Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spock's Report

The Ninth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference has just concluded in Bali.

From the article:

In announcing a final agreement in Bali, Indonesia on Saturday morning, head of the World Trade Organization Roberto Azevedo, said: "For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered."

Unfortunately, say critics, what the deal is certain to "deliver" is more pain and suffering for the world's poorest people and farmers at the expense of the world's largest and most powerful nations and corporations.

[] John Hilary, executive director of the UK-based War on Want, slammed the deal:

"Any suggestion that there is a deal to celebrate from the WTO talks in Bali is absurd. The negotiations have failed to secure permanent protection for countries to safeguard the food rights of their peoples, exposing hundreds of millions to the prospect of hunger and starvation simply in order to satisfy the dogma of free trade. It is time to end the WTO charade once and for all, and focus instead on undoing the harm it has already caused across the world.

"There is a rank hypocrisy at the heart of the WTO that cannot be glossed over. The USA and EU continue to channel billions in subsidies to their richest farmers, yet seek to destroy other countries’ right to protect their poorest citizens from starvation. The WTO is an institution that has lost any claim to legitimacy. No amount of spin from Bali can disguise that fact."

Maude Barlow, speaking on behalf of the Council of Canadians, expressed equal outrage:

"This was not a historic win for developing countries at the WTO. They scrape by with modest and temporary protections for food security policies that should be completely excluded from corporate trade rules, which are still biased in the interests of corporations and rich countries. The bargain, if you can call it that, also came at the high price of agreeing to a trade facilitation agreement that further locks in a neo-colonial trading system that has condemned much of the world to poverty.

"It is unfortunate that some countries will leave Bali with a vain hope that further negotiations will conclude the WTO’s so-called development agenda over the next year. The reality is rich countries like Canada, the United States and Europe have abandoned the idea completely and are focused on moving their corporate agenda as far as it can go in transatlantic and transpacific free trade deals, as well as a highly secretive international services agreement being negotiated on the outskirts of the WTO in Geneva by a small cabal of developed countries."


George Monbiot last month had plenty to say on the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA or TTIP).

Excerpt:

The purpose of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to remove the regulatory differences between the US and European nations. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. But I left out the most important issue: the remarkable ability it would grant big business to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.

The mechanism through which this is achieved is known as investor-state dispute settlement. It's already being used in many parts of the world to kill regulations protecting people and the living planet.

The Australian government, after massive debates in and out of parliament, decided that cigarettes should be sold in plain packets, marked only with shocking health warnings. The decision was validated by the Australian supreme court. But, using a trade agreement Australia struck with Hong Kong, the tobacco company Philip Morris has asked an offshore tribunal to award it a vast sum in compensation for the loss of what it calls its intellectual property.

During its financial crisis, and in response to public anger over rocketing charges, Argentina imposed a freeze on people's energy and water bills (does this sound familiar?). It was sued by the international utility companies whose vast bills had prompted the government to act. For this and other such crimes, it has been forced to pay out over a billion dollars in compensation. In El Salvador, local communities managed at great cost (three campaigners were murdered) to persuade the government to refuse permission for a vast gold mine which threatened to contaminate their water supplies. A victory for democracy? Not for long, perhaps. The Canadian company which sought to dig the mine is now suing El Salvador for $315m – for the loss of its anticipated future profits.

In Canada, the courts revoked two patents owned by the American drugs firm Eli Lilly, on the grounds that the company had not produced enough evidence that they had the beneficial effects it claimed. Eli Lilly is now suing the Canadian government for $500m, and demanding that Canada's patent laws are changed.


[More on this, including how the nuclear power industry is suing Germany for phasing out its nuclear power stations, here.]

Calling George Monbiot's article a 'polemic' (classic establishment propaganda tactic - ignore substance, attack character), Conservative MP Ken Clarke 'responded' to it by somehow managing not to respond to any of the serious concerns raised.

Example:

I have never had Monbiot down as an ungenerous character, but to ignore all of this in favour of blowing up a controversy around one small part of the negotiations, known as investor protection, seems to me positively Scrooge-like. Investor protection is a standard part of free-trade agreements – it was designed to support businesses investing in countries where the rule of law is unpredictable, to say the least. Clearly the US falls in a somewhat different category and those clauses will need to be negotiated carefully to avoid any pitfalls – but to dismiss the whole deal because of one comparatively minor element of it would be lunacy.

This 'tiny element' is absolutely vital, the part which enables corporations to sue nations for billions when their products are banned or restricted for health or safety reasons etc.

Meanwhile, in the latest episode of the endless series of daily scandals involving corporations, we discover that Atos and G4S paid NO corporation tax in the UK last year, despite being given £2 billion of taxpayer-funded work.

From the article:

A report by the National Audit Office, published today, disclosed for the first time how much Government work is now outsourced to the private sector.

It found that the four biggest suppliers - Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco - carried out £6.6billion-worth of work for the public sector and central Government last year.

Yet two of them – Atos and G4S which carried out £2billion-worth for work for the Government and public sector – paid no corporation tax at all in the UK in 2012. Capita paid between £50million and £56million, while Serco paid £25million in tax.

Atos and G4S were criticised by Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.


An edited extract of a speech by David Simon, creator of acclaimed series The Wire, was today published in the Observer. In it he points out that Karl Marx correctly predicted what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. He observes that capital has purchased democratic governments around the globe, and that it must be brought under control, but did not suggest any particular strategy for a way out of the almighty hole we are in.

In order to aid Mr. Simon in this, we can employ a rather cliched analogy...

An alien (let's call him Spock) charged with observing our planet would be confused indeed, and in the report to his superiors on the mother ship, Spock would likely describe Earth as a slave planet run by a tiny cabal of cruel, violent, amoral masters.

Why?

Spock would note that the richest 300 people on the planet have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, with 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. He would further note that over 29 million people are slaves, with millions more in effective debt slavery and deep poverty even in rich nations, with the poor being rounded up in the US and incarcerated for profit in the name of the fake war on drugs - slavery by another name.

He would observe millions of humans trafficked into the sex industry; and 21,000 people (mostly children) dying needlessly of starvation every day while thousands of tons of edible food is thrown away in more fortunate climes. He'd watch in growing horror as genocides proliferate unchecked where the corporations can still make a profit, using the indigenous peoples as cheap or slave labor and women and children are raped or kept as sex slaves.

He'd see animal trafficking, inadequate healthcare, preventable diseases and epidemics, AIDS, drug abuse, addiction, drug trafficking, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, genital mutilation, torture, political prisoners, corruption, persecution, depleted uranium munitions, land mines, cluster bombs, climate change, pollution, desertification, drought, famine and war.

And he would recognize that all these things are preventable. He'd further realize that these ills are exacerbated and sustained directly by the policies and actions of the tiny ruling class in order to feed their insatiable greed and sustain their domination indefinitely as they ensure the resources of the world continue to flow directly into their hands with only scraps left to throw to the masses.

He'd see the tens of trillions of dollars kept in offshore accounts just sitting there while multitudes suffer and die in wars they neither want nor understand, or in the miserable, endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness, while knowing that these funds could easily resolve every single human rights issue on Earth. He'd note that the major institutions of the planet: the IMF, the World Bank and state governments are merely covers and enablers of corporate power - imperialism - with the UN impotent in the face the machine.

And then, to his utter bewilderment, Spock would watch the victims of these vile depredations along with their fellow humans actively support and vote for them to continue, and even react with anger or violence - and most commonly, indifference - when the status quo is attacked, while the very few who see the system for what it truly is are derided as paranoid conspiracy freaks.

Spock, being observant and intelligent, would see the TPP, TAFTA and WTO agreements (among others) for exactly what they are: a means of sealing corporate power over the planet and its denizens indefinitely. David Simon, in his speech, would have done well to point out that if humans are ever to be free of the yoke of corporate domination, all nations that remain relatively free (several South American nations, Iceland etc.) have to at the very least band together and renounce these 'trade agreements', have to declare illegitimate any contracts with the IMF and the World Bank, and form a new organization like the United Nations without veto power and with a true peacekeeping mandate.

Naturally, if Mr. Simon had said such things, he would have been widely denounced as irresponsible and unrealistic - a dangerous radical. However, that does not change the fact that the truth is the truth, and that this is precisely what will be required, along with a popular uprising on a global scale. If these 'trade agreements' become law, nothing less will suffice.

Would Spock, in his report, recommend that his leaders destroy planet Earth in order to put us out of our misery?

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11


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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hell Of Our Own Making

One of the more egregious manifestations of deeply limited education systems and uncritical, for-profit media is the unquestioning acceptance of representative democracy and the political parties that dominate it. The thought that it might not be the best way to govern modern societies is rarely raised in mainstream discourse, and those few who do suggest that a change ought to be considered are roundly derided throughout the establishment. Readers familiar with the theory in social psychology of system justification may understand at least one reason why resistance to new ideas is so strong.

In reality, the political party system is just about the worst possible way to govern a free society.

The kind of people who rise to the very top of political power are, in the vast majority of cases, absolutely the last people we would want there. In order to get ahead in politics, one needs to establish networks and contacts, a vast web of back-scratching alliances with people who are in many cases just as ambitious or power hungry as you are. Elected officials are supposed to be servants of the public, but does anyone think for one minute that the likes of Obama, Cameron or Abbott actually consider themselves servants of any subset of civilian society - especially, say, the poor?

