Re: MD Understanding Quality And Power

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Thu Dec 09 2004 - 22:32:03 GMT

  • Next message: Mark Steven Heyman: "Re: MD The Quality of Capitalism?"

    Hi MSH,

    As it happens I'm giving a talk in my church on the just war tradition this coming Saturday, so I
    feel a bit more able to answer this one rapidly, as it's on my mind. Trouble is, it might overlap
    with the capitalism thread, which I want to give a proper response to. So a preliminary point.
    Perhaps the closest I can come to a "core" political/economic belief, is this: the concentration of
    power tends to foster low Quality. That can be unpacked in lots of different ways (and needs various
    caveats) but I think it cuts across the left/right arguments, and it specifies (for me) what I find
    objectionable in various arrangements (political or economic). So what I'll be arguing in the
    capitalism thread (with Platt) is that >something like< a western system is of higher intrinsic
    quality than >something like< a state socialism model - because there is a greater diffusion of
    power. I'm aware that this begs lots of questions - but that's why I want to take more time in that
    thread than I've had so far! Anyhow, on to this one.

    > Note subject change. Maybe we can use this thread to discuss the
    > Iraq situation, as well as other power and quality issues. I'd very
    > much like to bring the MOQ into this when appropriate, with the
    > understanding that both of us find it inadequate, in some respects.


    > It's very difficult to find someone with whom to discuss Chomsky's
    > ideas in a thoroughly critical yet respectful manner. <snip>
    > in other ways he's as imperfect as the rest
    > of us, and he's the first to say so.

    The biggest problem I have with Chomsky is context, ie how to read all the things he digs out. But I
    have a lot of agreement and respect for specific arguments that he makes. But as I haven't properly
    got to grips with his stance I will enjoy exploring him properly - to use your words, 'in a
    thoroughly critical yet respectful manner'. That sounds exactly right.

    > msh says:
    > This idea of "moral equivalence," though it's frequently tossed
    > about, seems to me to be rather ill-defined. Can you tell me what
    > you mean by it? And did you find that Solomon advocated this idea?

    Re Solomon I'm afraid I can't remember the specifics. I read quite a lot of op-ed stuff, and some of
    it becomes a blur (90% goes into the short-term memory). But I can explain what I mean by 'moral
    equivalence'. Formally the argument looks like this: Country X acts immorally by doing action A;
    Country Y acts immorally by doing action B; therefore Country X is as bad as country Y, because they
    are both immoral. When it's spelt out like this it becomes obvious where the flaw is, because for
    that argument to hold, A and B have to be morally equivalant - hence the name. I think that the
    issue is how bad A is compared to B (and how far that should constrain the way that country X or Y
    acts as a result).

    An example would be something like: the US has acted immorally in Latin America for decades (you
    know the details); Saddam Hussein acted immorally throughout his tenure on power; therefore the
    American invasion of Iraq is wrong/hypocritical (because the US is as bad as Hussein - the moral

    The key concept for me is the complexity of the actor/state. In other words, I don't automatically
    agree that because the US state acted immorally in sphere A (Chile for example) it is likely that it
    will act immorally in sphere B (Iraq). I don't think it's possible to be that consistent, either in
    the description of acts by the state or in the performance of acts by the state, the latter being
    far too protean and (yes) dynamic in many ways. So I think what needs to be done is to establish the
    morality or immorality of a particular act (invasion of Iraq) largely independently of actions

    I don't want to rule out the possibility of establishing a consistency of purpose in certain states,
    by the way - perhaps that was unclear from the above. It's more that I don't think it a necessary
    assumption that a state is consistent in its actions - I think that too needs to be established. For
    what it's worth, I think there are consistent patterns of behaviour that can be shown to be the
    larger 'dynamics' of US power. But we'll come on to that I'm sure.

    The thing that generates more heat than light is, I think, precisely this assumption about
    consistency, because on the one hand you get a group of critics saying "US is an evil imperial
    aggressor" and on the other hand you get "the US is the bright shining light on a hill come to
    redeem all mankind", and if you have positions staked out in such absolute terms then there's no
    scope for a finer discrimination, which is where the real understanding lies. Plus which, I think
    there is truth in both points of view...

    > msh says:
    > ... this brings up the whole issue of viable threat
    > assessment and rational response.

    Is this an example of what you called a 'Platteral shift'?!? When I was using the word 'defended' I
    wasn't just thinking military - I was thinking of things like e-mail arguments as well.... :o)

    > When the Oklahoma City terrorist
    > bombing occurred, US authorities behaved more or less rationally,...
    > 9/11s, disarming Hussein, or democratizing Iraq, we were consciously
    > murdering the Bathist regime's VICTIMS.

    I am wholly with you that the issue is about a properly rational analysis of threat and response. I
    am not convinced that it is an accurate description of current US military action in Iraq to call it
    "consciously murdering the Bathist regime's VICTIMS".

    > msh says:
    > .... The corporate media are concerned with
    > maximization of profits, as well as centralization of power. They
    > will appear conservative only to the extent that conservatism
    > supports this agenda. It's just that there is an obvious connection
    > between conservative values and corporate values, so, more often
    > than not, the folks in control of corporations will be conservative.

    Yep. Those who benefit from the system want to see it maintained (which doesn't, in itself, make it
    wrong - those who benefit from human rights want to see them maintained as well).

