In Venezuela, an Unfair Vote, or Democracy for the Many?

February 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Vladimir Lenin used to say that there’s no all-inclusive democracy that serves all people and all classes equally. Democracy is a class affair, serving whichever class has state power. Talking of democracy in the abstract, of pure democracy, or democracy above class, is a mistake.

This follows a Marxist critique of capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracies are, according to some Marxists, democracies for the capitalist class, the fraction of the one percent that includes major investors, titans of finance and captains of industry who derive their income from the exploitation of others’ labor (which is to say through rents, profits and interest.)

This doesn’t mean that members of this elite control the outcomes of elections, but they do exercise outsize influence over them.

For example, its members own, and have control over most of the media, and hence are in a position to shape public opinion.

There is a sense too in which they own and have control over most of the politicians. By virtue of their great wealth, they are the major contributors to political campaigns. What’s more, they’re able to entice politicians to act in their interests by promising them lucrative jobs when their careers in politics are over.

They’re also able to extort electoral outcomes by stirring up fears that voting for parties that are against their interests will cost people their jobs. This is done by threatening to move investments to friendlier jurisdictions if a party is elected that is against their interests.

Also, people who work for private businesses—a substantial part of the electorate in capitalist democracies–may fear that openly campaigning for anti-capitalist parties will put their jobs at risk. As a consequence, they’re cowed into remaining on the political sidelines.

Additionally, the superrich can foster allegiance to parties of private property by using their vast wealth to buy the hearts and minds of voters.

And then there’s the ultimate assurance that the interests of the economic elite will be safeguarded against the danger of their parties losing an election: the intervention of the military.

For all these reasons, elections in capitalist democracies—while they may be deemed free—are heavily stacked in favor of the class of financiers and owners of major enterprises who use their dominant economic positions to influence the outcomes.

Despite this, the view that democracies are always democracies for the class in power is not widely held. And the analysis remains, for the most part, foreign to large parts of the organized left, as well. Instead, the dominant view is that as long as there are two or more parties to choose from, and the state remains neutral, elections will be fair and independent of class.

Do capitalists believe this nonsense? Not at all. Always conscious of themselves as a class and acutely aware of their position and power, captains of industry and titans of finance recognize that if they are knocked from their perch at the top of society, the chances that their parties will prevail in electoral contests are vanishingly small. In a democracy for the many—what in Marxist terms might be called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—they haven’t a chance.

To make my point, I cite Jose de Cordoba’s February 14 Wall Street Journal article on Venezuela’s general election, scheduled for later this year. Cordoba presents a class conscious analysis to declare that the upcoming election will be free but unfair, unfair because the electoral advantages normally enjoyed by the top one percent are, this time, all on the side of the bottom 99 percent.

These advantages derive from the control that the many of Venezuela have over state-owned enterprises, state-owned media and the military, through their representative Hugo Chavez and the United Socialist Party he leads.

Cordoba notes that control of the state gives Chavez “many advantages over Mr. Capriles,” the scion of a wealthy family who will contest the presidency in October on behalf of the united opposition—and who, if elected, will reverse Chavez’s majority-friendly reforms in favor of restoring ownership of the economy and control of the state to the privileged few. According to the Wall Street Journal reporter these advantages include:

• “Control over most mass media.”
• “Access to billions of dollars…to buy the hearts and minds of poor voters.”
• Stirring “the widely held fears” that a vote for the opposition will cost public servants their jobs.
• The fears of employees of state-owned enterprises that “they would lose their jobs if they were identified as opposition voters.”
• Intervention “in the elections (by the military) if the president were in danger of losing.”

Part of this is speculative. We don’t know if the military would intervene to rescue a failing Chavez election campaign. But significantly, these are the very same advantages that the capitalist class enjoys in most capitalist democracies. Cordoba, as far as I know, has never complained about the owners of capital enjoying parallel advantages in other elections, so why complain about the other side enjoying the same advantages now?

The reason is because democracy, as it operates in capitalist countries, is supposed to benefit the capitalist class. It shouldn’t act in the interests of the many–and usually doesn’t.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Capitalist democracy didn’t prevent Chavez from being elected president. Still, a coup did follow.

Once the media and schools, the economy, and the military are brought under public control by a party whose allegiances lie with the exploited many against the exploiting few, democracy becomes authentic, and is no longer a means for the superrich to use their money power to buy the outcome.

All the same, it may seem to those in whom the idea has been instilled that democracy is above class that Chavez’s advantages are unfair. But consider the alternatives.

If not public control over the media, then private control by the wealthiest citizens, who can shape public opinion to suit their interests.

If not public control of enterprises, then an effective dictatorship of private owners over the economic (and therefore also political) lives of the many.

If not a military politicized to safeguard the interests of the exploited many against the exploiting few, then a military politicized to safeguard the interests of the exploiters.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t agitated because October’s election in Venezuela won’t be an exercise in democracy in the abstract. The newspaper and the class that owns it and on whose behalf it speaks is agitated because democracy in Venezuela is becoming what it was always meant to be: rule by the many—not a democracy of the few.

Getting Perilously Close to Truth about US Foreign Policy

February 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

It started off promisingly enough. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Scott Shane wondered why “the drama unfolding in Cairo” seems “so familiar” if “the United States, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches [is] the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy.”

Shane never arrived at the obvious explanation: that the United States isn’t the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy. But he came close.

He touched on some of the more egregious examples of Washington’s dictator-backing: Batista in Cuba; Mahammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran; Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (whose “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process” then US vice president George H. W. Bush conjured out of a vacuum and then shamelessly praised.)

“The list could be extended,” Shane admitted, to “at least a couple of dozen despots” since World War II alone.

Rarely does the New York Times acknowledge that the United States has a long record of backing dictators, all right-wing and not a few fascist (though the Times brushed over the political character of the dictatorships the US favors.) On the contrary, the newspaper’s accustomed practice is to reinforce what “so many presidents have said in so many speeches”: that the country’s foreign policy is guided by the core US value of spreading democracy.

The reason may be that there is no way the United States can plausibly continue to back its three-decade-long paladin in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – and the continuation of Mubarak’s regime by his heir apparent Omar Suleiman – and still invoke pro-democracy rhetoric to justify its support (though secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who talks of Suleiman overseeing a transition to democracy, is game to try.)

With US hypocrisy laid bare, the follow-the-flag New York Times has had to make a concession – to truth, at least a partial one.

What Shane concedes is that the United States has values and interests, and that circumstances often conspire to keep the two from intersecting. But that’s as far as he’ll go. Admitting that the United States has “interests” which don’t always align with its “values” comes dangerously close to the truth. But if you follow what Shane has acknowledged to its limit, and ask a key question, dangerously close becomes dangerously there.

Go where Shane fears to tread. US values and interests sometimes conflict. Okay, fine. But when they do – and here are the dots Shane fails to connect — US values take a back seat. In other words, what’s important in US foreign policy are not the country’s values, but its interests.

Okay, but what are its interests? R. Palme Dutt once observed that the idea that countries have interests in other countries was an abomination of geography and democracy. How could the United States have interests in Egypt? Do Egyptians have interests in the United States, to be enforced by shipping billions of dollars to a dictator to hold the interests of US citizens in check, subordinate to their own? If so Americans would surely call this imperialism, rather than failure of values and interests to align. If Egyptians said that they really valued democracy, but that other considerations were senior, Americans would say that Egypt’s commitment to democracy was rhetorical. It’s the other considerations that really matter.

