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Imperialism and the Stupid Show

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, 2015 – Public Domain

“During the Cold War, and especially in the wake of the Chinese Revolution, it was commonly thought by US planners that too many Third World “mouths to feed” would inevitably create conditions hospitable to Communism. The fall of the USSR failed to alleviate such fears but instead transferred them to a new set of adversaries: popular resistance groups primarily located in the Middle East and typically designated with the catch-all term “terrorists.” Thus the 1986 report of the US Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism warned that “population pressures create a volatile mixture of youthful aspirations that when coupled with economic and political frustrations help form a large pool of potential terrorists” (Public Report 1986: )”

– Jacob Levich, Global Health and U.S. Imperialism, 2019

“But also the real government policy of population control, whether that be sterilization, genocide or anything within the military-industrial complex. Who is targeted? The poor and brown, always.”

– Nick Pemberton, Mom and Pop-ulation, Counterpunch 2019

“…the export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism … sets the seal of parasitism on the whole country that lives by exploiting the labor of several overseas countries and colonies.”

– Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

There is a political consequence to injecting a pessimistic world view (as David Harvey put it) into a hierarchically structured capitalist system, one based on racial and class lines and in which it is a given that the goal is a preservation of capitalism. That consequence is, as yet, unclear. What is clear that the proprietor class, the owners of Western capital, are terrified by the spectre of environmental instability — but they also view it in that way that they view everything, as a business opportunity.

There is also today a crisis in education. And it is intimately related to the environmental crises. Informally I have spoken to educators in Norway, where I live, and they are both frightened and appalled at the loss of cognitive skills, the erosion in writing and even speech, in students at the high school and college level. Students, they say, cannot understand even simple verbal instructions. They cannot concentrate for very long and are easily distracted. And they can barely read.

“When scientists from the Norway’s Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research analyzed some 730,000 IQ tests given to Norwegian men before their compulsory military service from 1970 to 2009, they found that average IQ scores were actually sinking. And not just by some miniscule amount. Each generation of Norwegian men appear to be getting around seven IQ points dumber. “

– Jessica Stillman, Inc. 2018

This is referred to as the reversing of the Flynn affect.

Of course one of the first responses was linked to the racist neo-colonial logic of eugenics…

“More recently, some observers have suggested that average IQs are coming down because of dysgenic fertility—that is, because less intelligent people are having more children than smarter folks—or because of lower-IQ immigrants and their children.”

– Ronald Bailey, Reason, 2018

Now, the very idea of quantifying intelligence is itself a legacy of the positivist instrumental logic of western capital. It is also, almost certainly, acutely racist and classist. But…Mark Morford, a columnist for the S.F. Gate, talked to a high school teacher friend of his in Oakland….“But most of all, he simply observes his students, year to year, noting all the obvious evidence of teens’ decreasing abilities when confronted with even the most basic intellectual tasks, from understanding simple history to working through moderately complex ideas to even (in a couple recent examples that particularly distressed him) being able to define the words “agriculture,” or even “democracy.” Not a single student could do it. It gets worse. My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he’s taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English. They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph.”

– San Francisco Gate, 2018

So this is not about measuring intelligence. IQ tests are, as I say, biased in dozens of ways. But I don’t think you can find a high school or University teacher who would not agree with the general decline in reading and writing skills. And I have noted, personally, a horrifying decline in curiosity. I rarely ever have found students curious enough to go look things up for themselves. The reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this article. (I have written about the evolution of visual processing and the creation of an ideal observer, on my blog. Jonathan Crary and Jonathan Beller both have profound books out on subjects inextricably linked to media and cognitive development, or lack thereof). The point here is that this loss of curiosity and literacy is not the result of a single simple thing. Nor is it a moral argument about values or some shit that Bill Bennett might have come up with. It is about a system of hegemonic control that has encouraged a surplus populace to a life spent on screens, distracted and stupified. And how this is tied into western capital and its insistence on social control and domination.

“There can be no question that the existing social order perceived itself to be under some kind of threat in the late 1960s (particularly in France and the US, and now in Britain). Was it accidental that the environmentalist argument emerged so strongly in 1968 at the crest of campus disturbances? And what was the effect of replacing Marcuse by Ehrlich as campus hero?”

David Harvey (Spaces of capital: towards a critical geography, 2001)

There is another closely linked topic here, and that is the manner in which western capital and its various institutions, both governmental and not, are penetrating into all areas of life globally.

