www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 51, January–February 2007


Who messed up this perfectly good war?

State of Denial
Bush at War, Part III
Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2006
526 pages • $30

Review by BEN DALBEY

SOMEONE HAS screwed up Iraq, and in Bob Woodward’s last installment of his Bush at War trilogy, pretty much everyone in the U.S. administration gets a chance to play “the blame game.”

Even the series itself—from the initial hagiographic Bush at War, to the more critical second book, Plan of Attack, which disclosed the fact that Bush was planning and pushing for an invasion of Iraq only months after the September 11 attack, to the current and uniformly damning State of Denial—can be seen as a chronicle of the process by which an initially enthusiastic Washington establishment has abandoned Bush and his sinking, burning ship.

There is plenty of blame to go around. There is the bureaucratic dysfunction of the U.S. government, which resulted in things like the supposed new leader of a “free Iraq,” Iyad Allawi, flying around for several months in a plane emblazoned with a gigantic American flag and “United States Air Force” on the side because no one could figure out who was responsible for getting him a different one.

There is the stay-in-power-at-all-costs focus of the White House, which meant that teams working on Baghdad’s electrical system were resorting to burning fuel oil in the city’s generators in the lead up to the 2004 U.S. elections, thus allowing the administration to claim “more lights are on in Baghdad,” but resulting in the collapse of the system a few months later.

There is the well-documented and very real political infighting between the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department that made any decision or implementation an essentially Herculean task.

There is the complete absence of any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq—and the fact that people like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney knowingly used outdated lists of former weapons sites, satellite photos of people loading boxes of “either WMDs or children’s bicycles” into trucks bound for Syria, and statements from informants known to be fabricators to make the case for war.

There is the imperial arrogance of L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (known variously as “Can’t Provide Anything” or “Children Playing Adults”). Woodward describes how Bremer managed to alienate even the Iraqi expatriates and CIA assets hand-picked by the U.S. to run Iraq as a puppet government with his demand that he would personally make every decision about every aspect of the “new free Iraq.”
There is George Bush. Neither a pawn of Cheney nor the proverbial village idiot, but an American prince—an “intellectually lazy” ideologue who has never doubted his right to rule, and who even in cabinet meetings never strayed from his script of generic campaign-trail statements about a “plan for victory” and the need to “stay the course.”

Woodward interviewed Bush four times for his three books, but the last interview was in December 2003. All subsequent requests were denied. In the 2003 interview, it took Woodward more than five minutes of face-to-face, direct questioning to get Bush to admit what everyone already knew—that no WMDs had yet been found in Iraq. As Bush said at the time, “I’m probably sounding incredibly defensive all of a sudden.”

But mostly, there is Donald Rumsfeld. Woodward, through extensive interviews with Rumsfeld and others, paints a picture of a Machiavellian egomaniac on a mission to consolidate his own power, with nothing but contempt for every other human on the planet.

Lamenting the fact that the U.S. is a democracy (“The current system of government makes competence next to impossible”), Rumsfeld complained to Woodward that “there’s something about the body politic in the United States that they can accept the enemy killing innocent men, women and children and cutting off people’s heads, but have zero tolerance for some soldier who does something he shouldn’t do.”

Woodward’s book is focused on the situation “inside the beltway,” which now includes the U.S. fortress in Baghdad, dubbed “the Green Zone.” This orientation means that there are some important questions that State of Denial does not ask or answer, and some problematic assumptions underlying Woodward’s basic thesis—which is that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was driven by “idealism.”

According to Woodward, the invasion was a noble endeavor to bring democracy to the Middle East that was poorly executed. Woodward repeatedly emphasizes the idea that Rumsfeld’s focus on “transformation” of the U.S. military into a smaller, more modern fighting force meant that not enough troops were sent in to occupy the country after the initial invasion. However, no one explains why the “shock and awe” bombing that began the invasion was not “overwhelming” enough, or how a few hundred thousand more troops trained to kill and destroy would have been more successful agents for democracy.

The second and related assumption that seeps through Woodward’s work is that to the extent that Iraqis exist, they are either “wily” opportunists duping the U.S. to serve their own greedy ends, children who don’t understand or want democracy, or terrorists.
Describing one White House meeting, for example, Woodward writes,

[National Security Advisor Steven] Hadley said that Iraq was like “an abused child,” and the U.S. would have to continue to act as its caretaker. Rumsfeld said strongly and repeatedly, the Iraqis need to be given the chance to fail and fall on their faces, and only then would they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and come up with solutions. He used the analogy of a parent trying to teach a child to ride a bike. They had to take off the training wheels and remove their hand from the back of the seat or they’d wind up with a 40-year-old who could not ride a bicycle. Condoleezza Rice was between Hadley and Rumsfeld, once remarking, “Let’s let them try to pedal on their own, but we better be there to catch them.”

In another National Security Council meeting in 2005, Woodward writes that “the discussion turned to the caliber of people who would be available in Iraq [to lead a government], and general frustration was voiced once again about the absence of a Washington or Jefferson, let alone a John Adams or lesser lights.”

Woodward barely recognizes that ordinary Iraqis oppose the occupation—and in no way hints that such opposition might be justifiable. In fact, while most of the book has Woodward quoting or paraphrasing others, it is Woodward himself who describes the anti-occupation insurgency as “the forces of terror in Iraq.” Elsewhere, he describes the anti-occupation Shiite leader Moqtada al Sadr as a “warlord.”

To explain why sectarian violence remains high, Woodward paraphrases the thoughts of current national intelligence director and former U.S. “ambassador” to Iraq, John Negroponte:

The key was that Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug who had become the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, had been successful in getting people pissed off at each other. In some respects [Zarqawi’s bombings were] like throwing a fist at someone in a crowded bar that happened to be filled with permanent enemies.… Iraq was now much more fertile ground for sectarian violence. Zarqawi had created that fertile ground.

