Securing Human Rights and Responsibilities in the USA
Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2009 by Richard D. Vogel
Permission to copy granted
The USA, along with the rest of the world, is facing a series of daunting economic, social, and environmental crises. Only a civic revolution based on the recognition of human rights and responsibilities offers the possibility of a sustainable and democratic future for the nation and the world.
I. Critical Issues in the USA
The critical issues in the US are inextricably linked to three dangerous global megatrends that are threatening everyone on the planet:
- Climate Change
- Neoliberal Globalization
- Growing Inequality and Absolute Poverty
Climate change is occurring because of human activity, and without significant interventionthe earth's atmosphere will continue to warm at an accelerating rate. The consequences of climate change are many: melting ice caps and glaciers, thermal expansion of the oceans, changing ocean currents, and the acidification of seawater because of the absorption of excessive CO2 from the atmosphere. Low-lying littoral areas are under the threat of flooding, and vast inland regions are facing severe water shortages, crop declines, and widespread desertification. Climate change also increases the risk of extreme weather events that could result in extensive damage to agriculture, man-made structures, and the natural environment. The worst case scenario would be runaway climate change that triggers environmental collapse.
Reckless overconsumption of resources, especially fossil fuels, by the US is the biggest contributing factor to global climate change. The reluctance of corporate interests to allow the US government to address this urgent issue could derail any international efforts to meet the climate crisis.
Because of the imperative of capitalism to constantly increase capital accumulation through mass consumption, the prospect of living in a seriously degraded environment is a very real possibility.
Neoliberal globalization, the worldwide domination of labor, raw materials, and consumer markets by a relatively few multinational corporations, has concentrated corporate power and has enabled private organizations to dominate national governments and international institutions. This concentration of power has corrupted elected officials and subverted democracy everywhere.
The offshoring of industries has allowed multinationals to maximize profits while evading the social and environmental costs of production. Neoliberal globalization has contributed to the economic meltdown in the US and much of the Western world because of the policy of issuing junk credit to consumers to finance the purchase of imported services and commodities.
US multinational corporations, backed by the full diplomatic and military power of the US government, have been the driving force behind neoliberal globalization since the end of World War II and are continuing to pursue the same unsustainable economic policies that produced the present crises. After 30 years of offshoring jobs (first blue-collar, then white-collar and professional) to cheap foreign labor markets, the lack of employment and reduced welfare provisions in the US are creating the most dire domestic crisis since the Great Depression. Neoliberal globalization has undermined the economic foundation of US independence and reduced the country to the status of being the largest debtor nation in history.
Growing Inequality and Absolute Poverty
Neoliberal globalization has produced a relatively small class of super-rich individuals who enjoy undreamed of wealth and privilege at the expense of working people and the global environment. Growing inequality and absolute poverty, problems that are exacerbated by extensive privatization, another key item on the neoconservative agenda for the nation and the world, are undermining social and political stability at home and abroad. Nations that embrace domestic and foreign policies that foster and maintain inequality are increasingly turning to police and military force to defend their regimes.
The US employs the greatest military force in history to guarantee the interests of multinational corporations worldwide, maintains the largest prison system in the world, and has built an elaborate homeland security apparatus that is impinging on the civil liberties of all of its citizens.
Map 1 illustrates the global deployment of US military forces.
The US military footprint on the world also has severe environmental consequences. Although the US government will not release military environmental impact information for security reasons, sound investigative research has established that the US military complex is the single greatest contributor to the worldwide environmental crisis.
The ability of concerned US citizens to confront the present crises and shape the future of the nation and the world requires that we face the central fact that we are citizens of an empire that is the driving force behind the dangerous megatrends of the modern world and act accordingly.
II. Citizens of the Empire
A short history of how imperial democracy hijacked the promise of republican democracy in the US highlights the pressing need for a civic revolution to advance democracy in the 21st century.
World War II: the Consolidation of the American Empire (1939-1945)
The USA emerged from World War II as the clear winner. Despite the massive consumption of resources and substantial casualties during the war, in the immediate post-war period the US occupied the most advantaged position of any nation in history. The global conflict devastated the economic base of much of Western Europe and opened a virtually unlimited market for US products and investment during the period of reconstruction. WW II also secured US corporate access to the vital markets and resources of East Asia. Post-war prosperity for the US was all but guaranteed.
The US also emerged from the global conflict with the most awesome military force that has ever been assembled -- a force capable and willing to use weapons of mass destruction, including atomic bombs, with scant regard for collateral damage, including the loss of human life. US military might, which has been continually upgraded and exercised on no less than 84 occasions since WW II, has allowed the US to project its power on a global scale and maintain the American empire at home and abroad.
The foundation of a new relationship between citizens and the state was established before the war was over. The consortium of US corporations that profited most from the war consolidated their control of the federal government, and the US Congress moved to legitimize the post-war American empire by incorporating enough voters to guarantee support for corporate mandated political action.
In 1944, in order to avoid a post-war economic meltdown and social crisis like the Great Depression that followed World War I, the US Congress passed the Serviceman's Readjustment Act -- commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights. By this single act of legislation, the 16 million US citizens who had served in the armed forces during the war and their families became vested partners in the new American empire.
- Before WW II, college was a privilege reserved almost exclusively for the rich. Under the GI Bill, millions of veterans who would have flooded the US job market opted to go to school. In the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of all college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill expired in July of 1956, 7.8 of the 16 million veterans of WW II had participated in an education or training program. The educational provisions of the GI Bill turned out to be an investment in human capital that benefited veterans and their families and provided a highly-skilled labor force for corporate America.
- Before WW II, homeownership was limited in the US -- most working-class families lived in small apartments close to the factories and shops where they worked. Between 1944 and 1952, 2.4 million home loans for WW II veterans were guaranteed under the GI Bill. GI Bill loans stimulated the US housing market, spurred the suburbanization of America, and helped establish homeownership as an integral feature of the American Dream.
The GI Bill, which has been renewed after every major US military mobilization, created the core of the critical mass of common citizens who had a vested interest in the American empire. From the end of WW II through the present day, war veterans along with defense industry employees, members of co-opted labor unions, and other privileged sectors of the working class have provided legitimacy for the corporate/government political agenda of empire building.
The Containment and Rollback of Socialism (1945-1991)
The grand corporate/government strategy of the US during the post-war period was to control the working class at home and to contain and rollback socialism abroad.
Historically, socialism was the only form of economic production that offered a credible alternative to capitalism, and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, a union of 15 constituent republics that was founded in 1922 and fell in 1991, was the only regime that ever presented a serious obstacle to the global expansion of capitalism.
The Soviet Union, a US ally during WW II and the nation that suffered the brunt of German aggression, became the primary target of global capitalism in the post-war period.
The historical period of the grand strategy to contain and rollback communism and ensure that the resources and markets of the world would be available for capitalist exploitation is known as The Cold War. The various campaigns of the 46 year conflict ranged from open warfare in Korea and Vietnam to unrelenting covert operations that involved economic intrusion, political subversion, and low-intensity and proxy warfare in Second and Third World countries around the world. The widespread intervention into the affairs of other nations throughout this period included numerous plots to assassinate, not only the leaders of communist and socialist countries, but other heads of state or opposition figures who refused to subordinate their nation's interests to those of the American empire.
Map 2 presents a summary of US military interventions and covert operations conducted in defense of the empire since WW II.
Global capitalism, lead by the USA, won the Cold War in 1991 through a war of attrition conducted under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The economic cost of the Cold War to the USA alone for the years 1948-1991 has been calculated at $13.1 trillion in 1996 dollars. The total cost of the Cold War in human lives and collateral social and environmental damage is inestimable.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed the most significant obstacle to the global expansion of multinational capitalism. The US has attempted to exploit the opportunity to rule the world through a grand strategy of military dominance in the 21st century that was candidly articulated in The Project for the New American Century.
The Project for the New American Century: Endgame of the Empire (1997- )
By the end of the 20th century the economic position of the USA in the world was eroding rapidly because of the widespread offshoring of production to cheap foreign labor markets and extensive borrowing that reduced the nation to debtor status.
It was in that context of decline that neoconservative Republicans proposed The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) as a way to avoid the looming economic crisis.
As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world's preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of the past decades [the era of the rise of neoliberal globalization and neoconservative political rule]? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests? (PNAC Statement of Principles)
In plain language, the PNAC was a call to rely primarily on America's vast military superiority to bolster the faltering empire. The neoconservative Republicans used the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to justify the endgame of the empire that is still in play.
Despite the fact that the most rabid of the neoconservatives have been swept from power, the ongoing wars in the Middle East and continuing worldwide military deployment show that the US government remains committed to military action as a last ditch effort to preserve the American empire.
The imperial strategy of the USA cannot resolve the critical issues of the nation. The futile efforts to defend the failing empire will, however, exacerbate the megatrends of increasing neoliberal globalization, growing inequality, and climate change that are threatening the future of the nation and the world.
The runaway national debt and waning political power of the US provide compelling evidence that the grand strategy of global domination through military supremacy is doomed to failure. At the same time, the declining levels of employment and eroding welfare and pension provisions are reducing citizens' attachment to the empire. In view of these trends, the governing of post-imperial America is sure to emerge as the crucial political issue of the 21st century.
Will the US progress towards true democracy or degenerate into a repressive regime that serves a privileged few? The fact that an elaborate machinery of repression is already in place looms large; the militarization of US society and the erosion of civil rights since the September 11 attacks and the mass incarceration practices of the last three decades are clear indicators of the direction that public policy could take.
In the grip of the current national and global crises, it is becoming increasingly clear that only a civic revolution that secures human rights and responsibilities offers the prospect of a sustainable and democratic future for the US and the world.
III. CIVIC REVOLUTION
Civic revolutionin the USA requires a fundamental redefinition of the relationship between citizens and the state -- concerned citizens of an oppressive and destructive empire must become citizens of the world. Universal principles of human rights and responsibilities must be elevated above corporate/state interests and secured through civic action.
Ethical guidelines for a civic revolution in the USA already exist. Principles of citizenship based on the recognition of human rights and responsibilities have been developed through cooperative efforts and widely accepted by the international community. They are readily available online in two benchmark documents: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, and A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities that was proposed by the InterAction Council in 1997, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR and the same year that the PNAC called for a revival of the American empire based on military might.
Human Rights and Responsibilities
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The UDHR was a direct response of the United Nations to the mass casualties and widespread destruction of World War II. From its conception, the UDHR was seen as the foundation for building a world where all people could live in peace and dignity. In addition to declaring universal political and civil rights, the UDHR guarantees critical social and economic rights without which the exercise of political and civil rights is virtually impossible.
Many of these rights -- the right to social security (Article 22), the right to work and receive favorable and just remuneration for that work (Article 23), the right to rest and leisure (Article 24), the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate medical care (Article 25), and the right to education (Article 26) -- are not guaranteed to citizens in many nations, including the USA.
While the UDHR set the standard for a universal bill of rights to ensure freedom, peace, and justice in the modern world, A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities built on the foundation of the UDHR by addressing questions of universal human responsibilities.
A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities
The Declaration of Responsibilities is a direct response to the global problems of the contemporary world and recognizes that human rights and responsibilities are of equal importance in establishing an ethical world order and promoting peace.
The argument for the Declaration of Responsibilities forwarded by the InterAction Council is compelling. "It is time to talk about human responsibilities" they say:
- If we have the right to life, then we have the obligation to respect life.
- If we have the right to liberty, then we have the obligation to respect other people's liberty.
- If we have the right to security, then we have the obligation to create conditions for every human being to enjoy human security.
- If we have the right to partake in our country's political process and elect our leaders, then we have the obligation to participate and ensure that the best leaders are chosen.
- If we have the right to work under favorable conditions to provide a decent standard of living for ourselves and our families, we also have the obligation to perform to the best of our capacities.
- If we have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, we also have the obligation to respect other's thoughts or religious principles.
- If we have the right to be educated, then we have the obligation to learn as much as our capacities allow us and, where possible, share our knowledge and experience with others.
- If we have the right to benefit from the earth's bounty, then we have the obligation to respect, care for and restore the earth and its natural resources.
The draft Declaration of Responsibilities proposed by the InterAction Council covers the complete spectrum of civil responsibilities and includes the protection of the natural environment (Article 7).
Two articles of the Declaration are especially relevant to civic revolution in the USA:
No person should lend support to any form of inhuman behavior, but all people have a responsibility to strive for the dignity and self-esteem of others.
No person, no group or organization, no state, no army or police stands above good and evil: all are subject to ethical standards. Everyone has a responsibility to promote good and to avoid evil in all things.
The UDHR and A Declaration of Human Responsibilities provide clear guidelines for a civic revolution in the USA. If we familiarize ourselves with these two touchstone documents and apply the principles of universal human rights and responsibilities to contemporary issues on the global, national, and local level, we can redefine the role of citizens in the USA and help realize the possibility of a sustainable and democratic future.
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