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Wars for Profits: A No-Nonsense Guide to Why the United States Seeks to Make Iran an International Pariah

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By Stephen Gowans

Flipping idly through my morning newspaper, my eyes fell upon a headline, which, given its significance, should have appeared on the front page, but instead was tucked away at the back, on page A9.

“Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran”. (1)

Now, it’s true that Israel’s threatening to attack Iran is hardly news. Here was Ehud Barak, Israeli defense minister, over two years ago, talking about measures to dissuade Iran from continuing to process uranium: “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it.” (2) And here was Barak just the other day: “We strongly believe that…no option should be removed from the table.” (3) Same defense minister. Same words. Same threat.

Yet while the threat may be old, its significance remains undiminished. One country is threatening to commit the supreme international crime: to attack another even though it, itself, has not been attacked by the country it rattles its saber at. Were Iran to threaten Israel, the headline “Iran won’t rule out attack on the Jewish state” wouldn’t be tucked away inconspicuously in the back pages of my newspaper. Instead, it would be shouted in bold letters across the front page. “My God!”, NATO state officials and editorialists would cry. “Iran is threatening to attack the Jewish state. Something must be done!”

But in this case it is Israel that is issuing the threat against a country which has, since its escape from US domination in 1979, been limned as dark and menacing, and so while no one wants war, surely it’s all perfectly understandable that the plucky Israelis should be declaring their determination to stand against the Judeophobic menace of the Islamic Republic. After all, isn’t Iran building nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map? Well, if you listen to the Israelis and their US protector, the answer is yes.

The Strangelovian Israeli historian Benny Morris declares that Israel is “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders.” To eclipse this threat, Iran must be wiped off the map before Iran does any wiping of its own. “Israel has no option,” Morris chillingly says, “but to use its nuclear arsenal to destroy Iran, unless the US uses its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities first.” (4)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns: “Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to realize that goal (the obliteration of the Jewish state), and until now the world has not stopped it. The threat to our existence, is not theoretical. It cannot be swept under the carpet; it cannot be reduced. It faces us and all humanity, and it must be thwarted.” (5)

Ominous. But the idea that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons to obliterate Israel is pure flummery; a work of fiction, intended to create a frisson of fear.

So, why do I say this? First, we don’t know whether Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, or only the capability of producing them, or even that. An International Atomic Energy Agency report, released yesterday, tables evidence that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear bomb. So let’s assume for the moment that Iran’s leaders do indeed intend to build nuclear weapons.

It’s widely agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons while its nuclear energy program is still under the scrutiny of UN inspectors. A more likely scenario is that Tehran would develop the capability to produce a bomb from within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and once it had reached the point of being able to do so, would turn its capability into reality by withdrawing from the treaty, ejecting inspectors, and making a mad dash to develop a rudimentary arsenal. That’s what North Korea did, when, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States decided to re-target some its nuclear missiles from the USSR to the DPRK.

But would Iran ever get as far as being able to make a mad dash to status as the world’s newest nuclear-weapons state? The United States and Israel have made plenty of noise about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran’s nuclear scientists ever reach the point of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been trotted out anew because the steps the United States and Israel have taken to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program–from the Stuxnet computer virus to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists to punitive sanctions–haven’t stopped the program’s development, although they have certainly slowed it.

But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that despite US and Israeli efforts to cripple Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran, despite these impediments, brings this capability to fruition, and furthermore, manages against the concerted opposition of the United States and Israel to develop a few nuclear warheads. Does the possession of warheads mean that Iran will use them–either to wipe Israel off the map or attack the United States?

No, it does not.

The idea that Iran is an “existential” threat to Israel comes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged promise to wipe Israel off the map. US and Israeli political leaders have been invoking this chestnut for years to justify the assassinations, economic warfare, covert destabilization, and threats of military intervention used to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is, the allegation is groundless.

The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.

Specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.

Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”

Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’” (6)

To be sure, anyone who regards Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must be uprooted from the region” and replaced by a government freely chosen by the people who lived in Palestine prior to its conquest by Zionist settlers, is an existential threat to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But while the designation of Iran as an existential threat to the idea of Israel is literally true (in the sense that Iran doesn’t accept Zionism and therefore works against it by supporting such anti-Zionist groups as Hamas), the phrase “existential threat” is twisted to mean something more than intended: military destruction rather than collapse through a referendum.

Political leaders are in the habit of presenting non-threats into dire ones. A not particularly egregious example is provided by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, needing to defend the Pentagon’s Brobdignagian budget against possible cuts, recently “cited North Korea and Iran as persistent threats, and said that the military had to maintain ‘the ability to deter and defeat them.’” (7) Yet North Korea and Iran are not threats to the physical safety and welfare of a single US civilian.

First, Iran’s military is built for self-defense. It doesn’t have aircraft carriers, a large fleet of warships, strategic bombers, foreign military bases or a naval presence near US waters. The United States, by contrast, bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, within shouting distance of Iran, directly across the Persian Gulf. Iranian warships won’t be found lingering menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico or patrolling the edges of US territorial waters.

Second, a graph nearby shows that Iran’s military spending, at $20B per annum, pales in comparison to the budgets of the United States ($700B) and even that of the United States’ regional allies ($102B). The US military budget is 35 times larger than Iran’s, and the sum of that of the United States, its invariable co-belligerent the United Kingdom, and Washington’s regional allies, is 43 times larger. The gulf in fighting ability supported by these expenditures is as yawning as the one between the New York City Police Department and a troop of Boy Scouts armed with BB guns.

As regards North Korea, the idea that it is a threat to the security of a single US civilian is even more absurd. Like Iran, North Korea’s military is built for defense, and it too has no foreign military bases, no aircraft carriers, no nuclear armed submarines and no strategic bombers, and it has never—unlike its compatriot neighbor to the south—sent troops abroad to fight in other country’s wars (as South Korean troops have fought in US wars.)

North Korean military expenditures are even more modest than Iran’s. Pyongyang spends an estimated $10B on its military (and that’s probably stretching it), many of whose members are engaged in agriculture and other civilian activities. (8) By comparison, South Korea (on whose soil are resident close to 30,000 US troops), spends $39B, while nearby Japan (home to 40,000 US troops) spends $34B. Together, these two US allies outspend Pyongyang on their militaries by a factor of 7 to 1. Add to this US defense expenditures and those of Britain—a country that can be counted on to docilely follow the United States into any war–and North Korea, surrounded by US troops and warships and whose air borders are incessantly menaced by the US Air Force, is outspent over 80 to 1. A threat? The claim is laughable.

And that understates the imbalance. What military budgets don’t reveal is the vastly superior destructive power of US military hardware (and that of many of its allies) compared to Iran’s and North Korea’s. The kill capacity of US strike aircraft, cruise missiles, and battleships is far in excess of the heavy artillery that figures so prominently in the North Korean armamentarium, for example.

And then there’s nuclear weapons. North Korea may (or may not) have an arsenal of a few warheads, and Iran may (or may not) be seeking one, but these rudimentary collections pale in comparison with the US, British, and Israeli arsenals arrayed against them. Would Iran attack Israel, or North Korea attack South Korea, with one or two nuclear missiles, knowing that to do so would invite a retaliatory tsunami of missiles from the target (in the case of an attack on Israel) or its hyper-armed patron, the United States, or both? The outcome of so foolhardy an attack would be game-over for either country.

“During the Democratic primaries, then candidate Hilary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) warned that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran.” (9) Three years ago, Israeli “Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went on record saying, ‘We must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.’” (10) It’s doubtful that the Iranians failed to get the message.

And then there’s the matter of Washington’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If read superficially, the NPR would lead one to believe that US policy makers have finally figured out that the cardinal rule of nonproliferation is to abjure military aggression against non-nuclear states. Countries that aren’t threatened by nuclear powers have no need to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. However, a closer reading of the review shows that nothing has changed. US president Barack Obama has stayed true to form, obscuring his pursuit of his predecessors’ policies beneath honeyed phrases that create the impression of change, where no change of substance exists.

The NPR declares “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states”, even if they attack the United States, its vital interests or allies and partners with chemical or biological weapons. This differs, but only on the surface, from the policy of preceding administrations which refused to renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. There are a number of reasons why the difference is apparent only.

While nuclear weapons are widely regarded as unparalleled in their destructive power, the United States is able to deliver overwhelming destructive force through its conventional military capabilities. A promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is not the same as an assurance not to use or threaten to use devastating military force. Six decades ago it was possible to obliterate a city through conventional means, as the Western Allies demonstrated in the firebombing of Dresden. If a city could be destroyed by conventional means more than half a century ago, imagine what the Pentagon could do today through conventional forces alone. Indeed, the NPR makes clear that the United States is prepared to shrink its nuclear arsenal partly because “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows Washington to fulfill its geostrategic goals “with significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”

The NPR also provides a number of escape hatches that allow Washington to continue to dangle a nuclear sword of Damocles over the heads of Iran and North Korea. One is that nuclear weapons can be used, or their use threatened, against a country that is not “party to the NPT” even if the country doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, or it is unclear whether it does. This is the North Korea escape clause. It allows Washington to continue to threaten North Korea with nuclear obliteration, just as it has done since the early 1990s when the US Strategic Command announced it was re-targeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles on the DPRK (the reason why North Korea withdrew from the NPT.)

Another escape clause allows Washington to reach for the nuclear trigger whenever it deems a country to have fallen short of “compliance with [its] nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” even if the country doesn’t have nuclear weapons and is a party to the NPT. This is the Iran escape hatch, intended to allow Washington to maintain the threat of nuclear annihilation vis-à-vis Iran or any other country Washington unilaterally declares to be noncompliant with the treaty’s obligations.

As for the United States’ commitment to refrain from reaching for its nuclear arsenal in response to a chemical or biological attack on itself, its vital interests (a term that defies geography and democracy, for how is it that the United States’ vital interests extend to other people’s countries?) its allies and its partners, this too is verbal legerdemain. As a careful reading of the NPR makes clear, the truth of the matter is that the United States will attack any country with nuclear weapons if such an attack is deemed necessary by Washington to protect its interests. According to the NPR, “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in [its commitment] that may be warranted…” Translation: We won’t attack non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons unless we decide it’s in our interests to do so.

Finally, we need to ask whether either Iran or North Korea have a motive to attack the United States, and whether Iran has a motive to attack Israel. Iran’s leaders may abhor the Zionist conquest of what they see as territory important to Islam, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to take on a suicide mission to deal a one- or two-nuclear missile blow to Israel—one which, by the way, probably wouldn’t destroy Israel, but would in all likelihood elicit a hail of retaliatory blows that would produce devastating damage to Iran. As for tangling with the United States, neither Iran nor North Korea want that. What they want is peaceful coexistence—to be left alone to develop in their own way.

The trouble is, the United States hasn’t the barest interest in peaceful coexistence, and the reason why is the key, not only to understanding US foreign policy, but to understanding why a US-led NATO spent months bombing Libya to drive Muamar Gaddafi from power.

But first, a digression. Critiques of US foreign policy often involve exposes of US hypocrisy. For example, critics might point out that the United States defends Israel, which has nuclear weapons and doesn’t belong to the NPT, while threatening to attack Iran, which belongs to the NPT, and doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Or that NATO bombed Libya to prevent the government there from using its military to put down an uprising but condoned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia using their militaries to put down an uprising in Bahrain. Some critics stop there, reasoning that if they’re going to muster opposition to US foreign policy, it’s enough to show that it’s built on hypocrisy. Or they show US behavior to be immoral, undemocratic or against international law and figure that showing this will rouse the indignation of people of good conscience. Other US foreign policy critics cogently show why US foreign policy couldn’t possibly be guided by the objectives US leaders say it is. But they stop there, leaving their audiences to scratch their heads, wondering, if not for the reasons stated, then why?

Liberals insist that US foreign policy makes no sense and that US leaders are confused, myopic, poorly motivated, or just plain dumb. An example of this point of view is offered by former US president Jimmy Carter, who contends that the conflict with North Korea can be resolved in half a day (11). Apparently US leaders have neither the political will nor smarts to do so.

The truth of the matter is that there is nothing to be gained for the corporations, investors and banks that dominate US foreign policy—the one percent who really matter in the United States–from peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Peaceful coexistence implies that each side poses a threat to the other, but North Korea, despite the rhetorical nonsense of political leaders seeking to justify Pentagon budgets, poses no threat to the United States. A $10B defense budget against a $700B one; aging aircraft whose pilots are grounded most of the time due to shortages of fuel; a puny arsenal of nuclear weapons; an army whose training time is partly displaced by engagement in farming; the most sanctioned country on earth, whose economy has been crippled by six decades of US economic warfare; a country of 24 million hemmed in to the south and east by US allies and US troops; no, North Korea is not a threat.

