The future of mind control: How social media is supercharging the propaganda system

In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.

Media corporations have hacked your social brain

In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.

When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.

The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters

Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).

Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).

Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.

Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.

Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:

“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”

This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”

Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”

The New Media Filters

But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:

It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.

An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”

They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”

One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.

In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why it’s so hard for most countries to be economically independent from the West

Bolsonaro salutes the US flag

Brazil’s president Bolsonaro salutes the American flag

Why is it so difficult even for huge countries with large, diversified economies to maintain independence from the West?

If anyone could have done it, it was Brazil. In the 19th century it was imagined that Brazil could be a Colossus of the South to match the U.S., the Colossus of the North. It never panned out that way.

And 100 years later, it still hasn’t happened. With a $2 trillion GDP (a respectable $9,800 per capita), nearly 200 million people, and a strong manufacturing base (the second largest in the Americas and 28.5 percent of its GDP), Brazil is far from a tiny, weak island or peninsula dependent on a patron state to keep it afloat.

When Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a historic election to become president of Brazil in 2003, it seemed like an irreversible change in the country’s politics. Even though Lula’s Workers’ Party was accused of being communists who wanted to redistribute all of the country’s concentrated wealth, the party’s redistributive politics were in fact modest—a program to eradicate hunger in Brazil called Zero Hunger, a family-based welfare program called the Family Allowance, and an infrastructure spending program to try to create jobs. But its politics of national sovereignty were ambitious.

It was under Workers’ Party rule (under Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 election to become president at the beginning of 2011) that the idea surged of a powerful BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance that could challenge the ambitions of the U.S.-led West. Brazil took steps to strengthen its manufacturing, and held its ground on preventing pharmaceutical patent monopolies. Lula’s Brazil accused Western countries of hypocrisy for insisting both on “free trade” with poor countries and farm subsidies for themselves. Brazil even moved in the direction of building an independent arms industry.

Contradictions remained: The Workers’ Party government sent Brazilian troops to command the UN force that enacted the U.S.-impelled occupation of Haiti—treating the world to the spectacle of the biggest, wealthiest country in the region helping the U.S. destroy the sovereignty of the poorest as part of its foreign policy. But in those years Brazil refused to renounce its alliance with Venezuela’s even more independent-minded government under Hugo Chavez; it defended ideas of South-South cooperation, especially within Latin America, and it made space for movements like the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST).

But after more than a decade of Workers’ Party rule, what happened? President Rousseff was overthrown in a coup in 2016. When polls showed that Lula would have won the post-coup election, he was imprisoned to prevent him from running. And so with the Workers’ Party neutralized, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man who famously saluted the American flag and chanted “USA” while on campaign (imagine an American leader saluting the Brazilian flag during a presidential campaign). No doubt the coup and the imprisonment of Lula were the key to Bolsonaro’s rise, and failings like supporting the coup in Haiti played a role in weakening the pro-independence coalition.

But what about the economy? Are Brazil’s leaders now dragging the economy into the U.S. fold? Or did the Brazilian economy drag the country back into the fold?

Brazil’s economic history and geography have made independence a challenge. Colonial-era elites were interested in using slave labor to produce sugar and export as much of it as possible: The infrastructure of the country was built for commodity extraction. Internal connections, including roads between Brazil’s major cities, have been built only slowly and recently. The various schemes of the left-wing governments of the last decade for South-South economic integration were attempting to turn this huge ship around (not for the first time—there have been previous attempts and previous U.S.-backed coups in Brazil), and to develop the internal market and nurture domestic industries (and those of Brazil’s Latin neighbors).

Yesterday’s dependent economy was based on sugar export—today’s is based on mining extraction. When Bolsonaro was elected, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quickly posted a story speculating on how the new government would be good for Canadian mining companies. The new Brazilian president plans to cut down huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil is to return to its traditional role of providing natural resources to the U.S. and to the other rich countries.

A smaller country with a stronger pro-independence leadership, Venezuela faced similar structural economic problems that have imperiled and nearly derailed the independent-minded late president Hugo Chavez’s dream that Venezuelans would learn to eat arepas instead of hamburgers and play with Simon Bolivar dolls instead of Superman ones. There, too, the pro-independence project had a long-term goal of overcoming the country’s dependence on a single finite commodity (oil), diversifying its agricultural base and internal markets. And there, too, the challenge of doing so proved too great for the moment, especially in the face of an elite at least as ruthless as Brazil’s and nearly two decades of vindictive, pro regime-change U.S. policy. Today Venezuela’s “Bolivarian project” is in crisis, along with its economy and political system.

There are other sleeping giants that remain asleep, perhaps for economic reasons. In the face of relentless insults by Trump, the Mexican electorate chose a left-wing government (Mexicans have elected left-wing governments many times in the past few decades, but elections have been stolen). But locked into NAFTA, dependent on the U.S. market, Mexico also would seem to have little option but to swallow Trump’s malevolence.

Egypt is the Brazil of the Middle East. With 100 million people and a GDP of $1.4 trillion, the country that was for a few thousand years the center of civilization attempted in the 20th century to claim what is arguably its rightful place at the center of the Arab world. But today, this giant and former leader of the nonaligned movement is helping Israel and the U.S. starve and besiege the Palestinians in Gaza and helping Saudi Arabia and the U.S. starve and blockade the people of Yemen.

Egypt stopped challenging the U.S. in the 1970s after a peace deal brought it into the fold for good. Exhaustion from two wars with Israel were cited as the main cause—though a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and several domestic factors also played a role. But here, too, is there a hidden economic story?

Egypt has oil, but its production is small—on the order of 650,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10 million barrels, or the UAE’s 2.9 million. It has a big tourist industry that brings in important foreign exchange. But for those who might dream of an independent Egypt, the country’s biggest problem is its agricultural sector: It produces millions of tons of wheat and corn, but less than half of what it needs. As told in the classic book Merchants of Grain, the politics of U.S. grain companies have quietly helped feed its power politics all over the world. Most of Egypt’s imported grain comes from the U.S. As climate change and desertification wreak havoc on the dry agricultural ecosystems of the planet, Egypt’s grain dependence is likely to get worse.

The structures of the global economy present challenges to any country or political party that wants to try to break out of U.S. hegemony. Even for countries as big and with as much potential as Brazil or Egypt, countries that have experienced waves of relative independence, the inertia of these economic structures helps send them back into old patterns of extraction and debt. In this moment of right-wing resurgence it is hard to imagine political movements arising with plans to push off the weight of the economic past. But that weight cannot be ignored.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Just How Powerful Is Russia Internationally?

After the 2016 U.S. election, Barack Obama provided some perspective on the U.S.’s growing fear of Russia; fear that has only grown in the year since.

“Russia can’t change us,” Obama said. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil, and gas and arms.”


Obama was appealing to an analysis students are taught in first-year undergraduate international relations class: the idea, espoused in Yale history professor Paul Kennedy’s textbook The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that military power is determined ultimately by industrial power. Kennedy’s work is full of tables showing the relative industrial power of countries in armed conflict. The winner in each case is the one with more industrial power.

Table 33, Tank Production in 1944, shows Germany producing 17,800 tanks, Russia producing 29,000 tanks, Britain producing 5,000, and the US producing 17,500. Germany produced less than Russia alone, in other words, and far less than the Allies combined.

Table 34, Aircraft Production of the Powers, shows how year after year, the allies out-produced the Axis, by the end, by more than four times or five times. Table 35 shows combined military production: The Allies produced $62.5 billion in arms in 1943, compared to $18.3 billion from the Axis.

Based on the tables, the allied victory was inevitable. The tables don’t lie. Look at hundreds of years of war and in each conflict, the side that brings the most economic power to bear almost always wins.

Trying to estimate Russia’s relative power has been a Western preoccupation for centuries. One quote, “Russia is neither as strong nor as weak as it appears,” has been attributed to Western statesmen from Metternich to Talleyrand to Churchill.

Going through Great Power history looking specifically for Russia, we see phases during which Russia’s relative power expanded and phases when it contracted. Between 1815-1880, as the other powers were industrializing, they pulled far ahead of Russia: Russia’s GNP in 1830 was $10.5 billion, compared to Germany’s $7.2 billion and Britain’s $8.2 billion; but in 1890, Russia’s GNP had grown to $21.1 billion while Germany’s had grown to $26.4 billion and Britain’s to $29.4 billion. Russia had fallen even further behind on a per capita basis.

It was in this period, in 1867—when Russia’s rulers wondered whether they would even be able to get to their Alaskan territory should the invincible British navy contest them—that they sold Alaska to the United States. At the end of this period, in 1904-’05, Russia lost a war to Japan, a loss that surprised both sides.

Despite two devastating World Wars, Russia was, in relative terms, at its strongest during its Soviet phase from 1917-1991. Even in those decades, though, as Russia expanded its industrial and military power, it never came close to rivaling the wealth and power of the United States.

The post-Soviet phase in Russia began with the fastest loss of living standards for the greatest number of people in history. Around 70 million people became impoverished virtually overnight when Yeltsin imposed American-advised economic shock therapy on the country. In the 1990s, NATO expanded across Central Europe and reached Russia’s own borders. NATO military interventions dismembered Russia’s ally, Yugoslavia, and a U.S.-led covert mission destroyed Russia’s neighbor, Afghanistan, which is today occupied by U.S. troops.

If Russia’s might seems to be growing today, it is because Putin set about trying to reverse some of the post-1991 losses to Russian living standards and to Russia’s regional alliances. To the degree that Putin’s policies have been successful—in restoring Russia’s per capita GDP to pre-1991 levels by around 2006, for example, and preventing Syria’s state from being partitioned like Yugoslavia was—they are popular in Russia. This is a far cry, however, from making Russia (with a $1.3 trillion GDP) a challenger to a U.S. economy 15 times its size (with an $18 trillion GDP).

