Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?
Thomas Riggins

A kleptocracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Many anti-Russian commentators today have no problem with classifying Vladamir Putin's government as kleptocratic but Richard Sakwa, a Russian expert at the University of Kent, is not one of them. He gives his reasons in "Grey - area Gold," an analysis of Putin's Keleptocracy: Who Owns Russia a book by Karen Dawisha, published in the TLS of February 6, 2015. What follows are some comments and observations on Sakwa's article. I have italicized my own views to avoid confusion.

Dawisha obviously thinks Russia is a kleptocracy. She paints a picture of rampant corruption and abuse of power by those involved in the overthrow of soviet power and the transfer of the collective wealth and property of the soviet people into the hands of private individuals. The security forces of the soviet state played a major role in this betrayal. Sakwa says her arguments are so "incendiary" that Cambridge University Press backed off from publishing the book and it cannot be bought in the UK. It is available in the US from Simon and Schuster.

"The fundamental picture that emerges," Sakwa writes, "is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process." In Marxist terms this would have been a counter-revolution led by elements of the leadership in collusion with the state security apparatus. However, it does not account for the acquiescence of the Red Army nor the passivity of the soviet people.

Dawisha's picture shows that Putin and his circle have certainly taken advantage of the end of soviet power and have enriched themselves at the expense of the general population (''behaviour typical of nouveaux riches throughout the ages") and have supported acts of corruption but her analysis also results "in obscuring complexity and counter trends."

That is to say, Sakwa contends, there is more to Putin's Russia than just the kleptocractic features Dawisha highlights. When then bigger picture is taken into consideration Russia turns out to be, while having some of the kleptocratic features found in many other countries [including the United States ] "not a kleptocracy tout court."

This is because the Putin government plays a much bigger role than just the enrichment of its elite supporters. It maintains social peace at home and is active on the world stage supporting Russian interests and "meets the basic needs of the Russian people" by furthering a "dirigiste" model of capitalism. Instead of hiding its revenues overseas the Russian government invests its tax money and oil revenues in public works projects and investments "for a rainy day."

That day is here, Sakwa says. Since Russia is being run in the interests of the Russians rather than the Germans or Americans this has caused the "west" to over react and initiate policies against Russia with which the Russians cannot possibly  comply. One of these is the "sanctions" regime imposed on "Putin's cronies" (and now the threat of directinvolvement in the Ukrainian civil war by arming the Kiev regime). These will have no effect on the Putin leadership but are now "affecting the whole population in a form of collective punishment". As could have been expected (If Obama and the American leadership knew anything about the real history and sentiments of the Russians) these ham fisted reactions have only increased Putin's popularity at home and "the people have rallied around the flag." The US is on a collision course of its own choosing with Russia.

Sakwa lists four reasons why Dawsha’s book as well as the so-called liberal domestic opposition to Putin (and the Western supporters of anti-Putinism allied with them) should not be taken at face value. They are:

1.) The portrait of Putin presented “is often circumstantial, conjectural,
      and partial.” Do we really want to base our foreign policy on this
      kind of evidence?
2.) There is evidence of a “deep state” at work in Russia [we have one 
     too] made up of sections of the military and security operatives (the          
     “siloviki or (‘force-men’)” and “former Party resources” but the 
     evidence given does not prove that it functions simply as a force 
     for “kleptocracy.” It has been used against the Russian “mafia” and
     for the creation of state owned enterprises which “struggle to 
     achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance.” 
     Western sanctions actually thwart the forces that are trying to
     integrate Russia into the international system.
3.) Unlike what is to be expected from kleptomaniacs, the Putin 
     government has “delivered significant public goods” and supported
     “neoclassical liberal nostrums.” Russia followed policies that allowed
      it to get through the  2008-09 world economic downturn and has 
      since begun “to invest in some major infrastructural projects". All
      in all we see “a developmental dynamic” which “does not look like 
      the policies of a kleptocracy” but, Sakwa says, the country might 
      have been in even better shape without the elite skimming off  
      social wealth for itself (this includes Putin) and “the misguided 
      dirigisme.” [Since the alternative to “dirigisme” is unregulated
      privatization I can’t agree with this last suggestion.]
4.) Russian foreign policy is not conducted on the basis of what is good 
      for kleptocrats but rather on the vision that Russia is a “great  
      “power and should be “an equal partner of the West.” Needless to   
       say “the West” [ i.e., basically the  US ] doesn’t want to accord  to
       Russia “equality.” [Russia is treated as a second rate power that
       must comply with US dictates. The Ukraine is a test case and the
       Russians must be seen to give in to American demands. This 
       fully accords with the dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry  which has   
       come to the fore since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has 
       been so well described by Lenin in his work on “Imperialism the
       Highest Stage of Capitalism.” American “over-reach” here could 
       result in Obama’s policies leading to an unprecedented flare up of
       violence and destruction on a continental scale, or worse.]

