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.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The US-Korea Crisis: Setting the Record Straight

Although the current diplomatic crisis between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has not produced any dramatic shift in relations between the two countries, it does highlight a sharpening of tensions and a renewed desire on the part of US rulers to replace the North Korean leadership with a regime compatible with their economic, political, and military goals in Asia. George W. Bush's Korea policy is a continuation of the strategy adopted by Washington in the immediate aftermath of the US-Korean War—a policy which seeks to destabilize and isolate the North Korean leadership by imposing economic sanctions, threatening armed intervention, and blocking attempts for a peaceful reconciliation between the two Koreas. The current administration also exploits the public's fear of terrorism to paint the DPRK as a rogue state whose nuclear ambitions must be thwarted before the world is “held hostage to rockets,” as Bush recently claimed. While escalating violence in the Middle East has temporarily taken North Korea out of the media spotlight, the smear campaign against the DPRK has hardly ceased. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, the national media watch group, has asserted that “While media dredged up stories of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's irrationality and eccentricity, coverage left many Americans ill-informed [about] U.S./North Korea relations.” North Korea's leaders are portrayed as madmen bent on provoking a nuclear standoff. It is virtually impossible to find any balanced discussion of their aims that properly contextualizes the situation on the Korean peninsula.

Behind all the muckraking and absurd speculation regarding the North Korean regime is the simple truth that Pyongyang has been remarkably eager to seek a meaningful and lasting peace with the United States. For years it has maintained its desire for bilateral talks with the US. On several occasions North Korea has also reluctantly agreed to engage in six-party talks with the US, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan, only to be betrayed and humiliated by the US's refusals to ease financial sanctions on the country. In addition, North Korea has been called part of an “axis of evil,” an “outpost of tyranny,” and a “hellish nightmare,” among other epithets. Such a hostile atmosphere, obviously not conducive to any sort of progress towards unification or demilitarization of the Korean peninsula, has pushed the DPRK into a corner where it sees no other choice but to develop weapons necessary to deter a U.S. invasion. As North Korean ambassador to Australia Chon Jae Hong wrote in a letter to Melbourne's Sunday Herald Sun regarding his nation's recent missile tests, “It is a lesson taught by history and a stark reality of international relations, proven by the Iraqi crisis, that the upsetting of the balance of force is bound to create instability and spark even a war.”

It is no surprise that Pyongyang is worried about a potential military conflict with the United States. According to the Washington Post, the United States Strategic Command recently completed the formulation of CONPLAN 8022-02, a contingency plan that includes the use of preemptive nuclear strikes on targets alleged to be developing “weapons of mass destruction.” This July India tested a nuclear-capable missile and the United States itself tested its stockpile of 500 Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on three separate occasions over the past month. None of these tests generated headlines or drew any clamor from the UN Security Council. This double standard simply exacerbates Pyongyang's worries about being regarded as a second-class nation without the right to self-defense. Furthermore, the Pentagon invited every nation involved in the six-party talks except North Korea to oversee its massive Pacific war game known as “Valiant Shield” in June—including North Korea's two strongest allies, China and Russia. This was bound to increase Pyongyang's fears of becoming an international pariah whose closest friends will permit the US to openly threaten war against it.

While many are quick to fault the DPRK for withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, thus reneging on its commitment towards a nuclear-free Korea, this action came only after a decade of frustration with the United States. Washington refused to uphold its promise under the 1994 Agreed Framework to fund the construction of two light water nuclear reactors and provide the country with much-needed heavy oil in exchange for North Korea's abandonment of its own nuclear program. This led Pyongyang to cite Article X of the NPT which stipulates that “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of the country.” That the US is itself in violation of Article VI of the agreement not only for failing to enter “good faith” talks with other nations regarding nuclear disarmament, but also for expanding its nuclear capabilities, further underscores Washington's complete hypocrisy when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang is keenly aware that the Pentagon has its sights trained on North Korea and that war with North Korea would fit into a broader US strategy to subjugate Asia. The DPRK has been under immense pressure for two decades, suffering the loss of its preferential trade agreements with the Soviet Union and China in the 1980s, experiencing severe flooding and a subsequent drought between 1995 and 1997 that produced widespread famine, and being denied access to development aid from international financial institutions until it “restructures” its economy according to their neoliberal designs. Yet North Korea knows full well that to accede to US demands would only worsen its current situation. To embrace unconditional unification with South Korea and return to capitalism would likely lead to circumstances similar to what happened to East Germany in 1990, when it was annexed by its western counterpart and coerced into a de-facto colonization that resulted in economic collapse and a rapid disintegration of living standards. North Korea thus maintains its right, fully supported under international law, to develop and maintain a defense program necessary to protect itself from increasingly bellicose threats from the United States, and to ensure that when the unification process moves forward it is not bullied into accepting dictates from either Washington or Seoul.

The North Korean government has made it abundantly clear that it wants a more open and mutually respectful dialogue with the United States. Yet hardliners in Washington refuse even to allow an atmosphere to develop in which such a discourse would be possible. As a first step forward, it is therefore essential that Americans demand that the US military disengage from Korea, pack up its warheads and send home the estimated 35,000 US troops stationed on the peninsula. We must also insist that the US media end the persistent demonization of Pyongyang and be willing to expose Washington's imperial aims throughout Asia and around the globe.