John Pilger's The New Rulers of the World, a collection of four essays, with a new introduction, revisits and expands on earlier Pilger material — on Indonesia, Iraq, the u2018great game' of imperial and economic conquest, and the politics behind the treatment of the Aborigines in Australia. But this description is deceptive, because the book covers the full spectrum of human life in the issues it raises. And what cements it together is a depth of perspective which, crucially, places these subjects and countries in their politico-historical contexts, and a passionate indignation at the suffering and death caused by the u2018exploitation of man by man.'
It is a therefore a book which punches you firmly in the emotional solar plexus. If you have any humane concern for the suffering of others, you will need to sit down quietly for a time to recover slowly from reading it, it is so heart-rending in its portrayal of injustice, indifference and cruelty.
But that u2018recovery' will be made all the more difficult for you by the fact you are also likely to be very angry at what you have just read. The fact is that, once you have read this book, there really is no true and complete u2018recovery' possible — if by recovery you understand a state of comfortable and carefree acquiescence in the status quo, of getting on with a day-to-day u2018Western' existence in a manifestly unbalanced world.
The facts of the violence, the poverty and the suffering Pilger describes are not really in dispute, so it is the way they are dealt with — more often than not they are explained away, denied, or contested, or else labelled as being "distorted for political ends," rather than openly confronted which leads the reader to a reflection on the real and the ideal world, on the frustration of u2018what is to be done?,' and finally to a line of self-questioning which runs something like this: is there anything you or I can do, when the new rulers of the world, who are indeed all-powerful and increasingly have the means and disposition to invade every area of your private life and mine, do not want to see the things Pilger describes, and what is more, do not want you the people to see them either? In this respect John Pilger concludes his introduction optimistically, saying:
"Contrary to myth, people are seldom compliant. In a survey of thirty countries, Gallup found that the majority opposed the bombing of Afghanistan and military violence as a means of bringing terrorists to justice. For all the propaganda of u2018news', the attempts to turn state murder into a morality play, people remain sceptical, at least. There is a critical public intelligence, which journalists would do well to respect."
I will come to this warning which Pilger gives his fellow-journalists later. First it is important to note that the other emotions which this book produces — anger and indignation — are generated by the well-documented hypocrisy and condescension found in the rulers' hired servants. In a variety of interviews and direct confrontations which Pilger reports on in the book (often, incidentally, brought to a premature close or only continued off the record by the embarrassed interviewees), these u2018officials' put an Orwellian gloss on the facts he places before them and us, and turn those facts upside down — so that u2018bad' becomes u2018good,' war becomes peace and violence and coercion are u2018morally right.' Above all, the indignation arises on account of the "abyssal cynicism" revealed by the new rulers' paid officials in the face of suffering and destruction, such as Madeleine Albright in her now famous remark on the death rate among the children of Iraq over the last few years: "the price … is worth it."
It is John Laughland, the European Director of the European Foundation in London, a British Conservative think-tank, who, in describing such remarks, has accurately used the words "abyssal cynicism" in his recent review of Pilger's book, and they go well with the thought that those who display this kind of cynicism will be u2018slaughtered by history.' I would say that, with the way history is being accelerated, they are being slaughtered already, as the example of Albright shows.
Laughland's review can be found on the Internet inside the complete July 2002 issue of the European Journal, which is in PDF format. In recommending to his presumably mostly Conservative and so broadly "right-wing" readership that they pay more attention to the point of view of a writer who is conventionally labelled a "socialist" or "left-winger," John Laughland does a valuable service in implicitly promoting writers — of any persuasion who discover the hard, and for many unpalatable, truth of things, and in discouraging the knee-jerk reactions of u2018leftists,' u2018rightists' or any others who reject out of hand the truth provided by someone, merely because of u2018where that person is coming from.'