In concluding his review, Sakwa says Dawisha’s book “is one of many books that contribute to a misleading paradigm of how Russia actually works.” The reality is more complex. Dawisha’s book will give you a good insight into the elite and how their wealth was acquired but there is much more going on in Putin’s Russia than you will find in this book, so “when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.” Well, it seems this is not the book to read if you really want the dope on what’s going on in Russia. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Piketty for Progressives (Part Six and Last)

Piketty for Progressives (Part Six  suite et fin)
Thomas Riggins

14. The Theoretical and Conceptual Framework of Piketty’s Book

In this next to last section of his Introduction Piketty presents some autobiographical information that he thinks will be helpful in seeing how his views developed. This information is about his subjective emotional experiences  and not at all on scientifically based views nevertheless,  the information is interesting and helps to explain many of his attitudes. It is a section more about what he calls his “intellectual itinerary” than about theory, as we shall see.

He tells us he turned 18 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and was part of that generation who listened to the news of the fall of the Communist dictatorships and who had no affection or nostalgia for any of them including the Soviet Union.
An older generation who remembered it was the Communists who ran the underground against the Nazi occupation of his country and the Soviet Union which basically single handedly defeated Hitler’s Germany and liberated most of Europe from Nazi control might have had a different reaction. But it is a characteristic of callow youth to have no historical memory. He was, at 18, he says, “vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” The disease infecting young minds in Paris at the time, however, was anticommunism not anticapitalism and it appears the young Piketty got the wrong inoculation.

Piketty is a firm believer in bourgeois democracy and supports a social order based on democratic debate which will provide equal justice to all under the rule of law. He appears innocent of the struggle based on class conflict aimed at ending the exploitation of working people resulting from the expropriation of their surplus labor power by a class of social parasites which has control over the means of production and distribution. This accounts for the popularity of his book.

At the age of 22 he had a decisive experience. Having just been awarded his PhD he got a job at MIT and, as he puts it ,“I experienced the American dream.” This was extremely fortunate for him because as an economist he must be aware  that the majority of Americans never get to experience the ‘’American dream’’ (except as a dream).

The dream, however, wore off and by age 25 he knew he wanted to go back to France. One of the reasons he left was he was not convinced by the work of US economists and he realized, despite his early successes that he “knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems.” Economists didn’t seem to have much interest in history and turned out theories without realizing what facts had to be explained. 

Piketty thought that the field was still addicted to a childish fascination with mathematical models which created the illusion of science without its substance due to the lack of proper historical research and contextualization of factual material. Piketty decided he wanted to do research and discover the data that was necessary in order to do mature scientific work in economics.

It seems that American economists and French economists share a tendency to think they are being scientists while in fact “they know almost nothing about anything.” This doesn’t seem to bother American economists but it does the French and as a result they have made great efforts to communicate  and collaborate with other disciplines— sociology, anthropology, history, political science, perhaps even (shudder) philosophy.

The fact is that Piketty thinks economics “should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them.” His book is an attempt to advance this cause and he considers it just as much a history book as one on economics. He tells us that anyone, with a little effort, will be able to understand his book (there is minimal jargon) and come away with a clear understanding of the historical developments that form the background to his theories on the growth of income and inequality in the modern world.

The last section of the Introduction deals with the 

Outline of the Book

Piketty’s book is organized as follows:

Introduction [covered by this series of articles]

Part One— two chapters  to go over basic ideas to be used later in the book.

Part Two— four  chapters  on the future of the capital/income ratio and the division between nations of the future income between labor and capital.

Part Three— six chapters on the structures of inequality both within and between nations and the future possibilities of wealth distribution internationally over the next few decades.

Part Four— four chapters on conclusions and policy suggestions on how to handle the problems of income inequality.

Piketty admits, and shows, that all the subjects that he is writing about are basically  "deeply unpredictable.”  Not a good inducement to spend a lot of time going over these four parts. He also tells us that “ history always invents its own pathways” and that the “usefulness” of the lessons he has drawn from his research  “remains to be seen.”

