GIobal Rollback: After communism
by Michael Parenti
CovertAction Quarterly, Spring
Lately we have been hearing a great deal
about "blowback." But the real menace we face today
is global rollback. The goal of conservative rulers around the
world, led by those who occupy the seats of power in Washington,
is the systematic rollback of democratic gains, public services,
and common living standards around the world.
In this rabidly anticommunist plutocratic
culture, many left intellectuals have learned to mouth denunciations
of the demon Soviets, thereby hoping to give proof of their own
political virtue and acceptability. For decades they have been
fighting the ghost of Josef Stalin, flashing their anticommunist
credentials in tireless diatribes or elaborately casual asides,
doing fearless battle against imaginary hordes of "doctrinaire"
Marxist-Leninists at home and abroad.
The downfall of socialist governments
in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe caused much rejoicing not
only in U.S. ruling circles but among those who claim to inhabit
the Left. Here now was a window of opportunity, a new beginning,
they said. Freed forever from the stigma of "Stalinism,"
the US Left supposedly would grow in legitimacy and influence.
Taken by these notions, they seemed not to have noticed how the
destruction of socialism has shifted the center of political gravity
in a drastically reactionary direction. Some of us did not join
the chorus of liberals, libertarians, leftists, conservatives
and reactionaries who hailed the establishment of monopoly capitalist
"democracy" in Eastern Europe. We feared that it was
a historic defeat for the people of the world. And now we are
beginning to see evils coming to full bloom that the Communists
and their allies had been holding back.
In some ways, the twentieth century was
a period of retreat for Big Capital. In 1900, the United States
and most other capitalist nations were part of the "Third
World" well before the term had been invented. Within the
industrialized nations could be found widespread poverty, high
unemployment rates, low wages, child labor, 12-hour workdays,
six- and seven-day work weeks, malnutrition, and the diseases
of poverty such as tuberculosis and typhoid. In addition, there
were no public services, occupational safety regulations, consumer
protections, or environmental safeguards to speak of. Only after
decades of struggle, mostly in the 1930s and again in the aftermath
of World War II, did we see dramatic advances in the conditions
of those who had to work for a living.
THREAT OF A GOOD EXAMPLE
One of the things that helped workers
win concessions was "the threat of communism." The pressure
of being in competition with socialist nations for the allegiance
of peoples at home and abroad helped to set limits on how thoroughly
Western leaders dared to mistreat their own working populations.
A social contract of a sort was put in place, and despite many
bitter struggles and setbacks, working people made historic gains
in wages, benefits, and public services.
In the late 1940s and 1950s the U.S. ruling
class took great pains to demonstrate that workers under U.S.
capitalism enjoyed a higher living standard than their opposite
numbers chafing under the "yoke of communism." Statistics
were rolled out showing that Soviet proletarians had to toil many
more hours than our workers to buy various durable-use consumer
goods. Comparisons were never made in regard to medical care,
rent, housing, education, transportation, and other services that
are relatively expensive in capitalist countries but heavily subsidized
in socialist ones. The point is, the gains made by working people
in the West should be seen in the context of capitalism's world
competition with communism.
That competition also helped the civil
rights struggle. During the 1950s and 1960s, when US leaders were
said to be competing with Moscow for the hearts and minds of non-white
in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it was considered imperative
that we rid ourselves of Jim Crow and grant equality to people
of color in the US. Many of the arguments made against segregation
were couched in just that opportunistic rhetoric: not racial equality
for justice's sake but because it would improve America's image
in the Cold War.
With the overthrow of socialism in 1989-91,
transnational corporate capitalism now seemed to have its grip
on the entire globe. Yet an impatient plaint soon could be detected
in conservative publications. It went something like this: "If
everywhere socialism is being rolled back by the free market,
why is there no rollback here in the United States? Why do we
have to continue tolerating all sorts of collectivist regulations
and services?" By 1992, it became clear to many conservatives
that now was the time to cast off all restraint and sock it to
the employee class. The competition for their hearts and minds
was over. Having scored a total victory, Big Capital would be
able to write its own reactionary ticket at home and abroad. There
would be no more accommodation, not with blue-collar workers,
nor even white-collar professionals or middle management.
Throughout history there has been only
one thing that ruling classes have ever wanted-and that is everything:
all the choice lands, forests, game, herds, harvests, mineral
deposits and precious metals of the earth; all the wealth, riches,
and profitable returns; all the productive facilities, gainful
inventiveness, and technologies; all the surplus value produced
by human labor; all the control positions of the state and other
major institutions; all public supports and subsidies, privileges
and immunities; all the protections of the law with none of its
constraints; all the services, comforts, luxuries, and advantages
of civil society with none of the taxes and costs. Every ruling
class has wanted only this: all the rewards and none of the burdens.
