The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era

It would be hard to overstate the impact that the Coen brother’s 1998 movie The Big Lebowski has had on contemporary pop culture. Social gatherings often fall into competitions for who can quote more lines from memory, cosplay for the movie’s characters is frequent, and twenty years after its release one can still find late-night screenings at the cinema packed with viewers. The fan base for The Big Lebowski has shown remarkable endurance and this may or may not be because of the points I will make in the following exposition, but shot throughout the film are references to the predicaments facing leftists in the post-Cold War period. Though the film is a patchwork of styles, genres, and character types often labeled ‘postmodern’ for being such a hodge-podge, but there are clues running through the story that allow for the viewer to put together an over-arching message – like a puzzle. With the shear amount of interest in and admiration for this movie, a large chunk of the population has a chance to learn about the perils of leftists political activity and the difficulty in maintaining it.

The Big Lebowski has already been subjected to numerous studies and cultural analysis on a variety of topics and its popularity will see to it that it will remain fertile grounds for diverse interpretations. The old-Hollywood style musical dream sequences filled with Valkyrie women, phallic bowling ball pins, giant scissor-wielding nihilists, and Saddam Hussein ensure that Freudian takes will crop up and references to the dude’s youthful activity as a New Left radical in the sixties ensure that its political context can’t be ignored either. It’s in taking stock of the images popping up throughout the film that we can detect a firm connection between both: The Dude’s predicament and the greater predicament facing America in the 1990’s overlap, so that the anxieties and concerns of the dude are a reflection of the time-period. The dude’s unconscious desires are not merely private, they resonate with his own Baby-Boomer generation rolling along past the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the movie has struck the greatest cord among their children. Those who came of age in the nineties or “Gen-Xers” and those proceeding them as “Millennials” are the people who have taken Lebowski most close to heart. It’s not the older generations who are putting on their best Walter impressions and acting out scenes over drinks; the youth have embraced the rich personalities in The Big Lebowski while, both curiously and provocatively, they reflect the anxieties of an older generation. What results is an odd kind of inter-generational transference of the afflictions of Baby-Boomer leftists onto the younger, post-Cold War babies. It’s not an accident that Maude Lebowski doesn’t want The Dude to father the child she has conceived with him: the problems of the left will be transferred to the next generation by a non-familial medium, like a film.

There are many ways to interpret a film so off-the-wall and popular, but I want to stick with the one involving politics and inter-generational relations. For this purpose I will draw on the assistance of particularly thoughtful work of film studies edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe in The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, particularly in the essays by Stacy Thompson and David Martin-Jones. Thompson helps highlight the significance of The Dude’s history as a member of the New Left during his heyday, while Martin-Jones helps draw the connection between the film’s motifs and American national policy since it has emerged as the dominant world power after World War II. Though the conclusions drawn by the latter remain more convincing to me but together they demonstrate how the Dude and Walter’s adventure has a significance that stretches deep into the American national psyche.

Lebowski Studies

We are told at the outset of the film by a deep-voiced cowboy narrator that its main character will be “The Dude.”He says of the Dude: “I won’t say a hero, because what’s that?”, but a protagonist nonetheless. The mystic cowboy that sandwiches our story doesn’t have much to say about the Dude aside from the fact that he has a certain fondness for him and that he is quite possibly one of the laziest people in the world. The crucial point that he works himself up to saying is that, aside from labeling him as a sort of anti-hero, “he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the dude.” So, despite the fact that the monologue is delivered in a sleepy tone that wanders without urgency, we learn from the get-go that somehow (without explicitly explaining why) the Dude has a special significance for the city of Los Angeles. More broadly speaking, he also mentions the era in America in the time of the first Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm. The opening remarks trail off with: “[s]ometimes there is a man, sometimes, there is a man…” before he abruptly cuts himself off, not sure where all of this talk about “a man” is really going.

As The Dude floats through a big-box grocery market to buy the one missing ingredient for his favorite cocktail, the ‘White Russian,’ he catches a glimpse of the former CIA director and current commander-in-chief George H.W. Bush giving quick justification for his sending the United States military into battle to fight against Iraq: “this aggression … will not stand.” It’s this phrase that will set off The Dude on his quest and offers us the closest thing to a motive. When his house is broken into and his rug soiled, it’s this feeling of being violated that works him up into seeking a replacement rug. Without this sentiment – that unwarranted aggression is unacceptable and must be challenged – the oft-repeated desire for a new rug will be a red-herring. Even when The Dude gets a new rug, he isn’t particular about which one it is, and the rug’s desirability is only to “tie the room together.” The rug only serves as an object on which to focus his sense of injustice – The Dude has been wronged and something must be done in response.

It’s only after some inflammatory conversation with his friend Walter at the bowling alley that The Dude has his sense of injustice flared up enough into doing something about it. The conversation that provokes him into action is confusing and multi-layered (“you have no frame of reference Donny”), having become something of an infamous point of reference for film critics and others. I’ll leave comments on this conversation for another time, but what’s important for the point I am trying to illustrate here is at the end of this jumble of contentious words is that Walter eventually wins out and convinced the Dude to retaliate for this wrongdoing.

Walter provides much of The Dude’s support throughout the film by egging him on. He’s a persistent instigator who often wrecks havoc on the situation, more bravado and impulse than a helpful collaborator. As a stereotypical Vietnam War veteran, Walter’s outbursts give the film tension-filled comic relief that makes him out into a buffoon. His personality is a perfect contrast to the Dude’s lazing-about attitude, but the point here is that the two of them are both in agreement that something must be done to right the wrong of The Dude’s soiled rug. People just can’t go around destroying the property of others in America according to Walter’s inflated sense of righteousness and he becomes The Dude’s partner in the quest for retribution because, ultimately, he’s right. His methods look like taking a bulldozer to a garden party, but there always remains the possibility that he really is “calmer than you are.”

After taking the initial action in the name of retribution, The Dude is strung along by hopes for a big pay-out from the big Lebowski, an apparently rich man who touts his own achievements as a wealthy businessman. And this further demonstrates how the rug is a red herring: the Dude allows himself to stumble into the scheme of another for the sake of quick cash. Having gotten himself caught up in a rat race for a briefcase full of lost money, our “man for his time and place” must now figure out what’s going on with the big Lebowski’s money. What began as play for compensation following an injustice will result in something much more complicated.

Eventually, we learn that The Dude had quite an interesting early career. He did go to college but spent most of his “time uh,  occupying various administration buildings,” “breaking into the ROTC,” and playing the part of the rabble-rousing young man of the New Left era. He claims to be one of the authors of the “original” Port Huron statement (“…the original Port Huron Statement, not the compromised second draft.”) and a member of the Seattle Seven. All of these claims place him firmly in the tradition of the New Left – more of a phenomenon than a coherent movement in which young students engaged in civil disobedience in large numbers to protest and disrupt the imperialist policies of mid-century America. The Coen brothers have admitted that their character The Dude is inspired by a real-life person named Jeff Dowd, himself one of the members of the Seattle Seven and the Seattle Liberation Front. Dowd himself went on to be a film producer and not the casual lay-about, so the image of The Dude as an intentionally lazy single man is a product of the Coen brother’s imagination. He represents the retreat from the wild political activity of the 60’s and 70’s into individualistic tranquility. Whether by physical exhaustion and burnout, disillusionment with the cause, reactionary suppression, or some other reason, the New Left fizzled out before the Reagan revolution swept into power. Both The Dude and Walter are contrasting character profiles in coping with the trauma of that time period, with Walter having fought in the Vietnam War and The Dude undoubtedly having protested against it.

Port Huron

The New Left generation was inspired by Martin Luther King’s sustained movement of civil disobedience in the Jim-Crow South for a morally righteous cause. They sought alternative forms of political participation because they felt marginalized by the towering bureaucracy of Washington and looked towards adult professional life with dread. Gravely concerned that their nation was becoming a malevolent empire, students created their own cultural shift to ward off the banality of American life in the early 1960’s. The movement was given a foundation by a group of students with aspirations toward building a greater body of activists throughout the country, calling themselves The Students for a Democratic Society or SDS. The Port Huron statement was crafted by a charged-up party of students sequestered in a camp retreat that was owned by labor unions. Dozens of students would all participate in a group-writing process that crystallized their hopes and beliefs for reinvigorating democracy in America. Suddenly it felt like they had a voice in creating a new founding document, a document that carefully covered all of their ideological bases but kept their vision for the future vague. In that exciting atmosphere, a guy like Jeffrey Lebowski was pushing for the more militant version (on which there is some contention over its historical existence), staking out his claim as a revolutionary.

