Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economic Destruction

In The Shock Doctrine , Naomi Klein spends a fair amount of time outlining the free market blather of Milton Friedman and his demented acolytes, and then proceeds to show how these policies have been implemented throughout the world, by way of one form of shock therapy or another. She compares this economic shock therapy (new economic rules implemented at the moment of crisis) to actual physical torture. I was prepared to find this torture metaphor simplistic; I find that it is not. The book is simply devastating.

When it comes to the Chicago Boys and their ilk, the question must be asked: were they extremely cynical or extremely stupid? Both? In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey argues that their rhetoric on freedom was exactly that, rhetoric, that they knew full well the damage they were doing, but didn't care, or rather that it was exactly this damage they wanted to do (that is, to echo zunguzungu's use of James Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine, the very apparent failure was the desired result, was success itself: "Sometimes there are structural reasons why 'failure' only reproduces the conditions which necessitate yet more failure."). This is certainly possible, even likely. Is it also possible that they believe all their nonsense about the free market? That they truly believe that it is the best way for the most freedom, for the most people? I suspect it's some combination, with varying degrees depending on the ideologue (recalling that, for example, the American planners--men like George Kennan--of the immediate post-WWII period knew the Soviet Union was no real threat, but by the 1980s we had a situation where, to loosely quote Lewis Lapham from memory, we had a president in Ronald Reagan who believed the movie was true).

As narrated by Klein, and in more detail by Michael Schwartz in War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, the Americans in charge of the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and its anticipated magical conversion into a free market paradise) seem to have been genuinely surprised that things didn't go well, while at the same time they very clearly intended for utter destruction and chaos. The stereotype of the quiet American is of a patriot with good intentions, characterized by well-meaning bumbling. But these so-called good intentions amount to a refusal to consider that anyone would want anything other than the American way of life, such as it is, with freedom narrowly understood as commitment to free market fundamentalism (combined with an inability to understand that those genuine freedoms Americans do have, have nothing to do with the free market and have been fought for, not bestowed). In Iraq, this results in the deliberate destruction of a country, to be followed by a shiny new country completely run according to free market ideology, so they can be just like Americans (except, only poor Americans, apparently, since previously well-positioned Iraqis were not given the opportunity to even become owners of privatized firms). It being impossible to run a country according to the free market, extreme violence, as ever, is needed. Such good intentions are of course essentially malevolent.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Notes on The Great Fire of London

Numbered points or observations, possibly tangential. Cohesiveness is neither promised nor implied (nor, we can be sure, delivered).

1. Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London is, so its subtitle tells us, "a story with interpolations and bifurcations". In the story, there are six chapters, containing a total of 98 numbered sections. Readers are notified of the interpolations and bifurcations (insertions) via symbols in the margins, like thus, indicated in section 2: →I§101. In addition to these insertions, lengthy parentheticals of a sort, the writing is replete with parenthetical remarks, often nested within other parenthetical remarks, and so on--qualifications upon qualifications.

2. I read the book by following the paths set up for the reader to follow. If section 2 pointed the reader to the interpolation at section 101, I flipped to the appropriate place in the book and read, before returning to the source. Occasionally, I would hold off on interpolations till I'd read the full two or three pages of a given, numbered section, and then read all of the interpolations jumping from that section, in sequence. All interpolations are one numbered section each, at most a couple of pages in length, referring back to the original numbered section (such as: 101§2). Bifurcations are a little different. Bifurcations may potentially contain multiple numbered sections. I did not at first realize that the first few contained several sections each, not till I'd read the third one, after which I went back and re-read the opening sections for the first two, following in turn by reading the remaining sections in each successive bifurcation. The interpolations could be seen as parentheticals, the bifurcations as forks, perhaps leading to an alternative version of the narrative, if the reader were so inclined.

2a. Roubaud writes of writing a hypothetical book (perhaps the current book) which, with various such insertions, the reader would construct his or her own version of the book, which in theory would never have been read by anyone else, including the author. Putting aside the idea that this is simply a way of looking at how readers normally read anyway, constructing their own version of the story independent of the writer's intentions, I have serious doubts about this.

