Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

How Mixed Martial Arts Explain the World

Regular readers of Information Landmine could be forgiven for thinking that a certain correspondent from this blog would have been the first to explore and promote the idea that UFC, rather than soccer, best explains the forces and processes of globalization currently re-shaping the International Political Economy. However, American playwright David Mamet has, unlike so many hapless opponents in the ring, beaten him comprehensively to the punch.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

US Government arm-wrestles with itself. Loses.

Making my way through the Shock Doctrine, and s far it seems to be confirming my initial impressions: lots of good, revealing and indeed shocking journalism, but the attempt to tie it all together isn't really working for me.

Anyway, was interested to find this little "disaster capitalism" tid-bit via way of the Against Monopoly site. Apparently the US Army is so fed up of having private security companies lure away its troops that it's making new recruits sign "non-compete" agreements, stating that they won't just sod-off and work for Blackwater after they've completed basic training. That's a pretty damning indictment of privatized war from the people who brought it to you.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Selling England By The Pound

It seems that even national treasures of global historical importance are just a commodity these days.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More outsourced war...

Looks like Blackwater may finally be running into trouble. But I wouldn't hold your breath.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Yet more spy stuff

A short story by Cory Doctorow on Google, surveillance and the DHS. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It's A Not-So-Wonderful Life for Northern Rock

There is not much amusement to be had in any banking crisis, but one thing that's been borderline hilarious is the number of people in the media and, particularly, on online message boards who've jumped to make comparisons with It's A Wonderful Life and who, in particular, have compared Northern Rock CEO Adam Applegarth to the film's protagonist George Bailey (as played by the great Jimmy Stewart). I suspect most of that comes from the famous speech Bailey makes when there's a run on the Bedford Falls Savings & Loan and he has to try to reassure the institution's panicked customers that their money is safe even though it's not actually located in the branch's vault:

"Wait a minute, now, let me tell you. Let me tell you. Your money's in people's houses! In the Kennedy house, and the MacClaren house, and in your house, and a hundred others. You all put your savings in here and then we make loans to people to buy homes and cars and other things. Now, what are you going to do? Take their homes and cars and things from them?!"

It's a spurious comparison, not just because Adam Applegarth (like any modern CEO or high-flier) is no George Bailey but because the basic problem is that it's not the average customer's savings that are tied up in people's houses so much as it is the large corporate financiers' money that funded Northern Rock's lending and its associated rapid expansion as a business. And now it's public money via the Bank of England loan that is allowing Northern Rock the margin necessary to continue its basic operations.

I'm not sure what Frank Capra would have made of all that.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Into the abyss?

We grow nearer to the end of another decade and, yet again, a meltdown within the financial markets looms. The BBC's Robert Peston seems like one of the clearest commentators on the plunging fortunes (sic) of Northern Rock. With the Bank of England having to bail out the high-profile Newcastle-based bank, various Conservative and Lib Dem MP's have gone on record questioning the Labour government's use of taxpayers' money to bail out a private enterprise. A solid point of principle (for once) and yet, without such emergency funding, might a wider systemic failure be too extreme to contemplate in a climate where fear and panic are on the increase?

Capitalism will probably survive once again but, ironically, only because the much-maligned public sector will intervene and save all those rugged individualists and self-made titans of industry from their own faulty assumptions and arrogance-fuelled mistakes.

In another point of irony - and in the interests of full disclosure - your correspondent interviewed with Northern Rock earlier in the year for a Treasury position but was turned down. While disappointing at the time, it now looks like a godsend not to have ended up with a company that could soon join an infamous list in the history of finance and banking. There but for the grace of god and all that.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Triumph of the Swill

Further to the as-ever-outstanding insights of Uncle Petie below, it seems ironic given Reaganite/Thatcherite criticisms of the old Soviet Bloc that, due largely to the ideological foundations they set in place in the 1970s and '80s, we are now living in an era of totalitarian capitalism.

Why worry about the oppressive evils of Ingsoc when you've got Ingcon?

And speaking of Ingcon, we rather like this blog even though it apparently hasn't been updated for almost three years. Hopefully the proprietor hasn't been dragged off to one of Dubya's secret gulags, but one never knows these days.

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Free markets?

Seem to have a bit of a security industrial complex bee in my bonnet at the moment. Damn that Klein woman, I was worried enough about my dissertation. Anyway, fans of bitter irony may find this NYT article to their taste:

"Wall Street analysts now follow the growth of companies that install surveillance systems providing Chinese police stations with 24-hour video feeds from nearby Internet cafes. Hedge fund money from the United States has paid for the development of not just better video cameras, but face-recognition software and even newer behavior-recognition software designed to spot the beginnings of a street protest and notify police."

I particularly liked the Chinese defence of their growing businesses:

"Executives of Chinese surveillance companies say they are helping their government reduce street crime, preserve social stability and prevent terrorism. They note that London has a more sophisticated surveillance system, although the Chinese system will soon be far more extensive.

"Wall Street executives also defend the industry as necessary to keep the peace at a time of rapid change in China. They point out that New York has begun experimenting with surveillance cameras in Lower Manhattan and other areas of the city, and that corporations make broad use of surveillance cameras in places like convenience stores and automated teller machines."

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Shock Doctrine (cont.)

I've now ordered the book from amazon (get your copy here, if you fancy, £15 in advance, claims to be discounted from £25). I'll try and do a full review some time round October.