Finally there is a conclusion in which Piketty sums up his position, decides that Marxism is old hat, and advocates for a more robust democracy  “if we are ever to regain control over capitalism.”   

There is no doubt that inequality and exploitation is increasing. There is an historically, I believe, tried and true explanation of these phenomena and a solution to the the human misery they cause. It is be found in the works of Karl Marx and his followers who have studied the capitalism of the past and present and have demonstrated that the system cannot reform itself sufficiently to ward off existential disaster and must be replaced by a socialist order. 

Piketty, as well as other establishment economists who think capitalism can solve its own problems within the system, will continue to put forth alternative explanations opposed to those of the Marxist economists. Whether these alternatives are mere fads of the moment or useful counter-theories, indeed, remains to be seen.

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" (Part Five and Last)


Niall Ferguson on Kissinger’s World Order (Part Five)
Thomas Riggins

We conclude with Ferguson’s opinions considering Kissinger’s views on what the real lessons are concerning world order that we have learned from the practice of American foreign policy since 1945. Basically we learn that American idealism + traditional balance of power = world order (as far as possible). Kissinger writes:

“Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend towards either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.”

This is a rather garbled mess and it is difficult to understand what Kissinger is trying to say.  Ferguson , explicating Kissinger, comments that America’s “bloodiest failures” [bloodiest for the victims not for us by the way] resulted from the US putting moral considerations “above the balance of power.”  The defeats he refers to are those of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Can this be what Kissinger or Ferguson really believe?  If so they do not even have the simplest idea of what morality is. What was "moral" about dropping Napalm, Agent Orange and other chemicals on Vietnamese children?

I can believe that Kissinger is totally amoral and I hope Ferguson has a shred or two of the moral sense here and there.The mass slaughter of the civilian population in both Korea and Vietnam carried out by the US in truly Hitlerian proportions, the war of choice waged by Bush in Iraq and the current droning of women and children in the fields, at wedding parties and funeral processions, the obscene ratio of “collateral damage’’—i.e., murder of innocent civilians, perpetrated by the US in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen where children were deliberately targeted) is the morality of the SS and the Wehrmacht of WW II— it is not an example of “American idealism.”  

I can’t think of any instance in which, since 1945 (or even before)  the US has put moral considerations above realpolitik considerations concerning the “balance of power.” It’s not  just the US. I can’t think of any nation, with the exception of Cuba since 1959, that has done so.

To protect US interests Kissinger proposes a secret treaty with China and uses nineteenth century models (the Treaty of 1839 on the neutrality of Belgium) to put forth deals with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep it it from being controlled by “jihadists.”

For someone influenced by Kant’s Perpetual Peace Kissinger seems to forget that Kant rejected secret treaties as a violation of the rights of the citizens of a state to have sufficient knowledge of their constitution to be able act as free citizens and participate in the social life of their country rather than be used as means instead of as ends by their rulers. No treaty that needs secrecy to succeed is moral for Kant.

Anyway, Ferguson points out these suggestions would only be workable in a broader context both realistic (a workable balance of power) and idealistic. The ideal of preventing a third world war may be more important than avoiding climate change, we are told. There are two things wrong with this. First, even contemplating the need to prevent a third world war is to reveal a subtext that sees China, and perhaps Russia as well, as existential threats to US interests and that the balance of power the US aims at will be weighted in its favor. This is the same old imperialist junk Kissinger has always pushed. Second, climate change poses an existential threat to the whole planet which is just as threatening as a third world war, maybe more so as climate change is happening now and a third world war is a future speculation based on viewing the world through nineteenth and twentieth century lenses by which we can only see the world as dark and blurred.

Kissinger advocates, as he says, “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary reality.” But the contemporary reality is an ├╝ber-powerful US which basically does what it wants and only gives lip service to the idea of a World Order in which it is not the dominant and all determining power. No “Westphalian” system can be so based. World Order is only possible by a strengthened United Nations in which the US is willing to share power with the rest of the world  and submit itself to universal rules to which all are subject. What could induce the US to do this— to actually put moral considerations on the same level as brute power considerations? 

