Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

Comment, Comics and the Contrary. Contact: aj_bartlett1977*at*yahoo*dot*co*dot*uk
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Monday, January 31, 2005


Righting wrongs begins at home

I have written before [here] on the harmful, corrupting effect the actions that Western nations can have on the possibility of progress towards a prosperous, peaceful, democratic Africa. This argument centred on the regressive impact of government support for the arms trade, in particular, but not limited to, the accepted manner in which companies pursue contracts. In short, bribery, which cannot help but play a role in the levels of corruption and kelptocracy in developing nations. If we add in the effect of increased arms levels on internal security situations and external regional relations, we can quickly see how the Western arms trade is a blight on developing nations.

I have been unfortunate enough to be exposed to people who argue that the ‘democratic revolution’* of Afghanistan and Iraq must now sweep through Africa. But this, frankly sickening, and dangerous, piece of neo-imperialist thinking reminded me of an edition of The Daily Politics I watched a few weeks ago. On this, Andrew Neil and his guests were discussing the problem of Africa, and the consensus seemed to be that Africa’s corrupt leaders were the obstacle to development, peace and freedom. What was to be done about this was not agreed, though none seemed to go so far as to suggest violent, bloody, regime change from without. Some commentators did appear to use this situation as a justification for decreasing the amount Western nations give in foreign aid, a hopelessy ahumanitarian non-solution.

However, one guest on the show, the only African guest on the show, pointed out that for every kleptocratic ruler, there were banks, bankers, traders, dealers and the like who enabled his kleptomania. Many of these will be located in the City of London. If we, in the West, are seriously concerned about the effect that Africa’s corrupt leaders have on the welfare of their people, we should start with their ‘fences’, the people who are within what is our democratic remit to regulate.

This suggestion was met with scoffing laughs from Andrew Neil and his guests. ‘As if!’ was the tone of their comments. In other words, capital is not to be questioned, certainly not when it has been accumulated by men with white skin in the City from the robbery of the poor people with black skin in Africa. Rather, we shall pass the blame that our nation bears onto a handful of individuals, and if these too have black skin, then all the better. We must personalise the problem, because if we see it as a product of a system or structures we will be forced to change what has served us so well. At the expense of others.

How do we reform regimes in Africa? Do we invade and enforce democracy and responsible government from without? That is a costly, destructive solution, and is morally and theoretically dubious. Do we cancel foreign aid in some primitive and ahumane expectation that forces of social Darwinism will bring about change through hardship? Or do we at least begin with restricting and reforming the aspects of our societies, upon which it is undeniably legitimate to act, which enable the regimes that are so criticised by Western governments to exists and prosper?

Only the last option is off the table, it seems.

*The idea that these invasions have been part of a ‘democratic revolution’ is laughable. Democracy must be the action of the people themselves. Other actions can enable this, it is true, but if these actions were not intended to enable democracy then they can claim the title ‘democratic revolution’ little more than the Black Death of the 14th Century can claim to be the ‘illness of emancipation’.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Empirical Majesty – a new, but irregular, series

This blog has concentrated quite heavily on politics for the past few weeks. This is meant to be a ‘bizarre bazaar’, conceived as a collection of short pieces on politics, popular culture, science, a site to host my small-press comics on the web and a place to give air some of my semi-academic writings. So, in the interest of diversity, here we begin a new, comic series.

Art is provided by Eleonora Kortsarz, an Argentinean artist who can be contacted at elioh7*at*yahoo*dot*com*dot*ar. Earlier examples of her work can be found here: La Extraña Noche Del Sr. Valdemar, and here: El Niño Que Fue Dios. Both of these are in Spanish, and as I speak, read and understand no foreign languages – to my great discredit – I cannot vouch for these strips.

I think it would be apt if we began with a scene setting trailer, akin the pieces that are found on the back of commercial books that go by the ugly name of ‘blurbs’.

The world is on the cusp of the 20th Century, but modernity is already upon us. The Scientific Revolution of 18th century Britain was taken literally. The old social and political order was overthrown following a brief, technologically unbalanced civil war in which the Armies of Reason deployed the technological marvels of poison gas, air power and mobile fortresses. Mad King George III, condemned for his irrationality, fled to the New World, where the Hanoverian States of America are established, governed as we open the story by his opium addled granddaughter, Queen Victoria. The technocratic councils that govern Britain give free rein to the power of the thinkers, building an open, progressive and globally powerful nation. However, the appearances of freedom may be a veneer hiding a more sinister means of control.

