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Reflections on 2003: Ideologues and prophets, left and right

by James Petras Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2003 at 3:49 PM

2003 was not a year of Historic Victories or Historic Defeats; it was a year of constantly shifting relations of power between imperialism and popular resistance movements.

December 25, 2003

Reflections on 2003: Ideologues and prophets, left and right

James Petras


2003 was not a year of Historic Victories or Historic Defeats; it was a year of constantly shifting relations of power between imperialism and popular resistance movements. The US empire and its Israeli colonial partners were able to conquer new countries and territories but were not able to consolidate rule in the face of increased popular resistance. The US economy did not decline or collapse as some leftists predicted, but expanded and gained momentum as the year progressed even as the "economic fundamentals" deteriorated, particularly the deficit in current accounts and in the budget. Both the leftwing and rightwing oracles were mistaken: the US experienced neither a terminal crisis nor irreversible triumphs. Year to year forecasts are problematic, long term forecasting is as accurate as astrology.

On the right the prophets of successful colonial wars, beginning with Iraq, Palestine and then advancing to Iran, Syria and Lebanon were quickly discredited. First by the heroic Palestinian resistance fighters whose sacrifice and dedication blocked Sharon's totalitarian vision of an ethnically pure Jewish state. In Iraq, the massive popular resistance after the colonial conquest, inflicting thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths to the occupying power put the lie to the Rumsfeld-Zionist cabal in the Pentagon, undermining their authority everywhere, even in parts of the Washington establishment. There were no decisive military victories for the US or successful political victories: 2003 was a year of transition. The major losers were the Zionists, like Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith who projected a series of US wars to destroy or undermine all of Israel's adversaries in the Middle East and Europe. The high cost, isolation and resistance in Iraq has imposed severe constraints on new US colonial invasions. Imperialist "realists" like James Baker (former Secretary of State under Bush Father) with links to conservative Arab oil interests, reject the Zionist ideologues linked to Sharon who advocate US wars to impose pro-Israeli "regime changes".

The fraudulent claims emanating from Wolfowitz and other Sharonistas regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a justification for war was the high point in the unprecedented power of the Zionist influence on US politics. The disgrace and the partial exposure of this self-styled 'cabal' led to at least a temporary decline in public presence of this sector of the Bush Administration. The US empire is divided between ideologues with dual national loyalties and 'realists' linked to US and Arab oil interests and European banks. These differences will be played out in 2004 and will influence whether the US will share imperial spoils with Europe, Russia and the Arab elite or pursue the politics of blind military colonialism.

2003 was the year when the dynamic emergence of the Chinese economy became the center of world politics. China, the third biggest economy in the world, has a huge trade surplus with the US and growing and powerful links with all the major and minor countries of Asia and Oceania. US imperialism cannot survive in Asia without coming to terms with China. Once again the imperial policymakers are divided. The 'realists' propose a long-term strategy of accommodation, complementary and gradual assimilation, based on hundreds of billions of US investments, exports and imports as well as large-scale Chinese purchases of US bonds. The "confrontationalists" are made up of the uncompetitive backward sectors of US industry, the trade union bureaucracy and the militarist ideologues who clothe their aggressive policies in 'human rights', 'unfair trade' and 'sweatshop labor' rhetoric. Apart from some pseudo- populist electoral rhetoric, the 'realists' seem to be directing imperial relations with China, forcing the ideologues to focus on creating conflicts with North Korea and Taiwan.

In regard to Latin America, both the right and left wing oracles failed to recognize the deeper structural factors that influenced political events. At the beginning of the year it was the left that was celebrating a hemispheric wave of political victories in a triumphalist fashion. The election of Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, Inacio Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, the massive presence in the world Social Forum in Porto Alegre were described as major political 'turning points' leading to the defeat of ALCA, the end of neo-liberalism and a rejection of the US empire. The extreme right in the US, particularly the Cuban émigrés in the Bush Administration (especially Otto Reich) also predicted dire days ahead. It was only a few months into the new year before Lucio Gutierrez declared his total subservience to the IMF, ALCA, Plan Colombia, and support for price increases, salary reductions and the privatization of petroleum and electricity. Da Silva followed suit: applying IMF prescriptions to extreme; appointing right wing neo-liberal bankers, corporate executives and ideologues to all the key economic positions; supporting a modified version of ALCA and establishing a non- functional "Friends of Venezuela Committee" dominated by Latin American Presidents openly opposed to President Chavez. In Argentina, newly elected President Kirchner, under intense pressure from the mass social movements, combined progressive judiciary changes limiting immunity for human rights violators, with a reduction in debt payments, and political tactics to divide and weaken the militant unemployed workers movements.

The left prophecies were not fulfilled - the relations between the US and Latin America at the state level did not change: ALCA moved forward with minor changes, neo-liberal economic policies continued to be applied and poverty deepened.

The major defeats of the US empire at the state level took place in Venezuela and Cuba. In both countries the US intervention and support for an "executives lock out" (Venezuela) was defeated and in Cuba, US backed terrorists and paid propagandists were neutralized.

Within Latin America, imperial power continued to deteriorate and anti-imperial resistance gained strength despite some political limitation. In Bolivia, US client Sanchez de Losado was overthrown, pro-privatization referendums in Uruguay and Colombia were decisively defeated, in Ecuador a massive popular march reminiscent of the uprising of 2000 is planned demanding the ouster of Gutierrez, while in Peru Toledo is opposed by over 84% of the population and seems unlikely to finish his term of office.

The MST in Brazil, despite Da Silva's broken promises, has engaged in over 330 land occupations involving over 55,000 families. In Argentina, over 50,000 piqueteros marched to commemorate the December 19/20, 2001 uprising. Clearly the socio- political movements have not been paralyzed by the pro-imperialist reversals of the pseudo-populist elected presidents. But it is also clear that these powerful popular movements have the power to defeat imperial clients but have not demonstrated the power to replace the incumbent reactionaries with new leaders from the popular movements. This is evident even in the case of the Bolivian insurrection of Oct 2003: The new President Carlos Meza is a lifelong neo-liberal, who supported Sanchez de Losado up to the last days in office. Since taking office, Meza has continued to attack and arrest coca farmers, expressed support for ALCA and has taken no initiative to change the gas and oil agreements (except ambiguous promises). 2003 was a year of mass mobilizations and perhaps a dress rehearsal for social revolutions in 2004. However, for that to happen, we have to realize that political instruments and leaders capable of assuming power with critical view of the pitfalls of electoral politics.

There is no systematic rollback of US power - while it loses in Venezuela with Chavez, it wins with Da Silva in Brazil. What it wins in defeating and capturing Saddam Hussein, it loses in the face of the costly and prolonged people's war during the occupation. International financial meetings are disrupted, but bilateral and regional free trade agreements are signed. Resistance increases the cost of conquest but the empire and its mercenary satraps become more savage. Over Christmas the US bombed Baghdad, thousands of young men were rounded up in razzias and herded, hooded into overcrowded prison camps to be interrogated and tortured. Israel builds apartheid walls deep in Occupied Palestine, routinely assassinates Palestinian children and activists, under the benign protection of their Likud "brothers" in the Pentagon. The superstructure of the empire, Bush, Chaney etc. is challenged but the foundations (military budgets, oil interests) are not questioned. The "economic crisis" does not explode - it remains latent. The US continues to borrow; Asian capital still flows to the US allowing it to consume beyond its capacity to pay. Predictions of decline or "overextension" were exaggerated. Washington is buying and training thousands of Iraqi mercenaries, and securing others from Eastern Europe and private security companies. US intellectual critics are more influential abroad than they are within the US. The dynamics for change of imperial politics is clearly abroad - in Iraq, Latin America, perhaps in parts of Europe.

The year 2003 tells us that the reality of the relationship between Imperialism and popular resistance is too complex and contradictory to pigeonhole with neat general linear formulae. What we can conclude is that the US empire is not omnipotent but dangerously violent; that popular movements can successfully challenge colonial rule and dump client regimes; that the US economy can temporarily recover even if its economic foundations continue precariously. 2003 also suggests that the left would gain more from patient study of the complex and contradictory realities of class and national struggle than it would from grandiose long-term global prophecies disengaged from the popular movements.

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