Military spending is the capitalist world’s fuel

It is common for activists to decry the enormous sums of money spent on the military. Any number of social programs, or schools, or other public benefits could instead be funded.

Not least is this the case with the United States, which by far spends the most of any country on its military. The official Pentagon budget for 2015 was $596 billion, but actual spending is far higher. (Figures for 2015 will be used because that is the latest year for which data is available to make international comparisons.) If we add military spending parked in other portions of the U.S. federal government budget, we’re up to $786 billion, according to a study by the War Resisters League. Veterans benefits add another $157 billion. WRL also assigns 80 percent of the interest on the budget deficit, and that puts the grand total well above $1 trillion.

The War Resisters League notes that other organizations estimate that 50 to 60 percent of the interest would be more accurate. Let’s split the difference — if we assign 65 percent of the interest payments to past military spending (midway between the high and low estimates), then the true amount of U.S. military spending was $1.25 trillion. Yes, that is a gigantic sum of money. So gigantic that it was more than the military spending of every other country on Earth combined.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

China is second in military spending, but far behind at US$215 billion in 2015, according to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia ($87.2 billion), Russia ($66.4 billion) and Britain ($55.5 billion) round out the top five. And lest we chalk up the bloated Pentagon budget to the size of the U.S. economy, the official $596 billion budget constituted 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product, the fourth-highest ratio in the world, while China spent 2.1 percent of its GDP on its military. But if we use the actual total of U.S. military spending, then U.S. spending as a share of GDP leaps to second place, trailing only Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. maintains military bases in 80 countries, and has military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories. Another way of looking at this question is the number of foreign military bases: The U.S. has around 800 while the rest of the world combined has perhaps 30, according to an analysis published in The Nation. Almost half of those 30 belong to Britain or France.

Asking others to pay more is endorsing imperialism

Is there some sort of altruism in the U.S. setting itself up as the gendarme of the world? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but such self-deception is widespread, and not just among the foreign-policy establishment.

One line of critique sometimes heard, especially during this year’s presidential campaign, is that the U.S. should demand its allies “pay their fair share.” It’s not only from Right-wing quarters that phrase is heard, but even from Left populist Bernie Sanders, who insisted during this month’s Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton that other members of NATO ought to pay more so the Pentagon budget can be cut. Senator Sanders said this in the context of pointing out the superior social benefits across Europe as compared to the U.S., but what it really implies is that militarism is justified.

Setting aside that Senator Sanders’ record on imperialism is not nearly as distant from Secretary Clinton’s as his supporters believe, it is a reflection of how deeply imperialism is in the bones of United Statesians when even the candidate positioning himself as a Left insurgent doesn’t seriously question the scale of military operations or their purpose.

So why is U.S. military spending so high? It’s because the repeated use of force is what is necessary to maintain the capitalist system. As top dog in the world capitalist system, it’s up to the U.S. to do what is necessary to keep itself, and its multi-national corporations, in the driver’s seat. That has been a successful project. U.S.-based multi-nationals hold the world’s highest share in 18 of 25 broad industrial sectors, according to an analysis in New Left Review, and often by commanding margins — U.S. multi-nationals hold at least a 40 percent global share in 10 of those sectors.

A partial list of U.S. interventions from 1890, as compiled by Zoltán Grossman, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington state, lists more than 130 foreign military interventions (not including the use of troops to put down strikes within the U.S.). Consistently, these were used to impose U.S. dictates on smaller countries.

At the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. President William Howard Taft declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad. Taft overthrew the government of Nicaragua to punish it for taking a loan from a British bank rather than a U.S. bank, and then put Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control and handed two U.S. banks control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad. Little has changed since, including the overthrows of the governments of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973), and more recently the invasion of Iraq and the attempted overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

Muscle men for big business

We need only recall the statement of Marine Corps general Smedley Butler, who summarized his highly decorated career in 1935, in this manner:

“I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

The bipartisan refusal to acknowledge this is exemplified in U.S. narratives concerning the Vietnam War. The “debate” that is conducted in the corporate media is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Never mind that tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam were greater than what was dropped by all combatants in World War II combined, 3 million Vietnamese were killed, cities were reduced to rubble and millions of acres of farmland was destroyed. By what sane measure could this be said to be fighting “without really trying,” as Right-wing mythology still asserts?

No modern corporate enterprise would be complete without subcontracting, and the Pentagon has not stinted here. That is not a reference to the massive, and often guaranteed, profits that military contractors enjoy as more supply operations are handed over to connected companies, but rather to the teaching of torture techniques to other militaries so that some of the dirty work of maintaining capitalism can be undertaken locally.

military bases surround RussiaThe U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas, lately masquerading under the deceptively bland-sounding name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has long been a finishing school for the personnel enforcing the rule of military and civilian dictatorships throughout Latin America. Major Joe Blair, who was the director of instruction at the School of the Americas from 1986 to 1989, had this to say about the curriculum:

“The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them—and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”

The change of the name more than a decade ago was cosmetic, Major Blair said while testifying at a 2002 trial of School of the Americas protestors:

“There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names and use the same manuals.”

