The modern U.S. empire has run roughshod over the interests and desires of foreign nations and their people for more than a century, but that history should call for pause as the bipartisan interventionist consensus gears up once again, this time in an effort to topple the legitimately elected government of Venezuela
by Adolph Reed Jr.
Vietnam came to my attention when I was maybe eleven or twelve, during the last years of the Eisenhower administration.
There must have been some uptick that prompted public anticommunist saber-rattling about what really was already the U.S. war there. My father explained to me what was going on, that the military forces of the Viet Minh, a broad coalition struggling for national independence, led by the Communist Party of Vietnam, had defeated the French army in its seven-year attempt to restore colonial rule after having been displaced by the Japanese, against whom the Viet Minh also fought, during World War II.
After that defeat an international conference—in which the U.S. participated along with Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, France, Laos, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, the Viet Minh, and the “State of Vietnam,” created by France in 1949 as a colonial puppet government—at Geneva in 1954 agreed that Vietnam would be divided temporarily at the 17th Parallel into northern and southern administrative zones and that in 1956 an election would be held to reunify the country. The State of Vietnam, later re-christened the Republic of Vietnam as a US rather than French puppet, rejected the agreement, and the United States did not sign onto it but “took note” of the ceasefire agreements and declared that it would “refrain from threat or use of force to disturb them.” In fact, the U.S. openly blocked the agreed-upon reunification election because, as President Eisenhower freely acknowledged, all indications were that Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh and Communist Party and a widely revered national patriotic figure, would have won the election. Even as a kid, I was astounded that the U.S. could so blatantly arrogate to itself a right to determine which governments or election outcomes were legitimate in other countries and to depose or impose them unilaterally, including by force and violence up to terror and assassination.
“Even as a kid, I was astounded that the U.S. could so blatantly arrogate to itself a right to determine which governments or election outcomes were legitimate in other countries and to depose or impose them unilaterally, including by force and violence up to terror and assassination.”
My dad, responding to my reaction, informed me of the much more general history of U.S. interventionism, partly through introducing me to the story of Smedley D. Butler, former Marine Commandant. Butler’s striking 1935 testimony is worth repeating in this political moment:
I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force—the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the profession I never had an original thought until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of the higher-ups. This is typical of everyone in the military service.
Thus, I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotion. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents. (Smedley D. Butler, “America’s Armed Forces: In Time of Peace,” Common Sense 4 [November 1935]).
My father also told me about the 1954 military coup against the legitimately elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. The U.S. government—through the CIA—armed, trained, and funded a military force to overthrow Arbenz and install a brutal military dictatorship, on the claim that Arbenz was soft on communism and, oh by the way, had ended exploitative labor practices from which the US-based United Fruit Company had benefitted.
And he also told me about the joint U.S./British coup in 1953 against Mohammad Mosaddegh, prime minister of the government of Iran, who had had the temerity to propose auditing the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and limiting the company’s control over Iranian oil reserves. The coup installed a brutal dictatorship led first briefly by the military and then until the late 1970s by the repressive, kleptocratic monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It was the U.S. imposition of the Shah, and its continuing support of his rule, that gave the 1979 revolution that overthrew him its anti-American character, not any bullshit like opposition to “modernity” or hating us for our freedom.
“It was the U.S. imposition of the Shah, and its continuing support of his rule, that gave the 1979 revolution that overthrew him its anti-American character, not any bullshit like opposition to ‘modernity’ or hating us for our freedom.”
The U.S. remained a dominant political force in Guatemala after the 1954 coup against Arbenz. From the 1960s until well into the 1990s, one military dictatorship after another unleashed death squads and perpetrated massacres of indigenous populations suspected of alignment with the insurgent opposition – all with knowledge and ongoing support of the U.S. government. The more than half century of political and economic destabilization, repression, and terror encouraged and sustained by our government, although seldom discussed in this regard, has much to do with creating the conditions that send Guatemalans northward in desperate, often dangerous pursuit of safety and economic opportunity.
From the late 1950s forward I was old and aware enough to watch U.S. interventionism unfold in real time. The intervention in Vietnam expanded into a genocidal horror that continued until I was in my late twenties, of course. But there were others along the way. Like many progressives here and around the world, we followed the Cuban revolution closely, perhaps with a particular attentiveness because of our family there, and celebrated defeat of the brutal, U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. I was fourteen when the Bay of Pigs invasion, led by reactionary Cuban exiles, many of them former Batista cronies—and bankrolled, trained and supported by the John F. Kennedy administration—was repulsed by the Cuban military and militias. Less broadly known were the multiple attempts the U.S. made to assassinate Fidel Castro and its support of terrorist acts against the Cuban people, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed seventy-three people. The U.S. also shielded the bombing’s perpetrator, Luis Posada Carriles, from prosecution for that and other crimes until his death last year.
I was sixteen in 1963 when Juan Bosch, the first freely elected president of the Dominican Republic in nearly forty years, was overthrown by a military coup backed by the Kennedy administration. When a popular insurgency was poised to return Bosch to power in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent 42,000 US troops to shore up the regime installed by the coup. In 1964 the US backed a military coup in Brazil against the democratically elected government of João Goulart, who had, like Bosch, pursued an agenda of mildly egalitarian redistribution. Both Kennedy and Johnson administrations had plotted with the Brazilian right-wing and military to prepare and eventually execute the coup. In its aftermath Brazil was ruled by a murderous military junta until 1985.
The pattern of U.S. interventionism persisted and, if anything, increased in scale during the 1970s. In 1971 the CIA supported and participated in planning a bloody coup against the left-oriented government of Bolivia and installed reactionary Hugo Banzer’s military dictatorship. The most blatant and egregious, and bloodiest, intervention during the decade—apart from the on-going carnage in Vietnam—was the 1973 coup against the popularly elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
“The pattern of U.S. interventionism persisted and, if anything, increased in scale during the 1970s.” The military coup assassinated President Allende and unleashed a regime of extreme repression, death squads and all, and economic plunder and immiseration that beset the country until at least into the 1990s. U.S. corporations and government agencies mounted an open, concerted campaign—employing many of the techniques now on display in Venezuela, e.g., lies, disinformation, terror, economic sabotage—over several years before the coup to destabilize the Chilean economy and undermine the democratically elected government. As Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart demonstrated in their wonderful book, The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds, even Disney and other comic books and cartoons were part of the increasingly bloodthirsty propaganda effort directed against Allende and his Unidad Popular government.
