Friday, July 06, 2007

The Militarization of American Youth


Across the country, the U.S. military is failing to meet its recruitment goals. To address this problem, the Pentagon has been rapidly expanding its programs designed to entice young people to enlist. It is now spending $3.4 billion dollars annually, an average of $14,000 per new recruit. Using flashy marketing campaigns, television spots, and even developing its own videogames, the Army is bombarding young people with images that glorify guns and violence. Recruiters use elaborate PR strategies: they set up shop at malls, movie theaters, sporting events, and concerts, and they cruise around town in decked-out Humvees that blast music popular among teenagers.

The military presence in our nation’s public schools is growing at an alarming rate. Educational institutions in working-class areas are prime targets of military recruiters, who particularly stalk the corridors of vocational schools. The military considers students to be easy targets who can be manipulated into signing up by promising them career training, money for college, free travel, and adventure. Recruiters are PR experts; like drug dealers and tobacco company representatives, they market a dangerous product with side effects they don’t want their potential customers to know about.

While recruiters tell students that they can receive $70,000 for college through the Montgomery GI Bill, the average payout to veterans is only $2,151. To be eligible for educational benefits, soldiers must commit to serving three years on active duty and must also pay a nonrefundable “deposit” to the military of $100 a month for a year. Considering that only 43% of the soldiers who sign up for the program receive any money, the majority who seek financial assistance through the GI Bill actually end up paying the military $1,200 and get nothing in return. And a soldier who does get the average payment of $2,151 actually receives only $951 beyond his or her own contribution. Only 15% of all recruits graduate with a four-year degree.

The skills learned in the military are often nontransferable to civilian employment, and many people find themselves in need of retraining after leaving the armed services. Veterans in the 20-34 age bracket have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans and those who are employed typically earn 12% to 15% less. Most people would be surprised to learn that veterans make up one-third of all homeless people and half of all homeless men. While in the military, 65% of enlistees state that they are not satisfied with their current jobs.

There is a variety of other less-than-flattering statistics about the military that recruiters fail to mention. People of color represent 1/3 of all enlisted personnel but only 1/8 of the officers. Nearly 90% of women in the military report being sexually harassed, and 1/3 report being raped. In addition to the more than 3,500 US men and women who have died in the current war in Iraq, tens of thousands have been wounded and are returning home with traumatic brain injuries, loss of limbs, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other serious illnesses related to exposure to the depleted uranium used in US munitions.

Recruiters are under enormous pressure to meet their quota of two recruits a month, which requires them to contact an average of 120 potential enlistees over that time. Since fewer than 10% of all recruits seek out military employment on their own, recruiters face the daunting task of finding the large majority of new military recruits. Thus it’s no surprise that a central recruiting tactic is a combination of deception and omission. One recruiter recently interviewed in The Boston Globe characterized his work: “You have to convince those little punks to do something…I figure if I can sell this, I can sell anything.” By the Army’s own count, there were 320 substantiated cases of what it calls recruitment improprieties in 2004, up from 199 in 1999, and 213 in 2002. The offenses varied from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq. The number of those investigated rose to 1,118 in 2004, or nearly one in five of all recruiters, up from 913 in 2002, or one in eight. A recruiter interviewed by the New York Times said it best, “The problem is that no one wants to join [and] we have to play fast and loose with the rules to get by.”


The military manual for the high school recruiters offers us a window into their strategies. It suggests that recruiters make themselves “indispensable” to schools and that, in addition to the wealth of student data currently given to recruiters by school administrations, recruiters should access informal sources of information such as school yearbooks. Also stating that it is “only natural for a potential enlistee to resist,” the manual suggests ways to turn aside objections and lists techniques for closing the deal, such as the Challenge Close. It advises that the Challenge Close works best with young men, and that “You must be careful how you use this one. You must be on friendly terms with your prospect, or this may backfire. When you find difficulty in closing, particularly when your prospect’s interest seems to be waning, challenge his ego by suggesting that basic training may be too difficult for him and he might not be able to pass it. Then, if he accepts your challenge, you will be a giant step closer to getting him to enlist.”

Despite the fact that the military is hazardous to young people’s education and their future careers—not to mention their lives—the No Child Left Behind Act makes it easier for the military to gain direct access to students. The Act contains a little known provision that threatens to take away federal funding if a school refuses to hand over to the Military personal information about its students, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Before the law went into effect, 1/3 of all high schools in the country felt it inappropriate to give out this information to recruiters. The law now coerces schools into giving the military unimpeded access. By law, parents may request that information about their child be kept private, yet there is no system in place that informs parents or students of these rights, so many remain unaware.

