Essays and other non-fiction

These are essays and reviews from the last 20 years. There are some from the 70s and 80s waiting to be digitalised.

SHAME (2021
The school, the classrooms and its corridors, they all smelled of powdery water-coloured paints wrapped in dried-out dish cloth. My desk, my bare knees tight underneath, had its own smell, rich and oily from the wriggly blackened grooves in its hinged wooden surface. At the back of the hinges an inlaid white inkwell with a brass sliding top and stained with a flaky blue gave off its own inky smell. The wooden pens with the scratchy nibs that we used sat in an indent next to the ink.
It was two years after the Suez Crisis, a War that hadn’t happened but which had been on the radio a great deal, that Miss Dunbar came into our lives. That winter saw the last or one of the last great London smogs, a greenish yellow damp hard even on young lungs, brutal on my father’s. Like many men he wore a trilby hat and with scarves up to the eyes men looked like desperadoes. On the open tube platform they loomed up in touching distance. It was what they called a pea-souper which thrived on connections to a cosy world of comfortable rooms, pipes, oriental rugs, horse-drawn carriages and an acute intelligence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes that Miss Dunbar sometimes read to us in moments of softness. It became known the coal fires that heated our house was a cause, or was the cause of the smog and a few years later laws were introduced that insisted on smokeless fuel. Supplementary heating was from a paraffin stove that stank the house out.
The previous summer one day sat at a desk next to the south-facing windows of the classrooms I’d been dizzy and my neck with an ache. Back from home and when my mum was back from work and me still the same there was a sudden rush; there was much talk of polio at this time and the very word evoked the same horror that Cancer was beginning to do at this time, something irreversible. For a short time I’d been at the centre of a drama at the doctor’s and then it was back to same as before spells of the brain working happily and long stretches of boredom waiting for half an hour and more for 4 o’clock to come around.
Miss Dunbar was a hard-faced leathery lady and with her we had our geography books open. They showed men with black skins carrying bulging sacks and smiling under the gaze of a white man in shorts and a funny hat. It all looked clean and tidy even though I thought it must be very hot and, us all having understood ‘therefore’ by this stage, our last year in Primary school, sweaty and, another ‘therefore’, itchy, We turned the page and it was somewhere else, a gaunt-looking place, full of sheep. It was the Falkland Islands Miss Dunbar said with pride, she had been a teacher there for many years. The sheep seemed to be surviving on hardy shrubs that were somewhat like the teacher herself. I knew nothing of sex, coming up to a first masturbation, except for dreams involving wanton women who wanted me in long silky embraces, but there was something about the picture, the sheep themselves, the poor quality grey reproduction of the photograph and the grim smugness of the people in it, that made me image-think – there was no ‘therefore’ involved – of repression and denial in which there was nothing silky.
I am exaggerating I’m sure how instant and worked out this feeling, but later and just-as- words I felt there was a connection between virtue and a mean hardness. The geography book talked of hardiness but it was one of stringy missionaries not of the characters of Kidnapped I had read, hidden out on the moors for hours waiting for the King’s men to pass and be gone. I could not imagine the inn with the fire and the wizard fiddle player that would be their reward, or their rebelliousness in the Falkalnds. Besides it was all tied up with Miss Dunbar herself and her sour aggression. Sometimes a warty spot near her nose would quiver with rage and her face went whiter still.
In this last year of primary school we had a lot of Comprehension: the subject and the object and the predicate which was whatever was left-over in a sentence. Me and Stan, we were whispering our faces down eyes close to the desk blackened grooves in its surface. Knowing nothing of sex I still fancied Ingrid, I knew the word, and we were country dance partners priming up for a borough-wide show. Stan said, whispering, that he supposed she was all right.
Not paying attention and what you got, and that’ll-learn-you, you would learn, whack, the ruler down on my knuckles or the cane on the bum. Bravery not required or felt, it would not have looked good, boastful, when we’d all seen the belt marks on the back of Winston, the boy with the black skin from the West Indies who’d joined the class the year before. He said nothing of it. But a leather belt, the width of it and maybe a buckle, that had to be real pain.
Coming up to Christmas in this thick-smog winter we were to have a Christmas tea-party at the school. We all had to bring something to contribute to it. I lived on what was then the right side of the Bakerloo Line in London, the branch that is now the Jubilee and my mother was a very good cook. She told me she would make a chocolate cake, and the very words she used made me feel good.
It seems we were always at our geography books. The morning of the party one minute we with Erik with hair that in black&white was blonde with his reindeer and cosy cabin, and the next in the Gold Coast that had me picturing the North Sea coast of sea and sand only hot with it, a heat which no one had experienced except, I guessed, Winston. More grinning men carrying fat sacks. Cocoa beans, the words said under the smudgy photo in the book. In this instance there was no ‘therefore’, no cause and effect, no Oh-my-mother’s-chocolate-cake-and-the-cocoa-beans.
Besides my thoughts were already turned to the party.
When the time came Miss Dunbar stood there with a list taken from the register.
“And you Beverly, what will you be bringing, she asked.”
“A trifle Miss.”
I had already told of the chocolate cake with pride in my voice.
“And you Brian?”
“A cake.”

“What kind of cake?”
A sponge cake miss.”
She carried on around the class and Stan nudged me. He grinned and did a parrot imitation. I forced my knees up into the underside of the desk just to feel something, an opposing force that made me real.
“Only three days left,” he whispered.
I looked up, that Miss Dunbar she had ears in the back of her head but she was with her list.
Denise was from the other side of the tracks, a mystery for whom I had a lust of the heart with her wild curly hair and sharp London face, looking somehow older than our ten to eleven age group.
“Er..Er… I could..maybe I can bring some broken biscuits.”
“Broken biscuits.”
She said it, Miss Dunbar, like a dowager; like she had never heard of such a thing. Denise blushed. I felt myself blush.
“Yes,” Denise said.
Miss Dunbar left it there, left Denise standing there, and moved on, making it clear that she was moving back to things as they should be, decent things, asking Adele what she would bring.
But the blush wouldn’t stop rising in me, shame at what had happened, I had somehow been willing Denise to do battle for herself and there was no getting away from it, to do it for me. Shame too at my ignorance. for it was the time when we had never had it so good, the government would win an election on this very claim and my mother was talking of how it wouldn’t be long before we had a fridge.
I was gripping the edge of the desk with all my strength, the blush still there. Stan was giving me a shrewd look like he’d guessed everything and was surprised only at my shock.
Hard to live with, shame, but it was not for Denise herself that things escalated over time to the point when Miss Dunbar clouted me hard with a Rounders bat.


Post date

May 28, 2022

Mme Commelynck says “Your ‘sort of’ is annoying…Sort of says ‘I am ashamed by clarity and precision’”

Ashamed, as if it would be uncool in a world of complexity to nail down that effect B has cause A and no messing.

“In judicial politics literature scholars find that court justices increase strategic vagueness and appease conflicting views among judges. But where a variety of ideological biases exist in a community researchers find that an increase in partisan conflict is associated with an increase (rather than reduction) in clarity. Arguably the public has a deep interest in delegating authority to institutions that hold its members to account including a higher standard of clarity. This is especially true where members are appointed rather than elected.”

A new Australian law to make it easier to fire workers was justified by how “in the globalized economy we will all have to work harder to stay ahead, or indeed even to keep pace. The Chinese work longer hours for less pay than Australians, we are told, and live meaner and more cramped lives. Thus China is able to manufacture goods more cheaply than Australia. Unless Australians work harder they will fall behind and become losers in the great global race…..The figure of economic activity as a race or contest is somewhat vague in its particulars, but it would appear that, as a race, it has no finishing line and therefore no natural end.”

“The World Trade Organisation is vague at points where vagueness benefits the developed countries, and precise at points where precision works against developing countries. Vagueness allows the developed countries to raise the level of threat to developing countries with threats of punitive actions justified by the claim that the developing country is breaking the (vaguely defined) rules of the WTO … (it) should be pressed to reduce the vagueness of the capstone agreements ; to adopt clearer operating rules and procedures; to publish a record of voting and discussions; to require the chairs of negotiating committees to explain why they include some proposals and reject others from the text of the draft declaration rather than at present being able occultly to make a “magic text”.


“Stunned sources close to financial sources will reveal what police sources will refuse to comment, cabinet sources will shadow box with ghost writers of sources close to the treasury and spokespersons of secret city sources will persistently deny persistent rumours.”
Or are played with, the hint of threat from behind the curtain of Strategic Defense Initiatives, how the leaked rumour that Israel might attack in Iran keeps Iranians in a state of anxiety, unable to concentrate on their own hopes and desires.. “In 2007 the Arab Times of Kuwait reports ‘from a reliable source’ predicting USA might strike Iran launched from the sea while Patriot missiles would guard Arab countries in the Gulf. Why would the Kuwaitis know? The question “remained on the borderline of un/certainty , where the state of war is habitually intensified.” Now, in 2021 they’re still at, reliable sources and the same threat to the same country as if exempt from stale repetition
But then…
“…whenever we dilute the clarity of restraints on force we almost Certainly lend encouragement to geopolitically shaped decisions expressed through the Selective application of Legitimacy Criteria and an acceptance of the implication of double standards.”

Elsewhere, the Commander tells the Inspector with a wink what the inspector then says to the sergeant with a wink, “Appropriate response Sarge, Appropriate” This is what we call an orange light and the sort of outcome in this kind of case? Triple units of riot squad out on the street when the visibility of red flags has annoyed someone in a high window. When it comes to orange there are a thousand shades all recognisable to those with their ears to the ground and who will go far.

The Radical party president of Argentina in 1921 Hipolite Yrigoyen did not spell out on how the Butcher of Patagonia Lieut-Colonel Varela was to proceed in the smashing of an uprising of the ultra-exploited peons on the estancias of the region.. 1500 of the workers were killed without trial. military reports of up the executions of unarmed prisoners speak of ‘well-armed’ groups with ‘various revolvers’. And as for the executions themselves , as is the template then and now: they were killed while resisting arrest.

In Gothenberg in 2001when the alter-globalization movement picketed an EU Summit meeting with joy a young man was shot and critically injured with live bullets Despite the initial shocked disbelief of one or two mainstream media opinionists, it was normalized from the next day onwards. Regrettably these things happen, was the message. It gave an orange-to-green light to extreme police brutality when the movement came together in Genoa six weeks later at a G8 Summit. One young man Carlo Giulliani was shot dead. For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it was “tragicbut”.

“Inhuman treatment is … treatment causing severe suffering. Torture is an aggravated form of inhuman treatment and degrading conduct is conduct which grossly humiliates” declares Lord Justice McGonigal so as the electrodes are applied to the tender spots you will not be if you are experiencing torture when you scream.

Members of armed groups in the Central African Republic so often feel shorted by programmes that had seemed to offer a promise of even greater largesse: “deliberately or not the language of promises of transformation are often used even when the resources, implementation and forms of control employed are those of expedience… The problem is when vague, platitudinal or contradictory understandings of reintegration translate into ad hoc and disengaged planning processes and programs, lacking a clear strategy and generating overblown expectations.“ The armed groups then regroup in order to make a living.

Elsewhere complaints may carry less menace: But I had thought, I thought it had been clearly understood that I was to be deputy headmaster. Only to find that seniority has lost weight and the junior Department head who is said to have panache, flair, charisma even, has got the job. But these days there’s no lack-of-menace guarantee. Where guns are easily available the manager shorn in a wave of cost-cutting may turn nasty, secretaries in the office who may have spurned his advances, not shown due deference as if they had been in the know all along that he was for the chop. Its intolerable, justice is his right. Bang bangbangbangbangbang until them spurting blood on the floor understand that they had underestimated him.

“Speaking metaphorically the inclusion of ambiguous expressions in peace agreements is comparable to re-opening a repository of arms to the parties to re-arm themselves with a kind of intellectual weaponry.”
“UN diplomatic texts may use vague words quite extensively. Such terms, whose meaning is very flexible, variable and strictly dependent on context and interpretation,. However, excessive vagueness could also lead to biased or even strategically-motivated interpretations of resolutions, undermining their legal impact and triggering conflicts instead of diplomatic solutions.” An example is UN SC Res242 after the 1967 war. One clause asks for Israeli armed forces to leave “Territories occupied in recent conflict”. without a ‘the’ in front of ‘territories(which the French translation had) . The sponsor of the Resolution, Lord Cardon (UK) had no intention of inserting the definite article. By implication Israel did not have to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders giving room for Israel to interpret the Resolution to its own advantage.

The first Gulf War led by the USA government of George H.W. Bush against Iraq under President Saddam in 1991wstarted when his forces invade Kuwait with a light somewhere between green and orange from the US ambassador April Glaspie. They were quickly forced to remove themselves from the same Kuwait “swiftly and absolutely at once and fucking immediately” by the forces of the same USA. The retreating conscript soldiers then became a ‘duck shoot’ for US airborne gunships and cluster bombs. On March 1st 1991 the Sunday Telegraph reported that the Iraqi death were so high that nobody wanted to put a figure on them. By March 2nd the Pentagon was talking of 200,000 dead but no official figures were to be issued and no formal study to be made to produce them. Instead it was said that the ‘allies’ (ie the USA with the addition of the UK and other odds and sods of military) intended to keep the statistics as vague as possible because they were so horrific. Some three weeks later the USA had either guaranteed the safety of Kurds against Iraqi air attacks or perhaps it hadn’t. On the 25th as the attacks started by Iraqi forces against Kurdish territory and people the Daily Telegraph quoted Presidential Press Secretary Fitzwater saying on this issue. “There’s an element of murkiness we want to preserve.”

In the immediate aftermath of the second Gulf War the UK New Labour government of Tony Blair and the Republican Administration of George W.Bush which took the lead in invading Iraq both rejected estimates of death numbers in Iraq from the Lancet, to which they provided no alternative..

“Missing in Action” 1916 Private John Barker and hundreds of thousands of others, Missing in Action: sort of got lost.

Now and then I look at the one brown photo I have of Private John who would have been an uncle. Nothing vague about him, all of 19 sharp and clear in uniform and would have shown it to my daughter at one time or another, talking of ancestors and history another world yet which did happen. 20 plus years ago she. and her friends couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘kind of’, ‘it’s like’ and ‘sort of’ often in combination. At the other end it was one of those moments when you know you’re going to sound like the parents of your own remarking on such habits, and yet you plough on, complain, ask what is it you want to say, and so on. It may have been a phase, she has long abandoned such words, teenage uncertainty in a difficult world of ‘mixed messages’ where chains of production were stretched, chains of ownership stretched to vanishing point; where nothing was guaranteed of what had been guaranteed. Where no promise with substance could be made and if one did slip out unaccompanied, Plausible Deniability was at hand. If vagueness hides things who has most reason for its use than the exploiters and their protectorate of police and phrasemakers for whom promises to be unfulfilled are ten a penny. It always sounds paranoid to talk of strategy but when non-interested verification is out the window and Transparency Be Damned, this is what it started to feel like.

“His experience with her had taught Birt that she took refuge in a vast quagmire of vagueness when at all pressed”

In his courageous decision not to support a second UN resolution to ‘justify’ the invasion of Iraq in 2003 President Lamine Sidime of Guinea, with a temporary seat on the Security Council, demanded something definable and measurable about what constituted Iraqi compliance. This was intolerable to the US-UK axis but Sidime stood his ground while knowing the diplomatic and financial punishment that would follow.

Scott Ritter, a weapons inspector in Iraq in 2002-3 was relentlessly smeared before the Iraq invasion for detailing how there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” after the destruction of liquid biological weapons by the UN Inspectors in 1995. He relates how an American on the team, Dick Spertzel, would not do sampling there because he did not want to give the Iraqi state the benefit of a negative reading.

“Two Federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR), bear primary responsibility for safeguarding the nation’s environmental health … both of these agencies have routinely funded and conducted studies of effects of toxic pollution on public health which are inconclusive be design. These intentionally inconclusive studies have been used by polluters and govt officials into believing further measures to prevent toxic exposure are unnecessary”

This product is environmentally friendly

Donald Pearlman lawyer representative of the Global Climate Action Coalition -the good guys are always in coalitions- made up of oil and coal corporations -has been a regular on the Climate Change circuit for years. His work? To ensure the climate protection negotiations end in the nevernever land of vague declarations.

Our ingredients are non-toxic and sustainable.

The Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration Investing in Biodiversity for People and Planet
(15 November 2018) acknowledges, promotes, notes, facilitates, recognizes. mainstreams, emphasises and urges

We pride ourselves on our biodegradability

‘Greenwashing’: lofty pledges that can’t be measured and claims that can’t be verified. Net-zero emissions, promises thereof in the distant future won’t do. It’s all in the detail but “the global public needs benchmarks as simple as is possible without waiting to check some final result at mid century and then be disappointed.”

.At the time of the Asian Tsunami disaster at the end of 2004 in which 222,000 died and thousands of livelihoods destroyed, huge promises of aid were made. Very soon it was clear that only a much smaller amount was ever realised. This was in part because “the worrying fact is that when
the commitments of donor agencies of all kinds (international, national, official, and non- government) are examined, it is very hard to know what they mean … The generosity of donors in rich countries, and especially the public response, was widely remarked upon. Nevertheless, on closer examination, many of the financial references to ‘aid’ or ‘assistance’ are rather vague”

In the glow and the glare of the entire spectrum of orange light all cats look alike but some statistics exist whose glow can be turned light and readable so at least there is the possibility of the powerless being able to say loud and clear, they were right and thereby establish a temporary half-way ground at which you could at least look the bastards in the eye.
Child poverty, here’s the figures: 16,500 children die every day from malnutrition while there is ‘a war in poverty’.
In an epic novel of manipulation by the world of power, the one character who holds out against it is a statistician, Roger Mexico. He knows how statistics themselves may be manipulated and still stands by them against those would interpret with bad faith and stands by what they say even at the cost of his girl Jessica who until then, when it mattered, you never would have believed had a bourgeois heart.

And what the stats do say is that in the world we know and those we know only by repute the rich have got much, much richer and the poor have got poorer, proper wage earners and the survivors. Based on data in Piketty as well as supplied by Credit Suisse and Forbes – it is pointed out that about 46 per cent of the world’s measurable wealth (some 110 trillion US$) is in the possession of one per cent of the world’s population. This is 65 times as much as the lower half of the world’s population has to share with about 0.71 per cent of the global wealth.


These days the matter of how come family X has had these thousand acres and the manor house with its soft stone showing a pink tinge in the sunset, got possession of them in the first place/ and has had them for generations is Lost in The Mists of Time. There, in those mists, everyone can have their own opinion and all squirrels look alike, red or grey. Here anything could happen, could have happened however vile, and been “a restoration of order.

Inequality is life-squashing within and between countries and statistics have their limits, remaining as they are mostly at the whim of those who pay for them. The shift to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) from GNP (Gross National Product) has been quite a piece of dismal conjuring: GDP means that “the income generated by foreign companies is ‘formally’ attributed to the country where it is generated even though the profits may well not stay there.” In fact they are unlikely to stay “This statistical abstraction -GDP – hides a basic fact: the nations of the North are walking off with the South’s resources and calling it a gain for the South.” At the end of the Cold War GDP became ‘the only game in town’.

But still that’s not enough and when capitalism can no longer promise jam tomorrow, not even that, better to have no numbers but instead there is Well-Being. In April 2012 UN chief Ban-ki Moon participates in a conference called “Happiness and Well Being: Defining a new Economic paradigm.”


Of course we’re tougher now and may ask such questions, and in the headmaster’s study for the promotion that does not happen or the ‘unfair’ dressing down, your phone is recording everything. But not enough, even a camera, when it’s all a matter of interpretation, words taken out of context, the recording’s been manipulated. Not infallible, but better a lawyer writing the contract for you, one stipulation after another, penalty clauses to be applied. Except even then…

“ Vagueness on the other hand, is prevalent in legislation and commercial contracts…Clauses such as “best efforts” or “commercial reasonableness” are common in commercial contracting from franchising to mergers and acquisitions…Contrary to what legal scholars and practitioners assert based on the principle of legal certainty, contract parties are not better off in all cases with writing as specific as possible clauses. Legal scholars and practitioners seem to confuse the distinction between using the law as a guide and using the law to dictate one outcome in every possible case.”

OK, we’re all grown up sophisticated adults here, the “one outcome”, what kind of reductionist shit is that when however sophisticated the clauses and the rulings they cannot cover all eventualities, all possible occurrences. So what’s wrong with that? What, we’re children demanding certainty when there can be none?! Grow Up!

Only the courts even in this day and age could drag on and the greater the degree of vagueness and the certainty of information asymmetry the longer it will drag on which is time and money you don’t have.
“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.”
And yet and yet, the law and its courts should be a place where an answer will be found. To the question of “Where were you on the night of June the third?” Oh yes, certainty no problem. Nowadays pinned down by the cross reference of the mobile phone and the travel card, evidence irrefutable. You were that man on June the third at the skunk warehouse beyond reasonable doubt, a pinpointed crossroads of time and place in the chip. That’s when it’s crime. But there’s crime and crime and courts too are no places to look for a guarantee as in inquiries into the Iran-Contra conspiracy…

“…sixty three days of testimony arresting … for its collateral glimpses of life on the far frontiers of the Monroe Doctrine. There was for example the airline that operated out of St Lucia but had its headquarters in Frankfurt…and either was or was not (conflicting testimony on this) ninety nine percent owned by a former Air West flight attendant who either did or did not live on St Lucia. There was for example the team of unidentified men…who either did or did not (more conflicting testimony) arrive on the northern Coast Rican border to burn the bodies of the crew of the unmarked DC-3 that at the time it crashed appeared to be registered to the airline that was or was not ninety-nine percent owned by the former Sky West flight attendant who did or did not live on St Lucia.”

As things are in the world “there is no room for verification.”

….”vagueness can also be a ‘resource’, that is, a strategy used by actors in adverse circumstances. A systematic analysis of the texts and illustrations of 36 urban transport plans shows that vagueness is an essential ingredient. It is used mainly as a way to hedge against unwanted public commitments in the context of major uncertainties and tension between actors”

“According to one logic vagueness is a by-product of accommodating conflicting views or what we call strategic vagueness. On the other hand a more diverse committee might lead members to ask for greater clarification, holding one another to account for details and meaning. Personal gains from being vague may include shirking responsibility.”
2020 Britain. Our aim is to reduce the peak not suppress it completely. “Avoid all unnecessary social contact “ People do tire of these sorts of social distancing measures if we start them too early. Lord Skidelsky: “herd immunity a goal silently under a cloud of obfuscation.” Daily Mail: “The roadmap has only a few vague directions”. Government: It is left it to the discretion of employers to decide whether to continue working if social distancing guidelines cannot be met. It depends on all of us to stay alert. See it, Say it, Sorted. The ‘rule of six’ excluding work or educational settings: Council leaders say it is “contradictory and confusing”..2021. Health minister has a ‘high degree of confidence’ that vaccines will work against the Indian variety but urges caution. Health minster stressed that the government was moving towards a “mantra” of personal responsibility.

“The shift from state responsibility to the internalization of responsibility in the individual subject is effected by a move away from the classical liberal value of ‘the freedom to choose’ – which assumes that freedom is essential to autonomy – to the neoliberal ‘capability to choose’ – which sees freedom as the continuous empowerment of the disenfranchised through capacity building. There is … an inherent infantilization in this way of thinking, as it assumes that if these subjects were to make better choices they would be more resilient to the challenges presented by the world. …”

You, You there, Adapt or Die!

“Positive emotions were found to disrupt the experience of stress and help high resilient individuals to recover efficiently from daily stress.”

“…… the scholarly consensus is that we should embrace the conceptual vagueness and malleability of resilience.”

Britain 2021 May Government advisor. “My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should, and if you’re going to hug, hug cautiously The Prime Minister: “There comes a point when restrictions no longer prevent hospitalisations and deaths, but simply delay the inevitable. And so we have to ask ourselves the question: if not now, when?”

Ah, The Inevitable, no messing with that, the cosh is out and through the loud-hailer, Surrender now, resistance is hopeless.

In such circumstances “fellow independent thinker of the Western bloc, if you have anything sensible to say, don’t wait. Shout it out loud right this minute.”

• With help from David Mitchell, Black Swan Green; ‘Nicholas Rae, ‘Divided Communities and Strategic Vagueness’; J.M. Coetze, Diary of A Bad Year; Yda Schreuder, Corporate Greenhouse; Christine Brooke-Rose, Amalgammemnon; Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think?; Richard Falk, Power Shift: The New Global Order; Osvaldo Bayer, The Patagonia Massacre 1920; Starhawk, ‘Report on Genoa’; Environmental Health Network, 1992 report; Drazen Pehar, ‘Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements’; Giuseppina Scotto di Carlo, ‘The Language of the UN: Vagueness in Security Council Resolutions Relating to the Second Gulf War’; Louisa Lombard, State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic; James Kelman, And the Judges Said… and You have to be Careful in the Land of the Free; Henry Green, Caught; Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow George Triantis, ‘Strategic Vagueness in Contract Design’; Charles Dickens, Bleak House; Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted; Thomas Buhler, ‘When Vagueness is a Strategic Resource for Planning Actors; ’Grace Paley, Faith in the Afternoon in Collected Stories.

(For footnoted version, see Recent Posts)

“With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning,” wrote a revolutionary communist some 40 Years ago. This was a time long before the Internet, Donald Trump or COVID 19. It has come to mind at a time of concern about what is called generically ‘conspiracy theory’ and alarm at its enhanced scope via ‘social media’. That it makes for such enhancement is undeniable and the same writer, Guy Debord, wrote elsewhere that fascism was archaism presented with the most modern technological means, but the conditions for such ‘theory’ have a wider basis, the relationship between cause and effect opaque or perverted.

My concern here is not just with the slapping down of such stuff that uses an anti-Semitic/cosmopolitan template, using common narrative tricks, but also with the way ‘conspiracy theory’ is used as a generic accusation which can also be a means of shutting down reasonable and scrupulous attempts to track effects to real causes or intentions whether complex or not, and of sceptical inquiry in general. This in world of professional opinionists, all too eager to dismiss those who raise concern about discrepancies between what is said and what is being done, at the silenced links between cause(s) and consequence(s), as conspiracy theorists.
This involves recognition that there and have been such things, conspiracies as commonly understood, planned in secret like the manipulation of the LIBOR benchmark rate and other price fixing a particular instance of Adam Smith’s ““People of the same trade seldom meet together but the conversation ends in conspiracy against the public”;or the Iran-Contra-cocaine business in the Reagan period; the fiddling of diesel emission figures by car makers. The most successful will be unrecognised or at least until they can be admitted like the coups planned by the USA against the Mossadeq government and that of Jacob Arbenz in Guatemala. Even if they become known a little closer in time it will be dismissed as of the past. In a novel which involves and inquiry into Iran -Contra “To bring up 1984 implied that the past had consequences, which in situ was not seen as a useful approach.”
Conspiracy theory with this anti-semitic/cosmopolitan template is something else, usually involving fantastic logic, misapplied significances and ‘reader’ flattery, that a follower of one its varieties is really in the know . Sometimes it is strategic and organized. As applied to COVID-19, what matters is to examine how states and some oligarchic capitals are using the situation to increase their dictatorial or oligarchic power, while saying that they did not therefore cause the virus outbreak. To do otherwise would be conspiracy theory of the 2+2 =5 variety as was the case back in 2003 when some ultra Cold-War-leftists wasted their own and everyone else’s time with assertions that the USA itself had organised or allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. It was a diversion from opposing the ‘war on terror’ politics that followed and used to make such needed opposition open to ridicule. This matters now when critiques of elements of oligarchic capitalism, pharmaceuticals, philanthrocapitalism and the ‘hollowing out’ of its mode of democratic government, are being appropriated by fascistic forces. This follows on from the strategic failure of socialists and communists to recognise and celebrate the altruism of self-discipline shown by millions of young and middle aged people in face of COVID, and then being sucked into being defenders of oligarchic capitalism presenting itself as the defenders of the Enlightenment and a generic ‘science’.

I am myself a beneficiary both that altruism and the National Health Service, and of pills produced by pharmaceutical research that is largely capitalistic in its mode .. My caution about the accusation of conspiracy theory’s use as a show-stopper however comes from the way it was for example used repeatedly against serious anti-imperialist critique at the time of the Western ‘Gulf War’ against Iraq in 1991 and, in the sociological sphere, the response of the dominant centrist intellectual Daniel Bell to C.Wright Mills’s book The Power Elite. “Although Mills contends that he does not believe in conspiracy theory, his loose account of the centralization of power among the elite comes suspiciously to it.” It’s that ‘suspiciously close to’ phrase, both prissy and slimy, that screams Bad Faith out loud, but Bell’s normative construct assertion that power is nowhere has been reproduced by the post-structuralist notion that power is everywhere. Mills’s real crime was that he named the names in the revolving doors in the USA between corporate capital, the military, its bureaucracy, and government. It is an account that stands the test of time right up to and in the time of Donald Trump too.
COVID 19 has amplified existing conspiracy theory by coming as a shock from what is proving to be a hard-to-control external threat that can be internalized by anyone. Bernard de Mandeville’s start of the 18th century view was: “Primitive man saw an invisible enemy behind every Mischief and every Disaster that happens to him, of which the cause is not very plan and obvious; excessive Heat and Cold, Wet and Drought that are offensive; Thunder and Lightning even when they do no Visible Hurt; Noises in the Dark.” We can be glad that we have the means to escape such paranoid ignorance but still have a ‘Centrist’ like President Macron of France talking of being “in a war against an invisible enemy”, a typically conspiratorial view of the world of COVID 19
I say ‘amplified’ in relation to ‘social media’ because the conditions for the coming into being of conspiracy theories were already in existence. These are:

*the secrecy, paywalls and claims of confidentiality that hide real information while most people not privy to it, know that there is such hidden information, as well as the dominance of Opinion in ‘traditional’ media. Another revolutionary communist, the scrupulous epidemiologist Rob Wallace describes how-
“At present humanity is caught in its own pandemic theatre with various parties pointing elsewhere to absolve themselves of due responsibility. And we are each prompted to identify with one or another Pavlovian finger…The ceremonial battles between science and governmental distrust, or along other axes, China and the USA or wildlife vs livestock, parcel us into manipulable camps. In the spectacle of debate, we are allowed to struggle over opinion, the core of the extreme center’s politics, but truth is never up for grabs, we’re told. It’s instead locked away in journals and think tanks that the State and philanthrocapitalists own.”
Though on the evidence he argues for the land grabbing and consequent environmental change as causative of changes in the ecologies of virus-carrying animals as the likeliest cause of the virus’s transmission, he scrupulously looks at the evidence for the idea that it escaped from a Wuhan lab. One of the many many crimes of Donald Trump is that by his anti-Chinese rhetoric it made it difficult to even look at the evidence. This was not helped by the free-ride given by the centrist traditional media outlet the Guardian to Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance trashing the idea of a lab escape without acknowledging his and its role in virology research in China. This evading of declarations of interest is no different to the free-rides given to very right wing think-tanks by centrist media outlets like the BBC -think tanks which have helped made the ground for the more fascistic conspiracy theory. Wallace’s own conclusion is, when it comes to causation, is one to hold on to:
“I see the field and lab hypotheses framed together. Big Ag’s performative “biosecurity” and building all those labs post-H5N1 and -9/11 both represent efforts at avoiding addressing the economic model driving the emergence of virulent pathogens to begin with. Cleaning up the mess only after it happens.”
* The growth of ad hoc power set-ups with an institutional veneer but with not even a semblance of democratic accountability and in which the ‘revolving doors’ between ‘public’ and ‘private’ power sources are normal. Outfits like Global Information Infrastructure Commission or the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. I will show how in world health policy, philanthrocapitalism and its ad hoc set-ups like GAVI have such power. Early on in the present pandemic the WHO was sidelined by “an ad hoc grouping of 20 world leaders and global health figures, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the American philanthropist Bill Gates were on a call meeting. GAVI and representatives of pharmaceutical capital are involved in at least two such ad hoc groupings with large budgets of public money.
* The pernicious effects of heavily right wing supposedly ‘free-market’ think-tanks have been clear for a long time. Indeed the strategic networking of Hayekian think-tanks developed by the battery-chicken innovator Anthony Fisher could itself be seen as a real conspiracy, done secretly and with the specific intent of destroying social democracy. What is pernicious is how they have been allowed to present themselves as academic institutions with ‘fellows’ but with no external examination and how instrumental they have been in the ideological and practical undermining public health systems. It has been especially easy when “The ratio of pundits to reporters and of opinion to information is in the order of ten to one.”
*The power of lobbyists and consultants to influence policy in a secretive manner and with whom the revolving doors are positively swinging as with the UK Department of Health and the octopus-like KPMG. These and the amorality of PR companies like Dragon Associates and Burstyn to tell the world Bahrain is not repressive and will use the courts to prevent any contrary information becoming public at moments when it matters. And now, in the UK, the ad hoc distribution of power and huge amounts of money to ignorant and incompetent accountants and consultants as substitutes for its public health system. Most of all the encouragement of conspiracy theory has come from the strategic promotion of private interest Doubt. A healthy scepticism is perverted into “Doubt is Our Product” as a tobacco lobbyist described his work. It is a standard of self-interested climate change denial and it becomes prop for the But-you-can’t-prove-I’m-wrong argument used for example by the 9/11 fanatics mentioned above. Or more hatefully by fascistic shock-jock, Rush Limbaugh saying number of Tsunami deaths is unproven, cannot be proved and therefore a liberal conspiracy etc.
*The world of big money and opaque banking where ‘dirty money’ is occasionally revealed to be functional to capitalism’s financial system and then disappears back into it after claims of confidentiality or not-guilty pay-offs to courts. Likewise tax evasion, shell companies and off shore banking. Opaque, opaque and in the end too much, just too complex to take on board. It is too a world and one in which complex production chains and equally opaque ownership chains leave workers having no one to confront, in which cause and effect in production and wages are remote. All this is not extraneous but essential and functional to the present oligarchic capitalism.
*The budgetary interests of differing parts of the state bureaucracy and of institutions both public, private and public-private which have access to traditional’ and social media.
*The inability of state and capitalist power to admit mistakes.
*The popular culture genre of Dystopia and Apocalypse. As has been pointed out capitalism is keen on fantasy apocalypse while creating the conditions for a real one. In the present it is especially strong when there are so many biowarfare and bio-mutation narratives that parallel the growth of biotech capitalism.
*That there are a wide variety of conspiracies in the clearest sense of the word as described above.
In this world it is hardly surprising that conspiracy theories flourish.
As they do, hateful or stupid and ‘social media’ has empowered them. In face to face conversation we can ask, “Do you really mean that?” and “Where did your evidence come from?” Social media with its anonymity and so able to bring out the worst in us especially when it comes to blame and its allowing stuff to ‘go viral’ clearly creates means of transmission that did not exist before. We also know via leak that provocation of a particular type is part of the business plan automates as algorithm which is to keep us on social media as much as possible. As the leaked Internal Facebook memo from 2018 has it: “Our algorithms exploit the human brains’s attraction to divisiveness” and that more would be fed to “gain user attention and increase time on the platform.” The neuro-behavioural basis is ideological but the intention is clear. But it is also a time when people in power can say barefaced lies in public and expect to get away with them at a time when ‘traditional’ media still determine agendas and presume that they fill the hole of a “democratic deficit”.
The longest running of the hateful has been anti-semitic whether Jews as capitalists running the world or as Communists aiming to rule the world. In recent times George Soros as finance capitalist, liberal and cosmopolitan in outlook has been a go-to hate figure One of the most hateful ‘theories’ at present is QAnon whose main medium is social media and likely as not could not exist without it. It would appear to be the culture wars gone fascistic but it is also strategic, purposeful and financed. It uses traditional conspiracy theory tropes with an element of apocalyptic cinema but it id also not surprising that one of its websites’ operators is or was a senior vice-president at Citibank, one Jason Gelinas a “longtime Wall Street IT expert” with a special interest in data mining.
When I was young over 50 years conspiracy theory was relatively innocent. It was called the Gemstone File and in great detail purported to show that a famous Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis was a global criminal mastermind. It circulated on cyclostyled sheets from person to person and this created the sense that you were in on something that you were in the know. In this it mimicked the seductive nature of secrecy described by a heroic whistleblower at the time of the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg: “After you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to while libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it,and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don ‘t…and that all those other people are fools…You’ll be thinking…!What would this man be telling me if her knew what I know?” Conspiracy theory of the QANon type offers the cut-price version of the same and works by flattery; that you now are in the real know as well as its call to arms.
The crime of generic conspiracy theory is that it makes it difficult to question official and centrist policies and promises, and especially when fascistic versions play at being ‘anti-establishment, and also to separate out the different strands of people in what look like small-scale unholy alliances in the time of COVID. With those refusing to wear masks or socially distance a characteristic modern day macho style of patriarchy is evident, “Real men don’t wear masks.” Additionally a sense that wearing them is to be a socialist in the broad sense of a self-interested altruism which is somehow conflated with a repressive ‘deep’ state, isolating people. But this too is hardly surprising, the demand for a social self-discipline, masks and self-quarantining is not something consumer capitalism has prepared us for. Personally I wear a mask not from obedience but enlightened self-interest and that it is somehow for the common good. With generic ‘anti-vaxxers’ this also seems to involve a narcissistic sense of body as my temple. Both claim an individualism that is an ultra version of mainstream ideology but ‘anti-vaxxer’ as an accusation does conversely claim an ethical superiority tied to one particular and top-down medical tool. As an accusation it also blunts how some people oppose particular vaccines and does not take into account the passivity that waiting for the vaccine implies when success stories with COVID like Taiwan have come from a participatory public health track and trace strategy.
With some Islamicists anti-vaccination campaigns it is more a patriarchal anti-Westernism per se and they have used some past crimes and errors to justify themselves, but some of those events from the past inform people without such agendas.
The history of experimental injections with no concern for those being experimented on has been widespread and, lest the examples I give encourage a Cold War view of the world there is a large body of evidence if the same history in China and Russia. The early trials of influenza vaccines in the 1940s in the USA were conducted in prisons in California and Letchworth village the New York state. Similar people were used into the 1960s for hepatitis and malaria research. In the same period vaccines were trialled on the children of not-married mothers and orphans in Ireland. There is equally a mountain of secondary evidence of such ‘experiments’ in China and Russia. In February 1988 Dr Anthony Fauci, now a good guy because Trump disses him, announced that the US was planning large scale human experiments in Africa to test AIDS vaccines. Perhaps there has been a sea change forced by Black activism but in April of his year two heavyweight French doctors Mira and Locht appeared on TV to suggest that virus and vaccine testing should be done in Africa as had been done with AIDS and how “we tried things on prostitutes who are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.” Provocateurs are ten a penny these days but the unchanged casual colonialism and willingness to uses the powerless with its historical reference was evident and rightly shot down by famous African-French footballers like Didier Drogba. Since then testing by leaders in the vaccine race have been conducted in Sao Paulo and Cape Town before Europe’s ‘second wave’ on the grounds that there weren’t enough cases in the West as if The USA with its over 2 million cases were on another planet. No, not conspiracy but a reflection of global hierarchies.
These are also in evidence in types of vaccine and their relative cost. The many fights of countries of the South with the capitalist pharmaceutical oligarchy to produce generic versions of patented drugs and medicines id well known. On the other side the recent cases in 2019, of polio being caused by the mutation of a ‘live’ polio vaccine itself in Nigeria, Angola, FR Congo and the Central African Republic. This will unfortunately give ammunition to patriarchal political opportunists but the bottom line here is that the oral vaccine containing a live virus is a lot cheaper than the inert version used in the West. The matter of cost will be especially important in what will be a fight to implement the distribution of any effective COVID vaccine.
To be clear, vaccines have saved millions of lives and made millions of lives bearable, even while they have not been able to save millions of lives and while millions of lives have been saved by other means. What the ‘anti-vaxxers’ have done is to make it difficult to ask questions about the politics of vaccines in the context of worldwide healthcare and the interests involved in it. They make it easier for one to be pushed into the camp, as Rob Wallace described of “Science” even while there are so many differing scientist voices. This is perhaps as it should be but has not prevented Science and the Enlightenment as absolutes and which leads for example, to becoming a resolute defender of Bill Gates, the philanthrocapitalist who has so much say on world health policy, research and practice, and in the process trashing all alternative medicines in such a manner as if take-a homeopathic -remedy or even herbal remedy and you’re a fascist.
For ‘anti-vaxxers’ Gates is a specific hate figure and subject of conspiracy theory. It was perhaps from his point of view simply bad timing that Event 201 described on the its website as “a high-level pandemic exercise” and in which he was a prime mover should have carried out in New York in mid-October 2019, not long before he first cases of COVID 19. Coincidence, though it also what fictional detectives don’t believe in and in some cases may be significant, is meat and drink to conspiracy theory. The event did not come out of nowhere in Gates’s own history. At the time of the first Ebola outbreak he called for a supra-national militarized global health authority modelled on NATO for future epidemics. In June this year he repeated a call for increased preparedness against pandemics but not because of the ecological degradations that are their likeliest causes. Instead it is because of terrorist types “weaponizing disease” even though there is no suggestion, not even from Mr Trump that COVID was caused in this way. Gates however doubled down with a hypothetical ‘non-state’ actor building a deadlier smallpox in a lab. There was not even a hint that any shift away from omnivorous capitalism, just as the vaccine itself as a solution would if successful preclude any need for change. “…a politics of fear dominates the global health agenda shown in a tendency to securitize health issues –framing them as existential threats demanding exceptional measures – or as uncertain risks needing to be contained. All of which makes for a short-termist agenda based on crisis management and disease containment”, Rob Wallace on the button. The invoking of the military -which fits so well with the securitizing of health issues – is one more way of undermining public health systems that allow for a degree of public accountability and active participation.
Event 201 itself featured as well as Gates’s own Foundation the John Hopkins Center for Health Security which seems now to have assumed the role of global COVID statistician; and the World Economic Forum (Davos), a supposed capitalist brains trust. Given the interests involved its priorities for such a circumstance were not surprising. “Travel and trade are essential to the global economy as well as to national and even local economies, and they should be maintained even in the face of a pandemic.” As has been known since the first days of COVID-19 is that travel and trade have been the main transmission source that have ,made it a pan-demic.
This Bad Timing, the coincidence has prompted conspiracy theory – as well as previous talk of ‘supra-national organisation which in US ears especially is akin to communism, – that Gates actually caused COVID as if to prove a point and, more obscurely make money. What this stupid accusation has done has prevented an examination of what an emphasis on vaccines as the solution to the bad healths of the world leads to. In particular it has obscured the run-down of public health systems in the rich and poor parts of the world. In the Nigeria referenced above in relation to polio for instance, a public health spending cut was announced in May which pinpoints the question of who and how a vaccine would be administered assuming its effectiveness and possibly promised affordability. Without being aware that Event 201 going to turn out to be bad timing, its organisers and participants were well aware that a media offensive would be required in the event of a pandemic.
“Governments and the private sector should assign a greater priority to developing methods to combat mis-and disinformation prior to the next pandemic response. Governments will need to partner with traditional and social media companies to research and develop nimble approaches to countering misinformation. This will require developing the ability to flood media with fast, accurate, and consistent information. Public health authorities should work with private employers and trusted community leaders such as faith leaders, to promulgate factual information to employees and citizens. Trusted, influential private-sector employers should create the capacity to readily and reliably augment public messaging, manage rumors and misinformation, and amplify credible information to support emergency public communications.”
This it might be said anticipates and is a strategy for countering conspiracy theory(ies), but equally assumes that they will be arbiters of truth as if they were objective arbiters with no interests. This cannot be taken at face value when in the UK for one both GCHQ and the army’s 77th Brigade which priduces ‘video and audio content, using data to understand how the public receives different messages, and creating “attitude and sentiment awareness” from large sets of social media data, — have been given the role. That these interests are not neutral is shown in Event 201’s emphasis the maintenance of trade and transport and in what follows:
“While governments and public health authorities serve as the first line of defense against fast-moving outbreaks, their efforts are chronically under-funded and lack sustained support. Global business leaders should play a far more dynamic role as advocates with a stake in stronger pandemic preparedness.”
Immediately you want to scream yes well why is it chronically underfunded and lacking in sustained support? The fact perhaps that Gates and the supporters of Davos, the rentier oligarchs pay so little tax. Instead with your ‘foundations’ and alliances you have wormholed public health systems and the World Health Organisation itself, institutionalised with its Initiative on Public Private Partnerships for Health. It is not I think conspiracy theory to talk of the influence in the past of the pharmaceutical oligarchy on decision making. Whether it was a ‘conspiracy’ as defined by the MP Paul Flynn or not the decision of the WHO, to declare the Swine Flu outbreak of 2008 a pandemic and whether it deliberately downgraded the definition of a pandemic in order to hype the sickness it did benefit manufacturers of antiviral drugs and potential vaccines – in which, it was alleged, some WHO scientists had vested interests. The outcome being large sums of public money spent on what were unused drugs and which have had the effect in the present of an alleged delay in the WHO declaring COVID 19 a pandemic.
What is for sure is presence of private capital consultancy, or indeed the invasion of health (and education) by capital in the face of falling profitability in other sectors and the clamour of claims on global surplus value. The ubiquity of McKinsey, KPMG, Coopers, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte and the rest of this oligarchy are clear in the various arms of Mr Gates’s philanthropic set-ups – the Bill and Melnida Gates Foundation itself, GAVI the vaccine alliance and the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria -which have little interest in ‘bottom-up’ initiatives. Instead we have managerialism, the belief that there are such things as ‘management skills’ that can solve anything without on the ground experience or long-term knowledge. This is maintained in spite of a very uneven record and in the health field which, as in others is riddled with conflicts of interest. The recent experience of the UK health service with Deloitte’s and then with Serco provides fair warning.
To say it again, vaccines have saved and improved millions of lives, and as a vulnerable person I hope a vaccine is produced which allows us to be truly social persons again. What stands out though is how vaccine development has dominated the narrative of COVID. It is a speciality of Foundations as described many years ago by Robert Arnove, not only are they largely unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth, they ‘establish an agenda of what merits society’s attention”. Event 201’s media strategy cited above is a clear example. Even here the narrative has been not just Foundation determined but Western-centric so that we hear nothing of the over one hundred year old Pan American Health Organisation and its non-Philanthrocapitalist successes in vaccine distribution in Latin America and the Caribbean. The narrative began predictably with a race -the vaccine runners and riders – but has been through various ups and downs since, the most measurable of which have been the share prices of a variety of biotech and pharmaceutical company share prices according to leaks or rumours of test trials. At one ‘down’ point one its enthusiasts the Guardian newspaper even had an article whether an insufficient vaccine would do more harm than good in a two-step of expectation and retreat from expectation when it comes to a cure in the form of a vaccine, a flirting with expectation that is characteristic of the recent phase of capitalism. In this case expectations of the world pulling together undercut by Cold War ‘security notions and capitalist rationale.
On 3rd May 2020 A Guardian headline read “Hostile states trying to steal coronavirus research, says UK agency”. While the ‘alliance’ is all for pooling together R&D, in the face of what is a global threat, there are opportunist thieves –watch out, there’s a mugger about- on the prowl was the gist of the article that followed from its science correspondent. The evidence for this came from National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), indeed the article is in effect a press release, in which it warns of hostile states trying to steal COVID research including that on vaccine development. This is followed by classic nudge and wink stuff “It is understood that” (by whom?) Russia and Iran are behind it followed by unnamed experts saying that also China is also a ‘likely’ perpetrator. However it also “understood” that there have been no successful attacks. Industrial espionage is I imagine normal and if I were the Iranian government where many lives have been lost and is under heavy sanctions I would be trying to make sure I was not left out. Finally we get to see how those slippery ‘hopes’ that China will join the ‘alliance’ really are when we are told the Anglo-Saxon ‘stern white man’ alliance Five Eyes nations –UK, USA, Canada, Australia and NZ- whose exclusive intelligence grouping was once called Echelon,(The Anglo-Saxon world of colonisers and settler colonialists seeing itself as the only reliable ‘stern white man’ to police the world with settler colonial Israel now more than an honorary member) are preparing a document as the basis for suing China for having not been forthcoming at the end of 2019 about the virus. On this specific point this is no time to get dragged into taking ‘Cold War’ sides. President Trump’s eagerness to blame China in a geopolitical context simply gets in the way of seeing how the difficulty of bringing bad news to power evidenced everywhere is acute in that country.
In April 2020 the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday declined to promise that a coronavirus vaccine would be affordable for all Americans, „”We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest” he told members of Congress. One response might be ‘he would say that wouldn’t he’, he having been a lobbyist for pharmaceutical corporates. Another that he was just being more truthful than vaccines for everyone flim-flam. The talk of this being a global problem and that we’re all in this together being standard flim-flam was shown up by the Cold War hacking and spying allegations mentioned. It was confirmed by the British and other governments refusing to support a WHO initiativeto encourage countries to share research on coronavirus treatments and produce any final medicines patent-free. This would mean they could be distributed fairly according to need. The proposal, a voluntary scheme that would pool knowledge, intellectual property and data about coronavirus health technologies. Pfizer called the proposal “nonsense”, while the big British companies working on coronavirus treatments, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKlein, refused to participate.” Following the ins-and-outs of the various promises and qualifications of promises when it comes to the pricing and availability of as yet not-existent vaccines is a job in itself and one can only support the efforts of the present head of the WHO leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
What Mr Azar’s appraisal does rather miss out as ideologically-minded ‘neoliberals do is the amount of public money that supports or subsidises private sector research and sometimes production itself. It is clearly the case that the US lead in sectors like IT has come from subsidies from the Defense Department most of all through its DARPA section; and that the Bayh-Dole Act on patents gave ‘the private sector’ the right to claim the profits from such subsidy. In the area of pharmaceuticals this is not exclusive to the USA, in China and Russia the military play a large role in virus research. DARPA while working on creating the perfect soldier with various areas of research from intelligent textile uniforms to drugs to pre-empt PTSD or rather anys ense of guilt) is perhaps naturally given both the history and possibility of biowarfare concerned and in relation to COVID the potential biowarfaring of bats. The Defense Department’s own Overseas Research laboratories have been just some of those that as Rob Wallace described sprang up after the first SARS outbreak and the various Avian flus. DARPA’s own embrace of biotech started specifically after the 2008-9 swine flu epidemic and specifically which in 2014 saw it creating a Biological Technologies Office. The Acronyms then start to flourish with the ADEPT (Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics.) program that funded private capital companies. In 2018 the PREEMPT (Preventing Emergent Pathogenic Threads) which “seeks to support military readiness by going after new viral infectious diseases at source…”. Naturally enough its budget requires some ‘military readiness’ angle which fits well with the War analogy common to illness in political talk. War on Cancer, War in AIDS etc, but that it is looking at closer surveillance in human communities the in contact with wildlife with the potential of the pre-emptive strike in of the parts of the world as with ‘failed state’ assessment. Their vocabulary does not bode well: “New proactive intervention will center on methods for disarming a virus before it can make a jump across species.” Even more sinister “Successful intervention will be tailored to anticipate threats”. Another DARPA offshoot is its ECHO (Epigenetic Characterization and Observation) program)) . This has now morphed into the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) which is ‘spearheading’ the super-fast development of mRNA vaccines a foundational technology pioneered by DARPA in its ADEPT program and now embracing universities (including Plymouth) (and which is being commercially developed by Moderna in the US which is getting up to $483 million from another arm of the US state, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The US state’s own vaccine development umbrella project Operation Warp Speed is under the direction of an army General.
To mention military involvement in funding is not intended to promote new conspiracy theories, though again it should be out in the open -otherwise it will do this, but to see the usually opaque state-private capital funding links. Where conspiracy-type controversy has emerged but been submerged by President Trump’s generic anti-Chinese rhetoric it relates to the relation between the New York based EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the centre of the COVID as lab escapee narrative. The Alliance has been funded as a ‘Partner’ by another branch of the Federal state, USAID as part of the PREDICT project active since 2009. In April of this year its funding was abruptly cut off by Trump because of its connection to Wuhan but with the scientific rationale that it was party to Gain-of-Function studies there. This is when “different strains of pathogen” are run “though host species to allow the virus to evolve its own stereochemical solutions to the problems presented by a host immune system or microbiocidal. It is all aimed at developing antidotes to virus but has been seen as inherently dangerous. The pros and cons here are well beyond the scope of this text or indeed the author’s knowledge, but what is relevant is how it became part of a strand of conspiracy theory that sees the making and/or leaking of COVID in which Dr Anthony Faucit in his US National Institute of Health role became another hate figure. This on the basis that the NIH as well as USAID also may have supplied money to Wuhan via EcoHealth Alliance. Having been shoved aside by the Trumps for not telling them what they wanted to hear, Faucit became specifically a hate figure for pro-Trump fascists. But it was the Trumps who allowed Gain-of-Function studies to be restarted in the USA after they had been banned during the Obama Presidency, a moratorium imposed.
These joint -and EcoHealth Alliance being a ‘non-profit’ and therefore deniable partner-laboratory set-ups were what Rob Wallace referred to above “building all those labs post-H5N1 and -9/11.” From the early 20th century from the moment that influenza with its varied and ambiguous symptoms could only be determined to be influenza in the lab, power shifted there. Neoliberalism has been described as a fairweather ideology or fairweather mode of capitalism with its just-in-time and long production chains but if there has been any precautionary principle at work it has been in those labs. Necessary work, problem-solving analysis but one which in related manner; did not Prevent COV ID-19; did not in any way counter the land grab-greed that changes the very ecology of animals and viruses; co-existed with a run down in public preparedness for the pandemic they did not prevent. In the USA under both Trump and Obama, the reasonable centrist, the federal government cut its role for such preparedness and in the UK it is left to some courageous doctors to push the government to reveal what its 2016 pandemic preparedness said, just the food for a serious conspiracy theorist.
Conspiracy theory is more comforting than what will be involved with the radical transformations of the capitalist economy and the environment it is playing which are needed to reduce the risk of more pandemics to come, a transformation capitalism cannot make. COVID 19 has made it more directly clear than climate change activism has been able to do. It creates an opportunity for such change and in this context a focus on ‘anti-vaxxers’ and conspiracy theorists has a tendency to sound smug and more to the point is a sledgehammer-and-nut line up and a displacement from our own failings in regard to fascistic appropriations of ‘anti-elites’, and not confronting the real politics of modern fascism, life as a zero sum game. On the first recognition of and revulsion at the psycho-political realities of hierarchy, its maintenance and reproduction as integral to exploitation has lacked teeth from the anti-capitalist side: “We are he 99%” not just anodyne but not taking on the psycho-social reality of real power elites and contesting that, the circularities of entitlement. Zero-sum politics, ie that a gain for any set of other people must be at your expense, usually but not exclusively with racist overtones, is the real basis of modern fascism. What it says though is that not only is capitalism so destructive and unable to make the world safe but it no longer holds the promise of life getting better for most people at almost any level. Banging on about anti-vaxxers and the rest is a displacement activity to the enormity of what it means that capitalism is “not for for purpose” and its managerialism singularly incompetent.
25th Ocober 2020


