The Militarization of Liberalism
Democracy, Liberalism, Militarism: Capitalist Vitalization
In a previous article, I suggested the three-legged stool –surveillance, assassination, teleprompter –as basic elements of Obama’s presidency thus far, which, in creating a unitary framework of repression, characterize a stage in America of incipient fascism, one that, as the police-state dimensions of the first, the flagrant violation of international law, via drone warfare in vaporizing human beings, of the second, and the decorative rhetorical flights to facilitate a cosmetic persona in contradiction to actual policy of the third, become more firmly entrenched, as presently appears likely, incipiency will develop further into the structural-psychological-military foundations of authoritarianism, probably not on the European model of fascism, but uniquely America’s own. I have no illusions about liberalism in its modern guise: essentially motivated by the rejection of radicalism and offering minor social-welfare legislation as the means of obviating the Left democratization of class, power, and political culture of society, all the while activating and protecting capitalism as it assumes monopolistic proportions. Things were obviously simpler in the time of John Locke, where the antecedent property right was transparent and social traits of covetousness were presumably sanctioned by a higher law. One knew where one stood and why in the total social order, with ownership of property the defining point about Lockean liberalism. Mention here of that is necessary, because modern liberalism has been so gussied up through propaganda and layers of obfuscation (hence, the teleprompter as shorthand for a brigade of speechwriters on message delivering calculated deception) that its commitment to corporate wealth and, in foreign policy, the National-Security State recedes in the background or is simply taken for granted.
Thus when I refer to the militarization of liberalism, I mean its predisposition to global hegemony, the dedication to Cold War policies, in part, for proving its nonradical credentials, in part, because, in its haste to ward off suspicions of un-Americanism and adopt a posture of super-patriotism, it actually has the conviction that freedom and capitalism are synonymous if not identical, and finally, the gullible belief and pride that capitalist expansion is America’s duty to the world. In all of these cases, militarism is the ratifying condition for their respective realization: militarism, however, sanitized, in keeping with the philosophic image of liberalism as a vehicle of progress (to which militarism now conjoined basks in its prestige). And as the ratifying condition, it, in Cold War terms, provides for successfully mounting an offensive against the Left. In terms of political-ideological respectability, liberalism is enabled to ride the coattails of militarism as the sine qua non of Americanism beyond reproach, while in terms of capitalist expansion, militarism, coupled with the exportation of America’s ideas and institutions, which it has been assigned the task of facilitating, implies liberalism’s moral dimension rooted in exceptionalism, as America’s obligation to share its ideological bounty. Liberalism, without its military underpinnings in America, would lose its utilitarian value for rationalizing financial-market penetration and political-ideological global hegemony, not to say, the current mode, humanitarian interventionism. Otherwise, liberalism would be a toothless tiger, America then requiring a realpolitik inviting greater opposition in pursuit of hegemonic goals.
But what, then, of the liberalization of militarism? Most of the foregoing applies, the militarization of liberalism, except that here, where liberalism directly enters the picture as primarily causal, militarism changes not an iota—yet appears other than itself, a righteous force harnessed to a democratic America (and therefore above reproach), while even the semblance of liberalism as popularly conceived has been utterly disemboweled. Its endorsement of militarism confers goodness on the latter while vitiating the former. Example: drone assassination, personally authorized by POTUS, saves lives by not putting boots on the ground—a selfless America does not nuke its purported enemies. Example: CIA-JSOC covert paramilitary operations for regime change liberate people to fulfill their democratic aspirations so they can welcome US investment and the extraction of their resources. Indeed, the whole panorama of international exploitation, often accompanied by naked and devastating force, becomes somehow an ennobling experience for conqueror and victim alike. Hence, militarism, unchanged in its mission of inflicting destruction and death, and, at home, the regimentation of the people, as in diverting attention to consumption, sports, and, when affordable, absolute greed, as well as coming down hard on dissent, is portrayed through liberalism as strength in the service of all that is deemed Holy, the beribboned generals and admirals, the “noble warriors,” the Stealth Bomber, a mightiness that could only come about because of purity of heart and intention as a nation. With America so good, how could its use of force, its numerous interventions, its global military installations, its humongous defense budget, be other than morally right? Liberalization of militarism, the structural-ideological manure pile of US exceptionalism, has been a primary agency for American capitalist development, particularly as it applies to foreign markets and a global context of unimpeded penetration.
Liberalism energizes the forces of authoritarianism, as the quickening pulse-beat of advancing market freedom (what in the late 19th-early 20th centuries might be termed, the outward thrust—all innocence wherein expansion politically-mentally substituted for the more accurate designation, imperialism, but an imperialism not of territory but of trade), a necessarily dynamic process because connoting rapidity of movement and action fused with the thrill of power leading to the equation of liberalism, modernity, and civilization itself. Ask James G. Blaine, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, if that were still possible, and one would find the Battleship Navy or the conquest of markets a subject of congratulation for an expansive democratic nation (!), its democracy verified by the competitive edge it demonstrates in international power-politics. That was then, militarism the means of democratic achievement in the popular mind, without which, democracy—lacking the energy equated with liberalism and militarism—would flounder. It is also NOW, though with fewer illusions about democracy except as measured by the strength of capitalism, its putatively sole legitimate vehicle and avenue of expression, which in the global context of today attaches to democracy a geostrategic vision and framework making of militarism no longer a means but perilously close to becoming an end in itself.
Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism: Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse
In the Obama Era (if we can dignify the period with his name), perhaps more than ever in America, one finds liberalism, militarism, and capitalism marching in lockstep, an integrated framework awaiting the necessary cohesion precisely when, now circumstances having dictated their convergence, the US is losing its superpower status in a newly developing multi-polar world, and avidly seeking its restoration. I noted in the previous article that these “global circumstances [chiefly, the political-economic-military rise of China, but also a reinvigorated Russia under Putin, autonomous currency and trading blocs (EU), and emerging, no longer merely Third World, industrializing nations in their own right, notably Brazil] point to America’s asymmetrical posture, declining financial-industrial power, ascending militarism as a way of arresting that decline, the sum of which is measures to postpone or cushion the fall.” America is feeling the pinch—Obama, from the standpoint of rejuvenating a by-no-means terminally ill, but still in declining health on all fronts (not least, obviously, the economic) patient, is, although most conservative power-wielders don’t realize it—YET, the right man, in the right place, at the right time: yes, Our Servant of the Vested Interests.
Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism, the three horsemen of the apocalypse, galloping into the future, work so well together, are so mutually compatible, in the American setting, that it is difficult to distinguish at times which of these is the decisive or motivating force driving the presumed engine of progress. Here I would like to call attention to liberalism, if for no other reason than that the other two can be taken for granted as the society’s structural foundation, requiring only its ideological energization, as supplied by liberalism, to propel the US headlong in its hegemonic pursuits and ambition. Other nations, at least in the past, have credited an ascribable reformism, whether or not they liked it, to liberalism, as in its Good Neighbor mode under the New Deal, or more pointedly Wilsonian internationalism. By now, though, its fusion with militarism and capitalism has become so well known as not to fool anyone but Americans themselves, absent of course those guiding policy, expansion, intervention, military-alliance formations, joint-maneuvers, all the nuts-and-bolts of viable imperialism. When we say liberalism, therefore, it must first be properly qualified to mean, not some vague political territory Left-of-Center dedicated to social-welfare measures having an equalitarian direction, but property-centered (as more than Macpherson’s excellent formulation of “possessive individualism,” itself primarily consistent with and applicable to its Lockean origins, and not on its face dependent on military power) for starts, with sophisticated efforts to achieve harmonious class relations while not undermining the foundations of wealth and power in the corporate structure and society’s upper strata, all tied to an expanding capitalism which can rely on government and the military for security. In that case, militarism and capitalism do not come in through the back door but constitute the raison d’etre for making liberalism practicable as an hegemonic tool.
