Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Photographs of Lui Xia

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett
Dean, School of Arts and Sciences
University of Richmond

At the end of February, a small exhibition of photographs by the Chinese poet and visual artist Liu Xia opens at the University of Richmond in Virgina.  The artist is unable to publish or exhibit her work in China.  The photographs are on exhibit at Richmond because the French scholar Guy Sorman arranged for their removal from Beijing, enabling them to be shown abroad with the artist’s consent.
   Liu Xia has lived under house arrest in her apartment in Beijing since October 2010.  She has never been charged or convicted of any crime.  But her association and marriage to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has had a vast impact on her life and work.
   Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 for his decades of work as a pacifist and human rights activist in China.  At the time he became a Nobel Laureate, he had already begun his eleven-year sentence in prison following conviction for his contributions to the creation of Charter 08.
   This petition, signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and activists, calls for a new constitutional regime in China that would advance democratic rights and freedoms in that great country.   After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize, his wife Liu Xia was placed under house arrest.  
Liu Xia married her activist husband during his prior three-year sentence to a reeducation labour camp in 1996.  The introverted artist describes herself as apolitical; she married Liu Xiaobo so that she could legally visit him during his incarceration.  While under house arrest, Liu Xia is prohibited all contact with anyone but her parents, and a security detail is constantly on guard.  Her freedom is severely constricted hour by hour, day after day, month after month--without any foreseeable end.
   In a pamphlet published in 1940 (under a pseudonym), the French political philosopher Simone Weil described the effects of repressive political force on a human soul.   The furthest end of force is, in any historical or cultural vector, to turn its object into a thing.  But a human soul resists this process with horrible tenacity and anguish.  Long after she might want to accept her fate, the soul goes on longing to recreate the world in which she could move and make and love.  Such incurable longing is neither liberal nor romantic:  It is the torment of slaves and prisoners anywhere.
   In late December 2012, several friends surprised and overtook the security detail that guards Liu Xia’s apartment and gained entry.  Her friends filmed the brief minutes of their visit, and the footage shows Liu Xia at once elated and distressed by their presence.  She immediately begged them to leave of their own accord for fear of retaliation against her family. Yet the vivid emotions that crossed her face remain indelible on the film--like the expressions of the dolls that are the theme of Liu Xia’s photographs.  
In the Lora Robins Gallery of the University of Richmond, the public can view Liu Xia’s photographs.  The prints are black and white, about 18 x 18, depicting inexpensive and unbeautiful dolls in simple scenes—standing between stacks of books, or wedged between two flat stones, or perched on rough wooden boards.  Typically, there is high contrast between light and darkness in the images so that the dolls’ faces become the foci of the scenes.
   The dolls are placed in postures of constraint—propped in a birdcage or behind the slats of a chair’s back or wrapped beneath cellophane or crushed by a human hand.  Amidst the silent shadows, the dolls’ luminous faces express the anguish of freedom lost:  A small furrow in the brow, the open mouth wrenched to the side, the downcast head, the restless, staring eyes—these small arrangements of the face become acutely expressive.  The dolls appear simultaneously defenseless and indefatigable.  
Liu Xia’s photographs reverse engineer the process of repression.  If the furthest end of repressive force is to turn the person into a thing, the furthest aim of the photographs is to turn things into images of benighted souls at the limit of freedom.  An act of creative imagination projects that condition onto the inanimate dolls.
   At his conviction in December 2009, Liu Xiaobo observed that his only permissible public statements since 1989 have been before the courts that have sentenced him three times for speech crimes.  In his last statement before beginning his eleven-year sentence, he thanked the officials, including those who interrogated, prosecuted, and convicted him, for their professionalism and good faith.  Indeed, he praises a particular warden for the humane management of detainees, observing that such practical respect for dignity is the basis for human rights:  Liu Xiaobo avows no enmity to anyone, while he continues to aver that he has committed no crime and that he does not accept restrictions on his right to free speech.  Liu Xiaobo’s statement concludes with a message for and about his wife Liu Xia: 
"Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window… filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.  My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times make me stagger under its weight.  I am an insensate stone in the wilderness…Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you."
In her 1940 pamphlet Simone Weil observed that, even in its desolation, the soul sometimes grasps moments of self-possession in which there only remains room for courage or love.  Liu Xia’s photographs bear the impress of such fugitive moments.  No one can say what this costs her.  Perhaps such moments are felt as the monotonous loneliness of missing another soul without any near purpose but to endure the psychic clamor of going on missing him.   Thus, it has been suggested that Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” represent her husband Liu Xiaobo.  In one of her most accessible images, a doll perches like some defiant child-like familiar on the shoulder of a gentle man.   
At the limit of freedom, what stands between the person and her reduction to a thing may be the inconsolable animation of the other within.   The soul averts its loss of self-possession to force through another prior dispossession to the beloved, whose interior occupation proves the incontestable reality of love.  This is also neither liberal nor romantic:  It is the inner tumult of democrats everywhere.
   The moral objects of freedom are not universal; they are the individuals and ideals one uniquely loves.  But the moral subject of freedom—the soul who suffers affliction under the effects of repressive force—is universal.  Thus, Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” make their appeal to the world.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Obama, Drones, and the Inauguration

