The modern dominance of multinational corporations has created a new version of feudalism, says Evaggelos Vallianatos from Truthout.
August 2011 marks 50 years since I left Greece for the United States.
In 1961, in Greece, I was a high school graduate with dreams of becoming a doctor. My beloved physician grandmother Demetra had shown me the way. Now, 50 years later, in the United States, I am not a doctor of medicine, but a doctor of philosophy caught in a time warp.
My American college education was a Renaissance for me, a moment of discovery and self-confidence. In a metaphysical sense, I became Greek in America. However, the moment I left the university looking for a job, I felt I had entered an alien realm. I developed a blurred vision.
The world now is more complicated and dangerous than the world of 1961. Communism is almost gone, but capitalism in America has evolved into a toxic system of poisoning and devouring the earth for profit while, for the Wall Street oligarchy, it is a method of enrichment. In 2008, this oligarchy precipitated one of its periodic national, financial meltdowns in order to reverse progress toward equality and democracy. The Wall Street bankers wrecked the lives of millions of Americans. And yet, the government did not punish the Wall Street bankers. In fact, the government itself is under their sinister influences.
At the same time, America's military-industrial complex, the nerve centre of unregulated disaster capitalism, is encircling the world with hundreds of military bases. America's steadfast support for Israel probably triggered the September 11, 2001 attack on New York and the Pentagon. America responded by accelerating its endless petroleum wars. Suddenly, "terrorism" changed from a mindless act of violence requiring police action to a slogan guiding the foreign policy of the United States.
The world now is full of some seven billion people. Of these, close to a billion and a half are hungry. Africa continues to be the mother of famine.
Despite these developments auguring more severe trouble for humanity, people still live in silence or delusion verging on madness. Like sheep, they have bought into "modernity" — how fortunate we are to have TV, airplanes, nuclear weapons, computers and genetically engineered corn.
I felt unease about this technophilia from the beginnings of my American journey. My education sparked my questioning. I published my first critical essay on the injustice of giant agriculture in "The Christian Science Monitor" in 1975. My first book, "Fear in the Countryside," was also critical of the emerging feudalism behind the shiny armour of large agriculture. It came out in 1976. None of my modest expectations came to pass.
I was hoping for a world where, at a minimum, the peasant and family farmer could cultivate small pieces of land without oppression. Why should America duplicate England's vicious enclosures, whereby large farmers grab most of the land? Why has agrarian reform been failing nearly everywhere? What forces are fuelling such violent policies? Could it be that modernity's model was the new landlord Americans call agribusiness? In fact, a concoction of mining practices, heavy machinery, petroleum, and other chemicals became agribusiness. This agribusiness hired science to give it a respectable facelift and, together, whitewash feudalism — the harsh farm system of our dark age.
When I was studying medieval history at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a small farm town in Illinois, I thought that the violence and darkness we associate with the Dark Ages belonged to the people of Europe alone. Europe flirted with darkness because Greek civilization fell to the Christians, and Rome fell to the Christians and barbarians. But little did I know my professors blamed medieval Europe unduly because they wanted to tone down their own dancing with the barbarians.
Agribusiness and other large corporations have now resurrected a "modern" version of feudalism. By which I mean they have so much power that they poison democratic institutions. In addition, this global oligarchy is not merely putting the peasant and small family farmer out of business, but it is aiming at total control of the world. It is doing in the open what armies of conquest do in the cover of darkness.
I fear that, at any moment, our world could become more than too hot. It is being poisoned beyond repair, denuded of biological diversity or, worse yet, blown up by accident or by design.
Yes, 1961 was full of nuclear bombs. In fact, I will never forget my terror when the US and Russia clashed over Cuba in 1962. The world indeed came very close to nuclear war. But, now, there are still thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready. The tragedy is such that religion has been added to possible causes for war, exactly as in the Dark Ages.
The US "war on terror," in full force in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, is preparing the ground for possible nuclear conflict. After all, the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic regime and sworn enemy of both Israel and the United States, is developing its own nukes. The tragic irony of the US occupation of Iraq is that misguided American policies made Iraq like Iran.
I did not become a physician because I developed a dislike for American medicine. It bothered me that doctors impoverish society with their money-first prescription.
I earned a doctorate in history instead. I studied history because history brought me closer to my Greek roots. However, even in my historical studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I tripped over the cold war wires embedded in America's colleges and universities. My dissertation adviser at the University of Wisconsin – an alumnus of the Office of Strategic Services, that became the CIA – did not endorse me strongly for finding a teaching position because my critique of communist Russia did not match his CIA standards.
Barred from college teaching led me to postdoctoral studies in the history of science and international development at Harvard, an accident that made me who I am.
