Can the System Be Fixed?
Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University. He is the
author of A
People’s History of the U.S. and has written several
plays including Emma and Marx in Soho. His latest
book is Terrorism and War.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: I want to start with something
from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a
novel about the Roaring Twenties and the excesses that characterized
that period just before the Great Depression. Fitzgerald wrote,
“They were careless people…they smashed up things
and creatures and then retreated back into their money or
their vast carelessness, of whatever it was that kept them
together, and let other people clean up the mess they had
made.” Comment on that in light of the current corporate
HOWARD ZINN: It’s interesting that you should quote Fitzgerald.
The 1920s have much in common with what we are seeing today.
Then there were governments in power that insisted on distributing
the wealth of the country so that the rich got richer and
the poor were stuck where they were or got even poorer. Vast
fortunes were made while people in poor areas of cities were
struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table. It was
capitalism run amok. Interestingly, the Pope, in a recent
interview in an Italian newspaper, talked about savage, unbridled
capitalism. That’s what we saw in the 1920s and that’s
what we are seeing today. Why is it that crime in the streets
has historically attracted much more attention than white
If somebody holds up a store or robs someone on the street,
of course those are crimes. If somebody robs consumers of
the country of millions of dollars or robs workers of their
lives because of unsafe work conditions, that’s not crime.
That’s business. The media constantly focus on mayhem
being done to ordinary people. But what is being done by the
corporate giants usually doesn’t get into the media until
it explodes in a particularly kind of odious scandal, as we
There are other reasons for the emphasis on street crime over
corporate crime. Street crime is overt while the corporate
variety is secret.
you compare the current era to the Robber Baron period of
the late 19th century?
Barons were the great corporate executives and moguls of the
late 19th century like the Vanderbilts, Hills, and Harrimans
who controlled the railroads, the Carnegies and Mellons who
controlled steel and aluminum, the J.P. Morgans who worked
out deals by merging companies and making huge profits. They
were the people who manipulated the money market. The Robber
Barons owned the factories
where workers toiled for 14 hours a day. They were the counterparts
of what we have seen in the 20th and now 21st century. The
CEOs making enormous sums of money and laying off their workers
without taking care of their health insurance. Leaving them
in the lurch when they are 50 to 60 years old, having lost
their retirement benefits. What is interesting to me is how
the word security is bandied about by the government. In the
name of security, they fingerprint and keep tabs on people,
and pick them up in the middle of the night, non-citizens,
and even a few who are. A large part of our national wealth
is being given to the military budget. It is all being done
in the name of security while the daily life security of people
is being taken away from them. Real security is the security
people need when they get to the age when they want to stop
working and are able to. Or the security that all people need
to be able to deal with their medical problems without incurring
huge bills that they can’t pay. The security of having
work when you are able to work. The security that children
need to grow up in healthy environments. That kind of security
is put aside while the militarization of the country goes
the current crisis of capitalism a systemic one?
It is systemic in the sense that it is not just an aberration,
which will pass, if and when a few corporate crooks go to
prison. The stock market may go up again, but the fundamental
sickness of the system remains. By that I mean that even when
the stock market is up and even when the worst excesses of
the corporate system have been slightly corrected, fundamental
problems remain like 1 percent of the country owning 40 percent
of the wealth. I believe what is a systemic problem is that
profit is the driving force that decides what is done in society.
That profit motive means that homes will not be built for
low-income people because there is no money to be made. Teachers’
salaries will not be doubled, as they should be. The rivers,
lakes, and oceans will not be cleaned up because there is
no profit in it. The incentive of profit, which people who
want to glorify our system describe as a wonderful thing,
may lead to enormous production. So that the gross national
product rises and rises. But that gross national product consists
of things that do not solve the day to day needs of ordinary
I’d like to think that while the new has not yet been
born and the old system has not yet died, that the old system
is beginning to show what is wrong with it in a way that will
cause more and more people to rebel against it and for the
new to emerge. There are women activists in Nigeria who shut
down the ChevronTexaco operation. Poor people in Peru are
protesting the impact of the so-called free market system.
Banana workers in Ecuador are going on strike. In Poland,
there are signs of recognition that the lovely capitalist
system that was promised for them has turned out to be disastrous.
Certainly since the Seattle protests in late 1999, there is
a growing awareness of linking U.S. foreign policy with the
economic and environmental well being of the planet. The World
Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil has drawn tens of thousands
of social activists from all over. There are lots of movements
I began with F. Scott Fitzgerald, let me continue with
another piece from literature. Joseph Conrad’s novel
Heart of Darkness was published in 1902. He was aware
of the Belgian attack on and destruction of the Congo, one
of the great crimes in human history. Conrad wrote, “They
were conquerors, and for that you only want brute force….
They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was
to be got. It was robbery with violence, aggravated murder
on a great scale, and men going at it blind…. The conquest
of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those
who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses
than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it
Conrad was telling us about the ugly and violent process by
which Western nations conquered parts of the earth. It made
me think of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood
Bible in which she writes about the Congo in our time.
It also made me think of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s
Ghost, a historical study of what the Belgians did in
the Congo. But look at American policy in Latin America. What
could be uglier or more violent than what the U.S. has done
for over a century in Latin America? From the early dispatch
of Marines to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to taking over
Panama and the domination of Cuba to the dictatorships in
Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. The deaths of hundreds
of thousands people as the result of what can only be described
as American imperialism.
Traditionally the term imperialism and American could not
be mentioned in polite discourse, in history books, or in
the media. That seems to be changing. There was a July 28
New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Ignatieff
entitled, “How to Keep Afghanistan from Falling Apart.
The Case for a Committed American Imperialism.” He is
the Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy and Director of
the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
He writes rather blatantly, “America’s entire war
on terror is an exercise in imperialism.” Then he adds,
“Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden.
This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t
stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect.”
What do you think of his comments?
Ignatieff’s statement is accurate in that the war is
using terrorism as an excuse to advance American military
and economic power to other parts of the world where they
had not yet reached. When he says it is necessary, who is
it necessary for? He is trying to suggest that imperialism
now is a good thing. He says imperialism had a bad reputation.
Does it now have a good one? Can we point to wonderful things
that have happened to countries under U.S. power, control,
and influence? Can we point to wonderful things that happened
in Indonesia when the U.S. supported Suharto and his war against
the people of East Timor? Imperialism is as ugly and brutal
as it always was.
Senator Joseph Biden, a liberal Democrat and Chair of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on Iraq in
late July/early August. The usual suspects testified like
Reagan Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Clinton National
Security Advisor Samuel Berger. What was noteworthy was the
absence of critical voices. Congress has a long history of
subservience when it comes to presidential plans for war.
If you look at history, when the president has decided on
war, Congress has never dissented. It is not going to be Senate
hearings that stop the war plans on Iraq. It is going to take
resistance and protest by the American people who will ask,
Why should our young people die and why should Iraqis die
for the ambition of oil companies and the political ambitions
of American leaders?
Falk in the August 19th issue of the Nation has an
article entitled “The Rush to War.” It is about
U.S. Iraq policy, He poses a series of questions at the end
of his essay. “We must ask why the open American system
is so closed in this instance. How can we explain this unsavory
rush to judgment, when so many lives are at stake? What is
now wrong with our system, with the vigilance of our citizenry,
that such a course of action can be embarked upon without
even evoking criticism in high places, much less mass opposition
in the streets?” How would you respond to Falk?
He should not be surprised. Citizens have never had an opportunity
to express their dissent when the country goes to war. One
of the reasons is that the media have always gone along with
administration policy in preparing for and going to war. We
have had a system that has been largely closed. Citizens have
had to create their own apertures like independent newspapers,
magazines, and community radio stations. Citizens have had
to take advantage of the few apertures in the system in order
to express their dissent. It is disturbing that we are not
seeing mass revulsion against plans for war. But I believe
the idea of going to war against Iraq is going to become more
and more obviously wrong to more and more Americans.
Zinn’s book of interviews with David Barsamian, The Future
of History, is available from Alternative Radio. For
information about obtaining CDs, cassette copies or transcripts
of this or other programs, please contact: David Barsamian
Alternative Radio, PO Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977;
[email protected], www.