reconnaissance airplanes across enemy lines, drones can continuously fly above hostile terrain gathering information. As Chamayou explains, drones do not merely provide a constant image of the enemy, but manage to fuse together different forms of data. They carry technology that can interpret electronic communications from radios, cell phones and other devices and can link a telephone call with a particular video or provide the GPS coordinates of the person using the phone. Their target is, in other words, constantly visible.

Using drones to avert missiles or for reconnaissance was, of course, considered extremely important, yet military officials aspired to transform drones into lethal weapons as well. On February 16, 2001, after many years of U.S. investment in R&D, a Predator drone first successfully fired a missile and hit its target. As Chamayou puts it, the notion of turning the Predator into a predator had finally been realized. Within a year, the Predator was preying on live targets in Afghanistan.

A Humanitarian Weapon

Over the past decade, the United States has manufactured more than 6000 drones of various kinds. 160 of these are Predators, which are used not only in Afghanistan but also in countries officially at peace with the US, such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. In Pakistan, CIA drones carry out on average of one strike every four days. Although exact figures of fatalities are difficult to establish, the estimated number of deaths between 2004 and 2012 vary from 2562 to 3325.

Chamayou underscores how drones are changing our conception of war in three major ways. First, the idea of a frontier or battlefield is rendered meaningless as is the idea that there are particular places—like homesteads—where the deployment of violence is considered criminal. In other words, if once the legality of killing was dependent on where the killing was carried out, today US lawyers argue that the traditional connection between geographical spaces—such as the battlefield, home, hospital, mosque—and forms of violence are out of date. Accordingly, every place becomes a potential site of drone violence.

Second, the development of “precise missiles,” the kind with which most drones are currently armed led to the popular conception that drones are precise weapons. Precision, though, is a slippery concept. For one, chopping off a person’s head with a machete is much more precise than any missile, but there is no political or military support for precision of this kind in the West. Indeed, “precision” turns out to be an extremely copious category. The U.S., for example, counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence proving them innocent posthumously. The real ruse, then, has to do with the relation between precision and geography. As precise weapons, drones also render geographical contours irrelevant since the ostensible precision of these weapons justifies the killing of suspected terrorists in their homes. A legal strike zone is then equated with anywhere the drone strikes. And when “legal killing” can occur anywhere, then one can execute suspects anywhere—even in zones traditionally conceived as off-limits.

Finally, drones change our conception of war because it becomes, in Chamayou’s words, a priori impossible to die as one kills. One air-force officer formulated this basic benefit in the following manner: “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to protect power without projecting vulnerability.” Consequently, drones are declared to be a humanitarian weapon in two senses: they are precise vis-à-vis the enemy, and ensure no human cost to the perpetrator.

From Conquest to Pursuit

If Guantanamo was the icon of President George W. Bush’s anti-terror policy, drones have become the emblem of the Obama presidency. Indeed, Chamayou maintains that President Barak Obama has adopted a totally different anti-terror doctrine from his predecessor: kill rather than capture, replace torture with targeted assassinations.

Citing a New York Times report, Chamayou describes the way in which deadly decisions are reached: “It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals… Every week or so, more than 100 members of the sprawling national security apparatus gather by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and to recommend to the president who should be the next to die.” In D.C, this is called “Terror Tuesday.” Once established, the list is subsequently sent to the White House where the president gives his oral approval for each name. “With the kill list validated, the drones do the rest.”

Obama’s doctrine entails a change in the paradigm of warfare. In contrast to military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, who claimed that the fundamental structure of war is a duel of two fighters facing each other, we now have, in Chamayou’s parlance, a hunter closing in on its a prey. Chamayou, who also wrote Manhunts: A Philosophical History, which examines the history of hunting humans from ancient Sparta to the modern practices of chasing undocumented migrants, recounts how according to English common law one could hunt badgers and foxes in another man’s land, “because destroying such creatures is said to be profitable to the Public.” This is precisely the kind of law that the US would like to claim for drones, he asserts.

