Archive for August, 2010

Nature publishes attack on inclusive fitness

August 30, 2010

Those of you reluctant to babysit your sister’s kids or play wingman for your twin brother may appreciate this criticism of the inclusive-fitness theory of eusociality. Favoured by the Oxford school of evolutionary biologists (J.B.S. Haldane, W.D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins), inclusive fitness and kin selection have since the 1960s been the popular explanations of brood care for offspring, foregone reproduction by some individuals, and other cooperative, self-sacrificing behaviour by ants, wasps, bees (and other social species including humans). Hamilton gives a crude explanation below.

More exactly, Hamilton’s inequality says that altruism is favoured when the coefficient of genetic relatedness exceeds the reproductive cost-benefit ratio (for donor and recipient together) of the cooperative act. Hence Haldane’s famous answer, when asked if he would sacrifice his life for that of his brother: “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins”. (The high proportion of shared alleles among some insects explains, so the story goes, why a worker bee should sacrifice her reproductive potential for just 1.5 sisters.)

Nature and ScienceDaily have discussions of the new paper. Because one of the authors is E.O. Wilson, and the targets of criticism are confrères from the 1970s like Dawkins and Robert Trivers, some people are treating this as part of a late-career volte-face against orthodoxy and towards group selection. In truth, as Razib Khan shows, Wilson has been quietly at this since the Sociobiology days. Not surprisingly, few people – enemies or friends – noticed.


Who would play you in the movie of your life?

August 22, 2010

Is it just me or…

… Just sayin’.

China over the long run (1950-2050)

August 22, 2010

Thanks to Kui-Wai Li’s historical reconstruction of China’s capital stock, it’s possible to compare that country’s capital formation (red line) and workforce growth (blue line) over the past 50 years.

As mentioned before, these are the key factors governing an economy’s profit-rate trajectory.

Note the respective slopes of the curves. The past decade, for which data aren’t included, would show accumulation proceeding at an even faster rate.

If a country’s capital stock grows faster than its working population, we’d expect average profitability to fall.

But China’s rapid accumulation has been possible, without lowering the rate of return on capital, by migration to the city, and absorption of the peasant population into the labour force of the urban capitalist sector.

The proportion of the workforce not engaged in rural (e.g. family agriculture or village enterprise) production may serve as a proxy for the amount of labour available for waged employment by firms.

The pace of urbanization over the same fifty-year period is shown below using figures from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook.

As expected, this plot is beginning to approximate a sort of logistic (S-shaped) curve. After accelerating in the last quarter of the 20th century, the rate of urbanization is beginning to level off.

This is for two reasons: (1) the supply of peasant labour is being exhausted (2) the one-child policy and induced demographic transition.

According to projections in the UN’s World Population Prospects (2008 revision), China’s working-age population (aged 15-59) will peak during the next decade.

Once China’s labour reserves are exhausted and the workforce stabilizes, ongoing growth of the capital stock will depress average rates of return.

Then we can expect a process familiar elsewhere to commence. As in other advanced economies during recent decades, the non-financial sector’s demand for investment funds will be insufficient to absorb the savings of the financial sector. This surplus must then be balanced by deficits in one or all of the remaining sectors (household, government and rest of the world).

Here the advanced economies polarize into two basic types, according to how they balance high rentier savings with low investment:

  1. Those with persistent trade deficits, including the US, much of Europe and Australia. Effective demand is maintained through household sector borrowing; when this reached its limits after 2007, the shortfall was met by government expenditure.
  2. A small group, including Japan, Germany and China, whose productive capacity and international competitiveness provide net export demand.

Thus China’s large trade surplus puts it in a position to be a substantial capital exporter. When, in the coming decades, its labour reserves dry up and further domestic accumulation slows down, China can be expected to increase its FDI and overseas assets, converting some of its dollar holdings into equity capital.

Japan, whose capital outflow increased from $US3 billion in 1975 to $US81 billion in 1985, shows how firms faced by falling domestic rates of return will look abroad for investment.

