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Commentary :: Politics
The Bush administration and the global decline of American capitalism
08 Mar 2006
In addressing the question posed by David North in his opening remarks to this meeting—Is world capitalism on an upward trajectory, or is it in decline and heading for explosive upheavals?—it is particularly important to draw a balance sheet of the trajectory of American capitalism.
The relative strength or weakness, health or morbidity of American capitalism, and its trajectory over an extended historical period, is in the most fundamental and objective sense a world question. The fate of world capitalism over the past century has been linked to that of the United States more than to any other national economy or national state.
Already in 1924, Leon Trotsky, in a famous speech published at the time under the title “The Premises for the Proletarian Revolution,” summed up the preeminent role of American capitalism in the affairs of world capitalism:
“Comrades, whoever wishes or tries today to discuss the destiny of Europe or of the world proletariat without taking the power and significance of the USA into account is, in a certain sense, drawing up a balance sheet without consulting the master. For the master of the capitalist world—and let us firmly understand this!—is New York, with Washington as its state department.”
The United States became the dominant capitalist power on the basis of its enormous industrial and technological might. By the early years of the twentieth century it had become the industrial powerhouse of the world, and this is what enabled it to eclipse Britain by the time of the First World War.
Even during the Depression years of the 1930s, American capitalism retained enormous economic reserves, above all in its industrial power, which enabled it to emerge as the dominant military power in the Second World War and largely determine the shape of the post-war settlement.
It was to an extraordinary extent American capitalism that put world capitalism back on its feet amidst the bloody ruins left by the war in most of Europe and Asia. It relied on the betrayals of the working class by the Stalinist, Social Democratic and trade union bureaucracies to suppress revolutionary challenges to capitalism in much of the world, but it did possess the industrial and financial means to revive world capitalism, in a manner, of course, favorable to its own interests.
At the end of the war, the US occupied a position of overwhelming economic supremacy. It produced the vast bulk of the world’s steel, electricity, autos, etc., and it possessed almost all of the world’s gold holdings. This enabled the US, through the Marshall Plan and similar measures, to subsidize an economic revival in Europe and capitalist Asia that made possible two decades of rapid growth of the world economy. The post-war boom provided the economic basis for social reform policies that dampened class antagonisms—at least in North America, Western Europe and Japan.
But the attempt of American capitalism to rebuild world capitalism inevitably ran up against contradictions lodged in the fundamental contradiction between world economy and the nation-state system. In promoting the industrial and financial revival of Europe and Japan, the US was strengthening imperialist competitors and rivals. By the 1960s, the dollar was coming under increasing pressure and countries such as Germany and Japan were gearing up to challenge American dominance in world markets—including the American market.
The social and political shock waves from these tectonic shifts in the economic foundation took increasingly explosive forms in the 1960s within the US. One need only mention the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the political assassinations that followed later in the decade, the civil rights struggles, militant wages struggles in virtually every sector of the economy, the urban riots, and the mass movement against the war in Vietnam. These social and political upheavals, in turn, acted upon and intensified the underlying economic crisis.
The erosion of American capitalism’s previously hegemonic position in the world economy found definitive expression in Richard Nixon’s August 15, 1971 measures. Under conditions of a run on the dollar and dwindling gold reserves in Fort Knox, Nixon ended dollar-gold convertibility, which had served as the lynchpin of the global financial arrangements established by the Bretton Woods agreements of 1944.
This was a major turning point, marking in general terms both the end of the post-war boom and the end of American industrial and financial hegemony. What followed was the oil shock of 1973-74, spiraling inflation and the deepest recession in the US since the 1930s.
Throughout the 1970s the US remained in the grip of a profound economic malaise, which was dubbed “stagflation”—a combination of slow economic growth and steep inflation. At the same time, US capitalism was facing an ever-greater challenge from its major competitors in Europe and Asia—Germany and Japan, in particular. American corporations—in steel, auto, electronics and other industries—were rapidly losing market share internationally, and within the US, foreign auto and steel imports were growing, cutting significantly into the share of the domestic market controlled by the Big Three auto companies and steel giants such as US Steel.