Nowhere does Woodward mention that, for the last three years, U.S. commanders recruited and used the Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite militias to kill Sunnis and fight what they viewed as a Sunni-based insurgency. He does not mention that Shiite death squads such as the “Wolf Brigade” were intentionally incorporated by the U.S. into Interior Ministry operations. Nor does he mention that Negroponte’s primary “accomplishment” before his Iraq appointment was serving as a front man for U.S.-funded death squads in the dirty war against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s.

The U.S. did not drop ten times the amount of munitions used in “Gulf War I” in the first days of the 2003 invasion in an “idealistic” effort to bring democracy to Iraq. The Iraqis are not suffering the proportional equivalent of a 9/11 every week so that they can be free. The U.S. has tried very hard to put together a “pro-Western,” undemocratic, ethnically divided puppet government powerful enough to rule the Iraqi people. They have failed—not because of “poor execution”—but because the Iraqi people themselves have fought back.

Although he doesn’t seem to know it, Woodward is taking a more critical look at Bush’s motivations and abilities because the Iraqi people have created the “quagmire.” It is the Iraqi people who have prevented the U.S. from consolidating control over their country and going on—as Bush pitched it to Jay Garner in 2003—to “do Iran.” These are not terrorists, but mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who are struggling to survive in spite of the best efforts of the most arrogant, ignorant, incompetent, and powerful group of people in the world.

Socialism or Barbarism?

John Bellamy Foster
NAKED IMPERIALISM: The U.S. Pursuit of Global Dominance
Monthly Review Press, 2006
176 pages $16


NAKED IMPERIALISM brings together a collection of editorials originally written by John Bellamy Foster for the Marxist journal, Monthly Review. They span a period from the immediate aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to January 2005. Together they attempt to explain and defend the classical Marxist theory of imperialism and apply the theory to understand the current state of U.S. imperialism and the Bush administration’s debacle in Iraq.

Although some of the articles were written more than five years ago, before the administration had even announced its intentions to invade and occupy Iraq, they remain remarkably current; and it is instructive to look at them in light of the current debates within the ruling class about how best to salvage U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Foster attempts to place the shift in U.S. foreign policy that took place after September 11—towards preemptive warfare, unilateralism, and direct occupation—within an overall attempt by the U.S. ruling class to maintain and strengthen its economic and political hegemony in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Drawing heavily on the writings of Luxemburg, Lenin, and the former editors of Monthly Review, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, Foster argues that imperialism is the result of capitalism’s natural tendency to expand internationally, coupled with its organization into competing nation-states. Nation-states compete with one another within an increasingly international market; and they do so using both economic and military weapons.

Using this as his foundation, Foster tries to put the policies of the Bush administration into context, within the larger debates of the U.S. ruling class. In particular, Foster argues, the U.S. ruling class has been preoccupied with two related questions.

First, how to overcome the defeats inflicted in the 1970s: the defeat of U.S. forces in Vietnam, which led to the limiting of the U.S.’s ability to intervene militarily; and the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran, which led to a realignment within the oil-rich Middle East—weakening U.S. influence in the region and leading directly to U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Second, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. ruling class has found itself the dominant political and economic power in the world. With the Cold War ended, the U.S. ruling class now set out to protect and extend its dominance and prevent the rise of any global competitor.

Foster shows that this view of the post-Cold War world was virtually unanimously accepted within the ruling class—across party lines. It is not the project simply of the neoconservatives, but of the whole ruling class.

He is quick to point out that there are likely to be debates about how best to carry out this project, but the end is accepted by all: global dominance. He writes:

It is possible that given time the U.S. ruling class will split over some of these issues: the extent of the militarization; the number of countries that will be targeted in this war; and the infringements on the freedom of U.S. citizens.… But these are questions of degree. The U.S. power elite appears solidly behind a global expansion of the U.S. military role...
There will be no solution forthcoming from within the ranks of the ruling class that offers peace and stability.

However, Foster also examines the limits of U.S. power. He argues that the invasion of Iraq has led to a classic case of imperial overreach. “Victory”—that is, the U.S. dominance of the Middle East via control of a stable proxy state in Iraq—no longer appears possible. However, using the example of Vietnam, Foster is quick to note that the impossibility of victory does not mean that the U.S. ruling class will accept defeat. Vietnam was declared “un-winnable” in 1968. The U.S. didn’t withdraw its last forces until 1975, after the deaths of an additional two million people.

A solution in Iraq that benefits the majority of Iraqis or Americans will not emerge from the U.S. ruling class but from the resistance to it, in Iraq, around the world, and in the United States. However, that alone will not end the drive to war and destruction:

Daniel Singer wrote at the end of his Whose Millennium? “Socialism may be a historical possibility, or even necessary to eliminate the evils of capitalism, but this does not mean that it will inevitably take its place.” We should heed his warning. The choice that we confront and that we will ultimately decide through our struggles is whether “socialism” or “the ruin of imperialistic barbarism” is to constitute the future of humankind.

A new day in history

Mark Steel
A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution

Haymarket Books, 2006
293 pages $14


BRITISH COMEDIAN and writer Mark Steel has given us a vivid and hilarious history of the French Revolution. People are probably not used to seeing the words “hilarious history” printed next to the words “French Revolution,” but it’s true.

Steel provides portraits of the individuals and social classes who fought on all sides of the barricades. Steel’s humor originates not from the kind of cheap shots historians sometimes take, but is clearly written by someone who has actually taken part in movements himself. His description of Robespierre is a perfect example.

