The many hypocrisies of the Oregon standoff

When an environmentalist takes action to defend a forest in the United States, she risks being labeled a “terrorist.” When an armed right-wing militia member commandeers a forest for his personal profit, he is “standing up to tyranny.” The Oregon standoff that began January 2 demonstrates this hypocrisy, and not only that hypocrisy.

Nor is it only law enforcement and the “justice” system that treats a case such as this differently; the corporate media does as well. Start with what the sheriff of Harney County, the remote southeastern Oregon region where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is located, said:

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

Let’s set aside the laughable idea that a handful of right-wing freeloaders peddling extremist ideologies could be taken seriously. That they have zero chance of sparking anything resembling a mass movement doesn’t negate the seriousness of the standoff. Imagine that a group of African-Americans took up arms and took over a government facility, with an intention of sparking rebellion. How long do you think they would last before every police force that could squeeze itself into the action would storm them with guns blazing and bombs roaring?

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Remember the Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE organization in 1985? Eleven people died and 61 homes were destroyed. Or, more recently, Tamir Rice? A 12-year-old waving a toy gun was killed within two seconds of police arriving; police shot him dead without bothering to demand the toy gun be dropped. Tamir was one of 1,134 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, tragically illustrating that young Black men are nine times more likely to be shot by police than other United Statesians.

Yet in the Oregon takeover, police seem content to wait. This is not a suggestion to storm the refuge headquarters; a peaceful solution should be found. But the contrast with how a White armed group is treated is sharp.

Convicted of two arsons, but they were “accidents”

The militia members purportedly are “defending” father and son ranchers sentenced for two separate arsons of public lands. The corporate media has been portraying these arsons as some unfortunate accident, when the reality is quite different. The New York Times accepts the ranchers’ explanation as fact, publishing this account on January 4:

“Dwight and Steven [Hammond] were convicted of lighting fires, in 2001 and 2006, that they said were efforts to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species. The fire in 2001 accidentally spread to about 140 acres of government land, documents show. In 2006, a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August. Steven Hammond had started a ‘back burn’ to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.”

Oh, gosh, so they were a little overzealous in protecting their ranch, what’s the big deal? So the Times would have us believe. The reality, however, is much more serious, as even a few minutes of investigation reveals. The 2001 fire, a jury found, was set to conceal the illegal slaughter of deer on Bureau of Land Management property. Here is the government account of this incident:

“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’ One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.  … Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”

That relative was the elder Hammond’s grandson, then an adolescent who testified that his uncle gave him matches to start the fire. He found himself surrounded by the fire after being separated from his family, saving himself by sheltering in a creek. In the 2006 fire that also resulted in a conviction for arson, firefighters had to take measures to save themselves from the illegal fires, which were set in defiance of a ban put in place because of the hot and dry weather. The government’s sentencing memorandum gives this account:

“[F]ire fighter Brett Dunten, using a diagram he had drawn, testified that about 10:00 pm on August 22, 2006, there were three spot fires below the rim of Krumbo Butte. The spot fires were 300 to 500 yards from the main fire and more than a mile from the Hammond Ranch property. There were no fires between the main fire and the spot fires.” [citations omitted]

Allegations of child abuse

The grandson, a ThinkProgress article reports, had good reason to “keep his mouth shut” out of fear of his family. He later told a sheriff’s deputy that he had been abused multiple times, being punished by blows, forced to eat cans full of chewing tobacco, being driven 10 miles away and forced to walk home, and after carving two letters into himself with a paper clip having the letters removed with sandpaper.

These are the people that at least some right-wingers are hailing as persecuted heroes and whom the corporate media is sanitizing.

The standoff was prompted, its participants say, by the Hammonds’ imminent return to jail. Although the crimes for which they were convicted require a five-year minimum prison term, a right-wing judge sentenced them to far less. An appeals court overturned the trial judge’s sentence, ordering the Hammonds back to jail to serve out five-year terms. Here again hypocrisy must be noted. Even at five years, for arsons that put other people in jeopardy of their lives, the Hammonds’ sentence contrasts strongly with that of sentences handed down to environmentalists.

Take the notorious case of Jeff “Free” Luers, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for setting fire to three light trucks at an Oregon automobile dealer. Unlike the Hammonds, Mr. Luers took care to commit his arson at a time and in a manner that would cause no physical harm to anyone. Two of the three vehicles were so lightly damaged that they were eventually able to be sold by the dealership. But Mr. Luers committed his 2001 arson for political reasons: To bring attention to global warming, then an issue not so much in the public eye.

It was a poor idea and bad tactics, yes. But it nonetheless was much less severe than what the Hammonds did, yet he received a stiffer punishment, ultimately serving 10 years after an appeals court reduced his sentence. As his lawyer, Lauren Regan, told Democracy Now after he was freed:

“[The sentence] was clearly imposed to send a message. And as Jeff mentioned, even in the federal system, the crime of arson normally carries about a two-year prison sentence. So the fact that this particular act of economic sabotage created very little monetary damage, but yet he, you know, got over ten times what someone who would have committed an arson for a greed purpose would have received, definitely drew the attention of the global community. … [I]t really is sort of a war of ideology in a lot of ways. If the government wants to brand you as a terrorist based on your beliefs or based on your ethical principles, there’s really no way for you to defend yourself of that. And it definitely — you know, from the beginning of the Green Scare, the government has really taken this campaign to the media.”

