European Union, drones and economic crises – capitalism is melting away

There has been justifiable outrage over the recent revelations that the American National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting massive surveillance and spying of online data, emails, social networks, and collecting information from various private companies to spy on the activities of millions of people. The perceptive American commentator Glenn Greenwald has been extensively documenting the ‘bulk spying’ activities of the NSA. Greenwald, like other writers, draws the conclusion that all this surveillance of online communication is contributing to the construction of a police state. We must redouble our efforts to prevent such a martial-law state from occurring, as our civil liberties are undermined in the midst of the worst economic crisis of capitalism since the 1930s Great Depression.

However, it appears that the European Union is drawing different conclusions from the deteriorating economic circumstances. Russia Today reports that the level of government debt in the EU zone has reached an all-time high of $11.4 trillion. This has occurred in spite of the stated purpose of the austerity measures to lift struggling European economies out of the capitalist crisis. As the Russia Today article explains:

Greece has 160.5 percent debt, and Italy, the block’s fourth largest economy, is burdened by 130.3 percent in debt. Portugal has 127.2 percent and Belgium’s debt climbed to 104.5 percent of GDP.

‘Bail-out’ states, those which have, or are currently receiving financial aid from the European Commission and International Monetary Fund to rebuild their economies, have some of the highest debt.

Europe has remained mired in recession, and Germany and Austria were the only two countries to not shrink economically in the first quarter of 2013. While the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are contemplating further cutbacks to social spending and slashing workers’ wages, there is one area where the European states and banks are willing to spend, in order to boost profitability; drone warfare and spy satellites.

The European Commission is currently considering a proposal to buy up a fleet of spy drones, satellites and the full panoply of spying machinery to boost its capacity to surveil and respond to what the European powers regard as threats to their power. As Russia Today reported, the European Union wants to acquire the full range of spying and defence capabilities provided by drones, a course of action documented in the proposal called “A New Deal for European Defence.” In the foreword written by European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani states, Europe is undergoing a serious economic crisis, and thus needs to adopt new strategies to meet the new challenges of the future.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, stated back in September 2012 that:

The world needs a Europe that is capable of deploying military missions to help stabilise the situation in crisis areas…

Barroso went on to frame this mission to deploy as part of an overall ‘humanitarian’ project, to bring human rights, and fair play into regions of the world that need it according to the European imperialist states.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso

The European Commission presents its proposals to the European Council meeting which then deliberates on matters of European security. This is not the first time that the European Union has been considering buying drones and spy satellites; the European Commission has put together a number of proposals to produce as well as acquire drones and satellites. Russia Today quotes from a report that the European Commission drafted back in 2012 that evaluated the options for deploying spy drones, or what they call remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) across Europe:

“The European Commission has long identified the potential of this emerging technology and supported the market by investing in research and innovation relevant for RPAS through the Framework Programme for Research. A broad stakeholders’ consultation has demonstrated the necessity for action at EU level, setting as priorities the further development of RPAS civil applications and the integration of the systems into the European air space as soon as possible…”

The discussion in the European Commission centres on whether Europe should manufacture its own drones, or buy them from other countries, or perhaps adopt both measures.

These proposals are all being justified as a response to the revelations by former NSA employee Edward Snowden that the United States has engaged in massive internet surveillance and collection of data. European officials surmise that the Edward Snowden revelations demonstrate that what is needed is not greater transparency and accountability, but that Europe needs its own autonomous security and spy networks. What is not explained is how the existence of extensive spying by one power, the United States, can be countered by escalating the scope and range of spying and surveillance by other imperialist powers. Surely the scaffolding of a police state is being erected by the European Union to provide greater propensity for the ruling classes to attack the living standards and conditions of workers across Europe.

The European powers are no strangers to mass surveillance. Germany was operating closely with the NSA, providing data and access to the NSA to gather information on its citizens. However, the German authorities realised that they, along with other European nations, were themselves the targets of NSA spying, and scaled back their cooperation. Now, Europe is intent on building and acquiring its own mechanisms for state spying. The acquisition of drones indicates that the European imperialist states are not only intending to spy on their own citizens, but are also contemplating expanding their global ambitions to intervene in their former colonies in Africa and the Middle East. The Europeans have long bristled with anger as the United States has invaded other countries and imposed its economic priorities in areas once considered a haven of European influence.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a French version of a neoconservative – sent French troops to quietly and decisively intervene in the former French colony of the Ivory Coast to topple the government of that country. France has never really let go of the Cote d’Ivoire since formal independence in 1960. Current French President Francois Hollande adopted his neoconservative political direction by sending French troops into the former French colony of Mali in January 2013. Using the tired old canard of ‘humanitarian intervention’, Hollande sought to portray the French invasion not as an assertion of French colonialism, but as a rescue mission to save a failing state from takeover by enemy militias. As Roger Annis explained the background to the Mali intervention:

