European Universalism

By Stephen Gowans

“The intellectual justifications that Sepulveda gave in the 16th century to justify the conquests of the Indian lands are,” says Immanuel Wallerstein, “almost word for word, the same ones used for colonization, and the ones that are given today for what is called intervention.” He continues: “At that time, it concerned evangelization and the expansion of Christendom. Today, these values are ‘freedom and democracy.’ But they are in fact the same thing.” (1)

George Bush, in his own way, underscores Wallerstein’s point. Freedom and democracy, he writes in his 2002 National Security Strategy, “are right and true for every person, in every society – and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people.” (2)

Stephen Zunes strays only millimeters from Bush’s universalism. “The best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states,” he writes, “comes from civil society, not the U.S. government.” (3)

The problem is that in what Zunes and the U.S. government call the world’s last remaining autocratic countries, the U.S. government and civil society are the same. In these places, explains the U.S. Department of State in a 2007 report, the U.S. financially supports “the efforts of civil society to create and defend democratic space”. It funds “international and local NGO programs that [promote] a wide variety of causes, including social welfare, democratic processes, human rights, peace-building, women’s and youth empowerment, and public advocacy.” And it supports “the efforts of the political opposition, the media, and civil society.” (4) That makes Zunes’ “best hope for advancing freedom and democracy” and Patrick Bond’s and Grace Kwinjeh’s “wellspring of hope” (5) functionally equivalent to the U.S. government and the corporate board members, corporate lawyers and investment bankers who dominate it.

Kwinjeh, a founding member of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and a regular guest on the U.S. government sponsored propaganda Voice of America radio show, Studio 7, is a beneficiary of the U.S. government’s support for the political opposition, the media and civil society in Zimbabwe.

Not without chutzpah, Kwinjeh presents herself as an “independent” journalist. Her co-author Bond, likewise celebrates civil society groups that are on the U.S. payroll as an “independent” left.

In their lexicon, “independent” means: not aligned with the “autocratic state” the U.S. is trying to bring its universalist values of freedom and democracy to — on behalf of corporations, investors and banks.

Janet Cherry is another universalist. She too believes that the countries the U.S. government calls the world’s last autocracies are indeed the world’s last autocracies and that civil society is the best hope for advancing the values of freedom and democracy in these places. She appears in the film “A Force More Powerful,” a celebration of civil society’s power to change the world. The film’s editor and content advisor was universalist Peter Ackerman, an investment banker who made a fortune on Wall Street and has authored a companion book by the same name. Ackerman heads up Freedom House, an organization which describes itself as “a voice for freedom and democracy around the world,” and whose directors have included cabinet members from previous U.S. administrations – they too mainly corporate board members, corporate lawyers and investment bankers like Ackerman. Ackerman also founded the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, which has been involved in training activists to bring down governments that refuse to do the bidding of the U.S. (the last autocracies of the world), including the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Latter day Sepulveda Stephen Zunes, who wants to use civil society to advance the universalist values of freedom and democracy, is the ICNC’s chair of the board of academic advisors. (6) Ackerman is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. ruling class organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR brings together executives, government and military officials and scholars to provide policy advice to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. government advances its foreign policy goals under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy. “The name for our profits,” remarked singer-songwriter Phil Ochs in the 60s, “is democracy.” Were he alive today, he might say, “The name for our profits is civil society.”

Cherry wrote me to defend Zunes and Patrick Bond. She capped off her remarks with this: “As for Otpor – well, if only the opposition movements in Zimbabwe, both political parties and civil society, could organize as efficiently! Sometimes it is necessary to step back from self-righteous leftist rhetoric, take some action to break the impasse, and get rid of the dictator. Then ordinary people can, though ordinary democratic processes, find their own way forward.” (7)

Otpor was a youth group funded by the U.S. government and trained by Robert Helvey, an associate of Stephen Zunes, to work with NATO bombing and economic sanctions to bring down the Milosevic government in Yugoslavia. After getting rid of the elected “dictator,” Otpor failed to help the ordinary people of the former Yugoslavia find their way forward. Unemployment soared; publicly and socially-owned assets were privatized. Nato had signaled its intention to privatize the Yugoslav economy in the appendices of the 1999 Rambouillet Accord, which the Milosevic government rejected. The next day, Nato began a 78-day campaign of bombing.

Ackerman and others celebrated the ouster of Milosevic in the film “Bringing Down a Dictator,” attributing the fall of the Yugoslav president to a grassroots movement that practiced nonviolent direct action to bring “freedom and democracy” to one of Europe’s last “autocratic states.” The role of the U.S. government in engineering the possibility of an uprising by creating misery through economic sanctions and military intervention, its efforts to shape public opinion inside Yugoslavia by funding anti-Milosevic media, and its bankrolling of the opposition and Otpor, were skipped over.

“A Force More Powerful” and “Bringing Down a Dictator,” are useful for conservative forces at home. They create the illusion that the civil society-based nonviolent direct action that appears to work abroad can work anywhere to bring about social change. Scholars associated with Z-Net are advocates of this view.

But while seemingly effective outside the West, there are significant differences that make the model’s effectiveness in the West approximately zero.

1. Absence of funding. Civil society has been able to play a role in bringing down governments outside the West because it has been richly funded by wealthy individuals, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments. The same sources of funding are not available to groups and individuals in the West prepared to challenge the funders’ dominant positions. Reebok, an employer of sweatshop labor, will finance a human rights award and give it to Janet Cherry to burnish its image, but Reebok isn’t going to give money to groups or individuals working to overthrow the systemic imperatives that produce sweatshops. Ackerman won’t help nonviolent activists expropriate his wealth.

2. Public opinion. Outside the West, civil society has operated in a public opinion milieu shaped by wealthy individuals, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments through their funding of “independent” media inside target countries and propaganda broadcasts originating from outside. Independent media that seek to shape public opinion against wealthy individuals and corporations at home will never have access to the same funding and will never achieve the same volume and critical mass. It’s easier to rise up against a “dictator” when the information environment is shaped to portray the country’s leadership as autocratic and when “independent” media call for an uprising. Any media in the West that called for an uprising at home would remain perpetually under-funded and unable to achieve sufficient volume to persuade more than a handful of people.

3. Absence of external pressure. It is the explicit strategy of Washington to apply pressure to populations of target countries through economic warfare and military aggression. The intention is to create growing misery, if not to provoke a crisis, to prepare the ground for an uprising from within. While Western countries aren’t immune to growing misery or crisis, they are immune to growing misery and crisis engineered from outside.

In the absence of funding, a sympathetic media to shape public opinion, and growing pressure on the population created by economic warfare and military aggression – all necessary conditions whose creation depends on access to resources commanded by wealthy individuals, corporations, and imperialist governments – decentralized, civil society-guided nonviolent direct action becomes a means for diverting energy for change into safe and inconsequential avenues.

As a mechanism for political change, civil society works when backed by military force, economic warfare, a sympathetic media and oodles of cash, but when these conditions exist, its purpose is to advance the interests of those who have established the conditions for its effectiveness. At these times, civil society marches under the flag of European universalism, its foot soldiers draw their pay from foreign governments, and its generals sit on the boards of foreign foundations. At all other times, it is a force less powerful.

1. Olivier Doubre, “European Universalism Is Used to Justify Imperialism: An Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein,” MRZINE, March 26, 2008,
2. George W. Bush, National Security Strategy, September 20, 2002.
3. Stephen Zunes, “Nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles,” Z-Net, February 17, 2008.
4. U.S. Department of State’s account of its promotion of freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe, April 5, 2007.
5. Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh, “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” Z-Net, March 11, 2008, .
6. See .
7. Comment March 27, 2008 in response to Stephen Gowans, “Mugabe vote rigging allegations,” March 27, 2008.

One thought on “European Universalism

  1. Once again, Gowans lies about me.
    I have never ever claimed that the regimes challenging U.S. hegemony that the Bush hypocritically singles out for criticism are the “world’s last remaining autocratic states.”
    Gowans knows full well that I have written scores of articles criticizing autocratic regimes supported by the United States. See
    He also knows full well that Janet Cherry, a well-respected veteran of the South African freedom struggle, does not buy into the Bush administration’s double-standards. Indeed, the vast majority of her solidarity work — like mine — has been in support of freedom movements which are struggling against U.S.-backed regimes.
    Gowans is also incorrect in claiming that ICNC has worked to bring down the democratically-elected government in Venezuela.
    Gowans is incorrect yet again to claim that Robert Helvey is an associate of mine. We have met each other twice, but have no formal or informal associations. I do know, however, that Helvey had nothing to do with the NATO sanctions of bombing of Yugoslavia, and the leadership of Otpor stenuously opposed both.

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