The financial bubble economy

28 July 2014

All three major US stock indexes fell Friday, capping the largest weekly decline in US stock markets in nearly two months. The catalyst for Friday’s sell-off was a very weak series of sales figures and projections from three corporations tied to consumer spending: Amazon, the largest online retailer; Wal-Mart, the largest brick-and-mortar retailer; and Visa, the credit and debit card transaction company.

More broadly, the stock market tremors reflect growing concern within the ruling class that share values, which have doubled, and in some cases tripled, since their 2009 lows, are on the verge of another historic collapse.

The open secret of the US economy is that the extraordinary rise in the stock markets is entirely disconnected from the process of production. While US economic growth was only 1.8 percent last year, below the average of the previous three years, the S&P 500 stock index shot up more than 20 percent. In the first quarter of this year, as the economy contracted at a rate of nearly three percent, all three US stock indexes continued to rise.

The stock market rally is based on two interconnected elements: the systematic transfer of wealth from the working class to the financial elite, and the provision of an essentially unlimited flow of cash into the financial system by the Federal Reserve.

The stock market bubble has facilitated mergers and acquisitions designed to inflate corporate stock prices by mass layoffs and cost cutting, further choking off economic growth. Such mergers and acquisitions are up by some 50 percent over the past year. A case in point was Microsoft’s announcement this month of 18,000 worldwide layoffs in the aftermath of its $7 billion acquisition of Nokia’s mobile division.

Corporate profits as a share of US GDP were higher last year than any year on records going back to the late 1940s. A measure of the speculative fever that has once again gripped corporate America: companies are using these profits not for investment, but rather to swell executive pay, raise dividends, and buy back their own stocks. Stock buybacks reached their second-highest level on record in the first quarter of this year, behind only the second quarter of 2007, just before the financial meltdown.

The fact that the stock market rally is clearly unstable has generated murmurs of concern from some quarters. Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings Agency warned of an “increasing anxiety among investors that valuations reflect too much money chasing too few income-producing assets.” The rating agency added, “Investors feel they have little choice but to invest in whatever comes to market, despite the continuing fall in yields and coupons.”

One commentator warned this month in the New York Times of an “Everything Bubble” in which “there are very few unambiguously cheap assets.” These warnings echoed concerns raised by the Bank of International Settlements, which concluded late last month that “it is hard to avoid the sense of a puzzling disconnect between the markets’ buoyancy and underlying economic developments.”

The most categorical warning comes from John P. Hussman, a former University of Michigan professor and current investment fund manager who published a memo this week entitled, “Yes, This Is An Equity Bubble.” He concluded, “Make no mistake – this is an equity bubble, and a highly advanced one. On the most historically reliable measures, it is easily beyond 1972 and 1987, beyond 1929 and 2007, and is now within about 15% of the 2000 extreme.” He concludes, “The Federal Reserve can certainly postpone the collapse of this bubble, but only by making the eventual outcome that much worse.”

Soaring corporate profits and stock values have accompanied an enormous decline in social conditions for the vast majority of the US population. According to one recent study, the inflation-adjusted net worth of a typical US household has declined by 36 percent between 2003 and 2014. Median household income in the US plummeted by 8.3 percent between 2007 and 2012, and the number of people using food stamps has increased by 70 percent since 2008.

The enormous social retrogression of American society is summed up in one statistic: one in four children in the United States live below the official poverty line, while one in five are at risk of going hungry.

The 2008 collapse nearly brought down the entire world financial system and sparked a global recession, with no recovery. The Fed has lowered interest rates to essentially zero, where they have stayed for nearly six years, allowing banks access to cash for free. Through a variety of asset purchasing programs, the Fed has tripled the size of its balance sheet since 2008. This policy has been mimicked internationally, coupled with ever more brutal austerity measures directed at the working class.

This game cannot go on forever. Ultimately, the valuations of financial assets must come crashing down. The consequences of the coming crash will be even more dramatic than those of the 2008 financial meltdown.

The US ruling elite has reached a historical dead end. It staggers from crisis to crisis, trying to put out fires with gasoline. This pragmatic, shortsighted and parasitic approach to the crisis of the US economy is expressive of the basic physiognomy of the financial elite. This is a social layer that has amassed its wealth not through productive activity, but through the looting of society: raiding pension funds, slashing wages, shutting down industrial facilities and laying off workers.

This internal socioeconomic crisis of American capitalism is a significant factor in US foreign policy, the extraordinary recklessness with which the ruling class and its representatives in the political and media establishment stoke conflict all over the world.

Facing an economic and political disaster at home, the US ruling elite seeks through war a desperate means to shore up its position in the global economy and deflect social anger at home into wars and interventions abroad. Each stage of the economic crisis has been accompanied by an every greater paroxysm of imperialist violence.

The policy of the American ruling class is, in a profound sense, insane. However, it is a socially conditioned insanity, an insanity that expresses a bankrupt economic system and a social order on the eve of revolution.

Andre Damon

Israel’s Control of Palestinian Lives


My pet cat here in Gaza has more freedom than the Palestinians, such is the subhuman treatment meted out to them.

An Israeli army armoured personnel carrier (APC) moves along Israel’s border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on July 25, 2014
Photo Credit: AFP

As Israeli air force bombs fell over Gaza City one recent evening, Snowy, the white cat that has charmed me into hosting him in my garden, ducked down in shock, as I did. Snowy is one of a growing population of cats in the Gaza Strip that help deter rodents in residential areas. Israel‘s grip on what is allowed in or out of Gaza includes restrictions on equipment and supplies essential for municipal hygiene services. Gaza has become a heaven for rats.

If Snowy understood human speech, I would have responded to his angry yowls of shock at the bombing by reminding him of the silver lining for him in Gaza. For years now, he has been unwittingly upgraded compared to the subhuman treatment of the people. Snowy may have to scavenge for food, but Israel has been rationing Gaza’s supplies – and its aspirations for a dignified future – for years. As the cat freely roams around the neighbourhood, my movement in and out of Gaza is heavily restricted, when it exists at all.

The simmering cauldron that is Gaza has now boiled over, with horrifying consequences. But this is not a war of equals, as some suggest. Israel remains an occupying force that controls Palestinian lives against their will. Palestinians who do not enjoy the same opportunities, dignity and conveniences of civilian life as people in Israel cannot suddenly be considered as equals in a disproportionate conflict.

