Michael Parenti can always be counted on to provide an original twist, in this case to the old story of Empire. He refers to Imperial Forces as “batterers”. Given that the mainstream media is where most citizens get their information, Parenti’s view of the U.S. as a colonial empire will clash wildly with how those citizens likely understand world affairs. But the author, in his book, Against Empire, offers a persuasive argument for those willing to suspend belief for a moment in the “exceptional morality” of our government.
Michigan’s recent law, passed by a governor and legislature that could not have been elected in that state had they been honest about their agenda, is akin to global trade agreements. In the Michigan case the Governor is given the authority to by-pass democracy and appoint an overseer with pretty much absolute power to take over any municipality that he determines is financially troubled. Legal contracts with workers can be dust-binned by the new sovereign along with any draconian measures he decides to institute. Thus what conservatives have dreamed about since Roosevelt is now largely in place in Michigan - pending a worker uprising. On the international level the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and others in the queue, create an anonymous panel of business executives to settle, without appeal, disagreements between businesses and between business and states. Anything that “hinders trade” can be brought before the commission. Ontario, Canada for example was ordered to rescind a measure it had taken in popular referenda, to create a single-payer auto insurance program. So democracy and national sovereignty are trumped by business interests.
Patenting natural products such as Neem-tree extract, used medicinally by rain-forest dwellers for eons, can be very profitable, forcing the original discoverers to pay pharmaceuticals royalties. This may seem like theft to the unsophisticated who do not understand modern business practices. The corporate view is that business-decided strategies that create third worldization of the whole world are as natural and inevitable as, well, genetically modified organisms. NAFTA, which promised jobs jobs jobs, put Mexican farmers out of business, unable to compete with U.S. corporate agriculture (government subsidized by the way). The resultant mass migration to cities and competition for extremely low-paid factory work led, quite predictably, to the rise in desperate illegal immigration into the U.S. And the havoc it reaped in Mexico is mirrored by the jobs it killed in the U.S. when firms took full advantage of the low wages and lax environmental protection in third world nations and relocated factories. Making the whole world a third world doesn’t arise out of sadistic intent but is rather a by-product of an endless obsession, some call it greed, with more, and the logic of the unfettered “free market”. That is why we must, while a shred of democracy remains, fetter it.
Earlier versions of empire involved invading and occupying armies, funded by taxpayers of the home country of course, with an elite taking the profits. Today’s version is subtler but a military is still sometimes needed to prevent a nation from removing itself from the global corporate system. Any upstart must be reduced to impotence and poverty – Nicaragua and Cuba come to mind, Venezuela on the horizon but a bit too muscular and organized for the full treatment - Empire must, for the moment, settle for demonization of Chavez (although who knows what’s going on covertly?).
Most citizens, subject to the smoothly oiled propaganda system that produces received wisdom, would not predict the consistent correlation found by researchers between U.S. foreign aid and human rights violations, Columbia for a current example. It entails not noticing conflict between rhetoric and reality, between government and governed. The party line is relentless in its insistence that government is intrusive when it offers school lunches, expands environmental protections, when it tries to re-distribute income downward but not when it requires prayer in school, expands police and military power or distributes income upwards. It denounces big-spending, big-brother government but encourages admiration for the flag and other symbols, and for the military. Fox News would be the embodiment of this belief (or if you prefer to think of Fox commentators as cynical - who knows? - then this view is merely its propaganda line) which would treat the following statement as a “conspiracy theory”: Highly placed parties in the capitalist state mobilize immense resources to preserve and advance the interests of the existing class system.” – as if by merely calling it conspiracy it has proven its case.
Keep in mind that despite “titling” like a video game the Afghanistan invasion operation “Enduring Freedom”, the U.S. allied itself with reactionary tribal chieftains and opium traffickers, hostile to rights for women and children. When it was Russia’s turn, in the 80s, the U.S. trained, armed and funded fundamentalists who later returned with these skills to their home countries to terrorize women’s rights leaders and other “Westernisms.” Other interventions over the years brought retrograde elements into ascendency, ruined economies and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Bush I., in his final days in office, sent troops to Somalia to “safeguard the food supply for starving Somalians”, the real reason revealed later that four U.S. oil companies had oil concessions that depended on “pacification”, the setting up of yet another “friendly” government. Clinton continued the Bush policy with U.N. troops for window dressing.
In country after country the U.S. supported elections so long as “our guy” won. If not, then comes the undermining of the economy and if that fails, the coup as in Chile in the early 70s. Add enthusiastic approval of a murderous regime in Indonesia coming to power with CIA assistance, with a later invasion and occupation of East Timor, killing perhaps one third of the population. The overthrow of parliamentary democracy in Iran and installation of the infamous Shah with his secret police and torture chambers, not to mention assistance in the development of nuclear projects which so worry our leaders today when pursued by not “our guy”. Guatemala about the same time, overthrowing an elected leader whose policies were about as far left as Roosevelt or England or France but unacceptable in the “backyard” of the big boy. Few U.S. citizens are aware of the B-52 carpet bombing of Laos with tens of thousands killed, destruction of crops, intolerable living conditions for the survivors. To the skeptical I would suggest, read the book, fact check the footnotes.
Elections in the U.S. are pretty well kept within the desired bounds by the propaganda system and the way elections are financed, leaving candidates dependent on wealthy and corporate contributors. The occasional self-funded candidate may arise but it is highly unlikely that this type of candidate is going to challenge the status quo. Ross Perot comes to mind, the billionaire savior as Chomsky used to call him.
CIA Director Allen Dulles regularly withheld information from Kennedy and when replaced by John McCone the agency isolated and stonewalled the new director. The National Security State, as Parenti calls it though, is not independent, a rogue agency, but rather diligently follows its established mission, which is maximization of power on behalf of corporate interests and capitalist global hegemony. The president is fine, safe, so long as s/he stays within the parameters of that primary dedication. Not that Kennedy was a major threat but sometimes the slightest deviance from doctrine produces hysteria (see Fox News).
Parenti makes an interesting distinction between government and State, the former capable of being influenced by sufficient agitation as with the limited hearings on CIA malfeasance in the mid-seventies. The usual case however is the opposite, the State (meaning the National Security State with its mission) influencing the government. During Iran/Contra hearings Texas Representative Jack Brooks began asking Oliver North if he was part of the planning of REX ALPHA 84, a proposal to suspend the constitution and impose martial law. The committee chair, Senator Daniel Inouye, pronounced this area too “sensitive” to pursue, cutting Brooks off when he persisted. So an illegal plan for a military coup is too “sensitive” to delve into. That is the National Security State dominating the government. By the way, Article I. Section 9 of the constitution allows for suspension of Habeas Corpus (which protects citizens from arbitrary arrest) during “national emergency”… at the President’s sole discretion.
In a related incident, Speaker of the House Jim Wright, also from Texas, began to question the Reagan Administration war on Nicaragua. He was also friendly to labor unions, civil and women’s rights and human services, in other words a “government” person questioning the “state.” The Department of Justice promptly opened an investigation, found some shady financial dealings (which, given our system of campaign contributions they knew they would, and could make up if necessary) and he quickly resigned to avoid trial and imprisonment.
Even in the minds of the U.S. so-called founding fathers, government was seen as having the function of protecting the “haves” from the “have-nots”. An improvement over monarchy no doubt but it was (and is) democracy only in a limited sense, by for and of the “haves”.
Conservatives claim to want less government, one of whom made the famous statement that he wanted to shrink government down to a size where you could drown it in the bathtub. I saw a sticker recently sharing the bumper with Jesus Loves You, a variation where the reactionary vehicle owner wants to “shrink government down to where it will fit in your vagina.” In fact however conservatives are only against “big government” when it provides human services, environmental regulation, consumer protection, occupational safety and all forms of public assistance. They want the kind of big government that limits the egalitarian effects of democracy. They favor aspects of government that admire the state, the flag and other patriotic symbols, the military, law and order, and other instruments of state power.
The CIA’s involvement in the drug trade was exposed in a San Jose Mercury series of stories. The piece was well-researched and credible though editors gave in to tremendous pressure and retracted their thesis. The intended effect of drugs, Parenti claims, is to disrupt and demoralize inner city masses, providing an effective road block to the kind of militant organizing that might utilize the “loop hole” of democracy to improve the lives of the citizens of these neighborhoods and question the present distribution of wealth. Those who attacked the Mercury story probably did so out of a righteous indignation, as if someone had criticized their “Mama”. An example of the internalization of indoctrination is a local judge who thought he was being perfectly reasonable in denigrating the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless because the “radical” group Occupy Atlanta had taken to helping out there.
There is a Russian joke: What has Capitalism accomplished in one year that Socialism couldn’t in 70 years? Answer: Make Socialism look good. As Joni Mitchell said, “Don’t it always go to show, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”. The citizens of Eastern European former Communist nations know what she meant. With the fall of their governments, which they had long longed for, dreaming they’d then have the middle class lives enjoyed in the West, instead lost the admittedly paltry social benefits they had taken for granted: a right to a job, free education and medical care, retirement, low-cost housing, subsidized transportation and utilities… all gone. And the middle class life? No, no, only for gangsters and hucksters. Replaced for the most vulnerable segments of society by hyper-inflation, unemployment, homelessness, prostitution, poverty, hunger, disease, a doubled mortality rate, corruption, ethnic warfare, mob rule and violent crime. And corrupt elections to prevent a return to what looks so good in retrospect.
Despite the conservative catechism of less government and less spending, Nixon-Ford and Reagan-Bush produced record budget deficits. This apparent contradiction evaporates when we clarify the catechism with the fact that socialism for the rich is perfectly OK and large deficits are great arguments for the elimination of social programs that conservatism disapproves of, have indeed been impatiently working to dismantle since the Roosevelt administration. In 1994 total “welfare” spending, food stamps, school lunches etc; was half of what was spent on business price supports, export subsidies and export promotion, subsidized insurance rates, new plants and equipment, marketing services, loan guarantees, debt forgiveness, in a word, corporate welfare. Parenti documents that more than twice as much tax money is channeled to business than to the needy. But we have no mainstream commentators warning that the corporate receipients may lose their moral fiber and become weakened by dependency on government hand-outs. The catechism becomes even harder to defend when we consider that Reagan, who came to rescue us from big-spending liberals, entered office with a $900 billion dollar national debt and left it at $2.7 trillion.
In 1945 corporations paid 50% of taxes collected (a Roosevelt legacy). In 1995 it was down to 7%. The Social Security tax is capped at income of $120,000 and even so creates a surplus which is diverted/spent on other projects so is theoretically “owed” back to the fund but this “crisis” demands, we are told, inevitable cuts in the program. No serious talk of cutting CEO bonuses or salaries or the bloated military budget is mouthed by the mainstream pundits or politicians, perhaps because they know what a quick stop this would put to their careers. Reagan alone spent $2.5 trillion (!) on the military. Military speakers and pundits claim that jobs are created by military spending but, Parenti responds, prostitution and narcotics peddling create jobs also but that doesn’t mean we should embrace them. The pentagon spends in two hours what is allocated to consumer protection in a year. The Military Industrial Complex is a great place for profiteering – who knows how much a tank or nuclear submarine should cost? – and for lubricating the economy without empowering the “wrong people”. Even though more jobs would be created by spending on education, environmental restoration etc; the preferred vehicle is always that which comports with the grand mission, protecting global capitalism from any competing system.
Those at the top can take our timberlands, oil reserves, mineral deposits, pension funds, airwaves and jobs but the national debt is always safely ours. The ideal capitalism which is quickly returning for our edification, existed, according to Parenti, in 1893, characterized by child labor, no social security or health care or environmental protection, wide-spread unemployment, malnutrition, tuberculosis, contaminated food and water for the poor – who were numerous. This is the “free market” of conservative dreams which they and their wellpaid propagandists wish to reinstate and which utopia is well underway. Henry Ford, in the depth of the great depression was making $30 million annually and left us the edifying comment that he didn’t think “depressions are so bad.”
Parenti goes on in his book to discuss how various sectors of our society, such as academia, contribute to the “goal” of perpetuating elite rule and concludes with a list of recommendations for our humane survival which include: abolishing the CIA and the other national security apparatus, limiting a much smaller entity to intelligence gathering without covert action and support for authoritarian regimes, cutting the military by 2/3, closing most world-wide military bases, ending the aggressive SDI or Star Wars program, the pointless manned space program, ending corporate domination of our elections, democratizing the media, tax reform, abolishment of corporate favored trade agreements, phasing out chemical fertilizer use in agriculture and livestock, conservation and ecological restoration of land, air, water, high speed transit, solar and wind energy, dumping of nukes, single payer health care… in brief what the Tracy Chapman song is talking about: revolution. It’s not such a big word and it’s not only possible, it’s imperative to our survival as a species. Ending with a quote from this impressive book, “At whatever moment we stand in history, our best hope lies with those who love social justice more than personal gain.” So this is the umpire of empire, we the people.