2b. For example, I remember reading Hopscotch. I'd been curious, before reading, whether it would be better to read the book straight through, or to read it according to the plan devised and presented by Cortazar. I asked about, and I was assured that it didn't matter. Not interested at that time in jumping around in the book, I read it straight through. I discovered that the material at the back of the book (its interpolations, possibly) seemed both tedious and irrelevant, by the time I got to them. In that case, I would argue that the strategy, far from being this great milestone on the way towards a truly interactive literary art, instead reinforced the primacy of the writer's authority. The sections filed in the back, being of a different nature than the narrative material in the novel proper (being more essayistic, if I recall correctly), would have worked much better if read in the order in which Cortazar had suggested, if I had in fact "hopscotched" from point to point within the book.

2c. I am, in any event, considerably more interested in the problems for the writer writing, than I am in these sorts of ideas about the so-called limitations of the physical book. To the extent that the conception mirrors anxiety about writing itself, I am on board, engaged, interested; to the extent that it represents twaddle about hyperfiction, I lose interest, if not consciousness.

3. The "story" is, in fact, "about" the writing. It is indeed "writing about writing about writing", though not in an epistemological sense. It is literally about this, in the sense of a writer narrating his writing. In the early chapters, I was enchanted by this: the writing about the materials, the time of day, the desk, typewriter, pens, about the handwriting, and so on. Here's a representative excerpt, copied from the Dalkey site:
I find quite obviously a slim yet real consolation in telling how my story gets underway in this circumstance which is the ever-renewed beginning of daytime arriving and nullifying (with increasing noise, with light) the peaceful, desolate yellow glow silently surrounding me on this table: one, two, three mute hours during which everything, in this house, the square, the streets, everything, or almost everything is asleep—this is the self-imposed condition enabling me to relate what, even though doing my best to wander as little as possible from the time of composition, will be above all a work of memory.

And each day, if I succeed in seizing some glint, if I manage, as the old Irish hermit says, to lead the darkness to the light, my basic purpose will be to entangle it with the banality of these lines, wobbly, black, relatively crooked upon the paper, in the yellow oval slicing the table, and where soon, once daylight filters in, and I lay down my pen, it will vanish.

Thus, the conditions in which I place myself, this self-imposed constraint, will express, despite the very elementary nature of the analogy, something of my projected attempt.
I also enjoyed the writing about the vision for the book's appearance, along with the writer's conviction that the book, as he conceived of it, in its fullness, was not publishable in book form.(These sections prompted translator Dominic Di Bernardi to write in his afterward about the possibilities for realizing Roubaud's vision with computers. Few things in literature bore me more than discussions of this sort.)

5. However, the "story" did lose me, did become un-fun to read for a time, in the long fifth chapter ("Dream, Decision, Project"), a chapter I had serious problems wading through. (It is no coincidence, I think, that this is the chapter that includes the no-fun excerpt quoted in the BLCKDGRD post linked to above.) This chapter, as its title gestures toward, involves the writer's detailed recounting, theoretical and otherwise, of the dream that gave rise to the decision to embark on the project which in part involves the novel which we may or may not have in front of us. The sheer length of this chapter numbed me, as did the repetition and the difficult language. In a sense, though, the jumping about made this chapter seem more interminable than it might have, had I read it straight through (admittedly, this appears to contradict the point I made about Hopscotch), especially by comparison with the more engaging inserted material. Though chapter 5 was on balance a slog, it was not without its intermittent charms. (And I do have it marked up in several places, passages of lucidity in what were often, for me, unreadable paragraphs.)

6. The "story" being the narration of the writing, offloaded the more traditional "narrative material", I'll call it, to the many insertions. That is, the writing containing narrated episodes that could add up to some kind of story. In addition, references to the "devastating personal loss" I alluded to earlier (the death of his wife Alix some years before), become at times more explicit, but also more rare (not that they were common to begin with). In a sense, the narrative material, in part writing about elements of the writer's actual life, could be seen to be too painful to include in the novel proper, even if those sections rarely were about Alix in any discernible way. The writing about the writing, about the project, the novel, the dream, decision, etc, displaces any true narrative, though this writing includes writing about the fact of displacement as well as references to the current novel being a falling away from the more grandiose project he'd originally dreamed. It is suggested that the work might have fallen apart, become unwritable, displaced by his writing about the writing, because he was unable to face the project, in the wake of his wife's death. (I keep using the words "novel" and "project" generically, but in fact these words and others appear in numerous ways: with or without italics, inside quotation marks or not, capitalized or not, with definite or indefinite article, depending on which iteration Roubaud is discussing and in what fashion.)

