Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Potential of Debtors' Unions

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Financial markets are political. Stock markets, bond markets and derivatives markets do not merely (or even primarily) raise capital for goods and services. Rather, they all have direct and often harmful effects on people's everyday lives.
Our public universities issue bonds to cover the shortfall from tax cuts and, in turn, use ever-rising tuition dollars as collateral. Our mortgage, car and credit card payments are all securitized into short-term, lucrative investments for banks and investors, while for us they are shelter, food, and merely getting by. The municipal bond and sovereign debt markets have had plainly disastrous effects from Detroit to Puerto Rico to Greece - but for some they have been spectacularly profitable.
If financial markets are political, how can we contest them and their effects? What does civil disobedience and collective power look like in the age of finance? The Debt Collective is attempting to answer that question by piloting a new kind of organization: a debtors' union.
You Say Finance, We Say Debt
Today, 75 percent of US households hold consumer debt. All indications are that for most Americans, debt has become a basic fact of life - a circumstance necessary just to get by.
Of indebted households, 40 percent use credit cards to cover basic living costs including rent, food, and utilities. Some 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in the US are linked to illness and health care costs. In the wake of the mortgage crisis, African American families lost 50 percent of their collective wealth and Latino communities have lost an astounding 67 percent of total wealth.
In households that do not use formal banking services, 10 percent of families' annual income goes to alternative financial services including revolving debts and exorbitant interest payments to check cashers and payday lenders. In 2015, US students graduated from college with an average of $35,000 in debt, and defaults on student debt are now occurring at the rate of one million per year.
These experiences of mass indebtedness ramify through credit scores and reports, which ensure that people with lower scores pay higher interest rates, have a harder time finding places to live, and in many cases are even denied opportunities for work, thus reproducing cycles of debt and inequality.
Cities, states and entire countries have also been remade in the current debt-finance nexus. While both municipal and sovereign bonds have been in use for centuries (to fund infrastructure, public education and war, among other state endeavors), municipal debt alone has increased 800 percent over the past thirty years. As tax receipts have plummeted, cities turn increasingly to Wall Street for money, and they have been met with LIBOR fraud, toxic swaps, and capital appreciation bonds with ballooning interest rates on the order of payday loans.
Massive bankruptcies in Jefferson County, Alabama and Detroit, Michigan, offer two recent examples of what happens when the finance industry decides where and how to invest municipal capital, always demanding a profit on "public" investment. And of course we all watched with baited breath as Greece took on its creditors in a protracted battle over control of a semi-sovereign state. The fight in Greece was only the most recent sovereign debt struggle in the era of finance, and was preceded of course by Argentina, Mexico, Indonesia, Mozambique, and most of the Global South in the era of structural adjustment.
Widespread municipal, state and sovereign austerity mean ever more virulent forms of individual indebtedness. According to a recently filed class-action lawsuit, the city of Ferguson, Missouri runs a modern debtors' prison scheme in which impoverished people are routinely jailed because they are unable to pay debts incurred in the "criminal justice" system. The lawsuit details how Ferguson families take money needed for food, clothing, rent and utilities to pay ever-increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges. When they cannot pay, they are imprisoned.
Debt, Power and Exploitation
Needless to say, Ferguson is not alone. Across the United States, debt (along with outright state terror) often acts as a fearsome mechanism of racist social control - Jefferson County's and Detroit's bankruptcies must also be understood in this light. From Ferguson to Greece, debt is about power and subordination as much as it is about repayment at a profit.
It is no coincidence that these forms of indebtedness have risen exponentially along with the rise of Wall Street. Since business leaders re-discovered a more confrontational and unified class-based politics from above, they have managed to shrink wages and worker power while directing governments' budgets away from the provision of public goods and the anti-poverty measures of the post-WWII period. Yet business profitability depends on consumer demand - indeed, global capitalism during the neoliberal era has relied in large part on the power of US consumers' inclination to push their money back into the dollar-driven import-export cycle.
In the face of stagnant or declining wages, the obvious solution has been simply to lend consumers the money. More credit/debt means that an increasingly financialized business class actually gets paid (in the form of interest, fees and derivative profits) to provide the rest of us the money needed to keep demand inflated (until it pops!).
It is more profitable for the creditor class - in the short and medium term - to lend money at interest than to transfer it in wages. And as the government has offloaded the costs of public goods including medical care and education onto consumers, the demand for debt has only grown. In other words, credit has stepped in to "compensate" for falling wages, and debt thus becomes one of the central mechanisms of exploitation.
What does this mean for us? As finance capitalism expands, so too do our debts: the financial sector has rapidly become the way we access many basic goods and services - food, shelter, medical care, education.
In this terrain of mass indebtedness, disempowerment, and debtors' prisons, what does collective action look like? What does civil disobedience look like in the age of finance? What forms of material and conceptual subversion can we imagine?
Financial Disobedience
Debt fuels crises, taking power out of the hands of all but the financial capitalist class. Yet it also presents an opportunity for a new form of resistance to capitalist exploitation. The threat of crisis can be leverage for debtors.
Experienced alone, debt is isolating, frightening and morally laden with shame and guilt. Indebtedness is being afraid to open the mail or pick up the phone. But as a platform for collective action, debt can be powerful. Consider oil tycoon JP Getty's adage: "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem." Student debt alone stands today at $1.3 trillion. Together, we can be the banks' problem.
Let's think back for a moment to the mortgage crisis, when non-payment of mortgage debts essentially took down the global economy. We can learn several things from this catastrophe. First, it is a great illustration of the centrality of debt payments to capital accumulation and stability today. Second, these mortgage debts could never have been repaid in the first place. In the financial frenzy of mortgage backed securities, reckless creditors interested only in short-term profit concocted wildly unsustainable lending schemes, selling borrowers mortgage packages they could never have paid off. The failure, in other words, was already baked in; the only question was, who would pay for it?
The bailout ensured that homeowners paid while banks, massive insurance companies, and bondholders were made whole. And homeowners did not lose equally. Quantitative data in the American Sociological Review shows that the mortgage crisis represents one of the largest destructions of the wealth of people of color in US history.
To be clear, it is not simply a matter of the crisis disproportionately impacting diverse populations. Rather, Black Americans have long been the target of economic violence, and 2008 was no exception. At the time, Wells Fargo loan officers devastated entire communities by pushing hundreds of Baltimore area homeowners (referred to as "mud people" by banking staff) with good credit into high-interest subprime mortgages they called "ghetto loans."
The aftershocks of these practices are still being felt, in Baltimore and beyond. The results of the mortgage crisis were so devastating in part because, while banks and their lobbyists were well-organized to fight for debt relief, the rest of us were not. ("They got bailed out. We got sold out.") Imagine if the power of mortgage-holders - paradoxically, the power of their collective debt - had been deployed collectively and tactically to retain homes while forcing bondholders and creditors to sustain the losses. That is one potential of a debtors' union.
Debt Resistance and Higher Education
Aiming to build collective power through debt organizing, but rigorously cautious about the pitfalls, we in the Debt Collective have been nosing our way towards a debtors' union for a few years. Many of us first started plotting on the streets of Manhattan during Occupy.
We educated ourselves about the nitty gritty of interlocking debt systems by collectively authoring a critical analysis cum financial literacy guide that we called the Debt Resister's Operations Manual. We gained some unexpected mainstream media attention with our first initiative, the Rolling Jubilee, through which we have now bought and abolished nearly $32 million of medical and student loan debt on the secondary debt market for mere pennies on the dollar.