According to Shane, Mubarak has served US interests as “a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism,” by maintaining “a critical peace with Israel,” as “a bulwark against Islamic radicalism” and in promoting “a trade- and tourist-friendly Egypt.” Shane’s New York Times colleague Mark Landler sums it up this way: Mubarak’s regime protects US strategic and commercial interests.

Commercial interests are, of course, business interests, and more specifically, big business interests. They aren’t directly the interests of the bulk of US citizens, nor in many cases do they represent their indirect interests either. An investment by US investors in an existing Egyptian business profits the investors, not other US citizens. A call center set up by a US firm in Egypt to take advantage of low-wage labor benefits the US firm’s wealthy shareholders – many of whom are not even US citizens — while putting downward pressure on US wages and exporting jobs abroad.

In other words, the business interests that Mubarak and other US-backed autocrats protect on behalf of the United States are not the interests of most US citizens, but of an upper stratum of investors, bankers and wealthy shareholders whose sole loyalty is to their bottom lines. The interests of average Americans hardly matter. Indeed, in many cases, their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the investors and shareholders US foreign policy represents (as in the export of jobs).

And who’s footing the bill for the billions of dollars in military aid Mubarak’s regime receives? Given the low corporate tax policies the US government pursues, and the corporations’ skill at minimizing the taxes they pay, the answer is average Americans, not the direct beneficiaries of US foreign policy.

It’s worse. While it might seem that big business interests aren’t the only interests guiding US foreign policy – after all, there are strategic interests too — strategic interests really boil down to the interests of big business. US foreign policy makers weren’t opposed to what they called “Soviet expansionism” because they valued “democracy” but because they valued nearly limitless exploitation of labor, which expanding Soviet influence would have pared back. The problem with Islamic radicalism isn’t that it offends Western values (even if it does), but that it inspires regimes that place national interests above those of US oil companies. Arab peace with Israel is desirable because Israel is beholden to Washington to act on its behalf to prevent an Arab pan-nationalism that might see oil-rich countries balk at domination by US oil interests.

So what of US values? We’re supposed to believe that US policy-makers value liberal democracy, even if they’re willing to place profit-making interests first. But if big business interests win out over liberal democracy when the two collide, what Washington really values – if value is to have any meaning at all – is profit.

It’s like this: I say I value literature, but I always toss my books aside whenever someone turns on the TV. And I never miss an episode of Cribs. So, where do my values really lie?

The significance of this might seem all the greater if it is realized that none of this is bounded by foreign policy. Embracing liberal democracy where it doesn’t conflict with the naked pursuit of profit applies equally in the domestic sphere as well. The readiness of US policy-makers to trash civil liberties in the Red Scare years following the Bolshevik Revolution — when capitalists cowered at the thought of socialist revolution spreading around the world (with little justification it turned out) — attests to this. Civil and political liberties also took a beating later on when fears of spreading Soviet influence also seemed to threaten the capitalist system and the wealth and position of those at the top of it.

As for the democracy Washington is prepared to embrace, it looks good on paper, but comes up short in practice. Washington-friendly democracy is not democracy in its original sense as the rule of a previously oppressed class (the rabble), but democracy of the currently dominant class, the capitalist rich. True, democracy of the kind cabinet secretaries and editorial writers rhapsodize about appears to provide equal opportunity to all to influence the political process, but the reality is that the wealthy use their money to dominate the process through lobbying, funding of political parties and candidates, ownership of the media and placement of their representatives in key positions in the state.

How many cabinet secretaries in Obama’s administration held top corporate jobs and will return to them when their sojourn in Washington ends, replaced by other corporate luminaries who travel in the same circles, sit on the same boards of directors, and whose children go to the same schools and intermarry? The art of politics in capitalist democracy, to paraphrase a key Labour politician of the past, is to enable the wealthy to persuade the rest of us to use our votes to keep the wealthy in power.

Democracy, then, is not a core US value – and it is not, on two counts. First, the democracy Washington embraces isn’t democracy in any substantial sense, but is more aptly termed a plutocracy with democratic trappings. Second, the real core US value is profits. Even Washington’s preferred democracy of the rich gets pushed aside when, for whatever reasons, big business interests cannot be accommodated adequately — that is, whenever real expressions of democracy threaten to break through the restraints the system provides to hold it in check.

New York Times: Democracy is Bad for US Foreign Policy

January 26, 2011 § 13 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

Here’s New York Times reporter Mark Landler on Washington’s reaction to the popular uprising in Egypt against the anti-liberal democratic, human rights-abusing Hosni Mubarak, a “staunch ally.”

Washington is “proceeding gingerly, balancing the democratic aspirations of young Arabs with cold-eyed strategic and commercial interests.”

In other words, democracy and human rights are fine, but not when strategic and commercial interests are at stake.

Landler goes on to say that Washington’s cold-eyed commitment to realpolitik and profits “sometimes involves supporting autocratic and unpopular governments — which has turned many of those young people against the United States.”

Well, there’s nothing amiss in Landler’s observation except his downplaying of the frequency with which Washington supports autocratic and unpopular governments – often rather than sometimes.

In Landler’s account of strategic thinking in Washington, it’s all right to support an “upheaval in Tunisia, a peripheral player in the region,” but a “wave of upheaval could uproot valuable allies.” And profits and strategic position demand the possibility be blocked.

After all, the “Egyptian government is a crucial ally to Washington.” And so arrests without charge, including of nearly 500 bloggers, will continue, with Washington maintaining a principled non-interference in Egyptian affairs.

Washington will also continue to tolerate the repressive national emergency law, as it has done since 1981. The law provides the legal cover Washington’s “staunch ally” needs to “arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.” Because this is done in the service of safeguarding US strategic and commercial interests, Mubarak gets US military aid, diplomatic support, and an easy ride in the US media.

Compare that to US treatment of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. Even if all the allegations against him were true – and they’re not — the government in Harare wouldn’t come close to matching Mubarak’s disdain for the democratic and human rights values Washington claims to hold dear.

And yet Zimbabwe is deemed by the US president to be a grave threat to US foreign policy, its president denounced as a strongman and dictator, and its people subjected to economic warfare in the form of financial sanctions, while Mubarak is hailed as a staunch ally who must be supported against the democratic aspirations of the Arab street.

The key to this duplicity is that Mubarak has sold out Egypt to US profit and strategic interests, while Mugabe has sought to rectify the historical iniquities of colonialism. Clearly, from Washington’s perspective, Mugabe is serving the wrong interests. Indigenous farmers don’t count. Western investors do.

One wonders where overthrow specialist Peter Ackerman and his stable of nonviolent warrior academic advisors come down on this — on the side of the democratic aspirations of young Arabs or reconciled to the cold-eyed strategic and commercial interests of US corporations and wealthy individuals?

The question, however, may be beside the point. What matters is not whether Ackerman’s janissary Lester Kurtz wants to spout Gandhian bromides to angry Egyptian youths, but whether there’s money to organize and boost the revolutionary energy of the street and how much is being poured into a repressive apparatus to shut it down.
Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney (Don’t give up on Egypt,” Foreignpolicy.com, June 2009) have the answer.

The Obama administration has drastically scaled back its financial support for Egyptian activists fighting for political reform. US democracy and governance funding was slashed by 60 percent. From 2004 to 2009, the US spent less than $250M on democracy programs, but $7.8 billion on aid to the Egyptian military.

