Outsourcing imperialism in the Horn of Africa

There have been some interesting things happening lately in the Horn of Africa.  Ethiopia has been getting rocked by unprecedented levels of unrest and anti-government violence since late 2015.  And meanwhile, in neighboring Somalia, the US has been escalating a “shadow war” against Islamist militants — an effort which has depended on close cooperation with Ethiopian military forces since their intervention into Somalia in 2006.

The war in Somalia demonstrates the degree to which the US government has been able to effectively outsource security operations to entities that aren’t closely associated or regulated by the norms and laws that have been pushed by progressive liberals and humanitarians. As the New York Times article points out, the war is being fought largely with “Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies”, in a manner that echoes the way the Obama administration has typically structured its many wars, interventions, and armed engagements, from Afghanistan to Syria to Libya.  Not that Obama pioneered this restructuring of US imperialism; as the article points out, recent military engagements in Somalia can be traced back to alliances forged with Somalian warlords by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks, and the backing of Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 — which, incidentally, seems to have been the impetus for the formation of al-Shabaab, the main antagonist in the current conflict.

While the US government is busy with military matters, it seems that European officials are also increasing their outsourcing of security matters.  As this article from The Economist discusses, Angela Merkel met with the Ethiopian prime minster one day after the establishment of a six-month state-of-emergency to discuss matters of migration and refugee, and she subsequently urged the African Union to do more to stop the flow of people from Africa into Europe.  Attempting to gain the cooperation of the region’s authoritarian regimes to help protect Europe’s borders is nothing new; this has been the main reason for the increasingly warm relations between the genocidal dictatorship of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and the European Union.  In some sense, this echoes the efforts by the US government to push policies in Mexico to close off and militarize its southern border, as a way to outsource repression against US-bound migrants from Central America.

All of this should better improve our understanding of contemporary imperialism.  Too often, anti-imperialist politics — particularly those in liberal ciricles — grounds itself on rather simplistic understandings of imperialism, thinking that the only “real” imperialism is when a Western country’s core institutions is engaged in a conflict (i.e. a full-scale invasion).  Indeed, this is why liberal imperialists like those in the Obama administration defend their military escalations with the excuse that they are working with “regional partners”; but ultimately, this is only a way to contrast themselves with the overtly chauvinist strategies of the Bush administration, which alienated many regional elites who otherwise supported US hegemony.  In reality, imperialism has always operated on a transnational basis, dependent on the consent and complicity of local elite classes.  The technical tools may have changed, but the social and political strategies remain largely the same.

When a superintelligent AI hugs humanity to death

Now this is probably the best and most concise demonstration of the perverse instantiation mode of malignant failure I’ve seen yet!

Who are Trumpeters, really?

The standard mainstream explanation for the rise of Donald Trump and his brand of populist right-wing nationalism is that its a product of a disgruntled and marginalized “white working class” that has suffered heavy economic losses from decades of globalization and automation.  For example, check out this fantastic essay titled “I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump”, which gives a deeply personal reflection on race and class in the US, and the resentment of many white working-class people against the “liberal elites” of the coasts.  Or check out this article about how anti-Trump conservative intellectuals are now echoing the disdain of liberal elites by labeling struggling and impoverished white communities as “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture”, effectively generalizing standard racist narratives about black communities.

The data, however, seems to complicate this story.  Data processed by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight from exit polls and census data back in May shows that during the Republican primary, the median income of a Trump voter was higher than the median income of the state as a whole.

The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

Of course, if the standard narrative is about the “white working class”, then it would make more sense to look at white incomes rather than state incomes as a whole, considering the racial wage gap.  But the higher median income of Trump voters appears even when controlling for race:

Since almost all of Trump’s voters so far in the primaries have been non-Hispanic whites, we can ask whether they make lower incomes than other white Americans, for instance. The answer is “no.” The median household income for non-Hispanic whites is about $62,000, still a fair bit lower than the $72,000 median for Trump voters.

Even more telling is the results from a Gallup study done on the backgrounds and motivations of Trump supporters, published in September in SSRN  (emphasis added):

The results show mixed evidence that economic distress has motivated Trump support. His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support. On the other hand, living in zip-codes more reliant on social security income, or with high mortgage to income ratios, or less reliance on capital income, predicts Trump support. There is stronger evidence that racial isolation and less strictly economic measures of social status, namely health and intergenerational mobility, are robustly predictive of more favorable views toward Trump…

All of this is evidence to weigh against the argument that Trump is representing the resurgence of a “white working class” body politic that has given in to racist and nationalist arguments about their economic situation.  His supporters seem better off and personally insulated from the economic turmoil and social/demographic changes that have taken place in wide swathes of the US.  Sure, they still technically working class, and disproportionately blue collar, but they can hardly be confused with having a properly proletarian status; this probably has something to do with how the status and nature of blue-collar work has changed over the years in conjunction with technology, and the concurrent rise of a much more precarious labor market in the service and logistics industries.

Its particularly interesting to see that Trump supporters tend to live in homogeneous communities, which seems to indicate that the source of their racial resentment isn’t so much due to any kind of personal experience in competing with immigrants for jobs, but precisely because of their lack of experience with diversity and cosmopolitan communities — their only source of information about people of color, immigrants, Muslims and other “Other” groups is the sensationalist 24/7 media, conservative talk radio, etc.