But these tactics were only preliminary - attempts to undermine two of the weapons in creditors' arsenals: obscurantism and promissory moralism. When, via the Rolling Jubilee, we chanced upon a portfolio of private student debt from what was then one of the biggest chains of for-profit colleges in the country, Corinthian Colleges Inc., we knew we had found an opportunity to see if a confrontational form of debtor organizing could work.
Higher education offers both an exemplary case study of financialization and fertile ground for contesting that process. During the administration of Governor Reagan in California, states and the federal government began dramatically defunding both public and private universities. That process continued through the 2008 financial crisis and beyond. Early on, defunding was partly a right-wing attack on the institutions that nurtured 1960s radicalism. More recently, it has become a bipartisan class politics and a hallmark of neoliberalism.
While lamenting state cuts to higher education, college administrators have used the funding crisis to take on debt from Wall Street, frequently using tuition as collateral. This allows colleges to fund projects that have nothing to do with education, such as the construction of lavish stadiums and investments in real estate ventures. In league with Wall Street, the schools promise to pay off this debt by hiking tuition, forcing students further into the red.
In addition to turning ostensibly public universities into profit centers for the financial industry, student indebtedness has disastrous socio-cultural effects. Debt forces people to live lives focused on getting out of debt, rather than defining themselves or pursuing their curiosity and passion. Debt, again, becomes a successful disciplinary technique, eliminating life paths that don't produce for capital.
For-profit colleges take debt-financed higher education to its extreme. Their business model is to attract as many students disenfranchised by the mainstream educational system as possible, compelling them to mortgage their futures in return for subprime educations while funneling federal student loan money to executives and shareholders.
Getting Organized
For-profit schools are notorious for running afoul of the law. Corinthian Colleges Inc., once the nation's largest for-profit educational chain, was no exception. The company has been accused of fraud and predatory lending by everyone from Attorneys General to the CFPB, gaming the federal student loan system to the tune of $1.4 billion in federal grant and loan dollars in 2010 alone, more than the ten University of California campuses combined for that same year.
As Corinthian's many scandals grew increasingly public in the summer of 2014, a small group of former students had already begun to organize. Collaborating with these students, and enrolling technology experts and lawyers daring enough to take us seriously, we began to work closely with a group of 15 former Corinthian students who were ready to publicly declare their refusal to make any more payments on their federal student loans.
To broaden the reach of this action to all current and former Corinthian students, including those who would choose not to join the strike, we also put together an online legal tool (via what was then a little-known provision in the Higher Education Act known as Defense to Repayment) that allowed students to challenge their debts with the Department of Education.
In February of 2015, after an intensive retreat with the strikers that included legal advice, story sharing, and media training, the Corinthian 15 went public with their history-making strike. Requests to join the strike poured in from current and former Corinthian students across the country.
Rather than merely mark down all of the thousands who wanted to join, we made sure that each potential striker understood the potential consequences of their act - a trashed credit score, wage garnishment, tax return garnishment, social security garnishment - phone call by phone call. Soon the strike had grown to 200 students, and their demand for debt cancellation had been endorsed by politicians and labor unions alike.
With the Corinthian 200 as our pilot union, we have begun to expand outward to other for-profit colleges working on the same model, including ITT Tech and Art Institutes. Organizing debtors is complex, and the barriers to organizing debtors' unions are high. There are no shared factory floors. People in debt to the same institution are often geographically remote and disconnected from one another.
Many debtors don't know who profits when they pay their debts, or who stands to lose if they don't. Debtors struggle to distinguish originators, aggregators, guarantors, and servicers. For instance, most student debtors think they have Sallie Mae loans because Sallie Mae is their servicer. But many are actually in debt to Citibank, Chase, Deutsche or the Department of Education. And of course, once our student loans are pooled and tranched into asset-backed securities, their owners are dispersed further still.
To build collective power in these conditions, we know that we must work towards understanding Wall Street's role in mass indebtedness. That is to say that we must politicize the bond market.
As public institutions like the University of California effectively take orders from Moody's bond rating agency, we must ask: what is the effect on secondary markets of the Federal guarantee of student loans? Who is profiting from student loans? Who is profiting from unsustainable mortgage markets? Who is profiting from municipal debt that wreaks havoc on our communities?
When we can leverage the credible threat of collective, targeted non-payment over banks, when we can force the bond market to take losses, then we will have realized the power of debtors' unions.
As the Corinthian debt strikers continue to press their demands, we know that re-envisioning higher education is only the beginning of what debtors' unions can do. Imagine the power of mortgage-debtors' unions to leverage eminent domain to halt foreclosures, or criminal justice debtors-unions gumming up the works of the debt-to-prison pipeline from Ferguson to Los Angeles.
Debtors' unions can change the spaces of possibility across the unequal landscapes of contemporary capitalism. But only on-the-ground organizing, with all its challenges and imperfections, can make such action possible. Most of this work has never been done before, so a willingness to experiment is in order.
Experimentation With Debt
We see this sort of experimentation-with-debt as complementary to other forms of collective resistance. Debt, after all, is a claim on future wages. As Fight for $15 movements triumph across the country there is little solace to be had if the cost of housing and education continues to skyrocket. A substantial portion of union wages go towards repaying consumer debts, to say nothing of the relationship between massive union pension funds and their role in the financial system. In other words, debt, wages and benefits are intertwined under finance capitalism, and need to be addressed together.
In a way we find exciting, debt organizing and labor organizing have different targets, and thus different (and again, complementary) potential outcomes. Labor organizing targets the employer, workplace regulation and the means of distributing corporate surplus. The workplace's economic role in a worker's life is the payment of wages and benefits, so labor organizing naturally focuses on how we (don't) get paid.
Debt organizing, on the other hand, targets the creditor, the regulation of lending and the means of financing the good or service in question. Thus, debt organizing naturally focuses on how and by whom things we care about (education, healthcare, housing) are paid for. This means that debtors' unions are not simply renegotiating debt but also forcing open questions that the era of finance seems to have foreclosed: how do we even pay for things in the first place?
The challenge is to build a politicized class of debtors who go beyond particular victories toward collective power writ large. One outcome of successful organizing could, of course, be a debt jubilee - perhaps better called a "fast bailout" in which bondholders take deep losses and the slate is wiped relatively clean. But we cannot stop there. A major debt jubilee would be a significant victory, but only if it was coupled with a deep, durable shift in the distribution of political and economic power.
With this shift, both creditors and debtors would negotiate the terms of every contract, and, indeed, produce a world in which indebtedness is no longer required to finance life's most basic needs. Were a jubilee to occur as a "benevolent gift" from creditors to debtors, without an accompanying power shift, crises of indebtedness would continue indefinitely because debtors would remain without a seat at the bargaining table. Moreover, if jubilee were to occur without a substantive reimagining of our economic system, and a collective reckoning with the way debt is and has been used as a mechanism of social control, we will have gained little.
What this new economic system might look like - the ways it would use socially productive forms of debt and credit, the ways it might enable a truly democratic society - remain to be seen. What we know is that debtors' unions could give us a timely tactic through which to build collective power - and it is only through collective power that we will be able to answer these questions for the first time.

