Friday, July 31, 2009

"SELLING FREE ENTERPRISE" AGAIN

Harry Targ

Less obvious…was the struggle led by national business leaders…to reshape the ideas, images, and attitudes through which Americans understood their world, specifically their understanding of their relationship to the corporation and the state. … The struggle to undercut organized labor’s and the state’s ideological hold over the working class and to protect this vision took place within a variety of contexts (Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism 1945-60).

Progressives are so engaged in battles over such issues as health care, climate change, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that they forget the fundamental “battle of ideas” that shape the ways in which working people understand their connections to government, unions, community, and the economic system. In two brilliant books, Selling Free Enterprise (1994) and Waves of Opposition (2006), Fones-Wolf describes the public sphere, media, education, religious institutions, and political assemblies as sites for critical debate about the kind of society that can best serve workers. The histories she presents cover the 1930s through the 1950s, but the lessons of her history bear upon the ideological struggles in our own day.

In the first book, the author describes the open-ended possibilities for political change, it was hoped, which could have been crafted as World War II ended. The war began at a time when workers, through their own mass action, had created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a militant federation of four million factory workers in electronics, steel, auto, meat packing, mining and smelting, and other industrial and white collar unions. To help the war effort, CIO unions pledged to avoid strikes in the name of national security. But, when the war ended, workers expected to play a significant role in constructing public policy and shaping the kind of political and economic system that would serve their needs.

Fones-Wolf documents the worldview that guided workers and their unions after the war. They believed in the right of workers to form unions that would represent their interests at the point of production. They believed that government must play a basic role in promoting an improved quality of life for all. They believed that workers derive their freedom and happiness from active participation in communities at the local and national levels. And the character of “free enterprise” was to be circumscribed by the common good. The public good was more important than private property.

The capitalist class, Fones-Wolf argues, had a diametrically opposed view of the political, economic, and even cultural world that needed to be created after the war. Unions represented tyranny, not the interests of workers. Government was a hindrance to human well-being. The more government insinuated itself into the lives of people the worse off they would be. Community, unless it was organized by human relations offices of big corporations, restricted freedom. Individualism, not community, was the bulwark of a free society. And basic to individualism, the capitalists argued, was the “free market,” “free enterprise,” and private property.

Selling Free Enterprise describes the battles over these two fundamentally different worldviews, community versus individualism, in factories, in schools, in churches, in local elections. Such capitalist arms as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce employed factory owners, clergymen, educators and think tanks, the press, radio and television to promote their vision of post-war America using millions of dollars and penetrating every city and town across the United States.

Although the labor movement, peace and justice activists, moderate church people and others challenged the “free enterprise” model of society from 1945 until 1960, they were no match for the money and power of big capital. The free marketeers also utilized the Cold War and the specter of “worldwide communism” to purge those forces that sought to create an egalitarian and communitarian America. While the different ideologies were contested in the 1940s and 1950s, by the early 1960s the capitalist class had achieved ideological hegemony.

Fones-Wolf wrote Waves of Opposition to describe the efforts of labor and progressive groups to have their voices heard on radio, the dominant medium for news and culture from the 1930s until the late 1950s. Corporate elites, CEOs of the major radio networks, and government agents limited the rights of trade unionists to have access to the air waves. Exceptions were noted in the post-war period when AFL and CIO paid programs appeared on national radio and a few union locals were able to buy air time in their communities to run programs describing the activities of their locals. In a few instances, local labor owned or operated radio stations. One of the longest running efforts was WCFL, out of Chicago. It was a “voice of labor” station operating from the 1920s to the 1970s. But, Fones-Wolf points out, it took major struggles for labor to gain recognition and access to the air waves. With corporate media concentration, the modest foothold labor had in radio, and even less in television, was lost.

The struggles, so graphically described by Fones-Wolf, are being played out today. The age of “neo-liberalism,” ushered in by the Reagan administration was sold to the American people in ideological terms. A worldview based on individualism, free enterprise, private property, limited government, and the magic of the marketplace was slickly packaged and sold while state/corporate power was used to crush the labor movement. Even the modest “welfare state” model of public/private sector collaboration was challenged by neo-liberal spokespersons.

With increasing media concentration, approximately ten media conglomerates control about fifty percent of all we read, see, and hear, neo-liberalism crushed any alternative visions that stepped in its path. Even when policies are discussed, neo-liberalism reflected in talk radio and rightwing television dominates what and how issues are debated.

