The Age of Disintegration: Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World

By Patrick Cockburn

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt:

Here’s an unavoidable fact: we are now in a Brexit world. We are seeing the first signs of a major fragmentation of this planet that, until recently, the cognoscenti were convinced was globalizing rapidly and headed for unifications of all sorts. If you want a single figure that catches the grim spirit of our moment, it’s 65 million. That’s the record-setting number of people that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates were displaced in 2015 by “conflict and persecution,” one of every 113 inhabitants of the planet. That’s more than were generated in the wake of World War II at a time when significant parts of the globe had been devastated. Of the 21 million refugees among them, 51% were children (often separated from their parents and lacking any access to education). Most of the displaced of 2015 were, in fact, internal refugees, still in their own often splintered states. Almost half of those who fled across borders have come from three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).

Despite the headlines about refugees heading for Europe — approximately a million of them made it there last year (with more dying on the way) — most of the uprooted who leave their homelands end up in poor or economically mid-level neighboring lands, with Turkey at 2.5 million refugees leading the way. In this fashion, the disruption of spreading conflicts and chaos, especially across the Greater Middle East and Africa, only brings more conflict and chaos with it wherever those refugees are forced to go.

And keep in mind that, as extreme as that 65 million figure may seem, it undoubtedly represents the beginning, not the end, of a process. For one thing, it doesn’t even include the estimated 19 million people displaced last year by extreme weather events and other natural disasters. Yet in coming decades, the heating of our planet, with attendant weather extremes (like the present heat wave in the American West) and rising sea levels, will undoubtedly produce its own waves of new refugees, only adding to both the conflicts and the fragmentation.

As Patrick Cockburn points out today, we have entered “an age of disintegration.” And he should know. There may be no Western reporter who has covered the grim dawn of that age in the Greater Middle East and North Africa — from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Libya — more fully or movingly than he has over this last decade and a half. His latest book, Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East, gives a vivid taste of his reporting and of a world that is at present cracking under the pressure of the conflicts he has witnessed. And imagine that so much of this began, at the bargain-basement cost of a mere $400,000 to $500,000, with 19 (mainly Saudi) fanatics, and a few hijacked airliners. Osama bin Laden must be smiling in his watery grave. Tom

The Age of Disintegration
Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World
By Patrick Cockburn

We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely reduced to ruins. There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.

All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals — well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than 2.4 million people have been displaced in recent years.

Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.

In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the protest of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama’s Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats’ approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the “root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.

Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.

A Mass Extinction of Independent States

The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise — and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones — is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.

The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police on the books in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have fought their way into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as 900. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.

Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.

Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.

The question for our moment: Why is a “mass extinction” of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? Western politicians and media often refer to such countries as “failed states.” The implication embedded in that term is that the process is a self-destructive one. But several of the states now labeled “failed” like Libya only became so after Western-backed opposition movements seized power with the support and military intervention of Washington and NATO, and proved too weak to impose their own central governments and so a monopoly of violence within the national territory.

In many ways, this process began with the intervention of a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2003 leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the shutting down of his Baathist Party, and the disbanding of his military. Whatever their faults, Saddam and Libya’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi were clearly demonized and blamed for all ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences in the countries they ruled, forces that were, in fact, set loose in grim ways upon their deaths.

A question remains, however: Why did the opposition to autocracy and to Western intervention take on an Islamic form and why were the Islamic movements that came to dominate the armed resistance in Iraq and Syria in particular so violent, regressive, and sectarian? Put another way, how could such groups find so many people willing to die for their causes, while their opponents found so few? When IS battle groups were sweeping through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, soldiers who had thrown aside their uniforms and weapons and deserted that country’s northern cities would justify their flight by saying derisively: “Die for [then-Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki? Never!”

A common explanation for the rise of Islamic resistance movements is that the socialist, secularist, and nationalist opposition had been crushed by the old regimes’ security forces, while the Islamists were not. In countries like Libya and Syria, however, Islamists were savagely persecuted, too, and they still came to dominate the opposition. And yet, while these religious movements were strong enough to oppose governments, they generally have not proven strong enough to replace them.