The American Empire: Murder Inc.

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Terror, intimidation and violence are the glue that holds empire together. Aerial bombardment, drone and missile attacks, artillery and mortar strikes, targeted assassinations, massacres, the detention of tens of thousands, death squad killings, torture, wholesale surveillance, extraordinary renditions, curfews, propaganda, a loss of civil liberties and pliant political puppets are the grist of our wars and proxy wars.

Countries we seek to dominate, from Indonesia and Guatemala to Iraq and Afghanistan, are intimately familiar with these brutal mechanisms of control. But the reality of empire rarely reaches the American public. The few atrocities that come to light are dismissed as isolated aberrations. The public is assured what has been uncovered will be investigated and will not take place again. The goals of empire, we are told by a subservient media and our ruling elites, are virtuous and noble. And the vast killing machine grinds forward, feeding, as it has always done, the swollen bank accounts of defense contractors and corporations that exploit natural resources and cheap labor around the globe.

There are very few journalists who have covered empire with more courage, tenacity and integrity than Allan Nairn. For more than three decades, he has reported from Central America, East Timor, Palestine, South Africa, Haiti and Indonesia—where Indonesian soldiers fractured his skull and arrested him. His reporting on the Indonesian government massacres in East Timor saw him branded a “threat to national security” and officially banned from occupied East Timor. Nairn returned clandestinely to East Timor on numerous occasions. His dogged reporting of torture and killing of civilians by the Indonesian military contributed to the U.S. Congress suspending military aid to Jakarta in 1993. He exposed U.S. complicity with death squads and paramilitary organizations carrying out murderous rampages in El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti. During the 2014 presidential elections in Indonesia, where he spends much of his time, Nairn was threatened with arrest for exposing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s role in atrocities. Nairn’s reporting on army massacres was an important component in the trial of former Guatemalan President Efrain RĂ­os Montt. Gen. Montt ordered the killing of over 1,700 people in the Ixil region of the country in the early 1980s and was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. The conviction was later overturned.

Nairn, whom I spoke with in New York, reaches back to the genocide carried out against Native Americans, the institution of slavery and the murder of hundreds of workers and labor union organizers in the 19th and early 20th century to explain the roots of American imperial violence. He noted that, although wholesale massacres have become taboo on American soil in recent generations, the FBI was carrying out selective assassinations of black radicals, including Fred Hampton, in the 1960s. And police show little constraint in gunning down unarmed people of color in poor communities.

But overseas there are no restrictions. The indiscriminate slaughter of real or imagined opponents is considered a prerogative of imperial power. Violence is the primary language we use to speak to the rest of the world. Equivalents of Wounded Kneeand My Laitake place beyond our borders with an unacknowledged frequency.

“To this day,” Nairn said, “it is politically permissible for U.S. forces to carry out or sponsor assassinations of civilians—students, journalists, religious leaders, peasant organizers, whomever. In fact, in U.S. politics, if presidents are reluctant, or seem reluctant to do this, they get castigated. They get called a wimp. George Bush Sr. came under vicious attack when he attempted through covert means to mount a coup in Panama against [Manuel] Noriega and it failed. And there was a cover [of Newsweek, with the headline ‘Fighting the “Wimp Factor” ’] where they were attacking Bush Sr. for not being strong enough.”

