Calico: The Cat that may Never come out of the Bag

(Written for Kindle Magazine, December 2013)

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

As privatized healthcare gets to be seen more as a consensus than a contested issue, Google is investing in the sector that promises to fetch maximum return in coming decades. And unlike the inevitable controversies associated with privacy searches, there are least amount of resistance to its foray into such a noble domain. Just around the time when capitalisms reputation has reached the lowest ebb, Calico Project aims to put the kindest human face yet on this vicious system.

 

Perhaps no other futuristic idea has generated as much enthusiasm as Calico. And why not? A promise at least to cure illnesses, if not to enhance longevity while at that, is just as good as it gets. Being part of the Google X Lab, this project is deliberately mysterious, and very little, if not nothing is really known about it. But it is abuzz with excitements. And Time Magazines speculation regarding its death-defying capabilities has lent the kind of credibilities to Calico that were once reserved for pathbreaking inventions such as telephone, airplane or computer.

 

This growing fascination with Calico probably should leave us with far profounder questions – of both idealist and materialist nature. Should Google solve death? Does longer life equal to greater joy? Need we strive for quantity over quality? Are we not to set healthcare priorities in a world steeped in inaccessibilities for the disabled, malnourished and the poor? How much more can we trust private pharmaceuticals to take care of public health? Can making healthcare free and accessible for everyone in the planet, a goal the Calico Project can dare to set?

 

At the same time, unfortunately what makes these especially redundant questions is the ways capitalism functions, so as to enable the monopolists to dictate the ruling questions of the times, howsoever utopian they appear to be. In fact, only by pretending to solve attractive questions, does capitalism become acceptable, at the first place. As one of its foremost champions today, Google has proposed to save humanity from death and illness, at the very time when its own health was dwindling to a trickle.

 

Mired with numerous scandals involving illegal activities pertaining to violations of privacy rights, to profiting from installing unauthorized cookies in users browsers, to using information of its users for commercial gains without consent, Google is an empire founded on deceit and manipulations. Indeed, Google has always preferred to settle cases related to its ad spying behaviors (this year by paying $17 million fine and last year $22 million for the same crime). This is precisely because by paying such meagre penalties, it stands to gain more – profit wise – than it would if it stopped illegal spying. So whereas Google will make $47 billion dollars this year from advertising through spying (which is now an integrated feature of Google Plus), it will pay a tiny fine that equals to only three-hour worth of its revenues.

 

It should appear as highly suspect that a parasitical corporation that feeds off innocent data sharing of its users can be entrusted with, literally, the well-being of humanity. And yet, instead of getting shocked at such a scenario, the world media is full of adulations for Google, because while corporations act as individuals when it comes to paying taxes, they get mystified while committing crimes. When in 2011, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) had fined Google over Google Buzz privacy concerns, as the outcome, it conveniently shut down the project. In real life, an individual may have to face lifetime imprisonment for a fraction of the crimes committed by Google.  

 

Instead of jail terms, the innovators were found dining with the American president – who to his credit has been using NSA for the very purposes anyway. Instead of penalizing the companies that acquire bright initiatives only to shut them down once it makes little commercial sense, capitalism rewards big monopolists by entrusting with them the credibility to continue with similar onslaughts.

 

Google has often thrived on hypes – be it the invitation codes to open email accounts or the mystery labs that not even its own employees have seen, there is a pattern to its attracting initial investments with scant regard to their long-term viabilities. Whether Calico survives to serve long-term or temporarily profit the bosses at Google depends on the wisdom of its head, Arthur Levinson who chairs Genentech and is a director of its owner Roche, which has numerous dubious distinctions of breaking antitrust laws and engaging in price fixing to eventually emerge as one of the largest entities worldwide, in the privatized healthcare industry.

 

It remains to be seen if Google, Apple, Genentech and Roche shall use this hype as an opportunity to invest in researches that address roots of healthcare issues, or use it as a humanizing veil to cover-up the crimes of capitalism while collaborating with nefarious motives that inform the pervasiveness of greedy pharmaceutical corporations and privacy encroachment giants.

