To All Those Leaders Who Must Advertise Their Power

Driving in from the airport to the center of Tripoli, as you pass Pepsi-Cola Road and approach the old city, you see one billboard after another featuring Mohammar Qaddafi. He has different guises, depending on whether he wishes to be Col. Qaddafi in military uniform, or tribal Qaddafi in flowing robes, or religious Qaddafi in the turban and cloak of an imam. Overlooking the central square is Qaddafi the modernizer of Libya, sporting brownish-yellow sunglasses that might have been stylish in 1969 when Qaddafi first came to power in a military coup, but today give him the appearance of trying too hard to be young.

I wondered why there were no pictures of Qaddafi in a hard hat standing next to an oil rig. It is, after all, the miles and miles of oil derricks and refineries situated south of Tripoli, and at the edge of the great expanse of Saharan desert comprising most of the country, that give Libya its wealth and Qaddafi his importance on the world stage. Libya is a founding member of OPEC, and it was Qaddafi’s alliance with the Shah of Iran that spurred OPEC in 1979 to increase oil prices four fold. What the Shah wanted out of such an arrangement was wealth; what Qaddafi wanted was the attention of the West to the plight of the great mass of dispossessed Arabs ”“ the Palestinians. How ironic, therefore, that both leaders have met their end by ignoring a whole group of other dispossessed Arabs: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, and the powerless millions who toiled daily under the billboard visages of their ”œleader”.

Qaddafi Meets the People

I think we can pretty much speak of Qaddafi in the past tense. He squandered whatever shred of respect he still had from the people he ruled by mowing them down with machine guns this past week. His only hope for survival rests on some faction of the military willing to support him and suppress public demonstrations with whatever brutality is necessary. Even so, there is no guarantee that faction can stay in power, and certainly not without offering up Qaddafi himself as proof of their willingness to bring a new leader to Libya, flying a flag of ”œreform”.

How odd that it should be Col. Qaddafi who has fallen victim to a true revolution, not the phony revolution he talked about endlessly when he extolled the coup d’etat he and some other junior officers staged to oust old King Idris over forty years ago. Qaddafi did everything possible to be the perfect Arab ruler. He spoke up for the Palestinians and against the Israelis, he supported terrorist groups engaged in attacks against Israel and the West, and he behaved himself in public as a pious Muslim. There are rumors that alcohol can be had at some embassy private parties, but it is otherwise impossible to buy in Libya (until recently you could not buy a Coca-Cola, since Pepsi has had the soft drink franchise for years). There is not one pig in the entire country; it is an unclean animal. Qaddafi did his best to ward off a Muslim Brotherhood uprising by being more Muslim and more revolutionary than any who might challenge him on religious grounds.

What more, then, could the people want from him? Why have they been amassing this past week in public squares, taking bullets to the chest from snipers, allowing themselves to be run down by tanks, or strafed by fighter jets? Libyans have lived under this man for forty years. What is it now that provides them the courage to risk death in order to get rid of Mohammar Qaddafi?

The Longer They Rule, the Quicker They Fall?

People certainly can be shocked into action. It had to be a shock to the people of Libya to see within the space of a month the lifetime rulers of their neighbors to the west and the east of them both deposed because of civic demonstrations. Who would have thought you could get rid of someone like Hosni Mubarak merely by taking control of public spaces? Part of the shock must have been the realization that these dictators for life, holding in their hands all important social and political controls, and unafraid to use the most pernicious tools of persuasion, could so suddenly be prompted to give it all up and flee the country. Of course, to be accurate, everyone recognizes that the demonstrators didn’t really depose these dictators; they forced the military to withdraw support and deliver not so much a coup d’etat, as the coup de grace.

In Tunisia, the well-spring of these upheavals, the spark of revolution came from the self-immolation of a young man unable to find any job. This is a reality that resonates deeply with young men and women throughout the Arab world, and a common language allows them to shares their experiences from Morocco to Syria. A restaurant I like to frequent in Damascus is rather like a sports bar, with good pizza and several televisions available showing different football matches. Viewers are encouraged to text in their opinions of the match, and a scroll on the bottom of each screen shows who has just sent a message. It is an unending parade of Middle East countries: Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, etc. It is a reminder of how many Arabs are Egyptian, but also how connected the Arab world now is through Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, texting, social networks, cell phones, and so on.

