Iraq returns to the family of (American-controlled) sovereign nations

In the perfect "end" to the American occupation of Iraq, the USA secretly and abruptly turned over "sovereignty" to the new Iraqi government.

As The New York Times diplomatically put it, "Although Dr. Allawi's government will have "full sovereignty," according to a United Nations Security Council resolution earlier this month, there will be limits."

The reporter only mentioned a few of these limits. Here's a more complete list:
  • The government was appointed by the United States, real power given to those willing to do US bidding.
  • The US military will remain, continuing as the most powerful force in the country while establishing a permanent foothold in the country.
  • The Iraqi budget will be provided almost completely by the Americans, giving Iraqis almost no leverage over funding decisions.
  • All American soldiers, mercenaries, and contractors will have complete immunity from Iraqi law, in a decision unilaterally imposed by the Americans — so that the puppet government wouldn't have to be embarassed by granting immunity itself.
  • The government will have no power to change any of the laws imposed by the occupation.
The transfer of "sovereignty" is a PR move. It's been done to help Bush's election prospects by deceiving Americans into thinking the occupation is over. It's been done to get the American media to focus less on Iraq now that its own government is supposedly in control. It's been done to give Americans a scapegoat as the country descends into civil war. It's been done to shift anti-imperialist Iraqi anger onto other Iraqis instead of Americans.

It has nothing to do with liberation or democracy.


Democracy hating in Latin America

It's not often that the corporate press acknowledges the abject failure of free market reforms, but this is one exception.

Commenting on a UN survey last April of 19,000 Latin Americans that showed declining support for "democracy", reporter Juan Forero writes:
The United Nations report noted that the promise of prosperity offered by democracy has gone unfulfilled. Economic growth per capita, it said, "did not vary in a significant manner" in Latin America in the last 20 years, even though analysts had predicted that growth would pick up as governments flung open the doors to free-market changes prescribed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund. That institution has instead come to be considered a bête noire in this and many other developing parts of the world.

A slump in local economies that has lasted years has only deepened the discontent with governments already widely scorned as corrupt and overly bureaucratic. Predictions that economic growth is on the way — economists say Latin America will record a 4 percent growth rate this year after a long slump — have done little to quell the dissatisfaction.

The main reason: recent growth has not been widely shared, but concentrated in isolated pockets, usually attached to multinational investments that employ few people.
Of course this has been the left's critique all along, summarily dismissed as the ravings of economic illiterates by the American establishment.

Unfortunately, the rest of the article is spent casting Latin America's marginalized and disenfranchised in a very bad light, portraying them as members of violent mobs yearning for strongman rule.

Sadly, when you define as "democracy" a political order characterized by massive economic inequality, poverty, racism, corruption, and foreign influence, it's not surprise that support for "democracy" is waning.

Juan Forero, "Latin America Is Growing Impatient With Democracy"
The New York Times, 2004 June 24

Here comes the Green Party

Even most leftists probably don't know the Greens are holding their presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee right now. The candidate will be announced on Saturday. Ralph Nader, who's running as an independent, has taken himself out of the process but said he would accept the Greens' "endorsement".

This seems like a bad idea. Electoral politics is a losing proposition for the left in the first place. It doesn't make sense to put any effort or thought into it unless it's part of what our real focus should be, building grassroots social movements, community organizations, and democratic businesses.

A lot of people thought Ralph Nader's 2000 run for president as a Green could do just that. And the broad similarities between Bush and Gore did bring a lot of people into independent organizing as they sought out an alternative. But Nader — unforgivably — followed up that momentum with nothing. He let that energy dissipate, and let those people demobilize.

Ah well, maybe it's for the best. A good left electoral party can't depend on the charismatic appeal of one (rather authoritarian) leader anyway. Nader served his purpose by publicizing the Green Party, and now he's left it, hopefully allowing it to prosper on its own. And hopefully the Greens don't make the mistake of going back to him.

Unfortunately Nader is determined to run again, this time explicitly forsaking party organizing. This is only going to distract from the task at hand, building a strong grassroots party that can thrive if the movement behind it ever starts expanding. Progressives would be wise to repudiate the great-man Nader approach and seriously consider whoever the Greens choose.

The leading non-Nader candidate for the Green nomination is David Cobb, a lawyer and Green activist from Texas. Salon inteviewed him, sadly/predictably concentrating on Nader and the Democrats rather than the Greens or actual issues, but at least you get a feel for the guy. He seems committed to building the party, and the issues he singles out are key:
we're going to articulate the need to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home, we're going to make the case for universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, the need to publicly fund elections, to end the racist war on drugs, and to provide a fair tax policy that provides tax relief to the poor and working classes in this country.
For those of you who care about such things, he wants to run a "safe-states" strategy concentrating resources on uncompetitive states and leaving the swing states for Kerry to win.