In the build-up to the laying down of facts on the ground by power elites, newzak has been an important instrument in holding off opposition to the project, whatever it is. When facts on the ground have been accomplished there is then a bored resentment from its perpetrators at attempts to look closely at what actually happened. In the modern age of the global media, it must be accommodated. With a largely compliant media, newzak techniques are recycled, and processes of ambiguity and forgetting brought into play, so that if the facts are truly scandalous or the pure cynicism of these elites is at all in the open, there are unlikely to be any consequences.
Early on in his novel, The Book of Laughing and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells of a photograph, well-known in Czechoslovakia, which records a historic moment in its history when leader Klement Gottwald spoke on a balcony in Bohemia Square to begin the history of ‘Communist Bohemia.’ “Gottwald was flanked by his comrades with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clemetis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.” A photograph taken on the balcony was reproduced hundreds of times. “Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”
As has been remarked many times, such authoritarian state crude tactics cannot be so effective over time as the more diffuse methods of capitalist, free societies in neutralizing memory-with-consequence, and that even without what PhotoShop is capable of. Not that this means the power elites of these societies can’t be crude themselves, no hanging but instead the smearing and belittling of (what is now euphemistically called ‘spinning against’) critics of their policies, and especially those who have been in the loop of relatively privileged knowledge people like David Kelly in the UK, and in present day USA, Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke. More often, after-the-event investigations into these policy projects are mounted by the same elite, with a brief and caveats decided by itself and, especially in the UK, long after the events have taken place. In addition to which it employs a range of tactics so that any consequences will be minor, affecting minor personnel, if indeed there are any consequences at all.
In the present period, given that long after one fait accompli or another has been achieved some evidence does emerge of western support for military dictatorships for example, or systematically cruel behaviour by its own forces, the “that-was then-this is now” approach is increasingly common. This approach is also the standard response of UK prison authorities when the Inspector of Prisons (their contracts never renewed) reports on the scandalous conditions in Dartmoor, Feltham, Wormwood Scrubs, Durham and many others. The director of the Prison Service or a prison Governor gets a routine grilling on the radio and says, ah, that was then, you should what it’s like now. Of course, we have no chance to know how it is now, the inspector has other places on the list. What stands out most is how recent the ‘then’ can be, a month, two months. In these instances, there is an eagerness to prove that there have been consequences, everything is on the mend, lessons have been learned and so on. This is not always the case with the geo-political “then and now” when what is often at stake is obscuring the relation between cause and consequence, but what is common to both is that we shouldn’t be bothering with what went before. The past is the past.
Naturally enough, the rich and powerful are not keen on history, unless they can appropriate the heroic actions of others to themselves, as at the Cenotaph or the recent D-Day anniversary, or universalize the odd rag-to-riches narrative. Naturally neither they nor their employees are keen for it to be clear as to how the rich and powerful came to be as they are, nor how they have maintained their power and both protected and developed their costly-to-the-world interests. When faced with demands say for some recompense for the scandal of slavery, they adopt a puzzled, smiling frown, and make no answer to all the evidence as to how slavery and rip-off colonialism were integral to the development of the globalized capitalism of now, but simply say it was a long time ago, and those calling for it therefore cranks.
In a laconic, angry novel of Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted, set in the world of the Iran-Contra ‘scandal’, the narrator tries to question one of its movers about a particular incident, one which is the plot of the novel. “To bring up 1984 implied that the past had consequences, which in situ was not seen as a useful approach. This unspoken suggestion of consequences was in fact sufficiently unthinkable as to drive Mark Berquist to mount a broad-based defence.” Distancing of consequence from cause is widespread whether it be between glowing supermarkets and super exploitation by the sub-contractors of sub-contractors employing ‘illegal’ immigrant labour; or between al Qaeda and western activities (initiated by Jimmy Carter) to destabilize a progressive government in Afghanistan; while the broad-based defence these days has been shifted to phrases such as ‘it’s time to move on’ or ‘it’s time to draw a line under it.’
The Iran-Contra business of the Reagan Administration was both a scandal and a conspiracy. Those who carried the can for a small part of it were well looked after, so that with in a day of the September 11th massacre, an event with consequences eagerly created by the rich and powerful, ex-Colonel Oliver North, the evidence shredder, was confidently blaming the event on Bill Clinton as a neutral commentator on the BBC with no mention of his own dirty history. The chief executor of the policy, the then Admiral Poindexter is now in charge of the Bush Administration’s scary , post-September 11th Information Awareness Office, with its aim of ‘total information awareness’, of incorporating all existing state databases into one massive distributed database. Others, the cocaine dealers and smugglers so integral to this US government scheme, their licence a lot more provisional in what she calls the “counterfeit machismo of it, the extent to which it was about striking and maintaining a certain kind of sentimental pose.” Liberating the poor people of Nicaragua from the yoke of the Sandanistas who had overthrown a previous American-backed dictator and who now, in their freedom are by far the lowest paid banana plantation workers in the low paid Latin American banana ‘industry’.
In the end there were the well-looked after fall guys and the not well-looked after operators of light aircraft and landing fields, but the bulk of the various investigations into the affair remained inconclusive and therefore without consequences. On this, on how even when some consciousness does arrive after the fait accompli it is blunted and left vague, that Joan Didion is so sharp. She describes the hundreds of pages of hearings before a select committee thus:-
“…sixty three days of testimony arresting not only for its reliance on hydraulic imagery (there were conduits, there was the pipeline, there was of course the pipeline) but for its collateral glimpses of life on the far frontiers of the Monroe Doctrine. There was for example the airline that operated out of St Lucia but had its headquarters in Frankfurt…and either was or was not (conflicting testimony on this) ninety nine percent owned by a former Air West flight attendant who either did or did not live on St Lucia. There was for example the team of unidentified men…who either did or did not (more conflcting testimony) arrive on the northern Coast Rican border to burn the bodies of the crew of the unmarked DC-3 that at the time it crashed appeared to be registered to the airline that was or was not ninety-nine percent owned by the former Sky West flight attendant who did or did not live on St Lucia.”
This is when they say, the stink of smugness in the voice, ‘the jury’s still out on that one’. As if they’d let a jury anywhere near such an inquiry. Instead we get what Guy Debord describes as the consequence of the destruction of history: “contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning.” A world in which “there is no room for verification.” (Reflections on the Society of the Spectacle). No wonder that the post-modernism of alternative narratives, and the impossibility of an ‘objective’ truth as to what “really happened” in any given situation has become an attractive tool to the power elite. That there is ‘no room for verification’ was made blindingly clear by what happened to the pre-Iraq-invasion UN Weapons Inspectors. In his courageous decision not to support a second UN resolution to ‘justify’ the invasion President Lamine Sidime of Guinea, with a temporary seat on the Security Council, demanded something definable and measurable about what constituted Iraqi compliance. This was intolerable to the US-UK axis.
Once the fait accompli has been accomplished, inquiries thereafter are either just whinging or quibbling: as was the response to those saying it was the West who supplied Iraq with the technology for biological and chemical weapons (that-was-then-this-is-now); as the present Bush team played it in the 2000 coup d’etat in Florida; or as of now in 2004, ‘the tyrant Saddam has been removed, what are you on about’; or, as with the prison governors, ‘lessons have been learned’, said glibly and with undue haste; or the inquiries are, in nearly all cases, finally inconclusive in the ‘did or did not’ manner Joan Didion captures so well, just as she also gets at the overlay of the smothering effect of the mass of detail that has no consequences. The published transcripts of the hearings she describes runs to “ten volumes, two thousand five hundred and seven pages”.
Vagueness is one more tactic employed by the power elite when at all pressed, the power elite which does not want, which refuses to be pinned down by certainties or principles, which wants nothing conclusive unless it is in its own interests. Describing the tactics of the George H. Bush administration when climate negotiations first began in earnest, J Gupta writes, “It was instrumental in ensuring ambiguity regarding both principles and targets.” (Our Simmering Planet: Zed Books). In the Gulf War of 1991, the same Administration was equally coy when it came to just how many Iraqi conscripts were killed in the night-time duck shoot at Mutla Ridge. 200,000 was a Pentagon estimate but, it was reported, no official figures were to be issued and no formal study to produce the numbers. Instead the statistics were to be kept as vague as possible because the true picture was so horrifying. An interest it no doubt shared with Saddam Hussein. Later on, when Saddam had a free hand attacking the popular uprising against him, the Daily Telegraph (25/3/91) reported that the “White House has mysteriously backed away from earlier warnings that Saddam must not use attack helicopters.” And that in response the Presidential Press Secretary Fitzwater said “there’s an element of murkiness we want to preserve.”
Nothing definitive thank you very much, investigative processes are dragged out and finally reach some final ambiguity, or, ‘the jury’s still out on that one. It’s ambiguity which, however fallacious, becomes a badge of adulthood within the worlds dominated by the power elite. In this instance, elites really are interchangeable, and this interchangeability not just an ultra-leftist fantasy, as we can see in the case of the assault on Bosnia where the ideologues of complexity in the USA and UK prevented any action to stop a process of ethnic cleansing until it was yet one more accomplished fact. There is also planned ambiguity. The most chilling information from ex-Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, relentlessly smeared before the Iraq invasion for detailing how there was no “WMD” , was after the destruction of liquid biological weapons by the UN Inspectors in 1995 an American on the team, Dick Spertzel would not do sampling there because he did not want to give the Iraqi state the benefit of a negative reading. This so it could always be said that this was a black hole data-wise, a grey area, and this despite the sophistication of the surveillance equipment available. A grey area as various British lords, including ‘that perfect poppinjay’ Lord Owen, said so many times of Bosnia between 1991 and 1995.
If all else fails persistent denial and a refusal to accept that anything has been definitively proved has become standard. On this last technique, Joan Didion is again right on song with a further question from the narrator to the Mark Berquist character.
“’The period I had in mind was more the period of the resupply to the Nicaraguan contra forces.’
‘In the first place any reference to the so-called contra forces would be totally inaccurate,’ Mark Berquist said. ‘In the second place any reference to the so-called resupply would be totally inaccurate.’
I suggested that both “contra” and “resupply” had become in the intervening years pretty much accepted usage for the forces and events in question.”
Challenged on this by the narrator citing official literature on the subject, the Berquist character replies after a long silence. “These are matters about which there has already been quite enough misrepresentation and politicization.”
It is uncanny, as if she knew in advance the tactics of Tony Blair and George W.Bush. Now and then bolder elements of the media will talk of them being in denial, but Blair’s blank refusal to admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction is not just playing for time, it keeps hold of a not 100% impossible ambiguity. Even now, as he admits that WMD may not be found, it is not an admission that they were not there. The Bush Administration has now adopted a similar tactic in relation to the independent inquiry they did not want into how the September 11th attack came to happen and its conclusion that there is no evidence of Iraqi-al Qaeda connections before the US invasion. Just before publication Vice President Dick Cheney asserted there was such a connection, as evidence of which he cited the many-times discredited story of Mohammed Atta meeting an Iraqi agent in Prague airport.
In the UK, a classic version of this tactic took place in a TV programme in 2003 on the events of Bloody Sunday 1972 when unarmed demonstrators, British citizens, were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry. The programme took place during the latter stages of the long drawn-out Saville Inquiry into those events, which has still not issued its Report. A British judge Popplewell, said it still might be the case the troops had been fired first, it was open to doubt. By luck Eamonn McCann was on the programme and swift to challenge this ‘muddying of the waters’ and to declare it for what it was, since that at least was no longer in doubt, that they had not been fired on. There has of course been plenty of time for events to be muddied, and given that the Inquiry has ruled out looking at the original Inquiry, the disgraceful Widgery Report, it is hard to be sanguine about how it will turn out, whether it will have the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ aims it began with. And even if it is critical, the British army, while admitting nothing, is likely to say of that period, that was then, this is now.
This tactic is at one level the not-me-guv attitude of the Power Elite when faced with consequences of things they could have prevented, or which they set in motion themselves, consequences which billions of people in this world see clearly are for the worse. In the case of Mr Blair his state of denial is that kind of playing for time which assumes general boredom will set in at some point and even though the line put under it will be fuzzy, he can move on. This passionate believer in the invasion of Iraq and other things, is also enthusiastically legalistic when the need arises, not-me-guv. You could believe Joan Didion had seen him coming too in her description of Treat Morrison, the government guy who is a mover, a shaker, a can-do guy but who is also dishonest, “dishonest in the more radical sense, dishonest in that he remained incapable of seeing things straight.”
This legalism allied with the non-acceptance of uncomfortable facts as facts has been helped by large swathes of the mass media who declare of one scandal or another that “there is no smoking gun”. In the case of Bloody Sunday, the British army made sure there wasn’t, destroying most of the guns in question. A stand-out case was the BBC’s Steven Sackur declaring early on in the unraveling of Enron that in the case of President Bush that there was no smoking gun. Well that was that then, as if that was all that mattered. Besides, despite all the numerous links between the company and Bush and his Administration, even with fingerprints all over the smoking gun, a battery of wiseguys would have come up with an alternative narrative. But the concentration on whether the Administration was implicated or not, took attention away from the real question as to who were the mugs on to whom these dodgy shares were offloaded, as indeed is the real question with so much of the dotcom and telecoms bubbles.
Other help provided by a compliant media was recently evidenced in a BBC World Service interview with one Mark Bell, a spokesman for the occupation administration in Iraq, the CPA (17/6/04). A poll they themselves had commissioned showed that 55% of Iraqis would feel safer if foreign troops left. Safer! There was also a low level of support for the interim government. He was immediately helped by the interviewing asking if he was surprised? As if that was the relevant question. No, he was not surprised, Bell said, as if that was all right then, as if him not being surprised, the result expected, somehow took away its significance. This is similar one of the processes of Newzak, that is speculation as to what such and such a report will say, there are invariablty leaks-nothing official-so that when the official report emerges, any impact it might have had has been blunted. Unfortunately for him, Bell then pushed the interviewer into a corner by saying that the poll had been small, forcing the other point out that Bell and the CPA were the people who’s commissioned it. At which point Bell fell back on the ‘that was then, this is now, line; that the result would be very different if it was held now, some few weeks later, something of course we had no chance of knowing one way or another.
The ‘smoking gun’ is closely related to another tactic of the power elite and its employees, which is to exaggerate what is being said against it, saying that it was accused of things no one had accused them of, in order to discredit them. This was an important tactic in the concerted attack on an Iran-Contra scandal story written by a journalist called Gary Webb for The San Jose Mercury in 1995. This was some ten years after the events and normally might be one more case of what Guy Debord called ‘the consciousness that always comes too late’, this one was specific and had an edge to it whereby for once, scandal might have some consequences, in that it homed in on the hard drugs. He got the lead from another reporter called Robert Parry working for AP in 1985 who had been intimidated off the case (at one point with his writing partner Brian Barger was accused of poisoning Oliver North’s dog which had died of natural causes.) Following this up, and with some leads from an investigation headed by John Kerry, yes, the same one and who was himself on the end of various attempts to discredit him, Webb made the story specific.
It was about how two prominent Nicaraguan Contra supporters and smugglers Meneses and Blandon, and how they had hooked up with a black LA crack cocaine dealer, Freeway Ricky Ross who, at the time of his arrest was said to be shifting 700 kilos of the stuff per month. Webb wrote “It was a sort of collision, Crack was coming up anyway, and it ran slap bang into these cheap loads of cocaine that the Contras were bringing in and you have an explosion. And that’s essentially what my story is about. This collision of events.”
The assault on the story with no doubt promptings from those who had denied all drug-Contra links to the Kerry Committee, was lead by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post which are not owned by Rupert Murdoch. One of the team on the LA Times, one Jesse Katz, who had just two years previously described Ricky Ross as ‘the criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, attacked the story by saying that Ricky Ross was a no one who had shifted very little. The Washington Post then chipped in by saying that Webb had said that the CIA had deliberately brought crack into the inner cities to fuck up the black population, something which was or was not true in the case of heroin in the Vietnam War period. In fact he had said no such thing, but this lie made it easy to dismiss the story and put it into the realms if “internet conspiracy stories”.
Of course there are such stories on the net, fascistic as well as ‘leftist’, and sometimes fascistic camouflaged as ‘leftist’ as well as the plain loopy or, but it’s clearly in the interests of the mainstream media to put down alternative net journalism. But to really get to grips with the business of how what is scandalous gets nullified, demands a look at what is, and is not conspiracy theory as well as what consequences it might have.
The Iran-Contra ‘affair’ was by any standards, a conspiracy, but the partial revelations of what happened had few consequences. Since then, almost any attempt to impugn the motives of the USA-UK axis for example, or to unravel the steps from cause to consequence, is dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’. There is of course such stuff, when I was young it was the Gemstone file, a reductionist narrative which featured Onassis as the global politico-criminal mastermind. This is conspiracy theory with an amphetamine flavour. As I’ve written elsewhere (Frankenstein and the Chickenhawks: such stuff when it is not downright dangerous as with standard anti-semitism, is usually a waste of time for the people pursuing it. It is, on the other hand, a morbid symptom of a secrecy characteristic of the power elite. It is invariably defended on the grounds of necessary security, the need-to-know of spy stories, or business confidentiality. As we know, calls for transparency by Western leaders applies only to others.
It is also Daniel Ellsburg has testified, so addictive to those in the loop. “When you become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information…you’ll be aware of the fact that you have it now and others don’t…and all those other people are fools.”
Outside the loop, this can allow for endless speculation because the aim of those in the loop is to try and ensure that nothing can ever be decisively proved; or that if some things should be conclusively shown it will be at a time far too late to have any impact in that present. Those professional opinionists, all too eager to dismiss those who raise concern about discrepancies between what is said and what is being done, at the silenced links between cause(s) and consequence(s), as conspiracy theorists, always caricature it as ‘dastardly plotting’. In fact the precedent in English Conspiracy Law is that ‘a nod and a wink’ will do, a green light or, more likely, an ambiguous orange. In the recent case of prisoner abuse by the USA in Iraq, one of the two. The blame is firmly placed on ‘white trash’ soldiers, but seeing Donald Rumsfeld in action, it’s easy to see a deniable green light for the parameters of what was permissible being widened. The problem is that until recently, even when the link was shown to be there, the scandal revealed, this has, by itself, had no consequences. That it is in this instance having consequences is because there are ruthless and well-organized anti-American and other occupation forces.
Conspiracy theory became in the Gulf War, a catch-all phrase that encompassed a put-down of the way links were put into the open, links with other things going on in the Middle East, whereas for the West, everything was on a case-by-case basis, something as unreal as the worst conspiracy theory; and exploring the hidden links between cause and consequence. Both in themselves are worthwhile aims for those who want to live with a true picture of the world. Problems arise especially in four forms. First that most of the time, if the links between cause and consequence really are the product of some devious and immoral fixing, it is very, very unlikely that they will ever be proved in any definitive way. It becomes a Holy Grail kind of business. Second, it sometimes over estimates the power of the elite to control everything, something which can only make for a kind of defeatism. Third, if the link-makers have their own axe to grind, one that is often hidden however thinly. And in some cases, too much of an over-estimation of the motive-consequence sequence. After a while a person becomes as sick of the politico-psychological motivation of Tony Blair as of the man himself.
In the case of the Gulf War in which massive military force was used with the most modern tools, the suggestion was made that the USA administration had given the green light, or rather the orange to an eager Saddam Hussein, to invade Kuwait, and that this had been done with the express purpose of the justifying a subsequent attack on ‘his’ Iraq. And that further such an attack was a display of US firepower against a weakened constructed foe in order to intimidate the whole region.
The idea may, or may not be true. Whichever way, it was at least not some amphetamine–fuelled poetic paranoia. Instead it centred on what US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie did or did not say to Saddam Hussein on 25th July 1990; what Saddam Hussein may or may not have understood from what she said, and therefore what was or was not permissible in his interpretation. On this last point of course, there is no ambiguity, he had no right to interpret what she said as being an orange light for the invasion of Kuwait.
There was some history to all this. An agreement to increase oil prices had been made with both American and Saudi blessing (the Americans having oil producers of their own have never wanted the price too low, it is having some control over the price that matters); this was undermined by increased Kuwaiti production. At the same time Kuwait was insisting on immediate repayment of its loans to Iraq to finance the war against Iran, just at the time Saddam was having to publicly admit that this horrendous, wasteful and protracted war, in which hundreds of thousands died, had achieved nothing with a concession to Iran on the Shat-al-Arab waters. Why the Kuwaitis should have acted so provocatively was a question raised by the radical Arab journalist Said Aburish at the time. A successful invasion of Kuwait and the consequent undermining of Saudi control of OPEC and make it more pliable and accepting of the long term stationing of US troops in the kingdom. This is what did happen just as had been predicted by the independent and scrupulous scholar Marion Sluglett.
In the event, Iraq did invade Kuwait, and with all-round Western backing, the USA showed just how nasty it could be. Several months before the USA’s 1991 attack, US General Scwharzkopf and his fellow Generals played a serious war game in Tampa, Florida with Iraq as the target, and with input from Schwarzkopf himself. This is The Guardian of 22nd February 1991, re-reporting the Washington Post: “During the annual staff war-gaming last year General Schwarzkopf developed a scenario in which Iraq was preparing to attack Iraq. Even before the paper-and-computer exercise ended in August the hot line rang with a call from General Colin Powell…’Well they have crossed.’ Powell said, And I said, I’m not surprised you know. Now it’s going to be interesting to see what they do’…In the build up to the initial wave of 240,000 troops, he said, there were few deviations from the war-game plan.”
The text of the Saddam-Glaspie meeting was released in Arabic by the Iraqis and clearly could not be taken at face value. It was however printed almost in full by The New York Times. They agreed that an oil price of $25 a barrel was reasonable and then Glaspie is alleged to have said that the US ‘has no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.’ It was not until the war was over, some 7-8 months after her meeting with Saddam, that April Glaspie surfaced officially to refute this ‘disniformation’, which excluded her warning that the dispute with Kuwait should be settled peacefully; Saddam was too stupid to understand what she was saying, she said. Which is of course all too believable of this brutal and stupid man, but it did seem strange that the State Department had kept her under wraps for such a long time before allowing her to refute this disinformation, and that when she did so, she insisted so strongly that neither president nor State Department boss James Baker, had had no involvement in what was said at the meeting.
Nothing did or could come of all this, it was a matter of interpretation. Too much circumstantial stuff without the wealth of detail of Gary Webb’s story. But there was no happy ending to that, he was not the hero journalist who won with the truth, as say in the film Defence of the Realm. Instead his paper started to qualify the story and he resigned in protest. Both acts were taken by the big-time mainstream papers as proof that the story was wrong, and they derided it as being like internet conspiracy stuff. But you can get that in the mainstream press too. Look at how the foolish Michael Meacher in his Guardian article of 6th September 2003 in which he says “it is clear the US authorities did little or nothing to pre-empt the events of 9/11” backed by some very selective evidence, often taken out of context, how his article was leapt on in pure gratitude by professional opinionists who had supported the invasion of Iraq and were feeling a little wrong-footed by the non existence of Iraqi WMD. Meacher in fact was yet one more wise-after-the-event people who was still in the Blair government until June 2003. Since then he has been a godsend to those ex-Bolshevik pro-warriors who still can’t shake off that Bolshevik tic of never being in the wrong.
I can quite believe Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are capable of almost anything, if nothing else the Florida coup tells us this is the case. It is obviously true that the September 11th attacks have created the opportunity to exercise military power and create both the exercise of domestic authoritarianisms and a raft of precedent for more in the future. But Meacher now a born-again cold war leftist with their trademark dislike of Bosnians for having the cheek to have been helped very late in the day by the West in their fight not to be ethnically cleansed, does not have the necessary scrupulousness of Gary Webb to talk of a collision of events. Instead he gives a misleadingly selective chronology of the response to the hijackings, “the standard FAA intercept procedures” and from this asks the rhetorical questions, “Was this inaction simply the result of key people disregarding, or being ignorant of, the evidence? Or could US air security operations have been deliberately stood down on September 11th? If so, why, and on whose authority?”
This is fairly classic conspiracy theory prose. Mr Meacher now says they are doing a Gary Webb on him, exaggerating what he said, but the rhetorical questions say otherwise. Besides, it was totally mis-timed from someone who did nothing when it mattered in the real scandal of the thoroughgoing deceit in selling the invasion of Iraq within the UK-US axis, and now has his own axe to grind, one in which the consequences-domestic authoritarianism and pre-emptive strikes-must have been designed, and the Bush Administration omnipotent in bringing it all about. The consequence of Bloody Sunday was to start a process whereby the provisional IRA, still a bit of a joke at the time despite the heroics of the Markets, become a serious military organization. It might be that this is what the Heath government of the time wanted, to militarize the struggle as preferable to the participatory democracy of Free Derry. Maybe they just wanted to teach the Micks, the Republican Micks, a lesson, but in a sense it doesn’t matter which, the struggle was militarized and the dynamics of Free Derry squeezed out. It is possible to over-egg motivation. As Hannah Arendt argued with such courage of the Eichmann trial, what Eichmann did was all the more ‘evil’ when his motivation was of no importance.
In the regular put-downs of arguments, however true or false, as ‘conspiracy theory’ during the Gulf War, it was counterposed, when things were obviously wrong with ‘cock-up’ theory. I do not want to embrace that as a catch-all looking at the evidence heard in the Kean Inquiry into 9-11. It’s report due in July is likely to be full of ambiguity though it has spoken out firmly against the al-Qaeda-Saddam link still peddled out, and pushed ex-CIA chief Tenet into a pre-emptive strike resignation. At the same time it is all too believable that the CIA-FBI engaged in turf wars and were incompetent, and also that they were ironically overloaded with information as had been the case earlier with their failure to anticipate the Indian nuclear bomb test. Believable that these masters of the universe and their systems panicked, that indeed they had not taken the threat seriously-not from Arabs at any rate, the ones the Israelis always had the last laugh on. Not taken it seriously because it had been such a concern of the despised Clinton Administration, and would only get in the way of their own obsession with kicking butt in the Middle East. Most of all there is the cutthroat irony that attempts by the Clinton Administration to tighten security on domestic flight being lobbied against by airline companies concerned about turnover time and profit, and stopped.
To go beyond this and imply that the whole thing was planned, that the Administration are mass murderers of their own people, serves only to obscure the real scandal which is the deceit involved in the invasion of Iraq, which is itself in danger of being muddied over by too many inquiries without definitive conclusions, and too much bureaucratic detail.
In an Italian noir-type novel by Andrea Camilleri a Communist broadcaster says, “The quickest way to make people forget about a scandal is to talk about it as much as possible, on television, in the papers and so on. Over and over you flog the same dead horse, and pretty soon people start getting fed up.” This is perhaps the deadliest of neutralizers, post-facto newzak.
Recently the true British scandal – the deceit involved in making Britain a ‘partner’ in the invasion-is treacle’d by a newzak process. A series of boxed-off inquiries; pre-leak expert speculation as to what the inquiries should do, and what they might say; selected leaks; post-leak expert speculation as to what it will say and what that will mean; publication of the report with news conference and news deference; post-publication expert commentary; predictable post-report media positions taken; analysis of post-media positions taken, and what this will mean. A similar process in the USA has taken place and even though there the inquiries have been less constrained, the results have been the same, no verifiable deceit was involved, and if there is a report on this question it will be after the Presidential elections and thus shorn of immediate consequence. After the most recent inquiry in the UK, the Butler Report, The Guardian of 17th July said that ‘the Blairites’ now hoped that complaints about the Iraq invasion were “running out of steam.” It will require perseverance not to forget, and be an unforgiving jury.

