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The 1% in Ancient Athens

The following are excerpts from Plutarch’s Life of Solon. Plutarch was a Roman historian of the first century. Solon was the great lawgiver of Athens, circa 620BC.

The Dawn of Democracy:

” . . . The state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism. The whole people were in debt to a few wealthy men; they either cultivated their farms, in which case they were obliged to pay one-sixth of the profit to their creditors, and were called Hektemori, or servants, or else they had raised loans upon personal security, and had become the slaves or their creditors, who either employed them at home, or sold them to foreigners. Many were even compelled to sell their own children, which was not illegal, and to leave the country because of the harshness of their creditors.

The greater part, and those of most spirit, combined together, and encouraged one another not to suffer such oppression any longer, but to choose some trustworthy person to protect their interests, to set free all enslaved debtors, redistribute the land, and, in a word, entirely remodel the constitution.”

The Impunity of the Elite:

“He (Solon) was at this time engaged in politics, and was composing his laws. Anacharsis, when he discovered this, laughed at Solon’s undertaking, if he thought to restrain the crimes and greed of the citizens by written laws, which he said were just like spiders’ webs; for, like them, they caught the weaker criminals, but were broken through by the stronger and more important.”

One Problem with Democracy:

“Anacharsis said too, when present at an assembly of the people, that he was surprised to see that in Greece, wise men spoke upon public affairs, and ignorant men decided them.”


Revolution from the Right?

Loose talk about Revolution is all over the internet and Right Wing media these days. From Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to the coy secession talk of Texas Governor Rick Perry, the idea of armed resistance is being floated on a nearly daily basis ever since Barack Obama won the election. Militia groups, both “Patriot” groups and more sinister White Supremacist groups, are on the rise, and the Tea Party movement uses the symbolism of the revolutionary war in its banners and rhetoric. With all this new enthusiasm for killing one’s neighbors, one wonders what the chance of a revolution from the Right really is. In my opinion, it is zero.

By “revolution,” I mean an organized uprising by armed citizens against the Federal government, with the idea of fighting a protracted guerrilla war and defeating the government. I’m not referring to ethnic or religious conflicts, though those are elements of the mix here. In a country where arming yourself is as simple as going down to the corner store and plunking down a few hundred dollars for a 12 gauge shotgun or semi-automatic rifle, why do I doubt the possibility of Revolution from such an angry and seemingly motivated Right Wing?

First, there are strong disincentives to joining a revolution. Not only does one risk life and property, but the targets in a revolution tend not to be evil Wall Street bankers and crooked politicians. They tend to be policemen, soldiers, security guards and bystanders. Challenging an intact state with an elected government whose legitimacy is recognized by the vast majority of its citizens has very little possibility of gaining popular support.

That’s always the case, but there are other issues specific to the Right Wing.

The Right doesn’t do Revolution

History over the last hundred years doesn’t offer a single example of a Right wing revolution. The Right favors military coups and death squads. Hitler was voted into office and seized power in a coup. Mussolini seized power in a coup. Pinochet took control in a coup. Franco, arguably, was part of a revolution, but this occurred after a failed Right-wing coup attempt and was against a government that was already deeply divided. While many of these groups had considerable popular support they were not popular insurrections. Even in Communist dictatorships, where the Right is out of power and would theoretically form the Resistance, organized opposition usually comes from the intelligentsia or from labor unions.

Of course, past performance is not an indicator of future results. But there are other ingredients missing from the revolutionary stew.

Hitler had a Vision

For a revolution to succeed, it has to have a vision that will make its followers risk life and limb for it. Hitler had a dynamic vision for his country, as did Mussolini. In present day America, after eight years of corruption and plunder, the Right’s leadership has no real vision of why they should be back in power. What can they offer?  More profiteering? More war? More financial heists? More off-shoring of jobs? The Right had everything it wanted under the Bush Administration and they left disaster in their wake, and if you cruised the Right wing websites in 2007, you would have seen a deep uneasiness and anger with how the country was going, long before Obama came to power.

Obama the Fascist. Obama the Communist

As much as people enjoy throwing around bombastic terms and engaging in an overly dramatic sense of danger (especially on internet message boards), most sane Conservatives realize that Obama is a fairly middle-of-the-road politician. There are still plenty of people on the Right who know what Fascism and Communism really is. While Franco was able to rally troops to fight the government, the fact was that real Communists, Socialists and Anarchists existed in Spain, he didn’t have to make them up. Most Americans will not spill their own or their neighbors blood because Rush Limbaugh calls Barack Obama a Communist.

This is not to say that there won’t be violence from the Right. From unbalanced White Supremacists like James Von Brunn to the meth heads who plotted to assassinate Barak Obama, we are more susceptible these days to violence from fringe actors who see their lethal fantasies validated in Right Wing media. Likewise fanatics like Timothy McVeigh. But these are borderline personalities and groups, not mainstream, Americans who happen to be Right of center.

So what are the conditions necessary to a Revolution? Many books have been written on this subject, but here are some important factors that are relevant to our situation in the United States.

1) A middle-class intelligentsia that has been excluded from power or upward mobility.

Revolution nearly always comes from the Middle class, and stepping on them, the favorite sport of our elites since 1980, is stepping on a serpent. However, our middle class is still fabulously wealthy and still has access to education, employment, and political power. Right Wing media and politicians are flourishing.

