Concluding Remarks on the “Social and Democracy Issues in Armenia” Panel, June 7, 2008


Twenty years ago, it seemed that history had provided one of those rare definitive refutations of a theory: Karl Marx was wrong. From Addis Ababa to Warsaw, The Workers of the World had indeed united--but they had united to pull down statues of Lenin and Marx. The former socialist leader of Jamaica, Michael Manley, announced in the late 1980s that “imperialism” was no longer useful as an analytical category or a rhetorical flourish. At about the same time a Sandinista leader proclaimed an end to the Way of the Guerrilla, and a conservative columnist echoed him: Revolution in Latin America had lost its glamour along with Soviet sponsorship, and therefore should be expected to die out. The Uruguayan Marxist Eduardo Galeano proclaimed that the Wretched of the Earth were enduring “God’s hatred.”

The velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe seemed to have demonstrated that, if political power ever came through the barrel of a gun, it no longer did. There was a near-unanimous consensus that in the new multi-polar, post-imperial order, law—both domestic and international—would reign supreme. Class rule was a lie: either men ruled, as in the bad old days and the several remaining hidebound fiefdoms—the Iraqis and North Koreas--or law ruled, as in the bright new post-Soviet order.

College graduates in the waning USSR proclaimed that capitalism and socialism were on a trajectory to converge; the best features of both—western democratic practices and socialist redistribution—would result in a harmonious, multinational hybrid. Gorbachev's suporters nurtured the hope, dressed up as a belief, that the worst features of the modern state were headed for obsolescence. In the early 1990’s, a writer for Moscow News noted that the KGB must disappear, since after all the only reason for its existence was the existence of the CIA. Of course nobody outside of the tipsy editorial room of Moscow News had any plans to dismantle the CIA.

In 1989, economic historian Robert Heibroner famously wrote in The New Yorker that "Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won... Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism." In The New Yorker again the next year, he reminisced about hearing of Ludwig von Mises at Harvard in the 1930s. His professors and fellow students had scoffed at Mises's claim that socialism could not work. It seemed at the time, he wrote, that it was capitalism that was failing. Then, a mere 50 years later, "It turns out, of course, that Mises was right" about the impossibility of socialism. In 1992, Heilbroner famoulsy explained the facts of life to Dissent readers:

Capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure. Here is the part that's hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, and von Miseses who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments. All three have regarded capitalism as the 'natural' system of free men; all have maintained that left to its own devices capitalism would achieve material growth more successfully than any other system. From [my samplings] I draw the following discomforting generalization: The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so.

Ronald Reagan’s prophecy had been fulfilled: the Iron Laws of History had condemned socialism to the trash bin of history and vindicated the Market for all time. Economic planning was dead; free markets, clearly, were the best way to bring wealth to a country. The rising tide of free enterprise lifts all ships. Market exchange and acquisitive consumption were restored to their exalted status as eternal features of human nature. Socialism in the twentieth century would indeed be viewed by future generations as an historical anomaly, a tragic glitch in the ineluctable advance of the American Way.

Free markets, moreover, ensure democracy, in one or more senses of the word. Through constant conjunction and repetition, the words Democracy and Free Markets have forever been welded together in one eight-syllable mantra: democracyandfreemarkets.

As for the residual malcontents, the way of the guerrilla was closed; the velvet revolutions had shown that political power does not come through the barrel of the gun, as Mao Tsedung had claimed. Now that Democracy and free markets had won the day, America no longer needed to resort to the unpleasant Cold War expedient of supporting tyrants throughout the globe. The Editors of Moscow News announced that the last flimsy excuse for the existence of the KGB had disappeared: the only reason for the existence of the KGB had been the existence of the CIA, and since the CIA only existed to deter Soviet imperial expansion, the KGB’s raison d’etre would disappear. In the years since the interestingly mis-titled “collapse of communism,” enormous new markets had opened up in China, Russia and Eastern Europe; the GDP as a measurement of prosperity had skyrocketed in such economic miracles as Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. These models in Latin America, and the examples of the Six Tigers on the Pacific Rim held out the promise of steady advance through incremental change, adjustment, technological innovation and democratic reform.

The American Century had not even ended, though, and the New Millenium had not yet dawned before their promises were turned around, one by one, into sarcastic indictments. Massive strikes hit France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, South Korea. Economic meltdown in the Pacific Rim; evaluation of the Ruble; meltdown in Latin America; Meltdown in the Pacific Rim. The exemplary economic miracles of Mexicoand Argentina went the way of most miracles, and a majority of respondents to a recent western-funded opinion poll in Poland and the Czech Republic agreed that they had been better off “under communism” than they are under capitalism. (Pew Research Centre Global Attitudes Project,, accessed July 16, 2010. The results were published on November 2, 2009.)

Twenty years have passed since Heilbroner’s verdict. Since then, global recession has given the lie to celebratory announcements that capitalism had righted itself after the Great Depression, and it was only thanks to a massive trillion-plus-dollar infusion of public funds to bail out private insurance companies, Wall Street, and Detroit that the leading “Free Market” economy has avoided sliding into even deeper recession. As of this writing, official unemployment in the USA stands at greater than 9%. Much of Latin America, from Nicaragua to Argentina, has voted critics of capitalism into office, and voters in Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, elected a new administration composed in part of self-described socialists.

Events of the past 18 years have born out the fact that on the very topics that Marxists supposedly had been shown to be wrong, it turns out that they were right after all. Growing productivity combined with enduring poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, the architect of Shock Therapy in Russia and elsewhere, now lists six of the biggest problems of the 21 st century, problems that, he says, the market cannot solve.

Throughout the Cold War, communists had claimed that American leaders were warmongers and that "Soviet expansionism” was just an excuse, and a flimsy one at that, for U.S. imperialism. For this, their opponents excoriated them. In the lead-up to Operation Iraqi freedom, however, the neocons explicitly and proudly embraced their self-description as imperialists, and Bush and Company spoke blithely about “the wars of the twenty-first century.” Who now would deny that the Pentagon and the State Department are dominated by warmongers?

The wars, we hear, are waged for a greater purpose, namely a little conjunction called democracy and free markets. American-style democracy, epitomized by the Russian presidential election of 1996. The winner, of course, was Boris Yeltsin, a vodka-embalmed marionette bobbing in the blood of fifty thousand Chechens and in the posthumous discharge of the estimated five to six million Russians he condemned to “premature death.” The finer points of international diplomacy notwithstanding, Russia has been “run” by an absent derelict, a drunkard, a liar, a mass murdering megalomaniac elected with one billion in misappropriated funds, and billions more in bribery; his campaign run by a former California Governor’s campaign staff holed up in secret in a guarded hotel. And once elected the President did not even bother to show up for work the first four months after his election. All lies--to seek a peaceful settlement in Chechnya; to oppose NATO expansion; to disburse back pay to workers and pensioneers.

Meanwhile we have seen Washington’s commitment to democracy at work, most recently in Venezuela, in Nicaragua in the run-up to the last presidential election, and in Honduras. One could mention in passing America's subsidizaiton of repression in Egypt; Saudi Arabia, and among the other “moderate Arab regimes,” and then there was America’s attempt to destroy democracy in Lebanon--even at the risk of inciting another civil war--by prolonging the life of George Bush’s faithful client, Fuad Saniora. And then there was the spectacle of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, bombed by American warplanes for weeks and embargoed for more than three years, as collective punishment for voting for the "wrong" candidates--in an internationally supervised election that the G.W Bush administration itself had iinsisted take place. These and a dozen other recent cases testify to Uncle Sam’s single-minded determination to deter democracy, as Noam Chomsky put it, or to kill hope, as William Blum put it.

It turns out that political power does indeed come through the barrel of the gun after all. Neocons of both the older and the younger generation made this point explicit, but it was clear enough long before their accession to uncontained power under the Bush Jr. administration. Clinton’s bombings of Serbia and Sudan; Uncle Sam's proxy war in Colombia; the invasion of Somalia; the enforcement of an embargo in Iraq that over the course of the 1990s took a toll of lives in the hundreds of thousands.

But none of this is new, at least to honest and attentive adults who have somehow managed to preserve their judgment from sanctioned canards: military force and the willingness to use it have been hallmarks of every U.S. administration in the last century, not excluding the Coolidge and Carter administrations. And, of course, Marxists will add that armed force and the threat of violence are determinants of relations within the borders of states, too. Now we hear the hardest-nosed of the hard-nosed pundits from the right, notably former U.S. ambassador the the U.N., John Bolton, effectively admit that on this point, too, Marxists have been right all along.



[Home] [More Information]