Professor of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg David Moore’s Mamdani’s Enthusiasms, which appeared on the Concerned Africa Scholars’ website on March 16, 2009, continues in the group’s tradition of pushing aside argument based on rigor and analysis, in preference for comfortable slogans, prejudice and cheap rhetorical tricks.
Moore’s aim is to discredit Mahmoud Mamdani, who committed the unpardonable sin of challenging the comfortable slogans and prejudices of Moore and his peers in a December 4, 2008 London Review of Books article, Lessons of Zimbabwe.
Moore’s attack is based, not on challenging Mamdani’s scholarship, but on associating him with me, “a blogger” whose blogs “are printed ardently by the Zimbabwean state’s organ, The Herald”, whose “corporal person remains mysterious” but “is known to many academics and activists concerned with Zimbabwe for his venomous attacks on civil society activists.” I’m also, according to Moore, a representative “of a Kissingerian intelligentsia” (along with Mamdani.) Thanks to Moore’s assurances that I am, indeed, a corporal person, my solipsist anxiety that I’ve only imagined my physical existence has finally receded. I see now that I’m really Henry Kissinger in the flesh.
Moore cares not one iota about attacking me. Not being a member of the club, I count for very little. My reputation, he points out, rests not on scholarship, as Mamdani’s does, but on “the popularity of (my) blogs” and also, Moore claims “the patronage of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information,” whatever that means. If it means I get paid by the Ministry, the payroll department is about 10 years in arrears.
It’s Mamdani, his fellow scholar, that Moore is attacking, and he does so through the rhetorical device of frequently pairing my name with the Ugandan scholar’s. Mamdani and Gowans say this…Mamdani and Gowans believe that…as if Mamdani and I are joined at the hip. Hell, we haven’t even exchanged e-mails, let alone bumped into each other at meetings of the Kissingerian Intelligentsia Society.
I’m not complaining about being paired with Mamdani. Indeed, I’m flattered. But I’m not so self-deluded as to fail to grasp that Moore intends no flattery. Instead, his aim is not to elevate me, but to knock down Mamdani by suggesting that Mamdani’s ideas are no better than those of what, to Moore, is a readily discreditable figure: myself – the mysterious and pedestrian blogger who, Moore claims, relies on “the patronage of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information” and whose blogs “are printed ardently by the Zimbabwean state’s organ, The Herald”.
Stripped of its parade of impression-management references to Gogol, Kentridge and the Kissingerian intelligentsia, Moore’s argument boils down to this: Look, the only person who agrees with Mamdani is some mysterious blogger who may as well be an agent of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Information. That’s not an argument of substance; it’s a smear.
The Concerned Africa Scholars’ view is that anything but ardent denunciation of Zanu-PF is pro-Mugabe propaganda – on Zimbabwe, about as sophisticated as the organization gets. Their concern isn’t with rooting out vectors of Zanu-PF propaganda as attacking anyone who departs from the established propaganda model, informed largely by New York Times articles and US State Department press releases, of reflexive anti-Zanu-PF bashing. It’s not that they don’t like propaganda; it’s just that they don’t like anyone challenging their own brand.
In the end, Moore simply proves the point I made in “Cynicism as a substitute for scholarship” – that criticism of Mamdani by the Concerned Africa Scholars reduces to ad hominem assaults and the substitution of cynicism for scholarship. If Moore and his peers want to challenge Mamdani’s scholarship on Zimbabwe, they ought to do so. I haven’t seen it yet, but when I do, I’ll be pleased. Doing so, however, will mean they must first suppress their enthusiasm for cheap rhetorical tricks and propagation of the established Western propaganda model and turn their attention to a new one: scholarship.
Bill Fletcher Jr. has weighed in on Zimbabwe’s unity government with an article in The Black Commentator titled Zimbabwe: Transition to Where? Anyone expecting to learn anything significant about Zimbabwe from Fletcher will be sadly disappointed. He offers nothing more than pious expressions of benevolence and the reduction of complex events stretching over three decades to the personality of a single man, Robert Mugabe.
Fletcher, executive editor of The Black Commentator, tells us “The cholera epidemic must be brought under control, but so too must (Zimbabwe’s) inflation and massive unemployment.” He’s on pretty safe ground here. No one wants more cholera, more inflation and more unemployment.
Zimbabwe, he continues, “certainly needs economic and healthcare support from foreign governments.”
Will Zimbabwe get it? Will strings be attached? Will the strings tie Zimbabwe up into a neo-colonial straitjacket?
Fletcher says that the US and Britain were “responsible for the mess that unfolded within Zimbabwe” because they “reneged on financial commitments when Zimbabwe was liberated from white minority rule.”
But if Washington and London were prepared to create a mess in Zimbabwe, what makes Fletcher think they’re prepared to undo it?
Sadly, Fletcher fails to ask why the US and Britain reneged on their financial commitments. Is there any chance of Washington and London providing genuine economic and healthcare support now?
The truth of the matter is that the US and EU have made plain the conditions under which they are prepared to provide aid to Zimbabwe. The same conditions apply today, as applied last year, and the year before, and the year before that: Zimbabwe must respect private property (abandon and possibly reverse land reform) and reverse discriminatory measures that favor black owners and investors over foreign (and specifically Western) investment. Does Fletcher think the unity government should accede to these conditions and abandon the previous government’s land reform and affirmative action programs for black investors? He doesn’t tell us.
One gets the impression that Fletcher hasn’t really thought through these questions or even kept abreast of events in Zimbabwe.
He attributes the conflict between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the opposition MDC to the structural adjustment program imposed on Zimbabwe in the 1990s by the IMF as a condition for renegotiating its foreign debt. Fletcher correctly points out that Mugabe acceded to the IMF-imposed conditions, but he misses two significant facts:
-Mugabe’s government had backed away from the structural adjustment program by the time the MDC was formed;
-The MDC has become the standard bearer for policies under the Washington consensus.
Contrary to what Fletcher implies, it is not Zanu-PF that favors IMF policies; it is the MDC.
Indeed, it could be argued that Mugabe’s rejection of the structural adjustment program was one of the principal reasons Britain and the EU helped form the MDC as a vehicle to counter the Zanu-PF government.
Fletcher also misses the mark on the outcome of Zimbabwe’s last elections, noting that “it appears that the MDC won” but that “ZANU will not fully concede.”
No one is in doubt as to who won the last elections (except possibly Fletcher). The combined opposition won a majority of legislative seats. In Senate elections, the opposition won as many seats as Zanu-PF did. Huh? Doesn’t Fletcher say that Zanu-PF resorts to electoral fraud to stay in power? He does. So, how does he explain the outcome of the last elections?
Zimbabwe’s constitution requires a run-off if presidential candidates fail to get over 50 percent of the vote. In the run-off round, Tsvangirai dropped out, claiming his supporters were being intimidated by Zanu-PF and government directed violence. However, his name remained on the ballot, the vote went ahead, and he lost.
Fletcher stays comfortably within the bounds of the preferred narrative when he tells us that “while Tsvangirai was giving his inaugural address, ZANU-PF aligned authorities were in the process of arresting one of Tsvangirai’s aides.” This is true, but what Fletcher doesn’t tell us is who was being arrested and why. Instead, he introduces an implicit accusation: that there are no charges of substance against Tsvangirai’s aide — actually deputy agriculture minister designate Roy Bennett — and that his arrest was politically inspired to undermine the unity government.