Labels are indeed a powerful and dangerous thing, not just something you have to tame Microsoft Word to do properly. In the world of "consent management" which is today's media and propaganda industry, they are often used to disempower someone simply by creating in the collective mind an association between that person and an attitude or a world view which is not politically correct, or is outside the mainstream of consensual or u2018approved' dissent. Such a technique is used when the harsh and bitter truths spoken by that person are not convenient to be heard and widely broadcast among the population. As Pilger points out, such a technique is also used when labelling as "anti-American" not only those from outside the US who are genuinely concerned with, and scared to death by, the effects of US foreign policy as implemented by those u2018new rulers,' but also those true patriots who legitimately fear for the survival of their republic conceived in liberty.
Labelling in this way is usually more subtle than a smear campaign. It appeals to latent fears and embarrassments, of the kind "do you really want to be seen to align yourself with someone so wacky, so u2018wobbly,' so eccentric, so out-of-line, so implicitly threatening to your sober, or quiet, or respectable way of life, to your statehood?" It may even be accompanied by a dose of condescension, of praise mixed with an immediate put-down which deliberately cancels out the praise — such as "so-and-so is a first-class journalist, but of course he is left-wing …."
Such is the case of John Pilger, who is lauded for his conscience and bravery in the book's dust-jacket quotations, and has received many journalism awards, and yet who cannot escape being labelled as coming very definitely from the left side of the field. Laughland himself describes Pilger's approach as a "straightforward socialist perspective," and, even while recognizing, from personal experience, the u2018tremendous humanitarian cost' of the American policy of full spectrum dominance of the universe, condemns Pilger's attacks on "what he sees as the evils of the United States and its foreign policy" and on "a world in which multinationals collaborate with powerful governments to pursue a policy of economic rapine and rank imperialism," for being "vitiated by their single-mindedly left-wing perspective."
Does being labelled as left/right matter? Laughland goes on to imply that the new rulers of the world are quite capable of dropping or removing any long-standing ally or previously favoured ruler, if they see benefits in putting another u2018guy' in place who will more readily do their bidding, or if economic advantage is to be thereby obtained. He concludes that it is therefore a mistake to label US policy as "right-wing." What really matters, for the new rulers of the world, is whether "their son-of-a bitch…does what he is told." Pilger reaches much the same conclusion when he reports on Thomas Friedman's writing in the New York Times that what the US would like is an "iron-fisted Iraqi junta," in other words, says Pilger, u2018another Saddam Hussein, rather like the one they had before 1991, who did as he was told.'
Such a conclusion is neither of the "left" nor of the "right" but, some might say, an accurate, cynical and contemporary view of the realpolitik of today. It is a conclusion with which I concur, but one which leaves me unhappy, because cynicism gnaws away at the human spirit and drains our lives of meaning.
What was missing in this discussion, I suddenly felt, was a solid pro-liberty and anti-collectivist perspective. Conservatives easily drop into pessimism, and identify socialism and social democracy with the collectivist mentality, but, as Rothbard reminds us, this is an oversimplification:
"there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.”
[from Rothbard: Left and Right]
Pilger does vehemently criticise the roles of powerful states, particularly in repressing their own peoples, and libertarians can go along with him all the way in this — but his introduction also contains a revealing warning to those who believe that the power of the state has diminished in the face of u2018globalisation:'
The widely-held belief among anti-globalisation campaigners that the state has u2018withered away' is misguided, along with the view that transnational corporate power has replaced the state and by extension, imperialism. As the Russian dissident economist Boris Kargalitsky points out, u2018Globalisation does not mean the impotence of the state, but the rejection by the state of its social functions, in favour of repressive ones, and the ending of democratic freedom.'
Something is not quite right with this, and alarm bells start to sound. Since Pilger is clearly quoting Kagarlitsky with approval, we must deduce that he is a serious believer in the "social functions" of the state. Later on he describes "secular, redistributive politics" as the greatest achievement of Western civilization, and argues that that achievement is being undermined by the "imperialist imperatives of the American Century." I take his phrase u2018redistributive politics' to mean the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, and the use of the word u2018secular' as defining some objective, material value which is resistant to sectarian or u2018theological' interpretation and therefore somehow u2018universal,' — in the same way that some have attempted to draft a u2018universalist morality.'
