A failed system’s failed promises

By Stephen Gowans

With Communism’s demise, and the return of Warsaw Pact countries to the capitalist fold, the world was promised a new age of peace and prosperity. The shadow of war would lift. Military expenditures would be cut back, and troops would be brought home from Cold War postings. There would be more money for new wars — on poverty and homelessness, this time. And capitalism, the single sustainable model of success (it had, after all, emerged triumphant in a decades-long battle with Communism) would deliver the poor from poverty, and bless the world with a bonanza of consumer goods.

Talk about failed predictions.

In place of peace, we got the lone remaining superpower waging war to sweep up the few remaining stragglers that continued to resist integration into the US dominated global economy. Iraq was conquered, at the expense of countless dead, homeless, mangled and ruined; campaigns of intrigue and bombing in the former Yugoslavia pushed the region into the US orbit; and a war on Afghanistan continues to blast away thousands of peasants but cements a US military presence in a Central Asia pregnant with the promise of oil and gas wealth. Wars on Iran and north Korea are real possibilities.

Today, the United States is asserting its military might over the face of the globe more audaciously than ever. There are 368,000 US troops deployed in nearly 130 countries around the world. (1) US citizens think their military protects their interests abroad and defends host countries from threats. They rarely pause to wonder whether what’s called “their” interests are really their own personal interests or those of people who live in bigger houses and get bigger tax breaks and have sizeable investment portfolios. Nor do they make a habit of wondering how it is that with the US exercising a virtual military monopoly over the world, host countries could be under a threat so imminent they would require a US force presence. Exactly which of the tiny collection of countries not hosting US troops are threatening the remaining 130?

Could it be that US troops gird the globe to enforce the access of US firms and investors to the land, labor, markets and resources of others? Do “our” interests equate to Iraq’s oil, Indochina’s tin, Central Asia’s natural gas, Kosovo’s mines, the Balkan’s pipeline routes, Africa’s treasure trove of minerals and oil, and Indonesia’s sweatshops? “A lot of people forget,” remarked Alexander Haig, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, that the presence of US troops in Europe is “the bona fide of our economic success…it keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren’t there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access.” (2) A lot of people forget, because they were told something quite different: That US troops were stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion, not to put a gun to the head of Europeans to keep their markets invitingly open to US firms and investors. The obvious question, With the threat of a Soviet invasion long passed, why are US troops still there?, is rarely asked. So it doesn’t really matter that we’ve forgotten. The most blatant of Washington’s latest exercises in imperialism run amok has a similar character. It was said that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons. None were found. But US forces stay in Iraq anyway, to ensure the conquered country remains the refashioned paragon of free markets and free trade Washington’s policy makers have turned it into.

Which is to say, the emergence of US capitalism triumphant hasn’t given us peace, as promised; it has given us a bold US military prepared to wage war. And it seems to be waging war to facilitate US capital settling everywhere, nestling everywhere and establishing connections everywhere, to paraphrase a shockingly topical passage from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document whose irrelevance was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground. Yet, today, it seems to be more relevant than ever; certainly more relevant than when a competing ideology forced the stewards of capitalism to tidy up the image of their vaunted system lest the rabble get it into their heads that they could do better. It’s said in newspapers and on TV that Washington’s wars have to do with fighting terrorism, but the documents which define the US national security strategy are long on paeans to free markets and free trade and capitalism and short on concrete measures to protect the lives of US citizens from attacks by radicalized West Asians bearing legitimate grievances against the United states. On the contrary, the strategy is a recipe for provoking terrorist attacks.

Marx and Engels: While the irrelevance of Communist Manifesto was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground, today it seems to be more relevant than ever

Bourgeois society,” to use Marx’s and Engels’ phrase, hasn’t given us prosperity either, unless by “us,” you mean the people who own and control the economy. For the bulk of humanity things are a lot worst materially than they were when communists, socialists, and nationalists kept upsetting the capitalist apple cart by bringing vast tracks of national economies under public control, and putting the public welfare ahead of the profit interests of bondholders and investors.

