Friday, 29 December 2006

On the Veil

In a footnote to an earlier blog entry, "In Praise of Shoplifting", reference was made to the practice of Muslim women wearing the veil. Since then that footnote has made me somewhat uneasy since the debate around the veil is so politically charged that a throw away remark can easily be misconstrued. So I thought I would clarify my position a little by reflecting on the current debate...

Firstly I want to express my reluctance to engage with this debate at the current time. For the debate itself has been an attack on heterogeneous Britain. The media affects to be carefully and responsibly discussing serious difficulties around the health of Britain as a multicultural society; yet, throughout the debate, all of these difficulties are firmly located in the domain of the "ethnic minorities". Why is veil-wearing more of a threat to multicultural society than binge-drinking? Simply because the latter is never seen as a "cultural issue" because it is a problem (primarily) occurring in the locus of the white majority...

A white majority which is endlessly reassured by a smug and pious newspaper press. The newspapers devote column inches to the subject of the veil, they pontificate and fulminate, but most of all they self-congratulate: "Look at us!" the headlines scream, "We are evidence of a healthy pluralism in action! We are the free press!" And yet the opinion which they promote is frequently in favour of homogeneity and small-minded little Britain. (And all this is not to mention that the originator of the debate was the foreign secretary as this nation bombed Muslims in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hardly a voice with a moral authority...(1) )

Nonetheless, and despite this departure point, I have no intention of opposing the reactionary mores of the West to the extent that I am seen to support conservative Islam. Religious and cultural fundamentalism should be opposed wherever they are found. And it is undeniable that some of the voices defending the right of a woman to wear the veil are chauvinists who do not defend the right of a woman to choose either way.

Such voices have been rightly criticised. There have been words of wisdom in amongst the jingoism, the most legitimate criticism generally coming from the corner of Western feminists. (See, for instance, this interesting article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.)

However some in that Western feminist corner may not have bargained with the assertions of some Muslim women who assert their right to wear the veil as an act of resistance against a culture (the West) which is forever vilifying them as Muslims. They are taking ownership of a symbol which in Western feminist discourse typically characterises as a symbol of patriarchy. Islamic feminist discourse is redefining the symbol as one of resistance: The primary differentiation in the act of wearing the veil is changed and the consequent value of the action is transformed.

The transformation that is claimed is very significant. The process is described in post-structuralism, a system of thought which I don't pretend to understand at all. However a simple point of reference is that of one's primary enemy. In feminism that primary enemy is patriarchy and the battle lines are drawn in such a way that patriarchy is always on the other side; within the feminist discourse actions are interpreted in terms of the relationship with patriarchy. In today's world however many Muslim women define primarily as Muslims and, for them, the first enemy is the Islam-demonising West. Thus in wearing the veil they are defying that enemy and acting assertively. (2)

I'll be honest: I still feel uncomfortable with this; although I can well imagine that this is due to my exposure to a relentless Western media. Still I would much rather Muslim women used some other symbol to oppose the West - it would make me feel much more able to be in solidarity with them (not that this is a good enough reason for them to change their habits).

My primary concern relates to the comment from my earlier blog that stimulated this piece. It is simplistic to argue that if a Muslim woman says she has chosen to wear the veil then she should be allowed to make that choice. As stated in “In Praise of Shoplifting”, people suffering oppression or tyranny often make statements of support for the system which keeps them down. They have “internalised the oppressor” to the extent that they self-oppress; they follow the narrow, oppressive path which has been mapped out for them without any overt whips being cracked to keep them in line.

Thus when I hear Muslim women asserting that they have chosen the veil I do not know whether this is the assertion of an internal patriarch or a remodeled feminist. I won’t presume to draw a conclusion either way – this debate was started by a middle-class white man making pronouncements regarding Muslim women and the last thing we need is more of the same. What is clear is that this is for Muslim women to work out. And more power to them...

(1) I heard a man on the radio describe Jack Straw’s initiation of this debate as “one of the most courageous acts of the year”! Words fail me.
(2) Look what the West has achieved with its War on Terror! We have usurped patriarchy as the primary oppressor in a Muslim woman’s life.

Monday, 18 December 2006

The Uncomfortable Truth

Last Wednesday I participated in a blockade of Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland. After 40 minutes on the road chained to hippies, I then spent 24 hours in a police cell. While in the cell I had George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier" and a pencil and paper. This blog entry was written in that 24 hours...

Humanity has, it seems, a biological inclination towards dogma. Adrift in a world of immense complexity our disoriented consciousness seeks anchorage on any doctrine definite enough to give an illusion of explanation.

This inclination makes a strange companion to the more celebrated instinct of curiosity. We have immense powers of inquiry but we are at times too scared to use them. We will settle for the first system of ideas which we encounter and, once settled, will vigorously overlook the contradictions which life will inevitably send our way.

Wisdom, it seems to me, is precisely and entirely the quality which allows us to resist our tendency to dogma. Specifically, wisdom undermines our own inclination towards adopting any particular dogmatic standpoint and it opens our eyes to the dogmatic approach of other people.

Such a definition occured to me while reading George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier". This is the work of a wise (and compassionate) man. What is more it is the work of a man who describes himself as a Socialist, a label which, like any -ist or -ian, would immediately suggest a dogmatic mind at work.

Nonetheless Orwell's powers of criticism are sufficiently developed that he consistently avoids the pitfall of dogma. Take for instance the following short passage which occurs in the context of an expose by Orwell of the appalling housing conditions of workers in the North of England:

"It goes against the grain to say this, but one can see why it should be so. Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. Actually, it is a poor old woman who has invested her life's savings in three slum houses, inhabits one of them, and tries to live on the rent of the other two - never, in consequence, having any money for repairs." (p50)

Orwell's primary point in this section of the book is that the workers' lives are consistently blighted by the houses in which they live. Clearly the admission given in the quote does not undermine this argument in any way however one can see how he may have been tempted to overlook reality in favour of a stronger (albeit false) footing on the moral high ground! But he resists this temptation.

What is more, it is important to mention that "The Road to Wigan Pier" is a work full of opinions! Orwell rails against the living and working conditions of the industrial poor, the indifference of government and institutions, the cant of the mealy-mouthed middle classes. To convey all of this passionate feeling while maintaining a firm grasp on reality is quite an achievement.

Another example is given by his discussion of the spending habits of the workers. In particular their consistently wasteful and misguided spending habits and the corresponding efforts of some groups to educate workers in this matter:

"I have heard a communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed... First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right - I agree heartily. Yet all the same it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow."

Observe Orwell's (rare) capacity to hold two opinions in his head at the same time! A primary strength of Orwell's writing in this regard is that he is so clearly motivated by love and compassion. He writes of the working classes with respect and for their own sake. Although he argues in favour of Socialist solutions it is the people who are his primary concern, not Socialism as such. He can accept anomalies in people's behaviour, inconsistencies like those exemplified above, and still hold Socialist convictions.

