All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Convenient Demonologies: Stopping Migrant Caravans

President Donald J. Trump has been engaged with berating human caravans, a spectacle that might have been odd in another era.  At first instance, it all seems fundamentally anachronistic, a sort of history in reverse.  It was, after all, the caravan packed with invasive pioneers that gave the United States its distinct frontier identity, moving with relentless, exterminating purpose in ultimately closing it.

On October 19, some 7,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, made an attempt to cross the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. “Una necesidad nos obliga,” came the justification of a 20-year old man to the Washington Post.  The ultimate destination for most: the United States.

Such a necessity does not merely apply to states in social and political decay.  Honduras has historically been an eviscerated client state, its politics those of a marionette of Washington’s interests.  In similar fashion, Guatemala continues to bleed before the preying involvement of Washington in its history.  The US-owned United Fruit Company craved gangsters for capitalism, and the Central Intelligence Agency obliged in protecting its assets, assisting the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in 1954.

The Mexican authorities made various attempts to repel the human stream with violent though modest success.  With the November mid-term elections looming, this small group became electoral dynamite for Trump.  It gave him a chance to militarise matters, announcing the deployment of 5,200 troops to the US-Mexico border.  (Some 5,600 have currently taken their positions.)

The language of General Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, in describing the proposed plan, resembled a description of an armed operation against an elevated enemy. “Our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.”

In the words of the previous US president, Barack Obama, “They’re telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away.”  Film director Spike Lee, presenting his latest effort, BlacKkKlansman, at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in Mexico, was even more unvarnished.  “Agent Orange was on the campaign trail for his fellow gangsters and stirring his base by saying the migrant caravan was his invasion.”

If there is something that tickles and engages the populist sentiment, Trump is up for it.  His “base”, as it were, is up for rocking, chilling and entertaining.  Obama might accuse Trump of being a fan of the “political stunt”, but that is the essence of this administration, a sequence of aggravated rehearsals that have distracted when needed and enraged when required.

Some of these ploys have gone beyond the category of temporary fancy.  Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller had demonstrated that policies of indignation can have purchase at chance moments.  While Trump is always bound to claim copyright over such ideas, it was Miller who proved influential in sketching the selective Muslim ban and the head-scratching policy of separating children from parents at the border.  Immigration is being larded with further, stifling regulations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming that a mere 30,000 refugees for resettlement will be accepted by the US in 2019.

Such cruel exercises are the stuff of modern reactionary politics, notably from governments wishing to remove the clammy hand of international law upon them.  Refugees, the outsiders, the marginalised, are ideal fodder to mince and grind.  It is the language of Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, in the federal elections of 2001, insisted that the island continent would become an impregnable fortress against the undesirables coming by sea.  He illustrated this fact by deploying, much in the Trump manner, soldiers against refugees stranded at sea in August 2001.  “We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination.”  Given Australia’s lethal natural barriers, the remarks were as incongruous as they were fictional.

It was a policy twinned with the feather brained notion, ruthlessly exploited, that terrorist operatives might sneak their way to Australia on leaky vessels, avoiding more salubrious options.  As Australia’s defence minister Peter Reith brazenly asserted at that time, such boat arrivals “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities”.  Howard himself added taste to the fear: “you don’t know whether they have terrorist links or not,” he suggested rather casually to Brisbane’s Courier Mail.

Trump would have approved of such laxity, having himself claimed, with an approach immune to evidence, that there might well be “unknown Middle Easterners” heading to the US in these migrant caravans.  When probed on the matter by CNN’s now bedevilled Jim Acosta, Trump twisted slightly. “There’s no proof of anything but they could very well be.”

Trump’s language of the demonised caravan is also the language of a host of European leaders who have decided to dust off chauvinistic sentiments long held in the archive and ignore any central, humanitarian approach to refugees.  At work here is a species of depraved transatlantic consensus on cruelty propelled by strongman bullying.  Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fantasises about Muslim hordes in an Ottoman invasion redux, a positioning that elevates himself as defender of the West against Islam and the dark forces of the barbaric East. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees,” he snorted in an interview with Bild in January this year.  “We see them as Muslim invaders.”

Other states contemplate a further entrenched, barbed wire approach, finding much value in shirking or adjusting the refugee resettlement quota.  Poland can add itself to Hungary in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating his position plainly to Radio Poland in January that “we will not be allowing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to enter Poland.”  Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not far behind.

Like his Australian and several European counterparts, Trump has deployed the instruments of violence and demonization against refugees with a degree of commitment and, it must not be forgotten, success.  It also supplies a fitful reminder how criticising him for doing so remains a more difficult exercise, given the number of states which have gotten a cold regarding refugees.  A certain villainy against humanity has taken hold.

Remembering the Peace Makers: What the Armistice Commemorations Forgot

Those in the war industry and the business of commemorating the dead have little time for peace, even as they supposedly celebrate it. For them, peace is the enemy as much as armed opposing combatants, if not more so. Dr Brendan Nelson of the Australian War Memorial is every bit the propagandist in this regard, encased in armour of permanent reminder: Do not forget the sacrifice; do not forget the slaughter.  The issue is how war, not peace, is commemorated.

That theme was repeated, for the most part, in Paris on November 11.  US President Donald Trump spoke of “our sacred obligation to memorialise our fallen heroes.”  French President Emmanuel Macron marked the 100th anniversary of the Great War by having a dig at nationalism, calling it a “betrayal of patriotism” (is there a difference?).  The nationalists, he warned, were getting busy, these “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death”.  The intellectuals (and here, he alluded to Julien Benda’s 1927 classic, La trahison des clercs) were at risk of capitulating.

But Macron, rather slyly, was hoping that the French obsession with universal values would somehow render his message less parochial: to be French was to be an internationalist, not a tunnel-visioned, rabid nationalist.  The soldiers who perished in the Great War did so in the defence of France’s “universal values” in order to repudiate the “selfishness of nationals only looking after their own interests.”  Much room for disagreement on that score, and Marine Le Pen would have been a suitable corrective.

