Definitely Not The Election
Date: Thursday, November 04 @ 17:40:15 UTC
Topic: Corporate Greed
November 04, 2004
EXTRACT: An interview with Stephen Gowans.
The full interview can be found here.
Angie: In today's world, however, the egalitarianism ideology is in danger of being taken over by neo-liberals whilst abject poverty, not economic security, has found plenty of room to prevail and grow. How can we change this?
Stephen: I guess that's like asking how to lose weight. The answer's obvious, but no one likes it, and people are always on the lookout for a quick fix, something that doesn't take much effort and involves no pain and no disruption. Quick fixes invariably turn out to be sold by hucksters.
I'll start with an axiom: You can't make any change without a fair degree of popular support.
Education is important, because you can't enlist popular support unless people know what's going on. And most don't. So that's job one -- getting the basic facts known.
Angie: Who do you propose ought to educate the masses? Mainstream media bias is rampant. Are you suggesting world citizens begin at a grass roots level and move on from there?
Stephen: Sure. There is an alternative media. It would be wrong to say it's large, because it's certainly not large by the standards of the mainstream media, but it's there and it's a start.
Angie: Yes, it is indeed encouraging to see alternate media moving out of its infancy and beginning to make an impact.
Stephen: Related to job one is explaining why things are the way they are. Is the US occupying Iraq because George Bush is a bad guy, or is dominating and exploiting weak countries by unprovoked military aggression a recurrent theme of the foreign policy of advanced countries? Is unceasing economic security inescapable, or has it been abolished elsewhere at other times, and if so, why does it persist here, and whose interests does it serve?
Angie: Certainly the attack on Iraq has made the deep pockets of Bechtel, Halliburton et al much deeper.
Stephen: Yes, absolutely. But it goes deeper than that. Bechtel and Halliburton have certainly profited from the attack on Iraq, but the attack on Iraq is only a single instance of a larger pattern of the US expanding its sphere of influence by force of arms, which has immense defense expenditures as a necessary condition Lockheed-Martin, which just announced soaring profits, makes a killing on US aggression, as a major supplier to the Pentagon. And there's Boeing and Raytheon and a whole host of other companies that have a material interest in a colossal Pentagon and an aggressive foreign policy.
That's not limited to Iraq. If you're in the business of supplying equipment to wage war, war is good for business. If you're in the construction business, as Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, is, through his connections to Bechtel, war is good for business, because it means reconstruction contracts. Shultz headed a lobby group that made the case for invading Iraq.
Angie: In other words, the more opportunities for "reconstruction" by the United States, for instance, the happier and wealthier weapons manufacturers are, the happier and wealthier construction companies are, and so on.
Stephen: And there are scores of giant US firms that have an interest in an aggressive foreign policy, to do all these things, and to open up markets abroad and to keep them open, and to ensure there's plenty of space overseas for the profitable investment of capital. And they're rich enough to buy lobbyists, to buy PR, to buy politicians, to put their own people in decisive positions of State, to see to it that foreign policy is shaped in their interests. So perhaps Bechtel and Halliburton are direct and conspicuous beneficiaries of the take-over of Iraq, and perhaps US oil majors will also find themselves in the same boat, but if you look at US foreign policy generally, you'll see that the protagonists are the people who own the economy and run it for profit.
So job two is showing what needs to be changed. There's a great misapprehension that meaningful change can be made by pressuring CEOs and other representatives and beneficiaries of the corporate class to get a heart, or become more patriotic and stop exporting jobs, or show more corporate responsibility, or show more concern for the environment or the unemployed.
Angie: Exporting jobs, if we are to accept the facts reported recently on CBC's, The National, is big business in the United States right now, and it's creating great hardship for many people there.
Stephen: Absolutely. And one of the reasons it's big business now is that a large part of the world's working population -- indeed, maybe most of it -- used to be sheltered from the global capitalist market by central planning and tariff barriers and performance requirements. The overthrow of communism not only weakened poor countries that were trying to develop outside the straight jacket of capitalism, but opened the floodgates, spilling hundreds of millions of people onto the global labor market.
Angie: I remember in your latest article, "Hail the Reds" you examined this very issue in a somewhat general sense, but with specific attention to the Soviet Union.