Too many Socialists however are stuck on the idea that poor people are good, rich people are bad and Socialism is the answer. They do all they can to fit the world into this formula and disregard any inconvenient truth. They are not at all interested in those poor people of whom they talk, their preoccupation is the formula. Orwell, to his immense credit, will have none of it.

The final example of Orwell's willingness to diverge from any kind of dogma is in his attitude to taste, tradition and aesthetics. He unhesitatingly admits to being of a different character, with very different interests, to many of the working class people that he describes. There are good reasons for this, and he deals with them in depth, but nonetheless a significant gulf remains. The honesty of his admission is striking.

In addition Orwell's sensibilities also diverge from those displayed by many of the Socialist orthodox; indeed, he writes, the presentation of Socialism can be such that it "revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or the rudiments of an aesthetic sense." (p191) His quarrel here is with the style not the substance of Socialist thought, nonetheless his quarrel is a significant one. And it is a quarrel from which, typically, he does not shrink.

The independence of mind and integrity of thought displayed in "The Road to Wigan Pier" strongly prefigure Orwell's later works "1984" and "Animal Farm" in which he critiques the Soviet Socialist systems which have been so thoroughly corrupted by Stalinist totalitarianism. His preparedness to do this contrasts greatly with the (misplaced) loyality of many of his contemporary Socialist comrades.

As a working mathematician one of the most powerful tools at my disposal is Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is often the best. A powerful tool this but when badly used it can also be greatly misleading. For oftentimes it is in the "exceptions to a rule" that the truly deep mathematics lie. Take for instance the new physics of Einstein - a system whose genesis lies in the slight aberrations observed in the physics of Newton.

It is a typical quality of a good scientist that she will unhesitatingly admit the inadequacies of a current system of thought - for it is only in this admission that the possibility of development, progress and learning exists. This is the wisdom of the scientist, a wisdom made more accessible by the quantitative nature of the work.

This wisdom reaches its limits however at the bounds of logic. A scientist must adopt some formal logical system and this will necessarily constrain what concepts and ideas may be entertained....

Now consider paradox, a statement that is both true and false, a statement that by its very structure lies outside of any logical system. It is true that science occasionally approaches paradox with statements such as "light is both a wave and a particle" however in general paradox has little role to play in the scientific world.

Nor indeed in the world of dogma - for what truth can be more uncomfortable than one which is also false?! And yet in the realm of human experience it seems to me that it is paradox which most readily describes the world around us. Any system of thought, when imposed upon the universe, contains within it the seeds of its opposite. Interesting truth, absolute truth, always comes in pairs: I have free will, I am a product of my character and my surroundings; I am insignificant and powerless, nothing is more important or powerful than me; I am mortal and will one day be altogether forgotten, my actions now are forever, affecting every moment that will ever be...

Some years ago I spent a horrendous night under the effect of magic mushrooms. As dawn approached and the horror subsided I spent a glorious couple of hours lying on my back and smiling ecstatically at my new and total understanding of the universe. I saw truth and truth was paradox. I smiled at the arrival of a new insight, only to smile again when I realised that the next insight was its opposite.... Sadly, as the effects of the mushrooms wore off, so too did my memory. I could not remember the earth-shattering gems that came to me in the night, I knew only that they were paradox. And yet somehow I was comforted by this new understanding; comforted by this uncomfortable truth.

Friday, 24 November 2006

In praise of shoplifting

I recently came across the following piece and liked it. It makes use of ideas from "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" which is never a bad thing. See what you think...

The first object I ever stole from a Tesco’s supermarket was a head of garlic. That garlic gave me more of a thrill than any vegetable I’ve enjoyed, in any way, before or since. Stealing it was a largely spontaneous act initiated, unsurprisingly, in the veg section. Before I’d even fully realised what I’d done I’d picked that garlic up and put it in my pocket. I then, somehow, held my nerve to finish my shopping, get to the check-out, smile at the nice lady and walk out the door. Tesco’s still made a profit on me that day but not quite as much as usual.

In the aftermath of this momentous event my first question was…. Why so momentous? How was it that this simple act had caused me so much nervousness in the execution and such a thrill in the accomplishment...?

My thoughts turned to that marvellous book of Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Freire’s preoccupation is “humanization”. His concern is to enable humanity to fulfil its vocation of humanization in the face of a social system which is firmly predicated on mass dehumanization. In the book he analyses the (dehumanizing) system as it stands while propounding theories of how we can undermine this system through a critical pedagogy; that is through a “teaching approach which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate” (Wikipedia entry on “critical pedagogy”).

One of the key concepts of Freire’s analysis of the current system is the idea that the oppressed internalize the oppressor. Living in a system which continually oppresses and dehumanizes her, a woman will idealize her oppressors. For her, to be fully human is to oppress and to this she aspires. This phenomenon plays itself out in many different ways: In a South American village a man is picked out by the landowner to be his representative and enforce his demands; rather than resisting, the man carries out his orders with relish, zealous in his attempts to crush opposition to his master’s will. Or, again, a woman of the ‘50s complains bitterly that the new feminism is denying a woman her femininity – forcing her out of the home and into the work place.*

At the heart of this internalizing of the oppressor is a distrust of freedom. Freire explains it this way:
The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion. (p. 23, 24)

I am reminded of the words of another great chronicler of oppression, James Baldwin. In his book “The Fire Next Time”, an account of Baldwin’s experience of racism as a black man in America, he writes:
Furthermore, I have met only a very few people… who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear… We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know,… Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them… (p. 77)

It seems somewhat disrespectful at this point to return to that head of garlic – Baldwin and Freire were concerned with oppression far worse than anything I have ever experienced – however my contention is that the nerves I felt as I approached that checkout were the result of the violent resistance of my internalized oppressor. Despite my self-conception as a person of liberated thinking and non-conformist ideas I realised after that day that I have a very real monkey on my back – a veritable King Kong.

The thesis runs like this: I have lived for twenty-nine years in a social system for which the concept of private property is sacred above all else. If someone is said to “own” something, in the legal-economic sense that our social system recognizes, then their rights over that thing are inalienable and incontrovertible. The concept of ownership trumps all other considerations, bar none.

Hence we live in an ever-warmer world in which the rights of the SUV-owner prevent any infringement on the structural integrity of their vehicle (i.e. we’re not supposed to slash their tyres). We live in a world where a mining company’s legal ownership of a mineral lode in Northern Australia allows them to lay waste land which may have traditional owners but which legally belongs to a very compliant state. We live in a world where a vast portion of the land in Africa is devoted to cash crops despite the fact that the locals are starving; this because the country is in debt and, effectively, the banks own the land. This is the system that I have internalized; above all other things the oppressor inside me wants me to honour and validate the concept of ownership.