Jacob Levich, begins his invaluable article this way…

“Interventions in the field of public health are a significant form of “soft power” by which imperialism extracts profits from the world’s poorest billions. US involvement in the health field is intended, inter alia, to help ensure efficient use of low-cost labor in transnational production chains; to support and rationalize military interventions; to create and exploit worldwide markets for health-care products, especially pharmaceuticals; and broadly to consolidate control over the lives and bodies of Global South people.”

(ibid)

This is the world of NGOs, government initiatives, charitable and religious organizations, and pan-national corporations — all of which form what Levich calls *Global Health Imperialism*.

The biggest of these is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Overarching health-care planning, policies, and programs for the people of poor countriesare determined by the experts and financiers of wealthy countries.”

– Levich (ibid)

It is useful to watch this half hour video by Dutch journalists on the practices (and ideology) of the World Wildlife Fund.

It speaks to the staggering racism and orientalism of western NGOs, and most disturbingly those who are provided cover by claiming to be Green.

Now, the desire for global hegemony is what fuels the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The U.S. continues (and, really, escalates) its support for the insane young crown prince of Saudi Arabia (Mohammed Bin Salman) as well as its continuing support and subsidizing of Israel. The failed coup in Venezuela has not deterred the U.S. establishment in the least. And to segue back to eroding cognitive skills the latest polls out indicate Americans view Maduro as a dictator and Assange as a criminal deserving of severe punishment. Americans are quite possibly the most indoctrinated populace in the history of the world. How much of this is to be laid at the feet of electronic media, of screen life overall, is hard to say, but I would tend toward believing quite a lot.

“Television was only the first of a category of apparatuses with which we are currently surrounded that are most often used out of powerful habitual patterning involving a diffuse attentiveness and a semi-automatism. In this sense, they are part of larger strategies of power in which the aim is not mass-deception, but rather states of neutralization and inactivation, in which one is dispossessed of time”

– Jonathan Crary, 24/7

It is worth digressing just a moment here to note Crary’s insightful take on the work of Philip K. Dick, and how Hollywood predictably inverted the meaning of his books. The popularity of the film version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner) belies the reactionary core of the film version. Here is Crary…

“But the refusal to capitulate to the laws of a thing-like existence in Do Androids Dream? gives way to something very different in its film adaptation. The novel’s account of the unremitting and petty ruin of individual experience is turned into a world-weary celebration of the petrification and “malign abstractness” from which Dick recoiled. Appearing during the early Reagan-Thatcher years, Blade Runner is an outline of a reconfigured relationship to an emerging global consumer culture that would be more securely in place by the 1990s. Rather than tracking any kind of split between the self and this milieu, the film affirms a functional assimilation of the individual into the circuitry and workings of an expanded field of commodification. It makes emotionally credible the bleak threshold at which the technological products of corporations become the object of our desires, our hopes. The film visualized the de-differentiated spaces in which machines and humans were interchangeable, in which distinctions between living and inanimate, between human memories and fabricated memory implants, cease to be meaningful.”

(ibid)

I mention this because this is perhaps a small example (though perhaps not) but it is one in a nearly infinite number of examples in which the establishment (Hollywood in this case) absorb and repurpose radical material, neutralize dissent, and turn into its opposite. How many times did the average American hear that Maduro was a dictator? A thousand? Ten thousand? The list of U.S. enemies is routinely demonized in Hollywood product. Find me a single show in which the Cuban revolution is praised? A single show that mentions the U.S. air force total destruction of North Korea in the 1950s. One example in which Ho Chi Minh is portrayed as heroic, or even as a legitimate leader of resistance to an invading army. You cannot. But you find a hundreds of examples of Serbian villains or Russian gangsters, or assassins sent by Chavez or the Sandanistas. Nowhere is the real history of Haiti portrayed, or the story of United Fruit and central America. These small deceptions and revisionist mini-histories are cumulatively the history of the world known by most Americans. And we have not even touched on the history of slavery in the United States and how it is cleansed by western media.

“But Ivy spilled out a rush of very different words. “They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. Each one of them had an old tow sack on his back with everything he’s got in it. Over the hills they came in lines reaching as far as the eye can see. They walked in double lines chained together by twos. They walk ‘em here to the railroad and shipped ’em south like cattle.” Then Lorenzo Ivy said this: “Truly, son, the half has never been told.” To this, day, it still has not. For the other half is the story of how slavery changed and moved and grew over time: Lorenzo Ivy’s time, and that of his parents and grandparents. In the span of a single lifetime after the 1780s, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out plantations to a subcontinental empire. Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized—also by force—from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African-American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation.”

– Edward Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

The real problem for western capital, for those espousing green awareness and those injecting the new green pessimism, is that technology cannot cure the problems of technology’s waste. Nor the likely damage to young brains in their developmental phase. Capitalism cannot self correct for then it would not be capitalism. Pessimism, like cynicism, is a cliched form of conformity (per Adorno). The crises of capitalism is also yielding (semi intentionally) the acute rise of a new global fascism. And the western imperialist powers rely even more heavily on militarist solutions.

“Maritime transport systems are also integrated into the tail end of the life cycle of digital media. The European Environment Agency “estimates between 250,000 tonnes and 1.3m tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year, mostly to west Africa and Asia,” with Interpol stating that one in three inspected containers leaving European ports contained illegal e-waste (Vidal) ( ) is suggests, once again, that technological solutions for technological problems may not be any more sustainable than the problems they set out to solve. It is worth reiterating that the major function of container fleets and land transport is not business-to-consumer but business-to-business delivery, including legal and illegal shipments to legal and illegal recycling zones, and consequently that consumer power has little chance of impacting industry practice. “

– Sean Cubitt, Finite Media

“In the United States, about 400 million units of consumer electronics are discarded every year. Electronic waste, like obsolete cellular telephones, computers, monitors, and televisions, composes the fastest growing and most toxic portion of waste in American society. As a result of rapid technological change, low initial cost, and planned obsolescence, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that two-thirds of all discarded consumer electronics still work—approximately 250 million functioning computers, televisions, VCRs, and cell phones are discarded each year in the United States. Digital culture is embedded in a large pile of network wires, lines, routers, switches, and other very material things that, as Jonathan Sterne acutely and bluntly states, “will be trashed.” Far from being accidental, discarding and obsolescence are in fact internal to contemporary media technologies. As Sterne argues, the logic of new media does not only mean the replacement of old media by new media but that digital culture is loaded with the assumption and expectation of a short-term forthcoming obsolescence. There is always a better laptop or mobile phone on the horizon: new media always become old.”

– Jussi Parikka, Digital Mediations

The western affluent class is faced with the reality that they consume the most. And to change that would mean changing a system of narcissistic individualism and privilege. A system of private property. Planned obsolescence is the logic of capitalism. Designed to fail the day after the warranty expires. Crary argues, and I think he is mostly right, that social upheavals of the sixties were followed by thirty some years of counter revolutionary practice enforced by the ruling class. As Crary writes..“Beginning in the 1980s and continuing since, these events of the 1960s and their participants have been ferociously converted into hollow caricatures, into objects of ridicule, demonization, and trivialization.But the extensiveness and malevolence of the historical falsifications are an index of the danger levels the culture of the 1960s posed, even in its afterlife. ”

Today this ideological revanchism is clothed in green pseudo science and prey to capital’s marketing arm. I have read elaborate mathematical analysis of climatic warming and populations and consumption of petroleum, without a single word about class. Suddenly it’s all just generic *people*, as if Kazakh sheep herders were the same as Hong Kong bankers and hedge fund managers or European aristocracy. Where Berber nomads are lumped together with jet setting millionaires and their private jets. I expect this level of stupid from the Wall Street Journal but not from alternative media.

There are a few rather obvious things to be said here about globalization, too, and Imperialism, for they tie into the marketing of Green product under Capitalism, and into the ever dumber class of western youth.

“Not only did Cuba’s Communist leadership avail themselves of every opportunity to denounce imperialist exploitation and arouse workers, farmers, and youth to rise up in revolt against it, they also fought hard for trade with the Soviet Union and other Comecon countries to fundamentally break from the exploitative pattern of trade between rich and poor countries. Indeed, the only example of fair trade between industrialized and developing nations in the modern world is to be found in the economic relations developed between Cuba and the USSR until the latter’s collapse in 1991.”

– John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.

The new pessimism coming from liberal and pseudo leftist writers is pure narcissism. There is a global crises of capitalism and it is built on the super exploitation of the global south. Running alongside this are critical problems of pollution, industrial waste, and global warming. The impact from the latter is still unclear partly because so much of its reportage is from sources devoid of any class analysis or marxist education. In other words most science writing is western based and couched in the delusions of liberalism. The institutional corruption one sees in nearly all western based NGOs (think Amnesty International as the prime example) is structurally the cause of so much suspect science-ism, which mimics the Hollywood world of computer geniuses and Marvell Comics super heroes, and Mad Max landscapes. One can know the climate problem is deadly serious, but still evidence credulity about pop-explanations and all the new grammar associated with it (wet bulb, carrying capacity, etc).

“Although the global crisis first manifested in the sphere of finance and banking, what’s now engulfing the world is far more than a financial crisis. It is the inevitable and now unpostponable outcome of the contradictions of capitalist production itself. In just three decades, capitalist production and its inherent contradictions have been utterly transformed by the vast global shift of production to low-wage countries, with the result that profits, prosperity, and social peace in imperialist countries have become qualitatively more dependent upon the proceeds of super-exploitation of living labor in countries like Vietnam, Mexico, Bangladesh, and China. It follows that this is not just a financial crisis, and it is not just another crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis of imperialism.”

– John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century

The effects of screen damage, or screen addiction, are acute. The extent and nature of this damage is yet to be determined, I don’t think, but clearly we are into probably the third generation now of cognitively mutilated children and youth. And it is hard, and I am speaking of the West and perhaps primarily the U.S., not to analyse much of this as resulting from a pathological narcissistic state.

“Social effectiveness is equated by liberals with economic efficiency which, in turn, is confounded with the financial profitability of capital. These reductions express the dominance of the economic, a dominance characteristic of capitalism. The atrophied social thought derived from this dominance is “economistic” in the extreme. Curiously, this reproach, wrongly directed at Marxism, in fact characterizes capitalist liberalism.  Economics and politics do not form two dimensions of social reality, each having their own autonomy, operating in a dialectical relationship; capitalist economics in fact governs the political, whose creative potential it eliminates.”

– Samir Amin, The Virus of Liberalism: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World

And this narcissism overlaps with the idea of ‘American Exceptionalism’. An exceptionalism that is, in fact, the legacy of Puritanism and Protestant morality that helped shape the American consciousness and has abetted the ruling class in its designs for social domination. Donald Pease posits the siege at WACO and the Oklahoma City bombing as the twin poles of the ‘apocalyptic state fantasy of American exceptionalism’; a kind of regeneration through violence (as Richard Slotkin put it) …a violence that was set against a kitsch frontier landscape, the sort that white America seems to endlessly desire and consume. But then…

“The events that took place on September 11, 2001, supplied the state with a traumatizing event out of which it constructed a spectacle that accomplished several interrelated aims. September 11 supplied a conclusive ending to the cold war even as it permitted the state to inaugurate an utterly different social configuration. The description of the site of the attack on the World Trade Center as “Ground Zero” supplied this scene with a representation that the bombing of Hiroshima had installed in the national psyche as one of the terrifying images with which to imagine the conclusion of the cold war. The Shock and Awe campaign with which the Bush administration inaugurated its response to these attacks became the first event in a total war—the Global War on Terror—whose powers of governance surpassed even the reach of the cold war.”

– Donald Pease, The New American Exceptionalism

And the nearly hysterical insistence that “socialism failed”, the Reagan outspent the Soviets trope, or that somehow everyone in the world hated communism and it was an evil empire! In fact the super exploited global south remains steadfastly loyal to the memory of communism and the Soviet support for African and Latin American independence.

Bourgeois economics mirrors the unreality one sees in much lay science writing, the same conformist consensus about expertise overrides even basic logic.

“Economics thus becomes a discourse which is no longer engaged in knowing reality; its function is no more than to legitimize capitalism by attributing to it intrinsic qualities which it cannot have. Pure economics becomes the theory of an imaginary world. The dominant forces are such because they succeed in imposing their language on their victims. The “experts” of conventional economics have managed to make believe that their analyses and the conclusions drawn from them are imperative because they are “scientific,” hence objective, neutral and unavoidable.
This is not true.”

– Samir Amin (ibid)

The counter revolutionary movement employed, from the start, an ultra nationalistic rhetoric and symbology. As Donald Pease put it…“And after 9/11, the national myths that had undergone wholesale debunking in the post-Vietnam era underwent remarkable regeneration.” The assault on civil liberties was launched by Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. This was a national emergency, a national trauma. Today the emergency is global and being used and taken advantage of by the same ownership class and the same marketing teams at Madison Avenue and the State Department. The enemy is everyone now, not just Arab terrorists. People are going to soon (and already are) being asked to sacrifice (themselves even) for the global good. But of course, as in the aftermath of 9/11, when Bush emphasized our *ownership society* (as opposed to the godless socialists or Islam who refuse to sufficiently worship owning stuff) he was encouraging Americans to see themselves as special (well, white americans anyway). The once prosperous middle class, though, the wage earners, both white and blue collar and who made up close to 60% of the population were plunged into precariousness and poverty and downward mobility. And this via real estate manipulations and a kind of social engineering.

The once prosperous middle class, though, the wage earners, both white and blue collar and made up close to 60% of the population have been plunged into precariousness and poverty and downward mobility. And this via real estate manipulations and a kind of social engineering.

One wonders at how quickly the public seemed to forget the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The brutalizing of the helpless, of the ‘Other’, began the normalizing (or returned to the normalizing) of a hatred of the poor and vulnerable. Today the constant news stream of police brutality against (mostly) the black population re-enacts, one one level anyway, the theatre of cruelty that was Abu Ghraib. But the emergency of the environmental crises has made these near unconscious associations ambivalent. The threat to the planet is just *people*, too many people, not global capital and western imperialism. So the narcissism of the bourgeoisie becomes self loathing simultaneously. There is a fair ration of guilt manipulation going on here, too, and the attendant projections of that (and the U.S. was already and always had been a culture of shaming and stigmatizing). But self stigmatizing is a hugely complicated mental process. And again, one runs into the cognitive deteriorization of much of the populace. Suicide rates increase, anti-depressant use increases, and polls suggest vast numbers of people in the so called advanced west suffer acute loneliness and generalized anxiety.

“The indigenous bourgeoisies have lost all capacity to oppose imperialism—if they ever had any…. There are no other alternatives. Either a socialist revolution or a caricature of a revolution.”

– Che Guevara (Writings of Che Guevara, quoted by John Smith, ibid)

Trying to find the reality behind the unreality of this moment is nearly impossible. And it is why I consider the first step toward a genuine future, a possible future, is a commitment to a platform of anti-war and anti-imperialism. From there one can begin to chip away at the massive nearly ubiquitous assault of corporate media and the promotions of capital. I saw an article in VICE (an outlet worth over a billion dollars now and owned in significant measure by FOX) about the planet’s coming extinction. There were glossy photos, too, of arid salt beds and a bright sun. This is marketing.

Now, tweezing apart the implications of that marketing, and even its target demographic, is not easy. But it’s safe to say that somehow the super exploited global south should expect more misery.

“Imperialism never did dissolve into abstract notions of ‘globalization’ or ‘empire’, or fantasies involving ‘multitudes’, a ‘global village’, ‘the age of access,’ and so on. Rather the term neo-imperialism captures for us the new features it acquired in the 1980s and 1990s with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Washington Consensus and the end of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. As we have seen, democratization in Latin America signaled the end neither of imperialism as a geopolitical and economic system of global domination, nor Brazilian sub-imperialism, nor the authoritarian neoliberal regimes common in Mexico and elsewhere. Instead it served to restructure them in the post-Cold War period, providing new foundations and characteristics.”

– Adrián Sotelo Valencia, Sub Imperialism: Dependency Theory in the Thought of Ruy Mauro Marini

“Ultra-imperialism of the kind now favoured in Europe has, however, its own negative connotations and consequences. If Robert Cooper, a Blair adviser, is to be believed,it favours the resurrection of nineteenth-century distinctions between civilized, barbarian, and savage states in the guise of postmodern, modern, and premodern states, with the postmoderns, as guardians of civilized collaborative behaviour, expected to induce by direct or indirect means obeisance to universal (read ‘Western’ and ‘bourgeois’) norms, and humanistic (read ‘capitalistic’) practices across the globe.”

– David Harvey, The New Imperialism

Change can only come from recognizing the US as imperialism’s center. The U.S. exerts military coercion, from Iraq to Afghanistan and now Yemen, as well as via Venezuela style coup attempts. It has built a string of military bases, most of them at least semi permanent, across the planet and yet rarely do I hear critics ask why? What is being enforced here? What is being protected? The answer is super exploitation and at the same time a monitoring of any communists ghosts or radical dissenters. Marcuse was right about token resistance. This is the era of Bana and now Greta; it is the digital age of internet marketing, a tool even for ISIS. And the age of an american populace searching for environmental solutions at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream section of the super market. Or at the Prius dealership. There are no capitalist solutions. Full stop. Indulging this stuff is an absolute waste of time. The Green New Deal et al….waste of time. The environmental crises is real but obscured by western media, not clarified. Education is critically important, and stopping the extreme privilege of the elite class. Equality is the real green.

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John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.

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