Saturday, December 16, 2017

Hierarchy and Abyss

If I am sliding uncontrollably down a steep embankment headed for a cliff, I won't look for a ladder. I'll flail and clutch for anything--animal, vegetable, or mineral--to get hold of and arrest the fall.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veterans are expected to say something about Veteran's Day

on Veteran's Day.

Normally, I go on a kind of tangent about militarism and epistemology. This year I'm leaving all poking and sniffing and bloviating around the Veteran-as-signifier, to others. Because the signifier Veteran on Veteran's Day is contrived as a prop to show the sacredness of war. At the very inner core of our national rituals valorizing The Veteran is the love of war.

Wars are carried out by armed organizations, generally understood as the military, though there is a long menu of differing armed organizations engaged in a diversity of forms of war. Those organizations are comprised of humans, mostly male humans, but more and more including a female fraction as well. What does war and the preparation for war do to those people who are in those organizations?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


He is a media whore.

She is a corporate whore.

They are all publicity whores.

We've all heard it. Many of us have said it. Some may ask, what is the problem?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shawn Aghajan's review

Stan Goff, Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015). xxiii + 446 pp. £32.50. ISBN 978-0-7188-9407-8 (pbk)

Reviewed by: Shawn Aghajan, University of Aberdeen, UK 

The first four sentences of Borderline neatly summarize its theses: ‘War is implicated in masculinity. Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women. Together, these are implicated in the greatest sins of the church’ (p. 1). The fact that a Christian pacifist penned these lines is unsurprising. More remarkable is that their author is also a retired Special Forces sergeant in the United States army whose 24 years of service took him to Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada and Somalia with a brief stint on the faculty at West Point. Stan Goff’s CV explodes the common charge levelled against pacifists that they are only able to keep their consciences clean by letting others get their hands dirty with the morally sordid necessities of war. Goff would readily confess that neither his conscience nor his hands are clean, and this helps to explain why, after his conversion at age 56, he has come to understand non-violence to be an inextricable part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Goff rejects violence, not because it is ineffective—history is rife with examples to the contrary—but because it is an idol of the powerful, something to which Christians have no intrinsic claim. He argues that though masculinity is a malleable cultural construct, the historically consistent identifiers of what it means to be a man are the subordination of women and execution of war—essentially two sides of the same macho coin. Jesus’ question to Simon the Pharisee, ‘Do you see this woman?’ (Lk. 7:43a) is the leitmotif weaved throughout the book in order to challenge from several different directions what Goff considers the myopic male wielding of power over and against women. The borderline from which this book draws its name is the arbitrary one drawn between genders, races, classes and nations that historically has been defended vigorously by means of violence. Goff writes that for the Christian such boundaries have been abolished through the death of Jesus, who offended so many precisely because he traversed these barriers. The cross is the only truly redemptive violence in history, though the powerful often recast their use of violence in salvific language.

Goff illustrates in some detail how popular films as well as a selective historical memory continually underwrite the legitimacy of the American version of the myth of redemptive violence. It is no coincidence that the American Western became increasingly popular after World War II, Goff explains. The images of cowboys gunning down bandits, subduing lawless ‘Indians’, and rescuing helpless women tied to train tracks served to reinforce the American belief in the necessity of the armed strong man to keep society safe from villains. The Western resonates with America’s perception of itself as the sheriff in the white hat providing peace through force to the helpless in the midst of a dangerous world. This trope did not fade with the waning of Westerns’ profitability. Movies since 9/11 like Man on Fire and Zero Dark Thirty remind viewers that sometimes the only recourse for heroes is to resort to morally dubious violence like torture in order to right an injustice suffered, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hollywood is not the sole propagator of faith in redemptive violence and its corollary, the male prerogative to wage war. Goff draws his readers’ attention to the fact that the US Department of Defense has also produced its fair share of pernicious fiction. To illustrate this point, he juxtaposes the stories of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. In the government’s sanctioned fiction, Lynch was captured by the Iraqi army in a firefight and then interrogated and tortured in her hospital bed, before being ‘rescued’ by Special Forces in another heroic firefight.

The actual narrative does far less to corroborate America’s confidence in its own moral rectitude in war. By Lynch’s own account, she was neither interrogated nor tortured in the nine days she was in the Iraqi hospital. The US army’s mendacity was compounded by the drama that it orchestrated in staging Lynch’s rescue. Despite knowledge that enemy soldiers had withdrawn from the hospital, US forces cut power to the hospital, blew open its doors and handcuffed doctors and patients. Uncharacteristically, the operation was recorded by the military and the edited video was released the very next day. Six months later Hollywood followed suit with its own made-for-TV movie.

Goff draws attention to the irony that the memory constructed by the US army spin doctors and media that lapped it up was hardly blemished by being exposed as a fabrication because the little white lies they fed the public reinforced all the appropriate hierarchies. Lynch, who was made an honorary male by her participation in the military and willingness to fight to the death, resumed her rightful role as damsel in distress at the hands of the sub-human Iraqis. This set the stage for the heroic rescue by Special Operations, ‘the epitome of moral American manhood’ (p. 186). The fact that the story of Lynch was seized upon by both feminists and anti-feminists to advance their own agendas concerning the fitness of women for combat only serves to underscore Goff’s claim that we do not see this woman, merely her utility within debates about gender and violence.

If Lynch’s ‘rescue’ reinforces the American ideal of women in combat, Pat Tillman is her masculine counterpart. After 9/11, Tillman opted out of a lucrative contract in the National Football League to enter the military. This initial sacrifice and his subsequent service in Afghanistan epitomised the virtuous and selfless citizen fulfilling his duty to his country. Yet Tillman’s service would ultimately require giving his life, and he was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded a silver star for valour in action against the enemies of the United States.

The problem with the military’s account of Tillman’s death is that it was not true, and people at every level of the army’s chain of command knew it. Tillman was not killed by the enemy but by ‘friendly fire’ from his comrades. Telling the public the truth about Tillman’s death was not a prudent public relations move. This was an exceptionally poor time to be candid for a military that, only a day earlier, had gone into damage control when its improprieties at Abu Ghraib were made public. The depth of this deception is revealed by the fact that the lingering public recollection of Tillman’s death (to the extent that it is remembered at all) is primarily one of a ‘good American son’ who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’, with the other aspect of his story erased: a duplicitous military that blatantly attempted to cover up its own failures. The former story reinforces the national narrative that the sacrifice required for freedom is no less than the death of a nation’s children on the altars of just wars around the globe. The truth casts serious aspersions on this understanding of citizenship.

Goff traces the origins of American willingness to make such sacrifices (or at least finance the sacrifices of others) to the sacralizing of the nation after the Civil War in which, ‘Manliness was consecrated with a blood sacrifice, and the blood sacrifice of the nation came to supersede the blood sacrifice of Jesus. The nation became the new deity’ (p. 169, emphasis original). As a result, he argues, the church offered little resistance to the de facto ‘outsourcing’ of its moral decision concerning warfare to the state, understood in Augustinian terms as the ‘providential’ guardian of the ‘common good’. What would be unintelligible, however, to Augustine and any subsequent just war accounts is the legitimation of total war for the survival of the state. Goff contends that contemporary wars are inevitably total wars as evidenced by the fact that they kill more civilians than soldiers (he defends this claim by citing the BBC’s statement that by the end of the twentieth century, 75 per cent of war casualties were noncombatants; p. 112).

What moral sleight of hand is needed to convince one’s citizens that fighting for the common good necessitates that three civilians die for every professional soldier killed in combat? Goff suggests that the American answer to this question is found in the Lieber Code, ostensibly written to reign in unjust combat practices during the Civil War. Any limits the document sought to impose on war were hamstrung by its allowance for their circumvention due to ‘military necessity’. This exception, vaguely delimited as ‘that which is indispensible for securing the ends of the war’ (p. 167), could outflank any moral criticism of questionable practices in war as long as the tactics could be portrayed as obligatory for winning the war. Goff insightfully observes that the Lieber Code is the elastic boundary that could be stretched to cover any multitude of transgressions, so it is unsurprising that it became ‘the loophole through which Sherman would ravage Southern farms in 1864, and through which twenty-two thousand Dresden civilians would be firebombed to death in 1944, and through which fell two atomic bombs on Japanese cities’ (p. 168). The Lieber Code, like other attempts to write ethical warfare into law, tacitly formalised the belief that war could be either just or effective but not both.

Borderline is a substantial argument bolstered by autobiographical, feminist, philosophical, cultural and theological voices. Critics may charge that in trying to evaluate the problem of war and gender from a variety of angles, Goff has failed to treat any of them adequately. Philosophers, anthropologists, theologians and military personnel, as well as feminists from each of these disciplines, may find Goff’s analysis of their field to be too selective or thin an account to be useful. In his humble, self-deprecating style, he would likely own these criticisms while defending the necessity of each vantage point to ‘explain why masculinity constructed as domination, in war and in relation to women, is really just one story … of manliness … [T]his very construction has steered the church away from the story of the Gospels’ (p. xvi, emphasis original).

