Can the System Be Fixed?

An interview with Howard Zinn

by David Barsamian

Z magazine, November 2002


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 crime wave.

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.

DB Why is it that crime in the streets has historically attracted much more attention than white collar crime?

HZ 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 have now.

HZ There are other reasons for the emphasis on street crime over corporate crime. Street crime is overt while the corporate variety is secret.

DB How would you compare the current era to the Robber Baron period of the late 19th century?

HZ The Robber Barons were the great corporate executives and moguls of the late l9th 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 on.

DB Is the current crisis of capitalism a systemic one?

HZ 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 citizens.

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 out there.

DB 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 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 too much. "

HZ 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.

DB 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?

HZ 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?

Richard 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.


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.

Howard 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; www.

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