Noam Chomsky’s description of the dangers posed by U.S. elites’ “Imperial Mentality” was recently given a boost in credibility by a surprising source—Bill Clinton. As America’s economy, foreign policy and politics continue to unravel, it is clear that this mentality and the system it has created will produce an increasing number of victims in the years to come. Clinton startlingly testified to that effect on March 10 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
Since 1981 the United States has followed a policy until the last year or so, when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food so thank goodness they can lead directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did, nobody else.
Clinton is to be praised for being the first U.S. president to take personal responsibility for impoverishing an entire nation rather than ignoring his misdeeds or falsely blaming local U.S.-imposed regimes. But his confession also means that his embrace of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and NAFTA “neo-liberalization” destroyed the lives of many more millions well beyond Haiti, as U.S. support for heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness damaged local agricultural economies throughout Latin America and beyond. This led to mass migration into urban slums and destitution, as well as increased emigration to the U.S.—which then led Clinton to militarize the border in 1994—and thus accelerated the “illegal immigration” issue that so poisons U.S. politics today.
Clinton might also have added that he and other U.S. leaders imposed such policies by force, installing military dictators and vicious police and paramilitary forces. Chomsky reports in “Hopes and Prospects” that in Haiti, semiofficial thugs empowered by a U.S.-supported coup murdered 8,000 people and raped 35,000 women in 2004 and 2005 alone, while a tiny local elite reaps most of the benefits from U.S. policies.
Clinton’s testimony reminded me of one of my visits with Chomsky, back in 1988, when, after talking for an hour or so, he smiled and said he had to stop to get back to writing about the children of Haiti.
I was struck both by his concern for forgotten Haitians and because his comment so recalled my experience with him in 1970 as he spent a week researching U.S. war-making in Laos. I had taken dozens of journalists, peace activists, diplomats, experts and others out to camps of refugees who had fled U.S. saturation bombing. Chomsky was one of only two who wept openly upon learning how these innocent villagers had seen their beloved grandmothers burned alive, their children slowly suffocated, their spouses cut to ribbons, during five years of merciless, pitiless and illegal U.S. bombing for which U.S. leaders would have been executed had international law protecting civilians in wartime been applied to their actions. It was obvious that he was above all driven by a deep feeling for the world’s victims, those he calls the “unpeople” in his new book. No U.S. policymakers I knew in Laos, nor the many I have met since, have shared such concerns.
Bill Clinton’s testimony also reminded me of the accuracy of Chomsky writings on Haiti—before, during and after Clinton’s reign—as summed up in “Hopes and Prospects”:
The Clinton doctrine, presented to Congress, was that the US is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” In Haiti, Clinton [imposed] harsh neoliberal rules that were guaranteed to crush what remained of the economy, as they did.
Clinton would have a cleaner conscience today had he listened to Chomsky then. Many more Americans may also benefit by heeding Chomsky today, as U.S. elites’ callousness toward unpeople abroad is now affecting increasing numbers of their fellow citizens back home. Nothing symbolizes this more than investment bankers tricking countless Americans out of their life savings by luring them into buying homes they could not afford that were then foreclosed on.
In doing so, Wall Streeters exhibited what Chomsky describes as a Western elite imperial mentality, dating back to 1491 (his first chapter is entitled “Year 514: Globalization for Whom?”). Only this time instead of impoverishing Haitians or Chileans, it was Americans who were afflicted by a “system” of “fuck the poor” (in the words of successful Wall Street trader Steve Eisman). [See Branfman’s review of “The Big Short” in Truthdig.]
The many Americans whose lives have been damaged by financiers’ single-minded focus on short-term profits at the expense of everyone else are only a harbinger of what is to come. Financial elites remain in charge, as evidenced by recent “financial reform” legislation that does not even reinstate the Glass-Steagall law separating investment and commercial banking. New York magazine has described how Obama officials blocked even inadequate reforms, let alone the stronger proposals from Nouriel Roubini, one of the few major economists to foresee the economic crash. Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson tells us “our banking structure remains—and the incentive and belief system that lies behind reckless risk-taking has only become more dangerous,” thus setting the stage for an even worse crash than that of 2008. And, as U.S. competitiveness continues to decline and it cannot afford its endless wars without drastically cutting social spending, countless more Americans will find themselves paying the price for U.S. elites’ imperial mentality.
This mentality described by Chomsky includes the following elements: (1) a single-minded focus on maximizing short-term elite economic and military interests; (2) a refusal to let other societies follow their own paths if perceived to conflict with these interests; (3) continual and massive violations of international law; (4) indifference to human life, particularly in the Third World; (5) massive violation of the U.S. Constitution, especially through the executive branch’s seizure of the power to wage unilateral and unaccountable war in every corner of the globe; (6) indifference to U.S. and international public opinion, which is often more progressive and humane than that of the elites; (7) a remarkable ability to “manufacture consent,” aided by the mass media and intellectuals, that has blinded most Americans to the truth of what their leaders actually do in their names....
In today’s system, Chomsky explains, to “stay in the game,” CEOs must maximize their own short-term profits while treating the costs of doing so as “externalities” to be paid by the taxpayer. In the case of climate change, however, “externalities happen to be the fate of the species.” An imperial mentality which has primarily threatened the Third World in the past, in other words, has now become a threat to the survival of not only America but all civilization as we know it....
Chomsky’s explanation of the American system’s imperial mentality also illuminates a seeming mystery: How could decent people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama commit so much evil? Our concept of evil is shaped by such paranoid psychotics as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, who all hated their victims and openly lusted for power. We do not yet understand that in today’s American system the problem we face is not so much inhumanity from the mad and evil as “ahumanity” from the sane and decent.....
At the moment, Chomsky’s proposed solutions are politically unthinkable. As the American economy and polity continues to unravel and suffering mounts at home and abroad, however, a mass movement may arise that is capable of saving America and the world. If so, such a movement is likely to attempt solutions of the sort Chomsky proposes. Here are two out of a far larger number:
State capitalism for the many: The American Enterprise Institute’s chief declared in a May 23 Washington Post Op-Ed that “America faces a new culture war,” between “free enterprise” offering “rewards determined by market forces” and “European-style statism.” “Hopes and Prospects” explains at some length, however, why this formulation is absurd. America’s “free enterprise” system has always been based on massive government aid, from the Army building 19th century railroads, to the Pentagon’s post-World War II role in building the Internet and Silicon Valley, to today’s “rewards” to Wall Street and oil companies determined not by market forces, but those companies’ political clout. America has been practicing “state capitalism” since the founding of the Republic, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future no matter which party is in office.
The real choice, Chomsky makes clear, is not free enterprise versus statism, but state capitalism for (A) the few or (B) the many. The latter would include breaking up the banks, a focus on job creation and safety net expansion where needed, single-payer health insurance, higher taxes on the wealthy, far lower military spending, public members on corporate boards, greater employee workplace control and, above all, a new public-private partnership to see America become a leader in a clean energy economic revolution.
A Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone and Two-State Solution in the Middle East: Chomsky proposes that rather than continuing to engage in senseless fighting and confronting Iran over nuclear weapons, U.S., Israeli, Arab and Iranian interests would be far better served by the U.S. using its enormous military and economic clout to create a Mideast nuclear weapons-free zone that Iran says it is willing to accept, and a comprehensive and fair Israeli-Palestinian settlement including Hamas’ promised recognition of Israel and cessation of rocket attacks. A major benefit to the U.S. would be to reduce the threat of domestic terrorism. For only a comprehensive new policy that addresses the source of anti-U.S. hatred—U.S. war-making on civilians and support of corrupt and vicious local regimes—can reduce it....