What We Do in the Shadows: gentle satire and commentary on horror films and social problems

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

Just when you think that everything that can be done in the horror film genre about vampires, zombies and werewolves has been done, along comes a cheerful little comedy flick from the Shaky Isles. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a an eccentric mock documentary following the lives of four to five flatmates who happen to be vampires resident in Wellington. It starts off with Viago (Taika Waititi) waking up at the crack of sunset to call a meeting with fellow fangsters Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) about the household chores – apparently Deacon hasn’t been pulling his weight in washing the dishes and as a result they’ve been stinking up the kitchen and each individual piece of crockery and cutlery is stuck hard to its fellows and the kitchen sink thanks to the adhesive properties of dried blood. The film crew, kitted out in protective crucifixes, follow the trio about as they explain how they came to be undead, how they ended up in New Zealand – Viago says he followed a human girl in his coffin but his human servant bungled the postage so the coffin was 18 months late in arriving in Wellington so by the time the vampire arrived, the love of his life was already married and out of his reach – and how they survive on the outer edges of human society in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Although Deacon has a female human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) who, in the style of shabbos goyim who help ultra-Orthodox Jews get through the Sabbath with chores that Jews are forbidden to perform, cleans up after the threesome’s messes and procures victims for them, viewers quickly see that the centuries-old vampires have problems in adjusting to modern society: they need to be invited into night-clubs by humans (that film “Let the Right One In” has a lot to answer for) and they are a little too fastidious in requiring the blood of virgins even though the blood of non-virgins tastes the same and has no ill effects on them. Jackie brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to them but he tries to escape and ends up becoming undead when he barges into Petyr’s room. From then on, he has to hang out with the trio who try in their own way to teach him how to be a proper vampire. However there are no manuals or etiquette guides to rely on and Nick, giddy with the knowledge that he can fly and is immortal, goes around telling the humans he meets at night that he’s a vampire. This becomes the undoing of Petyr who meets a gruesome end. On the other hand, Nick brings his human fried Stu (Stuart Rutherford) to the trio and he teaches the vampires how to use mobile phones and laptops and look up things on Google and Ancestry.com. Viago is finally reunited with his old familiar Philip through Skype and is able to find out what happened to the love of his life, Katherine, now resident in a nursing home with dementia.

There is no conventional plot as such: the first half of the film is mainly a character study of the three vampires and serves to familiarise them with the audience. Waititi, Brugh and Clement do a sterling job treading the tightrope between credibility and stereotype and filling their characters with life: Viago as the fussy 18th-century aristocrat dandy, Deacon the 19th-century Serbian peasant vampyr and Clement as a Vlad-Dracul-meets-Gene-Simmons bloodsucker. The mock doco traces the vampires from their lonely outsider niche through their encounters with Nick and Stu to a point where they have become comfortable with using 21st-century technology to get what they need and can now understand modern human relationships; along the way, the film pokes gentle fun at flatmate relationships and addresses (even if in a flimsy way) the plight of newcomers trying to fit into an alien society without attracting the wrong sort of attention, relations among men, existential angst, gang warfare and the generation gap. Gags and jokes a-plenty fill the screen as viewers discover that the vampires are nursing secret hopes, fears and enmities which culminate in the annual Unholy Masquerade where Vlad confronts his age-old nemesis The Beast who turns out to be … his ex-girlfriend Pauline. The trio also has run-ins with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby) which itself as a group and as individuals are also dealing with the difficulties of That Time of the Month when the full moon shines at night.

The comedy inherent in a bunch of eccentric undead weirdoes living as unobtrusively as they can in banal suburban Wellington does wear thin and some potential strands of hilarity present in some scenes and scenarios especially in the encounters with the werewolves and their particular existential and masculinity issues are under-developed due to the constraints imposed by the demands of the mockumentary concept. The vampire dilemma of being immortal and seeing particular beloved human friends die from old age or human society jettisoning valuable cultural memorabilia and memes while enthralled with temporary superficial fads is dealt with brilliantly in low-key and matter-of-fact ways. Several famous vampire movies and TV shows and a stack of Hollywood vampire stereotypes are skewered. The film pokes gentle fun at the police as thick-heads. Much of the understated fun of the film lies in the vampires’ house which is kitted out as a seedy gothic mansion that has seen far better days.

As the film was deliberately made as a cheap B-grade doco, technical glitches are to be expected and the shaky handheld camera is used to good effect to ratchet up tension especially in scenes where the human Nick tries to flee the vampires’ house.

The film has potential to become a cult comedy horror classic courtesy of the energy of its cast, many of whom are amateur actors, of its satirical treatment of the horror and documentary film genres, and of its treatment of social issues and pop culture fads in modern Western and New Zealand society.

5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked: cherry-picking easy targets to attack so as to look good

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp / Business For Scotland, “5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked” (September 2014)

At this time of writing, there remain just a few days to go until Scotland has its independence referendum and already the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps have escalated their war of words across the UK media to a shrill intensity. To counter some of the fear tactics and scare stories concerning how an independent Scotland will cope and thrive economically, Business For Scotland’s Chief Executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp has come out with guns blazing in a series of short videos, all of which can be viewed on Youtube, to explain how Scotland can pay its own way and fulfill its independence dreams. He concentrates on five scare stories that the No Campaign has been drumming up and which various Business For Scotland speakers and campaigners have had to confront the most in meetings and interviews, and demolishes the objections the No Campaign has raised. All the videos in which MacIntyre-Kemp takes apart the scare stories are very brief, running for less than three minutes each. They can be viewed at this Business For Scotland link.

In Video 1, MacIntyre-Kemp addresses the issue of bank bail-outs and points out that the two major banks in Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were bailed out in the cities where they are headquartered or registered; that is, in the City of London and New York City. He ends his talk by suggesting that banks headquartered in Scotland should be nationalised and regulated so that they are not allowed to rack up huge debts and require massive multi-billion pound bail-outs.

Video 2 deals with the issue of who subsidises Scotland: MacIntyre-Kemp turns that assumption on its head by pointing out that Scotland contributes more in tax revenues to Westminister than it receives back. In Video 3, he tackles the issue of how Scotland will be able to prop up public services like pensions and asserts that Scotland will lock in increases  to pensions which will be based on increases in average weekly earnings. He argues that a revitalised economy will be able to arrest a brain drain of young qualified professionals away from Scotland and at the same time attract skilled immigrants and together these groups will provide a substantial tax base that will support pension payments to the elderly and the needy.

Currency is the focus of Video 4 as for the time being Scotland expects to continue using pound sterling after independence. MacIntyre-Kemp suggests the confusion over the issue of currency has been stirred up deliberately by Westminster to persuade people to vote No. Should Scotland opt for independence, the most likely scenario will be that the Bank of England will support currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK to help stabilise the economies of the two states. In the final video, MacIntyre-Kemp explains how Scotland will be able to pay its way as an independent country, pointing out that among other things it will not need a large defence force and will commit itself to creating a society with sustainability as a core value. He rounds off his series of videos by declaring that the issue of Scottish independence isn’t about the economics but about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike out and create a fairer and more just society that could serve as an example for others including the rest of Britain to follow.

The videos are easy on the eye – they just feature MacIntyre-Kemp against a white background over which figures and facts float temporarily to illustrate what he says.