This sense of being part of a larger Arab world is relatively new and clearly reflects the importance of technological advances in communications. It overcomes something that has always kept Arabs apart: the fact, for example, that Arabs in Syria cannot understand Arabs in Morocco or elsewhere in the Maghreb. The dialects are way too different. In fact, Syrians and Jordanians not only have trouble understanding their neighbors next door in Iraq, they can barely understand the Bedouins who live in the desert herding goats and sheep. Hardly anyone can understand the Egyptians because they speak too fast, and religious leaders can be incomprehensible when reading from the Holy Quran because it is spoken in the Arabic equivalent of Old English.

Written Arabic, the type used in emails, is what has bound young Arabs together in recent years, as has shorthand Arabic used in texting. What about the mothers, the taxi drivers, the professors, the small businessmen, the clergy, and the elderly who came out in the thousands to these demonstrations in support of their children? What was their motivation? It no doubt was sympathy if not empathy for those desperate for employment, but it also has to be frustration and perhaps desperation at the increasing difficulty people have in supporting a family in these countries. The most important components of family budgets in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are food and energy, both of which have increased dramatically in the past year, just at the time Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve announced he wanted ”œa little bit of inflation” to combat the global economic crisis.

The Rich Want Inflation, While the Poor Need Deflation

There are lots of other causes for rising commodity prices, such as material shortages, droughts, and growing demand in markets like India and China. But no other cause has one man’s name on it, and no other person has let loose a ravenous pack of hedge fund speculators, provided them trillions of dollars of ”œliquidity” with which to speculate, and protected them from losses. Bernanke has much to answer for, because it is very unlikely we would have seen these uprisings if he had allowed deflation to take its course. Deflation is the friend of the poor. The average Egyptian or Libyan has no concept of a bank account, because they don’t exist for the retail market in those countries. Poor people would not be hurt by a banking crisis, or a stock market crash, or a derivatives calamity, or a housing bubble, because none of these things directly affect their lives. On the other hand, basic necessities would go down in value under deflation.

The West is fearful of deflation because it undermines the whole concept of a fiat currency, which has brought growth through inflation year after year to the industrialized economies, even though the currency gets progressively debased as a result. Central banks always think they can keep the inflation growing at a modest rate, but along came Alan Greenspan and his protégé Ben Bernanke, who threw away any caution on the amount of currency in circulation, and who refused to acknowledge assets bubbles in the making. Maybe this is because the two of them looked about and saw the specter of deflation undermining all their work ”“ deflation brought about principally by China as manufacturing locus of the world, but any third world country with a work force willing to earn $2 a day could challenge Western supremacy at manufacturing.

At first it wasn’t clear whether Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iran or any of these countries facing challenges to the political status quo were part of the dynamic that was undermining living standards in the West. Now it appears that they were, just as it appears the West was horribly wrong on what ”œArabs on the street” really want. They do not see everything in the eyes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They aren’t obsessed over radical Islam and don’t want to be ruled by some imam or ayatollah living in the 15th century. No wonder Thomas Friedman is back in the Middle East trying to get his bearings again; if only he spoke Arabic he could, depending on the dialect he knew, talk to the people in the public squares and ask them what they wanted, rather than spend his time talking to people who graduated from Harvard and Oxford and travel to Davos every year in their private jet.

Is Anybody Really Listening?

Talking and listening to the real dispossessed Arabs would be at least a start for the West, even though the demonstrators and their millions of supporters can’t tell us yet if they want a parliamentary democracy, or a bicameral Republican government, or a constitutional monarchy, or even capitalism (don’t underestimate the appeal of Chinese mercantilism to countries new to the global market). The real question for the West, though, is whether the people running things want to talk to any of the dispossessed millions, even those in their own country. In the US, the Republican party leadership is doing as much as possible to ignore and marginalize the Tea Party voices newly-elected to Congress, just as Democratic politicians are trying to appear supportive of the Wisconsin demonstrators without appearing to offend corporate donors who don’t like unions.

This must be a time of great confusion for leaders everywhere. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak had taken to erecting billboards featuring his son Gamal as heir-apparent. In Jordan King Abdullah II replaced his billboard photo with one showing him side by side with his teenage son, the Crown Prince. It is an obvious attempt to familiarize the Jordanian public with their ruler-to-be, but is it having the opposite effect? Are people tiring of monarchies and dynastic rulers? If so, the Chinese seem to be a step ahead of the game, assuring that a new head of the Communist Party appears on the scene every few years. But if it is true, then Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is in trouble, and demonstrations should be occurring in Cuba and North Korea.

It is one thing for the West to see the backside of Mohammar Qaddafi, but quite another to have the Saudi monarchy overthrown. By what, and by whom? Would their oil reserves be secure and would Saudi Arabia remain a stanch friend of the West? In the Middle East, power in these situations is devolving so far to the military, but is installing another military dictator, however benign, going to satisfy the demands of the people? Can anyone satisfy these demands if people want to see the price of wheat, rice, chicken, cotton, sugar, petrol, and other essentials back down to where they were in 2009?

Nobody knows, which is precisely why leadership everywhere is addled and uncertain how to respond. What they should most fear, however, is someone who connects together the riots in Greece several years ago, the demonstrations in Iceland, and the events throughout the Middle East, with the protests in Wisconsin, and who then draws a picture which makes sense and which everyone can understand.

As People Come to Think They Are an Afterthought

The picture is not in focus yet, but the outlines are beginning to appear. They show a collapse of the world economic order because free trade was never free except for the wealthy at the top of the system, and because billions of people are discovering they have been enslaved in sweat shops, or enslaved to the banks through debt which can never be legally discharged. The picture is emerging of crony capitalism run rampant, of fraud perpetrated out in the open because it is never punished, of the sons of rich men like Rupert Murdoch anointed to run his business empire (even though it is a public company), just as the sons of dictators are given the divine right to rule and plunder a country. It is a picture in country after country of wealth, power, and privilege being concentrated in the hands of the few, while poverty spreads to millions.

As these depredations become clearer to the public, the powerful mumble bromides about the necessity for order and security, because they have no other answer. All they have left are the tools of control ”“ the curfews, the police surveillance, the arrests, the fear-mongering designed to convince the public their own safety should be the foremost thing on their mind. It has worked in the past, but maybe now the public is realizing the greatest risk to their safety is the government itself. Maybe this is what they wonder when they see the face of their government everyday on a billboard in a public square, or on the internet, or on the television news programs.

Government which works only for the interest of those who do the governing ultimately loses the consent of the governed. That is the point we now seem to have reached, whether in Tripoli or Dublin or Madison, Wisconsin. It is a truth being comprehended almost simultaneously by billions of people, and this is something that has never happened on a global scale before. We know it is a truth by seeing the bodies of Libyans on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, murdered by a government that clearly does not have the consent of the governed.

We would also like to believe that a government cannot last long if it does not have the consent of the governed, but the Middle East has proven this to be untrue. It does seem to be the case that the longer repression and tyranny goes on, the more sudden and unexpected is the collapse of such regimes. This has been so with the USSR and all such closed, one-party systems, and the Middle East is now experiencing its moment of revelation.

The ultimate question for democracies is whether they are immune from such upheavals, by virtue of merely being a democracy with supposed safety valves, or whether democracy has been so degraded by corporatism, oligarchy, and plutocracy that a sudden, wrenching change of the existing order is possible here too. At least for a democracy like the United States, where the two parties seem indistinguishable in their eagerness to provide corporations and the wealthy with whatever they demand, no one should be surprised if there is a wrenching change of the existing order. Let us hope it is a change within the existing structures of democracy, or perhaps better said, as a restoration of those atrophied structures of democracy long in disuse because the wealthy have found ways to achieve their objectives without bothering with the consent of the governed.

