The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!

Ellsworth replies

I stopped by for a quick check of my inbox today to see that Congressman Ellsworth did in fact send a reply to my email. Ok, so it was probably a staffer sending a canned response, but it’s something. Unfortunately, he did very little to address my actual concerns or engage my proposed action – which makes sense if it was a canned response. There is a lot of talk about how outraged he is about the situation and about the initial bailout plan, and how much better the one they want to pass now is. I’m not buying it. He might be outraged, but I’m not convinced the current plan is any better. I don’t believe it’s any substantially different in the base principles than the original plan over which he was so outraged.

I’m going to attach his response to this post in Word format. I usually prefer to use .PDF or OpenDocument, but my computer is wonky right now and this is the only option I have. Fight the power, view this file in OpenOffice.org.

Congressman Ellsworth’s reply to my email

Letter to my Congressman on the bailout

I’m not usually a big believer in the governmental process as an agent of change, truth, justice, or whatever, and the current issue with the proposed Wall Street and bank bailout plans is no exception. I have very little expectation that my letter will actually in any way influence the decision of the representative for my district. I wrote this more as a way to get some of my thoughts down in one place. That being said, after I wrote it I figured hey, why not go ahead and send it? And now I’m posting it here. Feel free to pass it along or to debate the points presented therein, but realize that it is not a nuanced, technical policy position piece but rather a simplified, rhetorical one.

Dear Mr. Ellsworth,

I see that yesterday you voted in favor of the economic bailout plan that came to the House floor. I urge you to reconsider your position on the bailout. It seems quite disingenuous to provide billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out the institutions that have largely created this crisis through their own actions. It smacks of elite classism to allow corporate banking and finance executives to get off with their golden parachutes and allocate vast sums of what is supposed the people’s money to clean up their mess – moreso when it’s a clean up that is highly debatable with regards to its potential efficacy to actually do that which it purports to do.

I believe this so-called bailout plan is little more than an economic version of terrorism. For one, the Treasury and Fed say “give us the keys to the kingdom” of the economy. The proposed bailout as I understand it gives officials the power to essentially take over enormous swaths of the economic sector in an essentially arbitrary fashion, which would result in the economic directors having little-to-no accountability to the people the government and public officials are supposed to serve. The Bush Administration has excelled at taking advantage of crisis situations in order to consolidate power (particularly “emergency” power) under the umbrella of the Executive Branch, and this is just one more example of that tendency.

Furthermore, the bailout is in response to what could be essentially construed as a kind of terrorist threat on the part of the big banks. “Give us billions to fix our mess or we won’t give you house loans, car loans,” and so on. Without credit the economy fails, and those who hold the keys to credit have the ability to hold the people hostage.

The plan would involved the government basically buying assets from the bailed-out-companies above market value, thus providing the banks with a kick start in capital, which is a nonsensical proposition. If the bank owners are unwilling to utilize the market functions to raise the capital, which would ostensibly be both in their self-interest and in the public interest, then the government should only buy the assets at market value – or buy the banks at their market value, nationalize them, and nurse them back into healthy operation until such time as further action can be taken – either selling them to private interests or some other action that would not only return the banking activity to the private sector but also make up for some of the drain of public funds the whole financial crisis has engendered (and the public subsidies that have been involved in the operations of these banks throughout their history). Banks that will not submit to this process can be left to their own, and if they fail then they fail. As Adam Smith said, any business that does not operate within the public interest loses its legitimation.

In other words, if the government is going to intervene in the workings of these banks, as it appears it must, then do it in a way that makes sense and will actually work to making things better in the long run, and let those who are actually responsible for the mess be the ones who are punished, not the American taxpayers.

No capitalist system has ever existed for long without having to be regulated, modified, or bailed out by the government. No national economy that is strong today got to be so by utilizing “free market” principles; all of them, every single one, became prosperous through some form of government intervention/central planning. This case is no different – in voting for the bailout you vote to subsidize the foolishness of the robber barons who got us into this mess in the first place. I implore you to reconsider your position on the bailout and vote “nay” if it comes to the floor again.

Thank you,
Jason Barr
Evansville, Indiana

John Médaille has written quite a good piece at The Distributist Review on the bailout as a response to economic terrorism. TDR is consistently excellent and I highly recommend you read it regularly.