In 2017, the U.S. spent a cool 10 times what Russia did on arms; the U.S. budget is around $600 billion, the Russian is $61 billion. Russia spends considerably less than China ($150 billion) and less than Saudi Arabia ($77 billion).

Russia approaches U.S. levels in arms exports—the U.S. exported around $10 billion in 2016, while Russia came in second at around $6.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But it is still behind the U.S. even on this metric.

By other, softer measures of power, Russia has yet to catch up to its pre-1991 levels. In scientific research, in the early 1990s, Russia was producing around the same amount of research as China, India and Brazil, none of which were anywhere near the U.S. By 2009, 20% of global science publications were authored by Americans; 13.7% by Chinese; and only 1.6% by Russians. In 2011, U.S. researchers published 212,394 papers. Russian researchers published 14,151.

None of this precludes the sorts of Russian influence that the American public fears. Russia doesn’t have to have more scientific output than America to get compromising information on its president or to have informal influence over him. Russia doesn’t have to outspend America for Russian hackers to get a lucky break and expose embarrassing emails that influence an election.

But lucky breaks and clever spycraft are as easy for the wealthier and more powerful side to achieve as they are for the smaller, weaker country—easier, even. In the long run, industrial power is a better predictor of influence. America’s military bases ring Russia’s borders, not the other way around. America’s economic power dictates to the world, not Russia’s. And even if a Russian hacker group got a lucky break once a week, the fact is that day to day the Internet is monopolized by American corporations that work with American government agencies to maximize American influence in the world.

Exaggerating Russian power may help justify higher military expenditures in the U.S.; it may soothe Democratic party leaders who want to believe their electoral loss was due to something other than their own unpopularity. But it requires ignoring hundreds of years of the history of economic and military power.

First published on AlterNet March 6, 2018.

Lessons from Ed Herman’s Lifelong War against Lies

The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.

The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.

Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.

The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.

Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.

Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.

Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”

Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)

In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.

The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.

Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?

5 Ways Capitalist Logic Has Sabotaged the Scientific Community

Academics should be collaborating, not competing for pseudoscientific rankings.


At a time when federal employees are prohibited from uttering the phrase “climate change,” the right routinely attempts to undermine universities’ legitimacy, and tuitions have skyrocketed alongside student debt, it seems perverse that academics would further endanger their mission to educate and enlighten. Yet by embracing a malignant form of pseudoscience, they have accomplished just that.

What is the scientific method? Its particulars are a subject of some debate, but scientists understand it to be a systematic process of gathering evidence through observation and experiment. Data are analyzed, and that analysis is shared with a community of peers who study and debate its findings in order to determine their validity. Albert Einstein called this “the refinement of everyday thinking.”

There are many reasons this method has proven so successful in learning about nature: the grounding of findings in research, the openness of debate and discussion, and the cumulative nature of the scientific enterprise, to name just a few. There are social scientists, philosophers, and historians who study how science is conducted, but working scientists learn through apprenticeship in grad school laboratories.

Scientists have theorized, experimented, and debated their way to astounding breakthroughs, from the DNA double helix to quantum theory. But they did not arrive at these discoveries through competition and ranking, both of which are elemental to the business world. It’s a business, after all, that strives to be the top performer in its respective market. Scientists who adopt this mode of thinking betray their own lines of inquiry, and the practice has become upsettingly commonplace.

Here are five ways capitalist logic has sabotaged the scientific community.

1. Impact Factor

Scientists strive to publish in journals with the highest impact factor, or the mean number of citations received over the previous two years. Often these publications will collude to manipulate their numbers. Journal citations follow what is known as an 80/20 rule: in a given journal, 80 percent of citations come from 20 percent of the total articles published: this means an author’s work can appear in a high-impact journal without ever being cited. Ranking is so important in this process that impact factors are calculated to three decimal places. “In science,” the Canadian historian Yves Gingras writes in his book Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation, “there are very few natural phenomena that we can pretend to know with such exactitude. For instance, who wants to know that the temperature is 20.233 degrees Celsius?”

One might just as easily ask why we need to know that one journal’s impact factor is 2.222 while another’s is 2.220.

2. The H-Index

If ranking academic journals weren’t destructive enough, the h-index applies the same pseudoscience to individual researchers. Defined as the number of articles published by a scientist that obtained at least that number of citations each, the h-index of your favorite scientist can be found with a quick search in Google Scholar. The h-index, Gingras notes in Bibliometrics, “is neither a measure of quantity (output) nor quality of impact; rather, it is a composite of them. It combines arbitrarily the number of articles published with the number of citations they received.”

Its value also never decreases. A researcher who has published three papers that have been cited 60 times each has an h-index of three, whereas a researcher who has published nine papers that have been cited nine times each has an h-index of nine. Is the researcher with an h-index of nine three times a better researcher than their counterpart when the former has been cited 81 times and the latter has been cited 180 times? Gingras concludes: “It is certainly surprising to see scientists, who are supposed to have some mathematical training, lose all critical sense in the face of such a simplistic figure.”

3. Altmetrics

An alternative to Impact Factors and h-indexes is called “alt-metrics,” which seeks to measure an article’s reach by its social media impressions and the number of times it’s been downloaded. But ranking based on likes and followers is no more scientific than the magical h-index. And of course, these platforms are designed to generate clicks rather than inform their users. It’s always important to remember that Twitter is not that important.

4. University Rankings

The U.S. network of universities is one of the engines of the world’s wealthiest country, created over generations through trillions of dollars of investment. Its graduates manage the most complex economies, investigate the most difficult problems, and invent the most advanced creations the planet has ever seen. And they have allowed their agendas to be manipulated by a little magazine called the US News and World Report, which ranks them according to an arcane formula.

In 1983, when it first began ranking colleges and universities, it did so based on opinion surveys of university presidents. Over time, its algorithm grew more complex, adding things like the h-index of researchers, Impact Factors for university journalism, grant money and donations. Cathy O’Neil of the blog notes in her book Weapons of Math Destruction that, “if you look at this development from the perspective of a university president, it’s actually quite sad… here they were at the summit of their careers dedicating enormous energy toward boosting performance in fifteen areas defined by a group of journalists at a second-tier newsmagazine.”

Why have these incredibly powerful institutions abandoned critical thought in evaluating themselves?

5. Grades

The original sin from which all of the others flow could well be the casual way that scientists assign numerical grades and rankings to their students. To reiterate, only observation, experiment, analysis, and debate have produced our greatest scientific breakthroughs. Sadly, scientists have arrived at the conclusion that if a student’s value can be quantified, so too can journals and institutions. Education writer Alfie Kohn has compiled the most extensive case against grades. Above all, he notes, grades have “the tendency to promote achievement at the expense of learning.”

Only by recognizing that we are not bound to a market-based model can we begin to reverse these trends.


First published January 18, 2018 in AlterNet

How the Saudis Escalated Yemen Struggle Beyond All Control

The Yemen Civil War could have been a local power struggle, if not for the Saudis’ heavy hand.

Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.

The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire’s Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana’a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen’s most important ally.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.

Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.

The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.

People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.

When bin Laden’s al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.

By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa’ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.

The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country’s elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.

This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen’s GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.

As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh’s cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa’ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”

In the chant, “curse on the Jews” stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one’s own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa’ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.

Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa’ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis’ cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh’s forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa’ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.

Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh’s government. President Obama’s drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh’s strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen’s elite.

At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh’s rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.

Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana’a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada’a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.

The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.

The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.

The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.

Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh’s son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.

The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.

Published in Alternet Dec 10/17

Afghanistan’s Painful, Never-Ending War Takes a New Bad Turn

The return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Butcher of Kabul, is the latest symbol of the country’s destruction.

This past May, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sometimes known as the Butcher of Kabul, Afghanistan’s most famous and probably most hated warlord, returned to Kabul through a negotiated deal with the government. He arrived in a convoy of trucks, with armed followers brandishing their military hardware. The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said that Hekmatyar’s return would “pave the way for peace” with the Taliban. A holy warrior who once refused to shake hands with then-President Ronald Reagan, Hekmatyar reached a hand out to the Taliban: “Come forward, let’s talk about peace and prosperity.”

Peace processes are painful. For the sake of the country, victims are asked to forgive what was done to them. If the prospects for peace are real, some are willing to do it so that the war does not go on. So it is worth looking at what Afghans are being asked to forgive, and what relationship Hekmatyar’s return has to peace.

The war in Afghanistan today is not a war about ideology, progress, or what kind of society Afghanistan will be. The belligerents are the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the one side and the Taliban on the other. Both sides are coalitions that spend resources and lives on infighting. There are defections and local understandings, alliances made and broken. Local life is determined by warlords. This is how the Afghan war has been fought for more than 25 years.

Hekmatyar has been active for much longer than that. When Hekmatyar’s career started in the 1970s, Afghanistan’s war had a very different character. Afghanistan wasn’t always an eternally conservative place: people like Hekmatyar had to kill a lot of Afghans to make it seem so.

The debate about reform in Afghanistan is an old one. One reform-minded monarch, Amanullah Khan, defeated the British imperial armies in 1919 and spent the next 10 years building girls’ schools, overturning dress codes for women, putting forward a constitution, and trying to weaken tribal ties. There were revolutions and changes happening all over that part of the world, from East Asia to the newly created Soviet Union. Such reforms, 100 years ago, did not seem so unusual for a progressive government in Asia to attempt.

Amanullah was overthrown though, by rivals operating with support from the vengeful British. He had a series of short-lived successors who sacked Kabul, rolled back the reforms, and repaired the relationship with the British Empire. After four years of this chaos, King Zahir Shah (who would rule for 40 years) arrived on the throne, and reform was back on the agenda.