While Fones-Wolf’s story is about the defeat of workers, it does suggest two things. First, struggles for a better future must be fought on the ideological as well as the policy levels. Fundamental concepts such as community versus individualism, government versus free enterprise, and worker rights versus corporate control must be debated. The case should be made that the communitarian, participatory, egalitarian vision of a just society is deeply embedded in United States history.

Second, in the past workers and progressives used a variety of techniques to bring their message to the people including demanding access to major media. In our own day struggles to gain access to and control of media outlets, including television and the press, remain important. In addition, the vision of community once again needs to be brought to union halls, churches, public libraries, and all other social institutions and open spaces where people must decide on their collective future.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

WHAT HOOSIERS KNOW ABOUT HEALTHCARE

Harry Targ

My own preference would be — and you may have found common ground here this morning on Easter, which is appropriate — deal with the inefficiencies, figure out a way to make the private marketplace accomplish our public good, only have the government role as a backstop, as a last resort, if the private sector has just failed to meet the challenge. (Evan Bayh on Fox, Sunday, April 12, 2009)

Senator Evan Bayh is one of those so-called “blue dog” Democrats who remain ambivalent about parts of the Obama political agenda, particularly the Employee Free Choice Act (despite his long-time popularity with Indiana trade unionists) and health care reform. Hoosiers see through Bayh’s principles for opposing these centerpieces of economic and social reform. Evidence is particularly clear on what is behind Bayh’s opposition to any change in health care policy in the United States.

For example, Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette reported on December 15, 2007 (Sylvia A. Smith, Washington editor) that the senator’s wife, Susan Bayh, earned $248,700 from stock options she “earned” from participation on the corporate board of WellPoint, Inc. and sold when the stock was at its highest price. Over the prior four years, the paper reported, Bayh earned money from sales of stocks eight times from Wellpoint, the health insurance giant; Curis Inc., a pharmaceutical developer, and the E-Trade bank. She gained $1.7 million in pre-tax earnings from seven of these transactions. The story also listed Susan Bayh’s 2007 public transactions including, in January, the purchase of 3,333 shares of WellPoint stock at $44.18 per share and selling them for $78 earning $112,722, and, in May, the acquisition of the same number of shares and selling them for $84.98 per share earning $135,978.In 2006, Bayh bought 20,001 shares of WellPoint and sold them earning $796,078.

The Lafayette Journal and Courier (Maureen Groppe, Gannett Washington Bureau) reported on June 15, 2009 that Susan Bayh owns between $500,000 and $1 million in employee stock in the “Indianapolis-based insurance giant,” WellPoint. WellPoint is one of eight corporate boards she sits on including the Curis, the pharmaceutical developer.

Daniel Lee, Indianapolis Star columnist reported on May 17 that the WellPoint executive board is trying to influence the public debate on health care to forestall the emergence of a “public option.” If that is not possible, Lee suggested, private insurers would want to create a system in which private companies control the public option. Lee quoted Common Cause CEO, Bob Edgar, who said that “many of the corporations who benefit from health care have come around to realize that while they may lose some of the things they were hoping to protect, if they move to universal coverage there will be more money across the board for everybody.”

WellPoint, with 35 million customers, is the largest commercial insurance provider, controlling Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The company made $2.5 billion in profits in 2008. Spokespersons have said that they could support expanding coverage to the 45 million without coverage and even could drop restrictions on coverage to people with pre-existing health problems. Brad Fluegel, Chief Strategy Officer of the company, said that “we can do it in a way that’s fair and equitable for folks. There is no need really for a government-run plan.”

As to WellPoint’s political activity, in 2006 the company gave $430,580 to federal candidates; 16% to Democrats, 82% to Republicans and two percent to Joe Lieberman. Lee indicated that in 2008 WellPoint spent $4.33 million on federal lobbying and made three million calls to consumers.

And then there are critically placed political influentials such as Susan Bayh. Although the Senator is “agnostic” on health care, his aides point out that the couple do not discuss any issues related to WellPoint.

If any one believes these spokespersons, I have a Hoosier bridge I can sell them cheap.

For information about healthcare reform contact Central Indiana Jobs With Justice http://www.centralindiana.jwj.org and the single payer movement contact Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan http://www.hchp.info

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ON SOCIALIST EDUCATION

Harry Targ

(I belong to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism which is having its national convention from July 23-26 in San Francisco, www.cc-ds.org One workshop will address the issue of socialist education. The comments below were written for that workshop but address the more general question of how any progressive organization might address the educational component of their political work).

Almost a decade ago, one of the leaders of a socialist group I belong to (the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism or CCDS) proposed that the organization develop a Socialist Education Project. The proposal came at a time when the promise of the “new economy” built on the growth of the Silicon Valley had begun to fade. Neo-liberal globalization, so much celebrated by every administration since the late 1970s, continued to generate inequalities in wealth and income all around the globe. Despite the short Clinton administration economic recovery unemployment rates of five or six percent continued. The process of financialization, that is a systemic economic shift from the production of goods and services to financial speculation, undergirded the growing pathology of capitalist development. In this economic and political environment mainstream commentators began to write about the insights that Marx and his followers brought to the study of capitalism. So it seemed to us in CCDS that a socialist political organization needed to explore rigorous study of the evolution of capitalism, Marxist analysis of how it works, and the logical possibilities for alternatives to it, particularly socialist ones.

The SEP then began. Local CCDS activists launched study groups. Members of the SEP committee generated reading materials to support local study groups. Some materials were assembled as “modules,” or integrated short courses with readings, questions for study, and bibliographic suggestions. These were placed on a new SEP web page. Study groups on the West Coast, the Midwest, and the South came and went. Only a few still survive.

The political and economic landscape has changed from the point at which the idea of a SEP was first conceived. The economic crisis today is considerably more dramatic and far-reaching than a decade ago. Real unemployment rates, hitting peoples of color the hardest, approach 15 percent. The financialization of the economic system has reached new levels, institutionalizing the ruling class power of the financiers. Internationally, the United States has embarked on at least two wars this century and nearly 800 U. S. military bases can be found around the world. “Normal” military budgets and war costs approximate a $1 trillion a year.

Politically resistance to neo-liberal globalization and finance capital has grown as well. Many nations of the Global South have begun to organize against western imperialism. In the United States itself, an extraordinary mobilization occurred, particularly among youth, to elect the first African American president of the United States. The political terrain today has shifted from an environment in which progressives must “fight the right” to one in which U.S. politics is more opaque; some times progressive, sometimes centrist, sometimes right wing.

In this context a renewed, revitalized SEP is more relevant than ever. Those of us who are interested in envisioning a socialism for the twenty-first century must ask ourselves what we want to achieve in such a project and how we might go about trying to achieve it. We need to address three basic sets of questions.

1. What do we mean by socialism? How is it created? What is the system (capitalism) that demands the creation of socialism as an alternative? How does this system work? What kinds of political movements are needed to move history from the capitalist system to socialism? What theories, commentaries, books, articles, videos etc. can help us address how capitalism works and the socialist alternative?

2. If socialism is a way of acting in the world, what can socialist pedagogy, or ways of learning, help us to build socialism. In other words, what in the process of education teaches us about being socialists and organizing as socialists.

3. What specific educational tools can we use to explore the first set of questions about the nature of capitalism and the meaning of socialism? How do we use books, articles, videos, music, debates in our study groups? Fundamentally, what are study groups? How do we create them? How do we recruit participants? What is most likely to attract them? Do they have to be face to face encounters? What role for electronic interactions?

I want to address the question of pedagogy, or the process of learning specifically. I want to argue that there is a socialist practice that is relevant to how we behave in all social and political settings, including educational ones. In other words, when we form study groups we need to act like socialists. People learn political principles through practice as well as through theory.

Professors of education and educational practitioners, either through formal training and/or intuition come to the realization that teaching and learning are done in different ways and these different ways affect what is learned. One of the most influential educational theorists from the vantage point of radical socialist change was Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. His book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, influenced revolutionaries and reformers around the world, particularly at the grassroots in the Global South.

Heather Clayton explored five main points embedded in Freire’s work. According to her, Paulo Friere emphasized;

1. the importance of dialogue and the fact that the dialogue was two way, contained in a respectful relationship. It meant that people worked with each other.

2. ‘praxis’-action that was informed by knowledge and should be linked to values. But it wasn’t knowledge for knowledge sake; it was to empower people to use the knowledge to make an impact on their world.

