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Aaron Swartz at Risk

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These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.
–Edwin Brock

Twenty-first century. As Matt Stoller shows, Aaron Swartz was killed by corruption. His destroyers were placeholders in a weak, vicious, and corrupt rentier state.

Immanuel Wallerstein describes such a state in World-Systems Analysis:

[W]hat does it mean to be a strong state internally? Strength certainly is not indicated by the degree of arbitrariness or ruthlessness of the central authority. … Dictatorial behavior by state authorities is more often a sign of weakness than of strength. … The weaker the state, the less wealth can be accumulated through economically productive activities. This consequently makes the state machinery itself a prime locus, perhaps the prime locus, of wealth accumulation—through larceny and bribery, at high and low levels. It is not that this does not occur in strong states—it does—but that in weak [e.g.] states it becomes the preferred means of capital accumulation ["savvy businessmen"], which in turn weakens the ability of the state to perform its other tasks. … In states that have raw materials which are very lucrative on the world market (such as oil [or some forms of intellectual property]), the income available to the state is essentially rent, and here too the actual control of the machinery guarantees that much of the rent can be siphoned off into private hands.

Sound familiar?  For our rentier state then, siphoning rents on intellectual property into private hands is central to mission. Swartz stopped SOPA because his mission (or vision) was radically different:

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

Which is what Swartz did, and for which he was punished. (empty wheel points to the procedural sloppiness of the charges, but that’s hardly the point when a rentier’s rice bowl is broken, and weak states are lousy at law anyhow.) 

This isn’t a post about intellectual property rights, so I’ll merely present an example of the good that Swartz’s vision can do. As is well known, Swartz wrote the spec for RSS (Really Simple Syndication). At age 14. And so:

RSS changed our lives

I need to let the people who knew and loved Aaron know that his work changed my son’s life for the better, forever.

Diagnosed with autism at age 2, My son’s best help came from the RSS feeds and papers that I could get access to that offered the truth and science about autism. Every morning I read the RSS feeds from academic journals world wide to find out more about my son’s regressive autism, fragile X premutation (which is only known in scientific academic circles) the MTHFR gene and new and critical treatments. Because of his work I was able to find out about UC Davis, about current scientific treatment, and research studies to get us this treatment. My son is now four and his is doing great… BECAUSE of the scientific information I had access to. I have an MLIS. I interned at Elsevier. I have seen all sides of the academic pay wall and I have felt my ignorance around my neck like a boulder, at great cost to my son’s health. But Aaron, you helped us. Thank you. Until we see that the populace will never be scientifically aware UNLESS we have access to the information we will not be able to go from a people of belief to a people of ideas [not a bug].

In other words, Swartz helped this woman and her son by removing information from the grasp of rentiers. That’s what “open access” means, operationally.  (See also on PACER, where Swartz provided open access to the law.)

I would now like to dolly back from Swartz’s views on open access, and show how three overlapping lethal systems, each one structured for its own corrupt purposes by our rentier state, narrowed his life chances by piling on risk factors, and set him up for an untimely death. First, I’ll look at the health care system, then at health in the tech community, and finally at health in the technical activist community. In each system, Aaron Swartz was at risk — or the nature of our current arrangements in political economy put him at risk.

Risk Factors from the Health Care System

As Swartz wrote in “How to Get a Job Like Mine”:

Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the right genes: I was born white, male, American.

Unfortunately for Swartz, he should also have chosen to be born in a different generation: My own, for example. Check out this chart from the New York Times:

Clearly, we are failing millions of our young people — of whom Swartz, 26, was one — in the most basic way imaginable, by shortening their lives! Of course, I don’t claim that there was a linear relation between Swartz’s death and health care he would have gotten under a humane system, had he needed it (although depression, though often treatable, is hard to treat). What I do claim, and what the chart shows, is that Swartz, because of his age, was at risk of dying younger than I will (drawing me into collusion as a rentier, come to think of it; I didn’t do anything to this life chance). And of course, our system of health-care-for profit is both uniquely profitable and uniquely bad at delivering health, dominated as it is by health insurance companies — rentiers — who contribute no value to any of the transactions in which they participate, and who have corruptly used the power of the state to entrench themselves (shocker, I know). I’d also note that suicide* is a problem our health care system seems unable to address.

Risk Factors in the Tech Community

Zooming in to civil society, Swartz was not the only tech genius to commit suicide**. Two examples; see if you can find a common factor with Swartz.