The Pentagon also gets information about students through administering its Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB). This test is offered to schools free of charge, and while it is marketed as a way to help students choose between a variety of military and civilian careers, the test is primarily designed to assess a person’s military qualifications. When a student takes the exam, their contact information and test scores are automatically sent to recruiters, who may use the information as they see fit.


Another major way in which the military attracts young people is through the Junior Reserves Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, which the Pentagon has been enthusiastically expanding since early 1990s. There are currently 500,000 students, aged 14 and over, enrolled in JROTC programs throughout the country. The JROTC claims that its goal is “to motivate young people to be better citizens” by “teaching high school students the value of citizenship, leadership, service to the community, personal responsibility,and a sense of accomplishment, while instilling in them self-esteem, teamwork, and self-discipline.” In the program, teenagers are taught military-style drills and are given military-style discipline. All JROTC recruits drill with weapons and study military history, and 90% of them are trained to use guns. The US Army insists that the JROTC is not a recruiting tool or public relations ploy designed to give the military a better face, yet half of all JROTC graduates join the military. Of these, only one-third enter a higher education program. William Cohen, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, bluntly told Congress in February 2000 that the JROTC is “one of the best recruiting devices we could have.”

The government initially set up JROTC as an elective high school class. However, many schools have begun to enroll students in the program automatically. Federal law mandates that at least 100 students or 10% of the student body must be enrolled in each JROTC unit in order to maintain the program in a school. Thus, school administrators can feel pressured to bend, if not break, the rules regarding the voluntary nature of the program by making it difficult for students to find alternative courses. A JROTC unit costs a school an average of $75,000, which drains resources from other school activities and vital programs.

School administrators often think of JROTC as a good alternative for students who do not excel at academics or who have behavioral problems, but the JROTC track record at helping at-risk youth is far from perfect. Since 1990, there have been numerous violent incidents involving JROTC recruits. Murders, gang activity, sexual assaults, and violent hazing have been linked JROTC instructors, members, and graduates. Rather than teaching students about peaceful alternatives, the JROTC promotes violence by teaching students to use guns and to take part in mindless drills that train them to follow orders without hesitation and without thought.

Counter Recruitment

n response to the growing military presence in schools throughout the country, counter-recruitment efforts have also been growing. In 1986, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, schools creating a forum for proponents of the military must also provide equal access for those with opposing points of view. Counter recruitment programs help students understand the real implications of military service and educate them about alternatives to military enlistment and ways to get out once already signed up.

The majority of young people who join the military enlist through the Delayed Entry Program (DEP), which allows them up to a year before they must report for active duty training. Many of these recruits are unaware that they have the option of leaving the military during the time period before training begins. All they need to do is write a letter requesting separation that fully explains the reasons why the recruit is unable or unwilling to serve. While the military defines specific separation categories, almost any reason is acceptable so long as the recruit states clearly that he or she is no longer interested in serving in the military.

Fight the Draft

To reduce the chances of being selected during a draft, there are a couple things young people can do. When turning 18, all males are supposed to register with the Selective Service and join the draft-ready pool of their peers. However, they can actually wait until their 26th birthday before registering. While federal Government threatens a fine of $250,000 and a maximum of five years in prison for those who don’t register, there are no known recent cases of this being imposed. State penalties vary and include denial of admittance to public colleges and universities, denial of state employment and denial of student financial aid. States are also beginning to link drivers’ licenses to selective service registration.

When filling out the selective service form, the registrant has the option of registering as a conscientious objector (CO). A CO writes that he is totally opposed to war and cannot conceive of any situation where he would be willing or able to take the life of another human. This statement can be written on the margins of the selective service form and/or in a separate letter. He should make a copy for his records, place it in a sealed envelope, mail it to himself, and keep it, along with additional personal documentation that shows he is against war (for example, journal entries, articles, letters, poems, and the like).