The peace activities of the Great War, asphyxiated, smothered and derided in texts and official narratives, are rarely discussed in the mass marketed solemnity of commemorations.  The writings of those prophets who warned that any adventurism such as what transpired in 1914 would be met with immeasurable suffering are also conspicuously absent.  Jean de Bloc, whose magisterial multi-volume The Future of War appeared in 1898 in Russian, found it “impossible” that Europe’s leaders would embark on a conflict against each other; to do so would “cause humanity a great moral evil… civil order will be threatened by new theories of social revolution”. The end would be catastrophic.  “How many flourishing countries will be turned into wilderness and rich cities into ruins! How many tears will be shed, how many will be left in beggary!”

These sceptics were the enlightened ones, scorned for not having the sense of fun that comes with joining battle and being butchered in the name of some vague patriotic sentiment.  If human beings are animals at play, then play to the death, if need be – the rational ones were sidelined, persecuted and hounded.  They are the party poopers.

Prior to the first shots of the guns of August in 1914, Europe had witnessed a slew of meetings and activities associated with the theme of peace.  From 1889, pacifists were busy with Universal Peace Congresses, while the Inter-parliamentary Union made a stab at efforts and ideas to reduce national tensions.  The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, with one scheduled to take place in 1915, suggested a certain sensibility, even as the military machinery of Europe was getting ominously more lethal.  At the very least, the political classes were playing at peace.

The 1,200 women who gathered at The Hague in 1915 as part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom feature as sane if forgotten voices before the murderous machine truly got going.  Their work involved attendees from 12 countries and the passing of 20 resolutions on war. They worked to convince those engaged in the murderous machine about the folly and were dismissed accordingly as cranks and nuisances.

The peace movement was sundered by the patriotic diseases that engulfed the continent, and such organisations as the International Peace Bureau failed to reach a consensus on how best to quell warring aggressions.  In January 1915, its Berne meeting was characterised by division, best exemplified by a resolution denouncing Germany and Australia for egregious breaches of international law.  The vote was divided evenly, and unity was destroyed.

While monuments to the war makers and fallen soldiers dot the town squares of the combatant nations, lingering like morbid call cards for failed militarism, there are virtually none in the service of peace.  The tenaciously wise and farsighted Austrian noblewoman Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and suspect the motives of governments behind the Hague Peace conferences, hardly figures in commemorative statuary.  Nor does Rosa Luxemburg, who began a twelve-month sentence in Berlin’s Barnimstrasse Womens’ Prison on February 18, 1915 for “inciting public disobedience”.

Her crime, committed during the words of her famous Fechenheim address, was to call upon German workers to refuse shooting their French counterparts should war break out.  “Victory or defeat?” she would sadly reflect in her anti-war tract, The Junius Pamphlet (1915) written whilst in confinement.  “Thus sounds the slogan of the ruling militarism in all the warring countries, and, like an echo, the Social Democratic leaders have taken it up.”

As Adam Hochschild sourly noted in 2014, those who refuse to fight or barrack for war are ignored by the commemorative classes.  “America’s politicians still praise Iraq War veterans to the skies, but what senator has a kind word to say about the hundreds of thousands who marched and demonstrated before the invasion was even launched to try to stop our soldiers from risking their lives in the first place?”

Events conspicuously against the spirit of killing and maiming opponents, such as that which took place during the short lived Christmas Truce of 1914, have only been remembered – and tolerated – because of their public relations quality.  These events sell chocolates and cakes; they draw people to sites and commodities.  The truce signalled no revolution; it did not challenge the war planners.  “It’s safe to celebrate,” commented Hochschild, “because it threatened nothing.”  The sovereignty of war, the institution of state-sanctioned killing, remained, as it still does, though selling peace can be lucrative when the shells have stopped falling.

The obscenity here is that conflict, most notably that of the First World War, was meant to be cathartic, a brief bit of masculine cleansing that would end by the arbitrarily designated time of Christmas.  It was advertised as a picnic, a brief testosterone outing which would see men return intact.  Foolishly, such figures as HG Wells saw it as “the war to end war”, so get it over and done with, minimal fuss and all. (To be fair to Wells, he found disgust and despair subsequently, reflecting upon this in The Bulpington of Blup in 1932.)

This was, truly, as the title of Margaret MacMillan’s work goes, the war that ended peace, and we should not forget the political and military classes, instrumental in dashing off soldiers to their death, who engineered it with coldness and ignorance.  Foolishness and demagoguery tend to hold hands all too often, distant from that most moving sentiment expressed by the jailed US socialist activist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.  “I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; and I am a citizen of the world.”

Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take

President Donald J. Trump has a special, strained take on the world. Defeat is simply victory viewed in slanted terms. Victory for the other side is defeat elaborately clothed. Both views stand, and these alternate with a mind bending disturbance that has thrown the sceptics off any credible scent. “It wasn’t me being slow,” came Frank Bruni’s lamentation in the New York Times. “It was America.” Dazzlingly unsettling, the results has been tight “but many of the signals they sent were mixed and confusing.”

Those daring to make predictions that the House would fall to the Democrats were not disappointed, even if they could not be said to be spectacular. Losses to the incumbent party in the White House in the mid-terms tends to be heavy, varying between 24 and 30. President Barack Obama’s presidency bore witness to 63 loses to his party in 2010. On this occasion, the GOP yielded ground in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Senate, just to press home the sheer polarity of the results, slid further into red territory. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who had, in any case, been deemed quite vulnerable in the state, fell to Mike Braun. Braun was one who drank from the cup of Trumpism, a move which seems to have paid off. Missouri Democratic senator Clair McCaskill succumbed to Republican challenger Josh Hawley. North Dakota also turned red.

The Democrats showed some resurgence in various state level capitols. Key governor’s seats were reclaimed, though their victories in Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin were matched by Republicans clawing on to Florida. The governor’s offices of Arizona and Ohio also remained in the hands of the GOP. The defeat of Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin was particularly sweet, given his lingering dedication to the abridgment of union rights that resulted in an effective end to collective bargaining for public workers.

Moving aside the gripping minutiae and individual bruising, and the US is a state fractured and splintering, putting pay to such notions as “waves” of any one party coming over and overwhelming opponents. Walls – psychic, emotional and philosophical – have been erected through the country.

