The War at Home
The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism
by Frances Fox Piven
The New Press, 2004, hardcover
Historically, governments waging war sooner or later tried to
compensate their people for the blood and wealth they sacrificed.
As war continued and the rush of patriotic fervor faded, governments
tried to shore up support by expanding democratic rights, making
the rich share some of the costs through increased taxation, and
initiating or expanding social welfare programs.
This period is markedly different. During
World War II, tax rates on the rich rose to 90 percent; during
our current wars, taxes on the rich have been slashed. Toward
the end of World War I the franchise was expanded in war-weary
Britain, Woodrow Wilson announced his support for collective bargaining,
and toward the end of the Vietnam War, eighteen-year-olds were
given the right to vote in the United States; our current wars
have so far seen the stripping away of civil liberties and a sustained
assault on unions. And at the end of World War II, European nations
vastly expanded their health, housing, and income security programs,
and the United States initiated a remarkably generous veterans'
benefit program. During the current period, social welfare programs
are being cut, both at the federal and the state level, and even
some veterans' benefits have been reduced.
Explanations focusing on imperialism assume the main reason for
war in Iraq was to shore up American domination abroad. I argue
that another reason for war was to shore up America's rulers at
home. War-making satisfied powerful domestic interest groups who
were pushing for a military buildup. The fear and excitement generated
by war helped paper over fissures in the Republican base. And
the war figured importantly in the electoral strategy of the president
and his party. (As I will show in the next chapter,) with the
political lift gained by war-making, the Bush regime was also
able to push rapidly ahead with its right wing domestic policy
agenda. The agenda was predatory, not in the imperial sense of
extracting wealth from foreign peoples, but in the more pedestrian
sense of extracting wealth from the American people.
For much of American history, this seems to have been more or
less true. Even the enormous military expansion of World War II
was followed by demobilization, both of troops and defense factories.
But the Cold War that rapidly ensued spurred a new buildup of
the military that was never reversed. The armed forces and the
intelligence agencies grew, as did the industries that supplied
them, and their far-flung allies multiplied in research institutions
and universities, in think tanks, and in government. Whatever
the initiating motives or the raison d'etre of this establishment,
it has now become a major force in its own right, ready and able
to generate the ideas and even the events that justify its stability
... some 1.4 million men and women remain under arms, with a payroll
of roughly $80 billion. And the armed forces ought reasonably
to include the people who work for private security companies.
These are effectively mercenaries operating under the radar screen
of official public policy, but they are paid with government funds,
and they are replacing government troops in conflicts around the
world. In Colombia, for example, they conduct secret search and
surveillance operations. And they are increasingly important in
Iraq, where the occupation has led to an explosive growth in the
industry with some two dozen private military companies employing
as many as 20,000 people in the field.
... the roughly 1,000 or so bases that
the United States owns or rents overseas, often giant establishments
with quite lavish facilities. But the overwhelming majority, some
6,000 military bases, are not overseas but in the United States
and its territories where the bases have become integral to local
economic life and a major source of profit to private companies
like Halliburton, DynCorp, and the Vinnell Corporation who contract
to provide base services.
Then there are the sprawling intelligence
agencies, with a $30 billion a year bottom line divided among
fifteen agencies with a crazy-quilt division of responsibilities,
most under the control of the Department of Defense, the remainder
under the control of the CIA. The military establishment also
includes the nuclear weapons programs run by the Energy Department.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal includes 5,400 multiple megaton warheads,
1,750 nuclear bombs and cruise missiles, and 1,670 tactical nuclear
weapons, with an additional 10,000 nuclear weapons stored in bunkers.
The Star Wars lobby embraces not only the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin,
and Boeing, but right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation,
the Center for Security Policy, and Empower America. Looming in
the future with the increasing use of satellite-directed missiles
is the expansion of the space program recently promised by President
Bush.'° On the agenda, in other words, is the militarization
The military is intimately tied to the
industries that supply it, and both are closely connected to politics,
especially but not solely to Republican politics.
