Monday, August 22, 2011

On the Libyan Revolution

American was born of violent revolution, and one might even say revolutions. Residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and what would be Vermont had largely thrown off Royalist rule in a series of pustches against local officials in 1773-74. There were already restive uprisings before then, dating into the 1600's. To be against violence is impossible as an American, because one must be in favor, at least, of receiving stolen goods.

Our age worships the word "revolution" and its derivatives, in my spam filter are a dozen revolutions, with operators standing by for my order. The space saver bag seems to be the most persistent.

It is a very debased coin, in the same way that the Victorians worship of "natural," in the middle of a technological and social construction of artificiality was debased, and it has beneath it a contradiction. Sex is the drive that concerns nature, because leaving behind descendents with recombined DNA is the means by which variation spreads through a population, and populations evolve. To worship nature, and to worship romantic love, as the Victorians did, is to worship reproduction. However, the Victorians had to link reproduction to economic and social control, because they were at, or beyond, their own ability to support their own population and produce the concentration of wealth required to expand their power and position.

In our time, to worship revolution, is to worship what produces it: anger, resentment, rage, dislocation, heedlessness for personal consequences. And yet, we, as a society, abhor all of these things. A run of the mill Hollywood thriller has crimes in it which would get the lead characters shot without trial. We link revolution, to refer back to my spam filter, to economics. Revolution then, is not revolution, but the attempt of some group of people to position themselves more favorably among the hierarchy of wealth. That is to say, we have turned revolution into etiquette, and our approve revolutionary activities consists of those not far different from paying the brain tax to a copyright holder at a stadium concert. When the revolution comes, building luxury skybox capable sports stadiums and filling them, will not be the priority. And yet we act as if the 1960's happened because MLK got on the stage with JFK and Ghandi to play a set at Woodstock, and the war ended.

The roots of revolution are, similarly, a murky melange at best. In general, high inflation is one of them, as people can no longer simply pull into subsistence, as their meager store of exchange is depleted. This is larger than you think, because inflation is that tax that no man need collect, and which finds every untapped store of funds. It is that tax that is is impossible to evade, the tax which is surer than almost any other. Food inflation leads to hunger and discontent, particularly among populations that have been stuffed with calories to promote stability. Where there is subsidized bread, there is a revolution crushed under the weight of grain.

So it was in France in the 1780's, where day laborers ate subsidized bread, until the regime decided it could not afford it, and so it was in Egypt where a subsidized bread system covered much, though less and less, of the population. I point out that one did not see fat demonstrators in Egypt, but their upper classes, are quite well fed, to the point of being obese. As early as 1981 a memo in the US pointed out that Egypt's problem was managing foreign exchange, and therefore the government should reduce subsidies for food to the lowest point equal to maintaining order. The same was true of other "social welfare" policies, including the child health insurance system, which excluded half the population because they did not attend state schools. The architecture of soft repression, is laid out by Harvard graduates and public health school professors.

So it was in Libya.

Earlier this year, the realization came to the Obama administration that what Bush had attempted to do by brute force, and what they were failing to do by brute force, might be more efficiently accomplished by support from afar. It was a realization that many had come to before: that modern air war could, in fact, support the toppling of governments that were repressive and unpopular, so long as, of course, there was some sort of revolutionary movement willing to actually do the work of regime change. This had the advantage from our point of view, that it was self-limiting: without a movement that could actually charge the steps of the Presidential Palace, however numbly there would be no intervention, since bombs cannot run a country. Note that bombing, but itself, does nothing other than kill people and waste capital: without a human social force on the ground, one can dump bombs on, for example, Hanoi, and not change more than the captains of the anti-aircraft batteries.

The administration also realized that it could not get support from its own party, which is equivocal on almost all use of force, nor from the opposition, which reserves the right to use force to Presidents of its own party. The Republicans are Republicans first, and at this point, Americans not at all. Democrats rally around a war President, Republicans rally around a Republican war President. Politics continues from the water's edge, and goes round the world at this point.

Thus, unconstitutionally, but pragmatically, they went to war by bombing. They delayed and stonewalled Congress, became involved in debt fights and other domestic issues, and continued that air campaign. The air campaign revealed the horrible weakness that a decade of occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan had wrought. Our own allies asked for American planes not to be involved, so bad was their marksmanship and fire discipline. Run ragged by virtually 10 years of non-stop use and abuse, our fighter bombers were less effective than they had been in the air war over Iraq 8 years ago. Instead, the focus shifted to missiles, and drones, close air support and some amount of, again illegal, ground presence by American troops.

This makeshift war policy, which had the brokered support of the Europeans, particularly the French and the British, was, at first, an abject disaster. The rebellion had alread flared in Tripoli, and utterly failed to secure its objectives. The introduction of NATO force was, then on the peripheries of the Libyan state, without funds, without popular backing, and without trained fighters. It was essentially a series of clan rebellions gathered under one flag. The first months of the air campaign were, more or less, devoted to preventing them from being destroyed by Libyan tanks and air power.

The crucial turning point, however, was not military, but internal: a military leader, who was in the employ of the regime, was shot. From there the progress of the rebellion became remarkably quick, especially when the external steps of closing off the regime's money supply were completed. Internal unity, and external interdiction turned military disaster, with fighting wobbling at the edge of the oil infrastructure, into a rapid drive to the center. A losing war was won, but not by military power first.

So there it is: a revolution, bastard in any sense, with a government that is likely to be fractured. However, the key sources of catastrophe in Iraq are not there: there is no US presence to be a massive fountain of corruption to fight over, there are no preferred outcomes. Libya, such as it is, belongs largely to the Libyans. For as long as they can keep it.

And this is the reality, that while the removal of the regime is accomplished, replacing it with another is far less likely, and will not be aided by bombs. For the reflexively anti-war, it should be, but will not be, a lesson. That lesson is that violence works, and to always and everywhere oppose violence, is to always and everywhere support it. It should more specifically be a lesson to the anti-war left. The left, virtually all of it, is in favor of a looser money policy. This means more oil and food inflation, and therefore, more situations like Libya, or Syria now. More times and places where we have already intervened, where the left already supports a bombing mission: namely Ben Bernanke dropping helicopters filled with dollars on them. Having already intervened, and having already supported intervention that leads to hunger and violence, for the left to then say that it is not in favor of other violence is logically and morally inconsistent. It is saying that we want to outsource the violence that our polity requires to others, so that we can benefit from the jobs that a hotter monetary policy creates. The anti-war right has not such logical quandry: they favor depression now, depression tomorrow, depression forever, which will, at least, reduce the pressures of inflation drive revolution. There is an advantage to being wrong, in that logical consistency is easier to maintain once you admit that you care not for the welfare of anyone in the name of ideology.

The lesson for the left then is that opposition to small winnable wars is used as proof for engaging in large, unwinnable wars. The lesson is that there is no moral absolute stance against violence, unless you, personally, are willing to kill yourself now, as the beneficiary of 500 years of genocide in the Americas. The lesson is that if such wars are not dealt with constitutionally and legally, they will be dealt with unconstitutionally, and illegally.