How America Made ISIS

Their Videos and Ours, Their “Caliphate” and Ours

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By Tom Engelhardt

Whatever your politics, you’re not likely to feel great about America right now.  After all, there’s Ferguson (the whole world was watching!), an increasingly unpopular president, a Congress whose approval ratings make the president look like a rock star, rising poverty, weakening wages, and a growing inequality gap just to start what could be a long list.  Abroad, from Libya and Ukraine to Iraq and the South China Sea, nothing has been coming up roses for the U.S.  Polls reflect a general American gloom, with 71% of the public claiming the country is “on the wrong track.”  We have the look of a superpower down on our luck.

What Americans have needed is a little pick-me-up to make us feel better, to make us, in fact, feel distinctly good.  Certainly, what official Washington has needed in tough times is a bona fide enemy so darn evil, so brutal, so barbaric, so inhuman that, by contrast, we might know just how exceptional, how truly necessary to this planet we really are.

In the nick of time, riding to the rescue comes something new under the sun: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recently renamed Islamic State (IS).  It’s a group so extreme that even al-Qaeda rejected it, so brutal that it’s brought back crucifixion, beheading, waterboarding, and amputation, so fanatical that it’s ready to persecute any religious group within range of its weapons, so grimly beyond morality that it’s made the beheading of an innocent American a global propaganda phenomenon.  If you’ve got a label that’s really, really bad like genocide or ethnic cleansing, you can probably apply it to ISIS’s actions.

It has also proven so effective that its relatively modest band of warrior jihadis has routed the Syrian and Iraqi armies, as well as the Kurdish pesh merga militia, taking control of a territory larger than Great Britain in the heart of the Middle East.  Today, it rules over at least four million people, controls its own functioning oil fields and refineries (and so their revenues as well as infusions of money from looted banks, kidnapping ransoms, and Gulf state patrons).  Despite opposition, it still seems to be expanding and claims it has established a caliphate.

A Force So Evil You’ve Got to Do Something

Facing such pure evil, you may feel a chill of fear, even if you’re a top military or national security official, but in a way you’ve gotta feel good, too.  It’s not everyday that you have an enemy your president can term a “cancer”; that your secretary of state can call the “face” of “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil” which “must be destroyed”; that your secretary of defense can denounce as “barbaric” and lacking a “standard of decency, of responsible human behavior… an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else”; that your chairman of the joint chiefs of staff can describe as “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated”; and that a retired general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan can brand a “scourge… beyond the pale of humanity [that]… must be eradicated.”

Talk about a feel-good feel-bad situation for the leadership of a superpower that’s seen better days!  Such threatening evil calls for only one thing, of course: for the United States to step in.  It calls for the Obama administration to dispatch the bombers and drones in a slowly expanding air war in Iraq and, sooner or later, possibly Syria.  It falls on Washington’s shoulders to organize a new “coalition of the willing” from among various backers and opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, from among those who have armed and funded the extremist rebels in that country, from the ethnic/religious factions in the former Iraq, and from various NATO countries.  It calls for Washington to transform Iraq’s leadership (a process no longer termed “regime change”) and elevate a new man capable of reuniting the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, now at each other’s throats, into one nation capable of turning back the extremist tide.  If not American “boots on the ground,” it calls for proxy ones of various sorts that the U.S. military will naturally have a hand in training, arming, funding, and advising.  Facing such evil, what other options could there be?

If all of this sounds strangely familiar, it should.  Minus a couple of invasions, the steps being considered or already in effect to deal with “the threat of ISIS” are a reasonable summary of the last 13 years of what was once called the Global War on Terror and now has no name at all.  New as ISIS may be, a little history is in order, since that group is, at least in part, America’s legacy in the Middle East.

Give Osama bin Laden some credit.  After all, he helped set us on the path to ISIS.  He and his ragged band had no way of creating the caliphate they dreamed of or much of anything else.  But he did grasp that goading Washington into something that looked like a crusader’s war with the Muslim world might be an effective way of heading in that direction.

In other words, before Washington brings its military power fully to bear on the new “caliphate,” a modest review of the post-9/11 years might be appropriate.  Let’s start at the moment when those towers in New York had just come down, thanks to a small group of mostly Saudi hijackers, and almost 3,000 people were dead in the rubble.  At that time, it wasn’t hard to convince Americans that there could be nothing worse, in terms of pure evil, than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Establishing an American Caliphate

Facing such unmatchable evil, the United States officially went to war as it might have against an enemy military power.  Under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, the Bush administration launched the unmatchable power of the U.S. military and its paramilitarized intelligence agencies against… well, what?  Despite those dramatic videos of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, that organization had no military force worth the name, and despite what you’ve seen on “Homeland,” no sleeper cells in the U.S. either; nor did it have the ability to mount follow-up operations any time soon.

