Tag Archives: ideology

Explaining the ‘Asian Miracle’

20 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The posted essay is a modified version of an interpretative review of an outstanding book that initially appeared in Challenge, an online publication, a few weeks ago. A timely aspect of Nayyar’s book is the emphasis he places on the importance of effective state/society relations in explaining the remarkable growth experience of Asia. Such an insight seems relevant to the degree to which various governments are effectively managing responses to the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic. It would seem at this stage that well-managed autocracies do better than most democracies, and much better than poorly managed democracies that embody capitalist structures, priorities, and values..]



The Economic Resurgence of Asia: Reaping the Benefits of Decolonization. By Deepak Nayyar, Oxford University Press, 2002


The distinguished Indian economist, Deepak Nayyar, has written a fascinating and illuminating account of the economic rise to ascendancy of Asia over the course of the past 50 years, entitled Resurgent Asia: Diversity in Development, (Oxford University Press, 2019). Its rigor, lucidity, statistical evidence, and reasoned analysis enable this book to stake a claim of being the definitive account of the extraordinary Asian rise that has reconfigured the world economy since the collapse of European colonialism in the two decades after World War II. Nayyar tells us near the beginning that “The object of this book is to analyze the phenomenal transformation of Asia, which would have been difficult to imagine, let alone predict, fifty years ago.”[4] It would indeed seemed so absurd to have been upbeat about the Asian economic future as late as 1960, a case of “imagination running wild” according to Nayyar.[2] To drive home this striking point he looks back at The Asian Drama (1968), the classic three-volume work of the celebrated Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, who despite a magisterial effort to marshal all available information at the time, turned out to be totally wrong in his central pessimistic prognoses of the economic future of Asia. His book was treated as an authoritative confirmation of the conventional wisdom of the time that relegated Asia to a permanent condition of impoverished underdevelopment.


Nayyar helps us understand why Myrdal was so wrong, and if I get correctly the force of his well-honed argument, the foreboding prognosis resulted from the gross underestimation of Asian human capital (skilled and high performing labor, education), governmental capabilities, and legacies from formidable pre-colonial economic stature and achievements. Furthermore, Asian states emerged from colonial governance and imperialist exploitation much less shattered than did their African or Latin American counterparts, and were endowed with governing processes that were better able to steer their economies in ways that produced sustained developmental success. A major theme of Nayyar’s groundbreaking study of what he labels ‘Asian resurgence’ is the critical importance of rational guidance and management of development by a strong and autonomous state that can operate in a constructive and intelligent manner when it comes to formulating its pro-active managerial approaches to economic and social development. As a result, Asian governments did not need to defer to the status quo orientations and stultifying special interests of traditional elites while implementing polices designed to promote rapid industrialization, education, health, social and economic rights, and technological innovation, and maybe most important of all, the governing elites of most Asian countries exhibited flexibility with respect to policy, being not hamstrung by ideological dogma of either capitalist or communist hue.


A distinctive feature of Nayyar’s ambitious approach is to broaden inquiry beyond the rise of China, or at most China and India, by examining the economic experience of no less than 14 Asian economies over the half century, beginning in 1970. This comparative methodology enables a search for clues as to why some countries in Asia did far better than others when it comes to GNP growth per annum and per capita without losing the other part of the story, which tells of the startling progress achieved by Asia as a region. In effect, some Asian countries did perform better than others, and some did better in certain intervals than at other times, accounting for two dimensions of diversity. Yet this deconstructive insight should not divert attention from the central assertion: that Asia as a region did spectacularly better than was expected, especially after 1970, and from economistic perspectives far better than could have been responsibly predicted. It is obvious that Africa and Latin America did not fare nearly as well as Asia, which is a part of the puzzle that Nayyar takes note of, but does not try to solve beyond a casual observation that their state formation lagged, their human capital was of poorer quality, and these countries did have nearly as robust pre-colonial economies as did several Asian countries with their impressive manufacturing and governance capabilities.


