Overthrow: 100 Years of U.S. Meddling and Regime Change, From Iran to Nicaragua to Hawaii to Cuba – By Amy Goodman, Juan González / Democracy Now!

News & Politics
America committed a variety of human rights abuses, all under cover of “spreading democracy.”

Photo Credit: Przemek Tokar

As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, we take a look back at Washington’s record of meddling in elections across the globe. By one count, the United States has interfered in more than 80 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. And that doesn’t count U.S.-backed coups and invasions. We speak to former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.”




This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his probe into Russian meddling into the 2016 election, we take a look back at Washington’s record of meddling in elections across the globe. By one count, the United States has interfered in more than 80 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. And that doesn’t count U.S.-backed coups and invasions. Former CIA Director James Woolsey recently joked about the U.S. record of meddling overseas, during an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries’ elections?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Oh, probably. But it was for the good of the system, in order to avoid the communists from taking over.


JAMES WOOLSEY: For example, in Europe in ’47, ’48, ’49, the Greeks and the Italians, we—CIA—

LAURA INGRAHAM: We don’t do that now, though? We don’t mess around in other people’s elections, Jim?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, mmm, yum, yum, yum, never mind. Only for a very good cause.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Can you do that—let’s do a vine video and—as former CIAdirector. I love it.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Only for very good cause—


JAMES WOOLSEY: —in the interests of democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The list of countries where the U.S. has interfered is long. In 1893, the U.S. helped overthrow the kingdom of Hawaii. Five years later, in 1898, the U.S. invaded and occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico. A year later, it was the Philippines. Early 20th century interventions included Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, all in the 1910s.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1953, the U.S. helped overthrow the Iranian government. A year later, in 1954, U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz. Then, in the ’60s, the list grew to include, once again, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and the Congo. And that’s just a partial list. Even with the end of the Cold War, U.S. interference overseas did not end. Next week marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.

We now go to Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, who writes about world affairs for The Boston Globe. He’s the author of a number of books, including Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to IraqAll the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. He’s written the book Bitter Fruit about the coup in Guatemala. And his latest book is The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.

Stephen Kinzer, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! to talk, sadly, about the very same issue. I’m not quite sure where to begin, whether to go back to the beginning, but let’s start, since it was 65 years ago, in Iran, in 1953, in March of 1953. The U.S. was in full swing making plans for overthrowing the government of the democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Can you talk about what the U.S. did in Iran then? So well known throughout Iran, but most people in this country have no idea.

STEPHEN KINZER: Early in the 20th century, the people of Iran began moving towards democracy. It was a very difficult struggle. It was back and forth. But finally, after the Second World War, democracy did emerge in Iran. It was the one parenthesis, the one period of real democracy that we’ve had in Iran over the last hundred years. So, the problem came when the Iranians chose the wrong leader. They did something that the United States never likes: They chose a leader who wanted to put the interests of his own country ahead of the interests of the United States. And that alarmed the West, and particularly the United States.

Mosaddegh’s first move was to nationalize Iranian oil. We thought this would be a terrible example for the rest of the world. We didn’t want to start this process going in other countries. So, in order to set an example, the United States decided we would work with the British to overthrow the elected democratic government of Iran. We sent a senior CIA officer, who worked in the basement of the American Embassy in Iran organizing the coup. The coup finally succeeded in the summer of 1953. Mosaddegh was overthrown.

And, more important, the democratic system in Iran was destroyed forever. This was not just an attack on one person, but an attack on democracy. And the reason why we attacked that democracy is the democracy produced the wrong person. So, we like elections and democratic processes, but they have to produce the candidates we like; otherwise, our approval disappears.

AMY GOODMAN: And the person he sent—that the U.S., the Dulles brothers, sent in to Iran with the suitcases of money to begin the process, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson?

STEPHEN KINZER: That’s right. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something genetic in the Roosevelt family that predisposes them toward regime change. It is a kind of a quirk of history that the person who effectively projected the United States into the regime change era at the beginning of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, had a grandson who went to Iran in the 1950s and carried out a regime change operation there. And there were similarities—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go—

STEPHEN KINZER: —between the operations that they carried out.

AMY GOODMAN: Before you go on, Stephen, I wanted to go to a part of a trailer from an upcoming documentary titled Coup 53 about the 1953 British-American coup in Iran and the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, directed by the Iranian physicist-turned-award-winning-documentary-filmmaker Taghi Amirani.

TAGHI AMIRANI: This man, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, he was our first democratically elected prime minister.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Nobody knows who Mosaddegh was. Democratically elected prime minister of Iran.

TAGHI AMIRANI: In 1952, Time magazine named him Man of the Year, because he had nationalized Iranian oil and kicked the British out.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Mosaddegh came along and threw them out. They were gone. Gone! Gone!!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] The Iranian people had rejected the Shah’s rule with blood, with blood, and bare hands in front of tanks.

INTERVIEWER: You had a million dollars in cash to run the coup, right?


DAVID TALBOT: Kermit Roosevelt was prepared to do whatever he had to do, when he was given this mission by Allen Dulles to overthrow the democratic government of Iran.

ALLEN DULLES: But may I say this? At no time has the CIA engaged in any political activity or any intelligence activity that was not approved at the highest level.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA from 1952 to 1961. At the time, his brother—his brother, Secretary of State Dulles, was secretary of state. We’re talking about the overthrow of Iran for the British oil company that would later become British Petroleum. Is that right, Stephen Kinzer?

STEPHEN KINZER: Yes. That company is now called BP. So, you’re seeing long-term effects of these interventions, and what you’re seeing in Iran today 100 percent ties back to what we did in 1953. We like to have this idea that these operations are discreet, they’re not going to have any long-term effects. We’ll remove one government, place another favorable government in power, and anything will go fine. Everybody will forget it, and it won’t have any long-term effects. But if you look around the world, you can see that these kinds of operations to interfere in other countries’ politics, what the CIA calls “influence operations,” actually not only often wind up devastating the target country, but, in the end, undermine the security of the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Stephen Kinzer, I’d like to move to another part of the world: Nicaragua. Most people are familiar, obviously, with the Reagan-era attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government or the period during the Roosevelt era of the attempts to get rid of Sandino as a force in Nicaragua. But, further back, José Santos Zelaya, at the beginning of the 20 century, could you talk about the efforts of the U.S. government to overthrow Zelaya?

STEPHEN KINZER: Zelaya was a fascinating figure, certainly the most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had. He was a slashing reformer. He was a liberal, a progressive. He built ports and roads, tried to build up a middle class in Nicaragua. He brought the first automobile into Nicaragua, the first streetlights. He organized the first baseball league. He was a true modernizer.

But he had one characteristic the United States really didn’t like. And that is, he wanted Nicaragua to have an independent foreign policy. When he needed to raise money for a planned railroad across Nicaragua, rather than seek loans from the Morgan bank in the United States as we wanted him to do, he floated the loan offers in London and in Paris. The United States tried to get those governments to forbid the offering of those loan agreements, but they refused. Sure enough, the money was raised. And America became very alarmed. Nicaragua was trying to diversify its international relations. It didn’t want to be just under the power of the United States. And that was a fatal decision by Zelaya.

Once he decided that he wanted to pull Nicaragua out from under the thumb of the United States, he became a target. And we did overthrow him in 1909. That was the beginning of a century of American interference in Nicaragua. I think you can argue that there’s no country in the world where the cycle of American intervention—imposition of a dictator, rebellion, repression, and a return of American power to impose another leader—is so clear, over such a long period of time, the way it is in Nicaragua.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writes the world affairs column for The Boston Globe.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about another invasion that is rarely talked about these days: the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson and the efforts of the United States, again, to control the affairs of the Dominican Republic over many, many years, because, obviously, there were two invasions of the Dominican Republic. There was one at the early part of the century that led to the rise of Trujillo, and then there was one after the fall of Trujillo to attempt regime change against President Juan Bosch, who had been elected into office.

STEPHEN KINZER: You have placed it very well, because if we remember this operation at all, we remember the American Marines landing on the beaches in the Dominican Republic. But the cause of that intervention was the foolish mistake of the Dominican people of electing a leader who was unpalatable to the United States. Juan Bosch was a figure a little bit like Zelaya had been half a century earlier in Nicaragua. He didn’t want the Dominican Republic to be under the thumb of the United States. He wanted it to be an independent country. And this was something the U.S. couldn’t tolerate.

All these movements in the Caribbean Basin have been—have had, as a fundamental part of their political program, measures to limit the power of foreign corporations in their countries, and often measures to limit the amount of land that foreigners can own in their country. These are the kinds of measures that are hateful to the American corporations that have gotten so rich from taking the resources of the Caribbean Basin, and leaders who promote those policies always find themselves in Washington’s crosshairs.

This is not just ancient history. We had an episode in Honduras in 2009 where a president who was very much in this line, trying to pull Honduras away from subservience to the United States, was overthrown in a coup by the military, dragged out of his house in the middle of the night in his pajamas, sent into exile. The U.S. was so happy, members of Congress even went to Honduras to congratulate the leader of the coup. And then, just last year, a new election was held to ratify the results of the coup. The election was so fraudulent that for the first time in the history of the Organization of American States, the OAS called for a new election. And the leader of the OAS, Almagro, had to do it, because he had been denouncing attacks on democracy in Venezuela and figured he couldn’t just stand by while something even worse was done in Honduras. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have that kind of shame, and we cheered that election. We refused the call for a new election. And Honduras today is under the rule of a regime that is the product of a coup, supported by the United States, against an elected government.

So, this is not something that we used to do in ancient history. This is something that’s happening right now. And that’s why those of us familiar with this history roll our eyes a little bit when we hear these outraged allegations that Russia has been doing something so dastardly as to try to influence our politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, can you take us on a brief, kind of thumbnail journey from the overthrow of Hawaii, the Spanish-American War, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines—all before the turn of the 20th century?

STEPHEN KINZER: This was a fascinating period, and it really was the moment when the United States went from being what you could call a continental empire—that is, inside North America—to being an overseas empire, a crucial moment of decision for the United States. That was not inevitable, but that was the choice we made.

So, in 1893, at the behest of sugar growers in Hawaii, the United States promoted the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The idea was that Hawaii would then immediately become part of the United States. That didn’t happen, because there was a change of presidency in Washington, and the new president, Grover Cleveland, hated that intervention and didn’t want to take Hawaii in. Then, five years later, in 1898, when Grover Cleveland was gone, the Spanish-American War broke out. The United States became interested in the Pacific, because we destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Then we decided we should take the Philippines for ourselves. We became interested in the China market. This was a real, fantastic Fata Morgana out there for American business. The American press was full of stories about how many nails we could sell in China, if we could get the Chinese to use nails; how much cotton we could sell there; how much beef we could sell there, if we could get the Chinese to eat beef. So, we decided we needed stepping stones to China. And that was the moment when we decided, “Let’s take Hawaii as we’ve taken the Philippines.”

So, that happened at the same time the United States was consolidating its rule over Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Cuba, we staged a presidential election, after we consolidated our power there in 1898. We found a candidate that we liked. We found him in upstate New York. He spoke good English, which is always essential for the people that we promote. We brought him back to Cuba. As soon as it became clear that the campaign was rigged, the other candidate dropped out. He became president of Cuba. Sure enough, six years later, the United States had to send troops back to Cuba to suppress protests against him. They occupied Cuba for three more years. Then they left. They had to come back again about six or seven years later, in 1917, because again the Cuban people had had the temerity to elect a leader who was unpalatable to the United States. So, this was a great model for an idea, a concept, that has reverberated through the whole period since then, which is: Have your elections, but you must elect someone we like; otherwise, we’re going to go to Plan B.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back with Stephen Kinzer and talk about James Woolsey’s latest comment. When asked on Fox if the U.S. is still interfering with people’s elections, he chuckles and says, “Only for a good cause.” Yes, we’re talking with Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writing a world affairs column for The Boston Globe, has written many books, one on the coup, U.S. overthrow of Guatemalan democratically elected government, called Bitter Fruit, one called Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, one specifically on Iran, All the Shah’s Men, and his latest book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Nicaragua” by Bruce Cockburn, here on Democracy Now!. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writes for The Boston Globe. He’s author of a number of books, his latest, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the Spanish-American War and, of course, of the bitter guerrilla war that developed in the Philippines in the 1899, 1900, the birth of the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States—it was a widespread movement of Americans opposed to this overseas empire. Could you talk about some of the figures and the impact of the Anti-Imperialist League? Because we don’t see that kind of organization these days, even though the U.S. empire continues to grow and make itself felt around the world.

STEPHEN KINZER: The story of the Anti-Imperialist League is a central part of my new book, The True Flag. And I like my books always to be voyages of discovery. I’m always looking for some really big story that shaped the world but that we don’t know about. And this really is one. Here’s a story that has almost completely dropped out of our history books.

But the Anti-Imperialist League was a major force in American life in the period around 1898, 1900. It was based in Boston, later moved to Washington, had chapters all over the United States. Some of the leading figures in the United States were members. The leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League included billionaires like Andrew Carnegie and social activists like Jane Addams and Samuel Gompers, Booker T. Washington. Grover Cleveland was a member. It was really a remarkable group. It staged hundreds of rallies, published thousands of leaflets, intensely lobbied in Washington, and actually had quite an impact.

This was a debate that seized the attention of the entire American people: Should we begin taking territories outside North America? Or should we now stop, now that we’ve consolidated our North American empire? Everybody in the United States realized this was a huge decision. It dominated newspaper coverage. When the treaty by which the United States took the Philippines and Guam and Puerto Rico was brought before the Senate, there was a 34-day debate. That’s the center of my book. In this debate, you will see every argument, on both sides, that has ever been used, for the last 120 years. Every argument about why intervention is a good idea or a bad idea starts there. And the Anti-Imperialist League played a great role in that debate. And interestingly enough, that treaty, that set us off on the path of global empire, was passed in the Senate by a margin of one vote more than the required two-thirds majority.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the—

STEPHEN KINZER: And when it was challenged in the Supreme Court, it was five to four.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the most eloquent spokesman—the most elegant spokesman for the Anti-Imperialist League was none other than Mark Twain, no?

STEPHEN KINZER: This is another discovery I made while I was writing my book. I grew up with what I now realize was a partial, a kind of false, image of Mark Twain. I always thought of him as Mr. Nice Guy. He’s a sweetheart. He’s everybody’s favorite old uncle, who has nice curly white hair and rocks on his porch and tells nice, funny stories that everybody laughs at. This is not correct! This is not the real Mark Twain.

Mark Twain was an eviscerating anti-imperialist. He was militant. He was intent. He used to write that Americans fighting in foreign wars were carrying a polluted musket under a bandit’s flag. And he even wanted to change the flag of the United States, to change the stars to skull-and-crossbones symbols. So, I now realize that we have sort of sanctified and bleached Mark Twain for public consumption. Many of the quotes I use from Twain in my book do not appear in many biographies or anthologies. That part of Twain has been dropped out of his legacy, and I’m trying to recover it, because he speaks to us today.

AMY GOODMAN: Makes me wonder if his books will start to be taken out of libraries around the country.



Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times best-seller.

Juan González is the co-host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!.

What do we mean by socialism? – By Ben Hillier (RED FLAG)

What the hell is socialism, anyway? Over the last decade, it has been one of the most frequently looked up words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. And it’s easy to see why so many people feel the need for clarification.

Right wing politicians and commentators call anything they are against “socialist”. Federal finance minister Mathias Cormann last year described Australian Labor Party policies as “socialist, absolutely”. US National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre recently warned that “socialism is a movement that loves a smear” and that the backlash against mass shootings in the US was freedom-hating totalitarianism in disguise. And last month, in a speech to a £15,000-a-table Conservative Party function, British prime minister Theresa May vowed to “defeat socialism”.

The left is often vague about the term’s meaning as well. We hear about Scandinavian countries being socialist, about US senator Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialism”, about British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reviving socialism in the UK.

The one thing obvious in this is that socialism is a catch-all word for, or a label used to dismiss, policies that would make society more equal. And while that’s a good starting point – socialism is about equality – it only gets us so far.

To understand what Marxists mean by socialism, you first have to understand not just that we are against certain things – inequality, wage cuts, anti-union laws, oppression based on class, race, gender or sexual orientation, imperialist war and so on – but how we see the connections between and underlying causes of those things.

For example, you don’t have to be a socialist to be against racism. Socialist are opposed to racism, but so are many others: anarchists, small “l” liberals, environmentalists, people who don’t consider themselves political. But different people, and different political currents, have different ideas about why racism exists and what function it serves.

Some say it is a product of ignorance, so to do away with it we just need to educate people. Others say it exists to benefit all white people – from multi-millionaires in boardrooms to poverty-stricken families skipping meals to pay their rent – and that it can’t be eradicated until all whites acknowledge and renounce their inherent “privilege”. Similar arguments are made about sexism and homophobia.