3. building hope for the oppressed. As consciousness is increased, society can be transformed.

4. the importance of linking education with the real world experiences of the students.

5. trying to highlight and minimize the differences between teachers and learners (Heather Clayton, “From the Ideological to the Concrete: Ideas from Paulo Friere, Understanding by Design and the Ontario Curriculum and Their Implications to Layered Curriculum,” http://www.help4teachers.com/heatherpaper.htm )

Exploring these points we might suggest the following. First, socialism is not an idea, “a thing,” but a set of relationships built on mutual respect, even among those with different points of view. It might be worth mentioning in our groups that mutual respect is the inter-personal cornerstone of socialism as a process. The group environment that is based on both equality and the possibility of self-realization is basic to the kind of society we want to achieve.

Second, the knowledge we seek, we seek because we want to change the world. Books and articles, lectures and videos are tools to help us define our values, assess our historical circumstances, and guide political action. We engage in study because what we learn and how we learn will have utility for our practical political work.

Third, knowledge can be empowering. Knowledge provides an explanation of why human beings are in the situations they are in. That knowledge leads to explorations about how to change reality. In the sense that knowledge proceeds action, it is empowering. The more we know, the more likely we will be able to act effectively in the world.

Fourth, each participant in any study group brings to the group a lifetime of experience. Economic survival, political activism, and organizational commitments, all framed by various educational backgrounds insure the richness of discussion and debate. Since socialist study groups are motivated to understand the past and the present and to figure out ways to shape the future, the connections between study and the realities of peoples’ lives is vital.

Fifth, given what has been said already, each study group participant is a teacher and a learner. Traditional models of education are often hierarchical, The teacher brings wisdom, knowledge, and methodological skills to the classroom setting and the students are receptors of the wisdom. While this model of education has its place, it is clearly inappropriate for socialist study groups. It reinforces status differences and presumes the teacher is the repository of all knowledge while the other participants have nothing special to contribute to discussion and debate.

I would like to raise a series of questions that bear on defining socialism, socialist pedagogy, and practical education.

1. Should all study groups be face-to-face or are there reasons and occasions for study groups using new technologies? Could SEP organize a nation-wide reading group using listservs for discussion of readings as an alternative?

2. What is the optimal size for local study groups? Is there a size that
exceeds effective interaction?

3. What kinds of materials should be used in study groups and if there are a variety of resources what is the most appropriate mix to stimulate discussion? These might include books, articles, videos, You Tube interviews, music, newspapers, blog essays, novels, poems etc. Are there any guidelines that could be prepared to suggest amounts of reading, level of complexity of reading, and optimal mixes of print and visuals?

4. How should study group interactions be initiated and carried out? Should there be teachers and students? Should such roles be circulated? Should everyone be responsible for starting a discussion? Or only those with special experience and knowledge? How are materials for use chosen?

5. What are the goals of the study group? Should they be discussed at the outset? Does the study group wish to acquire information and/or analytical and methodological skills? Does the study group want to identify a political project-a petition campaign, a rally, a letter-writing program for the group? In addition, should the group seek to recruit more members? If so, how?

6. Having reflected on socialism, pedagogy, and practice what should the role of organizational projects, such as the SEP in CCDS, be in fostering socialist education nationally, regionally, and locally?

Monday, July 13, 2009

BRING A LITTLE POLITICAL "SCIENCE" TO THE TABLE

Harry Targ

I teach Political Science. I have been doing that for over forty years. I studied the subject as an undergraduate student in the 1950s and as a graduate student in the 1960s.

As I became politically active I began to realize how the Cold War shaped virtually all of the social science and humanities disciplines. Various theories and perspectives in these disciplines became dominant and legitimate for research, study, and teaching and others were dismissed as “unscholarly,” or “ideological.” The content of fields as diverse as English, philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology reflected the needs and ideology of the United States in its struggle against “communism.”

Political Science as a field was central to the development of a United States narrative about how political institutions work or should work. Political scientists endorsed a theory of democracy that emphasized the activities of "interest groups." According to this theory, in a democracy people participated in the political process by being members of groups. Public policy was the outcome of conflict among these groups. Government, from this view, was more the arbiter of competing interests than the reflection of any of the constituent groups. Virtually every undergraduate textbook (a very few exceptions slipped through the cracks) used this “group theory of politics” to explain the political process in the United States. The group theory also served as a standard by which other governments could be evaluated.

