For more than a quarter of a century, journalist and author David Barsamian has been a tireless voice for social justice, broadcasting programs from India, to Syria, to the United States. Barsamian, whom Howard Zinn called “the Studs Terkel of our time,” is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colo. (www.alternativeradio.org). His interviews and articles appear regularly in “The Progressive” and “Z Magazine.” He is the co-author of a number of books with Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Edward Said, Tariq Ali, Howard Zinn, and Eqbal Ahmed, including, most recently, Power Systems with Noam Chomsky.
In this interview, Barsamian talks about the root causes and particularities of the global uprisings and protests. The conversation mines the connections between capitalism, climate change, poverty, and points to the need to “save pessimism for better times.”
Khatchig Mouradian—How do you read the massive demonstrations and social upheavals across the world in recent years?
David Barsamian—There has been a surge in resistance and oppositional politics in the last decade, as a direct result of the failures of neo-liberal economic policies, which has enriched a handful of elites and pauperized large numbers of people. So there is a general economic crisis of capitalism and we have to locate these different resistance movements in that context. Of course, the nature of the movements varied by location because of historic circumstances, ethnic makeup, religion, and other factors.
This backlash is against channeling wealth to a handful of people who are well connected to the government while the rest of the population has been left behind. The train has left the station, and in the locomotive are the rich and the plutocrats and the CEOs, while the other passenger cars are left behind. The power brokers have seceded from their own countries, in a way. They are so dedicated to accumulating wealth and capital that they are anti-national, they want to be part of the world economic elite, because capital knows no borders.
Today, with the press of a button millions of dollars can be moved across borders in a way that avoids taxation and accountability. According to one estimate, around $30 trillion have been sequestered away in different accounts and tax havens that states cannot tax. This is important, because as part of the neo-liberal agenda, social services have been reduced and what were once national properties have been sold off to private corporations. For example, every time I hear the term “public-private partnerships,” I cringe. It sounds wonderful. But what does it mean? I am the public, you take everything from me, you benefit, and I finance that! That’s the partnership! In a sense we’re looting these countries of resources, robbing them of their futures and destroying the environment. That’s the background to these uprisings.
K.M.—The frustration and rage have been mounting for some time.
D.B.—In the Middle East, the rage was building up over years. And finally, the spark came: A fruit vendor, [Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed] Bouazizi in Tunisia, set himself on fire because he was being harassed and humiliated by bureaucrats. That led to the protest movements in Tunisia, which led to Egypt, which led to Libya and Syria. So far the monarchies have been successful in crushing any opposition.
People are feeling an enormous amount of pressure. It’s harder and harder to provide enough food for families to live with dignity, to have decent lives. Capitalism has taken on a very rapacious and predatory strain. Marx talked about capitalism with its “werewolf hunger” for profits. Corporations have accrued tremendous economic and political power. They have been enabled by the traditional political parties who work closely with the guys in the suites at the expense of the people in the streets. We can see that right here in the U.S., where the two parties are not very different on fundamental issues. For example, there is no disagreement on capitalism itself. In fact there is no discussion of capitalism. The word is barely mentioned. The capitalism taught in economics departments at top universities has little relation to the actual existing capitalism, which depends heavily on state protection and subsidies.
So there’s this rage worldwide, particularly in rural areas. Syria and India are good examples. In Syria, there’s been severe draught in the countryside, many people have had to abandon their farms and go to big cities like Aleppo and Damascus. Cut off from their land, the connection with families and neighbors, now they’re “unanchored and stranded”—as one Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, calls them. So they’re trying to make their way now in cities doing odd jobs, whatever they can find. This is a huge problem in India as well, where a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide because of insurmountable debts. They take loans at very prohibitive rates, they can’t pay them back, and they kill themselves.
During the Occupy Movement, the slogan “We are the 99 percent, they are the 1 percent,” captures reality. It’s not that far off. The reason the Occupy Movement had some traction in this country, is because people can see. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to see your paycheck not increasing for five to six years, food prices of going up. How are you going to pay for your children’s education? How are you going to send them to college?
K.M.—These movements were contagious because they reminded the oppressed of their collective power. On the other hand, the “one percent” seems to have ignored a crucial matter: that they have to keep throwing crumbs at those whom they are oppressing.
D.B.—It’s necessary for the capitalists to keep the people they’re victimizing alive. Otherwise who’s going to buy their products? You can’t kill the patient; he must be kept alive to keep on paying off his debts. This turn now in early-21st century capitalism has been very acute and historically without parallel. In the U.S., tens of millions of people have lost their homes, don’t have jobs, or have taken part-time jobs to make ends meet. In turn, Greece and Spain now have 25 percent unemployment! Capitalism is in crisis.
All of those factors are aboil, and a spark ignites the anger. Some of the anger can be coherent and focused, other types of anger can be incoherent, so there can be violence, racism, sectarianism, and ethnic rivalries. It’s important to keep the focus on trying to generate social change. Can you have a social democratic revolution non-violently? Everyone likes to point to Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, or to Martin Luther King in the U.S. But states that do not allow room for non-violent resistance are privileging violence, and that’s what Mubarak and Assad did. They are privileging violence because the state has a monopoly on violence, or at least has tremendous amount of firepower. I think that non-violence and civil disobedience scare leaders. They want to be confronted with violence, because that’s where they have a distinct advantage. In Taksim Square, for example, creative and artistic ways of protest have put the state at a disadvantage.
