Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective

Welcome to the homepage of the Vancouver Parecon Collective! Our purpose is to advocate, research and implement parecon institutions, values and procedures in Vancouver, the surrounding lower mainland and elswhere throught Canada. We do this through workshops, information sharing and activism. We are committed to supporting struggles against classism, racism, sexism, war, corporate greed, environmental destruction, and all other institutional horrors we face today.

"A great many activists and concerned people ask, quite rightly, what alternative form of social organization can be imagined that might overcome the grave flaws -- often real crimes -- of contemporary society in more far-reaching ways than short-term reform. Parecon is the most serious effort I know to provide a very detailed possible answer to some of these questions, crucial ones, based on serious thought and careful analysis."
-- Noam Chomsky

Home Page
Message Board
Our Collective
Start your own Autonomous Collective
Join our mailing List
Archive of events
Contact Us

Related Links:

Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
Vancouver Indy Media
Vancouver Cooperative Radio
Vancouver Stop War Coalition
Black Star Boot Cooperative

Robin Hahnel
Coming to grips with empire

Talk given at the World Peace Forum, Vancouver BC, June 27, 2006

Sobering Facts

We Americans now live in arguably the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Not even Julius Caesar who "bestrode the world like a colossus" was as powerful an overlord as George W. Bush is today. The great civilizations in Central and South America were unknown to the Romans, and even in the world Romans knew, Persia, India, and China were beyond Caesar's reach. But there is no part of the globe today over which the United States does not wield overpowering influence.

US military superiority is so great today that we can defeat anyone we attack in a matter of weeks, or at most months, with minimal loss of US combatants -- much less risk to US citizens whose lives are threatened only by assailants willing to commit suicide. The US has 700 major military installations around the globe. We have 120,000 troops stationed in Europe, 92,000 in East Asia and the Pacific, 30,000 in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and 15,000 in the Western hemisphere outside the United States. The United States' share of the total defense spending of all countries in the world is at 40% and rising, as the US spends as much as the next nine countries combined! US forces are engaged in active combat not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Colombia and the Philippines. We have claimed right to a new doctrine of pre-emptive attack that threatens every nation, and incidentally, provides Japan with retroactive justification for its attack on Pearl Harbor. The US dominates the IMF, WTO, and World Bank who are now thoroughly groomed to relentlessly meet out neoliberal policies hatched by Democratic and Republican Treasury Secretaries alike. When the World Court or the United Nations accede to our wishes we use them -- as when the World Court put Milosovic in the block and the UN approved US military strikes in the first Gulf War. When they disprove of our actions we ignore them and declare them irrelevant-- as when the World Court ordered the US to pay the Sandinista government damages for illegally mining their harbors, or when the United Nations Security Council stood its ground and refused to sanction US sponsored regime change in Iraq.

When it suits our whim we withdraw from treaty negotiations to prevent climate change and shamelessly free ride on others' reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. When it suits our whim we reject out of hand the opinion of the entire world scientific community that global warming is a clear and present danger, and argue that more studies are necessary to prove that a problem exists before policy responses can even be debated. When it suits our imperial ambitions we unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistics Missile Treaty, shred the Non-Proliferation Treaty by imposing limits on its application in the US, and proceed to develop and resume testing of a missile defense system that destroys the only possible deterrence to nuclear first strike. Despite the fact the we are the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons -- and used them against civilian not military targets -- the US government has put the rest of the world on notice that we not only expect them to trust the United States to be the only country in the world who will be able to use nuclear weapons without fear of reprisal, but we expect them to thank us for being the world's lone nuclear policeman as well. Our government has announcesd a new National Security Strategy that asserts the right of the United States to prevent any nation or alliance of nations from seeking to equal us in military power, and to take unilateral, pre-emptive military action with nuclear weapons if necessary against what we perceive to be aggressive regimes seeking the weapons of mass destruction that we already possess.

The United States is not only a "rogue state," it is the most terrifying rogue state in human history. The military operation against Iraq is a final proof, if further proof were needed, that a mere fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, this is where we have arrived.

What Is To Be Done?

What must the US peace movement do? We must convince our fellow Americans that our government would have us become that which we do not wish to be, and we must turn our country around before it is too late. We did not succeed in time to prevent the shameless bombing barrage appropriately code named "shock and awe," or the invasion of Iraq that followed, all in clear violation of international law. We did not succeed in time to prevent the occupation of Iraq by the US and Great Britain who did not shrink from the word "viceroy" to describe the head of the regime we installed in Baghdad. Now we must fight to end the occupation of Iraq. We must insistently point out that there were no weapons of mass destruction which was the official excuse for the war. We must not let civil unrest and deplorable conditions under our occupation be used as excuses to prolong our occupation. We must do everything in our power to unseat Democrats who criticize the Bush Administration's management of the war and occupation, but vote in favor of appropriations to fund the immoral and illegal occupation. We must point out that when people with few other means of resistance resort to suicide tactics against foreign troops occupying their soil, they are not terrorists. We must point out that while US troops who continue to die every day the occupation of Iraq goes on are no more guilty than you or I, it is not patriotic Iraqi suicide assailants who are responsible for their deaths. Nor are anti-war demonstrators in the US -- who did not want our troops sent to Iraq in the first place, and who only want them to come home now, alive and still in good physical and psychological health -- responsible for their deaths. The leaders of the US government who ordered them to conquer and occupy Iraq in open violation of international law, and those in the US body politic who support this unjust, illegal, imperial venture, are responsible for their tragic deaths, and are their true enemies.