Starting from a low base, Chinese capital export has already spiked over the past decade.

A disproportionate number of these acquisitions and joint ventures are related to energy resources and strategic raw materials: particularly oil and natural gas in Africa, Central Asia and South America.

This is no surprise: the world’s supply of cheaply-produced conventional oil is likely to fall short of demand around the same time as China’s working population peaks. Meanwhile the US state elite has committed itself to territorial seizure throughout West and Central Asia.

The PRC leadership has accordingly attempted to secure the “energy security” of its firms (and its armed forces) by acquiring capital ships, and developing a series of ports, airfields and naval bases along the maritime routes between the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and East Africa. US geostrategists call this China’s “string of pearls“.

This is a much-discussed matter among the layer of academics and journalists swathed around the Council on Foreign Relations and similar US policy thinktanks. Must the geography of Chinese power conflict with US interests, or can both parties be accommodated somehow, in a mutually satisfactory deal? The international-relations theorist John Mearsheimer predicts the usual Great-Power competition. Others are more optimistic about a “peaceful ascent”, but advise a “military hedge” to manage downside risk; Robert Kaplan has taken it upon himself to explain “How We Would Fight China”.

These are dilemmas, too, for the state managers of countries — among them Australia — tied by diplomatic and military threads to US Pacific Command but with trade and investment links to China. In 2004 the Australian foreign minister notoriously denied that the US Seventh Fleet was covered under the mutual-assistance terms of the ANZUS treaty.

But suppose that US, Chinese and allied elites manage, somehow, to peacefully share the world’s markets, sea lanes and raw materials, amid global warming and shortages of low-cost energy.

More intractable problems still remain.

The weight of China’s market within the world economy ensures that its domestic issues are immediately international ones. The opening of Chinese labour reserves to the international market in the late 1970s made labour abundant relative to capital, changing the global balance of class forces, and destroying social democracy as a political force.

Li’s figures show the enormous mass of capital accumulated in the following 20 years. By the time China’s labour reserves are depleted, this stock will roughly have tripled its 1998 level.

But the labour reserves of zones remaining to be “opened” to investment — sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Russia — are of modest scale. Their workforces won’t absorb Chinese capital exports for long. (By comparison, south-east Asia — the destination of much Japanese FDI since the 1980s — is much larger relative to its donor.)

Thus the world economy will have a glut of capital relative to labour, reversing the balance of class forces, depressing rates of returns to investment, and laying the basis for wage inflation and labour militancy.

Some more depressing nonsense

August 18, 2010

Echoes of the Shirley Sherrod farce continue to carom down the narrow, shared corridors of the ‘left’ PC and extreme-right wingnut world, the sound decaying ever so slowly.

A month on, and another resident has been stirred from a fitful sleep, murmured crankily to himself, then slipped on his gown and stepped outside to remonstrate with the neighbours.

The US International Socialist Organization has been moved to rebuke the NAACP:

NAACP officials [says the ISO] continued to insist that they measure “civil and human rights with one yardstick.” The organization released a statement in which it claimed a “zero-tolerance policy against racial discrimination, whether practiced by Blacks, whites or any other group.”

These attempts to equate as racist acts “practiced by Blacks, whites or any other groups” distort who the historic and contemporary victims of racism in this country are.


This history is the reason why the NAACP denouncing “all racism” is confusing and misleading.

From the International Socialist tendency’s UK branch office, Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb then chimed in: ‘Racism does not cut both ways, and it cannot. By definition.’

In response to a comment, Seymour expanded on his ex-cathedra pronouncement:

It isn’t about whether black and Asian people can be racist toward one another.  That’s a far more complex discussion, and I wouldn’t haggle over the examples you give.

The “racism cuts both ways” meme asserts that white people are the victims of racism.  There is nowhere where this is actually the case, though it is not impossible that it should happen – it was an aim of Japanese imperialism during WWII to invert white world supremacy, for example.

