what's left

The far right has a ready answer. Does the left?

Posted in Communism, Marxism, Moderate Left, Racism, Socialism, Soviet Union, Xenophobia by what's left on September 25, 2010

By Stephen Gowans

“The search for scapegoats has started,” observes German magazine editor Michael Naumann, alluding to growing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe. The Swedes “elected an anti-immigrant party to Parliament for the first time, and the French are busy repatriating Roma” while “Germans continue to debate a best-selling book blaming Muslim immigrants for ‘dumbing down society’.” (1) Complaints are heard in England that England is no longer for the English, while a paroxysm of Islamophobia marks a US campaign to block a Ground Zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Naumann’s point is taken, but he misses the reality. The search hasn’t just begun, it’s complete.

These days, the paradigm for scapegoating is provided by the Nazis’ blaming Jews for the ills of the inter-war years, a period of intense capitalist crisis. The parallel is the latest crisis, with its mass unemployment, insecurity, stagnant and shrinking incomes, and in some places, fiscal austerity. The real blame lies with capitalism–a system whose internal dynamics regularly produce wrenching downturns, making life uncertain, challenging and sometimes cold, bleak and humiliating for countless millions. How many people 50 years of age and older live, either without hope of ever again finding work, or in fear they’ll lose their jobs and never work again? How many young people have failed to land a first job, or are forced to navigate an uncertain world of low-paying, part-time, contract or temporary positions? How many are working harder, for less? In times of crisis the desperate, the humiliated, the frightened, look for an explanation for their situation.

They don’t have to look far. The far right has a ready answer—that immigrants are stealing our jobs and freeloading on social services. The first part has a ring of truth to it. Governments, after all, do use immigration policy to manage labor market flexibility, a euphemism for a pool of employees large enough to meet capital’s current demand for labor with a reserve army of job seekers left over. The reserve army–eager to take the place of those who already have work– maintains downward pressure on wages and keeps those with jobs in line. Without keen competition for employment, the price of labor would rise, eating into profits, possibly so much that capitalists would no longer invest, and the system would come to a halt. Labor market flexibility, then, is necessary to the smooth functioning of the system. But because people compete for jobs, any measure which increases the intensity of competition is hostile to their interests. It limits their bargaining power and increases the chances someone else will get the job they hold or want.

In the competition of all against all, those who bear the greatest burden are the workers who fill the ranks of the reserve army, or go from one low-paying job to another, denied any form of economic security. It’s easy for them to blame their plight on the immigrants they see working in jobs they want (though regularly in jobs they would disdain to hold), because it is often with them they compete. It’s true, they also compete against people of the same ethnicity, color and national origin, but don’t hold them to blame. But differences in skin color, accents, cultural practices and religion facilitate the creation of in-group-out-group divisions, making it easy to mark out the competition.

At the same time, the non-immigrant working poor often live side by side with newly arrived immigrants, some of whom have no work, and get by on welfare payments and sometimes criminal activity. Their presence is a source of confusion and resentment to the working poor, who question the wisdom of their governments’ accepting new immigrants–whose upkeep can be subsidized in part by the working poors’ taxes–at a time of economic downturn.

II

Crises, you would think, would provide opportunities to transcend the capitalist system. At these times the system’s problems are encountered the most acutely and therefore the motivation to overcome them ought to be greatest, but crises paradoxically have often led to the rise of far right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment. The reason why is two-fold: The far right’s seemingly plausible explanation for the insecurity many people are forced to bear; and the left. When the left provides a compelling alternative explanation and mobilizes mass energy around it and thereby threatens to take power, charismatic far right leaders are provided with money to rally public support for a nationalist cause and vie with the left for power. When the left fails to offer a compelling alternative explanation, the far right movement remains limited, poorly organized, and largely spontaneous; it’s not needed to protect the system from challenge, and so is left in its inchoate state. The far right isn’t pressed into service and built up as a major force unless the left is strong.

The dominant left response to the recent rise of xenophobic sentiment has been moral suasion and anti-racism demonstrations, a strategy that possibly owes more to satisfying the psychological needs of the practitioners than concern over efficacy. It fails to attack the root cause of the disease, trying to suppress the symptoms instead. Campaigns of anti-racism offer their practitioners cathartic opportunities to express moral indignation (which may be the underlying motivation for carrying them out), but their effectiveness is questionable unless accompanied by an assault on the root causes. The recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment didn’t arise in a vacuum. Its momentum comes from economic crisis, and if one wants to mobilize the energy that far right explanations attract, a credible solution must be offered to the critical underlying problem: economic insecurity. Against the far right’s explanation that immigration is the cause of joblessness, the left could point out that insecurity is caused by the failure –indeed refusal–of capitalism to offer secure employment to all; that the solution is to transcend the capitalist system; and that where it has been transcended in the past, secure employment has been made available to all, along with guaranteed healthcare, security in old age, subsidized housing, free education, and a raft of other mass-oriented reforms. There is no freeloading in a socialist society. Work is an obligation. But at the same time, employment is guaranteed. Against the pseudo-explanation: immigration is the cause of your problems, must be counterpoised an accurate explanation: capitalism is the cause of your problems; it can’t—won’t—guarantee a secure life for all; socialism can.

The problem is that much of the left, even that part of it that traces its origins to revolutionary Marxism, has given up on both revolution and socialism, defined here as production for use (not profits), governed by a plan (not markets), and carried out in publicly owned (not private) enterprises. Socialism in contemporary usage has come to refer to a mixed economy presided over by an elected government that calls itself socialist. Production is governed by markets, much of the economy remains in private hands, the commanding heights of the economy are brought gradually under public control, and the exploitation of man by man is accepted as necessary, desirable, and the key to efficiency. But markets—which almost everyone now thinks are an unavoidable necessity–inescapably mean recurrent economic crises, unemployment, and inequality. In other words, socialism, as it is defined by 21st century socialists, offers no solution to the economic insecurity that regularly flares up and drives the insecure into the arms of far right campaigns to scapegoat immigrants and foment xenophobia. Sweden, often celebrated as a social democratic paragon and held out as an attractive alternative to Marxist-Leninist-style socialism, has proved no less vulnerable to outbreaks of recession-induced xenophobia than bastions of neo-liberalism have. And that’s because 20th century social democracy and its equivalent, 21st century socialism, don’t transcend capitalism, but embrace it, and therefore accept its destructiveness (in crops, products, factories, and gainful employment eliminated during regular downturns), inefficiencies (capitalism regularly operates below capacity and well below during downturns), wars (to pry open closed markets and secure new investment opportunities) and blighted lives.

No one in Germany “is predicting the rise of a successful right-wing party,” remarks New York Times reporter Michael Slackman, “but that is because the main ingredient is missing: a charismatic leader to rally the public. With such a leader, and some financial support, the prospect could take on a life…” (2) Perhaps. But there is also one other ingredient missing: a compelling left alternative explanation of people’s distress. Without one, there’s no need to find, and provide financing to, a charismatic right-wing leader to transform a spontaneously arising, minority, anti-immigrant movement into a mass movement capable of vying for power to do what far right mass movements have been historically mobilized to do: block the rise of a revolutionary left movement. That the rise of a far right demagogue is unlikely can perhaps be looked at as a good thing (and in one sense it is), but in another sense it is far from good, for it means capitalism is safe, despite what one might think about capitalism’s current tribulations creating an opportunity for change. The opportunity may exist, but who is there to seize it?

It used to be that the role of a revolutionary Marxist party was to set forth an alternative explanation to the dominant ideology, one that would supply an essential ingredient to the project of transcending capitalism at a time of crisis. People’s troubles with unemployment, under-employment and poverty, it would be explained, are systemic, not personal or immigrant-related; they are remediable, not inevitable. Freedom from the ills of capitalism, it would be shown, is possible and realistically achievable through collective action. Nationalism, xenophobia and social democracy would be revealed to be pseudo-solutions, offering the illusion of change but no real redress of capitalism’s ills. No longer. Nowadays, everyone has shifted to the right. Liberals are conservatives, social democrats are liberals, and communists are social democrats, if not liberals in practice with a vaguely radical rhetoric.

With a void having opened up in the space once filled by alternative left explanations, the current capitalist crisis is proving to be a fertile ground for the growth of far right pseudo-explanations of what are properly systemic problems. With the left having embraced markets, and thereby all that markets imply (regular crises, unemployment and inequality), it no longer has a solution to offer for market-induced plights. Having capitulated, it has reduced itself to the role of uttering pious expressions of benevolence.

III

Many people who were once communists drew strength from the knowledge that communism represented a mass movement. Perhaps it remained marginal (or more aptly, suppressed) in their own country, but it had been embraced by a substantial fraction of the world’s people and seemed to be getting stronger. With the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and China’s journey down the capitalist road, all that changed. Now, really-existing socialism had all but disappeared, hanging on, sort of, in a few outposts: Cuba, where parts of the socialist model had to be dismantled to survive, and North Korea, where the Juche philosophy supplanted formal adherence to Marxism-Leninism. Communism now seemed largely discredited, and to cling to it, was to mark oneself as peripheral and locked in the past.

Desperate to reconnect to a mass movement, many embraced the only mass working class movement they could find, which in many Western countries, was social democracy. But the corruption that had led the Bolsheviks to break away from social democracy to form the communist movement in 1917 had intensified, and by the time the Soviet Union was dismantled, social democracy had nothing anymore to do with socialism; it had become capitalism with a friendly face, and at times, not so friendly.

In Marx’s and Engel’s day, there were periods when a meeting of every socialist in Europe could have been easily held in a mid-sized hall. Until 1917, the Bolsheviks—whose ideas and organizational forms would eventually guide the economic and political organization of a majority of the world’s population–remained a political party of limited significance without a mass following. The need to be connected to a popular movement—and the practice of linking up with a cause on the basis of its popularity and not the ideas and aims that inspire it– would have led many latter day communists to shun Marx, Engels and the Bolsheviks had they been contemporaries.