The turn of the 20th Century is a time when empires abut, jostling for position and power. In Europe the Prussians challenge the supremacy of Britain, while across the Atlantic the House of Hanover schemes to regain their Old World throne. Faced with these threats, and possessed by a desire to avoid open, destructive conflict, Britain turns to its Covert Diplomacy Corps to gather intelligence and defuse any crises. One of foremost CDC agents is Kelvin Vijay Brooke, Professor of Ethology at Empirical College of Science and Technology, London. We enter his story at a period of uneasy peace between the powers.

This chapter, and subsequent chapters, will be available in hardcopy. The cover price will be as low as possible, but for the small audience of this blog I think I might be able to stretch to complimentary copies. I couldn’t ask people to pay for what they have already read. Contact me at the e-mail address in the blog header if you want to be added to ‘the list’.

Chapter One, Part One:

Previous fiction work that has appeared on this blog can be found here: Heresy - the History of Alberto Comma, Games, Guilt Trip, Rogue Trooper – Witnesses of War (fan fiction), The Song of Wayland (Bristol Comic Festival 2004 preview pages), The Unbeatable Man, and A Complete Revolution. My writing may be of poor to patchy quality, but please check these out and leave comments.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Meddling in Latin American politics

Now, many take the practice of influencing democracy in the Western Hemisphere to be the historical prerogative of the United States. Indeed, so wide is their mandate over the political shape of their extended fiefdom of the Americas in toto that action has not been limited to influencing democracy, but subverting or quashing the very political system that the United States holds to be morally superior. However, President Bush and the more public relations attuned announcements of the neo-conservative movement would have us believe that the spread of democracy was the God-given mission of the United States. Destiny, even.

It seems, therefore, that when the many times elected leader of a democratic country offers funding to democratic political organisations abroad we should regard such actions as admirable. However, if this is a many times elected leader of a democratic country who has had to fight off a United States supported coup and United States funded upper- and business-class organised turmoil, then the correct attitude from the Divine Home of Freedom, the Shining City on the Hill, is condemnation. Not because of concerns over democracy, as the Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution is radically democratic and participatory. No, rather because of concerns about freedom, considered almost entirely in terms of freedom of economic action. So long as that economic action is not redistributive or an extension of industrial democracy.

James Hill, the former head of the US army’s southern command, which oversees military operations in Latin America*, is reported as saying that “it is quite proven that he gave money to Evo Morales... and continues to do so.” This, apparently, is cause for serious concern in the current US administration, with Condoleeza Rice describing Chávez’s foreign policy as ‘troubling’. While both Morales and Chávez deny the link in terms of funding, acknowledging only ideological inspiration, I fail to see how even if the funding does exist this is any different from US support for Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia or Viktor Yuschenko in Ukraine. Indeed, given the relatively paltry financial and organisational support that Chávez could possibly provide, when compared to that the US could deploy, it can be argued that Chávez’s ‘meddling’ in the democracy of another nation is less damaging to democracy than the standard American intervention.

Nevertheless, condemned he is. And why? Well, it could be that, as he is brown-skinned and a non-English speaker, he cannot be trusted. It could be a new doctrine in American foreign policy; we support work towards democracy in all nations, but if you are a dago you cannot be trusted with the task. But no, it is not that. It is simply economics. Chávez practices redistributive economics, with the aim of allowing all Venezuelans to share in the nations wealth. No doubt Morales would too. This, while strengthening the hold of democracy, is incompatible with American aims for economic and cultural dominance. So we are back to Kissenger, who said, in his support of the murderous Pinochet: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

*Consider for a moment, that the Brazilian military had an analogous ‘northern command’, which defined its theatre of operations as North America, and whose general commented on American politics. Add in a history of Brazilian funding for American paramilitaries, and… oh, you get the picture. Americans would regard it as the most terrible thing ever, but their lack of reflexivity prevents even a modicum of self-examination, analysis and criticism.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Removing the shackles on democracy

David Aaronovitch, writing in the Observer today, quotes admiringly from an interview with Paul Wolfowitz, in which the Deputy Secretary of Defense speaks of ‘removing the shackles on democracy’. This, to me, betrays the fact that the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) holds a conception of democracy of startling poverty.