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Numerian is a devoted author and poster on The Agonist, specializing in business, finance, the global economy, and politics. In real life he goes by the non-nom de plume of Garrett Glass and hides out in Oak Park, IL, where he spends time writing novels on early Christianity (and an occasional tract on God and religion). You can follow his writing career on his website,

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • and heartfelt. Unfortunately, the rise in wheat and corn prices is really really due to shortage. The Russian drought, and now the Chinese drought, and now the devastation to the US winter wheat crop (from the massive storm that ran from Texas to Boston) has brought supplies in storage to record lows in terms of days of supply with no recovery anticipated. There is no financial, interest rate, futures, speculative short, solution to it. The problem is not finance.

    What is truly disconcerting is just how bad this seasons harvest is also likely to be, whether in China, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Russia, Canada, or the US.

    The Chinese drought is becoming epic, just as the floods in Australia, or the freeze across Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma that wiped out the winter wheat crops. We will be experiencing massive flooding in the Midwest and central united states, and also along portions of the east coast. Corn crops in Iowa simply won’t get in the ground this year.

    Oil is in the same position, simply not enough supply. It does not exist anymore at the day to day quantities being demanded. Price is over $100 a barrel again, TODAY! Kerosene is the product that impacts the developing world, along with wheat for bread, available wood. In Mexico it is corn, in China rice.

    Deflation does not impact the commodity pricing of a product in short supply. What it does do is devastate the developed world who would be in position to provide the necessary subsidy to alleviate the suffering in developing world economies. However, the long term positive of eliminating the dictators from the North African and Arab countries would help with these regions economic development. In the modern world the presence of a dictator in a country creates a choke point for development because these folks want to touch everything, approve everything, take their little payoff from everything. These regions could really experience some economic development. But I do not know what can be done about the shortage, grain, energy, metals, it is a truly endless list.

    I think 2011 will go down in history as the first year climate change really made its presence felt, in the one area scientists have long feared: food production. There is currently no region of the world that has been spared this time. Every storm will be wetter, every drought dryer, every heat wave hotter, and every cold spell colder. The lesson of climate change is it will be an intensity of extremes as the excess trapped energy wreaks havoc on weather. Agriculture needs a much much higher level of stability.

    I am sorry, but Ben Bernanke cannot change the weather. Not this time.

  • You may be right about 2011 being the year climate change is connected to limited food production. Time will tell but the year has not begun auspiciously. Why do you think the Republicans invest so much energy and “intellectual capital” in debunking climate change? Is it because they have become a quasi-religious organization that replaces reason and logic with theological argument? Can they get votes in denying climate change? Is global warming bad branding, leading people to ignore the fact that climate change is really about heat waves that are hotter, cold spells that are colder, as you have pointed out?

    While deflation causes definite problems for all countries, the world’s poor are much more impacted by inflation when it infects the food chain. They have no real assets to sell at inflationary prices, but they do have subsistence needs that have to be met despite inflationary prices. Deflation works for them in reverse, as a benefit, if commodity prices head down. This is why we heard of no protests during 2008 and 2009 when the CRB index was collapsing. I still think Bernanke, while he cannot change the weather, will get his share of the blame for commodity inflation.

  • You are partially correct, in that food is going to become in increasingly short supply.

    There is ample land to expand agriculture. There is no ample water for that land. The key to more food is more water for agriculture.

    It cannot be ground water, Ground water is in short supply, and as with all mined resources, runs out. Mining ground water either depletes the aquifer, or spoils it with salt water incursion.

    We have the sea. There are various technologies for sea water to fresh water production. There is a market for the salt that such a process produces.

    There are few, because there is perceived to be not enough profit in these ventures.

    Massive government investment? Investment, because governments invest in the commons.

  • and I believe it is time for the developed world (especially the US) to somehow cultivate something that is absent, a global perspective and a warm heart.

    You mention republican climate change denial. I hate to say it but I believe it is nothing more than the crass dependency the party has on oil money to fund their campaigns. The Koch Brother’s creation of an opposition movement, the astroturf Tea Party movement, and the purchase of statehouses all over the US is simply to provide them with a profits for their oil refineries and pipelines. Exxon simply wants to continue to pump oil. To the extent their advertising groups, or public opinion think tanks, can dress the language religious or whatever I don’t believe it matters.