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Revolution 2.0: Victory of the Hashtaggers

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

 (Written for Kindle Magazine)

 

Possibly the greatest myth about the world we inhabit today, is that things are just getting worse everywhere. Apparently, the claim goes, things were all flourishing until a couple of decades ago. People used to be all nicely employed, they owned their own houses, had finest of healthcare, made tons of savings, expressed themselves freely without fear, and were generally happy-go-lucky. And that, things are just plain ugly today, with uncertainties looming large, with privacies encroached upon, people falling prey to corporate propaganda, and intellectual vacuum looming large.

Alas, even the worst myths have some credibility. So let’s start from there – yes, things used to be great for some folks, back in the days. In those good old days. In those abjectly feudal, and overtly colonial eras. Since there was slavery, the plantation owners had it good. Since there were princely states, the royals had it good. Since there were colonial empires, the colonialists had it good. Since there was Apartheid, the racists had it good. In fact, the myth has so much credence that the ruling class of every epoch believed they all had it so good. Quite naturally then “You’ve never had it so good!” became the US Democratic Party campaign slogan in 1952 and was swiftly adapted by the UK Conservative Party five years later. The myth of goodness apparently existed until the advent of the 60’s, if not until the end of the 70’s.

What in the world suddenly changed?

Here’s the shocker: nothing perhaps has changed. Maybe the world is still the same. Whether things were nice and dandy back then depends on who we seek that answer from. Usually, a white privileged male in the US, an upper-caste landlord in India, a French right-wing supremacist in Algeria, among numerous other categories may find things getting worse over the period of time. Whereas a black Afrocentric radical, a feminist of color, a gay man, a disabled woman, a Dalit activist – may in fact claim that either things have remained just the same, or they in fact, have improved. People who were being lynched in the public because of the color of their skin or women who were treated as no more than dishwashers are not the one to complain about the gradual turns of events. They may rightfully complain about the viciously slow growth, but they are in no rush to turn back the clock and tune into the halcyon days. As Louis CK points out rather profoundly regarding white privilege: “I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option I would re-up ever year. Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white, thank you. Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like hey anything before 1980 no thank you, I don’t want to go.”

History of the world can be written through the lens of the
ruling class, or it can be narrated from the perspectives of the oppressed.
From the lens of the latter then, the world could indeed be making progresses.
It is making progress when we witness women demanding wages for house work, it
is making progress when men join protests against rape culture, it is making
progress when outcastes reject the dominant paradigm, it is making progress
when the racial minorities establish academic departments in hitherto elite universities.
And these progresses do not happen merely incidentally, they do not happen
because of sudden change of hearts; instead they do, because of concerted
efforts and revolutionary movements of the working class – a vital credit which
the ruling class deliberately refuses to concede, lest such experiments become
too commonplace to be suppressed.

Even greater in significance than the myth are the means.
How exactly do the historically oppressed manage to make progresses? After all,
they traditionally lack not just power, but also access; they start out
disadvantaged, with entry behavior knowledge, skills, and abilities
compromised. The dominant understanding of emancipation is that the ruling
structure empowers the oppressed through greater facilitation of resources. The
truth is way unsavory: the historically oppressed invariably always turn
ungrateful towards their ruling masters. They take time to gain the knowledge
to challenge the status quo, make efforts to acquire skills to equip themselves
to face eventualities, and finally work in solidarity to dismantle the
oppressive structures, at times gradually, and at other times suddenly. What
usually seems spontaneous in revolutionary framework is invariably always a
result of prolonged preparations and wait for the opportune moment.

Among the means to challenge and dismantle structures, the
most pivotal one comprises education. Historically, slaves and landless
peasants used to be educated by their masters with the sole purpose of becoming
more efficient servants, and yet some of those ingrates after having their
consciousness raised about their oppressed conditions through the newly
acquired knowledge, then used to utilize that very transformation as a tool
against their own masters. This is an inevitable process pertaining to
historical stages of development. The greed of the ruling class, the tactic of
the oppressed class, and the revolution as the synthesis.