Charles Bukowski(1982)

I started reading Bukowski in prison in the mid-1970s thanks to my pal Philippe Garnier who was translating them into French, and I knew I was on to a good thing the first time I fell off the bed with laughing over a short story. In this Buk is the non-passive victim of a visit from mad Jimmy ( recently crazy Jimmy),a bad painter.

“So there’s mad Jimmy and there’s me Or there’s Maxie. Maxie is going to shut off all the sewers in Los Angeles to help the Cause of the people. Well it’s a damned nice gesture,you’ve got to admit that. But Maxie 2 buddy, I say,let me know when you’re going to shut off all the sewers. I’m for the People. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ll leave town a week early.What Maxie doesn’t realise is that Causes and Shit are different things. Starve me, but don’t cut off my shit and/or shit disposal unit. I remember once my landlord left town on a nice two week vacation to Hawaii.•Okay.The day after he left town my toilet stopped. I had myown personal plunger,being very frightened of shit,but I plunged and plunged and it didn’t work.You know where that left me.

So I called up my own personal friends,and I’m the type who doesn’t have too many personal friends,or if I have them they don’t have toilets let alone telepohones…more often,they don’t have any thing.

So,I called the one or two who had toilets.They were very nice. “Sure,Hank,you can shit at my place anytime!”

I didn’t take up their invitations. Maybe it was the way they said it.So here was my landlord in Hawaii watching the hula girls,and those fucking turds just lay on top of the water and whirled around and looked at me.

So each night I had to shit and then pluck the turds out of water, place them in wax paper and then into a brown paper bag and get into

my car and drive around town looking for some place to toss them.

So mostly double-parked with the motor running I’d just toss the goddamned turds over some wall,any wall.I tried to be non-predjudiced, but this one Home, for the Aged seemed a particularly quiet place and I think I gave them my little brown bag of turds at least three times.

Or sometimes I’d just be driving along and roll up the window and rather flick the turds out as one would, say,cigarette ashes or a couple of dozen burnt-out cigars.”

I must have laughed and fallen off the bed so many times(dropping the book and losing the page in the process)that the guy in the next cell must have got worried about me or got the needle over all this laughing and random banging. Anyway after I told him the cause of all this mayhem there’ were queues and waiting lists for each new Bukowski book. It got to be like one of the stories, no peace for Barker, those times of  elementary privacy so necessary inside. Over time they became sections of books that had fallen apart (no blame to City Lights the publisher, no paper back could have withstood the treatment) whicht got passed around, sections that did not necessarily coincide with whole stories. They maybe, four years later still in circulation in the max security system. My own explanation for the queues and the rest is not just how funny they are it was because we knew the characters in his stories so well.

The funny thing is you know he isn’t bullshitting, that  he’s lived out/is living out what he’s writing.That in fact he’s earned the right to write at a time when far too many books are written. With Bukowski it’s not a case of “Hand me my ghetto suit James” for a month or twos’ slumming to get the artistically sordid background.

I had my reservations too .At first reading some of the stories seemed wilfully sexist .But a second time it seemed more a matter of him just liking women, making a ‘fool’ of himself, having a good time. But a woman friend who I gave one of his books tom did say she didn’t, like the stories much, not because they degraded women but because it was such a male world. I don’t know. Certainly there is that world like horse racing, And on horse racing he’s very handy, useful. Like on horse which always finish second, which can only run well when there’s a horse in front of  which makes the bookies lots of money with punters staying on the horse which will do the business next time out.And Bukowski’s tips can be a lot more generalised but perhaps even more useful and important.

“it’s after a bad day at the max track that you realize you will never make it,coming in stinking at the socks,a few wrinkled dollars in your wallet,you know that the miracle will never arrive,and worse, thinking about the really bad bet you made on the last race of eleven horse,knowing you couldn’t win,the biggest sucker bet on the board at 9/2,all the knowledge of your years ignored,you going up to the ten buck window and saying “eleven twice!”and the old greyhaled boy at the window, asking again:”eleven?” he always asks when I pick a bad one,he may not know the actual winner but he knows the sucker bets, and he gives me the saddest of looks and takes the twenty.then to go out and watch that dog run last all the way,not even working at it,just loafing as your brain says “what the fuck,’ gotta be crazy.”

I’ve talked this over with a friend of mine who has many years of betting on horses and dogsof  he’s often done the same thing and he calls it the “death wish”,which is old stuff, we yawn at the term now,but strangely there’s still some basis in it yet, a man does get tired as the race progresses and there IS this tendency to throw the whole game overboard, the feel­ing can come upon him whether he is winning or losing and then the badbets begin.But,I feel,a more real problem is that you ACTUALLY want to be somewhere else-sitting in a chair reading Faulkner or making drawings with your child’s crayons,the racetrack is just another JOB finally,and a hard one too. When I sense this and at my best I simply leave the track:when I sense this and at not at my best I go on making bad bets.”

And I know what he means. He’s describing exactly what I’ve experienced, made some sense out of them and made a basis for me to make more sense out of them. He’s right, you don’t do things well when you’re doing them from the sheer inertia of not being able to leave somewhere where you don’t want to be. A good friend says those are exactly the times when she plays darts badly.

And it describes that kind of stubborn obsessiveness which is a big part of the content of the death wish. Pretty smart eh? Put it this way I reckon his pal’s analysis and his own are not that far removed And finally he tells me clearly what I get obsessive about-that is the feeling that ‘self-awareness by itself is not worth a carrot. Whether you act on it or not, according to Buk, depends on whether you’re feeling at your best. To wrap it up when you’re in tune with your desires and you’re listening to them andthey’re strong enough to break through that stubborn obsessiveness.

What I like most about the guy is that he neither Romanticises nor lives off Disgust at his world, his milieu…maybe another sign that he’s in it. There was some recognition of the truth of it in a prison story.

“Moyamensing Prison reminded me of an old castle.2 large wooden gates swung open to let me in.’ am surprised we didn’t walk across a moat.

They stuck me in with a fat man who looked like a public   accountant. I’m Courtney Taylor,public enemy No.1 he told me. What are you in for? he asked

He  knew then because I’d been asked on the way in.

Draft dodging.

There’s two things we can’t stand here:draft dodgers and indecent exposure cases. Honor among thieves,eh? Keep the country wrong so you can rob it. We still don’t like draft dodgers.

I’m really innocent .I moved and forgot to leave a forwarding add­ress with the draft board.’ notified the  post office. Got a letter from St Louis while I was in this town to report for a draft examination.’ told them I couldn’t make it to St.Louis

to have them examine me here.’I don’t understand it: if I were trying to dodge the draft I wouldn’t have given them my address.

All you guys are innocent, sounds like bullshit to me.I stretched out on the bunk a screw came by.GET UP OFF YOUR DEAD ASS: he screamed at me.I got off my dead draft dodging ass.

Do you want to kill yourself? Taylor asked me.

Yes, I said.

Just pull down the overhead pipe that holds the cell light, fill that bucket with water and stick your foot on it, take out the light bulb and stick your finger in the socket.then you’re out of here.

I looked at the light a long time.

Thank yousTaylort you’re very helpful.

At lights out I lay down and they started in,bedbugs.

What the shit’s this I screamed.

Bedbugs said Taylor,we got bedbugs.

I bet I’ve got more bedbugs than you’ve got, I said. Bet ten cents?

Ten cents.

I began to catch and kill mine. I laid them on the little wooden table.

Finally we called time. We took our bedbugs over to the cell door where there was light and we counted them. I had 13.he had 18.1 gave him the wasn’t until later that I found out he was breaking his in halfg and stretching them. He had been a swindler, a real pro. the son of a bitch.”

“Public enemy No.1,he told me” how many times you hear the equivalent inside-talking in telephone numbers-but here it’s a sort of innocent bullshitting.And of course the ‘conservative’ criminal who depends on the existence of things they are to stay in business, though there are very few conservative criminals in the prison system. And anyway into
it breaks another part of the reality the cheerful lunacy that they BOTH get into, and of course you do have to go to the door where the light is to do the counting.

I’ve read three books of short stories-“Notes of a dirty old man”, “Erections,Ejaculations,Exhibitions,and general tales of ordinary madness”)both pub. City Light Books),and “South of no North”(pub. Black Sparrow Press).Most of the stories are autobiographical or at least to have come from lived experience and they in general seem to me to be about the only way worth writing.

By “South of No North these have become a lot harder, like the sting that goes with his story of the cannibal who becomes a pet/lover/status symbol with a rich lady in L.A. or the nastiest story of ‘the robbery that goes wrong’.

The other two books I’ve read-“Factotum” and”Post Office where he worked for 15 years)(both pubaalack Sparrow Press) are not so much novels as autobiographical long stories without the tyrannical finishedness of a novel. Instead its rambling and tight at the same time with no big deal end. “Post Office” is about the best book I’ve read about work…not just the boredom and irrationality but like the accumulation of rage and defiance when delivering through the rain with accompanying abuse and ear pounding, No big deal made of the Union which just does nothing over the one thing that really bugs him. And in other stories he gives us the world of warehouse and

stock clerk jobs in un-unionised America.

There are times when it does slip into an exalted, perfectly formed and protected fatalism.But on work he mainly has all the virtues that I read ascribed to the film “Bluecollar” and not the positioned and fetishised delight, say of recent Solidarity’ writing on discovering informal working class organisation. It’s all a matter of whether

such writing is done without making  much of a big deal is made out of it, putting too much weight on those informal subversions and without giving too much away to those who seek to manage it.

Sometimes the attacks on ‘idealists’ seem facile and cliched but other times he’s just dead on and the laughs are cutting. There’s so much pure outrage.

“In the current Los Angeles Times(as this is being written)we are having the wind-up of a Hippie-Beatnik scene in Mary Worth. We have had here the campus rebel, bearded and in turtleneck sweater running off with the campus queen ,a long-haired girl with perfect figure

(I almost got rocks looking at her).what the campus rebel stands f we are never quite sure except in a few short speeches which say very little. Anyhow I will not bore you with the story ends

up with big bad poppa in necktie and expensive suit and baldheaded and eaglefaced giving out a few dictums of his own to the bearded one, then offering him a job with his outfit so that he can properly support his sexy daughter. The Hippie-Beatnik at first refuses and vanishes off the page and poppa and daughter are packing to leave hintto leave him there in his own idealistic slime, when the Hippie-Beatnik returns.”Joe;…What have you done?” says the sexy daughter. and Joe enters SMILING AND BEARDLESS: “I thought it only fair for you to know what your husband looked liketsweetheart…before it was too late!”Then he turns to poppa:”Also I figured that a beard would be more of a handicap than a help…ON A REAL ESTATE SALESMAN!”Does this mean you’ve finally come to  YOUR SENSES young man?” asks poppa.”It means thatl’m willing to pay the price that you put on your daughter,sir!”(ah,sextah love,ah FUCK!) “But” continues our x-hippie,. “I still intend to fight INJUSTICE…wherever I find it!” well that’s good because our x-hip is going to find there’s a lot of injustice in the real-estate business Tthen as a parter poppa gives his line;”How­ever you’re in for a big SURPRISE,Joe!…when you discover that we

old mossbacks want a better world too. We just don’t believe in I BURNING the house down to get rid of the termites.” ”

It’s that line “well,that’s good because our x-hip is going to find a lot of injustice in the real estate business” which set me off laughing like a hyena. Here it is not so much the cop out  but the sheer grossness of the presentation from the Los Angeles Times. And he gets to the heart of that from the start when he points out ‘what the campus rebel stands for we are never quite surel.To the extent it is about actual cop-out he puts through the mangle that wishful thinking that you can have jam on it, that you can keep your conscience and remain pure despite what you are objectively doing.

But like I said what is most of all important here is showing just how gross this storyline island hands up those who’ve recently screamed at an advert on the telly. Screamed at the sheer inanity of it. Or have they worn us down with sheer persistence(that is where they haven’t actually hooked people on a camp aesthetics of advertisments.). It is what Bukowski does here that’s done me most good in the same way as when his no-illusions style is punctured by bursts of healthy rage.It is an outrage so innocent that it calls into question all those concessions we make by losing our sense of the irrationality and unacceptable bullshit of the world as it istwhile celebrating

the pleasure and desire possible in it’, That outrage is something we think or rather take for granted but don’t feel any more. It’s like you know the SPG for example are brutal thugs and that seems to weigh against feeling outrage at their latest atrocity. There is somewherea balance,not to know that this brutality, is inherent to the organ­isation and purpose of such a forcejis to have swallowed a lot of old cobblers. What Bukowski has made easier to feel again is the out­rage without being surprised.

This final passage is where Bukowski is in the Charity ward after vomiting bloodl collapsing.

“The next day a nurse came and got me and helped me on a rolling platform. I was still vomiting up blood and was quite weak. She rolled me on the elevator.

The technician got behind his machine. They poked a point into my belly and told me to stand there. I felt very weak.

“I’m too weak to stand up,” I said.

“Just stand there,” the technician said.

“I don’t think I can,” I said

“Hold still.”

“I’m falling,” I said.

“Don’t fall,” he said.

“Hold still,” said the nurse.

I fell over backwards.I felt as if I were made of rubber. There was no feeling when I hit the floor.I felt very light,I probably was “Oh goddam it” said the technician.

The nurse helped me up and stood me against the machine with this point jamming in my stomach.

“I can’t stand,” I said, “I think I’m dying. I can’t stand.

I’m sorry but I can’t stand up.”

“Stand still,” said the technician,”just stand there”. “Stand still,” said the nurse.

I could feel myself falling.I fell over backwards.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“God damn you!” the technician screamed,”you made me waste two films’,Those god damned films cost money!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Take him out of here,” said the technician.

The nurse helped me up and put me back on the roller. The humming nurse rolled me back to the elevator, humming”

All the quotes in this review come from “Erections…”.The queues and waiting lists exist for fresh copies on the outside now and the buggers don’t give them back.  (,),


LAND GRAB: ENCLOSURE, DISPOSSESSION, EVICTION< Written with Ines Doujak and appearing in German in a book of "Land Grab posters entitled Land Raub published by Bahoe Books/strong>


The taking of land and its resources –farming, forest and urban – by omnivorous capital is an act of class war. The increased ownership by such capital not just of the means of production, but of subsistence as well, strengthing its power of control, and it is this that makes land a ‘safe’ asset for the sovereign investor. In the process, capital recreates scarcity, as it must, in both the rural and urban worlds, even in the process of its own accumulation. Its war-like character can be seen in the many, many violent deaths of those resisting the process.[1] In the present, the process has been called the ‘new enclosures’,[2] referring back to a period in Europe from the late 15th through to the 18th century, when a new class of landless labourers was made and then labelled, feared and despised as ‘vagabonds.’ This coincided with a worldwide ‘land grab’ by Europeans whose settler colonialism was unequalled in its sheer scale and whose dirty footprints are all too evident in the present day.  A sense of entitlement, usually claimed in the name of productive efficiency or a self-defined though generic ‘modernity’, also required psychic protection, which was accomplished by denigrating those whose land had been taken and which settled into disgust and hatred both in Europe and the colonised world. One of many articulations came from the Jesuit Father Gilij in 1780 after he was exiled from Orinoco, the people of which, he said, had ‘betrayed’ their conversion to Christianity. [3]Gilij compared Amerindians to the filthy peasant of Europe “who grow fat in their own filth”. Nowadays, the dispossessed are labelled as ‘squatters’ and despoilers of the environment.


Though the scale and impact  of the ‘new enclosures’ takes place today on a qualitatively different scale to thecolonialisms of the past, similar processes are also at work in the present. They are taking place in the former colonized  world but also in the global North, mot dramatically shown in New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina was used as a pretext for class cleansing.[4]In Britain the Vagrancy Act of 1827 is still in force and being used against street sleepers in cities where somewhere to live has been commodified, reproducing scarcity and enforcing exclusion. In the case of New Orleans, and as colonial entitlement required, class was overlaid by a racism that continues into the present, as does a vicious resentment of non-productionist societies. The fascistic language of current Brazilian President Bolsonaro towards Indigenous people is not new and has a basis in the resentment expressed by one of British colonialism’s useful idiots, Thomas Carlyle: “Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day … can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice.” A similar complaint was applied to lower class Englishmen by a late 18th century clergyman writing about the New Poor Laws under the name “A Well-wisher of Mankind”. The gist of his argument? With enough land to feed himself and his family, such a person was an idler; let’s see him work when it is there no longer there.[5]


The kind of racism, directed mostly at indigenous people or those labelled as ‘backward’, is not exclusive to Bolsonaro. Alan Garcia, a recent President of Peru, showed the same scornful hatred. In his case hatred in the interests of mining capital –Western and Chinese – who find that much of the copper and gold they extract is on Indigenous land.[6]His successor promised to treat opposition to land concessions for mining with an ‘iron fist’ in a country where violence against protests is a constant.[7] In 2018 a company controlled by Canadian Barrick Gold was to get control of 8,900 hectares of Amazonian land on which live 12,000 Shawi people. This in addition to the 145,000 hectares it already controls by grace of the government.[8] At the same time, the temporary tax benefit for mining companies was to be made permanent. Peru is a World Bank and neoliberal poster boy.


The recent term ‘land grab’ was originally limited to large-scale purchases, concessions and leases – since for those affected a 99-year lease appears no different to an outright purchase – by nation states in South East Asia and the Gulf in Africa. It was used with specific reference to food-producing arable land and gained traction at the time of the 2007–8 ‘food crisis’, which saw riots over the price of food in cities of the global South and which has been partly attributed to the increasing use of arable land for bio-fuel. But investment in land – including for bio-fuels – by various forms of domestic and international capital, from pension funds to private equity and hedge funds, was already in process. With the connivance of states, themselves debt-pressured, different forms of force were used to dispossess small farmers, communal farmers and pastoralists. Investment in land for bio-fuels in Africa was almost exclusively British. Elsewhere it is domestic capital, as in Russia and India, which benefits from land grabs and gets laws changed (2002 and 2005 respectively) in order to make them possible, or that acts as a proxy for foreign investment when there are written laws against external investment in land (this has happened in Russia as well as Cambodia, Serbia, Myanmar and Ukraine).


This process – also called, with a different emphasis, Accumulation by Dispossession  by the geographer David Harvey–accelerated with the 2007–8 financial crisis (coinciding with the ‘foodcrisis’), which both revealed and augmented a crisis of capitalism itself, a surplus of capital in relation to profitable investment opportunities.[9]Where to invest so as to make the kind of returns that omnivorous capital demands? This, from 2008 onwards, was the pressing questions- rather more so than the much trumpeted actions of sovereign wealth funds or the Chinese.[10]Agriculture it was declared, was “The bright light in the investment universe”.[11]It was those who were able to promise such returns that were the prime movers. Some ‘agricultural funds’ were offering returns of 20–25% from the combination of food production and the rising price of the land, at a time when the ‘solution’ to the financial crisis was the further inflation of asset values made inevitable (to use a favourite neoliberal word) by the policy of Quantitative Easing.[12]Money could be made even when mistakes were made along on the way,[13] because the surplus of capital from those inflated assets could be applied to lands where there was a shortage of it. Then there was the added attraction of land being a finite, material resource as well as a productive one; capital had the power to reproduce scarcity while accumulating itself. The (in relative terms) extreme cheapness of land in Southern Africa, for example, was in itself, “an arbitrage opportunity. We could be moronic and not grow anything and we think we will still make money over the next decade”.[14]


In Europe, the Latvia’s Forests during 20 Years of Independence brochure of 2011 could boast that “Foreign investors choose not to make short-term investments in manufacturing sectors which are subject to various dangers, but instead in the timber industry, where investments are more secure than bank deposits and annual increases in growing stock volumes also ensure higher profits.” This particular claim led to deforestation of the country, with trees cut down at a far faster rate than replenishment would allow.[15]This ‘short-termism’ as a form of greed mirrored on arable land by chemical-intensive mono-cropping is characteristic of contemporary large-scale agriculture and there is an extensive critique from a socialist environmentalism.


This is not,however, the whole story; land-grabbing affects not only forests and farmland for bio-fuels or crops, but also claims for ‘nature conservation’, tourism, mining as in Peru, and large-scale infrastructure such as dams and the roads and rail of ‘economic corridors’. Just as significantly, urban land grab is not included under the term, usually because of the limited scope – and perhaps moral/ideological nature – of campaigning NGOs. Given that in many cases the rural dispossessed have little choice but to migrate to cities in which land prices are rising and where–over time–such migrants may be dispossessed again (as has been seen Delhi and Rio de Janeiro), this omission becomes a form of distortion.





Any bullshit detector would immediately see the falsity of neoliberal capital’s anti-state rhetoric. It is only against the state as a possible source of redistribution of wealth or as a provider for its citizens’ health, housing and educational needs; it is not all opposed to the laws the state makes in its favour, their implementation or the subsidies it receives.[16]In the case of land grabs, capital needs to make use of the state’s power to dispossess. In the 1980s and often beyond, states in the Southern world often had little choice. The debt they had accrued, largely because of policy decisions in the USA,[17] was the lever by which ‘structural adjustment’ policies could be imposed by the IMF/World Bank axis and which weakened the state’s capacity for economic development. This debt pressure in turn involved the use of the law to transform property relations where official ownership did not exist. In the 1980s just 36 African states implemented 241 adjustment programmes laid down by the World Bank/IMF, which they were able to impose because of the states’ indebtedness.  Under the terms of these programmes, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal were urged to sell off common land that was suitable for growing rice to private buyers. “The effect of this was to encourage get-rich-quick merchants to come in and develop rice fields. But often they installed the cheapest form of irrigation, without drainage”, as the campaigning group Food First noted in 2002,long before the notorious proposed South Korean arable land lease of 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar, which first prompted the ‘Land Grab’ terminology.[18]


Where peasant land was taken by the state, and this was not all ‘the commons’, as a literal reading of ‘new enclosures’ might imply -resistance was determined not just by whether compensation was on offer, but by what form or amount it might take and whether there were opportunities for new incomes. Women have been at the forefront of resistance as their access to land and their livelihoods are most threatened, and as defenders of communal natural resources and environmental well-being.In China, the rejection of what was an offer would lead to violence, usually outsourced by regional Communist Party leaderships to mafia-type thugs. In Ethiopia all land was ‘owned’ by the state and thus could be allocated regardless of the rights and livelihoods of those who lived on it. In Latin America and South East Asia, continuing right now, violent coercion is the norm, whether it be for mining, palm oil, hydro-electricity or sugar plantations. In India, the law was used to exercise compulsory purchase. The official in charge of Andrah Pradesh’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was clear about why this was necessary: farmers would not sell unless forced, in most cases not even at market rates. At first the British compulsory purchase law of 1894 was used, stretching interpretation of its ‘for a public purpose’ clause to the limit. Then, in 2005, a new law demanded by domestic Indian real estate capital established that the notional ‘productive’ function of such zones was reduced to 35% of the land that could be allocated in the SEZ name. In Russia, where the debt of collective farms played a role in their disappearance in the post-Soviet period – and where peasants trying to stake claims to their land had encountered bureaucratic difficulties and because “often people in remote areas do not have the money in order to formalize their land shares”[19]– land was acquired in a de facto style by oligarchs with their capital from oil and mineral privatisations. These transactions were then legalised in 2002. In the USA itself, government has hastened the collapse of smaller farms with low-interest guaranteed loans to corporate agriculture with the monopolisation of the livestock industry one outcome.




From Laos to Ethiopia, long-term leases were signed over to a range of ‘investors’ with no consultation to those affected and often against a backdrop of coercion. What then is the motivation of such states? In all, there are liable to be elements of corruption even when industrialisation or efficiency is the main claim. In Kenya land has been part of intra-elite political bargaining over rewards. In China corruption by local Communist party bosses has usually been used to inflate their achievements as shown in economic growth statistics, whereas in the case of the highly sought farmland of Ukraine, corruption is endemic and is used by foreign capital. In other instances wars have given land grab opportunities to state-backed forces as in ex-Yugoslavia and modern day Syria. In the case of Myanmar, a terror campaign against a minority people has been the means, and in Israel, post-facto colonial legitimation of what has been taken by force.


These instances however are not a sufficient explanation of what is happening.In Africa the external pressure of debt was powerful enough to privatise communal land, and not only in the case of rice, a food for domestic consumption as well as export: mostly creditor power required mono-crops for export. This was the basic colonial model and a simple means for the siphoning off of debt repayments. In other instances, plantations were genuinely thought to be a means of modernisation, even if on a top-down basis, as can be seen from the statements of the regional governor in Gambella, Ethiopia: “Lands you are using are not utilized. We have investors coming who will use it more efficiently. Against those who resist we will take all possible action.” This was his message in 2012 to local communities subject to involuntary displacement under the label ‘villagization’. This was not how things were seen by those affected, as described by a land grab witness from Benishang in the same country (one in which, not coincidentally, food insecurity has been a constant): “This is not development. Investors are destroying our lands and environment. Bamboo is crucial for us. It is used for food, for cattle, for our beds. Homes, firewood, everything. They destroy our forests. They grow sorghum, maize, sesame, but all is exported.”


Although such a belief in modernisation might be genuine, it is also belief in a specifically Western capitalist version of it. This does not amount to corruption as it is defined in the West, but many African leaders and administrators have become habituated to a view of the world refracted through the capitalist lens, as a result of their dealings with international finance institutions.“In some cases governments might have been managing aid and adjustment regimes for years. It is unsurprising then, that a highly integrated milieu has emerged in which key civil servants, technicians and ministers have established areas of political management with in-country aid donors and World Bank/IMF missions. This ‘realm of governance’ is identifiable in a series of political practices, clustered around regular meetings with donors and creditors, workshops, seminars, audit and policy management processes.”[20]This is not the corruption beloved of the Western media, but a developing mutuality of interests between the functionaries of the creditor-investor world and the domestic elitesthat emanated from colonially-created ‘traditional’ hierarchies.


It’s an old-fashioned version of modernisation in the manner of Robert Boyle in 1670: “The veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.”[21] In the present, this view of the world does not even consider the right to self-determination when it comes to models of development, dismissing cosmologies with a different relation to nature, as backward. In the process it claims its projects are the only alternative to poverty, ones like dams for hydroelectricity to be constructed for ‘the greater good’. As with mines it is invariably peasants and most of all, Indigenous peoples in China, Indonesia India and Latin America who are displaced for the ‘greater good.’ Being less of a greenhouse gas emitter than hydrocarbons, despite the methane they produce, hydro-electricity might be expected to receive a generic ‘greater good ’ label, but that is to ignore the question of existing river livelihoods and, given the rationale for land grab, how efficient they are.

The Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in Amazonian Brazil a country which already generates 75% of its electricity from hydro – with the energy needs of mining and oil extraction paramount – was pushed through and finally completed in 2016 despite its displacement of people from a satisfying way of life; the sacking of regulatory officials who would not approve it; being able to produce only just over a third of its projected maximum output; felling 15,000ha of forest; and radically decreasing river flow.[22] The dam is a fait accompli but resistance to other projects is growing on the continent though it has cost lives like that of Berta Cáceres an activist for the Lemka people of Honduras whose opposition to the Agua Zarca dam led to her being murdered in 2016. It was clear that the dam would dry up the Gualcarque river which irrigated their land. In 2019 staff and officials of the dam´s buildersDesarrollosEnergéticos S.A.controlled by part of the country’s oligarchy were convicted of her killing. It took some months after the event and other murders for two European  ‘Development’ agencies and a trans-Latin American development bank to pull out of the project.[23]

Where possible conflict between the modernity of hydro-electricity and the environmental and social  complaints of those affected was recognised, as in the case of the World Bank backed Pangue dam in Chile, built by ENDESA, the state power company, the critical Downing report on its impact was held back by the head of the Bankuntil it was too late to be effective. Among the affected people were the much put-upon but actively resistant Mapuche.




It is the World Bank -so self-righteous and yet so selective in its application of the virtue of ‘transparency’ -which, most of all that has provided ideological justifications for land grabs of the ‘efficiency-entitlement’ and modernization type. More than any other institution it has actively–to use one of its own buzzwords – ‘enabled’ it. While denying, any such ideological intent the Bank has consistently equated efficiency with private property and, implicitly, with large-scale capital. The congruence with the interests of capitalist agribusiness is clear from Cargill’s – an agribusiness giant – Vice-President Paul Conway for whom the key to resolving the current global food crisis, as determined by him, is “to make better use of the land in Africa and, at the very heart of that, is better property rights”.

The Bank’s own matching ideology was inaugurated with the Berg Report of 1981 that, as we have already touched on, instigated ‘structural adjustment’ and its emphasis on cash crop export. It has also had the power to define what is ‘efficient’, what land is ‘marginal’, ‘sustainability’, ‘yield gap’ ‘good practices’ and other key notions. It has claimed all these as factors of and for food security.[24]This claim, which is usually made for the whole ‘global population’, does not fit well with how cereal crops have accounted for only 20% of land use on land that has been grabbed, as opposed to over 50% for oil seeds and sugar for bio-fuel.

The Bank’s own ‘good practices’ involve  ‘benchmarking’ countries with its ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’, whose ranking system incentivizes governments to “reform their agricultural sectors to allow the increased use of chemical inputs and commercial seeds, foster private titling of land and create favourable import and export conditions for agribusiness”. Such ranking is based on metrics created in the USA, in the context of[25] an oligopoly of agri-business including private seed companies.


The Bank has in effect been able to impose – through the pressures of debt/aid and Western political clout – what it justifies: classic colonial-pattern, export-led agriculture. This began with the abolition of taxes on food exports, further weakening the budget and thus ‘capacity’ of the state[26], and was followed by the Bank’s highly selective investment-support decisions that created the infrastructure for exports such as ports, which were a particular focus in the 1990s.[27] Just as in cities where infrastructural development is skewed in favour of linking wealthy parts of the city, bypassing swathes of urban geography inhabited by the poor, and focusing instead on expressways and airports, so too do the transport and storage infrastructures for small farmers suffer from chronic underinvestment, making it hard for them to get their surpluses to market. This in turn justifies them being labelled as inefficient. It’s one more case of capital having the power to create the circumstances which justify its original wishes. This is not exclusive to Bank policies. China’s ‘Belt and Road’ project is heavily skewed to ports, exports and ‘economic corridors’. In Latin America the IIRSA (Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America) a vast transport and communication web which will require swathes of land taken for ‘the greater good’, is meant to connect isolated rural areas with the coast but is clearly aimed at improving export corridors with easy access to profitable natural resources and crops like soya for export. It will benefit mining companies, agribusiness and international grain traders like Cargill who with MV Cargo are building a grain terminal at the Ukrainian port of Yuzhnyi. Similarly the Beira ‘economic corridor’ now being financed by a Dutch public-private consortium is for the export of primary commodities as is The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor.


The Bank’s interference on the ground has had the consistent aim of the privatisation of land. An early example of its meddling with Indigenous land right systems where there had been no local demand for it was the Ivory Coast Rural Landholdings Project in 1989. Here ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ mapping served as “technocratic tools for transforming Indigenous tenure systems characterized by multiple and open-ended land rights to more restricted and exclusive arrangements”[28]in a context in which the Bank estimated that only 10% of African land was officially titled.[29]More recently it has pushed the land titling ideas of Hernando de Soto, and, under the banner of ‘transparency’, seen blockchain as a means of achieving a cynical utopia in which each peasant can become a capitalist.[30]These will not be magically transformed with ´transparency`when there is no equality of access to land or land titling, especially for women. There is no ambiguity however, in the statements of the head of the Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department, Jürgen Voegele: “When done right large-scale farming can provide opportunities for poor countries with large agricultural sectors and ample endowments of land. To make the most of these opportunities however, countries will need better secure local land rights and improve local governance. Adopting an open and proactive approach to dealing with investors is also needed to ensure that investment contributes to broader development objectives.“ Objectives, as determined by The Bank; ‘done right’, as determined by the Bank; ‘opportunities’, as defined by the bank all using the premise of a terra nullius, here euphemised in terms of ‘ample endowments’ of land. The giveaway is ‘local land rights’ with ‘large-scale farming’ all in the same breath.




