Sunday, May 29, 2016



Harry Targ

Karl Marx in The German Ideology argued in the 1840s that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. Almost one hundred years later theorists from the Frankfort School elaborated on Marx’s idea by developing the theory of the “cultural apparatus.” German sociologist Max Horkheimer wrote:

One function of the entire cultural apparatus at any given period has been to internalize in men [and women] of subordinate position the idea of a necessary domination of some men over others, as determined by the course of history down to the present time. As a result and as a continually renewed condition of this cultural apparatus, the belief in authority is one of the driving forces, sometimes, productive, sometimes obstructive, of human history (quoted in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital,” Monthly Review, July/August, 2013).

Ideas do not spring from the air nor do they arrive untarnished by social reality from Gods and religion. No, as suggested by Marx, Horkheimer, Foster, McChesney, and other theorists, ideas are weapons in the continuous struggle for economic and political domination. Herbert Marcuse added that the “necessary domination” over people comes from pleasure and enticements in addition to threats of force. If the image of pleasure does not mollify the people, then threats  of impending pain can be transmitted from parts of the “cultural apparatus” (education systems, mass media, the internet, patterns of child rearing, religious institutions), thus legitimizing the application of force.

As we prepare for a new year with hope for positive social change, it is worth reflecting on three central concepts communicated through and justified by the “cultural apparatus:” markets, police, and the war system.  Markets offer the image of growing pleasure. Economists and politicians reiterate over and over again that economic development and political stability require the free flow of markets-- buyers and sellers, investors and speculators, workers and bosses, and the commodification of everything. The idea of markets permeates political discussion and is presented to publics as intimately connected to democracy, freedom, and cultural advance. Markets may serve as one mechanism among many to distribute goods and services but are not, as the ideologues suggest, the fundamental way of organizing society. But we hear over and over the promise that markets will bring to all humanity. And market fundamentalists add that government programs, visions of the public good, and community constitute a threat to markets and ultimately human betterment. On television, the internet, in schools, and everywhere in the cultural apparatus people are encouraged to consume, enjoy, think primarily of themselves, and remain obedient to the ongoing order. 

According to the cultural apparatus not all people, because of their own shortcomings, will be beneficiaries of the pleasures of the market. Consequently societies require the construction of police forces to maintain order. In societies where the threat of violence exists, police are necessary to protect the citizenry from the violent, the crazed, and the hateful who see race or exploitation behind their misery. The cultural apparatus communicates images of violence and mayhem in society such that people are convinced that police and prisons are the only institutions that save us from a brutal “state of nature,” based on killing, rape, and robbery. General sentiment, reinforced by the criminal justice system, suggests that for majorities of the US population police should be free to act as they choose. 

Finally, politicians, pundits, security analysts, and many scholars point out that human nature is flawed and as a result there will always be wars. During the brief periods when the United States is not actively engaged in war, policy makers ruminate on how the United States must be prepared for the “next” war. Visions of a peaceful world are beyond the scope of the economic and political system because there are aggressive, greedy, and crazed nations and terrorists in the larger world.

In sum, markets, the police, and the war system constitute key concepts embedded in the cultural apparatus and are central to the interests of the ruling class. The formulation of these key concepts is left purposefully vague here as is the description of the cultural apparatus because every aware participant in the political process can fill in detailed examples. Whether one “consumes” film, videos, computer games, music, television, or print media, examples of the messages about the legitimacy of markets, police, and the war system are readily available. The same self-reflection can be made about the level of centralized control of the cultural institutions that shape peoples’ consciousness.

Therefore, while global corporations, banks, police forces, and militaries constitute material sources of power and control, they are maintained also by core ideas about markets, police, and the war system. In short, ideas matter. Transforming society therefore is about changing ideas and who distributes them as well as the economic and military institutions themselves.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016




Harry Targ

From a Washington Post editorial, May 21, 2016:

HARDLY A day goes by without evidence that the liberal international order of the past seven decades is being eroded. China and Russia are attempting to fashion a world in their own illiberal image…This poses an enormous trial for the next U.S. president. We say trial because no matter who takes the Oval Office, it will demand courage and difficult decisions to save the liberal international order. As a new report from the Center for a New American Security points out, this order is worth saving, and it is worth reminding ourselves why: It generated unprecedented global prosperity, lifting billions of people out of poverty; democratic government, once rare, spread to more than 100 nations; and for seven decades there has been no cataclysmic war among the great powers. No wonder U.S. engagement with the world enjoyed a bipartisan consensus.

