The Problem Is Empire
04/09/08 "The Nation" -- - Let me tell you some of my story and lessons I have learned over these past five decades. I have always tried to improve my country, always trying from the places around me.
I was smart and ambitious and athletic, but something never felt right in my suburb, school and church. I felt more at home with the underdogs and misfits than with the authorities. I was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye against Alfred E. Newman at Mad magazine.
I editorialized against overcrowded classes in high school. I editorialized against racist fraternity discrimination at the university. I went to the Democratic Convention in 1960 and was moved by Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and a new student movement.
I moved to
I left graduate school and became a community organizer in the slums of
Now I was living in two worlds, still knocking on doors in
I went back to
I went back to mainstream antiwar work trying to defund the
After the long radicalizing interruption of the war, I tried to combine
community organizing and electoral politics. I served in the
Some of the issues we worked on were these:
• Protecting the right to local rent control, which saved
• Stopping a nuclear power plant in
• Stopping a Liquified Natural Gas terminal on Indian land in
• Empowering neighborhoods to bargain effectively with big developers. Saving the oldest building in LA from the wrecking ball.
• Saving salmon, stream beds, wetlands, deserts and redwood forests from the power of developers and special interests.
• Trying to replace the war on gangs, mass incarceration and
unconstitutional police misconduct, with gang peace processes and employment
opportunities, from LA to
• Involvement in over fifty political campaigns at local levels, including some of the earliest elections of feminists, gays and lesbians, renters, Asian-Americans and former '60s radicals.
It was said by
And so it has gone. Even when the
Then came 9/11, and a legitimate security crisis was transformed into the
So there you are. We will have to go back to the lessons Roman and British empires to learn the painful lessons of imperial overextension. The lessons in blood bravely shed in lost or dubious causes. The lesson of a weakened capacity to fund healthcare, education, our children's futures. The lesson that democracy is diminished as the secrecy of the warmaking state expands. The lesson of being hated in a world where alliances are a necessity, not a choice.
For too long we have divided our movement labor between domestic and foreign policy issues. Sometimes there are contradictions, for example, when the cold war liberals--today's humanitarian hawks--believed we could have both guns and butter, the world's most massive arsenal, fueled by oil, combined with robust domestic initiatives on healthcare or the environment or inner city jobs. It just hasn't worked out that way. The richest country in the world still lacks a national healthcare program, still is pockmarked by ghettos and barrios, still has massive school drop out rates combined with the largest incarceration rate in the whole world.
And despite any evidence of significant success, the wars go on, the war on terror, the war on drugs and the war on gangs.
Despite the evidence, the organized peace movement is weaker than any other
social movement, or network of NGOs, in
The point I am making is that our progressive priorities are wrong. Any hope for transformational domestic change depends on reversing the entrenched interests driving the dual agenda of military and corporate empire, including the Pentagon and the oil industry and the narrow elitist thinking of most national security and economic experts.
The battle is between the empire, or whatever euphemism by which is goes, and participatory democracy.
Our adversaries, who once favored monarchy and then white supremacy, have
done a successful makeover and attempted to steal the banner of democracy. For
example, they are exuberant about imposing democracy by force across the Middle
East and to the borders of
I am campaigning for and voting for Barack Obama not because I agree with
him on every foreign policy issue but because I think we need to unleash the
energy of those who fight for justice and housing and healthcare and jobs and
the environment here at home. The Obama movement is registering and mobilizing
millions of new voters, young people, working class, people of color and poor.
The mere fact of their being mobilized will create a pressure for new
priorities on the economic home front against the present priorities of
militarization abroad. The fact that Obama rose to his present position on the
tide of antiwar sentiment forces Obama and the Congressional Democrats to pay
greater attention to our needs at home or pay a political price. If he expands
the quagmires in
So I am saying that domestic groups--organized around issues from civil rights to the environment--cannot afford to leave peace simply to the peace movement. And the peace movement has to point every day to the domestic costs, including energy costs, of the Iraq War and the larger empire. And we must define an alternative vision to the undemocratic structures of corporate and military power that promise security but bring us war, that promise jobs but lower our standard of living. We need a new model of political economy that is equitable and sustainable, not one that expects every country in the world to meet our needs, including our appetite for their resources. And finally, we must build a progressive movement inside and outside the Democratic Party, one that respects the autonomy of single-issue movements, that brings our community organizing experiences to bear on this frustrating political process, that can build and strengthen a progressive power base that can fight everyday for our needs, not the empire's needs.
It is not enough to liberalize the empire; the task is to peacefully and steadily bring it to an end, making democracy safe for the world as some organizers said fifty years ago. In place of empire, we need to understand the world as a multipolar one, and drive it towards participatory democracy through social movements. Those social movements will not only pressure their existing governments but energize a global civic society that can achieve enforceable new norms on human rights, a global living wage and corporate accountability, a healthy environment instead of global warming, and the steady reduction of nuclear weapons.
Tom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd),
The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in
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