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Linked to `A Way of Life'?

With the American-led attack on Iraq, with war strategies of `shock and awe' using billions of dollars for new and sophisticated arms and with images of shattered buildings, bloodied bodies and blackened skies, it is difficult, but very necessary, to think about the deeper causes of this conflict. SHAKTI MAIRA wishes to suggest that the common and central issue is `The American Way of Life'.

One way of saying 'no' to the 'Way of Life" ... anti-war protests in Bayonne, France.

WE have been told, repeatedly and insistently, by the American President and his cabal (in which Blair seems to be the virtual Secretary of State rather than Powell) that the war with Iraq is to protect "Our way of Life". This is the position that anchors them morally, as all countries justifiably attempt to protect their ways of life. But what if this "way of life" is such that this war and more to come are in-built? What if war is being used to protect a way of life that cannot be without conflict? At the heart of the American Way of Life is the United States' economy. Bill Clinton, in his successful re-election campaign famously said: "It's the economy, stupid!" Economic interests are the dominating values of the American, and one could add, the modern way of life. It is governed by three arching values — the right to consume, the right to property and wealth, and limitless economic growth. All other principles, of freedom of speech, individual rights, free press, and democracy, have in practice become subjugated by these three economic ideals. This is evident not only in the war being waged but in the way the U.S. is functioning within its own borders. There has emerged the modern corporation, an entity without a soul, without a heart, but which is given a set of rights that parallel and at times supersede the rights of individuals.

There is an underlying belief that what is good for business is good for the people. It was once said: "What is good for General Motors, is good for America". In today's globalised world, we could be told: "What is good for Monsanto is good for the Indian farmer and consumer". The power and control of business is well-researched and documented. Through financing political campaigns, they powerfully affect who gets to stand for elections in the U.S. and often, who wins. They routinely affect legislation, both domestic and international, in bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). On their behalf, American foreign policy has often supported dictatorial, fascist, communist and feudal regimes. This continues in West Asia. The reason why Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was such a big problem for the "Way of Life" was not the endangering of the democratic rights of the Kuwaiti people; it was oil. And it is silly to pretend that access to central Asian oil was not a strong motivation for regime change in Afghanistan, and that oil and economic interests are not the American motivation for regime change in Iraq.

In the war in Afghanistan, there appeared another powerful motive: punishing and destroying the very anti-American Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; 9/11 shocked the Americans and they wanted to end this new threat to their way of life. But now, this is being used to prop-up the new war, in Iraq. Suddenly Iraq is being linked with Al-Qaeda. As far as we know, there is no reliable evidence of any connection between the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, both deeply stewed in fundamentalist religious fervor, and the socialist Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. It is much more likely that they are not very good friends. This war in Iraq started well before Al-Qaeda and 9/11— the Iraq campaign has been going on for many years, and the insistence on disarming Iraq and regime change is not for the benefit of a world without WMD, or for the poor oppressed Iraqi people. It is to end control of vital oil sources by a non-friendly regime. To have pro-American regimes in oil-rich countries is the way to protect the American way of life.

Let's fast-forward a bit. Let us say, after weeks of having its communications links, vital facilities, marketplaces, hospitals and apartment blocks bombed and suffering great loss of lives ("collateral damage" in American war terminology), a decimated Iraq is forced into regime change. And let's also say that Osama bin Laden and his men are found and dispensed with. Will this result in Peace? Will America feel secure? I think not, because the way of life is dominated by the economic values of growth at all costs, increased consumption and control of natural and human resources across the globe. It will find other threats, real and exaggerated, beyond communism and terrorism to its way of life. The problem is alas, systemic.

Exactly 30 years ago, economist E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. In it he wrote: "The foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense, because such prosperity, if attainable at all, is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy, which destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby the peacefulness of man".

The two fundamental problems at a systems level are: material prosperity in terms of even today's levels of consumption in America may not be attainable for all due to the natural limits of the earth's resources and ecosystem; and that the motivations that drive the system may well be cancerous to peace and friendship between people and nations.

Hitting back... tough consumerism is another way.

The economic engines of the modern way of life are fuelled by greed and envy, even more than by oil. People are induced, driven to be dissatisfied with what they have, no matter how much it is they have, and to consume more and consume something else ... and keep consuming. What this system keeps producing, and is structurally designed to do, is to produce more goods and continuing dissatisfaction. As a result, the increase in production and consumption has not resulted in a society that is at peace, where violence, stress, tension and fear have decreased. In the U.S., where while GNP, the measure of goods produced and consumed, has risen greatly in the past 30 years, there remains hunger, poverty, illiteracy and rising drug abuse. If the U.S. has not been able to create universal prosperity within its safe borders, what makes anyone think it can do this across the planet? But worse, the qualities of motivations that drive this Way of Life, may well be wrong, and let's say, not very moral.

Lord Maynard Keynes, father of modern economics, wrote in 1930: "For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight." We shall then, he said, "once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful".

The current American Way of Life is designed by the rich for the rich. It claims to give equal opportunity to all, but gives the advantage to those with capital and technology, which are carefully protected and patented. The rich nations continue to use a disproportionate share of the world's natural resources, material and ecological. Their propagation of the present so-called free market system seems to be nothing more than their desire and greed to control access to the world's natural resources. It's like insisting that basketball be the global game, where it's open to all to play, but which is designed only for the very tall. The attempt to create a world without boundaries for capital, goods and services but not for people is an expression of a way of life where the creation of goods, the consumption of energy, resources and services supersedes the interests of the majority of world population.

When one criticises the present economic system, this Way of Life, one is immediately asked: "Do you have a better alternative?" That we don't have another big idea to replace market-driven capitalism does not mean we turn to a failed communism or socialism or feudalism, nor does it mean that we don't see the grave failings of the present system. It merely means that we recognise the problems of this system and keep trying to resist and change it. This is something many Americans and others are trying to do, as they fight against the WTO and the anti-people, anti-environment "way of life" that American and British governments, along with a few other countries they seem to have bullied or bought, have tragically gone to war to protect.

How does one resist? In this unipolar world, governments are severely constrained to cooperate. Our answer may be through tough consumerism, by not buying into endless consumption, by discovering the delights of being satisfied. And by doing the one thing the Way of Life is most afraid of — saying "No" to their brands. If a movement is created where people across the world stop buying American and British brands, I have no doubts that their corporations will begin to put pressure on their government to stop this war as it is becoming bad for business and their way of life.

Surely we must insist that it's Life, and not any "Way of Life", that must be protected.

Shakti Maira studied economics at St. Stephen's College and Business Management at IIM, Ahmedabad. He has worked in several multinational corporations and was a consultant for the World Bank/UNDP. He now lives in Delhi and makes art.

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