In addition to having a complete understanding of the disparities between what recruiters say about military service and the reality, young people are advised to take some precautionary steps when meeting with recruiters. They should take along a family member and/or a trusted ally as a witness and advocate and have them read over the enlistment agreement. Potential recruits should always ask questions about parts of the agreement they don’t understand and should keep a copy for their records. They should be truthful about their police records and medical conditions and not allow recruiters to falsify documents on their behalf. They should know that everything about their service contract is negotiable but that the military can override any contract in a time of crisis (as is the case with Stop Loss orders). Enlistees should also be aware that spoken promises are worthless and should require the recruiter to put all of his or her promises in writing.

Anti-War Movements

Militarism in our schools is an issue of serious and growing importance. Using a variety of clever tricks and persuasive tactics, the Pentagon takes advantage of our nation’s youth, especially the underprivileged, by marketing dead-end military jobs. With its vast budget and immense political power, the military is trying to sell itself as a cure for our country’s social and economic problems, even in the face of considerable evidence showing that a military career can cut short a student’s education and make it even harder to find a productive livelihood. Despite its best efforts, however, military recruitment rates continue to decline. This testifies to the fact that the real implications of military service are slowly gaining widespread attention and that counter-recruitment campaigns are succeeding. As the antiwar movement and all people concerned about the welfare of our nation’s youth continue to expose the military’s lies about enlistment, it will become more and more difficult for the Pentagon to continue fighting its wars abroad and to mislead and misuse the country’s young citizens at home.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Imperial America?

It is common to hear talk of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the Soviet Empire, yet comparatively little is said about an American Empire. The reason is that it is often taken for granted that the era of imperialism ended with the collapse of communism, and that the near-universal extension of economic and political liberalism precludes any chance that Empire will again rear its ugly head. Empire is considered an outdated concept of little use for explaining the dynamics of a world increasingly integrated and globalized. Thus, Francis Fukuyama argues that we are witnessing the “end of history,” “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama, 39). The age of ideology is over, capitalism's victory is absolute. Implicit in his view is the assumption that the free market is antithetical to Empire, and that imperialism cannot exist when liberal values are widely acknowledged as sacrosanct. Considerably less attention is therefore paid to the ways in which contemporary American power, as exercised on a global level, mirrors that of history's greatest imperialist states.

Here I will argue that the concept of Empire is indeed crucially important to understanding the United States' position within the international system. However, any claim to the imperial nature of United States must be qualified. The US is not an empire in the sense that it wields direct political control over foreign populations and territories, but it is an empire by merit of its unparalleled economic and financial supremacy. American hegemony rests on the perpetual exploitation of an economically-dependent periphery in order to feed its metropolitan core, and uses its hegemonic position within the international economy to prevent countries from opting out of its imperial fold. In these respects, the United States resembles the most powerful empires of past epochs.

What is an “Empire”?

The word “empire” is commonly used to describe an expansionary authoritarian state that uses its political and military power to dominate foreign territory. Dominic Lieven defines it straightforwardly as a “polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples” without the explicit consent of those it governs (Lieven, xi). Although the simplicity of this type of definition makes it appealing, it is insufficient because it overlooks the political economy of Empire—the underlying economic and class forces that push states into adopting imperialist strategies in the first place. Any study of Empire must therefore recognize first and foremost that imperialism (i.e. the practice of Empire) is “the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people” (Parenti, 1). In this sense, Empire is not a particular political regime or system of governance but a set of economic relationships based on exploitative and decidedly unequal conditions.

Although empires are usually envisaged as states which possess formal colonies, Lenin points out that imperialism can manifest itself in many forms. In his study of nineteenth century British imperialism in Latin America, for example, he notes that in addition to the core-periphery relationship that Britain had with its colonies, there were also “diverse forms of dependent countries which, politically, are formally independent, but in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence” to such an extent that they ought to be regarded as virtual colonial possessions (Lenin, 263). Britain managed to promote its imperial ambitions in Latin America not just through colonial subjugation or military force but by mobilizing its superior economic and political resources. This same process of indirect control can be identified in other empire-building projects throughout history. For example, in ancient Greece, Athens maintained de-facto rule over states within the Delian League that were formally sovereign yet economically dependent on their commercial relations with Athens. Similarly, the Roman Empire often had lax military control over its annexed provinces and instead used economic and political leverage to subordinate foreign territory (Tabb, 5).

It is therefore important not to conflate imperialism and Empire with colonialism—doing so obfuscates the historical variation in colonial-metropolitan relations and makes it more difficult to understand imperialism in its modern forms (Magdoff, 92).