In a chapter of a new book on Afghanistan’s Islam from Conversion to the Taliban, Afghan-Australian scholar Faridullah Bezhan writes about the first political party to work openly in Afghanistan: the Awaken Youth Party, which emerged in the 1940s. The AYP espoused nationalism and constitutionalism against the religious establishment. According to Bezhan, the AYP’s nationalist ideas were popular with a large portion of the country’s educated class. Nationalists sought to counter the influence of the religious establishment, whose members had often been sponsored by the British and who were happy to undermine national agendas in exchange for imperial support for their social conservatism. The AYP sought to reform Afghan society into a constitutional monarchy through modern education. They believed in the “fight against superstition and bad social customs,” and even in “consuming local products as much as possible.” By the 1950s, religious figures were leading demonstrations against modern education and nationalists were leading demonstrations in support. At this point, the Islamists started to try to organize political parties to imitate the effectiveness of the nationalists. The government cracked down on all parties in 1952.

But a decade later, reform was back again. Zahir Shah introduced a new constitution in 1964, beginning the constitutional decade. The constitution guaranteed the vote, women’s rights, and parliamentary elections, but the king stopped short of legalizing political parties. Parties worked unofficially at the new educational institutions, which each had foreign sponsors: Kabul University, which attracted foreign aid from the US, and the Polytechnic, which attracted Russian aid. The strongest political parties were communists (Parcham and Khalq factions), Maoists (Shola-e-Jawedan), and Islamists (Hekmatyar was in the Jawanan-e-Musalman, but the Islamists split into a number of groups). The debates in the constitutional decade are as unrecognizable compared to today’s Afghanistan as the now-famous photos of female students from the period are. A major dispute with the Shah’s Iran over water rights and a hydroelectric dam brought thousands into the streets. A dispute with Pakistan over the status of Pakistan’s Pashtun areas and populations (the so-called “Pashtunistan” issue) preoccupied successive elected governments.

But Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—who flunked out of engineering school at Kabul University at this time—had other concerns.

These were conducting acid- and rock-throwing attacks against female students, and murdering leftists, whether they were Parcham, Khalq, or Shola-e. Hekmatyar was jailed in 1972 for the murder of Maoist student and poet Saydal Sukhandan, but escaped a year and a half later—though not before he was given a leadership role in the Islamist movement, directing their political activities in jail. Shortly after he got out of jail, Hekmatyar fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, along with other famous Islamist leaders, Burnuhuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud. These Islamists, led by Massoud, launched a failed uprising against the government in 1975. Massoud, who was later known as the Lion of the Panjshir Valley, was routed quickly by the Afghan army and by people of that valley, who, at the time, supported the government and had no interest in an Islamist uprising. This was years before the Soviet invasion: the Islamists, who became the mujahideen, were fighting against Afghan nationalism and progressive reform. And the US supported them the whole time.

This history matters because it dispels some very pernicious myths about Afghanistan. Eternally conservative countries don’t need men like Hekmatyar to murder leftists and assault female students. And the mujahideen, supported by the empire of the day (the US), were trying (and failing) to overthrow reform long before the communist coups of 1978 and the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Based on his experiences there in the early 1980s, Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele’s book Ghosts of Afghanistan dispels some persistent myths about the country. He notes that:

  • The civil war (and Western support for the mujahideen) preceded the Soviet invasion by several years.

  • The USSR was not really defeated by the Islamists in battle: indeed the vaunted Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, made a non-aggression pact with the Soviets from 1983, allowing Soviets to set up a base in his valley (partly because Massoud felt he needed to conserve his forces to defend his valley against – Hekmatyar).

  • The vaunted Stinger missiles from the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t affect the Soviet decision to withdraw, which was made in 1985, a year before the missiles arrived (in 1986). The main effect of the missiles was to force Soviet and Afghan government forces to bomb from higher altitudes.

The USSR left Afghanistan because it was collapsing internally and because it wanted to repair its relationship with the West. Withdrawal was one of Gorbachev’s first decisions when he came to power in 1985, and it was completed by 1989. But the Afghan government, then under President Mohammad Najibullah, held on until 1992, with a bit of Soviet aid and the support of a population that greatly (and correctly) feared what would happen if the Islamists like Hekmatyar came to power.

The United States didn’t just “walk away” in this period, either: that, too, is a myth. The U.S. kept on supporting the mujahideen after the Soviets left in 1989, making it clear that they would not allow any reconciliation effort or national unity government that included any progressive, liberal, or communist.

Throughout the war, Hekmatyar became famous for his own brand of warfare: torturing and killing people because they were from Tajik, Hazara, or Uzbek minority groups, assassinating rival Islamist commanders and their troops, skinning Soviet soldiers alive, hijacking aid caravans carrying medicine and food, killing foreign journalists. Hekmatyar took over the heroin trade after assassinating smuggler Mullah Nasim in 1990 in Peshawar. But a higher priority was the murder of leftists and liberals: Dr. Faiz Ahmad of the Maoists; Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); philosophy professor Sayyid Bahauddin Majrooh.

The Afghan government was not easy to defeat. President Najibullah coordinated the battle of Jalalabad when Hekmatyar tried to take the important city in 1989, a decisive moment that showed that the government could hold on indefinitely. Najibullah also foiled a coup by his own defense minister, Shahnawaz Tanai, who quickly fled in 1990 to join Hekmatyar in Pakistan.

The Afghan communists lost not on the battlefield, nor in Afghan public support, but when the collapsed Soviet Union under its drunken president Boris Yeltsin (who also oversaw the greatest economic collapse perhaps in human history in his own country) handed Afghanistan to the mujahideen in August 1991. Yeltsin did so in a way that would be maximally damaging to the Afghan government’s morale and will, meeting Islamist leaders in Moscow in November 1991, announcing the “complete transfer of state power to an interim Islamic government,” and that there would be no more aid beginning in 1992. Steele compared this to Obama announcing in 2008 that Afghanistan would be handed over from Karzai to the Taliban.

The defections began immediately, with Afghan army commanders like Rashid Dostum carving out their own fiefdoms and taking their men and equipment with them. When Najibullah tried to flee in 1992, Dostum didn’t let him go. Najibullah hid in the UN compound in Kabul until 1996, when he was hanged from a lamppost by the Taliban.

Once Yeltsin handed them the country and the government began to collapse, the mujahideen finally had their chance to show how they would govern in power. Hekmatyar took his forces and raced to Kabul, but Massoud got there first. Hekmatyar besieged the city and spent the next three years launching indiscriminate rocket attacks that destroyed the capital and killed at least 25,000 people.

Along with another leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani (of the Haqqani group famous for kidnapping the main character in “Serial” season 2, Bowe Bergdahl, and more recently the Canadian Boyle family), Hekmatyar had been the recipient of the greatest US and Pakistani largesse to fight the Soviets: the estimates cited by Ishtiaq Ahmad, who wrote a biography of Hekmatyar, are that the US sent $3 billion to the mujahideen throughout the 1980s, and $600 million of it went to Hekmatyar.

After a couple of years of watching Hekmatyar lay waste to Kabul, Pakistan’s intelligence agency despaired of their proxies ever setting up a stable government. They switched horses and chose a new armed group that had grown up in Pakistan’s refugee camps for Afghans on the border: students (“Taliban”) of the teachings of one of the old Islamist leaders, Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi. As the Taliban broke the impasse and routed mujahideen forces, heading for the capital, Massoud and Rabbani became desperate and brokered a deal with Hekmatyar, the very commander who had been shelling their capital city to rubble for years. Hekmatyar entered that capital as prime minister, further insulting and demoralizing Kabul’s people who had suffered from his siege. He lasted about two months (during which he imposed various new restrictions on women’s rights) before the Taliban took Kabul and Hekmatyar fled again, this time to Iran, where he lived from 1996-2002 in a palace outside of Tehran.

The war didn’t end when the Taliban took the Kabul in 1996 and it didn’t end when they fled US bombing and went to Pakistan in 2001. Their mujahideen rivals fought on, and in 2001 the US ousted one group of mujahideen and installed another. President Bush clarified that the US interest wasn’t nation-building—a consistent position, given all the US had done to kill the nation-builders.

The Afghan people, it is still said, had rejected the nation-builders. The communists, who tortured and killed their political enemies, lost the support of the people. They engaged in purges and infighting. Their reform programs of women’s rights and land reform alienated the conservative population. That, not billions of dollars in Western aid and weapons, not the Soviet Union’s collapse, was why the mujahideen were able to win. Even mythbusters like Jonathan Steele engage in this sort of myth-making, arguing that the Afghan communist governments tried to change too much too fast when they canceled peasant debts, redistributed land, forbade child marriages, reduced dowry payments, and launched literacy programs. He quotes a former member of the government, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, saying that the Afghan communist government of Hafizullah Amin and Noor Muhammad Taraki in 1978 “wanted to eradicate literacy within five years. It was ridiculous. The land reforms were unpopular… Society wasn’t ready.”

There is plenty to criticize about Afghan communists Taraki (killed by Amin), Amin (killed by the Soviets), Karmal, and Najibullah (killed by the Taliban). The reports of tortures and murders under their governments are well documented and are to be believed. And no doubt their reforms were unpopular with at least a significant segment of the population.

But was Afghanistan really “not ready?”

