The SunHerald newspaper, located in south Mississippi, carried a small story recently that has far-reaching implications for the capitalist economy and democratic rights. The multinational corporation Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of aerospace and military equipment, opened a new centre in Mississippi devoted to the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), popularly known as drones. The SunHerald article was gushing over the vast commercial and investment opportunities for Mississippi, and stated that spending on UAVs is estimated to increase over the next decade from $5.9 billion annually to $11.2 billion. The article focused on the opportunities for corporate profits, ignoring the terrible human toll that UAVs have taken during the US imperial wars abroad.
Drones are becoming well-known as instruments of warfare, and the Obama administration has expanded their use dramatically. While UAVs are primarily used in the US military conflicts overseas, their use for civilian purposes, such as monitoring US borders, the surveillance large tracts of real estate, surveying people and wildlife from the sky, and a host of other commercial and law enforcement purposes.
Unmanned aircraft have become a weapon of choice for the Obama administration. Their use in US imperial wars predates the Obama era, having been used first in 1995 in Bosnia. Remotely piloted aircraft were used by the Bush-Cheney regime in their invasion of Iraq in 2003. Predator drones have flown surveillance missions, gathering information about targets on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military began to use armed pilotless aircraft soon after 2003, and have been using them with devastating effect in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and now over the skies of Iran and Syria.The Israelis have used both unarmed and armed drones in their various wars in Lebanon.
Drones are equipped with state-of-the-art computer technology, such as infrared and live video cameras, heat sensors and radar. They can upload vast amounts of data, even eavesdrop on electronic media, wi-fi networks and mobile phone conversations. While the reconnaissance capability of the drones is vital, they can be armed with Hellfire missiles and have rained down lethal force on their victims.
They are the feature weapon in covert wars the US has conducted in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries. Since the Bush-Cheney regime resorted to open, conventional warfare that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties, Obama the ‘anti-war’ president, has increased the use of UAVs as a form of covert warfare. Obama did order and carry out the assassination of US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The latter was a radical Islamic cleric who was never charged with any crime, or brought before any court of law. Awlaki was killed in a Predator drone strike.
Awlaki preached an extremist, hateful brand of Islam, we were told by media outlets. If preaching hateful religious rhetoric is an offense punishable by death, one wonders why Obama has not dealt with other vitriolic religious demagogues in the United States, whose homophobic and hate-filled rants reach millions of listeners – like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Junior, Jim Bakker, John Haggee and Jimmy Swaggart in similarly stern fashion.
US imperial wars expanded
Obama has expanded the Afghanistan war into Pakistan through the method of drone strikes. Pakistani civilians have been bearing the brunt of this aerial warfare, and Obama only publicly acknowledged such warfare in Pakistan earlier this year. The Afghanistan war, while started by Bush-Cheney regime, has now escalated into the ‘Af-Pak’ conflict thanks to the Obama presidency. The terror drones – because that is what they are – have also claimed the lives of those other dangerous people – rescue workers and attendees at funerals. Such killings of civilians have been occurring since May 2009, according to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. At least 2413 civilians have been killed in Pakistan so far because of drone strikes. These atrocities are emblematic of the Obama era of covert warfare.
Drone warfare has been going on in Somalia at least since June 2011. In a country racked by political instability, economic breakdown and lawlessness, drone strikes are the last thing that will bring a stable, unified, democratic society. But the aim of the Obama administration is not to implement meaningful democratic changes, but to expand the reach of US military and economic interests. The US has been conducting covert military operations in Somalia since 2001, but drone warfare has increased civilian casualties, radicalising a whole new layer of people turning them into potential recruits for extremist groups.
Journalists are increasingly bringing the issues of unmanned drones to the attention of the public. Even that exemplar of journalistic integrity, Fox News, pointed out that Obama authorised the use of armed drones in Libya in April 2011. Obama had been at great pains to emphasize that the United States took a ‘back seat’ in that conflict. The initial rationale for NATO intervention in Libya was that of humanitarian intervention, the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ and the safety of Libyan civilians under threat from former leader Qadhafi’s forces. Then Defence Secretary Robert Gates rejected suggestions that authorising drone warfare was a form of mission creep – a stealthy expansion of war aims from the initially stated justification. The ‘humanitarian’ rationale was exposed as a complete lie when NATO forces, using their aerial warfare capabilities, carried out the wholesale destruction of the town of Sirte, an act of collective punishment that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. The senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara, wrote that the initial justification for NATO intervention in Libya turned out to be false.