So how is it that peaceful coexistence would deliver anything in the way of improved security for Americans, which they already have in abundance anyway? It wouldn’t. The demand for peaceful coexistence is little more than a Quixotic plea from Pyongyang to be left alone to develop in a self-directed manner in exchange for giving up a few nuclear weapons that at best, are, to use an Edward Herman term, a “threat of self-defense.” The benefits of peaceful coexistence are all on the North Korean side.

What does the United States get for promising to leave North Korea to develop in its own way? An open door for exports and investments? North Korea’s integration into a US-dominated system of global capitalism? US troops on North Korean soil? North Korea’s incorporation into a US-led military alliance against China? No. What it gets is North Korea giving up a deterrent to attack in exchange for the United States promising not to attack. This is a one-sided deal. No wonder North Korea wants it, and Washington keeps turning it down. David Straub, director of the US State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004 sums up nicely why peaceful coexistence isn’t on Washington’s Korea agenda. “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” (12) What the United States wants from North Korea (an open door to investment, exports, ownership and political influence) is the opposite of what North Korea offers (a closed door and a prickly sense of independence—both political and economic). Washington abandoned the policy of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, which was militarily strong enough to make the US a miserable place if the Pentagon ever decided to start a US-Soviet war. So why would it accept peaceful coexistence with a hated closed system that poses a minor threat at best?

Other critics of US foreign policy explain their subject in terms of power. US leaders want to preserve or expand US power (or primacy or hegemony) against such “peer competitors” as China or Russia or such regional powers as Iran. Of course, it’s never said what US leaders (or Chinese or Russian leaders) want power for. To believe these critics, power is what everyone wants, and the quest for it, as an end in itself, is what makes the world go around. But the trick here is to inquire into why power is sought. Washington doesn’t seek to enlarge its power to strong-arm governments around the world into furnishing their citizens with public healthcare, guaranteed employment and free education. On the contrary, it seeks power to do the very opposite. Power serves some end, and in the case of US state power, it serves the end of protecting and enlarging the big business interests of the big business people who run the state of a big business country; it protects profits and establishes the conditions that allow them to grow—both at home and overseas.

It’s curious that the power-is-the-alpha-and-omega-of-world-politics view should hold such a strong sway among critics of US foreign policy, when in the internal affairs of capitalist countries the organizing principle is private business, and the alpha and omega of private business, is profits. Sure, it’s understood that business leaders want power, but not so they can lord it over others, and take pleasure in its trappings, but so they can enlarge their capital. Power is a means to an end.

So why should foreign policy be any different? The moment Gaddafi was toppled by NATO bombs, a stream of NATO foreign ministers traipsed to Benghazi, their countries’ corporate CEOs in tow, to line up new business deals. It was clear the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose key members—one, an exile who had been teaching economics in the United States for years; another, who earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran; and a third, who had been living within hailing distance of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before being spirited back to Libya– would be a good deal more accommodating of US business interests than Gaddafi had ever been. For all his turning over a new leaf to befriend the West, Gaddafi had irked the US State Department by practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy, (13) which is to say, turn foreign investment to the advantage of Libyans. His threat in 2009 to re-nationalize Libya’s oil fields, stirred up old fears. (14) Now, the NTC—with its US-friendly principals–promises juicy plums to the countries whose bombs ousted Gaddafi.

The US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, channeling the ghost of uber-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, acknowledged that Libyan oil was “the jewel in the crown” but that there would be broader profit-making opportunities to lay hold of, now that Gaddafi had been bombed from power. Even “in Qaddafi’s time,” he observed, the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” (15) US Senator John McCain, for his part, noted that “American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business” in Libya as soon as the country was pacified. (16)

The New York Times’ Scott Shane summed up the excitement.

Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.

A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli. (17)

Shane’s summing up provides a pretty good account of what the NATO bombing campaign had been all about, with one exception. Western security, construction and infrastructure companies aren’t turning their sights on Libya because it is now free of four decades of dictatorship, but because it is now free of four decades of economic nationalism—an economic nationalism that once privileged Libyans over Western banks, investors and corporations. The country is now open for business…on the West’s terms.

The view that US foreign policy is shaped by considerations related to preserving and enlarging profit-making opportunities for investors, banks and corporations headquartered in the United States is based on two realities.

• The formulation of US foreign policy is dominated by the CEO’s, corporate lawyers and major investors who circulate between Wall Street and Washington.
• The countries that the United States has singled out for regime change, without exception, pursue self-directed economic policies aimed at fostering self-development and therefore deny or limit US investment and export opportunities.

Every rich country, with the exception of Britain, became rich through active state intervention in their economies to create industries, subsidize them and protect them from competition while they grew. The United States, as much as Germany, Japan, and other now rich industrialized countries, followed this path. (18) At one point, the United States had the world’s highest tariff barriers, which it used to shelter its nascent manufacturing industries against competition from established British firms. As protected industries matured under the guiding hand of a dirigiste state, they naturally sought to expand beyond their borders, as the possibilities offered by national markets were exhausted. Now, the policies that served their development so ably in the past, became fetters. Rather than protected markets at home, they needed open markets abroad. Poor countries couldn’t be allowed to emulate the policies that made the rich countries rich, because state-ownership, subsidies and trade barriers would eclipse the further development of the once protected industries of the rich countries. Poor countries would have to open themselves up as fields for exploitation by the banks, investors and corporations of the rich countries that had grown fat on the dirigiste policies some poor countries were now seeking to emulate.

A glance through the US Library of Congress’s country study on Iran reveals a truth that US officials never mention and that US foreign policy critics seem unaware of. Iran is not the kind of place an enterprising US business can hope to make money in. “The public sector dominates the economic scene, and the subordination of the private sector is observed in all industries and commerce.” (19) Worse, “Public-sector investments in transportation…utilities, telecommunications, and other infrastructure have grown over time.” (20) “The government plays a significant role in Iran’s economy, either directly through participation in the production and distribution of goods and services, or indirectly through policy intervention.” (21) Indeed, Iran’s constitution defines the public sector as primary, and “the private sector as the means of furnishing the government’s needs rather than responding to market requirements.” (22) Democratic socialists will be shocked to discover that this is the very same economic model that such New Left socialists as Ralph Miliband defined as emblematic of what a democratic socialism ought to be (which isn’t to say that Iran is a democratic socialist state, only that economically it is very close to what many socialist thinkers have envisaged for Western socialism.) In any event, it will be conceded that any economy that bears even a passing resemblance to that favored by radical democratic socialists is not likely to get a ringing endorsement from the kinds of people who formulate US foreign policy.

Other reasons why Iran’s economic policies are likely to have provoked the animosity of the US State Department: Despite its leaders making noises about going on a privatizing binge, Iran’s public sector has soberly grown rather than shrunk. (23) What’s more, large sectors of Iran’s economy remain off-limits to private ownership. ”Since the Revolution, the government has retained monopoly rights to the extraction, processing, and sales of minerals from large and strategic mines.” (24) Iran’s “agricultural policy is intended to support farmers and encourage production of strategically important crops” (25), not to open doors to US agribusiness. ”After the Revolution, many transportation companies, banks, and insurance companies were nationalized” (26) while price controls and subsidies have been used to make important consumer goods affordable (though many subsidies have been lifted recently.)

Wall Street and the US State Department dislike state-owned enterprises that serve the self-directed development goals of independent foreign countries, because they displace private investment by US capital. They abhor the practice of foreign governments subsidizing and protecting local business enterprises because it makes the task of US firms competing in overseas markets more difficult, and thereby limits the overseas profits of US firms. They revile regulations that protect local populations from pollution, desperation wages and deplorable working conditions, because they cut into profits. Some or all of these practices form significant parts of the economic policies of every country in the cross-hairs of US foreign policy, including Libya under Gaddafi and Iran today.

Washington doesn’t want to bring about a change of regime in Tehran to install a pliant government that will help expand US power. It wants to bring about a change of regime in Tehran that will cancel economic policies aimed at Iran’s self-development and replace them with policies that will open up the country’s resources, markets, labor and land to US banks, corporations and investors. It wants the holy trinity of free-trade, free-enterprise and free-markets at the center of poor countries’ economic policies, not protected trade, not state-owned and subsidized enterprises, and not trade barriers. (But while preaching the holy trinity abroad, the United States reserves the right to deploy subsidies, impede imports, and rely on state-intervention to support key industries at home. Consistency doesn’t matter. Profits do.)

To reach the goal of turning Iran into a country that can disgorge a bonanza of profits to US corporations and investors, Iran must first be denied the capability of mounting an effective defense against military intervention by the United States and its allies. It is for this reason that the United States and its Middle Eastern Doberman, Israel, have embarked upon a program of sabotage, assassinations and threats of aerial bombing aimed at crippling even the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The idea that Tehran is bent on lobbing a few nuclear-tipped missiles toward Israel, to complete what the Fuhrer had left undone, is demagogic nonsense, intended to provide a compelling justification for aggression against Iran. Evoking Hitler’s campaign of genocide against the Jews to invest contrived existential threats with gravitas has been a standard operating procedure of Zionist leaders dating to 1948. (27) Iran has no intention of attacking Israel, and would commit suicide if it did, a reality we can be certain has not escaped its leaders’ ken.

All of this to say that in order to understand US foreign policy it’s necessary to examine who rules in the United States, who formulates its foreign policy, and how the policy the rulers formulate intersects with their economic interests. (28) This is an inquiry into class. For if an economic elite dominates foreign policy, we should expect to find that the outcomes of foreign policy favor elite economic interests, and that foreign countries that pursue economic policies that are not agreeable to those interests will be harassed, sabotaged, sanctioned, destabilized, and possibly bombed or invaded, until the policies are changed.

It may be objected that the cost to the United States of military intervention in Iran would surely exceed any economic gain that would accrue to the country as a whole. For liberals, this would count as evidence that US foreign policy makers had once again made an error. For others, it would stand as a challenge to the idea that a war on Iran would be a war for profits.

But the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others. Hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure injection of fluids into rock to release fossil fuels—creates costs in water pollution and wear and tear on roads used by trucks and heavy machinery. If these costs are internalized—borne by the oil companies whose activities have created them—then hydraulic fracturing makes no sense economically–its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—hydraulic fracturing becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit. (29)

Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.

The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.

Like all US wars, the war on Iran of sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and saber-rattling is a class war. It is a war of class in two respects. First, it is waged on behalf of a class of bankers, major investors, and corporate titans, to knock down walls in Iran that deny this elite access to markets and investment opportunities. Second, it is a war carried out on the back of a class of employees, pensioners, unemployed, and armed forces members—the bottom 99 percent–who bear the cost, through their taxes (and in the future their lives.)

The aim is to install local politicians, most of whom have been educated at US universities where they have been instilled with imperialist values, who can, assisted by US advisors, make over Iran into an agricultural, natural resources, low-wage appendage of the US economy in the service of Wall Street and the class of owners and high-level managers who occupy its commanding heights. In short, a war for profits.

1. Adam Blomfield, “Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 7, 2011.
2. Associated Press, July 27, 2009.
3. Blomfield.
4. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.
5. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid,’ ex-spy chief says”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011.
6. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
7. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
8. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
9. Mark Landler, “Iran policy now more in sync with Clinton’s views,” The New York Times, February 17, 2010.
10. Mazda Majidi, “What lies behind US policy toward Iran?” Liberation, June 12, 2008.
11. Tim Beal. Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press.2011. p. 71.
12. Kim Hyun, “US ‘Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea’: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.
13. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
14. Thomas Walkom, “What Harper and co. got from the Libyan war”, The Toronto Star, October 21, 2011.
15. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
16. Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “U.S. Senate delegation offers praise and caution to Libya’s new leaders”, The New York Times, September 29, 2011.
17. Scott Shane, “West sees opportunity in postwar Libya for businesses”, The New York Times, October 28, 2011.
18. Erik S. Reinert. How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. Public Affairs. New York. 2007; Ha-Joon Chang. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
19. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. p. 143. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
20. Iran: A Country Study, p. 145.
21. Iran: A Country Study, p. 150.
22. Iran: A Country Study, p. 151.
23. Iran: A Country Study, p. 152.
24. Iran: A Country Study, p. 167.
25. Iran: A Country Study, p. 170.
26. Iran: A Country Study, p. 181.
27. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications. 2006.
28. Albert Szymanski. The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class. Winthrop Publishers. 1978.
29. Paul Krugman, “Here comes the sun,” The New York Times, November 6, 2011.

I recognize that in my views and even use of certain phrases that I have been influenced by Michael Parenti, and that needs to be acknowledged here. Of particular influence is Parenti’s latest book, The Face of Imperialism, Paradigm Publishers, 2011 and his earlier Against Empire, City Light Books, 1995.

Written by what's left

November 9, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Obama Better than Bush? Yes, But for Who?

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By Stephen Gowans

The view of the New York Times and its columnist Paul Krugman is that the Obama presidency isn’t proceeding the way it was supposed to. The president has failed his liberal Democratic supporters and capitulated to the Republicans.

Here’s their charge sheet:

Obama failed to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, failed to create a government-run health insurance system, and failed in his negotiations with Congress on raising the debt-ceiling to shelter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

And in a yet-to-be approved deal to avoid default of the US government’s debt, Obama agreed to automatic cuts in social programs and defense spending if a bipartisan panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction package, or its recommendations are rejected by Congress. Conspicuously missing are tax increases on the wealthy as one of the automatic triggers.

The ultra-wealthy will continue to avoid paying their share of taxes, loaning their spare cash, instead, to Washington, to be repaid in full with interest — an attractive deal for the rich, a swindle for everyone else. The upward redistribution of wealth continues as strongly as it ever did under Bush, the only difference being that Bush admitted the ultra-wealthy were his “base,” while Obama doesn’t.

On foreign policy, Obama’s record is no better. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, stepped up the war in Afghanistan, extended the war to Yemen, and wages war in Libya without Congressional authorization — which is only slightly worse than the fact that he’s waging war on Libya. What’s more, he has failed to prosecute his predecessor for authorizing the use of torture, arguing pathetically that he prefers to look forward, not backward.

All this means that for liberal Democrats, Obama is a clear disappointment. But that sure doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. And Obama knows it. Liberal Democrats, progressives and even Communists are so terrified of the Republican Party right-wing, that they’ll vote for anyone to the left of it, even if “to the left”, means a long way toward right.

Which leaves Obama plenty of room to manoeuvre to advance the agenda of his ultra-wealthy backers. Michael Moore and others lambasted Ralph Nader for his third party presidential bid. It allowed Bush and his pro-war, pro-wealthy agenda to come to power, they charged. Okay, so now that a Democrat has succeeded him, what’s different?

To be fair, this kind of political dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. In Canada, a left-wing party with Marxist-Leninist roots greets every election campaign with the same rallying cry: Let’s stop the Conservatives. By which is meant: Vote for whoever can stop the Tories, even if it means a vote for the Liberals, whose record, policies, and class affinities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Conservative bogeymen.

And in Britain, the Communist Party of Britain backs Labour against the Conservatives.

Which means that the parties of the nominally liberal wing of the business establishment can count on the support of everyone to left of conservatives, even while trampling all over them.

That liberal Democrats in the United States would quickly become disappointed with Obama can hardly be a surprise except to the politically naive and to those who put their brains in park and let wishful thinking take the wheel.

It was always clear that a president backed by corporate money and surrounded by a cabinet of ruling class partisans was going to advance the corporate agenda and champion the privileges of the ultra-wealthy. After all, that’s who bankrolled his presidential bid, and is bankrolling his re-election bid.

Trouble is, desperate for some kind of respite from the depressing string of defeats the left has endured (or inflicted upon itself) no one on the left wanted to hear this.

Neither did anyone else for that matter. The day after Obama was elected, a TV news crew showed up at my son’s school. A small group of students, my son included, was assembled and asked what they thought of Obama’s election. All gushed about how inspired they were and how relieved they were that the Bush era had come to a close, to be succeeded by a new, more hopeful, day. Except my son. He pointed out that it was unlikely that an Obama presidency would be much different from a McCain one. Obama was backed massively by corporate money, and he would depend on Wall Street to get re-elected. The piece aired with comments from all the students …but one.

“Oh sure,” it will be said, “Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.

But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better.

The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.

But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep.

Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.

Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. (1)

In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.

So, what did Bush do that Obama hasn’t done?

Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, escalated Bush’s war agenda, but faced no concerted public opposition. Parts of the antiwar movement have been in hibernation since Obama stepped over the White House threshold. The Communists are heartened that Obama initiated a troop withdrawal from Iraq (seemingly oblivious to the reality that he needed to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan where the occupation was going badly.)

While Guantanamo Bay was an embarrassment under Bush, its continued operation is not even remarked upon under Obama. And nowadays, the United States is prepared to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of its own citizens. Even Bush didn’t go that far.

Bush was scorned for lying about WMDs to justify an illegal war on Iraq, but Obama lies about the reasons for war on Libya. No one even maintains the pretence it’s about protecting civilians anymore—except when NATO covers up the war crime of bombing civilian infrastructure, claiming the heinous deed was necessary to protect civilians. There has hardly been a peep of protest. On the contrary, liberals, progressives and many leftists have fallen into step with the peace president on Libya.

Of course, in reality, Obama isn’t the peace president. He’s the pacifying president. And it seems a great injustice, to consistency at least, that the Nobel committee didn’t award its peace prize to Bush. After all, Obama’s contribution to peace is no greater than Bush’s was. Indeed, it’s marginally worse.

Today, 25 million US citizens want full time jobs but can’t find them. By agreeing to cut spending when the US economy is stagnant (its annualized rate of growth for the first half of the year is no better than US population growth), Obama will add to the Himalaya of idleness that has gripped his country, courtesy of capitalism, but exacerbated by a lack of political will to significantly palliate the problem.

And why palliate it? There’s no restiveness on the streets and an expanding reserve army of labor offers the welcome promise (to Obama’s real base) of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions. Profits will soar – as they have been.

True, it can always be said that McCain would have encroached even further on working class interests, and that the Tea Party’s strength is a factor, but as Krugman points out, Obama has staked out positions even further to the right than the average Republican is comfortable with. And it’s doubtful that McCain could have got even half as far as Obama in stepping up the war and agreeing to budget positions that are indulgent to the wealthy and harsh to the poor without provoking pressure from below.

Obama is a failure? For the vast majority of US citizens, yes. But not for an elite of owners and high level managers of income producing property. Which is the way it was always supposed to be.

Albert Szymanksi, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers Incorporated, 1978. P. 268.

Written by what's left

August 1, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Posted in Liberals, Obama

The Limits of Progressive Thought: A Review of Donald Gutstein’s Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy

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By Stephen Gowans

Progressive media analyst Donald Gutstein, a professor in the school of communication at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, and a former co-director of Project Censored, has written what appears to be a promising analysis of the state in contemporary capitalist society. Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy, examines the role of business in shaping public opinion, but is a disappointing farrago of misconceptions, faulty logic, and contradictions, whose prescriptions offer the left no way out of the cul-de-sac it finds itself in. Gutstein, a liberal with a hazily radical air, argues from a vaguely Marxist and radical standpoint, but his horizons are limited to targeting “radical” conservatives in an effort to restore the social welfare gains of the post-war period. Gutstein wants to relegate business to the role he imagines it once played: as just once voice in a pluralist society presided over by a neutral state.

In short, Gutstein’s argument is that “In Canada and the United States, corporate power and the free market were reined in after the Second World War” [1] in favor of building a mixed economy. “Business signed on to the welfare state because it feared working class activism and a return to Depression-era conditions. It supported nearly-full employment for males, expanded trade union rights and the construction of a social safety net.” [2] The mixed economy produced “unprecedented growth and prosperity,” but “in the 1970s…profits declined and inflation rose” [3] as oil prices skyrocketed and competition from a revived Japan and Western Europe intensified. This prompted business to launch a counteroffensive to restore profits. Business recruited and funded “radical” conservatives to build a propaganda machine to change people’s attitudes and beliefs about unions, the mixed economy and the welfare state. The propaganda worked astonishingly well, allowing business to hijack the media and government, both of which have become instruments of corporate power. Business needs to be reined in so that it is only one of many voices in a pluralist debate (as it was in the post-war period.) The way to accomplish this goal is for progressives to build their own propaganda machine to restore the credibility of the mixed economy and welfare state, relying on grassroots donations and funding from wealthy liberals.

Has business propaganda been successful?

Gutstein argues that business propaganda is used to shape public opinion in ways that favor the interests of business owners against the majority. Propaganda, in his view, keeps the majority from using its numbers to pressure governments to adopt policies that encroach upon business interests.

“A democratically elected government with a mandate from voters to protect jobs, regulate environmentally destructive industry and ensure business pays its fair share of taxes, presents great risks to businesses, limiting a company’s ability to produce ever increasing profits for its share-holders. The risk to business is that…the public…will conclude that business is too powerful and needs to be reined in. The purpose of business propaganda is to ensure that these ideas do not arise.” [4]

Has business propaganda worked? While Gutstein says it has, the examples he cites show it hasn’t. For instance, while he argues that one of the goals of business propaganda is to persuade the public that business isn’t too powerful, he writes,

“A poll commissioned by (Business Week) found that 72 percent of Americans said business ‘had gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives.’ Surprisingly to the Business Week editors, respondents seemed to agree with the sentiments expressed at the 2000 Democratic convention, when presidential nominee Al Gore declared that Americans must ‘stand up and say no’ to ‘Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs’.” [5]

Gutstein argues that the business “propaganda machine…was astonishingly successful in reversing the gains of the welfare state.” [6] But if business propaganda works by changing people’s attitudes and beliefs, it could only have achieved astonishing success in reversing the gains of the welfare state by changing the attitudes and beliefs of the majority about the welfare state. And yet, as Gutstein himself shows, the majority’s support of the welfare state has never wavered. “Despite thirty years of (business) propaganda for tax cuts,” he writes, “people still want spending on social programs.” [7]

In Gutstein’s view, if the majority recognizes that business is too powerful, it will act to rein business in. But popular action doesn’t always or even often follow a correct understanding of a problem. That’s because more than a correct understanding is needed before people take action. Also important is motivation, understanding of what action can be taken, and a belief that the action will make a difference. Furthermore, the action of the majority doesn’t always or even often change public policy. A majority of the world’s population opposed the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and filled the streets in protest on the eve of the invasion in the largest demonstrations in human history. Public opinion was elevated to the status of a second superpower. Yet public opinion turned out to be a rather feeble superpower. The invasion went ahead. Seven years later, Iraq remains under military occupation. Polls show a majority in Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Britain and even the United States either oppose deployment of their countries’ troops to Afghanistan or favor withdrawal [8], and yet the missions continue, and the U.S. mission will likely continue indefinitely. It could be argued that U.S. President Barack Obama was elected by voters because they believed he was committed to ending the war, yet there are more U.S. troops deployed abroad in combat zones today than under former U.S. president George W. Bush. Public policy seems to have little to do with the attitudes and beliefs of the majority, much less its actions, or votes. Gutstein’s belief that putting the business genie back in the bottle depends on the majority recognizing that business is too powerful is unduly optimistic.

What’s more, a majority of the world’s population already favors progressive policies, despite decades of business propaganda, and yet progressive policies continue to be dismantled. A GlobeScan poll conducted in 27 countries from June to October, 2009, and representing 70 percent of the world’s population, shows that most people in the world are social democrats, while a sizeable number are anti-capitalist, in their attitudes and beliefs. The poll found that a clear majority of the world’s population favors policies traditionally associated with socialism, including public ownership of major industries, redistribution of wealth, and an active role for government in regulating enterprises. [9] Gutstein himself acknowledges that “most people believe…that the acquisition of civil, political, and social rights is an inherently good thing”, [10] and that despite intensive propaganda against Medicare, “the public still backs the system.” [11] Business propaganda, it seems, has been astonishingly unsuccessful. All the same, the welfare state in advanced capitalist countries has been greatly weakened. To understand why, we have to look beyond business propaganda.

Is business propaganda new?

Gutstein can’t seem to decide when business propaganda began. Was it in the 1970s, when declining profits galvanized business to try to get out from under the burden of the welfare state, strong unions and rising popular demands, or did it begin earlier? The answer depends on which page of Gutstein’s book you consult. At one point he writes that the business propaganda machine was first established in the early seventies [12] but points to earlier business-directed campaigns aimed at winning support for a public policy climate favorable to business. He cites a 1949 American Medical Association campaign “to defeat attempts to create universal, federally-insured health care” [13] and a “massive, pro-capitalism grassroots campaign” carried out by “the Advertising Council and the PR industry” between 1945 and 1950. [14] “In 1947 alone,” he writes, the Advertising Council “spent over $100 million to ‘sell’ the American people on the wonders of the American economic system. The campaign, which continued into the 1950s, had two aims: to re-win the loyalty of the workers who had switched to the union, and to halt ‘creeping socialism.’” [15] Gutstein also points out that after World War I many people involved in the propaganda effort to mobilize support for the U.S. entry into the war “turned their efforts to a new crusade: making the world safe for business.” [16] According to Gutstein’s own review, then, the origins of business propaganda date to the period immediately following World War I and not the seventies. [17] If business propaganda has been around since at least the end of World War I, could it be that the domination of government and the media by business began much earlier than 30 years ago?

Have the media and government been hijacked?