The strategy of militarized manhunting is essentially preemptive. It is not a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather preventing the possibility of emerging threats by the early elimination of potential adversaries. According to this new logic, war is no longer based on conquest—Obama is not interested in colonizing swaths of land in northern Pakistan—but on the right of pursuit. The right to pursue the prey wherever it may be found, in turn, transforms the way we understand the basic principles of international relations since it undermines the notion of territorial integrity as well as the idea of nonintervention and the broadly accepted definition of sovereignty as the supreme authority over a given territory.

Wars without Risks

The transformation of Clausewitz’s warfare paradigm manifests itself in other ways as well. Drone wars are wars without losses or defeats, but they are also wars without victory. The combination of the two lays the ground for perpetual violence, the utopian fantasy of those profiting from the production of drones and similar weapons.

The drone wars, however, are introducing a risk-free ethics of killing. What is taking place is a switch from an ethics of “self-sacrifice and courage to one of self-preservation and more or less assumed cowardice.”

Just as importantly, drones change the ethics of war. According to the new military morality, to kill while exposing one’s life to danger is bad; to take lives without ever endangering one’s own is good. Bradley Jay Strawser, a professor of philosophy at the US naval Postgraduate school in California, is a prominent spokesperson of the “principle of unnecessary risk.” It is, in his view, wrong to command someone to take an unnecessary risk, and consequently it becomes a moral imperative to deploy drones.

Exposing the lives of one’s troops was never considered good, but historically it was believed to be necessary. Therefore dying for one’s country was deemed to be the greatest sacrifice and those who did die were recognized as heroes. The drone wars, however, are introducing a risk-free ethics of killing. What is taking place is a switch from an ethics of “self-sacrifice and courage to one of self-preservation and more or less assumed cowardice.”

Chamayou refers to this as “necro-ethics.” Paradoxically, necro-ethics is, on the one hand, vitalist in the sense that the drone supposedly does not kill innocent bystanders while securing the life of the perpetrator. This has far-reaching implications, since the more ethical the weapon seems, the more acceptable it is and the more readily it will likely be used. On the other hand, the drone advances the doctrine of killing well, and in this sense stands in opposition to the classical ethics of living well or even dying well.

Transforming Politics in the Drone States

Moreover, drones change politics within the drone states. Because drones transform warfare into a ghostly teleguided act orchestrated from a base in Nevada or Missouri, whereby soldiers no longer risk their lives, the critical attitude of citizenry towards war is also profoundly transformed, altering, as it were, the political arena within drone states.

Drones, Chamayou says, are a technological solution for the inability of politicians to mobilize support for war. In the future, politicians might not need to rally citizens because once armies begin deploying only drones and robots there will be no need for the public to even know that a war is being waged. So while, on the one hand, drones help produce the social legitimacy towards warfare through the reduction of risk, on the other hand, they render social legitimacy irrelevant to the political decision making process relating to war. This drastically reduces the threshold for resorting to violence, so much so that violence appears increasingly as a default option for foreign policy. Indeed, the transformation of wars into a risk free enterprise will render them even more ubiquitous than they are today. This too will be one of Obama’s legacies.

Neve Gordon is an Israeli activist and the author of Israel’s Occupation.

Russia and US end collaboration on nuclear disarmament


By Clara Weiss
23 January 2015

Russia and the United States ended their collaboration in the disposal of nuclear waste in mid-December, according to a report in the Boston Globe on Monday. After the US, Russia is the second largest nuclear power in the world. Together Washington and Moscow own 90 percent of global nuclear weapons.

Within the framework of nuclear disarmament treaties, which came into force in the early 1990s, the US and Russia had agreed that American specialists would assist with the securing and destruction of nuclear weapons and materials so that they were not sold or passed on to terrorists.

According to the Globe report, the US has spent $2 billion to date on the so-called cooperative threat reduction programme, and had planned a further $100 million for this year. “Since the cooperative agreement began, US experts have helped destroy hundreds of weapons and nuclear-powered submarines, pay workers’ salaries, install security measures at myriad facilities containing weapons material across Russia and the former Soviet Union, and conduct training programmes for their personnel,” the newspaper wrote.

At a three-day meeting in Moscow in mid-December, the Russians declared that they rejected all further cooperation with the US in the securing and destruction of nuclear weapons. Prior to the Globe report, there had been no official statement about this ending of cooperation.