Corporate origins of environmentalism as “terrorism”

The term “eco-terrorist” was invented by a corporate lobbyist who advocates opening millions of acres of federal land to commercial development and logging. Kyle J. Bohrer of Beloit College, in his paper “ ‘Ecoterrorism’ in the United States: Industry Involvement in Group Prosecution,” elaborates on that, writing:

“Although radical environmentalists engage in illegal activity, they have never killed anyone or specifically targeted individuals with intent to physically harm them. Yet, radical right-wing organizations that have systematically killed doctors that perform abortions have never been labeled as terroristic.”

Now let us look at the ideology animating the militia members’ takeover. The Guardian, quoting Ammon Bundy (son of the infamous Nevada free-riding rancher Clive Bundy, to whom we will return), provided this account:

“ ‘This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country,’ [Bundy] said, inviting like-minded people to bring their weapons and join up. ‘We’re the point of the spear that’s going to bring confidence and strength to the rest of the people.’ He and [Blaine] Cooper blamed the government for the steady decline of family ranching — a slow fall driven by drought, industrial cattle farms, the rise of synthetic textiles and myriad other forces. They also blamed government for the general malaise of many working class Americans, especially in rural areas where coal, oil, manufacturing and agriculture jobs have disappeared over the last 30 years.

‘The government has beat us and oppressed us and took everything from us,’ Cooper told reporters.”

The Guardian report later added this droll observation:

“[Bundy’s] assertion that ‘this refuge rightfully belongs to the people.’ although ripped from conservative rhetoric, is vague enough that it could mean almost anything. Open rights to graze, mine and log the refuge — whether for Harney County residents or every American taxpayer —could mean either a communist utopia of shared wilderness or a free-for-all of capitalist consumption.”

One strongly doubts that the militia members had in mind a communist utopia, or any desire to share the land with others. What seems to have escaped their attention is that it is private corporations, not the government, that have been cutting jobs and shipping jobs overseas. Although it is true that “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are making it easier for multi-national capital to move production, governments are doing so at the behest of the corporations that dominate capitalist societies. Governments are reduced to granting ever more subsidies and giveaways to keep jobs from being moved, and thus are at the mercy themselves of capitalists.

Energy companies are eyeing public lands

The rhetoric that these militia members spout is no different, even if delivered in a different manner, than corporate ideology that seeks the sale of public lands on the cheap. As just one example, a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling national parks. The group argues that restrictions on timber and energy development should be removed to make public lands more profitable before being sold. They are far from alone in such unpopular advocacy.

What those who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge advocate is not an abstract “freedom” from “government tyranny” but a concrete desire to use public lands for their own profit without paying for the privilege. Clive Bundy is the rancher who was involved in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 after the agents attempted to seize some of his cattle for not paying grazing fees. Bundy owes $1.2 million in penalties for ignoring fines and court orders after grazing his cattle on public land for more than two decades.

What we have here is the petit bourgeois version of capitalist ideology, wanting to take from everybody else while paying as little as possible. Freeloading ranchers like Bundy are no different, except in scale, from corporations that don’t pay taxes and demand subsidies.

Neoliberalism equates “freedom” with individualism, but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists. This is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media, and this is the basis of the freedom right-wing militias and their supporters say they want.

Once again, can it be imagined if a Person of Color instigated an armed standoff with police that the result would be, “Oh well, he doesn’t want to pay, let’s go home then.” By refusing to enforce the law against people like Bundy, these militias with their demented phantasmagorical delusions have only been encouraged. The continual shrieking that the government and corporate media is somehow a left-wing cabal can only bring an amused smile to our faces.

Finally, it should be noted that forests in southeast Oregon are in strong need of protection. Most people’s perception of Oregon is of a lush, green land amply watered, but that is only true along the Pacific coast and in the Cascades. The southeast of Oregon is actually a desert, and forests are widely dispersed in highland clusters. For those who enjoy desert scenery, the region has its own beauty. I once spent a night in Burns, the Harney County seat and the area’s main town. In my experience, Burns is one of the friendliest towns I have ever been in, and the townspeople shouldn’t be tarred with the actions of a handful of fanatics who are mostly from out of the state.

On arriving in Burns, on my way to Seattle, I talked to the waiter in a restaurant, and mentioned that I had driven up via Route 395. She winced a bit, saying gently that I “didn’t see us at our nicest.” I replied that, on the contrary, I had really enjoyed the desert scenery and that it was just what I hoping to see, causing her to reply in turn that “I guess you don’t know what you have.” What also stuck in my memory is that she mentioned, in the same tone someone in a city might use to note a two-block walk to the grocery, that her son had been driving that day to Bend, the nearest city, to do his shopping — a four-hour round trip. We are talking remote here, and I suspect many in Burns are not happy that a militia takeover is what is giving the town its 15 minutes of fame.

The rest of us ought not to be happy at yet another expression of greed, especially one not only armed but wrapped in multiple layers of corporate-inspired hypocrisy.

Increased deprivation of capitalism causes half-million deaths

The recent years of austerity and economic dislocation have taken their toll around the world, but this deterioration on top of the already existing harshness of life in the United States has taken a particular toll there. Nearly half a million excess deaths have occurred in the U.S. since 1999.

Specifically, these half-million excess deaths are among middle-aged White non-Hispanic United Statesians, according to a paper by two Princeton University researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS. Widening inequality is seen as a significant factor. This increase in the death rate, reversing historic trends, was limited to the U.S. among advanced capitalist countries and, within the U.S., limited to non-Hispanic Whites. The authors of the paper, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” write:

“This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround. The midlife mortality reversal was confined to white non-Hispanics; black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall. This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” [page 1]

AlcoholFrom 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for U.S. Whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2 percent per year on average, matching the average rate of decline in five comparison countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany). But although, from 1999, other industrial countries continued to see a decline in mortality rates for the middle-aged, the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year, an increase that is unique, Drs. Case and Deaton report.

