Tuesday, June 17, 2008

If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues

If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues

On foregin policy

and Michael Albert
(View Original)

An interview with Michael Albert by Lydia Sargent

SARGENT: In the last session you established that presidential elections are mostly a PR campaign and that, sincere or not, the campaign has little to do with truth or with fundamental changes in existing institutions and a lot to do with getting elected, with the help of elite funding and false promises to voters. Let's turn to a few specific issues, starting with foreign policy. How would the left or a left candidate go about exposing U.S. foreign policy?

ALBERT: I don't think what the candidates say about foreign policy means much at all. They seek to appeal to funders, media, and various constituencies. They say what their pollsters tell them to say. At times they say what they believe while at other times they say what they don't believe. They sell themselves in the same way Proctor and Gamble sells toothpaste—by saying whatever needs to be said to find a way to get support.

To find out about candidates, the way to go about it is not by looking at what they say, but by looking at the history of American foreign policy. Since the logic of it changes barely at all, there's no reason to suspect it's going to change now—unless, of course, large constituencies force it to change.

As to what their foreign policy is it's relatively simple: U.S. foreign policy is elites in the United States— the Pentagon, the White House, the corporations—pursuing policies designed to enhance their own power, their own options, and their own wealth. So the policies are designed to extract wealth from other places in the world, whether by actual coercive behavior or, more often, just the power of threats.

A case in point is that the United States isn't in Iraq to take Iraqi oil and benefit from it directly, it's rather more in Iraq to be in control of Iraqi and Mideast oil and to be able to use that power, that threat, that position of dominance over a critical resource to coerce outcomes around the world that it wants. It's always been our policy to behave in that way.

So when candidates say that the U.S. should promote democracy and human rights around the world, what do they mean?

I have no idea what's in their heads, but it's a little bit like saying Iran should promote democracy and human rights around the world. It makes no sense. It's like saying domestically the Mafia should promote human rights and democracy in major urban areas of the United States.

The United States doesn't care what polls show the Iraqi people want; the United States doesn't care what polls show the population of any country in the world wants. When Turkey was going to oppose the war in Iraq because the Turkish population was so against war that the Turkish elites were afraid not to, American media described Turkey as a backward country, not a country that was exhibiting democratic behavior— which it was. And the same went for countries throughout Europe. The countries that opposed the war in Iraq, that were critical of it in response to overwhelming sentiments of their populations, the United States treated as somehow backward, peculiar, misbehaving. The countries that ignored their populations and supported the U.S. role in Iraq, the United States was happy about, describing them as enlightened. That's what American foreign policy is all about. The gap between reality and rhetoric is so huge that you can say things that are incredible. So to talk about the United States imposing democracy is like talking about the Mafia imposing non-violence or peace.

What kind of a foreign policy would you present and how should America behave toward the rest of the world?

I think a good leftist—my saying it doesn't mean much—but a good leftist who might be running for office would say something like, "As president, here are some of the things I would do: close American military bases around the world; reorient the funds that would be saved and spend some in parts of the world that have suffered due to policies of the United States and other wealthy first world countries; spend some of it inside the United States—raising the consciousness and a sense of solidarity with others—and improving the life of people in the United States."

I would simply remove from the docket of American behavior occupying, invading, or otherwise using violence to coerce other nations in any way whatsoever. I would make clear that there are several ways to deal with "terrorism" in the world. One is to pursue it, to actually be terrorists. That's what the United States does as its primary policy. That is, the United States engages in coercive violence around the world to pursue its own interests regardless of its effect on populations.

The second thing that the U.S. does is provoke terrorism. We have a foreign policy that is so callous toward, so dismissive of, and so denigrating to, people around the world that people naturally react hostilely. And then we have created an environment in which the only thing that matters is power. If the only thing that matters is power, and you're a third world country, you can't exercise power via a gigantic military apparatus like the United States, you have to do it via terrorism. It's the only avenue open.

I should clarify that terrorism is a real issue. It is possible for there to be a terrorist apparatus that exacts gigantic horror.

Besides the U.S., you mean?

Yes. The U.S. is first in nuclear weapons, first in violence, first in coercion. But you could imagine a situation in which some apparatus got possession of nuclear weapons and used them. So how do you prevent that? Well, one way would be Bush's way, by having a gigantic coercive cop on the beat who, ahead of any threat, goes in and exterminates what it takes to be the likely threat. The problem with that approach, aside from being immoral, is the idea that the U.S. should do it. Everybody in the U.S. would laugh if we said that the Iranians or North Koreans should be the cops of the world. Well, for the rest of the world the idea that the U.S. should be the cops of the world is like that. It's ridiculous.

Imagine that six people decide they're going on a rampage and engage in some horrible violent activity against Las Vegas. And surveillance discovers they are from Phoenix, Arizona. So what should we do? We want to prosecute these people, we think they're in Phoenix—let's bomb Phoenix. Let's launch a massive air assault against the entire state, for that matter, because we believe these six terrorists are in Phoenix. What would the result be? Instead of 6 people, there would be 6,000 people hostile toward the rest of the country.

What should we do with the six people in Phoenix? We might try to catch them without killing everyone else in the city. What if Japan or India decided to bomb the U.S. and cut off food and medicine because there's a bunch of terrorists in Washington?

The idea of solving the problem of coercive violence by the exercise of even greater coercive violence has never and probably will never work. These policies are barbaric and they do not deal with terrorism. On the other hand, they aren't meant to deal with terrorism. They're meant to perpetuate and propel the will of America in the world as the chief sovereign that decides what can and can't be done.

So what's the alternative? The alternative would be international law. The alternative would be an environment in which international courts, international law, the UN, really meant something. The alternative would be an environment in which those who have power now—and it doesn't change overnight—would be restrained from and would restrict themselves from exercising it. That's what a left candidate would talk about.

Let's turn specifically to Iraq. In a candidates' debate, what would you say about our foreign policy there?

The United States should withdraw. But more than that, it should pay huge reparations. Why? Because we've destroyed the infrastructure of a country. We have harmed, perhaps irreparably, a society. We owe them reparations. We owe them support to get back to being a functioning polity, economy, and social system. So we should provide that, not just withdraw. But we should certainly withdraw. We are an occupying army.

Another area of concern in the debates is China. The talk there is about human rights violations and lack of democracy. How would a left candidate discuss China?

A left candidate might look and say not just what are the Chinese doing, but what are the Americans doing? For instance, American cigarette manufacturers are addicting the Chinese population to cigarettes. Why? In order to replace European and American populations' diminishing smoking. So we're exporting smoking to China. Let's compare that to cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Cocaine from Colombia to the United States kills about 3,000 Americans a year. Cigarette addiction will kill millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of Chinese over decades. That's what American policy does. What is China doing that remotely compares—and remember we're only looking at one industry in the U.S.?

So what I would do first is look at our behavior with respect to China and the rest of the world. Then, if we clean it up, if we begin to behave in a remotely responsible fashion, we would have more justification in criticizing violations elsewhere.

Another country of great concern to the candidates is Cuba. Should we continue the sanctions, should we indict Castro, should we go in and get Castro's ally Chavez?

Again, it's American political culture vs. reality. So what we have in Cuba is a situation where, for decades, the United States has engaged in economic warfare, terrorism as well. The economic warfare is the embargo, the terrorism is the acts of terror committed with the support of, and even engaged in by, U.S. policy toward Cuba. Why? If the Cuban people want to do X and X is dangerous to the United States, it's not allowed. What is X in this case? X is to own their own resources. X is to administer their own society. X is to not have a distribution of wealth like that in the United States where a few percent of the population own the vast majority of the economic assets and the wealth accruing from them. The Cubans don't have that. The Cubans have a society where the tremendous centralization of wealth in the hands of the few was undone.

It's not my idea of an ideal society by a long shot, but that was a gigantic step forward. It's that step forward that makes Cuba anathema to the United States and which causes the U.S. to think that it makes sense to talk about what the future of Cuba should be. What if the Japanese started to talk about what the future of the U.S. should be? We can understand the idea that one nation doesn't have the right to dictate to another how it should function, except in the case of the United States.

And Chavez in Venezuela?

With respect to Chavez, it's even more ridiculous. For the U.S. to talk about Chavez as a dictator is a travesty. It's a travesty in the sense that they've had election after election in Venezuela which he handily wins. Then they have one recently, not about his being in office, but about a set of policies that he was backing, which lost. What was Chavez's response to that? "Okay, I lost." If he was a dictator he wouldn't lose; he wouldn't even have an election.

So why is the U.S. government upset about Venezuela? We're upset for the same reasons as in Cuba. It's because in Venezuela the government is looking around at society and saying, "You know what? We should change things. We should change things such that those who are poorest, those who are suffering, those who are denied their dignity, will get it all back. How will they get it all back? We'll redistribute wealth, we'll redistribute power. We'll think of new ways to organize the political system, new ways to organize the economy." That's what they're doing. But that's a horror from the point of view of the United States. What happens if they succeed?

The worst possible outcome for U.S. elites is not that Chavez is a dictator. In Washington each day the government gets up praying that he'll do something that, in fact, would be dictatorial. The worst conceivable outcome is that the Venezuelans succeed in improving the quality of life of the people of Venezuela and in creating a model that could be emulated elsewhere. That's why we go in and try to create turmoil and try to create a coup. And who knows what we'll try and do in the future.

And a left president would...?

A left president would say, "My gosh, what's going on in Venezuela is quite fascinating. Let's go down there and try to learn something."

On the economy

SARGENT: We've discussed elections and foreign policy. Let's turn to the economy. Some predict a recession, even a depression. The candidates seem to have nothing new to offer, not surprisingly, although Clinton refers at one point to ending corporate welfare or at least affecting it. As a left candidate how would you approach talking about changing the direction of the economy?

ALBERT: When they say that we have too much corporate welfare, that's true. It doesn't suffice to point out that people are doing less well than they might. It might be more informative to say that there are 40 to 50 million people in the United States living below the poverty line. How can there be that many people below the poverty line in a country as wealthy as the United States? Well, only if you have a very skewed distribution of wealth. So a candidate could say, "Look, the problem with the U.S. economy is that it enriches the few and impoverishes the many. Or it enriches the few and allows the many to get by. That's probably 60-70 percent of the population that worries all the time about such things.

So what does this mean? Well, it means the economy is misoriented. It means the economy is oriented toward profit. It's oriented toward the well being of those who are best off. Candidates could say all that, but they don't. The reason they don't say all that is because to say it in that way would cue investors—the people who finance elections and permit candidates to enact policies—that the candidate in question was not an agent of their interests.

When Huckabee was campaigning and doing fairly well, he referred to Wal-Mart as a genius of the marketplace.

And it is. Wal-Mart is a case study in the genius of the marketplace doing what the marketplace is meant to do, which is to maintain power relations and enrich the powerful. The confusion is that the population hears that as if it's genius at production, it's genius at efficiency, it's genius at using resources in a clever and creative way. But that isn't what it's genius at. In fact, it's impoverished and psychotic at those things. It's really effective at marshaling resources in such a way as to enhance the profit of the few.

How do we see that it's bad at the other? Well, how can it be efficient to have 40 or 50 million people living in poverty? That's not efficient. That is wasting 40-50 million people's capacities. If a capitalist were to say "a portion of my productive potential is lying fallow, that's inefficient," what would they mean? They'd mean "it isn't being utilized to make me profits." But when a large portion of the human population is "lying fallow"— unemployed or underemployed or robbed of its capacities by an educational system that basically deskills and deeducates, the capitalist doesn't say that's inefficient. It's not utilizing the productive capacities of a population, but it is enriching the capitalist. So the capitalist is happy with that.

When candidates say they're interested in change you can test it in some ways. You can see whether they are going to tax profits at 80 or 90 or 100 percent. Are they going to raise inheritance taxes? Are they going to redistribute wealth so that poorer communities get a much bigger slice of the wealth in order to redress the imbalances?

Huckabee also said, "Consumerism is addictive but tranquility is immaterial."

I have no idea what that means, except this: the idea that consumerism is addictive has some merit, in the following sense. The economy is organized so the only road, the only avenue to a modicum of fulfillment for people is consumption. When the advertisements that we see use sex, friendship, and dignity to sell all manner of commodities, it's not a lie. This is a big mistake that many people make. They look at this stuff and they say to themselves, "Oh, stupid people being tricked." Nobody's being tricked. It's true. The economy is so skewed and people's opportunities in life are so restricted that to have friends, a sex life, dignity, and respect requires consumerism.

What's crazy is to have an economy organized in such a fashion so that toothpaste and clothing and types of cars and all manner of items are a prerequisite for fulfillment.

Candidates are always making promises about taxes. How would you talk about taxes?

The idea of taxes is not bad. The idea that there are many things in an economy that are collectively consumed, which must be provided in a collective manner—for example, by a government—is true. Anybody who thinks it isn't should ask themselves what they would be doing if they didn't have clean water, electricity (before it was privatized), roads, and all manner of things that are provided in this way.

It isn't just the military for which you need taxes. The fact that so much goes to the military is horrible. And there's a reason for that. The economic system we live under has to produce at a high level. It needs to keep churning. How do you keep it churning? You have to keep pouring out product. You have to keep spending. One way to do this would be to spend on education, infrastructure, rebuilding cities, parks, health care, and all kinds of things that would improve the quality of people's lives.

Another way to do it—a quite different way—is to spend money on missiles and tanks and all manner of things that don't improve people's lives, but are used to enforce unjust hierarchies. Why is that done? Most people think it's because the army is so important to the powers that be. There's some truth in that. It is important. They do want that apparatus of power. But that's not the sole reason. The second reason is that to spend lots of society's productive output on welfare, unemployment insurance, health care for all, decent housing, etc. would empower people. It would cause people currently living threadbare existences to have more confidence and more comfort. It would put them in a position to demand still more.

What else would be important to talk about during a left campaign?