The protests and street demonstrations that flowed from the positions of the SDS gave a generation the radical sense of possibility. With young people swarming together over principled concerns and unified in a sense of outrage over an unjust war it felt like something new and better was emerging within American culture. The activists within and around the SDS wanted to stop their own nation’s turn towards imperialism and they weren’t shy from instigating mob actions to do it. Someone like a pre-Dude Jeff Lebowski would fit in nicely with the radical wing of this milieu.

Initially met by some success, the SDS had immense difficulty scaling-up its direct democracy practice (or ‘participatory democracy’) to cover its expanding base. Attempts were made to streamline the process for a more centralized organization but these were never brought to consensus. Alas, the organization was taken over by “Old Left” sectarian Marxists that the New Left had tried to distance itself from from the get-go. The movement could not sustain itself and the SDS splintered into individually driven campaigns and initiatives, some of which turned out successful. It’s hard to know where to place the character of Jeffrey Lebowski in all of this, but it’s made fairly clear that The Dude has achieved a kind of happiness, or at least comfort, after a flurry of contentious political activity in his youth. The image of the dashing protester fighting for a just cause and coming from the New, resurgent Left has now been transformed into an aimless man of leisure.

This is thrown into The Dude’s face early on in the movie by the businessman he decides to confront. After getting the brush off, he stands firm: “The Dude minds man!”, “This aggression will not stand, man!”, and he takes the wealthy mans rug by deceit. This is not before The Big Lebowski gets in a few pointed lines: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!” The Dude takes it all in stride. Unfazed, he gets what he wants, but on his way out he comes into contact with some other characters trying to take a piece out of the Big Lebowski: Bunny Lebowski and her accomplices, the nihilists. They too want a piece of his fortune and so have similar objectives. A few scenes later we learn that Bunny Lebowski has been kidnapped and The Dude is tasked with delivering the ransom money for a hefty reward. At first glance, it appears that the nihilists are behind the kidnapping. After The Dude can feel smugly satisfied in replacing his soiled rug, he allows himself to be dragged into a ransom affair. At this point, The Dude and the nihilists share a goal of purely monetary gain.

The nihilist are the true foil for The Dude, not simply because they are his competition but because they represent an extreme version of a potential path for him. The Dude’s laziness is ever at risk of falling into a passive nihilism whose ideological content is nearly identical to the film’s active nihilists who threaten to “cut off your Johnson!” They abuse their (non)ideological affiliation as a justification for behaving like thugs. As with every other character in The Big Lebowski, the nihilists are stereotypes. Lacking any real presence as criminals, they place all of their weight behind their ideological attachment to inspire fear. After all, what is so intimidating about a pet marmot?

The nihilists are made to look utterly ridiculous by the end of the film. Their empty exclamations (“We believe in nothing Lebowski!”) aren’t what worries The Dude so much as having his dick cut off. But they represent one of the many challenges for The Dude’s mind – the fate of his lifestyle and whoever else takes it up (and there are many out there, just read about Dudeism). In a truly care-free world without rules or beliefs of any kind, anything goes and everything is justified. Murder and the disintegration of the world can be met with a shrug, apathy and anti-politics can wash over the left, aggression can go unchecked. While the criminal nihilists are another colorful exaggeration of the film, the children of the New Lefties were widely derided in the 90’s for their apathy and non-involvement in politics. The serious viewer of The Big Lebowski must face the possibility that the Dude and his type has brought on a period of nihilism and political quiescence – exactly what The Port Huron Statement tried to fight off. It is certainly feasible that in 1998 the Coen brothers are provoking their viewers with the question of The Dude’s nihilism, or, in other words, how does our lovable aging hippy in The Dude separate himself from nihilism?

It’s in facing this question that we can turn towards Stacy Thompson’s essay ‘The Dude and the New Left.’ There is much digression into Lacanian psychoanalysis and terminology borrowed from Badiou, but she sketches an intriguing image of The Dude as a faithful adherent of New Left ideology. The founding document of the New Left is rather wordy and vague, standing primarily on principle but adding heaps of quick analysis on top of it. The Port Huron Statement shows signs an intense collaborative writing process by beginning with a shared sentiment, that American society is deteriorating into empire and meaningless work, and aggregates on top of that sentiment a multiplicity of responses by numerous participants. It’s the product of committed individuals trying to act out their dreams for a better society by including as many voices as they can, leaving no stone of their political anxiety unturned. It’s publication marks a turning point for the left, but one that left the organization (and perhaps a generation?) without a clear plan, only vague expressions of a desire for “more democracy.”

It is the Dude who maintains a fidelity to the [Port Huron] Statement as an event that shattered and reorganized the situation of his mid- to late-1960’s California life.

But where does laziness (as a sign of a failed New Left) fit into the SDS, the Statement, and fidelity? A clue can be found in the fact that the Port Huron Statement can be read as a lazy Communist Manifesto, where its laziness is precisely what allows for the Dude’s apparent shiftlessness. Where Marx and Engels list the famous Ten Steps Necessary to Move from Capitalism to Socialism and insist upon the “[e]qual liability of all to labour” (490), the Statement lists a series of “root principles” that must be implemented to move from a “domineering complex of corporate, military, and political power” to a “participatory democracy.” In relation to labor, the Statement argues that “work should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated, encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity, and a willingness to accept social responsibility.” Isn’t it possible, then, that in the context of the Statement laziness can be something more than itself? Perhaps the Dude is not lazy but refuses to work at stultifying, non-creative tasks. The Dude takes the Statement at its word and refuses work (or refuses to look for work) that doesn’t interest him. Only when the Big Lebowski offers the Dude a sleuth gig, ironically recently upbraiding him for laziness, does the Dude, intrigued, accept the job.”

-Thompson

On this take, the Dude is actually faithful to The New Left and the Port Huron Statement by being lazy. It was a lazy document lacking discipline and so the Dude is the long-term consequence of this moment, considered within the hindsight of the 1990’s. Considering that the New Left was marked by a surge of activity both aggressive and morally inspired, the Dude is its natural product. This feature of the Dude could be read negatively because the New Left is regarded as a failure that withered away but it could also be read generously; in a world where work indeed is largely unfulfilling and tedious, the Dude is a shining example of living comfortably and as he wishes. The Dude is beholden to nobody, does what he pleases, and isn’t forced to compromise his beliefs for a boss. Living like the Dude is something many people around the world can only dream about. A legion of fans can attest to the Dude’s status as a cultural icon of doing as one pleases, a west coast superstar of hippy hedonism.

But the Dude’s celebrity has a blemish: he is the loyal inheritor of a failed movement. As a lovable sage for a new generation of citizens he risks becoming the champion of blissful, self-indulgent apathy. This is why the Coen brothers must have him do battle with the nihilists or… at least confront them. The Dude does believe in something and it is a widely shared belief operative throughout the international community: aggression cannot go unchecked. A nation or a person should not be allowed to attack and steal from another unprovoked. The Nazis can’t just invade all of Europe and thugs can’t just walk into someone’s house and pee on a stranger’s rug. The Dude and the New Left’s formula for how to remake the world into a more principled one might not have been well-defined enough to persist but they do reflect a commitment to justice – a commitment perhaps too fleeting to be carried on all by itself.

And here is where Walter Sobchak must enter the picture. Just as the Dude is the caricature of the aging New Left radical, so Walter is a blatant caricature of the traumatized Vietnam War veteran. Walter is obsessed with upholding a principled order of civil liberties and civil rights in a world he believes is letting them slip away. And that’s putting it mildly. No incident and no encounter is too small for Walter to miss a chance to get on his high horse and rant about how he risked his life for the liberties they enjoy. He says, “Lady, I got buddies who died face down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” – apparently believing that Vietnam was a defensive war. Given the Dude’s extreme care-free attitude, it makes sense that his buddy is such a complete opposite on the spectrum of assertiveness. This all measured on scales of personality and not on the scales of belief mind you: we assume that they don’t have glaring differences in opinion because they are such good friends. This means that the Dude has actually accomplished something that the New Left wanted to do but couldn’t bridge the cultural gap to achieve: binding the anti-war protester with the war veteran. Despite the demonstrations and the large publicity, the New Left was unable to end the Vietnam War and it wasn’t until internal sentiments of the troops reached such a high pitch that true pressure was felt by the high command. It was the grunt soldiers that fragged their commanding officers and the military disobedience that forced the US to exit Vietnam without victory, not the civil disobedience. There is no indication that Walter knew anything about this, or even the thought that the war itself was anything but noble, but Vietnam isn’t a point of contention that has ripped through his friendship with the Dude either. It is more likely that their friendship is bound by their shared ethnic background in being Polish. Sobchak and Lebowski are both Polish names and it is another well-hidden clue from the Coen brothers that ethnicity is what brings an old leftist and a wing-nut libertarian together.