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Thanks to the nomination of John Brennan as C.I.A. director, the United States is finally conducting a national conversation about President Obama’s dangerous expansion of presidential power. Going Bush and Cheney one better, the Obama Administration insists that the president can order the targeted killing, that is, the legalized murder, of American citizens abroad if they pose a threat to American interests. The so-called white paper obtained by NBC News in early February ostensibly narrows the range of executive action by limiting it to high level al Qaeda officials posing “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” but the definition of imminent is so broad that it allows targeting anyone deemed a terrorist (read: enemy of the United States). 
The official conversation, not surprisingly, is rather dismal. One idea, floated by Senators and supported by Obama, has developed some traction: establish a secret judicial review process to sanction the killings. The problem here is not just that proponents of this idea model it after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, a clandestine body that “monitors” government eavesdropping in the United States and rarely if ever denies the state the warrants it seeks; the problem is that Obama and others want to normalize the practice of presidential killing, give it both a Congressional and official judicial seal of approval. The proposal, in other words, seeks to disseminate responsibility—and thus, ironically, preempt accountability—for a “process” that has no place in a democratic society.
Remarkably, while a handful of politicians express some concern or unease about executive overreach (how can the president play the role of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner?), there is little or no indignation, at least not in the mainstream. What’s more, even proponents of the idea of a supervisory court worry that it might impinge on the president’s prerogatives as commander-in-chief. Thus the very reason for a court also turns out to be an objection to it. What’s worse, the president, perhaps too busy skeet shooting to exercise the authority he claims to possess, has distanced himself from active involvement in the targeting process, preferring to unleash a rejuvenated C.I.A. that effectively answers to no one. Obama may ridicule Republicans for wanting to live in the 1950s, but he has already returned government to that lawless era of coups and assassinations. 
The lack of outcry should come as no surprise to any close observer of American politics. The United States loves executive power and wants to see it deployed, including in spectacular fashion, on behalf of American interests. Obama has been waging a vicious drone campaign for years in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, producing hundreds of civilian casualties, without official dissent. Republicans who profess to believe in small government, who foam at the mouth at the prospect of the state playing a supporting role in providing health insurance to tens of millions of fellow citizens, fall silent in the face of Obama Administration’s happy trigger finger.
The country’s love affair with executive power was on full display during last month’s inauguration. Nationally televised, commentators universally celebrated the event as American democracy’s finest moment: the pageantry of the peaceful transfer (or reaffirmation) of political power. No prospect of coups, no violence in the streets, nothing untoward mars America’s political system. What a sight to behold, we were told over and over again.
What were we actually looking at while being tutored in American political ritual by the likes of Diane Sawyer? Our attention is riveted on a large black SUV with tinted windows, containing the president and first lady, making its way slowly on the streets of Washington, D.C. from the Capitol to the White House. When will the SUV stop, Sawyer asks breathlessly? When will the brave president leave the secure confines of his armored vehicle, alas necessary in the age of terrorism, an age which makes him a target wherever he goes? At long last Obama deigns to appear before the American people. This is the moment we have been waiting for. Ooh, look at the thickness of the door frame, Sawyer gushes. No one knows just how thick it is, she claims (it looks to be about six inches). There he is! President Obama waves to the people, to his most ardent supporters, to federal employees who have the day off. He’s a veritable rock star. Jonathan Karl offers some firsthand reporting about the electric atmosphere, but it’s so loud he can’t hear a thing! I hope you can hear me, Diane! As Obama walks a few blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue, he carries on a tradition started by Jimmy Carter in 1977 to make the presidency seem a little less imperial. By displaying himself in this way, the school lesson continues, Obama shows us that he is the American people’s president. He represents us. It’s a moment for people and president to bond in celebration of the exceptional American political system (as if other democracies don’t routinely transfer power without incident). That this same smiling, beaming man might also have to wield terrible destructive power is the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. Besides, that’s not the face of a killer, is it? Look, he’s waving to me! He’s saluting us! Two thumbs up!
Still, Obama’s inaugural address emphasized the indispensable role of citizens in the American democracy. It’s “we, the people” who ultimately matter and decide the country’s future. If we act together, our best days lie ahead of us. Thank you for this reminder, Mr. President. Perhaps we should start by raising the question of impeachment for the blood on Obama’s hands. Not because I have concluded that Obama can or should necessarily be impeached, but to give the drone question the proper political, juridical, and rhetorical context. True, Obama accelerated withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the price has been high and paid largely by others (Pakistani and Yemeni civilians). After all, might not the arbitrary assassination of American citizens (not so-called citizens, Diane Feinstein’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand notwithstanding) constitute a “high crime” as delineated in the Constitution? Cornel West thinks Obama’s drone program, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of casualties, amounts to a sequence of war crimes. Let’s act on Obama’s advice and take back (some of) the power that presidents, perhaps especially the last two, have arrogated to themselves. We can start with Barack and then move on to W., who can’t be impeached, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the dock for his personal war in Iraq. In the name of national security, our democratic security, let’s put presidents in their place. That they walk among us and wave every four years does not make them any less dangerous; if anything it enhances the awesome powers already at their disposal. 
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

New Deal Liberalism's Checkered Past and Uncertain Future

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Why have US liberals and European social democrats been unable or unwilling to combat the fiscal austerity that so captivates the world? On one level the answer is obvious. A more strident, self-confident, and well-financed conservatism has been in the ascendance. But New Deal liberalism and European social democracy have had internal problems of their own. A radical liberalism must address not only its conservative foes but liberalism's own tensions and limitations.

It is easy to forget today just how surprising the triumph of the pro-capital ideology is. That ideology celebrated markets free of the state as the source of a dynamism and sensitivity that no government bureaucracy could achieve. That conviction seemed decimated by the events of the Great Depression. Conservatives' claim that in the proverbial long run things might work out seemed scant comfort to even many of the business leaders of the immediate post WWII generation.  That generation had experienced the success of World War II rearmament and even such unorthodox practices as price controls and rationing.

Yet Friedrich von Hayek, the principal architect of the market celebration, was too clever a polemicist not to have an answer. If one is losing the argument over economics, change the conversation.  He argued strenuously that whatever the success of wartime planning, any economic planning led inexorably to the excesses of totalitarianism.

Irish political economist Philip Pilkington, in a blog post for Naked Capitalism, counters: "One may as well make the observation that totalitarianism was often accompanied by arms build-up, therefore arms build-ups 'cause' totalitarianism. " He adds that it is absurd to suggest that "Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union ­ had formed because a na├»ve democratic government had engaged in some economic planning that then got out of hand and resulted in tyranny."

Pilkington reminds us that the harsh economic demands of Versailles led to hyperinflation in Germany and the turmoil that aided Hitler. Nazi popularity waned once US loans began and inflation subsided, but after the crash of 1929, unemployment soared and was exacerbated by the Weimar government's misguided turn to austerity. Hitler resumed his disastrous march to power.

Pilkington, however, warns us: 

Hayek's delusion, with all its emotional overtones, spread quite effectively. Today whenever we encounter an anxiety-ridden Tea Partier, it is Hayek's delusion that we are hearing echoed through the chambers of history, albeit in slightly vulgarised form. It is the fear, distrust and paranoia which Hayek's portrait of a free society descending into barbarism evokes that captures the minds of those it touches. That it is completely deluded and ignorant of history only makes it more effective, like all propaganda, in its role as propaganda. The bigger the lie, the more emotional investment it requires to believe in and so the more it captures the uncritical and the emotionally weak.
Pilkington's analysis is provocative, but he perhaps places too much emphasis on the role of Hayek and the libertarians in the post World War II era. That era was marked by domestic and international bargains shaped by pragmatic business and political leaders who accepted at least some role for government and even unions. Hayek and his sympathizers did not go away. They provided a kind of background chorus ready and willing to reassert themselves when the opportunity presented itself, as it unfortunately did.

In the late forties even some US business elites recognized the need for stable market demand in order to sustain an ever more productive capitalism. They supported the economic reconstruction of their erstwhile enemies and tolerated moderate unionism. This Grand Bargain between labor and capital brought steady economic growth and declining inequality both in the US and Western Europe.

That bargain, however, contained the seeds of its own undoing. Revolutions were occurring in the developing world, upon whose resources the major industrial powers depended. On the economic front, Japan and Germany achieved remarkable gains in productivity while American workplaces experienced increasing turmoil. Unions had been granted the right to bargain over wages, but questions of workplace organization had been ruled out. Furthermore, minorities had been left out of the Grand Bargain and began to express their discontent amidst the growing general prosperity of the sixties. The consequence of turmoil abroad and at home was soaring government expenditures for a welfare/warfare state.

The late sixties and seventies are remembered for the conjunction of unsettling antiwar, civil rights, and feminist movements. But equally part of that story, both as a consequence and intensifier of the crisis, was the so-called stagflation, the bouts of inflation coincident with rising unemployment.

Economist Robert Vienneau, drawing on path- breaking work of Cambridge economist Nicholas Kaldor, asserts: "the prelude to stagflation was also marked by a significant explosion in commodity prices that occurred in the second half of 1972. Part of the problem was the failure of the harvest in the old Soviet Union in 1972-­1973 and the unexpectedly large purchases on world markets by the Soviet state. That was exacerbated by the uncertainty caused by the break up of the Bretton Woods system, after Richard Nixon had ended the convertibility of the US dollar to gold on August 15, 1971."

That breakup itself was rooted in part in the combination of massive military spending and social welfare expenditures designed to address the growing social revolutions of the period. That decision marked the US movement from a creditor nation to one burdened by a trade deficit. In a recent interview, Greek economist and author of The Global Minotaur, Yanis Varoufakis comments:

What Nixon recognised was that, once the US had become a deficit country, [its Bretton Woods era role as supplier of global credit] could no longer function as designed. Paul Volcker had identified with immense clarity America's new, stark choice: either it would have to shrink its economic and geopolitical reach (by adopting austerity measures for the purpose of reigning in the US trade deficit) or it would seek to maintain, indeed to expand, its hegemony by expanding its deficits and, at once, creating the circumstances that would allow the United States to remain the West's Surplus Recycler, only this time it would be recycling the surpluses of the rest of the world (Germany, Japan, the oil producing states and, later, China).
The US made the latter choice, with implications not only for its economy but for the future of its democratic politics as well.

Corporate Reconstruction of the World Economy

The breakdown of the international economic order created in the wake of World War II was something its authors had not anticipated. How was the US to move from being the world's greatest creditor to its biggest balance of trade debtor? We are still grappling with the consequences of this transformation. Getting to a new world where capital would flow into the US markets was difficult and stressful. Post Keynesian economist Nicholas Kaldor pointed out: "The end of Bretton Woods (the post-WWII international monetary system) was momentous: inflation expectations and instability on financial and commodity markets resulted, as well as a rise in commodity speculation as a hedge against inflation. This contributed to the cost-push inflation that was being felt in many countries after 1971. This could have been averted had the United States not dismantled its commodity buffer stock in the 1960s."

It could also have been mitigated had automatic cost of living escalators not been built into many standard labor contracts, thus making inflation self-sustaining.  Kaldor points out that "From 1968­-1971 there were the beginnings of inflationary pressures, in both wages and prices in many industrialised nations. There is of course an eternal struggle in modern capitalism between labour and capital over distribution of income, and sometimes this can get out of control. Post Keynesians recognise the need for some kind of [government mandated incomes policy] in modern capitalism, when wage gains become excessive..." I would add that such struggles can become especially intense as compensation for workers' lack of control over their own work process. An incomes policy that included profit sharing and participation in management could blunt wage price spirals without disadvantaging labor.