Democracy cannot be simply unshackled. It is not a state of government that is held down by tyrants and will spring, as a force of nature, from the ashes of a dictatorship. Democracy is not simply synonymous with a vote in a society relatively unbound by laws. These are negative visions of democracy, that chime with the negative vision of freedom held to by the right. These visions of democracy are incompatible with the idea that democracy is the highest form of government. If this is to be the case, then, as with anything else of beauty that is the result of human production, there must be constant labour to preserve this state of affairs.

Democracy is the participation of people in their government. An electoral system is the first step, but other requirements include such factors are the relatively equitable distribution of economic and cultural power across the nation and within society. When this is not the case, the agenda upon which the electorate cast their votes is at the mercy of those without the power. In this case, the vote does not produce democracy, but only a brake on oligarchy.

The maintenance of this balance of power within society is not produced by unshackling, but by conscious, directed efforts to build and defend the social machinery that allows this state of affairs to exists. Unshackling simply hands government to those with crude powers, and whether these are derived from violent, wealth or aristocratic mechanism, is merely a diversion from the point, that being, these governments are less democratic than might be the case.

Democracy is not simply human freedom, extended to its negative extremes. Democracy imposes a duty on all citizens, as each person who does not participate in their government, who does not take an active, informed part in the debates that shape electoral agendas, reduces the democratic legitimacy of the government produced. This is not just a cost to them, but one borne by the rest of society as democracy is allowed to erode. Of course, democracy can be damaged by more than simple negligence on the part of the citizens, as both the machinery of persuasion and debate and the powers of wealth are gathered together into fewer and fewer hands, each alike in interests and outlook. Secrets and lies, much the same thing, alongside misleading and disingenuous argument, damage democracy by damaging the debate. Simply removing the shackles on people does not produce democracy, despite the boost such an action gives to a hypothetical index of negative freedom.

Wolfowitz, and PNAC, know this. But their agenda has never been about spreading democracy, except in a conception stripped of all positive meaning. Rather, it is about the spreading of economic liberalism, a model of societal organisation positively damaging to government by the people, as it restricts any attempt to distribute power in the service of democracy as being against freedom. When Bush, in his inauguration speech, warned ‘governments of control’ that he aimed to force change upon them, this was not aimed at dictatorships, who had been comprehensively swept from the face of the planet by this point of the speech. No, rather, this was aimed at governments who seek to manage economies and regulate media, despite the necessity of these restrictions on absolute freedom in the task of producing democracy that is worthy of the label.

Democracy, for PNAC, is a handy cover, a legitimising label for economically liberal governments. Supporting men like Pinochet no longer cuts it, no matter how successful such brutal men have been in making the nations they rule ‘good places to do business’. Such men are easy to argue against, and their legitimacy can be torn away by arguments that are brief, both communicable and understandable by those without significant power or education. Torture and murder are wrong, and these are the actions of government under Pinochet. Rather, in promoting the idea that democracy involves the removing of shackles without describing the painstaking erection of positive structures of democracy, PNAC propagate a vision of democracy stripped of power and emptied of participation. With this, PNAC can give a legitimacy to government by, in effect, capital and those who control it. This legitimacy that is difficult to challenge in the soundbite political and media culture of slick advertisements, rather than manifestos, analyses and treatises, that plays no small part in corrupting the state of democracy the world around. Borrowing the phrase of PNAC member Francis Fukuyama, I believe that the neo-liberal project seeks the ‘end of history’, the unchallengeable rule of capital keeping all the levers of power at its disposal.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Deliberate killing - a brief thoughtpiece

Do not pretend that civilian casualties in war are not deliberate. Western militaries spend much energy on calculating the probable civilian deaths as a result of their actions. To then proceed with these actions is to say, ‘the lives of these people are expendable in the pursuit of our political goal’. To argue otherwise is to argue that Western militaries are negligent, or otherwise managed by morons. That is not to say these actions are automatically immoral, but it is to say that the civilians sacrificed by Western militaries in the pursuit of a political end are not, in themselves, in a different moral category to the civilians sacrificed by terrorists or insurgents in the pursuit of their political end. What are different, and what the morality or immorality of these actions is derived from, are [1] the political ends themselves and [2] the scale of human sacrifice involved in the pursuit of these aims.


War is not the default

As a short addendum to my comments below, regarding the consequences and responsibilities of speech in terms of actions and events on the ground in Iraq, I would like to draw out a significant difference between holding a pro-Iraq-war position and being anti-Iraq-war.

It is true that one can hold many motivations for being pro-war, as one can hold many reasons for being anti-war. The war could have supported out of patriotism, as part of the war on terror, as means of increasing American power in the region, as a humanitarian intervention, etc. The war could be opposed from a position of support for the Ba’athist regime, out of isolationism, out of a belief that the human destruction involved in war outweighs the humanitarian benefit, out of opposition to an increase in American power, etc.

Those who are anti-war are often accused of being ‘objectively pro-Saddam’. If this is the case, then it is also the case that those who are pro-war are ‘objectively’ in favour of all the consequences of this war. At first glance it appears that it is the case that either both are true, or neither is, and for the sake of productive argument it is better to hold the position that neither of these ‘objective’ truths have any value. However, despite the dominance of the anti-war is objectively pro-Saddam argument, it is more reasonable to argue that pro-war support for the consequences of this war. This is because there is a categorical difference between supporting a particular action and a particular path of history, and opposing that action, leaving a variety of alternate futures.

Those who support the war for reasons that are not the motivations of the prosecutors of this war must face the fact that the prosecutors of this war hold the power to shape the war according to their wishes, and any reshaping of Iraqi society will take place in similar accordance. Support for the war and subsequent occupation is not support for a future except that determined by those who hold the power over, and agitated for, this war. This is the future that is unfolding now, a future of civil chaos, human destruction and no progress, even retreat from, towards rapprochement between the Muslim world and the West.

Opponents of the war need not be pro-Saddam, as war is not the only anti-Saddam measure that could be taken by our governments. Supporters of the war often shout, ‘but what would you do?’ This challenge assumes that war is the default option in international affairs, only prevented by a comprehensive anti-war plan is presented. If war is the default option, then the responsibility for producing this plan would fall on governments as part of their duty to protect their citizens and behave in a humane and decent manner towards citizens of other nations. However, any decent person neither seeks a world of war as default, nor believes that such a world is the case, that war does not erupt between all nations simply through the relentless presentation of anti-war plans. The onus on planning must always lie with the agitators for war, and these plans must be meticulously worked, foolproof even. The facts of the war in Iraq suggests that the war plans were not as meticulous as required*, yet these arguments still prevailed. This suggests two things. First, that all other things being equal, the anti-war campaigners should not have been asked to present a water-tight plan that would produce a democratic and free Iraq, only a suggestion of one that, if necessary, could have demanded huge government expense and accepted a high level of human sacrifice. Such a plan would equal any Special Plan coming from Rumsfeld’s office. Second, that this US administration regards war as its principle and default diplomatic stance, or at the very least, treats such a devastating state of affairs as something morally unexceptional. And support for a war run by these people is support for an increase in the power of these people, something that no humanitarian should engage in.

*Again, this either suggests incompetence, which should involve resignation or sacking, or a level of negligence that has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands, an act that is the greatest argument against claims that this is a humanitarian war.


By any means necessary?

The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) has been accused of releasing a statement that contains the phrase ‘by whatever means they find necessary’. Members of the pro-war left, such a Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and the bloggers at Harry’s Place have argued that this statement is unambiguous support for the atrocities being committed in Iraq, a point of view that has coalesced into a campaign by Labour Friends of Iraq (LFoI) against the StWC. To place the phrasing in a historical context, it has been pointed out that the wording evokes several statements by Malcolm X along the line of this; ‘to use any means necessary to bring about his freedom or put a halt to that injustice’. Defenders of the StWC have argued that this phrasing was only included in an e-mail to StWC supporters and was edited out of the final, publicly issued, statement. Regardless, they argue, ‘by any means they find necessary’ does not equal the murder of trade unionists and other civilians. Posts making this case can be found at Lenin’s Tomb and Dead Men Left.

I would like to take a different tack with this determined assault on the StWC in particular and the anti-war left in particular. Accusations of being ‘objectively pro-fascist/Saddam’ are not new to people on the anti-war left. I argue that, whatever the truth of the story behind this particular phrase, for this to be the basis of an argument that persuades a person to support the war in and occupation of Iraq where they did not before requires that person to be, at the very least, a simpleton.

Why? Well, there is the question of what responsibility the producers of speech have for subsequent actions and events. I am not from the irrational school of that attempts to argue that ‘speech has no consequence’*, yet I do not believe that a statement e-mailed to StWC supporters can possibly have had a significant effect on the state of affairs on the ground in Iraq, except perhaps through changing the political debate in British politics first, which is then followed by a consequent change in the stance of British authority in Iraq. Of course, this simple truth has not prevented members of the pro-war left from arguing that the death of Hadi Saleh is a direct consequence of the position taken by the StWC.

On the other hand, statements by holders of political and military authority in Coalition nations do have an immediate effect on the state of affairs on the ground in Iraq. Whenever a member of the American administration or military authority (or indeed, their proxies in Iraq) delivers an ‘inappropriate’ speech, or writes ‘dubious’ memos, the pro-war left appear to be able to accept this as a necessary part of their fight against global tyranny, despite the fact that these words do have a direct effect on the scale of human destruction in Iraq. Furthermore, unlike Iraqi insurgents, the holders of this political and military authority in the Coalition are linked (theoretically) by democratic mechanisms to the pro-war left.

The statements by the holders of political and military authority are however, of a different category to statements by the StWC. Uncharitably, we might consider their relationship to the insurgents more akin to pro-war right, which produces such lunacy as ‘nuke fallujah’. Statements such as these are dismissed by the pro-war left as being of little or no consequence on the conduct of these people’s own government. Of course, in fact these statements are more closely tethered to the actions of the Coalition that the statements of the StWC possibly can be to the actions of Iraqi insurgents. But double standards apply. A statement by the StWC is held to change the reality in Iraq while columns in the right-wing US press are disregarded.

The argument of the pro-war right, if limited to being an argument for leaving the StWC, might hold water. But recognition must be made that the StWC is just that, a coalition, and as such is, or ought to be a place for debate. Complaining that it is a front for the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) tell us more about the problems of progressive politics in Britain than it does about the morality of opposing the war in Iraq. It is a terrible shame that a movement supported by millions of people could not find the organising expertise from within a larger, perhaps more representative organisations. If anything, the StWC vouches for the continuing value of the CPB and the SWP, as organisations capable of sustained campaigning effort, whether fighting racism, unfettered capitalism, or war. But if we must concede that the comment that appeared in the statement sent by e-mail to supporters of the StWC should force people to abandon the organised anti-war movement. In that case, statements of undoubtably greater horror, and indisputably of greater consequences for the state of affairs in Iraq, should compel all those on the pro-war left to abandon the Occupying Coalition. They should be bound to expose the Coalition as far greater practitioners of human destruction than the StWC could be in even the worst nightmares of the pro-war left.

One justification for the war in Iraq was set out by right-wing commentators in an attempt to tie an invasion of WMDless Iraq into the wider war on terror. This was the honeypot justification, which argued that an invasion of Iraq would act as a magnet to ‘jihadists’ from across the world, producing a non-US, but US-controlled, battlezone where jihadists could be killed en masse without the concerns that would bind the hands of their forces either at home or in independent states abroad. This would, it was argued, be the best protection that American citizens could hope to have from terror. Of course, the cost to the Iraqi people of this strategy, both at the hands of the US military and at the hands of the jihadists, remains unsaid in these justifications. Only Americans are people for these commentators, Iraqis and others are unpeople.

The Coalition might not be immediately responsible for the individual acts of terror and repression taking place within Iraq and carried out by Iraqis. But the Coalition is responsible for creating the conditions that allow this to occur. If the leaders of the Coalition could not foresee this, they are simpletons who deserve to be thrown out of office. If they could, they are wicked men who deserve to be thrown into jail.

*A position often held by those that will also claim that ‘unrestricted free speech is the greatest right’. It is difficult to understand how one could hold the apparently contradictory ideology that the greatest right is one with no consequences for society, but it can be explained by understanding that such defenders of free speech are more concerned with culture as a profitable commodity then culture as a means of democratic action. On the other hand, this argument is also but forward by disingenuous racists.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


The expertise of John Negroponte

I have commented on several occasions (see here) on the appointment of John Negroponte to the position of US Ambassador to Iraq, an appointment that, at the very least sends an appalling message on the priority of human rights in the Bush imagination, and at the very worst, augers ill for the for the future of human rights in Iraq.