First, the idea that Bennett was arrested as part of a sinister plot hatched by Mugabe is sheer question begging. The only evidence Fletcher can advance is the theory that Mugabe is power-hungry and that Bennett’s arrest must, therefore, be related.
Second, there was an outstanding warrant for Bennett’s arrest in connection with charges brought against him in 2006 in connection with an arms cache. He had been granted bail, but fled the country. When Bennett received word he was to be appointed deputy minister of agriculture he returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa, where he had been living since 2006. At that point, he was arrested on the outstanding charge.
Third, arresting a single appointee could hardly bring down the unity government, and, significantly, hasn’t.
Finally, while Bennett may indeed by innocent, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion, as Fletcher has, that opposition members are innocent simply because they’re members of the opposition.
More troubling than Fletcher’s failure to grasp what is happening in Zimbabwe is his failure to come to terms with the question of whether it’s more important for Zimbabwe to cleave to liberal democratic forms or that it democratize its pattern of land ownership and achieve a substantive democracy, in which Zimbabwe’s political life is free from domination by outside powers. It might be said that this is a false dichotomy, but that would be to bury our heads in the sand. Much of what has happened in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s can be understood as a conflict between black nationalism and neo-colonialism. To think that any Third World country could pursue an anti-neo-colonial project with an inherited British parliamentary system without considerable conflict is naïve.
Zimbabwe’s land reform has been deeply offensive to the US, Britain and the EU. Zanu-PF’s program of economic nationalism has been no less offensive. To suppose that these powerful states have not tried to influence the political process in Zimbabwe to undermine these projects, flies in the face of mountains of evidence, including publically available US government documents, which demonstrate otherwise.
Equally shocking is that people who are ready to dismiss their critics as conspiracy theorists, put forward a conspiracy theory view of Zimbabwe that says all that has happened in the country over the last thirty years can be understood as an outcome of the thirst for power of a single man. That will get you published in the New York Times. It shouldn’t get you published in serious left-wing media.
“…against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance.”*
By Stephen Gowans
Mahmood Mamdani’s largely sympathetic analysis of the Mugabe government, “Lessons of Zimbabwe,” published in the December 4, 2008 London Review of Books, has been met with a spate of replies from progressive scholars who are incensed at the Ugandan academic throwing out the rule book to present an argument based on rigor and analysis, rather than on the accustomed elaboration of comfortable slogans and prejudices that has marked much progressive scholarship on Zimbabwe. Their criticism of Mamdani has been characterized by ad hominem assaults, arguments that either lack substance or sense, and the substitution of cynicism for scholarship.
At the heart of what might be called the anti-Mugabe ideology lays the idea that the Zimbabwean leadership clings to power through crude anti-imperialist rhetoric used to divert blame for problems of its own making. This is an elaboration of elite theory — the idea that a small group seeks power for power’s sake, and manipulates the public through lies and rhetoric to stay on top. For example, one group of progressive scholars  complains about “Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimization,” while Horace Campbell argues that,
”The Zimbabwe government is very aware of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments among oppressed peoples and thus has deployed a range of propagandists inside and outside the country in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to international sanctions by the EU and USA.” 
Contrary to the empty rhetoric school of thought, Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric is not unattended by anti-imperialist action, but in some extreme versions of anti-Mugabe thought, (for example, that put forward by Patrick Bond), Mugabe is an errand boy for Western capital.  The Zimbabwean leader’s anti-imperialist reputation is, according to this view, smoke and mirrors, an illusion conjured by a deft magician.
The Mugabe government’s anti-imperialist and anti-neo-colonial credentials rest on the following:
o In the late 1990s, intervening militarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the side of the young government of Laurent Kabila, to counter an invasion by Rwandan and Ugandan forces backed by the US and Britain.
o Rejecting a pro-foreign investment economic restructuring program established by the IMF as a condition for balance of payment support (after initially accepting it.)
o Expropriating farms owned by settlers of European origin as part of a program of land redistribution aimed at benefiting the historically disadvantaged African population.
o Establishing foreign investment controls and other measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s natural resources and enterprises.
Progressive scholars typically avoid mention of these anti-imperialist actions, for to do so would clash violently with the idea that Harare’s anti-imperialism is based on empty rhetoric. A few, however, do acknowledge these actions, but insist they were undertaken to enrich Mugabe and, aping US State Department and New York Times rhetoric, “his cronies.” Zimbabwe is said to have intervened militarily in the DRC to profit from the Congo’s rich mineral resources. Land is said to have been redistributed to reward Mugabe’s lieutenants (in which case, with 400,000 previously landless families resettled, Mugabe’s lieutenants comprise a sizeable part of the rural population). And measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership in Zimbabwe’s economy are said to have no other aim than to enrich Mugabe’s friends.
This substitutes cynicism for analysis. Has there been corruption in the land resettlement program? Asbolutely. But what human enterprise is free from corruption? What’s more, is the presence of corruption in a program, proof the program was undertaken for corrupt reasons? Measures to increase black Zimbabwean ownership in the economy are scorned by progressive scholars for being capitalist. Fine, but a failure to be anti-capitalist is not equal to a failure to be anti-imperialist; nor is it proof of being pro-imperialist.
The foreign policy of capitalist governments is based in large measure on protecting their nationals’ ownership rights to foreign productive assets and promoting their access to foreign investment and export opportunities. Under the Mugabe government, ownership rights have not been safeguarded and foreign investment and export opportunities have been limited by tariff policies, foreign investment controls, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors. Absent in the analyses of progressive scholars is the understanding of the Mugabe government’s policies from the point of view of the banks and corporations of the imperialist center. One key US ruling class foundation, The Heritage Foundation, complains that Zimbabwe’s “average tariff rate is high” and that “non-tariff barriers are embedded in the labyrinthine customs service;” that “state influence in most areas is stifling, and expropriation is common as the executive pushes forward its economic plan of resource distribution”; that Zimbabwe has “burdensome tax rates” and that “privatization has stalled”…”with slightly over 10 percent of targeted concerns privatized”…”and the government remains highly interventionist.” Of equal concern is Harare’s practice of setting “price ceilings for essential commodities,” “controls (on) the prices of basic goods and food staples,” and influence over “prices through subsidies and state-owned enterprises and utilities” – odd practices for what we’re to believe is a group of errand boys for Western capital. But perhaps of greatest concern to Western corporations and banks is Harare’s investment policies. “The government will consider foreign investment up to 100 percent in high-priority projects but applies pressure for eventual majority ownership by Zimbabweans and stresses the importance of investment from Asian countries, especially China and Malaysia, rather than Western countries.”  This paints a picture of the Mugabe government, not as a facilitator of Western economic penetration, but as economically nationalist, pursuing a program aimed at placing control of Zimbabwe’s land, natural resources and enterprises in the hands of black Zimbabweans. It is, in short, a black nationalist government. Clearly, Western investors don’t think Mugabe is working on their behalf. The only people who do are progressive scholars.
The Mugabe government’s pursuit of black nationalist interests, which clashes in important ways with the interests of Western banks and corporations as well as with the minority population of settlers of European origin, has been met by a strong, multi-faceted response from the US, Britain and the EU. This has included the denial of balance of payment support and development aid, the building up of civil society as a pole of opposition to the Mugabe government, the creation of and subsequent direction of an opposition party, and an international campaign of vilification aimed at discrediting the Mugabe government.  Progressive scholars barely acknowledge the Western response, treating it more as an invention of the Mugabe government, used to manipulate the population and to deflect attention from its failings, than as a reality – a bowing to elite theory, rather than to the facts.
Campbell, for example, complains that,
“The Mugabe government blames all of its problems on the economic war launched by the USA and Britain. For the Mugabe regime, at the core of this economic war, are the targeted sanctions against Mugabe’s top lieutenants under its Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA), passed by the Bush administration in 2001.” 
Campbell confuses targeted sanctions aimed at senior members of the Mugabe government, with ZDERA, an act which blocks Zimbabwe’s access to international credit, and, therefore, affects all Zimbabweans, not just Zanu-PF grandees. According to the act,
The Secretary of the Treasury shall instruct the United States executive director to each international financial institution to oppose and vote against–
(1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe; or
(2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.” 
Zimbabwe’s economy, like that of any other Third World country, was never robust to begin with, and inasmuch as it has always relied heavily on Western inputs and access to Western exports, was never too difficult to push into crisis by Western governments intent on making a point. To pretend Washington, London and Brussels haven’t sought to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy, or are incapable of it, is absurd. ZDERA effectively reduces Zimbabwe’s access to the foreign exchange it needs to import necessities from abroad, including chemicals to treat drinking water, a significant point in the recent cholera outbreak. Development aid from the World Bank is also cut off, denying the country access to funds to build and repair the infrastructure needed to run a modern economy. Rather than banning the export of goods to Zimbabwe (the popular understanding of sanctions), the US has made importing goods a challenge. This doesn’t mean that Zimbabwe can’t import goods, or that there is no outside investment. What it does mean, however, is that Zimbabwe is denied access to the kind of financial support poor countries depend on to get by. The intended effect is to make Zimbabwe’s economy scream, and it has. Campbell, who, based on his equating ZDERA with targeted sanctions on individuals, doesn’t understand it, or hasn’t read it, dismisses the idea that the West’s economic warfare accounts for Zimbabwe’s economic troubles. He writes that,
“What has been clear from the hundreds of millions of dollars of investments by British, Chinese, Malaysian, South African and other capitalists in the Zimbabwe economy since 2003 is that the problems in Zimbabwe haven’t been caused by an economic war against the country.” 
This is like saying anyone exposed to an influenza virus couldn’t possibly be ill because he has received mega-doses of vitamins. Investment from non-Western sources may mitigate some of the problems created by ZDERA, but it doesn’t eliminate them. Chinese investment in platinum mines, for example, will not eliminate a balance of payment problem.
Understating the effects of ZDERA is not the only area in which progressive scholars go wrong; their failure to acknowledge Western efforts to build up a civil society with a mandate to destabilize Zimbabwe is another. This is inexcusable, since the efforts of Western governments to create, nurture, support, direct, and mentor opposition to the Mugabe government, including overthrow movements, is well documented  – mainly because these governments have been open about it — and is hardly new. It has been used elsewhere, famously in Chile, and recently in Venezuela, Belarus, and the former Yugoslavia.
One reason for the failure of progressive scholars to acknowledge the role played by Western governments and ruling class foundations in destabilizing Zimbabwe may be because they too benefit from the same sources of funding. Campbell’s critique of Mamdani, for example, was published at Pambazuka News. Pambazuka News is a project of the US ruling class Ford Foundation and of the Open Society Institute , a vehicle of billionaire financier George Soros to promote color-coded revolutions, under the guise of democracy promotion, in countries whose governments have been less than open to Western exports and investments. Pambazuka News is also sponsored by Fahamu . While Fahamu no longer lists Western governments as funders, it has, in the past, been funded by the US State Department through USAID, by the British Parliament through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, by the British government through the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Department of International Development, and by the European Union. The US, Britain and EU are on record as seeking the overthrow of the Mugabe government. They fund the organizations that disseminate anti-Mugabe analyses and sloganeering. They do so with one aim: to overthrow the Mugabe government. Campbell’s protesting that he is opposed to imperialist interventions is a bit like buying crack on the street while professing opposition to drug dealing, or placing a Think Green sticker on the bumper of your new SUV. Similarly, progressive scholar Patrick Bond, whose anti-Mugabe diatribes can also be found at Pambazuka News, describes the overthrow movement Sokwanele as an independent left, seemingly unaware it is on the US government payroll. 
Not only do progressive scholars ignore the links of Zimbabwe’s opposition to imperialist governments and foundations, they celebrate the opposition. Campbell refers to members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) as “brave fighters.”  Brave fighters they may be, but Campbell does not let on (or know) what Woza is fighting for. The group’s leader, Jenni Williams, won the US State Department’s 2007 International Woman of Courage Award for Africa, a plaudit presented to Williams by Condoleezza Rice in a March, 2007 ceremony in Washington.  It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that the US State Department’s priority is to secure the interests of US corporations and banks abroad, not the interests of the women of Zimbabwe. So why is the US State Department recognizing Williams? Not for her service to women’s rights, but because her activities help to destabilize Zimbabwe and bring closer the day the black nationalist program of the Mugabe government can be swept aside to clear the way for the unfettered pursuit of US corporate and banking interests. A US government report on the activities in 2007 of its mission to Zimbabwe reveals that the “US Government continued its assistance to Women of Zimbabwe Arise.”  US government assistance to Woza and other civil society organizations is channelled through Freedom House and PACT. Freedom House is interlocked with the CIA and is a “virtual propaganda arm of the (US) government and international right wing,” according to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman.  It is headed by Peter Ackerman. Ackerman runs the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, of which Stephen Zunes, another progressive scholar, is chair of the board of academic advisors. Ackerman’s wife, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, is a former director of the Albert Einstein Institute, an organization which trained activists in popular insurrection techniques to overthrow Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and has consulted with members of Zimbabwe’s civil society opposition on how to use non-violence to overthrow the Mugabe government.  Woza supports two US State Department propaganda vehicles: SW Radio Africa, a US State Department funded short-wave radio station that beams anti-Mugabe propaganda into Zimbabwe, and the Voice of America’s Studio 7, also funded by the US State Department to broadcast US foreign policy positions into Zimbabwe.  Zunes says Woza can by no means be considered American agents , echoing the progressive scholars’ line that there are no Western efforts to overthrow the Mugabe government; it’s all part of the anti-imperialist rhetoric Mugabe uses to stay in power.
One of the biggest problems for progressive scholars is that their wish to see the Mugabe government brought down inevitably means its replacement by the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC. If Zanu-PF is deplored by some progressive scholars and demonized from the left for being capitalist, the MDC should have two strikes against it: it’s not only capitalist, it is unquestionably the errand boy of the imperialist center, a point one doesn’t have to twist oneself into knots to make, as is done whenever progressive scholars claim Mugabe, despite being sanctioned and vilified by the West, is kept afloat by and works on behalf of Western capital. The MDC’s subservience to Western corporate and banking interests is amply evidenced in its origins (Britain and British wealth provided the seed money), policy platform (decidedly pro-foreign investment),  and its advisors (the John McCain-led international arm of the Republican Party, the IRI ). Under an MDC government, the stalled privatization program the Heritage Foundation complains about will quickly be restarted. Foreign investment controls, subsidies, tariffs, and price controls will be terminated. Reversal of land reform, while it may come slowly, will inevitably happen, as a condition of ending ZDERA. IMF and World Bank loans will be extended, and the pro-foreign investment measures which are the inevitable condition of these loans will gladly be acceded to.
