Scott Noble is the director of several acclaimed and politically charged documentaries, including Psywar, Human Resources and Lifting the Veil. His documentary on Occupy Wall Street, Rise Like Lions, took the #1 spot on Films for Action’s Top Ten Occupy films. His latest, The Power Principle, takes on the American empire, with emphasis on the Cold War period. We sent him a few questions. Here are his responses.
Your film “Rise Like Lions” charts the history of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What drew you to Occupy?
Well, I should probably begin by stressing that my opinions are likely to be more “radical” than much of your readership. The Occupy movement is made up of a very diverse crowd, ranging from “liberals” and “libertarians” who desire to reform the system while keeping most of its institutions intact, to “radicals” who wish to completely transform the institutions themselves. I fall into the latter camp.
Ken Knabb, author of “The Joy of Revolution”, has called Occupy “the most significant radical breakthrough in America since the 1960s.” One can hope. The important thing is that people are beginning to come together, on an international level, in search of a new society. Whether in the future these various movements fall under the name “Occupy” is not of much significance. The fuse has been lit.
The response by “authorities” has been telling. Rebecca Solnit at Tom Dispatch described the Occupy evictions as “maximum sub-lethal force on sleepers in tents, mothers with children, unarmed pedestrians, young women already penned up, unresisting seated students, poets, professors, pregnant women, wheelchair-bound occupiers, and octogenarians. It has been a sustained campaign of police brutality from Wall Street to Washington State the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.”
It is tempting to view the ruling class as simply sadistic. In the case of the hysterical response to Occupy, however, I think they are mostly acting out of fear. It’s like the old adage of a wild animal being more afraid of you than you are of it. Elites are afraid of equality, they are afraid of real democracy, and they are afraid of justice. I don’t see the righteous anger of the people dissipating any time soon. All signs point not to “recovery” but an increasingly catastrophic set of events – social, financial, environmental – even a WWIII scenario. Truncheons may work in the short term, but they won’t put out the fire. The boys in blue are just spreading the sparks around a little.
The next question is whether the fire will be one that illuminates or merely destroys. In “The Spirit of Revolt”, the great anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote, “The direction which the revolution will take depends, no doubt, upon the sum total of the various circumstances that determine the coming of the cataclysm. But it can be predicted in advance, according to the vigor of revolutionary action displayed in the preparatory period by the different progressive parties.”
Right now we are in the preparatory period, though few realize it yet. Obama signed the NDAA on New Year’s Eve when everyone was drunk. A fitting metaphor. We’re seeing the introduction of new “less-lethal” weapons, surveillance technologies, fascistic laws, resource-grabs and so forth; meanwhile, a minority of the public is trying establish some semblance of (r)evolutionary vigor.
The goal, as I understand it, is actual participation by the people in the running of our affairs, including the work place. In other words, real, participatory democracy.
You have at least one-third of the population living in la-la land. They are either oblivious to the scale of the problem, or they sublimate their anger onto irrelevant scapegoats. The latter group consists of people who supplicate themselves before power while directing their rage against perceived “lowers” in the social hierarchy. Neo-fascism is on the rise both in Europe and North America.
You also have a sizeable percentage of the population consumed by hopelessness and various defense mechanisms.
Then you have Occupy, and related movements in other countries. There seems to be a concerted push by the transnational ruling class toward a sort of neo-feudal society worldwide. Even in Canada – the country with the greatest storehouse of natural resources on the planet – we see “austerity” measures being implemented. This is class war on a global scale.
If we wait for our “leaders” to solve our problems we’re in big, big trouble. In “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright examined the response by elites to past system collapses: Easter Island, Rome, Sumer, the Mayans and so forth. As each society began to implode, elites did not acknowledge the error of their ways and change course – even though they had ample opportunity to do so – instead, they dug in; they engaged in increasingly extravagant consumption, more wars, and more repression of domestic populations.
If we place our trust in the ruling class, the human species will almost certainly go extinct in the near future. I don’t consider that statement hyperbole. Just pick a fact off the shelf. For instance, in the past 60 years, 40% of all phytoplankton has died. Phytoplankton is an absolutely essential part of our planetary life support system. Simply put, the parasitic ruling class is killing its host – us – as well as most other life forms on Earth.
This is not a life supporting system; it’s a death supporting system. Eric Fromm used the term “necrophilous: “the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly…the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive…to destroy for the sake of destruction…the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical.”
It’s not just a few bad apples at Goldman Sachs. In “The Penal Colony”, Franz Kafka compared the modern system of governance to a machine to which everyone, including the commanders of the colony, must ultimately sacrifice themselves.
