Category Archives: Economics
As a student of history, particularly Russian history, I was curious about the new film “The Death of Stalin,” then appalled when I did some online research and found out that it’s a slapstick comedy about officials grasping for power after Stalin died in 1953. What’s funny about something like this? Nothing. Also shocking is the way the film gives absolutely no context about Stalin, one of the key historical figures, for good or ill, of the 20th century. As Peter Hitchens, a London reader of The Guardian wrote in that paper’s letters section on 10-27-17, “As far as I know, this is the first time a mass-market film has dealt with this event. We may be saturated with serious drama and documentary material on the Nazis and the end of Hitler, but the equivalent evils of the Stalin nightmare haven’t received anything like the same treatment. For most who see the film, it will be the first time they’ve ever heard of these strange events. And what do they see? An intensely serious moment in human history played for laughs, with lavatory humor and plentiful use of the failed comedian’s standby, the F-word. We’re so free and safe that we can hardly begin to imagine a despot so terrifying that his subordinates are even afraid of his corpse. This trivial and inaccurate squib doesn’t help us to do so. Perhaps it’s the comedians who need to be satirized, by some fitting seriousness about a serious subject.”
The only critical review I found of the film online was one posted on the World Socialist website (www.wsws.org) on 3-9-18. David Walsh describes it as “a fatally ill-conceived ‘black comedy’ about the demise of the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin, in March 1953. The film is not so much maliciously anticommunist as it is, above all, historically clueless. Iannucci presents the various surviving Stalinist officials, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Nikolai Bulganin, and the rest, all of whom had gallons of blood on their hands, as a largely ineffectual bunch of bunglers and toadies, jockeying ‘comically’ for position. The betrayal of the Russian Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies in world history [not to mention the planned famine in Ukraine and Stalin’s purges, which together killed more people than Hitler]. Iannucci’s film doesn’t begin to confront the vast significance of events in the Soviet Union.
Taken in and of themselves, there are amusing lines and moments, until one remembers the general context and the historical stakes, and the laughter freezes in one’s throat. All the actors are fine at doing what they’re asked to do, but what they’re asked to do is terribly off the mark. It’s impossible to make sense of a film like ‘The Death of Stalin’ except in the context of the disastrously low level of historical knowledge or interest that exists in the arts at present.
Iannucci is a Scottish-born television, film and radio writer and director, responsible for ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ (along with Steve Coogan), ‘The Thick of It,’ ‘In the Loop,’ and ‘Veep,’ among other efforts, and under the right circumstances, he’s capable of creating funny, pointed satire. When it comes to bringing out the dishonesty, careerist opportunism, and stupidity of garden-variety politicians, media personalities, and other establishment figures, he probably has few equals today. However, when the writer-director steps outside the fairly narrow confines of parliamentary and entertainment industry backroom shenanigans, he falters badly. The second half of ‘In the Loop,’ which satirized the British government’s complicity in the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq, is politically blunted and largely unfunny. HBO’s ‘Veep,’ too, about a fictional female US vice president, finds Iannucci over his head. For all its coarseness, it’s quite timid in its portrayal of the ugliness of American politics, with little mention of war policy, drone strikes, and other things that surely consume a great deal of a real president’s focus and attention.
Art and comedy have to rise to – or at least approach – the level of the events or personalities they’re treating. That is, there needs to be some artistic and intellectual correspondence between subject and object. Iannucci’s film is based on a [non-comic] French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Iannucci has undoubtedly added his own touch. And it’s simply inappropriate and, at times, grotesque.”
I believe history, as the backstory to current and future events, is the key to understanding where we are and where we could go, and I’m more than saddened by the preponderant lack of knowledge of or interest in it today – probably because of the boring, textbook-centered way it’s taught in high school. Good historical novels and films can make up for some of this, but bad ones, like “The Death of Stalin” just deepen the ignorance. Take the time to be curious about your world, and how it came to be the way it currently is. Find important history books by reading reviews on Amazon, then buy or borrow and read them!
Editors Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt introduce Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017) by saying that “the deep time of geology, climate, and natural science is collapsing into the historical time of human technology.” Our species, Anthropos, “has become an overwhelming force that can build and destroy, birth and kill all others on the planet.”
We can counter this process by noticing what Deborah Bird Rose, in Chapter 3, calls “shimmer,” however. Rose notes that what’s occurring in the extinction crisis is more dire than the numbers of extinct and threatened species indicate. Because everything is connected, “relationships also unravel, mutualities falter, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish…Shimmer, the ancestral power of life, arises in relationship and encounter, so extinction cascades drag shimmer from the world. The loss is both devastating and barely comprehensible…
Shimmer is an Aboriginal aesthetic that calls us into multispecies worlds. I use the term ‘aesthetic’ in a nontechnical way to discuss things that appeal to the senses, things that evoke or capture feelings and responses. Flowering plants, for example, have lures that both entice one’s attention and offer rewards.
In his classic essay ‘From Dull to Brilliant,’ anthropologist Howard Morphy discusses art in the Arnhem Land region of North Australia. His focus is on the Yolngu term bir’yun, which translates as ‘brilliant’ or ‘shimmering.’ When a Yolngu painting has just its rough shape, the artists describe it as ‘dull.’ The crosshatching that comes next shifts the painting to ‘brilliant,’ and it’s the brilliance of the finely detailed work that captures the eye. Bir’yun is the shimmer, the brilliance, a kind of motion that brings you into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world, the ephemeral dance of it all.
In contrast to Morphy, I didn’t work with people who were visual artists; I encountered people who focused on ritual performance, connecting bodies and earth through dance and song. In music, there are multiple temporal patterns, and through them one can also experience shimmer.” The seasons, from the dullness of the dry to the shimmering new growth of the wet, pulse this way, too. “Absence is potential rather than lack. This is where one grasps the awful disaster of extinction cascades: not only life and life’s shimmer, but many of its potentials are eroding…
The term bir’yun, which doesn’t distinguish between domains of nature and culture, is characteristic of a lively, pulsating world, not a mechanistic one – a world not composed of gears and cogs but of multifaceted, multispecies relations and pulses. To act as if the world beyond humans is composed of ‘things’ for human use is a catastrophic assault on the diversity, complexity, abundance, and beauty of life.”
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
A guest editorial in the Eugene, OR Register-Guard newspaper today reveals that keeping the dollar the dominant global currency is even more important than oil in US foreign policy and war planning. According to “Crude Facts” by M. Reza Behnam, a political scientist specializing in the politics and governments of the Middle East and American foreign policy there, US wars in the Persian Gulf have been more about about stabilizing the oil currency policies that have fueled America’s expansive economy since 1945 than about securing actual oil supplies.
Behnam notes that when the victors in World War II “met at Bretton Woods, N.H., in 1944 to create a modern, stable global economic system, they agreed to inaugurate an international gold-backed monetary standard reliant on the U.S. dollar – a logical decision at the time, since the United States had the largest gold reserves at $35 per ounce of gold.” In 1971, however, “with gold stores dwindling, President Richard Nixon ended the gold standard.
Political and economic uncertainty characterized the 1970s. Inflation soared as the government freely printed dollars to cover the costs of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The 1973 oil embargo by Arab nations that belonged to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – payback for U.S. military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War – quadrupled oil prices. With the U.S. economy in a nosedive, the Nixon administration, anxious to maintain the global demand for dollars, persuaded the hostile Saudi government to finance America’s debt with its petroleum wealth. Nixon convinced the Saudis that it was in their best interest to price their oil only in U.S. dollars, and to invest their surplus oil profits in U.S. Treasury bills. For its part, the United States agreed to provide weapons and protection to the House of Saud. The agreement ended the oil embargo and bound two disparate countries together for decades. By 1975, all OPEC countries had priced their oil in dollars.
For more than 40 years, global energy transactions and international trade have been conducted mainly in dollars, maintaining the United States’ status as an economic superpower. The petrodollar bargain of 1974 is why Washington staunchly backs the Saudi autocratic government that represses half its population [the Shia minority], funds extremist Sunni groups worldwide, and nurtured 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It also explains Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen and the two countries’ obsession with Iran as a regional threat.
America’s wars in the Middle East have everything to do with eliminating challenges to the petrodollar system. Such a challenge was central to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, a country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s fate was sealed when – encouraged by the French and eager to end crippling sanctions – he decided, in late 2000, to trade Iraqi oil in euros, the world’s second-largest reserve currency, and converted his $10 billion reserve fund at the United Nations to euros. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 finished off this threat to the petrodollar and sent a clear warning to other countries considering an alternative oil transaction currency.
The 2011 intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi can be seen through the same prism. For decades, a number of African countries, led by Qaddafi, had been attempting to establish a pan-African currency based on Libya’s gold-backed dinar. Qaddafi’s goal was to provide the continent with an alternative currency, and to replace the dollar with the Libyan dinar in future oil sales. E-mails from Hillary Clinton’s State Department reveal French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fears about the threat Qaddafi’s pan-African currency posed to the established economic order. Qaddafi’s life, along with his plan for a united African currency, ended when NATO forces, spearheaded by France and Britain and with U.S. cooperation, invaded Libya.
The 2002 failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – reportedly with the assistance of the CIA – also came shortly after the country considered switching to the euro for its oil sales.” Venezuela continues to be an enemy not because it’s a dictatorship under Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, but because “in 2007, Chavez instructed the state oil company to change its dollar investments to euros and other currencies.
Cracks appear to be emerging in America’s hegemony over the global financial system, and the United States’ impolitic conduct in the Middle East reflects its angst over these developments. The intensity of U.S. rancor toward Iran has increased as Tehran, along with Moscow, has led the effort to break free from the petrodollar monopoly. That Tehran has been pricing its oil in currencies other than the dollar and seeking to create a Middle East energy exchange market are viewed by Washington as provocative moves, and have placed Iran squarely on America’s target list. Since 2003, Iran has been shifting its foreign-held assets and the reserve funds in its central bank from dollars to euros, and it stopped accepting U.S. dollars for oil in 2007. Another circumvention of the dollar is the establishment of the Iranian Oil Bourse, also known as the Iran Crude Oil Exchange, opened in 2008. Its objective is to sell oil and gas in non-dollar currencies, primarily the euro, the Iranian rial, the Japanese yen, and/or a basket of other major currencies. Onerous Western sanctions have pushed Tehran and Moscow to abjure dollar-denominated trade, favoring euros, rubles, and rials instead. In 2012 Iran, which supplies 15% of China’s oil and natural gas, began conducting its energy deals with China in yuan (China dropped the dollar peg in 2005). India and Russia trade oil with China in rubles and yuan, and China and Japan have agreed to use their own currencies in their transactions. South Korea has also been slowly moving from dollars in its transactions, buying Iranian oil with the Korean won, and shifting its investments to other currencies. As the world’s leading consumer of oil and natural gas, China has enough leverage over Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil producers to pay for its oil imports in yuan. Increased trade with China has intensified the pressure on Saudi Arabia to forsake the dollar. The United Arab Emirates has already agreed to use the yuan in its petroleum trade with China.
Saudi petrodollars have financed Washington’s military adventures and spending sprees. As a major holder of U.S. Treasury bills and one of the United States’ largest creditors, the kingdom wields a potent political weapon. It attempted to use that weapon in 2016, threatening to sell as much as $750 billion in Treasuries and assets if Congress passed legislation allowing it to be held liable in U.S. courts for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Saudis have traditionally seen the United States as their chief regional partner, but the unusual visit to Moscow in early October by Saudi King Salman reveals fissures in the 1974 iron-clad agreement, and an acknowledgement of the changing balance of power in the region.
The world’s reliance on the dollar as the global reserve currency is beginning to erode. Demand for the dollar for global oil and gas transactions is lessening as countries have grown weary with America’s dominance of the world economy and use of military force to punish currency dissenters. The momentum toward non-dollar trading could severely undermine the U.S. economy, one of the most debt-ridden in the world. The house of cards built by the United States in the 1970s could easily collapse if the rest of the world abandons the dollar standard. Right now, the resulting massive economic disruption to the world economy isn’t something most developed nations want to try to live with.
The United States, with its economic imbalances and soaring deficits, has the most to gain by working cooperatively with the rest of the world to gradually reform the global monetary system. But that requires it to forego its imperious myths and trade its belligerent superpower role in favor of international mediation to achieve global economic stability and security.”