“I think it was within a week after that he invaded Panama formally, an invasion that included the burning of the neighborhood called El Chorrillo, where hundreds were killed, a poor neighborhood. The New York Times then ran a front-page analysisby R.W. Apple which said that Bush Sr. had completed his presidential initiation rite by demonstrating his willingness to shed blood,” Nairn went on. “Not his own blood, but the blood of foreigners, including of foreign civilians.”

“It’s basically a refusal on the part of American society to enforce the murder laws when the killings are done by presidents or generals, and where the victims are foreigners,” he said. “Now, all big powers do this. But in the recent period, because the U.S. has been the dominant power, the U.S. has the biggest death toll. If you added all the operations up it would go into the several millions. Just to list the ones that I’ve personally seen and tried to expose and fight against: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, South Africa, Palestine, East Timor, Indonesia, southern Thailand. I’m sure I’m leaving out a few. The U.S. has used the Pentagon, the CIA, occasionally the State Department to set up or back local forces, help them gather intelligence on dissidents, and help them provide the means to carry out systematic assassinations.”

Assassinations and torture are often accompanied in these wars and proxy wars by massacres by government troops that routinely “wipe out whole villages,” Nairn said,

“The Guatemalan military did that, especially during the early ’80s when the Reagan administration was backing them enthusiastically under the time of the dictator Gen. Rios Montt,” Nairn said. “They would go into villages in the Mayan highlands in the northwest. ... I was there, I spoke to the soldiers as they were doing it, I spoke to survivors … [and] they would decapitate people. They would crucify people. They would use the tactics that ISIS today puts on video that are now shocking the world.”

“The powers have always been willing to use these tactics,” he said. “And for centuries they were proud of it. All you have to do is look at the holy texts of the major religions—the Bible, the Quran, the Torah. They’re full of one massacre after another. People forget. The story of David and Goliath is put forward as a great story. At the end of that story David decapitates Goliath. He parades around holding up his head. For years and years the powers were proud of these tactics. They advertised it.”

“As recently as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. presidents were still boasting about it,” Nairn said. “Go back and read [Roosevelt’s] writings. He’s repeatedly … talking about the necessity to shed blood, the necessity to kill. Otherwise a person could not be healthy, otherwise a polity could not be healthy. This was Teddy Roosevelt. You can’t do that in today’s U.S. You can’t do that really in any major country today. The only partial exception to that at the level of rhetoric is Israel. Israeli generals and politicians still talk openly about the need to shed Palestinian blood. But they’re really the only ones. Everywhere else—Europe, Russia, China, the U.S.—they have to hide their [activities].”

I first met Nairn in 1984 while I was covering the war in El Salvador. In that year he published an explosive investigative piece in The Progressive magazine titled “Behind the Death Squads.”The article detailed U.S. backing, training and arming of the death squads in El Salvador that were murdering, and often torturing and mutilating, hundreds of people a month. His article led to an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

U.S. commanders in Iraq, attempting to quell the Sunni insurgency in 2004, reached back to the terror tactics used in El Salvador. They formulated a plan called “The Salvador Option”to train and arm Shiite paramilitary units. Former U.S. Army Col. James Steele, who in the 1980s in El Salvador headed the U.S. Military Group or MilGroup, which advised the Salvadoran army during the war, was sent to Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld as a civilian adviser. Steele, who had fought in Vietnam, was assigned to the Iraqi paramilitary Special Police Commandos, a unit known as the “Wolf Brigade.”

U.N. officials, and an investigative team from The Guardian newspaper, later accused these Shiite paramilitary units of widespread death-squad killings and running a network of clandestine detention centers that carried out torture while under Steele’s supervision. The Shiite paramilitary units, which were given money from a $2 billion fund controlled directly by Gen. David Petraeus, terrorized and enraged the Sunni population. The abuse, torture, assassinations and network of clandestine prisons fueled Iraq’s sectarian civil war and led to the creation of radical Sunni groups such as Islamic State.

“The Salvadoran death squad apparatus was created by the U.S., starting during the Kennedy administration through mainly U.S. Special Forces and the CIA,” Nairn said. “[They] … created this intelligence-gathering system which linked Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. They would have central files organized for them with the help of the CIA. They would teach them [the squads] how to go out and watch on a systematic basis the campuses, the courts, the plantations [and] especially the factories, run by the local oligarchs but also the American investors. They would compile files.”

Nairn spent 13 hours interviewing former Salvadoran Gen. Jose Alberto Medrano, the godfather of the Salvadoran death squads, who was assassinated a year later, in 1985, by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels.

“He explained to me how Salvadoran priests, nuns, catechists [and] unionists were all controlled by Moscow,” Nairn said. “He would draw these schematics showing from Moscow to Havana to here to there. And he said they all became targets; it was our mission to kill them. He described in great detail how he did this while working on the payroll of the United States.”

“These were the death squads that produced actions like the rape and murder of the nuns,” Nairn said, referring to American lay missionary Jean Donovan and three American nuns—Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford—who were killed by national guard soldiers in El Salvador in December 1980. Eight months earlier, the death squads had carried out the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. More than 75,000 Salvadorans died in the conflict, thousands at the hands of the death squads, which often “disappeared” their victims.

“The world is finally starting to understand what’s involved with political killing when they see the videos of ISIS,” Nairn said. “… In Salvador, not only would they kill but they would cut off hands, they would cut off arms, and they would display their handiwork on the road. Passersby would see it. In the same period—I spent most of those years in Guatemala, which was even worse—they were killing more than 100,000, perhaps more than 200,000 by some estimates. One day in the library of the Polytechnica, the military academy of Guatemala, I found the Spanish translation of a U.S. military counterinsurgency document. It gave instructions on how to create terror; this was the way they put it. And they described methods used in the Philippines in the campaign against the Huks.”

