Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The SYRIZA Moment:
A Skeptical Argument

Mehran Khalili/http://www.redpepper.org.uk

The victory of Syriza in Greece is an important moment.1 Indeed, I think it is going to be a historic turning point for Europe and the world, for better or for worse. Syriza defines itself explicitly as “as a party of the democratic and radical Left,” and radical it is. It’s comprised of “many different ideological currents and left cultures,” “has its roots in popular struggles for Greek independence, democracy and labour and anti-fascist movements,” and includes serious and influential socialist, marxist, and generally anti-capitalist currents.2 As Catarina Príncipe remarks: “The success of Syriza is the success of the Left that refused compromises with liberalism.”3 Thus the rise of Syriza corresponds to the collapse of Pasok [acronym for Panhellenic Socialist Movement], the Greek “Socialist”--i.e., liberal capitalist—party, which went from the largest party in Greece to 13% of the vote (2.6% among 18-24 year olds). It’s a sudden and dramatic shift of working-class voters to the left. To put this in American terms, imagine the Green Party winning the next election, with the Democrats reduced to 20% of the vote.

Everyone understands, then, that Syriza’s victory represents the Greek people’s rejection of the devastating austerity program that has been imposed on Greece and Europe by all the major capitalist-to-the-core political parties, no matter what name they go by.

In a wide-ranging interview with Jacobin (which I recommend to everyone), Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza’s Central Committee and its Left Platform, emphasizes Syriza’s radicalism thusly:
[W]hat Syriza is putting forward has very little to do with any agenda of any European social democratic party today. It is an agenda of really breaking with neoliberalism and austerity. Syriza appears as bringing a type of political culture that is linked to a social, political, and even ideological radicalism still very much inscribed in the DNA of the party….
Syriza is an anticapitalist coalition that addresses the question of power by emphasizing the dialectic of electoral alliances and success at the ballot box with struggle and mobilizations from below. That is, Syriza and [its component] Synaspismos see themselves as class-struggle parties, as formations that represent specific class interests.4
So there we have Kouvelakis’s portrait of the radical Syriza as a new type of political movement that will use a synergistic dialectic of electoral victories and popular mobilizations to break with neoliberalism and austerity.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Goosebumps: A Scary Sony Story


Can we bring the discussion of the Sony hack back to earth?

It’s a hack.

Somebody hacked into the Sony Pictures Entertainment computer network in Hollywood, and released to the public a treasure trove of confidential information. Everything from embarrassing emails to forthcoming movie scripts was dumped out in public. This is an embarrassment for an international (Japanese-American) media corporation and a bunch of celebrities. It may be a violation of intellectual property rights, and personal privacy rights, and common courtesy. It may be condemnable on any of those grounds. But it is not “terrorism” or “cyberwar.” It’s a hack.

It is, furthermore, a rather ordinary and foreseeable kind of hack, despite the Sony cybersecurity guy’s insistence that: "This attack is unprecedented in nature. …an unparalleled and well planned crime, carried out by an organized group, for which neither [Sony Pictures Entertainment] nor other companies could have been fully prepared,"[1]  To which one security expert, known as "The Grugq," says: “Bullshit.” Malware for such attacks can be purchased on the Internet.  A similar attack struck 30,000 computers at Aramco in Saudi Arabia and at banks and media companies in South Korea. 

In fact, Sony itself had been hacked in 2011, forced to shut down its Online Entertainment and PlayStation Networks for weeks.[2]  In a previous security audit, Jason Spaltro, Sony’s Executive Director of Information Security, was warned about the company’s cyber vulnerabilities, with an emphasis on its lax password practices (simple nouns, passed around in plaintext documents), with the blunt admonition: “If you were a bank, you’d be out of business.” To which Spaltro replied: “If a bank was a Hollywood studio, it would be out of business.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ripley Was Right: Ebola, Science, and the Precautionary Principle

In my previous post on the Ebola outbreak, I focused on how the treatment of Ebola patients highlights the shortcomings of private healthcare in the US, and the need for a comprehensive public system.  I also mentioned that American media coverage has been limited, as we might expect, to a spectrum running from Republican/Fox fear-mongering to Democratic/MSNBC ass-covering. I avoided, and had formed no opinion about, the question of how dangerous this strain of Ebola is, or of any question about what preventive measures are called for.

Since that post, the subsequent brouhahas about who should and shouldn’t be quarantined have only exacerbated the ridiculous media paradigm in which what’s really at stake in Ebola is Obama’s presidential reputation or Chris Christie’s presidential prospects or which party will win the mid-term elections. At the same time, a lot of evidence has become available regarding the lethality and transmissibility of the Ebola strain we are dealing with. In this post, I want to look at some of that evidence, teasing out the issues of scientific knowledge and ethico-political authority that are raised by the Ebola crisis, and which are confused by the impulse to read them through the lens of American liberal/conservative categories, with which they have nothing to do.


Superbug

How lethal and how transmissible is the current (Zaire) strain of the Ebola virus?

Here’s a two-minute clip of Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, speaking at Johns Hopkins:

(2 minutes)

And here’s Peter Jahrling, chief scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who’s been studying hemorrhagic fevers for 25 years, and helped discover the Reston strain of Ebola, in an interview with Vox:
We are using tests now that [we] weren't using in the past, but there seems to be a belief that the virus load is higher in these patients [today] than what we have seen before. If true, that's a very different bug. …
JB (Vox): A higher viral load means this Ebola virus can spread faster and further? 
PJ: Yes. I have a field team in Monrovia. They are running [tests]. They are telling me that viral loads are coming up very quickly and really high, higher than they are used to seeing.
As Vox points out (using statistics that have already been surpassed), the current Ebola outbreak is “remarkable” because “the virus has spread to six countries in Africa plus America, and has already infected more than 13,000 people. It has killed nearly 5,000 people. That is more than six times the sum total of all previous outbreaks combined.” It has a 50-70% mortality rate.

In short, unprecedented lethality:



A Joke In November



On the way home from his successful fund-raising meeting, a powerful US Senator drives his car into a tree and dies. His soul arrives at the Pearly Gates, and is met by St. Peter. 

"Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in, we have a special protocol for a person of your stature, to make sure that you are given appropriate accommodations.“

"No problem, says the Senator. “Just let me in and we’ll work it out."

"Actually,” St. Pete says, “our process requires that you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."

"Not necessary. No need to waste my time. I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the Senator.

"I'm sorry, but those are our rules, and there can be no exception," says St. Peter, who escorts the Senator to the elevator and hits the “Down” button. The Senator gets anxious as the elevator wooshes waaaay dooooown.

The elevator stops abruptly, the doors open, and the Senator steps out into the middle of a lush resort. The sun is shining, there’s a beautiful beach, tennis courts, golf courses, yoga studios. At the main lounge, he finds all of his old friend and colleagues who greet him enthusiastically—everyone as healthy and charming as the day he met them. Also present is the devil, who turns out to be a very friendly guy, and who welcomes the Senator warmly. The Senator passes the day with the lot of them, frolicking in the sun and surf, and in the evening he joins his companions in a gourmet dinner, followed by drinks and dancing.

Before he realizes it, the day has passed, and he finds himself in the elevator, going up, up, up. When it stops, the door opens, and St. Peter greets him, saying: "Now it's time to visit heaven." So the Senator passes the next 24 hours with a small group of contented souls, going from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing his favorite Beatles’ songs.  He has a good enough time, which passes quickly, and before he realizes it, another day has gone by, and St. Peter returns.

"Well, then, Senator you've now spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Choose your eternity."

The Senator thinks for a minute, then answers: "Well, I never thought I would say this, but, although heaven has been delightful, I think I would rather be in hell."

So St. Peter puts him in the elevator and he goes back down to hell.

Now, when the elevator opens, the Senator is in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage, reeking of the foulest odors. He sees all his friends, covered in shredded rags, scrounging in the muck for offal. The devil himself comes over to him, puts his arm around his shoulders, and says: “Welcome to eternity.”

"I don't understand," stammers the Senator. "Yesterday I was here and there was a beautiful beach, and beautiful people, and great food, and fun and dancing. Now there's just a horrid wasteland full of miserable, tortured souls. What happened?"

The devil smiles at him and says: "Yesterday we were campaigning.  Today, you voted."



Monday, October 20, 2014

The Irish Widow and the Liberian Fiancé:
Ebola, CEO Disease, and the Public Good




Outbreak

The Ebola crisis highlights the absurdity of pretending that a private, for-profit health system can do what a real public healthcare system must.

Remember the deadly-Ebola-like-virus movie where Dustin Hoffman and Renee Russo and Morgan Freeman and a whole state-of-the-art medical team, along with a small army (There’s always an army!) swoops in to quarantine the sick, catch the monkey, whip up a vaccine, and save the country?

Keep dreaming. That’s a fantasy. In reality, there is no public healthcare system. There is no serious publicly-funded and publicly-managed infrastructure, institution, or set of resources devoted to healthcare as a public good.

As the Washington Post said: “The hospital that treated Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan had to learn on the fly how to control the deadly virus.” The CDC? It runs a web site and holds press conferences. The medical professionals are all in private hospitals, now mostly folded into large private healthcare conglomerates, that do whatever the MBAs who manage them dictate—which is what the MBAs who manage the private for-profit health insurance companies are willing to pay for. As Rob Urie points out: “Missing from this ‘process’ that now finds Mr. Duncan dead, two nurses who attended him with Ebola themselves, the American health care system revealed as wholly unprepared to deal with what at present seems a moderately communicable disease, is any notion of a public interest.”

Here’s Juan González, talking to Karen Higgins, to co-president of National Nurses United:
The executive director of your union, RoseAnn DeMoro …, specifically raised the fact the CDC has no control over these individual hospitals, that in the privatized hospital system that we operate in here in the United States, the CDC can only offer guidelines, and it’s up to individual hospitals whether they’re going to enforce those guidelines, practice those guidelines. And, in fact, the CDC said yesterday…that they have no plans to investigate what happened at Texas Health Presbyterian, that that’s the responsibility of the local Department of Health in Texas. 
Karen Higgins: I think, you know—unfortunately, I think she’s right, as far as what powers the CDC has. … And what happens is then CDC makes recommendations, guidelines, and then it falls apart, because what you do with it as an individual hospital, because every hospital is pretty much individual, is where it starts to fall apart.