Thursday, May 21, 2015

Formal and Substantive Human and Civil Rights by Joseph Massad

The Soviet/US struggle over defining human rights is now the stuff of  history given the US victory in the Cold War but a brief review is necessary. While the US insisted that having the right to work, to free or universally affordable health care, free education, daycare, and housing (which the Soviet system granted in the USSR and across Eastern Europe as substantive and not merely as formal rights) are not human rights at all, the Soviets, in the tradition of socialism, insisted they were essential for human life and dignity and that the Western enumeration of the rights to free speech, free association, free movements, freedom to form political parties, etc., were “political” and “civil” and not “human rights, and that in reality in the West, they were at any rate only formal and not substantive rights except for the upper echelons of society and those who owned the media and could access it and could fund election campaigns, etc.

Moreover the Soviets argued that it was essential for humans to have human rights in order to be able to access civil and political rights in a substantive manner and that granting formal civil and human rights while denying substantive human rights amounted to granting no rights at all. Perhaps most important in this regard is that the post-World War II US definition of human rights did not encompass in the 1950s and 60s the rights of African Americans to vote, to receive the same social services as whites, and not to face official institutionalized racial discrimination – all of which were referred to in the US lingo as mere “civil rights.”. Malcolm X’s insistence that US violations of the human rights of African Americans should be taken up by the United Nations, which had the power to impose sanctions on the United States as a racist state, earned him much opprobrium and a much lesser status in latter official commemorations that Martin Luther King, who was satisfied principally with limiting the Black struggle in the US to the arena of “civil rights.”

While the Soviet form of “popular democracy” was anchored in the hegemony of this system of (human) rights and its resultant substantive and massive benefits and massive limits and (civil) restrictions applied universally to all Soviet citizens, the US system of liberal “democracy” was anchored in its own system of rights that granted substantive and massive benefits to smaller portions of the citizenry while applying massive restrictions to the larger portions. The post-World War II Soviet system did not need to resort to major coercive means when its hegemonic system did not seem all-encompassing; indeed in a country of some 260 million people, at the height of the 1960s and 1970s  Brezhnevite repression, there were no more than 500 political prisoners in the country. Amnesty International’s count in 1980 was that the Soviets had no more than 400 people imprisoned for political dissidence between 1976 and 1980. The postwar United States, in contrast, had to rely, especially in the late 1940s, on more massive means when the hegemony of its system was weakened, as evidenced by the McCarthyist repression and the repression of the antiwar and civil rights protests of the 1950s-1975, and had hundreds of political prisoners (under varying legal pretext used to prosecute activists), who are harder to count due to the use of criminal charges to imprison them. The reassertion of the US coercive system would be strengthened through its new racialized and repressive criminal justice system since the 1980s and more after September 2011 with legislation of the Patriot Act and related repressive measures.

While in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the hegemony of Soviet-style “popular democracy” eroded under the increasing US Cold War assaults on the USSR, most Soviet and East European citizens hoped to end the “popular democratic” systems of their ruling Communist Parties and gain Western style political and civil rights. They wanted that latter not instead  of but in addition to retaining those human rights that the Soviet system guaranteed them. In the end, they lost their existing human rights and gained very little Western political and civil rights, and even the modicum of rights they did gain were more formal than substantive and subjected to the vagaries of financial and class power. It was in this context of an all-persuasive imposition of neoliberalism on a global scale that the U.S. discourse of human rights and the meaning the US gives to “human rights” reigned supreme.

[This carefully drawn distinction between human and civil rights, formal and substantive, as illustrated in the contrast between the Soviet and US ideology and systems during the Cold War, plays an important role in Professor Massad’s analysis of the UN, private philanthropy the United States government, and domestic political action groups ‘crusades’ to save, for instance, women and ‘gays’  from the oppressive impositions of ‘Islam’ , that is, to reform Islamic societies in line with Western notions of civil rights to the utter neglect and even direct destruction of human rights in both the formal and substantive sense. A few examples will suffice.]

Most laws on the books today that discriminate against women in formerly colonized Muslim-majority countries, including nationality laws, are derived from Western liberal and secular colonial and national laws, yet no slogans that oppose secularism and liberalism,, seen as European par excellence, have identified these ideologies as essentially sexists and gender-discriminatory; yet somehow all Islamists are often condemned for allegedly being essentially sexist and that this is the main characteristic of their social programs. The point here is that if the concern with Islamists taking power is because some Islamists’ gender policies or views ( and many Islamist parties in fact have a far better record on gender equality and women’s representation than secular parties in the region), then why is opposition not articulated as strongly against non-Islamist parties (e.g. Mubarak and Sisi in Egypt) whose record on women is often far worse?

Some would say that in the U.S. and West European countries, at least since the mid 1980s, laws ( masquerading under the rubrics ‘crimes of passion’ and ‘domestic abuse’ rather than what is called ‘honor killings’ in Islamic society) that protected men who commit crimes against women have been removed but in Jordon they remain on the books. But if this is so, research has not turned to a condemnation of the Jordanian government and the regime which uphold this law, and which is derived from the Napoleonic code, but Arab culture and “Islam” tout court,  when all Islamic jurisprudential schools are condemnatory of “honor crimes” as murder and refuse to offer mitigating circumstances to men whom commit them. These crimes also occur at far lower rates in Muslim countries than in the U.S., whatever the laws on the books are.

In dealing with the question of the hijab and other dress codes, Mossad quotes Wendy Brown (commenting on an article in The New York Times in her paper “Civilizational Delusions”):

Decades after Euro-Atlantic women rose up against sexual codes that bound them to the roles of subservience, unpaid and unrecognized labor, sexual availability and decorative objectification, what is to be made of these New York women teetering on the balls of their feet in stilts? Imagine walking for an hour in such shoes, let alone running for a bus, chasing after children, navigating inclement weather, standing all day at work or even just for two hours at a cocktail party? In Islamic religious female dress, one would surely be more comfortable, far less likely to sprain an ankle, slip on ice, trip on an uneven sidewalk, permanently damage one’s feet, or succumb to chronic sciatica or other back injuries. One might have a better concentration, a wider subjective imaginary, and more versatility in greeting the various episodes and possibilities of a day.. In short, if shoes nearly impossible to stand let alone walk in are freely chosen, that does not make them shoes of freedom, something that of course that can be said of the hijab or niqab as well. Yet to my knowledge, no one, anywhere in the Western world, has ever seriously considered passing legislation to outlaw such shoes, their making or their wearing, including in schools or state offices.

The anthropologist Lila Abui-Lughod Egyptian native informants authorized her to make this plea to western feminists :"I have done fieldwork in Egypt over more than twenty years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of US women, women they perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.”

Many, even the vast majority of poorer Muslim women  reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’s premise of total gender equality with regard to housing provision, economic maintanence of the marital home and children, and child support in the case of divorce, given that Islamic jurisprudence has historically placed great emphasis on male responsibility in these arenas. Indeed this ‘traditional logic may explain why poverty and economic well-being  in Arabic countries cannot be easily identified as a gender issue, unlike the U.S. which, at any rate, is one of the few nations that has continuously refused to ratify the CEDAW.

[Most of Joseph Assad’s book consists of a Critical analysis of the historical roots and contemporary elaborations of Orientalism (he is the  the disciple of Edward Said), Semitism and the Abrahamic conceptions of cultural in our current “Clash of Civilizations” and “War on Terror”. It makes for difficult  reading, confounds pre-conceptions and embroils the reader in controversy especially in regards the the issues surrounding the use of terms such as ‘Queer’, “Gay” or even ‘Sexuality” which have no functional equivalence in the Arabic language and which he has suggested the use of which by government agencies and NGO’s in protecting ‘rights’ is more provocative of repression in Islamic contexts then understanding.

But the careful distinction he makes between ‘human’ and ‘civil rights, and the role these conceptions play in neo-liberal agenda ( expanding ‘global finance’, opening international trade, invoking ‘austerity’ on foreign and our own governments and supporting repressive secular regimes)- which de-emphasizes the former in favor of the latter in the context of phantasmagoric representations and essentializations of the Islamic Other and no lack of self-deception with regard to the substantive character of its own society- holds the treatise together.]

Islam in Liberalism by Joseph A. Massad; University of Chicago Press, 2015

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Starch by Joanna Blythman

Joanna Bythman is an investigative food journalist and influential commentator on the British food chain. This book (Fourth Estate, London, 2015) is an examination of the food processing industry in the U.K., Europe and America; how it works and the character of its products. Here  I present her chapter on starches, followed by her brief remarks on recent advances in nanotechnology as applied to packaging.
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In food manufacturing starch is essential kit, by far the most commonly used item, in the food manufacturer’s box of tricks, as one authority explains: ‘Since their development in the 1940s, modified food starches have become a vital part of the food industry. Practically every category of food utilizes the functional properties of starch to impart some important aspect of the final product.’

It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern processed food industry is predicated on the stuff. This is why, when you turn to the ingredients listings on the massed ranks of manufactured foods, the word starch turns up with regularity, sometimes prefixed by a source, say, potato starch, or more often by the enigmatic word ‘modified.’

Starch acts as a muse for the modern food industry, a biddable, versatile, obliging substance that inspires a never-ending flow of creativity. Although it is utterly lacking in any food personality of its own, the very neutrality of nondescript starch makes everything feasible. Think of it as a facilitator, an ingredient that generates a boundless range of technical possibilities.

Added starch makes puffed potato snacks and breakfast cereals crisp and expansive, it makes your tortilla chip crunchier, and your crisps crispier. It lends smoothness and creaminess to processed cheese. It extends the shelf life of yogurt, gels fruit and cream fillings, adds fiber to bread, replaces eggs, makes batter more clingy, adds porosity to crackers, and airiness to cakes. In tumbled, injected and emulsified meats, such as sausages and ham, it can mimic fat, so acting as a ‘meat extender’. Starch seals in moist glazes and marinades and acts as a carrier for flavorings and colorings. It stops your orange juice from separating and makes it cloudy. Starch binds the water in mayonnaise, margarine, ketchup and salad dressings, toughens up dough for the onslaught of factory baking, and adds viscous heft to bouillons and gravies. It stiffens canned foods – soups, pulses, vegetables – and makes ready meals more resilient to the temperature changes posed by chilling, freezing, transportation, reheating, and the general stress and elevated temperatures of factory production. Starch providers ‘freeze/thaw stability’, prevents freezer ‘burn’ and gives food more ‘microwave tolerance.’ Last but not least, it can create texture. Whatever consistency is needed – crisp, crunchy, smooth, shreddable, jellied, stringy, cuttable, short, smooth, cohesive or chewy – multi-tasking starch can deliver it.

But how can one boring, anodyne ingredient do so much? After all, starch in the form that ordinary people know it, such as cornflower and arrowroot, can only perform a fraction of the tasks mentioned above. As you might have guessed, the starches available to food manufacturers are rather remote relatives of those we might use at home. They have been altered in various ways to endow them with properties they lack in any of their recognized household forms. Natural starches, you see, are badly behaved, dysfunctional starches that can only ever find their true potential through the improving hand of food technology.

Modified starch, the most familiar of these ‘improved’, more ‘functional’ starches, has clocked up decades of steadfast services to industrial food manufacture. This type of starch can be made using various techniques to change its characteristics. These include breaking it down with acids, bleaching it, converting it with enzymes, pre-gelatinizing it by heating and drying it so that it forms a gel in cold water, oxidizing it, cross-linking it with fats, converting it into esters or ethers, and bonding it with phosphates. Starch can also be browned using dry heat (dextrinization) to turn it into ‘starch sugars’, such as maltodextrin. Put it this way, modified starch is definitely not something you could cook up in any home kitchen.

There are many types of modified starch, each with unique properties and functions, a case of horses for courses. The starch in canned soups, for example, is often bonded with phosphates, which allows it to absorb more water yet stop any separation in the liquid. To prevent tomato sauce spilling of the factory pizza during baking, a modified starch treated with chorine solution is often added to the topping.

In Europe, modified starches are considered as food additives, and must carry an E number. These days, because the prefix ‘modified’ tend to ring the wrong bell with consumers, starch companies are developing a new tier of more functional ‘clean label’ starches that can lose the label-polluting M - word and E number, and be replaced with the more consumer-friendly ‘soluble fiber’, ‘starch’ or ‘dextrin’ tags.

These new wave starches are presented as more natural because the have not been chemically altered. Instead, only physical and mechanical techniques such as heat, extrusion, drum drying, compression and atomization can be used to change the particle size and structure. Because these newer functional starches are branded and trademarked, the companies that produce them need only volunteer minimal information about how they are made because the method becomes their intellectual property (trade secret).Marketed as specialty starches targeted for specific uses, they have really caught on with manufacturers. As one academic explains, ‘specialty starches continue to outpace unmodified starches in the processed food industry because of their ruggedness and ability to withstand severe process conditions.’

It’s easy to see why food manufacturers take such a keen interest  in starch, both old-timer and new guard. Whether it comes from corn, wheat, cassava, peas or potato, starch is wonderfully cheap and abundant because it is made from commodity cereals and cash crops that are much less expensive than other categories of foods. Therein lies the appeal of starch. It provides reliable, inexpensive bulk to pad out pricier ingredients, which makes for cost-effective replacement, as this starch company tells food manufacturers:

Like you, we are committed to keeping costs low. Our business is built on successfully replacing expensive ingredients with more cost-effective alternatives, helping you to withstand price fluctuations. Whether replacing expensive texture systems or substituting costly proteins, our starches will meet all your expectations and reduce ingredient costs. So what’s the secret of creating foods that appeal to customers’ concerns about cost and quality? Take a fresh look at your recipes and replace expensive ingredients withy no-compromise alternatives to reduce cost, not consumer appeal. We can provide you with tools to replicate the eating enjoyment and texture consumers look for at a fraction of the cost.

With the aid of starch, manufacturers can use ‘cost optimization’ to ‘value engineer’ their product for the benefit of price-sensitive shoppers. A worthwhile mission, surely?

Yet when you read the sales literature for starch products, a strong sense of self-interest on the part of food manufacturers emerges. Here, for instance, is how one starch company sells its starch-based fat replacer:

[It] cleverly allows food manufacturers to remove some butter content from products and still use the label ‘all butter’, which highlights to consumers that the food is still a decadent product. The finish of the product would retain the same ‘shortness’ and buttery richness and mouth-feel as the full fat equivalent.

Hey, presto. The addition of starch allows opulently labelled ‘all butter’ biscuits or croissants to contain less butter than they did before. Not quite what your average person might deduce from the label. The fat-replacing starch being recommended here goes by the name of Delyte, presumably a play on delight/delicious and lite/light (low fat). Or possibly the person who thought it up was thinking of delete, meaning something taken away; in this case, butter.

In food manufacturing, starch often forms the basis of a product. ‘Your base starch as a viscosifier, which established your food’s structure’, one company explains. An example here might be a Catalan-style flan or French crème caramel, where starch replaces more expensive eggs, milk and crème. ‘Once you’ve created the structure with your base starch, co-texturizers [ another set of starches] fine-tune texture properties. They bring out the more subtle differences in texture that experience in our mouths while eating, such as mouthcoating [creamy] and meltaway [lusciousness].’

As well as offering cheap bulk and texturizing potential, starch has never been in such demand as it currently is to replace other nutrients. As health regulators have breathed ever so lightly down the the neck of the processed food industry to make its products healthier, reduction of fat, sugar and salt has become a regulatory religion, one that opens new doors for starch. Products can be reformulated, bumping up quantities of starch and cutting persona non grata ingredients, thus providing a justification for reduced fat and sugar claims on the label. Using starch, manufacturers can adjust the composition or ‘matrix’ of a whole host of processed foods, to recast them in a flattering nutritional light. Dong so ticks a few boxes with the public health establishment, and the sums also add up very nicely for manufacturers, as this starch company explains:

Our specialty solutions mimic the organoleptic qualities of fat, delivering a creamy, luxurious texture and smooth, glossy appearance in better-for-you applications. We’re also skilled at replacing costly tomato solids. Whether you are looking to replace oil, cream, milk, milk solids, vegetables or egg, we an ensure premium quality and guilt-free indulgence at a competitive price.

And when it comes to starch, ingredient savings are no idle promise. A high-performance starch can replace fat at a ratio of 10:1 in dips, dressings, soups and mayonnaise for a lower calorie, low fat label at lower cost. Starch can stand it for 30% of the cream in a ready made spaghetti carbonara and make redundant at least 35% of the tomato paste  otherwise needed to make a credible pasta sauce. It allows manufacturers to reduce the margarine in puff pastry by a fifth. A starch developed using a ‘cling optimized texture system’ will even have the necessary adhesion, viscosity and suspension to replace ‘up to 40% of the tomato/ vegetable solids in soups and solids’.

On a factory scale, using starch makes for massive savings. To achieve this end, mimicry lies at the heart of food manufacture, a constant itch to make not a faithful version of the real thing, but something that passes for it. For food technologists and new product developers, all the fun with food comes when you take it apart, break it down into components, then reassemble it in a more lucrative. Easy-to-process form.

Greek yogurt is a case in point… which between 2008 and 2012 achieved a spectacular sales curve. Sensing an opportunity, many companies wanted to get in on this dynamic sales sector but they faced a stumbling block.. When produced in the traditional way, Greek yogurt takes a whole lot more more milk to make, different equipment and factory set-ups than standard yogurt.

The starch manufacturer Ingredion first mapped the sensory attributes of Greek yogurts on the market: qualities such as ‘jiggle’, ‘slipperiness, and surface shine. It then devised an innovative starch, which it claimed can give ‘ a similar texture and eating experience to the market leading product’, yet it is much cheaper to produce because it uses less milk and can be made using the standard high temperature/short time non-Greek method, without any investment in new equipment. With this fabulously functional starch, Ingredion promises that yogurt manufacturers ‘can get to market faster, and produce product at lower overall cost’.

How does fast-track Greekish yogurt compare in taste to the genuine article? Because most such products are not sold as natural, plain yogurt, but with added flavors and sweeteners, we rarely have the opportunity to compare like for like. However, it is common knowledge in the processed food industry that starch can import unwelcome flavors. As one authority notes: “cereal-based starches such as corn and wheat starch are sometimes considered to have off-notes described as ‘cardboard’ or ‘cereal-like’. Fortunately for manufacturers, because most processed foods have multiple ingredient formulations., they can make sure that off-tastes are routinely drowned out by other flavors.

Even companies that make starches don’t attempt to sell their organoleptic qualities. To do so would be a waste of time, because they all understand that starches taste, at best, of zilch. Instead they try to make a virtue out of nothingness. ‘The bland taste of potato starch allows whole meat products to maintain their natural palatability’ is how one starch company puts it. A more forthright version of the same message might read ‘the boringness of starch won’t interfere with other ingredients.” They are used as fillers, stabilizers, thickeners, pastes, and glues in dry soup mixes, infant food, sauces, gravy mixes etc.

And if the addition of starch means net loss of flavor, it also translates into a net loss of nutrition also, because when highly refined starches of the type used by food processors replace proteins, fats,  fruits and vegetables, they actually worsen the nutritional profile of the resulting product.

Now this might sound counterintuitive if you’ve paid attention to the standard government nutrition advice: “Rather than avoiding starchy foods, it’s better to try and base your meals on them, so they make up about a third of your diet.’ In recent times, starchy foods, even the most refined types, have been hyped by public health agencies. Starchy foods such as cereals, pasta and bread, we are told, ‘are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, they contain fiber, calcium, iron and B vitamins.’ This presentation of starchy carbohydrate as a hero nutrient is highly debatable. If we are going to champion certain foods on the basis of micronutrients, such as iron and B vitamins, then meat would be a better bet because it contains them in greater abundance. As for fiber, we can get all we need vegetables and fruit.

Of course, starchy carbs in their whole, unprocessed forms do contain some useful micronutrients, but the same cannot be said for the refined sort, which would be more accurately described as stodge, or fodder. Refined starches are rapidly broken down into simple sugars and readily absorbed into the bloodstream. This is why, if you chew a bit of white bread for a few seconds longer than usual, it will begin to taste sweet. Refined carbohydrates cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, which encourages our bodies to produce and store fat. Long term, this predisposes us to chronic disease. Due to their smaller particle size, highly processed, chemically or physically altered starches –precisely the type used in food processing –cause an even faster rise in blood sugar. So when food manufacturers brag about reducing sugar –on the surface, a noble mission –it is worthwhile noting that if starch is the replacement, then this is a case of more of the same. Think of it as a gesture, a tactical, piecemeal reformulation that should not be mistaken for a radical one.

In so many ways, starch is a never-ending source of inspiration to food manufacturers. Classless starch finds a role in every echelon of food processing. It’s facelessness allows to go everywhere and anywhere.

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Controversy over chemicals used in packaging , such as bisphenol A and phthalates, has been aired or decades, but the same cannot be said for nanoparticles, an emerging technology. Nanoparticles, which are far too minute to see with a microscope, are derived from materials such as clay, silver, titanium, silica and zinc oxide, and increasingly used in food and drink packaging. They can improve certain ‘smart’ functions: extending the shelf life of food by decreasing the permeability of plastics, acting as ant-bacterial coatings, or making packaging lighter and stronger. Nanosilver, for example, is used to coat plastic food containers so that anything stored within can be sold for longer. Nanoclays can be incorporated into the fabric of plastic bottles to prevent oxygen from migrating through the walls and shortening the shelf life of the contents.

A boon for the food industry and consumers, surely? Unfortunately, it looks as if nanoparticles can also leach from packaging into food and drink. Researchers recently found, for instance, that aluminium and silicon nanoparticles migrated from plastic bottle into an acidic medium – of the kind you find in fizzy drinks and juices p- and that this migration increased with time, and at higher temperatures.

The potential health problems with nanoparticles is their minuteness. They ate about one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, which makes them more reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same substance. This means they can end up in places that larger particles would not – our cells, tissues and organs, where they can accumulate to ill effect Nanoscale zinc oxide, for example, has been found to cause lesions in the liver, pancreas, heart and stomach of laboratory animals. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has warned that ‘clear positive toxic responses [in some of these tests] clearly indicate a potential risk [of nanoscale zinc oxide] to humans. Other research suggests that nanoparticles of titanium oxide can damage DNA, disrupt cell function, and interfere with the defense activities of the immune system. One emerging scientific theory is that nanoparticles absorbed in the gut may be a factor in the growing prevalence of inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome ,and Crohn’s disease.

The European Commission cites evidence from laboratory studies that nanoparticles can promote clumping of protein molecules, a factor in a number of medical condition. It also acknowledges that they can be transported from the upper lining of the nose [by inhalation] into the lungs and brain, a particular hazard for factory workers who have to handle nanomaterials. “Full evaluation of the potential hazards is still to come’, the European Commission reports, in a vaguely promising way,. In the USA, the National Academy of Sciences is far more impatient and warns that ‘critical gaps’ in understanding nanoparticles have been identified but ‘have not been addressed with needed research’. Basically, nanotechnology is out and about, and in contact with our food and drink. Regulators have been caught on the hop. The Institute of Food Science and Technology has expressed concern that

There does not appear to be a requirement for the supplier to specify the inclusion of nanoparticle in packaging materials and neither, due to the lack of end-product labeling requirements, is the consumer likely to be aware of the composition of the packaging material.

About 400-500  nanopackaging products are estimated to be in use now, and nanotechnology is predicted to account for 25% of all food packaging by 2020. In fact, packaging is just the advanced guard for this novel technology; nanotech additives are already out inforce on U.S. shelves. Nanosized titanium dioxide, for example, is now turning up in products such as coffee creamer, cookies, cream cheese, turkey gravy, lemonade and chocolate. Fresh fruit and vegetables can also be coated with a thin, wax-like coating, containing nanoparticles, to extend shelf life.

Could nanotech additives also be in the UK and European food chain? The truth is no-one really knows, and there has been no legal obligation on food manufacturers to inform us of their presence . . .

Who doesn’t know someone with a food allergy, or asthma, or irritable bowel syndrome, or with cancer, for that matter? Closed-minded toxicologists refer back to the philosophical musings of Paracelsus to justify an accommodating attitude to toxic compounds in our food chain and environment as they examine each one in splendid isolation from the safe confines of the laboratory. The rest of us, however, are right to question the comforting pronoucement of the imperturbable Paracelsus, frozen in the 16th century, that small doses of poison  do us no harm. We can be open-minded enough to consider the very real possibility that by activating, blocking, hijacking or otherwise messing with the normal functioning of our bodies, engineered chemicals are contributing to a wide range of human health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infertility and other disorders of sexual development. And if we do take this proposition seriously, then reducing our exposure by minimizing the amount of packaged food and drink we consume is one obvious place to start.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Thistles by Ted Hughes

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.
Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.
Then they grow grey, like men
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Painting by John Singer Sargent

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bremer Order 81; Best Practices in Twenty-First-Century Iraqi Agriculture by Wendy Brown

In 2003, one year after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Paul Bremer, the American-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, declared Iraq “open for business” and spelled out a set of 100 orders that came to be known as the Bremer Orders. These mandated selling off several hundred state-run enterprises, permitting full ownership rights of Iraqi businesses by foreign firms and full repatriation of profits to foreign firms, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control, and eliminating tariffs – in short, making Iraq a new playground of world finance and investment. At the time time, the Bremer Orders restricted labor  and throttled back public goods and services. They outlawed strikes and eliminated the right to unionize in most sectors, mandated a regressive flat tax on income, lowered the corporate rate to a flat 15 percent, and eliminated taxes on profits repatriated to foreign-owned businesses.

Many of these orders were in violation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions concerning war, occupation, and international relations, which mandate that an occupying power must guard, rather than sell off the assets of the occupied country. But if illegal under international law, the orders could be implemented  by a sovereign Iraqi government. To that end, an interim government was appointed by the United States in late 2002 and was pressed to ratify the orders when it was pronounced “sovereign” in 2004. And lest future elected governments not be so pliable, one order declares that no elected Iraqi government will have the power to alter them.

The Bremer Orders and the U.S. dominated state under construction that ratified and executed them obviously exemplify a host of neo-liberal features: the use of a calamity (“shock doctrine”) to impose neo-liberal reforms; the elimination of public ownership and welfare; the reduction of taxes and tariffs; the extensive use of the state to structure market competition through inequality; the break-up of labor and popular solidarities; the creation of ideal conditions for global finance and investment capital. Yet the orders, defined as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people that create [penal consequences or have a direct bearing on the way Iraqis are regulated, including changes to Iraqi law,” would seem to be at odds with the idea of the soft power of governance and best practices we have been considering as the mode through which neoliberal rationality is disseminated. As William Engdahl notes, the orders had the shape of “do it or die.” But what we will seen close inspection is the importance of law in codifying and disseminating best practices, on the one side, and the role of best practices in generating law and policy, on the other. The orders emanated from neoliberal understanding of best practices and set them in motion. Law can be mobilized to structure competition and facilitate capital accumulation, but also to codify and animate best practices in lieu of violence or commands. Close inspection of one Bremer order vividly illustrates this concatenation of effects.

Bremer Order 81, the “Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law,” includes a prohibition against “the re-use of crop seeds of protected varieties.” Why a law against seed saving and reuse? The protected varieties named in the order refer to genetically modified seed produced by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and other agribusiness giants, and at first blush, the prohibition seems mainly designed to protect the intellectual property rights of these firms – farmers cannot just buy the seed once and then pirate its offspring: ruthless, perhaps, but hardly unethical or at least, uncommon. And hardly relevant to best practices. However, the story only begins with the letter of the law.

Monsanto and other large seed corporations are selling a package around the world that is transforming agriculture: the package includes patented, genetically modified seed and the fertilizers and pesticides that go with it. With the promise of a giant crop yield and an end to struggling with pests, the agribusiness giants aim to convert farers across the developing world from “traditional” to “modern” techniques, materials, and markets.

Since at least 8000 B.C. Iraqi farmers have successfully grown wheat without this package in what is know to this day as the Fertile Crescent. Over the centuries, farmers cultivated the range of varieties essential to crop sustainability by saving seeds from thriving wheat plants one year and planting and cross-pollinating them with seeds of different strengths the following year. By using such practices, the crop continually improves and diversifies, partly through selection by experienced farmers, partly through plant evolution, partly through open pollination conducted by winds, insects and animals. As late as 2002, writes ecologist Jeremy Smith, the Federal Accounting Office ‘estimated that 97 percent of Iraqi farmers” engaged in these practices, with the consequence “that there are now over 200,000 known varieties of wheat in the world.

For millennia, Fertile Crescent farmers informally shred and traded seeds at harvest and planting time. In the twentieth century, they shifted to storing and retrieving seed from a national seed bank, located, alas, in Abu Ghraib, where the entire bank vanished after the bombings and occupation. This calamity, following war and episodes of drought since 12991 and combined with the embargo by the United States and United Kingdom that limited access to agricultural equipment, caused Iraqi wheat production to drop dramatically and become unable to sustain the population for the first time in centuries. The production crisis opened the door for the agri-business to move in: the seed bank destroyed, the harvest yield dramatically down due to natural disaster and years of war, Iraqi farmers were vulnerable, desperate and exploitable. They needed seed and agri-business-backed relief efforts were there to provide it. Bremer Order 81 sealed the farmer’s permanent dependence on the agri-business giants.

The U.S. government handout of genetically modified seed in 2004 was like offering heroin to a desperate single mother out of a job, facing eviction, and despairing of the future. Not only did it promise relief, but the first bag was free. It permanently attached the recipient to the supplier, and the addiction was deadly – to sustainable Iraqi farming, Iraqi self-sufficiency, and even the farmers themselves.

As the ink dried on the Bremer Orders, the U.S. Agency for International Development began delivering thousands of tons of wheat seed to the Iraq Agricultural Ministry, which distributed it at little or no cost to Iraqi farmers. An Arizona agriresearch firm, the World Wide Wheat Company, provided thousands more bags of free seed. These donations were combined with demonstration plots, run by Texas A&M for USAID and aimed at teaching Iraqi farmers how to grow the new high-yield crops. Thousands of farmers were lured into the new agricultural techniques, which also required the use of specialized fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Free seed, the promise of soaring production levels, and their teachers’ insistence that the uniform crops and accompanying chemicals represented modernity, wealth, and the future – together , these transformed centuries of Iraqi agriculture overnight. Bremer Order 81 secured that transformation. Prohibited from saving seeds of protected varieties, Iraqi famers are now permanently bound to their foreign dealers, whose seed is ubiquitous in their fields, intermixed with all the heritage seed. Organic, diversified, low-cost, ecologically sustainable wheat production in Iraq is finished.

Half the wheat seeds distributed in post-Saddam Iraq were for bread wheat; the other half was for pasta wheat, and pasty a is no part of the the Iraqi die. Thus, in addition to making Iraqi farmers dependent on giant corporations whose seeds, licensing, and chemicals they must now purchase annually (and for which state subsidies are available, while other farm subsidies have been eliminated), they were being transformed from multi-crop local food providers into monocrop participants in global; import-export markets. Today, Iraqi farmers generate profits for Monsanto by supplying pasta to Texas school cafeterias, while Iraq has become an importer of staples formerly grown on its own soil.

There is more to this heartbreaking story of the destruction of thousands of years of sustainable agriculture and of what some activists call “food sovereignty,” but let us fast-forward to one possible future. A similar experiment took place in India in the 1990s. Tens of thousands of farmers were lured into using genetically modified cotton seed by village-to village agribusiness representatives promising bigger crops with export potential, something especially important at a time when neoliberal reforms were eliminating government price supports and subsidies for cotton production. Farmers were abetted  in the transition by the availability of large bank loans to purchase seed and the needed pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Like the Iraqis, Indian cotton farmers were not only adopting new agricultural technologies, but becoming fully integrated into world markets and debt finance.

The problem is that farming in general is uniquely vulnerable to fluctuations in nature, such as draughts and floods, and farming for export is also vulnerable to fluctuations in world markets. One bad year with either can leave debt-burdened farmers without the means to repay loans, which means bad credit, which means the inability to borrow more (or borrowing at scandalous rates), which means the inability to plant and thus recoup losses. This is what happened in India a decade ago, pushing cotton farmers into an ever-deepening hole of debt. The result? An epidemic of farmer suicides (at least twenty thousand at this point), often committed by drinking a bottle of RoundUp, the Monsanto-produced herbicide that kills everything except Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.

An improved investment climate in Iraq, its integration into world trade, elimination of its nontransparent state ownership and planning in favor of private enterprise – these are the “outcomes” that Bremer Order 81 aims to achieve. What Nancy Scola calls the “legal tweak” that effectively ended seed saving was the reform required to bring them about. Casting itself, at the same time, as the opposite of regulation, this order launched the practices that would integrate Iraqi farming and farmers into the global order, an integration achieved by eliminating, on the other hand, nonmonetary trade, local sourcing , and traditional techniques and by generating, on the other, dependence on foreign corporations, on fertilizers and pesticides, on debt financing, and on global export and import markets. The legal tweak instigates these best practices but, like the Protestant Ethic Weber deemed crucial to inaugurating capitalism, its importance falls away once the machinery is in motion. Thus, Order 81, epitomizes the neoliberal mobilization of law not to repress punish, but to structure competition and effect “the conduct of conduct.” It alters one tiny practice (seed saving) to inaugurate the convergent purposes of Iraqi economic growth, protection of corporate intellectual property, and Iraqi participation in world trade and finance.

Visible in the story of Order 81 is the specific meshing of state and business aims through neo-liberal governance, a meshing that exceeds the interlocking directorates or quid pro quo arrangements familiar from past iteratons of capitalism. The project of the state is to facilitate economic growth, not the well-being of a particular sector or people, and the project of capital is to generate such growth, though now, under neo-liberalism, business devotes itself to local development ( ‘privatization’)as government devotes itself to global positioning; governments negotiate contracts as firms become educators; the government concerns itself with the investment climate,(protecting intellectual property, providing tax shelters and subsidies and a deregulated environment); business become ‘ethical actors’ [‘’points of light’], supposedly representing the interests of the needy or underserved.

Order 81 is reputed to have been drafted by Monsanto and emerges  from the Bush Administration’s close ties to agribusinesses (and the extensive presence in the Bush cabinet of those ties), yet these facts are almost beside the point. The orders expressed and executed Bremer’s purpose in Iraq, which was not to democratize it, but to neoliberalize it.  In this regard, even more significant than Monsanto’s direct influence is that the orders fostering deregulation, privatization and the structuring of competition preceded the building of democratic institutions; orders first, then constitutions, parliaments, councils, elections and civil liberties. It is also noteworthy that the provisional government authorizing them, whose members were handpicked by the Bremer team and subject in all their actions to Bremer’s veto, consisted of only those who supported the U.S. occupation. In turn, this government proposed a process for ratifying the permanent constitution that excluded all parties not supporting the occupation. Again, this could be read as the direct and heavy hand of the United States in making Iraq a playground for international capital and especially for U.S. Corporations, ranging from Haliburton to Monsanto. More important, however, are the ways in which these moves represent distinctive features of neoliberal governance: while states operating on a business model may eschew excessive uses of violence or unconstitutional conduct, they are also not about to enfranchise competing or oppositional interests, cede control or prioritize justice and welfare over investment climate and economic growth.

The Bremer Orders reflect a fundamental shift in state purposes and legitimacy that is more important than the question of precisely which politicians, corporations and banks are in bed with one another. That old model could easily be charged with corruption. Neoliberal governance facilitates a more open-handed and effective  - ‘soft’- fusion of political and economic power, one that largely eliminates the scandal of corruption [ or at least makes it more difficult to detect or prosecute] as it erases differences in goals and governance between states and capital, indeed, as ‘best practices’ circulating between them perform this erasure. . . .

Intensified inequality, crass commodification and commerce, ever growing corporate influence in government, economic havoc and instability – certainly all these are consequences of neoliberal policy, and all are material for loathing and popular protest, as indeed, Occupy Wall Street, the Southern European protests against austerity policies, and earlier, the “Anti-globalization” movement loathed and protested them. However, in this book, neoliberalism is formulated somewhat differently and focuses on different deleterious effects. In contrast with the understanding of neoliberalism as a set of state policies, a phase of capitalism, or an ideology that set loose the market tp restore profitability for a capitalist class, I join  Michael Foucault and others in conceiving neoliberalism as an order of normative reason that, when it become ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life.

This governing rationality involves what Koray Caliskan and Michel Callon term the “economization” of hithertofore noneconomic spheres and practices, a process of remaking the knowledge, form, content, and conduct appropriate to these spheres and practices. Importantly, such economization may not always involve monetization. That is, we may think and act like contemporary market subjects where monetary wealth generation is not the immediate issue, for example, in approaching one’s education, health, fitness, family life, or neighborhood. To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism is thus not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketizes all spheres, even as such marketization is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities –even where money is not the issue – and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus.

[e.g. ‘What do you buy into?’ ‘What are you selling?’]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Limonov in Prison by Emmanuel Carrere

He stays in Lefortovo for fifteen months, subject to a regime of strict isolation. Then, in a government Antonov aircraft, accompanied by a police escort so impressive it’s as if he were Carlos the Jackal or maybe the Baader-Meinof  Gang rolled into one, he’s transferred to Saratov, on the Volga, where he’s to be tried. Why Saratov? Because it’s the Russian jurisdiction closest to Kazakhstan, where he is supposed to have committed the crimes he’s accused of. What crimes exactly? It’s impossible to be ignorant of your crimes at Saratov, where on every possible occasion you not only have to state your last name, first name, and patronymic but also the articles of the criminal code that you’re imprisoned for having violated. As soon as he arrives, Eduard learns to reel off in quick succession the mantra that even today springs to his lips when he’s woken up with a start: “Savenko, Eduard Venyaminovich , Articles 205, 208, 222 paragraph 3, 280!

To explain: 205 is terrorism; 208, organization of an illegal armed group or participation in one; 222 paragraph 3, illicit acquisition, transport, sale, or storage of firearms; and 280, incitement to extremist activities.

When the investigating judge cites the charges and the heavy sentences they bear during the first hearing, Eduard is torn between pride in being accused of such serious stuff and the vital interest he has in exonerating himself. On the one hand, it’s not easy for him to admit to himself that a half dozen muddlers roughing it in a log cabin in the Altai sixty miles from the Kazakh border, with no arms other than a couple of hunting rifles, had as little chance of destabilizing Kazakhstan as they did of sparking a nuclear war. On the other hand, if he doesn’t want to get locked away for twenty years as a terrorist, he has no choice but to pass himself off as a bungling fool. The judge, however, seems ill-disposed to listen to his arguments and holds to the version presented by the FSB, according to which he and his six accomplices constitute a serious menace to the country’s security.

To top it all off, the FSB’s version is graphically illustrated by a TV film aired by Channel One Russia just as he arrives at Saratov. While he was in prison, 9/11 happened, and you can sense it: the film presents the National Bolshevik Party as a branch of Al-Qaeda, the hut in Altei as a secret camp training hundreds of fanatic fighters – which was in fact his dream and which, as he knows, is a far cry from reality. Everyone in the prison has seen The Ghost Hunt (the name of the film), everyone knows that Eduard’s a hero, and everyone starts calling him “bin Laden” – which is of course flattering, but also dangerous.

Saratov is the opposite of Lefortovo: there the risk isn’t isolation but overcrowding. Although the cells are built for four, often seven or eight inmates crammed into them. When Eduard enters his for the first time, all the beds are occupied. Without protesting, he rolls out his mattress on the ground; it seems right that the last to arrive should be the most uncomfortable. This humility is surprising, and it works to his advantage. He was preceded by his reputation as an intellectual, a political prisoner, and a celebrity, three reasons for his fellow inmates to consider him a pretentious pain in the ass; three reasons things might not work out for him. But he shows right away that he’s a simple, straightforward guy who wants nothing more than to sidet spokoino, that is, to wait things out without making waves, without shooting his mouth off and without getting himself or anybody else into trouble. And everyone appreciates the wisdom of an experienced prisoner; at the same time, everyone senses that he’s a tough nut under his placid air. He’s not the kind of guy who stupidly asks, “Can I help” when he sees someone cooking or repairing something; instead, he figures out what has to be done and does it. He avoids useless words and gestures, doesn’t shirk chores, shares with everyone when he gets a package, and respects the unwritten rules that govern life in the prison without them having to be explained. Which isn’t to say he takes courtesy to extremes either; he imposes his own way of seeing and doing things with calm authority. Initially, the other inmates are a bit surprised when he refuses to play cards or chess because he thinks they’re a waste of time, and instead spends this time reading or writing on his cot. But they quickly see it’s got nothing to do with snobbery: that’s just the way he is, and it doesn’t stop him from readily lending a hand when someone needs help writing a letter to his girlfriend or even completing a crossword puzzle. It only takes a week for everyone to reach the same conclusion: he’s a good guy.

His cellmates are ordinary criminals, condemned to long sentences for serious crimes. Most of them have been charged under Article 105, paragraph 2: murder with aggravating circumstances – and, having always respected gangsters, he’s proud now to have commanded their respect. Proud that they consider his party not a pack of young idealists but a gang (“You’ve got seven thousand men? Holy Shit!”; proud that they call him – if not bin Laden – “Limon the boss”; and proud above all that a godfather asked him one day, discretely, the way you’d let a man know that there’s nothing stopping him from becoming a member of the Academie francaise, if he’d like to be welcomed into the brotherhood of the vory v zakone, the thieves of the law, that aristocracy of the underworld that had been the source of so many of his adolescent dreams. All this impresses me without surprising me; it’s Eduard through and through. What surprises me more, and proves Olga Matitch right*, is that in the three books on his time in prison he writes far less about himself than about others. Eduard, the narcissist, the egotist, forgets himself, forgets to pose, becomes sincerely interested in how his cellmates ended up where they did.

One of the prisoners he gets along with best is a guy named Pasha Rybkin. At thirty, this colossus with a shaved heads has already spent ten years in prison, and, as Eduard charmingly sums it up, he “is surrounded by crimes the way forest dwellers are surrounded by trees.” That doesn’t prevent him from being a peaceful man, always in a good mood, half Russian holy fool, half Asian ascetic. Summer and winter, even when the temperature in his cell drops below zero, he walks around in shorts and flip-flops, he doesn’t eat meat, he drinks hot water (not tea) and he does impressive yoga poses. It’s not a very well known fact, but a huge number of people from all walks of life do yoga in Russia, even more than in California. Pasha very quickly recognizes a wise man in “Eduard Venyaminovich.” ”They don’t make people like you anymore,” he assures him. “At least I’ve never met any.” And he teaches him to meditate.

People make a big thing of it if they’ve never tried it, but it’s extremely simple. In fact you can teach yourself in five minutes. You sit down cross-legged, as straight as possible, stretch your spine from the tailbone to the back of the head, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing. Inhale, exhale. That’s all. The difficult thing is precisely that that’s all there is to it. The difficult thing is to do nothing else. When you start out you overdo it and try to chase the thoughts away. Very quickly you see that that doesn’t chase them away, but if you watch your thoughts on their carousel as it turns, bit by bit you’re carried along with it less and less. Your breathing slows. The idea is to observe it without modifying it, and that too is extremely difficult, almost impossible, but with practice you progress a little, and a little is enormous. You catch a glimpse of a calm, zone. If you’re not calm for one reason or another, if your mind is racing, no problem: you observe your agitation, or your boredom, or your desire to move, and as you observe them you put them at a distance, you’re a little less held hostage by them.

I’ve been doing this exercise for years. I don’t talk about it because I feel uncomfortable with its new-age valence, let’s be Zen and all that stuff, but it’s so effective and it does you sop much good that I have a hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t do it...

In any event, as soon as the good, wise gangster Pasha Rybkin explained to him how it worked, Eduard, with his customary pragmatism, immediately saw its utility and fit spells of meditation into his rigorous schedule. At first he sits in lotus position on his cot, with his eyes closed, but once he’s gotten the hang of it he discovers he can do it anywhere, discretely, without having to adopt this somewhat showy posture that advertising campaigns- whether for mineral water or for insurance policies – have abused so badly. Through various double doors, metal cages, and paddy wagons that punctuate the prisoner’s journey from his cell to the office of the investigating judge, amid the barking of police dogs, the suffocating odor of piss, and the morning cures of the security guards, he learns to retreat within himself and reach a zone where he’s calm, beyond reach. Again, if there’s one person I’d never have imagined giving himself up to this practice, it’s Eduard. . .

How to tell what I have to tell now? You can’t. There are no words to describe it. If you haven’t experienced it you don’t have the first idea, and I haven’t experienced it. Apart from Eduard I only know one other person who has. That’s my best friend Herve Clerc. He recounts the experience in a book that’s also an essay on Buddhism, called Les choses comme elles sont ( Things as They Are). I prefer his words to Eduard’s, but it’s Eduard’s experience that I’ve got to write about here. Let’s give it a go.

He remembers very well the moment that preceded it. An ordinary moment, like the ones that make up ordinary time. He’s busy cleaning the aquarium in the office of a senior official. All the offices of senior prison officials have aquariums in them. Do they all like fish? And if they don’t, could they ask to have the aquariums removed? Most likely they don’t think about it. As far as he’s concerned, Eduard likes cleaning aquariums, it’s more fun than cleaning toilets, and not as dirty. He’s transferred the fish to a bucket with a net, removed the water pail by pail, and now the tank is empty and he’s scrubbing the sides with a sponge. As he gives himself over to this task, he’s focused on his breathing. He’s calm, concentrated, attentive to what he’s doing and feeling. He’s not expecting anything in particular.

And then without warning everything stops: time, space – but it’s not death. Nothing around him has changed in any way – not the aquarium, not the fish in their bucket, not the office, not the sky outside the window – but it’s as if all of that was just a dream and only now has it become absolutely real. Raised to the second power, revealed, and at the same time erased. He’s sucked into a voids that is fuller than all that is fill in this world with its presence. He’s no longer anywhere and he’s totally there. He no longer exists and he’s never been as alive as he is now. There’s nothing, there’s everything.