Stephen: Yes, the Soviet Union and the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe, where the obscenities of joblessness, economic insecurity and huge disparities in income, wealth, opportunity and education -- once abolished -- have come roaring back. The result is that today, huge corporations can range over the face of the globe, playing one low-wage country off against another. In Western Europe, for example, some workers are working longer hours without increases in pay or benefits to prevent their jobs being exported to former communist countries, like Slovakia and Poland, where full employment used to be guaranteed but where unemployment is now rampant.
Angie: Poorly paid employees are afraid to protest their working conditions because by doing so they are putting their jobs in jeopardy. Isn't this a devious form of blackmail?
Stephen: It keeps people in line, sure. That works out well for people who own the economy and run it for profit. It doesn't work for the rest of us, but, then, whoever said the capitalist economy is supposed to work for the rest of us? Losing your job because it has been exported, doesn't work either. But why are jobs exported? Because that's what you do when the motive force of the economy is profit-making. There was a CEO of a large company who met every decision that had enormously troubling implications for the people affected by saying: "Well, I'm not going to pretend that what's happening to you is nice, but that's capitalism." In effect, what he was saying was: "Don't blame me. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't be closing this plant, and shipping jobs overseas, but capitalism made me do it."
And he was right. If he did what he wanted to do, which was keep jobs here, he'd soon be replaced by someone who did what was right for the company. And if the whole company refused to act in the interests of the shareholders, which means driving labor costs down as far as they can go, for example, its competitors would soon gobble it up. So he was right. Capitalism is to blame. My reply is, well, if capitalism is to blame, let's get rid of it.
Angie: Realistically can capitalism be eradicated from today's world? And if so, how do we go about it, and what do we replace it with?
Stephen: Capitalism has proved to be far more durable than the original Marxists supposed it would ever be, but why should we suppose it's here to stay and that we can't do better? Indeed, we have done better. Look at Cuba. Look at the former Soviet Union. Look at China before 1979. These countries weren't as rich as the Western world, but they started out as backward places, and grew to achieve a comfortable frugality and delivered a materially secure existence to all.
Angie: And in view of the uncertainties in today's employment on a global basis, I daresay that a lot of employees would appreciate a "comfortable frugality" right now.
Stephen: Yes. Look at Cuba. Although harassed by the US, although embargoed, it has a lower infant mortality rate than parts of the US, a better health care system, offers more educational opportunities, and contrary to the mythology, offers far more space for democratic involvement than the US does. So, what do we replace capitalism with? The opposite: socialism, by which I mean economic activity that's guided by a rational plan aimed at satisfying human needs, not the profits of a minority.
Angie: The ratio between the poor and the rich elite is staggering. How did it ever get this great? Surely there is enough wealth in today's world to satisfy the needs of all?
Stephen: Yes, there is. I mean, look! What is economic activity supposed to be? It's supposed to be the way in which a population satisfies its material requirements. But that's not what capitalist economic activity is. In capitalist countries economic activity is directed toward enlarging the profits of the people who own the economy, which is why the economy doesn't give a damn whether you have a job or get paid an adequate wage, or can afford health care, or education for your children, or whether you live on the street, or have to live your whole life with the threat of job loss hanging over your head; it only gives a damn about whether the conditions are right for profit-making and the right conditions for profit-making are conditions in which there is always an army of people clamoring for work, where wages are as low as they possibly can be, where benefits are a picayune as they can possibly be, where desperation is as high as it possibly can be, and where exploitation is as intense as it possibly can be.
So why is there a Himalayan disparity in wealth and income? A big reason is because the former socialist world has been integrated into the global capitalist economy, opening space for the dominant class to press its interests far more vigorously than it was able to when it had to deal with the socialist bloc and with national liberation movements. Labor costs are forced down as low as possible so profits can be driven up as high as possible. The result is that the incomes of those who own the economy and run it for profit soar while the incomes of the rest of us fall. That's the nature of capitalism.
Angie: Which takes us back to the beginning of this interview where you were talking about how important it is for the people of today's world to become educated with respect to what is actually going on around them.
Stephen: The question we all need to ask is does the economy exist to serve our interests or do we exist to serve the interests of the people who own the economy and run it for profit? I think the answer is pretty clear. The next question is how long are we going to put up with it?