Instead of worrying about lowering unemployment,
as during the Cold War, the plutocrats who preside over this country
now seek to sustain a sufficiently high level of joblessness in
order to weaken unions, curb workers, and maximize profits. What
we are witnessing is the Third Worldization of the United States,
the downgrading of a relatively prosperous population. Corporate
circles see no reason why millions of working people should enjoy
a middle-class living standard, with home ownership, surplus income,
and secure long-term employment. They also see no reason why the
middle class itself should be as large as it is.
As the haves would have it, people must
work harder ("maximize productivity") and lower their
expectations. The more they get, the more they will demand, until
we will end up with a social democracy-or worse. It's time to
return to nineteenth-century standards, the kind that currently
obtain throughout the Third World, the kind that characterized
America itself in 1900-specifically, an unorganized working populace
that toils for a bare subsistence without benefits, protections,
or entitlements; a mass of underemployed, desperate poor who help
to depress wages and serve as a target for the misplaced resentment
of those just above them; a small, shrinking middle class that
hangs on by its bleeding fingers; and a tiny, obscenely rich,
tax-free owning class that has it all. For the haves, deregulation,
privatization, and rollback are the order of the day. "Capitalism
with a human face" has become capitalism in your face. While
commentators announce "the end of class struggle" and
even "the end of history," in fact, U.S. politico-economic
elites are waging class war more determinedly than ever.
SECOND, THIRD, FOURTH WORLDS
The collapse of socialism has abetted
a reactionary rollback not only in the United States but throughout
much of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, and New
Zealand. Rollback also has accelerated the current economic collapse
in many Third World countries. During the Cold War era, U.S. policymakers
sought to ensure the economic growth and stability of anticommunist
regimes. But Third World development began to threaten U.S. corporate
profitability. By the late 1970s, governments in Brazil, Mexico,
Taiwan, South Korea, and other nations were closing off key sectors
of their economies to U.S. investment. In addition, exports from
these countries were competing for overseas markets with U.S.
firms, and for markets within the United States itself. At the
same time, growing numbers of Third World leaders were calling
for more coordinated efforts to control their own communication
and media systems, their own resources, markets, air space, and
By the 1980s, U.S. policymakers were rejecting
the view that a more prosperous, economically independent Third
World would serve the interests of U.S. capitalism. And once there
no longer was a competing socialist world to which Third World
leaders might threaten to turn, the United States felt freer than
ever to undo any kind of autonomous development in Asia, Africa,
and Latin America. One rollback weapon is the debt. In order to
meet payments and receive new credits from the US-dominated World
Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), Third World governments
have had to agree to merciless "structural adjustment programs,"
including reductions in social programs, cuts in wages, the elimination
of import controls, the removal of restrictions on foreign investments,
the privatization of state enterprises, and the elimination of
domestic food production in favor of high profit export crops.
Such measures are ostensibly designed
to curb inflation, increase exports, and strengthen the fiscal
condition of the debtor nation. By consuming less and producing
more, debtors supposedly will be better able to pay off their
debts. In fact, these structural adjustments work wonderfully
for the transnational corporations by depressing wages, intensifying
the level of exploitation, and boosting profit rates. They also
leave the economies and peoples of these various countries measurably
worse off. Domestic production loses out to foreign investors.
There is a general deindustrialization as state enterprises fall
by the wayside or are handed over to private owners to be milked
for profits. Many small farmers lose their subsidies and import
protections and are driven off the land. No wonder that, as western
investment in the Third World increases, so does poverty and misery.
In time, Third World countries like the
Philippines, Brazil and Mexico slip deeper into the desperately
absolute destitution of what has been called the "Fourth
World," already inhabited by countries like Haiti the Congo
and Afghanistan. Thus, malnutrition in Mexico City has increased
six-fold. As many as one-fifth of Mexico's ninety million people
are now considered "severely undernourished," while
the incidence of cholera, dengue, and other diseases related to
malnutrition is nearly ten times higher than in 1990. The Mexican
public health system that had begun to improve markedly in recent
years is now at the point of complete collapse, with overcrowded,
underfinanced, and understaffed hospitals no longer able to provide
As a further blow, the industrial nations
began making substantial cuts in nonmilitary foreign aid to poor
countries. These include sharp reductions in funds for education,
environmental protection, family planning, and health programs.
As noted in the Los Angeles Times, "With the decline of the
Soviet threat, aid levels fell off." Measured as a percentage
of gross national product, the United States gives the least foreign
assistance of all industrialized nations, less than .02 percent.
To make things worse, popular resistance
movements that might challenge the takeover of their countries
by western global investors no longer have the benefit of material
support from socialist countries. Nelson Mandela frequently spoke
of the "essential aid" that the African National Congress
had received from the Soviet Union. Today, rather than aiding
anti-imperialist rebellions, the former socialist countries join
NATO and send armed units to participate in US-inspired military
interventions. This represents a serious loss for popular forces
and a real gain for repressive plutocracy.
Reformist governments are being further
undermined by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),
and other "free trade" agreements that are neither free
nor have much to do with trade, allowing transnational corporations
to bypass whatever democratic sovereignty might exist within individual
nations. Not only are Third World economies now more successfully
penetrated but the governments and peoples themselves are being
marginalized by the whole process of economic globalization in
what amounts to a global coup d'etat by the transnational corporate
powers. Under the guise of abolishing "restraints of trade,"
"unfair competition," and "lost market opportunities,"
corporate-dominated trade councils are wiping out Third World
import protections, public services, local industries, and local
Finally, it should not go unmentioned
that nowhere has global rollback been more thorough than in the
former socialist countries themselves. The "Second World"
of socialist nations has fallen into Third and Fourth World depths.
In the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Latvia,
and elsewhere, the capitalist paradise has brought massive privatization
and deindustrialization, the defunding of public services, rampant
inflation, and dramatic increases in poverty, hunger, unemployment,
illiteracy, homelessness, crime, prostitution, disease, alcoholism,
suicide, and depopulation-along with the emergence of small self-enriched
coteries of gangster capitalists.
Reformist governments are attacked not
only economically but, if need be, militarily, as has been the
fate of more than a dozen nations in the last decade or so. In
some cases, they are subjected to dismemberment as with Yugoslavia
or complete absorption as with East Germany and South Yemen. Yugoslavia's
relatively prosperous industrial base with an economy that was
three-fourths publicly owned- could no longer be tolerated to
compete with western capitalist production. Secession and war
accomplished the goal of breaking up Yugoslavia into small rightwing
client states under the economic suzerainty of transnational corporations.
The overthrow of the Soviet Union has
given the world's only remaining superpower a completely free
hand to pursue its diplomacy by violent diktat. The record of
US international violence just in the last decade is greater than
anything that any socialist nation has ever perpetrated in its
entire history. US forces or proxy mercenary forces wreaked massive
death and destruction upon Iraq, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua,
El Salvador, Guatemala, East Timor, Libya, and other countries.
In the span of a few months, President Clinton bombed four countries:
Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq repeatedly, and Yugoslavia massively.
At the same time, the US national security state was involved
in proxy wars in Angola, Mexico (Chiapas), Colombia, East Timor,
and various other places. And US forces occupied Macedonia, Bosnia,
Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and were deployed across the globe at
some 300 major overseas bases- all in the name of peace, democracy,
national security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarianism.
Again we might note the connection between
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrogance and brutality
with which the United States has pursued its international agenda
throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Earlier dreams of a US global
hegemony-an "American Century"- were frustrated by the
constraints imposed by a competing superpower. But today, policymakers
in Washington and in academic think tanks all over the country
are declaring that the United States has a historically unprecedented
opportunity to establish through the use of its unanswerable military
and economic power a position of world dominance. Third World
economic nationalism will no longer be tolerated in the New World
Order. US "leadership" can now remove all barriers to
the reorganization of the global economy on the basis of market
principles, as interpreted and dominated by the giant transnational
Given all this, maybe it is time that
certain personages on the Left put aside their anticommunism and
acknowledge the magnitude of the loss that has been sustained
and the real dangers we face with the downfall of Eastern European
socialism. The life chances of hundreds of millions of people
throughout the world have been seriously and irreparably damaged.
It is time to see that our real and urgent enemy is not Stalin
(who incidentally is dead) but the Western "democratic"
leaders who are running the cruelest scam in history, pursuing
policies of concerted rapacity, creating a world totally free
for maximizing profits irrespective of the human and environmental
costs. With the fall of socialism, we have global rollback, the
creation of more wealth for the few and more poverty for the many,
the creation of powerlessness by the powerful-a cycle that cannot
be effectively opposed by those who remain mired in the class
collaborationist rhetoric of anticommunism.
Michael Parenti's most recent books are
The Terrorism Trap (City Lights), To Kill a Nation: The Attack
on Yugoslavia (Verso), History as Mystery (City Lights), and the
7th edition of Democracy for the Few (Wadsworth).
Michael Parenti page