But even this imbalance overstates the meager support Washington has offered pro-democracy forces. Given Mubarak’s status as a paladin of US commercial and strategic interests, much of Washington’s democracy program spending has probably been allocated to programs that act as a safety valve to divert anger and frustration into safe, non-threatening avenues. Money available to facilitate a real challenge to Mubarak is likely either meager or nonexistent.

With the US establishment vexed by cold-eyed concerns about the need to safeguard imperialist interests against pro-democratic uprisings, champion of nonviolent democracy activism Stephen Zunes can give up whatever dreams he may have had about helping to organize an Egyptian color revolution. When it comes to real democracy, and freedom that counts, the funding cupboard is bare. Color revolutions are for cold-eyed promoters of US strategic and commercial interests, not upheavals against US-backed compradors.

Liu’s Nobel Prize for Capitalism

October 12, 2010 § 9 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has been hailed as a champion of human rights and democracy. His jailing by Chinese authorities for inciting subversion of the state is widely regarded as an unjust stifling of advocacy rights by a Chinese state intolerant of dissent and hostile to ”universal values”. But what Western accounts have failed to mention is that Charter 08, the manifesto Liu had a hand in writing and whose signing led to his arrest, is more than a demand for political and civil liberties. It is a blueprint for making over China into a replica of US society and eliminating the last vestiges of the country’s socialism. If Liu had his druthers, China would: become a free market, free enterprise paradise; welcome domination by foreign banks; hold taxes to a minimum; and allow the Chinese version of the Democrats and Republicans to keep the country safe for corporations, bankers and wealthy investors. Liu’s problem with the Communist Party isn’t that it has travelled the capitalist road, but that it hasn’t traveled it far enough, and has failed to put in place a politically pluralist republican system to facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of an unrestrained capitalist economy.

Liu taught literature at Columbia University as a visiting scholar, but decamped for his homeland in 1989 to participate in the Tiananmen Square protests, bringing with him the pro-imperialist values he imbibed in the United States. For his role in the protests—which ultimately aimed at toppling Communist Party-rule and promoting a US-style economic and political system–he served two years in prison.

Liu is committed to a pluralist political model and untrammelled capitalist system of the kind he witnessed firsthand in the United States. Charter 08, the Nobel committee, the US government, and the Western media have all anointed free markets, free enterprise, and multi-party representative democracy as “universal values”. The aim is to discredit any system that is at variance with capitalist democracy as being against universal values and therefore doomed to failure.

Liu served more jail time in the 1990s for advocating an end to Communist Party-rule and conciliation of the CIA-backed Dalai Lama, the once head of a feudal aristocracy who owned slaves and lived a sumptuous life on the backs of Tibetan serfs, before the People’s Army put an end to his oppressive rule.

Liu’s latest run-in with Chinese authorities happened in December, 2008 after he signed Charter 08, a manifesto he helped draft. The charter was published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms (UDHRF) and is a reference to Charter 77, an anti-communist manifesto issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia. While the UDHRF endorses economic rights (the right to work and to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control), the only economic rights Charter 08 endorses are bourgeois privileges. In that respect, it is hardly in the same class as the UDHRF and, significantly, is emblematic of the kind of truncated human rights protocol favored in the United States.

On June 24 of last year Liu was charged with agitation aimed at subversion of the Chinese government and overthrowing the socialist system. He was convicted and is now serving an 11-year sentence.

The Western press describes Charter 08 as a “manifesto calling for political reform, human rights and an end to one-party rule”, but it is more than that. It is a manifesto for the untrammelled operation of capitalism in China.

The charter calls for a free and open market economy, protection of the freedom of entrepreneurship, land privatization, and the protection of property rights. Property rights, under the charter’s terms, refer not to the right to own a house or a car of a toothbrush for personal use but to the freedom of individuals to legally claim the economic surplus produced by farmers and wage laborers—that is, the right, through the private ownership of capital, to exploit the labor of others through profits, interest and rents.

While capitalism thrives in China, it does not thrive unchecked and without some oversight and direction by the Communist Party. Nor is China’s economy entirely privately owned. Many enterprises remain in state hands. The drafters of Charter 08 have in mind the elimination of all state ownership and industrial planning–in other words, the purging of the remaining socialist elements of the Chinese economy. At the same time, the Communist Party as the one mass organization with a programmatic commitment to socialism (if only to be realized in full in a distant future) and which zealously preserves China’s freedom to operate outside the US imperialist orbit, would be required to surrender its lead role in Chinese society. Political power would pass to parties that would inevitably come to be dominated by the Chinese bourgeoisie through its money power. (1) Rather than being a country with a mix of socialist and capitalist characteristics presided over by the Communist Party, it would become a thoroughly capitalist society with bankers and captains of industry firmly in control, their rule governed by the need to enrich their class, not make progress toward a distant socialism by raising standards of living and expanding the country’s productive base.

The charter also calls for the implementation of “major reforms in the tax system to reduce the tax rate”, and to “create conditions for the development of privately-owned banking.”

The US State Department itself could have written a manifesto no more congenial to corporate and financial interests.

Charter 08’s champions gathered 10,000 signatures before Beijing blocked its circulation on the Internet. While the Western media cite this as evidence of a groundswell of support for the charter’s demands (though 10,000 represents an infinitesimally small fraction of a population of one billion), the ANSWER Coalition in the United States has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to letters calling for the lifting of the US blockade on Cuba, a level of opposition to US policy that dwarfs Charter 08’s support. Yet ANSWER’s collection of signatures in opposition to a policy aimed at promoting the interests of US capital is virtually ignored in the Western media, while a smaller movement that would benefit US capital is presented as having widespread backing. This, of course, is not unexpected. The Western media quite naturally represent the interests of the class of hereditary capitalist families and financiers from whose ranks its owners come. The class nature of capitalist society and patterns of ownership within it mean that the mass media construct a reality congruent with their owners’ interests.

Likewise, the Nobel Prize, founded by a Swedish chemist and engineer who amassed a fortune as an armaments manufacturer, is not free from politics. The Nobel committee, a five-person committee selected by the Norwegian parliament, has strayed quite a distance from Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. In his will, Nobel set out conditions for establishing and awarding the prize. “The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” While arguments may be made on either side of the question of whether Liu’s actions are praiseworthy, there is no question that trying to organize the transformation of People’s China into a replica of the United States of America, and getting arrested for it, amounts in no way to working for fraternity between nations, abolishing standing armies, or the holding of peace congresses.

A further double standard is evident in the condemnation of China’s crackdown on anti-communist dissent—one of the goals of awarding Liu the Nobel Prize (the others: to legitimize Charter 08 and demonize Communist Party-rule in China.) The reality is that any revolutionary society, if it is to successfully defend itself against counter-revolution, must limit the rights that would be used to organize the revolution’s reversal. To place political and civil liberties ahead of the preservation of the revolution, where the revolution is aimed at improving the economic condition of Chinese peasants and workers, would be to declare political rights to be senior to economic rights. Liu has clearly worked toward a counter-revolution that would push economic rights to the margins and bring the rights of the owners of capital to organize society exclusively in their interests to the fore. Allowing Liu to freely organize the overthrow of the current system and to replace it with one modelled on the US political and economic system would be to set political liberties above goals of achieving independence from imperialist domination and building the material basis of a communist society.