Transitioning to Foreign Policy: Obama’s Pacific-First Strategy
Taking seriously Obama’s geostrategic framework (coinciding with the wider geopolitical framework, because in both cases sphere of influence and global ambition are at one), not as though it is really his, but the product of evolving policy-making over at least two decades, with presently as warlike a bunch of national-security advisers, counterterrorism “experts,” CIA roustabouts (instead of dismantling circus tents, dismantling countries)—enough to make Dr. Strangelove salivate—as to bring it to fruition, one finds the realignment in foreign policy now at hand, the Good Fairy Godfather making it, again under liberalism, perfectly legit. One turns with full attention to China and the Far East in general as America’s predestined—harking back to 19th century Manifest Destiny, still very much with us, entwined with both liberalism and exceptionalism—area of dominance, wish-fulfillment struggling to achieve reality. Let’s therefore come up to speed, the events of the last week, with the overall preceding context still in mind. Obama’s Pacific-first strategy, the famous “pivot,” or more fashionable Pentagonese, a “ rebalancing,” of military assets, has been cooking for at least two years, this simultaneous with the Middle East still at center stage—and the ubiquitous counterterrorism campaign if not worldwide then at least focused on Pakistan, Yemen, Somali, etc. America is clearly overextended, its military budget barely keeping pace with its grandiose so-called commitments.
Enter China, waiting in the foyer of the American mindset until the proper time. What this suggests is, first, the Obama administration is tilting away from domestic to the more comfortable and seemingly productive realm of foreign policy (it had accomplished much that it had set out to do: deregulation, promotion of monopolism, the maintenance of class differentiation of wealth and power, carried over in the failure of job creation and failure to strengthen the social safety net, especially in light of widespread poverty and unemployment, and more-than-generous support of the military budget), and second, its and Obama’s own personal exasperation and frustration with the Middle East, as though, having nailed down a formidable presence in the region, centered on safeguarding Israel’s security, including threats made to Iran, there wasn’t much more to be done except holding the line, stasis, not dynamism, in the execution of policy, a not very attractive option for the display of American force, in which the long-term perspective implies a bogging down, to be avoided where and when possible. The Middle East would not be abandoned, but there were more important fish to fry—a Far East beckoning America for multiple reasons.
Here the convergence of liberalism, militarism, and capitalism bears fruit in the focalization of military power. Team Obama perceives China as the principal challenge to American global power. Putin’s interference with the US bombing of Syria was an unwelcome interruption, but Russia, Europe, the Middle East, all seemed passé in comparison with the challenges posed by the Far East, and not least, also the economic opportunities of “serving” a vast market-area and protecting our “friends and allies” in the Pacific region. Ergo, the accelerated push to implement the Pacific-first strategy witnessed in the last few days. Somewhat thwarted in the West, America turns to the East, inviting confrontation by its actions, almost as if to replicate a Middle East in the Far East, with South Korea the Israel of the Pacific. Sound mind-boggling? No, the US thirsts for action as the lifeblood of systemic growth, or, realistically, maintenance and/or preventing further systemic devolution, in which case the Far East opens a vista in which our three horsemen of the apocalypse can wander freely in green pasture while giving evidence of American prowess, to reinforce, vital to the US’s identity, the ideology of strength-via-exceptionalism.
Transpositional Context, Old to New Cold War: Search for Reinvigorated Capitalism
The scene is ready-made for a replay of events of an earlier time, the Cold War, regurgitated in the new setting, yet with the principal actors as standing in for the old players—and in spirit, amorphously, the older theme of anticommunism refurbished, now, as counterterrorism. However illogical all of these associations, given the different social forces and stages of development involved (which is why history does not exactly repeat itself), the mental-set receptive to such a transposition of periods, enemies, and conflicts, far longer in the making than the Pacific-first strategy, is inscribed so deeply in the American psyche, riddled as it is with xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and an authoritarian bent favoring leadership in all its forms, that its having been taken hold by the nation at large makes perfect sense in the search for new modes of invigoration and the exhibition of power. Here then we see the accounts of the flurry of diplomatic activities of this past week, and as I wrote this I imagined a precocious nine-year-old asking, Why are diplomatic missions centered on building military alliances? For Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel, the question strikes home, their tours of duty, if you will, having nothing else but that, and afford insight into what the military configuration is intended to be, with China paired with North Koreas today’s axis of evil (the perceived threat from each multiplied by combination with the other) and Japan encouraged to rearm–something the Abe government is delighted to hear—as a security partner facing down both North Korea and China. This is not to forget the Philippines, which is seen by military planners as a staging area for the employment of air and naval power par excellence—here, as with the others, China always in the cross-hairs (with North Korea, because somehow more feared as a supposedly loose cannon, advantageously brought in to further—guilt by association—the menacing image of China).
If the US, in large, represents the comprehensive pattern of global counterrevolution, China and the Far East can be subsumed therein, but in a special way seldom seen before: Anti-communism no longer fits the bill, and as I shall point out, testimony on the best authority, our capitalist bosom friend, Paulsen, among other things architect, as Treasury Secretary under Bush, of the notorious bank bailout, and, of course, president of Goldman Sachs, is high on China’s capitalist dimensions and future prospects, so that counterrevolution has reference to intracapitalist rivalries as well as that between capitalism and socialism. This makes the Obama attraction to confrontation with China that much more difficult to decipher, as though power sui generis has become a self-devouring end in its own right, even capitalism now pressed into its service, and militarism, by definition, elevated still further in national esteem and patriotic fervor. These guys play tough. The more capitalism is assumed and taken for granted, as in the case of Obama, the more justifiable becomes the use of force in its growth and protection, a reification, as Marxists might have it, of capitalism already replete with militarism as central to its composition. In that case, we have left John Locke and Adam Smith far behind. New men and women (a bow to Susan Rice and Samantha Power, warriors supreme in the name of Humanity) are wanted and feel fully up to the task of arresting America’s global military-political decline and, though the connection is only dimly made, also, at home, the structural-financial dislocations of the system as a whole.
In that way, the National-Security State can be preserved, the military budget stuck in the stratosphere, surveillance kept up round-the-clock with scarcely a whimper, in sum, the preservation of America as we have come to know it, business as usual, warts and all, including intervention, targeted assassination, an alarming growth of Executive Power, yet, with that much consolidated, also the platform for striking out in what may prove a qualitative step (I hesitate to say, forward). Obama’s Pacific-first strategy is quite possibly the first movement in the orchestration of the authoritarian path to which the United States is being led, this over and above wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, covert activities worldwide, surveillance, secrecy in government, and other increasing signs, economic, ideological, psychological, of a disturbing nature. We’ve seen major activity taking place in the last week, non-determinative in themselves yet more than worrisome in making Pacific-first, alias, the pivot, alias, rebalancing, an irreversible course of action fraught with danger that we might all be blown to smithereens and if not, witnessing the drastic curtailment of civil liberties. October 2-3, Hagel and Kerry (Cohn and Schine of McCarthyism fame now updated), sent on missions to the Pacific, have under the guise of diplomacy actually enmeshed America still further than before in a self-chosen, military-inspired framework of Far Eastern confrontation, with the avowed purpose of containing China and ensuring support for leaders in the surrounding countries (North Korea naturally excepted) who conform to US policy-dictates—the works: drone bases, naval installations, army and marine encampment, and, if other interventions—we can call this that—be our guide, status-of-forces agreements exempting servicemembers from local civil and criminal prosecution.
