Neoliberalism and Its Discontents

One might think that in this brave new world of escalating global economic and social problems and burgeoning BRICs, priority might be given to forging consensus with the new rising powers to get the planet out of its economic rut and building a future less reliant on ruinous competition for resources and security.

However, it seems that traditional elites are more interested in keeping the mace of geopolitical power and moral authority firmly in the hands of the West.

The claim that fealty to Western neo-liberalism is the key to global peace and prosperity looks increasingly threadbare.  Nevertheless, the undeniable attractiveness—and political corrosiveness—of democratic ideals to the societies of the authoritarian regimes holds out the hope that Western values will prevail even as the Western nation-states forged in the 19th and 20th century crumble under the assaults of globalization, increasingly mobile capital, and disengaged elites.

Therefore, as the US and European economies struggle with anemic economic growth and political gridlock, it is desperately important for proponents of both Western hegemony and liberal democracy to assert that We Did the Right Thing in Libya.

Of course, we didn’t do the Right Thing in Libya, as Alexander Cockburn’s stable of correspondents  have been pointing out indefatigably in the pages of Counterpunch.

The Western and Gulf powers illegally provided military support for a hodgepodge of anti-Gaddafi forces under cover of a UN resolution to “protect civilians”.

The whole enterprise seemed doomed to an embarrassing collapse and negotiated settlement at the beginning of August.

However, it appears that an as yet underappreciated factor in Gaddafi’s fall was the implacable hatred of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE for the Libyan autocrat—and their willingness to act on that hatred beyond their rather symbolic support of the NATO air war.

As the Benghazi-based TNC flailed away in eastern Libya, the “Tripoli Brigade” under Abdelkarim Belhadj drove on Tripoli and occupied it end-August, aided by the timely defection of a Gaddafi brigade commander, Barani Eshkal, and the surrender of his Mohammed Megrayef Brigade, which had been entrusted with the defense of the capital.

Belhadj, a militant Islamist, one-time leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and reputed friend of al Qaeda, had been captured by the US in 2004 and tortured in a black prison in Thailand before being handed over to Gaddafi.

In what was not an example of Saif Gaddafi’s best work, at least in retrospect, Belhadj was released in 2010 as part of an effort to defang and integrate Islamists into the Gaddafian Libyan order.

The obvious inference would appear to be that Belhadj was assisted by the Arab Gulf  states in 2011 out of sympathy for his militant Sunni leanings, and to rescue the Libyan adventure from Western blundering.

Indeed, an al Jazeera video from June 6 preserved on Youtube features attendance by correspondent James Bays at an orchestrated display of Tripoli Brigade will and martial prowess and included the declaration that new weapons provided by the UAE and Qatar “would soon arrive”– seemingly illegal support at that stage of the “civilian protection” effort.

It is also not impossible that Gulf gold was deployed to arrange the timely surrender of the Mohammed Megrayef Brigade, or that the torture and murder of the chief rebel commander (and suspected accommodationist)  Abdel Fateh Younes, represented the determination of Gulf-backed Islamist forces to take the bit in their teeth put an end to the dilatory phony war conducted out of Benghazi.

Given the instinctive discretion of the Gulf States and the almost hysterical need of the Western powers to claim credit for the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime, it will be interesting to see when and if the full story of the role of Islamists and the Sunni Gulf autocracies ever comes out.

In any case, don’t expect to see a lot of think pieces about the fall of Gaddafi as a victory for the forces of the conservative Sunni counter-revolution in your hometown paper.

Julian Assange has also fallen victim to the neo-liberalist need to defend the US and other Western democracies against charges of immorality, incompetence, and growing irrelevance.

On the left, one might believe that the wholesale release of government cables might be regarded as a victory for transparency, citizen supervision, whatever.

However, with a few notable exceptions (CounterPunch again,, and Glenn Greenwald) the general response has been queasy anxiety and a lot of sniggering over Julian Assange’s sexual techniques and dance style, even as “liberal” media outlets have liberally availed themselves of the revelations in the cables for their news stories—and Bradley Manning rots in detention for his defense of the apparently indefensible “right to know”.

Recently, Wikileaks got its tit in a wringer when it was revealed that a complete, unredacted file of the cables (revealing the identities of whistleblowers and other informants) emerged on the Internet.  The file was accessible to all since its public encryption key had been published in a book by the Guardian’s David Leigh.

Apparently, nobody had discovered the second file and put it together with Leigh’s revelation of the actual password in his book until this week.

The implication appears to be that the second file was Assange’s insurance policy, destined for release if he got handed over to the U.S. authorities.