Media of all kinds are only extensions of that irresistible
weapon of education, that ineluctable tool of emancipation.

The historically oppressed have always tried to seize the
media and to make them work in their mission to overthrow the systems of
oppressions. At times, they have succeeded. And at other times they have been
defeated. This was true for print media, it was true for electronic media, and
it is true for digital/online media.

The ruling class interpretation however has been starkly
different. Obsessed as it remains with keeping the oppressed duly invisible,
and focused as it remains with its own profit charts, the ruling class
interpretations are concerned only with the conversation its own team members
have with each other. As a result, both liberal and conservative publications
entirely leave out narratives that have direct impacts on the racially
oppressed, for instance. The need for black underground press in the US rose
specifically to challenge the prevailing discourses between educated whites who
shaped media agenda while entirely ignoring existing racial tensions as a structural
given, not as a symptomatic aberration. Most of the researches conducted at
elite schools focus therefore, on media monopolies and the gory sketches of
their battles to redraw the maps of territorial conquests. They remain
oblivious to the underground rebellions by innumerable insurgents, at times
deliberately oblivious because they are convinced that the noisemakers are not
aspiring for a takeover. And more often than not, they are right. A political
analysis will draw the parallel between the nature of the colonizers and the
nature of the colonized. Whereas the colonizers worry about expanding their
territories, the revolting masses only are interested in their own
emancipation.

And so is the case of media. Huge majority of the world
possibly has no interest to become media moguls. Rupert Murdoch is neither
their competition, nor their enemy. The anti-poor, racist, casteist policies
furthered by their oppressive governments are their concerns. Reclaiming a
country’s past (sic) glory is not something they remain bothered about,
especially since that system never worked for them anyway. Besides, the
majority rightfully demands for a life with basic needs fulfilled, and not
everyone thinks that unlimited greed is a good thing. And so they are interested
in subverting the dominant paradigms without needing to reinforce those very
undesirabilities themselves. From radical comic strips to basement mixtapes,
from underground hip-hop to homemade newspapers – the creative subversion of
media over the time has been aimed at being emancipatory without being
necessarily competitive. The producers of these media have been jailed by the
authorities, harassed by the communities, and ostracized by the advertisers.
But the quest to challenge the dominant media narratives has never ceased
anywhere in the world at any point of history.

And so it is with the Internet and online media.

Started as a militarist project, aided by money from the
capitalist regime, Internet has been subject to sustained appropriations by
hackers, hobbyists and housewives. In the times of big corporate media engaged
in mergers and acquisitions, Internet has enabled plethora of independent
bloggers, many remaining anonymous, and most continuing to update their
platforms without necessarily fear of authorities or expectations of profits.
They are aware of their state of being othered, marginalized and oppressed. And
they are in no hurry to make compromises, while steadfastly remaining glued to
making revolts. Many of them are even found micro-blogging on Facebook and
Twitter, making alliances with strangers all around the world, generating
consensus with hashtags, and creating alternative universities in the virtual
world where conventional, institutionalized truths are massacred and unfounded
claims are doubly, nay, innumerably checked for veracity. Internet has provided
for Afrocentric literatures that could never be found in public libraries or
dominant media’s breaking news, it has allowed for interviews with those
freedom fighters to be shared and archived, who would never get an invitation
from any of the four estates of democracy. 

