Fascism is only fascism when it’s bad for business

May saw two big elections: a European Union-wide contest for Members of European Parliament (MEPs), and India’s election of a new Prime Minister. Both held similar results: the empowerment of neo-fascist elements. However, though the far-right has been victorious in both Europe and India, the reporting has been alarmist in the former, ecstatic in the latter. The way most places reported it, one might not even know that the Indian far-right won anything at all.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

In the European Union, reactionary parties took advantage of the widespread misery caused by EU-imposed austerity measures. All speak the usual language of right-wing populism–xenophobia, racism, and ethnic supremacy. Ghouls who’ve long haunted the fringes of European politics like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the Le Pen dynasty in France benefited as much as relative newcomers like Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. Europe knows first-hand that long-term economic deprivation leads to resurgent fascism, and overt neo-Nazi parties saw gains in Hungary and Greece. Even Germany–where the swastika is banned outright–elected a neo-Nazi MEP.

In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory. The election was a “presidentialization” of the campaign for India’s Head of State: rather than resemble a traditional Parliamentary campaign, the contest was a slick, American-style PR offensive. The BJP is India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and during Modi’s tenure as governor of Gujarat, he governed as any reactionary ethnic supremacist would. Civil unrest in Gujarat turned into a pogrom in 2002, which killed over 1,000 people, mostly Gujarati Muslims. When he takes office, Modi will be the only Head of State with a US visa-ban, imposed on him by the State Department after his administration’s tacit approval of the violence. Modi will be forming his coalition government with members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the “ideological fountainhead” of Modi’s MJP. It was a member of the RSS who murdered Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, for Gandhi’s perceived accommodation of Muslims. Continue reading

Meet the new billionaires, same as the old billionaires

What’s the vaunted left-libertarian alliance creating?

One of the current President’s campaign promises that made the least sense to me in 2008 was the pledge to restore bipartisanship. As a voter who came of age during the Bush years, I saw way too much bipartisanship. Democrats harmoniously joined Republicans to vote for the Patriot Act, authorize the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and expand the President and private sector’s power every chance they had. By 2008, bipartisanship sounded profane: a pretty PR term for left capitulation.

That year, I voted for Ralph Nader. I wasn’t interested in making a savvy, pragmatic, transcendent gesture—not when a situation warranted divisive, ideological partisanship.

That was one of the last times I thought about Nader, my symbolic protest vote against bipartisanship and its attendant evils, until this week. Nader wrote a column for Al Jazeera, “The new left-right alliance in the US,” to promote his upcoming book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Nader’s book deals with a left-libertarian alliance—a marriage of convenience that, for many, has long hinted at a chance for populist change. Ostensibly marshalling strength from both the anti-authoritarian left and the libertarian right, this hybrid is supposed to get things done outside the traditional Democrat/Republican duopoly. Not bipartisanship, but transpartisanship.

Nader and many before him have singled out areas of perceived common interest, like curtailing government surveillance and curbing the wars on Drugs and Terror. A genuinely surprising aspect of the otherwise unremarkable 2013 film Snitch was the film’s overt message against the prison system. An otherwise brainless crime-drama starring snitchRepublican action hero Dwayne Johnson has an end title detailing the evils of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. It’s one thing to lose Hollywood, but if the War on Drugs has lost The Rock, maybe change is possible.

The current left-libertarian alliance has been gestating for some time. It’s been held out as the best hope for ending some of America’s most evil policies. A year after the Snowden leaks began, this disparate partnership has coalesced into something cognizable. At this point, the hybrid left-libertarian philosophy has recognizable contours—and they’re alarming. Rather than being something new, this alliance is looking a lot like just another whitewash of left capitulation before an ugly, reactionary agenda.

A year ago, I was receptive to the burgeoning left-libertarian partnership. Under Obama, large numbers of Democrats abandoned their previous opposition to illegal surveillance and state murder, so a tactical alliance on these issues seemed like one of the few ways to stop them. A left-libertarian intersection created the Amash-Conyers amendment, and 2013’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington.