“In the case of the Philippines they were talking about leaving the bodies by the rivers,” he said. “So you mutilate the bodies, you cut them, you amputate, and then you display the bodies on the riversides to stir terror in the population. And of course that’s exactly what ISIS is doing today.”

The same tactics were used in Indonesia against ethnic Chinese, labor organizers, artists, intellectuals, student leaders and members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) after the 1965 U.S.-backed anti-communist purge that eventually ousted the independence leader President Sukarno. Sukarno was replaced in a 1967 coup by Gen. Suharto, who brutally ran the country for 31 years. During the army and paramilitary killings as many as a million Indonesians were murdered. The bodies were often leftfloating in rivers or on roadsides.

“The CIA weighed in with a list of 5,000 targets for assassination,” Nairn said. “The U.S. press was hailing it at the time. They were calling it a gleam of light in Asia. Gen. Suharto was installed in power as a result of this process. Suharto later, in the mid-’70s, sought the permission of President Ford and Henry Kissinger to invade the small neighboring country of East Timor, which was then emerging into independence from having been a Portuguese colony. They gave the green light. They just said do it quickly. They went in [and] killed a third of the population.”

“In ’91 they staged a massacre in front of a cemetery, which I happened to survive,” he said. “I was there with Amy Goodman. They killed more than 200 people right before our eyes. They fractured my skull with their American M-16 rifle butts.

“This is standard procedure. I’ve tried to go over to the countries where the repression is most intense, and where the U.S. is backing it, and expose it and stop it.”

“It’s systematic,” he went on. “It’s the exact same tactics in country after country, with local adaptations, and often the officers are all trained at the same U.S. military bases—Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Leavenworth [and] at the Inter-American Defense College, in the case of the Latin American officers.”

“It’s not unique to the U.S.,” Nairn said. “This is standard for big powers. … If you wanted to have any kind of impact in politics you had to align yourself with some kind of killer force, be it the Americans, NATO or the Taliban, or some other armed faction capable of fast mass killing. Without that you had no chance.”

“In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it’s reached the point of political and social breakdown,” Nairn said. “There’s no stopping it. It’s out of control. There are not two sides. It [has fractured into] many sides. It’s analogous to what happened in Cambodia, with the massive U.S. bombing of Cambodia, which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. [It has destroyed] any semblance of normal politics or even society. In that kind of environment the most evil, the most violent, have a better chance to rise and prevail.”

Ceaseless war and indiscriminant killing define the U.S. imperial power. But this policy, he said, has backfired.

“Unless you have enough of an enemy out there, unless you have enough fighting going on, unless you have enough drama going on, a big powerful state, one of whose pillars is war, like the United States, or like, say, today’s Israel—[both of them examples] of Sparta-type states—they can’t sustain themselves,” he said. “They need a high level of dramatic tension. They have to constantly be provoking, constantly causing trouble here and there.”

“We’re now in a moment where these operations of willful murder on the part of the U.S. and provocation have come back to bite [the United States],” he said. “That doesn’t usually happen. There was no consequence like that from Central America. There was no consequence like that from Haiti, Palestine or South Africa. But in this case it happened. Operations like the U.S. backing of the mujahedeento repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan … the U.S. backing of the various anti-Assad Islamist forces in Syria, have given birth to first al-Qaida and then ISIS. That wasn’t the U.S. intention. They didn’t want to create al-Qaida in the sense of the al-Qaida that attacks the U.S. They didn’t want to create an ISIS, which is now a political nightmare.”

“The Bible says they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind,” he said. “Well, usually that isn’t true. It’s not true most of the time. It’s like the other slogan: The people united will never be defeated. Not true. The people united get defeated all the time. They get crushed. They get massacred. They get thrown into mass graves. But sometimes you sow the wind and you do reap the whirlwind. And that’s what’s happening now to the West with ISIS.”<

Middle East tensions escalate in wake of Saudi mass beheadings

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Tensions within the war-ravaged Middle East have escalated sharply in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s January 2 mass executions of 47 prisoners, including a prominent Shia cleric who had criticized the ruling monarchy and its suppression of the country’s Shia minority population.
Saudi Arabia cut all diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, using angry protests against the beheading of the Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as the pretext. Demonstrators Sunday stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and firebombed a consular facility in the Iranian city of Mashhad. At least 50 of the protesters were arrested and no Saudi functionaries were injured.
On Monday, the Saudi monarchy followed up its severing of diplomatic links with the announcement that it is also banning all flights to and from Iran and also cutting trade ties.
The Saudi actions were followed Monday by Bahrain and Sudan severing diplomatic ties with Iran as well. Bahrain, which is host to the US Fifth Fleet, is a majority Shia country ruled by a dictatorial Sunni monarchy. Saudi troops and tanks played the decisive role in suppressing mass protests that swept the country in 2011.
For its part, Sudan, a former ally of Iran, switched allegiances last year after heavy Saudi investments in the Sudanese economy, including a reported deposit of up to $4 billion from the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council into Sudan’s central bank.
Another Sunni gulf oil sheikdom, the United Arab Emirates, downgraded its diplomatic relations with Tehran, but stopped short of severing all ties with Iran, which is a major trading partner.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the Saudi regime for using the protests as a pretext to cut ties and ratchet up tensions. “Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside,” ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said Monday.
He insisted that Iran was committed to providing diplomatic security, adding, “Saudi Arabia, which thrives on tensions, has used this incident as an excuse to fuel the tensions.”
Evidence emerged Monday that, indeed, the mass executions and the subsequent breaking of relations were part of a well-planned Saudi provocation.
The British daily Independent made public the contents of a leaked Saudi government memo showing that the ruling monarchy “knew the mass execution of 47 people would spark an angry backlash and ordered its security services to be on full alert before going ahead.”
The memo, directed from the head of security services to police agencies across the desert kingdom, placed the regime’s extensive repressive apparatus on a high state of alert.
The British human rights group Reprieve, which first received the leaked memo, said it pointed to the “politically motivated” character of the mass beheadings.
“This letter shows the level of preparation the Saudi authorities went to ahead of Saturday, having predicted the outrage that would follow their politically motivated executions of protesters,” said Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve.
Mass protests have continued in the wake of the state killings. A crowd of several thousand gathered in Tehran again on Monday, while demonstrators in Iraq besieged the recently reopened Saudi embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone and took to the streets of the predominantly Shia cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf.
In a disturbing sign that the Saudi action is stoking sectarian strife, two Sunni mosques in the area of Hilla, 50 miles south of Baghdad, were rocked by bomb blasts. A muezzin was killed at one of the mosques. In a separate attack, the Sunni imam of a mosque in Alexandria in central Iraq was shot and killed by gunmen.
Meanwhile, the Saudi regime itself reported a deadly shooting incident in Sheikh Nimr’s hometown of Awamiya, in Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shia Eastern Province, on Sunday night. While the regime claimed that its security forces had come under fire, the only victims reported were a civilian who was killed and a child who was wounded.
As the linchpin of repression and reaction in the Arab world, the Saudi monarchy has been the foremost instigator of sectarianism, deliberately exacerbating and exploiting tensions between Sunni and Shia as a means of dividing popular opposition within the country and isolating Iran, its principal regional rival.
Until now, the ruling monarchy has refrained from murdering leading figures within the Shia community—arresting and harassing them, suppressing demonstrations, but ultimately releasing them in an attempt to assuage anti-regime sentiments.
The beheading of Nimr, together with the 46 others, was clearly organized for political ends. He himself had been in prison since 2012, while the bulk of those whose heads were chopped off or were shot to death were Sunni accused of involvement in Al Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom. They had been jailed for upwards of a decade. Joining Nimr’s execution with theirs was meant to signal that Shia opposition to the monarchy’s absolute rule was tantamount to terrorism.
The political purposes of this bloody provocation are both foreign and domestic. It was staged barely three weeks before Syrian peace talks were set to begin in Geneva and less than two weeks before UN-brokered talks on a settlement of the bloody nine-month-old Saudi war in Yemen were due to resume.
The Saudi monarchy, which has been a principal financier and sponsor of the Al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamist militias unleashed in the war for regime change in Syria, has no interest in ending the more than nearly five-year-old conflict short of toppling the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s principal Arab ally.
Nor does it want to end its war in Yemen under the present conditions, with the Houthis, a Shia-based insurgent movement, undefeated. The mass beheadings coincided directly with the Saudi announcement that a supposed ceasefire declared on December 15 had formally ended.
The war in Yemen has claimed nearly 6,000 lives since the Saudi military began launching indiscriminate air strikes last March. The US has aided the intervention with arms, intelligence and midair refueling of Saudi bombers, which have dropped American-made cluster bombs on civilian targets and struck at least 100 hospitals. While it is an increasingly costly debacle for the Saudi monarchy, to end the war without defeating the Houthis would be seen as a humiliating defeat.
Ultimately, the aim of the Saudi regime is to disrupt any rapprochement between Washington and Iran in the wake of the recent nuclear deal and, if possible, to drag US imperialism into a wider war against Iran itself.
Domestically, the fomenting of sectarianism and clashes with Iran serves as a means of diverting explosive social tensions away from the monarchy itself. The kingdom faces an increasingly intractable economic crisis driven by the collapse in oil prices for which its own policies bear major responsibility. It has already implemented cuts in gasoline subsidies and increases in fees for water and electricity in an attempt to confront its fiscal crisis. More drastic austerity measures, aimed at social subsidies used to quell popular unrest, are expected.
Within official Washington, the reaction to the mass beheadings and the judicial murder of Sheikh Nimr has been muted at best. There has been no direct condemnation of the grisly mass killings, and no senior official has so much as issued a statement.
Within the ruling political establishment, policy toward the Saudi monarchy, the number one arms market for the US and Washington’s closest Arab ally, is, like most basic foreign policy questions, an issue of conflict and divisions.
This was expressed Monday in editorials published by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
The Journal, expressing the views of the most right-wing layers within ruling circles, as well as the constituency of the military-industrial complex and finance capital, which have both reaped super profits off the Saudi monarchy, posed the issue not as a matter of Saudi crimes or even crisis, but rather of the supposed danger of Iran and Russia “toppling the House of Saud,” and the question of whether the Obama administration “would do anything to stop them.”
The Journal editorial chided the Obama administration for having “walked back” sanctions against Iran over recent ballistic missile tests. While acknowledging problems in Saudi support for the export of Wahhabism, the ideological underpinnings of Al Qaeda, ISIS and similar outfits, theJournal concluded: “But in a Middle East wracked by civil wars, political upheaval and Iranian imperialism, the Saudis are the best friend we have in the Arabian peninsula. The US should make clear to Iran and Russia that it will defend the Kingdom from Iranian attempts to destabilize or invade.”
The Post took a somewhat more concerned approach, recognizing that the execution of Nimr “was an act that appears bound—and maybe was intended—to further inflame conflict between Shiites and Sunnis across the Middle East.” It warns against the Saudi ruling family “sowing chaos in an already stricken region while undermining itself.”
However, it attributes Riyadh’s “reckless moves” to “Saudi perceptions that the United States is no longer willing or able to stop Iran’s drive for Middle Eastern hegemony, forcing Sunni regimes to act in their own defense.”
In the end both editorials point to the same supposed remedy for the destruction and bloodshed wrought by both US imperialism and its Saudi client state in the Middle East: the escalation of militarism and the preparation of new and even wider wars directed against both Iran and Russia.

