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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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October 27, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- If Women Ran the World

“If women ran the world, there would be no more war.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this or similar lines about the transformative effect of female leadership at an activist meeting, well, I could keep myself in Starbucks lattes for some time to come.

I’ve always been extremely skeptical, if not dismissive, of claims like this. It’s not that I have a problem with female leadership; I don’t. And it’s not that I don’t think women are on the average more enlightened than men; I do. I just never saw why that would translate into terribly significant improvements in the world.

The existing record is not good. No place has had more female national leaders than South Asia – Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Hasina Rehman, Khaleda Zia, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga-Bandaranaike. They are all daughters or widows of national leaders, or, in the case of the last, the daughter of a widow. They came to power in countries where women are treated very poorly and have few rights they can actually exercise, and they left power the same way.

It is true, of course, that none of them, with the partial exception of Indira Gandhi, were exactly in control of the country; the rest of the patriarchal power structure remained in place. But even Gandhi, though she ruled with an iron fist, never seriously tried to do anything about this.

The record in the West is unimpressive as well, Scandinavia aside. Women who rise to or near the top seem to be of the mold of Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro – though thankfully they rarely match Sarah Palin. They rise because they are good at political business as usual -- or because of identity politics or political relationships – not because they transform business as usual.

So it was easy to imagine a process by which increasing numbers of women ascended to positions of power while always leaving patriarchal structures intact. And, as for war, a pet obsession of mine, the potential differences were particularly hard to see there. Forget the warmongering of Thatcher and Clinton; quite a few feminists who should have known better were rather pleased with the harsh punitive sanctions imposed on Afghanistan in 1999 (imposed because of the harboring of Osama bin Laden, not the Taliban’s gender policies) and with the war two years later (fought because of Osama bin Laden, not to liberate the women of Afghanistan).

But perhaps I was thinking in too limited a fashion. Rwanda may be a case in point. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, 56% of Rwanda’s parliament is female, and one-third of cabinet posts are held by women. And these women are actually changing things. Having already banished several absurd laws discriminating against women, they are now examining the entire legal code for discriminatory laws.

It’s an inspiring story, though it takes place in unique circumstances. After the genocide, 70% of Rwanda’s population was female; 55% still is. Social structures were destroyed just as much as people were; the entire society had to be recreated ab initio.

And women don’t really run the country; all of this activity takes place under the extremely authoritarian hand of Paul Kagame, the U.S.-backed military leader turned elected president. An enlightened or, in the case of Kagame, semi-enlightened, despotism is not really an option for most countries.

Still, it should make one think. If such a story can take place on the continent where the treatment of women is the worst in the world (along with Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan), then maybe there is still hope for genuine transformation in the world.

Here in the United States, nobody seriously talks about transformation any more. Women have formal legal equality, but, if anything, various masculinist trends have been intensifying, from the pornification of everything to the way that presidential elections have become, especially in the post-9/11 era, contests in machismo. It is true that Obama is a much more mixed figure than the Bush’s, McCain’s, and Kerry’s of the world, but he’s consistently played the alpha-male card too.

Here’s the task for anyone who understand these issues better than I do: use the crisis of machismo that is associated with George Bush, the destruction of the right, and the explosion of the financial sector, to craft a meaningful but realistic approach toward transforming our views of gender and of dealing with each other. Something between radical feminism, which has no audience and won’t in the foreseeable future, and fixation on merely defending reproductive rights.

Posted at 10:48 am.

October 20, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- The Global Crisis and the Left

Last year, Naomi Klein wrote a book called “The Shock Doctrine,” in which she advanced the thesis that, following the rise of Milton Friedman and the Chicago economists to political prominence in the early 1970’s, the capitalist powers-that-be have explicitly embraced the idea that the best way to push forward a global market fundamentalist agenda is to subject various different countries in turn to massive political and economic shocks, thus putting their populaces and power structures in the right frame of mind to be easily manipulated and/or coerced into implementing the appropriate changes.

Whatever you think of her thesis, it is undeniable that historically it has been the anti-capitalist left more than any other group that has explicitly and overtly embraced a shock doctrine. Among major players, Mao was perhaps the purest believer in this doctrine, deliberately and repeatedly subjecting his country and people to massive waves of social destabilization, disrupting every normal pattern of behavior in order to impose the radically different behaviors that to him would characterize socialism. But you can find plenty of evidence to support this thesis in the lives and writing of Lenin and Stalin, and even of Marx and Engels. In the abstract, some (usually weaker) version of this thesis hovers in the back of the minds of left activists the world over.

Related to this is an argument that I’m willing to bet all of you have heard before, that goes something like this: “When things go really bad, when there’s a massive economic downturn, then things will pick up for the left.”

Despite the superficial logic of the underlying argument – people are more likely to see the wrongs of capitalism when they are suffering more and are more likely to support anyone who wants to redistribute the wealth – the actual historical record is pretty inconclusive. In this century, the two high points of left efflorescence were the 30’s and the 60’s – one a time of severe economic dislocation and the other a time of extreme prosperity and stability, in which the children of the comfortable class led the charge. The early Reagan-era recession, on the other hand, didn’t do a thing for the left.

This time around, while there are fugitive mutterings about how this potentially gigantic crisis for finance capital will usher in a new era of respectability for anti-capitalism, it is quite striking that, as far as I can tell, the left has nothing to add analytically, programmatically, or organizationally. Only the extremely marginal have any plan for using the shock to propagate the ideas of the left in any serious way.

It is true that the downturn has finally started to help Obama’s economic centrist campaign and the corporate centrist Democratic Party as a whole, the ground for that having been prepared by an unexampled display of Republican incompetence in the past eight years. And it is true that there are calls for at least significant changes in the modes of operation of global finance – an all-new regulatory paradigm, a more aggressive role of the government in the financial sector – although they are coming almost exclusively from mainstream economists and pro-Democratic think-tanks.

We saw this same phenomenon play out in miniature a few years ago, when the relatively minor (to Americans) shock of recklessly destroying a country and losing a war led somehow to the collapse of the antiwar movement, not to its being put in a better or more powerful position – indeed, it seemed that the spread to the broad public of antiwar sentiment was what gave the movement its coup de grace. More specifically, it was the spread of militant activist liberalism and the proliferation of mainstream journalists and public figures who opposed the war that killed the movement.

I think the most important thing for us to do, as we stand on the brink of a historic change on November 4, is to try to understand why these dynamics unfold and how we can change them.

The essence of the problem, I think, is the left’s abjuration of all existing institutions. We fight for changes in institutional policy, but we don’t make the institutions themselves, with their massive claims on economic, political, and social resources, sites of struggle. We don’t have leftist Wall Street bankers and generals, and thus nobody turns to us when something is perceived to be wrong with those institutions. Building up parallel institutions as a power base is fine in general; the right has done it very well (although the left has done it very poorly). But it is not in itself a strategy for social change.

Posted at 10:42 am.

October 13, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Return of the Repressed

Is Obama an Arab or a decent family man? Opinion is divided. The idea that one could be both is still a little radical for many Americans.

Even so, I have been somewhat impressed by the average American in recent weeks.

This favorable impression comes by way of the culmination of the nastiest presidential campaign at least since 1988, perhaps in living memory, the McCain-Palin campaign.

In recent weeks, they have been pulling out all the stops, gathering mobs with pitchforks and torches. With sinister sepia-toned ads asking “Who is Barack Obama?,” invocations of Obama as not a regular American like us, and mentions of Obama “palling around” with terrorists, McCain and Palin have been driving crowds of their die-hard supporters (the only ones who will still come to their rallies) toward mass cathartic displays of racial and xenophobic verbal aggression.

At one rally, a supporter yells, “Kill him!” Whether he’s referring to Obama or Ayers is not clear, but neither is good. At another, someone says, “Bomb Obama!” At several, they yell that Obama is a terrorist. An elderly woman tells McCain she is worried that Obama is an Arab. Someone says to a black person from a TV crew, “Sit down, boy.” The pastor at another rally says adherents of “Hindu, Buddha, or Allah,” are praying for Obama’s victory and, charmingly, calls on his god to show he is bigger than those other gods. People introducing McCain and Palin have regularly been Husseining Obama, to coin a verb.

Even worse, the campaign, after having deliberately encouraged such expressions, initially defends them.

Sarah Palin has been the worst, a perky neofascist with little remotely resembling conscious thought but truly expert at pandering to the lowest in human nature.

And yet, the reason I am impressed is that this is not working. Americans are not buying it; indeed, Obama is far ahead in the polls and pulling away, and his favorable to unfavorable ratings have actually improved – the reason McCain pulled the plug on the hate campaign. Cynics might say that with the economy tanking Obama could do a recruiting poster for the New Black Panther Party and he’d still be elected, but I’m not quite sure. The right wing has their story about the financial crisis – too many black people bought homes while stupid do-gooder liberals of the kind everyone hates forced the government to force banks to lend to them. It’s no dumber than the stories that drew support to Charles Coughlin during the Depression. It would be entirely plausible for the latent racism in many swing voters to come out in this time of stress.

Instead, I think that the right wing has finally gone too far for the American people. Sarah Palin in particular and the campaign in general represent the reductio ad absurdum of all the dominant ideological constructs of modern conservatism. An obsession with the depredations of the liberal intelligentsia has come to the point that the intelligentsia, for the troglodytes of the new right, includes anyone who is literate, who has ever actually paid attention to a fact, anyone who doesn’t believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted because they once heard about a place in Texas where their footprints were side by side. This means almost everybody.

An obsession with victimization and self-perception of marginalization, which causes them to attack everybody, even their supporters, as Judases, has led them finally to alienate even the mainstream media and its talking heads, one of their main sources of institutional support.

And an obsession with creating a new ontology so that they need not deal with the facts in this universe has led to a detachment from reality so profound that anybody who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid (surely the favorite drink of Sarah Palin, hockey mom) cannot fail to see it.

Although all of these constructs have become dysfunctional at this point, it would not do to dismiss them. They were the foundations of the new right wing and of its political power. And they will continue to be of great importance, because, although the right is sliding down, it is very far from being out.

My obsession is understanding the right wing’s paradigm for building political power, because continued attempts by the left to revive its old paradigm will not work. I am sometimes given pause when I reflect that we have some of these same constructs at work, though they are even less functional for us. Our obsession with victimization is more honestly earned, though our frequent valorization of marginality is not. Our construction of a hermetically sealed universe of facts is nowhere near as complete – we read newspapers and acknowledge the outside world – but there is more than a touch of similarity. I do think there is something to learn from both the right’s ascent and its recent implosion, but lessons must be drawn with great care.

Posted at 10:55 am.

October 6, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Decline and Fall?

How does an empire know when it is beginning to fail? Even as Rome steadily debased its currency and replaced its legions with foreign mercenaries, it’s unlikely that people walked the streets in a daze muttering about their decline and fall.

In 1945, Winston Churchill still thought he represented one of the world’s three superpowers. Even after the loss of India, Harold Macmillan still didn’t get it, embarking on a last colonial hurrah in Egypt without obtaining the permission of an actual superpower.

When Gorbachev initiated glasnost in 1985, he thought he was renewing socialism, not causing its destruction, let alone in a mere six years.

With the United States, it’s a little different. Collapse is predicted so continually that it’s just part of the background noise.

Over 60 years of a national security complex ceaselessly whipping up fear about remote eventualities has created a population that constantly mixes great prosperity with rampant insecurity. Every time China sells a shirt, Americans panic that they will lose everything and be subjugated to strutting yellow overlords.

As for intellectuals, there is always the institutionalized left and a few fellow travelers. The financial crisis and accompanying economic downturn has vindicated the Marxist economists who constantly prophesy crisis, through good times and bad, who, in the words of Robert Brenner, have predicted five out of the last two crises. And they have their counterparts who constantly prophesy the end of the American empire.

Without wanting to add to this body of literature and the dying mass of trees it represents, I think the time has come for a little reflection on this subject. While the United States will retain its preeminent position for the foreseeable future, many of the underpinnings of American dominance have been shaken in the past eight years.

First, last, and always, of course, there was the Iraq war. Because of the ugly rhetoric of the Bush administration, and because the world was a little tired of twelve years of unquestioned unipolar dominance mixed with extreme sanctimony, the war caused a huge loss of legitimacy for American global leadership.

The spectacle of the most advanced military in the world, fought to a standstill by ragtag bands of undereducated men and boys, their growth stunted by twelve years of sanctions, armed with Kalashnikovs and RPG-launchers certainly helped.

The last time anything similar had happened, it also hit U.S. imperial prestige pretty hard. But military failure alone was not then and is not now enough to actually alter the world’s political map. China’s defection into the American camp alone was enough to offset America’s loss in Vietnam.

Despite America’s amazing number of military interventions, war was never the signature underpinning of the American empire; the extreme inventiveness of its corporate titans and the rapidity with which its economic modalities took over the world were the key. After the end of the Cold War, this was most striking; in less than a decade, the “Washington consensus” had spread through most of the Milky Way. Of course, the said consensus would seem hopelessly old-fashioned to the heroic inventors of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, which took over the world in a few years at most.

After 30 years of America’s constantly telling the rest of the world how to run its economy, the credit-market crash and the bailout are likely to cause a worldwide revulsion against listening any longer.

Another key component of American dominance has simply been the effortless affluence of Americans and the signal it sends to the world. At this point, anyone with a clue knows that we’ve been living an affluence we didn’t actually have. Easy credit has overnight become hard; from pestering random college students to get credit cards, we’ve come to banks being unwilling to lend money to other banks. This may be a temporary swing, but if things swing back we will have more problems of this kind.

And finally, unlike in any other case of American economic crisis, we depend for our recovery on foreign creditors, especially the Pacific Rim countries. China sends its money here to stagnate in crappy low-yield Treasury bonds while soliciting over a trillion dollars of foreign direct investment. So far, they’re throwing good money after bad because if they withdraw their support the dollar will crash and their dollar-denominated bonds will lose value – but this can’t go on forever. Since Americans remain unwilling to finance the country themselves, the United States cannot control its own fate.

I don’t know what this adds up to; neither does anyone else. Capitalism and the United States are highly resilient, to say the least. It’s certainly a wakeup call for the masters of the universe.

Posted at 10:52 am.
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