Rural areas remain estranged from their urban relatives; urban relatives remain snobbishly defiant, even contemptuous, of the interior. “The midterms,” came a gloomy Mike Allen in Axios AM, “produced a divided Congress that’s emblematic of a split America, drifting further apart and pointing to poisonous years ahead.” The angry voter was very much in vogue, be it with record liberal turnouts in suburbs, or high conservative voter participation in Trumpland.

What Trump succeeded in doing after the mid-terms was implanting himself upon the GOP, grabbing the party by the throat, thrashing it into a sense that their hope of survival in the next two years rests with him. He could blame losses on Republicans who decided to keep him at tongs length, those who “didn’t embrace me”, while Democrats who sided against his choice of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh were duly punished.

Trump could also smirk with excitement that the punditry is still awry about how to assess the US political landscape. Republican pollster Frank Luntz insists in a magical two to three percent “hidden Trump” vote that analysts refuse to factor into their calculations.

The news conference in the East Room provided Trump the perfect platform to spin, adjust and revise. He also reverse heckled, striking out at journalists with brutal surliness. PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor was accused of asking a “racist question” in pressing for his position on white nationalists. “It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”

He could also weigh heavily into his favourite playground targets, one being CNN’s Jim Acosta. “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.” (The politics of playground fancy also took another turn, with Acosta’s accreditation subsequently suspended “until further notice” by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.)

As has been frequent, if scattered, the president was not entirely off the message in attempting to reason the results. The “wave” that was supposedly to come from the Democrats had not exactly drowned the GOP, and in terms of performance, he could happily point to a Republican increase of numbers in the Senate.

He then brandished a weapon he has mastered since he became president: the art, less of the deal than the diversion. Within hours of the results coming in, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came another addition to the long list of casualties that has made this administration particularly bloody. Zac Beauchamp supplied a depressed note in Vox: the sacking of the marginalised and mocked Sessions was not shocking, which made it worse, a sort of normalised contempt. “The truth is that Trump firing Sessions, and temporarily replacing him with a loyalist named Matthew Whitaker who has publicly denounced the special counsel investigation, should scare us.”

Trump, for his part, anticipates “a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation” working with Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi. “From a deal-making standpoint, we are all much better off the way it turned out.” Far from being further rented, the chances for legislation have presented themselves, though the president was just as happy to issue a slap down warning: avoid initiating any investigations. “They can play that game, but we can play it better because we have the United States Senate.” As the dark lord of the Bush era, Karl Rove, surmised with apposite force: “Let’s be clear… Both parties are broken.”

Masquerading Reforms: The Tricks of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The surgical dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi has sent the military establishments of several countries into a tizz.   Arms manufacturers are wondering whether this is an inconvenient blip, a ruffling moral reminder about what they are dealing with.  Autocratic regimes indifferent to the lives of journalists are wondering whether the fuss taken about all this is merely the fuss endured, till the next bloody suppression.  But importantly, those states notionally constituting the West may have to reconsider the duping strategy that the House of Saud has executed with the deft efficiency of the dedicated axeman.

The ranks are closing in around the Saudi royals, notably the purportedly suspicious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose status has been given an undue measure of inflation from various powers happy to see reform in the air. The measures taken by MBS have been modest and hardly worth a sigh: the cutting of subsidies, permitting women to drive, and restructuring the economy.  But like a fake article of purchase at an inordinately expensive auction, the prince’s counterfeit credentials are starting to peer through the canvas.

The Crown Prince has been happy to provide a train of examples to suggest to his Western audience that the roots of a liberal Saudi Arabian past are very much in evidence.  To Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the beguiling royal explained that, “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.”

The tactic is clear: speak of a yesteryear that was jolly and a touch tender, and promise that a current era seemingly harder can emulate it.  Goldberg was good enough to make the observation that the Crown Prince had gotten one thing right from the perspective of his sponsors in Europe, the Middle East and the United States: “He has made all the right enemies.”

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mohammed was keen to get a word in to the Trump administration before any firm conclusions could be drawn.  His first port of call was President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton.  According to The Washington Post, the call featured one theme of justification: Khashoggi was a dangerous, destabilising Islamist, and any tears shed would be premature.

Publically, the Crown Prince played along with the conceit that the death of Khashoggi had been “very painful for all Saudis”, being unjustifiable. Khalid bin Salman, Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington, insisted that the slain journalist had been a friend of the Kingdom, “dedicating a great portion of his life to serve his country.”

The powers, regional and beyond, have taken to douching the image of the Crown Prince, hoping to minimise prospects for any rash action.  Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu might well concede that was happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month “was horrendous and should be duly dealt with”, but the broader strategic interests topped anything connected with a mere journalist’s life.  When a figure corrupted by power reasons with violently inflicted death, he is bound to embrace that word that forgives and justifies all: stability.  “At the same time, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”

Minor appendages of US power such as Australia also find themselves in a tangle about how best to approach the revelations and claimed royal involvement.  Shrouded in history, the officials of distant Canberra also remain gulled, confused, and happy to be led.  The Australian defence sector has been placed in the dim light of deals with the Kingdom.  As legal advocate Kellie Tanter notes, documents obtained via Freedom of Information laws confirm that, between January 1 2016 to December 31, 2017, sixteen military licenses were procured for export of military equipment from Australia to Saudi Arabia.  As is traditional with such freedom of information laws, permit holders, permit numbers and approved goods, consignees, end-users and approved destinations were redacted.

Under questioning from Labour Senator Alex Gallacher last month in a Senate estimates hearing, the Australian Department of Defence was not forthcoming about the nature of the exports to Riyadh.  Official Tom Hamilton refused to disclose their value, citing weak “commercial-in-confidence” reasons.

The pickle Australian policy makers find themselves in lies in the obligations of the Arms Trade Treaty, which insists on a ban on exports of weapons to countries where evidence can be shown of use against civilians.  The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, featuring a true orgy of civilian-targeted destruction, qualifies.  But Yemen hardly qualifies as a humanitarian disaster in Australian political discourse (distant places have a certain ethical irrelevance to the plodders in Canberra).  To make sure her bases are covered, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, in reference not to the war in Yemen but the killing of Khashoggi, suggested that, “All options are on the table”.  It is already clear what option Canberra prefers: ignore the complicity of the House of Saud, and keep the procession of defence contracts going.