So, what do progressive scholars like Campbell offer as an antidote? “That Zimbabweans…oppose the neoliberal forces within the MDC to ensure that the suffering of working people does not continue after the ultimate departure of Robert Mugabe.”  There is more naiveté in this single sentence than there is in the average five year old. Please! Neoliberal forces have controlled the MDC from day one , and they’ve controlled the party because they hold its purse strings. Their control won’t disappear the moment Mugabe is gone; on the contrary, it is at that moment it will be strongest. But suppose, for a moment, that Campbell’s naive fantasy comes true, and that the forces that provide the funding that is the lifeblood of the MDC, yield to pressure from Zimbabweans, who, at one moment, vote the MDC into power, despite its neo-liberal platform, and at the next, ask the MDC to abandon the platform it was elected on. Were the MDC to yield to this pressure, it would face exactly the same response the Mugabe government faced when it backed away from neo-liberal policies: sanctions, destabilization, demonization and the threat of military intervention. The failure of Campbell to understand this evinces an unsophisticated understanding of the foreign policies of Western countries.
How droll, then, is the pairing of this breathtaking naiveté with the utter arrogance of progressive scholars. They dismiss Mamdani for failing “to look more deeply at the crisis” and for being “fooled by Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimization,” and then moan that preventing non-experts from falling for Mugabe’s rhetoric is “one of the more difficult tasks for scholars working on Zimbabwe.” And yet a far more difficult task, it would seem, is for the same scholars to acquaint themselves with the basics: what ZDERA is; why the West is waging economic warfare; what the policies of ZANU-PF are compared to the MDC’s and how these policies align, or fail to align, with the interests of Western banks and corporations; and who created and guides the opposition. Indeed, it could be said that one of the most difficult tasks for anti-imperialists working on Zimbabwe is to persuade progressive scholars to look more deeply into the crisis and not be fooled by imperialist rhetoric.
1. Timothy Scarnecchia, Jocelyn Alexander et al, “Lessons of Zimbabwe,” Letters, London Review of Books, Volume 31, No. 1, January, 2009.
2. Horace Campbell, “Mamdani, Mugabe and the African scholarly community,” Pambazuka News, December 18, 2008. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/52845
3. Bond, Patrick, “Mugabe: Talks Radical, Acts Like a Reactionary: Zimbabwe’s Descent,” Counterpucnh.org, March 27, 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/bond03272007.html
4. Heritage Foundation, Index of Economic Freedom, 2008, http://www.heritage.org/research/features/index/country.cfm?ID=Zimbabwe)
5. Stephen Gowans, “Zimbabwe at War,” What’s Left, June 24, 2008. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/zimbabwe-at-war/
7. US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001. http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=107_cong_bills&docid=f:s494enr.txt.pdf
9. See the section titled “Regime Change Agenda” in Stephen Gowans, “Zimbabwe at War,” What’s Left, June 24, 2008. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/zimbabwe-at-war/
10. Look under funders at Pambazuka News’ “About” page at http://www.pambazuka.org/en/about.php .
12. See Stephen Gowans, “Grassroot Lieutenants of Imperialism,” What’s Left, April 2, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/grassroots-lieutenants-of-imperialism/ and Stephen Gowans, “Talk Left, Funded Right,” What’s Left, April 7, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/07/talk-left-funded-right/.
14. Jim Fisher-Thompson, “Zimbabwean receives International Woman of Courage Award,” USINFO, March 7, 2007. http://www.america.gov/st/hr-english/2007/March/200703071523081EJrehsiF0.7266962.html
15. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACL121.pdf . See also Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes’ false statements on Zimbabwe and Woza,” What’s Left, September 30, 2008. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/stephen-zunes%e2%80%99-false-statements-on-zimbabwe-and-woza/
16. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 28
17. Michael Barker, “Sharp Reflection Warranted: Non-violence in the Service of Imperialism,” Swans, June 30, 2008. http://www.swans.com/library/art14/barker01.html
18. See Woza’s website, http://wozazimbabwe.org/?page_id=29 ; “Studio 7, launched in 2003, is the Zimbabwe program of Voice of America, which is funded by the United States. The program is broadcast in Shona, Ndebele and English, and is beamed into Zimbabwe from a transmitter in Botswana on the AM signal and by shortwave.” Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 26, 2005. In an April 5, 2007 report, the US Department of State revealed that it had worked to expand the listener base of Voice of America’s Studio 7 radio station. On SW Radio Africa see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=SW_Radio_Africa .
19. See Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes’ false statements on Zimbabwe and Woza,” What’s Left, September 30, 2008. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/stephen-zunes%e2%80%99-false-statements-on-zimbabwe-and-woza/
20. In 2000, the (British Parliament’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy) provided the MDC with $10 million. Herald (Zimbabwe), September 4, 2001 cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators:Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “WFD has been involved in over 80 projects aiding the MDC, and helped plan election strategy. It also provides funding to the party’s youth and women’s groups.” Herald (Zimbabwe), January 2, 2001, cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “In a clandestinely filmed interview, screened in Australia on February 2002 on the SBS Dateline program, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was caught on camera admitting that his organization was financed by European governments and corporations, the money being channelled through a British firm of political consultants, BSMG.” Rob Gowland, “Zimbabwe: The struggle for land, the struggle for independence,” Communist Party of Australia; Civil society groups “and the Movement for Democratic Change…have broad Western support, and, often, financing.” New York Times, December 24, 2004; The International Republican Institute, the international arm of the Republican Party, “is using (the US State Department’s) USAID and the US embassy in Harare to channel support to the MDC, circumventing restrictions of Zimbabwe’s Political Parties Finance Act. Herald (Zimbabwe) August 12, 2005; USAID bankrolls sixteen civil society organizations in Zimbabwe, with emphasis on supporting the MDC’s parliamentary activities. “Zimbabwe Program Data Sheet,” U.S. Agency for International Development, cited in Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006; “USAID has a long and successful history of working with Zimbabwe’s civil society, democratic political parties, the Parliament and local government.” Testimony of Katherine Almquist, USAID Assistant Administrator for Africa, The Crisis in Zimbabwe and Prospects for Resolution. Subcommittee on African Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, July 15, 2008.
From the MDC’s 2008 policy platform: The MDC does not believe that government should be involved in running businesses and it will restore title in full to all companies; Private enterprise in general, and industry in particular, will be the engine of economic growth in a new Zimbabwe; The MDC government will remove price controls and reverse the coercive indigenization proposals recently adopted; (An MDC government will show) an unwavering commitment to:
* The safety and security of individual and corporate property rights.
* Opening industry to foreign direct investment and the unfettered repatriation of dividends.
* The repeal of all statutes that inhibit the establishment and maintenance of a socio-economic environment conducive to the sustained growth and development of the industrial sector.
The MDC will…(open)…up private sector participation in postal and telecommunication services; (The MDC believes) the private sector is in a better position to finance new development and respond to customer needs (in telecommunications); (An MDC government will) look into…the full privatization of the electronic media.