This is the third war on Gaza, and arguably the most vicious, in less than six years. When friends and family call from all over the world, including Israelis and Jewish friends of other nationalities, I am embarrassed to utter a single word of distress next to the tragedies that are unfolding all around us. I cannot forget footage of a young boy who whispered for water as he was perhaps dying on a stretcher with his abdomen torn open. Significant parts of the Gaza Strip have been for days out of water and electricity.

The proportion of children among civilian deaths remains at around 20% since the beginning of this war. This is surely an indicator of the lack of Israeli remorse or reconsideration of its military tactics for the past three weeks.

For years, Israel has not only shunned Gaza politically but has painted its people as aliens with whom no one outside could relate to any more. Israel’s governments have unfairly indoctrinated their public that Gaza is a hostile place full of hostile people. It became permissible to level any degree of punishment on Gaza. While no unanimity prevails in Gaza on the firing of rockets towards Israel, a great deal of consensus exists that Gaza has been pushed too far, to a point where such actions are seen by more and more as a measure of last resort. Gaza got tired of being suffocated and pushed around without any hope for a better future.

Now, Israel is crushing Gaza in what it calls self-defence, but which feels to people here like an Israeli attempt to discipline us never to make the mistake that we are worthy of a decent and peaceful life. The mostly timid international community has been blinded to the cumulative effects of Israel’s policy and has inadequately challenged its alienation and incarceration of Gaza. This failure to appreciate how explosive the underlying causes are sows the seeds for another round of violence.

The international community should be commended for either supporting recent Palestinian reconciliation or, at least, not standing in its way. However, it can no longer view itself as a spectator as the new Palestinian government of national consensus struggles to fend off Israeli threats and actions. Europe and the US are urged to be active participants in helping Palestinians succeed in advancing a government that aims, at least in part, to devise a political programme that builds bridges with the world.

In preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections, the Palestinian Authority is urged to add a prominent item to its ballot sheet. It is whether voters in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, support peaceful resolution with Israel. The results will only reiterate the obvious: Palestinians are not seekers of violence, but are aggressively and methodically pushed and cornered into it.

 

This is what “unimaginable restraint” looks like for Israel


by Jerome Roos on July 25, 2014

Post image for This is what “unimaginable restraint” looks like for IsraelIf this is the IDF showing restraint, as officials claim, what kind of horrific atrocities would it be capable of unleashing if it went “all the way”?

With the Israeli assault on Gaza in its third week and the amount of civilian casualties still rising relentlessly, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, had some warm words for his country’s troops. Addressing the annual gala of America’s largest Christian-Zionist advocacy group, Christians United for Israel, Dermer commended the IDF for its “unimaginable restraint”:

Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize … for fighting with unimaginable restraint. One day when the enemies of Israel are defeated and the moral idiots are silenced, people will look back and marvel at how the most threatened nation on earth never lost its nerve and always upheld its values.

Let’s take a second to digest that statement.

Apparently, for leading Israeli officials, dropping over 1,500 tons of explosives on an “open-air prison camp” half the size of New York City in two weeks’ time constitutes unimaginable restraint. Killing over 800 Palestinians, up to three quarters of them civilians and one third children, clearly constitutes unimaginable restraint. Destroying 18 health centers and 85 schools cannot be mistaken for anything but unimaginable restraint. Killing two handicapped women while striking a home for the disabled – unimaginable restraint.

In fact, Israel’s restraint has been so thoroughly unimaginable that, in the words of one Norwegian doctor on the ground, it has drawn “lakes of blood” to Gaza’s hospitals — like when the bodies of 27 members of a single family were wheeled in after an Israeli bomb fell on their home while they were enjoying their traditional Ramadan feast. Of course, leveling an entire neighborhood to the ground and targeting the ambulances that try to evacuate the wounded — killing a paramedic inside — is another telltale sign of unimaginable restraint.

Or what about the IDF snipers who take aim at unarmed civilians as they search for surviving family members in their bombed-out homes, bravely shooting them as they lie wounded and eventually motionless on the ground? These Israeli heroes should surely be commended with the highest possible honors for the unimaginable restraint they display while repeatedly pulling the trigger on their helpless victims. Hell, with fathers forced to collect the various body parts of their dismembered children in plastic shopping bags, the inhabitants of Gaza should be absolutely relieved about — and truly grateful for — the unimaginable restraint Israel has shown so far.

With more than 100,000 Palestinians fleeing from their homes in absolute horror, Gaza still under total aerial, naval and land blockade, and Israel shelling a UN-run refugee shelter inside a school — killing 15 women and children who had fled there expecting it to be the last safe place in Gaza — there can be absolutely no doubt about it: Foreign Minister Lieberman was completely right when he praised the IDF as “the most humane and bravest army in the world.” After all, what other army uses tanks to wipe out 5-month-old babies, gunboats to exterminate boys playing football on the beach, or remote-controlled drones to target women and children from the skies overhead? So humane. So brave.

Of course, if this is not enough of a reason to award the IDF next year’s Nobel Peace Prize, then killing members of the press surely should be! One can’t imagine the Norwegian Nobel Committee not being swayed by the two well-placed bullets that pierced through Al Jazeera’s 10th-floor Gaza bureau, just a day after Foreign Minister Lieberman called for the station to be banned for airing ground-level reports on the unimaginable consequences of Israel’s unimaginable restraint on the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

The Israeli political establishment, too, has been showing unimaginable restraint in the face of Palestinian provocation, which has so far claimed the lives of three Israeli civilians — repeat: three Israeli civilians — one of whom died from a heart attack. Knesset member Ayelet Shaked displayed unimaginable restraint when she called for the death of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes,” while Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin showed unimaginable restraint as he urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to cut off electricity to Gaza’s dialysis patients and when he called for the outright occupation and annexation of the Gaza Strip and the expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants.

Luckily, the government’s international charm offensive has been bearing fruit, and Israeli society appears to have taken a cue from the unimaginable restraint displayed by its troops and leaders. When 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, thrown into the back of a car, dragged into a forest, repeatedly beaten and kicked in the head, forced to drink petroleum and eventually burnt to death, Israeli citizens displayed a similar restraint as their soldiers and politicians — just as they did when they ran through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv shouting “Death to Arabs!” and looking for random Arab-Israeli citizens to lynch or murder. No, Israel never lost its nerve.