In one sense, the most startling finding, given this comparative approach, is that ideological orientation meant far less than the effectiveness of state intervention in the economy by its pursuit of industrial policies designed to promote growth, especially via export promotion and an opening of the national economy to trade and investment potentials arising from profits, savings, and transnational capital flows. In other words, competent and pro-active government, superior human capital facilitated by education and health, and reinforced by a cultural work ethic, as well as the effective assertion of national sovereignty seemed to be the key explanations of the most spectacular success stories among the Asian 14, with China leading the way. What Nayyar concludes is that “The state and the market are complements rather than substitutes and the two institutions must adapt to each other in cooperative manner over time.”[226] He does suggest that China and Vietnam are special due to their “strong, one-party communist governments, with clear objectives, that could co-ordinate and implement policies” in a manner that cannot be “ that could not be replicated elsewhere in Asia.[226]


This enlightened outlook that was initially implemented with excellent economistic results by the Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), then emulated on a grander scale by China, and lately more unevenly pursued by India. These success stories contradicted economic dogma in the West, which favored either a supervisory relationship between state and market as in the social democracies of Europe or a more deferential approach by the state to the market as in the United States where the tyranny of Wall Street and the ceaseless budgetary demands of the Pentagon has often impaired effective governmental activism with respect to markets except through various subsidies, tax breaks, and crisis-induced bailouts. Although not explicitly articulated, Nayyar seems to be suggesting that the genius of Asia was to escape from the Cold War poles of economic ideology, and figure out practical ways of making make the state a useful guide and facilitator of economic policy rather than a passive spectator or an omnipotent overseer. The Asian success was to find various pragmatic national formulas for coordinating state and market on the basis of synergies that were dedicated to overall success in achieving sustainable development at high rates of growth, and that displayed talents for adapting to the challenges of changing global and regional economic conditions.


One dimension of this hyperbolic economic growth in Asia involved the effective management of complex transitions from an economic concentration on the export of primary goods and resources to a much-increased reliance on manufacturing, and from there moving the center of economic gravity to a more and more sophisticated stress on the provision of services. Nayyar takes due note that during this process of growth and expansion, it is of utmost importance to take maximum advantage of technological innovations to ensure that increases in productivity offset rising wages, which enables a continual rise in living standards without sacrificing the savings and profits needed for continuous investment, which alone can sustain aggregated momentum on the level of macro-economic policy.


Perhaps, as significant as the prodigious demonstration of the diversity of the 14 Asian national trajectories amid the unity achieved in the form of sustained economic growth, is Nayyar’s methodological mastery of the complex statistical material presented in the form of data, charts, and graphs. Writing in a manner that exhibits great economistic sophistication, Nayyar yet somehow has produced a book that is understandable by non-economists with a storyline that provides real insight into the dramatic restructuring of world order in the aftermath of colonialism and economic imperialism (significantly, not all of the non-West was colonized, but it was all, including of course China exploited by the West). Indeed, Nayyar shows that while India was a British colony and China never lost its formal independence as a sovereign state, their economic decline in the colonial period was roughly equivalent, with both emerging after World War II as highly problematic broken economies with respect to their future prospects, making this regional climb to ascendancy that much more remarkable.


Yet that does not mean that Nayyar overlooks the damage done to Asian countries by the colonial system as it operated between 1820 to 1962. On the contrary. He faults Myrdal for failing to take account of the pre-colonial past when Asia was so much more prominent in the world economy, which Nayyar believes partially explains why this great Swedish economist did not adequately foresee the Asian potential to achieve post-colonial affluence. The economic fall of Asia during colonial period was very sharp—“Between 1820 and 1962, the share of ‘the West’ in world income almost doubled from 37 per cent to 73 per cent, and the share of ‘the rest’ more than halved from 63 per cent to 27 per cent, of which the share of Asia plummeted from 57 per cent to 15 per cent.”[9] The dynamic that caused this to happen was rapid European industrialization that enabled the West to reshape  by coercion the international division of labor in its favor. In Nayyar’s words this new international economic order was “shaped by colonialism and imperialism through the development of mines and plantations.’[16] This dramatic shift resulted in the drastic ‘deindustrialization’ of Asia, which meant reversing the growth expectations of development, epitomized by a retreat from manufacturing to primary goods in the context of production and international trade.