The entire history of capitalism is built on violence, and violence has been used to both impose and maintain the system from its earliest days. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession of the commons, draconian laws forcing peasants into factories and control of the state to suppress all opposition to economic coercion built capitalism. The forms of domination change over the years, and are often financial rather than openly militaristic today (although the armed fist lurks in the background); regardless, exploitation is the lifeblood of wealth. Demanding that the cost of this should be spread around is a demand to continue exploitation, domination and imperialism, and nothing more.

Colonialism and nationalism in the building of liberation movements

The Sandinistas, in their difficulties with the Indigenous peoples of the Atlantic, had not reflected on the irony of being on the opposite side of the nationalist equation than they were when, as the representatives of Nicaragua, they encountered the United States. It had not initially occurred to the Spanish-speaking majority of Nicaragua that they, too, walked in the shoes of a colonialist. Larger nations have long dominated smaller nations, but a nation can be both a larger and a smaller nation at the same time, in relation to various other nations.

Nicaragua, a small country of 3 million, was long the plaything of far larger neighbors. But Nicaragua is an artificial construct: the dominant people of Spanish descent are dominant because their ancestors decimated the people who had already lived there. The concept of a Nicaraguan nationality is itself a legacy of colonialism, but also the peculiarities of local geography. Why are there seven countries on the narrow strip of land between Mexico and Colombia? Five of those countries, all speaking the same language, were part of a single Central American Federation. Yet that federation broke apart, unlike Mexico, because communication and travel were so difficult due to the mountainous terrain.

Over time, patriotisms developed, separate in each country created by the breakup. Domination by more powerful countries, and repeated direct interventions in the twentieth century by the latest, and most powerful yet, of those more powerful countries helped forge strong national identities. But those identities did not include the people who were already there, and had seen their numbers decimated through war, disease and plunder—in plain language, through a hemispheric genocide. It is easy to understand a colonial relationship when you are on the wrong end; it is far more difficult to understand this when you are on the power side of the equation.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Nicaragua’s nationalism was forged in its colonial relationship to the European powers and then to the United States. Augusto Sandino was able to articulate these feelings, and Sandino’s writings and example were strong enough to form a key pillar of a movement decades later. But as the majority Nicaraguans found their voices, found the confidence to create a revolution and to attempt to develop their culture free of colonial domination, the minorities in their midst, the descendants of those Indigenous nations decimated centuries earlier, felt themselves oppressed by those very same people who were so motivated by their own oppression at the hands of the giant neighbor to the north.

The movement of the majority, the Sandinistas, were not oblivious to their country’s history nor to the minorities of the Atlantic east, and were acutely aware of the poverty, underdevelopment and cultural trampling endured by the Indigenous minorities. But the Sandinistas had thought and acted in a mechanical manner, and so, initially, inflamed rather than soothed.

“The Left here did not incorporate anthropological concepts because it was married completely to the strict classical scheme: bourgeoisie versus proletariat without analyzing the cultural differences and the ‘civilizing’ conflicts that took place,” is the assessment of journalist and feminist activist Sofía Montenegro, who was one of the leading figures of the official Sandinista newspaper, Barricada. “What has happened here is not a mixing of the races but a clash of two civilizations, the Occidental and the Indigenous, in which one imposed itself on the other but was never able to completely conquer it.”

Marxist difficulties with nationalism

Marxism’s practitioners have often had a difficult time coming to terms with nationalism. The downgrading of the nation-state was articulated clearly in the movement’s most important early document, The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The two wrote: “The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got…National differences between peoples are daily vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”

Corporate globalization is not a new phenomenon, although of course the process has vastly accelerated since those words were written in the nineteenth century. Despite the increasing cross-cultural fertilizations in which better communications and increased commerce played no small role, the strength of nationalism only increased through the nineteenth century as disunited nations such as Germany and Italy struggled to unify their many pieces and other nations struggled to end their domination by stronger powers.

Those ongoing developments led to a current within Marxist theory that saw a difference between the nationalism of a colonial power and that of a captured nation seeking to throw off the hegemony bonding it. Self-determination for all nations had to be backed and therefore support should be given to independence movements. Independence was the right of all peoples in the name of self-determination. But it was also believed that national struggles were a “distraction” for the vast majority of a nation in that as long as they were oppressed by another nation they would not be able to fight for their emancipation as a class—they would not be able to free themselves of their domination by their native capitalists and aristocracy.

Humans can have multiple motivations, of course. World War I provided an excellent example: Nationalism was whipped up successfully in order to get millions to willingly fight a war that was fought to determine the capitalist division of the world’s resources. There was no other way to get those millions to fight. The war had to be brought to an end when those millions started to think more in terms of class, and of their common interests with the soldiers in the opposite trench, rather than in solely national terms. Very different feelings were unleashed, thanks to bitter practical experience.

Nationalism seen as a distraction from class

But the nonetheless still living body of nationalism continued to engender strong debates among the various strains of Marxism. A forceful argument against advocacy of self-determination of nations was put forth by Rosa Luxemburg, one of the outstanding contributors to twentieth-century political theory. Regardless of how valid a reader finds Luxemburg’s argument, she had the moral authority to make it. She was triply oppressed—as a woman in a male-dominated world, as a Jew in a Central Europe riddled with anti-Semitism and as a Pole (until the last days of her life, Poland was occupied and divided among three empires: Tsarist Russia, Prussian-dominated Germany and monarchal Austria-Hungary). Luxemburg adamantly refused to endorse independence for her native Poland, or any other nation.

It's Not Over cover“[T]he duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations’…[but] arises solely from the general opposition to the class régime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism…The duty to resist all forms of national oppression [under an apolitical ‘right of nations’] does not include any explanation of what conditions and political forms” should be recommended, Luxemburg wrote in 1909. Generic calls for self-determination don’t provide any analysis of underlying social conditions and therefore cannot provide a guide to action.

A further basic weakness of generic calls for self-determination, Luxemburg argued, is that they do not take into consideration the highly differentiated status of nations. “The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very outset condemns all small nations to political impotence,” she wrote. “Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Further, within each nation, there exist a multitude of interests that cannot be reconciled. “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous sociopolitical entity does not exist,” Luxemburg wrote.

“Rather, there exist within each nation classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights.’ … There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner. If we find in the history of modern societies ‘national’ movements, and struggles for ‘national interests, ’ these are usually class movements of the ruling strata of the bourgeoisie, which can in any given case represent the interest of the other strata of the population only insofar as under the form of ‘national interests’ it defends progressive forms of historical development.”

Luxemburg here argued that movements for national independence or self-determination are effectively controlled by the nation’s capitalists who, by virtue of their economic dominance, will control the movement to establish their own narrow rule and thereby subjugate the working people of the nation. Therefore, only the widespread adoption of socialist economic relations can truly free the working people of any nation.

Seventy years after those words were written, the capitalists of Nicaragua indeed sought to control the liberation movement of their country. Nicaragua wasn’t fighting for independence in the formal sense, but it was a country with very little self-determination. In the modern system of capitalism, the interests of local capitalists in subordinate countries align with the capitalists of the dominant nation. The interests of the Nicaraguan plantation owners and industrialists were simply to rid themselves of their local dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and establish their own rule. Rule by these local capitalists would be dependent on capitalists from the dominant power, through the medium of multinational corporations, and therefore compatible.

When direct rule of a colonized nation is no longer possible because of resistance, formal “independence” is granted, but a compliant dictator can be put in charge. When the rule of the dictator is no longer viable, a more “modern” form of domination is put in place, the rule of a local oligarchy. The local industrialists and plantation owners are ready to step in and assume domination of society; eager to fulfill what they see as their natural role, they seek to topple the dictator. Nicaragua’s capitalists could not do that on their own (they are numerically minuscule) and so joined the rapidly building mass liberation movement in an attempt to wrest the movement’s leadership from the Sandinistas. The capitalists were unable to do so because the working people of Nicaragua took an expanded, rather than narrow, view of self-determination, and this understanding led them to swell the ranks of Sandinista organizations.

But should nationalism be ‘skipped’ as a stage?

But although Nicaraguans were aware of their class interests, and that their liberation necessitated changes in their societal institutions and social relations, nationalism played a significant role. Sandinista National Liberation Front co-founder Carlos Fonseca had helped create the FSLN’s philosophy by skillfully blending the nationalism of Sandino with Marxism. The importance of nationalism was a consequence of the force of colonialism upon Nicaragua. Therefore, for the colonized, nationalism can potentially play a partly progressive role if it is combined with other political ideas. Another outstanding political theorist, Frantz Fanon, writing in the middle of the twentieth century at the peak of the Global South’s national liberation movements, argued that nationalism is an important stage that can’t be skipped.

National and racial differences are used to create and continue colonial situations, Fanon argued, and therefore, for the colonized, this divide adds to the complexities of a class analysis.

“In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the pre-capitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be re-examined here. The serf is essentially different from the knight, but a reference to divine right is needed to justify this difference in status. In the colonies the foreigner imposed himself using his cannons and machines. Despite the success of his pacification, in spite of his appropriation, the colonist always remains a foreigner.”

The urban and rural working people of Nicaragua could not free themselves without “kicking out” the foreigner (the US commercial interests that dominated their country) and instead institute balanced trading relationships with interests outside their borders. No colonized country can attempt such a liberation without developing a sense of itself as a nation, and that sense of nationhood can’t be separated from the differences between the newly awakened nation and the nation that dominates it. During Nicaragua’s domination, just as throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, these differences were pointed to by the colonizing power as justification for the colonial nature of the relationship.

It is the recovery of nationalism, Fanon wrote, that provides the basis for an independence struggle. “A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models…The nation is not only a precondition for culture…it is a necessity. Later on it is the nation that will provide culture with the conditions and framework for expression.” It is impossible to skip this stage of development. “Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims,” Fanon wrote.

“The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture. ”

Sandinistas used national understanding as a scaffold

Fanon wrote as a Caribbean activist deeply involved in Algeria’s 1950s struggle against brutal occupation by France, and so it may seem that his expressions of nationalism and equating those expressions with a definition of culture are too strong, but if a people are oppressed on a national basis, then it is only natural that a culture takes on that oppression in that form. It is not necessary to agree with Fanon’s elevation of nationalism to such heights to find merit in his formulation. The course of the past century demonstrated the validity of Fanon’s theories: Nationalism has been, and continues to be, an extremely powerful political force.