We also know that psychopathic personalities are attracted to positions of power, meaning that some - perhaps even many - of the highest elected officials are likely to have little or no capability of empathy for those suffering under their watch.

From the article:

It is important to understand the nature and prevalence of the intelligent and covert psychopath. The people in society with the strongest dispositions to acquiring and abusing power are also the most ruthless and totally without empathy. Their inability to care about fellow humans is precisely why they are so prone to ending up at the top of the pyramid (in addition to the likelihood of being born at the top of the pyramid). And there are millions of them.

We know from the millions who have died under psychopathic tyrants throughout history that power corrupts. No human being, however noble they may appear, can be trusted with significant power that can not be immediately taken away from them. [Note: for more, read an earlier blog on this issue.]

All too often politicians create policies and make judgments and decisions without heeding the consensus views of credible (not celebrity) economists, scientists and other experts. By any measure, that is insane. When the British Prime Minister David Cameron described the London riots of 2011 as ‘criminality, pure and simple’, was he conveying to the public theories suggested to him by leading sociologists and riot experts? Or had he judged the public mood, found it extremely hostile toward the rioters, and taken the opportunity to make a populist statement designed to insulate himself and his administration from criticism and culpability over other possible causes of the riots?

Unfortunately, people like David Cameron are not confined to politics; they can also be found at the top of big corporations and banks. Consider this exchange in the British Independent newspaper between a film maker, Chris Atkins, and an unnamed representative of the Royal Bank of Scotland on the subject of several British banks investing in companies which make cluster bombs:

Atkins: "Did you know that RBS are investing in the companies that make cluster bombs?"
Banker: "Excellent – how much money is it making us?"
"About £20m," I guessed.
(Groans with pleasure) "Print that."
"Is that good for you?”
"Yep. How do you think you get paid your benefits?" (I was wearing a pretty grubby T shirt).
"Er, I'm not on benefits. I'm a journalist."
"How do you think the banks make money? By investing in things."
"But cluster bombs mainly kill civilians."
"They're 'things'."


Around 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War and around 300 people there are killed or injured/maimed every year even today. Many of these victims are children. They have also been used in other countries around the world and still pose a severe menace to civilian populations.

The unnamed representative is a merchant banker. There are people working in and out of government who lack empathy and compassion and whose only priorities are their own well-being and survival, who have a great deal of power and influence over our societies and lives with no accountability for the impact of their actions upon others.

[Note: after this exchange made the national press, the Royal Bank of Scotland ceased investing in these companies.]

Further, most readers will be aware, and if they are not, they should be, that political parties are ideal breeding grounds for corruption, clannishness, cronyism, selfishness and greed. Conventional wisdom states that political parties are a necessary evil as they are all we have, and if they were not there, societies could be dragged down from civilized democracies into barbarism. This is a damaging and erroneous view.

Elections are often turned by the media into epic battles between two (or more) opposing sides, as if they were sporting contests or movie plots. This satisfies the pre-requisite for modern 24-hour news channels - manufactured drama - and so the electorate is duly drenched in endless minor scandals regarding gaffes of one particular party representative or another. This, combined with the fact that modern parties spend a fortune on PR companies who strictly control everything politicians say in public, leads to an atmosphere of extreme pressure for politicians who know that any gaffe could easily be their last and who therefore play it as safely as possible, avoiding certain important but controversial issues and mouthing platitudes for the cameras.

How is honest debate expected to thrive or even exist in such an atmosphere? Certain vital issues, made taboo for politicians by the media, are either left untouched or treated in unrealistic, media-friendly ways with sound bites and catchphrases. And people, not to mention the democratic process, inevitably suffer.

What this means is that when a politician makes a statement, it is not what he or she actually believes; rather it is what they have been told to say by highly-paid advisers with reams of public opinion data in order for the public to strategically hear what they want to hear. Public statements are tactical, designed purely to improve their own standing while damaging that of opponents. In other words, you cannot believe a word they say. There is no guarantee that politicians will keep their word after they are elected anyway. Indeed, there are numerous instances of politicians doing the exact opposite of what they promise in campaigns. This is where the name 'Nick Clegg' might pop into your mind.

Yet another issue is the fact that modern election campaigns are extremely expensive. Rich donors or corporations can donate large amounts of money in some democracies and expect favors in return once a party or leader is elected. These favors often take the form of huge tax breaks, deregulation, or the passing of laws that help the donors, while in many cases hurting either ordinary civilians or the environment. Further, the existence of tax loopholes greatly helps these huge corporations: Bank of America with a profit of $6.28 billion in 2009 and General Electric with a profit of over $10 billion paid no US federal taxes in 2009. These loopholes, which are so damaging to society, are highly unlikely to be closed while politicians are beholden to the corporations and wealthy donors who fund their campaigns.