One reason Marxism-Leninism commands little authority nowadays is that it seems to have been rejected by its practitioners. Glasnost and Perestroika and the eventual dismantling of communism in the Soviet Union, followed by communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, and the turn to capitalism in China and Vietnam, appear to be admissions that Marxism-Leninism doesn’t work and that capitalism is both inevitable and the end of history. Cuba’s recent decision to expand its private sector by cutting loose 500,000 state employees—and Fidel Castro’s remark to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more” (3)—seems to underscore the point. All this, however, misses a few significant points.

First, communism arose under inauspicious circumstances. It took root where capitalism was weak, and therefore without the strength to smother the infant in its cradle. In 1917, Russia’s Tsarist ruling class was demoralized by war and the capitalist class too small, weak and disorganized to put down revolutions in March and October. But capitalism being too weak to block the rise of revolution meant that the revolution would have to take hold in a country where the working class was small and the industrial base–necessary to progress toward a communist society of plenty–was rudimentary at best. Lenin believed his revolution would spark working class revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, and that the working class in those countries would come to the Bolshevik’s aid, providing the necessary capital Russia would need to build its own socialist society. He judged wrong. While the Kaiser’s rule was overthrown in Germany, the Social Democrats–who disagreed with Bolshevik’s revolutionary methods and refused to break decisively with capitalism and its rulers –came to power. Revolutions elsewhere were stillborn or not in the cards. After a period of waiting, the Bolsheviks realized that if socialism were to come to Russia, they would either have to first shepherd the country through a long period of capitalist development, actively intervene in Western Europe to foment revolutions there, or undergo a program of rapid industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization at home. After a period of conflict about which path to pursue, the Bolsheviks decided to build socialism in one country. This decision was reinforced by the expectation that the capitalist powers would attack the Soviet Union within a decade, and that an industrial base was urgently needed to build a modern military for self-defense.

Second, communism had not a moment’s rest from attempts by the capitalist countries to destroy it. Blockades, sanctions, trade embargoes, sabotage, subversion, diplomatic isolation, military intervention, war (both hot and cold) and ideological warfare were pressed into service with the aim rolling back—and ultimately destroying– communism. The chances of communism surviving the onslaught were far from sanguine. Attributing the demise of really-existing socialism to internal failings, and ignoring seven decades of efforts to exterminate the communist challenge—a practice of both the right and left–is a peculiar form of blindness. As William Blum observes: “It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” (4)

Third, it wasn’t because communist countries rejected markets that they failed. It was because they backed off of Marxist-Leninist principles, and conciliated with capitalism, that they collapsed. Poland, for example, ran into trouble because it failed to collectivize agriculture and provided implacable enemies of socialism, including the Catholic Church, space to operate. Rather than using agricultural surpluses to pay for industrialization, Polish communists subsidized food prices and emphasized light industry and the production of consumer goods and foot the bill by borrowing heavily from Western banks. Burdened with debt, the government was eventually forced to allow Western banks to dictate economic policy. The banks demanded the government remove its food subsidies to pay interest on its debt. This led to spikes in food prices, sparking strikes and ultimately the development of a working class strike movement. The strike movement was hijacked by anti-socialist ideologues linked to the Catholic Church and the CIA who eventually managed to force the government to step down when it became clear that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, would not intervene.

Gorbachev was dismantling the Marxist-Leninist basis of the Soviet state and experimenting with market mechanisms in response to a slow-down in the Soviet economy. The slow-down had a number of causes. The Soviets had been forced to adopt a policy of self-sufficiency to protect the country from the possibility of imperialist countries manoeuvring to strangle it economically by cutting off its access to vital raw materials. This led to a situation where the Soviets paid more to extract some raw materials internally than they would have paid had they imported them. Another factor was an increase in raw materials costs. As easy to reach mines were depleted, deeper mine shafts had to be dug, and longer distances had to be travelled to reach new mines.

Planning had its own problems. Enterprises hung on to employees to ensure they had sufficient staff to meet planned production targets. This led to over-staffing, and to the less than efficient deployment of manpower. The Soviet commitment to full employment also meant that retrofitting factories—in order that they could continue in operation with layoffs avoided—was favored over building new factories based on new technology. As a result, the industrial base became a patchwork of new grafted onto old.

At the same time, the need to keep pace with NATO put a severe strain on the Soviet economy. Despite its rapid growth, the Soviet economy was still much smaller than that of the United States. To come anywhere close to matching NATO expenditures, the Soviets had to allocate a crushingly large percentage of their GDP to the military. Although necessary for self-defense, this was wasteful, since it diverted resources away from the productive investments that were needed to raise living standards. US cold warriors figured that if they could stall the growth of the Soviet economy by locking the Soviet Union into an arms race, they could weaken attachment to Marxism-Leninism, both among the Soviet citizenry and in the Kremlin. With living standards failing to converge on those of the advanced capitalist countries, Eastern Bloc populations might sour on the socialist model and look longingly to the West. At the same time, it might occur to Soviet leaders that their only hope was to compromise on Marxism-Leninism and open up the Soviet economy to market mechanisms and the world capitalist economy.

There were other strains. In order to win allies and expand socialism to other countries, the Soviets shipped aid to countries and movements struggling to free themselves from colonialism. Most of these countries were desperately poor, and profited from transfers and subsidies from the Soviet Union, while returning little in exchange. For example, the Soviets bought Cuban sugar and nickel at above world prices, getting little in return from Cuba. Cuban military intervention in southern Africa on behalf of the liberation movements there–ultimately paid for by the Soviet Union–and the intervention in Afghanistan on behalf of a modernizing and secular revolutionary government, put further strain on the Soviet economy. In the end, Gorbachev decided to pull troops out of Afghanistan, cut Cuba loose, and not intervene to protect Warsaw Pact allies from counter-revolutionary movements. He also moved the Soviet Union toward a Scandinavian-style social democracy. Far from invigorating the Soviet economy, the attempt to make over the USSR pushed the economy into collapse. As the economy imploded, the economies linked to it through the socialist community fell like dominos. By embracing capitalist methods, Gorbachev had turned a set of manageable problems into a catastrophe. Communism’s collapse was not due to public ownership, central planning, and production for use, but the abandonment of socialist practices in favour of markets and capitalist methods. The problem wasn’t that there was too much socialism; there was too little.

IV

The capitalist class in imperialist countries is a formidable enemy. Except for the period of the Great Depression and the chaotic aftermath of the two world wars, it has not been weakened, demoralized and disorganized—a condition that would need to prevail if revolutions were to come about. What’s more, both world wars led to a stronger, more confident, and assertive class rule based in US finance and industry. The opportunities for Marxist-Leninists to lead new revolutions were, therefore, limited. At the same time, the space for socialist countries to develop was systematically impeded by a United States immeasurably strengthened by WWII, whose rulers committed themselves to wiping the communist foe from the face of the earth, a campaign that carries on today in efforts to bring down the Cuban and North Korean systems. (By comparison, the Soviet Union was immeasurably weakened by the same war.) That the communist movement should be bloodied, bruised and knocked to the mat should come as no surprise. The opponent was formidable. But does that mean the towel must be thrown in? It would appear that for communists who were accustomed to being linked to mass movements, the answer is yes. But the movement of revolutionary socialists has been tiny and peripheral before. Had there not been a core of revolutionaries who remained dedicated to Marxist-Leninist principles and refused to sacrifice fundamental principles for immediate gains and popularity, the first attempt at building socialism would never have come off. Capitalist crises and war are inevitable and recurrent. Opportunities for transcending capitalism and liberating mankind from its scourges are therefore, inevitable and recurrent as well. When they arrive, a Marxist party capable of offering an explanation of people’s unhappiness, showing that another way is realistically achievable, and revealing the pseudo-solutions of nationalism, religion and social democracy to be dead-ends, can lead a renewed attempt to move humanity forward.

1. Michael Slackman, “Rightwing sentiment, ready to burst its dam”, The New York Times, September 21, 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’” theatlantic.com, September 8, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-cuban-model-doesnt-even-work-for-us-anymore/62602/
4. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009. http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer73.html

REFERENCES

Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000.

Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004.

Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994.

Irwin Silber, Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis, Pluto Press, 1994.

Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984.

Albert Szymanski, “Crisis and Vitalization: An interpretive essay on Marxist theory,” in Rhona F. Levine and Jerry Lembcke (Eds.), Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory, Praeger, 1987.

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

Posted in Liberals, Moderate Left, Propaganda, Socialism by what's left on December 31, 2009

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.

U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

Posted in Afghanistan, Imperialism, Moderate Left, Pakistan, Propaganda, Soviet Union, Taliban by what's left on August 21, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.

A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)

Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.

U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”

There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.

While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.

And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.

Peaceniks for imperialism

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

By Stephen Gowans

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

The Ackerman-Helvey-Sharp destabilization school

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

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

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

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

Promoting capitalist democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legitimizing imperialist intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Sovereignty

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

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

Sharp: Why not?

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

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

Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do, and make it seem progressive

“When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.”  [1a]

“Gene Sharp [is] the author of a series of books on nonviolent conflict who is generally credited with being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.” [1b]

Interviewer: (Some people say) a government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government!

Gene Sharp: Why not?…What do they prefer that the U.S. spend money on? [1c]

By Stephen Gowans

Peter Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor and board member of the premier U.S. foreign policy think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, [2] and Robert Helvey, a 30 year veteran of the U.S. Army [3] who served two tours of duty in Vietnam [4], are the principal proponents of a nonviolent alternative to military intervention in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy goals. Students of Gene Sharp, who developed a theory of how to destabilize governments through nonviolent means, Ackerman and Helvey have been at the head of a kind of Imperialist International, training “a modern type of mercenary,” who travel “the world, often in the pay of the U.S. government or NGOs, in order to train local groups” [5] in regime change. Ackerman and Helvey’s new type of mercenary are practioners of what the CIA used to call destabilization. To escape the taint of its CIA past, destabilization has been rebranded as nonviolent resistance (NVR), shrewdly drawing upon the reputation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent struggles for black civil rights in the 1960s. But where King sought to bring about change within the system, and in the United States, NVR is strictly a foreign affair, seeking to overturn governments abroad that operate outside the system of U.S. imperial domination. NVR is not about pursuing social, economic and political justice at home. It’s about taking power overseas, in order to bring resistant countries into the U.S. imperial fold. To make itself appear to be squeaky clean, NVR explicitly rejects overt CIA and U.S. military sponsorship. As Helvey explains, “The easiest way to destroy a movement is for the CIA to taint it.” [6] That, however, doesn’t make NVR any different in its aims and content from the destabilization campaigns the CIA used to plan, sponsor and implement. Indeed, Ackerman and Helvey have simply taken over a CIA function, made it semi-overt, and created the illusion that it’s progressive.

