| Dennis Torigoe |
Walden Bello and I go way back as grad students at Princeton’s sociology department and activists on campus and in the years since. In his recent interview after the events of January 6th, Walden, a famed activist, author and public intellectual from the Philippines, asserted that the United States “has entered the Weimar Era.” In Germany after the First World War, a section of the German capitalist class and its politicians backed right wing mobs to take to the streets in violent demonstrations. Since the Right could not take power through elections, they worked to delegitimize the democratic process and the government. This, Bello contends, paved the way for fascism to replace the representative government ending up with Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich.
As the US is one of the oldest, and certainly the biggest, continuous democracies (in some form) in existence, the sounding of its death knell is a bit premature despite the severity of the crisis. There are a number of reasons for this. These reasons are not to assert that the challenges and crises that democratic governments face from the extreme right in the US are not serious. I agree with Walden’s characterization of neoliberal policies leading to deindustrialization, and therefore feelings of loss and anger among some workers and small business people, who have been manipulated by Trump and other right-wingers. Political violence from the white supremacist right is a historic current in this country and a rising threat. We must counter it by gaining and strengthening cultural hegemony with such values as equality, inclusiveness and thoroughgoing democracy through organizing people and politically isolating the extreme right. When they do resort to violence, we must make sure that they are dealt with aggressively legally, politically, by law enforcement and, if necessary, through armed self-defense.
However, due to their actions against the government on January 6th, the extreme right is now in the crosshairs of the US Government and a large majority of the American people. The events of January 6th has not increased their strength, but has isolated them from the vast majority of the American people who believe in democratic government.
The Curious Case of the Missing Movement
One of Walden’s omissions in this interview is curious. Did he forget about the millions of demonstrators in every major city, localities and small towns across the country after George Floyd’s murder? Did he forget about Black Lives Matter? For some reason, he forgot about the people’s fight against police and racist violence occurring for months during the last year. He also dismisses the hard-won electoral victories through the relentless organizing efforts of hundreds of thousands in places like Georgia and Arizona, and indeed across the country. Here is the problem with this. According to this line of thought if we fight for more democracy, organize harder and succeed, then the Right gets more violent in the streets, the political situation gets chaotic and the military or a tyrant takes over. Thus, his view is that of self-defeat.
That is the problem with his historical analogies, one that compares the United States as the world’s superpower to Third World countries like Chile in the 70’s and the Philippines under Marcos and to Weimar Germany. The United States today is starkly different from any of those examples that Walden Bello uses. For one thing, each of those examples were times of fatally deep economic crises, with runaway inflation in Chile and in the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic. There was relatively sudden, widespread and brutal impoverishment if not outright starvation because of the economic catastrophes they faced.
As their economies were weak, their currencies were devalued to almost worthless pieces of paper and issuing more meant even more inflation and economic ruin.
In contrast, the United States controls the world’s recognized reserve currency, which gives it vast economic power. The US Government issues virtually as many dollars as it wants, knowing it will be accepted as the currency of world trade and commerce. Printing money in this way not only sustains its own economy, US capitalists have also used this tactic to manipulate other currencies and suppress other economies. That can be shown by the Asian currency crises in the 90s and the trade and economic sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, which are not allowed to conduct trade through the clearing system based on the US dollar.
On top of that our economy is very unlikely to experience the kind of economic collapse that breeds fascism. The 2 trillion dollar rescue plan put out by Biden, impossible in Chile or a Weimar Republic, will not result in hyperinflation, but in real benefit to the welfare of the country’s citizens. The Federal Reserve Bank can and does further prop up the economy by lowering interest rates and directly buying US government, and mortgage-backed bonds through its quantitative easing program. The government can also forgive college loans, lower taxes, and a host of other steps to buoy the economy. This is not the economy of 70s Chile, the Philippines under Marcos and not even close to what Weimar Germany was.
The same facts that Walden Bello uses to promote his view of deepening chaos and military rule in fact shows that the tide is running high against the right wing extremists. The breach of the Capitol was a sign of desperation, not a sign of strength. Their President had been thrown out after one term (the last time that happened was in 1992) and the left had dominated the streets for months, the Democrats had won both houses of Congress and the left is resurging.
Is Military Intervention Likely?
Bello argues that chaos brought on by right wing street violence will trigger a military takeover. In fact, that is the least likely scenario given the circumstances the country is in now. For one thing, we must not forget or belittle the power of the constitutional and normative tradition of the US military’s position being under civilian control. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are, in the military chain of command, directly below the Secretary of Defense and this Secretary under the President. In the 233-year history since the ratification of the Constitution, this has never been breached, though it has been challenged twice — once by General McClellan against Lincoln during the Civil War and by Douglas MacArthur against Truman during the Korean War. Both Generals were fired summarily.
More recently, in light of Trump’s misuse of Federal power, numerous former Defense Secretaries and retired Generals and Admirals have stated their positions clearly: the active military shall not be used in internal politics and that the military should be staunch in its position that, as stated in the in Uniform Code of Military Justice, no illegal order order should be obeyed. The testament of these military leaders has put both institutional as well as political weight behind the military’s non-intervention in civilian political affairs.
Another telling incident on military non-intervention in political affairs was the apology of the sitting Chair of the Joint Chiefs for marching with Trump to his Bible-holding photo op after the site was cleared of Black Lives Matter protestors with federal officers. As reported in the Guardian:
Milley and defense secretary Mark Esper were widely criticized for participating in the photo-op, with many former defense officials saying the two were helping Trump’s efforts to politicize the military.
“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, and I am not immune,” Milley said.
“As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there,” Milley continued.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
These are not the words of a military ready to pounce on civilian leadership of the country if chaos in the streets erupts.
Walden Bello has dedicated his life to effectively fight for the people of the Philippines and the world. His contributions are historic and will be remembered for generations to come. Though I believe he does not correctly view the United States at this historic juncture, I look forward to his continued contributions to the people’s movement for justice and democracy in the future.