Furthermore, while the Republican party may be out of power for the moment, the Right is not shut out of the civil service or the levers of government. It’s not in the interests of Republicans to destroy the system when they have the chance to get back in power. It’s more conceivable that elements of the Republican party might encourage or sponsor Right Wing violence to intimidate the center and Left, a more extreme version of how Dick Armey and other corporate elements worked behind the scenes to disrupt Town Hall discussions about health care this past summer. (Note: While these tactics were used by the Left in the 60’s and 70’s, they were not Corporate or Party sponsored.)

2) Lack of a genuine democratic process

While there are still problems posed by Bush-era electronic voting and continuing efforts to discourage voting by poor people, most mainstream citizens in the United States are confident in their ability to influence their government by voting if they so choose, at both the local and national level.

3) Crushed expectations for lower and middle class citizens.

It’s a truism that dashed hopes lead to political foment, and this is the most worrisome element. While a complete Weimar-like collapse has been averted, at least for now, the great architects of Wall Street and Free Trade have likely created a large permanent lower and lower-middle class. People who lost their houses are not going to be buying new ones with their $14/hour service sector jobs, and off-shored manufacturing is not coming back in the near future under our present trade policy. Those who have been kicked to a lower rung of the economic ladder won’t be climbing back up anytime soon. For the moment, Americans are still rich and still believe in their own upward mobility, but a complete collapse of the system could push Americans in a radical new direction. In that scenario, the 24 hour barrage of fantasy and hate speech emanating from the Limbaughs, Becks, Savages, Fox and elements of the Republican party may amp the alienation of the Right to widespread violence. If a Right Wing Corporate government is in power during a collapse, that scenario could also energize a violent Left, spawning a climate of terrorism, state repression and extra-legal death squads from Right and Left. This is the scenario of The Army of the Republic.

Chill, Dude!

I am still optimistic that none of these scenarios will come to pass. Americans of all persuasions are generally a fair-minded people that believe in the democratic process. We have a record of settling political differences relatively peacefully. Our rich political culture, once the envy of the world, is like money that we have banked over the last 230 years. It got us through the Red Scare, the Depression, McCarthyism and the Civil Rights struggle. Can it continue in a society where the Right is constantly being told to hate the Left, where contempt is regarded as Patriotism? Can Americans still pull together in an increasingly unequal economic order? I’m not entirely sure. Let’s hope we aren’t tested.


Don’t Like Government Health Care? You’ve Already Got It!

A funny thing happened on the way to the Government takeover of health care. I realized that it had already taken place.

No, I don’t mean Government as in Of-the-People, By-the-People, Founding-Fathers-set-this-up Government. I mean the real Government that controls health care: the Aetna-Blue Cross-Humana-Corporate-government. They set the price, tell me what care I can and can’t get, and, every three or four months, raise the price whether I like it or not. Personally, after years of being subject to this Corporate Government, I don’t see what I have to fear from my elected one.

As a 50 year old novelist and business owner with a wife and two children, all of us in excellent physical condition, I am currently paying more than $13,000 each year for our family’s Blue Cross health insurance.  That “tax” is greater than the contribution I make to Social Security. It has increased about $5800 since I signed up less than two years ago. Since there is a $1000 deductible per person and co-payments, we easily pay another $1,000-3,000 per year in routine medical and pharmacy bills, as well as $2-3000/year in dental.  We won’t even talk about optical and orthodontics, which are not covered at all.  So, in a year when we are all healthy, I pay about $17,000 in medical and dental expenses.  Most of this goes into the pocket of the health insurance corporation.

The corporate overlords of my health care, the ones who tell the doctors how much to charge and what they’ll cover, have set up a bureaucracy that would rival that of most South American Republics. Between the insurance companies and the extra staff needed by hospitals and doctors to jump through their hoops, 31% of current US medical dollars are spent on administration and overhead, not medical care. Contrary to the lies being spread these days, Government-of-the-People programs such as Medicaid and Medicare have far lower overhead than Corporate Government plans, since they have no fat executive salaries or shareholder dividends to pay, nor a huge apparatus dedicated to assessing and denying patients’ claims. What do I have to fear from a public health plan? That they might charge me less or, heavens, that I might pay the same amount, and actually get coverage?

Some might say the Corporate Government is more American, because I have the freedom to not buy it. Freedom to go bankrupt if my child gets sick in this bloated, parasitic health care system. Freedom, once I’m bankrupt, to go to the emergency room and foist the costs off on everyone else. Freedom, if I ever get out of bankruptcy again, to pay whatever skyrocketing price insurance companies may happen to charge five years down the road. That’s the Corporate Government’s idea of freedom.

In this modern age, where power abhors a vacuum, you’re always going to have one Government or the other. As your doctor might say: choose your poison.


Mexico: Insurgent Memories

 

I arrive in Mexico City before Christmas, and the one room travel agency at the bus station is selling package vacations to Acapulco.  Two or three hundred dollars for 4 nights on the coast, meals and bus fare included.  It’s a vacation for shopkeepers and taxi-cab drivers, the ragged lower-middle class that praises God every Sunday for their prosperity and keeps one wary eye on the next step down the economic ladder.  It’s an economic class that’s likely to become a lot more familiar in our own country.