One year later, what has been accomplished? Beyond a “debate” (normalizing the panopticon and providing the veneer of consent) there’s been an NSA oversight bill that everyone agrees is full of loopholes and accomplishes essentially nothing. A year after the “Stop Watching Us” rally brought together Code Pink and the American Enterprise Institute, we have “Reset the Net.”

Reset the Net was announced by Edward Snowden on June 5th, 2014. By unveiling it a year after the Guardian released its first Snowden-sourced story, the event is marketed as the solution to government surveillance, the logical endpoint of the events that have preceded it. And what is Reset the Net? According to Wired, it’s “a coalition of more than two-dozen tech companies.”  The same tech companies who provided the government unfettered access to everyone’s information are now going to be responsible for safeguarding—and profiting—from it.

One of the most insidious aspects of the way the Snowden leaks have been handled has been the reduction of spying from a system spread out across at least 18 Federal agencies and countless tech giants into an agency run amok. Think of how awareness of the scandal has played out in the popular imagination. Contemporary American gallows humor often involves a “hey, the NSA’s listening” during a phone call or Gmail chat. The villain is always “the NSA,” never Skype, Google, or the FBI. An equally appropriate joke in a Facebook message would be “watch it, Zuckerberg’s sending this to Fort Meade!” Each of these organizations is a node in the surveillance system, but the singular focus on the NSA has largely erased the culpability of other agencies and darkened an illusory private-public divide.

Like a weasel, the tech industry is poised to squeeze through this sewer pipe looking shinier than ever before. With Reset the Net, tech giants can both definitively whitewash their involvement in mass surveillance and maximize profits by offering the promise of greater privacy. This is the dynamic taking root with the vaunted alliance: solutions to our problems come from beneficent corporate actors. Just like bipartisanship offered savior Democrats as the solution, this new hybrid is offering savior tycoons. The Democrats are a party of big business that, for electoral reasons, must pretend they’re not. This left-libertarian hybrid has the added benefit of dispensing with the pretense of concern with social inequality. As with Bush-era bipartisanship, late-Obama transpartisanship involves a left surrendering its principles to the right. We will not dismantle our oligarchy, instead we will empower better oligarchs.

A partnership that helps billionaires get richer and more powerful doesn’t sound like a particularly worthwhile leftist project when you put it in those terms. However, both Nader and Noam Chomsky have advocated as much, with Nader even providing a list of 20 billionaires he’d like to see run in 2016. That Left heroes would sooner advocate empowering a good oligarch than changing the system dramatically says a lot about what ideas are allowed purchase, even on the margins.

Another advocate of the billionaire candidate who would “disrupt” our two-party system is Glenn Greenwald. More than any other figure, Greenwald represents the left-libertarian alliance through which libertarianism is remade as leftist. Greenwald has leveraged his status as a political cipher in a way that only Obama managed before him. Greenwald’s 2010 defense of the Citizens United decision surprised many readers, but in retrospect, it was in keeping with a vaguely liberal-libertarian political “core.”

Other questionable statements over the years hinted that the future Snowden leak keeper would see merely reforming the national security state as enough. When he was taken to task for defending the work of extreme pornographer Max Hardcore in 2009, Greenwald argued that it was his critics who were the real misogynists: a consenting adult woman couldn’t possibly be under any form of duress.

This idea obviates the possibility that financial pressures could have any influence on decision-making. Along with the free-speech absolutism, it’s a facile, oppressive model of consent, rooted in a kind of free-market idealism. It’s embedded with a denial that forces bigger than ourselves have any bearing on our lives: recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “there’s no such thing as society.” More recently, it sounds like liberal imperialist propaganda that to imply that oligarch money plays a role in imperialism derides the “agency” of fucked-over people. A cadre of similar figures are tagging along: equally devoted to the rights and continued free expression for corporations, in a world where those entities already have all the speech.