What’s significant about the demonstrations in Turkey is that it has broken a sense of fear and intimidation that people had not to speak out against Erdogan. He is seen by many as arrogant and autocratic. People have crossed that threshold of fear; they are no longer afraid of the state. There’s a powerful moment in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko.” He is talking to a group of Americans in Paris, and they’re explaining to him what I consider to be a profound truth: In France the government is afraid of the people, and in America, the people are afraid of the government. That is also true in Turkey for historical reasons—internal repression, military dictatorships, and a faux democracy whereby so many people in the country are disenfranchised and are not full citizens.
We will see more so-called stable regimes in crisis toppling. Even within the EU, it’s not clear what’s going to happen in Greece, Spain, Portugal, or even Italy. These are revolutionary times, and if anyone tells you they know how things will evolve, don’t believe them. In a time of flux and enormous planetary instability, we are likely to see huge upheavals.
K.M.—Let’s talk about the Occupy Movement, what it accomplished, and why it lost steam.
D.B.—Occupy Wall Street injected into the political discourse the notion of inequality: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, the sense that there’s something seriously skewed in the U.S. economy. No one was expecting it when it started in New York on Sept. 17, 2011. A Canadian magazine, Adbusters, suggested the idea. And soon it mushroomed: I visited Occupy encampments in Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Boulder, Denver, Santa Fe, and other places. It petered out not just from within; there was state violence that razed most of these encampments, threatened arrest. By the spring of 2012, it had largely dissipated. The name was still there, but the energy seemed to have diminished. It’s not clear why that happened. Perhaps part of it is because people need to go on with their lives. You just can’t take three or four months off and not generate any kind of income if you’re supporting a family. As a tactic it was successful but it was unrealistic to expect that people would spend months living in tents.
Is Occupy going to come back? That’s difficult to say. It will take new shapes and forms. They did in the New York area after Super Storm Sandy, providing service to elderly people in apartment blocks in Brooklyn and Queens, delivering supplies to those who did not have power. So they did do important work that I don’t think was acknowledged sufficiently in the media. But we do need an opposition in this country. And it’s not going to come from the Republican Party or Democratic Party. They are hand-in-glove part of the establishment and part of the structural problems of the U.S. We need a force from outside these parties that is pushing the envelope toward more economic justice—an important concept injected into the discourse by Occupy. Immigrants or people of color are working for 40-50 hours and get paid virtually nothing. I did an interview with a woman about workers who live on tips. The hourly wage for a worker living on tips is $2.13. It hasn’t increased since 1996. These kinds of inequalities are in urgent need of redress.
K.M.—Are we also where we are because the mainstream media—here and elsewhere—does not address root causes?
D.B.—If your diagnosis is not correct, all the proposals you are putting forth will fail. And of course the function of the media and, to a large part, education, is to deflect attention from root causes. Let’s talk about Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff. He cheated grandmothers, he stole pension funds, he was an awful, awful man and we all feel virtuous in denouncing him. There’s the illusion of reform in this culture: We need more scrutiny and regulation on these people so that they don’t do these bad things. No one looks at the barrel that produces these apples. The rotten apples are then purged from the barrel, the barrel stays intact, and the cycle continues. People have forgotten the bank scandals of the late 80s and the Enron and other corporate disasters of the early 2000s.
K.M.—Talk about the impact of greed on the environment. It’s not just the people who are rebelling; the planet itself is in revolt.
D.B.—That’s literally true. The earth itself is under assault from this kind of rapacious capitalism, which is extracting all of the resources, and not renewable resources. It’s in the DNA of capitalism—it cannot limit itself, because of its drive for profit. We cannot pretend about a kinder, gentler capitalism, or a recycled, eco-capitalism. The earth is hemorrhaging. In 1992, 1,700 scientists issued a warning to humanity about global warming and the future of the planet. What has happened since then? There’s been conference after conference: Durbin, Rio, Copenhagen, Doha… All they do is get together, sip their Chardonnay, and issue wonderful declarations: We’re all green, we’re all for the environment. Then it’s business as usual.
You have that stress now on our home. The Earth is our home, and we are not good caretakers and stewards. In cities like Cairo, Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka, and Karachi, the level of pollution is unbelievable. We need a radical change. And we have to rethink what we understand by sovereignty, because the environmental crisis can only be addressed collectively. In the small Himalayan state of Bhutan, they’re having a human happiness index, they’re going all green, eliminating plastic, etc. But this is a tiny country with 700,000 people. It’s not going to address the larger problem. It has to be done globally.
Crucially, water is disappearing. It will be the major issue of the 21st century. Historically there were wars over silver or gold, oil in the current period. Water will be the dominant issue in the coming years. If you look at maps of West Asia, South Asia, they’re hugely water-stressed. Part of the Israeli occupation has been to take water from the Palestinians’ aquifer. That’s where the colonies have been built on the West Bank—on the water reserves of that area.
K.M.—You’ve been involved in activism and alternative media for a long time. What keeps you going?
D.B.—I like to quote the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who said, “Let’s save pessimism for better times.” A lot of people today are cynical. Justifiably so. Just look at and see what’s going on. But cynicism shouldn’t lead to passivity. You have to be proactive. And that’s one of the reasons I started Alternative Radio as a kind of serum to counteract the toxicity produced by the corporate media. But I get a lot of energy from people much less privileged than I am. I was just in Manitoba and there’s a very active indigenous movement there—made up of people who don’t have the privilege or the advantages that someone like me may have, yet are organizing and doing significant work. There are examples of very uplifting resistances around the world that inspire me, and it’s much more fun swimming against the current. When you’re swimming against the current, you’re not only building up strength, fortitude, and character, but you’re meeting very interesting people. People who are providing alternatives.
My friend Arundhati Roy says “responsibility” is a boring word. But I do feel a kind of responsibility because of my Armenian family’s background, because of the advantages and opportunities I have had. I think it is good to leave leaving the world a little bit better than you found it.