The American Economic Empire

Many commentators who have recognized the existence of a US empire have focused their attention on the closely-knit cabal of neoconservatives well-placed in Washington (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, and others) who have rallied around the Project For The New American Century and its goal of promoting a global “Pax Americana” (PNAC, 11). While obviously this segment of the US ruling class is most vehemently supportive of the idea of an American Empire, it would be inaccurate to suggest that its imperial goals are limited to a small section of the Republican oligarchy. In fact, imperialism goes much beyond the political project of any particular elite group and must be thought of as a phenomenon naturally arising from the imperatives of capitalist development within the United States.

Marx and Engels recognized early on that in order for a capitalist power to sustain itself, it must constantly expand its markets, revolutionize its productive forces, and seek new methods of accumulation. Yet in the decades following the Second World War, American capitalism ran into difficulties in these areas as it began to loose its economic edge to Western Europe, Japan, and the “Asian Tigers” of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. From 1945 and 1980, the US saw its share of global GDP fall from approximately thirty-five percent to twenty percent (Chase-Dunn, 176). Between 1960 to 1983, the United States experienced the lowest average annual rate of increase in manufacturing productivity of any industrialized country (Melman, 80). In the latter half of the 1970s, the US dollar lost almost a quarter of its value against the yen and the mark (Gowan, 39). Moreover, developing countries throughout the world enjoyed remarkably high rates of economic growth and slowly began to encroach upon American markets and weaken the position of US domestic producers. These economic realities reveal a crisis in American capitalism beginning as early as the 1960s that decisively threatened US hegemony around the globe.

To confront this situation, in the 1970s and 1980s the United States began to pursue aggressively the creation of a new world economic and political order that would radically tilt the international economic situation back in its favor. One central aspect of this plan was orchestrating a shift from the Bretton Woods gold standard to the Dollar-Wall Street Regime (DWSR). This new global monetary regime, characterized by floating exchange rates and free capital mobility, and which utilizes the US dollar as the global reserve currency, gave the United States unprecedented power in reshaping the international economy to suits its interests. For example, Robert Wade points out that under the DWSR, developing countries became almost completely dependent upon private international and financial institutions such as the IMF for gaining access to credit (Wade, 245). These lenders place strict neoliberal conditionality on their clients, forcing states to open up their labor and capital markets, lower taxes on business, reduce spending on social services, adopt liberal intellectual property and investment regimes, and make other reforms that are congruent with the interests of US multinationals.

Peter Gowan likewise explains the significance of the DWSR by showing how it gives enormous exclusive benefits to American capital by liberating it from the balance of payments constraints that other countries face. Dollar seigniorage means that the United States can spend far more than it actually earns abroad. It therefore doesn't need to worry about foreign exchange constraints when it comes to things like building military bases, buying foreign companies, engaging in FDI, and sending out large flows of funds into portfolio investments (Gowan, 25). Although this situation benefits handsomely American capitalist interests, many other countries (rich and poor alike) have seen economic stagnation or decline. OECD countries have experienced much lower rates of growth and higher inflation under the DWSR than they did under Bretton Woods, while developing countries have endured far more banking and currency crises (Wade, 245-6). Rising financial volatility encourages poor countries to run large current-account surpluses and maintain large foreign exchange reserves instead of using their monetary resources for economic development and social welfare.

This new global financial architecture is in many respects an imperial one. While benefiting the narrow interests of US capital, it has increased global economic instability and stunted economic growth and development in much of the rest of the world. Michael Mann thus concludes that “we see that states are actually being coerced into changes from outside, by the US and its international front organizations. We see that Empire is not dead, though it is now informal, its powers mainly emanating from Washington and New York in the form of international banking practices—and also the dollar's role as reserve currency (Mann, 232).

In addition to the DWSR and the renewed financial dominance of the United States, the US Empire maintains itself through its ability to influence multilateral organizations and pressure countries to apply neoliberal reforms. I have already briefly mentioned how international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank serve the interests of US capitalism, but it is important to discuss this issue in further detail.

By the 1970s and 1980s, intensified competition and increasing congestion and saturation in world markets pushed the United States into seeking new ways of maintaining high levels of profit. Instead of continuing to rely on the normal capitalist method of accumulating wealth (by expanding production and appropriating the newly-created surplus), the US began instead to revert to primitive accumulation, or what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” This process, rather than generating new wealth, relies on the appropriation of the already-existing surplus of other countries. Neoliberalization is the primary tool the US uses for accomplishing this goal.