Finally, we must prevent the next war the chicken hawks in the Bush Administration have planned and may unleash. Whether it be in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Colombia, Venezuela, or the Philippines, we must expose our imperial government's rationalizations for what they are and dispel the myth of American exceptionalism that underlies popular naiveté. We must help our fellow Americans discover what Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo, the resident philosopher of Okeefenokee Swamp, discovered long ago: "We have met the enemy… and he is us!" However good and generous we are as individuals and as a people, however great our country's accomplishments may be, at this watershed in history the enemy is us until we change the course our government has set us on.

Capitalism and War

A member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective asked me a few weeks ago: "What is the relationship between capitalism and war." This question has been long debated. Many Marxists argued that once capitalism became the dominant economic system in the world, it also became the root cause of war in the modern era: "Capitalism means imperialism and imperialism means war. Eliminate capitalism and you will eliminate imperialism and war."

As a matter of fact, I became an anti-capitalist in the mid-1960's because I believed this was true. By carefully observing US foreign policy in Latin America, and applying the lessons I learned to the debate about Vietnam that consumed my generation, I realized that my country behaved as an imperial power -- all protestations to the contrary not withstanding. I first became an anti-capitalist because I believed those who said only by replacing capitalism could we defeat imperialism, since I was committed to stopping my country from behaving as an imperial power above all else. But by the mid-1970s I was convinced this view of the relationship between capitalism and war was too simplistic. Fortunately, I had discovered other reasons to remain anti-capitalist by then. I understood that capitalism could never deliver economic democracy or economic justice, and was terribly inefficient in many ways. And I began to see more and more clearly how workers and consumers could manage their own economic affairs equitably and efficiently without being controlled by authoritarian hierarchies or driven by market forces. I continue to believe to this day that capitalism does drive societies to war in a number of different ways that are important to understand, and I continue to believe that achieving world peace will remain difficult, if not impossible, until we replace the economics of competition and greed with the economics of equitable cooperation. But I have long believed that the roots of war and imperialism run much deeper than economic dynamics alone.

Humans have waged war on one another from time immemorial. Throughout human history -- and long before the advent of capitalism -- whenever different groups of humans have come upon on one another, all too often we have gone to war, and the victorious have exterminated, enslaved, or subjugated the vanquished in one way or another. It is a mistake to reduce the logic of war and empire to economic calculus alone. Many who fight in wars of aggression do so because they believe their country is threatened. Many who fight believe they are helping those whose country they invade and occupy. Many who fight do so because they believe those they kill or subjugate are racially inferior to themselves. Many who fight believe there must always be wars and warriors, and being a warrior is an honorable profession and essential to what it means to be a "man." And finally, many who fight, or who work in the military industrial complex, do so because they have few alternatives and that is where jobs are to be found. In other words, imperial war is as much the result of misguided patriotism, racism, sexism, and militarism as it is the result of corporate self-interest.

Having said this, it is important to understand how capitalism contributes to war. Capitalism legitimates the pursuit of greed through power. Capitalism drives corporations to expand their access to sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Capitalism drives corporations to seek customers overseas as productive capacities outstrip domestic demand. And capitalism grants these same corporations ample means to influence those who guide a nation's foreign policy. Capitalism concentrates economic wealth and power in the hands of large corporations, permits corporations to own and control the major media, and allows corporations to use all their wealth and power to ply politicians to act in accord with corporate interests. This has proven to be a disastrous recipe over the past two hundred years time and time again, leading governments of many capitalist countries to pursue imperial foreign policies that serve the interests of their major corporations not only at the expense of the citizens of the countries falling under their dominion, but also at the expense of a majority of their own citizens who shoulder the lion's share of the costs of empire and receive little of the benefits.

Lessons for Today's Anti-War Movement

The most striking difference between the anti-Vietnam war movement and the anti-Iraq war movement is that the former started much smaller, only convinced a majority of Americans that we should withdraw after ten years of organizing in the face of intense hostility, and the anti-Vietnam war movement grew steadily in breadth and depth until the US government finally relented and withdrew all US troops from Indo-China. In stark contrast, the anti-Iraq war movement held its largest demonstration to date before "operation shock and awe" even began, in less than a year rather easily convinced a majority of Americans that the war was launched under false pretenses, and the anti-Iraq war movement has declined in visibility and influence ever since. If public opinion dictated policy American troops would have long departed Iraq and the US presence in Indo-China would have lasted even longer than it did.

The important lesson to be learned from this is that as important as public opinion is, it does not determine US foreign policy. As long as both major political parties are firmly in the pockets of the military industrial complex, and as long as both major political parties believe the US should run the world and only disagree over what tactics to use, and as long as no third party committed to peace breaks the two party duopoly, it will take more than public opinion to stop imperial ventures. Therefore, until a movement demanding that our government renounce all imperial ambitions forces those who preside over US foreign policy to redeploy the vast productive resources currently devoted to expanding our prodigious war-making capabilities to peaceful purposes, and until we force our elected representatives to embrace the wisdom of peaceful cooperation and the rule of international law, anti-war movements in the United States will have no choice but to raise the costs of pursuing particular imperial ventures if we hope to stop them.

While it pains me to say this, I believe the leadership of today's anti-war movement deserves some of the blame for the movement's growing impotence. For example, holding off on organizing major anti-war demonstrations in the fall of 2004 may have made sense since every progressive organization in the country was understandably focused, first and foremost, on re-defeating Bush-Cheney in November. But failing to call for major demonstrations the following spring of 2005 was a terrible mistake. In general I think current anti-war leadership has been too passive, and orchestrated opposition in ways that are too predictable and therefore too ignorable. In some respects current anti-war leaders have done better than their counterparts during the Vietnam War: They have made it clear we are not anti-soldier. They have minimized the inevitable friction between the anti-imperial and liberal wings of the peace movement. And they have not gotten suckered into debates over the details of withdrawal. These are by no means small or insignificant accomplishments. Nonetheless, a majority of the country wants out, and the opposition party continues to sit on the fence and shows every sign of continuing to do so right into the next presidential election cycle. It is up to the anti-war movement to make sure that business in America does not proceed as usual until the will of the majority is enacted, and we need leadership who understands this is their job.

On the other hand I do not believe the different trajectories of the anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq war movements are primarily due to differences in leadership. The anti-Vietnam war movement was part of a rising tide of progressive social activism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s that began with the civil rights and black power movements, spread to the new left student movement, and led to the re-birth of the women's liberation movement and the birth of the environmental movement. The anti-Iraq war movement, on the other hand, has struggled to grow in a political era when conservative social activism and power has reached its zenith. It is pointless to blame the leadership of today's anti-war movement for this underlying problem. The important lesson to draw from this is that turning the United States away from the path of empire will not be accomplished by an anti-war movement on its own. Only in combination with powerful movements pushing progressive agendas forward in every sphere of social life -- including a powerful movement to replace the economics of competition and greed with the economics of equitable cooperation -- can the peace movement secure its goal -- a world where war is impossible instead of a world where wars are inevitable. Nonetheless, it is high time the US anti-war movement kicked some butt!

Peace movements cannot stand idly by and wait for the economics of competition and greed to be replaced by the economics of equitable cooperation. Peace movements must rage against war and all its causes in societies waging unjust wars, which are most often societies who also practice the economics of competition and greed. This means one job of the peace movement is to dispel the myth that empire benefits the average citizen. It is pointless to deny that there are material benefits of empire. But it is usually the case that the distribution of the benefits and costs of empire is such that, on balance, ordinary citizens are worse off. Moreover, the dynamics of empire invariably shift the internal balance of power further in favor of the ruling elite. So it is important for peace movements to explain that an accurate material calculus reveals that ordinary people are usually worse off and further disempowered when their government pursues imperial ambitions.

However, peace movements should never make this material calculus their major argument against empire. It is the first responsibility of citizens to prevent a government that purports to speak for them from engaging in imperial policies because imperialism is wrong. It is wrong to subvert the sovereignty of other nations. It is wrong to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries -- undermining regimes that exercise their sovereignty to choose their own policies, and instead propping up regimes that acquiesce to foreign domination. It is wrong to use military, economic, and political power to seize the lion's share of the benefits from international investment and trade from less developed countries. Moreover, empires never last forever, and chickens always come home to roost. And most importantly, we can all live much better in a world of peaceful coexistence ruled by international law where the benefits of international economic cooperation are shared equitably than we do in a world of rising and falling empires.

There is no reason to believe ridding the world of war will be an easy task. Moreover, as we become more numerous, and our weaponry becomes more deadly and environmentally destructive, the consequences of failing to kick this uniquely human habit become ever more frightening. But despite all the negative social forces that drive us to war -- which include powerful negative forces generated by the economics of competition and greed -- we are a species capable of reason, and we can and do learn from our mistakes. Nor is the peace movement without its troops. Phyllis Bennis, who heads a team of anti-war activists at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, likes to point out that there are still two super powers in the world today. The Soviet Union is gone, and China has yet to merge. But the United States is not a super power without a world-class challenger. The world peace movement is the other super power, and we should never underestimate our potential and our power.

I have six children ranging in ages from thirty years to twenty months. They deserve to live in a world at peace. More than anything else, this is what I, as their parent, owe them. When I sing my twenty-month old son to sleep his favorite song is by Leon Gieco, an Argentine folk singer and social activist. The last verse goes like this:

Solo le pido a dios
Que la guerra no me sea indiferente
Es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte
Todo la pobre innocencia de la gente

Much of the beauty is lost in translation, but this is what it says:

All I ask of god
Is that I not be indifferent to war
Indifference is a terrible monster
That tramples the poor innocence of people