People in swing states will actually have to consider voting for Kerry. But for people in states like California, Illinois, or New York, the question should only be whether to pick Nader or whoever the Greens nominate. Hopefully the convention gives us that choice by denying Nader the endorsement, and hopefully we choose the party over the man.


Bicycles are the answer

Bicycles are one of the best things ever. They're a joy to ride, good exercise, and give you great mobility (in Chicago biking is faster than the el up to maybe 12km / 7-8mi). And most important they solve all the problems of cars: air pollution, global warming, huge amounts of space taken over by roads and parking lots, encouraging sprawl, killing people right and left, breaking down all the time, &c, &c.

Of course bikes have important limitations: they're bad for transporting stuff, they're not much fun in winter and rain, they're not too desirable for distances past about 15km, and as long as cars are so dominant, they're dangerous to ride on the street. But if we built our cities around bikes and public transit instead of around cars, most of these issues would be mitigated or eliminated.

It's just not that hard to imagine cities that could function well without any privately-owned cars. Think about it: a multi-branch light rail system running high-speed expresses and local lines. An efficient public bus system running on main arterials. a few roads devoted to emergency vehicles, freight-moving trucks, and trucks that deliver heavier items directly to people. Other streets given over to bikes, rollerbladers, and pedestrians.

It's true that such a city would mean more walking and occasionally less convenience. (Tho more walking is probably a benefit considering what sedentary life has done to most people's health.) But the improvements in city life would be huge. First, we'd save huge amounts of money. Right now local and state taxes heavily subsidize the costs of cars: roadbuildng and maintenance, parking lots, dealing with pollution, emergency costs associated with accidents. (Compared to these costs, subsidies for public transit and biking are currently miniscule, and even at this inadequate level they are often better choices.) Plus, individual car owners pay thousands to buy their cars, repair them, pay for parking, &c. All of these costs would be eliminated.

We would reclaim huge amounts of wasted space. Roads, parking lots, and street parking often take up 25 percent or more of urban space, and even then parking can be extremely tight. Imagine how many more public parks we could have, or how many trees we could plant. Imagine what we could do with all the space occupied by eyesores like gas stations and parking lots.

But the most important benefits would be better health, fewer deaths, and environmental protection. Air pollution from cars makes us all sicker, with unknown longterm effects on our health, and helps cause the asthma so many children suffer from. Car accidents kill tens of thousands every year just in the United States, and cause over 3 million injuries (think about the hysteria if Al Qaeda were capable of such devastation). And cars are the single biggest source of greenhouse gases, whose buildup will cause an environmental catastrophe if we don't change things soon. These problems would all be significantly improved if we made our cities friendly to bikers and walkers and made public transit the prime mode of transportation.

Instead we build ever more roads — and fewer sidewalks. We subsidize driving to no end, but can't be bothered to build even a handful of bike lanes. Public transit, where it exists, languishes low among budget priorities. And we're all driven to rage just trying to drive a few miles in congestion. How much road rage do you see among bus passengers?

We have a choice: change now, or try to pick up the pieces when our currently unsustainable systems collapse.


Lamest defense ever

As the administration aggressively attempts to contain the damage done by the 9/11 commission report that contradicted its repeated assertions of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, it and its apologists have wheeled out some of the weakest arguments ever. (See editorials in The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.) It generally goes like this:

1. We already knew there was no Iraq involvement in 9/11; this isn't news; why are you making such a big fuss about it? Probably because reporters are so liberal.

2. The commission didn't say anything different than what the administration has been saying — it acknowledges longstanding ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Yeah. Right.

1. It's true that we've known for quite awhile that there was no Iraqi involvement in 9/11. Unfortunately, before the Iraq war a clear majority of Americans thought there was, and right before the commission reports 40 percent still thought there was. This is a serious indictment against both the administration and the news media. Such shocking ignorance would not have been possible without a clear effort by the administration to confuse people and imply that there was a link, or the media's absolute failure to correct the administration's propaganda. If some official report is the excuse the media need to finally fix things, it doesn't seem like a distraction at all.

2. It's true the commission acknowledged repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda. But the administration was never talking about mere phone calls — it was talking about active cooperation, which according to the report never occurred. The administration and its defenders need to make up their minds. Did we invade Iraq because of its supposed links to international terrorism? (In which case the administration was lying about those links.) Or did we invade Iraq because the government exchanged pleasantries with Al Qaeda — and then refused to help it. (In which case Botswana could be next.)