I admit to surprise that in all of these videos MacIntyre-Kemp doesn’t mention the issue of North Sea oil and how much oil really is within Scotland’s maritime territories to its north. This is significant if Scotland plans not only to adopt Scandinavian-influenced social welfare policies which in themselves would cost a fair few cool hundred billion pounds a year but also to invest in renewable energies and eventually wean itself off fossil fuels. Even if there were enough oil to last Scotland several decades (let alone some of the more optimistic claims that the oil could last a century!), there is the problem of how Scotland will finance exploration and drilling for the oil and how it will be able to control revenues and direct the bulk of them into a sovereign wealth fund and away from unproductive financial transactions such as property speculation (which drives up real estate prices in cities and towns), various debt bubbles and ingenious but ultimately harmful financial engineering schemes that make money disappear into tax haven black holes or unscrupulous scamsters’ bank accounts. Even before all this, there’s the problem as to whether Scotland will be able to claim the oil resources in its waters on behalf of its people before the US or UK pressures the country’s government through under-handed tactics: in this context, for Scotland to assume that currency union will ensure stable economies on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall might be naive in the least.

Another big problem is that an independent Scotland cannot rely completely on oil resources whose market prices can vary from one year to the next depending on what other oil exporters are able to sell and the levels of global demand for oil. The country could rely on providing financial services and inviting foreign companies to establish factories (Scottish manufacturing having declined over the last half-century or so under Westminister rule) but at a cost of offering subsidies, tax relief and other incentives (like low wages, importing Third World labour and waiving or ignoring OHS regulations) to compete against the rest of Britain and Ireland. This could well pull funding away from building up a social welfare net for citizens, a sovereign wealth fund and renewable energy projects and into the coffers of foreign firms.

There is a very real possibility also that the EU will not accept Scotland as a member unless and until its government imposes an austerity package on its citizens and conforms to other EU, World Bank and IMF requirements. Even if Scotland were to agree to undergo austerity, forgo developing a social welfare net and to restructure its institutions according to EU, World Bank and IMF guidelines, full EU membership cannot be guaranteed.

The assumption that small European countries are wealthier than larger European countries is lazy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being squeezed by their crippling debt and austerity programs, and several EU member states in eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia) are not exactly thriving either. About 1 in 5 people in Lithuania are living at near-poverty levels or below and similar proportions of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are also living close to near-poverty levels. Latvia is said to be losing 30,000 people a year as young adults are voting with their feet in search of employment. As for the wealthy small European countries, Luxembourg derives a considerable part of its wealth from being a tax haven as does Switzerland: hardly worthy examples for Scotland to follow.

Even so, in spite of what I have just said, I do realise the September 2014 referendum is a unique opportunity for Scotland’s citizens to decide on the future direction of their country. It will be a momentous event, one that may have flow-on consequences for what remains of the United Kingdom: it may well start conversations within England, Wales and Northern Ireland themselves as to their futures and devolving more power to the public away from their elites. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp says at the end of Video 5, independence isn’t just about economics, it’s about starting anew with a new set of values that stress fairness, justice, equality and sustainability.

Predestination: musing on identity, purpose and whether our fates are predetermined

Michael and Peter Spierig, “Predestination” (2014)

Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein, “Predestination” is an intriguing if not always satisfying film about time travel, the nature of one’s identity and the possibility that linear time and space may depend very heavily on spatio-temporal Mobius loops. Ethan Hawke plays an agent employed by a secret agency within the US government: his role is to hunt down a serial terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber through time and space. If the viewer can suspend disbelief long enough and far enough, the agent’s time machine is a violin case with time and space co-ordinates that can be manually set; all a person needs to do is to stand within a radius of one metre of the machine and … ZIP! … ta-daah, you’ve arrived at your destination.

After an encounter with the Fizzle Bomber in New York in 1975 that results in horrific facial injuries, the agent undergoes surgical facial reconstruction and acquires a new face. His boss Robertson (Noah Taylor) sends him back to New York in 1970 where, disguised as a bartender, he meets a young man, John (Sarah Snook), who proceeds to tell him his life-story. The biography is fairly generic: an orphaned baby is taken in by an orphanage and grows up there, never being accepted by any family or receiving any love due to its peculiarities. The child becomes an adult and undergoes various trials which make John the man he is. The agent offers to take John back to a point in his past to confront the mysterious stranger who has ruined his life and made him the outcast and outsider that he is. After John is set upon his path, the agent resumes his search for the Fizzle Bomber and from that moment, his own search for the elusive terrorist becomes increasingly bizarre and the viewer is left to guess at the agent’s connection with John and the Fizzle Bomber and to solve the existential puzzle that his actions create.

The puzzle is not too difficult to solve and it does throw up an interesting conundrum about identity and how choices we make in life may or may not be inevitable. Identity is less stable than it appears: the film reveals that John was originally born female and was christened Jane. Jane grows up as a girl, albeit a highly intelligent and unusually strong one, and is trained to be a comfort worker dedicated to providing rest and recreation for astronauts on space stations. After being seduced by a mystery stranger, she becomes pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl and undergoes gender reassignment surgery when the doctors who deliver her child discover her intersex condition. Meanwhile the baby is kidnapped from hospital. Jane renames her / himself John and tries to adjust to his new identity and need to find a new niche in society. He becomes a writer churning out pulpy true-confession stories to women’s magazines until he meets the agent.

The bizarre plot unfolds gradually and plausibly – but only just – thanks to the performances given by Hawke and Snook and the care with which the Spierig twins recreate the ambience and ephemera of  the historical periods in which the action takes place. Through Snook’s performance as Jane / John, the film explores an individual’s need for connection to others and love and acceptance by society for what s/he is and brings to humankind as an individual and not as a representative of his / her gender. True identity and purpose come only when an individual is accepted as s/he is and the natural abilities s/he brings are also accepted, cultivated and directed towards mutually beneficial ends instead of destructive ones.  Hawke’s role as the agent forces consideration of one’s role in influencing people to take the paths they do and the consequences that arise: as the film progresses, the agent becomes a more sinister and less beneficent protagonist and by the end of the film, the agent is well on the way to becoming a dark figure while John is groomed and recruited by Robertson as a new agent and receives his mission: to track down the Fizzle Bomber; the time and place are New York in 1975.

From a philosophical viewpoint the film addresses the issue of determinism, whether we are or are not the playthings of fate. The conclusion arrived at turns out to be rather more complicated: we may not be puppets but the decisions we make, however consciously, end up imprisoning ourselves and put us on courses that shut off certain opportunities and open up others which in turn push us further into some directions but not others. Whether these directions we go into are morally right or wrong is another thing. For a film with this message though, the subtext suggests the opposite: the agent continually pops up at various points of Jane / John’s life to nudge the character onto certain paths and away from others, as if to justify a certain purpose or fulfill a goal  … which turns out to be his own life’s purpose and goal. Were Jane / John to do anything out of the ordinary, the agent and his employer may well cease to exist.