What is it?

Ackerman defines NVR as “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” [7] in addition to mass protests [8] and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government [9] and make “a country ungovernable.”[10] Since strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience are traditional leftist techniques, NVR campaigns often garner the support of a large number of left-leaning people. But NVR isn’t holding a demonstration, listening to speakers, and then heading home for supper. Neither is it pressuring elites — what most Western leftists set as the limit of their political activism. It isn’t pacifism based on moral or religious principle, either. Former Harvard researcher Sharp, explains that NVR and principled nonviolence are not the same. Principled nonviolence is “abstention from violence based on ethical or religious beliefs.” NVR is a political technique for overthrowing foreign governments. [11] “It’s not about making a point, it’s about taking power.” [12]

Since the aim of NVR is to take political power abroad, NVR can be characterized as a form of Western warfare, employing nonviolent armies behind enemy lines. In fact, it was Sharp’s analysis of how regime change could be accomplished effectively that drew Helvey, the U.S. Army veteran, to the Clausewitz of nonviolence, as Sharp is known, after the Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz. [13]

Helvey had been the military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, where he witnessed armed opposition groups repeatedly fail in their attempts to overthrow the Myanmar government. [14] The trouble was that rebel groups were going up against a regular army that could exercise overwhelming force. Sharp’s analysis suggested an alternative. Drawing on social science literature on power, Sharp pointed out that governments have two sources of power: their ability to exact obedience coercively through their control of armies, police, courts and prisons; and their moral authority. Since a government can use overwhelming force to defeat most internal armed challenges, the key to taking power is to undermine the reason most people obey: because they believe their government is legitimate and has a right to rule. In Sharp’s view, most people obey, not because they’re compelled to, but because they want to. If a government’s legitimacy is undermined, people will no longer want to obey. That’s when they can be mobilized to participate in strikes, boycotts, acts of civil disobedience, even sabotage – anything that makes the country ungovernable. “Removing the authority of the ruler,” according to NVR advocates, “is the most important element in nonviolent struggle.” [15]

NVR holds that destabilization works best when the target government is not “supported by an entrenched party system that can claim a higher ideological purpose.” [16] This may explain why destabilizers have attacked the ideological basis of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF leadership, suggesting that the party’s leader and Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, maintains a “hold on power (that) is…reliant on personal loyalties and their reinforcement by material rewards and mortal penalties,” not commitment to national independence. [17] In regime change discourse, Mugabe is said to have cronies, who he rewards with confiscated farms, to hold on to power. That Mugabe and his principals could be genuinely committed to investing Zimbabwe’s nominal post-colonial independence with real content, is dismissed by NVR promoters as out of the question. The same cynical arguments are used to challenge the moral authority of Cuba’s government. The Castros are accused of being motivated by an unquenchable thirst for power, not an ideological commitment to socialism and national independence. For destabilizers, breeding a cynical view of the leaders of countries in their cross-hairs is a necessary part of undermining their targets’ legitimacy.

To buttress their efforts to undermine the moral authority of target governments, the destabilizers depend critically on the frequent use of the words “dictatorial” (to denote the governments they seek to bring down) and “democratic” (to denote the target government’s opponents.) It doesn’t matter whether the target governments are truly dictatorial or whether their opponents are truly democratic. What matters is that these things are believed to be true. Getting people to believe target governments are dictatorial is done by repeating the charge incessantly, until the idea takes on the status of common knowledge, so widely accepted that proof is unnecessary.

But what if the “dictator” has been elected, as is often the case in destabilization efforts? The destabilizers’ solution is to claim the elected leader came to power illegitimately, by means of electoral fraud. For example, while widely denounced in the West as fraudulent, the recent re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears not to have been fraudulent at all. No compelling evidence of vote rigging was ever presented, and the only rigorous public opinion poll done in the weeks leading up to the election — sponsored by the Ahmadinejad-hating International Republican Institute — predicted the Iranian president would be re-elected by a handsome margin. Indeed, the poll foresaw Ahmadinejad winning by a greater margin that he actually did win. [18] Still, Western media and their governments’ propaganda apparatuses — Voice of America, Radio Free Liberty and the misnamed “independent” media that serve as fronts for the Western governments that finance them – repeated the opposition charge of electoral fraud over and over. Soon, the mass media and state propaganda apparatuses were singing out as one: the election was rigged.

In Zimbabwe, which for a number of years has been a target of the destabilizers, elections are routinely denounced as fraudulent, even before they’re held. This was true too of Zimbabwe’s last elections, which saw the opposition parties win more seats than the governing party, and the main opposition leader beat the sitting president in the first round of the presidential vote. While this is powerful evidence the elections weren’t rigged, the destabilizers continue to insist the presidential vote was illegitimate. This is so because the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out at the 11th hour. Tsvangirai’s decision appears to have come straight from the destabilizers’ playbook. Had he stayed in the race, he might have lost, and relinquished any possibility of challenging Mugabe’s rule as illegitimate. (He couldn’t credibly say the vote was rigged because he had won the first round.) By dropping out, and blaming his decision on violence perpetrated by Mugabe’s supporters, Tsvangirai could challenge Mugabe’s moral authority to rule. After all, he could say that in the only contested election, he had won.

Likewise, an important part of the destabilizers’ efforts to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic was to declare well before the first vote was cast in the 2000 presidential election that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Milosevic would win, illegitimately. In fact, Milosevic came second to the main opposition leader, who failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote. With no candidate commanding a clear majority, a run-off election was scheduled. The runoff never happened. Instead, Milosevic was overthrown with the help of forces trained by Helvey [19]…in the name of democracy.

To complement the branding of target governments as dictatorial, opposition forces are branded as democratic. It is no accident that the main opposition party in Serbia, formed under the guidance of U.S. advisers [20], was called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or that the main opposition party in Zimbabwe is called the Movement for Democratic Change, or that the main opposition party in Myanmar, Helvey’s pet project, is called the National League of Democracy. Western media reinforce this branding by frequently referring to opposition parties in countries undergoing destabilization as “the democratic opposition,” implying the governments they oppose are dictatorial. This invests the opposition, and its struggle to replace the government, with apparent legitimacy, while undermining the legitimacy of the government under attack. Likewise, the modern nonviolent mercenaries who travel the globe in the pay of the U.S. government and NGOs, are celebrated as “pro-democracy” activists, as are the armies of (typically) youth activists they train. Even some left scholars, out of ignorance or collaboration, refer to these groups as an “independent” democratic left, presumably because they use techniques traditionally associated with the left, though hardly with the same aims.

After absorbing Sharp’s teachings, Helvey became deeply involved in helping the National Council Union of Burma try to destabilize the Myanmar government, not by challenging it militarily, but by undermining its moral authority to govern. He took a detour along the way, to train Serb youth groups on how to destabilize the government of Slobodan Milosevic [21], an event Ackerman would celebrate in a documentary titled (with predictable NVR language distortion) “Bringing Down a Dictator.” With the socialist-leaning Milosevic safely out of the way, and Serbia opening its door to takeover by U.S. investors, Helvey jumped back into organizing the destabilization of Myanmar.

Over a number of years, Helvey’s mercenaries,

“trained an estimated 3,000 fellow Burmese from all walks of life – including several hundred Buddhist monks – in philosophies and strategies of non-violent resistance and community organizing. These workshops, held in border areas and drawing people from all over Burma, were seen as ‘training the trainers’ who would go home and share these ideas with others yearning for change.” [22]

“That preparation – along with material support such as mobile phones – helped lay the groundwork for dissident Buddhist monks in September (2007) to call for a religious boycott of the junta, precipitating the biggest anti-government protests in two decades. For 10 dramatic days, monks and lay citizens…poured into the streets in numbers that peaked at around 100,000 before the regime crushed the demonstrations…” [23]

The U.S. Navy would dearly love to lay its hands on Myanmar. The country lies strategically along the Strait of Malacca, a major shipping-lane linking China to the oil of Western Asia and Africa. Control of Myanmar would allow the U.S. Navy to choke off one of China’s major oil supply routes, bringing the behemoth to its knees, if ever Washington felt the need. The Myanmar government, however, has aligned itself with China, and is not ready to allow the Pentagon to use its ports as naval bases. What’s more, the country has a largely state-owned economy, closed to U.S. corporations, banks and investors. Washington would like to bring Myanmar under its control, and Helvey and Ackerman’s destabilization techniques offer the best chance of doing so.

“Burmese opposition activists acknowledge receiving technical and financial help for their cause.” The help came “from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros’s Open Society Institute and several European countries. […] International donors and activists figure Burmese opposition groups received $8m-$10m in 2006 and again in 2007 from American and European funders… […] In 2006 and 2007, the (U.S.) congressionally funded NED…spent around $3.7M a year on its Burmese program…These funds were used to support opposition media, including the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio station and satellite television channel to bolster dissidents’ information technology skills and to help exiles’ training of Buddhist monks and other dissident techniques of peaceful political resistance.” [24]

From 1992 to 1998, Helvey taught eight, six-week courses to more than 500 members of the National Council Union of Burma, on how to apply Sharp’s techniques to overthrow the Myanmar government [25]. More recently “some 600 Burmese have gone through both introductory and advanced courses” in destabilization taught by the Albert Einstein Institution [26]. Sharp is the organization’s scholar in residence.