Fear not! Chicago friends: we too can now have — fashion!

Some of us here in Chicago complain about the shocking levels of segregation and inequality, the entrenched political machine of Mayor Daley, the gentrification pushing working folks to the wall. But you know what? I think things are looking up.
"So many people outside Chicago still think we're all eating deep-dish pizza and wearing sweat pants," [boutique owner Lance] Lawson said. All that, he insisted, is changing. There is an emerging fashion scene in Chicago, marked by an explosion of small, progressive boutiques catering to a style-starved population, and, perhaps as telling, an infiltration of luxury stores — Louis Vuitton, Prada, Giorgio Armani — near Lake Michigan on the city's Gold Coast.
(What does the word "progressive" mean in this context?)

Ruth La Ferla, "Chicago Moves Out to America's Edge", The New York Times, 2004 June 22


Re: torture, let's be more like we were in...Vietnam?!

Writing in The Washington Post, National War College Professor John Stuart Blackton criticizes the Bush administration for not making clear to the troops in Iraq that they shouldn't torture. Which is all well and good, but he makes his case by comparing Bush's faults with what Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam, where great efforts were made to "ensur[e] an environment in which every American combatant understood the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions".

Blackton goes on for awhile about the praiseworthy steps taken by the USA, up to and including having every soldier carry "a plastic pocket card bearing the signature of our commander in chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson" stating that "It is both dishonorable and foolish to mistreat a captive. It is also a punishable offense."

Unfortunately, Blackton never turns his attention to what actually happened in Vietnam, as opposed to the PR steps taken by the administraion. As journalists Perry Deane Young and John Pilger recall, that plastic pocket card didn't do much in the face of an ingrained culture of brutality and racism that resulted in the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the extensive use of torture.

American conduct in Vietnam was a lot of things, but it certainly isn't an ideal to strive for.


The media finally expose the myth of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties

The other day I overheard a couple guys complaining about how The New York Times was inadequately right-wing. They were particularly exercised about how The Times covered the staff reports issued by the independent commission Congress formed to examine the 9/11 attacks and the government response. The Times (and most other major newspapers) emphasized the commission finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a direct contradiction of numerous administration statements about "longstanding ties" between the two. The Times article on the commission findings ran under the headline "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie".

In making the case for conquering Iraq, the Bush administration repeatedly highlighted these supposed ties, using careful wording that did not explicitly link Iraq to 9/11 but strongly implied Iraqi involvement. The media's uncritical relaying of these assertions accomplished exactly what the administration hoped: a majority of Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein had taken a direct role in the 9/11 attacks. Popular support for the war in good measure came from this false belief. (Just prior to the publication of the commission's findings, 40 percent still believed it.)

Most experts doubted even the existence of the links the administration used to conflate Iraq and Al Qaeda, but the media always prefer official sources to independent experts. Perhaps because the 9/11 commission is itself an official source, and perhaps also because the media feel a bit guilty over having allowed themselves to be so crassly manipulated by the administration, they are now playing up the commission's finding that there were no operational ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Dick Cheney has insisted that the media are confusing two issues: Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks (which the administration never asserted) and other ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda (which he says the commission affirms). He argued that the commission "did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda in other areas, in other ways."

But, as with so much else the vice president says, this is not true. The commission report states, "Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded....We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." The report said that despite evidence of several contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the '90s, "they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship" (p. 5). The only "ties" that can be substantiated are a handful of meetings between Iraqi representatives and Al Qaeda agents, in which Al Qaeda appealed for help and Iraq declined.

The right-wingers I was eavesdropping on thought that the original Al Qaeda plan to hijack up to 10 planes and crash them into targets around the United States should have received more prominence. Is a plan that Al Qaeda considered but then rejected more important than extensive lies by our own government, which led us into war and conquest, killing hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis? To ask is to answer.


The Iraq PM was CIA-supported terrorist, but we don't remember if he killed kids or not

The US-appointed leader of "sovereign" Iraq, Iyad Allawi, ran a group that planted bombs (including one that may or may not have blown up a school bus with children on it) and sabotaged Iraqi government facilities in the '90s. (The New York Times article) Zeynep Toufe's analysis is right on.