There are challenges to Internet of course; enormous ones.
Just as there were challenges to all previous and contemporary forms of media.
But there are opportunities too on Internet; enormous ones. For one, it
provides access to those who can access it, which is far greater an empowerment
compared to, let’s say, writing a letter to the editor of a print newspaper,
while waiting for it to be published uncensored. Secondly, the social media
bring people together, virtually if so desired, and for real, if so. It allows
for more people to get informed about and to participate in a protest rally, an
Occupy demonstration, an awareness march against sexism. All one needs to do is
post an event, provide a backgrounder, interact with the audience to answer any
question, make changes to the plans real time, cover the event for those who
could not attend, and archive it for future references. Not to discount the
difficulties or even impossibilities of such networking at the face of enormous
digital divide that has rendered majority of people without access to Internet,
to begin with. But to underline the fact that Internet, when enabled, emerges
greater as an accessible form of media than any other. The need therefore is to
democratize it and to make it universally accessible, to make it truly
participatory.  

For the teeming millions, the question is often not about
ownership. The question is about participation. The joy lies not in
monopolizing. It lies in distributing. Maybe it is how most of us have simply
been raised – amidst the sheer joys in, or necessities of sharing. And
therefore it becomes our second nature to simply enjoy the very fact that we
are able to share new information with each other, through blogging, through
micro-blogging, through file-sharing. Maybe that something which appears to be
unproductive by the ruling class is something we just tend to be doing over and
over again. In an otherwise individualistic, secretive world reveling in
distrust, suspicion and increasing abandonment of neighbors, maybe the virtual
media is what boldly caters to our needs. Who knows if it is good, bad or ugly.
For sure, at least for now, the authorities think it is threatening them. This
coming together of people who disregard their carefully assigned social
locations and organize themselves for a common cause that transcends boundaries
set by the ruling class. Maybe that is what is a constant irritant to the
historically oppressive ones, and for that reason alone, it must continue as a
revolutionary tactic.

No wonder, Obama’s NSA is after these people, these global
ungrateful netizens. In the most recent development, Verizon which at first
denied, and later admitted of having turned over the call records of millions
of American citizens to the NSA has, only this September, testified in the
court that it wants to prioritize those websites and services that are willing
to shell out for better access. Verizon has made it clear that the company
would block online content from those companies or individuals who do not pay
its tolls – obviously undermining Net Neutrality principle. Concerned by the
NSA and its corporate partners such as Verizon, Brazil has become the first
country to propose rejecting America’s web authority. President Dilma Rousseff
has recently ordered a series of measures to ensure Brazilian online
independence and security to defy NSA interceptions. The way Brazil wants to do
this is by compelling Facebook, Google and other US companies to store all data
related to its citizens locally on Brazilian servers and by pushing for new
international rules on privacy and security through the UN General Assembly.
Its potential effectiveness, or even viability, is yet to be evaluated, but it
is certainly something that may encourage other countries to follow suit. This
suspicion also underlines the refusal on part of international community to be
convinced by Obama’s assurances regarding user privacies. The bigger concern of
course is if the anti-Americanism itself may then give way to invincible
national repressions. Will it be any more ethically sustainable on part of
other countries, to filter contents or to keep a watch over their respective
netizens domestically? 

Answers to that already exist within the US, where many a
domestic horror stories remain untold until after a case reaches a court of
appeals. The most invisible ones are related to Internet freedom, precisely
because any expose of that would discredit the country’s long standing, albeit
hypocritical, claims on free speech, while equating it with let’s just say,
China. Or, for that matter, with India. When two girls landed in trouble over
commenting on Facebook about Bal Thackeray, it made world headline last year.
And yet the US has been persecuting its own citizens for much lesser Facebook
activisms that go unnoticed. In 2009, six employees at the Hampton Sheriff’s
office in Virginia lost their jobs after registering their ‘likes’ on the
Facebook page of the person who contested their boss in an election. Two of
those employees, Deputy Daniel Carter and Robert McCoy, filed a lawsuit
claiming they were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts specifically for liking a
Facebook profile for Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams and as many as four years
later, only last month, a court of appeals decided that liking something on
Facebook was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s
front yard” and hence it would be considered protected speech.       

