CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
The American preference for ideological, or ideologically based, explanations of world events frames them as both self-generated and inexplicable— self-generated because causal relations recover history and thereby clutter ideology and inexplicable in that ideology didn’t exist until it did, again recovering history. Through an ideological frame the American Revolution was driven by the desire for ‘freedom’ and the Russian and Cuban Revolutions were driven by Marxist ideology, the desire for socialist or communist political economy. When history is recovered the Russian and Cuban Revolutions were rejections of intolerable— factually unlivable, circumstances whereas the American Revolution was a plutocratic rebellion intended to formally install unlivable circumstances— slavery and genocide against indigenous populations, into local rule against distant colonial (British) economic extraction.
While three centuries of racist chatter leave some ambiguity around when kidnapped Africans (local societies, Africa is a continent, not a people) forced into slavery were considered human beings by White settlers, the political question was answered in 1787 with three-fifths a ‘political’ person assigned to slaves to accrue to the political representation of slaveholders. The indigenous population was excluded from Constitutional political representation entirely. This brief and greatly simplified history is presented for three reasons: 1) American ‘freedom’ as political privilege is the opposite of its generalized form as freedom from it; 2) its political meaning is tied through history to Western imperialism—U.S. history is of overthrowing democratic regimes to support U.S. economic interests and 3), ‘globalization’ presented in the present as historically unique is tied through this history to Western imperialism.
America. The American individualist conception of freedom finds both the largest number of incarcerated persons and the largest percentage of the population incarcerated in the world. Here a teenager is shackled as he is held in solitary confinement for an indeterminate period of time in an adult prison. In contrast to Western economic theory, individuals realizing themselves individually, as in by themselves, don’t do very well. Solitary confinement is 1) widely used throughout the U.S. penal system, 2) considered torture by most of the ‘developed’ world and 3) known to cause psychosis and other severe mental health problems. Original image source: nbcnews.com
Western history ties politics, the freedom to dominate other people, to economics through the reasons for domination. Slavery was / is the politics of economic extraction— it is ‘personal’ imperialism, the taking of personal economic production through its social realization in socially engineered circumstance. Genocide against indigenous populations applied the European concept of property as it developed through the ‘political’ European enclosure movement to ‘American’ lands. ‘Ownership’ was / is an imperial claim, a ‘right.’ As with other rights, it only has meaning through the capacity to enforce it. Slaves were political ‘persons’ whose existence conveyed a right of political representation to slaveholders, not to themselves. As with the lands (link above) upon which indigenous peoples depended for their existence, the claim of ownership applied to it was imperial taking.
Globalization is put forward in the present as an economic process, as the progress of economic freedom through increasingly liberal ‘free-trade’ agreements. A question not often asked is why multi-national corporations— economic entities that exist beyond national boundaries; are the intended beneficiaries of ‘national’ negotiations. Why would U.S. politicians care about the intellectual property ‘rights’ of Apple Computer that (avoids) pays taxes in Ireland? Why can BP (or whatever its name is this week), a nominally British corporation, destroy the Gulf of Mexico, and with it the livelihoods of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, and have the destruction covered up by U.S. politicians? And more pointedly, what possible effect could ‘political’ elections have on the political actions of these multinational corporations whose interests are served by the U.S. political establishment?
Russia. Vladimir Lenin led the Russian people against a corrupt, repressive aristocracy that misled them into economic and political ruin. Western powers, in particular the U.S., intervened early to bring ‘moderates,’ meaning technocrats sympathetic to Western interests, to power. Following the socialist (October) revolution Western bankers demanded repayment of war debts incurred by the ousted aristocracy and the U.S. supported counter-revolutionary forces inside Russia. Criticisms of post-revolutionary Russia ignore both the conditions that preceded the revolution and constant Western efforts to undermine its outcomes. Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution’ explains current events in the ‘developed’ West far more robustly than does Western economics. Original image source: en.wikipedia.org
The legal form of corporation may abstract the economic interests that it represents but it doesn’t reduce them. Criticisms of corporate ‘power’ grant primacy to this legal form when actual persons both run corporations and benefit from the social power they wield. The ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) legal mechanisms that are part of current and past ‘free-trade’ agreements grant the existence of social struggle (‘disputes’) and that economic resolution is a political problem. The tribunals proposed to adjudicate these disputes are composed primarily of corporate lawyers and formalize by degree the interests that ‘sovereign’ courts already represent. The history of the U.S. is breaking treaties, contracts and international law with impunity, particularly when economic interests are at stake. The oft-provided explanation that sovereign power won’t be impinged upon is rendered implausible by the control that moneyed interests exert over it
This distance between formal economic explanations of social outcomes and more plausible ‘compound’ explanations that integrate economics, politics and history provides broad cover for economic actors who use politics as cover for economic machinations. The goods that slaves produced traded in international markets and most of what today is ‘real estate’ had economic value to the indigenous populations who lived on / from it before it was ‘owned’ by others. Western economic explanations are the relation of this imperial taking to ever ‘purer’ apologies for it. The economists’ deference to nature, as in a ‘natural’ rate of unemployment, refers back to the same ‘nature’ embedded in the ‘White man’s burden,’ in theories supporting ‘White supremacy’ and today in ‘market’ explanations of internal and external imperial relations.