Too Weak to Win, But Too Strong to Lose

Though there are clearly many reasons for the present disintegration of states and they differ somewhat from place to place, one thing is beyond question: the phenomenon itself is becoming the norm across vast reaches of the planet.

If you’re looking for the causes of state failure in our time, the place to start is undoubtedly with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Once it was over, neither the U.S. nor the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union’s implosion had a significant interest in continuing to prop up “failed states,” as each had for so long, fearing that the rival superpower and its local proxies would otherwise take over. Previously, national leaders in places like the Greater Middle East had been able to maintain a degree of independence for their countries by balancing between Moscow and Washington. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was no longer feasible.

In addition, the triumph of neoliberal free-market economics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse added a critical element to the mix. It would prove far more destabilizing than it looked at the time.

Again, consider Syria. The expansion of the free market in a country where there was neither democratic accountability nor the rule of law meant one thing above all: plutocrats linked to the nation’s ruling family took anything that seemed potentially profitable. In the process, they grew staggeringly wealthy, while the denizens of Syria’s impoverished villages, country towns, and city slums, who had once looked to the state for jobs and cheap food, suffered. It should have surprised no one that those places became the strongholds of the Syrian uprising after 2011. In the capital, Damascus, as the reign of neoliberalism spread, even the lesser members of the mukhabarat, or secret police, found themselves living on only $200 to $300 a month, while the state became a machine for thievery.

This sort of thievery and the auctioning off of the nation’s patrimony spread across the region in these years. The new Egyptian ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, merciless toward any sign of domestic dissent, was typical. In a country that once had been a standard bearer for nationalist regimes the world over, he didn’t hesitate this April to try to hand over two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on whose funding and aid his regime is dependent. (To the surprise of everyone, an Egyptian court recently overruled Sisi’s decision.)

That gesture, deeply unpopular among increasingly impoverished Egyptians, was symbolic of a larger change in the balance of power in the Middle East: once the most powerful states in the region — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — had been secular nationalists and a genuine counterbalance to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies. As those secular autocracies weakened, however, the power and influence of the Sunni fundamentalist monarchies only increased. If 2011 saw rebellion and revolution spread across the Greater Middle East as the Arab Spring briefly blossomed, it also saw counterrevolution spread, funded by those oil-rich absolute Gulf monarchies, which were never going to tolerate democratic secular regime change in Syria or Libya.

Add in one more process at work making such states ever more fragile: the production and sale of natural resources — oil, gas, and minerals — and the kleptomania that goes with it. Such countries often suffer from what has become known as “the resources curse”: states increasingly dependent for revenues on the sale of their natural resources — enough to theoretically provide the whole population with a reasonably decent standard of living — turn instead into grotesquely corrupt dictatorships. In them, the yachts of local billionaires with crucial connections to the regime of the moment bob in harbors surrounded by slums running with raw sewage. In such nations, politics tends to focus on elites battling and maneuvering to steal state revenues and transfer them as rapidly as possible out of the country.

This has been the pattern of economic and political life in much of sub-Saharan Africa from Angola to Nigeria. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, a somewhat different system exists, one usually misunderstood by the outside world. There is similarly great inequality in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with similarly kleptocratic elites. They have, however, ruled over patronage states in which a significant part of the population is offered jobs in the public sector in return for political passivity or support for the kleptocrats.

In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state’s resource revenues would be stolen by the elite. This, in fact, is increasingly the case in such lands as oil prices bottom out and even the Saudi royals begin to cut back on state support for the populace.

Neoliberalism was once believed to be the path to secular democracy and free-market economies. In practice, it has been anything but. Instead, in conjunction with the resource curse, as well as repeated military interventions by Washington and its allies, free-market economics has profoundly destabilized the Greater Middle East. Encouraged by Washington and Brussels, twenty-first-century neoliberalism has made unequal societies ever more unequal and helped transform already corrupt regimes into looting machines. This is also, of course, a formula for the success of the Islamic State or any other radical alternative to the status quo. Such movements are bound to find support in impoverished or neglected regions like eastern Syria or eastern Libya.

Note, however, that this process of destabilization is by no means confined to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. We are indeed in the age of destabilization, a phenomenon that is on the rise globally and at present spreading into the Balkans and Eastern Europe (with the European Union ever less able to influence events there). People no longer speak of European integration, but of how to prevent the complete break-up of the European Union in the wake of the British vote to leave.