Khashoggi himself was clear enough about the nature of the Crown Prince: the royal was entirely self-centred, and any reform would take place in a contrived way.  Concepts of reform within the Saudi royal court can, at best, only be a limited affair, and have nothing to do with deeper social considerations.  Saudi intellectuals, activists and journalists languished in prison even as MBS was being praised for his openness; such projects as the futuristic city of Neom were doomed examples of extravagance rather than forward thinking.

“He has no interest in political reform,” comes Khashoggi, a voice from the grave.  “He thinks he can do it alone, and he doesn’t want really any counter opinion or anyone to share those changes in Saudi Arabia with him.”  Hardly revelatory, and something bound to do little to turn the ladies and men of the security establishments of the West.

Losing Users: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Problems

His detractors and enemies have been waiting some time for this, but it must have given them moments of mild cheer.  Facebook, the all-gazing, accumulating system of personal profiles and information, poster child, in fact, of surveillance capitalism, is losing users. At the very least, it is falling to that mild phenomenon in business speak called “flat-lining”, a deceptively benign term suggesting that the fizz is going out of the product.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg has been more humble than usual.  The latest figures show that 1.49 billion users hop on the platform daily; monthly active users come in at 2.27 billion.  While both figures are increases from previous metrics, these fall shy of those bubbly estimates Facebook loves forecasting: 1.51 billion in the former; 2.29 billion in the latter.  “We’re well behind YouTube”, he observed; in “developed countries”, Zuckerberg conceded that his company was probably reaching saturation.  While security features of Facebook had improved, there was at least another twelve months before the standard was, in his view, up to scratch.

The user market in North America is flat, while in Europe, FB has experienced a loss of 3 million daily active users.  The process was already underway after 2015.  The moment your grandparents start using a communications product with teenage enthusiasm, it’s time for a swift, contrarian change. But social media, as with other forms of communication, is a matter of demographics and class.

YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have been beating down doors and making off with users.  A May study from the Pew Research Centre found that half of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17 claim to use Facebook.  But YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are bullishly ahead with usage figures of 85, 72 and 69 percent respectively. To locus of this move is as much in the type of technology being used as behavioural change, with 95 percent of teens claiming to have access to a smartphone. A mind slushing statistic stands out: of those, 45 percent are online constantly in numb inducing ecstasy.

The company, in an effort to plug various deficiencies in the operating systems, has been busy hiring content moderators, a point that has not gone unnoticed by users.  This, in and of itself, is a flawed exercise, and one imposed upon the company in an effort of moralised policing.  Various legislatures and parliaments have gotten itchy in passing legislation obligating Facebook and similar content sharers to remove hate speech, extremist subject matter and state-sponsored propaganda.  (Where, pray, is that line ever drawn?).

This raises a jurisdictional tangle suggesting that local parliaments and courts are getting ahead of themselves in gnawing away at the extra-territorial nature of tech giants.  This year, a German law was passed requiring social media companies to remove illegal, racist or slanderous content within 24 hours after being flagged by users or face fines to the tune of $57 million.  Such legislation, while localised in terms of jurisdiction, has international consequences.  Content otherwise permitted by the US First Amendment will have to be removed for offending regulations in another country.

This is a far from academic speculation.  Canada’s Supreme Court in June last year ruled that Google had to remove search results pertaining to certain pirated products.  The natural consequence of this was a universal one.  “The internet has no borders – its natural habitat is global,” claimed the trite observation from the majority.  “The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates – globally.”

This precipitated a legal spat that proceeded to involve a Californian decision handed down by Judge Edward J. Davila, who turned his nose up at the Canadian judiciary’s grant of the interlocutory injunction.  To expect companies such as Google to remove links to third-party material menaced “free speech on the global internet.”  The emergence of a “splinternet” – one where online content is permissible in one country and not another – has been given a dramatic shove.  Police, in other words, or be damned.

By the end of September, an army of some 33,000 labouring souls were retained by Facebook for the onerous task of sifting, assessing and removing errant content.  But this whole task has come with its own pitfalls, a preoccupation of danger and emotional disturbance.  Those recruited have become content warriors with a need for a strong constitution, a point that has presented Zuckerberg with yet another problem.

Former moderator Selena Scola, who worked at Facebook from June 2017 till March this year, has gone so far as to sue the company for post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing content depicting graphic violence “from her cubicle in Facebook’s Silicon Valley offices”.  Scola, through her legal counsel, claims that the company did not create a safe environment, instead working upon the practice of having a “revolving door of contractors”.  Moderators, according to the legal suit, are “bombarded” with “thousands of videos, images and livestreamed broadcasts of child sexual abuse, rape, torture, bestiality, beheadings, suicide and murder.”

Facebook ushered in a remarkable form of dysfunction between users, and the actual platform of communication.  This is very much in the spirit of a concept that lends itself to a hollowed variant of friendship, one based on appropriation, marketing and a somewhat voyeuristic format.  If you can’t make friends in the flesh, as Zuckerberg struggled to do, create facsimiles of friendship, their ersatz equivalents.  And most of all, place the incentive of generating revenue and profiles upon them.  Facebook is not merely there for those who use it but for those who feel free to be used.  This point is all too readily missed by the political classes.

Facebook makes everyone a practitioner, and creator, of surveillance, and anybody with a rudimentary understanding of totalitarian societies would know what that does to trust.  Split personalities and hived forms of conduct manifest themselves.  Unhealthily, then, the number of users globally is still increasing, even if it is dropping in specific parts of the world.  Much like the Catholic Church, reliance is placed upon the developing world to supply new pools of converts.

Zuckerberg’s company faces investigations from the European Union, the FBI, the FTC, the SEC and the US Department of Justice.  Such moves are not necessarily initiated out of altruism; there is the prevailing fear that such a platform is all too readily susceptible to manipulation (the horror, it seems, of misinformation, as if this was ever a new issue).  Fake ads can still be readily purchased; campaigns economic with the facts can still be run and organised on its pages.  But to attribute blame to Facebook for a tendency as ancient as politics is another distortion.  Not even Zuckerberg can be blamed for that.