Goff’s unique experiences enable him to narrate this story (often with lurid details and ‘salty’ language that may make some readers uncomfortable) from a rare perspective that few civilians could access on their own. It cannot be easily dismissed as a flaccid, pacifist indulgence in an over-realised eschatology. Rather than relegate justice to the ‘sweet by and by’, Goff’s account gives Christians sufficient cause (and the tools with which) to interrogate contemporary accounts of gender and warfare. Such a thesis casts significant doubts on the notion that Christians can imbibe the dominant cultural myth that national exceptionalism is justly defended by violence without compromising their witness. Even if the reader thinks Goff’s portrayal of the sacralizing of the state is hyperbole, it is difficult to contend that the American desire for security and its subsequent faith in its military power to provide that security by any means necessary does not come precariously close to idolatry. Goff reminds his readers that what differentiates Christians from the ‘ideal’ citizen is that, ‘We are not called to be powerful. We are not called to be respectable. We are not called to be patriotic. We are not called to be masculine. We are called to be holy’ (p. 400, emphasis original). If Goff’s account of Christian calling is true, Jesus’ disciples should be leery of entreating the protection of the very golden calf we have formed from our own treasure, because in doing so we may very well be calling down judgement upon ourselves.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Caligula on the Hudson

Trump and the Erasure of the Republican Party

Like a child-king incapacitated from a lifetime of indulgence by bullied servants, Donald Trump is quickly ripping the Republican Party asunder. His sinister calculations, aimed by a coterie of crackpot advisers at being America’s own Duce—like the neocon Bush-clique fantasies of democratizing the oil patch for Yankee capital—has had its opposite effect. The party he commandeered through a hostile takeover during last year’s election follies has technically won both houses of the federal legislature and the executive branch; but contrary to capitalizing on that newfound power, it is metamorphosing into a political calamity.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Like 9-11. Levittown. Nagasaki. Kristalnacht. Kennedy Assassination. 2007 Crash. 2003 Iraq Invasion. All these black swans, historical pivot points. Punctuation marks on the narrative that replaces memory as history. Is this gonna end up being a thing now? Charlottesville? Another punctuation mark on our wretched history?

These are fearful times. Donnie has discovered there are nukes in the closet, and he wants to boardgame with them in Korea. And his alter -- Kim Jong Un -- seems to be as possessed by masculine blustering as Agent Orange. Really, y'all. This is for-real pretty scary. And what's motivating the process right now is probative masculinity.


Apparently White Nationalists are rampaging through the city, confronting counter-protesters, some peaceful, some provocable, some likely themselves provocateurs. And there have been some knock-down, drag-out fights. The cops -- by all accounts -- find themselves in deeper waters than they've ever experienced, and the city has been declared a state emergency to increase police presence. These reactionary gangs headed straight for confrontations with Black Lives Matter, who rightfully increased their general state of vigilance. One account says the thing began over anger at the upcoming removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now it has spread over town

Will this happen more and more? I have no way of knowing, of who these people are, how they are organized, whether this is a blip or the beginning of a pattern. I know that probative masculinity traverses the political spectrum plotted from right to left. And boys want to prove their masculinity by fighting. The White Nationalists have hardly been subtle about their desire for war. The seek to be in a state of warfare, because they imagine this is how to get the gaze of approval from their idol -- masculinity. Lefty boys (and a few girls) fighting righty boys (and a few girls) is a win-win for fighty boys. Strike a pose. Having said this, the violent confrontations are picked up and amplified by media, giving an untrue impression about the overall character of the opposition.

I fear the reactions to these provocations nearly as much as I fear the provocations themselves. I pray that they are self-limiting, that we are still sufficient in numbers and moral will to dissolve them, like phagocytes. Because fight boys are drawn to conflict as much out of a desire for masculine esteem as by any real desire to defend. Incredibly narcissistic, yes, but there you have it. That impulse to prove oneself A Man . . . jumps right up in front of boys, from long training, and it is a wee bit Pavlovian.


So maybe "Charlottesville" will become the first act in a continuing and progressively more dreadful play. Maybe we've passed some point of no return, and the worst is already in train. Maybe Donald Strangelove will disappear "Charlottesville" inside the mushroom clouds of tactical nuclear weapons.

Or maybe we will look back, in five years or ten, and remember "Charlottesville," the name of a memory with many interpreters, a cultural Rorschach test, freighted with bitter grief. The first act in a longer, sadder story. I pray it is not.

Enough! Damn!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Demographics aiming at 2020

People vote, or they don't, if they can vote, and some can't, but when a lot of people vote, you can count what they do and at least see some trends.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Guns, guns, guns

. . . as the old Guess Who song went.

Reading about guns every day, and -- of course -- seeing them on TV and in films as instruments of redemption. The perennially armed cops in the US are already heading to fatal shootings in excess of one thousand before the end of 2017; and there is the development of the Redneck Revolutionary movement -- supposedly antifascist -- in which ostensibly antiracist white people remain rooted in, and celebrate, gun culture. "Racism no - Guns yes" is their mantra apparently.

American culture is Baudrillard on steroids and acid. The simulacra has taken over as we withdraw into our electronic life-support and hallucination dens. We come to believe that what we read and see in audiovisual media is true, in part because we have eschewed real experience as too troublesome or risky. We need a reality check on guns.

I was a gunfighter once. Really, I mean it. I was a member of the Army's "counterterrorist" direct action outfit in Ft. Bragg; and the main skill we developed for what were called "surgical operations" like hostage rescue, etc., was marksmanship and close-quarter (gun) battle (CQB). I worked both as an assaulter -- the guys who enter the room -- and a sniper -- the guys who cover the crisis site from without using precision rifles. We really learned our guns. As an assaulter, it was nothing to spend endless hours and thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition from our submachine guns and sidearms to achieve the high levels of accuracy required to enter a closed space with our comrades, hostages, and "bad guys," and to be confident that we could place our shots into a five inch circle in a fraction of a second. This practice took a great deal of time and it cost a great deal of money (not our money, but tax revenues). Way more time and money than most people have, even most people who have guns.

We thought about ammunition a great deal, especially how it passes through targets (terminal ballistics) and ricochets. Because, if you are supposed to be ready to rescue hostages, it kind of defeats the purpose if you shoot the "bad guy" and the bullet passes through him and enters the body of a rescu-ee. This was a special concern for aircraft hijacking scenarios, because everyone is lined up tightly in seats like human sardines. One's shooting sector is a long, linear tube.

We decided to test ammunition, and we spent a week testing it at an "aircraft graveyard" in the Arizona desert. Terminal ballistics were tested using gelatin blocks to simulate human bodies. We made gelatin blocks that were body-sized, gelatin blocks that were super-sized, and even gelatin blocks that were supplemented with ribs from a local butcher. We lined up the blocks in frames on aircraft seats, in frames that were lined up outside, and in frames that were separated by variable distances. And we shot them, again and again, photographing and recording data along the way.

We found that the most common pistol round (and our submachine gun rounds), the 9mm, when fired from various pistols, would pass through around three blocks and seat backs before coming to rest in the fourth gelatin block. Okay, this was not so good. Fortunately then, our own standard sidearms were souped-up M1911 45 calibers, that fired a fatter, slower round than the 9mm; and when we tested the 45s, they only went through one block, one seat back, and partway into the next block. Combining this subsonic round with careful shot placement (in split seconds) might at least minimize collateral damage. Shotguns were better the lighter the load, so the 00 buckshot that was our standard went into a second block, whereas the substitution of #6 or smaller "birdshot" kept the projectiles in the first block unless one was almost at point blank range.

Cops use 9mm ammunition for the most part. Assault rifles as long guns (usually 5.56mm or .223 caliber), and 00 buckshot in their shotguns (they also have "bean bag" loads for "riots"). Gun nuts like assault rifles and 9mm or other hot (supersonic) loads for their sidearms. NRA type gun nuts love to talk about the technics and ballistics; and they fantasize about killing home intruders, rescuing white damsels, fighting bad governments in the woods, and shooting black people, "Mexicans," and-or Muslims. Go to guns shows and shooting events, and they talk about this shit quite openly. Now we have the Redneck Revolutionaries, who may have different fantasy targets, but they are still mostly boys who can't relinquish the fantasy of proving their manhood by shooting "the bad men" (in the fantasies, the targets are mostly men, because killing men is more probative of masculinity than shooting women). Then they are caught in a camera angle from below, sun on their faces, wind blowing their hair, True Heroes.

Because they are fantasists and paranoids, gun nuts are looking for a fight; and the immediate possession of a gun, carrying that is, amplifies this pugnaciousness . . . a lot. The quest for masculinity is fundamentally predicated on (deep, unconscious, sexual) fear, and the possession of a firearm is not merely an antidote to fear; it generates that belligerent "courage" that can only originate from a deep, unconscious fear. So guns don't only make people physically more dangerous; they make people psychologically far more dangerous.