First, Ilya Zhitomirskiy (22). His project was Diaspora:

Instead of creating a central database like Facebook’s, where information about hundreds of millions of members is stored and mined for advertising and marketing purposes, their idea was to develop freely shared software that would allow every member of the network to ‘own’ his or her personal information. 

Second, Len Sassaman (36). His project was Mixmaster:

Len Sassaman, [was] a highly-regarded 31 year-old cryptographer who helped create secure communication systems. … The former engineer for Anonymizer, which obscures a user’s IP address, was a well-known “cypherpunk” who maintained the open source Mixmaster remailer software. The Mixmaster protocol was designed to protect against traffic analysis and offer users a way to send email anonymously.  Sassaman’s work focussed on ‘attacking and defending anonymous communication systems, exploring the applicability of information-theoretic secure systems for privacy solutions, and designing protocols which satisfy the specific needs of the use case for which they are applied’, according to his profile at the computer security and industrial cryptography research department of Belgium’s Leuven University. 

Before you ask, Sassaman, like Swartz, suffered from depression, and Zhitomirskiy was bipolar. However, if you look again at their work, you will also see that both men had an additional risk factor in common with Swartz: They too were directly assaulting the interests of rentiers with a vision of open access, Zhitomirskiy with the radical notion that users should own their own data (the nerve!), and Sassaman with the equally radical notion that people should be able to communicate without having their own byte streams monetized.

Adding to the risk factors for Swartz in the tech community, entrepreneurs suffer massive stress — and Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, was an entrepreneur. From commenter debasishbera in a long thread at YCombinator, the entrepreneurial incubator:

As a startup owner I feel like I am a sinking man and each floating wood chip around is a hope – Learning to float between moving from one wood chip to other is the key to me.

I guess I will fail that day when I will conclude that I am too tired of trying (not really, really tried — and still failed).

I don’t believe “The truth is … that it takes a special and lucky person”. The truth is we need one or two hands on our shoulder and someone to stand during the darkest hours and say “darkest hours are always before the sun comes”

And a final risk factor Swartz shared with other tech entrepreneurs is being on the wrong side of the law (however righteously). From a long thread on Reddit:

Most people should check out just how most people in Tech start out their careers. Every person I know that starts a successful company, has to do illegal things at the start. Why? Because being legitimate isn’t profitable for a small business in the US… you cannot make it through the first year without skating that line.

In other words, corruption is part of the bootstrapping process, beyond the corruption imposed by rentiers. I could tell a story about my entrepreneurial grandfather, but Steve Jobs is a better example. The “blue box” is a device, back in the analog days, that was widely used for making free—and illegal—phone calls. “Open access” again:

[Jobs] told me about how the blue box article had inspired him and Wozniak. How they’d taken down the cycles-per-second of the tones AT&T used to translate phone numbers into audio signals, some of which I’d disclosed in the article, and how they’d found the others in some obscure technical journals and had begun building their own blue boxes, hoping to sell them on the underground market. (Gamblers and mobsters liked to use them to keep their communications outside the system.)

Mobsters? Well, alrighty. Today’s Steve Jobs would have been thrown in jail and tortured by solitary confinement: No Apple! (But as Wallerstein says, weak states aren’t really about economically productive activities.) I’m not equating Swartz’s community service-level offense with being mobbed up, but pointing out that getting on the wrong side of the law is yet another tech stressor, and hence a risk factor for anyone fragile (not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Steve Jobs).

Risk Factors in the Activist Community

Zooming in to Swartz’s associates, friends, and family, we find additional risk factors when the power of the state*** was brought to bear on him. Stoller explains:

Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or … you are bankrupted and destroyed. … Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice. … [T]he person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street.

And such an additional stressor — and I’m sure there were many others besides this one — put Swartz at risk. Quinn Norton’s howl of pain:

We were destroyed by the investigation, and by enduring so much together in the five years of the difficult love affair of difficult people. In the end he told me he needed to get away from me. I let him go, and waited for the day he’d come back. I knew that one day we’d have a day to be together again, though probably not as lovers. Together, as something that doesn’t have a word. He went on to another relationship, and I know he touched her like he did me, because that’s how he touched people.

Conclusion

I don’t have the right word for the way that the rentier state zeroed in on Swartz until he cracked: How it piled a rentier-directed health care system on top of a rentier-optimized technical ecology on top of a rentier-driven justice system. But perhaps I have a metaphor: The Salem Witch trials, where those convicted by the justice system of that time were “pressed” to death with stone after stone after stone:

Depression.

Oppression.

Repression.

Simple, direct, neat.

However, I am hopeful because I believe that our state acts as it does because it is weak, not strong. And I expect to have a way to use the cold and burning anger I too feel in the service of justice.

