The Temptation of Power
Thoughts Prompted by the Fall
Seeing the Adenauer clan linked
to the Wehrhahn Group and later on, observing the Flick scandal which involved
a big corporation as well as the political leadership in W. Germany, my
dad sometimes said it made him almost a monarchist. “They already
have everything – they don’t have to fill their pockets quickly,
like people who are in office for just a short time.” He obviously
thought of dynasties like the Hohenzollerns and the Windsors. But he wasn’t
seriously considering the monarchist option. He knew too well that monarchies
were always tremendously costly and exploitative. It was just his way of
being ironic or even sarcastic.
Something, in fact, speaks for
limiting the time people may hold office to short terms. Power corrupts.
Or at least, it causes addiction, to it. Even if, as in the case of the
Castro brothers, personal wealth is not coveted.
Yes, I know that Fidel Castro
would probably say that he isn’t “addicted” to power. That to be at the
top is a burden rather than a joy. That it was out of “responsibility”
when he remained commandante en jefe for so long. But responsibility for
what – for “the fate of the revolution”? Is the “revolution” something
that exists “in itself”, quite apart from the people, el pueblo, the populace?
Has the populace no say, no voice? I know that the official line
describing the space of freedom in Cuba is, that “everything is possible”
– and thus permitted – “within the revolution. And nothing outside [or
against] it.” Sounds fine, in theory, to somebody who desires radical change.
But why were pessimistic poems considered to be outside the revolution?
It is forbidden to be sad? Or to be unhappy in love? Or to be disturbed
by the imperfections of a society engulfed in a process of deep transformation?
Who drew the line? What power was accorded to those who drew the line?
I know that some, including that cherished, lovely woman, Marta Harnecker,
would point to elements of grass roots democracy in Cuba. These things
may well exist, on the factory and local level. That’s not enough, however,
and there are Cubans who say so. Not just the liberal-conservative and
social democratic “dissidents” who idealize the free market and our liberal,
free-market-based political system in the U.S.A. Come on, Marta, the fact
that our democracy is not real (as the protesters in Barcelona, in Madrid
and Manhattan know full well) is no excuse for a Cuban “Socialist democracy”
that limits the political debate and curtails the factual right of the
people to choose a head of government. Maybe the Castros and their
party would have carried the election. But they never ran in an open, unbiased
context. They just prolonged their mandate of power. Not too difficult
in an effective one party system and with a party that functions according
to a top-down logic. The logic embraced, in a veiled way, by the Democratic
and the Republican Party, as well. I know that. But does that make the
prevalent practice in Cuba more defendable? More easily excused?
In Libya, it was Gaddafy who
hung on to power for too long. When the last days of the regime came as
NATO attacked it with Tomahawk missiles, the air force and special forces
on the ground, accompanied by troops from despotic Qatar and an assorted
bunch of civilians who had taken up arms because of grievances no one can
dispute, Fidel Castro sided with the Libyan head-of-state. Why? Was it
geo-politics, opposition to US-imperialism – a phenomenon that is more
real than most North Americans are prepared to admit – that made the old
Cuban revolutionary close his eyes to the short-comings of the Libyan regime?
Or did he simply regard these shortcomings as secondary, in the global
game that justaposes the advocates of US hegemony and the advocates of
popular emancipation, at least in Fidel’s opinion? But what are we to make
on an emancipation that presupposes the suspension of civil rights?´Well,
we all know or might well know they are imperiled in the US. But was Libya
different, under Gaddafy?
But let’s try to be fair. Gaddafy,
the man who ran Libya since 1969, can take credit for following the example
of Nasser because he toppled the monarchy. A monarchy put in place by the
colonialists when they left but were intent on preserving their influence
and economic domination. Even Jean Ziegler admits that in his early
years Gaddafy was a progressive. One might almost say, a progressive intellectual.
That was the impression of quite a few who saw him debate with Tito about
the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries. And the role that this movement
might assume in the context of the worldwide anti-colonial and anti-racist
struggle for a coveted political and economic liberation that was obviously
necessary. And that has not been achieved even now.
Gaddafy might have been an intellectual
if he had not always been an officer in the first place. As head of government,
he supported liberation movements, including the ANC that was considered
by the U.S. as a terrorist group. Supporting the PLO, including the left-wing
People’s Front and the Democratic People’s Front for the Liberation of
Palestine, made him few friends among Arab rulers. In fact, Arab despots
snubbed him and hated him. Obviously Gaddafy was an Arab nationalist. And
it was his nationalism that was disappointed by the other Arab governments
and that made him turn to the idea of African unity. In this way, he overcame
Arab and European racism towards “Black” Africans.
