Friday, 26 December 2014

EVENTS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD IN 2014




What are the most significant events of 2014 that are likely to remain dominant in the next few years or have a lasting impact for the next few decades? According to the mass media in most Western countries, the personal lives of the rich and famous, the newest millionaires and billionaires, and the “shocking-value” headlines from natural disasters to crime are the focus of the significant stories of 2014. However, those are intended for emotional mass consumption and manipulation with the intent of distracting people from issues that matter in their lives. 

The most significant developments of 2014 revolve around the theme of humanity’s edification and/or detriment. Needless to say, technological and scientific innovations, especially in the field of medicine and medical technology, rank among the most significant because of the direct impact on human health and wellness.

Stem cell research, especially as it pertains to lung and brain, rank among the very top.  Continued improvements on smart devices and cloud technology will revolutionize everything from the way business is conducted to how people communicate in the future. These are indeed very important developments but in the last analysis they simply add to the existing technological and scientific realm, with a special focus on their profitability potential rather than benefits to humanity.

Endless showbiz/celebrity stories that make the cover of magazines with the sole purpose of dummying down the mass reader even more are hardly worthy of mention, even if they involve the personal lives of very influential wealthy individuals or politicians. Then there are the equally endless stories about millionaires and billionaires becoming even richer because they are simply “smarter” and “better” investors than the average middle class person working a 9 to 5 shift in the office.

In fact, there are TV shows, wed sites, newspapers, magazines, and books devoted solely to the “successful business person” as the modern day hero of our times. No longer is the scientist, the poet, the artist, the schoolteacher, or the short-order cook society’s hero unless there is a corporate label behind them. The mass media and the entire institutional structure celebrate the Wall Street broker and the billionaire with offshore accounts.

Indeed, this eulogy of the hero-billionaire ought to make a top ten news story every year but only if placed in the balanced perspective. Wealth concentration undermines the social fabric, the political system of a pluralistic society and the capitalist economy that cannot possibly rest on strong foundations unless there is a broad middle class and well-paid working class to support the superstructure.  Finally, in this brief essay, the focus will not be on inane trends of 2014, such as the “ice bucket self-dumping” by the rich and famous to show that they too have a human aspect just like the ordinary person. The focus here is on developments that actually have an impact on the lives on billions of people around the world in the next few years and in some cases for the next few decades, if not for the rest of the century.  


China: the world’s number one economic power.
On a broader scope, China officially replacing the US as the world’s number one economy is one of the developments that will change the world.  Many analysts, politicians, governments, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been predicting that at some point China would become the world’s number one economy. The estimates of when it would place varied, but no one seriously believed that the US would fall into second place behind China in 2014. That the US and China traded place much earlier than many had been predicting is not significant  in terms of world trade and international trade and investment relationships. Symbolically, however, this is significant because it confirms without any doubt the continued erosion of US economic power and with it the psychological impact politically.

China has continued strengthening its economic power with the goal of even greater global economic presence, using its influence to stabilize the world arena so it can integrate as much of it under its aegis as possible. At the same time, the US continued the policy of heavy reliance on military solutions and covert intervention with the goal of destabilizing various parts of the world from the Middle East and Ukraine to Latin America. Ameliorating with Cuba was the significant exception, although that too was a calculated move intended to deprive Russia of a standing ally in the Western Hemisphere.

China is not benefiting from the persistent EU recession, despite efforts to strengthen trade with the Europeans. Just as the EU economy was about to bounce back after four years of formal austerity imposed in a number of countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus) and informal for the rest of EU, the US comes along with sanctions on the Russian economy that hurt as much the EU as they do Russia. At this point, China cannot permit Russia to fall victim to Western sanctions. While the US demands that EU “make the sacrifice” for the long term benefits of securing greater market share in former Soviet republics, China fills the gap that sanctions create. Ultimately, China is the beneficiary of the conflict between Russia and the West, because China risks nothing and incurs no military expenses while continuing to expand market share in both East and West. 

