Saturday, February 25, 2017


Harry Targ

Part One

United States foreign policy since the dawn of the twentieth century has been shaped by similar but competing ideologies. Ideologies are usually generated by those who rule to explain and justify the policies that they adopt and implement. Often, but not always, purveyors of one or another ideology believe what they say. And journalists and scholars dignify the ideologies by developing rigorous explanations of why the approaches taken are justified by theories of human conduct.

During various periods of world history, elites who compete for power and influence disagree over policy but share a common ideological understanding of the world. But sometimes policy disagreements lead to substantial conflicts of perspective, of ideologies. With the election of Donald Trump, ideological contestation between two elite class ideologies has emerged: one based upon the theory of neoliberal globalization and the other on a thesis based on an alleged clash of civilizations. Understanding the ideological disputes might help deconstruct the political disputes today over foreign (and domestic) policy and facilitate the process of resisting both versions of a United States imperial agenda.

The Ideology of Neoliberal Globalization

The policy referred to as neoliberalism has its historical roots in the expansion of capitalism out of feudalism. Theorists as varied as Adam Smith and Karl Marx saw capitalism as an expansive system that through competition led to growth of economic actors. For Smith, capitalist competition would reach its natural limits and “the invisible hand” would become a regulator of the enterprises that prospered in the marketplace, limiting egregious consolidation of economic and political power.

For Marx capital accumulation meant that competitive capitalism would be qualitatively transformed into consolidated and later monopoly capitalism. This process of economic consolidation was inextricably connected to globalization: from kidnapping and enslavement, to trade, investment, and appropriating natural resources. By the time of the Spanish/Cuban/American war the United States had accumulated enough military power to expand its economic tentacles to Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean and Latin America. But competition with other colonial powers, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and world wars stifled the free unfettered expansion of  United States capitalism.

After World War II, with the United States as the dominant power, a global economy was constructed that facilitated trade, investment, and a debt system. The then existing Socialist Bloc, rising anti-colonial movements in the Global South, the spread of social democracies across Europe, and labor pressures at home limited the full economic freedom that would maximize the opportunities of capitalist expansion.

By the 1970s, economic competition among  capitalist states, anti-colonial wars against the United States, and overproduction of goods and services combined to reduce rates of profit. Monopoly capital expanded its historic shift from manufacturing to financial speculation. As Lenin had long ago assumed, the export of capital began to take priority over the export of commodities.

To facilitate financial speculation,  political elites began to actively pursue on a global basis what became the neoliberal agenda: privatization of all public institutions; deregulation of economies; austerity, that is cutting social programs that give some support to majorities for education, health care, jobs, housing, and transportation; and for many of the world’s countries shifting their economic programs from producing goods and services for their own people to the development of larger and larger export sectors.

In addition, with the qualitative shift in capitalism from manufacturing to financialization, neoliberal institutions encouraged the opening of national economies to foreign speculators. As the price of oil rose dramatically in the 1970s an emerging  debt system was created whereby countries of the Global South were forced by international financial institutions to adopt neoliberal policies. The collapse of socialism in the 1990s triggered a radical transformation in the former Socialist Bloc to free market economies. The changes imposed by international institutions were to occur quickly, sometimes called “shock therapy.” Also Social Democracies in Europe shifted in the direction of neoliberalism. The rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States personified this global shift in public policy at home and abroad.

The neoliberal policy agenda was defended in terms of the presumed connection between market freedom and development, capitalism and development, markets and democracy, and the fanciful idea that neoliberal globalization would facilitate harmony among nations, economic development, and the transformation from four hundred years of nation-state competition to a new world order.

In the United States political elites of both major political parties endorsed the major features of neoliberalism: free trade agreements; pressures on poor countries to deregulate their economies; downsizing all governments at home and abroad; and using military power to impose the neoliberal agenda on recalcitrant countries. Most foreign policy elites from the 1980s on advocated so-called “humanitarian interventions,” to transform rogue states that opposed the global shift in economic and political institutions.

The ideology of neoliberal globalization justified trade agreements such as The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the emerging World Trade Organization (WTO). US foreign policies inspired by neoliberal ideology justified  military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Persian Gulf and East Asia and subversion of regimes in Latin America and Africa. And under the guise of promoting market democracies the United States since the 1990s constructed over 700 military bases, mostly small “lily pads;” established a military command structure in Africa; and since 2009 unleashed drone warfare on an unprecedented scale. Supporters of the neoliberal agenda continue to support expanded trade agreements, expansion of the global presence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and military spending.

(A competing ideological justification for the promotion of United States imperialism based on the “clash of civilizations” has gained influence over the foreign policy process in the new administration of Donald Trump. Racism, always deeply embedded in foreign policy discourse, becomes central to the United States foreign policy. The idea of the “clash of civilizations” will be discussed in Part Two of this essay. HT)


Harry Targ

Part Two

“To be brutality frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise….we’re in a war…” Steve Bannon quoted in Steve Reilly and Brad Heath, “Bannon Takes a Dark View of Islam,” USA Today, February 2, 2017).

The Ideology of “the Clash of Civilizations”

The history of the United States cannot be understood without grasping the central role of the capitalist mode of production. The Western Hemisphere became vital to the emerging world system of capitalism in the fifteenth century. Also, the globalization of capitalism was inextricably connected to the rise of modern racism, an ideology that justified mass murder, kidnapping, and enslavement of millions of people, primarily people of color. Rising capitalism and racism grew in tandem. Each was the product of the other. In one of Marx’s most powerful renditions of the emergence of the two phenomena he wrote in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

Beginning with the introduction of capitalism and slavery in the Western Hemisphere in the fifteenth century, different iterations of white supremacist ideologies were articulated using metaphors that denied humanity to the indigenous people who lived in the Hemisphere before the arrival of European colonial powers and the slaves kidnapped from Africa. For some, people of color were not human beings. For the “liberals” they were like children. And as the United States expanded across the North American continent, the taking of land, the slaughter of indigenous people, and the establishment of slavery were all justified by virtue of the superiority of the white man.

As the new great power emerged from the war with Spain, soon to be President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the special contribution of the white race to civilization. Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge declared that it was the Christian duty of the United States to expand on a worldwide basis ( See Harry Targ, “The Ideology of U.S. Hegemony in the Hemisphere, The Rag Blog, June 6, 2012). In our own day, President Reagan reiterated the old Puritan metaphor: the United States is the “city on the hill.” Secretaries of State Albright and Clinton, as well as former President Obama referred to the United States as “the indispensable nation.” In sum United States history is replete with references to the intellectual and moral superiority of the United States and, directly or indirectly, of  the “white race.”

As neoliberal ideology is a contemporary version of classic theories of free market capitalism, the thesis of the “clash of civilizations” is a modern derivative of classic ideologies of white supremacy. Distinguished political scientist Samuel Huntington published books and articles in recent years that posited a fundamental global contradiction between civilizations. For him, wars are not about disputes between nations but between civilizations. A civilization is a large swath of land, millions of people with a shared culture, values, and beliefs, and overarching political and military institutions.

In world history Huntington suggested, it was because of incompatible civilizations that wars occurred. In his 1996 book ( The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Shuster), he suggested that the fundamental clash that would be occurring in the years ahead was between the Christian West and Islam. (Huntington’s writings have had an enduring and negative impact on public policy. He recommended for South Vietnam, the Strategic Hamlet Program, which was designed to move rural Vietnamese people away from their communities where the enemy was strong. He also warned in the 1970s of the excesses of democracy. Too many people are participating in political processes, he argued).  

White supremacy gave inspiration to support for wars in the twenty-first century. Muslim people were increasingly conceptualized as monsters, killers, and terrorists. They constituted a civilizational threat to the West. And it was this conception of the clash of civilizations that was used to build support among a war-weary US population to fight in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East. During the 2016 election, the theory of the clash of civilizations hovered just below the surface of discourse. United States security was threatened first and foremost by Muslims, but also by Latinos, Africans, and Asians.

While not all supporters of candidate and now President Trump are white supremacists, he and his key aides constantly imply that the United States is currently in a World War, a war of a new kind, a civilizational war. For the Trump narrative, the maintenance of the racial superiority of the United States requires economic policies that limit the outflow of United States investment dollars and the inflow of migrant labor and goods produced overseas. In other words, in the contemporary ideological climate the ideology of the clash of civilizations is connected to policies promoting economic nationalism, a perspective at variance from the neoliberal ideologues. And, at least rhetorically this ideological wing of the foreign policy elite favors less involvement in global diplomacy and institutions while we prepare for global conflicts.

If one had to oversimplify political discourse on the United States role in the world in 2017, the ideological struggle is between one faction of the political class that prioritizes the globalization of the United States economy, pursuing policies to open doors to American capitalism, particularly finance capitalism, and another which pursues white supremacy at home and seeks to impose the dominance of the United States, while limiting economic, political, and cultural ties across the world.

Another World is Possible

The two ideologies, neoliberal globalization versus the clash of civilizations, vary in theoretical underpinnings. On occasion followers of one or the other ideology advocate differences in policy. But both are committed to establishing or reestablishing ( in the twenty-first century) United States dominance of the globe economically, militarily, and politically. The neoliberal ideology begins with an economic motivation for militarism; the clash of civilizations begins with a racial motivation for militarism. One proclaims that our economic and political institutions represent a beacon of hope for the world; the other frankly believes that the United States, because of its racial identity, is a superior civilization. Neither approach to the world provides any semblance of hope for economic and social justice.

Therefore, one task of the peace movement in 2017 entails offering a population skeptical about United States wars and military spending a new way of thinking about how the nation should participate in the world and why this new way is vital to the survival of humankind. The task includes articulating a theory of how the world can work.

First, a new world order that maximizes human potential everywhere and minimizes violence can only be built on a shared, equitable distribution of societal resources. The promotion of any economic system that institutionalizes exploitation must be opposed. Peace can come only in a global society that is based upon economic fairness.

Second, a just world order economically requires the development of a political culture, values, beliefs, and practices, that celebrates human oneness—solidarity—and diversity. Political cultures based on notions of superiority and inferiority are diametrically opposed to ideas of solidarity and diversity.

Third, combatting the institutionalized violence bred of economic disparity and racial supremacy requires mass movements that oppose war-making, killing, and the amassing of the weapons of war. A twenty-first century peace movement must oppose the war system.

The two-year presidential campaign is over and a new administration is serving in its first one hundred days. The campaign and election have shown that large numbers of Americans, and people from around the world who watched the US elections carefully, reject the ideology of neoliberal globalization. Growing resistance to the new Trump administration suggests also that people are rejecting the white supremacist/economic nationalist alternative that this new administration represents. The peace movement task in  the months and years ahead includes developing a coherent theory or ideology of peace and engaging in processes of education, agitation, and organization to achieve its goals.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Harry Targ

Social and Economic Wellbeing Survey Shows No Progress

A flurry of newspaper stories appeared the first week of February in The Wall Street Journal and several Indiana newspapers reporting on data from a “health and wellness” national survey about the performance of the 50 states. Indiana according to several measures was ranked as the fourth “worst state” in the country. The national survey consisted of data from 177,281 people interviewed by the Gallup and Healthways organizations. Data included responses to questions about feelings of community support and pride, physical health, and financial security.

According to the survey The Times of Northwest Indiana, (February 8, 2017) reported, “31.3 percent of Indiana residents are obese, 30.6 smoke, and 29.4 percent don’t exercise at all.” Only 24.9 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree (one of the lowest percentages of any state).  The NWIT article indicated that median household income of Hoosiers was $5,000 less than the national median income.

As The Wall Street Journal put it: “Indiana is one of just a handful of states to rank worse in every category of well-being--sense of purpose, social life, financial health, community pride, and physical fitness--than most other states…”  On all these measures combined Indiana’s rank was only ahead of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Previous Data on the Indiana Economy

The centerpiece of Indiana public policy since 2004 has been corporate and individual tax cuts and reduced budgets for education, health care, and other public services. Indiana was one of the first states to begin the privatization of the public sector, including transferring educational funds from public to charter schools. It established a voucher system to encourage parents to send their children to private schools. Also Indiana sold public roads; privatized public services; and recruited controversial corporations such as Duke Power to support research at the state’s flagship research universities. Meanwhile the manufacturing base of the state shifted from higher paying and unionized industrial labor (automobiles, steel, and durable goods) to lower paying service jobs and non-union work such as at the Amazon distribution center.

The narrative about Indiana economic growth presented by the former Governor Mike Pence varied greatly from data gathered between 2012 and 2014. For example, between 2013 and 2014, despite enticements to business, Indiana grew at a 0.4 percent pace while the nation at large experienced 2.2 percent growth.

Indiana’s economy historically was based on manufacturing but has experienced declines since the 1980s (with only modest increases in recent years).  However, newer manufacturing between 2014 and 2016 has been mostly in low-wage non-unionized sectors.   For example, the Indiana Institute for Working Families reported on data from a study of work and poverty in Marion County, which includes the state’s largest city, Indianapolis.  Four of five of the largest growing industries in the county paid wages at or below family sustainability ($798 per week for a family of three) and individual and household wages declined significantly between 2008 and 2012 (Derek Thomas, “Inequality in Indy - A Rising Problem With Ready Solutions,” August 13, 2014, (

Further, Thomas quoted a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ report on wages and income:  “…wage inequality grew twice as rapidly in the Indianapolis metro area as in the rest of the nation since the recession.” This is so because new jobs created paid less on average than the jobs that were lost since the recession started.

Thomas pointed out that the mayors’ report had several concrete proposals that could address declining real wages and stimulate job growth. These included “raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, public programs to retrain displaced workers,” and developing universal pre-kindergarten and programs to rebuild the state’s crumbling infrastructure. They may have added that declining real wages also relates to attacks on unions in both the private and public sectors and the dramatic reduction in public sector employment.

Thomas recommended in 2012 that Indianapolis (and Indiana) should have taken these data seriously because in Marion County “poverty is still rising, the minimum wage is less than half of what it takes for a single-mother with an infant to be economically self-sufficient; 47 percent of workers do not have access to a paid sick day from work, and a full 32 percent are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($29,685 for a family of three).” 

More recently, November 10, 2014, the Indiana Association of United Ways issued a 250 page report on the state called the “Study of Financial Hardship.” The study, parallel to similar studies in five other states and prepared by a research team at Rutgers University, introduced the concept of  Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed or (ALICE). ALICE refers to households with incomes that are above the poverty rate but below “the basic cost of living.” The startling data revealed that:

-a third of Hoosier households cannot afford adequate housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

-specifically, 14 percent of households are below the poverty line and 23 percent above poverty but below the threshold out of ALICE, or earning enough to provide for the basic cost of living.

-570,000 households are within the ALICE status and 353,000 below the poverty line.

-over 21 percent of households in every Indiana county are above poverty but below the capacity to provide for basic sustenance.

Referring to those within the ALICE category of wage earners who have struggled to survive but earn less than what it takes to meet basic needs, Kathy Ertel, Board Chairperson of Indiana Association of United Ways said: “ALICE is our child care worker, our retail clerk, the CAN who cares for our grandparents, and our delivery driver” (Roger L. Frick, “Groundbreaking Study Reveals 37% of Hoosier Households Struggle With the Basics,” Indiana Association of United Ways, November 10, 2014,

Assessing these recent studies and the 2017 report cited at the outset leads to the conclusion that an evaluation of the current state of the Indiana economy depends upon where one is located in terms of economic, political, or professional position. Those Indiana men, women, and children who come from the 37 percent of households who earn less, at, or slightly above the poverty line probably have a negative view of their futures. For them, the tax breaks for the rich and the austerity policies for the poor are not positive. 

Indiana Politics

Perhaps the starkest fact to note in reference to the growing economic insecurity in the state of Indiana over time is that in 1970 forty percent of Hoosier workers were in unions, then the state with the third highest union density. By the dawn of the second decade of the twenty-first century only 11 percent of workers were in trade unions. Recent legislation has disadvantaged Hoosier workers including passage of a Right to Work law and repeal of the state version of prevailing wage. The Mitch Daniels/Mike Pence administrations (2004-2016) have used charter schools and vouchers to weaken teachers unions. In addition, in his first day in office in January, 2004, newly elected Governor Mitch Daniels signed an executive order abolishing the right of state employees to form unions. 

In 2005 the Indiana state government (legislature and governor) passed the first and most extreme voter identification law. Voters were required to secure voter identification photos. Michael Macdonald a University of Florida political scientist estimated that requiring voter IDs reduces voter participation by 4-5 percent, hitting the poor and elderly the hardest. In addition, Indiana law ended voter registration in the state one month before election day. And polls close at 6 p.m. election day, among the earliest closing times in the country. Finally, requests for absentee ballots require written excuses. 

Republican control of the executive and both legislative branches led to redistricting which further empowered Republicans and weakened not only Democrats but the young and old and the African American community. Nine solidly Republican congressional districts were drawn in 2000.  In 2014, of 125 state legislative seats up for election, 69 were uncontested.  2014 Indiana voter turnout was 28 percent, the lowest state turnout in the country. The Governor’s office has been held by Republicans since 2004 and Republicans have had majorities in both legislative bodies since 2010, when statewide redistricting was implemented.

Traditionally when Democrats were in the Governor’s mansion and/or controlled a branch of the legislature, they too tended to support neoliberal economic policies, but less draconian, and had been more moderate on social policy questions. In recent years, many legislators and the two most recent governors have been friends of or received support from the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) funded by major corporations and the Koch brothers. 

With ALEC money, some active Tea Party organizations, the growth of rightwing Republican power, and centrist Democrats, Indiana government has been able to initiate some of the most regressive policies in reference to voting rights, education, taxing, and deregulation in the country. And as the data above suggests, the political economy of Indiana has increased the suffering of the vast majority of working families in the state. Other data suggests that the quality of health care, education, the environment, and transportation have declined as well.

The political picture is made more complicated by the fact that Indiana is really “three states.” The Northwest corridor, including Gary and Hammond, are cities which have experienced extreme deindustrialization, white flight, and vastly increased poverty. Political activists from the area look to greater Chicago for their political inspiration and organizational involvement. Democratic parties are strong in these areas but voter participation is very low. 

Central Indiana includes a broad swath of territory with small cities and towns and the largest city in the state, Indianapolis. Much of the area is Republican, many counties have significant numbers of families in poverty, and some smaller cities have pockets of relative wealth. Democrats hold some city offices but the area is predominantly Republican.

The southern part of the state, south of Indianapolis, in terms of income, political culture, and history resembles its southern neighbor Kentucky, more than the northern parts of the state. The state of Indiana was the northern home of the twentieth century version of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the KKK controlled Indiana state government. That reality, the institutionalized presence of overt racism, remains an aspect of Hoosier history that may still affect state politics.

In sum, the working people of Indiana enter the coming period with little economic hope, a politics of red state dominance, and the number two person in the White House who bears some responsibility for the economics and politics left behind. Social change in Indiana, as with the nation at large, will require a vibrant, active progressive program in the electoral arena, the 2018 elections for example, at the same time that mass movements direct their attention to improving the lives of the 99 percent.

Thursday, February 9, 2017


04 March 2010

Harry Targ : The Theory of Bagel Capitalism :A Repost in Honor of National Bagel Day

Political theory and the tower of bagel. Image from Neurotopia.

Bagels and the theory of capitalist development
I think Marx had a pretty good analysis of how capitalism works but even I recognize that his theory did not adequately come to grips with the political economy of the bagel.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / March 4, 2010

A long time ago Karl Marx theorized that in capitalist societies the class of people that own and control the means of production -- the machines, the factories, the workers -- constituted an economic ruling class. The only thing that workers owned was their ability to do work.

The workers would sell their ability to do work for a wage. The capitalists would hire workers, work them hard, and sell the goods and services produced. The capitalists would sell the products and/or services for more than the workers would get paid. They would keep the difference and that is where profit came from.

Over time, Marx said, the number of capitalists would get smaller and smaller and what they owned and controlled would get bigger and bigger. Marx’s predictions pretty much have come to pass with a few hundred corporations and banks controlling about one-third of all that is produced on the face of the globe.

The political economy of the bagel

Now I am one of those people who think Marx had a pretty good analysis of how capitalism works but even I recognize that his theory did not adequately come to grips with the political economy of the bagel. The bagel originally was a round roll with a hole in the middle that began to get hard as soon as it came out of the oven. Water bagels, the authentic bagels, were plain, hard, and flat when cut so that cream cheese could be spread evenly or in chunks over their surface. Also, bagels could just as easily be used to throw at targets during a popular uprising as they could be used to stifle hunger.

Bagels used to be produced in small Jewish bakeries that dotted neighborhoods in Eastern and Midwestern cities. Along with the generic food/weapon, the plain bagel, more adventurous Jewish bakers began to experiment with the production of garlic bagels, onion bagels, and poppy seed bagels. Bagel bakers were highly skilled craft workers, probably descendants of the powerful medieval bagel guilds of Central Europe.

In sum, the introduction of the bagel in Jewish communities provided for the nutritional needs of the community, a means of defense and deterrence against aggression from outside the community, and over time a source of cultural identity. As Jews migrated throughout the United States, they maintained an identification -- even if not articulated -- with the bagel.

The rise of monopoly capitalism and the production of the bagel

Although followers of Marx have carefully analyzed the accumulation of capital on a national and global scale and have linked the concentration of economic power with control of the modern state, hardly ever did they notice the transformation that was going on right under their noses concerning the political economy of the bagel.

The small bagel bakeries of old were closing their doors. Many people rejecting their heritage began to eat croissants and muffins for breakfast instead of bagels. And as the traditional consumers of bagels left the working class and joined the bourgeoisie, they no longer wished to stockpile old bagels as weapons in the class struggle.

These events led some to predict the demise of the bagel as we had known it. But then the economic ruling class, suffering from declining rates of profit, discovered the bagel and began to reconstitute the global capitalist system. First, some food processing companies started selling packages of frozen bagels -- small, tasteless, harmless little bagels. Then, new bagel bakeries/sandwich shops began to open in urban centers. These spread like wildfire around the country. Pretty soon the word “bagel” was on everyone’s lips.

Then newer bakery shops, part of global conglomerates, would come to town, underprice their product, and force out their competitors -- both bakeries and coffee and sandwich restaurants. The bagels they produced and sold were big, puffy, and mushy inside, and had bizarre flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon, or basil. Everybody was ordering a bagel with a “schmear” (heretofore a technical term). Perhaps most importantly these bagels would be as powerful a weapon as a pillow.

The process of production of bagels had changed as well. No longer were the bagel bakers craftsmen and women who carefully crafted their products with pride. Now bagels were partially assembled in huge bagel factories and shipped, uncooked, to the hundreds of thousands of stores in the chain to be baked and sold to the untutored and the young.

Today the bagel industry is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, dominated by a handful of bagel monopolies. Even the traditional doughnut conglomerates are selling their own bagels in thousands of stores.

When Marx wrote Das Kapital in the 1860s, he could not have predicted the rise of bagel capitalism. He would not have guessed that the bagel trust would increasingly control global capitalism transforming the bagel from a working class nutrient to a yuppie affectation and from a weapon of potential mass destruction to a coffee table adornment. In fact, if he had eaten a chocolate bagel, he might have thrown up.

[Harry Tarq is a professor who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

The Rag Blog

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Sin Eun-jung, Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History, PM Press, Oakland California, 2015.
A Review by Harry Targ, Purdue University in Socialism and Democracy, November, 2016.

About 25 years ago I was listening to one of the premier conservative radio pundits claim that the only institution “we” do not yet control is the university. That statement was prophetic in that the profusion of books and articles today document the multiple ways in which colleges and universities are being transformed by the neoliberal economic agenda, the pursuit of so-called STEM-based education, and the seizure of power in higher education by the Koch Brothers.

This new literature, however, is only half correct because as Sin Eun-jung richly documents, the world’s premier university, Harvard, had established the model for a higher education that would serve economic and political ruling classes well before the twenty-first century. Armed with direct childhood experience of state repression of students in Gwangju, South Korea and growing up in a culture that lionized United States universities, particularly the image of Harvard, the author provides a detailed narrative of the “model” for the modern university that had its roots as far back as in its participation in the Salem Witch Trials.
Verita$ is a popularly written text that takes the reader through the history of Harvard University addressing most of the issues raised by the burgeoning critical literature on higher education. The author describes in detail the authority structures at Harvard and their very modest evolution since the student protests of the 1960s. The Harvard Corporation and a tiny executive elite have ruled with little regard for faculty, students, or staff input. When protests arose in the 1960s, the Harvard Corporation dispersed some measure of control to separate colleges, but control by the oligarchs remained.

More importantly, in every historical period CEOs at Harvard have been largely hand-picked representatives of the economic ruling classes. They have been conscious of the need to train continuing generations of stewards of an oligarchical capitalist system. As one student put it, “it’s hard to say exactly how it happens. But after four years here you feel as though the world has been created to be led by Harvard men.” (7)

Verita$ provides a useful historical narrative about the multiple ways in which Harvard CEOs, faculty and students have served the status quo. Harvard graduates and Corporate Board member Cotton Mather served on a trial that convicted George Burroughs of being a witch in Salem in 1692, He was hung for his crime. Harvard executives, professors, and graduates also figured prominently in the defense of slavery. They actively opposed women workers who went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 and Harvard students hit the streets to oppose Boston police who went on strike in 1919. Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell chaired a committee that reviewed and endorsed the judicial ruling to convict and execute Sacco and Vanzetti. Harvard president James Conant welcomed a rich German alum who was a close aide to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and while formally opposing McCarthyism in the 1950s, scholar Ellen Schrecker in No Ivory Tower points out that faculty with radical views were often dismissed from their positions.
Not only has Harvard been the paradigmatic training ground for generations of young men of the ruling class but it also is an institution which provides the research and education to cement ruling class rule. Richard Levins, an idiosyncratic Harvard professor reported that “Harvard is an organ of the American ruling class whose mission is to do the intellectual labor that class needs.” (7)

Harvard scholars were recruited by and had ready access to the White House during the Vietnam War. McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and others were instrumental in fashioning the escalating Vietnam War policy. Kissinger urged President Nixon to launch the brutal Christmas bombing, hitting civilian targets all across North Vietnam in December, 1972, and Samuel Huntington, a contract researcher for the CIA contrary to Harvard policy, warned David Rockefeller and other members of the Trilateral Commission in the 1970s of the “excesses of democracy.” Earlier, 1962, he had designed the “Strategic Hamlet Program” that displaced Vietnamese peasants from their homelands. Harvard administrators, scholars, and alumni have been involved in virtually every odious movement, policy, and government in modern history; from eugenics, to Nazism, to militarism, to the promotion of atomic war, to the development of economic policies referred to as “shock therapy” that impoverished millions of Russians and Eastern Europeans, to sexism, racism, and class exploitation.
To be sure, Harvard has not been the only university that has served economic ruling classes and imperialism throughout United States history but it has been the model for which most other major institutions follow. And as the author, a South Korean, points out, Harvard has trained the ruling classes of many of the world’s nations and has inspired wealthier families from many of these countries to send their children to Harvard as well.

Verita$ also describes how Harvard financial wizards used its endowment funds for purposes of financial speculation, beginning in the new century, only to experience major losses after the financial crisis of 2008. Researcher, and Harvard graduate, John Trumpdour, wrote that “others have said that Harvard is a giant financial, stock market, and real estate investment firm that happens to have classes on the side so that it can keep its tax-exempt status.” (167).
This case study of the history and political economy of one university, albeit the most important one, adds immeasurably to a knowledge base that can be used by activists who see the need to defend the idea of the university from the neoliberal onslaught. Its contribution could have been even greater if the author added a chapter that explicitly addressed the dominant paradigms influenced by Harvard scholars over major disciplines, particularly since the end of World War Two. How did distinguished economists, psychologists, social scientists, and humanists shape what became “legitimate” knowledge in the academy? What approaches to these disciples were shunned by academic researchers? To what extent was the definition of legitimate knowledge shaped to meet the interests of the United States and the capitalist system? Examples are presented as President Conant or Dean Bundy proclaim that Harvard research and teaching must serve the needs of the military/industrial complex. But the question of linking institutional power to knowledge could have been addressed in greater depth.

I am sure that Shin Eun-jung would have agreed that academic fields are shaped by paradigms, or theories that justify the existing economic and political order. The university is not usually a haven for discussions about the fundamental structures of inequality, racism, patriarchy, the devastation of the environment, or war. In the end, Boards of Trustees, think tanks, university administrators, and federal programs, are committed to a university system that supports the capitalist state. Only limited and circumscribed debate about issues fundamental to economic vitality and political democracy are allowed. Therefore, the university was not created for nor does it prioritize today discussions of fundamental truths.
Despite the lack of discussion of the connection between substantive knowledge and Harvard as a ruling class institution Verita$, a book written to complement a documentary film of the same name, provides a rich, data and historically-based description of America’s premier educational institution. The book demonstrates how Harvard has impacted through research, education, and policy-making around the globe. The author, Shin Eun-jung, filmmaker, author, activist died prematurely at age 40 but her writing and film-making leave an important legacy.