Other societies—including those which trumpet their credentials as liberal democracy’s champions—have freely violated their own pluralist and liberal principles to counter individuals, movements and parties which have threatened the capitalist mode of property ownership. The history of Western capitalist democracy is replete with instances of states running roughshod over their own supposedly cherished liberal democratic values, from the persecution, harassment and jailing of labor, socialist and communist militants to the banning of strikes and left political parties to open fascist dictatorship. Whenever militant leftists have seriously threatened to disrupt the tranquil digestion of big business profits, their freedom to openly advocate, organize and act has been abridged. Think of the Palmer raids in the United States, jailing of anti-WWI activists, the purge of communists from the civil service and Hollywood, the banning of the Socialist Workers Party, and the suppression of the Black Panthers. Similar practices were replicated in many other capitalist countries. In Italy and Germany, strong workers’ movements were suppressed by fascist dictatorship.

This is a pattern of behaviour so recurrent as to have the status of a social scientific law. The state, whether in capitalist or revolutionary societies, almost invariably violates rights of advocacy, free association, and the press, in order to preserve the dominant mode of property ownership wherever it is seriously under threat.

As a matter of politics, restrictions on the rights of individuals, movements and parties to openly advocate and organize the overthrow of the current economic system are good or bad depending on what one’s politics are. Nationalists in liberated countries will approve restrictions on the rights of foreigners and colonial settlers to own productive property unchecked; measures to prevent movements from encroaching on capitalist interests will be deemed warranted restrictions by capitalists; and communists will oppose the right of individuals and groups to openly organize a capitalist restoration within socialist societies, just as republicans opposed the right of individuals and groups to openly organize the restoration of monarchies within republican societies.

While Liu is cleverly portrayed by the Western media as a fighter for human rights and democracy, his organizing for low taxes, call for the jettisoning of the remaining elements of China’s socialism, and promotion of a robust capitalism, have received virtually no Western media attention. It is difficult to persuade people that capitalism is “a universal value”, and Liu’s commitment to making over China into a replica of the United States—with its economic crises, bail-outs for wealthy financiers and mass unemployment for the rest—is hardly the kind of thing that is going to marshal much popular support. Hence, the Western media have wisely (from their point of view) dwelled on Beijing’s seemingly unjustified crackdown on dissent and failed to elaborate on Charter 08’s implications for China, while playing up Liu’s advocacy of the pleasant sounding terms, democracy and human rights, pushing his commitment to free markets, free enterprise and low taxes into the shadows. Carrying out all the charter demands would almost certainly result in China being sucked into the US imperialist orbit, and whatever chances the country has of achieving socialism, would be forever dashed.

For anyone concerned with the promotion of economic rights, or the weakening of US imperialism, or with the chances that socialism might one day flourish in the world’s most populous country, the Nobel committee’s attempt to lend credibility to Charter 08 by conferring its peace prize on Liu Xiaobo is hardly to be welcome. It is as inimical to the interests of peace and the welfare of humanity as was last year’s awarding of the prize to US President Barack Obama, who has expanded the number of countries in which the US is waging war, and has tried to create the illusion that the continuing US combat mission in Iraq has ended by renaming it. Likewise, Liu has done nothing to advance the welfare of humanity. His remit, as that of last year’s peace prize winner, is to expand the interests of the owners of capital, particularly those based in the United States. He deserves no support, except from the tiny fraction of the world’s population that would reap the benefits of Charter 08’s demands. Instead, it is Beijing’s action to preserve its freedom and independence from outside domination, and to maintain elements of a socialist economy, that deserve our support.

1. The Chinese Communist Party has, with justification, rejected “Western-style elections …(as)a game for the rich.” As a party representative explained: “They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors and become spokespeople for the minority.”

Edward Wong, “Official in China says Western-style democracy won’t take root there,” The New York Times, March 20, 2010

See also Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, “Do supporters of Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo really know what he stands for?” The Guardian (UK), December 15, 2010.

When election fraud is met by congratulations

November 3, 2009 § 3 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

It has become standard practice in many parts of the world for opposition candidates to decry as fraudulent election results that favor the incumbent. Charges of vote fraud are routinely levelled against governing parties that win elections contested by opposition parties backed by Western governments. 

For example, after (and even before) Zimbabwe’s last set of elections, the governing Zanu-PF party was accused of vote fraud, but the evidence for the opposition’s claim was gathered by organizations funded by the United States, a major backer of the opposition movement. Washington makes no secret of its desire to drive the incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, from power, by hook or crook, not because he’s corrupt, despotic or a human rights abuser, as Washington alleges, but because he has done what all foreign leaders back to Lenin have done who have fallen astray of Washington – failed to honor contracts and safeguard private property. (That’s not to say Mugabe and Lenin are alike in any way other than having committed what in Washington’s view is the supreme crime.) A cooked exit poll is not beyond the motivations and capabilities of US and British-backed anti-Mugabe forces, but that’s largely beside the point. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF did poorly in the election, and Mugabe, himself, failed to win a first round victory in the presidential election. If Zanu-PF rigged the vote, it blundered badly.

Similarly, the outcome of the last Iranian presidential election, which saw the return to power of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was denounced by the opposition as a fraud. The charge was taken up by Western politicians, journalists and a substantial fraction of the Western left, despite the opposition’s failure to produce a single jot of credible evidence that the election was stolen. Worse, the sole methodologically sound public opinion poll taken prior to the election – funded by the international arm of the Republican Party, the IRI – predicted that Ahmadinejad would win by a wide margin – wider, it turns out, than the margin he actually did win by. This was a case of widespread distaste for Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Islamic Revolution leading to the collective dulling of critical faculties. To be sure, if one hated Ahmadinejad and fundamentalist Islam (or fundamentalist religion, period), witnessing Iranians embrace secular Western enlightenment values was bracing indeed. The only problem was there was no evidence it actually happened.

We might expect, then, that charges of vote fraud will be routinely levelled against governing parties that win elections contested by opposition parties backed by Western governments, and that the Western media will accept the charges uncritically. This happens regularly.

But what of cases in which the weight of evidence points to an incumbent, backed by the US government, winning an election by fraud? How might we expect Western politicians, Western media, and even the UN, to react? One would predict that they would try to cover it up, and failing that, minimize its significance. Conspicuously absent would be the indignant denunciations that attend the electoral losses of parties backed by Western governments.

In Afghanistan’s August presidential elections, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, who had initially been installed in his position by the US government, failed to win a first round victory. This we know now, largely owing to the efforts of the UN’s former number two man in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, who blew the whistle on extensive fraud perpetrated by the Karzai-appointed Independent Electoral Commission. [1] Also involved in the fraud, according to a recent New York Times report, was the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. [2]

Galbraith charged that the Karzai appointed electoral commission abandoned “its published anti-fraud policies, allowing it to include enough fraudulent votes in the final tally to put Karzai over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.” Galbraith estimated that “as many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent.” But when he “called the chief electoral officer to urge him to stick with the original guidelines, Karzai issued a formal protest accusing” Galbraith of foreign interference. Galbraith’s boss, Kai Eide “sided with Karzai”, effectively concealing the electoral fraud. [3] Eide told Galbraith that “the UN mandate was only to support the Afghan institutions in their decisions, not to tell them to hold an honest election.” [4]

At the centre of the fraud were ghost polling centres (1,500 inaccessible locations that were physically impossible to confirm the existence of), a corrupt election commission, [5] and the president’s brother. Ahmed Wali Karzai, “a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal (drug) trade” receives “regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency.” He “orchestrated the manufacture of hundreds of thousands of phony ballots” [6] and “is also believed to have been responsible for setting up dozens of so-called ghost polling stations — existing only on paper — that were used to manufacture tens of thousands of phony ballots.” [7]

In other words, the UN was involved in an attempt to cover up vote fraud, while the CIA, through the president’s brother, was at least indirectly involved in perpetrating it.

Some US news analysts, dismissing the affair as of little consequence, insist the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, stood no chance against Karzai in a fair vote anyway. But an honest account of the initial vote “would have had Karzai at 41% and Abdullah at 34%,” [8] putting Abdullah within striking distance of victory in a run-off election. Abdullah, however, refused to participate, arguing that there was no reason to believe the run-off would be any less corrupt than the initial vote. He has a point. While Karzai’s electoral commission was asked to eliminate “the ghost polling centres and to replace staff who committed fraud,” Karzai increased the number of centres and rehired the authors of the initial fraud. [9]

The sole concern of officials in Washington – who, when their favored candidates abroad fail to win elections, present themselves as champions of fair elections and lead the charge to have the allegedly fraudulent election overturned — has not been that the Afghan election was stolen, or that Abdullah withdrew because the prospects for a fair run-off were slim. On the contrary, with Karzai winning another term as president only because Abdullah withdrew over legitimate fears the run-off election would be unfair, the official US response has been to “congratulate President Karzai on his victory in this historic election and look forward to working with him.” [10] Instead, Washington’s sole concern has been the exposure of electoral fraud, and its effect in undermining the legitimacy of their man in Kabul (who never had much legitimacy in the first place.)

Contrast the US reaction with the sharp Western criticism of Robert Mugabe after Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off round of Zimbabwe’s last presidential election, claiming the conditions were not conducive to a fair vote. The difference is as wide as night and day.

Where are the stern lectures, the US-government and ruling class foundation-assisted nonviolent pro-democracy activists, the blanket mass media coverage of Afghanistan’s stolen election, the denunciations of Karzai as a dictator – all which attend the defeat of US-backed opposition movements in elections where the charges of fraud have become routine and the evidence for fraud bare to non-existent?

The reaction to electoral fraud, then, depends on the answer to a single question: Does Washington back the beneficiary of the alleged fraud or not? Or more fundamentally, does the beneficiary promote the sanctity of contracts, private property, free trade, free enterprise and free markets? If the answer is no, the reaction will be one of indignation and outrage, even where the evidence of fraud is thin to absent. If the answer is yes, the reaction will be muted, even where the evidence of fraud is voluminous and incontrovertible. Between Zimbabwe and Iran on the one hand, and Afghanistan on the other, official outrage, and therefore the outrage of the media, and therefore the outrage of the people, including a substantial part of the left, has been inversely proportional to the weight of evidence that fraud has actually occurred.

Washington cares not one whit about democracy — only about the interests of the corporations, investors and banks that dominate its policy-making. If “democracy” comports to those interests, well and good. If not, there are no phoney allegations of electoral fraud Washington is not prepared to take a hand in propagating, and no genuine electoral fraud it is unwilling to live with.

1. Peter W. Galbraith, “What I saw at the Afghan election,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2009.

2. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on C.I.A payroll,” The New York Times, October 28, 2009.

3. Galbraith, October 4.

4. Peter Galbraith, “Karzai was hellbent on victory. Afghans will pay the price,” The Guardian (UK), November 2, 2009.

5. Ibid.

6. Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen, October 28.

7. Ibid.

8. Galbraith, November 2.

9. Ibid.

10. Statement of U.S. Embassy in Kabul, reported in Michael Muskal, “U.S. congratulates Afghan President Karzai on another term in office,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2009.

Peaceniks for imperialism

August 11, 2009 § 3 Comments

Canada’s Peace Magazine and the promotion of non-military warfare in the service of US foreign policy goals

By Stephen Gowans

While apparently possessing impeccable leftwing credentials, the Canadian publication, Peace Magazine, is a bulwark of conservatism which virtually operates as a house organ of the Ackerman-Helvey-Sharp destabilization school of US foreign policy. Although it opposes military intervention in the pursuit of US foreign policy goals, it is supportive of liberal-democratic-free-trade capitalist arrangements and the overthrow of governments that operate outside the US axis of domination. It promotes the use of US-sponsored and funded nonviolent resistance (NVR), sometimes called political defiance, or what the CIA calls destabilization, to “take out” governments whose overthrow Washington justifies by demonizing as dictatorial. And it uncritically echoes the pronouncements on official enemies of the White House and US State Department, endorsing from the left US government-provided pretexts for the expansion of US imperialism. The peace that Peace Magazine promotes, is one in which the United States is firmly in control, and the system of government and economy its ruling class favours has been imposed, willy-nilly, in every corner of the earth.

The Ackerman-Helvey-Sharp destabilization school

Peter Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor and member of the premier US establishment think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Robert Helvey, a thirty year veteran of the US Army, are the major proponents of a method developed by Gene Sharp for destabilizing foreign governments. While the name NVR gives the technique a fresh look, it is nothing more than CIA-style destabilization, with a twist: it rejects overt CIA sponsorship to escape the taint of being associated with the CIA. Instead, it relies on funding channelled openly through Western government and ruling class foundations. Ackerman defines the technique as: “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” [1] in addition to mass protests [2] and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government [3] and make “a country ungovernable.” [4] NVR, then, is equivalent to the CIA-engineered destabilization used to help overthrow Chile’s leftist president, Salvador Allende.

Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp are involved in some capacity in deploying Sharp’s destabilization techniques to countries the US government pressures diplomatically, militarily and economically: Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Myanmar, Iran, and formerly Georgia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. Peace Magazine likes the governments of none of these countries, calling Venezuela’s economic policies mistaken [5] and welcoming a nonviolent resistance to (i.e., destabilization of) Hugo Chavez’s government. [6] The magazine’s fondest wishes have been fulfilled. “A couple of people who worked with us, including Bob Helvey, have been there and done a workshop for Venezuelans,” explains Gene Sharp. [7]

The trio illegitimately abstracts destabilization from the multi-tiered approach the United States employs to take out targeted foreign governments, in order to argue deceptively that NVR alone, and not NVR plus the threat or use of military violence plus economic warfare are responsible for regime change successes. For example, the role of a 78-day bombing campaign and economic warfare in the eventual ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has been minimized by the destabilizers, whose version of history holds that it was Helvey’s training of US-funded nonviolent mercenaries in Sharp’s techniques that was responsible for Milosevic’s overthrow and his replacement by a US-backed neo-liberal regime.

Peace Magazine amplifies this deception, acting as an indefatigable cheerleading squad for Sharp, Helvey and Ackerman and their views. All three have been frequently featured in the magazine, through major interviews, or through the wholesale adoption of their positions in editorials, or both.

Promoting capitalist democracy

Editor Metta Spencer frequently adulates democracy, whose imposition on other countries has formed one of the enduring pretexts for US interventions. The democracy she celebrates is the multi-party parliamentary democracy dominant in the West, and not the original idea of rule by or for a previously subordinate class or people – the original sense having always been regarded as dangerous and undesirable by property-owning classes (and social democrats, too, to say nothing, I suspect, of Peace Magazine.) To be sure, it is not democracy in its dangerous and original sense that Spencer adulates. It is democracy tamed by the wealthy that she celebrates.

In an interview with Seymour Martin Lipset, Spencer invites the academic to refute Western democracy’s Marxist critics.

Spencer: But people sometimes say, “Don’t tell me Canada and the United States are democratic. Look at the way money controls the outcome of the elections…”

Lipset: …It is obviously true that money has enormous influence on elections. However, that does not determine everything. [8]

The Marxist critique of Western democracy isn’t that money determines everything, but that those who own productive property and therefore have immense wealth have the means to dominate the electoral process and shape its outcomes to favour their interests and to encroach upon the interests of everyone else. They don’t always get their way, true – but they often do. That the wealthy don’t always win, however, is hardly a ringing endorsement of capitalist democracy, and hardly a reason to be satisfied with it or work for its promotion. Nevertheless, Lipset and Spencer believe that so long as the majority can influence the government some of the time on some issues in some way, all is well.

Cuba’s democracy, based on the election of individuals unaffiliated with political parties (as opposed to ambitious, exhibitionist lawyers who have been vetted by political parties financed overwhelmingly by wealthy individuals and corporations) doesn’t count as democracy in the Peace Magazine view. Cuba, instead, is denounced by the magazine as a tyranny, and Cuba’s former president, and presumably its current one, too, is regarded as being on the same plane as Hitler, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and Ida Amin. So too are Lenin and Stalin. [9] That Peace Magazine’s democratic sympathies lie with those of the dominant property-owning class in the West, and not with revolutionaries guided by a definition of democracy closer to the original meaning, is evident in Spencer drawing on the arch-establishment figure, imperialist and war criminal Winston Churchill, for support. “As Winston Churchill pointed out,” she reminds us sententiously, “democracy is the worst system of government — except all others.” [10]

In Spencer’s view, “Democratic states virtually never are involved in wars against other democratic states” (only against “repressive” or “failed” states). [11] The absurdity of this view hardly needs to be pointed out. Israel, a multi-party democracy along Western lines, attacked Gaza, precisely because the Palestinian territories are a democracy which elected a party, Hamas, which Israel refuses to accept. The only way this nonsense can be made true is by defining the democratic states that other democratic states attack as being repressive or failed. But the logic is circular. In 1999, Yugoslavia, a federation that had adopted Western multi-party democracy, was attacked militarily by Western democracies. But in the circular logic of Peace Magazine, Yugoslavia was attacked because it was repressive, and therefore not truly democratic. But how do we decide when a country is truly democratic, and when it is repressive or failed? Moreover, who decides? The answer, in the Peace Magazine view, is that Washington does.

Legitimizing imperialist intervention

The Peace Magazine modus operandi is to accept all US government pronouncements on the threats posed by foreign governments as true, and then to propose the use of Sharp’s destabilization techniques as an alternative to military intervention to deal with the threats.

For example, Peace Magazine contributor John Bacher wrote in a 2004 review of a Robert Helvey book that, “Rather than attempting to build costly and leaky shields for missiles from Iran and north Korea, why not seek non-violently to change these regimes into democracies?” [12] Apparently, it never occurred to Bacher to ask why Iran and North Korea would attack the West, since it would mean their immediate annihilation, nor inquire into what possible motivation either country could have to lob missiles at the West. Instead, he accepted as true a rather transparent pretext for justifying the construction of missile shields that would provide the United States with a nuclear first strike capability against Russia, while fattening the bottom lines of US military contractors.

Even more astonishingly, in 2003, the magazine’s editor took peace activists to task for failing to acknowledge that “George W. Bush was right about…the need for regime change in Iraq.” [13] She echoed Peter Ackerman, who, a year earlier, had teamed up with sidekick Jack DuVall to write a Sojourner’s Magazine article urging “anyone who opposes U.S. military action to dethrone (Saddam Hussein)…to suggest how he (Hussein) might otherwise be ushered out the backdoor of Baghdad.” [14] Spencer also scolded “the organizers of protests (against the war on Iraq, for failing to) on the whole propose any alternative nonviolent way of bringing democracy to Iraq.” [15] In this, the magazine accepted US positions on Iraq as legitimate, and demanded that opponents pressure the US government to use non-military means. In the Peace Magazine view, the left should partner with the US government, and try to influence it to adopt less sanguinary methods of achieving its foreign policy goals. This apes Gene Sharp. Asked what he thought of mass demonstrations in the United States against the war on Iraq, Sharp replied,

“I don’t think you can get rid of violence by protesting against it. I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle. […] Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice. If they don’t see a choice, then violence is all that they really have. […] The thing that is most shocking is that the Bush Administration acted on the basis of the belief – dogma, ‘religion’ – in the omnipotence of violence. […] The assumption is an invading country can come in, remove its official leader, arrest some of the other people, and well, then, the dictatorship is gone.” [16]

The reason Spencer believes peace activists should endorse Washington’s regime change agenda is evident in her approval of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, an up-to-date intellectual apology for imperialism. She writes,

“States have a responsibility to protect their own citizens. If instead they abuse them, as in Iraq, they cannot take refuge in the usual rules of sovereignty. The international community may legitimately intervene against such a state.” [17]

The critical flaw in this doctrine lies in the question of who decides when a state has abnegated its responsibility. The answer is “the international community,” a high-sounding synonym for the United States and any other country Washington can bully, cajole or entice to join a coalition under its leadership.

Spencer tops off her endorsement of the US right to determine when intervention is justified with jaw-dropping sophistry.

“And having been complicit in imposing sanctions that caused the deaths of a million or so Iraqis, we have a moral duty now to intervene and help them…” [18]

By this logic, creating a grave injustice through an initial intervention provides a perpetual moral obligation to continue to intervene to try to set the original injustice straight. Of course, the United States and Britain’s subsequent military intervention, following the mass murder of over one million Iraqis in the preceding decade through economic warfare, didn’t redress the initial injustice. Instead, it sparked a humanitarian calamity of colossal magnitude, far greater than the one in Darfur. And yet the magazine advocates non-military warfare to overthrow the government of Sudan [19], but is completely silent on the use of the same NVR techniques to disrupt the US government and make US society ungovernable, to put a stop to the much larger, US-engineered, catastrophe in Iraq.

National Sovereignty

In an astonishing exchange with Gene Sharp, Spencer expresses her contempt for national sovereignty (at least that of countries the United States seeks to dominate) and wonders why anyone would object to Washington overthrowing foreign governments.

Spencer: Recently we showed the film about Otpor (an underground destabilization group trained by Robert Helvey and bankrolled by the US government) and the overthrow of Milosevic, Bringing Down a Dictator. Lots of pro-Milosevic people were present. The real issue for them is, here is the evil US…funding this nonviolent resistance. To them that’s a cardinal sin. A government cannot sponsor the overthrow of another government!

Sharp: Why not?

Spencer: Because the US has interests and it’s supposedly immoral to have interests. Nobody is surprised that the US gives guns to people, but the idea that they assisted the Serbs to get rid of Milosevic seems somehow especially evil. To my mind, it is particularly the US, of all countries, that I want to see supporting nonviolence. It would be the greatest thing in the world for the US to adopt nonviolence.

Sharp: … What do they prefer that the US spend money on? [20]

Intervention

While the defense of national sovereignty has become associated with the left, it has not always been true that the left has supported an absolute right of countries to be free from foreign intervention. Indeed, there have been frequent interventions supported by the left and carried out by leftist forces: the Soviet Union and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War;  China in the US imperialist war on the Korean peninsula; Cuba in Africa. In these interventions the question wasn’t whether countries had an absolute right to sovereignty, but whether the reasons for and outcomes of intervention were progressive. Was the point to free a class from exploitation and a people from oppression, or to provide a foreign ruling class with new opportunities for expropriating the economic surplus of another country?

Peace Magazine and the destabilizers present US interventions as progressive, guided by opposition to tyranny and the goal of spreading democracy. But the question is whether the democracy the destabilizers promote is a cover for another kind of tyranny, that of domination by US corporate and financial interests. One way to tell is to look at the outcome of successful interventions. Who benefited? Who was injured? In Yugoslavia, the intervention the destabilizers point to with particular pride, the overthrow of the socialist Milosevic, was soon followed by a spate of privatizations, in which formerly publically- and socially-owned assets were bought by Western investors. In Eastern Europe, where a similar destabilization paradigm helped bring about the collapse of socialism and its replacement by a liberal-democratic-capitalist model, joblessness, economic insecurity, deep inequality and the recrudescence of previously virtually eliminated diseases, replaced equality of income, education, healthcare and opportunity. That the outcomes of US interventions have not been progressive may explain why the destabilizers never consider them. But to Spencer, outcomes don’t matter.

“Getting rid of Milosevic did not immediately bring good governance to Serbia…and neither Afghanistan nor Iraq will likely become democratic soon…We can’t help much with that. But their democratization must start with liberation, and we can help them achieve that – non-violently.” [21]

Having no qualms about aligning itself with Washington’s imperialist projects, Peace Magazine endorses without scruple the Western government foundations which support the work of the destabilizers. Asking “How can we help?”, the magazine explains that,

“Many countries maintain organizations that help democratic opposition movements inside tyrannical regimes. In Britain, it’s the Westminster Foundation. In the US it’s the National Endowment for Democracy. In Sweden it’s the Olaf Palme Center. In Canada it’s Montreal-based Rights and Democracy. Moreover, there are experts who have studied nonviolent struggle and who can help dissident movements develop effective strategies” [22] such as Robert Helvey.

It would doubtlessly cause little embarrassment to the magazine to point out that the National Endowment for Democracy was established by the Reagan administration to overtly bankroll the overthrow movements the CIA used to fund covertly. So long as imperialist goals are pursued through non-military means, Peace Magazine is content.

Conclusion

Despite its apparent left credentials, Peace Magazine serves the conservative function of legitimizing the goals of US foreign policy and burnishing the reputation of a capitalist democracy subordinated to US corporate and financial domination. The magazine apes the views of Peter Ackerman, Robert Helvey and Gene Sharp, the major proponents within the US establishment of the use of destabilization methods to overthrow foreign governments that resist domination by US corporate and financial interests. The magazine’s only disagreement with US foreign policy is its reliance on military intervention. This disagreement is motivated in part by a public relations concern. If the US government “would restrict its interventions to aiding nonviolent opponents of tyrants,” the magazine contends, “the world would admire it.” [23] That a peace magazine wants the world to admire the leading champion of capitalist imperialism leaves little doubt as to its orientation, whose side it’s on, and what role it seeks to play in the struggle for economic, social and political justice.

1. Ackerman, Peter, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002.
2. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003.
3. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)
4. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
5. Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101.” Peace Magazine, July-September 2003. “Personally, I think Chavez is steering the wrong course on economic matters,” writes Spenser. “They won’t get out of the hole until they have different policies.”
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Spencer, Metta, “Democracy matters: A conversation with Seymour Martin Lipset,” Peace Magazine, July-September, 2000.
9. Spencer, Metta, “Introduction: Nonviolence versus a dictatorship,” Peace Magazine, October-December, 2001.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Bacher, John, “On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals,” Peace Magazine, October-December 2004.
13. From the Editor, Peace Magazine, April-June, 2003.
14. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.
15. Metta Spencer, “Ushering Democracy into Iraq – Nonviolently,” Peace Magazine, January-March 2003.
16. Pal, Amitabh, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March 2007.
17. From the editor, 2003.
18. Ibid.
19. Lee McKenna, “The nonviolent way in Sudan,” Peace Magazine, January-March, 2009.
20. Spencer, July-September 2003.
21. From the editor, 2003.
22. Spencer, Metta, January-March, 2003.
23. From the editor, 2003.

Cuba and the real battle for democracy

April 30, 2009 § 6 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

While Obama may have contrived to create the impression at the recent Summit of the Americas of extending an open hand to Cuba, it’s clear that his aims are no different from those of George W. Bush or any other of his presidential predecessors, all the way back to Kennedy. The point for the US state has always been to recover Cuba as a field for US investment, and the surest way to achieve this goal is to dismantle Cuba’s socialist system, or at least to severely limit it. So it is that after making the obligatory rhetorical references to Cuba needing to improve its human rights situation (see Netfa Freeman’s recent Black Agenda Report article on Cuba and US hypocrisy), Obama’s “aides outlined a series of steps that Cuba…could do to demonstrate a willingness to open its closed society.” The principle step was “allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island.” (1) In other words, moves would be made toward lifting the US embargo, if Cuba first made moves toward opening its doors to US capital. Since the purpose of the blockade has always been to extort this concession, how could it be said that the Obama policy is any different from that of his predecessors?

That the prize is an “open society” in Cuba, which is to say, open to capitalist exploitation from abroad, was made plain when Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, remarked that, “If the objective is to see change in Cuba, it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.” (2) Harper opposes the blockade, not because he wants to see Cuba’s socialism thrive, but because he thinks lifting it is the best way to undermine Cuba’s socialist economy. Engage Cuba has always been the Canadian position. Eventually it will come around to our way of thinking.

Cuba’s socialist system offers a materially secure existence to all, with free health care and education through university. It does this despite limited resources and in the face of nearly 50 years of economic warfare by the United States. Imagine what it could accomplish if the United States wasn’t continually trying to undermine it.

Prying open Cuba’s economic system would profit Western banks and corporations. But would it benefit Cubans in the majority?

Not under conditions the US government would favour. The ideal situation from the point of view of the US state and the corporate interests it represents is the replacement of Cuban socialism with an open, multiparty electoral democracy – which to Westerners, even most leftists, is a political summum bonum.

To those with lots of money, and the need to find places to invest it, multiparty electoral democracy offers two advantages.

The first is that practically everyone is for it. Accordingly, marshalling support for measures to build democracy abroad is never difficult. The US government can act in whatever way the structural imperatives of the capitalist system demand without incurring too much opposition so long as it says it’s promoting “democracy”, implicitly understood as regular electoral contests between two or more parties (not the ancient’s rule by the rabble or Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.)

The second advantage of a multiparty electoral democracy to the states and interlocked corporate interests that favour it, is that the entire process can be easily hijacked by the rich. Modern elections, popularity contests contested by ambitious exhibitionists who vie for the backing of wealthy patrons, are driven by money. Generous campaign financing – or lack of it – can make or break a campaign. Ambitious politicians know this, and make their peace with the reality, or are weeded out. Once in office, they know that if they play their cards right, there are perks and handsome opportunities awaiting them in their post-political lives. Easily circumvented electoral laws forbidding foreign donations fail to stop funding from foreign sources rolling into candidates prepared to sell their country’s sovereignty, natural resources and labor to the imperial center. It may be facile to put it this way, but the golden rule of multiparty electoral democracy is that those who have the gold, rule. And so democracy has travelled the path from rule by the plebs to the dictatorship of the proletariat to ambitious lawyers chasing after the patronage of the rich.

Not in Cuba. But if Obama and Harper had their way, the golden rule would prevail. And what would the consequences be? A minority of Cubans – those who facilitated the exploitation of their country by foreign business interests — would benefit. But the majority would find their lives becoming increasingly insecure, roiled by the vicissitudes of the market, and in turn, by decisions made in foreign boardrooms. Hollow promises would be solemnly made. Cuba needs foreign investment, and the way to get it is to turn Cuba into an investor-friendly environment. Do this, and Cubans will be lifted out of poverty. The deception is evidenced in the state of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours, in Haiti, in Jamaica, where free trade and the open door and untrammelled foreign investment have piled up misery and poverty at one end, while vast riches are accumulated at the other, hundreds of miles away, to the north.

While lifting the trade embargo would be a welcome step, the act, by itself, would in no way represent a lessening of hostility to Cuban socialism, only a different tact in the unceasing campaign of corporate-dominated governments to recover Cuba as an open field for investment and cheap labor.

There are no changes Cuba needs to make to accommodate the US; the US has not been wronged. But it would be naïve to think that whatever concessions Washington makes, if any, will represent Washington taking the first step along the path to peaceful co-existence. So long as the United States remains a corporate-dominated (that is, a capitalist) society, and Cuba a socialist one, a structural compulsion will exist to shape US foreign policy toward unceasing efforts to remove whatever obstacles are in the way of profit-making. Since an egalitarian system which defines a materially secure existence for all as the summum bonum is the antithesis of one based on the incessant drive of the few to accumulate great wealth by exploiting the many, there shall never be peace between the two. The only hope for peace is the destruction of one by the other, and in these days of renewed economic crisis, it is clearer than usual which system it would be in the interests of the bulk of us to prevail.

It may be objected that whatever the advantages of Cuban socialism in offering a materially secure existence to all, it is still an existence at a lower level than enjoyed in advanced capitalist countries, and therefore, how can socialism be the preferred system?

To this could be replied, first, that to the bulk of humanity, which lives outside the advanced countries of the West, capitalism is hardly a system of consumer riches and abundance. It is instead a system of dearth, misery, and ceaseless toil. This too is true of tens of millions of poor people who live in the advanced capitalist world.

It is true that socialist countries have been poorer than advanced capitalist countries, but their lower material level has not (and in the case of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European people’s democracies had not) been caused by socialism; on the contrary, it had been largely overcome as a result of socialism. The socialist countries started out at a lower level compared to their advanced capitalist counterparts, building their productive assets without the benefits of the slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism advanced capitalist countries relied on to get rich.

In popular Western discourse, the division of the capitalist world between the affluent countries of the north and the underdeveloped countries of south is glossed over. Capitalism is equated with the West, and therefore with great affluence. Capitalism could just as readily be associated with the south, and therefore with great poverty, for the south is as thoroughly capitalist as the north. But it suits the purposes of spreading the capitalist doctrine to equate capitalism with a part of the world whose affluence is due to capitalist imperialism rather than capitalism itself, as if any country that embraced multiparty democracy and free markets would soon find itself a facsimile of the United States.

In 1983, Shirley Ceresto found that if you divided countries into poor, middle income and rich, the socialist countries occupied the middle range, even though most were poor before embarking on paths of socialist development. In terms of satisfying basic human needs, the socialist countries did better than all the capitalist countries combined, better than middle income capitalist countries, and as well as advanced capitalist countries. (3) (What socialist countries offered that advanced capitalist countries didn’t, was security of income, gender equality, and secure access to health care, education, housing and necessities.)

As the socialist countries were struggling to catch up to the West, they found they needed to safeguard their revolutions from the incessant threat of military intervention from a stalking capitalist world. This diverted a significant portion of their more limited resources to military spending and away from productive investments. Despite these handicaps, socialist countries did grow at a rapid pace, and were closing the gap with their capitalist adversaries. At the same time, the socialist community was becoming more egalitarian, both within and between countries, and an increasing portion of necessary goods were available to their populations for free or at highly subsidized prices. (4)

Nowhere is the incidental (and not causal) connection between socialism and poverty more evident than in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the regression to capitalism has done nothing to close the gap with the former West Germany or make the lives of east Germans better. After experiencing two decades of a resurrected capitalism, half of east Germans want to return to what they had before. Reuters, hardly known for promoting socialism, revealed that a public opinion poll had found that 52 percent of east Germans had no confidence in capitalism, and most of them wanted to return to a socialist economy. Here’s what east Germans told Reuters’ (5).

Thomas Pivitt, a 46-year-old IT worker from east Berlin:

“We read about the ‘horrors of capitalism’ in school. They really got that right. Karl Marx was spot on. I had a pretty good life before the Wall fell. No one worried about money because money didn’t really matter. You had a job even if you didn’t want one. The communist idea wasn’t all that bad.”

Hermann Haibel, a 76-year old retired blacksmith:

“I thought communism was shit but capitalism is even worse. The free market is brutal. The capitalist wants to squeeze out more, more, more.”

Monika Weber, a 46-year-old city clerk:

“I don’t think capitalism is the right system for us. The distribution of wealth is unfair. We’re seeing that now. The little people like me are going to have to pay for this financial mess with higher taxes because of greedy bankers.”

Ralf Wulff:

“It took just a few weeks to realize what the free market economy was all about. It’s rampant materialism and exploitation. Human beings get lost. We didn’t have the material comforts but communism still had a lot going for it.”

The former socialist countries have not been transformed into the consumer paradises many of their citizens believed they would become. Instead, citizens of former socialist countries have been liberated of materially secure existences and are now dominated by decisions made in boardrooms, many located in foreign countries, and are governed by ambitious exhibitionists who cater to the interests of the wealthy by necessity (for if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have access to the resources they need to get elected.) The same retrograde fate is the desired future for Cuba of the Obama administration, and will remain the desired fate for Cuba of every succeeding administration, until such a time as corporate interests no longer dominate the US state and the few no longer exploit the many; that is, until the real battle for democracy is won. (6)

1. Ginger Thompson and Alexei Barrionuevo, “Rising expectations on Cuba follow Obama,” The New York Times, April 19, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Sprint 1982.
4. Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Still Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today, Zed Press, 1983.
5. Reuters, October 16, 2008.
6. “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Democracy would be exercised through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class would use its state powers to repress its class enemies and prevent their return. Since dictatorship and democracy are today understood to be opposites, it’s difficult to grasp how a dictatorship could be thought of as democratic. The democracy Marx and Engels were thinking of was closer to the original definition of democracy than the current understanding based on universal suffrage, representative democracy and regular multiparty elections. Democracy from antiquity had always been a class affair, which is why anyone who mattered was against it. The Marxist view was that capitalist democracy couldn’t be democracy in the original sense, because it allowed the majority to be governed by the few, who use their money power to dominate elections and the state. In a democracy as Marx and Engels understood it, the state would be dominated by the working class, its policies aimed at the interests of the working class and hence encroaching upon those of the capitalists, who would ardently seek to recover their previous advantages. The only way to secure democracy against the counter-revolutionary designs of the capitalists would be to be dictatorial in a new way – against the capitalist class. To socialist countries, most of which had had no tradition of liberal democracy, this meant that elections needed to be dominated by the Communist Party, as the leader of the working class. What was clear was that no party committed to reversing the gains of the revolution could be allowed to operate freely. In Cuba, elections are not party-based, and the Communist Party has no role in them. Instead, individuals stand for election. It is understood that elections are carried out within the socialist system and that the reversal of socialism is not on the table.

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