So instead of viewing Trump supporters as representative of the “white working class”, perhaps it’d be more useful to view Trump merely as the political representative of those inane, racist, and fear-mongering comments that seem to inundate Internet news articles.  Those people are real, and they vote — but they seem to tend to be precisely the sort of people you’d expect would have the time and luxury to sit around all day and post nonsense online.

Cobalt in the Congo

The Washington Post has published a very pretty report on the “artisinal” cobalt mines of the Congo, and on the important role of these exploitative and dangerous mines in the global supply chain of high-tech consumer products.

Its a good reminder of what a mess the Congo is in general, and its position in global capitalism.  I wrote a blurb a while back when Amnesty International published a report on child labor in Congo’s cobalt mines, with the main point that unlike a lot of standard liberal narratives about impoverished parts of the global south as being “uncivilized” and in need of Western engagement, the thing to recognize about the Congo is that it is all too integrated with the “civilized” parts of the world.  Violence and exploitation in the cobalt mines is simply a predictable externality of the increasing hunger of a global economy increasingly driven by high-tech products, and decades and decades of imperialist subordination.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Analysis on the nature of the social democratic political formation that emerged out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, by Salar Mohandesi in Viewpoint
  • Essay arguing that the radical left needs to take politics more seriously than Jill Stein and the Green Party
  • Essay summarizing Heidegger’s philosophy of technology
  • BBC reportage on how Oakland, California beat back a massive surveillance project
  • Analysis on the complex factors behind the rise of Islamic State in the province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan

Some takeaways on the division of labor, technocracy, and the Cultural Revolution

I recently finished reading Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (2009), an excellent analysis of how different social classes formed and contested one another during China’s socialist period, and an effective look at the dynamics and evolution of the Cultural Revolution.  The main point of analysis is on the way the two elite groups that remained after the victory of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949—educated people, and CPC cadres—slowly fused together.

In 1949…very few members of the educated classes belonged to the party, and very few party members had higher education.  Those who had a foot in both camps—the Communist intellectuals—were tiny in absolute numbers and a small minority within each group.  As children of the educated elite gained political credentials and children of the political elite gained academic credentials, the number of people who occupied the intersection of the two groups—the Red experts—grew steadily. (272-3)

This process began almost immediately after 1949, with the advent of a massive expansion of education policies modeled after the Soviet Union that focused on technical and scientific fields.  It was interrupted, however, with attempts by Mao and his allies to fulfill the official goal of building communism and eliminating class hierarchies, as seen through the tumultuous—and often horrific—events of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  These “class-leveling” campaigns (specifically, the ones during the Cultural Revolution) gave the two elite classes strong reasons to stop fighting teach other (as was the case during the Great Leap Forward) and unite to protect their power against the rebellious masses and lower-level CPC cadres.

The two elites also converged politically as members of both groups came to recognize a mutual interest in preserving social stability and halting class-leveling campaigns.  During the first decades of Communist power, these campaigns were facilitated by a gulf between the new and old elites.  Communist cadres saw the educated elites as representatives of the old order and believed that undermining the privileges they derived from cultural capital was party of the party’s revolutionary mandate, while intellectuals saw Communist cadres as unqualified usurpers and resented the privileges they derived from political capital.  In 1957, members of the two groups lined up on opposite sides of battle lines defined by political and cultural capital.  In 1966, the same kind of inter-elite antagonisms exploded at many elite schools, but simultaneous attacks on both groups ended up forging inter-elite unity…Budding Red experts of all class origins took umbrage at radical slogans denouncing party-affiliated college graduates as “new bourgeoisie intellectuals” and they came together in the moderate camp to defend both political and cultural capital.  (273)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this was how clearly serious the more militant communists were about actually abolishing class, and eliminating the divide between “manual” and “mental” labor.  Obviously these efforts not only failed, but backfired; the violence and intensity of the campaign lead to the convergence of two previously hostile elite classes and the creation of a pro-capitalist technocratic ruling class that continues to hold power today.  But it’s still interesting to see a revolutionary movement grapple with the problem of the division of labor, and raise arguments and debates that seem entirely absent from modern radical circles—a problem that will likely need to be rectified if modern communists are serious about revolutionary struggle, and engaging with the increasing stratification of the working-class based on differential skill-sets and knowledge bases.

Another interesting line of analysis in the book was the way it traced the evolution of 20th-century socialist states from being initially committed to Marxist socialism (and its intention to build a classless communist society), to eventually becoming much more defined by the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, which explicitly theorized the need for an elite technocratic class of planners and bureaucrats who governed society according to the common good, and on techno-scientific principles.  Like the dynamics around the division of labor, modern communists should make sure to study the collapse of Marxist socialism into utopian socialism, and ensure that similar trends don’t emerge in contemporary revolutionary movements.

Monday Interesting Links (On Climate/Environment)

  • Essay on industrial agriculture, ecological alternatives, and class struggle, via Jacobin
  • Article on the deep divides within the AFL-CIO over the issue of DAP and other climate issues