Those who gather on top of the hill near Sderot each night in their camping chairs, clapping and cheering every time an explosion rocks another Gaza apartment block, should not be forgotten — they, too, are showing unimaginable restraint by applauding the deaths of innocent civilians. Brave and humane like the true patriots who just beat up the pro-peace demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Haifa: did they not also display great restraint in settling their political differences in such democratic fashion? They must have learned something from Deputy Speaker Feiglin, who earlier kicked out three Arab representatives from the Knesset for daring to question the unimaginable restraint of the IDF.

How dare they criticize Israel’s heroes! Has the Jewish State not displayed enough restraint already? What about the police, did they not show unimaginable restraint when they savagely beat up Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s 15-year-old cousin Tariq, a US citizen on a family visit in Jerusalem, just as they stand accused by the UN of torturing Palestinian children in prison and using them as human shields? Arresting scores of Arab pro-peace activists, as well as dozens of minors, for participating in (or simply standing too close to) anti-war and anti-brutality protests must surely qualify as unimaginable restraint as well.

Or what about the wise religious leaders who have been so exemplary in their restraint? Like the Secretary General of the World Youth Movement, Rabbi Bnei Akiva, who called upon Netanyahu to turn the IDF into an “army of avengers which will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins”? Or Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron, who just posted a Halakhic ruling stating that it is totally acceptable for Israelis to punish the civilian population of Gaza in any way possible, including “bomb[ing] the whole area … to exterminate the enemy,” giving the Minister of Defense explicit permission “to instruct even the destruction of Gaza.” A final solution to the Arab question? Israel always upheld its values.

The academic community has similarly played an exemplary role throughout the conflict. Just a few days ago, Dr Mordechai Kedar, a reputed Israeli expert of Arab literature and Palestinian culture, offered some basic insights — clearly obtained from a long and distinguished career of serious academic research — on how to show restraint in the face of Islamic terror: “The only thing that can deter terrorists,” the Professor stated on an Israeli radio program, “is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.” Advocating rape as a weapon of war — if that does not win Israel a Nobel Peace Prize, then what will?

Now, with its bloodthirsty fanaticism on full display for all the world to see, any reasonable and well-informed observer should be left scratching their heads: if this is what “unimaginable restraint” looks like for Israeli officials, what kind of horrific atrocities would they be capable of unleashing if they decided to go “all the way”? The thought alone should make us shudder. The US and Europe urgently need to stop the monster they created — before it is too late.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his weekly column for TeleSUR English.

A Silicon Valley scheme to “disrupt” America’s education system would hurt the people who need it the most

The plot to destroy education: Why technology could ruin American classrooms — by trying to fix them

The plot to destroy education: Why technology could ruin American classrooms — by trying to fix them
(Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Pgiam via iStock/Salon)

How does Silicon Valley feel about college? Here’s a taste: Seven words in a tweet provoked by a conversation about education started by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreeseen.

Arrogance? Check. Supreme confidence? Check. Oblivious to the value actually provided by a college education? Check.

The $400 billion a year that Americans pay for education after high school is being wasted on an archaic brick-and-mortar irrelevance. We can do better! 

But how? The question becomes more pertinent every day — and it’s one that Silicon Valley would dearly like to answer.

The robots are coming for our jobs, relentlessly working their way up the value chain. Anything that can be automated will be automated. The obvious — and perhaps the only — answer to this threat is a vastly improved educational system. We’ve got to leverage our human intelligence to stay ahead of robotic A.I.! And right now, everyone agrees, the system is not meeting the challenge. The cost of a traditional four-year college education has far outpaced inflation. Student loan debt is a national tragedy. Actually achieving a college degree still bequeaths better job prospects than the alternative, but for many students, the cost-benefit ratio is completely out of whack.

No problem, says the tech industry. Like a snake eating its own tail, Silicon Valley has the perfect solution for the social inequities caused by technologically induced “disruption.” More disruption!

Universities are a hopelessly obsolete way to go about getting an education when we’ve got the Internet, the argument goes. Just as Airbnb is disemboweling the hotel industry and Uber is annihilating the taxi industry, companies such as Coursera and Udacity will leverage technology and access to venture capital in order to crush the incumbent education industry, supposedly offering high-quality educational opportunities for a fraction of the cost of a four-year college.



There is an elegant logic to this argument. We’ll use the Internet to stay ahead of the Internet. Awesome tools are at our disposal. In MOOCs — “Massive Open Online Courses” — hundreds of thousands of students will imbibe the wisdom of Ivy League “superprofessors” via pre-recorded lectures piped down to your smartphone. No need even for overworked graduate student teaching assistants. Intelligent software will take care of the grading. (That’s right — we’ll use robots to meet the robot threat!) The market, in other words, will provide the solution to the problem that the market has caused. It’s a wonderful libertarian dream.

But there’s a flaw in the logic. Early returns on MOOCs have confirmed what just about any teacher could have told you before Silicon Valley started believing it could “fix” education. Real human interaction and engagement are hugely important to delivering a quality education. Most crucially, hands-on interaction with teachers is vital for the students who are in most desperate need for an education — those with the least financial resources and the most challenging backgrounds.

Of course, it costs money to provide greater human interaction. You need bodies — ideally, bodies with some mastery of the subject material. But when you raise costs, you destroy the primary attraction of Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” model. The big tech success stories are all about avoiding the costs faced by the incumbents. Airbnb owns no hotels. Uber owns no taxis. The selling point of Coursera and Udacity is that they need own no universities.

But education is different than running a hotel. There’s a reason why governments have historically considered providing education a public good. When you start throwing bodies into the fray to teach people who can’t afford a traditional private education you end up disastrously chipping away at the profits that the venture capitalists backing Coursera and Udacity demand.

And that’s a tail that the snake can’t swallow.

* * *

The New York Times famously dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” Coursera and Udacity (both started by Stanford professors) and an MIT-Harvard collaboration called EdX exploded into the popular imagination. But the hype ebbed almost as quickly as it had flowed. In 2013, after a disastrous pilot experiment in which Udacity and San Jose State collaborated to deliver three courses, MOOCs were promptly declared dead — with the harshest schadenfreude coming from academics who saw the rush to MOOCs as an educational travesty.

At the end of 2013, the New York Times had changed its tune: “After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought.”

But MOOC supporters have never wavered. In May, Clayton Christensen, the high priest of “disruption” theory, scoffed at the unbelievers: ”[T]heir potential to disrupt — on price, technology, even pedagogy — in a long-stagnant industry,” wrote Christensen, ” is only just beginning to be seen.”