And that explains my slightly unhinged response to the nabbing of a head of garlic. I was striking at the heart of a system on which my world is based. Who’d have thunk it?! But before I get too carried away – I am not suggesting for a moment that we can shoplift our way to a better world – let me clarify. It is important to understand that the momentousness of this event is entirely internal, entirely within me. Tesco’s don’t give a monkey’s about missing garlics and they never will. This is not about bringing down corporate behemoths.

However it is something that is worth pursuing. I learned a great deal about myself, and the system in which I live, that day and in the subsequent days when I have gone so far as the occasional gourmet packet of nuts. The liberation of one’s soul from the gorilla embrace of a dehumanizing social system is perhaps any person’s first vocation. I need to understand the extent to which I am affected and controlled by the system in which I have been raised, before I can set out about bringing down that system.

According to Freire, this system operates through a ‘banking’ model of indoctrination in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (p. 46). Thus I have been all my life a passive recipient of the notion of ownership; I have understood ownership to be the first and greatest principle of human organization. I did not arrive at this understanding through my own activity (as a subject) but I was told what to think (as an object).

On the other hand this process of “understanding through shoplifting” is an example of the liberating pedagogy of which Freire writes:
Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another ‘deposit’ to be made in [wo]men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of [wo]men upon their world in order to transform it. (p.52)

In this process I am a subject. I have played an active part in understanding the world around me and, in the company of my fellows, I have reflected on the implications of that action. I now understand for myself that this system of ownership is not necessarily an inviolable tenet of any human society. Rather it is insidious and, at times, clearly oppressive and so I can choose not to participate in it.

Of course this is not the end of the story. As I said before we can’t shoplift our way to a just world. However in understanding a little better how our system operates I can hopefully take more decisive and consequential action in the name of liberation. And it is this possibility which is the truly momentous one; and the one of which the oppressor is truly afraid. Tesco’s doesn’t give a monkey’s about missing garlic but it does care a lot that it be allowed to continue to profit under the full protection of the law and with the compliance of society. Freire again:
In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; thence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the opporessors, what is worthwhile is to have more – always more – even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be of the ‘having’ class. (pp. 34, 35)

Shoplifting has become a discipline for me now. I have a friend who used to live in the Australian desert and who, in his various starlit travels, would encounter the odd highly venomous snake. As a young man he would happily grab them by the tail and watch their serpentine writhing before removing the offending reptile far from his evening campfire. But as time went by, he said, he lost his nerve. He could no longer quite bring himself to get that close to a curious snake and so he would have to move his camp or drive it away with fire rather than pick it up as he used to.

And that’s a little how it is with me. If I allow myself I can feel overwhelmed by the little trauma of defying the system in which we live. Even though I am quite aware of the system’s hideous consequences, aware of the logical extremes which ownership reaches in the weeping of a starving child, I find myself inevitably being sucked back into compliance with the system. The internal oppressor is so strong!

But, in defiance, just as I try and meditate regularly and free myself to be, I also try and shoplift regularly so that I can land an occasional blow to that fearsome internal oppressor. So that I can be free to think for myself and with my fellows, and pursue a vocation that humanizes.

* I am reminded also of those Muslim women who insist that to wear the veil is to be free. There are many of course who simply assert their right to choose; there are though, inevitably, some for whom a woman should not have the right to choose.

Another example is given by Franz Fanon in “The Wretched of the Earth”:
The colonized man will manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people. This is the period when the niggers beat each other up, and the police and magistrates do not know which way to turn when faced with the astonishing waves of crime in North Africa…

Anarchism in outer space

Ursula Le Guin's 1974 book "The Dispossessed" has been re-released as part of a series of "Science Fiction Masterworks." And thank goodness for that, or I might never have picked it up. Thank goodness too for my mate Manos whose recommendation was sufficient to over-rule my instinctive aversion to all things Sci-Fi.

For this is a GOOD book. Its narrative structure, characterisation and wonderfully evocative description all combine to make a well-balanced, engrossing whole. More than this though this is an ideas book and it is the ideas behind the book that turn it from being just a good novel to being a really necessary book for our time.

Le Guin takes up the challenge frequently directed towards those on the dissident margins: If you don't like this world what would you have instead? Using the freedom which the science fiction genre allows her, she imagines twin planets circling some distant sun. One, Urras, is reminiscent of our own world in its hierarchy, wealth disparities and rich environment; the other, Anarres, is a dustbowl world home to people who have fled Urras in search of something different: Odonianism. Or, as we would call it, anarchism.

The environmental poverty of the planet Annares is a crucial feature of this set-up. Its very poverty is the basis of the social system which it (only marginally) supports, for there is no incentive for the rich, militaristic world of Urras to come and take over. Le Guin avoids the taxing problem of how truly horizontal societies defend themselves effectively against hierarchical competitors; in her scenario Annares survives by having nothing worth competing for.

The poverty of Annares also helps to reinforce the social cohesion which a horizontal society might otherwise lack. Annares is a world without compulsion - children are not forced into school, adults are not forced to work. Yet all can eat at the common refectories and help themselves to goods from the workshops of various syndicates throughout the land. The little wealth which Annares generates is freely available to all, regardless of the part they played in generating this wealth.

How does such a system maintain itself? A number of mechanisms are at work. Firstly, as mentioned, the poverty of the place helps. On Annares survival is marginal and people understand that all hands are required on deck if existence is to be maintained. Secondly the simple good heartedness of the human species is evoked. Perhaps this is the most idealistic part of anarchism; it is certainly an element entirely missing from our current system. "Can human solidarity really motivate people to any meaningful level?" say the sceptical, wealth-driven profiteers of our current system. (Well if you're reading this article on IndyMedia, you have one small yes-answer staring you in the face....)

Le Guin says "Yes" too. Perhaps the wisest aspect of this whole book though is Le Guin's understanding of the need for a mechanism to back this up. Human solidarity does not necessarily happen spontaneously, it needs to be nurtured and reinforced. So Le Guin sets up a popular culture on Annares in which the heroes are the willing participants, those in solidarity while the villains are the profiteers, those who seek to gain power and use it for their individual ends. There are any number of practical social phenomena which further reinforce these ideas - the undermining of the nuclear family, sexual freedom, even the naming of children which is by computer etc etc.

