Chris Dixon’s Another Politics: A vital introduction to North American radical politics today

I’m reposting my review of Chris Dixon‘s excellent Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements. If you want to understand my politics, and the activist experiences it grew out of, reading this book would be a good place to start. The review originally appears here in WIN Magazine. WIN just published its final issue, which includes an amazing look back at debates within organized nonviolence in the USA over the past 90 years. Another Politics is available directly from the publisher.

Book Review

Another Politics 9780520279025Over the past two decades, a certain kind of radical politics has surfaced and resurfaced, most recently within the whirlwind of activism that made up the Occupy movement. As the movement spread and encampments grew, occupiers sought to deepen their critiques and build democracy amongst themselves. Participants looked beyond a single demand to a systemic challenge, through which “all our grievances are connected” — confronting a multiplicity of forms of power, while insisting that the very process of confrontation must be rethought as well. Chris Dixon has assembled a number of self-conscious practitioners of this critical, bottom-up, and egalitarian politics, which he calls the anti-authoritarian current, in a remarkable and many-voiced synthesis of their praxis.Read More »

President Johnson and the Kerner Commission

Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar

Following the 1967 wave of urban uprisings in Black communities, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” As part of the relatively small field of social science on rioting, it is best known for its alarming statement that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” a dire prospect for a country that had dismantled the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” just a dozen years before.

Less often quoted is the Commission’s in-depth study of the nature and process of rioting. Altogether, Malcolm McLaughlin records in a recent book (Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America), in the first nine months of 1967, “almost 170 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia had experienced an uprising of some sort, and almost 40 communities had more than one. Few corners of urban America were left untouched.” In its effort to document and understand the riots, Kerner Commission reached the following conclusions, many of which seem very descriptive of the past year’s flashpoints of unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland.

The “typical” riot did not take place. The disorders of 1967 were unusual, irregular, complex and unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they did not unfold in an orderly sequence. However, an analysis of our survey information leads to some conclusions about the riot process.

In general:

The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods—rather than against white persons.Read More »

What do two short-lived US secrets tell us about state secrecy?

The United States Air Force has a drone base in Niger from which it flied unmanned aircraft into Mali to provide military intelligence for the French military involved in Mali’s civil war. The United States State Department orchestrated the denial of European countries’ airspace to the presidential plane of Evo Morales on July 2.

These are now former secrets, documented in the mainstream press of the United States. Neither lasted very long. Surely the Malian rebels saw drones flying above them and guessed the US military was taking sides against them. And even more surely, Evo Morales knew that the US was behind his plane’s emergency diversion to Vienna. Yet these acts were classified; the US role in blocking the Bolivian presidential plane was publicly denied. What can we learn about United States state secrecy from them?

This is a time of highly controversial disclosures of government secrets. It’s also a time of unprecedented classification of government documents as secret: a US government audit found 3,507,782 people hold security clearance to access Confidential/Secret documents, and 1,409,969 hold Top Secret security clearances as of October 2012. In Fiscal Year 2012, the US government classified 95,180,243 documents, declaring 23 million of them top secret (ISOO annual report). The government spends $8 to $12 billion per year on keeping these documents secret.

Within this mountain of so-called secrets live millions of banal pieces of data: personnel files of agency employees, details of weapons systems, operational details of military deployments. While it’s reasonable to debate how much of this material truly needs to be secured in this way, that’s not the material people are willing to risk their freedom to bring to the world. Instead, the real state secrets are government actions that are carried out covertly. Recently whistleblowers have shown us that the military kept records of killed civilians in the Iraq War, that the US illegally spies on diplomats at the United Nations, that the United Kingdom violated the Land Mine Ban treaty, that the US could document massive government corruption in Tunisia (helping to spark revolt there)  and that the NSA spied on the electronic communication of people around the world [some of these revelations are described here]. Every day, diligent work by journalists exposes other secrets to the people whose governments try to keep them.

The drone base in Niger is an example of quasi-secrecy. About 100 Air Force troops deployed in February and set up a base. On February 22, the Washington Post described the operation, which was mentioned in a vaguely worded letter to Congress under the War Powers Act. While the paper reported on the troops, their mission and even the type of drones used, it had to resort to anonymous sources to provide these details. It also noted “Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress.” The President of Niger has been more forthcoming, providing the basis for further reporting in March. Even in February, the Malian rebels targeted by these aircraft were already well aware of the US aircraft, “The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaeda document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones.”

The only ones left in the dark by this policy of secrecy are the people of the United States. When the press asks questions about drones, US officials try to avoid the word, and give pseudo-answers like this one: “What the President indicated is we’re going to continue to provide the support that we’ve been investing in this operation.  And what we’ve provided is, for instance, logistical support and other types of backing for those nations that are putting peacekeepers into Mali” (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, June 27). For four years, the Obama administration directed its press secretary to talk like this:  “When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists'” (Robert Gibbs). In effect, the United States is supplying targeting information for a war in Mali, and actually killing people in half a dozen other countries, but refusing to talk about it.

The case of the Morales plane diversion went beyond secrecy to lies. Days before the operation, President Obama responded to a question explicitly raising this possibility: “Mr. President, will you use U.S. military assets to in any way intercept Mr. Snowden should he at some point in the future leave Russia to try to find safe passage in another country?” The President’s answer was unequivocal: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” (transcript). On July 2, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was denied entry into French, Spanish, and Italian airspace and its landing to refuel in Portugal was cancelled. As reflected by the emergency gathering of the Union of South American Nations in response, this was a major violation of diplomatic protocol. It rapidly became clear that the diversion was the use of state power (backed by the possibility of force—i.e., the scrambling of jets) in an attempt to intercept Mr. Snowden.

From the beginning, the Bolivian government identified the United States as the evident cause of the incident. With Morales still on the ground in the Vienna airport, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra stated:

“This was orchestrated, rigged, by the US Department of State which has provoked this situation utilizing certain European countries, under the suspicion that Mr. Snowden was onboard the presidential plane.”

“Esto fue orquestado, amañado por el departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos, que utilizando algunos países europeos ha provocado esta situación, con la sospecha de que en el avión presidencial estuviera el señor Snowden.” (EFE, 2 July)

This narrative is not only the most plausible one, it is backed up by Austrian press reports that the country’s Foreign Office received a late-night call from US Ambassador Ambassador William Eacho alerting them to Snowden’s presence on President Morales’ plane. It is also suggested by the Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo’s statement that “They told us that [Snowden] was onboard,” and further describing the source of the communication as a diplomatic secret.

Meanwhile, the US State Department was busy issuing a cascade of non-statements.

July 3: At the State Department, a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, declined to say whether American authorities had asked other countries to deny airspace to the Bolivian plane. “I would point you to them to describe why they made decisions if they made decisions,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. (NYTimes)

July 8: Journalist: And just to follow up, does – is there any more information on where the original information or the leak came from that Snowden was on that plane? Does the U.S. have any more idea –MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything for you on that, no. (State Department briefing)

July 9: QUESTION: Earlier today at the OAS, a French diplomat – a very young French diplomat, I might say —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — said that the French Government had, in fact, revoked permission for President Morales’ plane to go, but he said that it was a technical error based on a ()misunderstanding. Do you and the United States have any idea what that technical error – that technical reason that was based on a misunderstanding or an incorrect assumption might have been?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t. (State Department briefing)

In an interview with Spanish-language CNN, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen* (R-FL) was more direct in admitting US responsibility:

And so, for us, there was a great concern that these countries could give him sanctuary. Therefore, the United States sent that quite severe, quite direct message to—this time it was to Evo Morales, it could have been to other people. We are saying to all countries in a very open manner that this man [has] felonies against him. That he should come to the United States if he is a man of honor…

Así que para nosotros, este gran preocupación que estos países le pudieran dar santuario. Por eso los Estados Unidos envió esa mensaje bien duro, bien directo a … en esta vez fue a Evo Morales, hubiera sido a otras personas. Le estamos diciendo a todos los países de una manera bien abiertamente que este señor [tiene] felonías americanas en su contra. Que venga a los Estados Unidos si es un hombre de valor… (CNN Video posted by Ros-Lehtinen’s office [at 7:30])

So, Bolivia knew of US involvement. Other countries knew of US involvement. A senior legislator claims that the act was designed to send a message of the position of the US government. But the US government formally claims to have no idea how this action happened. The only possible target for these denials is the US public. We are meant to pretend that our government was not involved in this international incident, that such involvement is a product of Evo Morales’ paranoia rather than an obvious and widely discussed pattern of US behavior. (And so, the New York Times will continue to publish sentences full of hypotheticals like this one: “Latin American leaders condemn refusal to let plane carrying Bolivia’s Pres Evo Morales fly over European nations because of what Bolivian officials say were suspicions that Edward J Snowden was on board.”) Given the standards of American journalism, we—and we alone—will have to wait for an actual leaked document from the State Department before our press takes seriously what the rest of the world confidently knows.

Like these two examples, many state secrets are not about protecting complex operations or securing the lives of operatives. They are about keeping the public out of decisionmaking. They are about reducing accountability. They are about subverting democracy. Alongside making a mockery of such basic principles, they make dangerous, unpopular, and/or immoral behavior by government officials easier.

Fortunately, part of that dynamic is beginning to weaken.

Government without Secrecy

“We Open Governments”
“We Open Governments”

The publication of logs of the Iraq War and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks has raised the prospect of the US government being denied the prerogative of secret wars, secret foreign policies, secret decisions, and secret outcomes. The Snowden disclosures and the avalanche of additional investigative reporting that has followed in their wake have done the same for the surveillance state. (It’s worth noting that every single one of these disclosures have exposed wars, policies and outcomes, rather than the operational security that enables them to be carried out.) Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and William Binney are all examples of government officials who allowed their conscience to override the classification of information.

In a discussion on Talking Points Memo, a reader (“MB”) suggests that these disclosures are just the beginning of a tidal wave. MB points to a post-Cold War generational value shift “toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and … significant value on cross-cultural exchange.” Polling data backs this up: “Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world” compared with 48 to 64 percent of older generations. On foreign policy, Millennials value listening to allies more, favor diplomacy over military force more strongly, believe that excessive military force causes more terrorism, and believe it is morally acceptable to refuse to fight in a war you don’t believe in—all by 2-to-1 margins. MB observes:

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

What does the world with thousands of thumb drives look like? (Other than a half-dozen presidents of Obama’s generation ordering international manhunts to track them down.) In evaluating the impact, value, and morality of these disclosures, our focus should be on the incentives created by transparency on war, foreign policy, and surveillance. How do diplomats, warriors, and spies change their behavior when they know their deeds will be exposed? (Especially when those disclosures are more likely when the acts are morally objectionable.) There are grounds for hope that “opened governments” will be more cautious and less destructive because they have more reason to fear public awareness of their actions.

* Ros-Lehtinen is former chair and a continuing member of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and thereby has clearance to be briefed on this kind of diplomatic activity.

From the archives: On Strike, USA, 1936

From the Bolivian press, May 1936, this captioned photo illustrates the use of tear gas against American strikers during that turbulent period. The caption reads:

 This mask to protect against suffocating gases is not worn by a soldier nor by a militiaman, but rather a youth in North America on strike, who goes forth here well protected from the effects of teargas.

No further details are provided about the strike or the source of the image.

EnHuelga1936

Facts on coca from UN question politics of drug war

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime issued its annual World Drug Report this week. Despite its fluffy image in the United States, the UN and this office in particular are committed to the global drug war. However, the office is also one of the most important factual sources on the production, circulation, and use of drugs.

Participation in the drug war is a vital metric on which the richest countries rate the progress/goodness/aid-worthiness of countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia, this has meant American drug enforcers, military trainers, and herbicidal chemicals on the ground for over a decade now. However, the United States’ annual evaluation of countries’ cooperation in the drug war often has more to do with access for these arms of the American state, and rewarding loyal allies while punishing governments that question US foreign policy, than with actual results. In recent years, this has meant annual certification of Peru as effectively carrying out the drug war, while decertifying Bolivia. The main cost of decertification is cutting off drug aid funds and market supports for alternative products grown in coca-producing regions.

Let’s look at some facts provided by the UN to put this in perspective:

  • Coca leaf cultivation by country (p. 99): Back in 1999, coca eradication efforts had peaked in Bolivia, due to the militarization of the Chapare coca-growing region. Lethal clashes had accompanied eradication, but the area of Bolivia where coca is grown reached its low point: 14,600 hectares.  Colombia then dominated coca growing: 163 thousand hectares out of the global total of 221 thousand. In the past decade, coca growing in Bolivia bounced back (to 25,400 hectares in the years before Evo Morales, and since then more slowly to around 31,000 hectares). Meanwhile Peruvian cultivation has shown steady growth (two small annual declines vs. eight years of annual growth), moving from under 39 thousand hectares to around 61 thousand. The big squeeze in Colombia through eradication (including aerial spraying of pesticides and burning of fields) got production there down to about 62,000 hectares.
  • Overall, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia now have a 40-40-20 split of coca production, but only Bolivia is decertified by the United States. Peru, which is open to DEA agents and has been welcoming to US corporations, seems to have gotten a free pass on its doubling coca cultivation.
  • The global burden of cocaine seizures has shifted to police in South America (p. 99-100): Who’s fighting the drug war on cocaine? Measuring by seizures of the drug, it’s primarily South Americans, who accounted for 60% of the 732 metric tons of cocaine captured by drug enforces in 2009. This is a dramatic shift from 30-40% around the turn of the century.
  • Most cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia: US authorities trace 90% of the US supply to Colombia. European drug seizures with a country of origin are 25% from Colombia, but another 44% comes from primarily Colombian transit markets in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. “Cocaine produced in Peru and the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in contrast, is used more within South America, notably in countries of the Southern Cone.”
  • All of these seizures are failing to put any economic squeeze on cocaine use: The cocaine industry is the deadliest in terms of trafficking related violence, but this death and the drug war have not diminished overall use. As with production, we see a move in the centers of use. In this case, however, there’s no overall reduction. US consumption has slumped over the past twelve years, but European usage doubled from 1998 to 2006 and stayed steady since. (by the way: Despite these shifts, US users are still more common and consume more total cocaine than European users.)

Events in all three producer countries are linked to increased questioning of the role of coca eradication in the drug war. While Bolivia’s case is the most dramatic—the current president leads a union of coca-growing farmers—the traditional importance of coca leaves to Andean cultures is a shared factor in all three countries. The Plurinational State of Bolivia is committed to a formal expansion of the legal area for cultivation to include part of the Chapare. It has invested in the commercialization of products other than the ancient uses of coca leaves for chewing and brewing mate, such as coca candies, liquor, and foods. It also is interested in exporting leaves for traditional use by the 1-2 million Bolivians living in Argentina.

In Peru, President-Elect Ollanta Humala has expressed support for greater freedom for traditional cultivation and concerns about Peru’s eradication policy. And Colombia withdrew its initial objections and backed the removal of coca chewing as a penalized activity under the 1961 Vienna drug convention. And Colombia’s high court ruled Thursday that indigenous peoples must be consulted about coca eradication on their lands.

It’s important to note that none of these policies constitute a general open growing policy. In Bolivia, “social control” of coca cultivation which limits acreage per family and continues eradication outside authorized regions is the policy of the day. Social control policies are backed by the European Union, and Brazil has stepped in to replace US funds for drug control measures.

Finally, Ollanta Humala’s election offers a new test of the politicization of US drug war certification. Will the new government take the blame for Peru’s rising coca production, while friendlier governments have gotten a pass for the past decade? If the US moves to decertify Peru this year, blaming Humala for Alan Garcías failed policies, it will be a clear case of making drug aid a political stick to attack critics of American economic policies.

USAID and Counter-Insurgency: Five Decades Old

The State Department (@StateDept) reminds us that the United States Agency for International Development has it’s 50th anniversary today. Somehow, the United States had the bright idea to place its international aid agency within the national security apparutus right from the start. John F. Kennedy and his top global policy planners saw USAID, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and other friendlier faces of the US government as working hand-in-glove with the planners of military maneuvers, trainers of military and para-military forces, and plotters of coups.

Not only was Kennedy into such soft power–hard power collaboration, but he was personally fascinated by counter-insurgency (a word that would later become so common, it lost its hyphen). John F. Kennedy, a man with a political halo is most American circles, brought about the Green Berets and the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In March 1961, just as US AID was getting its commission publicly, a committee of the National Security Council (later the Special Group – Counter Insurgency) was commissioned to report on “U.S. Strategy To Deal With Wars of National Liberation,” as put in the title of the report they issued in December.

This report did not remain in a file, but instead drove new concepts like “counter-insurgency” and “internal defense” into the heart of US foreign policy for a generation. In Latin America, where I am now, “internal defense” became “internal security” or the “national security state,” the key American vision for reorienting Latin American militaries towards a new enemy: internal leftist parties and social movements.

Here’s a breakdown of the worldview behind this (all quotes are from the Overseas Internal Defense Policy written for the National Security Council in 1962; I swear no critic of the government was involved in making any of this up!):

  1. Communism was the global enemy, but the most serious losses to it had come in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria, where local leftists were almost entirely responsible. This is called internal agression.
  2. “Communists often infiltrate nationalist and reform movements.” So they might be a problem too.
  3. Everyone’s a target: “The vital sectors within modernizing societies include the rural sector; the labor front; students and youth organizations; the intelligentsia; the educational systems; internal communications and informational media; the military and police; religious groups; the civil bureaucracy; the various middle-class elites; ethnic minorities; and the political parties, sometimes including a legal communist party but invariably an illegal communist apparatus operating underground or through various fronts.”
  4. This matters to the USA because (1) We like freedom; (2) For military reasons, “strategic areas and the manpower and natural resources of developing nations” must not fall under communist control; (3) For economic reasons, “resources and markets of the less developed world [must] remain available to us.”
  5. The USA can get involved everywhere: to “immunize” countries where there is no insurgency, to “defeat the threat” where “subversive insurgency is latent or incipient,” and to train countries for and get involved in fights against insurgents.
  6. We need to get local governments to sign on to this policy. “To persuade these leaders to act in the interests of their society is often a complex and subtle task. … It is therefore essential that U.S. Country Teams know where the points of strength and vulnerability lie. This done, they can determine how to strengthen those elements which most effectively support U.S. objectives.”
  7. The US is okay with revolution: “The U.S. does not wish to assume a stance against revolution, per se, as an historical means of change. … A change brought about through force by noncommunist elements may be preferable to prolonged deterioration of governmental effectiveness or to a continuation of a situation where increasing discontent and repression interact, thus building toward a more dangerous climax.”
  8. However, the US will act against any revolution still in its early stages: “Where subversive insurgency is latent or incipient, U.S. strategy will be directed toward its elimination, lest it provide a communist foothold and escalate into active insurgency.”
  9. All hands on deck! “Anticipating, preventing and defeating communist-directed insurgency requires a blend of civil and military capabilities and actions”

Okay, so what does this have to do with USAID? Well, guess who was on the Special Group – Counter Insurgency:

  • Military Representative of the President, Chairman
  • The Attorney General
  • Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Director of Central Intelligence
  • Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Administrator, [US]AID
  • Director, USIA

Further, the AID has a strategic role in “immunizing” countries against uprisings, in making the existing social order more palatable, and in training militaries and paramilitaries. Or as the NSC put it:

Where subversive insurgency is virtually non-existent, or incipient (PHASE I), the objective is to support the development of an adequate counter-insurgency capability in indigenous military forces through the Military Assistance Program, and to complement the nation-building programs of AID with military civic action.* The same means, in collaboration with AID and CIA, will be employed to develop a similar capability in indigenous para-military forces.

*[From the glossary]: The use of preponderantly indigenous military forces on projects useful to the local population at all levels in such fields as education, training, public works, agriculture, transportation, communications, health, sanitation and others contributing to economic and social development, which would also serve to improve the standing of the military forces with the population.

And just in case you’re thinking that USAID-Counterinsurgency cooperation is so fifty years ago, here’s a quote from the US Government Counterinsurgency Guide of January 2009:

“The large numbers of foreign service nationals that make up the professional cadre of field staff provide a unique understanding of the local situation, while the range of sectors and levels of activity allow USAID great operational flexibility and agility to both implement and track the effectiveness of COIN operations.” (Appendix: US Government Roles in COIN [Counterinsurgency], p. 51)

So, happy birthday, USAID! And remember, if anyone confuses you with an organized attempt to thwart radical social change, it’s just because they’ve figured out your mission statement.

Bibliographic note: The Overseas Internal Defense Policy is just one of many declassified documents now freely available. Many subsequent implementation decisions on counter-insurgency issues are part of the Presidential Decision Directives archive by the Federation of American Scientists.