Kissinger says the next president must answer this basic question; “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?”  But this is a question for the American people to answer. Right now they are so divided and kept ignorant of the realty of the world they live in (state secrets, rotten education, semi-literacy, news networks that only spew forth propaganda, crazy religious illusions, you name it) they are incapable of arriving at a consensus. In reality the 1% will continue to answer the question with a president that represents their interests primarily.

But this is the fundamental question. Until the American people unite around their interests, the interests of the 99% (metaphorically speaking) and arrive at a consensus about the sort of country and world they want to live in— one that fosters the well being of all working and laboring peoples and not just the tiny group at the top of society, until then the US will have a foreign policy geared towards war and domination as it has at least since 1945, and the Kissingers of the future  will ensure that there will be no chances of a world order based on human dignity and peace.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" Part Four

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's World Order  [Part Four]
Thomas Riggins

Ferguson now criticizes the ideas expressed by Obama in his New Yorker interview. Obama said a “new equilibrium” could be reached if Iran would be more cooperative so it could work with the Sunni Gulf States [what about Saudi Arabia and the US being more cooperative vis a vis Iran as well] and if the Palestinian  “issue” could be “unwound’’ [all the US has to do to do this is put some real pressure on Israel to follow international norms and obey UN resolutions]. Then Israel could work towards alliances or normal relations with the Sunni states [why not with the Shia as well; all Israel’s problems stem from its oppression of the Palestinians].

Ferguson rejects Obama’s ideas because, he asks, why would the states in the region cooperate to produce equilibrium when any of them might attain “hegemony” over the others. This is a really lame objection to Obama’s ideas— it stems from the knee jerk reaction that anything Obama does or says must be criticized. There is no evidence that any of the states in the region is striving to attain “hegemony” — they are all trying to defend themselves and their internal status quo but their own internal policies generate opposition which they all try to lay on their neighbor’s doorstep. The only country trying to exert hegemony in the region is the US as the following quote from Kissinger reveals (which Ferguson thinks is directed at Obama): 

“Even were such a constellation [equilibrium] to come to pass, it could only be sustained by an active American foreign policy. For the balance of power is never static; its components are in constant flux. The United States would be needed as a balancer for the foreseeable future. The role of balancer is best carried out if America is closer to each of the contending forces than they are to each other …. America can fulfill that role only on the basis of involvement, not of withdrawal”

This is just a modernized version of the old British policy of divide and rule which was used to pacify India and other colonial regions. It is ridiculous because the US is one of the contending parties itself and it can’t be a balancer because all its policies are imbalanced in favor of Israel and its own imperial economic interests in the region. There will never be peace in the region as long as the US is actively involved. 

Why anyone takes Kissinger seriously is a mystery. Of those he has influenced it can truly be said: “Devastation and destruction are in their highways. They do not know the way of peace, And there is no justice in their tracks; They have made their paths crooked, Whoever treads on them does not know peace.’’

At this point Ferguson moves from considering Kissinger’s views on the Middle East to his views on developments in Asia. Here again Kissinger (and Ferguson) demonstrate their (and presumedly the foreign policy establishment’s) complete
lack of understanding of what is happening in the world and why.

Kissinger sees two balances of power forming in Asia; one in the south the other in the east. Here is his quote: “Under contemporary conditions essentially two balances of power are emerging: one in South Asia, the other in East Asia. Neither possesses the characteristic integral to the European balance of power: a balancer, a country capable of establishing an equilibrium by shifting its weight to the weaker side.”

It is the rising power of China in East Asia that is problematic. Kissinger attempts to understand balance of power possibilities in this region by harking back  to nineteenth century European balance of power deals. He writes, “the United States is an ally of Japan and a proclaimed partner of China [they are actually rivals] — a situation comparable to Bismarck’s  when he made an alliance with Austria balanced by a treaty with Russia.” 

This was a complex secret treaty arrangement whereby Russia and Germany would remain neutral if one of them went to war with a third party— unless France was attacked by the Germans or Austria-Hungary by the Russians. This treaty was signed in 1887 and Kissinger says its later abandonment led to World War I. The question is, can such a secret treaty (that will protect Japan) be made with China? [That is all we need, a secret treaty between the US and China of which the American people will be ignorant!— and Wiki Leaks is the enemy?]. 

The only thing that would prevent this secret deal, at least on the US side is, Kissinger says, according to Ferguson, the “pernicious legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” This legacy, Kissinger writes is “an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”  Wilson gave Americans a false sense of security in the belief that they could avoid foreign entanglements due to his views on collective security. 