While the cat-and-mouse game persists, losing sight over the
pattern would be a travesty. Harassment of the audience based on their media
consumption, or arrests of producers based on their media activism is not a new
trend. Neither is encroachment on individual privacy rights as is being largely
claimed following Snowden’s grand revelations. The entire saga of FBI is
nothing, if not one state sponsored and violence-laden surveillance program.
The Red Scare, the infamous Smith Act, McCarthyism, the war on Black Panthers
are all among numerous systematic assaults on privacy rights in the US. 

 

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The truth is there never were any golden days of freedom and
equality for the world in the past, as is being felt nostalgic about these
days. Unless, we value the life of, or demand for freedom by the most oppressed
as being inherently lesser – since there have been substantial outcries against
oppression at every stage of history, most of them not just regarded as such
only because the history textbooks follow ruling class ethos. Only when we take
the starting point of analysis as one where the status quo is considered to
have remained virtually the same, if not emerged better, we can recognize that
more people – even purely quantitatively speaking – are able to join global
resistance against capitalism and express themselves today, than ever before.
And this political opportunity has opened itself up, because as the bearded old
men have hinted at, the Internet may indeed be what the capitalism has produced
to further its own gains, and yet, it may eventually become its own
grave-digger. As more desperate measures are taken to control Internet and as
even more resistance surfaces to free it – through the radical voices of the
hitherto underrepresented – the fall of ruling elites and the victory of
hashtaggers will become equally inevitable.

Lesson from Snowden: Myth of the Free Press

By Saswat Pattanayak

 

The recent rise in whistleblowers in America maybe new, but the governmental scrutiny and penalization process is hardly so. Apart from the widening scope of social/virtual media’s sphere of influence, there is hardly anything unique about the circumstances unraveled by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Political radicalism, underground media activism and alleged unpatriotic nature among conscientious citizens in the United States are what has indeed uniquely created this country.

It has always been the case of the powerful ruling class elites duly supported by the judiciary, military and corporate media constantly engaged in wars against progressive activists and causes. Because the blazing speed with which various official and classified documents now reach a diverse global audience is something new, the use of technology in bridging the gap between ruling class and the formerly clueless audience certainly appears to be groundbreaking in our times.

But to claim that there are spectacularly outrageous misdeeds that the Obama and Bush administrations uniquely are culpable of when it comes to attacking free speech rights, is to get the peoples’ history entirely wrong. It might suit our times to highlight what appears to be bizarre and unacceptable to us from a legal standpoint, but to view that as historically decisive moment that is unprecedented, would be to trivialize the various ongoing struggles against ruling class monopolists.

To begin with, there is clearly nothing novel about collection of vital information about individuals. In many cases, it may not even be illegal. We have been willfully submitting information related to our private lives to corporations such as Google and Facebook since years now. Unless it is a special dislike we harbor towards the government as an institution, the privacy rights argument appears quite weak at the outset. But what is important to remember while expressing shock and disbelief at PRISM is that such experiments have been core to the way governments have always functioned in collaborations with business houses.

It is only after Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers that enormous importance was attached to the idea of a whistleblower, and by extension, to the idea that it is crucial to expose an administration when they lie. There’s no denying that it is important to leak official documents with an intent to secure individual rights, but what is equally critical is to not get all shocked at the findings of classified information. What is essential is to recognize what I.F. Stone used to say: that, all governments lie. All administrations resort to lies. That, international diplomacy is nothing but a systematization of lies. What is crucial is to acknowledge that individual freedom is always going to be limited so long as a state exists. That, it is not just the communist and overtly authoritarian regimes which manipulate individual rights to free speech and privacy, but the western liberal democracies have also always done so.

After rising to fame, Daniel Ellsberg has declared that Snowden’s are the most remarkable contributions in recent times. He said, “I definitely have a new hero in Edward Snowden, the first one since Bradley Manning, and I’m glad it didn’t take another 40 years. People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration.” Whereas Ellsberg is right in calling Snowden, Manning or Assange as heroes of our times, they are not the only ones in the span of last forty years, or if Ellsberg’s claim to fame is considered, in the history of the United States.

