You are hereTruthout: Occupy Demands: Let's Radicalize Our Analysis of Empire, Economics, Ecology

Truthout: Occupy Demands: Let's Radicalize Our Analysis of Empire, Economics, Ecology

(This is an expanded version of remarks at an Occupy Austin teach-in, October 30, 2011.)

-by: Robert Jensen

December 1, 2011- There's one question that pundits and politicians keep posing to the Occupy gatherings around the country: What are your demands?

I have a suggestion for a response: We demand that you stop demanding a list of demands.

The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or - if those tactics fail - squash any challenge to business as usual.

Rather than listing demands, we critics of concentrated wealth and power in the United States can dig in and deepen our analysis of the systems that produce that unjust distribution of wealth and power. This is a time for action, but there also is a need for analysis. Rallying around a common concern about economic injustice is a beginning; understanding the structures and institutions of illegitimate authority is the next step. We need to recognize that the crises we face are not the result simply of greedy corporate executives or corrupt politicians, but rather of failed systems. The problem is not the specific people who control most of the wealth of the country, or those in government who serve them, but the systems that create those roles. If we could get rid of the current gang of thieves and thugs, but leave the systems in place, we will find that the new boss is going to be the same as the old boss.

My contribution to this process of sharpening analysis comes in lists of three, with lots of alliteration. Whether you find my analysis of the key questions compelling, at least it will be easy to remember: empire, economics, ecology.

Empire: Immoral, Illegal, Ineffective

The United States is the current (though fading) imperial power in the world, and empires are bad things. We have to let go of self-indulgent notions of American exceptionalism - the idea that the United States is a unique engine of freedom and democracy in the world and, therefore, a responsible and benevolent empire. Empires throughout history have used coercion and violence to acquire a disproportionate share of the world's resources and the US empire is no different.

Although the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are particularly grotesque examples of US imperial destruction, none of this is new; the United States was founded by men with imperial visions who conquered the continent and then turned to the world. Most chart the beginning of the external US empire-building phase with the 1898 Spanish-American War and the conquest of the Philippines that continued for some years after. That project went forward in the early 20th century, most notably in Central America, where regular US military incursions made countries safe for investment.

The empire emerged in full force after World War II, as the United States assumed the role of the dominant power in the world and intensified the project of subordinating the developing world to the US system. Those efforts went forward under the banner of "anti-communism" until the early 1990s, but continued after the demise of the Soviet Union under various other guises, most notably the so-called "war on terrorism." Whether it was Latin America, southern Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, the central goal of US foreign policy has been consistent: to make sure that an independent course of development did not succeed anywhere. The "virus" of independent development could not be allowed to take root in any country out of a fear that it might infect the rest of the developing world.

The victims of this policy - the vast majority of them nonwhite - can be counted in the millions. In the Western Hemisphere, US policy was carried out mostly through proxy armies, such as the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or support for dictatorships and military regimes that brutally repressed their own people, such as El Salvador. The result throughout the region was hundreds of thousands of dead - millions across Latin America over the course of the 20th century - and whole countries ruined.

Direct US military intervention was another tool of US policymakers, with the most grotesque example being the attack on Southeast Asia. After supporting the failed French effort to recolonize Vietnam after World War II, the United States invaded South Vietnam and also intervened in Laos and Cambodia, at a cost of three to four million Southeast Asians dead and a region destabilized. To prevent the spread of the "virus" there, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover - all were part of the US terror war.

On 9/11, the vague terrorism justification became tangible for everyone. With the US economy no longer the source of dominance, policymakers used the terrorist attacks to justify an expansion of military operations in Central Asia and the Middle East. Though nonmilitary approaches to terrorism were more viable, the rationale for ever-larger defense spending was set.

A decade later, the failures of this imperial policy are clearer than ever. US foreign and military policy has always been immoral, based not on principle, but on power. That policy routinely has been illegal, violating the basic tenets of international law and the constitutional system. Now, more than ever, we can see that this approach to world affairs is ineffective, no matter what criteria for effectiveness we use. An immoral and criminal policy has lost even its craven justification: It will not guarantee American dominance.

That failure is the light at the end of the tunnel. As the elite bipartisan commitment to US dominance fails, we, the people. have a chance to demand that the United States shift to policies designed not to allow us to run the world, but to help us become part of the world.

Economics: Inhuman, Anti-Democratic, Unsustainable

The economic system underlying empire building today has a name: capitalism. Or, more precisely, a predatory corporate capitalism that is inconsistent with basic human values. This description sounds odd in the United States, where so many assume that capitalism is not simply the best among competing economic systems, but the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world. Although the financial crisis that began in 2008 has scared many people, it has not always led to questioning the nature of the system.

That means the first task is to define capitalism: that economic system in which (1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; (2) most people must rent their labor power for money wages to survive; and (3) the prices of most goods and services are allocated by markets. "Industrial capitalism," made possible by sweeping technological changes and imperial concentrations of capital, was marked by the development of the factory system and greater labor specialization. The term "finance capitalism" is often used to mark a shift to a system in which the accumulation of profits in a financial system becomes dominant over the production processes. Today, in the United States, most people understand capitalism in the context of mass consumption - access to unprecedented levels of goods and services. In such a world, everything and everyone is a commodity in the market.

In the dominant ideology of market fundamentalism, it's assumed that the most extensive use of markets possible, along with privatization of many publicly owned assets and the shrinking of public services, will unleash maximal competition and result in the greatest good - and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. If such a system creates a world in which most people live in poverty, that is taken not as evidence of a problem with market fundamentalism, but evidence that fundamentalist principles have not been imposed with sufficient vigor; it is an article of faith that the "invisible hand" of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.

How to critique capitalism in such a society? We can start by pointing out that capitalism is fundamentally inhuman, anti-democratic and unsustainable.



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