"Some argue that it's too simplistic to say this war (Iraq)
is about oil. They're right. It's about oil, water, roads, trains,
phones, ports, and drugs." In the short run, at least, these
contracts are being paid for not by the imperial extraction of
the resources of other peoples, but by extraction from American
taxpayers. The big winner in the competition to rebuild Iraq is
Dick Cheney's old firm, the giant Texas oil services business
Halliburton, and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root. Halliburton
received its first contract for logistical services for American
troops in Iraq in 2001.11 In September 2002, a secret task force,
formed to plan for Iraq's oil industry in the event of war, granted
Kellogg, Brown & Root the noncompetitive contract for up to
$7 billion to rebuild Iraq's oil operations. All told, Halliburton
has so far received some $11 billion for its work in Iraq. 18
(Halliburton subsidiaries, incidentally, are incorporated in a
variety of exotic places to avoid federal taxes.
A subsidiary of Bechtel, Bechtel National, is slated to do the
work of rebuilding Iraq's roads, power plants, water systems,
seaports, and airports. Bechtel's ties to the military establishment
are longstanding. One of its board members, and a former president
of the firm, is George Shultz, the secretary of state under Ronald
Reagan, and chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, was
also associated with the firm.
The Bush family itself is tied to the
military industrial complex. Kevin Phillips has recently had much
to say about the family and its connections: "If there are
other families who have more fully epitomized and risen alongside
the hundred-year emergence of the U.S. military-industrial complex,
the post-1945 national security state, and the twenty-first century
imperium, no one has identified them. Certainly no other established
a presidential dynasty." The dynasty's power begins with
the great-grandfathers of President Bush-George Herbert Walker
and Samuel Prescott Bush-and continues with grandfather Prescott
Bush who maintained ties with Nazi Germany until Pearl Harbor.
Elsewhere, Phillips says that "when you get the Bushes, you
get really what amounts to a four-generation history of involvement
with finance and the oil industry... [and] very close ties to
the intelligence agencies of the military-industrial complex,
of which the oil industry has become a major part. And obviously
there are the ties to the oil industry and the preoccupation with
the Middle East and Texas, and the price of oil.
... the long-term influence of a closely knit group of neo-cons
with long associations with both the Pentagon and right-wing think
tanks, a group that Pat Buchanan not unreasonably calls the "War
Party." The think tank network is extensive, including the
well-known American Enterprise Institute (which serves as a kind
of recruitment office for the neocons), the Hudson Institute,
the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, Georgetown
University's Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Committee for
the Free World, the Center for Security Policy, the National Institute
for Public Policy, the Project for a New American Century, and
the Jewish Institute for National Security. These interconnected
organizations, and the journals in which the neo-cons publish,
are supported by a number of conservative foundations such as
Olin, the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Smith-Richardson Foundation,
and Scaife Family Trusts, as well as by midsize industrial firms,
the oil industry, and the largesse of Bechtel, Lockheed Martin,
the Carlyle Group, Martin Marietta, and Boeing Northrop Grumman.
With the ascendance of the Bush administration,
key figures from this group came to occupy important posts in
the administration, particularly in the Pentagon. The network
reached to Vice President Dick Cheney and the new Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It included Cheney's chief of staff,
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Rumsfeld's deputy secretary,
Paul Wolfowitz, as well as Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense
for policy. The network also included players in other Pentagon-related
agencies such as the Defense Policy Board, which Richard Perle
chaired until March 2003.
As early as 1981, Midge Decter, a first generation neo-con, wrote:
"Except in certain enclaves of absurdity and irrelevance,
such as the universities and the Public Broadcasting System, virtually
no one in the world believes anymore that there is a system preferable
to ours: more benign, more equitable, more productive .... [We
are] waging a 'battle of ideas.' That battle, at least among serious
people is now over. We have won it."'
In 1992 a document leaked from the Pentagon office of Paul Wolfowitz
called for a permanent American military presence on six continents
capable of establishing and protecting a new world order. Dismissed
when it was leaked to the Washington Post in 1992, the Wolfowitz
proposal became American policy in the form of a thirty-three-page
National Security Strategy memo issued by President Bush on September
21, 2002 .Dolores Janiewski cites a 1996 Foreign Affairs article
by Robert Kagan and Irving Kristol that argued for a foreign policy
that would assert "America's role as a global hegemon"
through increased military spending and the mobilization of public
opinion in support of "America's global mission" to
promote democracy, free
markets, and regime change. On January
26, 1998, Elliott Abrams, Bill Bennett, Robert Kagan, William
Kristol, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz wrote to then-President
Clinton begging him to use his State of the Union message to make
removing Saddam Hussein through military action the aim of American
foreign policy. And only nine days after 9/11 a longer list of
neocons wrote to President Bush saying that the newly declared
"war on terror" must target Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran,
and overthrow Saddam.
In 2003, [William] Kristol explained the relationship between
his patriotism and unilateral war: "[F]or a great power,
the 'national interest' is not a geographical term, except for
fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation
.... And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the
Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably
have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.
Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel
obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack
from nondemocratic forces, external or internal .... No complicated
geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary."
On the day after the invasion of Iraq
was launched, Richard Perle gloated in the Guardian: "What
will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world
order. As we sift the debris, it will be important to preserve,
the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal
conceit of safety through international law administered by international
institutions." Subsequently, in a book revealingly entitled
An End to Evil, Perle together with neo-con David Frum proposed
attacking North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.
Implementing the Business Agenda
The political power of the Republican right has been delivered
to the big business interests that backed the administration and
its party. The fog of war also helps in this process, for national
security rationales have been used to divert public attention
from the huge strides that are being made in implementing the
big business agenda. We usually regard imperial war as a strategy
that makes possible the predation of foreign lands and peoples,
or "accumulation by dispossession" in David Harvey's
phrase. But in this instance war is also a strategy for domestic
predation, a strategy for 1 enacting the policies that dispossess
resources and rights from ordinary Americans on an unprecedented
scale. Nobel laureate in economics George Akerlof calls this "a
form of looting."
These developments notwithstanding! the main targets of business
looting are not in Iraq. They are within the borders of the United
States. If we step back in time, it is clear that the business
political agenda now being enacted under the cloud of war is a
continuation of a campaign that began three decades ago when American
business became intensely politicized. To be sure, big business
has always attended to politics, but rarely with the zeal and
determination of the past three decades. The origins of this campaign
are in the economic troubles of the early 1970s when American
business was simultaneously struggling with oil price shocks,
rising competition from West Germany and Japan, and the narrowing
profit margins resulting from the array of labor, social welfare,
and regulatory gains won by the social movements of the 1960s
and early 1970s. Big business responded by mobilizing an army
of lobbyists and think tanks to promote a political agenda that
would shore up profits by rolling back the public policies of
the New Deal and Great Society.
The main planks of that agenda were cutting
taxes on business and the affluent, reducing government regulation
of business, weakening unions, and slashing the public programs
that shored up the power of workers, largely by reducing the pain
of unemployment. The agenda gained considerable traction under
Ronald Reagan, another president who enjoyed the overwhelming
support of big corporations, as well as the support of a right-wing
populist base of Christian fundamentalists, gun advocates, tax
cutters, and libertarians first activated in reaction to the civil
rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
... effective government depends on revenues, and the Bush administration
has moved rapidly to deplete public revenues. In 2001, the president
pushed tax cuts through Congress amounting to $1 trillion over
ten years. Then in 2003, with the war in Iraq under way, another
huge tax cut was enacted, amounting to $800 billion over ten years.
Income taxes were reduced by an estimated average of $90,000 per
millionaire, the federal estate tax on large inheritances was
phased out, the rate on capital gains was cut from 20 percent
to 15, and the top rate on dividends was slashed from 39.6 percent
to 15 percent. Corporate taxes were allowed to wither as a source
of federal revenue through new generous write-offs for investments
in plants and purchases of equipment that will total more than
$175 billion through 2004, and much more if they are not allowed
to expire in a few years as is now expected.
"If you take the administration's tax proposals as a group,
they effectively achieve a longstanding goal of the radical right:
an end to all taxes on income from capital, moving us to a system
in which only wages are taxed- a system, if you like, in which
earned income is taxed but unearned income is not."
An obvious consequence of the new tax laws is that the tax burden
is shifted from the rich to everyone else. Corporate income tax
revenues fell to $132 billion in 2003, down 36 percent from $207
billion in 2000, representing only 1.2 percent of the Gross Domestic
Product and the lowest level since 1983, a year in which corporate
tax receipts fell to levels last seen in the 1930s. Meanwhile,
the share of federal revenues consisting of payroll taxes rose
to the highest level in the nation's history. But the consequences
go beyond the redistribution of the tax burden.
Falling revenues and rising deficits are
significant for another reason important to the right-wing agenda:
they generate enormous pressure for cuts in spending, especially
cuts in spending on social programs. Overall federal revenues
as a share of the economy are falling sharply to their lowest
level since 1959, while federal deficits are ballooning. "Except
during the two world wars, the fiscal reversal amounts to the
largest four-year deterioration in the federal budget in American
history .... Since the present administration took office, the
foreign indebtedness of the United States has increased by $1.4
trillion. And fully half of that deficit was the result of the
Bush tax cuts.
Dick Cheney is reported to have said that
Reagan proved deficits don't matter, meaning they don't matter
to the voters. Reagan in fact proved that deficits do matter to
Congress, if only because they can be used as a club to press
for cuts in social programs. The tax cuts have already reduced
revenues by $270 billion in 2004. This is barely a beginning,
since most of the cuts have not yet taken effect. Indeed, only
11 percent of the cuts will take effect before 2008, and revenues
will fall far more as the full impact of the administration's
tax cuts unfolds. Over ten years, an estimated $12 to $14 trillion
will be lost, more than enough to pay for the Social Security
and Medicare shortfalls combined. "It will be a perfect fiscal
storm" said Leslie B. Samuels, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb
Steen & Hamilton, who served as assistant secretary for tax
policy under President Clinton. The anticipated fiscal storm has
led even the International Monetary Fund to worry about the long-run
fiscal stability of the United States. The storm could well suck
up the money that might otherwise be spent on our major social
programs. Paul Krugman calls this "the bait-and-switch strategy
known on the right as 'starve the beast.' The ultimate goal is
to slash government programs that help the poor and the middle
class, and use the savings to cut taxes for the rich."
Rolling Back Social Spending
The Bush regime has taken up the long-term business campaign against
American social programs. These are the programs improve the well-being
of people who earn little or nothing that provide services such
as education or health care that not be left to the market.
Bush himself has echoed this view. "The new culture,"
he wrote, referring presumably to the liberalization of the 1960s,
"said if people were poor, the government should feed them.
If criminals are not responsible for their acts, then the answers
are not in prisons, but in social programs. People became less
interested in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and more
interested in pulling down a monthly government check. A culture
of dependency was born. Programs that began as a temporary hand
up became a permanent handout, regarded by many as a right."
The popularity of these attitudes acknowledged,
employers have been the most consistent opponents of the social
programs. Redistribution through government taxation and spending
is an issue for them, but it is not nearly as important as the
impact of the social programs on labor markets. The underlying
problem is longstanding. To the extent that the social programs
reduce economic insecurity among workers or potential workers,
workers acquire a measure of independence and therefore of power
in their relations with employers.
The campaign to privatize social programs is unfolding in education,
welfare, job training, and most importantly because so much money
is involved, in Social Security and Medicare. The Bush administration
is working to push this campaign forward.
Employer opposition to social spending
is longstanding. It was overcome in the United States only during
periods when popular economic discontent reached levels that threatened
both civil order and the stability of reigning political regimes.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, joblessness and hardship
led to demonstrations and riots across the country and also led
to the defeat of the then-dominant Republican Party. Programs
like emergency relief, and later Social Security and unemployment
insurance, were initiated quickly by Franklin Delano Roosevelt
to deal with the immediate threat of popular unrest, and to build
long-term support for his New Deal Democratic coalition. Once
trouble subsided, however, most of the social programs atrophied,
until a new surge of popular protest erupted in the 1960s, this
time spearheaded by the civil rights and urban poverty movements.
The New Deal programs were revived and expanded, and new programs
were added, most importantly Medicaid and Medicare. It is worth
noting that at these peak moments of crisis in the 1930s and 1960s,
even leaders of big business supported new social spending.
The business political mobilization that
began in the 1970s, however, targeted the New Deal and Great Society
programs for rollbacks, partly to justify the tax cuts business
was demanding, but more importantly as a component of the effort
to roll back labor costs.
The logic that threads through these [Bush's cuts in social programs]
social program initiatives is the logic of the labor market. Programs
are being refashioned to make long hours of low-wage work the
only option available to many. Even the vein of meanness contributes
to this logic, for it heaps insult on those who turn to government
support. The Bush administration immigration initiatives should
also be understood in this way. Most immigrants, including legal
immigrants, were already denied eligibility for the main means-tested
programs under the 1996 welfare law. Although these measures might
have gained some political traction among anti-immigrant groups
from the belief that such restrictions would keep immigrants out,
they did not, and neither did Congress show much appetite for
the strong border controls that might keep immigrants out. To
the contrary, our de facto policy seems to be to allow immigrants
in albeit not easily-and to deny them the protections that might
allow them to defend themselves from low-wage employers.
The president's new immigration proposal
is consistent with that policy. To be sure, it would give temporary
legal status to undocumented workers for three years, with the
possibility of an extension. This tenuous legalization will be
promoted by the administration in its appeal to Hispanic voters.
But under the plan, prospective immigrants would have to have
a job waiting, and they would have to keep it once they were here.
It is only employers who can obtain permits for legal guest workers,
and the permit belongs to the employer. Undocumented workers already
here could be admitted to the program, but only if their employer
sponsors them. Workers will be bound to their employers by the
threat of losing their temporary legal status and deportation.
As Mike Davis says, the "Bush proposal, which resembles the
infamous Bracero program of the early 1950s, would legalize a
subcaste of low-wage labor without providing a mechanism for the
estimated 5 to 7 million undocumented workers already in the United
States to achieve permanent residence or citizenship. Toilers
without votes or permanent domicile, of course, represent a Republican
utopia .... a stable, almost infinite supply of indentured labor."
There are ample precedents for this sort
of policy, extending back to the nineteenth century when immigrants
from Europe and Asia were often brought here by labor contractors.
But the more recent precedents are in guest-worker programs for
Mexican workers . The most notorious was the Bracero program initiated
during World War II to bring in Mexican workers to help harvest
the fields. To make sure they would not stay, a part of their
salary was deducted, presumably to be given back when they returned
home. It rarely was, and that along with the harsh treatment of
the migrant workers, earned the program a reputation as a form
of peonage. The Bush proposals, which tie workers to particular
employers, could also create a form of peonage. No wonder that
business executives in the low-wage hotel, restaurant, hospital,
construction, and agriculture industries are cheering. "Americans
just don't want to take a lower-paying, entry-level job,"
said Frank Romano, founder and owner of the Essex Group, a chain
of fifteen nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. They
will not apply for it. Last year I had to spend close to $300,000
on help-wanted ads because it was such a struggle to find people
to do the jobs we need done."
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO,
talked about the same reality but put it in a different light.
The president's proposal, he said, would create "a permanent
underclass of workers .... The plan deepens the potential for
abuse and exploitation of these workers while undermining wages
and labor protections for all workers." Representative Bob
Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, had even stronger words. He
called the plan "a glorified guest-worker program with no
new path to legalization." While Bush, he said, "wants
their sweat and labor, he ultimately doesn't want them. The proposal
will be a rotation of human capital, to be used and discarded,
with no hope of permanently legalizing one's status."
... the impact on the states of the tax- and social-spending cuts
should be examined. The federal tax cuts reduced state revenues
because state tax formulas were hitched to federal tax formulas.
At the same time, flagging employment and a weak stock market
caused further revenue losses, combining with tax cuts during
the 1990s to produce huge state deficits that totaled about $190
billion from 2001 through 2003, and are estimated at an additional
$40 to $50 billion in 2004.29 In the past, budget crises on the
state level have usually been moderated by increases in federal
grants. This time they were aggravated by cuts in federal grants,
and by the imposition of new unfunded mandates on state governments
by the federal government, including the requirements of homeland
security, of the Help America Vote Act, and the No Child Left
Meanwhile, the practice of short hospital
stays is shifting the prescription drug costs of the elderly and
the disabled from Medicare, a federally funded program, to Medicaid,
to the time of an estimated $28 billion during the course of the
state fiscal crisis. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
estimates that from state fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year
2005 federal policies will cost states and localities a total
of about $185 billion.
Inevitably, states are coping with their fiscal shortfalls by
cutting social spending.
... the Medicare program is affected by the crisis in health care
costs that affects all Americans. The Bush tax cuts, by depleting
future revenues, of course make this problem much more serious.
The recently passed Medicare Prescription Drug Act takes steps
toward a market solution to this at least partially manufactured
crisis. Well, not really a market solution. Rather, the legislation
moves us further toward the creation of an unregulated market
in health care, but a market saturated with public funds. The
legislation contains subsidies for just about everyone in the
health care business, including doctors, hospitals, insurance
companies, and for-profit health plans. Moreover,(as noted earlier)
the legislation forbids Medicare from bargaining with the pharmaceutical
companies to bring down the cost of prescription medicines.
More than that, the legislation contains
what may be important pilot programs toward the privatization
solution. Private health plans are offered $12 billion in subsidies
to compete with traditional Medicare, and also guaranteed that
no HMO will be paid less for a patient than the traditional fee-for-service
in what is called an experiment that will be launched in six major
cities in 2010.43 Tax-Free Health Savings Accounts are introduced,
which are really another tax cut for the better off. And a provision
in the legislation requires that a crisis be declared if more
than 45 percent of Medicare funding is expected to be drawn from
general revenues in a seven-year budget projection. 41 As for
prescription drugs for seniors, the bill provides an oddly patchy
and limited solution. A senior will have to pay $3,600 out of
the first $5,100 in annual costs of drugs before the government
starts reimbursing costs.
Social Security was originally a pay-as-you-go system, where payroll
taxes collected each year funded the pension benefits that were
paid each year. That changed in 1983 when the large deficits created
by the Reagan tax cuts and defense increases were eased by a big
increase in payroll taxes for Social Security. The result is that
at least on paper, Social Security reserves have become enormous,
although in actuality, those reserves exist only as treasury notes,
debts of the federal government to the fund. Nevertheless, the
existence even in principle of huge public pension funds is ideologically
offensive to the right. More than that, were the funds converted
to private pensions, a new frontier of millions of individual
stock accounts and broker fees would open for Wall Street investment
firms, an arrangement naturally favored by the financial firms
that backed Bush, including Merrill Lynch & Co., Credit Suisse
First Boston, UBS Paine Webber, and the Goldman Sachs Group, who
together with others formed a lobbying group called the Coalition
for American Financial Security. The strident and insistent talk
of a long-term crisis in Social Security financing is the overture
to proposals for privatizing the system.
What does social spending generally, or tax cuts, or deregulation,
or corporate giveaways, have to do with war? Well, virtually nothing,
and that is just the point. "The American public, transfixed
by the unfolding invasion of Iraq, may someday look up and discover
too late what the Republican Congress did while the world's attention
was elsewhere. Led by the Bush administration, the House and Senate
are about to march under the public's radar screen and lead the
country into a decade of budgetary disaster," the New York
Times editorialized as the invasion of Iraq began." The Times
was right. War was and is a power strategy, and for awhile at
least, it smoothed the way for the implementation of right-wing
The Leaking Bush Balloon
Hermann Goring, Luftwaffe commander, speaking at the Nuremberg
Trials in 1946, wondered "Why should some poor slob on a
farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out
of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the
common people don't want war." Goring knew the answer to
the question. "But after all it is the leaders of the country
who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to
drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist
dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship ....
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding
of leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they
are being attacked [and] denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism
and exposing the country to danger."
The president followed Goring's age-old
formula for leading a people into war. He told Americans they
were in danger, that we "must not ignore the threat gathering
against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for
the final proof-the smoking gun-that would come in the form of
a mushroom cloud." And on the eve of the deployment of American
troops in Iraq, the president asserted that "intelligence
gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the
Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most
lethal weapons ever devised."
Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb made one of the stronger
"Bush arguably is committed the greatest
strategic blunder in modem memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked
the wrong target. . . There is no historical precedent for taking
such action when our country was not being directly threatened.
The reckless course that Bush and his advisors have set will affect
the economic and military energy of our nation for decades."
American history reveals a familiar )pattern of tacit bargaining
with a population forced to bear the costs of war. To be sure,
wars or the threat of wars have also spurred repressive measures,
justified by the war emergency. The Alien and Sedition Acts were
passed when war with France threatened. When the United States
entered World War I, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition
Act of 1918 led to the jailing of leaders of the International
Workers of the World. Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed
in internment camps in World War II.
But the repression of particular groups
was typically accompanied or followed by major concessions to
the larger population in the form of expanded democratic rights
and social welfare measures. Laura Jensen reports on the commitments
of the Continental Congress to provide for men injured in the
Revolutionary War, and to give land to certain classes of veterans
both of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.68 After the
Civil War, pensions were granted to war veterans and their families,
and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments extended
citizenship and voting rights to the freed slaves, many of whom
had fought with the Union Army and had helped reverse the tide
of battle. World War I saw the repression of some of the most
radical labor leaders, but it also led President Woodrow Wilson
to announce support for collective bargaining rights for labor
Similarly, during World War II, the federal
government incarcerated Japanese Americans and extracted no-strike
pledges from most unions, but it also conciliated the unions with
the War Labor Board's maintenance of membership policies that
enlarged union membership and treasuries. And after the war, a
system of exceedingly generous veterans' benefits was introduced.
During the Vietnam War the federal government finally moved to
enforce the rights first granted the freed slaves after the Civil
War, social welfare programs were expanded, new national health
programs were introduced in the form of Medicaid and Medicare,
and the right to vote was extended to the eighteen-year-olds who
were fighting in southeast Asia.
True, not all of these concessions endured.
Civil War pensions atrophied as the veterans died off, southern
states successfully countermanded the rights granted the freed
slaves under the federal constitution, Woodrow Wilson's support
of collective bargaining rights did not have much practical consequence.
Nevertheless, the regularity of the pattern suggests a powerful
underlying dynamic of reciprocal bargaining in the relation of
governments at war to their populations.
What about now? "There are internal
reasons" writes Eric Hobsbawn "why the American empire
may not last, the most immediate being that most Americans are
not interested in imperialism or world domination in the sense
of running the world. What they are interested in is what happens
to them in the U.S."
Soaring profits and stagnant wages mean, of course, that inequality,
already at peak levels when the Bush administration took office,
is growing. "What is happening," says Bob Herbert, is
nothing short of historic. The American workers' share of the
increase in national income since November 2001, the end of the
last recession, is the lowest on record. Employers took the money
and ran." Profits never stopped rising as a share of national
income during the recent recession, and the median pay of chief
executives also continued to rise, albeit at a much slower rate
than during the boom years of the 1990s.37 Now during the economic
recovery, profits are soaring, but wages are stagnating, consumer
debt is skyrocketing at an annual rate of 11.5 percent as the
costs of such basics as housing, health insurance, and transportation
increase but wages do not. Consistent with these trends, poverty
is increasing; last year another 1.7 million Americans slipped
below the poverty line. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports
growing homelessness and hunger, with most of (the cities surveyed
reporting they had been forced to turn away people requesting
The Bush economic stimulus plan consists of sharply increase military
spending and big tax cuts for business and the affluent. This
sort of deficit spending is a variant of Keynesianism that "has
particular appeal for Republicans. Instead of growing the government
in general-pumping resources into public works, health care and
education, say, which would have an immediate knock-on effect
on sorely needed job creation-the policy focuses on those areas
that represent obvious conservative and business-friendly constituencies
.... that tend to be big contributors to Republican Party funds."
James K. Gaibraith thinks that "economic stagnation is to
their taste. They don't want a new recession, obviously, and they
look set to avoid that. But do they really want full employment
and strong labor unions and rising wages? Probably not. The oil,
mining, defense, media, and pharmaceutical firms who form the
core of their [Bush] constituency rely on monopoly power, patents,
and the control of public resources for their profits. They do
not depend, very much, on strong consumer demand."
The United States is in the grip of a ruling group that is brash,
shortsighted, and greedy. There are no promises for our political
future. But of course, there are never any promises, yet predatory
rulers are sometimes curbed, and even defeated.
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