Walter believes with far more zeal than the Dude can muster that aggression cannot go unchecked. He’s carried it down to the smallest of places in LA, like in coffee shop etiquette or bowling rules, well, “league games” at least. He sees himself as a knight that must protect the order of society through force and determination. But he’s not your typical law-and-order conservative at all, certainly not when carrying a machine gun to… help the Dude perform his task as a bag-man in the ransom episode. His type is that of the civil libertarian watchdog, putting up a fight against all the forces that would conspire to erode our “basic freedoms.” His disproportionate use of force against Smokey at the bowling alley for stepping over the line and committing a fault gives us everything we need to know: “Has the whole world gone crazy?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?! Mark it zero Dude!” Walter is easily agitated because he thinks that nobody has the backbone to defend their rights anymore. He sees himself as the last defense against a world without a purpose, a world that will let its liberties slip away with a shrug, he’s the last defense against, in other words, nihilism.

It’s no accident that Walter knocks out the nihilists all by himself, while the Dude is trying to hand them a few dollars to make them go away. He calls them out for being toothless and puts his foot down on the same principle that sparked the Dude initially: “what’s mine is mine” whether what is owned is a rug or the contents of his wallet. It’s not so much a question of guarding one’s private property that is the issue here (nor is it “the Chinaman”), the issue is “unchecked aggression”, a sense of injustice that must be righted. This is a unifying sentiment for the Left and no person or group of people is spared from reproach for committing an unjust act. The sense that insufferable harm is being systematically inflicted on people anywhere around the world is partially what defines the left. The Dude senses this too but he has left his activism days behind as he attempts to revive his own personal dignity, hence, the nihilists are a threat to his manhood. Walter, on the other hand, has no lack of confidence and he ejaculates his frustration all over every situation. That the two have buddyed-up is a little glimpse of a representation of both the left and the right coming together in a tense but not exactly dysfunctional relationship.

the-big-lebowski

Walter represents more than just an over-correction to the Dude’s placid character. He’s also a converted Jew who at one point loudly quotes Theodore Herzl, the father of Israeli political Zionism (“If you will it, it is no dream”). His constant effort at staving off cultural complacency has led him zealously hold onto a belief in Judaism, a belief that he gained when he married his now ex-wife. The Dude calls him out near the end of the movie by saying, “your not even fucking Jewish man!” but Walter follows the rituals and takes his religion seriously, so its not his commitment that is at stake here. What matters is that his devotion feels arbitrary and he comes off as desperate holding onto it with such ferocity.

Walter’s conversion and resolve is an allusion to the US’s unwavering attachment to the state of Israel. Support for Israel in the US is something of a political necessity in Washington, despite an ongoing occupation, slow-motion colonization of Palestinian lands, massive poverty, and disproportionate use of force. It’s gotten to the point where professors at universities are losing their jobs for their criticisms of Israel. It’s as if every question of the legality or morality of the actions of the state of Israel is met with a Walter shouting in your face to shut up. This is just one of The Big Lebowski’s foreign policy references and when put together they create an important world-political subtext that runs throughout the Dude and Walter’s adventure.

Our rambling cowboy friend who introduces us to the Dude from the outset of the movie also sets us within the stage of history. He informs us that this affair took place “just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis”, right before going on about how the Dude fits into this time and place. Saddam Hussein himself makes an appearance in one of the Dude’s trippy dream sequences (to complement George H.W. Bush’s t.v. appearance early on) and we are never spared from Walter going on and on about the Vietnam War. It’s within this loose association of early-nineties images that there is a connection (“not a literal connection Dude”) to the uneasy place that the left occupied – and perhaps still does. Walter persistently invokes Vietnam because of the trauma of his experience in the war no doubt, but on the world stage, the war tarnished the image of the United States as a benevolent global actor. The atrocities committed by soldiers, fruitless and destructive bombing campaigns, chemical warfare, and civilian murders all worked against the national image, provoking deep regret and soul searching among the American population. Opposition to the Vietnam War unified much of the left and helped confirm the worries of the SDS that their country was becoming an empire without conscience. Anti-war demonstrations were massive and inflammatory, no doubt where Jeffrey Lebowski cut his chops as a radical. The nation will forever live with that stain on its record but the perception of the nation shifts as time keeps a rollin on…

After the end of the Gulf War, the first president Bush was quoted privately saying, ““By God, weve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It was the ease of achieving victory and the apparent righteousness of the American cause in operation Desert Storm that brought on a sort of reappraisal of the United States as the only remaining world power. The war faced almost no opposition at home, compared to Vietnam’s mass demonstrations, and Washington could portray the event as an assistance in Kuwaiti self-defense. Moreover, this was facilitated by images that well-depicted the US military’s might. New footage from a behind the cross-hairs perspective placed the viewer in the shoes of a soldier. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Americans could rejoice, and the world suddenly had a triumphant superpower winning wars it could be proud of. There was only one problem: nobody could figure out what the war was all about. The motive, the reason for engaging in such an expensive war couldn’t be pined down aside from a few catch phrases like “stabilizing the region” and “unchecked aggression.” But there was a nagging suspicion that this all had something to do with the huge reserves of oil in Kuwait, oil that Saddam had his eyes on and the US wouldn’t let him take.

Guf War Time

With these developments, the chip on America’s shoulder was removed, or it appeared to be removed at least. And that’s what matters in this context: the Walters of the world could suddenly be made out to be less crazy and more sympathetic. It would be difficult to counter the narrative of a benevolent American superpower “making the world safe for democracy” now. This sense of victory for tradition and militarism, combined with the disintegration of the communist bloc in eastern Europe, plagued the left throughout the 90’s and beyond. There wasn’t a good enough analysis for what had just happened to challenge the prevailing image of purely idealistic motive for the US. They would have to wait until the second Iraq war turned out to be such a disaster for that sense of possibility to return.

The confusion surrounding the First Gulf War, together with its revitalizing effect, remains in the background of the Dude’s story. Aside from images and name drops, the progressive destruction of the Dude’s car holds symbolic value. Martin-Jones brings the connection to light: “Far from “pop cultural potpourri,” The Big Lebowski uses its intertextual references and film buff-directed allusions to invite the viewer to make the connection between the life of the Dude, his car-oriented context, and the legacy of America’s past.” (p.210) Cars have been integral to American culture since the days of Henry Ford and the mass manufacturing of consumer products. The mass production of automobiles that the working class could both build and afford to buy marked a turning point in capitalist development, dubbed Fordism. Fordism “created a feedback loop in which interminably fed consumerism. Moreover, as this process began to spiral outward, car production also affected the spatial geography of the United States.” (p.211, Martin-Jones) As highways were built following WWII, Americans had a massively upgraded range of motion. With a car and freeways to drive them on one could travel across the country with ease – but only with a few tanks of gasoline. Oil became the primary strategic asset for American policy planners because it was and still is required to sustain the new economic program (really just a new version of capitalism) that kept consumers satisfied with their new automobiles. Sold as a ticket to freedom, these cars gave America a new image to replace the cowboy now occupying a frontier-less West, an everyman’s dream of self-mobility.

all america car 52

Our wistful cowboy friend in The Big Lebowski seems out of place at the bowling alley. His presence in late-90’s LA helps us bridge the jumble of background images related to US national policy with the Dude and his story. Located on the West Coast, Los Angeles could be read here as the termination of the frontier, or the final outpost in the wild west. The tumble weeds of the western plains blowing by the dueling gunman locked in a stare-down rolls its way into an LA beach. The auto-mobility now available to the American consumer means that everyone gets to don the image of the free and lonesome cowboy explore the open lands. The frontier is now anywhere in America. The cowboy becomes a symbol of freedom that see in the movies and romanticize. LA represents not only the advent of consumer-car culture but the Hollywood era of cinema. It was Hollywood films that gave us the image of the romantic cowboy to go along with its construction of highways and freeways for car owners. It is here that our Dude will have his car stolen, beaten and battered over the course of the story until finally the nihilists torch it. The Dude’s car is destroyed along with his freedom of mobility, his masculinity placed in jeopardy, his Johnson on the chopping block.