The American working class, despite its political subordination to the capitalist two-party system, which was enforced by the trade union bureaucracy, retained much of the militancy that attended the birth of the mass industrial unions in the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and industry-wide strikes that continued in the post-war period. There were bitter strikes throughout the 1970s, and a marked political radicalization among young workers in virtually every industry.
The high point of this militant upsurge was the 111-day nationwide coal miners’ strike of 1977-78, in which the miners rejected contracts agreed to by the top union leadership and dealt Democratic President Jimmy Carter a humiliating blow by ignoring his Taft-Hartley back-to-work order, before they finally and reluctantly accepted a compromise contract.
This militancy was connected to a whole series of social reforms and regulations on business dating back to Roosevelt’s New Deal. These were generally seen, with justification, as concessions wrenched by the working class from the American ruling class. Facing a steep and obvious decline in its global economic position, stagnant growth, mounting debt, chronic inflation, falling profit rates, the US ruling elite was compelled to launch an attack on these past reforms and regulations, which in various ways placed restrictions on the operations of the capitalist market, and in that way weaken the position of the working class and undermine its militant resistance.
The first major step in this direction was the policy of deregulation, inaugurated by the Carter administration and promoted by liberals such as Senator Edward Kennedy. Targeting first mass transport industries such as commercial air travel and trucking, deregulation represented the beginning of a ruling class counteroffensive. The political and ideological premise of deregulation was the innate superiority of the market to government regulation and control.
The overthrow of the Shah and the resulting spike in oil prices in 1979 brought the economic crisis in the US to a head, leading to another major turning point with the appointment of Wall Street banker Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve Board. Volcker, a Democrat, launched the American version of shock therapy—hiking interest rates to unprecedented levels in order to “wring inflation out of the economy” by plunging the US into a deep recession.
This was a dramatic and highly conscious move to force the closure of plants and factories, drive up unemployment and create the conditions for a frontal assault on the past gains of the working class. Chrysler, the weakest of the Big Three auto giants, was brought to the edge of bankruptcy. It was saved only through a bailout engineered by the Carter administration, which required the agreement of the United Auto Workers union to accept wage cuts and other concessions. The UAW leadership readily agreed, and in exchange got a seat on Chrysler’s board of directors.
As auto, steel, rubber, electrical and other industrial plants closed down around the country, business journals such as Business Week began openly to speak of the “deindustrialization” of America. Very rapidly, traditional industrial centers such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, parts of Los Angeles were devastated by plant closures and mass layoffs. Whole cities were turned into centers of economic dislocation, poverty and misery. Hundreds of thousands, then millions of workers almost overnight found themselves without a decent-paying job.
This was the birth of the so-called “rust belt,” which for the most part persists in large sections of the country. Manifested in abandoned stone and mortar and abandoned human beings was the objective decline in the world position of American capitalism.
The election of the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled an intensification of the anti-working class offensive that had been launched under the previous, Democratic administration. “Reaganomics” became the catchphrase for a ruthless policy of union-busting, wage-cutting, the gutting of social programs, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the lifting of regulations on industrial pollution, workplace health and safety and many other aspects of economic life.
Economic policy was formulated quite openly to facilitate a vast transfer of wealth from the working population to the richest and most privileged layers, on the essentially parasitic basis of a massive downsizing of industry and a sharp increase in the national debt. The stock market became more than ever the focus of personal wealth accumulation for the financial elite, and driving up share values became a central preoccupation of government economic and social policy.
The decade of the 1980s saw a return to open and violent strikebreaking, employing goon squads, private police, state repression, frame-ups and victimizations—tactics that had largely receded in the post-war period. The working class resisted, waging dozens of bitter strikes in virtually all sectors of the economy. But every struggle was betrayed by the AFL-CIO, which isolated the struggles and then exploited their defeat to repudiate the militant traditions of the past and establish corporatist relations with the employers, all the while opposing any move toward a break with the Democratic Party and an independent political party.
By the end of the decade, the American labor movement had been essentially destroyed as a social instrument of resistance to US big business.