Antiviolence, not antiwar

Antiwar activists will find no ideological soul mates in Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp, who are conditionally against the use of violence, not out of moral principle, but because they believe violence is often an ineffective method of achieving what political violence is normally intended to achieve: the seizure of power. As New Republic writer Franklin Foer points out, “Ackerman’s affection for nonviolence has nothing to do with the tactic’s moral superiority. Movements that make a strategic decision to eschew violence, he argues, have a far better record of” success. [27]

The destabilizers represent a faction within the U.S. ruling class that pushes for a nonmilitary means of achieving a goal all ruling class factions agree on: regime change in countries that resist integration into the U.S. imperial orbit. Ackerman, for example, argues that “It is not true that the only way to ‘take out’ (axis of evil regimes) is through U.S. military action.” [28] He opposes the faction led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, which favors a robustly militaristic imperialism, based on the overwhelming use of force. In the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, Ackerman and DuVall wrote an article in Sojourner’s Magazine arguing that “anyone who opposes U.S. military action to dethrone (Saddam Hussein) has a responsibility to suggest how he might otherwise be ushered out the backdoor of Baghdad.” (Notice Ackerman and DuVall implicitly removed the option of leaving Saddam Hussein’s fate to Iraqis, to decide for themselves, without outside interference.) The answer, they contended, was to “use a panoply of forceful sanctions – strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage…” [29]

Ackerman’s mentor, Sharp, expresses similar views. Asked what he thought of mass demonstrations in the United States against the war on Iraq, Sharp replied,

“I don’t think you can get rid of violence by protesting against it. I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle. […] Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice. If they don’t see a choice, then violence is all that they really have. […] The thing that is most shocking is that the Bush Administration acted on the basis of the belief – dogma, ‘religion’ – in the omnipotence of violence. […] The assumption is an invading country can come in, remove its official leader, arrest some of the other people, and well, then, the dictatorship is gone.” [30]

In other words, Sharp’s contribution to the peace movement is showing the U.S. ruling class it can achieve its imperialist goals by nonmilitary means. Sharp and his disciples Ackerman and Helvey aren’t progressives at all. Nor are they advocates of the moral superiority of nonviolence. They’re imperialists who believe violence isn’t always the best policy in achieving imperial goals. The antiwar activists who have been misled by this trio, and by their publicist within the progressive community, Stephen Zunes, should be clear that NVR is a military technique yoked to political goals that serve the ruling class interests of the United States. It is not a moral position. It is a form of warfare with imperial political content. Helvey calls it “nonviolent war.” [31]

“It’s a form of warfare. And you’ve got to think of it in terms of a war. […] What is it that I want to accomplish? And how do I want to accomplish it? […] One option, of course, is an armed struggle. Another option is…a nonviolent struggle. And in some cases the ballot box is the way to bring about change. […] You’ve got to make a decision which is a strategic decision. And if you decide to accept nonviolent struggle, the same principles of war (apply.)” [32]

War can be waged in many ways: economically, through sanctions, blockade and financial isolation; militarily, through the use or threat of violence; electronically, through cyber attacks to freeze an enemy’s bank accounts and cripple its government and communication systems; and through other methods of destabilization, to make an enemy society ungovernable. It’s wrong to believe that war is limited to violence and that violence is always the most injurious form of warfare. Other forms can be just as devastating. For example, sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s were estimated to have led to the deaths through malnutrition and disease of well over one million people, an outcome Madeleine Albright, who sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations with Ackerman, said was worth it. [33] Political scientists John and Karl Mueller pointed out that more people have died from sanctions (an element of NVR, as we’ll see in a moment) than from weapons of mass destruction. [34] For these reasons, antiwar activists should ask: What am I against: Violence — or warfare (both violent and nonviolent) to achieve imperialist goals?

Outside assistance

In his earlier writings Ackerman was open about Western support for destabilization campaigns. But in more recent articles he has become circumspect, calling destabilization movements home-grown and arguing that “external aid can help, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient.” [35] He was not so modest about the role played by the West when he boasted in a 2002 National Catholic Reporter article about Serb students bringing Milosevic down without a shot being fired. In that article he wrote about how “massive civilian opposition can be roused with the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance – all of which can be quietly assisted, even funded from abroad, as happened in Serbia.” [36] The reference to outside assistance being delivered quietly shows he’s aware that were it widely known that so-called “people power” movements are aided from abroad, their moral authority (and alleged home-grown character) would be called into question. That explains why “An iron rule for (the Milosevic opposition) was never to talk about Western financial or logistical support,” [37] and why, with the massive involvement of Western governments in “people power” movements having since become a matter of public record, Ackerman denies that outside aid is necessary. But only the incorrigibly gullible would believe Western governments and corporate foundations spend countless millions funding destabilization movements unnecessarily.

U.S. involvement in the hardly spontaneously erupting drive to dump Milosevic was massive. As the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs reported,

“U.S.-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive, running tracking polls, training thousands of opposition activists and helping to organize a vitally important parallel vote count. U.S. taxpayers paid for 5,000 cans of spray paint used by student activists to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia, and 2.5 million stickers with the slogan “He’s Finished,” which became the revolution’s catchphrase.” [38]

Helvey was at the center. [39] “Behind the seeming spontaneity of the street uprising that forced Milosevic” from power “was a carefully researched strategy put together by (anti-Milosevic forces on the ground) with the active assistance of Western advisers and pollsters.” [40] The U.S. government “employed every element of Sharp’s nonviolent strategy for destroying” a foreign government. To assist, “sanctions were applied in a … targeted fashion. For example, they were not applied to municipalities that voted to support opposition politicians.” [41]

Washington spent $41 million to oust Milosevic, $10 million in 1999 and $31 million in 2000. “The lead role was taken by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development…which channeled the funds through commercial contractors” [42] and the National Endowment for Democracy, established by the Reagan administration to overtly fund destabilization campaigns the CIA once funded covertly.

Helvey, the military strategist, might disagree with Ackerman about outside assistance being unnecessary. According to Helvey, in order to carry out a successful destabilization campaign,

“You need radios and the ability to produce and distribute information. You need to be able to train. You need to provide the activists with some income to take care of their families. When people get arrested, you need to take food to them in prison or the hospital.” [43]

Real grassroots activists — that is, those who aren’t dependent on lucre from philanthropic foundations — are unlikely to have the cash to pay for the inputs a campaign of nonviolent warfare requires. That’s where Western governments and corporate foundations come in. They’re often happy to furnish the needed material support, because the power-seizing aim of NVR has happy consequences for the bottom lines of their transnational business and investor patrons. If real grassroots activists think they’re going to secure foundation or government funding for genuinely democratic and socialist projects, they’re mistaken. Western governments and corporate foundations limit funding to activists who, whether they know it or not, act to advance corporate and imperialist goals.

Even Ackerman disagrees that outside help is unnecessary. In a Christian Science Monitor article written with Jack DuVall in 2002, Ackerman complained that Iranians didn’t have the “know-how” to take power from the government in Tehran and that the know-how should be delivered by Western “pro-democracy programs.” (He cautioned that aid should “not come from the CIA or Defense Department,” to keep the movement seemingly free from taint.)[44] He echoed this view in a New York Time’s article written with Ramin Ahmadi, pointing to the lack of “a clear strategic vision and steady leadership” among the anti-Ahmadinejad opposition. [45] At the same time, he advised readers to watch the streets of Tehran, seemingly confident the know-how and clear strategic vision and steady leadership would be delivered. And he called on,

“Nongovernmental organizations around the world (to) expand their efforts to assist Iranian civil society, women’s groups, unions and journalists. And the global news media should finally begin to cover the steady stream of strikes, protests and other acts of opposition…” [46]

This was a curious appeal from someone who believes outside aid is unnecessary.

The New Republic’s Franklin Foer wrote that “Ultimately, (Ackerman) envisions events (in Iran) unfolding as they did in Serbia, with a small, well-trained, nonviolent vanguard introducing the idea of resistance to the masses.” [47] Ackerman, of course, could be sure the vanguard would be helped by a substantial injection of money from outside, as happened in Serbia — aid Ackerman claims is unnecessary.

Whether necessary or not, Washington has delivered. Last June, The Washington Post reported that,

“The Bush administration told Congress last year of a secret plan to dramatically expand covert operations inside Iran as part of a long-running effort to destabilize the country’s ruling regime…The plan allowed up to $400 million in covert spending for activities ranging from spying on Iran’s nuclear program to supporting rebel groups opposed to the country’s ruling clerics…” [48]

Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp are part of the $400 million campaign. According to Sharp,

“Our work is available in Iran and has been since 2004. People from different political positions are saying that’s the way we need to go. […] If somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, then it is very likely there will be a peaceful national struggle there.” [49]

For his part, Ackerman has several ideas for ousting Ahmadinejad. His films on destabilizing governments have been translated into Farsi, and are broadcast repeatedly over the Los Angeles-based Iranian satellite networks. He has worked with Helvey to train Iranian Americans, many of them followers of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah. And the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which Ackerman founded, and which progressive Stephen Zunes is a part of, has made contacts with the referendum movement within Iran, which campaigns for a binding vote on the clerical state. [50]

“Events in Iran are reminiscent of Serbia just before a student-sparked movement removed Slobodan Milosevic,” write Ackerman and DuVall. “His regime had alienated not only students but most of the middle class, which the dismal economy had shattered.” [51]

Ah, the economy. What Ackerman and DuVall ignore is that Western sanctions were instrumental in crippling the Yugoslav economy, and therefore in alienating students and the middle class. Disorganizing an economy through sanctions is an important part of nonviolent strategic regime change, a point John Bacher made in a Peace Magazine article on Robert Helvey. Bacher describes the targeted sanctions employed by the U.S. government against municipalities that voted to support Milosevic as being one of the elements of Sharp’s nonviolent strategy. [52] Significantly, Washington applies multiple sanctions against and financially isolates countries that are the targets of NVR destabilization efforts: Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar and Cuba. Economic warfare, though nonviolent, wreaks terrible devastation, while providing immeasurable help to the destabilizers.

An Imperialist International

In a Dissent Magazine article, Mark R. Beissinger remarks on how overthrowing governments

“has now become an international business. In addition to the millions of dollars of aid involved, numerous consulting operations have arisen, many of them led by former revolutionaries themselves. Since the Serbian revolution, for instance, Otpor (youth) activists (trained by Helvey) have become, as one Serbian analyst put it, ‘a modern type of mercenary,’ traveling the world, often in the pay of the U.S. government or NGOs, in order to train local groups in how to organize a democratic revolution. A number of leaders of the Ukrainian youth movement Pora were trained in Serbia at the Center for Nonviolent Resistance, a consulting organization set up by Otpor activists to instruct youth leaders from around the world in how to organize a movement, motivate voters, and develop mass actions. […] After the Rose and Orange Revolutions, Georgian and Ukrainian youth movements began to challenge Otpor’s consulting monopoly. Pora activists even joked about creating a new Comintern for democratic revolution.” [53]

Foer borrows Leninist terminology to describe destabilization activists as a vanguard. [54] Lenin, however, was never interested in promoting imperialism; this vanguard is. Consider Nini Gogiberidze. Every few months she is deployed abroad to teach activists how to destabilize their governments. She has traveled to Eastern Europe to train Belarusians and Turkey to instruct Iranians. She is employed by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas, one of the many organizations in the destabilizers’ network. “The group is funded in part by the International Republican Institute,” the international arm of the GOP “and Washington-based Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government.” [55] Freedom House is a CIA-interlocked [56] organization of which Ackerman was not too long ago chairman of the board.

But building an imperialist international is not solely the project of Freedom House. The ICNC, the organization Ackerman founded, is also heavily involved. Ackerman regularly holds conferences hosting new recruits into the destabilization vanguard from around the world. One recent summer “he brought activists from more than a dozen countries to a retreat in the Montreal suburbs for a week of solidarity and study.” ‘We can’t say where they are from,” Ackerman said. “’But think of the 20 biggest assholes in the world, and you can guess.’” [57]

I’m thinking of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Benjamin Netanyahu, but Ackerman isn’t training a vanguard to destabilize the United States, Britain and Israel. He benefits too much from their dominant positions. And yet these are the world’s principal purveyors of massive violence. You would think that proponents of nonviolence would surely set their sights on undermining violence’s biggest champions. Instead, Ackerman’s 20 biggest assholes seem to be the leaders of Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Gaza, and Venezuela, judging by where Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp have been active: countries that are charting their own course, outside the U.S. imperial orbit. The State Department has distributed Ackerman-produced destabilization videos to anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba. “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” [58] Ackerman has sent a trainer to Palestine “to spend twelve days creating a nonviolent vanguard to challenge Hamas.” [59] The list goes on.

Who is Peter Ackerman?

Ackerman is the managing director of Rockport Capital Incorporated, a private investment firm. He was chairman of the board of Freedom House and sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and various other war criminals, CEOs, investment bankers, and highly placed media people.

As part of his Council on Foreign Relations role, Ackerman not too long ago participated in a task force headed by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director and current U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The goal: to craft a new approach to Iran. [60] He is also a member of the U.S. Advisory Council of the United States Institute for Peace, a phoney U.S. government peace outfit headed by the U.S. secretaries of defense and state. And when he’s not hobnobbing with the U.S. foreign policy establishment and managing his investment firm, he’s building an Imperialist International through the offices of the ICNC, of which he is the founding chair.

Ackerman made his fortune working alongside junk-bond king Michael Milken. His “Prada parka and winter tan remind you that you’re not in tattered NGO-land anymore. You’re in the presence of wealth.” [61] After graduating from Colgate, he joined the graduate program at Tufts University Fletcher School, where he met Gene Sharp. “Ackerman spent eight on-and-off years at Tuft’s refining Sharp’s thesis.” [62] After obtaining a PhD in 1976, he joined investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, where, according to James B. Stewart’s Den of Thieves, he had his head so far up his boss’s ass, he was known as “the Sniff”. [63] Recruited by Milken to work as one of Drexel’s traders, Ackerman soon became the junk bond king’s highest-paid subordinate. In 1988, he made $165 million, after putting together the $26 billion KKR leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. One year later, his net worth having soared to about $500 million, he quit finance and turned to whittling down his 1,100 page PhD dissertation into a book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. [64]

It should come as no surprise that a man who reeks of wealth, heads a private investment firm, and sits on the board of the premier U.S. establishment think-tank, defines a central element of democracy as protecting “property rights.” [65] Indeed, the promotion of this central tenet of capitalist ideology is the reason Freedom House, the organization he formerly headed, exists. “You can’t,” Ackerman insists, “have government constantly expropriating the fruits of the labor of its citizens.” [66] Which citizens? Since property rights, in the words of Ackerman and other owners of productive property, are the rights of ownership to what other people have produced, Ackerman equates democracy with capitalism. What he really wants to protect is the right of investors (himself included) to expropriate the fruits of other peoples’ labor. That might explain why he thinks the United States, the world’s premier champion of capitalist exploitation, “has an awful lot to teach people around the world.” [67]

Conclusion

The destabilizers are clever marketers. They choose their words carefully. They draw on the reputation of nonviolent resistance, popularized in the United States by the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. And they repeat the words “democracy” and “dictator” endlessly. It’s all part of a clever marketing campaign, one that has deceived more than a few leftists in the Western countries whose financial and corporate elite profit from NVR. But then, you have to be clever to take on the former CIA function of destabilizing foreign governments, make it seem progressive, and get away with it.

Let’s be clear on what NVR is, what its goals are, and who’s behind it. It’s not nonviolence as a moral or ethical position; it’s a form of warfare, aimed at taking political power in other people’s countries. And while it’s based on nonviolence, it has, in its reliance on sanctions and financial isolation as an integral part of alienating people from target governments, devastating consequences, as real as those violence produces. It’s not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies, or to take political power at home. Instead, it is invariably aimed at foreign governments that have resisted integration into the U.S. imperial orbit. The major proponents of NVR are not independent grassroots organizers, socialists or anarchists. They are, instead, members of the U.S. financial and foreign policy establishment, or are linked to them in subordinate roles through organizational and funding ties. NVR is hardly progressive; it is an imperialist project whose only redeeming feature is the possibility that it may stimulate Western leftists to think about how they too might use the destabilizers’ techniques to take power in their own country to win the authentic battle for democracy.

1a. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.
1b. Lake, Eli, “Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists,” The New York Sun, March 14, 2006.
1c.  Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101,” Peace Magazine, July-Spetmeber, 2003.
2. Ibid.
3. Spencer, Metta, “Training pro-democracy movements: A conversation with Colonel Robert Helvey,” Peace Magazine, January-March, 2008. http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v24n1p12.htm
4. Dobbs, Michael, “US advice guided Milosevic opposition,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2000.
5. Beissinger, Mark R., “Promoting democracy: Is exporting revolution a constructive strategy?” Dissent, Winter 2006. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=155
6. Bacher, John, “Robert Helvey’s expert political defiance,” Peace Magazine, April-June, 2003. http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v19n2p10.htm
7. Ackerman, Peter, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002.
8. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003.
9. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)
10. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
11. Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, “Regime change without bloodshed,” National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002.
12. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
13. Peace.Ca, “Gene Sharp: A Biographical Profile.” http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm .
14. Bacher, 2003.
15. Dobbs, 2000.
16. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
17. Ibid.
18. Ballen, Ken and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
19. Bacher, 2003.
20. Dobbs, 2000.
21. Bacher, 2003.
22. Kazmin, Amy, “Defiance undeterred: Burmese activists seek ways to oust the junta,” Financial Times, December 6, 2007.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Bacher, 2003.
26. Shanahan, Noreen, “The NI Interview: Gene Sharp,” New Internationalist, Issue 296. November, 1997.
27. Foer, 2005.
28. Ackerman, 2002.
29. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
30. Pal, Amitabh, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March 2007.
31. Spencer, 2008.
32. CANVAS, “Is nonviolent action a form of warfare?” Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, 2004. http://www.canvasopedia.org/content/servbian_case/otpor_strategy.htm
33. 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996.
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.

34. Mueller, John, and Karl Mueller. 1999. Sanctions of mass destruction. Foreign Affairs vol.78, no.3:43-53.
35. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “Homegrown revolution,” International Herald Tribune, December 29, 2004.
36. Ackerman, 2002.
37. Dobbs, 2000.
38. Ibid.
39. Dobbs, 2000; Bacher, 2003; Spencer, 2008;
40. Dobbs, 2000.
41. Bacher, 2003.
42. Dobbs, 2000.
43. Spencer, 2008.
44. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
45. Ackerman, Peter and Ramin Ahmadi, “Iran’s future? Watch the streets,” The New York Times, January 4, 2006.
46. Ibid.
47. Foer, 2005.
48. The Washington Post, June 30, 2008.
49. Pal, 2007.
50. Foer, 2005.
51. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
52. Bacher, 2003.  Bacher is an example of how parts of the peace movement promote US imperialism. In an October-December 2004  Peace Magazine review of Robert Helvey’s  On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals, Bacher writes, “Rather than attempting to build costly and likely leaky shields for missiles from Iran and North Korea, why not seek nonviolently to change these regimes into democracies?”
53. Beissinger, 2006.
54. Foer, 2005.
55. Daragahi, Borzou, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution,” The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
56. Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988. p. 28.
57. Foer, 2005.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid.
60. Brzezinski, Zbigniew and Robert M. Gates, “Iran: Time for a New Approach: Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, July 19, 2004. http://www.cfr.org/publication/7194/iran.html .
61. Foer, 2005.
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid.
64. Ibid.
65. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Interview with Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” October 19, 2006. http://www.international.gc.ca/cip-pic/discussions/democracy-democratie/video/ackerman.aspx?lang=eng .
66. Ibid.
67. Ibid.

A sober view of Iran

Posted in Democracy Manipulation, Imperialism, Iran, Marxism, Moderate Left by what's left on July 1, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

The view of many parts of the Western left on the disputed presidential election in Iran and subsequent upheavals seems to have been influenced by an understandable distaste for the obscurantist and misogynistic elements of Islam and a dislike of theocracy. Romantic illusions about popular uprisings have also figured in the positions Western leftists have taken. But romantic illusions and distaste for Islam have no place in a sober analysis of what has transpired in Iran.

