Demodernization, the ultimate threat

The barbarians are not at the gate. They are running the government.

Catastrophist alarm is a rather useless note to strike. Obviously there are dozens of alarming facts, any one of which might give us pause, a pursing of our lips, a shudder of anticipation, a benumbed nod of resignation, and on we trudge to the next banal moment of our so-called “real” lives. We’re sleepwalking, and it’s hard to do anything else. My peculiar reading choices keep pushing me outside the complacent normalcy that cocoons us these days. So I don’t want to claim the sky is falling (well, isn’t it? why not claim it?) but I think we’d all be a lot better off with a dose of realism about this odd moment in history we’re living in.

The Katrina/New Orleans story haunts all urban life now. In San Francisco this is compounded by the plain knowledge that the next Big One could strike in the next 10 minutes, or in 150 years. I’m reading Philip Fradkin’s compelling account of the 1906 earthquake and fires (The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, UC Press: 2005). Fradkin’s account clearly documents the way the local bourgeoisie used the disaster to seize direct control over the city and its reconstruction. Reading this book, realizing it was written well before Katrina wiped out New Orleans, it’s an eerily accurate century-old premonition of what seems to be happening now. In 1906 the state and federal government rushed aid to the scene, unlike today. San Francisco was not abandoned and left to its own efforts like the criminal neglect and degradation imposed on the people of New Orleans. But the uses of disaster by the powerful and monied interests behind the scenes is like a step-by-step description of what has happened again in New Orleans.

As if we needed it, here’s another dramatic demonstration of how important it is to understand history. Urban disasters actually seem to produce very predictable behaviors and results. Perhaps if people knew better the history of past disasters they’d be more prepared for the next ones. We can look back 100 years and see collusion between private, wealthy citizens and the local military and police. We can see how reconstruction priorities and funds get completely shaped by the people who were already beneficiaries of this society’s inequitable structures. More recently, we should study the history of what FEMA always does, so fantasies of being “taken care of” by the federal government will be disabused, or better, interpreted as the mafioso-like threat they are. And who can be surprised by the uses the kleptocratic war criminals running the US government are making of the disaster in New Orleans?

Poeple organizing for aid and writing critical articles about government failures are naive and delusional. There is no plan, goal or honest attempt to meet people’s needs, and there never was. This is an opportunity for ethnic and class cleansing, and they are making full use of it. We can expect the same in the wake of future urban disasters wherever they strike.

Is this just a cynical claim of a disgruntled radical at his keyboard? It may well be dismissed as such by some of the few who read it. But there is a growing body of evidence that we’ve moved into a very new era. A smart article appeared in City magazine, hidden behind a subscription wall by the academic publishers, called “Switching Cities Off: Urban Infrastructure and US air power”. The article’s author, Stephen Graham, makes a compelling case. Unlike the focus of former military guy John Robb at Global Guerrillas, Graham argues that the increasing vulnerability of contemporary urban life is most threatened by “traditional powers” like the United States. Aerial bombardment, being radically increased by war criminals running the Iraq war with hardly a peep out of the cowed press, is the key instrument in imposing U.S. will on recalcitrant zones. The destruction of Serbia and Kosovo, which hit civilians much harder than any military targets (and as such, is clearly a violation of the Geneva conventions and the so-called “rules of war” Bush and Cheney like to trumpet), was a short and small version of the huge destruction wrought in Iraq since 1991. Graham calls this “deliberate demodernization” a continuation of total war in a different key.

Iraq’s infrastructure has been reduced to rubble. Clean water, hospitals, roads and bridges, all gone. The program of civilian punishment is clear. A society that develops outside of U.S. economic and/or military control will ultimately be destroyed, either as an example to others, or to create new markets for rapacious U.S. corporations, or both. Iraq is exhibit A in this new strategy. The U.S. is clearly losing the war in terms of stabilizing a nation that can integrate into the U.S. global empire. But in terms of fear and loathing, punishment and retribution, the U.S. is carrying out its agenda.

New Orleans is a city that has long been a thorn in the side of the very same people who are wreaking destruction as social policy on far-off countries. Since nature came roaring through with the scouring winds and rain of Katrina, the first half of the pacification program has been done without having to implicate the decision-makers in the Pentagon and White House. The “failures” to remedy the disaster since then ought properly to be recast as the success of the actual program of this government to punish and destroy urban centers that don’t toe the line.

Jane Smiley has a cogent summary of this argument in “A Ten-Step Program” over at the Huffington Post. Her overarching frame of reference remains a curious amalgamation of liberal hopefulness and misplaced U.S. patriotism, but anyway, she at least has the clarity to point out that the so-called failures of the Cheneyites and Bushistas are actually precisely the successes of their long-term program to destroy the government.

…The Bush administration apparently wishes for and is working toward a chaotic Iraq, a corrupt American election structure with openly corrupt influence-peddlers like Delay and Abramoff in charge of policy, a world in which people suffer and die from weather-related catastrophes, a two-tiered economic structure in the US (with most people in the lower tier), and the isolation of the US as a rogue state from the other nations of the world.

How else are we going to interpret the satisfaction the President continually expresses in the results of his policies so far?

The Bush regime is not such a departure from those that preceded it. One of the ongoing liberal myths is that Bush/Cheney have hijacked the government and that somehow there’s an agenda of governing that is more humane and reasonable. But the ultra-reasonable Bill Clinton was the one who started bombing Kosovo and Serbia, and maintained the heinous sanctions on Iraq that killed a half million children,and killed off welfare as we knew it. Bush Sr. and Reagan were pursuing the same policies, albeit with less abandon than the current crop of madmen.

Liberalism is dead and good riddance. Hoping to elect good people to office, to restore honest elections, decent systems of regulation and environmental sanity… it’s just so much wild-eyed fantasy. Things will get worse, much worse, as long as we continue to tell ourselves false, ahistorical stories about the world we’re living in.

The vicious kleptocrats and war criminals are clear-headed realists pursuing their own power and wealth at everyone else’s expense. Nothing will change their direction. They’ve already had a half decade to loot, and with blood dripping from their mouths, they’re only halfway through the meal. Sure, there’s a few more mosquitoes buzzing around the ever rising carcasses before them, but hey, it tastes great! And it’s not even filling!

3 comments to Demodernization, the ultimate threat

  • We have read Stephen Graham’s article “War in the ‘Weirdly Pervious World'”, likely similar to “Switching Cities Off”, under wraps by Routledge. Came across your site thru web search on “forced demodernization”. We would be interested in reviewing manuscripts which address this topic; wondering if you might assist?

    Diana G. Collier
    Editorial Director
    Clarity Press, Inc.

  • Mark

    Similar observations were made at the American Historical Association’s recent meeting.

  • John Robb

    Question. Could you send me a copy of that article on airpower and cities?

    Thanks much,


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