what's left

Qatar’s Questionable Syrian Torture Allegations

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By Stephen Gowans

A report sponsored by one of the Syrian insurgency’s major weapons suppliers claims to provide “new visual corroboration that Mr. Assad’s government is guilty of mass war crimes against its own citizens.” Based on photos of dead detainees said to be taken by a defector from the Syrian military, the report alleges that Syrian forces engaged in widespread torture.

While the allegations may be true, there is considerable room for skepticism.

First, and foremost, the photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified.

Second, the driving force behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to bring down the Syrian government. Part of that effort has been to supply Syrian and foreign jihadists– themselves the target of torture accusations–with arms.

Third, there are three reasons the Qatari emirate might have an interest in traducing the Syrian government with phony allegations.

• To strengthen assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva II conference that might leave him in place.

• To provide a pretext for direct intervention by Western military forces into the Syrian conflict.

• To divert attention from the brutal war crimes (including mass executions, beheadings and eviscerations) carried out by the insurgents, now under investigation by Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief.

Of course, we can’t be sure that the financing of the torture allegations report is a stratagem to gain the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, but as The New York Times acknowledges in an understatement, the funding of the project by one of the insurgents’ principal backers is “likely to raise questions.”

Indeed.

Written by what's left

January 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Qatar, Syria

Seven Myths about the USSR

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By Stephen Gowans

The Soviet Union was dissolved 22 years ago, on December 26, 1991. It’s widely believed outside the former republics of the USSR that Soviet citizens fervently wished for this; that Stalin was hated as a vile despot; that the USSR’s socialist economy never worked; and that the citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer the life they have today under capitalist democracy to, what, in the fevered parlance of Western journalists, politicians and historians, was the repressive, dictatorial rule of a one-party state which presided over a sclerotic, creaky and unworkable socialist economy.

None of these beliefs is true.

Myth #1. The Soviet Union had no popular support. On March 17, 1991, nine months before the Soviet Union’s demise, Soviet citizens went to the polls to vote on a referendum which asked whether they were in favor of preserving the USSR. Over three-quarters voted yes. Far from favoring the breakup of the union, most Soviet citizens wanted to preserve it. [1]

Myth #2. Russians hate Stalin. In 2009, Rossiya, a Russian TV channel, spent three months polling over 50 million Russians to find out who, in their view, were the greatest Russians of all time. Prince Alexander Nevsky, who successfully repelled an attempted Western invasion of Russia in the 13th century, came first. Second place went to Pyotr Stolypin, who served as prime minister to Tsar Nicholas II, and enacted agrarian reforms. In third place, behind Stolypin by only 5,500 votes, was Joseph Stalin, a man that Western opinion leaders routinely describe as a ruthless dictator with the blood of tens of millions on his hands. [2] He may be reviled in the West, not surprisingly, since he was never one after the hearts of the corporate grandees who dominate the West’s ideological apparatus, but, it seems, Russians have a different view—one that fails to comport with the notion that Russians were victimized, rather than elevated, by Stalin’s leadership.

In a May/June 2004 Foreign Affairs article, (Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want), anti-communist Harvard historian Richard Pipes cited a poll in which Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest men and women of all time. The poll-takers were looking for significant figures of any country, not just Russians. Stalin came fourth, behind Peter the Great, Lenin, and Pushkin…much to Pipes’ irritation. [3]