The Chilean coup installed the vicious dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who combined violent political repression and terror with giving control of economic policy to free-market ideologue Milton Friedman and his colleagues from the University of Chicago. Under Pinochet, Chile privatized public goods on a massive scale, became radically more unequal, and was a laboratory for the “Washington Consensus” that imposed austerity and neoliberal “reform” throughout Latin America and much of the rest of the world in the 1980s and 1990s. The misery that regime produced in Latin America eventually led to its repudiation in the “Pink Tide” of leftist governments elected in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and elsewhere in Latin America in this century.
Two years after the Chilean coup, in 1975, the U.S. and its right-wing allies, particularly in the southern cone of South America, implemented Operation Condor, a clandestine campaign of terror and assassination aimed at leftists, trade unions, and opposition political tendencies throughout the region. Operation Condor was supported by Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations and was a joint effort conducted by US-backed dictatorships in the region, mainly Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Estimates are that under its aegis as many or more than 60,000 people were killed throughout the hemisphere, including the murder of Orlando Letelier, former Allende government official, along with co-worker Ronni Moffitt at the Institute for Policy Studies, by a car bomb in Washington, DC in 1976. The regional right-wing networks that came together in Operation Condor have persisted, as is reflected in the several joint meetings of ultra-right parties and organizations in Brazil and Venezuela as the campaigns against the governments led by the Workers Party in Brazil and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela intensified over the past decade.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. interventionism in Central America that had continued unabated throughout the twentieth century rose to public consciousness and generated a significant protest movement in this country. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the dynastic dictatorship of the Somoza family in Nicaragua. Instructively, the front was named for Augusto César Sandino, who led resistance to the US occupation of the country from 1912 to 1934. The U.S., of course, supported the Somozas’ rule until the bitter end, when President Jimmy Carter withdrew official support because of the regime’s conspicuous human rights violations.
The Reagan administration, however, intensified “counterinsurgency” efforts in Central America. It waged a proxy war against the Sandinista government in contravention of Congress’s specific prohibition and financed it through equally illegal arms sales to the new U.S. enemy, Iran. The U.S. proxy forces in Nicaragua—clustered in four groups of thugs known collectively as the “contras”—also apparently financed their operations via cocaine smuggling, allegedly with CIA support. The Carter administration also supported the right-wing coup in El Salvador in 1979, as well as the military dictatorship it installed, and the U.S., through both Carter and Reagan administrations, continued to bankroll that murderous dictatorship—which mounted atrocity upon atrocity, assassinations and massacres of civilians—and support it with materiel, money, and troops (euphemistically called “advisors”) throughout its engagement in a twelve-year civil war against the left and other popular democratic forces. Reagan’s architect/liaison to the Nicaraguan contras and the savage Salvadoran right-wing was Elliott Abrams, who recently crawled out of the sewer to serve a similar role for the Trump administration vis-à-vis Venezuela.
“The U.S. is an imperialist power that routinely disregards other nations’ sovereignty, often enough violently.”
This thumbnail sketch touches on most of the bigger, more dramatic cases of imperialist U.S. interventionism during the Cold War era, but it is schematic. Missing, for example, are the CIA’s early 1960s machinations in the overthrow of successive governments in Ecuador, which led to sixteen years of military dictatorship and authoritarian rule; U.S. intervention in the newly independent Congo, including participating in the assassination of former prime minister Patrice Lumumba, or its plotting and participating in the bloody coup against the Sukarno government in Indonesia and subsequent atrocities.
My intention isn’t to be exhaustive, only to cut through the fog of historical amnesia that obscures the reality that the U.S. is an imperialist power that routinely disregards other nations’ sovereignty, often enough violently. Both Democratic and Republican administrations presume universal U.S. prerogative. It is telling that the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denied visas to ICC investigators conducting an inquiry into alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. From this perspective, it seems ironic, maybe even Freudian, that the U.S. foreign policy establishment in the Clinton administration created the notion “rogue state” to classify other governments it targeted as threats. This history also suggests something of a chickens-coming-home-to-roost quality about Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Considering that history should call for pause as the bipartisan interventionist consensus gears up once again, this time in an effort to topple the legitimately elected government of Venezuela. When I watched U.S. corporate media’s straight coverage of what should have been the manifestly absurd spectacle of political unknown—less than 20 percent of the Venezuelan population had heard of him before the US anointed him—Juan Guaidó’s press conference declaring himself president and then swearing himself in, I couldn’t decide whether it was so viscerally appalling because it reflects the extent to which post-Cold War interventionism has been normalized or because it brought to mind the automatically self-justificatory anticommunist interventionism of the pre-Vietnam years. In a matter of days, the media went from describing Guaidó first as “the man who proclaimed himself president,” then “the man the US recognizes as president,” and then “interim president” and the elected president, Nicolás Maduro, as “self-proclaimed.”
“History should call for pause as the bipartisan interventionist consensus gears up once again, this time in an effort to topple the legitimately elected government of Venezuela.”
Moreover, a rhetoric centering on proclamation of “humanitarian crisis” freezes discussion of the situation in Venezuela on images of the immediate moment, ultimately not much more than captions for the decontextualized visuals, and sidesteps the political issues at stake as well as the origins of the nominal crisis. Absent from the discussion is the fact that the U.S. backed a failed 2002 coup against then second-term elected president Hugo Chávez. Similarly absent are references to other moves from the standard interventionist playbook—efforts to manipulate global commodities markets to reduce prices on key exports (e.g., oil in Venezuela, copper in Allende’s Chile); freezing international assets and blockading exports and imports and then blaming the targeted government for economic instability; supporting economic and political sabotage (selective food shortages caused by grocery distributors’ holding back shipments and trucking company strikes that paralyze commerce, accompanied by bogus stories of mass starvation). Nor does the overheated discussion uncritically retailed by corporate media from the official US disinformation campaign mention the right-wing opposition’s history of openly inciting, provoking, and perpetrating violence, including assassination of United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and government officials and activists, not to mention its militant denunciation of the PSUV government’s egalitarian social and economic policy initiatives. And, as Max Blumenthal makes clear there is little reason to doubt that the recent countrywide blackout was the result of sabotage. [For credible, more comprehensive alternatives to the mainstream propaganda on Venezuela see here and here.]
We can only hope that the legitimately elected government of Venezuela will be able to withstand this onslaught, and that the U.S. will back away from its saber-rattling. It’s a sign of the left’s weakness that we can’t do much more to affect U.S. policy. Nearly as disturbing as the reality of the U.S. government’s disruptive efforts in Venezuela is the fact that the campaign aimed at demonizing and delegitimizing the Maduro government has provoked so little skepticism or protest in this country. In part, that lack of opposition is the product of nearly two decades of steady anti-Chavista propaganda—through Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations—and a public discourse that has been primed to accept any outrageous charges aimed at the Bolivarian movement and government.