The subsequent back and forth reveals a lot about the unacknowledged synergies between the media and Wikileaks.  Wikileaks issued an editorial describing its process and its fraught relations with the Guardian:

The WikiLeaks method involves a sophisticated procedure of packaging leaked US diplomatic cables up into country groups or themes, such as ’resources corruption’, and providing it to those organizations that agreed to do the most research in exchange for time-limited exclusivity. As part of the WikiLeaks agreement, these groups, using their local knowledge, remove the names of persons reporting unjust acts to US embassies, and feed the results back to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks then publishes, simultaneously with its partners, the underlying cables together with the politically explosive revelations. This way publications that are too frightened to publish the cables have the proof they need, and the public can check to make sure the claims are accurate.

Guardian investigations editor, David Leigh, recklessly, and without gaining our approval, knowingly disclosed the decryption passwords in a book published by the Guardian. Leigh states the book was rushed forward to be written in three weeks—the rights were then sold to Hollywood.

The following extract is from the Guardian book:

* * *

Leigh tried his best not to fall out with this Australian impresario, who was prone to criticise what he called the “snaky Brits”. Instead, Leigh used his ever-shifting demands as a negotiating lever. “You want us to postpone the Iraq logs’ publication so you can get some TV,” he said. [WikiLeaks: We required more time for redactions and to complete its three Iraq war documentaries commissioned through the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The documentaries were syndicated through Channel 4 (UK) and al Jazeera English and Arabic] “We could refuse, and simply go ahead with publication as planned. If you want us to do something for you, then you’ve got to do something for us as well.” He asked Assange to stop procrastinating, and hand over the biggest trove of all: the cables. Assange said, “I could give you half of them, covering the first 50% of the period.”

Leigh refused. All or nothing, he said. “What happens if you end up in an orange jump-suit en route to Guantánamo before you can release the full files?” In return he would give Assange a promise to keep the cables secure, and not to publish them until the time came. Assange had always been vague about timing: he generally indicated, however, that October would be a suitable date. He believed the US army’s charges against the imprisoned soldier Bradley Manning would have crystallised by then, and publication could not make his fate any worse. He also said, echoing Leigh’s gallows humour: “I’m going to need to be safe in Cuba first!” Eventually, Assange capitulated. Late at night, after a two-hour debate, he started the process on one of his little netbooks that would enable Leigh to download the entire tranche of cables. The Guardian journalist had to set up the PGP encryption system on his laptop at home across the other side of London. Then he could feed in a password. Assange wrote down on a scrap of paper:


“That’s the password,” he said. “But you have to add one extra word when you type it in. You have to put in the word ‘XXXXXXX’ before the word ‘XXXXXX’ [WikiLeaks: so if the paper were seized, the password would not work without Leigh’s co-operation] Can you remember that?” “I can remember that.” Leigh set off home, and successfully installed the PGP software.

[In Leigh’s book, the offending password is completely described.]

WikiLeaks severed future projects with the Guardian in December last year after it was discovered that the Guardian was engaged in a conspiracy to publish the cables without the knowledge of WikiLeaks, seriously compromising the security of people in the United States and an alleged source who was in pre-trial detention. Leigh, without any basis, and in a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics, named Bradley Manning as the Cablegate source in his book. David Leigh secretly passed the entire archive to Bill Keller of the New York Times, in September 2011, or before, knowingly destroying WikiLeaks plans to publish instead with the Washington Post & McClatchy.

David Leigh and the Guardian have subsequently and repeatedly violated WikiLeaks security conditions, including our requirements that the unpublished cables be kept safe from state intelligence services by keeping them only on computers not connected to the internet. Ian Katz, Deputy Editor of the Guardian admitted in December 2010 meeting that this condition was not being followed by the Guardian.

The Guardian responded:

Initially, as has been widely reported, Assange was unwilling to remove material to protect informants but the Guardian and its media partners persuaded him that the diplomatic cables should be carefully redacted before release, and this editing process was carried out by the newspapers. We are deeply concerned that the release of the unredacted files could put at risk sources we and our partner newspapers worked very hard to protect.

WikiLeaks published 130,000 apparently unredacted cables last week. Until Wednesday of this week very few people had the required information to access the full cables, but over the last few days WikiLeaks has published more and more hints about how they could be accessed and are now carrying out their own “online poll” about whether they should publish all the cables.

WikiLeaks should take responsibility for its own pattern of actions and not seek to deflect it elsewhere.

The Guardian’s defense seems to be castigating Wikileaks for following up with release of the unredacted cables after the public file was put together with the password in Leigh’s book.

Wikileaks attitude appears to be that bad guys have already obtained the decrypted data, so the issue of Wikileaks subsequently distributing the cables to the general public is moot.

As to why the second file was dumped on the Internet with the same encryption as the Guardian file, one explanation appears to be Wikileaks gormlessness.  Another possibility is that Assange 1) wanted the Guardian to be able ton confirm the bona fides of the publicly available encrypted file and 2) did not realize that Leigh’s fetish for veracity would lead him to put the actual password in his quickie book.

The Guardian continued with the “irresponsible Wikileaks” framing with an article titled Wikileaks prepares to release unredacted US cables.

The article could also have been entitled Guardian anxiously backfills on Wikileaks story.

The reportage contained an interesting nugget:

However, at a later stage the same encrypted file and at least one other encrypted with the same password was posted on the peer-to-peer file-sharing network BitTorrent. One of these files was first published on 7 December 2010, just hours before Assange’s arrest. In the days running up to his arrest, Assange had spoken of “taking precautions” in the event of anything untoward happening to him.

This file, it was later discovered, was the same file that had been shared with the Guardian via the secure server. It shared the same file name and file size, and could be unlocked using the same password as that given to Leigh.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former member of staff at WikiLeaks who is attempting to set up a rival whistleblowing website, discovered this republished file and shared information on WikiLeaks’s security breach with a small group of journalists.

Maybe we haven’t learned the last of Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s intimacies with “a small group of journalists”.  Then again, given the general scalphunting of Assange, maybe we have.

Finally, China.

China has been doing rather well in its economic and military competition with the West, and the apparent result that criticism of its democratic shortcomings must be ratcheted up proportionally.

Neo-liberalism is alive and well inside China as well, at least among dissident intellectuals.

A prominent pro-democracy blogger, Yang Hengjun, praised the Libyan revolt as an exercise in popular democracy.

Then he doubled down, going where few American pundits dare to go, and praised the US invasion of Iraq (Yang also tiptoed close to the line of sedition by holding up the example of North Korea, a frequent stalking horse for Chinese dissident criticisms of CCP rule, as a suitable target for intensified US democratic intervention):

[W]e can’t help but remember the words we’ve seen on so many websites in China lately: “We’re concerned that Libya might become another Iraq . . . ”

“Another Iraq”? This definitely means seeing Iraq as a negative example. After the American invasion of Iraq there certainly was a time of chaos and killing, but was that not because the dictator Saddam was unwilling to give up his absolute rule and continued to put up a resistance? Try asking the Iraqi people: How many of you are unwilling to make these sacrifices and would rather return to the era of Saddam Hussein? Was there less mass murder and chaos in Iraq under Saddam than there is now?

Iraq today is certainly not a negative example. Just look at the way major television news networks no longer have news to broadcast about mass killings and you know. Particularly in comparison to the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is heading towards brighter times.

When we hear international media reporting again and again on continued chaos and violence in Iraq, however, and when see Iraqis saying on the television that times aren’t as good as they once were, this in fact shows us the biggest difference between Iraq in the time of Saddam and Iraq today. In the Saddam era, did we ever see Iraqis looking into the lens of international media and daring to express their dissatisfaction with political leaders? Those who see Iraq as a textbook of bad examples should look at North Korea, which the American military never has managed to topple. Are the people there harmonious? Are there no killings? Is there no chaos?

America is the world’s preeminent political, economic and military power, and it is also the base camp for so-called freedom and democracy. These actions to overthrow political despots can’t happen without America’s participation.

Iraqis are welcome to weigh in on the benefits of the US invasion.

As a first-hand consumer of 21st-century corporate democracy, American-style, I am not as sanguine as Mr. Yang.

In any case, I predict that, in direct proportion to Chinese economic and political rise—and despite any baby steps the regime might take in the direction of democracy and freedom of expression—the neo-liberal critique of China’s democratic failings will intensify.

Because the West is increasingly anxious to validate its own values (and assert its moral and political relevance) by holding up China as the supreme counter-example.

Panda-pummelers will be encouraged by the fact that the CCP appears genuinely befuddled about how to deal with the refusal of the West and domestic dissidents to acknowledge the legitimacy and achievements of its rule, the wealth and power and bread and circuses.

Its ham-fisted attempts to muzzle domestic and international critics merely draws attention to the issue and accentuates the weakness of its arguments.

Therefore, the irresistible temptation will be to escalate and seek to further undermine the legitimacy and political foundations of the regime.

If the PRC regime falls victim to an Arab Spring-style uprising, we can celebrate the power of democracy and ignore the whole US-brewed illegal wars/security state/global economic meltdown/war against the poor/corporatist democracy cum gridlock magilla.

I don’t think we’ll see Sarkozy and Henri-Levy announcing an R2P operation to protect China’s endangered conceptual artists.  But we’ll see plenty of provocations and countermeasures against PRC military and economic power designed to highlight its immorality and illegitimacy.

It’s an inherently destabilizing and dangerous dynamic.  However, since the alternative would be a painful examination of the deficiencies of the Western model in its current form, the combination of Western weakness and PRC strength will be perilous—for China.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.