The authors calculate that if the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rate remained at the 1998 level, 96,000 deaths would have been prevented; had the previous rate of decline continued, a total of 488,500 deaths would have been prevented. The increased mortality rates are accompanied by “a large and statistically significant decline” in those reporting excellent or very good health and a corresponding increase in those reporting fair or poor health. This is a population that had not previously had unusual health results:

“[T]he post-1999 episode in midlife mortality in the United States is both historically and geographically unique, at least since 1950. The turnaround is not a simple cohort effect; Americans born between 1945 and 1965 did not have particularly high mortality rates before midlife.” [page 2]

Deaths other than natural more frequent

A sign of this midlife change is that deaths due to poisonings, suicide, chronic liver disease and diabetes have all increased since 1999. At the same time, however, mortality rates among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Blacks have continued to decline; Black deaths continue to be higher than the rate for Whites but the ratio between the two is narrowing, mostly due to the increased mortality of Whites.

The authors do not speculate on the reason for White deaths to increase in contrast to the trend of minority groups, but we might reasonably conclude that People of Color have had deprivation and economic difficulty imposed on them in greater numbers and more intensely, and thus are experiencing less of a change in historic circumstances than are Whites. The economic downturn that the world has lived through since 2008 certainly hasn’t bypassed People of Color — far from it — but the decline has not spared Whites, a group not as hardened to lower living standards thanks to their privileges.

The authors do gingerly dip their toes into declining living standards and rising inequality. They draw this general conclusion:

“After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education. However, the productivity slowdown is common to many rich countries, some of which have seen even slower grow in median earnings than the United States, yet none have had the same mortality experience. The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.” [page 4]

It is not only the middle-aged who are feeling these deprivations, however.

“[A]ll 5-year age groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.” [page 3]

Worse conditions leads to worse results

It would not be proper to put words in the mouths of Drs. Case and Deaton, but it is possible for us to go beyond the scope of their paper, which is to quantify a previously unnoticed increase in mortality rates and offer general commentary on the macro-economic trends behind it. If we do go further, it could be reasonably concluded that neoliberal austerity — the continual pushing down of living standards, increased deprivation, overwork for those still employed, and increased unemployment or more precarious employment for many others — is a policy that kills.

Wax vanitas, Europe, 1701-1800Contrary to the assertion of Drs. Case and Deaton, productivity did not slow in the early 1970s. Pay slowed. Productivity grew 65 percent between 1979 and 2013 while pay increased eight percent for employees in that period, reports the Economic Policy Institute, and that trend certainly hasn’t reversed itself the past couple of years.

The present capitalist era of neoliberalism, with its increasingly harsh doses of austerity, does not fall out of the sky, but is the logical consequence of the relentless competitive pressures of capitalism and the consolidation of political power by the holders of economic power: industrialists and financiers.

This is hardly the first example of capitalism literally killing — mortality rates in the Soviet Union and other communist countries sharply increased following the imposition of capitalism. Mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc — the “shock therapy” instituted as the imposition of capitalism — is calculated to have led to one million excess deaths, according to a 2009 study published in The Lancet. Alcoholism and poverty skyrocketed in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union; no surprise due to the economy shrinking 45 percent.

For that matter, health results in the U.S. badly lag other industrialized countries because the U.S. health system is designed to generate profits for pharmaceutical, medical-device and insurance companies rather than deliver health care. The U.S. spends an extra $1.15 trillion per year beyond what it would otherwise in comparison to health care spending in Britain, Canada, France and Germany, yet is well below average in life expectancy and infant mortality. About 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance in the United States.

It should come as no surprise that when people have life made more difficult, when the weight of corporate power and the governments that do the bidding of that corporate power constantly press down, health and well-being deteriorate. We ought to draw conclusions.

“Fighting” low pay by distributing crumbs

Two state-level legislative bills seeking to reign in bloated executive pay have the effect of applying a band-aid to a broken leg, but whatever their effect should they become law, perhaps they might stimulate debate. The Rhode Island state Senate is considering a law that would provide an incentive for companies to adopt a maximum wage and a bill in the California state Senate would introduce variable corporate tax rates based on pay ratios.

Although corporate interests are likely to be successful in defeating these bills (both of which are in early stages of the legislative process), they represent at best a tentative attempt to bring about a small reform. But symbols can sometimes be important, and the symbolic value of these bills is what is likely to be distressing to the one percent.

The Rhode Island bill, S. 2796, is under consideration by the state Senate’s Finance Committee, which has recommended it be “held for further study.” Here is the official commentary explaining the bill, which is sponsored by 14 of the state Senate’s 38 members:

“This act would establish a preference in the awarding of contracts for any person or business doing business with the state whose highest paid executive receives compensation and/or a salary equal to or less than thirty-two (32) times the compensation and/or salary paid to its lowest paid full-time employee. This act would take effect on July 1, 2014.”

It would not be mandatory for a contractor doing business with the Rhode Island state government to have this pay ratio; it would merely give such a company an advantage when bidding.

Newport, Rhode Island (photo by Šarūnas Burdulis)

Newport, Rhode Island (photo by Šarūnas Burdulis)

The California bill, S.B. 1372, would replace that state’s current 8.8 percent corporate tax rate with a sliding scale of seven to thirteen percent based on a company’s pay ratio. The highest rate would be paid by corporations in which the chief executive officer makes 400 or more times than the average worker. The bill would also raise by 50 percent the tax rate of any corporation that moves more than 10 percent of its workforce offshore in a given year.