The film’s conclusion ends up rather … deterministic as Hawke’s agent descends into a life in the shadows, know that there is someone coming after him who will eventually kill him. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, profiting from the misery they have helped to create by shaping and reshaping history into a giant Mobius strip. Perhaps life is more deterministic than we think it is … because our thinking and actions have made it so, and we are so immersed in it that, like the agent, John and Robertson, we fail to step outside our mental paradigms and realise we are trapped in a loop of our making which ends up having a life and force its own that continues to lock us into the same old actions. The odd though is that the Fizzle Bomber, conscious of the circularity of his life, never tries to go after Robertson and the secret US government agency. It is only when he dies that he is finally free of the cosmic hamster wheel he has ridden all his life. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, et cetera.

 

Formation of a State: the fight for independence by Donetsk National Republic

“Formation of a State” (NovorossiyaTV.com, 24 August 2014)

After capturing a group of neo-Nazi fascists fighting for the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk National Republic paraded the prisoners on 24 August 2014, the day of Ukrainian independence. Later Alexander V Zakharchenko, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Donetsk National Republic, and Vladimir Kononov, Minister for Defense of the DNR, gave a press conference in which they informed the press of the current situation on the battlefield and invited the journalists to ask questions. The Q&A session makes up the overwhelming bulk of the press conference.

Facing the camera directly, Zakharchenko and Kononov are open and frank in the answers they give and the two give no impression of hiding anything or dissembling in any way. They are well-informed about Donetsk’s history, economy and resources, and about other countries as well. Zakharchenko, fielding the bulk of the questions, is polite, speaks quickly and well, and never bats an eyelid in the face of sometimes aggressive and even hostile and biased questioning from reporters. Kononov is attentive in listening to Zakharchenko and never interrupts what he says.

Zakharchenko has a lot to get off his chest and what he says is not only highly informative but dovetails with other news from alternate news blogs and websites about the astounding incompetence and lack of proper military leadership and management within the Ukrainian armed forces, resulting in high Ukrainian soldier casualties and desertions, and instances of Ukrainian soldiers being surrounded by DNR forces who cut them off from reinforcements that never arrive due to bad logistics, of which Kyiv tries to downplay by reporting many deaths, desertions and surrenders as soldiers missing in action. Zakharchenko quickly addresses a question on the marching of Ukrainian prisoners down the main street of Donetsk city by noting that Kyiv had earlier declared that its soldiers would be marching through Donetsk, though not in the way the Kyiv regime imagined. He denies that Russia is sending DNR soldiers, weapons and ammunition. He sarcastically notes that some western European countries have charters guaranteeing the right of self-government and separation after referendum and that Scotland will be holding an independence referendum in September, 2014.

A French reporter refers to two French volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine to fight with the DNR and Zakharchenko says they will be available for a later press conference. He then answers a question about what Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko might discuss at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, by saying that Donetsk will now not agree to federalisation (which option both Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts had hoped for initially after the February 2014 overthrow of the previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch) and has vowed to go its own way after the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian government and forces against it and Lugansk. Contrary to Western media reports about Donetsk’s economy, painting it as inefficient and run-down, the self-proclaimed republic has what it needs to be self-sufficient in food, manufacturing, energy and natural resources and tourism potential. (Indeed before the war began, Donetsk was one of the richer oblasts in Ukraine and had a very high gross regional product compared to other oblasts.) The press conference concludes with a couple of questions on the adoption of the death penalty and laws pertaining to the keeping of prisoners: Zakharchenko admits that the death penalty is in effect to safeguard security in Donetsk and that a new criminal code has been adopted with courts-martial and tribunals to support it.

For many people who so far have received all what they know about the situation in Ukraine from mainstream Western news media, the press conference is sure to make a stunning impact on them. For many if not most, this will be the first time that they discover that the war has not gone well for Ukraine and that thousands of its soldiers have died unnecessarily. They will also discover that the defenders of Donetsk are determined and have a great belief and confidence in their cause. No matter what the odds are and what sacrifices they will have to make, I feel sure that the Donetsk National Republic will achieve the independence and freedom they have fought hard for.

The video can be viewed at this Youtube link created by Vineyard of the Saker and a transcript in English can be read here.

Detroit Water Crisis – A Prelude to the Privatization of Water: activism with passion, creativity and a positive attitude

Dutch Merrick, “Detroit Water Crisis: A Prelude to the Privatization of Water” (Acronym TV, 21 August 2014)

For a major part of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was one of the richest if not the richest city in the United States thanks to its being the epicentre of US automobile manufacturing . The city was a major focus for labour union activity as a result of the dominance of car manufacturing; the famous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa was a native of Detroit. The city was a magnet for immigrants attracted by the work in car-making factories which paid well and offered great working conditions, and in time a distinctive culture of art and music arose: Motown Records was based in Detroit, the city produced many famous musicians, singers and song-writers, and techno, originally a fusion of electronic-based music, disco and African-American forms of pop music, originated in Detroit.

Since 1970, and maybe even well before then, Detroit has seen a long decline in its fortunes as the US auto industry has had to yield to competing manufacturers in Europe and Asia, and the economy of the US and in particular of the US Midwest has declined. At the same time, successive US governments have succumbed to the lure of monetarist / neoliberal economic policies which over time have gutted social and economic infrastructures across America and driven the slow death of the US middle class. As a primarily car-making town, Detroit has borne the brunt of deindustrialisation and the result is that in recent years the city has shrunk alarmingly with the consequence that its taxpayer base has also dwindled, families have been forced out of their homes by bank foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage bubble bust, and neighbourhoods have become ghost towns. The city government has now commenced cutting off necessarily utilities in many suburbs and one of these is water.

The Acronym TV program focuses in the main on Dennis Trainor Jr’s interview with Atpeace Makita, an activist volunteer working with the Detroit Water Brigade alerting people to the city’s decision to cut off water supplies to areas where poor people live. Makita herself has had her water supply stopped as a result of being unable to pay her water bills (she is a single parent of five children) and faces a very real possibility of losing her children to foster care.

In the interview, after a brief video by Detroit Water Brigade is shown, Makita details what can happen to families whose water is cut off as a result of falling delinquent on their water bills. Articulate and passionate about the cause she is fighting for, Makita talks about the problems households face when they have no water and the mental stress that lack of access brings. Families also suffer discrimination and censure from other people for apparently bringing water shut-offs on themselves because they could not pay the water bills. She goes on to emphasise how access to water is a basic human right due to the nature of our biology (our bodies are 70% water) and how she counters opinions that if people don’t pay their water bills, they deserve to have their water cut off.

Makita talks about her work as a volunteer Creative Director with Detroit Water Brigade and what the organisation is doing to create public awareness of water access issues. The culture of the organisation is important in generating and maintaining a positive, vibrant attitude in a struggle that faces enormous obstacles and opposition from government and corporations. To that end, Makita discusses the way in which DWB encourages an inclusive, warm approach in recruiting activists and conducting its activities which include arts campaigns and other creative events. The message within DWB’s drive is to change people’s attitudes about how their society currently functions and how it could function, and to instill a positive, energetic outlook that inspires people to respect one another, look out and care for one another, and to create a new society based on compassion and an awareness that everyone and everything is connected.