In other words, while the Bush administration talked about “draining the swamp” of terror groups in up to 60 countries, the U.S. military was dispatched against what were essentially will-o’-the-wisps, largely representing Washington’s own conjured fears and fantasies.  It was, that is, initially sent against bands of largely inconsequential Islamic extremists, scattered in tiny numbers in the tribal backlands of Afghanistan or Pakistan and, of course, the rudimentary armies of the Taliban.

It was, to use a word that George W. Bush let slip only once, something like a “crusade,” something close to a religious war, if not against Islam itself — American officials piously and repeatedly made that clear — then against the idea of a Muslim enemy, as well as against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and later Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.  In each case, Washington mustered a coalition of the willing, ranging from Arab and South or Central Asian states to European ones, sent in air power followed twice by full-scale invasions and occupations, mustered local politicians of our choice in major “nation-building” operations amid much self-promotional talk about democracy, and built up vast new military and security apparatuses, supplying them with billions of dollars in training and arms.

Looking back, it’s hard not to think of all of this as a kind of American jihadism, as well as an attempt to establish what might have been considered an American caliphate in the region (though Washington had far kinder descriptive terms for it).  In the process, the U.S. effectively dismantled and destroyed state power in each of the three main countries in which it intervened, while ensuring the destabilization of neighboring countries and finally the region itself.

In that largely Muslim part of the world, the U.S. left a grim record that we in this country generally tend to discount or forget when we decry the barbarism of others.  We are now focused in horror on ISIS’s video of the murder of journalist James Foley, a propaganda document clearly designed to drive Washington over the edge and into more active opposition to that group.

We, however, ignore the virtual library of videos and other imagery the U.S. generated, images widely viewed (or heard about and discussed) with no less horror in the Muslim world than ISIS’s imagery is in ours.  As a start, there were the infamous “screen saver” images straight out of the Marquis de Sade from Abu Ghraib prison.  There, Americans tortured and abused Iraqi prisoners, while creating their own iconic version of crucifixion imagery.  Then there were the videos that no one (other than insiders) saw, but that everyone heard about.  These, the CIA took of the repeated torture and abuse of al-Qaeda suspects in its “black sites.”  In 2005, they were destroyed by an official of that agency, lest they be screened in an American court someday.  There was also the Apache helicopter video released by WikiLeaks in which American pilots gunned down Iraqi civilians on the streets of Baghdad (including two Reuters correspondents), while on the sound track the crew are heard wisecracking.  There was the video of U.S. troops urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.  There were the trophy photos of body parts brought home by U.S. soldiers.  There were the snuff films of the victims of Washington’s drone assassination campaigns in the tribal backlands of the planet (or “bug splat,” as the drone pilots came to call the dead from those attacks) and similar footage from helicopter gunships.  There was the bin Laden snuff film video from the raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, of which President Obama reportedly watched a live feed.  And that’s only to begin to account for some of the imagery produced by the U.S. since September 2001 from its various adventures in the Greater Middle East.

All in all, the invasions, the occupations, the drone campaigns in several lands, the deaths that ran into the hundreds of thousands, the uprooting of millions of people sent into external or internal exile, the expending of trillions of dollars added up to a bin Laden dreamscape.  They would prove jihadist recruitment tools par excellence.

When the U.S. was done, when it had set off the process that led to insurgencies, civil wars, the growth of extremist militias, and the collapse of state structures, it had also guaranteed the rise of something new on Planet Earth: ISIS — as well as of other extremist outfits ranging from the Pakistani Taliban, now challenging the state in certain areas of that country, to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.

Though the militants of ISIS would undoubtedly be horrified to think so, they are the spawn of Washington.  Thirteen years of regional war, occupation, and intervention played a major role in clearing the ground for them.  They may be our worst nightmare (thus far), but they are also our legacy — and not just because so many of their leaders came from the Iraqi army we disbanded, had their beliefs and skills honed in the prisons we set up (Camp Bucca seems to have been the West Point of Iraqi extremism), and gained experience facing U.S. counterterror operations in the “surge” years of the occupation.  In fact, just about everything done in the war on terror has facilitated their rise.  After all, we dismantled the Iraqi army and rebuilt one that would flee at the first signs of ISIS’s fighters, abandoning vast stores of Washington’s weaponry to them. We essentially destroyed the Iraqi state, while fostering a Shia leader who would oppress enough Sunnis in enough ways to create a situation in which ISIS would be welcomed or tolerated throughout significant areas of the country.