This bill, which has two sponsors, will be difficult to pass due to a California law requiring a two-thirds majority of both houses of the state Legislature to enact a change to the tax code. It is currently in the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

Executive pay rises into the stratosphere

There certainly is reason to reign in executive pay. The ratio of chief executive pay to that of an average worker in the U.S. rose from 42-to-1 in 1960 to 531-to-1 in 2000, when stock options were being cashed in at the height of the stock market bubble. Growing inequality is also demonstrated by these changes from 1990 to 2005, as calculated in a study by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy:

  • Chief executive officers’ pay increased 298 percent.
  • Production workers pay increased 4.3 percent.
  • The purchasing power of the federal minimum wage declined 9.3 percent, adjusted for inflation.

To bring these statistics further up to date, the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO calculates that the chief executive-to-worker pay ratio was 331-to-1 in 2013, up from 50-to-1 in 1983 — a more than sixfold increase in three decades. The AFL-CIO also reports that in 2013 the companies comprising the S&P 500 stock-market index earned $41,249 in profits per employee. So, yes, they can afford to give employees a raise.

The standard argument given for bloated executive compensation is that the recipients “add shareholder value” — that is, they justifiably receive millions or tens of millions of dollars per year because their genius drives up the price of their companies’ stock, thereby creating wealth for stockholders. Although buying stock is, in theory, a bet on a company’s future earnings and therefore its price should rise and fall in concert with a corporation’s financial performance, bubbles fueled by speculation and larger macroeconomic conditions often account for how a stock does.

During the 1990s stock-market bubble, when valuations of publicly traded corporations were historically the most out of line in relation to actual profits, only unusually poorly managed corporations failed to have stock that significantly rose in price. More recently, the run-up in U.S. stock prices that has taken place over the past couple of years is a product of the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program, whereby it buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts. As of the end of December 2013, the Fed had spent a total of $3.7 trillion over five years on this program.

Therefore, it is no shock to discover that actual chief executive officer pay bears little or no relation to the financial results of their corporations. A 2013 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that of the 241 chief executive officers who have been ranked among the 25 highest-paid U.S. chief executives at least once in the past 20 years, almost one-quarter of them headed corporations that either have ceased to exist or received taxpayer bailouts after the 2008 financial crash.

The Institute reports:

“[O]ur analysis reveals widespread poor performance within America’s elite CEO circles. Chief executives performing poorly — and blatantly so — have consistently populated the ranks of our nation’s top-paid CEOs over the last two decades. … In reality, [the] most highly paid executives over the past two decades have added remarkably little ‘value’ to anything except their own personal portfolios.”

And despite the one percent’s prevailing ideology that government only gets in their way, one of out eight of these highest-paid chief executive officers were among the biggest recipients of government contracts — a composite $255 billion in taxpayer-funded government largesse.

Hedge funders get billions for poor results

As the financial industry has swollen in relation to the rest of the economy, pay there is even more out of line with contribution. Speculation pays in fabulous ways: The 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers of 2013 raked in a total of $21.15 billion. Yes, you read that correctly — almost $1 billion apiece in one year. Four hedge-fund managers made more than $2 billion each.

What magic do hedge funders perform that attracts such sums of money? Getting others to believe in their “magic,” it would seem. Bloomberg News reported that, as 2013 was drawing to a close, the composite gains of hedge funds for the year was 7.1 percent, as compared to the 29.1 percent gain of the S&P 500 stock index. In other words, they did worse than random chance. Nonetheless, hedge funds grabbed $50 billion in management fees for this below-average performance.

The Rhode Island legislative bill seeks to define a ratio of 32-to-1 as a “fair standard” for chief executive pay as compared to  employee pay. But isn’t that still an absurdly high ratio by any reasonable standard? By contemporary capitalist standards, such a proposal seems dramatic and has an uphill, at best, chance of passing. But if we were to design an economy that works for everybody, would you propose something anywhere near that lopsided?

Radical activists have been known to summarize the demands of liberals as “longer chains, bigger cages.” Here we have a classic case of that. If you start by asking for crumbs, at best you’ll get small crumbs. Given the immensity of problems the world faces, including declining living standards, surely we deserve much more.

When you are on top, ‘might makes right’ is ‘rule of law’

The Obama administration’s moralistic paeans to the “rule of law” concerning whistleblower Edward Snowden would carry considerably more weight if the United States weren’t continuing to harbor an assortment of ex-dictators and a terrorist who killed dozens in an airplane bombing. As soon as we look under the hood, we see “might makes right” at work, not “rule of law.”

If the U.S. government actually cares about the sanctity of international law, it could start by handing over Luis Posada Carriles, convicted of blowing up a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, to the government of Venezuela. Not only has Mr. Posada has been living in Florida for many years, he has at times worked for the U.S. government since escaping from a Venezuelan jail. Shortly after escaping prison (allegedly thanks to bribes paid by members of the Miami Cuban exile community) he was hired to work on Oliver North’s illegal Nicaraguan Contra supply network, and is suspected of involvement in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1994 and a string of tourist-hotel bombings in the Havana area in 1997.

Mr. Posada, who trained with the CIA in the 1960s, gave an interview to three major U.S. newspapers in 1997 in which he admitted to some of activities. Writing about this topic in 2002 in an article published in BigCityLit, I wrote:

“The Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported Posada’s revelations, which detailed a series of bombings and other terror acts and connections with Cuban exile groups in Miami. Posada, then 70 years old, ‘revealed that key Cuban American lobbyists in this country financed his activities, in apparent violation of U.S. law, while the FBI and CIA looked the other way,’ according to a Los Angeles Times report.”