The reasons why a narrow majority of Britons voted for Brexit have parallels with the Middle East: the free-market economic policies pursued by governments since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister have widened the gap between rich and poor and between wealthy cities and much of the rest of the country. Britain might be doing well, but millions of Britons did not share in the prosperity. The referendum about continued membership in the European Union, the option almost universally advocated by the British establishment, became the catalyst for protest against the status quo. The anger of the “Leave” voters has much in common with that of Donald Trump supporters in the United States.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was. It, too, is feeling the strains of this global moment, in which it and its local allies are powerful enough to imagine they can get rid of regimes they do not like, but either they do not quite succeed, as in Syria, or succeed but cannot replace what they have destroyed, as in Libya. An Iraqi politician once said that the problem in his country was that parties and movements were “too weak to win, but too strong to lose.” This is increasingly the pattern for the whole region and is spreading elsewhere. It carries with it the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability that has already begun.


Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London and the author of five books on the Middle East, the latest of which is Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East(OR Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Cockburn

The #1 Factor Experts Say Accounts for High Number of Mass Shootings in U.S.

Welcome to the world of environmental criminology.

By Patricia Pearson / Reprinted from AlterNet

June 21, 2016

GunsCanadians are reputed to be polite. But that isn’t a very compelling argument for why the lone wolves there are less inclined to engage in the kind of mass shooting that occurred in Orlando. All three pathologies that appeared to be in play at the horrific Pulse nightclub massacre—homophobia, psychological instability and adherence to a cult-like “Ism” that could act as a justifying frame in the killer’s mind—exist for some of Canada’s citizens as well. Two of those factors resulted in rifle bullets whizzing around the halls of the Canadian Parliament in October 2014.

The shooter, Michael-Zahef Bibeau, had an illegally acquired Winchester Model 94, a deer-hunting rifle that enabled him to fire off all of seven rounds before he had to halt in his tracks and fumble to reload. He was handily tackled at that point by security. Just hold that thought.

Canadians have had their fair share of “mass stabbings,” which virtually by definition don’t turn out to be particularly massive. Knives don’t kill people, people kill people, but people kill people on a markedly diminished scale with knives, and that’s hard not to notice for those of us who live outside the U.S.

To acquire and carry a gun in Canada, you need to go through a mind-boggling number of tests and procedures, the results of which are then vetted by police. Each one of these steps surely acts as a cool-down procedure on a mentally unstable mind.

Explosively enraged at the world? First attend your “gun safety class” on a Saturday, next available slot in two months, in the town 20 miles from your house. Then study for, write and pass the safety test that enables you to apply—to the police—for a license. That will entail extensive background checking on their part, after which you may or may not be freed to research where you can go to purchase your weapon and finally unleash your hateful rage.

A commonly repeated argument in the U.S. is that men of murderous intent will just go ahead and buy their guns on the black market. Perhaps, but in Canada apparently there aren’t many assault rifles lying around. The black market, after all, isn’t just down the street beside the corner store. It’s more akin to a word-of-mouth social network. Think loosely assembled gangs passing around Glocks as opposed to isolated, fantasizing aggressors with no real-world criminal ties, like Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook.

The internet is a grand marketplace for pathologies but not that helpful when things have to be delivered by UPS. So if the guns aren’t legally on offer, or indeed, in Lanza’s case, in the house, then the black market will tend to act as a baffle.

Canada’s largest gun massacre took place in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was directed at female engineering students in Montreal, slaying 14. The date, December 6, has become a national day of mourning and activism for violence against women. In other words, mass shootings in your neighbor to the north are sufficiently rare that we all still focus on that particular event 27 years ago, in an annual memorial event. (The Montreal Massacre also led to an overhaul of gun laws.)

What, then, has enabled so many mentally unstable Americans to inflict so much carnage that America can sometimes feel as chaotic and unsafe as the marketplaces of Baghdad? If florid gun availability isn’t your go-to answer, consider the answer a different way. There is a subfield within criminological theory called “environmental criminology.” The ideas kicked around in this field are that people don’t commit crimes due to intrinsic factors like poverty or instability unless they are swimming in an environment of criminal possibility. Readily available, high-velocity weapons, for instance, would be a feature of that environment.