Unfortunately, there's a lot of confusion about what the root causes of homelessness, massive unemployment, economic insecurity, underdevelopment, and wars of conquest are. Many people think these horrors are simply the correctable deficiencies of an otherwise praiseworthy and admirable system. You know, if there are problems, it's because leaders are greedy, they're grasping, they're bellicose, they're besotted with power, or they're plain stupid and can't see where the best interests of everyone lay. So what you get is political action that appeals to the liberal conscience of people in power in the hope there will be some change in policy. This is the "we have to pressure the elites" school of thought, but never take power ourselves, much beloved by people associated with Z Magazine. If you're keeping score, you'll know Team Z's approach has proved to be a miserable failure.
Angie: What do you see the problem as being, then?
Stephen: The problem isn't how to pressure people in power to think in the right way or get a heart -- the problem is the way economic activity is organized, what its motive force is, what its ends are. It doesn't matter how humane a CEO is. Corporations act in ways to maximize their profits, and if they don't, they're eliminated. If maximizing profits means exporting jobs to sweatshops overseas, that's what happens. It doesn't matter how enlightened a head of State is. If dominating weaker countries means bigger profits for the country's corporate class (which the head of State is very likely to be a charter member of, in good standing) that's what happens. If they don't act in this way, they're eliminated. William Blum wrote a wonderful piece about what he would do were he president of the United States. In the first three days he'd apologize to all the people wronged by US foreign policy, and sharply reduce the military budget to pay reparations. On the fourth day he'd be assassinated.
Angie: I somehow doubt, however, that the extent of corporate greed and its attendant evil is as well known to the peoples of the world as it should be and ought to be.
Stephen: Yes, I think that's true, to a point. But I also think there's a mistaken belief that if people do know, they'll act accordingly, and while knowledge is unquestionably necessary, it's hardly sufficient. Recognizing that something's wrong doesn't mean you're going to fix it, especially if you don't know how to fix it, or if the job seems to too large and too daunting to tackle. What often occurs as a solution to people who are energetic enough, motivated enough, and mad enough is to appeal to the liberal conscience of people in power -- what I call the Grinch view. The Grinch's heart grew three sizes and all was well. Now if only we can get Bush's heart to grow three sizes, or better still, get Kerry elected, whose heart is said to be a little bigger than Bush's, well, maybe we'll get somewhere. This overlooks the recurrent patterns of behavior that are independent of individuals and the wills of people in decisive positions.
Angie: The risk of offending corporations is a prevalent fear, it seems, by leaders of powerful nations. One wonders, especially in the United States, who is running the country. Is it the government or is it the corporations?
Stephen: They're inseparable. Where do the people in decisive positions come from? Large corporations. Where do they go to when their political careers are over? Back to large corporations.
Angie: That is downright scary. Is there not room in Government for non-corporate leaders or have we arrived at a point where only the rich are deemed ideally suited to run for Presidency, Prime Minister, etc?
Stephen: I don't think it's a matter of suddenly arriving at this point. It's been that way forever. It's just that it's a hell of a lot clearer now, because the need to make concessions to the rest of us has all but disappeared, and that's because the counterrevolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and China have changed the material conditions under which the dominant class operates. It no longer has to compete against a counter-model of robust social security and guaranteed employment. It no longer is limited in the market of cheap labor it can draw on. It has a free hand to engage in imperialist conquest. So it no longer needs to provide room for working class interests. People look at this change and say, Wow, the rich have suddenly won exclusive sway over the State. But that's not it. They've always had exclusive sway. They're just now in a better position to press their interests.
There's also a great man theory that guides a lot of people's political thinking -- the theory that people in decisive positions make history just as they like. So, for example, you can put a labor leader in high political office, or someone committed to socialism, and all will change for the better. But this ignores the reality that the State is much larger than the PM or the President. It's the police, the army, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, even the church and the schools and the media. You can install a socialist at the head of the capitalist State and very little, if anything, is going to change. What has changed in Brazil under Lula?
Or let's take the case of the new Socialist government in Spain. The government wanted to honor the Spanish Republican troops who fought in the liberation on Paris in WWII. The army demanded that Spanish fascist troops who fought alongside Nazi troops in Russia be honored, too. The government capitulated, and honored both. This is just a small example of the constraints the State imposes on the elected leader. The economic system imposes its own, very powerful, constraints, as well.
So if you want to make any meaningful change, you have to do more than elect the right leader. You have to change the State first. And you have to change the motive force and regulating principle of the economy, and you have to change who owns it.
Angie: But is anyone going to do that? Is there anyone out there right now in the global community who will, as an elected leader, change the State, and, in turn, the economy of that State?
Stephen: No, because fundamental change isn't going to be made by elected leaders, and never has been. Fundamental change is made by people who came to power in revolutionary upheavals with popular backing. Consider the difference between movements prepared to pursue an insurrectionary route to power, and those that follow a parliamentary one. The first sets out to dismantle the State because that's the seat of the dominant class's power.
I mean, what's the State? It's a body of laws respecting property. It's a bureaucracy comprised almost entirely of people who accept the goals and values of the dominant class implicitly. Same for the judiciary. Same, in many cases, for the military. Same for the media.
Left in place, the State, which has been built up around the interests of the dominant class, will smother any attempts at making fundamental changes that threaten the dominant class's privileges and property. That's the whole point of the State. So if you're going to displace the dominant class to make fundamental changes, you first have to displace the State and replace it with your own apparatus.
Angie: So even voting for the individual who best exemplifies reform won't go anywhere near solving the problem?
Stephen: Right. What happens when a reformist party comes to power through a parliamentary route? Reformist parties opt to live with, and work within, the State, which means they opt to live with, and to work within the bounds of the dominant class's interests. You don't delude yourself about being able to achieve any kind of fundamental change. You don't pretend you're going to "expropriate the expropriators" to use Lenin's phrase, although you may at times engage in this kind of rhetoric to keep militants on board. You might, to get elected, lead people to believe you're going to make far-reaching changes. But it's all electioneering. The history of reformist parties in the West is a history of bitter disappointment on the part of people who thought they had elected a government that was going to produce substantial change and did little, or nothing, but uphold the dominant class's interests.
Angie: Can we not expect any improvement, then, towards eliminating joblessness, poverty, narrowing the margin between rich and poor?
Stephen: It's silly to prejudge the future, but based on the past, the best you can expect from these kinds of movements is that they'll work around the edges. That's what NDP governments in Canada have done at the best of times. And that's what the new left coalition that was just elected in Uruguay will do -- if it even goes that far. Indeed, the New York Times ran an article that said, "Don't worry, these guys aren't going to do much. They'll behave themselves -- like Lula." Even Chavez, for all he's seen to be dangerously Left, works within a very narrow space that doesn't stray far beyond the bounds of the dominant class's interests. That's not to say that Chavez isn't a committed Leftist -- only that, with the State of the dominant classes still largely intact, and I include the media, he's not left with much room to manoeuvre. Unemployment remains massive. Poverty is widespread. And the chances of any of this changing is slim at best.
Angie: That is not a very hopeful future to march into, is it?
Stephen: It's not very hopeful if the attempted solution lays in a pressure the elites, reformist, great man theory path. One of the silliest things I've seen is an appeal from a group of Left luminaries in the US to organize to defeat "Bush's" drive to war. This is another example of the great man theory, except in this case we might rechristen it the evil man theory. This view is oblivious to the obvious reality that the drive to war can't be something that lives in the head of George W. Bush because it has been a consistent theme of US foreign policy since the country's inception. President after president has gone to war over and over and over again.
So, what's going on? Does the outgoing president meet the incoming president to transfer the drive to war through a mind meld? Or should we be looking for the roots of war in the State and indeed in the capitalist system itself? We should ask why the US can't help but meddle in the affairs of weaker countries, conquer their markets, siphon off their wealth, take their resources, no matter who the president is and what party is in power -- and more often than not by going to war to accomplish these ends.
Angie: And the US is always going to war because?
Stephen: I've already touched on some of the reasons. War is how you conquer the markets and labor and resources of people who don't want to give them up, just because you demand them. So, war is good for business. If you're in the arms industry, war is good for business. War is good for business, if the arms industry is a principal customer. War is good for business if it allows you to come out on top in a contest to dominate overseas fields of investment. Who had the oil field development contracts in Iraq? Chinese, French and Russian companies. Who didn't? American and British companies. Who was opposed to a US-UK take-over of Iraq? China, France and Russia. Who were the protagonists? The US and UK.