According to progressive scholar Patrick Bond: “…very quickly, what had begun as a working-class party … was hijacked by international geopolitical forces, domestic (white) business and farming interests, and the black petite bourgeoisie.” Noah Tucker, “In the Shadow of Empire,” 21st Century Socialism, August 3, 2008, http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/in_the_shadow_of_empire_01694.html
21. The “IRI held a workshop for Tsvangirai’s shadow government at which each shadow minister presented and defended his/her policy positions. A panel of technical experts grilled presenters on the technical content of their policies.” US State Department report. See Stephen Gowans, “US government report undermines Zimbabwe opposition’s claim of independence,” What’s Left, October 4, 2008. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/us-government-report-undermines-zimbabwe-opposition%e2%80%99s-claim-of-independence/
23. That Campbell thinks there’s any possibility of the MDC being budged from its neo-liberal position shows that he should spend less time worrying about whether others are falling for Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and more time worrying about whether he has fallen for the rhetoric of the MDC and its imperialist backers. The nascent MDC appointed an official of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Eddie Cross, as its Secretary of Economic Affairs. In a speech delivered shortly after his appointment, Cross articulated the MDC economic plan. “First of all, we believe in the free market. We do not support price control. We do not support government interfering in the way people manage their lives. We are in favor of reduced levels of taxation. We are going to fast track privatization. All fifty government parastatals will be privatized within a two-year frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatize many of the functions of government. We are going to privatize the Central Statistics Office. We are going to privatize virtually the entire school delivery system. And you know, we have looked at the numbers and we think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years.” Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya, Zimbabwe’s Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice, Merlin Press, 2002.
A policy paper issued by the party in 2000 spelled out its plans to attract “foreign direct investment…on a substantial scale.” The party planned to: “Appoint a “fund manager to dispose of government-owned shares in publicly quoted companies”; “Privatize all designated parastatals [public companies] within two years”; Encourage “foreign strategic investors … to bid for a majority stake in the enterprises being privatized.”
“Social and Economic Policies for a New Millennium,” MDC policy paper, May 26, 2000.
* Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Pantheon Books, 2009.
If 10 times more people claimed to have attended Woodstock than were actually there, I suspect 10 times more people claim to have wept at Obama’s election victory than actually did. Weeping on the night of November 4 – or claiming you did — has now become a fashion. I, too, wept, though not because Obama won, but because the number of times I heard the words “Obama is the embodiment of hope” was too much to bear.
The day before the election, my son called me from school.
“I was just interviewed on Obama for the national news,” he related excitedly.
“”How’d that happen?”
“Actually, it was a group of us who were interviewed. I’m not sure I’m going to make it on the newscast, though. The reporter was looking for gushing reactions, and I pointed out that I had some concerns about Obama because he had received more in corporate donations than McCain had. I don’t think that’s quite what she was looking for.”
No mistake there. Two days later the segment aired in the last 10 minutes of an hour-long news show devoted to documenting (and manufacturing) excited reactions to the Obama victory. After 50 minutes of Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans delivering encomia on the Obama victory, my son’s chance at a brief moment of public exposure arrived. A group of high-school students, my son among them, is seen walking into a room. The reporter turns to each in turn and asks, “What do you think of Obama?” The first, a young man born in Canada to Chinese parents, says he identifies with Obama, because they’re both ethnic minorities. Another talks of hope. A third says she gets shivers down her spine whenever she hears Obama talk. (Demonstrating a talent for prophecy, my son predicts two days earlier that “She’ll make it on the newscast for sure.”) And so it goes, each student joining in the celebration, because, wasn’t that the implicit contract? Gush over Obama, and see yourself on TV. My son, whose concerns over Obama’s netting more corporate donations than McCain clashed impolitely with the intoxicated atmosphere of Obama worship, became a voiceless image; the one student who, for reasons never explained, was seen, but not heard, on camera.
To those grasping at straws, the election of a black man as president signals the recession of anti-black racism in the United States. For the gullible, it signals the dawn of a new age of hope.
There have been black people in numerous positions of power in the US before, from CEOs to mayors to governors to secretaries of state to the country’s top soldier. Now we can add president. Will anything of substance change because of this? Obama’s victory hasn’t caused anti-black racism to recede; it is, instead, a consequence of this. Will a black man in the White House make clear to the romantics who haven’t figured it out yet that black people are no different from white people, equally capable of oppressing, exploiting, plundering and killing on a massive scale? Add that liberals are as capable of these things as conservatives, and Obama, the black liberal president, offers no hope of departure from the accustomed trajectory.
Despite its recession, anti-black racism has only receded to the point where a privileged black man with rare forensic talents, the massive backing of the corporate community, and the help of the best marketing talent money can buy, can get elected; it has by no means disappeared, nor receded enough to make a substantial difference in the lives of most black people.
But for black people there’s inspiration to be found in one of their own ascending to the highest office in the land. The joy is misplaced. The only thing Obama shares in common with 99 percent of blacks in the United States is the color of his skin, and skin color, when you get right down to it, is only of consequence to bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology once used by slave-owners (who happened to be white) to justify exploitation of slaves (who happened to be black.) If you’re going to screw people over, it’s useful to have a body of legitimizing ideas; after all, who wants to come face to face with the reality that he’s an unconscionable prick living off the toil of others? That’s where racism comes in handy. And if we’re talking about people exploiting others of the same skin color, there’s a whole other body of ideas to justify that, which, in these days of thin class consciousness, most of us mistake for common sense. To be sure, skin color does matter to the victims of racism because they can’t escape the fact that the bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology keep making a fuss about it. But that makes Obama as much like them as George Bush is like me.
Come to think of it, George and I are alike in many ways. We’re middle aged; we both trip over words; we’re white; we’re male. But so what? George comes from a ruling class family; my forebears worked in factories, did manual labor, and in recent years, ascended to the ranks of the white-collar proletariat, deluding themselves that by wearing a tie and acting “professional” they had transcended their class. George snorted coke; I worked in a pharmaceutical factory for his friend Donald Rumsfeld. George went to Yale and the Harvard Business School on his family’s money; I went to two undistinguished public universities, one located in the gritty industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, paying subsidized tuition with money saved up working at a grocery store. Whatever we have in common is picayune next to what sets us apart.
The very best comment I’ve heard on the Obama victory comes from Mickey Z. Obama’s ascendancy, he said in a Dec 1 interview published in the British newspaper, The Morning Star, “is an excellent illustration of how the system handles dissent. A black face, a soothing voice and a vague message of change – all designed to keep the rabble pacified without changing anything at all.”
While a debate whirled around me during the days leading up to the election over the question of whether leftists ought to vote for Obama or opt for someone who wasn’t going to put more boots on Afghan soil and rattle the Pentagon’s sabre at Iran, I kept my counsel. For one thing, I’m not a US citizen. The job of everyone else in the world is to bear the brunt of the stupid decisions Americans make. As much as the rest of us wish the consequences of their choices were limited to the US, sadly, what happens in the United States often has dire consequences for those living everywhere else. For another, all the reasons for not voting for a Democrat or Republican had been made cogently and repeatedly before, apparently, to no avail, and having exceeded my limit in flogging dead horses, I was tapped out. What’s more, it was clear that the Obama-supporters had formed an impermeable seal around their brains that admitted no appeal to reason. This was to be a purely emotional choice; hence, the tears of joy on election night.
