Grandin: empire’s workshop, chapters 4-6

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The new imperialism that became entrenched in the Reagan years reflected US ruling class desire “to overcome the factionalism and disenchantment that had plagued [the US] since the 1960s.” When looked at from the perspective of widening democracy and civic involvement, however, these anti-establishment movements were healthy challenges to those who run this country. Grandin states that this desire was “not confined to the political right, as many liberals likewise hungered for a renewed sense of national purpose.”

It was Vietnam War that led to a “deep skepticism [that] shattered the governing consensus that had held sway for the first two decades after World War II. In what seemed a remarkably short period of time, the institutional pillars of society – universities, churches, newspapers, movies, Congress, and the judiciary – that had previously buttressed government legitimacy began to lean against it, advancing what some conservative critics came to deride as a permanent ‘adversary culture.’”

Grandin exaggerates institutional dissent; rather, it was dissenters within those institutions who went against the dominant consensus. Influential officials did not oppose imperialism; and not one board of trustees of any major university condemned US policies, even after the May 1970 killings of students at Kent State University in Ohio.
And despite tactical criticisms about US policy during that conflict, no major US paper opposed it in principle; their so-called opposition came after the Tet offensive in early 1968 made it clear the US was not going to win. The judiciary refused to confront the war even though it violated the US Constitution, the UN Charter and Nuremberg Charter. Grandin’s analysis, therefore, misreads the nature and depth of anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment in the US during that era and into the 1980s.

Grandin states that the lingering “Vietnam syndrome” among the US public was countered under Reagan with “an extensive propaganda campaign against dissidents at home that opposed imperialist attacks on Central America.” This included an attack on the “adversarial press” that has was been adversarial when it came to imperialism in Central and South America, even though it criticized the methods used and particular policies. He tells us that the propaganda effort also “had to tame a presumptuous Congress, and make inroads on college campuses” and this was done with a “sophisticated and centralized ‘public diplomacy’ campaign that deployed tactics drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence community.”

The White House also “either loosened or circumvented restrictions placed on domestic law-and-order tactics that the FBI and other intelligence agencies had used to intimidate the antiwar movement in the 1960s…. Finally, and most consequentially, the administration built countervailing grassroots support to counter what seemed a permanently entrenched anti-imperialist opposition.” This propaganda assault coordinated “the work of the NSC [National Security Council] with PR firms, psychological warfare specialists, and New Right activists, intellectuals and pressure groups…. The office also worked closely with conservative cadres … who … raised millions … mostly through front organizations….”

The terrorist attacks in Central American were critical in establishing the basis for what Grandin calls the “The Third Conquest of Latin America” that continues under the Bush regime. Although he recognizes that “the promotion of capitalism has long been a concern of American foreign policy, yet the kind of capitalism advanced by the Bush doctrine is innovative, at least in its arrogant disregard for history. It is a militarized and moralized version that under the banner of free trade, free markets, and free enterprise often makes its money through naked dispossession.” As Noam Chomsky and others have argued, however, the banner of “free markets” is spin for public consumption; not one of its proponents would put it in practice for a moment given that “free enterprise” has always meant state-sponsored welfare of the business class.

This “third conquest” follows Spanish conquistadores, US corporations and “multinational banks, the US Treasury Department, and the International Monetary Fund.” It has continued under G.W. Bush, and “promoted not reform capitalism but raw capitalism….” Grandin links this economic imperialism in Latin America to the “free-market absolutism now being imposed on Iraq [and] indispensable to understanding the power of the new imperialism…. In important ways the road to Iraq passes through Latin America, starting first in Chile.” These so-called “free market” policies in Chile and elsewhere, of course, could not have succeeded without national security state violence against the poor, labor unions, leftists and other dissidents.

In Grandin’s view the fundamental shift in Latin America came in 1973, “when the US was hit with the twin blows of the sharply rising oil prices and a 17-month recession….” This “led to a sharpened sense of class consciousness and unity of action among corporate leaders … [who] now rapidly increase[ed] their funding of conservative political action committees, advocacy advertising, ad hoc lobbying groups, and right-wing policy and legal think tanks dedicated to the dismantling of economic regulations and social entitlements.” Tragically for progressive forces, this dominant elite class-consciousness was not matched by a similar rise among the middle and lower classes, as ruling class hegemony prevailed against a public that was uninformed, confused, unorganized, and diverted by cultural spectacles.

In Latin America, the US ruling class set out to crush “third world economic nationalism, which was increasingly identified as an obstacle to economic recovery.” In 1974, retired general Maxwell Taylor expressed this view when he stated that the US “was threatened by a ‘turbulent and disorderly’ third world.” We were the “leading affluent ‘have’ power,” and thus should “expect to have to fight for our national valuables against envious ‘have-nots.’” Taylor’s blunt class understanding of world situation contrasted with the lack of such class-consciousness and activism on the part of public.

Grandin concludes that the synthesis of “the goals of corporate America with the passion and ideas of a nationalist backlash created a perfect storm of resurgent US expansionism … that would force on the rest of the world the kind of economic regime first institutionalized in Chile.” This effort was carefully orchestrated and nurtured by powerful multinational and political forces and not challenged by timid liberals that turn to the right under any times of stress.

He is on the mark when he states that “Reagan’s policies halted and then began the reversal of what some economists had identified as a dangerous trend – namely, the democratization of wealth brought about by union power, a progressive corporate and personal income tax code, education spending, low unemployment, and social welfare programs.” They were dangerous to the degree that they challenged the US ruling class power. Therefore, a systematic effort was undertaken in the 1970s to curb “the democratic distemper” of the movements that arose in the US in the 1960s to challenge domestic and imperial US power.

The challenge to US policies and the counterattack discussed in Grandin during Reagan years actually began under Carter. As discussed by V.G. Kiernan in his America: The New Imperialism, it was Samuel Huntington, Democrat, Harvard Professor and former Pentagon advisor during the Vietnam War, who diagnosed “a democratic distemper” and “a crisis of democracy” caused by “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,” including “blacks, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women,” who have “now embarked on concerted efforts to reestablish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before.” Decrying the public’s willingness to challenge “the legitimacy of hierarchy, coercion, discipline, secrecy, and deception – all of which are, in some measure, inescapable attributes of the process of government,” he concluded that “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”

Huntington’s views were part of the Crisis of Democracy report for the Trilateral Commission, a body founded by David Rockefeller in 1972 that would later supply the heart of the leadership of the Carter administration. The key, of course, was to use the power and propaganda of the US government and the corporate mass media to marginalize those infected with this “democratic distemper” so that they would not disrupt the genocidal US imperial attack on Central and South America. The attack on these movements within the US was the other side of the coin of the genocidal face the US government showed in Central America.

Progressive reforms in Latin America had to be attacked because they brought increased equality and “produced new social groups demanding increased political and social democracy, demands to which the region’s ruling classes, under the cover of the Cold War and with tech support provided by the Pentagon responded with wholesale slaughter.” A similar effort to crush dissident social groups happened here, though in a much less violent way. From the perspective of the US ruling class and its Latin American puppets, anything strengthening the masses against the classes had to be stopped.

The new imperial policies devastated the poor throughout South America, but in Central America “the situation was much worse.” According to Grandin, the economic devastation “that began a quarter century ago has actually accelerated…. 60 percent of the inhabitants of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – roughly 20,000,000 people – live below the poverty level, a situation that has grown worse since the wars ended…. Panama fares no better, plagued as it is by corruption, violence, high unemployment, and severe malnutrition.”
This human catastrophe, however, is an acceptable price to pay for the US ruling class and its apologists, far much more acceptable than those periods when the poor organized militant and armed struggles. As long as the oppressed don’t threaten their own ruling elites and US protectors, we will hear little to nothing about conditions in the region.
But US ruling circles are worried again by the rising social-democratic movements in Latin America, most personified by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. This hopeful movement is countered, however, by many among the poor who “seek remedy through more vengeful outlets, such as right-wing nationalism, religious fundamentalism, or street-gang brutality. Most likely, they join the ranks of the forgotten, victims or perpetuators of … violence that on any given day outstrips, with the possible exception of Iraq, all the more sensational acts of terrorist violence occurring throughout the world combined.”

