I woke up this morning thinking about the type of people who are thrown up by our political systems and put before us for election. I have spent the last few days mulling over the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid and that alone would have given me reason enough to put this rant down on paper. But the actual spark came from a member of that monument to democracy, the Bush dynasty.
The mantle of political entitlement has now passed to Jeb and he picks up where his celebrated brother left off by completely misunderstanding the world around him. This week he made a few headlines with his outrage at Obama’s plan to extend overtime coverage to managers earning below $50,440 per year (essentially reducing the possibility of lower salaried workers being forced to work additional hours for no extra pay). Jeb was stunned by this frivolity and, on top of claiming that Americans need to work more hours, not less, he showed his finely tuned economic skills by telling us that this new rule would result in less overtime pay and less wages earned. Sensible members of the human race (and a few economists) were quick to point out the many flaws in this reasoning. First of all, by curbing the exploitation of some managers, employers would be forced to use more workers and/or additional overtime to pay to cover the same workload. The argument that companies would cut salaries to compensate for this new rule is just not credible.
In the post Cold War years it looked for a brief moment like we had entered a new era under the so-called ‘peace dividend’. With no clear or significant ideological enemy on the landscape, growth in military expenditure began to recede from frontline political discussion. This brief interlude has of course long since been shattered, and defence spending is well and truly back in the headlines and in the public mind. Russian aggression has been the most recent and immediate cause for concern in western defence departments but this is just the latest in a sequence of security issues going back to before the ‘war on terror’ even kicked off.
As millions of people suffer due to reduced state spending throughout Europe, it may be useful to ask why increased military spending has become such an important issue at a time when so many other areas of the economy are underfunded. Luckily, there has been no shortage of neo-conservative fanatics and defence lackeys running to the press in recent days to help us understand why military spending is top priority. Former Conservative defence minister, Gerald Howarth, said last week that reduced defence spending would “diminish us in the eyes of our closest allies, the United States of America.” A serious matter indeed! Former MI6 boss, John Sawers, has at least tried to be a little more specific in pointing out that increased Russian aggression requires increased military spending. In other words, “we’re going to have to spend more on our defence and our security because the threats are greater.” It is easy to believe that establishment figures would rather ramp up the tension of this situation rather than consider the diplomatic and strategic mismatch between the west and Russia which has brought us to this juncture. What is less easy to comprehend, however, is how someone like Sawers could realistically believe that embarking on a new arms race could be to anyone’s benefit.
But we can glimpse the true rationale behind this mentality in the words of the US army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, quoted in the Guardian this weekend as being “very concerned” about reports of Britain’s falling military expenditure as % of GDP. In particular, Odierno states that the spending concerns are about “having a partner that has very close values and the same goals as we do.” Herein lies the truth of the matter. Having the predominant military position on the world stage is essential to neoliberal capitalism, and the burden of this position should be shared by ideological allies. As western capital goes in search of new markets, inputs of production and investments, corporations are required to operate in regions which can be hostile to their interests. The growth of globalisations and the spread of the multinational corporation therefore rely on the support of the state to open foreign markets and demand that the rights of western investors are upheld. Since the early days of the British Empire it has been hard to see the spread of western capitalism and increasing military intimidation as being anything other than inextricably linked.
“Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win; they lose.”
As the 20th century drew to a close there was hope that the tension of the cold war was well and truly over, with both the USA and Russia ready to stand together as self-styled leaders in the international community. NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 may have put a strain on the new relationship but with the election of George W. Bush the following year it seemed that the new personal relationship between Presidents could cement ties. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the first call of solidarity to President Bush came from Vladimir Putin. The two superpowers looked ready to fight the war on terror together.
But public vows of friendship merely masked underlying tensions which had been building since the mid-90’s. As the Cold War drew to a close, the first President Bush had made a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In return Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from the occupied eastern European states, beginning a de-escalation of the military aspects of the conflict. But by the Madrid NATO summit of 1994 it became clear that the rules of the game had changed, and that that new members would be welcomed into the NATO alliance. The Bush-Gorbachev agreement was finally wiped off the diplomatic map in 2008 when Georgia and Ukraine were lined up to join NATO.
Over the last few days I’ve been watching the strange debate over vaccinations unfold in the USA. Senator Rand Paul, libertarian and potential Republican Presidential nominee, fired the opening shots by claiming that vaccinations should be voluntary and to make them otherwise is an infringement of the parents’ freedom of choice. This stance is in fact nothing new for Senator Paul who has previously stated his belief – widely discredited by the medical profession – that vaccinations can cause mental disability. Perhaps he is talking from personal experience.
Not to be outdone however is his rival for the Republican nomination, Governor Chris Christie, who was confronted during his bizarre PR trip to London over his comments that there should be “some measure of choice” in whether children are vaccinated against measles and other contagious diseases.
For many of us in Europe it seems incredible that individuals holding such discredited and, some would say, uninformed views would get anywhere near the top of the political tree. (Not that European politicians are necessarily any more sensible, they just hide it better!) It only reinforces the belief that political power is bought rather than earned. However, there are two interesting factors at play in a situation like this. First is the seemingly unbreakable bond between America’s citizens and its Constitution. The Constitution has a mystical, almost religious quality in American life which allows it to maintain a dominant position over any ruling government. The belief and respect for this document cannot be understated and it was interesting to hear that Edward Snowden chose to become the world’s most high-profile whistleblower out of a desire to defend the Constitution. It is revered for its guarantees of individual liberty and the limits it puts on government power and is thus frequently cited by libertarians to support a freedom of choice and action. It is a document that has influenced not only national democracy but has also shaped what it means to be American. Any political reference to individual freedom is thus an appeal to both the Constitution and the heart of American identity.