The public relations version of the French et al invasion is a familiar refrain. “Islamic terrorists” and “jihadists” have taken control of northern Mali and are a threat to international security and to the wellbeing of the local population. Terrible atrocities against the local populace are alleged and given wide publicity by corporate media. Similar myths were peddled by the war makers when they invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

It is true that Islamic fundamentalists have ruled northern Mali with an iron hand since taking over in 2012. But the reasons for this latest intervention lie in the determination of the world’s imperial powers to keep the human and natural resources of poor regions of the world as preserves for capitalist profits. West Africa is a region of great resource wealth, including gold, oil and uranium.

France has never forgotten its “Francafrique” ambitions, maintaining a systematic and complex network of relations with its former colonies. This political and economic conglomerate is becoming ever more indispensable as the French economy crumbles under the impact of the ongoing capitalist economic crisis. Acquiring drones and spy satellites is part of the escalating overseas ambitions of European colonialism to re-establish itself as a military power in its own right and assert its control over the resources and markets of Africa and the Middle East.

Make no mistake – in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the European powers were prepared to inject billions of euros into the failing financial system, the banks and the bank accounts of the financial speculators, in order to keep the decrepit capitalist system going. Shifting the cost of the crisis onto the working people, exerting downward pressure on wages and removing the social gains of the past decades – this is the strategy of the European bourgeoisie. Restructuring the whole of society for the benefit of a financial aristocracy in Europe is on the cards. The destruction of social services and benefits for workers is accompanied by ramped-up militarism overseas and ever-intrusive surveillance and spying domestically. We must ask ourselves if this is the path that we wish to take.

Broken genius – the case of William Shockley

William Shockley (1910-1989) was a remarkably talented physicist, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a pioneer of research into semiconductors, the materials which comprise the building blocks of semiconductor electronic components. He was the co-inventor of the transistor, the invention that amplifies and switches electronic signals. The implications and applications of the transistor were immense, washing over the fields of electronic communications, computing and general electronics. It is safe to say that without the transistor, the modern electronically-based age would be impossible. Shockley, along with his co-inventors and fellow physicists, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. While Bardeen and Brattain were the ones that directly worked on the research that led to the first point-contact transistor, Shockley was their supervisor at Bell Laboratories, the leader of the solid state physics group, and his semiconductor theories and research work paved the way for Bardeen and Brattain. The transistor replaced the outmoded and inefficient vacuum tube, and boosted the field of electronics tremendously. It is no exaggeration to say that today, nearly every home in the industrialised countries has countless transistors, applied in various forms of electronic machinery. The transistor led to integrated circuits, and then the ubiquitous microprocessor. The latter, combined with the computer, made possible the exponential growth and application of computers to nearly every branch of industry, from finance to telecommunications.

Shockley’s achievements were not limited to the field of electronics; he did important work for the United States military during World War Two, applying his immense mathematical knowledge to the war effort. He worked on a team that calculated the statistical improvement of air power, and advised the US Air Force on how to increase the efficiency and accuracy of its bombing campaign. His work also influenced the US Navy to better target the menacing German U-Boat, the latter engaged in harassing North Atlantic trade between Britain and the United States.

Shockley’s post-World War Two start-up company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, provided the basis for a group of scientists and researchers that seeded what  is known until today as ‘Silicon Valley’, the home of the largest computing and technology corporations. Two of the scientists that Shockley employed went on to found Intel Corporation, today the largest manufacturer of microprocessors based on semiconductor technology. Shockley recruited the electrical engineers and physicists that form the core of the companies that began in the Santa Clara Valley, Northern California.

But if Shockley is remembered today, it is not for his work on the transistor. From the 1960s onwards, Shockley became an outspoken advocate for racial eugenics. Shockley was hardly alone in proposing a genetically-based definition of human intelligence. He was certainly not the first to attempt classifying people into distinct, biologically-determined categories called ‘races’ and endow them with social and behavioural attributes. But Shockley was not just anybody – he was an outstanding scientist and inventor, winner of the Nobel Prize. Venturing out of his field, he proposed that intelligence was largely determined by heredity, and that heredity was reflected in racial categories. The US has a long history of applying the pseudo-science of eugenics, and applying policies on that dubious basis, such as implementing immigration restrictions. In the 1960s, racial theories, and the associated biological determinism that regards the variety of human behaviour as having a genetically-determined foundation, was under attack from the rising civil rights movements, the growing anti-Vietnam war campaigns and the increasing student radicalisation on campuses. Equality between the so-called ‘races’, an assertion of African-American, (and native American) identity and dignity found their reflection on universities through the opening of research departments and courses teaching the history and philosophy of racism, African-American history and literature, colonialism and anti-colonial struggles.