Cuba. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the people of Cuba overthrew the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista long allied with U.S. capitalists and U.S. foreign policy ’representatives’ promoting capitalist interests through coups and political assassinations against democratically elected leaders across Central and South America. Che was murdered by the CIA in Bolivia while Fidel Castro successfully withstood a half-century of counter-revolutionary efforts by the U.S. Today Cuba has a high literacy rate and universal education and health care. In contrast to American ‘for-profit’ healthcare, Cuba regularly sends healthcare contingents abroad to serve international healthcare needs. Original source image: toplowridersites.com
Liberal economists have ‘fought the good fight’ for nominally populist economic programs for the last decade with little but growing frustration to show for it. In sequence, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama enacted economic policies— deregulation of banks, tax cuts for the very wealthy, the largest bank bailouts in human history and ‘trade’ deals that formalize corporate control over civil governance. There exist economic theories to support each and every one of these policies. Many prominent economists base which economic policies they support or oppose on which political Party is in office at the time they are proposed. The policies enacted are retroactively deemed ‘politically feasible’ in tacit admission that economic outcomes are politically determined. ‘Markets’ are used to explain these outcomes with the politics removed.
From the time of the American Revolution to today, with a brief compromise between 1948 and about 1973, the U.S. has been run by and for a self-serving plutocracy. Slavery and genocide weren’t ‘accidents’ nor were they the product of primitive thinking. U.S. wars in Central America, Southeast Asia and Iraq were / are as primitive, in the sense of being for-profit and brutal, as any in human history. And it is hardly an accident that elite impunity and immunity from prosecution for crimes, including War Crimes, is matched by brutal repression of the economic underclasses. Banks and corporations are the social forms of economic imperialism, necessary to the imperial project that places the rest of us as imperial subjects. Back to the start: the American Revolution was fought for the freedom to repress while the revolutions of liberation it has opposed were / are by-and-large fought against it.
Nicaragua. ‘Freedom rope’ helps a Nicaraguan citizen understand that America values freedom. Despite the murders of tens of thousands of Nicaraguan citizens by U.S. and U.S. proxy forces, Nicaragua today is one of the few ‘beneficiaries’ of American military ‘interventions’ that avoided being turned into a narco-state run by gangsters, largely because the socialist government the U.S. sought to ouster was brought back to power after the Americans departed. While the Cold War was used as cover, U.S. interventions have served to prevent minimum wage laws from being enacted and to gain / keep access to cheap economic resources— ‘markets’ had nothing to do with it. While some political theory on the left has it that the engineered chaos that is the typical result of U.S. foreign policy is intended to prevent competing hegemons from arising, opportunistic gangsterism also fits the facts. Original image source: cinemawithoutborders.com.
The obligatory liberal chides against Russian and Cuban totalitarianism, in their contemporary incarnations against ‘strongman’ Vladimir Putin and the aging Fidel Castro, never admit to two centuries of American crimes or to never ending U.S. attempts to undermine democratic revolutions around the globe. This isn’t to gloss over crimes— the U.S. is the only nation in history to drop atom bombs on largely civilian populations, U.S. General Curtis LeMay joked that had the U.S. lost WWII he would have hung for the bombing of Tokyo, three million killed in the Korean War, three million killed in Vietnam, one million killed in Iraq and substantial portions of Central America turned into right-wing gangster states. Cuba is poor today because the U.S. has enforced an economic blockade of it for half a century. And the only guarantee from ‘liberalized’ relations between the U.S. and Cuba is that Cuba will get the worst of it.
Vietnam: freedom the American way. The Cold War ‘domino theory’ explanation of America’s devastation of Southeast Asia provides a rational patina to wholesale technocratic insanity. According to now public records the war in Vietnam was known to be a lost cause a decade or more, and three-million Vietnamese lives, before it finally ended. The genesis of the war was the friendly takeover of the French colonial ‘possession’ to better ‘manage’ it against the Chinese ‘hegemon’ that the Vietnamese had spent the prior millennium fighting off. Were it not for the rest of American history, the war in Southeast Asia would be one of the greatest crimes in human history. As with other devastated former colonies, the Vietnamese now sew underwear for Walmart for pennies an hour. This makes the ‘free’ in ‘free-trade’ a reference to the pay that neo-colonial subjects receive for working for multinational corporations. Original image source: gigapica.geenstihl.nl
It is often convenient to let history lay where it is found. But what doing so leaves to the present is anti-history, ideological explanation of historical outcomes. Endless American prattle about ‘freedom’ is tragic for both the internal and external delusions it grants. In recent history the ‘liberation’ of Iraq was a cynical grab for oil and strategic situation sold to the gullible American kids who fought it as an ideological struggle. From the perspective of the American press the slaughter was initially presented in ideological terms as well, as liberation from a tyrant. The hostile takeover of Abu Ghraib prison should have demonstrated American intentions if aerial bombardment and the ground assault had left any ambiguity. New reports, backing old reports, have over one-million Iraqi civilians murdered to add a few dollars to Exxon-Mobil’s stock price.
The human and strategic catastrophe in Iraq can only be seen as unforetold, as an outlier, through the denial of history. Most Americans, dazzled by the calculated public relations ploy of ‘mission accomplished,’ never knew that the original version of the ‘Iraqi’ Constitution was written by the White House and that the economic program forced on occupied Iraq was a neoliberal wish-list complete with unhindered Western extraction of Iraqi oil and ‘free-markets’ in the sense that Western corporations were free to exert monopoly control over the goods and services available in Iraq. The much lauded success of the ‘surge’ was a market outcome— local Iraqi leaders were paid to stop attacking U.S. troops. As with NAFTA and the proposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) ‘trade’ deals, there was / is nothing natural about the ‘free’ economic circumstances imposed on occupied Iraq.
Whether current chatter about the U.S. as an empire in decline turns out to be accurate or not, the combination of U.S. military prowess, an aggressive neo-imperial economic program and cloistered, delusional leadership keep the U.S. at the top of a list of dangers to both external and internal peace. The potent myth of ‘freedom’ finds people who history should have taught better clinging to ‘internal’ resolution of political economy largely structured as it always has been— as ‘freedom’ for an unaccountable elite to use and abuse ‘the world,’ including the most vulnerable among us, as they see fit. This isn’t to discount internal disagreements, struggles and contradictions, but rather an effort to craft a path forward that isn’t led by the forces of military, economic and environmental catastrophe.
America. The hostile takeover of the Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. forces at the behest of the political leadership brought new management to an existing torture regime. While War Crimes charges against this political leadership are fully supported here, the idea that ‘America doesn’t torture’ requires an implausible parsing of terminology. Burning Vietnamese villagers to death and slicing Nicaraguan peasants from loin to head in front of their neighbors and families may be murder, but the terror inflicted while doing so is also torture. The constant threat of death across the Middle East from U.S. drones is likewise torture. And the treatment of U.S. citizens in U.S. prisons is torture under international standards. Original image source: telegraph.co.uk
A short while before he died Alex Cockburn cogently argued that the likelihood of wholesale revolution was unlikely and that some form of constructive incrementalism was the best way forward. And in fact, none other than Karl Marx supported reforms that helped the poor and working classes live fuller lives. But Marx, through his historical determinism, saw reform as an intermediate step toward revolutionary change. Lenin faced internally and externally imposed ‘reformers’ as a foil to successful change, socialist revolution. Fidel Castro faced a gangster cooperative of homegrown and U.S. business and foreign policy interests determined to maintain the existing order. The unity here, the historical constant, is that the U.S. reflexively resisted, undermined, and then attempted to overthrow revolutionary forces determined to rid themselves of predatory gangsters.
With occasional clarity the American left has seen the political tendencies embedded in American institutions and being sold as freedom from oppression as its truer character: the freedom to repress. The American ‘view’ is of internal characterization of ‘external’ actions, e.g. war against Iraq or Vietnam, without recognizing the opportunistic nature of the posed distinction. That the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local police departments consider ‘free’ political expression through protests and political organizing a threat to national security illustrates the idea of freedom at work. Current and past ‘free-trade’ agreements enshrine the right of corporations owned / run by social elites to control civil governance. No American institutions are calling Wall Street and multi-national corporations ‘terrorists’ or ‘the enemy’ because they are working to gain political control. So again, the American idea of freedom is the right to oppress, not freedom from political and economic oppression.
Incrementalism and reform only become a problem when they devolve into ever shifting ground as the Democrat Party is skilled at doing. A recent, much derided, editorial in the New York Times asks “Have Democrats Pulled Too Far Left?” without articulating that it is a right-wing take on many of the same talking points used by liberals to sell Barack Obama’s second run for the Presidency. In his ‘debate’ with Glen Ford on DemocracyNow! Michael Eric Dyson made many of the same arguments from a ‘liberal’ perspective in favor of re-electing Mr. Obama. What both Mr. Dyson and Peter Wehner, author of the editorial, use as their frame of political reference is a contemporary ‘left’ that promotes the political economy of the far right. Mr. Obama’s support for truly odious ‘trade’ deals is finally getting this point through to perpetually resistant liberals. This ever rightward shift is what incrementalism and reform have produced for the American left.
Something to consider is that in the midst of the heavily promoted sense of economic and political ‘recovery’ in the developed West tens of millions of people are living in destitution, violence and misery. From the palaces of the Tsars and the urban towers of ‘Batista’s’ Havana the destitution of the majority was well-hidden as well. Readers can view U.S. history as a series of accidents that somehow always benefit American elites while punishing an external, and variably internal majority, or as intended outcomes. Principled political reforms proceed from so far left that I leave to readers to judge their value. Unprincipled reforms are the purview of the Democrat Party. The people still in that camp get what they deserve. Radical change, if it ever comes, will be a product of the powers that be, of the circumstances they create and perpetuate. Ideology has nothing to do with it. At present, they seem to be up to the task. Viva la revolucion!
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. The graphics provided are my version of original images credited as per their identification on google images. The approach is premised in a social theory of art.