Swans Commentary » swans.com February 28, 2011  



Blips #105
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"Who are they, and who are we?
They are the authority, the sultans.
They are the rich, and the government is on their side.
We are the poor, the governed.
Think about it, use your head.
See which one of us rules the other."

—Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-) Egyptian poet and Ambassador of the poor.

(Swans - February 28, 2011)   A READER CONSIDERS that in my last three Blips on the tumultuous events that are engulfing the MENA (Middle East & Northern Africa), I have overemphasized the material conditions in which this modern Arab revolt has taken and is taking place, but minimized the human conditions -- the cries for freedom and human dignity. First, it may be useful to remind readers that "In a time of revisionism, faux-semblant, spinning news and skewed information, Swans is about thinking, questioning, observing, and providing ideas that are lacking in the mainstream media." So, indeed, I tend to focus my attention on what is rarely found in the main media. Call us a part of the side media. Second, there are ample reasons to ignore the platitudes about freedom and democracy, or the "legitimate aspirations" of the "Arabs," which are rehashed by Western politicians and pseudo-intellectuals on the TV channels and the pages of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, etc. The ostensibly condescending nature of the official narrative that now portrays Arabs as "human beings" who suddenly are accorded rights to legitimate "universal human aspirations" and dignity is nothing more than another form of racism.

THREE MONTHS AGO, the "Arab Street" was depicted as irrelevant, just mobs of youngsters throwing rocks and shouting anti-Israel and Islamic slogans corralled by "moderate and stable" regimes allied with Western powers against al Qaeda and terrorism. The narrative did not include human dignity until, in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation on December 14, 2010, the Arabs literally took the streets (and squares) away from their ruthless "leaders." And so, now, as Western governments are running scared from these world-shattering events and their geopolitical consequences that no one fully understands, the "Arabs" have become "humans" after all...like us...after all. What rubbish!

HUMAN DIGNITY, SENSE OF HONOR? Jean Daniel, the founder and executive editor of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, excerpted on his Blog (February 4, 2011) a few words of a long article by Brahim Oueslati, the director general of the Tunisian National Observatory of Youth. Oueslati placed Bouazizi's desperate action within an historical context. Bouazizi's immolation reminded him of Jan Palach, the Czech student who self-immolated in the wake of the Prague Spring. But, wrote Oueslati, one has to go back to long times past to find a comparable sacrifice. It was in 148 BC (or was it 146 BC?) at the end of the Siege of Carthage during the Third Punic War, when General Hasdrubal the Boeotarch lost the war and surrendered to Roman Scipio Aemilianus. Outraged by what she felt was betrayal of the nation by her husband, Hasdrubal's wife threw herself into a burning temple, shouting "better fire than shame." She said that her husband had "betrayed his nation, his gods, his wife and his children." For his part, Bouazizi shouted, according to Oueslati, "better fire than humiliation!" For Oueslati, "nobody expected or predicted that this desperate action, this self-immolation, would enflame an entire country and soon the whole region."

SO, ALL OF THE SUDDEN, and oh so conveniently, the Western punditocracy is discovering that "Arabs" possess a sense of human dignity. It's no longer about Huntington's clash of civilizations and Islamic hordes. They now are "good Arabs." And look, they even resort to non-violence to topple regimes, these "good Arabs." They must have learnt the trade from us, the white "superior race" (Winston Churchill), the likes of Gene Sharp. Because, see, those "Arabs" could not have figured out non-violence without the guidance of the "civilized" Western world -- that world whose governments have been supplying arms to, and supporting autocratic regimes for decades, arms used to suppress and repress their people. Ah, the hypocrisy, the hypocrisy!

HUMAN DIGNITY is first and foremost about feeding one's family, earning a decent wage, living in adequate housing with water and sanitation... Can we, the privileged few, fathom what it means to work 60 hours a week for a $50 monthly paycheck to produce apparel or electronics that find their way into European and American department stores where they are snatched away by oblivious consumers before going to dinner at the local dive? Heck, we can spend over $50 for a pleasant meal. Pass the chardonnay! Lebanese As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at Cal State University, Stanislaus, put it quite succinctly in an article he posted on his Blog, The Angry Arab News Service. He wrote: "The Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings occurred in the wake of organized worker movements. . . . [They] broke out in the names of the hungry, the downtrodden and the oppressed..." Professor AbuKhalil added between parentheses: "Comrade and Egypt expert Joel Be[i]nin estimated that about 200,000 Egyptian workers participated in strikes and protests in 2007 alone."

ACTUALLY, JOEL BEININ, a professor of Middle East History at Stanford University, is the principal author of a February 2010, 136-page report published by the Solidarity Center entitled "The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt" (PDF - 3.67MB). In this extensive study, Beinin and his colleagues examine the history of workers' rights -- the long struggle to create independent unions, gain the right to strike, and to bargain collectively. They also cover the discrimination against women and migrant workers as well as child and forced labor. Between 2004 and 2008, as neoliberal economic restructuring and the privatization of the public sector accelerated, "over 1.7 million workers engaged in more than 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest." (p.18) This labor unrest continues to this day.

PROFESSOR BEININ also wrote a clear analysis of the material conditions behind the insurrection in a short article published in Foreign Policy on January 31, 2011, "Egypt at the tipping point?". Skyrocketing food prices and Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation may have been the initial sparks but the flames would not have engulfed the entire region without the long struggles of the labor movement, and not just in Tunisia and Egypt. In 2010, for example, 2,510 strikes, sit-ins, and other labor unrest took place in Algeria, according to a report by the Algerian National Gendarmerie. In Libya, the revolt started in the eastern, poor part of the country. Incidentally, it is ironic -- a sad irony -- at a time when Egyptian workers demand higher wages, collective bargaining, and free independent unions that in the USA we are witnessing wave after wave of union busting and the stripping of collective bargaining rights, whether in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, etc. When will Americans get inspired by, say, the Egyptian and Tunisian workers? WHEN?