Retrenchment, bankruptcies, parasitism
The retrenchment in basic industry and other sectors has proceeded apace, punctuated by a series of spectacular bankruptcies. Flagship companies which symbolized the power of American capitalism have disappeared: Pan American Airlines and Eastern Airlines immediately come to mind. Since the late 1990s, more than 50 US steel producers have gone into bankruptcy, including such giants as Bethlehem, LTV, Republic, National and Wheeling-Pittsburgh. The Big Three auto companies have relentlessly downsized, slashing their work forces by more than half.
One can speak of a “hollowing out” of the American economy, in which corporate profit-making and the personal enrichment of the ruling elite grew increasingly divorced from the production of useful goods and the expansion of productive facilities, and more and more bound up with speculation in stocks and bonds and other forms of essentially parasitic activity. Outright swindling, accounting fraud and other forms of corporate criminality proliferated. Investment in research and development, maintaining and improving the industrial and social infrastructure—including education, health care, even roads, bridges, ports, levees, the electrical grid, the housing stock, the environment—took a back seat.
To give some indication of the scale of industrial decline, I will cite some statistics from the 1988 perspectives resolution of the International Committee of the Fourth International:
“The US share of auto production fell from 65 percent in 1956 to 20 percent in 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, the United States lost 23 percent of its export market share. The position of the steel industry vividly illustrates America’s loss of its once unchallenged supremacy as the premier industrial power. The United States produced 39.3 percent of the world’s steel in 1955. By 1975, that percentage had fallen to 16.4 percent. In 1984, it was just 8.4 percent. Between 1973 and 1983, US steel production fell 44 percent. In the 1950s, US integrated steel companies supplied more than 95 percent of the American market. Now their share is less than 60 percent.”
This process has continued, and, if anything, accelerated since 1988.
The elevation of the “free market” to the status of political dogma and secular religion continues to produce disastrous results. Recent years have seen a new wave of corporate bankruptcies—from United Airlines and US Air to Delphi, the world’s largest auto parts maker. General Motors itself—once the world’s largest corporation and symbol par excellence of American industrial might—is flirting with bankruptcy, as is Ford.
These deep-going changes have had a major impact on relations between the classes, and on the social physiognomy of the various classes within the US. The American ruling elite itself has changed. The general process of decline finds a noxious expression in the political, intellectual and even moral decay of the ruling layers. In general, the most predatory, ignorant, short-sighted and reactionary elements have risen to the top.
Further on I will refer to the current list of Forbes magazine’s 400 richest Americans. For the present, I wish only to note that the current crop of multi-millionaires and multi-billionaires differ, broadly speaking, in one important respect from the robber barons who bestraddled American society a century ago. The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fords, Edisons, Firestones who dominated economic life back then were ruthless and politically reactionary men. But they made their fortunes by overseeing the construction of industrial empires. Their names are associated with an immense development of the productive forces.
The current batch of moguls has, for the most part, no such relationship to the development of industry or productive capacity. Warren Buffett, Kirk Kerkorian, Carl Icahn, Sumner Redstone leave in their wake no industrial empires. In many cases, they and their peers made their fortunes by downsizing and asset-stripping what the robber barons had built. They are the beneficiaries of leveraged buyouts, mega-mergers and various, often esoteric, forms of speculation.
This parasitism reached new levels in the heady days of the Clinton administration, when the stock market spiraled upward and swindling and accounting fraud assumed malignant proportions. The general plundering of the American economy by the ruling elite was compounded by the wholesale plundering of companies by their own top executives.
Social inequality
The enormous concentration of wealth at the very top of American society and the growth of social inequality are part of the same process of decline, in terms of the world market, and internal decay. That American society ever more openly assumes the form of a plutocracy is a symptom not of health and vigor, but rather the opposite. The previous ability of the American ruling class—under enormous pressure from below, and certainly not without internal friction—to bring about a general rise in working class living standards and a moderation of economic disparities was an expression of economic strength and confidence in the future.
Those conditions no longer exist. There are by now hundreds of studies and thousands of statistics documenting the staggering and ever-widening chasm between the uppermost social layers and the vast majority of the American people. Large sections of the population live in a state of desperation and near destitution. But more broadly, working people and most of the professional, managerial and self-employed population have been swept up in a permanent maelstrom of economic insecurity and dislocation.
