Living in the
Number One

Reflections from a Critic
Of American Empire

Herbert I. Schiller
(Seven Stories Press)
According to Herbert Schiller, American megacorporations are taking over the world, and
  • What we call "the free flow of information" is a scam --- it's merely propaganda for aggressive international capitalism;
  • The Marshall Plan was not an altruistic aid program to help Europe rebuild after a devastating war, but a prelude for economic imperialism as represented by the World Bank and, more recently, the IMF. (The Marshall Plan even tied "grants to a recipient's acquiescence to opening its market to U. S. cultural exports, film in particular," so we could beat up on their cultures with our own).
  • Germany after WWII was rebuilt not because of what we learned from Versailles, but rather to push this new form of colonialism --- one promulgated by the United States of Coca-Cola, IBM, General Electric, ITT and, presumably, Bugs Bunny.

"I gave my attention to those locales around which I had some, though limited, personal experience," Schiller writes. "One was the Western European social order, which was 'threatened' not, as was asserted by our leadership, by Soviet aggression, but by its own indigenous radical movements." Translation: The Cold War scare was cooked up to squash liberal tendencies in the governments of England, France, Italy and Scandinavia.

Some of this may be true, but Schiller has a problem getting his message across. The reason: He's a dogmatist of the first water. And he's a lousy writer to boot. Reading Living in the Number One Country reminded me of that old wheeze, "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail."

There are nuggets of truth. No one with brains (or heart) could excuse our nation's long love affair with Chiang Kai-Shek, or our not-so-secret support of the overthrow of Juan Bosch and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. CIA excursions into Iran, Chile and Nicaragua, among others, and our shenanigans in Vietnam have left us with wounds that will, and should, taint American foreign relations for many decades.

But to say that our vigorous support for the anti-communists in Greece, our 50-year containment of Stalinism, our part in defusing apartheid in South Africa and our central role in the birth of democracy in Germany and Japan derived solely from the needs of large-scale capital is tedious and shortsighted.

It's no sin to be a didactic writer --- Barbara Tuchman, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Buckley and Eric Hobsbawm are some of the best in the business, and we read them with pleasure. In The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm (who shares many of the same views as Schiller) gives us a fine exegesis on 20th Century world economic and social history. He may have an agenda, but he sucks us in with a combination of style, wit and astonishing facts.

By contrast, Schiller puts us in mind of a story by the psychotherapist Salvador Minuchin. In one of his more famous videotape sessions, he is treating a family consisting of a whining mother, a noisy father, and a daughter who keeps trying to kill herself. "This family is a violin with only one string," he tells them. "And it's playing a funeral march."

Is there any hope in Schiller's bleak world? Yes. Our "reduced world role" will create "a sharp increase in social conflict between domestic haves and have-nots, a struggle over shares of diminishing resources." To put it more starkly, we're on the edge of a revolution, and the megacorporations will not be able to control it.

It's an interesting if scary theory, but some of us who have been around as long as Schiller can't help thinking otherwise. We see, sometimes with despair, that American know-how has created a subtle and unbeatable system.

Our world is tied up, more and more, with rules and regulations and bureaucratic idiocy. Ask any American who tries to run a business out of his home about the nightmare of paperwork. Ask any poor Mexican who wants to make a living over here about getting over the border and "La Migra." Ask anyone who wants to grow and sell dope for medical purposes what it's like getting busted.

But there's a powerful hook that keeps us going. It shows up every day in the newspapers, on radio and TV and cable. It's at the heart of the very capitalism that Schiller deplores. It's some geezer who bought a home in San Francisco or Washington or Miami thirty years ago who finds himself sitting on a pot of gold called "equity." It's an auto mechanic or garbage hauler who buys Lotto tickets week after week and, despite the odds, ends up with $100,000 in cash. It's those geeks in high school who had moss on their teeth and bad breath who invented something obscure having to do with computers, and who all of a sudden are sitting on a million stock options.

If Schiller thinks his rants about the dangers of international corporate malfeasance can overcome this jackpot mentality, he is mistaken. He's badly outnumbered by all those in line to become the next Bill Gates, or Michael Dell, or Larry Ellison, or Pehong Chen.

It's too bad that Schiller has recently passed on. If he were still among the living, and wanted to produce yet another rant on the evils of American international capitalism, we'd have suggested that he give himself (and us) a break by taking a semester or two at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A few weeks with the likes of T. Coraghessan Boyle would have taught him how to lighten up a bit so that those of us who might be interested in his message would not have to be driven batty by his miserable style.

--- L. W. Milam

This review first appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle

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