The New Year stock sell-off

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The first trading day of 2016 quickly turned into a global financial debacle, with stock markets all over the world plummeting after the Chinese government shut down its major exchanges to prevent a full-scale crash.
The sell-off confirmed the year-end expressions of foreboding by bourgeois commentators over the prospects for world capitalism in the new year. Whether Monday’s market rout is the beginning of an implosion of unsustainable financial bubbles or an anticipatory financial heart attack remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however. It is a symptom of profound and insoluble contradictions that have only intensified since the Wall Street crash more than seven years ago.
The collapse on Chinese markets, with the Shanghai Composite Index closing with a loss of 6.9 percent, was triggered by new data showing that Chinese manufacturing activity fell in December from the already depressed level of the previous month. The December decline marked the tenth consecutive monthly contraction.
The report confirmed that the slowdown in China to its lowest growth rate in a quarter century was likely to worsen in 2016. Given the immense role of the world’s second-largest economy and central manufacturing hub as a magnet for imports, including oil and other industrial commodities as well as manufactured goods, the indication of stagnation spread fears of a further fall in commodity prices and a deepening crisis of commodity-exporting nations from Brazil and Russia to Australia and Canada.
Japan’s Nikkei 225 index fell by more than 3 percent. Germany, a major exporter to China, suffered a 4.3 percent decline on its DAX stock index. The other major European indexes fell by more than 2 percent, and the EURO STOXX 50 index declined by 3.14 percent.
The global market sell-off was compounded by negative economic data from the US. The Institute for Supply Management reported that its index of factory activity fell to 48.2 in December from 48.6 in November. Any reading below 50 denotes contraction. The figure for December was the weakest since June 2009 and marked the first time since the 2008 crash that the US manufacturing sector had suffered two consecutive monthly contractions.
At the same time, the Commerce Department reported that US construction spending fell 0.4 percent in November. The dismal data prompted economists to lower their fourth-quarter 2015 projections for US economic growth to as low as a 1.1 percent annual rate. The figures confirmed that the US, previously cited as the “bright spot” in a world economy dominated by stagnation and slump, is itself in an industrial recession.
The US indexes fell sharply, with the Dow ending the day down nearly 1.6 percent, the S&P 500 down 1.53 percent, and the Nasdaq 2 percent lower.
The indicators of a deepening crisis in production sent shock waves through the financial markets because they portend the looming collapse of a vast speculative house of cards built up since the 2008 Wall Street crash, which sits atop a real economy that has never recovered from the Great Recession. The dirty secret of the so-called “recovery” is that it has been dominated by an expansion of the types of parasitic and quasi-criminal activities that triggered the financial crisis and depression in the first place.
The US and world central banks and all of the major governments responded to the breakdown of capitalism in 2008 by transferring trillions of dollars in public assets to the bankers and hedge fund billionaires, no strings attached. They were free to do with the blood money as they saw fit. Even the feeble and token proposals to rein in CEO pay at bailed-out corporations were blocked by the financial moguls and their bribed politicians.
Untold trillions were pumped into the financial markets to engineer a record rise in stock prices for the benefit of the rich and the super-rich, whose fortunes doubled in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.
At the same time, governments launched brutal attacks on the working class to make it pay for the bankrupting of the state. These attacks—austerity, wage cutting, mass layoffs—bolstered the profit margins of the corporations and further enriched the top 10 percent, and especially the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent.
The corporations used their massive cash hoards not to expand production or create decent-paying jobs, but to find new avenues for speculation, plowing money into the so-called emerging market economies, the booming energy sector, and high-yield, high-risk junk bonds. While 2015 was a year of rising poverty and desperation for the masses, it was a record year for job-destroying and socially destructive activities such as mergers and acquisitions, stock buybacks and dividend increases.
The McKinsey Global Institute last year published a report that gives some idea of the colossal growth of debt in the world economy—a measure of the increase in financial speculation and swindling. It noted that global debt has grown by $57 trillion since 2007, raising the ratio of debt to the world’s gross domestic product by 17 percentage points. China’s total debt has quadrupled, rising from $7 trillion to $28 trillion by mid-2014.
In an article published on January 1, the Wall Street Journal noted that in 2015 “the American corporate landscape was dominated by activist investors, buybacks, currencies and deals”—in other words, by speculation. Meanwhile, the real economy is being starved of productive investment. Capital spending by members of the S&P 500 index fell in the second and third quarters of last year compared to 2014, the first time there have been two consecutive quarterly declines since 2010.
The final weeks of 2015 saw mounting signs that the underlying stagnation and slump in the real economy—marked by plummeting oil and commodity prices, declining global trade and dismal or negative growth rates—is beginning to undermine the mountain of speculative debt. The prices of energy-related junk bonds began to fall sharply, and mutual funds that speculate in them suffered a rush of redemption orders, prompting two such funds to refuse to honor redemption requests from investors.
The social and class significance of the further explosion of financial parasitism is indicated in statistics that document the massive redistribution of wealth from the working class to the bourgeoisie that has taken place.
The chief economist of the World Bank published an article on January 1 pointing to a “remarkable statistical trend” in high and middle-income countries. The article noted: “Total labour income as a percentage of GDP is declining across the board and at rates rarely witnessed. From 1995 to 2015, labour income dropped from 61 percent to 57 percent of GDP in the US; from 66 percent to 54 percent in Australia; from 61 percent to 55 percent in Canada; from 77 percent to 60 percent in Japan; and from 43 percent to 34 percent in Turkey.”
Under conditions of widening wars in the Middle East and military buildups in Europe and Asia, accompanied by police-state measures imposed internally in country after country on the pretext of fighting terrorism, the underlying economic uncertainty as the new year begins intensifies great power tensions and drives the ruling elites further along the road to war and dictatorship.
At the same time, a major contributor to the sense of foreboding and fear of shocks that predominates in ruling class circles as the new year begins, reflected in the volatility on financial markets, is the sense that the coming year will see a growth of working-class opposition and struggle. The year just ended was marked by the initial signs of a new period of class struggle, with strikes and protests multiplying from Europe to China to Latin America and the United States.
In the US, the resistance of autoworkers to the imposition of new pro-company contracts by the auto bosses and the United Auto Workers union, and the turn of thousands of autoworkers to the World Socialist Web Site and the WSWS Autoworker Newsletter for information and political leadership, herald the reemergence of the most powerful detachment of the international working class into mass struggle.