First, we should be clear that there is not a whit of evidence that the main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the election or that the outcome was fraudulently manipulated. On the contrary, an opinion poll carried out three weeks before the election, and paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation (hardly an organization inclined to back the president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad), predicted a clear victory for the incumbent. (1)

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, who conducted the poll, wrote that their survey “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory.” The pair’s “scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.” (2)

Proponents of the idea that the vote was stolen point to Ahmadinejad outpolling Mousavi, an Azeri, in areas where Azeris are in the majority. They contend that in a fair vote Mousavi would have won the Azeri-dominated areas. This rests on an implicit assumption that Iranians vote along ethnic lines. But the Rockefeller-sponsored poll found that “Azeris favoured Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.” (3)

While Western media coverage, which focussed on Iran’s economic troubles and Iranians’ concerns about tensions with the West, may have led Western audiences to believe the Iranian president was headed for defeat, Ballen and Doherty argue that Iranians favored Ahmadinejad because they saw him “as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favourable deal – rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.” (4) It didn’t help either in offering a balanced view of Ahmadinejad’s level of support that Western reporters are based in Tehran, where support for Mousavi is strong. This led to Western news reports painting a distorted picture of Mousavi’s popularity.

Some leftists claim the question of whether the election was stolen is irrelevant. (5) This is an implicit admission that there is no cogent evidence the election was fraudulent and an attempt to side-step a critical weakness in support for pro-Mousavi forces. Far from being irrelevant, the validity of the election is highly pertinent. If a majority of Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad – and the balance of evidence says it did – a movement that aims to overturn the electoral choice of a clear majority cannot be considered either legitimate or electorally democratic.

Second, we should be clear on what policies Mousavi favors, and how they differ from those advocated by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, like the US State Department, Wall Street, and right-wing groups in the West, leans strongly toward free trade, free markets, and free enterprise. He is aligned with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who won the approval of Western politicians and the Wall Street Journal for taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling Iran’s largely state-controlled economy. Rafsanjani is among the richest people in Iran.

While hardly a socialist, Ahmadinejad, who is opposed by the US State Department, Wall Street and right-wing groups in the West, has promoted economic policies that clash with the free market, pro-privatization and pro-foreign investment stances taken by the business elite, both in Iran and in the United States.

The commanding heights of Iran’s economy – the oil, gas, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors – are state controlled. Private sector activity is limited “to small-scale workshops, farming, and services.” (6) This denies US banks and investors — and Iran’s business elite — major investment opportunities. Mousavi wants to dismantle Iran’s state-controlled economy, and the subsidies, tariffs and price controls that go along with it. Ahmadinejad tends to favour their retention, or at least, is in less of a hurry to get rid of them.

US capital despises Ahmadinejad for multiple reasons. He is opposed politically because he asserts Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry. The United States and Europe are willing to allow Iran to have nuclear energy for civilian use, so long as they control Iran’s access to the enriched uranium needed to power it. This would put the West in the position of being able to extract concessions from Iran by threatening to turn off the tap, and provide Western capital with a lucrative investment opportunity. From Iran’s perspective, the offer is unacceptable, because it would place Iran in a dependent position, and because Iran has its own rich sources of uranium it can exploit to its own advantage.

Ahmadinejad is also opposed politically because he backs Hamas and Hezbollah, opponents of Washington’s attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. Both organizations are portrayed as terrorist groups that threaten Israel’s existence, but neither are anywhere near large or strong enough or have sufficient backing to pose an existential military threat to Israel. They do, however, pose the threat of self-defense, which is to say they are capable of inflicting some retaliatory harm on Israel and are therefore seen as impediments to Israel’s free movement in asserting US interests on Washington’s behalf.

Economically, Ahmadinejad earns Wall Street’s disapproval for maintaining Iran’s “high tariff rates and non-tariff barriers,” failing to dismantle “import bans” and leaving “restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary regulations” in place. Neither does his “weak enforcement of intellectual property rights,” “resistance to privatization,” and insistence on keeping the oil sector entirely within state hands, earn him friends among Wall Street investors and bankers. [7]

In Wall Street’s view, Ahmadinejad’s sins against the profit-making interests of foreign banks and corporations are legion. He “halted tentative efforts to reform the state-dominated economy” — begun by Rafsanjani and favored by Mousavi — “and has greatly expanded government spending.” He maintains an income tax rate that, in Wall Street’s opinion, is too high, and controls “the prices of petroleum products, electricity, water and wheat for the production of bread,” provides “economic subsidies,” and influences “prices through regulation of Iran’s many state-owned enterprises.” [8]

Equally troubling to Wall Street is that on Ahmadinejad’s watch, foreign investment has faced “considerable hostility.” “The state remains the dominant factor in the economy.” That means US capital is denied profitable investment opportunities. “Foreign investment is restricted or banned in many activities, including banking, telecommunications, transport, oil and gas.” And when foreign investors are allowed in, ceilings are placed on their share of market. [9]

Banking is another sore spot for Wall Street’s deal-makers. The government keeps banks under tight rein and the insurance sector is dominated by five state-owned companies. Plus, under Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iranian workers have enjoyed considerable rights within their jobs. The state imposes strict limits on the number of hours an employee can work in a single week, and firing a worker isn’t left to the discretion of capital, to meet its profit-making needs. It “requires approval of the Islamic Labor Council.” [10]

With people like Ahmadinejad in power, how is US capital to roam the globe, fattening its bottom line?

The irony is that state-control of the commanding heights of the economy, price controls, strong workers’ rights, and industrial planning, are distant dreams for the US left. And yet parts of it are sympathetic to the Mousavi campaign, even though its aim is to dismantle the economic structures and policies the US left aspires to create for itself.

Zimbabwe provides a parallel case. The economic program of Zanu-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since its founding, either alone, or in a coalition, is one that has aimed at advancing the welfare of the indigenous majority at the expense of European settlers and their descendants and foreign investors. The means of accomplishing this goal have been the reclaiming of land expropriated by European settlers and affirmative action measures to favour the development of domestic industry and investors. It is not a socialist program, but it has, except for a brief period in the 1990s, rejected the neo-liberal approach of indulging foreign investors at the expense of social welfare and economic independence. Zimbabwe falls very close to the bottom of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, along with Iran, and for the same reasons.

The Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF’s main opposition, has, since its inception, embraced the same free trade, free market, free enterprise policies Mousavi favors in Iran. The MDC stands for private property, privatizing state-owned enterprises and throwing Zimbabwe’s doors open to foreign trade and investment, on terms favourable to foreign banks and corporations. It is, quite unambiguously, a party of compradors. And yet because it bills itself as the party of democracy, freedom and human rights, large parts of the Western left embrace its cause as their own.

Third, we should be clear on the role Washington has tried to play in fomenting a color revolution in Iran. It hasn’t been a secret. Consider the headlines. “Bush plans huge propaganda campaign in Iran. Congress asked for $75m to fund program.” [11] “US plotting Velvet Revolution in Iran?” [12] “A bid to foment democracy in Iran. The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield a ‘regime change’?” [13] “US to sharpen focus on Iran. The US State Department is creating a special office to…promote a democratic transition in the Islamic republic.” [14] “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran.” [15] “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund”. [16]

Washington’s regime change funding has been used to broadcast US propaganda into Iran; build dissident networks; [17] and to train non-violent, pro-democracy activists to lead street demonstrations in the wake of contested elections. [18]

No one can deny Washington has tried to spark the movement that has rocked Iran. But that hasn’t stopped left supporters of Mousavi from arguing that Washington’s democracy promotion (what a Bush administration official once called “a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it ‘regime change’” [19]) hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. And of course, in principle, this may be true. Just because Washington has spent tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars trying to orchestrate a mass overthrow movement to dump Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic rulers, doesn’t mean it worked. The movement may have arisen organically.

However, the question of whether the uprising has been caused by Washington’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs or has nothing whatever to do with it, is largely meaningless, and if it weren’t meaningless, would be irrelevant.

The question is meaningless because it is impossible to disentangle the internal and external factors that have interacted to produce the street protests that have followed Iran’s contested election. It is absurd to suggest that a phenomenon as complex as prolonged street demonstrations could either be unrelated to internal factors, on the one hand, or external factors, on the other. What’s almost certainly true is that the events surrounding the contested election are the product of internal and external forces and of historical circumstance, intermixed, interacting and incapable of being disentangled. Claiming the uprising is wholly due to internal factors and that external factors played no significant role (or vice-a-versa) is tantamount to saying that what makes an automobile run is its engine and that its wheels, frame, gas tank, and so on, don’t matter.

Second, even if you could show the uprising was caused by Washington’s attempts to orchestrate it, or arose solely from internal factors, what difference would it make? The fact remains that Washington did try to meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, to overthrow the government for reasons related to its politics and economic policies, and that it did, is intolerable.

The parts of the US left that place great weight on “movement building” and non-violent pro-democracy activism, steer clear of examining the outcome of color revolution insurrections. Their focus remains sharply circumscribed, fixed on means, and avoiding the question: to what end? To these leftists, it is process, not outcome, which matters. Indeed, outcome, except insofar as it is process itself, is never questioned. It is enough, for them, that large numbers of people assemble to challenge the state. But we should ask of any movement: what does it aim to accomplish? And importantly, what is it likely to accomplish?

One goal of the popular uprising in Iran is to overturn the outcome of the election, on grounds that it is fraudulent. But what if the election wasn’t fraudulent, as the balance of evidence suggests? A movement that seeks to replace Ahmadinejad with Mousavi, even though the majority of Iranians favour Ahmadinejad, can hardly be considered democratic. This is an important point, for many leftists who rally to the cause of non-violent, pro-democracy, movement building, are professedly motivated by pro-democratic sentiments. After all, they call themselves “pro-democracy” activists. But supporting a movement that seeks to overturn the electoral choice of a majority of Iranians isn’t democratic.