Nothing could be farther from truth. Only in recent times, prosecution of Judith Miller clearly revealed to what extent journalists could be penalized for concealing their sources. As a New York Times reporter, even as she did not publish any article about the Plame Affair, Miller had to spend twelve weeks in jail for refusing to reveal her source. Miller clearly is not a hero in the sense that Glenn Greenwald or Bob Woodward are, but the lesson that needs to be drawn is that not all journalists are equally privileged in order to get away with what would be considered a “crime” for others. Race, gender, accessibility, networking, political rapport among many other factors influence the heroisms.

Even as Woodward has made millions of dollars off the sales of his investigative journalistic books – works that have ideologically helped the Democrats – during those very times, every other underground paper in the country were being shut down by the government. Woodward or Ellsberg were champions for a change of power in Washington to suit their political beliefs, not activists for press freedom on behalf of publishers and editors of radical media.  A Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was formed just to address the assaults on press freedom in 1967. Managing editor Ron Thelin of Oracle wrote, “Well, here we all are, Uncle Sam on the verge of death. A sleep-stupor symbol-addicted environment haunts our hearts, and what are we going to do about it?” Jeff Shero who had campaigned for the abolition of segregated toilets at the University of Texas founded ‘Rat’, a major left-wing underground newspaper. New York’s ‘East Village Other’, California’s ‘L.A. Free Press’, ‘Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s ‘Fifth Estate’ – and at least thirty other small radical publications had together formed UPS as a means to organize, educate and agitate the masses, to make investigative journalism accessible and to make investigations that truly exposed the contradictions within capitalism.

UPS was inspired by the Black Panthers and shared information with the public that would help challenge the duopoly of phony democracy. They were also vehemently anti-sexist. One of their resolutions ran, “That male supremacy and chauvinism be eliminated from the contents of the underground papers. For example, papers should stop accepting commercial advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell records and other products, and advertisements for sex, since the use of sex as a commodity specially oppresses women in this country.” As a result of the underground media activism in the United States, as Abe Peck wrote, “DDT was banned, abortions were legalized, the draft ended, U.S. troops finally left Vietnam, the American Psychiatric Association “de-diseased” homosexuality, and draconian sentences for smoking plants were reduced.”

Scandals like Watergate were the bread and butter of the underground press, while New York Times and Washington Post were busy covering nuclear power stations. I.F. Stone and Hunter S. Thompson, Max Scherr, John Wilcock, were among the more prominent names in the underground media scene. It was only after the UPS became so impactful that it attracted FBI’s campaigns to shut it down, that the kinds of Bob Woodwards and Daniel Ellsbergs rose to prominence. With big media, pulitzer prizes and partisan favors monopolizing over investigative norms, the revolution found itself stalled. Ellsberg failed recently to appreciate his predecessors, maybe because the underground journalists were not just opposed to Nixon, but to the entire system of political economy that benefited the liberals and the white left. Whereas, “Actuel” published regularly investigative reports on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s murderous rampage, some sampled stories from a typical issue of “Fifth Estate” included: a strike by illegal Mexican American immigrants in the Californian vineyards; the MC5 tel
ling stores that wouldn’t stock their records to go fuck themselves; the white left: can you take them seriously?”

Berets and black leather jackets, Afro hair, military salutes, and iconic poster images – the underground press raised its fist; self-defense and communal self-sufficiency spawned new organizations such as the IBA (International Black Appeal) which appealed in the pages of the Inner-City Voice for help in distributing food in the ghettos of Detroits, suffering in the aftermath of the 1967 riots.

Thirty years since, underground press no longer exists in the United States. Instead of asking what led to the demise of an activist oriented news coalition that not just made investigations and made classified information accessible, witnessed its publishers getting jailed and offices ransacked, and virtually experienced first-hand the murder of press freedom – if we continue to glorify four white men in last forty years for merely leaking information that would have otherwise kept our private lives private, then we are missing the mark entirely.

Long before the UPS came to fore, when the American administration was attacking radical newspapers, W.E.B. Du Bois already had attested in 1953, “It is not a question as to whether these facts and opinions are right or wrong, true or false. It is the more basic question as to who is going to be the judge of this, and as to how far honest people can remain intelligent if they refuse to listen to unpopular opinions or to facts which they do not want to believe. There is a determined effort today to put papers like these out of existence, to harass and harry them, to make readers afraid to subscribe to them or to buy them on news stands; to keep newspaper distributors from handling them; and in these and other ways to make their continued existence impossible.”

Snowden’s episode followed by Lavabit exposes what should have been long known, had we been paying attention to the history of the underground press. Cops have confiscated typewriters, cameras, darkrooms, graphic equipment, business records, books and posters; editors have been convicted of false obscenity charges, on charges of immorality, their cars firebombed and their offices infiltrated by plainclothed officers. Starting from the “red scare” to the “witch hunt” to the underground press, anticommunist arrests of journalists and sustained harassments targeting anyone, black or white, that exposed the racist administrative policies, press freedom in the United States (and much of Europe) has been a sham all throughout the recorded history.

Ellsberg, Woodward, Assange, Manning, Snowden are merely those who have relatively survived the assault.

The Market

By Saswat Pattanayak

Real man Farhan Akhtar prevents violence against women on behalf
of the Delhi Police, Al Gore makes millions to save the planet from temperature
gain, Amnesty International recruits Peter Gabriel to be their conscience,
Aishwarya Rai counters Polio and HIV/AIDS, Unicef heralds Aamir Khan as the
expert on child rights, and Narendra Modi hires Amitabh Bachchan to spread
‘Khushbu Gujarat Ki’.

And we lesser mortals, legends in our own minds, emulate our
stars and wait for our moment to go viral on Facebook and Youtube, while these
corporations churn out billions in our name via offering us a supposedly free
platform. Even Michael Moore, the multimillionaire activist, sells a few more
copies at the Left Forum. Rape won’t happen again, wail our criminal leaders on
our television screens; while change.org gives us a marketable online page to
cry justice.

From activisms against capitalism to advocacies by corporations,
from revolutions on the streets to enactments on the television sets, from
underground coalitions of committed comrades to publicized hobnobbing of social
media elites – the nature of agitations has probably undergone radical
transformations in recent years. From tactical opposition against brand
positioning, to using marketing as a tactic in the struggle – the organizing
principles of movements have perhaps witnessed drastic shifts. From teach-ins
of topical significance, mass sloganeering across college campuses and
independent publications from the basements, to the dying library culture,
thriving business of institutionalized coaching and emergence of the big media
– the character of education has, of late, seen systemic revisions.

Individualistic values were traditionally attached to marketing
strategies that lured the consumers into choosing between options. Now even the
collective values are being marketed rather profitably. This near complete
synthesis under the auspices of marketing is the mark of capitalism – well
received, embraced, and adapted to, in our times.

One could argue that capitalism transcending all barriers and
uniting us in our greed is supposed to be a good thing. After all, until this
stage is reached, there would be no way to successfully combat its ills so that
a higher stage of human development can be aspired for. What one merely wishes
for is a sufficient critique of this synthesis during our times that can
translate into, and bring alive the spirit of organized dissent. For when Bob
Dylan went electric, there had erupted endless controversies; today, he
endorses Oris luxury watch without even a glitch.

Maybe then we have to stop looking at the chosen few individuals
for answers, subsumed as they have been under, and also benefiting from, the
marketing diaspora. Maybe the climate of a universal superstore that sets the capitalistic
standards of success and fame should be allowing us to think beyond it. The
world of marketing has already done its job. Maybe its time we started doing
ours – by imagining a new world, a hype-less society whose tireless activists
need no corporate endorsements, no mass approvals, no mention in the weekly
lists of bestsellers, no official state recognitions, no standing ovations at
mega award events.