While a vote for Nader had its merits, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nader-supporters shared a delusion with the Obama-backers – that of believing that the right person in the Oval Office would make a difference. Americans might be excused for this delusion; after all, they’ve never elected a leftwing president and therefore have been spared the cold blast of reality that disappoints those who’ve worked to elect a leftwing government. Had they not been deprived of this sobering experience, they would recognize their faith in third party politics for the naïveté it is. A quick survey of what has happened when social democrats, socialists and even communists have won elections and formed governments with a program of reforming the system from within, leaves no doubt as to the possible outcomes. A new socialist age is not one of them. Either the new government:
o Recognizes that it must cater to the imperatives of the system it has chosen to work within to prevent its rule from being destabilized, and therefore behaves as any other pro-capitalist government does.
o Boldly introduces anti-capitalist reforms, only to suffer a backlash as investors and businesses withdraw their capital and refuse to make further investments. This provokes an economic crisis, and the government’s supporters, menaced by rising unemployment or shortages or rampant inflation, withdraw their support.
o Is ousted in a military or fascist coup.
o Is destabilized by outside forces.
Only where the energy of the bulk of people has been mobilized to tear the system down and replace it with one friendly to popular interests, have leftwing forces prevailed for any substantial period.
How is it, then, that substantial reforms, such as the public health care systems of Western Europe and Canada, came into being, if not by the agency of leftwing governments voted into power to reform the system from within? The truth of the matter is that reforms were just as likely to be introduced by conservatives as social democrats (and none of the reforms ushered in by Western governments, often as Cold War expediency, ever matched the programs established under Marxist-Leninist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern European.) It was Bismark and Gladstone – hardly lefties — who introduced the first modern social welfare programs. The basis for social security in the US came not from the Democrats or organized labor, but from the Rockefeller-founded Industrial Relations Counselors Inc., to head off labor unrest. While a Labour government was introducing the NHS in Britain, conservative governments on the continent were introducing their own NHS equivalents. And in Canada, it was the conservative government of John Diefenbaker that introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act of 1957. Social democrats have claimed social programs as their own, but they can lay no claim to being the sole parents, and have just as often been involved in dismantling the reforms predecessor (and often conservative) governments had introduced.
The programs pursued by governments are shaped by the circumstances they encounter, surrounding events, and for those with reformist aims, by the constraints of the constitutional system and the logic of the capitalist system they’ve chosen to work within. Left-leaning governments bow to the demands of the capitalist economy to survive; conservative governments introduce reforms and concessions to head off labor militancy. Often these constraints are ignored by critics, who assume implicitly that the right person, once elevated to a position of power, is free to make history as he pleases. “Once our man is in power, just wait to see what happens.” The answer is often, more of the same, or policies the government’s backers revile.
Across from me sits a book on whose spine is written “Giving Away a Miracle.” It’s the story of the unlikely election in the 90s of a social democratic government in Ontario (the miracle.) The giving away began the very same night the party was elected, as its leader began beating a hasty retreat from the party’s campaign promises. It ended with the party, the supposed voice of organized labor, tearing up collective agreements it had negotiated with public sector unions.
The transformation from rhetorical champion of the average worker to just another pro-capitalist government was inevitable. The promises made – among them public auto insurance — would have ended in a messy fight with corporate Canada. Investments would be delayed, capital would be taken out of the province, and jobs would be lost. The news media, which exert a powerful influence in shaping public opinion, were uniformly hostile, warning that the new government would turn Ontario into an economic basket-case. The only way the government could have pursued its agenda was to have had massive popular support, toughened by the people’s readiness to suffer the inevitable blows that the corporations whose interests would be encroached upon, would rain upon the province. This, the government didn’t have, nor could have for long under circumstances in which conservative forces were allowed to continue to control the means of production and means of persuasion. What would have truly been a miracle is if the powerful opponents of the government’s agenda had stepped aside in deference to the people’s will and allowed anti-capitalist reforms to go ahead. But this never happens. The problem, then, wasn’t that a miracle had been given away; the problem was that the miracle of absent opposition never materialized.
The same can be said about Obama. Even if he were pro-labor and anti-war — which even a superficial look at his voting record, campaign statements, and cabinet choices will reveal he is not –- the course he pursued would have infinitely more to do with the socio-economic forces that press upon him than the color of his skin, his political leanings, or the fact that he belongs to one party of business rather than another. The same goes for Nader. If by some miracle he had won, his good intentions would prove no match for the system he chose to work within.
Obama’s election is no miracle, just what was needed to create the illusion of change. Any chance of meaningful change will require more than the election of another exhibitionist lawyer whose charm, forensic skills and ambition allowed him to catch the eye of people with the connections and resources to get him elected – the people who really rule America. The United States’ first black president is just another instrument of moneyed interests whose decisions will be structured by his obligations to the people who put him power and the logic of the capitalist system in which he must work — a charming Bush, with darker skin and a liberal pedigree. A better alternative than McCain? If you prefer the used car salesman who sells you a piece of crap while making you feel good about yourself, to the one who’s less talented in hiding his guile, yes. But shit is shit, whether you mask the odor with perfume or not.
Obama’s “ascendancy is an excellent illustration of how the system handles dissent. A black face, a soothing voice and a vague message of change – all designed to keep the rabble pacified without changing anything at all.” — Mickey Z
James Petras has taken issue with progressive public intellectuals (PPIs) who endorsed the Obama candidacy on pragmatic grounds and who argued the Democratic candidate is a lesser evil, while at the same time condemning lesser evils abroad. In particular, Petras wonders why there’s not a single PPI who supports “the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the popularly supported nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, the anti-occupation Taliban in Afghanistan or even the right, recognized under international law, of the Iranian people to the peaceful development of nuclear energy.” Whatever their defects, continues Petras, “these are the ‘lesser evil’.” (1)
To Petras’ list can be added Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, a lesser evil no PPI would publicly support. While the secular nature of Zimbabwe’s party of national liberation makes it marginally more attractive to secular leftists than Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists of Iraq, it is still shunned for its failings. Its failings, however, do not erase two realities: (a) with its land reform and economic indigenization policies it is a more progressive alternative than the opposition MDC, which is virtually run from Western capitals and, not surprisingly, promotes a comprador program; (b) there is no other progressive alternative with any realistic chance of coming to power in the foreseeable future. (2) In other words, the situation in Zimbabwe parallels the situation in the US, in which PPIs concluded the progressive alternative, Nader, couldn’t win, that Obama was marginally better than McCain, and, therefore, that an Obama presidency deserved their endorsement on pragmatic grounds. If PPIs are willing to sacrifice their moral hymens at home, why do they keep their legs tightly crossed when surveying the political landscape abroad?