Nayyar grounds his book by a look back in two distinct illuminating ways. First, he considers the standing of China and India, along with the rest of Asia, in the world economy through a period of two centuries, putting forth a dazzling array of statistics that probably will produce some major surprises for most readers, as they did for me, and especially for those who have not studied Asian economic history. In Nayyar’s words, “Until 1750, Asia accounted for almost three-fifths of the world population and world income, while China and India together accounted for about one-half of world population and world income. These two Asian giants also contributed 57 per cent of manufacturing production, and an even larger proportion of manufactured exports in the world.” [2] The most intriguing aspect of this critical assessment of Asian economic experience is that the result of the amazing economic surge is in one rather secondary sense unremarkable. For Asia in this past 50 years did nothing more than recover by 2016 or so its earlier relative global position with respect to population, shares of the world economy, and per capita living standard of its peoples. It is with this central reality in mind that explains Nayyar’s use of the word ‘resurgence’ rather than, say, ‘rise’ or ‘rise to ascendancy.’ At the same time, the differences between economic conditions in 1820, or for that matter, 1960, and the present are so dramatic for Asia in terms of experiencing the actual conditions of modernity, its technological advances and the great heightening of living standards, as to make it no exaggeration to consider the transformation of life in Asia from what it was to what it is as ‘the Asian miracle.’ Although much is left to be done throughout Asian-14, including dealing with large pockets of extreme poverty, especially in India, never have so many millions been lifted from the harsh clutches of extreme poverty in a few generations.


This rise of Asia has been accentuated by coinciding with the relative and absolute decline of the West. This puts Asia in a position to become the leading regional force shaping world politics for the next 20-25 years, taking over for the United States, which had taken over from Europe. It would be illuminating to have a study roughly parallel to this great book that looked at the collective experience of the West in a framework that also tracked the experience of a group of Western states, not necessarily 14, but a sufficient number to illustrate diversity amid unity.


One consequence of Nayyar’s regional approach is to lessen attention given to the impacts of these economic trends on the structure of geopolitics, and the character of geopolitical rivalry at the start of the colonial era, in the course of the 20th century, at present, and in the near future. What becomes evident is that in the 1800s the main geopolitical rivals were also the main colonial powers of Western Europe, especially after the Industrial Revolution gave European countries the military instruments to extend their economic reach over most of the rest of the planet. The only notable exception to this pattern, as Nayyar observes, was Japan that benefitted its generally successful resistance to colonialism and later from the modernization thrust of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. These developments allowed Japan to catch up with the West much earlier than the rest of Asia, a dynamic tragically reversed by the Japanese turn toward regional imperialism coupled with a disastrous challenge to Western geopolitical dominance in its region. Nayyar takes note of the fact that Japan pursued its own version of the Western path of combining industrialization at home with an imperialist foreign policy in Asia. Nayyar does not, however, go on to contrast the soft power dynamics of the contemporary Asian global outreach, which places an emphasis on win/win approaches to non-Western countries in Africa and Latin America coupled with non-reliance on the Western addictive dependence on coercive diplomacy, intervention, and military superiority. In this sense, Asian geopolitics are post-colonial in character, although as of 2020 beginning to mount tensions and even some pushback as nationalist outlooks show resentment toward soft power penetrations of sovereign space.


Of course, the regional framework is somewhat misleading if the focus shifts from development to geopolitics. Although Nayyar’s conjecture of rising Asian geopolitical leadership is couched in regional language, the real geopolitical rivalry is between the United States and China. It is here that the most notable feature of U.S. pre-Trump decline is the American squandering of its resources and reputation on a hard power approach to geopolitical leadership that involved a series of costly military misadventures (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran), which in effect, represented a dysfunctional continuation of a colonial mentality, somewhat disguised by shows of formal respect for political independence and national sovereignty of other countries, yet confirmed by U.S. reliance on threats, sanctions, and covert and overt military interventions. By contrast, how many such misadventures can one identify in Chinese foreign policy? This is not to suggest that China is pacifist in spirit or substance. Its fierce border wars with Vietnam and India, its investment in defensive and deterrent military capabilities, as well as its repression of dissent at home and in Hong Kong, suggest that Beijing places values on military and other coercive capabilities to meet some challenges to its goals. Yet when it comes to its pursuit of ambitious geopolitical goals, reliance on military capabilities has played almost no role. China’s immensely ambitious ‘Road and Belt Project’ is emblematic of its approach that is at once expansionist and pacific.


