What Do Events in Egypt Mean for the American Left?

The question for the Egyptian Revolution was always: with the military in control and the state intact, what had changed? The analogy to the ‘Velvet’ Revolution overlooked that the ties of Soviet client states to the Soviet Union were weakened when the Soviet Union came unwound. The Egyptian military has long been a top recipient of U.S. military ‘aid’ and the state considered a client of the U.S. With the Egyptian state intact, the hurdles to substantive change were always high.

The Obama administration, following U.S. precedent, showed no enthusiasm for the Revolution and only “accepted” the ouster of Hosni Mubarek when it was absolutely clear that the benefits of retaining a pliant, strategically valuable, state outweighed the cost of letting a loyal representative of U.S. interests fall. And in fact, after the Revolution the Egyptian military was tasked (link) with maintaining the institutions and relationships needed to further American interests in Egypt.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) reportedly (link) has a ‘structural adjustment program’ for Egypt waiting in the wings. This ties to the decades long effort to ‘liberalize’ the Egyptian economy for international capital. Such a program would secure control over the Egyptian economy and an intact state is needed to enforce IMF demands.

The miscalculation of the revolutionaries, to the extent that history shows that there was any, was in believing that the military, in support of foreign interests, would not stand as an obstacle to substantive change. Conversely, absent open confrontation, what were the choices? Of course, the revolution can still be carried forward. But with the military and foreign interests in control of the (intact) state, what this means even in the optimistic case is adjustments at the margin, most likely ‘cultural’ accommodations, not ‘R’evolution.

With the dust settling from what many had hoped would be a global revolution in North Africa, the Middle East, peripheral Europe and the U.S., what remains of the old world is far, far greater than what has changed. This should be no surprise, as entrenched interests tend to persist until forcibly ousted. And the question of what ‘revolution’ means was never that clearly articulated as evidenced by the choice of Egyptians to leave the military, and the interests it represents, in place.

The optimistic case for the revolutionaries, in the global sense, is that the trajectory of history has been changed. But given the entrenched interests at work, American geopolitical hegemony and international capital, an historical analogy between Egypt in 2012 and the U.S. in the mid 1970s seems appropriate.

In the U.S. a widely reviled president was forced to resign and reforms were undertaken that put out-of-control intelligence agencies on a tighter leash (for about fifteen minutes). Investigations of crimes were undertaken and concessions were made that provided the appearance of substantive change but which did not provide it in fact. Criminal charges against the discharged president were dropped with an executive order by the new president who was from the former president’s political party.

What at first appeared to be concessions to popular disillusion were in hindsight misdirection as the radical right secured state control. The economic reforms undertaken by Democrat Jimmy Carter marked the start of the neo-liberal program that the IMF now intends to inflict on Egypt. The domestic police began the early stages of what is now full militarization. The ending of the military draft resulted in the ‘all-volunteer’ (economic refugee) military that only further facilitates wars for international capital. The successful revolution in the U.S. was carried out by the radical right, and not by the leftist revolutionaries in the streets.

The effects in the U.S., and more broadly in the West, have been dire: a new Jim Crow system has turned the civil rights gains of the 1960s on their heads. State and corporate modes and methods of domination and control are now in full evidence. Neo-liberal reforms have created armies of unemployed and a broader low-wage, dead-end economy. A consolidation of wealth unimagined (by those not busy planning it) has taken place. An army for global capital destroys whole nations in mere months. The best articulated fears of the radical left in 1968 are now on display as the accomplishments of a recognized set of actors and goals.

The question of the tactics used by the left in the 1960s – 1970s requires historical context. The Vietnam War was in several ways a turning point in American history. Toward its end, there was little confusion amongst either supporters in government or opponents in the streets that the war was a grotesque slaughter. Officers were being shot by their troops and drug-addled rampages that left entire villages murdered were the norm.

According to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, it was reasonably known inside the U.S. government by the mid-1960s that the war was a lost cause—it couldn’t be won militarily. The war finally ended in 1975 with 3.4 million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. troops dead. The overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese and U.S. troops killed died after it was known that the war was ‘lost.’

Despite subsequent mythology, the widespread anti-war protests in the U.S. (and worldwide) against the Vietnam War had limited effect on bringing it to an end. The most heated battles between anti-war protesters and police / National Guard occurred years before the war finally ended. Around the peak of anti-war protests the war was expanded to Laos and Cambodia. The gradual withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam is used to explain the military loss. But again, Robert McNamara had concluded that the war was un-winnable, with or without U.S. troops in Vietnam, a decade before it ended.

Following the civil rights model of non-violent resistance that was showing signs of success by the mid 1960s, a significant proportion of the anti-war movement was committed to using non-violent means to end the war. Amongst the non-violent resisters, the thought of using violence to end violence was by degrees a non sequitur. Amongst the radical left, there was a sense that it wasn’t enough to just end the war; the political economy that supported it had to be replaced.

Left out of many histories of non-violent resistance in the U.S. is that the actual history is more complicated. Both JFK and Lyndon Johnson used Federal resources to give the civil rights movement room to maneuver. While facilitating the non-violent resistance of the civil rights movement, the Federal government did everything in its power to crush less favored non-violent movements. Toward the mid 1960s civil rights leader Martin King was publicly lauded in Washington for his tactic of non-violent resistance until he challenged the legitimacy of the Vietnam War and focused more specifically on issues of economic justice.

The question of whether the civil rights movement would have seen as much success as it did had it been aggressively repressed by the Federal government has no answer. The facts today are that while parts of the U.S. are now more racially integrated than they were in the 1950s, the ‘New Jim Crow’ has degrees of exploitation and repression that replace ownership with captive labor as the new mode of slavery. Black and brown youth and men face intimidation, harassment and murder at the hands of the police reminiscent of the pre-civil rights South. And the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage fiasco saw well-paid bankers make off with the entirety of black wealth in this country.

The war in Iraq saw 655,000 Iraqis killed (link) by 2006, six violent years ago. (This is the most accurate count because the methodology used is the most accurate available. Lower counts aren’t ‘conservative’ because they are lower; they are less conservative because they are designed to undercount). The war in Iraq was clearly fought to secure oil for private interests. Whatever effect the anti-war movement had on eventually ending the war in Vietnam, it left intact the full military apparatus the U.S. needed to launch and prevail in subsequent imperial wars.

I don’t wish to overstate the historical analogy between past and present; decidedly different cultures with different histories and the U.S. But today the forces that produced that historical trajectory are still in place, freshly so in some of the countries that recently experienced ‘revolutions.’ With forty years of historical experience behind us in the U.S., hope for good outcomes despite intellectual disagreement face the facts that political hegemony and unfettered capitalism have produced largely what was expected decades ago by both left and right. That the established powers are even more entrenched now than then is both a barrier and, most probably in coming years because of internal contradictions, will provide an opening.

By placing international finance at the heart of global capitalism, the tendency toward crisis has been further facilitated. The inter-connectedness of this system means that what are initially relatively isolated problems easily cascade toward global calamity. With the massive transfer of social wealth from states (citizens) to banks in 2008 so fresh in people’s experience, another (inevitable) crisis will face greater political resistance. And without the unfettered delivery of unlimited wealth that the 2008 – ongoing bailouts saw, the political power of the banks will diminish in inverse proportion to their need.

In the 1970s the (implausible) argument could be more easily made that economic and political hegemony would benefit ‘us;’ ‘our’ plutocrats. But the (re) colonization of the U.S. by international capital has redrawn the battle lines. “Our’ plutocrats now openly have interests more closely aligned with international capital than with the co-citizens of nation-states. The bifurcated legal system the rich use to manage the rest of us lays this bare, as does the increasing over-reach of corporations who use their power to openly control and to rob us (link).

The apparent plan by states to protect the property and privilege of the rich is through oppression and repression, surveillance, infiltration and police violence. This was the subtext of the military remaining in control in Egypt after the Revolution. The historical trajectory of the U.S. since the 1970s should give pause to optimists who see any easy solutions as viable. Most probably the surest sign of success for political movements from the left will be the degree of police violence used against them.

A recurrent paradox of history is that the higher the cost of resistance, the more necessary it is. No plans have been announced by the American or core European states to ‘save’ capitalism the way FDR did with the New Deal in the 1930s. Keynesian economists have the near term economic mechanics right—the declining prospects of ‘consumers’ means fewer customers, and declining prospects, for international capital. In turn this means greater dependence on coercive labor, coercive consumption, increasing transfer of existing social wealth upwards and increasing financial leverage to maintain the wealth divide. But these in turn mean greater fragility of the system that promotes this divide.

Ultimately, people will find a way, or not. Historically, this has come from finding a commonality of interests in resistance. The fact is that most of us are on one side of an economic and political divide created by people who see maintaining it as beneficial to their interests. Arguing that it isn’t from this side of state power isn’t an argument that we are likely to win. Passive resistance, withholding and disrupting the economic power of coercion, would put the fragility of late-stage capitalism on display. This can happen from active intent or from the internal contradictions of capitalism. Once that opening is created, the left will either move to fill it or the right will. To that extent, the choice is ours.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.