So Allawi received CIA aid to commit the same acts that Palestinians or anti-occupation Iraqis are condemned as terrorists for committing. That is, the CIA sponsored terrorist acts in Iraq in the '90s, and the USA has just named a terrorist as the leader of Iraq. Yet this story has generated no controversy in the United States. In fact, a Lexis-Nexis search shows that the only articles from major newspapers in which both "Allawi" and "terrorism" have appeared since this story ran have been ones featuring Allawi condemning acts like...bombings and sabotage.


Good thing we privatized those govt services, what with all the efficiency gains

Waste in education spending, or the IRS, or welfare services: HUGE story.

Waste at the Pentagon, on a vastly larger scale, and probably involving high-level corruption: please turn to page 13.

"Auditors Testify About Waste in Iraq Contracts", The New York Times, p. A13

Hate the other, take his stuff

The media usually cover communal conflict with a superficial "this religion/tribe/ethnicity attacked this other one today, causing bloodshed, isn't it terrible." With this kind of coverage, it's not surprising that people in the USA and other stable rich countries end up thinking people in the poor countries are filled with barbaric hatreds — one factor in the long tradition of popular support for imperialism.

But as this rare article from The New York Times shows, irrational hatred is hardly ever the only thing going on. While suspicion and prejudice against communal others can be found everywhere in the world, it seldom escalates into violence unless there's an economic stake involved.

The example used in the article, violence between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria, is more a competition for land and how it will be used (for pasturage or agriculture) than it is a conflict over religion. The communal differences make it easier to demonize the rival group, but can't explain how these groups managed to live together peacefully for years.

We find similar conflict over the control of resources wherever communal strife breaks out. Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998 were the product of ethnic chauvinism, it's true. But the resentment generated by the fact that Chinese Indonesians, a mere 3 percent of the population, control 70-80 percent of its wealth, was just as important. As was the economic crisis caused by the Panic of 1997, which was increasing prices for basic food items (see this article).

The terrible wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia were cast in the West as a result of "ancient hatreds". But it wasn't the resurfacing of submerged identities that tore the country apart; rather, it was opportunistic politicians using ethnic chauvinism to mobilize support behind themselves. Yet these appeals were only compelling because the country was experiencing an economic crisis. The IMF had imposed its typical "shock therapy" program of austerity measures and contractionary policy and the economy was rapidly shrinking. Once competition for the declining wealth of the country had begun along ethnic lines, everyone was forced into increasingly rigid ethnic identities for protection and, as the violence mounted, for revenge.

The periodic anti-immigrant backlashes in the USA and Europe, which usually happen during a recession or periods of high unemployment, involve the same dynamics.

So the typical pattern is preexisting communal distrust being used by demogogic leaders to generate support in a climate of struggle over economic resources. But we shouldn't overlook one other factor that shows up again and again: the creation of rigid communal categories in the first place thru encounters with imperialism.

To go back to the Indonesian example, it was the Netherlands, the colonial ruler before indepedence, that singled out the Chinese as collaborators in handling most commercial matters. Or in Rwanda, where the ruling Belgians seized upon the loose division between Hutu and Tutsi, proclaimed the Hutu racially inferior, issued identity cards to differentiate between the two, and systematically empowered the Tutsi. Drawing fast boundaries around what had been fluid identities was a key precondition for the genocide of 1994.

Or take the terrible communal conflicts that have afflicted South Asia for decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, the cohesive groups "Hindu" and "Muslim" did not exist in British India. People called themselves Hindus or Muslims, but few identified with a colony-wide communal group; primary identification was to native place and one's position of wealth and power in the village. It was the colonial experience that created these splits — Britain's use of the categories to classify and divide people, Indian politicians' exploitation of them to generate national networks of support, and the British division of power and resources along communal lines as they devolved power. The horrors of partition, the India-Pakistan wars, the riots and massacres up to this day — South Asia would be a very different place had it escaped colonizing.


Warlords vs democracy in Afghanistan - guess which side the USA prefers

Last January, in a State of the Union Address full of fantasy sequences, this one stood out:
As of this month, [Afghanistan] has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With the help from the new Afghan army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror — and America is honored to be their friend.
The media lost interest in Afghanistan once the American bombs stopped falling, but the real story has gotten out here and there. A good recent summary of exactly what kind of liberation the Americans brought is in the current Foreign Affairs: Kathy Gannon, "Afghanistan Unbound", May/June 2004.

The country is run not by enlightened rights-protecting men and women, or even by the disturbingly photogenic Hamid Karzai, the nominal president. Rather, a handful of brutal and ruthless warlords have split the country among themselves and, drawing funds and weapons from the United States and other foreign powers, maintain fearful militias to protect their position.