One of the frames for this discussion in criminology is “routine activities theory,” first proposed by Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen. According to this theory, a woman is more likely, for example, to be sexually assaulted in an urban area near a transit route than in an empty farmhouse far from help, because the farmhouse is simply not on her attacker’s routine pathway.

The criminologist Kim Rossmo of Texas State University in Austin has developed an investigative approach he calls geographic profiling, in which you can map the routine activities of unidentified violent offenders and determine where to look for them based on where they committed their crime. Why? Because the perpetrator will have traversed his daily life routes multiple times, like an animal circling its territory, before summoning the nerve to attack. Multiple times he will travel past the same bus stop where he began taking note of a potential victim, while on the way home from his job.

In light of these ideas, one might imagine what fermentation takes place in an unstable mind passing several times a month past a gun display. Guns like the AR-15 are, or have been until recently, on sale at Walmart, Target, Costco, and every other shop you’d routinely pass by as an American living in a state like Florida. What if, over time, an inchoate idea becomes fixed, or a plan becomes psychologically plausible because the opportunity repeatedly presents itself?

It’s like a nightmare funhouse version of the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could. The notion that those guns are easily available to you, and can be used to commit mass murder, is then, arguably, reinforced each time a mass murder makes headlines.

ISIL and Al Qaeda are undeniably goading anyone who will listen to take up arms against the West. But in North America at least, they aren’t the ones supplying the arms. Without ready access to guns, radicalized Canadians have done their best: one used a car to run over a Canadian Armed Forces Officer in Quebec two years ago. Others have been arrested for scheming to blow up a train.

Yet, from our standpoint as witnesses to the roiling tragedies of American gun violence, Omar Mateen actually has more in common with Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, in spite of their ostensibly different sources of inspiration. Senator MaCain may wish to blame Orlando on Obama’s foreign policy, but on what does he blame Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech and Georgia? The reality is that all of these shooters were swimming in the same violent sea.


Canadian journalist Patricia Pearson’s most recent book is Opening Heaven’s Door.

Local Citizens’ Group Takes Legal Action Against City of Grass Valley

By Don Pelton

Attorney Michael W. Graf, representing local citizens’ group, Citizens Advocating Responsible Development (CARD), yesterday filed a petition in Nevada County Superior Court challenging the City of Grass Valley’s “actions on May 10, 2016 and May 24, 2016 approving Text Amendments of the Whispering Pines Specific Plan SP-1A Corporate Business Park designation.” Graf, in his notice to the City, added that “petitioner’s actions will include claims under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”

The complete “Petition for Writ of Mandate” plus associated documents filed yesterday (including Graf’s notice to the City) can be read in their entirety here.

As I reported on May 11th (see “Grass Valley City Council Ignores CEQA Guidelines in Last Night’s Whispering Pines Decision“), the “Grass valley City Council last night voted 3 (Jason Fouyer, Howard Levine, Ben Aguilar) to 2 (Jan Arbuckle, Lisa Swarthout) to adopt an ordinance that includes (1) amendments to the Whispering Pines Business Park Specific Plan and (2) the adoption of a Negative Declaration as ‘the appropriate level of environmental review’ of these amendments.”

Now that the City is facing legal action over this issue, it has scheduled a closed meeting next Tuesday the 14th (prior to the regular City Council meeting) in order to discuss the matter, although there are no items concerning Whispering Pines in the regular open agenda for Tuesday. The following notice describing the reason for the closed meeting appears in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting:

closed_meetingThe “copy available for public inspection in Clerk’s Office” (referred to above) is most likely the same Petition and associated documents that I’ve made available here.

Attorney Michael Graf’s filing is a model of clarity, and leaves little doubt that — in approving the zoning changes — both Planning staff and the three Council members who approved the zoning changes failed to adequately consider CEQA’s requirements in the broadest sense (as they apply to potential environmental impacts) and in the narrowest details (the City’s failure to recirculate the revised Negative Declaration for further public comment).

The formal Petition for Writ of Mandate concludes with this request:

petition_prayer

 

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