Right around the time SDS folded up and splintered off, a new international norm took shape that locked in US dependence on maintaining a steady supply of oil. Oil already was a vital aspect of any modern economy and the US was was outproducing all others with its steady stream of oil coming from various parts of the globe. Currency values were determined by the amount of a nation’s gold reserves, which also played a major role in the strength of an economy. With America bleeding gold in the early 1970’s and its relative economic strength diminishing, Nixon felt he had little choice but to end the gold backing of the dollar and let its value float. This means that dollars would not be redeemable in gold, instead changing in value relative to other currencies from day to day. As the 1970’s wore on and other nations began to challenge US economic superiority, a deal was struck with a Saudi Arabia that held more oil than any other nation on earth: Saudi Arabia agreed to accept only dollars, effectively forcing every other nation to borrow dollars to buy this necessary commodity. The result was effectively a new and bigger regime of imperialism, summarized under the term ‘petrodollar recycling,’ that was birthed right under everyone’s nose. A fractured left had no means to confront this development and the machinations of power politics eluded anti-imperialists, sending the US economy and others into a tailspin of oil shocks and high debt.

All of this had the effect of bolstering the US power position, but it was to the detriment of of domestic its domestic manufacturing base. The American automotive industry (and others) were no longer required to maintain economic supremacy. The Dude’s car could be smashed and burned, it didn’t matter. And as we turn back to the Dude in post-Fordist LA, we see that the New Leftists had the right enemy (US imperialism) but not the right mix of energy and discipline. His story takes place in LA because it “is perhaps the point of at which the westward expansion of the interstate necessitated by Fordism literally ran out of room.” (p.213, Martin-Jones) LA is a city of cars and highways, a place where America’s need for oil is best symbolized, and it is that most westward city in which US economic manufacturing gave way to another kind of economic management involving the rest of the world. The road of imperialism goes through LA and out to a new frontier, no longer on the American continent.

None of this is on the Dude’s radar, it fills the background of his quest initiated by his need to take a stand. He’s not so defeated that he cannot see it through to the end and discover that the money everyone is chasing around doesn’t exist. There is something potent in having the big revelation in The Big Lebowski be the moment when the Dude realizes he has been tricked by the wealthy businessman; in fact, the wealthy businessman isn’t actually wealthy or successful at all. It was all a con to make everyone think there was a lot of money where there was none. This doesn’t mean that dollars are all fake or that rich people aren’t rich, it means the source of their wealth is the result of a system based on a lesser-known trick: the diplomatic invention of one Henry Kissinger. That the Dude can see through the big Lebowski’s trick makes him a redeeming character: lazy people can be good detectives too.

cosplay-big-lebowski-2

The ultimate Irony of The Big Lebowski lies between it and its fan base. Just as the American Left stumbles along after the New Left pool of righteous anger dried up, so do its fans adore its characters without detecting the critical subtext. Just as ecstatic fans enjoy the movie without grasping it as a political commentary, so does the state of American political discourse continue fire-up or slough-off by turns without understanding the geopolitical dimensions of international politics that underwrite every important political decision. In a strange way, the themes of Lebowski are reflected in the cultural space its fans created, making the movie seem like it’s trolling its own fan base. Even film critics and scholarly commentary miss the significance of US militarism lurking underneath the plot. Everyone loves the movie, but nearly everyone misses the geopolitical aspect; the cheeky caricatures keep everyone coming back, while the political realities that move the world the most nestle their way into our unconscious desires, seemingly destined to remain their forever. Such is the way of the world that the New Left could not change for its children: our understanding of world powers and the man moving the levers behind the curtain are only brief images flashing before our eyes that sometimes persuade us what it is we should be getting angry about and without much effort.

We would do well to take heed of the wisdom of Hannah Arendt when she says in a late interview:

The New Left has borrowed the catchword of the third world form the arsenal of the Old Left. It has been taken in by the distinction made by the imperialists between colonial countries and colonizing powers… This imperialist leveling out of all differences is copied by the New Left, only with the labels reversed. It is always the same old story: being taken in by every catchword, the inability to think or else the unwillingness to see phenomena as they are, without applying categories to them in the belief that they can thereby be classified. It is just this that constitutes theoretical helplessness.” (p.210, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ from The Crisis of the Republic)

This situation is reflected in the script each time a character mimes the words of another. Even “the Dude abides” is taken from the big Lebowski’s line, “I will not abide another toe.” This persistent passing around of words and catchphrases in the movie focuses our attention on how the language we use is both passed down and manipulated by media.

The response to The Big Lebowski itself demonstrates this copying by the proliferation of catchwords and quoted lines. The Coen brothers could have more effectively conveyed these subtexts, a criticism Martin-Jones (citing Mike Wayne) brings up, but then it is doubtful that it would have achieved such a devoted following. That the script from The Big Lebowski has burned its way into the hipster lexicon means that these topics are ripe for discussion whenever the movie is brought up in a social setting. This is perhaps what has given the film its 20 year longevity as a cultural phenomenon: the viewer must think to tie the loose ends together, just like the Dude must straiten out the mess of competing actors trying to get their hands on the briefcase to learn the truth. This puts the Dude within that category of anti-hero detective which so prospered in Los Angeles for American cinema (think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep): the man who can move about a corrupt milieu and play the part but keeps his conscience intact. This savvy, grizzled stereotype is updated by the Coen brothers to include the man who has burned himself out of political activity early on but is still capable of discovering certain truths. This image of the Dude as anti-hero makes his shortcomings appear less fatal and his character more complex.

Fatherhood is not the Dude’s strength and he would agree. Luckily for him, when we learn that “a little Lebowski is on the way,” he will not have to do any child rearing, nor is he wanted to. Everyone seems to love the Dude like a puppy, not as an authority figure. The Coen brothers seem to be saying that the new generations of political leftists must navigate through the world without a father figure, as if the New Left could not manage to reproduce itself in the traditional familial manner. The New Left was born in rebellion not just of American society but of their Old Left ancestors. Now the question we are left with at the film’s ending is, what happens to the children born from rebels rebelling against rebels? Yet more rebellion? Is the vicious cycle is broken with the absence of a father, or does this only create more inter-generational strife? This is less of a lesson than a situation which confronts young people, a send off. Even if the Dudes of the world don’t handle authority very well they usually have good stories to tell, and occasionally we can learn something from them. They don’t take shit from “real reactionar[ies]” either.

The Old Left was united in a particular critique of capitalism that supplied the confidence necessary to interpret the ongoing developments of world history. It was when the explanatory power of this analysis broke down and the atrocities of the communist bloc became known in the west that the next generation felt it was time for a new beginning. The Dude’s passing reference to Lenin (“Vladimir Illanich Uleninov!”) suggests that he has (or at least he had) a critical understanding of the political economy of capitalism. Though the New Left was right to reject communism and the SDS folded when communist groups took it over, a new analysis of what was moving the great powers never filled the void. No doubt such analyses exist, but nothing that could function as a unifying current for the left as a whole has emerged. As we stand at the new frontiers of America, perhaps it would be wise to go back even farther than the Old Left and find out what it was that pushed so many onto the old frontiers. For no matter what becomes of the new in each generation, the continuity with the old must be reckoned with lest it haunt the new. But that’s just like, my opinion man.

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The Art of War and Geopolitics

In Sun Tzu’s military classic from ancient China The Art of War we get an early work of geopolitics. The text is well known for providing insights into commanding a military, maintaining discipline within ranks, and emphasizing the right mind-set for victory but a large part of it is devoted to classifying and evaluating terrain. The relationship an army has with the earth upon which it travels is one of the key aspects that leads it to victory or defeat, perhaps the key. The word geopolitics evokes control of resources, topographical access routes and choke points, and alliance-building amongst nations and states (or lords and chiefdoms) – all of which are discussed in the Art of War, only in the context of war in the ancient world instead of economics. Continue reading “The Art of War and Geopolitics”

Not just Geography but Money also

The Geopolitics of the US’ Global Decline: Washington vs. China in the 21st Century

Summary of the Article: “Geography determines destiny” without exception  – unless stupidity creeps into the decision-maker’s minds.

In all seriousness though, what this good read fails to mention is the strategic need for the US’ apparent stupidity: ensuring the continued demand for dollars around the world.  The need for other countries to borrow dollars to buy oil (the “petrodollar recycling system“) and protect their foreign reserve accounts from speculative raids has allowed the US to go into astronomical amounts of debt and not have to pay it off.  The US doubled-down on its status as the purported “leader of the free world” in the mid-seventies and their is no going back now that they have run up an amount of debt that could never and will never be payed back.