Just to cite one statistic: the New York Times recently reported that the very wealthiest Americans—some 45,000 taxpayers with incomes starting at $1.6 million, who comprise the top 0.1 percent—saw their share of the nation’s income more than double since the 1970s, reaching 10 percent in the year 2000. That is a level of income concentration last seen in the 1920s.
The existence of such obscene levels of wealth and grotesque levels of inequality is noted only on occasion in the media, and even more rarely by the Democratic Party, which still claims to be the “party of the people.” The mind set that prevails in ruling circles—“liberal” as well as conservative—was starkly revealed in the recent strike by transit workers in New York. Even as workers who make $50,000 a year were being roundly denounced by politicians and newspapers as greedy thugs and rats, it was reported that Wall Street was planning to hand out some $21.5 billion in year-end executive bonuses.
Within the media and the political establishment this fact evoked no particular reaction. It was seen more or less as the natural order of things. Some spoke out to welcome and defend the Christmas largesse.
“People have had enough of listening to bad news,” said Glenn Mazzella of World Wide Yacht Corporation. “They want to go yachting, and they want to go skiing and they want to drive a Maybach (a German car that retails for $325,000). They’re tired of feeling embarrassed.”
“There’s someone on Wall Street that’s taking 20 of his closest buddies for his bachelor party, renting a yacht, cruising the Caribbean and ending up in Sandy Lane in Barbados on the golf course,” said Tatiana Byron, president of the New York event planner 4PM Events. The cost: $200,000.
Among the top bonus-getters on Wall Street this Christmas was Goldman Sachs chief executive Henry Paulson Jr., who ended up with a $38 million compensation package for 2005. That breaks down to $731,000 a week, or $104,000 a day, or $4,300 an hour. That amounts to 330 times the hourly pay of the average US wage earner.
One has to work hard at spending such sums. One has to be creative and come up with really decadent things.
But such is life for a very small elite, percentage-wise, but not so tiny in numerical terms in a city like New York, where a few blocks separate enclaves of spectacular wealth from impoverished ghettos.
To be continued
longside industrial decline, economic parasitism and the growth of social inequality, another palpable expression of the crisis of American capitalism is the decay of the United States’ basic infrastructure. Here we are speaking not only of a social regression—in education, literacy, health care, cultural, intellectual and artistic life—but a physical decline in the nation’s bridges, roads, levees, electrical grid, waterways, etc.
Among the many things Hurricane Katrina revealed, one of the most important was the shocking misallocation and squandering of resources that left New Orleans—a city of 500,000 people with a unique place in the cultural life of the United States, and also a major port—utterly defenseless in the face of a major storm. Not only was there no plan to evacuate hundreds of thousands of residents, mostly poor and working class, who lived in the most low-lying neighborhoods, the levee system for this below-sea-level city was not even designed to withstand a hurricane stronger than category three.
This despite the fact that recent years have seen a sharp increase in both the incidence and strength of hurricanes in the US, and experts had been warning for years that New Orleans was heading for a catastrophe. The neglect of the levees was just one example of the impact on the country’s physical infrastructure of a quarter century of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and reductions in government outlays for public services, i.e., the financial aristocracy’s ruthless drive to appropriate an ever greater share of the social wealth for its own enrichment.
I happened to catch part of a US Senate hearing on the Katrina disaster that was broadcast on one of the cable news channels. Senators were questioning a panel of officials who were responsible for maintaining the levees around New Orleans. One of the senators asked whether physical inspections of the levees are carried out. The answer from the panel was “No.”
In the event, Katrina, a high-end category three or low-end category four storm, overwhelmed the levees around New Orleans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Gulf region were left to fend for themselves. Some 1,300 died, according to official estimates, and more than 700,000 were forced to evacuate and scatter around the country in search of shelter and food, their homes and livelihoods destroyed.
Democratic rights
As David North noted in his opening remarks to this meeting, one symptom of capitalist decline is the universal assault on democratic rights and the movement toward dictatorial forms of rule. In January 2001, shortly after the theft of the 2000 US presidential election, I gave a lecture to a school here in Sydney reviewing historically the link between the rise of the US as an industrial power and the general expansion of democratic rights in America that accompanied its rising economic trajectory.
It is really not surprising that an ascendant capitalist power should feel sufficiently confident and secure to allow an expansion, within definite limits, of democratic political and legal norms. A society, however, that is in decline, whose ruling elite feels itself besieged on all sides, both externally and internally, will on the other hand be inclined to restrict democratic rights.
In my earlier talk, I noted that the general expansion of democratic rights in the early and mid-twentieth century—popular election of US senators, the extension of the franchise to women, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ending the de facto disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South, the lowering of the voting age—came to an abrupt end in the aftermath of Nixon’s August 15, 1971 economic measures. The only significant exception, the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 legalizing abortion, was really, as can now be clearly seen, the last gasp of the process of expanding legal democracy, rather than the beginning of a new period of liberal reform.
With the Bush administration, the assault on democratic rights has assumed a ferocity and all-embracing character without precedent in American history.
Political and legal norms are being brought into line with the oligarchic social structure of the United States. And the more the political system becomes divorced from the people, the more the popular base of support of the two capitalist parties narrows, the more overt and foul the corruption and criminality of official politics. American politics were never exactly virginal. But the American political establishment of today is rotting on its feet. The phrase “stench of corruption” may be something of a cliché, but in this case it is an apt one.
The Jack Abramoff bribery and influence-peddling scandal, involving a right-wing Republican lobbyist and crony of leading White House figures such as Bush political adviser and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, is only the tip of the garbage heap. Corporate lobbyists brazenly buy votes and bribe congressmen. They frequently draft the legislation that is subsequently enacted into law.
Multi-millionaires buy their way into office at all levels of government. Others rely on the kindness of corporate sponsors. The mayoral post of a major American city costs tens of millions of dollars; the purchase of a statehouse often requires additional millions; and the presidency these days involves an outlay of hundreds of millions in campaign cash.
Between high-level political office, top positions in the military apparatus and lucrative sinecures in the corporate world there is a revolving door that spins with well-oiled regularity and speed.
The process is mirrored in the qualities of those who occupy leading positions in both the public and private sectors. Not so long ago Enron’s Kenneth Lay was the epitome of genius in the US corporate world. More recently mediocrities like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch have assumed that mantle.
The decline in the intellectual level of the leading personnel of American capitalism finds a fitting expression in the figure of the current commander in chief. Allow me to quote from my lecture of January 2001:
“The incoming Bush administration exemplifies in a rather perfected form the crisis of bourgeois rule in the United States. Bush himself is a political and intellectual cipher who subsumes within his own persona the traits of the social layer that owes economic success and social prominence to the speculative boom of the past two decades—a boom that has been based on a ruthless assault on the working class and a staggering growth in corruption and parasitism. Ignorant, short-sighted and grasping, this layer has reinforced those sections of the corporate and financial elite that demand the elimination of all restrictions on the accumulation of private wealth and the realization of profit.”
This characterization, I would submit, has been entirely substantiated by the events of the past five years.
At least a few words must be said about the state of another institution of American capitalism, the media. Here again, it is not a matter of painting an idealized picture of some golden age of the US media. One is speaking of an institution that was always, in the final analysis, an instrument of the American ruling class.
Nevertheless, the manner in which the American media, so-called liberal as well as conservative, has embraced US imperialism and militarism, promoting the lies of the Bush administration and covering up its multiple crimes, is a stark expression of the collapse of American democracy. Cowardly, dishonest and corrupt, the media—owned and controlled by huge corporations—has all but abandoned any pretense of providing objective information or an independent approach to the claims of the government and the corporate elite.
It systematically excludes dissident views of a left-wing, let alone genuinely Marxist, character, and willfully ignores the oppositional sentiments of the majority of the American people.
The media and the so-called entertainment industry, with few exceptions, promote backward conceptions and encourage an ethos of brutality, egotism and violence. One of the most telling symptoms of the decline of American capitalism is the fact that its official institutions, from the White House on down, increasingly glorify the most reactionary and intolerant forms of religious superstition and seek to discredit scientific thought. The Bush administration’s attack on evolution, stem cell research and the findings of environmental science testify to a social order in crisis and decline.