Was it the encirclement of the
West, was it an effect of the U.S. assaults that killed one of his daughters
“in retribution for Lockerbie” (which the Libyans probably were not involved
in) that let him become paranoid? Pushed against the wall, with no exit
left, he ushered in a privatization program in recent years that was advocated
if not demanded by the West. As a consequence, the unemployment rate exploded,
especially among young people.(*) We have seen that happen in Egypt as
well. Then there was the trouble with religious conservatives. It was not
by chance that this conflict spilled over into Libya, both from the Algerian
side, and even more because of the conflict in Afghanistan. Was the West
having its hands in the game? That’s possible. Just like the Israeli government
furthered the growth of Hamas in the early days of that movement, in order
to have a conservative, “religious” antidote to Habbash’s PFLP and Hawatmeh’s
DPFLP, just like US-supported military dictators in Pakistan pandered to
conservative land-owning factions and to the most conservative among the
mullahs (often the younger sons or the nephews of the big landowners),
in order to push back the left, thus furthering “Islamist” tendencies in
once fairly secular Pakistan, certain foreign powers seem to have recruited
Libyans for the fight against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan.
And they obviously helped them to return to Libya to cause trouble by creating
an “islamist” fundamentalist opposition, in the 1990s. Later on, after
9/11 – that mysterious occurrence – the CIA and their British counterpart
changed their course of action. They extradited Libyan “islamists”, their
old partners in Afghanistan, to the Gaddafy regime. They – and the Germans,
apparently – even trained the regime’s special police forces, something
that may have happened in Egypt as well.
If Gaddafy started out as a progressive,
this does not erase the fact that like all the other Arab heads of state,
with the possible exception of Lebanon, Gaddafy was not democratically
elected. And the way the prison revolt by “Islamists” in Tripolis was squelched
reminds us of Attica, the infamous prison in upstate New York. Or of the
bloody massacre of Tupac Amaru prisoners in Lima, staged during the meeting
of the “Socialist International” in the Peruvian capital because the political
prisoners hoped for wide press coverage of their demand not to be treated
in an inhumane way. The massacre by the army seems to have been okayed
by the participants of the ongoing international meeting at the time, including
Willy Brandt. There is a photo of him leaving the conference room, after
a decision on how to deal with the “blackmail attempt” of the inmates had
been reached. His face is cold, hard like marble, and determined. Western
democratic leaders often have placed “reasons of State” above humanity.
The massacre of Islamist prisoners
protesting against prison conditions does not speak in favor of the
Gaddafy regime, whether we agree with the goals of these islamists or not.
It speaks for the regime, however, that many of the hard-core islamists
who had served U.S. interests as supposed freedom fighters in Afghanistan,
were later on released by the Gaddafy regime, after signing papers that
they would abstain from political “trouble-making.” Several of them were
soon involved again in U.S. backed coup attempts. Some are among the leaders
of the new regime in Libya which promises a movement towards Western style
The press in North America and
Western Europa, defending obvious Western political interests, has painted
a dark, bizarre, almost demonícal picture of Gaddafy from the very
beginning. That, in iself, was not surprising, given his support for the
PLO and its most militant groups. He was always painted as “a little mad”
and his insistance on donning a non-Western garb on official occasions
(while on photos taken in a private context we see him in a white Western
suit) emphasized his “otherness” which, in itself, appeared (or was calculated
to appear) suspicious and dangerous to readers of the yellow press. That
was all a calculated game, part of the media spectacle produced by the
factory of global opinion which turned around the message people like Gaddafy
and Morales intend to project to “the masses” in the so-called Third World
when they break with Western etiquette and Western clothing habits.
The worst one can say perhaps
about this man is that Gaddafy’s “popular democracy” was like Potemkin’s
villages. It was paternalistic. It treated the population like children
who do not yet know what’s good for them. It was impatient with such “children”
if they became “stubborn” and insisted on something that was going against
the current, against the direction chosen by the regime.
It can be assumed that just as
in Stalinist regimes, Gaddafi’s own “trusted elite” – members of Cabinet,
high-level bureaucrats, officers, journalists – were afraid of being
suspected of “divergent political points-of-view.” Probably people in such
contexts are liable to spy on each other. The urge to rise within a hierarchically
structured state apparatus encourages opportunism, hiding ones real
views, and denunciation of others who are less careful, thus more open
and outspoken. In a much less politicized context, the same psycho-social
mechanism is at work in every big corporation, from Exxon to GM or GE.
Conformity can be enforced with or without a political police. In Egypt,
a political police spied on citizens. In Morocco, it still does so, and
the same is true of Algeria, Bahrain, the Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait. Saudi-Arabia,
Syria, and Yemen. Was Libya an exception? Probably not. If there was no
such police, it did not necessarily mean that denunciations and incarceration
were absent. This is a part of the power game. If the masses can be controlled
and kept at bay without incarceration of political opponents seen as dangerous
by the regime, a semblance of democratic normality is more easily attained.
How does the U.S. compare with Arab regimes? Yes, there is less of a threat
to lose your life when you dissent. Much less. People, most of them,
at least, feel they are living in a fairly open society. But are there
no political prisoners? Don’t the “organs of the State” spy on citizens
in the U.S., as well? And isn’t there a lot of conformism, despite all
the verbal assertion of “individualism” and fashionable “difference”? Isn’t
there a hidden anxiety or carefulness that lets many a person try to remain
“within the mainstream”? Quite a few people in the United States are often,
and apparently in many contexts, afraid to discuss politics. It can be
too damaging, putting off somebody who might be a valuable contact.
It can ruin careers.
As for Libya, the implicit climate
of censorship and self-censorship that existed, cannot be put in doubt.
But otherwise, life, in a material sense, improved under the Gaddafy regime.
At least in the early decades. As long as there was no globally disruptive
economic crisis. As long as the oil price rose, providing oil income which
in turn guaranteed that the State had growing rather than shrinking
funds at his disposal. Both for its modernization strategy and for parallel
social policies. For it was Libyan oil income that led to every improvement,
including improvement of the standard of living of the bulk of the Libyan
population. No question – it wasn’t any longer the foreign corporations
and a local mercantile elite which skimmed off the cream. At least not
in the early decades under Gaddafy.
As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein,
the modernization effort was remarkable and remarkably successful. Mortality
rates dropped sharply. The health system and the education system was modern
and both served the common people, in the way typical for social democratic
governments in Western Europe. In the poor, so-called Third World such
achievements are often taken to be “socialist.” So there was a subjective
basis for speaking of a specific, Libyan, “green” socialism. Green stood
of course for the Muslim socio-cultural and religious heritage. A heritage
that was not denied or repressed, as long as Muslims did not organize a
conservative political opposition and as long as they refrained from wanting
to base the political system and social life on the shariah. Obviously
the regime’s secularism made Gaddafy appear as an “infidel” to the religious
hard-liners, the fundamentalists that find their equivalent in Bachmann
and the likes of her, in the States. But then, on the other side, the “hard-liners,”
the intolerant conservatives, were probably a minority.
The popular base for the Gaddafy
regime shrunk when the effects of a whole series of economic crises shook
the world and when the upward thrust of the oil price gave way to considerable
oscillations. The fact that the regime felt threatened by external adversaries
led to costly buying sprees as the acquisition of large quantities of modern
weapons was sought. France, Russia, Germany, Italy were the chief suppliers
of arms, it seems – the U.S. being more hesitant for obvious reasons related
to Washington’s animosity towards any kind of “socialism” and toward the
defenders of anti-hegemonistic non-alignment. But also in view of the unresolved
conflict in Palestine.
It was not only heavy spending
that served the acquisition of arms which reduced the leeway of the regime
and impeded the necessary social and economic policies in its later years.
Certain infrastructure projects that tapped water in the subsoil of the
desert were tremendously big and costly. They made modern life in cities
like Tripolis (and the enormous growth of Tripolis) possible. But they
gave income to foreign construction firms and immigrant labor. They created
few jobs for Libyans and they diverted funds that should have gone into
the development of the productive sector. On the other hand, the successful
education system led to the existence of a large number of graduates that
the economy could not absorb. Funds for corrective social policies and
especially for the creation of a bigger productive base would have been
necessary. And this, in the 20 last years, probably more than ever. But
that did not happen. On the contrary. As I said already, it was the IMF-advocated
privatization strategy that helped increase social inequality in the cities
and that drove up unemployment. This was perhaps the most decisive reason
for the outbreak of a revolt, apart from U.S. involvement and the “islamist
Discontent had been lingering
for years. It grew as millionaire businessmen in Tripolis and even in Benghazi
were playing a more and more prominent role as wheelers and dealers. They
are today among the backers and financiers of the new regime. Then, in
the last years of the Gaddafy era, they were suspected of wheeling and
dealing with the family members of Gaddafy while furthering political corruption
in the administration and in the army as well. Obviously, the fairly limited
“elite” of bureaucrats that had formed and the privileged position of the
Gaddafy family were conducive to immense and immensely hated corruption.
Often, progressive leaders –
whether democratically elected or not – hang on to power for too long.
Perhaps, in regimes that consider themselves the fruit of a revolution,
they hang on because they don’t trust their own people. But how did Bert
Brecht say, with his dry irony, when the workers in East Germany revolted
against demands to increase the productivity of their labor, “the norms,”
and when the Socialist Unity Party called in Soviet tanks? “If you
have no confidence in your people, you should choose a new one.”
Piss off, as the young say, today.
* “To please the West,
Libya cooperated with the Central Intelligence Agency, got rid of its weapons
of mass destruction in 2004 and privatized its economy, causing widespread
unemployment.” That’s what Dennis Kucinich, a well-informed member of Congress,
stated in a public letter published in the New York Times on Sept. 7, 2011.
See: Dennis Kucinich, “Intervening in Libya”, in: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/opinion/intervening-in-libya-rep-
See also the speech Kucinich gave in Congress
on March 30, 2011 where he estimated that the level of unemployment in
Libya rose drastically to 20 per cent as a consequence of measures proposed
by the IMF and the World Bank that were adopted by the Gaddafy regime.
Speech before U.S. Congress, March 31, 2011
(The Nation; April 4, 2011)
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