What remains are traces.

7. There is a blurb from Harry Mathews on the back of the book, and Mathews himself is mentioned in passing, in one of the handful of explicit references to the Oulipo (of which Roubaud is, unsurprisingly, a member). Perhaps coincidentally, in the course of reading the book, I was reminded of Mathews' own fiction a couple of times. Roubaud's description of the text (not the structure of the text itself), his ideal vision of it and its recursiveness and the nature of the interpolations and the bifurcations, the obsessive attention to detail, reminded me of Mathews' novel, The Journalist (in which our narrator, writing a journal on advice from his doctor after experiencing a nervous breakdown, gets obsessed with the form his journal takes, with his notational system for keeping track of types of entries, over time becoming more and more fixated on the journal itself, rather than his life, etc.). (The Journalist, incidentally, was the very first Dalkey Archive book I ever saw or read, having much to answer for at this point.) And Roubaud's delightfully obsessive food writing (the bit about croissants, yes, of course, but also the wonderful stuff about the proper way to make jam), primarily in the interpolations, reminded me of Mathews' demented short story "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" (collected in The Human Country), which is not to say that these passages are much like that story. . . This paragraph highlights the utter lack of discussion of constraint in this post, a lack that will remain unaddressed, accept to say that the writer writing about writing writes about constraints and the Oulipo (and I have completely left out mathematics, which Roubaud writes about at length, including about the mathematical treatise which is the model for his novel, etc. . .)

8. I professed an instant love for The Great Fire of London in my earlier entry. Did it meet these early expectations? Certainly chapter five appears to knock it down in my estimation (though love implies affection, not a critical assessment). Nevertheless, this remains a very special book, for its many passages of beautiful writing, some of it very funny, and its conception and ideas about writing and fiction. It was mostly fun to read.

9. I eagerly await the upcoming Dalkey edition of The Loop (though I admit that I hope its 712 pages, more than twice the length of The Great Fire of London, are not overly given to writing resembling that contained in chapter 5). (And I find, having read the excerpt from one of them in Bernardi's afterward, that I am also interested in taking a look at Roubaud's Hortense novels.)

Noted: Søren Kierkegaard

From the preface to Fear and Trembling (in the translation by Alastair Hannay):
Even if one were able to render the whole of the content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith, grasped how one came to it, or how it came to one.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Noted: Jacques Roubaud

From The Great Fire of London:
I am always ready to yield to every sort of distraction: reading, daydreaming, romantic thoughts. To accomplish even the least amount of work, to finish even the least number of lines, I must cross an invisible boundary of inward refusal, of disgust, of my desire to escape, to put off till later, until tomorrow, indefinitely. Getting myself started requires exhausting a great deal of energy, of exhortations, self-reproaches. The conditions necessary for a working mood are so hard to come by that I sometimes wonder how I've proved able, on occasion, to manage it.

This is one of my life's constants, for which I'll seek no explanation. At times it's a rather appalling constant, since the passing years don't do a thing by way of improving it, nor do they facilitate my task; on the contrary: I've often imagined that inwardly mustering my forces with a certain regularity, accumulating victorious moments and even days, would build up a sort of reflex, an impetus, habit; and that since growing old would be accompanied simultaneously by the waning attractiveness of distractions, I would enter into a few luminous years when I would be able to do everything that I had decided and planned on doing in the span that I had consecrated to such duties. This did not occur, and I know full well that it never will.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Any good Kassandra

With the deepening financial crisis and the ascenscion of Barack Obama, there has been a lot of talk about a return to Keynesianism, a "New New Deal". I have my doubts that any likely program will have enough impact, especially given the persistence of the hugely expensive wars the U.S. is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama's apparent intention to get tough with Iran and Pakistan. But there are other concerns, as well. I've chided myself in the past for my tendencies towards "catastrophism" (what a co-worker unhelpfully calls "fatalism"), but sometimes the sky is falling, and it's important to try to figure out where one should be when that happens.

Stan Goff has been writing about this kind of thing for a while. Here is what he had to say recently:
In keeping with the duties of any good Kassandra, let me say that we are far, far, far worse off than in 1930; so Keynesian pump-priming isn’t going to work. Moreover, there is no World War II Redux in the wings to act as the US deux ex machina to build us up on the corpses of 60 million people… yet.
And, anyway, we've already been in a war economy as things have fallen apart, and there is less room for "growth" than there was back then. We already have the appliances, the cars, we have massive consumer debt, and so on. There are numerous other differences between now and 1930, some listed by Goff. Then he says:

But here is a big intangible: In 1930, the majority of the population in the US was not as utterly dependent and helpless as it is now. Consumerism has created a nation of cyborgs who will go mad when the grid begins to shut down. They are epistemologically disabled; and they are psychologically fragile. They are self-centered and avaricious, with extremely low frustration tolerance levels.

Now, with this crisis in mind, how do we think about something as nessesary by one measure and insane by another as propping up the automobile industry? Automobiles are essential to support our existence such as it is… halt them today, and many will literally die. But they are also a key part of our problem with greenhouse gases, habitat destruction for roads and the attendant sprawl, transportation of food, etc. etc. At the same time, they will stop one day, as sure as the sun rises.

When the bailout of the big three automakers was being discussed, analyzed, and ridiculed to death, I despaired at the notion that, in part because of union jobs, the proper thing to do was to support the bailout. Because the automobile industry is one of the most irresponsible industries in history. Not only because of their utter stupidity as business, but also because of the simple fact of its existence, that new cars get made and sold and bought, continuously. (Don't get me started on "housing starts".) But Goff is right: in the short-term, if Americans' cars are taken away, most of us are fucked. Given the long-term unviability of oil as an energy source, and the prospects of environmental catastrophe, it seems obvious to me that we should be trying to find ways to lessen our reliance on cars. I don't see such a thing happening. We'll continue as we are, until forced to go without, and then where will we be?

I don't have time to say more about this right now, but I expect I will be returning to this topic often in the future (lucky you) . . .

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Speaking of friendship, I'd like to give a somewhat belated shout out to a friend of mine from way back, Mitch Rosenwald, who edited and contributed to a book on conflict resolution, titled One Paradigm, Many Worlds: Conflict Resolution across the Disciplines, published last year by Cambridge Scholars. Congratulations, Mitch!

Repeating is like a death grip

I found blah-feme's recent remarks on "the end of friendship" moving and accurate (and, unfortunately, personally relevant). This is only the opening:
It is a sad thing when a friendship ends – and such is the nature of the world that all things end. One can, for so long, hold out the prospect that what at the time seemed like a misunderstanding can be redeemed. But that too must pass, it seems, that too must die and the past is recast anew in the light of that passing. I’m done, we say, but are we really? I have tried to engage in useful work of mourning. But when I say ‘I’m done’, I have clearly only just begun to think over and over about words said, about moments and choices made, about responsibility, blame and recrimination. The repeating is like a death grip. Endlessly I revisit those moments. I wonder what I might have said differently, I torment myself with those possibilities. If only .....

The ending of a friendship draws one’s attention to the gut-wrenching fragility of them all, to the vulnerability of our social bonds and their endless hopeless devastating volatility. If there is anything to be done it is, it seems, to assess the extent to which a friendship can be repaired, and the extent to which one is prepared to prostrate oneself before the alter of that friendship, humbly taking on the responsibility for what is always already radically shared. To take on the responsibility for the end of a friendship is sometimes the only way to bring it back to life, but at what cost? Is the friendship more important than a truth that will all over again destroy it? Is the friendship more important even than one’s own sense of self-worth? Ask yourself this: could you prostrate yourself before it knowing that you have no reason to take on the burden of the friendships’ ending?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hegemony Funk