Unfortunately, it appears that Negroponte might be more than just a public relations error – though the silence that surrounded his appointment damns the pro-war humanitarians – as Newsweek reports that US military planners contemplate the adoption of the ‘El Salvador’ model in Iraq. Death squads, in other words.

Ann Clwyd – and the pro-war left – should have learned the lesson that Saddam, amongst others, taught the USA. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Saddam, despite the guilt-by-association attacks of those who favoured war, is not my friend. But neither are a gang of old-style Cold Warriors who have spent the past 30 years demonstrating their contempt for the values of human rights, dignity and decency, allied to the new blood of Christian fundamentalists and the backed by the ahuman hand of self-interested big capital.

Thanks to Lenin’s Tomb for the link, who has posted commentary, including discussion of the brutality of the original ‘El Salvador’ model.

Friday, January 07, 2005


Blame the nurses – it is easy and so convenient

I have been unsettled by the superbug (of which MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – is one) comment and coverage that seems to be the standard in the UK media. The average article, whether written by Claire Rayner or the Medical Correspondent of the Daily Mail, points the finger of blame at dirty hospitals and lazy, too-well-educated, above-their station nurses. These articles represent a blinkered, possibly ignorant, possibly misleading understanding of the phenomenon of antibiotic resistant superbugs, one that all-too-conveniently places the burden of blame on low-paid, hard-worked and politically impotent public servants.

Of course, hygiene in hospitals is important is restricting the spread of infections. However, action to provide cleaner hospital environments ought to be more about bringing cleaning workers into NHS employment, rather than contracting out to companies which offer low-pay and no security. Efficient? In the short term. But you cannot, and ought not, demand loyalty and hard work from people for who the whole character of your relationship with them is that of a continual squeeze on their standard of living. If management hold to some small, simple-minded definition of efficiency – maximising the work/pay ratio – as their guiding principle, then any sensible worker will adopt the same philosophy, and push the ratio in their favour. That is the only real ‘work ethic’ in an unashamedly capitalist environment.

But this is not the thrust of my argument against the standard coverage of superbug cases. No, rather it is the concept communicated by many of these articles, that dirty hospitals cause superbugs, which is patent nonsense. Dirty hospitals may be a source of infection, but the superbug aspect of the story, the part of the story that captures the public imagination, and fears, is not a result of hospital uncleanliness. Finding MRSA in a hospital is not a measure of its cleanliness, but stories that intimate this are a measure of the news source’s ignorance or agenda to mislead.

In fact, and unclean hospital would produce an evolutionary environment with a set of pressures contrary to the evolution of superbugs – a group of bacteria bound by their resistance to commonly-used antibiotics. No, the antibiotic resistance is the result of unrestrained and inappropriate use of antibiotics, and that alone. It is not the fault of nurses, nor is it the fault of poorly paid cleaners. Dirty hospitals, by themselves, might create an environment for infection. Infection which, in most cases, could be managed by modern health care, were it not for…

Were it not for; firstly, and most obviously, the overprescription of antibiotics to treat trivial bacterial infections – and sometimes, entirely inappropriately, non-bacterial illnesses – by doctors; and secondly, much less well known, the routine use of massive doses of antibiotics in cattle farming in the developed world. According to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, about half of the antibiotics produced in the US are destined for use in cattle. In fact, the actual amount, though startling, is of less concern than the manner of prescription. Cattle are fed antibiotics for prolonged periods of time, effectively turning them into bio-incubators or antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The first cause of antibiotic resistance is understandable and forgivable, particularly in ‘health care as a consumer commodity’ regimes such as the US, where patient/customer pressure for prescription is a driver towards antibiotic overuse, but also in ‘health care as a public right’ regimes. The pressure on doctors to treat the individuals in their surgeries is a pressure that clouds their view of the bigger picture, and rightly so. As a result, the response to overprescription must be led from the top, with regulation rather than guidelines. In this, nationalised health care is able to institute the measures required to maintain the effectiveness of antibiotics far easier than a dispersed, privatised system. The former only requires a management edict. The latter requires legislation, a procedure that would be difficult to implement given the political clout of pharmaceutical manufacturers. Economically speaking, antibiotic resistance is a blessing to the industry, as it periodically produces new markets for patent protected, and therefore highly profitable, drugs. In the long term, and perhaps not so long term, as the number of targets for antibiotics is exhausted, this will be a disastrous strategy for humanity, sending us tumbling back to a health care situation equivalent to that of the 19th century. The surgical procedures developed over the past century will be relegated to memories of a golden age, outside, perhaps, super-sterile hospitals for the super-rich.

Our response to this dystopian, dysterile, septic future should begin with eliminating the second, absurd cause of antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately, while the EU might regulate the use of antibiotics in European cattle farming, this problem cannot be contained within a country, a continent, or a trading bloc. The global cattle market, including the heavy antibiotic users in the US industry, must be bound, internally by regulation, or externally by trade pressure, to a restriction in antibiotic use outside of the immediate and necessary causes of human health. Further, of course, we could enact a ban on the currently fashionable antibacterial products we are encouraged to routine in routine household and personal hygiene.

Of course, opinion pieces acknowledging that the real cause of both MRSA and other superbugs, resulting in what can be sensibly described as a serious, but avoidable, threat to modern standards of health care, is not a bunch of lazy nurses and underpaid cleaners, but the reckless pursuit of profit on the part of pharmaceutical (and other) companies, are opinion pieces that demand the public identify a more powerful, and less acceptably identified, enemy to human welfare, the structure of profit production.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Credit where it’s due – but let us learn the right lesson

I have not posted on the Asian tsunami disaster; there really was nothing that I could sensibly add and no reader is likely to be unaware of the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, it has not taken long for the relief efforts have become overtly politicised, with Gordon Brown proposing to suspend debt repayments from the affected countries, Jan Egeland (UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs) describing the initial response of America (and other rich western nations) ‘stingy’, Jeb Bush beginning his 2008 Presidential campaign and gung-ho American commentators embracing, even celebrating the effect of the American response. No, not that it will save lives and rebuild communities, but that it will undermine the UN, the Great Satan*. With this tsunami diplomacy, comment becomes appropriate.

But credit where it is due; the US military has performed in a humanitarian role and it is likely that these actions, particularly the immediacy of these actions, will have saved many lives and alleviated much suffering.

Be wary, however, of descriptions of that categorise the cost of the US military actions as part of the total aid provision. They are not. The running costs of the two naval battle groups deployed to help in Sumatra are just that: running costs, and as such are costs that are incurred whether the battle groups are sailing in circles or performing humanitarian relief operations. The US Navy is not a commercial organisation; the sailors involved in the relief operations are not foregoing profit making activities. The cost of deploying these two battle groups to Aceh is not very much different to the costs of having them perform their planned exercises, with the benefit of exposing their personnel to a real, but low-risk training environment, winning friends in the Islamic and wider world, and very possibly gaining access to and suppressing a militant Islamic group. Colin Powell has linked the aid to fighting terrorism. In Aceh, efforts to “dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity” might well mean aiding the Indonesian military in their operations against separatist rebels, who are already accusing the Indonesian government of using the disaster as cover for renewed military and security operations. I wonder if the costs of this support is included in the public boasts of aid packages.

When I question the need for such a large military – whether here in Britain or in the US, many people present examples of the humanitarian work that the military performs. Indeed, the recent recruiting campaigns for the British military have placed an emphasis on this aspect of the armed services. The example of the US Navy in Sumatra will be used to bolster this defence of militarisation. But it should not.

These tasks could be performed by an ‘army’ of what we might call civil or, forgive me, social engineers. This army would not need to be armed, and would not need to inculturate its members into an undemocratic psychology of faith in authority or an anti-humanitarian mindset of nationalism. The training in these brigades could be concentrated on the acquisition of the sorts of skills and knowledges that are required to rebuild communities. There would still be a role for the military, of course, a necessary evil, but there is no need to use the argument of humanitarian disaster response to justify the maintenance of large standing armies. Rather, it should demonstrate the need, even the obligation, for the rich nations to build demilitarised forces of humanitarian action.

*According the best-selling ‘Left Behind’ series of books – a cornerstone of Christian conservative popular culture.


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