It is, I would say, impossible for libertarians to align themselves with u2018redistributive politics' — whether it be taking from the rich to give to the poor or, as today's global debt politics goes, making sure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Forced removal of wealth, for whatever allegedly benevolent purpose, is a coercion and invasion of private property which cannot be condoned.
Some critics of Pilger go on from this to claim that he would not hesitate to invoke the power of the state if it suited him, and we may draw on his comments above to say that he probably would do so, if state power were to be harnessed to what he describes as "social functions." This creates a problem if you believe, as libertarians do, that the state should most definitely not be entrusted with any social functions, for the reason that it will always make a mess of them and, in the end, diminish, if not directly steal, the wealth of our lives. It is also a problem if you agree with Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, when she says that "There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them."
What we need here as a corrective, I feel, is a little Rothbardian recitation and rehearsal. The state is an apparatus which has the monopoly on the use of organised violence and coercion. It has no money of its own, so it must take u2018its' money from the people. When that apparatus is hijacked by a gang of politicians, who are in effect a professional criminal class and especially when they are particularly corrupt and oligarchic like today's u2018crony capitalists' it is to be expected that, if unchecked, they will use that power to nefarious and violent ends, for their own profit, and for the exploitation of others. This exploitation is not free-market capitalism, or true globalism, but simply the use of the state's awesome powers of regulation and cartelisation to further the private interests of u2018the gang': it cannot be faulted in terms of self-interest, but it can and must be condemned on moral and libertarian grounds, because it takes the lives and property of others.
Pilger does in fact make the explicit point that the actions of today's powerful states are those of oligarchies or cabals — often with sectarian, fundamentalist (in the true sense of u2018Christian fundamentalist'), u2018theological' aims and ideologies behind them, but in this context he perhaps does not focus sufficiently on how those individuals have appropriated those powers to themselves and forced a mass identification with them, and I believe he puts too much faith in the unlikely (and historically mostly untrue) possibility that a state apparatus could be successful in pursuing "social functions." Implicitly such social functions are "redistributive politics," and theft too has to be condemned on moral and libertarian grounds.
It could be argued that, in the face of all the horrors Pilger describes, none of this really matters. The issue is also tricky to deal with when the alternative to having the state exercise social functions is a private enterprise which is perceived of as being crooked by default. But most libertarians accept that the state does have a limited role as a guardian over the life and property of all the people, and Rothbard would, I am sure, argue that a truly free system of private enterprise has to be a moral system — a system where individual moral responsibility prevails. Clearly, there is a severe deficit of individual moral responsibility in the current system of private enterprise, in large part brought about by the depredations of a statist, exploitative and short-termist culture.
When it comes to Iraq, and the suffering of its people, Pilger shows he is quite capable of identifying the manifest error of lumping all the individual people into the same boat as the state, as apologists for the continued violence of the UN sanctions continue to do. He quotes an official as implying that the people have to suffer simply because u2018they are there.' Faced with breathtaking cynicism of this order, and speaking personally, I can only express great admiration for Pilger's book and for the way he conducts his journalism. Yet in the heat of the indignation, it is vital to keep in mind the commitment to the principles of liberty, and not to rush into the precipitate action which always results from "we can't stay still, we must do something," for what happens is that we end up with the endless cycle of revolution, overthrow and, as history shows, the corruption of the new rulers by power.
Today, with the unitary power of the United States so far exceeding that of any other state or entity, the revolution is more likely to take the form of guerrilla warfare, but the pattern is always the same: policies of terror and coercion will inexorably breed a new generation of resistors — who will be labelled "terrorists" by the rulers, but who to themselves and those who live with them will be u2018freedom fighters' struggling for liberation from oppression. I am fairly certain that, at every moment in the cycle, John Pilger would be out there exposing the abuses of power of any new rulers, of any new men and women of violence and coercion, and in the sense that by his work he rocks every establishment boat and fights against the covering up of injustice, this is both admirable and necessary for the cause of liberty.