We should be clear, too, that tens of thousands of people do not necessarily represent “the people.” The throngs of Iranians that have massed in the streets of Tehran appear to represent a stratum of “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians,” [20] many of whom have studied in the West, picking up pro-imperialist values along the way. They are no more “the people” than the throng of Roman Catholics that mass in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every Easter are “the people,” for being a throng.

Even so, some will say that insofar as the movement seeks to overthrow a theocratic regime (and yet it’s not clear that it wants to do anything more that challenge the state over what is believed to be an electoral fraud) it is progressive in its orientation. But supporting the uprising owing to its progressive content is on the same plane as supporting the regime owing to the progressive content of its economic policies and structures. Which side one supports seems to depend on where one comes down on the question of the state vs. opposition to the state. Because they are philosophically against the state, any state, anarchists predictably come down on the side of the protestors. Hating all states linked to revolutions not aimed at fomenting world socialist revolution (or having departed from such aims), Trotskyites naturally oppose champions of the Iranian revolution and back those who might bring it down. Social democrats and liberals, being incorrigible suckers for any movement that claims fealty to liberal democratic principles, side with the protestors, because the protestors are seen as champions of the best in Western values. They also don’t particularly like Ahmadinejad and are looking for any progressive pretext to vent their spleen over the Iranian president, Iran’s theocratic leadership, and Islam generally. In this, they are great hypocrites, for while they castigate anti-imperialists for negative anti-imperialism (that is, supporting any leader, movement or party opposed by the United States, simply because it is opposed by the United States) they are forever on the look out for seemingly progressive reasons to hook up with State Department crusades against foreign targets. The comforts of being firmly ensconced in the mainstream of public opinion while still getting progressive credits for it is a temptation liberals and social democrats have never been able to resist. That might explain why they’ve been so eager to back the uprising against the Iranian state (action that is well within the mainstream of popular opinion) while failing even to acknowledge the non-violent pro-democracy movement that challenged the Lebanese state (outside the mainstream because the movement was backed by Hezbollah.)

Now, since failing to denounce the Iranian government in unambiguous terms leaves me open to charges of supporting Ahmadinejad, his brand of social democracy, and political Islam generally, I should make a few things plain. I am no supporter of half in-half out economic arrangements. An economy with few restrictions on private capital accumulation and few concessions to social welfare, may, under certain circumstances, be more conducive to economic growth than half in-half out arrangements (of the type Ahmadinejad leans toward), that seek the benefits of socialism without giving up markets and profits. Neither, however, is as responsive to the needs of ordinary people as one based totally on public ownership rather than free enterprise, central planning rather than markets, and rational production for use rather than production for profit. It is this form of society I favour.

As for political Islam, I regard it as a reality, not an ideal. It is, at the moment, the chief anti-imperialist force throughout West and South Asia, having superseded secular, leftist and Marxist movements, which were weakened by political Islam itself. My preference leans to anti-imperialist movements and parties with Marxist orientations, but my preference does not interfere with a sober recognition of reality.

And no, I am not sympathetic to Islam. I am an atheist, and am as much offended by Islam’s misogyny, superstitions and absurd rituals as I am by the equal backwardness of Islam’s siblings, Judaism and Christianity. But at the same time, opposition to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolution by Western governments and by supporters of the uprising has nothing whatever to do with Islam and everything to do with politics, economics and class interest. Islam has become in West and South Asia a rallying point, in the absence of strong Marxist movements, for anti-imperialism. Roman Catholicism, as a religious overlay on the anti-imperialism of the Irish Republican movement, never got in the way of support by Western leftists. Strange that Islam interferes with support for the legitimate anti-imperialist struggles of Muslims.

What would the popular uprising achieve, were it successful? It would probably achieve what all other color revolutions have achieved: the replacement of a government that presides over a largely state-owned economy, imposes restrictions on foreign investment, and makes considerable concessions to social welfare, with one oriented toward privatization, removing restrictions on imports and foreign investment, and which makes few concessions to social welfare. The program of parties and movements backed by Western regime change efforts have, in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and now Iran, featured obeisance to free enterprise, free trade, free market and pro-foreign investment principles. Since Western banks, corporations and investors stand to benefit the most from these policies, it’s not surprising that Western governments have funnelled money to parties and their civil society satellites that champion these causes. Nor is it surprising that in the interests of garnering public support, these parties have portrayed themselves, not as the champions of capitalist and imperialist interests they are, but as beacons for democracy and human rights locked in struggle with backward, incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial regimes.

The besieged governments may not, through reasons of history, culture and the necessities of political survival, embrace the liberal ideals Westerners celebrate. None of them are Marxist in orientation, are dominated by the working class or peasantry, or are working toward socialism. But they have taken stands to resist domination by capitalist imperialism, and their only hope to develop internally in a way that isn’t distorted by the profit-making needs of foreign capital, rather than being responsive to the social welfare needs of their own people, is to continue to resist. If they could be brought down by Marxist oriented movements with socialism on their agendas, the overthrow movement would be well worth supporting. But the reality is that the overthrow movement that has arisen in Iran is neither Marxist nor socialist in aspirations, and its success would likely lead to a government willing to collaborate with foreign capital in ways that would see a regression in the position of the ordinary people of Iran.

For the reasons stated above, support for the uprising in Iran by leftist is mistaken. The uprising is not based in legitimate opposition to a genuinely stolen election, for there is no evidence the election was stolen; it can hardly be called democratic, for it seeks to reverse the decision of a clear majority of Iranians; and it is not in the interests of Iran’s ordinary people, for it seeks to bring to power a government that would collaborate with foreign capital against the interests of ordinary Iranians. The beneficiaries of a successful uprising would be Western banks and investors, which is why Western governments have tried to spark the uprising. High-income Iranians educated in tony Western universities would also benefit. They would secure lucrative positions facilitating the plunder of Iran by Western banks and corporations. Small wonder, then, that they have provided the energy (and Western governments the money, training and propaganda) for the uprising.

1. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See for example The Freedom Road Socialist Party June 28, 2009 Statement on Iran. http://freedomroad.org/content/view/656/1/lang,en/
6. 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Iran
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
12. Press TV (Iran), November 18, 2008.
13. The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006.
14. CNN, March 2, 2006.
15. Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
16. MRZine, July 15, 2008.
17. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
19. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
20. Mousavi’s greatest support, according to pollsters Ballen and Doherty, comes from this stratum.

Concerned Africa Scholars’ Jacob Mundy

By Stephen Gowans

A member of the executive committee of the scholars’ organization that has accused Mahmoud Mamdani of falling for what it calls the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, has volunteered and worked for pro-imperialist organizations and has given briefings to the US State Department and Intelligence Council. (1)

Jacob Mundy, who co-edited a recent collection of articles posted on the Concerned Africa Scholars’ website, criticizing Mamdani for failing to take a hard negative line against Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF party, was a Peace Corp volunteer and has held jobs with The International Crisis Group and Amnesty International. (2)

The Peace Corps “was spawned by the US cold war desire to compete with the Soviet bloc for influence in the third world.” While it no longer has a cold war mission, it remains, at its core, committed to a “battle for hearts and minds” (3) – instilling pro-West and pro-capitalist values in third world populations.

On top of its missionary function, the Peace Corps has been used as a CIA front.

“Those agents in the Peace Corps who were conscious of their role had several tasks. As they mingled with the people, they were identifying future leftist leaders as well as those right-wingers who in the future would work for U.S. interests. They were assessing consciousness, evaluating reactions to reforms. And they were selecting and training future agents.” (4)

That’s not to say Mundy is a CIA operative, only that his CV is replete with connections to organizations that are interlocked with the CIA or have served pro-imperialist roles, beginning with the Peace Corps.

Mundy’s term with the Peace Corps coincided with the directorship of Mark L. Schneider, who would later join the notoriously pro-imperialist International Crisis Group as Senior Vice President and Special Adviser on Latin America. Mundy would later show up at the ICG to serve a three month stint in 2005. (5)

The International Crisis Group is funded by such pro-imperialist and CIA pass-through organizations as the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, The Soros Open Society Institute and the Ronald Reagan established US Institute for Peace, of which the US Secretaries of State and Defense are ex officio board members.

The ICG’s board members, past and present, include US and British foreign policy luminaries, among them Wesley Clark (who commanded the Nato assault on Yugoslavia in 1999), cold warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski (who ordered the backing of the Mujahadin in Afghanistan), Lord Robertson (the former Secretary General of Nato), and billionaire financier George Soros, who has been active in bankrolling color revolutions. (6)

Also on the board is Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, wife of Peter Ackerman. Ackerman, another color revolution activist, is a member of the US ruling class Council on Foreign Relations, heads up the CIA interlocked Freedom House, and runs the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (the ICNC).

The ICNC is significant for having Stephen Zunes, who once was a research fellow at the United States Institute for Peace, as a member of its academic council. What’s the connection to Mundy? Zunes is co-author, along with Mundy, of the forthcoming Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution in Northwest Africa.

The rights group Amnesty International, whose US branch Mundy worked for as assistant country specialist, North Africa, from 2004 to 2007, tends to reserve its harshest criticisms for countries outside the West, preferring a more reserved and nuanced approach to its criticisms of Western governments and their allies. This reflects an underlying commitment to the view that the West possesses a moral credibility which legitimizes its taking a leadership role in the world. For example, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, William Schulz, once called on George W. Bush to order a full investigation into the “atrocious human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers,” because,

“when the US government calls upon foreign leaders to bring to justice those who commit or authorize human rights violations in their own countries, why should those foreign leaders listen? And if the US government does not abide by the same standards of justice, what shred of moral authority will we retain to pressure other governments to diminish abuses?” (7)

In this can be glimpsed the basis of AI’s human rights imperialism – the idea that the US government has an obligation, borne of an assumed moral authority, to lead the world in the defense and promotion of human rights. It’s astonishing that anyone with even a passing acquaintance of US foreign policy would believe that the US hadn’t long ago surrendered the last ounce of moral credibility it ever had and is, without exception, the world’s worst human rights violator.

Former Amnesty International USA board member Dennis Bernstein underscored AI’s eagerness to expose human rights violations outside the West and kid gloves approach to Western countries in a 2002 interview.

“To be sure, if you are dealing with a human rights situation in a country that is at odds with the United States or Britain, it gets an awful lot of attention, resources, man and womanpower, publicity, you name it, they can throw whatever they want at that. But if it’s dealing with violations of human rights by the United States, Britain, Israel, then it’s like pulling teeth to get them to really do something on the situation. They might, very reluctantly and after an enormous amount of internal fightings and battles and pressures, you name it. But you know, it’s not like the official enemies list.” (8)

In 2006, Mundy wrote a paper on Western Sahara, Islam, Terrorism and Economic Marginality in the Sahara-Sahel for the U.S. National Intelligence Council, gave a presentation on Morocco and Western Sahara to the U.S. State Department and National Intelligence Council, and in August of that year, briefed Ambassador-designate for Algeria, Robert Ford on Western Sahara.(9)

Let’s review.

Mundy starts out working for the Peace Corps, an organization established expressly to serve imperialist goals, and which has a history of being used as a cover for, and means of, recruiting CIA agents.

He serves a short stint at the International Crisis Group, which is linked up with the US government foreign policy establishment, corporate foundations, and color revolution financier George Soros.

He spends four years working for Amnesty International, an organization whose eagerness to attack US foreign policy targets and reluctance to take on the US, Britain and its allies is notorious.

Meanwhile, he gives briefings to the US State Department and National Intelligence Council while co-authoring a book on Western Sahara with Stephen Zunes, who is active in the US-government-corporate-foundation-supported community of pro-democracy, non-violence activists who travel the world training youth to overthrow the governments of US foreign policy targets, among them the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe.

Next he shows up as member of the executive committee of the Concerned Africa Scholars, an organization offering a scholarly legitimation of the US, British and EU demonization of the Mugabe government, which these powers have openly targeted for regime change.

The orientation of the Concerned Africa Scholars and the background of one of its executive directors provide an answer to the obvious question: About what are the Concerned Africa Scholars concerned? The answer would seem to be legitimizing the narrative that justifies Western intervention in Zimbabwe (even if only limited to the new missionaries, NGOs (9)) and more broadly, in Africa as a whole.

1. Mundy’s CV was pointed out to me by Michael Barker, who has written indefatigably on the networks of organizations and individuals engaged in democracy manipulation.

2. Jacob A. Mundy, Source Watch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Jacob_A._Mundy

3. Kevin Lowther, “‘Service to your country’ muddied by Peace Corps-military agreement”, Christian Science Monitor, September 21, 2005.

4. Annon, “Under the Cloak and Behind the Dagger”, North American Congress on Latin America, Latin America & Empire Report, July – August 1974, pp. 6-8.

5. Mark L. Schnieder, Source Watch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Mark_L._Schneider

6. International Crisis Group, Source Watch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=International_Crisis_Group

7. Alan Cowell, New York Times, May 26, 2005.

8. Francis A. Boyle and Dennis Bernstein, “Interview with Francis Boyle: Amnesty on Jenin, Covert Action Quarterly, Issue 73, Summer 2002.

9. Jacob A. Mundy, Source Watch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Jacob_A._Mundy

10. One of the articles critical of Mamdani compiled by Mundy is written by a civil society scholar who is referred to in some anti-imperialist circles as Bond, Patrick Bond, of her majesty’s NGOs. Bond has labeled Sokwanele, a US-financed poplar insurrection group trained by “pro-democracy” non-violence activists, as an independent left, despite its connections to imperialist governments and corporate foundations. I’m not sure what Sokwanele is independent of, but it’s not independent of the US government’s regime change plans for Zimbabwe. Neither, it would seem, is Mundy.

The Concerned Africa Scholars’ Enthusiasms

Posted in Liberals, Moderate Left, Zimbabwe by what's left on March 16, 2009

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.

Fletcher: Where’s the Substance?

Posted in Moderate Left, Zimbabwe by what's left on February 24, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

Bill Fletcher Jr. has weighed in on Zimbabwe’s unity government with an article in The Black Commentator titled Zimbabwe: Transition to Where? Anyone expecting to learn anything significant about Zimbabwe from Fletcher will be sadly disappointed. He offers nothing more than pious expressions of benevolence and the reduction of complex events stretching over three decades to the personality of a single man, Robert Mugabe.

Fletcher, executive editor of The Black Commentator, tells us “The cholera epidemic must be brought under control, but so too must (Zimbabwe’s) inflation and massive unemployment.” He’s on pretty safe ground here. No one wants more cholera, more inflation and more unemployment.

Zimbabwe, he continues, “certainly needs economic and healthcare support from foreign governments.”

Will Zimbabwe get it? Will strings be attached? Will the strings tie Zimbabwe up into a neo-colonial straitjacket?

Fletcher: Pious expressions of benevolence from a champion of causes no one is against

Fletcher: Pious expressions of benevolence from a champion of causes no one is against

Fletcher says that the US and Britain were “responsible for the mess that unfolded within Zimbabwe” because they “reneged on financial commitments when Zimbabwe was liberated from white minority rule.”

But if Washington and London were prepared to create a mess in Zimbabwe, what makes Fletcher think they’re prepared to undo it?

Sadly, Fletcher fails to ask why the US and Britain reneged on their financial commitments. Is there any chance of Washington and London providing genuine economic and healthcare support now?

The truth of the matter is that the US and EU have made plain the conditions under which they are prepared to provide aid to Zimbabwe. The same conditions apply today, as applied last year, and the year before, and the year before that: Zimbabwe must respect private property (abandon and possibly reverse land reform) and reverse discriminatory measures that favor black owners and investors over foreign (and specifically Western) investment. Does Fletcher think the unity government should accede to these conditions and abandon the previous government’s land reform and affirmative action programs for black investors? He doesn’t tell us.

One gets the impression that Fletcher hasn’t really thought through these questions or even kept abreast of events in Zimbabwe.

He attributes the conflict between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the opposition MDC to the structural adjustment program imposed on Zimbabwe in the 1990s by the IMF as a condition for renegotiating its foreign debt. Fletcher correctly points out that Mugabe acceded to the IMF-imposed conditions, but he misses two significant facts:

-Mugabe’s government had backed away from the structural adjustment program by the time the MDC was formed;

-The MDC has become the standard bearer for policies under the Washington consensus.

Contrary to what Fletcher implies, it is not Zanu-PF that favors IMF policies; it is the MDC.

Indeed, it could be argued that Mugabe’s rejection of the structural adjustment program was one of the principal reasons Britain and the EU helped form the MDC as a vehicle to counter the Zanu-PF government.

Fletcher also misses the mark on the outcome of Zimbabwe’s last elections, noting that “it appears that the MDC won” but that “ZANU will not fully concede.”

No one is in doubt as to who won the last elections (except possibly Fletcher). The combined opposition won a majority of legislative seats. In Senate elections, the opposition won as many seats as Zanu-PF did. Huh? Doesn’t Fletcher say that Zanu-PF resorts to electoral fraud to stay in power? He does. So, how does he explain the outcome of the last elections?

Zimbabwe’s constitution requires a run-off if presidential candidates fail to get over 50 percent of the vote. In the run-off round, Tsvangirai dropped out, claiming his supporters were being intimidated by Zanu-PF and government directed violence. However, his name remained on the ballot, the vote went ahead, and he lost.

Fletcher stays comfortably within the bounds of the preferred narrative when he tells us that “while Tsvangirai was giving his inaugural address, ZANU-PF aligned authorities were in the process of arresting one of Tsvangirai’s aides.” This is true, but what Fletcher doesn’t tell us is who was being arrested and why. Instead, he introduces an implicit accusation: that there are no charges of substance against Tsvangirai’s aide — actually deputy agriculture minister designate Roy Bennett — and that his arrest was politically inspired to undermine the unity government.

First, the idea that Bennett was arrested as part of a sinister plot hatched by Mugabe is sheer question begging. The only evidence Fletcher can advance is the theory that Mugabe is power-hungry and that Bennett’s arrest must, therefore, be related.

Second, there was an outstanding warrant for Bennett’s arrest in connection with charges brought against him in 2006 in connection with an arms cache. He had been granted bail, but fled the country. When Bennett received word he was to be appointed deputy minister of agriculture he returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa, where he had been living since 2006. At that point, he was arrested on the outstanding charge.

Third, arresting a single appointee could hardly bring down the unity government, and, significantly, hasn’t.

Finally, while Bennett may indeed by innocent, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion, as Fletcher has, that opposition members are innocent simply because they’re members of the opposition.

More troubling than Fletcher’s failure to grasp what is happening in Zimbabwe is his failure to come to terms with the question of whether it’s more important for Zimbabwe to cleave to liberal democratic forms or that it democratize its pattern of land ownership and achieve a substantive democracy, in which Zimbabwe’s political life is free from domination by outside powers. It might be said that this is a false dichotomy, but that would be to bury our heads in the sand. Much of what has happened in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s can be understood as a conflict between black nationalism and neo-colonialism. To think that any Third World country could pursue an anti-neo-colonial project with an inherited British parliamentary system without considerable conflict is naïve.

Zimbabwe’s land reform has been deeply offensive to the US, Britain and the EU. Zanu-PF’s program of economic nationalism has been no less offensive. To suppose that these powerful states have not tried to influence the political process in Zimbabwe to undermine these projects, flies in the face of mountains of evidence, including publically available US government documents, which demonstrate otherwise.

Equally shocking is that people who are ready to dismiss their critics as conspiracy theorists, put forward a conspiracy theory view of Zimbabwe that says all that has happened in the country over the last thirty years can be understood as an outcome of the thirst for power of a single man. That will get you published in the New York Times. It shouldn’t get you published in serious left-wing media.

Cynicism as a substitute for scholarship

Posted in Foundation Left, Imperialism, Liberals, Moderate Left, Zimbabwe by what's left on December 30, 2008

“…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.

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