China, as American Psychological Construct: Enemy Required for Achieving Moral Vindication
In various forms, most notably, the Open Door, the “pivot” strategy has been around for a long time, but not specifically as the shift of attention from Europe to the Far East, and rather, Asian markets had been prized in their own right, especially as Europe and the Middle East, until World War I, appeared already taken up by other Powers, including the British and Ottoman Empires. If the Caribbean was viewed as an American Lake, the Pacific also implied US custodianship, at least as a goal. Thus, Asian markets were seen as an object of fascination building well-before Obama’s time, this fascination, in the late 19th century underwritten by naval power (Mahan, TR, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, all pressing for the Battleship Navy), and continuing through to the present, with the application of the domino theory to Vietnam less an exception than an explicit power- rather than market-orientation. Nevertheless we see, despite continuities of interest, a basic difference now, which can be ascribed to America’s own fall from grace at the top of the pyramidal structure of world power. Markets, of course—capitalism never turns a blind eye to maximizing its advantages. Outsourcing as well—American manufacturing searches for the rock- bottom with respect to labor costs to increase its profits. Yet China looms still larger in the American policy-psyche as somehow the key to US rejuvenation and moral vindication, a Garden of Eden of youthful capitalism on the prowl for market opportunities, not the senescent mature phase content with ever-slimmer pickings as China makes successful inroads into Latin America and Africa while secure in its home market. Confrontation with China seems a must if the US is to hold its place in the world.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in “Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” digging into the psychodynamics of this social disease, said that if there were no Jews, the anti-Semite would have to invent them, in order to feed and sustain his phobias and hatreds. In like manner, I believe that China is America’s salvation, even more than the Soviet Union in the decades following World War II: If China did not exist, we would have had to invent it. Functionally, it feeds our appetite for orthodoxy, conformity, hatred of difference—the operant word all these years, anticommunism—by casting our phobias and hatreds into the moral (?) light of self-righteousness. To be more exact, China, like Russia before it (despite Mao and the Chinese Revolution, and the China Lobby, the AIPAC of its day in trying to shape opinion, Americans were not condemnatory about China in the way that we were about the Soviet Union until perhaps the 1980s), and the Cold War taken as a whole, served to unify the nation so that its internal trends of monopolization, militarization, and the relative impoverishment of the populace (for the bottom 20%, absolute, not relative), can continue unabated, free alike from socialism, workers’ movements, an independent Left demanding a welfare state and the public control of industry and banking.
Whether as invention or demonization, China does exist so that neither of the two is rational, however viable in launching the Pacific-first / pivot / rebalancing strategic framework, itself both liable to open a can of worms, and also, inadvertently, shed light on the further social-control tinkering at home in the more visible realm: can of worms—tensions conceivably leading to a massive land war, or more likely, thermonuclear war; social-control tinkering: manipulation, similar to the treatment of China, of the psychodynamics of counterterrorism to engender the mood of political conformity and, via a sub-rosa antiradicalism in all things, encourage the shrinkage of the ideological spectrum, practically eliminating the Left altogether. Because China does exist, America, with that target before us, can now once again entertain the idea of war, war preparations, or, as is already happening (with or without China in view, but much easier and accomplishable with), even a mental habituation to a state of readiness. What I referred to in a previous article, incubatory tyranny comes into its own
- 5. Pacific-First, Panetta’s Trial Run: “Enhanced [Military] Capabilities to this Vital Region”
Never was a Nobel Peace Prize so ill-deserved. Before this most recent step of the Big Launch into Asia, one should recall Obama’s preliminary move, his Defense Secretary at the time, Leon Panetta, on a trip to the Pacific, June 1, 2012—more than a year ago, a scouting trip to buttress military alliances, signal America’s military-determination to be a, if not the regional power, and, by enumerating the “assets” planned and to be put in place, scare hell out of China (it didn’t work!). Jane Perlez, writing in the New York Times on that date, the article accurately if menacingly titled, “Panetta Outlines New Weaponry for Pacific,” states that Panetta, “seeking to persuade a skeptical audience of Asian officials here [Singapore] on Saturday that the United States is committed to enhancing its military presence in the region despite coming budget constraints, unveiled the most detailed inventory to date of planned new weapons for the region.” (italics, mine) So much is interesting: the acknowledged objective, a military presence, the detailed revelation of weaponry, but also, a theme recurring up through today, that despite budget constraints, which most worried “Asian officials” that Obama was not serious, hence their skepticism, Panetta was there to reassure them that constraints notwithstanding, the military budget, at least here, would not be stinted. We see, then, the underside of sequestration—social safety net, sure, military needs, implementing the Pacific-first strategy, no (and as a general proposition, compared with social programs, the Pentagon would suffer little).
Panetta was loquacious, Father Christmas in bestowing the goodies of war. First the reconfiguration of naval forces, “from a 50-50 split between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific to 60 percent of the Navy’s assets assigned to the Pacific Ocean.” This may not seem earth-shaking, but I cannot emphasize enough how aptly the “pivot” fits into a renewed (measured by the earlier Cold War) militarism which, with the overlay of counterterrorism and surveillance, and yes, the Manning and Snowden revelations, portends if not a sea-change in the American polity, at least the authoritarian pathway already noted. Nor was a 60-40 split chickenfeed, for as Perlez summarizes: “The renewed emphasis on the Pacific would involve six aircraft carriers, and a majority of the Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines. These would be fortified by an increase in the number and size of military exercises in the Pacific, and a greater number of port visits.” What China must have been thinking, even before this, one can only guess, and in any case, Panetta’s statement surely known to its leadership must have stirred some interest: “Make no mistake—in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way—the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region.” (Italics, mine) Obama is not known to have expressed dissent to this view—obviously his own as well.
War anyone? The article points out, “Among the specific new weapons Mr. Panetta mentioned were the advanced fifth-generation aircraft known as the Joint Strike Fighter, the enhanced Virginia-class fast-attack submarine that can operate in shallow and deep waters, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons.” Further down: “The new panoply of weapons specially designed for the distances of the Pacific included an aerial-refueling tanker, a bomber, and advanced maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Mr. Panetta said.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of the United States Pacific Command accompanied him. And this was 2012, when much thought and preparation had already been given to the rebalancing act.
US-Japan Broadened Security Alliance: Hagel, Kerry, and Japanese Rearmament
Jumping ahead to this past week, we see Hagel stepping into Panetta’s shoes without missing a beat, and, if anything, more engaged in Asia as the coming front for establishing America’s presence, i.e., confrontational stance, with respect to China, for he—along with Obama, perhaps less so, Panetta—has added greater complexity to the situation: fuller assurances and guarantees to the military alliances, e.g., the Philippines and, significantly, South Korea, because in that case, it was expected to contain the second heinous enemy, North Korea. Perhaps that is why Hagel is spending four days in South Korea—“the longest stay of an American defense secretary in a generation,” reports Jennifer Steinhauser in her NYT article, “Back in Asia, Hagel Pursues Shift to Counter China’s Goals in Pacific,” Oct. 2. She writes, Hagel “is forging ahead with a military agenda that reflects the Obama administration’s rising security and economic interests in the region and his own [Hagel’s] passions for Asia.” Three trips to the region as defense secretary, “after only seven months on the job.” He is very much Obama’s point man, so much for expecting a change!
At his news conference (Oct. 2), along with South Korea’s defense minister, Hagel emphasized, in the reporter’s account, that “the Asian rebalance is a priority,” and in his own words provided a succinct statement of what that meant: “You always adjust your resources to match your priorities.” Nor, as we’ve seen, were the resources negligible. A pacifist, he’s not. One senses that although China remains of uppermost concern, there is from Panetta to Hagel a policy shift, the pairing of North Korea with China as potential enemies—or, in the language of Washington, potential security threats, for standing at the demilitarized zone, the most provocative symbol of tension, Hagel said, “This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation. There is no margin of error up here.” He is now off to Japan, where the US position is fraught with danger, encouragement of Japanese rearmament.
Steinhauer and Martin Fackler have the story in The Times (Oct. 3), “Japan and U.S. Agree to Broaden Military Alliance,” a hoped-for policy among American defense specialists and national-security advisers for quite some time, in anticipation of Japan’s role in the containment of China, but now accelerated with Hagel and Kerry “meeting with their Japanese counterparts” and signing on that day a specific agreement. The reporters’ opening statement says it all: “The United States and Japan agreed on Thursday to broaden their security alliance, expanding Japan’s role while attempting to show American determination to remain a dominant presence in the region.” This, in response to “growing challenges” from China and North Korea. The details are chilling: “The agreement calls for construction of a new missile-defense radar system in Japan, deployment of American drone aircraft here for the first time and joint efforts to combat cyberattack threats, among other steps.” Assurances were given that Pentagon budget-cuts would not alter the “security alliance,” and that the US looked with favor on Shinzo Abe’s effort to “put his country on a more equal footing [i.e., its “military capabilities”] with its longtime military protector.” As Hagel put the matter, “Our bilateral defense cooperation, including America’s commitment to the security of Japan, is a critical component of our overall relationship, and to the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia-Pacific.” This meant involvement in the dispute over “a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea,” in which the US would have Japan’s back. The agreement also allowed the US “to place a new X-band radar system” near Kyoto, “to better protect both countries against military threats from North Korea.” There was more, concerning military hardware, and the possibility of changing the “pacifist Constitution” so that Japanese forces could fight alongside those from the US.
John Kerry, who appears, like Tony Blair to Bush, as Obama’s lap dog, made this statesmanlike pronouncement: “Our relationship has never been stronger or better than it is today. We are continuing to adapt, however, to confront the different challenges of the 21st century.” What might those challenges be? He added, “A rising China is welcome as long as that China wants to engage according to international standards.” With statesmen like these, who needs generals? I see incubatory tyranny, possibly even painless (to all but those who dissent), ever closer; and, regrettably, under the banner of liberalism. But let’s continue, for no mention has yet been made of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, presumably one that is in the spirit of Wilsonian-liberal free trade, yet another entrepot for US power and influence in the region, military and economic alike.
Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Stalking Horse for Military Predominance
Trans-Pacific is actually a good deal worse than one imagines. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, and Ben Beachy, its research director, have written an article in The Times, “Obama’s Covert Trade Deal,” back on June 2, 2013, which, if taken seriously (apparently it has not been), would or should have stopped it in its tracks—and exposed the hollowness of Obama’s liberalism, as conventionally understood. Secrecy fits nicely into the jigsaw puzzle of authoritarianism, along with surveillance and other measures which violate the principles of democratic government, and in this case it is Trans-Pacific’s most prominent feature. Wallach and Beachy pull no punches: “The Obama administration has often stated its commitment to open government. So why is it keeping such tight wraps on the contents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most significant international commercial agreement since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995?” Good question—a “covert trade deal”?
One’s initial guess as to why, consistent with other precedents established by Obama, is that in the guise of a trade agreement the US is attempting to impose conditions on the region, including on non-trade matters as well, which cover all bases on political-economic hegemony, thereby accomplishing two things: the projection in detail of constraining practices, uniformly applied, that conduce to the welfare of American capitalism; and the projection of power in the form of a tightly woven sphere of influence that, although not strictly part of the agreement, would have military significance in the campaign to isolate and contain China. If I might suggest, good trading partners make good military allies, as in the discussions to create a trade agreement with EU members currently underway. What emerges with Trans-Pacific goes beyond the economic factor per se, to what appears as a relationship of dictated power and dependence, what in franker times we labeled as imperialism, and although Obama is not often shy about the practice itself (never admitting its true nature) the reason for secrecy is compelling: the stench reaches even off the page; secrecy because the agreement’s provisions cannot stand the light of day.
(Detailed Provisions, Anti-Regulatory, Benefiting US Capital
The writers state: “The agreement, under negotiation since 2008, would set new rules for everything from food safety and financial markets to medicine prices and Internet freedom. It would include at least 12 of the countries bordering the Pacific and be open for more to join.” Significantly, Congress, which has “exclusive constitutional authority to set the terms of trade,” has been excluded from the trade process, its members denied “repeated requests…to see the text of the draft agreement” or even “to attend negotiations as observers,” a clamping down of secrecy extended to “other groups” affected by the rewriting of “broad sections of nontrade policies,” their demands for the public release of the “nearly complete text” rejected. Even the Bush administration, the writers point out, “hardly a paragon of transparency, published online the draft text of the last similarly sweeping agreement, called the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001.”
Secrecy, however, is highly flexible. One set of rules applies to Congress and the people, another to mega-business and banking—again faithfully following the Obama paradigm of selective treatment of the wealthy and powerful. They note, “There is one exception to this wall of secrecy: a group of 600 trade ‘advisers,’ dominated by representatives of big businesses, who enjoy privileged access to draft texts and negotiators.” (Italics, mine) The stench is getting greater, for slipped into a trade agreement are matters which, for this colossal region (equal to or greater than other spheres of influence), define rules of conduct the mirror-image of what Obama has done for, or rather to, salient features of the US political economy. “This covert approach,” they continue, “is a major problem because the agreement is more than just a trade deal. Only 5 of its 29 chapters cover traditional trade matters, like tariffs or quotas. The others impose parameters on nontrade policies.” Here I may be overly suspicious, but I detect the following strategy: Place in the agreement desiderata not yet achieved in the US, thus forcing changes here–obviously unpopular, that might not otherwise take place—so as to stay in compliance. They say as much, in a single sentence: “Existing and future American laws must be altered to conform with these terms, or trade sanctions can be imposed against American exports.” It is hardly likely that we would draft provisions that would hurt ourselves.
One area dear to American capital is copyright protection. In early 2012 there was heated debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have penalized “even the most minor and inadvertent infraction of a company’s copyright,” creating an “uproar” which “derailed the proposal.” No longer. The case is instructive of corporate planning onto a wider plane: “But now, the very corporations behind SOPA are at it again, hoping to reincarnate its terms within the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s sweeping proposed copyright provisions.” (Italics, mine) If you are temporarily stalled at home, enlarge the playing field, force others into obedience, and celebrate with victory at home. It gets worse—although the writers fail to make any connection whatever, Trans-Pacific makes a mockery of Obama’s health care plan by the protection it affords to mega-pharmaceuticals in preventing restrictions on price-maintenance (the industry representatives influencing the drafting process). Incidentally, we see how the writers cracked the secrecy walls: “From another leak, we know the pact would also take aim at policies to control the cost of medicine. Pharmaceutical companies, which are among those enjoying access to negotiators as ‘advisers,’ have long lobbied against government efforts to keep the cost of medicine down. Under the agreement, these companies could challenge such measures by claiming that they undermined their new rights granted by the deal.” (Italics, mine)
As for outsourcing, they write: “And yet another leak revealed that the deal would include even more expansive incentives to relocate domestic manufacturing offshore than were included in Nafta—a deal that drained millions of manufacturing jobs from the American economy.” Take that, liberals and progressives, into your pipe and smoke it! Yet Obama remains untouchable in those quarters. Nor, in this itemization, would one want to leave Wall Street out—for what is an Obama /Democratic program without partiality on that end, in this case the internationalization of exotic financial instruments, as if 2008 had never happened? Thus they write: “The agreement would also be a boon for Wall Street and its campaign to water down regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. Among other things, it would practically forbid bans on risky financial products, including the toxic derivatives that helped cause the crisis in the first place.” (Italics, mine)
At some point, Congress will have to vote, at which time the text would be made public. “So why,” they ask, “keep it a secret?” And their answer, which bears on Obama’s enlargement of Executive Power, as well as his deviousness (no disrespect intended!), is this: “Because Mr. Obama wants the agreement to be given fast-track treatment on Capitol Hill. Under this extraordinary and rarely used procedure, he could sign the agreement before Congress voted on it. And Congress’s post-facto vote would be under rules limiting debate, banning all amendments and forcing a quick vote.” Even Mayor Daley in his heyday would have blushed at such ramrod tactics. Wallach and Beachy close: “Whatever one thinks about ‘free trade,’ the secrecy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership process represents a huge assault on the principles and practice of democratic governance. That is untenable in the age of transparency, especially coming from an administration that is otherwise so quick to trumpet its commitment to open government.” But why be surprised? When I speak of Obama’s incubatory tyranny I have examples like this in mind, in and of themselves not definitive, yet that they can happen puts us on notice of the need to correlate the cases, examine the underlying interrelatedness, and, above all, recognize even a single one—be it assassination, surveillance, or deregulation–would not be possible without summoning the full political-institutional structure of society to bring it forward.
Obama’s No-Show: The Military Card, Little Else to Offer
Trans-Pacific does not occur in a policy-vacuum; it is intimately related to the military-alliance systems being negotiated by Hagel and Kerry. Obama ducks the pending conferences, pleading domestic issues, the shutdown and debt-ceiling battles, are keeping him away. That is just as well, with Hagel and Kerry his emissaries saving him the potential embarrassment of being identified with probusiness measures when the terms of the agreement and how they were arrived at are finally revealed, although to his credit (or blame) Obama does not embarrass easily, merely instead grows more petulant and vindictive. I think the deeper reason for Obama’s not showing up is his fear of going head-to-head with Xi Jinping, who has far more to offer the Asian Pacific countries and greater resources for doing so. China already is running circles around the US in Africa (as I’ve written before, noting for example the soccer fields and municipal amenities under construction—no questions asked), and I assume that Obama, for reasons of American demandingness and blatant rudeness, has little to fall back on except the military card. Trans-Pacific, in maximizing American self-interest, will not stand up to alternative modes , the Chinese model, of modernization and development.
Jane Perlez, the Times reporter in Beijing, carries our analysis a step further by her article, “Cancellation of Trip by Obama Plays to Doubts of Asia Allies” (Oct. 4), in which she focuses on Asian Pacific leaders and governments all too eager to come under the US defense umbrella, therefore willing partners in an American-defined trading framework and alliance system, whatever, I surmise, their peoples might wish to the contrary. Their criticism of Obama might have been scripted by Netanyahu for all the bravado and belligerence they display, stating that Obama cannot be trusted against China when he is squeamish about bombing Syria and apparently folding on Iran. Obama of course wants to prove them wrong; in reading their responses, these leaders and academics in the region give one the sense that he and his national-security advisers are preaching to the choir, a common mindset of Reaction holding both groups together. This makes Xi’s diplomatic triumphs all the more surprising and interesting, as though even those in our proverbial pocket know there will ultimately be a day of reckoning.
Perlez writes that as Obama “made apologetic calls to Asia to cancel his trip,” Xi “was taking a star turn in some of the same countries Obama would have visited.” He “became the first foreigner to address the Indonesian Parliament, offering billions of dollars in trade” to that country, and then went on to Malaysia, which was hosting the two Asian summits that Obama had planned to attend, a cancellation making Asians wonder if the US “will be a viable counterbalance to a rising China.” Not only “Obama’s U-turn on intervention in Syria,” but his failure to put down the revolt of the House, counted against him in their eyes. By not standing up to China, “Asian officials” feared, “the gravitational pull of China’s economy [would be] increasingly difficult to resist.” The Philippines appears Rightist even by Asian standards, as can be seen in the question posed by an adviser to its Congress: “How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can’t get his own house in order?” The questioner doubts that the US is “really in the position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict.” More of the same from others, though not surprising, because the views represented are expressed by those who have been carefully cultivated through contact with American aid and other programs. One official (Singaporean) was frank “in rare public criticism” of the US, stating that it was “not exerting sufficient countervailing economic influence.”
China: The Long-Haul Strategy for Regional Influence
Here the battle is joined. In the US, “countervailing economic influence” is a nonstarter, because the influence preferred affecting foreign policy is military rather than economic, and, insofar as economic, the strings attached are not calculated to win hearts and minds. In contrast, as Perlez relates, China has “mounting investments in Southeast Asia,” as in establishing “a $50 billion Chinese infrastructure bank, to rival banks influenced by the United States.” Our Singaporean called these investments “no longer ‘just a matter of business’ but ‘a core Chinese interest,’ as if to emphasize partly noneconomic factors at play—not military, I should think, but ideological in character, in which “infrastructure” suggests forging alignments based on common interest and harmonious relations. I may be wrong in portraying Chinese intentions in this light, but selflessness doesn’t have to enter. Stable relations, founded on improved conditions, does. In sum, “a core Chinese interest” implies the longer-term view (one that we see in China domestically in its willingness to tackle such challenges as the massive campaign of urbanization). In this context of growing competition between America and China, where exercising power and influence in Asia characterizes the ambitions of both, it would be well to remember Perlez’s point that this “is not to say the United States will lose its standing in the region it has long dominated anytime soon.” And to underscore the point, she adds: “The presence of tens of thousands of American troops in Japan and South Korea, and naval fleets roaming the Pacific, add to that projection of power.”
This past week Hagel’s visit to South Korea and Japan and Kerry’s to Japan were “for talks to beef up the American alliances with those two countries,” in Japan, especially, agreements being signed allowed “the deployment of drones there for the first time,” and implied support for “Japan’s slow but steady moves to strengthen its once powerful military.” The rearmament of Japan surely must have worried China and other nations with memories of World War II, a factor which, despite pro-American feelings of conservative regimes, created a sense of ambiguity to their policy-making. Indonesia is a good example, where, according to Rizal Sukma, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, initial mistrust was giving way to a favorable view: “I would call Indonesia’s attitude towards China now as ‘a display of growing comfort amid persistent ambiguity.” While “it values economic opportunities offered by China,” it remains “anxious” about China’s intentions. The observation has value, and whether or not there is criticism of the US, fear of Chinese expansion is real. Yet the economic factor is beginning to carry greater weight. In Xi’s Jakarta speech he said “China expected to reach one trillion dollars of trade with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by 2020.” According to an Australian economist, “all countries in Asia, except the Philippines, now count China as their chief trading partner.”
Obama’s failure to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting on Bali, and then the East Asia Summit in Brunei, meant he was “ceding Mr. Xi plenty of ground.” This is important because Obama had planned to push, at the first, for the Trans-Pacific—to which, significantly, the US had “not invited China to join the 12-member group, and China views it as a tool to contain it.” Perlez makes clear what one suspects all along. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was conceived to work in tandem with the “pivot” or Pacific-first strategy, less as carrot-and-stick than economic cover for building the military presence in the Far East. Obama, hoping Trans-Pacific would show the policy to be “not only military but economic,” was being beaten at his own game, because Xi, in his absence, “will be able to push a counter trade grouping favored by China, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,” which includes more Asian countries than Trans-Pacific and pointedly excluded the US, just as China had been excluded by the other. We’ll give the editor of the Jakarta Post the last word: Xi “is winning the hearts and minds in the right places,” and even had Obama shown up in Bali, he would have been given a “less warm reception.”
Quandary: Is Capitalist Expansion Only for Capitalism? The Murky Waters of Power
The issue was joined by the existence of these two mutually exclusive trade plans, and in spite of fears of China, Trans-Pacific, shrouded in secrecy, and having the potential threat of military reinforcement on its shoulders, would not have clear sailing, but rather, merely exacerbate tensions between the US and China—perhaps Obama’s goal from the start. What is vexing, however, is how to interpret America’s confrontational posture, over and above the evident attraction of embarking on yet another crusade to unify the American people around war, intervention, and most recent, in the history of antiradicalism in America, the willingness to surrender traditional guarantees of civil liberties while pursuing an agenda of unrestrained capital accumulation. This is a re-play of periods where wealth-concentration made great strides in the past, and “communism” in its various epithetical names, such as labor militancy, was dusted off as a sacrifice to the gods of war and corporate greed while effectively silencing dissent. But even so, the whole opposition to China makes little sense in terms of conventional Left social analysis.
Inherent Problems of Conceptualization: A Psychology of Dichotomization
Here one expects traditional ideological conflict, capitalism vs. socialism, borne out by internal social struggles in America, as for example, the Flint Sit-Down Strike and the history of industrial violence before and, to a lesser extent, since, where working people defending their right to organize were assumed, whether or not true, to be engaged in class struggle (for radicals, the wish was often father to the interpretation), a conceptualization of conflict also projected onto the international plane. The US affinity for counterrevolution confirms the supposition of a Left-Right confrontation, America usually siding with the Right, so that, as in the Cold War, whenever conflict arose, the dichotomy of forces had for explanation what became a demonization of the Left, with the American public expected to rally to the cause—social patriotism predicated on a deep psychological reservoir of antiradicalism, whether or not the shoe fit. The enemy was treated as monolithic, different, radical. Without the enemy in the guise that we had come to expect, there would be little grounds for antagonism and ideology would lose its powers of persuasion. What then of capitalist rivalries, which, internationally, were so evident prior to the Bolshevik Revolution?
There perhaps a different mindset was involved, where capitalist rivalries–the constant factor being capitalism, although reflecting different stages of development—made necessary a nonideological source of conflict, and hence, the transposition of capitalism to nationalism, the fighting nevertheless of equal ferocity. But with socialism, the world changed; the capitalist community became unified at the expense of the outsider, viewed as a common threat to all, and the search was on, within capitalism, to stabilize the world system as the security of capitalism through international political, economic, and financial organizations, both to iron-out difficulties among the peer group and exclude the Menacing Other, unless it was willing to play by the rules of the game and gave promise of changing for the better, to become capitalist itself. When Kerry said, “A rising China is welcome as long as that China wants to engage according to international standards,” (Italics, mine) he was doing three things: prejudging China as still communist, making “that” China toe the mark, which in turn meant accepting and engaging the (capitalist) world through American-defined ground rules, which no doubt included the absolute sanctity of property, low tariffs, and honoring contracts.
Internalizing the Cold War: China, Socialist Pariah-Scapegoat
A radical analysis could deal with both capitalist-socialist and intracapitalist conflict, but on China, I submit, it fails to deal with the Obama-Phenomenon—not confined to him and his administration, but historically timed so as to warrant the designation in the present situation: namely, a refusal to break through the ideological stereotypes and persist in seeing Red China despite overwhelming evidence of its capitalist dimensions. Radicals therefore, if such analysis were forthcoming, misjudge the stupidity and arrogance of US leadership, even discounting for the changes taking place in China, by—and this is all hypothetical, because by radical I am thinking only of a conventional and consistent Marxist pattern—assuming America’s defense of capitalism was the issue. Not here. Obama leads us on a merry chase by having so completely internalized the Cold War mentality that he is in a rush to confront China as supposedly the ideological enemy, at least thus speaketh my nonexistent writer.
What, though, if China were in fact capitalist? Then all the balderdash (aka, red-baiting) about menace, world danger, communist enslavement of the people (insinuated rather than stated—even in the Kerry statement), would fly out the window, and then where would we be, in mobilizing the people for a state of war, accepting the destruction of privacy in our lives, allowing counterterrorism to shape the national agenda and mentality, and a thousand and one abuses at the hands of the Obama administration? As radicals, we must expose the nuttiness of the conflict, or better, search for its underlying purposes, in which capitalism still plays a vital part, its expansion to the Far East integral to America’s remaining a superpower and avoiding a more precipitate decline than it is already suffering. But I want to take the extra step, looked at askance in a Marxist analysis.
Capitalism does not say it all—even when Obama deliberately misinterprets what he sees before his eyes. China qua communist or socialist is a useful whipping-boy, but as capitalist we must be prepared for another interpretation. America is deeply afraid of its fate in the world. The Pacific-first strategy has wider intentions than the isolation and containment of China (itself a tall order beyond US means), the desire for a total configuration of power in which all, China especially, is in economic vassalage to the United States, and with that, ideological-cultural tutelage as well. Humanitarian interventionism fills the bill nicely—when one is dealing with weaker powers, but laughable in the case of China. Although the configuration has to remain nameless (Pax Americana might be good for starters), it has been in the making for two centuries, John Quincy Adams a useful departure point, but never so categorically invested with militarism as the propelling force, as though we have Sultan Obama of the Ottoman Empire now turned more lethal. Be all of the foregoing as it may, the primary fact here is that China has become capitalist, and all of the ideological trappings and delusions that say it has not, whether for purposes of rigid ideology or social-control over the American people, must be stripped away, and frank acknowledgement of Imperialist Ambitions made—then we’ll see how many answer the clarion call of the bugle, or thrill to the flyover of the Stealth bomber at football halftime.
Ideological Mindset of Power: Subsuming Capitalism in Authoritarian Framework
That China is not harboring revolutionary ideas, still less, exporting them to other countries, suggests the US has to re-approach international politics and economics in the global context of intracapitalist rivalries, rather than persist in seeing ideological enemies where they do not exist. Here Obama comes into his own, albeit half-blind, struggling against historical currents, and preoccupied with antiradical culturally inherited intellectual baggage still defining the American political culture, eminently qualified to serve as the convenient spokesperson for American capitalism. His Pacific-first / pivot / rebalancing framework, primarily military in execution, with trade advantage secondary, is about power, carrying capitalism along with it, yet a framework imprisoned in an ideological mindset which treats capitalism as the means to an end, not an end in itself. For want of a label I see this as an authoritarianism wedded to and dependent on capitalism, but driven by anterior values rooted in and/or reflecting a mélange of discriminatory historical practices which have destroyed the meaning of human life.
Ineradicable moral wrongs have desensitized American capitalism into a primordial social force beyond the need to meet its internal requirements, whether one speaks of surplus value, the declining rate of profit, or the salience of underconsumption. I refer to the heritage of slavery, segregation, anti-Semitism, phobic reactions to socialism, radicalism, industrial unionism, a psychosocial center of ethnocentrism and xenophobia (vivified in historical outbreaks of red scares and lynch mobs) indicative of a whole slew of pathological hatreds borne of invidious class distinctions and rankings, all of which have been integrated into the societal belief-system in shaping economic and political as well as cultural values. (American historical-cultural development has been more a curse than a blessing when it comes to attitude-formation.) One comes a step closer to the mark: Authoritarianism trumps capitalism in the new dispensation, without modifying its principle features of structural-social hierarchy, differentials of wealth and power, consciously-wrought cruelty to the lower social strata, fear of democratization as the working principle of social organization—hence, America under Democratic leadership in October 2013, Obama’s legacy—with yet more to come.
Varieties of Capitalism: The Enlightenment-Calculation
This need not be; I confess to having sufficient non-Marxist elements in my thinking to see capitalism as a social system of waste and predation, not because of supposed internal contradictions, as cogent as that may be when presented in a wider historical-sociological context, but because of the repression exercised by ruling groups, who control multiple levers of power. Yet, American capitalism has lost its bearings, acting even against capitalism as a world system (its attitude toward other capitalist nations, notwithstanding international corrective mechanisms, as, conquer or be conquered), not to mention its scurrilous treatment of the Other, the catch-all socialism and social movements of change. This descent into irrationality, presently seen in Obama’s Far Eastern policy, but also projected globally, is that the system has incorporated its own reification of power. From the standpoint of enlightened capitalism, it has, quite literally, gone off the deep end. Though this process carries capitalism forward, it does two things harmful to itself and with whom it comes in contact, becoming morally and even economically bankrupt in the unreasoning drive for global supremacy, and thus power-hungry, it loses sight of the very internal composition and distribution of capital necessary to a balanced political economy, viz., the defense establishment sucking the lifeblood of commerce while simultaneously eroding the social safety net.
Enlightened capitalism remains capitalism, only more sensible, sophisticated, less war-prone, less given to volatile business-cycle swings, nonetheless, still expansive, exploitative, structurally impaired through the epistemological workings of commodity fetishism, the psychological workings of alienation, and the general impoverishment of culture created by the monetization of creativity itself. So, for me now to introduce Henry M. Paulsen Jr. as a fundamental corrective of Obama’s treatment of China, embodied in the latter’s Pacific-first strategy, but also, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, does not imply endorsement of the views of the former, merely, that here is an obviously skillful perhaps even intelligent capitalist who, rather than sulk in the memory-pool (cesspool?) of anticommunism, or move directly toward armed global hegemony, or pick a fight on any grounds that might offer—all three uncomfortably close to where Obama stands at the moment—enables one to see, first, that confrontation with China need not be inevitable, second, that full recognition of China’s capitalistic reality, and still greater potentiality, requires on the part of the US a very different geostrategic framework, and third, further recognition that the global structure no longer admits of unilateral supremacy and uses of power.
Paulsen is no friend of socialism, nor should one expect him to be—for, in that case, he wouldn’t be Paulsen. But in his NYT article, “China’s Economy, Back on Track,” Oct. 5, he knows and appreciates capitalism when he sees it, and he knows what to look for, as critical areas in the transformation from socialism to capitalism. With that technical grasp (we owe him that!) in mind, one could say that if Paulsen were listened to seriously, ignoring his past record as Treasury Secretary and leading role in the financial bailout, and rather, just in terms of textual discussion of the article and its possible validity, we would find a logic requiring or stipulating that sword-rattling cease, humanitarian interventionism come to a halt (already, directed to China, it would be knocking hopelessly at the wrong door, and hopefully, in vain everywhere else), and all the cant, flummery, and lies to keep the war engine turning cut short and finally abandoned, cast out of the board rooms, yet hardly to be expected, the Situation Room of the White House. For Paulsen, such a process would obviously not be for the purpose of achieving the internal democratization of the American social structure and political economy, nor for renouncing the goals of market penetration and maximum profitability on the international playing field.
Nevertheless, though not his purpose, the analysis allows, objectively, for the argument that recognition of China’s capitalist dimensions and potential for subsequent development in that direction obviates the need for further confrontation (the Pacific-first strategy) on America’s part. In turn, this would mean the avoidance of the train wreck possibly looming between the two countries, and, within America, the collision between enlightened capitalism (were that attainable!) and a permanent state of war (the condition I had been describing with respect to the Obama-Brennan methodology of “hit-list” constant revisions in the campaign of drone assassination, in order to bind future administrations) that itself takes on attitudes of permanency with the provocative character of present interventionist policies and psychological as well as economic-monetary attachment to the huge stratospheric defense budget.
The second point, objectively, stemming from Paulsen’s analysis, is that, given China’s capitalist nature, the grounds for America’s posture of confrontation therefore removed or diminished, the ideological haze within which US policy is conducted is thereby lifted, permitting if not the idea and practice of class struggle (which few really expect), then at least the fumigation or cleansing of the House of Order, i.e., a break in the clouds so that working people can gain a clarified view of exploitation and needless wars. Obama’s passion for secrecy is highly relevant here. The haze which surrounds government (secrecy gives mystery to ideology in ways difficult to explain, enveloping it so as to magnify its importance) prevents the people’s growth of political consciousness in forming independent judgments on his administration’s record across the board, and not only in foreign policy. Surveillance works to serve the same end, the construction of ignorance of the populace.
Sweep out, then, the verbiage of the liberalization of war, which is pulling the rug from under serious dissent, and political consciousness can begin its slow progression upward. Clarity is the enemy of authoritarianism, even when capitalists unwitting bring clarity about through searching for efficiency and the supposed liberation of productive forces, which have nothing to do with workers’ freedom and social democracy. Better a straightout capitalist than a White House charlatan of democracy, who, by chance, also appears to hunger for power. The latter, unlike the former, illumines the Great Paradox: To save capitalism (which he doesn’t believe actually needs saving) and prevent its decline in America, Obama advocates for policies, focused on China, which could lead to the cataclysmic breakdown of the system both nations, coming from different historical starting points, now share. In this light, Paulsen is a breath of fresh air. (I never thought I would say this, but then again I never thought when I voted for Obama that he would turn out the way that he did—but I was quickly disabused.). He welcomes China to the club, rather than ring military forces around it, negotiate security alliances, conduct military joint-maneuvers, even, only days ago, arrange for the installation of drone bases and missile-defense systems
Pragmatical International Capitalism: Nonideological Coexistence in Harmony
Paulsen is not put-off by the auspices, now somewhat of a formality in terms of nomenclature, under which capitalist changes are to be carried out: “Next month, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang will use an important meeting—the so-called Third Plenum of the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress—to unveil China’s priorities for reforming economic policy for the next decade.” I like the details, no gnashing of teeth here. He anticipates criticism: “Yet because it will probably decide only general policies, leaving the specifics for later, some cynics have already begun to dismiss the reforms as too little, too timid and too late. They note that a decade ago, a previous generation of leaders failed to reduce the influence of state-owned enterprises and to complete the economic reforms of the 1990s.” One sees already, the reference to “state-owned enterprises,” code for a classic formulation of market fundamentalism (along the lines of Jeffrey Sachs with respect to Russia), not my cup of tea, Chinese or otherwise. Nor is Paulsen Cyrus Eaton of a previous generation, a businessman dealing with Russia on a more open basis of respect (there are too few businessmen of Eaton’s character, emancipated from all ideological hang-ups, and tolerant—as Paulsen ultimately is not—of genuinely mixed economies), and yet he stands clearly apart, still as an undoubted capitalist, from the Washington defense establishment. This, in light of Obama’s proneness to war, has to count for something.
To the naysayers who dismiss the “reforms” (again, think market fundamentalism), Paulson responds to the criticism: “But I believe the prospects for restructuring China’s economy—bolstering the role of the market, expanding opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses, allocating capital more efficiently and improving the balance between consumption and investment—are better than at any point since the 1990s. At a time when global growth remains sluggish, reinvigorating such reforms is more important than ever to the world economy.” (Italics, mine) Not only does he neither fear China nor seek to put it down, but the italicized portion suggests quite the reverse: looking to China to pull up the remainder of the world economy, hence the indebtedness of international capitalism to its very success and survival. From a capitalist standpoint there are marked differences in the levels of sophistication that have been applied to China and Far Eastern policy, with Obama incapable of perceiving more than a narrow conception of US self-interest (already embodied in his National-Security State) and some of the earlier advisers surrounding Woodrow Wilson (to which I think Paulsen, here, would fit in) in which the theme of internationalism is regarded seriously and with hope, as preferable to traditional imperialist practices of resort to military means of enforcement of trade activities and the building of spheres of influence.
