To Save Democracy, We Must Destroy It

Peter Arnett is perhaps best known for reporting the utterance of a US major during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Maybe we haven’t always heard it said so honestly about democracy, but we have definitely heard it in spirit. Here’s the way we usually hear it: Because communists seek to establish a totalitarian state, democracies must restrict the freedom of speech of and association with communists.

In 1948, twelve members of the Communist Party were convicted under the Smith Act of “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence.” Gus Hall, a leader of the Party, spent eight years in the penitentiary at Leavenworth. More generally, the radical sides of the labor and civil rights movements were suppressed (often violently) during the Cold War because they represented a threat to the social order necessary to defend democracy from totalitarianism.

Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, the desire to restrict democracy by manufacturing threats and appealing to military and police security has not evaporated, revealing that anti-communism was always more about popular control and the advancement of capitalism than security. The new threat—international terrorism—is an even better than communism. Terrorists are mysterious and ubiquitous. Because they do not advance a political economic ideology, the violent suppression of their activities, which is a pretext for inserting troops into peripheral countries and territories, does not automatically reflect the capitalist imperative.

Manufacturing threats, like almost everything in a capitalist society, is driven by the profit motive. If health care were free to the public, there would be no drive to create pandemics in order to sell vaccines. If everybody had good paying jobs there would no need to for crime wars to herd the surplus population. If workers ran the country there would be no drive to create foreign enemies in order to justify depriving citizens of civil rights at home and invading and occupying other countries.

The rational solution to terrorism is to remove the conditions that motivate the terrorists to action. The very act of controlling terrorism by going to war against it winds up fueling terrorism. The war on drugs created powerful drug cartels that are slowing taking over regions of countries in Mexico, Columbia, and Afghanistan. Likewise, the war on terrorism has caused terror organizations to spread out, become more sophisticated, and adjust their tactics. No amount of military or police force will make these problems disappear. There is no violent solution. Only a paradigm shift promises to change the situation.

The way to make the world safe is by making it more secure, not through military force and police presence, but by political and economic security. When those living in the periphery of the world capitalist economy are secure from the invasion of their lands by foreign corporations and militaries, which are destroying the culture and the conditions of their existence, then they will no longer be moved to retaliate.

This is for certain: some among the colonized will always strike back at the colonizer. Why sacrifice everybody’s freedom because a handful of super rich individuals want to exploit other peoples and their land?

This is the story of capitalism, which is why the rational solution is unattainable under the current world order: capitalists need oil, gas, land, and labor. They make us need these things, too. Terrorism is a consequence of capitalist exploitation. The ideology associated with terrorism emerges from the struggle. It is warped by religious belief, a deep ideology itself the product of power and control of the many by the few, but this is also the reflection of the underlying structure of the prevailing world epoch.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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