 ISIS rattled NATO and its regional Middle East allies.
There were many significant developments in the Middle East in 2014, including Israel’s war crimes in the Gaza strip where hundreds of women and children became victims to Israeli firepower. Besides the ephemeral Israeli aggression on the Palestinians, the biggest story to come out of the Middle East in 2014 was the rapid pace with which the jihadist Islamic State (ISIL) established a strong foothold in Syria and Iraq and threatened the Kurdish minority population in the process.  One would think that the US learned its lesson from the experience of the 1980s when it was assisting Osama Bin Laden’s jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviets helping the only secular regime Kabul ever had. One would think that when many warned that helping anti-Assad rebels in Syria carried risks because included were extremists who hated the West as much as they detested Assad.

The US was either oblivious to such realities or it deliberately chose to strengthen the jihadists in Syria so it could further destabilize the entire region, gambling that this would work to its benefit to determine the balance of power. The result was ISIS becoming a major force of instability and the US going begging not only to the West and its conservative Arab allies, but reaching out to Iran.  ISIS did not have to exist, if it were not for the financial backing of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, with Turkey providing the role of facilitator in order to bring down Assad and secure a regional influential role comparable to that of Iran.

Adding to the absurdity of the ISIS problem, the oil under the group’s control probably amounts to $2 million dollars per day. It would not be possible to sell it were it not for well connected black market businesspeople in Turkey, a NATO ally playing both sides but in essence leaning much more heavily toward ISIS than toward the West that has opposed Turkey’s ambitions of having gas and oil reserves in Cypriot waters shared with the Turkish-speaking Cypriots under Ankara’s tutelage. The Saudi plan to bring down oil prices to punish Russia and Iran because they were helping Syria’s Assad against rebels that include ISIS backfired not only for Saudi and the Gulf states, but for the US and Western Europe whose energy companies have suffered losses in the process. Because ISIS was selling oil at less than half the price before prices dropped, the impact of the price decline has not been as great to their operations.  

It is now official that the US has spent $1.6 trillion fighting terrorism from 9/11 until the present.  Puzzling to the expert analyst as well as the casual observer is what exactly has the US gained by spending in the last 13 years $1.6 trillion (10% of the annual GDP)? One thing we do know is that the war in Iraq continues with more troops and independent contractors to be sent in 2015. While the US has destabilization as a core strategy for the Middle East, it is difficult to see any scenario how such a strategy would yield any positive results either short-term or longer term. The only regional beneficiary from all this is Iran and the only global power to benefit is China. There is absolutely nothing in this for the US or EU that follows US policy. 

Ukraine and Russia-Western relations
This is the story that would not go away in 2014 and it will continue into 2015. This is largely because Putin’s nationalism and determination to defend Russia’s right to secure a sphere of influence by demanding that former Soviet republics such as the Ukraine cannot be in the Western sphere of influence economically, politically and militarily because this essentially entails using those republics to contain Russia. From the US and EU perspective, the issue revolves around securing as many military allies all around Russia and securing their natural resources and markets by eliminating the dependence of these republics on Russia. In other words, the Ukrainian crisis has been about Kiev choosing what side it wishes to become a dependent satellite.

Clearly, the West as well as Russia has launched a massive propaganda war against each other to the degree that it is difficult for the disinterested observer to decide what side is right or wrong. The Ukrainian crisis is not about right and wrong, it is not about freedom and democracy, it is hardly about good vs. evil. After all, Russia is not exactly a model democracy like Norway, Putin is hardly a leader committed to human rights and social justice, and Moscow could care less about the Russian minority in Ukraine, given that it has a horrible record with minorities inside Russia. At the same time, the anti-Russian regime in Kiev enjoys the backing of extreme right wing elements, including neo-Nazis. Therefore, it is very difficult for the US and its Western allies to argue they are interested in defending democracy when they are backing a regime that rich Ukrainians control and neo-Nazis support.  

There are several reasons that the Ukraine crisis has a global impact. First, Western sanctions and retaliatory Russian sanctions impact the economies of many countries struggling to lift themselves out of the lingering recession. For example, all of Eastern and southern Europe and the Balkans are impacted because the Russian market absorbed some of the trade surplus from these countries. At the same time, Russia has the energy leverage it used for political maneuvering.

Just as Putin has used gas as leverage in the Ukraine, he has used it and will use toward all of Europe because he has no other comparable bargaining chip in the economic field. When Putin announced that South Stream pipeline intended to supply gas to Europe would discontinue it was obvious that he was sending a message to the EU about its energy dependence, although the project had become very expensive for GAZPROM. If it were not for the Ukraine crisis, Russian economic relations with Europe would have proceeded on a much more harmonious course, thus strengthening the economies of all parties concerned. US resolve to isolate and encircle Russia, on the one hand, and Russia’s determination to remain a great power with regional influence in Eurasia, on the other hand, will probably continue for the balance of this decade.

