"The war against illegal plunder has been fought since the beginning of the world. But how is... legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. Then abolish this law without delay ... If such a law is not abolished immediately it will spread, multiply and develop into a system." ~ Frederic Bastiat
The Enemies of Love and Freedom
Exclusive to STR
August 20, 2007
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A Simple Question
Who are the enemies of love and freedom? One answer is: "Not always who you might think."
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Bad Frameworks and the Evils of Coercion
In Blinding by Paradigm, I described how faulty paradigms for politics (and for worldview in general) create disaster. Inaccurate paradigms actually prevent the creation of a healthier world by directing human action in counterproductive and often destructive ways. Frameworks which praise coercive power are particularly dangerous. This is true even when -- in fact, especially when -- the coercive power is presented as being in the service of helping or protecting people. Marxism, fascism, coercive-socialism, corporatism, or anything else that involves using coercion against others (even if only for funding of basic services) -- all of it brings destruction in the end. Statism in any guise is an excuse for one group to use force against the rest of society; no wonder governments are the champion mass-murderers of all time, with 262 million government murders in the 20th Century alone -- plus tens of millions of war dead. Not to mention widespread torture, unjust imprisonment, needless famine, and other horrors.
Who are the advocates for today's destructive Statist paradigms? Broadly speaking, there are four main groups: Those who benefit financially or in terms of power from the paradigm (the power elite, for the most part); those who hope to personally benefit or who believe they are benefiting from the paradigm even as the paradigm harms them (most of the lower and middle classes); and those who sincerely believe -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that mankind as a whole will benefit from the paradigm (this requires sloppy thinking and a willingness to misperceive history and current events, plus the rather cold-hearted belief that some coercion is good as long as it applies to others; Bono comes to mind). The fourth group are more propaganda victims than advocates; this group includes those who have simply been brought up to believe that government coercion is normal and necessary, and who have not yet thought about the topic clearly enough or observed life carefully enough to move beyond irrational Statist beliefs. You will have noticed that there is much overlap in these categories, but I think the distinctions are still useful.
In today's America, the first group -- those who actually benefit financially and in other ways -- includes most (perhaps all) of those who own and many who work in the major media, plus many who teach our children or who influence the teaching of children. That factor alone makes it surprising than anyone in the U.S. retains the ability to see the world without the distorting framework of a pro-coercion paradigm. Those who benefit directly also include the corporate elite who influence government to provide special treatment for their firm or industry -- at the expense, necessarily, of others. Government employees are the most obvious beneficiaries of this near-universal paradigm that not merely allows but sanctions and formalizes the coercive power and privilege of the State. Interestingly, The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees is the largest donor among lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets.org. The result of all that lobbying is higher pay and benefits for government workers than for workers in the private sector. Inflated government pensions are helping to bankrupt cities, states, and even the federal government, and USA Today notes that "Contrary to a widely held notion, the extra government benefits aren't compensation for lower pay. Most government workers are paid more than private employees in similar jobs, and the wage gap is growing."
Vast sums of money are involved -- check the U.S. budget, for example, or profits at ExxonMobil or Halliburton -- so not surprisingly, both government power and corporate and special interest control of that power have grown enormously despite efforts to reign them in.
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Another Perspective: Segue to a Book Review
It isn't only Americans who are paying for this feeding frenzy, as I have been reminded recently by John Perkins' The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth About Global Corruption. Secret History reads like a spy novel and is a follow-up to Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Perkins' indictment of the corporatist system is staggering and detailed. I wrote a column only last month on corporatism (CorporateGovernment CorruptionSynergy: The Dangers of Corporatism), but Secret History took my breath away. Among other things, I was amazed at Perkins' descriptions of how common is the knowledge -- among foreigners -- of the corrupt and corrupting foreign policies followed by the United States government, and of the results of those policies, which include widespread poverty, cruelty, environmental disaster, and massive wealth stolen from the people in various ways by corporations and US-backed tyrants.
The contrast with typical American knowledge and opinion on these topics, not to mention with what one sees and hears in the major American media, is huge. Americans are sheltered almost beyond belief, and on purpose, because the corporatocracy needs to keep its actions hidden in order to continue feeding at the trough. Few of the foreign leaders who have been corrupted to do America 's bidding or removed through a U.S.-backed coup or assassination could even be named by most Americans, so rarely does our corporate media deign to mention them. As a result, Americans are also largely unaware of how their nation is seen by others around the world, although that is changing. If Americans were more widely knowledgeable about the actions, motives, and results of their government's foreign policies, those policies would soon be changing: reason enough to recommend this excellent book.
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Submit or Die
Perkins discusses the carefully-orchestrated corruption of numerous and often democratically-elected foreign leaders, and the overthrow or assassination of others who would not do as they were told. In many cases Perkins was personally involved with these events. Money and power are the ever-present motives for these crimes, and Perkins describes government and corporate power as seamlessly interwoven in plotting the crimes and carrying them out.
What do I mean by "crimes"? Time after time, a new head of state is told, in essence, that he can become staggeringly wealthy through bribes, kickbacks, and massive U.S. aid packages (much of which will end up in his own pockets and the pockets of his family, friends, and supporters) if he follows the corporatist game plan, or he can be driven from power in a coup or simply assassinated. The carrot usually works, but if not -- there is always the stick.
Submit or die is the constant demand from Power, unchanging since before the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. And this is the least of the damage we are doing. The results brought by the corruption of foreign governments are far more grave.
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Empire by Stealth
We have been impoverishing most of the people in nations that we are pretending to "aid" while creating wealthy and corrupt elites loyal to American -- or at least to corporate -- interests: from the Shah of Iran to Marcos in the Philippines; from Noriega in Panama to the Saudi royal family; from Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala to Pinochet in Chile. The lists of both corrupt allies and of victims who were deposed or murdered are long and actually overlap; Noriega and Saddam, for example, were both U.S. allies for years before they displeased their masters enough to be forcibly removed from power by the U.S. military. The many corrupt dictators we installed or backed have used torture and murder to keep their own people in line. Worse, the military and secret police in these nations were trained and encouraged to use such methods by the United States.
Perkins' description of the mechanisms involved in American looting of foreign nations is worth the price of the book by itself. This is partly because Perkins gives clear yet simple descriptions, and partly because he uses anecdotes, personal experience, and historic and other data to weave a compelling story that makes sense logically and which fits with what readers already know.
Secret History points out that the United States discovered, in essence, a cheaper, safer, and more efficient method of creating, running, and looting an empire. Instead of expensive, long-term military occupation of a target nation, Americans found that bribes and threats to existing leaders would often do the trick; when that failed, staging a coup or assassinating the uncooperative leader and then backing a corrupt replacement could usually get the job done. For example, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, arranged the overthrow of democratically elected and popular Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had been Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1951. Perkins tells us that the only downside the power elite saw with this method of empire was risk of discovery; using government employees for such despicable and illegal actions might backfire. Those involved needed America to be seen as the altruistic good guy, not as a rogue, criminal nation run by thugs. As a result, much of the dirty work was outsourced to private firms, such as the one Perkins worked for.
Removing Mossadegh and installing the Shah benefited American oil companies and other corporate interests. The net result was to take wealth out of the hands of Iranians and put it into the coffers of American companies, and from there eventually into the hands of American individuals.
There are many ways in which American corporations and industries have benefited from this form of nearly-invisible empire; one has been to offer target nations huge loans for infrastructure that most local citizens will never benefit from -- but which they will be stuck paying for in the form of crippling interest (i.e., bank profits) and principal payments by their government to the IMF or other (mostly American-controlled) bank or development agency. Thereafter, money that might have been used to provide services to the poor and the middle class, or which those people might have simply been allowed to keep, is drained away by loans which bought power grids and roads and other infrastructure (built mostly by American corporations) used by the corporatocracy and the rich, but which are either too expensive for use by the poor or, in many cases, physically not available to the majority of citizens. Roads and power stations serving logging companies, mines, oil fields, or plantations, for example, may be of little use to most of a nation's citizens, while at the same time assisting in the environmental destruction and financial draining of the country. At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for such projects (and billed to local citizens via taxes) find their way into the pockets of corrupt officials and their cronies -- the "carrot" that buys cooperation from the target nation's rulers.
In addition to being forced to pay for expensive infrastructure used mostly by the rich and the corporatocracy, the poor and middle class of target nations suffer as their land is taken for corporate use of various kinds, as their environment is degraded, as their traditional ways of life are made impossible and then replaced by stultifying low-wage factory jobs, and as national resources are taken by foreigners on bizarrely favorable terms.
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Hope for Change
John Perkins' story of America's corporatist empire had a powerful effect on me; I felt outraged and heartbroken, despite realizing that I had already known much of the material -- indeed, despite having covered some of the same material in my own columns. Several other books have had similar effects on me in the last few years: Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq for one example, and David Ray Griffin's The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 for another.
That such books are being written and widely read is a hopeful sign for most of us, and surely an uncomfortable problem for those being exposed.
Perkins goes beyond creating a useful and well-documented framework for understanding an evil that has grown, almost unnoticed, right under our noses. He offers hope for change, and provides chapters devoted to how such change might be brought about. As he does elsewhere in the book, Perkins lets others speak and shows real openness to their viewpoints and ideas. I am still mulling some of his suggestions, and while I don't agree with them all -- in particular, Perkins seems far more trusting of democracy and of political "solutions" generally than history warrants -- I appreciate his determination to act in ways aimed at healing an unhealthy situation. This man takes the human condition seriously and is determined to help move it in a healthier direction. In addition to his experience working in many different nations for the corporatocracy, Perkins spent time abroad in the Peace Corps, which he joined to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. This and other experience gives him a perspective that is unusual and well-informed, and which makes The Secret History of the American Empire well worth the time.
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A Simple Answer
Who are the enemies of love and freedom? Sometimes the answer is "Us."
Yet as Perkins explains, we are also the solution to this problem; we are the protectors and stewards of love and freedom, and the midwives for a healthier world -- if only we choose to be.