Grandin reminds us that when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “began to criticize the IMF model, the White House openly backed the plotters who attempted to depose him in spring 2002. And after 9/11, the Bush administration added critics of neoliberalism to its growing list of hemispheric security concerns.” “Radical populism” was increasingly considered to be an “emerging threat” that could link up with Islamic fundamentalism, and Chavez and Evo Morales of Bolivia were singled out as potential terrorists who took advantage of “deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services.” If US imperialist exploitation in Latin America did not exist, there would not be “deep-seated frustrations” that would move people to change such conditions.

Grandin tells us that the US does very little to alleviate “the poverty that even the Pentagon admits fuels the war and the drug trade.” Given the premises of imperialism, however, the US government can’t alleviate these problems because it created them: it’s the criminal. Without fundamental social and economic change here at home, therefore, we cannot expect any genuine US effort to help end desperation in Latin America.

So we face an intractable dilemma: the US “promotes an economic model that produces not development and stability but desolation and crisis. As such, the US is once again relying on hard power to protect its interests against the resurgence of a new, continent-wide democratic left.” US interests, of course, are the interests of the dominant elite that covers itself with the mantle of the national interest, not the broad democratic interests of the governed here.

Grandin’s final point is absolutely critical if we are to grasp the truth about US imperialism: “The most important lesson taught by the history of the US in Latin America [is that] democracy, social and economic justice, and political liberalization have never been achieved through an embrace of empire but rather through resistance to its command.” This assertion seconds the insight of Samar Amin that I quoted last time: “The intervention of the North in the affairs of the South is – in all its aspects … negative. Never have the armies of the North brought peace, prosperity, or democracy to the peoples of … Latin America. In the future … as in the past … they can only bring … further servitude, the exploitation of their labor, the expropriation of their riches, and the denial of their rights.” Therefore, the only democratic option is the one Grandin and Amin laid forth: resistance to the commands of the imperialists, the exploiters.
A number of scholars have seconded the thesis put forth in Grandin’s book. Tariq Ali’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope argues that US imperialism in Latin America has created a situation where “The real crime is to challenge the certainties of the new order, to disregard the ‘Forbidden’ signs of the [Western consensus] or WC.” To Ali, “the choices are clear. Either one pushes for” US imperial policies “ one attempts to create an altogether different programme which prioritises not market values but human needs.” And the latter is what is happening in various areas of South America which “is on the march again, offering hope to a world either deep in the neo-liberal torpor or suffering daily from the military and economic depredations of the New Order.” This is the resistance to the commands of the rich and powerful forces that created and sustained imperialism – the end of Grandin’s analysis in Chapter 6.
In The Culture of Terrorism, Noam Chomsky discusses the US-supported genocidal and imperial violence against Latin America and Central America in particular. This assault, he argues, must be placed within the larger context of overall US foreign policy: “The central – and not very surprising – conclusion that emerges from the documentary and historical record is that US international and security policy, rooted in the structure of power in the domestic society, has as its primary goal the preservation of what we might call ‘the Fifth Freedom,’ understood crudely but with a fair degree of accuracy as the freedom to rob, to exploit and to dominate, to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced. This guiding principle was overlooked when [FDR] announced the Four Freedoms that the US and its allies would uphold in the conflict with fascism: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” He harshly criticizes the mass media and leading intellectuals that “largely accepted and internalized the basic framework of government doctrine throughout….” – a doctrine that Grandin explains in great detail in Empire’s Workshop.

In Chomsky’s view, Reagan’s “activist” foreign policy assaults against Central America were “at an extreme of the [political] spectrum” but within the framework of general US principles that have included “intervention, subversion, aggression, international terrorism, and general … lawlessness….” The staggering levels of violence during these years were “generally supported by elite opinion across the political spectrum, apart from tactical disagreements.” And they were policies “initiated by the liberal Carter administration, including the military build-up which largely follows its projections, the dismantling of the welfare state, the terrorist slaughter in El Salvador, and so on. There are differences, but they are within a general tendency that has won wide agreement. The Democratic opposition has broadly supported these policies, even the attack against Nicaragua” – another example of the bi-partisan empire that Robert Jensen discussed in his article.

The “the self-image of American elites” reveals the US as “a lawless and violent state and must remain so, independently of such nonsense as international law, the World Court, the UN, or other international institutions…. US international terrorism is ‘scandalous’ only if it infringes upon the prerogatives of the powerful or carries a potential cost to elite interests.” Therefore, “the successful use of terrorism is not considered a scandal. On the contrary, it is welcomed and applauded.”

Key to understanding US imperialism in Latin America, in Chomsky’s view, is getting to the historical and institutional roots of exploitation and violence. This means rejecting the thesis that problems are basically the result of “the failings of incompetent individuals, not traced to their institutional roots…. And crucially the nobility of US intentions must be protected from any challenge.” Thus, Reagan’s policies were “foolish, incompetent, out of control” even though we always move abroad with fine intentions: therefore, we make mistakes but we never commit crimes.

Chomsky doesn’t just condemn the obvious butchery of the Reagan administration in Central America, but also challenges aggrieved liberals when he takes on Mr. Human Rights, Jimmy Carter. “Carter’s Human Rights Administration,” for example, “strongly supported both Somoza and the Shah. Congressional legislation, reflecting popular dissidence from the late 1960s, placed constraints on direct aid to Somoza, so the Carter administration was compelled to rely on Israel to provide arms and advisers while Somoza’s National Guard killed some 40-50,000 people in its final paroxysm of violence.”

The fundamental premise for US elite support of such brutal right-wing gangsters throughout the world, in Chomsky’s view, stems from the “broad agreement that the US cannot tolerate any threat to the rule of the brutal and regressive elements that prevent the establishment of ‘nationalistic regimes’ that are responsive to the needs and concerns of their own populations, the guiding policy principle laid down in secret planning documents; the traditional US hostility to democracy and human rights remains without challenge.”

We discussed Felix Greene’s analysis of US imperialism in a previous class, and it is perfectly applicable to Latin America (The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism). His basic thesis, similar to that made by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, is that we are dealing with poor countries that are “enormously rich.” Therefore, “It is because of their wealth that they are colonized.”

He shares data on Latin America that support this assertion: “It has more cultivable, high yield tropical soil than any other continent, at least three times as much agricultural land, per capita, as Asia, the biggest reserves of timber in the world. Buried in it are … vast reserves” of minerals embracing “virtually every metal … and every industrial chemical known to man. With its oil and hydroelectric power it constitutes one of the greatest untapped reservoirs of energy.” His book was published 30 years, so it is hard to know exactly what natural and human resources are left given the rape of the land and people by multinational corporations in the ensuing period.

He asks a fundamental question that can only be addressed if one has an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist perspective: “How it is that nations with such rich resources, supplying such vast quantities of the world’s essential materials, remain so appallingly impoverished?”
In his scholarly work on US hegemony, the economist historian and sociologist Andre Gunder critiques the “dependency” process that keeps the imperial center intact and powerful, and the exploited areas such as Latin America poor. “The metropolis expropriates economic surplus from its satellites and appropriates it for [its] own economic development. The satellites remain underdeveloped for lack of access to their own surplus…. One and the same historical process of expansion and development throughout the world generated – and continues to generate – both economic development and structural underdevelopment.” These processes are but sides of the same coin: you cannot have one without the other as misery feeds wealth and vice versa.

We simply need to move back from Grandin’s discussion of imperialism and its natural by-product: poverty, to a Newsweek story 30 years ago that was cited in Greene, to see how nothing has changed when it comes to wealth and poverty: “Just a few hours by jet from New York … live more than 200 million people in the vast reaches of Latin America and it is doubtful whether one-tenth of them know what it is like to go to bed with a full stomach. The great cities glitter opulently … but beyond the glitter and in the hinterland are odious and despondent slums where … Indian children scrounge for scraps and handouts while their parents labor for wages of twenty cents a day or less.” As Mike Davis argues in his Planet of Slums, increasingly they are urban and not rural as portrayed in this article from the 1970s. To continue: “This is the wasteland of the Western hemisphere, a land of misery whose poverty is as stark as any in the world.”

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