It is also necessary if those who deny the facts are ever to come out of denial. In a constructive sense those dangerous and much-abused labels can be useful, because we ourselves positively choose them to define our position on certain issues, and are not afraid to use them with pride, and to give others an example of courage, as Pilger does. So I hang my hat on the mast of liberty and say "I am a libertarian. I am not u2018left' or u2018right.'" And so too it is understandable and logical, like Joseph Stromberg in his excellent recent series of articles on "Liberventionism," that we take others to task when we perceive that they are misusing or misappropriating a particular label which we feel we understand, and state unequivocally: you cannot be libertarian and interventionist at the same time. Certainly, in a world where it is truly important to "get your message across" — especially the libertarian message those whose label has thus been misappropriated express a latent fear that they themselves will be associated with a world-view to which they definitely do not subscribe, and from this point it is too easy to get bogged down (let alone u2018blogged down' ?) in the detail of semantic interpretation, but more than ever in this age of propaganda it is vital to call things by their proper name and to have the courage to speak out.
John Pilger would, I feel, agree with that. He would also cut to the chase and not worry about labels. His final essay in the book is about his home country, Australia. He spares no punches in stirring the mixed collective psychological stewpot of denial, greed, approval-seeking and hypocrisy which is the hallmark of exploitation everywhere, but, in his experience, nowhere more so than in the history of what has been done to the Aborigines. Here is clear evidence that the wounds of coercion and conquest are difficult — if not impossible to heal, and that if they do heal somewhat with the passage of time, they still leave deep scars not only on the psyche but also on the physical lives of victims — even to the extent of drastically shortening those lives today. And they damage the perpetrators and bystanders too. As Pilger points out, in the process of genocide there is always a third party, the bystander, whose passive acquiescence in the conquest and exploitation of a people, and its legacy, at the very least haunts his life and makes resolution painful and difficult.
In one of those serendipitous occurrences which dot our lives, I was reminded by this last essay of Marlo Morgan's 1994 book Mutant Message Down Under, which describes an American's fascinating (but fictional) journey through the bush, and into new realms of human understanding, in the company of the Aborigines. In the world she describes it is the Aborigines, who literally live and breathe the land and are in touch with the timeless spirit of their ancestors, who are "the real people" and it is we, the supposedly "civilised," who are the "mutants." But this book is much more than a fashionable and highly successful exercise in cultural relativism — it is a humbling experience in teaching us not to take everything for granted, and to respect all human life.
So I come to Pilger's timely warnings to fellow-journalists, in which he uses that very same word u2018respect' in advising them to take care not to despise the people, their readership. Once again, he spares no punches in condemning those of his colleagues who have succumbed to being mere self-censors in the employ of the large media organisations, themselves owned and censored by the "guardians of approved truth":
The most salient truths remain taboos. …Compliance to institutional and corporate needs is internalised early in a journalist's career. The difference, in authoritarian societies, is that the state makes these demands directly. Self-censorship and censorship by omission are rarely pointed out to practising journalists and students in media colleges. Much of it is subliminal, giving it pervasive influence. Minimising the culpability of Western power, indeed reporting countries in terms of their usefulness to the West, becomes almost an act of professional faith.
The moral of this tale? Don't get taken in by the newspaper headlines, the front pages of the propaganda machines. If you seek the truth, don't watch CNN, which has become a pure propaganda machine of the new rulers. By all means look inside the newspapers for the occasional article by the more thoughtful and "non-approved" dissenters from the rush to wars of conquest. They are few and far between, but they are there. Read John Pilger, on LewRockwell.com and elsewhere, on other sites dedicated to liberty. Read and understand history. But above all, think for yourself, and have the courage to help the deniers — the hired servants of the rulers, the complacent journalists, and the flag-wavers, many of whom have a good heart to lift the veil of their own denial.
August 24, 2002
Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal.