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 dirt; 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, they 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)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

The ‘government of anybody and everybody’ is bound to attract the hatred of all those who are entitled to govern men by their birth, wealth or science. Today it is bound to attract this hatred more radically than ever, since the social power of wealth no longer tolerates any restrictions on its limitless growth, and each day its mechanisms become more closely articulated to those of State action. The pseudo-European Constitution testifies to this. State power and the power of wealth tendentially unite in a sole expert management of monetary and population flows. Together they combine their efforts to reduce the spaces of politics. But reducing these spaces, effacing the intolerable and indispensable foundation of the political in the ‘government of anybody and everybody’, means opening up another battlefield. It means witnessing the resurgence of a new radicalized figure of the power of birth and kinship. No longer the power of former monarchists and aristocrats, but that of the peoples of God.

This power may openly assert itself in the terror practiced by a radical Islam against Democracy identified with States of oligarchic law. It may also bolster the oligarchic State at war with this terror in the name of a democracy assimilated, by American evangelists, to the liberty of fathers obeying the commandments of the Bible and armed for the protection of their property. In France, it can be invoked against democratic perversion to safeguard the principle of kinship, a principle that some leave in an indeterminate generality, but others unceremoniously identify with the law of the people instructed by Moses in the word of God.

Destruction of democracy in the name of the Quran;  bellicose expansion of democracy identified with the implementation of the Decalogue; hatred of democracy assimilated to the murder of the divine pastor – all these contemporary figure have at least one merit. Through the hatred they manifest against democracy, and in its name, and through amalgamations to which they subject its notion, they oblige us to rediscover the singular power that is specific to it.

Democracy is neither a form of government that enables oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities. It is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments, and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. It is the power that, today more than ever, has to struggle against the confusion of these powers, rolled into one and the same law of domination. Rediscovering the singularity of democracy means also being aware of its solitude. Demands for democracy were for a long time carried or concealed by the idea of a new society, the elements of which were allegedly being formed in the very heart of contemporary society. That is what ‘socialism’ designated: a vision of history according to which the capitalist forms of production and exchange constituted the material conditions for an egalitarian society and its worldwide expansion. It is this vision that even today sustains the hope of a communism or a democracy of the multitude: the notion that the increasingly immaterial forms of capitalist production concentrated in the universe of communication are, from this moment on, to have formed a nomadic population of ‘producers’ of a new type; to have constituted a collective intelligence, a collective power of thought, affects and movements of bodies that is liable to explode apart the barriers of the Empire. Understanding what democracy means is to renounce this faith.

The collective intelligence produced by a system of domination is only ever the intelligence of that system. Unequal society does not carry any equal society in its womb. Rather, egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced here and now through singular and precarious acts. Democracy is as bare in its relation to the power of wealth as it is to the power of kinship that today comes to assist and to rival it. It is not based on any nature of things nor guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not born along by any historical necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.

Her Arabic Education by Rahib Alameddine

I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic – not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I’d studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I’d studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as al-Mutanabbi or, heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teacher indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.

 I’d reads the Quran and memorized large hunks of it, but all that studying didn’t introduce me to the language’s magic – forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.

I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher – a wide, bespectacled stutterer – would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed. She had it all committed to memory, and when she recited, her eyes glowed, her scarf-covered head swayed on a shaky neck, and he pointed stick twirled before her. In the first row we covered our eyes whenever the pointer came too close – to this day, when I sit in the front seat of a care during a rainstorm, I’m afraid the windshield’s wipers might poke my eye. The teacher’s stick may have appeared dangerous, but it was not what she beat us with. If we made a mistake in reciting, if a girl forgot a word or had trouble recalling a line, the teacher’s cheeks contracted and glowed, her lips pursed and shrank; she’d ask the child to come to the front and extend her hand, and would mete out punishment using the most innocuous of implements, the blackboard eraser. It hurt as much as any inquisitor’s tool.

As if forced memorization of the Quran – forced memorization of anything – wasn’t punishment enough.

“Listen to the words,” she exhorted, “listen to the wizardry. Hear the rhythm, hear the poetry.”

How could I hear anything when I was either in excruciating pain or fearing I might soon be?

“The language of the Quran is its miracle,” she used to say.

Consider this: In order to elevate the Prophet Moses above all men, God granted him the miracle that would dazzle the people of his era.  In those days, magicians were ubiquitous in Egypt, so all of Moses miracles involved the most imaginative magic: rod into serpent, river into red blood, Red Sea into parting. During the Prophet Jesus’s time, medicine was king. Jesus healed lepers and raised the dead. During our Prophet’s time, poetry was admired, and God gifted Muhammad, an illiterate man, with the miracle of a matchless tongue.

“This is our heritage, our inheritance – this is our magic.”

I didn’t listen then. The teacher frightened faith out of my soul. I didn’t care that the Quran had dozens of of words for various bodies of water, that it used rhythms and rhymes that hadn’t been heard before.

Compared to the Quran’s language and its style, those of the other holy books seemed childish. It is said that after one glance at the Bible, the Marechale de Luxembourg* exclaimed, “The tone is absolutely frightful! What a pity the Holy Spirit had such poor taste!”

No. I might be able to poke fun at the Quran for its childishly imperious content, but not for its style.
It was finally poetry that opened my eyes; poetry, and not the Quran, that seared itself into the back of my brain – poetry, the lapidary. I’m not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry, or more sensuous for that matter.

I recall the [poet who ignited the flame, Antaras, the jet-black warrior poet. I remember the shock of a doomed language being resuscitated.

And I remembered you as spears quenched their thirst
In me and white swords dripped with mu blood
So I longed to kiss the blades that recalled
The gleam of your smiling mouth to my mind.

The again, maybe it was Imru’ al-Qays. He and Antara are my preferred of the seven included in the legendary Suspended Odes*.

But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see
         The lightning?
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid
          The thick gathering clouds.
Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped
         Their wicks in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning
         And the coming storm.

The language – we hear it all the time. News anchors speak classical Arabic, as do some politicians, definitely Arabic teachers, but what sputters out of their mouths sounds odd and displaced compared to our organic Lebanese tongue, our homemade, homegrown dialect. Television and radio announcers sound foreign to my ears. Those early poems, though, they are alchemy, something miraculous. They opened my ears, opened my mind, like flowers in water.

Yet my first translation was not a poem but twenty dull pages. In the school I attended, the sciences were taught in French. Rarely was Arabic used for physics, chemistry, or mathematics in any of the schools of Beirut, whose main curriculum has always been community conformity. It seems that Arabic is not considered a language for logic. A joke that used to make the rounds when I was a child, probably still going strong: the definition of parallel lines in geometry textbooks in Saudi Arabia is two straight lines that never meet unless God in all His glory wills it.

The twenty pages were a curiosity; I wished to see for myself. My first translation sounded odd and displaced as well.

The translations that followed improved, I hope.

By improved I mean that I no longer felt as awkward about writing my name on what I translated as I did in the beginning.

* Suspended Odes: classic, pre-Islamic poetry.