Fanon’s integration of nationalism (grounded in profound sympathy for the distortions imposed by colonialism) with Marxism provides a more realistic analysis than Luxemburg’s dismissal of national liberation movements. Not because Luxemburg’s analysis of the lack of autonomy for the world’s smaller nations is incorrect (in fact, it was fully accurate then as it still is today) but because it, to use Fanon’s phrase, “skips” an important stage of development. A national consciousness bound together Nicaraguans in the struggle against Somoza, but rather than make that struggle a purely nationalist movement, the Sandinistas built upon nationalism, using it as a scaffolding upon which they erected a much larger understanding of what would be needed for Nicaraguans to liberate themselves. A struggle against an internal dictator, underdevelopment, lack of education and external domination is necessarily, in part, a cultural struggle.

Such a struggle by a national majority, however, inevitably contains differences from the concurrent struggle experienced by national minorities, and these differences, too, are cultural. The Sandinistas, to their credit, did come to understand, in a concrete manner rather than in their previous abstract theoretical manner, that they had to provide sufficient space for their own minority nations to develop their culture, and that those minority cultures had been stultified to a degree more severe than their own cultural underdevelopment.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Katherine Hoyt, The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy [Ohio University Press, 1997]; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [Washington Square Press, 1964]; “The National Question and Autonomy (Excerpts),” Rosa Luxemburg, anthologized in Paul Le Blanc (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings [Humanity Press, 1999]; and Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth [Grove Press, 2004]

Belief in capitalism as a material force

Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.

That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.

It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.

Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.

Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.

Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs

But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”

One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:

“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’

‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”

Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.

The hegemony of ideas that serve elites

How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:

“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”

Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:

“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”

A result of this “social hegemony” is:

“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”

Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom

Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:

“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power.” [page 106]

Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002 (photo by William M. Connolley)

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)

In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.

Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.

An array of institutions to convey one basic message

There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.

Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.

If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.

The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.

Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.

Marching on Monsanto and its government protectors

Controlling and knowing what we eat should be a fundamental human right beyond questioning. That it is not sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of cities around the world on May 23, the third annual March on Monsanto.

People on every continent save Antarctica participated in a March on Monsanto — demonstrations took place in 452 cites in 48 countries in opposition to Monsanto Company’s attempt to gain control over the world’s food. More than 200 U.S. cities, 47 Canadian cities, 22 French cities and 13 Argentine cities were among the places hosting organized marches.

One of the earliest rallies was in Sydney, where an organizer told the RT television network:

“This company has repeatedly committed, I would say, crimes against the Earth and what we are trying to show is accountability for corporations. Also we want to promote clean food. Food that’s free of pesticides, which our grandparents just called food.”

RT, in an online roundup of events around the world, also noted that protestors in Berlin, one of 10 German demonstrations, made connections among health concerns even though there is no commercial cultivation of food containing genetically engineered organisms in the country, and GMO bans exist in nine of Germany’s 16 states and in hundreds of municipalities. RT reported:

“Germany’s capital Berlin saw a big turnout even though Germany does not use Monsanto’s seeds. However, activists say local farmers still use Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, which end up leaving traces in breast milk of feeding mothers, the water supply and even urine of people who have not eaten GMO products.”

March Against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto

The struggle against dangerous pesticides received a boost earlier in the month in Germany when the country’s state consumer protection ministers called for a ban on glyphosate throughout the European Union. According to the online news publication EurActiv, E.U. approval of glyphosate expires at the end of 2015 and the E.U. bureaucratic arm, the European Commission, is conducting a safety review. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a business worth an estimated $10 billion to Monsanto. The company not only sells lots of the herbicide but also agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment. The use of  glyphosate on U.S. farms increased from 11 million pounds in 1987 to almost 300 million pounds in 2013.

What you don’t know might hurt you

There is plenty of reason for concern. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a study, published in The Lancet, that found glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen. Other studies, including a 2013 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology, have also reported health concerns. Further, a 2011 Earth Open Source paper, titled “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” says that the European Union and the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety cites “unpublished industry studies to back its claim that glyphosate was safe,” while ignoring or dismissing independent studies that indicate glyphosate causes endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer and birth defects.

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

Then there are the dangers of GMO foods, an area unfortunately quite under-studied. GMO labeling is required by 64 countries, including Australia, Japan and all 28 E.U. countries. Such laws are fiercely opposed by Monsanto and other multi-national agribusinesses, and they thus far have succeeded in keeping labeling laws from being enacted in the U.S. These corporate efforts to undermine food safety are part of the agenda behind the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Marchers against Monsanto took to calling the TPP and TTIP the “Global Monsanto Protection Acts.” One of the goals of those two so-called “free trade” deals is to eliminate the ability of governments to ban or even effectively regulate GMOs, and to ban any labeling of them. Monsanto and other agribusinesses repeatedly claim that GMOs are safe and healthy, but if that is so, why do they put so much effort into hiding them? Biotechnology companies spent $27 million lobbying for GMOs in the U.S. in just the first six months of 2014.

Should the TPP and TTIP come into force, nobody in the 40 countries that encompass these two agreements will be able to know what is in the food they eat or to have effective protection against food that may not be safe to eat.

Already we being used as laboratory experiments, and this will accelerate if Monsanto gets its way.

