The Problem Is Empire

The Problem Is Empire

The challenge to the peace movement is not to liberalize the empire; the task is to peacefully and steadily bring it to an end–and make democracy safe for the world.


Tom Hayden delivered these remarks to a gathering of activists at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It appears as part of the Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.

Let me tell you some of my story and lessons I have learned over these past five decades. I have always tried to improve my country, always trying from the places around me.

I was smart and ambitious and athletic, but something never felt right in my suburb, school and church. I felt more at home with the underdogs and misfits than with the authorities. I was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye against Alfred E. Newman at Mad magazine.

I editorialized against overcrowded classes in high school. I editorialized against racist fraternity discrimination at the university. I went to the Democratic Convention in 1960 and was moved by Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and a new student movement.

I moved to Georgia, became a Freedom Rider, got beaten up for civil rights. I helped start a movement on campuses called Students for a Democratic Society that believed in what we called participatory democracy, the right of everyone to a voice in the decisions affecting their lives. We wanted to bring the spirit of the Southern movement to the North.

I left graduate school and became a community organizer in the slums of Newark for four years. During that time the US government, led by the Democratic Party, invaded Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of troops after promising not to. The draft started up, and I was classified IY, the category for potential troublemakers.

Watts blew up in 1965. My Newark neighborhood became an occupied war zone in 1967, and that was it for the war on poverty. I wanted to know who we were really fighting, so I went to North Vietnam in December 1965, my first trip outside America. I was shocked at the civilian destruction, and the brave resistance of a small nation of peasants. I came back and immediately lobbied for a negotiated withdrawal, and got nowhere.

Now I was living in two worlds, still knocking on doors in Newark and opposing a war that was ending the war on poverty I believed in. The contradictions becoming too much, I helped organize antiwar protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Nixon, the FBI and even Lyndon Johnson said we were part of an internationally funded communist conspiracy. I was still fighting against wrongdoing at home, while my father’s generation thought we were pawns of an enemy abroad.

I went back to Berkeley set on organizing youth and student communities. I was yanked away to be indicted by the Nixon government for the street riots in Chicago. I spent about five years, including five straight months on trial, living under a cloud, until the courts threw out the case of the Chicago 8. I really didn’t know if we were descending into a police state or not. During our trial, one defendant, Bobby Seale, was chained and gagged, and two Panthers working on his legal defense were shot with ninety police rounds while sleeping in their apartment.

I went back to mainstream antiwar work trying to defund the Indochina war, from 1972 until 1976. I supported George McGovern as a peace candidate, Vietnam veterans against the war like John Kerry, the Berrigan brothers’ civil disobedience, and those who went underground to Canada. I didn’t join them, but I thought the Weather Underground was completely predictable and understandable.

After the long radicalizing interruption of the war, I tried to combine community organizing and electoral politics. I served in the California legislature for eighteen years, once again returning to local and state issues. Based on the early vision of participatory democracy, and building on the progress towards political rights like voting, I helped build a statewide grass roots campaign for economic democracy, pressuring the great corporations to become accountable.

Some of the issues we worked on were these:

• Protecting the right to local rent control, which saved Santa Monica residents alone about $500 million over little more than a decade.

• Stopping a nuclear power plant in Sacramento by a democratic vote of the people.

• Stopping a Liquified Natural Gas terminal on Indian land in Santa Barbara.

• Empowering neighborhoods to bargain effectively with big developers. Saving the oldest building in LA from the wrecking ball.

• Saving salmon, stream beds, wetlands, deserts and redwood forests from the power of developers and special interests.

• Trying to replace the war on gangs, mass incarceration and unconstitutional police misconduct, with gang peace processes and employment opportunities, from LA to El Salvador.

• Involvement in over fifty political campaigns at local levels, including some of the earliest elections of feminists, gays and lesbians, renters, Asian-Americans and former ’60s radicals.

• Getting Hollywood celebrities engaged in supporting political causes and candidates.

It was said by Washington consultants that we had the greatest grassroots organization in the national Democratic Party. But it was also the ’80s, and Ronald Reagan was invading Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and placing nuclear missiles in Europe. My world of domestic issues became small and secondary again, like my days in Newark when Vietnam was escalating. And I noticed that our foreign policy interventions were creating a wave of new refugees who could be exploited either as cheap labor or scapegoated as my Irish ancestors were the century before.

And so it has gone. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed. Even when Bill Clinton was elected on the strategy of “it’s the economy, stupid,” we soon were bombing the Balkans, inventing new doctrines of humanitarian war and expanding NATO. By carving Kosovo out of the former Yugoslavia, we were creating an incentive for Georgia to invade South Ossetia–and try to reignite the cold war.