But the reason they can assert that “racism cuts both ways” is because of the model of race implied by the statement itself.  If we understand racism as a hierarchical political-economic structure, not merely a prejudice, then of course it’s simply nonsensical to say it cuts both ways.  It’s like saying “misogyny cuts both ways”, or “homophobia cuts both ways”…

[Barring] a dramatic inversion of the global system, white people by definition cannot be the victims of racism.

In the synoptic scripture of identity-politics Marxism (as the saying goes, the adjective doesn’t so much modify as cancel the noun), maybe the prophet’s famous letter on divisions in the working class has been edited to read like this:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A..

The Irishman – god bless him! – is as an oppressed person immune to chauvinist appeals. The very idea that the Irishman could, say, “pay the English worker back with interest in his own money” is a priori nonsensical, like saying “exploitation cuts both ways”.

Deplorably, it is the public official and Obama supporter Shirley Sherrod who – in the initial speech that prompted the contrived ‘outrage’ from extreme right elements – shows more fidelity to Marx – despite elements of confusion and simplification – than does Seymour and his fellow pseudo-socialists:

Well, working with him [a ‘white’ farmer] made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t. You know, and they could be black, and they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don’t have access the way others have.

I want to just share something with you and I think it helps to — you know, when I learned this, I’m like, oh, my goodness. You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century, black — there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for seven years and get their freedom. And they didn’t see any difference in each other — nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor blacks in the same boat, except they were slaves, but they were both slaves and both had their opportunity to work out on the slavery.

But then they started looking at the injustices that they faced and started then trying — you know, the people with money — you know, they started — the poor whites and poor blacks — they — you know, they married each other. They lived together. They were just like we would be. And they started looking at what was happening to them and decided we need to do something about it — you know, about this. Well, the people with money, the elite, decided, hey, we need to do something here to divide them.

So that’s when they made black people servants for life. That’s when the put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That’s when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they — it started working so well, they said, gosh, looks like we’ve come up on something here that can last generations — and here we are. Over 400 years later, and it’s still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us.

The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it’s health care or whatever it is, they’ll do what they need to do to keep that power.

Public finance and the Australian election

August 16, 2010

Just as it is internationally, the issue of public debt is top of the Australian political agenda. This may be hard to perceive, though, against a background of domestic unanimity: all parties (Labor, Liberal-National and Green) are agreed on the need for deficit reduction and austerity.

Discussion is limited to when and how quickly the expenditure cuts must be made. The Coalition says 2012; the ALP says 2013; the Greens say they too ‘want to get out of the red, back in to the black’, but don’t name a date.

In reality, there can be no saving without a corresponding rise in borrowing elsewhere. The sum of financial assets is zero: one person’s thrift implies another person’s debt.

So the public debt can’t be erased, nor the government move into surplus, without some other sector of the economy moving (in this case further) into deficit. But the political parties are silent on whose assets should be run down to compensate for the reduction in state debt.

As a simple matter of accounting, the government’s financial balance (receipts minus expenditures) and that of the private sector (firms and households) will sum to equal the foreign sector (current account) balance.

That is,

Firms’ net savings + household net savings + government surplus = trade surplus + net overseas income

In a country running an overseas deficit (as Australia does), the firm sector, households and/or the government are net borrowers.

From roughly the early 1990s, the Australian economy settled on a new model of growth, involving a sharp polarization of income with high, debt-financed consumer expenditure. Banks channelled profits from overseas into the household sector, i.e. consumer credit and mortgages.

There are two surplus sectors in the above figure: finance and overseas.

The public debt is thus nothing more than a liability to the (domestic and overseas) rentier class, for whom it is correspondingly a financial asset. Do the political parties propose to diminish these assets, say through heavy taxes, inflation, a debt jubilee, or running a trade surplus?

No: the first three policy options are strictly forbidden; while a rundown of Australia’s capital stock and productive capacity since the 1980s makes a trade surplus unlikely.

A closer glance at the private-sector accounts suggests how the planned reduction in state borrowing is supposed to be made up.

As we can see, company borrowing is still quite high, but it is being used to pay down debt and reduce the stock of equities outstanding. So the likelihood of firms being able or willing to acquire masses of new debt to fund investment seems small.

If the private sector as a whole is to save less (to compensate for the government’s saving more), this can only occur by deepening household indebtedness.

Cutting public-sector wages or firing government employees (Gillard’s ‘hard choices’ and ‘unpopular cutbacks’, Abbott’s ‘trim’) will help shift the deficit from the state to the household sector.

But this is no solution. Unemployed workers will be forced either into debt, or to run down any financial holdings. The resulting fall in consumption will pass the deficit on to the next sector: firms, which will react by cutting wages and laying off employees. The subsequent fall in tax revenues and rise in unemployment claims will return the mess to the government. Post-2007 events in the Atlantic economies show that growth in consumer credit, and the indebtedness of the lower classes, have limits to their extension. As the level of household debt rises, so does the incidence of default, and the unsustainable process soon comes to a halt.

So, as they’re fond of repeating, Australian state managers face the same problem as their North American and European counterparts.

And, on a national level, solutions of a sort do exist: public debt can be reduced by currency devaluation and export surplus, unlikely as these seem here. But for the whole world this is by definition impossible. The underlying issue – the flipside to public debt – is growth in the financial assets of the international rentier class, and an excess of savings beyond the needs of industry and state.

As shown previously, this problem is likely to proceed in lockstep with the maturation of capitalist economies.

A peculiarly well-adapted parasite

August 10, 2010

This famous description of ALP leaders, written by Zinoviev in 1916, stands up rather well I think:

[The] reactionary role of the “socialist bureaucracy” appears nowhere so ostentatiously as in Australia, that veritable Land of Promise of social reformism. The first “labor ministry” in Australia was formed in Queensland in December, 1899. And ever since then the Australian labor movement has been a constant prey of leaders on the make for careers. Upon the backs of the laboring masses there arise, one after another, little bands of aristocrats of labor, from the midst of which the future labor ministers spring forth, ready to do loyal service to the bourgeoisie. All these Hollmans, Cooks and Fishers were once workers. They act the parts of workers even now. But in reality they are only agents of the financial plutocracy in the camp of the workers. The caste of the “leaders” here appears quite openly as a unique type of job trust. The labor party as such comes to the surface only during the parliamentary elections. Once the elections are over, the party disappears again for three whole years. The party conventions are only conventions of party functionaries. They never include a trace of real representatives of the mass of labor. The party leader is elected in conference and functions as such until the next election at the succeeding conference. If he is elected to Parliament, he also becomes the leader of the parliamentary fraction. If the party gets a majority in Parliament, the leader becomes prime minister and forms a “labor ministry.” The powers of this leader are almost unlimited. It went so far that the “labor” minister of New South Wales, Hollman (a former carpenter), proposed at the party conference of 1915 that the leader be given the power to change the program of the party at his own discretion, if this should be necessary for its “salvation.” We have recently had quite a striking example of the means whereby Fisher, Hollman &co. “save” the labor party. These “leaders” have proved to be the worst sort of chauvinists.

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

August 6, 2010

While on the topic of connivance at constitutional rollback  here’s some rather funny grandstanding by Australian Greens senators in November 2005.

To set the scene: in response to ‘specific intelligence and police information’ of a ‘potential terrorist threat’, John Howard has recalled the Senate for an ’emergency’ session to pass the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 [No. 1].

This bill would extend the scope of terrorist offences to include conduct where no specific ‘terrorist act’ (i.e. one with a target, time, date, method or equipment) is planned, discussed or occurs.

The Greens senators react with fury and stylized dismay, their leader operatically flinging his arms about in unaccustomed passion.