NOTE *,** If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, do, please, seek help (for example). Multiple asterisks for emphasis!

NOTE *** Ortiz was a leader in collecting fines for lawbreaking:

Ortiz and her office have won attention for taking on a number of high-profile cases, including the ongoing murder prosecution of notorious mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Her office also announced in December that it was the largest contributor to the $13.1 billion in criminal and civil fines recovered  in 2012 by the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s offices. Ortiz’s office collected $8.8 billion during the fiscal year, accounting for almost 67 percent of the total collection.

These cost-of-doing-business fines are corrupt, as Yves points out. They are the precise equivalent of shell game operators passing the cop on the beat a fiver while they continue to rope in the shills. Ortiz is, as one would expect, a rising star in the Democratic party, and she’s not spending more time with her family. Yet.

NOTE *** One very, very obvious thing the left should be seeking to redress is the different life expectancies shown in Chart 1. Single payer health care would be of great help to the Aaron Swartz’s of this world who are still alive. And we shouldn’t be fighting merely to “save” Social Security, but to make the benefits age neutral. How the elites must laugh among themselves for having inveigled us into selling out our own children!

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57 comments

  1. LAS

    The chart has a built in bias because it only shows the survivors, not the average life-expectancy of the entire cohort. This has the effect of making the older cohort look a lot luckier than the younger and things are not that simple. IMO this approach nullifies your arguements.

    Not that I think fighting corruption, etc. might not be a factor in the man’s life. It’s just that your arguement is half-baked and therefore unhelpful. We have to do this a lot better.

    1. Yves Smith

      No, there is evidence that the younger men suffer worse outcomes on a relative basis and that may turn out to be on an absolute basis:

      The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a troubling book-length report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, that dug deeply into various studies and statistics of mortality for the year 2008, and came up with some uncomfortable conclusions—uncomfortable particularly if you’re male and under fifty: not only do Americans live less long than their counterparts in the developed world, but much of the damage happens at a younger age (more of that in the next post).

      http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/wolf-richter-how-americans-stack-up-in-dying-from-violence-war-suicide-and-accidents.html

      1. LAS

        Yes, Yves. I am reading the Institute’s document, too, and it is excellent. The Institute’s document is driving toward indictment of policy as a cause for non-stellar outcome in the USA despite all the money spent. But that is not a simple demonstration and they certainly will NEVER say that it is a simple and sole cause. A lot of other factors contribute and have to be controlled for. Not least among these is age.

        I was criticizing the support used in the essay. It uses the wrong kind of data to argue the point it wants to make. In epidemiology, there are multiple ways of presenting age data and/or controlling for age. Some of it is life expectancy at each age and some of it is cohort information, among other possible ways of presenting. I believe this is incomplete cohort information. This was trying to make a point about age cohorts while using life expectancy at each age; that doesn’t work for me.

        I share the goal, but not the particular presentation made here. The Institute of Medicine is much more convincing in what they say.

          1. LAS

            Age is a complex topic in epi. (1) The older one is the greater the risk of dying from most all causes. Your average 73 year old man is at higher risk of dying than your average 26 year old man. (2) The cohort or time period in which one is born and ages along with carries with it certain traits of the period. This would be like the tendency to have been vaccinated for small pox in older generations but not younger ones. In some populations it would mean perhaps exposure to war or famine, or more perhaps – the exposure to certain chemicals of the time like DDT or lead paint, etc. (3) Each population is also somewhat older or younger than other populations, and epidemiologists need to adjust for this, too, before making cross country comparisons.

    2. Francois T

      “The chart has a built in bias because it only shows the survivors”

      Several lines of evidence also point in the direction of worse outcomes for younger people. Think diabetes type 2, which is being diagnosed earlier and earlier in life. And let’s not talk about the fact that 1 in 5 youngsters live below the poverty level in this country, that the socio-economic mobility is getting far worse than it’s ever been in several generations, that the income inequality KILLS ( a fact that NO MSM outlet dare even mention, let alone analyze, despite serious studies indicating this fact) etc. etc. etc.

      You’ll have to do much better than that!

  2. wERD

    Why are people not going after Ortiz? This person is a bully and their actions led to someones death. In this crazy society we live in I see on the news all the time people being changed with crimes for bullying that leads to death. Look at the Rutgers student that barely did anything but got charged with a crime when his gay roommate committed suicide. Charge Ortiz with manslaughter.

    1. jonst

      Why are people not going after Ortiz? Because most of the people, are clueless, incapable of grasping, never mind analyzing, the issues here, or, support the powers that be as a default reaction? On all issues. Because there are a very few, an ‘important’ few, that understand what happened here, and enthusiastically go along with the IP regime? And much more importantly, because they enthusiastically go along with the, ever expanding, IP enforcement regime our noble leaders are cooking up? Because IP owners pay better?

      1. different clue

        It is true that most people are clueless, many for very good reason . . . worn out from grinding work every day, no consumption of info-sources outside the MSBM, indoctrinated psycho-cultural resistance to getting a clue or accepting one, etc.

        But if one percent of a nation of 300 million people are clueful, that would be 3 million clueful people. And if another few million are clue-getable if this information is injected into their information streams, that would be anywhere up to 10 million clued people. If 10 million clued people pooled their ten million separate desires to Make! Ortiz! Pay! and then figured out through clue-sharing platforms on several best ways to Make! Ortiz! Pay! . . . could those ten million clueful people Make? Ortiz? Pay? Raising the mere possibility is the first step, surely.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, the Cossacks work for the Czar. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out. That said, reading between the lines on the MA story, Ortiz (Hispanic, female) was being groomed for higher office and now she’s had to put that off. Not enough, but something.

  3. curmudgeonly troll

    I agree with the gist. However, I’m compelled to point out that writing the spec for RSS after someone else wrote a working implementation is more a task of documentation and clarification than of invention. And while he negotiated co-founder status at reddit as part of a merger and made a significant contribution, he was there less than a year and left with some bitterness and the remaining people wrote him out as a co-founder. He comes across as a fragile figure dissatisfied with the status quo and himself, who had a knack for alienating otherwise well-meaning people, and who started a fight he couldn’t finish. That being said, those who went after him should be examined and held accountable for a fateful miscarriage of justice. The petition to remove the US Attorney has a lot of momentum –
    https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I’m not sure how many standards you’ve worked on? A working implemenation is one thing; and an industry built around the standard is quite another. Your view seems a little software-centric to me.

      1. ChrisPacific

        Agreed. To give another example, HTML didn’t become the seminal technology that it is now because it was such a great markup language. (It’s not).

  4. dcblogger

    Heymann was told that Swartz was a sucide risk, but he did not care because Heymann had already driven one hacker to suicide, and since it had no consequences for Heymann, Heymann did not care. Now it turns out that Swartz is more dangerous dead than alive. Heymann’s career is about to take a big hit.

    That is the problem with our kleptocratic government, they are incapable of empathy. Unless something is shown to have negative consequences for their personal career they could care less.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Splendid. Up the food chain:

      BOSTON — A lawyer who formerly represented Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz on hacking charges said Monday he told federal prosecutors about a year ago that Swartz was a suicide risk.

      Swartz, 26, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his New York apartment Friday.

      Andrew Good, a Boston attorney who represented Swartz in the case last year, said he told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was a suicide risk.

      “Their response was, put him in jail, he’ll be safe there,” Good said.

      A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined comment.

      “We would like to respect the family’s privacy,” said Christina DiIorio-Sterling. “We don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss the case at this time.”

      NTOE I call that “We would like to _______” The Beltway Subjunctive. “They would like to,” but that doens’t mean that they, in fact, do. Weasels.

      1. nonexistential little-ease

        Killing Swartz will be a resume-builder for Heymann and Ortiz, like torture, a sign of the kind of placid sadism that helps you get ahead in totalitarian states. This criminal state will have more and more dissidents to kill, and state functionaries will increasingly have to go beyond chilling and deterring them with routine state terror. The NCS disappearance gulag of secret prisons like Benghazi and the 72 hours they get to make their captives beg for death – that’s the US judiciary in its purest form. Whatever it takes, this state has got to go.

    2. reslez

      they are incapable of empathy. Unless something is shown to have negative consequences for their personal career they could care less

      You make them sound so abnormal. Perhaps they are merely human.

      “Human beings see oppression vividly when they’re the victims. Otherwise they victimize blindly and without a thought.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

  5. Middle Seaman

    Aaron Swartz suffered from depression. It is a terrible disease that killed many young people. Certain medications and therapies help some depressed individuals, but there is no magic bullet. Blogs and media should make the depression catastrophe much better known than it is.

    What the government prosecution did in the Swartz case is not necessarily corruption. It way worse than corruption. Our whole justice system fails to maintain any level of moral decency. The system is vengeful, harmful, unequally applied and serves the careers of prosecutors rather than the people.

    Whether Swartz was killed by prosecution is an assumption that cannot be verified. Aaron Swartz death is a huge tragedy for his family, friends, the country and the world. Yet, reports and commentary should be factual.