Moving Right in Brazil: The Rise of Jair Bolsonaro

Moving left has been a Brazilian political tendency for some time, a tendency affirmed through the 1990s and 2000s with the presidential administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  But this is the same country also famed for its share of murderous military dictatorships and political convulsions.  The worm would eventually turn.

Between 1964 and 1985, the military privileged itself with direct interventions in civilian and political life, ensuring a line of generals for president in the name of protective emergency.  The trumping of civilian rule in 1964 had come in response to the centre-left reformist government of the Brazilian Labor Party’s João Goulart.  The brutal reaction became an inspirational blueprint for Latin American governments to follow: right wing governments obsessed with corporatist principles and suspicious of civil liberties.

That particular model, and precedent, offers lessons in the coming to power of former army parachutist Jair Messias Bolsonaro.  At the 2016 impeachment vote held in the Lower House of the Brazilian Congress against President Dilma Rousseff (notably cast by a chamber half-filled by members facing various criminal investigations), Bolsonaro recalled 1964, the year when the country was supposedly rescued from the relentless approach of godless communism.  His own ballot, as Perry Anderson reminds us, was dedicated to the conscientious torturer-in-chief, Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra.

Colonel Ustra was adamant before a Truth Commission hearing in May 2013: “I fought terrorism.”  Like Bolsonaro, he saw no moderation in any left-wing platform, a scourge that needed to be tortured into oblivion.  “Their aim was to depose the military and implement communism in Brazil.  That was written in their programmes.”  In 2016, Bolsonaro aired views drawn straight from the Ustra school of simple thinking: torture was appropriate, the right to vote should be questioned and the National Congress needed to be opposed.

The overthrow of Goulart had been premised on the military’s harnessing of opposition from large landowners, the interests of big business and corporations, the Catholic Church and elements of the middle class.  The forces that threaten the legacy of leftist reforms (30 million lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2014), tarnished by the lingering stains of corruption linked to the state oil firm Petrobras and the Odebrecht construction firm, are similar.  These are, however, marked by a fundamental difference: the very same middle class boosted in numbers by progressive governments are now falling for personalities of reaction.

In the considered opinion of sociologist Atilio A. Boron, “They see those that declare an inferior economic position a threat, and therefore they are prone to have discriminatory, aggressive and offensive positions to the popular sectors.”  Poverty, as the ultimate, dangerous crime.

Despite every major Brazilian political party being implicated in the orgiastic exercise of graft exposed in the economic downturn following 2013, Bolsonaro proved savvy enough to distance himself, and members of his own Social Liberal Party, from the filled trough.  The Workers Party (PT) was left holding the can of guilt, while the far-right movement courted a troubled angst-ridden middle class.

Bolsonaro’s approach to the period of military presidents is to avoid using the term altogether.  (Another point of resentment towards Rousseff was her establishment of a truth commission to investigate the human rights abuses and disappearances perpetrated at the time.) He merely concedes to “excesses, because during wars innocents die”.  This is the fundamental law of survival: to keep a society safe, a few skulls have to be shattered.  He is keen to keep his friends close and the military even closer, promising to place the Ministry of Defence within purview of military, rather than civilian personnel, and involving members of the Armed Forces in his government.

Bolsonaro has similarly modelled his campaign, and accompanying promises, on a Trump-style agenda of making Brazil great again, a coarser programme of self-inflation that contrasts with the previous Rousseff platform of “Larger Brazil”. His trip to the United States in October last year was a mission of instruction.

He, like Trump, has his own variant of the message of draining the fetid swamp of political corruption, though, like his source of inspiration, remains reticent on what to fill it with.  He, like Trump, has a certain liking for the “law and order” message that emphasises muscle and arms over the logic and sober restraint of gun control. “It won’t be any better,” he argues about the policy of reducing gun ownership as a means of reducing violence. “If there were three or four armed people here now,” he speculated on the television channel Record, “I’d be certain that some nutter wouldn’t be able to come in through that door and do something bad.”

Bolsonaro’s vision – nutters meeting nutters – features jungle retributions and protections, the state’s tactical outsourcing of violence in favour of privatised security. “Why can’t a truck driver have the right to carry a gun?  Just think about it; put yourself in the shoes of a truck driver.  He nods off at the petrol station… and when he wakes up the next day his spare tyre has gone.”  Not that the state is entirely absent from this savage equation: where police killings (autos de resistência) increase, he surmises, “violence goes down in the region where they took place.”

The current political move in Latin America is to the right.  Conservative governments now hold sway in Chile and Colombia.  The historical dislike for the keen meddling of Washington has, temporarily, taken second place.  Arms of approval are being extended.  Bolsonaro, to make that point, has already made his position on what regional foreign policy will look like.  “Trump is an example to me… I plan to get closer to him for the good of both Brazil and the United States.  We can take his examples from here back to Brazil.”

Angela Merkel’s Last Days

Cultural compilations such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough are rich with these accounts: the high priest or leader of a tribe, whose lengthy tenure is wearing thin, is set for the sacrifice, either through ritual or being overthrown by another member.  The crops have failed; a drought is taking place.  The period of rule has ended; the time for transition and new blood replacements have come.  Since 2005, Angela Merkel’s Chancellorship has been one of the most stable and puzzling, a political stayer ruthless in durability and calculating in survival.

Swords and daggers are being readied.  The Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), bound by a tense partnership, have been getting a battering in Germany’s state elections.  Poor showings in Bavaria and Hesse are proving omens of oracular force.  The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) now finds itself with a presence in all 16 regional parliaments.  The Greens have been polling strongly, while the Left Party and Free Democrats have doggedly maintained their presence.  The day after the poor showing in Hesse, Merkel announced that she would not be seeking re-election as leader of the Christian Democrats in December.  Nor would she be running again as Chancellor in 2021.

Other European states will view her with the sort of respect that is afforded the German national football team: dislike and fear in a jumble with respect and admiration.  At times, she let various cabinet members get ahead of themselves – Herr Schwarze Null, the darkly obsessive figure of balanced budgets and punitive financial measures, Wolfgang Schäuble, for too long coloured the age of austerity.