The irony of the situation is that the US uses debt as its primary way to control other nations aside from military force but does not feel obliged to pay its own.  The tragedy of the situation is that the transition away from this system is what will determine a large portion of the how world nations are made up in the coming century (as well as the fate of earth’s biosphere for the next 100,000 years), yet very few people understand it in a country that claims for itself the label ‘democracy’.

Most important for determining destiny is not just geography but the systemic movement of oil and money (be it in cash form or bits in electrical computer networks) on top of the earth.  Oil comes from underneath the earth though and nations have their borders to look after, which are determined by oceans, mountains and other geographical barriers, (together of course with competing militaries and unruly subjects).  Geopolitics brings international politics to mind and the ‘flows’ of oil and money that course through nations borders deserve to be included.

Someone or some body of people will have to persuade the US to not to unleash its war machine on other nations when the petrodollar system collapses, so that oil can be decoupled from money and renewable forms of energy (including less of it) can abound.  Nations will not be able to transition away from fossil fuels when they cannot control their own money supply and have a imperial behemoth breathing down their neck.  The chief barrier to the protection of a threatened biosphere is United States global hegemony.  Perhaps an internal war machine to the US’ borders will apply the necessary pressure to ease the transition, or perhaps it will come from without.  Then again, perhaps it will continue, but as far as I can tell, if the US prevails, you can kiss much of the life on this planet goodbye.

More on geopolitics from Michael Hudson:

Russia, China, and the Battle Against Dollar Hegemony

Geopolitics and Ecological Spirituality in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The last Airbender gives us a stylistic and colorful look at a fictional world of warring nations together with a sharp focus on the planetary and even cosmic elements. The problems and conflicts of nations are interwoven with the quest of a group of teens or pre-teens as they try and right a world that is on the verge of total domination by one nation. These kids have no problem taking on a nation imposing its will on the rest of the planet, primarily using their powers to manipulate the elements but also teaming up with other nations to mass attacks and engage in war. This American cartoon with a decisively Asian stylistic influence, despite its heavy use of spiritual abstractions and flashy battle scenes, highlights some of the most important aspects of global geopolitics for us to learn today.

The imagined planet we begin on is one populated by four different peoples, each representing one element of nature as they were conceived in ancient times: water, earth, fire, and air. The first three nations are locked to a continent, with the air people being monkish nomads inhabiting mountain-top temples and the water nation having territory at both of the planet’s two poles. Keeping these nations each with their disproportionately weighted qualities from invading other territories and assuming power over them is the avatar, a Dali Lama like character that reincarnates upon death and wields enormous power. The avatar alone can learn the power to “bend” the element of each nation, while a select number of people can learn to bend the element from their own nation of origin. It’s an international system that weaves together martial-national ambition with individual spiritual enlightenment into an icon in such a way that nations can be nations, monks can be monks, merchants can be merchants, farmers can be farmers, etc., while a mechanism exists to keep empires from rising. The avatar is like Buddha and Sun-Zu mixed together, as if attaining enlightenment also granted this single great figure a god-like fighting power.

This scenario is an enchanting thought experiment and I’m tempted to ask: “who are the avatars today?” To quickly answer that question, no individual has that power nor should they. But rather than musing on the avatar as inhabiting a middle-place between this fictional world and the real, what I’d like to turn your attention to the way that international politics and forces of the earth work together in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is particularly effective in making the personal/emotional trials and tribulations that most everyone faces in their life blend together with the grand scale of nations and the problems afflicting each. The disruptions and excesses of individuals, villages, and nations, felt by each other when they come into conflict with friends, our travelers, and other nations are all indicated at the same level and with similar affects gone astray. The difficulties of keeping the crew together and on task, moving toward their goal and not at each other’s throats, etc. are reflected in the deficiencies of nations in maintaining an international balance of power. For instance, the leadership and resilience that water bender Katara learns in rallying the band is reflected in the qualities that the Water nation lacked in beating back the Fire Nation, but have had traditionally: resilience and adaptability.

Isaac Yuen has already pointed out many of these connections in his ekostory of the show, so I’ll just link you to his great piece here: [http://ekostories.com/2012/09/08/avatar-airbender-forces-change/]. And there’s two more pieces on Avatar lying that way.

Our heroes eventually pick a member of each elemental to form the final version of their team, but thanks to the main protagonist, the new Avatar Aang, and his giant flying bison (that’s right) Appa the group itself operates nomadically in their quest to “restore balance” between the nations and reestablish harmony. The absent peoples of the show is the air tribe – not only has the Fire Nation killed them all but Aang in an act of genocide but of the three seasons (Books) of the show the book of air is the only one missing. Seeing as the crew we follow on their adventure is always moving from place to place and they are led by the only airbender Aang, we can say that they represent the missing element themselves: the nomadic opposition to the ascendant empire.

The fire nation is in the midst of a conquest of the rest of the nations, having pacified the Water nation more slowly by capturing its water benders and is in the process of laying siege to the Earth Nation. In the finale to season 2, we are taken brilliantly through the stages of a coup in the vast capital of the Earth Nation, Ba Sing Se, with the rest of the war to be fought in clandestine fashion with sneak attacks by the cobbled together rebels met in past episodes. They will attempt an invasion of the Fire Nation and all those left willing and able to fight are accepted, regardless of nationality (or age), in this teenage (at best) militant resistance force.

It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain the balance of power between nations, and she/he is not restricted by the nation in which he/she was born. In season 3 we are told of a particularly significant recent Avatar who was born in the Fire Nation and grew up best friends with the Fire Lord (king), who also happened to have started the fire nation’s dream for expansion and conquest. He was born in the Fire nation and trained together with the soon to be Fire Lord in adolescence, remaining friends until a turn of events allowed the Fire Lord to cross him and begin his multi-generation plan to spread the Fire nation influence and control over the rest of the planet. This cultural superiority was justified by the time of unprecedented technologically-infused prosperity that had to be “shared”. No culture is judged here in its entirety. The ambition of a nation is to be expected; it was the avatar’s inability to foresee the danger of his expansionist fiend and his untimely death due to a natural disaster that disabled him from preventing it. Luck and lack of precaution by those with power seem to be the holders of blame for the war rather than the Fire Lord alone, should blame need be assigned.

The real strength of the show lies in its planetary perspective of warring nations and their continental territories. When the Fire Nation attacks, the Earth Nation loses the will to fight (falling to authoritarian propaganda, fear tactics, and class dissension), and the Water Nation gives way to eking out an existence as scattered and relatively disempowered tribes, the cause is attributed to a lack of harmony. The guarantor of harmony in the Avatar was simply absent, and, in his youthful anxiety in the face of his destined the role, he hid himself away in a kind of bad faith. A lopsided spike in the forces of the planet results from a similar imbalance in the psyche of the main character. It’s as if the show is saying that, in a world where the planet is fully charted out and populated with regional powers, the burden for the excesses of an erratic nation falls with personal make-up of certain well-placed individuals. While the idea of the Avatar is a product of fantasy, people with intentions toward global stability could be inspired to maintain a similar balance within themselves in their rise to a position of influence on the geopolitical stage.

As we look for answers to the question of how such historical atrocities were able to happen we are invariably led to the decisions of some politicians who either scheme on the behalf of others and interest groups or are motivated by their own ambitions toward power. Granted, some obvious imbalances of power can be identified as causing such horrifying effects, such as when technologies are developed and manipulated for war sooner than others (Europeans, the Fire Nation) or when a glut of natural resources are discovered in regions that damn them to strife or obedient subjugation (the Middle East), and not the aspirations of individuals. There are always forces beyond our control on one side and those that we can influence on the other. What Avatar is telling us is that for those decisions that we can make for situations within our ability to exert influence over, it would be better off for all those considered to make those decisions in a state where we are not ourselves under the grip of one passion at the expense of another.

It is much more difficult for someone to excuse something like the Fire Nation for an act of genocide against the people of the Air Tribe. This is the case of a planetary extinction decided by an individual (the Fire Lord) in order to eliminate the next Avatar and consolidate his power. The people of the Air Tribe did not have a standing military to withstand the threat of invasion on their temples. They led their lives as concerted monks living to pass on their wisdom detached from “worldly concerns”. This mode of living puts them at an obvious disadvantage as they lacked the affect of anger and a strategic instinct for survival, opting instead for the pursuit of knowledge and practices of self-mastery. This deficiency of the Air Tribe does not doom them but is symbolic of a ripped apart world where hyper-aggression has eradicated that which would be the very thing that would prevent domination and empire – understanding and composure.  The self-criticism that the Air Tribe has got in spades doesn’t stop them from being bulldozed by the Fire Nation, but the Fire people are capable of self-criticism too – it was a result of bad luck, a turn of the wind, that the Fire Lord was able to act in the absence of the Avatar.

