“Armed Madhouse” by Greg Palast

Greg Palast "Armed Madhouse"ISBN 978-0-713-99797-2. “Armed Madhouse” by Greg Palast was published by Allen Lane/Penguin in 2006. Palast by now needs little introduction. We reviewed his 2003 “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” and “Vultures’ Picnic” from 2011. “Armed Madhouse” straddles the two operating as a work in progress between them. It is more of the same featuring Palast’s journalistic work that appeared in parts in Harper’s, The Guardian, The Observer, (amongst many others) as well as for the BBC’s Newsnight program. As he points out his work is so politically unacceptable in his homeland-USA such that he is almost completely ignored there. He has for many years operated successfully out of Europe.

Topics covered here include the US Republicans stealing elections, the so-called “war on terror”, the Iraq war & occupation, peak oil, high level political corruption, the suffering of New Orleans, Globalisation, Venezuela, US domestic policy, US class war, and so on, and so on… You get the picture. As he admits, this investigative journalist somewhat jumps around in the narrative and it is all relayed to the reader at breakneck speed. The sordid world of the Realpolitik drips off every page. Greg is right angry. He is angry in a way that Michael Moore is angry. He is white and middle class. He is angry as Noam Chomsky is angry. He is well educated and he really knows what he is talking about. He proves fluent across a range of topics – it is quite surprising. He’s no hack. He is an intellectual… but probably wouldn’t admit it. He goes onto describe himself as “a war correspondent in the class conflict” which is a suitably apt title I shall remember him for.

Now, admittedly a little of the content will go over your head (and I include myself in that observation) as Palast offers you a dizzying array of names, facts and figures at a machine gun rate. Some of it is very peculiar to domestic issues in the USA. Writing from a European perspective 8 years later after the Obama years, these sections can be viewed by us now as illustrative of the culture only. It is best just to go with the flow on this one. Sit back. Enjoy the ride!

A couple of aspects stand out in this work: firstly a unique historical perspective, he manages to find that US history is repeating episodes from the 1920s, and secondly his take on “class war”.

So let’s kick off with a quote from Henry Kissinger:

The issues are too important to be left to the voters.”

Later we witness this retort to the return to power of democratically-elected Venezuelan President Chavez:

“[President George] Bush’s spokesman conceded Chavez “was democratically elected,” BUT, he added, “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters.” I see.”

The voice of power doesn’t change through the years. Voting is OK as long as it yields the result that power and money wish to see. Only THEY are the ones who have earnt the right to confer “legitimacy”. Nothing much has changed since the Earl of the Manor could guarantee that his son was returned to Parliament in merry olde England. Universal suffrage has made this harder but the systems of indoctrination and control seem to be largely in place to neutralise ‘the dangers of too much democracy’.

[I feel somewhat mixed feelings by this. Certainly we see this arrogance in US-led foreign policy in places like the middle East and South & Central America, and we see it even in UK and European politics where the TTIP investor’s rights package seem to be sliding into place without the consent of the people. People with money come first, and they are usually the people with power. The flip side of this problem is that people with power are also able to distort democracy so much around their own image that they no longer need to buy an election. People who, when addressing policy, would vote for left or liberal-leaning parties end up voting for extreme rightist parties because of their disgust with politics as a whole. In the latter case I would certainly think that a slide to fascism is an evil that we must not allow. How to do that? Surely there must be a genuine pluralistic alternative. We cannot force a single option upon others because “we know better”. Tough call.]

To matters of stealing democracy we shall return, but, until then…

Greg takes you through the complicated ins and outs as to why the USA went to war in Iraq. Again he gives a historical perspective from the British angle since the Empire had been in and out of the area five, six or more times in under a hundred years. Mesopotamia is so attractive to empires old and new. Palast’s take on this is highly illuminating: there was a tug of war within Washington concerning US foreign policy. It was only partly to do with what the Oil majors wanted. Too often we imagine that this is a “war for oil”. In fact the reality, as Palast suggests, is infinitely more complex. He goes as far as to suggest that it was more about breaking the power of OPEC and had nothing to do with access to a supply of oil. These Machiavellian machinations are fascinating and no doubt life is more complicated that we imagine. However Palast’s attempt to debunk Peak Oil rather falls flat.

Palast attempted to argue that Peak Oil is a theory developed by oil companies to manufacture false scarcity. It is not an uncommon view amongst some conspiracy nuts. However, as I have probably read more about this topic than he I can say with certainty that he has made a silly mistake. Hubbert’s curve? Palast actually prints it but then mixes up “running out of oil” with “peaking”. In fact you can see the graph on page 111 where the 2006 global peak is visible but then Palast writes the caption as oil “running out in 2006”. Clearly he had not grasped the difference between the rate of production peaking and “running out”. This the result of making up your mind about how the world works and then being completely blind to obvious contradictory evidence. If he can do this about fossil fuels what else is he capable of? It undermines his entire body of work. It would be worrisome… but….

Palast is a very bright guy and he then slips into a good explanation of how oil reserves work in relation to price.. However, this is not the end of the story, as he then goes onto add an appendix to the book in which he admits that he was wrong. Oil is finite and cheap oil has peaked. At each price break there will be a new peak but no new oil is put in the ground. Traditional peak oil theory suggests that new streams of expensive oil will not eventually be able to make up for the shortfalls in cheap oil. So, at whatever price, total liquid production must eventually stagnate and fall – maybe in the 2020 to 2040 period. This is in the literature. The reason why we get excited about this is because as the price of oil goes up the yield/dollar ratio goes down so more and more economic activity is consumed for less and less energy. There will be a touch-point along the down curve at which modern industrial civilisation can no longer be sustained by expensive energy since it will crowd-out all other economic activity. In essence peak oil has less to do with oil and is more an economic problem. However Palast suggests it gives him a map as to where future oil wars will be fought… Whatever. We beg to differ. The angle missing is climate change, which he is conscious of, but it forms no part of his narrative here.

Hence the early oil cartels in Persia had no intent of finding oil. For most of their history the oil industry has been attempting to restrict the flow of oil to keep the price up so that they can make lots of money. Peak Oil suggests that they might not have to try very hard post 2006. Hence some of the fears about the large untapped reserves under Iraq was that Saddam Hussain might actually tap them and release them onto the market causing a price collapse. Neither OPEC nor the oil majors wanted that. And that is what the war was all about – concludes Palast (ignoring any evidence that Iraq never had access to the capital to do this). He believes oil wars are about controlling the flow of oil and maintaining price – to keep it high not low. OPEC has always suppressed the flow from Iraq and now that Saudi oil is becoming more tight another swing producer in the market would be unwelcome unless it can be closely controlled. Such things wars are made of. Power and control. But Palast’s thesis still makes sense with a more realistic reading of peak oil concepts. It remains the context.

Putting this controversy to rest Palast moves onto the class war. In fact he is somewhat at ease with the use of this term. He deplores what he describes as the “Thatcherite sleight of hand of pretending that riches-for-the few equates to progress for the many“. So he takes us to a victim of World Bank “restructuring”: Ecuador, to examine exactly how self-serving, neo-liberal “free market” economics can be used to justify the destruction and asset stripping of a poor and vulnerable small country. By way of counter-balance we see how Hugo Chavez worked the system for the people of Venezuela as opposed to how the kleptocracy developed in Kazakhstan. The furore in Washington over Venezuela is all the more puzzling when Palast compares the actual policies of Chavez to that of European nations:

“Chavez is called a Marxist and a socialist. He is neither. His reformist, cooperative and redistributionist program, and his handling of oil wealth, is clearly “Norwegian-ist.” Chavez is a dramatist, calling his Scandinavian-style reforms the “Bolivarian revolution.” It seems to drive Washington just crazy that brown people are demanding Nordic privileges.”

In this Palast hits the nail on the head. It boils down to racism. The USA has had no historical claim of possession to the old world of Europe. All those nice white people are “partners” (as long as they do what they are told). However in South America the Governments traditionally were selected by Washington and did what they were told. This is abhorrent. Why divide the world up this way? Is it easier to treat white people (who look like you) like they are you… But the brown people can be treated like animals? Why? The root of all Empire is racism.

We move onto a another good example of racism: the stealing of US elections. In this case it is class war again and the victims (again) were largely brown skinned. Palast gives us a long and obscure list of the ways in which the US election system can be gamed. We will not go into the details but the methods are cunning if simple. If you are Republican and the people who vote for you are rich then you ensure rich people can vote and poor people cannot:

“Caging lists, fake felon purges, forged registration forms, evidence tampering, “black arts” surveillance ops, disappeared absentee ballots, cracked computers. Whatever happened to simply persuading the voters you’ve got the best candidate?”

But that is the point isn’t it? Democracy is NOT about the best candidate. It should be. Instead it has become a battle of minority interests with class war the weapon. This “class war by other means” rigs American elections. Palast writes:

“Voting – or at least voting that gets tabulated – is a class privilege. The effect is racial and partisan, but the engine is economic.” “..the New America, where growing income inequality is creating a feudal divide..”

From this point on Palast throws up his hands as if to say “fair’s fair” and offers the obvious point: since all these facts are largely accessible to the public (if obscured by the media) why do so many Americans vote against their own interests?

“..if 59 million American agreed with George Bush that every millionaire’s son, like him, shouldn’t have to pay inheritance taxes; that sucking up to Saudi petrocrats constitutes a foreign policy; that killing Muslims in Mesopotamia will make them less inclined to kill us in Manhattan; that turning over Social Security to the casino operators that gave us Enron, WorldCom and world depression is smart economics; then, fine, Mr Bush deserves the job. But most Americans, bless ’em, don’t actually believe any of that hokum. Yet most still voted for him.”

So, here is a dilemma: why do most American vote for something they know full well is wrong? At this point Palast seems to contradict himself and just gets furious at US voters for being an “army of pinheads“:

“..the election came down to this: Nitwits who think Ollie North’s a hero not a conman, who can’t name their congressman, who believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were going steady, who can’t tell Afghanistan from a souvlakia stand and, bloated with lies and super-size fries, clomped to the polls 59 million strong to vent their small minded hatreds on us all.”

Although this anger is someone misguided he is certainly half right. If you fill normal people with hatred against things they should never fear then they will behave irrationally at the polls. Hence our democracy can be distorted away from the issues and into areas where voters can vent their frustrations away from the ruling elite. Still, he has a point:

“I fear the election was an intelligence test that America flunked.”

A few pages later and Palast is sounding somewhat more reasonable:

“The trick of the class war is not to let the victims know they’re under attack. That is how, little by little, the owners of the planet take away what little we have.”

Palast moves onto the Reaganite neoliberal deregulation of the US power sector which was an utter disaster. The lights literally went out in America. What was more remarkable and most depressing is that American allowed their leaders to use these catastrophe as excuse for more deregulation. Palast might argue that this is how stupid Americans have become. A few pages on and Palast has turned to the costs of American healthcare in which case a casual anecdote he tells, from something overheard in a drugstore, induces even more venom. A man suggests that he would be better off dead as he couldn’t afford his medicine. Palast wonders:

“I wonder if he voted for Bush… did he vote for the man who would stop boys from kissing boys, who would allow big stone icons of the Ten Commandments in the Southold courthouse, who would get Saddam before he got us? In other words, was he a blind soldier in [an] army of the angry who would rather vote against themselves, for deadly high drug prices dictated by Big Pharma, for no national health insurance, in return for a promise from George Bush that he will be the malicious defender of their prejudices?”

Healthcare is an obvious “real issue” that effects all people yet on which citizens repeatedly vote for candidates in the USA who will NOT give voters what they need and deserve. Why do Americans do this? Are Gays rights really so abhorrent that they out-weigh your own health? Are Muslims so scary that you would rather cough to death than pull a single combat troop out of occupied Iraq? In equal measure why do us Brits do this? All our hot issues seem to be driving voters to the extreme right parties although there is plenty of evidence that those extremist parties would do the opposite of what voters want. I too share Palast’s bewilderment. Why? Why? Why? The world can be a better place if you vote for it.

So we turn in swift measure to the disaster that befell New Orleans in which Palast so easily mocks President Bush’s inaction:

“I don’t want to give the impression the President did nothing. He swiftly ordered the federal Government to dispatch to New Orleans 18 water purification units, 50 tons of food, two mobile hospitals, expert search teams, and 20 lighting units with generators. However, that was President Chavez whose equipment was refused entry…”

Apparently Bush flew in with his own lights that were used for a photo-opportunity. They were removed when he left. This is a governing elite who see themselves as feudal overlords presiding-by-right over a mass underclass for which they owe no duty of care. Maybe disasters are ‘good’ because more of the poor should die so as to ‘decrease the surplus population’ – social-Darwinism gone mad? We live in Dickensian times where we cheer the mentality of the poorhouse and give fat bonuses to Scrooge and his ilk.

So there you have it: more dispatches from the class war front. A place that Orwell wrote about in “1984”, a place where the media tells you who the enemy is – and it is each other. Every once in a while the privileged few can be trusted to go to the ballot box to cast a vote for the son of the Lord of the Manor. There are no other choices on the ballot paper. They all look the same and if you want a protest vote then he will be a fascist and everybody will laugh. Yet the elite will be safe in the knowledge that if the fascist got power he would deliver THEIR agenda even harder and faster towards feudalism than before. What glee! They cannot lose. There is no good news, no saving grace, it is all so depressing. So if you want to save the world start by understanding how it works. Life is struggle and today that class war is carpet bombing your neighbourhood. What you gonna do?

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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