It is commonplace in many intellectual and cultural spheres in the Anglo-Saxon world to refer to some places, regions, or states as “behind” others. For example, in the concerted attempt to synthesize feminist and neo-conservative rhetoric in the justification for the war and continued occupation of Afghanistan, the Bush and Obama administrations regularly referred to Afghanistan as being “behind” “the west” in terms of women’s rights, implying a linear progression from a patriarchal, tribal society which oppresses to women to a equitable, cosmopolitan one where women are nominally equals with their male counterparts. The selling of this particular narrative of progress was an important part of the CIA public relations strategy for shoring up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan (see also: Stone, 2013).
Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels mentioned in the Koran proves its authentic origins in Arabia and the time of Mohammad: only an Arab author could have taken such an essential beast for granted so as not to mention it. The temporal discourse of some countries being “behind” and others being “ahead” (or maybe “on schedule” in rare cases) is much like the camel not in the Koran: it seems so normalized in our Anglo-American/European cultural worldview that the idea that temporal placement of individuals, groups, and countries functions as a means of making value-judgments about the subject goes generally without saying. Most readers of an Anglo-American background will know what is meant when Hillary Clinton says she won in the places that are “dynamic, moving forward,” while she lost in places that were “looking backwards”.
In the discipline of International Development Studies, which I am currently minoring in, this forward/backward notion of progress was quite explicit just a generation ago in Modernization Theory (McMichael, 2016). In the simplest terms, modernization theory proposed that liberal capitalist states were “developed” and “modern”, and therefore contemporary, while those “undeveloped” states in the socialist bloc and the third world were “behind” and “undeveloped”. The language of first, second, and third worlds also came from this period, which is also a value-judgment which implies these “worlds” are on different planes of existence based on their levels of development.
Empire, Optimism, and Time-Space compression
Before the 1900s, it would be extremely peculiar in European thought to imagine the future as radically different from the present. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring a correct and natural order which preceded the deformed order which oppressed them. The French revolution, arguably one of the most “progressive” political developments in history in terms of creating contemporary notions of sovereignty, democracy, and republicanism and overthrowing the aristocratic order, was largely rhetorically inspired by the Roman and Athenian republics and by the idea of Rousseau’s “state of nature”, rather than the idea of creating something entirely new.
It was only in Victorian England, the centre of the British Empire and at that time widely regarded as the centre of the world economy, much like the United States today, (O’Brien and Williams, 2007) that the idea of “progress” as we now understand it began to have real intellectual legitimacy. The development of electricity and the telegram led to a kind of cultural time-space compression; things were happening faster, consumer goods were travelling further, information was more widely available – early indicators of what we now call globalization. Among the imperial bourgeois of England, deeply intertwined with the royal court of queen Victoria, this spawned the first generation of futurists, bringing together colonial officers, British industrialists, American tycoons, and professional inventors in a project to reshape the world according to a furious and destabilizing techno-capitalism.
It is around this period that we first see references to Great Britain being “ahead” of other civilizations at the time. New technology, regarded as “progress” in its own right, was seen as bursting forth from the Victorian form of social organization. This perceived techno-social supremacy accompanied the development of scientific racism and the idea of whiteness, where Darwinian evolutionary theory was hamfistedly applied to human societies to explain the apparent disparity in intellect between the Victorian “white race” and their colonial subjects. This notion of “social evolutionism” was at the foreground of early anthropology, as well as the Victorians’ own perception of self supremacy (Forte, 2016). Equally, social Darwinism came to explain the increasing stratification between capitalists and workers in industrial society, depicting the working class as dirty, uncouth, and holding on to old peasant ways which kept them from experiencing the full blessings that industrial wage-labour bequeathed them.
Think on Donald Trump’s recent remarks that a variety of Central American, Caribbean, and African countries are “shitholes”, or the affore quote from Hilary Clinton, who seems to place her voters at a higher stage of human achievement because they produce more GDP, while Trump voters (especially in the Midwest) are “deplorables”. Both these value-judgments imply superiority of the speaker’s own partisan political camp based on adherence and fulfillment of the Victorian ideal while revealing the disdain for various underclassesessential to such an elitist worldview.
The Victorian era also saw a number of norms and institutions that readers will likely see as resonant with contemporary “western” society: philanthropic charity (as distinct from classical charity), states of “permanent warfare” – recall Afghanistan from the introduction, which both Great Britain and the US became embroiled in, – aversion to “provincialism” and preference for cosmopolitanism, and increased proletarianization and declining prospects for the majority of people (Forte, 2016).
Capitalist Realism, New Victorianism: Colonizing the Future
The Victorian “forward acceleration” in the realm of culture accompanied, and was basically synonymous with, the rapacious accumulation of capital via exploitation and plunder, of Britain’s colonies. It should come as no surprise that the society which used terra nullius to build a “Greater Britain” (Forte, 2016) through the genocidal settler-colonies of Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand regarded the future as terra incognita: unknown land, ripe for colonization (Morus, 2014). As residents of this “Greater Britain”, we in English-speaking North America have largely inherited the Victorian worldview. Pax Britanica has been succeeded by Pax Americana. Is it any wonder that all fantastical futures, from Star Trek to Elon Musk’s plans to populate Mars, are imagined as better, more benevolent forms of colonization?
Self-described “progressive” elites, everyone from neoconservative lobbyists to left-liberal academics, tell us that, “you can’t go backward,” or, “you can’t turn the clock back,” and, “a return to the past is impossible”. They insist that we are all going to be brought to “the future” – which seems to mean liberal democracy, globalization, and free trade. But this “progress” implies a perfect, linear arc of time through which history “progresses” towards an inevitable ontology. Such a constant acceleration, like the one imagined by the old Victorians and by today’s “new” Victorians (Forte, 2016), is neither reasonably possible nor desirable. Thus, while we are insistently told to subscribe to “progress”, we are also jarringly proscribed a “dead end” in liberal democracy.
With “progress” ending, so does history, according to liberalism/progressivism. This was Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, which suggested that liberal democracy and capitalism would eventually overtake the whole world, led by the imperial United States (Fukuyama, 1992). Fukuyama has of course had to revise his thesis several times, as threats as varied as advancements in biotechnology to geopolitical rivals to the US shake his faith in the eventuality of global liberalism.
But Fukuyama’s thesis that there is no alternative to liberal capitalism continues to resonate in popular culture. We are presented at once with liberal utopianism about its own future and “capitalist realism” (Fischer, 2014) about the possibility of systems besides liberal capitalism. The 21st century, as an age of progress at the end of progress, is one that repeats older forms of optimism and progressivism in order to conceal the stagnation and decline of American imperialism. New Victorianism which mimes the old Victorianism of imperial Britain is one way we can see this, with the pattern of imperial decline being repeated in the US case. Another is the emergence of recyclable popular culture. The reader is likely familiar with how fashion, trends, and aesthetics seem to rise and fall in vogue in an increasingly rapid, cyclical fashion. The colour at the time of writing seems to be 80’s nostalgia, which recycles the “lost future” into a consumer package that at once satisfies nostalgia for a time when optimism seemed more tangible, and makes the return of optimism seem possible in spite of capitalist crises and imperial decline (Fischer, 2014).
There are two kinds of colonialism at play here which serve to narrow the popular imagination. On the one hand, the classical Victorian tendency insists that there is something valuable in the notion of progress – that we should take pride in being “ahead” and like messiahs we should spread our forwardness in the form of “nation building” and “opening up markets”. On the other hand, imagining a system besides liberal capitalism is forbidden, a colonial restriction of self-determination. Just as old and new Victorians said and continue to say that colonial subjects are incapable of governing themselves on their own terms, requiring them to accept liberalism, globalization, and capitalism, so too is imagining a system besides capitalism dictated as impossible. In fact, these two kinds of restriction on self-determination are interrelated, often to the point of being indistinguishable.
Dystopia of the Now: The view from Latin America
The silence on how Victorian progressivism and imperialism shapes our public imaginations is not only because ideology is often most effective when it is silent, but because public intellectual inquiry has been shaped to take its presumptions for granted. Bourdieu and Wacquant deal with the internationalization of US paradigms in their controversial piece “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. The US has thus created an “international lingua franca” that ignores local particularities, and they point to various examples of the “symbolic dominion and influence” exercised by the US (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999). This “US ontology”, a product of US imperialism, among other things proscribes a temporal “forwardness” positioning some countries as “ahead” and others “behind”, to the point that we have very few other ways of talking about international inequalities.
In this privileging of the temporal, globalist, and ultimately imperialist notion of progress, mainstream academia often ignores local conditions and realities. In the case of Latin America, we can see how this ideology of progress, and the privileging of the advancing imperial centre, plays out in reality. The very phrase Latin America comes from “modernizing” elites; the English “Latin America” comes from the Spanish Latinoamerica, which in turn comes from Latinidad, meaning to have “Latinness”. This distinction was made by liberal elites in the newly-independent Spanish colonies to denote their proximity to the “Latin” or “European” world (Mignolo, 2005). Disdaining the provincialism of their compatriots, they sought to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980). Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization at the expense of Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions. The result was increased foreign penetration of Latin American economies and dependency (Forte, 2018).
In the case of resistance, the “provincial” peasantry and indigenous peoples, were denounced as ignoramuses. “Reason” was the exclusive claim of the liberal, urban, European elite. The “reactionary” peasants were stuck in the past, while the elites were in the future (Burns, 1980).
Despite this history of repeated immiseration through “modernization”, and the increasingly obvious failure of the US-imposed model even within the US itself, self-appointed experts continue to claim that Latin America is “underdeveloped” due to the persistence of feudal and traditional pre-capitalist forms of production within their economies and that therefore Latin American states should “develop” further i.e. expand the reach of capitalism in order to achieve prosperity. There is a magic belief that capital is benevolent, when in fact capitalism often breeds poverty, disease, and death. One can also hear echoes of elitist denunciations of the peasantry in the way that US authorities condemn “tyrants” and “populists” in the region.
Today, there are millions in Latin America who might be described as “victims of progress”. Progress “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of the deterministic thinking of the Victorians, accepting “survival of the fittest” indicting those who do not survive capitalism as “failures” (Fischer, 2014). As such, there are cycles of “progress” and “modernization” in Latin America. With each cycle of capitalist “development” – expanding, appropriating resources, and incorporating people, spaces, and things into commodity production – Latin America is repeatedly decimated and bound as a net exporter of raw materials, capital, and labour value back to the global “metropolis”. The constant cycles of capital, rather than “modernizing” the continent, reproduce a peculiar kind of savagery.
While modernization theorists tend to view institutions like the hacienda and the landed elite of Latin America, notorious for indentured labour and brutality, as a feudal anachronism to be swept away by a more mature capitalist system of land ownership resembling the European plot farms, the reality is that the hacienda is fundamental to the sustenance not only of the local elites of Latin America, but the capitalist mode of production; representing the tendency towards monopolization in agriculture, rather than a non-capitalist anomaly. This was one of the great insights of world-systems theorists Andre Gunder Frank, which he called “development of underdevelopment” (Frank, 1969a, p. 9):
“the latifundium, irrespective of whether it appears today as a plantation or a hacienda, was typically born as a commercial enterprise which created for itself the institutions which permitted it to respond to increased demand in the world or national market by expanding the amount of its land, capital, and labor (sic) and to increase the supply of its products” (Frank, 1969b, p. 14).
The “modernizers” thus produce “savergry” in need of civilizing.
The illusion of Victorian progressivism is that Latin America’s “backwardness” and Greater Britain’s “advancement” are unrelated. In the worldview of the world’s elite, Latin America has simply failed to conform with “progress” and this is the cause of its problems. The reality is that imitation of European or US models is not only undesirable because they do not reflect local conditions, but impossible because all current and historical US and European models of enrichment and “progress” are contingent upon the impoverishment of Latin America.
Linear, Eurocentric, universalist narratives of progress are deeply embedded in our cultural worldview, both the mainstream and a variety of self-described “dissident” currents in the west. They are comforting, magic tales with familiar myths that many people are encultured into, and are exported across the world through media, communications, commerce, and military might. Yet, they cannot and do not speak for the rest of the world and their proscriptions are anything but universal. This is not a call for total rejection of the European experience or European philosophies, but an important contribution to the tradition of cultural criticism. With this criticism in mind, a future besides capitalist modernization is more readily to be understood on its own terms.
Cover Image: From NASA’s “Technicians Wanted” recruitment poster
Neoliberalism and globalism have both become buzzwords used within the political discourse by intellectuals, journalists, as much as celebrities in order to describe and explain recent events. But what are really neoliberalism and globalism, and in what relation do they stand to each other? Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, that neoliberalism and globalism are commensurate concepts, an economic doctrine on the one hand and a political worldview on the other, both mutually reinforcing a particular form of contemporary capitalism. Slobodian puts the notion that neoliberalism lacks a clear referent to rest. Instead, he argues that neoliberalism and globalism have existed as a coherent body of thought since the 1920s. Tracing the origins and consequent development of these ideas, he offers the readers a richer, more precise history of both the idea and practice of neoliberalism-globalism, with particular attention to their relationship with sovereignty and democracy. As such, he provides us with a much needed historical and theoretical corrective to the oft repeated and yet often historically inaccurate theories of neoliberalism.
Donald Trump, who railed against ‘globalism’ on the campaign trail, was elected in 2016 partly on a platform of defying free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Similarly, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of anti-EU forces from both the left and right in Europe, notably in form of Brexit in the UK and in Italy’s recent elections. Mexico has also recently elected the ‘populist’ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who threatens to destabilize NAFTA, at least as we know it. These political upheavals against the postwar world order make Globalists a timely and necessary reading for anyone interested in intellectual and economic history.
Central to Slobodian’s argument in Globalists is a rejection of the idea that neoliberalism can simply be reduced to ‘market fundamentalism’, a term central to Karl Polyani’s critique. Rather, Slobodian argues, neoliberalism is a form of regulation, rather than a radical opposition to regulation; it is a form of regulation that seeks to reshape societies to be more favorable to the interests of the market and of the capitalist class, in opposition to democracy and sovereignty if necessary.
Typically, histories of neoliberalism begin somewhere around the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1970s. However, Slobodian traces the history of neoliberalism further back, beginning in Austria in the 1920s with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the House of Hapsburg. During this time of the beginning of the end for the old empires of Europe, Austria held its first election with universal male suffrage, catapulting the radical Social Democratic Party to previously unforeseen influence in the government. Without the autocratic counterweight of the Hapsburg monarchy, conservative Austrian elites feared that their privileges and class power would be undone by the new democratic government. In response, the Austrian nomenklatura, now-infamous names like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them, called for a renovation of the capitalist class’s approach to managing power. Their proposed solution was not only intended to the challenge social democracy and the global compounded rise of nationalism, socialism, but also more crucially democratic self-determination. To the capitalist class these forces represented different sides of the same basic threat: the rubes of the world, incapable of governing themselves, turned against their betters. In the words of Lionel Robbins, one of the first ardent globalists, ‘”Mines for miners” and “Papua for Papuans” are analytically similar slogans.’
Contrary to widespread belief, the Austrian School of Economics, as Hayek and Mises’ faction are often called, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire economics as we normally understand it. Rather, they sought to overcome the limitations of the old regime of mercantile colonialism, which divided the world territorially amongst competing camps of European capitalists, through the use of truly global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, international investment law, etc. — to insulate markets. Their basic ethos could be summed up as follows: ‘International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making’ (p. 271). This, they believed, would protect the profits of the capitalist class against the laws of sovereign states, political instability, and demands raised by civil society and workers for greater equality and social justice. Many leaders of the early neoliberal movement relocated to Geneva in order to influence the shaping of these institutions, leading Slobodian to call them the ‘Geneva School’ (p. 7). The Geneva School was closely tied to business and finance, and its members moved easily between academic settings and lobby organizations such as the International Chamber of Commerce.
The popular (mis)understanding of neoliberalism is perhaps best represented by Karl Polyani’s description of the movement in The Great Transformation, where he uses the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to describe the Geneva School ideology. In this interpretation, neoliberals advocate for ‘disembedded’ markets which, separated from society, replace social bonds with atomized relations, giving rise to counter-reactions within society in the form of either xenophobic nationalism or revolutionary socialism. Slobodian, however, identifies the objective of the Geneva School instead as ‘enclosing’ markets in international institutions and treaties. Far from being fundamentalists with an irrational faith in the market, Hayek and Mises readily accepted that markets are ‘products of the political construction of institutions [which] encase them’ (p.7).
The first economic gathering to take the entire world as its subject was the World Economic Conference of 1927. Famous neoliberals like Mises, Gottfried, Haberler, Röpke, Hayek and the aforementioned Robbins all took a direct role in the conference and the subsequent declaration advocating global economic governance, codifying international opposition to ‘trade obstacles’ on the part of the European elite (p. 30). This is the first attempt documented in Globalists of neoliberals trying to conjure up a supranational federation of capitalists as a way to offset the dual pressures of national economic planning and decolonization.
The wave of independent nation-states rising from the ashes of empire after the world wars prompted greater urgency for such a supranational power. From the perspective of capitalists and their neoliberal lieutenants, these were adversaries to be thwarted. ‘For [Mises]’, writes Slobodian, ‘the real war was not between individual nations or empires but between the world economy and the nation as forms of human organization’ (p.109). It is from this capitalist project of ‘militant globalism’ against ‘economic nationalism’ (Heilperin, quoted on p. 130) that Slobodian traces the development of entities like the European Union, Free Trade Agreements and the Investor-State Dispute clauses they contain, as well as the World Trade Organization, and the neoliberal intellectuals’ instrumental role in their construction. While these institutions ultimately benefited the elites of the European countries and the United States, they required even the wealthy countries to acquiesce their sovereignty to dictates which spanned multiple sovereign jurisdictions, making them difficult to be challenged by any one government without inviting conflict.
Of particular interest to anthropologists, Slobodian focuses on neoliberal ambassadors’ deep interest in the area of culture. The globalists, from their vantage point in Geneva, left no intellectual or topical stone unturned. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, two of the largest funders of ethnographic projects to date, were generous in their support of neoliberal intellectuals seeking to broaden the conceptual scope of their project. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, essentially bankrolled a study by Wilhelm Ropke in the Danube region which lambasted the locals for ‘economic simplism’ for seeking greater authority over their own economy (p. 75). Interestingly, Ropke considered this demand for economic control as a cultural phenomenon and sought to develop methods and instruments to reshape the culture of the Danube to be more accommodating to the global market.
Globalists is effective in its ability to lay bare and substantiate with broad source evidence what Slobodian classifies as some basic truths about neoliberal ideology. The book also weaves a convincing narrative about these tenets and their implementation across the modern world. The basic principles Slobodian ascribes to neoliberal globalism are mostly described in negatives. The first is neoliberalism’s aversion to democracy, particularly to democracy that cannot be manipulated or neutered in some way. Slobodian demonstrates this through quotations from neoliberal intellectuals, Mont Perlin Society memos, and internal documents of the European Union, IMF, and other bodies. The second is neoliberalism’s aversion to the nation-state and sovereignty, which binds capitalists by certain obligations which may limit their profits and liquidity, something Mises was particularly adamant about. The third and final, related to the proceeding points, is neoliberal globalism’s resistance to politicization; that states or peoples should have levers by which to regulate or transform their social conditions is the antithesis of the neoliberal project. The neoliberal globe is one without politics, especially without politics that could potentially interrupt the smooth expansion of the market. This may also explain why we can observe an uncanny rise of disturbing pseudo-politics within the last decades.
Neoliberalism as a body of thought and its Geneva School ambassadors have had profound political, economic, and cultural influence on the modern world. Globalists does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining neoliberalism’s development, its core principles, and its direction. It is also a retort to lazy analyses of neoliberalism, which focus solely on aspects of economic policy or reform, and not on the other arenas of human life – culture, politics, international relations, etc. – which the Geneva School has actively and consciously sought to shape, along with Keynesians, imperial bureaucracies, business lobbyists, activists of certain stripes, and a host of other actors. Globalists is a valuable and refreshingly thorough book which clearly defines and scrutinizes the intellectual and practical components of neoliberalism in a manner which is deserving of commendation.
This of Dr. Quinn Slobodian’s most recent book was originally written for and published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology as part of their forthcoming special issue on SOVEREIGNTY, which you can access here. A pdf of the review is available from the JEA page and on my academia.edu page.
As part of my work maintaining Peripheral Thought, we will soon publish a series of articles on SOVEREIGNTY, in part inspired by and intended to accompany JEA’s release of the special issue on the same topic.
The suggested citation for this review is:
Lutes, Abram. 2018. “The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian” in Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 2, no. 2: Sovereignty.
[Photo]: Vancouver Indian Centre president Debbie Mearns (second from right) walking with strike leader Christine Price. August 12, 1978.
This fascinating article originally appeared in Labour/Le Travail. Formatting and spelling has been edited for clarity before appearing on Peripheral Thought. For citations please refer to the article as:
Janet Mary Nicol. 1997. ‘”Unions Aren’t Native’; The Muckamuck Restaurant Labour Dispute Vancouver, B.C. (1978-1983),” Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 40 (Fall): 235-51.
Most photographs are from the Pacific Tribune, originally established by the Communist Party of Canada as the B.C. Workers’ News in 1935.
“IN THIS SOCIETY,” explained First Nations union organizer Ethel Gardner to a skeptical First Nations community, “being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.” Ethel was an employee at the Muckamuck restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia when its First Nations workers decided to organize into an independent feminist union in 1978 and subsequently struck for a first contract against white American owners. The dispute allied First Nations people with predominantly white trade unionists and made an even wider community aware of their circumstances. The union picketed the restaurant for three years, discouraging customers from entering, while the owners kept the restaurant functioning with the use of strikebreakers, many of them from the First Nations community. When the owners closed their operation in 1981, the union ceased picketing and both parties waited a further two years for a legal ruling from the Labour Relations Board. Finally in 1983, the owners were ordered to pay remedies to the union, but sold the restaurant and pulled all their assets out of Canada, refusing to comply with the decision.
The Organizing Campaign
The Muckamuck Restaurant opened in 1971, and advertised “authentic” First Nations cuisine. The restaurant was located in a downtown Vancouver West End neighbourhood, at 1724 Davie Street. Three white American owners, Jane Erickson, Teresa Bjornson and Doug Chrismas also had investments in art galleries and other restaurants in California and British Columbia. The owners maintained an informal policy of hiring First Nations people as restaurant staff. At the time of the union drive an equal ratio of First Nations men and women were employed as restaurant workers. The managers however, were white. Eighteen out of 21 Muckamuck restaurant workers signed union cards with a local independent union, the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC) and were certified as a bargaining unit 21 February 1978. SORWUC, a feminist union active in the 1970s and early 1980s, formed with a primary goal to organize women in industries neglected by trade unions.
In an interview for this study, former Muckamuck employee and organizer Ethel Gardner described her role in the early stages of the union organizing campaign:
I was referred to an employment agency which recommended that I take a federal training program connected to the Muckamuck restaurant. I agreed and eventualiy was working in the cold kitchen making salads and drinks. A few incidents occurred which got the staff upset. The cook was charged for getting the soup burnt and I was fined for leaving the bannock out overnight. When the manager told me to serve the bannock to a customer, I refused because I had been fined for leaving it out. The manager agreed and 1 threw it out. Incidents such as these led a few of us to go to the Labour Standards Branch where we were told we needed a union in order to enforce our grievances. I went back to the employment agency and said I wanted to quit, that the employer was racist. The counsellor said, ‘Why don’t you join a union?’ She told me about SORWuCs organizing efforts at Jerry’s Cove and Bimini’s, I called SORWUC and met with two union reps. They talked about the union and suggested we talk to the unionized employees at Jerry’s Cove which we did.
Ethel said Muckamuck staff had tried to organize before with another union but were unsuccessful and the instigator had been fired. SORWUC was chosen because it had some success organizing in die restaurant industry; Jerry’s Cove and Bimi ni ‘ s, as mentioned, were two examples. When asked if there were First Nations groups the staff could have approached instead of SORWUC, Ethel said, “There just weren’t any out there.”
After the union certification, Muckamuck employee Christina Prince told the press that management had told workers they “should be happy” to have a job because of their race. Christina said the racial issue emerged when employees realized that the owners were getting rich off Native culture. Management responded, “If there has been any discrimination, it has been against the highly qualified whites who we’ve passed over to hire untrained Native people.”
Not only did First Nations people experience difficulty obtaining employment in the city, but when they were hired, often the jobs were in low-wage occupational ghettos. Notes taken by a SORWUC representative at an initial meeting with the Muckamuck workers show that most staff made between $3 and $4 an hour, averaging $60 a night with tips. (The BC minimum wage in 1978 was $3 an hour.) The head cook made $7. Notes on the high turnover and lack of training for staff also included this comment: “AH restaurants have a high turnover rate which is only proof of how much people need a union there and in other places. So some people are untrained. It’s not true for all and certainly implies a slur on Native people.”
The employer took advantage of government legislation and programs to save on labor costs. Workers under eighteen earned less than minimum wage and management made extensive use of the Canada Manpower Training Program, offering to “train” First Nations people to work in the restaurant and, in return, received 75 per cent of the trainee’s wages from the government.
As Ethel Gardner stated employees had approached the BC Labour Standards Branch with complaints of management practices. Although it is illegal, an employer in the restaurant industry will “fine” an employee for making a mistake (such as mishandling cash or food) and will deduct money from an employee’s pay cheque. Muckamuck workers were told that the Standards Branch had little power to enforce laws which forbid such employer practises. A local First Nations newspaper, The Indian Voice, published Ethel’s description of the situation:
Some of us went to the Department of Labour to have the law enforced. The Department of Labour would tell the employer to behave or to give the employees back their money, but there was nothing they could do to prevent any of the illegal acts from happening again, unless we had a union contract.
Ethel outlined the staffs grievances to the First Nations readership:
Breaks were few, if any. Heavy fines were given out for petty reasons, like not tying garbage bags, or forgetting to put tin foil over bannock. Staff meetings were held every week, and it was compulsory to go to these meetings. Employees were suspended two weeks at a time for not attending such meetings, even if it was their day off. At these meetings, employees were put down for every possible mistake that could have been made on the job, big or small, true or false. According to the owners, it seemed like the workers couldn’t do a thing right. Maybe it was because the workers were Indians? I doubt it.
Ethel stated that workers who complained were fired, bribed or harassed. Further, “We are also told that we must wear Native jewelry and if we do not we are badgered about not being proud of our culture. These extras are very expensive for us as we only make the minimum wage.” Scheduling, job security and fines were also major issues, Ethel claimed.
Ethel asked for the support of the First Nations community in the dispute and stated:
For too long the fact that Native workers in B.C. are badly treated has gone unnoticed. At the Muckamuck we are told by our management that we are slow, stunned, inexperienced and hard to train, rude, stupid and ungrateful for the beautiful place that they have built for us (the Indians) to work.
Connecting this situation with other First Nations issues, Ethel stated: “We are doing our part to add to the renewed struggle by Native people to gain the rights and respect that have been denied to us since Captain Cook landed here.”
The list of grievances goes on. According to an information leaflet distributed by SORWUC, employees sometimes received “non-sufficient funds” stamped on their pay cheques. The leaflet also stated: “Employees were proud of the restaurant, nonetheless because it promoted a good image of Native culture. They (the workers) only approached management and then SORWUC because working conditions were so poor that they could not feel proud of themselves.” In an interview with a California newspaper, SORWUC representative Muggs Sigurgeirson said: “The owner would tell the staff that she had 100 applicants from other Natives as a way of threatening staff. Workers could end up working twenty days straight. One worker refused to work the 21st day and had to wait 10 days to work again. She has children to support. Workers were told that whites would be hired if they were dissatisfied.”
A union leaflet contained further workers’ demands and reasons for organizing:
We want to have decent working conditions and to be treated with respect. Some of our grievances are: poor pay, no job security, no say in scheduling, short notice of changes in scheduled hours, illegal deductions for uniforms (T-shirts) and fired or intimidated into quitting.
Another leaflet indicated workers had political grievances as well: “None of the profits made from this sale of Native culture were put into the Native community.” Workers also wanted more input into the menu planning of the cuisine. Ethel Gardner stated in The Indian Voice:
It’s not so much they were white owners, it’s just they were giving the illusion … in their advertising it says ‘staffed and run by Native people.’ People really liked to believe it was owned by Natives—they think they’re contributing to the Native community and Native Indians, but they’re contributing to the pocketbooks of these three owners.
The Muckamuck restaurant employees organized to improve wages and working conditions but also organized as a reaction to their exploitation as First Nations people. While gender issues were discussed by First Nations women workers, it was racial issues which dominated the union agenda, SORWUC organizers recognized these layers of oppression because of their own experiences as women workers in occupational wage ghettos neglected by organized labour. And so out of this dispute came an alliance of white and First Nations workers as SORWUC organizers encouraged and supported Muckamuck employees to voice their demands for respect and autonomy.
What were the features of this situation which brought these groups together to challenge the status quo? As an independent local union, SORWUC had the autonomy and decision-making abilities lacking in larger unions. A larger union would likely have pulled out much earlier than SORWUC. Muckamuck staff chose a feminist, independent union, which suggests that First Nations culture is more readily linked to a small, “alternate” union than to a large, mainstream one. The structure of larger unions could have been alienating and counterproductive to organizing First Nations workers.
Furthermore, SORWUC was committed to class, race and gender struggles. Attempts by visible minority and women’s groups to set up their own caucuses within mainstream unions or to conduct separate organizing have provided some important initiatives in the struggle for workplace equity. However, an independent movement of women workers, even a temporary one, may drive these developments forward more forcefully, a contribution SORWUC can claim to have made during its short existence.
It was also important that the white working class and First Nations groups supported this strike. SORWUC activists had experience and expertise in trade union practices and were able to share this with the First Nations workers. They were able to access the resources of mainstream unions, which was crucial in providing financial and moral support. The endorsement of First Nations groups was also important and though there were conflicts, the dispute also provided an opportunity for the strikers to discuss the benefits of unions with First Nations people.
Certification and Negotiations
The Labour Relations Board (LRB) certified SORWUC as a legal bargaining agent on 20 March 1978 and on 3 April the union served notice to bargain with the employer. A Muckamuck employee summarized events in the Vancouver Sun: “The primary union organizer was fired the day that management was notified of the application for certification. Since then six more of us have been fired or intimidated into quitting. All seven are union members, most quite active.” The union launched charges of unfair labour practices on behalf of these workers on 21 and 23 February, and on 29 March.
The sequence of events following certification are noted in the SORWUC log book. The log book was used to make daily entries of union activities for potential evidence in legal dealings and was especially important during new organizing campaigns, contract negotiations and picketing. The book was available for union staff, officers and members to make records. An excerpt documented the workers’ treatment by the employer after the union application proceedings:
21 February —application for certification Cay fired
23 February —Ethel fired
21 March—Rag suspended
28 March— Rev fired 2
9 March—Lauretta harassed into quitting
The log book described the first steps in contract negotiations from 17 April to the rapid breakdown of relations between the union and management by 20 May:
17 April—first bargaining session (to negotiate a contract)
2 May—second bargaining session
10 May—first date of hearing (of LRB, re: complaints on firings)
12 May—second date of hearing
17 May—third date of hearing
20 May—first date of leafletting (SORWUC information picket) —owner tries to bribe Marge and Christina (Muckamuck employees)
21 May—second date of leafletting
23 May—management walks out (of contract talks) —illegal picketing charge (against the union) —management puts out own leaflet
The union had organized an information picket, handing out leaflets to customers in front of the restaurant on 20 and 21 May as a means of applying pressure against management. Business dropped dramatically during the picketing. A LRB official contacted a SORWUC representative and made an informal request that the union cease leafletting until the board decided on management’s illegal picketing charge. SORWUC declined the request. Muckamuck employee Christina Prince described the LRB’s unfair actions in deciding to hear management’s complaint before the union’s:
It took us two and a half months to get in front of the LRB with our unfair labour practice suits. Yet when this leafletting started, they took us in front of the board within 24 hours. The management got an informal hearing. They called it illegal picketing. And since it was hindering business, the LRB had to automatically fall on management’s side. That’s what we were told. So we thought ‘forget it, we’ll get these people back to their jobs another way, at the negotiating table.’
Management retaliated further by distributing the first of a series of leaflets defending their actions and attacking the union. The dispute was described in the Vancouver Sun as one which “pits Indian workers against white managers.
In The Indian Voice, Ethel Gardner described the frustrations at the bargaining sessions with management in April and May:
Management generally came late, left early, complained about how long the contract was and generally treated us and our union rep with contempt. For example, they refused outright our suggestions that we bargain in the Indian Centre because it was ‘not devoid of colour.’ These were the words of their lawyer, Bill MacDonald.
Management held a final meeting with staff before relations deteriorated completely. The records from a LRB hearing describe management’s interference, in contravention of the labour code, with the union campaign:
At a meeting of the employees in April or May, shortly before the strike commenced, all of the owners —Erickson, Bjornson and Chrismas—were present and Chrismas made a number of statements concerning SORWUC, the restaurant and its future. According to one of the employees present, Sandra Eatman, the gist of these remarks was that the restaurant provided considerable assistance to Native people, that the employees should work hard to make the restaurant prosper, that the employees could thereby earn much more money, and that the employees did not need a trade union. There were some further statements made by one of the owners to the effect that the restaurant had been opened for Native people, that die Native people should be grateful and that SORWUC would destroy the restaurant.
Management tried another tactic to undermine SORWUC as the bargaining agent for the staff. The owners contacted Russell Means, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to talk to the workers. Means met with the Muckamuck staff at the Indian Centre in Vancouver in late May. SORWUC representatives were not allowed to attend. Means suggested the workers buy out management and take over the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to get the money to do this.
Management contacted the Hotel, Restaurant and Bartenders Union (HRBU), Local 40 and, believing they would be a more “reasonable” union in negotiations, suggested they raid SORWUC. A raid did not occur, however, and the international unions, such as the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) and its leader Jack Munro, supported SORWUC’s efforts.
Muckamuck workers took a strike vote. A majority voted in favour of a strike and on 1 June began picketing in front of the restaurant. Christina Prince stated to the media: “We’ll be out for as long as it takes to get some serious bargaining done.” She called the management proposals at the initial bargaining sessions “unacceptable and unjust.”
The employer maintained an adamant opposition to the union and hinted at using strikebreakers early in the strike. On 7 June management stated they were prepared to sell their business rather than have a union in the restaurant. Management told the Vancouver Sun that seven workers were prepared to cross the picket line.
The employer also used racial issues to divide workers from each other and the union. SORWUC representative Ulryke Weissgerber said in an interview for this study:
Management promoted the idea that the workers were selling out in terms of their traditional culture by joining a white union. But I think the workers felt an alternative union was more in line with their traditional culture. I don’t think a big union would have held out as long as we did either. There was a huge sign in the restaurant window stating the workers were in a ‘white union.’ The strikers were really angry about this. We discussed things to do and went to Harry Rankin (a Vancouver lawyer [and member of the Communist Party of Canada]) who offered free legal advice. Many strategies were discussed.
A First Nations organization could have made a difference in maintaining unity. Sandra Eatmon, a Muckamuck employee, said in a recent interview that the workers did not have very many options in terms of choosing a union which would represent their interests as First Nations workers. She said, “I admire the dedication of SORWUC members but after the first year of picketing, most of the Muckamuck staff had left the picket line and white people were picketing while Native people were crossing the line and working inside.” She suggests that if a First Nations group had done the organizing, First Nations people may have stayed on the picket line longer.
But Ethel Gardner believes many First Nations people did not have a union consciousness:
The Native population by and large is not a working population. There is about 90 per cent unemployment. Even getting a job is difficult, let alone a union job. Native people don’t have much experience with unions. There is a lot of anti-union sentiment. Even the Native community didn’t support the strike to the extent they could have. People say “unions aren’t Native.” There’s no union consciousness. The staff of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) came down to the Muckamuck picket line but that was due to George Manuel, the head of UBCIC at the time. The United Native Nations sat on the fence. They said Natives were working inside the restaurant and picketing outside so they weren’t going to take a stand. Bill Wilson was head at the time.
Support from the First Nations community was crucial to the strikers. The UBCIC expressed their support for the Muckamuck strikers in a public statement: “Problems being experienced here by our people are the same problems we have been experiencing all over B.C. for 100 years.” And farther, “The owners of the Muckamuck exploit our resources—Indian work, Indian culture, Indian foods— yet refuse to treat our people fairly.” Management responded: “It was with a sense of respect, not a desire to exploit that we put together a restaurant which most business people advised us against.”
The employer’s anger at the First Nations community was also expressed in a copy of a letter sent to the UBCIC and publicly displayed in the restaurant window. It read in part:
We, however, no longer want to be directly involved with Native culture in British Columbia to the degree of commitment required in the past by Muckamuck. We had tried on many levels to achieve a positive statement and seemed to be progressing well until recently when the labor dispute first arose. The amount of energy required to pull the now shattered situation back together is too much if possible at all, the financial situation to us simply does not warrant it and the desire no longer exists.
Workers picketed a closed restaurant for the First six months of the strike. They received $50 a week in strike pay. Voluntary picketers, members of SORWUC, other trade unionists and supporters, joined the picket line. Shifts were maintained from 4 pm to 10 pm seven days a week.
Ethel Gardner kept the First Nations community informed of the strike and wrote in the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs News:
Being able to bargain collectively with Muckamuck management, we can negotiate a just and equitable contract so that in the future Indian people who choose to work there will be treated with dignity and respect. In this society, being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.
The city newspapers’ labour reporters maintained regular news coverage of the strike. One Vancouver Sun business writer, Eleanor Boyle, spoke out in favour of the owners. She accused First Nations workers of “using their Indian-ness to make money, exploiting their own culture if you like.” She suggested SORWUC was out looking for a cause and that management “should get a little credit for ensuring 90 per cent of its staff was Native Indian. It should also be spared from crucifixion for hundreds of years of Canadian neglect of Native people.”
In October, management re-opened the upstairs lounge and in November they re-opened the restaurant, employing a few former staff and hiring new workers, many of them First Nations people. The lounge was renamed the “Chilcotin Bar Seven” and had a “cowboy” theme. A Vancouver Sun headline read: “Cowboys Lasso Indians on Davie Street.”41 Strikers viewed these incidents as insensitive to First Nations culture and the union spoke out publicly against these actions.
While most customers did not cross the picket line and business was minimal, die strike took an ugly turn with the emergence of verbal and physical abuse between strikebreaking employees and strikers. The police were frequently called and numerous assault charges were launched in the courts during the ensuing months. Generally these assaults involved strikebreakers taunting, kicking and hitting picketers. In late November, counter-picketing by die strikebreaking staff brought more abuse—physical and verbal—on the street. Counter-pickets were strikebreaking staff, many of them Native, who came out on to the street and held signs critical of the union and supportive of management. For passersby, it was confusing “street theatre.”
A union picketer described the scene in a SORWUC newsletter:
They [management] seemed to particularly delight in pitting the Native staff against the picketers. For several weekends in a row now, the Native scabs [not the Caucasians] have been coming out to picket with strikers. They carry signs like—Muckamuck Open, We Support Muckamuck, etc. To passersby it looks like our line is bigger. One such passerby tried to give one of these counter-pickets a donation to the strike fund and she [the counter-picket] scuttled back inside!
As the strike progressed, fewer original Muckamuck staff showed up to picket. Many had other jobs and some felt a need to maintain a low profile. To keep their current jobs, they did not want to be seen picketing. SORWUC members, other trade unionists and supporters became essential picketers. Most were white and the core picketers, reflective of SORWUC membership, were female. As legal proceedings against the management dragged on, and picketing persisted into the second year, SORWUC members spent a lot of time clarifying the confusing appearances which emerged from the strike as many First Nations people crossed a white picket line to work inside. Picketers were motivated by their determination to establish unions, and by the knowledge that the majority of original strikers supported their efforts, attended the three separate decertification hearings over the duration of the dispute and were prepared to return to work. Some First Nations people chose to join the strikebreakers for a number of reasons, including the confusion created by divisions within their community regarding the dispute, a lack of familiarity with unions and contempt encouraged by the employer for the “white” union.
Entries in the log book by white strikers (unintentionally presenting racial stereotypes of First Nations people) described the picket line atmosphere:
October 12, 1978 — 3:00 — entry by Heather: … former waiter came by to check it out. Had been picketing first two months. Now has job. Got into a hassle with one of the Indian cooks who crossed the line. She said she wasn’t going on welfare and at least they paid her —she doesn’t care about anyone else—only herself. (She’s a young, slim Indian woman). 4:45 — Older Indian man (medium height-lean) went in, greeted by owner (?) in red cowboy shirt (full beard) who smiled and poured him coffee.
The employer hired Ben Paul, a First Nations employee of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and his wife Evelyn, to assist the strikebreaking staff in composing anti-union leaflets and various labour relations complaints and applications for decertification. SORWUC attempted to charge the employer with hiring a “professional strikebreaker” (in contravention of the labour code) but the LRB ruled that Paul was not legally defined as a “professional.”
The strikebreakers, with employer encouragement, used the legal process in an attempt to stall and subvert organizing by applying on three separate occasions for decertification. All three applications were rejected by the Labour Relations Board because the union was able to prove that a majority of the original staff were still members of SORWUC. These proceedings had the potential to wear down the union as some of the original staff moved out of the city or province and were not always easily available to testify for the union.
The first of three applications for decertification to the LRB was made January 1979, seven months after the original employees had joined SORWUC. SORWUC was able to prove that only one striker crossed the picket line to work inside. At the second hearing on 25 August 1979 the LRB stated, “… in every lengthy strike there will be some employees who do not picket but remain interested and willing to return to work when a settlement is reached.” By the third hearing 14 May 1980, the strikebreakers applied as a new bargaining unit, the Northwestern Hospitality Employees Association. Five of the eighteen original strikers were working inside the restaurant. The remainder had other jobs and one was picketing regularly. Still, SORWUC was able to present testimony from a majority of original staffers that they supported the union and were prepared to return to work when the dispute ended.
Another legal tactic used by management was their application for an injunction in the Be Supreme Court on 1 June 1979 against SORWUC picketing in front of the restaurant. Justice Patricia Proudfoot agreed to ban picketing and then after a union appeal on 8 June ruled that only six pickets per shift were allowed. Muggs Sigurgeirson, speaking for SORWUC, told the press: “We don’t consider it a victory because the number of pickets has been limited. But we’re certainly ecstatic at being back on the street where strikers should be.” SORWUC appealed the limit but the court turned down the appeal. The reason given for the decision was that the picketers were “harassing” customers and employees.
Management distributed and posted leaflets in the west end community. The LRB described and commented on these activities:
The single most disturbing theme throughout the material produced by the (strikebreaking) staff is the persistent accusation that SORWUC is a racist organization or, at least, that SORWUCs position in this dispute amounts to racial discrimination against Native Indians. This accusation is asserted baldly in some of the material. For example, one leaflet distributed during the summer of 1979 is entitled “Stop Racial Prejudice” and its concluding words are as follows: “This issue is no longer a labour dispute. It has been escalated into arguments over the right to strike. Do not destroy job opportunities for Native People! Ninety per cent of British Columbia’s Native People are unemployed. Help our economy and stop inflation. Support the Native workers at the Muckamuck. Bring a halt to racial discrimination. Support Muckamuck traditional Indian food.”
While the LRB condemned these actions, the board did not provide remedies requested by the union which included a public apology in The Native Voice and Westender newspapers. SORWUC’s newsletter contains a description of the First Nations community’s support:
We have recent letters of support from the Vancouver Indian Centre and the United Native Nations. In April of this year when management put a sign in the window saying the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs supported the strikebreakers, the UBCIC lawyer threatened to sue and the sign was promptly removed. Wayne Clarke, the administrator of the Vancouver Indian Centre has walked the picket line along with other people from the centre. In a recent letter to SORWUC, Debbie Mearns (President of the Indian Centre) told the strikers she “admired their dedication to this complex issue.”
Muckamuck strikers solicited support from the First Nations community through fundraising, conference speeches and articles in First Nations newspapers. SORWUC activists also embarked on major fundraising activities within the trade union and political left community. Financial donations for strikers accumulated into thousands of dollars by the end of the dispute.
The strikebreakers faced working conditions similar to those of the original staff, with the added pressure of working behind a picket line and serving very few customers each night. Turnover among them was high. They were paid $3 to $5 an hour. The media reported on 19 December 1979 that the strikebreakers were laid off over Christmas with non-sufficient funds marked on their pay cheques at the bank.
As the dispute wore on the union declared the strike a “civil rights issue” for First Nations people. A leaflet by the union stated: “In their actions and leaflets they (management) make it plain that they do not believe Native workers should have the right to strike.”
On two occasions during the strike when the owners tried to meet with SORWUC, the strikebreakers attempted to stop them. One vocal First Nations strikebreaker, Florence Differ, told the local media, “If management negotiates with SORWUC, we’ll walk out. I think we had a dirty deal pulled on us again. The Indians are done in again.” Manager Sussy Selbst defended the owners’ actions: “We just want to talk to the union. It’s been 17 months— we had seven customers last night. But the staff turned on us and screamed at us and called us turncoats. I was almost in tears myself.”
Again on 25 April 1980 management made moves to contact the union and strikebreakers threatened to quit. The session was cancelled because the owners allegedly feared picketing by strikebreakers outside the negotiating meeting place. By this time, the restaurant was in operation Friday and Saturday nights only. Soon after, the restaurant shut down all operations.
Finally on 25 April 1981, the LRB made a ruling on the various applications by SORWUC. Their main finding was that the Muckamuck management had not bargained in good faith. By October 1981 the owners had no assets in BC. On 1 March 1983 the LRB finally applied remedies to their previous ruling, having waited until they heard an application for certification by the strikebreakers as a new association. The LRB ruled that management owed the union $10,000 in compensation. SORWUC has never been able to collect this money, as the employer moved back to the United States. New owners set up a grocery store on the main floor of the property. Malcolm McSporrum, a local architect and supporter of First Nations issues* viewed the downstairs of the property and discovered that the setting and equipment of the restaurant remained. He contacted some former Muckamuck strikers and suggested they could be part owners in a new restaurant he would help finance. The Quilicum, a restaurant serving First Nations cuisine was reopened and a few First Nations people (including a former Muckamuck striker) have majority shares.
Many First Nations people have believed that “unions aren’t Native” partially because of the neglect by organized labour to campaign on their behalf. Consequently their working conditions have been exploitive on an economic and racial basis. But First Nations workers at the Muckamuck restaurant were able to form an alliance with the members of SORWUC to challenge their unjust status. SORWUC activists* ideological motivations, expertise, and links to the mainstream labour movement were key motivators to the workers’ efforts to resist the cultural and economic status quo.
The state’s institutions, however, failed First Nations workers as they were unable to protect workers from discriminatory and illegal employer practices. In this sense, as the strikers observed, the dispute became a “civil rights” issue for First Nations people. Although the federal employment centre attempted to address First Nations employment issues by setting up a program with local businesses, when told that the Muckamuck employer was discriminatory, the agency was only able to suggest informally that workers join a union. Similarly, the Labour Standards Branch admitted to being ineffectual in enforcing sanctions against illegal activities of employers such as fining employees for mistakes on the job, and again informally suggested workers join a union.
The LRB moved too slowly and provided remedies they were unable to enforce. The board’s decision to hear management’s illegal picketing complaint before the union’s charges of staff firings, and the delay in rendering a decision on the employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith undermined the union’s ability to be effective. The court’s decision to ban, then limit picketing, also hindered the workers’ efforts to establish a union. Furthermore police tended to view picketers as “troublemakers” so that picketers were more likely to be charged than protected in assault incidents.
The employer was not tied to the local community and institutions to the same extent as the union, so its attempts to seek legitimacy eventually failed. Their corporate values nonetheless were insufficiently challenged by the state as the long list of their illegal and unethical practices demonstrates. The fact that foreign owners can sell their business and move south without adhering to legal remedies indicates the global scope of workers’ struggle for justice.
The analysis of the role of the union can be extended further by examining the contradictions and conflicts First Nations workers experienced within SORWUC. Although SORWUC was ideologically committed to racial issues, the leaders and activists of SORWUC were female, mostly white and functioned within an adversarial and hierarchial trade union structure and culture. First Nations peoples’ ways of dealing with conflict, negotiation and decision-making were not introduced into the process. This imposition of values and culture on the First Nations workers could explain in part the eventual departures of strikers from the picket line. First Nations workers spoke on the specific strike situation in public forums, but did not speak on behalf of SORWUC as a union. Nor did First Nations workers take an activist position within SORWUC or other trade unions.
Further research by First Nations people could provide insights into how their community felt about this dispute and about trade unions in general. What were the repercussions of this strike within their community? How did the women strikers view the relationship between race and gender? Did the aspect of a visibly divided leadership among the First Nations organizations and among First Nations restaurant workers create long term problems, negative feelings about trade unions and distrust of the white community?
The closure of the restaurant and the loss of jobs for First Nations strikers does not suggest a victory for the workers. And while the LRB ruled in favour of the union, the monetary remedies were not rewarded to the strikers. Muckamuck workers, however, gained a sense of dignity and respect because they stood up for their rights. Restaurant employers elsewhere in the city may have improved their practices in light of the publicity and support for this dispute. The wider community had been made aware of First Nations, class and trade union issues. The First Nations and trade union communities found an opportunity to develop a bridge which can be crossed in the future.
Two of the original strikers spoke positively of their experience, Sandra Eatmon said she gained a respect for trade unions. “I learned about unions and workers’ rights,” Sandra said. “I thought it was the right thing at the time. We deserved better treatment.” Overall Ethel Gardner believes the dispute was a success. She said, “Looking back now, I see how we took it upon ourselves as a group of Native workers to make a statement that we weren’t going to be run in that way. So I think it was a success. We learned a lot, gained a lot and it was empowering.”
In both instances, Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated an old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, effectively accusing the Global South of being international welfare bums. They also assumed that US aid was indispensable to Global South countries’ survival. Yet, both Pakistan and Palestine in different ways sent a very distinct message; “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”.
In Trump’s brash displays of bravado, he may have unwittingly contributed to the unraveling of one of US imperialism’s most effective “soft power” techniques for maintaining the loyalty of intermediaries in the Global South, namely international “aid”. International aid from the Global North cores to the Global South peripheries is by and large managed by government institutions like USAID in the United States and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) but enacted by private actors often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). NGO’s have proliferated since the 1980’s, interestingly in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism. Contrary to what much of their branding might suggest, they are essential pillars to the maintenance of imperialism today.
The “Caribbean letter”: On agency and neocolonialism in Haiti
Both these scandals have history behind them and were made possible by the deep structural characteristics of NGO’s as “force multipliers” (Forte, 2015) of US and Canadian imperialism. As a signed letter to The Guardian from Caribbean intellectuals and organizers pointed out:
“In 2008 some of us had written to Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam chief executive, objecting to a report that it sponsored, Rule of Rapists in Haiti, which labelled Haitians as rapists while hiding rapes by occupying UN forces. The year before, 114 soldiers had been sent home for raping women and girls, some as young as 11. No one was prosecuted. We wrote: “NGOs like Oxfam have known about rapes by UN forces, as well as by aid and charity workers, for decades. It’s the pressure of victims, women and [children] in the most impoverished communities, who had the courage to speak out that finally won … public acknowledgement.” There was no reply.
The latest revelations of sexual abuse by major charities…are but one facet of NGO corruption. The people of Haiti were the first to free themselves from slavery, but the colonial “masters” they defeated – France, Britain and the US – have continued to plunder and exploit, including through imported NGOs. Haiti has more NGOs per square mile than any other country and it remains the poorest in the western hemisphere. Corruption begins and ends with neo-colonial powers.
While celebrated for “doing good”, NGO professionals do well for themselves. They move between NGOs, academia and political appointments, enjoying a culture of impunity while they exercise power over the poorest. The Lancet described NGOs in Haiti as “polluted by unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations” and “obsessed with raising money”.
(Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al., 13 February 2018)
This widespread abuse often goes unnoticed by the Global North public, whose tax dollars often subsidize these projects (Oxfam receives significant funding from the UK government). In fact, in a survey of the Canadian public, 91% of Canadians expressed at least “some confidence” while 41%, almost half, expressed “great confidence” in NGO’s (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Canadians also see themselves as widely loved throughout the world (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a). Yet, as the “Caribbean letter” demonstrates, Canadian NGO’s have more questionable reputations than the wider public might assume.
The normalization of NGO’s masks a series of insidious imperialist operations. In Haiti, NGO’s were used to conceal the increasing military role of the “international community”, headed by the United States, on the island. The US has twice intervened to overthrow popular Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once in 1991 and again in 2004. The troops stationed in 2004 to quell pro-Aristide unrest remain in the country and are a key component to the management and distribution of international aid, and NGO’s are required to cooperate with these occupying forces. These same NGO’s, especially Quebec-based ones, cheered the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 (Forgie, 2014; Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Numerous NGO’s were also enlisted by the Clinton Foundation to engage in its “development projects”, which as we have discussed before, were in fact a scheme to loot poor Haitians. Such practices are more commonplace than the trusting Canadian public might assume, as state donors like USAID and GAC, or private foundations like the Clinton or Gates Foundation leverage their vast supply of funds to encourage NGO’s to act as maintenance tools for imperialism (Frogie, 2014; Reith, 2010).
That NGO’s describe such schemes as “partnerships” between themselves and government or corporate entities conceals the power imbalance between government and foundation funders and the NGO’s “on the ground”. Sally Reith (2010) describes this as the “Trojan Horse” of development discourses, implying a level, depoliticized playing field. Meanwhile, aid has a precisely political character to it, usually in favour of maintaining imperialism and neocolonialism (Engler, 2015). USAID, which is run by the US State Department, makes no secret of this, saying its purpose is to “further America’s interest while improving lives in the developing world” (emphasis added).
The Kennedy administration created USAID in 1961, and since then the agency has been the proving ground of US foreign assistance objectives. It has been proven that countries rotating onto the UN Security Council received on average 59% more aid. As soon as their term ended, aid would fall to historic lows (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006). In a related study, T.Y. Wang (1999) found that UN voting patterns on vital issues to American interests were successfully swayed through the practice of aid giving, rewarding compliance and punishing political defiance. NGO’s are often bound to these funding streams, making the name “non-governmental” seem quite unusual given their actual reliance on western government aid.
Youthful Idealism: From impetus for revolt to marketing technique
These contemporary practices often coexist with NGO branding which promotes the role of western young people as “change-agents”, not only in their own societies, but across the entire world (Biehn, 2014). This is a legacy of the origin of NGO’s, especially in Canada, which grew out of attempts to neutralize the new anti-war left during the Pearson and Trudeau Sr. years. Many now-mainstream NGO’s such as CUSO, mostly composed of youth and students, were highly critical of the Vietnam war, and openly criticized the politicization of food aid by Canada as part of the Cold War. These organizations were lured by the relative tolerance of Pearson and Trudeau Sr.’s foreign policy, leading eventually to their institutionalization (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). CUSO was absorbed through a government coup of its board of directors, which ripped control of the organization away from its volunteers, while organizations like the Inter-Church Council (now KAIROS), had their funding slashed for criticizing neoliberal structural adjustment (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a), the beginning of “funding discipline” as a technique for maintaining NGO’s as part of the imperialist nexus.
The idea that NGO’s were an expression of youthful change-making, however, was preserved, pivoted to neoliberal ends. Biehn (2014) scrutinizes this, demonstrating how recruitment messaging directed at potential volunteers enforces neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the problem of and potential solutions to global inequalities. Problems are thus decontextualized and depoliticized. The messages reinforce a desired image of the Western youth as a powerful actor, an impetus for change, and an inspiration (Biehn, 2014).
One of the organizations Biehn uses as a case study is International Student Volunteers (ISV). I had a colleague working on a research project with ISV, which we discussed. She was quick to express her frustration with the organization being dominated by a particular milieu of people, what I would call the professional-managerial stratum along with a particularly involved section of the liberal bourgeoisie. These “white and privileged” (her words) families dominated ISV much to her frustration (her project was to find ways to increase the diversity of ISV volunteers). In hindsight, I would argue this is to be expected, as Biehn points out, ISV-style volunteerism is a noteworthy instrument for reproducing the orientation and allegiance of Global North professionals with imperialism.
Similarly, I had peers embark on various humanitarian trips, usually ranging from one to two weeks, to Haiti immediately following and a few years after the earthquake. These trips, usually financed by a combination of Foundation sponsorship, NGO collaboration, and church-based fundraising, consisted of typical volunteerism – building cheap churches, schoolhouses, etc. Looking back, it is fascinating to me that none of these students reported back anything of the political unrest and popular resentment of Haiti in their glossy presentations once they returned home, and enthusiastically accepted the presence of US marines on the island without question. The sheltering of the future young professionals and aspirant bourgeoisie whilst providing them an “authentic” experience of aid and poverty, helps create the conscious ignorance which characterizes the transnational capitalist class (Biehn, 2014; McGoey, 2012).
South-South cooperation and the urgency of Solidarity
If any more evidence was required to demonstrate that Oxfam and similar NGO’s are part of the imperialist establishment, consider that Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, appeared at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ostensibly, Oxfam was there to represent the voices of “ordinary people” to the global conference of oligarchs and elites, though as Marc Wergerif (2018) points out, no one asked them to speak for them. The assumption by Oxfam that it speaks for “ordinary people” is undercut by its actual collaboration with US imperialism and the transnational capitalist class and its failure to actually advocate solid propositions of popular organizations like La Via Campesina peasants’ coalition, or the Bolivarian social movements, or god forbid movements in the Global South organizing more explicitly for sovereignty against imperialism, such as the Syrian reconciliation movement.
Furthermore, why should a transnational foundation, run mostly by cosmopolitan professionals from the Global North and a handful of compradors, speak for “ordinary people” as a homogenized mass, and not their national representatives? Wergerif says it will be popular practices and movements that will provide the solutions for global challenges, not the schemes of agencies like Oxfam. One should note that as US imperialism continues to experience an economic and strategic decline, its beneficiaries are increasingly desperate to portray its maintenance as humanitarian, internationalist, and benevolent in nature. Meanwhile, we can see an increasing trend towards South-South cooperation in the form of Latin American integration and Chinese partnerships with Africa and the Bolivarian states, anti-EU groundswell in the form of Brexit, and a general working-class rage catapulting both right and left forces to prominence in the Global North. As Wergeif says, these “people’s everyday practices” have done much more to unravel the foundations of systematic inequality than the docile managers at Oxfam could accomplish. What directions these anti-systemic trends will take remains to be seen, but it is certain that they will increasingly delegitimize NGO’s as vehicles for social change.
Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012b. Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.
Biehn, Tristan. 2014. “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 77-87.
Engler, Yves. 2015. Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.
Forgie, Keir. 2014. “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 57-75.
Forte, Maxmillian C. 2015. “Introduction to Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice” in The New Imperialism, Vol. 5: Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 1-87.
[Image:Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America, 1964–65) is a 300 square meters (3,200 sq ft) mural at the hall of the Arts House of the University of Concepción, Chile. It is also known as Latin America’s Integration (Wikimedia Commons)]
The origins of Latin America and the Caribbean as a place involve layers of designations of space and place, forming a lexicon which constructs our mental understanding of the geographies incorporated into “Latin America” and “the Caribbean”. Both of these categories, like other socially constructed geographies such as “Europe” (a product of the emergence of what is now Europe as a center of the capitalist world-system), defy rigidly scientific understandings of geography. Europe is, geologically speaking, a peninsula of Asia, and while Latin America roughly corresponds with South America, Latin American cultural designations extend into North America via Mexico (and even into the United States according to many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chicanx nationalist theorists).
Latin America, or more accurately Latinoamerica, is a Spanish European term, later instrumentalized by French imperialism, to justify its presence based on the “Latinaity” of the region, while “Caribbean” is derived from Carib, an indigenous people of the region, but also has a colonial root. During the days of early Spanish rule, racist mythologies made “Carib” and “Cannibal” synonymous in colonial records and cultural memory, and thus the Spanish by designating the region as the “Caribbean”, also designated the entirety of the populations of that region as cannibals (Hulme, 1992).
It is because of these colonial interventions into the social geographies of what we call Latin America and the Caribbean that theorists like Mignolo (2005) call for a rejection of the category of Latin America as a colonialist regional conception forged by Creole elites in collaboration with the Europeans. Mignolo extends this argument saying that the imagining of a “homogenous” Latin America works to “render invisible” indigenous populations of African descent and the Chincanx/Latinx population of the US.
Yet, at least for now, Latin America is still with us as a social-geographic category. But despite of (or maybe because of) its persistence as a category which subsumes so many others, its meaning is constantly contested. Indeed, how could it not be? As Sanabria writes:
“Dozens of countries and territories with half a billion citizens; hundreds of languages spoken; millions of people concentrated in huge megacities, many others living in rural communities; every imaginable ecological niche spread over eight million square miles of land and sea; diverse historical trajectories, some pointing to Africa, some to Europe, and others firmly rooted in the New World; a long history of movement (diasporas) within and across national boundaries; hundreds or thousands of groups with their own self-ascribed, ethnic identity; a multiplicity of overlapping racial types and classifications, far from stable and rooted in biology; widely diverse notions of sexuality and gender relations; dozens of religious traditions and hundreds of diverse rituals, both secular and religious; widely dissimilar ways of construing health and classifying and treating illness; hundreds of different foods and cuisines; dozens of musical and dance traditions; a wide array of secular and religious popular celebrations with African, European, and New World influences—this is Latin America and the Caribbean…yet, what makes this a space or area of study and research? On the basis of which criteria or ideological positions do scholars delimit what is and what is not “Latin America” and the “Caribbean”?” (Sanabria, 2005, p. 17).
In recent years, numerous forces have tapped the diversity that is the conceptual world of Latin America described by Sanabria in order to advance their own visions and agendas. From the US creation of Latin American Studies to advance imperialist interests, to diaspora identity politics discourses, to the emergence of Bolivarianismo as the definitive ideology of the new Latin American left, what is and what will be Latin America is a crucial question for many vested interests.
One of the key battlefields of this contest is history, and pre-Columbian history takes on a special significance in particular. Competing narratives of the pre-colonial and colonial eras inform the legitimacy of various political and cultural worldviews. Thus, the renewed interest in accurate histories of these periods provokes controversy. Mann’s work 1491: The Americas Before Columbus is one such history. An excerpt of his work in The Atlantic (2002) with the same title as his book centers on two of his more interesting contributions, – amalgamations of decades of other research, fieldwork, and debate, – that (1) pre-colonial indigenous populations were numerous, numbering at least in the tens of millions, and (2) indigenous civilizations molded and crafted the ecology of the continent in monumental and lasting ways.
These contributions are significant, though not necessarily unique. Mann cites numerous other theorists and engages in many intimate interactions with them, before proposing is own synthesis. Sanabria (2005), who’s Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, is intended as a survey text of the discipline, posits many of the same positions as Mann, though in less detail, imply that Mann’s claim that these positions are slowly gaining clout in the mainstream seems to be at least somewhat correct.
Firstly, understanding precolonial populations as vast and numerous helps us conceptualize what exactly colonialism was in a new way. The scale of human suffering and cultural destruction is of holocaust proportions. However, it is my position that Mann’s presentation of the numbers problem is undertheorized. While noting casually the combination of colonial actions and accidental introduction of diseases, Mann fails to analyze how these two forces worked in conjunction to accomplish genocides of indigenous peoples. For example, Mann might note how atrocious working conditions for Aztec slaves in Spanish mines, or the French forceful selling of unsanitized sugar to the Huron, worked to exacerbate plague and epidemic directly in service of colonial economics. In this sense, Mann makes a valuable contribution to a certain extent to our understandings of what happened in colonialism but why it happened is remarkably absent, and worth investigating. Put another way, what anthropologists call power systems and what Marxists call material conditions, is not addressed by Mann.
Mann’s second contribution is theorized more deeply. The idea that the American continents have been meddled with, often in drastic ways, by human activity for centuries before colonial contact is a controversial one. Mann particularly points out that contemporary environmentalists’ understanding of areas like the Amazon rainforest as untamed and untouched wilderness defies the archaeological evidence; Mann goes so far as to present fieldwork suggesting that the Amazon is itself a creation of human actions, an engineered rainforest created by Inca and Aztec mass-scale landscape planning.
I postulate that this contemporary environmentalist conception, the idea of untamed and untouched preserves, is firmly rooted in terra nullius colonial ideology, a suggestion Mann hints at but does not explicitly come out and say. We can see this reified from North (PETA interventions against Inuit seal hunting) to South (Conservationist support for land grabs in the form of humanitarian purchases of preserves in Brazil). Conservational ideology legitimizes itself by projecting the idea of untouched nature preserves (never mind that by designating a space a “preserve” is, itself an act of human intervention), onto indigenous peoples.
This is especially important to critique in the context of Latin America, where the negotiation of space and place is ongoing, and often dramatic in how it is resolved. We should understand the indigenous impact upon how we understand Latin American space and place as neither reflexively environmentalist, nor trapped in the mythic pre-Colombian process, but as holistic, ongoing, and shaped by the contours of history, culture, and political economy.
HULME, P. (1992). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London, UK: Routledge.
MANN, C. (2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:
MIGNOLO, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.
SANABRIA, H. (2005). The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. London, UK: Routledge.
“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before. I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.” — Donald J. Trump, Campaign Speech on Foreign Policy
If anyone retains any illusions that Trump represented a true challenge to the “establishment” which he so vehemently claimed to oppose, it’s time to bury such fantasies alongside the bodies of the victims of the 59 ballistic missiles fired into an airfield outside Homs, Syria. Not only has Trump done nothing to alter the Bush-Obama proxy wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine, but has escalated the US aggression against Syria, but now potentially in Korea (and I assume, eventually, Iran and Venezuela). Like Bush in Iraq, Trump is lunging into Syria on the presumption that the Syrian government used chemical weapons despite questionableevidence of this. Ironically, this also comes after a recent admission that the United States has used depleted uranium in Syria just as it did in Iraq.
This is in stark contrast to the foreign policy Trump campaigned on, or more precisely the foreign policy many Trump voters thought he was campaigning on. Despite threatening to tear up the Iran Nuclear Deal and bolster support for Israel, as well as the wild suggestion the US station nuclear warheads in South Korea, Trump also made a number of isolationist, even anti-imperialist sounding statements on the campaign trail, which appealed to voters who are feeling exhausted by decades of imperialist wars. These statements were surprisingly consistent as well, alluding to positions Trump had described in his books, The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough (2011). More recently, they also appeared in his tweets:
What happened to the Trump who wrote these tweets? What happened to the Trump who trashed NATO, sought good relations with Russia, attacked the Clintons for overthrowing Qaddafi, who called the United States “not so innocent”, and promised to build jobs at home instead of sending soldiers aboard? I admit, I entertained the possibility that Trump might make good on these promises, but no longer. It’s likely that this “progressive Trump” never really existed.Like Nixon and Obama before him, Trump is an opportunist, playing to both working class conservatism (in the form of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and settler-colonial nationalism) as well as more progressive impulses like universal health coverage and, of course, anti-interventionism, positions which are quickly abandoned once the opportunist is catapulted into power.
A possible silver lining in these dark times is that perhaps now the nebulous “Trump coalition” will shatter into a million pieces. Between trying to push through detrimental health care policy and plunging the United States into another bloody, potentially catastrophic war, Trump has isolated both the working class and rural-dwelling voters who brought him victory and the bourgeois white nationalists who aggrandized him to the public. There may be an opportunity, through the channel of a revived anti-war movement, for the left to recapture the working class in the United States.
It should also be apparent to anyone paying attention now that the media is not a friend of progressives or any critics of US imperialism. It should be clear that in spite of the aggressive attacks against Trump in major media outlets during the election, that the elites and their propaganda outlets were not really ever concerned with Trump’s xenophobia, his racist and sexist comments, or the likelihood that he is a rapist (and indeed, why would they be?), these things were only instruments to the transnational capitalists against a figurehead they feared might put a wrench in their otherwise well-oiled war machine by seeking rapprochement with Russia and Syria. Now that Trump has fully committed to their version of Yankee imperialism, press coverage of Trump is glowing with praise. Of eighteen major editorials on Syria in five major papers, not one is critical.
Below is a stunning report featured in The Nation in March of 2017 which darkly foreshadows the pressure Trump must have felt from his wealthy friends and neighbors to have a good war. Trump himself has a vested interest in the war economy, owning significant shares in Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missiles launched at Syria. While reading this, consider that the “wealthy donors/elites” described as pushing for war also likely have controlling interests in the mainstream American media, which now rallies behind Trump’s genocidal ambitions.
Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency Washington has struggled to get a handle on his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace. In recent weeks, there has been intense focus on the perceived influence of top presidential aide Steve Bannon, who is seen as extremely hawkish on national security matters, especially when it comes to combating Islamic terrorism and confronting China’s rising influence. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Bannon’s prominence within the administration – highlighted by his appointment to the National Security Council – portends a more bellicose turn in American national security policy.
And despite his purported skepticism of defense spending and aversion to spending cuts, Trump’s new budget bolsters spending for defense by $54 billion while cutting spending elsewhere.
There are undeniable reasons for concern – if not outright fear – about Bannon’s appointment, particularly coupled with soaring military investment. But these worries obscure more systematic – if also more subtle – reasons for the United States’ persistent aggressiveness on the world stage. (After all, American military interventionism long preceded the Trump Administration and continued during the presidency of Barack Obama). Our research suggests that a major, if under-appreciated, base of support for the frequent use of American military force abroad is the enthusiasm of wealthy persons – and especially large political donors.
On several key questions, wealthy people – and, in particular, “elite donors” (those who contribute $5,000 or more, or the top 1 percent of all donors) – are much more enthusiastic about the projection of American force than are American adults. The enthusiasm of the most wealthy and influential private actors in American politics provides a durable reservoir of support for the assertion of American power abroad. Given the profound, and likely growing, influence of political donors in American politics, our findings suggest that strong political supports for American foreign interventionism will remain long after Bannon, and Trump, have departed the executive branch.
These conclusions come from our ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors. As part of this work, we investigated how preferences toward American military spending and the use of force compared between elite donors, wealthy individuals (those with family incomes of more than $150,000), all donors, and all American adults.
Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these elite donors, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the elite donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using information from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.
We also made efforts to ensure that we correctly identified large donors. While it’s unlikely that many people lie about contributing large amounts of money to campaigns — being an elite donor is not exactly a status that most people aspire to — we tried to account for this possibility by dropping from our analysis any self-identified elite donors who were not also validated registered voters. On the whole, our approach allowed us to examine the preferences of elite donors, and other groups, with a great deal of precision.
As a first observation, “elite donors” and wealthy Americans are more supportive of American military spending than are ordinary Americans. When requested to indicate whether they preferred to balance the federal budget primarily through cuts to defense spending, domestic spending cuts, or tax increases, 42 percent of American adults indicated that they preferred defense cuts. But only 25 percent of elite donors, and 36 percent of wealthy Americans, preferred that route.
We found that cutting defense spending was the most popular option for balancing the budget among ordinary Americans, but the least popular option among elite donors. And this is not simply a matter of partisanship — the “elite donors” and wealth Americans in our sample are fairly evenly divided along party lines. Further, within the parties, elite donors are more interventionist (that is, Democratic elite donors are more interventionist than non-donors and Republican elite donors are more interventionist than Republican non-donors).
Elite donors and wealthy Americans also seem to be more sanguine about the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among all adults, 60 percent consider the United States’ involvement in Iraq a mistake. But only 52 percent of elite donors do. The opinion gap between adults and elite donors on the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan is even wider. While 43 percent of the general public consider the Afghanistan intervention a mistake, only 27 percent of elite donors do.
These findings point to the possibility that elite donors and wealthy Americans might be more favorably disposed to the use of American military force than are ordinary Americans. And, in fact, when it comes to attitudes about hypothetical military interventions, we find similar income- and donation-based effects. For example, while all of the groups in our analysis strongly support the use of American military force to protect allies under attack, elite donors and wealthy Americans are even more enthusiastic than are all American adults. Eighty-five percent of elite donors and 80 percent of wealthy Americans express support for the use of force in these circumstances, compared with 71 percent of adults.
“Elite donors” and the wealthy are noticeably more likely to support a military intervention to prevent genocide (50 percent and 51 percent, respectively) compared to the general public (40 percent). And elite donors and wealthy Americans are also much more likely to express support for military interventions to destroy terrorist training camps. Sixty-four percent of American adults supported this hypothetical; but 80 percent of “elite donors” and 76 percent of wealthy Americans did.
Strikingly, we found that elite donors and wealthy Americans are more likely to express support for military interventions to ensure the American oil supply. While just 25 percent of American adults expressed support for such interventions, 35 percent of elite donors did, and nearly half (48 percent) of Republican elite donors did.
These attitudinal differences matter. Recent scholarship on representation in politics strongly suggests that large donors and wealthy Americans exercise disproportionate influence on politicians, and that this bias is most notable on matters of national security and foreign policy. One reason that this might occur is that Americans feel less confident in judging debates over foreign interventions and often defer to elites on such matters, especially during conflicts.
Benjamin Page and Jason Barabas compared the foreign policy preferences of foreign policy elites using the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys and found “many differences of 30, 40, and even 50 percentage points compared with the general public.” Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton find, in their book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, that “contrary to the assertions of many scholars, pundits and political elites,” “collective public opinion about foreign policy is not inconsistent, capricious, fluctuating or unreasonable.”
Rather, they argue, the general public “generally prefers to use cooperative and multilateral means to pursue foreign policy aims.” Kull and Destler also find that elites tend to misread public opinion, and that Americans aren’t isolationist, but rather favor multilateral intervention.
Political scientists Matt Grossmann and William Isaac also found the wealthy are more likely to favor “international intervention, international institutions, foreign aid, and trade agreements.” They found that the wealthy have a disproportionate impact on foreign policy: “affluent support for foreign policy proposals without average support leads to a very high adoption rate (69 percent) compared to foreign policy proposals with only average citizen support (38 percent).”
This applies not only to a more aggressive use of force internationally, but trade policy as well, as donors are more likely to support free trade agreements. In the 2014 CCES, 68 percent of donors contributing $1,000 or more support a US-Korea free trade agreement, compared to 57 percent of the full sample.
Most of the debates about money in politics center around domestic policy: Bernie Sanders’s campaign centered around the way that millionaires and billionaires blocked the progressive agenda. However, our research suggests that elite donors have different views about the global economy and use of force overseas than the general public. Donors often give money to enact that vision, such as the millions Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have given to shape policy on Israel. Politicians who buck the establishment on trade and military force overseas often find themselves quickly on the defensive. Donors are likely to oppose any attempt by Trump to cloister America from the international community, but they also are unlikely to tap the brakes if he moves the country towards war.
Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.
The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”. This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).
While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).
Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.
Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.
Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship
The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power. In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.
As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).
It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).
So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007), the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).
Cold War Containment
Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.
While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).
Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.
The Next Phase
Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.
Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.
McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.
O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.
O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 77-105. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.