Water down laws, then dilute some more

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade, and much to do with eliminating regulations, lowering standards and eliminating health, safety and environmental laws in favor of maximizing corporate profits. The “harmonization” that is promoted in these agreements has meant reducing standards to the lowest possible level. Thus, European regulations on GMOs and food labeling will be targeted as “barriers” to trade under the TTIP because those standards are higher than U.S. rules.

Pesticide Action Network Europe notes that the process of European harmonization has already watered down regulations. In its position paper on the TTIP negotiations, PAN Europe says:

“Health standards already now do not sufficiently protect people and the environment and costs are already externalised massively to society in terms of health care (pesticide residues in food/water, contamination of rural citizens), soil deterioration (fertilizers), biodiversity decline (monocultures, pesticides), climate change (fertilizers and deforestation for soy/palm cultivation) and subsidies (taxpayers’ money). … Let’s take the example of pesticide residue food standards. They were harmonised at European level already in 2009 and indeed the least strictest food standards anywhere in Europe were chosen for harmonisation. Soon it was shown that this was a wrong approach. … Cumulative effects of residues are not calculated and the unscientific single-exposure approach maintained.”

Already, an E.U. paper that could have led to the banning of as many as 31 pesticides was not acted on because of heavy pressure from chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A delegation of U.S. chemical-industry lobbyists and U.S. trade officials insisted that the E.U. drop proposals to ban the use of the pesticides despite health concerns.

Just as it is asked why Monsanto and other agribusinesses don’t want you to know what is in your food, we must ask why they don’t want us to know what is in the “free trade” agreements being negotiated on their behalf.

Legislators provide a backup plan

Perhaps as a backup in case the mounting public opposition to the TPP and TTIP succeeds in scuttling them, a Kansas Republican, Mike Pompeo, has cooked up a bill with the Orwellian name of “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (Bill H.R. 1599) in the House of Representatives. H.R. 1599 was introduced on March 25 and is a re-introduction of the previous Congress’ H.R. 4432, which failed to become law. The bill’s stated purpose is: “To amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.” Well, yes, but in what way?

The devil is indeed in the details here. Activists at Food Democracy Now sound the alarm this way:

“This plan is so devious that it radically speeds up the approval process for new GMO crops, limits the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and [Department of Agriculture]’s ability to extend premarket safety reviews, declares GMO foods ‘safe’ and redefines genetically engineered foods as ‘bioengineered’ in order to sanitize this deeply flawed technology to the American public.”

A Daily Kos analysis notes that the bill would create a federal law banning any state or locality from enacting a GMO labeling law. The bill would also prohibit organic natural foods from being marketed as safer or better than GMO counterparts. It would also make it nearly impossible for a farmer to achieve organic certification:

“But most sinister is what I will call the bill’s virtual protection racket. It works like this. As a small organic farmer, if I want to market my product as GMO-free, I must ensure that the entire path to market — from seed to harvest to processing to transportation to distribution — is certifiably GMO-free. If my product shares any infrastructure with known GMO foods, I cannot claim being a GMO-free. … The burden of proof therefore is prohibitively expensive for a typical small farmer, which is what Monsanto, Dow et al are counting on.”

Taking on Monsanto is already difficult. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a suit against Monsanto, challenging the company’s patents on genetically engineered seeds, a suit that eventually represented 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms. The organic plaintiffs sought a pre-emptive judgment against potentially being accused of patent infringement should their fields become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. Such suits are not unknown. Nonetheless, the courts ruled for Monsanto at the trial and appellate levels.

Sell first, ask questions later

A part of the problem is that, under the U.S. regulatory system — what it wishes to impose on Europe and elsewhere — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe. That can occur years after it began to be sold. But, charges Steven Druker in a new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, not even scientific concerns necessarily stop approval in the U.S.:

“[T]he [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had ushered these controversial products onto the market by evading standards of science, deliberately breaking the law, and seriously misrepresenting the facts — and that the American people were being regularly (and unknowingly) subjected to novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.

This fraud has been the pivotal event in the commercialization of genetically engineered foods. Not only did it enable their marketing and acceptance in the United States, it set the stage for their sale in numerous other nations as well. If the FDA had not evaded the food safety laws, every GE food would have been required to undergo rigorous long-term testing; and if it had not covered up the concerns of its scientists and falsely reported the facts, the public would have been alerted to the risks. Consequently, the introduction of GE foods would at minimum have been delayed many years — and most likely would not have happened.”

Mr. Druker is a public-interest attorney who successfully sued to gain access to FDA files. So confident is he in his findings that he has publicly challenged Monsanto to refute anything in his book and said he will change anything that is proven to be incorrect. Speaking at the New York March on Monsanto, he reported that he had not received a response.

Monsanto is perhaps the corporation most determined to control the world’s food. The vast majority of U.S. soybean, cotton, corn and canola are now genetically engineered. Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to Food & Watch Watch. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

We live under an economic system that reduces human interactions to nothing more than transactions, where an ever larger sphere of social decisions are made by “the market” and the quest for profits is promoted as the highest ideal. “The market” is not some neutral entity sitting high in the clouds, as pervasive propaganda would have us believe, but rather nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. A monopoly is the goal of capitalists, and the logical outcome of the relentless competition of capitalism. Just because food is among the most basic human necessities does not mean it is exempt. Don’t starve, organize!