What was true in pre-Trump geopolitics has become more pronounced during the Trump presidency. Trump has deliberately disengaged from cooperative international arrangements, weakened alliance leadership, invested heavily in American military dominance, and worried leaders throughout the world by his unsteady, impulsive, and high-risk diplomatic style. At the same time, there is a certain Trumpist geopolitical realignment taking place due to the rise of right-wing leaders in many important countries throughout the world. As a result, while the world is more interconnected than ever before and can only solve problems associated with climate change, digital crime, migration, and management of nuclear weaponry by geopolitical coordination and cooperative solutions, it lacks the capacity to do so. In effect, the U.S. has substantially relinquished its global leadership role, while China, which alone would have the credibility to take over, has not attempted to do so, at least not yet. World order without geopolitical leadership, a weak UN, and beset by a series of fundamental challenges of global scope is in crisis. There is no obvious solution at present. Nayyar’s economistic master work does not attempt to address this dimension of Asian ascendancy, and what he does is itself a. most impressive achievement. At the same time, such a foreshortening of analysis may account for what struck me as an overly optimistic reading of the Asian future even before the Coronavirus shakedown of conventional wisdom. By his definitive portrayal of the Asian development story Nayyar plausibly projects a relative trouble-free future for Asia, reinforced by expectations of continued Western decline, but he excludes from consideration the negative impacts almost sure to be felt in Asia if climate change is not properly addressed or if a major war between China and the United States occurs without even alluding to the current woes arising from the COVID-19 outbreak, which were not on the horizon of anybody’s consciousness before the pandemic unfolded long after his authorial role ended more than a year ago. I wonder if Nayyar will stick with his confidently projected future in an updated edition as described in the book’s final paragraph: “There can be little doubt that, circa 2050, a century after the end of colonial rule, Asia will account for more than one-half of world income, and home to more than one-half the people on earth. It will thus have a political and economic significance that it would have been difficult to imagine fifty years ago..” [234] My simplistic commentary: maybe, maybe not. I disagree with the historical or Asian regional judgment that “[o]n the whole, there is more reason for optimism than pessimism.” [233] I wonder here whether Nayyar is making the reverse of the mistake he persuasively attributes to Myrdal in explaining why his dark vision of Asia’s future turned out to be so wrong.


In illuminating contrast, the Western international relations literature is not very much interested in Asian development per se as it is in sorting out the countries by whether they seem friends or enemies, and most of all whether the rise of China will produce a heightened rivalry with the United States, generating a second Cold War, and risking a hot war. Samuel Huntington in his controversial Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (2011), shifted his inter-civilizational emphasis from Islam to China, in the course of predicting such a war fought to establish global supremacy. More recently Graham Allison has generated debate and concern about what he names as the ‘Thucydides Trap’ in his Destined For War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap (2017). Allison argues that war has occurred on 12 of 16 occasions since 1500 in situations where a geopolitical leader perceives being overtaken by a rival, which is what currently seems to be happening in the relations between China and the United States. In Allison’s strong words, “The defining question about global order in the coming decades will be: can China and the United States escape the ‘Thucydides trap’?”


Nayyar writes as an expert economist with a masterful control of his chosen subject-matter. In this sense, his statistical underpinning is that of an analytically skilled professional economic historian, interpreting trends on the basis of measurable indicators. He avoids the more qualitative assessments of the rise of China with respect to peace and security in Asia associated with what might be roughly called ‘political economy’ approaches to economic growth and its political consequences. In this regard, while celebrating what Deepak Nayyar has achieved in Resurgent Asia it is also important to retain an awareness of the limitations of this approach, and the need for more politically focused assessments to get the full picture of this extraordinary Asian story.


A haunting question is whether the disappointing record of the Asian-14 with respect to political and civil rights is in any way necessarily linked to the extraordinary achievements in economic and social rights. A complementary question could be posed in relation to the more market-oriented Western countries as to whether a better performance with regard to social and economic rights could be achieved without impinging upon political rights. In this regard, as in many others, the Scandinavian and north European countries stand out for their high degree of achievement across the entire spectrum of human rights. A further issue, somewhat outside the orbit of human rights, relates to stewardship of the environment, given the scientific consensus on the growing menace of climate change.


Since the publication of Asian Resurgence the world has become preoccupied with COVIS-19 pandemic in ways that cast a variety of shadows across the economic future of the world. It is too soon to assess the impact of this pandemic, although not too early to understand that the spread of deadly diseases strongly confirms the benefits of a cooperative world order, and the harms resulting from transactional approaches to international relations that conceive of gains and losses from pragmatic nationalist perspectives with no deference to global concerns, whether functional as in responding to climate change and the Coronavirus or normative as in dealing with refugee and migrant flows or prolonged strife and oppressive governance. Whether we learn that the politics of global solidarity is the politics of species survival remains unknown, but the failure to do so will sooner or later doom the project of modernity of which the Asian ascent was one of its most notable moments of triumph.


It is also not to early to conclude that the eruption of the pandemic caused far higher harm because of failures of preparation, crisis management, and governmental oversight, strongly

supporting approaching vulnerabilities to uncertainties by a much more robust adherence to the Precautionary Principle. Leading modern governments to devote major resources so as to be prepared for the onset of wars, but little else, creating dangerous societal and global vulnerabilities to systemic challenges to health, wellbeing, decency, and ecological balance.