At the end of June, the Economist followed suit with a package of stories touting the inevitable “creative destruction” threatened by MOOCs: “[A] revolution has begun thanks to three forces: rising costs, changing demand and disruptive technology. The result will be the reinvention of the university …” It’s 2012 all over again!

Sure, there have been speed bumps along the way. But as Christensen explained, the same is true for any would-be disruptive start-up. Failures are bound to happen. What makes Silicon Valley so special is its ability to learn from mistakes, tweak its biz model and try something new. It’s called “iteration.”

There is, of course, great merit to the iterative process. And it would be foolish to claim that new technology won’t have an impact on the educational process. If there’s one thing that the Internet and smartphones are insanely good at, it is providing access to information. A teenager with a phone in Uganda has opportunities for learning that most of the world never had through the entire course of human history. That’s great.

But there’s a crucial difference between “access to information” and “education” that explains why the university isn’t about to become obsolete, and why we can’t depend — as Marc Andreessen tells us — on the magic elixir of innovation plus the free market to solve our education quandary.

Nothing better illustrates this point than a closer look at the Udacity-San Jose State collaboration.

* * *

When Gov. Jerry Brown announced the collaboration between Udacity, founded by the Stanford computer science Sebastian Thrun and San Jose State, a publicly funded university in the heart of Silicon Valley, in January 2013, the match seemed perfect. Where else would you want to test out the future of education? The plan was to focus on three courses: elementary statistics, remedial math and college algebra. The target student demographic was notoriously ill-served by the university system: “Students were drawn from a lower-income high school and the underperforming ranks of SJSU’s student body,” reported Fast Company.

The results of the pilot, conducted in the spring of 2013, were a disaster, reported Fast Company:

Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25 percent passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52 percent more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag–roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition–seem like something less than a bargain.

A second attempt during the summer achieved better results, but with a much less disadvantaged student body; and, even more crucially, with considerably greater resources put into human interaction and oversight. For example, San Jose State reported that the summer courses were improved by “checking in with students more often.”

But the prime takeaway was stark. Inside Higher Education reported that a research report conducted by San Jose State on the experiment concluded that “it may be difficult for the university to deliver online education in this format to the students who need it most.”

In an iterative world, San Jose State and Udacity would have learned from their mistakes. The next version of their collaboration would have incorporated the increased human resources necessary to make it work, to be sure that students didn’t fall through the cracks. But the lesson that Udacity learned from the collaboration turned out be something different: There isn’t going to be much profit to be made attempting to apply the principles of MOOCs to students from a disadvantaged background.

Thrun set off a firestorm of commentary when he told Fast Company’s Max Chafkin this:

“These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit….”

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial… But the data was at odds with this idea.”

Henceforth, Udacity would “pivot” to focusing on vocational training funded by direct corporate support.

Thrun later claimed that his comments were misinterpreted by Fast Company. And in his May Op-Ed Christensen argued that Udacity’s pivot was a boon!

Udacity, for its part, should be applauded for not burning through all of its money in pursuit of the wrong strategy. The company realized — and publicly acknowledged — that its future lay on a different path than it had originally anticipated. Indeed, Udacity’s pivot may have even prevented a MOOC bubble from bursting.

Educating the disadvantaged via MOOCs is the wrong strategy? That’s not a pivot — it’s an abject surrender.

The Economist, meanwhile, brushed off the San Jose State episode by noting that “online learning has its pitfalls.” But the Economist also published a revealing observation: “In some ways MOOCs will reinforce inequality … among students (the talented will be much more comfortable than the weaker outside the structured university environment) …”

But isn’t that exactly the the problem? No one can deny that the access to information facilitated by the Internet is a fantastic thing for talented students — and particularly so for those with secure economic backgrounds and fast Internet connections. But such people are most likely to succeed in a world full of smart robots anyway. The challenge posed by technological transformation and disruption is that the jobs that are being automated away first are the ones that are most suited to the less talented or advantaged. In other words, the population that MOOCs are least suited to serving is the population that technology is putting in the most vulnerable position.

Innovation and the free market aren’t going to fix this problem, for the very simple reason that there is no money in it. There’s no profit to be mined in educating people who not only can’t pay for an education, but also require greater human resources to be educated.

This is why we have public education in the first place.

“College is a public good,” says Jonathan Rees, a professor at Colorado State University who has been critical of MOOCs. “It’s what industrialized democratic society should be providing for students.”

Andrew Leonard Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomy

by Ali Bektaş on July 24, 2014

Post image for Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomyThousands of Kurds seek to break down the Turkish-Syrian border to join their comrades in defending the autonomous Kurdish enclave of Rojova from ISIS.

Photo: Kurdish resistance fighters mobilize against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, from archive (November 2012).

The struggle to abolish borders which separate peoples from each other, is commonly represented by certain well known and extreme examples. The militarized wall between the US and Mexico is one clear case in the consciousness of the Western left. Another disgusting manifestation is the stranglehold of Israel’s apartheid wall around the West Bank. Less well known, despite a hundred years of fierce struggle, are the borders that separate the 40 million Kurdish peoples from each other and which span across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The Kurdish aspiration to destroy these borders is reaching its peak today on the boundary that separates Turkey and Syria. As a result of decades of resistance to these nation states, the radical Kurds of Turkey and Syria are taking advantage of the geopolitical shake-up in the region and are declaring their regional autonomy. But before we examine the current situation, a brief sketch of the historical context is in order.

A History of Struggle

In the midst of the First World War, the semi-secret Skyes-Picot pact between Britain and France prefigured the borders which would define Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq for a hundred years to come. After a four year war under the helm of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern-day Turkey, the Turkish Republic was formed with the Lausanne Agreement in 1923. Turkey was not only a project resulting from an independence war but also from the creation of an artificial national identity. This Turkish identity began to erase all other ethnicities and cultures which it regarded as a threat, and the Kurdish people were at the top of this list. After being carved up and divided by the imperial powers of Europe, the Kurds now found themselves being erased by the budding Turkish nationalism.

The 20th century history of the Kurds within the borders of Turkey is ripe with rebellions and ensuing massacres such as the events of Dersim that started in 1938. This instance alone left more than 10,000 Kurds dead and at least as many forcefully removed from their homes. Without a doubt, the most resilient Kurdish resistance movement emerged with the formation of the the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, in 1978. Formed by Marxist-Leninist students and led by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK became a formidable enemy of the Turkish state as it waged a guerrilla war of independence, most aggressively in the late 1980s and 1990s.

