What's Left

August 6, 2003

A failed system's failed promises

By Stephen Gowans

With communism's demise, and the return of Eastern Bloc countries to the capitalist fold, the world was promised a new age of peace and prosperity. The shadow of war would lift. Military expenditures would be cut back, and troops would be brought home from Cold War postings. There would be more money for new wars -- on poverty and homelessness, this time. And capitalism, the single sustainable model of success (it had, after all, emerged triumphant in a decades long battle with communism) would deliver the poor from poverty, and bless the world with a bonanza of consumer goods.

Talk about failed predictions.

In place of peace, we got the lone remaining superpower waging war to sweep up the few remaining stragglers that continued to resist integration into the US dominated global economy. Iraq was conquered, at the expense of over a million lives lost to sanctions and war; campaigns of intrigue and bombing in the Balkans pushed the region into the US orbit; and a war on Afghanistan blasted away thousands of peasants but cemented a US military presence in a Central Asia pregnant with the promise of oil and gas wealth. Wars on Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba are real possibilities.

Today, America is asserting its military might over the face of the globe more audaciously than it ever has. There are 368,000 US troops deployed in nearly 130 countries around the world, (1) backed by popular support for American military hegemony. Americans think their military protects their interests abroad and defends host countries from threats. They rarely pause to wonder whether what's called "their" interests are really their own personal interests or those of people who live in bigger houses and get bigger tax breaks and have sizeable investment portfolios. Nor do they make a habit of wondering how it is that with the US exercising a virtual military monopoly over the world, host countries could be under a threat so imminent they would require a US force presence. Exactly which of the tiny collection of countries not hosting US troops are threatening the remaining 130?

Could it be that American troops gird the globe to enforce the access of US firms and investors to the land, labor, markets and resources of others? Do "our" interests equate to Iraq's oil, Indochina's tin, Central Asia's natural gas, Kosovo's mines, the Balkan's pipeline routes, and Indonesia's sweatshops? "A lot of people forget," remarked Alexander Haig, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, that the presence of US troops in Europe is "the bona fide of our economic success...it keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren't there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access." (2) A lot of people forget, because they were told something quite different: That US troops were stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion, not to put a gun to the head of Europeans to keep their markets invitingly open to US firms and investors. The obvious question, With the threat of a Soviet invasion long passed, why are US troops still there?, is rarely asked. So it doesn't really matter that we've forgotten. Washington's latest exercise in imperialism run amok has a similar character. It was said that Saddam was hiding banned weapons. None can be found. But US forces intend to stay in Iraq anyway, liberating Iraqi oil for US firms, and turning the country into a paragon of free markets and free trade open to US investment.

Which is to say, the emergence of US capitalism triumphant hasn't given us peace, as promised; it has given us a bold American military prepared to wage war. And it seems to be waging war to facilitate American capital settling everywhere, nestling everywhere and establishing connections everywhere, to paraphrase a shockingly topical passage from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document whose irrelevance was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Yet, today, it seems to be more relevant than ever; certainly more relevant than when a competing ideology forced the stewards of capitalism to tidy up the image of their vaunted system lest the rabble get it into their heads that they could do better. It's said in newspapers and TV that the reasons for America's recent worshipping of Mars have to do with fighting terrorism, but George Bush's National Security Strategy is long on paeans to free markets and free trade and capitalism and short on concrete measures to protect the lives of Americans from suicide bombers.

"Bourgeois society," to use Marx's and Engels' phrase, hasn't given us prosperity either, unless by "us," you mean the people who own and control the economy. For the bulk of humanity things are a lot worst materially than they were when communists, socialists, and nationalists kept upsetting the capitalist apple cart by nationalizing resources, bringing vast tracks of national economies under public control, and putting the public welfare ahead of the profit interests of Wall Street's boardroom jockeys.

According to the United Nations, 54 countries are poorer today than they were in 1990, about the time communism was declared failed, and capitalism lionized as the single sustainable model of success. More children under the age of five are dying in 14 countries, and enrollment in primary schools is down in 12. Extreme poverty remains the fate of over one billion people. And in former Soviet republics -- cradle to what has been dismissed as a failed system -- poverty has tripled. Seventeen countries in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States have become poorer since embracing the single sustainable model of success, which should leave anyone with an ounce of gray matter wondering by what standard success is measured;  surely not by the majority's well-being. (3)

After having been demonized for decades by a capitalist establishment hell-bent on making communism radioactive (along with anyone so cavalier about their standing in polite society to utter a kind word about it) it's sometimes forgotten, if ever apprehended in the first place, how impressive communism's economic achievements were...and still are, considering the barren and poisoned ground in which the lone holdouts have been forced to eke out precarious existences.

Let's start with the most reviled of the hold-outs: North Korea. Kim Jong Il, the leader, looks like an older version of Jack Osborne, the spoilt son of the addled and shuffling rock legend, Ozzie Osborne, which means the country alternates between being seen as a dangerous and bizarre, nuclear weapons developing state, committed to sending a nuclear warhead hurtling toward Hawaii (either out of sheer malice or sheer, inexplicable, stupidity), and a comical land headed by a guy with a bad haircut and a shapeless suit that barely conceals a middle-aged bulge.

The idea that North Korea is a threat to the United States is about as believable as the idea that a a colony of ants is a threat to the elephant whose foot hovers three inches over its hill. North Korea hasn't a single solider stationed outside its borders. Washington, on the other hand, has 37,000 troops deployed, on, or near, the North Korean border, 65,000 troops stationed in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet lurking in nearby waters, and bombers within striking distance. It has dismissed Pyongyang's pleas to sign a nonaggression treaty, declaring bizarrely that it will not succumb to blackmail. And what has North Korea done to threaten the US (or to blackmail the country)? It has fired up a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),  but only after Washington reneged on an agreement to build light water reactors and provide fuel oil shipments.  And only after Washington issued a virtual declaration of war, designating North Korea part of "an axis of evil."

Could a North Korea with one or two crude nuclear bombs pose much of a threat to a US poised to strike with overwhelming force? Quite the other way around. Indeed, North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons can be said to be a rational response to an overwhelming threat by the US. And there have been plenty of signs that the threat is real.

"This is just the beginning," an administration official told the New York Times, after US and British troops marched on Baghdad. "I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and North Korea as for Iraq." (4)  The Pak Tribune cited CIA sources that revealed a "list of countries where replacement of government has been declared essential." (5) The list included North Korea. U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Pyongyang to "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq." (6) It has. "The DPRK (North Korea) would have already met the same miserable fate as Iraq's had it compromised its revolutionary principle and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its followers for 'nuclear inspection' and disarmament," declared the official daily of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Rodong Sinmun. (7) Later, the government issued this statement: "The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent." (8)

Not to be so readily deterred, Washington has a plan, (dubbed Plan 5030.) According to US News and World Report,

"One scenario in the draft involves flying RC-135 surveillance flights even closer to North Korean airspace, forcing Pyongyang to scramble aircraft and burn scarce jet fuel. Another option: U.S. commanders might stage a weeks-long surprise military exercise, designed to force North Koreans to head for bunkers and deplete valuable stores of food, water, and other resources. The current draft of 5030 also calls for the Pentagon to pursue a range of tactical operations that are not traditionally included in war plans, such as disrupting financial networks and sowing disinformation." (9)

Washington ultra-hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, warned, "North Korea is headed down a blind alley. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not protect it from the real threat to its security, which is the (internal) implosion brought about by the total failure of its system. Indeed the diversion of scarce resources to nuclear weapons and other military programs can only exacerbate the weakness of the (government)." (10) So what's the choice? Head down a blind alley, ushered along by the US, or turn over the country to Washington, and the multinational corporations it represents? Who's the blackmailer?

History, a series of natural calamities, and unrelenting US hostility, have not been kind to the tiny country.  The mountainous north was once the center of the peninsula's heavy industry, the south its breadbasket. The Korean War, which saw US bombers destroy every building in the north over one story, changed that. The north was reduced to rubble. But it rebuilt, and until the 1980s, outpaced the south economically. By 1961, it was self-sufficient in agriculture. North Korean children were better vaccinated than their counterparts in the US, according to the World Health Organization and United Nations, who commended the country for its delivery of health care. And life expectancy was higher than in the capitalist south. (11)

Then disaster struck. The socialist trading bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of its major trading partners. Oil subsidies from Russia ended. And if that weren't enough, floods and droughts ravaged crops. Famine followed. But, for a time, the country had enjoyed impressive material gains, an affirmation of what can be achieved outside the capitalist demarche, even where resources are diverted to defense against an unrelenting foe than remains poised on your borders to strike.  Imagine what the country could have achieved without the US breathing fire down its neck.