Kerry Nettle (NSW):

What do you think all the other 30 pieces of antiterrorism legislation that have been passed in the Senate since September 2001 were about? They have given our government extraordinary powers: the power to detain people without trial, without taking them before a court, for seven days to question them. These are extraordinary powers…

That is not good enough for this government and for the security agencies. They need more powers than the already extensive, draconian, extreme powers that they have that undermine fundamental tenets of our legal system, that do not allow for proper judicial review where people can test the merits of a case and can go before the court and argue: ‘I am not a terrorist.’…

The public outpouring of opposition to the antiterrorism laws, despite the lack of leadership from the opposition, has been enormous. Not one significant legal figure has backed the government’s proposed antiterrorism laws. The Law Council, former judges and former prime ministers have all attacked the laws. As I said before, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission president, John von Doussa QC, has said the laws will make Australia into a police state… [Quoting] Ian Barker QC: “Today we are on the edge of a slide into our own 21st century form of fascism: secret arrests, secret detention, secret interrogation by secret people.”

This is what these antiterrorism laws are about, and today is a part of that…

We as senators are not here to rubber-stamp more draconian security laws like the 30 pieces of legislation that have already gone through this Senate. This is another one, and [the Prime Minister] wants a whole stack more to go through in a couple of weeks. That is not what the Senate is for. That is not what democracy is about, and I and the other Australian Greens senators will have nothing to do with it.

Christine Milne (Tasmania):

This is about basic matters, like civil liberties and the rule of law. We have had a number of people in the judicial system around the country expressing grave concern about what is going on…

I would like to conclude by saying that during the time of my education people reflected for a long time about what happened in Europe during the war. As a child I was quite fascinated by the history of that period, being a part of the baby boomer generation. I could never understand how it was that decent and good people who knew what was going on did not do anything…

There are decent people in Australia who are currently turning their backs and not wanting to know how it is that someone can be just dragged off the street, put into detention and deported from the country…

Under these laws the whole concern is about being able to take people out of the community, accuse them of something and put them into detention, and everyone else just keeps on with their day-to-day existence as if this is all right and the rule of law, international human rights and our global obligations can all just be set to one side because a government says that this person is a risk…I keep with me something that became etched onto my brain at one time. I have thought about it for years since. It was particularly pertinent during the campaign for gay law reform in Tasmania. It stays with me now in terms of this legislation. It says:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.

Bob Brown (Tasmania):

We might look at the words of much greater Prime Minister Curtin, who warned 30 or 40 years ago that those of us who concede — for a moment, a political passing — great and important freedoms and liberties in our democracy are doing the wrong thing. The Greens will not do that…

We must take terrorism seriously, and we do. But we also have a very serious onus on us, in a democratic parliament, to seriously defend the rights, privileges and freedoms that make Australia the country it is. We need to be on the alert for politicians who would sell that and erode it, just a little at the edges…

Rachel Siewert (WA):

To call those of us who are raising concerns about this un-Australian and to imply that we are soft on terror is an insult — an absolute insult — particularly to those of us who hold nonviolence and peace so dear and so fundamental to all that we do. It is an insult to  Australians, who deserve a full public debate and who elected us knowing full well what our principles were and knowing that we would stand up for them.

So the Australian Greens stood up for their well-known principles, right? Er, well, back to Bob Brown:

When it comes to this particular piece of legislation, my colleagues and I have argued that substituting the word ‘a’ for the word ‘the’ is not a hugely important legal matter…

We are not going to oppose the legislation, if it strengthens the ability, in some way, to prosecute people who would carry out terrorism in this country.

The bill was then passed unanimously.

The Greens, like Labor and the Democrats, tried to excuse their support for the legislation by portraying it as trifling and insubstantial, ‘minor’ or ‘technical’. Indeed their chief complaint was that the government had needlessly recalled the Senate, obliging them to fly back to Canberra, while distracting media attention from WorkChoices legislation.

According to Senator Milne:

I do not believe it was necessary for the Senate to come back today to make this amendment. I believe the powers that the government is seeking are already there in the legislation that exists in this country…

If the threat was so serious the laws are already there… The action and the capacity are there…

This was all a little confusing. If the changes would grant no further powers and produce no discernible effect, why all the clamant talk of fascism and first-they-came-for-the-Jews stuff? What were all those words about ‘great and important’ rights and privileges, and a creeping police state?

