Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Interview with Michael Albert

In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, Michael Albert, economist, editor of ZNet and co-editor of Z magazine, talks about Islamic extremism and new revolutionary theories

Ahmede: What is your interpretation of what western corporate media calls a rise of militant Islam across the globe?

Michael Albert: I would imagine that there are militants among all parts of the Islamic community, as there are among all parts of any community, whether defined religiously, or geographically, or economically, etc. But militant about what would be an important thing to assess, of course.
Other than using the word pejoratively, when you think about it, who thinks being militant per se is bad? How about militant about freedom, about justice, about self-determination or self-management, about ending slavery, or for that matter, wage slavery?

I think the media you have in mind are, however, talking about Muslim Fundamentalist groups, or at least referencing them and implying that they include all Muslims. The media's motive, overwhelmingly, in this and everything else, is just to earn profits in ways consistent with the larger agendas of the U.S., including the war on terror. If they report sports scores accurately, that is why. If they spin news of the war in Iraq to obscure its causes, motives, and effects, that's why. And the same holds for spinning stories about Muslim commitments and trends. The motive is not truth or edification, but making profits and maintaining the conditions of doing so in the future in a setting dominated by government policies and agendas that must be supported. That said, it doesn't mean that everything that appears in the media is false, or entirely false. The sports scores are generally entirely true. Reporting of international events sometimes are partly true, if that is what will enhance profits and power.

There is a growing allegiance toward Muslim Fundamentalism in many countries, largely produced by the destruction of alternatives on the one hand, sometimes by the U.S. interfering and even assaulting socially responsible communities and projects, and by anger at the U.S. for its war policies, on the other hand. While one can understand the causes of the trend toward Fundamentalism, I, for one, do not think this is a good thing, any more than I think the growing allegiance to religious fundamentalism in large sectors in the U.S. - generated rather similarly
- is a good thing.

Both trends are quite horrible because what the fundamentalist communities are militant about is norms and values and behaviours that are harmful to other communities and even, often, to their own selves.

Ahmede: How, do you see the war in (or on) Iraq? Do you think the insurgency in the country a mere rebellion of people "in small ethnic pockets" or a national resistance?

Michael Albert: The war itself is, of course, about control of resources (oil) and general domination of outcomes, both by the U.S. It is a war of the U.S. on Iraq, an invasion, a violation. That's the overarching purpose or motive and nature of it. The Iraqi resistance is, I think, a very mixed phenomenon, partly involving people with diverse agendas that they want to advance for Iraq's future, sometimes not very desirable agendas, and partly involving people who are simply repulsing an invader - and it is probably far more of the latter, though I am in no position to know for sure.

Of course the resistance, whatever its motives, is a quite general phenomenon. And a remarkable one, at that. Given the hardships and injustices routinely meted out by Hussein, it wasn't entirely idiotic for the U.S. to think that an occupying force, even though motivated by reasons of empire and oil, might be seen by the occupied population as a positive move toward a future without dictatorship, etc. But, the general understanding of U.S. motives is now so widespread that such confusion was probably modest at the outset and, in time, the more prevalent reaction has clearly been a totally justified horror at our presence, fuelling resistance.

Ahmede: Some theorists argue that ultimately it is not in the hegemony of a particular Empire (US Imperialism to speak of) we are living under, but an invisible syndicate of multinationals and big corporations, who actually runs the show. Could you please put your own analysis of this domination (cultural, economic and political) a bit for our readers?

Michael Albert: I am not sure I even see the difference. Or that there is anything particularly new in this, either. But I think it is really both, and has been, in the past as well. Yes, multinationals often have owners in more than one country remitting profits to people in more than one country.
And sometimes they have their owners overwhelmingly in a country other than the U.S. - say Japan or Britain, and so on. That is true enough. So what?

Let's call the empire, then, the empire of corporate control and profit seeking, if you like. Where is the gendarme, the military, for this empire? It is overwhelmingly in the U.S. And what nation is the main beneficiary, too, of this empire, still? Well, it is still the U.S. So I just don't see that there is anything very useful in the debate. If your village or town or city or nation is subject to harsh deprivations leading to piles of corpses and the underlying cause is a bunch of German pharmaceutical companies, say, or U.S. or some other countries oil companies, does it matter much that their home office is in Frankfurt and not New York? The power behind the imposition is largely the U.S. military, ultimately, in either case, but suppose that wasn't true, either. Again, so what? Would it matter to the village, town, city or nation, if the army behind the scenes was less American?

The task is to not only put brakes on international interventions and exploitation by trade and/or corporate control, but on the domestic institutional arrangements that breed these international phenomena, and not only in the U.S., but in countries all over the world. Thought about that way, yes, there are variations and balances and imbalances among responsible parties, sure, but the overriding reality is capitalism running roughshod over most of humanity, with the guns and bombs made in and delivered by America.

Ahmede: After the demise of Soviet Union and a change of course in China, has Imperialism changed its colour and character too?

