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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November—December 2004


Why Are Families Going Broke?

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi
The Two-Income Trap
Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke

Basic Books, 2003 288 pages $14


MANY ON the Left take it as a matter of faith that one of the main barriers to social change is the fact that Americans are "just too comfortable." We are so happy buying SUVs, watching cable TV, and stuffing our faces with supersized meals that we couldn’t possibly have an interest in fighting the system. The moment anyone challenges this argument by pointing to stagnating wages among a majority of American workers, or to high levels of household debt, the fallback argument many people make is that Americans are so intoxicated by the pursuit of luxury goods that we are spending ourselves into oblivion whether or not we can actually afford it.

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi take on these arguments squarely in their new book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke. Not only are most Americans not living a cushy life, they argue, but "it is hard to grasp the breadth or depth of financial distress sweeping through ordinary suburbs, small towns, and nice city neighborhoods." Indeed, they show that an epidemic of financial ruin has been growing among families over the last thirty years, where

the signs of…distress have continued to grow, in good times and bad, in recession and in boom. If these trends persist, more than 5 million families with children will file for bankruptcy by the end of this decade. That would mean that across the country nearly one in every seven families with children would have declared itself flat broke, losers in the great American economic game.

Since 1980, there has been a "225 percent increase in the foreclosure rate, a 430 percent increase in the bankruptcy rolls, and a 570 percent increase in credit card debt." Today, 1.5 million families file for bankruptcy every year, and that’s just a fraction of the eighteen million families that the authors estimate are eligible to file.

In looking behind the dramatic increase in household debt, Warren and Tyagi challenge what they call "The Myth of Overconsumption." They rebut the "finger-waggers," such as liberal economist Juliet Schor, who wrote that high debt levels are caused by "designer clothes, a microwave, restaurant meals, home and automobile air conditioning, and, of course, Michael Jordan’s ubiquitous athletic shoes." Warren and Tyagi found that the average family of four is actually spending 21 percent less today on clothing, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than a similar family spent in the early 1970s. Families are also spending 22 percent less on food and 44 percent less on major appliances. Despite all the hype about Americans and their big SUVs, families are spending 20 percent less on cars per vehicle, although most families’ overall car expenditure has risen now that pairs of working parents often need separate cars to commute to work.

So why are so many families stretched so thin? Warren and Tyagi’s findings should surprise nobody: The areas where expenditures have shot through the roof are day care, health care, and education. With women’s mass entry into the workforce over the last thirty years, day care now consumes a huge portion of most families’ budgets. Family health expenditures have increased to historic levels as prices go up and businesses shift more of the costs to employees. And education costs have climbed as colleges pour more money into competitive athletic programs, pay their administrators CEO-like salaries, and build fancy research facilities to attract government contracts.

In addition, mortgage costs and credit card debt consume an increased share of families’ income. The authors place the blame at the feet of politicians–Democrats and Republicans alike–who allowed the deregulation of the banking and credit industries in the 1970s. The Supreme Court also got in on the act by ruling in 1978 that companies could charge interest rates of up to 25 percent. This unleashed a feeding frenzy among credit card companies that prey on customers with the worst credit ratings they can find, with the highest levels of debt. The authors write:

By the mid—1980s, credit had become a highly profitable consumer product, like running shoes or soft drinks, and the new game was to sell as much as possible.… Banks would "lose" money on some credit card customers but, thanks to higher interest rates, those losses would be more than offset by the profits on the rest. Over the past decade, bad debt losses and loan write-offs have soared, but profits have risen even faster.

For consumers, this has meant that credit card debt increased by more than 6,000 percent between 1968 and 2000.

The authors found that banks used similar tactics–"charge high interest rates and sell, sell, sell"–in their home mortgage lending practices, particularly to buyers they figured they could easily deceive. Citibank, one of the largest lenders in the country, had an average mortgage rate of 15.6 percent in 2001–when standard mortgage rates were in the 6.5 percent range. "To put that in perspective," the authors write, "a family buying a $175,000 home…would pay an extra $420,000 during the 30-year life of the mortgage." Banks also routinely seek out vulnerable families when issuing mortgages, in the hope that they will take out second and third mortgages when they fall behind on their initial mortgage payments. In fact, many banks grant mortgages to families they believe will fail in order to force foreclosure and enable the bank to seize their homes. Industry insiders refer to the practice as "Loan to Own."

A look at the profiles of families that are forced into bankruptcy will bolster the conclusion that rising costs and corporate greed, not overconsumption, are to blame for financial ruin. Warren and Tyagi found that the "Big Three" reasons families stated when filing for bankruptcy were job loss, medical problems, and divorce or separation, which is itself often a consequence of greater economic pressure on the family. These reasons were given for 87 percent of bankruptcy filings in 2001, versus the other reasons–"bad investment, crime victim, credit card overspending, natural disaster, and other/no explanation"–that accounted for the other 13 percent of bankruptcies.

As refreshing as it is to see a well-researched rebuttal of the claim that Americans are too well-off, The Two-Income Trap has some major flaws. For starters, the authors argue that women’s exodus from the home is a major reason for the precarious existence of so many of today’s families. When women stayed home, they not only performed free labor such as child care, laundry, and meal preparation; they were also able to act as temporary wage-earners–going out and getting a job–in the event the main breadwinner lost his job. Now that both parents work, there is no such "all-purpose safety net," as the authors call a stay-at-home mother, since the wife is already working, and the family is already dependent on her wages. It’s a strange argument. Left out of this equation–and strikingly, out of the book as a whole–is the fact that men’s wages have dropped over the last thirty years, so that almost all families must depend on both parents’ wages. And this argument leaves the door open to right-wingers who argue that women’s entrance to the workforce is destroying the family, a danger that the authors reluctantly acknowledge.

In addition, the book deals exclusively with "middle-class" families who live in the suburbs. But the authors are actually referring to "middle-income" people–everyone but the very poor and the very rich. Their subjects include managers, teachers, cops, administrative assistants, and manual workers. But this blurring of distinctions between classes makes it difficult to explain why families are having a harder time making ends meet. First of all, it is simply not true that managers or professionals have seen their living standards slashed as severely as workers have since the 1970s. And second, it’s possible to understand why workers have borne the brunt of attacks on health care, wages, and job security only by understanding that capitalist competition drives the bosses to carry out these attacks. There is no discussion of this dynamic, which leads the authors scrambling after other explanations. They argue, for example, that competition between families seeking "a middle-class life" has driven them into a bidding war over houses in good school districts. This war is what’s driven up housing prices, they say, and a comprehensive school voucher system would be the best way to make life more affordable again.

Despite these flaws, The Two-Income Trap draws a strong overall picture of how so many American families are simply set up to fail. In one of the best passages of the book, Warren and Tyagi respond to an argument made by Judge Edith Jones that "overspending and an unwillingness to live within one’s means ‘causes’ debt":

She is probably right. These families certainly overspent, accepting medical care they could not afford and making child support payments that left them with too little to pay the rent. They also lived beyond their means, trying to hold on to their houses and cars even after they lost their jobs. But we are forced to wonder, what would Judge Jones suggest those families have done? Not gone to the emergency room when the chest pains started? Moved the kids into a shelter the day their father moved out? Paid MasterCard and Visa, even if it meant not feeding their children?

Labor’s Missing Element

Nelson Lichtenstein
STATE OF THE UNION: A Century of American Labor
Princeton University Press, 2002
352 pages $19


THE U.S. now ranks not only as the world’s richest society, but the most unequal society in the advanced industrialized world1 Shifting the balance of class forces, now weighted so decisively in favor of capital, is the urgent challenge facing the working-class movement today.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein’s book provides a historical perspective. He begins with the present, and the staggering decline in working-class living standards. "Four out of five households take home a thinner slice of the economic pie than they did a quarter century before," Lichtenstein writes. And "real household income for young families (breadwinners under age thirty) stood at one-third less than their counterparts in 1973, even though their total work hours were longer."

Union membership has been in a downward spiral since the 1970s, while strike levels have plummeted since the early 1980s. Meanwhile, CEOs have seen their earnings rise by a stunning 2,500 percent.

Ronald Reagan received most of the credit for launching this war on the working class, but it predated his presidency by several years. Its roots lay in the end of the postwar economic boom. As Lichtenstein argues:

Profits of U.S. firms peaked in the mid—1960s and then proceeded to decline for the next fifteen years. By the early 1980s…productivity growth fell to less than half the postwar pace and dropped well behind that of most U.S. trading partners.

Breaking the back of the labor movement was key to the employers’ strategy to restore economic competitiveness internationally. Already in 1978, as Lichtenstein notes, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Douglas Fraser observed that business leaders were waging "a one-sided class war in this country." In 1979, BusinessWeek editorialized:

It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow–the idea of doing with less so that business can have more.… Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality.2

With the complicity of both Democrats and Republicans, class inequality has increased steadily since the mid-1970s, now rivaling the record levels of the Roaring Twenties. And the one-sided class war that has been raging for twenty-five years shows no signs of abating.

Working-class retreat

Why did the U.S. working class enter such a sustained retreat from struggle in the mid—1970s?

Lichtenstein convincingly argues that the employers’ offensive has its roots in the immediate postwar period. He challenges the notion that the U.S. working class benefited from a so-called "labor-management accord" during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s. "Real wages doubled in the twenty years after 1947, but strikes were also ten times more prevalent than in the years after 1980," he notes. And unionized workers experienced a drastic rise in the rate of exploitation. Output per worker more than doubled between 1947 and 1972.3 The real beneficiaries sat on the boards of directors of the biggest corporations.

With anticommunism as their political backdrop, business leaders devised a long-term strategy to disarm the power of unions and rid society of the memory of Depression-era struggle. Lichtenstein writes:

As Alfred Sloan of General Motors analogized at the end of World War II: "It took fourteen years to rid this country of prohibition. It is going to take a good while to rid the country of the New Deal, but sooner or later the ax falls and we get a change."

The anti-union Taft-Hartley Act passed by Congress in 1947 was an enormous political defeat for the union movement. In addition, the CIO’s failure to unionize the low-wage South, as Lichtenstein argues, allows businesses to "solve their ‘labor problem’ by simply replacing one workforce with another." Finally, unions negotiated with individual employers for health insurance as a "fringe benefit," rather than fighting for universal health care. The result today is that one in seven Americans has no health insurance, while a much larger number lacks adequate coverage.4

Labor and the Democratic Party

But when it comes to party politics, Lichtenstein’s analysis falters. State of the Union systematically downplays the consequences of the labor movement’s unswerving loyalty to the Democratic Party. Time and again, Democrats have pledged to champion the interests of Blacks, workers, and the poor during political campaigns, and then proceeded to thumb their noses at them once in office.

Support for the Democratic Party has crippled the labor movement since the Great Depression. Lichtenstein is not uncritical of the Democrats. But his narrative often gives the impression that Democrats are far less beholden to ruling-class interests than they are in reality.

Lichtenstein quotes Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fiery 1936 campaign speech, when he declared the forces of "organized money are unanimous in their hatred for me, and I welcome their hatred." But elsewhere, Roosevelt described himself as the "savior" of "the system of private profit and free enterprise."5 Roosevelt granted the New Deal reforms of the 1930s not to transform capitalist class relations, but to preserve them.

Similarly, Lichtenstein points out that Democratic President Harry Truman vetoed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. He does not mention, however, that Truman used Taft-Hartley twelve times to break strikes in its first year.6 The administration of President Jimmy Carter in the late—1970s barely receives a mention by Lichtenstein, yet Carter paved the way for Reagan’s more draconian measures.

Lichtenstein is even more generous to President Bill Clinton, whose presidency marked a lurch to the right for the Democratic Party. The policies of the Clinton administration continued to widen class inequality throughout the 1990s economic boom and dismantled the welfare system for the poor, the last remaining legacy of the New Deal. Yet Lichtenstein argues that Clinton’s aims during his early presidency "were ideologically potent and socially useful efforts to give domestic politics a neo-Rooseveltian flavor."

Lichtenstein gives the Democrats far more credit than they deserve for serving the interests of rank-and-file workers, and leaves out key political struggles among rank-and-file workers over their future.

In particular, State of the Union distorts the lessons of the most important era of class struggle over the last century–the Great Depression–which led to a mass radicalization within the working class. That this radicalization was curtailed and then reversed is the key to understanding labor’s backward slide in the decades that followed.

The CIO leadership, Lichtenstein notes, pumped a half-million dollars into Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign. Yet a 1937 Gallup poll showed that at least 21 percent of the population supported the formation of a national Farm-Labor Party.7 At the 1935 UAW convention, delegates voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president in the 1936 election. This vote was reversed only after the CIO leadership threatened to withdraw all funding for the UAW to organize the auto industry.8

Thus, as the class struggle peaked in the years 1935—1937, a section of workers within the militant UAW sought a political alternative to the Democratic Party. The potential existed in this very brief time to build a working-class party to the left of the Democrats. But building such an alternative would have required a forceful left-wing leadership inside the working-class movement.

There was a decisive missing element in the working-class movement of the 1930s: a political organization committed to rank-and-file interests large enough to influence the course of the struggle. The Communist Party was large enough, but it was a loyal–if uninvited–member of Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition.

Class collaboration

Since the Depression, the labor officialdom has remained firmly tied to the Democratic Party, never wavering from its fierce loyalty to the profit system–setting the labor movement on a self-defeating course that has yet to be reversed. The McCarthy era witch hunt enjoyed the active support of the same union leaders who went on to form the united AFL-CIO in 1955. Between 1949 and 1950, the CIO expelled the eleven Communist Party-led unions–more than 10 percent of its membership.

The anticommunist witch hunts physically removed socialists from the unions and pushed radical politics to the fringes of the working class. The consequences of this seismic political defeat were felt decades later, in the mid—1970s, when employers decided to demand drastic wage cuts. By then, workers had lost touch with the very tradition that built the unions and felt they had no choice but to accept the lower wages negotiated by their leaders.

But in State of the Union, McCarthyism serves as a mere detail, despite its far-reaching impact. The best advice Lichtenstein can offer is, "[L]abor must function as an independent, and sometimes as a disloyal, component of the Democratic Party Coalition, at least until a reassessment of its political options can take place." Lichtenstein continues to wish for miracles from the Democratic Party, when only breaking from this disastrous strategy and building a genuine political alternative can point the way forward for rank-and-file workers today.

Originally published in Historical Materialism. Reprinted with permission of Brill Academic Publishers.

1 Paul Krugman, "For Richer," New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002, 76. Sharon Smith, "Twilight of the American Dream," International Socialism 54 (1992), 14.

2 Quoted in Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (London: Verso, 1996), 8.

3 "Twilight of the American Dream," 4.

4 Helen Redmond, "Health Care’s Deadly Crisis," International Socialist Review 27, 40.

5 Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism (Chicago: International Socialist Organization, 2004), 11. Available in downloadable PDF form on the Web at

6 Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO, 1936—1955 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972, 353.

7 Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), 67.

8 Eric Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box: An Historical Perspective (New York: Praeger, 1985), 68—69.

A Panoramic View of the Vietnam War

Christian G. Appy
PATRIOTS: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides
Viking Press, 2003

574 pages $35

Review by JOE ALLEN

THE VIETNAM War shook American society from top to bottom. The greatest military machine in human history was defeated, in the words of President Lyndon Johnson, by a "raggedy-ass, fourth-rate" country. The unjust and incredibly destructive war waged by the U.S. against the Vietnamese people radicalized millions from a vast array of backgrounds, including Defense Department analysts, civil rights activists, and the so-called "grunts" in the U.S. Army.

Christian Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides is a monumental achievement that culminates five years of writing and traveling to interview people from all sides of the war. His previous book, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, examined the class background of the soldiers who fought the war–and how the war changed them.

Appy’s stated goal in Patriots is "to explore the vast range of war-related memories [from all sides] that rarely appear together between the covers of a single book." He has achieved that and much more. Two examples are his interviews with Julian Bond and General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Bond was a leading figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1965. Bond told Appy, "The Vietnam War seemed pretty remote initially. It wasn’t something that pressed on me a great deal." That changed after his first election victory, when a returning Black Navy veteran–Sammy Younge–was murdered in Tuskegee, Alabama for trying to use a white bathroom in a gas station.

"Sammy getting killed heightened our awareness of the essential wrongness of asking these young men to go defend the country overseas." SNCC issued a public statement against the war that held the U.S. government responsible both for Younge’s death and for the deaths of Vietnamese peasants. Says Bond:

I endorsed the statement about a week or so before I was to take my seat in the Georgia legislature.… [A] firestorm of protest erupted in opposition to my antiwar position. They said I was guilty of treason and sedition.

The mob was led by Peter Zack Greer, who described himself as the "white man’s lieutenant governor."

The legislature refused to seat Bond and thus forced a special election to fill his empty position. Bond ran again and won. "By this time the legislature had adjourned, so they named a special committee to hear my case and they expelled me again."

Bond ran for election a third time and won yet again. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled nine to zero that the Georgia state legislature had to let Bond take his seat. Looking back, Bond believes, "the civil rights movement was responsible for raising the percentage of Americans opposed to the war and for making Black Americans particularly more skeptical about the war."

Vo Nguyen Giap also talked to Appy. Giap commanded the North Vietnamese army until his retirement in 1973. A veteran of the Vietnamese communist movement, he is best known as the man who defeated the French at the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Journalists and scholars all ask me the same question: "How did we win?" There are many books on the subject, but people are still not clear about it. We won the war because we would rather die than live in slavery. Our history proves this. Our deepest aspiration has always been self-determination. That spirit provided us with stamina, courage, and creativity in the face of a powerful enemy.… The Americans were much more powerful than we were. But they made the same mistake as the French–they underestimated Vietnamese forms of resistance.

In the mid—1990s, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Giap participated in a conference in Hanoi to discuss the war. According to Appy,

An initial exchange between McNamara and Giap revealed a fundamental difference in their historical views of the war:

McNamara: "We need to draw lessons which will allow us to avoid such tragedies in the future."

Giap: "Lessons are important. I agree. However, you are wrong to call the war a ‘tragedy.’ Maybe it was a tragedy for you, but for us the war was a noble sacrifice. We did not want to fight the United States, but you gave us no choice."

Patriots is a wonderful book that should be read by all who are interested in the Vietnam War–and by anyone interested in its lessons for the current occupation of Iraq.

The Real Lives of Haitians

Edwidge Danticat
The Dew Breaker
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

256 pages $22.


LAST MARCH, 200 years after the victorious slave rebellion on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti), U.S. Marines whisked away an elected president and once again occupied the country. While the U.S. government and the compliant media were trying to depict Haiti’s right-wing death squads as "freedom fighters," many Haitian Americans spoke out against these outrages.

In this context, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, a collection of interconnected short stories, is an important contribution to putting forward the truth about the past and present in Haiti.

For Danticat, The Dew Breaker is the latest of numerous novels and collections of stories that artfully weave historical and political themes into the lives of their characters. Most notable among her earlier works is The Farming of Bones, a powerful account of the genocide of Haitians committed by Dominican president Rafael Trujillo’s army and the subsequent exodus in 1937.

In the current collection, many stories illustrate how the crimes committed against the Haitian people under the Duvalier dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s continue to haunt the lives of Haitian immigrants and their children in the United States.

"Dew breakers" was what Haitians called the torturers under the Duvalier dictatorship, "the hundreds who had done their jobs so well that their victims were never able to speak of them again." These were the "Tontons Macoutes," the volunteers for national security who terrorized the population and murdered anyone who dared to resist in any way.

As Danticat tells us, they were named for the "mythic figure of the Tonton Macoute, a bogeyman who abducted naughty children at night and put them in his knapsack." The people called them "dew breakers" because when they broke into people’s homes,

mostly it was at night. But often they’d also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they’d take you away.

One story introduces us to a woman who was tied up in a prison and had the bottoms of her feet whipped until they bled, all for declining a date with one of the Tontons Macoutes. Another man we meet fled for fear of his life after painting an unflattering portrait of the president.

Though Danticat does not spell out the U.S. role in supporting the Duvalier dictatorship, there are hints. In "Book of Miracles," the Haitian-American community organizes to try to uncover Emmanuel Constant, the Duvalier-era war criminal who was allowed to relocate to New York City after the fall of the dictatorship. (Constant has said that he was a CIA employee, though we do not learn this from Danticat.)

In "The Funeral Singer," three young Haitian immigrant women who are struggling to pass the GED test in the 1970s wonder how it is that Jackie Onassis, widow of President John F. Kennedy, can visit Haiti during the dictatorship with no shame. "Isn’t it amazing? Jackie Kennedy can go to Haiti anytime she wants, but we can’t."

Though many of the stories demonstrate the terror that forced many Haitians to flee their homeland, Danticat does not romanticize the life that awaits immigrants in the United States. In "Seven," three Haitian immigrants live in the basement apartment of their much better-off Haitian landlords, who they feel obliged to address as "Madame" and "Sir." After seven years of saving, one of the men is finally able to afford for his wife to emigrate from Haiti. But it was not just finances that caused the delay.

He’d had no idea it would be seven years before he would see her again. He’d had it all planned. He knew that he couldn’t send for her right away, since he would be overstaying a tourist visa. But he was going to work hard, find a lawyer, get himself a green card, and then send for his wife. The green card had taken six years and eleven months.

The wife’s only companion was the radio during the long hours her husband was away at one of his two janitorial jobs. As she tries to adjust to her new circumstances, the radio reminds her that life in the U.S. for Haitian-Americans is none too easy.

She would wake up and listen to the radio for news of what was happening both here and back home. Somewhere, not far from where she was, people were in the streets, marching, protesting [Patrick] Dorismond’s death, their outrage made even greater by the fact that the Dorismond boy was the American-born son of a well-known [Haitian] singer, whose voice they had heard on the radio back in Haiti. "No justice, no peace," she chanted while stewing chicken and frying fish.

In the final story, "The Dew Breaker," a preacher is viciously pursued and murdered by the Duvalier regime for preaching against the regime. His sermons include such subversive lines as "What will we do with our beast." One foreign commentator writes, "These people don’t have to go far to find their devils. Their devils aren’t imagined; they’re real."

Unfortunately, the devils are still very real. In these stories, as well as in her past work, Danticat contributes to raising awareness of the history and present reality of the struggle of the Haitian people for human rights, both in Haiti and in the United States.

Throwing Light on the Shadows

Carolyn Nordstrom
SHADOWS OF WAR: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century
University of California Press, 2004

293 pages $20


WAR PROFITEERING may be the second oldest profession, and as with the first, most would prefer to look away from its contribution to the economy. Carolyn Nordstrom’s Shadows of War forces us to take a hard look at the economic realities of the international networks created by the human swine who profit from conflict and its aftermath.

Nordstrom uses ethnography to expose extra-state activities she calls shadows, "the complex sets of economic and political linkages that move outside formally recognized state-based channels." An anthropologist who does her fieldwork by living within communities of violence around the globe, she skillfully builds trust and rapport among various elements of these societies. This gives her access to many systems of profit usually hidden from public scrutiny.

The early chapters attempt to put a human face on the suffering from war. Most of Nordstrom’s anecdotal evidence comes from pre—September 11 war-torn areas such as Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Angola. In the larger setting, "one-third of the world’s countries are involved in some sort of political violence" and "two-thirds of the world’s security forces routinely violate human rights." The United Nations (UN) estimates that there are currently 300,000 children serving as soldiers, and 90 percent of casualties in today’s conflicts are civilians.

It is a world, Nordstrom points out, that is very good for business. "Trillions of dollars and millions of people" operate "outside of formal legal reckoning." The UN estimates the annual value of the illicit drug and arms trade at $500 billion each. There is an ever-growing market for exotic torture devices, and 130 countries now seek profit from the production of land mines.

In addition to activities that fund and perpetuate war, these shadow profit networks include corporate crime and the unregulated sex and pornography "industries." Trafficking in people is also extremely lucrative, as is circumventing sanctions.

"The world’s economies and politics" depend on these unsavory extra-state enterprises that, Nordstrom argues, are purposely kept invisible. Italy’s extra-state economy is estimated to be as much as 50 percent of its GDP. The estimate for the U.S. is as high as 30 percent.

The economy of war-devastated countries such as Angola can be as much as 90 percent informal, so the unofficial sector clearly comprises much more than the activities of criminal parasites. Indeed, Nordstrom argues that an informal economy is essential to redevelopment efforts in such countries. Black market economies often determine currency rates, and unregulated banking systems have processed "legitimate" profits and laundered illegitimate ones for centuries. The movement of funds through these systems is often "faster and more reliable" than regular banking transactions.

The book excels at tracing complicated and far-ranging trails of profit, such as the path of a smuggled illegal weapon from its point of origin to its use on a field of conflict. The weapon may begin somewhere in a profitable weapons factory in a major cosmopolitan center. These industries provide legal employment in formal economies, as do all the players in the transportation networks that carry the weapon to its ultimate destination. The diamonds smuggled out on the return trip represent a connection of a different sort. Because of links like these, Nordstrom says that a man in Sri Lanka who was "burned to death in his bullock cart…lies within a web of…global connections…as indicative of war, and as nameless, as he is."

The line between a UN aid worker, a smuggler, and a soldier becomes blurred in the shadows. An anonymous pilot tells Nordstrom that he flew "five or six runs from dawn to dark to get essentials to starving bombed-out people…and weapons and supplies to the other side at night." He spoke admirably of the "businessman" who ran the chartered plane company playing both sides of the conflict. "He’s the one who got food and medicine to those people on the front lines."

In a brief postscript added early in the current war in Iraq, Nordstrom acknowledges with foreboding the beginning of a new era of endless war. It is also the beginning of new power struggles over who will control the wealth that crosses state borders.

The only hope for Nordstrom seems to lie in bringing the shadows to light. "To leave [extra-state networks] in the shadows is to allow them to retain untold power."

Nordstrom frequently uses the forward slash in words such as "il/licit" "il/legitimate," and "il/legal" to illustrate the lack of boundaries between formal and informal, state and extra-state, activities. The international non-governmental aid workers she praises for their tireless efforts stay busy carrying out bags of diamonds by night. No amount of sunlight can stop the corruption in economies, state or extra-state, driven by an insane drive for profits. Just as it’s important to recognize that much of the informal sector is constructive, it’s important to see how much of the state-sanctioned activity of capitalism–in proliferating deadly arms for money, in withholding medical care, in poisoning workers and the environment–would be considered criminal activity in any rationally-organized system. The crimes done in capitalism’s shadows reflect the ones that are done in the light of day.

Anti-Imperial Essays

Ariel Dorfman
OTHER SEPTEMBERS, MANY AMERICAS: Selected Provocations 1980—2004
Seven Stories Press, 2004

252 pages $15


LIKE STEPPING stones across the river of forgetfulness that is channeled through our lives by the mainstream media, the essays in Ariel Dorfman’s Other Septembers, Many Americas span the history of imperialism in the Americas with elegant prose and unrelenting honesty.

Dorfman credits the events of September 11, 2001, with precipitating this collection of "provocations," but he is ever mindful of "other Septembers, other Americas."

"I have been through this before," Dorfman remarks at the outset, tying the attack on the Twin Towers in New York to the September 11, 1973, coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende–tying the deaths of the 3,000 occupants of the World Trade Center to the deaths of the tens of thousands of Chilean activists, intellectuals, and ordinary people under the Pinochet government, a government supported and informed by the CIA and more than one U.S. administration.

In more than forty essays, speeches, reviews, and poems, Dorfman moves back and forth over history, drawing apparently disparate events and their victims together as if suturing shut the lips of a wound.

September 11, the day that "we Americans" experienced "the terror and victimhood that so many other inhabitants of this scarred planet have had to wade through day after day since birth" is put into historical context with careful stitches: "Never before had Americans been asked to imagine themselves so deeply and distressingly a part of the rest of humanity."

Dorfman–whose various exiles have bounced him from Argentina to Brooklyn to Chile and back to the United States after the Pinochet coup–offers a uniquely bicultural perspective on subjects from imperialism to video games. No one is left out of Dorfman’s global vision, and no one escapes responsibility: Those not directly responsible for the current state of the world are responsible for recognizing its failings and not acting to change them.

In a commencement address at American University, Dorfman details the world as it is–"at this moment that I speak, a bomb is tearing apart somebody’s father"–and then calls on his audience to commit themselves to making change:

What a privilege it is that you will soon find yourselves in a position to do something about these troubles.… A complex and interesting life may indeed await us, as long as we wish to do something about the suffering of others.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Dorfman seems to see ahead to the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib when he notes that

At the moment when the United States is demanding that Slobodan Milosevic be extradited to the Hague to face judgment for his possible participation in brutalities carried out by his troops, it would be the epitome of hypocrisy to overlook or not scrutinize similar offenses committed by the U.S. military.

But the scandal he is discussing belongs in fact to the past, to recently revealed truths about U.S. actions in Vietnam. As Dorfman himself points out, no dividing line can be drawn; the crimes of the past are repeated and repeatedly forgotten, producing, "[n]ot only the multiplication of terror, but the incessant forgetting of that terror. Yesterday is today."

In addition to pieces directly addressing political issues, Dorfman examines the intimacies and intricacies of U.S. popular culture, revealing the ways in which leisure activities contribute to popular support for the government’s imperialist adventures. According to Dorfman, video games teach us to accept isolation and failure, while a novelization of E.T. demonstrates how to be, and be around, an "acceptable" alien immigrant. And all the while the message is never ignore, deny, or refuse but rather explore, understand, and resist.

Unfortunately, Dorfman’s anti-imperialism is not always consistent. While he rejects the atrocities committed in the name of the "war on terror," he accepts the Clintonian logic of "humanitarian intervention" in Kosovo. And while he insists on activity from all, his suggestions about what form that action might take are more poetic than practical.

Nevertheless, this book is well worth reading, both as primer and reminder of what states do in the name of progress and democracy.

Two Views of Political Islam

Azar Nafisi
Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books
Random House, 2003

384 pages $14

Stephen Kinzer
All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
Wiley, 2003

272 pages $15


ANY BOOK written about Iran for an American audience appears today in the charged atmosphere of the U.S. "war on terror." Reading Lolita in Tehran and All the Shah’s Men are both recent national bestsellers that, in very different ways, attempt to comment on the relationship between the West and Iran.

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita is a personal tale of her life as a professor of English literature in revolutionary Iran that, according to the book’s jacket sleeve, offers a "rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives" under the Islamic Republic.

Educated in Europe and the U.S., Nafisi returned home in the midst of the Iranian Revolution to begin teaching at Tehran University, one of the most important battlegrounds in the struggle over what direction the revolution would take. As the Islamists consolidated control and began to force a new set of laws and practices on the population, she was among the section of faculty that resisted the imposition of the Islamic dress code and the purging of the curriculum of all things "Western."

Nafisi weaves together the backdrop of the tumultuous events of the revolution with the debates over literature and society that filled her classes. Her decision to teach The Great Gatsby comes under fire from Islamist student groups who object to its portrayal of adultery. In response, she puts the novel itself on trial, with an Islamist student as prosecutor and herself as the sole witness for the defense.

She was eventually fired for refusing to wear the veil. More than fifteen years later, she organized a clandestine literature class around the relationship between fiction and reality. In her living room, she and eight of her most dedicated women students read books banned for being un-Islamic, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Discussions of Western literature often turned to their own experiences, eventually taking up their own sufferings as well as their moments of joy and dreams for the future.

For Nafisi, the novel is an inherently democratic form, and she sees the new regime’s war on the canon of European and American literature, "my golden emissaries from another world," as symbolic of the crushing of the democratic aspirations and intentions of broad sections of the revolutionary movement. "An absurd fictionality ruled our lives," she explains as women were forced to re-make themselves, at least publicly, in the image of the new regime. She writes:

Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love and listening to forbidden music.

Nafisi vividly describes the battles between various factions of the revolution. She shows that initially the majority of people wanted a secular democracy, and she was among those who demonstrated for it. As she explains, "We wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change–we were demanding more rights, not fewer." She rightly criticizes the Left for supporting the reactionary Islamic wing only to face massive repression under the regime they had helped to power.

The major weakness is that Nafisi avoids any criticism of the U.S. role in Iran and, therefore, cannot explain the revolution’s anti-American character. The Iranian Revolution was a national liberation movement against U.S. imperialism, which had turned Iran into a neocolony and ruled indirectly through its puppet, the Shah. By leaving out the entire context for the revolution, Nafisi can cast revolutionaries as naïve at best and raving fanatics at worst. This is how she paraphrases a student who argues with her to drop her resistance to wearing the veil:

What was more important, to fight against the satanic influence of Western imperialists or to obstinately hold on to a personal preference that created division among the ranks of the revolutionaries?… One had the feeling, in revolutionary and intellectual circles, that they spoke from a script, playing characters from an Islamized version of a Soviet novel.

Because she never admits that a Western imperial presence–which forced intolerable living conditions on Iranians–was actually at the root of the revolution, we are left with little more than caricatures of irrational Muslims who seem to simply hate democracy and women. She offers no other understanding of why the Islamists used anti-Western rhetoric or why they were able to rise to power.

It’s true that most Iranians who fought against U.S.-imposed tyranny were betrayed by the ultimate outcome of the revolution and have suffered brutally under its repression. But Nafisi makes it seem as if all those who attempted to change things through revolution had made a grave error from the start. She imagines telling Mr. Bahari, the leader of the powerful Muslim student group:

Be careful what you wish for. Be careful with your dreams; one day they may just come true. Could my former comrades have predicted that one day they would be tried in a Revolutionary Court, tortured and killed as traitors and spies?… I can tell you with complete confidence that they could not. Not in their wildest dreams.

By not mentioning the destructive role the U.S. played in Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran does nothing to undermine the assumptions behind the current U.S. targeting of Iran and even reinforces the idea that the U.S., not the Iranian people, can liberate Iranians from their oppressors. The book is worth reading, however, for its descriptions of the early days of the revolution and for its insights into the experiences of a people who have suffered through eight years of war and twenty-five years of life under the Islamic Republic.

To understand why the Iranian Revolution saw the West as its enemy, turn to All the Shah’s Men, a gripping, detailed-filled account of how Iran was plundered by British and then American imperialism for more than a hundred years.

In his work, which reads like a novel, Stephen Kinzer tells the story of how the U.S. organized the overthrow the first democratically elected government the Iranian people had ever created. In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, leader of the National Front coalition, was elected prime minister and attempted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which played a role much like that of the East India Company in India–it was the institution through which the British colonized Iran. In order to overthrow this immensely popular government, British and American agents had to buy off the press, hire gangs of thugs to physically attack Mossadegh and his supporters, try to frame Mossadegh as a communist, and strangle the economy. They tried several times before they succeeded. Reading about these conspiracies and intrigues one can understand why the former U.S. embassy in Iran is today officially called the U.S. "Den of Espionage."

While the account of U.S. and British plotting is fascinating, Kinzer also describes the deplorable conditions Iranians were forced to endure so their colonizers could thrive. Abadan, where the Anglo-Persian Oil Company built the largest refinery in the world, was "a classic colonial enclave" with "private Persian Clubs, where uniformed waiters served British executives," and "tight-packed workers’ quarters" where water fountains were marked "Not for Iranians." As Kinzer elaborates, Iranian laborers

lived in slums and long dormitories with only primitive sanitation. Shops, cinemas, buses, and other amenities were off limits to them. The air was heavy with sulfur fumes, a constant reminder of the vast wealth that was pouring from Iranian soil into Anglo-Persian’s coffers.

The Iranian government was supposed to get just 16 percent of the profits from the oil industry, but the British cooked the books and stole as much as they could get away with. The First World War made it easy to see why. As Lord Curzon famously put it, the Allies "floated to victory on a wave of oil." Iranian oil was not just a valuable source of revenue for the British. It was central to maintaining the British Empire throughout the world against other European competitors and aspiring independence movements in the colonies themselves.

Key to enforcing such extreme conditions of exploitation was the brutality of Reza Shah, followed by that of his son Mohammad Reza Shah. But since both father and son were brought to the throne by the British, it was clear who was ultimately in charge. The Americans–a junior partner to the British until the early 1950s–had a hand in helping with the repression. It was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf–whose son would later command "Operation Desert Storm" against Iraq in 1991–who "quietly trained a secret security squad that became the scourge of leftists and other dissidents."

The most inspiring parts of All the Shah’s Men are the chapters on the development of the national liberation movement that rose despite the repression and succeeded in nationalizing the oil company, kicking out the Europeans and overthrowing the monarchy. Though Kinzer focuses on Mossadegh as an individual, he also provides glimpses into the broad democratic upsurge that shook the nation. Oil workers staged strikes against reductions in wages and horrible living conditions, with demands spilling over into calls for nationalization of the oil company. Not unlike the situation in Venezuela today, it was the support of masses of ordinary workers that gave Mossadegh his mandate–and their actions in the streets that enabled him to stay in power as long as he did.

Kinzer provides a wealth of primary sources to show that the British and Americans were worried about the implications for oppressed people everywhere if Mossadegh and all that he represented were not crushed. Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that what was happening in Iran was "a very deep revolution, nationalist in character which was sweeping not only Iran but the whole Middle East." A CBS anchorman argued that if Britain went ahead with an invasion of Iran to take back control over Iran’s oil, it might "stir all the Southern Asians to a rebellion against the Western foreigner and cause serious trouble for both Britain and the United States."

Mossadegh traveled to the United Nations to make his case for the Iranian people’s right to be free of the yoke of British imperialism.

This was an era before Castro, before Sukarno, before Nkrumah and Lumumba. The voice of poor countries had seldom been raised in such rarefied chambers. Mossadegh’s would be the first that most Westerners had ever heard.

He captured the imagination and respect of so much of the world that Time magazine named him the 1951 Man of the Year.

When the British were thrown out of Iran, they began pressuring the U.S. to sponsor a coup. President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was not convinced. One weakness is the way Kinzer makes it seem as if Truman’s reluctance came from an aversion to imperialism that his successor, Republican President Eisenhower, did not have. But elsewhere in the same book, Kinzer explains that it was Truman who founded the CIA for exactly the kind of subversive activity it undertook in Iran.

Kinzer is best when he his telling the story of what actually happens rather than analyzing from hindsight how things could have gone differently. In the last chapter he faults Mossadegh for not compromising with the oil company and echoes colonial prejudices when he questions whether Iranians were "ready for democracy" in 1953.

Overall, however, All the Shah’s Men gives a clear view of the roots of the Iranian Revolution, plus a close look at the limitations of the politics of progressive nationalism. Most of all, the book is a stinging exposé of how the U.S. bludgeoned the democratic hopes of the Iranian people, a timely story as the U.S. threatens a new intervention today.

Can the Global Market Save the Enviroment?

Jack M. Hollander

THE REAL ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy>

University of California Press, 2003

235 pages $17


IN THE Real Environmental Crisis, Jack Hollander tries to paint an optimistic picture of the Earth’s future. While rightly criticizing alarmist views of some environmentalists who believe that technology itself is the source of all environmental degradation, he bends the stick too far in the opposite direction, claiming that the condition of the environment is on the upswing due to globalization and the continued economic development of the Third World.

According to Hollander, as poor nations "develop" and move towards affluence, their people become more sensitive to environmental issues and create the economic and technological means to reverse industrial environmental problems such as air and water pollution. His overall message is clear: "An environmentally sustainable future is within reach for the entire world provided that affluence and democracy replace poverty and tyranny as the dominant human condition."

Throughout the book, Hollander maintains his optimism, saying that,

Globalization will play a major role in bringing increased affluence and democratic choice to billions of people.… I take it as a given that in this century family incomes in most of the developing world will continue to move upward, as they are now doing.

Despite his main premise that the worlds of the poor and the affluent are very different, he provides no class analysis to help understand the root of the differences and ignores the existence of poverty within affluent nations. As a result, his solution is simply for the rich countries to assist poor countries in any way possible, since it is in their best interests (environmentally and economically) to do so.

But Hollander completely ignores the role that developed countries, such as the U.S., have played in contributing to the "poverty and tyranny" of the developing countries. For example, in a discussion of sub-Saharan Africa, he first talks about the harshness of the environment and how that has stunted economic development. He then goes on to say:

Just as important are the centuries of slave trade and European colonialism (the latter ending only a generation ago) which sapped the land of its people and undermined its communities, institutions, and values and left an almost total vacuum of indigenous leadership and democratic tradition.… The callous policies of many nondemocratic sub-Saharan regimes have also contributed to the environmental deterioration and social breakdowns, including unemployment and inequitable food distribution, that cause famines.

What Hollander leaves out is the role that imperialist powers ("affluent" countries, as he continually refers to them) have played in supporting undemocratic regimes throughout the world and the role of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in imposing austerity measures that contribute to famine, deforestation, and other environmental problems.

In fact, countries that are under the thumb of these institutions have been forced to produce more exportable cash crops and fewer food crops, contributing directly to the maintenance of hunger and poverty.

There are plenty of other examples of Hollander’s "blind eye" toward the role of imperialism in creating environmental crises. In a brief section entitled "The Environmental Legacy of Vietnam," he decries the distrust of the American public in the nuclear power establishment, but says nothing about the use of napalm and Agent Orange by the U.S. to destroy the environment in Vietnam.

In his chapter on global warming, Hollander even turns his "blind eye" toward the environmental crisis itself. Despite the consensus of most scientists that global climate change is occurring at an unprecedented rate and that human activity is partly to blame, he claims that the effect of human activities is probably negligible, that humans may actually reap more benefit than harm from global warming (after all, many people prefer warmer climates), and that we can simply adapt to the changes. He thereby lets industrial polluters off the hook.

There is no denying that poverty is a significant problem for much of the world’s population, and that the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation. Hollander is also correct in taking the blame away from individual consumers within developed countries. But his faith in globalization and imperialist, affluent world powers is misguided at best. If we want to eradicate poverty and clean up the environment we can’t rely on the forces of the free market, a system that puts profits before the lives of ordinary people.

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