Better still, perhaps such folks, the flag-bearers of an
alternative world, the proletarian heroes, the working class agitators, the
unsung poets are already in our midst. And, we fail to notice them time and
again, enamored as we are by the layers of seductive marketing – deluded by the
promises from the visible, hypnotized by the cheerleaders of the exploiters,
and beguiled by the antidepressants prescribed in the form of reassuring words
of our false gods. We oftentimes fail to notice that the agents of oppressions
can creatively manipulate their subjects to relish a higher degree of degradation,
given that it happens with greater tacit participations of those that they
oppress, and in the process, manufacture a coterie of luminaries that
convincingly speak to the grateful lot of us on behalf of our benevolent
masters.

 

What we need to do then, is to unmask the majority hype,
recognize the minority dissent, and replace the entire system. Lock, stock, and
barrel.

(For Kindle Magazine)

Satyam Scandal :: Ramalinga Raju is not the Problem

By Saswat Pattanayak

When Enron conveniently declared its bankruptcy in 2001, it not only resulted in rendering more than 5000 employees jobless, and relegating more than $1billion in employee retirement funds to vacuum, but the corporation also succeeded in eventually evading recovery of more than $40 billion of its assets. Enron’s corruption was neither pathbreaking nor unique. Financial bunglings are necessary features of market capitalism resulting in widespread unemployment, continuation of class society and dependence of world majority on the corporate minority.

All criticisms being hurled at Ramalinga Raju – the disgraced former boss of India’s leading software giant Satyam – is pure travesty. The fact is Raju is merely unlucky, and in this present instance, a victim of his beleaguered conscience that arose too late. For, his scandal is neither as consequential as Enron’s, nor as dangerously implicit as PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Any focus on eliminating Raju and his business from the world capitalistic map only shall help strengthen the businesses of his former rivals. Reducing India’s largest financial scam to the alter of accusations against one man merely shall undermine the necessity to examine the canons of capitalism.

Raju’s attempts at salvaging his son’s companies have nothing to do with personal corruption scandals. It has to do with the very nature of how “free market” capitalism works. The same investors who objected to the $1.6 billion scam orchestrated by Raju were the ones who have been supporting him throughout the series of deception, fraud and financial misappropriations committed by Satyam over the years. The same auditors – PricewaterhouseCoopers – who have suddenly hogged the headline for the wrongdoings have been heralded by Market Capitalism as one of its most informed wings. The corporate media conglomerates that are now singling out Raju as the fraud that deserves jail term are the gatekeepers of news and opinion that had been awarding Raju variously, including as “Corporate Citizen of the Year” (by CNBC in 2002). Not just the endorsement of PricewaterhouseCoopers, even its rival – the other big financial auditor – Ernst & Young has only recently bestowed upon Raju the award of “Young Entrepreneur of the Year (in 2007).

If the world has been forced to embrace market capitalism as the dominant economic base, the superstructure for such foundation has comprised investors, auditors, deregulators, and the corporate bosses. In case of Satyam Computers Services, all these elements have been exposed threadbare. And this is hardly the first instance of corruption in capitalism. Quite the contrary, corruption is inherent in capitalism, in its essence of profit drives at the cost of ethical responsibilities, in its essence of satisfying investors at the cost of customers, in its essence of exploiting workforce at the cost of amassing disproportionate wealth.

The market economy approach which India has embraced necessarily must produce Harshad Mehtas and Ramalinga Rajus. Any elements of surprise speaks to the lack of confidence in understanding of capitalism’s contradictions. A free-for-all umbrella must cloud the levels of competition and turn them instead into monopolistic collaborations among giants. Giants who must exhibit their capability to stay in top (or, perish) must necessarily employ unlawful, illicit and unethical means to hoodwink the consumers, clients and society at large.

What Raju has resorted to is not a sign of failure in his conscience. Rather, what most of the media are perceiving in his character of late is a failure on their part to understand how capitalism functions. This is what Fidel Castro calls “Economic Illiteracy” prevailing in the present age.