Milne, for one, was so proud of her rhetorical stand that it soon featured  with no mention of the subsequent vote  on her website. Kerry Nettle claimed to perceive ‘no justification that I can see for why we should all be back here giving more powers to the security agencies.’

So which version was the truth?

On the one hand, if the legislation would give ‘the Prime Minister’s security agencies more power to lock people away’ at the expense of basic rights, the Greens senators could simply have opposed it.

After all, the party says it is committed to ‘standing up for what is right, not just what is easy’ and speaking ‘on behalf of those who wouldn’t otherwise get much of a say inside parliament’. Weren’t its MPs obliged to represent the enormous ‘public outpouring of opposition’?

On the other hand, suppose the amendments actually were trivial, providing powers ‘already there in the legislation’. If the Greens had, as they claimed, genuinely opposed those earlier measures, mere redundancy would now provide neither logical nor practical grounds for supporting the new bill.

At any rate, as the government’s explanatory digest showed, Coalition senators repeatedly emphasized, and outside commentators explained, the bill would widen the scope of criminal liability, and greatly expand the reach of security, intelligence and police agencies:

The effect of the amendments is to widen the scope of each offence…

The amendments will ensure the relevant offences will be available where a person is considering a range of activities that are still in formative stages and not advanced to the point of the details being decided upon…

[It] will not be necessary to establish that the person has settled on a particular target, time or date or other specific particulars of the action or threat of action said to constitute the terrorist act.

Stipulating that a terrorist offence could be committed even where ‘the thing’ wasn’t connected to ‘a specific terrorist act’ meant that  where some preliminary, general intention was shown  possession of certain items (say, a street directory, a camera, fertilizer, a mobile phone etc.) could form the basis of an offence. 

In response to Greens questioning during parliamentary debate, the Justice Minister, Senator Ellison, made clear the novelty of these changes:

Under our criminal law, when you charge a person you have to have a particularity in relation to the charge…

You have to prove intention to do a particular act. In the security environment that we are dealing with, you may well have a situation where a number of people are doing things but you do not yet have the information which would lead you to identify a particular act. That is really what this is all about…

When you are dealing with security, you have to keep an eye on prevention of the act itself as well as bringing those who are guilty of the act to justice.

This was the logic of preventive war brought to the domestic sphere: the use of juridical force not just to punish or deter ‘terrorist conduct’ but to prevent it. A person could now be arrested before having formed any definite plan to commit a criminal act.

This was a licence for witch-hunts, frameups and arbitrary repression. The Greens could hardly claim ignorance.

Taking Bob Brown at his word, we must conclude that his party had no principled opposition to the changes.

Harmless velleities and pious media opportunities aside, the Greens are happy to collude in the Australian state elite’s multi-stage retrenchment of basic rights: ‘We are not going to oppose the legislation, if it strengthens the ability, in some way, to prosecute people who would carry out terrorism in this country.’


August 3, 2010

Let no one say that academics are ineffectual.

Take the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), a joint project of Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne. While one branch of contemporary philosophy sniffs that il n’y a pas de hors-texte, its more practical cousin wants to “connect rigorous philosophical thinking with policy input, community discussion, and professional aims.”

In return for one million dollars of annual government funding, CAPPE offers “advice and guidance” that will “assist members of the community to make more ethically informed choices”.

Its advice for today’s decision-makers? Repudiation of hundreds of years of international law: Grotius, Kant, the Treaty of Westphalia; and, specifically, disavowal of the prohibition of aggression and crimes against peace.

And what a triumph of knowledge transfer this has been!

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, signed by all the major powers, renounced “war as an instrument of national policy”, and forbade “recourse to war for the solution of international controversies…disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin”.

This meant that “any signatory Power which [sought thereafter] to promote its national interests by resort to war” was acting outside established principles.

The crime of aggression was subsequently included in the Nuremberg Principles, which named three basic offences:

  1. CRIMES AGAINST PEACE: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;
  2. WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;
  3. CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

Indeed, the Nuremberg judgement emphasised that to “initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

But what do our philosophers at CAPPE say? According to Larry May, in his book Aggression and Crimes Against Peace:

the mere crossing of borders is not a sufficient normative rationale for prosecuting State leaders for the international crime of aggression. At Nuremberg, charges of crimes against humanity were pursued only if the defendant also engaged in the crime of aggression. I now argue for a reversal of this position, contending that aggression charges should only be pursued if the defendant’s acts involved serious human rights violations… [Crimes] against peace do not harm humanity the way that crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleansing campaigns, do. Crimes against peace also are not like war crimes in assaulting humaneness, since all wars, not merely aggressive wars, are inhumane, and aggressive wars are not necessarily more inhumane than defensive wars.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the legal and moral regression involved in this flippant, light-minded dismissal. The idea of state sovereignty as territorial jurisdiction goes back to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia, and is codified in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter. It’s one thing for a state to falsely portray its military aggression as self-defence, which for example Israel, Britain and France did during the Suez crisis of 1956.

It’s quite another thing, and historically original, to say that aggression doesn’t matter, or matters only under certain conditions, and that crimes against peace – “the supreme international crime” – are not crimes at all, except where other crimes occur.

May’s trite argument nonetheless stands on the shoulders of giants, heaved up and borne along by the US state leadership.

From core executives (Anthony Lake in “From Containment to Enlargement” and Zbigniew Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard) to policy intellectuals (e.g. Robert Kagan in “The Benevolent Empire”), corporate-endowed thinktanks and “sound” journalists, the US ruling elite is as one. Decline must be arrested by imperial expansion and power projection throughout the Eurasian heartland, from the eastern Mediterranean, through West and Central Asia, up to China’s western borders.

As part of this project, national sovereignty has been re-defined as a revocable licence, granted by the “international community” and enjoyed only at the latter’s pleasure.

Thus, in 1994, Bill Clinton introduced the concept of “rogue states”: outlaws that deserved none of the traditional privileges of international law. “Humanitarian intervention”, a European notion by birth, was soon hitched to this ideological wagon, and employed for NATO’s illegal 1999 war on Yugoslavia. (Coincidentally one of the great promoters of “the responsibility to protect”, Australian Gareth Evans – co-founder of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – is now ANU chancellor and an advisor to CAPPE.)

The G.W. Bush Administration, and its favoured policy intellectuals, extended this to include “regime change” of “hostile states”, in order to “secure and expand zones of democratic peace”, “deter the rise of a new great-power competitors” and “preserve American preeminence”. The 2002 National Security Strategy spoke of pre-emptive self-defence and “anticipatory actions”, in open defiance of established legal norms:

“Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat…We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.”

The emergence of blatant illegality at the heart of US state leadership wasn’t fortuitous, historically accidental, or contingent upon either Republican party allegiance or the personality of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or the neocons. The bid for strategic “primacy”, come what may, was instead the natural response of US state managers to gradual economic decline.

Thus the Obama presidency hasn’t produced the reversal of these arguments in favour of aggressive war, but their extension.

Obama’s Nobel Prize lecture, delivered in November 2009 in Oslo, argued deliberately against the terms of Kellogg-Briand, the Nuremberg principles, and for the right to wage war as a tool of national policy:

[The] instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace…[Contemporary challenges] require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace…There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified…To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

[Sometimes] the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace…Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy – but there must be consequences when those things fail.

So forget the stereotype of practiced irrelevance: our philosophers are right in the thick of things, slipping the velvet glove of “ethical guidance” over the mailed fist of the US elite’s open gangsterism. CAPPE already “addresses” the “morality of torture”; perhaps soon it will “engage” with Obama’s hit list allowing assassination of US citizens without due process.

Which ancient right will these brave thinkers seek next to conquer? Into what thickets of debasement and apologetics will their intrepid scholarly inquiries now lead?