Paulsen waxes almost poetic on China’s capitalistic prospects. He writes, “There are four reasons for my optimism,” starting with the proposition, “China’s leaders clearly understand that their growth model needs to change,” to which he adds in explanation: “In speech after speech, Mr. Xi and Mr. Li have put their political capital on the line by promoting economic reform. They have drawn up blueprints and adopted pilot programs—like a free-trade zone in Shanghai—that will bolster the market and rationalize the allocation of capital, for instance by permitting more foreign competition and greater fluctuation of interest rates.” This reads like Econ 101, except that Paulsen is treating with a nation that Obama has in his cross-hairs. Under #1 he continues: “Other reforms, including liberalizing deposit rates, still need to be put in place, but an experiment to liberalize lending rates is a very positive step. So is Beijing’s signal that it might open more sectors of its economy to competition through a bilateral investment treaty with the United States.” (Italics, mine)
(Disclosure: I find disheartening the dismantlement of socialism now occurring, in varying degrees, on a global basis, as also in Vietnam and Cuba, which, because governments and Left parties did not press forward hard enough for still greater socialism, may account for its weakness—to me, the betrayal of a great promise, provided socialist economies did not become dependent on enforced regimentation, e.g., the Cultural Revolution, and, in these societies at large, did not create police-state infringements on civil liberties. In this article, I am not an apologist for China, but I am equally quick to point out that capitalist nations and economies have proven more committed to war than have been Russia and China, whose experience on the receiving end of intervention have made them less expansive, more insular, and generally hostile to intervention in principle. Moreover, capitalist nations have not been immune to violations of civil-liberties and police-state tactics, have also shown cruelty to their peoples, and on social-welfare measures have often been hamstrung by ideological concerns. But not to lose sight of the analysis, I am suggesting that, comparatively, Obama, through the militarization of both liberalism and capitalism, is a greater menace to humankind and peace on the planet, because he practiced subterfuge on behalf of a monolithic corporate order, than China, or than the capitalism praised here by Paulsen.]
His second reason for optimism is that “China’s new leaders are strong enough to press for change,” a surprising twist given the usual association in capitalist thought of socialism and centralization (which is standard business code for economic dictatorship), to which Paulson demurs: “The history of Chinese economic reform suggests that vigorous central leadership is essential.” He cites chapter and verse: Deng “was the determined architect behind China’s initial reforms in 1978 and their reinvigoration in 1992,” and then Zhu, under Jiang Zemin, “pushed through reforms of the taxation system and state-controlled industries that paved the way for China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.” He sees, however, in the subsequent decade, “reforms stalled” because of the “evaporation of political commitment in Beijing,” and now, “the new leaders have signaled that they are prepared to move,” to Xi’s credit—yes, Xi, opposed to Trans-Pacific and actively undermining Obama’s program at the recently concluded meetings on Bali. Paulson accords him respect: “An anti-corruption campaign begun by Mr. Xi demonstrates a willingness to take on even the most politically sensitive pillars of the state-led economy.” Not drone bases in Japan or the transfer of major naval “assets” to the Pacific would seem rational from the evidence known to all, but Obama persists in his quest for a showdown with China of some yet unspecified kind—provided the cannons are in place.
Paulson’s third reason for optimism practically gives away much of the shop. He admits that China’s rate of growth and all-around economic performance have been so commendable and salutary as to be too much so, necessitating recognition that they cannot continue, thereby introducing pressures for the consolidation of growth. China, in effect, is now one of us, facing similar problems, yet having escaped successfully the ’08 financial debacle (itself, if he contemplated the situation, should, given his intimate connection to the bailout, have made him doubly in awe of Chinese economic planning. Yet he misses the irony involved). Thus, he writes: “China no longer has the luxury to delay needed reforms. China’s economic output expanded nearly sixfold between 2002 and 2012, from $1.5 trillion to $8.3 trillion, but that growth fostered complacency. True, it weathered the financial crisis through giant spending on public works, but that only put off the day of reckoning.”
A sixfold increase in a single decade—yet success becomes the argument for putting on the brakes; curiously, he diagrams the experience of the New Deal, of public works and retrenchment, as though fearful a good thing might yield a qualitative leap—hence the day of reckoning, caution, balance: “The presumption that China can simply grow its way out of any problems no longer holds.” Paulson does not question, as also did not FDR (witness the recession in 1937), whether the declining public sector was responsible here for the economic slowdown. Instead, he looks for market-reform as a substitute for public works to bring about recovery: “Growth is slowing, inequality has widened, provincial and local government debts have climbed. China’s export-oriented sectors face harsh headwinds, from sluggish consumer demand in advanced markets to rising labor costs at home.” He might as well, point-for-point, have been describing the US, including, on local government debts, the bankruptcy of Detroit. My point, he is unflappable about market-based solutions for these problems, as soon becomes clear.
Finally, the fourth reason for optimism is the caliber of leadership: “[P}ublic expectations for change are higher than ever. When the new leaders were appointed last year, they were compared favorably to their immediate predecessors”; yet the “honeymoon” for Xi and Li, who took over in November, “is over.” And because they “are being measured” against Jiang and Zhu, “the necessity for action is greater.” From this point, Paulsen goes into high gear about the virtues of the market, becoming the Jeffrey Sachs of the Far East (still however, while opposed to state planning, which he terms “official fiat,” there is no touch of hostility): “Momentum is building for reforms that would introduce market prices for oil, gas and other natural resources so that prices better reflect supply and demand, rather than official fiat.” The following is market fundamentalism in microcosm: “Distorted pricing has been one cause of China’s energy inefficiency and environmental degradation. Like the new steps toward liberalizing energy prices, Shanghai’s new free-trade zone is another positive indicator.”
Paulsen wants the whole enchilada: “More is needed—broader access to capital, greater investment options and protections from the risk of haphazard capital flows—if Shanghai is to become a global financial center.” What is striking is that he implies China can do this on its own, no mention being made of assistance from the US or the IMF and World Bank, and in his passing remark on “protections from the risk of haphazard capital flows,” he is, perhaps unaware, bring the role of government back on a key matter. He continues the prescriptive account: “A new round of fiscal reforms is likely, leading to more rational allocation of resources between the central and local governments [again, crediting the role of government], which are struggling to rebuild weakened rural pension and health care systems and manage the largest urbanization in a sustainable way, while paying for unfunded mandates from Beijing and maintaining job growth.” Despite the market-emphasis, he identifies problems facing capitalist and socialist economies alike, as in the rational allocation of resources and weakened rural pension and health care systems, but it is his allusion to managing the largest urbanization—perhaps the greatest societal challenge anywhere in the world—that, by his recognizing, now earns my respect. He does not underestimate the Chinese achievements, which makes his Times article a useful source in opposing the demonization of China and putative need to isolate and contain it.
Paulsen constructs neither red lines nor timetables: “This vast array of specific reforms can’t be achieved at a stroke, and certainly not at a single party gathering. But the decisions likely to be taken in November will set China’s economy in a positive—and lasting—new direction.” Most arresting is not his “optimism,” but the confidence he places in China itself. If one were to pin him to the wall, he might agree with my interpretation of the broader framework. China is an ascending power, the US a declining one, which helps explain the extreme steps taken by the latter to arrest its decline: trade pacts to which are insinuated the threads of militarism, intervention on a global basis, assassination, complemented by a massive program of surveillance internally. Paulsen may well have sensed as much in his closing sentence, in which he acknowledges the reverse situation than is commonly supposed. The West, America as its leader, is no longer absolutely dominant in world politics and economics; at the very least, a condition of mutual dependence exists, and, between the lines, one reads that China is looked to for pulling up and saving from disaster the others. Of course, gratitude cannot be expected. Nietzsche long ago diagnosed the problem, in the form of the psychodynamics of the bully, one whose inner fears make him aggressive, spiteful, vindictive, principal characteristics—although he does not say this—for election to the American presidency. Paulsen closes: “Advanced economies, like the United States and the European Union, depend on it [China’s economy in a positive—and lasting—new direction] as much as China does.”
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.