Support for the lesser evil at home but never abroad is a manifestation of an older PPI double-standard: eschewing communist organizations for their ‘crimes’ and hierarchical structure while supporting, working within, endorsing or voting for the Democrats, an organization that can hardly be considered non-hierarchical or free from moral failure. PPIs are forever condemning organizations that effectively oppose imperialist spoliation, while justifying support for a major party of imperialist predation whose commitment to civil and political liberties is no more absolute than that of communist organizations. As Michael Parenti points out:
“Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations morally unacceptable because of the ‘crimes of communism.’ Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic party in this country, either as voters or as members, apparently unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a ‘national emergency’; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all of these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberal, the social democratic, and the ‘democratic socialist’ anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnation of either the Democratic party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.” (3)
Petras amplifies Parenti’s point:
“PPIs justified their support for Obama on the basis of his campaign rhetoric in favor of peace and justice, even as he voted for Bush’s war budgets and foreign aid programs funding the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Colombians, Somalis and Pakistanis and the dispossessing and displacement of at least 10 million people from their towns, farms and homes.” (4)
PPIs like victims, so it’s fitting that they’ve endorsed or voted for a candidate who as president will continue to produce victims in abundance. They’re always springing to the defense of innocent civilians, but rarely to the defense of those who fight back (who in doing so, in the view of PPIs, are no longer innocent). The problem with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists, from the point of view of the PPIs, is three-fold: (i) they’re religious-based, (ii) they use violence, and (iii) they’re not victims. The secular Zanu-PF earns the PPIs’ enmity because it uses the wrong tactics to resist imperialist pressure (presumably it should remove all impediments to the US and Britain using civil society and the MDC as instruments of Western foreign policy.)
To be sure, secular socialist alternatives would be preferable to these lesser evils, but those that exist command insufficient support to mount effective oppositions, and, in many cases, are supporting larger, religious-based, anti-imperialist organizations. And while nonviolent direct action alone is preferable to violence, it has yet to prove effective against armed occupations, except in circumstances in which the violence of war has weakened the oppressor (Britain in India).
There is both a moral and tactical argument for supporting existing organizations which have mounted effective anti-imperialist oppositions. First, they have a right to resist occupation, aggression, and intervention. That their political orientations may be repellent is irrelevant. We don’t deny the right to a fair trial on the basis of the accused’s views, no matter how offensive they are. Second, to the extent these organizations are successful in exercising their right, they weaken the ruling class forces against which progressive at home struggle. The anti-occupation Taliban is reactionary, and is an organization one would bitterly oppose at home, but in its resistance to occupation, and in this alone, it is objectively progressive from the standpoint of Western working class populations; a Taliban that is successful in its efforts to oppose occupation weakens the class forces that both exploit foreign populations by conquest and economically exploit populations at home.
Petras attributes the PPIs’ double standards to what aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes called “the sad reality of capitalism” (5) – “supporters of the millions of victims of Western and Israeli butchery do not live off foundation handouts,” while those who condemn organizations that have mounted effective opposition to imperialist predations receive “invitations to speak at universities with offers of five-figure honorariums.” (6)
There’s a principle governing which political ideas bubble to the surface of public awareness: the prominence of a political idea and of whoever can articulately express it, is proportional to the degree to which it is congenial to the interests of those who have the wealth to bring it to prominence.
Conservative intellectuals (CIs) enjoy the greatest degree of prominence because they articulate ideas that closely match the interests, and justify the privileges, of the wealthy. For example, a CI writing in my daily newspaper said Obama will back away from his pledge to hike taxes on Americans who earn over $250,000 per year and that this is prudent because the wealthy are “the most productive element of society.” It should be no surprise that intellectuals who articulate these kinds of legitimating ideas have no problems securing access to platforms capable of giving their views prominence.
PPIs are far less prominent than PCIs (prominent conservative intellectuals) because they articulate ideas that are often hostile to the interests of the wealthy. But their condemnations of any effective opposition to the interests of the wealthy are congenial to the interests of predatory capital. Whatever the failings of communist governments, they remained effective oppositions to capitalist interests. Whatever the failings of national liberation and anti-occupation movements, they act as effective oppositions to imperialist aims. And whatever the regrettable and grim outcomes of violence, movements and governments that use violence to defend themselves against the aggressions and predatory pursuits of capital, have enjoyed more success than their counterparts who won’t or can’t use violence. Progressive intellectuals who are able to set forth compelling cases against communism, really-existing national liberation and anti-occupation movements, and political violence, earn access to platforms which allow their views to be widely circulated within the progressive community. In this way, they become PPIs.
There is a parallel in the control of insect populations. If you want to reduce the mosquito population, you introduce sterile mosquitoes who mate with fertile counterparts and produce no offspring. This doesn’t eliminate successful fertile pairings, but it does reduce the probability, and checks population growth. Favoring sterile PIs with foundation grants, invitations to lectures, and ready access to progressive media (much of which operates on foundation grants), is equivalent to overwhelming mating populations with sterile mosquitoes.
Articulating a compelling case for effective organization against the wealthy at home is, to those who dole out foundation grants, also undesirable; accordingly, PIs who promote engagement with the Democratic party while condemning effective anti-imperialist movements aboard, are highly valued, and earn access to platforms capable of raising the visibility of their ideas. The question of whether PPIs alter their ideas to cater to foundation and progressive media gatekeepers is beside the point; all that matters is that the right ideas, articulated in compelling ways, earn their bearers prominence.
What we need to do is examine ideas on a case-by-case basis, immune from the halo effect of someone’s admirable political stance on other issues. Aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes makes much of the fact that he’s earned his progressive stripes, but his political stance on the IMF, World Bank, debt peonage or the Bush administration does not mean his stance on ruling class funded nonviolent pro-democracy activism is sound. In particular, we should ask:
• What movements and forms of organization have been historically effective in opposing exploitation and oppression?
• What political positions have PPIs taken on these movements and forms of organization?
• Are there systemic imperatives that push to prominence PIs who can persuasively argue against effective movements and forms of organization?
It might be argued that capitalist forces centered in the Western world are a common enemy of Western working class populations and the Taliban. Failure of the West’s popular forces to forge contingent, ad hoc, alliances with the Taliban weakens their common fight. From a purely self-interested standpoint, Western working classes stand to profit from such an alliance, in the same way the US state profited from an alliance with reactionary Islam in opposing a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. This does not mean, however, that, from the standpoint of Afghans opposed to the Taliban, or the progress of humanity, that the Taliban is the lesser evil; nor that it is preferable from the perspective of a large number of Afghans to a secular comprador regime which guarantees the equality of the sexes, makes provision for the education of females, and expunges the remnants of feudal institutions. The question of who is the lesser evil, then, is necessarily relative. For women and peasants in Afghanistan, it’s difficult to imagine what the Taliban could be the lesser evil to.
My interest, however, isn’t in the normative question of whether Western working classes ought to pursue their own interests by supporting the Taliban in it fight against occupation, even if an alliance with the Taliban means sacrificing the interests of the peasant and female populations that face Taliban oppression. It is, rather, in the empirical question of whether PPI opposition to the Taliban serves the interests of imperialist forces, and whether PIs become PPIs as a consequence of their hostility to movements and forms of organization that have been historically effective in combating exploitation and oppression. The weakness of Petras’ argument lies, I think, in its reliance on the idea of the lesser evil, which is a contingent idea reflecting class interests in a particular place and time. The elevation to PPI from PI of those who favor support for the Democrats while condemning effective anti-imperialist oppositions abroad, can best be understood, not from the perspective of double standards, but as a necessary outcome of the way wealth operates to bring ideas acceptable to the interests of the wealthy to prominence in progressive communities.