Also, with regards to the security-industrial-complex more generally, I stumbled across this on Balkinization the other day. Worth reading, because I think the trend applies equally to Europe.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

IPE Academics and Commentators Gone Wild

A bit of flippant fun for a change here at Information Landmine. In his latest post below, Uncle Petie mentions the newly glammed-up 2008 version of No Logo authoress Naomi Klein...

... but she's not the only serious female academic/commentator in the world of International Political Economy putting on the glam while also putting up the heavyweight intellectual arguments on globalization, as the example of the über-fashionable Noreena Hertz so clearly demonstrates:

As Howard Stern is wont to say: "HUBBA HUBBA!"

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Naomi Klein's new book...

The Guardian's promoting a very glammed-up Naomi Klein and her new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. What particularly caught my eye today, and what I'm very glad she's bringing some attention to, is her dissection of the supply-side push behind the war on terror. The War on Terror has become a feeding trough for selling shady IT wares to the government - everything from facial recognition and data mining software to specially commissioned Boeing 737s for purposes of extraordinary rendition. Because it's Naomi Klein, it's incredibly rich in the sort of human details and just-right images that make you want to keep reading. The idea of all the new spook technology start-ups on Capitol Hill looking like Silicon Valley during the bubble was a particularly nice image - US government as clueless venture capitalist, handing out money to any project, the more ludicrous the better. A small-pox detection scheme? Yeah, thanks, we'll have a couple.

It's here where she scores her really big points. The whole premise of the idea of the government contracting out its top-secret IT security needs to private business - that only they have the expertise to deal with this sort of thing - is obviously fundamentally flawed. As she points out: "contractors have a powerful economic incentive to produce whatever techniques are necessary to produce the sought-after information, regardless of reliability." Apart from it's being tragic, it would actually be funny: "Oh well, I don't know much about data mining, but I'm in the market to lock up some suspicious looking types without trial, and that system you're selling does sound good! How will I know if it works? Oh, you'll tell me! Super! Anyone else who actually knows anything going to be able to have a look! No? Fair enough, who should I make the multi-billion dollar cheque out to?"

These are important issues and I'm looking forward to reading the book. Klein's has one of the most readable styles of journalism around. What I'm slightly worried about is how it's going to fit into the general thrust of the book. As she explains in the first article, the big idea is that serious free market reforms are always piggy-backed onto disasters that leave the population in a state of shock - far from being the harmonious process you'd normally expect, free-market capitalism relies mainly on trauma to establish itself:

"The bottom line is that, for economic shock therapy to be applied without restraint, some sort of additional collective trauma has always been required. Friedman's economic model is capable of being partially imposed under democracy - the US under Reagan being the best example - but for the vision to be implemented in its complete form, authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian conditions are required."

It's a nicely formulated proposition, and in that guise it's obviously true. For all the talk about decentralization, free-market restrucuring is often a very top-down kind of process - think strucutural adjustment. My worry is that she may end up pushing it too far - from the looks of the extract she's gunning to set up some deep and theoretically satisfying link between free market capitalism and trauma:

"This desire for godlike powers of creation is precisely why free-market ideologues are so drawn to crises and disasters. Non-apocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions. For 35 years, what has animated Friedman's counter-revolution is an attraction to a kind of freedom available only in times of cataclysmic change - when people, with their stubborn habits and insistent demands, are blasted out of the way - moments when democracy seems a practical impossibility. Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture - a flood, a war, a terrorist attack - can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world."

OK, nice prose and everything, but at this point I may have to respectfully depart the bandwagon. Seems to me that political opportunists have always used disasters to push through their reforms - of late it's been the rabid free-marketeers, but it wasn't always thus. As she points out: "John Maynard Keynes proposed [a] mixed, regulated economy after the Great Depression. It was that system of compromises, checks and balances that Friedman's counter-revolution was launched to dismantle in country after country." If I'm not mistaken, that's two examples of people imposing their economic visions after a disaster. The Keynesian one may be preferable for those of us who aren't holding Halliburton stock, but lets be fair here, it's not like Milton Friedman (or, for that matter John Maynard Keynes) was the first guy to come up with the idea of reshuffling the pieces after they've been messed up.*

I also can't see Friedman being anything other than appalled at the post 9/11 style of conducting national surveillance. Say what you like about libertarians, they aren't much into approving huge spending for governments to spy on their own people. Take a look at the presidential primaries. The guy who's been putting issues like surveillance, the corporate domination of the war on terror and the expansion of executive privilege most firmly on the agenda is Ron Paul, and he's nothing if not free market.

This might seem like a small quibble (it's not like Milton Friedman's memory is short of influential folks who are prepared to be much more than fair), but I think it's an important one. While I love it dearly, my feeling has always been that No Logo pushed its argument a little too hard and allowed itself to be dismissed as a hyperbolic rant, when in fact it was very directly keyed in to some of the more important trends of its time. Sadly, it picked up the dreaded "anti-gloabalization" moniker and everyone decided that it was all just a craze by a bunch of kids who didn't really understand anything about how the world worked. I'd rather the same thing didn't happen here, because, once again, this is really rather important.

* And don't go thinking that the Great Depression doesn't count because it was a failure of free market capitalism. There were any number of sagacious looking folk around saying that it was all because of government regulation. They just lost that time.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

A passive anti-capitalist revolution

Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in The Nation, describes how the proletariat is finally threatening to smash capitalism but not exactly in the manner that Uncle Karl envisaged. Good reading!

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Rather spiffing blog...

While ostensibly writing my dissertation, I stumbled across the most excellent IPEzone blog. Lots of global political economic goodness on everything from Microsoft's push into open document formats to the Aussie opposition leader speaking Mandarin. Enjoy!

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