A snapshot of America’s ruling elite
To return to the question of the changes in the composition of the American ruling elite, this is an important question that requires serious analysis. A systematic examination of this issue is beyond the scope of this report. However, I think some insight can be gleaned from a look at Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the 400 richest Americans.
Restricting our consideration to the top fifty billionaires on the list, the first thing that strikes one is who is missing. There are no Fords, Rockefellers, DuPonts. No scions of the “captains of industry” who occupied such a prominent place in the Sixty Families that bestrode America’s industrial and financial empire during much of the last century.
Topping the list, at $51 billion, is Microsoft’s William Gates. Then comes Warren Buffett, with $40 billion. The source of his wealth is listed as Berkshire Hathaway, an investment firm. The next three positions are occupied by the heads of computer and computer-related firms. Then come five members of the Walton family, whose fortunes are based on the retail giant Wal-Mart—now the largest corporation in the world.
Outside of computers, the other industrial sector prominently represented in the top 50 list is oil and energy. Fully six of the top 50 have listed as the source of their wealth activities of an entirely speculative character: Kirk Kerkorian ($10 billion from investments and casinos), Carl Icahn ($8.5 billion from leveraged buyouts), Philip Anschultz ($7.2 billion from investments), George Soros ($7.2 billion from hedge funds), Ronald Perelman ($6 billion from leveraged buyouts) and Eli Broad ($5.5 billion from investments).
This gives some indication of the underlying decay of American capitalism. And this decline—concretely expressed in massive budget, balance of trade, and balance of payments deficits—has very real consequences for the US on the international arena. The decline in the global economic position of American capitalism has prompted the intensified turn by the ruling elite to militarism and war. Wall Street and Washington seek to use their military supremacy to offset their economic decline.
But the weakening of its economic foundation creates real and growing problems for US imperialism. One recent event that highlighted these problems was Bush’s November trip to Asia. At every stop on his tour, Bush was dogged by the consequences, both within the US and internationally, of the disastrous US military intervention in Iraq.
What was intended to demonstrate the leading role of Washington in mobilizing its regional allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, against North Korea and, more crucially, China, turned into something of a diplomatic debacle. Bush was unable to achieve any of the major short-term US goals of the trip—both in relation to Washington’s key partners, Japan and South Korea, and its looming rival in the region, China. Even worse, it was Bush who appeared isolated and weak, while President Hu Jintao flaunted the growing economic power and political influence of China.
In an editorial entitled “The Rise and Decline of Pacific Nations,” the Financial Times of London commented: “President George Bush’s tour of Asia brings with it a palpable sense of declining US influence in the region.” And the New York Times noted ruefully in its editorial on the trip: “Beijing’s leaders are in no mood to listen to lectures from an American government that depends on Chinese surpluses and savings to finance its supersized deficits.”
It would be a serious error, of course, to view Bush’s embarrassment in Asia in a one-sided way. To a certain extent, the US administration is caught on the horns of a dilemma: American big business wants and needs normalized relations with China, in order to gain access to the country’s vast pool of cheap labor and potentially huge market for US goods. It cannot allow itself to be elbowed aside by its rivals in Europe and Japan. No doubt Bush was instructed to hold in check in his public diplomacy with the Chinese leadership his instinct to bully and threaten, which left him seemingly at a loss.
But US imperialism has no intention of peacefully accepting the emergence of China as a serious contender for influence in Asia and beyond. The subtext of Bush’s trip was the development of military agreements with countries in the region, including his final stop of Mongolia, in order to effectively ring China with US military clients, allies and installations.
Finally, I would like to cite, at some length, an extraordinary article that appeared in the inaugural issue (autumn 2005) of a new American foreign policy journal called The American Interest. This publication is being put out by well known figures in the US foreign policy establishment, including right-wingers such as Francis Fukuyama, who are critical of the decision to invade Iraq and even more critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, and find themselves at odds with the neo-conservative ideologues who largely authored the war policy.