M.I.A.'s great "Paper Planes" just came on the iPod (immediately after Captain Beefheart's "When It Blows Its Stacks"), reminding me of jane dark's great remarks (scroll way down) on why it was the song of the year, even though it was from 2007 (and jane wrote about the album, Kala, at length then, too). I don't write about music much anymore, but this was some good shit (and, incidentally, not unrelated to questions about life under neoliberalism and so on). This is only a small portion:
It is the song of 2008 because it was good to listen to during the peak of the financial crisis. It is the song of 2008 because its sheer presence — not its subject, but its circulation — was both symptom and diagnosis of the situation. It is the song of 2008 mostly because the song in one form or another became improbably ubiquitous and then some, moving a million digital downloads, crossing demographics, reaching the bourgeois and rocking the boulevard. It wasn’t as popular in absolute numbers as any number of songs, but its relative popularity reverberated as a mysterious surplus. And that surplus, the condition of possibility for "Paper Planes" to exceed itself, is the surplus of 2008: a surplus of misery, of the awareness of misery, of the awareness of misery as an outcome of inevitable systemic fuckage, and of the dawning awareness that it must change. This is the moment of optimism is that otherwise dread-laced toomuchness wound sinuously through public space in a song whose hook was a semiautomatic and a cash register blent together into a single motion, the coordination of power that scales to every level — and who could decide if that sound was the corner or the world, Bun B and Rich Boy’s scrapey game or DFA's digitized assay of impersonal, imperial force? Both, duh — it was about how collusion, coercion, shake-ya-ass synchronization get solicited at every stratum, for better and mostly for worse.

Let’s call it hegemony funk.

Roubaud's Law of Butter Croissants

I've begun reading Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London. Already I can see that it's going to be a special book. Roubaud describing the project, the novel, he is unable to write; describing in scrupulous detail the tools he uses to write, the notebooks, pens, the desk, the room the desk is in, the nature of the light, the quality of his handwriting in the notebook (close, compact, black, nearly illegible). Already some unmistakable, though understated references to a devastating personal loss ("It's something I continue to do, day after day, less from habit than from my refusal to let a habit die, despite the fact that 'not making a sound' or 'accidentally awakening' have no more importance now than putting the bowl at 'my' place on the table at what was my place.").

But with Interpolation 103 (for it is "a story with interpolations and bifurcations"; the reader is directed elsewhere in the book, not unlike Cortazar's Hopscotch), I know that I am in love. This interpolation jumps off from a brief description of what is currently the writer's regular breakfast, though it wasn't always. It used to involve croissants (quotations from the translation by Dominic Di Bernardi; italics in original):
The ideal croissant (and this has to do, naturally, with the Parisian croissant, since in whatever town I've tried them provincial croissants have been a disaster), the croissant that might be labeled the archetypal butter croissant, presents the following features: a very elongated rhombus, rounded at the tips but with an almost straight body (only the plain croissant, and it alone, has a lunar, ottomanlike look)--golden--plump--not too well-done--nor too white or starchy--staining your fingers through the India paper that wraps or rather holds it together--still warm (from the oven it's only recently left: not yet cooled) [...].

It has three principal components, and three interlocking meaty compartments protected by a tender shell that lends it certain similarities to a young lobster. The center section is, in this croissant-lobster homomorphism, the body of the crustacean; the end parts are the pincerless claws. It's an extremely stylized lobster, a formal lobster, in short. For the croissant to be perfect, a simple tug on each "claw" should easily pull them apart from the "body," each trailing along an oblique, tapering excrescence of inner meat, subtracted from the center, extracted, as it were, effortlessly from the still very warm innards of the croissant, without making crumbs, or any sound, or tearing. I openly lay claim to the discovery of this correspondence, this structural morphism (at least I have found no "anticipatory plagiarism") which I propose calling Roubaud's Law of Butter Croissants.

It is of course impossible nowadays to find a definitive croissant composed in accordance with this axiom and fulfilling my dream. Perhaps the ideal croissant only ever existed as a best-case scenario, a formal essence that could only find its remote approximation in actually existing croissants. Those from the boulevard bakery, even though the best in the neighborhood, only modestly approximated this ideal. Still, I was delighted to have found them, so greatly did the general worthlessness of modern croissants make me shudder. There are bakeries (I could name names!) where you are underhandedly sold day-old croissants (nevertheless set aside tacitly and traditionally for third-class hotels and the most mediocre and stingy cafes). They are lusterless, misshapen, shopworn, smelly, with the look of stale ocean fish at the stall of a Jurassic fishmonger, around August 15th, before freezers were invented. [...]

Furthermore, among croissant eaters (croissants in general, plain as well as butter) there are two contending schools: the dry school and the wet school. As far as I'm concerned, I belong to the drier part of the wet school. This means: after having prepared a bowl of café au lait (I still hadn't given up milk), hot but not scalding, I dipped the croissant wing (the leg rather) (let's preserve a metaphoric consistency) that I'd pulled off (let's a imagine a perfect croissant, satisfying Roubaud's Law for the sake of the description) in such fashion that it becomes moist, saturated, softens, but without dissolving, without coming undone. I proceeded likewise with the other leg; then with the center part of the thus dismembered body (starting with the left leg!). If the croissant were perfect (herein lies and indisputable test of its degree of perfection) (along Roubaud's Croissant scale), provided that the correct procedures were carried out, at the bottom of the bowl there should remain no trace of its disappearance. A true croissant never crumbles. [...] Just as a thin sprinkle of rain on a summer evening at the seashore in the intense heat, dampening the dust at an outdoor cafe, settling the dryness, releasing the sudden fragrance of earth, flowers, shadow, and plane trees gives you a pang of nostalgia, so the perfect caffeinated moistness lending the perfect aroma, the perfect consistency to the croissant, makes you believe, if only for one precarious moment, in the possibility of a good day ahead. By giving up croissants, I had, as is plain to see, made a serious sacrifice for my prose; but I expected no reward in return.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Adrift on the neoclassical sea

A couple of quotes from jane dark's recent post:
Even economists able in some regard to have seen the crisis with a clear eye are still largely compelled to speak of it in almost purely cyclical terms. . .
It is tempting to assert that this waveform horizon results from being adrift on the neoclassical sea; had they their feet planted in the critique of political economy, they would see the drive of the world capital system toward terminal crisis. But this too may be a mistake, albeit one of scale rather than simplicity. The inability to think the crisis in relation to geopolitics and state power afflicts various Marxian analysts as surely as it does the doyens of the core institutions. That there will not be a recovery in the full sense is explicable only through the coordination of economic and state power, and indeed the horizon of knowability here is not that of an unforeseeable economic unfolding but the difficulty in conceiving of what form the transfer of global power away from the U.S. will take.
In The New Imperialism, David Harvey points out that when capitalism has hit its inevitable crises of overaccumulation, capital has invariably sought to solve its problems overseas, with imperial adventure and investment. In part this is because in general, as a class, the ruling class simply refuses to give up on the class war. Where the problem could perhaps have been fruitfully addressed via extensive investment in the social sphere, ideologically this is simply a non-starter. This is one of the many aspects of capitalism that reveals that the notion that the market involves rational actors, behaving rationally, making rational decisions, is nothing more than a fiction. Nevertheless, crisis is inevitable. The current crisis is one more necessary crisis, pointing towards, as jane puts it, a terminal crisis, not simply an awful downturn in the cyclical (read: natural) order of things.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How do you make peace with those who don't seem to want it?

Amid his run of posts covering Israel's all too typical criminal attack on the people of Gaza, and the outraged international response to it, Ellis Sharp reads Time magazine so I don't have to [by the way, I am also indebted to many other blog commentators, but, as ever, especially Richard Seymour and his remarkable series of posts at Lenin's Tomb's over the last several weeks. These are just three of them: "The myth of Hamas rejectionism"; "At what point does it become genocide?"; and "An extremist minority who should be ostracized"]. Though the author of the Time article seems impatient with Israel, he asks these crucial questions:
How do you make peace with those who don't seem to want it? How do you win a war when the other side believes time is on its side? And what would true security, in a hostile neighborhood populated with enemies, actually look like?
Good questions. Naturally, he's referring to the Palestinians here. Ellis observes that painting the Palestinians as "intransigent savages who just don't want peace" is "one of the defaults of colonialist and imperialist discourse". Similarly, I would add, it is said of such oppressed peoples that violence is the only thing they understand, something often said of the Palestinians. Meanwhile, in reality it's Israel which has continually violated ceasefires and resisted any peaceful solution. And the only limited gains the Palestinians have ever achieved have been when they've fought back, with force, implying that it's Israel that understands nothing but violence. At this point the question must be asked whether Israel, as a nation-state, wants peace of any kind.

Unexpectedly, Naomi Klein provides some insight into these matters*. In her excellent book, The Shock Doctrine, Klein narrates in numbing detail the economic shock therapy applied in country after country, from Chile to Argentina to Brazil to Mexico to Poland to Russia to South Africa and on and on and on. Neoliberal lunatics recommending and enforcing their untenable, wildly unpopular policies, which can be and have been implemented only either with extreme violence or through sleight of hand (itself usually accompanied by violence, once people realize what has happened). The hollowing out of the U.S government, including Rumsfeld's outsourcing of various tasks normally handled within the military, is part of this account, as is the creation of the security market and the emerging power of private security firms.