The National Security Archive, a project of George Washington University that publishes declassified U.S. government documents, provided further details in 2005:

“The National Security Archive today posted additional documents that show that the CIA had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner. The Archive also posted another document that shows that the FBI’s attaché in Caracas had multiple contacts with one of the Venezuelans who placed the bomb on the plane, and provided him with a visa to the U.S. five days before the bombing, despite suspicions that he was engaged in terrorist activities at the direction of Luis Posada Carriles. …

“[A] report from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research on the bombing of Cubana flight 455 … noted that a CIA source had overheard Posada prior to the bombing in late September 1976 stating that, ‘We are going to hit a Cuban airliner.’ This information was apparently not passed to the CIA until after the plane went down. There is no indication in the declassified files that indicates that the CIA alerted Cuban government authorities to the terrorist threat against Cubana planes.”

They said he’s a terrorist, but gave him a pardon anyway

The Cuban and Venezuelan governments have long requested extradition of Mr. Posada, to no avail. Another Cuban exile leader, Orlando Bosch, was granted a pardon by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and lived free in the U.S. for three decades until dying in 2011. Mr. Bosch was also suspected in the Cuban airline bombing and in a series of other terroristic acts. Duncan Campbell, writing in The Guardian, reported a decade ago on him:

“According to US justice department records: ‘the files of the FBI and other government agencies contain a large quantity of documentary information which reflects that, beginning in the early 1960s, Bosch held leadership positions in various anti-Castro terrorist organisations. … Bosch has personally advocated, encouraged, organised and participated in acts of terrorist violence in this country as well as various other countries.’ ”

Lest we be tempted to chalk the above up simply to the U.S. government’s bipartisan obsession with Cuba, we’ve only scratched the surface of U.S. hypocrisy over the “rule of law.” Bolivia, for example, has requested extradition of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. At the time already responsible for the deaths of dozens of protestors, President Sánchez sent his security forces to put down a peaceful rally opposing the selling off of Bolivian gas reserves; 67 were killed and more than 400 injured. He later fled into exile and was formally charged in 2007 with genocide.

The Obama administration refuses to send him back. A report by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian states:

“Bolivia then demanded his extradition from the US for him to stand trial. That demand, ironically, was made pursuant to an extradition treaty signed by Sánchez de Lozada himself with the US. … The view that Sánchez de Lozada must be extradited from the US to stand trial is a political consensus in Bolivia, shared by the government and the main opposition party alike. But on [September 7, 2011], the Bolivian government revealed that it had just been notified by the Obama administration that the US government has refused Bolivia’s extradition request.”

Then there is Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide, who is wanted in India in the wake of the explosion of his company’s Bhopal pesticide plant that killed thousands of people and injured tens of thousands. Indians courts have issued warrants for his arrest, which have been met with silence while he shuttles between houses on the U.S. East Coast.

It’s not only terrorists and corporate criminals who enjoy safe havens in the United States. Amnesty International, in a 2002 report, US is a ‘Safe Haven’ for Torturers Fleeing Justice, estimated that at least 150 torturers were living in the county then, none of whom was brought to justice. The number of torturers that the U.S. has trained, at its School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, is far higher. At the SOA (currently operating under the name of “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”) the U.S. Army trains Latin American military and police officers in torture techniques as part of its curriculum; the countries with the worst human rights records consistently send the most trainees.

If they don’t like terrorists, why do they train them?

The watchdog group School of Americas Watch, in an investigative report written by Bill Quigley, summarizes the work of the SOA:

“[G]raduates of the SOA have been implicated in many of the worst human rights atrocities in the Western Hemisphere, including the assassination of Catholic bishops, labor leaders, women and children, priests, nuns, and community workers and the massacres of entire communities. Numerous murders and human rights violations by SOA graduates have been documented in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay among others. These horrendous acts correspond to part of the school’s curriculum: systematic use of torture and executions to neutralize dissidents.” [page 2]

An article in The Washington Post, a newspaper (despite its long-ago Watergate reporting) that often acts as if it were an official publication of the U.S. government (and which has eagerly joined in the attacks on Edward Snowden), nonetheless reported straightforwardly on the use of torture manuals released by the Pentagon under pressure:

“U.S. Army intelligence manuals used to train Latin American military officers at an Army school from 1982 to 1991 advocated executions, torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion against insurgents, Pentagon documents released yesterday show. Used in courses at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, the manual says that to recruit and control informants, counterintelligence agents could use ‘fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum.’ ”

That was the summation of a newspaper that ordinarily rushes to defend U.S. foreign policy. The techniques it described were not a small part of the curriculum, nor an aberration, as the Post article implied in an attempt to soften the revelation. A former SOA instructor, Major Joseph Blair, told The Progressive:

“I sat next to Major Victor Thiess who created and taught the entire course, which included seven torture manuals and 382 hours of instruction. … He taught primarily using manuals which we used during the Vietnam War in our intelligence-gathering techniques. The techniques included murder, assassination, torture, extortion, false imprisonment. … Literally thousands of those manuals were passed out. … The officers who ran the intelligence courses used lesson plans that included the worst materials contained in the seven manuals. Now they say that there were only eighteen to twenty passages in those manuals in clear violation of U.S. law. In fact, those same passages were at the heart of the intelligence instruction.” [“School of the Americas Critic,” July 1997]

He killed 1,000 a month, but he’s ‘dedicated to democracy’

The SOA continues to operate. One of the graduates of the school is Efrain Ríos Montt, the most blood-thirsty of a series of brutal dictators who ruled through terror in Guatemala. Each of these dictators ruled with the full support of the U.S. following the CIA-organized overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán at the behest of the United Fruit Company, which had previously been the country’s de facto ruler. The succession of dictatorships killed more than 200,000 Guatemalans. The régime of President Ríos Montt murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982, with Ríos Montt himself hailed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan as “totally dedicated to democracy” and unfairly the target of “a bum rap.”

