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When liberal democracy means plutocracy

Western politicians and major news media say that the liberal democratic order is under threat. But what do they mean by ‘liberal democracy’? 

January 30, 2019

By Stephen Gowans

Early in a series of lectures delivered in 1965, the political scientist C.B Macpherson observed that, “Democracy used to be a bad word.” [1] Little did he know that in 2019 “used to be” would no longer fit, and that democracy, the concept, would become a foul thing in the pages of the United States’ newspaper of record, the New York Times, even if democracy, the word, would retain its favourable connotations.

In what is surely an extraordinary pair of articles, the first on 1 November (“The weaknesses in liberal democracy that may be pulling it apart”) and the second on 21 January (“When more democracy isn’t more democratic”), Max Fisher, whose job at the New York Times is to “explore the ideas and context behind major world events,” presents an essentially Marxist critique of liberal democracy, albeit in a non-Marxist idiom, and with the Marxist valorization turned on its head; rather than praising majority rule and the popular will as good things, Fisher presents them as evils.

The New York Times says there’s a specter haunting the West: the people’s will.

Fisher argues that democracy comprises “two conflicting imperatives: majority rule and liberalism.” Majority rule serves the interests of the majority (as the majority understands it) and liberalism protects the interests of the establishment, which the establishment defines as universal and equal to the common good.

Voting creates the illusion of legitimacy—that the system is responsive to the popular will, when, in reality, it resists it—while liberalism checks the popular will so that establishment interests remain ascendant in the face of the latent threat of the majority to elite interests.

In “recent years a series of changes, including the rise of social media and online fund-raising, have severely weakened the establishments’ power,” Fisher observes, undermining its ability to hold the popular will in check. This is the danger inherent in democracy, or its promise, depending on whether you come down on the side of the establishment or the majority. In Fisher’s account, the only tolerable democracy is one that isn’t a democracy—that is, one in which liberalism, the instrument of the elite, is used to negate majority rule, the instrument of the many.

Fisher doesn’t present all of his argument in quite these terms, but that’s the gist of it. And where a Marxist would condemn the check on the popular will exerted by the establishment through its institutions and representatives, Fisher treats liberal democracy as a system working as it was designed to work, namely, against the majority, and not on its behalf.

Here’s a summary of his argument, in his own words.

Liberalism, the columnist writes, creates “institutions and representatives” which “balance majority opinion against considerations like universal rights and the common good.” In a democracy “the people’s will is carefully incorporated but rarely intended to dominate” (emphasis added.) This invites the questions: Who established the system’s aims? Why shouldn’t the popular will dominate? And how is the people’s will incorporated, if it is not allowed to dominate?

Lurking in Fisher’s account of liberal democracy is the idea that it is not the people who define the common good but “institutions and representatives.” At the same time, evident in his view, plainly exposed on its surface, is the notion that in a liberal democracy the people’s will is not decisive; it is, instead, the institutions and representatives of the establishment that dominate.

Empirically, this is the case. In their 2014 study of over 1,700 US policy issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrated that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests”—the establishment—“have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [2]

The reality is amply evident to the majority. Since 1958 the University of Michigan has conducted a public opinion survey every two years in which a broad range of Americans are asked this question: “Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” In 2012, 79 percent said “a few big interests.” [3]

Canada’s global affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, says the liberal democratic world is under strategic threat.

In Fisher’s view, this is hardly a reality that needs to be challenged and transformed, but accepted, even celebrated, as the best of worlds. The people do not know the common good; they’re incapable of understanding it. The common good must therefore be protected from the people’s whims and misapprehensions. It is incumbent on those of mature judgment to define the common good and protect universal rights from majoritarian impulses.

To make his point, Fisher cites Edmund Burke, a giant of 18th century reactionary thought, whose concern was for the universal rights and common good of the aristocracy. Burke was an adamantine opponent of democracy, and Fisher’s citing the conservative icon in this context has all the persuasiveness of invoking Hitler to make the case that checks on democracy are desirable. Burke and Hitler belong to a reactionary tradition which regards democracy as an abomination. Fisher appears to fit comfortably in this trend—and it is fitting and predictable and hardly surprising that a major columnist of a major newspaper owned by the establishment of the major world imperialist power holds these views.

Fisher shares Burke’s solicitude for the universal rights and common good of the establishment, and contempt for the right to self-determination of the majority. “Leaders have always needed the support of both voters and establishments to win elections,” Fisher explains. “Voters wanted popular rule, establishments wanted checks and institutions; the two held each other in balance.” And that—the negation of the popular will by a minority—is a good thing, if we’re to believe the Burke-quoting Fisher.

But voters have grown “skeptical of the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites” Fisher warns, and now want (gasp!) “to replace institutions with … direct rule by the people.” Direct rule by the people would be a tyranny, Fisher warns—of the majority over “the common good” and “universal rights.” He doesn’t spell out what rights are universal, but we can be pretty sure he means the right to live on rent, profits and interest, the right to resist the people’s will, and the right of establishment figures “of mature judgment” to define the common good. In other words, universal rights and the common good are none other than the rights and common good of the economic elite and organized business interests.

In the Fisherian view, democracy as it is practiced in the West, creates a tension between the tyranny of the majority (majority rule, or the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Marxist vernacular) and the tyranny of the establishment (liberalism, or the Marxists’ dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) in which the latter tyranny almost always—and should almost always—prevail over the former.

Majority rule “feels democratic to members of the majority,” Fisher observes, but when the tyranny of the establishment checks the majoritarian impulse of the masses, it “can feel tyrannical.” It is, but that’s how the system is supposed to work, he explains.

Sometimes the inherent tensions within the system threaten to be resolved in the majority’s favor, and Fisher fears that the balance is tipping threateningly close to majority rule. Fisher discerns a specter haunting the West—“the vision of democracy as rule by the people.” It “persists.”

Railing against the people’s revolt against “the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites,” Fisher reminds us that democracies “are not designed for direct popular rule.” They are “designed to resist” it. Sure, the “checks imposed on popular will can feel like democracy failing,” he explains, but that “is actually the system working as intended.”

The French Marxist Henri Barbusse defined liberal democracy as a system with “a President instead of an Emperor, an armchair instead of a throne” [4]—much the same as the elite tyranny which preceded it, if different on the surface. This is essentially Fisher’s view, but Barbusse rejected Fisher’s acceptance of elite tyranny as desirable.

Of course, what Fisher is really raising the alarm about is the growing refusal of the majority to allow liberal institutions and representatives to resist the popular will, reflected, for example, in the Brexit vote, or in the election of leaders of whom the establishment disapproves whose route to power has been through their promises to address the basic existential concerns of the majority: jobs, a liveable income, and economic security.

In the 1970s, the establishment’s Trilateral Commission defined the demand that government policy reflect the will of the majority as a “crisis of democracy”—a sickness originating in democratic “excess.” In the 1920s in Italy and in the 1930s in Germany, earlier crises of democracy were resolved by fascism, another instrument of the establishment.

Clearly, the New York Times, and the economic elite and organized business interests it represents, are not prepared to tolerate a democracy of the many, or simply, democracy as it has always been understood. A democracy of the few, one of which Burke would approve—namely, not a democracy at all but a tyranny of the economic elite, a plutocracy—is more in line with the newspaper’s, and the establishment’s,  predilections.

All the same, that won’t stop the New York Times, the US government, and the Western intelligentsia, from appropriating the good name of democracy to beautify and disguise their preferred system of anti-democratic rule, all the while defaming the people as democracy’s enemies.

1. C.B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy, CBC Enterprises, 1990, (1).

2. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.

3. H. Bruce Franklin, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, Rutgers University Press, 2018, (72)

4. Henri Barbusse, Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man, Read Books, 2011, (50).

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January 29, 2019 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Democracy

The Dung Heap of Procedural Democracy

August 18, 2015
Updated August 23, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

In one of his twice-weekly New York Times columns, the Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman attempted to discredit Republican Party politicians by portraying them as creatures of a money-driven political system. He unfairly and dishonestly excluded Democratic Party politicians, as if they somehow lived in a different world, free from the influence of money. But if we correct Krugman’s partisan bias—he’s a Democrat—the economist produces a creditable critique of why the procedural democracies that almost everyone deeply genuflects to are nothing but fronts for the pursuit of plutocratic interests:

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics…You often see political analyses pointing out, rightly, that voting in actual primaries is preceded by an ‘invisible primary’ in which candidates compete for the support of crucial elites…a stark competition for the affections and, of course, the money of a few dozen plutocrats. What that means, in turn, is that … (elected politicians) will be committed … to a broader plutocratic agenda (and will have) won over the big money by promising government by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. [1]

Thomas Ferguson elaborated this view into an investment theory of party competition in his Golden Rule, a reflection on the logic of money-driven political systems (those who have the gold, rule). [2]

But Krugman and Ferguson are late to the party. Those inspired by the communist tradition longed ago recognized the anti-democratic character of procedural democracies, contrasting them with authentic democracies in which outcome, not procedures, matter. A system of regular, multiparty elections, which reliably produces anti-popular policy favoring the interests of the one percent is hardly democratic, but such a procedural system, embedded in a larger society dominated by the logic of capitalism, will inevitably produce this outcome, elections and civil society notwithstanding.

Not long ago Krugman publicized a study that re-discovers the view that the wealthy owners of productive property dominate policy-formation and the political process. It’s a study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University that appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Perspectives in Politics. [3] Gilens and Page examined over 1,700 policy issues, concluding that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests groups have little or no independent influence.” In other words, they produced data consistent with what Marxists, and others, including Adam Smith [4], had long maintained: that the economy’s owners have extraordinary influence over the state and everyone else has virtually none—the Golden Rule, as Ferguson succinctly put it.

Warranted contempt for the falsity of procedural democracy is evidenced in the indictment of German Communist Party leader Hugo Urbahns in 1923. “We will rather burn in the fire of revolution,” he promised, “than perish on the dung heap of democracy.” [5]

Urbahns

Urbahns

Much earlier, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, defined democracy, not as a set of procedures for electing representatives, but as the rule of the working class, or in today’s parlance, of the 99 percent. Elections may happen, and politicians may vie (or say they’re vying) for the “middle-class” vote, but that doesn’t mean the interests of the 99 percent will be translated into public policy. As Ferguson explains, the key question is: Who do elected representatives represent? The answer is not the electorate, but the class that has the resources to invest in the political system—resources politicians need to get elected. This is none other than the class of capitalists.

Still, despite the glaring disparity between the promise of procedural democracy and its outcomes, most everyone celebrates it, or talks about democracy as if it had only recently been negated, as if the domination of capitalist society by capitalists is a recent phenomenon and not a necessity by definition.

Governments that emerged in the 20th century from the fires of revolution turned out to be a good deal more democratic, in any meaningful sense of the word, than the dung heaps of government by the one percent for the one percent. Consider the Soviet Union under Stalin—in the dogma of capitalist societies, the very antithesis of democracy, but which may have, in fact, been the very first expression of authentic democracy.

In the mid-1930s, the USSR had the most inclusive and equal political democracy in the world. Adult suffrage was universal. Discrimination on the basis of race, sex and property had been eliminated. By comparison, Britain had an unelected second chamber and unelected head of state (abominations against authentic democracy that persist to this day, not only in Britain [6], but in some inheritors of the British system, including Canada [7].) Only 70 million of 500 million inhabitants of the British Commonwealth lived in procedural democracies. The vast majority of British subjects were ruled by colonial administrators. South Africa denied suffrage to its black majority and Canada and Australia did the same to their aboriginal populations. [8]

Meanwhile, in the United States, a “democracy” founded on the extermination of Native Americans and slavery of Africans—the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were slave-owners, as were the first presidents—practiced racial segregation and truncated its black (second-class) citizens’ civil and political liberties. “Herrenvolk” democracies, procedural democracies for a master race, have largely jettisoned their racist features since, likely under the pressure of the counterexample provided by states that followed the antiracist communist tradition, but continue to produce policy outcomes that favor a parasitic elite of productive-property owners at the top.