From every contemporary account, it seems that Robespierre was utterly single-minded, driven and committed to whatever task was before him. He was probably the sort of activist who would ring you at one in the morning and say, “I want to speak to you because I feel you’re not convinced about the political importance of changing the meeting night from Tuesday to Wednesday.”

In contrast, Danton is a wild man “whose image suggests that he drank, caroused and debauched his way through the whole event.” Steel imagines the Danton-Robespierre collaboration as a Hollywood movie trailer: “Max liked the Social Contract—Georges liked social drinking. One was incorruptible—the other was irredeemable. But they were stuck with each other in Georges and Max’s Wild Weekend in Paris.”

Steel takes aim at the vicious (and often, just stupid) crap that’s printed year after year about the French Revolution. There is quite a lot of prejudice to remove. For instance, official and even “celebrated” histories of the revolution would lead us to believe that the revolutionary journalist Marat was “toadlike in shape, marked by bulging eyes and a flabby mouth.” Another: “contemporaries were divided on which kind of bird Marat most resembled.” Another: “his eyes were not aligned.” Another: “Marat is easily judged. He was not sane.”

But, Steel argues, beauty or sanity aside, how can we explain why he was so immensely popular?

Of every character in the revolution, Marat was demonstrably the most popular, largely because of his journalism. When he was acquitted following a trial, he was paraded through the streets by thousands. And his death was followed by almost Diana-style grief. So how did an insane unaligned-eyed… man manage that?

The revolutionary process challenged old ideas. For centuries, people believed they were born into their place in society, and that the royal family members were literally descendants of God. France was officially divided into three legal categories, or “estates”: the nobility, the clergy, and everybody else. Steel explains how the growing bourgeoisie (part of the “everybody else,” or the “Third Estate”) were frustrated by this stagnant social order as they began to exploit and promote developments in science and technology. “They began to outstrip the nobles in wealth, but they remained inferior in status…. You could be the richest man in Bordeaux, but if you didn’t have the ear of the King, you couldn’t even get a fishing license.”

Steel discusses the impact of books like Rousseau’s Social Contract, or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In 1791 a pamphlet called The Rights of Women appeared, which adapted Rousseau’s arguments to the situation of women and called for a “social contract” between men and women to replace the institution of marriage. The day that the Republic was declared, September 22, 1792, was anointed as the first day of a new calendar (appropriate, since this was seen as the beginning of a new era for humanity), the first day of “Year One.” The Revolutionary Assembly wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Man” inspired by the American Declaration of Independence.

The King tried to escape France but was discovered by a postman, Drouet. When the King was brought back to Paris, posters told people to gather and watch. “Drouet,” Steel writes,

was an instant hero, riding at the front of the procession, a symbol of this new world in which the plight of a king could be determined by the actions of a postman. He was even elected as a delegate to the Assembly. However, every time he spoke he went on at some length about his heroics of that night, until hardly anyone would spend any time with him.

On the French-colonized island of San Domingo, slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture took advantage of the French Revolution to throw off their shackles and overthrow their masters. Steel describes how

three delegates—an ex-slave, a mulatto, and a white man—were sent from San Domingo to join the Convention in Paris. On their first day, the President of the Convention officially embraced them, and the next day the ex-slave, Bellay, spoke of the need to officially abolish slavery…. A motion was moved that “when drawing up the constitution we paid no attention to the unhappy negroes. Let us repair the wrong. Let us proclaim the liberty of the negroes.”

Steel points out that a famous 900-page history of the French Revolution fails to mention the Haitian Revolution at all.

The triumph of liberty in the early days of the revolution suffered many reversals. The famous Terror, unleashed by the revolutionaries to eliminate royalist conspirators, eventually turned on the revolution itself. The public use of the guillotine became a daily affair. “[T]he crowd became weary of the guillotine,” Steel explains, “not necessarily from fear or lack of enthusiasm for the Republic, but because the rate of heads, and the kind of people losing them, were signs that the virtuous nation they’d fought so hard for was slipping away.” The King’s head fell beneath its blade, but in time, so did Robespierre’s. This dynamic is the result not of some failing of human nature, but of the class nature of the revolution.

Part of the problem for the leaders of the revolution was that they represented a bourgeoisie who were a minority of the population. The Montagnards [one political faction] were a minority within that minority. Now even that minority was fragmenting, so each faction became gradually aware that, for an even smaller minority to impose its will, it would need to eliminate the other factions decisively.

Napoleon ultimately prevented the implosion of French society by establishing a dictatorship. The expansion of freedom and liberty was thus reversed in many ways, and the slave rebellion in San Domingo was crushed for a time. But it was not a return to the old order. Instead, it was the birth pangs of a new order—based on exploitation and oppression, to be sure, but in a different way. And the revolution spread ideas about equality and freedom that still haunt the world’s rulers today, because those ideals still inspire ordinary people. Steel more than accomplishes his goal of revealing the career of these ideals—and cracks some pretty funny jokes in the process.

Palestine’s resistance

Rashid Khalidi
THE IRON CAGE: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood
Beacon Press, 2006
352 pages, $24.95

Review by AARON HESS

ISRAEL’S WAR on the Palestinian people—fully backed by Washington—escalated to a terrifying new level after Palestinians voted for a new government last January.

The vote for Hamas to head the Palestinian legislature represented a rejection of a chimerical U.S.-Israeli-controlled “peace process” that has led to greater Israeli power over Palestinians’ land and lives. More than half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza today live in poverty, imprisoned by an elaborate matrix of Israeli control—curfews and checkpoints, “targeted” assassinations and jailings, house demolitions and daily bombings.
U.S.-backed international sanctions have crippled basic infrastructure.