The newspaper reported that several dozen leading figures had participated on both sides, including officials from the US Energy Department, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as several Russian military experts and government representatives.

From 1 January, the expansion of security equipment was halted at some of Russia’s seven closed nuclear sites, where large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium are located. The joint securing of 18 civilian nuclear depots, as well as two sites that transform highly enriched uranium into a harmless substance, has been stopped. The construction of hi-tech surveillance systems at 13 nuclear depots and the installation of radiation detectors at Russian ports, airports and border crossings are also at risk.

The ending of cooperation did not come as a surprise. In November, the chairman of the Russian federal agency for nuclear energy, Sergei Kiriyenko, told US government representatives that Russia was not planning any new joint contracts in 2015 for nuclear disarmament.

US government officials expressed their disappointment to the Boston Globeabout the ending of cooperation. In reality, the Russian move was predictable and effectively provoked by last year’s aggressive policies on the part of the US and European Union (EU).

The ending of cooperation is above all the result of the provocative actions of US and German imperialism in Ukraine. Washington and Berlin supported a putsch last February that brought a regime to power that not only intends to join NATO, but also has raised the prospect of Ukraine’s nuclear rearmament.

Until the Budapest Agreement of 1994, the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile was in Ukraine. In the Budapest memorandum, the Ukraine government promised to relinquish all nuclear weapons. In exchange, the US, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany guaranteed the borders of Ukraine at the time.

The announcement of the ending of cooperation in nuclear disarmament reflects extreme military tensions. In the face of a civil war in Ukraine and NATO’s rearming against Russia, the Kremlin is signalling that it no longer trusts American specialists with the checking and destruction of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear disarmament New START treaty, which came into force at the beginning of 2011, will still apply. According to the Stockholm-based peace research institute SIPRI, however, the US and Russia disarmed much more slowly between 2013 and 2014 than they had done between 2012 and 2013.

According to the report, the US had reduced its total number of warheads by 400 to 7,300. Of these, 1,900 are ready to be deployed. In Russia, the total fell by 500 to 8,000, of which 1,600 are ready for deployment. According to New START, each country is expected to reduce its strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550. SIPRI expert Phillip Schell told German news channel NTV, “It is relatively clear that this has nothing to do with a genuine process of disarmament.”

Shortly before the final ratification of the treaty in 2011, cables released by WikiLeaks exposed plans for war by NATO against Russia.

Both Russia and the US are once again rearming their nuclear arsenals, although the US invests by far the largest sums of money in its nuclear weapons programme. As the New York Times reported in November 2014, the Obama administration plans to begin the investment of what will eventually amount to $1.1 trillion in nuclear weapons over the coming three decades. $350 billion is to be used up in the coming 10 years alone.

In addition, the US published a military blueprint at the end of 2014, outlining US preparations for military interventions around the globe, as well as for a third world war.

In contrast to the United States, Russia is not an imperialist country. It functions chiefly as a supplier of energy to the world market and as a sales market for global concerns. The total value of all Russian shares was put at $531 billion in November, above all due to western sanctions. This is less than one US company alone, Apple, with a share value of $620 billion.

But precisely because of Russia’s economic and political weakness, the Kremlin sees nuclear weapons as the only possibility of strengthening its position in negotiations with the imperialist powers and preparing for a potential war with NATO member states.

In this context, the cancelling of the agreement on disarming Russian nuclear weapons is a further sign of the growing danger of a war between the two nuclear powers, the US and Russia.




Spotify Says It Now Has 15 Million

Subscribers; 60 Million Overall


     Spotify last week announced it now has 15 million paid subscribers worldwide, which The New York Times says is a “clear indication of rapid growth for the company and an implicit rebuttal in a roiling industry debate over whether people are willing to pay for music online.” The digital music service, available in 58 countries, is now used by 60 million people, meaning that about 25% of its listeners pay $10 a month to listen to the ad-free platform.