Simultaneously, the Guatemalan military intensified its assaults on Indigenous communities. For example, SOA Watch reports, a Guatemalan special forces unit with extensive ties to the SOA, the Kaibiles, carried out this operation:

“[The unit] entered the village of Las Dos Erres, systematically raped the women, and killed 162 inhabitants, 67 of them children. Current President of Guatemala Otto Peréz Molina, also a graduate of the SOA, spent much of his time in military service as a member of the Kaibiles. This military unit was developed by the Guatemalan government in 1974, and its initial leader was a fellow SOA graduate.”

Among the techniques used by Guatemala’s dictators, according to the book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez, were dropping mutilated bodies from helicopters into crowded stadiums and cutting out the tongues of people who inquired about the “disappearances” of friends and family.

And let us not forget the loyal sidekick of the U.S., Great Britain, which seeks to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden merely for questioning at the same time it refuses to extradite a convicted pedophile, Shawn Sullivan, to stand trial in Minnesota, claiming that the U.S. justice system has a civil commitment program for sex offenders that is too draconian. The Daily Kos reports that the suspect is charged with raping a 14 year old girl and sexually assaulting two 11 year old girls in 1994, but escaped to Ireland.

In no way is Edward Snowden, a whistleblower who has provided a service to humanity, comparable to the murderous rouges gallery described in this article, but the Obama administration might want to meet its obligations under international law before it further strong-arms other countries. But then “rule of law” in a world in which force maintains vast inequality is a euphemism for “rule of the most powerful.”

The intellectual dead end of liberalism

The vacuous concept of the “third way” having degenerated into neoliberal idolatry, modern liberalism has reached its end. Sweeping pronouncements are ordinarily to be avoided, but the revelations of not only the Obama administration’s extraordinary spying campaign but the Democratic Party marching in lockstep with Republicans to celebrate it ought to be the coup de grâce.

(I’m using North American terminology for today; readers in the rest of the world can substitute “social democratic” for “liberal.”) Some difference remains between Democrats and Republicans on social issues, but that gap is shrinking and exists at all only due to social activism. Without pressure from below, that difference might not amount to much, either. The difference arises from the extraordinary social extremism of U.S. conservatism, unique among the mainstream parties of the world’s advanced capitalist countries.

PentagonNorth American liberals and European social democrats have a long history of capitulation — we see the same patterns, whether it is Bill Clinton (and now Barack Obama) in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, Jean Chrétien in Canada & etc. There is something much larger at work than President Obama’s lack of resolve. The sobering conclusion is that his world view is not so different from that of George W. Bush. Democrats have much in common with Republicans.

But, but, but — what about Washington’s notorious gridlock? The rewards of office are at stake and, just like professional athletes, professional politicians who make it to the top levels are highly competitive. They like to win, a rather human emotion, and with a distinct lack of seriousness in tackling any real issue — political, economic or environmental — winning is about the only thing that matters. Fight, team, fight!

The Obama administration’s record

Liberalism has ceased to possess ideas, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. A partial list of Obama administration “achievements” makes for depressing reading:

  • Not simply keeping the Guantánamo Bay gulag open but force-feeding prisoners (torture by any realistic standard).
  • Stepping up the war against dissent through violent suppression of the Occupy movement organized by the Department of Homeland Security, waves of arrests and harassment of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest and harsh reprisals against government whistleblowers, among other offensives.
  • Widespread collection of telephone calls.
  • The gargantuan collection of personal information from online communications.
  • A president arrogating to himself the right to unilaterally kill people anywhere in the world, without a pretense of legal procedure.
  • A continual weakening of women’s fundamental rights to control their own bodies, often by making unilateral capitulations to Republican demands before negotiating.
  • A total failure to reign in “too big to fail” banks and a total failure to prosecute any financial industry executive for the chicanery that precipitated the financial collapse of 2008 and the ongoing stagnation.
  • Unquestioning acceptance of financial industry perspectives on economic matters.
  • Elevation of corporate maximization of profits above all other human considerations, embodied in a steady stream of one-sided trade agreements, the most dangerous one yet the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated in secrecy, with only corporate executives privy to the text.

Let’s not pin this on the personality of one person. Each fresh outrage by the Obama administration is met by a shrug of the shoulders or outright support by Democrats. They are nearly unanimous in their approval of the National Security Agency. They are already united behind policies that exist, regardless of the ideology attached to them, to funnel ever more wealth upward. These two tendencies are not independent of one another.

There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to social democracy, it is trapped by a fervent desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

The political and intellectual leaders of liberalism believe they can discover the magic reforms that will make it all work again. They do have criticisms, even if they are afraid of saying them too loud, but are hamstrung by their belief in the capitalist system, which means, today, a belief in neoliberalism and austerity, no matter what nice speeches they may make.

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority but have the mass media, an array of institutions and the money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

Suppressing dissent is big business

And let us not be fooled by libertarian opposition to government spying; libertarians are among those most strongly rooted in the system. Although any opposition to the National Security Agency’s Stasi state is welcome, libertarians are motivated by an irrational hatred of government — they would rather have the market decide all social questions. But the market is merely the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Moreover, the market has already weighed in — security is big business, a high-profit sector worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year that exists solely as the result of government largesse.

City police departments are now equipped as armies; a web of federal agencies works closely with local law enforcement focused on squelching dissent; and seemingly bottomless sums of money are doled out to finance a network of spying agencies, a proliferation of cameras in public spaces and the militarization of police departments and investigatory agencies.

That is big business, indeed, as a quick summary demonstrates:

  • Lockheed Martin, a military contractor, earned US$2.7 billion on revenues of $47 billion. More than 80 percent of its revenue comes from the U.S. government, mostly from the Department of Defense.
  • Northrop Grumman, a military contractor, earned $2 billion on revenues of $25 billion. Most of its business is with the U.S. government, with much of the rest from various other governments.
  • Boeing, a producer of military aircraft and missile equipment, earned $3.9 billion on revenues of $81 billion. The U.S. government is a primary customer.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton earned $219 million on revenues of $5.8 billion. One-quarter of its revenue came from work for U.S. spying agencies and 98 percent of its revenues comes from work for the U.S. government. Booz Allen had employed whistleblower Edward Snowden.

U.S. government military spending for fiscal year 2014 is projected to account for more than $1.3 trillion, or 47 percent of the federal government’s budget, according to an analysis prepared by the War Resisters League. (The War Resisters calculation includes past military spending not counted toward the regular military budget by the government.)

A government is not an abstract entity; it is an expression of the social forces within a society. The U.S. government — the Obama administration, past administrations and the “permanent government” of the security apparatus and the various bureaucracies — is the enforcer for industrialists’ and financiers’ dominant institutions — corporations — and many of those corporations profit handsomely from the equipment, materiel and services they sell to the government that provides their muscle. This is bankrupt, whether the liberal or conservative version.

Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]

Solo geniuses who scorn the society that provides the shoulders they sit on

By Pete Dolack

The lone inventor is an archetype of long standing. The image remains, but, particularly in the United States, the image of the inventor has morphed from Thomas Edison and his cluttered laboratory to the hard-charging entrepreneur who single-handedly builds businesses.

The change in imagery mirrors the emphasis on wealth in U.S. popular culture, and the tendency to either defer to or scorn people based on perceptions of their wealth. Such imagery also serves as a particularly enticing carrot to dangle in front of those who aren’t millionaires, allowing them to entertain ideas that, if only they work hard enough, they too can accumulate fortunes.

Nobody creates a product, builds a company or makes a scientific discovery all on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies who create the demand for the product. For scientific discoveries, there are public investments in equipment or laboratory facilities, and scientific discoveries are often the basis for new products. For any of these, there are schools and universities, often paid for with public money, that provided the education that developed the skills of the creator or discoverer.

Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete. (We’ll set aside for now the fact that inheritance is the path most often trod to wealth.)

It appeared that the foundation of financial success was going to become a focus of the otherwise intellectually arid presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For one day last week (prior to the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado) the two campaigns traded barbs over a speech President Obama made the previous week in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he pointed out that business leaders often ignore the social capital behind their success. He said:

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t, look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”

There is nothing in the above quote that should strike any rational U.S. citizen as controversial. President Obama made the requisite genuflection to “American exceptionalism” — an ultra-nationalistic slogan used within the United States to portray the country as superior to all others in all categories, a vapid capitulation to xenophobia that is mandatory for any major office-holder. But in this specific context, “this unbelievable American system” is not out of place since the subject at hand is the ability to amass wealth. Having made the ritualistic genuflection, the president felt free to acknowledge that government investment is behind many a private fortune (or perhaps he accepts he has to do something to recapture the populist image he crafted in 2008 after spending most of first term thumbing his base in the eye).

Government research, after all, did create the Internet; President Obama did not mention that government research created the World Wide Web, perhaps because it was European, rather than U.S., money that created that. Private businesspeople simply found ways to get rich off what others invented. Thus we have the spectacle of Microsoft founder Bill Gates becoming for a time the richest person on Earth because his company aggressively wields its monopoly status in personal-computer operating systems while making inferior products at the same time the people who invented the Internet and its architecture earned no fortunes.

Mr. Gates’ billions enables him to be a prime mover behind the privatization of education and compels the corporate mass media to portray him as a genius whose every word is a golden pearl. The inventors of the Internet and its architecture — although it is their work in government laboratories that made possible the Silicon Valley moguls’ fortunes — are obscure. Indeed, we would have to do research to learn their names.

There are many examples of industries similarly booted up by government investment — among them, cellphones, GPS technology and medical equipment. That is a simple fact; it is only the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology that makes such a statement in any way controversial. The Obama administration bends over backwards to benefit business: Showering subsidies on them, giving bailouts with no strings attached, promoting their interests with “free trade” agreements with a variety of countries, and discarding most of his promises to ease the extreme tilt against employees in labor relations.

Indeed, one of the very first people President Obama picked to staff his administration was Lawrence Summers, one of the leading ideologues of neoliberalism. Mr. Summers has distinguished himself in various ways, including in imposing austerity on Russia and other countries from posts at the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department. He once infamously, while the World Bank’s chief economist, wrote in an internal memo that Africa was “vastly UNDER-polluted” (emphasis in original) and “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

So said the person whom President Obama picked to be his lead economic adviser. During the 2008 campaign, the public’s exhaustion with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their administration’s unilateral foreign policy led to Barack Obama becoming the embodiment (realistically or not) of a widely desired change. At the same time, the disapproval of a significant number of capitalists over the narrowness of the Bush II/Cheney administration in promoting the interests of a handful of industries (in particular energy) instead of pursuing more general business interests and a desire for a White House that would be less quick to alienate allied countries led to an unusual split among elites who normally overwhelmingly prefer Republicans.

