Bad Subjects Interviews Howard Zinn
Wednesday, January 31 2001, 11:19 AM
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 corporations.
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 administration.
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 those years.
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'.
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 bases.
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 systems.
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 decade.
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.