The Ossington Circle Episode 31: The Management of Savagery with Max Blumenthal

The Ossington Circle Episode 31: The Management of Savagery with Max Blumenthal
Cover of Management of Savagery
Cover of Management of Savagery

I talk to Max Blumenthal, author of The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. We begin with the latest coup attempt in Venezuela and go from there to talk about anti-imperialist politics, the need to rebuild an antiwar and anti-imperialist mentality, and the hunger for such a perspective – as evidenced by the positive reaction to Max’s book – despite it being pushed away from the mainstream.

Inside the neoliberal laboratory preparing for the theft of Venezuela’s economy

Dilma Rousseff was president of Brazil until overthrown in a soft coup in 2016. Hugo Chavez was briefly overthrown in 2002. Maduro is being overthrown at the time of writing (2019).

As we watch a US-backed coup unfold in a distant country, as in Venezuela today, our eyes are drawn to the diplomatic, military, and economic elements of the US campaign. The picture of a scowling John Bolton with a big yellow notepad with the message “5,000 troops to Colombia” reveals the diplomatic and military elements. The New York Times headline “U.S. Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First” reveals the economic element.

But US foreign policy mobilizes every available resource for regime change and for counterinsurgency. Among those resources, you will always find academics. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but behind every US-backed war on a foreign people there will be a body of scholarly work.

The academic laboratory of the Venezuelan coup has the highest academic pedigree of all—it’s housed at Harvard. Under the auspices of the university’s Center for International Development, the Venezuela project of the Harvard Growth Lab (there are growth labs for other countries as well, including India and Sri Lanka) is full of academic heavyweights, including Lawrence Summers (who once famously argued that Africa was underpolluted). Among the leaders of the growth lab is Ricardo Hausmann, now an adviser to Juan Guaido who has “already drafted a plan to rebuild the nation, from economy to energy.”

In an interview with Bloomberg Surveillance, Hausmann was asked who would be there to rebuild Venezuela after the coup—the IMF, the World Bank? Hausmann replied (around minute 20), “we have been in touch with all of them. … I have been working for three years on a ‘morning after’ plan for Venezuela.” The hosts interrupted him before he could get into detail, but the interview concluded that bringing back the “wonderful Venezuela of old,” for investors, would necessitate international financial support. Never mind that the “wonderful Venezuela of old” was maintained through a corrupt compact between two ruling parties (called “Punto Fijo”) and the imprisonment and torture of political opponents—amply documented but forgotten by those who accuse Maduro of the same crimes.

The Growth Lab website provides some other ideas of what Hausmann’s plan likely includes: Chavez’s literacy, health care, and food subsidy “Missions,” a growth lab paper argues, have not reduced poverty (and, implicitly, should go). Another paper argues that the underperformance of the Venezuelan oil industry was due to the country’s lack of appeal to foreign investors (hence Venezuela should implicitly be made more appealing to this all-important group). A third paper argues that “weak property rights” and the “flawed functioning of markets” are harming the business environment—no doubt strengthening property rights and getting those markets functioning again will be in the plan. If this sounds like the same kind of neoliberal prescription that devastated Latin American countries for generations and was imposed and maintained through torture and dictatorship from Chile and Brazil to Venezuela itself, that is because the motivation is to bring back the “wonderful Venezuela of old.”

Wall Street Journal article by Bob Davis from 2005 credits Hausmann with being part of the original Washington Consensus in 1989, “the economic manifesto [that] identified government as a roadblock to prosperity, and called for dismantling trade barriers, eliminating budget deficits, selling off state-owned industries and opening Latin nations to foreign investment.” But before returning to the neoliberal prescription, Hausmann experimented with different economic ideas, including some heresies. If the WSJ article is to be believed, Hausmann looked at the data on Latin American economic growth decades later and found “Deep reforms; lousy growth,” and concluded that there “must be something wrong with the theories of growth.”

Hausmann’s academic work is highly technical, macroeconomic modeling. The models reveal the consequences of the assumptions used to construct them: at times there is some data fit to them. Others are applied mathematics exercises. A paper on 2005 “Growth Accelerations” looks for periods when countries’ economies grew quickly. An earlier paper, from 2002, presents a roundabout argument on the so-called “resource curse,” in which oil-dependent economies (like Venezuela) suffer poor developmental performance, arguing at that time that “more interventionist policies to subsidize investment in the non-tradable sector may also have a role to play.”

But whether it was written by Hausmann or not, the economic plan of Guaido’s post-coup government has no such heterodox ideas in it, however. It is difficult to imagine Hausmann or Guaido going against Bolton, who told Fox News that “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” The post-coup Venezuelan economy will not be all about mathematically rigorous experiments in economic growth like Hausmann’s academic work. It will be about the privatization of Venezuela’s assets.

Hausmann might have a long and ideologically winding record of publishing models of economic growth, but he has maintained a passion for regime change in Venezuela for more than a decade—even at the expense of academic integrity. After the Venezuelan opposition failed to oust Chavez in a coup in 2002 and failed again to oust him using a strike of the Venezuelan oil company in 2003, they resorted to constitutional means—a recall referendum, in 2004. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the recall in the referendum, which featured then new electoral machines that did an electronic tally verified by printed ballots (still the system used in Venezuela and praised by former US president Jimmy Carter in 2012 as the “best in the world”) and was overseen by numerous international observers including the Carter Center. But Hausmann prepared a highly dubious statistical analysis to cast doubt on the outcome. Hausmann’s dubious statistics were cited numerous times. More may have been made of them had they not been thoroughly discredited by the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Mark Weisbrot of CEPR summarized the episode in a 2008 report:

“… the political impact of economic and econometric research on Venezuela can be very significant. For example, in 2004, economists Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard’s Kennedy School (a former Minister of Planning of Venezuela) and Roberto Rigobon of MIT published a paper purporting to show econometric evidence of electronic fraud in the 2004 presidential recall referendum. The theory of the fraud was implausible in the extreme, the statistical analysis was seriously flawed, and the election was observed and certified by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States. Nonetheless this paper had a substantial impact. Together with faked exit polls by Mark Penn’s polling firm of Penn, Schoen, and Berland—which purported to show the recall succeeding by a 60-40 margin, the mirror image of the vote count—it became one of the main pieces of evidence that convinced the Venezuelan opposition that the elections were fraudulent. On this basis they went on to boycott the 2005 congressional elections, and consequently are without representation in the National Assembly.

“The influence of this Hausmann and Rigobon study would probably have been much greater, but CEPR refuted it and then the Carter Center followed with an independent panel of statisticians that also examined these allegations and found them to be without evidence. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal and other, mostly Latin American publications, used the study to claim that the elections were stolen. Conspiracy theories about Venezuelan elections continue to be widely held in Venezuela, and are still promoted by prominent people in major media sources such as Newsweek, even with regard to the recent constitutional referendum of December 2, 2007.”

Hausmann’s 2004 statistical gambit is actually an established part of the US-coup playbook. The academic analysis of an election and the finding of flaws, real or imagined, in an electoral process are the beginning of an ongoing claim against the target’s democratic legitimacy. The created flaw is then repeated and emphasized. Even if it was spurious and debunked, as was Hausmann’s 2004 analysis, it can continue to perform in media campaigns against the target. After years of such repetition, the target can safely be called a “dictator” in Western media, even if the “dictator” has more electoral legitimacy than most Western politicians.

The elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2004. Haiti’s Hausmann was an academic named James Morrell. After Aristide won reelection in 2001 in a landslide, he stood poised to make major legislative moves on behalf of the country’s poor majority. Morrell published an article about how Aristide had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” because of irregularities in the election of eight senators (out of 19, 18 of which were won by candidates from Aristide’s party): only the votes of the top four candidates in the senatorial elections were counted for these senate seats. These senators would have won regardless of the methodology used, but these supposed irregularities were enough to initiate the financial punishment of Aristide’s government: the suspension of Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) financing, to the tune of $150 million. All eight senators were made to vacate their seats, but the IADB never provided the loan. Morrell’s article played a key role as the intellectual backing for the attack on the Aristide government’s legitimacy, despite Aristide’s overwhelming victory in the 2001 election and the contrived nature of the “irregularities” in the senate seats.

The coup against Aristide unfolded over a period of years: economic warfare, paramilitary violence, and the eventual kidnapping of Aristide from the palace were the tactics of choice in that regime change. But the academics preceded the coup, and followed it, providing justifications and obfuscations of what was happening in the post-coup, counterinsurgency violence.

Latin American social violence has even longer-running academic underpinnings. Today, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque (the protégé of the previous warlord-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez), leads the call for regime change in Venezuela. Duque’s country was reshaped by a multigenerational civil war during which the countryside was depopulated, through paramilitary violence, of millions of peasants (many of them Afro-Colombian or Indigenous). The academic theorist behind this was the Canadian-born, US “new dealer” Lauchlin Currie, whose theory (summarized by academic James Brittain in a 2005 article), called “accelerated development,” was that “the displacement of rural populations from the countryside and their relocation to the urban industrial centers would generate agricultural growth and technological improvements for Colombia’s economy.” Currie implemented these ideas as the director of the foreign mission of the World Bank from 1950, and as adviser to successive Colombian presidents. Today Colombia continues to suffer from Currie’s academic theories. Despite the peace deal of 2016, it has the largest internally displaced population in the hemisphere.

John Maynard Keynes wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

As Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton show in their article about him, Guaido is just such a practical man, a US-foundation-funded street fighter for the rich neighborhoods of Caracas. But he certainly has use of the academic scribblers gathered at Harvard.

When it comes to suppressing the people of Latin America in their hopes to control their own fortunes and their own resources, the scribblers have a key role to play, as much as their diplomatic and military counterparts.

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

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

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 podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.