One thing candidates typically won't talk about is the types of people that exist in the United States, understanding them as classes. Of course, there are many different occupations and many different roles in the economy. One way to think about people in the economy is that there are some who own factories, workplaces, etc.—that's about 2 percent of the population. These people are tremendously wealthy. In some cases, so wealthy that it is almost unfathomable. Bill Gates, for instance—not because of how hard he works or how long or how difficult and dangerous the conditions but because he has a piece of paper in his pocket, a deed to Microsoft that is worth more than the entire economies of many third world countries. So that's one class—the owning class or the capitalist class, the class for which our economy is named.

There's another group that largely monopolizes empowering conditions of work. They have workplace conditions that give them a considerable degree of control over their own lives and the lives of the people "below" them. They're managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. They have the credentials of authority. They have incomes, typically, many times that of the third class—working people, who do mostly rote and onerous work.

Our economy is skewed in such a way that the capitalist class is by far the richest and most powerful (2 percent). The second class—the coordinator class—comes next (20 percent). It is still rich and powerful compared to workers beneath them (about 80 percent). Candidates won't talk about that because their money and their credibility and what policies they are allowed to pursue are a function of support from the first group. The third group is relatively irrelevant except for tallying votes. So candidates speak to the third group to tally votes, but they take the interests of the first group seriously.

Take education. What do we do regarding education in the United States? We spend most of our money on the rich and powerful—the 2 percent and the 20 percent. Those sectors receive education designed to prepare them to play an engaging role in society, to function with a degree of authority and influence over economic outcomes. The other 80 percent goes to school and essentially learns to take orders and endure boredom in order to occupy the slot of a working person in the U.S.

If a candidate is going to have a program about economics and you're serious about what's going to happen in the U.S. economy as a result of your programs, you have to say two things. You have to say not just that "people need more education," but you also have to tell the reason why they don't get it. And the reason is because in this economy if they were to get it, the 80 percent would come into the economy with too high expectations, too much knowledge, and too much confidence. They would likely then demand more out of life than rote and obedient conditions of work.

What kind of an economy would you be proposing, as a left candidate?

For a left candidate to propose the kind of economy I believe in—a participatory economy—wouldn't make much sense unless you could have a campaign in which the candidate was in a position to talk with the American people for a year about what the features of such a thing would be. Otherwise it would sound crazy because it would be from nowhere. People wouldn't even know what it meant.

What I would talk about is altering the economy in a direction that would lead to more justice, solidarity, equity, and people controlling their own lives. What that means is altering the way markets operate, eventually doing away with them. It would mean altering the way we allocate income, eventually making it equitable. It would mean altering the way we make decisions eventually making it self-management. I would...

By self-management, you mean...?

...I mean people having a say over their lives in proportion to the way they're affected. I would alter the way people interrelate—from competition to cooperation. Those kinds of steps entail a different economy. Our economy has institutions that violate all those values. Our economy systematically causes people to be egocentric and anti-social; to get ahead you must ignore the conditions of other people.

Why are markets so objectionable?

To interact in the marketplace you have to buy cheap and sell dear. In other words you have to rip off the person you are engaging with. For you to do better that person has to do worse. It's anti-social. To function at the head of a corporation you have to abide by the interests of those who own it. That means you have to generate profits. If you don't generate profits, your corporation will go out of business.

Even if you you're inclined to be more humane, you have no choice. The American corporation is an institution in which the disparity in power between the top and the bottom is worse than it is in a political dictatorship. There's no political dictator who even entertained the idea of having a say over when people could go to the bathroom.

As a left candidate couldn't you offer some program changes?

I would offer changes that moved in the right direction. Here's some: let's cut the work week from 40—actually from what's probably 60 to 70 hours a week for 80 percent of the population—to 30 hours a week. What do we do with all that "lost productivity?" First of all, we transfer people from producing useless stuff to producing useful stuff that would benefit people. That goes a long way toward making up a lot of that lost labor.

Imagine it was 50 years ago and people said, "What we need is to shorten the work week, and that includes surgeons and doctors. Therefore, we'd have much less doctoring. Where are we going to get it from?" What if someone suggested we get it from the people who weren't previously doing it. The response would probably be, "That's impossible. Those people are incapable of it." Well, 40 years ago, if you had looked you would have seen there were virtually no women doing surgery. It wasn't because they were genetically incapable of it. History shows that was a lie. It was the social structures that precluded their being surgeons. Well, it's also a lie that working people can't do creative work.

So a serious left candidate would say, "Look, our economy is stifling people's capacities. It is not utilizing the capacities of working people. We could all benefit from more output and less labor time—having more time to live a life."

If you accept the skewing of outcomes for the population—the super- haves, the haves, and the have-nots—it becomes difficult to do much. That's what candidates accept. What they're doing is debating over modest alterations—if you take them at their word, which is already a big stretch—while maintaining that basic situation.


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