An armed society is not a polite society. An armed society is a dangerously stupid society. I'm not talking about hunters in Canada or Iceland who keep a deer rifle in the closet. I'm talking about the exploding mass of sexually-insecure white males who are carrying their Sig Sauers and Berettas into Walmarts and Krogers and middle schools to pick up their kids. At the most extreme, the Preppers -- Lord, have mercy, who are armed to the teeth even as they've lost their minds.

I've proposed elsewhere that Just War theories lost their raison d'etre with the advent of modern war, in no small part because automatic weapons, cannon fire, and bombs of all sorts cannot distinguish friend from foe, and even were they able to, their impact areas/bursting radii are too large to use these weapons without accepting in advance that they will kill bystanders. And soldiers inevitably kill civilians on purpose; but we'll stay with bystander casualties.

In World War I, 7 million combatants died alongside 6.6 million civilians. Fatality counts exclude the even larger numbers of combatants and civilians who are injured, often in ways that cause permanent suffering and disability. In World War II, some 70 million died, and even excluding the ethnic cleansing campaigns, bystander deaths outnumbered combatant deaths by nearly three to one. Sixty-seven percent of Korean War casualties were civilians, and with Allied operations against the North, North Korea lost fully twenty percent of its total population. Around 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the US invasion and occupation, compared to around half that number in combatants. Four out of every five casualties in Afghanistan since 2001 have been civilians; and two of every three casualties in Iraq since the 2003 invasion have been non-combatants. Drone strikes, which are called "surgical," kill ten non-combatants for every combatant -- if you believe the remote operators can really distinguish such a thing through a flying camera. So there's my point, in brief, about "just" war.

My point about guns is similar, if on a smaller scale. Modern rifled firearms and, at close range, shoguns have been refined toward a telos of ever-increasing efficacy -- and by efficacy, we mean lethality at various ranges. They are designed for the instant destruction of tissue sufficient to cause death.

In 2011, there were around 34,000 fatalities from firearms and around 74,000 non-fatal injuries in the US. We use guns in 67 percent of homicides, 50 percent of suicides, 43 percent of robberies, and 21 percent of aggravated assaults. I myself survived eight conflict areas in the Army without sustaining a gunshot wound, and was finally shot outside a bar in 1991 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. These statistics can be deceiving, because when we compare homicides with suicides, the percentages lie.

We kill ourselves more often than we kill others here, and 60 percent of suicides use firearms. Suicides account for 65 percent of suicide deaths -- in part because the shooting is more accurate, and in part because successful suicides, while the numbers compared to attempts are unknown, have a high correspondence to the method used. Firearms, at above 80 percent as far as we know, are the absolute most successful method. So, all other things being equal, a firearm in the house dramatically increases the odds that it will be used for some confused, sick, broken, humiliated, and-or lonely person to extinguish themselves. In 2013, 41,149 were successful -- men far more than women, because men choose firearms, naturally. By comparison, just over a thousand home invasions were repelled by the threat of a firearm, and actual burglary-homicides in the US are around 100 a year nationwide. Do the math. You are quite a bit more likely to have a suicidal person among family or friends in the house than a lethal burglar.

Or kids. We kill more kids per capita with guns than any country in the world, and around 320 kids are snuffed out each year here in home gun accidents, more than three times the probability of repelling an actual homicidal intruder with a gun. (Not to forget, if your home is intruded upon by a killer -- which is about twice as likely as being killed by lightning -- the best course of action is to leave and call 911. Burglars look for guns, because they have a great resale value.)

All that aside now, however, let's get down to the creepy business of what exactly gunshots do. A contained explosion sends missiles down a barrel at speeds that can go through the average elm tree. When a bullet hits a body, it doesn't simply punch a hole and slice through a tiny column of skin, organ tissue, bone, etc. At high velocity, projectiles have brand new physical properties. Three of the immediate outcomes are in-flight deviation, distortion of the projectile, and cavitation. The projectile begins responding to its environment as soon as it leaves the barrel -- so it might tail-drop ("yaw"), or wobble, or turn. The projectile is distorted by the impact with material (like the flesh and bone of a human being) and loses its sleek, perfect cylindricality. The projectile pushes a shock wave through the air around its flight path which enters the body and tears through the tissues surrounding the bullet path in a millisecond "cavity," leaving behind extensive damage not only along the path, but through tissues distal to the path. That's why entry wounds can be quite small, but exit wounds can look like bomb craters in meat. If it hits the upper arm, for example, it might break the bone without ever touching is, or tear up the brachial artery (fatal), or destroy large amounts of muscle tissue (resulting in shock, future infections, permanent disability). A small caliber, subsonic round like a 22 might leave the gun your three-year-old has found, enter the head of your eight-year-old, then ricochet around inside the skull until all its kinetic energy is gone. In a nanosecond. No do-overs.

All this is true if you've just shot Hannibal Lecter; but it is equally true if you missed old Hannibal and the bullet passed through a sheetrock wall and hit the lawyer Hannibal has tied up in the next room for tonight's dinner. Or you may shoot at that fourteen-year-old heroin-addicted home intruder, miss the bad child, have the bullet strike your stone veneer, ricochet, and end up in the lumbar spine of your niece whose come to visit and sleeps in the spare bedroom. If you fire ten times, maybe you can hit the bad child, too, and punish the kid-burglary by blowing holes in his skull and abdomen. That should make you feel better.

By the way, they don't show this kind of stuff in TV dramas and boyflix.

Even if you are a crack shot at the range where you hang out with your buddies and talk about how you'll "double-tap" the bad guys, when something actually happens that provokes you to draw your weapon (instead of the smart thing to do when there is danger, which is to haul ass out of there  . . . but the gun has made you stupid as shit now), another person will not be standing still like a target in good light with a range master to ensure no one is downrange when you fire. You cannot, not under any circumstances, guarantee that you will not miss, that you will not hit a bystander, that you will not overreact. And for that reason, NO ONE should be allowed to carry firearms around with them, because they are already, knowingly or not, accepted that they might shoot someone unintentionally. I include cops in this calculus. Why are cops so brave in other countries that they can walk around unarmed except for a baton, some Mace, and maybe a hand taser?

Anyone who calls oneself a Christian and carries a firearm -- given what I just pointed out about our absolute inability to control outcomes in the employment of firearms -- ought to be ashamed and turn in your credentials. You cannot follow Jesus with a Glock in your belt. I'm sorry. Just not possible.

No matter what cockamamie scenario you construct to justify carrying a gun (not talking about someone hunting) for "protection," you cannot escape the reality of this inability to control what happens when a firearm is used, because you cannot predict the circumstances of its use.

You penises will not fall off when you refuse to carry. And you are far less likely to have that unpredictable instant that saddles you with a lifetime of regret.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Veteran Entitlements

Universities, like many institutions, are, beneath their orderly veneer, sites of constant low intensity warfare. More so, perhaps, because they deal in ideas, and human beings are correctively ordered in practical pursuits by the immovable necessities of particular practices; but ideas are inflected by personal psychology and a plurality of ideological commitments, neither of which is anchored by practical necessity. I garden and fish, for example, and if I don’t use the right soil and amendments or the right bait and technique, I get practical feedback in the form of failure. But we can cling to many faulty, even bizarre, ideas for quite some time, especially in universities, because some of these ideas are never tested except within the framework of other ideas; and in a pluralistic culture like ours, we have generated multiple frameworks with premises that are so incommensurable with one another that—in the absence of any ultimate authority for appeal—no resolution to conflicts is even possible. And so the low intensity warfare in universities takes the form of sniping through various media, character assassination, and the mobilization of cliques.

I know two people, whose names and institution I will not cite, one of whom is engaging in this form of warfare against another over the subject of military veterans. I’ll call them (androgynously) Pat and Gale. Pat is a graduate fellow and a veteran, who has organized a group of veterans on campus. Gale is an Ethics professor, never in the military, who is active in the opposition to drone warfare and torture. Both claim to be opposed to war, their pacifism rooted in Christian faith. Pat has had issues with Gale for quite some time, based on Pat’s belief that non-veterans can never speak of veterans, and Pat’s further belief that veterans are the only people who can speak with enough authority on the topics of war and peace to “lead” these public conversations. Gale disagrees. Recently Pat took one of Gale’s tweets from a conference on war out of context, and made the claim that Gale was guilty of “cultural appropriating” veterans.

The Gale tweet: “There is a gnosis of violence going on . . . The notion that combat vets ‘know’ is not good for vets.”

