Friday, February 15, 2013

Border Control: Conflict or Symbiosis?

It occurred to me that immigration/border security is an entire domain that I have only touched on lightly and indirectly. This is as good a time as any to go into more detail, particularly with the recent discussions about immigration reform. Obviously, I could tackle this from the perspective of nationalism and xenophobia/racism, as that is certainly an important aspect of the situation. However, I am most interested in some of the contradictions that are entailed by the concept of “border security” and its surrounding activities.

The first contradiction has been fairly well observed and commented on. In theory, capitalism entails a constant circulation of capital, and this includes labor (in essence, human bodies) as a form of capital. Any impediments to the movement of labor in response to market needs would be an infringement on the functioning of the capitalist system. In this way, the assertion of sovereignty in the control of populations appears to run against the grain of the capitalist system (as capitalism always appears to be in conflict with the state). More radically, in its ideological construction, capitalism is premised on the free market, whether that is the market of products, raw materials, or labor. Of course, in reality capitalism has nothing to do with free markets, and historically has necessitated more state involvement and a more rapidly growing concentration of capital among fewer competitors than any other system. Capitalism has limited the freedom of markets more than anything else, and capitalism and the state are not in inherent conflict. In many ways, then, this contradiction is a matter of ideology versus reality.

But not entirely. It is true that the cheap and grueling labor supplied by migrant workers is highly profitable for many industries – especially agriculture in the United States. In fact, many farmers have discovered to their dismay that their labor reserve dried up when the immigrants were chased away. This stems from the fact that, although in many ways symbiotic, capitalists and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state do act independently, and this may result in friction. The basic problem is this: state sovereignty and nationalism often have a life of their own and work toward insular, self-reinforcing ends, even while they are under the control of (and wielded by) capitalist interests. How can this be? I have never heard a satisfactory explanation, and I do not have one myself. However, since control of the movement of people and objects across borders is one of the primary manifestations of state sovereignty, the identity of the state and the very existence of sovereignty itself have come to depend on the acts of defining citizenship and managing immigration.

Or maybe there really is a definite economic interest underlying the expressions of state sovereignty. One very recent development in immigration/border policy is the placement of the whole enterprise within the framework of domestic security and the “War on Terror.” One interesting effect of this rebranding is that it has allowed for the creation of another “parallel military” (in terms of its structure, power, funding, and equipment, the Department of Homeland Security now acts as much like a shadow military as the CIA), as well as a new area for the fusion of the domains of military, intelligence, criminal justice, and industry. The boundaries among these four groups are steadily eroding. The activities of police, FBI, and CBP constantly interlace. Furthermore, the increased securitization of the border control issue is a boon to arms and military equipment manufacturers, who happily peddle their latest products at security conferences.

Could this be a case of certain groups of capitalists becoming empowered and benefiting at the expense of others (those who rely on migrant labor)? In fact, it’s even possible that the manufacturers who profit off of the securitization of borders simultaneously avail themselves of cheap immigrant labor (knowing, perhaps, that border security will never been 100% successful). It’s possible. Capitalism is always contradictory.

One could take the economic argument even further and suggest that all of the money spent on border security is actually another emergence of military Keynesianism. For example, Doug Noland argues that an illusory economic recovery is currently developing by means of a “government finance bubble,” which includes increased government spending on arms and security. What this would mean, if true, is that it is not just certain groups of capitalists who stand to benefit from the expenditures, but the entire system, in the erroneous perception of the dominant classes, or at least those members of dominant groups who have reached the absolutely influential consensus that the financing of border security (and other such activities) will serve all of their interests by protecting the base conditions necessary for the maintenance of the capitalist system.

The bureaucratic processes and nationalist ethos of the state may conflict with the needs of the capitalist class, but they often work seamlessly together. The interests of particular capitalists may conflict with each other, yet capitalists often collaborate to secure their common aims. It is hard to tell which of these situations is reflected in the securitization of our borders.

However, there is a final contradiction that goes right to the heart of the nature of capitalism, and while in many ways more interesting than those outlined above, is a bit more straightforward. Capitalism is an inherently centrifugal system that is completely global in its extent. Yet, it simultaneously requires various sorts of inequality (uneven development), including those of geography that strict border enforcement helps to maintain. The classic example is the simultaneous development of the West and impoverishment of the Third World. To this end, it is interesting to note that securitization makes borders more impermeable to some people while at the same time it eradicates those boundaries for others. People with “medium skin” (as the classification goes) find it more difficult to cross borders without being detained and abused. On the other hand, border enforcement requires cooperation between neighboring states, and in this way securitization entails a much freer flow of officials, equipment, and information across national boundaries. Border patrol officers are able to work on both sides of the line with more ease. Drones and other surveillance technology roam without restriction. And information sharing agreements may soon allow for the unimpeded transfer of biometric and other personal data between states. In essence, a securer border means greater disparities in the ability to cross boundaries. Organizations imbued with authority (corporations, state officials, etc.) more freely transgress borders while people as mere individuals, especially disadvantaged and "medium-skinned" people, are spatially, geographically contained.

The big question, then, is the implications of all of these changes. That, too, is difficult to answer. However, I can’t help but wonder how the military-prison-industrial trinity (involving intelligence and security agencies and the criminal justice system) can continue to grow and cohere into a violent capitalist juggernaut without some sort of very obvious and overtly unpalatable police state emerging.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Drones and the Universal Battlefield

I was very happy this morning when I saw drones on the front pages of the newspapers. Finally, I thought, this is being raised to the level of public discussion. As the day wore on and I read all of the variations of the story, with associated comment threads (yes, I did my actual reading online), my excitement continued, but I also grew irritated by a couple of things. On the positive side, I was happy to see people, including those who have believed that Obama is the answer to all their dreams and aspirations, starting to seriously question some of his choices. Yet, predictably, the debate centered entirely on the subject of the targeted killing of American citizens, and all criticisms of these killings were amply qualified with paeans to the virtues of killing terrorists.

The American Citizen Angle
Obviously it is a breach of domestic law and the Constitution (specifically that part about due process) to assassinate American citizens without a trial or any sort of legal procedure that might justify the act. This is and should be an outrage to those people who believe in the virtues of the modern institution of law. (I, on the other hand, have argued that the modern concept of “law” is a bourgeois institution/ideology/set of practices that create different spheres of actions and different types of citizenship – as such, laws are not made to be followed, and the U.S. has never consistently followed the rules upon which it supposedly is founded; infringements on civil rights have been the norm for the nation’s entire existence.) However, this departure from the Constitution is seen as the extent of the scandal. The targeted killing of non-citizens is not seen as problematic, and I have not seen it raised for discussion.

However, drone strikes, regardless of whom they are directed against, represent a fundamental shift in our notion of the “battlefield.” Up until recently, if one wanted to intervene militarily in another country, one declared war. It was the declaration of war itself that triggered the application of international laws pertaining to Just War. For example, the rationalization of “collateral damage” (which I nevertheless do not believe is in any way "rational") occurred within the context of a declared war, with a specified battlefield in relation to where the combatants were located. It was this official declaration of war that made a “special exception” for the killing of civilians located in a conflict zone. Now there is no declared war. And the “battleground” has been redefined as “anywhere a terrorist moves.” Since “terrorist” itself is a vague word (more on that below), any location on earth can be defined as a battleground, and therefore the “special exceptions” of war have become universally applicable laws. Despite the misleading contentions that drones only kill terrorists, less biased international organizations estimate that the vast majority of victims are innocent civilians. What the drone apologists are arguing is that they have the authority to indiscriminately kill anyone in the world, without any approval or oversight, or any framework of a “war.” This is just as much of an abrogation of previously accepted law as the assassination of American citizens.

The Secrecy Angle (/Killing Terrorists is A-Okay)
One common sentiment that I encountered today went along the lines of:  "Of course, no one would have much of a problem with the U.S. killing terrorists without due process. They just shouldn't be so secretive about it." Yes, it seemed that the main problem was simply the covertness with which the drone program has been carried out. Not the the loss of life or physical destruction or psychological trauma in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The telling thing is that a lot of people are more than willing to give up their sacred laws if terrorists are involved. This is where the problematic definition of "terrorist" comes in.

It has been noted that the U.S. retroactively (and erroneously) identified some drone victims as high-ranking Al Qaeda members in order to justify the killings. Yet, many victims are young and only marginally involved in Al Qaeda, posing no serious threat to the U.S. The problem is that one does not have to possess both the means and the intent to inflict harm on the U.S. institutional apparatus or citizenry to be considered a terrorist. Generally, anyone expressing any views that challenge the U.S. and its vital interests can be labeled as a "threat" - and if they are Muslim, a "terrorist." Of course, one can view this as a freedom of speech issue. But there is a broader issue. All nations are not created equal. The U.S. is a neo-colonial power with substantial influence in pretty much every country, particularly in those areas where "terrorists" reside. Expressing anti-American sentiments must be seen in the context of feeling the domination of the U.S. in a very physical way (poverty, dictatorships, etc.)

It is an established fact that when one group of humans dominates another, the subject populations will resist. It is also an establish fact that the dominating power will label the resistance movement as "terrorists" or some other such pejorative term. For a while, the popular term was "communist." Whether one talks about "terrorists" or "communists" the effect is always the same: the demonization of people resisting domination, and the legitimization of all manner of activities that would in normal circumstances be unpalatable (e.g. killing random people with drones).

Drone attacks should be seen for what they are: another expression of American domination of the Middle East and Africa. That is why they largely increase anti-American sentiments. When drones kill "terrorists" they are not eradicating evil-doers. They are annihilating the resistance to neo-colonialism.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Does Everyone Hate Pacifists?

I’ve noticed that whenever someone makes an anti-war argument, they feel the need to preface it with “I’m not a pacifist, but...” Similarly, if you admit to being a pacifist in the course of a conversation, all further arguments will be immediately dismissed. If you’re lucky, you might get a pat on the head, and you will definitely be told that you are too na├»ve and idealistic. Clearly, you don’t understand how the world “really works” and no one should take you seriously. If your interlocutor is fervent leftist, you may even be met with hostility, for your unwillingness to engage in or support “real revolution.” As a self-identified pacifist, I feel like that is the one aspect of my personal identity that no one feels a need to respect or tolerate.

I keep wondering, why is a principled love of peace so vile to the general public? Why has political realism become such a sacred cow? Violence is vital to the functioning of the global capitalist system, and we are psychologically primed to accept violence from a very young age. Perhaps it is the necessity of violence and the strength of the brainwashing that can account for the widespread aversion to pacifism. What this means, then, is that contrary to popular belief, it is the revolutionaries who have some trouble with reality. They are accepting the ideology of the capitalist system hook, line, and sinker.

This is where pacifists have the upper hand. Institutions do not operate in isolation from each other, but rather function as an integrated whole. As I have already discussed at length in this blog, all modern institutions and associated ideologies arose together as part of the bourgeois transformation of society. A revolution cannot be successful if everything is not attacked together, as one unified package - and this includes the ideology that justifies violence. To put it another way: it is so difficult to escape the world within which one is entrapped, that one often resorts to using the same tools and strategies as the dominating power one is trying to resist. But how can one effectively destroy a power when one is relying upon the foundational institutional and ideological components of that power? If one is to escape, one must completely and absolutely leave behind the Old World Order. It is failure to recognize this fact that always results in the unwitting reconstitution of the very type of society that one is trying to abolish.

So, I would argue that pacifists are able to more radically challenge the system and its ideologies than anyone else. Furthermore, pacifists are more faithful to underlying principles and values – holding them as ultimate ends in themselves and thus not willing to compromise for any other ends. Is it really so terrible if a person is not willing sacrifice their values?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: Humanitarian Imperialism

Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human RIghts to Sell War by Jean Bricmont

This short book is really a persuasive essay targeted at Bricmont's fellow leftist who have abandoned the idealism of their youth (the revolutionary 1960s) and have for decades been advocating humanitarian interventions in other countries. Bricmont, though not writing from a pacifist perspective per se, highlights the weaknesses of the leftist criticisms of the anti-war movement, and explains how interventions ostensibly undertaken to defend human rights in reality always serve to strengthen Western imperialism.

Although I didn't agree with every single line of reasoning used by Bricmont (e.g. faith in international law), as an argument against the pro-militaristic left it is fantastic. Bricmont situates U.S./NATO military campaigns in the context of colonial history and present neocolonial hegemony. He makes a compelling case as to why a Western state will never have altruistic aims, and why an army can never be used to promote human rights.

I do wish he could have expanded a bit more on why WW2 can't be used an example of justifiable intervention. He mentions that Western elites admired fascist regimes; that the purpose of waging war with Hitler had nothing to do with concern for human rights abuses; and that, in fact, mass killings of Jews did not occur until after Western powers became involved (thus, the war was not really an effective tool to stop genocide). Bricmont could have also mentioned the role of U.S. capital investments in Germany's rearmament - in fact, the role of capitalism more generally.

On the other hand, I was very interested by some of Bricmont's arguments regarding the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is always used to make the case that communism/socialism/Marxism has "been proven wrong." This frustrates me to no end, and I think I may just devote another entire post to the subject. However, one interesting idea proposed by Bricmont is that the instability caused by Western intervention in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution should be factored into the type of dictatorship that emerged. It is true that threats from the outside always engender a curtailment of civil liberties. Bricmont also rightly points out that there were plenty of cases of democratic socialism/communism, but they just happened to be undermined by Western-sponsored coups and the like. Bricmont argues that dictatorships are harder to topple, and thus the only socialist/communist states that were able to survive the Western onslaught were those that were dictatorial. Thus, the most popular examples of the failure of communism do not really prove anything about the inherent nature of communism.

The conception of violence as a useful tool is one of the last bits of dominant ideology that is so entrenched as to be nearly unquestionable. Bricmont takes a great step toward demystifying the nature of violence and war. I can already think of several people who I would love to get to read this book!