You could call it a trance, a rapture, a mystical experience. My friend Herve says its an abduction.

I’d like to go on longer about this, in more detail and more convincingly, but I see that all I can do is string together oxymorons. A dark brightness, a full emptiness, a still vibration, I could prattle on for awhile without either the reader or myself getting any further along. What I can say, bringing together their experiences and their words, is that Eduard and Herve know with absolute certainty that they have, the one in his Parisian apartment thirty years ago, the other at Penal Colony 13 in Engels, in the office of a prison official whose aquarium he is cleaning, attained what the Buddhist call nirvana. Pure, unfiltered reality. Sure, from the outside we can always object: okay, but what proves to you that it wasn’t a hallucination? An illusion? A sham? Nothing, apart from the most essential thing: namely that when you’ve been there you know it’s for real, that that darkness and that light can’t be imitated.

They say something else too: that when you’re taken, carried away, lifted to that place, you feel, to the extent that there’s styli someone there to feel, something like immense relief. Gone is the desire, the anxiety that are at the basis of  human life. They’ll return, of course, because unless you are one of the illuminated – and according to the Hindus there’s only one every century – you can’t remain in this state. But you’ve had a taste of what life is like without them, you know first hand what it means to be in the clear.

Then you come back down. In a flash you’ve experienced the entire duration of the world and its abolition, and then you fall back into time. You return to the old yoke of desire and anxiety. You wonder, What am I doing here? After that you can spend, like Herve, the next thirty years thoughtfully digesting this incomparable experience. Or, like Eduard, you can go back to your barracks, lie down on your bunk, and write in your notebook: “I was expecting that of myself. No punishment can reach me; I’ll know how to transform it into bliss. Someone like me can even find pleasure in death. I’ll never return to the emotions of ordinary men.”

                       .   .   .   .   .   .

One day in September 2007, we went out into the country together. I though it was for a meeting, but in fact it was to have a look at a dacha situated a couple of hours outside Moscow that his wife of the time, the pretty actress, had just bought. Actually it was much more than a dacha: what’s called an usadba, a veritable manor. There was a pond, meadows, a birch forest. Abandoned and vandalized, the old wooden house was immense. It must have been magnificent once, and if it were renovated it would be magnificent once more, and that’s why he’d come. As soon as he arrived he started talking with a local craftsman, the way someone who’s done manual labor himself knows how to talk to a contractor and not get ripped off. I wandered away while they were talking, strolling through the gardens overgrown with tall weeds, and when, coming to the end of a bridle path, I saw his little black silhouette from a distance, gesticulating in a pool of sunshine, his goatee unkempt, I thought: he’s sixty-five, he’s got and adorable wife, an eight-month-old child. Maybe he’s had enough of war, of bivouacs, of the knife in his boot, of police breaking down his door at dawn, of prison bunks. To come and settle here, in the countryside, in this beautiful house, like the landed gentry of the old regime. That’s what I’d have wanted, in his place. That’s what I do want. It’s exactly the old age that I wish for Helene and myself. There would be big bookshelves, deep couches, the shouts of our grandchildren outside, berry jam, long conversations in Chaise longues. The shadows grow longer, death approaches softly. Life was good because we loved each other. Maybe that’s not how is going to end, but if it were up to me that’s how it would.

Coming back, I ask him: “You see yourself getting old in this house, Eduard? Ending your days like one of Turgenev’s heroes?”

That makes him laugh, but not with his dry little laugh this time: heartily. No, that’s not how he sees things. Really. Retirement, a life of calm, that’s not for him. He’s got another idea for his old age.

“You know Central Asia”

No, I don’t know, I’ve never been there. But I saw photos of it when I was very young, taken by my mother when she went on that long trip during which my father looked after me with an awkward tenderness – in those days fathers weren’t used to taking care of little kids. Those photos weighed on me, and made me dream. For me they represented the remotest places on earth.

It’s in Central Asia, Eduard goes on, that he feels best. In cities like Samarkand or Bukhara. Cities parched in the sun; dusty, slow, violent. In the shadow of the mosques, over there, under the high crenellated walls, there are beggars. Whole groups of beggars, gaunt, tanned old men without teeth, often without eyes. They wear tunics and turbans that are black with dirty; they place a scrap of velvet before them and wait for someone to throw a few small coins. And if someone does they don’t even say thank you. You don’t know what their lives were before; you know they’ll end up in a communal grave. They’re ageless, thy don’t have any possessions any longer –assuming they ever did- they hardly even have names. They’re castoffs. They’re wrecks. They’re kings.

That, okay, he’d be fine with that.

 *( “God knows I’ve met writers, and above all Russian writers. I’ve me them all. And the only really good man among them is Limonov. Really, he’s one of the most decent men I’ve  met in my life.")

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shock Therapy by Emmanuel Carrere

Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain.
Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.
- Vladimir Putin

Aware of his ignorance in economic matters, Yeltsin pulled a young prodigy named Yegor Gaidar out of his hat. A descendant of the high Communist nomenklature, Gaidar professed an absolute faith in liberalism. As David Remnick nicely sums up in Resurrection, the book that follows his memorable Lenin’s Tomb, and to which I owe many insights into this era, no theoretician of the Chicago School, no adviser to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher believed in the virtues of the market as fervently as Yegor Gaidar. Russia had never anything remotely like a market, the challenge was enormous. Yeltsin and Gaidar thought it was essential to act quickly, very quickly, to force their ideas through and catch the reactionary forces that had gottent he better of all Russian reformers since Peter the Great off guard. They baptized their remedy “shock therapy,” and as far as shocks go, this one was quite a jolt.

First of all, prices were liberalized, which provoked inflation of 2,600 percent and rendered completely useless the parallel ‘voucher privatization’ initiative. On September 1, 1992, vouchers valued at ten thousand rubles were sent by main to all Russian citizens over a year old; these vouchers represented each citizen’s share in the national wealth. After seventy years during which in theory no one was allowed to work for him – or herself but only for the collectivity, the idea was to involve people as investors and foster the development of businesses and private property – in short, of the free market. Because of inflation, unfortunately, by the time these vouchers arrived, they were already worthless. Their beneficiaries discovered that, at most, they could purchase a bottle of vodka with them. So they resold them en masse to some cunning individuals who offered them, let’s say, the value of a bottle and a half.

Theses cunning  individuals, who would become billionaires in just a few months, were named Boris Berezovsky, Vladamire  Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There were others, but to go easy on my readers I’ll just ask them to remember these three names: Berezovski, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky. The three little pigs who, as in those penniless theater troupes with more roles than actors to play them, will represent or the purposes of this book all those known as the oligarchs. They were young, intelligent, energetic, and not dishonest by nature; but they had grown up in a world where it was forbidden to do the very thing they were gifted at – business- and then overnight they were told, “All right, go to it.” With no rules, no laws, no banking system, no taxation. As Yulian Semyonov’s young bodyguard had predicted with delight, it was the Wild West.

For someone who returned every two or three months as Eduard did between trips to the Balkans, the speed with which Moscow changed was hallucinating. The drab Soviet monotony had been though eternal, and now, on the streets that had been named after great Bolsheviks and when again went by the names they’d had before the Revolution, the neon signs were as densely packed as in Las Vegas. There were traffic jams and, besides the old Ladas, black Mercedes with tinted windows. Everything foreign visitors used to cram into their suitcases with to please their deprived Russian friends – jeans, CDs, cosmetics, toilet paper – was now readily available. No sooner had people gotten used to the appearance of a McDonald’s on Pushkinskaya Square than a trendy disco opened next door. Before, restaurants had been immense, dismal places. Headwaiters who looked like surely clerks brought you fifteen=page menus, and no matter what you ordered there wasn’t any more of it – in fact there was only one dish, usually revolting. Now the lights were subdued, the waitresses pretty and smiling, you could get Kobe beef and  oysters flown in that day from the coast of Brittany. The “new Russian” entered contemporary mythology, with his bags of cash, harems of gorgeous girls, his brutality, and his boorishness. A joke from those days runs: two young businessmen notice they’re wearing the same suit. “I paid five thousand dollars for it in Paris,” one says. “It that a fact,” the other trumps: “I got mine for ten thousand!”