The Rule Of Law No Longer Exists In Western Civilization

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My work documenting how the law was lost began about a quarter of a century ago. A close friend and distinguished attorney, Dean Booth, first brought to my attention the erosion of the legal principles on which rests the rule of law in the United States. My columns on the subject got the attention of an educational institution that invited me to give a lecture on the subject. Subsequently, I was invited to give a lecture on “How The Law Was Lost” at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City.

The work coalesced into a book, The Tyranny Of Good Intentions, coauthored with my research associate, Lawrence M. Stratton, published in 2000, with an expanded edition published in 2008. We were able to demonstrate that Sir Thomas More’s warning about prosecutors and courts disregarding law in order to more easily convict undesirables and criminals has had the result of turning law away from being a shield of the people and making it into a weapon in the hands of government. That is what we witness in the saga of the Hammonds, long-time ranchers in the Harney Basin of Oregon.

With the intervention of Ammon Bundy, another rancher who suffered illegal persecution by the Bureau of Land Management but stood them off with help from armed militia, and his supporters, the BLM’s decades long persecution of the innocent Hammonds might have come to a crisis before you read this.

Bundy and militiamen, whose count varies from 15 to 150 in the presstitute media, have seized an Oregon office of the BLM as American liberty’s protest against the frame-up of the Hammonds on false charges. As I write the Oregon National Guard and FBI are on the way.

The militiamen have said that they are prepared to die for principles, and the rule of law is one of them. Of course, the presstitute media is making the militiamen into the lawbreakers—and even calling them terrorists—and not the federal government’s illegal prosecution of the Hammonds, whose crime was their refusal to sell their ranch to the government to be included in the Masher National Wildlife Refuge.

If there are only 15 militiamen, there is a good chance that they will all be killed, but if there are 150 armed militiamen prepared for a shootout, the outcome could be different.

I cannot attest to the accuracy of this report of the situation: [1] The resources required to verify the information in this account of how the government escalated a “crisis” out of the refusal of a family to bend is beyond the resources of this website. However, the story fits perfectly with everything Lawrence Stratton and I learned over the years that we prepared our book on how the law was lost. This account of the persecution of the Hammonds is the way government behaves when government has broken free of the rule of law.

I can attest with full confidence that the United States no longer has a rule of law. The USA is a lawless country. By that I do not mean what conservative Republicans mean, which is, if I understand them, that racial minorities violate law with something close to impunity.

What I mean is that only the mega-banks and the One Percent have legal protection, and that is because these people control the government. For everyone else law is a weapon in the hands of the government to be used against the American people.

The fact that the shield of law no longer exists for American citizens is why, according to US Department of Justice statistics, only 4 percent of federal felonies ever go to trial. Almost the entirety of federal felonies are settled by coerced plea bargains that force defendants to admit to crimes that they did not commit in order to avoid “expanded indictments” that, if presented to the typical stupid, trusting, gullible American “jury of their peers,” would lock them away for hundreds of years.

American justice is a joke. It does not exist. You can see this in the American prison population. “Freedom and Democracy” America not only has the largest percentage of its population in prison than any country on the planet, but also the largest number of prisoners.

If you consider that “authoritarian” China has four times the population of the United States but fewer prisoners, you understand that “authoritarian” China has a more protective rule of law than the United States.

Compared to “freedom and democracy America,” Russia has hardly anyone in prison. Yet, Washington and its media whores have defined the President of Russia as “the new Hitler.”

The only thing we can conclude from the facts is that the United States Government and those ignorant fools who worship it are evil incarnate.

Out of evil comes dictatorship. The White House Fool, at best a two-bit punk, has decided that he doesn’t like the Second Amendment to the US Constitution any more than he likes any of the other constitutional protections of US citizens. He is looking for dictatorial methods, that is, unlegislated executive orders, to overturn the Second Amendment. He has the corrupt US Department of Justice, a criminal organization, looking for ways for the dictator to overturn both Congressional legislation and Supreme Court rulings.

The media whores have fallen in line with the would-be dictator. All we hear is “gun violence.” If only Karl Marx were still with us. He would ridicule these fools for turning inanimate objects into purposeful actors. It is extraordinary that the American left-wing thinks that guns, not people, kill people.

The position of the “progressive left-wing” in the United States is perplexing. Here are Americans, immersed into a police state, as are the Hammonds, and the progressive left-wing wants to disarm the population.

Whatever this “progressive left-wing opposition” is, it has nothing in common with revolutionaries. The American left-wing is totally irrevelant, a defeated force that sold out and no longer represents the people or the truth.

I cannot but wonder how much the American ”progressive left” is being paid by Washington.

Even more astonishing, judging by comments on RT’s report on the situation and the readers comments, all RT and American blacks want to know is where is the National Guard in Oregon? Why isn’t it called out against the White militia protests as it was called out against the Black Ferguson protests? [2]

If protesting the murder of a young black American by Ferguson police is not legitimate and the protesters are “terrorists,” why aren’t the Oregon protestors terrorists for trying to protect jailbirds from their “lawful sentence”? This is the wrong question.

It really is discouraging that the American black community is unable to understand that if any American can be dispossessed, all Americans can be dispossessed.

It is also discouraging that RT decided to play the race card instead of comprehending that law is no longer a shield of the American people but is a weapon in the hands of Washington.

Why doesn’t RT at least listen to the President of Russia, who states repeatedly that America and the West are lawless.

Putin is correct. America and its vassals are lawless. No one is safe from the government.