Gutstein seems to think that the media and government have been hijacked by corporate interests, rather than created by them (the media) or dominated by them (government.) He misrepresents Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s propaganda model, outlined in their Manufacturing Consent, as one in which “the prevailing power elites co-opt intellectuals and large media companies and transform them into instruments of shaping public opinion.” [18] (Chomsky and Herman describe media corporations as businesses, whose very nature as businesses, structure their reporting. They have not been co-opted.) Similarly, Gutstein speaks of the corporate agenda becoming the government agenda, as if governments in capitalist society are capable of escaping the imperative of aiding business in its pursuit of profit. Gutstein’s thinking, then, implies that the media and government are capable of playing a neutral role in the clash of labor and business, with government mediating the conflict and the media siding with neither labor nor capital. But the media, for one, are clearly not independent of corporate interests, a point Gutstein himself makes: Media corporations, he writes, are “profit-seeking businesses owned by very wealthy families and by other companies. Owners are generally very conservative politically and favour the dominant North American private enterprise ideology.” [19]

For all of his optimism that business can be relegated to the role of one of many participants in a pluralist debate, [20] Gutstein recognizes that business “has significant influence over government, and controls the debate” [21] because it is able to use its wealth to press for a public policy climate favourable to its interests. Business-sponsored think-tanks, he writes, have,

“greater financial resources. Business sponsored think-tanks can hire more staff, fund more scholars, cover a wider range of topics and produce more studies and reports (than progressive think-tanks, with more limited financial resources, can.) They are also more effective because they have the ear of a sympathetic corporate media far more frequently than progressive think-tanks.” [22].

However, Gutstein focuses too much on the role business think-tanks play in shaping public policy, and too little on the movement of the same individuals back and forth between top corporate and government jobs, [23] the overwhelming role corporations and the wealthy play in funding major political parties, and the work of lobbyists on behalf of individual corporations and business as a whole. [24] He also ignores the limited room for manoeuvre of governments that work within the framework of capitalism. Unless they mobilize the energies of a significant portion of the population to overthrow the system, governments in capitalist society are constrained to act in ways that do no harm to the interests of business. If they do cause harm, business will stop investing, either because it is no longer profitable to do so, or to sabotage the government’s anti-business policies. Capital strike, or the flight of capital to business-friendly jurisdictions, will either bring the government back in line, or prompt voters to change the government. Either way, no government that willingly works within a capitalist framework can privilege lower classes at the expense of business for long without being reined in or replaced. It’s highly likely that governments in capitalist society would act to continue to defend and promote business interests whether business think-tanks – and business propaganda — existed or not.

The counteroffensive

At times, Gutstein seems to paint a picture of a world in which ideas are disconnected from the material world. At other times, he seems more firmly grounded in reality. But always ideology has primacy in his analysis. Ideas, if skilfully expressed by able and well-funded propagandists, have the power to compel action. For example, he attributes the Canadian government’s abandonment of social welfare policies and adoption of a neo-liberal program to a single report by Harvard professor Michael Porter. “After the Porter study (on Canada’s competitiveness in the world) made the rounds of senior officials, the corporate agenda became the government agenda.” [25] This supposes that the government’s agenda hadn’t always been the corporate agenda. An alternative view is that the Porter study didn’t cause the Canadian government to adopt a new agenda. The imperatives of the capitalist system did. What the Porter study did was justify the new agenda.

Gutstein’s emphasis on ideology is also expressed in his discussion of class conflict. Progressive movements, he notes, have “been followed by ideological counterthrusts of extraordinary force … sponsored by the entrenched interests of the day, fighting to protect their privileges and wealth, block progress toward a more just, equal and enlightened society, and undo the reforms already achieved.” [26]

It’s true that progressive movements have been followed by ideological counterthrusts, but more importantly, they have been followed by changes in policy. These changes have occurred when business’s ability to turn a profit has been damaged by a crisis of the capitalist system or by the insupportable encroachment of the demands of progressive movements on business interests.

Social welfare capitalism succeeded laissez faire capitalism as a result of the Great Depression, (though it was the massive spending on the war that brought the United States out of the crisis.) North America’s post-war growth and prosperity was largely caused by pent-up demand following the restraint and shortages of the war, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, the space race and the rise of the automobile industry, (with its ramifying effects in touching off the growth of steel, glass, petroleum and rubber industries, and the construction of highways and the suburbs.) [27] Additionally, having escaped any major war damage, North American industry enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the greater part of the post-war period, as its competitors rebuilt. At the same time, ideological competition with the Soviet Union dictated that the working class in North America be granted concessions to meet the social welfare standards set by the Communist countries, with their full employment and robust social wage. [28] Strong unions and expanding social programs were easy for business to tolerate as the economy expanded, the price of raw materials was low, and foreign competition was modest.

By the mid-1970s, growth was slowing, the creation of the OPEC cartel sent oil prices skyrocketing, labor had become increasingly militant, and popular demands were being made for further expansion of the welfare state. The top shareholders and executives of major corporations decided that social democracy had gone too far. They used advances in transportation and telecommunications to shift production to non-union areas and later to low-wage countries, to escape the limits strong unions and minimum wage laws imposed on capital accumulation. Publicly-owned assets were sold off, generating new opportunities for profitable investment. Corporate taxes were slashed to fatten bottom lines, reducing the tax revenue base needed to fully support social programs. The welfare state capitalism of the post-war period was being dismantled. But the reason it was being dismantled was not because “radical” conservatives had organized themselves into corporate-funded think-tanks, which had then hijacked the media and government, but because business interests could no longer tolerate the social welfare gains of the post-war years. It was this that caused business to use its agents to both implement and justify a new agenda.

A false solution

Gutstein believes that progressives can achieve success by aping conservatives. Where conservatives identify liberals and leftists as their enemies, “progressives have to make…radical conservatives…the enemy” [29] abandoning their historical focus on “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism.” [30] These evils should never be lost sight of, he writes, but at the same time, they shouldn’t get in the way of targeting “radical” conservatives.

One of the implications of targeting “radical” conservatives is to vote strategically to stop their rise to elected office. But strategic voting by left-wing voters strengthens conservatives by pushing politics increasingly to the right. This happens in two ways. First, those who would otherwise vote for an authentic left alternative throw their weight behind a party which represents a position to the right of their views, in order to defeat conservatives who are even further to the right. This alone represents the skewing of political positions in electoral contests to the right of the base of political positions held by the voting population. Second, the parties that receive the votes of left-wing strategic voters (Labour in Britain, the Democrats in the United States, the Liberals and NDP in Canada), are given permission to move further to the right, in an effort to expand their appeal to cover right-wing voters, since they know that no matter how far right they move, left voters will move with them, so long as there are conservatives even further to the right who must be blocked. Targeting “radical” conservatives, then, rather than promoting authentic left-wing positions, is a self-defeating strategy that only guarantees further migration to the right.

In elaborating this approach, Gutstein urges progressive foundations to take a leaf from the playbooks of conservative foundations. Progressive foundations, he says, spend their money on “thousands of grassroots groups disconnected from one another and from national politics,” while conservative foundations fund a smaller number of “well-chosen think-tanks and advocacy organizations.” [31] Conservatives have “demonstrated that a successful political movement required building multi-issue organizations,” while progressive foundations spread their resources thin, distributing their more limited funding on “organizations engaged in one or a few issues.” [32] Gutstein assumes that once this truth is apprehended, progressive foundations will change their funding practices. But what he misses is the possibility that progressive foundations fund a multiplicity of disparate, single-issue organizations, by design. What wealthy liberals want no more than wealthy conservatives is an effective multi-issue political movement capable of challenging the privileges of corporations and the wealthy. Keeping the left fractured and disorganized, by doling out small donations to disparate groups working on single issues, is one way of preventing the rise of an effective, multi-issue organization. [33]

A multi-issue movement of the left that united its fractured parts would be more effective than the current agglomeration of single-issue groups, but what would it be united in pursuit of? In Gutstein’s view, it would unite to discredit “radical” conservatives, an enterprise which, if successful, would force governments to see the light and rein business in, so that business would be forced to return to the status of equal player in a pluralist debate mediated by a neutral government. This, however, flies in the face of reality. Business has always dominated the state in capitalist society. It may have appeared at certain points to many members of the corporate elite that the state was encroaching upon business interests more than was necessary to stabilize the society and secure the support of the working class, and at the same time, it may have appeared to members of the working class that the state was trying to balance the interests of labor and business, but there has never been any doubt that in a capitalist society the interests of capital are pre-eminent. There may be disagreements among the top shareholders and key executives of major corporations about the best way forward. Some may favor government intervention to stabilize the economy and to secure a basic level of economic security for the working class in order to build a stable society conducive to capital accumulation. Others may regard these interventions as unnecessary and prohibitively costly. Still others may look to permanent war, the mobilization of society against external threats (real or fabricated) and the promotion of religion, nationalism, racism and patriotism as alternatives to class, as the best way to stabilize society and perpetuate the rule of business. But in all cases, it is capital that is the dominant force.

Who is in the driver’s seat – and who ought to be?

Gutstein believes that there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power over the last 30 years, where business, once reined in by government, has since slipped its reins, hijacked the government and media, and turned the corporate agenda into the government agenda. Let us accept Gutstein’s view for the moment, that it is indeed only in the last three decades that business has emerged to dominate government and the media. Whether corporate domination is inherent in capitalist society or only of recent origin, it remains the case that the present reality, as Gutstein notes, is that “Corporate power is in the driver’s seat. It has the money, organization and access to the media.” [34] How, then, does Gutstein propose that business be pushed from the driver’s seat? And who should replace it?

It would seem that the surest way to solve the problems of “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism” that Gutstein lists as the historical concerns of the left, is to replace business in the driver seat with the class that suffers most from these afflictions: the working class. Indeed, where the working class was, and currently is, in the driver’s seat, these evils were and have been nearly eliminated, if not abolished. In Cuba today and the socialist bloc before its demise, homelessness, poor healthcare, racism, sexism and extremes of income were largely eliminated, if not eradicated altogether. Since it is in the interest of the working class to deal with these problems but not in the interests of business to do the same, (except insofar as these problems threaten to destabilize society and business’s ability to accumulate capital), it would seem that the working class is the agent for this change. But that is not Gutstein’s view. As a pluralist, he wants to replace business in the driver’s seat with “neutral” elected politicians who will reconcile the clash between labor and capital. But can politicians be neutral in capitalist society? Since electoral success is highly sensitive to how much money and media support a candidate for elected office can command, and because business is in the best position to furnish candidates with the resources and media support they need to get elected, the capitalist system does not tend toward the production of neutral politicians. On the contrary, it tends toward the production of errand boys for business. What’s more, as already mentioned, politicians who operate within the framework of capitalism have no option but to make capitalism work, and that means, in the first instance, ensuring that the profit-making requirements of business are met above all else. This is true whether the government is conservative, centrist or social democratic. No government that operates within a capitalist framework is neutral.

If business is in the driver’s seat, “the money, organization and access to the media” that allowed it to move into the driver’s seat in the first instance, allows it, at the same time, to maintain its position and beat back challengers. How then does Gutstein propose that business be forced from its commanding position at the apex of society? The answer he offers is for progressives to unite to discredit “radical” conservatives and restore the credibility of the mixed economy and social welfare. This is shallow.

We have already seen, and Gutstein himself has shown, that social welfare, regulation, and public ownership never lost credibility with the bulk of people in capitalist society. The majority continues to regard these things as desirable, and yet these things are no longer part of the government agenda. This is so because public ownership, regulation and social welfare, lost credibility with business, and with its media and government agents, beginning in the mid-1970s. Indeed, the fundamental shift in the balance of power that Gutstein claims happened 30 years ago was really the loss in credibility of the welfare state among business and its representatives who dominate the state. This is why a conservative agenda was implemented despite continuing popular support for social welfare. Calling for a campaign to restore the credibility of the mixed economy and the welfare state can only mean restoring the credibility of social welfare capitalism among members of the ruling class, since this is the only class for which the credibility of public ownership, income redistribution and regulation, was lost. In other words, what Gutstein is proposing is that the public petition business and its agents in government to recreate the world as it was in North America from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s.

Since business and its agents will only implement a welfare state if it’s in their interests to do so, and since objectively, it’s not always or even often in their interests to grant a full panoply of concessions and reforms, the likelihood of this approach being successful is entirely dependent on the interests of business. If there are times when it would suit the profit-making imperatives of business to strengthen social welfare, concede advances in unionization, and allow a measure of public ownership, these reforms and concessions will be made…but at the discretion of the same business interests that are in the driver’s seat. Reform and concessions will, therefore, be contingent and revocable, and will be taken back at the earliest moment the welfare state is no longer judged by business to be in its interests. The lesson of the last three decades for the left is not to work to restore the credibility of social welfare capitalism, but for the working class itself to take control of the economy and to replace business in the driver seat. This is the only way to permanently end the evils that Gutstein calls the historical concerns of the left.

It should be noted that Gutstein’s views are representative of those of progressives who aim to persuade business and its agents that income redistribution, strong unions, and robust social programs are a pathway to growth and prosperity, not burdens which reduce profit-margins. This Panglossian view, which also seeks an equal status for, or partnership between, labor and capital, holds that social democracy is a win-win for both classes. This view carries little weight with business, which recognizes that an irreconcilable antagonism exists between its interests and labor’s, and that if it can get away with paying less tax and lower wages, so much the better. The progressive argument that business could reap higher profits if it paid more taxes and raised wages is, not surprisingly, dismissed by business as nonsense. As to the view that a partnership between business and labor is democratic, this can be dismissed as nonsense too, for even if we were to suppose that labor and capital could have an equal status in capitalist society, it would be a strange democracy in which the 90 percent or more of the population that makes up labor had a voice only equal to the 10 percent or less that constitutes capital.

The limits of progressive thought

To summarize the problems with Gutstein’s analysis:

1. The post-war period may have been a time of robust growth and prosperity in Canada and the United States, but it does not follow that robust growth and prosperity were caused by a mixed economy, expanded union rights and the construction of a social safety net. What’s more, the United States economy has never been mixed, and the Canadian economy has only ever been mildly so. Pent-up demand following the restraint and shortages of the war years, the stepped up military spending of the Cold War, the space race and the expansion of the automobile and allied industries, contributed to making the post-war period a time of growth and prosperity. The role these factors played in creating growth and prosperity, alongside the industrial monopoly enjoyed by North American business for the greater part of the post-war period, allowed a social safety net to be built. The ideological imperative of meeting the social welfare standards established by the Communist countries provided the impetus to do so. The smaller size of the global capitalist workforce prior to its doubling with the collapse of the socialist bloc and the opening of China and India to foreign investment, checked the strong downward pressure on wages that would soon follow. The location of production in advanced industrial countries prior to the advances in telecommunications and transportation that allowed production to be relocated to non-union areas and low-wage countries also supported strong unions and higher wages.

2. While business recruited “radical” conservatives to promote neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologies, the business propaganda machine has not been the astonishing success Gutstein say it has been. On the contrary, it has failed miserably in changing the beliefs and attitudes of the majority about social welfare, regulation and public ownership. And yet, the social welfare state has been largely dismantled and unions weakened. Business and is errand boys in government didn’t manufacture consent among members of the working class for these changes; they simply went ahead and made them.

3. Business did not hijack the media and government after profits declined and inflation rose in the 1970s. Media corporations, business themselves, are by their very nature corporate agents, while governments have long acted in the interests of business, because they have regularly been led by ambitious lawyers (typically), recruited, trained and financed by the corporate rich, and often by the corporate rich themselves, and because any government that willingly works within the context of capitalism must accommodate the profit-making interests of business, or risk its rule being destabilized.

4. By virtue of its ownership and control of the economy, business is in a position to use its immense wealth to undermine laws intended to rein in it, and to tilt the playing field in its favor. In a capitalist society, business wields too much power for it ever to be but one voice in a pluralist contest mediated by a neutral state. Business control of the economy and the wealth it allows it to accumulate furnishes business with the means to buy the media, lobbyists and politicians to undermine regulation.

5. Wealthy liberals are no more interested in building effective movements to challenge their wealth and privileges than wealthy conservatives are. While a coordinated, organized and disciplined multi-issue organization is necessary to successfully advance left-wing goals, the role traditionally played by liberal philanthropists in their relationship with the left has been one of co-opting moderates and splintering the left into disparate, single-issue groups, organized around concerns other than class (gender, race, poverty, environmentalism, and so on.) Any serious effort to secure advances for the working class will not be funded by those most likely to be adversely affected.

While each of the above issues is important alone, all can be more readily addressed within a publicly-owned, rationally planned economy than within the framework of capitalism. Progress in eliminating racism, sexism and in providing basic economic security came much faster and went much further in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries than in advanced capitalist countries. While progress toward the resolution of important problems does happen within capitalism, it happens in a slow, fitful manner, without the determined energy that has characterized the history of socialist countries. A commitment to building socialism is a more certain and rapid path to eliminating these scourges than attempting to secure gradual, piecemeal change within capitalism. With the world being driven headlong into environmental disaster by the competitive lash of capitalism, gradual, piecemeal reforms are not an option.

Conclusion

Contrary to Gutstein’s thesis, government and the media weren’t hijacked three decades ago. They have always been agents of corporate rule. However, three decades ago, the welfare state lost credibility with business and its representatives in government and the media because it no longer served business interests. Strong unions, labor militancy, rising popular expectations and demands for the expansion of the welfare state, and the crisis of stagflation, combined to encroach upon business interests to a degree business was no longer willing to tolerate. In a backlash against labor, unions were attacked, social safety nets were shredded, and the taxes of corporations and the wealthy were slashed. The backlash was facilitated by advances in shipping and telecommunications, which allowed production to be relocated to non-union areas and low-wage countries. The doubling of the global capitalist workforce, which occurred as a result of the opening of China and India to foreign investment, and the collapse of the Warsaw Bloc, helped to drive wages down. [35] The ideology propagated by “radical” conservatives who organized themselves into corporate-funded think-tanks justified the new agenda, but didn’t cause it.

Gutstein and other progressives think it’s possible to turn back the hands of time. They want to return North America to a post-war capitalism. But returning to the post-war welfare state means recreating the material conditions of the post-war years, something no amount of counter-hegemonic progressive propaganda can achieve. Those days are gone, and while they may have been comfortable for white, male workers in the United States and Canada, they were not a nostalgic period for women and racial minorities in the global north, nor for the greater part of humanity in the global south whose oppression the social welfare gains of the north partly defrayed.

The lesson of the last three decades for the left is not, as Gutstein concludes, to work to restore the credibility of welfare capitalism, but to face up to the reality of what happens when working class movements fail to take the driver’s seat themselves, and allow business to keep its hands on the wheel. Left in place to drive the car, the major shareholders and board members of the top corporations steer in the direction that suits themselves, veering only slightly off course when the passengers, or the conditions of the road, leave them no other choice. But the road of capitalism is narrow, and business absolutely will not steer off the road, though it is in another direction that the interests of the car’s working class passengers lie. As Gutstein points out, “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism” are the traditional concerns of the left, and it is in societies in which the working class has come to power that these evils have been greatly reduced, if not eradicated altogether. By contrast, in societies in which business has been left in the driver’s seat or where labor attempts to share power with business, progressive gains, if they’ve gone far at all, are almost always temporary, revoked the moment business needs to take them back and is strong enough to do so. No, the lesson of the last three decades for the left is not to work to restore the credibility of social welfare capitalism, but for the working class itself to take control of the economy and to replace business in the driver seat. This is the only way to permanently secure the benefits business temporarily ceded to one section of the global working class during the post-war period, and to make them a reality for all.

1. Donald Gutstein, Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy, Key Porter Books, 2009, p. 315.
2. Gutstein, p. 59.
3. Gutstein, p. 57.
4. Gutstein, p. 17.
5. Gutstein, p. 315.
6. Gutstein, p. 58.
7. Gutstein, p. 304.
8. Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen, “Public opinion in U.S. turns against the war,” The Washington Post, August 20, 2009; John F. Burns, “Brown pledges to maintain Britain’s Afghan forces,” The New York Times, September 5, 2009; Julian E. Barnes, “Doubt raised on troop boost in Afghanistan war,” The Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2009; Linda McQuaig, “NATO is an unwelcome wedding guest,” The Toronto Star, July 28, 2009; “Just 40% of US back Afghan conflict,” The Morning Star (UK), October 8, 2009; Eric Schmitt and Steven Erlanger, “U.S. seeks 10,000 troops from its allies in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, November 26, 2009.
9. GlobeScan, “Wide Dissatisfaction with Capitalism — Twenty Years after Fall of Berlin Wall,” November 9, 2009, http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbc2009_berlin_wall/bbc09_berlin_wall_release.pdf
10. Gutstein, p. 80.
11. Gutstein, p. 303.
12. Gutstein, p. 58.
13. Gutstein, p. 66.
14. Ibid.
15. Gutstein, p. 92.
16. Gutstein, p. 63.
17. Ibid. One of the people involved in the post-World War I campaign was Ivy Ledbetter Lee who “helped John D. Rockefeller clean up his reputation.” This was done by establishing the Rockefeller Foundation. Being liberal, Rockefeller’s philanthropy escapes Gutstein’s critical gaze.
18. Gutstein, p. 70.
19. Ibid. It’s curious that Gutstein considers private enterprise ideology to be uniquely dominant in North America. While it’s true that social programs and unions are stronger in other places (Western Europe, for example), it would be an exaggeration to say that private enterprise ideology isn’t dominant among mainstream journalists and media commentators, top level civil servants and political parties, including labor, socialist and social democratic parties, outside of North America. It is not, however, dominant among the majority, as shown above.
20. Gutstein, p. 315.
21. Gutstein, p. 11-12.
22. Gutstein, p. 73.
23. Paul Sweezy, “Power elite or ruling class?” Monthly Review Pamphlet Series, No. 13.
24. G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics and Social Change, McGraw-Hill, 2005.
25. Gutstein, p. 30.
26. Gutstein, p. 56.
27. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, Monthly Review Press, April, 2009.
28. Fred Goldstein, Low-Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay, World View Forum, New York, 2008.
29. Gutstein, p. 309.
30. Ibid.
31. Gutstein, p. 318.
32. Ibid.
33. Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003; See also Michael James Barker’s web-log, http://michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com/. Barker has written extensively on liberal philanthropies and their role in manipulating democracy.
34. Gutstein, p. 292.
35. Goldstein.

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December 31, 2009 at 5:05 pm

The Concerned Africa Scholars’ Enthusiasms

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By Stephen Gowans

Professor of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg David Moore’s Mamdani’s Enthusiasms, which appeared on the Concerned Africa Scholars’ website on March 16, 2009, continues in the group’s tradition of pushing aside argument based on rigor and analysis, in preference for comfortable slogans, prejudice and cheap rhetorical tricks.

Moore’s aim is to discredit Mahmoud Mamdani, who committed the unpardonable sin of challenging the comfortable slogans and prejudices of Moore and his peers in a December 4, 2008 London Review of Books article, Lessons of Zimbabwe.

Moore’s attack is based, not on challenging Mamdani’s scholarship, but on associating him with me, “a blogger” whose blogs “are printed ardently by the Zimbabwean state’s organ, The Herald”, whose “corporal person remains mysterious” but “is known to many academics and activists concerned with Zimbabwe for his venomous attacks on civil society activists.” I’m also, according to Moore, a representative “of a Kissingerian intelligentsia” (along with Mamdani.) Thanks to Moore’s assurances that I am, indeed, a corporal person, my solipsist anxiety that I’ve only imagined my physical existence has finally receded. I see now that I’m really Henry Kissinger in the flesh.

Moore cares not one iota about attacking me. Not being a member of the club, I count for very little. My reputation, he points out, rests not on scholarship, as Mamdani’s does, but on “the popularity of (my) blogs” and also, Moore claims “the patronage of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information,” whatever that means. If it means I get paid by the Ministry, the payroll department is about 10 years in arrears.

It’s Mamdani, his fellow scholar, that Moore is attacking, and he does so through the rhetorical device of frequently pairing my name with the Ugandan scholar’s. Mamdani and Gowans say this…Mamdani and Gowans believe that…as if Mamdani and I are joined at the hip. Hell, we haven’t even exchanged e-mails, let alone bumped into each other at meetings of the Kissingerian Intelligentsia Society.

I’m not complaining about being paired with Mamdani. Indeed, I’m flattered. But I’m not so self-deluded as to fail to grasp that Moore intends no flattery. Instead, his aim is not to elevate me, but to knock down Mamdani by suggesting that Mamdani’s ideas are no better than those of what, to Moore, is a readily discreditable figure: myself – the mysterious and pedestrian blogger who, Moore claims, relies on “the patronage of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information” and whose blogs “are printed ardently by the Zimbabwean state’s organ, The Herald”.

Stripped of its parade of impression-management references to Gogol, Kentridge and the Kissingerian intelligentsia, Moore’s argument boils down to this: Look, the only person who agrees with Mamdani is some mysterious blogger who may as well be an agent of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Information. That’s not an argument of substance; it’s a smear.

The Concerned Africa Scholars’ view is that anything but ardent denunciation of Zanu-PF is pro-Mugabe propaganda – on Zimbabwe, about as sophisticated as the organization gets. Their concern isn’t with rooting out vectors of Zanu-PF propaganda as attacking anyone who departs from the established propaganda model, informed largely by New York Times articles and US State Department press releases, of reflexive anti-Zanu-PF bashing. It’s not that they don’t like propaganda; it’s just that they don’t like anyone challenging their own brand.

In the end, Moore simply proves the point I made in “Cynicism as a substitute for scholarship” – that criticism of Mamdani by the Concerned Africa Scholars reduces to ad hominem assaults and the substitution of cynicism for scholarship. If Moore and his peers want to challenge Mamdani’s scholarship on Zimbabwe, they ought to do so. I haven’t seen it yet, but when I do, I’ll be pleased. Doing so, however, will mean they must first suppress their enthusiasm for cheap rhetorical tricks and propagation of the established Western propaganda model and turn their attention to a new one: scholarship.

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March 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plans and MoveOn

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By Stephen Gowans

Michael D. Yates wrote an MRZine article accusing Fox and CNN journalists, and Michael Steele, the first black person to be selected to chair the Republican National Committee, of being complete boneheads. That Yates chose MRZine as his vehicle for launching a diatribe against the intellectual failings of the likes of Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer means he must have been looking for an easy sell. He might as well have told Palestinians that Zionists are not their friends.

Everyone on the Left knows there are plenty of right-wing morons, but rarely acknowledged is the plenitude of liberal morons. Progressives, for obvious reasons, don’t talk about them, though liberal morons are no less deserving of invective than Dobbs, Blitzer and Steele are.

Consider, for example, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org, to quote directly from Sourcewatch.org,

“is a web-based liberal advocacy organization that raises tens of millions of dollars for Democratic Party politicians and causes from the millions of people on its e-mail list. MoveOn funds or sponsors with other liberal advocacy organizations various coalitions such as Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), SavetheInternet.com Coalition, and Win Without War. It endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, fundraised and organized for him, and has become perhaps the lead lobby organization for his policies in 2009, apart from Obama’s own Organizing for America.”

My evidence for Ruben’s gobsmacking stupidity lies in the following four paragraphs from the New York Times of February 26. Discussing President Obama’s plans for “withdrawal” from Iraq, Times’ reporters Peter Baker and Thom Shanker note that “Even after August 2010 (the target date for withdrawal) as many as 50,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq would remain.”

MoveOn's Justin Ruben: Complete nitwit or complicit in Obama's deception on Iraq troop withdrawal or both?

MoveOn's Justin Ruben: Complete nitwit or complict in Obama's deception on Iraq troop withdrawal or both?

Obama says he intends to withdraw the remaining 50,000 “by 2011 in accordance with a strategic agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office,” (1) but has carefully chosen his words “to avoid a firm commitment.” (2) Intending to withdraw is different from committing to withdraw, and is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s talk of aspirational goals, as in: I aspire to do something, but that doesn’t mean I will.

Obama, the February 26 New York Times article continued,“plans to seek more money for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a separate fund outside the Pentagon’s base budget, which will also grow beyond the 2009 spending plan of $513 billion. The separate ‘war costs’ budget proposal for 2010 could reach $130 billion to $140 billion, officials said.”

These are hardly the actions of a president preparing to wind down the war, but are entirely in keeping with the actions of a president whose country is structurally compelled to pursue an aggressive foreign policy.

“Word of Mr. Obama’s impending decision generated little of the anger that has flavored the Iraq debate for years,” The New York Times’ reporters noted. “Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, a group that has strongly opposed the war, said activists were willing to give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt.”

“’People have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war’,” Mr. Ruben said. “’This is basically what he promised in the election.’”

What Obama promised and what people think he promised are not often the same. But even in the face of Obama acting against what people thought he promised, morons like Ruben are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the divide between those selling you a bill of goods, and those being suckered, Obama sits on one side and Ruben on the other. Or is Ruben on Obama’s side? Is he the confederate who shouts from the crowd, “I’ll take ten of those,” after the snake oil salesman finishes his spiel on his amazing elixir that cures cancer, heart disease, flagging libido and the fleas?

It should be noted that plans for a stay-behind-force of around 50,000 troops were in the works under the Bush administration — another brick in the wall of evidence showing there are no foreign policy discontinuities of significance between Republican and Democrat administrations. Regime change in Iraq was official policy under the Clinton administration and the permanent military occupation of Iraq is as much a fixture of Obama’s foreign policy as it was of Bush’s. Indeed, that Obama has chosen to retain the Bush team’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (who has served under seven previous presidents (3)) and Generals Petraeus and Odierno, shows he has not only “decided not to challenge the fundamental strategic orientation” of the Bush administration, but that he has chosen not to break to with the US policy of permanent military aggression. Obama’s carry-overs from the Bush administration will “oversee and manage the Iraq occupation” and “the widening U.S war in Afghanistan and the aerial assaults on Pakistan.” (4) Nothing has changed.

That Obama is carrying on in the traditions of previous US presidents should come as no surprise. What matters are not the personnel in Washington, and whether the president is black, brown, yellow, red, white, liberal or conservative, but the systemic imperatives that structure US policy and the interests of the corporate class whose wealth and connections are used to place people with the right politics in senior state positions.

1. Peter Baker, “With pledges to troops and Iraqis, Obama details pullout,” The New York Times, February 28, 2009.

2. ANSWER coalition response to President Obama’s Iraq Speech of Friday, February 27.

3. “Iraq: Will Obama’s ‘change’ be more of the same?” Proletarian, Issue 28 (February 2009)

4. ANSWER coalition response

Written by what's left

March 1, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Posted in Iraq, Liberals, Obama

Cynicism as a substitute for scholarship

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“…against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance.”*

By Stephen Gowans

Mahmood Mamdani’s largely sympathetic analysis of the Mugabe government, “Lessons of Zimbabwe,” published in the December 4, 2008 London Review of Books, has been met with a spate of replies from progressive scholars who are incensed at the Ugandan academic throwing out the rule book to present an argument based on rigor and analysis, rather than on the accustomed elaboration of comfortable slogans and prejudices that has marked much progressive scholarship on Zimbabwe. Their criticism of Mamdani has been characterized by ad hominem assaults, arguments that either lack substance or sense, and the substitution of cynicism for scholarship.

Criticized by progressive scholars for shunning crude anti-Mugabe sloganeering.

Mahmood Mamdani: Criticized by progressive scholars for shunning crude anti-Mugabe sloganeering.

At the heart of what might be called the anti-Mugabe ideology lays the idea that the Zimbabwean leadership clings to power through crude anti-imperialist rhetoric used to divert blame for problems of its own making. This is an elaboration of elite theory — the idea that a small group seeks power for power’s sake, and manipulates the public through lies and rhetoric to stay on top. For example, one group of progressive scholars [1] complains about “Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimization,” while Horace Campbell argues that,

”The Zimbabwe government is very aware of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments among oppressed peoples and thus has deployed a range of propagandists inside and outside the country in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to international sanctions by the EU and USA.” [2]

Contrary to the empty rhetoric school of thought, Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric is not unattended by anti-imperialist action, but in some extreme versions of anti-Mugabe thought, (for example, that put forward by Patrick Bond), Mugabe is an errand boy for Western capital. [3] The Zimbabwean leader’s anti-imperialist reputation is, according to this view, smoke and mirrors, an illusion conjured by a deft magician.

The Mugabe government’s anti-imperialist and anti-neo-colonial credentials rest on the following:

o In the late 1990s, intervening militarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the side of the young government of Laurent Kabila, to counter an invasion by Rwandan and Ugandan forces backed by the US and Britain.

o Rejecting a pro-foreign investment economic restructuring program established by the IMF as a condition for balance of payment support (after initially accepting it.)

o Expropriating farms owned by settlers of European origin as part of a program of land redistribution aimed at benefiting the historically disadvantaged African population.

o Establishing foreign investment controls and other measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s natural resources and enterprises.

Progressive scholars typically avoid mention of these anti-imperialist actions, for to do so would clash violently with the idea that Harare’s anti-imperialism is based on empty rhetoric. A few, however, do acknowledge these actions, but insist they were undertaken to enrich Mugabe and, aping US State Department and New York Times rhetoric, “his cronies.” Zimbabwe is said to have intervened militarily in the DRC to profit from the Congo’s rich mineral resources. Land is said to have been redistributed to reward Mugabe’s lieutenants (in which case, with 400,000 previously landless families resettled, Mugabe’s lieutenants comprise a sizeable part of the rural population). And measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership in Zimbabwe’s economy are said to have no other aim than to enrich Mugabe’s friends.

This substitutes cynicism for analysis. Has there been corruption in the land resettlement program? Asbolutely. But what human enterprise is free from corruption? What’s more, is the presence of corruption in a program, proof the program was undertaken for corrupt reasons? Measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership in the economy are scorned by progressive scholars for being capitalist. Fine, but a failure to be anti-capitalist is not equal to a failure to be anti-imperialist; nor is it proof of being pro-imperialist.

The foreign policy of capitalist governments is based in large measure on protecting their nationals’ ownership rights to foreign productive assets and promoting their access to foreign investment and export opportunities. Under the Mugabe government, ownership rights have not been safeguarded and foreign investment and export opportunities have been limited by tariff policies, foreign investment controls, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors. Absent in the analyses of progressive scholars is the understanding of the Mugabe government’s policies from the point of view of the banks and corporations of the imperialist center. One key US ruling class foundation, The Heritage Foundation, complains that Zimbabwe’s “average tariff rate is high” and that “non-tariff barriers are embedded in the labyrinthine customs service;” that “state influence in most areas is stifling, and expropriation is common as the executive pushes forward its economic plan of resource distribution”; that Zimbabwe has “burdensome tax rates” and that “privatization has stalled”…”with slightly over 10 percent of targeted concerns privatized”…”and the government remains highly interventionist.” Of equal concern is Harare’s practice of setting “price ceilings for essential commodities,” “controls (on) the prices of basic goods and food staples,” and influence over “prices through subsidies and state-owned enterprises and utilities” – odd practices for what we’re to believe is a group of errand boys for Western capital. But perhaps of greatest concern to Western corporations and banks is Harare’s investment policies. “The government will consider foreign investment up to 100 percent in high-priority projects but applies pressure for eventual majority ownership by Zimbabweans and stresses the importance of investment from Asian countries, especially China and Malaysia, rather than Western countries.” [4] This paints a picture of the Mugabe government, not as a facilitator of Western economic penetration, but as economically nationalist, pursuing a program aimed at placing control of Zimbabwe’s land, natural resources and enterprises in the hands of black Zimbabweans. It is, in short, a black nationalist government. Clearly, Western investors don’t think Mugabe is working on their behalf. The only people who do are progressive scholars.

Confuses ZDERA with targetted sanctions.

Progressive scholar Horace Campbell: Confuses ZDERA with targetted sanctions.

The Mugabe government’s pursuit of black nationalist interests, which clashes in important ways with the interests of Western banks and corporations as well as with the minority population of settlers of European origin, has been met by a strong, multi-faceted response from the US, Britain and the EU. This has included the denial of balance of payment support and development aid, the building up of civil society as a pole of opposition to the Mugabe government, the creation of and subsequent direction of an opposition party, and an international campaign of vilification aimed at discrediting the Mugabe government. [5] Progressive scholars barely acknowledge the Western response, treating it more as an invention of the Mugabe government, used to manipulate the population and to deflect attention from its failings, than as a reality – a bowing to elite theory, rather than to the facts.

Campbell, for example, complains that,

“The Mugabe government blames all of its problems on the economic war launched by the USA and Britain. For the Mugabe regime, at the core of this economic war, are the targeted sanctions against Mugabe’s top lieutenants under its Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA), passed by the Bush administration in 2001.” [6]

Campbell confuses targeted sanctions aimed at senior members of the Mugabe government, with ZDERA, an act which blocks Zimbabwe’s access to international credit, and, therefore, affects all Zimbabweans, not just Zanu-PF grandees. According to the act,

The Secretary of the Treasury shall instruct the United States executive director to each international financial institution to oppose and vote against–

(1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe; or

(2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.” [7]

Zimbabwe’s economy, like that of any other Third World country, was never robust to begin with, and inasmuch as it has always relied heavily on Western inputs and access to Western exports, was never too difficult to push into crisis by Western governments intent on making a point. To pretend Washington, London and Brussels haven’t sought to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy, or are incapable of it, is absurd. ZDERA effectively reduces Zimbabwe’s access to the foreign exchange it needs to import necessities from abroad, including chemicals to treat drinking water, a significant point in the recent cholera outbreak. Development aid from the World Bank is also cut off, denying the country access to funds to build and repair the infrastructure needed to run a modern economy. Rather than banning the export of goods to Zimbabwe (the popular understanding of sanctions), the US has made importing goods a challenge. This doesn’t mean that Zimbabwe can’t import goods, or that there is no outside investment. What it does mean, however, is that Zimbabwe is denied access to the kind of financial support poor countries depend on to get by. The intended effect is to make Zimbabwe’s economy scream, and it has. Campbell, who, based on his equating ZDERA with targeted sanctions on individuals, doesn’t understand it, or hasn’t read it, dismisses the idea that the West’s economic warfare accounts for Zimbabwe’s economic troubles. He writes that,

“What has been clear from the hundreds of millions of dollars of investments by British, Chinese, Malaysian, South African and other capitalists in the Zimbabwe economy since 2003 is that the problems in Zimbabwe haven’t been caused by an economic war against the country.” [8]

This is like saying anyone exposed to an influenza virus couldn’t possibly be ill because he has received mega-doses of vitamins. Investment from non-Western sources may mitigate some of the problems created by ZDERA, but it doesn’t eliminate them. Chinese investment in platinum mines, for example, will not eliminate a balance of payment problem.

Understating the effects of ZDERA is not the only area in which progressive scholars go wrong; their failure to acknowledge Western efforts to build up a civil society with a mandate to destabilize Zimbabwe is another. This is inexcusable, since the efforts of Western governments to create, nurture, support, direct, and mentor opposition to the Mugabe government, including overthrow movements, is well documented [9] – mainly because these governments have been open about it — and is hardly new. It has been used elsewhere, famously in Chile, and recently in Venezuela, Belarus, and the former Yugoslavia.

One reason for the failure of progressive scholars to acknowledge the role played by Western governments and ruling class foundations in destabilizing Zimbabwe may be because they too benefit from the same sources of funding. Campbell’s critique of Mamdani, for example, was published at Pambazuka News. Pambazuka News is a project of the US ruling class Ford Foundation and of the Open Society Institute [10], a vehicle of billionaire financier George Soros to promote color-coded revolutions, under the guise of democracy promotion, in countries whose governments have been less than open to Western exports and investments. Pambazuka News is also sponsored by Fahamu [11]. While Fahamu no longer lists Western governments as funders, it has, in the past, been funded by the US State Department through USAID, by the British Parliament through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, by the British government through the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Department of International Development, and by the European Union. The US, Britain and EU are on record as seeking the overthrow of the Mugabe government. They fund the organizations that disseminate anti-Mugabe analyses and sloganeering. They do so with one aim: to overthrow the Mugabe government. Campbell’s protesting that he is opposed to imperialist interventions is a bit like buying crack on the street while professing opposition to drug dealing, or placing a Think Green sticker on the bumper of your new SUV. Similarly, progressive scholar Patrick Bond, whose anti-Mugabe diatribes can also be found at Pambazuka News, describes the overthrow movement Sokwanele as an independent left, seemingly unaware it is on the US government payroll. [12]

Hails Sokwanele as an independent left, seemingly unaware it is funded by the US government.

Progressive scholar Patrick Bond: Hails Sokwanele as an independent left, seemingly unaware it is funded by the US government.

Not only do progressive scholars ignore the links of Zimbabwe’s opposition to imperialist governments and foundations, they celebrate the opposition. Campbell refers to members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) as “brave fighters.” [13] Brave fighters they may be, but Campbell does not let on (or know) what Woza is fighting for. The group’s leader, Jenni Williams, won the US State Department’s 2007 International Woman of Courage Award for Africa, a plaudit presented to Williams by Condoleezza Rice in a March, 2007 ceremony in Washington. [14] It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that the US State Department’s priority is to secure the interests of US corporations and banks abroad, not the interests of the women of Zimbabwe. So why is the US State Department recognizing Williams? Not for her service to women’s rights, but because her activities help to destabilize Zimbabwe and bring closer the day the black nationalist program of the Mugabe government can be swept aside to clear the way for the unfettered pursuit of US corporate and banking interests. A US government report on the activities in 2007 of its mission to Zimbabwe reveals that the “US Government continued its assistance to Women of Zimbabwe Arise.” [15] US government assistance to Woza and other civil society organizations is channelled through Freedom House and PACT. Freedom House is interlocked with the CIA and is a “virtual propaganda arm of the (US) government and international right wing,” according to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. [16] It is headed by Peter Ackerman. Ackerman runs the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, of which Stephen Zunes, another progressive scholar, is chair of the board of academic advisors. Ackerman’s wife, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, is a former director of the Albert Einstein Institute, an organization which trained activists in popular insurrection techniques to overthrow Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and has consulted with members of Zimbabwe’s civil society opposition on how to use non-violence to overthrow the Mugabe government. [17] Woza supports two US State Department propaganda vehicles: SW Radio Africa, a US State Department funded short-wave radio station that beams anti-Mugabe propaganda into Zimbabwe, and the Voice of America’s Studio 7, also funded by the US State Department to broadcast US foreign policy positions into Zimbabwe. [18] Zunes says Woza can by no means be considered American agents [19], echoing the progressive scholars’ line that there are no Western efforts to overthrow the Mugabe government; it’s all part of the anti-imperialist rhetoric Mugabe uses to stay in power.

Says Woza can by no means be considered American agents. The US government disagrees.

Progressive scholar Stephen Zunes: Says Woza can by no means be considered American agents. The US government disagrees.

One of the biggest problems for progressive scholars is that their wish to see the Mugabe government brought down inevitably means its replacement by the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC. If Zanu-PF is deplored by some progressive scholars and demonized from the left for being capitalist, the MDC should have two strikes against it: it’s not only capitalist, it is unquestionably the errand boy of the imperialist center, a point one doesn’t have to twist oneself into knots to make, as is done whenever progressive scholars claim Mugabe, despite being sanctioned and vilified by the West, is kept afloat by and works on behalf of Western capital. The MDC’s subservience to Western corporate and banking interests is amply evidenced in its origins (Britain and British wealth provided the seed money), policy platform (decidedly pro-foreign investment), [20] and its advisors (the John McCain-led international arm of the Republican Party, the IRI [21]). Under an MDC government, the stalled privatization program the Heritage Foundation complains about will quickly be restarted. Foreign investment controls, subsidies, tariffs, and price controls will be terminated. Reversal of land reform, while it may come slowly, will inevitably happen, as a condition of ending ZDERA. IMF and World Bank loans will be extended, and the pro-foreign investment measures which are the inevitable condition of these loans will gladly be acceded to.

So, what do progressive scholars like Campbell offer as an antidote? “That Zimbabweans…oppose the neoliberal forces within the MDC to ensure that the suffering of working people does not continue after the ultimate departure of Robert Mugabe.” [22] There is more naiveté in this single sentence than there is in the average five year old. Please! Neoliberal forces have controlled the MDC from day one [22], and they’ve controlled the party because they hold its purse strings. Their control won’t disappear the moment Mugabe is gone; on the contrary, it is at that moment it will be strongest. But suppose, for a moment, that Campbell’s naive fantasy comes true, and that the forces that provide the funding that is the lifeblood of the MDC, yield to pressure from Zimbabweans, who, at one moment, vote the MDC into power, despite its neo-liberal platform, and at the next, ask the MDC to abandon the platform it was elected on. Were the MDC to yield to this pressure, it would face exactly the same response the Mugabe government faced when it backed away from neo-liberal policies: sanctions, destabilization, demonization and the threat of military intervention. The failure of Campbell to understand this evinces an unsophisticated understanding of the foreign policies of Western countries.

How droll, then, is the pairing of this breathtaking naiveté with the utter arrogance of progressive scholars. They dismiss Mamdani for failing “to look more deeply at the crisis” and for being “fooled by Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimization,” and then moan that preventing non-experts from falling for Mugabe’s rhetoric is “one of the more difficult tasks for scholars working on Zimbabwe.” And yet a far more difficult task, it would seem, is for the same scholars to acquaint themselves with the basics: what ZDERA is; why the West is waging economic warfare; what the policies of ZANU-PF are compared to the MDC’s and how these policies align, or fail to align, with the interests of Western banks and corporations; and who created and guides the opposition. Indeed, it could be said that one of the most difficult tasks for anti-imperialists working on Zimbabwe is to persuade progressive scholars to look more deeply into the crisis and not be fooled by imperialist rhetoric.

1. Timothy Scarnecchia, Jocelyn Alexander et al, “Lessons of Zimbabwe,” Letters, London Review of Books, Volume 31, No. 1, January, 2009.
2. Horace Campbell, “Mamdani, Mugabe and the African scholarly community,” Pambazuka News, December 18, 2008. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/52845
3. Bond, Patrick, “Mugabe: Talks Radical, Acts Like a Reactionary: Zimbabwe’s Descent,” Counterpucnh.org, March 27, 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/bond03272007.html
4. Heritage Foundation, Index of Economic Freedom, 2008, http://www.heritage.org/research/features/index/country.cfm?ID=Zimbabwe)
5. Stephen Gowans, “Zimbabwe at War,” What’s Left, June 24, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/zimbabwe-at-war/
6. Campbell.
7. US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001. http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=107_cong_bills&docid=f:s494enr.txt.pdf
8. Campbell.
9. See the section titled “Regime Change Agenda” in Stephen Gowans, “Zimbabwe at War,” What’s Left, June 24, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/zimbabwe-at-war/
10. Look under funders at Pambazuka News’ “About” page at http://www.pambazuka.org/en/about.php .
11. Ibid.
12. See Stephen Gowans, “Grassroot Lieutenants of Imperialism,” What’s Left, April 2, 2007, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/grassroots-lieutenants-of-imperialism/ and Stephen Gowans, “Talk Left, Funded Right,” What’s Left, April 7, 2007, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/07/talk-left-funded-right/.
13. Campbell.
14. Jim Fisher-Thompson, “Zimbabwean receives International Woman of Courage Award,” USINFO, March 7, 2007. http://www.america.gov/st/hr-english/2007/March/200703071523081EJrehsiF0.7266962.html
15. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACL121.pdf . See also Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes’ false statements on Zimbabwe and Woza,” What’s Left, September 30, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/stephen-zunes%e2%80%99-false-statements-on-zimbabwe-and-woza/
16. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 28
17. Michael Barker, “Sharp Reflection Warranted: Non-violence in the Service of Imperialism,” Swans, June 30, 2008. http://www.swans.com/library/art14/barker01.html
18. See Woza’s website, http://wozazimbabwe.org/?page_id=29 ; “Studio 7, launched in 2003, is the Zimbabwe program of Voice of America, which is funded by the United States. The program is broadcast in Shona, Ndebele and English, and is beamed into Zimbabwe from a transmitter in Botswana on the AM signal and by shortwave.” Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 26, 2005. In an April 5, 2007 report, the US Department of State revealed that it had worked to expand the listener base of Voice of America’s Studio 7 radio station. On SW Radio Africa see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=SW_Radio_Africa .
19. See Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes’ false statements on Zimbabwe and Woza,” What’s Left, September 30, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/stephen-zunes%e2%80%99-false-statements-on-zimbabwe-and-woza/
20. In 2000, the (British Parliament’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy) provided the MDC with $10 million. Herald (Zimbabwe), September 4, 2001 cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “WFD has been involved in over 80 projects aiding the MDC, and helped plan election strategy. It also provides funding to the party’s youth and women’s groups.” Herald (Zimbabwe), January 2, 2001, cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “In a clandestinely filmed interview, screened in Australia on February 2002 on the SBS Dateline program, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was caught on camera admitting that his organization was financed by European governments and corporations, the money being channelled through a British firm of political consultants, BSMG.” Rob Gowland, “Zimbabwe: The struggle for land, the struggle for independence,” Communist Party of Australia; Civil society groups “and the Movement for Democratic Change…have broad Western support, and, often, financing.” New York Times, December 24, 2004; The International Republican Institute, the international arm of the Republican Party, “is using (the US State Department’s) USAID and the US embassy in Harare to channel support to the MDC, circumventing restrictions of Zimbabwe’s Political Parties Finance Act. Herald (Zimbabwe) August 12, 2005; USAID bankrolls sixteen civil society organizations in Zimbabwe, with emphasis on supporting the MDC’s parliamentary activities. “Zimbabwe Program Data Sheet,” U.S. Agency for International Development, cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “USAID has a long and successful history of working with Zimbabwe’s civil society, democratic political parties, the Parliament and local government.” Testimony of Katherine Almquist, USAID Assistant Administrator for Africa, The Crisis in Zimbabwe and Prospects for Resolution. Subcommittee on African Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, July 15, 2008.

From the MDC’s 2008 policy platform: The MDC does not believe that government should be involved in running businesses and it will restore title in full to all companies; Private enterprise in general, and industry in particular, will be the engine of economic growth in a new Zimbabwe; The MDC government will remove price controls and reverse the coercive indigenization proposals recently adopted; (An MDC government will show) an unwavering commitment to:
* The safety and security of individual and corporate property rights.
* Opening industry to foreign direct investment and the unfettered repatriation of dividends.
* The repeal of all statutes that inhibit the establishment and maintenance of a socio-economic environment conducive to the sustained growth and development of the industrial sector.
The MDC will…(open)…up private sector participation in postal and telecommunication services; (The MDC believes) the private sector is in a better position to finance new development and respond to customer needs (in telecommunications); (An MDC government will) look into…the full privatization of the electronic media.

