What's Left
September 3, 2002

The Politics of Survival

By Stephen Gowans

In the chapter, "The Politics of Survival" of his Socialism for A Skeptical Age, the last book he would write, political scientist Ralph Miliband examined the powerful conservative forces that would be arrayed against a government seeking to implement a program of radical reform. A "Left internationalism" would be necessary to support a reforming government under siege, especially in the Third World, where governments would be particularly vulnerable to destabilization by large, and powerful Western governments.

"[S]ome countries, notably in the 'developing world,' are more vulnerable to pressure and blackmail than others," wrote Miliband, "and Left internationalism must nowadays largely be taken to mean support for reforming governments anywhere in the world, and opposition to the efforts of capitalist governments and agencies to deflect them from their endeavours or to destabilize them." {1}
But "Left internationalism" as Miliband defines it, is, these days,  a precious thing, rarely found. Its scarcity is in part, the cause of, and in part, a reflection of, the Left being in retreat everywhere. Indeed, those who call themselves progressives, even radicals, are far more likely to openly and vigorously revile reforming governments under siege than defend them. Some are as much gulled by media campaigns vilifying leaders seeking radical reform, or at the very least, resisting neo-liberal retrenchment, as anyone else. Others are more skeptical, recognizing black propaganda and media smear jobs as part of the armamentarium of conservative forces seeking to derail reform, but remain silent, studiously avoiding the taint of being accused of apologizing for "dictators," "warlords," and "thugs," as the leaders of resisting or reforming governments are now invariably called.

And then, there are some, like Gregory Elich, a careful and methodical researcher, who, rather than being beguiled by politically-inspired media campaigns, and possessed of a courage to probe the received wisdom, practice a Left internationalism of the kind Miliband thought necessary if reforming forces around the world are to have any chance of success.

In his latest article, "Zimbabwe Under Siege," Elich looks at the efforts of the United States, and in particular Britain, to destabilize the Mugabe government (to effect "regime change," in Bush administration parlance), pointing out that it wasn't until Zimbabwe began to reject the disastrous economic policies of the IMF and embrace vaguely socialist alternatives that Mugabe began to be reviled as a thuggish, power-grubbing, dictator, partial to stealing elections.

Curiously, Mugabe, and others who've come in for what has been called the "Milosevic treatment" -- apart from Milosevic himself, the list includes Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenka (too slow to privatize state owned assets and too little interested in joining NATO) and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (too interested in the poor and wretched of Venezuela and not sufficiently interested in US investors) -- are elected, preside over multiparty systems, and face diverse and privately owned opposition media (often funded by the US government.) They are, nevertheless, in the practice of media destabilization campaigns, denounced as dictators. Lukashenka, for example, is often called "Europe's last dictator." It's richly ironic, however, that the very openness of these leader's countries make them vulnerable to destablization (it's a lot easier to bring down a government if you can buy the opposition and media; infinitely more difficult if the leader is truly a dictator and exerts totalitarian control); yet, it is for lack of openness that they're condemned. And it is media hegemony that allows patently false portraits to be presented to, and believed by, many in the West, who, accordingly, acquiesce to, if not enthusiastically support, Western intervention to "bring democracy and reform" to benighted lands.

"Reform" it should be noted here, much as it conjures up ideas of human liberation and progress, is to be understood in a restrictive sense; it means Western investment and trade arrangements favoring Western businesses. "Democracy," as the inseparable consort of "reform," is also to be understood in a restrictive sense: rule by a government willing to turn over its country's resources and public sector, including schools and health care, to Western, and typically, American firms. By this definition, the installation of the DOS government in Yugoslavia, and the potential rise of an MDC government in Zimbabwe, amount to the fruition of the West's desire for reform (Western investment) and democracy (clearing away hurdles to Western investment). As Phil Ochs, an American songwriter once remarked, "the name for our profits is democracy."

If calling Milosevic, Lukashenka and Chavez dictators (or in the case of Chavez, something close to one) amounts to media lies of commission, failing to draw attention in any vigorous way to the absence of democracy and human rights in such faithful US subject regimes as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, are lies of omission. Saudi Arabia, for example, is an autocratic state (really, just the huge estate of the Saud family,) unencumbered by such inconveniences as political parties, trade unions, suffrage, and basic human rights. Still, George W. Bush has vowed America's "eternal friendship," while State Department officials announce they are arranging the  ouster of Mugabe, the elected leader of a multiparty democracy that has trade unions, universal suffrage, and basic human rights -- all that Saudi Arabia lacks. And yet, neither the Saud's personal estate, Pakistan or Turkey have been the objects of the near hysterical media campaigns that almost invariably precede Western intervention in the sovereign affairs of other countries; yet if dictorship or human rights abuses or both are really behind Western interventionist projects, then the media-engineered demonization of the Saud family, the Turkish government and Pakistan's military dictator Musharaff, to say nothing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose government's crimes in the Occupied Territories should surely arouse the passions of governments genuinely committed to human rights, international law, and basic human decency, would have happened long ago. That such leaders as Mugabe are the object of media-directed black propaganda, speaks volumes about the functions the media serve in propping up oppressive governments, and undermining those that challenge the primacy of Western investment and political domination.

Elich puts it this way:

"As Zimbabwe descends into anarchy and chaos, land is irrationally seized from productive farmers, we are told. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is portrayed as a dictator bent on driving his nation into starvation and economic disaster while benevolent U.S. and British leaders call for democracy and human rights. These are the images presented by Western news reports, intended to persuade the public to support an interventionist policy. As always when the West targets a foreign leader for removal, news reports ignore complexity and context, while the real motivations for intervention remain hidden. Concern for democracy and human rights is selective and it is always the nation that displays too much independence that evokes concern, even in cases of a functioning multiparty system and wide ranging media. On the other hand, no one calls for democracy and human rights in oppressive nations as long as the political environment is conducive to Western investment. Saudi Arabia, for example, holds no elections and imposes an abusive oppression on the lives of its women. The pattern is consistent. Any nation that embarks on a path diverging from Western corporate interests and places the needs of its people over the demands of Western capital finds itself the target of destabilization, sanctions and intervention."

Zimbabwe's program of land reform isn't pretty, but nor has Britain's standing in the way of a less disruptive and methodical program of land reform been pretty either. And nor is Zimbabwe's  Western-backed and funded opposition MDC party, appearances to the contrary, appealing. Its name, the Movement for Democratic Change, with emphasis on "democratic," cleverly taps into the universal allure of the word "democracy," and sets the party up as a foil for what is implied to be the undemocratic character and commitments of the ZANU-PF party lead by Mugabe. And it has connections to organized labor, lending the party an additional air of "progressivessness." But the MDC's economic program -- richly neo-liberal -- is hardly progressive. And the party, which many Western progressives support, without the slightest awareness of its commitment to neo-liberal "reform," has no meaningful land reform policy, although land reform has been an unresolved question dominating Zimbabwe's politics since the country's escape from colonial domination by the racist Rhodesian settler government.

Mugabe's observation that Britain has little to teach Zimbabwe about democracy and human rights can hardly be dismissed. Rejoining that that was then, this is now, and that Britain is a very different place today, carries little weight: Britain's unqualified support for such egregious American human rights violations as caging "battlefield detainess" at Guatanamo Bay, or its support of Pakistan's military dictatorship, affirms that while Britain may indeed be a different place than it was 20 years ago, when it comes to geopolitics, and the politics of democracy and human rights, nothing has changed.

Unchanged too is that governments pursuing radical reform find themselves sooner than later engaged in the politics of survival. How well they fare depends to some extent on how thoroughly would-be supporters abroad challenge the propaganda of conservative forces and their agencies, and how courageous they are in declaring their support openly for reforming governments under siege. Elich stands as a paragon.

You can read Elich's article in full at http://www.swans.com/library/art8/elich004.html

{1} Miliband, Ralph. Socialism for a Skeptical Age. Verso. 1994, p. 179.


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