    Every year delay is another year of potential marginally higher profits. When you look at the days supply of grain right now it is truly frightening. And you are spot on. The sad thing about climate change is that for the developed world, I believe, it will be experienced mostly as a nuisance. Perhaps 10% higher food prices, perhaps 15% higher clothing prices, or $4 a gallon gas.

    What is it for someone on Egypt living on $2 a day, when their $.50 loaf of bread is $.75. You are nailing this one so well. And you are right the US is ‘exporting’ inflation mainly through their dollar policy. But then they are also trying to revive manufacture from a recalcitrant China that has been underpricing its currency. This stuff is all over the map. I think the wiser strategy would still to maintain reclamation of manufacture, follow a weak dollar policy, keep deflation at bay, but institute an aggressive means of providing subsidy to the developing world.

    The wave of ‘potential’ democracy bodes well for North Africas long term development. They are just across the Mediterranean from Europe. Without the dictators they could really come to life.

    I don’t know how anyone who is actually trying to institute policy right now could wade through it all. Climate change, deflation, inflation, futures funds, weak recovery, population growth and the need for family planning, energy shortage, global migration of displaced people, Islamic fundamentalism, conservative denialism in the US.

    I mean it is all over the map.

    My anchors are

    1) Removing fossil energy from being a factor that can send the economy into recession. In other words, a rapid and total transformation of energy infrastructure off oil in all its forms.

    2) Getting unemployment down as quickly as possible. The fear and uncertainty factor makes governance to unstable. This argues for the weak dollar policy but that is too long term. There really should be a much greater public works project that kicks in any time unemployment rises above about 7.8% and does not allow unemployment to rise above that level. (Pie in the sky but unemployment is just too devastating).

    3) All pension and social security and medicare and medicaid commitments should be honored. To the extent cost curves can be bent, or adjustments made that take into account lifespan or productive work life or whatever. But taxation should not be off the table, making the right and proper investments are critical, better transparency. But to me cutting people off as they retire, are at their most vulnerable and have no ability to adjust and recover, is the highest form of evil there is. The folks lives need to be honored, and really can a police office really be expected to work until 70, or firefighter, or a construction worker, or electrician. It really bothers me how glibly the stat sheets are thrown around. There are limits, and it is the right thing to do to honor people who have worked and served their whole lives.

    4) The UN should be all about population stabilization, poverty reduction, and provision of happy lives for anyone born on the earth. I can’t think of any other mission for the UN.

    Don’t ask me how all this stuff fits together. It makes my head swim.

  • I am sorry, but Ben Bernanke cannot change the weather. Not this time.

    No, but the climate can change Bernanke.

    Geologically, and even in many cases historically, climate change has been the prime mover of upheavals and revolutions.

    All the social and political factors were already simmering. But drought and flooding, plus a few heatwaves and megastorms, has pushed the pot to a full boil.

    The response of the oil corporate types (Koch Bros, Exxon, etc)- basically to wage a propaganda war – will not be effective much longer.

    You can’t tell a starving man there’s plenty of food. You can’t tell a freezing family there’s plenty of cheap heat. You can’t tell a person who has been unemployed for a year there’s plenty of work out there.

    You can’t play enough stupid sitcoms, or hire enough paparazzi to take pictures of Kim Kardashian to keep people distracted forever. And they are bumping right up on those limits now.

  • The first part of March will bring the shutdown of the U.S. Government. I suspect that many of the dots will begin to be connected by large portions of U.S. Citizens at that time.

    “There are two types of folk music:
    quiet folk music and loud folk music.
    I play both.”

    Dave Alvin

  • 1. Won’t happen. Too many and too much vested interests.
    2. Won’t happen. The rich will not pay for massive public works.
    3. Won’t happen. The cash flow to maintain these has to come from the rich (higher taxes).
    4. The UN has not this power, because all it can do is persuade.

    The empire will collapse, as all empires collapse, and then a new system will arise. The underlying question is, Will it be better than the old?


    “If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs. The left’s naive, sentimental, middle-class view of “the people” blinds them to all of the malice and spite that is a major premise of Middle American life.”

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