How the Rich Ate South Korea: how the chaebol have dominated South Korean politics and economy since 1945

“How the Rich Ate South Korea” (Asianometry, March 2022)

One paradox regarding South Korea’s economic success over the past 60 years is that (as this mini-documentary observes) one factor in that success is turning out to be a major curse. Moreover that factor may well become a cause of the country’s downfall as an economic power. South Korea’s economy is dominated by a group of large corporate conglomerates known collectively as the chaebol. These conglomerates are familiar to Westerners with names like Hyundai and Samsung, and (in earlier years) LG and Daewoo. These companies had their origins in the 1940s – 1950s, when South Korea’s first president Rhee Syngman began privatising state enterprises and enterprises seized from Japanese owners in order to raise money to fight the Korean War. The prices that buyers paid for these enterprises were determined through private negotiation. After 1961, when Park Chunghee seized the presidency, he enlisted the help of the chaebol in his goal to emulate Japanese economic success: the companies supported his import substitution policies and his ambitions to develop export industries, and the South Korean government gave loans to the chaebol at below-market rates. Over the next couple of decades, the South Korean government favoured the chaebol with economic “reforms” that also had the effect of suppressing the country’s medium and small business sectors. By the 1980s the wealth inequalities that had appeared between the families that owned the chaebol and the rest of the South Korean public – who also wanted better environmental regulations and working conditions, and a better quality of life – were becoming a major political issue.

After Park Chunghee’s assassination in 1979, South Korea was taken over by a military government and the chaebol supported the presidencies of Chun Doohwan and Roh Taewoo by throwing money at them. In 1987, the country became a democracy but rules for political campaigning and their funding were either weak or non-existent, and the chaebol took advantage of this situation to penetrate democratic politics and buy parties and politicians by financing their election war chests. The chaebol were rewarded by the politicians they bought via “reforms” such as regulations that favour them, protections from foreign competition and legislation that allow them to access foreign capital financing. Other “reforms” affected the chaebol’s organisation structures that allowed members of the families that owned the chaebol to own shares in many subsidiary companies and thus exercise more control over more companies. Cross-ownership (in which companies hold shares in one another) was allowed. Many of these so-called “reforms” were to lead to economic meltdown in 1997 as a result of the companies’ over-exposure to debt.

Although reformist Presidents like Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun tried to curb chaebol abuses by limiting debt capacity and cross-shareholder structures, these changes did have the unintended effect of concentrating ownership in a number of industries to the extent that some industries became monopolies. In 1997, there were five independent Korean auto-makers; after that year, there was just one: Hyundai. In the early 2000s, the chaebol took advantage of a neoliberal global economic environment to expand their markets and huge profits began rolling in. After 1997, an agreement between the Korean government and the chaebol allowed the chaebol to start laying off people in droves with the result that hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and poverty, especially among older people, escalated rapidly.

Although the Korean voting public has tried to bring to power politicians who can solve the country’s economic problems and reduce poverty and wealth inequalities, leaders like Lee Myungbak and Park Geunhye have failed to curb the excesses and greed of the chaebol. At the same time, the national government has failed to enforce laws and regulations that the public has long demanded be strengthened and which the chaebol resist. At the time this mini-documentary was made, chaebol power over South Korean politics and the resulting consequences and tragedies (such as the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry, killing 304 passengers including 250 high school students, in April 2014) continue to be the prime issue in South Korean society.

South Korea’s economic success story mirrors that of Japan during the late 19th / early 20th centuries and one can argue that South Korea is now in a position similar to Japan’s in the late 1940s: Japan solved its crisis by breaking up the zaibatsu (admittedly because the US post-war administration insisted on this) and replacing the institutions and networks associated with the zaibatsu with looser arrangements. It is obvious that the chaebol also need to be broken up but in the current global economic context, in which neoliberal economics favouring centralisation of power in larger institutions dominated by small yet powerful elites prevail, what should replace the chaebol is the major problem: South Koreans need to ensure that whatever organisations or arrangements replace the chaebol do not themselves turn into a new generation of chaebol in everything but name.

The mini-documentary is well made with good, often quite lavish visual material made up of photographs, archived film and aerial scenes of metropolitan Seoul. It serves as a useful introduction into the history of South Korea and its economic development. Where the video could be improved is in noting that despite the rampant corruption in politics and economy, the country still prospered and this is due to the hard work and sacrifices made by the Korean people themselves as factory workers, medium and small business owners and employees, public servants, employees in logistics companies, and in other occupations supporting these workers.