At that time, the goal of the PKK was to create a unified Kurdistan along socialist principles. The PKK operated training camps across the border from Turkey in Iraq but more notably in Syria, especially in the Bekaa Valley near Lebanon. As a testament to its transborder aspirations, the PKK and its leader Öcalan left a deep mark on Kurds in Western Kurdistan, located in northern Syria. The 30 year civil war left more than 60,000 people dead within Turkish borders, the vast majority of them Kurds, members and sympathizers of the PKK, as well as 4,500 Kurdish villages evacuated and burnt by the Turkish military.

In 1999, Turkish special forces were able to capture Öcalan from exile in Rome (via Kenya), and the scope of the Kurdish struggle started to take a new form. From his extreme isolation in an island prison in the middle of the Marmara Sea, Öcalan began to make references to the Zapatistas and even to the relatively obscure social ecologist Murray Bookchin. The war for independence became transformed into one for autonomy, self-governance and expression of their identity such as using the Kurdish language, banned until very recently. More emphasis was placed upon the non-guerilla organizations of the Kurdish people, both their legal political parties but also on different modes of civil disobedience and the beginnings of an autonomous mode of federative governance.

The Kurds in Turkey had not been the only group under the yoke of a repressive nationalist Kemalism. Secularism, one of the pillars of the Turkish Republic, had been steadfastly preserved by its guardian — the Turkish Armed Forces — which targeted various stripes of Islamists vowing for power. But the tables turned at the turn of the century when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) put forth a program conjoining neoliberal development and Islam and swiftly rose to power. The AKP, with the rabid yet shrewd Erdoğan as its chief, became the first Turkish government to start a dialogue with PKK leadership in Oslo in 2008. Although mostly window-dressing, such interchange was unheard of until that moment.

In Kurdistan, the Sun Rises from the West

Today, the situation for the Kurds has taken a different turn with the dawn of the Arab Spring and its spread to Syria. The Syrian people were not able to bring a swift departure to their despotic leader Bashar Al-Assad as had been the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Instead, the country plunged into a still raging war against the last remaining Ba’athist dictatorship in the region. From this desperate mess emerged Rojova on July 19, 2012.

Rojova, meaning West in Kurdish, was the product of what is referred to as a Democratic People’s Revolution by those who took advantage of the weakening of the Ba’athist regime, namely the PYD (the Democratic Unity Party). Their territory is comprised of three cantons in northern Syria, Cizîr to the East, Efrîn to the West and Kobanê in the middle. Instead of forming a state, the PYD seek to implement democratic autonomy and self-governance with assemblies that extend down to the neighborhood level. In January of this year, their Democratic Autonomous Assembly passed a “social agreement” which guaranteed decentralization, free education in the native tongue, healthcare, housing and an end to child labor and any discrimination against women.

The radical Kurdish movement’s emphasis on women’s autonomy and empowerment must be underlined. There have been numerous PKK units and guerrilla camps which are only for women. Nearly all political organizations they form have two leaders, one a man and another a woman. Following in this tradition, on April 2, 2012 in Rojava, the autonomous force the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces) was formed within the YPG (the People’s Defense Forces). Both the YPG and YPJ have had to defend the revolution of Rojova nearly constantly from both the Ba’athist regime as well as the various stripes of Islamists who have turned Syria into the latest front of their jihad.

A Gang called ISIS

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, gradually matured into a full-fledged Salafist organization and expanded its operations to Syria, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Their form of jihad and power struggle led to their disavowal by Al Qaeda earlier this year, and ISIS quickly became the reigning address for Islamic extremists looking to join the holy war. ISIS stepped into the limelight of the Western media with its capture of Mosul in Iraq on June 10, 2014. But the autonomous regions of Rojova have also been under a fierce ISIS assault for more than a year.

Three weeks ago, on July 2, ISIS began a siege of Rojova’s central canton of Kobanê, using military equipment and munitions captured following their victory in Mosul. ISIS is trying to take Kobanê from the east, west and south and this ongoing siege constitutes the most serious threat that Rojova has come under thus far. The Kurdish movement in Turkey identifies deeply with Rojova since the PYD has been enormously influenced by the leadership of Öcalan. Therefore, a threat to the revolution in Rojova also constitutes a serious threat for the aspirations of regional autonomy for Kurds living within the borders of Turkey. In addition, many believe that the Turkish state is using ISIS for a proxy war against Kurdish autonomy by supplying them with arms and intelligence and free movement across its borders.

Following the ISIS siege of Kobanê, Kurdish and Leftist political actors in Turkey — namely the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) — mobilized to intervene in the situation. Starting on July 9, they set up four different encampments along the border in strategic locations to prevent regular ISIS movements in and out of Turkey so they could bring their wounded to Turkish hospitals and receive logistical support from the Turkish state. These encampments have also been used as staging grounds to cross the border en masse to join the YPG and YPJ forces in their defense of Kobanê. The current climate within the Kurdish movement in Turkey is one of a wartime mobilization with daily calls by party members for the youth to remove the borders and join the defense forces in Rojova.

One of the largest crossings in defiance of the border came on July 14, when approximately 300 youth crossed into Kobanê and were greeted by YPG members on the other side who would guide them across the minefield between the border and Kobanê. But this was only the prelude to what would be a historic celebration of the Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy, on the second anniversary of the revolution in Rojova.

Destroying the Border

All day and into the night on July 18, thousands of Kurds flooded into the encampment in the township of Pirsus (Suruç in Turkish). Tents had been set up near the village of Alizer, a village literally divided by the border between Turkey and Syria. People came from all over Kurdistan to celebrate the revolution in Rojova and to remove the border so as to join their compatriots on the other side in their war against ISIS.

The next day, on the 19th, the air was filled with the dry dust as the camp was set up in the middle of a fallow field under gusts of scorching winds. The sun shone hard at 45ºC, yet people kept coming and joining in the ongoing halay (a circular dance popular amongst Kurds). With more people came more and more tanks and armored personal carriers of the Turkish military as well as the water canons and other armored vehicles of the police.

