Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Untold History of the United States – By Oliver Stone – A review

Oliver Stone has produced a ten-part documentary on the history of the United States for the Showtime network.  This documentary is based on the book of the same name that Stone co-authored with Peter Kuznick.  Stone’s purpose in preparing this project has been to give his audience a different picture of the history of this country.  While Stone gives us a number of facts most people are unaware of, the core of his point of view promotes a pro-capitalist perspective.  In order to do this, he must continue to keep essential historical facts hidden from the public.

What is capitalism?

In order to give some perspective to what a rational history of the United States would look like, we might start with an explanation of what the capitalist system is.  Capitalism came about because there were problems that emanated from societies ruled by royal families of kings and queens.  A new capitalist class emerged that was fundamentally interested in manufacturing commodities for profit.

This new class represented a progressive change in history.  For the first time there were mass production industries that had the potential of ending poverty in the world.  The problem of capitalism is that while the potential exists to eliminate poverty, because profits are the top priority, poverty is an absolute necessity of the capitalist system. 

Another problem of capitalism is the instability of this system.  For various reasons, the percentage of profits on investments tends to fall.  We can see this clearly when we look at the history of interest rates on savings accounts.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s the interest on savings accounts was about four to five percent.  Today, that same rate of interest is less than one percent.

This means that capitalists need to invest more and more in order to have a smaller and smaller rate of return on investments.  This state of affairs provokes capitalists to invest hundreds of billions of dollars every year in advertising.  This huge investment allows capitalists to maximize sales, selling commodities that many of us do not use. 

The falling rate of profit also demands that capitalists be obsessed with cutting costs.  This is why many capitalists have moved their operations to other countries in order to take advantage of lower labor costs.  This is also why capitalists have been, lowering the standard of living in the United States by giving wage increases that do not keep up with inflation.  The result has been that wages for working people have, in effect, been cut at a rate of about 30% over the past thirty years.

All of this means that depressions do not happen because of mistakes by capitalists or politicians.  No, when people who have power are obsessed with maximizing sales and minimizing costs, then, economic crisis’s are inevitable.

Therefore, while the potential has existed to eliminate poverty for quite a long time, the capitalist world moves closer and closer to another depression.  In their book, Untold History, Stone and Kuznick showed how during the last depression banks closed their doors and capitalists cut industrial production by 50%.  This was at a time when the official unemployment rate was twenty-five percent.

When we understand these facts, there is only one conclusion.  The only way to counteract the crisis caused by capitalism is to put in place a different kind of political economic system where human needs and not profits are the priority.  When capitalist politicians advance their strategies, they can only lead to the same kind of human made catastrophe that emerged in 1929.

Would Henry Wallace have been a better President?

One of the themes of the Untold History is to argue that the United States would have had a better government if Henry Wallace became President.  Wallace was the Vice-President in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt up until a few months before Roosevelt’s death.

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick argue that if Wallace became president, the government would have been more tolerant of the Soviet Union.  They also argue that had Wallace become President, the government would have been more supportive of labor and more critical of corporate power. 

Certainly Wallace made numerous statements that would make someone think that a Wallace presidency would have been different.  However, it is always best to judge people, not only by what they say, but by what they do.

Henry Wallace was the Vice-President under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The record of the FDR administration is there for everyone to see.  Roosevelt probably used federal troops in attempting to break more strikes than any other President in history.  In spite of this vicious opposition, many labor unions won representation during the Roosevelt administration.  Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act that gave workers the right to the union representation they had already won through labor battles against corporations.

During the depression, as we might imagine, working people had an extremely harsh view of corporations.  Everyone knew the simple fact that corporations caused the depression that resulted in immense hardship.  Roosevelt manipulated this sentiment by making statements critical of corporations, while he viciously advanced policies that defended those who controlled corporate power.  Stone and Kuznick showed how Roosevelt refused to nationalize the banks even after millions of working people lost their savings.  This action protected the wealth of capitalists at the expense of working people.

Roosevelt refused to support the Costigan-Wagner Act that would have outlawed lynching in the United States.  Anti-lynching legislation had been advanced for over a decade.  Thousands of Black people had been lynched and the federal government rarely acted to prosecute the murderers.  However, Roosevelt was a democrat and the Democratic Party, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, ran the governments in the Jim Crow states.  Roosevelt did not want to antagonize his fellow democrats and refused to sign the Costigan-Wagner Act.

Roosevelt also adapted to this viscous racism by sending about 120,000 citizens of the United States, who happened to be Japanese, to concentration camps.           
Stone and Kuznick showed how Henry Wallace was from Iowa and became the Secretary of Agriculture before he was named Vice-President.  Wallace signed legislation that ordered farmers to destroy crops and young hogs in order to increase the price of food and clothing.  Wallace was clearly troubled by signing this order.  However, he signed the order and made it more difficult for people who were suffering during the depression to purchase the necessities of life.

Would Wallace have been friendlier to the Soviet Union?

Stone argued that Wallace would have been friendlier to the Soviet Union than President Harry S. Truman.  Challenging this assertion is easy when we look at the facts.

Historically superpowers have always dominated the capitalist system.  Before the first and second world wars, Britain was the world’s superpower.  The world wars signaled the fact that the British empire was collapsing.  Germany, the United States, and Japan were the world powers that were attempting to replace Britain as the world’s superpower.

Fascist Germany had taken military control of much of Europe.  When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, most analysts didn’t think this invasion could have been stopped.  Germany had dominated Czarist Russia in the first-world war. 

Joseph Stalin, the head of the Soviet government, had betrayed the revolution, murdered all of its leaders as well as many of the top ranks of the officer corps.  In spite of the fact that the Germans had prepared for the invasion, Stalin was taken completely by surprise when the German troops invaded.  Yet, in spite of Stalin’s horrendous lack of intelligent leadership, the Soviet Union defeated the German armed forces at a cost of over 20 million lives.

For the United States government, this appeared to be like a gift made in heaven.  The nation that was working to dominate the world had been defeated and, at this point, the U.S. didn’t need to make much of an effort.  Only after Germany had been defeated in Stalingrad did the Allied forces invade at Normandy.  While the U.S. never engaged more than ten German divisions in the war, the Soviet Union engaged 200 German divisions.

This was the reality that caused the U.S. government to temporarily change its hostile relations with the Soviet Union and send some aid to their Russian allies.  However, the U.S. is a nation dominated by capitalist relations.  Before and after the second-world war, the United States had hostile relations with the Soviet Union.

Clearly, no one knows what the world might look like had Henry Wallace become President of the United States.  However, Wallace proved himself to be a consistent capitalist politician and there is no reason to believe that had he become President, that the history of the world would have been significantly different.

(to be continued)

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