Because the (real) tortures and murders by Amin and Taraki are dwarfed by the now heroically returned Hekmatyar and the numerous other warlords running parts of Afghanistan today. And if Afghans weren’t ready for a redistributive land reform, were they ready for the Khalid-bin-Walid land project in Mazar e-Sharif under the US-backed government of Karzai? The governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, gave land out to his friends, former mujahideen commanders, who bought it at a subsidized rate and rented or sold it at a vastly higher market price, becoming a land mafia in Mazar (the story is told in a recent book on warlord governance by Dipali Mukhopadhyay). The governor of Nangarhar from 2005-2009, Gul Agha Sherzai, ran an electricity mafia and collected taxes on trucks, perhaps pocketing half of the funds designated for reconstruction. The people of Afghanistan can’t stomach land reform, but they are happy to tolerate land mafias? They couldn’t tolerate women’s rights, but were fine with warlords pillaging reconstruction funds?

Maybe there is another explanation.

History is written by the victors, after all, and if myths about the Afghan civil war don’t hold up, if the mujahideen are revealed to be a collection of imperial-backed mass murderers, thieves, and nation-destroyers, of which Hekmatyar is the quintessential example, then new myths have to be created to justify their continuance in power and Western indulgence toward them. Of the few myths left, the communists would have been worse and the country wasn’t ready still offer some comfort.

With politics based on these myths, how could they not welcome Hekmatyar back? He is just an extreme version of the kind of man the US looks for, the most uncompromising opponent of the same forces the US opposes everywhere in the world—independent nationalism and leftism. With US help, men like Hekmatyar excluded and destroyed the left and killed a generation of nationalists. For that service, they are allowed to destroy the country and to continue to loot the ruins.

Hekmatyar’s return will not bring peace or reconciliation. It has nothing to do with these things. It is the latest and most powerful symbol (so far) of the destruction of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

First published on Alternet October 24, 2017:

The Afghans are being used!


The Fatimeyoun division. I found myself wondering if ethnicity or sect could be discerned from a photo like this.


Five months ago I wrote an article for TeleSUR English following the story (more of a meme, really) about, and this should pronounced as a single phrase, “Afghan Shia Militias in Syria”. I compared it to the older story about Gaddafi’s “African Mercenaries”, used to good propaganda effect in that war. I spent some time trying to get to the bottom it and find what sources writers were basing their stories on when they wrote about the “Afghan Shia Militias in Syria”. What I found was thin indeed: anonymous Syrian opposition fighters who talked about facing off with these (fast running, death-defying) Afghans on the battlefield; pseudonymous Afghan fighters who told journalists unverifiable stories; and finally poorly-sourced statements by anonymous Iranian officials. Based on these shoddy sources, journalists were building up to some outrageous conclusions: that the Afghans were an “inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate”, that they “run faster” than the Syrians they were fighting, and that they had the miraculous ability to “keep shooting even when surrounded.”

There was an Afghan community in Syria at the start of the war; some of these Afghans did join the civil war on the government side. As for Afghan fighters from Iran, the most promising reports to continue following the story were on the Iranian side. There are millions of Afghan refugees in Iran; many of them (perhaps most) are Shia, from the Hazara ethnic group. Some of the young men from this group have fought with Iran’s military in their own unit (the “Fatimeyoun”) in Syria. Since my story came out in May, I have seen reports from Iranian news agencies about such fighters – specifically about their bodies being returned to Iran for burial. 

Human Rights Watch has documentation about these fighters, among whom they recently found tombstones for eight child soldiers.

The HRW reports are framed differently than the Syrian opposition-sourced stories about Assad’s use of “Afghan Shia militias”. Those stories emphasized that these were Afghans and Shia who were fighting for Assad – invoking ethnic and sectarian phobias in the service of war propaganda. The subtext in those stories, I wrote in May, was ” if Assad has “Afghan Shiite Militias” fighting for him, what atrocity is he incapable of?” By contrast, HRW’s reports are about the cruelty of recruiting soldiers from a vulnerable refugee population.

On that score, HRW’s reports are right. Afghan refugees are mistreated everywhere they go. Iran – where Afghans have suffered mass executions and deportations – is very much included. If the story of Afghans fighting in Syria is used with an agenda to help protect Afghan refugees in Iran, that is a far better outcome than the story being used to fuel sectarian conflict in Syria’s bloody civil war.

Photo from Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Why Won’t American Media Tell the Truth About What’s Happening in Venezuela?

Earlier this week, Donald Trump stood before the U.N. and called for the restoration of “political freedoms” to a South American nation in the thoes of an economic crisis. The country in question was Venezuela, but he could have just as easily been describing Argentina, whose right-wing government imprisoned indigenous politician Milagro Sala, has run inflation into the double digits and is in the process of re-imposing the sort of austerity policies that triggered a popular revolt and debt default in 2001.

The description also fits Brazil, where President Michel Temer has been caught on tape discussing bribes, his former cabinet member’s apartment recently raided to the tune of 51 million reais ($16 million). Temer, who assumed office only after leading the impeachment of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, has also run an aggressive program of austerity, dissolving the programs that lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class.

In both countries, right-wing forces have taken power and undermined fragile democratic norms with the objective of reversing the modest redistribution of wealth achieved under left-wing administrations over the past 15 years. Backed by a United States government with a long history of subverting leftist movements in the region, and a mainstream media that’s all too eager to carry its water, the right is now attempting the same feat in Venezuela.

How the opposition fights a popular government

Unlike Brazil and Argentina, Venezuela has been victimized by a number of factors outside of its control, but especially a precipitous drop in the price of oil, the country’s main source of revenue.

The oil price drop of 2015 was a global phenomenon. Since the formation of OPEC in the 1970s, the Saudi Kingdom has been able to use its immense reserves to undermine other oil-producing countries’ attempts to maintain a high and stable price for petroleum. Even if all these nations were to ally, the Saudi Kingdom can turn the tap up or down and change the entire global economy to benefit its own geopolitical agenda and that of its U.S. patron. It did so in the late 1970s to offset lowered production in Iran after the 1979 revolution. And it did so again in 2015, partly in response to the success of the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal. It’s not a perfect mechanism; the price drop hurt the Saudi economy before prices slowly climbed anew. But the most severe effects were felt by the United States’ designated enemies: Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Since 1999, the Venezuelan government has experimented with a process of social and economic reform using constitutional and electoral means. The president who initiated the experiment, Hugo Chavez, called it the “Bolivarian Revolution,” but for the most part it is now simply called Chavismo.

Chavez held power from 1999 until his death in 2013, interrupted by a three-day coup in 2002. During his presidency, the country saw a referendum on a constitutional assembly, the election of that assembly, a referendum to ratify the new constitution, a new election under that constitution, an attempt to use a provision in the constitution to recall Chavez, and two additional presidential elections, all of which were won by Chavez’s government. To say that Chavismo’s popularity and that of Chavez himself has been tested at the polls is an understatement.

While Chavez was alive, no politician could rival him for the presidency. This was true despite the 24-hour demonization of him in the country’s private media and the systematically negative coverage of his government across Western news outlets. As often occurs whenever a country runs afoul of the U.S., Chavez was presented as a dictator, despite his numerous electoral victories. So popular was he that when opposition leaders seized power for 72 hours in 2002, one of their first orders of business was to shut down the government’s TV channel. As the 2003 documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, reveals, the coup was ultimately defeated when officials managed to get back onto the airwaves.

Phases of economic warfare

When coup and media campaigns failed to upend the government or silence its mouthpiece, the opposition resorted to economic warfare. This war has had several phases: a national strike in 2002-2003 brought Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA, to a halt, denying the government its main source of revenue. But despite their personal suffering, the company’s lower-ranking officials remained loyal to Chavez (as did many of the middle ranks), stepping up to replace the striking managers and engineers in order to get the oil flowing again.

A more recent phase around 2014 saw smugglers take huge quantities of subsidized fuel, food and staples across the border to Colombia to sell or simply dump, denying poor Venezuelans essential goods as a means of exerting pressure on the federal government. The Maduro administration has been able to mitigate some of these losses by carefully controlling the distribution of subsidized staples.

Ultimately, the greatest source of Venezuela’s economic woes has been its own currency, the bolívar. Global markets can wreak havoc on governments by making runs on their currency, and Venezuela has attempted to immunize itself against this by imposing a fixed exchange rate. Any fixed exchange rate invites a black market, but the fixed rate in Venezuela is so far off the black market rate that anyone who obtains U.S. dollars stands to profit handsomely. Dollars can only legally be obtained through the sale of oil, so the black marketeers’ gains are the government’s losses.

Two decades of relentless critcism from the right has created an unforgiving environment for mistakes. And mistakes have been made. Over the long term, the Venezuelan revolution has not been able to surmount the country’s dependency on the extractive industry generally or petroleum specifically, which had always been one of its goals. Nor has it been able to dislodge entrenched bureaucracies or elite corruption, persistent problems that would be faced by any progressive government or movement. More recently, sensible economic proposals like those of UNASUR have been ignored, or even dismissed as capitulations to neoliberalism, when they likely would have strengthened the Chavista project. Without real changes to its economic policy, Venezuela will continue to lurch from one crisis to another.

The opposition’s politics of rejection and the threat of U.S. military intervention

If the opposition has succeeded in sabotaging the economy over the past couple of years, it has also benefited from Chavez’s death. The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) may have lost the presidential election to Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, but it captured the National Assembly.

No sooner did MUD assume its new seat of power than it immediately declared it would not work with Maduro. Rather than help solve the country’s economic crisis, it has celebrated it, hoping it will finally topple the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Its aims are entirely negative: MUD has no positive economic or political program of which to speak. It wants only regime change, if necessary through another military coup or a U.S. intervention, which some officials have openly pined for.

If the opposition does ultimately capture the presidency, the best-case scenario is that Venezuela adopts the ruinous austerity policies of Macri’s Argentina or Temer’s Brazil. The worst-case scenario could look something like the U.S.-led occupation of Haiti, with the country’s oil industry turned over to the multinationals, like Iraq’s was more than a decade ago.