The tanks and troops of the Turkish military arrived from a nearby base which has on its entrance the words “The border is honor” emblazoned on its entrance. Yet the Kurdish villagers and militant youth were not intimidated by the show of force and remained determined to destroy this border between them and their comrades under siege. On the other side of the border, thousands of Kurds from Kobanê arrived to embrace those separated from them by a flimsy barbed wire. As nighttime set in and the air became cooler, fireworks started to light the sky in a great celebration of the revolution. People were restless and the barbed wire lost any semblance of a deterrent it once represented. The stage was set for a spectacular confrontation.

And that confrontation came as promised. After the wires were clipped, a few hundred Kurdish youth crossed into Kobanê to be greeted by a delegation from the YPG. The police and military brutally attacked the celebration launching hundreds of teargas canisters into the area, as well as assaulting the crowd with batons and water cannons. The perseverance of the people was pure inspiration as everyone from the most bold and wild youth to old grannies joined the resistance against the forces of the Turkish state with rocks, molotov cocktails and fireworks. From the stage came directives for people to come and join those fighting or at least to come with their cars to help evacuate the wounded. After a two hour battle, the police and soldiers forced their way into the area with the tents and set fire to it all.

Five hours later, the military launched an operation at another encampment 30 kilometers away, near the village of Ziyaret, at the township of Birecik. The front lines of the siege of the Kobanê canton is visible from this point and this camp was strategically placed to sabotage ISIS movements and provide support and solidarity to the YPG. The people at that camp fought the military off and regained control of the camp only to have to endure another more vicious attack the following morning, on July 21, during which soldiers and police burned the tents and destroyed the cars of those there, arresting eight people after beating them.

Rojova for the Middle East

In the Western media, when one hears of Kurds or Kurdistan it is most often in reference to Mesud Barzani and the Kurdish territory under his control in Northern Iraq, which has also extended its sovereignty in the current context created by ISIS. It must be pointed out that this political formation has minimal affinity with the radical revolutionary one launched by the PYD in Rojova. In fact, both the PYD and PKK often find themselves in open conflict with Barzani’s vision for the Kurds. Occasionally doing the bidding of colonial states, Barzani is also a frequent visitor of Erdoğan. In fact, as recent as last week he flew to Ankara to meet with him and discuss the situation unfolding in the region.

The siege around Kobanê by ISIS is continuing but the YPG and YPJ are determined to thwart it and as of today have begun to take back territory from them. Meanwhile, their comrades on the Turkish side of the border have begun to rebuild the encampment at the village of Ziyaret and vow to stay there until ISIS is fought off. They see the defense of Kobanê as the crucial battle to keep the battle for Kurdish autonomy alive. Many compare this current mobilization to that which took place in defense of the Spanish Revolution against the fascists in the late 1930s. The crushing of the Spanish Revolution had global repercussions that are still being felt today. Similarly, the perseverance of the revolution in Rojova is the only remote hope for a different kind of Middle East, where peoples come together in solidarity with each other rather than at war under sectarianism stoked by colonial powers.

The author can be reached at ali@riseup.net.

 

Former State Department employee reveals spying on Americans by executive order

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By Ed Hightower
25 July 2014

In the latest revelation of unconstitutional spying on US citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA), former State Department employee John Napier Tye has given his account of ongoing violations of privacy under cover of a legal fig leaf known as Executive Order 12333.

Last week the Washington Post published Tye’s lengthy criticism of the Obama administration under the title “Meet Executive Order 12333: The Reagan rule that lets the NSA spy on Americans.” The editorial underscores both the immense scope of illegal spying by an unaccountable military-intelligence apparatus and the sham character of the official “reform.”

President Ronald Reagan enacted Executive Order 12333 in 1981. The order was aimed at providing a lax legal standard for the collection of communication content —not just metadata such as call logs—of US citizens, as long as the communication was not obtained within the United States.

While 12333 was legally dubious even in 1981, it was not until the widespread transfer of data over the internet that it could be exploited for the mass collection of communications. Enormous amounts of data and communications generated by Americans in the form of emails, for example, are now routinely routed to servers all over the world, bringing the data within the now much broader reach of 12333.

Tye’s editorial calls attention to 12333, saying that the order is now used to justify possibly more illegal surveillance than Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which sanctions bulk collection of telecommunications records. While Section 215 has garnered more public attention, Tye argues that it “is a small part of the picture and does not include the universe of collection and storage of communications by US persons authorized under Executive Order 12333.”

Referring to “classified facts that I am prohibited by law from publishing,” Tye writes, “I believe that Americans should be even more concerned about the collection and storage of their communications under Executive Order 12333 than under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act].”

Because it is an executive order as opposed to a statute, 12333 is subject to virtually zero oversight. The attorney general, who is part of the executive branch and serves at the pleasure of the president, determines what restraints, if any, apply. Currently, intelligence agencies are permitted to keep data obtained pursuant to 12333 for up to five years.

Nor does 12333 typically require a warrant. Tye explains that the NSA keeps data obtained through 12333 even if it is not directly related to a surveillance target who was subject to a warrant. This so-called “incidental” collection represents the exception that swallows the rule.

As Tye describes it, incidental collection is “a legal loophole that can be stretched very wide. Remember that the NSA is building a data center in Utah five times the size of the U.S. Capitol building, with its own power plant that will reportedly burn $40 million a year in electricity. ‘Incidental collection’ might need its own power plant.”

Tye worked for the State Department from 2011 until this past April. He currently serves as legal director for the nonprofit advocacy group Avaaz. His Post article was reviewed and cleared by the State Department and NSA prior to publication. Before he left his State Department job, Tye filed a complaint about 12333-related spying with the department’s inspector general, and he eventually brought this complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees, as well as to the inspector general of the NSA.

While Tye did not leak any documents or data to the press, it is clear that what he saw and heard at the State Department deeply troubled him.

He begins his Washington Post piece with this disturbing anecdote:

“In March I received a call from the White House counsel’s office regarding a speech I had prepared for my boss at the State Department… The draft stated that ‘if U.S. citizens disagree with congressional and executive branch determinations about the proper scope of signals intelligence activities, they have the opportunity to change the policy through our democratic process.’”

“But the White House counsel’s office told me that no, that wasn’t true. I was instructed to amend the line, making a general reference to ‘our laws and policies,’ rather than our intelligence practices. I did.”

In other words, Tye was directed to remove from his speech something that might give the misleading impression that the US population has any meaningful oversight where the military-intelligence apparatus is concerned.