The interview is very wide-ranging and Makita comes across as a very dynamic and fast-talking (maybe a little too fast-talking!) advocate for social justice. Interviewer Trainor is sympathetic towards Makita which in a way isn’t good in that he does not ask her very challenging questions about how DWB confronts the powers that took away people’s access to water in the first place. How does DWB deal with government and corporations, how does it help people who stand to lose their homes or even be charged with and convicted of child neglect because they have had their water cut off, what would happen if DWB activists were persecuted or jailed for their campaigning: these are some issues that Trainor might have raised. Educating people to see that access to water and other basics of life should not be dependent on their ability to pay (and attacking the neoliberal ideology that underpins such an attitude) but instead should be free or provided by communities or collective institutions is another hurdle.

After the interview ends, I come away with the belief that if Makita is representative of mainstream America, Detroit may again lead the rest of the country in a very different direction, one not based on particular technology and the culture that grew up around it but a direction based on authentic human values of care for one’s fellow humans and other creatures, and a new culture resulting from that.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link.

From Bread Basket to Basket Case: How All the Riches and Potential in the World Couldn’t Save Ukraine

(This is an original version of the article “From Bread Basket to Basket Case: A Survey of the Ukraine’s Economy” that appears on The Kremlin Stooge blog.)

FROM BREAD BASKET TO BASKET CASE: A SURVEY OF UKRAINE’S ECONOMY 

Overview of Ukraine since November 2013

Almost a year has passed since November 2013 when the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to postpone signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, to which decision individuals and groups favouring closer EU and Ukrainian political and economic ties (with a view to Ukraine gaining full EU membership and a visa-free travel regime allowing more or less unrestricted travel through other EU member countries) began assembling  on Independence Square (the English translation of the Ukrainian name Maidan Nezalezhnosti – from here on, the square will be referred to as the Maidan) in the capital Kyiv to protest and call for European-Ukrainian integration and Yanukovych’s resignation. Demonstrations and protests escalated on the Maidan and culminated in the shooting of Berkut police and demonstrators alike by unknown snipers on the night of 21 February 2014. Yanukovych  and several other government officials fled Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament impeached Yanukovych’s government and replaced it with a temporary one led by Oleksandr Turchynov, the Speaker of the parliament (Verkhovna Rada), and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk.

A number of new laws passed by the interim government antagonised the ethnic Russian-speaking minority in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine (and smaller groups of Hungarians and Czechs in far western parts). In March 2014, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol held a referendum, deemed illegitimate by Kyiv and the wider world, in which voters overwhelmingly voted for accession to Russia. Russia responded to the referendum result and admitted Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation on 18 March 2014. Inspired by Crimea and Sevastopol’s actions, the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk also tried to break away from Kyiv’s control by declaring themselves People’s Republics in April and holding their own independence referendums in mid-May.  The response of Kyiv to Donetsk and Luhansk’s actions was to instigate military action against breakaway oblasts in April.

Since then, the Ukrainian military has thrown tens of thousands of soldiers against small militias of determined pro-Russian separatist rebels; in the fighting, hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have either gone missing, defected to Russia or died. The actions of the Ukrainian armed forces, starved since Ukrainian independence in 1991 of adequate funding for salaries, training and upgraded facilities and equipment, have been marked by incompetent leadership and management, and possibly bad military strategy.

What has now become a major political and existential problem for Ukraine, on which the country’s whole future as one entity depends, originally was an issue of deciding the country’s economic future so as to resolve its many and quite dire economic problems. What was the state of Ukraine’s economy when on that fateful day in November, Yanukovych nearly put pen to the dotted line on the paper? A general survey of Ukraine’s economy as of 2013, more or less, is in order as a foundation for us to get a grasp of issues involved.

A Brief History since Independence

On achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine inherited a centralised economy in which government planning was dominant from the Soviet Union and in which mining, heavy industry and agriculture were the main sectors. The country had a highly education labour force and a good education system that emphasised the acquisition of technical and scientific skills. However from the mid-1960s up until independence, industrial growth and development slowed and stagnated due in part to lack of effective economic leadership at national and regional levels as the Soviet political elite aged. The system was also corrupt in the way economic plans and goals were set by government bureaucrats and the way goals and output figures were fudged by those charged with production, and leading that production, resulting in ever more corruption (since the false figures were used as inputs for the next annual or 5-year plans) which must have reached surreal proportions in some industries.

For most of the 1990s, Ukraine’s economy languished in a deep recession marked also by hyper-inflation and the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank alarmingly as the country’s leaders struggled ineptly to change its orientation from a centrally planned economy to a market-run economy with private enterprise. Industrial, agricultural and other enterprises that hitherto not only employed and paid workers to work but also managed some aspects of their leisure and health had to adjust to a new ideology and work culture and organisation in which maximisation of profit was the chief goal. After 1999, Ukraine’s GDP began to grow and to continue growing in fits and starts at least until the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 when the economy shrank again. In 2010 the economy began to grow again but stalled in 2012 and 2013.

In 2012, Ukraine’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product which measures the market value of all final output including services produced by a nation in a calendar year) was US$176.3 million, putting the country on par with Vietnam and Romania, and lower than Egypt, Kazakhstan, Peru and the Philippines.

A Survey of Ukraine’s Economy 2012 – 2013

As of 2013, Ukraine depended in the main on mining (based mainly in the south-central and the eastern parts of the country), heavy industry and manufacturing (concentrated around Kyiv and in the east) and agriculture.

What Ukraine exported in 2012

What Ukraine exported in 2012 as a Tree Map (Source: The Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity www.atlas.cid.harvard.edu )

Mining

The Donetsk region contains large reserves of coal and Kryvy Rih has iron ore reserves. Other mineral resources in the country include manganese, bauxite, nickel, titanium (Ukraine has the world’s largest supply) and salt. As of 2012, metals accounted for about 40% of the country’s exports.

There is some production of crude oil and natural gas but not enough to supply the country’s own industrial and domestic needs. Ukraine is highly dependent on Russia for its oil and gas needs. Until June 2014, Ukraine had been receiving a 30% discount on imported gas from Russia; the discount was discontinued by the supplier Gazprom as Ukraine had an outstanding debt of $4.5 billion. Ukraine is now required to pay upfront for Russian gas. There have been ongoing disputes between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies and gas supply negotiations and treaties, especially over price and supply issues and the linking of gas supplies with Russia’s leases of naval ports in Crimea (when the peninsula was still part of Ukraine).

Ukraine’s geographic position between Russia and much of Europe makes the country a corridor for natural gas and oil to pass from Russia and the Caspian Sea region to the European Union. There have been issues with the amounts of gas passing from Russia through Ukraine to Europe which leads this writer to believe that private companies in Ukraine, a number of which are owned by oligarch politicians, regularly siphon off gas in secret and store and use it in ways that profit the companies and their owners.

Agriculture

Almost two-thirds of Ukraine is made up of fertile chernozem (black earth) soils in the central and southern areas, and agriculture plays a large role in economic output and as an employer of labour. The country produces wheat, potatoes, sugar beets (it is the world’s largest producer), barley, maize, rye, cabbage, tomatoes and sunflower seeds, and its livestock includes pigs, cattle, goats, sheep and poultry. Beekeeping is a significant industry and Ukraine produces more honey per person than any other country in the world. During the Soviet period, Ukraine produced up to 25% of the union’s entire agricultural output, mainly in cereals, and was known as the bread basket of Europe. After 1991 though, agricultural production declined as a result of declining government and other investment in necessary capital such as tractors and combine harvesters, fertilisers and pesticides. Privatisation of agricultural land began in August 1995 and by 1996 over half the arable land being worked was in private or collective hands. As of 2012, agriculture employed 16.8% of the workforce and Ukraine was the world’s sixth largest exporter of grain. The sector still needs investment if it is to increase production and harvests.