Journalists arrested at RNC include Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman

We all expected the cops to use excessive force and utilize the tactic of questionable mass arrests in St. Paul. That’s no surprise, that has been a tactic for squelching public dissent since time immemorial. What is perhaps even more alarming about the tactics used in St. Paul is the arrest of several journalists who stepped outside “official” bounds to cover not just the staged convention proceedings or to follow the party line on the “violent” demonstrators (the vast majority of whom have been peaceful, and the only “violence” reported so far has been property damage, which is only questionably defined as “violence”).

Among those arrested include Democracy Now! host and producer Amy Goodman, who left the convention floor in the middle of an interview with delegates from Minnesota and Alaska to respond to the news that her producers were being arrested (Goodman grills St. Paul Police Chief about the Arrests). Not only were they arrested, but it is possible that producers Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar may be charged with felony rioting.

Not only that, but the convention hq for I-Witness Video was apparently raided. The police surrounded the house before a warrant was obtained, informed people they would be detained if they left the house, and then got their warrant (with one problem – it was for the WRONG ADDRESS) and raided the house, taking would-be police watchdogs into custody and confiscating equipment. I-Witness was extremely effective in exposing police violence during the 2004 RNC in New York, and it appears the St. Paul authorities did not want this to happen to them. Glenn Greenwald writes on the arrests, with substantial comment on the I-Witness raid. Eileen Clancy of I-Witness, wrote an emergency press release from inside the house while it was surrounded on the I-Witness blog.

Apparently if reporters aren’t “embedded” within the police corps or only covering subjects the authorities want them to see, they’re subject to arrest. So much for freedom of the press and the neutrality of journalists, and the supposedly basic assumption that journalists should be shielded from harm in conflict zones, or at least that every attempt should be made to do so. The same seems to be the case for other independent observers – in other words, if you’re not with the powers-that-be, you’re subject to arrest, to classification as a “criminal”.

In addition, student journalists from the University of Kentucky were also arrested. The cynical part of me wants to say at least they’re getting a true look at what they will be in for if they seek to pursue their chosen vocations with integrity and the desire to report more than just the “official story”.

Cynicism aside, the sad truth is that if the integrity and independence of journalism is not respected and actively supported, there can be no meaningful public discourse. Officials have said again and again that people are welcome to voice their opinions, that demonstrators have the right to air their griefs publicly, but the actions of those in power mitigate against the possibility of any real public dialogue that could lead to an actual accounting on the part of the leaders who are supposedly the servants of the people. There is no space for the vox populi to be heard, unless, apparently, the voice of the people comes through particular channels, in triplicate, bound and tied in red tape. Amy Goodman wrote an op-ed piece about how government crackdowns on journalists threaten democracy. I suggest you read it.

The voice of the people in colonial America took the form of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, though the lead-up to the Party was of course the Boston Massacre of 1770. Will people realize the things they’ve given up and seek to take back for themselves the power that is rightfully theirs? Or will we meekly accept our position as consumers, passively “choosing” between those products that are shown to us in storefront windows, on television screens, on our computer monitors? Will we take a stand and fight for the ability to truly govern ourselves and manage our own affairs, or will we continue to march to the beat of flags and pledges and patriotic songs, allowing our own identities to be submerged within the totality of the 21st century United Jingoistic Police State of American Empire?

In other news, eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee have officially been charged under terrorism laws. I have more to say about this, but it will wait until tomorrow when I’ve had more time to reflect and process.

Video of Nicole Salazar’s arrest:

Video of Amy Goodman’s arrest:

Musings on meat and the recent recall

Well, unless you live under a rock you’ve probably heard by now that 143 million pounds of beef coming from a particular meat factory in California have been recalled due to concerns over health and safety related to the improper health-related treatment of certain “downer” cows. A few thoughts:

1) I saw on the news today an anchor ask a question I’m sure has been on many minds: “why did it take 3 weeks from the time the videos of the cruelty were released for action to be taken and the recall to happen?” The reason is that it was because the cruelty in and of itself was what drew USDA attention to the possibility of there being unsanitary goings-on at the beef plant – but the cruelty itself was not necessarily a matter worthy of attention such as a massive recall. The concern was not that animals were being tortured, but that proper inspection procedures had not been followed and therefore it was remotely possible that somewhere in the tons and tons of beef coming out of this bovine manufactory a certain amount might have been tainted. It is NOT necessarily illegal to prod a cow or to pick it up with a forklift, unless you use that as a means to circumvent health codes (which are, as anyone who’s read the USDA meat inspectors’ manual can tell you, not terribly reassuring). As a matter of fact, the people at the cattle mill may have thought they could get away with it within the law, as it turns out there may be loopholes in the USDA policy. Doesn’t that just make you want to run out and grab a hot, juicy burger at your local Wendy’s after an exhilarating session of midnight street luging?

2. They seriously expect us to believe that just because the company has fired the two workers “responsible for the problem” and that everything is all better (or a least it will be soon). And, because we’re sheep who want to believe everything is ok and we can go on consuming thoughtlessly like we usually do, they’re probably right. The fact is that (just as I said about the problems at Walter Reed hospital) these practices are not “aberrations from the system”, they are products of the system itself – the system that makes it profitable to get every animal that can be killed and ground up to the killing floor in at least a quasi-legal fashion. The entire industrial meat production system is founded on the atrocity that claims what animals are good for is consumption and making money in the most efficient manner possible, regardless of consequences for the animal or even for consumers. The “protections” built into the law are a joke, as anyone who’s read the USDA meat inspectors’ manual can tell you. Is there an echo? I think I said that already…

3. If people are horrified by videos of people prodding cattle and picking them up with forklifts, I can only imagine the reaction of disgust if they learned that a large portion of what animals to be slaughtered are fed comes from bone, blood, guts, brains, and other parts of slaughtered animals that couldn’t be used as meat, which are turned into feed by a process known as rendering. Rendering is only supposed to be done from USDA-approved cows, but the oversight for rendering falls upon the FDA, and their inspections of rendering plants only check to make sure animal feed containing cattle parts is labeled. They do not check to make sure the animal parts being used come from cows that were approved by the USDA. Contrary to official stock sweatshop spokesmen propaganda, the prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease”, can and do jump species from cattle to humans – and these same microorganisms cause a disease in humans, Creudtzfelt-Jakob Disease (CJD), that essentially turns the brain into a spongy mess, much like Alzheimer’s. Not only that, but CJD is misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s enough times to be more than just statistically significant. And the rendering process does not kill prions. On that point and several others, you REALLY ought to read this article by Maria Tomchick from Znet. Vegetarians and vegans, don’t go thinking you’re safe just because you don’t consume meat/animal products.

4. BSE doesn’t usually show up in cows for 5-7 years. Most beef cattle are slaughtered by age 3. So there’s no telling how many carriers have already been eaten or otherwise processed. CJD can take 30 or more years to show up noticeably in a human. Doesn’t that make you feel great?

5. Even though the risk of being infected by BSE-contaminated beef or cattle products is relatively low, it’s a risk that has been completely placed off the map by the corporate PR machine, with a compliant US government bowing to its whims. And if the information linked above isn’t enough to make you angry about that, maybe the information on this site will be. As I said in a comment on my sister’s blog today,

The problem will never be solved until the system that makes it profitable for such abuses to occur is dismantled, and it will not be dismantled voluntarily by those who profit from it.

Nor will it be sufficiently challenged by the government that is inextricably entwined with the corporate industry – just check up on how many FDA and USDA officials used to be industry spokespeople or corporate officials, and vice versa. It’s not even that the corporates are masters controlling their government lackeys, the relationship is too reciprocal to be cast in those terms – but any way you look at it, the government-corporate conglomerate scheme does NOT have any of our best interests in mind. In the words of Urban Seeds, an Evansville gardening cooperative, “plant a garden – start a revolution!”

Interestingly, prions also means “let us pray”, in French. So… prions pour une révolution.

Support our troops?

This morning, my grandfather sent me an email “action alert” from the American Family Association urging protest of the recent Berkeley, California City Council resolution that declared the downtown Marine recruiting office “unwanted” and urged the recruiters to leave town. This article does not respond to that issue, but rather to the subject line of the email he forwarded from the AFA, which was “Support our troops”.