The Ukrainian crisis has also been used by “crisis peddlers” in Russia and the West interested in much heavier investment in defense, but also by nationalists on all sides starving for a pretext to maintain the old Cold War status quo. It is ironic that China actually benefits from the Ukraine crisis while Russia has been suffering economically. Neither the US nor its EU partners have actually gained anything from the crisis, unless we exclude the defense industry that is salivating over new contracts because the US demands more spending from its NATO partners. The impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the US debt and civilian economy will not be nearly as bad owing to GDP growth in 2014, but it will be substantial for the Europeans, especially the periphery nations struggling with public finances and economies.

CIA Torture report
Those who have studied US history and specially US counterinsurgency operations from the Truman presidency to the present are hardly surprised with the CIA torture report of Muslim prisoners. Nor would anyone who follows US conduct in foreign operations has any doubt about human rights violations, considering that drone warfare is only the latest of such violations that international organizations and governments have condemned. Political assassinations and covert operations resulting in the overthrow of elected regimes such as Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 have been a part of what the CIA does. Therefore, torture is hardly shocking, and indeed very hypocritical for anyone to argue that disclosure is part of the “cleansing process” that both the agency and the US government are undergoing.

 Even more hypocritical was the media’s presentation of the story, refusing in most cases to use the word torture and to argue that “the end justifies the means” when it comes to US policy, but the same does not apply to the “enemies” of the US.   Long live American exceptionalism is about all one can say in such cases. Given that the apologists of the torture report as well as those who use it to claim that the “cleansing” has begun are in fact acknowledging that imperial policies are alive and well.

Some of the more disturbing aspects of the CIA torture report included the agency’s spying on elected officials and dishing out enormous amounts of money to private contractors hired as “consultants” to validate the means and goals of the agency’s torture practices. Is it unique for the CIA to spy on US elected officials and to spend taxpayers’ money as it wishes without any accountability, simply to validate its practices? Of course it is not new and of course the CIA has been in business since the 1940s to conduct intelligence operations, even if that means spying on senators, although that is in essence stepping over the FBI’s domain.

It has been my longstanding position that the people who work at the CIA carry out work comparable to that of soldiers in the battlefield. The policymakers – executive and legislative branch - are responsible for the agency’s operations, even if analysts and agents in the field often become overzealous about their work, and even if their superiors consistently lie to elected officials who are there to conduct oversight. In the absence of a political decision to have an intelligence agency that does what its web site states, and not torture prisoners, spy on senators, or squander millions of sweetheart contracts, the agency will never change. This is especially true today as it has been in the last two decades with the war on terror that only encourages abuses on the part of the agency.

US obsession with terrorism goes much deeper than spying on Senate committees and the EU Parliament. This is how agencies justify their existence in the absence of a Cold War. This is not to suggest that the US has no enemies, but it does go out of its way with covert operations and military solutions to political crises to create enemies, instead of solving problems through diplomatic channels whenever possible. Let us consider the illegal CIA drone strikes that have killing an undetermined number of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen. This illegal type of warfare has been declared a war crime, but the US invokes the doctrine of "Exceptionalism" because it has relegated to itself policeman of the world.

The US terrorism obsession serves a domestic political and economic agenda in keeping the status quo despite the massive erosion of living standards on the part of the middle class, as well as the US preeminent global military position. Next time that CIA director Brennan goes on TV to insist that terrorism is behind everything that goes wrong with the world, from airplanes with mechanical faults to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating torture methods by CIA operatives, you must believe that he is only reflecting and serving the institutional structure and nothing more.

I am confident that the role of the CIA along with all agencies under the umbrella of Homeland Security, and even the local police departments will become more aggressive and more prone to violate human rights as well as the civil rights and the Constitution in the foreseeable future.  The result will be more social, racial, and ethnic polarization as institutionalized racism in America continues, with apologists of law and order on one side, and apologists of human rights and civil rights on the other questioning whether law enforcement turning against its own citizens best serves a society calling itself a “democracy”.

Persistence of Institutionalized Racism in America.
Racial tensions erupted this year in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.  Protesters clashed with police for weeks after the shooting.  The violence escalated again after a grand jury voted not to indict Wilson.  He has since resigned from the Ferguson Police Department, citing safety concerns for his family and fellow officers.

The incidents of police officers killing black youth in Ferguson MO and New York are not isolated but part of militarized police force that emulates the behavior of the armed forces and treats citizens as potential enemies. More alarming, the police are above accountability even in cases of shooting at unarmed citizens, an issue that ought to concern all interested in defending democracy. When the police act like a military force and treat minorities like terrorist suspects there is the larger question of the nature of the political system.

The mass demonstrations in 2014 against the persistence of racism did not take place because they were symptomatic of isolated incidents involving a single police officer and a single minority youth. People of all backgrounds recognize the absence of social justice rooted in a political economy benefiting the wealthy to the detriment of the lower classes, especially minorities. American institutions and values are frozen in time and the militarized police state exists to make sure that change toward greater social justice does not take place because it would cut into the profits of the top 10 percent of the wealthiest Americans. The law and order mentality is an extension of the militarist ideology intended to continue with imperial policies abroad and police state methods at home. Americans see the link between the US war on terror and the police methods toward minorities. When Middle East countries insist that the US has no moral authority to preach human rights or civil rights to any country in the world is it because the people of the Middle East see hypocrisy in US policy, just as the American demonstrators do?

The Papacy and Social Justice
The papacy has always been a very conservative institution that has helped to preserve the status quo not only within the church but in society as well. Rarely would a pope come out against the secular elites, often siding even with the most notorious heads of government, as was the case in the 1920s when the Vatican struck a deal with Mussolini and later expressed its preference to Hitler because he was anti-Communist.  In 2014, Pope Francis grabbed headlines because he reiterated his commitment to social justice against what he deems a culture of capitalism that has created multiple social problems.

Conservatives of all sorts, from economic and political to cultural and religious, fear that this Pope may be a hopeless leftist considering that he continues to reach out to political leftist leaders expressing concern about the institutional shortcomings of capitalism. By raising the questions about the root of ills in society and by answering that inequality is at the root, Pope Francis terrifies the wealthy and governments promoting policies that maintain inequality. If the Pope limited his message to "spiritual" equality as a right for all people, then the wealthy, the media, mainstream politicians and pundits acting as apologists for the wealthy and the state protecting the privileged elites would not have a problem. Crossing over from spiritual equality into material one poses a major threat to the status quo. Now that Communism is no more, here comes a Pope who dares to interpret the word of Christ literally and dares to apply it to the realities of peoples' lives.

Pope Francis is actually taking the Vatican and by extension the Catholic Church to its popular base that has been diminishing partly because of scandals, but also because of the increasing secularization of society that deems religion anachronistic in the age of space travel when there are scientific explanations for everything. Pope Francis has deliberately decided to sideline the conservative leaders of the Catholic Church, including US bishops historically reactionary and opposed to social justice, largely because the decadence and corruption of the institutions rests with the conservative elements of the Church hiding behind the veil of respectability.

That Pope Francis recognizes the decadence of society rests in the hierarchy of the institution, in the hierarchy of the political and financial world and media is a testament to his pragmatism, not Socialism as critics have insisted. Although he insists that he has no political ideology, he is clearly against the concentration of wealth and rise in poverty, for he too knows that a tiny percentage of the world's population owns the lion's share of wealth, while one-third of the planet's people linger in abject poverty.

It is unrealistic to assume that the Catholic Church has the power to transform the politics of any nation, though it is equally absurd for politicians to go against a strong religious institution. With 1.2 billion faithful behind it, of which 78 million are Americans, the Papacy is a powerful institution but under the leadership of Pope Francis it is only expressing the concerns about the decadence and injustices of capitalism that people already know. Catholics live in the real world and see what is happening around their neighborhood as well as around the planet, where human life has no value but money is the new God to worship.

American talk-radio show hosts known for their extreme right-wing propaganda have devoted a great deal of their work to defame Pope Francis as a Marxist, merely because he speaks of human-centered values, instead of capital-centered ones; because the Pope warns against the hypocrisy of clergy in a manner not that different from Martin Luther 500 years ago; because he argues that the Church is not the walls of the cathedral or its clergy, but the people and their daily needs. Is there any doubt that the critics of Pope Francis would crucify Jesus Christ because he too would dare question the unjust institutions of our time?

Besides attacking the injustices of the political economy and social structure, Pope Francis has also tackled the controversial issues of women's rights and sexual orientation. Conservatives, preferring to live secret lives of hypocrisy while openly advocating rigid restrictions on woman's right to choose and sexual orientation, are upset that Pope Francis has addressed abortion and gays by deviating from the traditional condemnatory position of the church. Preferring to have scandals involving clergy swept under the rug and to turn a blind eye to the reality of abortion, conservatives question where the "populist Pope" is headed when he goes out of his way to reexamine the church's position on such issues while embracing the prostitutes, prisoners, the poor and even non-Catholics as though they were human! In short, conservatives are confused why Pope Francis is acting in the manner Christianity calls him to act. Why deviate from a centuries-long tradition of popes aligned with dictators, the very wealthy, the corrupt elites for interested in having the masses remain docile under the cross.

Pope Francis is sending the message that religion is not a tool for keeping the masses docile and accepting of the existing social structure and political economy, instead of questioning it. This in itself terrifies the political and financial elites because the message is transmitted to other faiths around the world at a tie that social justice has been sidelined in favor of capital accumulation. If Pope Francis continues along the lines of social justice and does not cave to internal and external pressures to eulogize the status quo, then the Catholic Church could potentially play a role in parallel secular struggles for social justice.

The Ebola epidemic.
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 demonstrated that an epidemic outbreak in one part of the world can threaten the rest of the world unless the World Health Organization, UN and governments take preventative measures to contain the disease.  While thousands died in West Africa after a few cases in Guinea, the virus spread throughout the region in August and September 2014. It is hardly a secret that every few years, sub-Sahara African countries are confronted with famine and disease. It is widely known that sub-Sahara Africa has the world’s lowest living standards and the continent is the most exploited on the planet by Western countries, China, India, and Japan that take out the rich natural resources but give very little back to the people. In addition to the immense problem of political corruption that as an obstacle to progress, there is the reality of Africa’s trade and investment, dependence on the world’s richest nations that invest very little on the non-commercial infrastructure -  health and education – and even less on sustainable agriculture that conflicts with commercial operations.

When the first cases appeared in the US, the media, crisis peddlers that include everyone from media talking heads to insurance and pharmaceutical companies insisted that Ebola had the potential to become the worst epidemic in human history. The sense of fear and panic that the government and media created was comparable to that of the “war on terror”. Meanwhile, the CDC finally came out and admitted that the best manner to deal with such outbreaks is to address them at the source early. In other words, it would have cost a great deal less and the public would have been spared the panic and fear if the richest countries had provided the needed medical aid to West Africa to address the problem.

The crisis rhetoric about Ebola constituting another global war was often heard in the West by media and politicians, but not one word about providing both government and corporate assistance from businesses, especially oil and minerals, to alleviate the conditions that account for virus outbreaks in sub-Sahara Africa. In October 2014, the magazine Scientific American ran an article entitled: “Ebola Exacerbates West Africa’s Poverty Crisis.” Those familiar with conditions in the continent and who follow news from the area know that governments simply do not have the resources to confront the combination of food and medical problems of West Africa.

The UN as well as EU along with Japan and China knows that this is the case in Africa. It is ironic that the Republican Party’s budgetary cuts resulting in cuts to the National Institutes of Health prevented the development of a vaccine. It is also ironic that the Republicans and other neo-liberals who look to the private sector for solutions found themselves blaming government and international agencies for not doing enough about Ebola. The larger issue with regard to the Ebola outbreak relates to government funds invested in prevention and containment of such outbreaks vs. funds expended for military adventures and defense that only destabilize at best and destroy at worst. In my view, the US will continue to invest in the defense machine and in destabilization and destruction, to the neglect of health crises such as Ebola that it used as yet another case to foment a sense of panic among the general population. Neoliberal ideologues convinced that government is evil and private sector is godly had no answer for society when the Ebola outbreak took place. Yet, the neo-liberal mindset of cutting funding for public programs will prevail in the future and this means even more outbreaks comparable or much worse than Ebola.

1 comment:

jack garcia said...

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