Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Monday, 29 November 2010


The unfolding wikileaks revelations detailing the 'frankness' of American diplomats are interesting beyond the immediately apparent scandalous front page stories and geopolitical fallout because they expose fundamental issues in the conduct of international diplomacy and political discourse, that mainstream media and government are not at all keen for us to talk about. Elite reaction to the revelations has unsurprisingly been to emphasise their criminality and the endangerment of international stability, as well as perceived American interests. However, we should leave aside issues of legality here because secrecy should never be a cover for illegal and immoral behaviour on the part of government. Revelations such as these should shatter the myth that the modern democratic state and its agents are some kind of dispassionate arbiter of the collective good (aka 'national security'/'the national interest'), producing rational, scientific policy. The use of language in these communiques should highlight to anyone who reads them, the broad sweeping assumptions our politicians and bureaucrats have of the world, that are far from being objective, but rather, advance specific ideological interests. The documents confirm the charge of hypocrisy that has so often been leveled at American foreign policy... America cannot live up to the image of benign moral righteousness it seeks to project to the rest of the world. The truth is that it wouldn't be a difficult thing for diplomats to use restrained language and provide policymakers with a more balanced range of opinions. And its not actually that difficult to not lie. Politicians could always practice what they preach, no? I don't think its unrealistic moralising to expect that people can and should behave in a more honest way. Diplomacy is meant to be a skilled, restrained way of conducting oneself... is this not what we mean when we say that such and such a person is being 'diplomatic'? It should not be an aggressive, corrupt, duplicitous 'game' that it is cloaked by unnecessary secrecy. If wikileaks has endangered the internal stability of Yemen by exposing the lies their government have told the population about the presence of the American military on its soil, then this is something they should have thought about in advance; especially the Americans, it seems obvious that there was a good chance of this getting out at some stage anyway. These kinds of repeated American military interventions in the region wouldn't be necessary if all the talk about democracy and human rights was lived up to. America has spent the entire post-1945 period doing its level best to support corrupt, autocratic regimes, impose itself on the region and generally piss everyone off. Chickens coming home to roost methinks.

N.B: Its also interesting to note how the whole Iran issue has been spun already. The Iranians themselves have latched onto this, accusing the US government of being behind the wikileaks releases, and trying to downplay them. Whilst I think this is a bit far fetched, the anti-Iranian consensus revealed by the leaked documents has certainly been leapt upon by Western media, and strengthens the hand of the American right and Israel, in their unending clamour for war.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ed Miliband: 'I'm a Socialist'

This is hilarious. He says he is opposed to public ownership, but wants to bring about social justice. When asked about his backtracking over the student protests against tuition fees he responded with: "I said I was going to go and talk to them at some point. I was tempted to go out and talk to them", but: "I think I was doing something else at the time, actually". This may be down to a genuine fear of being 'kettled' by the police but is more than likely just him being spineless in the face of media criticism. Talking about the 'people's party' is complete nonesense if he doesn't even have the balls to 'talk to them at some point'. He also said his concern was for the 'squeezed middle classes', and said he wouldn't be attending any Trade Union protests... even more entertaining as he relied upon union votes to get elected as Labour leader. This all brings to mind a good article I read on the BBC website by Brian Wheeler yesterday, highlighting what has been a major bugbear of mine for some time now; namely the constant employment of the word 'progressive' by douchebag politicians. Language is very much reflective of the dominant power structures in society, so we shouldn't after all be too surprised to see someone like David Cameron using a word that has always had such leftist connotations. It reflects the dominance of neoliberal market ideology in Western politics, as evidenced in the whole New Labour project in the UK. It also demonstrates the de-politicisation of politics, with mass media, spin doctors and a culture of soundbites used to render political language banal and devoid of any intellectual merit, a la the 'newspeak' of George Orwells' 1984. Still, this annoys the hell out of me.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Art Meets Music, Meets Science

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony (Part 1: Overview) from Tristan Perich on Vimeo.

This is pure genius! The description from the creators website:

1-Bit Symphony is an electronic composition in five movements on a single microchip. Though housed in a CD jewel case like his first circuit album (1-Bit Music 2004-05), 1-Bit Symphony is not a recording in the traditional sense; it literally "performs" its music live when turned on. A complete electronic circuit—programmed by the artist and assembled by hand—plays the music through a headphone jack mounted into the case itself”.

North Korea: Part Deux

Lionel Beehner and Nuno Montiero have written a good piece for the Guardian on what they see as North Korea's Schellingesque strategy of brinkmanship. The story goes as follows; emboldened by a successful nuclear test in 2009 North Korean hardliners (flatliners?) feel free to provoke the South in a win-win scenario. An aggressive response from the South strengthens their hand domestically whilst anything else can easily be spun as a victory for the North's bellicose behaviour. South Korea and America are hamstrung in this regard and the best they can do is try to stay calm and wait it out. This is of course easier said than done as public opinion in South Korea demands an increasingly tougher stance (the South Korean defence minister seems to be the first casualty of this). We do know that this attack was premeditated as the North warned the South beforehand that it would respond to its annual military exercises; a warning that seems to have been ignored, and this seems to be a big part of the problem as noted by Beehner and Montiero. However, this is not the whole story. Whilst the North may feel upstaged by the recent G20 summit in Seoul, North Korea has been getting increasingly assertive for some time now. Leaving aside scary questions of just who's really in charge and power struggles inside North Korea, the North does have a consistent agenda of sorts through all this. They've consistently been hostile towards South Korean President Lee Myung-bak since he came into office with a tougher stance towards the North, rolling back the successful 'sunshine policy' of engagement between the two countries. They want direct negotiations with the US. They couldn't have been clearer on this point and they have sought to use their nuclear programme as a bargaining tool - understandable for a regime that doesn't want to appear to be weak and conceding ground on all issues, but has no other form of leverage. Much to North Korea's anger American policy has been one of intransigence - 'give up your nukes then we'll talk', 'we don't want to reward bad behaviour'; etc. This shows a startling lack of concern for the position of the North Korean leadership, which is exacerbated by their other consistent need: food aid (made worse by recent floods). Yes their recent actions have resulted in this being cut off, but its obvious that the regime places its own survival and strategic policy above all else, pushing food for its population to the bottom of the list. Confrontation has been placed ahead of cow-towing for aid on the priorities list: something which says a lot about who the regimes' real audience is: the military and other rival top brass who can make their life uncomfortable. So what does this all mean? Well for a start, despite all the talk in the media about the internal politics of North Korea being some kind of unknowable and mysterious dark force, the truth is quite the opposite. North Korea's internal power politics and their effects have been on show to the world for some time now and they've made it that way. Yes, we don't have an intimate knowledge of all the players and personalities, but the message has been a fairly consistent one: the regime is desperate to survive so can't appear weak but wants to talk. The ham-fisted response of America and South Korea has completely ignored this basic but essential point. The basis for any kind of progress in negotiations is to have an understanding of where the other person is coming from. The South Korean and American position is at best ignorant and displays an arrogance rooted in a sense of moral superiority that blinds them to any other alternatives. We all know the North's leadership has greatly wronged its population, and is a million miles away from Western-style democracy and capitalism, but this is no excuse for ignoring it. The response to intransigence is usually intransigence reciprocated, are we really still surprised by this?

N.B: Also consider the fact that the day before the shelling of Yeonpyeong South Korea said it would consider allowing the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on its soil. A practice that ended almost twenty years ago. Something about fuel and fire...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Threat Narratives: The Nuclear North

Having actually taken the time today to read Siegfried S. Hecker's report for the Centre for International Security and Cooperation on his 'Return Trip to North Korea's Yongbon Nuclear Complex', I find it both amusing and disturbing in equal measure how this has been reported in the world's media. Reading Hecker's nuanced and educated (former Los Alamos boss) account of the complexities of the North Korean nuclear programme, and developments therein; together with his conclusion that rightly sees high level engagement with North Korea as the only conceivable course of action, its plain to see how media reporting and the response from leading officials (Adm Mike Mullen) serves an agenda that seeks to portray a heightened sense of threat and justify bellicose national security policies. Hecker notes that whilst North Korean capacity has been enhanced in terms of highly-enriched uranium production via means of light-water reactor technology, it appears to have scaled back or potentially abandoned plutonium production. This does not mean that a nuclear weapons programme has not been abandoned by the North, who's leadership clearly believes it benefits from the leverage of having a nuclear arsenal; but it does demonstrate that the programme has moved very much in a different direction - towards the technologies associated with civilian nuclear power. Yes these may be still used for nefarious purposes, and critical observers will point out that the increased level of sophistication may point to heightened threat if North Korea has other such facilities hidden from prying eyes. But all of this seems to miss the point here. North Korea has nuclear weapons already and won't give them up any time soon. Yes their arsenal may become more sophisticated in coming years, but this is in all probability unavoidable. As Hecker points out military strikes against North Korea are out of the question. And, as the North Koreans pointed out to Hecker they are only doing what they said they were going to do but weren't believed (insert here orientalist attitudes about North Korean inferiority). Hecker himself hints that North Korean nuclear aspirations in terms of both power (electricity) and prestige (power) are legitimate and understandable... a refreshingly realistic (note not 'realist') attitude for such an establishment figure to take. This should not be about zero-sum power politics and grandstanding, but rather trying to reassure a paranoid regime that the (western) world is not out to get them and that a peaceful nuclear programme is worth far more to them (and crucially their population).

N.B: Another interesting aside to this story, as mentioned by Hecker, and ignored by everyone else, is Pakistan's involvement in the (recent) history of North Korean nuclear development. Pakistan seems to be pretty much the biggest exporter of nuclear technology around violating just about every treaty going whilst the US does and says nothing...funny how that works...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Fight the Power!

'The Party Game Is Over. Stand and Fight', John Pilger

I agree with John Pilger's sentiment that our political system has become subservient to corporate greed in its entirety.

"This is not to say parliamentary politics is meaningless. It has one meaning now: the replacement of democracy with a business plan for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope, every child born".

Says it all really.

N.B: The only thing our politicians' corporate paymasters understand is their balance sheet...hit them in the pocket where it hurts. Its what they're doing to us. This is ultimately a battle of ideas as much as anything else though, and capital has done its work well. I don't see much changing anytime soon. Our economic ways will likely only change when that change is forced in the aftermath of the looming ecological catastrophe that ceaseless consumption will thrust upon this planet.