Bad Subjects interviews Howard Zinn
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Mon Feb 19 07:17:23 MST 2001
B A D C O L U M N S (http://eserver.org/bs/)
an online editorial posted on Thursday, February 8, 2001.
Bad Subjects Interviews Howard Zinn
Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit
Howard Zinn, now a professor emeritus in Boston University's history
department, has been one of the most influential US historians of his
generation. On the day before George Bush was inaugurated as president, BS
editors Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit talked with Zinn to listen to the
observations of an academic activist concerning this juncture in American
history. The full interview text will appear in Bad Subjects issue #54.
BS: Since George W. Bush seems so much the emblem of commerce and the
privileging of capital in the US, how might he also speak to an older
history of robber barons and 19th century capitalism?
Zinn: Let's go back to President McKinley and the age of the robber barons,
and ask who was the original cause of people like George Bush? In 1896,
McKinley beats the populist candidate William Jennings Bryan and represents
corporate wealth. It's a time when monopolies are being created. A few
years after McKinley's election, US Steel is formed from a merger of two
major steel companies. The railroads are consolidating, and the Supreme
Court is making all sorts of decisions in favor of big business and
So sure, you can go back to the era of the robber barons in the late 19th
century and say here we have Bush again, representing robber barons. But it
would be deceptive to pretend that this is a departure from what we have
had under Clinton or Carter, just as McKinley wasn't a tremendous departure
from Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland was a Democrat -- and McKinley was
a Republican. And although McKinley was more in tune with corporate power
than Cleveland, Cleveland was certainly a friend of big business and not a
friend of labor. It was Grover Cleveland who brought out the troops in 1894
to break the Pullman Strike.
The point I'm making is that whether you have a Republican or a Democrat in
power, the robber barons are still there. If you look at Clinton, his
administration was very good to the corporations. The Dow Jones average
during the Clinton years went up from four thousand to ten thousand. Well,
whom did it go up for? Who benefited mostly from that? The great
stockholders of the nation are the ones who benefited the most. Under the
Clinton administration, more mergers of huge corporations took place --
more than any others that had ever taken place before under any
I'm saying this not to soften the impact of Bush's alliance with the rich
-- only to say that the Democrats have made a similar alliance with the
rich, except that they cover this over with a lot of different kinds of
rhetoric and a softer approach because the Democrats need the votes of the
labor unions, women and black people. Nevertheless, whether you have
Republicans or Democrats in power, big business is the most powerful voice
in the halls of Congress and in the ears of the president of the United
States. So Bush is more of the same, only more so.
BS: You mention primarily domestic policy and the internal organization of
capital in the US. How about any comparison between the old-fashioned
imperialism of William McKinley, and the questions surrounding the WTO
today? Are they comparable?
Zinn: Well, they're generally comparable, although they look different.
Under McKinley, we were engaging in blatant military occupation of foreign
territories and blatant imperialism. Under McKinley we go into Cuba in
1898, drive the Spaniards out, and put ourselves in -- including our banks,
our railroads, our corporations. We take Puerto Rico, Hawaii, we send an
army to take the Philippines. It's blatant imperialism at it's height in
What we have in our time with the WTO and the power of the World Bank and
the power of the IMF and the reach of American corporations around the
world is a more sophisticated kind of imperialism in which we don't have to
send armies into other countries. We send corporations instead. We send
Disney and McDonalds into other countries. When we think we have to, we're
certainly ready to send a military force abroad. The elder Bush sent a
military force into Iraq ten years ago in 1991. I would call that
Imperialism always has an excuse. The elder Bush's excuse was that the
Iraqis had invaded Kuwait. And we had the excuse with Cuba -- if not us,
then it's the Spaniards. We had an excuse in the Philippines. If we don't
take it, somebody else will. We had an excuse in the Persian Gulf in 1991
with Kuwait, but it was oil. President Bush was not weeping tears over the
Kuwaitis. He didn't weep tears over the fate of any other countries which
were invaded by other powers. Oil was the consideration. When you're
sending a military force halfway across the world to engage in a war for
oil, that's imperialism.
What we have is a more sophisticated form of imperialism, which is
economic. But lurking in the background, always ready to go, is an armed
force. That's why, even though the Soviet Union is gone, the politicos --
not just the Republicans, but the Democrats -- wanted a huge military
budget. As huge as it was during the Cold War. Why did they want it? So
they could use our military power, if necessary, to reach into far corners
of the world and extend our political and economic power through military
Imperialism is the factor in American policy, not just since 1898, but in
fact long before it when we were expanding across this continent and taking
away Indian lands in order to enlarge the territory of the United States.
We have been an imperial power and an expansionist power for a very long
time. It will continue regardless of whether we have Republican or
Democratic administrations in power. In fact, it's hard to tell who would
be more likely to further the ends of imperialism. The Democrats or the
Republicans, Bush or Gore? I mean yes, in domestic policy you can find some
differences among them. Look at the appointments to the Attorney General,
environmental affairs, and so on....but in foreign policy, it's very hard
to find a difference.
BS: So beneath the globalist consciousness that is so discussed, we
basically find a repetition of older patterns of American imperialism?
Zinn: Right, but as I said, it takes a more sophisticated form now.
BS: Why do you think that progressives have adopted the term
'globalization' so readily instead of using the term 'imperialism'? To this
progressive's ear, 'globalization' has a far less pejorative connotation.
It seems to be used to describe a systemic world-wide capitalist
integration that is far more neutral than a term with a Leninist history
like 'imperialism', for example.
Zinn: Are you suggesting that progressive forces should be using the term
'imperialism' more than using the term 'globalization'?
BS: (Laughter) Yes, because it more fully expresses the value judgment
latent in the way progressives talk about the integration of world economic
Zinn: Sure, it's very important to point out that globalization is in fact
imperialism and that there is a disadvantage to simply using the term
'globalization' in a way that plays into the thinking of people at the
World Bank and journalists like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times who
are agog at globalization. They just can't contain their joy at the spread
of American economic and corporate power all over the world. Sure, it would
very good to puncture that balloon and say "This is imperialism."
BS: In terms of counter-forces to that imperialism, could you talk about
how American progressivism has fared considering, for example, that Nader
achieved three percent of the popular vote, which is a historic low in
terms of the percentage of vote for progressive presidential candidates?
Zinn: I think that the Nader campaign made a mistake in hitching their
reputation on how many votes they would get. I think they made a mistake in
insisting that they must get five percent, that it must get a certain
number of votes. It's a bad move for progressive organizations to tie
themselves to the electoral system because the electoral system is a great
grave into which we are invited to get lost. For progressive movements, the
future does not lie with electoral politics. It lies in street warfare --
protest movements and demonstrations, civil disobedience, strikes and
boycotts -- using all of the power consumers and workers have in direct
action against the government and corporations. To sink too much of our
energy into electoral politics is a mistake. The result is to dishearten
people because it gives us a false picture of how much strength the
establishment has; because counted up, it looks as though all these people
voted for Gore or Bush, but only a handful voted for Nader.
The fact is that millions and millions of people voted for Gore who would
have voted for Nader if they thought he had a chance to win. That is,
millions and millions of people would whose basic views are closer to Nader
than they are to Gore. But because people are trapped in this electoral
system in which two parties and wealth control the media and control the
electoral process, people are trapped in that therefore they vote their
conscience, they dont vote their beliefs. They become pragmatic the moment
that they go to the polls. They sort of shrug their shoulders and go "We've
only been given two choices -- we've been given a multiple choice test with
only A and B. We can't do C or D." So the result is to give a misleading
picture about the strength of the progressive movement. That was the
mistake of the Nader campaign, to fall into that trap.
BS: The other depressing way that one could read the Nader campaign is to
listen to what certain conservatives have been saying: that Nader's failure
to do better demonstrates the limits of the new progressive movement that
has arisen since the WTO protests in Seattle.
Zinn: They would do better by taking a look at the actions people have been
taking these past few years -- the new vitality in the labor movement, the
unionization of white collar workers, the victory of the United Parcel
Workers strike, which is one of the largest labor victories of the past
Ten thousand people will turn up in Georgia to protest the School of the
Americas. Take a look at the tens of thousands of people that turned up in
Seattle or Washington, DC. Take a look at the thousands of local
organizations around the country that are working on women's issues,
environmental issues, local issues of all sorts. That gives you a better
picture of the energy of the new progressive movement than to count the
votes in an election campaign.
Joel Schalit and Joe Lockard are members of the Bad Subjects Collective.
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