While this growth may be good for Spotify, investors, and listeners, many artists insist it’s not good for those who create and perform the music that’s being played. Most recently, Taylor Swift removed virtually her entire catalog from Spotify, apparently because the company would not restrict it to its paying subscribers. Major labels also have  been pressuring free outlets (YouTube and SoundCloud) to generate more revenue. The Times suggests that Swift’s dispute, widely covered in the news media and on social media, gave Spotify a huge publicity push, and may have helped attract new customers. When the service last disclosed user numbers two months ago, it reported 12.5 million paying subscribers.

Spotify’s continued growth also points to the strength of the company’s “freemium” model, in which free music is used to lure customers to pay for more access. In late 2013, the company began letting people listen to more free music on mobile devices, where a majority of Spotify’s listening now takes place. “Our free service drives our paid service,” Spotify co-founder and chief executive Daniel Ek wrote in a blog post last fall. 

Judge Again Rules Against Sirius XM

In Turtles Copyright Lawsuit


     No surprise here: A federal judge in New York has rejected Sirius XM’s request to reconsider her November 14 decision in favor of members of the 1960s band The Turtles over payment of royalties for songs made before 1972. Sirius had argued that Flo & Eddie Inc, controlled by founding band members Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, did not own the copyrights for the recordings, or had given the satellite radio service “implied” license to play them. “We’re obviously pleased that the judge sees the law the same way we do,” attorney Harvey Geller, who represents Flo and Eddie, said in an interview with Reuters.

There was one bright spot for Sirius XM, however: In her decision, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon ruled that Flo & Eddie could recover damages for copyright infringement only for the three years before it sued on Aug. 16, 2013, not six years as she had previously suggested.

The lawsuit is one of a several challenging both Sirius XM and Pandora over the playing of songs recorded before Feb. 15, 1972. While such songs are not covered by federal copyright law, some recording artists and labels have won rulings entitling them to copyright protection under individual state laws. 

Coleman Study Set To Determine

When A Hit Becomes A Hit


     “While there are definitely a few differences between what consumers play using on-demand digital media platforms versus what they are hearing on radio, the differences aren’t as dramatic as some are reporting.” That’s the word from Coleman Insights, which is in the midst of a massive study to determine when a hit actually becomes a hit.

A report posted on Coleman’s website this week says the research firm studied 26 consecutive weeks of Billboard’s Top 10 On-Demand Songs (charts that rank the biggest songs of such on-demand streaming services as Spotify) to determine the age of the songs listeners play most when they’re in control of their music. Coleman then pegged each song’s “vintage” (when a song first enters public consciousness and enters the Billboard Hot 100) and then conducted the same analysis of Billboard Top 10 Radio Songs in each of the same 26 weeks.

As noted by Coleman’s Matt Bailey, “while there are slight variations between on-demand streaming and broadcast radio exposure, a comparable pattern of song development emerges for both media.” For instance:

  • Songs are typically growing in their first 8 weeks;
  • The majority of the biggest songs are between 9 and 20 weeks old; and
  • Songs are typically in decline after 20 weeks.

“Of course, there are variations in the performance of individual songs,” Bailey says. “Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ caught on faster on streaming services in the U.S. than it did on radio. Tove Lo’s ‘Habits (Stay High)’ also broke on Spotify before radio picked it up. Other songs developed faster on radio than on streaming media, such as Maroon 5’s ‘Maps.'” Interestingly, one particular song – Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” – was a huge hit on streaming but totally absent from radio, which Bailey says many Frozen-weary parents appreciate.


Forgotify Plays The 4 Million Spotify Songs

No One Has Heard Yet…But Just Once


     Spotify claims its digital music library consists of over 20 million tracks, but 20% of them – at least 4 million – have never been played. Not once. A new website known as Forgotify – created by a San Francisco art director named Lane Jordan and a few friends – aims to change that by randomly playing each of those songs, one by one. The service works by “crawling” Spotify to figure out which songs register play counts of zero. As the New York Post reports, the mix is highly eclectic, perhaps offering up a folk song followed by a classical piece, followed by a children’s song. Clearly no human curation is involved.

“We were shocked that there were four million unheard songs and we were curious about what those songs were… and if they were worth listening to,” says Jordan, a self-avowed classic rock lover.

