We must love one another or die — W. H. Auden
Capitalism is like a roller coaster. The dynamism of ruthless profit pushes against the constraints of humanity and technology to produce the boom years. But the very pressures of cutting wages and substituting machines for people creates unruly competition – the vast mass of humanity has not enough money in hand to buy goods, and the piles of wasted goods tempers the enthusiasm of capital to make more. We enter the bust years.
Pressures from workers and the discovery of the dangers of the bust years lead to the idea that the State must spend taxed money or borrowed money to stimulate the economy. Where social democracy is stronger, the money was spent on the social side of things: on health care, on education, on public transportation, on public parks, on the social wages that both revved up the stalled economy and provided the basis of social solidarity. Such a social democratic path provided the objective basis for socialism: people might take pleasure in social interchange, in mutual care and solicitude. This was not capital’s preferred path. It has a harsher tendency.
In the United States, from the late 19th century to the present, spending on the social side of the ledger has not gone above 15% of the Gross Domestic Product. Here, the government has conducted its counter-cyclical spending not on the social side but on the side of repression: on the international armed forces and the domestic armed forces; on the military and on the police. You get the stimulus you need but what you don’t get is the objective basis for social solidarity. Military and police hierarchies are strengthened, and horizontal social life is eroded.
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If this was not bad enough, over the past thirty years another social process has added to the grief of normal militarism: what we call globalization. The debt crisis in the Global South sent billions of dollars into the banks of the North. These banks and their industrial counterparts decided to finance their factories outside the high wage zones of the North. Wages are high in the United States because all our basic needs have been privatized: as individuals and families we are responsible for health care, education, transportation, insurance. If we don’t earn enough, we will not survive. That is what makes our labor so expensive. If the rich were taxed and if services came to us through the State, we could receive lower wages and produce goods at a much more competitive rate. But that is not so. Instead, the State encouraged firms to take their industrial capital to zones of cheaperlabor – making more and more people in the United States utterly disposable, redundant to the changed economy. It is to control them, to corral them that the prison-industrial complex grew, and that the police forces expanded. The State has no future for its people; it can only offer incarceration of one kind or another. Everybody dies, but not everybody lives.
Banks also turned their accumulated capital into financial wizardry. Mathematics is the lead science, not chemistry, physics or biology. Things are no longer to be made for profits to be harnessed; it is enough to manipulate numbers. Finance makes its own maps; it has its own atlas. Money makes wide detours around the human imagination. Disposable people are needed to sign the forms for no-money-down-payments; and then they are needed to take the blame for the system’s torments. Their hopes and dreams, their visions and needs are not at the center of things.
Some believe that the world will end on Saturday. Our framework is not so random, so catastrophic. I too believe in the End Times. In the End Time for Capitalism, a system rooted in the destruction of the human spirit. Democracy is our prejudice, but it does not fully exist yet. It is an idea, it provides space for action, but it has not yet been incarnated fully: the secular Rapture will be the day when Democracy will come into its own.
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Democracy makes its appearance in the streets of Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab Revolt. They follow events in Latin America, from the Venezuelan Caracazo of 1989 to the Bolivian Gas Wars in 2003-2005. They follow as well the events in the rest of Africa, from the unrest over the Kenyan elections of 2007-08 to the Enough is Enough protests in Nigeria of the past years. The people know or feel this idea of democracy, and they have decided to enact it on their streets. For them, the idea is no longer simply a slogan; the script is being read out in public.
And furthermore, this is a socialist idea, for at its depth is a scream for popular control over institutions, not simply for a transference of power from one section of the elite to another.
Egypt’s Pharaonic State had a sophisticated security apparatus, with a necklace of prisons around Cairo itself. The upsurge has taken aim at these prisons. But it is not enough for them to target the prisons. These are an emblem of a system that relied upon incarceration for its stability and its treasury (The U. S. bursary of $3 billion per year was designed to contain dissent among the Egyptian people and to keep in place the peace deal with Israel). To truly end the security state, the people had to recapture their politics and their economy and wash the toxicity out of their society. An early indication of this total view was the strikes by the Suez workers, and the threat to close down the Suez Canal: that would be an internationalist gesture, with their hands on the lever of a tenth of the world’s trade.
Every country gets the fascism it deserves. And so too its revolutionary task. The Arab Revolt is taking care of its various confounding structures. It is their job. The help we can give them is to begin the long process of dismantling the imperial tentacles, including ending the subsidy given to the Egyptian army as a bribe on behalf of Israel. Our job is not to run their revolution; our job is to lift the U. S. boot from the necks of the Arab people.
That boot goes down in the name of Justice and Peace, in the name of humanitarian intervention. By temperament, George W. Bush destroyed this permission to bomb – he was too brash, too unable to mask raw force behind sweet words. Barack Obama is more sophisticated. He has rehabilitated humanitarian intervention, which is the window dressing that imperialism needs to counter our wider ideas and aspirations for democracy. When the empire acts, it is never on the side of the good. Historians go back and find that it is hard to rehabilitate the war aims of imperialism: negotiations are on to bring the Taliban back to authority, so where is the concern for Afghan women now? So too with Libya, where the neo-liberals like Mahmud Jibril and Shokri Ghanemwill be handed the keys to the country – absent erratic and ruthless Gaddafi. Much the same in Haiti: the boot does not bring justice, which is the collateral damage of imperialism.
The neo-liberal project of the United States has come undone in the economic sphere. That project was never about economics alone. It had its limits, such as the reliance by the United States on others to buy its substantial debt. The way to ensure that this debt is covered is by political pressure, by military force: the Chinese, Saudis and Europeans continue to cover the US bills because they recognize the Dollar as the planet’s main currency, and they allow the US to protect their interests with its substantial military force. If domestic prisons and prison-like conditions maintain an immoral peace inside the country, the planetary reach of the US war machine maintains power for the global elite against humanity. Maps point to places where life is evil now: Afghanistan, Libya, Bahrain, Gaza, and Detroit. The military aspect of neo-liberalism is alive and well. We might not have responsibility for the way things turn out in Egypt, but we are certainly responsible for the militarism that keeps us afloat.
Our job is to build our movements, to incarnate democracy in our spaces. Critical Resistance and the Brecht Forum are anchors. They deserve our support. So do all the other small platforms that will help us build across our society, to end prisons and prison-like conditions, to make our politics more humane, our society less toxic. So do new formations like the United National Anti-War Committee, and others who want to unfurl the banner of Peace over our cities.
We live in freedom by necessity. We must reshape our world. We must love one another, or die.
[Text of a talk given at the Riverside Church, New York City, May 20, 2011, on a panel with Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore and Laura Flanders: a fundraiser for Critical Resistance and the Brecht Forum, attended by upwards of 2000 people.]
May 24, 2011
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007.