How the opposition might rule is a matter of less speculation. During its three-day coup in 2002, it annulled the constitution and immediately began persecuting Chavistas. Older Venezuelans remember the years before 1999, when austerity policies were enforced with torture, disappearances and even massacres like the Caracazo of 1989.

Violent threats have always been leveled against Chavismo, mainly through paramilitary incursions from Colombia. At the moment, the Venezuelan opposition is conducting a small-scale urban insurgency against the government. Abby Martin’s July program on TeleSUR, “Empire Files,” offers a flavor of what this looks like: the assassination of Chavistas, the intimidation of Chavista voters and the destruction of government buildings and warehouses (including those for subsidized food).

The insurgency has put the government in an impossible position: If it represses these protests, it risks providing a pretext for a U.S. intervention or another coup. If it does not, a relatively small and unpopular opposition could impose minority rule. Meanwhile, the opposition adds fuel to the flames by refusing the government’s attempts at dialogue (which the Pope has offered to mediate).

The Venezuelan government recently tried to bring its opponents back into the fold by calling for a new constitutional assembly, whose members were elected in July 2017 and which is currently in session. Its reward? Another boycott, and the rejection of all constitutional changes the elected assembly makes as illegitimate.

The coup playbook

These methods—foreign incursions, sabotage and violent demonstrations, combined with a refusal to negotiate—were part of the Haitian opposition’s playbook in the years preceding the 2004 overthrow of Haiti’s elected government. Despite the mass anti-war protests of that period, the Haitian coup was met with surprisingly little international resistance, which helps explain why Venezuela finds itself in such a precarious position. What in the early aughts looked like the birth of a new Latin American sovereignty has been rolled back: coups have overthrown governments in Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2012) and arguably Brazil (2016).

As the U.S. steps up its regime change efforts in Caracas, many leftists in progressive and social media have expressed confusion or equivocation. Their difficulty in distinguishing between an embattled social democracy and a violent, right-wing rejectionist opposition is a testament to the weakness of anti-imperialism in Western politics at the moment. Progressives should have no such difficulty. Chavismo is an incomplete, flawed, ongoing democratic experiment. The alternatives on display are clear: terror, occupation and austerity.

This was published on Alternet

Canadian Extraction in Colombia: The Case of Parex

The following is the English translation of episode 23 of The Ossington Circle. The discussion featured the host Justin Podur, Professor Anna Zalik from York University, activist Manuel Rozental from Pueblos en Camino, and activist Oscar Sampayo from the Environmental and Extractive Studies Group in Magdalena Medio. The discussion focused on the activities of Parex, a Canadian mining company operating in the Colombian region of Magdalena Medio.

Justin: Welcome to the Ossington Circle. This is a special episode, because, well, first it’s in Spanish and second, we have three guests instead of the usual one. The topic today is Colombia and the extractive industry, focusing on the Parex corporation, Parex is a very interesting corporation, with an interesting role in Colombia – I will give the floor to the participants to delve into this topic, We have here Oscar Sampayo, member of the group of extractive and environmental studies of Magdalena Medio. We also have Professor Anna Zalik, professor at York University whose research on extractive industry focuses on the global South. And we have Manuel Rozental, activist with the Pueblos en Camino collective. Manuel has been a guest on this program twice already and probably will return many times in the future. Well, guests, thank you for being here in the circle.

Manuel: Thank you so much Justin, Anna hello, and hello Oscar.

Justin: Okay. Let’s start with Oscar. You are in a research group, investigating the role of extractive industries in Colombia, in Magdalena Medio, tell us a little about the context, the current situation and the role of this company called Parex.

Oscar: Greetings Justin, greetings Manuel, Anna, listeners of the world and America. We are here located in the Magdalena Medio region, in Barrancabermeja, the main port within the coast in Colombia, which recently a multinational upgraded through its auxiliary called Impala, so Barrancabermeja is now largest port that exists today in Latin America. It’s a port of 1.5 km and a half on the river and a depth of 1km.

Barrancabermeja is from 1918, 1910, the main region where oil is extracted and refined. Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio is rich in oil, rich in gas and rich in minerals, and in addition Barrancabermeja hosts the Ecopetrol refinery. It refines about 300,000- 350,000 barrels a day. From the territory of the Magdalena Medio is extracted about 200- 210 thousand barrels of oil. Since 1918, we have the presence of multinational companies, extractive companies. We had at the time Tropical Oil Company, which was the local subsidiary of Standard Oil. We had both Standard Oil New York, and Standard Oil New Jersey. We had Shell. In short, we have had the presence of multinationals since 1918 or 1920.

Oil was eventually nationalized – production and refining of oil was nationalized and the creation of Ecopetrol is part of the history of this region. But the multinationals continued to offer the services of extracting oil to Ecopetrol. Ecopetrol has not handled all the production and all the extraction of the oil. It owns the reserve, owns the oil, but all the associated services to be able to extract it have always been contracted with the multinationals.

Justin: Oscar forgive me, but where do the profits of the company go in this scheme?

Oscar: If it is extracted by Ecopetrol it goes to the nation. 90% of Ecopetrol’s profitability goes to the state, to the Colombian state, the country’s public finances, but all the associated services to be able to extract it are offered by multinationals. So Ecopetrol has never been 100% state, the oil is removed Ecoptrol its reserves is owned by Ecopetrol but its associated services, both the maintenance of refining and its extraction in the wells, have always been done by the multinationals. In 2007 Colombia made a public offering of Ecopetrol stock. Ecopetrol went public and 10% of those shares were distributed to the population, some stock packages were created, and 10% of what is now Ecopetrol was sold. In the process, Ecopetrol lost the management of hydrocarbon reserves. In 2007, Ecopetrol becomes a company. The national hydrocarbons agency, which is the office responsible for delivering the oil concepts and awarding the contracts, is created, and Ecopetrol remains as one more company with its assigned blocks but the reserves are now managed by the national hydrocarbons agency. That is a drastic change, a monumental change to what Ecopetrol meant before and after 2007.

Justin: And you can also say that there are implications for the sovereignty of the country over natural resources.

Oscar: We lost that, we lost sovereignty, Justin, we lost the ability to decide. An example: from 1918 to 2007, 600 concessions were given out. Since 2007, we have given out between 6-7000 concessions. We see this national hydrocarbons agency was created just to grant licenses without proper knowledge of the territory, without due rigor to identify the social, economic, and environmental impacts that this type of industry would generate as it is built up over certain territories or over certain environmentally sensitive regions. In the 1960s and 1970s Ecopetrol managed, identified the territory, studied it and granted the licenses. But after the creation of the national hydrocarbons agency, there is a profileration of licensing of oil blocks without due rigorous technical environmental and scientific assessment. The licenses are granted practically in an office in Bogota without identifying and without recognizing the bulk of Colombian territory. That is where the multinational Parex and partners start appearing in the Colombian context.

Justin: Ah. So this company operates under the new regulations that came after 2007.

Oscar: Yes, sir, exactly. After these types of changes in the management of the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons all these companies begin to appear again. Once again the Oxy Andina Company appears, Exxon appears again, BP appears again. Before they had worked with Ecopetrol under very rigorous conditions. Now no. Now these multinational companies were given 100% control over their concessions. They pay a tiny 8% in royalties.

Canadian capital begins to appear in our territory, specifically in the basin of the Eastern plains. Parex starts in Casanare, starting in El Meta, which is an oil rich region, known in Colombia, because it’s very close to the Rubiales oilfield, which was exploited by the Pacific Rubiales company of this Brazilian man, owner of Avianca, Efromovich.

With Eframovich’s contacts from investment funds from Canada, he set out to develop these basins in Colombia. In this context, this multinational Parex appears.

What worries us is that in 2014 Parex directly entered Magdalena Medio in block VMM9. Tihs block is located in the municipality of Simitarra in Santander. That block is destined for the development of a nonconventional deposit using fracking.

In 2015 we saw in several news outlets – business sections – that Ecopetrol had signed an agreement with this company Parex to develop a field near Barrancabermeja, which is the Aguas Blancas field in the municipality of Simacota. Since then we’ve discovered that Parex has interests in several blocks in Magdalena Medio. We have heard some very worrying facts about Parex in Casanare and El Meta on the eastern plains. At the moment Parex extracts 29 thousand barrels of oil in the block NL34, is where it has its largest production. It extracts around 17,516 thousand barrels in 2016. The plan of this company is to extract 60 thousand barrels by 2022, focusing on the eastern plains and Magdalena Medio.

What concerns us is that Parex has arrived in the territory without any environmental document, no assessment, no meetings or information for the communities where it will do its work. There is no public information about the magnitude of the activities that are going to be performed. We see a certain, revising of the financial, we see a certain latitude of both the Colombian state and institutions not to require the payment of taxes for the exploitation of these resources.

Justin: And these are sensitive ecosystems? What are the environmental impacts, which can be predicted or anticipated?

Oscar: The part of the Magdalena Medio where they are operating is close to two sensitive protected areas: one that is the area of the Serranía de los Yariguies, a beautiful mountain range, with a wealth of fauna and flora impressive in that national park of yariguies. Many migratory birds arrive from the US and Canada to spend the winter. Besides that, it is the source, the mountain range of the yariguíes is the source for the water for around 40 municipalities in Santander. Thanks to the mountains of yariguies we have these marshes, and all this marshy complex, wetlands, lakes, swamps, in the middle cupola that make up about 50 totally beautiful marshes, where you can find the Manati. Where Parex is performing its activities is habitat for the American Jaguar. The jaguar is a sensitive species, environmentally protected and at risk of extinction. Here in Barrancabermeja we watch it, it sleeps 40km from Barrancabermeja, but it sleeps in a habitat full of oil wells, of African palm, that if we do not stop, that American jaguar is going to disappear. They are very sensitive ecosystems, they are ecosystems and very delicate regions with lots of water but also with a lot of oil.

Justin: Will communities also face displacement due to this project?

Oscar: That is the position of development, these extractive projects, have this as a consequence. A concrete case, on a farm, a land owner of 100 hectares, they only buy 3 or 4 hectares, These 4 hectares make an activity so polluting, totally aggressive that ends up affecting the remaining 60, then the peasant has no recourse but to move to seek new conditions. What activities can be imposed next to oil activities? The African palm or the oil palm, then that is the option that the peasant will move to – forced to cultivate oil palm, disturbing and affecting nature, and establishing a monoculture, all for the logic of foreign capital.

Justin: Let us switch now to Prof. Anna Zalik to ask about how these companies work in the world, unless Oscar there is something else you want to add before this.

Oscar: No, so far, I’ll leave it there so that Anna and Manuel continue to expand on this what happens when this type of capital is arriving in a small territory — not only here in Colombia but in the rest of Latin America.

Justin: Anna, you’ve researched the role of these extractive companies. We gave you some time to do a little research specifically about Parex. Can you give us a panoramic view, and some details you discovered about Parex?

Anna: Thanks to all of you. I am learning a lot now through Oscar, about this story. In the research I did to prepare today, I was reviewing works by a historian colleague, Stefano Tijerina, and some work on Canadian imperialism, by Todd Gordon and Jeffrey Webber. I was going through through Stefano’s work concerning Canadian companies and capital and how Canadian firms took advantage of the competition between the empires of US and Great Britain during the twentieth century to enter Colombia. The United States did not want England to have a very significant role in Colombia, and thus Canada could take advantage of that. In that area there are several parallels with Mexico where I have conducted most of my work in Latin America.

Mexico after the revolution, nationalized the oil industry, and this was a very significant moment historically, which frustrated the very powerful oil companies of England and USA, which were Shell, Standard Oil (The Mexican subsidiaries were El Aguila –Shell_ and the Huasteca Oil Company – Standard Oil of Pennsylvania).

Colombia is passing through a stage with several parallels with Mexico. So Oscar explained after 2007 in Colombia, Canadian companies are benefiting from the process of privatization of the oil industry. In trying to better understand what Canadian companies are doing in Mexico, I have gone in to look at the financing through a Canadian government export promotion agency (the Export Development Corporation or EDC), a type of credit agency that seeks to promote Canadian industry in the southern countries. Because also before it was difficult for the countries of the south to finance controversial projects with companies like Shell. What I have seen is the way that Parex is doing, entering into transactions that are compiled on the EDC’s website, and I see a lot of financing of Parex, of Ecopetrol, la Gran Tierra, which is another Canadian company working in Colombia. So the EDC’s public filings are supposed to be a way for civil society organizations to find information, to see if the necessary environmental assessments have been done. What I’ve seen is that according to the EDC’s regulations for financing, the environmental assessments that should be there, are not available on the web.

Justin: So the company hasn’t met the environmental assessment requirements for financing.

Anna: It is a bit unclear in the sense that the EDC states that businesses must make these documents public if they fit into certain categories of social and environmental impact and petroleum extraction certainly fits under these categories. The EDC has categories A and B, but one can’t find any Colombian project in Category B on the EDC’s site. And the EDC says if it isn’t on our site, it must be published by the company somewhere else. But it is not on Parex’s site either. No social or environmental impact studies. (Some ofthis arises from the category of ‘financing’ which EDC uses instead of project in many cases and which requires less reporting. But presumably all of the ‘financed’ activities are associated with a project undertaken by Parex. As such, Parex is expected to report on these activities.

Oscar: Justin and Anna, sorry to interrupt. The method that you were commenting on Anna, is that when we have sat in at Parex operations in Colombia, they say that because they are partners of Ecopetrol they have no obligation to present these documents.

When they came to do work at Aguas Blancas near Barrancabermeja, we asked for the environmental assessment, where they are obliged to account for the totality of fauna and flora that was there in these four territories. To date 2017, June 26, we do not have those documents and they have not been delivered to the community, but they have already drilled 5 to 6 wells. We also ask ourselves that, how a company can operate without any environmental assessment in Colombia or if it is operating through an environmental assessment delivered to a third party – which in this case is Ecopetrol.

Anna: I imagine you know this issue very well, Oscar. Justin maybe with today’s discussion we can start this process and do the type of campaign to start some kind of pressure. They obviously don’t want people to know because they fear any kind of public pressure or accountability. The problem is also that Parex has projects that are not developed with in partnership with Ecopetrol. It has projects in Casanare, and other places where Parex does not have Ecopetrol as a partner. Even in these projects they are not disseminating the data, so there is certainly no excuse, saying it’s Ecopetrol who must show that data. It is a similar strategy (that international, including Canadian) companies use in Mexico with PeMex, they are going to say that all responsibility Is PeMex. This is how they work in any country in the South: they always put the responsibility on the government or hide behind the state oil companies. I think we should call the EDC to demand that this data be made public.

Justin: I have another question for you Anna. Here in Canada, when a company wants to do an extractive activity there is a requirement to consult for example with indigenous communities. When a Canadian company operates, for example in Colombia, does it have this obligation to consult with indigenous communities if it is indigenous territory?

Anna: I’d like to say yes, but actually, no. In Canada through judicial decisions, we now have what is called, the duty to consult. It is not free, prior informed consent, which is what should be required under the UN declaration on indigenous rights and the ILO. There is, however, in Canada at least the duty to consult (and accommodate) which indigenous communities can use to make (some legal) demands against companies. When Canadian companies operate in other countries they don’t have such obligations.

Justin: Anna, do you have anything else? Or do you or Oscar have questions for each other? Or can we continue with Manuel?

Anna: Let’s continue with Manuel and see.

Justin: Okay, Manuel. It was your idea to do the program, to investigate the activities of this company at the Canadian and Colombian level. I don’t know if you want to deepen this idea or give another view of the context.

Manuel: Yes, thank you Justin, Anna and Oscar. As Anna said, I’m learning a lot, from this exchange and have learned from Justin over the years; Anna, I have heard about some of your work in Mexico where I have been living until very recently, and Oscar and his environmental studies group (GEAM) are exemplary people in a very difficult context.

I would like two things: First to give listeners the context about where Oscar is. The Magdalena Medio is a region that has been affected since the beginning of the Spanish Conquest by a particular strategy of conquest: terror. In the Magdalena Medio, war, the different forms of violence, have been used from the outset seeking the extinction of the Indigenous Yarigui who resisted the Spanish. That same strategy of terror and extinction remains the emphasis of conquest today.

The second, that maybe Oscar can comment later and that would be very important, is to give listeners background in case they don’t know Colombia. And it is precisely that the first great oil concession of Colombia was made in that region and the extractive management of oil resources has everything to do with that first oil concession: the Mares concession. That region of the Magdalena Medio and particularly the city of Barrancabermeja are also the heart of Ecopetrol, the Colombian petroleum company, the state oil company in Colombia. After Mares and after the Magdalena Medio there are other discoveries, but extractivism of oil, conquest and its history start from this region, so that both the changing patterns of extractivism and the conquest as of resistance, of the different forms of resistance, have a long and fundamental history precisely in this region where Parex enters, in an illegal, abusive, authoritarian way with the complicity of the national hydrocarbon agency (ANH) of the Colombian state. This region is a microcosm of the history of the conquest not only of Colombia. It goes further, it is a model, a living story that perpetuates itself on how the conquest to extract wealth has been: the extractivist conquest for the accumulation of global capital. This is a question, for that open and ongoing story that I leave to Oscar but I think I can comment on something briefly. Something that seems very important to me to understand about the territory where Parex and its extractivism now imposes itself. What is happening is not new to the region.

What is new is that people like Oscar and the GEAM who are trying to defend territories, resources, and even demanding compliance with regulations through legal channels, are people who are particularly at risk. For Oscar to speak as he is speaking now is dangerous to do so even after the signing of peace agreements (between the FARC and the state), it’s terribly risky, for one reason: to a large extent, peace agreements are signed – we know – to allow greater dispossession and greater extractivism in territories of the Magdalena Medio. There, where we see the presence of the FARC, the Colombian state signed the peace accords, the FARC are concentrated and demobilized. Now two groups are expanding their presence throughout the country: 1. paramilitaries and death squads with different names, and 2, openly, the huge extractive and infrastructure projects at the service of transnational corporations. That is to say, the peace agreements in Colombia are not understood if the extractive megaprojects are not put in perspective. It is this fundamental point that I wanted to expose in terms of context. These are the two first things I wanted to say. It is in this context that I wanted to set up this conversation, to show what the environmental group (GEAM) and Óscar have discovered in Magdalena Medio: the way Parex is entering a territory to do fracking, cause environmental disasters and go beyond the law and the ethical obligations that obviously do not matter here for the Canadian transnational oil company.

What is happening here, in the Magdalena Medio, fits in a larger context that I would like to comment on and I will do it quickly. Here is a problem and a challenge for the people of Canada and the people of Colombia, and it is the problem of destruction of nature, of the destruction of an ecosystem. To be able to destroy nature and ecosystems and to accumulate with the extraction of petroleum one has to do something, that they are doing at the moment, and you have to count on what they are counting at the moment, and that is exactly what we are trying to break with this type of communications: the innocence, the unconsciousness and the disinformation of the people. If people were informed and aware, such abuses and crimes would not occur. So there is a strategy in many areas to prevent people from understanding what Oscar and Anna have already talked about.