Atlantic Monthly says Forgotify is built upon a database that Jordan and his pals created to locate the “virgin” tunes buried in Spotify’s library. Once a song has been played, it disappears from the website, “rendering it oddly reminiscent of an old, archival audio cassette which, once played, may never play again,” the magazine’s Rebecca Rosen says.

According to Jordan, many of Spotify’s undiscovered tracks are older: Newer music tends to get at least a few plays as it posts, but the backlog from decades past just sits on Spotify’s digital shelves, accumulating virtual dust. Forgotify, however, is built to mix it up. “We’ve tried to randomize the plays as much as possible so that each sequential track is from a different era and genre,” Jordan told Rosen. 

“The Audience Is Listening” To Low-

Res Music…But Does Anyone Care?


Music      “For some reason music is the only format where people accept something worse than before.” That’s the word from Andy Chen, the CEO of Norway-based “lossless” streaming provider Tidal, who last week told the website Quartz that society is at a tipping point for consumer awareness of music quality. He points to growth in premium headphone sales (now a $1-billion industry in the U.S., and growing rapidly) as evidence that people want better sound and are prepared to pay for it. “It’s the 21st century,” he says. “Technology’s job in our civilization is to make life better.”

Except for a handful of audiophiles like Chen (and musician Neil Young, whose new Pono service has only received lukewarm reviews), many consumers seem unconcerned (or unaware) that the music files on their mobile devices are massive dilutions of the masters from which they were made. As the Quartz article says, this “devolution” runs contrary to what has happened in just about every other consumer category, where technology steadily improved the quality of the experience. (Example: video, where resolutions keep improving.) But with audio streaming, the quality of sound has deteriorated. The oldest format (vinyl) had the richest sound quality, while the newest digital download and streaming formats have the worst. CDs fell somewhere in between.

“People [are] kind of discovering that MP3s suck,” Young recently said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It was great to have thousands of songs, but the fact that you could only recognize them, and couldn’t hear them, made it so you weren’t experiencing music.” 

Pandora Hires New SVP In Charge Of

Agency And Advertiser Development


     In yet another move designed to siphon national advertising from terrestrial radio, Pandora last week announced it had hired Alan Schanzer to serve as Senior Vice President of Agency and Advertiser Development. According to a company statement, Schanzer will lead the company’s collaborations with advertising agencies and brands, “providing strategic counsel to marketers to maximize the power of Pandora and leveraging feedback from agencies and brands to help Pandora build attractive and innovative products.”

“Alan’s successful track record in cultivating deep industry relationships will help us fortify our already-strong agency and brand partnerships,” Chief Revenue Officer John Trimble said in a statement. “With the explosion of mobile and Pandora’s persistent growth and leadership in internet radio, this is a perfect time for Alan to join our team.”

The announcement follows a profile of Pandora in Bunzel Media Resources Radio 2015: The Year Ahead, in which company co-founder Tim Westergren made it clear that his intent is to disrupt AM/FM’s hold on audience and advertising. “There will always be a place for terrestrial radio, but we think we can get a good share of the time people spend listening in the car,” Westergren said. “Half of all listening now takes place in the car, so it’s just a matter of finding good sources of content that are compatible with what we’re doing, and with licensing and ad rates that make sense. We have to have a way for the content to dovetail with [the] music experience. I would be really surprised if we didn’t have a substantial part of that in the next five years.” 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015

Delusion and deception in Obama’s State of Union


By Patrick Martin

21 January 2015

Two weeks ago, the WSWS published its initial review of the results of the year 2014 and the prospects for 2015. We wrote, “In examining the strategies and policies of the ruling elites of one or another country, it would be a mistake to either underestimate their ruthlessness or overestimate their intelligence.”

The State of the Union speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday night confirms this assessment in the case of the United States. The US ruling elite exhibits a determination to stop at nothing in the defense of its wealth and privileges, and pig-headed blindness and stupidity, both on a colossal scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s hour-long address, riddled with tired clichés and empty rhetoric, was the sheer unreality of the picture he presented of America, totally at odds with the actual experience of tens of millions of working people: mounting social and economic crisis, escalating attacks on democratic rights and the growing danger of world war.