Did you flinch though at the words "popular culture"? You were meant to! For the weakness of Annares lies in the very mechanisms which reinforce solidarity. The "tyranny of public opinion" is a danger in every society, perhaps especially an anarchist one. A standard criticism of the great anarchist thinker, Proudhon, is his failure to properly understand this fact: In an anarchist society "social pressures are better hidden, but this does not make them any the less coercive of either action or will." (Alan Ritter) So it is on Annares; people's distrust of change, of innovation is the same in this anarchist near-Utopia as in our own world. Although the popular culture on Annares embodies a great deal which is good and admirable, if people cling to it by reaction, without thought, then the potential for tyranny is great...

Into this imperfect anarchist society is born our hero, Shevek. In a very astute move, Le Guin chooses the career of theoretical physicist for Shevek. He is by nature an innovator, a thinker, a source of new ideas; ideas which will inevitably conflict with the conservative anarchist (!) culture of Annares. The story of this conflict is the story of this book and I will not spoil it. A few comments though about Shevek are in order...

The choice of theoretical physics as the field of Shevek's study is astute for a number of reasons. Firstly because it lies at the juncture of science, of philosophy and of art. In a sense these are the three arms of what we understand by the word 'civilisation'. For a society to call itself civilised it must have a place for these aspects of human life. As Anarres does; it is not a primitive troglodyte world but a culturally rich, sophisticated and complex civilisation. Le Guin does not wish to embody the anarchism of the great apes, or of Marx's primitive communism, but a civilised, humanising anarchism. Shevek's work is incredibly esoteric but it has a place on Anarres, despite the poverty of the place:

"Do you consider the work you've done here functional?"
"Yes. `The more that is organised, the more central the organism: centrality here implying the field of real function.' Tomar's DEFINITIONS. Since temporal physics attempts to organise everything comprehensible to the human mind, it is by definition a centrally functional activity."
"It doesn't get bread into people's mouths."
"I just spent six decads helping to do that. When I'm called again I'll go again. Meanwhile I stick by my trade. If there's physics to be done I claim the right to do it." (p219)

The final strength of Le Guin's career choice for Shevek is the content of the physics he studies. This is a completely made-up branch of physics called the Theory of Simultaneity and it conerns the nature of time. Shevek supposedly rejigs scientific thinking about the nature of time from that of a linear process with 'befores' and 'afters' to a phenomenon existing in entirety, simultaneously. We can think of the past, present and future as co-existent, rather than sequential.

Why is this interesting? Because it pertains to the idea of REVOLUTION. Shevek lives, supposedly, in a post-revolutionary society. Annares has had its revolution and achieved its Utopia. Except of course that this utopia, as we have seen, is flawed. Annares' anarchism, for all its strengths, has become conservative. But how does one revolt against the revolution? Especially if, like Shevek, you believe in that original revolution for all that you can see its flaws.

The answer is that the revolution never happened. And it never will. It can only BE HAPPENING. It is a continuous unfolding of events in which we can choose to play our part or not. In some ways the residents of Annares have ceased to play their part; it will be Shevek's role to remind them of their lines and get them back on the stage.

That lesson is for us also. Notionally we are in a pre-revolutionary society but perhaps this is flawed thinking. The revolution must be happening now if it is to happen at all. It is a process in which we can play our part in particular portions of time and space, if we so choose. We will not find the revolution elsewhere, we must make it here. Now.


1. An alternative review of THE DISPOSSESSED (with much more detail about the plot):
The website of Ursula Le Guin:

2. Ursula Le Guin has an anthropological background which clearly informs much of her work. As an Australian I couldn't help but draw parallels between her description of the twin worlds of Urras and Annares and the Western and aboriginal worlds which coexist so uneasily in my own country.

Whilst Australian aboriginal societies are very diverse in structure, certainly at least some of them could be characterised as basically anarchist. I am most familiar with the Mardu people of Western Australia whose lifestyle bears a great deal of comparison with that of the people of Annares.

3. In the review above you may have felt a little frustrated by the lack of attention given to how horizontal societies defend themselves against hierarchies. This stimulated me to think about such phenomena in real life. The idea of guerilla warfare is certainly relevant here but it doesn't just need to apply to military conflict.

Indeed the example that first sprang to my mind was the conflict that the Free Software community is currently waging with that ultimate hierarchy, Microsoft. How that war is being waged and how the horizontalness of Free Software is working to its advantage in some respects has been the subject of much discussion. More information is here:
A couple of slightly random but interesting articles:

The other obvious example pertains to my previous point - how aboriginal people have defended themselves against Western invasion. Certainly for the Mardu people this invasion has been a catastropic event. What is striking about their situation is that, like the people of Annares, the Mardu people survived for a long time because they had nothing that the Western people wanted (some Mardu people only met white people for the first time in the 1970's).

Since contact however this survival has been greatly compromised. Indeed the West has actively sought to undermine Mardu society through missions, through forcible removal of children, etc etc, despite the fact that the Mardu pose no material threat to Western society. Perhaps though the threat is a perceived one - and this is something which Le Guin manages to convey very effectively with respect to Annares. The governing class of Urras speak with some unease of Annares; they dread the Odonian (anarchist) creed gaining currency in their own world. For this reason they insist that the isolation of Annares be absolute, for fear that the example of a successful anarchist society will prove a seduction which the people of their own society cannot (do not want to) resist.

So, anarchists, get seducing! Power fears you!

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

The following article was written in October 2005.

I recently had the good fortune to read Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience". I did not realise it when I first started reading but this essay has a most remarkable history. Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King have all read and been influenced by it. Emma Goldman, the American anarchist, was arrested for reading Thoreau's essay from a public platform in 1917.

But all this was news to me. I would never have heard of the essay let alone read it were it not for the fact that it was included at the end of a volume of "Walden"; this is Thoreau's most famous work and is an account of two years spent living alone in the woods of Massachusetts by Walden pond from 1845 on.

"Walden," it turns out, is a good introduction to Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience": It establishes Thoreau in the reader's mind as a highly independent thinker and actor. Forsaking the luxuries and easy familiarity of a life in civilisation, Thoreau famously decided "to live deliberately" on his own in the woods. I say 'forsaking' but this implies incorrectly that he missed his former life amongst people. On the contrary Thoreau revelled in the chance to explore and experience the natural wonder of Walden pond, as well as the natural wonder of his own internal landscape:

"...there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but... it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals.... than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone..." (p. 243)**

Thoreau sought, in these two years in the woods, to truly know himself and indeed to allow the reader to know him a little too. In the process he also had chance to reflect at length on the society which he had temporarily left behind. His observations range from the trivialities of dinner parties, "I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man's house... as by the parade one made about dining me, which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never to trouble him so again." (p. 107) to much deeper and more political observations, "[concerning an acquainatance]: He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence and a child is not made a man, but kept a child." (p. 110)

As a prelude to "Civil Disobedience" though, the most important aspect of "Walden" is its location outside of society. In "Walden" Thoreau describes himself living largely free from the strictures and authority of town life... and he likes it! He is scathing in his description of the day-to-day grind of life back in the rat race. Far better, says he, to live free from the expectations of, and obligations to, normal, petty human society and to use this freedom to know oneself and to know the world in which one lives.

