Sunday, May 18, 2008

Captains of Stupidity and the Misuses of History

Bush II's recent foray into the electoral race, speaking before the Knesset, has prompted me to stop referring to him with the usual profanities. Instead, I'll simply refer to him from now on as "Captain Stupid" (with a nod to Suicidal Tendencies). The Captain's argument is, essentially, that Iran is really, really bad (Axis of Evil) and that any willingness to establish diplomatic relations (such as that expressed by Mr.Obama) is a form of appeasement. The Captain draws the hackneyed analogy to Hitler, saying that History has taught us that appeasement inevitably fails to prevent really bad people from doing really bad things. It is ironic to receive "History" lessons from a man who has clumsily connected the "killing fields" of Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, when in fact their presence in Cambodia was the key factor. Even if one accepts the Captain's first statement as factually correct, that Iran (its theocracy or Ahmadinejad) is bad and hell-bent on destroying Israel, it does not follow that the best way to prevent Iran from carrying out its evil plans is to continue to refuse to enter into diplomatic negotiations. Take the recent example of North Korea. Captain Stupid originally reversed the Clinton policy of maintaining diplomatic relations with that country. The result of the reversal was that North Korea completed a nuclear test and has created, according to intelligence estimates, at least six nuclear weapons. These developments led the Captain to resume the negotiations he had suspended. Is this appeasement? Returning to the Captain's comments on Iran, I'll simply reproduce some comments by Jack Beatty on WBUR's On Point radio program.

"President Bush has done as much for Iran as if he were a paid agent. Look at the record. He has got rid of the Taliban, he has got rid of Saddam Hussein, we have installed a Shiite government, Iran-friendly, in Baghdad, and he has with his, you know, Axis of Evil speech given the hardliners there another card to play. You could argue that all these things, if they've done anything, they have endangered Israel. So his policies, it seems to me, are the ones that have produced such good results for Iran. And as to his analogy, you know, all my life this Munich analogy has been paralyzing thought...all through Vietnam we heard that. It was wholly inapposite then and it was mischievous and policymakers, George Bundy , said he would never forget the terrible Spring of 1940, with Hitler marching into Paris. Well, applying that to Vietnam did nothing, did nothing but set us wrong, and it was invoked in the first Gulf War and it was invoked, repeatedly, through this Gulf War, and we simply have to retire that inapposite, mischievous, ahistorical analogy."

Given these facts, and given that the Captain finds "appeasement" unacceptable, the curious observer might wonder why indirect, strategic aid seems to be our government's de facto policy on Iran.

Captain Stupid's comments are, unfortunately, just one example of the misapplication of historical events to present political and economic realities. Our politicians constantly hark back to supposedly Utopian moments in American history to pinpoint just where we went wrong. The Republicans lament the betrayal of Reagan's legacy, and the Democrats mourn the New Deal, systematically rolled back since at least the early 70s. For these "traditional" Republicans, who distinguish themselves from the Captain's Neoconservative coterie, America's economic prosperity is mystically connected with its moral authority. The "Reagan Revolution" was a conservative reaction to the economic upheavals of the late 70s and was an attempt to roll back the clock to the "golden age" of the 1950s, when Americans enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. The Reagan Administration marked the increasing liberalization of market controls, justified by the idea that the welfare state created a kind of dependency syndrome and corrupted people's morals and undermined their self-sufficiency. The limitations of Reagan's economic policies didn't become fully apparent until he had left office, leaving Bush I to deal with the economic downturn. For this reason, many conservatives still look to Reagan's presidency as a kind of Utopian moment, ignoring the many repressive aspects of his two terms (suppression of progressive academics, draconian drug enforcement policies, support for murderous right-wing regimes, etc.). This Utopian view of the Reagan years, however, conveniently ignores that the "golden age" of the 50s, which Reagan purportedly recovered, was not itself a result of the kind of policies that Reagan implemented, but was a function of America's privileged position as the most advanced industrial economy after WWII devastated Europe's industrial centers, and of the State's management of distribution. Democrats point to this and claim that the New Deal policies were (and are) a better form of political economy, but they, too, are missing the point.

The observable fact that globally, regardless of the kind of political leadership (liberal, social-democratic, authoritarian, socialist), the last three and a half decades have seen the systematic dismantling of state-interventionist economies in favor of neoliberal, market-driven economies, points to an underlying dynamic, or evolution, of capitalism, that has unfolded independently of political ideologies. This indicates that the Left's political critique of the neoliberal order is insufficient, because even leftist governments have been powerless to stop the transition to a global, free-market economy. Those on the Right who celebrate the "triumph" of neoliberalism, recurring to a kind of economic Darwinism to demonstrate the supposed superiority of this latest incarnation of capitalism, are simply apologists for a status quo that constantly demonstrates its own inadequacy and inhumanity. Witness the constant warfare, the growth of marginalized populations, and the increasing number of ecological disasters that are the hallmarks of our era.

Lamentably, politicians and critics alike focus exclusively on these symptoms, or surface phenomena, without inquiring into what lies beneath these problems or into what causes these historical changes in the economy. They refuse to admit that Capital, the automatic subject, is the root cause, whose dynamic allows it to engender radical economic and social changes while retaining its own key features. They remain convinced that Marxism represents a kind of simplistic, economic determinism and that categories like politics, ideology, and culture are able to provide a more adequate critique of society. While here I have only briefly touched on the political, I hope to have pointed to its inadequacy, both as a standpoint for critique and as an agent of social change.