The Escalation Follies

When you think about it, from the moment the first bombs began falling on Afghanistan in October 2001 to the present, not a single U.S. military intervention has had anything like its intended effect.  Each one has, in time, proven a disaster in its own special way, providing breeding grounds for extremism and producing yet another set of recruitment posters for yet another set of jihadist movements.  Looked at in a clear-eyed way, this is what any American military intervention seems to offer such extremist outfits — and ISIS knows it.

Don’t consider its taunting video of James Foley’s execution the irrational act of madmen blindly calling down the destructive force of the planet’s last superpower on themselves.  Quite the opposite.  Behind it lay rational calculation.  ISIS’s leaders surely understood that American air power would hurt them, but they knew as well that, as in an Asian martial art in which the force of an assailant is used against him, Washington’s full-scale involvement would also infuse their movement with greater power.  (This was Osama bin Laden’s most original insight.)

It would give ISIS the ultimate enemy, which means the ultimate street cred in its world.  It would bring with it the memories of all those past interventions, all those snuff videos and horrifying images.  It would help inflame and so attract more members and fighters.  It would give the ultimate raison d’être to a minority religious movement that might otherwise prove less than cohesive and, in the long run, quite vulnerable.  It would give that movement global bragging rights into the distant future.

ISIS’s urge was undoubtedly to bait the Obama administration into a significant intervention.  And in that, it may prove successful.  We are now, after all, watching a familiar version of the escalation follies at work in Washington.  Obama and his top officials are clearly on the up escalator.  In the Oval Office is a visibly reluctant president, who undoubtedly desires neither to intervene in a major way in Iraq (from which he proudly withdrew American troops in 2011 with their “heads held high”), nor in Syria (a place where he avoided sending in the bombers and missiles back in 2013).

Unlike the previous president and his top officials, who were all confidence and overarching plans for creating a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East, this one and his foreign policy team came into office intent on managing an inherited global situation.  President Obama’s only plan, such as it was, was to get out of the Iraq War (along lines already established by the Bush administration).  It was perhaps a telltale sign then that, in order to do so, he felt he had to “surge” American troops into Afghanistan.  Five and a half years later, he and his key officials still seem essentially plan-less, a set of now-desperate managers engaged in a seat-of-the-pants struggle over a destabilizing Greater Middle East (and increasingly Africa and the borderlands of Europe as well).

Five and a half years later, the president is once again under pressure and being criticized by assorted neocons, McCainites, and this time, it seems, the military high command evidently eager to be set loose yet one more time to take out barbarism globally — that is, to up the ante on a losing hand.  As in 2009, so today, he’s slowly but surely giving ground.  By now, the process of “mission creep” — a term strongly rejected by the Obama administration — is well underway.

It started slowly with the collapse of the U.S.-trained and U.S.-supplied Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities in the face of attacks by ISIS.  In mid-June, the aircraft carrier USS H.W. Bush with more than 100 planes was dispatched to the Persian Gulf and the president sent in hundreds of troops, including Special Forces advisers (though officially no “boots” were to be “on the ground”).  He also agreed to drone and other air surveillance of the regions ISIS had taken, clearly preparation for future bombing campaigns.  All of this was happening before the fate of the Yazidis — a small religious sect whose communities in northern Iraq were brutally destroyed by ISIS fighters — officially triggered the commencement of a limited bombing campaign suitable to a “humanitarian crisis.”

When ISIS, bolstered by U.S. heavy weaponry captured from the Iraqi military, began to crush the Kurdish pesh merga militia, threatening the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq and taking the enormous Mosul Dam, the bombing widened. More troops and advisers were sent in, and weaponry began to flow to the Kurds, with promises of all of the above further south once a new unity government was formed in Baghdad.  The president explained this bombing expansion by citing the threat of ISIS blowing up the Mosul Dam and flooding downriver communities, thus supposedly endangering the U.S. Embassy in distant Baghdad.  (This was a lame cover story because ISIS would have had to flood parts of its own “caliphate” in the process.)

The beheading video then provided the pretext for the possible bombing of Syria to be put on the agenda.  And once again a reluctant president, slowly giving way, has authorized drone surveillance flights over parts of Syria in preparation for possible bombing strikes that may not be long in coming.