Expansion of drones into the United States
In mid-February 2012, Obama signed the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act (2012) preparing the way for the use of UAVs in the United States itself. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune carried a story warning that US citizens should get ready for US drone flights in their home territory. While the bill’s passage was couched in terms of upgrading the air traffic technology in the country, this bill paves the way for a robust expansion of a police state in the United States. Drones will now be used to conduct high-tech surveillance of the population, collect information about their movements, monitor any individuals or groups that are of interest to law enforcement authorities, and can intercept electronic communications. Multinational corporations like Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, all lobbied heavily for the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organisation of activists, lawyers, political analysts and concerned citizens, is disturbed by the growing impact of electronic media on democratic rights. The EFF filed a lawsuit in January 2012 against the FAA which seeks full disclosure by the FAA about the use of drones for domestic purposes. The EFF noted that the market for unmanned aerial vehicles is rapidly expanding, and more companies are investing in UAV technology. The Teal Group corporation, an aerospace company, published a report in 2011 reviewing the world market, cited by the EFF, which states that the outlook for UAV technology is very positive, and predicts that worldwide UAV research and development expenditures will increase over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $15.1 billion.
George Monbiot, veteran journalist and political commentator stated it plainly in his column that the US drone war is a coward’s war. The more that we can distance ourselves from the immediate, lethal and tragic consequences of warfare through computerised warfare, the less accountable we are and further desensitized to the plight of the victims of imperial wars. Warfare using PlayStation-like technology makes us all avoid any obligation to explain or justify our actions, let alone apologise for the ruinous consequences.
Meanwhile the rest of the US economy….
While the Obama administration and its corporate supporters are hailing the commercial opportunities posed by the UAV industry in the United States, his administration has done nothing to prosecute the Wall Street racketeers and financial parasites that caused the 2008 global financial meltdown. The very people that made billions through financial speculation and wildly inflating finance bubbles, are back making money while the rest of the US economy stagnates. People for instance, like Greg Lippmann, a former trader at Deutsche Bank, has returned, making millions buying up securities that are based on mortgages – the very practice that contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown. An article that appeared in the New York Times explains that bonds backed by cheap mortgages are ‘regaining their allure’. The article states that:
The attraction is the price. Some mortgage bonds are so cheap that even in the worst forecasts, with home prices falling as much as 10 percent and foreclosures rising, investors say they can still make money.
Lippmann is just one example of a trader who bought up collaterised debt obligations (CDO)s during the speculative housing bubble, just before it imploded. He started his own hedge fund which speculates on mortgage-backed securities – recreating the conditions that lead to the last crash. So the bankers who swindled billions in the financial sector, and then were bailed out by the US government, are once again in a position to continue their reckless and socially destructive financial practices.
It is hardly surprising that such practices can continue. The position of the Wall Street parasites only demonstrates the utter political bankruptcy of both the Republican and Democrat parties in the US. Obama is ruling to advance the interests of a narrow financial oligarchy. The role of monopoly finance capital, as elaborated by the contributors of Monthly Review, is still apparent in the US. John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology and editor of Monthly Review, wrote back in December 2006 that the US economy has reached the stage of monopoly-finance capitalism, where all sectors of the economy are dominated by giant multinational corporations. His article was included in a volume called ‘The Great Financial Crisis’.
Professor Foster has documented the financialisation of capitalism, which consists of the increasing, and now predominant, mode of economic activity being financial speculation, the sale of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, derivatives – making money out of speculating on making money. Not only are financial bubbles created, but they become whirlpools of speculation, to use the famous phrase by John Maynard Keynes. The beginnings of the financialisation of capitalism can be traced back to the 1970s, when the global capitalist system entered a period of long stagnation. Investment in productive activities has declined precipitously since then, but trading in ‘financial products’ has boomed, especially since the early 1990s.
Rather than invest in productive enterprises, the main economic activity became investing in financial speculation – insurance, stocks and bonds, credit swaps. Back in December 2006, Professor Foster wrote that given the massive growth of financial speculative bubbles, it was not difficult “to envision a meltdown of truly earth-shaking proportions”. But somehow, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 2000s, when asked about how the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s escaped his attention, stated that he ‘did not see it coming’.
The imperial wars of the United States have been redesigned, rather than ended, by the Obama-Clinton regime. Rather than a casino economy based on ever-increasing corporate profits, the enormous wealth of the financial speculators and playgrounds of the wealthy elite need to be expropriated. An economy based on meeting basic human needs is urgently needed.