For such figures, including Merkel, thrift became dogma and mission, a goal of its own separate from social goals and cute notions of sovereignty. The vile god of monetary union needed to be propitiated; Greece needed to be sacrificed, its autonomy outsourced to external financial institutions.  Making states seek bailouts while repaying crushing debts, many of them the result of unwise lending practices to begin with, seemed much like requiring the chronic asthmatic to do a hundred metre dash without a loss of breath.  As a result of such policies, the European Union has edged ever closer to the precipice.

Throughout her chancellorship, abrupt changes featured.  Having convinced the Bundestag that phasing out nuclear energy born from the Red-Green coalition of 2001 was bad (an extension of operating times by eight to fourteen years was proposed), Merkel proceeded to, in the aftermath of Fukushima, order the closure of eight of the country’s seventeen nuclear plants with a despot’s urgency.  This became the prelude to the policy of Energiewende, the energy transition envisaging the phasing out of all nuclear power plants by 2022 and a sharp shift to decarbonise the economy.

For sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, she is “a postmodern politician with a premodern, Machiavellian contempt for both causes and people.”  Educated in the old East Germany (DDR), she mastered the art, claimed biographer and Der Spiegel deputy editor-in-chief Dirk Kurbjuweit, of governing by silence, being cautious, and at times insufferably vague, with her words.  “She waits and sees where the train is going and then she jumps on the train.”

In 2003, she pushed her party into the choppy waters of deregulation and neo-liberal economics, a move that almost lost her the election to Gerhard Schröder, that other market “reformer” who arguably fertilised the ground she then thrived in.  After becoming chancellor, she proceeded to, with the assistance of the Grand Coalition comprising the remains of the Social Democratic Party, clean the party stables of neoliberals and become a new social democrat.

Merkel, the shifter and shape changer, was again on show during the crisis which is being seen as the last, albeit lengthy straw of the camel’s back. With refugees pouring into Europe, Merkel initially showed enthusiasm in 2015, ignoring both German and EU law mandating registration in the first country of entry into the EU before seeking resettlement within the zone.  Refugees gathered in Budapest were invited into Germany as part of “showing a friendly face in an emergency”; it was a move that might also serve useful moral and humanitarian purposes, not to mention leverage against other, seemingly less compassionate European states.

A riot characterised by rampant sexual assault at Cologne Central Station on New Year’s Eve in 2015, a good deal of it captured on smartphones, served to harden her approach to the new arrivals.  She promised more deportations and reining in family reunification rules. Wir schaffen das – we can do it – has since become something of a hefty millstone.  “The German government did a good job reacting to the refugee crisis,” observed Karl-Georg Wellmann of the Christian Democrats. “But repeating ‘we can do it’ over and over again sends out the wrong message.” The far-right AfD duly pounced, reaping electoral rewards.

Her enemies have amassed, though the line between groomed successor and opportunistic Brutus is not always clear.  Critics long cured by a vengeful smoke – the likes of Friedrich Merz, who once led Merkel’s parliamentary caucus only to be edged out, and Roland Koch, formerly minister president of Hesse – have been directing salvos of accusation.  Within hours of Merkel’s announcement of eventual political retirement, Merz, who never had much time for grand coalition antics, returned fire with a promise to bid for the party leadership.

The caravan of potential replacements features the likes of “mini-Merkel” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, currently the Christian Democrats party secretary-general and the calculatingly anti-Merkel and youthful Jens Spahn, health minister who has bruised his way to prominence attacking the 2015 refugee policy.  Occupying the middle ground, and risking falling between two stools, is the more conciliatory Armin Laschet.

The current grand coalition is neither looking grand nor much of a coalition, and the party operatives from the CDU and SPD are attempting to wriggle out, though neither Merkel nor SPD counterpart Andrea Nahles wishes to dissolve the union yet.

Like Merkel’s mentor, Helmut Kohl, staying power is never eternal.  Kohl tasted eight years of power as chancellor of West Germany before leading a united Germany for another eight.  “Fatty’s got to go” was the prevailing sentiment in the dying days of his rule, and it transpired that, in time, power had done its bit to corrupt the hulking politician in his twilight days.  A million marks in donations had found their way into a reward scheme for cronies and friends instead of going to his party. Kohl attempted to keep mum on the whole matter.

It is worth recalling who it was who laid the final, cleansing blow to this holy of holies: a certain Angela Merkel’s December 1999 contribution to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calling for her former patron’s resignation and necessary banishment. “I bought my killer,” reflected a rueful Kohl.  “I put the snake on my arm.”

Julian Assange, Ecuador and the Dangers of Farce

This is the next stage of the Julian Assange chronicles: from the summit of information disclosures and meddlesome revelations on classified state matters, the Australian rabblerouser now finds himself the subject of a new round of jokes and ribbing.  WikiLeaks, in short, must be wary of the dangers posed by a new campaign of farce.

Satire, humour and ad hominem attacks can have the effect of wounding and deflating.  When directed against dissidents from the vantage point of tradition, the effect can be calculating and delegitimising.  For Chelsea Manning, a querulous attitude to the US military, a confused matter of gender and lingering resentment were furnished as weapons against her role as a genuine whistleblower.  Whistleblowers, or so goes this line of reasoning, cannot suffer “delusions of grandeur”.  They must be calm, focused, and scrupulously clean.

Assange, as with others associated with the vocation of exposing the asymmetrical nature of power and its impacts, has found himself repeatedly depicted in fashions that supposedly undermine the rationale for transparency politics.   He is an enemy of conventional forms of stratified power, and must duly account for dirtying that sty in advancing an approach that insists upon transnational networks “which function,” writes Raffi Khatchadourian, “outside norms of state sovereignty that have held for centuries.”

Joan Smith, chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, provided an exemplary demonstration of how an attempted diminution of a legacy can work.  In a graceless attack on Assange in 2016, she showed a damnable political immaturity. Her clumsily fashioned assault dismissed international protections against arbitrary detention or matters of political prosecution; none of these, she suggested, applied to Assange.

No mention of Cablegate, or any other expansive document release, features; Assange was merely a molesting ego-maniac who needed to front legal processes as others who had been accused of assault, “including the comedian Bill Cosby who has just been told that prosecutors in the US can proceed with a sexual assault charge dating back to 2004.”  Assange was “a fugitive from justice, a man with such an inflated ego that he believes himself beyond the law.”