I have to admit being somewhat perplexed by the exhortation to “support our troops”. Whose troops are they? They certainly aren’t mine – I’m not sending them anywhere, and they don’t represent me or my thoughts. It seems to me that the designation “our troops” implies a kind of kinship between us and the troops that does not really exist. Certainly it is true that my (step)brother is among those who are being sent over there, but it is not on my behalf that he is being sent, just as it is not on my behalf that any of them has been sent.

This entire enterprise of war in foreign lands has very little to do with the protection and preservation of American values, but it has everything to do with protecting and preserving business interests that profit heavily from maintaining a forced subordinate status in certain nations around the world. The United States has done the same thing for over a century now in Latin America, and has long maintained an official policy that essentially says “if you have something we want, a resource we ‘need’, then as far as we’re concerned it belongs rightfully to us, not to you”. This is the only rational explanation for the military interventions in Hawai’i for pineapples; in Guatemala for bananas; in Iran for oil (with the deposition of a popular government in order to reinstate the Shah, a move on our part whose eventual consequence was the Islamic Revolution of 1979); in Iraq not only for oil but also to create a living experiment in extreme neoliberal free trade as an example (and warning) to the rest of the world that consumer corporate “democracies” will have what they want from the “developing nations”, and we can get it the easy way or the hard way.

This critique stands regardless of one’s religious persuasion, but it is much more pertinent for me as a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace and king of all creation who urged his followers not to retaliate when evil was done to them, but rather to turn the other cheek. The unanimous response of the early church to persecution was not to respond by fighting back for their own gain, even in defense of their own personal liberties, but rather to witness to those who tormented them by showing the same attitude of Christ – loving and forgiving their attackers in the hope that they would be transformed. They believed the cross of Christ is the hope for the transformation of all doers of violence and opponents of God. To suggest that the idea of premeditated war for the economic gain of certain sectors of society (the corporate management classes first, and then to a lesser extent the consuming classes – which is to say that yes, you and I likely are beneficiaries of the violence), which was sold as a preemptive (or preventative, depending on who you ask) war to ostensibly “protect our way of life against the terrorists” would never have even occurred to them as a valid option for Christians.

Even three centuries after Christ when the church went from being a persecuted minority to the triumphant majority with the imperial sanction they did not develop a theology of warfare that went so far – instead, Augustine’s formulation of Just War doctrine carried the day. It is important to note that even Just War doctrine does not actually justify war for self-defense, to say nothing of preemptive warfare. Therefore, even on the less-strict Christian stance on war than that of Jesus himself, the type of activities in which the U.S. military has engaged in Iraq cannot in any way be construed as representative either of me or of my Lord.

They are not “our” troops, they are troops under the command of people in the thrall of the American political/business system which “make[s] unjust laws. . . deprive[s] the poor of their rights, withhold[s] justice from the oppressed. . . [makes] widows their prey, and [robs] the fatherless” (see Isaiah 10:1-2 in the NIV). They are being asked to die for a cause that, in the words of Alisdair McIntyre, is rather like being asked to die for the telephone company. They are not my troops, they are my fellow-human-beings being manipulated and exploited in more ways than they realize, and rather than praying for success in their mission I simply pray for an end to war and for the desire of men and women to make war. I pray that guns would jam and bombs would fail to explode, and that soldiers on all sides would simply lay down their weapons and refuse to engage any longer in this silly business of war. I support people, not troops, and I support them as potential brothers and sisters in the new world that God is creating even in the midst of this world of bloodshed and hatred, a new world of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation who walk in the ways of God’s shalom.

By the way…

If anyone hasn’t read NSPD 51/HSPD 20, they definitely should. It basically states that the president can take over all functions of the government as well as some private functions (read: corporate business interests) in the event of a “national emergency”. It was released May 9 of last year.

For some reason every time I think about this I can’t get images of the Reichstag fire out of my head. Less than a month after the fire Hitler was granted essentially dictatorial powers (timeline). Now, for American presidents, the pieces are in place to do the same, much more explicitly and easily than they were before 9/11 (which some have called “America’s Reichstag”).

Some people even believe the Nazis were directly involved with setting the fire.