Manufacturing and Secondary Industry

Industrial production includes iron and steel-making, mineral fertilisers, sulfuric acid, transport vehicles including passenger vehicles, aircraft including hang-gliders and para-gliders, ship-building and aerospace vehicles. Consumer goods that are an extension of iron and steel manufacture (in many countries, the same companies that make iron and steel also produce items that incorporate iron and steel) which are made in Ukraine include refrigerators and washing-machines. As of 2012, steel accounted for about 40% of total exports and manufacturing made up 14.6% of the country’s GDP and employed 13% of the Ukrainian workforce.

Tertiary / Service Industries

Ukraine has a well-developed IT sector – in part a legacy of the Soviet period during which aircraft, transport vehicle and aerospace manufacturing were developed, requiring technical and engineering knowledge and education – spread across the country with most firms concentrated in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv in the east: according to the Wikipedia article on the Ukrainian economy, the country had the fourth largest number of certified IT professionals in the world in 2013 after the US, India and Russia. In 2013, the value of the IT outsourcing industry in Ukraine was US$2 billion.

Access to the Internet in Ukraine is good, particularly in the cities, and Ukraine has one of the highest Internet access speeds in the world. Broadband services and WiFi hot-spots are available in cities and mobile data services are available in urban areas, airports, roads, railways and coastal waters.Online retail, ticketing and banking services are available and Ukraine is one of the fastest growing E-commerce markets in Europe. The popularity of online retail and trading might suggest it compensates in part for deficiencies in other sectors of Ukraine’s economy in the same way that in some Third World countries, mobile phone usage compensates for the lack of traditional telephone landline networks. The country’s largest Internet access provider, Ukrtelecom is owned by an Austrian investment company.

The country’s transport infrastructure is run-down and imposes a number of costs on the economy in terms of safety, quality, fuel usage and environmental impact. Bad roads mean longer journey times for cars and trucks (translating into more petrol use if certain roads have to be closed and vehicles need to find alternative routes) and more accidents which themselves impose a burden on medical and social services, and the infrastructure that supports these. Companies absorb the transport costs by passing them on to their customers who in turn pass these and other transport costs they accumulate on to their customers, and so on all the way down to the end users: the general public. In this way, everyone ends up paying the price for an inefficient transport network. Even so, the network is adequate for Ukraine’s basic economic needs – its problem is that it needs upgrading and for that, capital investment is required. Railway stock in particular needs to be modernised.

According to Wikipedia, Ukraine is the 8th most popular destination in Europe for tourists, and tourism accounted for 2.2% of the country’s GDP in 2012 and employed 1.7% of the workforce in the same period. Tourists are classified as shopping tourists (mainly from neighbouring countries where prices are higher than what they are in Ukraine for the same items), dental tourists (those tourists seeking dental care that is cheaper than in their home countries), and classic recreational / sightseeing tourists.

The banking industry is overseen by the National Bank of Ukraine and consists of over 180 banks, both state-run and private. Large local private banks include PrivatBank, the largest commercial bank in the country, owned by oligarch-politician Ihor Kolomoisky; Imexbank, owned by Leonid Klimov; and System Capital Management Holdings, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, another oligarch-politician. A number of foreign banks including Sberbank (Russia), Prominvestbank (Russia), PravexBank (owned by Intesa Sanpaolo Group in Italy) and BNP Paribas (France) also have offices in the country.

Other Observations

Most Ukrainians have become poor since 1991 and there are many social problems such as alcoholism and AIDS. The poverty and social stresses are reflected in life expectancy which decreased during the 1990s. Infant mortality rates increased during the same period. Infrastructure such as roads and utilities are in a poor state; the water supply and its quality in the country are a major concern and diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis are present.

Economic Issues and Problems 

The fact that a number of major commercial banks (plus other enterprises in other industries) are owned by wealthy politicians either directly or indirectly poses not just a conflict of interest for the country’s governing elite but also a threat to good governance, financial transparency and accountability, and ultimately Ukraine’s long-term development potential as local and foreign investors will view the country as hopelessly corrupt. This affects all other sectors of the Ukrainian economy: if Ukrainian business practice and government enforcement of laws that regulate business and finance are seen to be compromised because of the extreme concentration of business ownership and wealth in the hands of a few who also happen to dominate the country’s politics, much-needed foreign investment will avoid the country altogether and all major sectors of Ukraine’s economy will shrink and starve for lack of capital.

In a country that is virtually a plutocracy, the efficient collection of taxes may well be a pipe-dream and the taxation laws a laughing-stock: if the rich who pull the purse-strings as well as the puppet-strings don’t pay their share of tax or resort to tax evasion and don’t care that others will notice, ordinary people will follow their example. Essential services and infrastructure that rely heavily on taxation revenue for funding end up undeveloped and run-down, and become ripe for privatisation (which may have been the original intention all along). There’s the possibility that in some parts of the country, wealthy oligarch-politicians may spend money on services that would normally be funded by government at national, regional or local level but this means that the people who benefit from this are basically bought by their benefactor and eventually owe him (maybe her) protection money or its equivalent.

It’s true that manufacturing in Ukraine does suffer from inefficiencies which make it uncompetitive with Western manufactures; in the early 1990s, such inefficiencies could be blamed on the country’s inheritance of centralised state planning which by its nature of top-down decision-making was slow to respond to consumer and enterprise demands. However other European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet orbit, and which gained independence only a couple of years before or the same time as Ukraine, have passed through their baptism of fire faster and successfully as well, though they continue to struggle with problems arising from their transition to market economies. The issue is that in adjusting to market economics and in becoming a market economy, Ukraine was compelled to undergo the kind of neoliberal economic shock treatment (yes, I have read the Naomi Klein book “The Shock Doctrine”) that other countries like Poland and Russia had to swallow. The kind of steady transition that a Sweden or a France could afford was not an option offered to Ukraine by a West enamoured of Thatcher-Reaganite economic policies. While many eastern European countries were able to transition successfully to market economies thanks to historic links with Germany or Sweden (which meant that German and Swedish companies invested in those countries and passed on aspects of their corporate, managerial and industrial cultures), Ukraine did not have that kind of luck due in part to its peculiar origin as a patchwork nation of peoples with different cultures, religions and histories. Western Ukraine looks to the West because of its historic links to the Poland-Lithuanian Comonwealth and the Austro-Hungarian empire and Eastern Ukraine looks to Russia due to long-standing historical and ethnic links with that country. In addition, the political elites who have governed Ukraine since 1991 have often proven incompetent, corrupt, arrogant and self-serving.

The country has significant environmental issues including industrial pollution and radiation issues that are a legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion which released a huge cloud of radioactive particles that drifted as far north as Finland in the immediate aftermath and contaminated soils in and around the town of Chernobyl itself.