Through its International Finance Corporation arm, the World Bank has the power to implement real world developments. One instance of its investment has been in the Dinant Corporation, a palm oil plantation owner in Honduras, and in the Banco Ficho as its main creditor.[31]

Dinant, whose PR tells of its pride in its Honduran heritage,is owned by one of Honduras’s most powerful families. Land grabs by such families in the 1990s, which privatized collective landholdings protected by no modern contracts, amounted to 70% of peasant lands in the lower Aguan valley, an especially fertile area. Since the ‘legal’ coup of 2009,[32] this oligarchy has had even greater flexibility and has used even more violence, expelling smallholders from their land to such a degree that in 2017 those in the village of Panama, surrounded by Dinant plantations, took the Bank’s IFC to court over its complicity in the killings of 100 people by Dinant guards. In neighbouring Guatemala, the agribusiness giant Cargill has been supplied by another murky palm oil concern.[33]


Cargill one of the biggest agribusinesses in the world which in turn supplies food manufacturers like Nestle and Pepsico is also active in both the corn, sugar and ethanol business in Brazil. As a‘flex-crop’, sugar can switch between food sugars and ethanol according to international price. Its plantations have spread over great expanses of land, displacing other rural activities and the people dependent on them in a country already marked by extreme inequality. Over the ten years from 2006, the area converted to sugarcane in Brazil nearly doubled from 4.8 to 8.1million ha. Producers are comprehensively linked into the global capitalist markets of food, feed and fuel. Recently, owing to global price shifts, it has been corn-ethanol which has grown most rapidly.


The grabbing of land that this has required is also enmeshed in the international financial world. Some half-hearted legal restrictions on foreign ownership have been overcome by joint operations with large-scale Brazilian capital. As in many other instances, it is Chinese landholdings in soya in the country that are most publicized, but their investment and holdings are far less than those of the USA, EU, Argentina and Japan. Some of that investment reveals the sheer scale of the capital involved – most notably the giant TIAA pension fund, based in the Unites States, which also has a stake in Guatemalan palm oil.[34]


Elsewhere in the world, the World Bank’s IFC has supported another land grabber, the Vietnamese rubber baron HAGL through its investments in Dragon Capital, a Vietnamese private equity fund, itself an HAGL investor.[35] HAGL took advantage of the weak government of Laos and the corrupt one of Cambodia. Its CEO’s starting point? “I think natural resources are limited and I need to take them before they’re gone” with the result that in Laos the company “grabbed land from indigenous communities and decimated ancient forests”.[36] Whether dispossession is directed at creating a wage labour class or only brings it about a by-product of land being a tradeable asset,[37]or doesn’t create one at all, varies from case to case. In Laos’s Attapeu province those who lost land to HAGL had little choice and were exploited with particular intensity on the company’s 10,000 hectare sugar concession, which it gained for financing the South-East Asian games, hosted by Laos in 2009. 12-hour working days were the norm and took place under constant supervision with a ban on smoking and talking. The consequences were very real: a UN Development Programme found that Hmong populations displaced from upland villages suffered mortality rates of up to 30% when they were forced to give up their traditional livelihoods.[38]


In Cambodia the company’s IFC backers have had to smooth out a deal with resisting villages on its behalf in 2017 despite the high level of state repression in the interests of grabbing by domestic and international capital. [39]Here land dispossession has contributed to the making of a new working class, young women in the cut, sew and trim industry. Rural land enclosers such as South Korea have subsequently been able to exploit women who were forced off the land in its outsourced clothes factories. Here resistance has been shifted to those factories where proletarianised young women have won major wage demands against the odds.


In other parts of the world where not even the most exploitative textile and clothing sector has developed as a source of an alternative income, resistance to rural land grab may be stronger. In India, the resistance to land grabs for Special Economic Zones is fierce, led by farmers who see no prospect of computer ‘back-office’ employment in them, which is why the state must make the initial grab.[40]Writing at the time of the Mozambican Peasant Union’s success in putting a stop to the 35 million hectare Brazil-ProSavannah soyabean project in the fertile Nacala Corridor, Christopher Tanner noted in 2004 that here, unlike in the Europe of the past, “this will be a country that is not about to embark on a labour-intensive Industrial Revolution generating thousands of jobs.” As a consequence in Mozambique now, the Beira Agricultural Growth Corridor project and the concurrent “Vision for 2035 for port development” will take land for its access road from small farmers, leaving them to struggle with insufficient compensation, a high unemployment rate and an overcrowded ‘informal’ sector.“ “Skilled labour in Beira is imported from foreign or Maputo-based firms that have no interest in incorporating farmers or informal local labourers.”[41]


At a time of dispossession, eviction and increasing inequality, the sector of work most rapidly expanding is, understandably, ‘security’. There are the activist military, police and corporate militias who carry out evictions like the Red Ants in South Africa, and it is the same corporate thugs who protect the mines and plantations. In the supermarkets of Western cities and a whole range of buildings in cities of the South, ‘security’ is everywhere. Young men stuck in uniforms with one insignia or another stand about bored all day,[42] both as symptoms of or solutions to what economists call ‘underemployment’, and at the same time as cheap boundary markers of exclusion.




At The World Summit on Social Development in Johannesburg in 2002, in the heavily barricaded Sandton Convention Centre, “delegates from the world’s environmental elite were handing out social responsibility awards to the corporate world, including awards to firms that have been involved in the appropriation of the resources of the poor”.[43] At one level this is simply PR talk for luxury tourism, as in the claim that “Sustainability has always been at the forefront of Hamilo Coast’s vision of providing premier beach-resort living in the country” –a claim made by Shirley C. Ong, executive vice president for the company in 2018. When the company took over the coast it evicted 10,000 peasants and 1,000 fisher people in the process.[44]The coastal ‘project’ will involve building four golf courses and two marinas as well as the exclusive resort. Other water hungry golf courses have been constructed under an eco-development banner in India, China and Myanmar, despite local resistance.

“Eco-tourism” has, however, become more than just PR; it is part of a worldwide strategy of victim-blaming. A process of environmental degradation by capital – deforestation, soil depletion from mono-cropping, over-use of nitrogen-based fertiliser and pollution of water – is transformed into a problem of local small farmers and pastoralists. Thus Tanzania Conservation Ltd., part of Thomsen Safaris, which charges $535 a night for eco-tourist lodges on land that was lived on by the Maasai people for centuries, now prohibits it to them, as the result of a deal with the Tanzanian state.

From one perspective such prohibitions are an absolute assertion of private property rights. Its defence and sanctions reinforce the removal of food self-sufficiency for the dispossessed, just as the original enclosures were accompanied by the death penalty for poaching. Bamboo is out of bounds to the Ethiopian, berries, mushrooms and beehives to the dispossessed Russian peasant.

From another theyconstitute a colonial strategy of using environmental concerns as a rationale for the expropriation of land. Complicit in this is that part of the ‘green’ movement that refuses to see that the crisis it proclaims is a product of capitalism, stemming from capital’s necessarily private interests and compulsion to accumulate. In furthering land grabs, the rights of those living in certain areas must be undermined: it is they who overgraze; they who are responsible for deforestation for firewood. In February 2019 the Indian Supreme Court overturned the 2006 Forest Rights Act and ruled that Indigenous people living “illegally on forest land should move”. The ruling was prompted by various wildlife conservation groups who aimed their fire at minority ‘tribal’ people. The demand made is that up to six million people prove with documents their right to be in the ‘ancestral’ lands with the assertion that India’s forests are being relentlessly eroded by humans in areas of wildlife.Calling this a ‘land theft on an epic scale’ Stephen Corry of Survival International pointed to how it would lead to wholescale misery, impoverishment, disease and death “and do nothing to save the forests which the tribes people have protected for generations.”[45]

In the cities of India like Delhi meanwhile, “bourgeois environmentalism”[46]is at work in the business of class cleansing. It defines the “self-contradictory logic of the increasingly affluent lifestyles of the middle class, resulting in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity on one hand, and the primarily middle-class-rooted agenda conservation agenda (protected parks, sanctuaries for wildlife) and beautification movement, clean and green urban spaces.” In Delhi the Commonwealth Games was a lever in the class cleansing process, but it also involved judgments from the High Court of Delhi who simplified the complex problem of the Yamuna river pollution into one whereby “slums had destroyed the natural beauty and ecology of the river”. Court verdicts dealing with slum evictions also showed a shift from a stipulation that “the right to livelihood” is an “important facet of the right to life” to viewing slum dwellers as encroachers on public land, as squatters.[47]Such selective targeting, as Baviskar says, let “the more powerful polluters and encroachers off the hook”.



The eviction of people from agricultural land and forests has consequences for land in urban areas. It does not wholly account for the whole rapid urbanization of many parts of the world – in Africa “urban expansion largely results from in-situ natural expansion” – but can have visible and dramatic consequences as for the evicted of Honduras and Guatemala. For them arriving in the city on the worst of terms and faced with institutionalized violence, they have become the ‘caravans’ facing Donald Trump’s dehumanising language of the encloser and colonist unchanged from the 17th century onwards.

At the same time the city too has become another investment opportunity for surplus capital, which has inflated property prices and rents having the effect of a  ‘class cleansing’ from Western inner cities. A variety of ‘public-private partnerships’ there and in cities of the South have changed their geographies, at the expense of the poor and in which corruption is a bigger factor. One tactic has been the use of major sporting events in the interests of real estate ‘development’[48]. More generally transformations have come from changes in planning and tenure laws and in zoning; the class-based provisioning of infrastructure; the enforcement of formal land tenure arrangements; and criminalising the street life and economies of the poor.

Some of these mechanisms have been described in the case of Accra, capital of Ghana. The privatisation of public land for elite development projects was accompanied by the eviction of ‘squatters’ from the city centre and the ‘cleansing of street hawker’s from the city’s public spaces.[49]


The eviction of ‘squatters’ as in Delhi, Kigali and other cities is usually done in the interests of  ‘development’, private and public-private. In Vienna it took 1700 police and a tank to effect the removal of 31 politicized squatters in the way of such development while in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil it took an explicitly racist form with the eviction of black-skinned families from the centre.[50]Real estate developers along with aspirations like ‘world city’ are prime movers.  Public-private violence is often used as in Jakarta in 2008 when 3 people were killed and 150 wounded defending ‘illegal’ homes in the sub-Kojadistrict in the interests of the private Pelindo company that runs the airport and wanted the land for a road and rail link to it.

What is common is how different mixes of coercion, physical and financial – debt, taxation, lack of rent controls and changed in welfare payments – in countries with very different ‘standards of living’, poor and working class citizens are forced out to the outskirts of cities. This is underlaid by privatization of public land and public housing in response to the influx of capital. Property in inner London was equated with being a ‘reserve currency’. Unpaid lengthy travel to work is one consequence, less physical and social infrastructure another. Khartoum, capital of Sudan, is experiencing the full effects. Real estate capital from the Gulf and Asia has come in waves as the city promoted itself as the ‘Dubai on the Nile’ and as evidenced by the proliferation of real estate agencies in the city. At the same time a demographic explosion linked to an influx of the displaced from land grab and drought in different parts of the country.[51] It led to violent evictions and displacement of squatters to the outskirts of the city where land prices also took off. In 2005 a demolition operation in the Soba Aradi area of the city and the ‘rehousing’/displacement of its residents to an unserviced desert site some 40 kilometres north of the city saw ten police killed and hundreds arrested.[52]Present day resistances have developed into political protest against the regime.

What events in Khartoum also revealed is how tenuous the power of property titles and how contingent their validities in relation to political and financial power. The obsession with land titling as a solution to all problems and being spearheaded by the World Bank led in one of their titling projects in Phnom Penhwhich began in 2002 to a devastating series of slum fires and the move of 23,000 squatters from tracts of untitled land in the heart of the city. As elsewhere they were dumped on relocation sites outside of the city from which the cost of commuting consumed the wage they had been earning before the fires. Some sold cheap before the titling programme (which increased land prices 10 times), to elite groups with the knowledge of titling’s consequences and the financial leverage to take advantage of it. Others were simply simply evicted. As with rural land the idea that titling is beneficial to all when it occurs in a context of inequalities of access, knowledge, finance and existing ownerships, is a deceit. More,“formal land holdings are more likely to be lost by poor people than informal ones precisely because they are marketable”. Being marketable they are primed for those with capital.

This is of a pattern. More or less all governmental and institutional powers and their ideological backers take it as a given that redistribution of land in the context of massive inequality is out of question. Where the dispossessed re-occupy land or try to, as in Brazil they are labelled as ‘reactionary’ and met with violence. The ‘objectivity’ and neutrality of their projects and conceptions of modernisation is an obvious falsehood, assuming not just that the private interests of capital can be neutral but denying the inequality of power to enforce those private interests. The notion that with titling each slum dweller and peasant can become an entrepreneur is a cruel joke of a utopia.

[1] A number of whom are named on a poster in this book.

[2] Coined in 1990 in Issue 10 of Midnight Notes, the journal of a collective that included present contributor George Caffentzis with his text on New Orleans

[3] Father Gijil, Saggio di Storia Americana, Rome 1780-4


[4] Disasters have been used in other parts of the world for similar ends. “When the tsunami came, it did what the fire couldn’t: it cleared the beach of Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka completely.” Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2007. She describes how hotel industry lobbyists had been pushing to relocate the fishermen of the Bay before the Tsunami: 24 fishing huts had been burned down in mysterious circumstances. A wave of “land theft” swept across Southeast Asia, obscured by the aftermath of the tsunami. Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka all imposed ‘buffer zones’ as part of their ‘coastal re-development’ post-tsunami. In Sri Lanka and India in particular, high-end tourist businesses and large-scale fishing industries were exempted from the new rules.


[5] One of several vicious clergymen and ‘well-wishers’ quoted by Marx in Volume I of Capital with similar sentiments.

[6] Afro-Colombians have the same misfortune, to be on land under which are copper and gold and for this reason suffered much of the violence of the country.

[7] In 2014, five years after conflict at Bague in the Peruvian Amazonas in which both police and Indigenous protesters were killed, the government gave the police and army what amounted to a licence to kill human obstacles.

[8] Protests focus not just on the loss of land and its sacred places, but also on the plundering of water and its contamination.

[9] In 2009 the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated that between 15 and 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries had ended up in the hands of external investors since 2006.The Land Matrix, which aggregates statistics for known and projected purchase sand grabs, shows an increase from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72 million hectares in October 2016 (including intended and failed deals) – and the figure is still on the rise. The International Land Coalition talks of 200 million hectares between 2000-2010, the majority in Africa.


[10] Land Matrix statistics show China, both the state, private capital and mixtures of the two, as a minor agricultural player in Africa, with barely one-third of that obtained by US investors.

[11] Claimed at a JetFin AGRO conference in Geneva in 2011, a centre for pension fund investment in agriculture.

[12] In ‘saving’ the capitalist world economy in 2008–9 by means of an injection of liquidity – while scrupulously avoiding any risk of redistribution of wealth or ‘socialist’-directed investment by governments – QE involved lending money to banks at zero, or close to zero, interest rates. The banks could then re-lend in a manner that simply inflated asset prices, like those of real estate.

[13] And ‘mistakes’ were made. The Indian-owned Siva group, for example, went bankrupt after amassing a farmland portfolio of nearly one million hectares for oil palm plantations. Likewise, the king of the Kenyan flower business was brought low by a 300,000ha concession in Ethiopia, and, at a large-scale commercial level, the ‘wonder bio-fuel’ jatropha was proved a failure by the abrupt pull-out of the Shell oil company. Such investment depended on movements in the price of petroleum oil, but jatropha yields were judged to be disappointing. However, on a smaller scale jatropha as a bio-fuel has worked successfully in countries of the ‘Global South’.

[14]  Susan Payne of Emergent Asset Management, 2011. Cited in

[15] In the especially severe shrinkage of Latvia’s economy after the 2008 crisis, which also saw a spurt of foreign investment in its forest land, trees were being cut at an unsustainable rate to such a degree 2016 half of its managed forests lost their Forest Stewardship Council’s certificate. It was typical too of primary commodity export: the Swedish manufacturing sector, despite promises, did not develop timber processing in Latvia. In other instances it is a matter of what trees are grown, as in resistance to water-hungry eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, Chile and Portugal. Once again it was Swedish timber companies who bought up land for this purpose in the early 1970s, at a time when the Portuguese state was pressured by the debt involved in fighting colonial wars in Africa. In Chile the aim of doubling wood product exports from $2 to 4 billion, with a doubling of land for eucalyptus and pine, represents a major threat to the survival of its native forests.

[16] From export credit guarantees to transport for trade infrastructure to low-interest guaranteed loans to agri-business.

[17] The need to invest a new pool of petrodollars in the 1970s led to large-scale dollar-denominated lending around the world. When, as a classic ‘sound money’ banker, Paul Volcker took charge of the US Federal Reserve, he sharply increased US interest rates, which averaged 11.2% in 1979, to a peak of 20% in June 1981. The result was that repayments on what had already been borrowed in the dollar became much more expensive. In the period 1980–92, debt service payments increased to $1.6 trillion more than the actual debt itself and was accounting for something like a quarter of all export earnings.

[18] The proposal was defeated by popular protest and prompted a subsequent coup.

[19] Tamara Semenova of the pro-peasant organisation Kretsyanskiy Front, cited in Visser, O. Et al Oligarchs, ‘Megafarms and Land Reserves’, Journal of Peasant Studies 39.

[20] Graham Harrison, Neoliberal Africa: The Impact of Global Social Engineering, Zed Books, 2010

[21] Robert Boyle founding fellow of the Royal Society and governor of the New England Company, 1670

[22] In the case of the Belo Monte dam, corruption was at the heart of the project. It was a source of money for the long interlinked engineering companies and the political class in need of electoral finance. In the process Environmental Impact Assessment processes are being cut. The experience of the displaced is also characteristic: “We can never find anyone in charge to speak to.”See Mirilene Cardoso Ribeiro and Sue Branford, ‘The hydroelectric threat to the Amazon basin’ in Voices of Latin America, ed, Tom Gatehouse, Latin American Bureau, UK, 2019

[23] This is not an isolated case. Prompted by its political instigator 3 newly landless farmers on the island of Flores, Indonesia were executed in 2006 after 5 years on death row for ‘stirring up communal tensions’ which amounted to opposition to the dam on the river Posi. In China, long prison sentences have been given for accounts of the displacement of peoples and irrigation failures of dam projects.

[24] Given the dominance of the Bank by US political figures, it is hard to reconcile this assertion with Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary John Block’s assertion that “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products.” Where free trade deals have been made with the USA it has destroyed the livelihoods of farmers in Mexico and Peru.

[25] This line is pushed especially hard in Ukraine, ‘the bread basket of Europe’ as it was called. Leasing has allowed the entry of and expansion of agro-holdings involving US, British and other foreign capital as well as domestic oligarchs like Rinat Achmetov, making the ban on foreign purchase of land a minor obstacle.

[26] It was when the Argentine government of Cristina Kirchner attempted to introduce a tax on agricultural exports that she came under constant attack from the institutions, think tanks and opinion-makers who have such an influence on Western politics. Export capital demands low labour costs to stay competitive and maintains no direct (which is to say capitalist) interests in the domestic economy and its aggregate demand.

[27] In more recent times it has been China that has been most active in port building both internally – the biggest in the world – and externally. Chinese-financed ports have either been completed or are under construction in Myanmar, Argentina, Pakistan and Tanzania.

[28] The maps present an incomplete view of these tenure systems due to their exclusive focus on the rights of agriculturalists and lineage heads. With maps in hand, government officials can now get on with the business of issuing land titles to selected individuals in the project area. The project thus constitutes the first step in the establishment of private landholdings as a structural condition of agrarian change.

[29] Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity: A Program to Scale Up Reforms and Investments, World Bank, 2013

[30] Cynical, in this case, because the proposal ignores all of the inequalities of power under which claims could be made.

[31] Palm oil, whose production levels have risen exponentially on a world-wide level, doubles up as a staple in a wide range of processed foods and as a biofuel. Malaysia and Indonesia are the main producers with companies like GAR (Golden Agri-Resources) and the IOI Corporation (in which the Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse have stakes). IOI has been accused of illegal clearing of forestland; illegal encroachment on peatland, with the power to simply redefine such areas; and illegal logging. Deforestation in Indonesia is on an epic scale: in 2015 it caused a smog that brought everyday life to a standstill. On palm oil´net environmental effect there is no consensus, in that as a fuel it produces less carbon emissions than other biofuels while deforestation reduces ‘carbon capture’. When the business is ‘exported’ to Africa and especially Central America, its overt role in land grabs becomes clearer

[32] The Honduran ‘legal’ coup set a precedent by being un-condemned by the US Administration. It was swiftly followed by another in Paraguay and evidently had some influence upon the downfall of Brazilian President Dilmar Roussef.

[33] REPSA and its owner Grupo HAME have been accused of contaminating the Pasion river, destroying the livelihoods of around 12,000 families, and of human rights abuses. This in a country where 72% of murders are not investigated. It is also linked to the world of international capital, with connections to major agribusiness traders Cargill and Wilmar. Despite a RESPA campaign of victim blaming, the latter companies finally suspended dealings with it when a shaming campaign coincided with charges of bribery and corruption.

[34] As it expanded both its client base and its farmland fund, TIAA sidestepped an attempt by the Brazilian state to restrict foreign ownership with a  2010 law, by joining the sugar giant Cosan, and it has been accused of purchasing already-cleared Indigenous forest land in the northern states of Piãu and Maranhão, some of it from Euclides De Carli, who is accused of illegally seizing over a million hectares using armed men. In Brazil between 44 and 90 killings of environmental and land defenders were recorded in 2017. In 2019 the new President Bolsinaro’s overtly nationalist campaign is facing pressure not just from the Chinese, to whom he took a hostile approach in his campaign, but also the agro-biuisness lobby that supported him, to scrap the 2010 law.

[35]These IFC investements started in 2002 and in 2016 were further augmented. Up until now HAGL has a strong market from the Chinese auto industry for rubber but there was a switch to that a switch to palm oil when it was more profitable having  a harvesting maturity of 3 years as opposed to seven for rubber. Deutsche Bank also had a stake in the company but was shamed into offloading it, whereupon it was immediately acquired by the major Swiss bank Credit Suisse. The company though has overreached itself in taking land as a speculative asset; its upmarket property development in Yangon, Myanmar’s capita; has had to be rescued by the Vietnamese Central Bank and forced into a merger with rivals Thaco.

[36] In 2012 the International Food Policy Research Institute listed Laos among seven countries in the world in which international land deals account for more than 10 percent of the total agricultural area.

[37] Saskia Sassen argues that in the contemporary financialised world, “The land is more valuable to the global market than the people on it.”

[38] In a very different place, Iowa in the USA where small farms are being broken by agri-business an ex-farmer says “It’s going to be like Russia with serfs. If you want to work on a farm, you’ll have to work for them. We’ll give you a job, but you’re going to be working on our terms.” Nick Shutt, cited in ‘How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms.’, The Guardian, 11/03/2019

[39] The legal method of land grabs in Cambodia is the Economic Land Concession, whereby land can simply be reallocated as ‘state private land’, as happened when the Phnomh Penh Sugar Company was awarded a 99-year lease on 9000hectres in 2006. The 10.000ha limit can also be got around as by another sugar export company, the Koh Koh, which got 2 such adjacent plots by using two different names. Both are linked to the international market with 5 year deals with Tate&Lyle which is now part of American Sugar Refining Inc.

[40] M.Levien ‘Special Economic Zones and Accumulation by Dispossession in India’, Journal of Agrarian Change, Volume 11 Issue 4, 2011

[41] A. Zouma et al, ‘The Rush for Land in an Urbanizing World’. The two projects both involve European public money, Dutch, English and Norwegian, and the port project is a Dutch public-private affair. Such ‘corridors’ developed around the infrastructure for international trade are being projected everywhere. The Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ has them earmarked all over Asia.

[42] There is nothing so tiring and humiliating as having to pretend to work, as is well described in Ed Dorn’s novel By the Sound.

[43] Kojo S. Amanor, Land and Sustainable Development, Zed Books, 2008

 [44]The company is owned by the country’s richest man Henry Sy and had the backing of the Philippines Agrarian and National Reclamation Plans, as well as the use of the police to counter any resistance.

[45] There are alarming precedents. In January 2014 the15,000 strong  Indigenous Sengwer people were evicted from their ancestral homes in the Embobut Forest with the pretext that they were accelerating degradation of the forest. The Kenya Forest Service used the tactics of the 19th century Highland Clearances, torching over a thousand homes.

[46] Amita Baviskar, ‘What the Eye Does Not See: The Yamuna in the Imagination of Delhi’, Economic & Political Weekly.  10 December, 2011

[47] This shift away from ‘the ‘right of livelihood’ being abstracted from place happens at the same time in rural Myanmar with the abolition of ‘the tiller’s right to the land.’

[48]  In an open letter from Chinese intellectuals at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they said they took no comfort in grandiose facilities or Chinese medals. “We know too well how these glories are built on the ruins of the lives of ordinary people, or the forced removal of urban migrants, and on the suffering of the victims of brutal land grabbing, forced eviction and exploitation of labour.”

[49] “To attract private developers and tourists, the latter mechanism featured a ‘decongestion exercise’ to remove hawkers and remove other ‘chaotic’ space users. A strong aesthetics narrative, in line with ‘dirt-and-disorder narratives employed in many cities accompanied the narrative.” Femke van Noorlooos et al ‘Land in urban debates’ in Urban Studies, 2018. Such removals have been made in Quito, were crucial to the Delhi ‘transformation’ described above, and were made in Beijing before its 2008 Olympics. Elsewhere it is street drinkers and the homeless in general who are constantly harassed.


[50] Foreclosures, that is, evictions of people from their homes for falling behind with mortgage payments in US cities like Boston, fall mostly on African-American citizens. Citizen of all colours in that country might well find themselves living in a tent on city outskirts.

[51] Four million hectares transferred to foreign private investors between 2004-13, more than any other country surveyed by the World Bank.

[52] Mixed with some like the Alsunut Development Company’s project has involved a grab of formerly agricultural land in the city, the ‘peri-urban, a major area of land grab in the context of expanding cities and with projects like the Beira Corridor.


Many years ago, close on 40, I was lucky enough to live in a more or less deserted hill village in Greece with a church, no electricity and a track winding up from close to a proper road, the asfaltos as tarmac roads were called. For several months I had a small house mostly to myself with a cat I had found elsewhere as a starving kitten but who soon became queen of the hill. Below were terraces of olive oil, nearer the house a large almond tree. In the drying grasses and shrubs were tortoises, sometimes jackals, heard and not seen. The only neighbours were an elderly brother and sister and they had control of the one water cistern in the place. In the winter this had not been a problem not with a runaway rainwater system into a clay amphora. It was different in summer. But this was paradise and at the bottom of the hill, some several hundred metres down there were two narrow stone lined spring wells one at the bottom of the track and the other in the other direction down through the terraces of olive trees. By good fortune in the spring time I was entrusted with a strong donkey by a friend’s aunt and uncle. It was a time when donkeys were common on the roads, and it came about because they were shepherds, mostly sheep but some goats, she with land around the bottom of the hill and he with pasture, or access to it, in the much higher land of Arkadia some 120 kilometres away and where it was cooler and greener in summer. At this time it was not uncommon, this annual movement. In other cases shepherds based up there would do a deal with land owners of ‘my’ area where there was only rarely frost in winter. The animals would keep the ground around olive trees clean and the owner given cheese and countless sacks of sheep dung.
When it came for the aunt and uncle to make their move, everything, sheep, dog, chickens, cooking pots, bedding were all loaded on to a lorry and off they went. They were nomads but with somewhere to live at both ends. In contrast say to those in Mongolia who move their living quarters, their yurts, with them when they move to the next seasonal pasture even if there too, a lorry might be involved. Their donkey, a strong four year old with a work saddle was left with me, my friend assuring them I would take good care of it. It may have been that they had no use or space for it but what trust, his and theirs, I was a city boy who felt like he was running wild in this paradise with no money, taking whatever day work was going, and with no experience of animals. Or they just knew the donkey was so steady and smart it would make sure it came to no harm. Equally, I was determined not to fuck this up. I’d done enough of this in the past, and to repay the trust. So I practiced putting on the work saddle, taking it off and putting it on again. The straps had to be tight so that it would not slip but not so tight as to hurt. They were made for carrying loads and riding side saddle. And the loads I needed were 22 litre jerry cans of water which is 22 kilos in weight. Heavy stuff, water, slightly heavier than olive oil per litre, and for this to work there had to be two of them, roped to either side of the saddle for balance. Easy enough with the empties and a thermos for some water direct from the well going down the track edged by thyme and oregano and riding side saddle like I was the king of the hill; more difficult loading the cans full.

There was no ownership fuss to the spring wells. The one at the bottom of the track had a metal bucket with rope for common use but the jetty cans were made of a stiff polyeurathane plastic with a 10 centimetre opening with screw tap and moulded handle in a moulded recess at the top. The trick then was to have the one roped on in such a way that it didn’t drag the saddle down or hurt the donkey while putting up the other. Even when I didn’t get it quite right the donkey never panicked and there was no weakening or damage to the handle of the jerry can. I’d seen all kinds of other load carrying handles, rivets, bolts and welds and there was always likely to be a problem, not with the plastic. At that time, for many people I knew, plastic was a kind of dirty word, a synonym for the inauthentic, for the ‘straight’ world altogether, bourgeois even. Sloppy talk when the thing about plastic is that it was and is cheap. And it wasn’t long after that the massively subsidised USA cotton lobby ran a PR campaign emphasizing the ‘naturalness’ of cotton against the threat of synthetic fabrics, in spite of the many, many chemical processes cotton fabric goes through to become that ‘softness of touch’ the campaign’s song boasted of. Such things, PR campaigns and the like, were unknown on that hill up which came most days a man in his seventies with a beautiful; singing voice and a small flock of goats.

Around that time too the Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote about the difference that the introduction of plastic water containers was making to the women of Africa. In the first place it was cheaper than the old clay or metal pots. Then, it was lighter in weight and so easier to carry over distance home from the water source, and being lighter could also be carried by children. And, as he noted such containers could be left to stand in queues on places where water came by truck so that the carrier would not be subject to the tyranny of bored waiting around; they might find some shade with friends or go to the market, knowing that unlike clay pots they were too cheap to be stolen, he said. It was a pragmatism I could understand, not some kind of techno-fix like carbon trading or ethylene fuel, ‘problem’ displacement, but something that worked. There is analysis too: how rectangular containers take up less and less space than circular ones but need a thicker plastic because the force on the corners is greater. There is even application of the Borg (RPE) scale which measures the intensity of the labour carrying of water. In the first world such a measure has not been applied to factory or construction work but restricted to fitness centres and cardiology surgeries.
But there is always context. In Greece water was plentiful, a huge deposit if underground water, springs and rainfall too. Even then, spring wells and cisterns were never far apart. In a study of water fetching in Limpopo province in Southern Africa there is no mention of donkeys or mules; it is estimated that women still spend 26% of their time doing it; it has been called “time poverty”, a loss of time for doing something else or indeed doing nothing at all, at ease; and that whatever the shape or composition of the container musculoskeletal problems are likely to develop for the load carrier.
Then there are contexts around contexts, battles around ‘ownership’ of water where there is an attempt to put it in the hands of private interests for one. Then there are increased incidences of drought as consequences of global climate change whereby in a band across the West Asia and East Africa “it is already creating a vast surplus population that is no longer able to survive in the economy as it stands.” Elsewhere, the nomads of Mongolia have lost herds in winters of newly extreme cold on conjunction with fodder reserve system being discarded post-1990. A yurt shanty town has developed in Ulaan Bator of some 600, 000 people. To move to a city can be a matter of choice and cities are conducive to some freedoms – especially for women-, opportunities and to an acquired tolerance. There is though a difference between choosing from desire and having to move because of land dispossession by one means or another, or the ‘impossibility’ of an economy that once worked. In these circumstances one arrives vulnerable in stingily provided outskirts where there is additionally liable to be a water crisis in different scale mega-cities. For many in the drought vulnerability band (re-categorised as a band of terrorism and counter-terrorism so as to hide the realities of climate change) there is no city to head for and a ferocious denial of any place for the displaced in Europe.
My lucky time in the hilltop village makes me think of these things, that time when there was a donkey for load carrying, water not so far away (and which certainly did not take up a quarter of my daily time) and it vet unlikely I would be doing this for ever. Some 25 or more years later in the same part of Greece I was part of a loose environmental group agitating at the level of local politics. By this time there were none of the donkeys or mules that had been common on the roads, only a few in a donkey sanctuary that were more a therapeutic pleasure. Neither were there ‘nomad’ shepherds, just one or two small all-year round flocks. The land was more susceptible to wild fires because of this, the land less cleared before grasses went dry, along with more roads being made for hoped- for tourism. Despite this, because of the particularly democratic land holding system in the country, the much earlier flight of many to the city after the 2nd World War, the modest development of tourism and the abundance of water, the landscape and its economy have not changed that much ,and tortoise populations have somehow survived the fires. There is though, far more stuff. That began soon after my spell in the hill village, the commodities that had come gradually in Northern Europe arrived in the area in a rush. Cars, packaging, and audio-visual electrics observable in the privatization of TV watching, no longer dependent on the local cafe in the multiplication of rubbish. Once it has been dealt with domestically even if some times that was tipping stuff off a mountainside, and with an occasional garbage tuck from the municipality. In our area despite an apparent increase in the number of trucks rubbish in and around the villages and in the local town had become a horror.
This became the point of mobilisation of our group amidst allegations of corruption or simply not caring so we decided we would attempt to shame the mayor by a rubbish collection on a defined and well known area, an small ‘island’ connected by a short causeway. It was early summer and after a few hours among its cedar trees we had made a pyramid of rubbish some 4 metres high. A large proportion were plastic water bottles, half litres mostly some One and a half. All together what had been collected required several trucks which the mayor had been shamed enough to send.
Those many years ago upon the hill there was no fridge or TV, even down in the more convenient world close to the asfalto with electricity and buses. These were still the luxuries of the nearest cafe for a really cold beer or to watch Panathanaikos, then a team to be reckoned with in European football, or the Sunday afternoon film which, comedy or tragedy, always started with the young woman from the village moving to Athens. At that time perishable food was kept in a large tin hung from the ceiling with mesh side for air circulation. Cold water from the well might last cold as long as it could, or could be put in a thermos.
It is easy enough to be nostalgic about such a life when many years have gone by since you spent a sweaty hour or two in the village cafe’s phone cubicle trying to make a call out of the country; when those films told a real story, Athens as a liberation for young women in the village; easy enough instead for it to be old geezer talk; lazily avoiding the liveliness of the present. The temptation is easy enough and the only solution to laugh at oneself. In this instance, out of the sweaty hours of rubbish collection, popped up a comic riff about how it was the coming of the ice cube that spelled, with the decadence it implied, the death if European colonialism when it depended on the ‘stern white man’, the self-discipline required to discipline the invaded
And yet, and yet, reading of the retreat of the Mongolian nomad and more poignantly of the pastoralists of Somaliland finding that their economy and the life that goes with it is recently made ‘unviable’, it’s hard not to think that the breezy write-off – ‘that’s simply how it is’ – with a shrug of the shoulders, that a whole economy is somehow irrelevant, is something a lot worse. Still more so when there is an environmental addenudum, pastoralists as an intrinsic menace or the depredations that go with peasant firewood: the environmental flim-flam of land-grab. When it’s not just a question of context but of the proportions of different causes when it comes to the size of effects. These are being muddied in a daily basis, like the trillions of hidden global money and the one hundred quid loan shark.
The plastic bottles we picked up are made of a different kind of plastic to that of the jetty can, polycarbonate, and which have excited a whole literature of personal health concerns centred on two components bisephonal A (BPA) and the polymer terephtalate (PET). The first that is the starting material for polycarbonates has been ‘linked’ (the proof ‘not definitive’)in two studies to low birth weight babies and the hormonal system, mimicking estrogen, because of how what is not consumed in the chemical reaction can leach into the plastic bottles contents. ‘BPA-free’ bottles, advertised as such, contain BPS and this sis said to be no better and the advertising ‘sneaky’. The re-use of such bottles filling them with tap water as is now common among people keen to stay hydrated but aware of environmental concerns, has been singled out as especially bad because they ‘break down’ over time. As so often, knowing that advertising can be ‘sneaky’ and research contaminated by private interests, how to know what to do for the best, as an individual on whom so much ethical environmentalism is placed.
In Greece in summer it’s the availability of cold water that counts, really cold water that deals with the dry crust in the mouth that comes with the journey to the beach, now you don’t have to go to the village cafe and its exclusive fridge, instead it’s easily available in plastic bottles from petrol stations, kiosks or bars. But, remembering Louis-Ferdinand Celine and his take on the arrival of those ice cubes in the colonies, it’s impossible to moralize about laziness even if it is a capitalist-encouraged kind of laziness, the Convenience store. Convenience and decadence, one rhetoric slapped on top of another. And yet, talking with the day’s fellow rubbish pickers, why not the thermos flask. In Mongolia it’s an essential for the nomad, hot water available without the need to start a fire or replace the gas bottle: should be the same for cold. Or what’s wrong with schlepping one of these polystyrene covered cold boxes with that special liquid in the very tough plastic that can be recharged/refreezed over and over in the fridge, are they too much of an effort? These questions were inescapable even when the bigger contexts within bigger contexts are too well known and the collective needed to deal with them so pressing.