Cuba, in many respects, fits the same mold: Astonishing social and economic gains under a communist government, the implacable and unrelenting hostility of the US, and some backsliding after the collapse of its major trading partners. (The US has maintained an economic blockade for over 40 years.) Still, despite these challenges, Cuba is a much kinder and egalitarian place today than it was before the revolution, under the rule of the US-backed Batista regime, when the country's economy was an appendage of that of the US. The US fears Cuba, journalist Seamus Milne observes, not because it is a threat to the safety of Americans, but because it's an example of what can be accomplished outside the US dominated capitalist model. (12 )

In 1953, the illiteracy rate in Cuba exceeded 22 percent. Today it is under one percent. Three percent of those over the age of 10 had a secondary school education. Today, almost 60 percent do. Back then, at the height of the sugar harvest, when unemployment was lowest, eight percent were jobless. Today, the unemployment rate is three percent, making Cuba one of the few countries in the world to boast full employment.

Well over 80 percent own their own homes, and pay no taxes. The remainder pay a nominal rent.

No other country has as many teachers per capita. Education is free through university. (The country also provides free university educations to 1,000 Third World students every year.) And classroom sizes put those of Western industrialized countries to shame.

Health care is free. And while the US has deployed over 300,000 troops in almost 130 countries to keep markets open to US investment, Cuba has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 Third World countries to heal the sick. (13)

Infant mortality is lower than in any other Third World country and even some Western capitalist countries (it's higher in Washington, DC.) Life expectancy is 76 years, and is expected to rise to 80 years within the next five years. (14) By comparison, the return of capitalism has pushed life expectancy down in former communist countries.

These gains, seldom mentioned in the US, place the country head and shoulders above other Latin American countries firmly ensconced in the American orbit, for which Washington's single sustainable model of success continues to deliver grinding poverty, misery, and gross inequality, but handsome profits for US corporations.

There are elections, and, contrary to Washington's anti-Cuba propaganda, Cubans do vote. But they don't choose among two largely identical parties, as in the US, where the parties, and their candidates, are almost invariably in thrall to, or are representatives of, the countries' corporate elite. As for human rights, Cuba stands as a model of what can be achieved by way of economic and social rights, the basic rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education and jobs, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not recognized as human rights in the US. (15) Washington, on the other hand, has made a fetish of civil and political liberties, which, in the case of its relations with Cuba, has everything to do with giving its agents in the country, mistakenly called "independent" journalists and "independent" librarians (they're not independent of Washington, which bankrolls their activities), room to maneuver to organize further destabilization, with the object of overthrowing the revolution and banishing economic and social rights in favor of investors' rights. That Cuba, a poor country, has been able to guarantee the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and jobs, despite trying economic circumstances and US hostility, can be seen as extraordinary, or simply what can be readily accomplished outside the strictures of capitalism. If a poor Third World country, harassed by a powerful neighbor, can deliver high quality health care and education for free, why can't the world's richest country do the same? The answer: Capitalism drives towards better profits, not better lives.

Ever since the US-dominated global economy has, with the collapse of Eastern Bloc communism over 10 years ago, more boldly sought purchase everywhere, US military imperialism has run amok, wars of aggression have been started, and poor, and formerly communist, countries have become poorer. The leaders of the Western world declare capitalism to be the single sustainable model of success, but countries that rejected capitalism, and committed to egalitarianism, have done better in terms of guaranteeing economic and social rights than comparison countries, despite difficult circumstances, and those that have rejected egalitarianism in favor of a return to capitalism have regressed. What's more, those who said countries should integrate into the US dominated global economy either have much to gain personally from other countries surrendering their economies, or represent their own country's corporate class; it's a fraud based in the self-interest of a narrow band of wealthy people in the world's richest countries. That it is a fraud is richly evident in the failed promises and dismal record of the last decade.

1. "Where are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces," GlobalSecurity.Org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm)

2.  UPI, January 7, 2002.

3.  "UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty," World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.

4. "Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come," The New York Times,  March 23, 2003.

5. "Iran to be US next target: CIA report," Pak Tribune (Online) March 24, 2003.

6. "U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea 'Learn from Iraq," Reuters, April 9, 2003.

7. "North Korea vows to make no concessions," Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2003.

8. "Administration Divided Over North Korea," The New York Times, April 21, 2003.

9. "Pentagon Plan 5030, a new blueprint for facing down North Korea," US News and World Report, July 21, 2003.

10. "Wolfowitz Visits US Military Base In Korean Buffer Zone," AFP, June 1, 2003.

11. "Peace, the real resolution to famine in North Korea, ZNet, July 23, 2003.

12. "Why the US fears Cuba," The Guardian, July 31, 2003.

13. Ibid.

14. Speech by Fidel Castro on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 2003.

15. Karen LeeWald, "Democracy, Cuba-Style," Canadian Dimension, July/August, 2003.


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What's Left