Then came 9/11, and a legitimate security crisis was transformed into the invasion of Iraq along with the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and perhaps soon Iran. The neocons and hawks applauded and funded Israel’s ill-considered war with Hezbollah and Lebanon, completing a new battlefield of the war on terrorism to replace the cold war.

So there you are. We will have to go back to the lessons Roman and British empires to learn the painful lessons of imperial overextension. The lessons in blood bravely shed in lost or dubious causes. The lesson of a weakened capacity to fund healthcare, education, our children’s futures. The lesson that democracy is diminished as the secrecy of the warmaking state expands. The lesson of being hated in a world where alliances are a necessity, not a choice.

For too long we have divided our movement labor between domestic and foreign policy issues. Sometimes there are contradictions, for example, when the cold war liberals–today’s humanitarian hawks–believed we could have both guns and butter, the world’s most massive arsenal, fueled by oil, combined with robust domestic initiatives on healthcare or the environment or inner city jobs. It just hasn’t worked out that way. The richest country in the world still lacks a national healthcare program, still is pockmarked by ghettos and barrios, still has massive school drop out rates combined with the largest incarceration rate in the whole world.

And despite any evidence of significant success, the wars go on, the war on terror, the war on drugs and the war on gangs.

Despite the evidence, the organized peace movement is weaker than any other social movement, or network of NGOs, in America. The peace movement is a mainly voluntary expression of antiwar feeling that rises and falls depending on the body counts and media coverage. The peace movement is not institutionalized, not in comparison with the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement. It is not funded by the great liberal foundations nor by the wealthy liberals of Hollywood or other moneyed circles.

The point I am making is that our progressive priorities are wrong. Any hope for transformational domestic change depends on reversing the entrenched interests driving the dual agenda of military and corporate empire, including the Pentagon and the oil industry and the narrow elitist thinking of most national security and economic experts.

The battle is between the empire, or whatever euphemism by which is goes, and participatory democracy.

Our adversaries, who once favored monarchy and then white supremacy, have done a successful makeover and attempted to steal the banner of democracy. For example, they are exuberant about imposing democracy by force across the Middle East and to the borders of Russia, but they show no enthusiasm for the democratic process sweeping away the former dictatorships that our government backed in Latin America. Our government is opposed to democracy on our borders if those democracies reject our military bases, our special forces and our corporate dominance over their resources and services. Venezuela, Bolivia and, of course, Cuba are being targeted for isolation and subversion, while Colombia is the American spear in the Andes.

Latin America is the brightest democratic spot on the planet today. But its democratic revolution is not enough; an enormous shift in global finance, investment and trade policies is needed to address underdevelopment and poverty. The resources to build a movement here against military intervention in Latin or Central America are sorely needed. An alternative to the Monroe Doctrine is sorely needed. An alternative to the top-down secretive WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA models is sorely needed. The movement for immigrant rights and labor rights is where domestic policy and Latin American policy should meet.

I am campaigning for and voting for Barack Obama not because I agree with him on every foreign policy issue but because I think we need to unleash the energy of those who fight for justice and housing and healthcare and jobs and the environment here at home. The Obama movement is registering and mobilizing millions of new voters, young people, working class, people of color and poor. The mere fact of their being mobilized will create a pressure for new priorities on the economic home front against the present priorities of militarization abroad. The fact that Obama rose to his present position on the tide of antiwar sentiment forces Obama and the Congressional Democrats to pay greater attention to our needs at home or pay a political price. If he expands the quagmires in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will have to oppose those wasteful wars as well.

So I am saying that domestic groups–organized around issues from civil rights to the environment–cannot afford to leave peace simply to the peace movement. And the peace movement has to point every day to the domestic costs, including energy costs, of the Iraq War and the larger empire. And we must define an alternative vision to the undemocratic structures of corporate and military power that promise security but bring us war, that promise jobs but lower our standard of living. We need a new model of political economy that is equitable and sustainable, not one that expects every country in the world to meet our needs, including our appetite for their resources. And finally, we must build a progressive movement inside and outside the Democratic Party, one that respects the autonomy of single-issue movements, that brings our community organizing experiences to bear on this frustrating political process, that can build and strengthen a progressive power base that can fight everyday for our needs, not the empire’s needs.

It is not enough to liberalize the empire; the task is to peacefully and steadily bring it to an end, making democracy safe for the world as some organizers said fifty years ago. In place of empire, we need to understand the world as a multipolar one, and drive it towards participatory democracy through social movements. Those social movements will not only pressure their existing governments but energize a global civic society that can achieve enforceable new norms on human rights, a global living wage and corporate accountability, a healthy environment instead of global warming, and the steady reduction of nuclear weapons.

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