Michael Albert: Of course some aspects have changed, mostly, you can no longer rationalize actions taken for reasons of state or empire and for reasons of profit, by manipulatively claiming that they are undertaken to ward off the evil of Communism. Now you manipulatively say they are undertaken to ward off the evil of Islamic Fundamentalism. In both cases the purported reason had some weight in the sense that the highlighted opponent really did have and does have negative features - dictatorship, sectarian violence, and so on. But these features exist in many places around the world and go unopposed. American elites highlight them not out of sincere concern but when it serves them to do so as a cover for continuing to pursue their overriding agendas, profiting and maintaining the conditions of profiting.

Ahmede: You may as well know that Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi and founder of Grameen Bank, has won this year's Nobel Prize for Peace. What do you think of the role of Micro Credit in "less developed and underdeveloped countries"; do you have any observations to offer our readers on the activities of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)?

Michael Albert: The condition of poor people everywhere is - well - poor. And poor means they have lives that are diminished in their options and that are even brought to a needless and premature conclusion by hunger, disease, limited options, etc. In that context there is a tremendous variety of things that can be done that will improve the quality of some people's lives. All these things, supposing they don't at the same time make others worse off, or entrench the underlying causes of inequality and deprivation for most, have considerable and sometimes great benefits.

I don't know anything much about the Grameen Bank. My guess is that it probably does have some very good effects for some people, but at the cost of to a degree further validating as inevitable certain kinds of social relations, market exchange, profit seeking, and so on. So I think it is probably - and again, I admit my knowledge of this bank is slim to none - very helpful in part, to some people, but that it could be more valuable and positive if its actions were undertaken in ways directly challenging existing relations, posing positive alternatives for the whole economy and society, and thus trying to develop militant consciousness against capitalism and especially for a new system in its place. This would be a good kind of militancy.

Michael Albert is an economist and author of 13 books on Economy and Politics, His most famous book is "The Political Economy of Participatory Economics" (co-authored by Robin Hahnel; Princeton University Press). The theory of Participatory Economics (abbreviated as ParEcon) "posits a society run by neither markets nor central planning, neither competition nor control, instead a society based on participatory planning and sharing". More on this theory is available at:
This interview has been reprinted in the Zmag.

An Elegy for Nur Hossain

Nineteen years after Nur Hossain, a young man of 26, laid down his life, how far have his dreams of a free secular democracy been materialised?

On the 10th November of 1987, Nur Hossain, an auto rickshaw driver and an activist of Awami League, went out to the street, his torso bared, with two lines written in Bangla on his chest and back-- Gonotontro Mukti Paak, Shoyrachar Nipat Jaak (Long live democracy, Down with tyranny). This single act of valour and self-less ness from the part of this young man has embodied the soul of the first democratic revolution in Independent Bangladesh.

Before that, before Nur painted the words on his body which military despot Ershad's Police found so blasphemous that they shot and killed him, Bangladesh has another hero in its political history who had actually joined a resistance against autocracy and military dictatorship-- Asad. Coming from a lower-middle class background, this schoolboy from the old part of Dhaka laid down his life during the mass upsurge of 1969 against Ayub Khan's regime, setting the tune and character of our great independence struggle. Both Asad and Nur died for a democratic and secular Bangladesh, a country that will be governed on the basis of economic equality and social justice.

Hossain's struggle--or statement so to speak--was not actually against a particular regime, it was a brave resistance against a brutal and corrupt economic system that had made the country a filthy playground for a class of nouveau arrivé bourgeois. One and a half decades after that nothing significant has changed.

The hue and tone of the exploiters are different now, for they have assumed a democratic shape. Nur's own party, with the alacrity of an anole, has shed Secularism and Socialism after an electoral setback in 1991; its leader once even wore a headscarf to woo Muslim voters. In every speech the leaders of both the major parties give their lay an allusion of Islam, ways to assert how each is a better Muslim than his or her rival. Socialism, or economic justice, on the other hand, remains a far cry. After the demise of the Soviet Union, subsequent governments have been trying to juxtapose a mangled version of the market economy, which fosters a get-rich-quick lifestyle among an entertainment-hungry and money-driven class.

Nur's martyrdom, however, has established a semblance of parliamentary democracy in this nation of 14 crore poor; but that, too, is taken into hostage by of a bunch of venal, egocentric, avaricious political leaders. Parliament has remained ineffective; all the other components of state are also mired in sheer corruption and unabated misrule; allegations are there that some judges are susceptible to sweeteners, police have always been corrupt, one must not take any credit for discovering it.

Both the parties, in fact, have betrayed the spirit of the mass upsurges of 1987 and 1990; Ershad, whose police shot and killed hundreds, corrupt and vile as he has been, sides with either BNP or AL, whenever he senses worry. Ershad's corrupt and oppressive cronies are not brought to book, many of them have joined the BNP and AL, some have become ministers, holding posts as important as law and justice.
So, it is a little wonder that the 19th anniversary of Nur Hossain's martyrdom has gone unnoticed. The persons who have become the beneficiaries of his sacrifice are now squabbling for power again, and the memories of Nur Hossain, Bangladesh's forgotten hero of democracy, face oblivion.