After Harvard, I had to learn how to survive. I had to follow orders, but I was not good at that. I did not hide my feelings and virtues, doing my research as I learned to in graduate school, documenting carefully all my data and arguments, presenting a reasoned discourse for the understanding and solution of problems. I knew what my paymasters wanted had nothing to do with science, but everything to do with pushing forward their corporate agenda. They wanted my arguments to be lipstick for decisions they had taken. I refused to play their games. Most of the time, I gave them my documented views.
This effort to continue to be myself caused me endless suffering. Out of that I began to see the America these guys represented. This was different from the America I had cooked up in high school: a land of opportunity and democracy, a model for Greece and the rest of the world.
The America I discovered during two years of work on Capitol Hill and 25 at the US Environmental Protection Agency was a mean-spirited place, caring very little about the natural world or human beings. In fact, the rulers of America thought it was perfectly legitimate to embrace the flag of business, including the mission of agribusiness, even though that entailed the systematic poisoning of all nature and humans.
My supervisors in the government had to keep up the decorum of propriety, so they tolerated me up to a point. But it became clear soon enough the gulf between us was irreconcilable. They were the executors of corporate policy, and I the persistent though invisible defender of the public good. They knew I knew they were wrong in ignoring public health and the integrity of the natural world. I witnessed their decisions siding with corporate polluters.
The result of this immoral behaviour in the heart of government is the ceaseless poisoning of our food and drinking water; the logging of our national forests; mining in the national forests and parks, in fact, blowing apart entire mountains for coal and other resources; building dangerous nuclear power plants for electricity; ignoring and belittling solar power; overfishing of the seas and oceans; damming of most rivers; ceaseless destruction of wetlands; increasing poverty and destitution in America and the world; and the deindustrialization of the country because corporations make more by shipping their factories to foreign countries.
An additional effect of corporate dominance in government is the spending of trillions of dollars in foreign military bases and wars, a signature product of the military-industrial complex. This octopus of secret power has been in operation since America nuked Japan in August 1945. The military-industrial complex or national security state is behind every policy. But, curiously, not many politicians, journalists and academics question the black hole of the Pentagon in swallowing most of the budget of the country, leaving trinkets only for environmental and social programs.
The country is mired in the delusions of Barack Obama, president since 2008, and the Republican Party. Obama, the first black president – either because of fear, timidity or wilfulness – embraces the undemocratic policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He pretends that by coming ever closer to the Republicans, he will have compromised to the good of the nation. He even extended tax deductions amounting to about a trillion dollars for millionaires and billionaires.
Obama is wrong. The Republicans are not grateful for such magnanimity or stupidity. They hate him for being black and for trying to be fair — at least in his pre-election promises. Republican politicians, in fact, are, much more than Democratic politicians, servants of the oligarchy running America.
Despite Obama's confusion, I still like him. He may soon reveal another self and lead the country away from a potential catastrophe under Republican-plutocrat auspices.
After 50 years in America, I am not very objective about the dangers I detect in the rapid decline of the country. I resent those responsible for this unfolding tragedy. I love America's universities, public libraries and forests and parks, assets all for the maintenance of civilization. My Greek insight, however, tells me the barbarians are at the gate, perhaps at the helm.
I visit Greece often. Greece is a basket case of corruption and bad foreign influence. Her rulers, educated in America, borrowed too much money and too many irrelevant ideas. These are people who are not proud about being Greek. They feel more at home in New York and Paris than in Athens. The result is that Greece is falling apart — foreign and Greek corporations circling the skies for an easy kill.
Despite the crisis, however, it is Greece that keeps me going. I go to museums and villages for inspiration and strength. In the village that gave me birth, Valsamata in the Island of Kephalonia, my sister Georgia and I go to the cemetery to light a candle on the grave of our parents. We then walk through the only olive grove still belonging to me. But I sense the ancient sacred trees of Athena don't recognize me. I cry in secret and promise to come back.
Perhaps it's impossible to travel through time. Like a river, time moves faster than human feet or the human mind. The bridge between my younger works and days in the 1960s and those of the 2010s is simply too long. But Greece, especially the country and civilization of ancient times, is my source for light and life.
In the very beginning of his "Politics," Aristotle said that a state has to provide its citizens more than military security or a place for living. A state must afford its citizens ample opportunities to be self-sufficient and have a good life. Indeed, autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, is the purpose and happiness of a successful state. Aristotle would say America no longer serves the public good, its government being held hostage by an oligarchy on the verge of becoming a tyranny, by far the worst form of organization or constitution or government.
The citizens of America must push the servants of oligarchy out of office, the very people who made a killing with their 2008 financial disaster. Americans must return to the Greek-inspired path of Thomas Jefferson and reinvigorate their democracy, while bringing the military-industrial complex under control.
(This story was originally published in Truthout on 17 February 2012 and has been republished under a Creative Commons licence.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License