The Washington Post editorial quoted above clearly articulates the dominant view envisioned by US foreign policy elites for the years ahead. It in effect constitutes a synthesis of the "neocon" and the "liberal interventionist" wings of the ruling class. In my judgment, with all our attention on primaries, who goes to which bathrooms, and other mystifications, a New Cold War is being planned. Only this time it will have even greater consequences for global violence and devastation of the environment than the first one.

The Post vision of a New World Order built upon a reconstituted United States military and economic hegemony has been a central feature of policymaking at least since the end of World War II even though time after time it has suffered setbacks: from defeat in Vietnam, to radical decolonization across the Global South, and to the rise of competing poles of power in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and even Europe. And despite recent setbacks, grassroots mass mobilizations against neoliberal globalization and austerity policies have risen everywhere, even in the United States. The Washington Post speaks to efforts to reassemble the same constellation of political forces, military resources, and concentrated wealth, that, if anything, is greater than at any time since the establishment of the US “permanent war economy” after the last World War.

Recent US diplomacy illustrates the application of the vision. President Obama remains committed to trade agreements that will open the doors in every country to penetration by the 200 corporations and banks that dominate the global economy. He continues to expand military expenditures and to authorize the development of new generations of nuclear weapons (at the same time as he visits the site of the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima). He engages aggressively in words, deeds, and provocative military moves against Russia and China.

Also, he recently visited Cuba, proclaiming the willingness of the United States to help that country shift its economic model to “free market” capitalism and “democracy.” He then traveled to Argentina to give legitimacy to President Macri, recently elected advocate of that country’s return to the neoliberal agenda. Meanwhile the United States encourages those who promote instability in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Honduras and offers continuing support to the long-term violent politics of Colombia.

During the President’s visit to Vietnam, he declared an end to the longstanding US arms embargo against that country and warmly supports that country’s incorporation into the Trans Pacific Partnership. He hopes to construct a military coalition against China, even while criticizing Vietnam’s record on human rights. After Vietnam Obama is scheduled to travel to Hiroshima at a time when new militarist currents have become more popular in Japan and while US troops continue to engage in violent behavior against citizens of Okinawa, where the US has a military base. In addition, US naval vessels patrol the South China Sea.

These trips have been paralleled by the President’s historic trip to the Persian Gulf earlier this year, shoring up the ties with Saudi Arabia which have been a centerpiece of Middle East/Persian Gulf policy since President Roosevelt negotiated a permanent partnership with that country in the spring of 1945. President Obama has resumed a slow but steady escalation of “boots on the ground” in Iraq, continued support for rebels fighting ISIS and at the same time the government of Syria. And to carry out the mission of reconstituting US hegemony drone strikes and bombing missions target enemies in multiple countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The increasing contradictions of finance and industrial capital grow on a worldwide basis and masses of people in many countries are standing up against the imposition of austerity policies. Also it is becoming clearer to all classes that the natural environment is in peril. But the Washington Post calls for a return to the US global policy that emerged after World War II and which benefited banks, multinational corporations, and the military-industrial complex as millions of people died in war. Only this time, the US imperial model is less likely to succeed, irrespective of the results of the November, 2016 election.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Harry Targ

Political activists bring frames of reference to political conversations. These frames are shaped by competing visions of the nature of politics and what proper individual and state behavior should be.

Neoliberals celebrate the long-term performance of the capitalist economic system and urge that state regulations of economic activity be very limited. Neoliberal ideology is supplemented by one of two outlooks on how the United States should behave in the world. Neoconservatives argue that as the world’s dominant power, mostly military, it should use that power to remake other countries in its own image. With power come opportunities and obligations they say. Humanitarian interventionists suggest that the United States role in the world, economically and militarily, should be measured and limited. As “the indispensable nation,” United States power should be used selectively when there are clear humanitarian reasons for doing so. Decisions about when to intervene, of course, are to be determined by the United States itself.

New Deal Liberals, in the tradition of British economist John Maynard Keynes and descendants of sectors of the Democratic Party, see government as a potential positive force to modulate and limit the negative consequences of unbridled capitalism. The historic model is the evolving policy agenda of the Roosevelt Administration which included increased regulation of finance capital, workplace conditions, and worker rights. The transfer of funds to stimulate economic activity was vital.

Economic nationalists are not opposed to a government role in the economy but view it as a tool for protecting domestic manufacturing and finance from the international economy. The promotion of domestic capital and protection from global penetration are hallmarks of this outlook. Economic nationalists are more comfortable with isolationism in foreign affairs and visions of racial supremacy at home (including “American exceptionalism”), although racism has been embedded in all of United States history.

Capitalist critics take the view that the problems of the concentration of capital, income and wealth inequality, racism, patriarchy, and environmental devastation are inevitable byproducts of the workings of the capitalist system. According to this view, in addition to the domestic problems that the vast majority of people face, capitalism is intimately connected to war and imperialism. 

Of course, in the world of real politics discourse involves synthetic and sometimes contradictory elements of these four perspectives. Ordinarily politicians articulate perspectives that fit more than one of these frames or “theories” of the policy process. Oftentimes they proclaim positions that are designed to appeal to particular audiences. 

But there is another way to think about the political process. This way, the bottom line for most progressive activists, emphasizes core values or basic principles. In fact, for most of these activists it is basic principles that inspire people to involve themselves in politics in the first place. These include opposition to:

Killing. Most activists find mass slaughter, over 100 million died in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, despicable. They are aware that millions of Asians were killed by two atomic bombs, wars in Korea and Vietnam and covert operations in Indonesia and the Philippines. Killing today--drones and bombings, coups and terrorist acts against other countries and peoples are paralleled by police shootings and gun violence at home. Culturally violence is celebrated in film, television, and the internet. 

The shift of wealth from its producers to the tiny ruling class. Much of human history since the rise of capitalism as a world system has involved the expropriation of wealth from the many to the few. Capital accumulation has led to monstrous consolidations of wealth and power to a mere several hundred corporations and banks while fifteen to twenty percent of humankind lives in abject poverty and another thirty percent barely earns enough to survive from day to day.

Starvation and inadequate housing, health care, education, and security in old age. On a worldwide basis one or more of these basic needs are not met by up to a third of the human race. And the lack of security against precariousness is characteristic of a large percentage of the United States population impacting particularly on women, people of color, and youth.

Destruction of the environment.  Every day people around the world experience toxicity in air and water, rising water levels, extreme weather patterns, and the transformation of natural landscapes into bricks and mortar, asphalt, holes in the ground, and leveled mountains. 

Lying. Governments lie. Corporate spokespersons lie. Politicians lie. Religious leaders lie. Educators lie. Journalists lie. The perpetuation of economic and political institutions has become the determining motivation for organizational behavior; the pursuit of profit basic. In such an environment populations get angry, cynical, or feel powerless. 

Dehumanization and objectification of human beings. To defuse growing opposition to the spread of human misery and systems of exploitation based on class, race, and gender elites have divided people into categories; pitting one against another. To do so, the complexity of human potentialities has been reduced to stick figures, stereotypes of kinds of people. Given the power of economic, social, and political institutions, the stereotypes of others and ourselves become broadly repeated in the media, cultural institutions, and educational systems. 

These objections to ongoing injustice become, for many, the basis for the development of a progressive political consciousness. People who oppose killing; shifting wealth and income from the many to the few; starvation, and inadequate health care, housing, education, and security in old age; destruction of the environment; lying; and dehumanization and objectification of human beings begin to rise up angry. 

But in addition to anger, progressives can look to the frames of reference, the narratives, the ideologies that pervade political discourse. They can ask which of these adequately address the objections raised. During election seasons, people can ask which, if any, of the candidates, adequately reflect what greater numbers of progressive people are opposing. 

When the basic principles are placed alongside the economic and political institutions that dominate our lives, the ideologies that are used to justify the status quo, and the candidates who are seeking support, what needs to be done, what kinds of organizations must be created to create a better world, and which individuals and groups are most likely to provide leadership and support for building a just society become clear.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Harry Targ

But we cannot, and should not, ignore the very real differences that we have -- about how we organize our governments, our economies, and our societies.  Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy.  Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market.  Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual….It's time to lift the embargo.  But even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba….It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.  A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.  Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries (from President Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Cuba,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 22, 2016.). 

Mr. Obama’s decision to come to Argentina now — straight after his visit to Cuba, where the Communist government is slowly opening to market forces — signals Washington’s backing for a shift to the center, foreign policy analysts say. He may also be seeking to firm up the United States’ position in the region, where China has been establishing a foothold (Jonathan Gilbert, “Obama Visit Affirms Argentina’s Shift Toward Center.” New York Times, March 23, 2016).

The Bolivarian Revolution, the formation of intergovernmental organizations in the Global South, buoyant economic growth among some of the poorer countries, and the spread of  anti-austerity grassroots social movements everywhere have sent shock waves across the international system. The world is experiencing a global transformation potentially as great as when the nation-state system was constructed out of feudalism in the seventeenth century or the multipolar world was transformed into a bipolar one after World War II. Similar dramatic changes resulted from the collapse of the bipolar Cold War world to a unipolar one after the collapse of the Socialist Bloc. This time countries of the Global South and mass movements of workers, youth, indigenous people, and people of color are taking center stage.

However, these twenty-first century tectonic shifts occurring in world affairs have not been occurring automatically. Keepers of the old order, the rich and powerful states of the Global North, continue to promote their hegemonic project particularly when resistance shows its internal weaknesses. The effort to maintain control amid faltering resistance is displayed in recent United States foreign policy toward Latin America.
The Bolivarian Revolution Spreads Across Latin America

The Bolivarian Revolution was the name given by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the populist revolution he initiated in his country. Elected in 1998, he embarked on policies to empower the poor, spread literacy, expand access to health care, build worker cooperatives, and modestly redistribute wealth and power from the rich to the poor. His vision was to constitute an economic and political program designed to reverse the neoliberal policy agenda embraced by his predecessors. The oil-rich country, collaborating with revolutionary Cuba, initiated a campaign to make real the nineteenth century dream of Simon Bolivar to create a united and sovereign South America, free from imperial rule. Inspired by grassroots movements, populists governments came to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Honduras, and Nicaragua. More cautious but left-of-center governments emerged in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. 

Venezuela and Cuba established the eleven nation Bolivarian Alternatives for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in 2004; Venezuela, Cuba and several other Caribbean countries created, in 2005, Petrocaribe, a trade organization, primarily dealing with oil. In the Hemisphere, twelve South American countries constructed the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008 and the 33 nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was established in 2011. All of these organizations were inspired by the vision of expanding regional economic and political sovereignty as opposed to the traditional United States hegemony in the region. Primarily they challenged the neoliberal model of economic development.


The successes of the spreading popular movements of the first decade of the twenty-first century were paralleled by buoyant economic growth throughout Latin America. Moises Naim, (“The Coming Turmoil in Latin America,” The Atlantic, October 9, 2015) pointed out that all of Latin America experienced economic growth from 2004 to 2013 due to expanding commodity trade with Asia and increased foreign investments in the region. The major economic player in the region was China. However, comparing 2003-2010 growth rates with 2010-2015, the author reported that rates of growth during the second period were only forty percent of what they were in the first. 

With slower growth, declining currency values, higher unemployment and declining social benefits, the narrowing of economic inequality in the region and rising benefits for the poor have been reversed. As The Economist put it in June 27, 2015, “Latin America’s economy is screeching to a halt; it managed growth of just 1.3% last year. This year’s figure will be only 0.9%, reckons the IMF, which would mark  the fifth successive year of deceleration….Many reckon it now faces a ‘new normal’ of growth of just-2-3% a year. That would jeopardize recent social gains; already the fall in poverty has halted.”  

In 2007, Naomi Klein published a fascinating book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it she develops the idea of the shock doctrine, paying homage to the source of the concept, Milton Friedman, the renowned free market economist. From one of his essays she quotes the following: “…only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” The shock doctrine is illustrated by the fact that the declining growth rates in Latin America have been coupled with reactionary political forces in Latin America (and their US friends) becoming re-energized to stifle and dismantle the gains of the Bolivarian revolution and to reverse the gains made by the popular classes. 

On June 28, 2009 there was a military coup in Honduras, ousting democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya from office. Zelaya, who sympathized with the Bolivarian Revolution, was formally replaced in a November, 2009 election that was designed to give legitimacy to the coup. The Honduran coup, in retrospect, signaled a return to destabilization by the wealthy classes of the popular currents represented by the Bolivarian Revolution everywhere.

While Brazil’s Workers Party candidate Dilma Rousseff won reelection as president in October 2014, her victory margin was the narrowest (51.6 percent to 48.4 percent) of the four races in which the center/left Workers Party was victorious. The split between the left/center and right wing forces set the stage for the 2016 campaign by the wealthy to impeach Rousseff for corruption.

Further, in what was called by the New York Times a “transformative election,” the Argentinian people elected as president right-wing advocate of the disastrous neoliberal economic agenda, Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires. Despite the success of prior governments in resisting destructive IMF demands for debt restructuring, Macri promises to return to the policies of the 1990s that led to economic crisis. As the Macri-sympathetic Times editorial put it: “Reforming the stagnant economy will be painful in the short run, but could make Argentina more attractive to foreign investors” (November 26, 2015).

Nicolas Maduro won a narrow presidential victory over a rightwing candidate in Venezuela’s April 14, 2013 election to replace his deceased popular predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Over the next two years, opposition forces engaged in periodic street protests, many in wealthier parts of Venezuelan cities. Coupled with growing economic problems and domestic violence, leaders of the major opposition political party have sought to mobilize support to overthrow the Maduro government and the reforms put in place by Hugo Chavez. In a March 27, 2014 account of anti-government protests, the BBC reported that; “The government’s popularity remains high amid its working-class voters, who gave it a further boost in local elections in December.” However, in December, 2015, an anti-government coalition took two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the most recent election. Almost immediately, opposition politicians began efforts to overturn the popular reforms of the Chavez era and to launch a campaign to impeach Maduro from the presidency.

The United States Role

Throughout the period since the political arrival of Hugo Chavez on the scene in Latin America, the United States has stood in opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution. The United States gave at least tacit support to the failed military coup in Venezuela in 2002. Neighboring Colombia received funds to continue the “war on drugs” while the United States built seven military installations around that country to “protect” Colombia from an “aggressive” Venezuela. In subsequent years, the U.S. Congress has imposed partial embargoes on the visitation rights of selected Venezuelan government officials. Also, the United States has provided funding, training, and educational opportunities to Venezuelans who have played prominent roles in opposition to the Chavez government. It continues to condemn Venezuela’s policies at home, projecting the image that it represents the same kind of threat to the hemisphere that the Cuban revolutionary government represented in the 1960s.

The U.S. government mildly condemned the Honduran coup (compared with statements from the Organization of American States and other nations in the hemisphere). Subsequently it endorsed the November, 2009 election in that country, as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton suggested, to give legitimacy to the coup. Since then, the United States has ignored the grotesque human rights violations and assassinations of opponents of the Honduran government.

And very recently a politician in the impeachment bloc in Brazil visited Washington, meeting foreign policy officials who deal with Latin America and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Given the twenty-first century challenges the Bolivarian Revolution represent to the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal agenda in the Western Hemisphere, the recent visits by President Obama to Cuba and Argentina represent metaphorically imperialism’s response. The President on the one hand is dramatically reordering the US/Cuba relationship, but is doing so in a way to pressure the Cubans to adopt a US/style political system and a market-based open capitalist economic system. 

And his visit to Argentina, just after the Cuba visit, was designed to signal to Argentina and the entire Hemisphere that the United States is committed to a return to neoliberal economic policies. These policies, as always, benefit the rich at the expense of the popular classes. Concretely they include;

-reversing the Cuban revolutionary model

-reinforcing Argentina’s return to dependency on the international financial system

-encouraging impeachments of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela 

-weakening emerging regional organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC

-replacing China’s rising presence in the Latin America with a revitalized US economic hegemony in trade, finance, and investment 

As Eric Draitser (“Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America,” Telesur, April 29, 2016) suggests: “Since the rise of Hugo Chavez Latin America has gone its own way, democratizing and moving away from its former status as a ‘American Backyard.’ With Hillary Clinton and Wall Street working hand in hand with their right wing proxies in Latin America, Washington looks to reassert its control. And it is the people of the region who will pay the price.”

However, it may be the case that the popular classes, tasting some of the benefits of the transition to socialism in the twenty-first century, will resist the attempts in the region to reestablish US hegemony and the neoliberal agenda. The outcome is yet to be determined.