By Christopher Carrico
Before the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, the iconic moments of American capitalist triumphalism were the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism, and the spread of the neo-liberal paradigm in the West, the post-socialist countries, and much of the developing world. The same years, from the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 to the present, have been years of capitalist restoration in China, and remarkable capitalist growth during a time when the economies of the West and its adjuncts have been stagnating.
The rise of the Washington Consensus had to do with the defeat of other possibilities of internationalism. However flawed, existing socialisms and existing Third World nationalisms did provide the idea of an alternative to capitalism, and to the liberal democratic paradigm that is an outgrowth of its hegemony. Around the world, people looked to Moscow, Beijing, and the Non-Aligned Movement as inspirations for non-capitalist paths of development.
Like the defeat of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, the fates of China and the Third World in recent decades can be summarized in terms that are in keeping with the models of the proponents of the Washington Consensus. China has adopted the Washington Consensus with Chinese characteristics. Since 1978, China has taken a clear path of capitalist restoration, and socialism with so-called “Chinese characteristics” means, in spite of decades of militant communist struggle, that Chinese elites have very successfully adopted the American market model. Rapid capital accumulation in China has been possible (as American and European “primitive accumulation” were in previous eras) through the cold, brutal, and violent exploitation of labor and resources.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, capitalist restoration in China, and the widespread capitulation of Third World elites to the interests of big capital, the only “International” that seems to remain is the Capitalist International. This leaves emancipatory politics with two seemingly dead-end paths: (1) appeal to the liberal democratic – human rights paradigm of the United States, the United Nations, etc., make alliances through the international institutions that are maintained by and support the major capitalist states; or (2) retreat into localism, parochialism, communalism and particularism that does not make effective and progressive linkages with international movements.
This blog will explore the first of these two dead-end paths, with the intention of returning to the question of how to move past these impasses in subsequent writings.
The liberal human rights paradigm and the road to Kandahar and Baghdad.
Actually existing liberal democratic – human rights institutions are themselves full of overlapping contradictions. First of all, nothing can happen under existing arrangements unless powerful nation-states decide to move forward with an intervention or action of some kind. The steps of intervention after a vague “pressure” that rhetorically denounces rights violations, are economic trade sanctions, and finally, military intervention. The usefulness of either for any organization or group of organizations seeking equality and freedom is questionable or at least highly compromised from the start.
Let’s take the question of economic sanctions first. In Palestine the imposition of sanctions seems to hurt the most poor and vulnerable, while strengthening the radical Islamist party, Hamas, as the sole organization that is capable of delivering basic goods and services that the state is otherwise unable to provide.
In Iraq, a stringent financial and trade embargo was in place from 1990 until the U.S. invasion of 2003. Whether these sanctions, by themselves, significantly weakened Saddam Hussein’s hold on power is a matter of debate, but what is clear is the lives of millions of ordinary Iraqi citizens were affected. Estimates of excess deaths from this period of blockade range from very cautions estimates issued by U.N. and American-allied sources, to larger claims made by the Iraqi state and by anti-sanctions activists. UNICEF reported in 1999 that 500,000 children had died as a direct result of sanctions. This estimate seems to be within the range of what was discovered by evidence-based studies conducted by Colombia University, by the Lancet, and other studies conducted in a scientific peer-reviewed manner. Saddam Hussein’s Baath government claimed that the total number of excess deaths was much higher: 1.7 million died from sanctions, bombings, and poisoning from depleted Uranium. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark also argued that these numbers generated by the Iraqi government were roughly accurate.
Beyond sanctions, when the stakes are high enough for the material interests of the capitalist powers, the UN Security Council, NATO, or a “coalition of the willing” led by an American unilateralism, is willing to go to war, using human rights as one of its justifications. In a recent article in the September 2, 2010 issue of Guyanese newspaper Stabroek News, I argued:
There is an element of the appeal to human rights in every American imperial intervention of recent times. In the Iraq War, even after the world learned that Iraqis did not have weapons of mass destruction, the war was still justifiable on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, and a gross violator of human rights.
In Afghanistan, the war is said to not just be about the ‘hunt for al Qaeda’ but also to be about the freedom of the people of Afghanistan. In particular, in fighting a war in Afghanistan, the US claims to be fighting against extreme forms of gender oppression, and other forms of cultural tyranny, not just against the Taliban.
The case against Iran has being built for years. The high profile sentencing of Sakine Mohammadi Ashtiana to be stoned to death for adultery is used by imperialists as another reason why sanctions against (and possibly even an invasion of) Iran is the right thing for the ‘civilized’ world to do. The fact that in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty will also, no doubt, be invoked as a justification.
Organizations such as the International Committee Against Stoning have the difficult but necessary task before them of working to bring an end to theocratic government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and yet also are trying to make clear to the international world that economic sanctions or a military invasion are guaranteed to do a tremendous amount of damage to the people of Iran, with little guarantee or probability that causes of human rights will be advanced.
As Alain Badiou notes with typical precision, “A military, imported type of ‘democracy’ does not exist and never will.”
The human right abuses of Islamic countries are also opportunistically used by those who are opposed to immigration to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East on the grounds that people from these majority Islamic countries still practice a culture of “barbarism”, and refuse to assimilate to the secular and enlightened ideas of “civilized” Europe. The same justifications are used for the systematic harassment of all who do not appear to be culturally French, as reasons for the banning of the burqa, as well as reason for the massive deportation of the Roma “gypsies” who many French seem quite comfortable referring to as “a criminal race.”
While Iraq under Hussein was a draconian, authoritarian state, the same might be said of today’s China, whom the United States enjoys good economic relations with. And while the Taliban reign in Afghanistan was a regime of state terror against its own population, the same can be said for the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia, who have remained close American allies until the present: in spite of extreme forms of gender oppression, the death penalty for homosexuality and adultery, and in spite of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11th, 2001 were from Saudi Arabia. Two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Egypt, and one was from Lebanon. Not a single hijacker was from Afghanistan or Iraq.
In contrast to the situation in Saudi Arabia, there are governments that are demonized by the United States and its allies, in spite of the fact that they are not regimes of violent fundamentalism like the Saudi state. In recent years, in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have seen the return of a New Cold War that is purely rhetorical, with no attempt to ground it rhetoric in either reason or in facts. In the case of Venezuela under the government of Hugo Chavez, the first Venezuelan government that has demonstrated that it has any sort of concern for the majority of the Venezuelan people is portrayed in the American media as the South American equivalent of Saddam Hussein.
An even more extreme case was that of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest of the liberation theology tradition, with the overwhelming support of the Haitian people. President Aristide headed the first Haitian government with some respect for human dignity, after Haitians had experienced decades of state terror at the hands of the Duvaliers. When Aristide’s policies began to become inconvenient for Haitian elites, the French government and American capitalists, his portrayal in the capitalist media quickly changed from that of champion of democracy to an absurd caricature of a ‘brutal’ dictator. He was removed from power by the American military, and a Haitian government more willing to carry out the wishes of the island’s wealthiest families and of capitalist investors from abroad was installed.
I leave my blog this week with the open ended question: how do we begin to rebuild a movement that is progressive, but is not beholden to the hypocritical American definition of progress embedded in its liberal democratic human rights paradigm?