    1. jrs

      Shwarz being killed by prosecution can’t be verified absolutely, little in this world can (we’d have to know his thoughts right at the time at least). However that attempts to negotiate fell through a few days before he killed himself does point to that.

    2. different clue

      I think it is very fair to say he was suassassinided. And not just by “corruption” either. He was suassassinided by particular persons against whom legal and lawful revenge may be exacted within the letter of the law.

  6. Paul Tioxon

    Aaron Swartz killed himself, just like a young Tunisian man, Mohammed Bouazizi killed himself. After a brutal confrontation with the authorities. You don’t have to look far away anymore for the dehumanized oppressed. The prisons of America are stuffed to overflow capacity. The people, young and healthy, with the promise of the future based on skill, education, are slapped around by the uncertainty of no jobs at all, much less burger flipper status. The uneducated are slapped around by cops and street thugs. It’s the plague again. There is so much dire need, there is no priority, no place to start. And any sliver of hope even for few randomly assisted by chance favor, need to be helped with all the energy we can muster.

    Who Killed Aaron Swartz? Why and what reason for? It is not enough to demand justice, because the forces that diminished his humanity, to the point of self liquidation, continue to oppress us each and all. And whatever point of human weakness this plague settles upon, can kill as surely as if the cross-hairs of assassins were deployed.

    1. from Mexico

      Why can’t the “justice” department pursue the FIRE sector crooks with such zeal?

      Because, as Lambert points out, “Cossacks work for the Czar.”

    2. pws

      Those are their friends and the people who are going to give them good jobs after they finish their “public service.” Even Obama himself is expecting some kind of lucrative “no show/no work” position after he “graduates” from being President. (Why do you think he took the job? Some great vision for the future of America that has yet to present itself?)

      Think how awkward the cocktail parties would be if they did anything effective against our worst criminals!

  7. from Mexico

    Intriguing post, because it raises the questions: “What is a weak state?” “What is a strong state?”

    Some, and there is a long and illustrious tradition of thought here, believe the ability of the state to inflict violence upon its citizens is the measure of strength. Accordingly, Nazi Germany and Stallinist Russia would be the quintessential strong states. And if the ability to inflict violence on the people is the gauge of strength, then the United States and Mexico also have strong states, because in both cases the police (and in Mexico also the military) kill, mame, persecute, harass and imprison citizens with impunity.

    There is an alterate theory, however, of what constitutes a strong state. According to this theory, a strong state is one which has the popular support of the great majority of its citizens. Using this as the gauge, Mexico has an extremely weak state. The United States has a stronger state than Mexico, but it is certainly not as strong as it was in the 1945 to 1975 era, and is growing weaker by the day and at an astonishing pace.

    The weakness of the Mexican state became obvious after former president Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug Cartels in 2007. The state, with the full backing and massive financial and tactical support of the United States government (drones now fill the airspace of Mexico in an attempt to monitor the drug cartels), declared war on the cartels and unleashed a wave of violence like hasn’t been seen in Mexico since the 1960s. And yet the drug cartels won the war, hands down.

    So what happened? The drug cartels certainly do have a great deal of firepower, and are equally as indiscriminate and arbitrary in using it as is the US’s neoliberal client state in Mexico. But is it greater than what the combined US and Mexican governments can muster? I think not. I have thus come to believe that the cartels have more legitimacy, more popular support than the US’s neoliberal client state does. They are thus stronger and more powerful, even though they are outgunned by the state, a fact that has become clarion over the past 6 years.

    The reasons for this I believe are economic. What the neoliberal state offers a great many Mexicans is starvation. What the cartels offer is a job, an escape from starvation. The risks to cartel employment may be high, but they pale in comparison to the fate of slow starvation at the hands of the US’s neoliberal client state.

    1. The Heretic

      I concur with your assessment. In fact Sun-Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ discusses strength of an opposing nation in Chapter 1 or Chapter 2… In his assessment the benevolence and trust that exists between the rulers and the people is a better measure of strength of the nation than its military strength. In fact, military assessment was his last consideration, not the first.

    2. Minh

      Using the definition of public state and deep state in this interview Conversations With History – Peter Dale Scott by UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies, it seems to me that the more ambitious part of the officialdom would automatically (without even being asked to) promote the interest of the deepstate, which has demonstrated its prowess for more than 12 years now. Aaron Swartz was just a victim (even uninteded) of that imbalance of the deep state and the public state.

      1. from Mexico

        Peter Dale Scott published another book in 2010 called American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan which is oft cited by Mexican politilogues because it shows how closely integrated the Mexican drug cartels are with the transnational banks.

        Also, there is substantial evidence that at the same time the United States’ public state is fighting its war on drugs in Mexico, the United States’ deep state has thrown its full support and backing behind the Mexican drug cartels. This is an alternate explanation to mine as to why the Mexican drug cartels have been able to overpower the combined efforts of the Mexican and US public states. In his interview Scott indicates that the drug cartels spawned by the United States’ deep state in Afghanistan did not have popular of the Afghani people, but were purely the creations of the US deep state.

  8. Systemic Disorder

    Immanuel Wallerstein is quoted above as writing: “[W]hat does it mean to be a strong state internally? Strength certainly is not indicated by the degree of arbitrariness or ruthlessness of the central authority. … Dictatorial behavior by state authorities is more often a sign of weakness than of strength. … The weaker the state, the less wealth can be accumulated through economically productive activities.”

    Agreed. But another key aspect of World-Systems theory is that the global capitalist system requires a strong center to hold it together — and that is the role of the U.S. It’d be a stretch to say that extracting domestic rent is the primary route to economic wealth in the U.S., however much I agree with the main arguments regarding IP (which I do). Because it is the dominant imperialist center, the U.S. has to be a strong state and prop up the whole rotten edifice.

    As the financial center has moved from Amsterdam to London to New York, there was a new dominant power emerging. Now there is no successor to the U.S. (let us not get carried away with China, which is built on sweatshop labor dependent on foreign multi-national captial). What will hold the system together if the center decays? Certainly rent, in the first place monetizing ever more of our lives and calling it IP, will be one short-term solution.

    I am not denying that this process is not already well under way, nor denying that people like Aaron Swartz are paying for this with their lives. But a powerful U.S. state power is still very much alive and will be with us for some time yet unless a very strong international movement arises. That means many millions of bodies in the streets, but, yes, it also means liberating information.

    1. pws

      As states go, the United States is a Curate’s Egg. Parts of it are excellent. (Parts of it have fallen into Hell.)

      Eventually it will reach critical mass.

  9. LucyLulu

    Even those who didn’t agree with Aaron’s actions seem to agree this was a clear case of prosecutorial overreach, that the punishment far exceeded any “crime”. I had never heard of Aaron Swartz prior to his death, but for some inexplicable reason, I feel a profound sense of loss, that we have lost somebody special.

    Larry Lessig, Aaron’s friend and mentor at Harvard, comments on July 20, 2011:

    “An indictment is an allegation. It states facts the government believes it can prove. It isn’t proof of the facts. It is one side in a dispute.

    Even if the facts the government alleges are true, I am not sure they constitute a crime. There is considerable uncertainty in this area of the law. Many wonder about the quick conversion of terms-of-service into criminal prosecution. But that’s a question the courts will ultimately have to resolve.

    Nonetheless, if the facts are true, even if the law is not clear, I, of course, believe the behavior is ethically wrong. I am a big supporter of changing the law. As my repeated injunctions against illegal file sharing attest, however, I am not a believer in breaking bad laws. I am not even convinced that laws that protect entities like JSTOR are bad. And even if sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate, even then the disobedient disobeys the law and accepts the punishment.

    That, however, begs the question of the appropriate punishment. I can’t believe Aaron did this for personal gain. Unlike, say, Wall Street (and what were the penalties they suffered?), this wasn’t behavior designed to make the man rich. Nor, if the allegations are true, was this behavior designed to interfere with any of JSTORs activity. It wasn’t a denial of service. It wasn’t designed to take any facility down.

    What it was is unclear. What the law will say about it is even more unclear. What is not unclear, however, to me at least, is the ethical wrong here. I have endless respect for the genius and insight of this extraordinary kid. I cherish his advice and our friendship. But I am sorry if he indeed crossed this line. It is not a line I believe it right to cross, even if it is a line that needs to be redrawn, by better laws better tuned to the times.”

    http://mediafreedom.org/2011/07/statement-%E2%80%9Cfree%E2%80%9D-guru-larry-lessig-should-condemn-the-alleged-actions-of-aaron-swartz/

    And here he again comments, three days ago:

    “(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)

    Since his arrest in January, 2011, I have known more about the events that began this spiral than I have wanted to know. Aaron consulted me as a friend and lawyer. He shared with me what went down and why, and I worked with him to get help. When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend. Not a good enough friend, no doubt, but nothing was going to draw that friendship into doubt.

    The billions of snippets of sadness and bewilderment spinning across the Net confirm who this amazing boy was to all of us. But as I’ve read these aches, there’s one strain I wish we could resist:

    Please don’t pathologize this story.

    No doubt it is a certain crazy that brings a person as loved as Aaron was loved (and he was surrounded in NY by people who loved him) to do what Aaron did. It angers me that he did what he did. But if we’re going to learn from this, we can’t let slide what brought him here.

    First, of course, Aaron brought Aaron here. As I said when I wrote about the case (when obligations required I say something publicly), if what the government alleged was true — and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then — then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

    But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?

    Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. (bolding per Lucy) MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

    Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

    Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

    For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

    In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

    Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

    One word, and endless tears.”

    http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully

  10. Rasmus Xera

    You know what the biggest “risk factor” in Aaron Swartz’s life was? His knowledge of the world around him: about politics and history and world affairs, and the motivations and incentives that drive us in today’s society.

    How does someone who has a strong sense of justice come to terms with a world which is so profoundly immoral – one which consistently rewards the worst of human behavior, while either ignoring or outright punishing the best? How can one continue to remain hopeful that things will change for the better, when nearly everything in our history speaks to the contrary? Not everyone is a Carl Sagan or a Howard Zinn who manages to find the optimism to carry on for a lifetime, all the while staring these horrors directly in the face.

    And for Aaron Swartz, when everything he had learned about civilization from Uruk all the way to Washington DC came to bear on him in the most personal way, what was he to think? When he was being punished for a victimless ‘crime’, and at the same time war criminals and Wall Street thugs were given the highest of honors, how could this be anything other than an affirmation of everything he knew?

    Those who refuse to forsake morality for personal gain simply have no place in our society.

    But we don’t want to see that. We don’t want to consider that maybe we are the defective ones, able to continue living under conditions that deny our collective humanity, and euphamize away the gravest of atrocities. That maybe it’s only because we close our eyes, or escape into other realities, that we’re able to cope with a life that often makes non-existence a more ethical choice than existence.

    1. Guabin

      Your comment, excellent as it is, is even more depressing when we witness the plight of hopeful, less talented youngsters with sizable college debt and limited opportunities who do still try against all odds, and that cynical disregard of problems of entrenched unemployment, inequality and the specter of poverty facing many in the middle class.

      Your last paragraph seems to explain the escapism into corporate sports and reality TV for survival, given the public examples made of those who dare challenge immorality and corruption, and dare do so vocally. Which would explain the reason for “But we don’t want to see that…”

      That Munch Scream does come to mind.

  11. cripes

    This story reminds me again how vigilant we must be to remember there are real evil actors in this society that must be identified and stripped of their power to cause harm to others.

    That “we” are not all equally responsible for economic, environmental and military destruction. That most of us, even westerners who marginally benefit from trans-national explitation and wage differentials, are unwilling subjects and victims of a system that we have little to no control over. The left is full of pious sermonizers exhorting us to be the change, as if the Ortiz’s of the world will come to their senses and stop their crimes. It’s an irresponsible delusion.

    “Yes, it’s vital to make lifestyle choices to mitigate damage caused by being a member of industrialized civilization, but to assign primary responsibility to oneself, and to focus primarily on making oneself better, is an immense copout, an abrogation of responsibility.”

    1. Aquifer

      ” …we must be to remember there are real evil actors in this society that must be identified and stripped of their power to cause harm to others.”

      Well, if “we” aren’t responsible for anything else, are “we” at least responsible for making sure that this is done?

      What are “we” responsible for, in your calculus? Nothing? Are we just all fated forever to be “unwilling subjects and victims of a system that we have little to no control over”?

      This doesn’t sound to me like something Mr. Swartz would subscribe to ….

      1. different clue

        Different we-s have different levels of responsibility here.
        Surely you don’t mean to say that an unemployed illiterate janitor (of whom there are many) is as “responsible as the government suiciders who engineered Mr. Swartz’s suassassinide?

      2. cripes

        How do you know what Aaron Swartz would say? Or that I wrote assuming (like you) to represent what he thinks? I didn’t.

        I am saying that the amorphous “we” that many dopey leftists invoke for being “responsible” for war and economic despoilation serves mostly to DILUTE responsibility to the point that no one is being held responsible.

        I’m not responsible or benefitting from the correctional gulag, or the sub-prime scam, or the war(s) in southwest Asia. Get it?

        1. Minh

          Like Bill Clinton, let’s ask what is the meaning of the word “responsible”. You’re not responsible. It’s by definition. You just don’t want to. Nobody can force that responsibility on you. You must feel like it.

          Aaron Swartz wanted to defeat SOPA and PIPA. They were defeated for now. Very few people got angry about that. But their “implied” opinion counts.

  12. bob

    Ortiz’s office is also in the middle of the “whitey bulger” trial, or trying to get to it. If you want a lesson in strong arm, top to bottom corruption, there is no better story.

    I wouldn’t doubt that Schwartz being prosecuted was to “get another story in the news”.

    Just to be clear, Bulger has lots of dirty laundry on the FBI and the DOJ. He claims he was granted blanket, perpetual immunity by the FBI. Lots of people in Boston, and DC, don’t want this guy any where near a courtoom.

  13. EverythingsJake

    Underlying all of Lambert’s excellent points, access to the internet itself should be free (or regulated to be relatively low cost) since its development was taxpayer funded in the first place (Chomsky in particular notes regularly that he watched it being developed on the government’s dime at MIT).

  14. Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.

    It is tragic what happened to Aaron Swartz. I only hope that the few who are awake in this United States of Amnesia will honor him by never forgetting him. That is the least we can do for this brave and gentle soul.

    As far as the so-called “justice system” of this country, which caused Aaron Swartz to commit suicide, let us not forget how this same system treated Bradley Manning. This is not a justice system – it is a barbaric system of legalized torture and murder. However, I would like to add that while the progressive’s reaction of indignation at Manning’s treatment was appropriate, their silence over the years regarding the same exact treatment received by tens of thousands of inmates across the US is inexcusable. Yes, every day, tens of thousands of inmates (mostly mentally ill) are held in solitary confinement (called SHU – Special Housing Unit) sometimes for decades without interruption. Many of them are kept naked in such SHU cells while female staff stare at them. They are kept without a blanket or pillow in the cell, while air conditioners are set on near-freezing. There are either no beds at all in SHU cells or the “beds” are made of concrete. Why haven’t progressives such as Amy Goodman or Thom Hartmann spoken against such treatment of inmates across the US before the Manning issue?

    And let us be clear here about one other aspect: the so-called Ivy League schools and “top” schools such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Institutions such as MIT are criminal organizations owned and controlled by the US war-making machine. MIT made billions from the drone business, and the blood of Aaron Swartz is just a drop in the ocean of blood MIT has on its hands. MIT has the blood of thousands of men, women, and children that have been murdered with MIT-designed drones by this Nobel Peace Prize laureate we have here pulling the trigger. MIT has the blood of millions of Iraqi and Vietnamese civilians whom were killed with MIT-designed weapons. Let us call this what it is: MIT is a criminal, genocidal institutions. What do you say to that, Mr. L. Rafael Reif, MIT criminal in chief?

    Regarding the US health care system, my question is, “What health care system?” This country has no health care system. It has a “sickness plunder business.” It is a criminal, Mafia-style extortion operation which kills almost 50,000 people annually and maims millions. That is what this is. Let us make one thing clear: the US so-called health care system has absolutely no redeeming qualities. It is just pure, unadulterated evil and greed. And, by the way, for those who have not yet examined Obamacare, I suggest you start putting money aside – lots of money — because your insurance premiums are going to double in the next 2 or 3 years, and your coverage is going to get even worse (if that can even be possible). But now, my friends, YOU will have to buy this product, or else, because Obummer sez so. My advice: don’t get sick. But if you are stubborn and insist on getting sick, you better die quickly in order to save your family some much needed cash to bury you (don’t forget, the average US burial costs $10,000).

    Finally, the US education system. Again, my question is, “What education system?” Have you met any recent university/college graduate lately? They are total morons. Complete idiots. They know nothing when they start as freshmen and know even less upon graduation. I have taught at many universities. This situation is generalized.

    Considering this, I say, “Let the Hunger Games begin!”

    Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.

  15. Mark Erickson

    “depression, though often treatable, is hard to treat”

    What does that mean? Sure, things that happen often can be hard, but in the context of depression treatments – talk therapy and medication being the first steps – it makes no sense.

  16. A Friend of Peter's

    FOR ALL WHO DARE TO DREAM OF A CARING WORLD. We are all touched by these souls whose lives are shortened by their experiences with ‘the law’.
    .
    Peter McWilliams had a different, yet similar experience in his lifetime. He was a well-loved poet, author, speaker, photographer and more. He was an early loud proponent of Medical Cannabis, and the Feds hung him out to dry with their treatment of him. He died June 14, 2000, because he was not allowed to use the healing herb which could help him.

    All of his books are available online, I think for free.

    http://www.mcwilliams.com

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_McWilliams

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