These are the same warlords who the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia built up to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. The same warlords who, after the Soviet withdrawal, tore the country apart in bloody rampages to see who would control it. The same warlords who used extortion, torture, rape, and murder to secure control of their regional fiefdoms.

When the Taliban finally drove the warlords from power in the mid-90s, regular Afghans — despite the incredible repression and Pashtun-chauvinism of the Taliban — celebrated their victory since it rid them of the warlords.

As Gannon writes, these men have stayed true to their pasts. Today,
not only are the warlords complicit in drug-running and corruption, but according to Afghanistan's Human Rights Committee, they are also guilty of abusing and harassing the population. The warlords have stolen peoples' homes, arbitrarily arrested their enemies, and tortured them in private jails....The public has grown disappointed and disillusioned with the international community, which it increasingly blames for failing to deliver on the lofty promises that preceded the U.S. attack on the Taliban. The West has even empowered their former persecutors....The international community also failed to make good on its aid commitments.
This is hardly surprising, since it was never America's intent to liberate Afghans. As I wrote two years ago, the US goal in Afghanistan was
to produce a reliable client government propped up by a US-trained military that provides a permanent base for US troops in the region. Already the American military base at Bagram is being converted into a permanent installation that, along with bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, will cement the American military presence in Central Asia. This greatly advances US efforts to secure control over the major oil and natural gas reserves of Central Asia and provides a key barrier to the reassertion of Russian influence or the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.
The only thing I got wrong was the tactics: instead of building a central government from scratch and an army to enforce its will, expediency-minded Americans simply chose to deputize the warlords, give them free reign outside Kabul, and supply them with weapons and cash. A form of indirect rule all too familiar from the days of empire.

Yet Gannon seems confused. She writes, "The United States is betting that the same men who caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it to democracy and stability in the future."

Yes, I supppose it's possible that the men making American policy are overly optimistic and amazingly stupid. Perhaps the cable traffic between Zalmay Khalilzad, the American proconsul in Kabul, and Washington discusses at length how being nice to the warlords really will win them over to democracy.

Or maybe democracy is irrelevant to their plans, outside of its uses in rhetoric. You'd think that well-informed American liberals, confronting the 10,000th instance of US government collaboration with murderous autocrats, would figure out that something other than well-intentioned but misguided policy might be at fault.


It's not exactly incompetence in Iraq

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott debunks the ideology of "high modernism", the simplifying and standardizing concepts used by states to make their impossibly messy domains coherent to central authorities. State planners impose these standardizations — whether of measurement, city road grids, landholding patterns, even ethnicity — on the population to advance goals like social control and extraction of resources (taxation, natural resources, conscription). Sometimes these measures of central control become caught up in utopian ideologies and aesthetics, giving birth to massive social engineering projects. Be it Soviet bureaucrats collectivizing agriculture or Brasilian city planners building Brasilia, their visions are deeply homogenizing, authoritarian, and arrogant. Only they know how things should be done, and regular people exist only to carry out their orders.

But this always leads to disaster because it delegitimizes and ignores the practical, on-the-ground knowledge that regular people possess. This specialized knowledge, gained from experience rather than pure modernist theories built on supposedly universal principles, is vital to the everyday workings of complex social systems. Of course it's the regular folks who are always sacrificed to the high planners' visions.

Here's an interesting small-scale example in USA-occupied Iraq of what Scott is talking about:
Some Iraqis also complain that Western engineers have been unable to grasp the complexities of a creaky electrical grid that is a patchwork of ancient Russian, German, Yugoslavian, Chinese and American equipment. The Iraqis say that the engineers, often Americans, reflexively reach for fancy new gear costing tens of millions of dollars that can take months or years to order, ship and install. Iraqis are skilled at balancing the vast swirl of electrical supply and demand on their grid with phone calls and intuition, while Americans rely on computerized sensors and automatic control circuitry. (The New York Times, "In Race to Give Power to Iraqis, Electricity Lags", 2004 June 14)
After the United States devasted Iraq's electrical system in the first USA-Iraq war and then used sanctions to prevent it from rebuilding, Iraqis developed complex and highly local forms of knowledge as they jury-rigged the system to keep going. Now that the United States is saddled with the problems it created, its engineers and bureaucrats disdain the methods of Iraqis and try to impose their own elegant, "advanced" solutions. It's no wonder the occupation has failed to return electricity service even to its pre-conquest levels, much less to the levels reached before sanctions and the 1991 war.

This is an important but isolated insight from The New York Times. Sad to say, the rest of the article features subtle racism against Iraqis, as when the reporter, James Glanz, has the deputy minister of electricity "spitting out the words [critical of Americans] in slightly imperfect English"). He also passes on, without comment, the explanation from the senior American adviser on electricity that rebuilding is taking longer than expected because "engineers discovered that Saddam Hussein's government had left [generators] in a decrepit state". It seems that the deliberate American bombing of the electricity grid in 1991 and the sanctions that prevented its rebuilding have, thru some incredible process of alchemy, become the perfidy of Saddam Hussein.


Eulogizing one death, ignoring hundreds of thousands others

Wading thru all the newspaper hagiographies of Reagan, it turns out the only controversial policies of his administration were budget deficits and Iran-contra. Not the redeeming of militarism and imperialism ('american strength'). Not American-backed genocide in Guatemala. Not supplying weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein and looking the other way when he used them on Iranis and Kurds. Not hundreds of massacres in El Salvador by the USA-armed and trained security forces. Not laying waste to Afghanistan in order to bleed the Soviets a bit — and in the process creating warlords who then tore the country apart in civil war. Not bringing Muslim fundamentalists from around the world to Afghanistan and organizing them into a single network of well-armed and highly trained terrorists that we now call Al Qaeda. Not propping up Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos until the last minute. Not enthusiastically supporting the bloody dictatorships of Cheon Duhwan (South Korea) and Suharto (Indonesia). Not supporting apartheid South Africa against international sanctions and in its wars thruout southern Africa.

The media had no problem chiding China last week about the need to face up to the crimes of the past. Closer to home, I guess great war criminals seem much less of a moral problem.

(I wrote a detailed article on this: Devastation and blowback: The Reagan legacy you didn't read about)



Happy Tiananmen massacre day. As the American media wax self-righteous about 6/4, they continue to laud the free market reforms that have steadily expanded across China. But the violence committed that night 15 years ago pales next to the violence these reforms have spread to the vast majority of the population, forcing peasants to the urban slums and sweatshops in search of income, destroying the social protections once provided to state factory workers, spreading corruption at every level of the party, crushing attempts to unionize, transforming the ruling class from one of bureaucrats to one of capitalists (but usually the same people). This is the trading of one authoritarianism for another, one exploitation for another. The only difference is that the top 5-10 percent is far richer under this model, and capable of far more consumption. Capitalist ideologues applaud as the sustainability of the global economy recedes ever further. Pundits can tell themselves fairy tales about how the ever-virtuous middle class will bring bourgeois democracy to China, but China's future (and with it everyone else's) is far darker.


Capitalism or democracy

"The economic system" sounds boring and abstract. Supply and demand curves, interest rates, currency fluctuations. Lame, boring, irrelevant.

But economics shouldn't be reduced to what professional economists talk about. It's much more personal: it's about how we build our identities through what we consume, it's about how much control we have over our lives at work, it's about how we as individuals and as a society express our priorities through what we pay for.

It's also about how our economic decisions affect the environment, how racial inequality can be reinforced through the concentration of wealth, how women can gain independence and control by having an income. It's about who has enough money to run a viable political campaign, what organizations can pay for high-quality PR, who can hire enough people to see their project through. And who can't.

The economic system influences everything we do and everything we are. It structures our choices, constrains our options, and encourages certain outcomes over others. The dynamics of any given economic system strongly favor certain distributions of power and help institutionalize certain forms of social inequality. The economy doesn't just produce our food, clothes, homes, and consumer goods. It also produces our social relations and our personal identities.

So why don't we ever talk about "the economic system"? Sure, we talk about tax policy and interest rate hikes. But why not the fundamental workings of the economy — and whether something else might be better? What if we could have an economic system that produced enough goods for everyone, that abolished poverty and inequality of wealth, that encouraged cooperation instead of ruthless competition, that brought real democracy into economic decisionmaking? These are things most of us support, so why don't we ever talk about making them reality?

Partly because the field of economics has been so mystified by its practitioners that it's turned something concrete and simple into something intimidating, abstract, and dull. Partly because powerful economic interests have no desire to question the system that gave them their power in the first place. But maybe most of all, because no one thinks any other system is possible.

Do we even want a different system? Professional economists say markets are the most efficient way to run an economy. The profit motive drives everyone to work harder, perform better, innovate more. Losers in this system lose because they're lazy — they deserve it. Winners win because they're driven and because they meet people's needs. What's not to like?

That's the propaganda line anyway. But a quick look at reality puts a lot of the accepted gospel about free markets into deep doubt.

First there's the poverty. And not just the cycle of poverty we see in the ghetto or the soul-destroying routine of the working poor toiling at Wal-Mart. American capitalism does not exist by itself but is part of a global system that produces the most shocking extremes of wealth and want. It was capitalism, working with and through European imperialism, that first produced the pattern of a rich global north and abjectly poor global south. Since then, American-dominated capitalism and military might have protected and expanded those patterns, defeating the only real challenges the system has faced (fascism, communism, and third world anti-imperialism) and intensifying it through the free market reforms imposed by global economic bodies like the IMF.

Then there's the environmental destruction. Free markets are incapable of charging consumers for the actual ecological costs of cutting down rainforests, depleting the ozone layer, or dealing with global warming because these are mere "externalities" — things that affect people other than the buyer and seller. Since free markets allow people to consume without taking responsibility for the environmental consequences, the global economy is quickly and steadily destroying the basis for future life on the planet. Under capitalism, the only way to prevent wanton environmental pillage is through government regulation.

Which is virtually impossible because of the third problem, capitalism's corruption of politics. Great concentration of wealth inevitably leads to great power for those who control it. Corporations and the wealthy always find ways to subvert the superficially democratic political institutions that stand in their way — through campaign contributions, attack ads, patronage organizations, or outright bribes. No matter how strong the reforms are to combat this, wealth will always find a way around them.

Capitalism is about inequality. It operates under a strict principle of winner-take-all: if you have money, it's easy to make money. If you don't, you're pretty much screwed. Though there's always a few who make it, this doesn't change the fact that the vast majority born into poor families will remain poor. Only 7 out of every hundred born into the bottom 20 percent of the population make it into the top 20 percent; those born into the top 20 percent are 7 times more likely to end up there. This is particularly shocking in light of the fact that the richest 10 percent holds two-thirds of the nation's wealth, while the lower 50 percent hold a mere 3 percent. Such extreme disparities affect not just the quality of life and distribution of power in society, but make deepening inequality in the future more likely as the wealthy use their expanding resources to fix the game for their children and friends. Capitalism's "level playing field", on which talent and only talent leads to success, is a vicious myth.

Because capitalism is so compatible with inequality, other inequalities — especially of race and gender — are easily institutionalized within it. Privileged groups, wielding so much economic and political power, can easily defend their privilege. So it's no surprise that decades after minorities achieved political equality, their economic situation is just as bad or worse. In 2001 the median net worth of a white family was $120,900, while that of a family of color was $17,100. And decades after the equality of women became widely accepted, they still earn 44 percent less than men. This is only one symptom of the complex ways an economic system so open to inequality reinforces women's subordination. We have to ask ourselves: is racial and gender equality even possible under capitalism?

So capitalism frustrates our desire for control over our lives as workers and consumers. It undermines our ability as a society to control the direction of our economic development and its impact on the environment. And it blocks our attempts to reduce social inequality through concrete gains for the poor, women, and minorities. A just economy would be based on democracy and equality — instead of their opposites.

But to get there we'll have to radically transform existing institutions. In the process, much of capitalism's ideological underpinning — so deeply ingrained in our culture that it often passes for "common sense" — will have to be challenged. And many of us will have to relinquish some of the privileges we take for granted.

The first preconception we have to give up is the assumption that inequality of wages and decision making power are natural and desirable. Even many otherwise progressive people agree with reigning capitalist dogma on this point: some people are well-suited for making decisions and they should hold power in the workplace — and receive higher pay. Certain kinds of specialized knowledge also merit higher pay, while the majority of workers, doing less skilled or less prestigious work, deserve less pay and less power.

Yet if we believe in the principle that every human being should have a say over the things that affect his or her life, this situation is repulsive. We think democracy is hugely important, yet accede to strict authoritarianism in the workplace? And do we really believe that the majority of the population — those engaged in disempowering, rote work with little or no say over their work lives — are simply incapable of taking part in workplace decision making? We should be careful with such rationales: that's always how groups in power — whether monarchs, slaveholders, or colonialists — have justified excluding others. Many workers under the current system may show no interest in taking part in decisions and may even seem incapable of doing so. But this is hardly surprising under circumstances — cultural, educational, and work-related — that have conditioned them to always leave the decisions to others.

A better approach is laid out in participatory economics, a proposal for a desirable economic system by theorist Michael Albert and economist Robin Hahnel. A participatory economy, or parecon, seeks to eliminate workplace hierarchy and major differences in wealth while extending democracy into the economy and preserving efficiency.

At the base of this system are non-hierarchical workplaces. What does this mean? First, there are no bosses — decisions are made by the workers themselves through discussion and voting. Second, there is no hierarchy of desirable and undesirable jobs. Under capitalism, some jobs (management and professionals) specialize in interesting and empowering work, while most people do rote and manual labor that not only sucks, but also robs them of the chance to develop their capacity for self-government. In parecon, all jobs include a mix of both kinds of work — there are no janitors because the surgeons clean toilets too.

That means a surgeon might "waste" some of his time performing tasks unrelated to his training. But the slack will be easily taken up under a system that not only gives a high-level education to anyone who wants it but pays them for going to school. The benefits — providing access to education for everyone and gaining the talents of those currently excluded, giving everyone a fulfilling job, and allowing real participation in decision making for everyone — far outweigh whatever slight productivity losses might result.

With similarly desirable and difficult jobs for everyone, equal pay makes sense. Everyone will have the same hourly wages, with slight variations for those who work particularly hard or are particularly lazy. This preserves incentives to work, but eliminates the current practice of rewarding those who are more productive by virtue of things they can't control: access to better tools, better training, or more talent.

These deep reforms at the workplace level are necessary, but we'll also have to change things at the macroeconomic level. Capitalism uses markets to coordinate buying, selling, and investing, and in some ways markets are desirable. They allow the individual to "vote" with his or her dollars for what the economy should produce, and because markets match up supply and demand, they limit wasted resources.

But this should not be mistaken for democracy or real efficiency. Far from "naturally" meeting the needs of consumers, markets privilege those with greater wealth and have a strong tendency to promote inequality. Furthermore, they systematically undersupply collective goods. Markets provide no institutional mechanism for meeting group consumption desires, like a neighborhood swimming pool or a good public transit system, at any level — leaving clumsy government intervention as the only solution. And because market mechanisms can only take into account the interests of individual buyers and sellers in any transaction, their outcomes never reflect the costs or benefits for society or the environment. Thus markets yield deeply inefficient results whenever a purchase affects anyone other than the buyer and seller — as it almost always does.

Our goal should be to retain the positive attributes of markets while putting in place mechanisms that are truly democratic and which reflect the socially-determined costs of our economic decisions. The parecon solution to this problem is called "participatory planning". First, both workers and consumers submit proposals at the beginning of each year based on last year's prices and production/consumption patterns. These proposals are then compared, prices are adjusted to reflect gaps in supply or demand, and the proposals are returned to the workplaces and neighborhoods. Workers and consumers adjust their proposals in light of the new prices, resubmit them, and the process continues for several rounds. Finally, several economy-wide plans at equilibrium can be formulated and submitted for a vote.

It might sound complicated and time-consuming, but it's not really any worse than what we currently have. We all have to plan ahead for big purchases, and aside from that our buying patterns don't usually change radically year-to-year. The consumer wouldn't have to rigidly adhere to his or her proposed consumption since the system can be easily made responsive to unexpected changes in demand. Keep in mind that large corporations already feature this kind of planned flexibility as they successfully adjust to the changing desires of millions of consumers.

The drawbacks are slight, but the benefits are tremendous. Parecon makes it easy to guarantee food, shelter, and healthcare for everyone. There is no unemployment or poverty, and equality of wealth means not only an equal say for everyone, but a much more difficult environment for racism and sexism to flourish in. Prices can be set to reflect the actual social and environmental costs of what and how we consume. Collective goods can be easily and democratically allocated. Taxes are eliminated (hear that conservatives?) and instead citizens take direct control — and responsibility — of decisions about how much to spend collectively. The interests of individual consumers are brought into harmony with those of workers and the environment, instead of being directly opposed. Solidarity is encouraged, instead of selfishness and exploitation.

Still doubtful? Afraid human nature is incompatible with equality and cooperation? Keep in mind that for most of humanity's existence, we lived as foragers with extremely high levels of egalitarianism. What changed was not human nature, but the ability to accumulate wealth and the institutions and norms that decided its distribution. Our task is to build new values and new institutions that can organize our material abundance in sustainable and socially desirable ways. Participatory economics is a concrete blueprint for such a world.

This is far from a full explanation of how a participatory economy would work, and I encourage you to read further:

This site has numerous essays on parecon and its implications.

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century is the best introduction to parecon.

Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism is a detailed account useful as a reference tool.

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics is a formal economic defense (stay away unless you know econometrics).

Michael Albert, Moving Forward: Program for a Participatory Economy is the best book for a quick overview of the system and how we can fight for it.

Robin Hahnel, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation - strongly recommended as both a quick introduction to parecon, including a detailed response to critics, and a thought-provoking reflection on why libertarian socialist movements have failed in the past and how we can build a movement for parecon today.