When such an outside force is felt, one that seeks to destroy merely for the sake of power, expansion, and triumphal cultural superiority, the only way to defeat them is head on with an opposing force. The show understands this and our heroes and heroines use whatever is at their disposal to defeat the Fire Nation. Anger is often the best way to mobilize that force which would fight and topple a domineering force headed your way, but it also can quickly turn into that which it is fighting against, as that other force is using the same affect against you. The self-mastery of such a wide array of affects evidenced in the Avatar’s mastery of all four element bending, so that each one can be drawn on as the situation calls for it, can keep the body (as well as the planet and the nation) from being contaminated by a single force, dominating all of the rest. Although, we are admittedly still within the realm of power and forces with the word “mastery” as in self-mastery and not the tranquility of ascetic contemplation.

Nowhere is this struggle better displayed than in the character of Prince Zukko of the Fire Nation. He begins at the outset of the show with the single goal of finding and killing the avatar to restore his lost honor. His sole goal in life is winning back the favor of his father the Fire Lord. But with some good life coaching from his uncle Iroh (vs. his father) he comes to despise his father for the destruction and fear which he has wrought upon the people of the planet. Due to his transformation and his decision to join the avatar in his quest for peace and “harmony” in season 3, his uncle gives him one last piece of advice: he must disrupt the coronation of his sister Azula and assume the throne to better lead the Fire Nation. It is a change of rule at he highest possible level of political power, with a 180 degree change in policy that is required to seal the transformation and complete the revolution *within* the imperial Fire Nation. Princess Azula took his place as the enemy that the crew fights most often after season 1 and her ruling style is based on fear; she consequently alienated her own friends and servants leading up to her coronation, ending up alone and full of frustrated rage. The Fire Lord himself attempted a jump up from the throne of the Fire Nation to the throne of emperor of the world: the Phoenix King, with new totalitarian symbols and everything.

It is the transformation of Prince Zukko in the later part of the show that demonstrates best the personal/political trajectory of its message. The harmony sought between nations, those great powers set against each other in differing, competing interests is mirrored in the competing emotional drives of the individual and the band of traveling friends. Zukko has a tough time convincing the crew to accept him, being their former enemy number one, but once he does join he helps each of them confront their past demons and clear current barriers. [For the record, Toph didn’t need him. She’s as solid as a rock.]. He is ideally placed to reverse the disastrous policies of three generations of Fire Lords and his internal struggle between the imperial ambition of his father, motivated by aggression, and the advice of his uncle, no slouch in battle himself. Uncle Iroh was once a conquering Fire Nation general himself who turned another leaf after his own son died in battle. The shear force of anger represented by the Fire Nation is an undeniable fact of life; it can be a great ally when unleashed at the right time, but mustn’t be allowed to continue unchecked.

The question of holism in a world of nations fighting geopolitical battles with each other remains. The figurehead of the avatar with its ultimate power to control the elements of the planet/cosmos holds a super-national position with respect to everyone else, and the viewer is led to believe that the avatars are always balanced and harmonious themselves because of their training from the greatest masters of each respective nation. In a world where one elemental people is entirely eradicated, it is hard to see how a balanced avatar could ever arise. The avatar receives not just military training but spiritual training from gurus. They teach them to meditate, that “everything is connected”, and to let go of all worldly desires. After achieving a kind of enlightenment, avatars become “one with the cosmos” or whatever the religious equivalent be in a culture’s spiritual/metaphysical tradition. How could such concepts born of an ascetic eschewing of the material world *also* be the great liberators of military oppression having turned away from such existential commitments? This is not so much a problem within the logic of the show as one for the reality that we face.

The recent actions of Pope Francis could be mentioned when he derides nations and industries for imperiling the life-producing capacities of the planet with carbon emissions resulting in global warming. [http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/21/1300969/-Pope-Francis-Causing-Climate-Change-Is-a-Sin#]

His position as spiritual leader of a large chunk of the believing people around the world puts him in the unique position of letting his voice on such crucial matters. Millennia of entrenched religious practices cultivated from the power of the pastorate have placed someone like this (and other similar religious leaders) in a privileged position to let these global matters be explored by their subjects. The scientific community as well, especially when there is as much consensus as is healthy for an organization of skeptics to have [http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm], has an authoritative voice that is heard when looking for support for creating policy and action. The religious wisdom of the avatar could also be understood as the very forces of the biosphere itself as it responds to the threat of human activity by vanishing until, many thousands of years later, it is time for the life inducing complex ecosystems to emerge again. But let’s not get too confused.

The avatar is shown in various flashback scenes manipulating the very substance of the planet itself in a bid to alter the consequences of other human’s actions. An avatar uses her powers to create an island and isolate her people from a different conquering Lord generations earlier, killing him in the process, and another avatar limits the damage done to a village by a volcano by controlling the elements around it. These are actions performed *on* the earth by a privileged person in the context of human dramas. Such talk invokes geo-engineering – which may become necessary after, or during the time we pull together and put a *gigantic* dent in carbon emissions. But this must be in conjunction with a major effort to severely limit carbon emissions largely resulting from market actors and their allies in nations.

What Avatar: The Last Airbender can teach us is the importance of keeping oneself on an even keel affectively, with the sentiment it provides being extractable onto nations whose actions have a more direct effect on the planet. The cosmic-spiritual aspect of Avatar does a great deal of good in connecting itself to the planetary elements of earth, air, fire, and water – as dated as those natural elements are claiming the status of ’substances’.  This makes Avatar an excellent ecological fantasy – a rare blend of grounded spirituality *and* rough and ready international warfare.

As for the issue of idealistic holisms and realistic political forces, the wonder that springs from holistic contemplation should not be divorced from the planetary and human forces those ideas effect. Avatar does this extremely well. Even when extra-terrestrial phenomena like a solar eclipse and a comet come at key plot points in the narrative, they do so not as transcendent forces from another world but as immanent forces effecting the elemental powers of people on the planet. Planetary-natural and national-political forces intermingle in the narrative seamlessly, as displayed by the threat of Fire nation imperialism and its ecosystem destroying weapons factories. The closest we get to transcendent other-worldly phenomena is when the avatar meditates himself away into the “avatar realm” and there are other problems with having an avatar around. But the avatar is best thought of in relation to one’s own choices, even though a select few people have vastly more power over the masses. There’s no telling what a committed and balanced individual can do, however, especially when taught at an early age with good works of fantasy that they can change the face of the earth.

Dollar Hegemony and Super Imperialism: An Update from CounterPunch

Not only does the dollar enable the US empire, but also protecting the dollar’s status is a major reason for US imperial wars. American financial and military strength is based upon the fact that the dollar is the world’s reserve and international trade currency, creating a global demand for dollars which allows the US to print as many greenbacks as it likes. It then pumps them into the overbloated finance capital system and uses them to fund its criminal wars…

…Although it has so far been unsuccessful, the idea of rebalancing the world monetary system is extremely threatening to the US, and goes a long way toward explaining recent US wars and warmongering, which may otherwise seem irrational. The line of NATO bases in Eastern Europe and the coup d’etat in Ukraine are attempts to split Europe from Russia, trying to keep a subordinated Europe in the US sphere, prevent a single Eurasian economic area, and isolate and destabilize Russia. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has the same goal. Weakening Russia and China (and the BRICS in general) on a military, economic and political level, with a regime change in mind, is a fundamental part of the US strategy for maintaining dollar hegemony. The US therefore has surrounded them with bases and continues to try to destabilize them. The US presence in the Middle East serves not primarily to gain access to its oil and gas (the US has its own, especially since the fracking boom) or even to control access to them (the Chinese are already there), but first and foremost to protect the petrodollar, to ensure that the global fossil fuel markets continue to be denominated in dollars. Iran has been talking about wanting to de-dollarize its oil and gas trade for years – thus, it and the Shia crescent are in the US line of fire…

…This is exactly in the interests of US financial imperialism: to economically undermine any rivals that question dollar hegemony. It is absolutely unacceptable that one country should arrogate to itself the right to set a wildly loose money policy for years and then tighten it at whim, giving the rest of the world a violent thrashing. It is unacceptable that any one country control the world’s reserve currency. As the above quote says, because of the circumstances created by QE and the zero interest rate policy, today if the US economy does well, the global South suffers. It’s a zero-sum equation. This is throwing burning obstacles in front of their process of de-dollarization, and making them suffer. On purpose? Again, it would be difficult to impute too much individual agency behind these effects, but they are predictable, necessary and not unprecedented consequences of the imperial monetary policy waged by the US for years. The question of agency in this case is moot: these policies serve the empire. They go along with and have similar effects to the more obvious forms of financial imperialism such as sanctions. The US should be held accountable for the disasters it sows, and the world should remove its imperial privileges, through the creation of a neutral world reserve currency.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/06/dollar-imperialism-2015-edition/

What Is at Stake in the Ukraine: Global Financial Dominance

With the latest round of American and European news media outlets loudly announcing that President Obama is considering arming the neo-fascist Ukrainians to fight Eastern Ukrainian separatists, risking an escalating proxy war with Russia, it’s time we gained some broad perspective on this conflict.  Each side is pointing fingers at the other, with few facts being spoken that both sides can really agree on.  The US media-war-machine is vamping up the aggression of words as seen here: Fox[Obama Confirms Arming Ukraine on the Table if Diplomacy with Russia Fails ], USA Today[Obama Team Considers Arming Ukraine], NY Times[US Taking a Fresh Look at Arming Ukraine Forces] (no, going to all of those mainstream media websites was not a pleasant experience).
A tentative peace deal has been signed with leaders of Europe in attendance, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leading the way in promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Whether this truce will hold is uncertain, but with major national interests at stake and their strategy plays already set in motion, we are entering a phase in which the drivers behind the conflict must be payed bare.  With all of this hate in the air, and pathetically little debate about the intricacies of the conflict, a number of questions need to be asked:
Why would the US risk setting off a proxy war with Russia and a potential nuke-firing, ’unthinkable’ World War III?  Where is the intense demonization of Putin in Washington and its long arm in the media coming from?  What is the US doing right on Russia’s doorstep using strong-arm tactics like sanctions and pursuing NATO expansion, including a new “rapid response force” [] ready to be deployed along the boarder of Russia at a moment’s notice?  We could flip the questions around for the sake of objectivity and ask: “why did Putin annex Crimea during the Maiden episode?” and also, “why would Putin arm and supply the East Ukrainians to fight the new Kiev government?”.   The two powers are squaring off alright, but if we turn off the highly charged rhetoric that is being flung around in the narrative and look at the situation in terms of geopolitical power and national interests, we find a set of dominant forces that span the globe are being challenged right now, ones that American global hegemony just might be willing to risk World War III to protect.
I will eventually offer some links and facts about the current crisis, but first the scope of this conflict needs to be elaborated.  Only then can we feel the weight of the conflict and answer those questions above.  So, why are these powers willing to risk so much?
When Putin and other Russian politicos speak about their motives and relay messages to their US and NATO counterparts, they have repeatedly been saying that they no longer accept the US dominated world order as it is.  [Putin Accuses United States of Damaging World Order].  They demand that the US stop interfering with affairs far away from their land and basically stop playing global policeman.  America has been the overwhelming superpower ever since WWII (despite the Cold War) but it was with debt, money, and currency manipulations that the US achieved a imperial superiority over the rest of the world unparalleled in history.  Few know how these mechanism work (and this was most likely intentionally obscured with the help of ideologically driven economist-speak), but it seems that Russia feels like it has regained enough of a footing in global politics to challenge US super-imperialism with its alliances and trade deals.  The US in turn ratchets up the pressure with a series of sanctions and foments unrest right on Russia’s doorstep.  If we take the longview on the Ukrainian conflict and tune-out the heated rhetoric we can see a major stand-off between the clear world hegemon desperately holding to its power and another large imperial nation who is refusing to bow down anymore.
This is what the Russians are talking about when they speak of the US-led world order whose rules they no longer want to play by:
America projects power thanks to its fortunately located continent away from other world powers in Europe and Asia (who have other competitive nations very close to them).  They have control over much of the Earth’s maritime shipping routes with strategically placed Naval bases and keep the close nations located in the Americas from retaining the wealth of their natural resources, thereby keeping them more impoverished and, consequently, weaker.  See this brief Caspian Report video on how the US geologically projects power:[Foundation of American Dominance].  While Cuba and Venezuela remain thorns in their side, much work is surely being done (as it has been accomplished already in its numerous interventions in its own backyard [7 Fascist Regimes Enthusiastically Supported by America]) to wrest away the profits of Venezuelan oil for American multi-nationals.  Venezuela’s ability to keep the wealth generated from its vast oil reserves within its own national government has made it a target for regime change. [Venezuela, Regime Change, and the Hidden Hands of US Capitalism].  The Venezuelan government headed by Maduro is now claiming to have foiled a coup attempt by military officials on the anniversary of the student protests [Opposition Leaders Issued a Statement to Signal the Launch of the Foiled Coup].
But the real crux of American global dominance is performed via money and debt.  In the system of global trade and finance, there is no standardized unit of account that levels-off the panoply of currencies engaging in importing and exporting with each other like the gold standard once did.  Nixon took the US off of the gold standard in 1971, when Vietnam War expenditures rose so high that its gold reserves were rapidly being depleted.  Currencies were left to float against each other or be pegged to one another, but US dollars were still needed by-and-large because America was by far the most productive economy and a trading partner to many nations.  The US dollar gained the status of ‘reserve currency‘.  Countries would still need dollars in reserve to buy oil and to cover losses from speculative raids, seeing as it is that the foreign exchange market (ForEx) allows currency holders to trade currencies at will and for speculative profit.  The phenomenon of ’short selling’ is a major weapon that speculators use to devalue an entire nations economies by conspiring to lower the value of its national currency.  Countries can peg their currency’s value to the dollar, but can still see capital flight and their doliar reserves depleted if they don’t set the peg exactly right.  Basically everybody needs dollars to buy oil (thanks to the US/Saudi “Petrodollar” deal: [Confessions of an Economic Hitman]) and make sure their foreign and economic policy won’t lead to those dollars fleeing their own central banks, which usually means they must export more to the US than they import.  The imperative for economies to “grow” by producing consumer goods and exporting them is largely an effect of debt payments they must meet and dollar reserves they must hold onto.  For a more detailed analysis, read Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt, chapter 21, ’Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: From Gold Reserves to Petrodollars’.  [Web of Debt]
The excess of imports into America means that US balance of payments is always negative, hence the US national debt perpetually rising at an astronomical rate.  But the large US national debt is not a hindrance;  since countries are required to hold dollars for oil purchases, other countries must export their goods to the US and usually import oil.  With all of these dollars in circulation, central banks end up buying US treasury bills to get a return on those dollar reserves.  This ensures that dollars are continually “recycled” back to America, with the US Treasury making its minimum debt payments on those bills and bonds as the total debt climbs ever higher.  Thanks to the Federal Reserve system, the US Treasury must borrow from this private central bank in order to print its own national money.  All of this ensures that demands of debt (as well as oil) are met at almost every step of the way: whether by countries who must accept onerous loans from the IMF to protect their own currency/dollar reserves to buy oil, or a US government that turns the global need for dollars into more debt of its own.  Though, all together, the system is drastically beneficial for the US (that is, until people realize that its debt will never be completely payed off): it gets excessive imports and situates itself as a middle-man (via the dollar) between nations and their energy needs.
This video from Storm Clouds Gathering explains the Petrodollar system well: [The Geopolitics of World War III]
Now, this nefarious system is not accepted happily by those who understand it and feel the pressure it exerts upon them.  The BRICS Bank enters as a challenger to Dollar Hegemony for its ability to offer development loans similar to the IMF but in currency besides the US dollar.  Here is a Cursory overview of the BRICS Development Bank: [BRICS Set Up Bank to Counter Western Hold on Global Finance], and an Al Jazeera segment about the goals and motives of the BRICS alliance[Empire: BRICS: The New World Order] .  With such a massive tool at their disposal, countries could break the need for dollars in purchasing oil, as Russia has tried to do with its currency swap deal with China: [Russia and China: The Dawning of a New Currency System].  Russia stopped trading their oil for dollars over a year ago and, if using dollars is absolutely necessary, they will immediately take those dollars and exchange them for gold – the value of gold being pushed down at a low price thanks to central bank policy.  A more detailed look at Putin’s scheme to get around the petrodollar, by using artificially devalued gold and rubles: [Grandmaster Putin’s Trap: Russia Is Selling Oil and Gas in Exchange for Physical Gold].
I also highly recommend watching this debate between Michael Hudson and Leo Panitch about the significance of the BRICS Bank, where geopolitical and international banking dynamics are contrasted with a downer, “you’re either a Capitalist or a Socialist economy”, analysis: [Is The New BRICS Bank a Challenge to US Global Financial Power] and here is my take on the debate: [The BRICS Bank and Dollar Hegemony: The Importance of Geopolitics].