Greenwald’s language about an oligarch “disrupting” our system has echoes with Silicon Valley’s “Cult of Disruption.” A Randian idea that’s big in the tech world, it holds that when the powerful run roughshod—“disrupting” our stodgy institutions—their enlightened self-interest is the tide that will lift all boats. Nader proposes Cheryl “Lean In” Sandberg as one of the disruptors: a figure famous for penning an ode to neoliberalism.  In practice, the left-libertarian hybrid in practice sounds like thinly veiled neoliberalism: privatization above all, an emphasis on the individual, and erasure of the toxic injustices this creates.

In late May, an anonymous millionaire made news for leaving envelopes stuffed with cash around San Francisco. Operating under the Twitter handle @HiddenCash, the donor instructed those who found his droppings to #PayItForward. The gesture, in addition to providing a PR boon for Twitter, was so popular that the millionaire is expanding @HiddenCash to other cities.

“I’m in that 1% that some people loathe,” he told ABC News, “but rather than hating people who are successful, my point would be to encourage people who have been successful to give back a little bit more.” Give back a little bit more. Maybe this capitalism thing’s going to work out after all. Rather than some unproductive hatred, if we up our hashtag game during billionaire scavenger hunts, a few of us might come out with some extra scratch. Those who’ve had to leave San Francisco due to the tech boom’s rising rents can even participate, provided they live in one of @HiddenCash’s new cities. #BetterOligarchs

What do better oligarchs look like?

Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men, is angling to be one of these saviors. Bloomberg, who is vocal about his destiny in Heaven, is being lauded for promising $50 million to fight the NRA in influencing national gun policy. He clearly sees himself as a transformative figure: in addition to the Divine approval, Bloomberg mulled a third-party presidential run in 2007. Politically situated between the Democrats and Republicans, the party was the essence of bipartisanship. Bloomberg, who appeared before the 2004 Republican National Convention in support of George W. Bush, was a Bush-supporting member of the GOP until 2007. As mayor of New York, he presided over the growth of record inequality, the mass surveillance of Muslims throughout the East Coast, and the racist state terrorism that is “stop-and-frisk.” However, a check towards gun control (and a Big Gulp ban, to piss off the Red States) and Bloomberg is reborn.

Greenwald’s boss Pierre Omidyar, the oligarch who bought the Left for a mere quarter-billion dollars, was unveiled to the public as “a different kind” of billionaire and a “civic-minded idealist.” In addition to funding the usual neoliberal chicanery (a.k.a forcing thousands to suicide in the developing world), he has been hard at work empowering the ultra-right in several countries. Thanks partially to his money, there are now fascists at the helm of a nuclear arsenal.  One party in that coalition, the RSS, was connected to the man who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. If left-libertarian hybridism is empowering nuclear-armed fascists who killed Gandhi, it’s time to ask if the left isn’t putting more into this relationship than they’re getting.

To bring it back to the tech industry, an illustrative bipartisan political project is Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us PAC. Founded by Silicon Valley tycoons, the PAC sells itself as a non-partisan group using its clout for the good of immigration reform. And what branding, too: truncating Forward like that is zeitgeisty, while sounding like the vaguely liberal essence of progress itself—think MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” motto. Who doesn’t want to move the “immigration debate” forward? The .us reminds us of both America, the city on a hill, and us, the united, bipartisan polity. That’s the kind of perception management that billions of dollars and full spectrum data dominance gets you.

For the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, a respite from the terror of ICE raids, deportations, and the destruction of families would be a welcome development. However, in a Washington Post piece outlining Fwd.us’ mission Zuckerberg singled out more H1-B visas issued to highly skilled immigrants as a core goal of the PAC. These tycoons were bankrolling a project to make it easier for them to retain qualified, foreign-born techies.

The Pentagon is currently exploring technology that will target peaceful protest movements in anticipation of mass civil unrest. In other words, applying predictive crime algorithms to society as a whole, with the goal of preventing sustained protest in the near future. That the government will get this data from the tech industry isn’t speculation; the pre-crime algorithms necessitate social media data. Facebook and Google will have you to think that their work is entirely dedicated to helping you get better timeline updates, but Homeland Security will be getting that data to literally make meaningful dissent impossible. Do we want to make it easier for them to get more engineers? At least, we should recognize that this goal is self-serving, not altruistic.