What Eating the Rich did for Japan: a useful introduction to Japan’s modern economic history

“What Eating the Rich did for Japan” (Asianometry, October 2021)

In this mini-documentary on the Asianometry Youtube channel, the history of the zaibatsu – the huge industrial conglomerates owned by a small number of family clans in Japan from the late 19th century well into the mid-20th century – and their growth, leading to their eventual demise and break-up, is examined. The origins of the zaibatsu lie in the Meiji Restoration, when Japan abolished the Shogunate in 1867 and began to Westernise its politics, economy and society to avoid Western colonisation. Initially economic reforms and the building of infrastructure were bankrolled by the government but when these proved to be hugely expensive and bankruptcy threatened, the government privatised many of its more lucrative enterprises including the Miike Coal Mine. These were bought up by merchant families, some of which were descended from samurai, and the profits earned from their acquisitions enabled the families to accumulate fortunes that allowed them to buy more assets. The zaibatsu developed through vertical integration in the industries in which they had bought their original assets: for example, owning a coal mine might lead to owning the industries that depended on coal for fuel; or owning a factory making steel might lead to owning the minerals and other raw materials – and the mines from which these were obtained – needed for manufacturing steel. Manufacturing steel led the zaibatsu to make products that used iron and steel as their major materials: ships, trains, railway lines, motor vehicles, various household goods such as whitegoods. All these activities required financing so the zaibatsu also established banks and insurance companies to cover their costs and the risks involved in their financing.

As they grew, the zaibatsu took on government contracts to produce needed manufactures, especially for Japan’s armed forces. Through the early 20th century, the zaibatsu came to dominate Japan’s economy and supported the Japanese government’s imperialist drives in eastern Asia and beyond in the 1930s and 1940s. After the Second World War, the zaibatsu were broken up and dissolved, and the zaibatsu families’ wealth was reduced through various reforms such as reforms in the financial sector that limited the families’ ability to own controlling shares in public companies, land reforms and nationalisation of particular industries.

The documentary is lavishly illustrated with colourful photographs, film stills and archival visual materials, all presided over by a voice-over narration that details the rise and fall of Japan’s zaibatsu and the families that owned and controlled these conglomerates. The narration is rather fast and viewers might need to re-watch the documentary to catch some details.

The major problem with this documentary is that it more or less ignores the wider political context in which the zaibatsu grew: there is little mention of Japan’s decision to pursue imperialist adventures in northeast Asia and in the rest of China and in Southeast Asia, and how the zaibatsu eagerly responded to the demands of imperialism and then of war. The documentary also does not say that after the Second World War, much of the impetus to break up the zaibatsu and distribute their wealth more fairly among the Japanese people came from the occupying US administration. Additionally there is not much information given as to how much the Japanese people really benefited from the limited break-up of the zaibatsu.

The Korean War and the ensuing Cold War put a stop to total dissolution of the zaibatsu, and new forms of corporate growth such as manufacturing for export and informal links forming between companies (usually by buying shares in one another) leading to their becoming incorporated into a bigger corporation, though in a much looser way, enabled some old zaibatsu corporations like Mitsui and Mitsubishi to recover their fortunes. Yet there is little mention of how a revival of the zaibatsu corporations’ fortunes depended a great deal on Japan’s new role in the Cold War as an economic bulwark against Communism in the Soviet Union and China.

At the very least the documentary serves as a useful introduction into the modern history of Japan since the late 1800s when the country switched abruptly from pursuing a policy of almost total isolation from the rest of the world, to following a policy that in the space of less than 80 years would take Japan from an economic backwater to a power that could defeat the British empire.

King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia: an imperial folly avoided

Carlton Meyer, “King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia” (Tales of the American Empire, 29 April 2022)

Among the many follies of past US President Woodrow Wilson (who served two terms from 1913 to 1921) was his plan to establish an independent Armenia, by force if necessary, in northeast Turkey in the early 1920s. The new country would have covered a large area right up against Turkey’s border with what was then contested territory between Turkey, then emerging from a dying Ottoman empire, combined with the Armenia of the old Russian empire that would soon become part of the Soviet Union. The area in Turkey had been subjected to ethnic cleansing of Christian communities, many if not most of them Armenian, by Ottoman Turkish authorities during World War I. Kurdish individuals were often tasked by the Ottomans to kill Armenians and other Christians, and some of these Kurds were rewarded with the houses and other properties of their victims. Irony of ironies, in the later Republic of Turkey, these and other Kurds would end up under immense pressure from Ankara – including the banning of their languages and cultures, deportations and even massacres – to give up their Kurdish language, traditions and history, and assimilate to the dominant Turkish ethnicity.

Meyer gives a summary of the situation in Turkey just after the end of World War I when the Ottoman empire was weak and European powers were vying with one another to grab and control Ottoman territory in the Middle East. Britain and France carved up the Levant between themselves and Italy and Greece competed to grab parts of western mainland Turkey around Izmir / Smyrna and the islands just off the coast. Turkish soldiers and military officers under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk (who for some strange reason is not mentioned in the episode) took up arms against the Ottoman government and fought to secure Turkey’s territory and borders. Independent Armenia, established just after World War I from Russian imperial territory, did not stand a chance: abandoned by the West, the country was invaded and forced by a new revolutionary Turkish government to give up territory taken from the old Ottoman empire.

For his part, Wilson had relied on getting approval from the US Congress to send US troops to fight with Armenia to gain Turkish territory in 1920. Congress refused and independent Armenia ended up being squeezed by two powers in its region (Turkey and the Soviet Union). The rump Armenia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921 and did not regain its independence until 1991.

Had Wilson been able to persuade Congress to send troops to Armenia, the outcome could have been very different and much bloodier: Wilson’s ambitions would have pitted him and the US against not only Turkey but the USSR and possibly even Britain and France at a time when the US was relatively inexperienced in conducting international diplomacy. A war against Turkey and then the USSR might have drained the US of money and young men, and the US and economy would have run a very different course in the 1920s. The US was already in the habit of occupying other nations militarily and running their domestic affairs to the detriment of the populations in those nations, and the addition of Armenia to that set would have entrenched the habit and created an unstable geopolitical situation in the Middle East close to the Soviet Union. Armenia and its neighbours in Georgia and Azerbaijan could very well have become buffer states between the West and the USSR and all three could have become the setting for a new World War.

While Meyer regards Wilson’s plan for an independent Armenia (albeit one that would eventually become dependent on the US and at the same time act as the eyes and ears for the US in the Middle East) as yet another foolish imperial adventure following previous ones, starting with despatching troops to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean from 2015 onwards, he does not give very substantial reasons as to why supporting an independent Armenia in land taken from others (even if those others stole the land themselves) was a foolhardy undertaking. A small, impoverished nation stuck between two much larger powers with their own plans for the Caucasus would never have survived for very long and American lives lost in defending Armenia would have been lost in vain, to say nothing of the impact on Armenians themselves. That an independent Armenia exists now and has done so since 1991 is the result of a much changed geopolitical context in western Asia.

While Soviet annexation of Armenia delayed Armenia’s political development, it did at least help preserve the nation and gave Armenians a reason to rally around their culture, language, history and traditions in the hope that one day Armenia, no matter how big or small, would become independent.

Though one can sympathise with the Armenians’ desire to run their own affairs after the horrors they endured during World War I, perhaps in the long run it was better for the Soviets to have annexed Armenia than for Wilsonian Armenia to exist. A Wilsonian Armenia would have been surrounded by neighbours hostile to it and heavily reliant on faraway Western nations whose support would be inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. In the multi-polar world, Armenia may well find that having been part of the Soviet Union gives it an entry into the network of China’s Belt Road Initiative at a time when Europe is turning away from partnership with Russia and by implication China.

Checkpoint: a polished fantasy exploring the purpose of existence

Jason Sheedy, “Checkpoint” (2021)

Here comes a 10-minute number that initially looks like a virtual reality game being played by several avatars of the same player over and over for some purpose. A prisoner (Brett Brooks) must battle his way out of his confining jail and complete a series of trials in order to claim his love Victoria. Each time he loses a trial, he is killed in the most gory way possible – in one trial he fails, his head explodes; in another, he is decapitated – and he finds himself back behind the gates of his prison. a little wiser after the last death experience. His new avatars pick up coins from the dead bodies of previous avatars.

With each completed trial, the action in the film speeds up, the tension escalates as the prisoner comes closer to his goal, though the coins he collects along the way – perhaps he needs them to pay his way into the dimension where he will claim his reward? – slow him down. Finally after so much effort and a trail of dead avatars in his wake, the prisoner makes his way to meet Victoria (Erin Ownbey), only to discover that she isn’t what he believed her to be, and that his reward is the beginning of another series of ordeals …

“Checkpoint” is a very smartly made film about an unlikely protagonist who, in most other films, would be the antagonist – the prisoner looks shady and villainous enough, and indeed Victoria tells him he was chosen to undergo the trials because he represents one of the seven classic deadly sins of Christian teaching – but in this short film becomes a character the audience roots for. By enduring so many deaths and completing the series of trials, the prisoner does demonstrate admirable qualities of patience, resilience and self-sacrifice. However the prisoner discovers that he is little more than a plaything for higher celestial beings using him and six other representatives of the Deadly Sins to test whether humanity deserves to live or not.

The special effects are very good and help give the film quite a polished and sophisticated look despite its restricted budget. Brooks’s acting is enough to give his prisoner something of a roguish quality while he runs around trying to avoid being shot and splattered all over the ground. The support cast is not given much to do and Ownbey’s character seems very one-dimensional. Very little background context – how did the prisoner agree to get involved in these trials in the first place? – is given in the film.

The film looks like a pilot for a television or movie series in which the prisoner and his fellow human guinea pigs are plunged into various scenarios where they must redeem themselves through upright behaviour and demonstrate that they and other humans deserve a second chance. The sense that these people are pawns of perhaps indifferent, even sadistic cosmic beings who enjoy playing, well, God is strong. Will the prisoner and the other six representatives of the Seven Deadly Sins willingly continue playing out Victoria’s games or will they rebel?

El Camino: a film of sci-fi / horror alienation and existentialism

Fernando Campos and Jaime Jasso, “El Camino” (2020)

A well made and visually gorgeous film, “El Camino” happens to be the culmination of five years of work. In its characters and plot, the film is inspired and influenced by Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, the film that started an entire franchise of sci-fi horror movies and defined Sigourney Weaver’s entire film-acting career. Weary cargo spaceship pilot Rojo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), beset by problems unknown (though audiences can guess: owing a debt to a criminal space gang perhaps, needing money) and on the way home from previous arduous missions, is offered one more dodgy deal that will clear some of his obligations and allow him to go home with his daughter Robin (Yam Acevedo). He accepts the job and collects a mysterious cargo which is guarded by an armed robot. During the trip Rojo feels unwell and the ship lurches suddenly. Robin guesses that the strange cargo may be affecting Dad’s health in some way and goes down to the hold where the cargo is located to investigate …

The work put into the film’s set designs, the backgrounds and the various special effects is stunning. The vast expanses of space are emphasised, and with them the isolation, loneliness and exhaustion of space cargo operators as they deliver shipments of sometimes dangerous cargoes throughout the length and breadth of the cosmos. One can imagine that pilots compete for shipment contracts that pay peanuts yet demand a great deal physically and psychologically from pilots. No wonder Rojo looks so drained and seems so unwell!

The acting is minimal almost to the point of it being underwhelming but Rojo’s distress and horror when he discovers something dreadful in the cargo hold becomes all the more poignant. He faces losing the one thing he has sacrificed so much for, the daughter who is his one reason for living. He faces having to go home alone with all the pain of being alone and cut off totally from other human beings.

While the plot and the characters seem small compared to the film’s visual design – the characters are a bit one-dimensional without much backstory that would explain why they do the things they do; and viewers can predict that once Rojo accepts the cargo and tells his daughter not to go near it, she will disobey him and suffer the consequences – they do illustrate the film’s themes of the possible hazards of space travel and how their intersection with the demands of an industry (and the ideological paradigms that have shaped that industry and the corporations in it) impact on humans and their families and communities. One has a sense of Rojo and his daughter Robin being pawns of powerful unseen corporate and individual players in the interstellar shipment industry.

The film plays like a pitch to a possible feature film in which further consequences of Rojo’s decision to accept one last job play out on innocent others in Earth’s space colonies.

Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths: the prosaic truth behind real monsters and mythical monsters

Garrett Ryan, “Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths” (Toldinstone, 21 August 2021)

Part of a collaboration with NORTH 02, a YouTube channel dedicated to palaeontology and human evolution, this video in the Toldinstone series explores possible inspirations for some of the monsters known in Greek mythology: fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts from the Cenozoic Era that came after the Cretaceous Age ended some 65 million years ago. In particular, historian and narrator Dr Ryan looks at the griffins – creatures with lions’ bodies but the heads, wings and tails of other animals – and a possible connection with fossils of Protoceratops dinosaurs from Central Asia. He also examines the possibility that the skulls of dwarf mammoths and elephants on some of the Mediterranean islands inspired the monsters known as Cyclopes. Dr Ryan then turns his attention to mammoth fossils and the likelihood that they inspired the giants who fought Zeus, his siblings and their allies in the titanic battles that were the Gigantomachy.

After mentioning these creatures and the possible links to dinosaurs, mammoths and their relatives, Dr Ryan cautions against assuming a causal relationship between dinosaurs and griffins, or between mammoths and the giants and Cyclopes. Dr Ryan points out that the griffins existed in Greek myth long before the Greeks became aware of the worlds beyond the territories of their Scythian neighbours in Central Asia and the area now known as Mongolia where the Protoceratops fossils were found. The possible connection between dwarf proboscidean skulls and Cyclopes might seem to be on firmer ground: the Greeks did not know of elephants or their relatives until late in their history as an independent people; and, on seeing the fossil skulls of prehistoric elephant relatives, would have been awestruck and obsessed with finding an explanation for the presence of a giant cavity between the eye sockets. Again though, until definite evidence can be uncovered, we should not be rash and assume that dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls were the direct inspiration for the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes existed in Greek mythology for a very long time and discoveries of dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls came some time after the myths of Cyclopes became widespread. In other words, it is a case of making evidence, real or not, fit the narrative, rather than following the evidence to see where it goes. In addition Greek mythology happens to teem with monsters stitched together with various human and animal body parts: the Minotaur, Cerberus and the Medusa are just some of the hideous creatures infesting the myths. Also in describing Greek technological and engineering achievements of some 2,500 years ago, we should not forget that the ancients did not have the scientific method and their worldview may not have been as rational or as enlightened as we assume it to be.

The video is lavishly illustrated with photographs and film stills that echo the myths Dr Ryan refers to. While viewers may be disappointed that dinosaurs and mammoths were not directly or indirectly responsible for the creatures of Greek myth, they can at least take comfort in the fact that the Greeks had vivid imaginations and endowed their myths, legends and stories with flawed heroes and the most monstrous demonic beings.

Everything Everywhere All at Once: wacky science fiction exploration of the nature of nihilism and existential angst

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)

True to its title, this wacky science fiction / fantasy / philosophy film dips into nearly every major genre of film known, all over the known cinematic universe, nearly all at once … the wonder with all its sub-plots and themes is that the film manages to be quite a coherent whole. Most people may find it difficult to follow though if you are comfortable with the idea of multi-universes existing all at once – with each and every one of us in this universe having doppelgängers in all the other universes existing in parallel dimensions living the lives we might have had, if we had made different decisions earlier in our lives – you will be able to follow and keep up with the sub-plots as they bleed into one another. Into this wild mix, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert deliver a surprisingly profound message about the nature of the universe, the meaning of nihilism and how humans can find meaning and purpose in a universe that is indifferent to human existence and experience.

Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) struggles to keep her laundromat going despite the threat of the Internal Revenue Service to obtain a lien over the business after Wang tries to claim some rather suspect business expenses on her taxes. Life around Wang is falling into pieces: her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is trying to serve divorce papers on her; her father (James Hong) has just arrived from China under the impression the laundromat business is going well; and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is anxious for Wang to accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). The family encapsulates many stereotypes about Chinese immigrant families and their behaviour in the US; in particular, Wang and her daughter have a complicated relationship rooted in Chinese custom, tradition and expectation colliding with current American values about individual freedoms and the belief in the individual right to pursue happiness and to reinvent oneself. Called to a meeting with IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn Wang’s life suddenly takes a different turn when Waymond’s personality changes and he reveals himself as Alpha Waymond from the Alpha universe, come to our universe in search of Wang to help him combat Jobu Topaki, formerly Alpha Joy. Alpha Joy was pushed by Alpha Evelyn, now deceased, to “verse jump” (accessing the skills, experiences and bodies of one’s doppelgängers in parallel universes after fulfilling certain rituals) too extensively; now Alpha Joy / Jobu Topaki has a splintered mind and experiences all universes all at once. She has now created a giant black hole called the “everything bagel” that now threatens to swallow up all the multi-universes ever created, including ours.

Acquiring “verse jumping” technology, Evelyn discovers other lives she could have had, including lives as a martial arts expert / film star (if she had obeyed her father and given up marrying Waymond), a teppanyaki chef, an opera star and Deirdre’s girlfriend. From all of these lives and others, Evelyn gains the powers she needs to defeat Jobu Topaki. She discovers that Jobu Topaki created the Everything Bagel not to destroy everything but to destroy herself – because having experienced everything every universe has to offer, and still encountering chaos, Jobu Topaki has come to believe that nothing matters and life is meaningless.

The film breathlessly jumps from one confounding scenario to another, illustrating the chaos and apparent lack of structure, meaning or continuity from one universe to the next in a nihilistic meta-universe – in one universe, the Wangs are about to lose their laundromat, in another Alpha Waymond dies – but thanks to the energy and zest with which Yeoh, Quan and the cast play their roles, and to clever writing and editing, the film hangs together much better than might be expected. The script-writers use small details from one universe and blow them up into something more important in another universe so despite the multiplicity of universes, there are commonalities that stitch the whole tapestry of universes together. Security guards in one universe become Jobu Topaki’s minions in another and various laundromat customers turn up as singers or fighters in other universes. Bag packs and small dogs become kung fu weapons in different universes! Yeoh and Quan are brilliant in the ways they transition from one role to another as the Wangs jump from one universe to another – though it must be said that many of Evelyn Wang’s different doppelgängers mirror Michelle Yeoh’s real-life experiences as an actor initially specialising in martial arts / action thriller films and then as a global film celebrity. The two main stars are ably supported by a capable cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis in a comic turn as IRS auditor Deirdre.

In addition to exploring nihilism and existential angst, the film can also be read as the experience of an immigrant family under internal and external stress, and how it copes with such stress: in this reading, the film is not so successful at explaining how the Wangs are eventually able to turn their lives around financially and keep their laundromat business and marriage intact. The film can have a third reading as a work about depression, its characteristics and how families might cope and deal with depression and develop the tools for overcoming or moderating it. The answers for dealing with depression and nihilism may be trite and banal – Waymond Wang implores Evelyn and others around him to be kind to one another and to connect with each other – and some viewers may find the resolution of Evelyn’s conflict with Jobu Topaki rather underwhelming, as Evelyn and Joy come to an understanding and reconciliation: Evelyn accepts that she has been pressuring Joy too much to be what Evelyn herself failed to be and that Joy needs her own space.

Perhaps the film tries too hard to be everything everywhere all at once: I’d have liked to have seen something in the film’s plot suggesting that the Wangs come to some realisation that they need help in managing their laundromat business and that the story begun in “Everything Everywhere …” might be continued in a sequel, in which the multi-universes come under attack from a second meta-universe outside them all, and the Wangs are called upon again to marshal all the forces of the multi-universes against the new threat.

Grayzone interview with Jacques Baud: “US, EU sacrificing Ukraine to ‘weaken Russia’ “

Aaron Maté, “U.S., EU sacrificing Ukraine to ‘weaken Russia’: fmr. NATO adviser” (The Grayzone Project, 15 April 2022)

Here is an excellent interview by US journalist Aaron Maté (for his Pushback series on The Grayzone Project) of Swiss intelligence analyst / former NATO military official Jacques Baud whose article “The Military Situation in The Ukraine” I highlighted elsewhere at Under Southern Eyes. Maté uses Baud’s article as the launchpad for his interview, starting with the immediate causes of Russia’s decision to intervene in Ukraine that Baud wrote at length on. Baud points out two triggers for the intervention: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to reconquer Crimea by force in March 2021 and the increased shelling of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine by Ukrainian army units in February 2022, as observed by the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. From then on, the Russian government moved very quickly to recognise the independence of the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in the Donbass. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a friendship and assistance agreement with the two rebel republics so they could ask for military assistance under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.

The bulk of the interview however focuses on those factors that made the Russia-Ukraine conflict inevitable and its resolution difficult to achieve if not impossible. Throughout the conflict Russia offered diplomacy and negotiations yet Ukraine has consistently refused Russia’s offers or treated them with disdain. Baud sees two factors influencing Ukraine’s irrational behaviour: the country’s Western backers (the US, the UK, France, Germany) do not desire peace and diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia; and President Zelensky’s ability to decide and to act is severely constrained by powerful neo-Nazi forces in the Verkhovna Rada and Ukraine’s security agencies including the SBU. This leads to some discussion between Maté and Baud on the broader Western aims to weaken Russia by drawing that nation into a war with Ukraine, as spelt out by a 2019 study by US thinktank Rand Corporation. As Baud sees it, the penetration of Ukraine’s military and security agencies by neo-Nazis, and Ukraine’s reliance on foreign mercenaries to help resist Russian intervention are due to a high rate of defection within Ukraine’s armed forces to the Donbass side and a reluctance among men and women of military draft age to join the Ukrainian army to the extent that they prefer to leave the country altogether rather than be press-ganged into the army. This surely suggests that most ordinary Ukrainians feel no loyalty towards their government and that attitude itself says something about what Ukrainians think of Kiev’s conduct towards them over the last few years since the 2014 Maidan uprising that toppled the then President Viktor Yanukovych.

The interview concludes with Baud’s analysis of two incidents that horrified the world: a reported mass killing of civilians in Bucha, a Kiev suburb, in early April a couple of days after Russian forces left Bucha; and a missile attack on a train station in Kramatorsk that killed 59 people and left 109 wounded. Kiev was quick to blame both incidents on Russian armed forces and the West accepted Kiev’s pronouncements as gospel. Baud concludes from information he has about the incidents that the Russians are not responsible for either incident and that evidence points to the Ukrainians themselves as perpetrators. What troubles Baud is that Western governments and news media have not only blamed Russia for these and other attacks but have made decisions and reacted on the basis of their assumptions without waiting for more information and then analysing that information … and only then making pronouncements and policies. Unfortunately at that point in the interview, Maté had to finish it off and so this part of the interview is not dissected further. The most significant aspect of this section of the interview is that European leadership as well as US leadership is woefully incompetent and perhaps even worse than US leadership in jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information or even on lies and fantasies.

A transcript of the interview is available at the link in the first paragraph for those who find the interview a bit confusing or hard going. Reading Baud’s article will provide some background to understanding what Maté and Baud cover.

Why the Sparta you know never existed: a militaristic culture stereotype revealed as no different from landed gentry

Garrett Ryan, “Why the Sparta you know never existed” (Toldinstone, 8 April 2022)

Classical Sparta has long been perceived as not much more than a highly martial society that trained all its male citizens for little more than to fight wars and prepared all its women (that is, the daughters of Spartan citizens) for marriage to Spartan citizens and bear them sons for war. Undoubtedly the unique and highly regimented nature of Spartan society for its male citizens, and the rigorous education of boys for their future role as soldiers that such a society demanded, have contributed to the popular stereotype. However as historian Dr Ryan explains in this episode of his long-running Toldinstone series, Spartan society was actually more complex than it at first appears. In a short space of time (just under 13 minutes), Dr Ryan quickly describes the lives of Spartan male citizens, their womenfolk and the helots (slaves) who served them.

Spartan men and women are revealed to have lived the lifestyles of what we might call the landed gentry and aristocracy, with men engaged in soldiering, exercising in gymnasiums, hunting for pleasure and dining with their friends, and their womenfolk involved in running their households, directing their domestic slaves, raising young children – and often also running their own businesses. The lives of helots, who far outnumbered the Spartan citizenry, could be brutal and miserable – but they were necessary to carry out the functions of Spartan society so that Spartan citizens could effectively live lives of luxury. Dr Ryan then compares Spartan and Athenian societies and points out that most differences between the two city-states in their politics, their class structures and the lifestyles of their elites are really differences in degree.

It is true that all male Spartan citizens trained to be soldiers for the state – but what they had to do was perhaps equivalent to modern male citizens living in a society where conscription is compulsory and all men of draft age (18 years to early 60s) are regarded as part of their country’s national reserve, to be called to serve at short notice. When the country is at piece, then male citizens are more or less free to live their own lives, provided they maintain their weapons and participate in regular training programs as required. If Spartan boys were taken from their families to train in physical education in special state facilities to prepare for their future adult lives as soldiers, this was not much different from, say, the British practice of enrolling upper and middle class children in boarding schools for several years with the aim of instilling British values and belief in British uniqueness and superiority in the children and prepare them to govern and control the lower classes and British overseas colonies. If the lives of the helots (slaves) under Spartan rule were harsh and humiliating for them, parallels in Western societies can be found: Anglophone settler societies in North America, Australia and elsewhere employed slave labour, convict labour and indentured labour to do their dirty work while their ruling elites enjoyed lives of relative ease and pleasure; and similar might be said for settler societies founded by other European nations in areas they colonised in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The revelation that Spartan society and culture are really not so very different from Athenian society and culture – or even from modern Western society and culture – is less surprising than at first it might seem. Perhaps what we really should be surprised at is how we have been persuaded over the decades to see Classical Athens and Sparta and their relations as a metaphor for Cold War relations between the West (western Europe, North America and their allies) and the East (Russia / USSR, China and their allies) and how the two ancient Greek city-states ended up being shoehorned into stereotypes with Athens supposedly being gold-standard democratic and Sparta being the antithesis of Athens.

Unfortunately Dr Ryan doesn’t go far enough into his video to explore why Sparta has had such bad press from its Athenian enemy and from modern Western nations anxious to portray themselves as a sort of New Athens … but then, such an exploration would require questioning how and why Classical studies has been politicised and used to justify Western political and cultural superiority towards non-Western nations, usually with the aim of dominating those other nations, repressing their peoples and cultures, and stealing their lands and resources.

How fear is used to control people in “Fear Psychosis and the Cult of Safety – Why are People so Afraid?”

“Fear Psychosis and the Cult of Safety – Why are People so Afraid?” (Academy of Ideas, 3 April 2022)

In itself, this is an interesting video talk about the cultural phenomenon of fear that currently pervades Western society across the globe in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City in September 2001 and what followed after: the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the NATO interventions in Libya and Syria in 2011, the spate of terrorist incidents in Europe and other parts of the world, and ongoing Western manipulation of Ukraine resulting in various Color Revolutions that have had the effect of eroding democracy and bringing to power governments that work closely with NATO with the aim of undermining and eventually overthrowing the current government of Russia. Much attention is given over to detailing how people living under a narrative of constant fear think and behave, and how a belief that the world is a dangerous and unstable place leads to a cult of safety that puts limits on people’s freedoms and ability to make decisions for themselves, their families and communities, and encourages conformity and dependence on authority figures and ideologies. In previous centuries, Western society relied on religion, especially state Christianity in its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms, to control people and enforce conformity; now in an age where most people profess atheism, and with the COVID-19 pandemic being uppermost in the lives of people and nations across the world, the new ideology used by governments and their backers to control people is based on a narrow (and very distorted) interpretation of “science” or what might be called Scientism (and which the video narrator calls The Science), with public health officials, regulation agencies, pharmaceutical corporations and opinion makers elevated to celebrity status by mainstream news media acting as a hierarchy of high priests telling the public what to believe and what not to believe.

The video puts forward quite a convincing argument on how the narrative of fear is used to restrict political freedoms, shut out freedom of speech, compel conformity and stop people from questioning the conditions of society, why things are as they are, and perhaps challenging ideas, traditions, structures and paradigms that have long outlived their original usefulness and relevance and are now being used by power elites to exploit others and deny people their rights and freedoms. The video makes a plea for us to become aware of how fear pervades our culture and our lives, how fear shapes society and the decisions we make, and to try to train our thinking and the way we view the world to become more optimistic and develop an attitude of courage, hope, risk-taking, resilience and adaptability.

Unfortunately the video provides no guidance as to how individuals might take the small steps needed to change their thinking and behaviour, and break away from being brainwashed to fear. Just as importantly, the video does not say how individuals might support one another to maintain optimism, hope, courage and other positive behaviours, ideas and belief systems that encourage and reinforce risk-taking and enterprising personalities. A second criticism that might be levelled at the video is that it fails to make the connection between the cult of fear and the historical experience of Western societies, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries when much of the world was under European and US colonial / imperialist domination. Anglocentric settler societies founded upon dispossessing indigenous peoples of their lands and resources, their cultures, histories and identities, and exploiting those peoples and immigrants, voluntary and forced, for their labour to benefit a minority elite, especially lived (and continue to live) under the fear that all these peoples will eventually rebel and claim what is rightfully and justly due to them. The United States in particular is a society very much based on fear – fear of slave rebellion translated into fear of black people, fear of those opposed to American belief in exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny – and this fear has spread into and through its mass media culture. The video does not probe to any degree at all into how US popular commercial culture has shaped and continues to shape people’s perceptions and channels their insecurities and fears into a narrative that now dominates Western culture.

As with its other videos, this video is lavishly illustrated with mostly Western art works that help to illustrate its claims.

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