“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama claimed, declaring that the US has successfully emerged from the economic slump that followed the 2008-2009 financial crash. “At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

No one not hypnotized by the ever-rising share prices on the New York Stock Exchange can accept that as a serious description of American social reality. A few figures released in the past month make this clear:

* Nine million workers are officially unemployed, another six million have dropped out of the labor force, eight million work part-time when they want full-time jobs and 12 million work for temporary employment agencies.

* Real wages have fallen steadily for American workers since 2007, dropping another five cents an hour in December 2014. The real income of the average working-class family is now back to the level of 2000—15 years of stagnation in living standards.

* The US poverty rate has risen from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013. Nearly half of all Americans and more than half of all US school children are poor or near poor.

* One fifth of American children do not get enough to eat, while the overall rate of food insecurity has jumped from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2013. One million Americans will be cut off food stamp benefits this year.

Obama evaded any discussion of such figures, substituting instead the proposal for “middle-class economics,” a term deliberately chosen to conceal the ongoing attack on jobs and living standards of American workers. It is the latest brand-name his speechwriters have concocted for the policy of both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican alike, of promoting the interests of American corporations and banks against their foreign rivals and the working class at home.

The State of the Union speech made a brief reference to the monstrous growth of economic inequality, where “only a few of us do spectacularly well,” but Obama passed over in silence the connection between the growth of the fortunes of the super-rich and his own policies. Skyrocketing wealth for the few and mounting social misery for the many are not merely coincidental. They are product of a deliberate policy, spearheaded by the Obama administration, of handing trillions of dollars to the banks while orchestrating a coordinated attack on jobs, living standards and social programs.

Equally unreal was Obama’s depiction of the state of American democracy. “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” he said, “which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

The formal prohibition of torture, however, has been combined with a lengthy rearguard action against the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, in the course of which Obama blocked any prosecution of the torturers. The White House is directly implicated in illegal activities, including the CIA’s spying on the US Senate and its efforts to withhold documents implicating the highest levels of the state in clear violations of national and international law.

As for “constraints” on the use of drones, there are none. The Obama administration has declared that the president has the unlimited right to order the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, using drone-fired missiles, without any judicial review and without regard to US and international law.

Similarly, Obama claimed that “our intelligence agencies have worked hard … to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” In fact, the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies carry out unlimited surveillance on the population of America and the world, vacuuming up all electronic communications, telephone and Internet, and creating massive databases and political dossiers.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has been used as the pretext for building up the structure of a police state in America. This process will only accelerate in the wake of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the attacks in Paris January 7. Obama declared, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office.”

This was only one of the many occasions in the State of the Union speech where the US president asserted his willingness to use force to insure the primacy of American imperialism over all its rivals. Half his speech was devoted to such threats, including against Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over Ukraine, and against Iran, where Obama, for the second time in five days, threatened to go to war to destroy the country’s nuclear technology program.

Perhaps the bluntest assertion of American supremacy came when Obama discussed negotiations over trade practices within the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan, the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies). “We should write those rules,” Obama declared, as though no other country mattered.

While Obama claimed that he had brought the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close, reducing the total troop deployment in the two countries from 180,000 to 15,000, this represents a shift in focus to a more extensive, not scaled-back, imperialist intervention. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed forces to 133 countries in 2014, more than two thirds of the globe.

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to the Republican Party, which now controls a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for bipartisan collaboration over the next two years. He warned against “always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”

This language was chosen, not so much to urge the Republicans to resist the pressure of their ultra-right Tea Party faction, as to urge the Democrats to get on with devising bipartisan attacks on the working class, regardless of the popular reaction among workers, particularly the poorest and most oppressed who, if they go to the polls, generally vote for the Democratic Party.

Obama proposed a handful of measures aimed at sustaining the threadbare pretense that the Democrats still adhere to policies of liberal reform—free tuition for community college students and a child care tax credit for working families, to be paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy and the banks. But no one in official Washington takes these seriously for a minute. They are window dressing, while the policy of the US ruling elite moves further and further to the right.

Aside from the delusional character of the speech, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Obama’s remarks was the fact that, for the vast majority of the population, it was a non-event. Obama stands at the head of a state apparatus that, increasingly, is talking to itself.




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