No one benefits from this system, not even members of the ruling class; they are consigning their grandchildren to a horrific fate.
“Regular” people, for our part, are becoming increasingly desperate. There was a time when workers referred to wage labor as “wage slavery”; we rightly considered it a gross insult to our dignity to have to sell our labor to a “boss” who would order us around for most of our waking hours. Now, we consider ourselves lucky to even have a job.
We have a daunting task ahead of us. But it may not be as hopeless as it seems.
In many ways, the American power structure – like all hierarchical power structures – is a paper tiger. It relies to a great extent on what Etienne de la Boetie called “voluntary servitude”.
I don’t want to overstate the point. In the US, specifically, there will soon be thousands of drones patrolling the “homeland”; thousands of drone-like humans work diligently for the FBI, Homeland Security and similar agencies; the current American President is little more than a drone-in-chief; Biometrics and other surveillance technologies are being rolled out across the country; and unfortunately, the empire is unlikely to relinquish power in the manner of the Soviet Union during Glasnost and Perestroika.
At the same time, it must be continually stressed that we really are dealing with a tiny percentage of the population. Even if you include their minions in the security apparatus it’s still less than 1%. The Stasi in East Germany were the most feared security service in the world; they commanded about half-a-million informants; yet they were overthrown in a matter of days. At heart, authoritarians are cowards.
If and a when a large enough group of people decide the game is up, the game will be up.
It may be a bloodbath, or it may be a mass awakening, or it may be both. If nothing else, the Occupy movement has the potential to educate people before it’s too late.
What is your opinion of the upcoming American elections, and what role do you see the Occupy movement playing?
I’m not American, so I won’t speak to how I feel Americans should vote. It’s true that American corporations own about three-quarters of Canada, making Canadians a de facto colony of the empire, but we’re still technically two different countries. What I will say is that “lesser evilism” is clearly a failed strategy. Moreover, it is downright utopian to imagine that one person elected to a position of power – even the presidency – will be able to stave off the coming disaster.
The land-mass known as the United States hasn’t had democracy on a large scale since the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Federation. In fact virtually none of the world’s countries, regardless of political labels, have anything approaching majority rule. Switzerland is fairly democratic; however even in countries like Switzerland there are very strong institutional hierarchies, as well as strong adherence to market systems.
Under “representative” democracy in the United States and most other countries — especially after the rise of television – voting has become little more than a symbolic exercise. Elections are mostly competitions between different PR firms and vote fraud specialists. This is not to say that voting cannot produce positive outcomes, but we have to be realistic.
Another way of looking at political campaigns is that they waste tremendous amounts of energy that would better be spent elsewhere. This is the traditional view embraced by anarchists. The American anarchist Lily Gair Wilkinson wrote, “the “call for ‘votes’ can never be a call to freedom. For what is it to vote? To vote is to register assent to being ruled by one legislator or another”.
The word “anarchism” is not well understood by the public, but it’s essentially a philosophy advocating for systems of direct democracy and decentralization. So for example, rather than having politicians make all of the important decisions “for” us, an anarchic society would have delegates who could be recalled and replaced if they started making decisions on matters of import without the consent of the majority. This is actually the way we have organized ourselves for most of our time on planet Earth.
Here is Kahentinetha Horn’s description of consensual decision-making among the Kanien’kehá:ka:
“[N]o one can impose their will nor make decisions for another, all must understand the viewpoint and agree of their own free will. The goal is not total agreement, but total understanding…the individual has a duty to be directly involved, and to bring their ideas into the discussion within their clan. The final decision will be fully satisfactory to some, satisfactory to others and relatively satisfactory to the remainder, and will reflect elements from every group. This is a slow careful process requiring the reaching of a full understanding by each individual and not a decision made by a ‘leader.’ The person who explains the decision is a spokesman.”
In the case of Occupy, I do not agree with the 100% consensus model embraced by some towns and cities; there is too great a risk of monkey wrenching by infiltrators; but the directly democratic structure is the right one.
Regarding the Occupy movement and the elections, I think the most important thing is to remain independent of the Republocrat Party and other would-be-co-opters. Let Occupy build real alternatives. In my film “Lifting the Veil”, historian Sharon Smith describes the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements”. It’s something to keep in mind.
How do you think Occupy is progressing, and where do you think it will go in the future?
I will answer this question at length because there are a great variety of potential outcomes.
Occupy is currently mutating into different forms. Which is healthy. There are occupations of foreclosed homes, acts of solidarity with prisoners, boycotts, bank transfers and so forth.
The movement has already been successful in the sense that it has altered the dominant discourse. The whole idea of the 1% vs. the 99% is a powerful meme. Most important, in my view, is that Occupy is building networks of mutual aid. America is an incredibly atomized society, and the first step in effecting real change is to break down the walls designed to keep people isolated from one another.
As I write this, the most important Occupy-related uprising in North America is occurring in Quebec. Students are refusing to accept rising tuition fees, and openly challenging draconian “emergency” laws of the state. What I find most remarkable about these student assemblies is that they are insisting on directly democratic organization, rejecting the old hierarchical models. They have been inspired by students in Chile, who in turn were inspired by events in Greece and Spain, who in turn were inspired by events in Egypt, and so forth. Young people in particular are beginning to recognize that “representative” democracy is an antiquated form of social organization.
Eventually, Occupy and related movements will become more militant. Of that I’m reasonably certain. I’m not talking about an armed insurgency against the government, though conceivably it could come to that if people get desperate enough; rather I’m talking about higher levels of class-consciousness, sacrifice, solidarity, organization, participation; and the willingness to bypass, circumvent and overtake traditional institutions.
Increased violence by the state is probable. Self-defense, even armed self-defense, is a possibility as well.
There are several predictable techniques used by the powerful to destroy movements for positive change. One is propaganda. Another is brute force. Another is co-optation by the establishment. Another is Counter-Intelligence, including “dirty tricks”. All of these are interlinked and feed off each other.
The first goal is to divide and conquer the movement. You can already see this happening with Occupy, especially as the election season heats up. Writing in The American Prospect, Sally Kohn suggests that Occupy will soon break up into factions: “radicals” and “anarchists” will be marginalized (even though “radicals” and “anarchists” started the movement), while everyone else will go “mainstream”. She seems to think this is a good idea. But look closer.
PR Watch published a fascinating communiqué by Ron Duchin, who served as president of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MDB,) a Washington D.C. public affairs firm specializing “in issues management and the motivation behind activist movements.”
Duchin graduated from the US Army War College and served as special assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He is listed in the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
“In 1991 he gave a speech to the US National Cattlemen’s Association describing how MBD works to divide and conquer activist movements. Duchin claims that activists fall into four categories: radicals, opportunists, idealists and realists, and that a three-step strategy was needed to bring them down.
“FIRST, YOU ISOLATE THE RADICALS – those who want to change the system and promote social justice. “Second, you carefully ‘cultivate’ the idealists: those who are altruistic, don’t stand to gain from their activism, and are not as extreme in their methods and objectives as the radicals. You do this by gently persuading them that their advocacy has negative consequences for some groups, thus transforming them into realists.”
“Finally, you co-opt the realists (the pragmatic incrementalists willing to work within the system) into compromise.”
One of the ways “radicals” tend to get isolated is through provocation.
When it comes to violence, there are many lessons to be learned from the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence program against the “New Left” during the Civil Rights era. Here is a typical case involving an agent provocateur:
“Tommy the Traveler,” posing as an SDS organizer, offered bombs, guns and lessons in guerilla tactics to students on various new York campuses. Two students whom he had taught to make Molotov cocktails burned down the campus ROTC building and were immediately arrested (New York Times, June 7 and 19, 1970).
In his valuable study, “On an overlooked category of social movement participant: the agent provocateur and the informant”, sociologist Gary T. Marx sums up the purpose of these operations: “to gain evidence for use in a trial, to encourage paranoia and internal dissension, and/or to damage the public image of a group”.
Because these tricks are almost impossible to prevent, and because they can foment paranoia and demoralization within dissident groups (which is one of their purposes), many activists and intellectuals eschew the topic entirely. I think this is a mistake.
First, by studying the history of black ops we can learn how best to minimize the threat of disruption. For example, one important lesson: playing “catch the snitch” is a dangerous game.
In a 1970 memo, “FBI agents were instructed to plant in the hands of Black Panthers phony documents (on FBI stationery) that would lead them to suspect one another of being police informers.” Another FBI directive tells agents to question those in the new left at every opportunity: “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.
In short: it is best to debate tactics, not accuse each other of being “agents”. If necessary, groups should expel perpetual disruptors, but excessive factionalism should be discouraged.
Another reason why black ops are important to acknowledge and discuss: by educating the public about the existence of these “dirty tricks” we can minimize their propaganda value. This is especially relevant when it comes to agent provocateurs.
The sub-heading to my film “Psywar” is “The Real Battlefield is the Mind”. The public understandably reacts with disgust to acts of mindless property destruction and terrorism – provided it doesn’t come from police or soldiers – in which case we are trained to accept if not applaud such violence.
In response to the crushing of the Paris Commune, Karl Marx wrote, “The bourgeoisie…which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!”
So it’s not a new problem. And nor is the debate about violence within activist movements.
Regarding police thuggery, one of the things I think we need to ram into the heads of our friends and neighbors is that collective punishment by the state is not justified. Ever. If some angry youth or provocateur throws an object at the police, that does not give police the right to assault the five hundred other protesters standing nearby. Yet this is what happens. Repeatedly. It is incredible that one even has to argue the point.
Perhaps the confusion owes to our “collateral damage” culture, wherein it is deemed acceptable that dozens of civilians die for every “militant” targeted in the Middle East.
The corporate media typically describes the brutalization of protesters by saying, “protesters clashed with police”. A common variant is “protesters threw bottles and other objects at police”, followed by “police responded with tear gas”.
In a recent piece on the subject, David Graeber pointed out that attempts to appeal to the “mainstream media” by embracing some sort of imagined ideal of protester propriety are doomed to failure. In the case of Occupy, resolute non-violence did not prevent massive assaults against protesters, nor engender positive media coverage.
Some activists spend a lot of time writing angry letters to people at CNN and ABC etc. I would suggest their time would be better-spent urging friends and family to cancel their cable subscriptions. The corporate media is the mouthpiece of the 1%.
Getting back to the original point, I think it was and is right of Occupy to pursue non-violence. In the following passage, Arundhati Roy cites one of the many reasons why peaceful revolution is preferable:
“But remember that if the struggle were to resort to violence, it will lose vision, beauty and imagination. Most dangerous of all, it will marginalize and eventually victimize women. And a political struggle that does not have women at the heart of it, above it, below it, and within it is no struggle at all.”
Having said all this, we should not transform non-violence into some sort of religion or reductio ad absurdum.
It is alarming that self-defense against violence by the state is increasingly considered “radical” or even immoral.
Some liberals vilified Occupy Oakland protesters for bringing helmets and shields to an occupation – this after a vet, Scott Olsen, had already been shot in the head with a tear gun canister.
Both Gandhi and MLK would be appalled to learn that many people now consider a Starbuck’s window more deserving of “rights” than peaceful protesters. Neither gentleman condemned (actually) violent revolutionaries; they placed the blame squarely where it belonged – on the architects of the system.
We are often presented with a false choice – either we engage in armed insurrection against the state, or we pursue our grievances through “proper channels” and passively accept police violence. Yet there are many potential tactics at our disposable, some of which may be illegal but nevertheless effective, and justified.
For example, pacifists often destroy military equipment. In doing so they may be saving lives. Occupations may also be illegal yet effective. Indeed we can find a reference to this from COINTELPRO:
“A student, paid by a congressional investigating committee to provide information on student radicals, has revealed how he started a Students for Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at his local college in order to keep tabs on the left and “prevent” a student takeover of buildings (Meinhausen 1969)
One question is whether these sorts of occupations – be they in a government building, or a foreclosed home, or a factory – should be defended with force. This is not just an intellectual exercise; it has happened many times in American history. Morally speaking, I believe such defensive measures are absolutely justified.
No less a “radical” than Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right”.
Saying that something is morally justified, however, is not the same thing as saying it is the ideal course of action. We are attempting to create a less violent society, not die out of principle.
Gandhi was anarchic in his philosophy (“the ideally non-violent state would be an ordered anarchy”) and indeed he borrowed much of his philosophy of non-violence from two anarchist philosophers (Kropotkin and Tolstoy). He also deemed politics a necessary evil, calling it “wrestling with the snake”.
Perhaps, due to the new technologies, we may now be able to take a different course – rather than wrestling with the snake, we may be able to outwit it. Wrestling with a snake is a bit of a fool’s game to begin with.
There is a tradition in anarchist and libertarian thought known as mutualism. The idea is not to capture the state but to replace it – to build the new society in the shell of the old. Writing on the subject of worker co-ops, Gar Alperovitz from YES! magazine described such a process as “evolutionary reconstruction.”
R. Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
By coordinating on an international level, we may be able to beat the masters simply by power of numbers. And really, aside from the justness of our cause, that is our greatest advantage. Hence the slogan about the 99%.
If the (r)evolution is to be successful it must be global. I was struck by the fact that the NYPD went to the trouble of raiding Globalrevolution TV at the height of Occupy. The station was streaming footage not only of events in New York but similar uprisings around the globe, explicitly linking them together. Authorities claimed the GRTV site “hosted conditions imminently perilous to life”, a laughable justification. I think the very term “global revolution” strikes fear into the hearts of plutocrats everywhere. They are accustomed to living in a transnational world, while we the people are confined within borders.
The new technologies allow an unprecedented degree of international coordination and communication. If and when we are linked together on a sufficient scale, we will begin to become far more effective. It is for this reason that out of all the proposals I have seen regarding Occupy, my favorite is the idea that delegates be elected to represent each town and city across the nation; activities could then be coordinated on a national and eventually international level.
The digital revolution may permit us, for the first time, to create a true international.
Equally important, if the movement remains decentralized and directly democratic, increasing our numbers will not automatically produce hierarchical power structures.
The emergence of independent work cooperatives organized around principles of equality may be the single most important determinant to our success. Most people will not join a movement simply because it is the right thing to do; and they will certainly not join a movement if the only perceived “benefit” is getting beaten up by the police; yet offer a real alternative, where they are treated as human beings, as equals, and not forced to toil all day for subsistence, and can really make a difference – they will come.
I was surprised to learn recently that over 1 billion people around the world are currently involved in work co-ops. Granted, not all of these co-ops are created equal; there are varying degrees of adherence to hierarchy and capitalism and statism; but the very nature of the co-op is conducive to sustainability, equality and individual liberty.
There is a gargantuan amount of untapped potential in these decentralized units. Perhaps it’s time to recapture the spirit of the Wobblies and the idea of “one big union”.
Such an organization needn’t imply lock-step conformity. Groups should be free to adopt certain measures and reject others. What works in one location may not work in another. Again, I think the anarchists have it right on this score. As George Barrett wrote, the anarchist economy “starts from below, not from above. Like an organism, this free society grows into being from the simple unit up to the complex structure.”
Or, as Tom Brown argued, the “syndicalist mode of organisation is extremely elastic, therein is its chief strength, and the regional confederations can be formed, modified, added to or reformed according to local conditions and changing circumstances.” [Syndicalism, p. 58]
The cybernetic mathematician John B. McEwan, writing on the relevance of anarchism to cybernetics, explains: “Libertarian socialists, synonym for non-indvidualist anarchism, especially Kropotkin and Landauer, showed an early grasp of the complex network of changing relationships, involving many structures of correlated activity and mutual aid, independent of authoritarian coercion. It was against this background that they developed their theories of social organization….”
“The self-governing associations will be flexible enough to adjust their differences, correct and learn from their mistakes, experiment with new, creative forms of social living and thereby achieve genuine harmony on a higher humanistic plane. Errors and conflicts confined to the limited jurisdiction of special purpose groups, may do limited damage. But miscalculations and criminal decisions made by the state and other autocratically centralized organizations affecting whole nations, and even the whole world.”
John Stauber at the Center for Media and Democracy described you as a “pioneer in the new filmmaking”. How has the Internet changed documentaries?
The Internet has revolutionized documentary filmmaking.
Traditionally, documentary filmmakers have had to pursue a rather painful route in order to showcase their work. Unless they were independently wealthy they had to secure funding from a secondary source, which often meant compromising their vision; they had to rely on bourgeois critics, film festivals and production companies; and accessing footage was a difficult, time-consuming process. The Internet has solved all of these problems.
Of course, the new documentary filmmaking is just a small part of the Internet revolution as a whole.
I remember watching a program on A&E about the “most influential people in history”, or something to that effect. Their #1 choice was Johann Gutenberg, who invented mechanical movable type printing. The argument is that the printing press was the most democratizing force in modern history. You can make a good case that the Internet may one day be recognized in similar fashion. If it survives.
You explore the Cold War in your latest film. How did you approach the subject?
My new film is called “The Power Principle” (‘Corporate empire and the rise of the national security state’). The title derives from a quote by the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin – “If there is a Devil in history, it is the power principle”. It’s essentially the story of the American empire, with emphasis on the Cold War period.
There are only a handful of documentaries that approach the Cold War honestly. The 20 hour CNN series devotes most of its time to political intrigues between the United Sates and the Soviet Union. To the extent that it deals with atrocities, it emphasizes Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. Only one chapter is spent on atrocities in Latin America.
My first goal was to weave together various “alternative” histories about the American empire. Then I began to address issues that I felt had been overlooked or downplayed.
In terms of emphasis – here are some points I stress.
#1. The Cold War was not just a struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; the real struggle was between American corporations and the Third World.
#2. Top policy planners in the US and other Western nations were acutely aware that the Soviet Union had a conservative foreign policy. You can see this in numerous declassified documents. Nevertheless, the American government engaged in what can only be described as a campaign of terrorism against the American people, constantly invoking the “Soviet Menace” to justify military spending and war.
#3. The United States does not have a free press.
I use the term “free press” not in the legalistic sense, ie freedom from state oppression (though occasionally that applies in the US as well) but in the manner of Orwell. In the preface to Animal Farm he wrote — “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary…Things are kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervenes but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”
Peter Phillips from Project Censored argues that the primary difference between corporate media in the US and state media in the Soviet Union is that in the latter case the public understood that they were being propagandized. Many Americans continue to suffer under the delusion that the programming on CNN or ABC or PBS or even Fox is something akin to hard-hitting journalism.
The United States once had a very strong and vibrant labor press. During the Cold War, anti-Communist hysteria and government repression severely marginalized dissident voices, paving the way for the neo-liberal counter-revolution. After the “New Left” was destroyed, the “alternative media” became somewhat akin to the Russian Samizdat; except rather than banning such media outright, it was buried under a mountain of bullshit. In other words, the airwaves were saturated with inane, dehumanizing, stupefying “entertainment”.
I also cover Operation Mockingbird in the film. It was a CIA black op to buy influence at major media outlets, and has now become an umbrella term for infiltration of the media by intelligence agencies. The most interesting thing about Mockingbird is that it was even deemed necessary. Indeed, the term “infiltration” is not really accurate. What you see in the wake of WWII is an old-boy network of psywarriors, spooks and media barons — essentially one big happy family.
#4. The Pentagon is a Keynsian Mechanism.
One of its lesser-known – though crucial – functions is to transfer public wealth to private industry in the name of “defense” spending. This is supremely ironic in light of the ideological justification for the Cold War. America continually attacked (and continues to attack) countries that reject free market orthodoxy, yet the Pentagon itself is a warped example of Keynsian interventionism.
#5. The American government was responsible for genocide during the Cold War.
The term “genocide” has an interesting history. In 1946 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution barring “genocide” “when racial, religious, political and other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part”. For obvious reasons, Stalin objected to the inclusion of the word “political”, so it was dropped.
Nevertheless, even if we adopt the standard definition, the United States government was responsible for genocide during this time period. The mass slaughters in East Timor and Guatemala, for example, were described as such by Amnesty International. Granted, these were genocides by proxy, but they could not and would not have occurred if not for U.S. weapons, training and support.
The exact number of people killed by the United States and/or its proxies during the Cold War remains in dispute. Former CIA officer John Stockwell conservatively put the number at about 6 million individuals, mostly landless peasants. The holocaust in SouthEast Asia accounts for the majority.
We often hear a counter-argument that the Soviet Union was responsible for more deaths, but that’s not particularly relevant. No one is trying to rescue Stalinism from the dust heap of history. More to the point, only a minuscule fraction of the governments targeted by the US during the Cold War could accurately be described as “Stalinist” or “Maoist” or even “socialist”. Most are best described as “progressive”, “moderate” or just “nationalist”.
While acknowledging the atrocities of the Soviet Union, it is also worth stressing that the deaths caused by capitalism are so vast as to be virtually unquantifiable. Millions of children die every year from the systemic violence of “free markets”. These arrangements aren’t just enforced by American capital, obviously; they pre-date American capitalism, and in fact they are often enforced by countries which have a fair amount of domestic equality and cohesion. Canada is a good example of this. Canadian mining corporations kill far more people than Canadian bullets.
#6. The Empire is similar to the mafia
Just as it seems ridiculous for American police to engage in SWAT-like assaults against small encampments of Occupiers, it seems odd that the US bothers to attack countries like Chile or Grenada. In the case of Chile, a report from the State Department noted that the US had “no vital national interests” in that country. Nevertheless, it was deemed vitally important to overthrow Salvadore Allende.
Or take Grenada. In the film I show a clip of Ronald Reagan in which he actually says, “It’s not just about nutmeg…It’s about national security”. Reagan may well have believed as much, but the folks at the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation most certainly did not.
So why bother? The answer lies in the danger of a good example. In the film, Noam Chomsky calls it the “Mafia Doctrine”.
If a storekeeper fails to cough up protection money, the boss may not care about the money, but he does care about the example. It may inspire other storekeepers to cut loose of the Don.
Similarly, allowing a successful experiment in democracy to flourish – whether at an Occupy Camp in NY, or in a tiny nation like Grenada – may set a good (ergo, bad) example for larger populations.
#7. Corporate interests are inextricably wed with military policy.
This is more or less self-evident. What is noteworthy is that many self-described “liberals” have a remarkable ability to separate – in their own minds – the relationship between economic exploitation and military aggression.
One of the more striking examples of this occurred with the recent “Make Poverty History” campaign spearheaded by Bono and Bob Geldoff. It was a huge media spectacle featuring people like Madonna and Bill Gates.
Appearing on Letterman, Bono stated that “President Bush, whom, you know, you might have arguments with on various levels, he actually led this and he deserves some credit for this.” The interview occurred right in the middle of the Iraqi bloodbath (which ,as your readers know, is ongoing).
Prior to the worldwide concert, “Bob Geldolf emailed an edict to each of the Live 8 performers, forbidding them from mentioning the Iraq War or saying anything that would ‘embarrass’ [Tony] Blair.”
So what you see here is a complete disconnect. Celebrities often appear on television urging viewers to donate money to countries in the “Third World”, especially after a natural disaster. However well-meaning, these self-congratulatory exercises mainly serve to obfuscate the actual reasons why these people are poor in the first place.
Poverty in the “third world” is not some sort of “natural” condition; it is born of centuries of colonial and corporate exploitation, enforced by violence. In the film, I use Haiti as the ultimate example of this horrific legacy. The last thing people in Haiti need is more “help” or “aid” by the Americans or the French or the Spanish. What they need are reparations and to be left the hell alone.
#8. American imperialism is not of recent vintage.
Many believe that American imperialism did not begin in earnest until after WWII. A better way of understanding the process is that the American empire did not become truly global until after WWII.
At different times in American history we see different justifications for imperialism: “Civilizing the savages”, “manifest destiny”, “making the world safe for democracy”, defeating the communist menace, eradicating the scourge of drugs, battling terrorists and so forth. But the fundamental nature of the foreign policy is quite consistent; changes mostly come about due to shifting power configurations. This is true of all nation states. As Bakunin wrote, “small states are virtuous only because of their weakness”.
In the film, Nafeez Ahmed discusses the “Grand Area Strategy” of 1945, “drawn up by US State Department policy-planners in liaison with experts from the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC.” It was essentially a passing of the imperial torch from the British to the American empire.
Grand Area Strategy saw that US policy was “to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat” to this world area. But this policy could only be pursued on the basis of “an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States.”
So the concept of “security interests” had to be extended beyond traditional notions of territorial integrity to include domination of these regions “strategically necessary for world control.”
#9. Elites deceive themselves as well as the public.
Christopher Simpson (“The Science of Coercion”) notes in the film that propaganda can have a “blowback” effect. In other words, policy makers can start believing their own propaganda.
It is impossible to gauge to what extent top policy planners are simply cynical, or whether they are more likely to justify what they do according to certain imagined principles. Both, I suspect.
Whatever lofty ideals these people may imagine they are upholding, the reality is that their actions are no more sophisticated than a big chimp hitting a smaller chimp over the head with a stick.
“Realpolitik” a la Henry Kissinger is commonly perceived as a “coldly rational” worldview. In fact, it is irrational to the point of insanity. The human race does not survive by intra-species competition; on the contrary, the values often labeled “soft” or “naive” by these supposed “realists” – cooperation, mutual aid, equality – are the very mechanisms we use to survive as a species.
#10. The US is not exceptional. It is behaving pretty much as powerful states always have.
Reactionaries will no doubt perceive my film as “Anti-American”, but the very notion of “Anti-Americanism” is quite absurd. Arundhati Roy summed up the silliness of the charge when she said, “Does that mean I’m Anti-Grand Canyon?”
“Anti-Americanism” is a totalitarian concept; it equates the average citizen with operations of state, essentially fusing the two, even though one group (the 1%) makes all of the important decisions on behalf of the other (the 99%).
The premise of Anti-Americanism didn’t really arise until WWI, when George Creel, the head of the new propaganda industry, endeavored to eliminate “class distinctions” and create what he called “one white hot mass instinct”. “Good Americans” marched off to war and avoided joining labor unions. “Bad” Americans went to jail or were deported. I cover these events in my film “Psywar”.
Dismantling the American empire will not eliminate war. The only way of stopping or at least mitigating these increasingly suicidal conflicts is to broaden decision-making power to the broad mass of the people.
#11. Western elites supported fascism prior to, during and after WWII.
The Power Principle is probably the first film to comprehensively examine the hidden history of fascism and the myth of WWII as the “good war”.
Fascism is commonly portrayed as a wildly irrational outbreak of mass hysteria caused primarily by “great men” such as Hitler or Mussolini. Adam Curtis perpetuates this fallacy in his film “The Century of the Self”.
Yet fascism was (and is) highly rational. It received nothing but support by Western elites ranging from Rockefeller to Winston Churchill himself, and was only (ostensibly) opposed when the fascists started threatening Anglo-American business interests.
I use three case studies – Spain, Greece and Italy – to demonstrate support for fascism at the highest levels of the US and British governments prior to, during and after the war. I also examine the role that American banks and corporations played in financing the fascist movement.
The myth of “The Good war” has been one of the most damaging propaganda devices of the modern era. Instead of viewing the conflict as an entirely avoidable and monumental tragedy precipitated by the international ruling class, it is presented as a heroic victory in which America “saved the world”. This perception is constantly reinforced by Hollywood.
What needs to be understood is that the ruling class does not have the same affection for borders as your average man on the street. Nationalism is relentlessly cultivated amongst the “masses” as a divide and conquer stratagem, but elites express solidarity through class. They are transnational. And we need to be too.
#12. A WWIII scenario is almost inevitable unless the American public wakes up – and fast.
The three biggest (known) “close calls” involving potential nuclear exchange were not even revealed until after the fall of the Soviet Union. I cover them in my film.
The first occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the midst of the conflict, a group of United States Navy destroyers began dropping practice depth charges on a submarine positioned near Cuba. It was an incredibly reckless move, apparently designed to force the sub to the surface. The Soviet commanders believed WIII was underway.
According to Soviet military protocol, the commanders had previous permission to launch missiles if all three reached consensus; two said yes, one said no. Then, “An argument broke out among the three [commanders], in which only Vasili Arkhipov was against the launch.” Arkhopov has been called “The man who saved the world”.
The second biggest close call occurred in 1983. A computer malfunction at a nuclear warning facility near Moscow falsely indicated a nuclear attack by the United States. The probability indicator was at level #1, the highest possible.
The man in charge, Stanislav Petrov, did not have the ability to launch a retaliatory strike. However, were he to pass on the information to the top command, the Soviet leadership would have only had a few minutes to decide on whether to launch a counter-attack. Petrov broke military protocol, and waited.
The third biggest close call occurred in the same year, when NATO began a war exercise; the scenario was an all out nuclear attack on their country, codenamed Able Archer.
When Hitler invaded Russia during WWII, he did so under the guise of a war game. Hard-liners in the Kremlin became convinced that history was about to repeat itself.
In the run up to the exercise, the Soviets secretly mobilized all key components of their military forces, including nuclear subs. One mistake by both side, and a holocaust would have resulted.
There are other examples, though not quite as hair-raising. A report by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation lists over 20 “close calls” during the Cold War. Most would probably have been prevented by fail-safe measures, but there’s no way of knowing for certain.
We are now on the cusp of another such incident, or series of incidents – a potential assault against Iran. In the coda to “The Power Principle”, I cite various quotes by Russian and Chinese officials indicating that Iran may be their “line in the sand”. There is no evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon – though it would certainly be understandable if they were, especially considering their proximity to Israel. The Israeli leadership is arguably even crazier and more dangerous than that of the US.
According to the Nuremberg charter, unprovoked wars of aggression constitute the single greatest crime under international law. Yet these wars have become a matter of routine for the world’s greatest superpower. In the words of Martin Luther King, “this madness must cease”.
Any military officer given an order to attack Iran – from the “lowest grunt” up to the “highest officer” – is obligated by law not only to refuse the order but to detain the guilty party or parties until they can be brought to justice. And there will be justice. In one form or another.
More than mere law – and I don’t need to tell this to your readers – soldiers must be obligated by conscience. A war against Iran could easily set off a chain reaction leading to nuclear conflagration. Quite frankly, the men running the world are lunatics. They should be institutionalized immediately for the safety of themselves and others.
This is why I have particular respect for men and women of Soldiers for the Cause. They are doing what every veteran and serving military officer should be doing – attempting to defend the citizens of the United States. 99% of serving US military personnel are currently doing the opposite – they are increasing the threat to Americans by killing people for corporate profit, thereby inviting blowback, while at the same time allowing citizens to be brutalized simply for exercising the “right” to free speech and assembly. Once again, this pattern is not limited to the United States. If soldiers are serious about their oaths they need to stop looking for potential enemies in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran. The enemy is within.
Do you think your films are having a positive effect?
Yes. Nothing earth-shattering of course. I’m just a fellow traveler.
Watch The Power Principle here: https://www.filmsforaction.org/Watch/The_Power_Principle_Corporate_Empire_and_the_Rise_of_the_National_Security_State_2012/
Karol Olesiak served on the USS Ronald Reagan CVN 76 from 2002-2006. He is a plankowner and a graduate of The New School in New York. In 1986 his family escaped Polish Communism by way of Greece due to Polish Martial Law. Karol and his family have been covered by the Christian Science Monitor and appeared on Good Morning America twice. Karol's book, co-written by his brother, containing poetry and short literary fiction entitled "Cold War Kids," is due for release soon.