Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Say hello to my little friend

For students of "power structures", the last few months have been quite interesting in Europe and the US as we have seen a number of tactics used by power structures, primarily governments, big corporations and the US (in this sense not a government but a hegemon), to maintain their power. I find these interesting, because the maintenance of power is rarely called out for what it is, and frequently reported in the garb with which the instigators clothe it. Here are my top three tactics (and I ignore economic ones because they are tied up with a US economic policy I'm still trying to get to grips with), and we'll start with the UK...

1) Kettling Protesters in London: A tea of protest

Seems to be the hot topic in British news at the moment; the police detain large groups of people for many hours on the street, beat up disabled people (and he makes good comments here), break heads, endorse balaclava'd hooligans and threaten child protesters; sounds like something from an anti-Nazi party propaganda film. The 'why' is obvious, and I'll use Bill the Butcher to explain my point...

The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear. So, the police, under orders from above create that fear, and the media oblige by spreading and disseminating that fear into the homes of the country; the aim is to discourage the casual protester, the citizen who disagrees with the government's policy but has no ballot box with which to record that dissatisfaction, from participating in the only other recourse they have - protest.

Oh, and now, turns out their really clever use of the Spectacle of Fear isn't so clever after all and they might just go ahead and ban protest altogether. Oh the poor elites! Godspeed in your fight against the mob!

2) Divide and Rule: China must stand alone

This one is closer to home in Japan and is a trend I've noticed after living here a few years; America does not want Japan and South Korea to be friendly with China. And for that matter, any other country that borders China. This is part of the Great Game to contain China/SCO. Of course, this runs counter to the very geography of the situation, since Japan and South Korea are natural, developed trading partners for a rising China right on the doorstep. America, as world hegemon, as the British Empire or any empire before it, employs divide and rule to maintain it's own influence/power over all parties.

In the past year alone, there has been a serious public image deterioration in Japan towards China for no good reason at all. There have been many "incidents" (most likely orchestrated by the US) that have contributed towards this, and US influence in Japanese domestic politics is probably one of the most indirect, but I'll focus on just the biggest in the public's eyes. There have been repeated incidents involving military vessels at sea. A South Korean warship was allegedly sunk by a DPRK torpedo. A chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, the captain was arrested and then released. And recently DPRK supposedly started a pissing contest with artillery just west of Seoul. Despite the significant amount of ambiguity surrounding all events, they were unambiguously reported ad infinitum on TV as evidence for the militaristic belligerence of China and DPRK.

In a more rational reality, these events merely served to galvanize people for economic and military action. Some of the Japanese I talk to are routinely involved in trade with China, both in industry and tourism, but complain that the Chinese are too aggressive and behave badly, they'd much rather do business in Brazil or India. I don't believe this is true for a moment, Chinese people are just like any other peoples I've met, but this is the psychological perspective that results from incessant pro-US news reporting and high-seas machinations.

3) Alternative media: Yet more corruption? Boring...

Check out the BBC news homepage. Now check out PressTV or AlJazeera or RussiaToday or the Real News Network. See the difference? Whilst the BBC reports on nonsensical "happy" stories, lists only one or two main happenings and dresses everything up with opinion, other stations do a far better job of reporting the current status of the world (minus Africa because no reporters want to go there apparently, except from AlJazeera). Are they unbiased? Of course not, and they still rely on sindicated [sic] news agencies and far too many British presenters for my liking (though there are so many of them I reason they can't all be from the British Council or GCHQ or whatever). The internet has been the birth of the global "alternative" point of view, but there is an insidious aspect to all this.

Recently, Wikileaks has been in vogue, and we'll take this as our case study. I've been following Wikileaks for about a year now, and I think I can safely say that this will be one of the most interesting internet phenomena to discuss in the future. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Wikileaks is totally independent, the leaks are genuine and they have no agenda other than the dissemination of truth to destabilise anti-anarchic power structures. So this means we are assuming Wikileaks is utterly honest and benevolent in their own way. In the past 10-12 months or so they have released the Collateral Murder video, the Iraq and Afghan files and now the diplomatic cables. And a handful of other bits. Before that, there was a steady stream of rather interesting leaks, for example the Trafigura incident, or censorship in Kenya that had real-world impact. So, assuming they still receive leaks at the same rate from whistleblowers, and this is being conservative because you'd expect the rate to go up as their public awareness increases, they must be sitting on more and more leaks, which counter to the honest assumption we made, they are not releasing.

So, why do they not release what they must be holding? Why are they releasing the diplomatic cables a handful at a time? The argument is they want to maximise the impact of each release to effect the greatest possible change. There are so many cables, so many leaks, if they released them all at once important injustices might be overlooked or be drowned out, or something. Now this is where I can link it back to the alternative media as a whole, and this is where the alternative media, by doing exactly what they should do, play into the hands of power structure maintenance: they make corruption tiresome. John Doe...

Wikileaks, if honest and independent as assumed, is defeating its stated purpose in the court of public opinion by trivialising war crimes and unjust diplomacy. Likewise, the alternative media provides a valuable tool in the information age... information is very difficult to suppress, so the worst of it should be released slowly and to a limited audience first, from whence it seeps into mainstream consciousness, but surrounded by so much else it loses moral context and the power to shock people into action.

Now there are other effects that could still play out for "good", such as Assange's paper on conspiracy networks (very interesting that) or real-world courts taking action on this information, provided they aren't bought, but in general there is no doubt that the alternative media has become an important tool for power structures, as long as they don't step over the line.

(I realize this line of reasoning is quite self-defeatist, and the root problem is probably the deliberate news glut manufactured by News Corp et al to create an information overload of essentially worthless information. Wikileaks in particular has, again assuming good, done a decent job of carving out a platform for more important news, scientific journalism as Assange calls it).


So looking at all this, and countless other protests and injustices in the name of authority, most would reasonably side against the powers that be. But what irritates me about the activist movement is nobody ever stops to ask the question, "Why is the maintenance of power a bad thing?" it is always implicitly held that the truth is best. Japan has enjoyed peace and wealth at the cost of political integrity, but many people, including myself, enjoy the fruits of that. "It is warmer than you expect under the wing of a dragon". Conversely, there is an obvious danger that imperialists lose sight of the ends that they fight for and end up fighting on the wrong side. Padme...

All of the above techniques for the maintenance of power structures came to the fore, in the media, in the past year, and are largely as a result of US military and economic strategies that are seeking to guarantee US hegemony into the near future. The dollar as global trading currency is under threat, has been for some time, and it seems probable to me that the "sub-prime mortgage collapse" was engineered (and continues to be) to put the global economy on the back foot and prolong the lifespan of the dollar; divide and rule on a massive scale. The EU (except Iceland) backed this move by the US (even though it is, in a sense, the biggest credible threat to the US) and the people are protesting against this - not tuition fees or Berlusconi or Chinese fishing boats or the price of potatoes in Ireland - but the banking system that debts them into peonage from the moment they leave school. In the past, we accepted it because things were rosy, now the benefits are gone there is no motivation to take it lying down.

That said, the ultimate issue is, as far as I can tell, not left vs. right, nor savers vs. speculators, but a uni-polar vs. bi-/multi- polar world. The world can either rally round the US and support their hegemon to impose global stability, or risk a bipolar world with possible arms race/cold war/nuclear war yada yada. Even if China is not a credible bipolar threat (ie. the US plays up China's potential to scare other nations into line - and this seems quite possible, China has many weaknesses, like the supply and price of oil), a multipolar world could divide into bi-/tri- polar factions with the same result. I like to imagine that this is the balance that top politicians are actually considering when they order the police to smack down more citizens.

The Door

I will finish with Kafka's parable Before the Door, here taken from Wikipedia...

A man from the country seeks the law and wishes to gain entry to the law through a doorway. The doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says that is possible. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them "so that you do not think you have failed to do anything." The man waits at the door until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years. The doorkeeper answers "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

The door was made for the man, but he chose to attempt admission. It was his choice to go there, to sit there and to wait, not the door nor the gatekeeper nor anyone else forced him to remain. Further, since the door must have been built before he arrived, it could not have been made for him specifically, but once arrived it became his door, and no one else's. Lastly he questions not, "why have I not been let in?" but, "why did nobody else come here?"

The failure of his endeavor matters not nearly so much as his incredulity that others did not join him. For those outside the structures of power, the law or government or financial groups, admittance to their reason can seem as guarded, futile and obtuse as Kafka's Man before the Door. And, of course, should he try to break down the door, the keeper should surely try to stop him. What the parable teaches us to do is to ask ourselves the same question that the man asks before we die. Each man's door is chosen and constructed for himself, by himself; i.e. it is a creation of his imagination. Some doors do indeed need to be broken down, but we must be long and careful in consideration when constructing and choosing the doors we wish to enter, and should not be surprised if the doorman happens to carry a big stick he is willing to use.