Or take inequality. Some people say that it’s due to the insatiable greed of those at the top of society, so we just need governments to enforce limits on it. Others, using a secular version of original sin, insist that all humans are naturally selfish, so nothing can be done. Others preach charity, believing that the wealthy can be convinced by example to give up much of what they have to help out those at the bottom.

So what marks out our socialist politics?

Understanding capitalism

First, we argue that, no matter what the problem – war, inequality, oppression, climate change – at its root is our world being organised around the principles of private property, competition and profit maximisation. When we say private property, we’re not talking about people owning their own phone, car or collection of books. We’re talking about the property required to make the world function: factories, mines, telecommunications infrastructure, office buildings, arable land and so on. That sort of property is concentrated in the hands of a small minority of people – capitalists or bosses – who own and oversee the big companies.

For example, in Australia, the Department of Industry estimates that the 4,000 largest firms account for 44 percent of industrial growth and 95 percent of exports. These big businesses determine how natural resources are used, who gets work and where, which things are produced and how they are distributed. Their decisions are the greatest determinant of how the rest of us live.

Because all the companies compete against each other, they have to maximise profits. That means screwing over workers, ruining the environment and churning out products designed to fall apart or break down so that customers continue buying new things. This isn’t a product of innate human greed. The people at the top may be greedy, but their greed is the product of society being structured this way, not its cause.

And because we are many and those at the top are few, they devise systems of control to keep us oppressed and divided. That can involve straight-out violence, using the police and the prison system, or even the army, to quell resistance. In places such as Australia, it more often involves holding particular groups down and playing people off against each other – the age-old strategy of divide and conquer.

That can be seen in various ways today. There’s the anti-Muslim bigotry spewed out by the press, the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people, the gender discrimination and grossly sexist stereotypes in film and on almost every advertising board in shopping centres.

Then there’s the ongoing creation of a user-pays society: privatising essential services, underfunding public education and health and so on. Some of this is about private companies making profits. But it’s also about creating a world in which people feel they must rely on themselves and their families to get by, which adds to the idea that life is one giant competition, and that if you don’t look after your own self-interest, you will be left to rot.

All these things turn people against each other in various ways, leaving the capitalists to continue making money while homelessness, poverty and inequality remain or increase.

So wherever you look, the capitalists with one hand are destroying things and ripping us off, and with the other are holding us down and making us blame each other for the problems they create.

The working class

The second thing that marks out our politics is a focus on working class people’s collective action. The working class is basically anyone who works for a wage, owns no business and isn’t a manager. That’s 70-80 percent of the working population in most advanced, industrialised countries. We argue that the working class is the only group with both an interest in and the power to transform society.

It has an interest, because it is exploited and also because it is oppressed. Workers lack almost all control when at work: we’re told what to do, what to wear, when to turn up and when to go home, when we can eat, how we can and can’t talk etc. The things we produce don’t belong to us, and we get no say over how they are produced or the purpose they will serve.

we get home, our lack of control is reinforced: turn on the news and watch reports of the world-defining decisions that were made while we were doing whatever the hell it was that we’d rather not have been doing.

Working people have an interest in uniting to get a better deal, because as individuals, we have no power in the face of the capitalists. But workers have collective power. That’s why we have trade unions, to get at least some influence over our pay and conditions of work.

And the essential tasks of society are performed by workers; the bosses are dependent, unable to make a profit or to get table service when workers collectively go on strike, i.e. stop working. This is the most powerful weapon of workers – no other social force can paralyse a city, or an entire country, in the way workers can.

We hear a lot today about minorities and people of different identities having shared interests as groups – so we have the LGBTI community, the women’s movement and so on. There obviously are things for individual groups to unite around, and socialists support those. Socialist Alternative, the group behind Red Flag, was at the forefront of fighting for marriage equality, for example, and we understand that racism and sexism affect all people in a particular group, be they workers or bosses.

But we also acknowledge the limits of identity. For example, while all women endure sexism and misogyny, there nevertheless is no fundamental basis on which all women can unite. Women in the capitalist class have an interest in perpetuating the oppression and exploitation of working class women – they cannot maintain their economic privilege otherwise. When working class women fight back collectively, they find their natural ally in working class men, even the sexist ones, while their “sisters” in the establishment generally turn against them.

Note, for example, that in the Democratic Party primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, it was the capitalist feminist, Clinton, who opposed raising the US federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, even though the biggest beneficiaries of such a raise would have been women.

It’s important to see that the working class is the most diverse force on the planet. It is male and female, black and white, gay and straight, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and atheist. It speaks all languages. This diversity is a source of immense strength, because it means that when workers stand together, all the divisions that the capitalists sow are capable of being overcome in common cause.


The third thing that marks out our socialist politics is an understanding that capitalism has to be abolished, not just tinkered with. Marxists argue that, otherwise, socialism is a utopian pipe dream. That might sound counter-intuitive. Isn’t it more realistic to use the existing parliament to legislate for things like a living wage for all people, the (re)nationalisation of utilities such as electricity and water, free health and education etc? Isn’t that basically socialism?

The short answer is no. On one hand, while some gains are possible, even when we win things such as decent wages or health care, the capitalist system ultimately erodes them. You can see that today in the relentless attacks around the globe on social welfare as capitalists compete on the world market, holding living standards down to prop up their profits.

And when governments try to change things, the capitalists invariably fight back – they do everything they can, including sacking or overthrowing governments, and up to unleashing the force of the military on the civilian population, to stop genuine social advance.

One the other hand, socialism is not simply about the economics of resource distribution. It’s about creating a world in which, as the Communist Manifesto argued, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”; it’s about liberating human potential and creativity.

Human creativity and freedom are developed only in momentous circumstances that involve and challenge the people themselves. Workers are not angels. Every one of us is scarred by the world as it is – internalising or accepting prevailing prejudices and narrow world views, and limited in our lives to menial tasks that stunt our ingenuity and wear down our spirit.

To overcome the capitalist class and to transform not only the world, but ourselves, we need a revolution. As Karl Marx wrote:

“Both for the production on a mass scale of this [new collective] consciousness, and for the success of the [socialist] cause itself, the alteration of [people] on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

Ultimately, this is what we mean by socialism. It’s not “nicer capitalism”; it’s a new system run by workers, who put society’s resources under democratic control and produce goods and services for human need, rather than profit, ending the domination of a minority over the majority.

Why Fracking Is a Symptom of the Eco-Destructive Neoliberal Order—and a Serious Human Rights Issue – By Anna Grear / Center for Humans and Nature

The battle over fracking pits corporate power against communities whose very health is imperiled.

Protesters against fracking at a rally in New York City, October 19, 2013. New York state banned fracking in 2014.
Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Center for Humans and Nature as part of their Questions for a Resilient Future series: Does fracking violate human rights? To read more responses to this question and to share your thoughts, click here.]

Which human rights?” By positioning this question next to the central question driving this discussion (“Does fracking violate human rights?”) I don’t mean to imply that we examine various individual human rights as selected from a general list of rights protected by human rights law. That interpretation of my question is well addressed by others in this discussion—as is the nature of fracking and its dangers.I mean “Which vision or version of human rights?” and—relatedly—“Whose human rights?”


In response, you might think to turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and to its progeny in multiple instruments since. That’s the true vision of human rights, some will say. And the closely related question of whose human rights is likewise addressed, you might think, by looking at the “human being” whose “inherent dignity” grounds human rights. This response has powerful appeal and the accumulated weight of official human rights progress stories behind it.

But the critical legal scholar in me interjects, “Not so fast! Human rights are not as benign as they look!” And if that is the case, it should matter to us in discussing if and how fracking violates human rights—not least because human rights are a central element of the overarching, environmentally-destructive neoliberal order of which fracking is such a potent symptom.

It matters that a wide range of scholarship insists that “the human” of human rights is not what it seems.[1] It matters that stripping back the surface of the dignified universal human at the heart of human rights exposes a very particular historical subject that simply cannot stand for all of us. It matters that serious historical studies reveal that once human rights leave behind the abstract language of their enunciation to become concrete, human rights mostly reinscribe the historical priority of the interests of white, European, property-owning men.[2] It matters that the system-critical energies of human rights, which so often are authored by human beings collectively crying out against injustice, are tamed when human rights become institutionalized.[3]

It matters too, that human rights have operated as ideological cover for the political and economic imperialism of Western/Global North capitalist state powers. Human rights—after all—are central components of an entire international legal order predicated upon unjust capitalistic “relations between imperial and subordinate states.”[4] And accordingly, it shouldn’t surprise us that serious comparative sociology of human rights reveals that the UDHR order of human rights has already mutated into a recognizably “trade-related, market-friendly” order of rights for global corporate interests or that human rights are core components of a de facto global constitution for neoliberal corporate capital and its powerful transnational elite.[5, 6] After all, corporations now claim human rights for themselves extensively.[7] All this matters. And it matters for the present debate not least because the battle lines over fracking fundamentally reflect corporate power and profit-driven imperatives lined up against communities whose very health and wellbeing as living beings is imperiled.