The only thing “pernicious” here was the US’s failure to join the League of Nations and make it robust enough to have prevented Italian and German aggression, not Wilson’s ideas. Here is a quote from Kissinger illustrating his critique of Wilson (the ellipses are due to Ferguson):

“Collective security … is a legal construct addressed to no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. In practice, action must be negotiated from case to case …. The idea that in such situations countries will identify violations of peace identically and be prepared to act in common against them is belied by the experience of history …. An alliance [by contrast ] comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fufillable in an agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and  the more parallel those interest are, the more cohesive the alliance will be.” 

This quote shows why we need a supra-national organization to enforce world order, an ideal that Bertrand Russell advocated for many years. One of the reasons world order collapsed the way it did in the wake of World War I may have been the weakness of the League of Nations not the concept of collective security. 

There are design flaws in the UN which prevent it from being an effective supra-national origination that could maintain world order. These have to do with the Security Council with its veto wielding five permanent members who think of the UN as an organization to further their particular national (i,e, class) interests. The US, especially, as the number one rogue nation, ignores the UN and world opinion in general whenever it decides its own interests trump what the majority, even when the overwhelming majority of humanity, thinks it is violating what is right and decent (its treatment of Cuba [recently modified for the better], its oppression of the Palestinians, its unilateral interventions in other countries, its support of fascist regimes repressing their own people, its use of the veto to defy world opinion, are only the most prominent examples that come to mind.) This behavior is due to the use of alliances and treaties so beloved of Kissinger rather than honestly working within the UN framework as it was envisioned to maintain a peaceful world order through collective security. [The larger explanation for US behavior is to be found in Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but that is a different review all together.]

Ferguson says that in all of Kissinger’s works there is a recognition that realpolitik doesn’t always work and that successful foreign policy can’t be based solely on pragmatism. Kissinger says that we must make “conjectures” when we engage in making foreign policy we “need to gear actions to an assessment that cannot be proved when it is made.” In other words Kissinger advocates a foreign policy based on pragmatism plus folly. It was surely folly to assess that the Vietnamese would welcome the US and reject Ho Chi Minh, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that we could transplant “democracy” to the Middle East and to Afghanistan, that Fidel would be overthrown by his own people if we invaded at the bay of Pigs, that Allende was a soviet style communist— the list goes on.

Ferguson thinks Kissinger is a mixture of idealist and realist, and more similar to the idealism expressed in Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace than the realism of Machiavelli. I don’t think anyone reading Kant would conclude that Kissinger was anything other than the thug and goon type of statesman Kant was horrified by and who was portrayed so accurately by Christopher Hitchens in The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

In our next, and last, installment we will look at Kissinger’s views on American “idealism” as expressed more in his actions than his words.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kisssinger's "World Order" [Part Three]

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's World Order  [Part Three]
Thomas Riggins

Ferguson points out a basic question that Kissinger asks regarding our ability to understand international order. “Is there a single concept and mechanism logically uniting all things, in a way that can be discovered and explicated … or is the world too complicated and humanity too diverse to approach these questions through logic alone, requiring a kind of intuition and an almost esoteric element of statecraft?”  

This is a meaningless jumble of words. Logic is a method for determining the validity and soundness of arguments not a method for discovering how the world works. Discovery is basically an empirical affair of data collection from which generalizations can be made based on the coherence and correspondence of the data to our experience and understanding of its significance.

Kissinger does not think that "logic" can do the trick of understanding the world order but his alternative is not likely to do the trick either. Ferguson says Kissinger opts for “intuition” (the Muslims are yearning for us to intervene in their part of the world—oops wrong intuition) and the almost “esoteric” or the secret mysterious  ways of seeking out the truth. If we follow these ideas, I don’t think we will be seeing an improvement in US foreign policy any time soon.

Ferguson gives an example of Kissinger’s intuition— it can’t be demonstrated, but here it is. The “players” in “the great game of foreign policy” make their moves based on their understanding of history made by a “deep study of the past.” Since the US has made so many foreign policy mistakes it must be due to a “shallow” study or no study of the past. But wait— it doesn’t seem to be the history of the world or other countries that is the issue, but rather “self-understanding “ of your own history.

The US only needs to know its own deep history not, for example, the history of the Middle East to play the game there. Kissinger says, “For nations, history plays the role that character confers on human beings.” So don’t trust those Germans, Adolf, you know who, is still there lurking about in their esoteric intuitional subconscious. This is bad intuition. We get nowhere with the equation Tsar = Stalin = Putin or Russian Empire = Soviet Union = Russian Federation. 

Nations are not people anymore than corporations are and the human character cannot be applied to them. It is not an esoteric element we need to master but concrete social forces that can be studied in a scientific way. Looking at class struggles and economic interests and who wants to exploit whom will better explain how the “great game” is played. 

At this point there follows a long section about earlier works by Kissinger and more indulgent fawning over his ideas. To show what a great thinker Kissinger is I will resume this review with Ferguson's discussion of his views on Islam. 

From it's very beginnings Islam was, Kissinger says, "a religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order."  In dealing with the Islamic Middle East today Ferguson says he has never seen Kissinger so critical of Bush and Obama as well as of Saudi Arabia. Here is his critique of the Saudis. The Saudi's have a very reactionary fundamentalist form of Islam as their state creed (Kissenger calls it "austere") and they have been supporting jihadists and fundamentalists around the world (some of whom are enemies of the US).

Kissinger says they have been making a great "error" in thinking they could support reactionary Islamist groups abroad and not have these groups also turn against them. The US, by the way, had this experience: it supported the most horrible Islamist terrorist groups you could imagine against the Soviets in Afghanistan only to have them turn against it after the Soviets were gone. 9/11 was an act of the US's Frankenstein's monster. The Saudi's can expect the same.

What isn't mentioned in this review is that Saudi Arabia is a medieval despotism that denies even basic democratic rights to its citizens. But the US is an ally of the Saudi state and thus itself a big supporter, de facto, of medieval despotism. Kissinger's criticism of the Saudis applies as well as to his and his successors attitudes toward that barbaric kingdom. It is love of oil, however, that is the true religion motivating US policy not engaging with  Islam.

Ferguson says Kissinger thinks the greatest problem for world order today is the sinking of the Middle East into sectarian strife. He doesn't mention that US policy is one of the major causes and supports of this strife which it promotes to justify its continued political (and military) interference. War and war profiteering is big business domestically. 

Instead, Ferguson says, regarding Kissinger's views,  "Even as the Sunni monarchies struggle to defend themselves against a rapidly metastasizing jihadist 'cancer'  that is in a large measure their own creation, Shia Iran edges steadily closer to being a nuclear-armed power."  What does one have to do with the other?

The main struggle of the Sunni monarchies is, however, against their own people who want democratic rights--- a struggle the US does not support as the case of Bahrain shows. The  "jihadi" threat is a cover for the repression of democracy. All talk about Iran's drive for nuclear weapons is meaningless blather as long as Israel is allowed to have nuclear weapons with no protest from the West.  


We will continue this review in part four.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's new book "World Order" [Part Two]

Thomas Riggins

‘Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
 As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
 Yet, seen too oft, familiar with her face,
 We first endure, then pity, then embrace.’
(Pope, Essay on Man)

Ferguson tells us that Kissinger (whose ideas he seems to embrace) does not  pay much attention to Obama’s “strategic incoherence” in his book. Ferguson, however, can read between the lines and detects that Kissinger was inspired by his “dismay” over “the amateurism of the past six years” of Obama foreign policy. Here is a quote from the great man himself: Kissinger asks: ”Where, in a world of ubiquitous social networks, does the individual find the space to develop the fortitude to make decisions that, by definition, cannot be based on a consensus.” Maybe it is foolishness, not fortitude, to try and make decisions based simply on what the “individual” thinks or feels. What decisions, other than what  you personally want to eat for dinner, want to do in you spare time, or what movie you want to watch, and the like are “by definition” impossible to decide by consensus?

Kissinger goes on to say that candidates running for office may be forced to spend more time  raising money then dealing with the big issues. Does a candidate try to explain his ideas to the people or does he tailor what he thinks to please the  voters. Ferguson implies that is what Obama types do because Kissinger's concerns would not have been aroused by the campaigns of such stalwart individuals as John McCain or Mitt Romney who took “scant regards” to focus groups in coming up with their absurd “foreign policy positions.”  

Perhaps if they had  they would have found out what people were really concerned about and would have abandoned some of their more looney ideas and made a better showings at the polls. Would anyone respect the foreign policy ideas of someone who picked a nut job for his running mate?

Ferguson reveals his own ineptitude when he says Obama made fun of Romney in a debate on foreign policy by saying “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back”  and thinks that those policies would offer better ways “of dealing with Vladimir Putin.” Well, Putin is no Gorbachev and if Ferguson thinks using thirty year old cold war techniques with Russia in the 21st Century is the way to go then he, not Obama, is the one who is “no master strategist.”

The “starting point” of Kissinger’s book, Fergunson writes, is that we are at the end of an "American world order” that was at its high point in the 1980s. The real title, then, of Kissinger’s book should have been, I think, The Loss of American World Domination.  Here is how Kissinger himself describes this 1980s word order: it was a time of “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.”

 A quite imaginary fantasy on Kissinger’s part. Where was the respect for the sovereignty of Nicaragua, of Cuba, of Iran, of Grenada, of Cambodia, of the DPKR, of Vietnam, of Libya. What democratic systems were supported in Central America where the US supported genocide (Guatamala) and fascist regimes in other countries, not to mention in Indonesia and Chile.  The “cooperative order” only included states kowtowing to US interests. Kissinger himself helped, in 1970s, overthrow the democratically elected government in Chile and helped institute a fascist regime.

It seems that the American people no longer believe in this “definition” of world order. What Kissinger and Fergunson should have pointed out is that educated American people don’t believe that this fantastic description ever applied to “an American world order.”

 We are told there are now three other contending kinds of “world order” on the agenda. They are: 1) A “post-Westphalian European order” [i.e., post the 1648 Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War and other hostilities], one in Kissinger’s words  which is “a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs [the US will never stop doing this] and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power.” But the US is a super power, how could such an equilibrium be imposed? 

 2) An “Islamic world order” based on the ideas of Sultan Mehmed II (who conquered Constantinople in 1453 thus ending the (Eastern) Roman Empire) and who proclaimed “one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world” and

 3) a “Chinese order” based on the imperial (actually Confucian) idea of “harmony under heaven” (tian-xia, maybe not such a bad idea, nothing wrong with harmony).

Let’s look more closely at these four kinds of “ideal” world order— American, European, Islamic, and Chinese.  We will look at them through the (jaundiced) eyes of Kissinger as reported by Ferguson. Let us dismiss the “American” order as we have already pointed out that it was a Kissinger fantasy. It boiled down to the attempted implementation of a US diktat in international affairs dressed up in democratic phraseology by Kissinger and his likes. It is still the US’s favorite modus operandi but as American power weakens it is becoming harder and harder to enforce.

The other three systems are also flawed. Kissinger thinks the “European” system is departing from its “Westphalian” ideals by trying to form the EU which combines “pooled sovereignty” with attempts to “limit the element of power” in the new institutions it is creating. The problem is that none of the countries in the EU want to end up bossed around by Germany which is where “pooled sovereignty” is taking them. 

The problem of the “Islamist world order” [other than the fact that it doesn’t exist] is, according to Kissinger, that it is “based on the fundamentalist version of their religion” and quests for “a global revolution.” This is to take the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or whatever you want to call it and the jihadists as far more historically significant than they are. 

They are local disturbances, generated in reaction to the failures of the American diktat in their part of the world, and will vanish as soon as  the Americans realize it is their own policies, based on ignorance of the culture, religion, and history of the area and motivated more by economic motives than anything else, which cause these groups to form and they then take steps to really disengage from meddling in the area. The UN will have to help the US get out gracefully as the US has shown it is incapable of conducting itself rationally when it comes to dealing with the people in this part of the world.

As for the “Chinese order” (another culture area of which Americans seem ignorant), Kissinger says earlier ideas about the “Middle Kingdom and its tributaries” have been “jettisoned.” It seems the Chinese (and others) are acting as “hyper-Westphalians” and see the area in terms “of aggressively competing nation states.” Kissinger finds this (his own imaginary construct) as “inapplicable” for this region.


There is a slight interruption in Fergunson’s review at this point so that he  can fawn all over Kissinger the statesman, the academic, the historical thinker ( he leaves out the war criminal, the supporter of fascists, the accomplice in murder, torture and genocide ). We will return to Ferguson’s analysis in our next installment (part 3 of the review of World Order.)

Piketty for Progressives -- Part 5

Thomas Riggins

This posting will cover sections 11 and 12 in Piketty's introduction to Capital in the 21st Century.

11. The Fundamental Force for Divergence: r > g

This formula, r is greater than g, where r is the  average annual rate of return on capital and g is the rate of annual economic growth “sums up the over all logic” of Piketty’s arguments regarding growing inequality under capitalism.