Context: Gnosticism is an insider term among Christians (like myself) that applies to a particular heresy which claims that redemption is achieved by acquiring ever more esoteric (“higher”) forms of “knowledge” which progressively liberate the divine spark. So what Gale tweeted might be translated as: There is an idea that being a former combat soldier is the highest form of knowledge about war; and this mistaken notion is not helpful for the actual human beings who happen to be military veterans (most of whom, by the way, are not “combat” vets). What they need is what the rest of us need: jobs, decent housing, health care, maybe some education and training, and—from my own perspective—some life skills that help them break a lot of military habits and a dependence on veteran-esteem.

The tortured argument that Pat published in a university veteran blog (mobilizing Pat’s clique) can be summarized as “veterans constitute a culture, a culture that is equivalent to that of, say, African Americans; and this tweet is an attempt to ‘appropriate’ the ‘voice’ of veterans, so it is an instance of cultural appropriation.” Which is absurd. I’m sorry, it just is. And it is a completely uncharitable misreading of what Gale was tweeting about.

But I’ve had this conversation with Pat myself, on more than one occasion, and it needs a little background. Not the conversation about “cultural appropriation,” per se, but the one where veterans are some uniquely oppressed class of people, which Pat claims, and with which I emphatically—as another veteran—disagree. If anything, what is being appropriated in all this is the history of genuine oppression by a uniquely entitled class of people—which we veterans are—and in this case by a white veteran (Pat is white). Somehow, Pat claims, this tweet is “the standard pacifist justification of credibility regarding any event about ‘war’ which invites participation by academic[s],’ whose expertise derives exclusively from having ‘written about’ a subject with which they have no ‘first hand’ experience.” As in conversations I have had with Pat myself, for a pacifist, he has never had a good word to say about other pacifists. Pat’s first hand experience in Iraq was in the Artillery branch, and we’ll come back to why that is important.

Pat honestly believes that being a veteran, whatever kind of veteran, who served in a conflict theater, in whatever capacity, is the distinctive qualification for “leading” (he uses this term) any discussion of war. In our own conversations, Pat explained to me that he still missed and admired the camaraderie and shared hardships of military life; and he has taken a page from Alasdair MacIntyre’s most ill-advised passing reference to the military as a site of distinctively Aristotelian virtue—the military as a polis, governed by particular ideas of honor and integrity. He misses that cohesiveness, and believes that this is the salvageable kernel of value that can be rescued from the uglier business of what the American military is actually organized to do. Pat actually teaches a class called “Virtues of War.” I reminded him during our conversation about this that this is the experience of many kinds of collective living, not just the military, but—for example—monastic life, women’s land, firefighters, communes, earlier societies, and so forth.

This is a little like saying that the only people who are qualified to speak about capitalism are production line workers, because they are at that point where the rubber meets the proverbial road. It’s a preposterous notion on its face, and a bald attempt to humiliate, marginalize, and silence anyone who questions the somehow-exclusive authority of veterans to speak about war.

How is the “first hand” experience of an Artillery soldier the same—apart from the greater institutional culture that prevails prior to the initiation of hostilities—as that of an infantry soldier or military police prison guard or an office-bound intelligence analyst or a personnel clerk or a vehicle mechanic or a hospital worker? Do people seriously believe that there is one homogenous “first hand” experience of War, even among one set of imperial soldiers in one theater, apart from General Orders, rank structure, and grotesque ignorance of the people they occupy and attempt to control? Can the abused wife of a soldier who has been formed by the (violently misogynistic) culture of the military speak on war? Can the historian speak on war? When I was in Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old, drug-addled grunt, was I more qualified to speak about the causes of the war than some (ick) academic who had studied the history of the conflict but eschewed participation? What about the people who are occupied, bullied, wounded, and killed by soldiers? What about the people who make the weapons? You see how perfectly imperfect this generalization of “the first hand experience of war” is, when you begin to appreciate how complex and far-reaching is the phenomenon of war itself.

Are we talking about danger? About the risks of service giving someone a special claim to authority? If so, then before we list veterans, we need to list loggers, fisherman, and power line workers who die with greater frequency than soldiers, even during the last decade and a half of high-intensity military occupations. Roofers die at the same rate as the military (even when you include military suicides, which are more common among non-combatant soldiers and veterans that combatants), and for a lot lower pay. But we don’t see Roofers Day parades or statues of fallen power line workers, or bridges named after loggers and fishermen. In terms of job-related disability, home health workers are far worse off than military veterans. And even in the military, there is a hierarchy of risk. Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) is the best job per capita for being killed at work, followed by Special Operations, combat medic, supply truck driver (since Iraq, when our war victims learned to use mechanical ambushes), infantry, rescue swimmer, and helicopter pilot. Does this mean that EOD is the best-qualified to speak about war, even if the technician has no clue about how he or she ended up in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria?

Am I allowed to say, as a veteran, just how full of shit many veterans are? Or what kinds of scuttlebutt makes its way through military barracks? Or how many, and often ridiculous, ways the “first hand” experience of veterans in conflict areas is interpreted by the participants? Or how many Wrong Beliefs these kids have about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who they are doing it to?

At the full-of-shit desk, standing tall at the front of the line, is PTSD! While there are a few people who suffer from post-traumatic stress in ways that create debilitating problems in their lives, including people who are not veterans, you can’t throw a rock nowadays without hitting some vet who claims the disability (and a bumper crop of shrinks willing to make the diagnosis for disability claims). It is almost a status symbol, yielding simultaneous sympathy and admiration for the mentally-wounded “hero,” and . . . oh, by the way, gives anyone a ready excuse for being a world-class shit. I’m disrespectful to women . . . PTSD. I beat my kids and spouse . . . PTSD. I’m a loud-mouth drunk . . . PTSD. I’m a rapist . . . PTSD. I’m a lazy slug . . . PTSD. I’m a bully . . . PTSD. I committed armed robbery . . . PTSD. You get sympathy, admiration, and a get-out-of-jail-free card. What’s the downside?

So what connects this posing/malingering by veterans, the faulty claim that veterans have some exclusive authority to speak about war, the nostalgia many veterans feel for their days in uniform, and the way veterans get special recognition, official and unofficial, for their “sacrifices” (the military is the highest-paying, highest-benefits job available to most high-school graduates who qualify)?

C’mon, let’s just say it. Militaristic American nationalism. And veterans, while they do get the shitty end of the stick on some benefits (like everyone else in neoliberal, downsizing society), get to cash in on the status and esteem. I wish fishermen and home health workers got the same deal I have—as a retired army veteran—for health insurance. And why aren’t roofers held in such high esteem? They don’t kill anyone or destroy property or spread pain and grief and devastation in their wake. They do work that keeps us dry and comfortable. I have been made to sit in a docked plane and wait while those in uniform were allowed to disembark before the other passengers, and once one jingo jughead started clapping for the kids in uniform, everyone else felt obliged to join in (when I didn’t, people looked at me like I just came out of Fido’s ass).

Pat, going back to our story, supports his claim of cultural appropriation/oppressed class by noting that “veteran” is a federally protected status, like women in sports or black people who want to vote or gay folk who want a job. Really? Veterans need special protection? In fact, what this status is another perquisite that sets aside jobs and other benefits specifically for veterans. Anyone ever seen a law that requires that X percent of your contracting work force be lesbians?

This may at first blush seem strange that I am myself speaking as a veteran—kind of, everything I am saying is equally valid whoever says it—but I am not saying veterans ought not to speak of war, peace, et al, only that we should be held to the same standards as everyone else and not be allowed to get away with talking out of our asses. Our experiences, while always filtered through many personal and historical lenses, are important. But the question is, How are they important? My take is, what we say is important, if what we say is true, as correctives.

One of the reasons veterans are worshipped in this militaristic culture is the mystique that surrounds the military, and this mystique includes a boatload of silly misapprehensions created by military propaganda, official and unofficial, as well as silly macho stories in books, television, and film. The collective imagination of the military by those who are not in the military is one of heroic martial sacrifice, while life in the actual military is—99.9 percent of the time—bureaucratic piddling and checklisting, day-to-day drudgery, and many eyes on many clocks waiting to get home and pop that first beer. Speaking of which, American military home-life is often an orgy of consumerism. Military towns are now oases of wealth accumulation, where tens of thousands of young people with well-paying, secure jobs make money rain on restaurants and bars and lenders and toymakers (adult and child) and entertainers and the builders of cheap new houses.

Veterans benefit from this mystique, and so there is a tacit understanding to keep mum about how off the mark it really is.

Susan Jeffords once wrote about “the war story,” that story of the pathos of one or a few people (usually men) that serves as an “ideological transmission belt” in support of war, by taking the focus off the geopolitical, the financial, the structural reasons for wars, and forcing us to identify with the individual “warrior.” This is precisely what is attempted through the insistence on the veteran as the ultimate authority on war. If correction is what veterans can offer to any discussion of war, then the corrections cannot be more war stories unless the goal is to valorize the warrior and the war.