Not too long ago, the dung heaps were called “capitalist democracies” to distinguish them from “socialist democracies”. Use of the phrase “capitalist democracy” reveals an absent understanding of either capitalism or democracy or both, since the two are mutually inimical, and their pairing produces an oxymoron, or, worse, a political deception, namely, the transformation of capitalism as a type of society at odds with democracy into democracy itself.

Capitalism, a system supporting owners of capital through the parasitism of wage labour, can hardly be democratic. Equally, democracy, a type of society in which the interests of the bulk of people prevail (historically, the rabble, an exploited class or oppressed people) can hardly coexist with capitalism. Either a society is capitalist, in which case it’s not democratic, or it’s democratic, in which case it’s not capitalist. And it’s clear to many, including Nobel Prize winning economists, in which direction the contradiction resolves itself on the dung heap.

Clarity of language aids analysis. If we acknowledge that we live in capitalist societies, the discovery that our politics favors capitalists hardly seems extraordinary or radical—just obvious, if not axiomatic.

1. Paul Krugman, “Republicans against retirement,” The New York Times, August 17, 2015.

2. Thomas Ferguson. The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

3. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

4. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” (Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 2.)

5. Arthur Rosenberg. Democracy and Socialism: A Contribution to the Political History of the Past 150 Years. Beacon Press. 1938, p. 9.

6. The British House of Lords consists of 781 unelected members who collectively have the authority to amend and delay legislation. It is the world’s largest legislative chamber outside of China. British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to expand the chamber further, with scores of appointments in the works. How extraordinary that the largest legislative chamber outside the world’s most populous country, is unelected, and exists in a country that celebrates its ‘democracy’. An August 22, 2015 New York Times article, (“A British house overflowing with Lords draws scorn”) critiques the House of Lords for its demographic imbalance, disproportionately elderly and male, but not its undemocratic character. We’re left to believe that if only the chamber’s demographic failings were redressed, all would be fine. On a dung heap, an unelected legislative chamber is wholly acceptable so long as it’s demographically representative.

7. In Canada, the abomination against authentic democracy is even greater since the country’s head of state was neither born in, nor resides in, Canada. However, the head of state has only nominal authority, making this a largely academic concern. Canada’s unelected Senate is a more problematic affair. It’s bad enough that the elected representatives that sit in Canada’s House of Commons represent a capitalist class and not the electorate, but that an unelected and non-popular body has any input into public policy is an intolerable scandal, but one the Canadian public nevertheless passively accepts under the onslaught of blanket propaganda that astonishingly holds up their country as a shining light of democracy. That Canadians are able to believe Canada is even much of a procedural democracy, let alone an authentic one, is testament to the efficacy of the propaganda system to befuddle the public on issues of the greatest political significance.

8. Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. Longmans, Green and Co., Third Edition. 1947. pp xxi-xxii.

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August 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Democracy

Promoting Plutocracy: U.S.-Led Regime Change Operations and the Assault on Democracy

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January 11, 2015

PROMOTING PLUTOCRACY
By Stephen Gowans

Chapter 1. What the West’s Position on Iran Reveals about its Foreign Policy
Chapter 2. Democracy
Chapter 3. Foreign Policy and Profits
Chapter 4. The State in Capitalist Society
Chapter 5. Concealing the Influence of the Corporate Elite on Foreign Policy
Chapter 6. Syria: Eradicating an Ideological Fixation on Socialism
Chapter 7. Ukraine: Improving the Investment Climate
Chapter 8. Kosovo: Privatizing the Economy
Chapter 9. Afghanistan: Investment Opportunities in Pipelines and Natural Resources
Chapter 10. The Military-Industrial Complex, Foreign Aid and Marionettes
Chapter 11. How Foreign Policy Hurts Workers
o Divide and Rule
o Socializing the Costs, Privatizing the Benefits
o The Assault on Substantive Democracy in Korea
o The Terrorism of the Weak
o Bulking Up the Police State
o Obviating the Terrorism of the Weak
Chapter 12. The West’s Foreign Policy Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 17, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Posted in Democracy, Venezuela

Getting Perilously Close to Truth about US Foreign Policy

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By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by what's left

February 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm

New York Times: Democracy is Bad for US Foreign Policy

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By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by what's left

January 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Liu’s Nobel Prize for Capitalism

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By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by what's left

October 12, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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