Myth #3. Soviet socialism didn’t work. If this is true, then capitalism, by any equal measure, is an indisputable failure. From its inception in 1928, to the point at which it was dismantled in 1989, Soviet socialism never once, except during the extraordinary years of World War II, stumbled into recession, nor failed to provide full employment. [4] What capitalist economy has ever grown unremittingly, without recession, and providing jobs for all, over a 56 year span (the period during which the Soviet economy was socialist and the country was not at war, 1928-1941 and 1946-1989)? Moreover, the Soviet economy grew faster than capitalist economies that were at an equal level of economic development when Stalin launched the first five year plan in 1928—and faster than the US economy through much of the socialist system’s existence. [5] To be sure, the Soviet economy never caught up to or surpassed the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist core, but it started the race further back; was not aided, as Western countries were, by histories of slavery, colonial plunder, and economic imperialism; and was unremittingly the object of Western, and especially US, attempts to sabotage it. Particularly deleterious to Soviet economic development was the necessity of diverting material and human resources from the civilian to the military economy, to meet the challenge of Western military pressure. The Cold War and arms race, which entangled the Soviet Union in battles against a stronger foe, not state ownership and planning, kept the socialist economy from overtaking the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist West. [6] And yet, despite the West’s unflagging efforts to cripple it, the Soviet socialist economy produced positive growth in each and every non-war year of its existence, providing a materially secure existence for all. Which capitalist economy can claim equal success?

Myth #4. Now that they’ve experienced it, citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer capitalism. On the contrary, they prefer the Soviet system’s state planning, that is, socialism. Asked in a recent poll what socio-economic system they favor, Russians answered [7]:

• State planning and distribution, 58%
• Private property and distribution, 28%
• Hard to say, 14%
• Total, 100%

Pipes cites a poll in which 72 percent of Russians “said they wanted to restrict private economic initiative.” [8]

Myth #5. Twenty-two years later, citizens of the former Soviet Union see the USSR’s demise as more beneficial than harmful. Wrong again. According to a just-released Gallup poll, for every citizen of 11 former Soviet republics, including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who thinks the breakup of the Soviet Union benefited their country, two think it did harm. And the results are more strongly skewed toward the view that the breakup was harmful among those aged 45 years and over, namely, the people who knew the Soviet system best. [9]

According to another poll cited by Pipes, three-quarters of Russians regret the Soviet Union’s demise [10]—hardly what you would think of people who were reportedly delivered from a supposedly repressive state and allegedly arthritic, ponderous economy.

Myth #6. Citizens of the former Soviet Union are better off today. To be sure, some are. But are most? Given that more prefer the former socialist system to the current capitalist one, and think that the USSR’s breakup has done more harm than good, we might infer that most aren’t better off—or at least, that they don’t see themselves as such. This view is confirmed, at least as regards life expectancy. In a paper in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, sociologist David Stuckler and medical researcher Martin McKee, show that the transition to capitalism in the former USSR precipitated a sharp drop in life-expectancy, and that “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pre-transition life-expectancy levels.” Male life expectancy in Russia, for example, was 67 years in 1985, under communism. In 2007, it was less than 60 years. Life expectancy plunged five years between 1991 and 1994. [11] The transition to capitalism, then, produced countless pre-mature deaths—and continues to produce a higher mortality rate than likely would have prevailed under the (more humane) socialist system. (A 1986 study by Shirley Ciresto and Howard Waitzkin, based on World Bank data, found that the socialist economies of the Soviet bloc produced more favorable outcomes on measures of physical quality of life, including life expectancy, infant mortality, and caloric intake, than did capitalist economies at the same level of economic development, and as good as capitalist economies at a higher level of development. [12])

As regards the transition from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy, Pipes points to a poll that shows that Russians view democracy as a fraud. Over three-quarters believe “democracy is a facade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques.” [13] Who says Russians aren’t perspicacious?

Myth #7. If citizens of the former Soviet Union really wanted a return to socialism, they would just vote it in. If only it were so simple. Capitalist systems are structured to deliver public policy that suits capitalists, and not what’s popular, if what’s popular is against capitalist interests. Obamacare aside, the United States doesn’t have full public health insurance. Why not? According to the polls, most Americans want it. So, why don’t they just vote it in? The answer, of course, is that there are powerful capitalist interests, principally private insurance companies, that have used their wealth and connections to block a public policy that would attenuate their profits. What’s popular doesn’t always, or even often, prevail in societies where those who own and control the economy can use their wealth and connections to dominate the political system to win in contests that pit their elite interests against mass interests. As Michael Parenti writes,