By the 1970s, some modest additions to this dominant way of thinking in political science emerged. Still acceptable to the mainstream, an approach we might call “bureaucratic politics,” gained adherents. Bureaucratic politics, borrowing liberally from theories of how organizations of all kinds work, emphasized the characteristic ways in which organizations within political systems operate. Paraphrasing one prominent political scientist, organizations have their own “standard operating procedures.” They act in ways to maximize the interest of their particular organization to the exclusion some times of the interests of other organizations in government and the government as a whole. Concretely this means that the Department of Defense has its own agenda as does the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy. Security agencies behave in predetermined ways to exercise what they are programmed to do. From this view government is a collection of semi-autonomous, some say feudal, organizations that are barely controllable by political elites or economic ruling classes.

For theorists of groups or bureaucratic politics, their explanations were basic to understanding the political universe. Capitalism to them constituted no more than one “variable” manifest through groups or bureaucracies. While both approaches saw politics as driven by interests neither saw the centrality of understanding how capitalism works and its connection to the state, how change was connected to classes and class struggle, and the relationship between the expansion of capitalism and imperialism.

Why reminisce about old-school academic political science in 2009? Well it may be that as we strategize about building a progressive agenda and particularly map a set of tactics to achieve both short and longer term goals, we might find a bit of wisdom embedded in the old ideology. Reflecting upon interest groups and bureaucracies may make a contribution to our political practice. As we challenge increasing military spending and making wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and promote legislation reducing greenhouse gas emissions and changing health care policies; and seek to uncover Bush/Cheney covert operations and torture, identifying and seeking understanding of groups and bureaucracies might make our work more effective.

Of course, gaining insights about how particular groups are operating in the political process and how bureaucracies are programmed to act does not replace an understanding of finance capital and deeper class forces internal to ruling classes and between them and masses of people but may enrich it.

So I say “two cheers” for Cold War Political Science.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

MODERNIZATION,SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT, MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION; THE HALLMARK OF THE McNAMARA ERA

Harry Targ

The blogosphere is already churning up demonic imagery of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the era of the Vietnam War. Others are reminded of the tragic Robert McNamara, portrayed in the recent documentary of his life, “The Fog of War.”

Rather than condemn or express empathy for the man, it is important for peace activists to reflect on his contributions to United States foreign policy in the context of United States imperialism.

McNamara was plucked from his leadership role in the Ford Motor Company by the new President John Kennedy. As someone trained in administration, the still new scientific management, McNamara was seen as a talented young man able to help institutionalize Kennedy’s vision of a new U.S. global and capitalist hegemony.

As the 1960s dawned, the new president, his key advisors, and far-sighted representatives of burgeoning multinational corporations saw the need for expanding access to markets, resources, cheap labor, and investment opportunities in the face of growing support in poor countries for Communist models of growth. The outgoing Eisenhower administration had been slow to expand U.S. military power and to develop a model of economic and political development that newly independent peoples would embrace as an alternative to Communism.

In that historical context, McNamara served skillfully as a policymaker pursuing the 1960s goals of U.S. global capitalism. As to global vision, articulated purpose, “theory,” McNamara and his colleagues promoted policies of “economic development” and “modernization.”

Borrowing liberally from another, Kennedy advisor, Walt Rostow, the new administration launched a program to stimulate a “non-Communist” path to economic development. What the Kennedy team claimed, and probably believed, was that if newly independent countries in Africa and Asia, and neo-colonial countries in Latin America embraced policies promoting markets, trade, expanding the “middle class,” modest democratization, and the celebration of science the way Europe and North America did over the last 500 years, they would experience a political and economic development that would satisfy their citizens and would resemble the United States course as well. For Rostow, the processes of economic and political development in the direction of market democracies would occur naturally if the “Communists” were prohibited from interfering with this historical evolution.

Here is where an expanded U.S. military capability was needed. The United States, the Kennedy team believed, needed to develop the technologies, the personnel, and the training to forestall “Communist” expansion in the Global South, at the same time that the United States would deter communist enemies-the Soviet Union and China-from attacking the U.S. or its allies.

