A "War On Terror?" Not!
An Interview with Edward Herman
by David Ross
April 05, 2003
David Ross: In The Real Terror Network (1982), you documented how the U.S. government did not support democracy around the world as we've all been taught, but instead, supported totalitarian states that would insure a good climate for investment...
Ed Herman: We support democracy when it will serve our interests, but as The Real Terror Network indicates, not when it won't serve those interests. The interests were talking about are not the general, public interests, but the interests of the forces that dominate U.S. foreign policy. The Real Terror Network is about a terror network that the United States sponsored, mainly in Latin America during the 1960's and 1970's, which brought into existence a system of national security states that were highly undemocratic and torture prone. These were our babies. We supported them. We sponsored them, and a number of these states that arose in those years had previously been democracies, like Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, and Guatemala in 1954. So it's clear that we were not pro-democracy when other interests were at stake and these other interests are fundamentally corporate interests. Our corporations want what is called a "favorable climate for investment," and very often, democratic governments won't afford a favorable climate for investment, especially in these poor, third world countries. They may try to help the poor. They may want to tax our corporations and they may not want to give them highly favorable privileges. They may also want to allow unions to exist. For example, in 1954 we helped overthrow the existing government in Guatemala, which was not a communist government at all. It was a weak social democratic government, but it was trying to do something for ordinary citizens. One thing it wanted to do was take land away from the United Fruit Company, most of which wasn't even being used by the company. The new government wanted to compensate United Fruit at the rates the company had assessed the land for tax purposes, and then it wanted to give the land over to peasants. Well, that was hateful to United Fruit, and it was hateful, therefore, to the United States government. According to one of the best books on the subject, the U.S. government has turned against Guatemala in1947 when the government allowed unions to survive and gave them some protections. If you look all through the Latin American political system, when these democracies were being overthrown in favor of national security states, they were not communist governments at all. There were almost no communists in any of these countries, but they had social democratic leanings, and they, therefore, were a threat to the transnational corporations who didn't like trade unions. In fact, almost all those national security states dismantled trade unions. The national security states made things very good for the transnational corporations entering their country. The most beautiful case of support for a terror state in the interests of corporations is Indonesia. We supported the Suharto revolution in 1965, which brought in one of the most vicious, totalitarian states in modern history. But we loved it, because it was very corporate friendly and for a certain bribe price Suharto would allow our companies to enter the country and engage in timber cutting, mining, and oil extraction. The United States supported this monstrous government for 33 years, even though it violated every principle of democracy. Apologists for U.S. policy have a hard time dealing with that one.
DR: The fight against communism was used as a smokescreen to insure a good climate for investment around the world. Today we have the so-called "war on terror." Is this another smokescreen?
Ed Herman: I really think it is. The terrorists' attack on 9-11 was a pretty severe attack, and I would argue that it was legitimate to try to get the people who perpetrated that attack. But the Bush Administration immediately declared a global war, allegedly targeting Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even though it had supported them or allowed them to exist, at least in Afghanistan. It became clear that the Bush Administration was going to go a lot farther than just looking for the people who perpetrated 9-11. It provided an excuse for doing what they wanted to do anyway-to project U.S. power overseas. Once the Bush Administration got over the shock of 9-11, which was perhaps one of the greatest security failures in history once they got over the shock and the pain, with the help of the media who let them get away with this, they saw that the 9-11 attack was a marvelous opportunity. We were now the sole superpower. We could use the war on terror to do what we wanted to do everywhere. We could also use war on terror to keep stirring up the American public, diverting them from the real issues We could also use it to pursue an elite agenda domestically. We've had terror scares on a weekly basis ever since 9-11 from the same officials who wouldn't even follow extraordinary leads-that terrorists were taking flight training all over the place-and warnings from half a dozen different governments that something was brewing. These same guys who couldn't pay attention to that, are finding a terror scare every day. They're finding the war on terror is a beautiful device for giving them a carte blanche, a free hand, to do whatever they want. So it's much better than the Soviet threat.
DR: What are the real structures of economic and political power in the United States?
Ed Herman: That's too easy. We have a very concentrated corporate system in the United States. We have a concentrated corporate media. We have a huge business apparatus that dominates the world. We have the most powerful transnational companies. We have a huge array of oil and automobile companies. We are a major business system, the most powerful business system in the world. We have a huge military-industrial complex that seeks to produce weapons.
These boys all have very strong economic interests, and therefore, political interests. They want to have a favorable climate for investment abroad, and they also want a favorable climate for investment at home. So they want a government that's going to be friendly to them, that will not be too favorable to unions, that will not tax them too heavily, and that will not press them for environmental constraints. It's this underlying network of economic organizations which runs the whole gamut through the media system, that really dominates the United States, and therefore, dominates the political system. You've got a two party system that is fundamentally dependent on business contributions. And you've got a media that's a corporate media that is dependent on advertising that supports the corporate community. That will therefore normalize the existence of a political system where you have two business-subsidized parties dominating everything.
DR: The British ruled by direct imperialism, directly administering weaker "third" world countries. The U.S. government has used a policy of neo-imperialism where they installed puppet dictators. But now, haven't we evolved toward a form of financial imperialism whereby the U.S. dominates the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and through them, the U.S. controls other governments?
Ed Herman: Well no, I wouldn't put it that way, but it's true that we have evolved. We have a very complex form of imperialism in which we dominate, for one thing, by our economic power and penetration across the globe. The United States is a big lending government, which gives out a lot of loans. It's a tremendous economic power across the globe and that, itself, gives the United States a lot of power overseas. We have an overseas media system. Our advertising agencies are all over the place. In every country, we have U.S. installations and U.S. subsidiaries that are interlocked with business people and governments, so we have a lot of power just coming out of those interlocking economic relationships. We also have a huge military establishment that everybody fears. We have used this military might with increasing freedom of action and brutality. That's an element of our imperialism. We have military bases in over 100 countries, which gives us leverage in those countries. We've also established, as you've said, puppet governments. We had some colonies, but colonies are obsolete; it's better to control by indirect rule. So the United States has always preferred to have relationships with governments that we influence or dominate by the fact that, for one, we were responsible for bringing them into power, and secondly, because we have a lot of economic leverage over them with all these economic relationships. We can also manipulate tariffs and loan policies in these countries to bring them into line. But it is important, as you say, that there's come into existence a whole structure of international organizations: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. These institutions are all influential. But, I think it has to be recognized that this is not really financial control. These institutions, themselves are controlled by the great powers and mainly by the United States. So whoever is controlling the United States-its politics and its policies-is really controlling these other institutions. I wouldn't say this is financial control, but it is true that international finance has become extremely important in the world. So the money flows between countries in accordance with what the private sector decides is good for themselves. For example, if a government starts to tax business too heavily and goes populist, money will flow out, and that's an important constraint on them. Some people have argued that Finance rules, because of this capacity of financial institutions, financial traders, and this huge quantity of money flowing around the world, and the fact that it will respond not only to interest rates, but to political threats, which will translate into interest rates. But that's really part of the whole global financial and economic structure in a broad way. So we have a complex form of imperialism in which you have the great powers, the United States being the primary one, exercising its power through natural global relationships, its military, and its domination of international financial institutions. You also have an underlying transnational corporate financial system serving as a disciplinary force, which supplements the work of the imperial powers. It's a complex picture, I must say.
DR: Margaret Thatcher has said that there is no alternative. Is this "The End of History?" Is Marxism finished? Is there any alternative to this type of imperial political-economic system?
Ed Herman: Is there an alternative? At the moment, there is no alternative to capitalism and it's very difficult for countries to escape from this whole imperial system because of the power of the United States, its military, and these economic structures that keep countries and people in line. These structures are very powerful now and capitalism has really triumphed. So Thatcher was right in the short run, there is no alternative. But I'm not sure that's going to be true in the long run. Is Marx finished? I would argue that Marx has now come into his own, because Marx was analyzing how capitalism works, and I could make a case that capitalism was not really pure capitalism since 1989. Because from 1880-1989 there was always a threat of socialism. It was more of a threat when the Soviet Union provided an alternative model. There were other smaller models too, like Vietnam, Cuba, and for a brief period, Nicaragua. Socialism was an alternative; a lot of people thought it was real, and the capitalist world thought it was real. So all through the history of capitalism you had welfare states erected, in part, to preclude the coming into existence of any alternative economic system. A case can be made that the welfare state was an artificial creation, which came into existence because of the threat of socialism. With that threat extinguished-at least in the short run-capitalism can become its true self again, as Marx described it. That's reinforced by the fact that since we have a globalizing world, the reserve army of labor, which is important in Marxian theory, now becomes a global reserve army of labor. Capital can now be tapping cheap labor in Indonesia, Mexico, and China. So arguably, we've moved back to a true Marxian world of pure capitalism where exploitation can become more severe. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of socialism, capitalism has gotten nastier. It's been attacking labor all over the place, and with its political control, it's ridding the world of the welfare state. Things are returning to a dirty capitalism, and under those conditions, we can expect to see some kind of resistance-grassroots movements and renewed union movements-because we're talking about a system that's benefiting, at best, 10 percent of the world's population, and predominately 2 percent. But it's doing rather poorly for 80 percent, and atrociously for 50 percent. If things continue, I think we're going to see a resurgence of organization, resistance, and union movements. But these are going to have to be global movements. The idea that there's going to be an end of history is a big laugh. By the time Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, had hardly gotten his book in print, it was clear that the new world order was more unstable than the old world order, and instability has become more severe over the whole globe. History is changing, it's looking uglier. But out of these horrors that are developing, hopefully, resistance will come forth.
DR: What can citizens do to build a more just and egalitarian society?
Ed Herman: It's pretty tough right now. Everybody that I know who's on the honest Left is pretty darn depressed-things have not been going our way. But there's no way an honest Leftist can give up the fight. We have to keep trying, and what we have to say to citizens everywhere is that we are in the huge majority, and our time will come. So we have to educate ourselves; we have to link up with others of similar beliefs; we have to network on email systems and in organizations; and we have to build grassroots movements. We can't do it ourselves, but we can't abandon the struggle either. The struggle is going to go on. And so, our options right now are, information, organization and education.
David Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio in Redway, CA. He has worked on the Nader campaign, corporate accountability, U.S. foreign policy, and environmental issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
First published in Z Magazine / Znet
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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