These newer, better oligarchs look like slicker, better-marketed iterations of all of history’s plutocrats. And of course, all three billionaires have the White House on speed-dial. More realistic than a heroic billionaire savior is that the system that sends billions in wealth to a few individuals wouldn’t let someone who would dismantle it rise in the first place. We can safely assume that the values that allow one to accumulate billions of dollars are incompatible with a society that works for most of us. As Arthur Silber said earlier and better than I could, to think that billionaire saviors would “call into question the basic structure of a system that permits [them] to accumulate this degree of wealth and power is to believe in the Tooth Fairy.”

Occupy, despite its declinist tendencies, gave the public the idea of a predatory 1% at the apex of the global capitalist system. The idea resonated enough that even Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry found a political advantage by accusing Mitt Romney of practicing “vulture capitalism.” Occupy was in 2011, but talk of “income inequality” already feels as bygone as the Smoking Guy from those Herman Cain ads or “binders-full of women.” The buzz has even died down around Elizabeth Warren; the erstwhile savior Democrat, waiting in the wings to reinvigorate the progressive base. After all, why would we want to reduce inequality, or even dismantle the system that creates it? This left-libertarian transpartisanship is already bequeathing us such great new billionaires!

Yasiin Bey’s travel ban wasn’t true, but it was plausible

Hey, did you hear about Yasiin Bey? In late May, a music festival in Boston announced that Bey’s upcoming shows would be cancelled due to problems re-entering the US. Turns out it’s false: a newspaper in South Africa, where Bey is living, has reported that the story was untrue.

All’s well that ends well! Since the artist formerly known as Mos Def is an American citizen, a travel ban would be an incredibly disturbing development. Especially since the rapper, who is Muslim, was most recently known for bringing attention to the legalized torture currently going on in Guantánamo Bay. In a video for The Guardian, Bey undergoes the excruciating force-feeding procedure to which over a hundred hunger-striking detainees have been subjected. As of now, the video has been viewed over 6 million times.

But it turns out there’s nothing to see here! For some reason, people believed that an American citizen would be subjected to some sort of unequal treatment, just because he’s a black Muslim-American whose political activism sheds light on American government torture. Maybe those credulous people had heard something about Saadiq Long, the Muslim American citizen from Oklahoma who was stuck in de facto exile for more than a decade. Long, an Air Force veteran, was forced to live in Qatar due to placement on the No-Fly list for unknown reasons. Maybe they had heard about Gulet Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen who was beaten by Kuwaiti authorities on behalf of the US, intimidated by the FBI, and then told he was on the No-Fly list when he tried to return home.

If they hadn’t heard either of these specific stories, maybe they had some idea of the tens of thousands of other Americans on the No-Fly list. Or maybe they think that being an American citizen just doesn’t go as far as it used to. The British are publicly stripping terrorism suspects of citizenship, and there is evidence that the US is already holding American citizens in secret, lawless captivity under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. There are Americans for whom citizenship couldn’t protect even from murder, much less exile.

Centering around a hip-hop artist, pieces debunking the travel ban story also have the aspect of playing into gaslight-y tropes about conspiracism in the African-American community. Serious, savvy types sneer at beliefs amongst some black Americans that the government played a role in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. Of course, if you’re a member of a group who’s historically fucked-over by the powerful, it creates a strong incentive–even a self-preservation imperative–to know how power really works. As with Muslims receiving a different tier of citizenship, these theories dismissed as conspiracism have aspects of truth, from the long history of American medical experimentation on people of color to the CIA’s documented collusion with Contra drug smugglers.

Rather than being self-evidently ridiculous, the original story of Bey’s travel ban is actually pretty credible. The only unrealistic aspect is it happening to a famous person.