When I say corrections, I mean just that. Correcting errors. When someone says the US was protecting the South Vietnamese from aggression, I can say that the grunts in my unit were encouraged to hate the Vietnamese—all of them—and to seek any excuse we could find to kill as many of them as we could. I can say that when I spoke with other grunts from other units, they said the same thing. When someone calls a battalion a squad, or treats such terms as interchangeable, or calls all soldiers officers, or doesn’t know the difference between Special Operations and Special Forces, etc., then I can offer corrections. In Pat’s case, Pat wrote an article (as a former artillery soldier) describing snipers as people who kill from several kilometers away, making them like artillerymen, I can offer a correction. I was a sniper for a time, and even the trainer for 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces’ sniper. Snipers generally shoot at ranges under 800 meters, more often half that, and they see what they shoot (one person), unlike artillery which shoots across the horizon with shells that have bursting radii that can kill many unseen people. You see how easily even a veteran can write about combat experience and say things that are mistaken.

Is there such a thing as military culture? I suppose there is, but it also consists of many subcultures. The overall culture is expressed in the language and norms (legal, policy, custom). In Basic Training or Boot Camp, everyone learns how to tell time by a 24-hour clock, express distance using the metric system, know the rank system, follow drill commands, comply with customs and courtesies, basic marksmanship, and so on. After that, people are trained as one form of specialist or another, with further subdivision among specialties by rank. But there is also an unofficial culture, one that is oriented by woman-hating machismo, careerism, and a love of violence. Hey, most young men don’t join the Army or Marines thinking, “Gosh oh gee, I want to serve my nation.” Most, when you talk with them, say either “I need money for school” or “I wanna kill people and blow shit up.”

If there is an official virtue that is reinforced in practice in the military, it is authoritarianism coupled with unquestioning obedience. Ethically, the military is absolutely consequentialist. Mission accomplishment is supreme, and all other factors are subordinated to it. You know what? Gangs and organized crime syndicates have camaraderie and cohesiveness, too. Sometimes, we just have to leave the comfort of what we know. Veterans are not superior in any sense to non-veterans. We are simply veterans; and if we have certain practical concerns in common (VA benefits, e.g.) or certain social concerns in common (the opposition to war), we can join together. Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War have done that (though many in those organizations still cling to the “special” status of being veterans, instead of simply serving as corrective witnesses.

Elevating the “voices of veterans” (Jeffords’ “war stories”) and claiming special authority for “veterans” is a fundamentally reactionary endeavor; and it will, unchecked, lead one (Pat?) to eventually embrace a reactionary position on the subject of war (and the abandonment of any semblance of pacifism). Because there is a contradiction at the heart of this relation between universally valorizing the soldier/veteran and opposing war. The veteran-as-hero, as well as the veteran-as-victim, and the veteran-as-gnostic-knower, all fall on the side of military nationalism. The veteran is most well-served, as is anyone, when served as the particular and whole person he or she is, not as a “protected” or hyper-valorized category. Because the category itself is too general to be useful except in the service of nationalism and war.

Friday, May 12, 2017


Why Semiotics?

Richard Dawkins is among those who propose something called universal Darwinism, which purports first of all that mathematically demonstrable scientific discovery constitutes an ultimate truth claim; that is, it can explain everything. Everything. Universal Darwinists, however, violate their own stated principle by jumping to the non-mathematically-demonstrable conclusion that both nature and society can be explained using nothing but their “Darwinist” triad, i.e., adaptation (evolution) through variation, selection of the “fit,” and retention (through heredity).[1] They have taken an overly general account of natural selection and attempted a further generalization of that account to everything else: economics, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. Linguistics, for our discussion, falls within the scope of semiotics—the study of signs—and we will show why universal Darwinism is inadequate to the task of understanding any of these things.
The linguistics—or study of language—of the universal Darwinists, whose obsessive motivating purpose seems to be proving a negative—that there is no God[2]—is called, unsurprisingly, “evolutionary linguistics.” In evolutionary linguistics, the basic assumption is that a word or phrase, for example, is selected in the same way that nature selects for long necks on giraffes, through a process of variation (different lengths of neck), selection of the “fit” (longer necks get more food and live longer to reproduce more); and retention (the trait is stored genetically and passed on through reproduction of the “fit”).[3]
What is assumed in this worldview is a clockwork materialism, or the assumption of the material as an account of all being, including human culture. This is an aspect of the dualism we discussed earlier. The subject is unreliable, but the object contains the only discernable truth, discoverable through strict observation that is disciplined with mathematics. The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1865—1925) explained how this was an attempt to break being into time and space (instead of time-space), separate them and making space the dominant partner.
The concept of matter arose only because of a very misguided concept of time. The general belief is that the world would evaporate into a mere apparition without being if we did not anchor the totality of fleeting events in a permanent, immutable reality that endures in time while its various individual configurations change. But time is not a container within which changes occur. Time does not exist before things or outside of them. It is the tangible expression of the fact that events—because of their specific nature—form sequential interrelationships.[4]

For Darwin, as well as Newton, whose mechanical ideas Darwin adopted, and for Dawkins with his posse of God-phobic materialists, the separation of time and space, and time’s subordination to space (materiality that “holds still” for observation), were necessary to reduce all reality to a sequence of simple, mechanical causes-and-effects, what Aristotle called “efficient causation.”[5] The other three types of causation (see footnote) made them dizzy. The reduction of all phenomena to efficient causes is an attempt at control (an obsession most often associated with anxiety). If time is not a thing but an expression of shifting relations, then it, too, is wild. It needs to be domesticated by the material, locked into plots on a map. French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), who analyzed the phenomenon of cinema, compared this attempt by materialists, to domesticate time, to films—which, though they appear to flow continuously, can be broken down into frames where all that disorienting motion can be frozen into the apparent three dimensions of space—height, width, depth—an illusion cast on a two-dimensional surface.
Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality . . . We may therefore sum up . . . that the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind.[6]
This materialist notion of language, then, not only cannot account for Taussig’s Bolivian peasant-miners baptizing money, it cannot account for the immense complexity of a simple conversation between two Western metropolitan persons about a novel they both read. What is required is an expansive and inclusive, not a reductive and exclusive, approach to language that allows for context. When Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951) formulated his ideas about language, which he compared to games, he pointed out that language can mean “giving orders, and obeying them, describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements, constructing an object from a description (a drawing), reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams, making up a story; and reading it, play-acting, singing, guessing riddles, making a joke or telling it, solving a problem in practical arithmetic, translating from one language into another, asking, thinking, cursing, greeting, and praying.”[7]
The universal Darwinists, in trying to break everything in the universe down to its evolutionary utility, evade these problems by claiming that they simply haven’t yet identified the whole train of cause-and-effect. In other words, their theory is correct even though it hasn’t yet been scientifically demonstrated to be so, because it is correct. Then they castigate faith as a form of unfounded belief without the least sense of irony.
More to the point, when they speak of evolution as if it were reducible to their vary-adapt-retain triad, they fail to have noticed that human beings—with language in particular—have evolved to be “biologically determined not to be biologically determined”;[8] in other words, we are by our very nature “constructed” by culture, which cannot, as the dualists would have it, be separated from nature any more than time can be separated from matter and space, nor can our semiosphere be deconstructed within the adapted framework of Newtonian (mechanical) physics.
Wittgenstein’s theory of language games can be instructive on several accounts when applied to semiotic discussion. Indeed, any interaction with signs, production of signs, or attribution of meaning owes its existence to its status as a move in a language game—that is, a conceptual architecture, a grammar, that we must uncover. . . Consider the Augustinian definition of the sign: something put in the place of something else (to which it is imperative to add: in a relation of meaning or representation). Wittgenstein tells us that of the elements that make up the semiotic relation (sign, modes of representation or signifying, the sign’s referent, etc.), none exists outside a language game. In an interpretive act, nothing is “intrinsically” a sign: the grammar of the language game is what makes it possible to identify the sign, its way of being a sign and what it is a sign of.[9]

Charles Pierce (1839-1914), the semiotician, developed a classification system for signs—any signal that refers to something and is received by an interpreter. Human signs, he said, signify three kinds of phenomena: facts, qualities, and conventions. I point to a can of paint and I say, “I want that paint.” The term “paint” signifies the actual existing thing called paint, a fact. When I browse through the swatch booklet for various paint colors, and I find the one I want in a paint, I point to the swatch, and say, “I want this one.” In this case, the sign—the swatch—is not paint, but a way to specify one quality of the paint, its color. When Harriet Tubman wrote, “Mrs. Stowe’s pen hasn’t begun to paint what slavery is,” she wasn’t referring to paint or the quality of paint, but to a more complex social issue, using certain speech conventions, like irony and metaphor. Or in another case, we read an oral thermometer at 101 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sign—by convention—tells us someone has a fever, a fact. These categories—fact, quality, convention—are what Peirce called sign “elements.”
These elements then appoint classifications to signs. These classifications he called index, icon, and symbol. Index signs refer to natural things. Icon refers to representative things. Symbol relies on a socially shared understanding. An actual face is indexical. A portrait photo is iconic. A yellow happy-face emoticon is symbolic. And we can see that these categories, from index through icon to symbol become ever more abstract. Peirce called this “firstness,” “secondness” and “thirdness.”
The first is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything or lying beyond anything. The second is that which is what it is owing to something to which it is second. The third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation to each other.[10]

[1] Von Sydow, “Sociobiology, Universal Darwinism, and Their Transcendence.”
[2] There is a truism in logic that says, “You cannot prove a negative”; but this is not absolutely true. The exceptions are “proof of impossibility” (2 plus 2 cannot equal 5) and “evidence of absence” (There is no coffee in that cup). In this case, however, the claim “There is no God,” falls outside of either exception, because God—at least as understood from the perspective of Christian philosophers like Aquinas—is prior to and transcendent of the Being within which we, as Being’s time-space-matter captives, establish these kinds of evidentiary proofs.
[3] Campbell, “Bayesian Methods and Universal Darwinism.”
[4] Selg, Rudolf Steiner’s Life and Work, 174.
[5] Aristotle defined four types of causation: material, formal, efficient, and final. Material causation was what made up something—this book is made of paper and ink. Formal causation is how something is formed—a daisy is a daisy and not a rose because of their specific and differentiated forms. Efficient causation is a sequence leading to a phenomenon—billiard ball moves, hits another billiard ball, energy is transferred, second ball moves. Final causation is a purpose or goal, what an action is aimed at—I am writing now for the purpose of “causing” a post.
[6] Bergson, Creative Evolution, 332.
[7] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 23.
[8] Goff, Borderline, 30.
[9] Xanthos, “Wittgenstein’s Language Games,” Signo, (2.4), 2006.
[10] Peirce, quoted in Hornborg, Power of the Machine, 165.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tulsi Gabbard. Just no.

Communique from a left-allied Catholic on a bad idea.

The recent defeats of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, as well as the ongoing neoliberal resistance to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom have led many of the left’s guardedly hopeful into premature despair. Elections are like sporting events. When the clock stops, whoever is ahead wins. But politics is not a sport, and our tendency to think of it that way has blinded many to the tectonic shift represented by this abrupt—in political time—emergence of a strong social democratic pole in the bourgeois democracies after being ratcheted to the right for decades via the formerly hegemonic Washington Consensus.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Malthus, food, privileged cores, and church

Ecologic crisis begins locally, then expands until it achieves certain thresholds, whereupon quantity is transformed into quality, and the crisis generalizes. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Four Cheaps

On October 21, 2011, the Guardian published an article by Camilo Ruz entitled "The six natural resources most drained by our 7 billion people." The photograph accompanying the headline was a young, poor Nicaraguan woman hauling water from a public well.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Development - The Big Lie


Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until there is no more room, so that you have to live alone in the midst of the land!

-Isaiah 5:8

Production, Consumption, and Space

If you could go back in time to the mid-sixteenth century and land in what is now Eastern Virginia, you would encounter six tribes of indigenous people who collectively belonged to a political and trade network called the Powhaton Confederacy. They used beads and tobacco as forms of currency in some trade, but no one depended upon either for their livelihood. By and large, they lived through a combination of subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering. They also did some very limited mining of copper for bead-making and tools. Subsistence farms grew corn, beans, and squash as staple crops, supplemented by fruits, nuts, fish, and game gathered from the local environment. Houses were generally one room, constructed of saplings, leather, and bark. As with many other subsistence cultures, production and consumption overwhelmingly happened in the same place.
            Compare this to our own lives, where we consume what has been produced from all over the world, where general-purpose money has made this possible, and where our dependence upon money is nearly absolute. One of the mental tricks played by this space-separation between production and consumption is concealment of relations that are out of sight and out of mind.
            Helga Weisz, head of Transdisciplinary Research for the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and Professor of Ecology at Humboldt University in Berlin, uses the metaphor of metabolism to track flows and nodes. She does so in the context of world systems theory, an acknowledgement that we live in an economy that includes many nation-states, or an interstate economy. In biology, metabolism means “the processes by which a living organism uses food to obtain energy and build tissue and disposes of waste material.”[1] In social studies, metabolism means paying attention to inputs and outputs, or flows and nodes. World systems analysis looks at those flows, those inputs and outputs, across the world. Weisz:

World-systems theory regards the expansion of the industrial capitalist system as intrinsically connected to a spatial separation, on a global scale, between the early and the later stages of the industrial production process, and between production and consumption in general . . . lead[ing] to a globally uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of the use of material and energy . . . I argue that an integration of social metabolism and input-output analyses provides a conceptually sound approach to account for ecologically unequal trade between national economies or world regions.[2]

            Dr. Weisz has just summarized how to explain not only environmental damage but extreme social inequalities, facilitated by money as an ecological phenomenon.
            There is a common argument that neither the world system nor the ecological crisis we are experiencing is “capitalist,” because the Soviet and Chinese economies were/are “communist.” This is actually a deceptive argument, because both these economies, apart from their own rhetoric, employed the same means for development as capitalist economies, and were in fact both deeply dependent upon trade relations with named-capitalist economies. Deng Xiaoping of China is one of the founding fathers of neoliberal capitalism.[3] The world systems perspective looks at the world economy as a whole. And as Jason Moore, Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University points out,

It is difficult for me to read the Soviet project as a fundamental rupture. The great industrialization drive of the 1930s relied massively on the importation of fixed capital, which by 1931 constituted 90 percent of Soviet imports. The Soviets were so desperate to obtain hard currency that “the state was prepared to export anything and everything, from gold, oil and furs to the pictures in the Hermitage Museum”. If the Soviet project resembles other modes of production, it is surely the tributary, not socialist, mode of production, through which the state directly extracts the surplus. Nor did the Soviets turn inwards after 1945. Soviet trade with OECD countries (in constant dollars) increased 8.9 percent annually between 1950 and 1970, rising to 17.9 percent a year in the following decade a trend accompanied by sharply deteriorating terms of trade and rising debt across the Soviet-led zone.[4]

            One of the main errors of Marxism generally, in its criticism of capitalism, was its failure to account for industrial machinery itself as a flow-node that concealed its background realities, what we have repeatedly referred to here as the out of sight and out of mind problem. More importantly still, Marxism failed to account for general-purpose money as an ecological phenomenon that disembeds, or dissolves ecosystems and communities, because it is a sign without a referent to tell it (pun intended), "The buck stops here.." So when we describe the world system as capitalist, we are saying that these anti-capitalist projects failed because of the illusions they shared with capitalism itself. They continued to believe that they could cleanly separate culture from nature. One can very easily argue that today’s China is a capitalist powerhouse, regardless of what they call themselves. It is an authoritarian (capitalist) market economy very much like Pinochet’s Chile.[5]

Centers and Margins

I live in a town of around 24,000 souls, the commercial center for a farming county, which also has a hospital and three colleges. There were once a lot of union-wage factory jobs nearby in Toledo and Detroit that supplemented farm income, and this town then bustled with activity. Factories, however, were shifted into regions around the world where accumulation could be increased through steeper under-compensation, that is, cheaper labor; and this town has many abandoned buildings and closed shopfronts. The farms have mostly been consolidated into giant monocrop operations leased by transnational corporations, and the farmers themselves raise these cash crops by strict rules laid down by those corporations.
            If I go to a real estate site on the web and ask for houses that are priced above $300,000 (very high for this town), all but one the listings show up on a map in the southeastern quadrant of town, with on midway along the east, and close to the Country Club. If you drive through our town from east to west along the main east-west thoroughfare, the houses and neighborhoods become shabbier the further west you travel, and this end of town is also where most of the factories and warehouses, as well as toxic superfund sites are. Money as an entitlement helped to create this map, which we might call a center-margin map. The center is where the good stuff flows into, and the margins are where the bad stuff flows out-to. Those with more money-entitlements live in a kind of center in the west, and those with far fewer money-entitlements live in the east. Those in the west tend to work for those in the east. The east gets clean and pretty, and the west gets dirty and ugly. If you map where you live, you will find something similar; and if you live in a big city, you probably have a third region that is a throwaway region, with “surplus people,” that is, people the economy doesn’t want or need anymore—areas of extremely high unemployment, environmental toxicity, and crime. This latter is the margin of the margin, or the falloff region. In the triad between Miami, Santo Domingo, and Port-au-Prince, the U.S. is the center, the Dominican Republic is the margin, and Haiti is the fall-off zone. Within Miami itself, these three zones also exist.
            Centers exist parasitically on margins, and as margins are debilitated by their parasites, more people become fall-off zones, the center contracts, and those near the center become the new margins, or parasite-hosts.
            Center-margin can be mapped at differing scales. Mississippi is an extremely poor state compared to Connecticut, but inside each there are center-margins by region, by county, by city. Center-margin is not a place, even though we can map it; it is a relationship. Seen metabolically, as form of metabolism, as “the processes by which a living organism uses food to obtain energy and build tissue and disposes of waste material,” the center-margin relationship is the result of the good stuff flowing one way and the bad stuff flowing the other way with the center as the exchange node. The benefits remain at the center and the waste goes to the margin. The mapping of flows  is what Helga Weisz calls “material flow analysis.” What gets imported? What gets exported?

Import Export

Saudi Arabia once supplied the rest of the region with wheat. Yes, wheat. Most people don’t think of Saudi Arabia as a wheat producer, because it is largely desert. But beneath that desert is a massive underground network of aquifers, or underground lakes. While Saudi Arabia has between 5 and 8 billion cubic meters of surface water, it has almost 2.3 trillion cubic meters underground.[6] These supplied the water for wheat production. By 2009, Saudi Arabia began importing more wheat than it grew for itself; and by 2016, it was importing around 99 percent. The saying went, they were “selling hydrocarbons to buy carbohydrates.” This was a huge opportunity for Ag giants like Cargill in the U.S., which could sell U.S. taxpayer-subsidized wheat in ever greater volumes to the Saudis.[7] The largest oil field in the world is Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia, and it produces around 65 percent of all Saudi oil. Ghawar production began to fall in the 1990s, and in 2006 it began falling precipitously. Pool oil wells with “sweet crude”[8] like Ghawar begin production under their own pressure; but over time, as the contents are pumped out, the pressure falls. The Saudi solution to that problem is water injection.[9] They inject large amounts of water, pulled from aquifers, into the margins of the fields in order to bring the pump pressure back up. That water is then irreversibly polluted and lost to other human uses; and it has depleted Saudi aquifers, contributing to the loss of wheat production.
            The largest and richest remaining hereditary monarchy in the world, Saudi Arabia routinely employs violent population control measures to its own people, including public beheadings, to ensure its own stability as an international energy hub. Moreover, it regularly engages in open bribery, and initiates as well as intervenes in conflicts throughout the region to secure that stability.[10]
As this is written the United States imports $53 billion a year in oil from Saudi Arabia, and in return exports $115 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, with whom the U.S. is formally and informally allied in multiple military and diplomatic conflicts. A starker example of the regional import of order (negentropy) and the export of disorder (pollution, water depletion, authoritarian corruption, and war) would be hard to find.

The Trees

In February 1996, when Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the epicenter of the civil wars resulting from Balkan politico-economic disintegration, the flows of fuels into the city were disrupted by ambushes and snipers along all the routes into the city. The temperatures dropped, the snow accumulated, and within days, people began cutting down the trees in the parks to obtain firewood.[11]
            In the 1990s and 2000s, I spent a good deal of time in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the same island, Hispaniola. Haiti had been serially raped since the colonial period, including massive deforestation to harvest precious hardwood and clear land for sugar, coffee, and sisal. The Dominican Republic suffered some of those extractive depredations, but it became a client state of the United States and a tourist destination, while Haiti was exploited and left along the figurative roadside. One of the policies of the Dominican government was to subsidize bottled gas for its citizens to prevent them cutting the forests that attracted tourists. Haiti had no such policy, especially since it was subjected to a series of political coups that disrupted any political continuity. If you look at a satellite photograph of the Haitian-Dominican border, you can actually see the border in the contrast between the forested Dominican Republic and deforested Haiti. In the absence of any fuel supplies or subsidies, Haitians largely rely on charcoal to cook; and cook they must, because their staple grain is rice. Charcoal is produced by cutting woody material, even brush, and subjecting it to a flameless burn underground. The demand for charcoal, and the small amount of money available to charcoal producers—extremely poor, low-status, hardworking people called chabonye—has created a condition wherein the brush and trees are being cut at earlier and earlier stages, accelerating the desertification, or transformation to desert, of Haiti. The relative affluence of Dominicans compared to Haitians has also created a situation in which Dominican sugar and tobacco growers employ Haitian laborers at rock-bottom wages and in slave-like conditions; and Dominicans have been socialized to dislike and disrespect Haitians almost as a lower life form. Ramification.
            Higher rates of deforestation often correspond to lower “levels of development.” This has led many people to assume that the more industrialized and “advanced” nations have superior environmental practices. And it is true that the most stringent and well-enforced environmental protection laws are in the “developed” nations. But we can see that this is a confusion of correlation with causation. Just because two things exist together does not mean that one is the cause of the other.
            In 86 BCE, Rome had a million inhabitants.  By the fourth century CE, it had a million and a half. Wood was used for buildings, heating, cooking, baths, cement, plaster, glass, cart-making, and ship-building. Wood was depleted locally, then the harvesting activities spread, first to 100 kilometers, then 500, and the rivers were then put to use to float timbers from afar. Harvests spread to Sicily, to the Appenines in the north, to Macedonia, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Gaul, to the Black Sea, and the Iberian Peninsula. Many of these areas remain deforested to this day. Rome was the center, and the exploitable, extractable margins radiated outward.[12]
            A quarter of Brazil’s Amazonian forests have been lost. In 1970, that number was one percent. Amazonia is now very close to a “point of no return” for ecosystem collapse. The acceleration of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazonia has been caused in large part by timber for export, beef for export, soy beans for export, and sugar for ethanol to offset petroleum shortages.[13] China buys Brazilian timber to make products, using its own cheap labor, to sell in the United States, in order to accumulate U.S. dollars. Brazil exports more beef on international markets than any country in the world.[14] McDonald’s is one of the main beneficiaries of Brazilian soy, which is as Cargill (a U.S. agri-giant) feed for the raise-fast-to-kill chickens used in its chicken nuggets.[15]
            This is the reason we need world system analysis and the tracking of flows and nodes. When a tree falls in the forest, it is heard around the world. Deforestation is nearly always a product of environmental load displacement; and that means the benefit goes one place and the cost goes another. This is never an equal exchange. The average Brazilian earns about a quarter of what an average American does. More than twenty-one percent of Brazilians live on less than two dollars a day.[16]

War on Subsistence

"Development,” which is difference over space (Brazil, 2017; the United States, 2017), is spoken of as a difference over time, or “in stages.” This misrepresentation serves to fix our gaze on one point at a time as a way of making us ignore a larger reality of relationships.

The current fashion . . . is to dissolve any distinction between the modern and the premodern as a modern fabrication . . . The rather remarkable implication is that, in the course of the emergence of urban-industrial civilization, no significant changes have been taking place in terms of social relations, knowledge construction, or human-environmental relations. The closely knit kinship group, locally contextualized ecological knowledge, attachment to place, reciprocity, animism: all of them are suddenly dismissed as myth. With the displacement of the old narrative, represented most forcefully by Karl Polanyi, emerges the new but implicit message that we have always been capitalists.[17]

            The Polanyi who blew up this “implicit message” wrote a book called The Great Transformation, the publication of which was eclipsed by the end of World War II. The narrative of economics, and even the narrative of pop culture, is that everyone has always been essentially the same; and that the emergence of a market-dominated society was the result of removing the dead weight of authority and superstition from the past. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as Polanyi showed with his history of the violent and intentional process over decades to impost the so-called “self-regulating market” on the whole of society.
            We have been covering two key Polanyian concepts in this book so far: the multiple forms of exchange (reciprocity, redistribution, householding), and the phenomenon of disembedding, in Polanyi’s case of people being disembedded from non-market relationships like family, home town, etc., and re-embedded in strictly market relationships. Polanyi was a Hungarian intellectual living in Germany, before Hitler’s rise in 1933 convinced him to become a scholar in residence at Bennington College in Vermont. He later taught at Columbia University.
In The Great Transformation, he described the two-pronged process of enclosure and regulation that were employed by modern states to remove people from non-market driven communities and networks, especially those that gave people a degree of independence from the need for money to survive. People did not voluntarily leave their subsistence farms in the countryside to live in the city and work for wages in a factory. In fact, they fought that at every turn. They had to be legally and forcibly removed from the means of subsistence, especially land, in order to force them into emerging labor markets.[18]
            Whereas the "Inclosure Laws" of Great Britain were originally a system of combining many small farms under the control of many families into large holdings by one person (and evicting the rest) in order to support the wool export trade, the term “enclosure” is now used as a catch-all for any legal-policy action that transfers small holdings of public commons into private hands with the result of forcing former inhabitants into dependency on wage labor. Privatization is a form of enclosure. Intellectual property laws are forms of enclosure. Enclosure might be defined for our purposes as any law that intentionally separates people from their means of subsistence to produce greater dependency money through approved market relations. All privatization is enclosure.
            Ecological feminists Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen called modern development “the war on subsistence.”

In the North and, since 1945, increasingly in the rest of the world, everything that is connected with the immediate creation and maintenance of life, and also everything that is not arranged through the production and consumption of commodities, has been devalued. This includes all activities whose object is self-provisioning, whether in the house, the garden the workshop, on the land or in the stable. What doesn’t cost or doesn’t produce money is worthless. This devaluation of self-provisioning work cannot be understood, if measured only quantitatively. It indicates at the same time the degradation and contempt of the person who does this work . . . This barrier of disgust[19], which today surrounds all unpaid, essential-for-life subsistence activities, has no relation to the content of this work. Such activities are suddenly recognized as decent professions, not only for women but also for men, if they are carried out by industrialized, waged labour . . . high esteem for wage labour obviously rest on the high evaluation of money and on its myth. Not the image of money as a simple medium of exchange or measure of value, but of the money that creates ever more money which then becomes the basis of life, security for life and the hope of progress, emancipation, culture, and the ‘good life’ . . . He/she who does not work for wages cannot live.[20]

Ivan Illich likewise identified “progress” or “development” as a systematic war on subsistence. Illich had a unique way of referring to subsistence activities. He called them “vernacular.” With regard to language, the term vernacular means the way that ordinary people speak which may not conform to more formal grammatical rules. Illich described vernacular community and vernacular practices as those that were rooted in householding forms of economy, in friendships, and in the most common forms of social reciprocity.
What is interesting about Illich is that he again describes the loss of the vernacular to a process of “radical monopolization,” or enclosure—cultural, political, economic, through increasing institutionalization, as the hallmark of modernity; but he again traces its gestation and development back into his own church. Christianity in power, the church as an institution, practiced a form of enclosure of the church as a people of God. Moreover, he directly associates the imposition of “grammatical” language with the emergence of the imperial nation-state which has overseen a 500 year “war on subsistence.”
As the Western Roman Church came to power, and in confronting Western Europe’s unstable feudal political ecology within which to exercise that power, sin came to be treated as a matter of law. It was “criminalized,” in Illich’s words, which gave the Church the aspect of what would eventually come to be that of the modern nation-state. It attempted, as we noted in the first chapter, “to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation,” to enforce by law the radical freedom that was gifted to humanity by the Incarnation. In other words, it “institutionalized” grace, and thereby perverted it.[21]
By 1492, when Isabella of Castile had married Ferdinand II of Aragon and consolidated their rule over present-day Spain in a series of bloody wars and pogroms, Isabella consented to financing an ill-conceived expedition by Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) to open a westward seaway to South Asia. Colon, who had wildly overestimated the distance to the horizon used this miscalculation to determine he would reach India in around 2,400 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. In the same year, she was approached by a scholar named Elio Antonio de Nebrija who had composed a book of Spanish grammar, who suggested to her that the standardization of language within her nation-state and throughout her future empire was as essential as arms. He told her that “language is the consort of empire.” Illich tells these parallel stories, in spite of the fact that Isabella did not comprehend what Nebrija was saying about language, just as Colon never realized that Hispaniola, the island he first landed upon that eventually became Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was not in India. Illich simply uses this story to show two aspects of the modern empires, which would center on nation-states, which indeed did come to work in tandem.
As Christendom gave way to secular modernity, the empires of Europe did indeed require both arms and language to establish their power. Nebrija understood better than Isabella that the “loose and unruly” vernacular speech of the heterogeneous peasantry made them more difficult to rule and bend to the purposes of the state. The authoritarian church, who had called itself the Mother of its members, lost ground to the state, and the state adopted churchy terms to supplant the church. This was where the term “mother tongue” originated, the nation-state as the new Mother, and its language standardized to bleed off the subversive potential of vernacular tongues which contained vernacular values and vernacular relations. In support of the centralization of power, language itself was enclosed, and the first grammar books as well as the first schools were designed to stamp out vernacular languages and with them vernacular allegiances.[22]
            These changes corresponded in time and place to a changing political economy. Subsistence, and what Mies calls “the subsistence perspective,” came to be an obstacle to expansion and commodification as well as a threat to the imperatives of nation-states that increasingly depended upon and became subordinate to those who had most successfully accumulated money. A community that produces all it needs for food, fuel, clothing, and shelter is not populated by people who willingly work in factories or take up arms for the state. Their environments provide them with most of what they need, abundantly in many cases.
            Empires are comprised of consuming centers and exploitable margins, margins that must expand as resources are exhausted. The need for more arms, more ships, etc., leads to the intensification of exploitation, the competitively driven search for greater production and velocity, and thereby for more of that essential accelerating sign: money. The peasants must be removed from the land, the land converted to wealth accumulation, and the subsistence economies broken up to provide labor to the mills. This war on subsistence was vastly accelerated around the world after World War II during something given the Orwellian name "the Green Revolution."


We’ve circled around this; now let’s lay it out. We are nearer to subsistence—understood in a good way—as production and consumption are closer together in space. This is also and ultimately the only way we can dramatically reduce our utter dependency on general-purpose money. Right now, my dependency and yours is based on the threefold reality that (1) all our goods and all our built environment are organized around the need for materials, land, labor, and energy that are often thousands of miles distant, (2) these goods and this built environment, including the technology, cannot extract these materials, land, labor, and energy from their original contexts without the solvent of general-purpose money, and (3) we ourselves, given the specialization of our built environment and our work, no longer have the capacity to survive without money. The simplest thought exercise here is to try an imagine surviving through today without it, through the week, through the month. What was done to those English peasants between the twelfth and twentieth centuries, which eventually wiped them out as a class that practiced subsistence, has been done to all of us. We have been enclosed. Once you are in the position where you must have those dollars to live, you have become dependent upon those who have dollars to spare. Money, which serves them as an entitlement, now entitles them to your time and space and sweat. This immediacy of need, the very fact that we can no longer survive without serving those with more money than we have, forces us into the manifold moral compromises that thoughtful people struggle with every day. I hate automobiles. They are destructive, dirty, dangerous, and expensive. As an American, living in the built environment that I do, I cannot at this point in time afford not to have an automobile. This dependency is what traps us in the many forms of complicity that whisper to me every day, “You are a hypocrite.”
            These forms of dependency are designed as such, not some social evolutionary accident. This precise system is maintained and protected by those in power, because they are fully aware that this is the architecture of their power.
            Dependency is nested, dependencies within dependencies within dependencies. Just as an unhappy wife might be trapped in marriage to an unpleasant husband by her need for protection from other men or her inability to earn enough to survive, the unhappy worker in the miserable factory or hundred degree field is trapped by dependency, the mid-level manager is trapped into being a prick to his subordinates—even when he hates it—by dependency, the post-colonial nation is trapped by the need to get dollars to pay international debts by dependency, and so on.
            This is not saying each person is independent of every other person. We know this is not true. Interdependency is built in to human nature. But we are not speaking of the covenantal relationships, the voluntary cooperation, the necessary divisions of labor arrived at under no duress. Understand that the dominant class is dependent as well. We pointed out earlier that the rich exist parasitically on the poor, and the center nations exist parasitically on the marginal nations. A parasite depends on its host. The key thing to look for is not interdependency, but mutual dependency on an axis of domination and subordination.

[1] Mirriam-Webster
[2] Weisz, “Combining Social Metabolism,” Hornborg, et al, p. 289.
[3] Kwong, “The Chinese Face of Neoliberalism,” Counterpunch, October 7, 2006.
[5] Gilson and Milhaupt, “Economically Benevolent Dictators,” Stanford University, March 4, 2010.
[6] “First National Communication Water Resources,” Jeddah Regional Climate Center, 2017.
[7] Blas, “Saudi Wells Running Dry,” Bloomberg, November 3, 2015.
[8] High-quality, easily accessible, low-sulfur oil.
[9] Press Release, Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies, MIT, December 6, 2013.
[10] Wherey, “The Authoritarian Resurgence,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 15, 2015.
[11] Guccione, “Life After Death,” Spin, September 11, 2015.
[12] Williams, “The Role of Deforestation,” Rethinking Environmental History, Hornborg, et al, pp. 101-119, 2007.
[13] Levine, “Profit and Poverty fuel Brazil deforestation,” WSWS, January 15, 2005.
[14] Brazilian Beef, 2017.
[15] Vidal, “The 7000km journey that links Amazon destruction to fast food,” Guardian, April 6, 2006.
[16] “Economic Statistics,” Infoplease, from UNDP Development Report, 2007-8.
[17] Hornborg, Power of the Machine, p. 235.
[18] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, 1944.
[19] Disgust is culturally constructed and serves to emotionally police social boundaries, those boundaries between what is considered clean and unclean. When I was an urban high school student in the sixties, one of the most common insults thrown at people who appeared unsophisticated was to be called “farmer.”
[20] Mies, et al, The Subsistence Perspective, p. 17, Zed Books, 2000.
[21] Illich, Rivers North of the Future, pp. 80-94.
[22] Illich, “Vernacular Values,” April 12, 1981.