Piketty thinks the outlook for the 21st century is that r will be much greater than g and this means that inherited wealth will be greater than output or income. Under the rule of r > g it follows that people with wealth need save only a small fraction of their income and it will accumulate faster than the economy does thus increasing inequality. A real possibility exists that the increase in inequality will undermine the principles upon which bourgeois democracy is based. Billionaires, for example, could be able to sink so much money into elections and lobbying that they will basically control the electoral process and the government and people’s democratic rights will honored in name only if at all.

Piketty thinks that this scenario is a real possibility but it is not inevitable. Besides this powerful D-force there are also C-forces at work that could delay or even completely counteract it. He thinks, however, that the decrease of g in the coming decades is very likely.

His view is, he says, less “apocalyptic” than Marx’s view. But I think he mischaracterizes Marx’s outlook. He says Marx has a principle of “infinite accumulation and perpetual divergence” because he thinks g will be 0  due to 0 growth in productivity. Because of this there will be a revolution to overthrow capitalism (the Apocalypse). But this isn’t Marx’s view at all. His view, somewhat simplified, is that  capitalism will eventually run out of markets due to a crisis of over production and will breakdown because it won’t have the profits needed to sustain itself.

Piketty says his theory of r > g has nothing to do with any “Imperfections” in the market. It is not inevitable but is a likely occurrence and we should be aware of it. He stresses that the “more perfect” the capital market the more likely is r > g. Does this imply that the “better” the capitalist system is the more inequality it will create? This would make it incompatible with any kind of democracy and logically implies that some sort of fascist anti-democratic state is its natural outcome.

Piketty thinks the capitalist state will have to intervene and manipulate the outcome of the “more perfect” capitalist market to counteract the negative effects of r > g. He suggests “a progressive global tax on capital.” He doesn’t think this will be a real world solution to the problem and whatever the different nation states end up doing will be “less effective.” Does this mean that, after all, in the real world r > g is actually unstoppable? Is the Apocalypse destined to be our fate?

12. The Geographical and Historical Boundaries of Piketty’s Study

The upshot of this section is, that while Piketty will use information from many areas of the world to bolster and develop his views, he will rely “primarily on the historical experience of the leading historical countries: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britain.”

He thinks the UK and France are particularly  important because they have the best economic records kept from the 19th century and they were the leading countries of the “first globalization” (1870-1914) of international trade and finance. This, by the way was the period analyzed by Lenin in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This first globalization was, Piketty says, “prodigiously inegalitarian.”

Piketty notes that the “first globalization,”  is “in many ways similar” to the second one which has been going on “since the 1970s.”  It is so similar that Lenin’s book on Imperialism is still largely relevant for understanding it. One of the weaknesses of Piketty’s book is that neither “Lenin” nor “Imperialism” appear in its index — a strange omission in a work trying to explain the origins of, and remedies for, inequality.

One of the similarities Piketty notes is the fact it was not until beginning of the 21st century that the leading imperialist countries attained the level of stock market capitalization  vis a vis GDP as the UK and France had at the beginning of the 20th century.

He next explains why he spends so much time on France. The first reason is that it has records going all the way back to the late 1700’s. The second reason is he thinks France is more typical than the US and its future will more likely be what most states will experience rather than that of the US. This is because the US population went from 3 million in 1776 to 300 million today. That quantitative leap has had its qualitative accompaniment  and the US “is no longer the same country it was.” France meanwhile has only doubled its population from 30 to 60 million over two hundred years not increased it a hundred fold. It is still basically the same country. Piketty doesn’t see the world population increasing 100 fold in the next two hundred years so French development is more likely representative to the future.

He means the trends in inequality seen in French history are more useful to predict future developments than are those seen in US history. This is another example of “American Exceptionalism" as the US experience “is in some sense not generalizable” and social class and inequality in the US are “so peculiar” when contrasted with other countries.

The third reason is that France is “interesting” because its revolution was more “bourgeois” than the English (1688) or the American (1776). The English kept their nobility and the Americans their slaves while the French actually established “ the ideal of legal equality [of men]  in relation to the market.”  This has important implications in discussing the growth and future development of inequality. Piketty also says that the concentration of wealth was  the same in Britain as in France so even though the French had legal equality for all and the British did not this was not enough to “ensure equality of rights tout court.”

We will finish the introduction to Piketty's book in the next posting.