In an ideal world, visions of peace, mutual understanding, respect for one another and the attainment of wealth and happiness should all be possible.
In an ideal world, people wouldn’t starve in one part of the world while in another part of the world clever men make billions of dollars.
In an ideal world the principles of democracy would work.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, as the communist ideologues found out and now we in the democratic, capitalist world are finding out too.
The problem isn’t wanting things to be better; this is natural and in my view right. The problem is nurturing beliefs that are in one way or another utopian. It is precisely the utopian fantasies that have led to the world’s worst catastrophes. The Communists after all were utopian. Hitler was utopian. Other grand visionaries who foresaw an “ideal” situation almost all inevitably created havoc.
Many religions have been responsible for their own utopian disasters as well, from the Christian crusades to the current crop of fundamentalist Islamics, who in their utopian vision of things have justified the most barbaric acts in the name of that vision.
Democracy too is a form of idealism, of utopian fantasy. And where is the democratic world at, in spite of these visions, so often repeated in rousing speeches made by political leaders?
In almost all democratic countries, with few exceptions, the leaders are not the best and the brightest at all. In the US, George W Bush, a former alcoholic and less than brilliant student, son of a wealthy and influential father, arguably lost the election, but was installed by the Supreme Court, the majority of which had been installed by either his own father or his father’s Republican predecessors. No beacon of wisdom, before September 11th, George W was best known for his mangling of the English language, his apparent lack of knowledge of world affairs and his tainted connections to the energy industry that helped finance his election.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul with control of most of the press and TV, together with ex-fascists (some not so ex) won control of the government (and its state-run television) by manipulating the media he controlled.
In country after country in the West, one could make a pretty solid case that the system that is supposed to be the fairest and the freest has in fact led to the elections of rather unworthy leaders. Perhaps this is natural: the people get the leaders they deserve, and if a country is bound to decline, like the Roman empire once did, and it is free to do so as it chooses, it will elect incompetents and people that could hardly be called wise.
In most cases, in the electoral process and in the campaigns themselves, prospective leaders in the West often take to using hyperbole and grand ideas and ideals to show that they “care” and have “vision”. George W and Silvio both promised to restore honor and dignity to their countries, as well as pride and efficiency. In a way both represented a business like approach to politics. Many in the US foresaw George W running the White House like a corporation, and in Italy many voted for Silvio, convinced that he would make the government succeed the way he had made his business succeed (few wanted to recall how he used the corrupt Craxi government to help create that business success).
Their visions were utopian. In France and Germany today, and to some degree in England too, the left wing leaders suffer from similar if not identical problems of false utopian visions. Rather than visions of nationalist pride they have visions of “world” pride and cooperation, which make some think they dream of (the utopian ideals of) a Soviet style Europe.
And yet, for all our leaders’ blathering about peace, stability and the pursuit of happiness, whether from the left or right, the reality is that today our governments are increasingly less powerful, less in control.
A recent documentary broadcast by the excellent journalist Bill Moyers highlighted a little known clause in the NAFTA agreement called Chapter 11, which allows corporations to sue host governments that do not allow them to make their profits. An American company wishing to create a toxic dump in Mexico, if restricted from its business by the Mexican authorities for ecological or other reasons, can sue and win damages from the Mexican government. Likewise a Canadian company can sue the US. A larger pan-American treaty is being negotiated with similar clauses, so that instead of just three countries, some 22 countries will be beholden to this law. What it means is that corporations already have more power than governments. If you don’t want a chemical dump in your back yard, and your local, state or federal government bans a company from dumping, that company can then demand, and win, in private é not public é hearings run by a corporate é not judicial é panel, huge compensations, simply because they were not allowed to make their expected profits.
What this means is that the utopian free trade concept, a good idea in theory, has in fact been hijacked by the corporations through complex and largely unknown (by the public) clauses built into the trade agreements. So while many of us who believe that in theory free trade is a positive thing, in practice it is extremely insidious and actually is the first step in the disintegration of real democracy and the empowerment of the corporations in running the show around the world.
The lawyers who helped create Chapter 11 are now profiting by it as they are hired by companies to sue the various governments. We little guys, believing in the utopian ideal of what free trade should represent, are left in the dark, until someone like Moyers comes along and does a show about it. But how many people saw that show on PBS? Not too many, and there has been no follow up in the mainstream media about this issue, and I see no demonstrators on the streets objecting to it, except for the usual anti-globalization folks derided in the mainstream press as leftover hippies who smash McDonald’s windows. Why doesn’t the mainstream media focus on this? Because it is entirely owned by major corporations. So much for free press.
The reason for the failure of the capitalist utopian vision is clear. Our democratic institutions (and our media) have been corrupted thoroughly by corporate money. It infects our electoral process, so that money becomes the main reason a person can run and win an election. He or she needs money, and takes it from “friendly” companies, and is soon beholden to them, siding with their lobbyists. The lawyers who draft supposedly positive trade agreements create laws and clauses that they can profit by later. Again, it’s money that talks.
Even our “just” wars are often tainted by the corruption of money. A new book about bin Laden by two French journalists, called “The Hidden Truth”, focuses on the story of John O’Neill, former head of the FBI’s anti-terror investigations stemming from the embassy bombings in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole. He quit his job just months before the World Trade Center disaster, objecting to the Bush administration’s cozying up to the Taliban in its efforts to help create a stable environment in Afghanistan. After September 11th the Taliban was derided as barbarous, harboring terrorists, etc. Of course their barbarism toward women, their destruction of Buddhist icons, and their relationship with Al Qaeda and its training camps had been going on for some years. But as recently as August of 2001, just one month before the terrible events in New York and Washington DC, the White House was conducting talks with Taliban officials and representatives meant to help shore up a little stability. Why? So investors would feel secure about the proposed Unocal pipeline deal that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, through Afghanistan. That deal, years in the works, had fallen apart after the Clinton administration bombed Afghanistan following the African embassy bombings. Investors, leery of a troubled Afghanistan, bailed out. Bush Jr. é the ultimate front of the house man for the energy industry é decided that like them or not, the Taliban could provide “stability” and John O’Neill, trying to root out bin Laden and his men for years, found his job impossible and resigned in protest. He took the job as head of WTC security and in the greatest, most tragic irony of all, died in the collapsing towers on September 11th, victim of an operation executed by the same terrorists he had been hunting before George W made it impossible to do so.
The GAO office of Congress has now sued Dick Cheney for information about the formulation of the Bush team’s energy policies, in the wake of the Enron scandal. It is likely that this battle will be protracted and long, as the White House has little interest in divulging the details of who advised what. Most people in the US recognize the desire of the White House to hide something, but most figure it has to do with undue influence coming from Enron execs like Ken Lay about energy policies influencing issues like price caps in California. But it seems to me that this would not justify the battle over this information and the political fallout that is inevitable. What I wonder is whether in those meetings the pipeline deal was discussed with execs from Unocal. For if this ever comes out, corroborating the O’Neill claims he made before he died, that the Bush White House, urged by its energy industry donors, effectively stopped the fight against terrorists to help pull off the pipeline deal, Watergate will look like Sunday School, and the Bush team’s “war on terror” will be seen by many as a farce in spite of the fact that in many ways it is justified. The point however, is that it took the devastation of September 11th to wake them up and make them realize O’Neill had been right and that their greedy desires for “stability” in Afghanistan had blinded them to the dangers and made them far more responsible for and complicit in the ensuing events than that misled Marin County boy now known as Jihad Johnny Walker.
Corporate money has corrupted our ideal system, the way centralized power corrupted Communism, and the way fundamentalism has stained wonderful and ancient religions. The lessons from all these instances seems clear to me. We need to be vigilant, aware of what is going on, and remain skeptical of utopian ideals, be they of democratic freedoms or visions of a virgin filled heaven. Those who would promise us everything often need an enemy to help focus the motivation of their followers, for there is no black without white. Bush’s rousing speeches of good versus evil never take into consideration the errors he and his men are responsible for. Why is someone evil today when a scant year ago the very same people merited official contacts and negotiations, to say nothing of financial help? The problem is that the world is not black and white, but filled with millions of shades of gray. Utopians cannot stand those shades of gray, for it makes their ideal world harder to describe and therefore harder to attain.
I believe most people sense that there can be no ideal world; we see it in the stupid little things that trouble our everyday lives. Yet it is remarkable to me how many of us fall victim to the demagoguery of our leaders, be they fascist, communist, capitalist, tyrannical, religious or anything else. We all crave some vision of happiness, and it is hard to fathom that ideals are unattainable. But it is only when we recognize the dangers of utopian beliefs and become skeptical of our leaders’ wonderful promises that we can help get any closer to a better, real world.