Angie: And, of course, there is the bombing of Afghanistan whereby the US has achieved enough control to keep a eye on goings-on with the oil rich Caspian Sea region. It explains more than anything the US warmongering rhetoric towards Iran who, in the late nineties and as late as 2002 has waged an aggressive campaign for more control of the Caspian resources.
Stephen: Well, yes, the occupation of Afghanistan, and the US military presence in a number of Central Asian republics allows the US to dominate an important oil producing region, and there are all kinds of reasons why the US would want to do that. It also allows the US to extend its military encirclement of Russia, which is one of the few countries capable of challenging US hegemony over the rest of the world. That too is driven by the systemic imperatives of US imperialism. Who's going to sell oil to Europe -- the Russians or the US oil majors? Well, if you're the US government, the answer is pretty clear.
Angie: As an aside here I would suggest that Putin not be so eager to trust the US. The last time the two countries became bosom buddies the roar of breakaway republics from the original Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was heard around the world and still echoes today.
Stephen: Yes, that's true, but I think Putin has taken your suggestion. The CIA says Russia is spending more on its military and is engaging in more military activity in an effort to recover its great power status, adding that Russia is likely to hang tough on Chechnya and the Ukraine, opposing Washington's efforts to press US corporate interests in these areas. There a few flashpoints where the interests of the two countries collide.
But returning to challenging imperialism, I think the third step is showing a practical way forward. Large numbers of people grasping what's going on and apprehending their situation doesn't mean they're going to act accordingly. In fact, there are a hell of lot of people who have a very good understanding of what's going on, but see no clear way forward -- so they give up. They go to demonstrations and write letters and agitate but come to see that nothing of moment changes, or they apprehend from the start that writing letters and marching isn't going to change much, if anything, so they don't bother.
The state of the "movement" -- to use a term that sometimes seems better suited to a proctologist's office -- reminds me of how Lenin described the state of the labor movement in Russia prior to the Bolshevik revolution. He said it was engaged in sporadic activity without a leading idea. That's how I'd describe the "movement" today. Engaged it sporadic activity with no leading idea. It's like a ship at sea, without a navigator or radar or sextant.
Angie: Which obviously explains why there has been very little, if any, real change.
Stephen: Right. Job four is recognizing a reality. People have to be so disgusted with the current system that they're willing, indeed, eager, to accept the upheavals of changing it. And yes, change means upheaval. It can't be done by writing letters or by holding orderly marches through the street once a year to pressure elites, while
allowing them to remain in place. It has to be done by seizing power to make desired changes. The more that people find themselves in a position where they say "disruption and struggle has to be better than this," the greater the potential for change, the more likely they are to seize power to make desired changes. At the moment, the bulk of people in the West, aren't in that position. They may be, in time, but they aren't now. Who is in that position now? Among others, people in Iraq. Palestinians.
Angie: Oh, you mean the "terrorists" of the Occupied Territories, and the "insurgents/foreign fighters" in Iraq? Forgive me whilst I quote (gasp) media terminology, but let's talk about Iraq and the Occupied Territories briefly. Give us your prospectus on both, bearing in mind, of course, that both are occupied illegally.
Stephen: Yes, both occupations are illegal, but I've got to the point where I don't pay much attention to whether the actions of the US and Israel are legal or not -- and usually they're not. There is a line from a Phil Ochs' song, "Cops of the World," written four decades ago. "We've done it before, so why all the shock?"
Transgressing international law is so accustomed where the US and Israel are concerned, it's standard operating procedure -- hardly the kind of thing anyone should raise their eyebrows over. And there's the matter that international law has no meaning when there's no overarching power to enforce it, so I think it's a pointless exercise to expect much from it or even to talk of international law as if it is, or ever could be, a restraining force on the US and its allies.
Angie: And yet the International Criminal Court of Justice promised so much. Today, a few years later, the only alleged war criminal leader that's been brought before its Justices is Milosevic. What does that tell us, if anything?
Stephen: I think the ICC was sold naively as promising so much, but it didn't take long for the US to completely undermine it, as was inevitable. The World Court could be said to promise so much, too, but Israel and the US simply ignore it. It's a farce. So, you're right, the US is only interested in international law and war crimes tribunals
so long as they serve their own interests and so long as they're running the show. The ICTY, the tribunal trying Milosevic, is simply an extension of NATO's war of conquest on Yugoslavia. The charges are contrived. The prosecution, after two years, failed to produce a single witness to testify that Milosevic ordered or committed any war crimes, let alone a genocide. It's pure theatre.
Angie: And what theatre!
Stephen: I don't pay much attention either to what insurgents are called. You can call them terrorists, and some are, if you define a terrorist as someone who provokes terror in a civilian population for political ends, but by that definition the US and Israel are clearly terrorists too. NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia was clearly terrorist. Dropping bombs on downtown Baghdad is clearly terrorist. Dropping a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza City is clearly terrorist. The only difference between the terrorism of people called terrorists, and the terrorism of the US and Israel and NATO is that in the case of the latter, more people get killed.
There's another difference, too. Their terror, which is the larger terror, is what provokes the terror of the resistance, the smaller terror, the briefer terror. Take Israel, for example. Would Palestinians be blowing themselves up at bus stops, if Israel hadn't driven Arabs from their homes, hadn't barred them from returning, hadn't condemned them to leading hopeless lives in cramped refugee camps, hadn't occupied the West Bank and Gaza, hadn't settled on Palestinian land, hadn't built a barrier wall the World Court ordered dismantled? Would there have been a 9/11 had Osama bin Laden not watched Israeli fighter planes bomb office towers in downtown Beirut in 1982?
Angie: No, I would strongly suspect there would not be. Curious, however, that Israeli fighter planes bombing office buildings in Beirut didn't rate much news coverage; there were no memorials erected for the dead, etc. Or are we to presume, perhaps, that office towers in Beirut were without people? When we consider the thousands of Lebanese that died, in a direct breach of international law, much like the illegal, immoral, and unjustified attack on Iraq, we have to ask who really are the "terrorists". Will the world ever pause and take note of that? Or will the mindset that's ingrained in the west today ever cease its focus on the Arab and Muslim people as being "terrorists"?
Stephen: No. Who's called a terrorist and
who's called a freedom fighter is always going to reflect the interests of one or the other party in a conflict, unless you want to reduce language to a set of mathematical equations, where you say something like, let x represent a person who uses arms in such and such a way to accomplish such and such an end. So I think what one needs to do is recognize that the people in government and the people who own the mainstream media and run it for profit have certain interests, that their interests are inimical to those of the rest of us, and that the things politicians say and the coverage of the news, including what labels get attached to people fighting for their lives, homes and land, are going to reflect those interests. It's in their interests to invoke the hateful term terrorist to denote people who refuse to go lightly into the night.
Angie: Or in the case of Iraq wouldn't the US and the UK have been relieved had the Iraqi population allowed itself to be "shocked and awed" into oblivion?
Stephen: Resistance isn't a Sunday school picnic, but many progressives take a very moralistic view of the world, and want to believe it can be. They're very disappointed when exploited and subjugated and terrorized people behave like humans, not angels, and so they shy away from descriptions of resistance fighters as people fighting for their lives, their homes and their land. They'd rather denounce them as vile terrorists for fear other people will have a lesser opinion of them, if they don't. These are the same people who'd never say a kind word for the socialism of the Soviet Union or Cuba for fear someone would call them evil Stalinists. They're pusillanimous, easily intimidated, easily cowed.
Angie: And that's the pity of it! Just one last question. When did you become interested in writing? Something you've always had a yen to do? I note you've been published in numerous publications such as Counterpunch, Media Monitors, Worldnewsstand, etc., etc., and, of course, your own web site "What's Left"?
Stephen: No it's not something I've always had a yen to do, but after I started I discovered it's not something that's easy to give up. I started out keeping a journal on current affairs. After a while I noticed my basement was filled with volume after volume and I thought maybe others might be interested. A kind of vanity I suppose.
Angie: It's been a truly enjoyable and enlightening experience chatting with you, Stephen. Thank you so very much.
Stephen: My pleasure.
Full interview at: