9/27/2012 9:40:47 AM
Have you noticed the proliferation of recent stories on TV, radio, in print, and online claiming there’s a war between the old and the young? Once you start paying attention you’ll see the headlines everywhere. One of the shrillest and most egregious screeds was by Stephen Marche in the April 2012 issue of Esquire. In an article titled “The War Against Youth,” Marche writes:
One thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don’t form a community of interest. One takes from the other ... Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably ... The biggest boondoggle of all is Social Security ... Only 58 percent of Boomers have more than $25,000 put aside for retirement, so the rest will either starve or the government will have to pay for them... Nobody wants this. The Boomers did not set out to screw over their kids. The wind just seemed to blow them that way ... The situation is obviously unsustainable ...
What Marche and the other alarmists are referring to is the aging of the world’s population, especially in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China. Just as the post-WWII generation in the U.S. is larger than that of the Gen-Xers and Millennials, so too is the population aging in China, as a result of the latter’s one-child policy. Novelist Martin Amis quips that this worldwide “silver tsunami’” of increasingly aging people will lead to civil war between the old and the young. His prescription? “There should be euthanasia booths on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal.”
It’s true that young people are being robbed of their futures. But Baby Boomers are not responsible for this theft. We’re all in this together. Since 2008, U.S. workers have lost trillions in savings and millions of houses have been foreclosed. And real salaries haven’t grown in 30 years. People of every age are out of work. Baby Boomers aren’t the enemy of Gen-Xers or Millennials. We are each other’s best and natural allies.
The real culprits are the One Percenters: the Wall Street bankers, the corporate polluters, (especially big coal, oil, and natural gas), and the politicians and media who serve them. Boomers are no more responsible for mortgaging the future of the young than blacks are for the loss of poor whites’ jobs, or women for the loss of men’s jobs. The Haves (the One Percenters) will always try to turn different segments of the 99 Percent against each other. That’s how they hold onto their power, even as the System itself runs increasingly out of anyone’s control.
So who’s trying to stir up this age war, and what’s their motivation? According to Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive think-tank, it’s a deliberate campaign:
There is a well-funded effort in this country to try to distract the public’s attention from the massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades by trying to claim that the issue is one of generational conflict rather than class conflict... Billionaire investment banker Peter Peterson is the most well-known funder of this effort, having kicked in a billion
dollars of his own money for the cause.
One of the best sources of on-going coverage of all things age-related, including this invented generational war, is the daily blog Time Goes By, by Ronnie Bennett. In her June 25 issue, Bennett takes New York Times’ Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to task for his June 24 article, “Old vs. Young.” She writes, “In Leonhardt’s world, the average $1,100 per month Social Security check is way too much, and if young people can’t have Medicare then old people shouldn’t have it either. It doesn’t occur to Leonhardt (or anyone else who blames elders for everyone else’s ills) that the better solution all around would be to expand Medicare to everyone along with paying all workers a living wage and seeing that the wealthy among us pay their fair share in taxes.”
Baker acknowledges that young people are not doing well. “But this is a story of Wall Street greed, corruption, and incompetence. It has nothing to do with the Social Security and Medicare received by the elderly.”
Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by this manufactured conflict between the old and the young. Find out more about this concerted campaign from sources like the CEPR and Ronnie Bennett. And, whenever you find stories in the media that perpetuate the deception of the generational war, contact the authors and their publishers and advertisers, and let them know the truth.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader
Image courtesy of bobboo_77, licensed under Creative Commons
9/26/2012 4:45:15 PM
Constructive dialogue is a
rarity these days. All too often, vital discussion is cut off in favor of its
opposite, and we’re reduced once again to seeing the most complex and significant
questions we face in strictly two-dimensional terms: red/blue, black/white, in
group/out group. Especially this year, escaping the mainstream partisan noise
can be a real challenge.
So we’re pleased to present
something very different today. Courtesy of American Public Media, the
following is the second of On Being’s
Civil Conversations Project, hosted by Krista Tippett. Today’s installment,
“Pro Life, Pro Choice, Pro Dialogue,” a discussion between Frances Kissling and
David Gushee, takes a decidedly unconventional look at a deeply personal and
emotional issue. Check out a video of the full discussion below.
Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s
Center for Bioethics and a frequent contributor to The Nation and Salon.com, where she discusses faith and women’s
rights. Kissling is also a leading pro-choice activist and was the president of
Catholics for a Free Choice for 25 years. Along with Ellen Frankfurt, she is
the coauthor of Rose: The Investigation
of a Wrongful Death, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,
and The Guardian.
David Gushee is an internationally-recognized Holocaust scholar, ethicist, and professor
of Christian ethics at Mercer
University. Also a
committed activist, Gushee is president of Evangelicals for Human Rights and
since 2010 has served on a bipartisan task force led by the Constitution
Project which investigates detainee treatment at Guantanamo Bay.
His latest book, Religious Faith,
Torture, and Our National Soul, is a collection of essays that examine the
War on Terror from legal, ethical, and spiritual perspectives.
Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and has hosted National Public
Radio’s On Being for more than ten
years. The granddaughter of an Oklahoma Baptist minister, Tippett served as a
foreign correspondent in a divided Cold War-era Berlin
before returning to the U.S.
to complete a M.Div. from Yale. Since then, she has strived to achieve
constructive dialogue around some of today’s most contentious and vital issues.
Her latest book is Einstein’s God.
And be sure to check back later this week for our
interview with author and On Being host Krista Tippett.
Photo by Matt M. Johnson/On Being/Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
9/26/2012 10:28:43 AM
For many people, poverty means a diet of highly processed
foods and the attendant poor health. Reversing such a trend might seem
overwhelming, but the founders of Wholesome Wave saw it as an opportunity. Michel
Nischan and Gus Schumacher created the Double Value Coupon Program, making SNAP
benefits worth double in farmers markets. The program is now enabling health,
strengthening local economies, and empowering communities across the United States.
Utne Reader assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren
interviewed Michel Nischan by phone in late August 2012. Here is the
Utne Reader: When we
read about Wholesome Wave and the Double Value Coupon Program, we thought it
was an innovative idea, so we started looking into the organization.
Michel Nischan: We’re really proud of the work we’re
doing here and we’re thrilled to say that we’re seeing it have an impact.
That’s all any of us can hope for, especially those of us interested in food
and social justice. We feel pretty good about it. It’s been easy for us to
sleep at night.
First I wanted to ask you about the origins of
Wholesome Wave. What inspired it and how did it come about?
I’ve been a locavore chef for over 30 years now. My
focus on locavore came because my parents really should have been farmers and
were displaced by the conventional agricultural takeover of the small American
family farm. So back after World War II they kind of were forced from their
birthright. I really should be a farmer in Missouri right now that cooks well, you
know? But I’m perfectly happy doing what I’m doing. That was the background of
why I was doing what I was doing as a chef.
About halfway through my career--18 years ago--my son
Chris was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. I learned very very quickly that what
we fed Chris would have more to do with the quality of his long term outcome
than his insulin regimen and everything else around banishing the disease.
During pouring myself into the study of what to do to help Chris, I started
learning about Type II diabetes, which is far more prevalent. The thing that
really broke my heart, well there were two things that broke my heart. The
first is that it’s diet preventable, caused by a poor diet in the majority of
cases. Some of it is hereditary, but the majority of it is caused by poor food
choices and lifestyle. The second thing that broke my heart is that the
majority of people that suffer from it are living in the type of poverty that
disallows them from being able to change or prevent such a condition from
happening to them or their family members.
I hit a point of probably undiagnosed clinical
depression, because I was chef of a white tablecloth restaurant, feeling good
about doing local food because I could charge 30 dollars for an entree, then
learning about the number of Americans suffering from this terribly devastating
disease and they really had no control over being able to prevent it. It was at
that time that I was introduced to Gus Schumacher, the co-founder of Wholesome
Wave. He’s our executive vice president of policy. He’s the guy who helped us
get our incentive program into the Farm Bill that passed the Senate. Our
fingers are crossed.
Anyway, I was introduced to Gus because I had this
desire to do something about it. Gus, when he was Under Secretary of
Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services--which is the third
highest in the USDA behind the Secretary of Agriculture--Gus’ proudest moment
was creating the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for Women Infants and
Children living in poverty and for seniors living in poverty. It was terribly
underfunded, which he had nothing to do with, but a disappointment for him.
So he and I were both going through our own phases
of, ‘Damn! How can we make this better?’ And we founded Wholesome Wave in 2007.
We started back in 1999 doing hobby kind of stuff, helping non-profit friends
of ours and refugee and immigrant farmers get better prices by introducing them
to restaurants, et cetera, et cetera. We were having fun, but we formally
founded back in 2007 around the last Farm Bill.
So it was kind of like, my son getting diabetes, Gus’
programs getting underfunded, the energy around that but also the opportunity
we saw when we realized that there are so many people in underserved
communities that are in a position to benefit from better food access. And when
you combine all of their food assistance benefits, it’s tens of billions of
dollars a year that come into the American economy that can only be spent on
food. We saw that as a big opportunity for local farmers, for environmental
protection, et cetera.
One of the things we found so innovative about the
program is that, not only does it help people afford the food that they want to
eat, but it’s also great for the local economy.
Absolutely. One of the things we love--and you guys
may have come across this on our website--in our data outcomes we surveyed I
think it was 1700 farmers in 2010 and 2200 in 2011, around 600 federal benefits
consumers in 2010 and 1300 in 2011. In the farm sector, 10 percent of the farms
had to increase acreage, diversify crop plantings. It was either 8 or 12
percent actually added hoop houses. The SNAP and the WIC people were showing up
when it was sleeting and raining and snowing and cold when, pardon the
expression, all the white people were staying home because the weather was bad.
Underserved community members were going because it was their only healthy food
access. The farmers were blown away by that. They diversified crop plantings,
they added infrastructural investments. On the consumer end, we asked the
question, ‘Why is this program important to you? Why is going to the market
important to you?’ Is it that the market accepts the benefits, is it that the
market doubles [the value], et cetera. We always expected those to be the two
top reasons. The number one
reason--and it was something like 87 percent said it was most important in 2010
and 91 percent in 2011--quality of produce. Number two was that the market
accepted the benefits and three was supporting local farmers and businesses.
So it’s not that folks in
these communities maybe want the access. They’re desperate for it, they just
can’t afford it. When they provide affordability with something as simple as a
two-for-one sale they come in droves and they continue to come after the
benefit is gone. It’s good stuff.
Was the Double Value Coupon Program the founding
program of Wholesome Wave?
It’s the founding program. We
actually were dabbling, because I had opened Dressing Room restaurant, which I
own and the late actor Paul Newman was my partner. So I knew I wanted to do
Wholesome Wave, we knew we wanted to deal in underserved communities and get
more affordable food access. Our initial concept was, ‘Let’s figure out how to
do this,’ that’s before we founded. So we funded, with the proceeds from
Dressing Room restaurant, a farmers market in the parking lot of Westport
County Playhouse. It was the first producer-only farmers market in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
You know, there were farmers markets, but a lot of them were reselling stuff
that they got at the Bronx Produce Terminal. So we did a producer only thing
and we thought if we could introduce these guys to a really lucrative market we
could talk them into going into Bridgeport or Norwalk. We learned very
quickly that that wasn’t going to work, so that’s when we felt that the
incentive program would be the thing that would really help make markets viable
in underserved communities. Farmers
will go anywhere if they know that people, want their produce, will buy it, and
that they can go back at the end of the day with an empty truck and decent
amount of money.That’s a good thing and that’s exactly what the
program did, so it was our founding program. When we formalized Wholesome Wave,
we formalized it out of the Double Value Coupon Program.
And the growth that’s happening, is that all
through Wholesome Wave, or are there other programs like it starting on their
We’re aware of a few dozen
programs out there that have started on their own because they just say, ‘Wow,
we could do that.’ And they’re going out and raising their own money and
they’re doubling it, they’re getting EBT machines. We think that’s fabulous.
We’re working through a network of 70 non-profit program partners. With doubling
we’re in 29 states and Washington
D.C., in over 400 markets. What
we don’t want to be is the kind of non-profit where it’s like, ‘Here’s our
concept, here’s the way you have to do it. We’re coming into your community, we
gotta set up an office, everything has to be this color and this language.’ We
don’t do that because we realize that urban communities are different than
rural communities, that Eastern are different that Western are different than
Southern or Central-Western. There are really great people on the ground in all
regions of the world working on food justice issues. To come and set up in
somebody else’s community and have brand stability to put them out of business,
as well ignore the fact that these organizations are talented, capable,
passionate, and already have deep relationships of trust established in the
communities they’re working in. So that’s the way we went in. When Gus and I
were doing the hobby stuff, we were very familiar with the W.K. Kellogg
Foundation. Gus was a consultant for them, I was on their conference planning
committee for a couple years, we’d gotten to know a lot of the Kellogg grantees
and other groups that were out there that weren’t funded by Kellogg that were
doing really great work. When we started the program we immediately went to
non-profits we knew we could trust, they had deep relationships in their
community and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea. What do you think?’ They said,
‘Wow, we love it. How do we get in?’ Then we’d say, ‘Well, all we need from you
is that you craft a budget and you have to build it out so you’re the cashier
of the market, you’re taking responsibility for an alternative currency, so
that we’re not creating an opportunity for fraud. So the accounting management is important and the data collection.
Those two things are what thread all of our 70 partners together. Those are the
things everybody has to do the same. Otherwise, they can call it whatever they
want. It’s Double Dollars in D.C. It’s Market Match in California,
it’s Double-Up Food Bucks in Michigan.
You know, do whatever you want with that stuff, but we all have to agree that
if we’re going to change the legislation and shift the way public dollars are
working to get a better outcome, we need to be able to build a case that’s irrefutable.
We really probably have, indirectly, 250 Wholesome Wavers. It’s working
beautifully and it allowed us to deploy rapidly and the outcomes are powerful.
Tell me about the programs Wholesome Wave has
started doing since this one.
It’s interesting because we had
another founding program that we just backed off on. We had very limited human
resources and the marketplace wasn’t quite ready for the concept. It was a
program called Green Wave, and that was a farm to college program.
We recognized the energy that was being created by
the Yale Sustainable Food Project when Alice Waters went in and got really mad
about the food they were serving in the cafeteria there and said, ‘There must
be a way you can take just one of twelve campuses and have everything come from
local, organic producers, cooked from scratch for the kids.’ They still have
not been able to do that. It was a big mission, but it did create all of these
contracts now, where institutions of higher learning are requiring the Aramarks
and the Sodexhos to go a certain percent local by certain years or they can
lose their contract. But we also saw that they couldn’t enforce the contract
because these food service companies could prove that they couldn’t get the
amount of food to be able to meet the mandates.
I was on the advisory board--Alice invited me and Gus both to be on the
advisory board of that--so when we looked at it we said, ‘Listen, we need to
push some of this upstream. We need to find mid-size producers that can come up
with a tractor load of tomatoes, a third of a tractor load of eggplant, a
couple tons of onions and have oven-roasted pizza sauce that can be made into
pasta sauce, oven-roasted vegetable lasagna, and can be turned into a soup, a
variety of different things, so we can take these tractor loads and put them
into a condition where there’s the skill and infrastructure level that these
kitchens can handle.
It was funny because Alice looked at it and she was like, ‘Oh,
look how big the kitchens are. There’s no reason we can’t do this.’ And I’m
looking at them with my background in food service, saying, ‘This kitchen can’t
handle a tractor load of tomatoes.’ They don’t have the equipment to be able to
put it into that form where they can serve the local food year-round Connecticut only has a
five-month growing season, and three of those months school’s out of session.
So what do we do, right?
We started that program and just backed off on it
because people weren’t getting it. But now there’s all this energy around food
hubs. We always believed that if we were going to be successful steering public
money in the direction of helping more people across more socio-economic
demographics to afford locally grown food and demand it, that the businesses
don’t exist to be able to take advantage of that new market we would be
creating. It would be an incomplete mission. We would end up doing all this
great work only to have the big boxes of the major multinational food companies
swoop in and figure out a way to get into the vegetable business. So, the
Healthy Food Commerce Initiative is our newest, most exciting program, but it
was part of us from the very beginning in that, ‘How do we use instruments like
farm credit, new markets tax credit, social finance, funds like Imprint Capital
and RSF out of San Francisco, and some of these others and help steer them and
help re-arrange the instruments so they’re appropriate for these types of food
How do we get the businesses and these really
excited, engaged entrepreneurs the technical assistance they need so that they
better understand the opportunities for their business so they can accept
financing and pay it back. So we’ve believe that school food’s going to be
changed to the types of facilities that are co-owned by farmers and community
entrepreneurs that can change school food in 10 school districts without having
to rebuild 12,000 kitchens, which is not going to happen on current school
budgets, and hire 100,000 more cafeteria workers, which isn’t going to happen
on current school budgets. That’s a good one.
And then our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program
we actually started working on almost immediately after we deployed the
doubling. We realized with the doubling that for that program to be successful
and be widely accepted by people living in poverty, we didn’t want to make a
condition of them being able to take part in the two-for-one sale having to
roll their sleeve up. And be monitored for health outcomes. We knew we needed another program and we
also knew that the health outcomes would be important if we wanted to target
the Affordable Health Care Act and really look at the Measurable Prevention
Clause, Title VI Section 4013, because that’s an even bigger pot of potential
money for local farmers than the Farm Bill. We designed the program, we’ve
raised enough money so that doctors and nurse practitioners in underserved
community health clinics working in conjunction with nutritionists can actually
advise--triage an entire at-risk family--advise them to eat better and to
exercise and then give them the resources to eat better.So they
go to markets where we already have the non-profit program expert collecting
data and managing alternative currency and we’ve created this wrap-around
community of practice which also includes the community member, instead of them
just being separate silos of something that might be available to someone
living in poverty. Everyone is touching the same patient, the patient’s giving
feedback, everyone’s acting like neighbors. We’ve broken the silos down.
Because it’s a private prescription and it doesn’t require someone to spend
their food stamps--so it’s not a two-for-one sale, it’s a doctor saying, ‘You
need to eat better, here’s your prescription’--the families are enthusiastic
about coming back once a month to be measured for health outcomes. Those are
our three programs and then we have the policy department, which Gus heads.
He’s the one who’s been sharing all of our outcomes in Washington in a way that’s equaling policy
Visit Wholesome Wave online.
Read Nischan’s essay, “The
Economic Case for Food Stamps,” at The
Learn more about his work as a
chef and policy innovator at Food
NOW, and PBS Food.
Video: TEDxManhattan: Great
Tomatoes For All
9/24/2012 4:06:28 PM
Philip Belpasso playing the flute at Zuccotti Park, Wall Street
Protest March, September 26, 2011, Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.
This post originally appeared on Shareable. Introduction by Neal Gorenflo, Publisher of Shareable
One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna”
in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city
available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing
widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This
undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the
world’s most livable city in 2011.
Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering
the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear
about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market,
pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of
capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown.
The Floridas and Glaesers
of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never
happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future
will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode
well for the future.
What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commons
is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is
no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square
inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie
of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal
off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver,
there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is
literally born out of commons.
Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the
solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization
is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade
regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons
and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural
populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums,
rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical
opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.
Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.
Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities tempted
me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in
creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban
processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from
And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities
offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons
advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as
American as apple pie—cities by the people, for the people. I will
stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever
you call them.
I asked my friend Chris Carlsson, a co-founder of Critical Mass, to interview Harvey as he explored similar themes in his book, Nowtopia.
Below is a recent e-mail discussion between Carlsson and Harvey which I
think you’ll find fascinating no matter your political persuasion.
Alone, Harvey is not the complete tonic, but I hope the interview
broadens your view of cities like Rebel Cities did for me.
The gentrification blues at work on a Noah's Bagels in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Tedeytan. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Chris Carlsson: Who did you write Rebel Cities for?
My aim was to write a book for everyone who has serious questions
about the qualities of the urban life to which they are exposed and the
limited choices that arise, given the way in which political and
economic power asserts a hegemonic right to build cities according to
its own desires and needs (for profit and capital accumulation) rather
than to satisfy the needs of people.
In so doing, I wanted to provide indications of the kind of
theoretical framework to which I appeal and I, therefore, use seemingly
abstract (often, but not exclusively, Marxist) concepts. But my aim is
to use these concepts in such a way that anybody can grasp them. (I
don’t always succeed, of course.) I then hope that people might become
interested to seek a deeper knowledge of the sort of framework that I
use. For example, in “The Art of Rent,” I use a seemingly arcane concept
of monopoly rent, but I hope by the end of the chapter people can
understand very well what it might mean and wonder how it is that a
society that lauds competition as foundational to its functioning is
populated by capitalists who will go to great lengths to secure monopoly
power by any means and how they capture unearned rents by resorting to
If people want a broader understanding of my framework, they can use
many resources including my own Enigma of Capital, and A Brief History
of Neoliberalism, and my website lectures (including those on Marx’s
Capital and the Companion to Marx’s Capital). I hope, however, that
Rebel Cities is understandable enough without going through all of those
materials first. In my view, one of the biggest problems for
anti-capitalist social movements in our times is the lack of an
agreed-upon framework to understand the dynamics of what is going on; if
I can somehow incite activists to think more broadly about what they
are doing and the general situation in which they are doing it (and how
particular struggles relate to each other), then I would be very happy.
You write: “The chaotic processes of capitalist creative
destruction have evidently reduced the collective left to a state of
energetic but fragmented incoherence, even as periodic eruptions of mass
movements of protest … suggest that the objective conditions for a more
radical break with the capitalist law of value are more than ripe for
For many people, targeting the “capitalist law of value” is
terribly abstract. Can you rephrase that in terms that people can see
and feel in their everyday lives?
I could substitute the phrase “capitalist law of value” with the
phrase “the maximization of profit in a context of global competition”
and then point to the devastating history of deindustrialization (more
destruction than creation) from the 1980s across city after city, not
only in North America, but also Europe and elsewhere (e.g. Mumbai and
But I wanted to use the term “value” very explicitly to raise the
question of what it is that capital values and how radically that
contrasts with other ways of thinking about the values that might
prevail in another kind of society. The capitalist law of value is what
animates the activities of Bain Capital, etc. and we have to see that
value system as profoundly opposed to human emancipation and well-being,
that there is a distinctive “law of value” that capital internalizes
and imposes that overrides all other values that stand in its path.
The values that capital internalizes do not contribute to the
well-being of people and indeed may threaten our survival. The more
people come to recognize the value system of capital the more we can
mobilize “our” alternative values against it. To see the fight against
capitalism as a fight over values is very important. It has, at various
times, animated a theology of liberation that is profoundly
anti-capitalist. It is for this reason that the capitalist class does
not want to talk of or admit to the distinctive “law of value” that
animates its actions. Apologists for capital claim they are for family
values, for example, while capitalism promotes policies that destroy
families. They claim they are in favor of freedom, but omit to say the
freedom they favor is that of a few to exploit and live off the labor of
the many, of the Wall Streeters to be free of regulation to gain their
inordinate bonuses through predatory practices.
Many people joined in to help make the protest signs used for the
march on Wall Street, September 26th 2011, Zuccotti Park,
Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.
Most of the people reading this website are involved in
various types of co-ops, collectives, and projects that are proudly
based on values beyond mere monetary profit. But you don’t think this is
enough. You argue: “… attempts to change the world by worker control
and analogous movements — such as community-owned projects, so-called
“moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and
barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which
today would be that of the Zapatistas) — have not, so far, proved viable
as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the
noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going
in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions … Indeed, it
can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of
collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that
which capital imposes …”
You properly point out that efforts to create socialism in
one country, let alone one city, or one small enterprise, have always
failed. Why do you think people ignore this overwhelming history and
keep trying to make it work anyway?
This is one of the most difficult paradoxes embedded in the history
of the left (its thinking, its project, and its activities). We can all
understand the urge to control our own lives, to achieve some degree of
autonomy at work, as well as in the neighborhoods we inhabit; and that
basic urge which is, I believe, both widespread and broadly acceptable
to many elements in society, can be the basis for a broader politics.
When capital collapses as it periodically does, then workers frequently
mobilize (as in Argentina in 2001-02) to save their jobs, and there are
some long-lasting examples of cooperative systems and of worker control
that are encouraging (e.g. Mondragon).
The problem is that these operations operate in a context where the
capitalist law of value (Yes, that is why this is so important.) remains
hegemonic such that producers are subject to the “coercive laws of
competition” that eventually force such independent efforts towards
autonomous forms of organization to behave like capitalist enterprises.
This is why it is so important to eventually think and act in such a way
as to challenge the hegemony of the “capitalist law of value”.
Lefebvre thus notes that heterotopic practices (spaces where
something radically different happens) can only survive for a while
before they are eventually re-absorbed into the dominant practices. This
says that, at some point, we have to mount a challenge to the dominant
practices and that means challenging the power of a deeply entrenched
and thoroughly dominant capitalist class and the law of value to which
it adheres (as represented by, for example, Bain Capital). You are right
that this is a somewhat abstract idea; but if we cannot embrace it,
then we will simply be ruled by other abstractions (such as those of
“the market” or “globalization”).
You dismiss Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons with the
point that he is studying cattle herders with privately owned herds,
undercutting the very presumption of a commons in land and resources.
But you also look critically at Elinor Ostrom’s ideas about the commons,
mostly because of her relatively small samples of communities
self-managing common resources.
short-circuits the banal opposition of state and market, she ducks (as
do most anarchists and autonomists, as you argue) the problem of
organizing complex, territorially dispersed economic relationships. “How
can radical decentralization — surely a worthwhile objective — work
without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is
simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of
decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and
Do you think the state, currently a wholly-owned project of
“the existing democracy of money power,” can be made to serve other
interests than capital accumulation and economic growth?
The state is not a monolith, but a complicated ecosystem of
administrative structures. At the core of the capitalist state lies what
I call a “state-finance nexus” which, in our times, is best represented
by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and I think it was deeply
illustrative that these two institutions, in effect, took over the U.S.
government entirely in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It is
notoriously the case within the state that the Treasury has the final
say over many projects in other departments.
In parallel with the state-finance nexus is the military industrial
complex which is a bit of a misnomer because it is really about the
concentration of military and police powers backed by a justice system
that is shaped in support of capitalist class power. These make for a
distinctively capitalist class state apparatus. Obviously, that form of
state power has to be confronted and defeated if we are to liberate
ourselves from submission to the capitalist law of value.
But, beyond that, there are many aspects of public administration
providing essential public services — public health, housing, education,
and the governance of common property resources. In our own society,
these branches of government often become corrupted by capital, to be
sure, but it is not beyond the power of political movements of the left
at the local, national, even international levels to discipline these
aspects of the state apparatus to emancipatory public purposes.
Ironically, neoliberalism, by turning the provision of much of this
terrain of state action over to NGOs, has opened a potential path to
socialize these aspects of the state to the will of the people if the
limitations of the NGO form could be overcome. The frontal attack from
the left against state power has to target the state-finance nexus and
the military/police complex and not the sewage department or the
organization of the Internet and air traffic control, even as it has to
be alert to how all departments of the current state are likely to be
used as vehicles for furthering capital accumulation. The current
situation is that the capitalist class is heightening its powers of
control through militarization and the state-finance nexus while not
bothering with much else.
The first day of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2011. Wall Street
barricaded and Zuccotti Park taken. PhotobyDavid Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
At the end of your book you write, “Alternative democratic
vehicles such as popular assemblies need to be constructed if urban life
is to be revitalized and reconstructed outside of dominant class
relations.” How do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement evolving in
the absence of public space?
It is clear that the vicious police response to Occupy Wall Street is
an indication of the paranoid fear of Wall Street that a popular
movement might arise to threaten the power of the state-finance nexus
and, as has happened in Iceland and now in Ireland to indict and
eventually jail the bankers.
Militarization is, for them, the necessary answer, and part of that
militarization is the control over public space to deny that the Occupy
movement has a public space for its operations. In that case, the
liberation of public space for public political purposes becomes a
preliminary battle that will have to be fought. The assemblies provided a
brief whiff of what an alternative democracy might look like, but the
small scales and limited arenas make it crucial to experiment with other
democratic forms of popular governance capable of looking at the
metropolitan region as a whole … how to organize a whole city like New
York or Sao Paulo.
A street scene in Berlin's Schöneberg district showing the interplay between blight and gentrification. Credit: Sugar Ray Banister. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Going beyond physical space, you helpfully point out that,
“There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. […] At the heart of
the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between
the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a
common shall be both collective and non-commodified—off-limits to the
logic of market exchange and market valuations.”
How do you see this logic of “commoning” emerging from the
actual social movements of our time, which seem preoccupied with ethical
shopping on one hand, or addressing racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and
other identitarian questions on the other?
The essence of a great urban and civic life, for me, is the free
intermingling of all manner of people opening up the possibilities of
all manner of encounters. If, for often good reasons, women, LGBT youth,
or other so-called “identitarian” groups cannot freely use the public
and supposedly “common” spaces of the city, then it is critical that
movements emerge to liberate those common spaces for their
participation. Such movements can provide a vital opening for a broader
common politics. The problem comes when that is the only preoccupation
for that group and what begins as a demand for inclusion becomes a
movement for exclusions. Alliances are needed and the more it becomes
acceptable to liberate public spaces for all public purposes, the more
open become the democratic possibilities to go a-commoning, to build a
commons and achieve a politics of the commons throughout the city or
metropolitan region as a whole. But there are counter-movements that
have to be combated. Right now, exclusionary fascist movements (like
Golden Dawn in Greece) are precisely occupying space by space urban
neighborhoods (e.g. in Athens); they are occupying spaces in the name of
an exclusionary politics. This is an extreme case, of course, but I
think it critical that the relation between the commons and the balance
between enclosures and exclusions, on the one hand, and openings and
free uses, on the other, be perpetually open for discussion and
political struggle. These are the sorts of battles in which we all have
to be involved. There is no automatic harmony to be had and I actually
think a certain level of perpetual conflict around urban life is a very
Artists and “culture workers” have historically been leading
voices of dissent, but we see a lot less of that now. Most people are
beholden to one or another institution of the “nonprofit industrial
complex” as the Incite! Collective put it in The Revolution Will Not Be
Funded. The types of dissent remain safely within boundaries that do not
challenge the logic of markets and money.
You write, “It is one thing to be transgressive about
sexuality, religion, social mores, and artistic and architectural
conventions, but quite another to be transgressive in relation to the
institutions and practices of capitalist domination that actually
penetrate deeply into cultural institutions. […] The problem for capital is
to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural
differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate
monopoly rents from them.”
How do highly individualized and competitive artists and
culture producers find common ground to fight for a world beyond
I don’t quite agree with the view that the cultural workers are
passive. The context has changed (which is what I am pointing to as
culture becomes an industry and a vehicle for capital accumulation and
building asset values) which means that dissidence has to take a
different form of expression. Subversion, rather than confrontation, has
to become the main tactic and I see quite a lot of evidence of a
willingness to do that. We have, incidentally, very much the same
problem in academia. My colleagues have quite a lot to learn about how
to go about that and, in the cultural world, that sentiment for
subversion is far more widespread.
You write, “The struggle for the right to the city is against
the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from
the common life that others have produced. […] Capitalist urbanization
perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political, and
livable commons.” Americans are fairly religious about the idea of
private property. Even progressives don’t like to challenge the
prerogatives of property ownership.
Do you think there can be any meaningful way to halt
gentrification and the debasement of thriving urban neighborhoods that
it brings, short of creating collective ownership of neighborhood
The thing that often amazes me is the wide array of instruments
already available for left experimentation in all manner of arenas of
social life. This is very true of housing with all sorts of possible
property arrangements that offer ways to secure housing for low-income
populations. Yet these instruments are neglected and underutilized, in
part, I suspect, because of ideological barriers but also due to lack of
political and other forms of support for them.
Much can be done within existing structures, but, again, the problem
is how, for example, limited equity co-ops might be reabsorbed into the
dominant practices unless there is an active social movement to keep
them in place and expand them. Otherwise, we are in the situation of
winning a skirmish here or there (e.g. against gentrification) but
losing most of the battles and having no impact on the anti-capitalist
war. So when and how are we going to learn to fight the war against the
You point to the need to integrate an understanding of the
process of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general
theory of the laws of motion of capital. Other writers have analyzed
the breakdown of Fordist mass production and the evolution of capitalism
into a system based on a “social factory.”
I think we should get away from the imagery of the factory entirely.
The issue of the urban is quite different because it is not only about
production, but about realization of values through consumption,
consumerism, spectacle (e.g. Olympic Games which have sent many cities
into economic difficulties and played a key role in the Greek collapse
of public finances). One of the things I get from Marx’s theories is the
relation between production of values and the realization of values
through exchange in the market and both are equally important and the
urban is “where it all comes together”.
A public square in Helsinki offers plenty of space for activists to gather. Credit: La Citta Vita. Used under Creative Commons license.
You note, “Public spaces and public goods in the city have
always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such
spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make.” How can public
spaces become a commons?
Language is a commons and part of what political life is about is
changing the languages we use to relate to each other and to understand
the world around us (which is why I want to talk about the capitalist
law of value). But the commons has to be materialized and objectified
(e.g. in print) and discussed (e.g. in an assembly or a chat room).
Commoning embraces all of these features. It is not only a physical
space, but bodies on the street still have a political priority (as we
saw in Tahrir Square) and this is particularly important to the degree
that the capitalist class has almost total power over all other forms of
political power (money, the repressive apparatus, key elements in the
state apparatus, political elections, the law, etc.).
Finally, you argue that “Decentralization and autonomy are
primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through
neoliberalization.” How do social movements fight this trajectory while
holding on to their own autonomist and egalitarian practices?
What is so odd in these times is that much of the left agrees with
much of the right that decentralization and opposition to all forms of
centralized power is the answer. This is why I talk of the “fetishism of
organizational forms” that prevails on the contemporary left. The
market is, of course, when individualized, the most decentralized
decision-making system you can imagine and it is exactly the
organization of such a competitive decentralized market that produces,
as Marx so clearly proved, highly concentrated capitalist class power.
It does so because “there is nothing more unequal than the equal
treatment of unequals.”
If all the world were organized into a series of independent and
totally autonomous anarchist communes, then how would the global commons
(e.g. biodiversity) be preserved, and what would prevent some communes
from becoming much more prosperous than others, and how would the free
flow of people and goods and products from one place to another work
(most communes have some principles for exclusion)? Interestingly, most
corporations are into networked models of administration and there are
all sorts of parallels between left and right which pass unrecognized,
as well as overlaps between corporate practices and anarchist visions.
There is a lot to be said for a decentralized basis for political
action. But, at some point, it has also to jump scales and organize at
least at the metropolitan bioregional level to take on those wretched
dominant class practices that seem to survive unscathed in the midst of
the current plethora of oppositional social movements.
David Harvey (born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge
in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors
in the humanities. In addition, he is the world's most cited academic
geographer, and the author of many books and essays that have been
prominent in the development of modern geography as a discipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate; most recently he has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism. He is a leading proponent of the idea of the right to the city, as well as a member of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.
co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a
wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org), is a writer, publisher,
editor, and community organizer. He has written two books (After the
Deluge, Nowtopia) edited six books, (Reclaiming San Francisco, The
Political Edge, Bad Attitude, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant
Celebration, Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-78, and
SHIFT HAPPENS! Critical Mass at 20). He redesigned and co-authored an
expanded Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay. He
has produced Shaping San Francisco’s weekly public Talks and conducted
its award-winning bicycle history tours since January 2006. He has given
hundreds of public presentations based on Shaping San Francisco,
Critical Mass, Nowtopia, Vanished Waters, and his “Reclaiming San
Francisco” history anthologies since the late 1990s, and has appeared
dozens of times in radio, television and on the Internet.
9/20/2012 4:25:28 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
version of this essay appears in "Politics," the Fall 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly;
this slightly shortened version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind
permission of that magazine.]
corrupts but some must govern. -- John le Carré
performance of the legend of democracy in the autumn of 2012 promises the
conspicuous consumption of $5.8 billion, enough money, thank God, to prove that
our flag is still there. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q Score or
disturb a Gallup
poll, the candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of
heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. The
sponsors of the event, generous to a fault but careful to remain anonymous,
dress it up with the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, abundant
assortments of multiflavored sound bites, and the candidates so well-contrived
that they can be played for jokes, presented as game-show contestants, or posed
as noble knights-at-arms setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by
klieg light, until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of
cameras by whom and for whom they were produced.
Best of all, at least from the point of view of the commercial oligarchy
paying for both the politicians and the press coverage, the issue is never
about the why of who owes what to whom, only about the how much and when, or
if, the check is in the mail. No loose talk about what is meant by the word democracy
or in what ways it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the
history of a courageous people.
don’t favor the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as
valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good.
They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name
for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a
Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts
owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of
citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign
advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.
The sales pitch
bends down to the electorate as if to a crowd of restless children, deems the
body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive, or creative
thought, delivers the insult with a headwaiter’s condescending smile. How then
expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the
surprise that over the last 30 years the voting public has been giving
ever-louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what
their color, creed, prior arrest record, or sexual affiliation? The congressional
disapproval rating (78% earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low
attendance among young voters (down 20% from 2008) at the November polls.
as an ATM
means anything at all (if it isn’t what the late Gore Vidal called “the
national nonsense-word”), it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in
thoughtful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but
because they are one’s fellow citizens. Republican democracy is a shared work
of the imagination among people of myriad talents, interests, voices, and
generations that proceeds on the premise that the labor never ends, entails a
ceaseless making and remaking of its laws and customs, i.e., a sentient
organism as opposed to an ATM, the government an us, not a them.
Contrary to the
contemporary view of politics as a rat’s nest of paltry swindling, Niccolò
Machiavelli, the fifteenth-century courtier and political theorist, rates it as
the most worthy of human endeavors when supported by a citizenry possessed of
the will to act rather than the wish to be cared for. Without the “affection of
peoples for self-government…cities have never increased either in dominion or
Thomas Paine in
the opening chapter of Common Sense finds “the strength of government
and the happiness of the governed” in the freedom of the common people to
“mutually and naturally support each other.” He envisions a bringing together
of representatives from every quarter of society -- carpenters and shipwrights
as well as lawyers and saloonkeepers -- and his thinking about the mongrel
splendors of democracy echoes that of Plato in The Republic: “Like a
coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every
kind of character, would seem to be the most beautiful.”
January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet ran through printings of 500,000 copies in a few
months and served as the founding document of the American Revolution, its line
of reasoning implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The
wealthy and well-educated gentlemen who gathered 11 years later in Philadelphia to frame the
Constitution shared Paine’s distrust of monarchy but not his faith in the
abilities of the common people, whom they were inclined to look upon as the
clear and present danger seen by the delegate Gouverneur Morris as an ignorant
rabble and a “riotous mob.”
the founders borrowed the theorem that all government, no matter what its name
or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few arrange the
distribution of law and property for the less-fortunate many. Recognizing in
themselves the sort of people to whom James Madison assigned “the most wisdom
to discern, and the most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society,”
they undertook to draft a constitution that employed an aristocratic means to
achieve a democratic end.
the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a
capitalist economy does not, the contrivance was designed to nurture both the
private and the public good, accommodate the motions of the heart as well as
the movement of the market, the institutions of government meant to support the
liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. By combining the
elements of an organism with those of a mechanism, the Constitution offered as
warranty for the meeting of its objectives the character of the men charged
with its conduct and deportment, i.e., the enlightened tinkering of what both Jefferson
and Hamilton conceived as a class of patrician landlords presumably relieved of
the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.
intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth
accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have
aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an
oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the
prosperous fool” -- its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they
therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”
the Feast of Fools
The making of America’s
politics over the last 236 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward
off, or at least postpone, the feast of fools. Some historians note that what
the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish in 1787 (“a republic,”
according to Benjamin Franklin, “if you can keep it”) didn’t survive the War of
1812. Others suggest that the republic was gutted by the spoils system
introduced by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. None of the informed sources doubt
that it perished during the prolonged heyday of the late-nineteenth-century
coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society
consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a
state of war. In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President
Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement while explaining his
veto of a bill offering financial aid to the poor: “The lesson should be
constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the
government should not support the people.”
Twenty years later, Arthur T. Hadley, the president of
Yale, provided an academic gloss: “The fundamental division of powers in the
Constitution of the United
States is between voters on the one hand and
property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side... and
the forces of property on the other side.”
In the years
between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the forces of democracy pushed
forward civil-service reform in the 1880s, the populist rising in the 1890s,
the progressive movement in the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation
of the nation’s wilderness and his harassment of the Wall Street trusts -- but
it was the stock-market collapse in 1929 that equipped the strength of the
country’s democratic convictions with the power of the law. What Paine had
meant by the community of common interest found voice and form in Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the fighting of World War II by a citizen army willing
and able to perform what Machiavelli would have recognized as acts of public
middle years of the twentieth century, America at times showed itself deserving
of what Albert Camus named as a place “where the single word liberty
makes hearts beat faster,” the emotion present and accounted for in the passage
of the Social Security Act, in the mounting of the anti-Vietnam War and civil
rights movements, in the promise of LBJ’s Great Society. But that was long ago
and in another country, and instead of making hearts beat faster, the word liberty
currently reactionary scheme of things slows the pulse and chills the blood.
new Morning in America brought with it in the early 1980s the second coming of
a gilded age more swinish than the first, and as the country continues to
divide ever more obviously into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor,
the fictions of unity and democratic intent lose their capacity to command
belief. If by the time Bill Clinton
had settled comfortably into the White House it was no longer possible to
pretend that everybody was as equal as everybody else, it was clear that all
things bright and beautiful were to be associated with the word private,
terminal squalor and toxic waste with the word public.
The shaping of
the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a
privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, a.k.a. the 20% of the
population that holds 93% of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations
and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the
laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the
policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas. Their anxious and
spendthrift company bears the mark of oligarchy ridden with the disease
diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the appetite for more of
everything -- more McMansions, more defense contracts, more beachfront, more
tax subsidy, more prosperous fools. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially
reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took
a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover
Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the
people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”
Government That Sets Itself Above the Law
intent has been conscientiously sustained over the last 30 years, no matter
which party is in control of Congress or the White House, and no matter what
the issue immediately at hand -- the environment or the debt, defense spending
or campaign-finance reform. The concentrations of wealth and power express
their fear and suspicion of the American people with a concerted effort to
restrict their liberties, letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the
infrastructure -- roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges,
hospitals -- that provides the country with the foundation of its common
legislative measures accord with the formulation of a national-security state
backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government
with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the
eighteenth-century British crown. The Justice Department reserves the right to
tap anybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, decide who is, and who is not, an
un-American. The various government security agencies now publish 50,000
intelligence reports a year, monitoring the world’s Web traffic and sifting the
footage from surveillance cameras as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way.
President Barack Obama elaborates President George W. Bush’s notions of
preemptive strike by claiming the further privilege to order the killing of any
American citizen overseas who is believed to be a terrorist or a friend of
terrorists, to act the part of jury, judge, and executioner whenever and
however it suits his exalted fancy.
columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging
of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic
society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s
foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic
policy. The invasion of Iraq
in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street
collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that
sets itself above the law.
servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the
majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by
way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to
freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold
a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t
afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.
Paine had in
mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as
many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to
be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion
in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the
capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not
to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment
that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at
all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the
general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without
this manly and truly republican quality... the institutions are converted into
a stupendous fraud.”
prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the
current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members
of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind -- that of the
obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation
and the speeches, spend 50% of their time soliciting campaign funds. When
standing in a hotel ballroom or when seated in a television studio, it is the
duty of the tribunes of the people to insist that the drug traffic be stopped,
the budget balanced, the schools improved, paradise regained. Off camera, they
bootleg the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the gentry at whose feet
they dance for coins.
Enabling and Codependent
As with the
Congress, so also with the major news media that serve at the pleasure of a
commercial oligarchy that pays them, and pays them handsomely, for their
pretense of speaking truth to power. On network television, the giving voice to
what Cooper would have regarded as real opinions doesn’t set up a tasteful
lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V or the U.S. Marine Corps. The
prominent figures in our contemporary Washington
press corps regard themselves as government functionaries, enabling and
codependent. Their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their
practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock market touts as
“securitizing the junk.”
allowed on Face the Nation or Meet the Press facilitates the
transmission of sound-bite spin and the swallowing of welcome lies. Explain to
us, my general, why the United States
must continue the war in Afghanistan,
and we will relay the message to the American people in words of two syllables.
Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why the oil companies and the banks
produce the paper that Congress doesn’t read but passes into law, and we will
show the reasons to be sound. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be
scornful or suspicious. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your
stupidity and greed in plain sight, in the rose bushes of inside-the-beltway
The cable-news networks
meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly
labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens
nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already
know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes
offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the
loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as
incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium
and the Staples Center.
and Mitt Romney hold each other responsible for stirring up class warfare
between the 1% and the 99%; each of them can be counted upon to mourn the
passing of America’s
once-upon-a-time egalitarian state of grace. They deliver the message to
fund-raising dinners that charge up to $40,000 for the poached salmon, but the
only thing worth noting in the ballroom or the hospitality tent is the absence
among the invited bank accounts (prospective donor, showcase celebrity,
attending journalist) of anybody intimately acquainted with—seriously angry
about, other than rhetorically interested in—the fact of being poor.
to draw blood instead of laughs, speaking truth to power doesn’t lead to a
secure retirement on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard.
Paine was the most famous political thinker of his day, his books in the late
eighteenth century selling more copies than the Bible, but after the Americans
had won their War of Independence, his notions of democracy were deemed
unsuitable to the work of dividing up the spoils. The proprietors of their
newfound estate claimed the privilege of apportioning its freedoms, and they
remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denial to women of
the same sort of rights awarded to men. A man too much given to plain speaking,
on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore not to be
having become both suspect and irrelevant in Philadelphia, Paine sailed in 1787
for Europe, where he was soon charged with seditious treason in Britain (for
publishing part two of The Rights of Man), imprisoned and sentenced to
death in France (for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI on the ground
that it was an unprincipled act of murder). In 1794, Paine fell from grace as
an American patriot as a consequence of his publishing The Age of Reason,
the pamphlet in which he ridiculed the authority of an established church and
remarked on “the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible
is filled.” The American congregation found him guilty of the crime of
blasphemy, and on his return to America
in 1802, he was met at the dock in Baltimore
with newspaper headlines damning him as a “loathsome reptile,” a “lying,
drunken, brutal infidel.”When he died in poverty in 1809, he
was buried, as unceremoniously as a dog in a ditch, in unhallowed ground on his
farm in New Rochelle.
misfortunes speak to the difference between politics as a passing around of
handsome platitudes and politics as a sowing of the bitter seeds of social
change. The speaking of truth to power when the doing so threatens to lend to
words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave. The signers of the
Declaration of Independence accepted the prospect of being hanged in the event
lost the war.
contemporary political discourse lacks force and meaning because it is a
commodity engineered, like baby formula and Broadway musicals, to dispose of
any and all unwonted risk. The forces of property occupying both the government
and the news media don’t rate politics as a serious enterprise, certainly not
as one worth the trouble to suppress.
It is the
wisdom of the age -- shared by Democrat and Republican, by forlorn idealist and
anxious realist -- that money rules the world, transcends the boundaries of
sovereign states, serves as the light unto the nations, and waters the tree of
liberty. What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn’t really
necessary to know their names or remember what they say? The future is a
product to be bought, not a fortune to be told.
least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the
fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially
riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production
-- the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop
for the 150,000 balloons -- reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the
demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for
television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television
commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.
Lapham is editor of
, and a
. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, shortened slightly for TomDispatch, introduces "Politics," the
Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Image by the Josh Copeland,
licensed under Creative
9/18/2012 3:36:42 PM
This morning, KPFK, a
radio station in Los Angeles hosted a debate between Chris Hedges and Dinesh D’Souza. The
debate is moderated by Sonali Kolhatkar, host of the KPFK show Uprising and author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. Hedges
and D’Souza touch on the War on Terror, the Arab Spring, and the 2012 election,
among other topics. Both authors have been fiercely critical of U.S. foreign policy and the Obama administration, but for very different reasons. You can listen to the full hour-long debate below, courtesy of KPFK.
Hedges vs. D'Souza
About the Speakers
Chris Hedges is a
journalist and author, who spent nearly 20 years as a war correspondent in
Latin America, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
In 2002, he was part of a team of reporters at the New York Times who received the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of
global terrorism. He is the author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Death of the Liberal Class. His latest book, Days
of Destruction, Days of Revolt, was coauthored with artist Joe Sacco, and
describes inequality and poverty in 21st century America. Hedges
is currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute and writes a weekly column for TruthDig.
Dinesh D’Souza is a New York Times bestselling author, filmmaker, and
president of King’s College in New
York City. A vocal critic of the Obama administration,
D’Souza served as a policy advisor to Ronald Reagan before moving on to
fellowships at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. Since
then, he has debated with Michael Shermer and Christopher Hitchens, and authored
several books defending conservative Christian values. D’Souza is the director
of a new film called 2016: Obama’s America, which appeared this summer and has already grossed close to $30 million. The film is based on D'Souza's 2010 book, The Roots of Obama's Rage.
You can find more
information about Uprising at www.uprisingradio.org and www.facebook.com/uprisingradio.
Image of Chris Hedges by Chris Hedges, licensed under Creative Commons. Image of Dinesh D'Souza by Mark Taylor, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/14/2012 4:25:18 PM
This post originally appeared on Shareable.net.
Last year, on September 17, a
group of about 1000 people gathered in Bowling
Green to attempt to Occupy
Wall Street, whatever that meant. For those of us who’d been participating
in the planning assemblies all August, well, it went a little better than any
of us imagined it would. 2012 has seen less world-changing protest than 2011,
with Arab Spring, Walkerville in Wisconsin, the Indignados
movement in Spain, the uprisings in Greece and Israel, the London riots, the
Wukan commune and of course, Occupy. Still, 2012 has seen Occupy Nigeria, huge student movements in Chile and Quebec,
Mayday, corruption protests in India,
organizing around Trayvon Martin, and, with the escalating teachers’ strike in Chicago and a potential
East and West coast port shutdown, a still developing but potentially powerful
chain of strikes. The world is changed, changed utterly, and there is no doubt
in my mind that the next decade will see increasingly wild and escalating
peoples’ movements throughout the globe.
But as Occupy Wall Street ‘turns one year old’,
the vision for the movement is shakier. This weekend, leading up to a mass
day of action for September 17, Occupy organizers have planned a series of
events: an open ended educational
rally at Washington Square Park and an anti-capitalist
march uptown on September 15th, a march and party at Foley Square and Zuccotti on the 16th,
and an “anarchists against capitalism” march and rally on the big day,
Monday, 9/17, at Zuccotti park, including an attempted shut down of Wall
Street. Not to be flanked or caught off-guard again, the NYPD have already installed
cement barriers around Zuccotti, making it look more like a security checkpoint
in the Middle East than a public park in downtown Manhattan.
As we move towards OWS’ first
big day since the lukewarm success of Mayday, it seems like there’s a lot at
stake, and it's hard to imagine how we can turn it into something lasting. For
one thing, it’s clear that the militarized, misanthropic police forces of
America (perhaps even the world) will never let people establish another
occupation in a public park—from the spring’s attempted re-occupations of a
series of parks in Manhattan to the Gill Tract farm occupation in Berkeley,
police and owners have shown an absolute unwillingness to allow another
occupation to take hold. Even building occupations, like the 888 Turk
occupation in San Francisco,
have been responded to with immediate crackdown.
And while this behavior of the
police’s is vile and authoritarian, they’re strategically right not to allow an
inch. OWS produced a rupture in the ‘post-political’ ‘after-history’ narrative
that Neoliberalism loves to tell itself, and proved that resistance to
austerity and marketization is a real force, both here and abroad. And Occupy
opened up new communities of resistance and new territories for struggle across
the country while radicalizing thousands. The media narrative that “OWS changed
the dialogue” is a purposefully miniscule claim. The real effects of Occupy are
harder to nail down but much more meaningful.
Still, what of September 17th?
It’s hard to say. In some ways, the feeling is similar to that we were
experiencing this time last year: how many people will show up? Will we be
immediately shut down by the NYPD? What will it end up meaning? But there’s a
lack now too: an original energy, an excitement that marked last summer is
missing. We want a new rupture to explode, but no one agrees on how to make it
Until the 17th, it seems, there
will be more questions than answers. What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ a year
since Occupy’s appearance? Is Occupy still a meaningful force in people’s
lives? In America?
Can September 17th lead to a new phase of struggle in New York, or will it be the end to a
movement that was always hard to capture under a single rubric anyway? Even the
impulse towards prognostication seems to portend an unhappy result.
But this pessimism of the
intellect also hides something fundamental about Occupy. While we may never
have a camp in downtown Manhattan
again (or, at least, not until we’re much more powerful) the downstream effects
and inspiration of Occupy are everywhere. The militancy of the Chicago
Teacher’s Strike, the biggest such strike in generations, reflects a new
capacity for grassroots struggle inspired by Walkerville in Wisconsin and by Occupy. (Of course, it also
reflects a tremendous amount of hard work and organization within the union by
its new leading coalition, which should not be overlooked). Occupy has helped
open up a space for radical action in America, and that space still has
not closed. Whatever the future holds for Occupy Wall Street, whatever the
results of September 17 (and, if you’re in New York, I hope to see you there!) we live
in a new phase of grassroots action and social struggle.
A few more
Occupy articles to read: Solidarity During Wartime in the Streets of Chicago, Occupy Main Street: Reports from the Front-Lines, From Foreclosure to Occupation, The Park and the Protests
Image by DoctorTongs, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/7/2012 2:14:04 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Barack Obama is
a smart guy. So why has he spent the last four years executing such a dumb
foreign policy? True, his reliance on “smart power” -- a euphemism for giving
the Pentagon a stake in all things global -- has been a smart move politically
at home. It has largely prevented the Republicans from playing the national
security card in this election year. But “smart power” has been a disaster for
the world at large and, ultimately, for the United States itself.
Power was not
always Obama’s strong suit. When he ran for president in 2008, he appeared to
friend and foe alike as Mr. Softy. He wanted out of the war in Iraq. He was no
fan of nuclear weapons. He favored carrots over sticks when approaching America’s
His opponent in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton, tried to turn
this hesitation to use hard power into a sign of a man too inexperienced to be
entrusted with the presidency. In 2007, when Obama offered to meet without
preconditions with the leaders of Cuba,
North Korea, and Iran, Clinton
fired back that such a policy was “irresponsible and
frankly naïve.” In February 2008, she went further with a TV ad that asked
voters who should answer the White House phone at 3 a.m. Obama, she implied,
lacked the requisite body parts -- muscle, backbone, cojones-- to make
the hard presidential decisions in a crisis.
take the bait. “When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the
one -- the only one -- who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from
the start,” his response ad intoned. “Who understood the real threat
to America was al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Who led the effort to secure
loose nuclear weapons around the globe.”
successful politicians, Barack Obama could be all things to all people. His
opposition to the Iraq War made him the darling of the peace movement. But he
was no peace candidate, for he always promised, as in his response to that
phone call ad, to shift U.S.
military power toward the “right war” in Afghanistan. As president, he
quickly and effectively drove a stake through the heart of Mr. Softy with his pro-military, pro-war speech at, of all places, the
ceremony awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.
abilities have come to the fore in his approach to what once was called “soft
power,” a term Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined in his 1990 book Bound
to Lead. For more than 20 years, Nye has been urging U.S.
policymakers to find different ways of leading the world, exercising what he termed “power with others as much as
power over others.”
when “soft” became an increasingly suspect word, Washington policymakers began
to use “smart power” to denote a menu of expanded options that were to combine
the capabilities of both the State Department and the Pentagon. "We must
use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal
-- diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural -- picking
the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation," Hillary
Clinton said at
her confirmation hearing for her new role as secretary of state. "With
smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy."
has not been at the vanguard of Obama’s foreign policy. From drone attacks in Pakistan and cyber-warfare against Iran to the vaunted “Pacific pivot” and the expansion of U.S. military intervention in Africa, the Obama
administration has let the Pentagon and the CIA call the shots. The president’s
foreign policy has certainly been “smart” from a domestic political point of
view. With the ordering of the Seal Team Six raid
into Pakistan that led to
the assassination of Osama bin Laden and “leading from behind” in the Libya intervention, the president
has effectively removed foreign policy as a Republican talking point. He has
left the hawks of the other party with very little room for maneuver.
But in its
actual effects overseas, his version of “smart power” has been anything but
smart. It has maintained imperial overstretch at self-destructive expense, infuriated strategic competitors
like China, hardened the position of adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and
tried the patience of even long-time allies in Europe and Asia.
Only one thing
makes Obama’s policy look geopolitically smart -- and that’s Mitt Romney’s
prospective foreign policy. On global issues, then, the November elections will
offer voters a particularly unpalatable choice: between a Democratic militarist
and an even more over-the-top militaristic Republican, between Bush Lite all
over again and Bush heavy, between dumb and dumber.
Softy Goes to Washington
Mr. Softy went
in 2008 and discovered a backbone. That, at least, is how many foreign policy
analysts described the “maturation” process of the new president. “Barack Obama
is a soft power president,” wrote the Financial Times’s Gideon
Rachman in 2009. “But the world keeps asking him hard power questions.”
this scenario, Obama made quiet overtures to North
Korea, and Pyongyang
responded by testing a nuclear weapon. The president went to Cairo and made an impressive speech in which he
said, among other things, “we also know that military power alone is not going
to solve the problems in Afghanistan
But individuals and movements in the Muslim world -- al-Qaeda, the Taliban --
continued to challenge American power. The president made a bold move to throw
his support behind nuclear abolition, but the nuclear lobby in the United States forced
him to commit huge sums to modernizing the very nuclear complex he promised
to negotiate out of existence.
this scenario, Obama came to Washington
with a fistful of carrots to coax the world, nonviolently, in the direction of
peace and justice. The world was not cooperative, and so, in practice, those
carrots began to function more like orange-colored sticks.
This view of Obama is fundamentally mistaken. Mr. Softy was
a straw man created from the dreams of his dovish supporters and the nightmares
of his hawkish opponents. That Obama avatar was useful during the primary and
the general election campaign to appeal to a nation weary of eight years of
cowboy globalism. Like a campaign advisor ill-suited to the bruising policy
world of Washington,
Mr. Softy didn’t survive the transition.
example, Obama’s speech in Cairo
in June 2009. This inspiring speech should have signaled a profound shift in U.S. policy
toward the Muslim world. But what Obama didn’t mention in his speech was his
earlier conversation with outgoing president George W. Bush in which he’d
secretly agreed to continue two major Bush initiatives: the CIA’s
unmanned drone air war in Pakistan’s
tribal borderlands and the covert program to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program with
just continue these programs; he amplified them. The result has been an unprecedented expansion of U.S.
military power through unmanned drones in Pakistan
and neighboring Afghanistan
as well as Somalia and Yemen. The use
of drones, and the civilian casualties they’ve caused, has in turn enflamed
public opinion around the world, with the favorability rating of the United
States under Obama in majority Muslim countries falling to a new low of 15% in 2012, lower, that is, than the rock-bottom standard set by the Bush administration.
campaign has undermined other smart power approaches, including that old
standby diplomacy, not only by antagonizing potential interlocutors but also by
killing a good number of them. Along with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,
often cited as one of Obama’s signal accomplishments, the drone war has by now
provoked a slow-motion rupture in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
cyber-war initiative against Iran’s
nuclear program, conducted with Israeli cooperation, produced both the Stuxnet
worm, which wreaked havoc on Iranian centrifuges, and the Flame virus, which
monitored its computer network. Instead of vigorously pursuing diplomatic
solutions -- such as the nuclear compromise that Brazil
cobbled togetherin 2010 that might have
defused the situation and guaranteed a world without an Iranian bomb -- the
Obama administration acted secretly and aggressively. If the United States had been the target of such a
cyber attack, Washington
would have considered it an act of war. Meanwhile, the United States has set a dangerous
precedent for future attacks in this newest theater of operations and unleashed
a weapon that could even be reverse-engineered and sent back in our direction.
diplomacy ever actually on the table with North Korea. The Obama team came in
with a less than half-hearted commitment to the Six Party process -- the
negotiations to address North Korea’s
nuclear program among the United States,
China, Russia, Japan,
and the two Koreas,
which had stalled in the final months of George W. Bush’s second term. In the
National Security Council, Asia point man Jeffrey Bader axed a State Department cable that would have reassured the
North Koreans that a U.S.
policy of engagement would continue. “Strategic patience” became the euphemism
for doing nothing and letting hawkish leaders in Tokyo
unravel the previous years of engagement. After some predictably belligerent
rhetoric from Pyongyang,
followed by a failed missile launch and a second nuclear test, Obama largely
dispensed with diplomacy altogether.
did indeed move quickly to increase the size of the State Department
budget to hire more people and implement more programs to beef up diplomacy.
That budget grew by more than 7% in 2009-2010. But that didn’t bring the
department of diplomacy up to even $50 billion. In fact, it is still plagued by
a serious shortage of diplomats and, as State Department
whistleblower Peter van Buren has written, “The whole of the Foreign Service is
smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier.” Meanwhile, despite a
persistent recession, the Pentagon budget continued to rise during the Obama
years -- a roughly 3% increase in 2010 to about $700 billion. (And Mitt Romney promises to hike it even more drastically.)
Democratic politicians, Obama has been acutely aware that hard power is a way
of establishing political invulnerability in the face of Republican attacks.
But the use of hard power to gain political points at home is a risky affair.
It is the nature of this "dumb power" to make the United States
into a bigger target, alienate allies, and jeopardize authentic efforts at
Kinder, Gentler Empire
rhetorical flexibility, “smart power” has several inherent flaws. First, it
focuses on the means of exercising power without questioning the ends toward
which power is deployed. The State Department and the Pentagon will tussle over
which agency can more effectively win the hearts and minds of Afghans. But
neither agency is willing to rethink the U.S. presence in the country or
acknowledge how few hearts and minds have been won.
As with Afghanistan, so
with the rest of the world. For all his talk of power “with” rather than “over,”
Joseph Nye has largely been concerned with different methods by which the United States
can maintain dominion. “Smart power” is not about the inherent value of
diplomacy, the virtues of collective decision-making, or the imperatives of
peace, justice, or environmental sustainability. Rather it is a way of
calculating how best to get others to do what America wants them to do, with
the threat of a drone strike or a Special Forces incursion always present in
at least, has been clear about this point. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates argued for “strengthening our capacity to use soft power
and for better integrating it with hard power.” The Pentagon has long realized
that a toolbox with only a single hammer in it handicaps the handyman, but it
still persists in seeing a world full of nails.
At a more
practical level, “smart power” encounters problems because in this
“integration,” the Pentagon always turns out to be the primary partner. As a
result, the work of diplomats, dispensers of humanitarian aid, and all the
other “do-gooders” who attempt to distinguish their work from soldiers is
compromised. After decades of trying to persuade their overseas partners that
they are not simply civilian adjuncts to the Pentagon, the staff of the State
Department has now jumped into bed with the military. They might as well put
big bull’s eyes on their backs, and there’s nothing smart about that.
also provides a lifeline for a military that might face significant cuts if Congress’s sequestration plan goes through. NATO has
already shown the way. Its embrace of “smart defense” is a direct response to military cutbacks
by European governments. The Pentagon is deeply worried that budget-cutters
will follow the European example, so it is doing what corporations everywhere
attempt during a crisis. It is trying to rebrand its services.
search of a mission, the Pentagon now has its fingers in just about every pie
in the bakery. The Marines are doing drug interdiction in Guatemala. Special Operations forces are constructing
cyclone shelters in Bangladesh.
The U.S. Navy provided post-disaster relief in Japan
after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, while the
U.S. Army did the same in Haiti. In 2011, the Africa Command budgeted $150 million for development and health care.
in other words, has turned itself into an all-purpose agency, even attempting “reconstruction” along with State and various
crony corporations in Iraq
It is preparing for the impact of climate change, pouring R & D dollars
into alternative energy, and running operations in cyberspace. The Pentagon has
been smart about its power by spreading it everywhere.
Obama has shown no hesitation to use force. But his use of military power has
not proven any “smarter” than that of his predecessor. Iran and North Korea pushed ahead with their
nuclear programs when diplomatic alternatives were not forthcoming. Nuclear
is closer to outright anarchy than four years ago. Afghanistan
is a mess, and an arms race is heating up in East Asia, fueled in part by the
efforts of the United States
and its allies to box in China with more air and sea power.
In one way,
however, Obama has been Mr. Softy. He has shown no backbone whatsoever in
confronting the bullies already in America’s corner. He has done
little to push back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his
occupation policies. He hasn’t confronted Saudi
Arabia, the most autocratic of U.S. allies. In fact, he has
leveraged the power of both countries -- toward Iran,
Syria, Bahrain. A key
component of “smart power” is outsourcing the messy stuff to others.
mistake: Mitt Romney is worse. A Romney-Ryan administration would be a step
backward to the policies of the early Bush years. President Romney would
increase military spending, restart a cold war with Russia,
possibly undertake a hot war against Iran, deep-six as many multilateral
agreements as he could, and generally resurrect the Ugly American policies of
the recent past.
Romney wouldn’t fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy. After all,
President Obama has largely preserved the post-9/11 fundamentals laid down by
George W. Bush, which in turn drew heavily on a unilateralist and militarist
recipe that top chefs from Bill Clinton on back merely tweaked.
mentioned, sotto voce, that Mr. Softy might resurface if the incumbent
is reelected. Off mic, as he mentioned in an aside to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
at a meeting in Seoul
last spring, he has promised to show more “flexibility” in his second term.
This might translate into more arms agreements with Russia,
more diplomatic overtures like the effort with Burma, and more spending of political capital
to address global warming, non-proliferation, global poverty, and health
But don’t count
on it. The smart money is not with Obama’s smart power. Mr. Softy has largely
been an electoral ploy. If he’s re-elected, Obama will undoubtedly continue to
act as Mr. Stick. Brace yourself for four more years of dumb power -- or, if he
loses, even dumber power.
, is an Open Society Fellow
for 2012-13 focusing on Eastern Europe. He is
the author of
Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam
Lights Books). His writings can be found on his website
To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which John Feffer
discusses power -- hard, soft, smart, and dumb -- click here or download it to your iPod here.
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
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