While I definitely am pro small "d" democracy, as a lay scientist I recognize the rights human beings conspire to grant to each other are subservient to those nature grants to human beings: i.e., the world don’t owe us a livin.’
The words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ sound as inspiring today as they did when articulated by the founding fathers to inspire a revolution 250 years ago, but as we currently see they are not immune from distortion, even setting aside the hypocrisy of these words uttered by slaveholders (not all but many of the Founding Fathers) who weren’t thinking about freeing their slaves at the time.
Alexis de Toqueville’s praise notwithstanding, the American project has been dogged by hypocrisy for the length of its existence (as have all such attempts throughout history, past and present, if we consider demos to mean all of the people). This is not to say there is a better system to my mind. I still subscribe to Churchill’s “Democracy is the worst form of government there is, save all the others.” Still, it can only be a good form of government if the populace is armed with the truth, and in the current media climate we’ve allowed that to become a rarer commodity than is healthy for our republic.
Here I could suggest since broadcast licensure is supposedly contingent on providing a public service, how can outlets that lie 24 hours a day be so considered, but that gets into truth commissions vs. the First Amendment, but no right is unlimited, and so on. Rather than engage in impotent navel gazing (in the present political climate, at least) I’d rather focus on the tidal wave preparing to wash aside such considerations, along with most (if not all) of humanity, and most other species.
In order to avoid this outcome or at least minimize its impact, we need to develop an accurate understanding of where we in fact are to have a prayer of getting where we need to go: not according to our historical myth, but in terms of our collective environmental impact. With that as a point of reference we need to reassess our history, and adjust our identity to successfully negotiate our way into the future.
At the end of WW II the US became the inheritor of the spoils of all previous western empires: the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, German and British—not too coincidentally, among the wealthiest nations today, whom we all consider our democratic allies. Under pliable moral rubrics what these nations (including the United States) had been up to for the previous several centuries was the extraction of labor and resources (looting, if you will) of Africa, Asia, and Central, South, and North America. Post WW II, with the rest of the industrial world in ruins, we dictated new rules, better than the ones used before that were based on imperial colonization, but still designed in our favor. The pliable leaders of most nations saw they had little choice but to succumb to the combined military and economic might of the United States, for ensuing decades.
Each nation’s ascendancy to imperial status was not without force of arms and ours was no exception. Temporary technical advantage (for e.g., while the Chinese invented gunpowder the Portuguese and Spanish turned it into firearms and canons, and was perfected by the British to force China to heel; or, the Maxim machine gun versus the Zulu, another example), or accidents of history (a storm sinking most of the Spanish Armada; US pilots finding Japanese carriers in the Battle of Midway), determined the outcome of conflict as often as bravery. Nevertheless, each victor assumed their advance was due to a higher morality and greater intellect. I don’t remember which general said it, something to the effect if we had lost WW II we would have been in the docks at Nuremburg for war crimes, since by the end we had committed equally heinous crimes (wiping out whole cities full of civilians); though it can be said if you start the clock in the early 1930’s the Axis powers committed them first.
Returning to the question of hypocrisy, and resultant resentment and rebellion, while we style ourselves the champions and protectors of freedom and democracy, for those on the receiving end of our policies it has often been otherwise. Policies that enrich multinational actors at the expense of local populations are never popular. Resentment and rebelliousness must be managed through disinformation, or when necessary by the CIA, with military intervention preferably a last resort. But this approach is anti-democratic: freedom for whom, freedom from what? What about FDR’s four freedoms? If we actually believed in the ideals we profess, how could we consider this a winning strategy? Those who engage in the practice are more interested in short term gains than long-term stability, confident they’ll reap the benefits and not have to deal with the messy results.
As happens the historical record shows it has not been, nor will be, a winning strategy. As much as it has been a tool for the expansion of democracy, our government (and the force it can bring to bear) has been a tool for the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many. Brand America has been harvested to such an extent that this is secret to no one any longer.
Within our shores hypocrisy has flourished: From Nixon’s racist War On Poverty, an extension of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-crime policies that were a partial giveback to Southerners for his civil rights legislation; to Reagan’s “government is the problem” lie to allow big business to destroy the labor movement and working class through off-shoring; to Trump’s riding the wave of reaction all the way into the White House.
If there was any doubt in the mind of global observers about American hypocrisy George Bush Jr. did much to remove it, through:
- collective punishment of the nation of Afghanistan for the 9/11 attacks, when the Taliban offered to turn over Bin Laden but were ignored;
- the invasion of Iraq over UN objection, in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction observers agreed did not exist;
- followed by Bush’s re-election a year and a half later, cementing his crimes as America’s.
Now we find that once we’ve squandered the opportunity of rapprochement with Russia and our treasure and good name in the Middle East, not everyone is willing to heed the call to rally round the flag, in order to maintain the global order with brand America on top, while allowing our elites to fleece the majority of our people as much as they’ve been fleecing the rest of the world.
The transfer of trillions of dollars of wealth from middle and lower class Americans to the upper 1% looks like this:
“In 2012, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] tested 510,000 fifteen-year-olds worldwide, finding that those in Shanghai came first in math and science: while Americans placed 20th in science and 27th in math… Three years later, that gap had only widened when the US fell to a miserable 39th in math.” _ To Govern The Globe, Alfred McCoy, p. 245.
Those who do make it through an educational system under attack from numerous assaults— defunding, racial history denial, the commodification of truth distortion as a tool for personal success— emerge so deeply indebted they have little option than sell their talents to the highest bidder, and become another cog in the wheel of oppression that defines success in strictly monetary terms.
At the moment we are confronted by enemies, we are told, in the form of Russia, China, and Iran; but that’s okay because we have allies, in the form of most of Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. I could go the enemy and ally lists attempting to explain why it is silly to consider this one an enemy, or has good reason to consider us their enemy, or it is silly to consider this one an ally, when their behavior is antithetical to our professed values, but let’s just focus on the big fish: China.
Anyone who’s seen the film Back To The Future might remember the humorous moment when Doc in the 1950’s tells Marty from the 1980’s that all that stuff from Japan is cheap crap, to which Marty replies, no, they make the best stuff. The joke is both are right. China has merely followed the Japanese model of development, which we encouraged at the expense of our own economy to secure Japanese cooperation in maintaining American military dominance over the Pacific littoral.
Starting early this century, China opened its economy to Western investment, with the promise of likewise opening their economy to imports. Trans-nationalists set up shop, enriching themselves by becoming the conduit for Chinese manufacturing which displaced that of many countries, selling out their countrymen to take advantage of China’s 1.3 billion strong cheap labor force, and we gladly consumed the products, worldwide.
China wisely reneged on their promise to open their market completely, choosing instead to follow the path both Britain and the US used to claw their way to the top of the global heap, protecting their economies while maximizing their exports. Now that China is on top (not per capita, but the largest economy) because we’ve all taken advantage of the fact their workers labor for less, we scream it’s unfair, we’ve been cheated, they must be our enemy, and no way their workers should develop a higher standard of living at our expense because that’s just un-American. How very Trumpian.
China’s economy grew by about 10% per year for a decade and a half, slowing down somewhat recently but still triple the growth rate of the US economy. They’ve banked trillions in reserves, one trillion of it in US Treasury bills, and are offering the Yuan as an alternative reserve currency to other nations. This has Washington very worried since our balance of trade is trillions in the wrong direction. The only thing currently keeping our economy afloat is that the dollar is the primary reserve currency of the world.
Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was undone by Trump, and these trends are nothing that a few nuclear subs based in Australia (AUKUS) will erase. America signed onto the “One China” policy as part of the deal to get in there, and split them off Russia during the cold war. China demanding Taiwan move into the Chinese sphere of influence is something we’ve been putting off since 1945, and something we have been diplomatically committed to since 1972. Chinese history goes back over 3000 years, and they have been very patient about achieving their goals. That we find it unacceptably destabilizing of our influence in Asia, not the least because China far outpaces the US in computer chip manufacturing and many of ours come from Taiwan, is a case of ‘you made your bed, now lie in it,’ ‘beat us at our own game,’ ‘chickens coming home to roost,’ or any other cliché homily you can think of being more applicable to this dust up than the slogan ‘defending democracy.’
This is not 1945 when ‘defending democracy’ meant something to lots of people. Since then we’ve ‘defended democracy’ in Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Panama, Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name only military interventions, and through countless CIA operations in other countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. The track record for (what we call) democracy after all this, besides millions of deaths, has been… South Korea? Maybe, Grenada?
While we’re busy talking up how much China oppresses the Uyghur and Falon Gong while ignoring rampant racist policing, school to prison pipeline, etc., in our country, the Chinese have been busy with their “belt and road initiative” that far outpaces anything the US has ever done in terms of foreign aid and development (or could do, at this point). They offer developing nations infrastructure projects in turn for agreement to sell their resources only to China for a fixed time, at market rate. This is a significantly better deal than the development model offered by the IMF, World Bank, WTO and our elites, outlined by John Perkins in his book “Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man:” do business with us even if it means your country will be indebted to the IMF forever, or you’re a dead man (/woman). The same model will be instituted against European countries that find themselves in trouble; Greece, for now, with perhaps others to follow. (Just ask Yanis Varoufakis, former Finance Minister of Greece.)
Predictably, this incurs nationalist reaction against globalism, making the Russian/Chinese model of a strong more authoritarian state look attractive. So we see authoritarian movements on the rise even in the strongest democracies, including our own.
The problem, as I see it, is not democracy, but hypocrisy. The general welfare and liberty of the demos, “We the People,” is inconsistently promoted, has often meant every person/nation for themselves, those positioned to influence events first at the trough. The inability to admit the truth of what is, the imperfection of practicing our ideals, blinds us to appreciation of others’ success, allowing perpetuation of the pretense that since we are morally superior we deserve to win the hegemonic game of chicken we are playing with each other, and with the planet in the form of climate change.