Conclusion

From the foregoing, we can see there is tremendous potential for Ukraine to regain its role as bread basket for Russia, much of eastern and central Europe, and even beyond; the main thing holding back the country is its political leadership which seems to be in a permanent state of crisis and chaos. This has many deep consequences that affect the country in many ways: lack of clear political and economic goals translates into lack of investor confidence in the country’s leadership which itself means desperately needed local and foreign investment is lacking. As a result, several economic sectors, all of which depend on one another, suffer stymied development. An efficient transport network is needed to transport agricultural and industrial output and the machinery and other capital needed by the relevant sectors to produce goods.

It has to be said also that cronyism is rife and is probably Ukraine’s biggest political and economic problem. While President Viktor Yanukovych (2010 – 2014) was associated with cronyism in the Western news media, other politicians in Ukraine – former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and PrivatBank owner Ihor Kolomoisky come to mind – are equally, if not more so, up to their eyeballs and beyond in corruption. Kolomoisky in particular is an unsavoury character who does not hesitate to use armed thugs in launching takeovers of companies he takes a shine to. Tymoshenko spent time in the slammer for acting without authority from the Ukrainian government as Prime Minister in negotiating a gas deal with Russia in 2009.

With the overthrow of Yanukovych in February 2014 and his government’s replacement by one led by Turchynov and Yatseniuk until mid-May of the same, when presidential elections brought Petro Poroshenko, owner of a major confectionery business, to power, the crony capitalist order seems set to continue. As of this time of writing, Poroshenko still has not divested himself of his interests in the confectionery business despite pledging during his election campaign that he would do so. As Ukraine slides deeper into all-out civil war that began in April 2014, the transformation from bread basket to basket case is almost complete.

Sources

“The Europa World Yearbook 2013″ (Volume 2: K – Z) (24th edition), Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Oxford

Ilan Greenberg, “A Ukrainian Brain Drain”, The New Yorker, June 20 2014,  http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/a-ukrainian-brain-drain

James Nadeau, “Ukraine’s real problem: crony capitalism”, The Hill, January 15, 2014,  http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/195549-ukraines-real-problem-crony-capitalism

Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (editors), “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies (Volume 4: Europe)”, Gale Group, Farmington Hills, 2002

Barry Turner (editor), “The Statesman Yearbook 2014: the Politics, Cultures and Economies of the World”, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013

“Ukrainian IT Market 2013: Fresh Stats and Forecasts”, Intersog.com,  http://intersog.com/blog/ukrainian-it-market-2013-fresh-stats-and-forecasts/

Andrew Wilson, “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation”, Yale University Press, London, 2000

“The World Economic Factbook 2014″ (21st edition), Euromonitor International (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney, 2013

Wikipedia Source Articles

Banking in Ukraine / Beekeeping in Ukraine / Economy of Ukraine / Internet in Ukraine / List of Countries by GDP / National Bank of Ukraine / PrivatBank / Transport in Ukraine / Ukrtelecom

Harvey: a gentle plea for tolerance and the desire to opt out of the rat race

Henry Koster, “Harvey” (1950)

This film about a middle-aged bachelor whose only friend and companion happens to be an invisible giant bunny rabbit could have ended up a soppy sentimental piece or one giant cringe-fest in the hands of lesser people. Under Koster’s direction and with the lead character Elwood P Dowd played by James Stewart, the movie becomes a plea for social tolerance and acceptance of people whose only crime is to be eccentric and quirky. The film also is a sly commentary on social conformity and ambition, materialism and society’s tendency to treat those who are different in some way as mentally ill and needing psychiatric treatment.

Elwood P Dowd spends his days doing little except drink too much at a bar and wandering around town conversing with his rabbit friend Harvey. His idiosyncratic habit upsets his older sister Veta (Josephine Hull) when his unexpected early return home upsets a social gathering that was supposed to introduce her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) to social contacts who might know of eligible bachelors for Myrtle Mae’s hand. Veta determines to put Dowd into a mental asylum and takes him to see Dr Chumley at his hospital. Unfortunately events there see Veta taken in as a patient and Dowd escape. Vera threatens to sue Dr Chumley and the staff at the mental institution try strenuously to hunt down Dowd and give him treatment. The plot becomes quite convoluted at times with characters racing in circles after one another and Dowd who is oblivious to all the fuss on his behalf. Eventually after some extraordinary mishaps – which have some characters other than Dowd wondering whether Harvey really does exist – Veta becomes reconciled with Dowd and his quirky friend, Myrtle Mae unexpectedly finds true love and two of the staff at Dr Chumley’s hospital also become an item.

Based on a play by Mary Chase who also co-wrote the screenplay, “Harvey” is not especially deep and doesn’t intend that it be taken very seriously. Stewart brings the right balance of credibility, warmth and child-like wonder to his character who basically is a lonely man at odds with a harsh and unforgiving world and who breaks away from it in a way that, while it risks isolating him even more from others, is nevertheless quite harmless and does not bring Dowd to the attention of police. The other characters around him are self-obsessed or caught up with social climbing and presenting a good face before society. As the plot progresses, Dowd and Harvey come to have a significant effect on those he meets: Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly fall in love and Myrtle Mae and a hospital orderly fall for each other as well. (This is quite significant because the orderly is below Myrtle Mae in social class.) Dr Chumley becomes less remote and somewhat humanised by his meeting with Dowd and Harvey and Veta realises that she would rather prefer her young brother to be his quirky individual self rather than a tamed and colourless everyday man.

It becomes obvious that the “normal” characters are the unstable ones on the edge of hysteria and break-down while the character needing help turns out to be the stable fulcrum around whom everyone and everything revolves. Myrtle Mae finally finds romance through Dowd as do Dr Chumley’s staff. Perhaps the film’s highlight comes in the alley scene in which Dowd explains his personal philosophy to the uncomprehending Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly; however the doctor and the nurse’s failure to understand and accept Dowd as he is weakens the impact of this scene. Less plausible is Veta’s sudden volte-face after a cab driver explains to her that the hospital’s drug treatment will turn Dowd into another faceless corporate zombie.

The film is well-paced without feeling rushed, the comedy in several scenes is played up in subtle ways so that the film never feels like crude slapstick and Stewart and Hull deliver fine performances as Dowd and Veta. Koster uses lighting and setting very well in some scenes. Although the film’s message is gentle, urging tolerance and a forgiving attitude towards those who don’t or can’t fit in with society’s demands, it does tend to accept the dominant narrative that life is what you make it and doesn’t question the values of a society that prizes cut-throat achievement, marrying for power, wealth and influence, and a narrowly defined conformity.

 

 

 

Flight MH-17 – What You’re Not Being Told: tragic airliner shoot-down incident being politicised by lies and disinformation

SCG News, “Flight MH-17 – What You’re Not Being Told” (StormCloudsGathering, 27 July 2014)

As the StormCloudsGathering News website says, on 17 July 2014 two significant events occurred: Israel began a ground invasion of Gaza, supposedly as revenge for the kidnappings and murders of three Jewish settler teenagers which were blamed on Hamas, the Palestinian resistance organisation; and Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The Israeli invasion initially received very little coverage in the Western mainstream media – and when finally the media began to cover it, the Israelis were and still are portrayed as restrained and only defending themselves while they carry out their frenzied genocide against the Palestinians who are demonised as terrorists. On the other hand the downing of Flight MH-17 was immediately and loudly blamed on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the government in Moscow supposedly aiding them by the US governmnt without any evidence to support its allegations. Quickly afterwards, the lies, disinformation and other propaganda noise began with the US and Ukrainian governments building up false and faked evidence in the form of videos and other materials, one after the other, blackening the separatists as thugs and looters, and the Russian government as their controller; and the Western news media uncritically swallowing the garbage and regurgitating it for its audience. The Ukrainian government continues to pound eastern Ukraine, including the area where the passenger jet was downed and crashed, and the US is using the opportunity to pass a raft of economic and other sanctions against Russia, push a bill through its Senate that purports to combat Russian aggression in eastern Europe (and which also includes sections discussing the exploration and exploitation of natural gas resources in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine by private interests, and spreading pro-US propaganda aimed at Russian-speaking audiences into those countries) and pressure European Union countries to cut all political and economic ties with Russia.