In the seventies, however, not only did inflationary surges coupled with job insecurity cause real harm, they also contravened the expectations of the architects of the grand compromise. Keynes himself saw a need for international and domestic institutions to regulate speculative finance and to compensate for and provide buffers against unpredictable bouts of underconsumption and overproduction. These would serve as employer of last resort with whatever it took.

However, American economists like Paul Samuelson had watered Keynes's insights down to a more conservative, market- oriented approach. Samuelson had assumed that except in dire circumstances capitalist economies could be managed via the Fed's adjustment of the interest rate to provide a stable and predictable tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.

It was just these predictable tradeoffs that stagflation contradicted. The ability
 even during periods of sluggish growth  of large corporations to administer prices, of speculators to drive commodity prices higher, and of unions to gain wage increases in lieu of other privileges and satisfactions denied by the grand compromise undermined broader public faith in government. It thereby/encouraged a retreat to Hayek's pre-Keynesian economic orthodoxy.  Thus enter Paul Volker in the late seventies and a new economic agenda that as summarized by Varoufakis, meant that: "To attract wave upon wave of capital from Europe, Japan and the oil producing nations, the US had to ensure that the returns to capital moving to New York were superior to capital moving into Frankfurt, Paris or Tokyo. This required a few prerequisites: A lower US inflation rate, lower US price volatility, relatively lower US energy costs and lower remuneration for American workers."

The seventies were a time of economic uncertainty and doubt. Right wing think tanks pounced on the failures of American Keynesianism. They articulated a libertarian celebration of the market in order to blunt demands of labor and the left. Nonetheless, in practice they were not above support or at least toleration of a series of bailouts of investment banks and special subsidies and privileges to well placed corporate enterprise, such as military and pharmaceutical giants.

Even the organized Left, both in the US and much of Western Europe, played its role in this transformation. Varoufakis argues that Left and Labor parties "saw the rivers of privately minted money that the financial sector was printing (while labour was squeezed and real estate prices soared) and thought they could harness some of it in order to pursue social democratic policies! ...Let finance free to do as it pleased and then tap into some of its proceeds to fund the welfare state. That was their game and, at the time, it seemed to them a better idea, more fathomable, than having to be constantly in conflict with industrialists, seeking to tax them in order to redistribute. In contrast, bankers were quite easy going. As long as the leftist politicians let them do as they pleased.... Alas, to be allowed that small portion  [t]hey had to shed their distrust for unfettered financial, labour and real estate markets And so, when in 2008 the tsunamis of capital produced by Wall Street, the City and Frankfurt crashed and burnt, Europe¹s Social Democratic side of politics did not have the mental tools, or moral values, with which to subject the collapsing system to critical scrutiny."

This transformation relied on more than economic discourse. Brown University political economist Mark Blyth has argued in The Great Transformations, "In moments of crises when agents are uncertain about their interests they resort to repertoires of action that resonate with their core identities."  Corporate inspired attacks on "big government" resonated with nationalist and fundamentalist attacks on liberalism for its purported support of the racial and life style minorities emerging politically in the late sixties and seventies. In subsequent years immigration has emerged as a hot button issue that encouraged vilification of another minority and thereby defused potential radical economic currents.

A More Egalitarian Future?

However discouraging this journey may seem, it does point up several zones of vulnerability in the current order. Progress is being made on the social issues. Immigration has added to the political resources progressives might be able to mobilize. Occupy Wall Street has raised issues of corporate power, capital mobility, and finance regulation in ways that might resonate with a majority.  The collapse of manufacturing firms, traumatic as it is, also gives opportunities for direct forms of worker control and ownership, especially in a climate where bailout of financial institutions has become common.

Other religious currents have raised issues of social justice, and dissenting currents even within fundamentalist theologies have expressed concerns about the future of God's Creation.  The philosophical and theological grounds on which future coalitions may grow are shifting and contested, but respectful debate among those committed to a more egalitarian and sustainable future can strengthen the resolve.

Along these lines, paradoxically the environmental crisis may offer some hope on the political economy front. The inability of unregulated markets to handle these complex issues is becoming apparent to more of us along with the need for a government planned and financed green agenda. There are ample resources and causes with and for which to organize. Perhaps Hayek's greatest contribution is the lesson of perseverance even in dark times.
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