We also have big manufacturers who have used their power and influence over politicians to push through trade agreements which reduce product safety standards and allow them to outsource jobs. Oil companies do the same to block environmental protection laws. Britain has been described as the world’s first onshore tax haven, with the UK’s billionaires paying only 14.7 million pounds income tax on their combined 126 billion pounds as far back as 2006/7. More recent data is unavailable as corporations, banks and the wealthy tend not to be forthcoming with details of their finances.

And let us not forget lobbying, which is the attempt, often by individuals, corporations or advocacy groups, to influence government policy and decision-making. In some democracies, lobbying is so entrenched in political culture that it has become the normal way to do business, sometimes to the disadvantage of ordinary voters. While it can be legitimately argued that lobbying is a necessary part of a democracy, as indeed it is, the financial power and resources of some lobbyists gives the wealthy and powerful an insurmountable advantage over ordinary citizens, whose voices are often unheard.

In the UK, the Conservative Party led by David Cameron is governing in a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats. Despite gaining only 36.1% of the popular vote (with a turnout of 65%), Cameron is forcing radical education and health policies on the nation, as well as a brutal austerity drive which has led to the cutting of hundreds of beneficial, sometimes vital, social programs. The majority of the country do not want these radical policies, and do not support the Conservative Party, but have to accept them anyway. When the majority of the country is forced into accepting policies they did not vote for and which were not even discussed before the ballot, something is clearly wrong with the system.

Politicians in modern democracies have, ultimately, only three priorities - to get elected, to stay elected, and to enact legislation which favors those who funded their election. In order to do this, they will say or do whatever it takes to win, and that depends on the demographics of their electoral district. Priority is placed on pleasing the electorate in the short-term, and making promises that sound good and make sense to people who may not have all the facts at their command, or are too busy or indifferent to understand a given issue in depth. One common approach of politicians in countries which have problems with violence, for example, is to appear tough on crime. This leads to statutes like ‘three strikes’ laws, where long (sometimes life) mandatory sentences are handed down for three felony offenses, no matter how minor.

It is highly unlikely that any politician would follow the advice of experts on, say, criminal behavior if the advice would cause them to lose an election. This is an extremely harmful dichotomy as it can severely hamper social progress, and is prevalent in many fields of government policy, most notably the environment and education. What is the point of having experts at all if they are not used to improve our societies, if their advice is ignored and even condemned by politicians who may have no discernible expertise in the fields in question?

Billions are spent by lobbyists, politicians and political campaigns on PR companies whose sole purpose is to get their client elected, or to ensure a certain piece of legislation gains public support, no matter what, and will do everything in their vast power to achieve this by means of using the media to mislead or misinform the public into supporting or voting for something that may well not be in their interest. Not by any stretch of the imagination does this behavior have any place in a democracy. Put in frank terms, it is simply groups of greedy shysters teaching groups of power-hungry shysters how to play the crowd.

Honest public debate, the lifeblood of democracy, has been replaced by an endless series of punchy, voter-friendly sound bites designed to manipulate public opinion to maximum effect. Are we to accept that complex social issues can be compressed into a few catchy sentences? Major cable news channels add to this problem with cheesy catchphrases, showing once again that the news itself is a product that has to be nicely packaged before human consumption.

And now we hear the totally unsurprising news that the NSA spies on the pornography viewing habits of targeted individuals. This adds the element of blackmail, a potent threat that now can easily be held over any elected officials who might not be voting the way the corporations want. Given that literally billions of people watch pornographic material at some time or other, it is likely that most lawmakers would be very reluctant to see details of their porn search keywords leaked to the gutter press just before they launch their next election campaign.

This then is yet another flaw in our political systems. The lawmakers we elect to protect us are now compromised by their own human weaknesses that can be used to destroy them. How many of them would vote against their conscience to loosen environmental regulations at the behest of, say, fracking companies, in order to avoid the threat of scandal and the destruction of their careers?

All this can be avoided by abandoning the fatally flawed systems we sustain and trying something new, a system in which none of the above flaws are possible.

A revolution of thought and consciousness is urgently needed as we come to a crossroads where we have to choose: endless war for profit, ever worsening debt slavery, the deterioration of human rights and the rule of law, and the possible destruction of our species through catastrophic climate change through the actions of voracious corporations. Or a new path of freedom, equality, peace, justice and enlightenment.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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