SCG News does a very good job with a 15-minute covering the recent history of Ukraine since the legitimate president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country in February 2014 and the subsequent takeover of the government by the oligarch elite and fascists aided and funded by the US government. The narrator reaches back to that fateful day when snipers fired on both the Berkut police and demonstrators on the Maidan in Kyiv and reveals that the snipers, portrayed by the mainstream media as originating from Berkut, were actually from within the Maidanite factions which included various extreme fascist groups such as the political party Svoboda and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector). As proof, SCG links to an abbreviated version of the leaked telephone conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and the then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. After the Yanukovych government was overthrown by the Maidanites, a new interim government headed by interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk quickly rescinded laws that gave minority groups in Ukraine the right to use their own languages in public. Russian-language speakers in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol then organised a referendum to determine their status within Ukraine; the majority of voters plumped for accession to Russia and the region applied to join the Russian Federation. Russia quickly accepted Crimea and Sevastopol, to the fury of the Ukrainian government and its US backers.

The subsequent massacre of pro-federalism activists by fascists in the Odessa trade union building, which the fascists also tried to burn down to disguise their heinous crimes, and other incidents of violence in southern and eastern Ukraine led to the eastern-most regions of Donetsk and Lugansk to try to break away. The Ukrainian government, firstly under Turchinov and then under President Poroshenko, has tried to suppress the independence movement in those regions with heavy-handed violence and war crimes against civilians. In spite of the extreme firepower and brutality with which the Poroshenko regime has fought the rebels, in the weeks leading up to 17 July 2014, at least after the rebels withdrew from the town of Slavyansk in Donetsk region, the Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties, demoralisation throughout their ranks, food shortages and mass defections. The rebels had encircled a number of Ukrainian army units and were on the verge of defeating them. The Ukrainian government was running out of money, equipment and supplies to continue prosecuting the war with forces that for the past 20 or so years since 1991 had been drained of funding for training and equipment.

In this context, the decision of Malaysian Airlines to fly a plane near the war zone seems madness but Flight MH-17 was originally supposed to have flown over the Sea of Azov which is to the south of Donetsk region. However for reasons still not explained, the flight was rerouted to fly over Donetsk and the flight crew was instructed by air traffic control in Kyiv to fly at 10,000 metres, just above the war zone. So ATC in Kyiv must share part of the blame for the jet’s shoot-down and crash. The film then goes on to ask why the US has not released satellite pictures of the tragedy as it occurred in spite of having a satellite over the area, and in spite of Russia having released its own satellite imagery and challenging the Americans to come clean. Russia’s information indicate that the Ukrainian military had been moving its Buk surface-to-missile systems in an area near Donetsk close to where the missile that hit MH-17 was shot from. A radar image of an SU-25 fighter flying close to the jet was also made public. The American reaction has either been to throw up more disinformation claiming proof of Russian culpability in shooting down the airliner or to ignore the evidence provided by its own satellite.

At this point one might ask why the Americans should want to hound Russia and pin the blame for the airliner shoot-down on Moscow and the rebels. SCG suggests that the trigger event was the founding of a development bank to rival the World Bank and IMF by Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, and Russia’s determination to remove the US dollar as the currency of international trade. However the move to demonise Russia was present even during the staging of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and during other numerous incidents in the past such as the arrest and subsequent death of Sergei Magnitsky in prison in 2009 and the trial of the so-called dissident leader Alexei Navalny for embezzling funds from a timber company in 2013.

The video ends in a bit of an odd mess comparing the MH-17 shoot-down with other incidents in which civilian airliners were also shot down by the military, notably the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by a US warship in 1988, the 1996 TWA Flight 800 downing in New York and the 2001 Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 downing by the Ukrainian military during military exercises in the Black Sea, followed by an excerpt of a bizarre speech on numerology and magic numbers by the leathery looking IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

SCG’s film insinuates that responsibility for Flight MH-17’s downing lies with the Ukrainians and the Americans; but the video is silent on whether the shoot-down was deliberate or accidental. For more information on the shoot-down and whether the shoot-down was a tragic accident due to military incompetence or a deliberate criminal act, viewers are advised to read an excellent and very detailed article “MH-17 Verdict: Real Evidence Points to US-Kiev Cover-up of Failed False Flag “posted on 25 July 2014 at the 21st Century Wire blog.

At a time when the world is hurtling recklessly to an unnecessary war that more than likely will involve the unrestrained use of nuclear weapons across nations, thanks to US and Ukrainian intransigence, stupidity, incompetence and levels of crude propaganda and disinformation in global media, the need for the truth about what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 and the 298 people aboard who died to be made public and widely known is more urgent than ever. In particular, the need to know whether the plane’s downing might be linked to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370 in March 2014, and whether those incidents might somehow represent pressure on Malaysia itself to shut down the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal which has tried and found guilty former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President George W Bush for lying and bringing war and chaos to Iraq in 2011, and the State of Israel for genocide against Palestinians in 2013, is also imperative.

A transcript of the SCG video and the video itself can be viewed at this link.

The Pricing of Everything: a wide-ranging talk on neoliberal economics and its commodification of nature

George Monbiot, “The Pricing of Everything” (SPERI Annual Lecture , Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield, 29 April 2014)

Here’s a wide-ranging talk pulling in issues and aspects of contemporary politics and economics, philosophy and the place and value of nature and natural environmental systems in a global civilisation dominated by the values of neoliberal capitalism, and delivered in impassioned style by journalist and environmental / political activist George Monbiot. Since 1996, Monbiot has been writing a column on environmental and political topics for the British newspaper The Guardian and a transcript of his lecture can be accessed at this link.

It’s a long talk, about 45 minutes in length, but clearly structured around a theme of how societies these days are so dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideology that everything, even natural ecosystems, has to be priced in monetary terms; and how this ideology now pervades nearly all social, political and economic institutions and structures. This is just as well as Monbiot does not rely at all on visual aids whereas most other people would read off a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. Monbiot’s delivery and the stage on which he strolls about might be likened to a one-man monologue drama: the audience has to focus entirely on him. Since he bangs on without notes and with very little pause, not even for a drink of water, one might think the danger Monbiot should have foreseen would be that his talk would wander off up hill and dale on pet topics; to some extent, that does happen. Fortunately he has considerable experience in public speaking and presenting his material, and his talk is much less dry than would be expected given its subject matter.

