The Readers’ Corner:
From Michael Parenti :
From Douglas Dowd :
An old joke in the American Midwest begins with two men standing at a bar. The bar is located on the 56th floor of the Sears Building in Chicago. One man looks out the window and remarks, "It’s so windy out there, I bet I could open that window, step off the ledge, and the air current is so strong it would prevent me from falling."
The second man laughed, "I’d like to see you try that." Whereupon, the first man walked over to the window, opened it, and stepped out. And indeed he floated there, suspended in the wind.
"Hey, I can do that too!" insisted the second man, who proceeded to the window; jumped out, and immediately fell to his death on the street below. The bartender looked at the first man and shook his head: "You’re a mean drunk, Superman!"
In the early 1990s, when I was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach American history in the Former Soviet Union, I discovered that a favorite pastime for some American tourists visiting Russia was to show the people they met photographs they had brought from the U.S.--not the traditional photos of their children and their pet dogs, but photos of the inside of their homes: you know, like "this is our living room..., this is our kitchen..., this is Jimmy’s bedroom..., this is our two-car garage!!!"
This was the same period that Professor Jeffery Sachs, an economist on leave from Harvard University, was employed as a consultant for the Yeltsin government in Moscow. It was the beginning of Russia’s historic theft: the massive transfer of property from Public ownership to Private ownership. And practicing what they preached, Sachs’ neo-liberal entourage began to amass great fortunes during his leave of absence from Harvard (which today is the subject of a U.S. Congressional investigation.).
Meanwhile, I had arranged to extend the period of my teaching in the Former Soviet Union from one to two years. During the first year (1992-93) I "went native", as they say, and was paid the salary of a Belorussian professor in rubles. I took home the equivalent of 120 French francs a month, slightly less than the university president, who, of course, also enjoyed a few perks, such as a chauffeured car, an expense account, and a spacious office on the university’s top floor. Like the families of my colleagues, my wife and I lived on a steady diet of bread, pasta, potatoes, cabbage, pickles, cheese, milk, and eggs, when we could find them. (Due to the abundance of empty store shelves, shopping for these simple necessities was always a time-consuming chore, and prices were continually rising.) By Christmas my salary no longer covered our necessities of life, at which point I decided to barter my lectures in history for a course in the Russian language, and we dipped into our meager savings for sustenance. I became a student again....
The following year I received regular payments from the Fulbright grant, and in Minsk we lived like kings: "Only the ‘Mafia’ (a term that was applied in this era to all businessmen in the Former Soviet Union) and prostitutes can afford to travel today in Russia," I was warned by my colleagues at Minsk State University. Despite their warnings, I traveled a lot that second year --both by train and plane-- giving lectures in American history to an exceptionally educated elite at universities in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Volgagrad and Rostov-on-Don, and I began conducting interviews in Minsk for a book that would be published in America..
The students I talked with were attentive, argumentative, but very poorly read. The writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, I discovered, had been taught like a Catechism in the Soviet Union, to indoctrinate proper socialist thinking, and not to encourage the critical investigation of relationships in capitalist society. As a result, I found myself in the very odd situation of confronting brilliant students who were utterly ignorant as to the meaning of social history and critical social theory.
Professor Sachs, also, remained in Eastern Europe the following year, using IMF funds to feather his nest with Boris Yeltsin and other Reformers, and preaching to whomever would listen about the virtues of "the American way": Enrichissez-vous à la américain! [For a history of the IMF and the people it really benefits, readers are invited to read Gabriel Kolko’s essay on the IMF, ""De la faillite des Dogmes : Mais exportez donc ! dit le FMI," in atelier no.18, article no.1. (For additional information on Professor Jeffery Sachs , readers are invited to look at the critical essays found in Atelier N°.18, Article N°s. 6 et 7.)]