 

I reach Taxco at nightfall and the city is an apron of pink and yellow lights covering the mountain that it’s built on.  Taxco is built on silver, first the mine that made the town rich in the 1700’s, and then, since the 1930’s, from the silver jewelry industry that exports all over the world.  Silver stores and wholesalers line the streets with all their attendant support businesses, and the town looks like a movie Mexico: prosperous, colorful, where the only poverty evident is the few old people begging at the steps of the magnificent church..  This is an older Mexico, far from the funky cosmopolitanism of Mexico City: the woman are tiny and dark and the men have greased-back hair and pot bellies.  At night everyone goes to the main square and takes the air, perhaps with a brass band playing in the gazebo.

 

Taxco is one of three islands of conservatism in the state of Guerrero (the other two are Zihuatenejo and Acapulco).  Outside of those islands, Guerrero is in a slow but constant struggle between it’s campesino (peasant) groups and right wing paramilitary bands who systematically repress them on behalf of the big landowners.  This pattern has gone on for centuries in Mexico, exploding into large scale violence associated with names like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  Guerrero is also the birthplace and homeland of guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas, whose death 34 years ago is being commemorated the day that I arrive.

 

Cabañas was a schoolteacher when his sympathies for peasant movements brought him afoul of the system.  He was teaching in the town of Atoyac when the rector demanded that all students wear uniforms to school.  Cabañas argued that many parents were two poor to afford uniforms, and the escalating conflict led to a demonstration, which led to a massacre.  Cabañas took to the hills, ultimately forming the Army of the Poor and Peasant’s Brigade Against Injustice.  His group of 300 peasants financed their operations the old-fashioned way: with robbery and kidnappings.  That was 1967, before the drug-trafficking became the method of choice.  Cabañas was 28 years old.

 

After seven years in the mountains the Senator from Guerrero, Ruben Figueroa, arranged to meet Cabañas clandestinely to persuade him to give up his arms.  They talked for three days without results, and then Cabanas took Figueroa prisoner.  This was the final provocation.  The Mexican government sent 16,000 troops to the arid mountains of Guerrero to hunt down Cabañas and his 300 man army.

 

It’s not clear exactly how Cabañas died.  Some say he was killed in a shootout with the Army, other say that he was wounded and committed suicide rather than be tortured and executed by the military.  A third version has him captured by the police, then murdered later in jail.  The senator was rescued.

 

The Guerrero newspaper had a long article on the several gatherings that were held to remember Cabanas’ death.  In Ayotac, 400 campesinos marched.  In Tixtla, 1000 marched, with banners that said “We are all Lucio” and “Neither Forget nor Forgive”    His daughter gave a speech, and told the newpaper afterwards that little had changed since her father’s time.   She blamed her father’s turn toward violence on the government:

 

“Do you think that Lucio wanted to go to the Sierra and let so many people die?  They didn’t leave him any other way . . . He, too, marched and all that . . .  and they didn’t leave him any choice, until they killed him . . .   The government itself tells you where you have to walk.  If you go and ask an official, he doesn’t pay any attention to you.  If you make a demonstration and there’s only a few people, they say, ‘they’re only a few.’  Then, if a large number of people come . . .  then, yes, they have to pay attention, if there’s many.”

 

I read this story of Cabañas with a feeling of sadness.  Seeing his broad, youthful face beneath a floppy jungle hat, it’s easy to identify with him: a schoolteacher who took the part of the poor in an almost unwinnable struggle.  His tiny peasant “Army of the Poor” seems quaint in the our present-day world of heavily-armed narco-traffickers and mass casualty terrorism.  That’s the luxury of looking at things across thirty years. 

 

On the back page of the same newspaper, human rights groups have completed an investigation and recommended that 40 police officers be prosecuted for robbery and torture during a raid in a remote community.  Campesino groups complain that their communities are being destroyed by soldiers, paramilitaries and police.

 

And that gives way to another sort of sadness.  Cabañas spent a good part of his adult life in flight and stalemate in an attempt to change things.  Whatever great anguish and little glory he lived are gone now, or rather, translated into peasant marches and speeches, thirty-four years later.  In the central plaza of Taxco, a woman is selling tamales from a wicker basket, an old man shines shoes, a mason chips steadily away at stones in front of the cathedral. 


TURBO CAPITALISM IN SHANGHAI (Part 2)

I’m sitting at a restaurant in Shanghai staring with great reservation at the creature on the plate in front of me.  It looks very much like the biggest slug you’ve ever seen, except slugs are in your garden, not bathed in a orange-brown sauce and waiting for you to eat them.  It’s a Sea Cucumber, the kind of expensive dish served up at Chinese banquets to honor and flatter the guests, and 8 of these little creatures have been sacrificed tonight on the altar of turbo-capitalism that my Chinese friends Selena and Peter have invited me to worship at tonight.

 

I’ve known Selena and Peter since 2001, when I came back to China after a hiatus to source silk for my business.  They’ve followed a common course in the new China: coming from humble backgrounds, they excelled in school and went to elite universities in Beijing.  Afterwards they went abroad to pursue MBAs in Australia, then worked there until they saved up enough money to launch a business back in China.  After a careful study of the market, they chose silk and dove in.

 

By my standards they are wildly successful.  After a few years they bought their own factory, then expanded, and built a new, much bigger factory. They have their own wholesaling arm in the United States.  They make real money even by American standards, and in China, where the per capita income is around $2000, they are in a very elite class indeed.

