This is a story, based on some facts… different than the stories we hear from the media. Facts can be arranged to make a story. The media had one story. This is another.
On June 28th, 2009, the legitimately elected and popular President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was dragged out of bed in his pajamas by Honduran soldiers, bound and beaten, flown out of Honduras using the US military’s Soto Cano airfield, and sent into exile. There was immediate and universal condemnation of the coup, including from the United States. President Barack Obama condemned the coup (without ever calling it a coup). So did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The story faded from the news. The Hondurans had some kind of election. Everything is okay now.
That is the general impression, among people in the US, of what happened, at least for those North Americans who may know where Honduras is.
This story is different, different than that story.
In this story, a powerful public/private alliance, which included the government of the United States of America, not only had prior knowledge of the coup, it was deeply involved in the preparation for it, and in the consolidation of the coup d'etat's results. The head of the principle government agency involved in this coup d’etat was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Coming of age in mafia-speak, they say a real thug “makes his bones” with his first murder. Hillary made her coup-bones in Honduras. And that included a lot of murders.
To tell this story, we will need two other stories as mirrors, or analogs. Those are the stories of the two previous coups with US State Department involvement – the 2002 failed coup against President Chavez’s legitimately elected government in Venezuela, and the 2004 successful coup against President Aristide’s legitimately elected government in Haiti.
The story has a cast of characters that revolve through a cast of institutions. It has a weirdly named theme called neoliberalism, and a plot embedded in a Latin American setting.
As with all good stories, there are stories within stories. Behind this story of a coup d’etat against an elected government in Honduras is the story of other recent coups and how the same people in the United States who are associated with the coup in 2009 seem to be a constant over time.
The story within that story is that this is a decidedly Republican coup apparatus, directed by Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the service of Democratic President Barack Obama.
The details are important, but so is the more essential dynamic of Great People, whose ruthlessness and narcissism is made manifest in the brutalization and misery of unseen and uncounted others.
Martin Buber, writing in Good and Evil, makes the point that with the knowledge of the good comes the capacity for evil. And he centers his assertion on the unique capacity of humans, differentiating themselves now from other creatures, to lie. The lie is the servant of power; and power is what breaks the proper covenant between human beings.
This is a story about that big topic. It is about lies and power. The names and circumstances change, but this story has been around a long time.
Background – Neoliberalism
What is neoliberalism and why should we care? We’re talking about a coup, right?
Answer: The coup in Honduras is the visible top of an iceberg. Neoliberalism is the much larger mass holding the visible part out of the water.
Neoliberalism is not the central thesis of this series. Describing it is, however, necessary to discern the motives of the US government and of the international business class that has the greatest influence on it.
Unraveling a coup d’etat is like a detective story. The first thing the detective has to figure out in a detective story is “where am I? How do things generally work around here?”
Like detective stories, coups happen in settings, and not just physical settings, but places that operate by their own internal logics. In a good P. D. James novel (a redundant phrase in my opinion), her main character has to first figure out the social hieroglyphic that operates under the surface which is really moving the plot along.
Our setting is neoliberalism.
The term “neoliberalism” is not common among Americans, but it is well known and well-understood outside the United States. It confuses people from the US because the popular understanding of the word “liberal” is one half of the way we are taught to think about politics. Our political world is embodied in the “liberal vs. conservative” dipole, which in each aspect of this political discourse represents a very narrow range.
Neoliberalism is the wider range that contains both. The “liberal” in neoliberal actually includes both conservatives and liberals as we commonly understand them.
This word began with a different inflection than we give it in popular culture, and the term neoliberal is based on that old definition, not the popular one we have today. Just bear in mind as you read, “liberal” here is very close to what you think of popularly as “conservative,” and it makes more sense.
The “neo,” or “new” affixed to the word refers to a political and economic practice that took root with the Reagan administration and has continued through both Republican and Democratic administrations ever since. Philip Cerny explains:
Originally a label for a new form of nationally rooted transatlantic conservatism in the late 1970s and 1980s, neoliberalism was at first embodied primarily in the politics of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom (UK) and of President Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party in the United States (US). It has often been seen as a revival of what has sometimes been called “classical liberalism” or “19th century liberalism” – i.e., a return to purer laissez faire principles and the ideology (and economic theory) of the self regulating market. However, this is an oversimplification. Neoliberalism in its varieties, “free market conservative, neoliberal structuralist and neoliberal regulationist,” paradoxically includes an active role for the state in designing, promoting and guaranteeing the free and efficient operation of the market – a kind of imposed laissez faire somewhat analogous to Rousseau’s image of people being “forced to be free.”
Cerny goes on to make the key distinction between classical liberalism’s assumptions and those of neoliberalism.
Unlike classical liberalism, however, it is not assumed that markets necessarily work in an efficient, spontaneous and automatic – self-regulating – manner unless they are strongly embedded in premarket rules, institutions and politics.
These “pre-market” rules, institutions, and politics are the carriers of neoliberalism, and they have a character that is historically unique. Let’s look at what this neoliberal social architecture is and what it has managed to accomplish in the service of power.
The Mobile Redistribution of Accountability Trick
Neoliberal theology asserts the primacy of the private, the value of small government; but neoliberal practice has been massively subsidized and legally protected from public accountability by the state. Without the state’s affirmative actions on behalf of the international business class, the system would collapse. Fast. Begin by thinking about how many battle groups from the US Navy are required to ensure the flow of fossil hydrocarbons into the industrialized metropolis, and you can extrapolate from there.
One of the key advantages of the public-private partnership that is neoliberalism is insulated from accountability to those below those institutions on the social hierarchy. The boundaries are blurred, via contracts and memoranda of understanding, between the US public sector – with its administrative apparatus, and its military and intelligence establishment with their vast budgets – and the private sector, composed of publicly funded “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs), think tanks, foundations, and an army of horizontally-integrated perception managers. Those perception managers have mass media as a conformity-producing web of influence that reaches right into the living rooms of a US culture that has 2.24 television sets, running an average of six hours and 47 minutes a day, 2,476 hours a year. To appreciate the latent power of television, realize that the average college class has a student in tow for three hours a week.
In terms of how the top of the pyramid relates to the base, this public-private alliance has the force of law in addition to a mobile redistribution of accountability. The people on the bottom are excluded from knowing who is the author of anything.
We will see this mobile redistribution of accountability in action with the Honduran coup d’etat. The transnational public-private alliance that authored the coup used this accountability shuffle to checkmate Zelaya and feint past the Organization of American States (OAS). This shell-game of accountability provides a coup alliance with enormous tactical agility. Bear this mobile accountability in mind as you read about the coup itself, in its (a) preparatory phase, its (b) execution phase, and its (c) consolidation phase.
Who’s on First?
The various citations for this essay are available for truly in-depth study, but for our purposes, the essential points of neoliberal policy are:
(1) to reduce obstacles to the penetration of other nations’ trade and capital markets and lock them when possible into debt-dependency,
(2) to establish and enforce neoliberal orthodoxy as the organizing principle of the state,
(3) to minimize “outcome-oriented” state intervention, e.g., poverty reduction, and stress state regulation that encourages economic “growth,” and
(4) to shift emphasis from government (identifiable and therefore subject to account) to governance (control is exercised by a meshwork of public and private agencies, under a regulatory regime, which become less identifiable, i.e., less targetable from below for accountability).
Who benefits from this often impenetrable regulatory regime? From 1983 until 2007, according to a study by sociologist G. William Dumhoff, net worth distribution between the wealthiest quintile (20%) of the population and the other four quintiles combined (80%), changed from 81.3% of the wealth held by the top quintile to 85.1 percent of the wealth. In the same period, the bottom 80% went from holding 18.7% of the wealth to 15%.
Neoliberalism has effected a net transfer of wealth upward, beginning in the late 70s and early 80s. The transfer of wealth from poor countries to rich ones has been even more accelerated. Neoliberalism is the current system to achieve continuity of elite, and imperial, power. But imperial power has always had a core-periphery dynamic, that is, a powerful core — a nation or alliance of nations — that rely on the exploitation of peripheries to maintain their dominance.
Core nation elites value stability, and sharing some of the surplus from exploitations abroad with one’s domestic political base is one way a domestic population is invested in an unequal core-periphery dynamic. A measure of shared imperial privilege across class lines consolidates the core’s political base. It was that way in imperial Rome. It is that way today. An average American — even though well down on the champagne glass as it represents the US population — still consumes vastly more than the average Nigerian or Azerbaijani or Peruvian. They are awarded a share of imperial privilege as a hedge against social unrest.
David Harvey and others note that neoliberalism has effected an enormous transfer of wealth. That fact is necessary but not sufficient to understand the actual character of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism did not emerge as a plot to take from the poor and give to the rich, even though it accomplished this to a remarkable degree. Neoliberalism emerged in response to a deep secular crisis of capitalism, first with the stagflation of the 70s, followed by the Latin American debt crisis of the 80s, followed by the serial catastrophes of the 90s – with Latin America, East Asia, Turkey, Russia – and culminating in the 2000s, with the dotcom bust and the magical exploding real estate bubble that hasn’t finished with us yet (it's consequences are being delayed and increased in eventual severity by something called "quantitative easing"). Neoliberalism is embedded in crisis.
Neoloiberalism, for all its triumphal rhetoric about “the end of history” and “there is no alternative,” has actually been a protracted period of capitalist crisis management.
What the United States has managed to do, again and again, is to use its existing power to export its own crises abroad. It has done this by increasing the extraction from peripheral societies – benefiting from extremely unequal exchange – and by exporting everything from price inflation to toxic waste to war back to that same periphery.
There is more than mere individual greed at work. The US business class’ very survival depends on maintaining stability in the imperial cores. The harsh truth for the American business class, however, is that the serial cures for their structural crisis have simply delayed the inevitable and exacerbated the disease.
In Honduras, the attempt to impose stability (after intentionally destabilizing the country) has met with greater social instability than Honduras has experienced in decades, even though we rarely see images of the liberationist movement that has risen in response to the 2009 coup, particularly in the United States.
Images like these are disruptive to the cover story for the coup; and concealment of motives is as essential to a successful coup as guns and money.
NEXT PART - Neoliberal Theology
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