The Incrementalism of the Reluctant

Consider this the incrementalism of the reluctant under the usual pressures of a militarized Washington eager to let loose the dogs of war.  One place all of this is heading is into a morass of bizarre contradictions involving Syrian politics.  Any bombing of that country will necessarily involve implicit, if not explicit, support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as for the barely existing “moderate” rebels who oppose his regime and to whom Washington may now ship more arms.  This, in turn, could mean indirectly delivering yet more weaponry to ISIS.  Add everything up and at the moment Washington seems to be on the path that ISIS has laid out for it.

Americans prefer to believe that all problems have solutions.  There may, however, be no obvious or at least immediate solution when it comes to ISIS, an organization based on exclusivity and divisiveness in a region that couldn’t be more divided.  On the other hand, as a minority movement that has already alienated so many in the region, left to itself it might with time simply burn out or implode.  We don’t know.  We can’t know.  But we do have reasonable evidence from the past 13 years of what an escalating American military intervention is likely to do: not whatever it is that Washington wants it to do.

And keep one thing in mind: if the U.S. were truly capable of destroying or crushing ISIS, as our secretary of state and others are urging, that might prove to be anything but a boon.  After all, it was easy enough to think, as Americans did after 9/11, that al-Qaeda was the worst the world of Islamic extremism had to offer.  Osama bin Laden’s killing was presented to us as an ultimate triumph over Islamic terror.  But ISIS lives and breathes and grows, and across the Greater Middle East Islamic extremist organizations are gaining membership and traction in ways that should illuminate just what the war on terror has really delivered.  The fact that we can’t now imagine what might be worse than ISIS means nothing, given that no one in our world could imagine ISIS before it sprang into being.

The American record in these last 13 years is a shameful one.  Do it again should not be an option.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in October, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

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Wages Dropped for Almost All American Workers in First Half of 2014

 


The last year has been a bad one for people who work for a living.

Think your money’s not going very far this year? It’s not your imagination. According to new research by the Economic Policy Institute, real hourly wages declined for almost everybody in the U.S. workforce in the first half of 2014. Thanks, so-called recovery.

Economist Elise Gould pored over data from the government’s Current Population Survey and determined that workers at the 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th, and 95th percentiles all saw declines in their real wages in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period last year. This was true whether you had no high school degree, a high school diploma, some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree. In fact, people with advanced degrees saw the biggest drop (2.7 percent).

EPI reveals this isn’t just a blip. Real wages dropped 4.9 percent for workers with a high school degree and 2.5 percent for workers with a college degree from the first half of 2007 to the first half of this year.

Gould explains in the report that “the last year has been a poor one for American workers’ wages.” She states that “on the whole, the broad wage trends by education level over the last decade and a half make clear that wage inequality cannot be readily explained by stories about educational credentials and technology; wage inequality has increased steadily, yet even those with a college diploma or advanced degree have experienced lackluster wage growth.”

Gould adds, “It’s an indication of the fact that no one — not even educated workers — is able to bargain for anything.” Employers have the power and they are using it to pay their workers less.

The only workers who saw real wages go up over the past year were workers at the10th percentile of income, but only two cents an hour, from $8.36 an hour to $8.38. Two pennies! Don’t spend it all in one place. That paltry increase happened because of minimum wage increases in 13 states. The lack of wage growth harms society and the economy in a whole host of ways. When workers don’t have enough money in their pockets to spend on goods and services, businesses can’t hire and they fail, which increases unemployment. Unable to keep up with the growing expenses of things like healthcare and college tuition, the middle class shrinks. For those less well off, life becomes a daily struggle for survival. The increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else produces a wide range of social ills, from mental illness to addiction to chronic diseases. The social fabric becomes unraveled.

Not a very promising reflection for Labor Day, is it?

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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Temp labor at record levels in US

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By Andre Damon
2 September 2014

The Obama administration marked Labor Day 2014 with demagogic speeches by President Obama in Milwaukee and Vice President Joseph Biden in Detroit—speeches that were notable mainly for the brazenness of their dishonesty and cynicism.

Obama and Biden postured as partisans of what they referred to as the “middle class,” even as a number of reports emerged documenting the devastating decline in conditions for the working class under the current administration.

In his remarks, Obama portrayed the US economy as recovering at a rapid clip from the economic slump, with unemployment falling and hiring picking up. “By almost every measure, the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office,” Obama declared.

He praised the run-up on the stock market and the record pace of corporate profits. “It’s a good thing that corporate profits are high,” he said. “I want American businesses to succeed. It’s a good thing that the stock market is booming.”

The fact that Obama hails the enrichment of the financial aristocracy in a Labor Day speech reflects the vast chasm separating the political and corporate establishment for which he speaks and the overwhelming majority of the American people.

Speaking at a Labor Day event in Detroit, Biden took a somewhat different tack. He presented himself as an opponent of corporate greed and cited statistics reflecting the growth of inequality and decline in the living standards of American workers.

“Why do CEOs now make 333 times more money than a line worker, when back when Reagan was president they made 25 times what the line worker made?” he asked. Speaking before an audience dominated by trade union bureaucrats and workers close to the union apparatus, he acted as though the grim picture of conditions for working people he outlined had nothing to do with himself personally or the government of which he is a part.

Both events were organized by the unions and had as their principal aim drumming up support for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections from a population that is increasingly alienated from the entire political establishment.

The disastrous economic conditions for working people, compounded by the policies of the Obama administration, were revealed in a series of reports published over the weekend.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported that both the number of people working for labor contractors and the percentage of the workforce employed by such companies have hit record highs. According to figures from the American Staffing Agency, more than 12 million people, or ten percent of the labor force, worked for a temporary employment agency at some point in 2013.

The NELP report showed that, far from being confined to clerical work, temporary workers are increasingly being employed in industry and warehousing. A record 42 percent of temporary workers are now employed in such industries, up from 28 percent in 1990.

Workers employed by staffing agencies are subject to lower wages, making an average of $3.40 per hour less than traditional employees. They are more likely to be injured or killed on the job, according to a recent study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

The NELP report concluded: “Major corporations now use [temporary] staffing as a permanent feature of their business model,” adding that “Seventy-seven percent of Fortune 500 firms now use third-party logistics firms, who may then contract out to an army of smaller firms to move their goods.”

On Sunday, the New York Times carried a report documenting a series of high-profile lawsuits against major corporations that falsified workers’ time sheets, used accounting dodges to avoid paying overtime or withheld base pay owed to their employees.

The article noted that last week a California appeals court ruled that shipping company FedEx deliberately misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors, even though they were actually employees, in order to avoid paying them overtime and health and retirement benefits.

Schneider Logistics, which provides warehousing services for Walmart, recently paid $21 million to settle charges that it failed to pay workers legally required overtime. “Plaintiffs indicated they often logged 16-hour days every day of the week. Allegedly, they were not allowed mandatory breaks, not paid overtime and did not even receive minimum wage,” said California attorney Deborah Barron.

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su told the Times: “My agency has found more wages being stolen from workers in California than any time in history… This has spread to multiple industries across many sectors. It’s affected not just minimum-wage workers, but also middle-class workers.”

Workers’ wages, meanwhile, are stagnating or falling across the board. The Economic Policy Institute published a report showing that both low- and middle-income earners have seen their wages fall since 2007, while the wages of those with advanced degrees have remained essentially unchanged.

The capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 has been used to drive down the conditions of life for working people. Decent-paying jobs have been wiped out and replaced with low-paying jobs. Full-time work has been replaced by part-time, temporary and contingency labor. Increasingly, corporations have resorted to illegal means to rob workers of wages and benefits.

They have been aided and abetted by the Obama administration. The multitrillion-dollar handout to the banks, the restructuring of the auto industry on the basis of 50 percent wage cuts for new-hires, the promotion of “insourcing” by slashing US labor costs are part of a social counterrevolution. These attacks are accompanied by an assault on pensions, employer-paid health coverage, public education and all that remains of the basic social programs enacted in the 1930s and 1960s such as Medicare and Social Security.

On this basis, and with the assistance of the trade unions, Obama has presided over an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the working class to the corporate and financial aristocracy that runs the country and controls both political parties.

The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

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Written by

Jordan Pearson

September 1, 2014 // 12:40 PM EST

You’ve seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they’re going to take our jobs. The future really doesn’t look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world’s jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn’t necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn’t do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

Image: Mixabest/Wikimedia

The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called “The Fragment on Machines.”

Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In “The Fragment,” Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what’s called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren’t the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.

Once robots take over society’s productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will “redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation,” Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns.

It’s a familiar sentiment that has gained new traction in recent years thanks to robots being in vogue, but we only have to look to the recent past to know that things didn’t exactly work out that way. Capitalism is very much alive and well, despite automation’s steady march towards ascendancy over the centuries. The reason is this: automation doesn’t disrupt capitalism. It’s an integral part of the system.

What we understand as “work” has morphed to accommodate its advancement. There is no reason to assume that this will change just because automation is ramping up to sci-fi speed.

To paraphrase John Tomlinson in his analysis of technology, speed, and capitalism in The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, no idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than “time is money”. If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):

The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital… employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.

“Not immediately productive” is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You’re not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a philosopher of labour and technology, explained it thusly in his book Precarious Rhapsody, referring to the legions of over worked part-time or no-timers as the “precariat”:

The word ‘precariat’ generally stands for the area of work that is no longer definable by fixed rules relative to the labor relation, to salary and to the length of the working day [...] Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers [...] The time of work is fractalized, that is, reduced to minimal fragments that can be reassembled, and the fractalization makes it possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.

Online labour is especially applicable to this description of the new definition of work. For example, work that increasingly depends on emails, instant correspondence across time zones, and devices that otherwise bring work home from the office in any number of ways, creates a mental environment where time is no longer marked into firm blocks.

Indeed, the “work day” is all day, every day, and time is now a far more fluid concept than before. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, on which low-income workers sell their time performing menial creative tasks for pennies per hour, is a particularly dystopic example of this.

A radically different form of work is that of providing personal data for profit. This online data work is particularly insidious for two main reasons. First, because it is often not recognized as work at all. You might not think that messaging a pal about your new pair of headphones is work, but labour theorists like Maurizio Lazzarato disagree. Second, because workers are completely cut out of the data profit loop, although that may be changing.

Image: ProducerMatthew/Wikimedia

These points, taken together, paint a pretty dismal picture of the future of humans living with robotic labour under capitalism. It’s likely that we’ll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?

In my opinion, being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There’s no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what’s needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.

Some people are already working toward this. The basic income movement, which calls for a minimum salary to be paid out to every living human regardless of employment status, is a good start, because it implies a significant departure from the purely economic language of austerity in political thought and argues for a basic income for the salient reason that we’re human and we deserve to live. However, if we really want to change the way things are headed, more will be needed.

At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-future-of-robot-labour-has-everything-to-do-with-capitalism

The True Meaning of Labor Day

  Labor  

For America’s workers, it’s a reminder of the struggles we have won—and those that lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock.com

To many Americans, Labor Day has become an important way to send off the slower pace of summer and usher in the hustle and bustle of fall. To our nation’s working families, this Labor Day means so much more.

It is an important moment to reflect on the courage of the working people who brought us Labor Day and the many working benefits we enjoy today. It is also a pivotal time to take stock of where our families, our economy, and our democracy are heading.

Today, America finds itself in a position of incredible challenge. Half of all Americans now make less than $15 an hour. Of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America, eight are service sector jobs that pay $15 an hour or less.

Service sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Wal-Mart workers and other service sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.

Yet the prosperity of our nation and growth of our economy depend not just on economic justice. A vibrant economy cannot exist without vibrant American communities steeped in the fundamental American principles of liberty and justice for all.

The taking of Mike Brown’s life in Ferguson, Missouri only weeks ago reminds us that social and economic justice must go hand in hand for America to thrive. To solve these issues, we need opportunities for all Americans to fully participate in our economy and improve the quality of life for their families.

That’s why we must also fix our broken immigration system and uphold and protect civil rights and democratic participation for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

We must remember that America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants. Today the opportunity to achieve the American dream is jeopardized by a broken immigration system and a Congress that refuses to fix it. The time has come for us to free those immigrants who exemplify the promise of America from the shadows and bring them into the light of our economy and society without fear.

When working people stick together, we have the strength to ensure that both our democracy and our economy continue to grow and progress. When America’s working families rise, America rises.

This Labor Day, we have so much more to celebrate than just the end of summer. So many brave Americans are uniting to raise wages, raise our communities and raise America. Their efforts and successes are shaping up to be the largest, boldest and most inclusive movement by and for working people that modern America has even seen.

I believe in a rising America, where together we can create an economy that works for everyone and a democracy where everyone has a voice.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union.

 

http://www.alternet.org/labor/true-meaning-labor-day?akid=12189.265072.yr7W36&rd=1&src=newsletter1017538&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Netanyahu indicates Gaza ceasefire paves way for wider war

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By Jean Shaoul
1 September 2014

Speaking on Israel’s Channel 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his most expansive explanation thus far for agreeing an “indefinite ceasefire” in Gaza.

Netanyahu has faced sustained criticism from within his Likud party and his coalition government for calling off military action short of his declared intention of obliterating Hamas and without consulting his security cabinet.

He has also incurred the hostility of those Israelis who felt revulsion at the brutality of the military operations whose cost they will bear in the form of higher taxes and cuts in public services. On Sunday, Netanyah announced plans to slash government spending by 2 percent in order to finance the $2.5 billion Gaza assault. Education funding will be hardest hit.

Opposed by both sides of the political spectrum, the prime minister has seen his support in the opinion polls fall from 63 to 38 percent in just a few weeks.

Netanyahu’s remarks, formulated as a response to his right-wing critics, were a tacit admission that Israel is preparing to take its place in wider US-led war plans nominally targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In bellicose language Netanyahu said of Gaza, “I never removed the goal of toppling Hamas, and I am not doing that now… I cannot rule out the occupation of Gaza. I don’t know if we will get to that. I thought the best thing is to crush them.”

Cabinet members—Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan—would have been secretly pleased that they did not have to vote on the issue, he added.

Turning to the regional situation, Netanyahu identified the scope of his military ambitions, declaring, “I am preparing for a reality in the Middle East that is very problematic.”

“I look around and see al-Qaida on the fence, ISIS moving toward Jordan and already in Lebanon, with Hezbollah there already, supported by Iran,” he elaborated.

He identified the possibility of new diplomatic and military alliances emerging. There were, he said, “not a small number of states who see the threats around us, as threats to them as well and as a result do not see Israel as an enemy, but as a potential partner.”

Netanyahu did not specify which states he was referring to, but events leading up to his about-face indicate that he acted under order from Washington and after receiving supportive assurances from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Indeed his comments came after US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a piece for the New York Times, called for a “global coalition” against Islamic extremists who are “perilously close to Israel.”

The Obama administration’s preparations for a wider war in Iraq and Syria to protect its geo-strategic interests in the energy-rich region and contain and isolate Iran, Russia and China requires precisely such a diplomatic cover in the form of a new “coalition of the willing.”

For this reason, the US, which had initially backed the war, determined the 50-day war in Gaza had become a destabilising factor, having provoked a growing protest movement against Israeli brutality that made it impossible for the US to clothe its regional ambitions in the garb of humanitarianism.

Moreover, the Arab regimes could not be seen supporting a military campaign in Iraq and Syria at the same time as they left the Palestinians to Israel’s tender mercies.

Regionally, Israel’s war on Gaza relied above all on Egypt’s military dictator General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and his sponsors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who supported it in order to isolate and militarily weaken Hamas, which rules Gaza. Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s now banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to most of the Arab bourgeoisie and the Gulf monarchs—with the exception of Qatar—because as a rival capitalist party it challenges their commercial interests and political domination.

The war on Hamas was also seen as a means of isolating Iran, which, despite its recent falling out with Hamas, was obliged to make a show of support.

The Egyptian regime patrolled the Sinai border to prevent militant groups launching attacks alongside Hamas. It sealed the Rafah crossing to prevent Palestinians fleeing the Israeli military or seeking treatment in hospitals in Egypt or medical delegations and aid convoys reaching Gaza.

Above all, al-Sisi provided a crucial cover for Israel’s air and ground assault by brokering a ceasefire proposal after discussion with Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and Washington that was initially rejected by Hamas. A key element of the proposal was the end of Hamas’ rule in Gaza and return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) to the territory after being expelled in 2007 following a coup by Hamas, the victor of elections in January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt insisted that it would not reopen the Rafah crossing until it was guarded by the PA, under the control of strongman Mohammed Dahlan, Israel’s preferred successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

While demonstrations in support of the Palestinians took place around the world, they were outlawed and suppressed in the Arab countries, including the West Bank, fueling the antipathy of the Arab masses towards their rulers. Such conditions would have made it impossible to mount a military campaign to protect US and Sunni Arab interests in Iraq against the encroachment of ISIS. Initially supported and trained by the CIA, Turkey, Jordan and Israel as a proxy force to overthrow Assad, ISIS has now captured whole swathes of Iraq and Syria, threatening Baghdad as well as the Jordanian monarchy, another US client regime.

As a result, Israel came under sustained pressure from the US, with the backing of the Arab regimes, to call a halt to the war. Saudi Arabia sent a team of ministers to Qatar to try and end its support for Hamas, while Jordan’s King Abdullah brokered secret talks between Netanyahu and Abbas in Amman, their first meeting since September 2010.

Egypt again played a crucial role. Al-Sisi brokered a “peace deal” which is no different in its essentials from the July proposals, thereby sidelining Qatar and Turkey, the main sponsors of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ acceptance of the terms of the deal meant opposing Khaled Mershaal, its political bureau chief in Qatar, jeopardising Qatar’s financial and diplomatic support. But, in the final analysis, Cairo was more important: Hamas’ very existence depended upon the lifeline provided by Egypt—the Rafah crossing.

Talks are to begin in one month’s time over the release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners rounded up in the West Bank following the killing of three Israeli settler youths in June, and the construction of a port and international airport in Gaza. But Netanyahu has demanded Gaza’s demilitarisation and said he will not accede to the Palestinians’ demands.

The US is to resume arms shipments to Israel, after the Obama administration had earlier called a halt to the delivery of new materiel to Israel without the explicit approval of the White House and State Department. This could be an occasion for the start of a massive increase in military aid for Israel from the US, in line with Netanyahu’s call in his interview for increases in the defence budget. Indeed the Israel Defence Force needs a massive one-off sum of 9 billion NIS ($2.5 billion) just to pay for the war, and an additional 11 billion NIS for its 2015 budget.

US government-funded database created to track “subversive propaganda” online

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By Matthew MacEgan
30 August 2014

The creation of the Truthy database by Indiana University researchers has drawn sharp criticism from free-speech advocates and others concerned over government censorship of political expression.

According to the award abstract accompanying the funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Truthy project aims to demonstrate “why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten.” In order to answer this and other questions, the resulting database will actively “[collect] and [analyze] massive streams of public microblogging data.”

Once the database is up and running, anyone can use its “service” to monitor “trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.” Several of the researchers suggested that the public will be able to discover the use of “shady machinery” by election campaigners who push faulty information to social media users to manipulate them politically.

As a seeming afterthought, the abstract concludes that this open-source project “could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

This last statement provoked widespread criticism as troubling and even Orwellian. Right-wing media outlets Fox News and the Washington Times attacked the reference to “hate speech,” in which they specialize, without highlighting the reference to “subversive propaganda,” a term of abuse usually reserved for left-wing criticism of American government and society.

While the leaders of this government-funded operation have sought to fend off attacks with the explanation that this database is merely designed to study the diffusion of information on social media networks, there is no mistaking the repressive overtones of the project.

Filippo Menczer, the project’s principal investigator and a professor at Indiana University, has responded to allegations by issuing a statement through the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, explaining that Truthy is not “a political watchdog, a government probe of social media,” or “an attempt to suppress free speech.” He states that Truthy is incapable of determining whether a particular scrap of data constitutes “misinformation,” and reiterates the notion that “target” is the mere study of “patterns of information diffusion.”

However, within the same statement, Menczer also echoes the abstract’s final conclusion, stating that “an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.” This seems to contradict the claim that the database is focused only on how information is diffused, rather than its content.

Results of the project have already been widely published in peer-reviewed journals and have been presented at several conferences around the world. One of these studies shows how the researchers, including Menczer, studied the growth of Occupy Wall Street over a 15-month period. This was done by identifying Occupy-related content on Twitter and creating a dataset that “contained approximately 1.82 million tweets produced by 447,241 distinct accounts.”

In addition, the researchers also selected 25,000 of these users at random and monitored their behavior in order to study how these users may have changed over time. This effort included the compilation of the hashtags used by each user, their engagement with foreign social movements, and the extent to which these users interacted with one another.

In other words, while the creators of Truthy have presented their service as a means for the public to expose elected officials who inject misleading information into news feeds for electoral propaganda purposes, one of the primary uses is to track and keep tabs on individuals who engage in political discussions deemed “subversive” by US authorities. A previous report has already shown that local police departments were engaged in similar coordinated efforts to spy on Occupy protesters throughout the same 15-month period.

The revelations of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have shown the extent of domestic spying of national governments on their own citizens and the erosion of Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Despite Menczer’s claim that the system was not “designed” to be a government watchdog program, there is no assurance that this project will not be used for that purpose.

The 25,000 Twitter users who were studied and tracked by the project’s developers certainly did not give permission to have their behaviors and tweets recorded and studied. Truthy will enable anyone, including federal officials, to similarly track and follow the actions of groups and individuals deemed to be “diffusing” ideas labeled as “misleading.” The fact that the United States government has already contributed more than $900,000 to this project only exacerbates this fear.