America’s ‘Liberalism’ and Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally  

25 Feb

[Prefatory Note: With apologies for this long post, which attempts to situate the struggle for an ethically and ecologically viable political future for the United States and the world in the overheated preoccupation with Trump and Trumpism, which is itself a distraction from the species challenges confronting the whole of humanity at the present time. Many of us, and I include myself, have allowed the side show to become the main attraction, which is itself a reason for struggle against the enveloping darkness.]


America’s ‘Liberalism’ & Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally


The Psycho-Politics of Geopolitical Depression


It should not be all about Trump, although his election in 2016 as U.S. president is symptomatic of a menacing national tailspin. This downward political drift in the United States, not only imperils Americans, but threatens the world with multiple catastrophes, the most worrisome of which involves Trump’s double embrace of nuclearism and climate denialism. Unfortunately at present, the U.S. global role cannot be easily replaced, although it always had its serious problematic aspects and should not be sentimentalized, not least of which were associated with its many often crude military and paramilitary efforts to block the tide of progressive empowerment in the post-colonial world: first, as the global guardian of capitalism, and later, as the self-anointed bearer of human rights and democracy for the benefit of the world’s unenlightened and often shackled masses. As disturbing, has been the American leading role in the emergence and evolution of nuclearism and its foot-dragging bipartisan responses to ecological challenges.


During the early post-Cold War presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, Washington was busy promoting the expansion of ‘market-based constitutionalism’ as supposedly leading the whole world to a bright global future, but such plans backfired badly, especially in the testing grounds of the Middle East, where intervention produced neither democracy nor order, but gave rise to turmoil, violence, and suffering that disrupted the lives of the peoples of the region. These democratizing ‘crusades’ were carried out beneath banners proclaiming ‘enlargement’ (the expansion of democratic forms of governance to additional countries) and ‘democracy promotion’ (induced by regime-changing military interventions and coercive diplomacy). Democracy as a term of art included the affirmation of property rights and market fundamentalism.


Trump comes along, building upon this inherited warrior phase of triumphalist global leadership that was a legacy of the Cold War, dramatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting supposed geopolitical vacuum. The United States sought to fill this vacuum, including an ideological arrogance that underpinned its shameless reliance upon the most powerful military machine in history to gets its way all over the planet, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to strengthen international law and UN as well as eliminate nuclear weaponry. Seemingly more benignly the American leadership role also strongly reflected its globally endorsed popular culture in dress, music, and food as well as appreciated for its encouragement of cooperative arrangements, the constitutional atmosphere of diversity and governmental moderation in the American heartland, and consumerist conceptions of human happiness.


Trump’s diplomacy defiantly turns its back on this softer, gentler (albeit nevertheless deficient) profile of American leadership. The United States is now becoming a country that bargains, intimidates, even bullies to gain every possible advantage in its international dealings, whether at the UN, in trade negotiations, or in an array of bilateral and regional dealings concerning global warming and security policy, with almost every international dealing being converted into a demeaning win/lose transaction. Trump’s antiquated bluster about ‘America, First’ has stripped away the earlier more mellow and selectively constructive win/win claims of ‘America, Liberal Global Leader.” By turning away from this earlier brand of self-interested ‘liberal internationalism’ the U.S. is losing many of these benefits that often accrued from international cooperation and win/win understandings of 21st century statecraft, at least as conducted within the structural and ideological boundaries of neoliberal globalization and the geopolitical management of global security.


More concretely, Trump’s presidency has so far meant a record military budget, relaxed rules of military engagement, geopolitical militarism, irresponsible regional coercive diplomacy, a regressive view that the UN is worthless except as an enemy-bashing venue, a negative assessment of multilateral treaties promoting a cooperative approach to climate change and international trade, as well as a hawkish approach to nuclear weaponry that features bravado, exhibits unilateralism, and in the end, employs on hard power and irresponsible threats to achieve goals formerly often pursued by liberal international global leadership. Without exaggerating the benefits and contributions of liberal internationalism, it did give science and rationality their due, was willing to help at the margins those suffering from slow and uneven economic and social development, and relied on international cooperation through lawmaking and the UN to the extent feasible, which was always less than what was necessary and desirable, but at least, not taking such a cynical and materialist view of the feasible as to create a condition of policy paralysis on urgent issues of global scope (e.g. climate change, nuclearism, migration).


Trump’s ideological prism, which is alarmingly similar to that of the many other leaders throughout the world who have recently been leaning further and further rightwards. The internal politics of many states has turned toward chauvinistic and mean-spirited forms of autocratic nationalism, while cooperation in meeting common global challenges has almost disappeared. Instead of hope and progress, the collective consciousness of humanity is mired in despair and denial, and what is more, the dialectics of history seem to be slumbering, with elites and even counter-elites afraid of utopias on the basis of a widespread (mis)reading of 20th century political experience, seemingly entrapped in cages constructed by predatory capitalism and rapacious militarism, designed to render futile visions of change adapted to the realities of present and emergent historical circumstances. Inside these capitalist and militarist boxes there is no oxygen to sustain liberating moral, political, and cultural imaginings. Trump is not only a distasteful and dangerously dysfunctional leader of the most powerful and influential political actor in the world. He is also a terrifying metaphor of an anachronistic world order stuck in the thick mud of mindlessness when it comes to fashioning transformative responses to fundamental challenges to the ways our political, economic, and spiritual life have been organized in the modern era of territorial sovereign states.



America’s ‘Liberalism’ Observed


In American political discourse the word ‘liberal’ denotes someone who is devoted to humane values, supports such civil society actors as Human Rights Watch and Planned Parenthood, hopes that U.S. foreign policy generaly conforms to international law and be quietly respectful of the UN (while coping skillfully with its alleged anti-Israel bias), is rabidly anti-Trump, but considered Sanders either an unrealistic or undesirable alternative to Clinton, and currently hopes for that the 2020 presidential contender will be chosen from familiar, seasoned sources, which means Joe Biden, or if not, then Sherrod Brown or Corey Booker (Senators from Ohio and New Jersey). This kind of ‘liberal’ thinking scoffs at the idea of Oprah or Michelle Obama as credible candidates supposedly because they lack political experience, but actually because they do not project an identity associated with the Democratic Party organizational nexus. Such liberals support Israel, despite some misgivings about the expansion of settlements and Netanyahu’s style of leadership, and continue to believe that America occupies the high moral ground in international relations due to its support of ‘human rights’ (as understood as limited to social and political rights) and its constitutionalism and relatively open society at home.


In my view, such a conception of liberalism if more correctly understood as ‘illiberal’ in its essence under present world historical circumstances, at least in its American usage. The European usage of ‘liberal’ is centered on affirming a market-based economy of capitalism as preferable to the sort of state-managed economy attributed to socialism, and little else. In this sense, the U.S. remains truly liberal, but this is not the main valence of the term in its American usage, which is as a term of opprobrium in the hands of Republicans who brand their Democratic opponents as ‘liberals,’ which is then falsely conflated with ‘left’ politics, and even ‘socialism.’ Remember that George H.W. Bush resorted to villifying his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, by identifying him with the American Civil Liberties Union, which he associated with being ‘in left field.’


More recently, the Trump base characterizes the Obama presidency as ‘leftist’ and ‘socialist,’ which is inaccurate and confusing. At most, on issue of domestic concern its policies could be characterized as ‘liberal’ or centrist, with no structural critique of capitalism or the American global imperial role. ‘Conservative,’ ‘American,’ ‘Nationalist,’ and ‘Patriotic’ are asserted as alternatives to what is being opposed. Part of this word game is to conflate ‘liberal’ with ‘left’ or ‘socialist,’ thereby depriving either term of any kind of usable meaning.


Such ideological and polemical labeling practices are confusing and wrong, muddling political categories. To be genuinely left in American politics means to care for the poor and homeless, and not be primarily preoccupied with the setbacks endured by the middle classes. It means to be skeptical of the Democratic Party establishment, and to favor ‘outliers’ as challengers on the national level at least as radical as Bernie Sanders or at least as humane and amateurish as Oprah Winfrey. Above all it means to be a harsh critic of Wall Street at home and neoliberal globalization as structurally predatory and ecologically hazardous. It also means anti-militarism, opposition to Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a rejection of America’s role as the prime guardian of the established global order on the basis of its military prowess, specifically, its worldwide naval, space, and paramilitary and covert ‘full-spectrum dominance’ as deployed so as to project devastating destructive capabilities throughout the entire planet.


In effect, by this critique, the American liberal is more accurately regarded and sensitively perceived as mainly ‘illiberal.’ Why? Because insisting on swimming in the mainstream when it comes to political choices, reluctant to criticize Wall Street or world trade and investment arrangements, and above all else, reducing ‘human rights’ to civil and political rights, while disregarding ‘economic, social, and cultural rights,’ is to endorse, at least tacitly, an illegitimate status quo if assessed on the basis of widely shared ethical principles.


Such self-induced partial blindness allows ‘liberals’ to view Israel as ‘the only democratic state’ in the Middle East or to regard the United States to be the embodiment of democracy (with Trump and Trumpism viewed as a pathological and temporary deviation) despite millions mired in extreme poverty and homelessness, that is, by treating economic, social, and cultural rights as if they do not exist. Such ‘liberals’ continue to complain invidiously about the lack of freedom of expression and dissent in such countries as China, Vietnam, and Turkey while overlooking the extraordinary achievements of these countries if social and economic rights are taken into account, especially with respect to lifting tens of millions from poverty by deliberate action and in a short time. In other words, addressing the needs of the poor is excluded from relevance when viewing the human rights record of a country, which makes a country likeTurkey that has done a great deal to alleviate mass poverty of its bottom 30% no different from Egypt than has next to nothing when it comes to human rights. It is not a matter of ignoring failures with regard to political and civil rights, but rather of disregarding success and failure when it comes to economic, social, and cultural rights. It might also be noted that the practical benefits of achievements in civil and political rights are of primary benefit to no more that 10% of the population, while economic, social, and cultural rights, even in the most affluent countries, are of relevance to at least a majority of the population, and generally an even larger proportion.


Even if this discriminatory treatment of human rights were to be overcome, and the economic deprivations endured by the poor were to be included in templates of appraisal, I would still not be willing to join the ranks of American liberals, at least not ideologically, although lots of opportunity for common cause might exist on matters of race, gender, and governmental abridgement of citizen rights. Liberalism is structure-blind when it comes to transformative change for either of two reasons: the conviction that the American political system can only get things done by working within the established order or the firm belief that the established order in the country (and the world) is to be preferred over any plausible alternative. This reminds me of the person who drops a diamond ring in the middle of a dark street and then confines his search to the irrelevant corner where there the light happens to be shining brightly.


In my view, we cannot hope to address challenges of class, militarism, and sustainability without structural change, and the emergence of a truly radical humanism dedicated to the emergence of an ecological civilization that evolves on the basis of the equal dignity and entitlement of individuals and groups throughout the entire world. In other words, given the historical situation, the alternative to this kind of planetary radicalism is denial and despair. That is why I would not be an America liberal even if liberals were to shed their current ‘illiberal’ ways of seeing and being. At the same time, such a refocusing of political outlook entails the replacement of balance of power or Westphalian realism with some version of what Jerry Brown decades ago called ‘planetary realism.’


Yet progressives have their own blind spots. To denote the rise of Trump and Trumpism as ‘fascism’ is premature, at best, and alarmist at worst. There are plenty of reasons to complain about the failure of the leadership to denounce white supremists or to show respect for dissenting views, but to equate such behavior with fascism is not too much different from branding the Obama presidency as ‘socialist.’ There are tendencies on the right and left that if continued and intensified, could lead in these feared directions, but there are many reasons to doubt that such political extremism is the real objective of the varying forces vying for political control in the United States at the present time. The two sets of concerns are not symmetrical. A socialist future for the country seems desirable, if feasible, while for fascism, even its current glimmerings are undesirable. Of course, this is an expression of opinion reflecting an acceptance of a humanist ethos of being-in-the-world.



The End of American Democracy


There is a rather prescient article in the current issue of The Atlantic (March 2018, 80-87) written by Yascha Mounk, bearing the provocative title “America is Not a Democracy.” Mounk relies on recent empirical surveys of political effectiveness in political arenas to suggest results that are ‘shocking’ if appraised by reference to democratic myths about government of, by, and for the people of the country. What counts, according to Mounk, are “economic elites and special interest groups” (82) that can get what they want at least half of the time and stop what they don’t want nearly always. In contrast, the people, including mass-based public interest groups, have virtually zero influence on the policy process, and hence the conclusion, America is no longer democratic.


In Mounk’s words: ”across a range of issues, public policy does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. If it did, the country would look radically different: Marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.”(82) All in all, such a listing of issues does make the case, especially if combined with the commodification of the electoral process, that America should no longer be considered a democratic states even if it maintains the rituals, and some of the practices of a genuine democracy—elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression.


Many, including Mounk, acknowledge that from the beginning the distinctive American undertaking was to establish a ‘republic,’ not a ‘democracy.’ As we all know, the founders were protective of slavery and property holders, opposed to women’s suffrage, and fearful of political majorities and special interests, degraded as ‘the mob’ and ‘factionalism.’ Yet little by little, with the American Civil War as one turning point and the New Deal as another, the legitimating foundation of the American system changed its foundational identity, increasingly resting its credibility on the quality of its ‘democractic’ credentials. Reforms associated with ending slavery and later challenging ‘Jim Crow’ racisim, through the support of civil rights, by giving women the vote and more recently validating claims to equality and accepting the need for adequate protection against harassment, and moving toward a safety net for the very poor and vulnerable were undertaken in the spirit of fulfilling the democratic mandate.


When it comes to social, economic, and cultural concerns, the U.S. leadership, personified by Trump and reinforced by the Trumpism of the Republican Party, the situation is even more grim than frustrating what Rousseau called ‘the general will.’ Anti-immigrant and anit-Muslim policies are openly espoused and enacted by the Executive Branch and Congress to the outer limits of what the courts, themselves being transformed to endorse the agenda of the right-leaning authoritarian state. Perhaps, even more revealing is the resolve of the Trump administration to save federal monies by cutting programs associated with the very poor. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lending necessary food assistance to as many as 49 million Americans, known popularly as ‘food stamps’ is illustrative.

Although the government spent about $70 billion on SNAP in 2017 this was less than 2% of the $4 trillion federal budget on SNAP, and yet the Trump administration wants to cut coverage by nearly 30% over the course of the next decade and reconstitute the program in ways that harm the self-esteem and dignity of recipients.


The overseas record of the United States has inflicted death on millions of vulnerable people since the end of World War II, as well as sacrificed hundreds of thousands American on various foreign killing fields, including those maimed, inwardly militarized and suicidal, and otherwise damaged mentally and physically. And for what? The Vietnam War experience should have enabled the Pentagon planners to learn from failure and defeat that military intervention in the non-Western world has lost most of its agency in the post-colonial world. This American learning disability is exhibited by the repetition of failure and defeat, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the human losses were great and the strategic outcome eroded further American legitimacy as global leader and manager of global security.


In a notable article, Matthew Stevenson summarizes the persisting significance of the Vietnam War in the period since 1945: “The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.” [“Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning,” Counterpunch, Feb. 23, 2018, the first of an eight-part article, highly recommended.]


Where Next?

For those seeking justice, a hopeful future, humane governance, and the cultural worldview of an ecological civilization globally, nationally, and locally, it is vital to acknowledge and recognize that we currently living in a lamentable period in human history with storm clouds hovering over every horizon in sight.

The American scene has hardly ever been worse. A president that bluffs about engaging in nuclear war and seems never more comfortable than busy bullying yesterday’s associate or getting high on a string of belligerent tweets. And if Trump would mercifully move on, we are left with Pence, a sober evangelical who will walk the plank to enact the Republican miscreant agenda. And if Pence would also favor us with disappearance, the stage is left free for Paul Ryan to walk upon, a dour architect of a meanly reconstituted American reality along the dystopian lines of hierarchy and domination that Ayn Rand depicted in Fountainhead. There is a there there where angels fear to tread.

Maybe there is enough wakefulness in the country that the Republicans will suffer a humbling defeat in the 2018 midterm elections. Maybe the youth of the country will march and issue demands, and not get tired, insisting on a Democratic Party that can be trusted with the nation’s future, and is not beholden to Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. Symbolically and substantively this means a rejection of Joe Biden and Corey Booker as Democratic standard bearers. If fresh faces with fresh ideas do not take over the reins of power in Washington, we will do not better that gain a brief respite from Trump and Trumpish but the Doomsday Clock will keep clicking!

And even if the miraculous happened, and the Republican menace was somehow superseded, we would likely be left with the problems posed by the liberal establishment once reinstated in control of governmental practice. There would be no political energy directed toward nuclear disarmament, transforming predatory capitalism, and creating conditions whereby everyone residing in this richest of countries could look forward to a life where health care, education, shelter, and food were universally available, where international law genuinely guided foreign policy on matters of war and peace, and where ecological sensitivity was treated as the essence of 21st sovereignty. To address global migration patterns, walls and harsh exclusion would be replaced by direct attention to the removal of root causes explaining why people take the drastic step of uprooting themselves from what is familiar and usually deeply cherished for reasons of familiarity, memory, and sacred tradition.