It is in this context that Klein discusses Israel, and the breakdown of the Oslo Peace Accords and collapse of subsequent peace agreements. She identifies two little-discussed factors "that contributed to Israel's retreat into unilateralism", both related to this global neoliberal program:
One was the influx of Soviet Jews, which was a direct result of Russia's shock therapy experiment. The other was the flipping of Israel's export economy from one based on traditional goods and high technology to one disproportionately dependent on selling expertise and devices relating to counterterrorism. [. . .] [T]he arrival of Russians reduced Israel's reliance on Palestinian labor and allowed it to seal in the occupied territories, while the rapid expansion of the high-tech security economy created a powerful appetite inside Israel's wealthy and most powerful sectors for abandoning peace in favor of fighting a continual, and continuously expanding, War on Terror.
The mass exodus of Soviet Jews into Israel amounted to "roughly 1 million" Jews entering Israel throughout the 1990s. One of the factors leading to the Oslo agreement had been the widespread feeling within the Israeli business community that enough was enough. But this changed with this major demographic shift (Soviet Jews now amounting to up to 18% of the Jewish population of Israel):
This demographic transformation upended the agreement's already precarious dynamic. Before the arrival of the Soviet refugees, Israel could not have severed itself for any length of time from the Palestinian populations in Gaza and the West Bank; its economy could no more survive without Palestinian labor than California could run without Mexicans. Roughly 150,000 Palestinians left their homes in Gaza and the West Bank every day and traveled to Israel to clean streets and build roads, while Palestinian farmers and tradespeople filled trucks with goods and sold them in Israel and in other parts of the territories. Each side depended on the other economically, and Israel took aggressive measures to prevent the Palestinian territories from developing autonomous trade relationships with Arab states.

Then, just as Oslo came into effect, that deeply interdependent relationship was abruptly severed. Unlike Palestinian workers, whose presence in Israel challenged the Zionist project by making demands on the Israeli state for restitution of stolen land and for equal citizenship rights, the hundreds of thousands of Russians who came to Israel at this juncture had the opposite effect. They bolstered Zionist goals by markedly increasing the ratio of Jews to Arabs, while simultaneously providing a new pool of cheap labor. Suddenly, Tel Aviv had the power to launch a new era in Palestinian relations.
In addition, Israel's economic reliance on high-tech further lessened its labor needs. So, though business leaders had felt that peace was necessary for prosperity, in fact during the 1990s the Israeli economy performed well, independent of the state of the peace process. Then when the tech bubble burst in 2000, Israel was hit very hard, prompting the government to drastically increase military spending and the tech industry to move into security and surveillance. In the post-9/11 homeland security boom, Israeli firms have emerged as major players. Klein provides a variety of statistics showing how well Israel has fared in this counter-terrorism market; the upshot is you have a situation where elites not only no longer have much use for Palestinian labor, but also directly profit from the avoidance of peace. Combined with the imperial-racist ideology of Zionism and an American sponsor with its own grandiose ambitions in the Middle East (and its own related booming security/surveillance complex), and the prospects for peace and justice seem remote indeed. As Klein puts it, where war has always certainly been a money-maker, it has been a temporary solution, with stability seen as necessary for business prosperity; now the "incentive for peace" for these players has been eliminated. As she says, the War on Terror is "not a war that can be won by any country, but winning is not the point." Israel is a country-sized version of the Green Zone in Iraq, or the rebuilt, wealthy enclaves in post-Katrina New Orleans:
[A]n entire country has turned itself into a fortified gated community, surrounded by locked-out people living in permanently excluded red zones. This is what a society looks like when it has lost its economic incentive for peace and is heavily invested in fighting and profiting from an endless and unwinnable War on Terror. One part looks like Israel; the other part looks like Gaza.
* I say "unexpectedly" only because I read The Shock Doctrine expecting details about and hoping for insight into the workings of the neoliberal order, not looking for information on the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict (though I am finally not surprised to learn of a connection between the two).

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Noted: Aleksandar Hemon

From The Lazarus Project:
I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them. In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it--Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners' attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity--you did not sabotage someone else's narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth--reality is the fastest American commodity.