Neoliberal reform packages are often pushed onto countries as a prerequisite for gaining access to funds from international lending agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, within which the US Treasury wields dominant authority (Mann, 232). Yet the pro-market agenda advanced by these bodies is not designed to foster economic growth. Instead, neoliberal restructuring is used as a means to expropriate land, capital, social infrastructure, and natural resources that are publicly owned and sell them at very low cost to transnational investors. Harvey explains this as a method of “open[ing] up new fields for capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability” (Harvey 160). Even sources of value such as indigenous knowledge and biological resources that were previously never even thought of as marketable products can be turned into commodities and monopolized (Parenti, 33).

This redistribution of assets from lower to upper classes by means of forced privatization and commodification is a principal method through which the US maintains its imperial relations with poor countries. The neoliberal strategy allows the United States to extract far more wealth from the developing world than it to puts in through investment. It is therefore no surprise that while during the 1960s, “only” three dollars flowed to the northern hemisphere for every dollar flowing to to the southern hemisphere, by the late 1990s this ratio grew to seven to one (Rees, 258). The unfair trade and investment rules that the US promotes throughout the global South in order to enable accumulation by dispossession are thus principle means through which the United States maintains its global economic supremacy.


Ellen Meiksins Wood points out that there is an “there is an analogous difference between non-capitalist and capitalist imperialisms (Wood, 12). Whereas old colonial empires used “extra-economic” coercion (such as military conquest and direct political rule) to dominate territory and subject peoples, capitalist imperialism can exercise its rule by economic means—by manipulating the market and using financial leverage to indirectly colonize weaker countries. While these nations may be granted the trappings of sovereignty, foreign capital can still retain control over their most profitable resources.

It is in this sense that we can talk about the United States as a global empire. Although the US's means of imperial domination and surplus extraction may differ from those used by earlier empires, the economic result remains the same. Wealth is methodically extracted from the colonized periphery in order to feed the imperial core. While this arrangement provides ruling interests within the United States with an unprecedented degree of wealth and power, chronic underdevelopment and poverty is endured by the rest.


Sources Cited:

Chase-Dunn, Christopher. (2005). “Social Evolution and the Future of World Society.” Journal of World-Systems Research XI, No. 2.

Fukuyama, Francis. (1989). “The End of History?” The National Interest. Summer 1989.

Gowan, P. (1999). “The Dollar-Wall Street Regime.” The global gamble: Washington's Faustian bid for world dominance. Verso.

Harvey, David. (2005). “Neoliberalism on Trial.” A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press: USA.

Lenin, V.I. (1917). Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin Collected Works, Vol 1. Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1976.

Lieven, Dominic. (2002). Empire. Yale University Press: London.

Magdoff, Harry. (2003). Imperialism Without Colonies. Monthly Review Press: Canada.

Mann, Michael. (2004). “Can the New Imperialism Triumph in the Age of Nation-States?” History and Theory 43. May 2004.

Melman, Seymour. (1986). “Limits of Military Power: Economics and Other.” International Security 11, No. 1. Summer 1986.

Parenti, Michael. (1995). “Against Empire.” City Light Books: San Francisco.

Project for the New American Century. (2000) “Rebuilding America's Defenses.” Website:

Rees, William E. (2002). “Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence?” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 22, No. 4.

Tabb, William K. (2007). “Imperialism.” Monthly Review 58, No. 10.

Wade, Robert Hunter. (2004). “Bringing the Economics Back In.” Security Dialogue 35, No. 2.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. (2003). “Empire of Capital.” Verso: London.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Pop Quiz: They Said What?!

See if you can guess the people who said the following quotes. You might find the answers surprising.

To reveal the person, highlight the invisible text following "Answer: _______" after each quote.

Example: "Workers of the world, unite!"

Karl Marx <---- Highlight the invisible text here.


1) "Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor."

Answer: Adam Smith

2) "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today."

Answer: President Theodore Roosevelt

3) "We stand for the maintenance of private property,... we shall protect free enterprise as the most expedient, or rather the sole possible economic order."

Answer: Adolph Hitler

4) “A great industrial Nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the Nation and all our activities, are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated Governments in the world - no longer a Government of free opinion, no longer a Government by conviction and vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of small groups of dominant men.”

Answer: President Woodrow Wilson

5) “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Answer: President Abraham Lincoln

6) "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

Answer: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

7) "Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."

Answer: Edward M. Korry, U.S. Ambassador to Chile

8) “Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”

Answer: President Woodrow Wilson

9) “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments ... the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding ... and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be ... But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes pains to prevent it.”

Answer: Adam Smith

10) "The great and chief end...of Men's uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property."

Answer: John Locke

11) “What country can preserve it’s liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time that [the] people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

Answer: President Thomas Jefferson

12) "We are now making demands that will cost the nation something.... You can't talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry.... Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong... with capitalism.... There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism."

Answer: Martin Luther King Jr.

13) "These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people."

Answer: President Abraham Lincoln

14) “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils [of capitalism], namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society."

Answer: Albert Einstein

15) “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

Answer: Adam Smith

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Battle Cry of Social Revolution: Eugene Deb's Canton, Ohio Speech

On June 16, 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio protesting World War I. He was subsequently arrested for treason and sentenced to ten years in prison for his vocal opposition to the imperialist war. Debs ran for president from behind bars in 1920 and received 913,664 votes (3.4%). He was released in 1921 but was never able to recover his health from his years of imprisonment. He died in 1926.

This speech has always been a source of great inspiration for me, and is one of the most beautiful and inspiring socialist commentaries I know of. His words are more relevant today than ever.

The full text of the speech can be read here at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Here is an excerpt:

Socialism is a growing idea; an expanding philosophy. It is spreading over the entire face of the earth: It is as vain to resist it as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow. It is coming, coming, coming all along the line. Can you not see it? If not, I advise you to consult an oculist. There is certainly something the matter with your vision. It is the mightiest movement in the history of mankind. What a privilege to serve it! I have regretted a thousand times that I can do so little for the movement that has done so much for me. The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve—a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born manhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister—and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on Antonio Gramsci

So this year I've decided to finally make it a point to “learn” Antonio Gramsci. Before ever reading any of his work, I must admit that I had initially been quite dismissive of his ideas, largely because of the supposed links he had with the development of Eurocommunism (that pathetic attempt by various European communist parties to “revise” Marxism by scrapping notions of class struggle, refuting the imperative of capturing state power, and embracing bougeois notions of “democracy”). So far I've only just scratched surface of his Prison Notebooks, but I must say I am extremely glad that I got over my skepticism and actually began to study the work of this brilliant thinker. And I'm happy to say that all my preconceived notions were wrong.

Anyway....I recently wrote a paper incorporating some of Gramsci's ideas about civil society, so I thought I might as well post the relevant parts here for anyone wanting a very basic (and wholly insufficient) understanding of his main ideas.


“Gramsci & Civil Society”

According to Antonio Gramsci, the domination of the capitalist class in modern society is maintained through mechanisms of both force and consent. Gramsci argues that the ruling class not only uses the state as an instrument of class control, but also uses civil society to transmit and preserve bourgeois cultural values. In this sense, one cannot talk about “culture” in capitalist society without recognizing how it is permeated and dominated by class-driven interests. Culture is largely defined by the network of social relations that exist within society, and therefore it reflects its hegemonic arrangements. For example, a country which adopts a system of slave labor will quickly develop a racist culture that serves to justify it. Similarly, a society built around notions of the free market and private ownership of capital will inevitably adopt a materialistic value system that legitimizes vast social inequalities.

Civil society, in Gramsci's view, is a crucial element for maintaining class hegemony. He defines it as the collection of social institutions through which people organize themselves autonomously from the state to defend their common interests. Civil society thus includes employer associations, trade unions, churches, political parties, cultural groups, as well as other social actors. Gramsci argues that the bourgeoisie will make concessions to these social forces to help win the “consent” of the subordinate classes, while ensuring that such “compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.” (1) Civil society thus serves to prevent the working class from making concrete gains by deflecting demands for reform away from the core economic areas.

In this way, Gramsci builds upon Hegel and Marx's assertion that civil society is basically the social sphere independent of the state, by arguing more concretely that the state is “only an outer ditch, behind which there [stands] a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks,” (i.e. civil society). (2) This system embodies the “'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” (3) Civil society and the state are thus mutually reinforcing: when the state enters a period of crisis, civil society functions as a bulwark against social upheaval, and when civil society fails in preventing social unrest, “the apparatus of the state coercive power...enforces discipline on those groups who do not 'consent' either actively or passively.” (4) These two “superstructures” work symbiotically to preserve an exploitative economic order that favors the interests of the dominant class.

However, Gramsci does not see civil society as merely an instrument of bourgeois control, even if its prevailing institutions are used to manipulate and de-radicalize workers. In fact, one of Gramsci's crucial points is that, given the pervasiveness of ruling class ideology in all aspects of life, it is absolutely necessary for people to organize their own representative institutions and produce their own “organic” intellectuals that can work to transform civil society into an alternate “hegemony” capable of confronting state power. Gramsci argues that whereas in the East, the relative weakness of bourgeois hegemony over civil society allows the proletariat to attack state power directly (what he calls a “war of maneuver”), in advanced Western societies the proletariat must engage in a protracted “war of position” in which its primary goal is to create a counter-hegemony that can uproot the embedded bougeois order. It is the task of the revolutionary party to educate and agitate among the working class to bring about this shift in popular consciousness.


(1) Gramsci, A (1971). Selections From the Prison Notebooks. In Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith (eds.) Lawrence and Wishart, London, 161.
(2) Ibid, 238.
(3) Ibid, 12.
(4) Ibid, 12


For those of you who wish to learn more about Gramsci, I suggest reading "An Introduction to Gramsci's Life and Thought” and studying some of his writings at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gangs, Drugs, and Police Repression: Remembering the Toledo Riots

When hundreds of Toledo residents mobilized in the streets to protest a neo-Nazi march through their neighborhood a year ago this October 15th, many found themselves in the midst of a full-scale cop riot. While city officials and the media were quick to blame the appalling situation on "gang violence," chaos only erupted after the police tried to block the protesters from legally demonstrating in their own neighborhood. The events that took place that day help to illustrate and important point: across the country, police repression is used to restrict the rights of individuals and organizations that actively struggle for social and economic justice.

From the Palmer raids of 1918-1921, to the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO operations of the 1950s-70s, to the recent establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the US government has consistently attempted to undermine and destroy any protest groups in poor communities that seek to organize working people for radical change. Using infilration, police harassment, extralegal force, and outright violence, authorities have targeted groups such as the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the American Indian Movement, killing their members and railroading them into jail on fraudulent charges. More recently, on September 23, 2005, 78-year-old Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios was shot in his home in Puerto Rico by FBI agents and then left to bleed to death. His murder sparked outrage among many Puerto Ricans who worry that the US administration will further crackdown on the island's independence movement. (To add insult to injury, the day of the FBI action took place on the 137th anniversary of the 1868 rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, one of the most important dates in Puerto Rican history.)

Apart from subverting nationalist and anti-capitalist organizations, the US government attempts to depoliticize inner-city communities by turning a blind-eye on drug trafficking. They allow the drug mafias to market their lethal products that ruin the social fabric of these areas and that prevent progressive political movements from emerging. In several cases, law enforcement agencies and the CIA have actually been caught working alongside overseas drug traffickers to flood poor neighborhoods with narcotics. One of the biggest of such conspiracies was uncovered in 1987, when a congressional committee led by John Kerry discovered that members of the Reagan administration and the CIA had been secretly financing the right-wing Contra paramilitaries in Nicaragua by helping them import drugs into California ghettos. Despite the fact that this was one of the most sordid scandals in the history of US foreign policy, when information about the scandal was made public the story was only picked up by four major US newspapers and did not make any front page.

When inner-city gangs and community groups speak out against drug use in their communities, they become targets of police harassment. For example, when the prominent black nationalist Sonny Carson established Black Men Against Crack in the early 1980s which shut down several crack houses in Brooklyn, NY, three of the organization's leaders were framed on fabricated weapons charges and sent to prison. Similarly, when Crips leader Dewayne Holmes successfully organized a truce between Los Angeles gangs in 1992, he was soon after arrested for allegedly stealing ten dollars, given an incompetent public attorney and an unfair trial, and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. The LAPD also undermined the gang truce by breaking up the gang peace meetings that were taking place throughout the city in the wake of the LA riots.

Law enforcement agencies across the country make a conscious and concerted effort to attack and harass progressive individuals and organizations that exercise leadership in their communities. At the same time, they instigate gang wars and promote petty crime and prostitution in working class areas. The police are responsible for some of the most shameful and outrageous violations of civil rights in our country, but they go unpunished because they are the agents of the state with the overriding goal of protecting the interests of the ruling class.

Yet people across the country are not sitting idle while their rights are being trampled upon. The events in Toledo occurred at the same time as hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black, rallied in Washington at the Millions More Movement. Both of these events demonstrated that racial and class tensions in America are reaching a critical point. Working people are showing a greater readiness to mobilize in defense of their interests, and are coming to understand that the root cause of our nation's problems is our thoroughly corrupt, rotten capitalist system.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fifteen Years of "Free-Market Paradise"

Our government, media, and other “free-market” propagandists tell us that capitalism is the economic system that works-- that it has given us prosperity and allows us to realize our true potential as individuals. Communism, on the other hand, is deemed inherently undemocratic and totalitarian. It is portrayed as the ideological cousin of Fascism or Nazism, and is said to represent the elimination of all personal freedoms and the concentration of all political power in the hands of the state. All of these vulgar attacks are used to foster a knee-jerk reaction against communism. People are trained to shake with indignation at the mere utterance of any viewpoint even slightly apologetic to the communist cause, and to use Red-baiting to dismiss any rational, critical discussion of the real problems of capitalist society. Thus, most people are unaware of the real achievements of communism, which brought land reform and a dramatic bettering of human services to hundreds of millions of people. The recent collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent economic downturn that has characterized the past several years, presents us with a good opportunity to address these important issues.

This year marks the seventeenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This historic event was lauded as the beginning of a new era, in which free-market reforms and democratic change would bring economic prosperity and greater human freedom to the people of Eastern Europe. Yet despite well over a decade of capitalist rule, privatization and free trade have not only failed to improve the economic and social conditions of the region, they have brought about dramatic decreases in living standards for millions of people. In fact, all indicators of social well-being are quickly deteriorating--levels of malnutrition and starvation are rising sharply, life expectancy is falling, and infant mortality rates are offensively high. The new pro-capitalist governments are unable or unwilling to provide the adequate healthcare, social security, and welfare programs necessary to confront these growing problems.

According a recent U.N. study of nine countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one-third of all children currently live below the national poverty line. Education, which under socialism was provided free of charge, is now too expensive for many, and fewer and fewer children are attending school. Widespread poverty has also forced many children to begin working at early ages to support their struggling families. Violent crime, prostitution, drug abuse and alcoholism have risen as a consequence of the rampant social and economic decay.

This extreme poverty and deprivation in Eastern Europe is a natural consequence of the market reform. Former state functions designed to provide people with a decent standard of living have been privatized or eliminated altogether. Whereas the extensive welfare-state of the U.S.S.R. provided everyone with basic necessities, many people of the post-Soviet world must now struggle daily to meet even their most basic needs. Although the Soviet system had serious problems that should not be overlooked, everyone was at least guaranteed adequate housing, education, and medical care. Privatization has greatly weakened this social safety net, and many formerly-free services have become prohibitively expensive.

The prospects for democracy have similarly been undermined by the capitalist restoration. Although the U.S.S.R. was an authoritarian, bureaucratic regime that was undemocratic in many respects, the country did practice forms of economic democracy and worker involvement that are virtually unheard of in Western society. Collective decision-making in the workplace, for example, was a progressive and important feature of the Soviet system, yet was completely destroyed in the drive towards capitalism. Democratically-controlled workers’ councils, women’s organizations, and youth federations also played important roles in political life, a fact completely ignored by anti-communist ideologues.

In reality, the true opponents of democracy are not those who fight to preserve the social gains that socialism brought to Eastern Europe, but rather those who seek to exploit the system for their own economic and political benefit. Russian president Boris Yeltsin, for example, was heralded by the Western press as a “democrat,” yet he disbanded the Russian parliament and every other representative body in the country, banned labor unions from all political activity, and abolished several left-wing newspapers. His actions were typical of those of many “reformist” presidents who took power after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Despite their rhetoric, their loyalty is not to democracy, but to the capitalist dollar.

Capitalism has unequivocally created an economic race to the bottom in Eastern Europe and Russia. In their effort to attract foreign investment, governments must compete to offer the lowest wages and the fewest worker protections. They seek to abolish every institution that serves people’s needs but functions as a barrier to capitalist enterprise. Multinational corporations benefit hugely from this situation, while millions of people are forced into total poverty. This trend will not stop until people begin to understand the inherent faults of capitalism and recognize the real benefits of a socialism.