“Nearly as disturbing as the reality of the U.S. government’s disruptive efforts in Venezuela is the fact that the campaign aimed at demonizing and delegitimizing the Maduro government has provoked so little skepticism or protest in this country.”
The current effort to topple the Venezuelan government throws into relief another factor that undermines opposition to U.S. adventurism—the extent to which opposition to imperialism has been displaced by concerns with human rights violations or “humanitarian crisis” in debates about U.S. interventionism and the implications of that displacement. Others have examined the ease with which human rights discourse can accommodate imperialist agendas [see, e.g., Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War (Monthly Review, 2007); Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Belknap, 2018)]. Characterization of the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian crisis has depoliticized discussion of the issues at stake there and debate about U.S. response. Thus proposals for a negotiated settlement, presumably with power-sharing, seem a plausible alternative to direct overthrow of the Maduro government. But the conflict in Venezuela doesn’t stem from some abstract partisan polarization that could be ameliorated with the assistance of clever political scientists; it’s a clash of two fundamentally and diametrically opposed understandings of how and in whose interests Venezuelan society should be organized and governed.
The opposition is rooted in the rabid right-wing and upper classes that have been militantly hostile to all of the social legislation and redistributive policies of the Chavez and Maduro governments. In addition to the failed coup against Hugo Chávez, the right has assassinated numerous local PSUV leaders and made multiple assassination attempts on President Maduro. Like its counterpart in Brazil, the Venezuelan right wing confronted the likelihood that the PSUV government was so popular with the poor and working classes that it was no longer possible to defeat it electorally. In Brazil, that concern led to a constitutional coup that impeached President Dilma Rousseff on trumped up charges and then convicted Workers Party leader and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, far and away the most popular politician in the country, on bogus corruption charges with what is effectively a life sentence behind bars [see William J. Mello and Altemar da Costa Muniz, “Class Struggle in Brazil: Who Will Defend the Working Class?”(nonsite.org, May 16, 2016); William J. Mello, “Class Struggle in Brazil: The Neoliberal Coup, an Attack on Workers and the Poor” (nonsite.org, July 11, 2018); and André Singer, “From a Rooseveltian Dream to the Nightmare of Parliamentary Coup”(nonsite.org, July 18, 2018)].
Humanitarian crisis cannot capture the deep, substantive, zero-sum political-economic nature of the conflict in Venezuela. That characterization seems to warrant a non-ideological call for urgency and compromise, but it is moralistic, not political. Moreover, much of the crisis has a Potemkin quality, produced through what Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal describe as the “regime change laboratory” of the United States. I discuss below Marcie Smith’s important examination of that apparatus and its links to “strategic nonviolence” as the equivalent of a left politics, also disconnected from class and political economy. This is politics that makes use of the symbolic architecture of insurgent social movement action to project an illusion of popular rising against tyranny. (One giveaway of the real focus of the demonstrations is that many of the signs brandished by demonstrators are in English.) Human rights discourse, because it ignores class and political economy, works well with that Potemkin activism, which mimes popular insurgency. For that reason it is important to consider how concern with human rights came to displace the earlier left focus on egalitarian social transformation.
“Humanitarian crisis cannot capture the deep, substantive, zero-sum political-economic nature of the conflict in Venezuela.”
As Steve Striffler points out in his timely new book, Solidarity: Latin America and the US Left in the Era of Human Rights, human rights discourse gained currency as a framework for critique of U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s partly because it gave liberals a way to claim moral high ground in criticizing the Nixon administration for its support of horrible dictatorships in Latin America without confronting the imperialist political objectives they shared with Nixon. At the same time, those dictatorships extirpated or drove underground much of the left in the region; therefore, in the absence of a vibrant left with which to align, progressives in the U.S. committed to a politics of international solidarity with Latin America also increasingly were drawn toward human rights discourse. As Striffler indicates, this orientation toward a fundamentally non-political approach to international solidarity would have serious consequences down the line. He stresses the important role the Central America peace movement, and the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)—which was a committed, ideologically left organization—in particular, played in challenging the Reaganite agenda for the region and even mitigating the carnage the U.S. and its allies were able to perpetrate. He notes as well, however, regarding the broader solidarity movement that “lack of a mass-oriented organization limited the movement’s capacity to act with coherence, with focus, or with the kind of political power necessary for changing the fundamentals of U.S.-Latin American relations.”
The extent to which human rights discourse has displaced discussion of actual differences of and conflicts over political program also has facilitated military interventionism. What qualify as human rights abuses can be amorphous, and transgressions can exist in the eye of the beholder. How, for instance, does the United States not figure among the world’s worst human rights violators with the highest per capita rate of incarceration, a third of its population with no or inadequate access to health care, the most extreme inequality in the world, indefinite incarceration at Guantánamo and elsewhere without due process or trial, extrajudicial killings of American citizens and others around the world? As Striffler argues regarding the emergent mobilization in the U.S. against Pinochet’s human rights violations in Chile,
Liberal versions of human rights offered an anti-interventionism that was politically soft, one whose central requirement was that the US government not support military regimes that committed the grossest of human rights violations (in itself a worthy goal). The politics and policies of these regimes, as well as the politics of their opponents, were essentially irrelevant, as were the deeper motivations of the U.S. government and corporations in other parts of the world. This is an anti-interventionism that moves beyond the politics of the Cold War by ignoring it, in effect declaring traditional politics irrelevant and left solidarity obsolete, undesirable, or anachronistic (Solidarity, 117).
In the 1990s, U.S. foreign interventionism took on a new rhetorical patina. During the Cold War, violations of other nations’ sovereignty, when justified at all, were cast as noble efforts to “save” the targeted countries from possible communist domination. In the heady moment after the Soviet Union’s collapse some in the chattering classes enthused about an openly imperial vision, touting the new “unipolar” world and the US role as “hegemon.” George H. W. Bush’s 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq seemed to punctuate that enthusiasm. Enforcing human rights emerged over the Elder Bush and Clinton administrations as a high-minded defense of intervention.
For example, alongside exulting in the global hegemon narrative, the Bush administration concocted a hoax—retailed by a fifteen year-old girl who only much later, after the hoax had done its work, was exposed as the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States and, of course, a member of the royal family—alleging that Iraqi soldiers had removed incubators from a Kuwaiti hospital and let hundreds of babies die. Perhaps the fictitious atrocity was intended to overcome the absurdity that the U.S. was concerned about Iraqi human rights violations in Kuwait in light of the Kuwaiti government’s own horrible human rights record. The dead babies hoax was joined by preposterously hyperbolic claims about the power of the Iraqi army that included literal comparisons to Hitler. The corporate newsfotainment industry swallowed and regurgitated all those ridiculous claims hook, line, and sinker, just as they are now doing regarding Venezuela.
Since then, charges of human rights violations have been a standard fig leaf over U. S. military interventionism, in much the same way as the British marched through Africa in the late nineteenth century to stamp out the slave trade and, incidentally, expand an empire. The Clinton administration invaded Haiti in 1994 ostensibly to restore deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been elected with two-thirds of the vote in perhaps the first honest election in the country’s history and who embraced a social-democratic program for Haiti. As later became clear, the U.S., while officially supporting Aristide’s presidency, supported the coup plotters who deposed him as well [See Nathan J. Robinson, “Haiti’s Clinton Problem” (Jacobin, October 22, 2016)]. Tellingly, when the Clinton administration restored Aristide to the presidency, it was with the stipulation that he drop his redistributive program and adopt the austerity regime proposed by the U.S.-backed opponent he’d handily defeated.
The elder Bush and Clinton administrations were instrumental in legitimizing humanitarian interventionism. After the Gulf War, the lame-duck Bush sent 25,000 combat troops to Somalia in support of a U.N. peacekeeping mission; the Clinton administration reduced the troop commitment significantlly but shifted the mission’s focus to something more like what would now be called regime change, as U.S. forces turned to pursuit of “fugitive warlord” Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid. Over his two terms Clinton—again with the assistance of the guide-dog news media—normalized the fundamentally Orwellian notion of “humanitarian bombing” with aerial bombing campaigns and/or missile attacks in Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Serbia. Some of those campaigns advanced a template for doubling down on humanitarian interventionism by invoking the imperative of stopping genocide as the reason for intervention. As Mahmood Mamdani argues in his important book examining the bases of the early 2000s’ Darfur genocide hoax, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, the genocide charge often is a gambit intended to preempt debate or calls for nuance in analysis or action because the charge implies a moral urgency that renders such calls for judiciousness as effectively complicit with evil. Salacious charges of human rights atrocities function in the same way to undercut debate about military interventionism.
Everyone knows the carnage that the U.S. has unleashed on the world during the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, especially but by no means only, in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as how the “war on terror” has made permanent war everyday life and underwritten cartoonish characterizations like “failed state,” “rogue state,” and “axis of evil” that take the place of sober analysis. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield provides an eye-opening and chilling account of the truly global scope and extent of U.S. interventionism.
Parallel to post-Cold War effusions about a “New World Order” led by the United States as sole superpower, elements of reactionary stab-in-the-back ideology about Vietnam infiltrated popular common sense even among liberals. Reaganites and other rightists had long yearned to purge themselves of the bad taste of defeat in Vietnam, particularly as they convinced themselves that the war was lost not on the battlefield but through the perfidy of spineless politicians and disloyal critics at home. This line—all too reminiscent of German reactionaries’ great lie about the causes of defeat in World War I—had been reinforced as common sense through popular culture, e.g., in the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films and Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series in the 1980s, and propagation of the P.O.W./M.I.A. fantasy. Where in the 1970s liberals were likely to understand the lesson of the Vietnam War to be skepticism regarding military intervention, in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years liberals generated their own sanitized version of overcoming the bad taste of Vietnam line, in the form of calls for national healing.
Part of the liberal posture of judiciousness was a mea culpa for the left’s supposed sin of having been antagonistic to the soldiers who returned from Vietnam, despite the facts that a) no substantial evidence exists to support a claim that antiwar protesters assaulted returning GIs and b) it was ultimately the antiwar movement in the military that brought the war to an end (See H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies and MIA, or Mythmaking in America as well as Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam). Franklin and Lembcke discuss how, for example, constant repetition of the lie that antiwar activists spat on returning soldiers in San Francisco has colonized Americans’ consciousness to the extent that even veterans whose service records demonstrate that it couldn’t possibly have happened to them came to believe that they’d personally had that experience.
“The liberal discourse of healing from Vietnam muddled opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, as it encouraged framing opposition to the war with declarations that it was opponents who really supported the troops, a claim that backhandedly legitimized the right-wing lie about the anti-Vietnam War movement.”
A similar, and similarly telling, fiction is that only self-centered hippies and elitist students opposed the war. As Penny Lewis reports in Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, opinion polls during the war showed that “working-class people were never more likely than their middle-class counterparts to support the war, and, in many instances, they were more likely to oppose it” and that “Johnson and Nixon found their most consistent support among more affluent and educated groups.”
The liberal discourse of healing from Vietnam muddled opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, as it encouraged framing opposition to the war with declarations that it was opponents who really supported the troops, a claim that backhandedly legitimized the right-wing lie about the anti-Vietnam War movement by insisting that we take care not to repeat a non-existent earlier transgression. The sensibility underlying that odd “we support the troops” formulation—after all, when do rank-and-file soldiers decide whether or not to make war?—was consistent with representations of the war in late 1980s popular films like “Platoon” (1986) and “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), which focused on the horrors and irrationalities of the war as experienced by soldiers in the field. To that extent, the films could seem to occupy the space of antiwar narratives, but they were actually much closer to the right’s stab-in-the-back line. (“The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” in the late 1970s had similarly dressed up right-wing narratives about the war in antiwar garb—the former by depicting North Vietnamese soldiers as sadistic monsters and projecting onto them images and practices associated with the U.S. military; the latter by asserting, albeit subtly, at least before release of the extended version, “Apocalypse Now, Redux” with forty-nine minutes cut from the original release that make the point bluntly, that the U.S. failed because the politicians and desk generals didn’t have the will to do what was necessary to win. “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” were more powerful as films than the pair from the late 1980s, but the latter films appeared at a moment more generally receptive to rehabilitation of the war.)
Although rumination on the experiences and perspectives of grunt troops in the field gives a sense of capturing the war’s most immediate and authentic reality, it obscures the war’s purposes, logic and contexts, especially its place in the long pattern of anti-democratic arrogance that has driven U.S. foreign policy against any regimes or movements that indicate greater regard for the well-being of their own citizenries than for U.S. corporate and geopolitical interests. In contrast to the field troops who embody that authenticity, the distant headquarters’ commanders appear in those films as clueless bureaucrats and hamstrung, deskbound generals committed to managing a public relations war more than one on the battlefield. This view is essentially the same as the stab-in-the-back story, minus only explicit allegations of betrayal, and that distinction says much about the limits of liberal opposition to U.S. military interventionism in general, particularly in the Cold War and post-Cold War period.
Tellingly, the films dissolve into superficially apolitical hand-wringing about senseless, tragic irrationalities, perverse incentives, and naïve, self-defeating good intentions. None of those banalities even acknowledge, much less object to, how that war fit into a pattern of U.S. interventionism. Worse, all that cheap moralism leaves the implication that a more carefully and rationally managed intervention might have been acceptable, perhaps even successful, while not copping to a coherent notion of what success might have been. The imperialist right, never squeamish in its views of the extent of U.S. prerogative, was and remains on hand to fill in clear, and bloody and repressive, standards for both what a better-managed intervention would have been like, what criteria would have defined success, and how it would have been attained. This is one of the ways that liberals can differ from reactionaries only insofar as nominal commitments to civility hold them back from admitting the implications of the actions and policy courses they support. They thus bring to mind Bertolt Brecht’s caustic 1935 comparison of liberal anti-fascists to “those who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood. They are easily satisfied if the butcher washes his hands before weighing the meat” (Bertolt Brecht, Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties). This is also a helpful perspective to keep in mind when considering the phenomenon of “constitutional coup,” which the U.S. and its anti-democratic allies have pursued in recent years against duly elected leftist governments in Paraguay, Brazil and Venezuela. And the Obama administration, lest we forget, backed an old-fashioned coup in 2009 against the elected leftist government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.
In the nearly two decades since the September 11, 2001 attacks, sentimental expressions of support for military personnel have become an everyday ritual stifling dissent from militarist foreign policy. Not long after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq came the conformist convention of exhortation to make public expressions of support and appreciation for military personnel for “keeping us safe,” or “protecting our freedom,” when the truth is that U.S. intervention across the globe more likely does exactly the opposite. Then came small gestures of special consideration—e.g., boarding flights early, etc.—and special discounts and perqs in commercial transactions, often enough limiting to military personnel what might have been decent customer service for all. Eventually, that acknowledgment morphed into the ubiquitous, banal “thank you for your service” greeting. The gesture’s banality obscures its more deeply insidious character. Some years ago, as my flight approached Orlando, a flight attendant instructed passengers to pull down the shades and turn on the flight attendant call button lights, while she dimmed the cabin lights and read the horrid poem, “It Is the Soldier,” which begins “It is the soldier, not the minister, Who has given us freedom of religion,” and includes such other gems as “It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, Who has given us the freedom to protest.” She then urged us to give a round of applause to acknowledge all the active duty military personnel and veterans on board. I usually keep my head buried in a book during these demands for public display of militarism dressed up as patriotism. Fortunately, in this case the other person in my row seemed just as put off as I was.
“In the nearly two decades since the September 11, 2001 attacks, sentimental expressions of support for military personnel have become an everyday ritual stifling dissent from militarist foreign policy.”
It has been chilling to watch as this society has become steadily more militarized since Sept 11. An effect of nearly two decades of war is that a large enough percentage of the population has participated directly in military action in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere—2.8 million individuals (more than in Vietnam) and more than 5.4 million deployments—that shared experience in either invasion or occupation is now a common basis for bonding among random strangers, especially those under forty-five years of age, that is, those with no memory of Vietnam or even Grenada, the Caribbean island nation of 100,000 that the Reagan administration invaded in 1983 to topple a government it didn’t like or even George H. W. Bush’s 1989 invasion of Panama.
Moreover, the stab-in-the-back lie about Vietnam has become so thoroughly embedded as cultural common sense that, two decades after the Gulf War and phony antiwar films, even President Barack Obama rehearsed a version of the right-wing fantasy in 2012 by asserting that Vietnam veterans had “often been blamed for a war you didn’t start when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor…It was a national shame, a disgrace that never should have happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.” Obama’s speech was part of an effort explicitly intended to rehabilitate the Vietnam War as a worthy and patriotic undertaking (pdf) through honoring and recognizing Veterans. Nor was this a one-off move for Obama. In his “patriotism speech” on the campaign trail, just after he’d secured the nomination in 2008, he complained that
some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the ’60s reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases the very idea of America itself, by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and, perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
Increasing militarization and proliferation of an empty, depoliticized human rights discourse, especially as aided by corporate news media that function all too enthusiastically as a steno pool for the State Department and military establishment, have produced a way of thinking and talking about international affairs that never rises above the level of puerile morality plays and Manichaean battles of Good and Evil. Reagan described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The George W. Bush administration began with straining to link governments which it opposed to international terror networks. Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Syria have been lumped together with no particular justification. Bush’s minions began referring to President Hugo Chavez as a dictator, despite the fact that he was repeatedly re-elected with larger margins than any American president and in elections universally rated among the cleanest and most open in the world. “Dictator” is a pejorative applied to the head of any government the U.S. opposes.
Of course, the corporate media and the liberal chattering class seldom object to aggressive U.S. interventions, military or otherwise, in the affairs of other states on the principle of respecting other nations’ sovereignty. Instead, in delineating what it’s supposed to mean to be “informed,” they reinforce the imperialist—what other term could reasonably apply?—view that reduces the world to a morphing, unstable assortment of global “threats” that the U.S. must manage, contain, neutralize, or overcome. Television commercials for the armed forces that, e.g., tout the U.S. Navy as a “global force for good” or the Marines as “the first to move towards the sounds of tyranny, injustice and despair,” [See Smedley D. Butler above] hammer on that same message. A new Air Force ad manages to go a step further and joins militarism with neoliberal feminism and superhero fantasy in celebrating female pilots.
“Of course, the corporate media and the liberal chattering class seldom object to aggressive U.S. interventions, military or otherwise, in the affairs of other states on the principle of respecting other nations’ sovereignty.”
It was only a matter of time before human rights anti-interventionism would become human rights interventionism. As human rights activism was removed from conventional left projects of social transformation and took on an intentionally apolitical character, it accommodated ever more easily to a tit-for-tat liberal moralism that defines human rights violations in abstract ways that conveniently ignore both the sources of conflict in other countries and domestic U.S. conditions and practices. In the 1990s, allegations of genocide raised the moral stakes of non-intervention. In addition to charges emerging from the wars in the Balkans, human rights advocates’ responses to the mass murder of Tutsi people by the Hutu majority government in the Rwandan civil war helped impel toward the transition from anti-interventionist to interventionist human rights ideology. Assertions that the West stood idly by as the Hutu government slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus sparked comparisons to Nazi exterminism and provoked declarations that no similar travesty should ever again be permitted to occur. Suggestions that western inaction stemmed from lack of concern for Africans’ suffering only redoubled the sense of righteousness that attached to the indignation.
Genocide thus became the gold standard for justifying demands for intervention in contravention of national sovereignty because, as Mamdani argued regarding Darfur, charging genocide raises the bar of moral urgency to the highest height, from which any skepticism or hesitation is tantamount to criminal complicity. (The genocide charge vis-à-vis western Sudan was ratified by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who certainly was familiar enough with genocide, given his record in Vietnam and role in retailing the lies that sold George W. Bush’s trumped up war on Iraq.) Others may recall as well how curious it was for those with anti-imperialist sensibilities to see Save Darfur activists contemptuously dismiss concerns for Sudanese sovereignty as immoral pettifoggery and demand that the U.S., NATO, or whatever western military force invade western Sudan immediately to stop the purported genocide.
Moral panic completely displaced sober political analysis, and the Save Darfur movement, which was largely propelled by boutique fashion consumption and celebrity endorsement, was a moral panic with little possibility of unpalatable consequences for the righteous. Indeed, Mamdani suggested that an element of the Save Darfur movement’s appeal was that it gave Americans a vehicle for acting out antiwar protest without risking hostility for opposing the U.S. wars of aggression simultaneously engulfing Afghanistan and Iraq. Genocide claims appeal also because human rights activism is largely conducted by and through NGOs, which depend on performance-based fundraising, and that in turn requires metrics of atrocity—body counts—to demonstrate both urgency of need and organizational accomplishment. Much interest-group agitation and advocacy proceeds through urging a perspective that glosses over nuance in order to stress the extent and significance of issues or groups advocated for, and that can provide a material springboard for launching moral panic, e.g., as we have seen regarding such issues as sex trafficking and ritual satanic child abuse. And once underway, moral panic warrants cavalier attitudes toward protections like due process, right to confront one’s accuser, or national sovereignty. It’s not difficult to see how human rights activism can become human rights imperialism, particularly because moral panic eschews consideration of both the concrete sources of conflict and the possible consequences of actions taken in favor of commitment to righteous, and depoliticized, moral urgency. In anthropologist Roger Lancaster’s succinct judgment, “Nothing but nothing good can come of this approach. It paves the way for public emotion, not public opinion. It degrades the public sphere and cretinizes the public.”
Beginning in the early 2000s a series of highly visible insurgencies erupted in several former republics of the Soviet Union, the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere, often lumped together not quite accurately as the “color revolutions” and eventually including the “Arab Spring.” These have generally followed similar scripts – large, mediagenic, and militant street demonstrations, generic charges of corruption and authoritarianism, calls for equally generic democracy, and, instructively, many protest signs written in English for consumption by international media. To a more hard-bitten political sensibility many of these eruptions seemed to have a Potemkin quality, in part because a) their complaints and demands were so diffuse, b) they didn’t seem clearly rooted in particular sectors of the population, and c) they were so conspicuously directed toward foreign, English-speaking audiences. I couldn’t figure out why the New York Times seemed so enthralled with some of them, especially the so-called Arab Spring insurgencies. Then the picture began to clear up.
The object of these insurgencies, or “revolutions,” has been “regime change,” the familiar nickname—it’s really not a euphemism any more—for U.S.-led efforts to topple other governments. As Marcie Smith shows in a powerful forthcoming article, “A False Peace: Gene Sharp, Nonviolence, and Class Struggle,” (nonsite.org, April 2019), those color revolutions were largely orchestrated with US assistance, typically from the National Endowment for Democracy, a Reagan era nonprofit created in 1983 to subvert governments around the world, and the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), a related nonprofit formed the same year and committed to “defending democratic freedoms and institutions; opposing oppression, dictatorship and genocide; and reducing reliance on violence as an instrument of policy.” As Smith reports:
Through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, AEI and its affiliates would track, build relationships with, and train nonviolent protesters. AEI did not prioritize fighting dictators in U.S. client states like Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Chile, El Salvador, or Guatemala. Rather, it consistently focused its efforts in countries where political leadership was resisting NATO’s geostrategic priorities and/or the privatization-focused economic programs being pushed by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and U.S. Treasury: countries like the Soviet Union, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and post-collapse Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia. Most of these target regimes were corrupt and dictatorial to varying degrees; the citizenry had plenty of reason to want change. But always, “the social demands for bread, for work, for effective public services, even for an end to police repression, that drove people into the streets” remained unmet. Rather, where AEI’s nonviolent revolution succeeded, the policies of the International Monetary Fund-enforced “Washington Consensus” followed: selling off state assets, deregulating and privatizing state or worker-owned industry, removing price controls, establishing free trade zones, and making cuts to social spending.
Smith recounts an extraordinary history through which U.S. subversion has been staged as a popular-seeming pageantry of protest marches, demonstrations, and calls for democracy, evoking imagistic comparisons to the mass protests of the US civil rights, antiwar and student movements. She tracks that history partly through the career of Gene Sharp, a founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, and widely understood to be a “guru” of nonviolent political resistance. Sharp, she points out, “was compared to Gandhi, praised by progressive heavyweights like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky [and] was, in general, viewed as an ally of the downtrodden and a friend of the left.”
She argues, however, that Sharp “is better understood as one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals of the latter twentieth century. Sharp developed his core theories between the 1960s and 1980s at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, an elite Cold War institute initially co-directed by Henry Kissinger and future CIA chief Robert Bowie, where he worked closely with Nobel prize winning game theorist Thomas Schelling. Sharp held the appointment for thirty years. He advocated for a ‘politics of nonviolent action’ on the basis of strategy, not sentiment, and his ideas were embedded in a steady, demonstrable commitment to laissez-faire economics and a vanguard neoliberal hostility to the ‘centralized state.’”
With the rise of the Reagan-era foreign policy of communist “rollback,” Sharp began promoting “strategic nonviolence” internationally through the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), which he co-founded with Peter Ackerman, then right hand man to “junk bond king” Michael Milken, and later a Cato Institute board member. With the help of AEI consultant Colonel Robert Helvey, a former Defense Intelligence Agency attaché and Dean of the National Defense Intelligence College, AEI trained activists around the world, consistently in countries with administrations opposing the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury-led “Washington Consensus.” Sharp’s symbolic warfare did not offer opposition activists strategies for organizing toward, winning, and using state power to transform social relations or even invigorate democracy. Rather, it was designed to collapse governments by dissolving the common will that buttresses them. Sharp’s nonviolent “ju-jitsu” was effective, distinguishing itself as a powerful weapon of entropy in the U.S. “regime change” arsenal. In the wake of nonviolent regime collapse in places like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, life was re-ordered according to the dictates of Wall Street and the City.
It is particularly significant that Smith argues that Sharp, who died in 2018, and the tendency with which he was associated, contributed substantially to shaping the mindset and strategic orientations of the U.S. left during the 1970s and 1980s.
Sharp also had a major impact on the domestic politics of the U.S. left, most importantly through something called Movement for a New Society (MNS), a national activist network started in 1971. Though Sharp was never a member, he was a mentor to MNS founder George Lakey, and his ideas helped form the bedrock of MNS ideology: “revolutionary nonviolence.” Echoing Sharp, “revolutionary nonviolence” sought to topple governments through cross-class, consensus-based direct action, called “strategic nonviolence,” in order to usher in a decentralized world society. MNS argued that this plan was better than pursuing state power or engaging in class struggle. In the 1970s and 1980s, MNS widely promoted these ideas through then-novel mass activist training programs in the anti-nuclear, peace, environmental, feminist, LGBT, and Central American solidarity movements. MNS disbanded in 1987, but their legacy is far-reaching: strategic nonviolence is the dominant strategy of U.S. protest movements today, and revolutionary nonviolence the strongest ideological tendency, with significant effects on attitudes about the state, class struggle, and political organization and culture.
This perspective on Sharp and the nature of his political involvements is controversial. Many highly regarded progressives who associated with him have denounced Sharp’s left critics, claiming that charges linking him, AEI and their activities to U.S. foreign policy interests are ill-intended lies and slander. In 2008 Stephen Zunes assembled 138 signatories—including Zinn, Chomsky, and Daniel Ellsberg—to an “Open Letter in Support of Gene Sharp and Strategic Nonviolent Action” (pdf) that retails such denunciations and allows that, at best, criticisms “represent a gross misunderstanding of the nature of strategic nonviolent action in the struggle for political freedom.”
It’s understandable that those with personal connections to Sharp and his initiatives would be inclined to think well of and defend them. Yet, Smith’s article is deeply researched, carefully argued, and persuasive. It’s noteworthy as well that the defenses of Sharp, AEI, and “strategic nonviolent action in the struggle for political freedom” miss the point in an instructive way. Zunes’s statement asserts, “The nature of the Institution’s work, however, is transpartisan, cutting across political boundaries and conceptions, making its resources available to virtually anyone who is interested in learning about strategic nonviolent action. Providing educational materials and consultation on strategic nonviolent action to particular individuals, therefore, should not be misinterpreted as endorsing their ideological agenda or as evidence of collaboration with any government.”
Smith demonstrates that that claim is hardly true in practice: as she points out, the list of regimes targeted for campaigns of “strategic nonviolent action” overlaps far too closely with those on the U.S. hit list. The assertion that “[p]roviding educational materials and consultation on strategic nonviolent actions to particular individuals should not be misinterpreted as endorsing their ideological agenda or as evidence of collaboration with any government” at best is incredibly naïve or illustrates, in the spirit of the Brecht quote above, what’s wrong with proceduralist liberalism. That people with a history of opposition to U.S. imperialism can take it seriously also illustrates a fundamental problem with a notion of progressive politics that subordinates pursuit of an affirmative vision of social transformation to a belief, which is at the same time technicistic and mystical, that action—or “resistance”—is a politics in itself. Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti—in their essay titled “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents”—sounded the alarm more than a decade ago about the rise of that tendency in the cultural space that would be occupied by a serious left.
The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists. That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.
“The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists. That’s right, Activismists.”
That turn in part is an accommodation to a history of defeat for a programmatic left. If it’s not possible to win anything bold, it’s understandable that some who want a better world will be drawn to views that emphasize different standards of success. Smith shows, however, that the notion that nonviolent action is a politics in itself marks the convergence point of naïve, purely formalist liberal proceduralism, mendacity, willful self-delusion, self-gratifying moralistic activistism, understandable impatience in the face of clear outrages, and acceptance—intentional or not—of neoliberal capitalism as nature.
As Smith observes, this is a “progressive” activism that is largely blind to political economy and class struggle. It doesn’t seriously examine the political and structural conflicts that underlie unrest in the countries toward which activists direct their judgments. It relies on what Lancaster describes as a degraded and cretinized public discourse in which moralistic clichés stand in for analysis. Corruption, for example, is an ambiguous charge, as is tyranny, or state repression; as characterizations, they can depend on perspective and social position – the concrete interests with which one aligns in a particular social order. A presumptive mindset that governments’ actions are oppressive and protest demonstrations express popular will reflects the extent to which a fundamentally reactionary anti-statism is embedded in several political tendencies that operate as a left in the United States. Without moorings to definite constituencies or need to consider strategic realpolitik as a constraint on one’s own political practice, freelance radicals have little basis for making nuanced, pragmatic judgments about left movements and governments that have to navigate maintaining broad, internally contradictory coalitions while trying not to undermine their larger transformative objectives. Such disconnected radicals often don’t grasp the reality that movements actually contesting for and trying to consolidate power and to govern inevitably have to improvise through messiness and contradictions.
That mindset has fueled ultraleft denunciations of the SYRIZA government in Greece for not leaving the Eurozone, despite the massive hardships that move would have imposed on the Greek population and, perhaps more to the point, SYRIZA wouldn’t have been able to win if they hadn’t pledged not to withdraw. Similar pro forma ultraleft denunciations were directed toward the Workers Party governments of both Lula and especially Dilma Rousseff in Brazil for conciliating capital and toward the Chavista government in Venezuela for cronyism, corruption, and caudillismo. Nominal leftists have attacked Evo Morales on similar grounds for his pursuit of a fourth presidential term. In part this inclination to pontificate is an expression of the arrogance that only ignorance can produce; the absence of sophisticated knowledge and understanding can make for a superficial clarity that facilitates making clean, peremptory judgments. Some western leftists’ hyper-judgmental disposition regarding the perceived political inadequacies of leftist governments may partly stem from frustration that those governments don’t live up to expectations projected onto them by radicals in the advanced capitalist world hoping for revolutionary inspiration. (Trotskyists, of course, are never satisfied with any movement that actually can attain power.) To some extent also the tendency to judge those governments smacks of a characteristically American presumption that we get to pass judgment on any and every government in the world by standards we propound. That mindset also can play neatly into, even perfume, our own state’s imperialist agendas, which, to put it mildly, are never blind to political economy and capitalist class power.
Brazil offers a concrete example of how the left in form, right in essence regime change game plan can work. What became the Potemkin demonstrations against Dilma began as an insignificant student protest against a small increase in bus and train fares, which the right joined and overwhelmed to transform it into an anti-Workers Party/anti-Dilma mobilization. The knee-jerk anti-statist, anti-political party stances embraced at least rhetorically by some social movement activists provided easy portals for the right’s entry and takeover. The fantasy of politically pure, spontaneous popular uprising gave cover to the right’s systematic efforts to undermine the genuinely popular Workers Party government. Right-wing forces turned the demonstrations into an anti-government campaign driven by their signature charges of corruption. As the demonstrations continued, their reactionary character became clearer; signs in English disclosed one intended audience, and those in Portuguese calling for return of the dictatorship indicated another.
Consistent with Smith’s account of how strategic nonviolence campaigns aim to destabilize governments by undermining their legitimacy, the spectacle of the demonstrations left an exaggerated impression of the breadth of the social base those in the streets represented. In both Brazil and Venezuela, the popular governments threatened to become so deeply institutionalized and broadly popular that they’d be nearly invincible electorally. In both cases, generic charges of corruption and militant street demonstrations of dubious origin carried the right’s campaigns of destabilization. In Brazil the effects of this campaign were a) to neutralize or immobilize, cast suspicion on or block politically organized sectors from engaging in immediate debates and b) in the longer term to weaken the prevailing mechanisms of political engagement and dispute, as well as the options available for political change. That politics as spectacle and its constant drumbeat of condemnation of the government helped to disorganize politics and create fertile ground for the right. It led to withdrawal of sectors of society that had in the past supported the left, which in turn led to low voter turnout and prompted politically less committed elected officials to flee to political parties outside the Workers Party’s coalition. Most of all, in disconnecting politics from concrete issues, it muddled and debased political debate and—along with Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s arrest and incarceration—ultimately weakened the political alliance needed to govern.
“Even many of those who consider themselves radicals, while denouncing corporate bias and ideological censorship, assume that progressive political strategy should require pressuring capitalist media to provide a neutral forum for anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist perspectives. They won’t; they’re on the other side.”
The signs in English gave away that those demonstrations were partly intended to discredit the Workers Party government in U.S. public opinion. And, as with the similar but more violent demonstrations in Venezuela, they were successful at least in clouding the actual issues at stake in the political struggle within the country. The drift of much of the internationally oriented U.S. left away from political economy and toward a reflexive anti-statism also contributed to confusion and misunderstanding here about what was actually going on in Brazil. Since Dilma’s removal from office, the government has been on a mission to dismantle the apparatus of social protections the Workers Party had secured and now may even be moving toward a second stage of the coup that will return the country to military rule.
A non-, or perhaps worse, consciously “post”-ideological left in the U.S. can fail to notice class struggle in disruptive or violent politics elsewhere. That myopia no doubt is reinforced by a U.S. politics that is primarily an electoral and interest-group affair and without deep ideological differences between the dominant parties. No matter how much political scientists and the commentariat from which they take their cues go on about the problem of partisan polarization, the putative remedy of bipartisanship gives away the reality that the substantive differences in mainstream political debate are incremental, all neatly encompassed within hegemonic neoliberalism. Thus, as Steve Striffler noted in his essay at Common Dreams earlier this week, “Venezuela, US Solidarity, and the Future of Socialism,” a left that is both institutionally weak and operates within that hegemonic neoliberal politics can be swayed or immobilized by charges framed on decontextualized proceduralist allegations and depoliticized human rights rhetoric. Because this sort of left is not animated by a vision of socialist transformation and is understandably motivated to move in from the margins of political discourse, its adherents sometimes even join in U.S. propaganda campaigns against demonized governments in the interest of preserving “credibility.” I can’t count how many entreaties I’ve received since the 1980s to sign onto some ritual denunciation of purported human rights abuses by governments the U.S. opposed. The rationale has always been the same: if we expect our defenses of left governments or political programs to be taken seriously, we must show that we’re even-handed in denouncing abuses. These entreaties beg questions like, “Taken seriously by whom? Credibility in whose eyes?” The answer to those questions can be only the public “conversation” conducted through corporate media by opinion-shaping elites, i.e., credibility in the eyes of the principal architects and propagandists of imperialist interventionism.
The inclination is an artifact of the broader progressive movement’s powerlessness and retreat from a coherent vision of social transformation, as is reflected in the commonly expressed call to resist oppression. Smith and Striffler both discuss the problem of a broader U.S. left that has no clear social base or class politics. Not being tied to a particular base or political program encourages seeking to inform and appeal to a diffuse, general population—the “people” or the “public”—as a political approach. And the goal of reaching a diffuse public underwrites concern with gaining or maintaining access to mainstream media, which in turn disposes toward projecting watered-down, moralistic formulations that seem acceptable to liberal sensibilities. In “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent” (nonsite.org, March 3, 2017), Virginia Hotchkiss examines this phenomenon’s perverse impact on protest and mass demonstrations as a form of political expression. Her description of the emergence of an industry that facilitates formulation of ostensibly insurgent politics as a public relations project tracks closely to Smith’s description of Sharp et al.’s “politics of nonviolent action.” Cautioning about what she calls “Social Movement, Inc.,” Hotchkiss observes:
The politics that inform these actions, where not entirely opaque, are based on a semi-spiritual belief that the right recipe of symbolism, passion, and powerful visuals will inspire significant political action that will alter the course of this or that unjust policy or state of affairs. Organizers want to inspire the people who view their protest images on their phones. To this end, they reach for clichéd tropes of earlier social movements to galvanize the imagination of onlookers. They sing the familiar songs, sometimes with their own lyrics added in, and steel themselves in the unimpeachable credentials of social justice saints of yore. In one characteristic overreach, an organizer told a crowd that they were the “Harriet Tubmans” of the environmental movement, freeing people from the slavery of fossil fuels. Historical inspiration belongs in these fights, but an equation with Tubman exposes the delusion of demonstrators who believe they are in the midst of a powerful social movement instead of a tired ritual.
Alongside this myth of the spark that will set the prairie on fire, there is generally the belief that the person targeted, be it a governor, CEO, or even the President, will “do the right thing” if confronted with demonstrations that make a powerful appeal to his or her moral compass. Both “theories of change” rely almost entirely on a media strategy, and thus the steady drift of Social Movement Inc. into PR land.
Even many of those who consider themselves radicals, while denouncing corporate bias and ideological censorship, assume that progressive political strategy should require pressuring capitalist media to provide a neutral forum for anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist perspectives. They won’t; they’re on the other side. The stubborn belief that corporate media must give opposition voices an honest hearing is an effect of decades of defeat and the incoherence that has resulted from it, including a “left” political imagination whose horizons have retracted to incremental modifications of liberal capitalism. The reality of powerlessness feeds a sense that the exigencies of the moment supersede the need to struggle to build the power necessary for pursuing a transformative agenda. Inability to mobilize mass action in support of unconventional positions—e.g., defense of the PSUV government in Venezuela or its PT counterpart in Brazil against U.S.-backed right-wing attacks—calls forth, simultaneously, public expressions of existentially defiant but politically impotent rhetoric and opportunistic appeals to a moralistic least common denominator like objection to alleged atrocities and human rights violations.
As Striffler makes clear in his essay, that failure is not only one for international solidarity; failure to articulate a clear defense of efforts to build socialism in Venezuela and elsewhere also undermines our own struggle for socialist transformation here.