While a million crafty people started to enrich themselves frenetically thanks to the “shock therapy,” 150 million less quick off the mark were plunged into misery. Prices kept climbing, while salaries stayed put. An ex-KGB officer like Limonov’s father could hardly buy two pounds of sausage with his monthly pension. A higher-ranking officer who’d started his career in the intelligence service in Dresden, East Germany, and who’d been hastily repatriated because East Germany no longer existed, found himself without a job or a place to live. Reduced to working as a black-market cab driver in his hometown of Leningrad, he cursed the “new Russians” as bitterly as Limonov. This particular officer isn’t a statistical abstraction. His name is Vladimir Putin, he’s forty years old, like Limonov he thinks that the end of the Soviet empire is the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century, and he will be called upon to play a role of no small importance.

The life expectancy for a Russian man dropped from sixty-five in 1987 to fifty-eight in 1993. The lines of desolate people waiting in front of empty shops were replaced by old people walking up and down in underground passageways trying to hawk the few possessions they has. Anything they could sell to survive, they sold. If you were a poor retiree, it was two pounds of pickles, a tea cozy, or old issues of Krokodil, the pathetic “satirical”: magazine of the Brezhnev years. If you were an army general, it might be tanks or planes; some fraudulently set up private companies that sold military aircraft and pocketed the profits themselves. If you were a judge, you sold your verdicts. A police officer, your tolerance. A bureaucrat, your stamp od approval. A veteran of the Afghan wars, your ability to kill. A murder contract was negotiated at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars. Fifty bankers were shot dead in Moscow in 1994. As for the wheeler-dealer Semyonov, by that time barely half his gang were still alive and he himself was dead and buried.

The big players slaughtered one another for control of industrial companies or mineral deposits, the small fry for kiosks or market stalls, and even the smallest kiosk or stall needed a “roof”: that’s what the countless security providers – all more or less protection rackets because they shot you if you refused their services – were called. The holding companies of oligarchs like Gusinsky or Berezovsjky employed veritable armies, commanded by high-level KGB officers who’d privatized their talents. Moving down a rung, the protection services no businessperson could do without recruited from the Georgian, Chechen, or Azeri mafias, and from among the police, which had become just one mafia among many.

To justify the collectivization, the famine, the purges, and, in a general way, the unassailable fact that the “enemies of the people” were the people themselves, the Bolsheviks liked to say that when you chop wood, chips fly, the Russian version of saying  you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The free market replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the horizon of a radiant future, but the same proverb still served the chefs of “shock therapy” and all those close enough to power  to get a bite of the omelet. The difference now is that those who see themselves as broken eggs are no longer afraid of being sent to Siberia, and they speak out. Moscow is the scene of numerous demonstrations by retirees reduced to begging on the street, unpaid soldiers, nationalists maddened by the liquidation of the empire, Communists who mourn the days when everyone was poor but equal, and people who are disorientated because they no longer understood their own history. And it’s understandable: how to know what’s right or wrong, who are the heroes and who the traitors, when you keep celebrating the October Revolution year after year, repeating all the while that this revolution was both a crime and a catastrophe?

Eduard Limonov doesn’t miss a single one of these demonstrations when he’s in Moscow. Recognized by the people who read his articles in Dyen, he’s often congratulated, kissed, and blessed: with people like him, Russia is not lost. Once, invited by his comrade Alksnis, he gets up on the platform where the leaders of the opposition are speaking one after the other, and takes the megaphone. He says that the supposed “democrats” are profiteers who’ve betrayed the blood shed by their fathers during the Great Patriotic War. That the people have suffered more in one year of supposed “democracy” than in seventy years of communism. That anger is brewing and people should prepare for civil war. This speech differs little from the others, but after each sentence the immense crowd applauds. The words come naturally to him, and they express what everyone feels. Waves of approval, gratitude, and love wash over him. It’s what he dreamed of when he was poor and desperately alone in his room at the Embassy Hotel in New York, and his dream has come true. As when he was mixed up in war in the Balkans, he feels good. Calm, powerful, borne aloft by like-minded individuals: right where he belongs.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer

Throughout this book we have documented how the wellness command seeps into all aspects of our lives, at all times. It transforms every conceivable activity, including eating, meditating and even sleeping, into an opportunity to optimize pleasure and become more productive.

And yet, as we have demonstrated in the course of this book, the more we concentrate on maximizing our wellness, the more alienated and frustrated we often seem to become. The frantic search for the perfect diet; the paranoid pursuit of happiness; the forced workplace work-out; the endless life coaching sessions; the detailed tracking of our bodily functions; turning your entire day into a game – these desperate attempts to increase productivity through wellness create their own problems. The encourage an infectious narcissism which pushes us to take the great turn inwards, making our body into our first and last concern. They generate a creeping sense of anxiety that comes with the ever present responsibility of monitoring every lifestyle choice. They feed a sense of guilt that comes from the inevitable slip-ups when we don’t follow our diet or fail to live up to our life goals. People whose life have been seized by wellness are not just healthier, happier and more productive. They are also narcissistic, anxious and guilty. They are the victims of the wellness syndrome.

Biomorality does not just inflict its enthusiasts with personal pathologies; it reshaped how they engage with others. Those who don’t live up to the high standards of wellness are looked at with disgust. And as this vitriolic language becomes common in the public sphere, the possibility of reasoned debate fades. As authorities lose faith in structural reforms, they become more interested in small-scale behavioral interventions. In place of politics, we are left with corporeal babble and increasingly invasive lifestyle tweaks. As a result, we abandon political demands. The just redistribution of material resources (through ‘social welfare’), the recognition of previously maligned identities ( through ‘identity politics’) and the representation of political voices ( through ‘democratization’) have now become replaced by a new ambition: personal rehabilitation. Here, the unemployed are not provided an income; they get life coaching. Discriminated groups don’t get opportunities to celebrate their identities; they get an exercise plan. Citizens don’t get an opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives; they get a mindfulness session. Meanwhile, inequality, discrimination and authoritarianism become seen as questions to grand to tackle head-on. Instead, political ambitions become myopically focused on boosting our wellbeing.

This concern with rehabilitating our health and happiness has not gone unchallenged. It has sparked new forms of what Peter Fleming calls ‘post-recognitional politics’.* These are political movements that challenge authority by checking out. The ill take to their bed, fat acceptors get rid of their bathroom scales and barebackers avoid testing their HIV status. Each try to create a new way of experiencing the world unencumbered by the wellness command. This mighty open up new spaces of respite, but in doing so these anti-biomoral militants are often becoming even more tightly tied to their bodily obsessions.

The fate of these escape attempts remind us that finding a way out of the wellness syndrome is not easy. But a start would be to stop obsessively listening to our bodies, to give up fixations with our own health and happiness and to abandon the illusion of limitless human potential. Instead we could forget about our bodies for a moment, stop chasing after happiness and realize that, as human beings, we are not just defined by our potential to be healthy and happy. Wellness is not always our lot.

To escape the clutches of wellness, we might recognizer that as human beings, we are not defined exclusively by our potentials, but also by our impotence. And this to be ashamed of. Accepting our impotence allows us to see that we will always come up short in one way or another. What makes most important things in life worthwhile is the inevitable failures and pain they entail. Truth often makes us miserable. Political action may involve direct threats and danger. Beauty is often soaked in sorrow. Love usually tears us apart. They may hurt, but not more than they are worthy….

Instead of forever dwelling on our own health or sickness, we might do better to look at and act upon the sickness of the world.

Peter Fleming, Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and It’s Discontents, (Temple University Press, 2014)