According to the United Nations, 54 countries are poorer today than they were in 1990, about the time Communism was declared failed, and capitalism lionized as the single sustainable model of success. More children under the age of five are dying in 14 countries, and enrollment in primary schools is down in 12. Extreme poverty remains the fate of over one billion people. And in former Soviet republics — cradle to what has been dismissed as a failed system — poverty had tripled one decade into their liberation from Communism. Seventeen countries in Eastern Europe and the countries that made up the former Soviet Union have hardly become dynamos of prosperity, which should leave anyone with an ounce of gray matter wondering by what standard success is measured; surely not by the majority’s well-being. (3)

After having been demonized for decades by a capitalist establishment bent on making Communism radioactive (along with anyone so cavalier about their standing in polite society to utter a kind word about it) it’s sometimes forgotten, if ever apprehended in the first place, how impressive Communism’s economic achievements were…and still are, considering the barren and poisoned ground in which the lone holdouts have been forced to eke out precarious existences.

Let’s start with the most reviled of the hold-outs: north Korea. The idea that north Korea is a threat to the United States is about as believable as the idea that a colony of ants is a threat to the elephant whose foot hovers three inches over its hill. North Korea hasn’t a single solider stationed outside its borders. Washington, on the other hand, has 37,000 troops deployed, on, or near, the north Korean border, 65,000 troops stationed in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet lurking in nearby waters, and bombers within striking distance. It has dismissed Pyongyang’s pleas to sign a nonaggression treaty, declaring bizarrely that it will not succumb to blackmail. And what has north Korea done to threaten the United States (or to blackmail the country)? It has fired up a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but only after Washington reneged on an agreement to build light water reactors and provide fuel oil shipments. And only after Washington issued a virtual declaration of war, designating north Korea part of “an axis of evil.”

Could a north Korea with one or two crude nuclear bombs pose much of a threat to the United States poised to strike with overwhelming force? Quite the other way around. Indeed, north Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can be said to be a rational response to an overwhelming US threat. And there have been plenty of signs the threat is real.

“This is just the beginning,” a Bush administration official told the New York Times, after US and British troops marched on Baghdad. “I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and north Korea as for Iraq.” (4) The Pak Tribune cited CIA sources that revealed a “list of countries where replacement of government has been declared essential.” (5) The list included north Korea. US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Pyongyang to “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.” (6) It has. “The DPRK (north Korea) would have already met the same miserable fate as Iraq’s had it compromised its revolutionary principle and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its followers for ‘nuclear inspection’ and disarmament,” declared the official daily of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Rodong Sinmun. (7) Later, the government issued this statement: “The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.” (8)

Washington ultra-hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, anticipating similar words US Secretary of state Hilary Clinton would utter seven years later, warned, “north Korea is headed down a blind alley. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not protect it from the real threat to its security, which is the (internal) implosion brought about by the total failure of its system. Indeed the diversion of scarce resources to nuclear weapons and other military programs can only exacerbate the weakness of the (government).” (9) So what’s the choice? Head down a blind alley, or turn over the country to Washington, and the multinational corporations it represents? Who’s the blackmailer?

History has not been kind to the tiny country. The mountainous north was once the center of the peninsula’s heavy industry, the south its breadbasket. The Korean War, which saw US bombers destroy every building in the north over one story, changed that. The north was reduced to rubble. But it rebuilt, and until the 1980s, outpaced the south economically. By 1961, it was self-sufficient in agriculture. North Korean children were better vaccinated than their counterparts in the United States, according to the World Health Organization and United Nations, who commended the country for its delivery of health care. And life expectancy was higher than in the capitalist south. (10)

Then disaster struck. The socialist trading bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of its major trading partners. Oil subsidies from Russia ended. And if that weren’t enough, floods and droughts ravaged crops. Famine followed. But, for a time, the country had enjoyed impressive material gains, an affirmation of what can be achieved outside the capitalist system, even where resources are diverted to defense against an unrelenting foe than remains poised on your borders to strike. Imagine what the country could have achieved without the United States breathing fire down its neck.

Cuba, in many respects, fits the same mold: Astonishing social and economic gains under a communist government, the implacable and unrelenting hostility of the United States, and some backsliding after the collapse of its major trading partners. (The United States has maintained an economic blockade for half a century.) Still, despite these challenges, Cuba is a much kinder and egalitarian place today than it was before the revolution, under the rule of the US-backed Batista regime, when the country’s economy was an appendage of that of the United States. The United States fears Cuba, journalist Seamus Milne observes, not because it is a threat to the safety of US citizens, but because it’s an example of what can be accomplished outside the US dominated capitalist model. (11 )

In 1953, the illiteracy rate in Cuba exceeded 22 percent. Today it is under one percent. Three percent of those over the age of 10 had a secondary school education. Today, almost 60 percent do. Back then, at the height of the sugar harvest, when unemployment was lowest, eight percent were jobless. Today, the unemployment rate is three percent, making Cuba one of the few countries in the world to boast full employment.