The severity of the crisis has renewed debate among activists and scholars about the lessons to be learned from the history of the Palestinian struggle. Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi’s new book, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, is an important contribution to this debate.

The strongest sections of the book demonstrate how powerful the forces opposed to Palestinian statehood have always been.

Khalidi rightly identifies Zionism—the ideology of an exclusivist Jewish state—as a form of “settler-colonialism.” From its beginnings, the Zionist movement collaborated with imperial powers—first Britain, then the U.S.—to build a new nation-state aimed at displacing and excluding the Palestinian Arab majority. The “iron cage” is an apt metaphor for the subjugation of Palestinians under settler-colonial rule.

The first walls of the cage were built by Britain, which designed an international legal framework in 1922, the British Mandate, to control historic Palestine. Racism was thoroughly imbedded in British plans for Palestine. Khalidi cites a 1919 memo written by British Foreign Secretary Balfour stating, “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land.”

The British Empire brought its time-tested experience of colonial rule—in Ireland, India, Egypt, and beyond—to bear in Palestine. The British strategy of divide-and-conquer included co-opting elite collaborators, including former nationalists like Haj Amin al-Husseini, to run communal and Islamic religious institutions with little or no precedent in Palestinian history.

As Khalidi explains, “those leading Palestinian figures who accepted such posts were obliged to refrain from openly opposing the Mandate, its commitment to support a Jewish national home, and the concomitant denial of Palestinian self-determination.”

But while the wealthy Palestinian elite tied their fate to British power, peasants and workers organized resistance in the 1920s and 1930s. Khalidi discusses popular radical newspapers like Filastin (“Palestine” in Arabic), which argued that the anti-colonial struggle had to be built on the power of the poor—publishing articles with titles like, “Whoever humiliates the worker, humiliates the nation.”

In 1936, a massive general strike and campaign of armed resistance shook British rule to its core. Khalidi quotes a British military commander in August 1938: “The situation was such that civil administration of the country was, to all practical purposes, non-existent.”

The revolt was only broken after three years of brutal repression, with Britain deploying 20,000 troops—”over 10 percent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled,” Khalidi writes. He also argues that this defeat was aided by the intervention of Arab states and Palestinian elites, who put themselves at the head of the struggle only to thwart its militancy.

The defeat of the 1936–39 revolt fragmented Palestinian society, weakening its ability to resist the Zionist militias’ 1948 war of terror, which drove 750,000 Palestinians from their land and laid the basis for the foundation of Israel as an apartheid state.

The Iron Cage is not a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but its focus on the politics and leadership of the Palestinian movement will be accessible to readers familiar with the conflict’s basic history.

The last two chapters assess the internal strengths and weaknesses of the Palestinian movement since the mid-1960s, and what a just political settlement would involve.

Unfortunately, Khalidi’s incisive critique of the role of elites in the pre-1948 struggle doesn’t fully carry over to his discussion of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Khalidi rightly argues that widespread hopes in the PLO to win Palestinian statehood were misplaced, due to its failure to effectively confront the “rejectionist stand of Israel and the U.S.” This failure culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords, which consigned the Palestinians to 22 percent of historic Palestine and tasked the PLO-led Palestinian Authority with policing Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

“[L]ong before Oslo,” Khalidi writes, “indeed as early as the 1970s in Lebanon, the PLO had become bureaucratized, and in this process became more and more of a quasi-state and less and less of a national liberation movement.”

But Khalidi places the weight of his critique of the PLO on personalities, such as former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and the tactical failures of their leadership. This emphasis overlooks the deeper class allegiances that led Fatah and the PLO to reject popular struggle and place the preservation of their own power above the liberation struggle.

Like the 1936–39 revolt, the Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, of 1987 and 2000 demonstrated the potential of mass mobilization to shake the “iron cage” and challenge the PLO’s strategy of compromise.

But Khalidi’s focus on the practicality of PLO leadership decisions leads him to ignore dissident left-wing currents in the movement and to endorse some of the PLO’s key concessions, including the abandonment of a secular, democratic state in favor of a “two-state solution”—a solution he recognizes may now be impossible given the massive expansion of Israeli settlements.

The PLO’s and Fatah’s corruption, aversion to mass struggle, and bureaucratized organization aren’t incidental, but are the results of their alignment with the Palestinian business elite and Arab rulers in neighboring countries. Time and again this alignment has isolated the movement from its real allies—the millions of Arab workers and peasants who identify the Palestinian struggle with their own aspirations for democracy, workers’ rights, and land reform.

Khalidi’s book demonstrates the resilience of the Palestinian struggle for liberation against formidable odds. Only a movement that bridges the Palestinian struggle with that of workers and the poor across the Middle East can break the iron cage of imperialism and colonial dispossession.

Race and the death penalty

Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds.
FROM LYNCH MOBS TO THE KILLING STATE: Race and the Death Penalty in America
New York University Press, 2006
320 pages $22


LAST SPRING at Harvard, the newly minted Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice hosted a conference to coincide with the release of a book, provocatively titled From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America. The cover features a blurb by Senator Edward Kennedy (“A must-read”) and praise from law professors (“an important contribution”). As a socio-historical resource, this is surely the case; the book compiles serious essays by scholars who, to their credit, have devoted some—if not a significant portion—of their professional lives to investigating the most egregious injustices of the American criminal justice system.

The book expertly dissects the racist underpinnings of capital punishment while pushing some intellectual boundaries. The question is to what end and for whom has this “important contribution” been made—and reading it does not bring immediate answers.

Co-editors Austin Sarat and Charles Ogletree Jr., start by claiming the link between race and the death penalty “will surprise no one,” and in a sense they’re right. Decades ago, in 1972, the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia, ruling that death sentences were “capriciously, freakishly, and wantonly imposed.” This capriciousness cut starkly racist lines: Of 3,334 people executed for murder prior to Furman, a vastly disproportionate number were Black, especially in Southern states.

But race was not central to the ruling’s prevailing logic. None of the nine separate opinions cited it as their main concern—and despite Justice Potter Stewart’s acknowledgment of apparent bias in capital cases, “racism,” he concluded, “has not been proved.” The decision came down to state statutes—a tenuous victory, since such things can be re-written.

Furman brought executions to a halt. But states amended their death penalty statutes to pass constitutional muster, and four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, capital punishment was reinstated, arbitrariness and racism ostensibly resolved.

Thirty years later, of course, the death penalty is riddled with racism, corruption, and error. But at the time of Furman, there were 629 people on death row in the country. Today, that’s roughly the number of death row prisoners in California alone.

Much of the book is preoccupied less with Furman than with McCleskey v. Kemp—the 1987 ruling perhaps most responsible for codifying racial bias in capital cases. In his article “Discrimination, death, and denial,” Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, shows how McCleskey recognized the racism of the system and left it deliberately intact. The court acknowledged vast racial disparities in the application of Georgia’s death penalty but refused to overturn the law—and refused relief to individuals convicted under the law unless they could prove that racial bias infected their particular case. The court washed its hands of the matter, leaving it to the lawmakers.

But legislators respond to powerful interests. The poor person accused of a crime has no political action committee, no lobby, and often no effective advocate even in the court where his life is at stake.

The decade following McCleskey saw a congressional push to expand the death penalty rather than to address its racist tendencies. An exception was the 1994 Fairness in Death Sentencing Act—or Racial Justice Act—which never got past the Senate and which critics, tellingly, accused of being a death penalty abolitionist bill in disguise. Soon thereafter, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act expanded capital crimes while reducing habeas corpus appeals. As mild efforts were being made to “reform” the system, the death penalty was gaining ground. By the end of 1997, there were 3,269 people on death row.

Talking race reform while expanding capital punishment seems especially dubious, given American history. The original expansion of the death penalty was calculatedly racist: After slavery, new death-eligible crimes were created to maintain white dominance over free Blacks.

The first section of From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State probes this history of systemic racial and social control. Historian Stuart Banner notes that in the mid-1700s, a slave’s revolt against his master and a woman’s murder of her husband were legally equivalent—both punishable by death—and categorized as “petit treason.” Timothy Kaufman-Osborn discusses society’s later “racial contract,” kept intact through extrajudicial lynchings. Specifically, “spectacle lynchings”—where Black victims’ bodies were mutilated, burned, and prominently displayed—were “aimed at communicating the terms of the racial contract,” as violently as possible.
Of course, this history is well documented—try Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America—and no contributor to this book would deny that today’s death penalty extends it. Ultimately the question is not whether to make this part of the argument for abolition, but how to do it—and the conclusions are hazy. According to Kaufman-Osborn, calling the death penalty “legal lynching” today fails as a rhetorical tactic, because of a crucial distinction: spectacle lynchings were, by definition, public events, while today’s executions—primarily via lethal injection—take place behind closed doors, cloaked in scientific sterility and a medical veil.

Fair enough, racism today is often similarly veiled. But if Osborn rejects language like “legal lynching” to invoke the death penalty’s racist history, he doesn’t offer alternatives. Further, his own language is dampened by the dispassionate rhetoric of the legal scholar so that fairly radical ideas—for example, centuries after slavery the American “racial contract” remains intact—are blunted (particularly by his suggestion that they be incorporated into “critiques” of the death penalty, lest they fall prey to the “epistemology of ignorance”). This might be tolerable from a book of intellectual exercises. But if the premise of From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State is that the death penalty represents American racism at its most violent, isn’t there more to be done than further interrogate the subject?

That the book is too academic is not damning criticism. One particularly interesting chapter, by University of Delaware professor Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, carries the dissertation-worthy title “Death in whiteface: Modern race minstrels, official lynching, and the culture of American apartheid.” It shows jurors in capital trials performing a role inscribed by white dominance over minority defendants—not just Blacks and Latinos, but poor whites and homosexuals as well—demonstrating how racist, class-based, and sexual stereotypes can rob them not just of the right to a fair trial, but of their lives as a result.

As long as the lived reality of inequality endures in the United States, such a reality may be weighed against the consequences its legal system evokes in its people’s name…. If America continues to embrace [capital punishment] in the name of retributive or utilitarian values, then inequality remains not just a “tolerable” American value. Inequality remains a value that is acted upon and thus preserved inextricably through the state’s persistent willingness to use the punishment of death.

That the death penalty reflects societal inequalities is understood; that it is part of their deliberate perpetuation is worth discussing. But efforts to expand the idea fall short. In the closing essay, Austin Sarat argues for “a deeper critique of race privilege in the United States,” taking on what he calls “the new abolitionism.” It’s a body he fails to fully identify, but he locates it in the post-Furman era and attaches its rhetoric to the American Bar Association and former Justice Harry Blackmun, whose vow to no longer “tinker with the machinery of death” was repeated by former Gov. George Ryan when he emptied Illinois’ death row in 2003. The problem with these “new abolitionists,” Sarat argues, is that they have come to focus primarily on the inequality within the death penalty, at the expense of questioning the legitimacy of the death penalty itself.

It’s a valid concern. But to the extent that Sarat is speaking to abolitionist strategy, he seems to have a narrow concept of who is fighting capital punishment these days. Advocacy groups like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty go unmentioned in the book’s 300 pages—to say nothing of more left-leaning organizations. (Amnesty International gets a perfunctory nod, as part of an anecdote about misguided rhetoric.) Questioning “the place of race of the new abolitionism” thus seems a bit disingenuous, especially when Sarat concludes that a shift in focus might “provide a particularly promising way to talk about some of the most profound and troubling injustices that today mark the American condition.”
Talk, however sophisticated, is cheap—and action overdue. If we’re to believe, as the introduction claims, that this book will “foster discussion of a persistent problem that we no longer have the luxury of ignoring,” one must wonder who the “we” refers to and when such a luxury ever existed. From this standpoint, the scholars in Cambridge come dangerously close to playing out the “whiteface” discussed by Fleury-Steiner: a privileged “us” versus those who actually live—and die—on the wrong side of the system.

Liliana Segura is a contributing writer for The New Abolitionist, the newsletter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. She lives in New York.

A whole new neocon?

Francis Fukuyama
AMERICA AT THE CROSSROADS: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy
Yale University Press, 2006
226 pages $25


IF YOU approach America at the Crossroads hoping to read Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that neoconservatism was the “God that failed,” you will be disappointed. Although the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy—and especially its Iraqi debacle—comes in for sharp criticism here, Fukuyama doesn’t attempt a root-and-branch demolition of the neoconservative legacy. In fact, one could read the book as an attempt to reclaim conservatism from the neocons.

Fukuyama, a leading conservative intellectual, tells us he was driven to write the articles and lectures on which the book was based after attending a February 2004 American Enterprise Institute dinner where keynote speaker neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer spoke of the Iraqi invasion as a “virtually unqualified success.”

“I could not understand why everyone around me was applauding the speech enthusiastically, given the United States had found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was bogged down in a vicious insurgency, and had almost totally isolated itself from the rest of the world by following the kind of unipolar strategy advocated by Krauthammer.”

A little later he confesses: “I have concluded that neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something that I can no longer support.”

Given the squawks from the neocon camp branding Fukuyama a traitor to the cause who lost his nerve, you would think that there are a lot of explosive revelations here.

To be sure, Fukuyama fires off a few heretical challenges to the neocon dogma: “Neoconservatives after the collapse of communism tended to overestimate the level of threat facing the United States”; “When Arabs say they like the United States but don’t like American foreign policy, it would seem both prudent and minimally respectful to take them at their word, rather than putting them on a psychiatrist’s couch and telling them that they couldn’t possibly mean what they say”; “The rhetoric about World War IV and the global war on terrorism should cease.”

But these criticisms are meant not only to mark Fukuyama’s distance from today’s failed neocons but also between today’s neocons and founders of neoconservatism, as Fukuyama understands it. Genuine neoconservatives from the 1960s and 1970s had a healthy skepticism about government’s ability to engineer U.S. society, argues Fukuyama, a skepticism lacking in today’s neocons, who are intoxicated by the notion that the U.S. can implant “democracy” in the Middle East at gunpoint.

Thus, what appears to be a rejection of neoconservatism as an ideology develops into a critique of the misuse of neoconservatism by its popularizers—from Krauthammer to the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol—especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

That’s why it’s important to note that his discussion of the disaster in Iraq—the event that ostensibly motivated his reevaluation of neoconservatism—offers fewer mea culpas than he, as a signatory of a well-known 1998 letter calling for “regime change” in Iraq, should. He believes the Bush administration may have exaggerated the threat from Iraq, but that it didn’t lie to justify the war. He also asserts “it is hard to blame the Bush administration for believing that [weapons of mass destruction] existed” when so many other international agencies thought so too.
Although he says he concluded that the Iraq War “didn’t make sense,” he also offers up an “alternative case for war” (based on the idea that removing the Saddam Hussein regime would serve as a “global public good”) that, he reasons, would have won more international support for the war than Bush’s insistence that Saddam posed a threat to the United States. Not surprisingly, he does not advocate withdrawal from Iraq today.
What about the more expansive parts of what came to be called the Bush Doctrine, as enunciated in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS), which asserted a U.S. right to wage preemptive war and to effect “regime changes” around the world? Here again, Fukuyama’s criticism is much less thoroughgoing than it could—or should—be.

For instance, he argues, “preventive war cannot be ruled out as a component of an American grand strategy. But making it a central feature entails large risks and costs that are all too evident in retrospect.” And he continues to endorse an idea (that he credits to the neocons) that U.S. foreign policy should be concerned with the “regimes” of other countries—and should seek to change “failed states” or those that are incompatible with U.S. notions of human rights or democracy.

Aside from his coming to terms with neoconservatism, most of the rest of the book ruminates, from a center-right perspective, on the current state of U.S. foreign policy and an attempt to craft an alternative organizing ideology for it. The type of writing here will be familiar to anyone who reads journals like Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy. Using the language of international relations specialists, Fukuyama labels his school of thought “realistic Wilsonianism.”

Essentially, Fukuyama wants a foreign policy that melds neoconservative concern with the internal regimes of other states with a realistic assessment of the limits of American power and an appreciation of “soft” (i.e., non-military) power in winning American goals. Significantly, he does not call for the NSS to be scrapped. Instead, he advocates its revision to “provide clear criteria for when we believe preventive war is legitimate.”
Rather than act the part of imperial Rome as the neoconservatives dream, the U.S. should take a page from the book of nineteenth century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who worked to convince other world powers that a newly unified Germany was a status quo power. Acting like Bismarck’s Germany, Fukuyama hopes, will allow the U.S. to recover the international “credibility” it squandered in the Iraq War and the “war on terrorism.”

As the American establishment attempts to confront the disaster of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, we are likely to see more books like America at the Crossroads. For whatever insights they may offer, we would be well advised to treat them as we should Fukuyama’s book. His is the work of an in-house critic trying to propose a more workable means for the U.S. to attain its imperial goals.

Marxism and war

Hal Draper and Ernest Haberkern
Vol. V of Karl Marx’s
Theory of Revolution

Center for Socialist History, 2005
286 pages $20


LIBERALS HAVE always tried to sell progressive justifications for war and imperialism. They clamor, for instance, for “humanitarian intervention” (to use the favorite phrase of the Clinton administration) by imperialist governments in places like Darfur, Sudan. But the idea that imperialist powers can be expected to militarily usher in justice anywhere usually rests on a twisted and mangled representation of history.

In the same way, socialists who supported their own governments in the imperialist butchery of the First World War tried to justify this support by wearing the mantle of Marx and Engels. They claimed that the two were supporters of the early German government in war. This misrepresentation of the actual historical record was accepted even by later revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg, who were too busy leading revolutions to look up the actual historical record. And it has been an accepted view ever since.

Fortunately, War and Revolution, a work based on the notes of Hal Draper and finished after Draper’s death by his collaborator Ernest Haberkern, attempts to set the record straight. This volume, like the others in Draper’s series, is a must-read for modern revolutionary socialists. It not only sets the historical record straight, but also provides a useful historical foundation and starting point for the socialist theories of revolution and national self-determination today.

First, the claim that Marx and Engels were German chauvinists during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870—used by socialists and anti-socialists alike for different reasons—is dishonest. They were unabashed partisans of the French revolutionaries who were fighting against Germany, wrote a pamphlet titled How to Fight the Prussians, and encouraged the International Workingmen’s Associations in all countries to actively oppose their own governments.

If, at the beginning of the war, they also recognized Germany’s right to self-defense, it was because everyone thought Napoleon and the French might win. Germany was a brand-new state, and they feared that a French occupation would stunt the growth of the German revolutionary workers’ movement or channel its energies into a necessary fight for national independence.

Nothing could be further from the spirit of the German Social Democratic Party’s support for Germany’s imperialist efforts in 1914.
Marx and Engels were supporters of some wars, though. In their time, the words “war” and “revolution” became essentially interchangeable because one always seemed to flow into the other. Europe was about to be ripped apart by competition between the five powerful dynasties of Europe.
But they saw revolution as the “sixth power” in Europe. They usually used the word “revolution” to mean the struggles for democracy against feudalism that they saw breaking out all around them, such as in Poland, Germany, Hungary, and France in the 1830s and ‘40s, but they had a dynamic view of where it could lead.

In territorial battles between the Great Powers, it wasn’t necessary to pick sides, even when one of the powers was arguably a more “progressive” modern nation state fighting a feudal empire. It was the responsibility of revolutionaries in all countries to exploit the chaos of war to further the cause of revolution against their own governments.

Marx and Engels also realized that these revolutions more and more tended to raise the demands of the socialist revolution. In this way they laid the theoretical groundwork for the theory of permanent revolution, in which a revolutionary movement for democracy would grow into a fight for socialism. Wars for democracy and national independence were fought most heroically by the working class, not the bourgeoisie, and increasingly they raised class demands.

For this reason, Marx and Engels argued that socialists should support revolutions even when they are led, for the moment, by forces that are hostile to the interests of the working class. They supported, for example, the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was initially indifferent as to whether the war would abolish slavery. But Marx and Engels realized that the war could only be won by turning it into a revolution fought by emancipated slaves—and that Lincoln’s commitment to preserving the union would lead him to adopt this strategy. They were right.

They were so clearly involved in revolutionary working-class organization in every country that they did not worry that, by supporting certain revolutions and wars for national independence, they would be accused of supporting its leadership. In this spirit, they supported independence struggles in Ireland, Poland, and India.

Likewise, they tried to advise the Third Republic of France in 1870 about how to defeat the Prussian invasion, even though the handwriting was on the wall that the leaders of the republic would help to slaughter the communards. The key thing was to stop a foreign invasion, and Marx and Engels passionately condemned the Third Republic at the same time for smashing the most heroic fighters against the German invasion: the working class.
In dealing with the questions raised by the conflicts leading up to the First World War, Engels in particular began to lay out a framework for the revolutionary socialist defense of nations’ rights to self-determination, which would be further developed by Lenin. War and Revolution’s treatment of this subject makes it worthy reading for activists who grapple with this question today.

War is an inevitable outgrowth of the contradictions that tear at capitalism. But its winners and losers are not predetermined, and there is a dynamic relationship between war and revolution. Marx’s method is the best starting point for analyzing forces at work in any conflict, and supporting that outcome which best furthers the development of revolution.

The rise of immigrant worker centers

Janice Fine
Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream

ILR Press, 2006
316 pages $22


JANICE FINE’S in-depth study of worker centers provides a window into the organizing efforts of immigrants and other low-income workers that helped set the stage for the recent emergence of a new mass movement for immigrant rights. Worker centers are filling a vacuum in organizing low-wage—particularly immigrant—workers that the traditional labor movement has been unable, and at times explicitly unwilling, to take on.

Fine defines these centers as “community-based mediating institutions that provide support to low-wage workers.” Of 137 known worker centers, the vast majority, 122, identify themselves as immigrant workers’ centers. Most provide crucial services otherwise largely unavailable to immigrant workers such as English as a second language classes, financial services, and legal representation; advocate for new laws, improved working conditions, and improved monitoring that would benefit low-wage and immigrant workers; and organize workers to take action on their own behalf.

The first wave of contemporary worker centers arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to factory closings and the rise of low-paying service-sector jobs. Early organizers included Black workers in the Carolinas, Mexican immigrants along the border in El Paso, and Chinese immigrants in New York City and San Francisco.

A second wave of worker centers emerged in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s with the growth of immigration from Southeast Asia and Latin America—as neoliberal policies wrecked local economies and U.S.-supported “dirty wars” in Central America forced people to flee.

Fine’s study focuses on a new wave of worker centers organized since 2000. While most centers are located in the country’s largest cities where the largest immigrant communities are concentrated, “more of these centers are being organized in suburban and rural areas and in southern states in response to the large concentration of Mexican and Central American immigrants working in the service, poultry, meat-packing, and agricultural sectors.” More worker centers are also being organized within Filipino, Korean, African, and South Asian immigrant communities.

Ethnic NGOs (non-governmental organizations), faith-based organizations, legal service organizations, social service agencies, community-based organizations, and Central American solidarity activists are among the groups that have founded the centers. Many centers “were founded explicitly to fill the gap left by the decline of unionization in particular industries,” such as the garment and meatpacking industries.

Legal help is the service most in demand. According to Fine, worker centers help workers to recover between $100,000 and $200,000 in unpaid wages annually. When employers refuse to pay back wages in successful cases, worker centers have organized protests in front of the business or even in front of the owner’s home.

Some worker centers have created day laborer centers or forced local governments or even businesses to provide them. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) operate a network of day laborer hiring halls under contracts with the city of Los Angeles where workers set their own wages in regular general assemblies. In 1999, they succeeded in forcing Home Depot to make space for the opening of a city-financed day laborer center in order to gain a building permit for a new store in Cypress Park.
Centers also lead campaigns to gain legislation to strengthen low-wage and immigrant workers’ rights. In 2003, for example, Domestic Workers United, speaking in the name of more than 600,000 nannies and housekeepers, succeeded in pressuring the New York City Council to pass “The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.” The first of its kind, this ordinance requires employers to sign a contract whose terms include notice of termination, severance pay, annual paid vacation, overtime, and paid sick days and national holidays.

Some of the most inspiring stories are of low-wage workers organizing across racial and ethnic lines. Soon after its founding, Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates (KIWA), an immigrant worker center in Los Angeles, “shocked mainstream Koreatown when it took the side of three Latino workers against a Korean restaurant owner over an unpaid wages dispute.” After a six-month campaign, the workers prevailed.

Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFÉ), a worker center in South Carolina founded by African American worker activists, now alternates between holding meetings in English with Spanish translation and holding meetings in Spanish with English translation. As Fine makes clear, immigration is not hurting the employment or wages of African Americans. Rather, employers use the second-class status of immigrants to depress the wages of all low-wage workers.

Such success stories demonstrate the initiative and creativity of low-wage workers to organize themselves and put a lie to the idea that the service industry is “unorganizable.” Yet there are very real challenges that low-wage and particularly immigrant workers face in their organizing efforts. While workers have more labor rights than they are usually aware of, often the law is stacked against them. To cite just one example, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrant workers are not entitled to the remedy of back pay under the National Labor Relations Act of 1937.

Immigrant workers often seek out worker centers as opposed to unions. Unions—with notable recent exceptions such as SEIU and HERE—often don’t organize in low-wage service industries or are not set up, or in some cases are not willing, to assist immigrant laborers. While relations with labor unions are at times tenuous, worker centers and unions are increasingly working together. At times, worker centers act, as Fine puts it, as “‘pre-unions that are laying the groundwork for a more systematic union organizing effort.” They also sometimes help workers to form new independent unions, particularly where there is not a pre-existing union workers could join. The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, for example, represents New York City’s yellow cab drivers despite a leasing system put into place in 1979 that effectively converted cab drivers from regular, salaried employees to “independent contractors.”

Fine argues that worker centers and the labor movement need each other. Worker centers’ often-isolated campaigns could stand to benefit from the level of organization and financial resources of organized labor. And “unions need, and can learn much from, immigrant worker centers too. Centers are mobilizing and organizing constituencies that much of the labor movement is currently unwilling and unable to mobilize, evolving new strategies, structures, and practices in the process.”

She concludes that “worker centers cannot hope to significantly improve the economic fortunes of immigrant low-wage workers without confronting immigration policy and the legacy of racism and xenophobia in American employment and society at large” and calls for full legalization of immigrant workers and far greater protection of labor rights. Yet she fails to point a way forward for achieving such systematic change.

While she is struck by “how little worker centers utilized the potential economic power of low-wage immigrant workers themselves,” she herself argues that immigrants have “limited economic power,” and therefore need to pursue alliances with potential “Jane Addams and Hull Houses of today,” such as politicians, government agencies, business associations, neighborhood associations, and even police departments. She claims that to win a public policy reform, “a community organization often just needs to mobilize a dedicated minority” yet examples from her own study demonstrate that mass direct action of workers themselves is usually necessary to win both changes at the workplace and legal and policy changes on local and national levels.

The crucial question of why the labor movement declined is also left unanswered. Fine’s analysis keeps looking to strategies of reliance on the state and politicians to safeguard workers’ interests, including cooperation with business leaders, that have plagued the labor movement for the last several decades.

It is also worth noting that, for all of her attention to the important role of worker centers in developing workers as leaders of their own struggles, Fine seems to have limited her interviews to worker centers’ paid organizers, neglecting to interview the rank-and-file workers who participate in running the centers and who benefit from their services. This points up a major difference between worker centers, many of which are based on an NGO “service” model, and unions, whose formal democratic structure can allow them to become direct expressions of workers’ own activity.
Despite these weaknesses, Worker Centers will no doubt prove invaluable to worker centers’ organizers and members, and it can serve as a useful resource for activists in the struggle to win legalization and full labor rights for immigrants.

Back to top