In his op-ed comment, Tye also points out the Obama administration’s “reforms” are bogus. Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recommended that data obtained by incidental collection should be purged. Tye writes that an unclassified document he saw while working with the State Department made the White House’s position clear: there were no plans to change the practices around Executive Order 12333.

The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future

Our new robot overlords:

Are computers taking our jobs?

Our new robot overlords: The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future
(Credit: Ociacia, MaraZe via Shutterstock/Salon)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Last fall economist Carl Benedikt Frey and information engineer Michael A. Osborne, both at the University of Oxford, published a study estimating the probability that 702 occupations would soon be computerized out of existence. Their findings were startling. Advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence and other technologies could, they argued, put 47 percent of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the years ahead. Loan officers, tax preparers, cashiers, locomotive engineers, paralegals, roofers, taxi drivers and even animal breeders are all in danger of going the way of the switchboard operator.

Whether or not you buy Frey and Osborne’s analysis, it is undeniable that something strange is happening in the U.S. labor market. Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. At the same time, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product increased from around 5 to 11 percent, while compensation of employees as a share of GDP dropped from around 47 to 43 percent. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both business researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, call this divergence the “great decoupling.” In their view, presented in their recent book “The Second Machine Age,” it is a historic shift.

The conventional economic wisdom has long been that as long as productivity is increasing, all is well. Technological innovations foster higher productivity, which leads to higher incomes and greater well-being for all. And for most of the 20th century productivity and incomes did rise in parallel. But in recent decades the two began to diverge. Productivity kept increasing while incomes—which is to say, the welfare of individual workers—stagnated or dropped.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they are creating them. They cite research showing that so-called routine jobs (bank teller, machine operator, dressmaker) began to fade in the 1980s, when computers first made their presence known, but that the rate has accelerated: between 2001 and 2011, 11 percent of routine jobs disappeared.



Plenty of economists disagree, but it is hard to referee this debate, in part because of a lack of data. Our understanding of the relation between technological advances and employment is limited by outdated metrics. At a roundtable discussion on technology and work convened this year by the European Union, the IRL School at Cornell University and the Conference Board (a business research association), a roomful of economists and financiers repeatedly emphasized how many basic economic variables are measured either poorly or not at all. Is productivity declining? Or are we simply measuring it wrong? Experts differ. What kinds of workers are being sidelined, and why? Could they get new jobs with the right retraining? Again, we do not know.

In 2013 Brynjolfsson told Scientific American that the first step in reckoning with the impact of automation on employment is to diagnose it correctly—“to understand why the economy is changing and why people aren’t doing as well as they used to.” If productivity is no longer a good proxy for a vigorous economy, then we need a new way to measure economic health. In a 2009 report economists Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, Amartya Sen of Harvard University and Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Paris Institute of Political Studies made a similar case, writing that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” An IRL School report last year called for statistical agencies to capture more and better data on job market churn—data that could help us learn which job losses stem from automation.

Without such data, we will never properly understand how technology is changing the nature of work in the 21st century—and what, if anything, should be done about it. As one participant in this year’s roundtable put it, “Even if this is just another industrial revolution, people underestimate how wrenching that is. If it is, what are the changes to the rules of labor markets and businesses that should be made this time? We made a lot last time. What is the elimination of child labor this time? What is the eight-hour workday this time?”

 

Nearly one quarter of US children in poverty

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By Andre Damon
23 July 2014

Nearly one in four children in the United States lives in a family below the federal poverty line, according to figures presented in a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A total of 16.3 million children live in poverty, and 45 percent of children in the US live in households whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

The annual report, titled the Kids Count Data Book, compiles data on children’s economic well-being, education, health, and family support. It concludes that, “inequities among children remain deep and stubbornly persistent.”

The report is an indictment of the state of American society nearly six years after the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. While the Obama administration and the media have proclaimed an economic “recovery,” conditions of life for the vast majority of the population continue to deteriorate.

The report notes that the percentage of children in poverty hit 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 16 percent in 2000. Some states are much worse. For almost the entire American South, the share of children in poverty is higher than 25 percent.

These conditions are the product of a ruthless class policy pursued at all levels of government. While trillions of dollars have been made available to Wall Street, sending both the stock markets and corporate profits to record highs, economic growth has stagnated, social programs have been slashed, and public services decimated, while prices of many basic items are on the rise. Jobs that have been “created” are overwhelmingly part-time or low-wage.

“We’ve yet to see the recovery from the economic recession,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who helped produce the report. “The child poverty rate is connected to parents’ employment and how much they are getting paid,” added Ms. Speer in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The jobs that are being created in this economy, including temporary and low-wage jobs, are not good enough to keep children out of poverty,” she added.

The Kids Count report notes, “Declining economic opportunity for parents without a college degree in the context of growing inequality has meant that children’s life chances are increasingly constrained by the socioeconomic status of their parents.” The percentage of children who live in high-poverty communities has likewise increased significantly, with 13 percent of children growing up in communities where more than 30 percent of residents are poor, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Speer added that, given the significant run-up in home prices over the previous two decades, “the housing cost burden has gotten worse.” She noted that the share of children who live in households that spend more than one third of their annual income on housing has hit 38 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990. In states such as California, these figures are significantly higher.

“In many cases families are living doubled up and sleeping on couches to afford very expensive places like New York City,” she added. “Paying such a large share of your income for rent means that parents have to decide between whether or not to pay the rent or to pay the utility bills. It’s not a matter of making choices over things that are luxuries, it’s choosing between necessities.”

The report concludes, “As both poverty and wealth have become more concentrated residentially, evidence suggests that school districts and individual schools are becoming increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status.”

In most of the United States, K-12 education is funded through property taxes, and there are significant differences in education funding based on local income levels. “Kids who grow up in low-income neighborhoods have much less access to education: that’s only been exacerbated over the last 25 years,” Speer said.

The Kids Count survey follows the publication in April of Feeding America’s annual report, which showed that one in five children live in households that do not regularly get enough to eat. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012. Sixteen million children, or 21.6 percent, do not get enough to eat. The rate of food insecurity in the United States is nearly twice that of the European Union.

According to the US government’s supplemental poverty measure, 16.1 percent of the US population—nearly 50 million people—is in poverty, up from 12.2 percent of the population in 2000.

The Kids Count report notes that the ability of single mothers to get a job is particularly sensitive to the state of the economy, and that the employment rate of single mothers with children under 6 years old has fallen from 69 percent in 2000 to 60 percent ten years later. This has taken place even as anti-poverty measures such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have been made conditional on parents finding work.

The report noted that enrollment in the federal Head Start program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds dropped off when the “recession decimated state budgets and halted progress.” It added that cutbacks to federal and state anti-poverty programs, as well as health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, are contributing to the growth of poverty and inequality.

With the “sequester” budget cuts signed by the Obama administration in early 2013, most federal anti-poverty programs are being slashed by five percent each year for a decade. “Programs like head start, LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], and other federal programs are really a lifeline in a lot of families,” Speer said.

Since the implementation of the sequester cuts, Congress and the Obama administration have slashed food stamp spending on two separate occasions and put an end to federal extended jobless benefits for more than three million long-term unemployed people and their families. These measures can be expected to throw hundreds of thousands more children into poverty.

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

By brutalizing Palestinians, Israel dehumanizes itself

by Jerome Roos on July 22, 2014

Post image for By brutalizing Palestinians, Israel dehumanizes itself

As bombs rain down on hospitals and Israeli politicians call for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, it becomes clear that you cannot reason with fanaticism.

 

Photo: Palestinian men mourn the death of their relatives, whom medics said were killed in Israeli shelling, at a hospital morgue in Rafah in the southern Gaza strip (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa).

Two small bodies lie on the metal table inside the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa hospital. Omama is nine years old. Her right forearm is mangled and charred and the top half of her skull has been smashed in. Beside her lies her seven year-old brother. His name is not certain. It might be Hamza or Khalil. Relatives are having trouble identifying him because his head has been shorn off. Their parents will not mourn them — because they are dead too.

Just another day in Gaza, as the list of Israeli atrocities keeps on growing. Young children have been bombed to death while playing on the beach; white phosphorous bombs and flechette shells are being deployed against civilian populations; yet another hospital has been shelled by Israeli tanks. These are all simple statements of fact, but they can never describe the horror felt by ordinary Gazans as the F-16s thunder past, the bombs rain down from the skies, the tanks close in on their homes, and the drones zoom ominously overhead.

On Sunday, 67 Palestinians were killed in a single attack when the IDF virtually obliterated the entire neighborhood of Shujaya. As bystanders tried to evacuate the dead and wounded, Israeli troops targeted an ambulance, killing a paramedic. When a young man, accompanied by a team of international volunteers, went searching for surviving family members amid the wreckage of his home, an Israeli sniper shot him in cold blood, and kept firing even as he lay wounded on the ground — until the man eventually stopped moving.

By Tuesday morning, at least 600 Palestinians had been killed, up to three quarters of them civilians and a third of them children, with over 3.000 injured, many facing lifelong disabilities. Meanwhile, as Israel continues to bomb schools and hospitals and 100.000 terrorized civilians flee their homes by foot, with nowhere left to run or hide, The Guardian reports that “groups of Israelis gather each evening on hilltops close to the Gaza border to cheer, whoop and whistle as bombs rain down on people in a hellish warzone a few miles away.”

In Israel, room for debate on the occupation has always been practically non-existent, but it is now more obvious than ever that it is simply impossible to reason with the growing fanaticism that has grabbed a hold of the country. When a small group of brave Israeli pro-peace activists staged a protest against the assault on Gaza in Tel Aviv this weekend, they were pelted with rocks, beaten with sticks, and chased down the street by a 2.000-strong mob of warmongering, flag-waving nationalists — some of them actually wearing neo-Nazi T-shirts. An exasperated Israeli friend described to me the “hatred in the eyes” of her fellow countrymen and relayed the ominous atmosphere inside Israel: “It’s crazy and scary here. All you see and hear is the far-right. 90% of the people in Israel are pro-war. The reasons vary but they are the majority.”

Its hand strengthened by this rising tide of racist belligerence, the Israeli political establishment now appears to be dropping the veil of democratic pretensions altogether. Three weeks ago, the ultra-nationalist Knesset member Ayelet Shaked openly called for the death of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes”, and just last week, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, who is a key member of the ruling Likud party, called for the occupation and annexation of Gaza and the expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants:

After the IDF completes the ‘softening’ of the targets with its firepower, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations … Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel.

These statements, in combination with the brute force brought down upon Gaza’s civilian population, leave absolutely no room for doubt or ambiguity: while a pliant President Obama and spineless European leaders still “strongly affirm Israel’s right to defend itself,” leading Israeli politicians have already taken to openly advocating genocide and ethnic cleansing. No longer should we mince our words for fear of alienating our audience — this is what is at stake in Gaza today. You cannot reason with such bloodthirsty fanaticism.

Many well-intentioned but ill-informed liberals in the West still like to take the moral high ground and criticize those who “take sides” in this “conflict,” elevating abstract principles of “peace” over any meaningful political engagement with the reality on the ground. Tragically, the reality is that the Israeli government and the vast majority of Jewish-Israeli citizens are not the least bit interested in peace — they prefer a dramatic escalation of the Gaza offensive. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, one of the last-remaining pillars of conscience in the Israeli public debate, puts it in straightforward fashion: “Israel does not want peace” — its “real purpose in Gaza is to kill Arabs.”

Now that Israeli society is starting to pay a price for its unlawful occupation and its military incursion into Gaza — in the form of its invading soldiers returning home in body bags — the mood of fanaticism is likely to intensify even further. “Hamas killed my friend,” a former IDF conscript told The Guardian. “We need to kill them — not just the Hamas militants but all the people in Gaza.” Another young Israeli in Jerusalem put it in similarly blunt terms: “Of course I’m against a ceasefire, we need to continue … Palestinians don’t care about human life, whereas we appreciate life. We want to live, they want to die.” Again, as the complete lack of empathy and the thorough dehumanization of the colonized other clearly indicate, you cannot reason with fanaticism.

As Israel intensifies its offensive, as the crimes against humanity continue to pile up, as leading politicians and ordinary citizens whip up the racist frenzy, as the cheerleaders of war gather with popcorn on the hill to witness the spectacle of civilian slaughter from up high, and as the courageous Israeli voices of reason are drowned out by the hate speech of rock-throwing nationalists, the world is forced to recognize that Israel has absolutely no interest in peace — and never had either. Frothing at the mouth with a fanatical disregard for human life or dignity, the occupier has brutalized its victim to the point of dehumanizing itself. Those who continue to waver in ambiguous aloofness and false neutrality in the face of these historic injustices will end up being remembered for it.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

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