So to "Civil Disobedience": The starting point for this essay is a night Thoreau spent in jail in his native town of Concord. He was arrested by Sam Staples, the local constable, tax collector, and jailer, in 1846 for failing to pay his poll tax. Constable Staples had turned a blind eye to Thoreau's non-payment for some time but things finally came to a head one day in July and a night in jail was the consequence.

The circumstances surrounding all of this are entertaining in their own right (Thoreau's breakfast the morning after was a "pint of chocolate, with brown bread" (p. 358)!!) but the real interest lies in the reason for Thoreau's non-payment of the tax: as a protest against slavery. This is not the first case in history of a principled act of civil disobedience nonetheless it is very significant; for fifty years later Gandhi would read Thoreau's account of his actions and be spurred to put his ideas into practise first in South Africa and later in India. The popularization of civil disobedience as a lever for societal change would largely depend on the success of these two campaigns.

So what does Thoreau actually say? He begins by stating his belief that "'That government is best which governs not at all'; and when men* are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." (p. 343) In effect Thoreau longs for a "world-wide-Walden" where humans are free to know themselves without interference by authority. However he also implies that, perhaps, the general population is not ready for such an arrangement; what then?

"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." (p. 344) In stating his practical position Thoreau maintains his point of view that it is for the individual to shape society not the other way around. Thoreau places power squarely in the hands of each human being and he has much to say on how that power should be used:

"Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right... Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice."(p. 344)

For Thoreau then, morality has precedence over legality. He illustrates this point with reference to the military, the arm of government which offends him the most. When the essay was first written the US was making war on Mexico, a state of affairs which Thoreau found reprehensible. Added to this was the abomination of slavery and Thoreau was in a quandary:

"How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognise that political organization as MY government which is the slave's government also." (p. 346)

So we have a situation where a goverment is at odds with one of its citizens' conscience. The citizen is, according to Thoreau, therefore beholden to follow her conscience not the will of the government. Inevitably this must mean rebellion: "In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize." (p. 346)

But how to rebel? Thoreau begins with what is not rebellion. "There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them..." (p. 347) He includes in this 'do nothing' those who restrict their opposition to voting ("Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." (p. 347). He does not have the time to wait until a majority of his fellow citizens are in agreement with him - the burden of his conscience is more urgent than that. "Moreover, any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already." (p. 352)

For Thoreau the problem with 'doing nothing' in this case, and the reason that positive action against the state is a moral obligation, is that obedient citizens are helping to keep the slavery and war machine running. Those who disagree with the government's policies continue to play their everyday roles within society, roles that enable soldiers to march on foreign lands and slaves to stay in chains. "Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measure of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform." (p. 350)

So his plea is to "let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn." (p. 351) The way in which Thoreau chose to do this was by non-payment of taxes. "It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with,- the dollar is innocent,- but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance." (p. 359)

The outcomes of this act of disobedience are several and uniformly positive. In the first place the act is effective: "... if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership [with the state], and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever." (p. 352) Indeed this is the only way in which an individual can compel a State to act: "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority... but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." (p. 353)

In the second place disobedience benefits the disobeyer for obedience only "divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine." (p. 350) More than this though the consequences of the disobedience, contrary to popular opinion, are not a stain on one's honour but a measure of it: "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons... on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her." (p. 353)

With this comes the final outcome of civil disobedience - the effect on one's peers: For in punishing the person who disobeys the State inadvertently acts as a public witness to that individual's opposition. For the act of disobedience and its consequences are seen by others and the truth of that action is uncovered: "My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with....he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me... as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or a maniac and disturber of the peace..." (p. 352)

But perhaps there is one more outcome of civil disobedience - as an act of prophecy for a society unencumbered by the authority of government, a world-wide-Walden. This is the note on which Thoreau ends the essay, hopeful and confident:

"I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbour; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen." (p. 364)

** Page numbers refer to the Variorum Edition of "Walden and Civil Disobedience" printed in 1968.

*Thoreau uses patriarchal language in general. I have reproduced his words. I have also reproduced his American spellings.

A webtext of "Civil Disobedience" and "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau can be found here.

Thoughts on 'Self'

The following article was written in November 2005 while living at Ululla Station, Western Australia.

Thoughts on 'Self'

Here is an entry from my journal shortly after arriving back at Ululla:

What has driven me back to Ululla? What conscious and subconscious whips have been cracked across my behind to make me anticipate returning so keenly:

- an oasis from the Protestant work ethic perhaps? Albeit a flawed oasis for I am in thrall wherever I go. But still, here I can feel that by being I am doing something remarkable and so being is OK. How to be free of this horrible logic?

- a place of purity. Without endless 'if onlys'. This is a place of clear evening skys, silhouettes of unbroken mulga against a dying sun, a moon that appears on schedule, frequent and complete silences, rushing winds. I am free of regret, of middle-class obligation. I am too small to do anything thank God.

- diminishment of the individual. Where a sense of self is not normatively primary. A landscape over which ego does not preside unchecked. My desires, wants and needs are a function of my surroundings and community - not a function solely of my whimsy. My achievements are not trumpeted, neither are my transgressions. Freedom from both is a blessed relief. Christendom tries and fails to escape the latter but is the bound and shackled slave of the former.

- All actions, indeed, are diminished. The soundtrack to our lives is not that of the media but that of the scratching pen, brewing tea pot, barking dog. Not images of life but life itself.

It occurs to me that, reading back over this, all of those points are about the same thing. I want to be rescued from myself. Or, more precisely, that part of myself (the part that is all of which I am usually aware) that is the sum of my actions.

Maybe what we call 'ego' is really this 'sum-of-actions-self'. In most places ego=me. "Who am I?" you might ask and I will tell you that I am Nick, 28 years old from England/ Australia who likes playing football and reading, who studies maths, blah blah blah. What else is there?

I find when I am out here that there is something else; I have access to another part of myself - a part that does nothing, that is achievement-free. I feel strangely uncompelled to do anything at all. Sitting here writing these thoughts down is something I have anticipated for several days, but only now have I managed to get my act together enough to do it. And it's not like I've been rushed off my feet...

Back in the city the boundary between me(=ego) and not-me is a hard, impermeable one of which I am constantly aware. Here I am at once conscious of being very small and insignificant as well as being a part of something majestic and important. The hard nuggety sum-of-my-actions-self seems a lot smaller than when I am in the city, but the warm human rest-of-myself is suddenly much more obvious and I see that it is beautiful.

This rest-of-myself is not just something that I carry about with me; it is something that forms around me as part of the place and people and experiences where I am. It is different depending on where I am. At Ululla it is bigger.

