In the mid-1980s Noam Chomsky gave a series of lectures in Managua, Nicaragua. At the time, Managua was the epicenter of the Iran Contra scandal, which itself was the pinhead of widespread American intervention in Central America. As he was dispassionately outlining serial abuses across the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, and elsewhere, he made reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed “Four Freedoms,” now enshrined on a slim jut of Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Roosevelt named the four freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union speech. They are the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democratic governance; the freedom of worship is a bulwark against religious intolerance, and especially the totalitarian tendencies of monotheism; freedom from want is instantly recognizable as an economic freedom, in which the state’s role may be to generate work or welfare for the disadvantaged; and freedom from fear conjures the terrors of empire that imperial conquerors have visited on native populations from the dawn of time. By articulating four simple rights, FDR illuminated the central human issues of liberty, faith, poverty, and power. Safeguard the first, protect against the remaining three, and you might have a peaceful world.
To this list of archetypal human concerns, Chomsky darkly added a fifth: the freedom to rob and exploit. Peering out over his Managua audience, he recognized that Central Americans, perhaps more than anyone in the ‘80s, understood the fifth freedom. Cynical U.S. imperialism had led the Reagan administration to fund a “contra” army to overthrow the socialist Sandinistas who promised popular participation for all Nicaraguans. One could have easily predicted—based solely on the Vietnam experience—that the administration would be seized by fears of the dread “domino effect,” in which populism in one country would produce its likeness in the next, and so on down the entire peninsula of the Americas. One can imagine Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig hyperventilating in his office, envisioning a thousand Castros staking socialist flags into the fertile turf of Latin America, as constituencies such as the United Fruit Company fled in immigrant boats bound for Miami.
Before then, and ever since, the United States has consistently demonstrated that the fifth freedom is the one that matters. But the freedoms are interrelated, as fear and want are generally increased in order to secure the fifth. Americans are made to believe that their liberties must be curtailed in order to keep them safe. Occupied and bombed populations abroad are made to understand their liberties must be curtailed in order to keep the occupiers safe. The surveillance net that blankets the country and much of the world flouts the fourth amendment and undermines the first. Surveillance produces self-censorship, as the PEN organization found. As for want, there have rarely been more Americans in poverty, deep poverty, or dependent on food stamps, although that last is thankfully beginning to decline. Real wages have flat-lined in the decades since neoliberal economics took hold, and lag far behind inflation. A mere 95% of gains since the recession have gone to the top one percent of Americans—the de facto statistic if you want to neatly summarize the domestic scene during the Obama years. Freedom from fear has perhaps suffered the worst fate in recent years, as ferocious American interventionism has become near continuous policy, particularly throughout the Middle East, as tensions mount around the dwindling supply of global energy resources, and the U.S. economy is caught and passed by China’s. In addition to dozens of military missions in the neoliberal era, there are some 800 military bases around the world—often staging platforms for new interventions and surveillance models that hope to rationalize them.
Regarding religious freedom, more Americans feel freed from the sometimes-pernicious grip of Christianity, in part thanks to a more vocal atheist community. A climbing percentage of citizens claim to be unaffiliated to any religion. Will this mark the advent of a century of American Gnosticism, as literature critic Harold Bloom has suggested, or something equally benign? Of course, religious tolerance is a dicey proposition for Muslims, who have been shamelessly profiled, entrapped, and denied due process. There are some good signs of resistance at least to social abuse of Muslims, at least abroad. In the aftermath of the recent Sydney siege, tens of thousands of Australians countered a vitriolic #SydneySeige Twitter hashtag by supporting another one: #IllRideWithYou. The hashtag offered ride-along companionship to Muslims on public transportation if they feared abuse.
Freedom to Exploit
By contrast, the fifth freedom is galloping along with few impediments. But how is it asserted in practice? Consider a few edifying examples. First, recall the notorious Order 81 from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that modified Iraqi patent law, with the effect of extending American agricultural patents to Iraq, meaning farmers can’t save genetically modified seeds from year to year. Instead, they have to license them from companies like Monsanto. Essentially, Monsanto’s “terminator” seeds are single-harvest seeds. After one harvest, they don’t germinate again, so farmers can’t save them, forcing them to license new seeds from Monsanto.
A slightly more ingenious strategy has been hatched in Afghanistan. USAID and Nutrition and Education International (NEI), an NGO backed by agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Cargill, have launched a plan to ensnare Afghanis in their patent monopoly scheme. As part of the global war on drugs, they’ll use RoundUp™glyphosate, the silver bullet herbicide, to eradicate poppy fields, and then dump massive RoundUp Ready™ soybean seeds on the fields. The seeds are resistant to the herbicide, while weeds and other flora are not. The seed design, of course, is the intellectual property of Monsanto. Those seeds, too, will go sterile after a single season and require new payments from the serfs to their the agribusiness overlords.
Most recently, the new U.S.-backed Ukrainian government has been slashing tariffs as part of its E.U. deal, enabling American ag firms to enter Ukraine, produce cheap subsidized commodities, then peddle them to the E.U. well above cost.
The Western-led economic attack on Russia, provocative NATO action, and the U.S. coalition of Sunni fundamentalists’ war against Syria provide other instances of the fifth freedom at work. These are pipeline conflicts. Syria and Russia are America’s competitors for lucrative European oil and gas markets. Russia had hoped to channel energy through Ukraine to the EU. Nixed by a proxy putsch. Then Moscow hoped to construct a “South Stream” route into the EU across the Black Sea. Nixed again by American arm-twisting of its obsequious European subalterns. Now Russia has turned to Turkey to salvage some European revenue.
Bashar al-Assad scripted his own demise in 2011 when he bailed on a Qatari pipeline proposal to channel liquid gas to the EU. Then he spun on a dime and penned the “Islamic gas pipeline” plan with Iran and Iraq. Not long afterward the Syrian hinterlands were aflame with revolution, happily supported by Assad’s American nemesis.
But that’s what happens when you defy empire. Just ask Manuel Zelaya or Muammar Gaddafi, one discarded, the other entombed. As the people’s judge asks the convicted in The Dark Knight Rises, “Death or exile?” Quite often it’s death by exile.
The Rifle and the Fruit
This sick coalition of militarism and corporatism was popularized in the same Central America where Chomsky gave his Managua lectures. Just have a look at the logo of the notorious United Fruit Company (UFC). A rifle and a banana against a backdrop of gold. A perfect symbol of the banana republic, which Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and Syria are all destined to become. Either hydrocarbon theocracies like Saudi Arabia or lawless sectarian abattoirs like Libya.
When the UFC’s Guatemalan concessions were threatened by the ascension of populist Jacobo Arbenz in the 1950s, they turned to the U.S. government with an array of public relations efforts to enlist the CIA in restoring its profit-rich arrangement with Guatemala. The CIA sponsored a coup in 1954 that did just that.
Some years later, the UFC got itself a media makeover at the hands of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, fabled public relations guru Edward Bernays. He created a cartoon character called, “Chiquita,” which helped restore the company’s image and soften the contempt in which its name had come to be held (Much like brand Obama did for the U.S. plutonomy). Chiquita Brands International later conceded its financial support—in the millions—to right-wing death squads in Colombia, generally used for the suppression of labor rights.
The formula seems to work like this: when you mix capitalism and democracy, capital immediately buys the democracy, subverts it, and globally deploys both the military and the treasury as a vanguard tasked with prying open new markets for capital in a ruthless game of absolute advantage and labor arbitrage. Since it owns the government, capital wins its domestic war with labor, which it slowly marginalizes—boa constrictor style—through the long arm of the law. Conditions deteriorate for the many, but dramatically improve for the few (as noted with our Obama statistic). A vast abyss opens between the vassals and the corporate mandarins. The former is legion and disposable, the latter Lilliputian but indispensible. The crucial point is that the fifth freedom be preserved. Thankfully, its godless practitioners—increasingly opposed by the armies of Allah—are safe and prosperous in their D.C. annexes and corporate lairs, putting the finishing touches on their Asian pivot and a new decade of resource wars.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.