It is not even certain—at this point—if human rights can survive the assault of legalism.[8] Douzinas, a well-known human rights scholar, argues that human rights are set against themselves by their instantiation as positive law.[9] What does this mean? It means that human rights are schizoid. On the one hand, they rise in the heart-cries of communities burning with a sense of injustice and pain. On the other hand, human rights are made to speak in legal rules and precedents—to invoke ideals and legal abstractions that, in the final analysis, all-too-often cloak the law’s formalization and legitimation of unjust structural relations.

This, then, is our background context, and we’d best remember it when calling upon human rights to argue against fracking. Yes, human rights law addresses the kinds of violations enacted by toxic fracking practices—as others have rightly argued in this discussion. But human rights also serve those who line up to exploit the ambiguities of human rights law armed with a phalanx of well-paid lawyers.

Douzinas once put the paradox of human rights like this:

A new ideal has triumphed on the world stage: human rights. It unites left and right, the pulpit and the state, the minister and the rebel, the developing world and the liberals of Hampstead and Manhattan. Human rights have become the principle of liberation from oppression and domination, the rallying cry of the homeless and the dispossessed, the political programme of revolutionaries and dissidents. But their appeal is not confined to the wretched of the earth. Alternative lifestyles, greedy consumers of goods and culture, the pleasure-seekers and playboys of the Western world, the owner of Harrods, the former managing director of Guinness Plc as well as the former King of Greece have all glossed their claims in the language of human rights.[10]

We cannot afford to forget that human rights can be turned back against the violated by the violator. We cannot afford to ignore the complicity of human rights in an international legal order predicated upon unjust structural relations—nor the way in which human rights have been deployed to marginalize those whose interests and identities were (and are) oppressively colonized by that same international order.[11]

The question is important: Which human rights? Whose rights?

Which human rights do we call upon against fracking as a violation? Not merely the pallid shadows that human rights become in law. Yes, use law: Deploy the legal rights that human rights become—but retain a critical distance. For we urgently need also to speak with the prophetic fire of human rights—to speak the poetry of human rights as claim-making, as a politics untamed by law. We need to call on human rights beyond human rights to summon them in pursuit of the justice that slips beyond law’s horizon.

Whose human rights do we call upon? Not those of the bloodless abstract human universal. Not the market-friendly human rights of corporate capital. No, our passion for justice must burn in defense of all those systemically disadvantaged even by human rights.

Author’s note: Human rights are also criticized for being anthropocentric. The “human” of human rights can be re-imagined to embrace the rights of non-human animals and living systems—but space did not allow for a nuanced discussion of this important theme.

NOTES (show)

[1] See, for example, the arguments in D Otto, ‘Disconcerting Masculinities: Reinventing the Gendered Subjects of International Human Rights Law’ in A Manji and D Buss, International Law: Modern Feminist Approaches (Oxford, Hart 2005) 105-129.

[2] M Ishay, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (California, University of California Press 2008).

[3] N Stammers, Human Rights and Social Movements (London, Pluto Press 2009).

[4] EM Wood, Empire of Capital (London, Verso 2005), at 12.

[5] U Baxi, The Future of Human Rights (Oxford, OUP 2008).

[6] T Evans and A Ayers, ‘In the Service of Power: The Global Political Economy of Citizenship and Human Rights’ (2008) 10/3 Citizenship Studies 289-308.

[7] C Mayer, ‘Personalizing the Impersonal: Corporations and the Bill of Rights (1990) 41 Hastings Law Journal 577; Baxi, above n 5; M Emberland, The Human Rights of Companies: Exploring the Structure of ECHR Protection (Oxford, OUP 2006); A Grear, ReDirecting Human Rights: Facing the Challenge of Corporate Legal Humanity (Basingstoke, Palgrave McMillan 2010).

[8] C Gearty, Can Human Rights Survive? (Cambridge, CUP 2006).




Anna Grear is Professor of Law and Theory at Cardiff School of Law and Politics in the United Kingdom.