According to progressive scholar Patrick Bond: “…very quickly, what had begun as a working-class party … was hijacked by international geopolitical forces, domestic (white) business and farming interests, and the black petite bourgeoisie.” Noah Tucker, “In the Shadow of Empire,” 21st Century Socialism, August 3, 2008, http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/in_the_shadow_of_empire_01694.html
21. The “IRI held a workshop for Tsvangirai’s shadow government at which each shadow minister presented and defended his/her policy positions. A panel of technical experts grilled presenters on the technical content of their policies.” US State Department report. See Stephen Gowans, “US government report undermines Zimbabwe opposition’s claim of independence,” What’s Left, October 4, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/us-government-report-undermines-zimbabwe-opposition%e2%80%99s-claim-of-independence/
22. Campbell.
23. That Campbell thinks there’s any possibility of the MDC being budged from its neo-liberal position shows that he should spend less time worrying about whether others are falling for Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and more time worrying about whether he has fallen for the rhetoric of the MDC and its imperialist backers. The nascent MDC appointed an official of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Eddie Cross, as its Secretary of Economic Affairs. In a speech delivered shortly after his appointment, Cross articulated the MDC economic plan. “First of all, we believe in the free market. We do not support price control. We do not support government interfering in the way people manage their lives. We are in favor of reduced levels of taxation. We are going to fast track privatization. All fifty government parastatals will be privatized within a two-year frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatize many of the functions of government. We are going to privatize the Central Statistics Office. We are going to privatize virtually the entire school delivery system. And you know, we have looked at the numbers and we think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years.” Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya, Zimbabwe’s Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice, Merlin Press, 2002.

A policy paper issued by the party in 2000 spelled out its plans to attract “foreign direct investment…on a substantial scale.” The party planned to: “Appoint a “fund manager to dispose of government-owned shares in publicly quoted companies”; “Privatize all designated parastatals [public companies] within two years”; Encourage “foreign strategic investors … to bid for a majority stake in the enterprises being privatized.”
“Social and Economic Policies for a New Millennium,” MDC policy paper, May 26, 2000.

* Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Pantheon Books, 2009.

Written by what's left

December 30, 2008 at 6:21 pm

Obama and Miracles that Never Happen

with 2 comments

By Gowans

If 10 times more people claimed to have attended Woodstock than were actually there, I suspect 10 times more people claim to have wept at Obama’s election victory than actually did. Weeping on the night of November 4 – or claiming you did — has now become a fashion. I, too, wept, though not because Obama won, but because the number of times I heard the words “Obama is the embodiment of hope” was too much to bear.

The day before the election, my son called me from school.

“I was just interviewed on Obama for the national news,” he related excitedly.

“”How’d that happen?”

“Actually, it was a group of us who were interviewed. I’m not sure I’m going to make it on the newscast, though. The reporter was looking for gushing reactions, and I pointed out that I had some concerns about Obama because he had received more in corporate donations than McCain had. I don’t think that’s quite what she was looking for.”

No mistake there. Two days later the segment aired in the last 10 minutes of an hour-long news show devoted to documenting (and manufacturing) excited reactions to the Obama victory. After 50 minutes of Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans delivering encomia on the Obama victory, my son’s chance at a brief moment of public exposure arrived. A group of high-school students, my son among them, is seen walking into a room. The reporter turns to each in turn and asks, “What do you think of Obama?” The first, a young man born in Canada to Chinese parents, says he identifies with Obama, because they’re both ethnic minorities. Another talks of hope. A third says she gets shivers down her spine whenever she hears Obama talk. (Demonstrating a talent for prophecy, my son predicts two days earlier that “She’ll make it on the newscast for sure.”) And so it goes, each student joining in the celebration, because, wasn’t that the implicit contract? Gush over Obama, and see yourself on TV. My son, whose concerns over Obama’s netting more corporate donations than McCain clashed impolitely with the intoxicated atmosphere of Obama worship, became a voiceless image; the one student who, for reasons never explained, was seen, but not heard, on camera.

To those grasping at straws, the election of a black man as president signals the recession of anti-black racism in the United States. For the gullible, it signals the dawn of a new age of hope.

There have been black people in numerous positions of power in the US before, from CEOs to mayors to governors to secretaries of state to the country’s top soldier. Now we can add president. Will anything of substance change because of this? Obama’s victory hasn’t caused anti-black racism to recede; it is, instead, a consequence of this. Will a black man in the White House make clear to the romantics who haven’t figured it out yet that black people are no different from white people, equally capable of oppressing, exploiting, plundering and killing on a massive scale? Add that liberals are as capable of these things as conservatives, and Obama, the black liberal president, offers no hope of departure from the accustomed trajectory.

Despite its recession, anti-black racism has only receded to the point where a privileged black man with rare forensic talents, the massive backing of the corporate community, and the help of the best marketing talent money can buy, can get elected; it has by no means disappeared, nor receded enough to make a substantial difference in the lives of most black people.

But for black people there’s inspiration to be found in one of their own ascending to the highest office in the land. The joy is misplaced. The only thing Obama shares in common with 99 percent of blacks in the United States is the color of his skin, and skin color, when you get right down to it, is only of consequence to bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology once used by slave-owners (who happened to be white) to justify exploitation of slaves (who happened to be black.) If you’re going to screw people over, it’s useful to have a body of legitimizing ideas; after all, who wants to come face to face with the reality that he’s an unconscionable prick living off the toil of others? That’s where racism comes in handy. And if we’re talking about people exploiting others of the same skin color, there’s a whole other body of ideas to justify that, which, in these days of thin class consciousness, most of us mistake for common sense. To be sure, skin color does matter to the victims of racism because they can’t escape the fact that the bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology keep making a fuss about it. But that makes Obama as much like them as George Bush is like me.

Come to think of it, George and I are alike in many ways. We’re middle aged; we both trip over words; we’re white; we’re male. But so what? George comes from a ruling class family; my forebears worked in factories, did manual labor, and in recent years, ascended to the ranks of the white-collar proletariat, deluding themselves that by wearing a tie and acting “professional” they had transcended their class. George snorted coke; I worked in a pharmaceutical factory for his friend Donald Rumsfeld. George went to Yale and the Harvard Business School on his family’s money; I went to two undistinguished public universities, one located in the gritty industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, paying subsidized tuition with money saved up working at a grocery store. Whatever we have in common is picayune next to what sets us apart.

The very best comment I’ve heard on the Obama victory comes from Mickey Z. Obama’s ascendancy, he said in a Dec 1 interview published in the British newspaper, The Morning Star, “is an excellent illustration of how the system handles dissent. A black face, a soothing voice and a vague message of change – all designed to keep the rabble pacified without changing anything at all.”

While a debate whirled around me during the days leading up to the election over the question of whether leftists ought to vote for Obama or opt for someone who wasn’t going to put more boots on Afghan soil and rattle the Pentagon’s sabre at Iran, I kept my counsel. For one thing, I’m not a US citizen. The job of everyone else in the world is to bear the brunt of the stupid decisions Americans make. As much as the rest of us wish the consequences of their choices were limited to the US, sadly, what happens in the United States often has dire consequences for those living everywhere else. For another, all the reasons for not voting for a Democrat or Republican had been made cogently and repeatedly before, apparently, to no avail, and having exceeded my limit in flogging dead horses, I was tapped out. What’s more, it was clear that the Obama-supporters had formed an impermeable seal around their brains that admitted no appeal to reason. This was to be a purely emotional choice; hence, the tears of joy on election night.

While a vote for Nader had its merits, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nader-supporters shared a delusion with the Obama-backers – that of believing that the right person in the Oval Office would make a difference. Americans might be excused for this delusion; after all, they’ve never elected a leftwing president and therefore have been spared the cold blast of reality that disappoints those who’ve worked to elect a leftwing government. Had they not been deprived of this sobering experience, they would recognize their faith in third party politics for the naïveté it is. A quick survey of what has happened when social democrats, socialists and even communists have won elections and formed governments with a program of reforming the system from within, leaves no doubt as to the possible outcomes. A new socialist age is not one of them. Either the new government:

o Recognizes that it must cater to the imperatives of the system it has chosen to work within to prevent its rule from being destabilized, and therefore behaves as any other pro-capitalist government does.

o Boldly introduces anti-capitalist reforms, only to suffer a backlash as investors and businesses withdraw their capital and refuse to make further investments. This provokes an economic crisis, and the government’s supporters, menaced by rising unemployment or shortages or rampant inflation, withdraw their support.

o Is ousted in a military or fascist coup.

o Is destabilized by outside forces.

Only where the energy of the bulk of people has been mobilized to tear the system down and replace it with one friendly to popular interests, have leftwing forces prevailed for any substantial period.

How is it, then, that substantial reforms, such as the public health care systems of Western Europe and Canada, came into being, if not by the agency of leftwing governments voted into power to reform the system from within? The truth of the matter is that reforms were just as likely to be introduced by conservatives as social democrats (and none of the reforms ushered in by Western governments, often as Cold War expediency, ever matched the programs established under Marxist-Leninist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern European.) It was Bismark and Gladstone – hardly lefties — who introduced the first modern social welfare programs. The basis for social security in the US came not from the Democrats or organized labor, but from the Rockefeller-founded Industrial Relations Counselors Inc., to head off labor unrest. While a Labour government was introducing the NHS in Britain, conservative governments on the continent were introducing their own NHS equivalents. And in Canada, it was the conservative government of John Diefenbaker that introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act of 1957. Social democrats have claimed social programs as their own, but they can lay no claim to being the sole parents, and have just as often been involved in dismantling the reforms predecessor (and often conservative) governments had introduced.

The programs pursued by governments are shaped by the circumstances they encounter, surrounding events, and for those with reformist aims, by the constraints of the constitutional system and the logic of the capitalist system they’ve chosen to work within. Left-leaning governments bow to the demands of the capitalist economy to survive; conservative governments introduce reforms and concessions to head off labor militancy. Often these constraints are ignored by critics, who assume implicitly that the right person, once elevated to a position of power, is free to make history as he pleases. “Once our man is in power, just wait to see what happens.” The answer is often, more of the same, or policies the government’s backers revile.

Across from me sits a book on whose spine is written “Giving Away a Miracle.” It’s the story of the unlikely election in the 90s of a social democratic government in Ontario (the miracle.) The giving away began the very same night the party was elected, as its leader began beating a hasty retreat from the party’s campaign promises. It ended with the party, the supposed voice of organized labor, tearing up collective agreements it had negotiated with public sector unions.

The transformation from rhetorical champion of the average worker to just another pro-capitalist government was inevitable. The promises made – among them public auto insurance — would have ended in a messy fight with corporate Canada. Investments would be delayed, capital would be taken out of the province, and jobs would be lost. The news media, which exert a powerful influence in shaping public opinion, were uniformly hostile, warning that the new government would turn Ontario into an economic basket-case. The only way the government could have pursued its agenda was to have had massive popular support, toughened by the people’s readiness to suffer the inevitable blows that the corporations whose interests would be encroached upon, would rain upon the province. This, the government didn’t have, nor could have for long under circumstances in which conservative forces were allowed to continue to control the means of production and means of persuasion. What would have truly been a miracle is if the powerful opponents of the government’s agenda had stepped aside in deference to the people’s will and allowed anti-capitalist reforms to go ahead. But this never happens. The problem, then, wasn’t that a miracle had been given away; the problem was that the miracle of absent opposition never materialized.

The same can be said about Obama. Even if he were pro-labor and anti-war — which even a superficial look at his voting record, campaign statements, and cabinet choices will reveal he is not –- the course he pursued would have infinitely more to do with the socio-economic forces that press upon him than the color of his skin, his political leanings, or the fact that he belongs to one party of business rather than another. The same goes for Nader. If by some miracle he had won, his good intentions would prove no match for the system he chose to work within.

Obama’s election is no miracle, just what was needed to create the illusion of change. Any chance of meaningful change will require more than the election of another exhibitionist lawyer whose charm, forensic skills and ambition allowed him to catch the eye of people with the connections and resources to get him elected – the people who really rule America. The United States’ first black president is just another instrument of moneyed interests whose decisions will be structured by his obligations to the people who put him power and the logic of the capitalist system in which he must work — a charming Bush, with darker skin and a liberal pedigree. A better alternative than McCain? If you prefer the used car salesman who sells you a piece of crap while making you feel good about yourself, to the one who’s less talented in hiding his guile, yes. But shit is shit, whether you mask the odor with perfume or not.

Written by what's left

December 6, 2008 at 11:40 pm

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