This will not end well for anyone. The world is multi-polar in the political and economic sense. The sooner we wise up to that fact the sooner we’ll be able to behave appropriately, mend our hypocrisy and actually become the beacon we’ve always pretended to be (and occasionally were).
The alternative is not pretty. The first thing thrown under the bus in the AUKUS deal was Chinese cooperation on climate. Saber rattling over Taiwan has driven in a few more stakes. This is good for the coal and oil industries, but is this good for democracy? I maintain no, for two reasons.
- One: There is more than one path to democracy, and the use of violence to achieve that end has a consistently bad record, in recent times. China civilized a thousand years before the Greeks and manages four times as many people as the US on a similar land mass. Does this mean I would enjoy being subject to the comparative the lack of freedom prevalent in their surveillance society? No, but I must respect their accomplishments, while guarding against our own becoming a surveillance state. Certainly they’ve proven more capable of reigning in corporate elites that seek stratospheric wealth at the expense of their population, better than we have since the time of FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. Since signing onto the One China policy in 1972, we have been bound to recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, and not to challenge that position. To attempt to change that now reeks of more hypocrisy.
- Two: Continued hegemonic competition more or less ensures we’ll miss the rapidly closing window for climate cooperation to avoid the death of large swaths (if not all) of the human species, along with most others. That will not, I maintain, be a good thing for democracy. “Give me liberty or give me death” is less meaningful if there are no or only a few survivors. How many millions are being sentenced to die by the inaction of those with responsibility, ostensibly to preserve the superiority of an economic system they describe as liberty but of which others remain unconvinced, in this hegemonic game of chicken? Transnational elites and their global institutions have made it fairly obvious their primary concern is themselves; everybody else can pretty much go to hell.
We are seeing it: Massive fires throughout the natural world, from the Amazon to Siberia, from the US and Canada to Europe and Australia. Reefs dying, islands disappearing, one third of Pakistan under water… And in the US drought, water commodified, city water systems allowed to deteriorate, ineffective planning for and response to natural disasters… Thousands dead, millions of climate refugees… Build Back Better indeed; a pail in a flood.
Add the political instability of prolonged drought and you have Syria, that’s just the beginning. The inaction of our elites demonstrates the economic model they claim the moral authority to perpetuate has no answer for this crisis. Only a pittance of the money promised by Western countries to developing nations for climate change mitigation has been delivered. As these disasters unfold their response has been little more than a pin drop; too worried about our own climate challenges, and protecting their winning position under the economic system as it is currently constituted, in complete faith that the richer they are the more they personally will be insulated from the unfolding shit-storm. This complete abdication of responsibility is entirely unacceptable. More than that, it is non-functional.
It forces me to call bullshit on talk of protecting Ukrainians and Europe from big bad Putin. Not because I think Putin is a good guy. Not because I prefer authoritarian assholes, but because the only thing that’s going to solve the dilemma in Europe and the Chinese dilemma is a foreign policy that prioritizes the planet over its resources; people, all the people of the world, over profit. A pro-planet, anti-oil, foreign policy. This can only be achieved through hegemonic cooperation. It will never be achieved through hegemonic competition. You want to own the future? Stop laying claim to it.
‘But in this case, he’s the obvious aggressor and deserves etc.… and the Ukrainians deserve etc., etc.…’
True, but ‘In this case’ is the problem. Divide and conquer is the game old as empire, the game being played by Putin on behalf of Russia as he defines it, with Europe and America as we define it. Looking at the microcosm instead of the big picture can justify either side. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We don’t have the luxury of time to engage in limited thinking that just leads to more problems. Our problem is global, planetary survival.
‘But our civilization is built on oil,’ you say. ‘We need to rush more natural gas to Europe by winter,’ you say. ‘Putin is using oil as a weapon…’
You don’t say. Gee, that was unpredictable. Especially when it’s Russia’s major export, we put sanctions on them, and Ukrainian gas in the Black Sea and Donbas region would compete with Russia’s.
What can move us beyond this choke point, which has China building more coal plants to continue burying us economically, since we seem incapable of admitting it is not in our power let alone our interest to prevent any governmental system we don’t approve of, from existing?
Our civilization is built on oil. We must move away from this addiction in tandem, immediately, by proffering:
- a peace agreement that is also a development agreement, that moves all of Europe, Russia and Ukraine, off oil onto wind and solar, and various forms of storage
- a peace agreement that is also a development agreement, that moves the US and North America, Taiwan, and China, the same
- and leads the way for the rest of the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia, to transition to green energy.
- which will allow for substantial demilitarization and de-escalation of ongoing conflict, globally
Too blue sky?
Then I have to ask; do you actually think anything else can work?
The enemy is not Russia. The enemy is not China. The enemy is hegemonic competition. We have met the enemy, and he is us. That’s what I mean when I say:
We need a new foreign policy.