The most significant article is by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Entitled “The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign,” it provides an insight into the thinking of the more perspicacious partisans and strategists of US imperialist interests. Brzezinski sets out an acid and devastating critique of the Bush administration’s entire foreign policy, and the so-called “global war on terror” that serves as its mantra.
Speaking with remarkable bluntness for a man in his position, he writes: “... the emphasis on the ‘global war on terror’ has been symbolically central, fostering patriotic mobilization and legitimizing actions that otherwise could be viewed as extra-legal or even outright illegal. To the framers of the new strategy, 9/11 legitimized the de facto suspension of habeas corpus even for US citizens, ‘stress interrogation’ (a.k.a. torture) of detainees, and unilateral military action—just as Pearl Harbor eventually legitimized Hiroshima in the public mind.”
On the results of this policy, he writes that “a self-confident America was being transformed into a fear-driven nation,” and continues:
“Even more potentially dangerous to America’s long-term interests has been the surfacing global trend toward regional coalitions with a thinly veiled anti-American orientation. Distancing oneself from the US government and all things American has become politically popular in Asia, Europe and Latin America. That mood is facilitating China’s efforts to quietly exclude the United States from its region by exploiting a rising pan-Asian identity in East and Southeast Asia; it gives a much less Atlanticist favor to the continuing European effort to shape a more politically-minded European Union; and it encourages a cluster of new, democratically-elected but rather leftist Latin American presidents to cultivate closer relations with Europe and China. The emergence of strong pan-European and pan-Asian communities, rather than Transatlantic and Transpacific ones, would intensify America’s global isolation.”
Summing up, he writes: “In brief, America’s post-9/11 foreign policy is too short range in its focus, overly alarmist in its rhetoric, and has been too costly in its still early consequences. Its overall effect has been to increase America’s national vulnerability while undermining the legitimacy of its international primacy.”
Even more significant that this damning critique and dire assessment, for US imperialism, of the trajectory of world developments, is Brzezinski’s central thesis: that the most significant factor in world politics is what he calls the “global political awakening.”
He writes: “America needs to face squarely a centrally important new global reality: that the world’s population is experiencing a political awakening unprecedented in scope and intensity, with the result that the politics of populism are transforming the politics of power.”
He elaborates: “It is no overstatement to assert that now in the 21st century the population of much of the developing world is politically stirring and in many places seething with unrest. It is a population acutely conscious of social injustice to an unprecedented degree, and often resentful of its perceived lack of political dignity.... These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which American still perches ...”
“To sum up, the ongoing political awakening is now global in its geographic scope, with no continent or even region still largely politically passive; it is comprehensive in its social scale, with only very remote peasant communities still immune to political stimuli; it is strikingly youthful in its demographic profile and thus most receptive to rapid political mobilization; and much of its inspiration is transnational in origin because of the cumulative impact of literacy and mass communications.”
In somewhat Aesopian language, this longtime councilor for US imperialism is talking about nothing other than world revolution, which he sees as the real danger facing the American ruling class, rather than the efforts of a relative handful of Islamist terrorists. Lest there be any doubt as to his meaning, he places the “global political awakening” within the historical context of the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the mass anti-colonial struggles that followed the Second World War.
He underlines the point, writing: “The policy diagnosis that follows accepts the proposition of historical discontinuity from 9/11 but argues that the central challenge of our time is posed not by global terrorism, but rather by the intensifying turbulence caused by the phenomenon of global political awakening. That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing.”
The hardened reactionary Brzezinski has put his finger on the most decisive fact of world politics: the emergence of a new period of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolutionary struggle, one that assumes a more thoroughly international character than anything that preceded it.
Our task is to consciously prepare this mass, historically driven movement, and create the political means through which it can achieve consciousness of its tasks and carry them out. The central instrument for this struggle remains the World Socialist Web Site, which we must develop as the means for educating the new generations entering into struggle and forging among their most advanced layers a Marxist leadership.
The upcoming mid-term elections in the US will provide the Socialist Equality Party with an opportunity to intervene in a broad manner in what is undoubtedly the greatest political crisis in modern US history. We intend to stress the fundamental truth of the historical failure of capitalism—not only in the US, but as a world system—and place at the forefront of our campaign, as the essential programmatic issue, the fight for the international unification of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

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