Today, I can be in my home, in my territory, live as a community, in my territory, and today, a transnational corporation, particularly a Canadian oil or mining company, throughout the Americas, may have made a agreement with government authorities (in this case of Colombia), violating the law, to enter my territory, my very house, without the people realizing. Enter my house and destroy my ecosystem, expel me from my territory. People will not have the knowledge to defend themselves and if they try to defend themselves, they will suffer legal attacks, media attacks, intimidation, legal accusations, persecution of different groups and even the application of terror and death.

Global power today is transnational corporations and in particular transnational extractivist corporations everywhere. That is the fundamental social actor. That social actor has supplanted the people, the citizenry, before the state. Today the role of states is not the defense of human rights, because the subject, the legal person, whose rights the state has to defend, are transnational corporations. No longer the people. That is why it is the same in every country where there are extractive projects by transnational corporations: the same as in Colombia. However, the discourse in both Canada and Colombia, with great differences and specificities, the discourse of states and the legal framework, apparently defends territories, ecosystems and people, both in Canada and in Colombia. While in practice, the role of the Canadian State, EDC and other entities cited as the role of the Colombian state openly and covertly is to protect the interests of transnational corporations. Behind this there is corruption. Behind this there is a violation of the law, but above all there is a lot of money, and the money from transnational corporations and their profits count more than any other priority. That’s what people are not clear about.

If you open the Parex website, and investigate, one can begin to discover inconsistencies, but above all you discover a page prepared for investors. It is a page that promises to extract increasing amounts of oil and increasing profits for those who put their money into these extractive projects of Parex. This is how Parex is promoted. So, one sees in the page easily the plans for how they are going to get more oil, how the people that invest in Parex will make more money and that is the function of Parex: to attract more money of investors in search of profits, to remove the Magdalena Medio’s oil. But what we have just heard is that the oil that profits investors and Parex is at the cost of destruction.

The second thing we see on the page is necessarily false propaganda of the guarantee of the protection of the environment and of “social responsibility” with the communities. Things that have no basis in reality. Both Parex and other Canadian oil and mining extractive transnationals do exactly the same thing, promise money to some and guarantee it in words that will not harm the environment or the communities. What they promise, they also promise to communities in Colombia and many people do not know the impacts of fracking. They do not know what an extractive transnational corporation is doing without prior consultation and with the risk that is run. That is a fundamental point and Parex is no exception. On the contrary, it exemplifies the behavior and interests of transnational corporations of its type.

The essential point to make in this conversation, is that people in Canada, as Anna said, if people in Canada learn that a corporation that has its headquarters there is committing irregularities, is not transparently proposing information for the sale to the public of investment opportunities, covering up what is actually knowingly doing, the damage fracking is doing in different places in Colombia. That all this is being done with the support of the Canadian government. Because the people of Canada do not know. The people have been deceived or do not want to know what in their government and the corporations based in that country are doing in mining and extractivism, in the Parex case and in many other cases of many extractive corporations and throughout the continent and beyond.

And also, every time the citizenry has become aware, breaking the siege of lies and deceit, of propaganda, demanding that its government and corporations comply, each time they wake up to defend nature, territory, dignity and compliance with the laws that remain, the impact of coherent actions is greater when there are actions in Canada for the benefit of the peoples and of these territories, than when people act alone in the countries and territories affected, persons or groups representing the defense of peoples and territories. In solitude locally, they end up being repressed, judicialized, imprisoned or isolated for the extractive project to develop. This is the fundamental issue.

The other point I want to make, and it is very large and very generalized, I will set the example this way: From the beginning of the conquest of this continent, from the misnamed “discovery”, Portugal and Spain, they claimed for themselves the Americas and half the world. They met each other on the return of Columbus to Portugal with evidence of the existence of this continent, to divide the world with the mediation of the Pope and the Catholic Church. The Pope divides the planet in agreement with the kings of Spain and Portugal in Tordecillas. Half for the Portuguese and the other half for the Spanish. That is why the map of South America has half the continent as Brazil and the other half the Spanish speaking countries. That madness, at a time when they did not even know the territories, did not know which peoples lived there, condemned to the inexistence and the service of economic gain for Portuguese and Spanish this entire continent, and condemned to slavery and extinction the peoples of this continent. It is ancient history, recognized and ignored, but it is precisely what I want to highlight here. At this time, transnational corporations have divided the world as did Spain and Portugal in Tordecillas. They fight between them to stay with territories, and Petrosur fights with Petro Andina, and other oil and mining companies fight to hold their territories and riches. But that’s an internal fight, between corporations. On this side, the peoples and territories have no defense. They are dividing the planet without knowing it to take away riches and territories, but with a difference. Today is a planet that is almost completely occupied. There is nowhere else to go. If capitalism wants to extract more oil later, there is no later and there is no more planet. We are reaching the limit of the planet.

These extractive projects like those of Parex are the final threat of destruction of the planet, against which capital has to eliminate the surplus population, eliminate the corporate competition and the resistance that the biggest capitalists face to stay with everything and everything leave all the wealth, in particular, energy and water wealth, in very few hands and very few corporations. Why do I say this? I do not say it to put it in an interesting theory. I say this because in practice, the Parex case, puts forth something very clear: If Parex continues with the fracking; if it has converted the National Agency of Hydrocarbons of Colombia, that was created just to deliver Colombian ecosystems and resources to the transnationals in exchange for the destruction of these same; if this is done and we do not take action in Canada and Colombia to prevent it, we agree that the last reserves of life, water, oxygen, oil and energy sources, minerals and biodiversity disappear and be destroyed by the greed of a few with all power.

Parex is unable to see the destructive consequences of lying to the people and the destructive consequences of performing extractivism, do not see it, do not understand it, because its norm, its necessity is to make the most amount of gain in the least amount of time.

From that side, from accumulation by destruction, as Héctor Mondragón calls it, they are. On this side is Oscar, is the population affected, there are the Canadians who decide to open their eyes and we are all and all conscious or unconscious, because the life of this planet and ours as humanity is at stake.

That is the intention to make known these facts: we must demand from Parex transparency, the Canadian government transparency, the people of Calgary, Alberta of Canada who has the capacity to be made aware that these are crimes. Crimes committed in complicity with governments like Colombia and other governments of the continent and crimes that threaten to destroy the life of the entire planet. The Lakota Sioux in the United States rose up against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the whole world found out becausee of their efforts. We in Canada and Colombia have to stop these projects that will also affect the own children of the owners of the Parex Corporation and the senior government officials. We have to stop profit at the cost of death, self destruction.

My last sentence is this: in this context the government of Colombia, pressured by Canadian transnationals and others, modified its mining code to give the country to mining extractivism years ago. The Canadian government, as listeners heard Anna explain, generates structures to legally, politically and economically favor the illegal extractivism of transnational corporations, but the whole illegal framework leaves the responsibility to the governments of the affected countries. So Colombia creates, for example, the National Hydrocarbons Agency, whose purpose is to prevent Ecopetrol from having control over reserves. In other words, as Oscar said, the specific intention behind the creation of the National Hydrocarbons Agency is to give riches and territories to transnational corporations that can destroy territories and peoples without any consequences and without political obstacles. That’s what it’s all about. So here is a complicity. Let us summarize: when greed is sacred, stealing is law. But that kills us and destroys the territories. Defending the territories of the Magdalena Medio and the rest of the country of the fracking and defending them from Parex, is to defend life in both Canada and Colombia, and this case is one of those who put on the table the complicities of who govern us, of the transnationals and the need for consciousness among the people.

Justin: Thank you Manuel. Oscar, maybe you want to elaborate on the specific context of the Magdalena Medio that Manuel mentioned.

Oscar: In Barrancabermeja, exactly in the El Centro district, was discovered the second oilfield in Colombia. The first was the Tubara well in 1883, with an important production of hydrocarbons, and the second well was Infantas II. The story of that well is something particular, that well was given to Joaquin Bohórquez, a man who began in 1904 to frequent the territory and realized the presence of chapapote. Chapapote was the viscous substance, it was oil, but the chapapote guided the Yarigui to the oil. On the corregimiento El Centro, very close to the Infantas Creek, there was presence of chapapote and it was above sea level. This Mr. Joaquin Bohórquez didn’t have the capital to develop his oilfield so he negotiates with a man named Roberto de Mares, we are talking about 1908-1910. This Mr. de Mares, equally is not able to do the job of developing it so he sells his titles, goes to the United States, New York, Houston and get some investors, brings a few Americans to the territory and so begins the Tropical Oil Company.

The Tropical Oil Company drill this well Infantas II on November 27, 1918. In 2018 it will celebrated 100 years. So in 1918 begins all that is known in the development of oil and the extractive industry of what is Colombia today. The Tropical Oil Company, then, is a company of the Standard Oil Company or Mr. Rockefeller. Because of the antitrust situation in the US, the Tropical Oil Company becomes the owner of Standard Oil New Jersey. And after that, somewhere in 1948-50, presumably before giving it to Ecopetrol, Canadian capital appears, seizing or buying from Standard Oil New Jersey these positions at El Centro. So Canadian capital is not recent in Colombia.

It’s a very interesting thing, it’s a lot of historical material from here in Barranca, including at the Glenbow museum ( In that museum there is a lot of anthropological and historical material about how these companies like the Tropical Oil Company murdered the Yarigui. It was allowed, as a sort of norm, of ordinances, that indigenous people could be murdered. Then the indigenous yariguies are exterminated by the implantation of these extractive projects also in the territory.

Some time later, in 1964, in a territory very near here in Barrancabermeja, the creation of a movement to demand a change in the economic and social situations of the country.