IN MY ANALYSIS of food prices, the same reader pointed out that I neglected the main factor that explained these high prices -- in his opinion, overpopulation. True enough, I made no mention of overpopulation because it's a bogus neo-Malthusian myth. But even if one believes that the world is overpopulated, one ought to acknowledge that the world was already overpopulated before the latest spike in prices. It reminds me of one of Paul Ehrlich's early predictions made in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which helped popularize the concept within the environmental movement and energize legions of Eugenists. He wrote: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." Of course, none of his dire predictions proved correct. Michael Barker has researched and written extensively on this topic in the pages of Swans. As an example, please read his August 2009 essay, "Environmental Populationism, A Dangerous Obsession." You can also visit our "False Environmentalism" archives. Or you can do a search on Swans using the word "Eugenics" first and "Paul Ehrlich" second. Michael Barker has debunked the notion of overpopulation and the ideological and political forces behind this bogus myth quite competently.

YES, INDEED, as the reader says, Yemen faces critical water shortages, but as Lindsey Marburger of the Federation of American Scientists points out, about half of Yemeni fresh water supply "is used to produce qat -- a tree or shrub with amphetamine-like stimulating properties when chewed. This water-hungry cash crop is grown through flood irrigation that causes high levels of water evaporation and inefficiency." Marburger adds: This crop "is without doubt more water intensive than the grain, fruit crops, and coffee it often replaces." (Source: Public Interest Report, FAS, Fall 2010.) So, here again, like in Egypt, the determining factor is socioeconomic. It's not about population control, it's about the sound management and allocation of resources.

THE SAME IS TRUE with food. It's about a system of production, distribution, repartition, and the sharing of resources among the neediest masses. What the precise impact on food prices is from the diversion of corn toward the production of biofuels has not been quantified to the best of my knowledge. But the more acreage is dedicated to corn for the production of ethanol, the less is available for other grains like soybean or wheat, which in turn are used as feedstock for meat growers, pushing prices upward. When wheat becomes too expensive consumers turn to rice -- in other words, the famous butterfly effect, which ought to force policymakers to revisit the ethanol boondoggle.

A MORE FORMIDABLE ARGUMENT is rooted in moral philosophy. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in its latest report, shows that we are fast approaching the one-billion benchmark -- that, soon, one in seven people in the world will become undernourished. Kenneth Cassman, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska, recently stated that, "All corn used in 2010 U.S. ethanol production is equivalent to food requirements of 240 million well-fed people, which is three years population growth." Notice that Cassman said "well-fed people." I don't know what standard he applied to his qualificative, but I've read estimates that it could feed as high as 350 million, or 25 to 33 percent of the world's food-destitute human beings. You can save the equivalent of ethanol-produced energy that feeds food to our cars by simply lowering the speed limit and encouraging drivers in the western hemisphere to drive less and buy more energy-efficient vehicles. Once again, population is not the issue. The paradigm is not whether the world should produce more food or fewer people. It's all about a socioeconomic system based on profits and greed. It's the system that needs to be changed.

STILL, THE SYSTEM IS NOT changing. Tom Vilsack, the US agriculture secretary, has recently approved a biotech-engineered corn produced by a Swiss agribusiness company named Syngenta that lowers the cost of producing ethanol. That corn won't be suitable for food products. Once more, cars take precedence over people...though, actually, it's a few people and their lifestyle that take precedence over the vast majority of humanity.

MORE ON MORAL PHILOSOPHY: Want to lower the prices of food commodities? Make it illegal for any strictly-financial speculation in food commodities derivatives markets (e.g., the OTC index funds, hedge funds, etc.). Criminalize the practice. Here is what Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, wrote in his September 2010 report that I mentioned in my last Blips #104, "Food Commodities Speculation and Food Price Crises" (PDF - .98 MB): "With regards to markets for agricultural food commodities markets, the FAO observes that only 2% of all futures contracts result in the delivery of the underlying physical commodity. This makes trading such futures attractive to investors who have no interest in the commodity, but only in making a speculative gain (p.10)" He also indicated:

The value of outstanding OTC commodity derivatives grew from 0.44 trillion in 1998, to 0.77 trillion in 2002, to more than US$ 7.5 trillion in June 2007.

Beginning at the end of 2001, food commodities derivatives markets, and commodities indexes in particular began to see an influx of non-traditional investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and large banks that packaged and dealt the commodity index instruments mentioned above. The reason for this was simply because other markets dried up one by one: the dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after, and the U.S. housing market in August 2007. As each bubble burst, these large institutional investors moved into other markets, each traditionally considered more stable than the last. Strong similarities can be seen between the price behaviour of food commodities and other refuge values, such as gold. (p.6)

PUT IT ANOTHER WAY: Speculators enrich themselves on the backs of hungry people and all other food consumers. This is messieurs et mesdames, the socioeconomic system in which we live and which dominates the world. Yes, moral philosophy...

NO WONDER revolted people all over the world are raising their voices against the status quo and the neoliberal order. No wonder Professor AbuKhalil refers to himself as an "angry Arab." No wonder Femi Akomolafe and Martial Frindéthié are getting close to becoming "angry Africans." No wonder the world all over has had it with this unequal, destructive system. No wonder people all the way from Tunis, Cairo, Madison, and the like want change. No wonder a few desperate, yet honorable people are able and willing to commit the unspeakable sacrifice -- "fire is better than injustice."

Stop the injustice! That's my answer to the certainly respectable -- though myopic -- reader. STOP THE INJUSTICE!

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 28, 2011