Jan 21, 2003

Culture and the challenges of the contemporary world

James Petras

"We will never build a communist conscience with a
dollar sign in the minds and hearts of men."
Fidel Castro


To write of culture is to write of art, ideology, education, sport and many other things. Culture can be discussed from numerous perspectives including personality, aesthetics, politics and history. I will focus specifically on culture as a terrain for political struggle, and leave for another time and place a discussion of culture as an aesthetic medium, as source of reflection and human fulfillment. In particular I will focus on culture as ideology and how it influences class and national consciousness and political action. Culture as ideology involves the creation and expression of human "subjectivity" ,or specifically, national and class consciousness: how people ( classes, gender, ethnic and racial groups ) perceive and act to influence their objective circumstances. Subjectivity is basic to understanding conflicts, structures of power and movements for transformation in the contemporary world. "Subjectivity" as political consciousness can be understood in its dynamic dialectical relation to objective reality. How people and classes react to their objective conditions shapes their material reality, which, in turn, impacts on their subjectivity.

Ideological beliefs and political action are a result of multiple determinations, including socio-economic conditions ( crises, position in the class structure, upward or downward social mobility, the nature of the state ) and by political organizations, leadership, the mass media, religious institutions and by social organizations embedded in traditions, family and community practices. Class behavior can be influenced as much by current economic conditions as by future aspirations and hopes.

Ideology and the Big Issues

In order to understand class and national consciousness in relation to the Big Issues in the contemporary world it is important to identify their nature.

There are five major challenges facing the great majority of humanity. These include:

1- U.S. imperialist drive for world domination through the Bush doctrine of "permanent wars". This is exemplified by the wars of conquest in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq; the preparations for war against North Korea, Iran and the Arab East; and the military intervention in Colombia via Plan Colombia, the belligerent attitude toward Cuba and the support for a military coup in Venezuela.

2- The recolonization of Latin America via the imposition of ALCA and the transfer of sovereignty to a U.S. controlled ALCA commission. Washington's application of the doctrine of "extra-territoriality", which asserts the right of the U.S. to override international and national laws. The rejection by the U.S. of the International Criminal Court in order to allow its military forces to commit crimes with impunity. The U.S. has assumed the "right" for its military and intelligence agents to commit homicide - to assassinate - political adversaries within the frontiers of any country.

3- The pillage of the Third World - particularly Latin America- leading to the reversion to earlier more retrograde forms of exploitation including white slavery ( involving the trade of millions of women and children into coerced sex, especially from the ex-USSR and Latin America ), economic pillage ( the theft and transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars of private savings and public revenues from Latin America through the international banking system to the U.S. and Europe ), the appropriation of all the major sectors of the economy ( industry, finance, commerce ) and the de- industrialization of Latin American economies via free trade while retaining protective barriers and export subsidies. The result is the reversion in many parts of Latin America to pre-capitalist economic relations. For example, in Argentina the barter economy now involves over 4 million people. In Latin America over 60% of the labor force is in the informal or subsistence economy, involved in simple commodity exchanges.

4- U.S. hegemony over the political class, from the electoral parties of the center-left to the far right, leading to acomodation to the imperialist project and perpetuation of the system of pillage and re-colonization. For example, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the self-appointed "Friends of Venezuela" have intervened to promote the political agenda of U.S. client 'golpistas' against President Chavez of Venezuela.

5- The uneven growth of powerful socio-political movements throughout the world, but most directly in Latin America in response to the empire building project of U.S. imperialism.

The problems of imperialist wars, re-colonization and pillage - raise a fundamental challenge to the popular class forces and states organized against the empire. The major hypothesis of this paper is that the objective realities created by empire-building have created the necessary but not sufficient conditions for mass anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist movements on a world scale. The worldwide regression of socio-economic conditions can only become the bases for a fundamental transformation in the presence of subjective factors. To illustrate the importance of the subjective or ' cultural factor' in meeting the challenge of empire, it is useful to compare the experiences of different countries.

Comparative Subjectivities: Argentina and the U.S.

In the United States and in Argentina large scale fraud and swindles were committed in 2001-2002 resulting in the loss of tens of billions of dollars in savings and pension funds. In the case of the U.S. the swindles were perpetrated by multi- national corporations, private investment banks, corporate auditors with the complicity of government regulatory agencies. In Argentina, the perpetrators were the private, mostly foreign-owned, banks, with the direct complicity of the government.

In Argentina there were mass protests, leading to a popular uprising that forced the resignation of the government. Subsequently thousands formed neighborhood assemblies and joined in alliances with the unemployed workers movements to pressure the government.

In the United States, there were no mass movements - only individual complaints, private malaise, and localized hostility to the corporations. Alienation from the political system increased. A few groups hired lawyers to bring legal suites against the corporations in hopes of recovering their funds. Most of the impoverished middle class resigned themselves to a longer working career, delayed retirement and lower living standards. Many small investors withdrew their investments from pension funds. Inconsequential congressional hearings, and the appointment of new state regulators changed nothing. The system was not questioned, the corporations continued functioning in the same manner and the President and his party secured a 'majority' in Congress - while two-thirds of the electorate were too disgusted to vote.

These two cases raise the question of why similar massive frauds and significant loss of savings had such divergent subjective responses? The answer is found in the different political-cultural-ideological context in each country.

In Argentina there are large scale political and social movements: the unemployed "piqueteros" demonstrate and block highways; active left-wing parties intervene in political life; a dissident public employees' trade union confederation is in active opposition; there is widespread rejection of the "free market" ideology among the general populace. The subjective conditions propelling mass protests in Argentina are caused by a political culture that encourages collective action, an ideology which identifies the political-economic responsibility of the banks and the regime for the loss of income and a model of successful political action based on the piqueteros. The ' political culture' of opposition spread despite the mass media's support for the government. The assembly movement created its own communication networks and utilized the existing alternative media. The assembly movement and mass action took place despite the absence of any support from the official trade union bureaucracy closely tied to the regime in power.

In the United States, the millions affected by the swindle were not part of the political culture of protest and mobilization. At most they were supporters of one of the two capitalist parties who were financed by the major corporate swindlers. The rest of the "civic associations" to which they belong are conservative or apolitical and provide no framework for understanding the nature and responsibility of the government for the swindle. None of the civic associations to which they belong provide a vehicle for political action. The mind set of the millions of victims revolved around loyalty to the state, the corporation and the family. Once the state and corporation defrauded them, they fell back on the family, which offered mostly personal solace and no basis for collective action. Lacking any reference or organizations for collective action, without examples of successful popular mobilizations the victims largely turned inward toward personal solutions, swallowing their losses in silent and impotent isolation. The major swindlers went about their business with impunity.

The contrasting "subjectivities" -level of social action and social organization between the U.S. and Argentina under similar conditions of socio-economic adversity points to the decisive importance of political culture, ideology and political intervention. In the United States the unstated slogan was "Whoever can, saves himself". In Argentina the popular slogan was " You pick on one, you pick on all of us". The fundamental difference is the emergence of a culture of solidarity in Argentina, in contrast to the vertical dependence characteristic of the U.S. corporate world.

Comparison: Brazil and Venezuela

During the 1990's Brazil and Venezuela went through a decade of economic stagnation with widening social inequalities and regressive income patterns. In both countries objective conditions were favorable for consequential political changes. In both countries a large majority of voters elected a populist or center-left president, Hugo Chavez in the case of Venezuela and in 2002, Lula da Silva in Brazil. Subsequently however, Chavez faced a prolonged employers' lockout and strike. A substantial minority of the electorate ( the figures are in dispute ) called for his resignation and supported right wing leaders. While Chavez's support declined, Lula's support increased in the run-up to his election. In other words, there was a shift to the right under an incumbent president and a shift to the left toward a newly elected candidate, under generally similar economic conditions.

The change in subjectivity and the differences require a discussion of the political, social and cultural context. In the first instance the Chavez regime presided over continued economic stagnation, while Lula was still in opposition and the blame for the socio-economic problems clearly rested with the preceding Cardoso regime. Secondly the Chavez regime concentrated his public investment on improving services ( health, education and housing ) for the poorest sectors, while the middle classes resented the relative loss of economic status. In Brazil the newly elected Lula regime increased its support by promising to abolish hunger without affecting the power and privileges of the ruling or upper- middle classes. Thirdly the pro-imperialist mass media in Venezuela engaged in a permanent vitriolic propaganda war against Chavez once he declared his independence of U.S. foreign policy, particularly on Plan Colombia, ALCA and the wars of conquest in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. In contrast Lula, once elected, has referred to Bush as an "ally", promised to "negotiate" over ALCA and offered to "mediate" between the coup-makers and the Chavez government (rather than affirm his support for the constitutional government ). By adopting a centrist agenda, Lula has secured the support of financial powers and the "neutrality" of the mass media.

The Venezuelan mass media's constant reiteration of deceptive and slanderous propaganda was blatantly directed at abetting military rebellion and the overthrow of the elected Chavez government. The media blitz was a major factor in influencing the middle class to turn against Chavez and take to the streets. The Venezuelan media have successfully propagated an image of an authoritarian president presiding over a dictatorial state, informed and allied with Castro-communism and destroying the economy. The effectiveness of the media in perpetrating this totally false image is measured by the substantial sector of the middle class which believes it, even as their direct experience belies it.

The vast majority of the Venezuelans, especially those trying to overthrow the regime, freely participated and voted in seven free elections in which Chavez or Chavez's constitutional proposals were approved. The regime has respected the division between the three powers of government, and tolerated the vast excesses of a press and electronic media beyond what any other Western electoral system would have put up with. The government has tolerated and protected mass assemblies and marches even those which have incited military rebellion and the violent overthrow of the elected government. While the government has not made major improvements in living standards, especially for the middle class, the economic performance of the government was a relative improvement over the previous regime, until the state oil bosses sabotaged petroleum production. The principle cause of the precipitous decline of living standards was the lockout and the paralysis of the oil industry organized by the bosses and director of the state-owned oil companies, they engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy - they "predicted" collapse and then did everything possible to make it happen. In contrast the government has been struggling to restart production and prevent a further decline in income.

It is clear that on the ideological and political terrain the pro-U.S. opposition has been winning the cultural war. There is little doubt and many historical precedents to substantiate that the extremely costly mass media propaganda effort is probably financed in part by covert funds from U.S. intelligence agencies. Otherwise it is not possible to understand how the lockout can continue for so long. Without advertising revenues and with continuing high overhead costs, the private media could not sustain full staffing and around the clock, seven days a week, for nearly 2 months, unless it received large scale transfers from the CIA. Similar CIA covert subsidies were used to finance El Mercurio in Chile, La Prensa in Nicaragua and many media outlets allied to the U.S. in countries where Washington sought to overthrow independent regimes.

This raises the question of why the pro-coup, anti-Chavez and pro-U.S. propaganda has been successful in polarizing the country, and in particular of "winning over" the middle classes, in a way that is not imaginable in Brazil?

The key is the "political culture" of the Caracas middle class more attuned to Miami than to the interior of the country and urban poor. The "Miami complex" is based on frequent visits, vacations and consumption excursions to Florida in particular and the U.S. in general. This complex contributed to the reproduction of the U.S. high consumption pattern and a "mall culture" which is at the center of existence of the Caracas middle class. The "class reference" of the Venezuelan middle class is the upper-middle class living in Miami. They aspire to mimic their life style: a condo, unlimited credit card spending and poorly paid Haitian maids.

The decline in living standards over the past two decades and the malaise of the middle class led some to vote for Chavez. Their hope was based on the notion that he would end corruption and raise incomes to sustain their Miami vision. The problem emerged when Chavez came into conflict with the U.S. This conflict had two effects in Venezuela: Washington's political clients in the business and trade union elite were "activated". They in turn appealed to the middle class to turn out Chavez. The largely white middle class was forced to choose between a black president appealing to the poor and their identification with the Miami complex. Latent racism among the middle class (latent while the white middle class was dominant) was activated by the elites and counterposed to their "model" - the life style of the prosperous white Miami elites.

Culture and Politics

These comparative experiences highlight the importance of culture, ideology and the mass media in shaping divergent political responses to similar economic circumstances. Pro-imperialist media propaganda is particularly effective in the context where the electorate has not been organized by the left and where a culture of solidarity is absent. The prevalence of "mimetic-consumerist" culture facilitates the penetration of authoritarian ideology and alignment with pro-U.S. political leaders.

The impact of right wing mass media is limited when there are mass popular organizations ( particular those which are 'horizontal' in structure ) based on common struggles and experiences, influenced by egalitarian ideology. In both Argentina and Brazil, the mass media are uniformly in favor of the right wing elites in power, yet in both cases the propaganda message was rejected by the masses. In Argentina, the mass movement overthrew the incumbent De La Rua regime; in Brazil over 60% of the populace voted for what they believed to be a candidate of the center-left.

Culture and War

Today the big issue is imperialist war - specifically Washington's military attack and invasion of Iraq and nuclear threats against North Korea. Washington's propaganda machine as well as that of its client regimes and European 'allies' is engaged in a global effort to justify the war, to neutralize opponents and to win adherents, particularly among the political class. Even among the most bellicose, militarist sectors of the Bush regime - those most prone to ignore world public opinion - there is a need to provide a 'rationale', to secure the support of clients.

The mass media - particularly the U.S. owned media - have saturated the world with pro-war propaganda, presenting and justifying the official line and excluding alternative critical voices or any reports of major protests. Nonetheless public opinion polls demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the people in Europe and Latin America do not believe the U.S. has made a convincing case for war and in some countries like France over 75% oppose the imperialist war. Even in the U.S., polls indicate a divided public. While many support a war, the opposition is growing as witness by the mass demonstrations of over 700,000 on January 18 this year. Moreover even among those who support the war, a majority do so conditionally - only if the United Nations votes in favor of a war resolution.

Mass media propaganda is less credible and serves mainly to reinforce pro-war sentiment among the political elite and to immobilize those who verbally oppose the war.

In the battle for popular consciousness the political opposition to the war has been able to gain support through alternative media (electronic media) and by public demonstrations. The voices of critical cultural figures, intellectuals and religious leaders - particularly Christian and Muslim has also contributed to mobilizing public opinion. Despite the great disparity in institutional power, despite close ties between the mass media and the U.S. imperial state, the majority of world public opinion has not been convinced. The worldwide demonstrations against the war are growing in size and militancy and have begun to influence sectors of the political class in Europe.

The 'culture' of imperial militarism based on violent domination has however been embraced by certain U.S. intellectuals and Christian fundamentalists - particularly those aligned with Israeli state. The vision of "permanent war" abroad and domestic repression evokes images of the Third Reich… Their support of offensive wars ("preventive wars") and their embrace of political assassinations, indiscriminant intervention and economic blackmail are meant to intimidate any and all regimes which might question Washington's will to Global Empire. The emergence of totalitarian intellectuals linked to unending imperialist wars of conquest is exemplified by their support of massive violence against Iraq.

The United Nations estimated that 10 million deaths and injuries will result from the U.S. invasion. In attacking a virtually defenseless population with a foreknowledge of 10 million deaths and injuries is an act of premeditated genocide-which is comparable or exceeding the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, Gypsies and Serbs. The totalitarian intellectuals who enthusiastically embrace these genocidal policies are ardent advocates of terror bombing of civilians in pursuit of U.S. world power.

The mass media either ignored the U.N. report on the likely millions of victims or trivialized it as simply another news item to be buried on the inner pages.

Premeditated genocide, the scientifically planned crime against humanity is justified by prominent Christian fundamentalist leaders in print and broadcast media and by right wing Jewish intellectuals in the U.S. Overseas it is backed by major Western governments ( particularly the British, Italian and Spainish regimes). The U.S. president with the support of the three branches of government and the mass media feels free to execute genocide with impunity.

What interests us, paraphrasing Eduardo Pavlovshy is the institutionalization of genocide, much more than the individual pathologies of Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and other genocide practitioners. If we insist on the individual attributes of the executioners of genocidal policies we lose sight of the key to the problem: genocide as an institution.

Within the institutional context it is logical that the Bush administration rejected the International Criminal Court. International impunity is a necessary accompaniment of institutional genocide. Today the cultural wars between totalitarian and anti-war intellectuals raise fundamental issues but none more important than the struggle against premeditated genocide.

ALCA, Resistance and Cultural Wars

ALCA is fundamentally the re-colonization of Latin America. It means the total loss of national and popular sovereignty as well as the conquest of Latin America's economy. But in order to realize the colonial conquest, the imperial power requires cultural-ideological hegemony. The previous neo-liberal policies have created the core group of pro-empire politicians, intellectuals and economists who are promoting ALCA. They are found not only on the right - those who openly embrace ALCA - but among the so-called "Center-Left", those who agree to negotiate to "reform" ALCA, hoping to secure some written concessions for sectors of their domestic ruling class.

With the failures of neo-liberalism and the rise of anti-imperialist mass movements, the right-wing intellectuals and politicians supporting ALCA have been largely discredited. In their place there has appeared a new type of colonialist intellectual - the anti-colonialist, ALCA critic who, however at the same time accepts the larger imperial framework as "realism" or "pragmatism". They cite the "unfavorable international framework", the "severity of the domestic crises", the "need to avoid international confrontations" for their acceptance of ALCA negotiations. The danger of these ex-leftist, recent intellectual converts to ALCA is that they still carry leftist credentials and have a credible history. Their principle ideological affirmation is to argue that newly elected center-left politicians represent a "new era" for Latin America and cite their mass base, their past history, their "popular origins". When leftist critics point out the appointment of neo-liberal economic ministers and central bankers, their regressive agreements with the IMF and World Bank the ideologues argue for "pragmatism", "realism" and the need to make "alliances". The ex-leftist ideologues of the "center-left" are clearly uncomfortable with defending regimes entering into negotiations over ALCA (particularly so soon after they had been among its staunchest critics). They resort to irrational diatribes against "scholastic Marxists" who articulate "outmoded and failed theories", "café leftists" who are "out of touch with national reality". Anti-intellectual demagogy becomes the last resort of apologists for the center-left regime's transition toward ALCA. Their "realism" is in fact accommodation to the existing national and international power structure. Their caricature of Marxism is an evasion of the anti-imperialist intellectuals who criticize the center-left's insertion into the imperial order. The attack on "café Marxists" is based on their own growing distance from the praxis of left intellectuals engaged in the anti-ALCA protests.

The incorporation of many former "leftist" politicians and intellectuals into the apparatuses of the new center-left regimes is a major challenge for consequential leftists. The main task of the leftist intellectual is not to join and fight within the state apparatus - a hopeless terrain in which the strategic economic and repressive positions are controlled by pro-ALCA ministers and functionaries. The real challenge is to look outside the state apparatus to the growing mass agrarian and urban mass movements. Inside these mass movements involving millions of the victims of imperialist exploitation there is a growing debate over the role of electoral politics, the relation to newly elected center-left regimes and the relationship to ALCA. The resolution of these debates will have a profound impact on Latin America for the next decade.

Electoral and Movement Politics

The revolutionary movement position views electoral politics as a subordinate element to the mass struggle, the electoral party as an "instrument" to further mass demands and to support extra-parliamentary action. This relationship between mass movement and electoral politics is illustrated in Bolivia during the popular mobilizations convoked by the cocaleros and supported generally throughout the country. The MAS, the electoral "instrument" of the mass movements, was in the street, deputies were assaulted and injured along with picketers at the road blockages.

Class struggle occurs within the larger and more established mass popular movements. In Ecuador, for instance, many of the Indians who are leaders integrated into electoral politics and part of the center-left regimes are local traders, transport owners and recipients of funds from overseas NGO's. They profit as intermediaries and see themselves as part of the upwardly mobile middle class. When I asked one such indigenous leader about bi-lingual education, he told me that it was for "poor people", he sent his children to Spanish language schools, because "that is the way to achieve success in life". The growing class differentiation within "Indian communities" shatters the image of identity ideologues who reject class analysis in favor of imputing cultural attributes to entire ethnic groups. The centrality of socio-economic divisions within ethnic groups have pronounced political consequences - the transformation of movements into reformist electoralist parties.

The reformist electoralist approach is illustrated by the Workers Party in Brazil, which refused to support the anti-ALCA referendum, to secure electoral alliances with right-wing neo-liberal parties. During the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, Lula chose to participate in the WSF and the Davos Meeting organized by the world's financial and business oligarchies. While over 52 million Brazilians voted for Lula with the expectations of social changes, Lula selected his strategic economic team from neo-liberal notables without consulting the mass movements or even the Workers Party. In Brazil electoral politics dominated the mass movements ( as was evident during the electoral campaign when the Workers Party demanded the movements suspend all struggles that might "alienate" rightwing oligarchs ).

The tension between electoral parties and mass movements is reflected in the polarization of the intellectuals. For those intellectuals who are organically linked to the electoral parties, their ideological views and values embrace the politics of short- term accommodation to power and the perquisites of public office. Those intellectuals who are linked to the movements retain a realistic and autonomous position in relation to the rightward moving center-left regimes and affirm the perspective of building an alternative anti-imperialist and transformative project.

While the center-left intellectuals value power, prestige and media approval, the movement intellectuals value organizing the exploited, critical thinking and political independence.

Today throughout Latin and North American and the rest of the world, these debates and choices confront the left intellectuals: to be part of the imperial system and its regional blocs, or to be part of the global and local class-based mass movements seeking to overthrow the system. It is the choice between those who support negotiating with ALCA and those who reject ALCA, between those who support the existing power structure (in the name of governing for "all" the people) and those who act for the exploited people. In the anti-war movement there are those who oppose the U.S. imperialist war and those who oppose it only because the UN Security Council does not approve it.

These cultural wars - the ideological debates - are not merely the reflection of economic interests, they also produce the power blocs - parties and movements which will decide the questions of imperialist wars or peace, re-colonization or vibrant independent states responsive to the impoverished classes.