The interests of powerful capitalists and the interests of the rest of the country are far from aligned, and it should come as no surprise that the interests of capitalist elites are dominant in the Obama administration. The capitalist elites who backed him desired a calm, steady hand at the helm of empire, and that is what they have received: Military interventions are coordinated with allied capitalist countries, the fig leafs of United Nations resolutions are obtained, Nato allies are treated as partners (albeit junior partners) and not as flunkies to be ordered about; a soothing public demeanor to mask harsh policies; and conducting the arm-twisting of foreign governments behind closed doors. Those elites are dependent on selling their products in stable foreign markets.

It is precisely the concept of “American exceptionalism” that provides a crucial ideological underpinning for unending interference in the affairs of other countries. All presidents have to carry out the duties of the belief in “American exceptionalism” and could do not do so without a firm personal belief in it themselves. A president or any other high government official can (and does) convince themselves of their duty to act on the “exceptionalism” but all that is exceptional is that it happens to be the United States that is the center of the capitalist system and possesses the military muscle to maintain it.

The “duty” carried out in the name of this “exceptionalism” is a “duty” to assert the interests of multi-national corporations. That the country voted by a solid majority to put an end to wars and corporate domination was of no consequence.

Having low expectations for the president, I did not expect “change,” although the extent of the willingness of the Obama administration to give almost nothing to its base is a surprise. For some time, it is has been apparent that the main theme of the re-election campaign would be “You have to vote for us, the Republicans are even worse.” But it is useless to see this in terms of “selling out” or “ineptitude” or “softness.” The Obama administration is simply reflecting the dominant sources of power within the U.S., and that is not going to change without a countervailing mass movement.

Governments around the world are at the mercy of the largest capitalists within the advanced capitalist countries; interests that are distilled into the pressures applied by financial markets. A country at the center of the world capitalist system, the United States, experiences such pressures primarily from its domestic capitalists, although those capitalists’ business interests are intimately tied with peer capitalists around the world in today’s global economy. Most countries experience market pressures as external forces.

As an example, let us briefly examine South Africa in its first years after the apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the African National Congress. During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.”* The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; and nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry” and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.

Although the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets) and South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal countries. The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.

But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave everything away. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.

The mythology that markets know best is intimately linked with the mythology that the economy should be entrusted to financial elites and those elites’ intellectual servants, neoclassical economists. The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth.

The “magic of the market” takes care of the compensation. For a young, growing company, the preferred route is the initial public offering. The IPO does indeed shower riches upon the founder, a small circle of his or her insiders, and the investment banks who take care of the details. If that money comes out of the wallets of everyday investors, well that’s the market for you. This system reached near-perfection in the Facebook IPO earlier this year. The key to an IPO is to price the stock high enough so that the money largely accrues to the insiders (who possess most of the stock through pre-IPO awards) but not so high that the stock price plummets afterward (making the scam too obvious) nor so low that a significant post-IPO stock-price rise means that some money was lost to investors.

Thus Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wound up with $18 billion, Facebook’s investment bankers and insiders received substantial windfalls and all those who bought in after the opening bell are out of luck. The stock price never has returned to its opening-day level. Oh well, a “long-term hold” as they say in financial-analyst circles.

Facebook’s current popularity is undeniable, but what of value did Mr. Zuckerberg create? Perhaps Facebook will be an exception, but Internet sites tend to be cyclical fads. What was once popular can rapidly become passé. Does he, or anyone, really deserve $18 billion for a few years of work? Did he work tens of thousands of times harder than the average employee of a U.S. company? Remember, what he, and other Internet moguls, created was built on the creation of people who didn’t get rich or famous, and who created it through public investment — that is, in a government facility.

It would seem that the carrot of a multibillion-dollar payoff is not necessary for technical progress. People invent, people create works of art, people write, people aspire every day without outlandish renumeration. Often without it at all. Inventions are made routinely in government laboratories, in university laboratories and in corporate laboratories — and in each of these, it is the government, university or corporation and not the inventor who owns the rights to the invention. Many others toil on their own to create an invention, with only slim chances of making a fortune out of it. Some of these people undoubtedly are motivated by the potential for enrichment, but the overwhelmingly majority will never see it — either they will fail, or their success will lead to little or no money.

Why should one person amass $18 billion and so many other get nothing? Why should a lucky handful of people amass billions of dollars and then get to claim they did it all on their own with no help at all? President Obama’s reference to “this unbelievable American system” is true here in the sense that a few people are able to amass fantastic riches. But it is glaring inequality that enables the accumulation, and the accumulation comes on the backs of employees. Without a system that does not simply tolerate, but celebrates and causes, massive inequality, the superrich whom Governor Romney is so fast to promote as solo geniuses who had no help (no surprise as this is the myth he spins for himself) would not be the superrich.

Without the infrastructure that government provides in the form of educational institutions, a court system that adjudicates commercial disputes, means of coercion such as police and the military to suppress dissent at home and abroad, an ever larger basket of subsidies, “free trade” agreements that promote corporate interests above human rights, and a transportation infrastructure such as expressways that are mostly free, billionaires would not be able to become billionaires. And yet they continually whine that “government” is in the way.

In a better world, government would be the product of public demand and benefit. Instead, it is the reflection of the arrayed social forces within a given society — in an advanced capitalist country, that is its most powerful industrialists and financiers. The constant chatter of government “getting in the way” of business interests and of entrepreneurial geniuses single-handedly creating wealth should be laughed at for the joke those mythologies are.

* This and the next two paragraphs based in part on Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, pages 194-217 [Metropolitan Books, 2007]