By Max Fraad-Wolff and Richard Wolff

Red White and Broke: The Rise of Military Unilateralism

(Prepared for delivery at the International Marx Conference, University of Paris, September 28, 2004)

Stock market collapse in early 2000 drove the US into recession and enormous job losses. It shattered the hopes for better times among US workers who had gained little from the late 1990s boom. They maintained consumption levels only by borrowing and working more. Strained household finances and stressed families exploded into mass depression, family violence, drug dependency and rage. The new Bush regime faced a depressed economy and a pessimistic, desperate working class. Abroad, Bush found that decades of neo-liberalism had turned many into enemies of the US as its leader.
September 11, 2001, enabled a dramatic US policy shift aiming to solve these problems. Deflecting blame for allowing the attack, Bush mobilized the nation for revenge in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Dismissing collective capitalist efforts at diplomatic globalization, the US switched to a new militarized unilaterialism: endless war on “terror”. Dreams of global conquest and absolute US supremacy became policy. Patriotic hysteria aimed to turn US workers’ growing dissatisfaction against a new “enemy” – foreigners with different religions, ethnicities, and an utterly mystifying dislike for American democracy – lest they see Bush’s continuing domestic neo-liberalism as their enemy.
However, much of the world – including many US citizens - opposed and criticized these policies. US workers might join them as their economic and personal conditions continue to deteriorate. Thus Bush has proceeded to demonize, isolate and silence such criticism. The Patriot Acts and Attorney General Ashcroft work to reduce civil liberties. US fascism takes shape under the banner of saving democracy.

The last quarter of the twentieth century was a period of extraordinary capitalist prosperity in America. Five interconnected social changes combined to greatly increase the surplus value available to business. First, the productivity of labor rose exceptionally with the global installation of new computer and telecommunications systems. Second, desperate third world economies dependent on exports of raw materials and low value added industrial commodities offered them for less and thereby lowered US corporations’ input costs. Third, the resurgence of right-wing political organizations, movements, and parties successfully lowered taxes on profits, deregulated capitalist enterprises, enhanced subsidies to them, and weakened both labor unions and left movements. Fourth, the trend of real wages was consistently downward with few, small, and short-lived exceptions. This trend can be seen in the relatively more rapid rise of productivity as against compensation.
Fifth, massive globe-straddling corporations expanded and consolidated their mass media empires, enabling them to hide the enormous expansion of surplus value from public understanding and debate. A blizzard of propaganda celebrated a magical “new economy” of perpetual growth. Leading media relentlessly promoted a quasi-religious fundamentalism insisting that efficiency gains would pour endlessly from deregulated private enterprises interacting in deregulated markets. Conventional wisdom demonized collectivist, socialist, labor, and related critics of exploding surplus value accruing to a shrinking proportion of the people. Progressive movements – depicted as an evil empire obstructing progress, prosperity, and democracy - were dismissed as anachronistic and wrong-headed. History, it was said, doomed them to inevitable failure. The collapse of the USSR and other similar economic systems seemed to prove the non-viability of alternatives to private capitalism and thereby intensified social movement to the right. Mass resistance to such movement was painted and widely perceived as episodic, local, and waning.
These 25 years had special consequences in the United States because of its global leadership position. First, its stock markets became mechanisms of an hysterical, historically unprecedented accumulation, concentration and centralization of wealth. Second, the state undertook the long-deferred eradication of costly social programs and mass public services forced on private capitalism by the Great Depression and the Soviet alternative. The public programs and services – drains on surplus value because they were partly paid for by taxes on profits - were denounced as costly wastes of resources that could and should be diverted to profitable use. Third, the state shifted its expenditures to a massive expansion of global military supremacy. The goal was to guarantee “forever” that no obstacle anywhere on the planet could undermine Pax Americana’s.
So long as all of these interdependent events proceeded reasonably smoothly, no need arose for a basic shift away from the traditional US political apparatus. The political duopoly operated by the two major parties continued to function in the traditional manner. Dominant business interests continued to finance this duopoly, since it fostered the environment most suitable to their objectives. Media conglomerates defined and celebrated this political duopoly as the ultimate form of democracy and the only means to secure prosperity and stability. Other social groups such as labor unions, ethnic minorities, women, and immigrants competed (and sometimes allied) to secure some small portion of the profit and prosperity. In its foreign policies, the US could proceed methodically to expand its reach via global agreements conventionally negotiated, making diplomatic compromises along the way.
The dawn of the new millennium, 2000, brought this unusual, relatively smooth period of prosperity to an end. The US stock market bubble burst. The image and promise of endlessly expanding prosperity collapsed. Unemployment grew and recession returned. Deepening social wounds slashed by inequalities of wealth, income, and power – among and within nations – could no longer be hidden. Celebrations of capitalist globalization became increasingly unsure of themselves and decreasingly effective with world audiences. Globalization shifted from an historical inevitability guaranteeing prosperity for all to an ever more contested and hated phenomenon blamed for mass immiseration. As globalization’s chief booster and self-proclaimed leader, the US became the focus of critique. The interdependent supports of the gilded 25 years began to weaken and undermine one another. Multilateral economic agreements gave way to regional blocs with mounting internecine conflict. Political movements and national governments, fearing the fallout from a faltering globalization and rising critical heat, began to search for new alliances and new strategies. US hegemony – in the forms and modes which had served it so well since 1975faced frightening challenges and prospects.
Inside the US, serious problems also loomed. The post-1975 explosion in surplus value, based so crucially upon falling real wages and the decline in state-provided social supports, would have dangerously reduced the standard of living of the mass of US workers had they not responded in two ways. The US working class “coped” with the threat represented by the capitalist boom after 1975 by (1) going into debt on a scale never before seen in human history, and (2) by increasing the number and the hours of family members doing paid labor. The immense burdens on family life (divorce, family violence, parental-child alienation, etc.) and on family finances (the drain of servicing mounting debt) of these working class responses were tolerated within the framework of a “growing prosperity” environment. Workers could at least hope that better times for them were coming. After the stock market bubble burst and as the prospects of shared prosperity were decreasingly credible, tolerance wore thin.
Amid such deteriorating foreign and domestic circumstances, the shaky (because contested) new Bush presidency immediately confronted two major problems. First, how could it restart and reinvigorate a US-led capitalist globalization given the mounting resistance and criticism at home and abroad? Second, how could it manage the growing economic problems of the mass of US workers becoming increasingly frightened and angered by their deteriorating economic and personal conditions? Enter the perfectly timed attacks of September 11, 2001.
Under other circumstances, the devastating incompetence (or worse) of intelligence and military apparatuses to anticipate, prevent, or intercept four commercial airplanes simultaneously diverted from their official flight plans for an hour would likely have crippled if not destroyed the regime held responsible. Instead, the Bush administration was able to turn disaster into advantage. The Administration escaped blame for intelligence and military failures by a surge in militarism that focused attention instead on “foreign enemies” and by instituting a dramatic and fiercely patriotic “homeland security” apparatus.
Reaction to September 11 allowed the Bush regime to attempt a program long advocated (but repeatedly blocked or deferred in previous decades) by the formerly too extremist “neo-conservative” ideologues placed strategically throughout the top layers of the government. This program aimed to solve foreign and domestic problems that mushroomed as the stock market bubble burst thunderously and ramified dangerously across the globe and inside the US.
The new program has two basic parts. The first is a massive reorganization, revitalization and redirection of globalization. Its new form emerges as a militarized American unilaterialism. This is justified on the grounds that no other means exist to overcome the evil forces- terrorism- seeking to undermine liberty and wealth. That is, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq are “punishments” for evil deeds and a warning/lesson to stop all other evildoers. More generally, those attacks signal the end of the old globalization (associated with alliance with “old Europe”) and the inauguration of the new.
The program’s second part focuses domestically on the mass of US workers. They had not been able to participate in the capitalist boom of the 1990s – largely because they owned few stocks. Instead, as their indebtedness mounted, family and household strains neared crisis. Then, when their hopes for imminent relief were dashed after early 2000, it became all to clear that their frustration might turn into a politically powerful anger and rage possibly directed against Bush and/or big business. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq thus represented more than weapons of mass distraction from workers’ difficulties. They were dramatic redefinitions of the “enemies” of workers hopes and dreams of prosperity (or at least of escape from indebtedness and collapsing families). The enemy is not an out-of-control bubble-prone capitalism; it is not right-wing big-business control. It is rather a classic “other” defined by its starkly different religion, strange ethnicities, poverty, and seemingly “lunatic” opposition to the benefits of prosperity and democracy that American supremacy bestows on all who submit. Against this enemy, foreign war and tough “homeland security” are reasonable as well as urgent obligations for all true Americans. Opponents of these programs - including groups as diverse as Muslims, the French, and domestic critics of military unilaterialism, among others – all merge into increasingly undifferentiated “enemies”. Because they are not “with us,” Bush declares, they “are against us.”
The issue of fascism in the US thus arises. The Bush program of massive unilateral military globalization is staggeringly expensive. It provokes growing reaction around the world, measured in military losses, diplomatic reverses, and growing rage. Coping with them is costly immediately and opens a vista to vast future outlays. Given an already “downsized” US state, these costs require either reduced outlays for social programs and supports or tax increases. Pursuing such options risks serious domestic resistance even as US military unilaterialism organizes growing resistance abroad. The “homeland security” apparatus tries to close down domestic discussion, debate and criticism of that unilateralism. Attorney General Ashcroft and the two Patriot Acts seek to terrorize dissenters into silence. The Guantanamo prison complex offers a stark image of the future for civil liberties. The media destruction of even mildly critical voices (Howard Dean) adds another lesson to that taught by the extraordinary 2000 election. The mobilization of an “embattled Christian nation” threatened by Muslim or French (and by extension all foreign) “enemies” welds all this together into a near dictatorial regime. The Democratic Party faces hopeless electoral prospects so long as it is restricted to representing the East and West coasts where the Bush program remains dubious and frightening for many. Thus, it moves increasingly toward a “me too” imitation of all but the harshest aspects of the Bush regime. This is the meaning of the John Kerry (the decorated war veteran) candidacy against Bush.
Once upon a time, fascism arose as an explicit critique of democracy. The contribution of the US to world politics today is to introduce fascism under the banner of democracy and as the necessary means to defeat democracy’s enemies.


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