I continued my critical courses on American history in the Former Soviet Union, while the entire environment was changing rapidly. Almost without exception, the students I met had come to believe that the United States was ahead of the rest of the world, in some ill-defined linear progression that they had learned to call Modernity --applying criteria which ignored such standard measurements as rates of life expectancy and morbidity, mental health, access to health-care, effectiveness of public education, prison population, etc..., but which they nevertheless considered Absolute. The distinction between standard of living and quality of life measurements had somehow collapsed, and now I found that many students wanted nothing more than to make money. More and more of them hoped to immigrate to America, or, short of that, to successfully create the American way of life for themselves in Russia. (The economic miracle in Pinochet’s Chile served as a popular point of reference.) They expected the Former Soviet Union to achieve a political economy comparable to contemporary America, despite all the historical differences. And they wanted it NOW! "To be born American was like winning the Lottery!", was the cliché that circulated on the university campuses.
I reminded my students that the accumulation of such large quantities of capital in America had required, among other things, the genocide of tens-of-millions of indigenous people, centuries of slavery, a civil war that destroyed fully 2 percent of the nation’s population; that today Americans were living lives of unprecedented economic inequality, with the largest percentage of prison population of any country in modern times. I went on to remind them of the urban enclaves of permanent poverty, crime, and unemployment, not to mention the palpable insecurity in the middle classes, arising from privately owned inadequate health care services --but my audience remained mostly unimpressed. What difference did all this history and sociology make to those seated in the auditorium listening to me: they were so cocksure that they would never find themselves among the victims! What I was saying seemed irrelevant to many of them. The general belief among these youth was that only the incompetent are oppressed in America. If you work hard, you can make a good living there, and even get rich if you want to badly enough. Only the lazy and the stupid end up poor in America, and occasionally, perhaps, the unlucky.
As my students were neither stupid nor lazy, they came to question some of the premises of my own arguments, but rarely did they succeed in breaking from their neo-positivist habits of rigidly identifying the stages of evolution, according to their Soviet Marxist dogma. Seldom did they succeed in freeing themselves from this a priori sufficiently to really investigate who had done what to whom and why in the history of the United States. Thus, for many of them the native American Indians were naturally condemned to extinction, the African Americans could only have been subjected to slavery, and the working poor should learn to submit to their conditions of poverty. To question the inevitability of this historical record was indulging in wishful thinking --at best, it was unscientific.
During my first months in Minsk, I was suspected of being on the KGB payroll, hired to propagandize anti-Americanism. "Here, you only criticize your enemies, you understand!" confided a friendly student. "If you are not paid by the Soviet Communist Party, you are doing their job free-of-charge by impugning the reputation of the United States." I pointed out that not all Americans were millionaires, nor even aspired to be rich. Many of us, I attempted to explain, actually work for a living and try to do what we do reasonably well, mainly for the gratification it sometimes brings.
Later, when I mentioned that I had been awarded a U.S. government grant --a Fulbright Scholarship-- to teach a second year in Minsk, this news was met with general disbelief. It was beyond the comprehension of many Soviet students to fathom how the United States government could subsidize criticisms of its own policies. What was the trade-off? What did I have to gain? What did the state gain? Why was it tolerated at all?
Well, my big gain was a smattering of the Russian language, a gifted Russian wife, and two beautiful Russo-American children who are now tri-lingual. The governors of the United States of America had succeeded in creating, I suppose, the illusion that Professor Sachs, was speaking the truth when he promoted the American way of life, with free markets and freedom of speech. The other important Freedom, the freedom to obliterate any and all resistance to U.S. economic interests, was discussed in my classes, but the glitter of CASINO CAPITALISM, with its high stakes and winner-takes-all rules, was a hard act to follow. In the short run, Jeffrey Sachs’ brand of cynicism won the day. He was the virtual Superman floating in the turbulence of Moscow. But, in the long run..... Well, the jury is still out; and the ranks of the unlucky in Russia have swollen drastically.[For an excellent discussion of current capitalist theory, readers should visit atelier no.0, article no.3, Douglas Dowd’s review of Hugh Strettons’ book, Economics: A New Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 1999).]
Judging contemporary capitalist developments requires an epistemology and an ontology which correspond to the rapidly changing relationships we are now witnessing with the expansion of global capitalism. Two influential specialists in the field of contemporary history and foreign policy appear to work from divergent social theories: the recent writings of Professor Noam Chomsky, noted linguist and foreign policy expert, and those of Professor Eric Hobsbawm, famous British historian of the longue durée, offer readers a wide perspective and suggest profound understandings of how things actually work or don’t work, as the case my be. But both scholars conduct their research within the frameworks of distinctly different intellectual traditions --Chomsky, an anarchist, using critical social theory, and Hobsbawm, a marxist, employing, in his words, an "interpretation [which] suggests that, in having understood that a particular historical stage is not permanent, human society is a successful structure because it is capable of change, and thus the present is not its point of arrival." Thus, by adopting different theories and methods of analysis, it comes as no surprise that the conclusions of these two scholars very often diverge.
In his recent book, World Orders, Old and New (Columbia University Press, 1994), Chomsky seeks to explain why policy makers consistently ignore important historical facts. The so-called "cold" war is over. (There were an estimated 20 million casualties in this "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union, fought by proxy in the Third World.) But why was this war fought in the first place? And why does the political landscape of the post-cold-war world look so familiar?
Chomsky approaches this subject from an historical perspective. Quoting
from a secret internal document in the U.S. State Department archives,
we hear Dean Acheson , in 1947, advocate :
The historical truth of a Soviet threat was irrelevant,
explains Chomsky. The importance was that, using one pretext or another,
the U.S. had to maintain its international primacy, and it must
continue to do so.... Professor Samuel Huntington, Director of the
Olin Institute of Strategic Studies at Harvard, echoed this sentiment in
1993, when he wrote:
This is strictly a matter of definition, writes Chomsky, "as
the Science of Government teaches, ... any evidence is irrelevant."
Professor Hans Morgenthau, a leading figure in the realist school
of Political Science, claimed that the "transcendent purpose" of the United
Morganthau recognized that the historical record was radically inconsistent with this "transcendent purpose," and he was forced to conclude that the facts are irrelevant to these necessary truths:
According to the American realist school of Political Science, Professor Chomsky notes, Reality is the unachieved "national purpose" revealed by "the evidence of history as our minds reflect it." The actual historical record is merely the abuse of reality, an insignificant artifact." Thus, identifying historic contradictions is perceived with contempt, as being the province of small minds, while official doctrines are effectively immune to evaluation and critique.(p.28)
An example of this realist school influence on American politics
can be seen in the President Bush’s public explanation for the British/American
bombardment of Iraq. George W. Bush is reported in the International
Herald Tribune (20 February 2001) to have defined the
renewed air strikes against Iraq, on Friday 16 February, a "routine" measure,
a word he used three times in this brief press conference, adding only:
"Our intention is to make the world as peaceful as possible." White House
Press Secretary, Ari Feeischer, used the word "routine" or "routinely"
five times in a public speech one hour earlier, and National Security Adviser,
Condoleezza Rice, echoed this key definition no less than four times. Thus,
the need for any logical justification requiring evidence is supplanted
by the defining term "routine". President Bush could have attempted any
number of justifications for this military decision. The IHT quoted
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense-policy scholar at the Brookings Institution
on Bush’s public response to the bombing of Iraq:
Instead, he responded to reporters the day following the renewed air
strike with a non sequitur:
I t is disturbing to some observers to note that President Hussein had signed no agreements concerning the "no-flight zones". In the agreement that ended the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein pledged not to develop weapons of mass destruction, as exist in Israel, and elsewhere. The British and Americans established the no-flight zones unilaterally in the early 1990s to protect the Kurds in the North and the Shiite Muslims in the South who had rebelled against Hussein.
According to Chomsky’s analysis, substituting official definitions for public explanations is a affective way of preventing public discussion. [For another illustration of Chomsky’s critique of epistemological error in the realist school of Political Science, readers are invited to see the New York Times article (16 February 2001) on Alcoa Corporation’s factory in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, where U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in a dramatic confrontation between capital and labor, was forced by a labor representative to acknowledge certain historical facts when O’Neill served as the CEO of Alcoa, Inc. and found himself confronted by an angry Mexican worker. altelier no. 8, article no.5.]
Compared to Professor Chomsky’s critique of the carefully-cultivated,
ideology-induced blindness of "pragmatic" leadership, for whom historical
facts are irrelevant and the ends are always used to justify the means,
Professor Hobsbawm’s most recent attempt to explain the post-cold-war world
arrives at a more relativistic conclusion . In his book, The
New Century (Little, Brown and Company., 1999), Hobsbawm
argues that we are all de facto captives of our own subjectivities,
to one degree or another. The limits of our knowledge will always be circumscribed
by ontological conditions we are living and our own cultural biases,
which he seems to believe are often derived from emotions, such
as friendships, animosities, insecurities, vanities, avarice, political
loyalties, etc., etc....
Hobsbawm goes on to suggest that the real dangers to society originate
not from pragmatic interests but instead from Idealist thinking.
Quoting Isaiah Berlin, Hobsbawm acknowledges that the twentieth century
has indeed been "the most terrible century in Western history," but he
adds, (without offering supporting evidence) that "the children of this
century are in better condition both materially and spiritually than were
their fathers and grandfathers."(p.162)
[For a contemporary discussion of the ontological insecurities that govern Tony Blair’s expectations from joint U.S.-British military interventions, readers are invited to visit atelier no.2, article no.7, "Air Strike on Iraq: World Reaction." And for a broader discussion of the role played by insecurity in the formation of ideology, see Loïc Wacquant’s article in atelier no.11, article no.8, "L'Idéologie de l’insécurité : Ce vent punitif qui vient d'Amérique.]
Professor Chomsky (and Professor Wacquant) appear to be less sanguine than Professor Hobsbawm about the liberal argument for "moderate expectations." [Readers are invited to read Chomsky’s critique of the moderate idea of "sustainable capitalist growth" article no.1 in our section rumeurs et délires.] On the other hand, Hobsbawm’s theory that knowledge is limited, per-force, by a person’s ontological experiences and his/her aspirations, can be further tested by multi-billionaire, William H.Gates, Sr.’s current opposition to the Bush administration’s declared (and decidedly immoderate) intentions to repeal the Estate Tax, an action which Mr. Gates calls "a danger to democracy in America." [See atelier no.15, article no.5, for this seemingly paradoxical political commentary written by the father of the richest man in the world.]
The writings of both Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm demonstrate the important role played by theory and method at the outset of any study of transnational corporations (TNCs). If we are to move beyond the spontaneous condemnation of the injustices and the increasing economic inequalities engendered by the monopoly capitalist system, and begin to uncover the various strategies, tactics, and logistics that must be deployed continuously to prevent the imminent collapse of this system, we would do well to look at the contemporary history of capitalist development.
The epistemologies and ontologies adopted by these two scholars represent different strategies of inquiry. However, their critical research has brought them in touch with many of the dynamics responsible for institutional and social formations of the future. While remaining self-conscious of their own vantage points, they offer readers a glimpse of what tomorrow may look like, and urge us to act on our convictions today.
What are the limits to our knowledge of the future? What can be done
to assure that what follows monopoly capitalist expansion will be an improvement,
and not the product of more of the same cynical opportunism? How can the
dominant ideology of possessive individualism, which is rapidly
becoming universal with the expansion of capitalism, be effectively challenged
by historical facts and a humanist ontology which acknowledges, in the
words of the late 16th century English poet, John Donne:
Obviously, the former governor of Texas has no answers to these questions. Nor does neo-positivist empiricism appear to be of help. Many of the scholars associated with our Center are currently conducting multidiciplinary research on important questions such as these, which pertain to both the immediate and the distant future --a future for which we must all take responsibility.
This spring our site will begin publishing the research of graduate students from Grenoble and other universities. We encourage our international Board of Directors to submit the works of their graduate students (in English or French) and other serious scholarship for publication in our Ateliers. We invite all interested readers and Directors to periodically look at the new essays coming into these Ateliers, and when possible send us specific commentary on what you have read.
All commentary should be addressed to : Francis.Feeley@u-grenoble3.fr