War crimes and forgetting

Forty years after the long Vietnamese struggle for independence concluded with the capture of Saigon, the mythologies surrounding the war on the other side of the Pacific Ocean have not loosened their grip. The “debate” surrounding the war is a textbook example of corporate media obfuscation.

A strong debate played out in the corporate media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War at the end of the 1990s, and that same debate, with the same parameters, continues today. This debate, however, is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

Left out are the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in another country’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implies, and the second explicitly states, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed.

Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Elections only when you do as we say

What were some of the messy things going on in Southeast Asia at the time? (Most of the following is taken from Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Pantheon Books, 1988.) The U.S. sabotaged the scheduled 1956 all-Vietnam election that was a cornerstone of the 1954 agreement that ended the French intervention; an election that was not allowed to occur precisely because Ho Chi Minh would have won. The U.S. set up South Vietnam as an artificial puppet state, overthrew and killed South Vietnam’s “leaders” and installed new “leaders,” who were invariably military thugs.

The U.S. invented the Gulf of Tonkin attack, a deliberate lie to create a cover for increasing the U.S. military role. By the time of the U.S. land intervention in 1965, American aerial bombing, napalming and gassing had already killed 15,000 Vietnamese. The U.S. carried out a policy of rural and urban terror. The military forced peasants in wide parts of the country off their land and into “strategic hamlets” — in reality, rural concentration camps — and killed peasants who refused to leave their homes. Tens of thousands were swept from their homes and sent to camps in single ground operations.

A writer in Foreign Affairs wrote that destroying the countryside and forcing rural residents into cities was necessary because the Viet Cong were “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The U.S. systematically destroyed by force any South Vietnamese grouping opposed to the installed military dictators, even non-Communist groups such as organized Buddhists.

The U.S. leveled major cities — 77% of the buildings in Hue, one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, were completely destroyed. Dams were blasted away, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to flood farmland, making the growing of food impossible. When North Vietnam agreed to the Paris Peace Agreements in 1972, Henry Kissinger decided not to accept the pact, began demanding major changes to an agreed-upon document, then launched the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong when the North Vietnamese government insisted the agreement be signed.

In South Vietnam, 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed, as were 25 million acres (100,000 square kilometers) of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. Killed were 1.5 million cattle. One million widows and 800,000 orphans were left behind.

In North Vietnam, 34 of the largest 36 cities suffered significant damage, with 15 completely razed, while 4,000 of about 5,800 communes were damaged. More than one million acres of farmland and 400,000 cattle were destroyed in the North. The Central Intelligence Agency admitted that at least 30,000 North Vietnamese were killed per year by 1967 by U.S. bombing, with these deaths primarily civilian. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

No mercy in neighboring countries

Next door, in Laos, following a 1958 election in which a two-party Left coalition won 13 of 21 legislative seats, the U.S. swiftly overthrew the government, with the new government seated by the U.S. vowing to disband the Pathet Lao, which had won the most seats. Two years later, that new government was overthrown by the U.S., which installed a CIA-backed extreme Right-wing general.

In rural Laos, entire districts were wiped out by bombing. A series of articles in Le Monde reported on a district capital that had been deserted for three years because of repeated bombings. This capital was a portion of a 20-mile area stretching into the countryside in which not a single building was left standing and in which were found the remnants of American fragmentation bombs, which are dropped to maximize civilian casualties.

There were areas of Laos where villagers hid in nearby mountains, in caves or in ditches during daytime because of the ceaseless bombardment and who could conduct life only at night. Craters so saturated some areas that it was impossible to distinguish them, and all vegetation was destroyed. More than 350,000 Laotians — more than 10% of the country’s population — were killed and a similar number left homeless.

In Cambodia, bombing by the U.S. during the period 1969 to April 1975 resulted in 600,000 deaths and two million refugees, according to the same Finnish Inquiry Commission that concluded one million people died during the subsequent Khmer Rouge régime. As the bombing was ending in 1975, the U.S. government estimated that deaths from starvation in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, were near 100,000 per year.

This horrific bombing is believed to have played a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. covertly sided with during its murderous four-year reign. A U.S. government report in 1975 said 75 percent of Cambodia’s draft animals had died and that it would likely be three years before the country could regain rice self-sufficiency.

The carnage inflicted on Vietnam reverberates still. An estimated 19 million tons of toxic herbicides were applied that has resulted in more than half a century of damage to health and birth defects.

Such is the price of empire, paid by those on the receiving end. If these are not war crimes, then what would be?

The art of becoming human

About 180,000 people enlist in the United States military each year, many of whom will come home with physical injuries or psychological damage. Recruits are trained to kill, taught to de-humanize others, to participate in torture, but are expected to forget upon returning to civilian life.

That 22 veterans commit suicide per day is a grim reminder not only of the harsh demands of military life but that the Pentagon effectively throws away its veterans after using them. The U.S. government is quick to start wars, but although political leaders endlessly make speeches extolling the sacrifices of veterans, it doesn’t necessarily follow up those sentiments, packaged for public consumption, with required assistance.

Veterans themselves are using art to begin the process of working their way through their psychological injuries in a program known as “Combat Paper.” In an interesting twist on the idea of beating swords into plowshares, the Combat Paper program converts veterans’ uniforms into paper, which is then used as a canvas for art works focusing on their military experiences. Deconstructed fibers of uniforms are beaten into pulp using paper-making equipment; sheets of paper are pulled from the pulp and dried to create the paper.

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

Drew Cameron, one of the initiators of Combat Paper Project, writes of the concept:

“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”

The results are dramatic, as I found while viewing an exhibit at the Art 101 gallery in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Take, for example, Jesse Violante’s silkscreen, “No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become.” The title sentence is written in bloody red letters above a scene of soldiers in an exposed forward position, lying prone with weapons ready. The image is stark, depicting only the most immediate surroundings, representing the lack of vision on the part of officials who see war as a first option and the fog of uncertainty as experienced by the solider in the field reduced to a scramble for survival.

Wounds that can be seen and those not seen

There are those whose injuries are obvious, such as Tomas Young, whose struggles were shown in full intensity in the documentary Body of War. In the letter he wrote to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney when his death was impending, he put into words his agony:

“Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical [disabilities and] wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned.”

And there are those whose injuries are not so immediately obvious. Let’s hear from a couple of them. Kelly Dougherty, who helped to found Iraq Veterans Against the War after serving as a medic and as military police, said she appreciates having a space to “talk about my feelings of shame for participating in a violent occupation.” She writes:

“When I returned from Iraq ten years ago, some of my most vivid memories were of pointing my rifle at men and boys while my fellow soldiers burned semi trucks of food and fuel, and of watching the raw grief of a family finding that their young son had been run over and killed by a military convoy.

I remember being frustrated with military commanders that seemed more concerned with decorations and awards than with the safety of their troops, and of finding out that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was angry and frustrated and couldn’t relate to my fellow veterans who voiced with pride their feelings that they were defending freedom and democracy. I also couldn’t relate to civilians who would label me a hero, but didn’t seem interested in actually listening to my story.”

Garett Reppenhagen, also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, wrote on the group’s Web site about how the resistance he received at Veterans Administration meetings when he tried to speak of his experiences, the illegality of the Iraq occupation and the lies of the Bush II/Cheney administration that started the war.  “The ‘you know you aren’t allowed to go there’ look,” as he puts it:

“I can’t bring up the child that exploded because she unknowingly carried a bomb in her school bag and how her foot landed next to me on the other side of the Humvee. I can’t talk about how we murdered off duty Iraqi Army guys working on the side as deputy governor body guards because they looked like insurgents. I can’t talk about blowing the head off an old man changing his tire because he might have been planting a roadside bomb. I can’t talk about those things without talking about why we did it.”

Fairy tales become nightmares

Why was it done? United States military spending amounts to a trillion dollars a year, more than every other country combined. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was intended to create a tabula rasa in Iraq, with its economy cracked wide open for U.S.-based multinational corporations to exploit at will, a neoliberal fantasy that extended well beyond the more obvious attempt at controlling Iraq’s oil. Overthrowing governments through destabilization campaigns, outright invasions and financial dictations through institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long been the response of the U.S. to any country that dares to use its resources to benefit its own population rather than further corporate profits.

And the fairy tales of emancipating women from Muslim fundamentalists? We need only ask, then, why the U.S. funded and armed the Afghan militants who overthrew their Soviet-aligned government for the crime of educating girls. Or why the U.S. government stands by Saudi Arabia and other ultra-repressive governments. Those Afghan militants became the Taliban and al-Qaida, and spawned the Islamic State. More interference in other countries begets more resistance, more extreme groups feeding on destruction and anger.

What does it say about our humanity when ever more men and women are asked to bear such burdens, pay such high prices for an empire that enriches the 1 percent and impoverishes working people, including the communities from which these soldiers come from. What does it say about our humanity when the countries that are invaded are reduced to rubble and suffer casualties in the millions, and this is cheered on like a video game?

"These Colors Run Everywhere," spray paint, by Eli Wright

“These Colors Run Everywhere,” spray paint, by Eli Wright

All the more thought-provoking are the art works of the Combat Paper Project. Another work, “Cry For Help” by Eli Wright, is of a man screaming and a phone held by a skeletal hand and arm. Barbed wire is stretched over the top. How well would we hold on to our humanity had we been on patrol? If we were at risk of being killed at any time by such a patrol?

A second exhibit by Mr. Wright is “These Colors Run Everywhere,” a more minimalist work that shows reds, whites and blues dripping down the canvas, a rain falling upon an urban landscape reduced to a shadowy background that could be interpreted as symbolic of the lack of knowledge of the places that the U.S. invades and of the societies that invasions destroy. It is also a wry twisting of a common slogan used as a defensive mantra into a doctrine of offense and invasion, the actual practice of that slogan.

I assuredly do not speak for, could not speak for, these artists. Perhaps you would have different, maybe very different, interpretations. The movie American Sniper, glorifying a racist murderer and thus symbolizing the dehumanizing tendencies of those who beat their breasts while screaming “We’re number one!” when the death toll climbs higher, has taken in tens of millions of dollars. Vastly less money will change hands as a result of the Combat Paper artworks. But what price should be paid for our humanity?

Combat Paper is on display at Art 101 until April 5.

You can have democracy as long as you vote for the boss

The idea that democracy and capitalism go together is a relatively recent phenomenon. The pairing don’t really go together: How much control do you have at your job? Over the development of your city? Over a political process responsive only to the greed of the one percent?

Early capitalists and their publicists believed political democracy was an outright impediment. Adam Smith and another influential classical economist, David Ricardo, among many others, opposed universal suffrage. Ricardo was prepared to extend suffrage only “to that part of them [the people] which cannot be supposed to have an interest in overturning the right to property.” Smith’s reluctance seemed to be rooted in his honest assessment of how few are able to enjoy that right to property: “For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, who are often driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”

Not long afterward, the influential British politician and writer Thomas Babington Macaulay said universal suffrage would be “the end of property and thus of all civilization.”  (“Property” refers to the means of production, not personal possessions.)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Because capitalism is an impersonal system, it does not require that members of the dominant capitalist class actually hold political posts, although frequently they do. It is enough that the political structure that is a byproduct of the ideologies of capitalists’ institutions, corporations, remain in place, and that capitalists exert decisive influence over a society’s other institutions.

The modern state itself is a creation of the rise of capitalism and the need of industrialists and financiers for a structure to provide protection for investments and to settle disputes among themselves. These features are wrapped tightly in nationalism, with continual references to a given nation’s mythologies, to bind working people tighter to the system. Capitalism also requires a literate, educated population, in contrast to earlier systems, and a literate, educated populace is more inclined and more able to agitate for its interests.

Self-interest in expanding the vote

There is more communication — this, too, is a necessity for the increased commerce of capitalism — and if the people of one nation wrest a gain from their rulers, people in other nations will know about it, and will struggle to get it for themselves as well. Further, in the early days of capitalism, its development was seldom in a straight line; sometimes there could be an incremental expansion of the voting franchise because one bloc of capitalists believed the new voters would vote for their party.

Once the vote is made available to more citizens, pressure builds from below to further extend the vote; moreover, the creation of a modern working class brings together masses of people, enabling the creation of mass movements that can organize struggles for more democratic rights. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool for democracy activists, although by itself it can’t substitute for real-world organizing and a physical presence at key locations.

Capitalists intended to establish democracy only for themselves, but the spaces and contradictions contained within the political systems created to stabilize the functioning of capitalism (including institutions to adjudicate conflicts among the capitalists and mechanisms for selecting political leadership in the absence of an absolute monarchy or the continued ascendency of a static landed aristocracy) enabled their workers to wrest some of that democracy for themselves. None of that came easy — untold lives were snuffed out and untold blood was shed, and even in cases when a struggle has been bloodless, many advances required decades of dedicated activism to accomplish. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Summing up an essay in New Left Review on the development of voting rights across the world, Göran Therborn wrote:

“Democracy developed neither out of the positive tendencies of capitalism, nor as a historical accident, but out of the contradictions of capitalism. Bourgeois democracy has been viable at all only because of the elasticity and expansive capacity of capitalism, which were grossly underestimated by classical liberals and Marxists alike.”

Not endlessly expansive, however. Hard-won political rights are not only circumscribed by the immense power concentrated in the hands of corporate institutions and the class that controls those institutions, but those rights end at the entrance to the place of work.

A democratic lack of control?

If one class of people has the ability to bend the political process to benefit itself; arrogates to itself an unlimited right to accumulate at the expense of everybody else and at the expense of future generations; has the right to dictate in the workplaces, controlling employees’ lives; and can call on the state to enforce all these privileges with force, if necessary, then how much freedom do the rest of us really have? If one developer has the right to chop down a forest to build a shopping center that the community does not need or the right to build high-rise luxury towers that force out others who already lived there because one individual can earn a profit, and the community has no recourse, is this state of affairs truly democratic?

If a capitalist decides it would be profitable to move the factory to a low-wage country and thousands are put out of work as a result, is it not capital that actually possesses freedom? If enterprises were collectively run and/or under community control, would people vote to send their jobs to a low-wage haven thousands of miles away?

If the political system is so dominated by corporate power — the concentrated power of industrialists and financiers — that a politician at the national level who might genuinely wish to give working people a better break can’t because that corporate power is decisive, or that a politician at the local level might want to make the local factory owner do a little more for the community or simply pay a fair amount of taxes can’t because to push the idea would lead to the factory owner closing the factory and sending many townspeople to the unemployment office, then can this system said to be democratic?

Men and women have the vote, and have constitutionally guaranteed rights — lives were sacrificed to gain these rights. But if there is such a concentration of power that most elementary decisions are taken by a small number of people — either big capitalists or politicians acting on their behalf or under their influence — then the rights enshrined in a constitution are mere shells. Democracy is formal, and cannot be more than formal without democracy extending to all spheres of life. That is impossible under capitalism because concentrated economic power is leveraged into power over the political, cultural, social and educational life of a nation, and that power, as wielded by capital, will be tightened at home and expanded abroad due to the impetus to expand.

Capitalism is an impersonal system, and the competition that drives it inevitably leads to this dynamic, regardless of which personality is where. The world has not reached its present state by accident, and although it does not guarantee any particular capitalist a permanent place at the top, it does guarantee extreme inequality and the immiseration of the many (working people) for the benefit of the few (industrialists and financiers). No reform can wish that away.