Capitalism is not just an economic system, but an entire social order. Once it takes hold, it is not voted out of existence by electing socialists or communists. They may occupy office but the wealth of the nation, the basic property relations, organic law, financial system, and debt structure, along with the national media, police power, and state institutions have all been fundamentally restructured. [14]

A Russian return to socialism is far more likely to come about the way it did the first time, through revolution, not elections—and revolutions don’t happen simply because people prefer a better system to the one they currently have. Revolutions happen when life can no longer be lived in the old way—and Russians haven’t reached the point where life as it’s lived today is no longer tolerable.

Interestingly, a 2003 poll asked Russians how they would react if the Communists seized power. Almost one-quarter would support the new government, one in five would collaborate, 27 percent would accept it, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist it. In other words, for every Russian who would actively oppose a Communist take-over, four would support it or collaborate with it, and three would accept it [15]—not what you would expect if you think Russians are glad to get out from underneath what we’re told was the burden of communist rule.

So, the Soviet Union’s passing is regretted by the people who knew the USSR firsthand (but not by Western journalists, politicians and historians who knew Soviet socialism only through the prism of their capitalist ideology.) Now that they’ve had over two decades of multi-party democracy, private enterprise and a market economy, Russians don’t think these institutions are the wonders Western politicians and mass media make them out to be. Most Russians would prefer a return to the Soviet system of state planning, that is, to socialism.

Even so, these realities are hidden behind a blizzard of propaganda, whose intensity peaks each year on the anniversary of the USSR’s passing. We’re supposed to believe that where it was tried, socialism was popularly disdained and failed to deliver—though neither assertion is true.

Of course, that anti-Soviet views have hegemonic status in the capitalist core is hardly surprising. The Soviet Union is reviled by just about everyone in the West: by the Trotskyists, because the USSR was built under Stalin’s (and not their man’s) leadership; by social democrats, because the Soviets embraced revolution and rejected capitalism; by the capitalists, for obvious reasons; and by the mass media (which are owned by the capitalists) and the schools (whose curricula, ideological orientation and political and economic research are strongly influenced by them.)

So, on the anniversary of the USSR’s demise we should not be surprised to discover that socialism’s political enemies should present a view of the Soviet Union that is at odds with what those on the ground really experienced, what a socialist economy really accomplished, and what those deprived of it really want.

1.”Referendum on the preservation of the USSR,” RIA Novosti, 2001, http://en.ria.ru/infographics/20110313/162959645.html
2. Guy Gavriel Kay, “The greatest Russians of all time?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 10, 2009.
3. Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.
4. Robert C. Allen. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. David Kotz and Fred Weir. Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
5. Allen; Kotz and Weir.
6. Stephen Gowans, “Do Publicly Owned, Planned Economies Work?” what’s left, December 21, 2012.
7. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.
8. Pipes.
9. Neli Espova and Julie Ray, “Former Soviet countries see more harm from breakup,” Gallup, December 19, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/166538/former-soviet-countries-harm-breakup.aspx
10. Pipes.
11. Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.
12. Shirley Ceresto and Howard Waitzkin, “Economic development, political-economic system, and the physical quality of life”, American Journal of Public Health, June 1986, Vol. 76, No. 6.
13. Pipes.
14. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, City Light Books, 1997, p. 119.
15. Pipes.

Written by what's left

December 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Under-Reported UN Investigation Points to Rebel Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

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By Stephen Gowans

It can’t be said that the media failed to mention it altogether, because The New York Times made passing reference to it on December 12 (Chemical Arms Used Repeatedly in Syria, U.N. Says).Other media outlets did too. They just didn’t give it much coverage.

The ‘it’ was the finding of the UN inspector mission in Syria that chemical weapons were used on two occasions against Syrian soldiers and on one occasion against soldiers and civilians (presumably by insurgents.)

This is the same mission whose report on the August Ghouta incident is now widely misreported in the Western media to have strongly suggested that the Syrian army was responsible for the gassing deaths of hundreds. In fact, while the UN report concluded that a chemical weapons attack had occurred, it did not assign blame for the attack, and noted that physical evidence at the site had been manipulated, complicating whatever inferences one cared to make about who the perpetrators were.

The mission’s final report—presented to the UN Secretary General on December 12 – explores a number of other incidents in which chemical weapons were allegedly used.

The inspectors corroborated three of four Syrian government allegations that its troops had been gassed. In one of the alleged incidents (on March 19 at Khan Al Asal) civilians were also gassed. That incident “reportedly resulted in the deaths of 25 people and injured more than 110 civilians and soldiers,” according to the UN report.

Given that Syrian soldiers were the targets of these attacks, it seems very likely that insurgent forces were responsible. Of course, that’s by no means certain. It’s possible that the soldiers were exposed to sarin after mishandling their own weapons. But the balance of probabilities favors the view that the insurgents were the culpable party.

Had UN inspectors concluded that chemical weapons were used against insurgents and civilians, killing two dozen and injuring over 100, it is nearly certain that this would be the top news story in Western media for days to come. However, given that the report points, instead, to the insurgents using chemical weapons, and not Syrian forces, it has been given little play.

The New York Times limits to three paragraphs its reporting on those elements of the UN report that point strongly to the culpability of insurgent forces, and reporters Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone take pains to minimize the mission’s findings, noting that “verification was impossible” and that in the Jobar and Ashrafiah cases “the report said, chemical weapons may have been used on ‘a relatively small scale against soldiers’” (emphasis added).

In fact, the relevant conclusions from the report, reproduced below, evince more certainty than Sengupta’s and Gladstone’s use of “may” acknowledges.

• “The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence that suggests that chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers.”

Interestingly, the report reveals that the UN team felt that most of the French, British and US allegations against Syria lacked sufficient information and credibility, and so were never investigated. On the other hand, the mission found all four of Syria’s allegations to be sufficiently credible to investigate, and corroborated three of them.

Table 1This suggests that in most instances, the allegations made by the Western powers were propaganda-driven, and were intended to manipulate public opinion through the innuendo effect—the tendency of people to regard allegations as fact, especially if viewed to come from a credible source. The UN mission, however, had other ideas about how credible these sources were.

Also under-reported is the investigative work of Seymour Hersh, who in a December 8 online article for the London Review of Books, titled Whose Sarin?, revealed that Washington had “evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”

According to Hersh, the Joint Chiefs of Staff “concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas.”

On the other hand, Hersh revealed that Washington had no evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the August 21 Ghouta attack.

The New Yorker and Washington Post, which usually run Hersh’s investigative reporting, refused to publish his story. With the UN report offering credible evidence that the insurgents have used chemical weapons, it’s difficult to attribute the media outlets’ rejection of the Hersh story to concerns about the credibility of Hersh’s reporting. It’s more likely that they, along with media outlets who are underplaying the UN report, are trying not to draw too much attention to the use of chemical weapons by insurgents.

Table 2

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December 14, 2013 at 12:56 am

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

No Pause in US Economic War on Iran

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By Stephen Gowans

David Cohen, a US Treasury Department undersecretary, took pains in The Wall Street Journal (December 10) to point out that despite the sanctions relief provided for in the November interim nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 [1], that the US-led economic war on Iran continues largely unabated. Cohen’s message is that the relief package “is economically insignificant to Iran,” while US-led oil sanctions, trade disruptions, and efforts to isolate Iran from the US banking system—which remain in place despite the deal—continue to hobble Iran’s economy.

I warned in an October article that no matter how it looked on the surface, an accord with Iran would represent an insignificant concession by Washington, a point Cohen confirms. The reality, however, has not been widely grasped, and the deal has been misconstrued in many quarters as a possible precursor to a detente and normalization of relations between the West and Iran. Cohen dashes this illusion.

Washington estimates that Iran “will stand to receive $6 billion to $7 billion in relief” over the agreement’s six-month term but lose “about $30 billion in oil revenue” as a result of continued “oil, financial and banking sanctions.” In other words, the relief package will mitigate the impact of sanctions, but only mildly—and the remaining sanctions will continue to bite deeply.

What’s more, the insignificant level of sanctions relief comes on top “of the roughly $80 billion Iran has lost since early 2012 because of US and European Union oil sanctions, and of the nearly $100 billion in Iran’s foreign exchange holdings that are mostly restricted or inaccessible due to U.S. financial and banking sanctions.”

Cohen reminds us that the US economic war has badly battered Iran’s economy. GDP contracted by five percent last year. Inflation is running at about 40 percent. And Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 60 percent of its value against the US dollar in the last two years. For Tehran, the prognosis is grim. And sanctions relief—what little there is—is insufficient to brighten the outlook. The economy continues to shrink.

Cohen says Washington will continue to make Iran’s economy “suffer,” maintain the “pressure,” keep “Iran’s oil revenues depressed,” and ensure that “latent interest in trade” with Iran will be held back by bullying anyone “who thinks now might be a good time to test the waters.”

No matter how far Tehran goes in the final negotiations in limiting its nuclear program, it’s unlikely the West will abandon its efforts to bring about regime change in Tehran, or relinquish economic warfare as a regime change tool. Sanctions are likely to be a permanent feature of US policy on Iran, ending only when, and if, US foreign policy goals are brought to fruition and a Western oriented, pro-foreign investment regime comes to power in Tehran.

That’s because Washington’s ambitions go beyond depriving Iran of an independent means of producing nuclear fuel and preventing it from securing the theoretical capability of mounting a nuclear self-defense, to changing its economic and foreign policies. This can be seen in the reality that the US-led economic war didn’t begin in response to Iran enriching uranium. It began when Iran extricated itself from the US orbit by overthrowing Washington’s puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. Ever since, Washington has deployed sanctions to prevent Iran from:

• Building ballistic missiles;
• Supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad;
• Exercising influence in the Middle East;
• Exporting arms;
• Dealing with unrest and subversion at home (stoked by the misery created by Western sanctions);
• Monitoring and censoring domestic internet communications. [2]

So, even if Iran agreed to give up uranium enrichment altogether and to permanently shut-down its Arak heavy-water reactor, Tehran’s support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations, its backing of Syria, and its predilection for promoting local enterprise and maintaining state-owned enterprises at the expense of foreign investors, would continue to evoke US hostility.

As Cohen points out, the idea that Washington has suspended its punishing economic war on Iran is an illusion. Until Iran’s independence from US domination is brought to an end, Washington’s war on Iran’s economy—and its people—will continue.

1. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France) plus Germany, also known as the E3/EU+3, E3 referring to the United States, Russia and China and the EU3 denoting the three largest countries of the EU: Germany, France, and Britain.
2. Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, July 26, 2013.

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December 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Iran

Why the West Loves Mandela (and Hates Mugabe)

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By Stephen Gowans

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, hosannas continue to be sung to the former ANC leader and South African president from both the left, for his role in ending the institutional racism of apartheid, and from the right, for ostensibly the same reason. But the right’s embrace of Mandela as an anti-racist hero doesn’t ring true. Is there another reason establishment media and mainstream politicians are as Mandela-crazy as the left?

According to Doug Saunders, reporter for the unabashedly big business-promoting Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, there is.

In a December 6 article, “From revolutionary to economic manager: Mandela’s lesson in change,” Saunders writes that Mandela’s “great accomplishment” was to protect the South African economy as a sphere for exploitation by the white property-owning minority and Western corporate and financial elite from the rank-and-file demands for economic justice of the movement he led.

Saunders doesn’t put it in quite these terms, hiding the sectional interests of bond holders, land owners, and foreign investors behind Mandela’s embrace of “sound” principles of economic management, but the meaning is the same.

Saunders quotes Alec Russell, a Financial Times writer who explains that under Mandela, the ANC “proved a reliable steward of sub-Sahara Africa’s largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies…” That is, Mandela made sure that the flow of profits from South African mines and agriculture into the coffers of foreign investors and the white business elite wasn’t interrupted by the implementation of the ANC’s economic justice program, with its calls for nationalizing the mines and redistributing land.

Instead, Mandela dismissed calls for economic justice as a “culture of entitlement” of which South Africans needed to rid themselves. That he managed to persuade them to do so meant that the peaceful digestion of profits by those at the top could continue uninterrupted.

But it was not Mandela’s betrayal of the ANC’s economic program that Saunders thinks merits the right’s admiration, though the right certainly is grateful. Mandela’s genius, according to Saunders, was that he did it “without alienating his radical followers or creating a dangerous factional struggle within his movement.”

Thus, in Saunder’s view, Mandela was a special kind of leader: one who could use his enormous prestige and charisma to induce his followers to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the elite that had grown rich off their sweat, going so far as to acquiesce in the repudiation of their own economic program.

“Here is the crucial lesson of Mr. Mandela for modern politicians,” writes Saunders. “The principled successful leader is the one who betrays his party members for the larger interests of the nation. When one has to decide between the rank-and-file and the greater good, the party should never come first.”

For Saunders and most other mainstream journalists, “the larger interests of the nation” are the larger interests of banks, land owners, bond holders and share holders. This is the idea expressed in the old adage “What’s good for GM, is good for America.” Since mainstream media are large corporations, interlocked with other large corporations, and are dependent on still other large corporations for advertising revenue, the placing of an equal sign between corporate interests and the national interest comes quite naturally. Would we be shocked to discover that a mass-circulation newspaper owned by environmentalists (if such a thing existed) opposed fracking? (Journalists will rejoin, “I say what I like.” But as Michael Parenti once pointed out, journalists say what they like because their bosses like what they say.)

Predictably, Saunders ends his encomium to the party-betraying Mandela, the ‘good’ liberation hero, with a reference to the ‘bad’ south African liberation hero, Robert Mugabe. “One only needs look north to Zimbabwe to see what usually happens when revolutionaries” fail to follow Mandela’s economically conservative path, writes Saunders.

At one point, Mugabe’s predilection for orthodox fiscal and monetary policy was a strong as Mandela’s. Yet after almost a decade-and-a-half of the Western media demonizing Mugabe as an autocratic thug, it’s difficult to remember that he, too, was once the toast of Western capitals.

The West’s love affair with Mugabe came to an abrupt end when he rejected the Washington Consensus and embarked on a fast-track land reform program. Its disdain for him deepened when he launched an indigenization program to place majority control of the country’s mineral resources in the hands of black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe’s transition from ‘good’ liberation hero to ‘bad’, from saint to demon, coincided with his transition from “reliable steward” of Zimbabwe’s economy (that is, reliable steward of foreign investor and white colonial settler interests) to promoter of indigenous black economic interests.

That’s a transition Mandela never made. Had he, the elite of the imperialist world would not now be flocking to South Africa for Saint Mandela’s funeral, overflowing with fulsome eulogies.

Written by what's left

December 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Mandela, Mugabe

Good Liberation Hero-Bad Liberation Hero

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By Stephen Gowans

It seemed almost inevitable that on the new day Western newspapers were filled with encomia to the recently deceased South African national liberation hero Nelson Mandela that another southern African hero of national liberation, Robert Mugabe, should be vilified. “Nearly 90, Mugabe still driving Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground,” complained Geoffrey York of Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Mandela and Mugabe are key figures in the liberation of black southern Africa from white rule. So why does the West overflow with hosannas for Mandela and continue to revile Mugabe? Why is Mandela the good national liberation leader and Mugabe the bad?

A lot of it has to do with the extent to which the liberation projects in South Africa and Zimbabwe have threatened white and Western economic interests—hardly at all in Mandela’s South Africa and considerably in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The media-propagated narrative is that Mandela is good because he was ‘democratic’ and Mugabe is bad because he is ‘autocratic.’ But scratch the surface and economic interests peek out.

Land ownership in South Africa continues to be dominated by the white minority, just as it was under apartheid. What land redistribution has occurred has been glacial at best. In Zimbabwe, land has been redistributed from white colonial settlers and their descendants to the black majority. South Africa’s economy is white- and Western-dominated. Zimbabwe is taking steps to indigenize its economy, placing majority control of the country’s natural wealth and productive assets in the hands of blacks.

The centrality of economic interests in the Western demonization of Mugabe are revealed in York’s complaint about Mugabe’s plan to indigenize Canadian-owned New Dawn Mining company, a process which would force a few wealthy Canadians to surrender a majority stake in the mining of Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth. In York’s view, an African government giving its people an ownership stake in their own economy is unthinkable, but many wealthy countries, including Canada, have done the same.

Mandela, in contrast, rejected calls to nationalize South Africa’s mines, accepting Western and white domination of the country’s economy as a bedrock principle of sound economic management.

And so it is that Mugabe, the redistribtor of land and mineral wealth away from the descendants of white colonial settlers and foreign owners to black Africans is seen as devil incarnate in a Canadian newspaper that concerns itself with reporting the news from the perspective Canadian corporate interests. Canadian business wants the world to be open to profit-taking, and doesn’t care for governments that stand in their way. York reflects that bias. And Mandela didn’t get in the way of it.

Recycling the usual myths that make up the anti-Mugabe demonology, the Globe and Mail propagandist writes that Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties are due to Mugabe’s mismanagement, not to Western sanctions, erroneously describing sanctions as limited to travel restrictions on Mugabe and his closest associates. This overlooks Washington’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which has blocked financial assistance to Zimbabwe from international lending institutions, a major impediment to the country’s economic development. It’s as if York blamed the Soviet Union’s crippled post-WWII economy on communist mismanagement, eliding Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion from history. In this, York follows the standard operating procedure of the Western propaganda system, attributing a country’s economic troubles to mismanagement and not the sanctions that cause them.

As to the democrat vs. autocrat dichotomy, it is a propaganda contrivance. It’s what Western governments and media use to legitimize leaders who protect Western corporate interests and demonize leaders who threaten them.

Written by what's left

December 6, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Mandela, Mugabe, Zimbabwe

Tagged with

The Ghost of Paul Sweezy

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By Stephen Gowans

Reading Paul Krugman’s New York Times column today, A Permanent Slump?, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the IMF, Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, had belatedly discovered an idea that Paul Sweezy, a Marxist economist who died in 2004, had elaborated on decades ago, namely that stagnation is the normal state of contemporary capitalist economies.

Krugman writes,

…the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.

Summers is a Harvard economist whose career has included stints as chief economist of the World Bank, US Secretary of the Treasury and chief economic adviser to US president Barack Obama.

Krugman paraphrases Summers:

We have, he suggested, an economy whose normal condition is one of inadequate demand — of at least mild depression — and which only gets anywhere close to full employment when it is being buoyed by bubbles.

The idea that financial bubbles have counteracted the economy’s slide into permanent stagnation was also explored by Sweezy. But he cited other countervailing effects, too, including military spending, and in the post-war period, pent-up demand and the building of the interstate highway system, with its concomitant boom in the construction of the suburbs and expansion of the automobile industry.

Krugman concludes that “the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.”

Sweezy, I think, would have agreed, but added that the tendency to stagnation is hardly new, but has been an enduring characteristic of contemporary capitalist economies, traceable to their internal logic.

Written by what's left

November 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm

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