 

Last year my friends stood ready to cement their future.  They had patented a new kind of industrial machinery that gave them a significant competitive advantage in their field.  Their idea was to open a factory spinning silk, and vertically integrate their business.  At the time I visited they were talking to various foreign and domestic venture capital companies (VC) to get funding for their new factory.

 

My friends are fairly sunny people.  They’d seen an entire generation blighted by Maoism, and they’re grateful to be able to strive for something different, even if it means working 80 hours a week.  On my last visit, though, I detected a note of dissatisfaction about what they called “New Money.”  I was puzzled: wasn’t it all new money?  Not at all.  “Old money,” Selena explained, was fortunes that had been made in the past twenty years.  “New money” was fortunes that had been made in the past two or three years.  What was irritating is that these new money people made millions as if out of thin air, by promoting an idea and then cashing in on it, rather than plodding along in a real business. 

 

What they were hearing from the Venture Capitalists and other businessmen from Wall Street, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, was that their plan for a steady logical expansion of their business fell short.  “They’re not interested in opening a factory that makes 20 million a year,” Selena explained in her airy voice.  “That’s nothing.  They want to make 40 or 50 times their money in a few years.  They have a better game than just running a business.”

 

After a year of rejection and advice, they had figured out that better game.

 

Rather than open a spinning factory, they would instead sell the machines.  Not that they were going into the spinning-machine business.  The machines were simply the basis of another much larger play that worked like this: They would sign an agreement to sell the machines exclusively to one large company, at the same time load up on stock in that company.  With the significant competitive advantage offered by the machine, that stock would increase significantly, and my friends would profit off both the stock and the machine sales.  A few years down the line, when the exclusive agreement expired, my friends would go public, cashing in on machine sales all over China and on the sudden influx of riches from their IPO.  They would brand their yarns and make money on license fees.  Then, they would do it all over again in India.

 

Which brings me back to our banquet, and the bowls of shark fin soup that arrived at the table shortly after the sea cucumber.  Shark fin soup is even more extravagant than sea cucumber, costing anywhere from $40 to $100 for a small bowl, and there were eight of us at the table.  In the highly ceremonial Chinese banquet universe, Shark’s Fin soup is the heavy hitter, the equivalent of a long, deep bow, or maybe of throwing oneself face first on the floor in obeisance to one’s guests.  And the guests that night were very important and honorable guests indeed.  Two of the men there were renowned textile engineers, in a position to write extremely helpful letters attesting to the efficacy of the machines.  Another was the editor of the Chinese textile industry newspaper, and a fourth young lady was a journalist for that newspaper, people who might lavish the attention necessary to boost a stock price.  Seated in the chair facing the door, the place of honor, was the well-connected official who had set the meeting up.  All five of them had a part to play in my friends’ intricate business plan, and I was witnessing one of the little landmarks on, hopefully, their march to vast wealth.  Toasts were drunk, cashmere sweaters were handed around as gifts.  The renowned textile engineer agreed to test their machines and write a letter on his findings.

 

My friends had transitioned from business-people merely making something into people working an intricate scheme, and I had mixed feelings.  I wanted my friends to succeed, of course, and I couldn’t help trying to figure out how I could cash in on their success.  The lure of easy money is like neon on a dark highway.  But as they explained the mindset of the venture capitalists they had been learning from, I felt somehow diminished.  These VC people didn’t want to run a business, my friends told me.  They wanted to massive profits in a short time and get out, and let someone else trudge along making things or selling things.  They didn’t look down on people who did things the old-fashioned way: it was just that they had a better game. 

 

I had always been proud of my small business: it took me all over the world and introduced me to a lot of interesting people.  What had always seemed like a great adventure, though, suddenly felt silly and flat.  “But you’re a writer!” Serena reassured me.  “We have MBA’s!  This is our chance!”  And I understood that.  If you’re a businessperson and you have the chance to go Big, of course you have to grasp it. 

 

In the steady progression of China in the last twenty years, this abstract form of turbo-Capitalism has finally come into its own, at almost the same exact time that it has overshot the mark on Wall Street and very nearly brought the house down.  I imagine that the bankers bundling mortgages and selling them off for a cut had an even more abstract view of business, since they weren’t even dealing with spinning machines, but rather with derivatives that were far removed from making or doing anything.  That abstract way of thinking became a the biggest game in history, where thousands made millions from churning money which had no purpose other than giving other people the opportunity to churn money. 

 

For now, China is still firmly attached to making and doing things.  It remains to be seen whether they repeat our mistakes.


TURBO CAPITALISM IN SHANGHAI

PART I: The Communist Business Environment

 

 I first went to China in 1991 after attending a friend’s wedding in Hong Kong.  At that time the streets of Shanghai were drab and impoverished, and tattered Mao suits and caps were still common dress for old people in the countryside.  All but a few joint venture hotels had cigarette burns in the carpets and paint peeling off the walls,  and when you walked the streets you would be harangued with shouts of “Hello!  Hello!” the only word of English that the average Chinese person knew.  If you answered them a crowd of silently staring pedestrians would gather behind you to hear your strange voice.