The Pentagon, under McNamara’s leadership, assumed a major role in developing policies and capabilities to achieve this expanded imperial mission. Significant research and development funds were allotted to modern social science research teams who enthusiastically launched studies of “modernization;” or how to best achieve non-communist development in “less developed countries,” “developing countries,” “newly independent countries,” “Third World countries,” etc. (Heretofore, DOD allocation of resources for social scientific research was more narrowly provided for those doing studies about making propaganda more effective or fighting “the appeals of communism.” Some of this work had been funded by the CIA but not DOD).

Additional research investment was geared to the development of new kinds of military tactics such as how to more effectively develop the capacity for “counter-insurgency’ capabilities. Finally, other DOD research dollars were channeled into the development of new military technologies; guns that could shoot around corners, electronic fences, and other gadgetry that could be used in counter-insurgency campaigns.

The most critical contribution to U.S. imperialism coming out of these new DOD programs, for which McNamara was a leading advocate, was to foster the belief and promote the ideology that the United States model of economic and political development could transform the world. If other peoples were reluctant to embrace it, the United States would use its technical advisors and military capabilities to impose this form of modernization.

When McNamara assumed the leadership of the Pentagon, he found much resistance to change. The officer core was suspicious of the new civilian undersecretaries, the new tactics derived from academic studies, and to some degree the dramatic increase in defense dollars channeled to new programs. While the Eisenhower administration increased military spending in the 1950s over the early post-World War II, the president, himself, had insisted on capping such spending at about $45 billion (in 1950s terms).

Colleagues of McNamara’s in the business community and supporters of candidate Kennedy demanded dramatic increases in military spending and programs for more nuclear weapons, increased ground troops, battlefield nuclear weapons technology, specially trained counter-insurgency forces, military assistance and training for threatened anti-Communist regimes in poor countries, and much more research and development.

When Eisenhower gave is famous warning of the expansion in American society of a “military-industrial complex” in 1960, he was standing against the growing demands of economic and political elites. The new Kennedy administration, with its new Secretary of Defense, embraced and more than fulfilled the wishes of these elites.

Finally, the new civilian militarists argued that the United States needed to maintain and enhance its capacity to deter Soviet aggression. That meant developing a technological capacity to be able to respond with devastation to any surprise attack from the Soviet Union. Deterrence theory claimed that each side needed to maintain military might of a magnitude to destroy cities and literally millions of enemy peoples even after the enemy attacks first. Thus, there was a need to continue developing new nuclear weapons, new delivery systems, new ways to bury and protect them from surprise attack, and, in the end, to be able to slaughter millions of people. This was the strategy which became known as Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD.

In the end, Robert McNamara was a product of the stage of U.S. global capitalism-its needs and contradictions- in which he had influence. While it remains important to debate questions of human complicity in policies that lead to death and destruction, it is also vital to reflect on the meaning of those policies, visions, and tactics for today.

First, then as now (in a slightly refined way), policies are justified by claiming that the United States has a particular contribution to make toward the development of other countries. Today the emphasis is placed more on “democracy,” not “development,” but politicians and pundits without a blush still refer to the United States as the “leader of the free world.” The United States is still on a mission, or so its citizens are told.

Second, as in the 1960s, the DOD still has a blank check. Tax dollars still are allocated to new military technologies and programs. Academic researchers, even more now than the days of the 1960s, provide the data and theories that lead to and/or justify foreign and military policy.

And finally, and sad to say, the new administration- while saddled with much greater economic, political, and military problems- projects that same “can-do” spirit that motivated the enormous enthusiasm for the Kennedy programs that led to the Vietnam War and disastrous policies toward Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Middle East.

In the end, those interested in peace and justice should use the occasion of the death of Robert McNamara for reflecting on the past to think about the present and the future.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A NEW DAY DAWNS IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE: THE OLD DAY NOT YET BURIED

Harry Targ

Sunday the Honduran military carried out a coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya from power. Almost immediately leaders of Western Hemisphere nations condemned the actions taken in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For example, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) clearly pointed out that the days of military coups as a mechanism of the transfer of power are over in Latin America.

President Obama said on Monday that "It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections… The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past."

On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly passed by acclamation a non-binding resolution condemning the military action and demanding that Zelaya be returned to office. Political opposites from Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, and Barack Obama have taken the same position on the events in Honduras, although Chavez articulated the view that the United States had a role in the coup.

The New York Times, while reporting these events and the mass mobilizations in Honduras protesting the coup, was careful to point out that ousted President Zelaya after all was closely allied with Hugo Chavez and linked Honduras to the Chavez led “leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.” The Times further reported that there were large scale protests in the capital of Honduras in support of the coup. And after all, they suggested, Zelaya would have had no world significance if it were not for the coup which made him famous.

Rather than framing the coup and global reaction to it as business as usual in Latin America, and business tied to the particular interests of all the parties-leftist elites, generals, the United States, street demonstrators of all sorts-the events in Central America should be seen as part of broader historical forces.

First, the Western Hemisphere has experienced hundreds of years of shifting external interference, mass murder and economic exploitation of natural resources, agricultural lands, cheap labor, and sweat shop workers. The Spanish, the British, and the United States figured most prominently in this unhappy story, referred to by Eduardo Galeano as “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”

Second, twentieth century Central America was dramatically shaped by over thirty U.S. military incursions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and the 1930s. For example, U.S. troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911,1912, 1919, and 1924-25.

Third, economic ruling classes in the Hemisphere and their foreign partners increasingly were forced to rely on strong military forces to crush opposition to elite rule and devastating poverty and exploitation. Particularly in Central America, the military as an institution became a material force, sometimes independent of the economic ruling class. From the early 1930s until the end of World War II military dictatorships ruled each of the five Central American countries. Later, in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, 2/3 of the land mass and population of Latin America was ruled by brutal military dictatorship; Argentina, Brazil, Chile being the most prominent.

Fourth, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the struggle against “international communism” to Central America. He launched and supported brutal wars against the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan people and looked the other way as the Guatemalan generals engaged in genocide against the majority indigenous population of that country. Probably 400,000 Central America peoples died in these U.S. supported wars.

Honduras, heretofore a country with less violent military rule and only a modest recipient of U.S. military aid, became the military base for U.S. operations in the region; training the contra rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan government and providing training and military support operations for Salvadoran troops fighting against FMLN rebels. Honduras received more military aid from the United States in the mid-1980s, than it did during the prior thirty years. Thousands of U.S. troops, numerous air strips, and field exercises for summer National Guard troops made Honduras a U.S. armed camp.

Fifth, parallel to the war on communism in the Western Hemisphere, the Reagan administration forced on the countries of the region the neo-liberal economic policies of downsizing government, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and shifts to export-oriented production. In the 1980s, the economic consequences of these policies were referred to by Latin American scholars as “the lost decade.”

While the economies of Central American countries improved since the 1980s, they remain poor and dependent. Honduras is the poorest of the five countries in the region. Its per capital Gross Domestic Product in 2003 was $803 (the regional figure was $1,405). A little over 9 percent of its earnings come from overseas remittances. Honduran debt constitutes 66 percent of total GDP. And life expectancy is 66 years.

This brief review of some of the Latin American experience, and it has been most brutal in Central America, is part of the story of the Sunday coup.

First, we must remember that whenever the interests of foreign investors (particularly from the United States), domestic ruling classes and/or military elites were threatened by international political forces and/or domestic mobilization of workers and peasants, the military moved in to reverse the forces of history.

Second, the United States has played a direct role in such interventions and has provided military assistance and training for military officers of all Latin American militaries ever since the end of World War II. (The training facility used to be called The School of the Americas).

Third, military interventionism and covert operations have been paralleled by economic intervention through the debt system, foreign investment, trade agreements, and quotas and embargoes of goods from Latin American countries.

Fourth, the winds of change that were initiated in the 1960s in the region were first stifled and isolated, then spread in the 1980s and beyond. Most recently, countries as varied as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela have begun to step in a new direction; away from the neo-liberal economic model, away from deference to traditional great powers, and in resistance to the United States. (Honduras has begun to move in this direction as well).

Most importantly, these countries, and other countries from the Global South in Asia and Africa, have begun to construct new economic and political institutions that will transform the International economic and political system after 500 years of North Atlantic rule. The fact that 192 countries in the United Nations said no to the Honduran coup suggests that this battle goes beyond the simplistic New York Times frame that the Honduran battle is merely about competing special interests.

It may be that the Obama administration understands the new global reality, or at least realizes that the United States must figure out ways to adapt to it.