When extraction began at the Mares oil field, the maximum peak of the extraction was 40 thousand barrels. Production was supposedly nationalized or becomes Ecopetrol in 1954. Between 1954 and 2008 that production is reduced to only 4 thousand barrels per day, from 54 thousand that were taken in 1954 to 4 thousand that were taken in 2007. In 2007 the Mares concession is given to Oxy, other capitals there of Houston and elsewhere in the US. And today that field, La Cira, of the El Centro block, is extracting about 38 thousand barrels per day.

We have seen through history, how the different administrations of Ecopetrol are harmful to it. Their practices cause the deterioration of mature fields. They call them unproductive and give them to third parties who then revive them. This is how the Magdalena Medio is divided, it is taken up by companies like Exxon, Oxy, Shell, and also Canadian capitals that have been present in Colombia or watching it since 1918 and were in the territory until 1960. They avoided the conflict in Colombia and now they have begun to return to finish the work they started in the early decades of the last century.

Justin: I want to go back to Canada. Anna, 10 or 15 years ago I discovered this book that was published in the 70’s: The genocide machine in Canada (Davis and Zakis, Black Rose Books 1973), and it deals with mining companies in Northern Canada and the idea is that Canada specifically developed an extractive model because extracting in the north is expensive and the idea is to extract as much as possible in the least time and leave communities destroyed, and they presented this picture of a Canadian model of extraction that has been exported to Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world, that this type of extraction imposed on indigenous communities of Canada and exported to the world. Anna, I know you’ve studied this type of extraction and studied fracking, so maybe you can comment on this idea.

Anna: You were the one who told me about the book, by the way. To your question: there are several practices that had to do with the discrimination and violence against indigenous communities that started in Canada. South Africa’s apartheid pracices were modeled on the Canadian reserve system. It is a story of settlers and imperialists and these major companies. There are several facets, but many large trading companies, for example, British and Dutch, were important in these processes of imperialism.

There is one thing I would like to comment, about what Manuel said. I completely agree with what he said about extractivism and the system in which all capitals are linked in a process of displacing people to seize resources in a way that has serious consequences throughout the world. But to try to be optimistic, I know that the companies are afraid of people finding out about these things. I have seen commentary by people who have observed the oil price drop that have made it impossible to sustain jobs in the oil sands. It is a small part of the story and I know that companies are leaving the oil sands in pursuit of offshore oil in the Gulf of Mexico, in the deep ocean, at a very significant level and the explanation for that is because intercession has already been made in these deep deposits and even with fracking it remains viable to produce, since the investments are already made. But one of the reasons for this is because people have organized to confrnt the extractive industry in land areas and industry has responded by going out to sea to avoid social conflict on the ground. Many people have been murdered by the extractive industry, by private armies and national armies used in their service, but I also want to recognize that people’s organization and strategies have forced the companies to change their strategies too. So the people have to keep on top of this, in that sense it is like a game of “whack-a-mole”, as a friend of mine put it. I am not sure how to say that in Spanish.

Justin: Haha, that game, Manuel, you know the game where the moles pop up and you have to hit each one as it comes up?

Manuel: The idea of this game is exactly the idea behind what the Zapatistas call ‘la hydra capitalista’, or the Hydra, which has many heads.

Justin: Yes, yes.

Anna, Ah, yes. So activists against pipelines in Canada have this experience. They launch a pipeline, people mobilize against it, industry stops it and starts another one. I don’t want to make the claim that we are wiping out capitalism with this kind of social mobilization because we will need something much deeper, but what I would like to point out is that through a mobilization or better starting here to work together with people in Colombia who have already faced a lot of risk and threat to their lives in their work as I imagine Oscar has, that we should start to insist that what is happening be made public, and I think we can have an impact. There is a way to have an impact, that we can have some successes through collective action, we can have successes here and there.

Justin: That is the point that I take from what you’re saying Anna: the defense of the earth, can succeed, it is possible to succeed, in spite of the power of this machine.

Anna: We are going to have to defend the areas of the seas, those that are outside of territorial waters because they are already trying to go there.

Justin: Yes but you can look at it like this … if we can push them to the sea maybe we can push them to interstellar space. Oscar, Manuel, you want to say something … Oscar we started with you, if you want to finish something.

Oscar: No, thank you Justin, thank you also Manuel and obviously to Prof. Anna, for this space, and the idea is to continue weaving, to see there in Toronto or in Calgary, the situation of this company Parex, and as discussed by Prof. Anna, the lack of environmental documents required for Parex, as it operates alone, here in several blocks. It should have to provide documentation for those projects, which are demanded by both the government of Canada and the stock exchanges. The projections for Magdalena Medio in 2020 are for extraction of far too much oil, coal, too much gas, and we need to be able to stop that, because the sacrifice will be high, different animals, different living beings will be harmed, and we, the inhabitants of this region, rich in water, abundant in water, are going to be displaced so that water can be used to frack hydrocarbons. We cannot continue in that logic, to enrich a few as Manuel said. And the idea is that Anna, that we can arrive with this voice, and provide evidence that a series of investments are being made with many inconsistencies and being imposed against the interests of the communities, the law and the rules. That cannot be allowed today.

Justin: Yes, we’ll start with this program, we’ll translate it into English, and we’ll put it wherever we can, and we’ll continue with this, we’ll try to make a campaign about it. Manuel you have the last word to conclude.

Manuel: There is no last word! But I would like to comment on two things, in terms of what to do, how fantastic this amount of information in this short time and with people who know the subject as much as Anna and Oscar.

I would propose two tasks in initial campaign terms from what was said.

One: We have to demand documents and compliance with environmental regulations starting with Canada, that is to say we have to ask questions in Canada and I think, it seems to me that what we hear, to make that demand in Canada, however preliminarily, will allow us to begin to make this type of demand among different environmental groups, and social projects and movements in Colombia. Then we move on the side of compliance and non-compliance with norms and nonexistent information or contradictions. This is very important in the framework of this extractive project, directing ourselves to investors, which is what Parex would care about, and the Government of Canada in terms of the irregularities being committed. Under this scope to ask questions, and that the questions reach the people of Canada within the framework of what Oscar already told us, what is happening with Parex in the Magdalena Medio.

The other thing is precisely is to emphasize the need to save the Magdalena Medio from destruction. The Yariguí, never submitted to the conquest, never stopped resisting and for that reason they faced extermination, that is to say, they had the dignity of not accepting a project that threatened its territory and in doing so they preferred to die than to undergo this type of project. We have to build around the idea of defending the Magdalena Medio, its wealth and beauty that are being attacked now.

The second: I totally agree with Anna in that optimism, that’s precisely why I point out what I pointed out, look … we have just completed a seminar with two people from Guatemala, a researcher on the whole war in Guatemala and an outstanding Indigenous activist, Isabel Solis, who is telling us how people in Guatemala are now defeating extractivism all over the country. The problem is that they are not sufficiently aware of how many different groups and communities are doing it across the country and have not linked up but they are doing it despite repression and despite the mafias.

A mayor of Panama was telling us of both contradictions and struggle, the extraordinary capacity of resistance of the people and in his words: the resistance is actually more powerful than the aggression. The problem is that it is hidden, it doesn’t registers and does not coordinate. But that is another reason for optimism.

And in Peru, we know that the Ayacucho people have been able to stop mining extractivism, they have done it. The struggles are there.

Mapuche women, despite the aggression, monocultures and extractivism, are guarding seeds and strengthening their territory, the problem they have is coordination and awareness to make it possible for people to resist together.

The director of OCMAL, Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina, told us exactly what you told us Anna, which, for example, big projects like Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama, between the Argentine-Chilean mountain range are projects that are have become so costly, because of the struggle of the people, they have been practically abandoned at least temporarily.

There is resistance to a project of oil extraction off the coast of Brazil.

And that the social cost has grown that although there are hydra and other heads appear, what if has been demonstrated is that when the peoples rise to consciousness from the territories and have backing, then the transnationals although they do not admit it, are being defeated.

The last example that I want to give is the most important. Emiliano Teran, I recommend reading his exceptional book, La Fantasma de la Gran Venezuela. Without that research, one does not understand what is in Venezuela, does not understand what happened in Libya, what is happening now, nor understand Syria, nor Ukraine. What does he say in that very serious and optimistic political and historical investigation? He says in essence is that there is a triad, first the oil, second the state as administrator of the oil that is delivered to the transnationals, and third, the people, descendants of those extractive industries.

That triad is the history of Venezuela. When a situation like this arrives in which the oil sands of the Orinoco, which impose an unprecedented environmental destruction, a destruction of indigenous communities and culture without precedent and in the context of falling prices of oil and high extraction and environmental costs of these methods of tar sands and fracking, etc. are leading to a deep crisis in the extractive industry, and in that context will be the crisis of Venezuela, which leads to a context and a situation that if Venezuela continues to depend on oil, whether progressive government or right-wing government, the only possibility is the destruction of that country, its regions and its cultures.

People today are understanding it, when you can not get toilet paper, you can not drink coffee, you can not bake because there is no flour, people are planting, exchanging seeds, protecting the water, fighting – despite what the media tell us — not to fall as Syria has fallen into a situation of war that only serves capital. They are trying desperately to prevent that war in Venezuela. Now Venezuela is physically very close to the Magdalena Medio that Oscar is talking about, and it is absolutely necessary to understand it to understand what we’re talking about here. So I’m optimistic here as Anna, and I think that you can only be optimistic if we understand and face aggression. Because from the villages and territories it can be defeated. The biggest problem we have is awareness and action and that is why I believe that these kinds of exchanges are wonderful and hopefully the beginning of a task that continues so I am very grateful to all of you.

Justin: Yes, we will keep in touch and maybe do a part 2 in a few months to see where we are. Many thanks Manuel, Anna Zalik, Óscar Sampayo, many thanks for being here, friends.