The restoration of basic entitlements to Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy (modest, restricted internet access being one of them), where he remains a troublesome tenant, has provided another round for comic skewering.  Now, the razors of satire have been deployed in various measures that seek as much to render his historical contributions to whistleblowing and journalism a matter of mirth rather than worth.  In one sense, this returns Assange to a time immemorial function of palace politics: to be the jester, is to reveal the truth.

It all began with the new “house rules” of the Ecuadorean embassy, which restore conditional access to the Internet.  Not following these newly minted conditions “could lead to the termination of the diplomatic asylum granted by the Ecuadorean state”.

While such injunctions might be sensible for many citizens, they grate with the publisher who has made it both his hobby and work to disrupt international relations and rubbish the façade of diplomatic decency.  In an act of substantive neutering in that regard, he had to avoid any activity, according to the Ecuadorean government memorandum, “considered as political or interfering with the internal affairs of other states.”

The memorandum also made it clear that the embassy was going to target “unauthorised equipment”, reserving “the right to authorise security personnel to seize equipment” or request British authorities to enter the premises to do so.

This was not all.  In the language of an irritable nurse, the memorandum urged Assange to observe basic levels of hygiene (cleaning his own bathroom, including after himself and his guests), a behavioural requirement rich with imputation, and could not hope for embassy payments towards his food, laundry or other costs for his stay from December 1, 2018 onwards.  Quarterly medical check-ups would cease being covered.

He also had to ensure continued adequate care for his feline companion, one whose name has altered over time in the name, ostensibly, public relations. “When Castro died,” explained Assange, “we started calling it Cat-stro.”  (Currently, the name Michi seems to be preferred.)

Where this instagrammed, tweeted creature came from is unclear, though it invariably supplies his observers with salivating prospects for speculation.  One story run for tabloid consumption is that the cat was a gift from his children; another, told to Khatchadourian, was that the tale was a handy concoction designed to gull.  The embassy is, however, clear.  He had to take care of the cat’s “well-being, food and hygiene”. Not doing so risked having to surrender the animal to care.

It is precisely such antics – and for Assange, being in a restricted abode for six years should entitle him some measure of frivolity – that provide morsels for distraction.  Information wars can reach the high summit of austere seriousness in exposing state mendacity, or they can plummet into depictions of distracting farce.

Farce and the staged absurd is something that is bound to shadow Assange in this latest bout, even if a certain tart historical legacy is assured.  Having now launched a lawsuit against Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Ministry on claimed violations of constitutional rights, Assange is being mocked for being unable to understand the appointed translator.  “According to the English-speaking Assange,” goes an acerbic Seamus Bellamy, “his self-righteous blather differs from what the rest of the English-speaking world gets along with.”  Judge Karina Martinez conceded that the court had erred in appointing a translator not adept in picking up the Australian accent which, for Assange, was sufficiently thick to warrant consideration.  This is vintage Assange: amidst the undergrowth of seriousness comes an element of the absurd with a good twist of truth.

The Arms Behind the Invictus Games

The origins of the Invictus Games (“For our Wounded Warriors,” goes the slogan) lies in war.  Wars that crippled and caused depression and despair. The games became a project of grand distraction and worth, a form of emotional bread for servicemen and women.  Do not let wounds, mental or physical, deter you.  Move to the spirit of William Ernest Henley, an amputee who, during convalescence, penned those lines which speak to a Victorian stubbornness before adversity: “I am the master of my fate;/I am the captain of my soul.”

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, was supposedly inspired by a trip to the United States in 2013 by how, as the Invictus Games Foundation explains, “sport can help physically, psychologically and socially those suffering from injuries and illness.”  The games came into being the next year, embodying “the fighting spirit of wounded, injured and sick Service personnel and personifies what these tenacious men and women and achieve post injury.”

As they opened in Sydney, something rather troubling lurked in the undergrowth of those keen to promote the games.  This was an occasion for the sponsors to hop on in numbers, to insist on that piffle called values.  “We are excited,” goes the organisers’ statement, “to be on the journey to our Games with the fantastic support of our family of Invictus Games partners.  Their support not only helps us deliver a great Games, but also builds initiatives that inspire connected, healthy and active lifestyles for those facing mental health and physical challenges.”

Names like Saab, Leidos, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are prominent corporate entities that stud the show, a sort of murderous family of patrons.  (You were victims of our products; we are thinking of you.)

Company statements attempt to link the Invictus show to the myth of company values and mutual benefit, a point bound to leave those aware of any nexus between arms production and casualty celebration queasy: the company produces the murderous hardware – war is business and stock value after all – but it also brings back the injured into the fold.

Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, notes “a commitment to furthering their legacy of support to the armed forces by helping former military personnel transition into civilian careers through job opportunities.”  The company was proud in recruiting “over 700 ex-service men and women since 2013, creating opportunities to employees globally seeking bright futures in the automotive industry.”

Boeing, for its part, cheers “these warrior-competitors, honour their families, and help educate Australians about the contributions and sacrifices of military personnel here in Australia and around the world.”  As it backs the Invictus Games, the company’s own website smoothly advertises its role in serving “the US Air Force, US Navy, the Marines and many US allies by producing and integrating precise, long-range and focused munitions.”

There are always various moments the promoters could look to in terms of how these warrior competitors perform. What mattered was turning up, and providing a good show of heart string pulling and tear jerking reaction.

During the Sydney Invictus games, several opportunities presented themselves.  There was the wheelchair tennis player Paul Guest, whose PTSD was triggered by the whirring of an overheard helicopter.  Dutch veteran Edwin Vermetten, a fellow competitor, was on hand to comfort him as paralysis took over, offering support by singing Let it Go from the movie Frozen.  “We saw what mateship really looks like,” reflected the Duke of Sussex at his closing speech.

Prior to its opening, Nick Deane, writing in New Matilda, was troubled by the games’ throbbing sub-text, its colosseum air and undertone of manipulation.  “There is a whiff of triumphalism in this (it is in the name of the games).  Their spirit may be unconquered but they have, without exception, been severely beaten.  Giving them a special name does not alter that.”

