Thursday, 26 February 2015

What is Terrorism? It depends on whose ox is gored

As we watch Stephen Harper's Conservative government push through new "anti-terrorism" legislation, a few dissenters like myself would like to ask:  "Who is a terrorist? What is terrorism?" The comment below is published as an appendix in my book, Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there are the locals who detonate bombs in public places resulting in the deaths of many innocent people. Most people would agree that these people are "terrorists." But it also seems to me that when the NATO forces bomb and shell villages in the rural areas, also killing many innocent people, these are also acts of terrorism. In more recent years, this would include the use of predator drones as well.


My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1961) defines terror as a “State or instance of extreme fear.” Terrorism is defined as an “Act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; specifically, a mode of governing, or of opposing government, by intimidation.” It is common to identify this with the Reign of Terror in France (1793-4). This definition makes it clear that terror is used by both governments and those opposed to a particular government. Individual or group activities (like bombing a subway) are crimes and not acts of war. 

This definition was created before President Ronald Reagan declared his “war on international terrorism” while launching the Contra war of terrorism against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It was made before the U.S. government and its NATO allies were fighting wars in countries that we used to call `Third World.`

George Orwell argued that governments use the power of language as a weapon. He concluded in 1946 that “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” In his novel 1984 Orwell argued that “war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is to keep the structure of society intact.”

This brings back memories of the Vietnam War. When the National Liberation Front killed local government officials appointed by the U.S.-backed military regime in Saigon, they were described as ``terrorists.`` But when B-52 bombers flew in the night and carpet bombed areas under the control of the NLF, this was called “pacification.”

The U.S. law on international terrorism includes activities which are designed to “(1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (2) influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion; or (3) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”  Elsewhere it is defined as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear.” The post-9/11 Canadian law is similar.

The United Nations can`t define terrorism
The United Nations has not been able to agree on a definition of terrorism. In 1999 one UN resolution proposed that terrorism consisted of “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public.” Many questions were raised in the debate. Is it legitimate for individuals and groups to attack military forces which occupy their own country?  Is it not legitimate to use whatever force is available to resist colonial domination? Cannot individuals and groups use violence to try to remove a criminal dictatorship? The closest the debate came to consensus was the general agreement that the targets of terrorism are usually civilians.

Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez point out that there was no agreement at the United Nations because of ideological and regional differences of opinion. There were three basic positions on terrorism:

(1) Terrorism is defined by criminal acts by individuals and groups against existing governments. This was the general position taken by the advanced industrialized governments and some Latin American dictatorships.
(2) Terrorism should be defined by acts, so that actions by governments could be included. This was the position taken by the African governments.
(3) Terrorism should be identified by the motivation of the actor and the context in which it takes place. 

Under the narrow definition proposed by the advanced industrialized countries, actions by national liberation movements against imperialism and colonialism would be labeled terrorism. This argument was made by many governments from less developed countries.

Edward Peck has recalled his experience on the White House Task Force on Terrorism in 1985, under President Ronald Reagan. Asked to come up with a definition of terrorism “we produced about six, and in each and every case they were rejected because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.” The Congress defined international terrorism as “activities that appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Peck concluded that “you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours in one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.”

State terrorism certainly did not start with the Reign of Terror in France. A few years ago I did some research on Irish history. In their attempt to pacify the Irish rebel movements demanding independence, the English Tudors regularly carried out a systematic “war of terror,” and they called it that. This included the routine burning of crops, homes and villages, killing of all the cattle, destroying food resources, and killing all men, women and children in certain cases. There was a bounty paid for Irish heads. Under orders from Queen Elizabeth, Francis Drake massacred the entire population of Rathlin Island to teach the Scots not to support their Celtic allies. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, head of the English forces, had the heads of the Irish killed during the day piled up near his camp for the Irish to see. He argued that this “policy of terror” would convince the Irish to give up their rebellion and shorten the war.

Stohl and Lopez try to distinguish between the different kinds of violence used by a state. They define oppression, where “social and economic privileges are denied to whole classes of people regardless of whether they oppose the authorities.” Repression is used by the state, “coercion or threat of coercion against opponents or potential opponents in order to prevent or weaken their capability to oppose the authorities and their policies.” Many examples are used from Latin America to illustrate these positions. They argue that in this differentiation of state power, terrorism is “the purposeful act or threat of violence to create fear and/or compliant behaviour in a victim and/or audience of the act or threat.” The goal of an act of state terror is the creation of fear in an audience, to change behaviour or potential behaviour. They cite a Chinese proverb to illustrate their point: “Kill one, frighten ten thousand.”

See Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez, eds. The State as Terrorist: The Dynamics of Governmental Violence and Repression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, Congressional Information Service, 1984.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The EU Message to the Greek Population: “There is no alternative” to making you suffer even more

    What’s going to happen in Greece? As I write this, the new left-wing Syriza government is trying to come up with an economic plan that will end the five years of hardship that has come with the austerity program that has been imposed on Greeks by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank. The previous Greek governments, by the right wing New Democracy Party and the social democratic PASOK party, surrendered control over their economy to the technocrats from the Troika. The result has been a steady decline in the economy, an enormous government debt, the rapid rise in unemployment to over 26%, and the imposition of draconian social policies that have devastated the working class, seniors on pensions and the poor.

    Those on the political left have kept a close eye on what has been happening in Greece in recent years. In many ways the crisis mirrors what has happened to a whole host of underdeveloped countries who have experienced “structural adjustment” imposed on them by the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. The Keynesian Welfare State is no more. Governments are not to create or maintain social programs that try to help the poor. Countries are not to have public ownership of essential public utilities. It is morally wrong for governments to tax corporations and the elite. Governments should not be introducing regulations to protect health, welfare and the environment.
The failure of previous Greek governments
    We have heard for years that “Greeks don’t pay their taxes.” But as Christos Laskos and Euclid Tsakalotos point out in Crucible of Resistance, it is really the rich and powerful who don’t pay their taxes. During the boom period from 2004 to 2008, corporate profits increased by 35%, but at the same time taxes received from private firms fell by 2 percent. Corporate tax evasion is rampant. In 2010 the 900,.000 private corporations “contributed only about 4 percent of total tax revenues.” There is a long history of the upper classes hiding their income and wealth in tax havens and Swiss banks. Independent professionals, like doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc., only declare a small percentage of their income on which they are taxed. The same is true of the small business sector. The new Syriza government has pledged to change all this. We will see.

    There were some attempts to impose the neoliberal model on the Greek population in the 1980s. But the big push for change began in 1996 with the election of a government under Kostas Simitis, the new leader of PASOK. He followed the trend of the social democratic parties in Europe, like those of Tony Blair in Great Britain and Gerhardt Schroeder in Germany. “Modernization” meant the repeal of the Keynesian welfare state. The new program of the social democrats emphasized “reform,” which in Greece included reduction of the taxes on corporations, the privatization of public enterprises and services, the implementation of “labour market reforms” and the liberalization of the financial system. The social democrats boosted casual and precarious labour in both the public and private sectors.

    Nevertheless, the Greek economy produced higher growth rates than the European Union as a whole between 1996 and 2008. New industrial sectors were developed. Investment was high. Profits for the private sector rose steadily. The decline in remuneration for the working class was offset by a significant increase in household debt. Public sector employment was at the average for the EU. Employment in the primary and secondary private sectors was 33.2% of total employment compared to 28.7% in the EU.

    Where Greece has differed from the EU is the extent of self-employment: in 2008 it was 35% in Greece compared to 14% in the EU. The high level of self-employment in the agriculture accounts for much of the difference. There are also many craftsmen and technicians who work on their own instead of with a business. Labour market “flexibility” has added to this number, the disguised unemployed.

    The other major difference is the size of the small business sector. In 2010 only 15% of Greek employees worked in firms with over 50 employees; in the EU as a whole, this figure is 31%. Part of the persistence of small firms has been their ability to avoid paying taxes. Many of these small businesses have disappeared in the post-2008 crisis.

The debtor nation
    The crisis of 2008, which was triggered by the collapse of the financial sector and the housing bubbles that had been created, revealed the extent to which the new capitalist system was linked on an international level.
    The New Democracy government held on until the general election of October 2009, when it was defeated by PASOK under the leadership of George Papandreou. Greece was reprimanded by the European Community when its budget deficit rose to over 12%, The PASOK government responded with cuts to wages and salaries and “reforms” to pensions and taxes.
    In May 2010 the Eurozone countries and the IMF provided a $110 billion loan, and PASOK promised to cut the budget deficit to 3%. In December the parliament voted for wage cuts for both the public and private sector. The second “bailout package” from the Troika came in July 2011. The government responded with spending cuts and tax increases, cuts in the public sector, cuts in pensions, and labour market “reforms.”
    In desperation, Papandreou formed a new coalition government under the leadership of Lucas Papademos. More omnibus bills were passed boosting restructuring. In early 2012 there were two general elections, and Greece ended up with a three-party coalition government headed by New Democracy. More cuts and restructuring followed.

The popular left mobilizes.
    Canadians could hardly believe the political changes that were taking place in Greece at this time. There was mass resistance from the victims of the economic crisis. It began in December 2008 with riots in Athens. The political leadership in parliament urged restraint. But the grass roots resistance spread. The new red-green party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), actively supported all the grass roots political actions. The Communist Party (KKE) did not.
    The trade union leadership was reluctant to take extra-;parliamentary action because “their party” (PASOK) formed the government. But the grass roots members demanded action. The first general strike was held on May 5, 2010. Through the end of 2012 there had been 30 general strikes and many individual strikes, 500 in 2011 and 700 in 2012.
    In the fall of 2011 the Papandreou government imposed a new property tax which was tied to people’s electricity bills. Non payment would result in the loss of electrical power. There seemed to be no limit to what the social democratic government would do to try to placate the gnomes of Zurich.
    The other major development was the rise of Syriza as a serious political party seeking government power. In 2009 it received only 4.5% of the vote. In the May 2012 election it received 26.9% of the vote. In the campaigns of 2012 the party stressed popular assemblies in local towns and neighbourhoods with strong public participation and debate. In this class struggle, PASOK collapsed as its working class members fled to Syriza. There was no increase in support for KKE, which refused to embrace the new politics of the democratic left.
    In the election in January 2015. Syriza won 36% of the vote and under the strange Greek electoral system was able to form a majority government with the support of the Independent Greeks, which received 5% of the vote and 13 seats.
     PASOK, the social democratic party, received only 4.7% of the vote and 13 seats. They had been abandoned by their trade union allies. As Laskos and Tsakalotos point out, in the era of neoliberalism there has been a convergence between the social democratic parties and the traditional parties which represent big business. Greece is the first instance where their traditional supporters, the members of the mainstream trade unions, had shifted in mass, to a party on the left.

What will Syriza do?
    What will happen next? The leadership of Syriza confronted the Ministers of the European Union last Friday. The united front took a tough stand, forcing the new Greek government to surrender the major thrust of their political agenda, ending the control of the Troika over the Greek economy and the imposition of the disastrous austerity program. Syriza is up against the wall. Government funds were expected to be completely depleted by the end of February. They asked for a bridging loan for four months to work out their alternate plan. The EU ministers agreed, but only if Greece abandoned almost all of its election platform.
    It is reported that there is great disappointment and anger among Syriza supporters and members of the parliamentary caucus. Commentators are suggesting that the leadership will not be able to get their agreement through the parliament. What will the grass roots movement do? The party leadership had insisted that Greece stay in the European Union, a position supported by 70% of the Greek population, as reflected in public opinion polls. But an exit from the EU may be the only alternative to complete surrender of sovereignty to the Troika. It is also the best hope of breaking out of debt bondage.

Monday, 9 February 2015

“I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder.”

The Collapse of Western Civilization; a View from the Future. By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 90 pp.

I guess a lot of people who read feel like they have had enough of the climate change issue. There are thousands of scientists working on the issue, and reports come out every day. A survey of literature in the scientific journals finds that 97% of those doing the actual research know that global warming and climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

The international organizations confronting this issue have set an arbitrary limit to the increase in temperature that we can tolerate: 2 degrees Celsius. That level of increase is often cited as “the tipping point” which will trigger disasters that cannot be stopped or reversed. The World Bank in its 2012 report argued that if things continue as they are going by the end of the 21st Century the rise would be around 4 degrees. They warned that it is not certain that we can adapt to such a climate. The International Energy Agency, an arm of the western capitalist states, which promotes the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, warned in 2011 that we are actually heading towards a 6 degrees Celsius increase.

We also know only too well that our governments are unwilling to take any serious steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. All the international conferences on the issue repeat the conflict between the industrialized western states and the less developed countries. Our governments are not impressed with arguments that our industrial revolution created the mess, so why should the poor countries of the Third World be called on to take a heavy economic hit? Why don’t we set up a system based on per-capita consumption of fossil fuels? And so on.

It is easy for those of us who have followed this issue over the years to conclude that it seems highly unlikely that our governments will adopt any policies that seriously try to mitigate the problem. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway believe this to be the case. Thus their small book looks back at the Period of the Penumbra (1988 - 2093), which produced the Great Collapse and the Mass Migration (2073-2093). Why did this happen?

Oreskes and Conway are highly respected historians of science based at U.S. universities. In 2010 they authored the widely acclaimed Merchants of Doubt. They exposed the influence of a small number of right wing neoliberal scientists whose crusade was to cast doubt on the science which exposed the dangers of tobacco smoking, acid rain, the questions about the ozone layer, and climate change. They were aided by corporations and conservative “think tanks.” The strategy was to deny the mainstream scientific data, delay any government action, and to present misleading evidence. They were aided by the mainstream media, which gave them equal coverage under their demand for “balanced reporting.”

Neoliberal hegemony
The key to the lack of action by governments was the ideological hegemony of neoliberal political economy. The scientists were on the political right: they strongly resisted any government intervention into the free market. These advocates were relatively few in number, but they had the support of political and economic power.

As I read their prediction of what would happen without a significant effort to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, I was reminded of the study done for the Pentagon on what to expect from the advance of climate change. It was the only study to seriously predict major loss of food crops, food riots, mass migrations, wars for the control of resources, the outbreak of diseases, and the inability of governments to deal with the crisis. The result, they predicted, would be highly authoritarian governments and increased militarism.

Oreskes and Conway project the arrival of the Great North American Desert in 2041, which spread up from the High Plains in the USA through the breadbasket states and the Canadian prairies. In response to food riots and widespread looting, the U.S. government imposed martial law. The two countries formed the United States of North America to try to share resources and help the mass migration of American citizens into Canada. Similar moves were made in Europe and Russia. The populations of Australia and Africa were obliterated by the warming climate and the inability to grow food. The country that dealt best with the crisis was China, which had an effective authoritarian government, a very large military/police establishment, and a citizenry used to following orders.

“Where they said REPENT, REPENT, I wonder what they meant.”

Thanks, Leonard.