 

Business was conducted in the labyrinths of the Communist infrastructure.  Dirty hulking factories were state-owned and run by managers who had no contact with the market and were forced to do their exports through government-appointed Foreign Trade Companies.  These Foreign Trade Companies, conceived in the old Command Economy model, were also completely ignorant of any marketing expertise: their business education consisted mainly of filling out Letters of Credit and other trade documents, along with the occasional junket to Korea or Japan to “investigate markets.”

 

There was no such thing as a small businessman in this market, and no entrepreneurs.  It was hardly worth the while of a state sponsored “businessman” to export quantities of $2000 or even $5000, quantities that are happily exported by small South American companies every day.  All production went through huge factories, who would be happy to send you container-loads of silk shirts, but shrugged their shoulders at producing several hundred.  There was never fabric in stock, never any samples, rarely a color chart: basic tools for an export business.  Instead, hundreds of workers with lifetime jobs in state factories sat around drinking tea and playing mah-jong, waiting for that big order to come in.

 

In the odd cracks of this gray State monolith, a few small businessmen were beginning to emerge.  I remember Mr. Zhang, a fifty-ish man with a quick manner and a constantly twitching sewing machine foot, who had somehow gotten control of a small factory and was producing and exporting hand-painted scarves.  This was 1992, and he seemed exotic at the time, like a Chinese cowboy.  Of the scores of businessmen I met all over China in those first few years, he was the only one eager to accommodate my small quantities.  Others shrugged their shoulders, laughed at me to my face, or even got up and walked out of meetings.  I remember a meeting in Inner Mongolia when my name was mentioned and everyone in the room started laughing.

 

Gradually, though, the Communist Party decided that the tea-drinking and mah-jong were over.  Those companies that didn’t produce were allowed to fail, and gradually even the productive ones were sold off to their managers or to well-placed Communists.  The Foreign Trade Companies were allowed to sink or swim, and they all sank, as factories were allowed to export directly to their clients.  Before, 150 workers was considered a small clothing factory.  Now their cashiered workers formed factories of 20, or 10, or even three. 

 

By 2001 the Chinese had gone on-line with Alibaba.com, a vast electronic marketplace where anyone with an e-mail address and a little English can set themself up as a businessman.  Fedex and UPS became established ways of doing business.  One clothing agent joked that she could snap a photo of a blouse in New York, e-mail it to China and have a knockoff back in the United States the next day.

 

The China of Mao Suits has become a China whose exploding neon opulence stuns me every time I visit.  Cars fill the streets and giant restaurants occupy entire city blocks, three stories high, with 100 cooks and 300 waiters.  Miraculously, they are full every night.  But it’s not the designer-clad elite of Shanghai and Beijing that amaze me, it’s that even the man in the street now has a cell-phone and an electric bicycle.  Teenagers have money to spend, and shop with their friends in the city centers.  The people who once shouted “Hello!  Hello!”  have learned a few more words and now try to sell you fake Rolexes on the Nanjing Lu.  China has arrived.  In fact, it’s pulling out again.

 

Next: Turbo Capitalism in Shanghai


BANQUET POLITICS

I was at a banquet in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago when I had one of the most surprising conversations about the United States that I’ve heard in 25 years of foreign travel.

 

The banquet was being hosted by one of my suppliers.  At the table were five other Chinese people, two of whom were older men who’d likely never been out of China.  Others were younger, but also didn’t speak English.

 

The fifth was a friend of mine, a fairly highly-ranked Chinese official, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who was methodically climbing the ladder to what he hoped one day would be the Premiership of China.  Power-wise, he was the Chinese equivalent of a US Representative, except that Chinese politicians don’t run for office and depend instead on appointment by officials that the general public has never even heard of.   As strange as this seems to us, it’s entirely in line with millennia of Chinese tradition, where Confucius and his followers made a virtual cult of the civil servant.

 

The talk turned to the recent presidential election and the older Chinese man asked me who I had voted for.  Both myself and another American merchant there said “Obama.”  We had voted for him, we had given money to his campaign.  They asked how much money, and I told them: it was roughly two months’ salary for the average Chinese factory worker.  The older men gave an unmistakable gasp of surprise.  For them, voting in an election was exotic, and the idea that an average citizen would give a substantial sum of money to a political candidate must have struck them as totally outlandish.

Finally my politician friend in the Central Committee stood up and said, in Chinese: “That Obama could be elected proves that Americans believe all men are equal.  That’s what makes America the greatest country in the world!”

 

Maybe there was a little Chinese flattery there, but it was still a stunning comment, and I was moved.  In all my years of travel I have defended (and sometimes condemned) the United States to a wide array of people.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever mounted a more eloquent statement of what is great about the United States than the one I heard that night.


AN ASSASSIN’S LESSONS ABOUT THE FINANCIAL CRISIS

A friend of mine spent many years in the security business doing contract work for the CIA, some of which involved killing people. My friend had a long history in the hard side of human interactions, much of it in the murky moral regions inhabited typically by soldiers, spies and public defenders with guilty clients. This was not a man who could afford to spend too much energy on moral issues: there was a job to do, and once he embarked on it, the elements of right and wrong only got in the way. However, he was a wise student in human motivation. One of the things he told me was, “A guy will do almost anything if he thinks it’s for the good of other people.”

You could write an encyclopedia about that statement. It was an inspiration to me when I was trying to depict the Regime cronies who end up hiring death squads in The Army of the Republic. I take my friend’s comment in three ways. The first is the fact that men in combat will go to heroic lengths for the sake of their friends or what they see as the good of their country. Looking deeper I caught a much darker truth: that men and women convinced of the altruism of their actions will go to great lengths in the pursuit of evil. And on a third, profounder level, it goes from dark to weird, turns inside out: that people acting in their own self-interest are likely to convince themselves that whatever evil they’re doing is for everyone else’s benefit.

Which brings me to the engineers of our present financial catastrophe. The blame for this goes all the way down the line to every poor sap that lied about his income to get a mortgage, but at the top of the pyramid, the rules were set by those who benefited most. These people, staunch opponents of the financial oversight that would have reined them in, became apostles of a self-serving religion of the “Free Market” and all it could do for the common good.

The central tenet of this faith was that “Free” Markets, had the ability to magically solve our problems. This was said to have been proven infallibly by two 18th century prophets named David Ricardo and Adam Smith, after which all history stopped. In the 1890’s it was Social Darwinism that had justified shooting down union organizers and sending children to factories rather than schools. Now, the divine “Free Market” gave an altruistic stamp to anything that suited the interests of Corporate capital. Taxes, trade barriers, unions: all of these were now Evil because they interfered with the “Free” Market. Financial oversight was Evil because it interfered with the Freedom of Corporate Capitalism’s great practitioners, and somehow their Freedom was our Freedom.

It was remarkably like the old Scientific Socialism of the Communists, where economic law trumped all our petty ideas of justice or injustice. As with Communism, any evidence that the system didn’t work was ignored. Savings and Loan Scandal? Not relevant. Jobs going overseas? All for the greater good. Working class becoming Working Poor? Nothing a new credit card or a 2nd mortgage can’t solve. All the way to the present collapse, and, incredibly, the insistence that we don’t let a bunch of Socialists go crazy and start regulating financiers.

In the end their ideology became just another corporate con.  What’s a “Free Market” when the IMF comes in to act as an enforcer for bad loans made to South American dictators?  How is it “free” when the WTO rails against other countries’ agricultural subsidies while forcing them to accept our subsidized crops duty-free and put their farmers out of business?

Even for those who genuinely believe in an elusive free market, we’ve been reminded now what Free Markets really do: they boom, they bust, they become monopolies, they collapse. They implode and impoverish people in ways that are gut level, not theoretical and abstract, and the people at the middle and bottom of the pile pay a much bigger price than the guys at the top.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been doing business with South America since 1984 and I know far better than most Republican talking heads what an over-regulated economy and trade regime really looks like. (You think America is bad? Try Bolivia.) But I’ve also seen how ugly it gets when elites are successful at relentlessly expanding their privileges, and I’ve never met or heard of anyone in that position-people who managed vast tracts of land with peasant labor, or privatized a government entity, or used connections to make a fortune on a government contract–who didn’t think what they were doing was morally right.

For one brief moment they wavered: the mighty Alan Greenspan expressed his surprise at discovering, at the age of 80, that a certain percentage of rich white men, given complete license, will steal the shirt off your back then grab your wristwatch when you extend your hand to save them.

But we won’t see any apologies from Hank Paulson, from Robert Rubin, from the American Enterprise Institute and all the other cheerleaders for deregulation who set us up to take the fall. These men are convinced that they are acting for the common good, even as their colleagues manipulate the bailout to protect their bonuses and their fortune. Their personal interests just happen to align with what’s good for the rest of us. Even their trillion dollar deficits provide a silver lining by giving us the opportunity to streamline the cash-strapped government, especially the Social Security part.

Some might call this tendency to ignore reality when it whacks you in the face psychotic. But for the smart guys like Hank Paulson and the economic class he protects, they are the ones who truly understand, who keep the faith, who know the Truth. The rest of us? Well, we’ll just have to learn the hard way.


The Making of an Insurgent

We all complain about politics, but have you ever wondered what makes a person pick up a gun and start violently resisting the government?  That was one of the questions I wanted to answer when I started writing The Army of the Republic.   

 

Some of the factors that make fertile ground are already well-known: an elite intent on keeping and expanding its privileges, a State that refuses to incorporate or entertain alternative ideas, an economy where downward mobility has become the new rule.  But those factors have existed in many countries without sparking violent resistance.  Why, I wondered, did people in one country organize and fight, while others suffered on in silence?

 

It wasn’t an answer I could find in the United States.  In spite of our long, sad history of state violence against minorities, we Americans have tended to work things out relatively peacefully in the last 140 years.  Compared to Argentina’s 30,000 disappearances, or the hundreds of thousands killed in El Salvador, Guatemala and Columbia, our record for settling our differences in the last century is pretty good.

 

So, when I decided to set my book about urban guerrillas in the United States, I had to look elsewhere to try to understand why people resort to violent struggle, especially in modern times.  I chose Argentina because it was (until recently) a primarily middle-class Western country with a high level of education, similar to the United States.  I studied the Montoneros and the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army), two groups active in Argentina in the first half of the 70’s.  I read biographies and autobiographies to get a general feeling for the rise, career and destruction of these groups, and followed it up with interviews of people who had participated on both sides.

 

The two groups had different reasons for fighting.  The ERP began as a tiny Marxist political group trying to organize workers and build their strength with the goal of establishing a Socialist state.  They turned to armed struggle in 1969, when the dictatorship had made their political organizing efforts impossible.  The Montoneros were a far bigger and broader-based group.  Their members initially organized under various banners to bring back the exiled former president of Argentina, Juan Peron.  They finally turned to armed struggle as the Montoneros in 1970, and pursued a growing campaign of bombings, kidnappings, robberies and assassinations against the dictatorship and international business interests.  Free elections and Peron’s return led the Montoneros briefly becoming a legitimate political party, with 500,000 members and elected officials at the state and national level.  To their horror, though, Peron turned savagely on them and they were forced to go underground again in 1974, embroiled in what they had come to envision as a war against the Argentine state.  By 1976 they were effectively annihilated by the Argentine government.

 

There are certainly things that could be added to the following list about what creates an insurgent, but these are some of the factors which shaped the American insurgents of The Army of the Republic.

 

1) REVOLUTIONARIES ARE YOUNG

No secret here: that’s the reason why authoritarian regimes often infiltrate, harass or shut down universities.  Young people are most willing to take the risks and usually have no dependents.  Young people are more apt to be uncompromising in their ideals.  The average age of the ERP at its height was 23 years old.  Reaching one’s mid-thirties made one a wise old man by revolutionary standards.

 

2)  DEMOCRATIC AVENUES FOR CHANGE ARE CLOSED

In the America portrayed in The Army of the Republic, a psuedo-democratic regime controls the country.  Elections are held, but the Party always wins, which leads tiny armed groups of every political stripe to make sporadic attempts that are as much acts of frustration as a coherent strategy. 

In Argentina in the 70’s, dictatorships already had a history of coming in and snuffing democratic governments when things went against the ruling class.  Both Montoneros and ERP started as political organizations, and turned to violence when they lost hope in achieving their goals politically.  Truly extremist groups (such as that surrounding Timothy McVeigh) may act even in a democracy, because the lack of public support guarantees that they will never achieve their aims through organizing and voting.

 

3) VIOLENCE IS “IN VOGUE”

In the 70’s guerrilla groups existed all over the world.  Fidel Castro had triumphed in Cuba after being reduced to 20 men, and the Communists had triumphed in North Vietnam and were winning in South Vietnam.  For this reason, the idea of a tiny minority taking over the state through a combination of guerrilla strategy and iron will was widespread in Argentine and many other societies.  Also, in the late 60’s and 70’s young people all over the world staged non-violent uprisings, even in wealthy France and the United States.  This gave violent resistance an intellectual currency that encouraged people to take up arms.  Armed struggle attracts most recruits when it is chic, whether that style is expressed in posters of Che Guevara or the funerary videos of suicide bombers.  Once inside, revolutionary groups provide the same sense of teamwork and brotherhood as military forces, probably stronger.

 

4) REVOLUTION IS A MIDDLE CLASS PHENOMENA

The idea that the poor and the working class rise up against the state is a myth, propagated chiefly by the middle-class intellectuals that actually organize the insurgency.  Poor people seldom have the education and organizational skills to coordinate the logistics and indoctrination necessary to create a group and keep it alive.  Working-class people are too busy working, unless they are being organized through a labor union.  In Argentina in the 70’s, nearly all the founding members of the Montoneros were students or young professionals.  The founder of the ERP, Mario Roberto Santucho, was a public accountant.  Beyond that, Castro was a lawyer.  Mao had been a librarian, Che Guevara was a medical student.

 

That said, in the book, I do include working-class armed resistance groups.  MacFarland, the leader of the Libertarian/Right Wing half of the Army of the Republic, is a mechanic.  I based this on the existence of some radical right-wing groups like the Montana Freemen and the cell that pulled off the Oklahoma City bombing.  Also, in the United States the difference between working class and middle class is often blurry, and people can be both working class, educated and informed.

 

5)  ARMED RESISTANCE IS A LEFT/LIBERAL PHENOMENA

Some people have criticized the book as being a left-wing fantasy, (these people somehow missed the Right Wing half of the Army of the Republic), but in fact, I emphasized the Left because most armed resistance movements in the West in the last century have come from the Left, or from Liberals.  At first I thought this was due to the fact that the dominant revolutionary idea of the 20th Century was Socialism, which is by definition Leftist.  However, there was little or no organized Right-wing activity against the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe.  Even in cases where heinous dictators were oppressing the whole country, such as Somoza in Nicaragua, the Right was usually late to the party in opposing the dictator, when they aren’t actively supporting him.

The Fascist takeovers of Germany and Italy before World War 2 somewhat fit the bill for a Right-Wing takeover, and the Secret Army Organization in 1960’s France, but  the Right usually seizes power through coups or counter-revolutions, while the Left and Liberals are more apt to organize and wage a guerrilla war when democratic means are not available.

 

Even the American Revolution, cited by many Right-Wing people in the United States as their icon of violent resistance, was actually organized primarily by educated liberals like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who would likely belong to today’s Liberal/Left/Libertarian spectrum.

 

6)  ONCE BEGUN, VIOLENT RESISTANCE HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN

 

Once a group gets started, its momentum will sometimes keep it going even after it’s clear that the battle is lost or the cause has lost popular support.  While both the ERP and the Montoneros began during a dictatorship, the ERP kept fighting even after its PRT party only gained a miniscule fraction of the vote in the 1973 elections.  The Montoneros were ultimately forced to fight the very government they’d fought to have democratically elected.