In this charged environment, Shockley, whose stated concern was the quality of human life, steps up and expresses the viewpoint that the reason African Americans consistently score lower on IQ tests is because they are not as genetically-endowed with intelligence as their white American counterparts. He stated that the ‘less intelligent’ were multiplying, and this condition threatened the quality of the human race. Proceeding from his insistence that intelligence is genetically determined, and that races are immutable categories, he was concerned about the ‘retrograde’ effect of allowing the lesser-intelligent stock out-breeding the mainly white, cognitive elite.

Shockley was never an out-and-out Ku Klux Klan-style white supremacist, but his views about the racially determined categorisation of intelligence in humans crashed against the intellectual currents of the 1960s and 1970s. He was absolutely convinced that the future of the human species could be improved by stopping the ‘imbeciles’ from breeding. Shockley was proposed what he called ‘raceology’, the study of races and their inherited intelligence.

Shockley was met with vociferous protests, his colleagues shunned him, he was ostracised by the scientific community, and attacked by student groups whenever he spoke on university campuses. In the early 1970s, a group of students at Stanford University burned Shockley in effigy. The anthropologists and cultural theorists wrote articles attacking his pseudo-scientific theories, and even biologists and geneticists were criticising his racialist views on intelligence.

How did such a prominent scientist, a pioneer in his field and respected, winner of the Nobel Prize, have such a dramatic fall? That is the subject of a fascinating biography of William Shockley by Joel Shurkin. The book is called ‘Broken Genius: The rise and fall of William Shockley, creator of the electronic age’. Shurkin does not engage in a straightforward demonisation of his subject, but rather attempts to understand why such a successful and prominent scientist could fall from grace so publicly and remain unaware of the impact of his views. Shurkin is an articulate writer, and he offers a vivid portrait of the man and his milieu. When the book was published back in 2006, Shurkin was interviewed by the ABC’s Radio National. Shurkin had access to Shockley’s personal archives and diaries, and speaking during the interview, described Shockley as follows:

He was a nasty old man. One of his friends actually described him as having reverse charisma; he would walk into a room and you instantly took a disliking to him. He was, at one time, a young man, a nice young man, not a particularly lovable young man. He was, among other things, extraordinarily bright, brighter than anybody he’d ever run into and he knew it, he was a bit arrogant about it. He lacked socialisation, his parents were, let’s say eccentric, kept him out of school until the 8th grade, so he grew up not knowing how to handle and deal with other people.

Shurkin, taking advantage of the Shockley diaries, portrays a man who was remarkably intelligent in scientific and technical matters, but sorely lacking in social and people skills. Shurkin details the struggles of Shockley’s subordinates who frequently bore the brunt of his criticism and stinging attacks. Shockley was a brilliant man, but lacked what we would today call emotional intelligence. In fact, the core team of scientists that Shockley recruited for his company eventually got so exasperated and frustrated by Shockley’s authoritarian and overbearing managerial style, that they all basically left his company and founded their own ventures which led to the formation of Silicon Valley. Shockley referred to this group of scientists as the ‘traitorous eight’. Shurkin details the attempts by Shockley’s employees to find a compromise solution, to work out their differences – all to no avail. Even Shockley’s Nobel Prize co-winners, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, sensed that Shockley harboured a certain jealousy or animosity that they had directly worked on the research for the first transistor, even though Shockley’s contribution as the overall project leader is obvious and cannot be denied. Brattain and Bardeen had increasing difficulties dealing with Shockley when they were at Bell Labs, even though, as Shurkin documents, the two of them stated that ‘there’s enough glory in this for everybody’.

Shurkin, an outstanding science writer, admirably details the scientific technicalities of semiconductor and transistor research, while also conveying the complexities of the nature-nurture debate with regard to human intelligence. He examines the responses of other psychologists and anthropologists on the ‘gene-versus-environment’ controversy, a debate that still resounds to this day. Sadly, Shockley’s views invited attacks as a racist and ignoramus in the field of biology. Psychologists and biologists currently regard the controversy as outdated, and speak of the interaction between genes and environment. We realise our nature through our nurturing environmental influences. Shockley, by advocating such genetic-determinist views on race and intelligence, seemed like an atavistic throwback, to a time in America’s history when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (particularly Jewish immigrants) were screened out because of their alleged intellectual inferiority to the superior Nordic races. Shockley’s technical brilliance in opening up the field of semiconductor research was overshadowed by his pronouncements on race. Shockley’s scientific reputation was corrupted, and his considerable achievements were largely forgotten in the maelstrom of controversy about his racial views. Shurkin avoids the temptation to dismiss his subject as a lunatic, but rather attempts to identify the trajectory that Shockley followed from public admiration to condemnation.