Monday, July 22, 2013

CHALLENGING PARADIGMS, AN ESSAY ON HOWARD ZINN: JANUARY, 2010


Harry Targ

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published a book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggesting that the development of scientific research was grounded in social structures. A set of scientific ideas, what he called a “paradigm,” become established in disciplines-chemistry, physics, biology- and this set of ideas, if they explain significant features of the field, become dominant. Most chemists, physicists, or biologists do scientific research from the standpoint of the fundamental ideas of the paradigm.

Kuhn said that then newer generations of researchers and educators work from within the paradigm. They do what he labeled “normal science.” Their publications, their theories, maintenance of their jobs depend on them doing science from within the framework of the paradigm.

Kuhn then suggested that occasionally the dominant paradigm raises so many questions that it gets challenged. There is a “revolution” in the science and a new paradigm begins to dominate the discipline.

To me this view of science was fascinating. Studying any discipline, Kuhn seemed to be saying, involved the institutionalization of a way of thinking about a subject, making sure that way of thinking becomes part of the “power structure” of the discipline and only gets changed by “revolutions” in the field. The development of ideas, he implied, parallels domination and subordination in societies and stability challenged by radical change.

Some scholar/activists in the 1960s and beyond began to look at other fields, such as in the social sciences and humanities, through the lens of Kuhn, whether or not it was his intention. These scholar/activists began to see that in virtually every field of study dominant paradigms were created that enshrined certain ideas including in economics, history, politics, and culture. For the most part, these paradigms celebrated capitalism, the United States in the world, American democratic institutions, and artistic works that ignored social problems and concentrated on the personal. However, increasing numbers of a new generation began to argue that key ideas were left out of these paradigms. Prominent among these suggestions was that understanding the United States and the world required considering the roles of class, race, and gender.

As a result of the turmoil on and off campuses in the 1960s, these scholar/activists were emboldened to critically revisit the dominant paradigms in their fields. They began to do research that looked at the underside of capitalism; the U.S. role in the world from an anti-imperialist lens; the connection between class, race, and U.S. political institutions; and the one-sidedness of excluding certain writers and artists for their political subjects from the study of literature and the visual arts.

Perhaps no paradigm was more enduring and institutionally self-serving than the consensus view of United States history. Students from K-12, college, and graduate school were educated to believe that American history was driven by the quest for assimilation, democratization, economic growth, and global leadership. That historic evolution was shaped by wise elites who were white, male, and wealthy; educated at the finest institutions of higher learning; and inspired by various humane religious faiths. It was a history of the rise to the top of expertise, compassion, wisdom and the perfectibility of a people.

In Kuhn’s terms, young scholar/activists began to reflect more on the “anomalies” in the paradigm. Millions of indigenous people who had established vibrant and stable societies were massacred as Europeans and their descendents moved across the North American continent. The development of modern capitalism was based on hundreds of years of the accumulation of wealth produced by peoples kidnapped from Africa. After slavery, racism continued to influence political and economic life through out the United States. And, despite traditional claims, reforms in the work process, guarantees of health and welfare, and political rights resulted not from the benevolence of elites but through class struggle.

As the discovery of anomalies in all the social sciences and humanities were uncovered, activists, students, young scholars, and even some older scholars realized that all knowledge reflects economic and political interests. There is no such thing as “academic objectivity.” They discovered that the dominant ideas that were disseminated in elementary and high schools, college, graduate programs, and media punditry reflected the paradigms that served the interests of the United States, particularly in the context of a struggle against ideas, movements, and nations that represented different paradigms and interests. Those coming to newer perspectives also realized that the development of knowledge required not a distancing of the “scholar” from the people but the embedding of the research in political activity. Many realized that “theory and practice” were intimately connected.

Why all this discussion? Well Howard Zinn, a creator and product of the intellectual turmoil of the 60s presented us with a new paradigm for examining U.S. history, indeed all history. His classic text, A People’s History of the United States, which has been read by millions compellingly presented a view of history that highlighted the roles of indigenous people, workers, women, people of color, people of various ethnicities, and all others who were not situated at the apex of economic, political, or educational institutions. He taught us that we needed to be engaged in the struggles that shaped people’s lives to learn what needs to be changed, how their conditions got to be what they were, and how scholar/activists might help to change the world.

Perhaps most importantly, Zinn demonstrated that participants in people’s struggles were part of a “people’s chain,” that is the long history of movements and campaigns throughout history that have sought to bring about change. As he wrote in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times:

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

WAR, MILITARISM, AND RESISTANCE: REVISITING CONTEMPORARY HISTORY



Harry Targ

Imperialism

I still find compelling the main points about modern imperialism articulated by Lenin in his famous essay on the subject. Reflecting on the transformations of capitalism from its early manufacturing days until the twentieth century he argued that economic concentration had replaced a multiplicity of semi-independent economic actors, manufacturing capital had merged with financial institutions creating a system of monopoly finance capital, and as a consequence the export of capital--what we would call today foreign investment, financial speculation, and the debt system--would replace the export of commodities as the dominant form of economic exchange on a global basis. During some periods capitalist states would divide up the world each extracting wealth of all kinds from its own sphere of influence and during other periods they would engage in competition and even war to pursue profits. Lenin could not foresee a time, from the mid-20th century until now, when resistance would come not only from competing and militarized capitalist states but from masses of people in colonized, neocolonial, and dependent societies.

The Cold War and Post-Cold War International Systems 

The latest phase of the system Lenin described was constructed at the end of World War II. The United States emerged from the war as the most powerful nation and used military, economic, political, and cultural tools to enshrine its dominance. This meant building a system to crush the emerging Socialist Bloc, controlling the drive toward independence of former colonies, and shaping the politics of lesser but significant capitalist states. To achieve these difficult goals, the United States began to construct a “permanent war economy.”

By the 1960s, the United States capacity to control the economic and military destiny of the world was severely challenged. The Tet Offensive of January, 1968 represented a metaphoric great divide as U.S. presumptions of hegemony were sorely challenged by a poor but passionate Vietnamese people’s army. From the late 1960s onward the U.S. was challenged not only on the battlefield but in the global economy. Rates of profit of U.S. corporations declined. Industrialization had led to overproduction. Working classes in the United States and other capitalist countries had gained more rights and privileges. Socialist countries were experiencing significant growth spurts. Countries of the Global South began to demand a New International Economic Order that regulated the way global capitalism worked. In addition, inter-capitalist rivalry grew. On top of all this the price of oil increased markedly.

The response of the global capitalist powers (the G7 countries) to the crisis of capitalism was a dramatic shift in the pursuit of profit from the production of goods and services to what became known as financialization, or financial speculation. The banks Lenin talked about became instrumental. With rising oil prices, oil rich countries awash in new profits, and banks swelling with petrodollars, nations were enticed and forced to borrow to pay for the oil that cost many times more than it had in the recent past. The global debt system was launched. When the United States freed the dollar from the gold standard, currencies themselves became a source of speculation. 

The debt system gave international financial institutions and banks the power to impose demands on countries that required loans. Thus, the IMF, the World Bank, regional international banks, and private institutions demanded that the world’s countries open their doors to foreign investors, cut their government programs, privatize their economies, and shift to exporting commodities to earn the cash to pay back the bankers. The era of neoliberalism was advanced by globalization, the scientific, technological, and cultural capacity to traverse the globe. No geographic space could maintain autonomy from global capitalism. So a Cold War that was launched by creating a permanent war economy was transformed by financialization, neoliberalism, and globalization. With the shift of work from higher wage capitalist centers to low wage peripheries, deindustrialization became a common feature of the economic landscape.

By the 21st century the system of neoliberal globalization was facilitated by new techniques of empire. Wars which traditionally had been fought between states were now fought within states. The United States established a military presence virtually all across the globe with an estimated 700 to 1,000 military installations in at least 40 countries. Major functions of the globalization of military operations had become privatized so massive U.S. corporations gained even more profits from war-making than they had during the days of the Cold War. The military—public and private—began to engage in assassinations and covert “humanitarian interventions.” And, aided by new technologies, the United States and other capitalist countries, using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, could make war on enemies without “boots on the ground.” As we have learned, intelligence gathering, spying on people, has immeasurably advanced as well.

To put it succinctly, while imperialism remains generically as it has been throughout history today:
-Imperialism has become truly global.

-The military continues to be big business, sucking up at least half of the federal budget.

-The United States has developed the capacity to fight wars without soldiers on the ground.

-Empires, particularly the United States empire, kill with impunity.

-The connections between economic interest and militarism remain central.

-Ideologies defending 21st century military interventions vary from those neoconservatives who argue that the United States must use its power to maximize our global position to the humanitarian interventionists who claim that the United States acts in the world for good.

Resistance

This narrative is not unfamiliar to us. What is less familiar is the idea that throughout history the forces of domination have been challenged by resistance, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It is important to note that the drive for U.S. hegemony, for example, has been affected by resistance. A recent articulation of this narrative appears in the writings of Vijay Prashad, who has described the efforts of the newly independent nations of the Global South to achieve political and economic sovereignty. Many of these efforts from the 1950s to the 1970s faltered at the steps of the debt system and neoliberal globalization. But the struggle has continued. In addition, there have been examples of people such as the Cubans and the Vietnamese who, with much pain and suffering, were able to achieve some measure of economic sovereignty and political independence.

21st century movements for change are varied and complicate the efforts of imperialism to achieve its goals. Resistance includes the following:

-Mercosur, a trade organization that includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, and others waiting for admittance constitutes the third largest trading bloc in the world. 

-The development of collaborative relationships among powerful Global South nations. For example, representatives from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) recently met to chart an independent agenda in global affairs.

-The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) consists of ten Latin American/Caribbean countries which are launching a program of economic integration and political cooperation.

-The Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC) is a new grouping of some 33 Western Hemisphere nations, minus the United States and Canada, which will seek to expand regional collaboration.

-Individual nations, based on their historic resistance to imperialism, such as Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, and Bolivia, continue to inspire activists.

-The United Nations system, considerably weakened from the days of the Cold War, still engages in global mobilizations through its conferences, support for some progressive NGOs, and projects involving education, development, and peacekeeping. Affiliated organized such as the International Labor Organization pursue goals that are sometimes independent of imperial agendas.

-Global anti-capitalist mobilizations, such as the World Social Forum, have brought together thousands of activists largely from the Global South to discuss the problems faced by workers, women, indigenous people, environmental activists, and others.

-Perhaps most important at this time is the grassroots mobilizations of millions of people all across the globe demanding economic justice, worker rights, gender equality, environmental justice,  and peace. Such mobilizations, while stimulated by local issues, are defined as part of a global movement such as “From Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin.” People worldwide, particularly the young, workers, and women are seeing the common dimensions of struggle against imperialism.

Where Do Left and Progressive Forces Fit?

First, we on the left need to “bring imperialism back in;” that is socialist organizations can through education revisit and revise the theory of imperialism so that it is more serviceable for 21st century socialist movements.

Second, progressives should link war/peace issues to environmental issues, to gender issues, to class issues, and race issues. As Martin Luther King declared in 1967: “I speak of the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

Third, every socialist and progressive organization should challenge the permanent war economy. Andrew Bacevich pointed out that the framers of the permanent war economy in the 1940s believed that the role of the citizenry was to remain quiescent, pliant, and supportive of the decisions made by the foreign policy establishment. That assumption must be resisted.

Fourth, local and national work should link economic justice, environmental preservation, and peace. These issues are inextricably connected.

Finally, left and progressive groups should respond to specific imperial transgressions by:
-working to cut military budgets

-opposing drone warfare

-saying no to US military aid to Syrian rebels

-supporting the just demands of the Palestinian people

-challenging the construction of military bases in Asia

-demanding an end to subversion in Latin America

-calling for the release of the Cuban 5

-insisting on the end of the Cuban blockade.

This essay will be presented to the national convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) on Friday, July 19, 2013, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

EGYPT, POPULAR UPRISINGS, AND THE COMPLEXITY OF 21ST CENTURY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS



Harry Targ

Egyptian History

Egypt secured its formal independence from British colonial control in 1922. Nevertheless, the British continued to dominate Egyptian military and political life until 1952 when the “Free Officers” Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a coup that toppled, King Farouk, the British man in Egypt. Following Egypt’s real independence Nasser emerged as a powerful charismatic figure in Middle East politics, seeking to create a zone of “Arab Socialism.” He established economic and political ties with the former Soviet Union, initiated efforts to construct a “United Arab Republic” with Syria, and militarily opposed former European colonial powers and Israel in reference to control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the “Six Day War” against Israel in 1967. Nasser died in 1970 and his successor Anwar El Sadat led the Arab assault on Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Before Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Egypt reversed course ending ties with the Soviet Union; tilted toward the West; signed the Camp David Accords with Israel under the tutelage of President Jimmy Carter; and began its long-term relationship with the United States, despite anger from the Arab world. Egypt became one of the major recipients of United States military assistance from 1980 to the present (receiving $1.3 billion per annum). By the 1980s, the Egyptian military gained control of a large portion of the economy of the country. After Sadat’s assassination Hosni Mubarak, the third leader from the military, began his 30-year rule. 

Arab Spring, the massive street mobilizations in the Middle East which started in Tunisia in January 2011 quickly spread to Egypt and elsewhere in the region. These revolts had large representations from the working class, youth, and women and others demanding democratization. As a result of the revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February, 2011, the military stepped in to replace the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to stabilize a country on the verge of fundamental social and economic change; established an interim military government; and constructed a new constitution that would mollify protestors, provide for elections, and at the same time would maintain its own institutional power. 

Elections were held in 2012 and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president. In the year Morsi served as Egyptian president, he declared the presidency’s ultimate power over the courts, used his position to expand the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over the political system, repressed the ten percent of the population affiliated with the Coptic Christian Church, stalled efforts to expand the rights of women in Egyptian society, and most recently declared Egypt’s full support of the rebels fighting against the government of Syria.

Two weeks ago a movement of young people calling themselves the rebels (the Tamarrud) circulated a call to rally in Tahrir Square. On June 30, a massive mobilization (some say the largest in modern history) was launched demanding the ouster of Morsi from office. The military issued a statement urging the Egyptian president to achieve some sort of compromise with the protestors and, when he refused, they carried out a coup putting in place an acting president. Subsequent to the coup there have been massive mobilizations in opposition to and support of Morsi.

Economic Context

In a recent article in the Guardian (July 4, 2013), Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, scholar and reporter, discussed the state of the Egyptian economy. Generally he characterized the Egyptian economic policy embraced at least since the 1990s as involving “structural failures rooted in an unsustainable global model of industrial civilization-addicted to fossil fuels, wedded fanatically to casino capitalism, and convinced, ostrich-like, that somehow technology alone will save us.” 

Ahmed pointed out that oil production has declined by 26 percent since 1996 and a once food sustaining economy now requires the importation of 75 percent of its wheat. Inflation has increased in recent years, particularly as to the price of food. Egyptian debt constitutes over 80 percent of GDP and the Egyptian government began to institute neoliberal structural adjustment policies in the 1990s. The population has experienced declining safety net policies and generalized programs of austerity as experienced elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, financial support of the military remains unchanged. Austerity programs and increased taxes have been designed to get approval for a new $4.8 billion IMF loan. And most critical, “with 40 percent of Egyptians already below the UN poverty line of less than 2 pounds a day, Morsi’s IMF-inspired policies amounted to a form of economic warfare on the Egyptian people.”

What Now?

Debate about the legitimacy of the ouster of Morsi from office has begun to occur within the peace movement. On one side are those who remember, with good reason, military coups supported by the United States all around the world. The brutality of the U.S. sponsored coup in Chile on September 11, 1973 comes to mind. The Chilean people suffered from a brutal dictatorship leading to thousands of assassinations and people “disappeared,” the end to formal democracy, the crushing of trade unions, and the imposition of a brutal program of neoliberal economic policies that increased economic inequality, reduced the quality of life of most Chileans, and conformed to the dictates of the transnational capitalist class.

On the other hand, the case can be made that each rupture in a society must be understood in its own historical context.

First, the mobilizations of June 30 can be seen as continuation of a “revolutionary” process that began in 2011 (if not earlier). Many activists at that time argued that the ouster of Mubarak is just the beginning of what will be a long process of societal transformation. They articulated the view that there were no “quick fixes;” that Mubarak, the military, and the rest of the capitalist class were the product of a larger global political economy.

Second, even though powerful military forces should not in the main be relied on for social transformation, contexts and militaries vary. For example, Hugo Chavez came out of the Venezuelan military and he was saved from a U.S. engineered coup by his military comrades. Most important in the Egyptian case, the military has dominated Egyptian political life since the Nasser-led ouster of British/American Egyptian puppet, King Farouk. Nasser remained enormously popular with his people until his death. On the other hand, as Democracy Now’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous points out, the political instability brought on by Morsi’s policies threatened not only his regime but the special status of the military.

Third, Egyptian history, conveniently forgotten by the media and political pundits, suggests that Nasser led a campaign to create a coalition of secular states, even using the word “socialism” to describe his vision. Even though his vision and  practice were flawed, Nasser was one of those first generation of post-colonial leaders supporting what Vijay Prashad called “the third world project.” In other words, he was a secular, radical nationalist. From the 1950s on, ironically, United States policy has often tilted toward supporting “Political Islam,” that is regimes and movements which embrace religious fundamentalism and represent little or no threat to the global political economy. United States funding of Osama Bin Laden in his war against the secular regime in Afghanistan is a glaring example.

Fourth, political analysts, from academia and the Left, have a fetishized conception of democracy. Democracy as it is conventionally understood is about process. While important, periodically going to a voting booth and choosing between a selection of candidates for public office is only part of a more holistic conception of democracy. Democracy is procedural and it is substantive. In other words, democracy is about choosing candidates and policies and it is also about providing for the fulfillment of human needs. If 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, democracy in the substantive sense is woefully inadequate.

Finally, what we may call 21st century social movements are spreading all across the globe. Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, Greece, Spain, Chile, Quebec, the industrial heartland of the United States, and occupiers everywhere constitute a new politics that only partially conform to traditional models of mobilizing for social change. Indeed we celebrate the mass movements for the eight-hour day, the right of industrial workers to form unions, poor people’s campaigns, anti-war mobilizations, and public campaigns to save the environment. 

The historic role of socialist organizations and visions remain critical to 21st century social transformations. But the programmatic character of contemporary mobilizations; the inspirational connectivity of movements across borders, classes, genders, and races; and the recognition by participants that each is part of a historic process may be somewhat new. Social movements today often see the need to “compromise” with institutions such as the military to advance the condition of the people. At the same time, as the movement in Egypt suggests, they remain mindful of the limitations of alliances of convenience.

Therefore, there are lessons from Egypt for the peace movement in the United States. Peace activists should analyze moments of instability and change in their historical, economic, cultural, and political complexity. They need to assess specific situations to understand which social forces are more likely to represent the values that they support. Then in each concrete case they should ask how activism in the United States can best support the just struggles of 21st century social movements.