“Neoliberalism is not simply an economic philosophy. It’s interwoven with American foreign policy.” -Hudson.
According to Ellen Brown, Russia and other BRICS countries have a greater diversity in banking methods that would put them fundamentally at odds with Western private banking elite.  She cites this article that glosses how the Russian banking system has changed its ways towards public financing following the 2008 financial crisis:[Financial Crisis Alters Russia Banks].  A vast network of smaller, state controlled banks offering low-interest rates puts Russia and the BRICS at odds with private banks of the west, who lend primarily for profit and operate at the behest of maximizing the returns to their shareholders.  According to Brown, the unsung hero of China’s rapid growth in industry is its banking system that operates as a public service rather than as a parasite.  The entire first section of her book, The Public Banking Solution is devoted to juxtaposing private and public banking models and how the BRICS nations exemplify the necessary measures that need to be taken to ward off the wealth siphoning machine of onerous debt and interest.
Speaking of financial tensions, there is also the lingering memory in Russia of the American intervention during the transition form communism to capitalism.  Aid, support, and advice were continually given to Yeltsin, who in turn attacked the Russian parliament building, rammed through neoliberal shock therapy, and made sure a potential democracy became an oligarchy instead.  I encourage everyone to read or reread Naomi Klein’s chapter 11 in The Shock Doctrine titled ’Bonfire of a Young Democracy: Russia Chooses the Pinochet Option’ in light of current events.  Just a few excerpts:
“To provide ideological backup for Yeltsin’s Chicago Boys, the U.S. Government funded its own transitions experts whose jobs ranged from writing privatization decrees, to launching a New York-style stock exchange, to designing a Russian mutual fund market.  In the fall of 1992, USAID awarded a $2.1 million contract to the Harvard Institute for International Development, which sent teams of young lawyers and economists to shadow the Gaidar [the head of Yeltsin’s economic reform team] team.  In May 1995, Harvard named [Jefferey] Sachs director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, which meant that he played two roles in Russia’s reform period: he began as a freelance adviser to Yelstin, then moved on to overseeing Harvard’s large Russia outpost, funded by the U.S, government.” (p.281)
“Despite the fact that Russia’s Constitutional Court once again ruled Yeltsin’s behavior unconstitutional, Clinton continued to back him, and Congress voted to give Yeltsin $2.5 billion in aid.  Emboldened, Yeltsin sent troops to surround the parliament and got the city to cut off power, heat and phone lines to the White House parliament building.” (p.294)
He would eventually order Russian troops to burn down the parliament building, their own White House.
“… several of Yeltsin’s ministers transferred large sums of public money, which should have gone into the national bank or treasury, into private banks that had been hastily incorporated by oligarchies.  The state then contracted with the same banks to run the privatization auctions for the oil fields and mines.  The banks ran the auctions, but they also bid on them – and sure enough, the oligarch-owned banks decided to make themselves the proud new owners of the previously public assets.  …the Russian people fronted the money for the looting of their own country.” (p.294)
“…he [Sachs] now sees that there was something else at work: many of Washington’s power brokers were still fighting the Cold War.  They saw Russia’s economic collapse as a *geopolitical victory*, the decisive one that ensured U.S. supremacy.” (p.315)
Putin has echoed this sentiment, proclaiming that the fall of the Soviet Union “was the greatest *geopolitical catastrophe* of the century.”.  Seen from this geopolitical perspective and not the ideological one in which it is usually viewed, one major national power was crippled with the help of another major national power through military force and disastrous economic reforms.  The oligarchy reigning in Russia (similar to the one reigning in America, as this scientific study found [US Is an Oligarchy not a Democracy, Says Scientific Study]) was fostered and supported by American neoliberals and is not simply the product of its own vague tendency for corruption.
Then there’s the New York Times running an article by Thomas Friedman openly questioning if the recent plummet of oil prices was not a ploy between US and Saudi Arabia to cripple Russia’s oil and gas economy [A Pump War?].  This would line up perfectly with the US tactic of weaponized financial mixed with control over oil markets.
During the Maidan protests as well, evidence has been accumulated that the US has been directly involved with putting known fascist party members into power.  This video from Storm Clouds Gathering goes into this in detail: [The Ukraine Crisis: What You’re Not Being Told].  The hard evidence of leaked phone calls between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland laying out the exact people she wants to see in power for the new post-coup Ukrainian government is tough to deny.  The right sector leader in Kiev has been documented as rejecting the recently signed peace-deal: [Neo-Nazi Leader of the Right Sector Rejects Ukraine Peace Deal].  To top things off, fake pictures of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine were brought before US congress as war propaganda last year by a US Senator: [US Senator Used Old Photos to Push Ukraine War Propaganda].  They have since been debunked.
On the financial hegemony side, we don’t have to go very far to see the negative effects of IMF’s monetary policy, it is apparent right there in the Ukraine.  To finance Ukraine’s war with the separatists, the IMF has granted it loans that demand it privatize public sector industries and undergo austerity, even though the IMF is not allowed to give loans to countries at war. Here is Michael Hudson talking about Ukraine’s coming financial crisis: [Has the IMF Annexed Ukraine?].  Now Joe Biden’s son has even been appointed to the board of a Ukrainian oil and gas company with tremendous power in Ukraine.  The $17 billion IMF loan to Ukraine is alleged by Hudson to be a New Cold War Loan meant to wrest away debt payments owed to Russia by Ukraine [Losing Credibility: The IMF’s New Cold War Loan to Ukraine].
So, facing all of this evidence that US power is in trouble and has been stirring up aggression right on Russia’s border, how can we go along with the narrative of Putin the aggressor, the demon?  Russia invaded the formerly Ukrainian territory of Crimea and annexed it, which has been denounced ad nauseum as an act of aggression.  Right after the event, a referendum was conducted in which the Crimeans voted overwhelmingly for annexation by Russia, with over 90% in favor.  Recently, another poll was held by the Ukrainians themselves in which this sentiment was upheld, with ~93% in favor of Russia [Annexation of Crimea to Russia. Opinion Poll].  But the inflammation of this great geopolitical chess game is the consequence of no mere diplomatic misunderstanding or idle hands in the military-industrial complex, Russia is the greatest threat to the interest of the US because it is leading the way in establishing an alternative to the debt-based monetary policies that cripple nations and bolster US power around the Earth.  An alliance of BRICS countries with a new development bank not under control of the IMF/World Bank/Bank of International Settlements is a threat to the hierarchy of order that has settled internationally, with the US on top.  But we not simply side with the BRICS be their cheerleaders, there is a public banking movement going on in the US which is spreading the model at home.
In America, public consent is required (for the most part) before war is waged and the battleground of public opinion is crucial in determining how the military decisions will be made by the president.  It is important that these fact of the US’s involvement in Eastern Europe be distributed and understood before we head into what would be a horrifying and devastating war to protect an order that already impoverishes so many people and nations as a whole.  The private banking cartel that rules Washington with its revolving door of financiers and politicians keeps the vast majority of people from wealth, while ensuring that a few (the 1%, if you will) continue to profit off of assets that are already held like stocks, shares, property, and large businesses.  Public banking models threaten the stability of the wealth generating machines that wealthy elites will fight tooth and nail to keep in motion, with the BRICS alliance raising the biggest alarm.  There is no guarantee that the BRICS Bank will operate on a more benign model than the IMF does now, but the history and composition of public banks in those countries suggests they would be far more likely to restructure and cancel debts, make cheaper loans, and not apply harsh conditionalities that lead to austerity policies and privatization.  Although, to be quite honest, we need a shake up of the dominant forces of the Earth in any case, and detaching the most important element from an economy (money: what we need to have and earn in order to survive more than any other thing in the present day) from oil (the thing most threatening to a flourishing planet when burned) would be a good start.  Simply put, without the Petrodollar system, there is a whole lot more that countries could do.
I highly recommend looking into the idea of public financing and dig into the way monetary policy shapes the international composition of forces.  Since you’ve made it this far, please check out all of the links I have provided in this essay to get the bigger picture.  With an informed public, war and ecological devastation can be prevented and our present situation need not continue indefinitely.  A new development bank headed by large capitalist nations isn’t exactly as glamorous as the notion of a global grassroots revolution, but these developments signify that the greatest powers at work on the surface of the Earth are facing an uncertain future.  Understanding how these forces are deployed, who benefits, and who loses will allow us to more effectively withstand the on-coming media shocks.