The landscape has something to do with this. The land in which I currently live is gloriously indifferent to my existence. A vast blue sky is half of my world and I cannot touch it or change it. At night it becomes a black blanket, bringing light from places that I will never know and where I will never be known. The other half of my world, the bottom half, is almost as eternal. Superficially things may change - a new building is put up, a road is built, even a town may form - but the great wilderness continues on constant, unimpressed. It is a slate which is too hard for humanity to write upon. We can beetle about on its surface but not a great deal more. Thank God! We can't fuck it up!

It is not just the landscape here that diminishes this ego. The culture of the local people here, unlike the culture from which I come, does not place the individual at the centre of all considerations. What is at the centre instead I am not sure but it's somehow different. For instance, no one cares here about my achievements. The things in my life of which I am most proud elicit very little response; like the land the people are unimpressed. Here I am not Nick who has this degree and read that long book and scored that great goal, I am Nick. I am the person who, like everyone else, gets bored of an afternoon and hungry and sometimes gets drunk and and and... It is not that I am the same as everyone else, only that it is not my achievements (or transgressions) that make me different but myself. My rest-of-self.

It is hard to imagine how this can work when one is reading within a Western context. What must it be like for the starting point of one's existence to not be 'ego'? I don't mean how is it possible to be unselfish. That is another thing entirely - the question I want to ask is far more fundamental. It is about somehow accessing life through a different prism, one that perhaps will give more, or maybe just different, colour....

Let me give a practical example that might make sense of what I'm talking about. Picture this scene which I experienced: I'm sitting in the passenger seat of the station ute with Daniel, a local Mardu man driving. We're trying to follow an old bush track but it's very hard to see. On the back of the ute are several other people including Molly, a Mardu woman, who is standing up. She can see the road more clearly from her higher vantage point and she is shouting out directions for Daniel. The words that she is using are 'kakara' and 'kayeeli' and other words in Mardu wangka, the local aboriginal language. What is remarkable about this scene is that the words she is using do not translate into 'left' and 'right' as one might expect but 'East' and 'North'. She is telling Daniel how to orientate himself with respect to the land through which we are driving, rather than the other way around.

Now imagine a white person trying to do this! In the first place our sense of direction is distinctly hazy in comparison to that of a Mardu. If we try and use compass points we are lost! But more than this we instinctively communicate in terms of our individual orientation. The words 'left' and 'right' are immediately on our lips, in our heads. Our physical perspective is fixed and defined by our physical body.

What I am suggesting more generally is that our mental perspective is fixed and defined by our ego, that part of us which is the sum of our actions. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily but it is interesting to observe that this need not be the case. That we are not defining our perspective by the whole of ourselves. That we are missing parts of our self which may proceed from our environment, from our companions, from our essence.

Back in the city I sometimes have the strange feeling that I am meta-living, living for-the-record. So that I can say afterwards, 'I did this, went there, ate this,...' In the same way that people go on grand tours of Europe and 'do' Paris or Vienna or Wupertarl, I end up 'doing' my entire life. I have an idea of how it will be to look back at the end of my life, or even how other people will remember me when I am dead and in that memory I will live. That, ultimately perhaps, I will be in the memory of God and so live forever. Dear God save me from that fate. In my head I know that it would be better to be entirely forgotten if I can only live now; I must transmit this information to my heart. Maybe out here I have a chance of doing that.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: The good Hamish-meister referred me to an interesting article by 'Bifo' in "Cultural Studies Review", Volume 11, Number 2, Sep 2005. The article is called "What Does Cognitariat Mean? Work, Desire and Depression." I include an extract from the article below, from the section about depression. Relevant points to bear in mind before reading the extract:

1. Do Mardu people suffer from depression? Dinner table discussion amongst the whiteys here at Ululla suggests not.

2. The volume of "Cultural Studies Review" which contains this extract also contains a fine article by the Hamish-meister himself.

In his book called "La fatigue d'etre soi" (The fatigue of being Oneself), Alain Ehrenberg describes depression as a pathology with a strong social content, linked in particular to a situation characterised by competitiveness.

Depression began to assert itself when the disciplinary model of managing behaviour, the rules of authority and the respect for taboos that assigned a destiny to social classes and sexes, gave way to norms that incite everyone to individual initiative, exhorting them to become themselves. Because of this new normativity, the entire responsibility for our lives is located inside each of us. Depression thus presents itself as a sickness of responsibility in which the feeling of insufficiency dominates. The depressive is not up to the mark, is tired of having to become his or herself.

Depression is intimately linked to the ideology of self-fulfilment and the happiness imperative. And depressiion is also a way of identifying, in the language of psychopathology, a kind of behaviour that wasn't clearly identifiable as pathological outside of the competitive, productivist and individualistic context. According to Ehrenberg:

Depression enters into a problematic where what dominates is not so much emotional pain as inhibition, slowing down and asthenia: the ancient sad passion is transformed into an obstacle to action in a context where individual initiative becomes the measure of the person.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Iraq-o-mat: Cleaning Dollars for Corporations

The following article was published on IndyMedia in May 2005 when I was doing a lot of stuff around corporate activity in post-invasion Iraq (see the introductory blog below)....

Much of the post-war corporate activity in Iraq has come under heavy criticism from many different fronts. There are accusations of corruption, bribery and nepotism as well as simple incompetence - the jobs just aren't getting done... So what is all the `reconstruction' activity in Iraq really about? Supposedly post-war Iraq is a neo-liberal utopia, an economy freed of the tiresome and inefficient burdens of government regulation. Yet an examination of this same economy may lead one to conclude that the system as it stands is rampant with inefficiency. Indeed Iraq's economy today looks less like an economic utopia than a giant money-laundering operation...

Free Market Utopia

The Bush administration's post-war vision for Iraq is a matter of record: Iraq should become a utopia of laissez-faire economics for the rest of the world to see. The orders of the Coalition Provisional Authority, under Paul Bremer, are consistent with this vision: Corporate tax was slashed, tariffs and border controls were erased, state-owned utilities (with the exception of the oil utilities) were declared available for privatisation with no requirements for reinvesting profit back into Iraq.

The thinking behind these measures comes courtesy of Milton Friedman: Greed is the driving force behind economic activity and the market provides the most efficient method of organising this activity; in particular the market provides the most efficient method of producing and distributing goods and services: If companies are allowed to go about their business without interference from governments then the burdens of bureaucracy and red-tape, and the leakage of waste, can be eliminated and everyone benefits. (An example of how far this idea can be pushed is the USAID decision to contract a private company to oversee Iraq's "transition to a sustainable market-driven economic system". In other words the very process of privatisation and liberalisation was itself privatised and Bearing Point, an offshoot of KPMG, won this contract.)

Corporate Performance

Whether or not one subscribes to the principles of Milton Friedman is an argument for another time. What is interesting here is to seek to apply these tests of efficiency and minimal waste to the conduct of the corporations involved in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq: For the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq has been a largely privatised process; corporations have tendered for occupation contracts put out by the US military (e.g. Halliburton's contract to cook meals and deliver mail at US bases), for reconstruction contracts put out by USAID (e.g. Creative Associates International's contract to overhaul the Iraqi education system) and for reconstruction and other contracts handed out by occupation authorities and paid for by Iraqi oil revenues (e.g. Halliburton's contract for the Repair of Oil Infrastructure (RIO)).

The first two sets of contracts were paid for by the US government out of the $87 billion that the Bush administration was granted by congress. Some $65 billion of this was used for military operations and has been mostly spent. The reconstruction element of this money, some $18 billion, remains largely unspent - instead reconstruction bills have tended to be paid using Iraqi oil revenues, rather than by the US government. In fact the Iraqi oil revenues have been used for more than just paying Halliburton; Pratap Chatterjee relates how much of this money has been "handed out in cash by soldiers to local people in return for favo[u]rs such as rebuilding offices or building football fields." He cites a New York Times article which claims that "[a]t least $1 billion has been distributed in this fashion - by some estimates more than $2 billion." (Steven Weisman, "U.S. is Quietly Spending $2.5 Billion From Iraqi Oil Revenues to Pay for Iraqi Projects," The New York Times, 21 June 2004)

But what of the rest of the money, the money that's gone to the corporations?

Economy as sieve

The key factor in understanding what the corporate activity in Iraq is really about, is `leakage'. This is the very thing which adherence to the sacred neo-liberal economic principles is meant to minimise: Bush's cabal of neo-liberal prophets tell us that if one releases economic activity from the restrictive oversight of government then one is rewarded with efficiency and productivity at every turn. Strange to say though, these very same prophets are administering a system in Iraq which is wracked with inefficiency and which leaks dollars at every turn.

Outlined below are a few examples of dubious corporate activity in Iraq. Many others are on the record, or await investigation. The problems start at the very first hurdle.

1. Drawing up the Contract: I mentioned earlier that Bearing Point, the former consulting division of KPMG, received a $240 million contract in 2003 to help develop Iraq's "competitive private sector." The irony is that Bearing Point had assisted in developing the contract itself. The Center for Corporate Policy reports,

Bearing Point spent five months helping USAID write the job specifications and even sent some employees to Iraq to begin work before the contract was awarded, while its competitors had only a week to read the specifications and submit their own bids after final revisions were made."No company who writes the specs for a contract should get the contract," says Keith Ashdown, the vice president of Washington, DC- based Taxpayers for Common Sense. (Source)

2. Awarding the Contract: The process of awarding contracts to corporations has been found to be flawed in many instances. Halliburton's success in winning contracts is well-documented, as are Halliburton's links to Vice-President Cheney and the potential conflict of interest which this involves. But the problems do not finish with Halliburton.

On 25 May 2004 a $293 million contract was awarded by the U.S. military to Aegis Defence Services, a U.K. corporation headed by Tim Spicer. Tim Spicer is a former officer of the Scots Guard and former head of the arms firm Sandline. Spicer "has been investigated for illegally smuggling arms and planning military offensives to support mining, oil, and gas operations around the world." (Pratap Chatterjee, "Iraq, Inc. A profitable Occupation" (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004), p.134)

The contract was to co-ordinate top-secret intelligence in Iraq, a job that had become of vital importance to the U.S. military with the proliferation of private security firms on the ground in Iraq. That Sandline won the contract came as a surprise to many. Analyst Peter Singer had the following to say:

The contract is a case study in what not to do... To begin with, a core problem of the military outsourcing experience has been the lack of coordination, oversight and management from the government side. So outsourcing that very problem to another private company has a logic that would do only Kafka proud. In addition, it moves these companies further outside the bounds of public oversight.

The usual mechanisms that increase efficiency in contracting - like choosing, rewarding and punishing firms based on their experience and reputation - have again been short- circuited.... Aegis has been in existence for little more than a year, has worked primarily on antipiracy efforts rather than security coordination, and has never before had a major contract in Iraq. (Peter Singer, "Nation Builders and Low Bidders in Iraq," The New York Times, 15 June 2004)

Kafkaesque logic seems to be an essential and recurring theme of the corporate adventure in Iraq.

3. Contractor Performance: Again Halliburton's shortfallings in delivering value on their $12 billion worth of contracts is well-documented (See, in particular, Michael Shnayerson's article in Vanity Fair). Bechtel is another large corporation that has had problems delivering the services it's been paid for. Bechtel won its first contract before George Bush had even declared the war over, its second contract was awarded in January 2004 for $2.8 billion; the company was to repair and refurbish sewage, water and school systems. A month prior to the awarding of this contract, Riley Bechtel, CEO of Bechtel Corp. was sworn in as a member of President Bush's Export Council to advise the government on creating markets for American companies overseas. There have been problems with all areas of this contract.

One of Bechtel's earliest priorities was to ensure the provision of portable water supplies to the population of Southern Iraq. One year later this had not been achieved; water-born illnesses in the area were reported to be on the increase. (Bechtel's record with water is far from glorious. Several years ago, Bechtel won the contract to manage Bolivia's water supply under the Bolivian government's program of privatisation. Rates for local residents shot up and civil unrest ensued.)

Similar poor results have been reported from Bechtel contractors working on Iraqi schools. An internal study by U.S. Army personnel strongly criticised Bechtel's performance (Chatterjee op cit, ), p.74). Problems include poor paint jobs; a lack of textbooks, desks or blackboards; schools strewn with refuse; and toilets which don't work. And to top it all, this has all been done at a price which locals insist is astronomical.

To be fair to Bechtel, security conditions in Iraq have definitely hampered their work; sabotage has been a serious problem. However this does not appear to explain all of Bechtel's shortcomings. Indeed the confusion which one would expect from operating in a hostile place seems to be exacerbated by Bechtel's unwillingness to listen to Iraqis who know the local situation: Bechtel appear to have a deliberate policy of subcontracting low-level rote maintenance jobs to Iraqi companies, while, for sophisticated work, they bypass Iraqi engineers and managers with local hands-on knowledge. (Source)

Many other contractors have come in for similarly heavy criticism. In particular, it is worth noting that private contractors were heavily implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Two companies, CACI and Titan, won contracts from the Pentagon as interrogators. In the past, these jobs would have been done by military interrogators but these jobs were outsourced as a money-saving measure (Chatterjee, op. cit., p.138). An internal army report implicated four civilian contractors in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "But legal experts say that civilians working for the military are subject to neither Iraqi nor military justice." (Chatterjee, op. cit., p. 152). Chatterjee goes on to explain that Paul Bremer, in June 2003, explicitly granted broad immunity to civilian contractors and their employees in Iraq.

4. Paying for the Contract: If there is any remaining doubt that private corporate activity in Iraq is increasing the efficiency of the economy there, then the words `cost-plus' should erase that doubt. `Cost-plus' is the method of payment for many of the large contracts currently underway in Iraq. Halliburton, in particular, has benefited from system of "costs plus a profit margin of one percent" which Pratap Chatterjee describes as follows: "In addition to its direct costs, Halliburton can bill as cost a percentage of its overhead, all the way up to its Houston head office." (Chatterjee, op. cit.,p. 29) As a check to this, military overseers can award an additional performance bonus of up to two percent; with some of this bonus dependent on cost control. However, ultimately, the more money the company spends, the more profit it will make, regardless of performance.

A Government Reform Committee at the House of Representatives in Washington, DC has heard testimonials from various whistle-blowers from within Halliburton who have told of that corporation's economic practices. Pratap Chatterjee cites one employee, Mike West, who asked his camp manager if it was OK to order a drill:

He said to order four. I responded that we didn't need four. He said: "Don't worry about it. It's a cost-plus contract." I asked him, "So basically, this is a blank check?" The camp manager laughed and said, "Yeah." (Robert Michael West, statement, 6 June 2004)

The fact, though, that a government committee has looked into Halliburton's activities is a sign that Halliburton is subject to some public scrutiny at least. However congressional scrutiny is largely restricted to the activities of corporations who are paid by the American tax payer. This is one reason why most of the reconstruction work in Iraq has been paid for using the mortgaged revenues of Iraqi oil, rather than using the $18 billion which congress approved for this purpose. Pratap Chatterjee explains:

The reconstruction money [approved by Congress] was hardly touched because the bidding and oversight requirements were stringent to prevent fraud or waste. As a result, many of the reconstruction bills were paid for with revenue from the sale of Iraqi oil. (Chatterjee, op. cit.,p. 211)

So U.S. and U.K. occupiers are paying U.S. and U.K. corporations with Iraqi money. Now this is supposedly for reconstructing Iraq but, as we have seen, this is not necessarily what actually happens. In addition this practice saddles the Iraqi people with a legacy of debt which they are no position to service.

Why such a state of affairs?

We have, then, an economic system in Iraq which, despite its being laid out along supposed principles of economic efficiency, demonstrably leaks money at every turn. But what's the point in all this? Who is allowing this to happen, and why? What is the advantage in wasting all this wealth? The answer lies in the wrong-ness of the question: This wealth is not wasted, it is redirected. It is redirected into the coffers of corporations and into the bank balances of their share holders. It will circulate around the upper reaches of society in the US and UK, swelling already bloated lifestyles. It will find its way into the campaign coffers of politicians through political donations, it will fund executive perks and bonuses; its passage through these exalted passage will buy luxuries and power and... more wealth.

For the contracts will keep being handed out to the people who already have all the money; they will keep finding ways not to fulfill their obligations so that the contract can last for as long as possible. They will avoid scrutiny because the scrutineers are themselves living off the fat of this war. In the rare event that brave voices speak up about the endless gravy train, they will protest that conditions on the ground are very difficult, that the security situation is grave, that they are doing their best in a desperate situation and they will plead that we must be patient and allow the process to play itself out.

War is a gift from heaven for these corporations. Their everyday `peace-time' activity is rampant enough, but the checks and balances on their activity still chafe. War provides a chance to avoid these checks, it releases massive amounts of money and creates a chaos of unaccountability and lack of regulation. In the midst of all this, money can leak away in bundles and be quietly directed towards those who desire it most - the greedy rich.

A warning though: This is not to say that this is the reason we went to the war in the first place, or even that it was a factor in the decision to go to war. Instead it is simply the case that war tends to throw up situations of chaos which can be easily exploited by the wealthy and powerful. When war is prosecuted by people who have a vested interest in maintaining this chaos (as is often the case) this exploitation increases.

In Iraq this process has gone one surreal step further: The economic chaos of war has itself been promoted by the US and UK as being a major benefit of the war. War has `opened the Iraqi economy to the world,' and has `freed the Iraqi economy for investment and corporate economic activity.' The creed (neo-liberalism) under which these claims are made has provided the cover for this process which amounts to little more than the pillage of Iraq and the laundering of American tax payer's money.

Sources and Other Reading

Much of the material for this article came from "Iraq, Inc." by Pratap Chatterjee. It is highly recommended background reading and provides a host of other examples of dubious corporate activity in Iraq. Naomi Klein's Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neo-con utopia provides further background, as does Iraq Occupation Focus’ excellent fact sheet on the corporate takeover of Iraq.

This article has not examined the [il]legal side of the corporate invasion of Iraq. Explanation of the dubious legal status of much of the corporate activity in Iraq is available at various places on the web: Naomi Klein’s article mentioned above discusses it, and there are various links available, including a legal briefing, in a recent IndyMedia feature.

Getting involved

Activism against corporate exploitation of the occupation of Iraq has been underway in the UK for more than a year. The author is involved with a group called the Corporate Pirates who have recently organised a successful week of action against a British Company called Windrush Communications. The Corporate Pirates campaign has been launched in the UK to highlight the corporate takeover of Iraq and to campaign against those companies profiteering from the war. Later this year four anti-war activists from the group face trial for laying siege to a British company Windrush Communications that facilitates the pillaging of Iraq. [Website Email]

More action is planned focusing on the `Iraqi Petroleum Conference 2005’which is taking place at The Hilton, Paddington from 29 June, a week before the G8. Before the invasion of Iraq the US drew up `sweeping plans to remake Iraq’s economy … based on free-market principles’, including the ‘mass privatisation of Iraqi industry’ – including Iraq’s oil sector (Wall Street Journal, 1 May ‘03). The Iraq Petroleum Conference will form part of this process and activists are focussed on disrupting it.


This blog starts life as a collection of the various essays and articles that I have written in recent years.... In the future, as I write more articles, I shall include them here also.

Typically I have written articles on political matters, with forays into book reviews, spiritual reflections even the odd bit of fiction. I'll kick off by linking to a few of the IndyMedia articles that I have written in recent times. These have appeared on the UK IndyMedia site ( , the Cambridge IndyMedia site ( ) and the Bristol IndyMedia site ( ).

While in Cambridge I wrote articles on a number of different issues:

In (dis)honour of the G8's visit to Edinburgh I wrote several explanatory articles:

I wrote a number of articles about Western corporate activity in post-invasion Iraq:

Since moving to Bristol I've contributed the odd small piece: