Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.
Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico
America’s founding myth is that we rose up against tyranny and oppression, fought a justified revolution for our freedoms, built a vibrant entrepreneurial economy, and established a democratic republic based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to become a light unto humanity, a beacon of hope for the world. To use the crude vernacular, “we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” But that’s not such a grand accomplishment in the 18th century, what with muzzle-loading flintlock musket technologies on a continent isolated by nearly four thousand miles of ocean and up to three months of travel from far more powerful nations in Europe. When the historical facts about the origins of the United States are transformed into ahistorical truisms, we have a problem.
The idea that marginal English colonists—in a hemisphere substantially depopulated of natives by disease, on the periphery of a mercantilist empire transitioning from absolutism to parliamentarianism, subject to benign neglect for decades—would succeed in forming a frontier republic based on a footnote to British liberal Enlightenment politics is not surprising. What is surprising is that such a one-off political experiment could be replicated anywhere else in the world. And, in fact, it hasn’t. Even when the Allies defeated the Axis powers, reduced Germany, Japan and Italy to rubble, and forcefully remolded those nations into Western liberal democracies, they remained substantially different from the American ideal—still very traditional with far fewer freedoms and far more governmental regulation. So if the US experience cannot be repeated within the rubric of Western liberalism, what makes anybody think it can be reproduced outside that context?
Various neocon war criminals for one, but more generally the American political punditry. All of these “talking heads” believed that a country like Iraq for instance could pull itself up by its bootstraps to emulate Western liberal democracies steeped in Enlightenment values after decades of war and civil war, scores of despotic tyranny, and centuries of colonial imperialism. A quixotic pipe dream at best, and cynical bullshit at worst. The measures taken by the US—no-fly-zones, blockades, embargoes—to affect regime change against Saddam Hussein and bring about some sort of military coup or “peoples power” uprising ultimately failed, requiring the American military invasion the consequences of which we are still living with today. We’re well aware how the Iraqi effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps worked out, aren’t we. Can you say Islamic State? I knew you could.
Historically, similar sanctions regimes have rarely, if ever, succeeded in democratizing or Americanizing their intended targets. As one recent NYT headline puts it, Venezuela would rather experience “hunger, blackouts and government shutdowns” than kowtow to Yanqui imperialism. Iran remained defiant against US/UN sanctions for over 35 years until sanctions relief in 2016. Cuba held out for over 50 years against the US economic embargo before the Obama administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with the island nation. Sanctions put in place by the Nixon administration against Allende’s Chile succeeded not in democratizing that country but in fomenting a fascist coup under Pinochet. By themselves, sanctions have failed time and again to achieve their stated goals of democratic regime change, leaving intact their implied goals of disrupting, destabilizing and destroying their targets however.
Go back to the OG sanctions regime, the French cordon sanitaire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley F. Gilchrist wrote in his essay “The Cordon Sanitaire—Is It Useful? Is It Practical?”: As early as the 17th century, the French term, cordon sanitaire (sanitary zone), was used to describe the establishment of a perimeter around an area infected with contagious disease to effect a quarantine. Gradually its usage spread to connote military perimeters enclosing safe areas. Later, the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans was also referred to as a cordon sanitaire. It completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically “diseased” nations of Europe. Germany saw the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, initiating the second World War in Europe despite the cordon sanitaire. And Russia remained Bolshevik for nearly 75 years, expanding into an international Communist bloc that ruled 1/5 of the world’s land surface and 1/3 of the world’s population despite various sanctions regimes to contain it.
Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps doesn’t work, but sanctions that force one to Westernize don’t really work either. Something more subtle is required to turn recalcitrant nations onto the correct, American-approved path. Perhaps a little backroom US political or economic pressure, or maybe the market exigencies of the world capitalist economy, can “persuade” the country in question to become more open to American guidance and Western influence. Brazil’s left-wing government is in the midst of a right-wing, legalistic coup in all but name. The right has won election outright in Argentina hoping to regain access to international capital markets, appease foreign creditors, and solve the country’s debt default. Under American pressure, Japan is moving to the right as Prime Minister Abe reforms the country’s defense policy to allow greater Japanese military action abroad, even the acquisition of nuclear weapons, while engaging in historical revisionism regarding Japan’s role during the second World War. Even in Venezuela under American sanctions, where the Left still controls the presidency but has lost control of parliament, the US continues to encourage a deliberate, massive disruption of the economy by domestic right-wing forces.
So what’s a decent sovereign country supposed to do—“so far from God, so close to the United States?” Aside from greeting their American liberators with “sweets and flowers” that is. Most of those nations wishing to remain independent of the US and the West tend to be leftist in political orientation, although theocratic Iran and fascist Myanmar run counter to this.
Ian Welsh has written a provocative essay on his blog with the self-explanatory title “Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government,” lessons that are applicable across the political spectrum. His section headers are equally clear and incendiary, and I’ve made notes in parentheses where appropriate. “It’s not you, it’s […] the world system.” “Don’t run your economy on resources.” “Your first act must be a media law” (to control the media). “Take control of the banking sector.” “Who is your administrative class” (and is it reliable)? “Take control of distribution and utilities.” “Reduce your vulnerability to the world trade system.” “Be satisfied with what you can grow and make.” “Obey the laws of purges” (as Machiavelli first described).
“Break your enemy’s power,” Welsh concludes. “If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs. And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them. Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing. You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few. So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.”
The horror! The denial of free expression! The violation of human rights! The suppression of private property and profit!
When I first called myself an anarchist some forty-eight years ago, I believed that free expression was an absolute that could be scrupulously maintained while carrying out a spontaneous revolution for individual human liberation against the power of private property and profit. Nowadays, I think that the power of private property and profit needs to be severely curtailed if not communized, that the goal is social revolution based on organized social power, and that there’s no such things as absolute freedom of expression. Recently, a chuckle-headed free speech absolutist I sometimes ridicule in this column agreed with this in a back-handed way. He has cried censorship in the denial of free speech by government, corporate, social, even market forces, yet he himself draws the line on HIS facebook page where he reserves the right to censor free speech. As if declaring your power to censor your personal digital squat at the sufferance of Zuckerberg’s whims, FB’s changing rules and corporate ownership, and government oversight means shit. But by drawing even such a puny reverse line-in-the-sand he acknowledges that there are lines to be drawn and defended. And that freedom of speech is not absolute.
Free speech doesn’t really exist when you’re willing to engage in civilized debate with fascists, only to be stomped in an alley afterwards by the boneheads. And freedom of speech can’t really exist for right-wing opposition in leftist societies when the US Sixth Fleet is anchored offshore. I find no shame in defending yourself, your community, even your country from fascists, be they actual nazi skinheads or Yanqui imperialists. You know my opinions on fighting fascists. Don’t assume I’m going all Third World national liberation struggle on you now. I have no love for the nation-state, even in its revolutionary/leftist guise. But I no longer blithely repeat ultraleft platitudes about “no war but the class war” and the need for “world revolution” to dismiss the problematics of nationalism and uneven development. I take cautious inspiration from indications that the Left’s long deadlock and current crisis might be transcended. Independent political currents are emerging that are fostering a dialogue between anarchism and Marxism. Hybrid social experiments are coming to the fore in Chiapas and Rojava, with bright promise and deep imperfections. And efforts to constitute genuine social power are being attempted by partial, flawed insurrectionary and communizing tendencies.
I’m pessimistically optimistic about the future of the Left.