 

Groups fight on for many reasons.  One is simple institutional momentum.  Another is that when people take up arms against the state, they are beginning such an uneven struggle that statistics or balance of forces no longer have meaning.  In the revolutionary narrative, even major setbacks become part of the road toward ultimate victory, and part of the revolutionary ideal is the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a higher good.  Another reason militants die rather than give up is that they feel they have to keep fighting to dignify the sacrifices of fallen comrades.

 

One big reason, though, which I think held true particularly with the ERP, is a refusal to recognize that the People you think you’re fighting for really aren’t on your side.  The delusion sets in that some external factor is impeding you: government lies, lack of education among the people.  There’s often the belief that just eliminating a given politician or group of people will at last open the floodgates of popular support.  Indeed, the attempt to re-capture the public imagination with ever-larger military feats can lead guerrilla groups to devastatingly overreach themselves.  The ERP’s last gasp in 1975 was one of their biggest operations, an attack on the Monte Chingolo military barracks that left over a hundred of their militants dead.  The Montoneros tried a similarly grandiose attack on a military barracks, hijacking a jet to make their getaway.  In both cases, the losses far outweighed the gains.

 

7) THE REAL BATTLE IS FOR THE STORY

While guerrilla groups are sometimes able to simply shoot their way into power against a weak state, most insurgent groups realize that if they can’t win the battle of narratives, their road will be longer and harder.  One of the reasons rural guerrilla groups take and hold territory is to be able to proselytize the peasants and build support for their ideas.  But the ERP and Montoneros, being urban guerrillas, couldn’t hold territory.  Instead, both had a network of clandestine printing presses where they produced magazines and newspapers that told their side of the story to their own people and to the population at large.  These publications explained their politics, gave news about operations or fallen members and made accusations against the regime they were fighting.  Losing a printing press or mimeograph machine was a major blow.

 

Naturally, though, Big Media always sides with the State.  Distribution of a clandestine newspaper might run to tens of thousands at most, while television and radio reach tens of millions, and nearly all of it is unfavorable to the guerrillas.  For that reason, the Montoneros and the ERP saw their support drop as reports of their violent actions were broadcast far and wide, while reports of state terrorism were kept quiet.

 

 

All in all,  taking up arms against the state requires a healthy dose of delusion, anger, hope, and insane bravery, all qualities we might admire in those we agree with, and condemn in those we don’t.  The final conclusion I reached, though, and the conclusion which trumps all the others, is that once the road of violent resistance is undertaken, it brings in its wake devastating consequences that no one can control.


DR. CABRERA MEETS JOE THE PLUMBER

Part Two  (See Part One Below)

 

Almost as fascinating as the stones and theories of Doctor Cabrera is the fact that people believe in them.  A quick google of Doctor Cabrera and Ica will reveal a number of web-based shrines to the man, sincere people who are ready to cast aside modern science and grasp onto Doctor Cabrera’s new world.  It doesn’t take a great command of science to quickly arrive at a healthy sense of doubt about his theories.  And yet, many people with no particular stake in the outcome seem to accept it at face value, because the Doctor said so.

 

I had originally included Dr. Cabrera in The Army of the Republic, (and it wasn’t easy to shoehorn an eccentric doctor from the Peruvian desert into a book about Seattle urban guerrillas) because I felt that there was something essential about the his theories and people’s belief in them.  I was fascinate by the way Americans, in the face of easily recognized facts, were fleeing deeper and deeper into fantasy.  The Republican Party, which since 1980 has never shrunk government, never balanced a budget, never helped the working class and never reformed anything without immediately squandering the savings on war or corporate welfare, is nonetheless regarded by tens of millions of people as the small government, fiscally conservative working-class-hero reformer of big bad Washington.  It’s absurd on the face of it, as absurd as being a neo-Nazi sixty years after Hitler reduced Germany to rubble, or believing that men hunted dinosaurs 400 million years ago.  Yet every day respectable-looking men in suits and ties espouse these same ridiculous claims in the Wall Street Journal or on television,  and people pay them to go on saying it.

 

Belief in an alternate truth, no matter how ridiculous, is always seductive.  There’s a certain exhilaration that comes from breaking free.  It’s an escape into a world where facts lose their objective power and become a sort of clay that can be molded any way one sees fit.  That abandonment of reason and its leap of faith is tremendously empowering.  Think of it: you don’t have to believe the facts that some Ivy League egghead or career bureaucrat is telling you!  You’ve got your own set of facts, and by God, they’re just as good as his!  As Roger, the yoga-teaching “pretty boy” of  The Army of the Republic points out, that mass flight into fantasy is always present in countries that go insane, such as Nazi Germany or Mao’s China.

 

There’s another reason people believe in crackpot theories: because they can.  If you’re Joe the Plumber and you have fanciful beliefs about how to fix someone’s plumbing, it won’t be long until water is coming through the ceiling.  But the same man can believe whatever ridiculous ideas he wants to about politics or economics, and things will more or less keep rolling along.  It’s only later, when the economy is in ruins, or his child gets his leg blown off in a war, that Joe the Plumber’s fanciful beliefs come home to roost.  And then, the chances are, he’ll still think it’s someone else’s fault.


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