1. James Petras, “Western Progressive Opinion: Bring on the Victims! Condemn the Fighters!” November 22, 2008, http://petras.lahaine.org/articulo.php?p=1763&more=1&c=1
2. While PPIs argue that Zimbabwe civil society is a progressive third force in Zimbabwe, the country’s NGOs are in thrall to the Western governments, capitalist foundations and wealthy individuals who provide their funding. They are no more a progressive alternative than the MDC is, which shares the same backers.
3. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997; pp.48-49.
5. Stephen Gowans, “Zunes compromising with capitalism’s sad reality,” What’s Left, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/25/zunes%e2%80%99-compromising-with-capitalism%e2%80%99s-sad-reality/
One billion people in the world – one-sixth of humanity – have too little to eat. One-half of humanity is malnourished. Some 18,000 children die every day from malnutrition. (1)
If that weren’t enough, rising prices are pushing food beyond the reach of numberless more.
Government leaders, corporate board members, the owners of large corporations, are concerned – not because billions are hungry, but because the hunger of billions threatens to destabilize their rule. Food riots have become too frequent to ignore. The head of the CIA worries that growing desperation and poverty in the world will degrade “the US security environment.”
The causes of rising food prices are manifold and interconnected. The industrialization of China and India has created growing demand for oil, putting upward pressure on the price of agricultural inputs based on petroleum, from fuel to run farm machinery, to fertilizers and pesticides. Downstream, rising oil prices increase the costs of transporting foodstuffs to market. Increased emission of greenhouse gasses has created droughts, desertification, and extreme weather, the latter responsible for considerable crop damage. For example, heavy rains last summer left tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in north Korea. The growing demand for oil has led agribusinesses to divert land use to ethanol production, reducing the supply of corn for human and livestock consumption. Finally, rising standards of living in China and India have led to an increased demand for food.
Global growth in demand for comestibles at a time supply is contracting has hurt Third World populations the most. Many were already precariously balanced between subsistence and famine. Now millions more are faced with starvation. Western domination long ago forced Third World countries into a pattern of monoculture farming, where a few cash crops are raised for export and most foodstuffs are imported. These countries are food insecure, relying on exports to earn sufficient foreign exchange to import what food they need. But as food prices rise, countries that export foodstuffs are imposing export tariffs, reducing even further the supply of food heading to straitened Third World countries. That has put even more upward pressure on prices in places where rising prices can be absorbed the least. Food aid from Western countries palliates the problem in the short-term, but reinforces the underlying causes. The food the West sends to the Third World to avert famine is grown in the West, which means the problem of Third World dependence on Western countries for food is never addressed. The Third World needs to become food independent, which means breaking the chains of neo-colonial bondage.
Rising food prices command considerable attention today, partly because their effect is felt in the West and partly because they threaten to touch off militant challenges to the system, but the real reason one-sixth of humanity is hungry and one-half malnourished has nothing to do with the rising standard of living in China and India (indeed, rising standards of living attenuate the problem.) The roots of hunger are found in the reality that food is produced and sold to earn a profit, and half of humanity doesn’t have the income to pay for food at prices that allow the producers to make a profit.
At root, it is a system that sets prices above the ability of half of humanity to pay that is to blame. It is not a paucity of food and water relative to the population that is creating privation, as William Blum, author of Killing Hope and the Anti-Empire Report, would have you believe. Blum recommends that birth rates “be radically curbed” because “all else being equal, a markedly reduced population count would have a markedly beneficial effect upon global warming and food and water availability.” There are simply too many people, he says. (2)
About the time Blum was revealing his neo-Malthusian sympathies, Fred Magdoff was pointing out in The Monthly Review that the fact billions are hungry has nothing whatever to do with population counts, but with capitalism. In the US, more food is produced than the population requires, yet hunger remains a problem. Cut the US population in half and there would still be an over-supply of food — only a bigger one. Would food banks suddenly disappear? The same is true elsewhere. Magdoff points to two headlines to make his case:
“Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots.” (3)
“Want Amid Plenty: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger.” (4)
Those who remember the Great Depression will recall that poverty and hunger co-existed with plenty. Indeed, poverty and hunger were the children of plenty, of “too much civilization,” as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.
If the crises that threaten capitalism occur predictably so too do the regular bouts of Malthusianism that break out whenever the system threatens to fall into disrepute among those who must bear the brunt of its inhumanity. It is then that intellectuals, both left and right, raise the over-population alarm. Beneath their apparent hard-headed realism lurks the system-conserving message: poverty and hunger are not systemic; they happen because there are too many mouths to feed. In 1936, when Blum’s intellectual predecessors were attributing the Great Depression to over-population, one opponent of this deeply reactionary view replied:
“The plea of ‘over-population,’ of the ‘pressure of rising population on natural resources’… has demonstrably no basis in world facts, that is, in the physical and technical facts of world resources and world production. The alleged ‘over-population’ of particular countries is in the first place relative to the social relations within those countries, and is finally…relative to the existing system of division of the unity of world economy. On a world scale the advance of productive forces and even of actual production far outstrips the advance of population.
“The expansion of world production…including foodstuffs, has far exceed the growth of world population.
“Potentially, then, we have all the conditions present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe. For the actual expansion of production bears no relation to the potential expansion which could be achieved, if the existing fetters” (i.e, capitalism) “were removed.” (5)
The solution for hunger is not, as Blum advises, “petitioning American leaders to become decent human beings” and radically curbing birth rates. (6) The moral decadence of American leaders and the size of the world’s population are not the problem. The problem is the organizing principle of the capitalist system. Food isn’t grown to feed people; it’s grown to feed bottom lines. Prices are set to make a profit. If the prices are out of reach of half of humanity, from the point of view of the system, that’s regrettable, but unavoidable. Profit is the system’s alpha and omega; people are simply the means of getting there.
Blum, whether he intends to or not, is a system-conserver, acting to deflect attention away from the system itself, to red herrings, like American leaders needing sensitivity training and women needing to be outfitted with the Malthusian belts imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to keep the world population in check. If you’re bamboozled into believing the cause of world hunger lies in George Bush needing moral remediation and people being too philoprogenitive, the system carries on, and is never challenged and changed. When future crises arise, and want worsens in the face of “all the conditions (being) present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe,” another Blum will step forward, as Blum’s have before, to blame capitalism’s failure on an unsustainable population count.
1. Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions,” Monthly Review, May 2008.
2. William Blum, “Anti-Empire Report,” May 1, 2008. Blum argues in the same issue that Colombia’s rebel guerrilla army, the FARC, long ago ceased to be Marxist and has become the Colombian equivalent of the Mafia, engaged in kidnappings for ransom, protection rackets and drug trafficking. Blum seems to regard the words “Marxist” and “criminal” as mutually exclusive. Being outside the state, the FARC is hardly in a position to tax the residents of Colombia to raise money in “legal” ways as Colombia’s regular army does. Blum’s disqualification of the FARC as being Marxist because it engages in criminal activities brings to mind Brecht’s question: What is the crime of robbing a bank against the crime of founding one? It’s unclear how Blum expects the FARC to furnish itself with the means to operate – apply for a Ford Foundation grant?
3. New York Times, December 2, 2002.
4. Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2004.
5. R. Palme Dutt, World Politics, 1918-1936, Random House, New York, 1936, pp. 27-28.
6. Anti-Empire Report.