    > msh says:
    > Sure. But such people have either internalized the values of the
    > system so that they've convinced themselves that the abominable acts
    > are necessary; or they are truly suffering from some sort of
    > psychological disconnect.

    I suspect I might have more tolerance for human wickedness than you....

    > And, as you suggest, there are also people
    > who absolutely will not commit or contribute to abominable acts
    > dictated by the system. It's just that such people are usually
    > weeded out long before they can take a public stand. There are great
    > exceptions of course: William Blum (US State Department), Philip
    > Agee (CIA), Scott Ritter, Dennis Halliday, Ramsey Clark, Richard
    > Clarke.

    I don't know much about many of those names, but I do know about Scott Ritter, who seems to have
    been vindicated by events. Interesting story about My Lai.

    > msh says:
    > Sure. Better than the alternatives, in some ways. And it's
    > interesting that the values you mention are intellectual not social,
    > in terms of the MOQs moral hierarchy.

    Why interesting? I would call them eudaimonic rather than intellectual though, but I don't want to
    provoke a semantic debate.

    > But there are many other so-called American or Western values that
    > are not so clearly worth defending:....

    Absolutely. The issue is which system is more likely to foster dynamic improvements, ie which system
    has the capacity to 'better itself' over time. It's the political equivalent of Pirsig's point about
    the pencil being mightier than the pen, isn't it, which is why having a regular 'reset' mechanism
    through democratic elections etc gives a high Quality balance between static and dynamic, which has
    generated all the good things we enjoy now - like this forum.

    > It's just pure
    > confusion to point to some admirable domestic policies as
    > justification for contributing to international terrorism in the
    > process of conquering other nations.

    Agreed. The issue is whether that description is the most accurate one for describing what is going

    <snip lots of agreement>

    > sam:
    > I still think that our munitions are greatly more targeted than they
    > have ever been before, and we take much more care to avoid civilian
    > casualties than other cultures.
    > msh says:
    > Well when I hear about "precision bombing" I can't help but think
    > about that wry description of Organized Crime: it's not all that
    > organized. Here's how I see it. If someone drives a bus at high
    > speed through a crowded neighborhood and kills a dozen people, ok
    > that's an accident. But if the same guy does the same thing the next
    > day and the next day and the next, in what sense can we claim that
    > the deaths he causes are unintentional?

    OK, but isn't the argument - we used to have to use a dozen buses, now we only have to use one? (For
    the sake of argument, assuming that the main target is a legitimate one)

    > It's clear to me that governments use aerial assaults rather than
    > direct infantry attacks because such assaults, especially when we are
    > talking unmanned missiles and stealth aircraft against primitive or
    > non-existent anti-aircraft activity, are essentially risk-free to the
    > aggressor....
    > But massive bombing of civilian areas ALWAYS results in
    > the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

    The issue is one of proportion, ie are the civilian casualties disproportionate to the war aim
    gained? You haven't made an argument here that they are disproportionate (tho' that argument might
    be made, especially if that 100,000 figure is anywhere near accurate).

    > What follows from this is
    > obvious: the lives of the aggressor's fighting men are considered of
    > greater value than the lives of innocent civilians living in the
    > nation under attack. This, to me, is morally indefensible.

    I mostly agree with this. The 'mostly' is because I don't think it's wrong to try and minimise the
    casualties on your own side. But there is something dishonourable about sitting in absolute safety
    and pressing buttons, whilst human beings are being blown apart as a result.

    > msh asks:
    > What was unbearably different about the "present situation" that
    > forced a choice between military action or diplomatic retreat?

    Right, now we're on to the substance. As I understand it, the problem lay with the sanctions regime
    breaking down. (This is the long term cause; the proximate cause was 9/11, for psychological as much
    as strategic reasons, IMHO). Let me put the argument like this:
    Step 1: International law (IL) is a good thing
    2: The preservation of IL depends, ultimately, on the use of force to defend it (Pirsig' soldiers)
    3. Iraq breached IL with the invasion of Kuwait, and was punished, thus precipitating a ceasefire
    4. As part of that punishment, there were sanctions put into place etc, to try and 'defang' the
    5. Those sanctions a) were breaking down (largely thanks to French and Russian oil interests), and
    b) were causing huge human suffering within Iraq
    6. The defence of IL therefore required the UN to support a military removal of the Hussein regime.
    7. The UN was unable to act due to corruption/inadequacy/morality (take your pick)
    8. The US therefore acted independently.

    Why don't we work through that?

    > sam continues:
    > the argument about WMD is a useful one; let's push it as far as it
    > can go.
    > msh says:
    > If he had any inkling of the evidentiary weakness of the argument,
    > then pushing it becomes dishonest. Besides it smacks of using an
    > ogre story to scare children into obedience. Why focus on that
    > argument if there were stronger ones to be made?

    I think it was dishonest, the motivation was probably "I've already agreed to do this, and this
    seems to be the strongest argument". I think Blair's view put most emphasis on WMD proliferation,
    but I think the above argument is ultimately stronger. Why they didn't emphasise the stronger
    arguments I don't know, but they were made at the time (I'm thinking of Bush's speech to the UN in
    the September before the attack)

    Look forward to your response - in due course. I suspect this one will run for a while!


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