Servicemen and women for Australia, in particular, were being celebrated, but had suffered in wars that lacked the backbone of necessity, lending a heavily tragic air to the proceedings.  “In an objective assessment of them,” Deane notes, “no service personnel [participating] can legitimately claim to have been wounded in the defence of Australia.”

That entire spirit goes to those who promote the games: the very companies who prove indispensable to the military industrial complex that creates its global casualties.  It is they who are also unconquerable, forever leaving behind the broken in their wake, they who place those in, to remember the words of William Ernest Henley, “a place of wrath and tears” where “the Horror of the shade” looms.

The Saudi Arabian Model: Blueprints for Murder and Purchasing Arms

It reads like a swaying narrative of retreat.  A man’s body is subjected to a gruesome anatomical fate, his parts separated by a specially appointed saw doctor – an expert in the rapid autopsy – overseen by a distinctly large number of individuals.  Surveillance cameras had improbably failed that day.  We are not sure where, along the line, the torturers began their devilish task: the diligent beating punctuated by questions, followed by the severing of fingers, or perhaps a skipping of any formalities.  One Turkish investigator sniffing around the Saudi consulate in Istanbul saw such handiwork “like a Tarantino film.”

The result was clear enough: the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi embassy on October 2 and never came out alive.  (Even an attempt of the gathered crew of death to procure a Khashoggi double was noted.)

For aspiring authoritarians, the Saudi state is a model instructor.  First came blanket denial to the disappearance: the Saudi authorities had no idea where the journalist had gone after October 2.  On October 18, Riyadh officially acknowledged Khashoggi’s death.  By October 21, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had come to the conclusion that this had, in fact, been murder, and a mistake. “This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had”.

Then, an improbable story of a fist fight developed through the media channels. (When one has to kill, it is best to regard the enemy as inappropriately behaved when they dare fight back.)  In the presence of 15 Saudi operatives, this was all richly incredulous – but the Kingdom does specialise in baffling and improbable cruelties.

It was clear that distancing was fundamental, hence the cultivation of the “rogue” theory, with Saudi operatives taking a merry trip off the beaten path.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was happy to pour water on the suggestion. “We have strong evidence in our hands that shows the murder wasn’t accidental but was instead the outcome of a planned operation.”  It had been executed “in a ferocious manner”.

The Turkish president has, however, danced around the issue of ultimate state sanctioned responsibility.  Neither King Salman, nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have been publicly outed in any statements as either showing awareness of the killing or ordering it.  Prince MBS and his father are happy to keep it that way, severing their links with the killing as assuredly as the killers had severed the journalist’s fingers.  This is evidenced by the Crown Prince’s own labelling of the act as a “heinous crime that cannot be justified”.

The Saudi Public Prosecutor has also decided to move the case from one of accidental killing (fist fights will do that sort of thing) to one of planned murder.  A bit of cosmetic housecleaning has been taking place (another authoritarian lesson: look busy, seem engaged with heavy concern): 18 people have been arrested and two advisers sacked by the Saudi state.  The Crown Prince, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, has chaired the first meeting of a committee established to reform the country’s intelligence services.

This authoritarian blueprint also implies a staying power in the face of other states who see Saudi Arabia as cash cow and security partner.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a rich appetite for foreign arms, a point not missed on the weapons makers of the globe.  Some attrition is bound to take place: certain countries, keen to keep their human rights credentials bright and in place, will temporarily suspend arms sales.  Others will simply claim disapproval but continue leaving signatures on the relevant contracts of sale.

Some ceremonial condemnations have been registered.  Members of the European Parliament voted upon a non-binding resolution on Thursday to “impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.”  Germany, temporarily concerned, has suspended arms sales to the House of Saud, with Chancellor Angela Merkel deeming the Khashoggi killing “monstrous”. Canada’s Justin Trudeau briefly pondered what to do with a lucrative defence contract with Riyadh worth $12 billion, only to then step back.

The Canadian prime minister did acknowledge that the killing of Khashoggi “is something that is extremely preoccupying to Canadians, to Canada and to many of our allies around the world” but has not made good any threats.  His predecessor has become the ideal alibi.  “The contract signed by the previous government, by Stephen Harper, makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract.”  Cancellation would lead to penalties which, in turn, would affect the Canadian tax payer.  How fortunate for Trudeau.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States remain the three biggest suppliers of military hardware to the kingdom, a triumvirate of competitors that complicates any effective embargo.  Which state, after all, wants to surrender market share?  It’s a matter of prestige, if nothing else.  President Donald Trump’s reaction is already clear: a suitably adjusted lid will be deployed to keep things in check till matters blow over; in the meantime, nothing will jeopardise a $110 billion arms deal.  Business with a theocracy can be patriotic.

The French angle has been reserved and coldly non-committal.  “Weapons exports to Saudi Arabia are examined in this context,” claimed foreign ministry deputy spokesman Olivier Gauvin, meaning that his country’s arms control policy was made on a case-by-case basis.  For France, keeping Riyadh in stiff opposition to Tehran’s regional ambitions has been a matter of importance in its Middle Eastern policy for decades, a point reiterated by President Emmanuel Macron in April.  And the Kingdom pays French arms exporters well: between 2008 and 2017, Saudi Arabia proved the second biggest purchaser of French arms (some 11 billion euros), with 2017 being a bumper year with licenses coming to 14.7 billion euros.  Riyadh can expect little change there.

Britain’s Theresa May, in the tradition of elastic British diplomacy (condemnation meets inertia), has insisted that her government already has the appropriately stringent rules on arms exports, another way of shunning any European resolution that might perch on human rights.  Such strictness evidently does not preclude the eager oil sheiks of Riyadh, though Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt did suggest the Khashoggi killing, should it “turn out to be true” would be “fundamentally incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly.”  Such actions are bound to be symbolic – much money has been received by the British arms industry, with earnings of £4.6 billion coming from sales to the Kingdom since the Saudi-led war on Yemen began in 2015.  Sowing death, even if through the good agency of a theocratic power, is lucrative.

The fate of Khashoggi, cruel and ghastly, seems a piddle of insignificance in that light.  “Brexit,” urged Philippe Lamberts, MEP and leader of the Group of the Greens, “must not be an excuse for the UK to abdicate on its moral responsibilities.” That abdication, on the part of Britain and its arms competitors, took place sometime ago.