Neoliberalism and the “Axis of Evil”

President George Bush’s first State of the Union Address listed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” No doubt many states commit evil by employing violence to achieve their ends. Yet, while the above-mentioned three have particularly odious elements, these were in no small part created by US policy stretching back to the beginnings of the Cold War.

Not all states are equal. Some are more dangerous to their own people and neighbors than others. But, violence exercised against innocent victims has rarely been the defining criteria employed by the US (or any other powerful state for that matter) to delineate friends from foes.

More commonly it is loyalty to a powerful nation that dictates who are allies and who are enemies. In fact, in the wake of 9/11 President Bush has candidly restated the very simple “rules of the game” in the US led global order: you either stand with the United States or you are against it. This golden rule has guided most powerful nations in history.

Yet, the US, French and Haitian revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries presented challenges to previous Machiavellian conceptions of power politics in which might makes right. These revolutions introduced principles of governance by public consent and self-determination.

Moreover, self-determination of peoples was further elaborated by Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson (the latter in response to the former) a century later. Nations were supposed to be able to exercise autonomy as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others. Of course, in practice, this system has been highly imperfect.

Indeed, these two early “champions” of national self-determination, Lenin and Wilson, routinely invaded neighbors seeking an independent path. With Lenin it was in Central Asia, the Caucasus and East Europe, and with Wilson it was in the Central American and the Caribbean.

Indeed, then as now, the interests of the powerful trumped self-determination of nations. Procedural democracy and independence would be encouraged when it served the interests of the powerful and strangled when it did not. As discouraging as this situation was, it at least marked some progress. In principle democracy and the self-determination of peoples were rhetorically acknowledged. This conferred legitimacy on liberation movements throughout the world.

Powerful states wishing to slow democracy’s advance would have to rhetorically blanket their suppression of peoples with Orwellian verbiage claiming they instead were liberating them. This strategy only worked in the short-term as people could organize to reveal the duplicity of what powerful nations said they did, versus what they actually did. When these efforts succeeded they often resulted in oppressive governments losing legitimacy.

In the aftermath of the Cold War many people formerly colonized by the “civilized democracies” sought political and economic independence from the world’s powerful nations. This did not mean no relations with them, but only control over how they would engage them. This freedom of action and self-determination matched the stated ethos of the powerful nations who emerged victorious after World War II.

Indeed, the United States even supported the efforts of many nations seeking political independence from their former West European and Japanese colonial masters. Colonial structures were essentially mercantilist systems that gave colonial powers privileged access to the raw materials and markets of the colonized. This limited US access to global markets.

Political control of other nations was offensive to most Americans, and indeed, surely to most people of the world. Yet, “most people” do not rule. The Cold War elite running the US sought a more globalized economy in which they would have increased access to the world’s raw materials and markets unencumbered by West European and Japanese colonialism–although for geopolitical reasons there were notable exceptions, such as parts of East Asia.

Ironically, then, a decentralized system of many independent states in strategically important parts of the world would serve elite interests in the US in the aftermath of World War II

While some measure of political decentralization served capital, autonomous development in which nations attempted to control their own nations did not. Nations moving in this direction were instructed on the limits of democracy. “Non-aligned” and “third-way” movements in which nations rejected the suffocating embrace of both the US and the Soviet Union were not tolerated.

Just as President Bush has recently stated, in the Cold War “you were either with us or against us.” These were the rules of the game. In this context many nations, such as Cuba, chose the Soviet Union. This also served US interests in that it eliminated ambiguity. You either opened your economy to the US on terms advantageous to the latter, or not.

If not, you were the enemy and produced further “evidence” of the need to maintain the vast permanent war economy created to sustain the US economy after World War II. The exigencies of the Cold War produced exceptions to this rule in some parts of East Asia and West Europe.

Yet they were exceptions that proved the rule, for once neoliberalism triumphed and the possibilities for independent development were reduced, the US pulled the rug out from East Asian and West European nations who were formerly allowed their Keynesian heresies.

The end of the Cold War created a new environment. In the 1980s the US had successfully rolled back movements for economic and political independence in Latin America. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a particularly offensive system that denied political freedoms to its people–although one providing more freedom from want than the neoliberal orders replacing it–withdrew the only alternative economy that could assist nations seeking a “third way.”

With the rollback of “really existing socialism” and the obliteration of prospects for national economic independence, the United States could safely promote procedural democracy around the world. With no other game in town but the US led world economy, governed by the US Treasury Department and its instrument the International Monetary Fund, democracy promotion was seen as the path to global stability and open markets for capital.

Make no mistake, this was not real democracy, but the kind of freedom applied to the world that was sarcastically commented on by critics of Thatcherism and Reaganism when they declared that their slash and burn of the welfare state merely provided people “the freedom to sleep under a bridge.” Of course, for the few insolent leaders of the world who refused to proclaim the virtues of There Is No Alternative (TINA), the US would reveal the shallow roots of its “democracy promotion when it supported the coup against Hugo Chavez in April 2002.

The Cold War’s end appeared to give the US unchallenged hegemony. Yet, it presented the sticky dilemma of how to justify the vast US military expenditures required to keep the occasional insubordinate head of state in line. More significantly, by the late 1990s serious challenges from below began to emerge with global protests against neoliberalism.

Right-wing fundamentalist Islamic movements that arose in the Middle East complemented this. For religious movements were among the few sites of protest remaining in these nations where most of the left was butchered by US supported regimes during the Cold War. Indeed, right-wing religious fanatics, such as Osama bin Laden, were supported by the US in order to give the Soviets grief in Afghanistan and in the USSR’s Central Asian republics in the 1980s.

By the 1990s the Soviet Union dissolved under the weight of its contradictions and the US proclaimed a veritable Age of Aquarius for its “new economy.” Yet, the new millennium that followed exposed the canard that America had somehow created a new prosperity machine.

The economic boom of mid to late 1990s revealed itself to be nothing more than a speculative bubble in which most Americans did not even reach their per hour inflation adjusted income levels of the early 1970s’ levels. This presented the possibility of an even further erosion of faith in the “New World Order” outlined by President Bush #41 in the early 1990s.

The recession that followed this speculative binge gave powerful impetus to the Cold Warriors staffing the administration of President Bush #43. Those advisors and the power elite who put them in power called for a return to the military Keynesianism of the Cold War’s permanent war economy. The Bush administration is merely serving up old wine in this new bottle labeled the “axis of evil.”

The “axis of evil” will serve many masters. One, it represents a return to the full-blown permanent war economy of the Cold War. This military Keynesianism will provide huge contracts, such as the $200 billion contract to Lockheed Martin, centered in “anti big government” Newt Gingrich’s congressional district, to build the military’s new fighter jet. Indeed, the much ballyhooed 5.8% growth recently announced for the first quarter of 2002 came primarily from this government spending.

President Bush’s corporate supporters will gorge themselves in this all you can eat buffet of government military contracts.

Two, these contracts will provide another public subsidy to research and design for US based companies that will find commercial applications for the weapons and security systems developed at public expense.

Three, it will give a temporary boost to the economy, thus boosting George Bush’s chances for reelection at the long-term fiscal expense of the economy.

Four, this military spending is likely to create a future fiscal crises in which the long-term Republican (now joined by many Democrats) strategy to scale back the gains of the New Deal and Great Society. Indeed, the Bush administration is already breaking into the Social Security trust fund to pay for its military proposals.

This further undermines a program that Wall Street would prefer to see “downsized” in order for it get its hands on this last great reserve of capital to allow its continued speculative excesses and forestall the inevitable collapse of its ponzi-scheme economy centered on finance instead of production.

Yet, most significantly, the “axis of evil” will make clear to all others that the US will tolerate “no alternatives” to Washington Consensus neoliberal policies. Serious structural impediments are already in place to prevent nations from pursuing independent paths.

With the “axis of evil” it will also be clear that for any that dare not ally with the US it might suffer the next US invasion. This represents a retreat from the project of democracy born two centuries back.

The Cold War gave the US the rhetorical maneuvering room to selectively choose when and where it would tolerate democracy and self-determination of peoples. In that conflict, for geopolitical reasons, it tolerated economic independence in East Asia and cultivated social democracy and economic autonomy in much of West Europe.

Yet, with the demise of the Soviets and challenges to US hegemony, the US can now rollback social democracy and the self-determination of peoples through limiting their options for economic development.

This represents an expansion of what was supposed have been a “temporary” restraint on democracy during the Cold War in favor of the return to the historical norm of powerful nations saying, as George Bush number 41 said, “what we say goes.” Indeed, it marks the discarding of the entire Enlightenment project born of the French Revolution.

Currently, the US has genuine threats to its security from a variety of quarters, of which America has had no small part in creating. These threats, however, can serve to incubate a far greater danger from anti-democratic forces within America.

The US appears to be readying itself to limit freedoms at home while stoking the fires of its permanent war economy. In doing so it will divert resources from desperately needed social spending at home, while making the world less secure by increasingly relying on force to maintain order. Indeed, the true “axis of evil” appears to be neoliberalism around which so many of the world’s problems spin and for which Washington will have to use increasing force check, thus creating ever more resentment against itself.

Jeffrey Sommers, Assistant Professor Department of History North Georgia College & State University Dahlonega, GA 30597 Ph.: 706-864-1913 or 1903 Fax: 706-864-1873 Email: jsommers@fulbrightweb.org

Research Associate, World History Center Northeastern University, Boston Url: www.whc.neu.edu

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