Well over 80 percent own their own homes, and pay no taxes. The remainder pays a nominal rent.

No other country has as many teachers per capita. Education is free through university. The country also provides free university educations to 1,000 Third World students every year. And classroom sizes put those of Western industrialized countries to shame.

Health care is free. And while the United States has deployed over 300,000 troops in almost 130 countries to keep markets open to US investment, Cuba has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 Third World countries to heal the sick. (12)

Infant mortality is lower than in any other Third World country and even some Western capitalist countries (it’s higher in Washington, DC.) Life expectancy is 76 years, and is expected to rise. (13) By comparison, the return of capitalism has pushed life expectancy down in former communist countries.

These gains, seldom mentioned in the United States, place the country head and shoulders above other Latin American countries firmly ensconced in the US orbit, for which Washington’s single sustainable model of success continues to deliver grinding poverty, misery, and gross inequality, but the profits necessary to keep the capitalist system afloat and the capitalist class awash in mansions, retinues of servants, stables of luxury cars, exclusive schools and private clubs.

There are elections, and, contrary to Washington’s anti-Cuba propaganda, Cubans do vote. But they don’t choose among two largely identical parties, as in the United States, where the parties, and their candidates, are almost invariably in thrall to, or are representatives of, the capitalist class. As for human rights, Cuba stands as a model of what can be achieved by way of economic and social rights, the basic rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education and jobs, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not recognized as human rights in the United States. (14) Washington, on the other hand, has made a fetish of civil and political liberties, which, in the case of its relations with Cuba, has everything to do with giving its agents in the country, mistakenly called “independent” journalists and “independent” librarians (they’re not independent of Washington, which bankrolls their activities), room to maneuver to organize destabilization, with the object of overthrowing the revolution and banishing economic and social rights in favor of investors’ rights. That Cuba, a poor country, has been able to guarantee the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and jobs, despite trying economic circumstances and US hostility, can be seen as extraordinary, or simply what can be readily accomplished outside the strictures of capitalism. If a poor Third World country, harassed by a powerful neighbor, can deliver high quality health care and education for free, why can’t the world’s richest country do the same? The answer: Capitalism drives towards better profits, not better lives.

Ever since the US-dominated global economy has, with the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism over 10 years ago, more boldly sought purchase everywhere, US military imperialism has run amok, wars of aggression have been started, and poor, and formerly communist, countries have become poorer. The leaders of the Western world declare capitalism to be the single sustainable model of success, but countries that rejected capitalism, and committed to egalitarianism, have done better in terms of guaranteeing economic and social rights than comparison countries, despite difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, those that have rejected egalitarianism in favor of a return to capitalism have regressed. The promises of peace and prosperity that attended Communism’s collapse were a fraud based in the self-interest of a narrow band of wealthy people in the world’s richest countries. That it is a fraud is richly evident in the failed promises and dismal record of the post-communist era.

1. “Where are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces,” GlobalSecurity.Org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm)
2. UPI, January 7, 2002.
3. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.
4. “Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come,” The New York Times, March 23, 2003.
5. “Iran to be US next target: CIA report,” Pak Tribune (Online) March 24, 2003.
6. “U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea ‘Learn from Iraq,” Reuters, April 9, 2003.
7. “North Korea vows to make no concessions,” Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2003.
8. “Administration Divided Over North Korea,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003.
9. “Wolfowitz Visits US Military Base In Korean Buffer Zone,” AFP, June 1, 2003.
10. “Peace, the real resolution to famine in North Korea, ZNet, July 23, 2003.
11. “Why the US fears Cuba,” The Guardian, July 31, 2003.
12. Ibid.
13. Speech by Fidel Castro on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 2003.
14. Karen Lee Wald, “Democracy, Cuba-Style,” Canadian Dimension, July/August, 2003.

Originally written in August 2003, revised and updated May 2010.

U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

By Stephen Gowans

The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.

A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)

Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.

U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”

There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.

While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.

And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.