The talk begins with Monbiot’s explication of what neoliberal economics is (as he sees it), what it has done or not done, and how it has failed to deliver what its proponents claim it can do.  Free markets are held as a sacrosanct concept in being able to fulfill all social and economic needs more effectively and efficiently than any other economic system or ideology, and the role of governments is merely to ensure that markets are allowed to identify where needs are greatest and allocate resources to meet those needs without interference. Over the last 35 years or so, governments have retreated from actively regulating particular markets and economies with fiscal policies and relying instead on expanding or contracting money supply as mandated by Hayekian / Friedmanite monetarist economics. The result generally has been privatisation of the public sector, a concentration of wealth in the financial industry, the usurpation of the real economy (one that produces goods and services) with the financial economy resulting in the death of manufacturing in many First World economies, and greater socio-economic equalities leading to the shrinking of the middle classes and a rise in and spread of poverty across social classes.

Having failed to deliver what it was supposed to do, neoliberal economics through its adherents in governments, lobby groups, academia and various think-tanks has moved to the natural world to wring from it the wealth, natural and financial, to support its agenda. This trend in neoliberal capitalism to commodify, monetarise and generally shape and divide the natural world for easier consumption and devastation constitutes the bulk of Monbiot’s talk.  Had Monbiot stuck to delineating examples of how neoliberal economics preys, vampire-like, on the natural world, his talk on the whole would have been very good, even great. Out of the talk though wriggles out one issue that is at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist agenda: the drive for power and domination.

At this point, Monbiot veers away from addressing the issue of power directly and starts prattling about how progressive and social democratic parties have shot themselves in the foot by abandoning their core values and core audience in pursuit of votes and winning elections and ending up no different from the parties whose policies and programs they supposedly oppose. From there we end up in a woffle about intrinsic versus extrinsic values and Monbiot getting those rather mixed up with values that emphasise the autonomy of the individual versus values that stress collective needs over individual rights and freedoms. The talk ends in a call for people to “mobilise”.

I’m disappointed that at the moment Monbiot identifies power as the heart of the neoliberal capitalist project, he starts talking around it instead of pushing on and showing how the drive for power over resources and accumulating even more power has distorted our societies and culture and demeaned the practice and values of democracy, individualism and freedom as understood by 18th and 19th-century Enlightenment thinkers. Of course one could say that the desire for power over material resources and other people as commodities is as old as civilisation itself but only neoliberal capitalism would make a fetish and a religion out of a set of values and a mode of thinking that prefers narrow and selfish low cunning for short-term ends over thinking and feeling that consider the long-term interest and the interests of others as well as oneself. The curious detour into talking about how political parties and their interests have converged does not address the fact that all political parties now concern themselves with acquiring power and deploying it to their own selfish interests, collective and individual alike. Politics has become an industry and closed world unto itself with its own jargon, culture, particular forms of entry and access to new joiners (known in economics jargon as “barriers to entry”) and members whose careers are politics and being politicians, and who depend on sponsors (party donors, lobby groups and others with agendas of their own) for money, support and direction.

Equally Monbiot is in dangerous waters when he confuses the values of collective societies with intrinsically held values and the values of Hobbesian societies that pay lip service to individualism, freedom, egalitarianism and democracy but understand neither (or distort the concepts) with extrinsically held values. The example of Japan under shogun (especially during its Tokugawa period from 1600 to 1868) and military rule in the early 20th century alone shows how a nation based on collective structures and values can oppress its own people and the people of other nations it conquers.

The issue that remains unaddressed is that the neoliberal capitalist project serves a small wealth cabal that wields enormous influence over people’s thinking and feeling through the exercise of both hard and soft power. Hard power as in spending on large armed forces and using them to repress people or to destroy rivals rather than to defend the weak is bad enough but perhaps even more insidious is the use of soft power to mould people’s minds, emotions and thus their actions through media and media technologies, advertising, drugs and other psychological tools and methods. In this respect the call for people to “mobilise” is so useless it can be likened to rain falling on barren ground bereft of bacteria and other microbes and life-forms to turn it into soil. Oppressed people will simply be too afraid to resist the brainwashing or be unaware that what they believe and feel is natural, is not.

It seems that the work of the 21st century world is to undo the psychological harm to humankind caused by nations and corporations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bedlam Behind Bars: wringing its hands over abuses in the US prison system

Matthew Hill, “Bedlam Behind Bars” (BBC Panorama, 7 July 2014)

In a country that was founded as an ambitious social experiment in democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and which is now devolving into a severe technocratic and brutal corporate police state, the weakest and most vulnerable victims turn out to be the mentally ill. This BBC Panorama episode investigates the increasing use of the public prison system as a substitute mental asylum network.

Reporter Hilary Andersson visits state prisons in Chicago and Texas to document incidents of violence, torture and other abuses committed by prison guards and wardens against prisoners with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. With a mix of interviews with prisoners, lawyers and mental health professionals, on-site filming and videos made by the prisons themselves, overlaid by voice-overs by Andersson and some of her interviewees, the episode reveals the dismal state of the prisons in which mentally ill people are held, bullied and beaten by guards. Prisoners’s cells are often filthy with mould growing inside or raw sewage seeping in. People may be kept in solitary confinement for hours at a time. Guards chain one man, naked, to his bed and force him to eat lying down with his wrists and ankles in chains; some days later, the man dies from heat exhaustion and dehydration in his cell. Other prisoners are punished with excessive and dangerous use of pepper spray by the guards. The irony is that earlier in the twentieth century, state hospitals established for the mentally ill were often just as bleak and brutal as the prisons today are. The asylums were later closed and community-based care institutions were established. Over decades however, as funding for such places was withdrawn by succeeding Federal, State and county governments, patients ended up on the streets or in the care of families, and many people were scooped up by public prisons through some incident involving a public disturbance or violence.

Although Hilary Andersson may be a good investigative interviewer, the program doesn’t push very far as to why the imprisonment of mentally ill people is still tolerated by Federal, State and county governments. Many interviewees who are in charge of the prisons deny that a problem exists or appear to make excuses for the prisons. Lawyers for prisoners talk of obtaining justice for their clients but no-one seems to question the situation where mentally ill people or people with hallucinations and delusions are ending up behind bars when they need medical help and treatment that prison employees deny. Curiously police officers appear as extras rather than as the shock troops of a brutal system and only one is interviewed. Another aspect of the prison system missed by the BBC Panorama program is the growth of private prisons whose operations are kept secret from governments and the public, and whose corporate owners often finance politicians’ election campaigns.

At the end of the program, Andersson and her team contact the Department of Justice with statistics on the numbers of mentally ill people who have died in the prison system but are rebuffed. While one woman interviewee is working to draw public and government attention to the plight of sick people in the prison system, the situation remains dire. No solution or set of solutions that would go some way to removing unwell prisoners from incarceration and giving them the treatments they need is suggested. American society appears helpless and at a loss for remedies.

Nowhere in the program is it ever suggested that the structure of American society and trends favouring privatisation, more social inequality, increasing social fragmentation and other pressures that encourage or aggravate mental illnesses are to blame. Political inertia exists because the prison system as it is benefits current US politics and the money links that bind politicians to corporations, some of which now own and operate private prisons. Unfortunately with the BBC becoming a propaganda front for US and UK and government and corporate interests, the program adopts a helpless approach to its subject matter: it can only shine a light into some dark areas of the US prison and justice system and wring its hands.